Monday, September 30, 2013

September 30, 2013--The 99th Percentilers

As the Occupy Wall Street protesters reminded us last year, there is the one percent and then the rest of us who make up the 99 percent.

Also in New York--in Manhattan--there is another 99 percent. Actually, 99 percentilers: those 4-and 5-year-olds who score in the 99th percentile on the exam that determines whether or not (mainly not) one's toddler is admitted to the city's most competitive and prestigious private schools. Places such as Dalton, Trinity, and Horace Mann. Schools that from this early age significantly determine if junior 12 years later will be admitted to Harvard, Yale, or Princeton. And after that, who knows, the Supreme Court, Wall Street, and even the White House.

New York is the town that Lake Wobegon envied--where every kid is not just above average but way, way above average. Some are even 99 percentile scorers on the Early Childhood Admission Assessment exam that up to now has been the filter that separates the anointed from the just OK.

And if your child is among the anointed, that of course means you are as well. Nothing is more affirming than that--it means you passed along your superior DNA and all the tutoring and chauffeuring from chess lessons to French lessons, from peewee soccer to peewee field hockey paid off. One's foundational work is done and all that remains is resume-building for college applications.

And bragging.

According to a report in the New York Times, here's how it feels among the wealthy in Manhattan if your child does not score in the 99th percentile--

Justine Oddo is just such a mother whose twins got into "only" the 95s. She opined, "It seemed like everyone got 99s. It was demoralizing. It made me think my kids are not as smart as the rest of the kids."

Maybe yes; maybe no. It could be that Ms. Oddo did not shell out the $200 an hour it costs to have one's child tutored for the private school admissions test.

Well aware of all the coaching and prepping, the Independent Schools Admissions Association recommended to its 140 members that they no longer use these exam scores. What to do with applicants is another story--using numbers and percentiles makes life easier than having to rely on interviews and letters of recommendation.

Yes, they do require these letters, though what a recommender would write about a youngster just out of diapers is hard to fathom.

"He's a good eater."

"She knows how to use a smart phone."

"He knows his alphabet and can count to 100."

"She can take off and put on her own snowsuit."

In the meantime, the parental celebrating continues. One couple whose daughter is a 99 percentiler threw a big catered bash for her and her dozens of best friends at their Hamptons cottage.

One guest wondered what they will do for an encore when she gets into "their school of choice."

Maybe a long weekend in Paris?

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Friday, September 27, 2013

September 27, 2013--To Monhegan

Need to get a very early start so I will not be posting this morning. I will, though, return on Monday with a piece about the 99th percentiles. Those kiddies who score that high on the private school admissions exam. Four- and five-year-olds. It's craziness.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

September 26, 2013--Behind the Times

A friend from England is in the area. Siting with her yesterday morning on the top step of the house where she is staying, looking out into the sun over Muscongus Bay toward Monhegan Island, she said, "This is the only place in the world where I sleep well."

"Why is that? I ask because that's also true for me; and though I have my own thoughts about this, I'm curious why this is such a restful place for you."

Not taking her eyes off the waves lapping the granite ledge, she said, "Some of it has to do with the sound of the water. You know those sleep machines that play an endless stream of natural sounds as a way to free one's mind and help one sleep? There are birds sounds, whale songs, sounds of the wind and forest, and of the tranquil ocean. The ocean being the most listened to to induce a peaceful night. So right out my door here, without the bother of one of those machines, which to me seem so artificial, I find a natural form of calm."

"Maybe it's because our remote ancestors came from the ocean."

"You mean how the sea is the-mother-of-us-all sort of thing?"

"Well, we did descend from fish. There is overwhelming evolutionary evidence about that."

"I thought you Americans don't believe in evolution." She was tweaking me. "But, I know that's true and it may have something to do with being instinctively connected to the eternal that is so conducive to peaceful rest."

"There's something else," I said, "that works for me beside the ocean and air and sky."

"What's that?"

"The isolation. I should say, how I here feel isolated enough."

"That's a curious concept--isolated enough." She glanced at me then turned again to face the water and the horizon.

I said, "We don't live deep in the woods or isolated from neighbors. In fact, I like having neighbors. Even the occasional pesky ones. I am from the city, after all, and too much tranquility and quiet can make me anxious. I need a little more than just nature."

"I understand that. I'm from London though now I live mainly in Brighton. So I as well need a little human activity."

"For me the little part resonates since I like some action as long as it's just that--little."

"I also like being a bit out-of-step," she ruminated. I looked at her curiously and she said, "I'll give you an example."

"That would help."

"That recent tragedy in Kenya."

"The barbaric killings at the mall?"

"That's it. It happened while I was here but somewhat out of the reach of the news. When I'm here I do not take the paper or watch much TV. Almost none at all. And so news of that slaughter took some time to filter to me. As if I were living, as they say these days, off the grid. Rather, half-off the grid."

"This is true to me too, but because of my blog I do need to keep up with the so-called news."

"Sorry, but I forgot about that. What's it called again?"

"Behind the (New York) Times, with the New York part in parentheses."

"I remember that. How you're wanting to have it both ways--you tend to write about things reported in the New York Times that provoke you and also you are signally that you personally are a bit behind the times.  Having a little fun at your own expense. Saying you're perhaps obsolete, no? Behind the times?"


"So here especially, in a similar way, I too am behind. The mall murders, the debate about Iran and what to do in Syria, your debt ceiling crisis, all of these impinge upon my awareness but in a less immediate and worrisome way that when I'm in New York or London or even my sleepy Brighton."

"You're speaking about what I meant by isolated enough. Not that isolated so that if there were a real crisis that affected me or us directly it would be possible to know minute-by-minute what would be important, even essential to know to avoid a conflagration--a big Sandy-like hurricane--or to be able to mobilize one's thoughts and actions as a citizen because of a major terrorist attack, God forbid, directly on the U.S."

"Isn't this also a stage in life thing?"

"Say more."

"We are after all getting a bit older," not me, I gestured, "and at these latter stages one tends to want to be involved in more generative things. Which by definition means less engagement in the here and now, no matter how vital all of that might have been a few years ago. But now is considerably less compelling."

"I suppose there is some truth to that, though remaining vital is still important to me."

"You feel vital enough to me, if that's any consolation." She smiled wistfully, still gazing toward Monhegan 15 miles off shore.

"But I do need more rest than in the past and that again is where we began--with sleeping."

"You are about to have a birthday, aren't you?"

"Next Wednesday."

"It's a significant one isn't it?"

"At this point they all are."

"But, as I recall, this one is a real number."

"Yes, real. As real as it gets."

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Wednesday, September 25, 2013

September 25, 2013--GOPcare

Forty-two times Republicans in the House of Representatives have voted to repeal or defund Obamacare.

Most recently the end of last week when they did so as part of a budget package to make the entire federal budget contingent upon eliminating it. Effectively, they said, if you want the Affordable Care Act, there will be no government--no Social Security, no Medicare, no national parks, no aid to education, no airport security, no oversight of drugs and medicines, and even (their favorite federal program) no military.

And then they went home for their 6th or 7th vacation of the year.

Additionally, they left a marker back in Washington, saying that unless Obamacare is ended by the end of October they will not vote to raise the debt ceiling. They will not vote to pay for federal programs that they themselves already enacted into law.

Effectively, they are, with this, drawing a legislative red line which asserts that unless the Democrats and the president go along with this they will allow the United States for the first time in history to default on our financial obligations--if you have T-Bills, they will not pay you the interest you thought was guaranteed; and the U.S. dollar will no longer serve as the world's reserve currency because we will have welched on our international debts and obligations.

All because of Obamacare. All because the GOP leadership has caved in to the Tea Party crazies who are really anarchists seeking to eliminate most of our government, seeing nearly all of it profligate and evil.

While spending much of the past two years futilely voting against Obamacare, the Republicans have not put forth a credible alternative health care plan of their own. One to cover the 44 million Americans who who have no coverage, or would have none if Obamacare were to be rolled back--mainly dependent children and lower-income workers whose employers do not provide medical insurance or do not have the $5,000 to $10,000 a year to buy their own insurance.

By not voting in favor of a plan of their own the GOP is rendering a death sentence to hundreds of thousands of Americans who will die prematurely without preventative or on-going care.

I know for these radical Republicans the death penalty is one of their favorite governmental programs; but at least executing people comes after someone commits a heinous crime and is tried and convicted.

To kill people (and that in fact is what we're talking about) because they cannot afford to pay for an operation or cancer-fighting medications is not so different from condemning someone to death through the courts.

One difference--we usually put people in the gas chamber one at a time. Denying people the medical help they need and deserve is nothing short of mass murder.

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Tuesday, September 24, 2013

September 24, 2013--Late Start

I will return tomorrow.

Monday, September 23, 2013

September 23, 2013--Midcoast: True Religion

With outstretched arms, he exclaimed, "She doesn't own a pocketbook! I'm in love!"

We were at the Volkswagen dealer to get a new running light installed. A light bulb icon had popped up on our car's computer screen with the message--"Replace left front downcast light."

"That sounds so Victorian," Rona said. "What's a downcast light? Anything like downcast eyes?"

"I have no idea. It does sound like a fancy name for a VW light. Look it up in the owner's manual. I think it's the light below the headlight that's on all the time in the daytime. For safety."

"With a name like that, I can't wait to see what they'll charge to replace it. We should probably go to NAPA and buy a new bulb for $5.00 and screw it in ourselves."

"That would make sense if we knew what we were doing. I don't even know where to add oil or even if the car has a dipstick. Everything is so high-tech these days. My suggestion--let's go to VW. I don't want to make a mess of things that will then need fixing and cost more than simply paying them ransom to change the bulb."

The staff was very accommodating, took care off us and the car, and only charged $37, including the bulb, labor, and tax. They even threw in a car wash which, I joked, they'd have to do again in a day or two considering the rutted dirt road that drops down to our house.

"Sure," the service manager said, when turning the car over to us, "Really, come by any time. We'll be happy to take care of you."

He felt sincere.

"I see you have New York plates. Where in New York you from?" he asked.

"Manhattan," Rona said.

"Amazing," he said, "I moved up here from there three months ago."

"From a VW dealer there to this one?"

"No. From a job in investment banking." He made a face.

"To do this? I mean . . ." I didn't quite know how to put it without offending him.

"That's OK. I think I know what you're thinking--that it must be a big step down for me."

"No. Just that . . ."

"No problem," he smiled to show I hadn't upset him. "In many ways it is a big step down. I worked for this bank for eight years. I made big money. Big money. I had all the toys--a Rolex, Prada this and Prada that, a BMW, and a fancy Italian dirt bike. All my friends were doing well too. After work--if I had the energy for it--I'd go out with them. Bars. Clubs. Restaurants. Expensive wine. Girls. Lots of girls. The whole New York scene. I had a two-bedroom condo in Chelsea. The good life, right?"

"It does sound like quite the life," Rona said, trying to sound neutral.

"Somehow it wasn't working for me. I was so busy most of those years that I didn't have the time or energy to take a moment to figure out what I was doing, how I was doing, and if it was working for me." He looked off toward the stand of spruce trees ranged beyond where the VWs for sale were arranged.

"So what happened?" Rona asked softly. "How did you get from there to here?"

"I'm from South Jersey, down by the shore. I lived there until I came to the city to work for the bank. My parents loved it here. The beach, the ocean, their friends and family. But every year they would come up to this part of Maine."

"So you knew the midcoast that way?"

"Not really. You see, I thought it would be boring here. Nothing for me to do. I was on high rev. And they said, don't come to Maine with us until you're ready. To understand it. So I never went until this June. Just for a few days to help them set up a house they bought on Southport Island."

"So that's . . . ?"

"Not exactly. I was so busy working on their house I was in my city mode. I barely looked around. I'd get up and hit the ground running. Scraping, patching, painting. That sort of thing. But I suppose, in spite of myself, Maine was beginning to get to me. Or maybe I was beginning to get Maine."

"I understand that," Rona said.

"They know a lot of people in the area from having vacationed here forever. One couple who live next to the house they bought had a cookout to which my parents and I were invited. And wouldn't you know it, there was this girl, this young woman at the party. I don't think it was a set up or anything; but whether or it was or not, we hit it off. Like from right out of a movie."

"That's it?" I said, "That's what got you to give up your banking job and move to Maine?"

"A version of that. I liked her so much, Natalie, that I came back the next weekend, ostensibly to work on the house but more to see her. She's a nurse right up here at the hospital." He pointed toward the road to Midcoast Hospital.

"I never knew a nurse before. All the girls I knew in the city were working for the same bank I was or for clothes designers. At least it seemed like that. Nothing wrong with that or them, but somehow we seemed to spend a lot of time checking each other out--shoes, bags, jeans, cars, bling. That sort of thing. What it felt like we were all working for. Not for the work itself, if you know what I mean--that was all kind of abstract. About numbers, very much including what we were making and our bonuses and what that would buy us out in the Hamptons and what kind of car we could afford to buy."

Rona and I nodded along as he told his story.

"It was no more Jersey Shore for me, baby. I'm movin' on. On and up." He paused to sigh and to look again toward the nearby woods.

"And?" Rona asked.

"Well, that second weekend did the trick. We were going out to dinner, Natalie and me.  I got all dressed up since I was planning to take her to a nice place my parents knew about and recommended. I drove over to her house to pick her up. When she got in the car I noticed she didn't have a bag with her. So I asked if maybe she forgot to take it.

"'Forgot?' she said, 'I didn't forget. I don't have a pocketbook.' I thought--no pocketbook? Everyone  I know has the latest Marc Jacob's bag and plenty more, but Natalie doesn't have even one!"

"That's not unusual up here," Rona said.

"Not only that, she doesn't have a pair of heels or Prada anything. She buys most of her stuff from Renys, Wallmart, and LL Bean. I love it!"

We smiled.

"She said to me, 'Look at you. What are you wearing on your feet? And those pants of yours.' She was making fun of me--friendly fun--but was also being serious. 'These are True Religion jeans,' I said. 'Everyone in the city wears them.' 'How much did they cost?' she asked. Shyly, I mumbled, 'About $400.'

"'Four-hundred dollars?' she whistled. 'That's about what I pay each month in rent. And you spent that on a pair of pants.' 'True Religions,' I said, as if the justify the cost, but then realizing that would mean nothing to her."

"Nor me," I said, "I never heard of them. And, by the way, what a strange name for jeans."

"I thought the same thing," he said. "Not right then but later when I thought the whole thing over--the evening, what Natalie said, and how I was feeling about her, myself, and my life."

"And you decided to give everything up and move here?" Rona said. "To come here to live? After just two visits?"

"Actually three because I came back for a third long weekend in June."

"Amazing," I said. "And, I think, impressive. To live here not knowing, for example, what the winters are like. How it gets dark by 3:30 and . . ."

"I know. Not from experience, of course. But I think I'm ready for it. Natalie and I are still an item. In fact, more than that. But we're both experienced and trust our feelings. We'll work hard to make things succeed. So far, so good. Actually much more than good."

"For what it's worth, I think . . ."

"You know what really did it for me? I mean what lead to this seemingly impulsive big change?"

"Natalie?" Rona guessed.

"That's a big part of it. Very big. But it was those jeans of mine. The True Religion ones."

"I'm not following you."

"How aptly named they are--True Religion. To think a pair of jeans, which should probably sell for $20 in Renys, goes for $400 in Barneys. And to link it to religion. When I realized I was in some crazy way worshiping jeans, I thought to save myself--pun intended--I'd better get out of here before it's too late."

He extended his arms to take in the VW sales lot and the encroaching woods

"And so here I am. Maybe this will turn out to be crazy, but so far it's feeling really good. Like I belong here. That this place was waiting for me until I was ready for it."

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Friday, September 20, 2013

September 20, 2013--Midcoast: Power Washer (Concluded)

Back at the house I took the AR 142 power washer still in its box out to the shed where, I was certain, I had all the tools needed to assemble it. Just like in the old days in Brooklyn.

"It should take me maybe 30 minutes," all puffed up, I said to Rona. "Then we can give it a test on the front steps. You know, start small."

Rona stared in my direction, studiously ignoring me.

About 20 pieces tumbled out of the box mainly, it looked to me, more hoses, scrubbing brushes, and vacuum-cleaner-like wands than mechanical and plumbing components. Too bad, I thought, it would be a better challenge, and thus additionally enjoyable and satisfying, if I needed to snap the wheels on and secure them with cotter pins or, even better, have to do some wiring since the washer was electric powered.

Two or three pieces looked familiar from my memory of the fully-assembled model in the store--the body of the washer and the handle, which I knew, without even a glance at the instruction booklet, would affix to the top of the body.

I quickly found the two screws included, aligned the handle with the body, snapped it in place, and then secured it with the Phillips-head screws. Of course I had at least a half dozen Phillips screwdrivers in the shed, found just the right one, and stepped back to look at what I had accomplished, feeling I was off to a good start.

All the remaining parts, however, looked unfamiliar, or at least did not immediately suggest to me how they would be used or where they should be attached to the body, which now, at least, had its handle securely affixed. Good, I thought, more to learn about, more assembly problems to solve. Just like in the old days with my Erector set.

So I turned to the rather skimpy instruction booklet. Its apparent brevity another sign that the rest of the assembly would be a piece of cake and I would be able to get it all done in less than the 30 minutes I had indicated to Rona.

In fact, there were only three or four pages in English, the rest in Spanish and French. And at least half the English pages were devoted to various WARNINGs and CAUTIONs.

Too bad, I thought, that the lawyers are running everything. Why does this power washer and everything else come plastered with warning labels? Are we that stupid and litigious? No need to answer. On the other hand, at times they do add an element of unintentional humor when buying a step ladder or electric drill. My favorite recently was for a steam iron--"Do not iron garments when wearing them."

Those in the power washer booklet hardly needed stating--

WARNING--Risk of Electrocution
  • Do not touch plug with wet hands
  • Do not spray electrical apparatus and wiring
WARNING--Risk of Explosion
  • Do not spray flammable liquids
  • Never use in areas containing combustible dust, liquids, or vapors
Electrocution and explosions aside, I concentrated on the assembly tasks at hand--
(1) Attach swivel adapter to pump water inlet, if not already attached. 
I rummaged among the parts on my workbench and nothing looked like anything resembling a swivel adapter, whatever a swivel adapter in fact was. So I looked in the booklet at drawings of the parts but didn't find anything labeled "swivel adapter." And nothing that could be described as such was already attached to the washer body or to the the protruding two inches of threaded pipe that I assumed was for water intake.
I read--
Notice the swivel adapter is marked with the words "pump" and "hose."
Good, I thought, all I have to do is find something, anything thus marked. Should be no problem. 
But I found nothing close. Beginning to feel frustrated, I even looked at the two brushes, knowing in advance that that was clearly a distraction--the real challenge was getting the power washer itself assembled. 
Maybe, I began to think, some parts are missing. Worst case scenario, we bring everything back to the hardware story and they'll give us replacements for the swivel adapter and anything else that turns up missing. 
Before coming to that conclusion, I reached for the empty box, thinking maybe something looking how a swivel adapter should look was lurking in the bottom among the discarded wrappings. 
But I found nothing there except a large card on which, in two-inch high red letters, was printed--
I felt the onset of an anxiety attack and needed to sit down to catch my breath and allow my heart to calm down. 
I also noticed I had been in the shed for half an hour--the time I had boasted to Rona it would take me to complete the assembly. Thus far, I had only managed to attach the handle to the body with the two screws provided.

Thus, in spite of myself, I turned my attention to the brushes, thinking that dealing with them should, by comparison, be rather straightforward and give me a sense of accomplishment.

In fact the brushes were easy to deal with because included in the assembly manual there was a two-page insert with very detailed drawings about the parts needed to make the round Twister (or "large-surface brush") and it's companion, the Turbo or oval-shaped brush, operational. Operational, of course, if I could manage to get the power washer itself operational. I was still far from that, having, confessedly, only having managed to attach the handle to the washer body.

After about an hour Rona came looking for me. She discovered me huddled on the floor of the shed with the doors closed. Worried, she asked, "Is everything all right?"

I mumbled something incomprehensible.

"I was concerned about you. You said it would take maybe half an hour and here it is nearly two hours later."

"No need to exaggerate," I muttered, "An hour's bad enough."

"'Bad enough'? What are you talking about? And could you speak up, I can hardly hear you."

I curled up into an even tighter ball.

"Do I need to call 911? Did you injure yourself, or something? Though I can't imagine your doing that while assembling something as simple as a power washer. The smallest 1,600 PSI one at that."

"No need to make me feel worse than I do," I said, and with that, what I had been struggling with, including all my frustrations, came spilling out.

"Slow down, slow down. There's no need to make yourself crazy. I'm sure, as you say, that the instructions are confusing and that there are all sorts of parts missing. Also, in spite of that card warning not to bring the machine back to the store and how we need to mail if to Minnesota, I'm sure Nate at the hardware store will be willing to help us. This is Maine, after all. Not New York City."

I grunted, "That makes sense."

"Let me take a look at it," Rona suggested. "Maybe I can figure something out." She had picked up the instruction booklet.

"You're right about all the ridiculous warnings. But let me see," she was thumbing through the pages. "Did you notice the French and Spanish versions of the instructions? Maybe if I read them we'll be able to figure out what to do. Perhaps they contain additional information."

She read, "'Attacher l'adaptateur pivotant à pomper l'eau d'entréesi ce n'est déjà attaché.' Now where is that adaptateur pivotant? Is that the one you were having trouble finding and think may be missing?"

C'est vrai," I said, beginning to feel a little better.

"This looks like it," Rona said, holding it up so I could see it from the floor where I was still squatting. It doesn't say 'pump' and 'hose' as the instructions indicate, but there's an arrow on it that probably shows which way the water is pumped in."

With that insight, one-two-three, Rona attached the adapter to the the screw-threaded intake pipe that protruded from the body of the pump.

But, even reading all the French and then turning to the Spanish instructions, Rona could progress no further. We had the handle attached (I had accomplished that the first minute) and Rona had screwed the adaptateur pivotant to the pump, but no more. We were both stymied.

"I guess we should go back to Nate tomorrow," Rona said, "and see if he can help us. The assembled version of the AR 142 should still be there. Worse-comes-to-worse, we can use it as a model to guide us in assembling ours."

"But what about having to send it to Fridley, Minnesota? You saw that card that . . ."

Again, Rona insisted, "Nate will help us. Remember, this is Maine."

The next morning, sheepishly, we slinked back to Damariscotta Hardware and looked in the back for Nate.

"It's his day off," a salesman said. "But I can help you. Just what is it you have there?"

I made myself small and attempted to hide behind Rona. "We bought this power washer the other day," Rona said, "Nate helped us and . . ."

"And even thought it says we have to send it to Minnesota," I found my voice, "we thought that maybe . . ."

"That maybe Nate or someone else might be willing to help us figure out how to assemble it."

"The instructions are really terrible," I held the brochure out to him. He waved it off.

"We thought that if no one can help us and we really do have to send it to Fridley, we can look at the floor model and use it as . . ."

"It's not there," I whispered to Rona.

"What's that?" the salesman asked.

"It's not on the shelf." I stammered, "The AR 142. Maybe it was sold. Nate said they were going fast. We got the next to last one. It was quite a good price. But we can't . . ."

I had to stop myself from sounding as if I were whimpering. I wasn't feeling very good about my non-Maine-like behavior. After all, we were talking about a $66 power washer. Not that a storm blew out all our windows and we have a flood in the house. Something worthy of causing agita.

"Let me take a look," he offered.

I asked if he wanted to see the instructions.

"Naw," he said. "I don't think it will be too much of a problem."

"I guess not," I said. "You must have to assemble them every day. Considering how incomprehensible the instructions are."

"Actually, you guys are the first to bring one in needing help. Which," he quickly added, "is not a problem. Not at all. I'm happy to try to help."

And help indeed he did. While we were talking he had shaken all the parts out onto the counter and before he had finished telling us how happy he was to try to help he had all of them connected and told us where to attach the garden hose and how to use the water gun.

"That about does it," he said. "Is there anything else I can help with?" He was all charm and friendly smiles.

On the drive home Rona sensed that I might be sulking. "I know how hard it is for you to feel that as you are growing older you are losing some of your powers. That when you were ten and had that Erector set and built that Ferris wheel you thought you'd be able to build and fix things forever."

"I now know better," I sighed.

"And it's OK. You're still my sweet boy," she reached over to touch me. "You always will be. And, you know, though it's true you're not as adept as you once were, you're much smarter than when I met you and that for me is what's most important."

I felt I was beginning to tear up and pulled over so I could give Rona a hug.

"And when we get home," she said, clinging to me, "as you suggested, let's start small and test the washer on the front steps."

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Thursday, September 19, 2013

September 19, 2013--Midcoast: Power Washer

Our front deck is looking awful.

Is it acid rain from Canada or the spruce tree that hovers above that's causing the discoloration?  We suspect it's the tree because out back, on the water side, where the deck is roofed over, the blue-gray stain is looking as fresh as when Joey Jacobs applied it this past spring.

He said, "Get it power-washed. If I wasn't so busy with other jobs I'd come by myself and get it done."

So we hired Armando, who didn't power wash it but scrubbed it down with a stiff mop. It took him the better part of an hour but it turned out well, quite fresh. But then, within a month, it was again looking all scuffed up.

Feeling frustrated, Rona said, "Let's go to Damariscotta Hardware. I think they rent power washers. We can do this ourselves. It looks like a chronic problem and, while we're there,  maybe let's see how much they cost to buy. Renting isn't cheap. I think it's $40 for a minimum of four hours."

We got a lesson in power washers. The store was quiet and one of the salesmen, Nate, back in the rental section, was happy to have customers wanting to learn about PSI (pounds per square inch of water pressure) and how, since at 3,200 PSI the force of the water is so strong it'll strip the paint off the wood decking, for our needs, we should look for a model that either has a way to adjust the power or find one where the PSI is 1,600.

Nate said, "That's the right power for your type of deck-cleaning work."

"If we get one," Rona thought out loud, "maybe we should go for the adjustable version. At 1,600 we could wash our decks and then there might be times we'd like to do some paint-stripping. On the shed, for example. It's looking kind of shabby."

"I don't know," I said. "Look at the more powerful one. It's about the size of a compact car. There wouldn't be room in the shed for it. Even in an unpainted, shabby-looking one." I smiled in her direction.

"And it does cost $40 to rent one," Rona noticed, "for the huge one, though."

"Which we really don't need," I added. "And besides, it wouldn't fit in the car. Do you rent 1,600s?" I asked Nate.

"Unfortunately, only the jumbo ones." He had us sized up correctly--do-it-yourselfers, not pretending to be contractors. "My advice is that you guys take a look at these." He pointed high up on the shelf where there was something that looked much like a stand-up vacuum cleaner. "That baby there, which by the way is on sale, is a power washer that tops out at 1,600 PSI, and for less than the price of two rentals it can be yours. We have just two left and they've been going fast. So I recommend if you want one, you don't hesitate."

"It looks kind of small for real power washing," Rona said, feeling more and more comfortable speaking Nate's language.

"That's the beauty of it. It's highly rated, very compact and light-weight--just 16 pounds--and you can't beat the sale price. I think it goes for $66 plus tax. You won't find a better price on the Internet, even without having to pay tax and shipping."

"It's times like this that I wish we had a smart phone," Rona sighed.

"We both hate them," I reminded her, "Maybe we should go home, check out the Internet, and then decide."

"Here, use my phone," Nate offered. "See what you can find."

"I don't know how to use one," I said with an embarrassed shrug.

"Nor do I," Rona confessed. "All I know is that I don't like them."

"No problem," Nate said with understanding, "Folks just like you come in every day and I let them use my phone to comparison-shop right here in the store. If our price passes muster, I'd rather them buy from us on the spot rather than go home and decide to order on line or go to Home Depot.

By then he had found the North American AR 142 on his phone and slid it over to us. "You look, Rona," I said. "If I touch it I know I'll mess it up," wondering what Nate meant when he said, "folks like you." I decided not to pursue it since I knew it wouldn't be flattering.

"Can't seem to do better than $66," Rona found after searching for a few minutes. "You know this little thing," she waved the phone in my direction, "is pretty useful. Maybe we should . . ."

I cut her off, "Let's focus on one thing at a time--in this case the AR 142." Using just the model number, I was hoping to counter how Nate had stereotyped us. Or, more likely, me.

"That's what I'd recommend," he said, sounding encouraging. "You know it comes in that box," he pointed to a box much smaller than the AR 142 on display.

"And that means," I winked at him, "it needs some assembly."

He nodded, "Think you're up to that?" I was hoping we--actually, I-- had impressed him enough so he wouldn't be thinking about those folks just like us.

"As a matter of fact," I pulled myself up straight as I could, "I happen to be real good at assembly. Wouldn't you agree, Rona?" She was making an effort to ignore me and had already moved on to look at pruning shears.

So to Nate I continued, "When I was just 10 years-old, for my birthday, my Aunt Madeline bought me the largest Gilbert Erector set they made. With it, using girders, angle brackets, screws, nuts, bolts, pulleys, and gears, all with the screwdriver and wrench included, I made bridges and tunnels and even a huge motorized Ferris wheel just like the one in Coney Island." I grinned broadly, remembering those sweet days and feeling proud of myself and also hoping to impress Nate with my mechanical dexterity. "So with the assembly we should be fine, just fine."

Back at the house I took the AR 142, still in its box, out to the shed where, I was certain, I had all the tools required to put it together. Just like in the old days in Brooklyn. "It should take me maybe 20 minutes," all puffed up I said to Rona. "Then we can give it a test on the front steps. You know, start small."

Rona stared in my direction, studiously ignoring me.

To be concluded tomorrow . . .

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Wednesday, September 18, 2013

September 18, 2013--Preview

I will return tomorrow with a report from the Midcoast.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

September 17, 2013--The Walmartization of Higher Education

Tenure as we know it is a relatively new thing.

In the 19th century, professors served at the pleasure of trustees and university presidents. And they could be terminated with little cause. Major donors could and at times did pressure university administrators to fire certain individuals or prohibit the hiring of others, mainly those they felt would interfere with the religious principles of the institution.

Courts rarely intervened in dismissals; but, nonetheless, a de facto tenure system existed and professors, if they did not get far out of doctrinal line, could expect to have their jobs for life.

During the early years of the 20th century, the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), a quasi faculty union, began to pressure colleges and universities to adopt practices that provided lifetime employment protection for senior professors.

The AAUP contended that this was necessary to shield faculty from being dismissed for their views--political as well as religious. Though there were relatively few cases of these kinds of firings, it proved to be a potent argument; and so by the 1950s virtually all institutions of higher learning implemented a tenure system that assured continuous employment after, typically, a seven-year probationary period.

During the McCarthy era, when there were indeed witch hunts to root out alleged Marxists and communists, many, under the protection of tenure, were able to claim that their private views--and even those they articulated in class--were an expression of "academic freedom." Though there were situations where colleges caved into pressure, for the most part few tenured professors, even during that dark period, were dismissed. Many felt intimidated, but very few were purged.

In more recent years, in some quarters, tenure has come under attack. For a number of reasons--

First, it can be used to protect incompetents. After receiving tenure, professors are for all intents and purposes free not to keep up with their disciplines, teach from yellowing notes, and spend little time outside the classroom with students. At even prestigious institutions many tenured faculty are rarely on campus--teaching two to three days a week--do little meaningful research, and shun committee assignments and other collegial and campus citizenship responsibilities. Tenure makes them effectively untouchable, even unsupervisable.

Tenure also makes it difficult for institutions to flexibly deploy resources into new fields and disciplines and makes it almost impossible to phase out departments where enrollments, because of market forces, have shrunk dramatically.

To invest in more programs in computer science, it may be necessary to phase out courses in classical languages; to build capacity in molecular biology, it may be necessary to scale back offerings in biochemistry. With tenured classicists and traditionally-trained biologists, institutions are locked into rigid academic structures which, if they cannot be reformed, place severe limits on an institution's ability to keep up with the times or break new intellectual ground.

And the AAUP and faculty unions claim that without tenure colleges would dangerously reduce the number of expensive full-timers and replace them with much-lower-cost part-time adjuncts. As a result, it is asserted, teaching quality will decline.

This is half true--

Many places in fact have dramatically shifted teaching responsibilities to adjuncts. It is not unusual for at least half of all freshman and sophomore courses to be taught by graduate assistants and part-timers. Cost savings are indeed considerable. But, and this is significant, there is growing evidence that adjunct faculty are more effective in the classroom than tenured faculty.

For example, the New York Times recently cited a study which showed that part-time faculty are more effective in the classroom than full-timers.

The study was based on data from more than 15,000 students at Northwestern University. The results revealed that there was "strong and consistent evidence that Northwestern faculty outside the tenure system outperform tenure track/tenured professors in introductory undergraduate classrooms."

This appeared to be true in almost all subject areas and was especially evident for "average and less-qualified students." These conclusion were based primarily on how likely students were to take additional courses in the discipline and comparisons about the grades students received in subsequent courses. Again, in most instances, students taught by adjuncts reported that they had richer experiences and performed better than those taught by tenured faculty.

Rather than face the challenges this and similar studies have exposed, the AAUP attempted to change the subject. Anita Levy, a senior program officer at the association, said:
My worry is that a study like this can be used to justify hiring more contingent faculty who won't have due-process protection or job security and might not even have offices. It's part of the just-in-time, Walmartization of higher education.
A few points--

Adjunct faculty do have due-process. If they feel they have been dealt with illegally they in fact have recourse to legal remedies. In addition, why should they or any ineffective faculty member have "job security"? And just having private offices does not guarantee that faculty members will set aside more than two hours a week for office hours or use them appropriately.

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Monday, September 16, 2013

September 16, 2013--Win-Win-Win-Win-Win?

Even before sitting down John said, "What do you think about what's happening in Syria?"

"Let's get that out of the way," Rona said, "so we can turn to more pleasant subjects."

John slid into the booth and ordered Eggs Benedict. "I mean," he said, "Obama's a smart guy, right?" We nodded. "Not perfect. We support him, yes?" We continued to nod. "From our perspective he's made mistakes and is too quick to compromise, but about the big picture, especially anything that has to do with history, he generally gets it right. Wouldn't you agree?"

Yes," I said, "I agree. What's your point?" My eggs were getting cold.

"First he draws red lines, then he threatens to bomb Syria because they used poison gas, but then he asks Congress to authorize military action, and after that goes along with a proposal from Russia of all places to have Syria give up its weapons of mass destruction. I'm all confused." He looked over at me and shrugged.

"Here's what I think may be going on," I said. "For certain Obama is smart, very smart, and has a big picture view of the world, especially where civilization clash as well as where there is clashing within civilizations. No better example of both being the Middle East."

"I knew I could count on you to set this in context." From his tone I wondered if he was having a little fun with  me.

I was on a roll, fully caffeinated, and so undeterred I continued, "With Syria you have a situation where everyone, every interested party is backed into a corner.  Bashar al-Assad is facing a civil war that's two years old and going nowhere. Except that his country is largely destroyed and he is justifiably seen as a mass murderer of his own people. Now by using sarin poison gas.

"The remaining big powers--England, France, Russia, the U.S--are backed into corners of their own. Russia, really Vladimir Putin is Assad's chief backer, supplying him with weapons and protecting him from being sanctioned by the UN. In turn, everyone in the so-called civilized world is looking at Putin as  a new kind of Soviet-style dictator who is proceeding to snuff out all forms of dissent while attempting to contain his own internal Muslim extremists.

"Greater Syria--including Lebanon--for many years has been a part of France's anachronistic sphere of influence; and then southern Syria, including Israel and Palestine were governed in the same way by England. The Brits this time opted out of becoming involved and thus, according to Middle Eastern calculus lost standing; while France egged Obama on in an attempt to reassert their own influence in the region."

No one interrupted me so I rattled on, "The United States appears to be in the most compromised and contradictory position of all. John Kerry and Barack Obama draw red lines and threatened to attack Syria because of their use of sarin gas. They each trumpeted that, 'The United Staes doesn't do pinpricks'; and then almost instantly took back the threat so as not to alienate doves in Congress. Kerry, for example, assured his former colleagues and the world that whatever we do in Syria would be 'unbelievably small.'"

"And then there's Israel," Rona joined in, "They didn't know how to react, right, first deciding not to say anything about America's potential involvement but then feeling isolated when the U.S. seemed to back off. They began to wonder out loud about the U.S.'s red line when it comes to Iran's nuclear program. Would Obama back off from that too?"

"So far I'm with you," John said, well into his Eggs Benedict, "But I'm not seeing how this is evidence of Obama's strategic smarts. It all sounds like quite a mess to me. Half of it his making."

"A mess it is, always has been," I said. "I'm right now toward the end of Lawrence In Arabia, and though I didn't know that much about Arabia during the time of the First World War, minimally, things there were so internally tumultuous as the result of culture, history, and outside interference that there were no easy answers then, much less now."

"And so?" John asked. "I need to leave in a minute so tell me how any of this makes sense and why I should think Obama knows what he's doing."

"I think we agree that he's no hawk. He was elected to end two wars, not to start new ones. He, though, is no pushover when it comes time to approve dangerous missions. Ask Osama bin Laden about that. Or, for that matter, much of al Qaeda's original leadership. So he must be very conflicted about getting involved in Syria, even after they used sarin. Therefore he sends out mixed signals. Some inadvertently, some intentional, and sets in motion a complex set of reactions.

"The Brits look prescient and regained some of their independence and moral standing. They are no longer Bush's or Obama's or any American president's poodle. France gets to look engaged and retains a portion of its traditional role in Greater Syria. All without having to do or risk anything. Very French.

"Putin, who needed rehabilitation in the community of nations gets to look like a statesman and Russia regains some stature and--after the collapse of the Soviet Union--looks again like a version of a superpower. Which, ironically, might help make the world a safer place.

"And Israel gets what it wanted all along--the civil war in Syria will continue unabated for years and thereby reduce the threat they feel from Hezbollah and their Syrian sponsors. If the poison gas there actually is eliminated (and I think it will be--it's in everyone's best interest) that's one more thing Israel will not have to worry about."

"And what about us? What about Obama?" John asked, "How does he come out looking good and not wimpy? As someone who has credibility and needs to be taken seriously? Doesn't he feel diminished to you?"

"Yes he does," I said, "And that may be the most brilliant thing of all. And the most courageous. To be diminished."

"You're losing me," Rona interjected. "I thought we'd get to other things by now. About how beautiful the weather is and how Monday is Bristol County tax day.  I wanted to ask John a few things about our real estate taxes."

"One more minute," I said. "What's potentially courageous in what Obama initiated--and I am speculating he initiated most of these moving pieces--is taking the risk to cool a hot situation by making it appear that America is, in Syrian circumstances and perhaps all of that region, to make it appear that we are weak.

"If so, that would be very Middle Eastern. That's one of my takeaways from Lawrence In Arabia--how among tribes and clans there at times to be strong one has to act or appear to be weak. Everyone knows who''s in fact weak or strong; and when it comes to the United States they know no one is more powerful. So a president can use some of that awareness, that political capital to get things done through subtle as opposed to bellicose behavior. At times, maybe as now, a mix of both is best."

"This is not uninteresting," John said.

"Beyond this, maybe this is also a way for Obama to say that during his remaining time, at least, we're disengaging. We and the rest of the West made enough of a mess already and perhaps it's time to try something new. Let others work things out. Locally. It will be messy, but what else is new?"

"And now about the taxes," Rona was doing her best.

John said, "I have to run. One of our granddaughters is having a birthday today. She's five. Let's hope she'll grow up to live in a better world."

"Amen to that," Rona and I said simultaneously.

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Friday, September 13, 2013

September 13, 2013--Remember Benghazi?

Wednesday was the first anniversary of the attack on a U.S. diplomatic consulate in Benghazi, Libya where our ambassador and three embassy staff were killed by terrorists.

What did and didn't happen there became a hotly contested issue during the 2012 presidential campaign;  but since that time--as with other unpleasant news that the public wants to move on from--the story about what has happened during the past 12 months to apprehend the killers has receded to the back pages. If even that.

Some would say that this attack was a response to direct U.S. military involvement in Libyan affairs that began in 1986 when then President Ronald Reagan ordered the air force, navy, and marines to bomb various targets in Libya in retaliation for Libyan involvement in the bombing of a Berlin discotheque frequented by American troops. Targets in Libya included Muammar Gadaffi himself and members of his family. It is alleged that an adopted daughter of his was among those killed and that he was wounded.

Reagan did not seek congressional or UN approval for these raids or the targeting of Muammar Gadaffi. He simply ordered them.

Then in 2011, with UN sponsorship, but again with no congressional authorization, America joined with other nations to aid rebels who were seeking to overthrow Gadaffi. We took the lead in enforcing a no-fly zone and had B-1 and B-2 stealth bombers attack at least 100 targets in Libya.

The assault on the consulate in Benghazi and the murder of four American diplomats needs to be seen but not excused in this context. No matter the past history, it was a heinous act and should not be relegated to the back pages.

But this year, on the 12th anniversary of 9/11, the New York Times, on its back pages, published a follow-up story about our attempts to bring the Benghazi perpetrators to justice. And there is quite a story to tell.

We know who carried out the raid on the Benghazi compound. One of them is such a well-know, audacious Islamist terrorist that he has granted interviews to reporters. We also know his accomplices. We even know where they are located. We have drones positioned over them to keep them under surveillance at all times.

And they have been indicted for murder by the U.S. Department of Justice.

Bringing them to trial should not be that difficult. Libya would still be ruled by Gadaffi if it weren't for American intervention. For at least a few days after Gadaffi's overthrow and death, Americans were publicly thanked by Libyans and the stars and stripes were on display in parts of the country.

So one would think that our Libyan friends would round up the suspects and either try or extradite them.

This, though, is not happening.

Those clan leaders in the Benghazi province where the murderers live are not willing to do either. For one thing, Libyan government authorities feel they would be unable to bring them out of their villages since they are protected by well-armed militias. Militias, I suspect, who are using weapons that we provided to Libyan rebels.

And, then, these same officials say, the U.S. is now so unpopular--including because we are now considering an attack on Syria--that it would be politically unpopular for them to become allied in a matter of importance with the United States.

Also, though we are considering a drone strike to "take them out," to quote the Times, Libyan officials are also not too happy about that--
A number of Libyan political figures have expressed wariness that any unilateral military action by the United States, like a drone strike, would fuel popular anger and add a destructive new element to the uncertain security situation in Benghazi.
On the other hand, there was not much "popular anger" among Libyans when the U.S. took military action two years ago to help depose Gadaffi.

What a difference a year can make.

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Thursday, September 12, 2013

September 12, 2013--Power Outage

This occurred overnight. I am back on line but behind schedule and will return on Friday.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

September 11, 2013--Briefly: Putin & Syria

If you are wondering why Vladimir Putin appears to be helping President Obama out of his Syria dilemma--having drawn a red line he cannot enforce without securing congressional approval, which is likely not forthcoming, the answer is simple and involves, no surprise, crass self-interest.

Putin on the one hand would like to see Obama, who he can't abide, weakened and the United States' reputation taken down a notch or two; but on the other hand he is primarily concerned about his own political and literal skin--

If his ally, Syria's president, Bashar al-Assad goes down, following Saddam Hussein, Hosni Mubarak, and Muammar al-Gaddafi, there will be chaos on Russia's southern flank and an incentive for radicals in Russia's Islamic republics to ramp up their own rebellion against Russian domination.

The Cechnyans, to be sure, are watching carefully what is happening in Syria, what the U.S. will ultimately do, and most significant for their future, Putin's response to all the complexity and uncertainty.

Thus, Putin's decision to bail out Obama is really to rescue Assad from being significantly weakened by an American military strike and, ultimately, to save himself.

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Tuesday, September 10, 2013

September 10, 2013--The $289,500 Hot Dog

One of my favorite big city guilty pleasures is slipping out once in awhile for a hot dog and Coke. A Sabrett's dog from a street-corner vendor. They come piping hot on a roll smothered in ballpark mustard and sauerkraut. Though they may not have any nutritional value, and are likely take years off one's life, once or twice a year it doesn't get any better than to sit out on a park bench and munch away on two or three.

And you can't beat the price. Depending on the where, Sabrett's cost about $2.00 each with the soda just a buck. In a neighborhood luncheonette, by contrast, a tuna on whole wheat and a fountain Coke is at least $12.00.

Down in my neighborhood--the West Village, at carts surrounding Washington Square Park--they go for a bargain dollar-fify each while up at Central Park they cost $2.00 or more.

Now I know why there is this price difference.

According to the New York Times, city authorities charge vendors an annual fee to set up in a specific location because about 10 years ago they needed to step in to regulate the situation as vendors were at war with each other. Literally.

Pushing their carts, they would show up before daybreak to stake out a favored loaction and then squat there, fending off others who had been set up there the day or week before. There was much pushing, shoving, and cursing; occasional serious fisticuffs; sometimes stabbings and even gunshots. No surprise, there were also allegations that the Mafia was involved.

Now, every five years, the best spots are auctioned off. There are 20 locations around Central Park and licenses there go for anything from $125,170 a year at the Harlem end of the park to a staggering $289,500 by the entrance to the zoo.

That means, to break even, with dogs at $2.00 each, a vendor who paid this fortune to be set up near the sea lions and monkey house has to sell nearly 150,000 to just break even. If one adds the costs of ingredients, that number is much higher.

With this annual cost of doing business how can any of these guys turn a profit? Some vendors report that they can gross $2,000 on a summer Sunday but take in virtually nothing when it rains or during the winter.  Maybe all the profit comes from selling bottled water at $2.00 a pop

Somehow it must pay.

Or is this yet another example of Big Apple real estate, where everything is inflated beyond normal reality? Where apartments that sold 10 years ago for $400,000 are now worth $2.0 million. Or more.

Location, location, location is the name of the game in Manhattan real estate and it must also be true when it comes to Sabrett's carts. A lot of people after all do come to the Central Park zoo to see the polar bears.

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Monday, September 09, 2013

September 9, 2013--Good Yontif in Farsi

While much of the attention focused on the Middle East last week was about the United States' struggle with how to respond to Syria's use of chemical weapons on its own citizens, there was another important story that were virtually ignored.

The press covered every minute of President Obama attempt while in St. Petersburg for the G-20 summit to convince at least a few leaders of the world's most powerful nations to support limited military strikes against the Assad regime's capacity to deploy these weapons of mass destruction.  He secured little overt endorsement and may have to settle for going it along, assuming Congress grants him the authority to do so.

Dealing with Congress was the concurrent part of the Syria story. Equally covered by the media wall-to-wall were the deals the Obama administration was working on to garner enough bipartisan support for this authorization. At least half of what was discussed was how big a blow it would be to Obama's prestige and to undercutting the power of the presidency if the Congress failed to do so.

The other half was devoted to how this would play out in the rest of the Middle East, particularly how Iran would react if the U.S. were seen as weakened by bipartisan anti-war sentiment.

If Obama couldn't enforce the red line he drew regarding Syria's use of poison gas, how likely would he be to enforce an even more crucial one--not allowing Iran to develop nuclear weapons? And, always of course, how would Israel react? What would Israel do if the United States was suddenly perceived to be impotent?

These are all important subjects well worth detailed coverage and discussion. But almost lost in the shuffle of Syria-related stories was what might be happening in Iran now that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is no longer president and his successor, the "moderate" Hassan Rouhani appointed an even more moderate, American-educated Javad Zarif as Foreign Minister.

Both, if you can believe it, on the eve of the highest of Jewish holidays, Rosh Hashanah, sent out Tweets, wishing Jews a Happy New Year.

Semi-buried on page A9 of the New York Times, President Rouhani's Tweet was quoted--
As the sun is about to set here in Tehran I wish all Jews, especially Iranian Jews, a blessed Rosh Hashanah. 
And while they were wishing Jews a Good Yontif, unlike Ahmadinejad, who made a habit of it, they dismissed the idea that the Holocaust never happened.

In response to a Tweet from Nancy Pelosi's daughter, Christine, who is married to a Jew, in a message to Foreign Minister Zarif in which she said that the new year would be even sweeter if he would stop denying the reality of the Holocaust, he responded--
Iran never denied it. The man who was perceived to be denying it is now gone. Happy New Year. 
That "man" who is now "gone," of course, is the aforementioned Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

He was not just "perceived" to be a Holocaust denier--he in fact emphatically and repeatedly was. But the Tweets from Iran's recently-elected leadership (though the ultimate ruler remains Ayatollah Ali Khamenei) are encouraging.

Perhaps something good will emerge from the new regime in Tehran. Maybe a deal that would see Iran back off from its nuclear weapons program and, in response, we would agree to end the sanctions that are wrecking Iran's economy--the real source of the apparent sea change in attitudes and, let's hope, behavior.

This to me is the major story of last week.

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Friday, September 06, 2013

September 6, 2013--Magic

For some reason probably related to the passage of time we just now know three or four young people who are high school seniors and are in the throes of applying to college.

They are all excellent students, by Wobegon standards well above average, and it has been our great pleasure in recent years to have had numerous conversations with them about their thinking and have attempted to help them select just the right half dozen places to which to apply.

Our favorite part of the process is to hear their ideas about the personal essays they will be required to write as a key part of the application process.

We know enough about how the admissions business at elite colleges works to urge them not to turn too much of this over to advisors and coaches who charge lots of money to help the children of the affluent prepare their applications, especially encouraging them to write something to distinguish themselves from the also-well-prepared "competition." Admissions professionals can spot over-doctored essays and are inclined to quickly place them in the reject pile.

The young folks we are engaged with this year have not spent the past 10 years building resumes out of volunteerism, travel, and arts and science projects but have pursued deep interests that they would have otherwise followed even if they weren't college-bound.

One friend's granddaughter wants to find a college where she can continue her ballet training. She isn't thinking about dance as her eventual profession and doesn't even care if there would be ballet classes on campus.

"It's just that it's so important to me, has been since I was little, that I need to have access to a studio, on campus or off, where I can take classes."

"Are you thinking about writing about ballet in your application? It might be a good . . ."

With an apologetic smile she cut Rona off, "I am already drafting something. And maybe not about what you might think." It was Rona's time to smile. "For me," she continued, "it's all about balance, the balance that ballet requires and trains you to perfect."

"That sounds interesting," I said. "How about . . ."

With an even broader smile this time she interrupted me. It was clear she wanted us to hear her out, unfiltered, and not be unduly influenced about what "adults" might preemptively say or suggest.

"But I am not writing about ballet techniques and the classes I've taken, or even the performances I've been a part of."

"But that's what colleges are looking . . ."

"Maybe they are, but I want to write about the ways in which ballet has been and continues to be essential to me."

"For example?" Rona wisely thought to ask questions rather than make comments or prematurely offer suggestions.

"For example, what I have taken from my involvement with ballet is not just about the physical balance it emphasizes, as important as that is, but how it contributes to my inner, non-physical sense of stability and centeredness. I'm not sure this will work in an essay--but it's what I am attempting to express. I know my dance limitations and therefore prefer to attempt to write about ballet in a personally metaphoric way."

She paused to see what we thought. Neither one of us said anything. "I hope this won't come across as sounding sophomoric and manufactured in a personal-essay-writing tutorial. I know I have to stay on the safe side of the line, making this sound insightful, authentic, and written in my own words and voice."

Again she waited to see what we might have to say.

I jumped in--"I love how you're thinking about this. Especially the 'personally metaphoric' part. That seems appropriate, not sophomoric at all, though I can see the danger, in the wrong hands, of it becoming smarmy. But," I added quickly with Rona nodding vigorously, "in your hands there is minimal danger of that."

And just yesterday we had lunch with the son of a close friend who was up in Maine checking out the state's troika of top-notch liberal arts colleges--Colby; Bates; and my favorite, Bowdoin.

"You know about my interest in magic?"

In fact we did. For years he has literally been playing tricks on us, often over Sunday morning breakfasts. At first, he perfected simple card tricks which we could see though since his technique was primitive. He was, after all, at that point, only eight years old. But then, over time, his tricks metamorphosed into magic. They became more complex and his technique, even at close range over the breakfast table, flawless and truly mysterious.

"Well, as everyone has been telling me, if I write my personal statement about magic it had better be about more than the tricks themselves. And to be competitive I need also to talk more than about the meaning of magic to my life. Even to me that's boring."

He shrugged as if he was still struggling with how to approach the subject. "I'm thinking of coming at it from a perceptual and neurological perspective. You know," and neither Rona nor I in fact did know, "the brain's ability to fill in perceptual voids. Film is a good example. Twenty-four images a second are projected, but because of the brain's capacity to make things whole when they are in reality are made up of parts, we 'see' [he made air quotes] the projected images as seamless, not herky-jerky."

"I get it," I sort of did, "This sounds like a promising tack. Blending your interest in magic and science is . . ."

"Is not what I want to do. I'm actually more interested in philosophy than science and am looking for a way to connect it with my magic. The kinds of tricks I am now working on, I think, have 'philosophical' [air quotes again] implications."

"Tell me more," Rona said.

"Well, isn't one of philosophy's historic concerns the struggle to determine how much free will we have as opposed to how much is predetermined?"

"Wow," Rona said, duly impressed, "You really have tricks that deal with this?"

"There is this one that I do that involves a sealed envelope on which something is written. I then show someone from the audience a stack of cards that have all sorts of different things printed on them. After going through a lot of process and shuffling, I ask them to pick a card at random from the pile. To use their 'free will.'" He winked at us.

"After that I have them open the envelope and, low-and-behold, the card in the envelope--as if predetermined--has the same thing on it. Amazing, right?"

We were impressed.

"At the moment of working on this but haven't got it fully figured out. I know what I'm thinking about is a stretch and I don't want to come off as too cute or clever. To make it work, I have to hit the philosophy part just right."

"And all in 500 words," his father added.

"I agree," I said. "And while you're being philosophical, you know from Aristotle, don't you . . ."

"Can you believe it," Rona interjected, "we're sitting here by the water eating oysters and he's talking about Aristotle?"

I knew she was fooling with me and so continued, "You could consider citing Aristotle, who I think in his Poetics, wrote about the 'suspension of disbelief.' How in drama, as an example, even though we know there are actors pretending to be kings, rather than dismiss that as make-believe, we suspend our disbelief so we can be drawn into 'believing,'" my chance to make quotation marks, "they're kings rather than mere mortals."

"I do know about that," he said, "It's actually of great interest to me and it is very much a part of what allows magic to work. But," he winked again, "it wasn't Aristotle who wrote about suspending disbelief. It was Coleridge. You know him, Samuel Taylor Coleridge."

I hate being wrong about these kinds of things but to be corrected by him felt both deserved and wonderful.

All excited, Rona said to him "Hurray up and finish growing up, will you, so we can turn the world over to your generation. It's time for us, who made such a mess of the world, to step out of the way."

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Thursday, September 05, 2013

September 5, 2013--Smart Piece From a Good Friend

I asked a good friend what he would do about Syria if he were commander-in-chief. As always with him, I got much more than I asked for. And, as usual, it was very smart--
I'm a little light on answers here. I think it is much more complicated now by Obama's red line that it was before. I'm also trying to sort out how to approach this. 
If you look at it from where we are right now, where we have a lot of involvement in the Middle East behind us, even with a lot of shaky results, the choices -- bomb or not -- look one way, within that framework. But if you think that such a level of involvement is too much or otherwise ineffective or ill advised, then you get different questions. What exactly should the US be doing outside its borders, anyway? As far into Middle Eastern affairs as we are now, it is harder to take a step back, much harder than it would have been even 10 years ago. I think Obama has produced a situation surrounding Syria with no really good options. 
My own preferences have long been running toward a much more modest role for the US in world affairs, and I'm very skeptical whether an attack has any real strategic effect in this environment. Chemical weapons are horrible, but I think more and more that we're better served leaving other countries to their own devices and horrors, rather than trying to intervene in conflicts where we can't even identify the players and issues. It's hard to watch a government kill its civilians -- this all started with peaceful, Cairo-style Arab Spring demonstrations -- but I don't feel comfortable with an intervention. Obama hasn't made a strong case for the strategic benefits of intervening or even that it would change anything in Syria. 
Another part of this whole development over many decades of involvement via the Executive branch is the terrible effect this has had on democracy in America. The Executive has seized a lot of power over a long period, and Congress has given away its prerogatives to the Executive with both hands. It can't seem to surrender its powers fast enough, even as many there rattle on and on about the sacred and perfect Constitution we are supposed to have. 
We seem to have built a national security state of huge proportions, capable of wiping out any and all parts of the Bill of Rights without even a challenge, taking us into wars on its own motion. The security/terrorism threat -- back to the Middle East -- has been the basis for changing how this country really works. Start adding some of the developments coming from corporate influence in politics and elsewhere into the mix, and the country starts to look way different from what we want to think. 
The security state has been bankrupting us, hurting the economy, damaging political freedom at home, and now has us trying to figure out whether another Middle East intervention is essential or not. Less empire, more focus on international trade and investment systems, standards issues, resolution of conflict, a better model for social justice at home -- that all seems more productive to me.

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Wednesday, September 04, 2013

September 4, 2013--Cброс (Reset)

As President Obama departs for St. Petersburg for the G-20 summit, the New York Times ran a long piece about the fractious state of U.S.-Russian relations.

As evidence of this, though Obama will be in Russia, there will be no on-on-one with Vladimir Putin because Obama petulantly canceled their meeting after Russia granted temporary asylum to NSA leaker Edward Snowdon.

Talk about diplomatic bumbling.

Early in Obama's first term, with Putin constitutionally not allowed to run for a third consecutive term, he turned the presidency over to the malleable Dmitri Medvedev. To anyone paying even a little attention (and that included me), it was obvious that Putin would be the power behind the presidency during Medvedev's four years, essentially telling him what to say and do.

Obama, probably happy not to have to deal directly with Putin all that much--former KGB operative and unrepentant grumpy cold warrior that he is--thought there was an opportunity to reset the big-powers' relationship through a friendship with Medvedev. They were both lawyers, they were of a post-Cold War generation, and Obama thought that if they managed to hit it off personally they could get a few disarmament agreements signed and the U.S.-Russian relationship, which had cooled down during Putin's first presidency would be reset (in Russian, cброс).

Then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who was skeptical about things getting better as the result of a warm relationship between Obama and Medvedev, was dispatched to Russia to meet with Medvedev and Putin. To make note of the reseting agenda, she brought along buttons for the two Russian leaders with "reset" embossed on them, except that she didn't get the Russian quite right--there was a typo. I think it read Coрос But, in any case, all things being equal, it was a fun idea.

But all things were not equal. With Putin returned to the presidency there was no avoiding him, and from their first presidential  encounters things went from bad to worse.

Putin was obsessed with the Arab Spring and his feeling that it was all a plot promulgated by the United States to see long-standing dictators such as Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi toppled and even killed with new governments installed that would replicate Western democracies. All of this chaos, Putin perceived, right on Russia's doorsteps, in their one remaining geopolitical sphere of influence.

No one in the Obama administration seemed to realize that from Putin's perspective there was a lot to be upset about. In the North Caucuses Putin and Russia have their own problems with Muslim fundamentalists. Chechnya, for example, has for decades been in violent rebellion. Ever since the break up of the Soviet Union.

Additionally Putin himself was under attack by many from the new Russian technocratic middle class. There were unprecedented street demonstrations in Moscow and elsewhere of a size and force not seen in Russia since the last days of the Czar.

And, closer to the point, czar-like Putin himself was undoubtedly feeling threatened. Perhaps, he claimed, with U.S encouragement (and he blamed America and somehow specifically Hillary Clinton for the street demonstrations) Russia would have it own version of the Arab Spring and Putin would wind up in prison like Hosni Mubarak.

So should it have been any wonder to Barak Obama that Putin would be more interested in potentially saving his own skin than agreeing to another nuclear weapons treaty?

Is it, should it have been a surprise to Obama and his foreign policy team that Putin would ask every time he met with a U.S. official, including the secretary of state and the president himself, that he would insist on asking when America was going to bomb Syria?

U.S officials assured him that we wouldn't be doing that. That with our reset Russian friends we had no intention of getting involved militarily with their ally, Syria.

Oh really.

So we're back to a version of the Cold War and according to wise heads such as Zbigniew Brzezinski, things in Syria are looking ominously like Eastern Europe in 1914.

Zbig may be right; he may be overreacting. But I know that if he were a member of the Obama team (and it's too bad he isn't) we wouldn't be conducting foreign policy with Cброс buttons.

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Tuesday, September 03, 2013

September 3, 2013: Syria

I don't know how to think about Syria much less what we should or shouldn't do.

On Saturday I listened to President Obama lay out his thinking. I was not impressed. I know he has drawn a red-line, saying that if the Assad regime uses chemical weapons he will have us punish them.

I am wondering, though, why killing 100,000 thus far in the civil war there isn't a red line in itself. I suppose it's how you kill innocent people that counts. If Assad kills them with guns and bombs and rockets the U.S. can stay out of it; if he kills 1,400 with nerve gas we feel compelled to intervene militarily and "degrade" Syria's ability to do so again.

But I recognize that when a leader establishes a red line--which for strategic and even tactical reasons is not a good idea--if he doesn't carry out whatever it is he threatened, other bad people will assume he can be rolled by them as well. Iranians might be inclined to assume they can continue their nuclear weapons programs and the U.S. will back off when that red line is breached.

So to maintain credibility Obama has to launch a "limited" attack on Syria, assuming Congress agrees, perhaps more to send a message to Iran than to Syria.

Of one thing I am certain--that whatever we do or don't do will have many unintended consequences.

All bad.

For starters, there is more than a likelihood that various factions in the region who support Assad will attack Israel, our client state, since they can't attack us directly. If they use poison gas against them, with the Holocaust still very much in Jewish people's minds, Israel will respond massively. What will that reap?

Again, nothing good.

And though various groups of Islamists can't easily attack us in the homeland, it seems likely that there will be a step-up in global terrorist activity. I wouldn't want to be an embassy worker anywhere in the world after we send hundreds of cruise and tomahawk missiles toward Damascus.

Isn't it likely that Iran and Hezbollah will send scores of their fighters and Jihadists to Syria to fight off the rebels as well as to demonstrate their prowess to both Israel and the United States? Will Israel live comfortably with that? The last time they fought in Lebanon and Syria they were effectively defeated by Hezbollah. They have been itching for an opportunity, a justification to have a do-over.

So much of what goes on in that part of the world has to do with posturing and displaying manhood. In other words, behavior there (actually, everywhere) is often emotionally-driven and thus unpredictable since when in the throes of passion all bets are off and individuals as well as peoples often act in ways that appear self-destructive. That is until one deciphers the inner logic.

Suicide-bombing, for example, which might seem the ultimate expression of self-destructiveness (literally so), if one believes that it leads to martyrdom and directly to heaven, makes great "sense."

But here's what really does make sense, though it has no chance whatsoever of happening--

Redraw the map of the region. Actually, redraw the maps of all former-colonial regions. 

The maps we currently live with, which are the cause of much of the religious, nationalistic, and sectarian fighting we are seeing, were drawn up by the victorious big powers (mainly Britain, the United States, and France) at the end of the First World War.

Thus, countries such as Syria, Tunisia, Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan, Israel, and Palestine (to name just some) are all artificial constructs that ignore tribal and cultural borders as well as deep history.

Syria, for example, a forced  amalgam of 140 tribes and clans, some that traverse borders with Egypt and Tunisia, could easily be divided into three to 10 tribal regions. Ditto for Iraq.

Where is Kurdistan? Nowhere. It doesn't exist on any map but it is a large cultural region that spans parts of 1919-created countries Turkey, Iraq, Iran, and Syria.

If we could see redrawn the national borders to create Kurdistan, tensions in that region would ebb significantly.

And if we could see that happen for the rest of the Middle East and, for that matter, all of Africa and portions of Asia, the world be a much more peaceful place.

So, maybe, here's the solution--

Big powers back off. Let the various factions fight it out. Let them exhaust themselves and eventually hope they come to their senses and agree, without the necessity of discussing it that much, to redraw their own borders so that a Kurdistan emerges as well as a few countries for Sunnis and more for the Shia.

Libya, as another example, would disappear and in its place we would have, at a minimum, Barqa, Ubaidat, Mughariba, and Awejeer. Others clans there would undoubtedly demand their own delineated territory and they would have to be accommodated. But being aggregated into a place called "Libya" isn't working, won't work, and eventually will no longer be sustained.

This fantasy of mine would take at least 100 years to be realized. But since this is where we're inevitably headed, we might as well let it start.

That process, among other things, means allowing and encouraging the current simmering and boiling conflicts to stutter to a stalemate. It also means that the U.S. not attack Syria.

Stalemate makes sense since there is no possible way for anyone, any country (us included) to "win."

Things just have to work out. This means waiting for things to revert to their cultural and historical roots--people are by DNA tribal and thus happiest, most satisfied if they are able to live with their own "kind."

For people who wish to live otherwise, there is always Western Europe and the United States.

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Monday, September 02, 2013

September 2, 2013--Labor

I'm celebrating by not laboring. Except in the kitchen.

I will return tomorrow with a piece about Syria and the re-tribalization of the region.