Thursday, December 31, 2009

December 31, 2009--Don't Pull the Plug On Dad

One thing to look forward to tomorrow, if you are the beneficiary of someone who has an estate worth tens of millions of dollars, or even billions, and he or she dies before the end of 2010, you will not have to pay any estate taxes. Zero. None. Nada. There is this loophole in the inheritance tax law that says that If Congress doesn't act before then and if your loved one passes after that date, you will have to pay up to 55 % in taxes if the estate totals more than about $1.0 million.

So we are discovering that some families of the super rich are right now keeping dad or mom on life support, not authorizing pulling the plug on them, until after midnight tonight. As the ball falls on Times Square signaling the beginning of a new year and a new decade, all over America, at that stroke of midnight, I suspect DNR orders will be quickly carried out.

This is not just the product of my overactive imagination. Read about it yourself in the linked article from the Wall Street Journal. Who better than them knows more about the behavior of the very wealthy?

According to the WSJ, it is not just venial children and spouses who are acting this cynically:

To make it easier on their heirs, some clients are putting provisions into their health-care proxies allowing whoever makes end-of-life medical decisions to consider changes in estate-tax law. "We have done this at least a dozen times, and have gotten more calls recently," says Andrew Katzenstein, a lawyer with Proskauer Rose LLP in Los Angeles.

But then there is another, under-reported-upon aspect to this.

Beginning tomorrow we can expect to see an uptick in the number of deaths among the rich who are terminally-ill. But with the likelihood that the Democrats will want to amend the loophole in the estate tax law well before the end of next year--seeking both fairness in the tax code and additional revenue to reduce the budget deficit--if I were a wills and estates attorney who serves wealthy clients, I would strongly advise them to take extra care of their own well being between tomorrow and then since there might be an extra incentive on the part of some of their heirs to see that they depart this life well before their alloted time and any such Congressional action.

Just one of my new year's wishes for you--keep a very close eye on Junior.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

December 30, 2009--Cousin Barry

The debate rages about what did and did not happen to prevent Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab from boarding a Delta flight in Amsterdam bound for Detroit.

Initially, all the criticisms of the security system came from Republicans and had the aroma of bitter partisanship and raw ambition.

Republican Congressman Peter King, for example, was the first out of the chute. He is the ranking member of the House Committee On Homeland Security and has his eye on running for the Senate in New York next November because Hillary Clinton’s replacement, Kirstin Gillibrand, is considered to be vulnerable. Incapable of avoiding a camera or live microphone, King raced from network to network, from talk show to talk show to rail about the Obama administration’s failure to declare that we are fighting a war against terrorism (the president is reluctant to use that phrase) and act accordingly.

Others such as Republican Minority Leader John Boehner took time out of his busy holiday schedule in the tanning booth to rip into Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano’s ridiculous assertion over the weekend that the “system worked.”

Congressman Peter Hoekstra, who is running to become governor of Michigan, circulated a letter among local Republicans seeking campaign contributions in order to help counter “Democratic efforts to weaken our security.”

And Senator Jim DeMint, Republican of South Carolina, who has taken the personal lead since September to block the appointment of a chief executive for the Transportation Security Administration, claiming that he is doing so because nominee Erroll Southers might allow airport TSA workers to unionize, joined the chorus of hypocrites.

He and other Republicans also failed to remind us why they as a party in Congress voted almost unanimously against the $44 billion appropriation for America’s transportation security budget.

Having said this, there is enough blame to go around. Officials at the airport in Amsterdam blew it as did we. President Obama at his second public statement of the day yesterday revealed that U.S. intelligence and security personnel had a lot more information about Mr. Abdulmutallab than previously disclosed and that they failed to connect the dots. This we have tragically heard before. This time, we got lucky. (See linked New York Times story for the details.)

Additionally, President Obama himself has been criticized for not coming out of what many in the media called “seclusion” in Hawaii sooner than three days after the incident to help calm the public, especially during this busy holiday and travel season.

What happened, others asked, to this administration’s political instincts? They were so adept during the campaign and now they appear to be so tone deaf.

Yes, it is a good thing for the president to try to deintensify some things after all the fear-mongering during the Bush years—seeing things in good and evil terms and cynically exploiting our fear for their nefarious purposes--but at times such as this being No-Drama-Obama is not helping him to get the job done. The job of leading the country; advancing his agenda; and, very importantly, building public confidence and support by helping us feel we are in good hands. That he will not only promulgate sound policies at home and abroad but also, in the emotional realm, show us that he feels our pain when we are hurting and will make us feel secure when we are frightened.

Like it or not, the American people at times such as these turn to their presidents for such empathetic understanding and comfort. And thus far, Barack Obama is failing this test.

Effective presidents from Franklyn Roosevelt to Dwight Eisenhower to Ronald Reagan to Bill Clinton had the ability to connect with us in these ways when we needed them to make us feel cared about, protected, and comforted.

During the Depression and World War Two, people literally huddled by their radios to listen to FDR’s Fireside Chats. They listened as much to the fatherly timbre of his voice as to his words. Perhaps more so. Eisenhower and Reagan, during the Cold War when we feared nuclear attack, were able to find ways to make us feel that they were taking care of us regardless of what they were actually doing.

Psychologists would say that they engendered transference. In this case not the one-on-one kind that occurs in a therapeutic relationship but nationally. They became our national fathers. Or at least our great uncles. And then even wayward big brother Bill Clinton was greatly talented at convincing us that he felt our pain.

It mattered not that neither FDR nor Eisenhower nor Reagan in their personal lives were actually good or loving parents or grandparents. And of course forget about Clinton as a family man. But they were still able to project to the public that they would care for and protect the national family.

Ironically, Obama, who may in fact be a wonderful husband and father, has thus far not been able to find or fill this kind of politically important transferential role. And thus, though he is as smart as they come and is working 24/7 even when in “seclusion” in Hawaii, he feels too cool for these hot and scary times.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

December 29, 2009--Get A Grip

Since Christmas morning the news media have been covering the failed bombing of the Delta flight from Amsterdam to Detriot 24/7.

This is not to say this is an unimportant story. In fact, it has exposed flaws in the international airport security system that need immediate attention and correction.

We need to look again at how we manage the so-called no-fly list. The bomber minimally should have been flagged for a careful body search at the airport after his father notified the American Embassy in Nigeria that he might be a security risk. Anyone thus identified by a parent and who buys a one-way ticket for cash should immediately jump to the top of any list of potential terrorists.

We need to install better electronic devices at airport security gates. These exist but have been installed at a tiny percentage of airports worldwide, including in the U.S. where only 40 body-scanning have been installed at the thousands of existing TSA gates. There are privacy issues that need addressing, but these should not be allowed to stand in the way of ramping up what needs to be done to better protect travelers.

Having said this, it is still important to put this awful incident in perspective. What are the actual comparative dangers from many of the most common things that can befall us? And what should we do about each of them?

Each year on average 120 people are killed in airplane accidents. This includes private plane crashes as well as those killed via acts of terrorism. A terrible number to be sure but not that many more than are killed in the United States by lightning. Ninety are killed this way each year.

Murders take 15,500 lives a year. The flu, 20,000. More than 160,000 men and women a year die of lung cancer. Hospital-bourn infections, kill at least 100,000.

And another 40,000 lives are lost each year on the nation's highways. That's the equivalent of every year blowing up 20 planes each carrying 200 passengers.

There is little we can do about deaths caused by lightning, but we can easily reduce the number killed by the flu (make sure everyone gets flu shots, make sure all children have access to healthcare), lung cancer (get serious about eliminating cigarette smoking), hospital staph infections (require all medical personnel to wash up and wear gloves before treating a patient), and auto accidents (among other things make using a cell phone while driving illegal).

In regard to the latter, while doing lots of driving while in winter residence in Florida, we have noticed that erratic and dangerous drivers almost always are busy on their cell phones. The New York Times reports that drivers are four times more likely to have an accident if they are on the phone or texting. And that at least 2,600 highway deaths a year are caused by drivers distracted in this way. (Article linked below.)

Considering that tens of thousands of deaths in the U.S. are caused by our own behavior, as opposed to acts of God, why don't we see at least as much attention paid to these preventable tragedies as we see devoted to a failed terrorist act that killed no one?

Again, that needs to be reported and we are entitled to know that governments are doing a much better job of screening potential terrorists; but if we truly care about saving lives, in addition to scaring the daylights out of us to garner TV ratings or for cynical politicians to make cheap points, we could turn much more attention to those things that are killing so many of us and that can be prevented.

Monday, December 28, 2009

December 28, 2009--Impresaria of Striptease

If you never managed to get to the Pink Pussycat on the Strip in LA you really missed something. It was a gentlemen’s club at a time when there were still gentlemen.

There was no VIP room and certainly no lap dances. It was good clean fun at a time when our collective consciousnesses hadn’t yet been raised, and thus it was still possible for what went on there to be thought of in that way. It was also a time when many of the Pussycat’s performers were able to meet future husbands at the club and wind up marrying very well.

And to someone of my predilections (have no fear, I will spare you the randiest of them) as an adult educator, I was as much impressed by the show when I first visited in the 1970s as I was by the startling fact that the Pink Pussycat was the only institution of its kind to have an education division.

Tuition in the College of Strip Tease as it was called was $100 for 10 sessions and the curriculum included mini-courses in “The History and Theory of Strip Tease”; “The Psychology of Inhibitions”; and, since it was a program in applied studies, “Sensual Communication”; and “Dynamic Mammary, Navel, and Pelvis Rotation.”

It was also possible to enroll as a non-matriculated student. Wherever you might live in the country, for $4.95 plus shipping and handling you could order a home instruction kit that included self-guided lessons, a G-string, and two “bosom bonnets”—pasties for the less euphemistic. And, yes, a rhinestone for the navel.

The final exam was taken on the honor system, though perhaps the man in one’s life awarded the actual grade. But the Pink Pussycat itself offered the diploma, which arrived signed, gold-sealed, and ready for framing.

A very different time it clearly was.

The guiding genius behind all aspects of the Pussycat, Alice Schiller, died in her sleep last week at 95. The New York Times dubbed her the “Impresaria of Striptease.” (Obituary linked below.)

She was not to this manor born. In fact, she was born in 1914 in Indiana Harbor, Indiana to Orthodox Jewish parents. After they were divorced, her mother and grandmother ran a deli. Alice’s first marriage also ended in divorce; but then with her second husband, Harry Schiller, they opened a men’s store in Beverly Hills. Thus far, fairly classic stuff.

Then, on impulse, Harry bought a Latin dance club on Santa Monica Boulevard. The Club Seville. Within a few years it was obvious that it would never make money and, again impetuously, bringing Alice to tears when he told her, he converted it into a burlesque house. When he managed to calm her, Alice came up with the Pink Pussycat name; and soon thereafter joined Harry in managing the club.

She was the guiding force and a brilliant entrepreneur. To attract publicity and a glamorous crowd, she gave her “girls” stage names such as Fran Sinatra; Samya Davis and, my personal favorite, Peeler Lawford; and wouldn’t you know it, once they heard about this rather than sue, the Rat Packers showed up and helped put the place on every tourist map.

Alice was proud to proclaim, “I myself am an authority on beauty and glamour. I’ve probably glamorized 1,000 pussycats. Twenty of them married millionaires. One of my girls got a $2,700 tip one night. She disappeared. We heard that she fixed her nose with some of the money, but we never heard from her again.”

And we never again will see Alice’s kind. As they used to say, they broke the mold.

Friday, December 25, 2009

December 25, 2009--Happy Holiday

I will return tomorrow.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

December 24, 2009--The Ladies of Forest Trace: Obama Knew

“What you’ve been writing on that blog, or whatever you call it, misses the whole point.”

My more than 101 year-old mother was calling from Forest Trace, the retirement community in south Florida where she lives. It was the morning of Christmas Eve and I had a lot of last minute work to do since we were planning to cook dinner at her apartment later in the day and so I was hoping what she had to say would be something simple and, more important, brief.

“Yes, mom,” I said with a bit of an exasperated sigh, hoping she would sense that I had other things to do than talk about politics. She was always exceptionally good at picking up hints of this kind. It was a survival strategy for women of her generation who felt pressure to accommodate others. Especially men.

“It’s about Obama.” I was right—I have that anticipatory sensibility as well. “And health care.”

“We’ve spent a lot of time talking about this and you know . . .”

“Yes, I know your views. You’re disappointed with the bill in the Senate and feel he hasn’t been a forceful enough leader, fighting for whatever it is that you would like him to do.”

“No, not what I would like him to do but what he said during the campaign that he would do. It’s a matter of . . .”

She cut me off again, I am sure thinking she knew what I was going to say. “You and your friends expect too much. You refuse to be realistic about what’s possible.”

“I’m not sure I agree with you. I don’t know enough about what needs to be done to reform the unfair and too costly health care system we have; but I voted for him enthusiastically thinking he did and that he would fight for what he believes is or, should I say, was the necessary thing to do.”

“You are sounding a little sarcastic to me. But I will let that go. Though about the point you were making I do not have a problem. It is right to hold the people we elect to what they said to get us to vote for them. Though of course we know that even the best politicians break some of their promises. In fact, this is what I want to talk with you about.”

“You’re losing me mom. You just said that we should put pressure on the people we elect to do what they promised they would do but then you make excuses for them when they don’t.”

“I can see that you’re confused because that’s not at all what I am saying. Or, rather, want to say to you.” She paused for a moment as if to collect her thoughts. “You have time now, don’t you? You’re not due to be here until three o’clock.”

“Well, to tell you the truth, I have to . . .”

Before I could complete my thought, actually my attempt to get off the phone, she quickly said, “Sit for a moment so I can talk with you.” I pulled up a stool and did as I was told, as I always do when it comes to my mother, and sat down, leafing though the recipe for the orange cashew rice I would be making for her this evening.

“Here’s what I think he did. I’ll tell you what I believe happened.”

“I’m listening.”

“Then be quiet for a moment.”

“Sorry.” I realized I had the wrong kind of cashews—I had the raw ones but needed them roasted. I thought, maybe I’ll be able to . . .

“We agree that he is very smart?” I nodded assuming she would sense that. “And he knows his history, correct?” Again I nodded. “Well, after he was elected, probably before, he must have understood how difficult it would be to get any significant legislation passed. At best he had 60 so-called Democrats. I say so-called because with that Lieberman and those other mad dogs, whatever they call themselves, some of them are hardly real Democrats.”

“Blue Dogs, mom. Conservative Democrats.”

“Yes those. They are not dependable Democrats. Look how Obama had to bribe that Nelson. They care more about their own reelection than doing what’s good for the country or even their party. With them he must have realized it was impossible, no matter what he did, to get 60 of them to vote against the Republicans for anything bold or controversial. Especially anything that would upset the people who give them money. So he knew from before day one that he would not get through Congress what he talked about during the election campaign. He then had to decide to either insist on a public option and that there be nothing more said about limiting abortions, things of that kind, drawing a line in the sand as some of the pundits keep saying on TV, and I think you have said as well, or allow the congressmen to come up with a bill that they would feel was theirs and that enough of them would then vote for so at least something good would happen.”

I had not said anything while she laid this out and so she asked, “Are you still there?”

“Yes, yes, I’m listening. So you’re saying that Obama, as smart as he is and as good a student of congressional history as he is, got as much as he always thought was at least possible? That it’s not as if he stumbled or acted weakly?”

“Yes, that’s right. I am certain of that. He took the risk to look weak and indecisive to get at least this much done. That takes a certain kind of strength—to look weak in order to succeed.”

“Hum,” I said. “That’s not uninteresting. Very Eastern. I may try to write something about this.”

“Be my guest. And what’s more, he also knows from history that always when there is this kind of legislation approved it is never what anyone would ideally want. Like Social Security and Medicare, for example. The way they are now is not how they looked when they first were passed. They were amended and added on to and in that way, at least I feel, they were improved. Though there is that stupid donut hole in the prescription drug addition to Medicare, and though that Bush refused to put the cost of it into the budget, it is better than not having had it at all, which Medicare did not have for about 40 years.”

“You could be right. What you’re saying is at least a possibility.”

“More than a possibility. Tell me this—you have all those friends of yours who write blogs, no?”

“Yes. What’s your point?” Maybe, I thought, I could roast the cashews myself. After I get off the phone, I’ll look up on the Internet how to do that.

“I am feeling that you are not really listening to me.”

“No, mom. I’m with you.” I quietly closed the recipe book.

“Do you and your bloggers really think that if Obama had gone for broke that he could have gotten the kind of a bill passed that you, and I, I might add, wanted? Admittedly a much better bill? Gotten 60 senators to vote for it? If you do, then you’re not dealing with reality.”

“I still don’t entirely agree. But you do make a good point. Get done as much as you realistically can and then during the rest of your time in office, or after that, hope that the program will be improved.”

“Exactly!” I heard her chuckle. “Now that we have this settled, I’ll see you at two o’clock.”

“Closer to three,” I said. She always tries to get an extra hour slipped into our time together.

“And remember, not too much salt.”

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

December 23, 2009--Shopping

Needing to do some last minute shopping, I will return tomorrow.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

December 22, 2009--The GOP Death Panel

Republican reality finally caught up with its own rhetoric.

All summer long, during the teabaggers’ assault on any form of health care reform, one of the harshest criticisms of the Democrats’ plans was the allegation that they included requirements to fund death panels, which would make life and especially death decisions about critically ill people.

This falsehood, largely promulgated by Sarah Palin as a way to keep herself in the public spotlight pending the publication of her book and its marketing blitz, claimed that this was a cost-cutting strategy—the more old people Democrats could kill the less they would have to spend on providing late-in-life care. She even went so far as to say that these panels, to save money, would also decide to kill children such as Trig, her son who has Down’s Syndrome.

Then there was GOP Senator Chuck Grassley who in August on Face the Nation told Bob Schieffer that "There is some fear because in the House bill, there is counseling for end-of-life. And from that standpoint, you have every right to fear. You shouldn't have counseling at the end of life. You ought to have counseling 20 years before you're going to die. You ought to plan these things out. And I don't have any problem with things like living wills. But they ought to be done within the family. We should not have a government program that determines if you're going to pull the plug on grandma."

We haven’t heard that much lately about these illusory pull-the-plug panels but the damage is done. Ask a random sample of seniors down here in Florida about them and at least half will tell you that having the “government” make these kinds of decisions is one of the things that more than anything else scares them. And if I were poor old Senator Grassley, considering how he appears to be doddering around these days, I too would be scared.

But then topping them all we had Oklahoma Republican Senator Tom Cornyn who on Saturday night during the debate about the Senate’s version of the health care bill asked his colleagues and all Americans to invoke God in a last ditch effort to derail health care reform.

According to the linked article from the New York Times, speaking on the Senate floor, as inarticulately as he usually does, he attempted to lead us in prayer--

"What the American people ought to pray is that somebody can't make the vote tonight. That's what they ought to pray. So that we can ... get the middle of America and the middle of the Senate a bill that can run through this country and actually do what we say we all want to do."

No one there or watching on C Span failed to miss his point. To end the filibuster Democrats needed all 60 of their members to vote for cloture. Including gravely ill, 92 year-old Senator Robert Byrd, the Senate’s longest serving member. With a blizzard raging outside, knowing that the Democrats had the 60 votes they needed, no one on the Republican side had the customary courtesy to allow one of their members to vote as Senator Byrd was intending so he could stay home and out of the blizzard that was raging and where he might catch a . . . deathly cold. And so, bundled in blankets, Senator Byrd had to be brought to the Senate in a Humvee and pushed to his desk in a wheelchair.

Thus, with Senator Byrd slumped in his front row seat within direct sight of Senator Cornyn as he rose to invoke his prayer, it was obvious to all that he was calling on God to convene His death panel and take Senator Byrd from us so that the Democrats would have only 59 votes, health care reform would fail, and the 30 million who would be covered by this far-from-perfect bill would remain uninsured, and up to 35,000 of them a year would die as a result.

Now that’s what I call a death panel!

Monday, December 21, 2009

December 21, 2009--"Total Victory"

The original headline for the New York Times story was “Denied Total Victory, Obama Accepts Validation.” It was subsequently changed on the Web from which I have linked it below. Published Sunday, it reported about the results of the Climate Change conference in Copenhagen and the vote in the U.S. Senate on health care reform, pointing out the obvious—in neither case did President Obama get all he wanted. In neither case did he achieve “total victory.”

Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel is quoted as having said that “the only thing not negotiable is success.” But, the Times reports,” the last few days in Denmark and on Capital Hill reveal how the president applies Emanuel’s maxim to governing, to Obama’s definition of success—get as much as you can and declare victory.

For anyone who even casually follows politics the only appropriate response is, “Duh.”

What political leader doesn’t put the best face on things? Though to his credit, Obama did indicate in both instances that what was achieved was only a start, not the end of what he says he will continue to strive for during the next three to seven years.

Deeper into the article Rahm Emanuel says more about Obama’s governing style, a style I have repeatedly criticized here, but since the jury is still very much out on his presidency, it may be benefit of the doubt time, at least in regard to climate change initiatives and health care reform. And it is important to be reminded that the Senate vote early this morning was not for the final full bill but only to break the Republican filibuster and that when the Senate version of a health care bill is approved later this week it will need to be reconciled with the House version—which is much more liberal—and passed in that form back in the Senate where it will again face full Republican intransigence. Remember, for the GOP the real goal is to destroy the Obama presidency.

About that governing style Emanuel said that Obama “sets out the North Star for us,” in terms of broad and ambitious goals, and then asks Congress and his staff to work out the details. “He doesn’t negotiate the ends. He is very open to discussing alternative routes.”

Perhaps this is the only approach that has any chance of accomplishing anything during these hyper-partisan times. A president who blusters and tries to twist arms in the mode of Lyndon Johnson is unlikely to succeed even partially where every Senator now is a prince or princess.

As an example of what Obama is up against, the Times quotes John Feehery, a representative Republican strategist who is perhaps more revealing in what he has to say than he might have liked. It is thus worth quoting in full. Referring to the global warming and health care deals, and reflecting what was behind the meaning of the original “Total Victory” headline, he says:

“They are pyrrhic victories. Neither will necessarily improve his poll ratings with swing voters, nor will they energize his base. And neither take[s] the necessary steps to put the American economy back on track, which should be the only thing he is thinking about right now.”

First, I am impressed that he knows the meaning of the phrase “pyrrhic victory,” which we liberals of course all know is named after King Pyrrhus of Epirus, whose army suffered devastating casualties in defeating the Romans at Heraclea in 280 BC and Asculum in 279 BC during the Pyrrhic War. This gives Feehery some cred.

But how debased our consideration of issues has become that the opposition to Obama and the Democrats can only deal with things in a political perspective—about improving poll numbers and energizing bases.

And what kind of advice is it, if I can call it that, that the President of the United States in these complex and dangerous times should be thinking about only one thing? Yes, politically, it’s still “the economy stupid”; but then there is also Iraq and Afghanistan and the environment and education and nuclear proliferation and, least we forget, health care too.

But Feehery as well as his Republican and also his Democratic kind know that they will not get quoted in the New York Times or be invited to appear on Fox News or MSNBC unless they come up with these kinds of catchy sound bites. It’s sadly become mostly about the contesting and little about the substance.

Friday, December 18, 2009

December 18, 2009--Snowbirding: Home Goods

We really didn’t need anything.

The place we are renting for the winter is not only tastefully decorated and rather fully equipped. But since we are seriously reinvolved with cooking, from New York we schlepped a few impressive pots and pans with us in our new station wagon (half the reason we bought it was for such schlepping) and, of course, my knives. I had read someplace that real chefs never travel without their knives. That was about it.

But after about a week in residence we thought, in order to make the place feel a little more like our own, we would buy a few things. For instance, a new rug for by the entrance door to liven up that spot—to make it feel a little more inviting, a bedside lamp for Rona who is devouring the books we also brought along with us, and a station wagon full of plants and appropriate stands and baskets for them. How can you be in Florida and not have at least half a dozen orchids? And, yes, a large pot for our herb “garden.” Many of the things we want to cook require fresh herbs so we thought we’d grow our own--basil, rosemary, dill, cilantro, oregano, thyme, parsley, mint . . . . You get the picture.

We were partly inspired to make this small effort by our nearby cousin’s creative approach to furnishing and decorating the house she bought last year. Every time we are there with her, she shows us how she is thinking about redoing the living room or the den or the dining area; and each time we are there, which has been frequent, she has something new to tell us about or some new and dramatic way to arrange some of the things she brought with her from her previous house or has been finding in the various local shops that are her sources. I know of no one more adept at finding something truly special even in a mundane-looking thrift shop. And then of course there are the consignment shops, the antique stores and malls, and the auctions. We are in Madoff Country after all, and there is a lot to be had at very good prices from his fallen investors.

The other day we noticed some outdoor lanterns she had accumulated. We assumed for the new screened-in patio that she has under construction. As with all her things, they are very spiffy. Rona asked where she got them. Not that we are in the market for any, but we enjoy learning about where she finds things, thinking maybe one of her sources would be good for us as we snooped around looking for planters and a few fill-in household items.

“Do you know Home Goods?” she asked.

“I think so,” Rona said. “Is it that place on Linton in the same shopping plaza as Home Depot?”

“Is it like Home Depot?” I asked, not familiar with Home Goods.

“Not at all. They have these lanterns but also a lot of other things for the home—dishware, linens, decorative pillows, towels, and . . .”

“We could use a new set of bathroom towels,” Rona interrupted, “You know, to make the place feel a little more like our own.”

“Well, I’d give them a try. You basically go right by them when you drive from here back to your place.”

And so, though we hadn’t had lunch, we thought, since it’s so convenient, we’d pop in for a few minutes and give it a try. Rona had been confounded by not being able yet to find the right size basket for one of her glorious orchids. “Maybe they’ll have one,” she said as we guided our new station wagon into the Home Goods parking lot. Just as promised, right next to the better-known Home Depot.

Nearly two hours later, bedazzled, we stumbled back out into the late afternoon Florida sunshine, partly dizzy from lack of having eaten anything since an early and modest breakfast but more from what we found behind those doors. Where to begin?

To start, there were long lines at the checkout counters and the women waiting in line—they were virtually all women—were inching along huge shopping carts, pretty much all of them loaded to overflowing with stuff. One women, well into her years, was struggling to push and pull along two such carts, each of which, with the things packed into them, was taller than she. They were packed with pillows and dishes and towels and Christmas lights and what looked like a mixed set of pots and pans peeking out from beneath an overstuffed floral comforter.

We knew in an instant that we were in a serious shopping place. Either the recession hadn’t yet hit the customers (unlikely) or the prices must be good enough to attract so many holiday shoppers, all with so much piled into their carts. And we noticed that the lines to the checkout counters were strategically laid out to thread between lines of shelves brimming with small items that could serve as either stocking-stuffers or things to nosh while waiting to get to a cash register.

To confess—we are New Yorkers. Manhattanites, actually, and are still fortunate enough to be able to shop at the flagship Bloomingdales for our house wares, Sur La Table for kitchenware, and any place that strikes our fancy in Soho or along Madison Avenue. I mention this only to additionally confess, that within just a few minutes in the environs of Home Goods we became addicted to what it had to offer and the prices.

Too much time in the sun? Perhaps. But more likely an epiphany about why we should even think about spending $200 for a cast iron, enamel Creuset pot (something we need here if we want to replicate Julia Childs’ boeuf bourguignon) when you can find a perfectly good one on the Home Goods Clearance aisle for just $79.99.

When we entered, in spite of the scene at the checkout counter, we agreed that since we were only looking for a basket for Rona’s last orchid, we didn’t need a shopping cart. Certainly not one large enough to tote a small sofa. Which, by the way, Home Goods sells and which were seemingly available at 50 percent off. But with that 12-inch Creuset pot, which weighs at least five pounds, not having a cart was not necessarily a good idea, no matter how stigmatizing we thought it would make us feel if we were sited pushing one by any of our Greenwich Village friends. I can only imagine what they would then say about us back at Balthazar—

“You’ll never believe who we ran into in Delray Beach. Rona and Steven who are wintering there. In a Home Goodies store, or whatever it’s called. We of course were there visiting my mother and she insisted on going to that place to look for new towels. I said to her, ‘Mother. We can go to a Bloomingdales. I do think they have one of those here. We don’t need to go there.’ But she insisted and that’s where we found them. He was wearing something with palm trees on it and was wobbling through those endless aisles dragging with him a shopping cart so huge you could put a refrigerator in it. And . . .”

I could hear the shocked laughter all the way down the Atlantic coast. So sans cart, I did the best I could to carry the Creuset pot toward the back of the store where we thought there would be wicker baskets and, we noticed, the towel department. At most that was all we were looking for and so I preferred to struggle along with that very heavy and clumsy pot and eschew the cart.

“Why not leave it on the shelf? We can pick it up on the way out. It looks as if it weighs a ton.”

“I can manage,” I said bravely, “You saw those women with those shopping carts,” I reminded her. “I think there’s only one of these pots left and if we leave it there I feel certain someone will snatch it within five minutes,”

“But we’ll only be here another few . . .”

“In that case, let me schlep it.”

There were rows and rows of baskets and decorative pots for flowers and plants. And within what seemed like that promised five minutes Rona had not only found just the right basket for her orchid, but three others—two with an antique porcelain glaze and one made from what looked like hammered tin.

“Do we need these?” I asked, shifting the pot to my left arm where I balanced it on my hip. “I thought we only needed one more.”

“But look at these prices. This metal one is reduced to $6.95 and the two ceramic ones are just $4.99 each. From $14.50. Even at $14.50 they would be a steal. Do you know what these would cost at the Chelsea Garden Center? At least three-times as much.”

“But what will we do . . .?”

“We’ll think of something. We can always use them in the city. Or in Maine.” We had this past summer bought a house on Pemaquid Point. “They would fit in perfectly there. Maybe you should get a shopping cart. With that pot you want and now with these we could use one.”

“If you hold one of the ceramic ones I’m sure I can manage with the rest.”

“But what if we get towels? They seem to have nice ones over there. At these prices we could make the bathroom feel more like our own.”

“If you find any, we’ll figure it out and then . . .”

Ignoring me, Rona, grasping one of the glazed pots, darted over toward the bathware section, stopping at one of the aisles that contained rows of soaps and body lotions and sponges and scented candles and anything else one might think about having in a sumptuous bathroom. I saw her sniffing her way through the dozens of boxes of milled French soaps. “What do you think of this one?” she asked, holding out a small box of three lavender-scented bars. “Too much don’t you think?”

“Well, I really . . .”

“I know you love olive oil. You insist on using it on everything. So how about this one? Have you ever seen olive oil soap?”

“Not really. To tell you the truth I prefer it just for cooking and . . .”

“It’s very popular in France. Women swear by it. They say it does wonders for the skin. Here, take a smell. I’ll hold it to your nose. Your hands are all occupied with that pot you insist on having and all the baskets.” She held it up to me and to tell the truth it smelled quite wonderful. Not at all like any of my salad dressings.

So I said, “If it’s not too expensive maybe we should get it. I mean, if the French like . . .”

“How does $3.95 sound to you? For three large bars! If we use them in the shower they’ll last at least a year. This is amazing. Simply amazing. Here, the soap’s in this little box. Let me slip it under your arm. No, not the one with that heavy pot but the other arm.” I had tried to lift it. “The one with just the baskets.” Which she proceeded to do and which I found was actually quite manageable. With it tucked there I felt more balanced.

She was rummaging through the shelves and bins of towels when I caught up with her. “What do you think of these?” Rona was holding up two beige hand towels that looked very handsome to me. “They would go perfectly with the color of the walls in the bathroom and the shower curtain. You know, if we can find two matching bath towels they alone could make the bathroom feel more like our own. And these are reduced to just $4.95 each. Where in the city can you find towels this nice for only $4.95?”

Nowhere that I could think of. The last time we needed towels we went to ABC Carpet and Home and couldn’t find any we liked for less that $30 or $40 each. And so, at two for less than $10, Rona irresistibly placed the two hand towels over my shoulders and turned back to hunt for two matching ones for the bath.

“I can’t seem to find any.” She had worked her way quickly through the shelves and was now bent over nearly in half and up to her waist in a huge canvas laundry basket on rollers that contained the close-outs. As she dug deeper, the bin started to side down the aisle, picking up speed as Rona plunged deeper into the pile. Feeling the acceleration and almost losing her balance, she finally came up for air but with no matching towels.

“Nothing?” I asked. “It seems from what I can see that they have either matching hand towels and washcloths but no bath towels that match with any hand towels. Except those,” I tried to point, “in $19.95 sets of six. Maybe if we had enough time, we could find four that go together; but to tell you the truth, I’m wondering if . . .” The Creuset pot had begun to cut into my wrist and was impeding the blood flow.

“I wish you had agreed to get a cart but since you didn’t just give me another minute and I’ll be done. These towels are such good buys that I hate to think we won’t be able to find a set that will work for us.”

“No problem,” I said, “I’m doing fine. Take your time.”

And, to tell you the truth, she and I did take out time.

After another hour of rummaging we finally were ready to pay for what we had rounded up. Of course there was the Creuset and the baskets and ceramic pots. One more of these than the two we had originally scooped up. They were too good and inexpensive to resist. And after a detour back into the cookware area I found a cheese grater, meat hammer to pound cutlets paper thin, and at a great price bottles of high quality vanilla extract. I couldn’t pass them up since we plan next week to make Tiramisu; and using fine vanilla, which is usually very expensive, will make a real difference. And while there Rona had found a wire chicken—a chicken made from white wire—that she felt would also be perfect for Maine. “To hold eggs,” she said. I agreed. And at only $4.50, marked down from $14.25, it was a steal.

“Don’t worry,” she assured me, “Now that we have a station wagon we can take everything we buy up there without any difficulty. That’s why I though we should buy one. Remember?”

Indeed I did.

Finally, in spite of all that we found to buy, we managed to get everything to the front of the store, to the checkout counter, without a shopping cart. And with our hands, arms, underarms, and shoulders full we were inhibited from being able to nosh on the Lindt chocolates that lined the path as we shuffled toward the cashier.

And I couldn’t any longer be bothered about the possibility of our downtown friends finding us here. In fact we learned from the lovely women who checked us out, that they get three trailer loads of goods each week and since one never knows what will be included, it’s a good idea to stop in periodically.

“You mean they might get matching towels later this week?” Rona asked hopefully.

“Indeed, that is quite likely.”

“Then we’ll be back frequently,” I said triumphantly. “And who cares who we run into!”

But Rona had the final word, “As soon as we get home let’s look on the Internet to see if there are any Home Goods stores in Maine. You know, with the place we just bought there, I’ll bet we could . . .”

Thursday, December 17, 2009

December 17, 2009--Big Physics

The Europeans last week successfully cranked up their super particle collider at CERN near Geneva Switzerland, launching a steam of sub-atomic protons in opposite directions around and around in a 17-mile long circular tube to such a velocity that they produced 1.2 trillion electron volts of energy before they slammed into each other.

Out of such collisions, when they turn the volume up even more, it is expected that the results of these colossal collisions will spin off other particles, never before seen, that theorists say will give scientists their first close-up look at condition that occurred milli-seconds after the legendary Big Bank that set whatever our universe is into its current existence.

According to the usually-reliable Wikipedia:

Physicists hope that the collider will help answer the most fundamental questions in physics, questions concerning the basic laws governing the interactions and forces among the elementary objects, the deep structure of space and time, especially regarding the intersection of quantum mechanics and general relativity, where current theories and knowledge are unclear or break down altogether. These issues include, at least:

Is the Higgs mechanism for generating elementary particle masses via electroweak symmetry breaking indeed realised in nature? It is anticipated that the collider will either demonstrate or rule out the existence of the elusive Higgs boson(s), completing the Standard Model.

Is supersymmetry, an extension of the Standard Model and Poincaré symmetry, realised in nature, implying that all known particles have supersymmetric partners? These may clear up the mystery of dark matter.

Are there extra dimensions, as predicted by various models inspired by string theory, and can we detect.

Got that?

The Large Hadron Collider (LHC), as it is called, was built by a coalition of 20 European governmental partners and cost $9 billion; and considering its esoteric, seemingly impractical purposes, this money was not easy to come by.

In fact, in the United States, at about the same time the LHC was proposed, we began work on an even larger collider under ground in Texas. It was to be 24 miles in diameter and would have generated 20 trillion electron volts, dwarfing the LHC. If Congress had not pulled the plug on funding, it would be up and running by now and it would have had a much greater impact on new physics than the LHC ever will.

But $11 billion seemed like too much to spend, especially to the anti-science conservatives who were in charge of Congress at that time. Who cares about Higgs bosons, some cried. Maybe when generating full power, others worried, it would create a Black Hole and consume not only Texas but all the other nearby Red States. And anyway, the bible doesn’t say anything about these tiny sub-atomic particles, much less the Big Bang.

And at $11 billion, something this impractical was too much to spend on a huge toy for a bunch of physicists who are so out of touch with reality that they forget to wear shoes even in the winter.

So the project was killed.

As a consequence, as reported recently in the New York Times, big science in this country has already begun noticeably to slip into second or third place in the world. (Article linked below.) Yes, some U.S. scientists will be allowed to put their hands on the new machine, but only for limited amounts of time and only when the Europeans give them permission.

According to University of Texas physicists and Nobel Prize winner Steven Weinberg, the discoveries that are likely to accrue at the LHC will invigorate the labs of Europe, not the United States. And, he says, “There is also the depressing symbolism in the fact that the hottest new results in fundamental physics will for decades not be coming from our country.”

And, for anyone who doubts the practical benefits of things even this esoteric, to cite just a few examples, the World Wide Web was invented by particle physicists at CERN, detectors developed first for theoretical experiments are at the heart of the technology that powers life-saving medical PET scan devices, and MRI machines would not exist if it weren’t for the commercial application of the very kinds of technology that were developed to accelerate proton particles in other accelerator-colliders.

So we are being left in the scientific dust. The list that catalogues the many ways we are slipping in the world is lengthening. That’s a big bang you don’t need a PhD or the LHC to understand.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

December 16, 2009--Stood Up

On April 11, 1962 President John Kennedy, before convening the CEOs at the White House for a dressing down about their concerted effort to raise steel prices, issued the following statement:

Simultaneous and identical actions of United States Steel and other leading steal corporations increasing steel prices by some $6 a ton constitute a wholly unjustifiable and irresponsible defiance of the public interest. In this serious hour in our Nation's history when we are confronted with grave crises in Berlin and Southeast Asia, when we are devoting our energies to economic recovery and stability, when we are asking reservists to leave their homes and their families for months on end and servicemen to risk their lives--and four were killed in the last two days in Viet Nam and asking union members to hold down their wage requests at a time when restraint and sacrifice are being asked of every citizen, the American people will find it hard, as I do, to accept a situation in which a tiny handful of steel executives whose pursuit of private power and profit exceeds their sense of public responsibility can show such utter contempt for the interests of 185 million Americans.

In a few days, the companies began to roll back the price increase.

Two days ago, President Obama summoned to the White House the CEOs of the nation’s largest banks and financial institutions. To put pressure on them to increase the number of loans they make to small and mid-size businesses. He told them that with taxpayer TARP money they had been bailed out, saved from the brink of bankruptcy which had been the result of their own irresponsible practices. To their faces he did not call them “fat-cat bankers” as he had referred to them the night before on “60 Minutes.”

Perhaps he should have, considering the tepid public response by those who showed up for his meeting. I say “showed up” because four of those invited had the audacity not to. Three claimed they couldn’t make it because their commercial flights from New York were fog bound (Lloyd C. Blankfein the CEO of Goldman Sachs; John J. Mack, chairman of Morgan Stanley; and Richard D. Parsons, chairman of Citigroup) and the fourth, Vikram Pandit, Citigroup CEO, stood up President Obama because, as he said, he had another, more urgent meeting. That meeting was about Citi’s paying back the final $20 billion they owe us so that he could get on with the more important business of giving himself and his senior executives their salary increases and bonuses unfettered by governmental oversight.

Splendid, just splendid.

I can only imagine what JFK would have said. Unfortunately, when the White House patched Blankfein, Mack, and Parsons through to the meeting by speakerphone, Obama managed only to mutter, “Well, I appreciate you guy calling in.” (See New York Times article linked below.)

He did not say, “Where the f*** are you? You couldn’t take Amtrak? You couldn’t come down the night before? Well, guess what, you’re toast. I’m coming at you every day until you guys begin making loans. If necessary, I’ll turn Glenn Beck’s pitchfork people loose on you. I and they know where you live.”

And while he was at it, he should have stalked into the Press Room at the White House and said something like the following about Joe Lieberman, who has flip-flopped again about his vote on health care reform. This time, he’s again against it though a few days ago he was again for the very same thing in it (expanding Medicare eligibility to cover more of the uninsured) that he had been in favor of a few months ago.

“Joe,” he should have said, “I know the game you’re playing and you won’t get away with it. You’re pissed off that when you lost the Democratic primary in Connecticut you had to run as an Independent and most Democrats, me included, did not support you. Well, you got even with me by supporting John McCain for president. I never saw him on TV without you grinning at his side. That’s fine. I understand that. But I won and I thought we were even and I urged Majority Leader Reid not to take away your committee chairmanships. Now you’re trying to hold us up for ransom, trying to get all sorts of goodies for yourself by saying you’re going to join the Republican filibuster of the bill that will save tens of thousands of lives every year.

“After I leave this room,” Obama should have said, “I am going back to my office. You know, the one shaped like an oval, and call Harry Reid and urge him to strip you not only of your chairmanships but also your place in the Democratic caucus. And later today I will be calling the Democratic Party chairman in your home state and with her we will begin a process to attract a terrific person to run against you when you come up for reelection in less than three years. And I will take the personal lead to raise all the money that candidate will need to run you out of town.

“And I will ask Senator Reid to begin the process of passing a health care reform bill by the Reconciliation process. A process that requires only a 51-vote majority in the Senate. So begin to pack your bags. Your days in the Senate are over.”

Unless we see some of this kind of tough leadership, I am fearing that Barack Obama is the one who is in danger of being run out of town.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

December 15, 2009--"Young Lady, We've Got A Problem"

“Young lady, if you don’t stop doing that, we’ve got a problem.”

The “that” that he is referring to was something a member of the University of Tennessee’s Orange Pride group was doing. The Pride are female undergraduates who assist the Volunteer’s basketball and football coaches recruit top high school athletic prospects.

Keith Easterwood was visiting the campus with his son last year, a high school football star, and what he wanted the young lady to stop doing was rubbing her breasts against him and his son.

This was not an aberration. It appears that the University of Tennessee arranges for this kind of extra-curricular recruitment as the normal way of doing business. In fact, for any college or university football or basketball factory to remain competitive they need to organize their own versions of the Orange Pride girls.

Mr. Easterwood said, “I’ve been up there five times [he’s a coach and has brought players other than his son to campus] and my observation is that this is a very organized operation. These girls have obviously been groomed. There’s a lot of eye contact and touching.”

If you click on the linked New York Times article you can see a couple of the Pride recruiting assistants in action—at a high school football game that they attended and did their thing. In this instance, enticing two potential recruits to pose with them on the sidelines where you can see them holding a sign declaring that the two big hulks “have our hearts.”

The practice was first instituted in the 1960s by Bear Bryant at the University of Alabama. His Bear's Angels were so well known that in their own way they became as famous as the players on the Crimson Tide’s teams. The groups are usually created and organized by school officials and are in most cases attached to the school’s admissions office.

Since coaches can't spend more than a few minutes with any individual recruit and his parents when they come for their NCAA-permitted 48-hour campus visits, it's up to the hostess to give tours, answer questions, and—in the evening when the parents go back to their own hotels—provide entertainment.

For decades this practice of entertaining recruits existed officially unnoticed and ignored, but two incidents eight years ago brought groups such as the Orange Pride into view. In late 2001, a female student at the University of Colorado claimed she was raped by football players and football recruits at a party she was hosting on their behalf. Then in 2003, a campus newspaper's investigation into Arizona State's all-female recruiting group revealed that while serving as hostesses members routinely supplied underage recruits with wild parties, alcohol, and occasionally sex.

The groups are given cute, often alliterative names such as the University of Miami’s Hurricane Honeys, Clemson’s Bengal Babes, Oklahoma State’s Cowboy Coeds, and Wake Forest’s Deacon Darlings.

Under increasing scrutiny, school officials assert that hostesses are not given orders about what to do after hours but admit they are not told what not to do; though at some colleges, hostesses speaking off the record have claimed that in order to be selected they had to agree to engage in various sexual practices with the high school kids coaches wanted on their teams.

Sports Illustrated reported that one potential member of the University of Oklahoma’s hostess corps, Crimson-n-Cream, when she was interviewed for the squad, was asked what she would do if a recruit wanted to go to her room. Perkily, she replied, “I’d call all my friends and make sure he had a good time.”

I assume this Lady Sooner got the assignment.

Monday, December 14, 2009

December 14, 2009--An Overblown Latke

During Hanukkah I am known for my latkes. For the uninitiated, a Jewish version of the potato pancake.

Mine are famous within a very small circle because, I am told, they are lighter than one would expect considering they are starchy and deep-fried. I have been pressed for decades to disclose my secrets and have thus far resisted.

But considering the gathering years, here are two hints: add a little seltzer (club soda) to the mix of shredded potatoes and onions and instead of just including a few eggs as a binder and taste-enhancer, separate the eggs, add the yolks to the mix, and before folding in the whites, whip them so as to add even more air to the batter. And of course when shaping the balls, which you in turn flatten in the peanut oil, do not over-handle them. If you do nothing else, you will become known as a latke maven.

While thinking about my latkes, mulling whether or not to add some shredded raw beets to the mix this year to give the latkes a red-flannel look and to add a bit of additional sweetness, I was disturbed to read about the Hanukkah controversy at the White House. At the Obama White House where last spring the first-ever Seder was held.

The New York Times headline, "Washington Flap Over White House Hanukkah Party," caught my attention. I muttered, "Can't the Obamas catch a break."

Overhearing me, Rona asked, "So what's going on now? Did Sarah Palin accuse him again of stealing her ideas for his Nobel Prize speech?"

"Not that," I said, "Something even more preposterous. This time he's getting criticized for the Hanukkah party he and Michelle are hosting. It seems they invited 'only' 400 while allegedly George W. Bush each year invited 600 to 800. And, to make matters worse, it is alleged that the Obamas' invitation was only in English, not also in Hebrew. And they called the party a 'holiday reception,' not a Hanukkah whatever."

"You've got to be kidding."

"I wish I was. Really, what's behind this flap is the suspicion on the part of some that Obama is not 'good for the Jews.' Among other things, the complainers in the Jerusalem Post who wrote about this cited his opposition to Israel allowing more building in the West Bank and claimed that this so-called 'downsized' party reveals that Obama must be an anti-Semite or something."

"I can't believe any of this," Rona moaned.

"Former Bush official are of course chiming in, including Tevi Troy, the former Bush administration liaison to the Jews."

"Funny, I don't remember him ever liaising with us."

"To him people like us are goyim because we're critical of the Israel government and their settlement policies, among other things. But one thing Mr. Troy isn’t pointing out is that one year the Bush's Hanukkah party invitation didn't have a menorah on it."

"Really? What did it have?"

"A Christmas tree."


"What they’re not saying is that the Obamas actually invited 550 and during the Bush years no more than about 550, the same number, ever attended. To quote the Times story, Rabbi Levi Shemtov who oversaw the process of making the White House's kitchen kosher, ‘This is one big overblown latke. We need to save our communal kvetching in reserve for what's more called for and really matters.’”

“That just about sums it up,” Rona said. “First Obama’s critics said he couldn’t figure out what health care plan to support. Then they said he couldn’t make up his mind about what to do in Afghanistan and when he did they criticized him for that. Now they say he can’t even make a Hanukkah party. What next? I can’t wait to hear what they’ll say about Michelle’s Christmas decorations. They’ll probably accuse her of secretly slipping in a lot of Kwanza symbols. I give up.”

True, I thought, but enough about the Obamas' Hanukkah. Let's get back to what's really important--my latkes. What do you think about the idea to add beets? I think that . . .

Friday, December 11, 2009

December 11, 2009--Obama's Nobel War & Peace Speech

Barack Obama's speech when accepting the Nobel Peace Prize might more appropriately have been called his Nobel War and Peace speech since it was at least as much about the purposes and justifications for certain wars than it was about peace. “Just wars,” he called them. And I admire him greatly for this.

Considering the controversy in regard to his receiving the prize prematurely and at the very time he was escalating the war in Afghanistan (as he claimed to bring about peace), and considering the venue--progressive, dovish Europe--it was an act of intellectual and global political courage to say what he had to say about his world view and human nature in that setting and at this time.

He could so easily have not mentioned the "need" for wars at all and simply riffed about the imperative to bring about peace through economic and social development and nuclear disarmament. Rejecting the realist as much as the idealist ideologies as in and of themselves too limited a way to view the world and our place in it, he took the bolder route to tell us like his thinks it is.

That no matter how complicated and seemingly contradictory this perspective might be, it is the truth and we need both to deal with that truth and have multiple approaches and strategies to confront it.

To make things even more nuanced and truthful, and which as a consequence provided additional confusion for progressives, he even had the audacity to speak about “evil.” Where have we heard that before? Conservatives back home in the U.S. were especially confounded by this. They of the axis-of-evil set of mind.

Poor Sarah Palin, caught so off guard by this, as self-involved as she is, if you can believe it, told an interviewer yesterday that Barack Obama must have been reading “the book.” I of course thought she meant the Bible; but, no, she meant hers! She told USA Today, "I liked what he said, in fact, I thumbed through the book quickly this morning and said, 'Wow, that sounded really familiar!' because I talked in my book too about the fallen nature of man and how war is necessary at times."

Thankfully Obama in Oslo did not lay out an Obama Doctrine (we already have enough of those) but he did let us know a lot about how he views us as fallible as we are and the differences between the world of "is" and the world of "ought." That we have no choice but to live in one while attempting to bring about the other.

If you haven’t, do read all of this remarkable speech. It is linked below.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

December 10, 2009--Day Off

Back tomorrow.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

December 9, 2009--By the Time They Get to Copenhagen

Harvey said, “Isn’t it hypocritical that all those participants at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen showed up in big gas-guzzling limos after having flown in in private jets?”

I had no credible response.

“Not that I want our president to fly commercial, but couldn’t most of the others do so? If necessary they could have bought up the entire first-class cabin so they could stretch out and not be bothered by the rest of us proletarians?”

I had no adequate response.

“Don’t mishear me, I still don’t believe that humans are contributing that much to climate change.” Here we go again, I thought. “Did you look at those charts I sent you? By folks with scientific credibility who do not have an ideological axe to grind. Burt Rutan, for example. Did you look at those bar charts of his?”

I nodded to indicate that I had. Frankly, I was more interested in my second cup of coffee than arguing with Harvey about global warming. We’d been in Delray Beach for less than 72 hours and Harvey was already hot to trot. I needed a little more unwinding time. I was still trying to recover from my disappointment with Barack Obama’s speech about Afghanistan. And I was surely not going to reveal too much about that to him! We were planning to be here until May and I didn’t want to give him too much ammunition. Let him earn it.

Harvey was making bar charts with his hands raised in the air. Everyone in the Green Owl was looking at him, actually us, thinking he, really we were crazy. With his left hand he was indicating a very high bar—it represented, he claimed, natural carbon omissions—and with his right hand he held his thumb and pointer finger about two inches apart—saying this tiny bar in his air chart represented man’s contribution to global warming. He looked at that small gap between his fingers, smiling all the while at me, and said, “That’s right, we contribute only about two percent of the total.”

I signaled to Jen that I wanted my check. I needed to get some relaxing under my belt before taking him on. And I also knew where he was going next.

And he predictably said, “What about all those doctored emails they just discovered in England at the University of East Anglia? Not only did some of the leading scientists on the side which claims that humans are significantly responsible for global warming write to urge their colleagues to deemphasize the data that show the effect is exaggerated, but some of them got caught red-handed cooking the numbers. No pun intended.” Though from his grin that took in the entire restaurant I knew it was very much intended. “Cooked indeed,” I muttered.

Jen had passed me the check and I got up off my stool to signal to Harvey that I needed to go.

“And one more thing,” he said, taking hold of my arm to keep me from leaving, “Though I think Al Gore and the rest of them who fly in private jets are full of you know what, I don’t begrudge him making hundreds of millions investing in renewable energy projects.”

This stopped me in my tracks and got me to turn back toward him. “Really?” I said, thinking he was putting this out to somehow set me up or bait me.

“You know that I’m a capitalist to the core and so if he and his friends can make a fortune legitimately, I’m all for it.”

“I got you. We’re about to get into an argument again about socialism, right?” When he arrived at the Owl earlier that morning, not having seen us since October, he greeted us sotto voce so all could hear, “Well, the communists are back.” He was being affectionate of course. At least more or less.

“No really, not only more power to them but also, even though I am not convinced by the science that we are major contributors to global warming I think we absolutely must invest in clean and renewable sources of energy.”

“You what?” I thought my ears were still clogged from all the road noise from the long drive south.

“You heard me. For at least two reasons. First, even if we are only a minor part of the problem we should get away from using so much fossil fuel.”

“I agree with that. And this is good to hear from you of all people.”

“Second, and more important, if we weren’t so addicted to oil do you think we’d be at war in Iraq?” I was incredulous. I was convinced that I was hearing things. It was his Republicans who started that war. What had Jen slipped into my coffee? “If we want to get to the terrorists I could make a better case for invading the Sudan or Somalia.”

And with that he darted out, not allowing me a chance to assimilate all of this and welcome him at least in part to the progressive fold.

Rona said, “Don’t worry, tomorrow he’ll be back beating on you about Obama’s speech on job creation.”

I certainly hope so. Otherwise this will turn out to be more change than I can handle.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

December 8, 2009--Pashtunistan

The only thing Barack Obama mentioned more frequently than 9/11 in his West Point speech last Tuesday was Pakistan. He alluded to it fully 25 times.

And yet, the speech was mostly about Afghanistan: How we got involved there in the first place (thus the 9/11 references), why we need to expand our efforts there (to stabilize the corrupt Karzai government, to keep the Taliban from retaking control of the country, but primarily to continue to disrupt Al Qaeda and not allow it to have a safe haven again in Afghanistan), and what he plans to have us do (expand our forces there by 30,000 troops and begin to withdraw them in July 2011).

If he wanted to talk about the real threats that we face in that region, his entire speech should have been about the “country” of Pashtunistan. Never heard of Pashtunistan? Neither had I until Sunday when I read about it in the New York Times. (Article linked below.)

You will not be able to find it on the map though it should be a recognized country if geography and, more important history and culture, were used to determine borders.

Afghanistan and Pakistan, very much on the world’s mind, on the other hand, are considered real countries—they have governments, flags, national anthems, and seats at the UN—though they exisit only because former colonial powers such as Great Britain and Russia in the late 19th century created them as they struggled for domination in the region.

But between those two “countries” sits the Pashtun people with their cultural land straddling Pakistan and Afghanistan—the 39 million Pashtuns occupy 1,000 miles of territory on both sides of the1,500 mile Afghan-Pakistan border. 12 million on the Afghan side and 27 million in what we call Pakistan. They have their own language (Pashto), their own ancient moral and legal codes (Pashtunwali), and a centuries-old inclination not to pay much attention to the fictional political national boundaries drawn in the sand and mountains.

And it is in Pashtunistan that Al Qaeda and the Taliban leadership are most at home and welcomed.

Though this is where we are actually intensifying our efforts (we appropriately care much more about Al Qaeda than Karzai and Pashtunistan is where their leaders are, including, remember him, Osama bin Laden), President Obama was obviously reluctant to talk much about war in a third country—Pakistan. With two already underway, you can only imagine what Americans would say if he spoke about needing to start a war in a fourth country—Pashtunistan—even though that’s what we have been doing, waging war there, more intensively since he took office. Mostly with unmanned drones and Special Forces troops than with tanks and Humvees.

The talked-about strategy is the old-hammer-and anvil gambit. In this case America does the hammering and Pakistan is supposed to serve as the anvil. We pound the Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters in Pashtunistan on the Afghan side while the Pakistani army serves as the anvil on the Pakistan side.

One problem, and a major one it is, has been the reluctance on the part of the Pakistanis to see Al Qaeda and the Taliban as the major threat to their own security—they have most of their troops massed along their border with India, their historic enemy and the other nuclear-armed power in the region. Even with pressure, and threats, and bribes from the U.S. government, Pakistani leaders have been unwilling to rebalance the distribution of their soldiers to a hot war in the west with the Pashtuns from a cold standoff in the east with the Indians.

Thus the hammer-and-anvil, in the minds of some, has been more a hammer-and-pillow.

In the words of an American military officer deeply experienced in combat along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, when Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters retreat across it into what is known as Pakistan they wave their rifles at our troops to taunt them, knowing that “our rules said we couldn’t follow them and we couldn’t shoot at them unless they shot at us. And then when we saw them over the border, we knew we should expect an attack that night.” He added, “The only ones who recognized the border were us with our G.P.S.”

So is it any wonder we haven’t been hearing too much about Pashtunistan? If we want to “win” there, whatever that means, we probably should pay more attention to its existence and what we are actually facing.

Monday, December 07, 2009

December 7, 2009--Snowbirding: North Florida

I knew that we were finally heading due south deeper into Florida when, after visiting with our niece in Tallahassee, we turned onto I-75 and the first billboard we spotted had a picture of a new born in its mother's hands with the words--

He Had A Heart Beat After Only 15 Days

And then there was the pickup that pulled right up onto our tail before swinging to our right to pass and cut sharply in front of us which had—OBAMA LIED TO ALL OF US!--in foot-high black stick-on letters blazoned across its tailgate. He was all in kaki and had two guns raked on the window behind his seat. From the driver's grizzled glare, which I could spot in his rearview mirror, having New York license plates on our car was likely what got him going.

There were also the dozens of We Bare All signs that alerted us that at Exit 324, or wherever, there was a 24-hour Exotic Boutique with videos and “love toys” if we needed one in a hurry. Rona thought we could wait to get these and instructed me to keep the pedal to the metal when she sensed I might be slowing down when we hit the 325 mile marker.

Finally, helping to keep us awake as we hooked onto “Florida’s Turnpike” (named now for Ronald Reagan) we kept up our billboard vigil; and just as we were about to get to our exit, there was a sign for a couple of lawyers who, in addition to their names and two-yard tall pictures, advertised what instantly became one of my all time favorite Websites—

I jotted that one down. One never knows. There’s a lot of crazy driving here.

After a restless night’s sleep, still wondering if we should have stayed up north for the winter in a culturally more hospitable climate, noting on the Weather Channel that there was three inches of snow on the ground back where we are from, we went over to the Green Owl for coffee and to check to see how our winter friends were doing.

We were happy to learn that Ernst had been to the doctor who told him that his knee was healing well enough so that he would likely be able to avoid surgery. It’s always good to get this kind of health news in south Florida. Jim also had a good report from his doctor—his heart condition which might at some point require value-replacement surgery had stabilized during the summer and early fall and he too was feeling optimistic about his prognosis.

Big news was the Crimson Tide’s upset victory the day before of the Florida Gators. Football is a passionate subject in these and many other parts and all sorts of joshing was going on. Even Rona joined in—no football fan she—looking to see if Harvey was around. He’s a University of Florida graduate and a huge Gator fan. When someone said he doesn’t come in on Sunday, Rona said, “I’ll bet he doesn’t show up until Wednesday at the earliest.” There was a lot of head nodding, especially from Jack who is one of Harvey’s most playful taunters.

The coffee and eggs were as good as we remembered them; and though we were already feeling a little better about being, how shall I put it, in such a challenging political environment, it was good to run into Sam, who is among the few Democrats we encounter regularly. Before we could manage a proper hello, he boomed, “Did you listen to that speech on Tuesday?” And then not waiting for an answer said, “I’ve been reading the stuff on your blog and I couldn’t agree with you more. There are all kinds of parallels between Vietnam and Afghanistan and how does he expect to get away with this business of first sending in 30,000 more troops and then beginning to pull them out in only 18 months? I still support him, but . . .”

Jen interrupted, she’s as usual all business, and asked if I wanted more coffee. “Decaf,” I said, knowing now it would again be a great season for snowbirds.

Friday, December 04, 2009

December 4, 2009--Jobs Report From the Road

On the day of President Obama’s Jobs Summit, on route to Florida, meandering a bit, we drove from Abingdon, Virginia to Warm Springs, Georgia. The day before we had driven from Reston, Virginia, and the day prior to that to Reston from New York City. About 1,000 in all and most of it on interstates—I-95, I-85, I-81, I-75, and I-40. A bit boring but since the weather was overcast and rainy we stayed off the blue highways.

To help keep us alert while listening in on the Summit via CNN radio, in addition to counting license plates from as many states as possible, we kept a running count of the number or men and women working on highway projects that might have been funded by the stimulus package passed last winter by Congress and signed into law with much fanfare by the president. Thinking, since we at the time heard about the many shovel-ready projects around the country that were just waiting for funding so that contractors could hire workers and put a small army of them to work, thinking that we would see a lot of action, especially near Baltimore and Atlanta where massive projects appear to be under way, keeping count of those hard at work would keep us quite busy.

Distressing to say, after these thousand or so miles and having passed through at least half a dozen major job sites, we still have not in total counted 100 workers. True, we may have passed by while the men were on a break or using the Port-O-Sans, but this lack of visible evidence of taxpayer dollars at work is pathetic. We should have seen thousands toiling. No wonder the public is furious with governments—local as well as federal.

During the last economic cataclysm, the Depression, via the Civilian Conservation Corps and the WPA, millions were put back to work and some of our most remarkable public works were completed. The massive Hover Dam, for example, employed thousands and was completed two years ahead of schedule in 1936. The magnificent Blue Ridge Parkway, which we drove on a couple of days ago, was a CCC project. And in the private sector, the elegant Empire State Building was designed and completed in 1931 by 3,400 workers in only 18 months.

So what’s going on now?

Ask Joe Biden. He was put in charge of overseeing the implementation of the stimulus bill. One project of which is along I-95 in his home state of Delaware. We saw a total of a dozen workers there. Joe Biden, who I like, never employed more than a dozen staffers while he was a senator. Therefore, what does he know about running massive projects? Donald Trump, who I don’t at all like, would have been a better choice to ask to take two years off from his commercial development work to oversee this. How many do you think we would have seen on the job if he had been asked to assume this assignment?

It took New York City more than six years and $12 million to try to fix the cooling system at the Central Park ice skating rink. And they never got it to work. Frustrated and seeing an opportunity to boost his public image, Trump volunteered to do it at his cost and got the work done in less than six months at a cost of only $750,000. And the ice there has been fine ever since. (The rink is now named for him.)

During the Second World War we needed to construct a fleet of freighters, Liberty Ships to supply our troops in Europe and the Pacific. Roosevelt didn’t ask his vice president to take on this critical assignment. Instead he engaged industrialist Henry Kaiser who figured out how to mass-produce them. At one time his shipyard was able to build a ship in just four days!

This is the sort of thing I was hoping to hear at the end of yesterday’s Job Summit, but instead all there was were more expressions of concern, promises, and platitudes.

But we still have at least 500 miles of driving. So maybe in Alabama and Florida we’ll see some action. That is, if either of these states accepted any stimulus money.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

December 3, 2009--Snowbirds In Flight

On the road heading south and need to get an early start. Back tomorrow with suggestions for Republicans who want less government.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

December 2, 2009--Hello, We Must Be Going

Early in the 1930 Marx Brothers move Animal Crackers, Groucho, playing Captain Geoffrey T. Spaulding, the famed African explorer is feted by society matron Mrs. Rittenhouse. Mayhem of course follows. Groucho has nothing but his usual zany contempt for the world of these stuffed shirts and in response to being welcomed by her and them dances and sings his way through one of my favorite songs, “Hello, I Must be Going.”

Last night while listening to President Obama’s speech about Afghanistan, I couldn’t restrain myself from thinking he was saying pretty much the same thing—

He announced that he will send 30,000 more American soldiers there, but almost in the same breath said that they will begin to withdraw only a few months after they arrive. In effect, “We’re here but we must be going.”

What we have been unable to accomplish in eight years, General McChrystal will be asked to do in fewer than 18 more months. To quote Obama from last week—to “finish the job.” Whatever that is.

Sadly, this sounded more like the too-willing-to-strike-a-deal-by-compromising Obama than a commander in chief who has the chops to say either I am making a 10-year commitment to the region and will send in hundreds of thousands of additional troops if necessary; or, my preference, I am bringing the current forces home because we should not have been there in the first place since the primary threat to our security then and now is what happens in Pakistan. That is where Al Qaeda is, that is where the nuclear weapons are, and that is where—if the government falls to radical Islamists--we will face real and not imagined perils.

I knew the rationale for this escalation was shaky when Obama so often felt the need to invoke 9/11. By my count, at least half a dozen times. So often that I thought he was channeling Rudy Giuliani.

And I knew that even Obama knew he was on thin historical ice when he tried to deny the obvious parallels between our involvements in both Vietnam and Afghanistan; when he made it seem as if all Taliban are the same and have similar goals when he and we know that this is patently untrue—some are super nationalists, not jihadists, and “only” strive to topple the governments of Afghanistan and Pakistan and want both us and al Qaeda out of their countries; and worst of all Obama ignored the basic lesson from our recent experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan—how nearly impossible it is to train and then mobilize a national army and security force so that they can protect their own people and governments, no matter how corrupt and propped up those regimes are by our threats and bribes.

Right there in Afghanistan, where his delineation of a not-so-new mission calls for this very training mission as the centerpiece of his strategy, we have for at least six or seven years failed to accomplish this goal.

As I have noted before and has been widely reported (see, for example the linked New York Times article), the Afghans we recruit desert almost as fast as we can train them. So what about that irrefutable fact, something we have confronted for many years, is going to change by adding “only” 30,000 more troops and giving our commanders “just” 18 more months?

So, friends asked last night, what should he do? Not an easy question. It is so much easier to criticize without knowing all the intelligence, but I would focus exclusively where the dangers are real—yes, on North Korea and Iran, but primarily on Pakistan.

Obama is right to call for a new kind of partnership with them. That’s what I would have recommended: to say we are getting out of Iraq and Afghanistan as quickly as possible, leaving behind the right kinds of residual forces, and with the resources we thus liberate (including money—real or borrowed) we will concentrate on ways to build a new and more effective partnership with Pakistan. Not invade and occupy them as we did and are doing in Iraq and Afghanistan, but to try to build a deeply interdependent strategic relationship that would concentrate, if we want to do any of this, on a massive nation-building effort in Pakistan.

And I would further say to my president, for whom I still harbor great hopes—how could any American not—you have been making a fundamental political and historical mistake:

You have opted to go along with the generals and the hawks because you believe that makes you look forceful and strong—a real leader and not another liberal wimp. But the lessons of recent history show that this often results in failure and ultimately weakness.

You obviously feel that bringing real change to the way we deploy ourselves in the world (emphasizing “soft power” and not primarily military force) would make you look weak. Again, while many lessons from history suggest that in certain circumstances doing what appears to be weak turns out to be effective and the leaders who had the courage to follow that course (and it takes more courage to risk appearing weak than sending in the military) turn out retrospectively to have been among our strongest. Let’s remember that the Marshall Plan to rebuild the economies of our Nazi enemies was criticized by many at the time as weakness, but that soft approach won the peace and helped ultimately to win the Cold War.

And finally I suspect that you are aware of all of these lessons and the contradictions in your own new policy.

Is it by chance that your saying hello-we-must-be-going has us beginning that going in 2011, right in the middle of your own reelection campaign? Or was this target date arrived at after months of careful strategic thinking and planning?

Of such carven things no profiles in courage are written; and history, the history of which you are well aware, is waiting to pass its own judgment. In the meantime, more of our young will be killed and maimed.

That darting, unfocused look on your face last night served as a running commentary on the equivocations and compromises embedded in your thoughts and words and suggested you know better. More’s the pity.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

December 1, 2009--Why I Worry About Pakistan

What is it that someone said about the minds of the young and the future? I think it was, "'Give me the child until he is seven, and I will show you the man."

I was reminded of this the other day when I read in the New York Times the results of a recent poll of Pakistani youth (linked below). If these portend the future, we all should be worried. The headline might be, "Tell me about the minds of the youth and I will tell you the fate of the nation."

To quote the Times report, Pakistanis between 18 and 29 are “ a deeply frustrated . . . generation that feels abandoned by its government and despondent about its future.”

Only about one in ten has confidence in the government, most see themselves as Muslims rather than Pakistani, and very few see any prospect whatsoever that there will be jobs much less careers for them in the future. A combination that in another time and another place was referred to as “social dynamite.”

Considering the demographic bulge—the fact that these young people represent a disproportionate percentage of the total population in a country where the population has increased by almost 50 percent in only 20 years (twice the world average)--and considering the state of education, the economy, and the opportunity structure (there is little good to say about any of these), David Steven, a fellow at the Center for International Cooperation at NYU, said that though there might be social and economic change that would alter this unhealthy dynamic, it is more likely that “the other route will lead to a nightmare that would unfold over 20 to 30 years.” (My emphasis.)

We are talking about youth where only one in five have permanent full-time jobs, where half confessed that they do not have the skills needed to enter the workforce (assuming there is work for them), and one in four indicated that they could neither read nor write.

Trust in government is virtually nonexistent and thus most say that they assign their loyalty and identity to religion. Fully 75 percent see themselves as Muslims rather than Pakistanis. Not surprisingly, only a third polled saw democracy as the best system for them, about as many called for Islamic law (shariah) for their country, while another 7 percent advocated dictatorship as their preferred form of government.

All this in a country that by the most conservative estimates already has at least 50 nuclear weapons in its arsenal and the means to deliver them to distant targets.

It of course is appropriate to be concerned about North Korea and Iran, but my nightmare scenarios all center on Pakistan. Thus, like what he says or not, there will be huge implications for us tonight when President Obama announces his plans for this dangerous region.