Friday, April 29, 2011

April 29, 2011--Affirmative-Action President

These will be my final words about this. I promise.

Three days here on birther business is beyond endurance and what it is worth. But if there is anything worse, lower, than the national obsession with Barack Obama's place of birth, it is how the issue, the paranoia, has shifted from his origins, now that he has released his long-form birth certificate, to his academic credentials.

One's birth, including the location, is beyond one's ability to control or take responsibility for. But how one makes one's way in life, including admission to college and law school, currently under scrutiny in Obama's case, is another matter because with these there is volition and thus accountability.

Without missing a beat, the now shrillest voice of accusation in all personal matters Obama, the bloated Donald Trump, while grudgingly accepted the validity of Obama's Hawaiian birth--of course telling us repeatedly how "proud" he is of himself for forcing the issue and its resolution--morphed the slander from birth to higher education, accusing Obama of who-knows-what in order to get admitted to Columbia College and then Harvard Law School since he "is not very bright" and did not "do well" in his course work.

Trump has some solid credentials here--the tasteless and clueless Donald has made a career of not being very bright. He after all, with a wealthy real estate developer father, was born with two legs up in life, which qualifies him to speak about birth issues as well how to gain unfair advantages, at birth and after, over most of the rest of humanity.

But to accuse Barack Obama of having benefited from affirmative action strikes at the very heart of his achievements. That he is where he is because of unfair advantages bestowed upon him because he is, you know, . . . black.

If there was any question that birtherism was primarily about race should with this, now, be fully dispelled.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

April 29, 2011--Obama's "Papers"

I know some of my Florida friends will be upset with me when I again assert that the birther business is ultimately about race. How too many Americans cannot abide the idea that they have an African-American president and thus want to delegitimatize him. To declare Barack Obama foreign born and invoke the 25th Amendment and have Joe Biden take over as president. As they so revealingly put it, "take back America."

Yes, I agree with Rona who yesterday convinced me that Obama seems "foreign" to even non-birthers because his early education and socialization did not occur in an American elementary school. But I also agree with her that the birthers are the lunatic fringe of those who have these feelings. Further, Rona is correct that it is this very "foreign" background that positions Obama well to hopefully redefine America's relationship to the Western and especially non-Western world.

But still, continuing to question the "facts" of Obama's birth (as Donald Trump and the other unrepentant birthers did yesterday even after Obama showed his long-form birth certificate--his paper) is more evidence that it is still about race.

Goldie Taylor, contributing editor to blog got it right. Here is what she wrote:

"Show me your papers!"

Major Blackard, then just 19 years old, dug into his trousers in search of his wallet. He padded his jacket, but could not find his billfold.

"Sir, I done left my wallet..." Blackard said. Before he could finish his sentence, the young man was posted against the brick wall, cuffed and taken to the St. Louis city jail. Unable to prove his identity, he would spend the next 21 days in a cramped, musty cell. That's where his older brother Matt found him, beaten and bloodied. Matt returned with Major's employer later that day, wallet and identification card in hand, to post bond.

The year was 1899. Major Blackard was my great, great grandfather.

The real crime, as Pulitzer Prize winning author Doug Blackmon points on in his seminal work Slavery by Any Other Name, was that my grandfather was a colored man in America.

This morning, as White House staffers released copies of the president's long form birth certificate, I couldn't shake the feeling that something very ugly was going on. For the first time in recorded history, a sitting president of the United States found it necessary to produce his original birth certificate for public inspection. Not once, in 235 years, have we ever demanded proof that our president was born on American soil.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

April 27, 2011--Core Culture

When not able to sleep while on the road there is always talk-radio to either bore me to sleep or make me crazy. An exception is Red Eye Radio, hosted from midnight to 5:00 AM by an intelligent and literate conservative, Doug McIntyre.

A few from the lunatic fringe call in, but he reminds them in a gentler way than I would that they are missing the full story. Like last night when someone called to rage about Obama's being controlled by left wing foreign policy ideologues. She was well enough informed to mention Samantha Powers and Susan Rice. Though he agreed that Obama has liberal advisors, he reminded her that George W. Bush was pressed into a disastrous preemptive war in Iraq by his own right-wing ideologues, Richard Pearl and Paul Wolfowitz.

Another caller struggled to express why she is uncomfortable with Obama. "I'm not a birther," she said, "They're nuts or just haters. A certificate of living birth is good enough for me. It's not that. I voted for him and had high hopes for his presidency, but there is something about him that disturbs me. I don't quite know how to express it. It comes out in part from his detached style. But that's not it. He feels alien to me. Culturally, I mean. His core culture doesn't feel like most other Americans'. I loved Kennedy and even Jimmy Carter and they both felt American. I didn't care much for Reagan and came to detest Bush, but at their cultural core they too felt American. Obama is different. So there's a part of me that understands the birther thing. People trying to figure out why Obama feels foreign. Again, I feel certain he was born in Hawaii, but still there is something about him. As I said, it's his core culture. That's the best I can come up with."

McIntyre tried as best he could to talk about what she was attempting to express but didn't do much better. He too dismisses the birthers but agreed that Obama does in some ways feel "foreign."

The next day, over BBQ at Sonny's in Brunswick, Georgia, we tuned in on a conversation at the adjacent booth. It was much cruder than what I had been listening to on the radio. Like the stuff you hear from Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and Glenn Beck. And of course from Donald Trump, Snide, borderline racist stuff stemming from a deep desire to delegitimatize Obama and thereby erase him from the history books.

Back in the car I told Rona about what I had been tuned in to the night before. She said something seemingly shocking I hadn't previously heard or read.

"I can relate to that cultural core business. At his core, Barack Obama doesn't feel American.

"What?" I exploded, "Have you gone over to the other side? Or worse?"

"Calm down and let me finish," I took a deep breath and slowed the car so as not to get into an accident. "Of course he's a natural-born American, just like the Constitution requires; but a very different kind than all our other presidents. I think his 'problem.'" she made air quotation marks, "is that though he was born in America, he received much of his early education in a non-American school in Indonesia. For four years between the ages of 6 and 10.

"I wonder," Rona continued, "what kind of American history he learned as a young boy. Did he learn, like children who go to elementary school in the United States, about our national history and myths? You know, about the Declaration of Independence; forgive me, the Boston Tea Party; Bunker Hill; George Washington and the cherry tree; and Abraham Lincoln and the log cabin? When did he learn the National Anthem and the Pledge of Allegiance? Did he have to memorize the Gettysburg Address? In other words, did he received the kind of indoctrination, or if you prefer--socialization--as a child we did, or did he learn it as a young adult?

"Even if a lot of the 'history' we were taught was as much patriotic myth as factual, still it was what was instilled in us at a very early age and can be called, as the women from that radio show, our core culture. it's deeply rooted in us and one of the few things that unites us as a people. Flawed as it may be as history, it contributes to forming our national consciousness."

"Interesting," I said.

"I say this not to discredit him or raise questions about his love for America or his patriotism but because unless he got a childhood version of the education all native-born Americans receive, he by definition is different. In a sense he's more like an immigrant who learned these things later in life. And this reality, more than his birth certificate, may be why people have disquieting feelings about him."

"You could be right. This isn't birther stuff . . ."

"The hard core ones are simply crazy and incapable of not hating him."

". . . but it could explain why the non-crazy ones, and others who are not obsessed about his origins, feel uneasy about him."

"Mind you," Rona continued, "In spite of this, the kind of background he has is just what we need now in our president. Like it or not we live in a globalized world with special insights needed to help us negotiate new relationships, especially with Islamic countries. He gets it and is also smart enough to know the history, the key players, and hopefully has the right diplomatic touch to change the nature of some of our international relationships."

"We both felt that when we became aware of him back in 2007."

"It's the good news and the bad news. The bad--it presents very complicated political problems for him at a time when most Americans feel we are losing our dominant place in the world and are looking for someone to blame or for simple explanations for our troubles. Obama, for them, is the perfect scapegoat. The good news, of course, if that if he and we and the world get lucky, he might turn out to be a game-changer."

"All good points," I said. "Let's see what else I hear on Red Eye later tonight and at the next BBQ joint up in North Carolina."

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

April 26, 2011--From the Road

We're on route north and had some interesting conversations in Georgia that I hope I will have time to report about tomorrow. About the birther thing. Not what you're thinking. More interesting than what generally gets spoken about.

Monday, April 25, 2011

April 25, 2011--Your Own Facts

We had finished breakfast and Rona was looking over the check. It would be our last morning at the Green Owl before heading north, and we were feeling blue having to say goodbye to good friends who we won't see for a number of months.

"It's the one bad thing living the way we do," Rona said, "This endless cycle of saying goodbye."

Trying to put the best face on things, I said, "True. But we get to see our New York friends again before heading to others in Maine."

"Who before too long we'll also be leaving." There was no getting around the truth of what she was saying.

With that, Harvey burst through the door, heading right toward us. It was after ten and late for him since he has a real job running an insurance agency. What could be up, I wondered.

"Are you all right? I mean, shouldn't you be in the office?"

"I know you're leaving tomorrow and . . ." I thought, how nice, he came by to wish us a good drive. ". . . and there's something that's really upsetting me about what you wrote the other day about Obama. Boy, are you selling out to him. Saying Republicans like me aren't giving him any credit for improvements in the economy."

I should have known he came by to get in one more argument before we head out. Saying goodbye was not on his mind.

"You mean the one in which I took note of the full 50 percent increase in stock market averages since he took office?"

"That's the one. You really are in the tank for him."

"Unlike you," I rejoindered, "who can barely manage one word of criticism about any of your Republican friends, not even the likes of Michele Bachmann. I try to be fair and balanced." I knew that appropriating his favorite Fox News' tag line would upset him.

"Very funny," he said. "It's a gross overstatement to give Obama, or any president, credit for what happens in the stock market."

"Even a 50 percent run up in a little more than two years? Or saving GM and Chrysler? Don't you think that means something? God knows you guys are not reluctant to blame him for unemployment, the deficit, the continuing housing crisis. So why won't you ever assign credit for something that's going well? Even admitting that the Dow Jones Average is not the meaning of life."

"This is not what I came in to talk about."

"I know, you came in to say goodbye and tell us how much you'll miss us."

He ignored that but said, "It's about what all those Obama Democrats are doing on the Labor Relations Board."

"This I admit I haven't been following," I said. "And what would that be?"

"Well since your beloved New York Times probably hasn't said anything about it yet, from your perspective it doesn't exist."

"I'm not following you."

"As usual." I ignored that. "I'm talking about how the Labor Board, now packed with Democrats, who are of course on the payroll of the unions, is moving to not allow Boeing to open a new plant in South Carolina."


"You heard me. They're claiming that they are doing that because Boeing workers struck the company at least five times since 1977, one time in 2008 for 58 days, and in South Carolina there won't be any strikes. The Board sees this as a strategy to break the union."

"And don't you?"

"I see it as a smart move designed to keep jobs in the U.S. because the alternative, if they can't relocate at least some of the manufacturing in places like South Carolina, the alternative is to move more of their plants overseas. Which they've already begun to do."

"This sounds crazy to me," I said. "I do know, though, that parts for the new Dreamliner will be made in numerous locations, including some overseas."

"Look, those strikes cost Boeing and our economy big time. It gave a huge advantage to Airbus, their big competitor."

"You've been spending too much time watching Fox News. As I've said to you previously, before we have these kinds of discussions we have to begin by looking at the facts. I keep quoting Senator Moynihan who said, 'You're entitled to you own opinions but not you own facts.'"

"Well, in regard to the facts about this, for you they are obviously in short supply. Do a little homework, OK? And, oh," checking his watch, "I have to go. I have a business to run. Have a good trip."

"In spite of everything," with a smile, shaking his hand and even moving to give him a goodbye hug, I said, "I'll miss you."

"Me too," he said over his shoulder as he ran out the door.

And wouldn't you know it, in the business section of the Times that I read later that day, there was a piece about this very thing; and most of what Harvey had claimed--the facts--were pretty much as he had presented them. I had to acknowledge that he did his homework better than I. But in this case only.

It's a complicated issue. A bit more so than Harvey suggested. You can get the full story from the article linked below; but in brief, here is what appears to be at issue:

Seeking cheaper and more dependable labor, Boeing did build a $2.0 billion assembly plant in North Charleston, South Carolina and hired 1,000 non-unionized workers. Not incidentally, Boeing, since 2009, added 2,000 unionized workers in the state of Washington. So what they have been up to in regard to labor relations is complicated.

The N.L.R.B. is in fact seeking to require Boeing to move the South Carolina plant to Washington. Boeing, obviously, is strenuously objecting.

I am not clear, nor is anything I have thus far read, about the Labor Board's powers in such circumstances. A neutral party, Samuel Estreicher, an NYU law professor, says that in general the Obama board's actions have not been out of line with its Republican predecessors'; but he supports Boeing's contention that companies vulnerable to disabling strikes should be allowed to move operations to places where unions are weaker. It is not, he claims, the intention of the 1935 National Labor Relations Act to give the Board such broad powers.

I think I agree. And, thus, with Harvey as well. He and I still have very different views about the continuing need for unions, but about Boeing we are in synch. Based on the facts.

As I said, I'll miss him.

Friday, April 22, 2011

April 22, 2011--Snowbirding: The END Is Near

It doesn’t take long before conversations turn to real estate. This has always been true in South Florida. When things are booming—as they frequently have been—excitement is in the air and optimism about valuations is boundless; but when, as now, prices deflate—forgetting the area’s boom-and-bust history--it feels hopeless, as if there is no bottom.

So I was not surprised the other day to find some of the local fellows talking real estate. Since I’m not in the market, I began by listening.

“I have all this land in the middle of the state--ideal location; ideal prices”

I know that when it comes to real estate it’s all about location, location, location; so I was immediately wondering how that claim about it being in an ideal location fit with what he said about ideal prices. But I chose not to say anything.

He lowered his voice. “By ideal location I mean that the soil is rich and there’s only one way in.”

Now I was really curious. Rich soil for palms and bougainvillea? Only one access road to the property?

One of the guys must have had similar thoughts, “And what will we be growing there? Ornamentals? Citrus trees? Not much of a market for that these days. All that stuff comes in from Latin America.”

“I’m thinkin’ more beans.”

“Beans?” two of the fellows said in chorus.

“High protein stuff. Soy ‘specially. But some pintos would also probably be a good idea.”

“You’re losing me.”

“Look,” the real estate guy, Stan, leaned back and said, “We’re talkin’ survival here. Not landscaping.” A couple of heads began to nod. It was beginning to make sense to them.

“And that one-way-in business?”

“That too.”

“That too? I’m not following you.”

Stan pulled his chair closer to the others. “When you’re talkin’ survival you’re talkin’ about controlling access. Who gets in and who doesn’t.” He made his right hand into a pistol and pulled the trigger. Once, twice, three times. “You catchin’ my drift? You want the longest sight lines possible so you can get a bead on ‘em. Can’t be too careful these days.”

“I agree with that. Even here.” One of the fellows, Louie, patted his right side where there was a distinctive bulge under his blousy T-shirt. “It pays to be vigilant. But I’m still not sure what you’re tryin’ to tell us about that land of yours.”

“Let me make it real simple for you.”

“That would be good,” Charlie said, “I don’t have all day.” He tapped on his watch and looked up at the clock on the wall.

“We agree, don’t we, that things are going from bad to worse?” All nodded. “That it’s only a matter of time?” More nodding. “And not that much. That we need to get ready? Be prepared for all eventualities? About that, strictly off the record, I’m shiftin’ all my money into gold. Coins. I’ve got a case full of ‘em ‘cause this stuff,” he pulled a billfold of cash from his back pocket, “this stuff is just about worthless.” He spat out the words and some of his saliva sprayed the money.

“I’ve been thinking that way too,” Louie said. “My brother knows about these things—he works for a bank—and has been telling me to get into heavy metal. Not the music kind but, like you said, the coins. He likes those Cougarrands from Africa.”

“Krugerrands from South Africa,” Stan corrected him. “I like them too but if you can get the Eagle ones from the U.S. Treasury you’d be better off and nicely diversified.”

“Those too,” Louie said.

“Back to this land deal like I was tellin’ you about. The ranches are ten acres each with at least three cultivatable. Which is all you need for yourself and two or three other family members. If you intend to take any of them along. To tell you the truth, when it hits the fan I’m thinkin’ I want to be by myself. Sally ran off last year and my kids are out on their own. As I see it it’s gonna be every man for himself.”

I had remained silent not knowing where this was going or if I could think of anything appropriate to say; but, knowing a couple of the guys, and after hearing this, I couldn’t resist asking, “What do you see about to happen? This sounds pretty serious. To me things feel as if they’re getting a little better. Some companies are hiring again. McDonalds the other day hired 50,000. The stock market is off on a tear. I even read . . .”

“Forget that,” Stan shot back at me. “What they put in the papers is all bunk. You need to talk to those guys who know what’s really goin’ on behind the scenes. The stuff that doesn’t get reported. Not even on Hannity or Beck.”

“Which is?” I asked with skepticism.

“I know you well enough to suspect I’m one of those religious fanatics, like those Hale Boop lunatics waitin’ for the end of the world.” He was right—I was.

“You couldn’t be more wrong. I’m listenin’ to those folks who have studied the economy and are seein’ that behind the so-called good news there’s another bubble inflatin’ that will make the one from 1929 and three years ago look Mickey Mouse. They see the sky fallin’. I mean fallin’ for real. And if you want to make it through to the other side you’d be wise to be pickin’ up some land yourself you can live off of and be sure you have what you need to protect it and your loved ones.” Louie again patted the bulge under his shirt.

“Listen to me carefully since I know the Second Amendment is not your personal favorite.” To that I was the one now doing the nodding. “But if you get yourself set up and prepared for all eventualities, word will get out that you have what you need in the ground and stored for the duration; and those who now think you’re crazy—similar to what you think about me—well, they’ll be comin’ after you to get their hands on your stash. And unless you’re OK with that, like the Boy Scouts say, ‘Be prepared.’”

Stan broke into a broad grin as did his friends.

“So, like I was sayin’,” he continued, “this land I’m talkin’ about is good for crops and there’s also that access issue.”

Getting up, having heard enough, I said, “Time for me to go fellows. We have to get packed up. We head for New York first thing Monday.”

“Make sure when you get there,” Stan said as he waved goodbye to me, “that after you cross that Brooklyn Bridge of yours be sure to pull it up behind you. Remember—only one way out and one way in is the way to go.”

“See you next year,” Louie said.

With a wink, I said, “If there is one.”

Thursday, April 21, 2011

April 21, 2011--The Obama Bull Market

It's time to take stock. Literally.

As I write this, the Dow Jones Industrial Average stands at 12,429. On the last day of trading before Barack Obama was inaugurated, January 16, 2009, it was 8,281.

It has risen exactly 50 percent during the time he has been in office. Quite a good return by anyone's calculation. Some who know about these matters better than I claim that this is to most successful bull market in all of U.S. history.

And yet many of Obama's opponents continue to call him a socialist. Including a great number on Wall Street who have been the primary beneficiaries of this run up. What do you suppose the investment community (what a euphemism) would be saying if this incredible bounce-back had occurred during the Bush administration? Do you think anyone would be accusing him of being a socialist, or worse? That's an easy one.

Perhaps, then, Obama is a socialist because he led the government takeover of the banking system and auto industry. Remember all the hot rhetoric about that? "Let them fail. We're capitalists after all." Can you imagine what would have happened to our economy, much less than the world's, if he had allowed that to happen? The guys on Wall Street now enjoying their multi-million dollar bonuses would be standing on street corners with the rest of us selling apples.

So how is Government Motors, formerly GM and Chrysler, doing? Pretty well by the look at their recovery and sales. And what is the government's stake in these two legendary companies?

In regard to GM, taxpayers took about a 60 percent stake in exchange for the $50 billion bailout. We reduced that months ago by nearly half and the government is looking to divest itself of the rest some time this summer.

We loaned Chrysler $6.6 billion for about a 16 percent stake in the company. Most of which, $5.8 billion is still owed. But Fiat is planning very soon to pay off that debt as well as a smaller one to Canada.

It is likely, then, that before the fall the U.S. government will be totally out of the auto business.

If we look at the banks and investment houses that received bailouts, with the exception thus far of AIG, taxpayers have not only gotten almost all of our money back but with billions in profits.

Though I had my questions as to why we insisted on loaning money to institutions such as Goldman Sachs, which said it didn't need or want any, the return on our investment looks quite good.

More important, we will soon be entirely out of the auto manufacturing business, having saved it, and have already pretty much divested ourselves from our stakes in the banks and brokerage houses.

And yet, pretty much every day on Fox and talk radio and in Tea Party circles, we continue to hear about Obama the socialist.

To me he looks pretty much like an old-fashioned capitalist.

Besides the need to feed our current political-entertainment discourse, can anyone explain this to me?

My view--a large part of the American right wants to delegitimatize Obama's presidency by delegitimatizing him. In part because it makes them crazy that this black guy, in regard to this, is so smart and doing so well.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

April 20, 2011--Kosher Quinoa

I'm having a problem with Passover. Not the holiday or the way we celebrated it two nights ago with my 103-year-old mother, but with what the rabbis are saying about Quinoa. That rich-in-protein pseudo-cereal, which is a favorite of mine.

Though it resembles grain, and thus could be susceptible to leavening (a Passover no-no), since it is merely grain-like, it should be approved for eating during the week of Pesach. But as with many of these kinds of things, there is controversy. Of the on-the-one-hand-but on-the-other-hand variety.

Here are some of the issues as outlined in the linked article from the New York Times:

Quinoa is native to Peru and, along with the potato and maize, was an Inca staple for millennia. And though in recent years it has become popular among health food enthusiasts--it is cooked much like rice and serves nicely as a substitute for it as well as cous-cous--is still grown in the Andean region, mainly in Bolivia.

Since it is from a remote area, the Orthodox Union (the group that when it comes to kosher laws is the gold standard) cannot easily get to the fields to check out how it is cultivated, harvested, and most important shipped.

Rabbi Sholem Fishbane, director of the kosher supervision service of the Chicago Rabbinical Council, points out that to get to the Bolivian quinoa farms requires a "four-day trek into the wilderness." So neither he nor anyone else in his line of work can verify that quinoa in not shipped here in containers or bags or boxes that also might have been used for the harvesting and shipping of wheat.

Because, according to the strictest kosher laws, even one grain of wheat in a truckload of quinoa would render all of the quinoa not kosher for Passover. In Yiddish, chometz.

Most rabbis who have weighed in about this agree that quinoa is not a forbidden grain but they are reluctant to certify any of it kosher for Pesach until Rabbi Fishbane or someone like him makes that trek.

In the meantime, they insist that if one wants to eat any this week we need to go through the many, many thousands of quinoa "grains" in order to separate out any stray kernals of wheat. This is such a endless task that it could take until Rosh Hashanah to get the job done.

Back in my old Brooklyn neighborhood we had a much simpler, less rabbinic solution. And in my local grocery store, every Passover season, I played a role in this.

To do things fully legitimately, the owner, Mr. Malchie, was obligated to dispose of all his milk, other diary products, and most packaged goods well before the holidays and order only those clearly marked Kosher for Passover from OU Board certified suppliers. Instead, he justified to himself and me, since his was a very marginal business (supermarkets were just beginning to appear and groceries like his were doomed), to throw anything out would put him prematurely out of business; and thus he somehow managed to acquire Kosher for Pesach stickers and, after closing, with the lights turned out, had me affix them to everything in the store.

I was just a kid and retrospectively could try to plead innocence (though, in truth, I knew we were Transgressing, with a capital T); but in the eyes of the rabbis and maybe even G_d, because of this, he and I are probably in eternal peril.

Among other things, to try to win myself back into whatever grace might be available to those living with this mortal existential dilemma, I have decided not to eat any quinoa this week or ever again until there is a definitive report from the Orthodox Union from the Bolivian wilds.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

April 19, 2011--Down Day

We spent all day getting ready to pack up and head north. I will return tomorrow.

Monday, April 18, 2011

April 18, 2011--Lady Liberty

The Inverted Jenny is a United States postage stamp that was first issued on May 10, 1918 in which an image of a Curtiss JN-4 airplane in the center of the design was accidentally printed upside-down. It is the most famous error in American philatelic history.

Only one sheet of 100 of these stamps was ever found, making this mispint one of the most prized in all of stamp collecting. Their being so rare makes them extraordinarily valuable. Philately is the ultimate supply-and-demand business. To give you a sense of that, a single Inverted Jenny was sold at auction in November 2007 for $977,500.

An image of this notorious stamp is linked below.

We now have another Postal Service flap--their recent issuance of a new "forever" stamp with an image of the head of the Statue of Liberty.

Actually, the image of the head and crown of a styrofoam replica of the statue at the New York-New York hotel and casino in, where else, Las Vegas.

This time, to avoid creating an artificial market for these stamps, at the moment they go for 44 cents each, the USPS has printed a few billion of them. So they will serve more as a curiosity than a tradable commodity.

And they will also serve as a metaphor of cultural and commercial debasement.

First of all, why is there is a faux Statue of Liberty gracing the grounds of a cheesy gambling casino? Why is there, of all things, a New York-New York Hotel with pint-sized "replicas" of the Empire State and Chrysler Buildings? Why would anyone want to stay there when they can visit the real thing? And what are all there all those crazy Americans doing gambling away their 401(k)s and Social Security checks?

Give me your tired, your poor/Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free?

More appropriate for Las Vegas, "Deal me an ace so I can be debt free."

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me?

Rather, for the casino-besotted, "I'll be homeless after these dice are tost."

Friday, April 15, 2011

April 15, 2011--Darwinian Republicans

Congressman Paul Ryan's budget plan, which I gave two cheers to when it was first announced, on closer reading is worth just one. And that one is more because he offered a reasonably comprehensive plan while others, including at the time President Obama, were silent about what they would do about our long-term deficit.

Now from Obama we have an outline of his thinking, which offers a trenchant critique of the Ryan plan. The critique leads to a comparison between what Ryan proposes and Obama's thinking. Both are short on specifics--these will come during the next few months as a necessary vote looms on increasing the nation's debt ceiling (look for Tea Party fireworks that will make their recent ranting look like intelligent discourse)--but in the two conceptual frameworks we have Ryan's classic GOP vision that individuals, not governments, need to solve their most basic problems, while Obama contends that when citizens fall into difficult circumstances there is a responsibility for government, for all of us, to be helpful.

Their differing views on health care symbolize these differences. Both agree that projected spending on Medicare and to a lesser extent Medicaid is growing so fast as to be unsustainable. Both agree that costs have to be contained. But that is where the agreement ends.

Ryan would begin to phase Medicare out as solely taxpayer funded entitlement and over time turn it into a program where those over 65 would be given vouchers to purchase private medical insurance. If for 65+ year-olds polices cost more than the value of the vouchers--as they surely will--they would need to make up the difference.

Obama would retain the current single, government-payer system but require the cost of providing medical care to be slashed. Reimbursements fees for doctors, tests, hospitalizations, and medications would be contained. Serious efforts would be made to cut fraud and abuse. All difficult things to achieve, but the burden to do so would not be borne sorely on the backs of our most vulnerable fellow Americans.

Actually, neither plan will be easy to implement, either because of political resistance (seniors will not sit still and watch the Ryan plan enacted--they vote and vote) while the cost containment strategy of the Obama plan will face fierce opposition by all parts of the medical business establishment, from doctors to hospitals to pharmaceutical companies.

But, cruelly, at the heart of the Ryan plan is a form of biological Darwinism that sees life as a struggle for existence in which the fittest survive. He and Republicans who share his views in effect say that if you do not have the means to take care of yourself, if you lose out in the game of unfettered capitalism (or weren't lucky enough to be born to wealthy parents) don't look for much help from others who are doing better because this is nature's way of sorting out winners from losers.

Literally, in the case of health care, with their lives, as in the jungles and forests.

Ironically or hypocritically, they may not want Darwin to be taught in the schools, but when it comes to how they actually view life they see it to be an evolutionary struggle.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

April 14, 2011--Ruined By Pleasure

A former New York University colleague and friend, Neil Postman, in 1985, published a book with the title, Amusing Ourselves to Death. In only 163 pages he takes on a huge issue--how, because of the proliferation of electronic media, we have become saturated with so many amusements that we have lost our capacity to engage in serious public discourse.

I have been looking at it again as I see the debasement of that discourse accelerating as well as discourse itself becoming transformed into its own form of entertainment.

The Bill O'Reilly's on the right and the Keith Olbermann's on the left are more entertainers than serious political commentators. All the recent flapping about Katie Couric's tenure as CBS evening news anchor has focused almost entirely on ratings (her "show" continues to wallow in third place), her loss of "perkiness," and how much leg she should appropriately show as the inheritor of the Walter Cronkite news throne.

Pick up a copy of Neil's book if you haven't read it. It explains a lot.

To give you a flavor of what he has to say, see this extended quote in which Postman draws a neat and telling distinction between George Orwell's 1984 and Aldous Huxley's Brave New World. The latter, he claims, is the world which we are in danger of creating:

Contrary to common belief even among the educated, Huxley and Orwell did not prophesy the same thing. Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression. But in Huxley's vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppressor, to admire the technologies that undo their capacities to think.

What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared that the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared that we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared that we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny "failed to take into account man's almost infinite appetite for distractions." In 1984, Huxley added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us.

Sound familiar?

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

April 13, 2011--JPMorgan & the Cookie Jar

As we attempt to continue to work our way out of the Great Recession, finally some evidence is emerging that reveals its true causes.

Yes, there were inappropriate Fannie-Freddie mortgage loans to unqualified borrowers; yes, political leaders from both parties looked the other way as real-estate-derived financial products ballooned unregulated; yes, most of us thought there was no limit to how high the value of our homes and portfolios would reach. But the real villains were the banks and financial institutions that committed still-unprosecuted crimes that nearly brought down our and the world's economies.

Here at last is evidence presented in a recent article in the New York Timesabout what JPMorgan Chase was up to just before receiving its $25 billion bailout from U.S. taxpayers:

In the summer of 2007, as the first tremors of the coming financial crisis were being felt on Wall Street, top executives of JPMorgan Chase were raising red flags about a troubled investment vehicle called Sigma, which was based in London. But the bank chose not to move out $500 million in client assets that it had put into Sigma two months earlier.

Sigma collapsed a year later. Now, new documents unsealed late last month as part of a lawsuit by bank clients against JPMorgan show for the first time just how high the warnings about Sigma went — all the way to the office of the bank’s chief executive, Jamie Dimon.

While the clients lost nearly all their money, JPMorgan collected nearly $1.9 billion from Sigma’s demise, according to the suit. That’s because as Sigma’s troubles worsened, JPMorgan lent the vehicle billions of dollars and received valuable assets in the form of a security deposit. [Emphasis added.]

But, in an attempt to change the subject, we continue to hear from the demagogic governors of New Jersey, Wisconsin, Indiana, and Ohio that all our problems are attributable to greedy, unionized teachers.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

April 12, 2011--Non-Snooki Nights

I assume that if you are reading this you have no idea what or who Snooki is. So before proceeding, allow me to fill in that cultural void.

She is one of the stars of the hit reality TV show, Jersey Shore. The most buxom of many who looks to be a little more than four-feet tall. (In the spirit of fact-checking, she is 4 ft 9 in.)

The New York Times identified her as "the breakout member of the cast." According to the paper of record, Snooki's gross behavior on the show--in the hot tub, getting punched in the face--has resulted in her becoming, to some, a target of public derision yet with a "strange appeal." One reported measure of this appeal was that a latex version of Snooki was among 2010's most popular Halloween costumes.

I began to think more about her recently when I learned that she was invited to "lecture" about clubbing and drinking by Rutgers University for a fee of $32,000. I was just recovering from this sticker-shock news when I heard that the same university would be paying Toni Morrison $30,000 to be their graduation speaker.

In my day as a university administrator, we never paid commencement speakers anything. We gave them an honorary degree and a dinner and that seemed to be enough. But now everyone is in show business and if they can get away with it they demand big bucks.

So OK, I thought, Toni Morrison is a Nobel Prize winner . . . but $32,000 for Snooki?

Then I read the linked piece from the Times about Snooki's commercial value. Though she makes "only" $30,000 an episode for Jersey Shore (last year she and the other "cast" members received about $5,000 per), the producers, when resisting demands for more compensation, said Snooki and the others are expected to make additional money because the show, in effect, pays them with heightened recognition and fame, both of which are marketable.

For example, if an LA or Las Vegas nightclub wants Snooki to show up and thereby attract more customers, like Rutgers, they pay her at least $25,000 to put in an appearance. That too seems like a lot for two hours of hanging out until you do the Snookinomics.

LAX in Vegas, for example, on non-Snooki nights charges between $1,000 and $5,000 for a table, depending on its size and location. When she or an equivalent celebrity is in the house, these prices double. With 58 of its 60 tables then getting $2,000 and the other two, closest to Snooki, $10,000, with on average 10 seats per table, LAX pockets an extra $68,000.

There's more. They normally charge an entrance fee of $20 for women and $30 for men. With Snooki there, they typically draw an additional 350 customers who pay for tables; and by various complicated calculations, LAX nets $12,500 when a top-drawer celebrity graces its premises.

In addition, a lot of people show up just to hang out at the bar and drink, on average, four highballs each at $12 a pop. Many more cram in than when Snooki is home in bed. From them as well as from the extra customers at tables, LAX reveals that they make $45,000 in Snooki-derived bar business.

If I have this right, deducting the $25,000 honorarium for Snooki, LAX earns $105,500 more than they normally would and also garner all sorts of valuable free publicity from Facebookers and Tweeters who pass along that she was at the club and from pictures in magazines such as USWeekly.

What benefit, on the other hand, does Rutgers expect to derive from Snooki's on-campus standing-room-only lecture?

To quote the president of their Programming Association who booked her, "A large part of what brings students to a school is not just academics, but what you can offer outside of the classroom. We have to show applicants what kinds of fun we have, to show that students aren't dying from just reading books 24 hours a day."

This I can understand. I am the last person to want to see our future leaders made ill, or worse, having to study too hard.

Monday, April 11, 2011

April 11, 2011--Executive Pay

On Sunday the New York Times published its annual report on the compensation of the nation's highest paid CEOs.

With the exception of Oracle's Lawrence Ellison, who made "only" $70.1 million--which was 17% less than the year before--all others appeared to do quite well.

I invite you to look at the entire list (it is linked); but for those of you who do not have the stomach for that much masochism, below, in millions, are the top ten earners.

It deserves no comment. The outrageousness speaks for itself.

(1) Philippe Dauman (Viacom): $84.5 (2010) vs. $34.0 (2009) +149%

(2) Ray Irani (Occidental Petroleum): $76.1 (2010) vs, $31.4 (2009) +142%

(3) Lawrence Ellison Oracle): See above

(4) Michael White (DirectTV): $32.9 (2010); 2009 is not available. He was new to the company.

(5) John Lundgren (Stanley/Black & Decker): $32.6 (2010) vs. $9.2 (2009) +253%

(6) Brian Roberts (Comcast): $28.2 (2010) vs. $25.0 (2009) +13%

(7) Robert Iger (Disney): $28.0 (2010) vs. $21.6 (2009) +30%

(8) Alan Mulally (Ford): $26.5 (2010) vs. $17.9 (2009) +48%

(9) Samuel Palmisano (IBM): $25.2 (2010) vs. $21.2 (2009) +19%

(10) David Farr (Emerson Electric): $22.9 (2010) vs. $6.9 (2009) +233%

I guess that Obama socialism thing isn't working out very well.

Friday, April 08, 2011

April 8, 2011--Overheard at the Dentist's

While Angie was scraping away at four-months of my accumulated tartar, Rona waited her turn at the reception desk talking with the staff.

One of the dental assistants, Rona later told me, was filling one of her colleagues in on how her daughter was doing as she neared the end of her first year at college.

“The University of Miami accepted her, she was a straight-A student in high school, but didn’t offer her any scholarship money at all. To pay U of M’s tuition and room and board would have been the equivalent of buying a new Lexus every year for four years. More than $40,000 per.”

“I never thought about it that way before,” Rona said. She had worked for more than two decades at the even-more-expensive New York University.

“Well, that’s the way my husband and I thought about it. And to tell you the truth, my daughter, Stacy, did as well. She’s a very good girl and, I confess, wanted to go to college further from home.”

“Where is she again?” asked the receptionist. “Somewhere in Atlanta, no?”

“Yes. At Emory. They offered her a great package. A full tuition scholarship for four years and even a $2,000 a year stipend for books and incidentals.”

“She must be something special,” Rona told me she said. “I can tell you from my experience what they offered is very unusual.”

“As I said, she is. Not only did she have a 4.0 but she also got 1,600 on the SATs.” She smiled, Rona reported, “I don’t know who she takes after. Neither my husband nor I were the greatest students in our day. We did OK, but Stacy is, like you said, special.”

“And how is she doing at Emory?”

“She loves it there. She loves Atlanta—she’s a big-city girl—already has lots of friends, and is even thinking, she says, about staying there after she graduates. Not that I’m happy about that, though my husband says it’s not that far away. It could be worse. She could have gone to college in California, though that’s a nice place to visit.”

“She’s still young,” Rona said, “You never know where she’ll wind up. Does she know yet what she wants to major in?”

“At the moment she loves science. Don't quote me, but to tell you the truth," she whispered, "I wouldn’t want her to go to dental school, though maybe she’ll become a chemist. That’s one of her favorite subjects.”

“You were telling me the other day,” Judy said, “that she’s also feeling a little frustrated.”

“That’s true. About her grades. As I told you,” she looked toward Rona, “She got all A’s in high school but in her first semester at Emory she got a few B’s. She’s not happy about that. And so I told her that she shouldn’t worry. She’s doing just fine. Not everyone has to get A’s. I'll be frank with you, when we visited there early in her first semester, the whole campus was full of oriental students.”

Rona told me that when she heard that she was concerned about where the conversation might be headed. “I don’t have any problem with that,” Rona was relieved to learn, “but you know how hard they study and how they all want to get A’s. That’s what I said to Stacy. Let them get their A’s; you get your mix of A’s and B’s and everything will be all right. I don’t want her spending all her time studying. You’re supposed to have some fun at college, right?”

Rona told me she was tempted to say, “But that’s not all right. If Stacy is as special as you say, and, from an academic perspective, even more significantly, if Emory thinks enough of her to have given her such a generous financial aid package, why aren’t you encouraging her to work even harder and to try to do better?”

For obvious reasons Rona held back, but said to me, “Isn’t this an example of why we are slipping behind in the world? Here this mother has a clearly exceptional daughter and she is telling her that second best is good enough. Maybe Stacy still won’t get all A’s—not that that’s the meaning of life—but shouldn’t she be encouraged to try to do even better?”

“I think you’re right,” I said. “Too many in America are settling for making things as easy and comfortable as possible for themselves and their children while many in the world, who are still hungry for success, are racing right by us.”

“Isn’t that another living metaphor?”

“Sad but true.”

Thursday, April 07, 2011

April 7, 2011--Shut It Down? Who Cares

The Republican's wet dream is about to come true.

Unless a deal can be struck between now and midnight Friday, much of the government will be shut down. Mainly those parts of it that the GOP, if they had their druthers, would like to eliminate permanently.

The GOP's favorite government programs--deemed "essential services"--will continue to be funded and operate. First and foremost, the military will continue to defend us and make war in four or five countries as if nothing happened. The border patrol will continue to try to keep out illegal immigrants; the TSA will continue to X-ray us at airports; air traffic controllers, assuming they're not sleeping on the job, will continue to guide landings and takeoffs; the FBI and the CIA will continue to snoop on our enemies as well as the rest of us; veterans will continue to get their benefits, as will Social Security recipients; Medicare and Medicaid will continue to function, that is before being turned into voucher programs, if the Republicans have their way, or, as in the case of Medicaid, be funded by block grants to the states that will result in a dramatic increase in cost to individual taxpayers and in a reduction of services to the poor--half of whom are children.

Those agencies shutting down their "non-essential" parts, which means almost everything, will be, among others, the Departments of Eduction, Transportation, Commerce, Energy, Environmental Protection, and Agriculture (though farm subsidy checks will continue to flow to mega agribusinesses, including those that Republican members of Congress themselves own. (See linked New York Times article.)

The national parks will close, but with gas rapidly approaching $4.00 a gallon only a few retired folks roaming around in RVs will notice. And no one on the political right is likely to get upset when the EPA stops monitoring carbon emissions or the levels of waste at toxic super-sites.

Few will be directly affected by the Energy Department shuttering it's 24 research labs (whatever in the world these are up to can be done better, for a profit, by Exxon and BP) or wasting money cleaning up the environment after 50 years of nuclear defense activities that impacted two million acres in communities across the country (let the local folks, if they even care, worry about that).

And who will notice when the Department of Commerce halts gathering employment statistics (with so few working, it hardly pays to know, especially now that the number unemployed is decreasing and Obama may get political credits for that). Who will notice if Commerce is forced to curtail its minority business development assistance (isn't it time we terminate affirmative action programs) or its oceanic and atmospheric research (we don't need this kind of so-called science any more, particularly if it shows evidence of climate change).

Some of us will be upset that the Food and Drug Administration will stop accepting applications for the testing of new, potentially live-saving drugs. Talk about caring about the "sanctity" of life.

Tea Party members of Congress will finally get their wish--a much smaller government. They will be able to see fulfilled Ronald Reagan's dream when he famously said, "Government is not a solution to our problem, government is the problem."

And these small-government advocates, who conveniently ignore the fact that as congressmen and women they too are government employees, will continue to be paid even if most of the rest of the federal workforce will be taken off the payroll.

Lest I forget, best of all, the IRS will be forced to essentially shut down. They will not only not be sending out any refund checks, they'll also be suspending audits. I wonder who will be the main beneficiaries of that.

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

April 6, 2011--Two Cheers for Congressman Paul Ryan

Though it may be more of a boondoggle for the largest corporations--it proposes to cut their tax rate from 35 to 25 percent--though it may be another tax giveaway for the wealthy--it would make the Bush tax cuts for millionaires permanent--though it would likely line the pockets of the largest health insurers--it would give Medicare recipients vouchers to purchase private health insurance instead of having the government continue to serve as the single-payer--and I could go on; but at least House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan has put a bold and more-or-less comprehensive long-term budget plan on the table. If implemented, he claims, it would save more than $6 trillion dollars over the next decade.

If he had included a plan to "save" Social Security and cut military spending significantly, I would be offering three rather than two cheers.

Thus far, because of his lack of leadership on the issue of our long-term, structural debt, I give Barack Obama two boos.

He paid a political price to establish a bipartisan deficit reduction commission, they came up with a detailed report not so, so dissimilar from Ryan's; but as of today, Obama has not had anything substantive to say about his own commission's findings and recommendations. Other than to thank them for their effort, he has not offered a plan of his own. Nor has the Democratic leadership.

And so the debate going forward will center around the Ryan plan, not the Obama plan, and in effect what gets discussed will be a reaction to it.

This is yet another example of change I don't believe in. It is certainly not what I voted for two years ago.

Also, it is a further sign of the political ineptitude of the Obama White House. To allow the Republicans, who are primarily responsible for our unsustainable debt, to get ahead of the Democrats, who were only complicitous, is not impressive. At least we would expect Obama to be controlling the agenda and the direction of the debate if not the ultimate disposition.

I don't know about you, but I'm going back to Dancing With the Stars.

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

April 5, 2011--Libya 1803-1804

In the spirit of been-there-done-that, while reading about the life of Aaron Burr (don't ask), I stumbled on the history of the Frigate Philadelphia which patrolled the Mediterranean in the early 19th century in an attempt to interdict the Barbary Pirates who were praying on American commercial vessels.

Cruising too close to shore, near Tripoli, Libya it was captured, and, according to official Navy history--

The capture of USS Philadelphia by the Tripolitans at the end of October 1803 seriously reduced the U.S. Navy's Mediterranean force and potentially increased the enemy's seagoing offensive power. Though it turned out that Tripoli lacked the resources needed to operate the captured frigate, this was by no means clear at the time, and Commodore Edward Preble began planning to eliminate the problem. The idea of recapturing the Philadelphia in Tripoli's well-fortified harbor offered little chance of success, but her destruction appeared feasible, if heavy losses by the raiding party were accepted.

There was no shortage of volunteers for this hazardous mission. Lieutenant Stephen Decatur, Commanding Officer of the schooner Enterprise, was appointed to lead the operation, which would be conducted using a recently captured local ketch that was appropriately renamed Intrepid. With a crew taken from Enterprise and the flagship Constitution, plus a Sicilian pilot who was familiar with Tripoli harbor, Decatur sailed from Syracuse on 3 February 1804. Storms kept Intrepid at sea for nearly two weeks, with her people enduring much from crowded circumstances, poor food and the generally filthy condition of their vessel.

On 16 February Decatur approached Tripoli, keeping all but a few of his men below decks to maintain Intrepid's appearance as a local trading vessel. That night, navigating by moonlight, he sailed into the harbor and, claiming to have lost his anchors, requested permission to tie up alongside the Philadelphia. This was granted, but the disguise was discovered as the two came close and an alarm cry rang out. Decatur immediately ordered his men to board, which they did so swiftly that the frigate's guards had no time to organize resistance. Most jumped overboard and swam ashore, while the Americans rapidly prepared to burn their prize. Less than twenty minutes later the Philadelphia was blazing brightly. Casting off just ahead of the flames, the Intrepid's men rowed out of the now well-lighted harbor, pursued by gunfire. The operation was a complete success: Philadelphia burned to the waterline and sank, while none of the raiders were killed and only one injured. In the words of British Admiral Horatio Nelson, this was "the most bold and daring act of the age."

Let's hope that in this instance history does not turn out to be prologue.

Monday, April 04, 2011

April 4, 2011--"That Actually Burned Quite Well"

Thus spake Pastor Terry Jones as he watched a copy of the Koran he set on fire go up in smoke.

When asked if he felt responsible for the riots that ensued in Afghanistan during which dozens were killed and wounded, including seven UN workers, in spite of the mob leaders saying they were acting in reponse to the burning of their holy book, Jones, though quoted as "devestated" by the news, said, "We don't feel responsible for that."

I hesitate to give this lunatic more publicity, which I assume is what he's about since his church in Gainesville, Florida, the Dove World Outreach Center, has just 50 members and he could use the money. Sorry, the parishioners. But the only way to stamp out this kind of crazed bigotry is to expose it to the light of day and show how delusional and depraved he and his thankfully scant followers are.

Speaking of depraved, allow me to describe the process he instituted two weeks ago to come to the decision to burn the Koran; remembering, of course, that he is the one who had plans last September 11th to memorialize the attack on America by burning 1,000 Korans on a day he dubbed International Burn a Koran Day.

Since, he claimed, the religion of Islam has not been held accountable for the 9/11 deaths much less all the other crimes this "evil" religion has promulgated, he and some of his followers held a "trial" of the Koran itself, yes, in which he set himself up in a chair on the pulpit of his church as the "judge" while the Koran was "prosecuted" by a Christian who had converted from Islam while it was "defended" by an imam from Dallas. Twelve members of the church served as the "jury."

I know you are wondering about the outcome and so I will keep you in suspense no longer--the "verdict": guilty as charged!

The Koran was "convicted" on "five counts," among them--"crimes against humanity," including the sponsorship of terrorist acts and "the death, rape, and torture of people worldwide whose only crime is not being of the Islamic faith."

If you think that this bit of lunacy exhausts the extent of Jones' mad creativity, you need to learn about how the "sentence" was determined.

The "trial" was videotaped and then seen by a thousand or so who watched it on line. These viewers were polled, given four choices, I am sure not including "none of the above"--

(1) Shredding

(2) Drowning

(3) Facing a firing squad (the pastor or the Koran?)

(4) Burning

Following Nazi precedent, burning won.

Again following that tradition, there was no appeals process and so the "sentence" was carried out expeditiously.

A pastor, Wayne Sapp (no puns please), drenched a copy of the Koran in kerosene and ignited it with a plastic cigarette lighter.

You can witness the "trail" and "sentence" yourself by clicking on the linked Webpage from the Dove World Outreach Center. While visiting the site, you will also be able to purchace T-shirts ($16 each), caps ($12), and coffee mugs ($16 plus shipping and handling), all embossed with "Islam Is of the Devil."

And on the video, you can hear self-ordained pastor Terry Jones say, "That actually burned quite well."

As it burns quite, he fails to say, in the place where he and his flock are sure, eternally, to reside.

One thing he and he other crazies forgot is that there is a another Judgement waiting. The one called The Last.

Friday, April 01, 2011

April 1, 2011--Snowbirding: Beach Walk

It isn’t easy not thinking about illness, dying, and death living close to a mother, who, though she is in remarkable condition, is nearly 103; where we are surrounded by aging relatives and friends in various forms of medical purgatory; and where nearly every shopping plaza includes a place to have cataract’s removed and a convenient place to schedule an MRI exam.

Local TV channels run endless ads for retirement communities, assisted-living facilities, and “final resting places.” In regard to the latter, there is Boca Raton’s Gardens Memorial Park where the tag line is “Dedicated to all those who have lived, and all those who live today. What a clever use of verb tenses it seems to me.

Someone told me recently that she is arranging to have her ashes kept there because it’s a nice place for people to visit since they have meditation rooms, periodic musical presentations, and poetry readings. Also, she was excited to share, they are known for their “Transitional Care.” When I looked at their Website, out of curiosity and, in truth, since we were thinking about visiting the place because we do not as yet have our own final resting places, I discovered that this is the Garden’s version of a pre-planned, pre-paid funeral. A transition for those of us who are living to those of us (all of us) who (eventually) will have lived.

There are everywhere the obvious reminders of time passing and where we are all headed, in stages, from early-bird dinners at the Chinese restaurant to the beckoning ophthalmological surgeon’s office in the same shopping plaza, to the MRI lab, and after that to the assisted living place just west of here. While all the while we live with the knowledge that we have a final reservation for two at the Gardens.

As time passes, time itself loses its quotidian meaning. Having lived for so many years by a daily calendar of appointments and meetings, not needing to pay attention or even notice the differences between morning and afternoon has its liberating attractiveness. But it can also mean feeling dislocated in time, with time being of little consequence or having value, where nothing seems to accrue. Where time is not money but, well, just time.

Even after an aggravating day in the office, after work, over a much-needed drink, one can at least add up or review how one spent one’s time. If a friend asks, “How was your day” you have real answers.

“Well, my morning meeting got us thinking about what we need to do about . . . And I hade a good lunch with ____ who promised that . . . Then, during the afternoon I spoke with ____ in order to . . . .”

When a friend here asks how yesterday went I have difficulty remembering what happened an hour ago. And when I manage to, I tend to mutter and stammer or make apologies for having done seemingly so little. Rarely is there anything to sum up or otherwise quantify. Since we were conditioned for so long by parents asking what we did in school today (though the usual answer was “Nothing”), or how things were in the office (though the usual answer was a list of meetings, phone calls, and emails), it is difficult to switch gears and come up with self-satisfying explanations for watching the changing tides and weather or the virtues of a nap or reading much less justify spending so much time listening to the wind or even music.

Note the “spending” part because some of that conditioning was to place commercial value on time. It may be a rationalization for how much time I now spend, sorry, devote to non-productive, more intrinsic things, but for the moment calling it that--intrinsic--is the best explanation I can come up with.

Further complicating my orientation to time is my disorientation with the days of the week. If it weren’t for the New York Times and its Tuesday science section and its Wednesday food section there would be little to distinguish between the days. Wednesday is not the Hump Day any longer when you don’t have a Monday-Friday, 9-5 kind of reality. And even Friday, which I used to thank God for, has lost its potency.

It further confuses and concerns me that we spend an inordinate amount of time considering the weather. Until recently, I claimed that I would never live in a place where the primary topic for discussion and debate was the weather. How boring, I thought it must be, to pass so much time contemplating it. Doesn’t this reveal the paucity of local stimuli? What, with the drama derived from work and making and spending, what with all the museums and restaurants and theater and concerts of a real city, a real place, who cares about the weather? Even when there is a storm, no problem. The city will make the snow disappear, and even if they can’t, taxis are intrepid regardless of the conditions and the subway in New York, racing blow the streets, makes a mockery of even a blizzard.

So when I catch myself here spending hours in discussions about today’s weather versus yesterday’s—how it is a little warmer, true, perhaps even hot, but isn’t the humidity lower; and what about last year at this time when it was chilly, not cold, and rainy, yet not stormy; that is until the rainy season set in and it was stormy, except that the storminess did not last all day but was more of the squally, tropical kind . . . .

Like the Eskimos who in their native language are said to have dozens of words for snow and snow conditions, or what linguists call lexemes—words for a version of the same thing. In English, for example, non-meteorologically-- trash and garbage qualify. In Inuit they have five lexemes for snow on the ground and two for crust on fallen snow while there are many more for snowflake.

Here, in snowbird country, we have numerous lexemes or ways to describe varieties of rain. We are aficionados of rain, poets of temperature, and connoisseurs of humidity. And before we notice how we live so much of our day, while pondering and pontificating about these nuances, it becomes time for a bite of lunch and soon after that a nap.

About this napping business there are an almost equal number of lexemes, which we fully explore both in the doing and the recounting. From catching some shuteye or forty-winks to catnaping and siestas. We have made a science of this too and, as such, is there a surer sign of approaching mortality than the ways in which we slip almost unnoticed into the intoxicating universe of napping? This capitulation to the art of the mid-afternoon snooze is more a sign, isn’t it, of the beginning of indolent decline than the occasional detached retina or need to have a few polyps removed?

These are my thoughts as we think about our final days here. Not our final-final days, mind you, just those before heading back to New York City where, I fear, that after more than four months of tranquility, we will be unprepared for all the action. How will we handle time when for most who live and work there it is decidedly equated with money or is otherwise available for pleasure or simply ignoring? How will we fare among all those young people with their hard bodies who have barely been touched by it’s passage?

To distract me from these anxieties, Rona suggests, “Let’s take a beach walk.”

“Good idea,” I say.

And off we go to wile away more time—another unfortunate expression, wile away time, which in this case, etymologically, is about tricking or fooling it. On second thought though, perhaps this wiling notion captures some of what I am trying to accomplish with my remaining time. I do feel the need to devise a strategy to toss in a few tricks to at the least slow it down.

And so, with that thought, we head for the beach right outside our door.

There is a storm amassing well off shore and we think about ways to describe the changing conditions—the nature of its potential threat, the hints suggested by the graying of the sky and then a dash of portentous orange. “Could there be waterspout possibilities?” I ask as if to myself.

“Again, you’re talking about the weather,” Rona admonishes me, “I thought you said you wanted to get away from that, from your endless intimations of mortality, to quote a favorite poet of yours.” She suspects that will distract me and get me to change the subject.

“That’s immortality, I correct her, “from Wordsworth.”

“I know that silly, but I also know you’re half an atheist and do not accept the idea of immortality. I thought, therefore, that contemplating intimations of mortality is more your thing. I am simply searching for ways to rouse you from your dark mood.”

“But that won’t get the job done. You’ll still have me contemplating final things. But, I am not in a dark mood. I just know how old I am, how we are living, and what we are surrounded by. They make me . . .”



“And dark. We need to lighten up. Get more enjoyment from life. Here we are by this magnificent ocean. A storm is approaching and . . .”

“And now who’s talking about the weather?” We both laugh at that and it helps to lighten the mood if not the sky.

“Look at that surf,” Rona points to the roiling water. “And what’s that? Over there?” She races ahead into the wind.

When I catch up with her, gasping for air (another sign of my advanced condition), she says, now pointing at the sandy margin, “That looks like a dogfish shark to me.”

“A beached one,” I say. “He probably was chasing the bait fish close to shore, where they come to hide from their predators, and the surf must have tossed him up onto the beach. Let’s see if we can help him get back into the water.”

But before we can, it manages to twit itself around on the hard-packed sand and, using it’s pectoral and pelvic fins, waddles back toward the sea from which it had come.

“Amazing,” I say, “We are seeing a form of reverse evolution. Remember, in time before counting, at one point some fish made a similar mistake and wound up on the beach, decided to stay on land, and before you know it, voilà, here we are.”

“You keep telling that same story over and over again.”

“Well it’s basically true and I think makes a pretty good story.” My mood is lightening.

“I’m just teasing you.” Rona moves closer and puts her arm around me. “I actually do like hearing you talk about fish and Darwin.”

“You know,” I say tentatively, afraid I will slip back into my intimations and spoil the developing romantic mood, “I’ve not only been thinking about sharks coming up onto the land.”


“I’ve also been thinking more about that Memorial Gardens place. That Boca cemetery.”

“And?” I hear her rising skepticism.

“Well, maybe as we think about our final resting place we should be thinking about these waters that were our ancestral home.”

Now fully on guard, “And?”

“Who’s going to come visit our urns?”


“The ones for our ashes. Which will be stashed for eternity, or the Gardens’ version of eternity, in some slot in a wall. Even with the meditation room and the poetry readings, nobody we know will visit and . . . ”

“And?” Rona is by now humoring me.

“And so how about returning to the sea? Our ashes of course. It would even save money.”

“There you go again, talking about the cost of things. Another sign of you-know-what.”