Tuesday, August 31, 2010

August 31, 2010--The Reverend Glenn Beck

At last weekend's rally in Washington, at the foot of the Lincoln Memorial, on the 47th anniversary of Martin Luther King's "I Have A Dream" speech, Fox talk show host Glenn Beck rallied the faithful.

Literally the faithful. At least those faithful to his dogma of racist demagoguery. Recall, he's the one who pronounced Barack Obama the "most racist president in history."

He purports to be historically-minded. In fact, if you can stand watching him, part of most of his shows involves his idiosyncratic gloss on American history. Especially early American history where the eternal values and verities that still guide us were fought for and over. Claiming, as he does, that we must turn back to them.

On Saturday he called for a religious rebirth in America. “Something that is beyond man is happening,” he said. “America today begins to turn back to God.” He told the crowd that God himself had called him to this mission. (See New York Times article linked below.)

In case any of his people are reading this, allow me to quote a paragraph from The Radicalism of the American Revolution by Gordon S. Wood, who many consider the leading expert on the formation of the American republic.

Wood writes about some of our founders' religious views:

At the time of the Revolution most of the founding fathers had not put much emotional stock in religion, even when they were regular churchgoers. As enlightened gentlemen, they abhorred "that gloomy superstition disseminated by ignorant illiberal preachers" and looked forward to the day when the "phantom of darkness will be dispelled by the rays of science, and the bright charms of rising civilization." At best, most of the revolutionary gentry only passively believed in organized Christianity and, at worst, privately scorned and ridiculed it. Jefferson hated orthodox clergymen, and repeatedly denounced the "priestcraft" for having converted Christianity into "an engine for enslaving mankind. . . into a mere contrivance to filch wealth and power to themselves." . . . Even puritanical John Adams thought that the argument for Christ's divinity was an "awful blasphemy" in this new enlightened age. When Hamilton was asked why the members of the Philadelphia [Constitutional] Convention had not recognized God in the Constitution, he allegedly replied, speaking for many of his liberal colleagues, "We forgot." (Page 330)

George Washington, a somewhat regular churchgoer, never once in all his letters, speeches, and conversations--thousands of pages of document--not once did he mention Christ.

No matter what one thinks of this, it is indisputable what most of our founders thought and believed. Glenn Beck is entitled to anoint himself in any way he wishes (it is after all still a free country), but he should at least be held to account for his distortions of our noble history.

Monday, August 30, 2010

August 30, 2010--GOP Largess

He controls a hedge fund with $17 billion, with a b, in assets but still wants more. So he has taken to railing against Barack Obama's, to him, moves to "take over and run" the economy. All, he sees, threatening to "ruin the United States' standing as the world leader in finance." (See linked New York Times article.)

It is no wonder that he has become one of the leading bankrollers of all things Republican. He knows that if they return to the congressional majority later this year and retake the White House in 2012 things will be even better for him. He knows that the GOP's true constituency is the nation's top 1 percent of earners (who received more than 95 percent of the Bush tax cuts) and that Republicans have the uncanny ability to get many, many Americans of much more modest means to see it to be in their own best interest to get out and march and then vote for the likes of Daniel Coast in Indiana (for whom Singer raised $135,000); Dino Rossi in Washington State (also $135,000); John Boozman of Arkansas($134,000); Marco Rubio in Florida ($132,000); Pennsylvania's Pat Tooney ($131K); and Rob Portman of Ohio (just $120,000). All of whom, if they become senators, will vote to protect the privileges of that top 1 percent and slash programs that benefit the rest.

He is Paul Singer who has also thus far contributed nearly $2.0 million to the Republican Governors Association. Strategically a smart thing since congressional districts will be redrawn next year based on the 2010 census and the more GOP governors there are the more House seats will be turned into safe Republican ones through gerrymandering.

Singer knows what's in his best interest but he doesn't know much about American history. What little history he does know appears to have been taught to him by Glenn Beck, who now sees himself as a messianic leader and Martin Luther King's perverse successor.

What he doesn't know is that from the beginning of the republic active government involvement in all aspects of the economy have contributed mightily to the amassing of many American fortunes. Including his.

It was the early federal government that manipulated tariff policy to protect American manufacturers and thereby enabled 18th century entrepreneurs to begin to accumulate wealth. In the next century the federal government gave away public lands to railroad tycoons so that they could not only lay tracks but also own the land adjacent to the tracks that as a result of expanding rail lines became invaluable. There would be no Harrimans without this governmental largess.

When strikers threatened Andrew Carnegie's Homestead steel mills it was the government who dispatched and paid for troops and agents to break that strike and many strikers' heads. U.S. Steel had seen its profits rise 60% but only offered to raise workers' pay by less than half that amount. Seeing the "unfairness" of the situation the government decided Carnegie needed its largess.

Then the federal government built the interstate highway system which, at no cost to the trucking industry, has been an extraordinary taxpayer gift to it. Through many decades the government has served as funding partner to thousands of R&D projects that would have been beyond the capacity of companies to fund but the resulting profits went to the corporations and the taxpayers were never reimbursed for their generosity. The products and technologies derived from the federally-funded space program are a 20th century a case in point. Then since the American Revolution the highly profitable military-industrial complex has been an extraordinary public works program. And, closer to where Paul Singer lives, federal tax and regulatory policy has been a boon to the financial industry, especially to Singer's own business--hedge funds.

Without the stunning tax breaks and loopholes that have been specifically crafted to aid and abet hedge fund managers Singer would be no billionaire and would not have the cash he has to spread around or the platform from which to speak myopically about history and the American economy.

Fund managers are allowed to treat most of their compensation as capital gains, meaning they are taxed at only 15% rather than the 35% rate that applies to ordinary income such as wages and salaries, which fund managers' fees in truth are. They are the result of the work that they do (and thus wages), not the investments they make (which would count as capital gains).

Not a bad deal at all.

As a result of this largess, Singer and his colleagues should be great fans of big government.

Friday, August 27, 2010

August 27, 2010--Day Off

I will return on Monday.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

August 26, 2010--Playing God

Earlier this week, a federal judge appointed to the bench in 1987 by Ronald Reagan, who was already manifesting signs of Alzheimer's, halted Barack Obama's executive order that expanded the very kind of embryonic stem cell research that has shown signs of leading to treatments for the same illness that eventually claimed the life of the former president.

It was a technically-based decision as so many are that obscure what they are really about. Especially when the rulings are rooted more in religion and ideology than a strict interpretation of the Constitution. (See New York Times article linked below.)

Among others pressing the suit was the agency Nightlight Christian Adoptions whose executive director, Ron Stoddart, after the ruling said, "We do not want to see stem cell research that would destroy embryos. Embryos are preborn human life that should be protected and not destroyed." (My italics.)

This is complicated stuff. For example, issues of defining when life begins and, assuming a conservative religious perspective, what is appropriate for man ("man" here used advisedly) to do when it comes to matters of life and death. What are appropriate interventions at conception, during pregnancy, at birth, and then at the end of life. And, of course, all along the way.

There is scant little in the Bible about any of these matters and so it has been up to man to claim to know what the Bible means when it comes to modern science and medicine. And then to attribute it retrospectively to a literal reading of the Old and New Testaments. This exegetical sleight of hand is what fundamentalists routinely do.

If after conception, in a women's body or a Petri dish, even before there is an embryo but just a handful of differentiating cells, it is forbidden for man to in any way intervene in the process of the preborn becoming a fetus and then being born--in effect to not interfere with God's plan for this new soul--why is it subsequently permitted to interfere with a human's God-determined destiny by allowing medical treatment? There is no mention of diagnoses and medicines and surgeries in the Bible and yet, unless one is a Christian Scientist, these post-biblical procedures are routinely and unquestionably accepted.

I would have more respect for the Ron Stoddarts of the world if they would be as vigorous in attacking all of modern science and medicine as they are fervent about protecting the so-called rights of the pre- and unborn.

To me a fully literal interpretation of the Bible would require man to face the elements unaccomodated (as Shakespeare in Lear put it) and confront his destiny undiagnosed and unmedicated.

But then what would poor Ron do about his painful gallstones?

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

August 25, 2010--Velcro Parents

It is still a week or so until Labor Day, the traditional end of summer, but already things are getting quieter here on the coast of Maine where many families have been vacationing.

Especially noticeable is the thinning out of the wait staffs at restaurants in the area. They depend on college students during the summer and now clearly older crews are struggling to cover more tables.

Schools for students of all ages are starting their fall terms earlier and earlier. To extend the school year for youngsters in an effort to provide more instruction than in the past; and, in the case of colleges, to get the semester's work done by Christmas so that students do not have to return after the holidays to finish their classes and take their exams.

This means that they, frequently with the help of their parents, have to head off to campus in late August with SUVs loaded with the things college kids these days squeeze into their undersized dorm rooms. I am showing my age, but when I went to college there were no computers and printers, microwave oven, or stuffed animals. Just a bag or two of clothing.

But in addition to what undergraduates transport with them these days, they also, in more and more cases, bring their parents along with them. Not just to help with all the stuff but also to share the college-going experience.

As a result, an increasing number of colleges are concerned about what some refer to as "over-parenting." They are for the most part happy to see an increase in parental involvement--and in response many colleges have opened offices of Parents Affairs to manage and take advantage of this increased interest. But they are also concerned that things for some are getting out of hand. So many parents, they feel, are hovering too close and pressing for more involvement than colleges feel is good for their students that they are instituting practices to help parents and their children go through the adjustment required when a youngster enters college.

After all, they say, college is supposed to be a major step toward young people becoming independent. To help facilitate the letting-go, some colleges have added activities and even ceremonies to wean parents from over-involvement, especially during freshman orientation.

According to the New York Times (article linked below) Morehouse College in Atlanta now has a formal "Parting Ceremony." After introductory speeches attended by both students and parents at an off-campus chapel, freshman march through the gates of the campus which then are ceremonially closed with parents both literally and symbolically left outside. Difficult to be sure, but college officials feel it is necessary to help with the complicated transition.

At Grinnell, move-in day for freshmen was Saturday; and after duffel bags and iPods were dropped off at the dorms, students and parents were invited to the gymnasium where they were placed on opposite sets of bleachers. According to the vice president for student affairs this was designed to be "an aha! moment, an epiphany where parents realize. 'My student is feeling more comfortable sitting with 400 people they just met.'" And then, after that hoped-for epiphany, parents are encouraged to leave campus.

At the University of Minnesota the same goal is being pursued but a bit more subtly and gently. There, when students are finished moving into their dorm rooms, they proceed to orientation activities that are just for them (at many places some parents insist on accompanying their children to these) while parents are invited to a reception held elsewhere.

But in some dramatic instances, after the colleges have done their carefully-orchestrated thing, so-called Velcro parents manage to find ways to stay deeply involved with their children. Some go so far as to rent or buy apartments near where their kids are enrolled and travel there every weekend to remain close. As surprising as it may seem, many children of these parents seem to be happy with this arrangement, even bringing friends along to hang out with their parents and, of course, do their laundry.

School administrators and sociologists are struggling to figure out what is going on. Some say it's because adolescence is continuing longer than in the past--perhaps extending well into children's 20s. Others are saying that parents are living vicariously through their children and, in effect, going to college through them. It is also speculated that this is a class-based phenomenon--that it is only middle-class and affluent parents who can afford to do this and/or feel sufficiently comfortable on college campuses to spend so much time there with their children.

Whatever is going on, when I went to college I recall being dropped off on Manhattan's Amsterdam Avenue by my double-parking parents. I think they didn't even accompany me to my dorm room. I schlepped the bags up there myself. They were involved and loving parents and certainly had very mixed feelings about my going off to college, realizing how big a step it was for me and them. But they also knew that if I was to get the most from the experience I needed to do more of it on my own than many today appear to feel.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

August 24, 2010--Cheap Date

For years Americans have been urged to save more money. Up until recently we had one of the lowest savings rates among developed countries. In some years the rate has even been negative--we spent more per capita than we saved. In other words, we were going deeper and deeper into debt.

I know people who prematurely drained their 401 (k) retirement accounts--paying taxes and penalties to do so--so that they could take an extended once-in-a-lifetime vacation. I know others who are approaching their sixties, who have had good jobs, but have saved so little that they will have a difficult time maintaining their life style after they retire.

So now, as the result of the recession, with people pulling back from overspending, worried about the future, fearing that things are likely to get worse before they, if ever, get better, Americans are saving at near record-high levels. In June the savings rate hit 6.4 percent. At the height of the recession it was as high as 8.2 percent.

In addition to making some economists and government officials concerned that all this saving is curtailing consumption--the real engine that has been driving our economy since at least the end of World War II--it is now being reported that saving money isn't sexy!

Who wants to date someone, the New York Times reports, if he (and we're still retrogressively talking "he") is saving too much and not spending it on me? (Full article linked below.)

One would think that in these hard and unpredictable times finding a potential mate who is being careful about money and is thinking as much about the future as Saturday night would be attractive. But, no, from various sources we are learning that this is not the case. Being frugal for many is as unattractive as being out of shape or working for an insurance company.

The most disturbing evidence is from ING Direct, a company that would like to see you save as much as possible. Of course entrusting it to them. They surveyed 1,000 people, asking them which words would come to mind if someone was fixing them up on a blind date with someone who is described as being frugal. Maybe there was some problem with the word "frugal," perhaps it has negative connotations; but, be that as if may, 27 percent responded "stingy," 13 percent said "boring," and just 3.7 percent said "sexy."

Closer to the matter of meeting people, EHarmony, one of the most turned-to online dating sites, reported that when they ran the numbers on 30 million matches, 25 percent of both men and women were shown to be more likely to allow a potential mate "reach out" to them if they described themselves as a saver as opposed to a spender.

That then left the other 75 percent.

According to Pam Epstein, who wrote her PhD thesis on the history of meeting people through both print and Internet personnel ads and services such as EHarmony, that though in the past it was common for women to overtly say they were looking for men who could "support a wife comfortably," in large part because work and career opportunities did not then enable women to do as well financially, among the 75 percent who prefer spenders to savers, Dr, Epstein also says that if you look at the pictures men post on sites such as JDate, many of these guys show themselves posed in front of their cars or boats or stretched out in their Soho lofts.

Clearly frugality doesn't stand a chance when it comes to a Beemer or a house in the Hamptons.

Monday, August 23, 2010

August 23, 2010--Conspicuous Fishing

When I read about how some current yuppies are shelling out hundreds of thousands of dollars for in-home aquariums, it reminded me of my own childhood five-gallon guppy tank. (See New York Times story linked below.)

For me, an exotic idea was to drop a couple of angel fish in among the guppies only to see these more proletarian fish promptly bite off the graceful wing-like fins that were the reason they were called angel fish. So with little cash to maintain a fresh supply of angel fish, bettas, and neons to brighten up my otherwise pedestrian tank, and not yet aware of either class struggle or Darwinian theories about the survival of the fittest, which I could have otherwise witnessed in the literal flesh with my nose pressed against the algae-coated glass, I was left to take pleasure from observing the breeding habits of the redoubtably sexed-up guppies. About these matters I knew, even at a tender age. And I indeed did take pleasure.

But for denizens of multimillion dollar Tribeca lofts, having a colossal aquarium (as opposed to "fish tank") is the latest status symbol. When you already have your kid enrolled in an exclusive and expensive private school, when you've for years had a weekend house in the Hamptons, and your own tanning bed, what's left to show off with?

To quote a Manhattan interior designer with mega-aquarium experience, "They have a collection of cars, of motorcycles, of art, and they have three dogs. It's like, 'What else, what's the next thing to wow my friends?'"

In the case of Tribeca's unfortunately-named Wilzigs, it comes down to choosing the right color to light their 14 1/2 foot, 450-gallon tank to show off to their neighbors and equally status conscious friends.

Thanks to advances in fish-tank lighting technology and the ability of man to breed colorless tropical fish to better show off the 64 color choices the Wilzigs have (these genetically-altered fish are literally designed to turn pink or fuchsia or whatever the Wilzigs choose), they can put on quite a conspicuous display for those with whom they are in their own form of Darwinian struggle.

Mr. Wilzig is especially proud of this lighting system which he claims is as sophisticated as those used to light Broadway shows and rock concerts.

"The whole essence of the house was to be push-button color changing. The apotheosis [apotheosis!] of that was to take the fish themselves and have them be swimming in whatever color you want. . . . When you hit the button for red, all of a sudden it's like the surface of Mars--red fish swimming over a red planet. When you hit white, it's like the fish are swimming over an arctic ice flow."

That's what I call a Wow!

Friday, August 20, 2010

August 20, 2010--Feet to the Fire

“How do we hold his feet to the fire without bringing him down?” Rona was getting uneasy about all the criticism from the left of Barack Obama.

“You’ve too have been contributing to it,” she continued, turning her frustration on me. “Just last week you even took a shot at Michelle’s trip to Spain. Calling it what?”

“Tone deaf,” I said.

“My point exactly. That was necessary?”

“Well it is true. She should have realized that when people are struggling economically it’s not smart for her or the First Family to spend a fortune, including taxpayer money, on fancy vacations.”

“Of course you’re right, but with everything else going on this is what’s on your mind?”

“Well, I've also been calling into question the effectiveness of the stimulus program and of course his Iraq and especially his Afghanistan policies.”

“All fair enough.”

“So, what’s your problem?” I truly was not getting her point.

“We do need to keep after our elected officials to deliver on their promises and to do a better job, but this chorus of criticism of him is not only getting under the skin of his administration—about that I could care less—it's also undermining his political standing.”

“So we should keep quiet about these things because of concern that it will hurt him politically?”

“You and your blogosphere colleagues are helping to turn him a one-term president.”

“But a minute ago you were asking how to keep Obama’s feet to the fire. No?”

“Yes. But how do you do that with integrity and in a politically strategic way. Without doing him in. The Republicans are totally united in their campaign to oppose and sabotage him at every turn. You guys are adding fuel to that fire.”

“So what are we supposed to do? Ignore what he’s got going on in Afghanistan? Forgive me, but Obama tripled the number of troops Bush had there. We should just sit around and ignore that for fear that criticizing his policies will hurt his reelection chances?”

“Tell me, what you'd prefer," Rona pressed on, "an imperfect Obama or Mitt Romney as our next president? Or a Haley Barbour? Or, forgive me while I kill myself, Sarah Palin?”

“I get your point; but, again, what are we supposed to do?”

“I don’t know.”

Thursday, August 19, 2010

August 19, 2010--Nazis Again

You know that someone is on thin ice, desperate, or being demagogic when he trots out any Nazi analogy to make his case.

By doing so he reveals he has run of ideas or logic.

Nazis should only be mentioned when talking about real Nazis. The ones who caused the Second World War, perpetrated the Holocaust, and killed tens of millions of people. Not those who hold opinions with which you disagree.

So when disgraced former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich the other day lowered himself to compare what might be going on in downtown Manhattan regarding the planned Islamic cultural center and prayer space (as opposed to “mosque”), it was transparent even to legitimate Republican conservatives such as Joe Scarborough and Pat Buchanan that something was spinning out of control with Newt.

They speculated it might be ambition--to position himself to the right of everyone already scrambling for the Republican presidential nomination for 2012; or greed--to show he could be as outrageous as Rush Limbaugh and might thus be hired for big bucks on Fox News or for a radio talk show of his own. He is after all married to a third or fourth wife and has to pay alimony to the previous ones he egregiously abandoned.

From the New York Times, here's what Gingrich said:

“There is nothing surprising in the president’s continued pandering to radical Islam,” he said. “What he said last night is untrue and inaccurate. The fact is this is not about religious liberty.”

Mr. Gingrich said the proposed mosque would be a symbol of Muslim “triumphalism” and that building the mosque near the site of the Sept. 11 attacks “would be like putting a Nazi sign next to the Holocaust Museum.”

(Full article linked below.)

To show he's smarter than other GOPers such as Sarah Palin he used one of those fancy words du jour--"triumphalism"--and to show he's an alleged professor of history he evoked the Nazi era.

Scarborough and Buchanan are of course right. This previously-failed GOP presidential contender is not only giving it one last try before slinking further toward irrelevance; but even about the historical facts--something he used to pride himself about knowing--he is wrong.

The proposed mosque, which is not a mosque, is not at all about Islamic “triumphalism.” In fact, the lead person behind it is a moderate and envisions it as being a place for intercultural activities, not just things Islamic, including a small place for prayer.

And Moslems are far from being Nazis as Gingrich’s slimy quote suggests. Yes, there are too many who are engaged in a perverted form of jihad and want to bring down everything Western; but the vast, vast majority of Moslems, including virtually all the millions who live here and are American citizens, are more the victims of this form of fanaticism than we. Many, many more Muslims have been slaughtered by these terrorists than were murdered on 9/11.

Then, of course, self-proclaimed constitutional scholar Gingrich is conveniently ignoring his 1st Amendment which was enacted primarily to preserve and protect the rights of minorities in the United States to practice (or not practice) their religion against the potential dictates of the majority.

Exactly what we are seeing now—Gingrich and his under-the-rock colleagues are doing exactly what their revered Constitution set out to forbid: denying religious rights to those with whom they disagree.

That cherished 1st Amendment, as it pertains to religion, says—

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof...

The “establishment clause” portion was included to insure that governments here not be allowed to subsidize a state-sanctioned religion. Not a Church of England, as in England, or, as in the case of six U.S. states when the amendment was ratified, one form of Protestantism or another.

And then the so-called “free exercise” clause was intended to protect the rights of individuals to worship, or not worship, in any way they choose. Minority faiths above all were to be protected.

So I guess while Gingrich and his ilk are busy trying to repeal the 14th Amendment (the one that defines what it is to be a U.S. citizen—to deny citizenship to the children of non-citizen immigrants and residents) they probably should add repealing the 1st Amendment to their to-do list. Or minimally stipulate that we already have enough mosques in America, as has been claimed by some on the lunatic right.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

August 18, 2010--Midcoast: Volvos

It was a gray morning, and with the Bristol Diner closed, as it always is on Mondays, we drove over to the Seagull for coffee. It’s a bit of a joint—gift shop, restaurant, and a rickety counter at which you can get a quick cup, perhaps a homemade muffin, and schmooze about the weather—and though ramshackle has considerable charm, a great location right by the ocean and the Pemaquid lighthouse, and the food is quite good and fairly priced.

“We sure can use this rain,” an old-timer said, not looking up from his coffee. “If it keeps up this way for a few more hours it will do us a lot of good.”

“True,” I said. “We haven’t had any for, how long has it been now?”

“’Bout 16 days by my count. The last one we had was the first of the month. Everything‘s sort of parched.”

“Compared to last year, things have been real dry,” Rona recalled.

“True enough. One thing that makes no sense is . . .”

“The weather,” Rona said, completing his sentence.

“That too,” he said with a smile and a wink, though clearly not liking having his thought appropriated. “But don’t tell me about global warming.”

“We weren’t going to,” I said to assure him that things weren’t going to turn political so early in the morning.

Ignoring me, he said, “I know it’s going on and it isn’t any good, but not when it comes to the day-to-day.”

“I’m not sure you’re right about that,” I said in spite of knowing that I might be entering tender territory, “Just the other day I was reading in the Times that . . .”

Rona was poking me under the counter and so instead of hurtling forward I took a big gulp of coffee.

“Read that too he said,” surprising me. I wouldn’t have taken him for a New York Times reader. “They did make a case for that. That some of the weather we’ve been experiencing lately—the storm and floods and in other places the droughts—might be caused by that. But not that it hasn’t rained here, in how long has it been?” He smiled at Rona.

“I think 16 days,” I said, also smiling, relieved not to get myself all riled up so early in the morning.

“Quite something,” he said, nodding toward the window, “Where the sun is low in the sky is over Monhegan Island. Lots of artists made their way there. The Wyeths and Winslow Homer and even old Ed Hopper. Did I tell you I knew him?” We shook our heads. “Not all that well, but well enough to run him back and forth when I had my boat. I did some line fishing in my day. Lots of cod out there then. Pretty much all fished out by now. Sort of like what’s happenin’ with global warming when you think about it.”

“Sorry. I didn’t mean to,” I stammered.

“That’s OK,” he said. “You and I are pretty much on the same page about that.” And with that, with some difficulty, he lifted himself from the stool. “That arthritis gets me every time,” he chuckled, “But got to get going anyway. Too much to do to linger with you folks. Though I enjoyed talking with you. Have as nice a day as you can.” And with that he was gone.

“I like him,” Rona said. “A little cranky but that’s how I generally am before I’ve had my coffee.”

“I agree,” I said, “We’ve been running into so many people like him up here. Friendly, but they also keep a bit of a distance.”

“As I would,” Rona said, “If I was a ‘native,’ so to speak. They have a long history here of having mixed feelings about people like us. ‘Cottage people,’ is how they refer to us. They depend upon us for the money we bring to the local economy but see them, or truthfully us, as also not always respecting their way of life. Wanting to do things our way.”

“Too often insensitively. I was reading the other day that along the coast here in many towns, including ours, there are now more outsiders than local people. And that this is even changing some town governments. Seasonable people register to vote here and manage to get recent residents elected to town boards and things like that.”

“Which often means,” Rona said, “that they want to keep things the way they are—rural and rustic and ‘charming’—while some who have been here for generations want to see the economy modernize so their children can find good jobs and be able to buy houses and stay here rather than feeling they have to leave and go to Portland or out of state to find work. It’s complicated.”

“True enough. On the way here this morning I saw a car in the parking lot with a bumper sticker that said:

Save A Lobster
Boil A Tourist.

A little hostile but I guess it captures what some feel.” Rona nodded as she paid the check.

Back in the parking lot, based on our conversation about local people and outsiders, I said, “Let’s look at license plates to see who’s here.”

Even a quick survey revealed mainly Massachusetts, New York, and New Jersey cars.

“And look,” Rona said, “Look at the kinds of cars.”

I glanced around. “Mainly Subarus and Volvos and various kinds of SUVs and pickup trucks. But Subarus are clearly the vehicle of choice. Everyone seems to need, or want, four-wheel drive. It’s better in the snow.”

“How many of these people do you think are here in the winter? Who from New York is going to trek up here at that time? I’ll bet none. I think it’s an affectation.”

“An affectation?”

“Yeah, as a way of seeming intrepid. You know, ‘We have this place up in Maine and it’s so rural and remote and rugged that we need a 4WD to get up the road that leads to our place.’ I can just hear that.”

“Probably true. Look, even when we were looking for a car last year a Subaru was on my list of ones to consider. But then we reminded ourselves that we’ll never be here in the winter and though our cottage is on a dirt road we hardly need four-wheel drive.”

“So, what did we consider? Volvos of course. The other car of choice. And the one we finally bought, the Volkswagon.”

“Didn’t we agree at the time that we didn’t want to look like flatlanders? Folks from out of state? Or too yuppified? So that took Volvos off the list.”

“We even debated getting an American car. A Ford, which most of the locals drive.”

“But I said, we’re not locals and shouldn’t even think of trying to pass ourselves off as that. And I think American cars still have a ways to go before they’re as reliable as European or Japanese cars.”

“So we got the VW, which we love.”

Feeling good about ourselves we headed toward our Passat. “Look,” I said. “See how it’s getting all muddy. Talk about fitting in. Which cars here aren’t a mess? Interesting how when we’re other places we can’t wait to get it washed and detailed but up here the muddier the better.”

While I was opining about the virtues of mud, Rona whispered to me, “Look at that. Over there. Look what’s going on in that Volvo. The one between the two Subarus.”

I assumed she was pointing out a summer-peoples’ vehicular trifecta—a massing of Subarus and Volvos. “No, not the kind of cars but what that women from New York is doing on the back of her Volvo wagon.”

The hatch was up and from what I could see she was trying to load something into it. “I should go and help her. It looks as if she’s alone and struggling with something.”

“Not with what you think. Decidedly not an antique chair, if that's what you're thinking.” In fact that’s what I thought was going on. “Take a closer look. She’s far from alone and I don’t think she’d welcome your help.”

I moved past Rona so I could get a better look and saw that on the floor of the open hatch she had set up a changing mat, and wiggling on it was an infant whose soiled diaper she had just expertly removed.

“How clever,” I said. Rona nodded in agreement and I sensed she was tempted to go over to help or take a closer look. “If you’re going to have one of these kind of cars put it to good use.”

“And she surely is,” Rona added.

“But still,” I said, “I’m glad we didn’t get one of them.”

“A baby?” Rona was not understanding me as she was so engrossed in what was going on.

“You’re being silly,” I said. “Of course not. I mean a Volvo. Though I can now see its virtues.”

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

August 17, 2010--A Graceful Exit

President Barack Obama, the constitutional commander-in-chief, in July named General David Petraeus commander of American and NATO forces in Afghanistan. This after he fired the previous commander, Stanley McChrystal, for insubordinate comments he made to a Rolling Stone reporter.

Patraeus' job, as defined for him by his commander, Obama, was to defeat Al Qaeda terrorists in the border region between Afghanistan and Pakistan and to begun U.S. troop withdrawals next August.

He said, "Yes sir," and headed over there to pick up the pieces and to carry out his orders.

That was a little more than a month ago. Now he is saying, in a round of media interviews, including with the New York Times (linked below), that he opposes "a hasty pullout." By this he means that "he would resist any large-scale or rapid drawdown of American forces. If the Taliban believes that will happen," he continued, "they are mistaken."

Let's unpack this, holding for a moment who he is disagreeing with and whose call for the drawdown he would "resist." Though I think we already know the answer to that.

First, what's the mission in that miserable corner of the world? To hold off the Taliban and prop up the current pseudo-government in Kabul or defeat Al Qaeda, the terrorists who attacked us on 9/11?

Obama has consistently said it is to render Al Qaeda ineffective, his definition of "defeat."

The Taliban are not terrorists. They are insurgents seeking to once again dominate Afghanistan while other versions of the Taliban are nationalists who want to gain political control of Pakistan. In order to try to resist the Taliban, decidedly bad people who would once again impose their perverse version of Islamic law on the population, especially women, we and our dwindling allies would have to get even more deeply involved than at present in that dreaded nation-building that George W. Bush criticized and mocked during the 2000 presidential campaign. Too bad that he didn't take his own advice.

Yes, the Taliban in Afghanistan allowed Al Qaeda to have a sanctuary for training, but their focus was and continues to be nationalistic and political.

Among other things he doesn't get, General Petraeus sees his mission to very much include keeping the Taliban at bay. In his interview with the Times he pointed to progress on a number of fronts, "including routing Taliban insurgents from their sanctuaries."

When he met with Obama in July, when he was named regional commander, it was reliably reported that Obama drew the distinction for him between counter-terrorism (rendering Al Qaeda ineffective) and counter-insurgency (keeping the Taliban from overthrowing the government of Afghanistan); and commanded him to take on the anti-terrorism mission.

Now, only weeks later, to be meeting with Times reporters and appearing on Meet the Press, he is talking publicly about a very different kind of mission. One that contradicts the goal set for him by his presumed commander-in-chief. I say "presumed" because what he is saying in his media campaign--and make no mistake it is a campaign--is his, not President Obama's definition of the goal in that region.

This is more significantly insubordinate than anything General McChrystal said to Rolling Stone about Joe Biden while in his cups. But just as egocentric.

Again to quote Petraeus, something he said repeatedly over the weekend, "I did not come to Afghanistan to preside over a 'graceful exit.'"

No, he needs to be reminded, he came to Afghanistan because he was ordered to by the nation's commander-in-chief. Not because he decided to. He didn't volunteer, he didn't set conditions on his service. He said a version of "Yes sir." If he didn't like the mission as defined for him, he should have retired and run for the presidency in 2012.

What to do if you are Obama. Smile at Petraeus' round of TV appearances during which he is openly countermanding your policies? Didn't McChrystal begin to get himself in trouble by preemptively calling for more troops for Afghanistan than you were prepared to send to that quagmire?

McChrystal is just McChrystal and firing him was relatively easy. But Patraeus is a whole other matter. He is the darling of all Republicans, Democratic hawks, and the media. Arguably he has more supporters and friends in high places than Obama. He is in effect politically untouchable. Even by his commander-in-chief. He has better poll numbers.

A real commander-in-chief, a Truman type, after Patraeus' appearance on Meet the Press should have fired him this weekend.

We already know what will happen next summer--things on the ground in the border region will not be any more resolved than at present; Patraeus will once again make the rounds of the Sunday talk shows to tell us about the progress he has made; but then he will give his advice about what to do, again in public, and this will be to at least keep our current forces there. I wouldn't be surprised if he called for a further escalation.

Obama, having no choice, confronting a tough reelection campaign of his own (which is the real point of the August 2011 drawdown) will continue to roll over for this can-do-no-wrong general, who, if he doesn't let him have his way, may wind up on the Republican ticket in 2012.

Of course, if Patraeus knows that the situation on the ground is still untenable, he can always retire and run anyway. Especially if things are going badly. He will be looking for a personal exit strategy before his policies collapse entirely.

That would be his version of a "graceful exit."

Monday, August 16, 2010

August 16, 2010--Busy Monday

My schedule is chock full of chores and so I will return tomorrow.

Friday, August 13, 2010

August 13, 2010--Midcoast: Rona Gets Picked Up

“I play the guitar and a little French horn but I what I’d really like is to be able to play the banjo.”

It was a beautiful Monday evening. The light was so perfect that it was easy to understand why so many artists have been attracted to this area. There is the dramatic coast and the ubiquitous lighthouses but sitting out there on the lawn in Round Pound, with a glimpse of the translucent harbor, not for the first time, I wished I had the ability to take brush or pastels in hand and produce something worthy of the scene because, I realized, it is all about the light.

“You know, the song they are playing is from the Second World War. There was lots of wonderful music composed then, as well as during the First World War. Much of it sad but much of it wonderful.”

The song he was referring to was being played by a group of pick-up musicians who gather informally each Monday evening during the summer on the lawn of the Round Pound Green assisted living home. Right by the King Ro General Store where they grab empty milk crates and use them as stools on which to sit and play. Mainly local guys. About a dozen altogether. Mainly guitar players, with a couple on banjos, a bass player, and a fiddler.

Folks like us come by with fold-up lawn chairs and blankets, buy a soda or beer from the Ro, and hang out for a couple of hours while they play us into the sunset.

Rona wasn’t ignoring him but she was there primarily for the music and to soak up the good feelings and so did little more than nod. Undeterred, he chattered away. “Speaking of music and war,” clearly this was one of his subjects, “did you know that the Civil War was the last time there were little drummer boys on the battlefield?”

“I didn’t know that,” Rona finally said. Perhaps intrigued, maybe to at least acknowledge him. “They had little boys out on the battlefields?”

“As a way of communicating. Like the way they used to use bugles to signal charges and retreats. And of course, in the mornings, back at the barracks for Revelry and then in the evening for Taps.”

“But little boys?”

“It was a very bloody war and boys, children in general, were not as valued as they are today.”

He smiled at Rona because he was a little boy himself. No more than seven or eight.

“How do you know all these things? About history, I mean.” Just the other day Rona and I and a couple of friends were talking again about how nobody now seems to study or know any history. And because of this we keep getting into the same sort trouble.

“I read quite a bit,” he matter-of-factly said.

The musicians were now playing bluegrass, seeing if they could top each other by singing songs with the wryest or most preposterous lyrics. About the ironies of love and loss and especially how the men keep getting deservedly undone by their wily and dangerous women.

Now at least as interested in the kid as the music, Rona asked, “So what are you doing here?”

“I’m here with my grandmother who has a big shingle house on the harbor.”

“You’re here on your own?”

“My sister is here too. My little sister.”

Interested now, Rona tweaked him, “And you spend your days playing the French horn and reading? That doesn’t sound like fun.”

“Yes and no. I’m also in sailing camp. Which is fun. The take us out twice a day and we sail in Muscongus Bay. Unless the weather doesn’t cooperate.”

“So, you’re learning to sail.”

“Actually, I already know how to sail. My mother says I was practically born on a boat. Seriously, I don’t think that’s true but they tell me I was a good sailor when I was only 16 months old. Not literally a sailor of course, but happy to be along for the ride.” He smiled at that distinction.

A couple of young girls joined the musicians who eagerly widened the circle to include them. They were happy for some gender balance. I couldn’t hear but they indicated they wanted to sing something and began to teach the guys the chord structure. It was clearly not something with which the others were familiar. Something folky.

The sun had dropped behind the eaves of the old age home and with that the breeze freshened. The family next to us had ordered a pizza at the Ro and when it was ready passed the box around among themselves. While Rona was being chatted up I leaned in their direction hoping they might ask if I wanted a slice. They didn’t take the hint. The ethic of small town sharing goes only so far. Maybe, I thought, they’re here just for a week and haven’t yet discovered the value of interdependence that is so essential to living and surviving up here where resources are scarce.

I heard the kid say, “We live in Massachusetts and I’ve been summering here since I was little.”

Little, I thought, what does that make him now? He’s only four feet tall! I was feeling jealous wasn’t I? Of a seven year-old? I was feeling both old and a little pathetic.

“It’s a wonderful place to sail and read. And of course practice my music.”

“If you play the guitar,” Rona said to encourage him (not, I thought, that he needed any) learning the banjo should not be that difficult. You read music I assume?

“I do, but I play guitar more by ear and hope to be able to do the same thing with the banjo. But my schedule is kind of full.” He was looking serious though I wondered half out loud—So he also has a schedule! What four-foot kid of seven has a schedule in the summer?

“If you have a good enough ear that shouldn’t be a problem.” Rona was being her supportive best.

The girls who joined the musicians had got them playing along with them but I was so focused on listening in on Rona and the kid that I couldn’t get myself to pay attention to what they were singing.

“I do worry about all the picking that’s involved. On the guitar when playing chords I generally strum.”

“From what I know about the French horn you must already have the dexterity you need to play the banjo.”

“I think you may be right. I think the horn more than the guitar will translate to the banjo. I have one with me and will look for the time to get to it.”

“Maybe before the summer’s over you’ll be joining the group.” Rona said, gesturing toward the circle of musicians.

“That is a possibility,” he said.

To tell the truth I was getting tired of this overly-precocious kid and was happy when the pizza his grandmother ordered was ready. I had no intentions of showing any interest in a slice. I was just glad he’d have something other than Rona to concentrate on. He ran over to get a some for himself and I again had Rona to myself. We tuned back into the beauty of the evening. I reached over to hold Rona’s hand. She returned the pressure and I was feeling good about things again.

“I thought,” he was back at Rona’s side, “I thought you,” and he meant Rona, “that you might like a slice. So my grandmother put one on a plate for you. It’s delicious. They make very good pizzas here.”

She shook her head and thanked him. “That’s very nice of you but we’ll be having dinner later.” He didn’t seem disappointed and proceeded to munch away on his slice, bobbing his head to the beat of music as he chewed.

Turning again to me, Rona, squeezing my hand, whispered, “This is one of the mostly wonderful evenings of my life.

I wondered if Rona was feeling this way because of the setting and the music and the sense of community and me, or because of that smart-ass, pipsqueak of a wonderful kid?

Thursday, August 12, 2010

August 12, 2010--Perseid

The weather's been lousy, the economy stinks, we are losing wars all over the place, everyone's heated up and worse. But there is one thing that can take you away from all of this. Actually transport you and your imagination. As soon as tonight.

I'm referring to the annual Perseid Meteor Shower.

It will be on full display at about 9:00 o'clock in the southern sky, assuming you can find a dark spot from which to watch and the weather gods cooperate.

In case you care, and there is no reason to, what you'll be seeing are not meteors but metiroites, in effect dust along the orbit of the comet Swift-Tuttle. The cloud consists of particles ejected by the comet as it travels on its immense orbit. Most of the dust in the cloud today is around a thousand years old.

And it is called the Perseid Meteor Shower because the trail of these dust particles, which burn up when they enter the earth's atmosphere, occurs in the Perseus Constellation. Perseus, by the way, is the legendary founder of Mycenae and of the Perseid dynasty there and was the first of the mythic heroes of Greek mythology whose exploits in defeating various monsters provided the founding myths of the Twelve Olympians. Perseus was the Greek hero who killed the Gorgon Medusa, and claimed Andromeda, having rescued her from a sea monster sent by Poseidon in retribution for Queen Cassiopeia declaring herself more beautiful than the sea nymphs.

As you can see, things were also tough back then.

Here are a few tips from NASA as to how best to take in the celestial show:

• Get as far away from urban light pollution as possible and find a location with a clear, unclouded view of the night sky.

• Search for the darkest patch of sky you can find, as meteors can appear anywhere overhead.

• Plan to be patient and watch for at least half an hour. A reclining chair or ground pad will make it far more comfortable to keep your gaze on the night sky.

• Put away the telescope or binoculars. Let your eyes hang loose and don't look in any one specific spot. Relaxed eyes will quickly zone in on any movement up above.

• Avoid looking at your cell phone or any other light. Both destroy night vision.

I especially like the recommendation that you avoid looking at your cell phone. In fact, I'd suggest that you throw it away altogether and while you're at it get rid of your TV. Or use it only to watch Mary Tyler Moore reruns.

And yes, a glass of red wine helps while out there looking at the sky in your bathrobe.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

August 11, 2010--Take This Job And . . .

These used to be coveted jobs. Exciting, adventurous, and sexy. Now, for seemingly most, they are routine, aggravating, and just, well, jobs.

So when Steven Slater the other day said, "I've had it" and quit, he spoke for all those who feel trapped and under-appreciated and just plain ground up by the system.

Slater is the now former Jet Blue flight attendant who everyone is talking about because he didn't just walk away but did it in such a dramatic and flamboyant fashion that he is the hero to and envy of all who've had it up to here.

In case you only saw the headlines and missed the details, courtesy of the New York Times here they are (full article linked below)--

Mr. Slater, a career flight attendant, was working a flight from Pittsburgh (not Paris) to New York's Kennedy Airport. After it landed he got on the PA system and, like a million times before, told passengers that they should remain in their seats with their seat belts fastened while the plane taxied on an active runway.

Not unlike many times before, an over-eager passenger got out of his seat and began to retrieve his luggage from the overhead compartment. Slater, having seen it all, still using the microphone, asked him to please take his seat.

The passenger, ignoring this, continued to pull on his carry-on bag. So Slater, like thousands of times before, went down the aisle to more directly tell him he needed to be seated. The customer told him to go to hell, and worse, and with that managed to free his bag, which promptly hit Slater in the head.

Slater, still relatively calm, asked for an apology which the passenger refused to offer. In fact, he continued to curse him.

With that, having experienced this kind of thing once too often, Slater marched back to the front of the plane; again got on the PA system; and this time, saying, "That's enough," cursed the passenger extensively and vividly, activated the plane's inflatable emergency evacuation chute, and with a broad smile on his face slid down it and, after 20 hears of service, walked away a free man.

I hope to a round of applause.

Of course, his actions were illegal (isn't everything exciting and cool?) and later in the day he was arrested in his apartment in Queens. I am happy to report that he is out on $2,500 bail and assume he will tonight appear on the Larry King Show.

Better, I look forward to his hosting a new TV reality show, "Take This Job And . . ."

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

August 10, 2010--"The Greatest Intriguant In the World"

In the spring of 1800, former president George Washington died. His successor, John Adams, finally felt free of his influence and vaunted reputation. So he at last, after more than three years in office, began to ask for the resignation of his cabinet members, all of whom were appointed by Washington and who Adams kept in office for the sake of continuity and, more revealing, because he lacked the self confidence to name his own people.

When he turned to his War Secretary, James McHenry, he asked him to resign after accusing him of being unduly influenced by his hated rival, former Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton, and plotting with Hamilton to turn command of the U.S. military over to him.

Lying, McHenry denied such influence and rejected the idea that he had been conspiring with Hamilton to, in effect, make him commander in chief.

Adams raged, "Hamilton is an intriguant, the greatest intriguant in the world--a man devoid of every moral principle."

Not only was Hamilton a master of intrigue, but Adams went on to say that Hamilton was "a Bastard [true--he had been born out of wedlock on the island of Nevis]. You are subservient to Hamilton, who ruled [George] Washington and would still rule if he could [also true]. Washington saddled me with three [cabinet] secretaries who would control me."

At the time, there were only three members of a president's cabinet. "But," Adams continued, "I shall take care of that. You cannot sir, remain longer in office."

To quote Michael Beschloss, in Presidential Courage: Brave Leaders and How They Changed America--1789-1989, "McHenry thought Adams sounded 'insane.' He found it 'a most mortifying scene,' with 'insults I will never forget.'"

McHenry quickly submitted his letter of resignation.

Adams next turned to his Secretary of State, Timothy Pickering, calling him "an Idolater of Hamilton," qualified only to be a "collector of customs," who, he claimed, "embarrassed me to the utmost of his power."

Pickering, though, refused to quit. He wrote to Adams, condescendingly saying that Adams couldn't cope without him and therefore, "I do not feel it my duty to resign."

In a rage, John Adams fired back, "You are hereby discharged from any further service as Secretary of State."

Hamilton thus lost his influence over Adams who then served out his last months in office after being defeated for a second term by Thomas Jefferson.

Hamilton played a significant role in Adams' defeat, before the election having published under his own name (unusual, for at that time essays and political pamphlets were published with authors using pseudonyms) a tract that attacked Adams viciously. In it Hamilton exposed Adams' "defects"--his "distempered jealousy," "extreme egotism," and "ungovernable temper." Qualities with which he was familiar since he very much shared them. He, also like Adams, was remarkably talented.

I bring this to your attention as a way of saying that the more things change the more they often remain the same.

We too are living in very partisan times with the likes of Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck and various Republican leaders calling Barack Obama a racist, and worse. And with the Keith Olbermann's and various Democrat firebrands accusing their GOP rivals and media flacks crypto-Nazis, and worse.

In 1880 the country faced a number of crises--a so-called "pseudo-war" with France and then war with England, which broke out in 1812. And we are now fighting at least two wars while our economy is virtually broken.

They should have then and we should now, as a young friend says, cool our jets

Monday, August 09, 2010

August 9, 2010--Tone Deaf

I don't begrudge anyone a vacation. Especially someone who has worked hard all year and truly deserves a break.

I am here not talking about Michelle Obama who is just back from a trip to Spain with her younger daughter, Sasha. She hardly needed to get away to, of all places, Marbella where, every August, the royal family of Saudi Arabia comes to frolic. To get their entourage there the Saudis have the use of a fleet of a dozen or so private 747s and an assortment of yachts none less than 150 feet long.

On the other hand, tending to that White House vegetable garden does take a lot out of you and Air Force Two, which she and Sasha used, though also a 747, was the only plane they took from the White House fleet. It's a good thing poor Joe Biden wasn't planning on using it. I guess he'll have to wait for Michelle to return before he again hustles off to Afghanistan.

She is being excoriated by media folks of all persuasions for taking such an extravagant trip, most of it paid for by U.S. taxpayers, including all those millions out of work who will be foregoing any vacation at all this year. (See linked New York Times article.)

Though to compare her to Marie Antionette, as a New York Daily News columnist did, is going a bit too far. Considering what happened to Louis XVI's wife.

Yes, the White House says, she will be paying for her own accommodations at the swank Villa Padierna where rooms average $500 a night and suites, which I assume she had, set you back $6,000. But then they do come with your 24 hour private butler. So it's not so bad after all.

On the other hand, she will not by any means be paying for the full cost of using Air Force Two. It is estimated that the cost of flying it there and back will top $160,00 and all Mrs. Obama will be charged is the price of two round-trip first class tickets. About $10,000. Which means that we are picking up at least $150,000. Plus, of course, all the costs associated with her official entourage. The Times reports that it is quite an entourage--they used at least 30 rooms at the Villa. All paid for by you and me. By my calculations, assuming the other 29 rooms cost $500 each, for the three-night stay that adds up to another $43,500.

She did, though, make one official stop--to see King Juan Carlos at his August retreat on the island of Mallorca. A nice gesture though I speculate that by making a small part of the trip "official" it allows Michelle to get taxpayers to pay for at least part of the airfare that would normally be billed to her. Neat.

All the while, Barack had to stay home and work and celebrate his 49th birthday all alone. Well, not exactly alone. He flew to Chicago to have dinner with Oprah and Gayle.

But the Obamas are going to spend a few days on the Gulf coast before heading off for 10 days on Martha's Vineyard in response to criticism that they are doing all their vacationing with the hoi polloi.

George Bush spent fully one-third of his eight years in office cutting brush at his ranch in Crawford, Texas and Laura Bush did do some vacationing on her own (mainly to U.S. national parks). Also, Hillary during every school vacation, took Chelsea off on junkets around the world. Remember all those pictures of them on camels before the Pyramids in Egypt and on tiger hunts in India? The Clintons also, recall, tried to sneak furniture out of the White House when Bill's two terms were up--so what would we expect from them.

On the other hand, during both of those presidencies the economy was in pretty good shape in comparison to now and neither came into office saying that he was going to end "business as usual." I guess that didn't pertain to spouses' vacations.

Friday, August 06, 2010

August 6, 2010--Lazy Day

I'm declaring a long weekend for myself. I will be back on Monday.

Thursday, August 05, 2010

August 5, 2010--Mosque In My Town

Not noted for either rhetoric or passion, with the Statue of Liberty as a backdrop, New York City's mayor, Michael Bloomberg, more than rose to the occasion after the City removed the final obstacle to the construction of an Islamic cultural center and mosque two blocks from Ground Zero when he, confronting the outrage among some that this be allowed, with deep emotion said:

To cave to popular sentiment would be to hand a victory to the terrorists--and we should not stand for that. The attack was an act of war--and our first responders defended not only our city but also our country and our Constitution. We do not honor their lives by denying the very constitutional rights they died protecting. We honor their lives by defending these rights--and the freedoms the terrorists attacked.

It is no surprise that many posturing Republican politicians from Newt Gringrich to Sarah Pailin and their media flacks have been demagoguing this issue. Jerry Falwell, no friend of Babylon on the Hudson, has stepped in to condemn the project as the work of Satan--about which from his personally checkered life he is well informed.

Even the Anti-Defamation League, which should know better, since it has been historically devoted to tracking down and exposing any evidence of anti-Semitism, has chimed in in oppposition, displaying its own version of Islamophobia. (See linked New York Times article.)

This has got my New York blood boiling.

For most of the past two years I've been living only part time in the Big Apple; but this mosque business, which would be walking distance from my apartment, is reminding me how much of a New Yorker I remain.

First of all I don't want to be lectured about New York matters by the likes of Falwell, Gingrich, or Palin. If any of them cared about us--and by us I mean New Yorkers and Americans--they should have shown up right after 9/11 and helped the grieving and displaced families or tended to the men and women who were literally risking their lives on the Pile while searching for survivors and then remains. I don't recall seeing any of them even making a fly-by visit, though I do recall their hot speeches and personally passive and craven behavior. Anything to cash in on other people's anguish, rage, and fear.

So Newt and Jerry and Sarah and the ADL too--stuff it!

And then I also want to hear what Barack Obama has to say about this. I know he's busy celebrating his birthday with Oprah, but why has he been silent about this inflaming issue? We in large part elected him because he was good at speaking about complicated things of this kind and helping us understand them as well as to reconcile us to our differences. But, New Yorker that I am, I know why: he doesn't want to give Glenn Beck or Rush Limbaugh any more ammunition to claim he's really a Muslim. His reelection campaign is only two years away and, above all, he needs all the votes he can muster.

I much prefer Mayor Bloomberg's courage. He may be a little boring but he might be the kind of leader we need. I hope that he too is thinking about 2012.

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

August 4, 2010--Midcoast: Green At Last

I was bringing Don up to date about our septic situation.

He knows entirely too much about our attempts to increase its capacity and how, when we had a problem a few weeks ago with a tank about to overflow, we discovered that what we thought was a septic system—with waste slowing percolating into a leech field--was in fact a containment tank which would routinely need to be pumped.

Now unhappily aware of this, we told him about the latest issue—since it is expensive and a bit inconvenient to have one’s system pumped out, we launched a crusade to use as little water and produce as little waste as possible.

While in Maine and with well water in short supply, we had already instituted a few practices to conserve water. Things such as turning the tap on and off when brushing our teeth, flushing the toilet only occasionally unless . . . You can complete that one yourself. Little things of this kind.

But now, faced with having to spend up to an unanticipated $250 a month on tank pumping, we turned our imaginations loose to think of other things we might do to save water and produce less waste. We have a double sink in the kitchen and rather, as in the past washing the dinner dishes with the hot water running continuously, Rona began soaking the dishes in soapy water in one of the sinks and then quickly rinsing them with cold water in the other, in the process saving hot water as well. I look forward to what our electric bill will look like next month. Not enough to cover the septic pumping but using much less hot water should make a dent in that too.

Don said we should save at least $25 a month by that alone. He should know. He’s lived in Maine all his life.

I told Don we were thinking about showering once a week, and he told us if we did that we’d have to find another companion for our morning coffee. Not wanting to do that we instead have taken to showering as often as in the past but in a very different way. As with the dishes, we both traditionally had showered with the water running constantly—while soaping ourselves and shampooing our hair. Now we turn on the water, wait for it to get hot, reduce its volume for the minimum required to get the job done, and rather than lingering enveloped in steam we turn the water on and off at different stages of the showering process.

Don said we’d save even more by using less hot water when bathing and that if we plugged the drain to see how much water we’d been previously consuming (he used that word) and compare that with how much less we are using in our version of a GI shower, we’d see how gentle we were being to our containment tank.

A few days ago I tired that and he was right. I estimate I used about half as much water as in the past. However, I must admit, though I feel economical and even a little virtuous showering this way, I do miss indulging myself in all that luxurious steam. Rona says maybe we should treat ourselves to an old-fashioned shower every once in awhile. If, if we continue to be responsible about water use in other ways. That sounds like something o look forward to.

And, Don added, not only are we being economical in our use of resources, but we’re being kinder to the environment. “Up here in Maine, a lot of us feel that’s very important. In fact, when you’re ready for it, we should talk about you guys getting a woodstove to heat your place. I know you aren’t winterized, and if you want to be this is the way to go”

“How is that environmentally sensitive?” Rona asked. “Don’t those potbellied stoves produce a lot of smoke, which is carbon isn’t it, and thus emit a lot of carbon dioxide?”

“The old ones do,” Don said, “but there are very high tech ones now that are so efficient that they produce less pollution than oil or propane or even electric heat.” I looked at him skeptically. “If that weren’t the case,” he said, “why would the government give you a tax credit for installing one?” He answered his own question, “That’s because they are more efficient and reduce your carbon foot print.”

Here we go, I thought, the next thing he’ll be talking about are the virtues of wood pellets as compared to logs.

“And,” he said, not missing a beat and as if reading my mind, “if you use wood pellets, you . . .”

I cut him off before he could continue. I want to try to do better but, to tell the truth, don’t always enjoy being drawn into talking about how to save the environment as sometimes happens up here. Especially when I haven’t put enough coffee into my system. “I bet,” I said to turn the conversation away from septic systems and carbon footprints, “I bet the next thing you’ll tell me is how to arrange to die and be buried in an ecologically responsible way.” I thought something this absurd about a green death would derail any more conversation about living a green life.

“It may surprise you,” he quickly said, “that I’ve been thinking about that very thing.” Again I looked at him skeptically. “In fact,” he grinned, “my wife and I just redid our wills and after doing some research decided we want to be go through the dying process and then our internment in as green a way as possible.”

I rolled my eyes up in my head, “You’ve got to be kidding.”

“I’m not. I’m being serious,” he insisted. “For example, how much plastic do they use in hospitals? A few years ago I had an operation and I was in the hospital for almost a week. Everything from medicine bags to catheters are made of plastic. Nothing was sterilized and reused. As soon as I was feeling better enough to notice I couldn’t help but think that there must be a better way to do this.”


“And, in fact there are. Helen and I have been doing some research and there are a few hospitals here that make it their business to reduce the number of disposable things they use. We’ve even checked out a couple of assisted-living places, some nursing homes, and the hospice in town and they assured us that when the time comes and we need them they will do things in an environmentally sensitive way. They use less of that plastic crap and sterilize much of the stuff they use to take care of you.”

“And,” though duly impressed, I couldn’t help but ask, “You said ‘when the time comes.’” He nodded. “How about when the big Time comes, with a capital T?”

“You mean when we pass?” I nodded. “Well, we thought of that to. We considered cremation.” I asked the waitress to refill my cup. If the conversation was headed in this direction I needed more caffeination. “And rejected that. Not for environmental reasons, mind you, though from that perspective it’s a good way to dispose of bodies. You do release some carbon but since we’re mainly water, most of what gets emitted is steam. We’re more H2O than CO2.”

Steam was rising from my freshly filled cup and contemplating Don’s description I pushed it away from me.

“It has to do with the kids.”

“The who?”

“Our children. When we discussed this with them they said they’d like us to be buried in a cemetery so they can visit us. Scattering our ashes or keeping Helen and me in urns on a piano, they told us, isn’t going to work for them.”

“And?” Rona was getting into this while I, considerably older and thus closer to the reality of these matters, was focused on my coffee, where the steam was slowly abating.

“And so listen to this.” Don was fishing around in one of his overall pockets and from it pulled out what looked like a glossy brochure. “We’ve been looking around for the right kind of cemetery for us, and of the course the kids, and found one not too far from here. Listen to what they say.”

He read:

What Is a Green Burial?

Simple and natural. Green burial, or natural burial, ensure the burial site remains as natural as possible in all respects. Interment of the bodies is done in a bio-degradable casket, shroud, or a favorite blanket. No embalming fluid, no concrete vaults.
Why Have a Green Burial?

It is clear that nature has intended that our bodies be reunited with the earth. All organisms that have lived, have died and returned to the soil...only to be recycled into new life. Constant microbial activity in the soil breaks everything down. Nature creates no waste. Everything is recycled.

In keeping with your personal values, a natural burial site for you, family, even pets, promotes growth of native trees, shrubs and wildflowers, in turn bringing birds and other wildlife to the area. Water is not wasted, nor are pesticides and herbicides used in attempts to control nature. Instead, a green cemetery allows nature take it's course. Planting native trees, shrubs and flowers in your loved one's honor promotes habitat restoration. To encourage land preservation, a green cemetery grants a conservation easement for the burial site.

Don looked up and, smiling beatifically at Rona and me, asked, “So what do you think? Pretty good, no?”

“It’s beautiful,” Rona cooed, with tears in her eyes.

“And you, what do you think?”

“Me?” I asked. Before he got to the “Why Have A Green Burial” part my coffee had stopped steaming and I was fully engaged with it. “Did I hear that you can take your pets with you?” He resumed his nodding. “That I like. Being buried with your dog is a good thing. And, if I heard you correctly, you can have a biodegradable shroud?’

“Yes,” Don said.

“Or you can be wrapped in your favorite blanket?”

“That too. Maybe you and Rona . . .”

“I’m not ready for that,” I said. “Woodstoves, maybe. But not this.” Don was looking deflated and stuffed the brochure back into his pocket. I felt guilty about putting him off and wanted to buck him up with a little joke, “I mean I’m not ready for this because we don't have separate blankets--we sleep in a queen-size bed and I’m not sure if my blanket is biodegradable”

At that he smiled and it was his turn to change the subject. He of course is a Boston Red Sox fan and teased me, “Those Yankees of yours. What’s happening with them? They can’t seem to get anyone out or score any runs.”

“And your team? Where are they in the standings?”

“You know, hon,” Rona had tuned out the baseball talk, “I think maybe we do have those kinds of blankets.”

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

August 3, 2010--EXTRA, EXTRA: TV Host Challenges Guest!

The New York Times' TV critic, Alessandra Stanley, looked in on Christiane Amanpour this Sunday. (Article linked below.) Ms. Amanpour, who left CNN after decades as its chief foreign correspondent, is now host of ABC's Sunday eponymous morning show, "This Week With Christiane Amanpour."

Contrasting Amanpour with David Gregory, host of NBC's "Meet the Press," who Stanley characterized as part of the "oasis of calm" that is characteristic of Sunday talk shows, she found Amanpour "animated" and "at times impassioned." Both to her good things. Stanley even cites an example of Amanpour actually "challenging" a guest, in this instance Nancy Pelosi, who Amanpour "pressed" to reveal what "her gut" tells her about the situation in Afghanistan. She even showed Speaker Pelosi the cover of this week's Time Magazine which has a picture of a young Afghan woman who had her nose cut off by the Taliban.

Pelosi looked away but retreated into a series of bland "politic answers."

Amanpour did not follow up, though she might have considering that Pelosi has voted for every appropriations bill to fund the disastrous war in Afghanistan, now dragging on longer than all wars in our history, including the eight-year-long American Revolution.

For "leaning forward" as she raised this question and "waving her reading glasses for emphasis," Amanpour gets kudos. At last, Stanley gushed, no more calm oasis.

Thousands of the best of our young people are in harms way and being killed and maimed in a disastrous war and waiving glasses is considered tough-minded journalism. This is not what the farmers of our Constitution meant when they protected freedom of a robust press as one of our basic freedoms and essential to a functioning democracy.

This pathetic pretense at serious journalism reminded me of a very different kind of interview that I saw on the BBC a number of years ago when George Bush was president and Donald Rumsfeld was Secretary of Defense. I forget the name of the journalist and I can't remember his challenging question--maybe it had something to do with restoring electricity to the cities of Iraq (something after nearly eight years we have been unable to accomplish though it has been one of our highest priorities--Baghdad now has power for just four hours a day).

Rumsfeld danced around the question, speaking from Pentagon talking points. Not satisfied with the answer, the reporter, word for word, repeated the question. Rumsfeld tap danced around it, offering the same answer. So for the third time, the interviewer asked the identical question. Rumsfeld still did not answer it. Then, still without attitude or waving eyeglasses like a prop, the interrogator posed the same question for a fourth and final time.

Rumsfeld's repeatedly canned response was an answer in itself. "Forget about the electricity," he in effect said. "So it's 120 degrees. We brought them elections, didn't we?. What's more important? Air conditioning or the semblance of democracy?"

Monday, August 02, 2010

August 2, 2010--Snooki

My bother-in-law and I were in one of those kinds of moods--having a good time while bemoaning everything that's going wrong in the world, from the Gulf oil spill to the quagmire in Afghanistan to how impossible it is to find a plumber to fix a leak in your kitchen faucet for less than $150. And how two days later it’s still leaking.

“Why is it,” I asked, knowing the answer, “that no one any longer seems to know how to do anything?

While we were aggravating ourselves this way he noticed and picked up the first volume of a four-volume set we have here of Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Hardly the sort of light reading one wants to be doing during midsummer along the coast of Maine. But it came with the cottage and he had read all of it some years ago and enjoyed looking at it again.

"We'd been talking about how religious extremism is contributing to the problems of the world," he said, "You remember what Gibbon controversially had to say about early Christianity’s role in the fall of the Roman Empire?"

I admitted that I had but only vaguely. "Listen to this then. It's amazing."

And so even though we were eager to head out for coffee he read:

As the happiness of a future life is the great object of religion, we may hear without surprise or scandal that the introduction, or at least the abuse of Christianity, had some influence on the decline and fall of the Roman Empire. The clergy successfully preached the doctrines of patience and pusillanimity; the active virtues of society were discouraged; and the last remains of military spirit were buried in the cloister: a large portion of public and private wealth was consecrated to the specious demands of charity and devotion.

"Indeed, amazing," I said, still wanting my coffee.

While we drove over to the Bristol Diner, continuing to think about the decline of civilization as we know it, David Letterman style, we fooled around by making a list of the top-ten signs that the American Empire was ending. Our top three were:

(3) The Clintons just spent $3 million on Chelsea's wedding

(2) Barack Obama last week appeared on The View

(1) Snooki is better known than Mother Teresa

I assume you’re familiar with The View, the Clintons, and Mother Teresa; but in case you haven't been checking out the Jersey Shore reality TV show, Snookie is one of its "stars."

I’ve only been able to force myself to watch snippets of it and from what I’ve seen it’s about a bunch of tasteless Italian-Americans (sorry, but that’s who they are) who spend their time drinking, cursing, fighting with each other, and having sex in every nook and cranny of their rented beach house. And Snooki is one of the “stars.”

She’s only 4 feet 9 inches tall but makes up for it by wearing the highest heels even on the Seaside Heights boardwalk. And she is most famous for her poof, or what in my day we used to call a pompadour, which adds additional height to her voluptuous, pint-sized body. She has become so famous, in fact, that she is in hot demand for parties and in clubs all over the country and is becoming engaged in what folks in the business call “side projects.” Things like a line of clothing and especially shoes.

And it’s a good thing too that reality personalities such as Snookie are attempting to cash in this way because for appearing on these shows they get paid what one cable executive calls bubkes, which is Yiddish for “nothing.”

While each member of the cast of Friends (a scripted show) was getting a million dollars an episode, during the first season of Jersey Shore the entire cast received a total of $25,000. That’s a few thousand each.

But then things got better for them. The ratings were good (4,8 million viewers a week) and so, according to the New York Times (article linked below), last year they each got $10,000 an episode. This year, as they prepare to shot the third season, Snooki and her colleagues are holding out for more. Perhaps as much as $25,000 an episode, but the production company and MTV are resisting.

So a number of cast members are threatening to jump to other TV opportunities. Of course to other reality shows. One is talking openly about getting on Dancing With the Stars, where, depending on how you do, you get at least $100,000 for appearing and making a fool of yourself.

Mike Sorrentino, known on the Shore as “The Situation” (someone needs to help me with this one) claims he is exploring his DWTS options as well as offers he insists he is receiving to appear on sitcoms. Clearly he has his eyes set on Hollywood. I wish him well.

So it has come to this—

Up to now I thought it’s all about money. But in the words of one reality show executive, it’s about something else: “These folks get paid with fame.”

This I get.