Thursday, September 30, 2010

September 30, 2010--Ammunition

If like me you at times have trouble sleeping through the night, you know the terrors that lying awake can provoke and how difficult it can be to return to the narcotic of sleep.

I have the bad habit, when this occurs, of listening to the radio. I hook myself up via an earpiece so as not to disturb Rona. Though, at times, when it falls out, she awakes with a start to ask, "Is there a man in the bed?" Assuredly a man other than her husband since with her acute senses she can hear the voices filtering through the earphone from one talk show or another that I have been foolishly listening to.

Foolishly because what peace can this possible bring?

All those aired during the middle of the night are either devoted to flying saucers and extrasensory perception (Art Bell's "Coast to Coast" is the prime example), where half of those who call in recount their experiences of being abducted by aliens; sports talk, where most of the callers moan about the latest catastrophes befalling the hapless New York Mets; or are devoted to what is these days is considered to be political dialogue. Of these there are many national and local versions of pretty much the same thing--rants by various assortments of right-wing fanatics. The hosts as well as their callers.

To the latter I am pathetically addicted. I rationalize by claiming that though I hate them I listen because I need to know what those with whom I disagree are thinking. More in truth, for some inexplicable reason, I like that they make my blood flow fast and thus distract me from my middle-of-the-night darker, more existential inclinations.

These days, though, what I am listening in on rivals my self-generated broodings.

Just last night, for example, between three and five AM, I took in a "conversation" about the much-cherished Second Amendment. The one that reads:

A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed

The one about which Alexander Hamilton wrote in Federalist 29:

If a well regulated militia be the most natural defence of a free country, it ought certainly to be under the regulation and at the disposal of that body which is constituted the guardian of the national security...confiding the regulation of the militia to the direction of the national authority...(and) reserving to the states...the authority of training the militia.

Which is what the framers and ratifiers of the Constitution intended--that the people, at a time when the government was not intending to have a standing army, had the right, indeed the responsibility to bear arms so that they could be called upon if the emerging country was attacked by a foreign force. That they could become a "well regulated militia."

But what the early morning callers were concerned about was something very different. Even as they proclaimed themselves to be strict constructionists of the Constitution--that they believed each of its words literally.

What they were noting, as I huddled with my radio, is a record sale of ammunition for those constitutionally protected firearms. Gun shops, they reported, are running low on ammo. Which to them is troubling since most worried that during these perilous times one can't have enough.

These weapons and ammunition were needed, they claimed, because we are approaching a time when it may become necessary to take up arms against our current government.

To them, the federal government no longer reflects the will of the people and has become our oppressor. Just like in 1776, it may soon be time to declare our independence and move to overthrow the government. By which they mean the Obama administration.

These self-proclaimed patriots drew parallels between pre-Revolutionary times and ours. Seeing us in similar circumstances. Forgetting or ignoring that in the late 18th century America was occupied by a foreign force, the British, and we had no legal redress for our concerns in their Parliament. Unlike now, we were taxed and governned without representation.

Night tremors are by definition magnified by half-states of consciousness, and so there is no evidence except from my over-heated imagination that what I have been recently hearing represents anything resembling a consensus.

But the casual and unguarded way in which these talk show hosts and their listeners talked about, well, treason--the only crime defined in that sacred Constitution--was chilling. Even, later, in the light of day.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

September 29, 2010--Less Is Not More

During the 1990s and well into the new century, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation spend many hundreds of million dollars on a nationwide crusade to convince public school educators that the problem with inner-city high schools--why so many of their students were not graduating or going on to college--was because they were too big and impersonal and thus not conducive to learning.

The money they so generously ladled out to school districts was to enable the lowest-performing big-city high schools to "blow themselves up" (the is the literal metaphor Tom Vander Ark used when he traveled the country as the Gates' point person for this) and in their place create small high schools of 250 to 500 students each.

This made good common sense.

There was, however, one problem with this approach to school reform--it was based on belief , not evidence.

And so, after squandering a veritable fortune, the Gates Foundation abandoned the small-schools approach (their evaluation revealed that there was no long-term benefit from breaking big high schools apart--in fact there were a number of unanticipated negative consequences) and they decided to spend their school-reform money on improving the way academics are actually taught in public schools.

Thus, their original assumption that the key to fixing schools was structural (big schools by definition are bad) and social (small schools are by definition good because they are caring schools and this all that's required to reform them and for students to thrive), this small-school assumption was proven as wrong as many of us in the education reform business at the time said to Vander Ark and Gates. That the key to reform is the improvement of instruction--teachers using methods that have a track record of working effectively with low-income students.

They didn't want to hear this. They had both the answers and the money and so off they marched, having no difficulty at all getting school districts around the country to go along with the small-school approach.

Big money was and is a great lubricant.

The good news is that some large high schools rejected the Gates mantra and focused instead on the heavy lifting required to get teachers and their unions to agree to retooling their approach to instruction.

Case in point, the huge, 4,100-student Brockton High School in Massachusetts. On the front page of yesterday's New York Times their reform efforts were showcased. As were the positive results.

A decade ago, prior to massive efforts to retrain teachers in proven mehtods of instruction, only a quarter of Brokton's students passed statewide proficiency exams. After just two years of implementing new methods, in 2001, more students passed the state tests after failing the year before than at any other school in Massachusetts. And the gains have continued. This year and last, Brockton outperformed 90 percent of Massachusetts high schools. (Article linked below.)

Meanwhile, southwest of Brockton, in Newark, New Jersey, there is excitement about Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg's $100 million pledge to bring relief to Newark's long benighted schools. Though no one has as yet says what Mark's 100 mil will buy in Newark, there is some evidence that it will be spent on the schools-of-choice approach to reform, with an emphasis on the creation of charter schools--small schools that will try to attract enrollments by appealing to parents to send their kids to them.

Makes sense, right? Create a market economy for public schools and the same invisible kind of hand that guides our national economy will direct Newark's school reform efforts. As effectively, it is claimed, as that hand which has steered our nation's economy. Including into Great Depressions and Recessions.

Again, we are seeing belief trump evidence because the data show that this approach is no better than the same-old-same-old.

But since young multibillionaire Zuckerberg is involved his Silicone Valley amigos have already kicked in an additional $40 million in matching pledges. Once more to an amorphous, questionable approach.

The children again will be the subject of rich people's social engineering schemes. And it is not difficult to predict the results. I wouldn't be surprised to see old Tom Vander Ark slouching toward Newark.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

September 28, 2010--Feeling Pain

John Harwood, in the New York Times, may be right that presidents who show empathy are not necessarily helped during midterm elections. (Article linked below.)

Though Harwood joins the chorus of those finding fault with Barack Obama's "cool'" unemotional, professorial style, he claims that the reason Obama and the Democrats are in political trouble is because of the economy (stupid).

Bill Clinton wrote the book on feeling voters' pain--bitting his lower lip empathetically and welling up with tears in emotional situations. Feigned or not, it worked for him but not for fellow Democrats, especially during the 1994 midterms when Newt Gingrich promulgated his Contract With America and the GOP won 54 seats in the House, 8 in the Senate, and took control of both houses.

Then though Americans liked Ike, President Eisenhower's party got trounced in the 1958 midterms, losing 48 House seats. Even beloved Ronald Reagan, after passing his massive tax cuts in 1981 saw his Republican brethren loss 28 seats in the House of Representatives a year later.

Again, as in the other cases from recent history, these loses could be attributed more to a stalled economy than to the Presidents' popularity or public persona of likability and caring.

But when it comes to history prologue is not always destiny.

These times may be different than those Harwood cites. As then, the economy is troubled; but what may be different this time, and why Obama's coolness may be contributing to his and his party's troubles with the electorate, is that these are hyper-emotional days.

People are understandably frustrated and angry with their circumstances and the government's overall response to what they perceive to be a crisis--a crisis in significant part that is government caused--and this emotion is being shamelessly whipped into a frenzy and personally exploited by cynical politicians and irresponsible members of the media--from Sarah Palin to the erstwhile Newt Gingrich to Rush Limbaugh to Glenn Beck and an assortment of Tea Party candidates.

The emotion manifested by the Tea Party is greater than at any time since the anti-Vietnam War movement, and we know how socially calamitous that was. Lyndon Johnson felt the need to leave the presidency mainly because he was responsible for escalating that disastrous war but also because he appeared impervious to the pain and suffering that was among the war's consequences. Like Obama, he presided over the passage of historic social legislation during the mid 1960s, but that did not inure him from political defeat. This all before the Internet and the 24/7 news cycle that have rapacious appetites for breaking news, even if, to attract audiences, it has to be made up.

With this relentless news cycle that depends on a continuous stream of anything resembling news also requires that that "news" be dramatic and even entertaining. In a fierce competition for audiences, things are intentionally magnified and played for their tabloid appeal.

As much emotion as possible is shamelessly unleashed, including anger and rage, Vivid personalities--the good, the bad, and the ugly--are paraded before us in an attempt to get us to keep reading and watching. Tearing someone down is as newsworthy and intoxicating as building them up. Perhaps more so.

Enter Barack Obama.

Was any candidate for high office in recent memory so simultaneously adulated and excoriated? To his supporters he represented the elixir of change and, more emotionally powerful, hope. To those who hated him on sight (this is meant literally), he represented the fearful "other," the new American who to them is alien and subversive.

He knowingly rode both of those waves to an astonishing victory. But now that he is governing, ultimately responsible for our circumstances, as the mundane day-to-day overwhelms those images and metaphors he radiated and represented, the very patina of confident cool that contributed to propelling him forward is dragging him down.

Like it or not, and I know he hates it, he needs to let out and let us see not just what he is thinking but what he feels. Whatever that might be,

To most Americans that will be enough.

In these times it is not about the content but the affect. We need to feel. We need to be entertained. It is the age of Oprah, not just Glenn Beck where there is no line any more separating our politics from our amusements.

Monday, September 27, 2010

September 27, 2010--Do Ask, Do Tell: A Life In the Shadows

On the same day that the Senate voted not to repeal don't-ask-don't-tell which means that homosexual soldiers have to continue not to tell if they want to continue serving their country (every Republican voted against it), on the same morning that someone sitting next to me at the diner, a military veteran who told me he is a libertarian but wouldn't want one of "them" next to him in a foxhole, a nearly full-page obituary appeared in The New York Times for Eileen Nearne, who died recently in Torquay, England at the age of 89.

She earned this final tribute because, during the Second World War, along with 38 other bilingual English women, she parachuted behind enemy lines in order to help French partisans mobilize against their Nazi occupiers.

This is only the beginning of a remarkable story about combat and heroism by an until-now largely forgotten woman.

Read the entire obit linked below and then ask if you, or John McCain or any of his craven colleagues might not like to have Miss Nearne next to them in a foxhole.

Then ask about the others who they would exclude from service, men and women who are fighting for us, including for Republicans, right now and in too many cases giving up their lives and limbs, because the same arguments made about not allowing women such as Eileen Nearne to serve in combat--that they are too soft, too subject to torture if captured, and would be sexual distractions--are still being raised now about our gay troops.

Eileen Nearne, who went by the name Didi, volunteered to be sent into occupied France and once there made her way to Paris where she clandestinely operated a radio to coordinate weapons drops to Resistance fighters and serve as a link between the French and the allies who were planning to cross the English Channel and invade France on D-Day in June 1944.

After a series or narrow escapes she was captured by the Gestapo and send to the Revensbruck concentration camp where she was repeatedly tortured in order to get her to give up the names of her associates. Though she was stripped naked, beaten, sexually assaulted, and plunged repeatedly into ice cold water until she blacked out from lack of oxygen, she did not break and continued to refuse to give away any of her comrades or reveal any secrets.

At the time she was 26.

From Ravensbruck, still uncooperative, she was shipped from death camp to death camp, finally arriving at the Markleberg camp in eastern Germany in December 1944. To survive, she worked on a road-repair gang 12 hours a day until she and two other women managed to escape. They were finally rescued by American troops who thought she was a Nazi collaborator and held her captive in a detention center until her superiors in London vouched for her.

After the war, by her own choice, she faded into anonymity. It wasn't until 1993 that she returned to Ravensbruck for a visit. She told an interviewer that hers was "a life in the shadows, but I was suited for it. I could be hard and secret. I could be lonely. I could be independent. . . I liked the work."

Friday, September 24, 2010

September 24, 2010--Day Off

I will return on Monday.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

September 23, 2010--Kitchen Cabinet

With Larry Summers finally departing from the Obama economic team, it is an opportunity not to just replace him with someone like him but reconceptualize it.

The president needs a very different kind of Council of Economic Advisers. The type he and previous presidents have had is made up of economists, academics, and corporate types such as Summers. Of course he needs the advice these kinds of folks from their expertise can provide since our economy is complex and globally interconnected.

But he needs something more--advice from people with common sense. From, as Obama would put it, "ordinary people" who are living daily with the consequences of government economic policy.

Presidents from Andrew Jackson to Harry Truman had Kitchen Cabinets that informally advised them. Now, Obama needs one of his own.

For the most part his predecessors' were not composed of ordinary people and they did not meet in anything resembling a kitchen. (Though Jackson may have used the White House kitchen for some of his meetings.) They were mostly made up of academics and trusted aides who advised the former presidents about the shape of their policies and how their practices were playing out politically.

Obama should establish a version that would benefit by meeting in an actual kitchen. Say, once a month in the kitchen of one of its members. So he could hear informally, outside the White House bubble, what is on people's minds and what they suggest he might do to be a more effective leader. Perhaps this might help penetrate his "cool" and make him more publicly empathetic.

I have a recommendation about who should be the first member--the woman who the other day at his MSNBC-televised "town meeting" confronted him about her frustrations with his leadership and administration.

She is Velma Hart, who described herself as a chief financial officer, a mother and a military veteran. She spoke forcefully, telling President Obama that though she had been an enthusiastic supporter, she is now disappointed that he has not lived up to her once-lofty expectations. She said she and her husband are worried that if things get worse for them they will have to go back to eating a lot of dinners of franks and beans.

“I’m exhausted of defending you, defending your administration. . . . I’m deeply disappointed where we are right now,” she said, adding that when she voted for Mr. Obama, she thought he would change Washington. “I’m waiting, sir. I’m waiting. I don’t feel it yet. . . . Is this my new reality?”

He didn't address the "new reality" issue--to do so honestly would have been politically disastrous because it may be true: what we are experiencing may presage a new, reset reality--but she did appear to get to him. At first uncomfortable being confronted, after a tense attempt to find some humor in the situation, Obama took the rest of what she asked seriously. But then he lapsed into the now familiar checklist of all the the things he has accomplished while in office that are supposed to benefit the middle class--from health care reform to some new regulation of the credit card industry.

But the people at the meeting as well as the viewers at home were still left feeling that though some legislation has passed none of it is as yet having much visceral impact on the economy or the lives of ordinary people. Or, additionally important, that Obama is feeling their pain.

To do so he has to get out more and spend real time in unmediated situations where he can hear directly and privately from the people who had such high hopes for him but now, like the woman he encountered, are having a difficult time believing in him or his leadership.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

September 22, 2010--The Value of a College Degree

A further word about the value of education--

The College Board yesterday published a report about the economic value of various levels of educational attainment and it confirmed what we already know: a college education is a good investment. Actually, an investment that is getting better over time and a significant benefit in a changing economy and during tough economic times.

Here are some specific numbers as reported by the New York Times. (Full article and charts linked below.)

For individuals 25 and older, median 2008 earnings for someone not a high school graduate--$24,300

For high school graduates--$33,800

For associate degree holders--$42,000

And for those who graduate from college--$55,700

Additionally, the benefit for college grads has been increasing over time. In 2008, among people between 25 and 34, male bachelors degree holders earned 79 percent more than high school graduates, while females earned 74 percent more. A decade ago, the differential was 60 percent for women and 54 percent for men.

The study also took into consideration cost-benefit issues, examining whether or not the cost of tuition, student loan interest payments, and deferred earnings (not having a full-time job while enrolled in college) is recovered by the higher earnings. The College Board found that it does take some time for the cost and earning curves to intersect--on average, 11 years. That's when the earning benefit of having a college degree begins to pay off for individuals. And then, as one might expect, the return on that investment really begins to take off so that over a lifetime a college graduate makes many hundreds of thousands of dollars more than a high school graduate.

Then there are the social benefits. In addition to being healthier, more likely to become active in their communities, and stay out of trouble, these higher earning individuals pay much more in taxes over a lifetime than those with less than a college degree. They do more than just pay back to society what they may have received from having had their student loans federally guaranteed or having received a federally-paid-for Pell Grant.

We know this already from history. After the Second Wold War, in just 12 years, 7.8 million veterans were able to go to college at no cost thanks to the GI Bill. Many studies have shown the incredible benefit the GI Bill provided to both individuals and the larger society. Some credit the flood of new college graduates into the economy in the 1950s as significantly responsible for the economic surge that American experienced and which endured, with ups and downs, for decades. Until, in fact, just recently.

With this evidence from the past and present we would expect to see our leaders clamoring for more investment of this kind. Some are but generally not conservatives who claim to be devoted to seeing our economy grow.

The best trickle-down approach to building our economy would be to expand college-going opportunities of the sort that were and are being provided for our veterans.

Can you imagine how much good would be the result of a universal, civilian version of the GI Bill? Incalculable. Actually, quite calculable. We would over time see our deficit shrink and ultimately disappear if, in addition, we would rein in some of our spending.

If there ever was a social policy no-brainer, this is it.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

September 21, 2010--Why School Reform Fails

If you want to know why it is so difficult to bring about sustainable, positive change in big-city school districts, take a look at what happened in Washington, DC last week.

Mayor Adrian Fenty was defeated for reelection by Vincent Gray.

The mayor appoints the school chancellor and it is widely expected that mayor-elect Gray will not rehire Michelle Rhee, who has been the system's CEO for three years and is widely acknowledged to have brought about real change to the District. (See linked New York Times article for details.)

During her few years in office she has taken on the powerful teachers union by raising private money to support performance-based pay for teachers (opposed by the union) and even moving to have incompetent teachers fired, including those with tenure (as you can imagine, this too was vigorously opposed). Dismissing ineffective teachers, many independent observers say, is one significant reason why many of DC's worst schools have improved but also why the local union as well as the national teachers' union and organized labor worked to oppose Fenty's reelection bid.

These unions clearly cared more about protecting incompetent teachers than the fate of the children in their care.

Rhee became the literal face of inner-city school reform, appearing on the cover of Time magazine and became a school reform superstar praised by President Obama and Arne Duncan, the Secretary of Education. DC was recently awarded a $73 million Race to the Top grant, but the private funders have already indicated that if she leaves, or is forced out, they will stop funding the special programs she instituted.

Holding the empty bag will be the youngsters of the nation's capital.

In sad truth it is not unusual for a school chancellor to remain in a city for only three or four years. Most move on voluntarily, getting out of town, frequently having traded up to a bigger job, before the results of the changes they brought to the school district have had a chance to take hold and yield quantifiable results. Since so few years is too soon to see much measurable change, and for the school leader to be held accountable, moving on quickly is a good personal strategy for an ambitious educator.

We have seen this parade of chancellors and superintendents in almost all of our largest cities, from Los Angeles to Houston to Miami to Baltimore to Detroit to Memphis to . . . .

Students typically remain in the system for up to 12 years, a core of teachers may be there during the school years of most of the kids, but school superintendents have very short professional lifespans.

However, it is not inevitable for school reformers and teachers' unions to work at cross purposes.

Teachers unions, like other unions, are essential advocates for their members. Without them teachers' salaries would be even lower than they are; teacher, as in the past, could be fired without due process; and working conditions would be worse than at present. But when the union's primary agenda becomes protecting the ineffective or claims that all teachers are equally productive (the one-size-fits-all pay scale unions negotiate is based on this claim), meaningful reform is impossible.

Teachers unions could agree to weeding out low classroom performers (after all sorts of due process and in-service retraining) in exchange for increased compensation and benefits for high-achievers. But all around the country they are dug in and our children suffer. Because of this, ultimately, our competitive place in the world also suffers.

In addition, cities should make long-term, non-partisan, non-political commitments to school superintendents who prove to be effective. If we could bring the unions into a partnership dedicated to focusing on student achievement and keep the Michelle Rhees on board for more than a few years, we could begin to get the job done and everyone would benefit.

Monday, September 20, 2010

September 20, 2010--Inheriting the Wing

There is a putsch well underway within the Republican Party. The Tea Party movement is accelerating the takeover by increasingly partisan, ideologically-driven candidates who care more about their version of moral purity and sense of their own well being than actually winning elections. So-called Republican moderates are increasingly unwelcome in the formerly big-tented Grand Old Party. To diverge on any issue is to risk being purged from the party.

I use these totalitarian words advisedly.

The constituency they are pandering to is overwhelmingly white, Christian (mainly Protestant), middle aged, and relatively undereducated.

Some say this is good news for hard-pressed Democrats since these extremists are thought to be too radical and thus unelectable.

I say, we'll see since the public is so angry and the anti-establishment passion is intensest on the right that I would not be surprised to see Tea Party backed candidates do quite well in November.

If they do, here's a glimpse of who the rising stars are likely to be:

In Nevada, in addition to calling for the end of Social Security, Medicare, federal involvement in education, abortions (including for pregnancies caused by rape and incest), Republican/Tea Party senatorial candidate Sharron Angle, running in at worst a dead heat against Harry Reid, is quoted as saying: "What is a little bit disconcerting and concerning is the inability for sporting goods stores to keep ammunition in stock. . . . That tells me the nation is arming. What are they arming for if it isn't that they are so distrustful of their government? They're afraid they'll have to fight for their liberty in more Second Amendment kinds of ways?" and "That's why I look at this as almost an imperative. If we don't win at the ballot box, what will be the next step?"

Obviously, armed revolt.

In Florida, Republican/Tea Party candidate for governor, Rick Scott, was the principle shareholder, president and CEO of Columbia Hospital Corporation when it was convicted of perpetrating the largest fraud in Medicare history. He was forced to resign in 1997, and Columbia agreed to pay $1.7 billion in fines and penalties--the largest fraud settlement in U.S. history. The hospital corporation pleaded guilty to a litany of criminal and civil charges including lying to the government about how sick patients were so they could collect larger fees.

Obviously, from Scott's point of view, it's a good thing that Sharron Angle and his other fellow Tea Partiers didn't get around to eliminating Medicare before he could cash in.

In addition, although he has frequently lambasted President Barack Obama's economic stimulus plan, a telecommunications company Scott has heavily invested in is reaping financial rewards from the program.

During the Republican primary, Scott was criticized for saying he would "fight [against] all of the stimulus money" even though he had a stake of nearly $5 million in a company called XFONE that had received $63 million in stimulus loans and grants to build fiber-optic networks.

"Part of the stimulus money," Scott said, "has a lot of strings attached to it that are going to impact us long-term. We're all going to have to pay for it, and our kids are going to have to pay for it long-term."

What he didn't say was that his kids would not have that problem since their daddy creamed off quite a bit of federal money and will pass much of it on to them.

Still he won the primary.

Then in New York there is Republican/Tea Party nominee for governor, Carl Paladino. He says that if he defeats Andre Cuomo to help him clean up the mess he will bring a baseball bat to Albany to bash a few heads. One of the heads he intends to take a swing at is Sheldon Silver's who is the state Assembly majority leader. Silver is Jewish but this did not deter Paladino from comparing him to Hitler and, if that isn't enough, the Anti-Christ. To entertain his friends and backers, Paladino is in the habit of circulating racist and pornographic emails.

He is rising in the polls.

In Maryland, Senate candidate Christine O'Donnell is best known for doing her Sarah Palin imitation. Not Tina Fey style with tongue in cheek but in a literal hair, makeup, and clothing imitation in a scary attempt to attract voters who may thus think that she is Palin's clone.

But O'Donnell is also know for other aberrant things. After dabbling in witchcraft as a young woman, she founded a group called the Savior's Alliance for Lifting the Truth, which calls for total sexual purity and claims that God created the world in six 24-hour days. She lied about her college record, claiming she graduated from Princeton 17 years ago whereas in truth she graduated from Fairleigh Dickinson just a few weeks ago after running out on her tuition bills more than a decade ago. She has no visible sources of income and yet lives rather well. She did not pay income taxes for years and has been investigated for the questionable use of campaign donations for personal expenses.

I am thinking that part of her appeal, besides the Palinesque wardrobe of the former Alaska governor, is the very fact that she has for years been hiding her actual income and has sought to avoid paying taxes. Isn't this the heart and soul of the Tea Party/Republican right-wing agenda--get rid of government, let me keep all my money, and the hell with everyone else?

It's one thing, and understandable, to be angry with the way things are in Washington and state capitals, but it's another to have these kinds of folks and their media impresarios seizing control of the party of Lincoln.

Friday, September 17, 2010

September 17, 2010--Midcoast: Cutting Back

“See what’s going on over there?” We were at Rose’s Farm Stand up near Thomaston and she was pointing at something across the road.

“I’m not following where you’re pointing,” I said, squinting into the sun. It was a perfect end-of-summer day. The air recently washed by a quick shower which produced such clarity that I wished I could paint or draw. It was not surprising why so many artists have been attracted to the coast of Maine.

“That tree,” Rose said still pointing, “The big maple. Look how wide around it is. I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s 200 years old.”

“Really?” Rona said. “I had no idea they got that old.”

“And then some,” Rose said.

“But I still don’t see what you’re getting at,” I said. And with that a massive limb came thundering to the ground.

“That’s what,” Rose said with a snarl.

“What’s going on over there?” Rona asked.

“That’s what I’m getting at,” Rose said. “That old bitch—forgive my French--who bought that house right next to it is having it cut down.”

“For what reason? It looks healthy enough to me.”

“See that field over there?” She pointed then at a plot of land adjacent to the house. “Well, there were three other big trees there. Must have been 150 years old, the two of them.”

“I don’t see any trees over there,” I said.

“My point exactly. There were two there and she had them cut down. Now she’s got a big old lawn but no trees. Must be doing the same thing with the maple. ’For you know it, there won’t be any trees left ‘round here. Or anywhere for that matter.”

“I hope you’re wrong,” Rona said. “That would be very sad. It’s so beautiful here and the trees are a big part of that.”

“Well, if the storms don’t git ‘em people like her will. I don’t know what’s wrong with ‘em. And I know what you’re thinkin’, that the owner over there is new to the area and she wants to ‘improve’ things. Which is not the case. Her family’s been here for as long as that tree. And when I talk about people new to the area present company is excluded. I know you two well enough by this time to suspect that’d you’d never do a thing like that. Quite the opposite. I’ll bet by now you’ve joined every conservation group in the state.” She broke into a broad grin.

“Not exactly all,” Rona said, but by this time next year you may be right.”

“Nothin’ wrong with that,” Rose said. “In fact, my Lewis and I, if we had the means, would do the very same thing.”

I nodded. We had come to buy some eggplant and onions right out of her field for a vegetable lasagna we were planning for dinner. Rose’s eggplants are the best I’ve ever had.

“Speaking about ‘means,’” Rose said, “Guess how much she is payin’ to have that done. Removing the maple, I mean.” She paused for a beat and quickly continued, “You’ll never guess but I hear at least twenty-two hundred.”

“Wow,” Rona said, “But it is a big tree.”

“Which is my point—a tree like that deserves to live. If anything, she’s the one who should be removed!” She doubled over with laughter, coughing up cigarette smoke. “Gotta stop these before they kill me.” That made her laugh and cough even harder and I was concerned that she might pass out from choking and lack of oxygen.

“On the other hand,” Rose resumed after catching her breath, “I s’pose work is work and twenty-two hundred isn’t to be sneezed at.” With that, again from the smoke, she sneezed three quick times. “Not that that justifies what she’s doin’, but those tree guys can sure use the work and the money.” She paused, “And frankly so can we.”

Rona was nodding compassionately. “My Lewis, he works construction. He’s an electrician and there’s not much these day for him to do. He’s lucky enough to be finishing a job now on a new house but his boss says there’s nothing waitin’ in the pipeline. So we’re strugglin’. Lot’s of folks can’t pay their taxes. Tomorrow’s tax day here. Real estate taxes are due then.”

I began to interrupt and Rona poked me as she knew I was going to say that we had paid ours early at Town Hall last week. To avoid the lines. I appreciated the poke as it for sure was what I awkwardly was about to say could rightly have been seen as insensitive. We are very fortunate indeed to feel as financially secure as we do.

“Like I was sayin’, lot’s of people, Lewis and me included, are having trouble keeping up with our payments. I know it’s going on all over but it doesn’t make it feel any better here. We’re thankful to have folks like you around who can afford to pay a premium for our corn and tomatoes. And of course our eggplants.” She winked at me.

“Well we . . .” I stammered.

“No need to be getting all guilty on my behalf,” Rose said reassuringly, “I meant that as a genuine thanks. I don’t know what we’d do if we didn’t have this.” Her gesture took in the entire little shop where she sold her remarkable veggies. “Probably have to live in our van.”

“I hope . . .” Rona this time stammered.

“I’m bein’ lit’ral with you. Things are that bad.” We both lowered our heads slightly and broke off eye contact. In spite of Rose’s dispensation we were feeling guilty about our relative secure situation.

“We’ve had to do a lot of cuttin’ back. As we sensed things getting’ bad, more than a year ago, we began to pull back. At first we had enough extra cash to do a few fun things. Like come home from work Fridays and get all spiffed up and go out for a nice dinner. But we cut that out more than a year ago.”

“That sounds . . .” I said without looking up.

“. . . about right,” Rose put a finish on my interrupted sentence. “That’s what we did and I’m sure glad we did. ‘Cause now we’d have no choice but to cut back on even more things. You know we both work hard—two, three jobs if we can fine ‘em.” We both raised our heads at the same time and took to nodding at Rose with as much respect and understanding as we could generate.

“Why not more than six months ago when money became even more scarce, we stopped eatin’ breakfast out on Sundays. We really enjoyed that but had no choice. It was either that or maybe lose the house. We’re playing things that close to the margins.”

“That sounds . . . well, I mean, what you and Lewis are doing . . . if there is no choice, I mean . . .” Again I could not complete a coherent sentence.

“I ‘preciate what you’re sayin’. I know you folks are doing as well as can be expected in these times. I don’t have any bad feelings about that. I really don’t. You’d be the first to know if I did! I know you worked hard and all that. And you deserve what you got.”

“Thanks but we . . .” Rona was no better at finishing her thoughts than I.

“Look, we have to keep on going. In life I mean. With whatever it is that we have or don’t have. It’s not about that, I’m sure you’ll agree. The most important thing we have is life and we have to make the most of it, whatever else we’re lucky enough to have or what gets dealt us.”

“We try to think that way and live accordingly,” Rona said. I was still struggling with the image of Rose and Lewis having to live in their van.

“So maybe after all that bitch, as I call her, is doing her part to make things work. Don’t get me wrong, what’s she’s doing to her trees is a crime. Or at least it should be. But maybe if she is spending as much as I think on the job, and what with those other trees I told you about, well she is doing some good in the process.”

“Do you really . . ?”

“I’m trying to put the best spin on what’s happenin’ over there.” The chain saws had resumed their high-pitched whine and more huge limbs were plummeting to the ground. The massive tree was by then a forlorn shadow of its former majestic self, more like a tree for hanging people than shading them.

“As a result maybe at least one less family will have to live in their car.” She sighed and we were left to contemplate our own fortunate reality and to figure out what to make of the larger picture she had sketched.

“So what can I do for you today?” Rose was again her old chipper self. “Did I hear vegetable lasagna? I love that. You want a couple of my eggplants? I could have misheard you what with them damn chainsaws and all.”

Thursday, September 16, 2010

September 16, 2010--Family Matters

In his on-line newsletter,, Michael Craven, founding director of the Center for Christ & Culture, proclaimed that the Culture War is over and that conservative Christians lost.

He writes:

I have come to face this possibility along with its implications, most recently while reading the new book by David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons entitled unChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity … and Why it Matters. In the book, Jud Wilhite, a pastor in Las Vegas says . . . that [we lost], “In Las Vegas, where I live, the culture war is over. We lost. Let me repeat: WE LOST. Now our calling is to love and accept people one-on-one, caring for them where they are. Our role is subversive as we carry the light and love of Jesus into the casinos, clubs, and streets of our city.”

Beyond the casinos of Las Vegas others, even folks on the right, are saying the same thing. The cultural issues they care about are in retreat.

They would like to see evolution excluded from the curriculum, but there it remains; they would like to see abortions declared the equivalent of murder, but Roe v. Wade is still the law of the land; they would like to see stem cell research ended, but that Muslim Obama just issued an executive order overturning George Bush's executive order; they would like to see prayer permitted in public schools, but the Supreme Court continues to say the separation of church and state forbids that; they would like to see the end of affirmative action, but decided law has settled much of this and the expansion of rights for women, gays, and minorities continues; they would like to see the 10 Commandments dispalyed in courthouses around the country and chreches allowed on public property, but again the courts have ruled largely against them; and they would like to see English declared the only acceptable language in America and bilingual education ended, but the former has not become law and the latter continues unabated.

So Craven and Kinneman and Lyons and Wilhite may be right--it's over, and they indeed lost.

More evidence for that conclusion comes from a new poll about how Americans views families. Actually, what constitutes a family. As reported in the New York Times, until recently, the majority of Americans thought of families as being made up of a husband and wife and children. Now, for the first time, a majority say that their definition of a family is broader and includes same sex couples with children. (Article linked below.)

The same survey found that most interviewed believe gayness to be a matter of genetics and is not the result of parenting, peer pressure, a choice of lifestyle, or the will of God.

Thus, case closed?

I am afraid, not so soon.

The strength of the Tea Party, the Republican resurgence, very much including the purging of its moderate members and the power of Sarah Palin is as much about culture as it is about anti-government passion and economics.

At the Glenn Beck rally a couple of weeks ago, what was proclaimed to the gathered masses was that it is time to see this nation once again become a Christian nation. Forget for the moment that Beck is a Mormon, but let us be sure to remember that everything having to do with religion in the public arena is not just political but cultural.

Evolution may still be a part of most curricula, but Americans remain the developed world's most religious people and participation in religious and quasi-religious activities such as that infamous rally is at an all-time high.

And some of the most contentious cultural issues are slowly making their way to the Roberts Supreme Court. Don't be surprised if Roe v. Wade and other culturally-contested issues are overturned by 5-4 votes.

As I see things, the war is still on and it's too soon to declare a victor.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

September 15, 2010--John Boehner's "Freedom Project"

If you are wondering why House Minority Leader John Boehner on Sunday said he might be open to voting for an extension of the Bush tax cuts even if those for the highest 2 percent of earners were allowed to expire, you might think that all of a sudden he acquired a case of political smarts. He knows that the Republicans' lockstep support for continuing the cuts for America's billionaires is already the centerpiece of the Democratic fall campaign to maintain control of the House and thus thwart Boehner's aspiration to replace Nancy Pelosi as Speaker.

He seemed to be saying--Give in on this unpopular tax break for folks who don't need it and take away the Democrats only popular position. A day later, of course, after this seeming offer on a Sunday talk show, not one other Republican lined up to follow their leader. So much for being a leader.

Though, yes, one political lapdog, Senator Joe Lieberman, erstwhile Democrat, joined the minority leader in support of continuing all of Bush's deficit-busting tax cuts.

If not political acuity, what really might have been on Boehner's mind Sunday morning was a devastating, front page article about him that appeared in the New York Times. In fine-grained detail it exposed his cozy relationship with hundreds of special-interest lobbyists. Many former staff members of his, most engaged, in quid pro quo fashion, in dangling money and fancy vacations in front of him in return for his support of legislation primarily of benefit to big corporate interests, especially for the banking and so-called investment community. (Full article liked below.)

Even a glimpse at the quasi-legal perks John Boehner receives from his corporate chums reveals the depth of his complicity. In an attempt to cover his tracks, the minority leader began by setting up a political action committee to receive financial support and certain less quantifiable benefits. Without intentional irony he calls it his Freedom Project.

According to the Times' fine reporting, the Freedom Project picks up the tab for his many trips to "golf destinations" on private corporate jets. During the last 18 months the Project spent at least $67,000 at the Ritz-Carlton in Naples, Florida, at least $20,000 at the Robert Trent Jones Golf Club in Gainesville, Virginia, and another $20,000 at the Muirfield Village Golf Club in Dublin, Ohio.

Now that's what I call freedom.

Boehner came into office in 1990 with six others who self-described themselves, with no nod to Mao Zedong, as the Gang of Seven. They were devoted, they proclaimed, to cleaning up the mess in Washington, symbolized to them by the fancy, taxpayer-subsidized Capitol Barbershop and the white-glove, plantation-style Senate restaurant. Further, each of them pledged to serve as citizen legislators, which meant that they would term-limit themselves. On day one they proclaimed that they would serve only six years, three two-year terms in office.

That was 20 years ago. The other six are gone, mostly under clouds of corruption (none incidentally stepped aside voluntarily); but John Boehner remains.

He explains this to anyone who remembers his pledge that he sees himself as essential to reigning in the Democrats, especially when it comes to spending. He fails to mention that when the Republicans had a majority in the House he voted for all the Bush tax cuts that added at least $3.0 trillion to our deficit. The same deficit he now promises to reduce if he become Speaker.

Maybe, then, Boehner's offhand comments about his willingness to perhaps compromise with the Democrats on tax breaks for the wealthy was only unintentionally smart but in truth was more to show some independence from those fat cats who behind the scenes pull his political strings.

In the meantime, the Democrats will be featuring John Boehner as their version of a boogieman during the fall campaign. Just as the Republicans showcase Pelosi.

So maybe it will come down to this--vote Democrat and suffer at least two more years of that "horror-show" from San Francisco, as the GOP labels her; or, vote Republican and see the House ruled by that orange-faced man from Ohio, as the Dems characterize him. Aren't voters fortunate to have such an inspiring choice.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

September 14, 2010--Telling It (Partly) Like It (Sadly) Is

I generally pass right by Tom Friedman's columns in the New York Times. Whereas in the past to me they were often informative and provoked further thought, in recent years they have become predictable and it feels as if he is frequently imitating himself. Which goes to prove that no one can keep his intellectual edges sharp forever.

But then this past Sunday he surprised me. Drawing primarily on a column by the Washington Post's Robert Samuelson, Friedman wrote insightfully, and even a little courageously, about why, though we Americans continue to proclaim ourselves Number One in every field from basketball to the annual number of patents issued, in fact, in some important areas we're more Number 11 than predominant. None more distressing than in public education where we have slipped to 11th in the world in the number of our young people completing college degrees. (Full Friedman column linked below.)

Samuelson and Friedman speculate as to the causes.

Class sizes are too large, teachers get paid too little, not enough kids have the benefit of pre-school programs, and there aren't enough charter schools to close the persistent gap in student achievement. But they cite evidence that none of these, troubling as they might be, are at the heart of the problem. What then is holding our youth back from competing successfully with others around the world with whom we are locked in economic competition?

Radically, at the considerable risk of being accused of blaming the victims, they contend that there is something about the children themselves that is holding them back.

Samuelson writes:

The larger cause of failure is almost unmentionable: shrunken student motivation. Students, after all, have to do the work. If they aren't motivated, even capable teachers may fail.

Motivation comes from many sources: curiosity and ambition; parental expectations; the desire to get into a "good" college; inspiring or intimidating teachers; peer pressure. The unstated assumption of much school "reform" is that if students aren't motivated, it's mainly the fault of schools and teachers. The reality is that, as high schools have become more inclusive (in 1950, 40 percent of 17-year-olds had dropped out, compared with about 25 percent today) and adolescent culture has strengthened, the authority of teachers and schools has eroded. That applies more to high schools than to elementary schools, helping explain why early achievement gains evaporate.

Motivation is weak because more students (of all races and economic classes, let it be added) don't like school, don't work hard and don't do well. In a 2008 survey of public high school teachers, 21 percent judged student absenteeism a serious problem; 29 percent cited "student apathy." [My italics.]

Friedman picks up on the student-motivation and the don't-work-hard charges. He sees these claims to be valid and looks for the reasons. He writes:

There is a lot to Samuelson’s point — and it is a microcosm of a larger problem we have not faced honestly as we have dug out of this recession: We had a values breakdown — a national epidemic of get-rich-quickism and something-for-nothingism. Wall Street may have been dealing the dope, but our lawmakers encouraged it. And far too many of us were happy to buy the dot-com and subprime crack for quick prosperity highs.

Ask yourself: What made our Greatest Generation great? First, the problems they faced were huge, merciless and inescapable: the Depression, Nazism and Soviet Communism. Second, the Greatest Generation’s leaders were never afraid to ask Americans to sacrifice. Third, that generation was ready to sacrifice, and pull together, for the good of the country. And fourth, because they were ready to do hard things, they earned global leadership the only way you can, by saying: “Follow me.” [Again, my italics.]

As controversial as it may be to acknowledge that students themselves must share some of the responsibility for the failures of our schools and themselves, much of what both Samuelson and Friedman write rings true to me.

For more than three decades I spent much of my professional life in public schools in every corner of America--from inner-city schools to one-room classrooms in rural Alabama. And over the years I did see increasing percentages of under-motivated youngsters even in classes taught be talented teachers.

One significant caveat that requires further study and thought--

Listless and bored students were much more common in the higher grades. I never visited a first or second or third grade class in which the kids were not easy to motivate. Even when their teachers were mediocre. But by the fourth grade it was obvious that school was no longer important to too many students

So one edit for Samuelson and Friedman--

Yes, the cultural shifts they cite which affect young people's motivation are problems not easy to overcome. But then there is also something systemically wrong with the schools themselves that contributes to dampening the eagerness with which children begin their schooling. That too urgently needs addressing because the failures of our schools is not nearly so much, as they claim, about the children themselves.

Monday, September 13, 2010

September 13, 2010--Lazy Day

I will be back tomorrow.

Friday, September 10, 2010

September 10, 2010--The Ladies of Forest Trace: More Book Burning

“Why do things like this always have to happen to us in Florida?”

“What kinds of things, mom?” I asked my more than 102-year-old mother who was calling, all upset, from Forest Trace, the retirement community in which she lives in Lauderhill.

“First there was how some of the old people here didn’t know how to punch their ballots and wound up electing George Bush. And we know what he did to us. Now we have a crook, and worse, running for governor. Rick Scott, the Republican, whose company had to pay nearly two billion dollars in fines for committing Medicare fraud. Stealing money from us old people.”

“I’ve been reading about him. Since we spend the winter in Florida I have a personal interest now in who becomes governor. But these sorts of things are not new for Florida. For years and years there have been plenty of crooks to go around at the city and state levels. You sound more upset than about Florida politics as usual.”

“Well I am. I’m not very good at hiding my feelings, am I?”

“That I’ve noticed,” I said. “So what’s really going on?”

“It’s the girls.”

“Is something wrong with one of them or are they agitating you again with some of the things they talk about at dinner?”

“It’s not that this time. It is true that sometimes they get on my nerves; but when you get to my age, that happens with everyone. Not all the time, but sometimes. Of course not with you and your brother and his family. They and you are always wonderful to me.”

At this I smiled, hoping she was telling the truth. “Again, what then this time has you and them so upset?”

“This time it’s that Jerry Jones or Terry James. I forget his name.”

“I’m not sure I know who you mean.”

“I have no memory anymore. We can’t stop talking about him so I at least should remember his name.”

“Your memory is fine, mom, even for someone half your age.”

“The one from Gainesville. Who has a little church there.”

“You mean, Terry Jones, the Pentecostal minister.”

“Him, yes, who wants to burn the Quran. Tomorrow, on the anniversary of September 11th. Have you been following this up there wherever you are?”

“In Maine, mom, yes we get the Times here and CNN. Se we know what’s going on. There’s no escaping that. It is a terrible thing he is planning, but didn’t he yesterday say he wasn’t going to do it?”

“No exactly. He announced that he wasn’t going to do it on the 11th, that he was ‘suspending’ plans so he could pray more to see what God tells him to do. As if God calls him up on the phone.”

“You’re right. That’s what he said. I remember. See what I mean about losing memories?”

“Don’t make fun of me, please. I have enough problems without your doing that.”

“What sorts of problems, mom? Is something happening I should know about? Are you keeping anything from me?” She has a tendency to do that, not wanting to worry us with things of concern to her. “You know we want to know what is going on with you.”

“If you would sit still for a minute and let me talk you’ll know soon enough.”

“You see, mom,” I said with a laugh, “even I can get on your nerves.”

“This is no time for your jokes. But you are getting on my nerves not allowing me to finish my thought before I forget what I want to tell you about.”

“I hear you. Sorry. I won’t say another word. Tell me, then, what’s going on to have you and your friends so upset?”

“I told you. It’s that Jessie Jones.” I didn’t correct her. “His plans. At first we thought this whole thing should be ignored. He is just a crazy person, we said, who isn’t really a minister who has, what, a dozen parishioners. The television and the Herald are full of stories about him, we thought, to get us all riled up so we would watch the news all day and all night. Like how they made such a big deal out of those plans to build a Moslem place near where New York was attacked by terrorists. What should have been over and done with in a day or two was on the news all day for weeks. And now, we thought, they found something else to make us crazy and keep us watching. The media I mean.

“But the more we thought about it,” she continued, “the more the girls and I not only got upset—which is not hard to do with us—but began to think that it is a story that deserves the attention it is getting.”

I had a sense of where this was going. One of the “girls” is a 90-year-old Holocaust survivor.

“I know what you are thinking,” my mother said, not missing a beat, “That we are turning this into a Jewish thing.”

“Well, I, yes, I did . . .”

“You would be wrong. It is true that at first Fannie, you know her history, Fannie was all upset because it reminded her of what she personally experienced in Germany. When she was younger. Before her family, which was mostly killed, somehow managed to survive and get to America.”

“Yes, I do . . .”

“But then we thought this so-called minister is just a crazy person. He is not a Nazi, not the kind they had in Germany, and that thankfully he is just one person, of course with people who agree with him, and doesn’t represent the government, which was not true then in Germany where it was their policy to persecute the Jews, burn books, and eventually try to exterminate all of us.”

“Good points. Mom. That feels like the right perspective. So, again, what has you so . . ?”

“I’ll tell you what we are currently thinking.”

“I’m listening.”

“You’re not running off somewhere?”

“Not until this afternoon. So, please, go on.”

“We were wrong. It’s not about one crazy person and a few lunatic followers.”

“Now you’ve lost me. Didn’t you just say it was about just him and that he shouldn’t be getting so much attention?”

“I said that was what we were feeling a few days ago but we have now changed our minds.”


“It is not about a handful of publicity seekers. It’s a much bigger problem than that. Yes, he is one person and our wonderful Constitution gives him the right to burn that book or any other. That could be ignorable. But the fact that so many of our politicians, primarily Republicans, are remaining silent, not condemning him, has turned it into a big story. That then is the story, that silence. And it is a very, very big story.”

“Why is that, mom?” I was beginning to see where she was going with this.

“It’s a very, very big and disturbing story because most of our leaders’ silence—though I like what Obama had to say about this—suggests that what is going on is not about the plans and ravings of a few people but is a larger reality.”

“And that would be?”

“That most of our craven leaders are afraid to touch this subject. This growing hatred of all things Moslem. Or are intentionally remaining silent so they can take advantage of it. In fact, people like Newt Gingrich, who I used to have some respect for because he seems smart, and of course that Sara Palin, and Glenn Peck, not to mention all those other Fox people, are playing this for all its worth. To get themselves elected and to make money from our fears.”

“About this I agree.”

“It is as if they are saying that we are not at war with Islamic terrorists, thank God there are relatively few of them, but that we are at war with all Moslem people. A billion of them. These Gingriches either see this war of civilizations going on or they are cynically taking personal advantage of what more and more Americans are fearing.

“And another thing,” she continued, “and then I’ll let you go to your running around. This is a large part of why so many Americans hate Barack Obama.”


“Because they think he is a Moslem. A part of this war against America. These ignorant, fearful people are looking for explanations about why things are not going well in America. Why we are losing our place in the world. Why we seem to be losing the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Why so many people have lost their jobs and houses. Why we have such a big debt and need the Chinese to buy our bonds. Why our schools aren’t working. And even why are roads are all broken down.

“For these people there needs to be some simple explanation for all of this. Rather than take responsibility and do the hard work we need to do to make things better and solve our problems we look for things to blame our troubles on. All of Islam and Obama in particular.”

“All good points, mom. Again, you and the ladies have things figured out.”

“I hope you’re not patronizing us.”

“That is the furthest thing from my mind. In fact, I have nothing but respect for all of you. You are remarkable in more ways than I can say.”

“So, Fannie, at dinner yesterday said, ‘Yes, they may burn some books. I remember that as if it was yesterday, but what is really disturbing is their looking for people to blame things on—like the Nazis blamed the Jews—and the silence of many of our leaders. That’s the worst thing. Their silence, which is most dangerous.’”

“Leave it to Fannie,” I said, “to figure things out and sum them up. She, sadly, may be right.”

“Enough about this,” my mother said, “We have to have positive thoughts, and I have to run. I have a meeting of the residents board. I’m still the co-treasurer, you know.”

With that she hung up and left me to my thoughts.

Thursday, September 09, 2010

September 9, 2010--Clamshell Casing

Every house here on the coast of Maine comes equipped with rain slickers, lobster pots, kayaks, Subarus, and oyster and clam knives. The latter to enable you to partake of some of the ocean's most delectable bivalves. That is, if you feel able to work those knives into the tough muscles that hold their shells together in a vice-like grip. And if you are willing to take the risk that the clam knife won't slip from the shallow slit between the two half shells and wind up severing the veins and tendons in your wrist.

From this you might rightly surmise that we tend either to have the fish store open our oysters or, more frewuently, order them in restaurants.

But these knives have other purposes. Among them to open what I have now come to learn are called clamshell casings. Those heavy plastic wrappings in which pretty much everything you get in hardware stores are encased.

In preparation for Hurricane Earl, which happily here turned out to be a rain event, we bought two battery-operated lamps and a economy pack of D batteries. These came sealed in virtually impenetrable plastic that was so difficult to open that if we had been hit by Earl and lost power it would have taken less time for the electric company to repair the damage than for us to pry them loose.

"What's the story with this?" Rona asked as she watched me get all sweated up while I struggled to free the first of the lamps. "Why do they have to package them this way? Not only is it a big waste of money but think about how, if you ever manage to get the stuff unpacked, the plastic, which looks like it's an eighth of an inch thick, will never degrade in the town dump."

"If I ever get this friggen thing lamp unsealed," I panted, "we'll be sure to recycle the plastic."

"Here, try one of your new Henkel knives. Using a screwdriver alone won't get the job done."

"I spent nearly a hundred dollars for that knife. I'm not going to ruin it on this. I'd rather sit in the dark for two days than do that."

"I understand. But try one of these." She handed me the clam knife.

"That's not a bad idea," I said, "But I think the oyster knife would be better. It has a sharper point."

Rona fished around in the drawer to find it. "You're right. This one looks like it was designed to poke through that plastic mess. But be careful, I don't want to have to call 911 if you slit your wrist."

The storm, as I mentioned, passed out to sea and so neither the lamps nor the batteries were needed. Then, the next day, as if on cue, there was an article in the business section of the New York Times (linked below) devoted to what in the packaging trade is referred to as "clamshell casing." From my recent experience, well named.

It appears that there is a movement against it. Not led by environmentalists but rather by on-line retailers such as They are trying to pressure manufacturers to provide them with goods that come in "frustration-free packaging." But they are meeting heavy resistance. After two years of effort, of the nearly one million items Amazon sells, only about 600 now come wrapped in ways that do not require hack saws to free them.

The opposition is being led by even bigger retailers such as WalMart who claim they need the stuff they sell encased this way to deter theft. This I can understand. If a shoplifter wants to pocket four of my D batteries, he had better try to pry them out of their package or he will set off the anti-theft alarm when he races to leave the store. But packed as they currently are, he'd have to have already stolen a screwdriver and sit on the floor of the battery aisle for 10 minutes in order to cut off the plastic sheath.

Amazon, thus, has taken a different tack--how about one form of kryptonite packaging for K-Mart and another for on-line companies?

Philips Electronics has agreed to do just that for its line of oral heathcare products. Amazon showed them hundreds of customer complaints about their traditional packaging and Philips found a way to pack their electric toothbrushes in two ways--for the big-box stores and the Amazons.

They turned to AllpakTrojan, who packages their products, and they came up with a soultion.

To tell the truth, when I first read about AllpakTrojan, I thought they were referring to condoms, not toothbrushes; and wondered if things have come to pass that one needs one of my Henkels to unfurl them.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

September 8, 2010--The Lord of the Andes

The Lord of the Flies, written by William Golding during the Cold War, is set at a time in the future when a nuclear World War III was raging. The main characters are from private schools in Great Britain who find themselves alone and isolated in a paradisiacal country, far from any trace of civilization. The book portrays their descent into savagery: these well-educated children regress to a primitive state.

The allegory is obvious--

Golding's is a deeply pessimistic view of human nature. Man, he asserts, if left to his own devices, without clear ethical codes, the imposition of civilization, and the rule of law, will strive for power and dominance in a bloody struggle for survival. His a limited version of Darwinism with nature, as Tennyson wrote, "red in tooth and claw."

A closer reading of Darwin shows him not only explicating the combative ways in which individual members of a species struggle to survive and thereby pass on their genetic makeup, but reveals how he also struggled to understand how self-sacrifice among many creatures also contributes to species propagation. How, for example, social amoebas (dictyostelium discoideum) and common ants sacrifice their individual lives so that others might survive and thereby produce future generations.

In The Descent of Man, in response to John Stuart Mill who saw human goodness as a learned and not an inherent trait, Darwin wrote:

. . . it can hardly be disputed that the social feelings are instinctive or innate in lower animals and why should they not be in man? . . . Several thinkers believe that the moral sense is acquired by each individual during its lifetime. On the general theory of evolution this is at least extremely improbable

There are numerous human examples of this same kind of self-sacrificing behavior. From the battle field where a soldier throws himself on a live hand grenade, giving up his life to save his buddies, to firemen racing into a collapsing building to rescue others. As we approach the ninth anniversary of September 11th, we are reminded of hundreds of stories of this kind of remarkable courage where saving the lives of others trumps saving even one's own.

And now there is the stunning example of the 33 miners who have been trapped a half mile below ground in a gold and copper mine in Chile. Unlike the boys of The Lords of the Flies who descended into barbarism that included cannibalism, the men of San José, Chile have risen to civilization. (See New York Times story linked below.)

During the 35 days they have thus far been underground, huddled in an area the size of a small apartment, even before being contacted by rescuers who now are able to supply them via a four-inch bore hole, they organized themselves into a mini functioning society. The oldest of them, 62-year-old Mario Gómez has become their spiritual guide while 54-year-old Luis Urzúa organizes their daily work assignments and is in charge of guiding the drilling of the rescue tunnel. And there is Yonny Barrios, 52, who is serving as their medic, following instructions from literally above about the administration of medical tests and medicines.

Chile's health minister says, "They are completely [self] organized. They have a full hierarchy. It is a matter of life and death for them."

It will not be until at least Christmas before they are rescued--more allegory--and no one seems unduly concerned that they will not survive because they are taking care of themselves and, at least as important, each other.

Darwin is surely smiling. As are our ancestors the dictyostelium discoideum.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

September 7, 2010--Taxes

An in-law of mine has become increasingly frustrated with some of her friends who are obsessed with taxes.

They are fortunate enough to be affluent, and during the last presidential campaign voted for John McCain because he promised to retain the Bush tax cuts which primarily have been of benefit to folks like them--the top five percent of earners.

Their attitude--"We made it and want to keep our money. Everyone else, not the government, should figure out how to take care of themselves." And thus these former liberals have turned to the GOP in pursuit of their own self interest.

This includes at least one doctor who took the Hippocratic Oath when she graduated from medical school. The last time I read it I did not notice anything about how being a physician entitles one to earn half a million dollars a year. Or if one does, which is fine, how this should exempt one from paying a fair share of taxes.

And I have my own friends who are similarly inclined. Their anti-tax views, though, have the patina of seeming to be more ideological--cutting income and capital gains taxes for everyone and all corporations is the best way to stimulate the economy, and this in turn will benefit those who are struggling. Trickle-down economics is alive and well among these conservatives.

With the Bush tax cuts about to expire, when Congress returns soon from its summer recess, taxes will be at the top of the agenda. Republicans want to retain them as is, with the benefits continuing to go almost exclusively to the wealthiest, while the president and most (but not all) Democrats want to cut those of the middle class and increase taxes for couples earning more than $250,000 a year. Republicans also want to continue the phasing out of estate taxes (they call them death taxes); while most Democrats would like to tax estates over, say, $5.0 million.

It will be an interesting debate, but a debate that will be more about politics than economics or social justice. Republicans will continue to tar Democrats as tax-and-spend liberals while Democrats will try to characterize Republicans as caring only about the rich.

Both, will in effect, be right.

If we were to have an enlightened debate about the effects of various forms of taxation on the larger economy a good and balanced text on which to base it is a column by David Leonhardt that appeared recently in the New York Times. (It is linked below. Pay particular attention to the charts and graphs.)

In it Leonhardt takes a look at the actual results the past 30 years of cutting taxes to see which ones have been of greatest benefit to the economy, especially in growing the GDP and creating jobs, which has been and is the rationale for all recent tax reductions.

He looks at how every president's tax policy from Reagan to Obama has impacted the economy--from permanent tax cuts focused on the affluent (Reagan and George W. Bush), which turned out to be of little long term benefit; to one-time, across-the-board cuts (George W. Bush and Obama), which did have a positive impact; to the most productive tax cuts of all that are designed to get people to create jobs and spend money, like last year's cash-for-clunkers program that resulted in a million new car sales and the 2009 tax break that promoted corporate investment.

President Bush in 2001 got Congress to approve his original income tax cuts to help slow the loss of jobs that had occurred during the last four months of the Clinton administration. But they were so skewed to benefit the rich (who tended to save and not spend the money) that they added trillions to the deficit but did not reduce job losses, which continued at an accelerated rate for the next two years.

And Ronald Reagan's 1981 tax cuts also did not have a positive effect on GDP. After he signed it the economy lost jobs for 16 straight months and the deficit nearly tripled during his eight years in office.

Again from history, the most productive tax cuts are those that have a direct effect on spending and thus lead to business growth and job creation. These include the suspension of payroll taxes on employees, temporary across-the-board tax cuts, housing tax credits, and accelerated depreciation allowances.

If our various conservative friends would calm down a bit about what increasing some taxes would actually mean to them (about $5,000 a year in additional taxes for couples earning a half million) and what the best kinds of targeted cuts would mean for the economy, my liberal friend and I would agree that the debt is indeed a ticking time bomb of a problem and further agree to take a hard look at where governments could cut spending and thereby contribute to debt reduction. There are in fact lots of things to eliminate from every state and federal department. This also means taking a hard look at ways to reduce the escalating costs of all of our entitlement programs, from Medicare to Social Security.

The right kind of tax policy is only one way out of our current mess, be it unemployment, housing foreclosures, and out-of-control debt. Everything we do should be devoted to solving these. If we could achieve this, and it will require sacrifice and at times be painful, even our conservative friends will still find themselves doing quite well.

Thursday, September 02, 2010

September 2, 2010--Earl

We are busy preparing for Hurricane Earl. I will thus take a few days off and return on Tuesday.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

September 1, 2010--Midcoast: The Spiders of Pemaquid

There is not much opportunity here to observe big game. Rarely if ever are there any moose to be spotted along the coast. Wildlife action of that kind occurs inland. So near Pemaquid Point, in compensation, I have taken to watching the many spiders that are especially hard at work because of the mosquitoes that spawned after last week's rain. And though they attack us at dawn and dusk, for spiders they are a delicacy. Rich in the protein that they need to sustain themselves and out of which the silken material from which they spin their webs is composed, the new supply of these pests has kept the local spiders working overtime.

If you are skeptical, I can assure you that I do have some experience as a very amateur naturalist. One time, in South Africa for example, after the work I was engaged is was completed, Rona and I trekked out to a game camp near Kruger National Park. At first, poshly accommodated—we were met at the entrance by a post-Apartheid black man in a crisply starched White Hunter’s outfit who offered us a frosted glass of something orange, which tasted like a mimosa, to help us relax and compensate us for the bumpy flight in on a six-seater—I was immediately suspicious about the authenticity of the experience that awaited us. Mimosas and stalking big game somehow did not go together even blended in a rich imagination. I, after all, had grown up reading Jungle Book stories and spending time at this Ngala Game Lodge promised to be very different than squeezing under a mosquito net in a tent in the bush.

And so, as I usually do in these circumstances, I behaved dismissively, blaming Rona for dragging me to this expensive Disneyland version of the Veldt, and immediately began to make cynical fun of the guide’s cheerful promise that during our three days there we would be certain to see the Big Five, which he informed us, since this was the first we had heard of this notion, were the five most desirable animals to encounter—the lion; the African elephant; the cape buffalo; the leopard; and rarest of all, the black rhinoceros.

And with that he had one of his “boys” whisk us to our hut (some hut with a marble and slate bathroom about the size of our one-bedroom apartment back in Manhattan) and told us not to be late for dinner, which that evening was to be served by a roaring fire on which various slabs of game meat were to be roasted. “Be sure to have the impala steak,” he said, smacking his lips, “It is very special.”

The next day, on the first of our six game drives—one each morning just before dawn and another every evening prior to sunset—we spotted two cheetah within a hundred yards of our camp, which, rather than pleasing me, only made me more cynical. I think I said sotto voce to Rona, “I’ll bet the reason these cheetahs are right here is because they lure them close by putting out food.” And to the guide, who did not deserve my sarcasm, I added, “They don’t count toward the Big Five, do they? Maybe the Big Six?” He simply smiled back at me, undoubtedly having had, through the years, to endure this and worse from rich tourists.

And then within the first hour, after spotting a pride of lions at a watering hole and learning all about how it is lionesses who do all the cub rearing and hunting while the males hang around sleeping their way through the sultry days—it was clear that women’s liberation as well as freedom and democracy had arrived in South Africa—suspecting that the hotel owners had dug and kept the water hole full so that their pampered guests would not have to drive around all day in dusty futilely chasing after the first of the Big Five, restraining from allowing myself to be overly impressed, I came up with what I thought to be a witty counter to the traditional way of keeping score while on this version of safari—the obverse of the Big Five, the Tiny Five. “Maybe we should keep that list too,” I said to no one in particular, “You know, the termite—see all those termite mounds—the tsetse fly, the mosquito, the African Mantid [I had done my homework to come up with this voracious creature], and of course, my favorite, the dung beetle.”

I chuckled at my own cleverness; but when Daktari, our driver stopped suddenly with no big game in sight and directed us to get out of the Land Rover, I thought perhaps to change a tire, saying nothing, he pointed at the ground near where we were standing. There was nothing noteworthy to be seen—just a few pebbles and rocks. “There!” he pointed again, insisting, “Right there!” We bent closer to the ground, following the direction of his finger and indeed right there was one of my Tiny Five. “A dung beetle,” he chortled, “Just what you came all this way from America to see.” With that he knew he had me and his face exploded into a brilliant grin.

And there it was, about three-quarters of an inch in size, reared back on its hind legs and with its front legs rolling ahead of it what could only be a ball of dung at least twice its size. “You can put that on your list,” Daktari said. And I did because that amazing beetle was as interesting as any of the Big Five which, over the days, we "accumulated." And to tell the truth, all my cynicism quickly faded and I had the time of my life.

Which brings me back to the spiders of our back deck—after close observing I discovered an ideal location for them not only because of the airborne protein supply but also since the spaces between the vertical posts that support the deck railing are an ideal distance apart for the construction of their so-called orb webs. Bear with me.

Much of this work occurs just before dawn, which is a fine time for me to get distracted in observing since I am a notoriously poor sleeper; and if it were not for my writing, and the chance to get lost in things such as spiders’ projects, I would be left desperately groping for ways to fill the time and push back, always unsuccessfully, against the tremors of non-specific anxiety that prior to sunrise invade my unprotected mind and sabotage any possibility of morning tranquility or a smooth transition to consciousness.

If the breeze is just right for web-building—not too fresh, not too indifferent--I notice that my spider companion from one rail post begin by extruding a foot-long silky adhesive thread which it leaves to hang unfettered in the air, knowing—if it knows--that it will then begin to float gently, carried on the breath of these pre-dawn zephyrs. With just the right amount of wafting this initial strand is lifted higher and higher until it appears to reach across toward the opposite post, in my case just an eight-inch span. And if there is then a slight additional uplift to the breeze it, miraculously, adheres to the adjacent post and what remains is a single, fragile swaying strand which bridges the gap and begins to emit a silken glow in the first light of the day.

My spider then puts on display its extraordinary tightrope walking skills—no less remarkable than those of the legendary Philippe Petit who pranced on a wire that spanned the two World Trade Center towers. As I raptly watch it carefully walk along that slender thread it extrudes another strengthening strand of silk. It works its way back and forth, back and forth until these repeated passes and deposits have thickened that first precarious filament. Not unlike the way suspension bridge builders spin the cables that reach from anchor tower to anchor tower and then support the roadway. From Manhattan to Brooklyn, from Brooklyn to Manhattan, from Manhattan to Brooklyn, from Brooklyn to . . .

With this horizontal element now securely in place, and strong enough to support the rest of the web that will be suspended from it and anything it may eventually entrap—including the full weight of the spider which ingests its victims while clinging to the web itself--this aerialist architect is ready to begin to fill in the rest of the vertical structure.

It does this next, I observe, the way climbers lower themselves by ropes from the cliffs they have conquered—in their case by repelling themselves against the rock face as they drop toward the ground where they began; while in the spider’s case by again producing a silken rope at the end of which it dangles—again swinging in the breeze until it simultaneously is pitched to precisely the midpoint between the posts and, when thus positioned, rapidly drops the last few inches to the lower horizontal cross piece where it affixes its sticky thread. It then ascends, again strengthening this first angled vertical line, as it laboriously hoists itself back up to the top rung, all along the way extruding another thread. And once there, it skirts to the other side and immediately lowers itself again, as before waiting until the wind catches it just right and swings it, dangling, to the center of that lower span and when positioned at that precise spot again plummets so it can affix its strand.

If one were to stand back at this point—as I wondrously do, distracted and thus no longer ensnared by fears—one sees the Y-shaped framework, which will contain the eventual web itself. All the heavy structural work has now been completed—it is time to apply the finishing touches, to fill in the details. The radials and the circular threads that might be thought of as the web loom’s warp and weft, which together will form the final cobweb fabric.

The radials bridge the center of the Y-armature and the concentric circular threads give the web its distinctive Halloween look. Typically, my spider mate constructs at least half a dozen radials and at least that many circular loops; and when they are sketched in, it spends quite a bit of time strengthening the webs center with at least five final circular strands. This is obviously where the action will occur.

By the third morning I am beginning to notice something else: it appears that the spaces between each spiral are proportional to the size of the spider itself—specifically the distance between the tip of its back legs and its spinners. It is using itself, its own body as a measuring device! But before I got too carried away in the rapture of this back-deck discovery, I quickly realized that this technique must be hard-wired into many animal species. Including humans. After all where did we come up with a yard as a unit or measurement? Or and inch? Or, more obviously, a foot? Welcome to my world spider cousins! Or is it it that is offering the greeting?

And then, hopefully it will be the spider’s breakfast time. It has put in a full morning’s work and deserves something nutritious and savory. I still have two hours to wait until Rona rises before I can get my less-wholesome blueberry pancakes. So with nothing better to do, to kill some more time, I wait along with it.

After about a half an hour, a frisky, early-rising mosquito begins to buzz about. Perhaps it too is a troubled sleeper. If it sleeps at all. Not wanting to interfere with the natural forces at work I do not swat at it as it dives toward my uncovered head. If it is to pay a price for what it attempts to inflict on me it will not be by my hand. I therefore do not choose to wave it off as I in compensation take malicious pleasure in noticing my spider friend waiting, patiently immobile off to the side of its web. It and I know what potentially awaits.

The mosquito, which as a result of its first pass left a swelling and itchy welt on my neck, circles lower, seeking a second helping, moving in closer to, circling the warm veins throbbing in my ankle. To it irresistible. Sensing its approach I shift a bit—I confess with retributive intent since my foot is not more than a foot from the web—perhaps to help divert it toward its fate. And for once, Man interfering with Nature yields a sustainable ecological result. My mosquito tormentor, diverted in its flight path by me uncrossing my legs and thereby forced into a stall by a sudden downdraft is swept right into the center of the waiting web.

The spider, sensing the impact and the struggle of its prey by the vibrations transmitted through the web, begins to stir. It lifts itself, seemingly to me to stretch its legs and even yawn, and begins its slow ascent toward the middle of the web where the mosquito, as it squirms to free itself only, as if in a straight jacket, further entangles itself. Then, just as the spider approaches close to its prey, an exact body-length away, all struggles cease; and, I believe, if I had a magnifying glass, I would be able to see my spider companion licking the equivalent of its chops.