Friday, May 30, 2014

May 30, 2014--The Republicans Are Right

The title is not a pun about Republicans being to the right of the political spectrum. But rather about what they are advocating in regard to reforming the Veterans Administration healthcare system.

They are right about that and the Democrats are wrong in what they are proposing.

What was suspected--that corruption, greed, and incompetence at a number of VA hospitals have led to the maltreatment and even the death of many veterans--is now documented.

The acting inspector general of the Veterans Administration has completed his report and, among other findings, reported that more than 1,700 vets seeking appointments at the Phoenix VA alone were either ignored or never entered into the system. In spite of this, to generate bonuses for administrators, a second set of books was kept and submitted to Washington that showed them being treated within 30 days. In the meantime, many hundreds went untreated and scores died while waiting or ignored.

And, I suspect, as more is uncovered, we will see the same kind of malfeasance at other VA facilities as other administrators seeking bonuses cooked the books.

Putting aside for the moment why any government worker should be eligible for a bonus, why has it taken years to get to the bottom of this deadly scandal when alerts were filed by whistle-blowers from within the bloated system?

The head of the VA, General Eric Shinseki, should have been told about this in a timely way (and for all we know he was) and it should have been brought to the president's attention since for years since his first campaign he has been demanding better after-service care for wounded veterans (and, for all we know, he also was).

Minimally, Shinseki should be fired, a VA tsar should be appointed, someone with vast health-administration experience, and the system should be overhauled.

Serious consideration should also be given to the House Republicans' plan to privatize the VA hospitals and clinics. If that is too radical, minimally, as the GOP is proposing, any veteran who has had to wait for care for 30 days or more should be able to seek it through private medical providers at the VA's expense.

This is far better than the Democrats' approach--the Senate is preparing legislation to add 27 new healthcare facilities to the VA system to address the backlog of cases. Beyond the billions in additional cost, this is an unrealistic approach since it would take up to 10 years to get the hospitals built and functioning. For the nearly 8 million vets treated (or not treated) each year this is hardly a solution.

Each month a cousin who is a WW II veteran uses the VA for routine blood work since his out-of-pocket cost is just $15 per test, a third what it would cost if he went to his local hospital.

I asked him if he would prefer to go there if it could match the VA price. "Sure," he said, "It's much closer. And they do a good job."

This is true for most vets who require non-urgent testing and care. So why not give them an eligibility card to enable them to go to any hospital and have the VA cover the difference in cost? Sure this approach would have to be phased in over a number of years, but it would greatly simplify things, especially for service men and women who do not live close to VA treatment centers.

Over time we would no longer need a separate and unequal VA healthcare system. Veterans would get timelier and better care closer to home and taxpayers would save billions.

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Thursday, May 29, 2014

May 29, 2014--The $ of a College Education

Back in 1976 I wrote a book about the history and then current state of higher education--Second Best. The "second best" referred to how the system favored the affluent at the literal expense of the less fortunate.

One chapter was devoted to the financing of colleges and universities, especially the redistribution of assets from the working poor and lower middle class to the upper middle class and wealthy.

Studies that I cited showed that since the system disproportionately encouraged the enrollment and graduation of these latter students, tax money and other forms of assets flowed upward from those at the bottom to those at the top. The best evidence at the time showed that college graduates over their lifetimes earned about 50 percent more than those with only high school diplomas and even "some college," with some college including community college students who never went on the earn bachelors degrees.

I hoped the book, which was widely reviewed and discussed, would contribute to the debate about this unfairness and contribute to efforts to close these gaps in educational attainment and economic outcomes.

But from recent evidence it is clear that I and many others were less than effective.

This may come as something of a surprise since there is so much casual talk currently, supported by anecdotal stories, about how recent college graduates can't find jobs and are therefore moving back home, holed up again in their old bedrooms.

Friends have been telling me for years that they know this brilliant young person who graduated with honors from Georgetown or a talented student from the University of Michigan who has been looking unsuccessfully for work for the past three years. Or had to take a part time job.

From this one might suspect that the income gaps at least have narrowed and that unemployment among college grads would have risen.

But a recent study cited in the New York Times by the Economic Policy Institute, using Labor Department data, shows that the unemployment rate among college graduates is only 3 percent (while for those with "some college" it is more than 25 percent) and that the earnings gap is even more pronounced than in the past.

Five years ago grads earned 89 percent more than non-graduates, ten year ago it was 84 percent more, back in the early 1980s it was a 64 percent premium, and as my research showed it was "only" 50 percent more in the mid-1970s.

On the other hand, the most recent data reveal a shocking 98 percent advantage in earnings for college graduates when compared to those with either a high school diploma or a year or two of college. This translates to $1.0 million more in earnings over a working lifetime.

It may be true that a percentage of employed college graduates feel they are underemployed or are working in fields that do not align with their interests or aspirations; but the anecdotes, which confirm predetermined presuppositions about the state of things, do not represent the truth.

The truth however, is mixed--it is good news that college graduates are doing so comparatively well (though it is not good news that the average graduate is $25,000 in debt); but it is little comfort to think about those falling further and further behind. That was true in 1976 and, sadly, it is even more so today.

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Wednesday, May 28, 2014

May 28, 2014--Bedfellows

"Here's something else you won't believe." I was all agitated.

"What is it now?" Rona asked, immediately exasperated with me. It was still the three-day weekend and we had promised each other we would restrain ourselves from reading about or watching the news.

"You saw that Obama paid a surprise visit to Afghanistan where he spent . . ."

"Four hours," Rona completed my thought.

"To spend millions and millions to get him there so he could have a few pictures taken with the troops. What is really making me crazy is that while he was there some White House official released the names of those meeting with Obama and included the name of the head of the CIA there. The station chief. To 6,000 journalists."

"Can't anyone do anything right?" Rona was sounding even more exasperated.

"If Obama wanted to show support for the military on Memorial Day he should have gone to the VA hospital in Phoenix where screw-ups led to the deaths of maybe 40 veterans. To look into the issue himself and as a way of taking responsibility. But, no, there were better photo-ops available in Afghanistan. Where, by the way, the president refused to meet with Obama."

"You sound as if you're ready to join the Tea Party."

"No kidding. I understand their frustration and anger about the government. It's too big and much of it doesn't know how to get anything worthwhile done."

"More evidence of how wide discontent is with government, all government, are the results of this past weekend's elections across Europe."

"Yeah, where right-wing extremists who masqueraded as Populists won major victories. From England to France to Denmark and of course Greece."

"They are an unholy alliance. Half of them are out-of-the-closet anti-Semites and most of the rest are either neo-fascists, anti-European Union, anti-foreigner, or violently anti-immigrant."

"Very anti everything."

"Almost sounds like the situation in the U.S.," Rona said.

"We haven't seen too much anti-Semitism."

"Yet," Rona added.

"Touché. But look at this." I held up the first section of the Times. "Look at this other unholy alliance."


"Progressives and conservatives over their shared antipathy for the widespread movement in public education to bring a common curriculum to kids and, as part of that, to hold teachers accountable for how well their students do on standardized tests."

"I saw that. How teachers unions are opposing the so-called Common Core approach while our version of states-rights Populists are wanting to block any kind of federal role in public schooling. Especially any that Obama supports."

"Even though this movement didn't start with him but, ironically for these states-rightists, with governors and state legislators even in Red States.

"But don't expect these coalitions to hold together," Rona said, "At the moment they're in bed with each other. In America, as soon they together get rid of the Common Core and teacher accountability, they'll resume fighting amongst themselves. And don't forget, most of the conservatives who have joined with the teachers unions are the very same folks who have been agitating to get rid of teachers unions altogether."

"And in some places like Wisconsin, they've succeeded."

"So expect them to be at each other's throats before too long. But in the meantime . . ."

I winked, "I'll have something to keep me agitated."

"Which you love."

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Tuesday, May 27, 2014

May 27, 2014--Ladies of Forest Trace: What's Left?

When I answered the phone, I heard my mother sigh.

"Soon, it will be another year."

"You mean, another birthday?"

"What kind of future do I have?"

"In truth, Mom, you've been saying that for years. Many years. Since before you turned 100 and here you are only a month away from 106. Amazing."

"For you maybe amazing . . . For me, too much." As she has recently, she sounded breathless.

"I admit, I've thought about that too. After all . . ."

"I have no time for after-alls."

"So, what's on your mind?" I wanted to distract her from thinking about aging and the inevitable.

"You tell me to distract myself," she said, as if knowing my intentions, "To listen to music, to watch the TV . . . to read the paper, to do my puzzle . . . to call the family. And when I do those things . . . it makes it only worse. Pavarotti is wonderful but makes me sad because wonderful makes me sad . . . And the puzzle I can no longer do without reminding me how much I don't know about . . . Forty-one across, from today's, 'Schoolmarmish sound?' You think not knowing this makes me happy? Distracted?"

"Mom, I can hear you trying to catch your breath. Please, you shouldn't overstress yourself. You need to remain calm. For your heart. None of this is important and it's making you sick."

"To you maybe it's not important . . . To me, it's my life."

I couldn't think what to say. I understood. She was right. It was, it has become her life.

"So what is it, darling?"

"What is what?"

"Forty-one across?"

"Oh, the puzzle. How many letters?"


"Do you have any?"

"It ends with a K. About that I am sure . . . I should only be sure about anything else."

"This is a hard one."

"I'm working on it now. I think it starts with a T."

"T and K," I said, literally not having a clue.

"This I should know. For 40 years I was a schoolmarm. A teacher. First grade."

"And a wonderful one at that." I was happy we were talking about something other than mortality and catastrophes.

"TS," she said, a T and an S are the first two letters because 33 down is LOANSHARK. I like that one." She was sounding playful.

"I'm still stumped."

"I too was but not now--it's TSKTSK. Isn't that a good one? Though as a teacher . . . I never said that."

"Good for you Mom. I don't know how many 106-year-olds can do the New York Times crossword puzzle."

"And in ink. Though with my arthritis I can barely hold the pen."

"Your handwriting is still better than mine."

"So, as I was saying," the distraction was over, "on CNN and in the Herald . . . what do I see?" She paused, I thought to catch her breath. "Tell me, what do I see?"

"I suppose . . ." I stammered.

"Fires . . .  Arizona is burning down. Killings . . . Those beautiful little girls in Africa. More killings . . . By crazy people in California. Fighting . . . Did you see what they are doing to my beautiful Odessa? We had family there before they took them away."

From that memory I thought I could hear her beginning softly to cry.

"And our veterans . . . Isn't today their day?"

It was in fact Memorial Day. I was happy to see she was still keeping track of such things.

"It's a shonda, what they are doing to those poor boys."

"I've been following that too. It's what you say. Disgraceful."

"Worse than that . . . Criminal."

"I agree."

"They cry, the politicians, alligator tears about the veterans . . . call them 'heroes,' which they are, and then treat them this way. Making them beg for what they deserve and were promised . . . Even Wolf on TV is upset. He says many have been dying who shouldn't."

"The good news, Mom, is that . . ."

"You're doing that distracting business again." I was please to again hear her tone lighten.

"I am," I confessed. "It's what I advise you to do. In fact, all of us need distractions. To think only about sad things makes . . ."

"I know what it makes, but I can't help myself . . . That's the way I am . . . Always looking for the dark lining."

I couldn't disagree. She is prone to that, but to try to buck her up and to distract me from her reality, I said, "You have to try to look on the bright side of things." I knew I was speaking in clichés.

Hushed, she asked, "For me, what's left?"

"As I said, no one knows. About you or any of us." As gently as I could, I said, "Ten minutes. Ten years. It's all unknowable."

"Now you sound like me." She, I was happy to hear, between breaths, chuckled.

"And no matter how much time you have, any of us have, there are things to look forward to, to feel good about."

"Give me a for-instance . . . Tell me something good."

"Well, there are young people in your life who love and care about you."

"Me? I only know old people."

"That's not true. You may live mainly with older people but there are your grandchildren and your many nieces and nephews."

"A few."

"No, many. They call you, they write you notes to tell you what you mean to them. Don't you remember what Shelly wrote to you, from Africa where she is working?"


"Yes, your sister Yetta's daughter."

"She is wonderful and does such good work . . . With poor people."

"She sent it to me as an email and I have it here. A printout, which I was about to mail to you."

"She wrote to me?"

"Yes, I told you about that."

"Now I can't even remember my own nieces . . . But they are all darlings."

"Fran wrote--

I am thinking about her at the age I am now and recall how she expressed her affection through a singularity of attention that I was not used to."

"About me this is?"

"Yes, she is looking back, remembering you more nearly 50 years ago. Let me read you the rest--

She recalled the names and ages of my children and took pleasure from their small accomplishments. I remember how being on the receiving end of our family's excessive concern was like getting a wet kiss on my 12 year-old cheek. An annoying intrusion but comforting reminder that I belonged."

"I didn't mean . . . to be annoying."

"I know that. She knows that. She's being playful, which is the way she is, but most important she wants to remind you that through your concern and love you reminded her that she belonged in our family."

"Of course she did . . . Belong. She was such a darling child."

"So you see, you still have a lot to live for. You're not just waiting for . . ."

"I know what I'm waiting for."

I took a chance and asked, "Waiting for what?"

"Like I said . . . for what's left."

"Which is?"

"The things you say and reminded me about . . . And other things too."

"Now I'm interested in a for-instance."

"Things in the world to get better."

She was becoming very short of breath, but still I asked, "For instance?"

"Maybe the Pope . . . will be able to help." She had never mentioned a Pope before. "And for Hillary. You know . . . two of my sisters were . . .  Sufferers."


"Yes, however you say it. And couldn't vote . . . But now . . . this is something, no?"

"Hillary Clinton?

"Yes. And everyone . . . can go to the same school and drink the same water. . .  That's good too."

"The list is long of things that have changed."

"It's still long . . . Maybe I'll see . . . Maybe that's what's left."

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Monday, May 26, 2014

May 26, 2014--Memorial Day

I will return tomorrow with a new Ladies of Forest Trace. Today is to remember those who served our country so honrably.

Friday, May 23, 2014

May 23, 2014--The VA Mess

It's déjà vu again.

For my entire adult life I have heard stories about the Veterans Administration healthcare system. Mainly horror stories.

About how bureaucratic it is and thus difficult for our veterans to get timely, high-quality treatment. And now we are learning how delays and suffocating administrative procedures may have led to the deaths of score of veterans in Phoenix and elsewhere.

When Barack Obama first ran for office in 2008, he made fixing the VA system his highest priority so our troops could get the treatment they deserve. His promise came at a time when there were reports about the disgraceful quality of care and conditions at Walter Reed Hospital, walking distance from the White House.

Obama pledged to clean up the mess and bring the VA up to "21st century standards." He even designated his wife Michelle to make the care of veterans her priority.

So where are we five years later?

Business as usual. Maybe, business worse than usual.

And the mess cannot be attributed to George W. Bush. The full blame rests with the current occupant in the White House.

What has Michelle Obama been up to in regard to veterans' care? Mainly periodic hospital visits between planting a vegetable garden in the White House lawn and jumping rope with inner-city kids. I know this is overstated, but not by much.

Like almost everyone, I am mad as hell about this.

The president cannot honor those killed and shed tears at the bedside of the grievously wounded, hypocritically, for political reasons, calling them as often as possible "heroes," while presiding passively over this ongoing disgrace.

Obama's head of the VA, General Eric Shinseki may have been a good general (though not everyone would agree) but he was  not qualified to head the Veterans Administration. What job did he ever have to prepare him for such a huge and complicated assignment? He was selected mainly because he publicly disagreed with President Bush's approach to the war in Iraq and fit an Asian Cabinet demographic to which Obama was eager to pander.

In the VA system there are 151 hospitals and 820 outpatient clinics that serve 6.5 million people a year. The annual budget is more than $57 billion. To run that is a very big job, it's a highest-priority assignment, and who do we have running it?  Someone whose major responsibility previously was serving four years as Army Chief of Staff.

If fixing the VA was such a high priority, was there no head of a major healthcare system, Humana, HCA, or the Mayo Clinic, who could have been recruited to take on the assignment?

Sadly, Shinseki's appointment was typical of the kind of people Obama named to Cabinet-level positions--minimally-competenet lightweights such as Tim Geithner who would not challenge or threaten Obama's leadership.

Name one Cabinet appointment with a truly distinguished track record in public or private life who went on the serve with true distinction? Or on the White House staff for that matter. Even Hillary Clinton's record is at best mixed.

So, where do we go from here?

First, fire Shinseki. Do not ask him to reign, summarily dismiss him. That would be a first for Obama and send a message of concern and seriousness.

And then about the larger problem--restructuring the VA healthcare system itself--there are two good approaches.

Privatize the VA hospitals and clinics. Get rid of the ineffective bureaucracy and sell the whole thing to HCA or Mayo and in this way eliminate of the Civil Service deadwood.

Equally important, and not mutually exclusive, make all veterans eligible for Medicare. No matter that they are not all 65. Pretty much everyone with Medicare likes it so why not extend this cost-effective, high quality healthcare system to all those Americans who did so much to serve our country?

Tinkering at the margins of this massive problem will not solve it. Doing something radical and smart is the better approach. Our brave men and women deserve no less.

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Thursday, May 22, 2014

May 22, 2014--Commencement Season

During dinner, a friend who is a recent college graduate, was interested in talking about the future, her future, not the food.

"I mean, I went to all this effort and my parents spent all this money so I could go to college and now I still don't know what to do. And with the job market the way it is, even if I did, I'm not sure I'd be able to find work." She sighed, picking at her grilled fish.

"Let's begin," I suggested, "with your current goal, what you want to achieve." A typical career-advsiing kind of question.

"Above all I want to be self-supporting. I know that isn't what a liberal arts major should be saying, but since I'm not sure about anything else, this is at the top of my list. I don't want my parents to . . ." She trailed off, but we knew what she meant.

"I need a job so I can make money."

"Nothing wrong with that," Rona said. "In fact, it's impressive. So many young people seem reasonably all right living at home after college and being supported by their parents."

"That's the last thing I want to do. I mean, I love them and everything, but . . ." Again she left her thought uncompleted.

"Let me put this another way," I said, "You say you want to be able to support yourself but about what you'd really want to do you're confused." I glanced over toward her but she didn't look up, instead she continued to stare at her plate and play with her food.

"But I do . . ." She was mumbling and I couldn't make out the rest of what she was saying. Rona, with better hearing, was smiling.

"But you do what?" I asked.

She looked up. "I do know what I want to do."

"That's what I was hoping you said. What is it?"

Almost whispering, she confessed, "I want to be a writer."

I smiled as well. "That changes everything. I mean, what I want to suggest. You're not really looking for a job to launch a career, like, say, in advertising or publishing." She shook her head. "You need a job to make money, which is very different, so you can support yourself while writing. Yes?"

Now all three of us were smiling. "Yes. That's what I want. What I need. A way to make money. I only hope my family will be comfortable with that. You know, they're a little more traditional and therefore think about jobs and careers differently than . . . . They want me to be comfortable, but . . ."


"I don't want to be comfortable. In fact I want to be uncomfortable."

"From that," I said, "I now know you in fact benefited from a fine liberal education. That's one of the things that's supposed to happen."

Glancing at me, she turned back to her halibut and began to enjoy dinner.

Since then we were able to help her find work that enabled her to support herself, and I have been thinking about the importance in some circumstances of discomfort. That it is a source of inspiration for many artists and writers, including our friend.

But then, during this college commencement season, it seems there are forces arrayed to assure that  privileged young people be made as comfortable as possible.

Graduation speakers, for example, have been be pressed to drop out if they in any way would cause grads and the faculty to be upset.

International Monetary Fund managing director Christine Lagarde was to address Smith graduates but was thought by many there to have instituted regressive IMF polices in developing countries. She stepped aside.

At Brandeis, former Dutch legislator and human rights activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali cancelled under pressure because of her criticism of radical Islam.

And at Rutgers (where two years ago Jersey Shore's Snooki was paid $32,000 to speak) Condi Rice was scheduled to deliver the commencement address, but also withdrew because she was, well, George W. Bush's National Security Advisor when he launched his preemptive war against Iraq.

In all cases, rather than challenge students, perhaps causing discomfort by their encountering individuals and ideas that do not fit a comfortable politically-correct ideology, university officials backed off to avoid any appearance of disharmony or discord during pampered graduates' special day.

Further, other efforts to provide comfort rather than challenging discourse among undergraduates are also underway, largely out of public sight.

As reported in the New York Times, until taken down recently from its website, students and faculty at Oberlin College found the following admonitions about "trigger warnings," alerts similar to the movie rating system that warn about violence, "language," nudity, and "strong sexual content."

At Oberlin, these triggers apply mainly to required readings and the content of classroom discussions--
Triggers are not only relevant to sexual misconduct, but also to anything that might cause trauma [my italics]. Be aware of racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, cissexism [bias against transgender individuals], ableism, and other issues of privilege and oppression. Realize that all forms of violence are traumatic, and that your students have lives before and outside your classroom, experiences you may not expect or understand.
This means, as it literally has occurred on a growing number of campuses, that Hamlet might contain a trigger warning about violence and the Merchant of Venice would include an alert to students that by reading it they would find evidence of anti-Semitism.

What to be concerned about in Huckleberry Finn or the Great Gatsby? Or anything from classic Greek literature? I think you know.

This all sounds boring and oppressive. What would our young friend think? I think you know that as well.

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Wednesday, May 21, 2014

May 21, 2014--Local News

I'm a TV news snob.

I have my issues with the so-called network news as well as the way national and international news is reported on CNN and other cable outlets (for their sensationalist and entertainment audience-building agenda); but I am particularly snobbish when it comes to local news.

We watch too much TV while in Florida and occasionally check in with local news reporting, particularly when there is the threat of bad weather. We otherwise tend to actively ignore it, tune it out, because we know what we will see--mainly people of color being arrested or shot down while robbing convenience stores. We know this is dog-whistle stuff--how the "news" reminds us about how "these" people behave in our midst.

Occasionally an ultra-rich guy after a polo match runs someone over in his Bentley and that gets covered. There is a strain of schadenfreude that permeates our culture that likes to see the rich and famous come crashing down. Justin Bieber comes currently to mind as does Alec Baldwin.

But mainly on Florida local news we see houses disappearing into sinkholes, Burmese pythons infiltrating the Everglades, fatal car crashes, and of course endless robberies, more and more caught by surveillance cameras. Mainly black guys in hoodies beating up South-Asian shopkeepers. Best, every once in awhile, the person behind the counter has a hidden baseball bat or gun which he uses to pound on the perpetrator or pump a couple of shots into him.

When we watch Florida local news, we gloatingly say, "Wait 'til we get to New York. At least there on the news they cover art exhibits and what's playing on Broadway."

Not so much.

The other day on the local CBS station the lead stories included a video of a taxi jumping the curb and mowing down shoppers on the Upper Eastside; pictures of a SUV crashing through the plate-glass window and all the way into a Nassau County pet store; an iPhone video of someone falling off a subway platform just as a train was about to pull into the station; and then more surveillance-camera images of an Asian grandfather being stalked by an African-American thug before being slammed to the ground and stomped on, dying from that a day or two later.

"I guess we'll have to look in the Times to see what's on Broadway," I said, trying to muster a little self-depricating humor.

But then WCBS turned to its version of national news, again it was wall-to-wall bad news--the tragic wildfires burning their way across San Diego County in California and the discovery of a second case of the Mers virus in the U.S. Wouldn't you know it, in Orlando, Florida.

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Tuesday, May 20, 2014

May 20, 2014--Veeps

Though the 2016 election is more than two years away, it is roaring ahead.

One would think that much needs to happen between now and then to fill out the field of candidates and for the campaign itself to unfold.

That's what one would think, especially since the incumbent president is constitutionally not permitted to run for reelection. Thus, four candidates need to be selected, presidential and vice presidential candidates for both parties. That usually involves endless machinations.

But this time around I can save potential candidates and you a lot of effort and expense by filling out with assurance at least three of the four slots.

Unfortunately, we will miss a vibrant Democratic party primary season since Hillary Clinton only needs to formally announce her intention to seek the presidency for the nomination to be summarily given to her.

There will thus be no "likable enough" moments nor Joe Biden ramblings. The only uncertainty will be who will be her running mate.

I can end that speculation right now--Hillary Clinton's vice presidential partner will be the mayor of San Antonio, Julian Castro or his identical twin, Congressman Joaquin Castro. Or, since no one can tell them apart, it could be both of them.

Democrats are fantasizing that red-state Texas has the potential to be flipped to become a blue state, virtually assuring Hillary's election to the presidency. So to have a Latino Texan as her running mate is  irresistible and inevitable. This is largely why President Obama is about to appoint him Housing Secretary. To beef up Castro's resumé

So that's two down, two nominations to go.

On the GOP side, though the presidential nominee will be either Rand Paul or, sorry, Mitt Romney,  we know that with cynical pandering equivalent to the Democrats', they too will choose an Hispanic VP candidate. In their case it will be Marco Rubio of purple-state Florida. If Republicans can win the stand-your-ground state (and appeal to maybe 35-40 percent of Latinos nationwide), they at least have a shot at defeating Hillary. But don't hold your breath.

Don't hold your breath because Marco, though Hispanic, is Cuban-American and being Cuban-American is not the same as being Mexican-America as is/are the Castros. In other words, all Latinos are not alike any more than all Asians.

But for those of us seeking entertainment from a out-of-control political contest, all is not lost.

If Herman Cain, Rick Perry, Donald Trump, and Chris Christie decide to seek the nomination, the GOP clown car will not be riderless nor humorless. And then, of course, there is the ongoing hope that Michele Bachmann will show up, dancing up a storm with her gay-curing husband.

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Monday, May 19, 2014

May 19, 2014--Gardening

I spent the weekend helping Rona with her city garden and did not have much time to write. But I will be back tomorrow with predictions about November 2016.

Friday, May 16, 2014

May 16, 2014--Stopped Time

An unusually observent niece asked, "What is it with you and all the stopped clocks?"

"What do you mean?" I was confused.

"Well, here in your New York apartment, on your dining table, you have that big Art Nouveau clock, the one with the gilded doves, that's stopped at 6:47 and then there's the Tramp Art clock near your desk that's stopped at 10:42."

She folded her arms across her chest and stared at me, seeking a plausible explanation.

While waiting, since I was not forthcoming, she pressed on, "And up in Maine you have that Regulator clock opposite your work place that's also stopped. As I remember it, it's always 2:25. As they say, it's the right time twice a day." She smiled.

"I hadn't thought about that, but I guess you're right. I don't see it, though, to be a . . ."

"Sign of anything or meaningful?"

"Not really," I shrugged.

"I'll reserve judgement about that," she sighed. "But then there's one more--at least as far as I know only one more--that big clock down in Florida, the one in the kitchen over the stove."

"What about that one?"

"It's not stopped, but it's . . ."

"It's what? If you're seeing a pattern the fact that it's not stopped sort of breaks it, no?"

"Literally, I suppose so. But it's always either an hour ahead or behind--I forget--the actual time." Again, she looked at me, waiting for an explanation.

Still I had nothing much to add, so she said, "It seems to me that you have issues about time."

Nothing will make one feel older than to hear that from someone her age.

"It's not because I'm as old as I am. I mean . . ."

"I'm not suggesting that. But you do have this strange--OK, interesting--thing about time that I'm wondering about. Time of day more than time of life. If that distinction makes any sense."

"Maybe it does. I do see the differences."

"It's not as if you have dozens of clocks. In fact, other than the ones that are on cable boxes and satellite radios and microwave ovens and . . ."

"Stop right there. The ones on those--microwaves and stoves--are on all the time but need to be set and then adjusted twice a year when we switch to daylight savings or standard time. You can't stop them or shut them off unless you unplug the appliances altogether. And they aren't beamed in via cable companies or as a result of being connected to the Internet so you have to pay attention to them after power surges."

She nodded, saying nothing. "By why am I rattling on like this? About stoves and power surges and daylight savings time? I'm sounding defensive even to myself. But what I'll admit is more interesting is your noticing all the stopped clocks. I'll give you that."


 "So what?"

"I think it's fair to say you're quite a compulsive person. You like everything lined up--like the books on your bookcases and all the stuff on your desk. Your notes, pads, pens, your yellow stickies. And as far as I can tell, all your stuff works properly. You take a lot of pride making sure that's the case. So . . . ?"

"Obviously you not only noticed this but also have thought about it. So what's your hypothesis?"

She shrugged but said, "One thing I noticed is that all the stopped clocks are near where you set up your computer to write. In New York and Maine. In both places, while working you have line-of-sight with stopped clocks."

"Go on."

"And you can't see any others that are working."

"Could be."

"So if that's true, what's the story? When you're working, if you're inclined, all you can see are stopped clocks." Her foot was tapping as she looked at me.

"You're making a connection between my writing and the clocks that are stopped?"

She nodded, smiling slyly.

"Are you suggesting that I see my writing as a way to stop time?"

"Could be."

"Not uninteresting. There's lots of commentary about how writers and visual artists see their work as living on after they are gone. Composers too. A sort of egotistical attempt to live beyond time."

"This is sounding right."

"But to tell you the truth I've never thought my writing good enough to withstand the test of time. If I can use that cliché."

She didn't say a word, holding me in her line of sight. "I think of my stories as amusements, not literature much less art."

"Really?" She raised a skeptical eyebrow.

"Yes, really." I paused to give it more thought. "At least that's what I think."

"From the evidence of all these clocks you might think some more."

"I'll do that. I'll give it additional thought."

"Sounds good. And be sure to let me know what you come up with."

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Thursday, May 15, 2014

May 15, 2014--9/11 Museum

As frequently reported, in lower Manhattan, the morning of September 11, 2001 was glorious but soon to be shattered.

It was 8:40 and we were ready to head for coffee and then the office, our daily routine. Rona went out to our top-floor terrace to check to see if she needed a sweater.

"I don't think so," she called back to me. "It's quite mild."

I was dressed but lolling in bed reading through the paper. waiting for her to decide--sweater or no sweater.

That was the most serious thing we had on our minds that morning.

But then, Rona said, with concern in her voice, "I think there's a problem."

"A problem? How could that be on such a day?"

"Did you hear that?"

I am often asked that since I am hard of hearing.

"Nothing that unusual. But you know . . ."

"A huge plane just flew over the top of the house seemingly descending and at top speed. That shouldn't be."

We are in the LaGuardia Airport flight path and planes flying overhead are not that unusual.

As if reading my thought, Rona said, "That plane is heading south. Not toward the airport."

And with that we heard the sound of a huge explosion.

"I think it may have crashed in New York Harbor. Oh my god! Turn on the TV."

I did and in a moment saw that there was a fire raging in one of the World Trade Towers.

I raced out to the terrace to join Rona just when the second plane struck.

"This is no accident," I said.

                                                  *     *     *

More than twelve years later, early next week, the museum at the site will begin to admit the public. Today, President Obama will attend the ceremonial opening.

I am not happy about this. Not of course what happened that day--about that I will be forever distraught--but the very idea of a museum.

New York City, America, is not the place for museums about death and destruction and fear.

We are about being optimistic, looking forward, overcoming adversity and even tragedy, not memorializing victimhood, commodifying it, turning it into a voyeuristic tourist venue that charges $24 to enter and sells cheesy 9/11 T-shirts at the gift shop.

Gift shop?

Do I really need to see a crushed firetruck? Do I want to look at a pair of shoes that a survivor tossed aside as she fled to safety? Behind glass, no less, theatrically lit? Or the stopped watch of one of the victims on UA Flight 93, headed for the White House, that heroic passengers caused to crash in a field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania?

I will continue to resist a life coiled in mourning and fear.

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Wednesday, May 14, 2014

May 14, 2014--Marco Rubio in 2016

According to a string of recent reports in the New York Times about climate change--
A large section of the mighty West Antarctica ice sheet has begun to fall apart and its continued melting now appears to be unstoppable, two groups of scientists reported. . . . If the findings hold up, they suggest that the melting could destabilize neighboring parts of the ice sheet and a rise in sea level of 10 feet or more may be unavoidable in coming centuries. 
These latest findings by NASA and other earth scientists appeared in Science magazine and Geophysical Research Letters.

When confronted with this evidence, Senator Marco Rubio, an almost-announced candidate for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, said he does not "believe" this to be true, that he disagrees with the science, and most important to his political aspirations, does not "believe" that humans are responsible for climate change. To him and most other conservatives, climate is always changing. Thus, there is nothing new happening or to be concerned about.

This from a senator who represents Florida, half of which will disappear under water in coming decades.

I put "believe" in quotes not only because that is the word Rubio used repeatedly during a series of TV interviews on Sunday, but because it represents the heart of the political part of the problem--progressives cite scientific evidence when they argue that humans are in fact contributing to global warming while conservatives base their case on belief.

Rubio over and over again claimed that the science is either flawed or ideologically based. And just as often said he didn't "believe" it.

In his words--
I do not believe that human activity is causing these dramatic changes to our climate the way these scientists are portraying it. And I do not believe that the laws that they propose will do anything about it.
He did not cite any evidence that what we are seeing is a totally natural phenomenon and, irresponsibly, was not challenged by any of his interviewers to do so. He was simply allowed to get away with critiquing the scientific evidence without citing any contrary scientific evidence.

He did not cite even one study when making his case. I suppose if he knew enough to do so his anti-science Tea Party supporters would feel he had somehow gone over to the other side by citing even flawed science. Any science at all. They don't believe in science.

Nor was he asked, "What if you're wrong? How will you be able to look your grandchildren in the eye when later in the century their houses in south Florida will be literally underwater? When they ask you what you were doing when there was still time to do something?"

I suppose Senator Rubio, or Vice President Rubio, will say he still doesn't believe its happening.

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Tuesday, May 13, 2014

May 13, 2014--Minimum Age

"Do you think at the military commissaries on our bases in Afghanistan, when soldiers return from patrol and ask for a beer, if they look younger than 21, they get carded?"

"What made you think of that?" I asked Rona.

"For some reason I've been thinking about age restrictions."

"Not just drinking?"

"In general."

"Specifically, I doubt that our troops get carded even though you can engage in combat well before you're twenty-one."

"That's my point. How setting minimum ages for things is often inconsistent and even hypocritical."

"I do remember back in the late 60s and 1970s when the 26th Amendment was passed to lower the voting age from 21 to 18, it was said to be unfair to draft 18 year-olds to fight and get killed in Vietnam but not allow them to vote."

"Or buy and smoke cigarettes."

"Also true."

"There's even some fringy thinking that says since young people mature more quickly today than in the past that the voting age should be lowered further."

"I've heard that. Would they allow 15 year-olds to vote?"

"Maybe. But the larger point when it comes to voting may not be about age at all."


"I'm not advocating," Rona said, "that we go back to the time when only men who were property owners could vote or . . ."

"Even if that 'property' was slaves?"

"Touché. Or maybe asking people to take a test to see if they have even a minimum understanding of the issues." I raised my hand to interrupt. Rona waved me off. "I know how tests of this kind in the past were used to block black people from voting. So that's off the table too."

"So then what's on the table?"

"I was reading recently about an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll that underscored how people of different ages feel about issues. Which is not surprising. Younger people are more libertarian when it comes to cultural issues such as same-sex marriage and legalizing marijuana while older people have much stronger views about health care. They, for example, though they're on Medicare--which is a version of socialized medicine--are overwhelmingly opposed to Obamacare."

"For me that says it all--how older folks, who have great coverage paid for totally by taxes are so opposed to others having a version of the same thing. How selfish and self-centered can you get?"

"Which makes me wonder," Rona said, "though I know what I'm about to say makes little practical or constitutional sense, that if we think it's fair to set minimum ages for things maybe we should also set maximum ages for other things. For example, most companies have manditory retirement policies. And maybe we shouldn't allow 95 year-olds to drive."

"I could see that making sense. Maybe a relicensure test should be required after age 85. But if you're going where I think you're going, well . . ."

"Where might that be?"

"Setting a maximum age for voting."

Rona rocked back in her chair and just smiled.

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Monday, May 12, 2014

May 12, 2014--Death Panels

Pretty much everything critics have said about the Affordable Care Act, Obamacare, has proven to be unsubstantiated.

First they claimed it would take people's freedom away. Is there any evidence of that?

Then they claimed it was unconstitutional--the mandate part. But the Supreme Court ruled otherwise.

After that critics asserted that few would sign up, especially young people. That too proved to be false. After debugging the Obamacare website, nearly 10 million signed up with more than a third of them young people.

So, the attack that it would cost taxpayers billions also turned out to be untrue. More political scatter shot. The healthier young pay for sicker older people. The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office has repeatedly demonstrated that because of this, Obamacare will not only not cost taxpayers billions but over time will actually save billions. Among other things, because they are insured, fewer people will use much more expensive emergency rooms.

When presented with the fact that nearly 10 million enrolled, Republicans said the numbers supplied by the administration were not to be trusted. But, as we now see, the numbers have held up, in fact, they have continued to creep up as more and more, again, especially young people sign up.

They'll sign up but won't pay for the insurance, we have been hearing. Well, that too turns out to be wrong. Almost 90 percent have already paid their premiums.

Not willing to stop attacking a program that conservatives continue to think is unpopular, they have taken again to saying that it won't work. People will not get good care, premiums will rise, and over time, people will drift away from the program.

In fairness it is too soon to know about this, but it is premature to see Obamacare failing; and, based on Republicans' track record of spin and outright lying, one has no reason to think this current criticism will turn out to be any more valid that all that has preceded it.

What about those death panels that demagogues such as Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann made careers for themselves by lying about? These too never materialized though a large percentage of the professional paranoid class still talk about them and thereby cynically pray on people's fears.

In fact, according to a recent study of the now universal health care program in Massachusetts, the death rate for those younger than 65 has fallen steadily since 2006 when then-governor Romney advocated it and signed it into law. Specifically, the death rate for those below 65 has fallen by more than three percent.

Since Obamacare is modelled on Romneycare we can expect to see similar results in a few years.

Ironically, the only death panels anyone has to fear are those metaphorical ones that are the result of not having universal health care.

In other words, if you do not have heath care insurance you are significantly more likely to die than those who are covered.

No death panels are needed to cause those deaths.

Thus far we haven't heard a word about this from Sarah or Michele.

Instead, it's now Benghazi 24/7.

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Friday, May 09, 2014

May 9, 2014--Schmattas at the Met

Half my family was in the schmatta business. The rag business. Ladies clothes.

Cousin Moritz sold cloth and fur coats from a shabby loft on 36th Street. They were not the best quality, my father took endless pleasure pointing out, but if you knew Moritz, better, if you were related, he sold to you wholesale.

So the buttons fell off after brief usage and they never quite fit right, but there was family pressure to give him the business. (I always suspected that the idiom--give someone the business--was derived from the way he and his bitter rival Uncle Max, his brother-in-law, operated.)

Max made and sold fancy, special-occasion dresses and his female relatives, my mother, her four sisters, and a dozen nieces and cousins, were expected to shop at his broken-down warehouse of a showroom even though the seams on the sleeves tended to unravel even before the bar mitzvah boy could finish half his Haftorah.

It was a shonda, a terrible shame but that's the way things worked in those days.

These days, things work differently. At least some things do when it comes to women's designer clothes.

Now even the Metropolitan Museum of Art is in the schmatta business.

Through its Costume Institute, sorry, I mean its newly-named and endowed Anna (Vogue magazine) Wintour Costume Center contemporary fashion, celebrity, and commerce are pushing aside Vermeer, Rembrandt, and Matisse.

At last week's annual gala (Anna's A-list party) alongside Vermeer's Woman with a Lute we now have schmattas by Oscar de la Renta worn by Sarah Jessica Parker and Rianna in Stella McCartney. Next to Bruegel's Harvesters one finds Nicole Richie decked out in Donna Karan. Beside Rembrandt's Aristotle with a Bust of Homer, posing is Lena Dunham in a gown by Giambattista Valli. And preening in front of Henri Matisse's Reclining Odalisque, David Beckham sports the Bronx's Ralph Lauren.

Puzzled by the Met's interest in fancy schmattas, their relationship to the museum's high-culture collection, there were some answers in a New York Times article that cites the thoughts of one of the designers-of-the-moment--Charles James.

He thinks about clothing as sculpture. As "a prop for the performance of living." But it's not the body that's sculpted or even the fabric, but rather, "It's the air that's sculpted, not the silk."

Got it.

And the connection between fancy outfits and the Met is now clear:

Dresses=sculpture; sculpture=art; art=Metropolitan Museum of Art.

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Thursday, May 08, 2014

May 8, 2014--Out & About

I will return tomorrow with a blog about the schmatta business.

Wednesday, May 07, 2014

May 7, 2014--NY, NY: A Mirror to Nature

He came at us from out of the shadows behind Cooper Union where we had just been at a public discussion between Colm Toibin, Francine Prose, and Salman Rushdie. About literature and freedom and art and truth and rebellion. And worry about the shrinking audience for serious literature. "Only old farts like me will remain," Salman said with an ironic smile.

So we weren't prepared for what felt like an imminent assault, or at least pressure to give him street money, while still with our minds on Toibin and Yates, Lady Gregory and Easter 1916 in Dublin.

From the shadows he seemed darker and more muscular than at first. And taller, towering above my six-foot-three. Even as racist as it may have been to stereotype him, I shivered with fear.

I moved the three of us along, hoping to merge with the crowd ahead bunched up waiting for the light to change. Safety in a crowd, I thought.

Before we could get to safety, he reached toward us. We recoiled, trying to avoid eye contact. But I stepped ahead, toward him, feeling I would try to take whatever brunt might come. We were getting, thankfully, closer to the corner where it was lighter and where there was a cluster of young people.

"Do you know how to kill . . ."

Trembling, I was unable to hear the rest.

"What did he say?" our friend whispered.

"Something about killing," Rona said.

"This is getting very scary," I said. Our friend cringed.

"Do you know how," he repeated, "to kill . . . a mockingbird."

By his pausing I felt relieved--he was playing with, not threatening us. Perhaps knowing where we had just been.

So I took a chance and, trying a smile, said, "I think I do."

He laughed and speed ahead.

"What was that about," our friend said, equally relieved.

"It's a New York story," Rona said. "Maybe he's a street artist."

"I hate those," our friend said, "I like my art in theaters and museums, not on the street."

When we reached the corner, with the light still red, he was waiting for us.

"As Shakespeare wondered," he asked, "when you hold a mirror to nature, what do you see?"

"What?" our friend said now full-voiced. More her old cantankerous self.

"What Shakespeare said about the Mirror of Nature."

"From Romeo and Juliet?"

"Think more," he said. "It's something you need to know the answer to." And with that he darted to the other side of Lafayette Street, avoiding the stream of cars and taxis.

"I think it's from Hamlet," I said, after a moment to think about what had just happened. "I can't remember the context, but we should look it up."

Which, later that night, I did.

In fact, it is from Hamlet. From Hamlet's instructions to the players. He advises--
. . . suit the action to the word, the
word to the action; with this special overstep not
the modesty of nature; for anything so overdone is
from the purpose of playing, whose end, both at the
first and now, was and is, to hold, as 'twere, the
mirror up to nature; to show virtue her own feature,
scorn her own image, and the very age and body of
the time his form and pressure. Now this overdone,
or come tardy off, though it make unskilful
laugh, cannot make the judicious grieve  . . .
Overstep not, indeed, I thought.

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Tuesday, May 06, 2014

May 6, 2014--Law & Order

We have a problem.

With considerable effort and tenacity, via Netflix streaming, we worked our way through nearly five seasons of The Good Wife (112 episodes!) and are, like the rest of America, waiting for the final two episodes to air.

Questions await resolution--

Will Alicia Florrick quit her firm and return to Lockhart & Gardner, to join Diane as co-senior partner? What will Kalinda be up to next and who will she take to bed? And what about the Michael J. Fox character, Louis (the Devil) Canning? With the remaining year of his life, will he work to rebuild LG or finally, from within, succeed in bringing it down? And then what about Alicia's husband Peter, the governor? Will he be able to fend off accusations of voter fraud, stay out of jail, and keep the bimbos at bay?

So you see, we have a lot of work ahead of us.

But, very soon, we will be done with The Good Wife, as we are with the 26 episodes of House of Cards, until at least next fall.

Thus our problem--what to do between now and then?

For decades we avoided watching TV series. Claiming this was because we wanted to reserve ourselves for "higher things" such as reading. OK, also to compulsively watch news on TV. But we avoided all series, in truth worried we'd like them, get drawn in, and even addicted.

What happened to so dramatically change our viewing habits?

Last summer, over lobster rolls with our friend Ann, she told us that via streaming she was watching for a second time all episodes of West Wing.

Now, Ann is a very accomplished person. She has been a dean and vice president at a number of major universities and and we were surprised to hear that she was so involved with TV shows of this kind. If anything, one would take her for a PBS/C-SPAN type.

"You've never seen it?" she was incredulous to learn, "I would have thought . . ."

"I know a couple of people who were involved," I said, "Gene Sperling, who wrote a few episodes and I think was a story consultant, and Anna Deavere Smith who . . ."

"Played Nancy McNally," Ann said, "the president's national security advisor. You should give it a try. I think you'll love it."

And indeed we did. We watched all 154 episodes over two months and loved them all. Some days, actually nights, watching four or five, staying up as late as 2:00 a.m.

But now . . .

We couldn't make ourselves watch more that the first 15 minutes of the first episode of Game of Thrones. Too much gratuitous violence. And we didn't do much better with Breaking Bad, touted by a number of fiends to whom we confessed we had become fully addicted to entertainment programming. We watched the first two episodes but didn't get hooked. Again, too violent, too grimy, and not about a subject we care about--a professor making and dealing methamphetamine. Really?

The Wire sounds good--also recommended, especially by a cousin who grew up in Baltimore where it was set. But it doesn't appear to be available vis streaming, only DVD discs and we don't have a VCR up in Maine and have no intention of getting one. We're even thinking about leaving our Roku device in New York to keep Maine as media-free as we can handle.

Another friend, who is a confessed TV addict and has great taste in books, movies, theater, and food, has been talking about Law & Order for years. It's her favorite show and stars Jerry Orbach. Good enough for me. So while waiting for the return of House of Cards, Good Wife, and, I almost forgot, Homeland, we'll check it out.

Netflix does stream it so maybe we will take Roku with us, and since it ran on TV for 20, yes, 20 years, there are 456, yes, 456 episodes. I calculate that if we limit ourselves to just one a day, it will take 14 months to get through all of them. All right, if it grabs us we'll watch two a day over only seven months.

But if our experience with West Wing is a guide, we'll get high on five a day, staying up to at least midnight, and this means we'll be done in about three months. That could work.

But, then again, after that, what will we watch? Maybe West Wing all over again? Like Ann.

I'll let you know how we do. As they say, stay tuned.

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Monday, May 05, 2014

May 5, 2104--Confirmation Bias

For years I enjoyed early mornings with Morning Joe. But, since it is beginning to feel predictable, lately I find myself switching back and forth between JoeCBS This Morning, and even CNN's New Day. Never mind the conservative zombie cyborgs on Fox News' alliterative Fox and Friends.

Charlie Rose on CBS feels about as grumpy as I, like me not entirely happy to be up early. So I can relate to that. New Day, on the other hand, is more or less devoted to news, but it is disconcerting to watch Chris Cuomo on CNN, who looks just like New York governor Andrew Cuomo's twin and sounds just like his father, former New York governor, Mario. Again, not fully clearheaded that early in the morning, this can be confusing.

My drifting from Morning Joe appears not just to be an isolated phenomenon but is reflected in the ratings of these four morning shows, especially the cable networks' three. According to a report in the New York Times, Joe has slipped to third place among the cable shows. F&F continues to be number one with ratings that equal both New Day's, which has taken over second place, and Morning Joe's. Especially among younger viewers who, for some reason, are considered to be the more desirable.

Cantankerous, good-ol-boy, Morning Joe Scarborough, is not being diplomatic in his reactions. He is quoted as saying, "CNN has made itself a punch line on the Daily Show for its phony breaking-news headlines and breathless coverage of random ocean debris." (He failed to mention that Jon Stewart on the Daily Show devoted an entire segment to making fun of . . . Morning Joe, for being so cozy with the powerful.)

But Joe has a point.

New Day, and the rest of CNN, vaulted over Joe and all other MSNBC programs by devoting almost all of its time to a constant stream of alleged breaking-news about Malaysian ill-fated flight 370, with much of this breaking news really a constant rehashing of "news" that "broke" hours or even days before. It seems that on CNN there is no statute of limitations on anything they deem to be new news.

On the other hand, MSNBC itself gleefully devoted dawn-to-dusk coverage for weeks to the political downfall of Chris Christie. And now are spending most of their time expressing outrage about estranged LA Clippers owner Donald Sterling and the botched execution in Oklahoma.

While over at Fox, it has not been all-news-all-the-time or we-report-you-decide: it has been all-Benghazi-all-the time in their attempt to preemptively bring down the presidential candidacy of Hillary Clinton.

But, in addition to noticing myself drifting away from Morning Joe, I am also finding myself losing interest in Chris Hayes and Rachel Maddow, late evening hosts of their own shows on MSNBC.

They are feeling to me as doctrinaire and strident coming from the left as the hosts of Fox's evening lineup are from the right. Yes, their views are more fact-based than Fox's and Fox's are more opinion-based, but both are becoming unwatchable because their views are more and more predictable.

In talking with others, liberal as well as conservative friends, they are saying much the same thing; but, for the most part, all are continuing to watch their favorite shows on Fox or MSNBC.

I've been wondering why they, and I, continue to tune in if in fact so much is repetitious and predictable.

I have come to conclude we watch because pretty much everyone on Fox and MSNBC, is predictable. We tune in to have our views confirmed.

In cognitive theory this is called confirmation bias. How we search for new information and interpretations that confirm our perceptions and avoid information and points of view that contradict prior or already formed beliefs.

Since genopolitical research is finding that there may be a genetic basis for our political perspectives and attitudes (see The Righteous Mind), the pull to have these deeply-based views constantly affirmed fits right in with the drumbeat programming on the most ideological TV talk shows.

This is not unlike the need to eat. Feeding the mind a steady diet of ideological views is perhaps not so different from feeding the body.

The body human and the body politics.

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Thursday, May 01, 2014

May 2, 2014--Без муки нет науки

Без муки нет науки in Russian means, "Without torture, no science." But in usage, as an idiom, it means, "Adversity is a good teacher."
How much richer, more vivid the former. The idiomatic meaning. Though it makes little literal sense, emotively it works better.
No one knows how idioms come into usage. How they are transmuted from the literal to the idiomatic. But they do, and most languages are seasoned with many.
How did, "Let's get down to brass tacks"--a fabric salesmen's saying to a customer it's time to measure the length of a piece of cotton so they can complete the transaction--yards and segments of yards were delineated by a series of brass tacks on the cutting table--get to more generally mean "Let's get serious, Let's get it done"?

Many are country or culture specific. Like the ones from American baseball such as--

"Step up to the plate"; "How do I get to first [or third!] third base with you?"; "Ballpark estimate"; "Playing hardball"; or "Grandstanding."

There are hundreds of other American idioms, including--

"Kick the bucket," "Bring home the bacon,""Mum's the word," "Head over heels in love," "Go cold turkey," "Chewing the fat," or "This one is for the birds."

All wonderful, including not always knowing the first usage or how they were absorbed into the language.

Then there are idioms derived from English Cricket--

"To be stumped," (when the bails are knocked off the three cricket stumps and the batter is out); "To be knocked for six," (similar to a home run when a batted ball is hit so far it passes through the entire pitch untouched and yields six runs, which then idiomatically means surprised or overwhelmed); or to encounter a "Sticky wicket," an idiomatic tough situation, which suggests the bails on top of the stumps are not falling and feel as if they are stuck in place).

Or French idioms that I had a devil of a time memorizing in high school--

Arriver comme un chien un jeu de quille. Literally, "To arrive like a dog at a bowling game" and idiomatically, "To turn up unexpectedly."

Le doigts dans le nez. Literally, "Fingers in the nose" and as an idiom, something that is "very easy."

Then, one of my favorites, Avoir le cul borde de nouilles, "To have an ass full of noodles," which idiomatically means, "To be lucky."

And aren't we lucky to have our languages enriched this way.

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May 1, 2014--The Obama (Small Ball) Doctrine

Stung by mounting criticism of his foreign policy--especially snipping on the Sunday talk show circuit by John McCain and other Republicans--finally, at a press conference in Manila, Obama snapped.

The New York Times described him as "visibly frustrated."

In addition to the collapse of the U.S.-sponsored Middle East peace talks, Russian maneuvers in Ukraine, Syria still festering, Egypt about to execute 682 members of the Muslim Brotherhood, Iraq close to unravelling, and with who knows what will happen next in Afghanistan, Obama's recent Asia trip ran up against resistance (in Japan about new trade policies), skepticism in the Philippines, and downright rejection in Korea. Only Malaysia seemed inclined to want to rebuild relations with the United States.

And, of course, China, feeling ignored (Obama, to make a geopolitical point, opted not to visit), emphasized its own version of the the new Russian imperialism, declaring that China, or Greater China includes a host of islands in the East China Sea claimed either by Japan or Taiwan.

To rub it in, North Korea could be added to the list--they appear to be ready to explode another nuclear device and have plans to ramp up their capacity to produce more as well as miniaturize them so they can be fitted to their long-range missiles, missiles that soon may have the capacity to reach the U.S. west coast.

Partisanship aside, the case can be made that Obama's foreign policy--seemingly full of potential when he took office--has indeed, with a few exceptions, been disappointing. And I'm being kind.

But at his Manila new conference, Obama made the case--not-so-fast. Though McCain for more than a decade has advocated we "bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb Iran" and more recently arm the Syrians and Ukrainians, there are direct talks underway with the Iranians that with some luck (all right, considerable luck and the continuing collapse of the Iranian economy) could lead to their agreeing to give up their dream to become a nuclear nation. And then I suppose there is Tunisia and Libya to point to as other half-successes.

The new Obama Doctrine, presented off-the-cuff in the Philippines, does merit careful consideration and may in fact be guided by practical wisdom derived from decades of frustrating experience.

A few quotes from President Obama--
Why is it that everybody is so eager to use military force after we've just gone through a decade of war at enormous cost to our troops and our budget. And what is it exactly that these critics think would have been accomplished?
The implication . . . is that each and every time a country violates [red lines that we might be tempted to draw] the United States should go to war, or stand prepared to engage militarily, and if it doesn't then somehow we're not serious about these norms. Well, that's not the case. 
Do people actually think that somehow sending some additional arms into Ukraine could potentially deter the Russian army? Or are we more likely to deter them by applying the sort of international pressure and economic pressure we're applying?
[Proceeding this way] may not be sexy and it doesn't make good argument on Sunday morning shows--but it avoids errors.
Continuing the baseball analogy, he said--
You hit singles, you hit doubles; every once in a while we may be able to hit a home run. But we steadily advance the interests of the American people and our partnership with folks around the world.
This small-ball approach to the way Obama has concluded we need to play in a world full of challenges and threats, considering the realities and the limits to our human and economic resources, may not satisfy our macho instincts, but it makes sense.

It doesn't work for or appeal to the McCains of the world who want America to carry and use its big stick in every situation where they see our interests or values threatened. The lessons from Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, though, should teach them and us otherwise.

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