Friday, October 29, 2010

October 29, 2010--Lazy Morning

I am taking the morning off but will return on Monday.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

October 28, 2010--Midcoast: Old Wood

On gray days such as this, with a chill in the air that foreshadows late autumn; with the World Series about to begin but with neither the Red Sox nor Yankees participating (in these parts the one to root for; the other to hate); with the election less than a week away and no one inclined to discuss it (some already in preemptive mourning; others feeling they are about to get their country back), what’s better to talk about than wood.

Actually, John’s redwood. Fifty-year-old redwood that he is rescuing from an old picnic table and plans to recycle. “Made up of real two-by-fours,” he proudly said. “Not the stuff they sell you these days that’s really three-and-a-half by one-and-less-than-three-quarters. Everything’s adulterated.”

Ken nodded. He knows his wood. From the past and now. In fact, he has his own small sawmill that he used the other day to cut some twelve-by-one planks that he is hoping his son can find a use for. “I was getting tired of all those logs sittin’ around cluttering up the barn.”

“And take a look at these nails,” John said, holding one up in the light so we could get a better look at its slender silhouette. “Notice the nail head. How thin it is.” We all leaned close so we could get a good look. “So thin,” John with admiration said, “that it was flush with the planks. It wasn’t easy to be sure where all the nails were they were so flush. I don’t want to ruin the blade on the plane when I take off the old finish. Though why anyone would put very much on redwood I wouldn’t know.”

“These look like handmade nails to me,” Ken said. He had one and, also holding it up, rolled it in his fingers. “Not galvanized either,” he noticed. “No need to do that, I’spose. Not much likelihood that you’d need to galvanize them when you’re using redwood.”

“And take a look at this,” John said agreeing, “I brought a small piece to show you. From one of the braces where the legs crossed in an X-shape.”

He passed the block of wood around. I noticed the annual rings etched on one side. “I wonder how old the tree was before they cut it down,” I mused. “Did you ever see one of these huge redwood tree cross-sections that they cut into slices and put on display in natural history museums? The ones where they affix little signs from the core of the tree all the way to the outer edge? Close to the center they have this sign that shows the year the Great Pyramids of Egypt were built, then a little further out the year that Jesus was born, and then the Magna Carta, 1492 when Columbus discovered America, and the American Revolution. Amazing, isn’t it?”

Everyone nodded. “And take a look at the annual rings,” Ken said, “See how they don’t curve very much? That tells me this piece was milled quite a distance from the center. Maybe from the time of the Gettysburg Address,” he added with a big wink.

“What I need to do now,” John said, “is plane all the planks down so that they are cleaned up and all the same thickness. We plan to make a table for the kitchen out of them and it should look and feel all even and nicely finished. You see, just to test the wood and to discover what it really looks like under all this paint, or whatever, I used a simple hand plane on this edge.”

He passed the trapezoid-shaped piece around again so we could get a closer look. Ken ran his finger over the planed side. Rona wet it with some water from her glass to enhance its color.

“Beautiful wood,” John said. “Should last forever, though to think about them cutting down those extraordinary trees to make picnic tables, well I don’t know.”

“At least some of them have been preserved,” I said.

“It’s a living, I suppose,” Ken said a bit ruefully. “But still.” His voice trailed off.

“Here’s my suggestion for you,” Ken said to John. They were sitting side-by-side at the diner’s counter. It was clear John had intentionally sat by him to get any suggestions Ken might be willing to offer. “Bring the wood ‘round to my place where I have a milling machine with a six-inch blade. We can get the job done right there.”

“But if I missed any nail heads I’d be concerned that we’d ruin your blade,” John said.

“Then here’s what you can do,” Ken offered, “You have a belt sander, don’t you?” John indicated that he did. “Well, run it over the planks and if there are any heads left below the surface you’ll pretty quickly find them with the sander. Worst that can happen you’ll tear up some sandpaper. But that’ll take care of my blade.” He smiled at John.

“That’s mighty kind of you, Ken. I’ll do what you say and let you know how I do. But you’re sure it’s not too much trouble?”

“Naw. I’ve got the time these days and this sounds like a project I could enjoy. Speaking of wood,” he moved to shift the subject, “you know my son-in-law who’s the archeologist?” We did know that. He works on projects in Maine to help chart the state’s early history. “Well the other day he was working nearby, along the Sheepscot River, up by the dam.”

“Head Tide,” Rona said, proud to show a little of her knowledge of local geography.

“That’s the place,” Ken said, clearly pleased because he as well as John have been among her tutors and guides for all things local. “And since you know where I talking about, south of the dam, did you ever notice that string of rocks that juts out into the river and looks a bit like a breakwater?”

“I never noticed that,” Rona said. “But if you tell me exactly . . .”

“I’ll bring in a map tomorrow to show you just where,” Ken said paternally, clearly enjoying Rona’s interest in learning as much as possible about the area. “But it is a strange structure, that breakwater, I mean, because the water doesn’t break there. The river’s tidal until the dam, but the tide is very gentle that far up stream. So as I think I said my son-in-law has been fascinated by this as well. Makes no sense to him either. Why would anyone from the past have gone to all that trouble to move those boulders out into the river?

“So recently he’s been working there. First thing, he discovered was that at the end of that line of stones, below the surface even at low tide, there’s another string of big rocks that go off at a right angle, making a sort of L-shape.”

“That is fascinating,” John said, “What could it have been about?”

“That’s just what he aims to find out. And so just the other day, while digging down into the mud inside this L-shaped space, and hard work it was in that thick mud, which they could of made bricks from, he uncovers this perfect log. A real old one from the looks of it. Not quite like those redwoods, but old enough. And by perfect I mean perfectly trimmed and straight as can be. Nothing like it, he is sure, could have happened by chance. Some one, or some ones worked that log to get it into this kind of condition. Maybe they did some boat building here, my son-in-law is thinking. But there is no evidence of any shipbuilding happening in this area at any time in the past. So it is a mystery.”

Ken paused to allow the mystery to settle in among us.

“But he must have a hypothesis,” Rona said.

“He really doesn’t. That’s part of what’s interesting about this. He’s very experienced and knows a great deal about the Indians from this area and the early European settlers. There were lots of Dutch there in the early days but they were mainly farmers. So he’s stumped.”

“So what’s the plan?” John asked.

“He wants to cut a piece off the log and send it to the University of Maine. They have some kind of department, my son-in-law says, that might be able to analyze it to see how long ago I was worked on and such.”

“Maybe through carbon dating?” I suggested. “Though I don’t know how that would work.” In truth, I know very little about the science of carbon dating.

“Maybe that,” Ken said. “But in the meantime I went to the spot with him a couple of days ago and with one of my special saws cut off a foot-long section. He said it was OK to do this. It was about this big around.” To illustrate Ken made a circle out of his arms with about a two-foot diameter.

“My,” Rona said, “considering where it was located, down in the mud and all, it looks as if it was quite a job to cut off a piece.”

Ken chuckled as he is inclined to do when making light of something, including difficult things. But nothing really is difficult to him. What for others would be daunting, for him is at most a challenge. He carefully thinks things through and then does what’s necessary to get the job done.

“He was concerned about sending it off to the university, thinking it might get lost so I suggested we cut it in half, send one half to them and keep the other one. To tell you the truth I’m not unhappy about having a piece of it.”

“And so, you are going to do that?” Rona asked.

“Not ‘do’ but ‘did,’” Ken said, smiling broadly.

“Then?” John asked.

“Then, since I feel sure what we sent will get to them, maybe we’ll be able to keep the other half. In fact, maybe, if you’d like, I’ll bring it in tomorrow. I cut it using one of my band saws and that produced a smooth surface. It’s quite beautiful. It looks like it’s petrified from all those years under water and in the mud.”

“That would be great,” I said. “If it’s not too much trouble.”

“I agree,” John said. “Than in addition we won’t have to talk about the Texas Rangers or the Giants or for that matter Sharron Angle or Glenn Beck.”

“Or, for that matter,” I said, in part to indicate I’m paying attention to local politics, “we can also ignore Ralph LaPage.”

Paul LaPage,” Ron corrected me. "Paul," he said, again with a wink and a smile.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

October 27, 2010--Day Off

The day got away from me and so I will return on Thursday

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

October 26, 2010--Obama Post-Mortem

Even before the votes are counted next Tuesday, pundits are writing Obama post-mortems.

They are assuming, probably correctly, that the Democrats are about to get spanked. The House of Representatives, they are saying, will for certain have a GOP majority and the Senate could as well. One thing they agree about is that if the economy had turned upward we would be talking about modest Democratic loses.

New York Times columnists Frank Rich and Paul Krugman, both serious liberals, have in recent days pinned the anticipated debacle squarely on Obama.

Rich on Sunday wrote that he and Democrats are in trouble because they were too timid in confronting the banks and other financial institutions that were responsible for the economic tsunami. The Democrats should have launched investigations and prosecutions; and Obama should have paid more attention to rooting out and exposing the malfeasance and fraud and corruption that were at the heart of the problem.

Instead, in Rich's view, Obama and his economic team paid more attention to restoring the banking system to it pre-crash status and ways of doing business than to the widespread fallout that affected all but the well-sheltered wealthy elites. Thus the continuing wave of foreclosures and losses of savings and jobs and the resulting, understandable anger. Anger which is now the rage that has spawned and emboldened Tea Partiers and many, many others. (Rich column linked below.)

Yesterday Krugman offered his own version of what went wrong and why scores of Democrats are about to be tossed out of office. He also sees this to be the result of Obama's timidity. For Krugman the game was lost when Obama opted to press for a very limited form of economic stimulus. He misread history, thinking the system just needed some tweaking and modest pump-priming. This kind of approach didn't work in Japan and lost its force during our Depression when Roosevelt, who initially had intervened successfully, backed off from helping the economy in a massive way because his opponents prodded him to worry unduly about the growing deficit. Sound familiar? To Krugman it does and thus, in his view, the on-going economic and linked political problems.

Rich and Krugman have it more or less right but are missing a few other things that have contributed to Obama's troubles. And so my own preemptive post-mortem:

Timidity in Obama's case is partly the result of his reflective personality which has often been described as, in the best sense, his interest in doing things in thoughtful and bipartisan ways. He signaled this in his Inaugural Address. But more in truth, after seeing all Republicans but one or two line up in lockstep to oppose his stimulus package, operationally, in spite of his continuing public rhetoric, Obama broke off all serious attempts to work with the GOP. For example, for a full 18 months he never once met one-on-one with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. It is obvious that Obama can't stand McConnell and his colleagues and they know it. This is a sure recipe for legislative disaster.

Further, also as the result of timidity, this time caused by his inability to displease key colleagues and associates, Obama made a series of strategic errors both at home and abroad. He tried to placate the generals and members of his own cabinet, namely Hillary Clinton and Robert Gates--both hawks--by agreeing to triple the number of ground troops in Afghanistan rather than, as a real commander in chief, issuing orders to scale back the counter-insurgency strategy (which was and is failing) and concentrate, as Vice President Diden argued, exclusively on confronting and defeating al Qaeda, the terrorists who attacked us on 9/11.

Domestically, snookered again by Hillary Clinton who made health care reform her top priority, he embraced it as his. There was no James Carville around saying, "It's health care, stupid." In fact, Carville and others, correctly continued to advise, "It's the economy, stupid."

Jobs, jobs, jobs and foreclosures, foreclosures, foreclosures from day one should have been Obama's mantra. If he wanted to put his stamp on major domestic legislation he could have opted for the much less controversial reform of No Child Left Behind. And there is even some significant bipartisan energy for the redrafting of George Bush's signature education reform program.

And then, though roundly criticized for being too cool and not being able to show that he shared people's pain, a Bill Clinton specialty, Obama should have worked hard to shed that public persona. And then, rather than feeling our pain, he should have shown that he was feeing our anger as this is a time more of anger than pain.

Monday, October 25, 2010

October 25, 2010--Cult of Ignorance

Why am I not surprised that almost everyone who associates him or herself with the Tea Party does not believe that humans are contributing to global warming?

The more intelligent of them concede that warming is occurring but claim that it is the result of natural cyclical forces. They say that there were a number of Ice Ages in the planet's distant past as well as eras when the earth shifted on its axis and there were tropical forests where there is now arctic ice.

This may contradict what many of the religious fundamentalists among them say about the Earth being only 5,000 or so years old and who assert with certainty that what we see now was created in every specific detail in six days by God.

For those of us who are equally certain that the scientific evidence that we are contributing to global warming is overwhelming this almost religious resistance to the clear evidence of science is puzzling. Why to these arch conservatives is opposition to any notion of a human component in global warming a hill to die on?

There are at least four reasons. Some enumerated in a recent article in the New York Times (linked below).

First, there is the economic argument. Critics of global warming say that doing the kinds of things that the Obama administration advocates to reduce human contributions to it are bad for business. Cap and trade, their favorite straw-man for this, is so expensive to implement that it would further weaken the economy and tip us into a depression.

Second, Tea Partiers and their fellow traveller are suspicious of any conversation about global warming, feeling that it is a stalking horse to allow government to further encroach on the private lives of citizens. If humans do contribute to it by burning fossil fuel (something every credible scientist sees as a no-brainer) the government will compel us to give up our cherished gas-guzzling SUVs and make us drive those sissy hybrids. Government will make us insulate our houses, eat more carbon-friendly foods (veggies as opposed to good-old American beef), use those funny light bulbs, and turn down our ACs.

Third are the religious reasons why ultra-conservative religious fundamentalists oppose any scaling back on energy consumption. They actually welcome global warming.

To them it will help accelerate the Apocalypse. Sarah Palin and her ilk are all millennialists, which means they look forward to the End of Days when good Christians (only very specific kinds of good Christians) will be Raptured (raised directly to heaven) while the rest of us will be left to struggle through Armageddon, the Second Coming of Christ, the eventual destruction of the world, and the Last Judgement. To these fanatics an over-heated Earth is just what they want. It takes them and us one big step closer to the END.

Finally, and perhaps most disturbing, global warming rejectors are participants in a cult of ignorance.

There is a deep strain of know-nothingness and anti-intellectualism in American history and we are seeing a reassertion of this right now. Among other things driving the Tea Party's ascendency, beyond the faltering economy and our loss of global dominance (we are losing wars and our economy is stalled while Brazil's and India' and especially China's are thriving), is a hatred for America's educated class. Individuals who see this educated elite ruling America. Ivy Leaguers such as Barack Obama. People who make they feel inadequate and even mocked. As evidence of this they recall Obama's campaign comments about how "average people," out of fear and ignorance, cling to their guns and religion?

So when their political heroine, Sara Palin is exposed as knowing nothing about history, geography, international issues, or what is written about in the daily newspapers, rather than being upset by this (as people like me are) they revel in it, embrace it, and feel affirmed. It is as if they are saying, "At last, someone just like me is a national leader and has to be paid attention to by the fancy people." Delaware Senate Tea Party candidate Christine O'Donnell the other day, in her first TV ad after it was revealed that she dabbled in which craft, after saying, "I am not a witch," went on to conclude that "I am you."


The fact that she embraces the Constitution but is unaware of what the First Amendment says about church and state is not a problem for her fervent supporters. In fact, it only enhances her stature because they too have no idea what is in the Constitution or its amendments. Their guru Glenn Beck certainly doesn't.

Our broken education system, our economy which has enhanced inequality, our submission to fears of all kinds (from immigrants to terrorists to all Muslims) has spawned this cult and it is clearly gaining momentum. We may be going down, these folks appear to be saying, but on the one hand it may lead some of us to the Life Eternal while on the other hand the rest of us are sure enjoying getting even with those who have been belittling and ruling us.

Election Day, therefore, is likely to be bloody.

Friday, October 22, 2010

October 22, 2010--Day Off

I will return on Monday.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

October 21, 2010--Not So Rare Earths

Until reading the attached article in the New York Times it seemed to me that China had us by the you-know-what-hairs. Well, in fact they do, but not for the reasons I thought.

Apparently they control 95 percent of the world market in rare earths. Rare earth metals are a collection of seventeen elements in the periodic table from scandium to yttrium to the fifteen lanthanides. Remember that from high school? Not your household variety of chemicals; but, I now understand, essential to a variety of vital industries.

They are required for the manufacture of cell phones and other wireless devices, large wind turbines, CD players, computers, components for hybrid cars, petroleum, and even guided missiles. Pretty much everything that high technology contributes to the quality of our lives and our strategic defenses.

And, again, China controls almost the entire production.

This has become a big issue recently since they cut off the export of these earths to Japan, threatening to cripple what's left of their economy; and there is evidence that, since we are squeezing them about their green energy production and trade practices (they are also by far the world's leader in this), there is evidence that they are now also halting the shipment of yttrium and scandium to us.

China and Japan are in small ways still fighting the Second World War in that the rear earth trade embargo is the result of 65 years of squabbling over the sovereignty of a number of small islands in the East China Sea. In our case, however, though the specific cause of China's suspension of rare earth exports to us is allegedly tied to our complaining to the World Trade Organization about their government's unfair subsidies to their clean energy industry, in fact China's suspension of rare earth exports to us is more an opportunity for them to flex their geopolitical economic muscles.

They are in effect saying to us, We are no longer going to play a deferential role to the U.S. and the West when it comes to trade or industrial competition or, for that matter, anything else. We have arrived on the world stage and are in the process of seizing the spotlight. We control a significant portion of your debt, they are saying, and we plan to act as any major note holder would.

Up until now Chinese officials, when challenging American policies, have spoken in cautious, diplomatic language. But now they have taken of the gloves. About this recent matter, the head of their Ministry of Commerce in unvarnished language claimed, with some justification, that the timing of the Obama administration taking them before the WTO is because they are scrambling for votes in the midterm election and bashing China is a proven method of rallying the troops.

Then, just 10 days ago, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates faced the ire of his Chinese counterpart in another example of our two nations' struggle for global supremacy. While in Vietnam Gates was hoping to visit China as part of our effort to work cooperatively with Chinese military officials. But his request was initially rebuffed because of our on-going support for Taiwan and surveillance of Chinese weapons research and the buildup of their forces. In somewhat bent English, a Chinese official, unusually for them, on the record said that Gates was unwelcome until "the United States stops selling the weapons to Taiwan and stopping spying us with the air or the surface.”

But when it comes to rare earths, it appears that we, not the Chinese, are our own worst enemy. Though China controls 95 of the rare earth mining it is not because these elements are rare and found primarily in China. Quite the contrary. They exist in many places around the world, including the United States. But, as with many other jobs and industries our corporations (with government encouragement) have shipped overseas, we have ceded primacy in rare earth mining to China.

To quote the Times, "Most of the industry has moved to China over the last two decades because of lower costs and weak environmental enforcement there."

Congress is considering legislation to provide loans to American companies to reestablish rare earth mining and manufacturing in the U.S., but even if it passes (which is doubtful considering the partisans chaos) it will take three to five years to reach full production.

Until that time, we will continue to be dependent on China for these essential elements and they will increasingly make us pay in more ways that we can imagine.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

October 20, 2010--Big Spender

She may make good tabloid copy, what with her perky promise to eliminate Social Security and Medicare and how she campaigns while totting around a Magnum 44 all the while taunting her slender and soft-spoken opponent to "man up." Who knows, she may actually wind up defeating Senate Majority leader Harry Reid. The Senate race in Nevada is seen as too close to call.

On the saner side of calling for policy changes Sharron Angle is just one of many candidates for high office calling for less taxation and spending. Especially less spending.

That is, for everything that doesn't pertain to her.

Who was it that said, "Follow the money"? Wasn't it Deep Throat who advised Bob Woodward that if he did the mystery of Watergate would be solved? The money path indeed lead to Richard Nixon who subsequently was forced to resign the presidency.

Applying this to Sharron Angle what gets revealed, when it comes to money, is just how undisciplined and hypocritical she is.

More out-of-state money has poured into her campaign than for any other candidate. This is understandable since if she can manage to bring down the Democrats' top gun in the Senate it would not only help shape a potential Senate majority for Republicans but also would have symbolic meaning to both the GOP and their masters in the Tea Party.

According to the New York Times, an astonishing $14 million was contributed to Angle's campaign war chest during the third quarter of this year. (Article linked below.)

Since during the same three month Reid managed to round up a mere $2.8 million, one would think Angle is primed to so outspend him during the next two weeks that she could forget campaigning and devote the next two weeks to packing her bags for Washington.

But from the expenditure report her campaign was recently required to submit and make public, anti-big-spending candidate Angle is left with only $4.2 million to use for TV ads and the like. Because Reid, the alleged potentate of congressional spenders was responsible when managing his limited resources he has about the same amount left to use for his campaign.

Though the details of how Angle burned through almost all her money are not yet known, what is certain is that she spent a ton of money on mailing lists, flyers, and postage. Much of it subcontracted to firms that have a reputation for over-charging and over-spending. Just what she accuses folks in Washington of doing.

More of the same is thus what we should expect from Angle, in spite of her rhetoric and ranting, if she makes it to the Senate.

Remember--Follow the money.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

October 19, 2010--Midcoast: What Ken Said

Ken said, “I thought if I helped feed them and keep them warm,” he was speaking about us, “then maybe they’d stay on through November.

This after finding a perfect butternut squash from Ken’s garden on the front seat of our car and, when we got home, a stack of neatly stacked firewood, also from Ken, at the side of our shed. Enough for at least two dozen all-day fires.

John and Al nodded.

“Just when are you planning to leave?” he asked.

“We’ll you know, we’re not heated. Our place is just a seasonal cottage. But we’ll try to stay on as long as we can until there’s concern about the pipes freezing. We have an electric heater for the bedroom that gets the job done. And a big fireplace in the living room which takes the chill out of the air.”

“That’s why I’ve been keeping you supplied with firewood. But I do know you can’t stay if the pipes are going to freeze up on you. Though there are things you can do about that too. What with the insulating materials they now have. I could show you what to do if you’d like me to.”

John continued to nod. He too has been full of good advice about how to stretch the season.

Al chimed in, “I know a lot about winterizing too. You remember, don’t you, that before I started my graphic arts business that I built a lot of houses. I’d be happy to give you a hand with whatever it is that you might want to do.”

More than the squash, more than the firewood and the good advice and offers of help, more than anything, Ken and John and Al and others have made us feel at home by the feelings they have expressed in words and acts of generosity.

Mike, a retired orthopedic surgeon and sometimes clam digger, when he heard about our desire to extend the season by putting in a propane heater told me that he had a nearly-new Rinnai that he is no longer using (he prefers kerosene to propane) and that if we wanted it he would let us have it. When I mentioned this to Rona she said, “They cost about $1,400 and you’re saying he offered to give it to us? Are you sure he wasn’t saying he’d sell it to us?” I told her I was sure.

Talking with Doug a few weeks ago about chiliquiles—a scrambled egg, tortilla, and salsa dish—he is co-owner and chef at the Bristol Diner, he told us that he makes what he thinks is a pretty good version. And wouldn’t you know it, without telling us, he put it on the menu as a special last week and as he saw if was popular among his regulars, concerned that it would run out before we got there, he put two portions aside for us.

We had never been to the King Ro General Store in Round Pond. We had driven by it many times on the way to the Anchor Inn and Muscongus Lobster Coop since we are loyal to Reilly’s in New Harbor for our groceries. But the other day, at about 1:30, we were headed south on the Bremen Road and as we approached Round Pond I wondered if maybe King Ro had any slices of pizza. I was in the mood for one.

“They probably do,” Rona said. “We’ve been meaning to look in there to see what kinds of things they have. And I could deal with a slice myself.”

So we pulled in and sure enough, on top of the small pizza oven, I could see three slices sitting on small paper plates.

A women, who felt like one of the owners was alone at the counter and, as I approached pointing, asked if we could have a couple of slices.

She smiled and turned to get them. All three. I said, “We’re not that hungry so two will do for us.”

“But I have three left she said,” placing them on the long wooden counter. “I’m happy that you’re wanting them.”

“But . . .” I began to say but Rona poked me and I didn’t finish my thought.

“That’s fine,” Rona said, “could you maybe heat them up for us?”

“They came out of the oven maybe only ten minutes ago,” she said, touching one, “They’re still warm.”

“That sounds good,” Rona said. I was feeling disappointed that she didn’t seem to want to heat them up. I like my pizza hot. “How much do we owe you? And for the soda too?” I had taken a diet Pepsi from the chest.

“Oh, I couldn’t charge you for them,” she said.

“But we want to pay you,” I said.

“They’re all that I have left and as I said they’ve been sitting here for at least ten minutes.” She smiled broadly and, it appeared, apologetically because they weren’t fresher.

“We’re fine with reheated pizza,” I said to reassure her, still uncomfortable with the thought of not paying, “In New York at most pizza places the pies came out of the oven at least a half hour before you buy a slice and it’s customary to reheat them.”

“I know that,” she said, “We get to New York every year or two and know how they do things there.” It was clear that she was saying that that was how they do things there and this is how I do things here.

“But really . . .” I tried again before Rona cut me off.

“This is so nice of you,” Rona said. “We’d love to have them. All three. Thank you so much.”

“It’s real nice outside so why don’t you go sit out front. There’s a table and a few chairs. It’s a perfect place to enjoy your food. Which I do hope is warm enough for you.”

I assured her that it was.

Moved by her casual generosity we sat down and, shaking our heads in wonderment—also thinking how different things are here than we are used to—we did in fact enjoy the pizza. It might have been the setting and the experience but it seemed in fact delicious.

After about ten minutes Mrs. Ro came out to see how we were doing. “How’s that? Is it warm enough for you? I hope you’re liking it.”

“It’s just perfect,” Rona and I said in unison, our mouths full of pizza. “Just perfect.”

“I’m glad to hear that,” she said, returning to the store to serve someone who came in for a six-pack.

The next morning at the diner we told Ken and John and Al and Doug about the King Ro store and the pizza. About how surprised we were, especially never having been there, that the owner refused to allow us to pay for them.

“That shouldn’t surprise you,” Ken said, “That’s the way folks are here. We try to take care of each other.”

“But we didn’t . . .”

Once more Rona interrupted me and said, “We have to learn to be better at this.”

“At what?” John asked, knowing full well what Rona meant. He’s originally from New Jersey but has been living here forty years and knows as much as anyone about the spirit of this place.

“We have to be better at taking care of and, equally important, being taken care of.”

“You’ve got it figured out,” Ken said.

Doug and John and Al smiled and nodded.

Monday, October 18, 2010

October 18, 2010--Pastrami On Rye

GOP New York gubernatorial candidate Carl Palidino's favorite restaurant in Buffalo is Sinatra's; but when he goes to Brooklyn and hangs out in the orthodox Jewish community in search of support, he had better forget linguine and think pastrami. especially when talking about gays.

Two Sundays ago he met with Rabbi Yehuda Levin and in front of his congregation and TV cameras spoke about how children should be protected from being "brainwashed" into thinking homosexuality is acceptable. The rabbi and his flock smiled and nodded in agreement. Not all Jews, they were clearly saying, are as socially liberal as one might think. Among the ultra-orthodox, homosexuality is considered to be an "abomination." Forget civil unions and marriage, sodomites are, they claim, among God's most despised.

But as Palidono came away from pandering for these swing votes he quickly realized that he had stepped in it. He was immediately excoriated by all media and especially by independent-minded voters who though they might be attracted to his anti-tax, tell-it-like-it-is gruffness (in contrast to the super-managed, super-cool Andrew Cuomo), are more libertarian minded than he.

So he apologized. He said he should have chosen his words more carefully and pledged that he would fight "for all gay New Yorkers."

When Rabbi Levin heard this aplology, he went after Paladino tooth and claw. According to the New York Times he asked, "Which part of your speech are you apologizing for? Will we see you next year with your daughter in the gay pride march?" (Article linked below.)

The rabbi has a way with stories. He recounted how he learned about Paladino's apology. "I was in the middle of eating a kosher pastrami sandwich. While I was eating it, they come running and they say, 'Paladino became gay!' I said, 'What?' And then they showed me the statement. I almost choked on the kosher salami."

Now, as a Jewish boy growing up in Brooklyn I know my pastrami and no one, I mean no one, would eat a pastrami and salami sandwich. Any self-respecting Jew would not mix these meats. Pastrami is pastrami and salami is salami.

But the rabbi is a forgiving man. He left the door open for a rapprochement--"Come back Carl," he said, "We'll leave the light on for you."

"And," he might have added, "When you do come back, bring me a corn beef on rye."

Friday, October 15, 2010

October 15, 2010--Government Rears Its Ugly Head

Thus spake South Carolina's Senator Lindsey Graham about an earmark that he very much wants to see come to his state. This in spite of being, sort of, categorically opposed to this form of government appropriation. The "sort of" refers to his opposition to everyone else's pork barrel projects, as distinguished from his own pet boondoggles.

To his, sort of, credit, Graham's colleague, Senator Jim DeMint is holding firm to his convictions and opposes the $400 million of federal government largess Graham covets even though the head of the Tea Party in South Carolina, with whom DeMint is otherwise joined at the ideological hip, favors it.

Again, like Senator Graham, who the Tea Party despises because he at rare times has worked with Democrats, even though Mike Murphree, chairman of the Charleston Tea Party, passionately opposes earmarks, seeing them to be at the root cause of government overspending, he likes this one because it would be good for the state's economy and, not incidentally, to his own business interests as a well-positioned general contractor.

Life is complicated in the political fast lane, especially when governing frequently requires one to talk out of both sides of one's mouth. This verbal ambidextrousness is thus an essential skill for our leaders.

The $400 million deal may actually be something worthwhile. Far from Sarah Palin's bridge to nowhere. It would advance plans to dredge Charleston's harbor so that it could handle the mega cargo ships that will be plying the eastern seaboard once the expansion of the Panama Canal is completed in 2014. Goods from Asia will then be able to put in there directly rather than have to unload on the west coast, which then requires more expensive forms of transcontinental shipping. (See linked New York Times article for more details.)

If Charleston's harbor isn't updated, the region will lose billions of dollars in business and thousands of good jobs. Just the sort of thing DeMint says is essential to South Carolina and which neither Barack Obama, he claims, nor private investment, his favorite engine for economic renewal, have been able to provide.

But he is dug in because of presidential ambitions, with visions of being the Tea Party's favorite son dancing in his eyes. When it comes to ambition, even the welfare of DeMint's own people need to get out of the way.

Graham is more pragmatic and thus vulnerable to Tea Party excoriation next time he has to run for reelection. He says, "I'm all for change and all for reform, but this is where the reality of governing rears its ugly head."

Thursday, October 14, 2010

October 14, 2010--Day Off

I will return on Friday.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

October 13, 2010--Ladies of Forest Trace: Midterms

“I only have a minute and this time I mean it.”

It was my 102 year-old mother calling from Florida.

“If it’s about your appointment tomorrow with your internist I don’t want you rushing off the phone. I want to hear what’s troubling you.”

“Nothing is troubling me. I’m Dr. M’s favorite patient. When I’m there he calls in all his nurses and shows them my numbers. He says it makes them feel better because their other patients are worse than me. They’re all alta cockers. It makes them feel optimistic, he says, when the see my blood pressure and listen to my heart.”

“I’m glad to hear that. You are indeed amazing.”

“This you can hold for the next time when I don’t have to rush to a meeting. You can tell me then how amazing I am and then I’ll tell you all the things wrong with me.”

“It’s a deal. So what’s going on? Why did you call when you’re in such a rush?”

“I was about to get to that when you distracted me with all the medical conversation.”

“OK. And so?”

“You’re the one who’s troubled. Not me.”

“Go on.”

“I will if you stop interrupting me.” I didn’t say anything. This was a familiar routine. Her getting on me for interrupting when in truth she’s the one, I contend, who keeps changing the subject.

“I know what you’re thinking.”

“What’s that?”

“How I keep changing the subject and then blame it on you.” How does she know these things I wondered. “I know these things because as I told you many times I’m a witch. Not like that girl in Delaware who’s running for the Senate.”

“She’s not a ‘girl,’ mom.”

“To me she is. Or pretending to be. She’s the one, isn’t she, who said she dabbled in being a witch?”

“Yes, she’s the one. Those kinds of comments are hurting her. I don’t think she’ll be elected because of things like this. She’s too much for even most Republicans. On the other hand, . . .”

“That’s my point. This ‘on the other hand’ business.”

“Go on.”

“I’m trying to.” I could hear her sighing out of exasperation with me. “I am saying you’re the one who is troubled because you are worried about what is going to happen in November, on Election Day.”

“Indeed I am. I’m troubled that not only will the Democrats maybe lose their majorities in both houses but also because people like Sharron Angle in Nevada will get elected. Can you imagine what things will be like if this happens?”

“In fact, I can.”


“And, it will not be the disaster you are imagining.”

“This I need to hear.”

“You remember how we talked during the last election, the one in which Obama was elected?”

“Of course. We were very excited and optimistic that he would bring about real change. We believed his campaign slogans and what he promised in his speeches.”

“And what happened?”

“We’ve both been disappointed,” I said. “We know he has accomplished some significant things—among other things health care reform, though far from perfect, is at least a start.”

“But even at that weren’t you the one who said that doing something bold and effective about education was even more important than health dare and that there was the possibility of doing it in a bipartisan way? That by working on it that way Obama would have been able to show that things can be done differently. And didn’t you say that he should not have caved in to the generals and some in his administration and instead gotten us out of Afghanistan?”

“Yes, I did say all of those things and more. But then we realized by Obama supporters being so critical of him, expecting so much, that we were helping those trying to bring him down and retake Congress and in two years the White House. The prospect of that convinced us to tone down our criticism and do what we could to support him and Democrats running in November.”


“And things do not look good for the Democrats. I think they will even be lucky to keep the Senate. The House, I am feeling more and more certain, will go for the Republicans.”

“And,” my mother said, “We will have a lot of new people elected who are ignorant about our history and in some cases, how else can I put it, a little meshuga. Crazy. And mind you I am not saying this because I disagree with them about the issues, but because many of them, though they are entertaining on the TV talk shows—I enjoy them when I see them on Fox (which you know I watch sometimes to see what they are up to), though they are good for laughs, through this notoriety they have become well known and electable.”

“So far we’re in agreement. And from this you can see why I’m so troubled.”

“I'm running so let me make my final point.”


“These people who will elect the Angles and the Rubios here in Florida are the ones this time around who are activated. Democrats who thought that all they had to do was turn things over to Obama and everything would be wonderful have been sitting on the sidelines watching all of this energy develop, and if they did anything they joined in taking pot shots at the president they elected and in whom they had so much hope.”

“People like us are the ones you’re talking about.”

“Exactly. So it will serve all of us right to have to deal with the mess we participated in making. And maybe it will force the Democrats to realize that the rules of the game have changed and for them to make a comeback they need to do some things differently.”

“In what ways? Become conservatives? Pander to Fox News?”

“None of that. They, we, need to get back in better touch with what people are experiencing in their lives. We approach things as if they are assignments in school. Like problems to be solved. We’ve lost much of our passion. And what they used to call ‘the common touch.’ The ability to understand everyday things. The things people are struggling with. We say, ‘Trust us. We know what you need and what’s good for you.’ This is an unacceptable way to behave and a political disaster, as I suspect we are about to see.”

“So, you are saying, people supporting the Tea Party and the kinds of candidates they either are supporting are right to be angry and in wanting to turn everything upside down?”

“I am. Maybe they are doing it in a way that we reject and believe in things we disagree with, but don’t we also feel that things need to be turned upside down? Aren’t we also feeling angry? I am. The girls here are.”

“I suppose so,” I said.

“What we have to do—and I’m running out the door, or should I say holding myself up with my walker as I drag myself to the elevator—is rediscover ways in which liberals, Democrats, can again as we did in the past connect with working and struggling people, listen to them, and come up with an agenda and candidates who will get to work delivering the things that people really need. With all due respects, who really needs this new health care program which really is a gift to the insurance companies? Do you even understand it? Does it make sense to you?”

“I’m not sure it does,” I said softly.

“I can’t hear you with my new hearing aids, but without hearing I know what you said. Because remember, as I said, I’m a witch.”

And with that she was gone.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

October 12, 2010--Let Them Drink Milk

Though I am getting close to hoping that New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg will run for president in 2010 as an independent, there is something imperial about him that turns me off.

I am coming to feel that if our economic problems do not show real evidence of improvement by this time next year it may be time to consider turning the White House over to someone who knows how to get big things done. Bloomberg has a real track record of just this sort of accomplishment both in business, where he built Bloomberg L.P. from scratch (and accumulated $18 billion in personal wealth in the process), and in government service where as mayor he has handled skillfully what some claim is the "second toughest job in America."

But there is at times also something insensitive and even arrogant about him when he appears oblivious to some of the realities of average people's lives. He can be quite patrician. It is as if he says, "I know best what's good for you."

Case in point--Bloomberg's recent call to have the federal food stamps program amended to forbid recipients from using them to purchase sodas or any other beverage artificially sweetened with sugar. (See linked New York Times story for the details.)

He claims, not unjustifiably, that sugar-sweetened drinks are unhealthy. We have an obesity problem in New York and in the rest of America that leads to a variety of medical epidemics, with diabetes and heart disease acknowledged to be correlated to the over-consumption of beverages of this sort.

Bloomberg has already run successful crusades against cigarette smoking (now banned in New York even at some outdoor public places) and trans fats (illegal in Big Apple restaurants). He claims that as a result life expectancy for New Yorkers has increased by more than one year.

What low-income people do with food stamps has been a hot topic since the program's inception in the 1960s. Those who resent what they consider to be government handouts to the poor have railed about what they claim to see people buying with food stamps in supermarkets.

Remember all the rage directed toward "Welfare Mothers" who allegedly languished on public assistance, driving fancy cars to the welfare office and buying up expensive groceries rather than nutritious foods for their, of course, illegitimate children?

Bloomberg isn't revisiting that sorry history of resentment, but rather, as with tobacco and trans fats, he is making an argument based on what he and others consider to be responsible nutrition. To support his appeal to the Department of Agriculture, he cites evidence that poor people spend 40 percent of their food budget on items not recommended by government nutritionists.

Just the other day, I was talking with someone up here in midcoast Maine who is usually quite a generous soul. He told me about the daughter of a friend who works in a bank and reported that people with food stamps regulalry come to her bank to get cash for their food stamps.

I said, "That doesn't seem possible."

He said, "The stamps now come in something resembling a debit card and people can get cash from them."

I said that I don't believe this and would see what I could learn. I reported back to him the next day that his friend's daughter must have been mistaken (I was trying to put the best face on it); I had learned that people can't legally get cash for their food stamps.

"Well," he said a little heated up, "Have you seen how fat all those people are who get food stamps? They must be eating up a storm on taxpayers' money."

As gently as I could, I said, "Think of how terrible it would be to have to be on any form of public assistance. You go into the market and people see you paying with food stamps. That can't make you feel very good about yourself."

He said, "That's not a bad point. But still, people shouldn't be allowed to spend government money, really our money, on things that make them fat."

"If they are overweight, and I'll grant you that a lot of low-income people are, it's not because they're eating a rich diet of steaks and chops at our expense, but rather it's because eating is one of the few pleasures they have and unfortunately what's most satisfying and affordable to a lot of people--including plenty or rich ones--is neither nutritious nor slimming. It's sweet stuff and high fat foods that most of us most like to eat and fill us up. To many, affluent and struggling people, eating vegetables is like taking medicine. Chips, hamburgers, and French fries are much more enjoyable."

"I'll grant you that, but still I don't like what I hear and what I see. If they are helped to buy food with our money they should be required to eat good foods."

"You tell me you're a libertarian but you want to have the government tell people what to eat? I'm confused."

"You got me there."

"So what's going on with you about this?"

"I worked hard all my life and never had anyone, or the government for that matter, bail me out. I admit it, people living on the dole get under my skin."

"Even those who through no fault of their own need a little help once in a while?"

"If that's what we're talking about I'm all right with extending a hand. But then your mayor, that Bloomberg fellow, he wants to tell people what to eat and what not to eat. What do you think about that?"

"I understand what he's trying to accomplish--to encourage people to eat better--but he can be heavy handed, and that I don't like. I'd prefer to see no one drinking sugar-sweetened foods, but I don't like the idea that when people have very little in their lives we start taking those simple pleasures away from them. I understand the health implications, but I'm not comfortable legislating behavior."

"So you're a libertarian too?" my friend said with a smile.

"About this, yes."

"Doug makes good donuts here. Homemade. Especially the sugar coated ones. Can I treat you to one?"

It indeed was delicious.

Monday, October 11, 2010

October 11, 2010--Where's the Trickle?

Rona was making a good point the other morning.

Folks at the diner were talking about the economy again. Sandy said, "Until last year we were living within our means. We had a mortgage, a small one, but we were able to handle it. And we could meet our other expenses too."

"And?" I asked.

She said, "Like I mentioned, we were living within our means but then we lost our means."

This is a familiar story around here but still we averted our eyes.

"So, whatever happened to trickle down?" Everyone turned to look at Rona, not knowing where she was going with this. "I mean, haven't we had a trickle-down economy the past eight to ten years?"

"I'm not following you," I said.

"George Bush got Congress to pass his tax cuts back in 2001. It cut taxes primarily for the richest people. Right? The top two percent everyone's talking about as these cuts are about to expire. Over the decade they received about $3.0 trillion in tax breaks and the rationale for that was that since these folks are the most productive people if they are allowed to keep more of their money, as the Republicans put it, they will use that extra money to stimulate the economy. They'll use it, trickle-down theory claims, to invest it in ways that grow the economy by creating new businesses and in that way create new jobs. Do I have this right?"

We all nodded. "In other words," Rona continued, "these new jobs would lead to more people spending what they earned. Rich people's reduced taxes were in this way going to trickle down to the middle class who have seen their incomes decline for quite a few years."

She paused. "So what happened? Did it work? Have we seen anything trickling down to the rest of us?" No one said anything. "I haven't."

"Nor have I," said Sandy.

"But now," Rona said, "after this experience with tax cuts for the wealthiest, one could almost call it an economic experiment, instead of seeing prosperity come about as the result of these kinds of tax cuts we are experiencing the worst recession since the Great Depression. Isn't it true that during the eight years of the Bush administration five million jobs were lost"

"It is," Chuck said. "We tried this approach when Ronald Reagan was president and though we didn't have this kind of recession things were not good for the middle class. And the public debt nearly tripled. As I recall, the architect of Reaganomics, David Stockman, quit the administration and became a critic of trickle-down theory."

"And theory it was," I chimed in.

"Aren't theories based on hypotheses, not experience?" Rona asked, of course knowing the answer. "We just ran the trickle-down experiment again and once more it's been proven not to work."

"And yet," Ralph added, "aren't the Republicans still calling for more of the same? Extend all the Bush tax cuts, very much including those for the the top two percent? Actually don't they want to make the cuts permanent? Give away trillions more? All the while again justifying this tax policy as good for working people. More trickle-down economics. Of course they don't call it that anymore. They know the public is on to that one."

"They may be," Rona said, "But aren't you amazed that the richest people and the largest corporations are getting the Tea Party people and others who have been victims of these tax policies to be the staunchest advocates for retaining the high-end tax breaks. How does that work? Why would anyone struggling to get by be out there marching to protect hedge fund managers' billions in income? For the life of me, this I cannot figure out."

"I think I can," Sandy said. "When people are scared it's easy to fool them when they tell you they'll take care of you. Even if everyone knows it's not true. But it still brings some comfort. I'm embarrassed to admit it, but because of the way I'm struggling right now I know I'm susceptible to anyone who tells me that. I haven't signed up for the Tea Party but I do understand its appeal."

"You know the old story," Chuck said, "'Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice . . .'"

"'Shame on me,'" Sandy said with a ironic smile.

Friday, October 08, 2010

October 8, 2010--William M. (Bill) Birenbaum

He had a preposterous idea--

William M. Birenbaum had just been named president of Staten Island Community College and wrote a book, Overlive, with the subtitle, Power, Poverty, and the University.

Though SICC was a community college and not by any stretch of the imagination a university; and though Birenbaum wrote in Overlive how traditional universities, with their power to distribute assets unintentionally contributed to poverty--at that time in the 1970s they still served mainly the relatively affluent and thus played a significant role in maintaining inequality--on Staten Island, apocryphally, but with the essence of truth, the only borough of New York City that sided with the Confederacy during the Civil War and when he arrived continued to cling to its exclusive traditions (read, This island is for white people. Black people only marginally welcome)--his vision for the college he now lead, in this unlikely place, was to make it a part of the city, to make great efforts to welcome all (read, Low-income minority students and staff), and was to use its power to help ameliorate lingering poverty.

And though he was far from perfect, faced resistance from every local sector (especially from the Italian-American community which had a virtual lock on all of the Island's political and social resources), including an entrenched, tenured and essentially conservative faculty and staff, Birenbaum in more ways than not carried out his vision. Including with the help of the likes of me and other rag-tag, largely untested, quasi-educators and troublemakers.

Though the black community on Staten Island was small and largely quiescent in their marginalization (how could they not be with the mansions of the Mafia leadership dotting the island), Bill hired a savvy, smart, and tireless African-American assistant dean to reach out to that community and deliver the message that the college was now theirs too. That they were welcome on campus, and via a bridge program that Bill and his young dean created there were opportunities awaiting that only a college could provide.

And come these new students did and for the most part thrived.

Before anyone else. at a time when the Vietnam War still raged and divided Americans, when returning veterans beset by a myriad of problems were often less then welcomed home or at colleges, Bill, under the leadership of a combat veteran who was as wise as he was street-smart, began a program for vets that enabled them to begin work on their college degrees while receiving the counseling and other services they needed to readjust to civilian life and reconnect with their families.

And come these new students did and for the most part thrived.

He hired me, a Brooklyn Jew, to be his ambassador to the Italian-American community. To let them know what was happening up on Todt Hill and attempt to get them comfortable with, as Bill unceremoniously put it, the realities of late 20th century life.

This was tough sledding. Former borough president Albert V. Maniscalco and his Italian Club colleagues saw Birenbaum's arrival, the programs he instituted, and the new people he brought to the campus as an invasion of their island sanctuary. Consistently, these same fellows had fought against the construction of the Verrazano Bridge, realizing correctly that it would forever end their cherished isolation and exclusivity. Things at the college were so tense and confrontational that for the first year members of the Cub mercilessly referred to Birenbaum as either "him" and "Birenberg." One can only imagine what was said about Bill over countless Staten Island dinner tables.

But Al and Vito and Louie and Tony came around when they began to realize that as Birenbaum, his new staff and faculty, and the status-quo faculty (as Bill thought about them) came around, the members of the Italian Club also begrudgingly realized that what Birenbaum was up to was bringing about so many academic improvements and opening so many forms of opportunity that what he was shaping at SICC was also good for their own children.

And after a hugely successful Italian Cultural Festival that we staged on campus on Columbus Day weekend (Bill told me privately to organize a "backlash" festival), they made me an honorary Italian and a member of the club. Al said, with my full beard I looked like Garibaldi. Everyone nodded.

And then, though under Bill's leadership opportunities for students were expanded and in many, many cases realized, to me personally my eight years there were my own best higher education.

Bill was an exceptional mentor. A tough one. The best kind. He taught me and us to be strategic before acting audaciously. In that era, too frequently audacity often served as an end in itself. On the other hand, he would say, put to good uses it was a powerful and necessary force for change. We might need to break some windows to let fresh air in.

He taught that personal change must proceed social change. So spend lots of time, he insisted, on checking yourself out. Those unexamined parts of an inner life can be ruinous if not understand and brought under al least some sort of control. Other people's lives, especially the disenfranchised, are not to be taken for granted or experimented with by anyone unwilling to be relentlessly self-scrutinizing.

And in regard to relentlessness, he taught that to bring about change it wasn't enough to have good ideas or good values or be "right." One had also to be totally devoted and persistent. The forces aligned against any change are such that to confront them and succeed (as a former competitive wrestler Bill was very much about winning) one had to be willing to hang in there until resistors are either convinced or exhausted.

Lunch with Bill (which always consisted, seated at a bar, of broiled fish and lots of scotch) was not about the food or the booze. It was always an opportunity for him to push on you. To probe for points of leverage through which to get you to examine yourself, test yourself, if necessary to force you to think harder, dig deeper; and in as many ways of which you were capable become stronger and more effective.

My last lunch with Bill was four years ago. And though we were no longer working together (correction: I was no longer working for him), after some brief catch-up chit-chat, about which as in the past he was in truth only minimally interested, after just one scotch (he had cut back on his drinking) he got me again into one of his metaphoric wrestling holds and with just the force of his will resumed moving me about. As always, checking me out--to see what kind of shape I was in after many years of not having seen each other--and probing to see if I was still true to the cause. The one he cared about. How much had I compromised, he clearly wanted to know.

Too much, I confessed to myself. With him one never did any direct confessing. And pledged, again to myself--he also had no tolerance for pledges, only for what he called "delivery-capacity"--that I would get back on my own case. Which I hope I was subsequently able to do.

Earlier this week, in the embrace of his family, Bill died and his mighty heart is now at rest.

Thursday, October 07, 2010

October 7, 2010--From the Bookshelf of Glenn Beck

If you listen to Glenn Beck for more than five minutes you might easily wonder if he does any reading at all since so much of what he rants about is made up. His take on American history, for example, is almost always without foundation in fact. Then again, considering this, maybe he reads a lot of fiction.

So you may be surprised to learn that he and his minions actually do read books. As the New York Times recently reported, he and other Tea Partiers have discovered some obscure texts from the past that have become their canon. (Article linked below.)

Until hearing about this I thought their reading went back only as far as Ayn Rand, whose Fountainhead and especially Atlas Shrugged was their secular bible. I read them when I was about 20 and admit they did give me a cheap thrill. What, with the hyper-emphasis on self reliance and the claim that life was all about self-assertion, I was taken in. Hers was just the sort of message I was susceptible to at that impressionable age when I was thinking about how to chart the course of my adult life.

But by the time I became that adult her message began to wear thin. Like Margaret Thatcher asserted a couple of decades ago, Rand rejected the idea that society exists. Literally.

Instead, Rand wrote in muscular prose and Thatcher believed, it is all about the individual and thus there is that nasty implication--since we are all on our own if one of our fellow citizens runs into trouble (loses a job, for example, or gets sick) they are on their own.

There should be no expectation, much less a requirement, that any of us should lend them a hand. Those who falter or are affected by bad luck got what they deserved and thus it is up to them to figure out what to do. And if they can't, too bad.

These Randians and pseudo-libertarians reject the idea of social virtue, where we recognize that our lives are interdependent and behave accordingly. Social Darwinism some call this cult of the individual. People by nature participate in a fierce and bloody struggle in which only the fittest survive. Read should survive.

Ironically this social evolutionary theory is devoutly believed in by those who deny the validity of biological evolutionary theory.

This is how Rand and her acolytes see the world. And acolytes they truly are--believers not thinkers.

Now I'm hearing that Ayn Rand is not the only author these folks read.

A favorite is Frédéric Bastiat who in 1850 wrote The Law in which he argued that taxing people to pay for schools and roads was government-sanctioned theft. And Friedrich Hayek who in 1944, in his Road to Serfdom (a Glenn Beck favorite) wrote that a government that in any way intervenes in the economy will in every instance intervene in all aspects of people's lives.

Self-published author Cleon Skousen's The 5000 Year Leap is another Tea Party best seller. In it, without any references to actual historical texts and ignoring the First Amendment, this ardent supporter of the John Birch Society, claims that the Founding Fathers had not intended any separation of church and state and that if they were still around would consider taxing Americans to provide for the welfare of others to be "a sin."

This in spite of that very First Amendment to the Constitution that they purport to revere which states--"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof . . ." But I guess Skousen and his followers never got past the Preamble.

Half-learning our history gets these folks to some funky conclusions about American law and life. From opposition to all taxes to opposition to all forms of public education to opposition to Social Security and unemployment insurance to opposition to any notion of a minimum wage.

A lot of these radical views are being muted at the moment by candidates such as Rand Paul in Kentucky who realize that spouting them in public, as opposed to closed Tea Party rallies, may hurt them in a general election where people who actually know their history might be inclined to reject them as, well, Un-American.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

October 6, 2010--Midcoast: No Real News

“You get the Lincoln County News, don’t you?”

“Yes, every Thursday when it comes out,” I said, “We love it. It’s where we find out about tag sales and of course the local news.”

“Exactly,” Char said. She’s a graphic artist who also works part time at the Bristol Diner.

“I was reading there last week,” Rona said, “about how lightening struck the Cheney Insurance company chimney. Right on Main Street. They’re our agents and we were glad to read that they took their own advice and were adequately insured!”

“It’s right down the street from the church which has been raising money for the last two years to replace the steeple that toppled in a big storm,” I said. “Lucky it didn’t get hit again ‘cause they’d have to start all over. That guy who has been camped out in front of the bookstore all summer trying to raise money would have to get back to work.”

“I’m glad to see you guys are getting into the spirit of this place,” Char said, “ Paying attention to lightening strikes and local causes.”

“We’re trying,” Rona said.

“One thing I like about being here,” Char said, “is that though through TV and the Internet it’s easy to keep up with news of the world, the paper that everyone reads, The Lincoln County News doesn’t include any ‘real news.’”

Char made a gesture in the air to indicate quotation marks around “real news.” She is actually very well read and up-to-speed about all things national as well as local, but we have been here long enough to get her full meaning—people have a different perspective on what’s important.

They pay attention to and care as much as New Yorkers about the state of the economy (and feel it more directly than most of the people we know in the city) and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (actually they are more likely than we to know soldiers fighting and dying there), but they also pay a great deal attention to local issues—the big, the small, and the amusing.

And since the LCN is the paper of choice here, I thought to share some of the stories from last week’s paper:

The lead story was about the state of the lobster fishing business. In a word, not good.

Though the lobstermen of North End Lobster Co-Op on Westport Island noted improvements in catch volumes this season, according to Stott Carlton, captain of the Edna Mae, “Our expenses have gone up [for fuel and bait], but what we get paid for our lobsters hasn’t changed significantly in 10 years. In fact, if anything, it’s gone down.”

Then there’s the big flap about the guy in our town who has a large piece of land on which he wants to create a wolf refuge. Yes, a place where wolves can thrive and partake of the natural environment of which they were once a part before they were thinned out and ultimately driven entirely away as the result of more and more settlement.

He doesn’t have a spread big enough to assure his neighbors that their property too will not become an unintended part of that refuge and thus threaten their pets and their livestock, not to mention their children. It turns out that the Town of Bristol does not have zoning laws about this and it is not clear if they now want to institute them. This is after all a small-government kind of place.

So on this goes. I am sure the paper will have more to report about the wolves next week. Between now and then there will be no Breaking News about this to interrupt our lives.

It was good to learn, also on the front page, about Chloe Maxmin, a Nobleboro teenager who was one of ten national winners of the Barron Prize which honors youths between 8 and 18 years of age “who have made a significant positive difference in people and our planet.” Winners receive $2,500 for their higher education or to help fund a service project. Chloe’s will focus on global warming and she plans to use the money in part to pay for her upcoming three-month conservation project in South America.

On the other hand, also in Nobleboro, local folks were sad to learn that the more than 100-year-old grange hall is up for sale. In rural America grange halls were centers of community life, hosting countless lunches, suppers, and social events. In the not-too-distant past many a young man met his future bride at a grange hall Box Social.

But in recent years, these sorts of things have gone out of style and attendance at grange hall events has declined to the point where the Nobleboro folks do not any longer turn out in sufficient numbers to meet the legal quorum requirements to retain their grange hall charter. Meetings must be held regularly and at least seven members have to be present. This minimum requirement has turned out to be difficult to attain. And so, if you’re in the market for a grange hall to convert into a whatever, there’s one unhappily for sale right nearby.

Page Two includes a story from Jefferson. If you’ve had your quota of bad news for the day, skip on down past this one since it’s about an old oak tree that was cut down on Carol Kirchdorfer’s property without her permission. Seems the outgoing road commissioner decided to remove it. He was defeated in the recent local election and was not not be found and so no explanation was forthcoming. This did not satisfy Ms. Kirchdorfer, though she admitted that, “He did leave us a big pile of woodchips.” With cold weather approaching, there’s a lot to be said for putting in lots of woodchips.

Meanwhile, over in South Bristol there is concern about the status of the pump on one of their fire trucks. To repair it would cost $60,000 to $80,000. The truck could also use a new water tank and the breaks need rebuilding. But money is real tight here as everywhere and the Board of Selectmen is hesitant to authorize the repairs. They do have two other pumpers in excellent condition and it was decided to wait until the town can again build up its reserve fund while keeping an eye out for a used one. Selectman Chester Rice said, “Some towns are getting some pretty good fire trucks for little or near nothing.” Sounds like a plan to me.

Tucked near the bottom of the page is an announcement—

Rick Genthner of Nobleboro and Beth Estes of Damariscotta, big sisters Kathryn Estes and Gabby Genthner, and grandparents Anne Gabel and Dave Ellis of Nobleboro and Rick and Debbie Genthner of Bremen are pleased to announce the arrival of a baby boy, Nicholas Creighton Genthner, born on Sept 20 at 12:42 p.m. at Miles Memorial Hospital weighing 6 lbs., 9 oz.

Deeper in the first section where sports news is to be found there's nary a mention of the Red Sox not making it to the postseason and of course even less about the Yankees’ late season collapse, but there are a full two pages devoted to how local junior high and high school teams are faring.

In boys’ soccer Medomak Junior High picked up their third win of the young season, defeating Rockland 2-1. In girls’ soccer, however, Camden handed Medomak its first defeat, shutting them out 1-0.

Over on the Sheepscot Links, I read about how the local golf teams are doing. In the Senior Scramble (don’t ask me to explain), the winning team included Mark Petela, Bob Bell, Janet Ray, and Al Gifford. Dan Walenta had the longest drive for men and for the women, Janet Ray. Closest to the pin was Kathy Sproul, who landed her chip shot on the 2nd hole only 10 feet, two inches from the pin; while on number 8, Tom Simmons came within 7 feet, 3 inches of holing out.

If the weather stays good, we can expect more of the same next week.

And, yes, the paper also typically contains news about car accidents, injuries, aggravated assaults, and the inevitable obituaries; but not a word about Afghanistan (unless a local soldier returns from a tour of duty) or Christine O’Donnell’s latest electoral aberration in the Delaware Senate race or don’t ask, don’t tell.

That’s waiting out there and can be gathered from other sources, as Char the other morning pointed out. You can always find ways to get “real news.” In the meantime, I read that Lincoln Academy’s boy’s soccer team will be taking on their traditional rival Medomak in Saturday’s Homecoming game; and since the forecast is calling for it to be sunny with temperatures in the high 60s, maybe we’ll drive over to catch the first half.

We can’t stay for the whole match since at the Pumpkinfest in Nobleboro they’ll be having their annual Pumpkin Chunking contest to see who can chunk a pumpkin the furthest and later in the afternoon they’ll be turning some of the biggest pumpkins from last weekend’s weigh-off into boats that they will then race in the Pumpkin Boat regatta in the Damariscotta Harbor on Sunday. If you’re wondering about pumpkins serving as boats, the winner at the weigh-off came in at an astonishing 1,414 pound and was more than 15 feet in circumference. (See pictures linked below.)

And if that isn’t enough for us to do we still have the Pumpkin Catapult to look forward to and the Underwater Pumpkin Carving Contest, also in the Damariscotta River.

So if any of our friends back in New York or down in Florida are concerned that we don’t have enough going on or are insufficiently stimulated I suggest you look at the Lincoln County News’ website (assuming they even have one) and think about driving up here for Saturday’s Pumpkin Dessert Contest. Our friend, federal judge Boyce Martin is, of course, one of the judges.

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

October 5, 2010--We're Not #1

My brother-in-law sent me a copy of an article that appeared recently in the Village Voice--"White America Has Lost Its Mind." In case you missed it I've linked it below.

It's a little flip in style--after all it was published in the VV--but it contains an essential truth which helps explain otherwise unfathomable political behavior, i.e, some of the excesses of the Tea Party and the people they are supporting. You know the list. From literally crazy Senate candidate Christine O'Donnell in Maryland to out-and-out crooks and bullies such as Carl Paladino, GOP candidate for governor in New York. Both of whom, by the way, appear to have fighting chances to be elected

These out-from-under-the-rock folks make Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich look like sages.

Steven Thrasher, the Voice columnist, has a simple explanation. In a few sentences from him:

For the first time in their lives, baby boomers are hard up against it economically, and white boy is becoming outnumbered and it's got his bowels chilled with fear.

"In an age of diminished resources, the United States may be heading for an intensifying confrontation between the gray and the brown," writes Ronald Brownstein in his July National Journal article, "The Gray and the Brown: The Generational Mismatch." That's a polite and understated way of saying that older white folks are losing their shit as they're being replaced by young brown and black kids while the economy is in the crapper.

We naively thought that by electing Barack Obama we were making a post-racial statement about America, but even before he was inaugurated white people on the extreme right--from Rush Limbaugh to numerous members of Congress--were making not-so-thinly veiled racist cracks about him. From fried chicken stories to his alleged Muslim faith and, worse, African background to pseudo-intellectual but still bigotted articles and books about Obama's "Kenyan cultural consciousness" by the likes of Dinesh D'Souza, with Newt Gingrich, the self-proclaimed Big Idea Man of the conservative movement chirping agreement from the safety of the sidelines.

The good news, as Brownstein notes, is that the generation of yappers who have lost their minds is dying out. People of color in America are producing more children than whites and these children, as well as white youth, do not share these antediluvian views about race.

To white kids, being white is not cool. They do not even understand what all the racial ranting is all about. Their favorite pop culture and sports figures are all African American, as is their preferred president.

But the crazies make the better media story. They mobilize the like-minded, wear funny hats and costumes, and provide chuckles for the elitist rest of us.

The danger of course is that New York may wind up with a pornographer for its governor while Delaware could easily have someone who dabbled in whichcraft representing them in the Senate. And we will not only as a consequence be misreably and mean-spiritedly governed but will also be the laughing stock of the rest of the world. Which, ironically, will tickle most Tea Partiers because they dispise the rest of the world almost as much as they hate Barack Obama.

Speaking of the rest of the world, there is something perhaps more powerful making many white Americans lose their minds--we are no longer clearly Number One.

Our vaunted economy will soon be second to the Chinese, to whom we are already in debt to the tune of trillions. Our army, which until Vietnam never lost a war, not only was humiliated in Southeast Asia but has effectively lost in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Our athletes are far from Number One anymore--we just yesterday lost the Ryder Cup to the Europeans and our basketball all-star teams no longer automatically win in international competition and there are more Latinos on many Major League baseball teams than Anglos.

We lag in providing medical care to our citizens and half the doctors in our hospitals are non-Americans. Many countries are already surpassing us in the development of new medicines and medical technologies and we are being outstripped in the number of new patents issued annually.

Our schools are slipping to Third-World status--our kids score well down the list in math and science when compared to children in other developed nations; and our colleges and universities, which used to be the envy of the world, are at best second-best when it comes to the numbers of students graduating.

Made In America used to mean something positive, from our cars to our steel to our clothing to our works of art. Now, sadly, what little is still made here is often shoddy and not competitive. Even in popular culture where we used to be unsurpassed we are now lagging. Made In Hollywood, assuming the movie is even made there, no longer guarantees success or that it will provide good entertainment.

I could go on.

If you are wondering why so many people here have lost their minds it's largely because of their perception that we are slipping in status in almost all arenas, including racially. For many of the folks following the likes of Glenn Beck and getting incensed about immigrants, especially those of color, being white in and of itself used to mean something.

Being white was a big part of our being Number One.

That is no longer true. For those who felt disenfranchised and beaten down by the system that was their last refuge--their whiteness--to which they retreated when all else failed.

Now that all else is failing, even whiteness isn't any longer working.

Monday, October 04, 2010

October 4, 2010--Day Off

I will return tomorrow.

Friday, October 01, 2010

October 1, 2010--Soak the Poor

An up-the-road neighbor and friend, federal appeals court judge Boyce Martin, passed along a book for me to read, Affirmative Action for the Rich: Legacy Preferences in College Admissions, in which he has an excellent chapter about Grutter v. Bollinger, the University of Michigan affirmative action case for which he authored the majority opinion, upheld by the Supreme Court, which ruled that the university and other institutions of higher learning are constitutionally permitted to employ affirmative-action policies, as long as they did not include a quota system, in order to promote diversity in their student bodies.

In his chapter, Judge Martin, makes the persuasive argument that legacy admission practices, giving preference to the children of alums, in effect affirmative action for the privileged, impedes socially meaningful and academically enriching efforts to diversify student bodies.

Over dinner two night ago, we spoke about how sad and revealing it is that affirmative action programs that are ethnically or socio-economically based are discussed passionately and frequently challenged in the courts by those who feel discriminated against (from California v. Bakke to Hopwood v. Texas to Grutter) while the one's that favor the affluent continue to thrive largely under the radar.

And then yesterday, in the lead op-ed piece in the New York Times, the volume's editor, Richard Kahlensberg, senior fellow at the Century Foundation, summarized the little-discussed and essentially unlitigated legacy admission practices of most of the nation's most selective private and even public colleges, which one would think, since public institutions are largely funded with taxpayers' dollars, would not be allowed to admit students in this discriminatory way. (Linked below.)

Martin and Kahlensberg both cite overwhelming evidence that legacy practices do not act as a kind of tiebreaker, as elite colleges claim, when equally qualified applicants seek admissions. In fact, the hidden hand tipping the scale in favor of the children of graduates is the equivalent of 160 SAT points. Hardly a tiebreaker but rather more a decisive and unearned benefit to the next generation of less-worthies. Junior, doubly-privileged, thereby gains a 20 percent point boost in his chances for admission.

A point I added is that these unfairly assisted applicants tend to come from the same kinds of families who shamelessly whine about how outrageous affirmative action practices are when they favor people of color.

A classic case of Hypocrisy 101.

In his chapter Boyce Martin concludes:

I do not know what test will be applied to determine whether legacy preferences in admission policies violate the Equal Protection Clause [of the 14th Amendment] nor whether legacy preferences will survive the tests applied. But it is clear to me that legacy preferences are destructive to the diversity of our campuses and the perception of merit in admissions and that they perpetuate the class and race discrimination that the rest of our laws are fighting to stop.

Our next dinner will perhaps be for vegetable lasagna at our house where we can continue this "seminar" in the meaning of American history and our noble aspirations as a diverse people.