Friday, July 30, 2010

July 30, 2010--Long Weekend

I will return to this spot on Monday.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

July 29, 2010--162 Republicans Can't Be Right . . .

. . . While 102 Democrats can't be wrong.

That's how many Republican members of the House of Representatives crossed party lines the other day to vote for the $59 billion Obama needs for his surge in Afghanistan. While 102 Democrats resisted their president to vote a resounding "no." (See linked New York Times article.)

These same 162 GOPers who voted in partisan lockstep for more than a year and a half against literally everything that Obama proposed from the economic stimulus plan to health care reform to financial reform to extending unemployment benefits finally found something of Obama's to love.

To quote John McCain from another time on another but related subject, these Congressmen voted to bomb, bomb, bomb Afghanistan and the border region with Pakistan. All to take out the remaining 50 or so Al Qaeda fighters.

Thus far, if you've been counting, we've spent slightly more than $1.0 trillion there and in Iraq. Now add the new $59 billion to that.

All this for Afghanistan and Pakistan where it would appear from recently released documents, which the Obama administration first tried to squelch and then after they were published claimed "there's nothing new" in them, that things on the ground and politically in the region are going horribly wrong.

Our erstwhile ally, Pakistan, we now can see from these War Logs, is torn by an internal struggle where its vaunted and powerful intelligence service is not only corrupt but provides direct aid to the Taliban, redeploying to them the bribe money we are paying to the Pakistan government to keep them nominally on our side.

Perhaps, I am hoping, among the 102 Democrats who voted against continuing this tragic folly or among Democrat members of the Senate who also want to end the madness, maybe there is someone like a Gene McCarthy who will step forward soon to challenge Barack Obama for the 2012 nomination.

I voted for Obama with considerable enthusiasm. Here clearly was a very smart guy who knew his history, who seemed to have his self-esteem in check, and who would work smart to repair the economy, take care of some long-deferred domestic business (like expanding health care), and above all get us out of the ruinous Bush wars.

Yes, there is a sheaf of half-compromised legislation on the good side of his ledger; but his team does not have the chops to effectively manage these initiatives nor respond to the daily grind of real and political crises. In fact, his administration has the bad habit of frequently shooting itself in its foot. Most recent cases in point, the lame response to the Gulf oil disaster and the clumsy "firing" of Department of Agriculture employee, Shirley Sherrod.

And now the $59 billion tripling-down in Afghanistan. The graveyard of empires.

"Change I can believe in" to me now is beginning to mean someone other than Barack Obama as president.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

July 28, 2010--Midcoast: Return of the Monarchs

We do not have to look at the calendar to know that August is fast approaching. Yes, the sun is well into its annual journey south, setting across John's Bay each day a degree or two closer to Christmas Cove from its northern-most terminus, the Miles Tower and that signals the last full month of summer. And there is a chill in the air announcing the end of each day as they inexorably shorten. But the surest sign of August is the appearance of the first Monarchs. The most familiar and majestic of North American butterflies.

I was in the garden yesterday morning preparing the ground for a new bayberry when the first Monarch of the season fluttered into view. Wobbly on its new wings, clearly having recently emerged from its chrysalis. Unlike last summer when I did not know that they begin to appear at this time each year and within a few days literally millions of them will assemble in preparation for there immense journey, their migration south where they winter. Monarchs indeed, I have come to realize, as they are large by butterfly standards (with a 4 inch wingspan) and like any other self-respecting monarch they rule a vast realm.

Again, as last year, I watched as my companion haltingly circled the garden in search of the thistle flowers upon which it feeds, tasting their nectar as it stores energy before taking off on a 3,000 mile trip to its winter mating grounds in northwestern Mexico.

I wondered again yesterday what incredible power is possessed by these creatures to ever contemplate such an adventure on such a grand scale on such unsteady wings. A migration that takes them from here in Maine to Mexico, all of which gets accomplished during the two brief months of their lives.

I have learned that the Monarch is the only butterfly that migrates, as birds do, both north and south, on a regular basis. But no single individual makes the entire round trip. Along the route back north each spring female monarchs deposit eggs for the next generation.

Their winter home is in Mexico and consists, amazingly, of only 14 scant acres. And they find their way back and forth without anything approaching a brain the size of migratory birds.

How do they get the job done? What secrets are hidden in the rudimentary ganglia that constitute all the neurological capacity they have to funnel their way to Texas, between the ridges of Mexico’s Transvolcanic Mountains, and then locate that tiny Michoacan grove?

Though we have much knowledge about the inner workings of the atom and the “creation” of the universe, though we may have landed men on the moon and perfected Smart Bombs, about how the Monarch butterflies do their thing, though this has been and continues to be carefully studied, we as yet do not know. It remains one of nature’s enduring mysteries.

Theories abound—some say they have the olfactory capacity to smell the remains of Monarchs that died along the way the previous year—sort of a charnel pathway—but that is controversial since butterfly bodies do not contain the “odiferous fatty acids” that would be required to smell last year's carcasses.

Others claim that they find their way like birds by orienting themselves to the stars, by utilizing the earth’s magnetic field, or by following familiar landmarks on the ground. But this too is disputed since they do not have the brains of birds.

So it must be that they are guided by sunlight, of course, by the direction of the sun as it moves through the angles of the seasons. This is the best theory thus far since Monarchs appear to set out on their migration when the sun in their latitude drops to about 57 degrees above the southern horizon.

Right about now. As the folks across the bay in Christmas Cove know as the sun drops on top of them this time of year.

One thing is clear. With just those very few neurons, well before homo sapiens in the 1700s developed the capacity to measure longitude, the lowly Monarch had that ability. We should have asked them how to do it.

There is a nice coda to this story—because of global warming (that is not the nice part) the season for wildflowers is shifting. This has dangerous implications for the Monarchs since as they travel, like the rest of us, they need to stop on route for nourishment—in their case by pausing to grab some thistle or milkweed. But thanks to development there are less and less of these around, friends of the Monarchs have recruited people along the flight path to plant milkweed patches. Thus far, more than 1,000 have—in private gardens, schoolyards, city parks, and even golf courses.

So as I was about to hack away yesterday at the encroaching thorny thistles, I thought again and let them stand for another season. I suspect I will do the same again next year.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

July 27, 2010--Perchance to Tweet

I'm old fashioned and have always thought that half the reason to get married was so that you could sleep together. Not euphemistically where "sleep together" means having sex, but literally sleeping together. Though, to my generation, to have sex represented the other half of why we got married.

But now I'm hearing that a growing number of the coolest people, who are of course having sex all the time without the benefit of marriage vows, now that they are married, for whatever reason that might be, are sleeping in either separate beds or more commonly in separate bedrooms. Not because they can't stand each other anymore or because one partner snores louder than the New York City subway but because they want to stay up half the night texting and twittering and checking out their Facebook page.

According to a recent article in the New York Times (linked below):

Nearly one in four American couples sleep in separate bedrooms or beds, the National Sleep Foundation reported in a 2005 survey. Recent studies in England and Japan have found similar results. And the National Association of Home Builders says it expects 60 percent of custom homes to have dual master bedrooms by 2015.

In the past, one reason to sleep separately was to practice a form of birth control--after having a dozen children enough was enough and the only sure method of contraception was a form of separate-bedroom abstinence. Nowadays, in addition to wanting to stay up all night to tweet, couples report that they sleep apart because one has restless-leg syndrome (again in the past who knew about such things?); or one partner is addicted to ESPN's SportsCenter ( I think we know which partner that is likely to be) and thus has the TV blasting so he can get the late night baseball scores from the west coast; or one spouse has to get up early for yoga (I think we know which spouse that is likely to be); or the Misses, who can blame her, prefers having their pooch to cuddly with than her ice-cold-footed husband.

Not surprisingly, with this phenomenon growing, there is a cottage industry emerging among pop-psychologists who are writing books and showing up on Oprah to help couples deal with the problem of, forgive me, co-sleeping.

One, professor of psychiatry Paul Rosenblatt of the University of Minnesota, interviewed 42 couple and published his findings in Two In A Bed, a book devoted to co-sleeping. He found that sleeping together is better for one's sex life (as in real estate, it's all about location, location, location); it makes co-sleepers feel more secure (though his finding that this is especially true for women seems overly gendered to me); and that sleeping together is good for one's health--if you have a seizure in the middle of the night and you are in your own separate bedroom, your chances for survival are greatly diminished. It's hard to train your dog to dial 911.

Others getting in on the act have devised and marketed versions of nine-step programs to help separate-sleepers overcome their issues.

Here from the paper of record are three of the steps:

1-Declutter the bed. Feng shui masters say that adjusting the environs around a bed can bring couples closer. . . To improve harmony, Steven Post, a feng shui consultant in San Francisco, recommends wrapping the legs of your bed in red (the color of romance and prosperity) or draping a red cloth over the line that separates the two box springs under a king mattress.

2-Sanctify it. Sleep specialists say that those who pray before they go to bed are more likely to get a good night’s sleep. Dr. Meir Kryger, [just such a specialist at Gaylord Hospital in Connecticut], says any ritual will do, including meditating, reading a poem or keeping a journal.

3-Choreograph it. Dr. Rosenblatt found that most couples sleep best when they face away from each other, the better to avoid flexing knees and “that little gush of bad breath.” Map out a strategy, he said, and adjust it frequently. “Sleeping together is an achievement.”

So, brushing my teeth when I get up 10 times a night to go to the bathroom sounds like a good idea, though I do like the red-wrapped bed legs. Maybe I'll give that a try.

Monday, July 26, 2010

July 26, 2010--The U.S.: 12th Among 36 Developed Nations

I have a friend here who owns a company that manufactures very sophisticated, high-tolorence manways. From their Website these are--

In-Swing and Out-Swing watertight doors that offer safe, dependable quick-opening access into steel, concrete and poly storage or processing tanks.

Our primary product, the Quick-Opening Hidden-Hinged Manway, provides immediate access for personnel and equipment into OSHA Permit-Required Confined Spaces such as tile-lined chests, steel tanks and processing vessels.

They are doing quite well and recently moved to hire a few more workers. Over coffee the other morning John told me what they are finding. I assumed, considering the locally very depressed economy, that many would apply for these well-paying positions and that he would thus have an easy time finding well-qualified applicants.

"We're looking to hire younger people so we can train them in our ways and they'll be able to stay with us for many years."

"That sounds smart," I said. "How's it going?"

"Not very well," he said. "More than half are not even minimally qualified. Among other things, we ask them to show us that they can use a tape-measure."

"A tape-measure? The ones you get in a hardware store?"

"Indeed, those. I ask them to show me 5 and 7/8ths"

"To measure something that long?"

"Yes. But, as I said, at least half can't. They can show me 5 but when it comes to fractions they have no idea what to do. And I'm not taking liberal-arts-type people."

Later in the day I read a disturbing report in the New York Times (linked below) about a study by the College Board about college degree attainment in the United States. Though until not very long ago the U.S. lead the world in the number of 25- to 34-year-olds with college degrees, now we rank only 12th among the 36 so-called developed nations.

Canada leads the world with about 56 percent of its young having at least an associate's degree while here the completion rate is just 40 percent. To give you an idea of how we are doing in comaprison to other countries, in second place is Korea (I assume South) and after that, in 3rd place, is Russia, of all places. Just below us, and rising fast, are Denmark, Sweden, and Spain. So we now embarrassedly find ourselves, the country that first articulated the notion of expanding access to higher education for all and invented the community college, we find ourselves now situated between Russia and Spain.

I say this not because I am jingoistically upset that we are lagging in winning gold medals at the Olympics, but because the future viability for developed countries is very much dependent on having a well-educated population. Yes, there are the Bill Gateses who drop out of college and whose brilliance and entrepreneurship is all they need to eventually build companies such as Microsoft and Google that employ thousands and fuel the national economy. But for the employees they require and for 21st century forms of business formation appropriate for the United States as well as to supply the needs of the professions, we need many more, much better educated young people. We, though, are heading in the wrong direction.

Of course, as the College Board points out in its full study, which is worth looking at, the problem does not primarily reside with the colleges. They share the blame in that they continue to do a woeful job of providing remediation for those who enter needing it and their student services and counseling in general are less than adequate; but the real failure occurs at the K-12 level, where more and more students are studying in dysfunctional schools. If you enter high school years behind in reading and don't know what 7/8ths is, you have almost no chance of doing well and completing even an associate's degree.

This is our biggest national challenge. More important than expanding health care, reducing our carbon footprint, and chasing after the Taliban. All important to do, but they should not be our top priority.

And though the Bush and Obama administrations put a spotlight on the crisis, the money that has been deployed, the ideas that have been pressed, what has been required, and what has been accomplished is inadequate to the task. The resistance to systemic change, largely led by local anti-government interests and the powerful teachers unions, have reduced the effort to a pittance of what is required to get the job done.

Rather than sending more troops to South Korea and seeing if we can out-macho North Korea we should get over there and see what they are doing in their schools and colleges. We have a lot to learn from countries we helped defend and which are now outcompeting us.

Friday, July 23, 2010

July 23, 2010--Day Off

For chores and mental refreshment. I will be back Monday morning.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

July 22, 2010--Turning A Molehill Into A Mountain

How is it that the Obama administration has once again managed to shoot itself in its own political foot? This time over the firing and then turnabout rehiring of an obscure bureaucrat in, of all places, the Georgia rural development office of the Department of Agriculture.

As all the hysterical media and now the more sober New York Times are reporting (linked below), the flap happened when a conservative blogger, Andrew Breithart, got his hands on a videotape of a talk given by Shirley Sherrod, an African-American woman, who described how how she discriminated against a white farmer who came to her for help and how she didn't, in her words, "give him the full force of what I could do."

Doesn't sound very good, does it? Well, this lack-of-full-force incident occurred 24 years ago when Ms. Sherrod was working, not for the government but for a non-profit. But even so, this sort of prejudice is not something to dismiss by saying "That was then and this is now."

In fact, when the head of the N.A.A.C.P., Benjamin Jealous, heard about this and saw the two-and-a-half-minute video clip--by then it had gone viral and was being shown on Fox News every half hour as evidence of racial prejudice in the Obama administration--he called for her ouster. In response, Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack , promptly asked her to resign.

She was outraged, claiming that what was circulating in right wing circles was taken out of context.

Where have we heard that before? Everywhere, whenever someone famous or in high office gets caught in a compromising situation--from Mel Gibson to the Reverend Jim Haggard to Senator Larry Craig--they always claim they were quoted out of context. And it almost always turns out, when the quoted comments are seen in full context, that what they had to say or did pretty much turns out to be as bad or worse than the selected quotes.

In Ms. Sherrod's case though, the context shows that after the seemingly-racist part about not giving the white farmer all the help she could, in her speech she went on to say that she learned from that experience that people, starting with her, need to do all they can to overcome prejudice. Pretty commendable.

When he subsequently saw a video of the entire speech, Mr. Jealous asked that she not be fired and claimed that the N.A.A.C.P, had been "snookered" into believing Ms. Sherrod had been "handicapped by bias." As a sidebar, I hope that Mr. jealous also learned something from this sad incident. Before leaping to conclusions about anything being trumpeted by conservatives out to embarrass and undermine the Obama administration, do a little homework. Have someone watch the entire tape before popping off in front of the TV cameras. Also, to be snookered means to have been taken advantage of. In this case, the N.A.A.C.P. brought this on themselves by going off half-cocked. Rather than blaming others taking a little responsibility is also not a bad thing.

But then, other than the bloggers and Fox News who knew exactly what they were doing, the Obama people also come away from this looking inept. They should know by now that the Right takes particular pleasure in playing the race card, citing mainly bogus incidents to show that Obama is a black militant and hates white people, with, of course, the possible exception of half his family.

Most recently they have been ranting that he and his Attorney General have been pandering to the likes of the New Black Panther Party; so when the Sherrod incident surfaced shouldn't Secretary Vilsack's antenna have been on high alert, considering the racially-charged subject matter and, more suspiciously, the source of all the outrage? Isn't there someone in his office who does homework for him? It seems not.

And then what about the White House itself? In addition to alerting his cabinet secretaries and all other political appointees to keep a close eye on this kind of Tea Party-style race baiting, Obama and his close-in people should be keeping eyes wide open for these kinds of scurrilous situations; and before overreacting, someone with a dedicated agenda to protect the president from incendiary racial attacks, should do all the background work necessary to make sure that anything they do that includes a racial component is extra-carefully considered and vetted.

Since the White House didn't do this in regard to the Shirley Sherrod incident, over-eager to demonstrate that they are not anti white, they tripped all over themselves in a public rush to get her to resign. But then, when someone on Obama's staff finally saw the text of her entire speech, they reversed course and are seeking to have her stay in her job.

It's bad enough that there are these racist forces at work to tear down Obama and his administration, it's another thing, through ineptness, to keep supplying them with ammunition.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

July 21, 2010--Pakistan: Tax Heaven

Tax heaven, tax haven, take your pick.

But if you hate paying taxes, New Hampshire is not your only option. Up there, though they have no state or sales taxes, you still have to pay federal taxes. On the other hand, if you want a place where only 2 percent of the population pay any taxes at all, Pakistan is the place for you. Read the linked New York Times article and weep.

Do you hear that Rand Paul, Sarah Palin, Mitch McConnell, and John Boehner? This should be paradise for you and the other GOPers who were holding the extension of unemployment benefits hostage in an attempt to pressure Democrats into not repealing George W. Bush's tax breaks for our top 2 percent. The GOP's real constituency.

Pakistan does have a modest sales tax which is the government's primary source of income; but, since this kind of tax is notoriously regressive, it means that in Pakistan the working poor subsidize the opulent life style of the rich.

The system there is additionally rigged. Most of Pakistan's wealth comes from agriculture--more than half the population work in that sector and almost all of the richest Pakistanis derive the bulk of their income from farming. All well and good, but no aspect of the agricultural industry pays any taxes whatsoever.

Members of the local governments and the national Parliament consist disproportionately of the major land owners who in turn make sure that no legislation gets passed that would tax any sources of their income or wealth. Almost all members of Parliament are mega-millionaires and act accordingly.

Riyaz Hussain Naqvi, who worked in tax collection for 38 years says, “This is a system of the elite, by the elite, and for the elite. It is a skewed system in which the poor man subsidizes the rich man.”

And things are not made better by the U.S.'s role in subsidizing the Pakistani military and domestic economy. Hillary Clinton, who was in Pakistan earlier this week, while there announced an additional half billion dollars of nonmilitary aid on top of the billions we send there each year as an incentive (read bribe) to get reluctant government leaders to deploy troops to the Pakistan-Afghanistan border region where most Al Qaeda fighters have sanctuary.

I am being only half facetious when I suggest that this kind of effectively taxless economy is the policy dream of our Republicans. Ask Rand Paul, ask Congressman Boehner or Senator Mitch McConnell how to get our economy growing again and they to a man will say cut taxes. Ask them what to do about the budget deficit and they will again say cut taxes. This in spite of the trillions added to our deficit because of the Reagan and Bush tax cuts.

Maybe if we could get subsidies and foreign aid from somewhere we could make this work, but this is not happening. What we do is borrow money from China to send to places like Pakistan. Pakistan, on the other hand, gets its subsidies for free. Come to think of it, maybe they've got something figured out.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

July 20, 2010--Tiger & Equus

Unknown South African golfer Louis Oosthuizen won the British Open on Sunday. Tiger Woods tied for 23rd place, 13 strokes behind.

What’s going on here? Woods has won three of these and Oosthuizen before Sunday never won anything, even as a journeyman on the European tour.

We know what’s going on: Tiger is still struggling with his game after being outed as a serial adulterer. Even if his scores on the golf links since returning to the game a few months ago are not what we had grown used to from Tiger, his scores off the course have been noteworthy. How many cocktail waitresses and porn stars have thus far come forward escorted to the microphone and TV cameras by Gloria Allred? 25? 30? Which would be a great score for a front nine.

I am coming to suspect that what we are seeing now is not a temporary aberration. We may be witnessing the New Tiger. The Tiger is who is just a middle-of-the pack PGAer because he has had to give up his sexual escapades. Being the Bad Tiger in private may have been what he needed to provide the fuel for the Good Tiger who we saw winning major after major and making TV commercial after commercial.

This made me think of Peter Shaffer’s 1973 play Equus. Based on a true story, it centers on an adolescent, Alan Strang, 17, who winds up in a psychiatric hospital after having gouged out the eyes of six horses. A gruesome crime the result of a torturous aberration. The psychiatrist, Martin Dysart, sets out to “cure” him, to “adjust’ him to a normal life; but as he sees progress in his patient, he begins to wonder if being adjusted is in the best interest of young Alan because, as he works with him, he sees how Alan’s violent actions are at the heart of his passion for life and his ability to connect worshipfully with the supernatural.

He doubts the value of treating him since he will simply return to a normal, dull life that lacks passion. Dysart feels that Alan Strang's crime was of course extreme but suggests that just such extremity is what was needed for Alan to break free from the chains of his otherwise mundane existence.

Perhaps Tiger Woods’ “treatment,” his seeming adjustment to a more normal way of living has dampened the spark, the raging fire, the inner anger, and maybe the creative self-loathing that might have been driving him both on and off the golf course. And perhaps within him these conflicting forces are connected, as with Alan Strang.

Psychobabble? Perhaps. But in the meantime Tiger hasn’t won anything since his participation in a so-called “recovery” program.

He was a tiger, after all (not his given name—his father anointed him with it) and now he seems more like a domestic cat. Perhaps he will be, or even is “happier,” but the experience of acknowledging his problems and seeking the means to overcome them may also have neutered him.

Monday, July 19, 2010

July 19, 2010--Midcoast: Septic 101

We were returning home from a day of chores and as we pulled into the driveway Rona said, "Do you hear that?"

I of course said no. My hearing is by now so deteriorated that unless there's an explosion or the TV is turned up to full volume I am often reduced to saying, "Huh? What?"

"I hear what sounds like a smoke alarm. I think from the shed. But,” she noted, “we don't have a smoke alarm there."

"Though we do have," I said, still not hearing anything, "the new septic tank alarm rigged up in there."

"The what alarm?"

"The one for the septic tank. You know, before we bought this place they installed a new septic tank, the old one was failing, and the codes require that these systems have alarms."

"To alert you to what?" Rona was getting out of the car quickly and heading toward the shed. I was trailing well behind.

"I'm afraid to the fact that the tank is almost full and needs to be pumped out."

"Full?" Rona wheeled toward me, "It's not supposed to need pumping for at least a year. Isn't that what the contractor told you?"

Her mentioning you, meaning me, and her accusatory tone will give you a glimpse of our recent septic tank conversations.

About all matters having to do with the project I, not Rona, had been the one to deal with the previous owners and the contractor. I, not Rona, had been the repository of all information about progress. I, not Rona, had participated in the decision-making along the way to alter the original plan (to replace the entire system) and just add a new containment tank, agreeing with the septic installer that two tanks were better than one. And, most germane to the other day, I, not Rona, had heard his promise that the tanks, plural, would not need to be pumped monthly as they had been last year when we were just renters and had just the one tank.

Rona did not need to say another word to reveal her exasperation as she resumed striding toward the shed and pulling at the lock and latch to get the doors open as quickly as possible. And, hearing challenged as I am, the doors did not need to swing more than half open for even me to hear the portentous wail of the alarm.

"How much does it cost to pump them out?" Rona said, shifting the subject from my responsibility for the problem to the presumably exorbitant cost of its solution.

"I don't know," I muttered, "I don't think that much. But how do we know we'll need to do that? The contractor told me . . ."

"Told you, not me. And since you have a habit of hearing what you want to hear, I'm expecting it will need to be pumped. And every month. We've only been here that long and it's already filled."

"They," I corrected her. "We have two tanks and . . ."

"And, nothing. How do we even know if they put in a second tank? Did we verify that when we did the walk-through before the closing?" We hadn't. Not in truth knowing, assuming we had remembered to do so, what to look for.

"Maybe it's a false alarm," I said hopefully but not expected it would turn out to be.

"Maybe, nothing. I'm sure they're full. The two of them. Do you know how the alarm works?" I had to admit that I didn't. "It cost all this money for a new system and a fancy alarm and . . ."

"Remember, they paid for it. The owners. It was part of the negotiations and . . . “

“That much is true, but as we discussed, it affected the purchase price. We wound up paying for it indirectly by, I’m sure, having to agree to a higher price.”

At the time we had in fact discussed all of this. Actually, we had argued about it. It was the one thing we disagreed about after otherwise falling in love with the cottage and the area and the people we had been meeting.

Bringing us back to the present, Rona said, “But, again, do you know how the alarm works? What to do when it goes off? As it now is. What a hideous sound it makes. Our neighbors are already probably calling 911 to complain.”

“The code requires the alarm," I said. "That much at I know."

"And of course you didn't ask anyone involved in the installation to show you how it works." I had to admit that I hadn't. "So please go inside now and call the contractor and septic people to ask them what we're supposed to do."

Which I did. Or at least I left a message for them. By then Rona had followed me into the house and was already on the Internet looking up septic tank alarms. She read from one Website--"When the alarm goes off this means that the septic tank is at least 90 percent filled. Call your septic system contractor and have him come to pump the system immediately. While waiting for him, refrain from doing laundry . . ."

"We were not planning on doing the wash," I said sheepishly.

"Do not," Rona continued without missing a beat, "do not shower or bathe . . ."

"I wasn't planning to do that until later."

"And, above all, do not flush the toilet since a full septic system is prone to backing up and . . . Do I have to keep reading?" I shook my head. "So if you have to go, go in the woods." I nodded.

Within half an hour, Dave ____, of the eponymous C_____ Septic was on the scene with his truck. A Rube Goldberg contraption that filled the entire road. It included a huge tank for the drained waste and hundreds of feet of coiled hose, which I assumed was to connect the septic system to the truck's storage tank. While he calmly approached us, with Rona and I studiously not talking or facing each other, he left the truck’s engine idling and the pump running so that both in tandem throbbed so severely that I could see the doors of the shed trembling on their hinges.

“So what seems to be the trouble?”

“As you can hear,” I said, “the septic alarm went off and . . .”

“And, from what I read on the Internet, since he doesn’t know anything about either the tank or the alarm,” Rona meant me, “I suspect it’s at least 90 percent full and needs to be pumped out immediately or, as I read, it will back up and when we flush the toilet it will . . .”

Mr. C_____ chucked at that thought. “Yeah, I’ve heard it all and I’ve seen it all. That included. What you just said about flushing and backing up. But, but, hear me now,” he had picked up our agitation and that Rona and I, how shall I put it, we’re not communicating very well, at most it’s 90 percent full and you could do quite a few more flushes before you have a mess on your hands. You’ve got two pretty big tanks down there,” he tapped his foot on the two hatches just visible below the lawn’s surface, “and they can hold a lot more than you think. In fact, if it wasn’t for that big rain we had the other day this one here—which is a real septic tank—would be leeching out its contents pretty good. And you wouldn’t even be needing’ this other one here, which is a containment tank.”

We both looked at him in ways that must have indicated we didn’t understand what he was describing. “I don’t know the difference between these two different types of tanks,” Rona confessed. Standing well behind her I nodded. “You did say we have two types?” He nodded. “One a septic and one a containment type?”

“That’s right.”

“And . . . ?”

Thus encouraged, Mr. C_____ spent the next half hour offering a detailed explanation of how septic tanks work; how they both fill up and empty themselves into a leech field; how a containment tank works—in our case it is set up to handle overflows from the septic tank when we are using an inordinate amount of water or the leech field is saturated, as it has been, from heavy rain; and again in our case how the two tanks are connected.

“I now understand our system and how it works,” Rona said. “If only he had asked the contractor when the new tanks were installed we wouldn’t now be wasting your time.” She shot me a look.

“No trouble at all. Everyone needs a lesson about how these work. I call it Septic 101,” he grinned at Rona. “You are new to these parts, to owning a home here rather than renting, so you need to know how all your systems work because they all need some tending.” I was worried, from this that Rona, as frustrated as she was by the situation and me, would want to call the real estate broker and put the cottage up for sale.

But, she said, “I do want to learn. I love it here. I love this house. It’s just that I want to take good care of it.” I breathed a sigh of relief since I have the same feelings. “Now, what do you think needs to be done?”

“First thing I’ve got to get these hatches off and take a look. It’s my thought that you didn’t have a false alarm,” Rona glared at me again as if to say I told you so, “but rather that when they installed it they rigged the alarm up improperly. There’s no reason you should be having to pump out these babies so soon.”

“How often should we have to?” Rona again looked at me accusingly.

“’Bout once a year at the most.”

“Really” Rona said. Hearing confirmed what I had been told it was my turn to shoot her a look of I-told-you-so.

He had the lids off in just a few minutes and was peering down into the tanks themselves. “See here how there is this overflow pipe in the septic tank?” We had both moved closer and were looking over his shoulder—Rona into the septic tank, me into the containment tank. We were still estranged, as this would suggest. “You can see in this tank over here that the waste liquid is about half a foot below it, but then see how the alarm, this here thing which hangs down above the fluid, is about touching it. That’s what’s settin’ off the alarm. It should have been placed higher. If it had been there’d be no alarm, no need to be calling me out—though I do like getting to know you people—and more ‘en anything else you wouldn’t be fighting around with each other on such a beautiful day.” We were that obvious.

He stood up to take in the view across Johns Bay. “Mighty pretty back here. I can see why you wanted to spend more time here. I don’t get a chance to do much of that these days. Need to work two jobs. This one and driving a school bus, which I do because I like the kids and they provide health insurance. The town I mean. I couldn’t afford it myself just from emptying septic tanks. Had some cancer five years ago—doing very well, thanks—but would cost me a fortune now to have to pay for it myself. So if I were you kids,” I in fact must be at least 10 years older than he—“if I were you, I’d calm down, let me fix the alarm, which won’t take but another minute, and then get out of your way so you can get yourself something to drink and then go sit down there by the water. It’s shapin’ up to be quite a sunset.”

He stooped down to work on the alarm wire in the septic tank. Following his good advice, Rona and I were now standing side-by-side, both looking into the tank in which he was working.

“I’m just about through here,” he said turning to look at us. Though still bending into the tank he was smiling broadly. “But just one more thing, which could have many meanings.”

“We’re all ears,” Rona said, now also smiling.

“In this business shit happens fast.”

With that he roared with laughter and so did we. And it did turn out to be a magnificent sunset.

Friday, July 16, 2010

July 16, 2010--Typed Out

I need a break and so I will return Monday with a Midcoast story about septic tank agita--"In This Business Sh**t Happens Fast."

Thursday, July 15, 2010

July 15, 2010--Back to Iraq

Remind me again why we invaded Iraq and thus far have seen sacrificed 4730 American troops?

Because of weapon of mass destruction? We didn't find any of these and thus, assuming that was a valid reason to invade, after not finding any, we could have said so and brought our troops home after just a few months.

Then we said we were there to fight al Qaeda. But, again, we didn't find any al Qaeda operatives there and thus, after discovering that, we could have said so and brought our young people home. Also after only a few months.

Then, as I recall, we said we were there to overthrow Saddam Hussein, a brutal dictator, and that we would, after we toppled him, which took just a few days, remain there to rebuild the country we had destroyed in the process and stay to oversee the establishment of an at least seemingly democratic government.

Assuming it made sense for a western, predominately Christian country to nation-build in that Islamic region, how, after nearly eight years of invading and occupying that benighted country, is that working out?

There were, we recall, those remakable elections where the people who voted emerged from the polling booths with their index fingers painted with indelible purple ink. Broadly smiling. It felt as if, perhaps, it was working out after all.

But now that we are in the process of withrawing our troops (according to the linked story from the New York Times we are down to 70,000 from a high of 165,000) and after the most recent election, the one that was supposed to launch a post-American coalition government that would lead a democratic Iraq into the future, four months after the results of the election were known, how are things going?

It would appear not very well.

The new Parliament, with the members elected still deadlocked over who to name as prime minister, has met just once, a month ago, and the session lasted only 18 minutes. And the situation shows no signs of resolution.

So Iraq remains leaderless, we continue to withdraw our troops (there will be 50,00 on the ground there by the end of next month), and conditions for Iraqis remain abysmal. After all our efforts to rebuilt and the expenditure of unimaginable hundreds of billions of dollars, in most parts of Baghdad, where midday temperatures routinely reach 110 degrees, electricity is available just two hours a day.

Not a pretty picture.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

July 14, 2010--Teach For . . .?

It started with noble intentions--to encourage graduates of elite colleges to think as much about teaching in inner-city schools as securing big jobs on Wall Street.

Twenty years ago Teach for America was the inspiration and devotion of a then recent Princeton graduate, Wendy Kopp. She captured the imagination and idealism of a generation of the best and brightest young Americans who wanted to make a difference. Not just money.

She recruited fellow Ivy grads to get a summer's worth of teacher training and then go to work in some of America's most dysfunctional schools. Her guiding assumption was, and is, that these schools need the skills and devotion of people such as her. Without explicitly criticizing the vast majority of public school teachers who do not come from such privileged backgrounds, the unspoken implication was that a major reason these schools were failing their students was that current teachers were not up to the task of getting the job done. And if Wendy could entice enough of her colleagues to go through just five weeks of teacher training they would, by definition, be more effective than the "typical" teacher who studied education and its methods for years.

Yes, there was a hint of bravado or even arrogance in this, but if she and her recruits were right it would be worth taking the criticism.

And from much evidence Teach for America seems to be working out. Yes, it's teachers represent just 0.2 percent of all of America's teachers, but if they are doing better, much better than their conventionally-prepared peers maybe their success would begin to have a systemic impact. That things would cascadingly improve and improve. Our kids deserve nothing less.

From a dorm-room startup, over these 20 years TFA has become a virtual institution with an annual budget of more than $185 million and a teacher corps of about 10,000. And now, rather than having to run around looking for grads to sign up who are willing to make a commitment to serve for at least two years, TFA is so oversubscribed that, according to the article linked below from the New York Times, it is more difficult to get accepted into Teach for America than Harvard Law School. This year 46,2300 applied to Teach for America for only 4,500 positions. An acceptance rate of less 10 percent.

Some are wondering what's going on. Why are so many graduates of our top college graduates this eager to join TFA? Besides a desire to serve, it is obviously also because of the dampened economy. On many of our "best" colleges campuses, at Yale and Dartmouth and Duke, among many others, Teach "hired" more students than any other employer. More even than Goldman Sachs.

And there is another reason so many are seeking to be accepted by TFA--it has become an increasingly valuable experience to list on a budding resume when leaving teaching (as the vast majority do) and applying to graduate or professional school or returning to the more traditional job market.

Also attractive, while riding out the recession, with TFA helping its participants get teaching jobs in big-city schools, they get full teaching salaries from the districts that employ them. In Dallas, as one example, beginning teachers earn $45,000, the same a recent graduate would make at an entry level public relations job, assuming in this economy one can find one.

But then there is the mixed news about Teach for America's effectiveness. How best to measure that?

If it is a program to get high-achieving college grads to have exposure to teaching at-risk children, it is obviously a major success. If it is to engage as many well-intentioned rich people and foundations as possible in funding education projects, it is obviously a remarkably successful. But if it is to recruit and retain teachers, it is not so successful. Data indicate that of TFA teachers in New York City, fully 85 percent leave by the fourth year. And if TFA success is to be defined by their teachers being measurably more effective with students, studies indicate that TFA teachers do about as well as traditionally-trained and selected faculty members.

So one remains to wonder why there is so much fuss and attention paid to Teach for America. Many much more successful education reform programs exist well out of public site and envy TFA's ability to attract front-page attention and money.

If I were cynical I would say Teach for America is in the long tradition of noblesse obige, where those blessed to be more fortunate reach out a helping hand to those they see to be in need. And then leave while things remain much the same.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

July 13, 2010--Alvin M. Greene For Senator

If I lived in South Carolina, for sure I'd be voting for Alvin M. Greene. While everyone understandably has been concentrating on the race for governor because the shoe-in candidate is Republican Nikki Haley, who won the primary and down there whoever wins that wins in a walk in November, under the radar, he won the Democratic Party Senate nomination.

She is a big story for at least three reasons--first because she's a she. No woman has ever been elected governor in that very conservative, very macho state. Second, because she is a woman of color and no man or woman of color has ever had a real chance to become governor. She is a second-generation Sikh Indian-American and in South Carolina this can be a very big problem, though in her case it apparently isn't. Good for the white folks in SC. And three, though the governor she will be replacing is the infamous Mark Stanford, who fell into disgrace while alleged hiking on the Appalachian Trail while in fact he was knoodling with his mistress in Argentina, though you would expect his successor would have to be squeaky clean, presumptive-governor Haley will come into office already seemingly having had at least two adulterous affairs--one with conservative blogger Will Folks and the other with local lobbyist Larry Marchant. South Carolina is clearly an equal opportunity state when it comes to philandering. Again, good for old Palmetto State.

So get used to Governor Haley, who will become an instant star on Fox News and probably be promoted by them to be ready to run for the presidency no later than this December.

Turn your attention, therefore, to Alvin M. Greene, the incredibly surprising winner of the Democratic Party primary in June, securing 100,000 votes, about 59 percent of all Democrats who voted.

His win is incredible for at least a dozen reasons. Let me list just a few--

He's black.

He's unemployed.

He was discharged from the Army under mysterious circumstances.

Until recently he didn't have a Website.

No one knows how he managed to put together the $10,440 required candidate's filing fee.

And he is currently being prosecuted for allegedly showing pornography to a teenage girl.

And if you think he may have won the primary because of his strength on the issues, how about his views on what to do to stimulate the economy? He proposes that South Carolina invest in making toys of him. Yes, toys of him that can be sold during the holidays. The New York Times quotes him as suggesting they if they were to make them in SC and not China jobs will be created: "Little dolls," he says, "Of me. Like maybe little action dolls. Me in an Army uniform, Air Force uniform, and me in my suit."

Now that's a trickle-down stimulus plan his governor could get behind after rejecting money from Obama's.

Of course people are wondering how he managed to win the primary. Mainstream Democrats say that he was put up for office and funded by dirty-tricks-minded Republicans who thought that if he won the their boy would be certain to win in November. The less paranoid, perhaps knowing something about the mentality and capacities of many South Carolina voters, say he won because his name was listed first on the ballot. Voters weren't motivated or savvy enough to check box number two or three.

Mr. Greene, on the other hand, proudly says he was victorious because he "worked hard." Though there is little evidence that he did any campaigning at all.

I could go on joining in on the fun. But think about it for a minute, what would be wrong with having someone so genuinely grassroots or, as Obama would put it, "ordinary" elected to the Senate? Someone who is unemployed and probably has no job prospects at all. Someone who if in Congress might have the capacity to come up with some commonsensical new ideas, exhibits a genuine sense of play, and has already displayed a wry perspective on life and himself.

And someone who unabashedly sees being elected to the Senate as a good job with great pay and benefits.

Elective office, after all, is a government job with salaries and benefits paid for by the taxpayers. If elected he would be one less on the books collecting unemployment insurance and receiving food stamps. The more I think about this maybe all the current 535 congressmen and senators should leave office, live on the government dole, sorry, I mean collect their pensions; and with them out of the way let's put 535 of the unemployed in Congress. They too will probably manage to get very little done but at least we taxpayers will be getting a version of our money's worth.

Monday, July 12, 2010

July 12, 2010--Glenn Beck's Half-Truths & Big Lies

All I wanted was a cup of coffee and a biscuit so I sat at the counter instead of a booth. The place was crowded and I didn’t want to take up more space than needed.

Two stools to my left there was a beefy guy I had seen before but who wasn’t a regular. The seat between us was empty so we just nodded at each other more in acknowledgement than greeting.

Behind us, in one of the booths, we heard someone say, with irony, that she had seen on the Internet a report that Sarah Palin, in spite of her claims that she was a member of the NRA and an expert in “field-dressing a moose,” didn’t know how to use a gun.

Her companion chuckled but mine turned to them and with no irony, said, “Sarah Palin is a fine person. You should listen to her some time. She makes a lot of sense. More than our current president.”

“You’ve got to be kidding,” the women in the booth said.

“The real person the media should go after is Nancy Pelosi. She gets a free ride. Along with Obama she’s ruining this country. Turning it into socialism.”

The woman rolled her eyes and returned her attention to her pancakes. I on the other hand couldn’t restrain myself. Maybe it was all the coffee, maybe I had heard enough of this kind of stuff. “Nancy Pelosi has been vilified by Republicans,” I said as calmly as I could, “and this has been widely reported in all the media. They’ve tried to turn her into the Dragon Lady so they can bring down Obama and the rest of the Democrats.”

“Not a word on NBC, CBS, ABC, CNN, and of course that sewer of a network MSNBC. With those socialists Keith whatever-his-name-is and that Rachel horror show. And forget the newspapers. The New York Times is the worst of them all.”

“And where do you get your news and information?” I asked, as if I didn’t know.

“You ever listen to Glenn Beck? I’m sure you don’t. You don’t talk as if you do. You should pay attention some time to what he has to say. You’d find it very educational.”

“I do watch him occasionally just to see what he’s up to. I find in general that he either doesn’t know what he’s talking about or just plain makes things up.” He didn’t respond. He had a mouth full of hash. So I continued, “Give me an example or two of what I’m missing by not watching him. What I’m missing on CNN or when reading the Times. From what you’ve already said I think I know your opinions about a lot of things but I’m more interested in what you base them on. So give me a few facts, some evidence that would support your views and maybe we can go on from there.”

He put down his fork, swiveled slowly toward me, and glared menacingly. In truth, I felt physically intimated. Sensing that he shot me half a crooked smile.

“Fair enough,” he said. “First of all he’s a racist. Obama. Especially his Justice Department. That Eric Holder is the worst. You know about the so-called New Black Panthers?”

“A little bit. What’s your beef?”

“Well, Glenn Beck showed a video the other day—no other channel did, by the way—of these black racists threatening white people trying to vote. I’ll admit it looked like what some whites used to do.” This admission surprised me. I had him stereotyped. “But there’s no excuse for this kind of thing. White or black.”

“About this we agree. But go on.”

“The Obama people refuse to prosecute them, that’s my beef. This is a sheer violation of the law by that Holder. He’s told his people not to touch them. If it was the other way around they by now be bringing out the National Guard. This is racism pure and simple.”

“I admit I’m not fully up to speed about this and when I get home I’ll see what I can learn.”

“If you want to learn the truth you should watch Glenn Beck. You won’t get to the truth about things of this kind unless you do.”

“I think I’ll be able to find out about this without having to get it from the likes of him. There are plenty of sources that don’t have axes to grind. That are objective.

“Suit yourself,” he said with a snicker. “But while you’re at it, I have another one for you. Another example of what the regular media ignores. Something else for you to look up.”

“OK. I’m listening.”

“Did you hear about those 14 pilots from Afghanistan who got their flight training here in America and now no one knows where they are or what they’re up to?” I shook my head. “You’re from New York City, right? ”Sound familiar to you? Make you a little nervous?

“If true, maybe,” I said. “Tell me more.”

“Well, again if you listen to Glenn Beck who has the courage to tell the truth no matter who is affects, again you’d learn that these terrorists . . .”

“So, they’re already terrorists? I think if they were we’d already have heard lots about them.” The woman in the booth had finished and was nodding encouragingly.

“OK, they haven’t done their thing yet. But it’s irrefutable that they’re loose somewhere in America, plotting who-knows-what. And the worst thing of all is that the Obama people are ignoring them just like the Panthers.” With that he took a deep breath, sat back with his arms folded on his massive chest, and smiled smugly at me.

“You’ve got me again. I haven’t heard much of anything about this. But somehow I doubt it’s true. The Obama administration has been very aggressive in tracking down terrorists. Three more were just arrested in Norway, of all places, and Germany. And he’s the one who tripled the number of troops in Afghanistan, which I do not favor, and has greatly expanded the use of drones there to kill al Qaeda operatives. That doesn’t sound weak to me.”

He didn’t respond. He had turned back away from me and was staring into the bottom of his empty coffee mug.

“What do you have to say about that?” I needled him. “Your George Bush didn’t do any of these things. He had, what, 30,000 soldiers in Afghanistan and Obama’s tripling that. As I said, I don’t agree with some of this, but it’s totally unfair to imply or, as you said, that Obama’s soft on these things. He feels macho enough to me and maybe even for you.”

“He’s a socialist wimp pure and simple.”

And with that he paid his bill and turned to leave. The woman in the booth applauded softly. And, holding the door open, he looked back at me and mouthed, “Glenn Beck.”

I mouthed back at him, “New York Times.” Then I said, “Be sure to be back here one morning so I can tell you what I learn.”

With a snarl he said, “For sure.” And with that he let go of the door and it slammed shut.

Well, I did do my research. Searching around on the Internet it didn’t take long.

About the New Black Panthers. Yes, it does appear that there is video of them seemingly intimidating what appear to be white voters. From back in 2008, which is key because that was when George Bush was still president and it was his Justice Department that opted not to prosecute them for violating federal voting rights laws. But, during the Obama administration, under the alleged racist Eric Holder, some prosecutions have proceeded. The claims Glenn Beck and his Fox News colleagues have been promulgating ignores this and are based on unconfirmed accusations from a former low-level official from the Bush administration who has a long history of making inflammatory, but unproven, race-baiting statements.

Then, about the 17 (not 14) Afghan “pilots.” This time from a Fox News on-line report. When they went missing, they were in the country for English studies, not flight instruction. Again, this happened during the Bush administration, which did little to track them down since they were not thought to be dangerous. Most have now been found, most in the last year and a half during which Obama has been president. A few are still “missing.” But from the ones tracked down, and sent back home, officials learned that they are more illegal immigrants than a terrorist cell. They reported that they liked life in America and wanted to stay, find jobs, and hopefully some day become citizens!

Thus armed, I’ve been back to the diner every morning since, but there has been no sign of him. I’ve asked around, thinking I might have missed him. Everyone says he hasn’t been by. I am looking forward to running into him again and telling him what I learned.

I’ve also spent a little more time looking in on Glenn Beck. Pretty much everything he has had to say doesn’t stand up to even the most rudimentary fact checking. But everything, and this is part of his perverse brilliance and popularity, does include a kernel of truth. Like, yes, there were these 17 Afghans here, but not up to what Beck claimed; and the Panthers, yes, for a time were not being prosecuted, but that was during Bush’s time while more recently the Obama people have been keeping after them.

Half-truths are Beck’s and his ilk’s stock-in-trade. Which makes them even more dangerous because they provide these kinds of shibboleths with a patina of objectivity and legitimacy. And for those already inclined to believe the worst, even a quarter-truth appears to be enough.

But enough about this. It’s time to head over for coffee. Maybe . . .

Friday, July 09, 2010

July 9, 2010--Midcoast: Tag Sale (Concluded)

In Part One, I confessed my hitherto disdain for anything having to do with tag sales. Prior to this year it was impossible to drag me to one. Lots of musty books of no value or interest and too much pressed glass. But a friend who does well on eBay by selling items she "steals" at yard sales and the need to fill our new cottage by the bay with McCoy pottery and seascapes has softened my resistance, and for the last few weekends we have been getting up at dawn so we can be among the first on line to rummage though barns and garages in search of books of resale value and things such as walking sticks to collect and display in out new home.

So in Part Two, we continue to hunt for . . .

Though we were among the first to line up waiting for the sale to begin, it turned out to be a disappointment. The barn itself was charming and therefore suggested that it might contain some hidden treasures. Perhaps an old nautical chest or some locally-carved duck decoys (we had a budding collection of these), but it turned out to be filled primarily with woven baskets and boxes and boxes of pressed glass--something we are resisting the temptation to collect.

I whispered, “Let’s get out of here. I don’t see anything of interest. It’s still early and if we leave now, since the landscape artist’s tag sale is only five minutes from here, we can get there before it’s picked clean.”

There was no need for Rona to say anything. She too feels we have more than enough baskets and has thus far shown no interest in glass vases.

Our instinct had been right; it turned out to be a huge display entirely filling a two-car garage, the driveway, and a sprawling lawn. And it was no yet overrun by tag sale regulars. Happy to be free of the musty barn full of old bottles, we noted that the ranch-style house had a view of picturesque Round Pond which suggested that the artist who owned the house would only have to cross the road to have years of subject matter for his paintings. A nice seascape of the harbor or surrounding bay was just what we needed. There was a spot in our bedroom for something special that would complement the three local landscapes already in place.

“Let’s begin in the garage,” I suggested, “From what I can already see on the lawn there aren’t any paintings. Just lots of linens and cooking things. None of which we need.”

“And no teakettles,” Rona said. Like me she had done a quick perusal, an essential tagsaler’s skill.

“Most likely the paintings will be in the garage,” I said. “To protect them in case it rains.” I was already halfway up the driveway heading quickly toward the garage. Some of the other browsers looked spry and I wanted to be among the first to get a look of the artist’s work. The ad in the paper indicated there would be dozens to consider.

Dozens, it turned out, was an understatement. There must have been at least two hundred. Good, I thought, years of work to sort through. Surely there would be a few for us. The ad had said he was a “prominent” local artist and so how hard would it be to discover two or three that would be perfect for our budding bedroom mini-collection? Enough for us to try to make a deal. We had by then learned one could get things at the best prices by buying in bulk, making a single offer for everything we wanted. An offer of $50 cash for five hickory walking sticks had worked well three weekends ago. The seller had held out for $60 but threw in a sixth cane at no extra cost.

The paintings were mostly watercolors, which would be fine, stacked in batches of twenty or so in large leatherette portfolios that lined the walls of the garage. But flipping through the pictures, like at the barn earlier, also turned out to be a disappointment. Yes, there were a few landscapes, including some of the harbor across the road, but none were in any way noteworthy much less distinguished. It was clear after going through just half of the first portfolio that these were less the work of an artist than a weekend hobbyist. All well and good, especially if they had a naïve, untutored look, but these were not of that sort and therefore not something we wanted for our bedroom. Or even the guest room.

The bitchy part of me wondered what he meant when he advertised himself as a “prominent” artist. Maybe among his friends. But this is the nature of tag sales and advertising. When it comes to them you have to be skeptical, patient, and lucky. I was learning fast.

Almost all the pictures were unimaginative garden scenes and still lives, mainly of cut flowers in ceramic vases. But about one of them Rona said pointing, “I like the looks of that.”

“Really?” I said. It was early and Rona was still working on her first cup of coffee. Perhaps not yet fully alert.

“Not the painting, silly, but the vase. I bet you’ll find it out on one of he tables on the lawn. If they’re selling it, it might be something we’d want.”

So while Rona flipped through a couple of more portfolios I drifted out to the driveway and worked my way down toward the road. No vases were in sight but there was a battered colander for sale for $1.50 that I put aside thinking Rona might feel it was both a good price and cottagey. I even had a place in mind where we could display it in our country kitchen.

And then there among a stack of old-fashioned but not collectable aluminum pots was the vase. From other tag sales where I a couple of times had to fight off other bargain hunters also interested in an unusual and thus desirable walking stick, knowing there was likely only one vase of this kind for sale and not wanting to take the chance of being too slow afoot and miss out on snatching it, I instinctually lunged toward it though that turned out to be unnecessary since there was no one else nearby.

Except a middle-aged women who was obviously a member of the family that had put so many of their things on display. “That’s a nice piece, don’t you think?”

Typically I hate it when the people doing the selling try to engage me in conversation. I like to do my nosing around unattended. Chitchat takes up valuable time when things are selling fast and breaks my concentration. To spot those prized graduation albums or an overlooked Audubon print among the dross requires all my senses to be on high alert. So I ignored her though I grunted something to indicate I had heard her, was not being impolite, and to signal that I did not want to be interrupted in my rummaging. Also, I had by then been trained not to show too much enthusiasm for anything we were serious about buying—Rona says it gets in the way of striking the best deal. Indifference is the best pose to adopt and, in truth, feigned aloofness is my preferred style of browsing.

I continued to drift around nonchalantly but was headed back up to the garage to check to see if the vase was the one in the painting. Nothing else was of interest and I could see even at a distance that Rona as well had come to the same conclusion. The vase was marked $10 and I wondered, if Rona liked it, what we should offer. I probably would say $5 (I am a rather timid bargainer) whereas Rona would probably try to get it for $3.

“That was my mother’s favorite.” It was the woman again, ample as she was now fully blocking the path to the garage. “She must of painted it at least twenty times.” So her mother was the “artist.” “Mainly with flowers she cut from right over there.” She was pointing to a lush perennial border that wrapped around the front of the house. “In the vase, I mean. Though if you went through all the pictures you’ll see sometimes she painted just the vase itself. On that table over there with that blue runner on it, which by the way is also for sale. And did I mention that the table is as well. Pretty much everything you see is. For sale, I mean.” She turned to take in the full expanse of the many tables lining the driveway and filling the lawn on which hundreds of household goods were piled.

Unable to break away and not wanting to seem rude, I too took it all in and said as little as felt appropriate, “It does look pretty much like everything.”

“We have her over at the Cove.”

“The what?” I asked.

“In town. It’s the nursing home. Poor thing.”

“She’s . . .?”

“That’s right. She has that Alzheimer’s. Doesn’t even recognize no more. My husband and me and the children. Her grandchildren. Though we get there most every day. Just sit next to her and hold her hand and tell her what’s happened back at home.”

“My, my,” I said. I saw Rona, who was ready to leave, waving at me. I pretended not to notice and remained standing there clutching the vase.

“They say she can’t hear nothing so why bother talkin’ with her like we do? But I say you can’t be sure about those kinds of things. So we visit every day and bring her the news. She especially loves her grandchildren so I feel for sure that she likes hearing about what they’re doing for the summer and their plans for next year. My youngest is getting ready to go to college.” She smiled broadly at me and I nodded back at her. “She, my mother I mean, never had much schooling herself, but as you can see from her art that she was, I should say is a very refined person.”

“It’s so sad.” I signaled to Rona, who was waving at me again, this time more urgently, that I would be with her in a few minutes. I noticed that the fog was finally lifting from Round Pound and I thought wouldn’t that be a lovely scene to paint, but caught myself almost suggesting it.

“But we know she’s happy. It’s hard on us, her family, but she is in a peaceful place.”

“I know.”

“And if that weren’t enough there’s also my father.”

“He’s . . .?

“Got the same thing, if you can believe it.”

“And he’s . . .?”

“No, not at the Cove. We can’t afford to have them both there. He’s at another place, almost as nice, up in Rockland.”

“That must be . . .”

“It is. Real difficult to work in the visits. My husband and I alternate. One day I go to see my mom and the next day my dad. He does the reverse. So one of us gets to see them every day.”

“That sounds . . .?”

“Everything you imagine it to be. And then some. ‘Cause we still have one of our children living with us. My youngest, as I said. We live up near Damariscotta. This here’s my parent’s house. Need to sell it too. All their things,” she again turned to survey the yard, “and the house as well.”

“At this time . . .”

“Indeed. More bad timing. But it costs quite a sum to keep them in the Cove and the Knox Center. That’s the place up in Rockland. Take a guess. What do you think they get by the month?”

“I wouldn’t know, but I’m sure it’s . . .”

“And then some. The Cove costs us $9,000 a month and Knox almost another $8,000. How much is that a year?” She was doing the calculations on her fingers.

“That’s about $200,000 a year,” I said incredulously.

“I think $200,000 to be precise. Plus the medications. It’s amazing how quick you get to that donut hole.”

“I know about that from my . . .”

“But we’re happy to be able to do it. Pete, my husband, has a pretty good pension coming from the telephone company and I have a steady job working the kitchen at the school up the road.”

“But . . .”

“All it means is that we’ll have to put off retiring for a few extra years. But everything the kids earn this summer they’re wanting to put toward their grandparents’ care. Though I’m making them save half of it. We’ll manage on our own, Pete and me. I want them to have a bank account of their own for college. That’s the way it should be. And what their grandparents would want if they had the ability to tell them.”

With Rona now heading toward me I told her we wanted the vase and quickly handed her $10.

“Thanks so much,” she said, “Every little bit helps.”

I thanked her and tried to find words to express my admiration for her and her family and to add something that might in a very small way ease her burden. But nothing that felt right came to me.

Sensing this, before I could formulate any words, smiling radiantly she said, “Now don’t you worry about us. We’re fine. Doing what we want and what God intends.”

I looked around again at a whole life crammed into that garage and spread out on the driveway and lawn.

And, later in the day, after I told Rona about them, we came back to buy the watercolor of the flowers and the vase.

Thursday, July 08, 2010

July 8, 2010--Midcoast: Tag Sale (Part One)

Until settling in up here, there was no possible way to drag me to a tag sale. They always seemed so déclassé. Lots of Mason jars and crusty bottles exhumed from abandoned dumps. Old eyeglass frames and gnarly tobacco pipes. Boxes of books which one might think provoked at least some interest in me; but all I ever saw, as I disdainfully passed them by on those occasions when we were weekending in the Hamptons or upstate New York were battered paperback John Grisham novels.

But then two things happened. First, we have a number of eBayer friends who have been haunting yard sales for years looking for and occasionally finding something for a dollar or two that they somehow manage to resell on line for many times that.

One friend, Melody, specializes in unusual books. Not rare books such as a first edition of To Kill A Mockingbird that’s worth thousands and which, in two lifetimes, you might be able to “steal” from an unsuspecting seller; but things like old high school graduation albums, which appear to be unusually desirable or, better, an album that includes a famous person such as a Jerry Seinfeld. These can go for a couple of hundred bucks. People will buy anything.

So now, with time not pressing, I have been known to rummage through a box of books at a yard sale in the hope of discovering something I can pass along to Melody that she can sell for a fortune and cut me in for a share in the profit. Thus far, though, I have been unable to find a copy of Barbra Streisand’s Erasmus Hall High School graduation album.

Then, we bought this place. A charming 1930’s vintage cottage right on Johns Bay; and although all the casual chic furniture (read used), dishes, pictures, and knickknacks were included in the purchase price, in the process of “making it our own” we are heavily into figuring out what to keep as we explore the many nooks and crannies we keep discovering and disposing of the rest. We think that over time we will wind up replacing at least half of all the otherwise wonderful things we “inherited,” and Rona is already trying to get me to agree to set up a couple of tables on the road and have a tag sale of our own. This I am not yet ready for.

And Rona contends, since as we edit out we need to replace, tag sales are places we should frequent as we hunt for serving pieces, pictures, table runners, walking sticks . . .

But, I say, “I don’t need a walking stick. Much less many. I don’t have a limp.”

“Not yet,” she says without irony. “We have a perfect place for at least a half dozen—in an old copper thing right by the roadside door. They would be perfect there. And of course we need teakettles. We should be collecting them. There are some nice ones in the cottage already and we should keep our eye out for more.”

More? Teakettles?” I ask, emphasizing the pluralness, “You know I don’t drink tea.”

“Again, don’t you get it, these are not teakettles for making tea; these are teakettles for collecting. We need at least a dozen for it to qualify as a collection. We need all varieties and vintages.”

“Why would that be?” I naively ask, “Aren’t three, maybe four enough?”

“Three or four is not a collection.”

When I stare blankly at her, she adds with a hint of superiority, “Don’t you know anything about cottages?” Of course I don’t, except that they require a lot of maintenance. “Every book I’ve ever read about cottages says that if you own one you have to collect things. Like jugs, which I know you hate, McCoy pottery, door stops, ship models, which I know you love, and teakettles.”

So each weekend we have been seeking out yard and barn sales. Looking for stuff around which to build a collection.

We quickly came to know that if you want the choicest pickings you have to get there early. So on Saturday mornings we get up at dawn, which this far north is at about 4:30 am, and stumble toward the one that from the ad in the local paper seems most promising. To steer us away from pressed glass and jugs and toward walking sticks and teakettles, on Friday’s we deconstruct the text of the ads, looking especially for words like “collectables” or “estate pieces,” and plan accordingly.

Two weeks ago the barn sale we staked out as most promising turned out to be. No teakettles but a couple of decent Audubon prints to add to our growing collecting of bird drawings and paintings ($25 each); an old cranberry-gatherer’s basket that showed signs of lots of use which suggests that it must be at least 100 years old and thus qualifies as a genuine “antique” ($35)—we are using it to hold our bathroom magazine collection; and a nicely carved bobwhite—again appealing to our bird fetish (a real steal at only $5).

A very good start to the tag sale season. And so this past weekend, thus energized and with me no longer demurring or disdainful and now totally obsessed with getting to as many barns and lawns as possible on a given Saturday, we rose again at dawn ready to pounce on a barn sale that advertised that the offerings included “genuine Maine antiques” and a second one, a more conventional tag sale, but showed promise since the ad for it indicated that it was at the home of a “well-regarded Pemaquid landscape artist.”

Without any prompting from Rona, I said, “That one also sounds good. I prefer barn sales but maybe at this tag sale we might be able to find some coastal landscapes. We could use a few of those.”

“Do you mean a few or a collection?” Rona offered with an affectionate wink. I nodded as we downed second cups of coffee to get our blood flowing.

To be continued . . .

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

July 7, 2010--Cribbing

Even cheating on exams has gone ultra high-tech. If thus inclined, in my day we would try to sneak a peek at some smart kid's answer sheet or, if there were no smart kids in our class, we'd write the Pythagorean Theorem with a ballpoint pen on the palm of our hand. If along the way we experienced brain lock we'd have a2 + b2 = c2 ready at literal hand.

Now, according to an article in the New York Times (linked below) desperate studntes are doing things such as chewing gum to disguise speaking into a hands-free cell phone while trying to get a friend to phone in answers; or using a camera hidden in a pen to photograph the computer screen of a neighbor test taker, also to be wirelessly sent out to a confederate or to digitalize and then copy onto the cheater's own screen.

Faced with these new forms of perverse cleverness, to deter cheating, schools are forbidding gum chewing during exams (proctors roam the room to confiscate any illegal Juicy Fruit); computers used for test taking are recessed in desk tops so as to make it difficult for miscreants to read or photograph their buddies' work; and, lower-tech, kids are forbidden to wear caps with brims turned forward since the underpart of the brim is an ideal place to write crib notes.

High schools and colleges are making a big investment to stop cheating on exams and plagiarizing term papers. Early on in the development of the Internet, realizing that one could make almost as much hustling school essays as from on-line pornography, Web entrepreneurs were so clever at their craft that they were able to stay many steps ahead of faculty and school administrators in selling papers and take-home finals.

But then school officials struck back. They turned to other Websites and anti-cheating services to help stamp out the problem. The best of these is the cleverly named which helps with the plagiarism plague. Its database, in effect a giant search engine, is now used by 9,500 high schools and colleges. It can compare something a student has allegedly written with billions and billions of archived Web pages to see if he has copied something from the Internet.

And a big problem it is--at least 60 percent of undergraduates confess to having cheated on assignments and exams.

I'm sure that Turnitin does an excellent job, but students continue to try to outsmart it. And it appears quite a few succeed. My favorite scam, not easily detectable by high-tech surveillance (some institutions are even videotaping students taking exams and then review the tapes to see if anyone can be seen cheating) is the one pulled off by the well-tattooed student who wrote notes all over his arms, blending them in with his tatts--a2 + b2 = c2?

I can't help but wonder how school officials figured that one out.

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

July 6, 2010--With Cousins

Everyone had finished their entrées and while waiting for the waitress to bring out the birthday cake, those of us gathered to celebrate my mother’s 102nd birthday swapped seats so that we could better catch up with each other. It had been some time since the extended family had gathered in this way. Not since the year before.

Young cousins who had been down at the other end of the table moved closer to me to make it easier to talk quietly. One had traveled to Florida from the west coast and was telling us about his son who had just completed his junior year in college. Another of the cousins had recently taken a new job and was feeling optimistic, in spite of the economic hard times, about making a go of it.

Just the sorts of things one wanted to hear on this remarkable occasion—the family matriarch doing so well at such an advanced age while the next generations were successfully making their way in the world.

The conversation at my end of the long table shifted from the personal to the larger world. Both cousins have had considerable experience working for some of the world’s largest technology firms. I asked how things were. I had read that one where the west-coast cousin was working had announced further layoffs.

“Someone there said,” he said, “that producing unemployment is now our core business. And I am only half joking. It’s pretty awful. I’m still OK but it’s hard to be in an environment where so many of your colleagues are facing dismissal and little likelihood of any time soon being hired somewhere else.”

“I can only imagine,” I said, “but I am glad to know you’re feeling reasonably secure. What’s happening? I mean more broadly. Are there any signs of the economy freshening?”

My other cousin said, “Down here in Florida things are even worse. Everything derives from real estate. If that is slumping, and things now are much worse than just slumping, everything suffers. Even in the high-tech sector. In my last job of that kind every day more and more cubicles were empty.”

“I don’t have your experience to draw from,” I said, “but I do know about education and it seems to me that unless we do a better job of educating the next generation, our country will be relegated to second-class status.”

“That’s necessary but insufficient,” my west-coast cousin said, and my other cousin nodded in agreement. “I know you’ve heard it a million times by now, but I have to tell you that all this outsourcing is killing us.”

“But,” I asked, “aren’t the Microsofts and IBMs outsourcing their high-end development work because they can’t find enough Americans who are capable of doing this kind of innovative work? Didn’t I read somewhere that whereas in the past the vast majority of patents issues were to Americans, now the percentages are shifting more to Asian countries?”

“I’m not sure about that but what I do know is that if the CEO of my company can save five cents by farming a job out to India he’ll do it in a nano-second. He’s a numbers guy, not an innovator or entrepreneur type and to him it’s all about the bottom line. And this is slowly killing the company. This is not a sound long-term strategy for a business of this kind nor is a philosophy of buying up other innovative companies.”

“So, you’re telling me that it’s not a matter of there not any longer being enough well-educated, enterprising Americans? That it’s all about doing things cheaper?”

“That’s what I’m telling you.”

“And that’s also what I’m telling you,” my Florida cousin added.

“If my company feels we need to hire, say, software engineers, we don’t have to look for them in China or India. There are thousands who have been laid off the past few years right here in America who are desperate to find work. So, it’s not just about education. Though I’m sure we both agree that we also need to do better at that.”

And with that the cake arrived, ablaze with candles. My mother made a wish and, with no help needed, blew them all out.

A day later, back in New York, the lead story on the front page of the New York Times had the following headline—“Jobs Go Begging As Gap Is exposed In Worker Skills.” (Full article linked below.)

It was a story about manufacturing job—good, high-paying ones, not the kind that get farmed out to places such as Indonesia or Honduras. True, lower-end manufacturing jobs are all either overseas or headed there; but it also appears that there are a growing number of new kinds of manufacturing jobs in new industries such as the fabrication of wind turbines and advanced medical devices that companies see advantages to keeping here.

But they are having trouble finding people from the currently two million laid off factory workers capable of operating complex computerized machinery or following sophisticated blueprints or who have the level of math skills required to get the job done.

The CEO of BioEnterprise, a non-profit organization seeking to turn central Ohio into a center for medical innovation, said, “That’s where you’re seeing the pain point. The people who are out of work just don’t match the types of jobs that are here, open, and growing.”

As I would put it, they don’t have the education required for work in the only kind of 21st century manufacturing now viable in the United States.

I am sure my cousins are right about what they said. There is no contradiction there. But as many who understand these things claim, unless we in America also make things—not just provide services and create financial instruments of ultimately dubious value--our economy cannot thrive.

Monday, July 05, 2010

July 5, 2010--Celebrating

I will return on Tuesday. In the meantime, set off some firecrackers.

Friday, July 02, 2010

July 2, 2010--Grade Reform

In a society where "graduates" of preschools participate in elaborate ceremonies while wearing pink or blue caps and gowns and where on Wall Street, to assure profits, a Goldman Sachs cheats its own best clients, is it really any surprise that some of the nation's best law schools are inflating grades?

And I don't just mean by kiting grades of currently enrolled students, the widespread practice where no one any longer gets a C, but of former students.

To help their students survive in touch economic times, and at least as important to protect their own reputation by continuing to be able to claim that virtually all of their grads get jobs, esteemed law schools such as Loyola and Tulane and top-ten places such as Georgetown and my own New York University are adding 0.333 to every grade of every student current and of recent vintage. This is like turning all Bs into B+s. And I guess this means that anyone who managed to earn a perfect 4.0 on her or his own will now see their average puffed up to 4.333. Every student (and parent's) dream.

In case you haven't heard about this, this hyping practice was exposed recently by the New York Times. (Full article linked below.)

The places that do this not only try to get away with it--tricking law firms that might be interested in hiring one of their grads --but also have come up with a very impressive phrase to describe it: "grade reform." To the uninitiated this might even be confused with that rare practice at some decent schools to put pressure on professors to deflate grades. To bring them down and more into line with students' actual performance. Thus, calling the extra inflating of grades "grade reform" is the perfect subterfuge to complement the practice itself. Sort of like its cynical political version best described by George Bush's brain, Karl Rove, who called "reality" "whatever we say it is."

From the law schools' perspective, even more important than admitting the best possible students and providing them with a high quality education is the promise that its graduates will be hired at top-dollar by prestigious law firms.

A student of grade inflation (everything clearly gets studied), Professor Stuart Rojstaczer of Duke University, said, "If somebody's paying $150,000 for a law school degree, you don't want to call them a loser at the end. So you artificially call ever student a success." Like at Lake Woebegon "where all the children are above average."

While this is going on down in the ranks of law schools, a couple at the upper-upper end of the food chain have been moving in the opposite direction. Stanford and Yale and Harvard have eliminated grades altogether. They have instituted a pass/fail system where I assume everyone passes every course.

So what are potential employers to do? Though it may be enough to see that a jobseeker graduated from Harvard to call her in for an interview, at lesser places the Darwinian struggle among graduates these days has gotten fiercer. Most large firms are aware of what's going on and are thus looking beyond grades when considering who to consider. Things such as membership in law review or other forms of honor. So until everyone makes law review or receives honors (something already happening at quite a few institutions where almost all graduate cum laude) they may have figured out a good way to separate the academic wheat from the law school chaff.

This for some time has been especially difficult to do with graduates from another very top-ten law school--the University of Chicago. At the literal and spiritual home of Milton Friedman, where the unfettered, unregulated struggle to succeed reached its philosophical apotheosis, they have figured out a grading system so coded that it is impenetrable to even the most sophisticated law firms. The law school there grades students on a scale of 155 to 186, a system that try as they might employers are unable to correlate with the traditional 4.0 garding system.

So I suppose that even at free-market places such as Chicago, again as at Goldman, if normal forms of competition fail to work, cheat.

Thursday, July 01, 2010

July 1, 2010--Futbol

Like most Americans I have difficulties getting myself crazy about soccer. Including the currently happening World Cup.

Is it just because I didn't play it as a kid or listen to it on the radio back in the day and thereby do not have it's sounds and lore etched in my emotional memory? Or is it because, like most Americans, I find it hard to get into being enthusiastic about a game in which you are forbidden to use your hands; and, though you do use your head, it is more as a physical offensive and defensive weapon than because it contains your brain. Thus, in our lingo, "using your head" (or "noodle") means being smart and not, as with football, being adept at headers, redirecting the ball to a fellow player or, more significantly, toward the goal. Not that being smart is not essential to being a good soccer player. The best ones are very smart and very strategic.

More than anything, I think we don't get too excited about a sport in which there isn't a lot of scoring. Among all the current World Cup games that have been concluded a few have wound up, at the end of the alloted time for play, tied at 0-0, with no goals at all being scored. And most have concluded with fewer than five goals between both teams. 1-0 or 2-1 is not an uncommon final total.

And though in World Cup play, if the score at the end of regular and additional or overtime is still tied, there is a penalty-shot shoot-out system that allows for a way to break the tie. So there is a conclusion. Though a jerry-rigged one. At it's essence, and until recent years when TV became more important, in league play ties were not only possible but to aficionados often considered them an appropriate way to end a game. Both teams played too well to lose. Or too poorly to deserve to win.

Americans abhor ties. We demand clear conclusions. Though in the early days our version of football also used to be able to end in ties, since we require definitiveness, sudden death was instituted to resolve them. We have a need to see the world in winner-loser terms. Just as we do in our foreign policy and wars--we hate the idea of stalemates and quagmires, though we seem, since Vietnam, to have developed a propensity to get stuck in them.

We Americans, on the other hand, generally like our basketball games to be full of nonstop scoring and our baseball games to be slugfests. In fact, to assure more home runs (many fans' favorite baseball moments) teams have brought their ballpark fences in and juiced up the baseball to assure that it travels further when struck. Only old-fashioned baseball fans prefer pitchers' duels. And football too thrives best as high-scoring affairs. Only our so-called fourth "major" sport, ice hockey, remains low scoring, but how popular is it among the U.S. population? Not very. Case closed.

But while down in Florida for a week, the place where we gather for coffee in the morning, the Green Owl, is full of folks from other countries where soccer or futbol is their only national sport and World Cup fever, thus, is running high. I got a fascinating earful each day from Ron and especially Ernst about the matches from the day before and those upcoming.

I learned about the beauty of the game (especially Brazil's samba-style) and the cultural metaphors soccer expresses in countries other than the U.S. If baseball remains our most metaphoric game, with basketball and football in recent years supplying more metaphors, soccer around the world, importantly in countries where scarcity is the norm (low-scoring, you the see, reflects this) is the only game that yields so much cultural meaning.

For example, Ernst the other morning was telling me why the faulty refereeing that has plagued World Cup matches this year is so upsetting. Not only does disallowing a goal that was clearly scored or allowing one where players were obviously offside profoundly affect the score since one goal is frequently enough to win a game or shape it outcome, but it goes against the grain of life as it is lived in many places in the world.

When there is little and considerable struggle is required to sustain life, when one somehow manages a small measure of success, to have it taken away can have catastrophic consequences. Where there is plenty, as in America (and relatively there still is in spite of the nagging Recession and where for too many having little defines life), a basketball referee's missed call on a three-point shot (it should have been three points rather than the two the ref called) is most often rendered insignificant the next trip down the floor. Games that typically end 102-98 are usually not affected by bad calls. And even when there are a lot of them they tend to even out over the course of a game--both teams are equally affected. There is so much to spread around that bad calls are more a distraction than a devastation as they usually are in soccer.

And both low scoring and the possibility of things ending in a tie are also clear metaphors for countries such as Ghana and Paraguay, still alive in World Cup competition among football and comparative economic giants such as Spain, Germany, and of course Brazil. Getting something is better than nothing and often a tie means that. Though resources are meager and lmost everyone is effectively in the same boat, at least we have something to feel good about that is sustaining.

So I'm beginning to get it and can't wait to see Argentina face off against Germany and maybe, in the finals, for the Cup, Spain-Brazil.