Monday, January 31, 2011

January 31, 2011--Obama's SportsTalk

Get used to it, like it or not, for the next two years, until the 2012 election, Barack Obama will be pulling out all sorts of sports metaphors.

His State of the Union last week was just the beginning. The theme was "Winning the Future." He used that phrase at least half-a-dozen times. And then the next day, in Wisconsin, the home of the Super-Bowl-bound Green Bay Packers, he evoked the ghost of their legendary coach, Vince Lombardi.

He said:

We've got to up our game, we're going to need to go all in, we're going to need to get serious about winning the future." And then, without directly naming Lombardi, Obama said the Packers coach asserted "there is no room for second place. There's only room in my game for first place. That's the kind of determination to win that America needs right now.

Lombardi actually said:

Winning is not a sometime thing; it's an all the time thing. You don't win once in a while; you don't do things right once in a while; you do them right all the time. Winning is a habit. Unfortunately, so is losing.

There is no room for second place. There is only one place in my game, and that's first place. I have finished second twice in my time at Green Bay, and I don't ever want to finish second again. There is a second place bowl game, but it is a game for losers played by losers. It is and always has been an American zeal to be first in anything we do, and to win, and to win, and to win.

I am eager to see if Obama digs further into the implications of the rest of the coach's mantra, which is not just about winning but doing things right. Applied to what faces us in the world--in our competition with China and the aspirations of people in the wider world, Muslim peoples right now front and center--we have our work cut out for us.

But by deploying an array of sports references Obama is doing more than challenging us. He is also revealing his reelection political strategy.

More than anything else he needs to reattract middle-aged, white independent voters. Folks who used to be referred to as Reagan Democrats. He needs to do things to appeal to them, to show that he understands and relates to them.

Reagan not only appealed to this constituency because they liked his spirit of optimism and his vision for America but also because they liked his style. Especially his Western, cowboy, movie star swagger.

Half the reason George W. Bush was elected and reelected was because he had some of that same appeal. Though from a Brahmin, New England family, and Yale and Harvard educated, he adopted a cowboy's bow-legged walk. I can only imagine how hard he worked to perfect it. But it worked. When asked who they'd prefer to have beer with, George Bush or Al Gore and then later John Kerry, most guys said Bush..

Bill Clinton too had his own version of the regular-guy touch. Also with an elite education, he could turn on the Bubba act, eat junk food, and we know what he did at night in various trailer parks. A lot of guys with six-packs in hand thought this was pretty cool.

Obama can't credibly do cowboy and if he tried to sneak around, even before the press caught up with him, Michelle would dump him.

But though he flops when trying to hang out and knock down some beers with regular guys, he can do sports. We've already seen him filling out March Madness basketball brackets and just the other day he made some predictions about who would wind up in the Super Bowl. And we know he plays three-on-three basketball almost every day.

As a result we now have Winning the Future and Vince Lombardi quotes. Stay tuned, there will be much more jock talk.

For example--

The best offense is the best defense. (Or is it the other way around?)

He hit that speech out of the park. (Post-State-of-the-Union spin.)

The ball's in your court. (When trying to get China to lean on North Korea.)

The gloves are off. (When taking a more forceful position with Iran.)

It's time for a full-court press. (For chasing after al qaeda.)

Who's carrying the ball on this one? (Hillary Clinton or Robert Gates?)

It'll be a slam-dunk. (Sorry, this one's from the Bush administration. When they invaded Iraq.)

I'm throwing my hat in the ring. (When Obama announces he's running for reelection.)

You get the point, right? You've had enough? Me too.

Friday, January 28, 2011

January 28, 2011--The Sex Life of Grapes

Back in January 2006 I wrote here about how scientific studies provided proof that there were only four women from whom all Ashkenazi Jews descended. To quote myself:

As an Ashkenazi Jew (Jews who descended from communities in Central or Northern Europe), I was not at all surprised to learn from a piece in the New York Times that recent research reveals that at least half of us (4.0 of 8.0 million) are direct descendants of just four women who accompanied their men a few thousand years ago when they left the Middle East for points north and west.

You see, if you, like I, grew up with Aunt Bertha, Aunt Tanna, Aunt Fannie, and Aunt Gussie, you would have known all along that all 8.0 million Ashkenazis actually descended from the four of them. They were that prodigious. Thus it was easy to accept that scientists, using the latest DNA evidence, coming to the same conclusion.

And so when I read the other day that nearly all varieties of wine grapes (75 percent of them) descended from a single father and a single mother grape, I was again not surprised. If we Ashkanazis had just four foremothers, then I didn't doubt that my Pinot Noir, my Chenin Blanc, my Reisling, my Chardonnay, my Merlot, and my Cabernet Sauvignon are all the offspring of the Traminer grape.

But I was very surprised to learn that this was because these grapes, though they produce many of my favorite wines, are so intimately connected because they, well, lacked in other forms of intimacy.

Unlike my ancestor aunts, they were so prone to metaphoric headaches that these grapes didn't get to know each other in what might be called the biblical way.

Plants, you of course know, have sex lives. Though apparently when it comes to grapes, not that much. (In the article linked below, see what the ever-thorough New York Times has to report about all the sordid details.)

The reason for this is that for 8,000 years, winemakers have subverted Nature's ways and taken sex out of the grape-evolution business. Rather than letting romance work its flora magic, they propagated new varieties of grapes by breaking off shoots of existing vines and sticking them in the ground affixed to old rootstock. The result--these cultivated grapes remain so closely related that this reduces the possibility of the natural development of new and stronger varieties.

According to the people who study these matters--one might call them grape sexologists--the purpose of sex is recombination, which is:

The creation of novel genomes by taking some components from the father's and some from the mother's DNA. The new combinations of genes provide variation for evolution to work on, and in partciular they let slow-growing things like plants and animals keep one step ahead of the microbes that prey on them.

I'll remember this as Valentine's Day approaches.

It's all about recombination. I hadn't thought of love and sex in quite that way. But I'll see if Hallmark makes a card that includes recombinational sentiments.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

January 27, 2011--American Exceptionalism

For some time Republicans have been beating up on Barack Obama because he doesn't openly declare that he believes in American Exceptionalism.

To sign on to this belief is the latest litmus test to demonstrate one's patriotism, and the GOP sees Obama's seeming reluctance to do this as more evidence that he in not a real American.

Even those who (reluctantly) agree that he is an American citizen and not an African take him to task about this. (See, for example, Majority Leader Eric Cantor's hemming and hawing about his citizenship last Sunday on Meet the Press.) And these attacks on the president's patriotism continued the other night after his State of the Union Address.

He did talk extensively about America's specialness but did not use the E-word. Instead he spoke about how America has the most innovative people, the best colleges and universities, and an abiding entrepreneurial spirit; however, he also warned that in a world that changes as rapidly and radically as ours, these assets are fragile. And thus, the people and the government together will have to work hard and make sacrifices to preserve our standing in the world.

But then he pointed out that our education system is slipping behind many Asian and European countries and they are as well investing more than we in infrastructure. He also mentioned that Korean homes have better Internet access than we, and of course reminded us that China is surpassing us in many realms from high-speed rail to newer airports. (See linked New York Times for more about this.)

This latter list, which was supposed to inspire and challenge us--he called it our "Sputnik moment"--only got him into trouble with hyper-conservatives. Yes, they agree, China and others are advancing, but, his critics say, they are still well behind us; and what's more, unlike the USA, there is nothing exceptional about them. In fact, they are progressing largely through cheating, stealth, and taking advantage of their captive peoples. What they are thus looking for from the president is less talk about the accomplishments of our "enemies" and more about our specialness.

So what is it with this American Exceptionalism?

As with everything else, it has a history. It is an opinion, actually, closer to a belief, that the United States is qualitatively different from other nations. In this view, America's Exceptionalism stems from the nature of our Revolution and from our becoming "the first new nation" of the modern era. Exceptionalism sees us as developing a uniquely American ideology, based on liberty, egalitarianism, individualism, populism, and a laissez-faire economy. This characterization of America can be traced to Alexis de Tocqueville, the first writer, in 1835, in Democracy In America, to describe the United States as "exceptional."

At that time, he had good cause to perceive us that way. We had indeed completed a successful revolution, we had overthrown a monarchy, we resisted mandating a government-established religion, and in the New World had created a version of democracy (which of course excluded women and slaves). Also, after the successful conclusion of the War of 1812, he saw the emergence of a remarkable economy based on agriculture, manufacturing, and hard work. Also, through his travels he became aware of the natural abundance of this still new country. From the fertility of the land to the minerals below its surface. His vision also saw us as soon dominating the western world.

We were indeed "exceptional."

A contemporary de Tocqueville, however, would discern a very different American landscape. One similar to that described on Tuesday by Barack Obama. A mix of remarkable national qualities and achievements but also one threatened by the rise of other countries and their very real achievements.

To strengthen his case Obama could have cited one of my old college professors, Daniel Bell, who died earlier this week. In 1973 he was among the first to notice that the West was rapidly, in a book with this title, becoming a post-industrial society. He saw Western capitalism depending more and more on mass consumerism, acquisitiveness, and widespread indebtedness. Sound familiar? And that this cultural and economic shift was undermining the old Protestant ethic of thrift and national modesty that had indeed made us . . . exceptional.

But none of this would have mattered. Citing a public intellectual such as Bell, of course, would have made matters worse. Obama's opponents are not persuaded by history or facts. They are guided more by ideology and beliefs. Like an enduring, quasi-religious belief in American Exceptionalism.

What they want from him is evidence of behavior similar to their own. Rather than dig in and do the hard work and make the sacrifices necessary to right our ship of state they want him to join them in chanting, "We're Number One! We're Number One!"

This will not get the job done. We didn't get to be Number One by claiming that it was and is our divine destiny to be and remain so. We had to bring it into being. We will see soon if any of that spirit endures. If we are still in fact anything resembling exceptional.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

January 26, 2011--Paul Ryan's Roadmap

Congressman Paul Ryan, newly ensconced as chairman of the House Budget Committee, was the Republicans' designated-responder last night to President Obama's State of the Union address. (Of course, self-appointed leader of the Tea Party, Michele Bachmann, insisted on offering her own response, which it turns out, as usual, served as comic relief to the very serious president and Congressman Ryan.)

Ryan has been taken more and more seriously of late because he is the only Republican leader who has made the effort to come up with a detailed budgetary and deficit-reduction plan. He published it some months ago under the title, "A Roadmap to America's Future 2.0: The Challenge and the Opportunity." The "2.0," I suppose, was to signal that he's a cool member of the Generation Z. Or whatever.

I am treating him ironically because he is anything but cool or radical or contemporary. His plan and its ideas have not been embraced by anyone of significance within the GOP leadership even though they are in fact right out of the mainstream Republican playbook. The political problem for them is that these ideas are stated so openly and unabashedly that GOP leaders have ignored them since they do not want to be caught with their real agenda exposed.

They prefer to appear as if they care about the middle class while doing the bidding of the wealthy, and as a result John Boehner and Mitch McConnell and other members of the leadership are running away from Ryan's Roadmap since it is so openly anti-middle class, as one can see by looking at the specifics, and so unabashedly caters to the interests of the GOP's real constituency--the top 5-10 percent of earners. Their so-called "job creators."

So at least give Paul Ryan credit for being so unintentionally transparent.

If you are inclined to read Ryan's Roadmap, it is linked below.

As to his ideas, let's take a look for ourselves. Particularly at his tax proposals since changing the taxation system has always been the heart and soul of Republican trickle-down economic policy. Cut all taxes to the absolute minimum (particularly for corporations and the wealthy), eliminate the remaining regulations, and the free market will solve our problems. We have seen this enacted in bold type from Ronald Reagan through George W. Bush and we should know by now the consequences--the doubling and tripling of the national debt while the middle class falls further and further behind.

So now enter Paul Ryan.

Ryan's Roadmap relies on substantially privatizing Social Security and Medicare (privatization, in addition to cutting taxes, being the GOP's other panacea), while at the same time repealing estate and corporate taxes and instituting a national sales tax (akin to a value-added-tax) of 8.5 percent on virtually all purchases an services. And while no marginal income tax rates would be increased, the design of the plan and the taxes that Ryan calls for would redistribute the tax burden down the income scale, resulting in an overwhelming majority of Americans ultimately paying more in taxes than they would under President Obama’s plans since VAT taxes are among the most regressive because they fall disproportionately on lower- and middle-income people.

Under Ryan’s proposal:

– Federal taxes would be lowered for the richest 10 percent and increased, via the VAT, for all other income groups.

– The bottom 80 percent of taxpayers would pay about $1,700 more on average per year than they would have been if President Obama’s tax proposals had been fully enacted.

– The richest one percent would pay about $211,300 less on average per year than they would have been if President Obama’s proposals had been approved.

– The poorest 20 percent would pay 12.3 percent of their income in taxes, more than what they would have paid under the President’s proposal, while the richest one percent would pay 15 percent of their income in taxes, which is considerably less than they would have paid under the President’s tax policies.

Under Ryan's plan, this shift in tax burden not only would force the middle- and lower-classes to pay disproportionately more than the rich, but it would also result in the government collecting $2.0 trillion less over a decade than it would if Obama's plan had been enacted. All of it would be added to the deficit that Ryan and his colleagues say they abhor.

These regressive and deficit-busting ideas are standard GOP issue, but are so bluntly stated by Ryan that GOP leaders have distanced themselves from them. They prefer spin, manipulation, and hypocrisy when talking about economic issues.

If you add Ryan's tax proposals to his plans to privatize a large portion of Social Security (we know how far that got when George Bush proposed this and we know how disadvantageous it would be to most seniors) and to eliminate the single-payer Medicare system with vouchers that would require those eligible to buy their own insurance, it is no wonder he has few supporters even within his own party.

If Ryan's ideas are implemented, most effective programs, among many others, in education (student loans, for example) and research (federally-supported medical research) would be substantially defunded. In addition, his tax plan would make the deficit even worse while further depressing the incomes of the middle class and working poor.

For sure these are "ideas," as opposed to generalizations, rhetoric, and pieties; but they are nothing short of ruinous. Sad to say, since he has assumed a position of considerable congressional power, he will have to be taken "seriously," rather than merely dismissed as these ideas for the most part deserve to be.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

January 25, 2011--Pilates

This will be brief. After yesterday's 2,500 worder about Clever Hans and Rona's goldfish and an exhausting Pilates session, I can barely hold my hands up to the keyboard. So this will be just a few hunt-and-peck sentences.

Since I brought up Pilates, I should say a word about it.

Seven or eight years ago, Rona began a series of New Year's resolutions about getting herself into better shape through healthier eating and some consistent form of exercise. She knew herself well enough to sense that aerobics or spinning classes at a health club would not be her thing. Seeing her procrastinate year after year, and knowing from my own out-of-shapeness and inability to stick with an exercise routine, for Valentine's Day I bought her 10 sessions with a local Pilates instructor. Thinking, if she realized that not going would be a waste of quite a bit of money and that the sessions would take place literally around the corner from where we live in New York, this might get her jump-started.

It in fact wonderfully did. She has been doing Pilates now for more than five years and is daily in better and better shape.

Witnessing this, and ashamed of my own lethargy and the widening gap between us when it comes to fitness, I tentatively got started and have more or less kept it going now for more than four years. And since I am confessing, listening to Rona remind me that there is quite a wide gap in our ages, and that if I didn't do a better job of taking care of myself, I would turn her prematurely into a widow, this shocking reminder did wonders in getting me up off my back and onto my back on a Pilates mat, where I do my routine 3 to 4 times a week. Side-by-side with Rona, who has become a version of my trainer.

Yesterday afternoon as I lay on the floor getting ready for Rona to start the music that accompanies our routine (ritualistically, Lhasa Da Sela's The Living Road), Rona, as she routinely does (note how so much of this is about routine), unceremoniously stepped over me as she headed toward her own mat.

Pausing while straddling me, she looked down and said, "Look at those abs."

Puffing myself up, proudly I said, "Just like a six-pack, no?"

"Not exactly," she said.

"What then?" I asked allowing myself to deflate.

"Actually, you're right. Like a six pack. But of toilet paper!" She roared with laughter at her own joke.

Noticing how deflated I in fact looked, she bent down to stroke and kiss me and affectionally said, "You know me," indeed I do I thought, "Sometimes I have a sharp tongue," indeed I know that, "I was just making a little joke. To motivate you." Indeed she did.

Perhaps that supplied some extra motivation because for the first time ever yesterday I managed to do six pull ups, for me the most difficult part of the routine. I had never been able to do more that four.

"You see," Rona said, noticing what I had accomplished. "If I was being mean to you, I would have compared your abs to a six-pack of soft toilet paper. Charmin, or Cottonelle."

"I noticed that," I lied.

And so you see, charley-horsed as I am today, why I can't do any more typing for the day.

Monday, January 24, 2011

January 24, 2011--Clever Hans, Alex, Carmelita, Chaser, and Rona’s Goldfish

My first encounter with animal intelligence was a story I heard about Clever Hans, a German horse who was able to tap out answers to arithmetic problems with his right fore hoof. It was said that he could subtract 6 from 10, tapping the ground 4 times before proudly stopping, or add 3 plus 4. I’m not sure how well he did when it came to long division.

I never saw Clever Hans in person, he was around in the early 1900s, but there were other horses that did their thing at the Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus and, if I am remembering correctly, on the old Ed Sullivan Show. I could be imagining that but Ed did feature novelty acts such as Topo Gigio and Señor Wences, respectively a foam rubber hand-puppet mouse with goo-goo eyes and a childish personality and a ventriloquist whose stable of characters included Johnny, a face drawn with lipstick on Wences' hand, which he would place atop an otherwise headless doll. And so a hoof-tapping horse that knew its times-table would not be out of character for Ed Sullivan.

In later years I learned that Clever Hans, as well as I assume his circus colleagues, weren’t quite as clever as advertised. It’s not exactly that Hans was exposed as a fraud—I’m not sure a horse can be a fraud—but his owner had him trained to read telltale signs from audience members who were invited to pose questions to him. For example, as Hans tapped his way toward the correct answer of, say 7, his interlocutor would tense up and thereby communicate through body language that the horse had reached the answer. Still clever, but not horse higher-math.

Then I encountered Alex, a remarkable gray parrot who it was reliably claimed did more than squawk “Hello” and “Pretty Boy.” His owner and teacher, Irene Pepperberg, an animal psychologist, bought him from a Chicago pet shop and during a 30-year relationship taught him 150 words; but, much more significant, he appeared to understand them, not just repeat or parrot them back.

For example, when Alex was shown an object and was asked about its shape, color, or material, he could label it correctly. He could understand that a key was a key no matter its size or color, and he could figure out how the key was different from others. He knew what color he was, learning "gray" after being told the answer six times. And evoking Hans, to a limited extent, Alex could even add, correctly giving the number of similar objects on a tray.

My favorite Alex story is about how he from time to time would express annoyance with Irene Pepperberg. If he said “Wanna banana,” but she offered him a nut instead, he would glare in petulant silence; ask for the banana again; take the nut and throw it at her; or before requesting it again, in equally dramatic ways, display annoyance.

Needless to say, these very “human” qualities, among other things, attracted me to Alex, and I was quite sad in 2007 when I heard that he had departed this mortal coil.

Prior to Alex’s accomplishments (Pepperberg claimed he was as intelligent as a dolphin or a typical five-year-old child), it was believed that a large primate brain was needed to handle complex language-related problems and that birds were thus not capable of intelligence and at best could only mimic words.

Chimpanzees, on the other hand, our closest relatives in the animal kingdom, chimps such as Nim Chimpsky (named playfully after linguist-cognitive scientist Noam Chomsky) and other great apes were thought to be the only non-human animals able to understand and use versions of language. Nim was raised by a family in a New York City brownstone and before he was sent away to the Institute for Primate Studies appeared to learn 150 American Sign Language signs.

But, again, as impressive as Nim may have been—and there have been any number of very mart chimps--we should not be too fast to conclude that only great apes are capable of showing signs of human-like intelligence

As confirmation that Alex the gray parrot was the real thing, Rona and I recently encountered Carmelita, our friend Vicente’s son’s parrot. Vicente frequently baby-sits for her when his son is out of town; and since Vicente knows we like both him and Carmelita, when Carmelita is with him he invites us to come to his house for a delicious home-cooked lunch.

Though Carmelita does not mimic much less “speak,” she is an astonishingly sensitive and assertive communicator. She appears to have her very own vocal and sign languages.

To illustrate, ours is always a lunch that must be shared with Carmelita. At her insistence. While we eat Vicente’s fiery New Mexico chilies and enchiladas, Carmelita, not to be left out, makes a racket in her cage, moves to the perch nearest the door, and begins to gnaw on the latch. This is her signal that she wants out and in on the feast.

Understanding, Vicente opens the door and Carmelita, using her beak, works her way down the bars of the cage, slides down the leg of the table it rests on to the floor, and then jounces through the terrace door to join us at the patio table.

To get to the table top she grasps Rona’s pants leg and purposefully hoists herself up onto Rona’s lap, then along the sleeve of her sweater, and up onto her shoulder where she announces her arrival by nuzzling Rona’s hair and gently nipping her ear.

Squawks next declare her intentions. We as yet cannot distinguish among them, they in truth all sound pretty much the same to us; but Vicente has no difficulty knowing the difference between Carmelita’s wanting affection (head stroking), food (not his wonderful tortillas but her crackers and Polly seeds), or attention (exchanges of head nods and facial expressions). Quite a dialogue!

And then after a few delightful hours together, when Vicente walks with us to our car, Carmelita intensifies her squawks, so much so that Vicente feels the need to say back to her, “Don’t worry. I am not leaving. I am just seeing Rona and Steven to their car. I will be right back.” Lots of cognitive information there. But not too much to confuse Carmelita who quiets right down. Actually, before doing so she signals Vicente, with squawks of a very different sort, that she “understands” and will remain calm until he returns.

Fascinated by this flood of information about animal intelligence--some remembered, some experienced--I next read about Chaser (see linked), a border collie with a “vocabulary” of more than 1,000 words who’s seeming cognitive feats, it is claimed, may help shed light on how language is acquired by humans.

Also purchased in a pet story by a psychologist, John Pilley, who had read about another border collie, Rico, who was reputed to know 200 words, the competitive Pilley wanted to see if he could train Chaser to understand more. And so he spent four to five hours a day for years teaching Chaser an ever-growing series of nouns. Mainly words for objects such as cloth animals (he eventually learned to distinguish, can you imagine, 800 distinct ones), balls (fully 116), Frisbees (“just” 26), and a host of other plastic items.

Pilley’s technique involved showing Chaser an object, repeating its name up to 40 times, hiding it, and finally asking Chaser to find it, which she proved remarkable adept at doing.

The dog was so into these endless drills, that even now she presses Dr. Pilley to work with her for many hours each day though the good doctor, who is now 82, cannot keep up with his canine master’s demands.

As remarkable as all of this obviously is, to press matters further, to explore this remarkable dog’s cognitive capacities, Pilley some years ago added more complexity to the lessons--he experimented with verbs.

To do so, he taught Chaser three different kinds of actions—pawing, sniffing, and taking an object in her mouth. To test her learning, Chaser was presented with three items and asked to either “paw,” “sniff,” or “fetch” one of them. Chaser proved to be about as good at this as she had been in just identifying objects.

Still doubts remain. Skeptics say that many animals, especially dogs, are good at reading their master’s clues. Of seeming to act in human-like terms. What might again be called the Clever Hans Affect.

And there I am tempted to leave you. With nothing fully resolved. Except that there are now Rona’s goldfish.

Where we live in Delray there is a no-pet policy, though one owner is allowed to have her bichon frise. It was grandfathered in as part of her purchase agreement. But our neighbors are very strict about making any other exceptions and, though we would like to consider acquiring a small dog, we are careful to abide by the local rules.

But then recently we were in an antique store where Rona found a beautiful blown-glass bowl that we both instantly thought would make an ideal goldfish tank.

Looking at each other with the same idea in mind, Rona said, “Wouldn’t it be nice to . . . ?”

So we bought the bowl and off we went to a Boca pet store that specializes in exotic fish such as tetras and platies and angel fish as well as more ordinary ones such as the two fantail goldfish Rona bought along with a fish net, appropriate food, and dechlorinator.

“Do you think we’ll get in trouble with our neighbors? Fish after all are pets.”

“But not pets we have to walk on the lawn so they can do their thing. And goldfish don’t make any sounds so they won’t disturb anyone.”

“Maybe just some when gulping for air,” the aquarium owner said, listening in on our conversation, “But only if you don’t change the water frequently enough.”

“I think we’ll be fine,” Rona said assuredly.

“But what if there are any complaints?” I am a worrier.

By then Rona was no longer paying attention to my concerns and was already fully occupied with her two fish, which had been placed in a large clear plastic bag that seemed designed to ease the trauma of the long car ride back to our apartment.

“Here fishy, fishy,” Rona was saying to them with a friendly smile on your face. “We’ll be home in just a few minutes and I promise to take good care of you.” She was speaking a form of baby talk to them. In spite of her calm words and promises, in the bag the fish swam in frantic circles.

“I suppose you’ll even give them names,” I said as if to myself.

“Probably,” Rona said to herself, still ignoring me.

When we got them home and installed in their bowl, Rona began to spend hours with them, which has since become part of our new routine. Not hours at a time but hours, it seems to me, each day while she feeds them and watches their antics. Carryings-on that even I am willing to acknowledge that over time seem less and less random and more purposeful. They have clearly gotten to “know” Rona (or at least recognize her). When she is in the room they race over to the side of the bowl nearest her. They do not, except on occasion, do the same when I am in the vicinity. When they do, it appears more arbitrary—the result of swimming around—than intentional.

It makes me wonder. Do they behave to Rona as they clearly do since she is their primary feeder? Is their response to her presence more a matter of anticipating food than just to her being there? To their “knowing” and liking her because of her general involvement with them and the obvious pleasure she takes in being near them and enjoying their graceful movements?

I know that scientists tell us that all land animals—humans very much included—are descended from fish. That some fish, our very distant ancestors, crawled up onto land, using their under- or pelvic-fins to propel them onto some ancient beach, and that over many millennia those fins mutated and became our legs and arms. This I know from my amateur interest in human biology and evolution.

Could this then help explain what is obviously a developing deep connection between Rona and The Boys? Her current generic name for the two of them.

There is no way yet to know. I do, though, see some new behavior almost every day. New behavior on the part of The Boys and, truth to be told, Rona.

For example, even after Rona has changed the water in the bowl, which because it is more suffused with oxygen than the discarded water energizes them—as it would us—I notice that they still spend more time at the surface, which I have previously thought was the way they gulped for air as the air in the bowl’s water was becoming depleted. So, it appears, their freshened-water behavior clearly is not oxygen-related.

This gulping also means that The Boys are generating more bubbles that linger at the margins of the water’s surface. I admit that I may be becoming delusional, but these seem to me to be forming patterns. Not necessarily the residue of spontaneous gulping. And the bubbles appear to increase in number and complexity as Rona leans closer and closer to them. Talking to them all the time.

I am coming to think that none of this is associated with feeding but rather may be their response, their excitement at the fresh water and shot of oxygen they need to survive. And may be their attempt to “thank” Rona for providing it. Which is very different—in cognitive terms (if I can use this term when talking about fish)—than a conditioned reaction to the anticipation of feeding.

I plan to study this behavior and especially these bubbles more systematically. What I am reporting here is admittedly a very early reading of what might be going on.

We may again be in a Clever Hans situation; but then again, who knows, who would have thought a parrot could say “Wanna a banana” and show “human” annoyance when it wasn’t forthcoming.

All I know is that when Rona sometimes wakes up in the middle of the night and can’t fall back asleep I hear her in the living room having more and more complex “conversations” with The Boys, and in turn I hear lots of bubbles being produced.

Friday, January 21, 2011

January 21, 2011--My Fireplace

Now they've gone too far.

We bought a car that gets 35 miles on a gallon of gas (but as a consequence has no acceleration). We've switched to fluorescent light bulbs which save a lot of electricity (though they do not give off enough light for me to read after dark). We use only "green" cleaning products (which leave ring-around-the-collar). We don't let the water run when doing dishes or when shaving and take rather cold showers (which we have convinced ourselves are good for our circulation). We don't drink bottled water or anything bottled for that matter (wine being the exception). We are demon source-separators of our garbage (never letting glossy newspaper inserts get mixed together with the newsprint). And we religiously use biodegradable toilet paper and flush only twice a day (comments not welcome).

For God sakes, our apartment in New York City is only about 1,000 square feet and we have the downstairs radiators turned off. How much smaller a carbon footprint can we leave?

Moreover, our house in Maine is unheated and we get through cold mornings and nights wrapped in Snuggies.

While up there we think we're doing the virtuous thing when we wake up by using our fireplace to take the chill out of the air before spending the rest of cold days in bed huddled under down comforters. But now they're telling me that fireplaces, in this environmentally-sensitive age, are not only not cool any more but hazardous to one's health. Half the reason we bought the cottage on the Pemaquid Peninsula is because of its old, free-standing stone fireplace.

According to an article in the New York Times (which I have reluctantly linked below), not only does an old-fashioned fireplace discharge all sorts of bad stuff into the air (which, I confess, I sort of knew but have been ignoring for the sake of the charm that only a fire can provide), but, to quote--

The smoke from a fire smells very nice but it can cause a lot of harm. The tiny particles can cause inflammation and illness and can cross into the bllodstream, triggering heart attacks, as well as other conditions.


Now I not only have to worry about second-hand cigarette smoke. Though, in spite of what I am learning about them, I think I'll take my chances when it comes to my fireplace. Life is short and charm is charm.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

January 20, 2011--Ophiuchus

Every day, a Facebook "friend" sends me a horoscope. I was born on October 2nd so this makes me a Libra. Here's yesterday's:

Your Daily Libra Horoscope--

Today you could feel like you have one foot in another world. It's a great feeling, Libra, with a lot of love and wisdom mixed in. This could prove useful...

I don't believe in any of this, but who doesn't like to be told that their day will include love and wisdom. Love or wisdom alone would have been enough for me, but both . . . ?

Just as I was getting used to these daily doses of good news (there's never been one that says my day will be a mix of mean-spiritedness and troubles), I read that because of a dramatic but routine wobble in the alignment of the earth's axis--technically called a "precession"--there has been an alteration in the alignment of overhead stars.

Star alignments being essential to any meaningful horoscope reading, this is giving fits to those who make star charts. So much has changed, for example, that I may no longer be a Libra. Before the recent precession Libras were people born between September 24th and October 23rd. Now it appears that Libras include those born between October 30th and November 23rd. Which leaves me out.

This means that I may now be a Virgo, which is the virgin or maiden. I'll try to find a way to deal with that.

All agitated by this Zodiacal news, since my friend hasn't made the necessary adjustment and keeps sending me daily Libra horoscopes when I now need them for Virgos, I did a little research of my own and, happily, found a place that appears to have adjusted their charts.

From this source, my Virgo reading for today is--

Making new friends, exploring new avenues of communications and even further developing your existing romantic affiliations are in the cards right now. This is a great opportunity to charm your way to success.

Sounds good. I'll spend the rest of the day trying to turn on the charm.

But in the meantime, according to a report in the New York Times (linked below) some astrologers are saying that they now need to add a 13th sign--Ophiuchus, the snake holder--to the traditional 12. It would squeeze into the signs of the current Zodiac and, by jiggering the dates for the existing signs to conform to the new celestial alignments, would run from November 29th to December 17th.

As far as I can determine there are not as yet any daily horoscopes for Ophiuchuses. Nor any assistance in how to pronounce it. So here at least help with that--it's pronounced OFF-ee-YOO-kuss.

And since November 29-December 17 sits right square in the middle of the pre-Christmas season, here is my attempt at the first Ophiuchus horoscope--

Today you could feel that you have one foot in Neiman-Marcus and the other in Bloomingdales. It is a bountiful feeling. This is a great opportunity to find bargains in housewares and romance among the cosmetics.

January 19, 2011--Restricted

When I was about 10, my parents and extended family rented a summer house in the northern Catskill Mountains. In Tannersville, New York. Because of work, my father remained in the city during the week and came up to the house on weekends, as a special treat bearing boxes of Ebingers' cakes. Among the pleasures we shared was his love of wandering around, exploring back roads and byways. We would set out with the Grand Gorge Diner as a destination because, he claimed, they made the best homemade apple pie--he was right about that--and we would thus wend our way along various back roads to wind up there for a couple of à la mode slices.

One Saturday, along one of the blue highways, we came upon the Maple Leaf Inn. A charming place half hidden behind luxurious hedges. Innocent that I was, I asked, "Can we drive in? It looks so beautiful. I bet they have a big swimming pool."

Uncharacteristically, my father ignored me and drove quickly by the entrance. Insistent, I whined, "Why can we look around? I'm sure they wouldn't mind."

Still without responding, my father lurched the car into a screeching U-turn. When we approached the entrance again, he slowed down and, without saying a word, pointed to a sign half-obscured but still visible under one of the hedges. "Read it," he commanded.

I did. It said--Restricted.

"What does 'restricted' mean?" I asked.

"It means, No Jews." He was quivering in a way I had never previously witnessed.

"I still don't understand."

He angrily said, "It means they don't want us there. In the hotel or on the grounds. It's restricted only to gentiles. We, Jews are not welcome."

And so on that day some of my innocence ended.

Fortunately, throughout the course of my life I experienced almost no direct anti-Semitism though I did become aware of what went on in Eastern Europe during the Second World War--a number of my relatives had been put to death in concentration camps and a few managed to escape and made their way to America where I encountered them when I was a small boy.

And during my adult life, as I heard more stories and read more history I also learned about anti-Semitism in America--especially from the 1880s and 90s when the Populists blamed some of the recurrent recessions and depressions on Jewish bankers both in the U.S. and Europe. From H.W. Brands' American Colossus, which I have just finished, I read about how beginning in the early 1880s, declining farm prices prompted many in the Populist movement to blame Jewish financiers for their plight. Although Jews played only a minor role in the nation's commercial banking system, the prominence of Jewish investment bankers such as the Rothschilds in Europe, and Jacob Schiff, of Kuhn, Loeb & Co. in New York City, made the claims of anti-Semites believable to some.

And then I learned more about how during the first decades of the 20th century millions of Jews who fled to America to escape pogroms and virulent anti-Semitism were regarded by Nativists as genetically inferior and at the center of global conspiracies that contributed to the wrecking of the American economy and the debasement of American values. From this I became all to aware of how deep anti-Semitism was embedded in the American grain.

Then there was the other morning, on Martin Luther Kind Day, over coffee, when a successful businessman, a terrific guy, spoke about what a great man MLK was and how much progress we have made in race relations. "Still more to accomplish," he said, "but I'm old enough to remember segregation and all those Jim Crow laws."

I nodded in agreement and said I am old enough as well to remember the "colored" and "white" drinking fountains and the "colored" and "white" beaches down here in Florida. And I added, "Look at all the progress women have made and gays and, for that matter, Jews. There is remarkably little anti-Semitism anymore in America. Yes, there are the Mel-Gibson situations and the Anti Defamation League keeps a close eye on any evidence of anti-Semitism, including--fairly or unfairly--Sarah Palins' use of 'blood libel' the other day. But compared to what I remember from my youth, Jews and Jewishness seems actually to be highly regarded these days,"

"It may have something to do with Israel," he said.

"What do you mean?"

"I'm a good Christian," he said, "Even Evangelical. And I go to Israel every year. I am inspired there."

"That's fascinating," I said, feeling I knew where this might be headed--toward the millennialist belief that before there could be a Second Coming of Christ Jews need to occupy what they call Greater Israel, which very much includes the West Bank and much more of that regions' hotly contested territory. Without the cooperation of Jews there can be no Rapture, no Second Coming, no Millennium, no Last Judgement. Thus, we Jews are no longer "restricted." Quite the contrary.

And so I diverted the conversation with my breakfast mate and directed us to talk about other things. This was something, I thought, we could pick up on a day other than the one devoted to the life and work of Dr. King.

We had, though, stumbled onto one explanation as to why there is so little residual anti-Semitism in America in spite of the fact that we are in a deep recession and it would be easy to blame it on a conspiracy of American and international Jewish bankers. After all we are living here in Bernie Madoff territory.

But we should not be naive. Jews have been important in the past to the wider society and that hasn't prevented pogroms and worse. I am, though, enjoying the current lack of anti-Semitism; and if the Maple Leaf Inn is still around, maybe this summer we'll book a room for an August weekend. It is after all still only a few miles down the road from the Grand Gorge Diner.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

January 18, 2011--Snowbirding: Money

My sister-in-law says I’ve been writing a lot about money. Actually, about not spending money.

I said that this is not true.

She said, “Double check because it seems to me that you have been. And it concerns me. You guys worked hard, saved carefully, and now is the time to enjoy the fruits of your labor. You shouldn’t be denying yourself anything.”

I said, “I don’t sense we’re denying ourselves anything. Though I do admit we’re being careful.”

“Double check," she again suggested.

So I did. And discovered she is right. At least partially. As you can say when protesting a parking ticket—I’m “guilty with an explanation.”

True, in recent weeks, especially since arriving in Florida, I’ve written about the frustrations of trying to save money by suspending our cable TV and telephone service in New York and how recently, when getting our car washed, we discovered that the Rub-A-Dub place had a weekend hand-wax special, which even included a reduction in sales tax so we saved yet more. And last season I wrote about my $7.00 haircut (which this year is $8.00) and how we swallowed our Greenwich Village pride and were beginning to get into early-bird dinners with two-for-one deals.

But I thought I was writing tongue-in-cheek, having a little fun at my own expense by representing us as being extra frugal while in south Florida among the other ultra money-conscious snowbirds.

To that I could just imagine my sister-in-law quoting Freud about the serious truth hidden within humor. How in Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious he writes about how jokes happen when the conscious allows forbidden thoughts which society suppresses.

In my case I don’t know about society’s role in my fooling around about spending less, but my insightful sister-in-law has me thinking further about what might be called my “money-thing.”

Is it a case of while in Rome . . . or something more profoundly true (and disturbing?) that is happening to us as we are (slowing and gracefully) aging and living on a version of fixed incomes?

As for the when-in-Florida part of this, I have been noticing our kitchen counter piling up with discount coupons. The ones found in the glossy supplements slipped into the Sunday papers or those in the little booklets deposited in one’s mailbox. Rona has been gathering coupons for Motrin (one of our mid-life staples); Scott toilet paper (we are tending to use more and more); and even a 50-percent-off coupon for the local department store, Mercer-Wenzel (a truly wonderful place where the sales clerks’ average age is at least 80).

On the way back from breakfast this morning we stopped at CVS to restock our dwindling Motrin supply (the dollar-off coupon was set to expire in a few days). I waited in the car, reading the sports section. When Rona returned she was carrying a bag which from its size had to contain more than a small bottle of Motrin.

“It looks like you found some other things you needed,” I said, eyeing the bag.

“Nothing that I needed,” Rona said with a sly smile, “but something hard to resist.” She was rummaging around in the bag and pulled out two small bottles of pink nail polish. She held them up for me to see.

“Nail polish?” I said. It is very rare for Rona to paint her nails.

“They were having a 75-percent-off sale.”

“Seventy-five percent?” I was stunned by how steep the discount was.

“Yes. These cost $1.25 each. Can you believe it?”

“That is amazing.”

“I thought, at that price I’d do my finger and toenails. If they were full price I would never have thought to buy them. Much less nail polish from Chanel, which costs . . . “

“Fifty dollars?” I guessed.

“Not that much. Maybe $18.00”

“Even though, if you wanted it . . .”

“I know, I could afford to buy it. But maybe I haven’t adjusted my price-point enough to get used to nail polish at five dollars much less $18.00 for a small bottle.”

“Like me with a six pack of Diet Pepsi. How when it went to more than $2.00 for quite some time I refused to buy it. Then I adjusted. I had to have my Pepsi.”

“I must still have some adjusting to do,” Rona mused.

“But is it us, the aging process, or being in Florida where everyone seems to be clipping coupons of one kind of another that is causing us to be so seemingly obsessed about money?” I was thinking again about what my sister-in-law had noticed.

“Probably some of all of the above,” Rona said.

“With regard to Florida,” I said, “obviously a lot of people come here, like it here because their dollars go further. For real estate, for taxes, for eating out, for the cost of a movie ticket. How much did we pay the other day to see True Grit? I think in New York it would have been $12.00 or so.”

“Six-fifty,” Rona said, “Quite a bit less. And since you didn’t like it that much it felt like the right price.”

“But I notice that a lot of people, people like us to be fair, who are not struggling financially are very, very money minded. Way more than their incomes and assets would require. Why are they, why are we like that?”

“I’m not sure. Maybe being here in a cost-conscious environment encourages one to be careful about money.”

“Or allows us,” thinking again about Freud and the release of unconscious impulses, “to act in ways that reflect what really motivates us or who we truly are.”

“You mean, how when in New York we feel pressure to keep up with a certain level of lifestyle and spending?”

“Maybe that too.”

“Which reminds me,” Rona said, “about our shopping spree the other day at K-Mart.” We had gone there to look for more blouses of the kind that Rona had bought at the K-Mart near us in the City. She was wearing them all the time and was hoping to be able to get a few more since they fit nicely; were flattering; and were, well, very inexpensive.

“And what did we end up doing?”

“Buying two huge bags of clothes.”

“None of which we really needed. Though I did get some more of those blouses.”

“But the rest—things you bought as well as all the stuff I found—we bought because . . .”

“. . . it all looked good; we could sort of use the pants and shirts and belts we found; but above all else, they . . .”

“. . . were incredible bargains. How much did we spend for everything?”

“Less than $150,” I recalled. “You remember when we got to the cashier how she made a comment about being able to buy so many things and still spend less than $150?”

“I do. I remember your commenting when we schlepped the bags to the car that we must have bought 25 pounds of clothes. And how by the pound they cost about as much as chopped meat.” We laughed at that.

This pleasure, on reflection, suggested additional ways to think about our seeming frugality—how we’re having as much fun finding bargains as indulging in luxuries. We do enjoy them—we have been buying quite expensive bottles of Bordeaux, quoting an old colleague who used to say that life is too short not to drink good wines; and have been quite extravagant when it comes to real estate. The place on the beach here in Delray and the cottage on the coast of Maine are recent cases in point.

But then there is something else we have been observing that is less attractive, assuming what we have been up to qualifies as attractive—some evidence of mean-spirited miserliness that at times sets off small bursts of class warfare.

On January 1st the Florida sales tax was lowered by half-a-percentage point. Down to 6 percent from 6 ½. This meant that on New Years Day Rona’s $2.00 New York Times at the new shop in town, with tax, cost $2.12 rather than $2.13. She and Nancy, one of the owners had quite a bit of morning-after fun about how much Rona would be saving. “About 15 cents a week,” Nancy chuckled, since the Sunday Times here costs $6.00.”

“That won’t even offset the extra cost of a gallon of gas,” Rona said. “Can you believe it will soon be $4.00 a gallon?” Nancy rolled her eyes up in her head.

“But,” I said, as we got into our car, “though fortunately for us this doesn’t mean that much—we are very lucky to be in our circumstances—for others, over the course of the year, it will add up to what for them will be real money.”

Rona agreed about how lucky we are and also about for many other people every little bit helps.

Later that day we went up to Boynton Beach, to Troy’s BarBQ, to pick up an order of chicken and ribs. Troy makes about the best BBQ in south Florida. He operates on the margin of a poor African-American community out of a former gas station. He’s set up inside, behind barred windows, in what used to be the station’s office and out back behind the broken-down building he has set us his smoker. Out of it comes wondrous cooking.

You can call in an order and then come by to pick it up or, better if you have the time, you can just show up, hope he’s open, and wait with others gathered there for some of his down-home food. He primarily serves people from the nearby community but then some of us from the other side of the tracks (literally—the old Flagler rail line runs right by him) who are in the know also wander over. It’s quite a good and friendly place to hang out.

The man on line in front of us was from our side of the tracks and from the look of his handmade loafers, Armani slacks and shirt, as well as his $150 haircut, he appeared to not be wanting very much. We were impressed that he knew about Troy’s and was comfortable coming to this part of town.

He had called in an order that included collards but Troy told him that they had run out. I was disappointed too since they are among my favorite of Troy’s sides and I had hoped to buy some. They are made—as all his side dishes are—by local women and are delicious. Collard greens this good are hard to come by.

“Can I get you a substitute?” Troy asked. Rona and I were also thinking what we would get in place of them—for $35 the Family Value Pack includes a full rack of ribs, half a chicken, and three sides. Rona whispered, “Maybe extra beans.”

The man in the Armanis stared at the menu. “I think maybe I’m OK with just two sides. I’m trying to loose a little weight.” He patted his silk shirt and stomach, which I noticed could be a little flatter.

“I can do that.” Troy said and then to himself calculated, “Let’s see, with two sides how much should that be?” The man leaned closer so as to hear better, including the bottom line. He had a fist full of cash. “How does thirty-one sound to you?”

The man in line nodded and began to peel a twenty, a ten, and a dollar from his billfold. He slid them under the lowest bar of the window and Troy passed the bags of ribs and chicken and sides through to him. I started to edge closer. The smells rising from the smoker were making me famished.

But the man, with bags in hand, remained at the window. “Anything else I can do for you?” Troy asked.

“It’s January 1st, isn’t it?” the man said.

“Last I noticed,” Troy said.

“Your prices include tax, don’t they?”

“Sure do,” Troy said, aware before I was where this was going.

“And . . . ?”

“And?” Troy said back to him.

“Shouldn’t I be getting some change? From the lower sales tax?” Troy stared back at him. “I mean, there should be some savings from . . .”

“Just speak your mind,” Troy said without any attitude whatsoever.

“I think I should be getting a dime in change. I mean, from the new sales tax.”

“A what?” I couldn’t help myself from blurting out.

The man with the alligator loafers turned to glare at me but fortunately restrained himself from saying anything to me. But to Troy he said, “A dime,” and slid his hand through the bars.

Troy pressed a dime into it and said, “Thanks for you business. Be sure to stop by again real soon.”

The man behind me in line muttered sotto voce, “I hope that will be when I’m not here.”

I didn’t know what to say. I felt guilty that someone from my privileged world would behave this way. I hoped that neither Troy nor the man behind me would associate me with him. I stammered a version of an apology.

“That’s not necessary,” Troy said, “It’s an individual, not a group thing. That’s the way I prefer to look at the world.” And with a big smile asked what he could do for me.

With some hesitation I too ordered a Family Value Pack, “But with all three sides,” I was careful to say. “That’ll be $35, right?”

The young fellow behind me laughed and offered me a high-five, which I happily returned.

“Not a penny or dime less,” Troy said, joining in the laughter.

Monday, January 17, 2011

January 17, 2011--MLK Day

It has been quite a week and I need a break from Tucson. So this will be brief.

Just as I was feeling optimistic about America, that President Obama got it right in his remarkable speech when he reminded us that we have to act in ways worthy of our children--that they expect and deserve this--I made the mistake of listening to former House Majority leader Tom Delay (more recently of Dancing With the Stars fame) on Hardball. Why Chris Matthews had this now convicted and sentenced felon on his show is beyond me. I guess to pump up the ratings.

Matthews asked him what he thought about some congressmen saying they wanted to bring their handguns with them to the floor of Congress. Chuckling The Hammer (as he used to be called since he was so good at coercing Republicans to vote in lockstep) said "Why not. If they feel insecure. I see no reason not to."

On this weekend that commemorates Martin Luther King, who was murdered by an assassin with an unlicensed rifle, let us be thankful that Barack Obama is our president and has the ability to inspire us to think our way through the madness.

Tomorrow--another Snowbirding.

Friday, January 14, 2011

January 14, 2011--The Whole Man

It has finally come to this—Procter & Gamble, manufacturers of Ivory Snow and Pampers, sponsors of legendary soap operas such as As the World Turns, is pitching its products to men. And in a unique way. Via a new Website called Check it out. It is linked below.

P&G has figured out that there has been a sexual revolution and that this has not only provided more opportunities for women outside the home but has also meant that more man than in the past have taken on household responsibilities. Like helping with the wash. And so why not see if they can get men interested in Ivory Snow? (My own personal favorite.) Or even Pampers.
Yes, ManoftheHouse does have content about traditional homemaking matters such as"Dutch Oven Tips and Tricks" and "Sorting Collectables from Junk" and "How to Clean a Toilet in 30 Seconds Flat"; but it also includes some, well, raunchy stuff, like “Conquering Sex Problems.” It is after all the 21st century.

To help conquer those problems men are told, "If you want a hot woman who acts like a porno star in bed, you need to be prepared to spend some time getting her to that place." By this, of course, they mean the old foreplay and not buying your woman scanties from Victoria's Secret or accompanying her to get some private parts pierced. (For advice about that you need More about this in a moment.)

And so, being me, I went right to the Relationships tab on the P&G Website to look for additional tips.

Currently there is "A VIrgin Reborn," a sort of clever title for advice for the recently divorced man about when to think about gettiing back into the sack. ManoftheHouse recommends--

Don't look for sex right away with a new woman. Remember that many women identify sex with a caring, long-term relationship. Unless that's what you want right now, rushing into a sexual relationship is a bad idea. Although it may feel safe and reassuring to replace your ex-wife with another woman in bed immediately, the fact is that most men need a transitional time. This means dating is fine but the heavy commitment sex brings to a new relationship may not be. Take some time to find out who you are first.

While discovering who you are, or if you can't wait to return to action, click on "Don't Speak (Too Much): What to Say When You Start Dating" and you will find--

There are a few things that can be a deal breaker when you start dating a woman. I'm not talking about your felony record or the collapse of your last marriage because you slept with your wife's best friend. These are simply some of the things you should avoid saying to her, at least while you're dating.

Some of the things they say to avoid include--

"I have a credit score of 355." You've just told this lady that you don't manage money well and that you'll never be able to buy a house or a new car. Keep your credit score and money problems to yourself. It's not about her digging for gold, it's about your perceived lack of accountability - a trait many women - most people- like in a person.

In case this kind of 1950s type of advice doesn't work for you, there is always If "The Science of Flirting" sounds more like what you'd learn from Procter & Gamble, there is "The Players Top 5 Conquests," which is about as cynical as it gets. For example, here is how they recommend you seek to "conquer" women of a certain age--

The Older Woman

The Conquered

There are seemingly ageless women out there who can compete with ladies half their age. I remember one in particular: A 32-year-old bombshell that became the center of attention at a club. See, I was only 23 at the time -- a mere Player in training -- and the intimidation factor was high. The reason why older women can prove challenging is simply because of their experience, maturity and self-confidence. They also tend to believe younger guys don’t deserve their attention, simply because they don’t have much on the ball. The one I'm speaking of dismissed most every 20-something around her with that “you can’t handle me” demeanor. It’s not an easy approach.

Veni, Vidi, Vici

There’s only one thing you need to battle the age gap: Confidence with a capital “C.” It’s the one trait mature ladies will almost always respond to, provided you don’t trip over the fine line into cockiness. Cockiness is a huge turnoff for most women over the age of 30, but if you can master a simple confidence that conveys the correct message, some of the best sex in history is nigh. It will take some time, though, so prepare for a marathon rather than a sprint. The older woman requires more proof of a man’s quality and you just can’t rush that decision. Keep at her throughout the night and keep maintaining that outward calm but clear interest and indicate you’ve bagged your fair share of such quality.

As for me, I think I'll stick to the toilet cleaning tips.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

January 13, 2011--The "Me" Marriage

So what else is new. As the first Baby Boomers this year turn 65, the famous Me Generation, the latest thinking on what constitutes a happy and successful marriage is the Me Marriage.

According to a recent article in the New York Times the Me Marriage is less about the traditional values of shared communications, the mutual fostering of mental well being, support in social situations, and stress reduction but more a relationship that contributes to each individual's personal satisfaction.

Psychologists have been studying how people use relationships to gather knowledge and experiences via a process they call "self-expansion" and are concluding that the more self-expansive people become through a relationship the more satisfied they are with that relationship. In spite of the fact that this kind of mutuality may sound as self-serving as it is self-expanding, researchers are claiming that it leads to stronger, more enduring relationships.

To measure how well individuals are doing in regard to self-expansion, they have developed a series of questions to quantify it.

Of course, self-involved as I am, I was curious to see how well I was doing in my marriage and so I managed to put my hands on the questions. I have linked them below so you can also check yourself out.

If you do not have the time, here is a sample. Mark yourself on a scale of (1) to (7), with (1) being not very much and (7) very much.

When you are with your partner, do you feel a greater awareness of things because of him or her?

How much does your partner increase your ability to accomplish new things?

How much does your partner help to expand your sense of the kind of person you are?

How much do you see your partner as a way to expand your own capabilities?

How much do your partner’s strengths as a person (skills, abilities, etc.) compensate for some of your own weaknesses as a person?

I gave myself 7s on all of these and thus, according to the creators of the test, I am--

Highly Expansive. You are gaining a lot of new experiences and reaching new goals as a result of your relationship. Chances are you have a happier, more sustainable relationship as a result.

Well, of course.

Not "of course" because I'm "highly expressive," but "of course" because I scored off the charts since I am self-expansive and gave myself all 7s.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

January 12, 2011--Teachers Unions

We had barely said hello to our new neighbor, ____ of FOX News fame, when he launched into a discussion about the current political scene. Since I expected we would see things from very different perspectives, I had planned to talk about the weather.

After he said, "Isn't this a piece of paradise?" without a modulated transition he continued, "I'll tell you one thing that's a certainty after last November's elections."

Realizing there was no way to avoid talking politics I asked, "What's that?"

"With so many new governors having just been elected, a majority of them Republicans, with almost all states deep in fiscal crises and with state legislatures now overwhelmingly conservative, we will see them looking at new ways for their states to declare bankruptcy without having to default on their bonds."

"That would be some trick," I said.

"But a necessary one," he said. "Mainly so that under the rules of bankruptcy the states, which are in fact already in a form of bankruptcy, can renegotiate their collective bargaining agreements with their municipal unions." In spite of my liberal self I nodded. "It's ridiculous and unsustainable that police and firemen and bus drivers and sanitation workers and teachers can retire after 25, 30 years on the job at pretty much full salary with all their health benefits paid for for life by taxpayers."

"As we get to know each other," I said, "we will find many things to disagree about, but this may turn out not to be one of them." He smiled at me. "I could tell you lots of stories about how teachers unions in Newark and Los Angeles and New York thwarted efforts to bring about effective reform, funded by the Ford Foundation where I was responsible for education policy and grant making, because some of the things we wanted to pay for would focus on helping their teachers learn different, more effective methods and ask them to do some things in new ways."

"Tell me one story."

"Well, in Newark, for example, we wanted to fund after-school tutoring for their most at-risk students and needed union approval to provide it. They were OK with this but required that we hire their teachers to do the tutoring. At $60 an hour!" ___ was grinning. "I told the head of the union that we were doing this in other cities, Houston among others, and were hiring education majors from local universities at $10-15 an hour. He said that he wouldn't allow that. I told him that that would mean no tutoring for Newark students. He said, 'So be it.'"

"Incredible but no surprise. Listen, I've got to run. I'm doing the Hannity show tonight, but from what I am sensing the public is aware of these kinds of things and the time is approaching that for fiscal as well as effectiveness reasons these unions have to be taken on."

I watched him on Hannity that evening and in fact we have many things to disagree about, including how to think about responsibility for the recent massacre in Tucson.

Then yesterday on Morning Joe, I saw former Washington, DC superintendent of schools Michelle Rhee. She and Joe Scarborough as well spoke about how the teachers union in DC attempted to thwart all her efforts at reform. Especially her moves to dismiss ineffective teachers and pay more to those who were producing measurable results.

"The contract required that everything be done by seniority," she said ruefully, "school and class assignments, layoffs when there, as now, had to be cutbacks. The work rules were such that it was almost impossible to hold anyone accountable for results or implement new approaches. None of this would be allowed in business. In fact, quite the opposite."

This brought to memory stories my mother used to tell about efforts to unionize teachers in New York City back in the 1950s. She was and is quite liberal and had been a firm supporter of the union movement for garment workers and others back in the 20s and 30s, but as an experienced and effective first grade teacher she resisted all organizing efforts.

She said that teachers were not "workers" by traditional union standards but rather "professionals," and it wasn't in her view appropriate for professionals to unionize. She knew from personal experience that there were many things that needed changing--most of the teachers at the time were women who, if they became pregnant, were required to take two years off without pay and teachers were often subjugated to arbitrary assignments and even termination by principals who were essentially all-powerful in their buildings. But still, she said at the time, "If we unionize it will be the end of the schools as we know them."

Thinking about my conversation with my new neighbor, my mother's experience, and my own work in school reform, as I said to ____ the other day, "I'm an anti-municipal-union liberal."

The union model was developed for industrial unions--for steelworkers, miners, and railway and assembly line workers--for workers who essentially did versions of the same job and where skills and effectiveness were not as diverse as among teachers. When all coal miners were doing essentially the same thing and where working conditions were arbitrary and frequently unsafe, it made sense to bargain together, to arrange things by seniority, and to pay everyone the same wages.

But this is not true for teachers and the industrial model that still characterizes teachers unions is not appropriate for teachers but more important for the children they serve.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

January 11, 2011--"Don't Retreat, Reload"

This is precisely what Jared Loughner was doing on Saturday--reloading after he murdered 6 and wounded 14 at a Tucson shopping mall.

He had fired 30 rounds from his Glock semi-automatic pistol and was struggling to insert another clip so he could continue his slaughter when three brave citizens jumped on him and held him down until the police could arrive and arrest him.

"Don't retreat, reload" as you may recall is Sarah Palin's tag line. With her movie star smile she intones it at all her rallies and cash-up-front speeches; but she and her people are rejecting any notion that heated rhetoric of this kind could have had any effect on someone like Loughner, potentially inciting him to violence.

Nor, she is defensively claiming, did the map of the United States on her SarahPac Website with the the image of crosshairs of a gun sight superimposed on Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords' district have anything more than symbolic meaning--that Giffords was simply being "targeted" (Palin's word) for electoral defeat.

In spite of these claims, Palin has removed that map from her Website. In case you never got a chance to see it, from the Huffington Post I have linked it below.

Politicians from both parties do not know what to do with this horrific event. And by "with" and "do" I mean take political advantage of it. The Democrats' problem is not to be seen trying to do that--take advantage of the tragedy (which of course they are attempting to do); but Republicans have a much bigger problem--they and their media flacks have various kinds of metaphoric blood on their hands.

Newly installed Speaker of the House, John Boehner went on television on Sunday to forcefully denounce the shootings, but this statement has to be seen in the context of his larger hypocritical behavior because during the recent midterm election campaign Boehner himself was responsible for using violent and inflammatory language.

For example, in an Ohio race he said that the Democrat candidate, Steve Driehaus, by voting for Obamacare "may be a dead man" and "can't go home to the west side of Cincinnati" because "the Catholics will run him out of town." After these incendiary remarks, Driehaus, like Gabrielle Giffords, began receiving death threats, his district office was attacked, and a right-wing website published directions to his house.

Making the rounds of the Sunday talk shows, members of both parties attempted to tap dance around the issue of how much heated political rhetoric such as Palin's and Boehner's contributes to the climate of violence that characterizes so much of American culture.

Democrats called for more civility (though at their extreme left things can get pretty aggressive and ugly) and called on Sarah Palin to apologize; while Republicans such as Senator Lamar Alexander found themselves staking out very surprising positions. Usually, Republicans represent themselves as tough on crime (as opposed to liberals who, they claim, blame society rather than perpetrators for crimes); but in this case, rather than acknowledging that they and their Tea Party colleagues have used excessive and symbolically violent rhetoric in many of their political attacks, they are claiming that the alleged shooter has "psychological problems."

This may be true but that does not excuse political players from using language and imagery that could set off someone like a Loughner.

To quote an advisor to Sarah Palin, Rebecca Mansour in an interview over the weekend with conservative radio talk show host Tammy Bruce, said, “I don’t understand how anybody [Palin] can be held responsible for somebody who is completely mentally unstable like this.”

Bruce, of course, failed to follow up by asking Mansour if this true, why then did Palin cleaned up her Website.

I think we know the answer:

Mansour with a straight face also said the crosshairs were not crosshairs at all but rather "surveyor's symbols." Which means that Palin, who wants everyone other than herself to take responsibility for their actions, must have completed her surveying.

Monday, January 10, 2011

january 10, 2011--Portrait of America

The other day over dinner with older and younger cousins we got into a discussion about the changing nature of family. Not ours, but in America. While discussing these matters from an "objective" perspective, however, we discovered that our own family had, in its own way, been tracking along with some of these larger demographic trends.

The older cousins were upset to see the breakdown of the supportive extended family of immigrants they had grown up within and felt had contributed so much to their feeling protected, loved, and encouraged. This latter feeling, they claimed, was largely responsible for previous generations of young people succeeding in school and life.

"Now, with everyone working and so many single-parent situations," one ruefully said, "young people are left to grow up on their own and thereby are deprived of the opportunity to learn the discipline and respect for authority so important to doing well."

"It used to be," a cousin who is in his mid-80s said, "that every family had two parents and that in itself delivered a positive lesson. And, as with us, there were homes that included multiple apartments so that grandparents and their children and grandchildren all lived together. Today, again as with us, families are all living separately. Mostly scattered around the country. Some in Florida; others in California; you still in New York; and still more in Massachusetts and on Long Island. Everyone gathered for Thanksgiving and other holidays. Today the only time we all get together is for a funeral."

"And even then," his wife said, "half the family doesn't even come for that."

One of the younger cousins who up to that point had been sitting quietly, taking this all in, finally said, "What you are not seeing is that the concept of family has always been in a state of change. This is nothing new. We studied family history in one of my sociology classes and read about how the modern definition of a family--a close-knit group of parents and children, the nuclear family--is a relatively new 'invention.'" She made quotation marks in the air.

"Until the middle of the 17th century children were not as valued as they are today. They were thought of as mini-adults. Yes, sons were valuable workers on family farms and girls helped raise their younger brothers and sisters, but they were not supported by parents and other adults during years and years of childhood. They were not regarded as emotionally important as they are today and were expected to be independent or contribute to the economy of the family from a very early age. The so-called 'child-centered' family is a relatively new invention. A product of a less-agricultural economy and relative affluence where childhood can be extended well into young people's 20s."

A number of us were listening intently and nodding. "So, what we are seeing now," she continued, "for example, with gay families and intentionally single-parent families is just a continuation of this evolution."

"Very interesting a 50-year-old cousin said, sighing, "I guess I straddle two generations in this regard. I do see the kinds of changes you're talking about, especially in cities, and respect people's choices; but still I feel things would be better if there were more two-parent families with lots of aunts and uncles and cousins around to help raise the children and provide more role models for young people."

"One thing that upsets me," a 70-year-old cousin said, "are all the single-parent families. No one can convince me that this is a good thing for children. I'm especially talking about women, some with men in their lives, who opt to have children out of wedlock. Isn't that an old-fashioned term?"

"I think I read somewhere," a 60-something cousin said, "that about 25 percent of children are born to unmarried women."

Only the youngest cousins smiled knowingly at that. One said, "Like it or not, this is where we are. And older notions of what constitutes a family have to be adjusted. Otherwise, we'll wind up criticizing a lot of people who have chosen to live in these new ways."

Over the next few days I continued to think about this, not really sure where I stood. I recognized the changed reality, knew something about the history of childhood, had read Phillippe Aries' book, Centuries of Childhood, but still felt pulled in conflicting directions.

Then there was a report in the New York Times about the Census Bureau's new Statistical Abstract of the United States , which among other things found that between 1980 and 2009, live births to unmarried women rose from 22 percent of all births to an astonishing 41 percent.

This in itself was fascinating, but then I dipped further into the findings and discovered more intriguing, and at time disturbing, information about Americans and how we have changed through the decades.

Here are a few of my "discoveries":

Of course, I wondered about people's indebtedness. This is so much in the news. Though more than 80 percent of the adult population carry debt, by far the largest percentage is for housing. For mortgages. And "only" about 3.5 percent of all debt is for what people people owe on their credit cards.

Americans drink more beer and wine than either milk or fruit juice. And consume five times more soda than fruit juice. In 1989 people's average daily caloric intake was 3,400 but by 2006 we were ingesting 3,900 calories per day. We are eating more fiber, which is a good thing--178 grams versus 151--but we are consuming much more fat. So it is no wonder that we as a nation are so obese.

In regard to leisure activities, we do more barbecuing than baking, more going to bars (20 percent do) than playing Bingo (only 5 percent of us), while 4 percent play chess. Surprising to me, 41 percent say they read books and 23 percent claim they cook "for fun."

And again in regard to family matters, since 1970 the marriage rate has been declining so that compared to then, when 10.6 per 1,000 married every year, now it's only 7.3 per thousand. On the other hand, divorce rates have remained the same--3.6 per thousand.

There's a lot more there. So download the Abstract that I've linked below and browse for yourself.

Friday, January 07, 2011

January 7, 2011--My Constitution

I pride myself on knowing the U.S. Constitution. The real one as opposed to the one read on the floor yesterday of the House of Representatives.

I know that John Boehner, the newly installed Speaker, has had trouble keeping our founding documents straight in his mind. Last year, for example, at the first Tea Party rally at the Capitol, when quoting their favorite document, the Constitution, he read from the Declaration of Independence.

That was then but this is now, and with perhaps 50 new Tea Party Republicans seated in Congress he tried to get things right when he ordered the reading of the full Constitution before any new business could occur.

But when I tuned in to watch on C-Span what I assumed would be an historic and moving event, when the reader got to Article 1, Section 2, Paragraph 3, that part of the Constitution that refers to Negroes (slaves) as being "three-fifths of all other Persons" (of white male persons) somehow that and other references to slavery in the original Constitution were, well, redacted.

Predictably, the Democrats were outraged by this "rewriting" of our Constitution. If we are to read it, let's read all of it, they said. Including those parts that are embarrassing but could lead to those tuning in to the Constitution for the first time (I suspect these constitutional newbies include many members of Congress who showed during their recent campaigns that they know only the Glenn Beck or Cliff Notes version) that we have a history, which, though improved through the years, still has unfinished business.

(For the details, see New York Times article linked below.)

The Republican leaders acknowledged that they did do some editing, but only of those parts that through the amendment process were changed or overturned. For example, since the 20th Amendment overturned the 19th (the Prohibition Amendment) they left that out too.

So slavery and booze got cut. How apt. And how appropriate during the very same week that a new version of Huckleberry Finn was published which also included considerable redacting--all 219 uses of the N-word were omitted. So Jim, the book's most admirable character, became "Slave Jim."

We are clearly living during the Karl Rove era. Recall how he famously said, "The truth is what we say it is."

Thursday, January 06, 2011

January 6, 2011--My John Boehner Story

In his acceptance speech yesterday, after he was sworn in as Speaker of the House, John Boehner said:

No longer can we fall short. No longer can we kick the can down the road. The people voted to end business as usual, and today we begin carrying out their instructions. The American people have humbled us. They have refreshed our memories as to just how temporary the privilege to serve is. They have reminded us that everything here is on loan from them. (Full text linked below.)

The cynic in says that for a long time he has been a big part of the problem--kicking lots of cans down the road while never meeting a lobbyist he didn't like.

But wouldn't it be inspiring if his words went to God's ears?

We are a country of second and third chances and as much as we enjoy watching rich and powerful people fall from their pedestals we also enjoy seeing people being born again and like a good redemption story.

But as my grandmother used to say, "We'll see."

On the hopeful side, allow me to share my one personal John Boehner story.

I was lobbying members of the House of Representatives (yes, that was what I was doing), seeking their support for an earmark (yes, one of those) for an effective urban education reform program of which I was president. Project GRAD it is called and it at the time had a verifiable record of working with low-income youth all the way from kindergarten through college. It was underway in 13 big-city districts, including four in his state of Ohio where the state commissioner of education had adopted it as her leading reform initiative.

We needed the earmark money to help sustain the program as well as make it available to other cities, including two or three more in Ohio.

I made an appointment to see Congressman Boehner because he was from Ohio (though none of the GRAD schools were in his district) but more for two other reasons--he was a senior member of the House Education Committee which would have to pass on the earmark and because he was then (as now) opposed to all earmarks.

He was also reported to be unfriendly, even scowling. Thus, all who advised me told me I was wasting my time and so I entered his office with considerable trepidation.

My first impressions--

The reception area seemed to be staffed by a lot of beautiful blonde women in very short skirts. So what else is new, I said to myself. Then, though smoking was even then not permitted in the Capital, the place reeked of cigarette smoke. What else is new, I thought, these guys play by their own rules.

With that, John Boehner himself appeared at the door to his office and with a cigarette in his mouth and a smile on his face, he extended his right hand to me.

"Pleasure to meet you," he said, "My colleagues have told me about all the good work you're doing. Especially in my state. I want to thank you for that. Project GRAD, right? In Columbus, Cincinnati, Akron, and Lorraine? Do I have that right?"

"Thank you. You do. Things are going very well there. More kids than ever before are graduating from high school and enrolling in college."

He directed me to an arm chair opposite his desk and joined me in one right next to it. "I hope you don't mind my smoking. Nasty habit I know, but I can't seem to make myself stop. Join me if you'd like." He showed me a pack of Camels.

I thanked him but said that I didn't smoke. "Good for you," he said. "You'll outlive me for sure." Then, changing the subject he asked, "What can I do for you? I know quite a bit about your program so no need to brief me about it, though if there's anything new to report, please let me know."

I indicated there wasn't but that I was there to seek his support for an appropriation.

"You mean an earmark, don't you?" He peered at me through a cloud of smoke and I assumed I would soon be turned away.

"Actually, yes. I know that . . ."

"I'm again' all of them."

"I had heard that."

He smiled slyly at me. "But you thought that maybe because Ohio is part of a special Project GRAD initiative that I might . . ." Inhaling deeply he trailed off.

"In fact, I was thinking that."

"In spite of that I'm sorry but I can't support the earmark." I stared to gather my papers and thank him for his time. "But, not so fast. I can't support it but I won't move to stop it."

Totally surprised, I said, "You mean you will let the earmark proceed?"

"That's exactly what I mean. But one thing."

"Anything. I can't tell you how pleased I am and how much help this will be to the hundreds of thousands of students who are being served by the program. So, anything." I was expecting him to ask that we bring Project GRAD to schools in his congressional district.

"I know what you're thinking," he said, "That I want you to do something for me. For my letting this appropriation move along."

I nodded and again said, "Anything." I knew how the game was played.

"Fortunately, the schools in my district are doing pretty well on their own so it would be a waste of money to bring GRAD to them. Better to use it in other cities with greater needs. Of course, more in Ohio would be welcome," he winked, "because as I said I've heard how much good it's already doing."

"And?" I asked. "Anything else?"

"That's it," he said getting up out of his chair and again extending his hand to me. "Just keep doing a good job. That's really wall I want."

Footnote--the appropriation/earmark proceeded and was approved by both houses of Congress. Many additional thousands of at-risk students benefited, including more in Ohio.

But about the current political situation, as my grandmother said . . .

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

January 5, 2011--Saudi Arabia One

WikiLeaks is leaking much more than nasty stuff about what is going on behind the scenes in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. Just the other day the New York Times reported about how U.S. diplomats intervene around the world to get non-competitive, sweetheart deals for American businesses. (Linked below.)

For example, anyone who thinks that the global competition between Boeing and Airbus for multi-billion dollar aircraft orders operates through the mechanisms of a free market needs to look at some of the cable traffic WikiLeaks obtained from State Department files.

That allegedly blind-handed market that my Republican friends revere, and in support of which they ironically cite Boeing's dominant worldwide role, is not as free of government intervention as they imagine. They especially need to look at how big government (in this case, ours) has its fingerprints all over these deals, acting as a virtual salesman in brokering mega-orders from the Saudi Arabians and many others.

A brief look at that deal provides both enlightenment and amusement because what the Saudi royal family demanded before placing orders for scores of Boeing's wide-bodies and Dreamliners reveals how things of this kind work in the "real" world and how over-reaching and preposterous everyone's behavior can be when big, big bucks are at stake.

Again, as we have learned, a great deal that is currently disturbing in the world is traceable to decisions and actions taken during the years of the recent Bush administration. In regard to international business, since there are laws on the books that do not allow Americans to bribe or make gifts to foreign companies or governmental officials, including to intermediaries who act as agents for those very businesses and governments, since other nations play by different rules--seeing the bribing of officials as culturally-acceptable--we have devised different ways to be competitive.

WikiLeaks has uncovered documents that show our ambassadorial corps doing what would be illegal if carried out by American businessmen. There is evidence that even the president of the United States at times gets directly involved. The king of Saudi Arabia, when negotiating with Boeing officials for the purchase of forty-three 747s for Saudi Arabian Airlines and another 13 for the Saudi royal fleet (!) read a letter from President Bush to Boeing executives that said Boeing planes were his "personal favorites."

So persuaded were the Saudi royals by Bush's recommendation that in return for placing the order they demanded that the jets designated for the royal family come equipped with exactly the same communications and defensive capabilities that America president have on Air Force One.

The king himself boldly wrote to Israel Hernandez, a senior Commerce Department official:

I am instructing you to speak to the president and all concerned authorities that [I] want to have all the technology that [my] friend, President Bush, [has] on Air Force One.

Mr. Hernandez responded:

God willing, he will make a decision that will please you very much.

God apparently was willing and King Abdullah got the high-tech toys he was seeking and his government placed the full order.

Having said this, we also live in a complicated world where for every billion dollars worth of orders it receives Boeing employs 11,000 workers and since the Saudi order was ultimately for about $4.0 billion worth of planes that translates into nearly 50,000 well-paying jobs. So what are we to do?