Friday, November 28, 2014

November 28, 2014--Best of Behind: The Poppies of Tora Bora

First posted on November 30, 2006, this sadly is still timely. There have been reports that the opium poppy crop in Afghanistan last growing season was at record levels and recently Barack Obama revealed that he is ordering more troops to that godforsaken place and that, in spite of promises, they will be allowed to engage again in direct combat. What's old is new again--

Literally buried in the very lowest left-hand corner of page A14 in yesterday's New York Times was a four-inch-long column titled, "Opium Crop on Rise in Afghan Province."

It summarizes a UN-World Bank report that concludes that not only will it "take a generation to render Afghanistan opium free," but also notes that opium cultivation rose by 59 percent this past year. Yes, by 59 percent! 6,100 tons of poppies were produced which yielded 610 tons of heroin. This constituted fully 90 percent of the world's heroin supply.

So here's my question--What the hell is going on over there?

Along with a legitimate coalition of NATO allies and others (unlike the phony Coalition of the Willing in Iraq), the U.S. has been a major presence in Afghanistan for about five years. We defeated the Taliban, destroyed the al Qaeda sites which in fact were used to train the 9/11 terrorists, and helped set up what appears to be a version of a stable, reasonably democratic government.

True, Mullah Omar and Osama Bin Laden are still above ground, in a manner of speaking, and there is concern about a Taliban resurgence. But I ask again in regard to the poppy situation--What the hell is going on over there?

Aren't we also waging a War On Drugs? If so, it seems made in heaven that almost all of the opium is produced in the very same place where we have tens of thousands of troops on site and where we presumably control the situation in the air and on the ground.

So how about hiring Halliburton to get rid of the poppies? I know this in and of itself would bankrupt the poor farmers who depend on poppies for their livelihoods, but maybe in addition to plowing the poppy crop under we could subsidize the former poppy farmers the way we subsidize corn and wheat growers right here in America. I'm making an issue of this, even though I would vote in a second to decriminalize drugs including heroin, because it is such a good bad-example of our inability to get anything accomplished even when we have declared it a national priority.

We can’t rebuild New Orleans; we can’t teach our kids math; and now we can’t get rid of the poppies.

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Thursday, November 27, 2014

November 27, 2014--Thankful

My father used to say I was a lucky boy. Of course he meant, and trained me to say, that this was because I had a wonderful father. Well . . .

But in fact I was and am a luck boy. And for that I am thankful.

For family and friends (including a still remarkable 106 1/2 year old mother), for the life I am fortunate to be able to live, for reasonably good health, for the best wife and pal in the western wold, and for those of you who, here, keep up with my thoughts and jottings.

I plan to have a happy day and hope you will as well.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

November 26, 2014--Sacred Spaces

I once had a colleague who for his doctoral dissertation wrote about scared spaces. Mainly those places that held special, spiritual meaning for native peoples. Places that they attempted to hide and if necessary defend against outsiders.

I asked him if there were equivalent places that were held to be scared by people in the so-called developed world. He smiled at me, as if to indicate how naive I was.

"Just look around you," he said.

"Even here in Midtown Manhattan?"

"Even here. During lunch let's walk over to Saint Patrick's Cathedral and look at the people worshipping there. Sense what that physical place means to them."

I didn't take up his offer but two years later, in Jerusalem, I understood all to well what a sacred space is and how those for whom it is sacred, who couldn't hide it from "outsiders," were willing, eager to defend it. Even to give up their lives to protect it from encroachment.

This was most emotionally vivid at the Western Wall. A sacred place to observant Jews who claim it is one of the walls of the Second Temple, which itself stood on the site of the even more sacred First Temple, constructed, it is believed, nearly 3,000 years ago by King Solomon. And it is at this very place where the Third and final temple will be built, the intra-orthodox fervently believe, when the Messiah appears.

They await him now and some are making preparations for his arrival, including moving in on the Al-Aqsa Mosque which sits on top of the Temple Mount, one of the most sacred places for Muslims, the place from which it is reported the Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven. All of this not very far from a number of sacred places for Christians--the Via Dolorosa, the road along which Christ was said to have  borne the cross as he proceeded toward Calvary and the Church of Holy Sepulchre, which was built to mark the sacred place where he was crucified, entombed, and resurrected.

All of these places--central in meaning to Jews, Christians, and Muslims--are located literally within a square kilometer of each other. Those who are skeptical, even non-believers (me included) when there feel overwhelmingly that this is a special place, charged with spiritual power.

A sacred space, a site where our search for meaning, truth, and divine inspiration commingles with religious beliefs and practices in the attempt to find the most fundamental of answers--just what my long-ago colleague was attempting to get me to understand.

How then, with so much at stake, in the world's most-contested piece of real estate can there ever be a resolution to the conflict between Israeli Jews and Muslim Palestinians, both claiming, in the flow of blood, that they have special rights and historical, divine, prerogatives for exclusive control of the place that one side calls the Temple Mount and the other the Dome of the Rock?

This is not a situation where compromise and splitting-the-difference has much chance of working.

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Tuesday, November 25, 2014

November 25, 2014--The (Sort of) Good News From Ferguson, Mo

Yes, there is some good news from Ferguson. Keep reading.

Back in 1985, the then chief judge of he New York court of appeals, Sol Wachtler, famously said that an even half-competent prosecutor, because of the nature of how the grand juries function, could have them "indict a ham sandwich."

This is because it is easy to demonstrate "probable cause," the threshold grand juries are instructed to follow when considering an indictment. "Probable cause," not the much more demanding "beyond a reasonable doubt" that a conviction requires.

The justice system is structured so that indictments are relatively easy to obtain but convictions aren't.

But the grand jury in Ferguson, Mo, because of the behavior and lack of clear instructions from the prosecutor failed to indict Darren Wilson, the white police officer who shot and killed Michael Brown,  an unarmed African-American teenager back in August.

From his statement late yesterday and reports from legal experts who over-night examined the grand jury evidence that was released, it is clear the prosecutor, in effect, conducted a version of a full trial; but a trial in which the interests of the deceased were not adequately represented nor was there compelling evidence that the side representing the state (the prosecutor) aggressively made the case for indictment.

Quite the opposite.

In his formal statement announcing that the grand jury failed to indict Wilson, St. Louis County prosecutor Robert McCulloch, said that the main reason there were no indictments was because there was so much "conflicting evidence."

Well, that's true in every judicial situation. There are virtually no open-and-shut cases. A trial by its nature deals with conflicting evidence. The prosecution cites evidence and the defense attempts to refute it with "conflicting evidence."

At the grand jury "trial" of police officer Wilson, the cards were stacked against the potential state's case in that, by presenting so much conflicting evidence to the grand jury, the prosecutor, rather than representing the interests of the state (the traditional role for prosecutors from common law times until today) in effect acted as it were the defense attorney for the potentially accused.

(It may not be irrelevant to note that McCulloch's father was a police officers who was killed, when McCulloch was 14, in an incident that involved an African American kidnapper.)

Further, the prosecutor gave the grand jury a checklist of five possible levels of indictment, from murder-one to involuntary manslaughter. Unlike every other grand jury with which I am familiar (and I have served on two, including a so-called special grand jury that dealt with and handed down more that 25 indictments for the New York City version of the Crips gang), this time apparently McCulloch just gave them the list and did not make recommendations about what he felt would serve the interest of justice.

No wonder it took the grand jury more than two days to do nothing. They sat through a quasi trial with no opening or closing statements that could help guide their thinking and no guidance from the prosecution about how to think about the potential charges.

So it is no surprise that this sad time the ham sandwich walked.

Then, where's the good news?

Think back not to many years about similar situations in too much of America. Situations in which white men could maim, torture, and kill black people (usually young black men) with virtual impunity.

How many clear situations of murder with intent went uninvestigated or half-heartedly looked into? There are enough outrageous examples from my lifetime alone to fill this page.

And not just cases from the South. Even in New York City, the self-proclaimed center of liberal thought where we take pride in our open pursuit of justice, the so-called Central Park rapists were recently released from years in jail because it finally became clear that their trials were rigged by the prosecutors who did not do their due diligence when faced with the rape of a white women jogger by an alleged marauding band of young men of color. And how many white police officers have shot and killed young African-American boys and men in New York and have been under-prosecuted? One such killing occurred as recently as last week in a public housing project in Brooklyn. We'll see how justice takes its course over the next number of months.

But consider the progress. Even in Ferguson.

As flawed as it was, at least this time there were months of investigation and pressure to pursue justice. The system may have failed, but what happened in Missouri (and matters are not concluded--there may very well be a U.S. Justice Department civil rights case that could lead to indictments and a criminal trial), this case was not handled as equivalent ones have been through our tortured racial history.

So as we watch the media show endless footage of the telegenically burning police car (thereby abetting the narrative that "they" are dangerous and must be controlled and if necessary repressed by civil authorities), think back about where we have been and how far we have come. Including who is our president and attorney general.

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Monday, November 24, 2014

November 24, 2014--A Child Shall Lead Them

Though often misapplied, this from Isaiah 11:6-9, could have been the title of Barack Obama's Thursday night speech about immigration.

No matter what one thinks about his use of executive powers to shield about 5.0 million undocumented immigrants from deportation, one would have to agree that in content it is all about family values. So if Republicans can for a moment stop fulminating about what they claim is Obama's emperor-like behavior, they might see that, politically, he has again snookered them.

Even if they find a way to defund Obama's actions or get the federal court system to overturn them and declare them an abuse of constitutional power (both questionable), they will pay a fierce political price when they are seen to be opposing what Obama did--protect families from being torn apart by the Immigration Service.

Specifically, Obama's executive action (the most ambitious and extensive in American history--Reagan's so-called "amnesty" executive order in 1986 covered only 100,000 illegal immigrants) calls for more border security (he can do this administratively and the GOP loves anything having to do with sealing our borders), taking action to make it easier for immigrants with high-level technical skills to remain in the U.S., and the continuing deportation of undocumented criminals (Obama has done 80 percent more of that than all previous presidents combined); but--and it's a very big but--those 5.0 million affected by his executive orders are all protected from deportation if and only if they belong to family units.

What he is doing pertains just to the 5.0 million or so who have lived in the U.S. for five or more years and are either children or the parents of children who are here legally. Here legally because they were born in the USA and thus are citizens (see the 14th Amendment) or were brought here illegally before the age of four and are now legally protected.

Childless individuals and couples will not be protected.

In other words, the only adults who will not be rounded up and deported are those "illegals" who are parents.

Obama's approach is not amnesty nor a "path to citizenship," but rather a statement about Family Values.

Something always trumpeted by Republicans and emphasized by their religious leaders. Thus, the political brilliance of Obama's move. And, of course, its humanity.

At their political peril, if Republicans continue to ignore the family values that undergird Obama's actions and focus instead on process questions and issues such as the separation of governmental power, they will find themselves in future elections with very few Latino supporters.

My prediction, therefore, is that because some in the Republican Party are smart enough to figure this out and after a few weeks of demonologizing Obama for acting unilaterally they will pass a series of bills to make what Obama did irrelevant, because what he said Thursday evening was that his executive orders are designed to defer deportations so that covered immigrants will be able to "stay in the country temporarily" (the deferring and temporality parts are what will keep his actions from being overturned in the courts)  and that if the Congress presents him with an acceptable bill he will sign it and tear up his executive orders.

Indeed it may turn out that a child will lead us.

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Friday, November 21, 2014

November 21, 2014--Best of Behind: Black Friday

From November 25, 2012, here's a report about Black Friday. I mentioned Occupy Wall Street. Remember them? I hadn't thought about them for some time. How easy, how quickly we forget--

Every year all the newspapers and every TV station run reports about Black Friday, the day retailers hope that on their P&L statements they will finally begin to show a profit, move from the red into the black. 

The stories are always about how much sales are expected to increase over the year before, how early the stores will be opening, and then the frenzy when the doors finally are opened and shoppers--many of whom have been lined up for days--literally trample each other in a race to buy the latest flat-screen TV for 75% off.

This year, thanks to Occupy Wall Street which, if nothing else, has raised awareness about growing economic inequality, some of what is being reported includes inequalities in holiday shopping itself. Would the following have appeared even in the "liberal" New York Times--replete this time of year with ads for Tiffany and Rolex--if not for the Occupy folks?

One the front page, above the fold, under the headline, "Opening Day For Shoppers Shows Divide," the Times reports:

As the busiest retail weekend of the year began late Thursday night, the differences between how affluent and more ordinary Americans shop in the uncertain economy will be on unusually vivid display.

Budget-minded shoppers will be racing for bargains at ever-earlier hours while the rich mostly will not be bothering to leave home.

Toys “R” Us, Wal-Mart, Macy’s, Kohl’s, Best Buy and Target will start their Black Friday sales earlier than ever—at 9 and 10 p.m. Thursday night in some instances--with dirt-cheap offers intended to secure their customers’ limited dollars. A half a day later, on Friday morning, higher-end stores like Neiman Marcus, Saks Fifth Avenue, and Nordstrom will open with only a sprinkling of special sales.

The low-end and midrange retailers are risking low margins as they cut prices to attract shoppers, while executives at luxury stores say that they are actually able to sell more at full price than in recent boom years.

“We’re now into a less promotional environment than we were before the recession,“ said Stephen I. Sadove, chairman and chief executive of Saks. In the third quarter, for instance, Saks reduced the length of an annual sale to three days from four, and excluded the high-margin category of cosmetics from another regular sale.
The Times goes on to note that Neiman Marcus, via their "fantasy" catalog, which traditionally features very high-end stuff, this year, within 50 minutes, sold out of Ferraris at $395,000 each. All 10 of them.

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Thursday, November 20, 2014

November 20, 2014--NY, NY: Sleep Like the Dead

"This is more like a hammock than a bed," Rona said, "I think it's time we look for a new mattress."

"We didn't get this one that long ago," I said, trying to avoid having to go through the process of testing dozens of mattresses and, knowing us, having to pay at least $5,000 for a new one.

As if reading my mind, Rona said, "We can go to Macy's and Bloomingdales. They have large bedding departments and they're both having sales. So it won't cost us a fortune to buy a new one." And to add urgency, knowing my tendency to procrastinate about such matters, "I'll bet we find one we both like in a few hours. Then there's next day delivery and--"

"And I know your back's been bothering you," I said, trying to sound empathetic

"A new mattress will also help you sleep better. You have so much on your mind these days that sleeping on this old thing only makes it worse."

"How long has it been since--?"

"Ten or eleven years." Looking at me lovingly, she added, "And it will also make other aspects of our life more enjoyable. We--"

"You mean when watching TV in bed?"

"That too," she smiled.
*   *   *
And so later that day we found ourselves in Macy's mattress department. The first of three visits. It's taking us that long to make up our minds. It's one of those things couples who sleep together, as we do on a queen-size bed, have to agree about. Or, spend enough time shopping that one or the other capitulates and agrees to get a mattress with or without a pillow top or with or without Tempurpedic-type memory foam or . . .

"Let's try the Stearns & Fosters again," Rona suggested, sounding tired. We were at Macy's for a second time and, feeling we'd made progress, having eliminated most of the Beautyrests and neither one of us could quite get used to being enveloped in beds made of high-tech foam. "I liked the ones without the pillow tops--I think from the Euro line--but you seemed to prefer the ones with them."

"True," I said, "Though, like you, I also liked the Stearns & Foster Beckinsale without the pillow top. To be honest, since I sleep mainly on my side, the softness of the pillow top on top of the ultra-firm mattress feels a bit more comfortable to me."

I emphasized the bit more since about beds I'm prone to compromise and was setting the stage to capitulate from my slight preference for pillow-tops.

"You know, though we've spent a lot of time here already, maybe we should go home now before we confuse and exhaust ourselves more and--"

"I did almost fall asleep a few minutes ago," I said, "On the pillow top Beckinsale," I wasn't capitulating yet, "So maybe, as you say, let's go home, take a nap, and then come back tomorrow and go right back to our two top choices. To avoid confusing ourselves further. After a while all the mattresses start to feel the same to me. The good news is that they also all feel good to me. Except for the Tempurpedics. Astronauts may like memory foam but I feel as if I'm being swallowed up in it."
*   *   *
The next day, on our third visit, we did avoid any further searching and went right back to the two Beckinsales. Rona to the one she was inclining toward and me to my pillow-top. Across the selling floor, with couples sprawled in all the beds between us, which in itself was an interesting experience, we called back and forth to each other, sharing our third impressions.

"I'm good with both," I said to reassure Rona that the selection process wouldn't go on forever. "Though--"

"I know," she called back across the Beautyrests, "You still prefer the pillow-tops. Why don't you come join me so we can see again how this one feels. With the two of us in bed together. To see how we experience it when one of us rolls over to change sleeping positions. How much the other feels. I think mattress stability is something we should consider since both of us do quite a bit of tossing and turning."

"And getting up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom. I don't want to worry that my doing that will cause the bounce on your side to be so strong that you'll wind up on the floor."

"Good point," Rona said.

So when I slid in next to her we both did lots of intentional tossing and turning and discovered, to make things more unsettled, that the mattress did do a bit too much reciprocal bouncing. Enough to make neither of us feel certain the Beckinsale without the pillow-top would work for us.

Maybe," I suggested tentatively, "we should try the pillow-top to see if maybe--"

"Let's go to Bloomingdales," Rona said, cutting me off, "We're back to square one. Since none of the ones here at Macy's are quite right for either or both of us I think we should look further. A bed is a big deal--we spend so much time in bed. watching TV, listening to music, and--"

"Reading, a lot of reading, not to mention sleeping. And also we shouldn't rush into a decision considering how expensive they are."

"Forget the money," Rona said, beginning to get aggravated with me. Even $2,000 for a bed and box spring spread over ten years amounts to only a couple of hundred dollars a year. Less than we pay for electricity for the TV."
*   *   *
So, wouldn't you know, the first mattress I tried at Bloomingdales was one made by hand by Kluft with a list price of $36,000. Thirty-six thousand dollars.

I called to Rona who was across from me trying one of the Shifmans. "You'll never believe this."

"What?" From her tone I knew the Shifman was not working for her.

"How much these go for." I patted the Kluft mattress. "Take a guess."

"The way you're posing this, probably quite a lot. I never heard of Kluft before. It must be a Bloomingdales' exclusive. OK. I'll say $15,000." She look over at me exasperated.

"Try more than twice that." I was in a state of shock.

"Welcome to the world of one-percenters," Rona said. "Look, if people are shelling out $50 million or more for an apartment, what would you expect them to spend on a mattress? 'Only' a few thousand like this Shifman?"

"But $36,000?"

"Take a look. Maybe it's on sale."

I looked again at the price tag and sure enough it was. "They're asking 'only' $22,000," I said. "But it probably includes free shipping." I was being facetious.

"That doesn't sound that bad to me. Hey, you only live once." I made a face. "At that price it must be amazingly comfortable."

"To tell you the truth it doesn't feel that much better than the Beckinsales at Macy's. But let's see what else they have."

"Lots of Stearns & Fosters," Rona noted. "Since we thought we liked them at Macy's maybe there are some special models they make for Bloomingdales that won't cause a tsunami when one of us gets up to go to the bathroom."

"Like the old waterbeds," I said. "Though back in the day they were pretty sexy."

"Speaking of that," Rona said, "I wonder how much people buying beds think about that."

"About what?"

"About sex, silly. Beside sleeping and watching TV that's probably what people do most when in bed. At least when they're young." She winked affectionately at me.

"Good point," I said.

So after trying about a dozen more mattresses we agreed that one of the Bloomingdales' Stearns & Fosters, their version of, I think, the Beckinsale we sort of liked at Macy's, was our new favorite.

"Again,"Rona said, "rather than deciding today, let's go back to Macy's one last time--"

"For old time sake?"

"No, to be sure. But then let's come back here tomorrow to see how this one feels and then decide." Sensing my exhaustion with the process, she assured me that we would make a decision the next day.

"One more thing," I said. "The salesman here has been very nice and since it's not busy, I have one more thing to ask him about."

"What's that? We've already peppered him with questions about all the different kinds of latex and foam and the advantages of each coil being hand wrapped and--"

"True, but tag along. You'll see. Just one more question."

Before I could signal to him that we had still another thing to ask he noticed us looking his way--good salesman technique--and walked quickly toward where we were once again hoisting ourselves off the Stearns & Foster. Causing no ripples of movement--a good sign.

"I don't exactly know how to ask this," I said, glancing toward him.

"No problem. Anything," he smiled.

"Do people ever ask you about how this or that mattress is for, well, sex?" I lowered my eyes but sensed Rona tensing.

"All the time," he chirped. "Especially younger customers. Though people your age," he meant me, "also ask."

"And you tell them?" I felt Rona punching me in the back.

"I tell them, like everything else about beds, it's all about how they feel."

"That's it?"

"And, yes, I do direct them to a website that compares mattresses. About all sorts of things, including what you're asking about."

"That website would be?" Rona asked, half hidden behind me.

"It's called Sleep Like the Dead."

"I love it," I said.
*   *   *
Back home, as soon as we hung up our coats we raced each other to the computer to look up Sleep Like the Dead.

"I of course am interested in durability and how cool the mattress feels," Rona said, as if I would believe her.

"At the moment I'm more interested in the raunchy stuff," I said. "I can't wait to see how they test mattresses for sex. Maybe sort of like the way Masters and Johnson did their experiments? In a lab or something?"

"You're being silly again."

By then I had clicked on Sleep Like the Dead and found that the website indeed focused on comparisons between air mattresses and futons and mattresses with innersprings as well as those made of latex or memory foam and even my old water beds.

There were ratings from consumers about pillows--down versus feather versus foam versus polyester; and sleeping pill reviews that compared Ambien with Lunesta and Melatonin.

And sure enough, the category I was searching for--Mattress Types and Sex Suitability Ratings and Comparisons.

"Suitability?" Rona wondered.

"A bit odd sounding to me too," I said. "But check this out." Rona leaned closer to me to get a better look at the computer screen. "To me the ratings and comparisons seem very thorough and professional. But see how on the top line of this multi-colored chart they rate mattresses types for Active Sex Friendly."

"Air mattresses get a C+," Rona read, "while Memory Foam gets only a D+, Water a C," she poked me again, "Latex a B-, and our good-old Innerspring a B-. Not bad."

"We can look at all the intimate details--forgive me--later. But take a look at the Many Positions ratings. Air gets a C+, Memory Foam a C, Water a surprising C- . . ."

"That shouldn't be such a surprise. When you had your famous, sexy waterbed, you were 50 years younger and --"

"Thanks for reminding me. But let me finish. Latex gets a B- for Many Positions and our basic innerspring a straight B! Very cool."

"You remember that old commercial for Dial-A-Mattress?" Rona asked.

"Yes, their jingle, 'Dial 1 800 MATTRESS and leave the last S off for Savings.'"

"For this it could be 'Dial 1 800 MATTRESS and leave the last S off for Sex!"
*   *   *
Later that night, on our old hammock of a Serta Perfect Sleeper, we . . .

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Wednesday, November 19, 2014

November 19, 2014--Chores

Busy all day with the car (it needs servicing and Brooklyn was the best place to have it done) and mattress shopping (the one we have is more hammock than mattress). I will return tomorrow with stories about the latter.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

November 18, 2014--Minding Our Business


Why is it that every president since at least Harry Truman, when abroad, feels the need to lecture other leaders about human rights?

Most recently Barack Obama in China where he chided his host, President Xi Jinping, about stifling political dissent in Hong Kong, then during a quick visit to Myanmar he gently prodded fellow Nobel Prize winner Daw Aung San Suu Kyi about her country's resistance to power sharing with the opposition, and then a day or two later at the G-20 summit in Australia where he again took Vladimir Putin to task for Russia's incursions in Ukraine.

Without doubt, China, Russia, Myanmar, and a host of other countries could do a lot better. A lot. But is it our place to criticize them about their human rights crimes and misdemeanors?

Back in the old Cold War days in response to our constant hammering on abuses in the repressive Soviet Union, though God knows there was much to point out, Soviet leaders such as Nikita Khrushchev were equally quick to retort that we were hypocritical, that we had human rights problems of our own, most notable that there was still government sanctioned and imposed segregation that kept Negroes "in their place" and Native Americans mainly confined to arid reservations.

And today, if they were inclined (and Putin certainly has been--severely criticizing us as the cause of most of the problems in today's Middle East) they could point out that after six years of the Obama presidency Guantanamo is still operating, U.S. citizens are routinely spied on by many government agencies, and poverty and inequality are worsening.

I know that one reason American leaders feel it necessary to criticize the records of others--even when being hosted by them--is to demonstrate to the rightwing back home that they are tough enough to stand up to our adversaries while trumpeting our alleged "exceptionalism."

My question to traveling presidents--In a dangerously fractured world, where we should be seeking to reduce tensions even with leaders we despise (Putin comes to mind), do we need another Cold War, do we want to chill further relations with our major trading partner and debt holder (China), do we want more Westerners to be beheaded in Iraq, do we want to find peaceful ways to keep Iran from getting The Bomb?

I am more and more attracted to Henry-Kissinger-style realpolitik--diplomacy based primarily on power and practical and material considerations rather than on ideological notions or ethical premises.

Just as we hate it when others point fingers at us, it's time for us get off our proverbial high horse.

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Monday, November 17, 2014

November 17, 2014--Co-Equal?

Flipping channels the other morning in search of anything other than the local weather forecast and reports about gridlocked traffic, I paused for a moment on MSNBC to see how their post-election post-mortem was proceeding.

They had already concluded that there was no chance of anything bipartisan happening between a cranky Republican Congress and an equally grumpy Barack Obama, who was about to issue a series of executive orders to deal in part with our immigration mess.

John Boehner was sputtering that if the president did this the GOP would fight him "tooth and nail," some of his members gleefully chiming in in the background that this could lead to Obama's impeachment; while over in the Senate, about-to-be Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said that if Obama signed those executive orders it would "be like waving a red flag in front of a bull" and could easily lead, McConnell threatened, to yet another government shutdown.

Boehner I ignored--he has his Tea Party members to contend with; but I took McConnell at his word because if there is anything he knows about it's bull.

One of the MSNBC panelists pointed out that Obama acting as promised would assure nothing gets done since, "in our system," the federal government is made up of "three co-equal parts" and unless there is some semblance of working together it will mean that more than the traffic will be gridlocked.

Really, I thought. Have the MSNBC folks read their Constitution recently?

In fact, in great detail, whatever we think of it, the Constitution goes to great length to make certain that the three branches of our government will be anything but equal or, if you prefer, co-equal. And to assure that the Congress, which at least theoretically most represents "the people," in fear of European-like monarchal tyranny or dominance by corrupt and unrepresentative courts, our Founders took care to structure things so that Congress would be preeminent.

Not the executive branch and not even the Supreme Court. In fact, creating the Supreme Court was an afterthought on the part of the Framers. That's how much they despised and feared the potential power of a corrupt judiciary. And so they severely limited its powers. As they did the presidency, again, for fear of tyranny.

Congress has the exclusive power to enact laws (forget executive orders which by their nature are constitutionally questionable--something we may see tested if Obama does his immigration thing) and once passed and approved the executive, like it or not, the president must enforce. Indeed, though bills passed by Congress must be approved by the president, if they are vetoed, the Congress still has the ultimate authority to enact them by voting to overturn that veto. And if the president refuses to follow the Constitution he can be impeached and removed from office. By Congress. As can Supreme Court and other federal judges. Again, solely by Congress. Only voters can get rid of even felonious or demagogic congressmen.

This doesn't sound co-equal to me.

What about the president's constitutional prerogatives as Commander in Chief? Doesn't that make him preeminent? Not really.

When the Constitution was written in 1787 the new republic didn't have a standing army and so there was very little for the Commander in Chief to command. In fact, the Framers were reluctant to agree to a standing federal militia or navy. That too they saw to be a threat to representative government. Again, looking toward Europe, it was the last thing they wanted.

It is only since the Second World War when, because of the advent of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles and the speed with which they can be launched, that so much retaliatory power has accrued to the presidency. But, again with the necessary acquiescence of Congress. It is felt that the national security state that we have become requires such powers be granted to the president. But, if Congress disapproves of presidential military ventures it has the exclusive power of the purse--only Congress can authorize governmental spending.

This doesn't sound co-equal to me.

And when it comes to the Supreme Court, it too is a bit less than supreme. True, for the most part, when they rule it becomes the so-called "law of the land." But they rule about very little and even if and when they do, if Congress does not like a ruling it can pass other similar laws designed to get around SCOTUS rulings and, if that fails, amend the Constitution. Admittedly this is a rare and arduous process, but still the power resides with the Congress (and the states) to change if they wish our most sacred document.

Again, this doesn't sound co-equal to me.

Like it or not, the structure of the government we have is not as viable as it was in the sleepier 18th, 19th, and even 20th centuries. But it is what we have. Governmental gridlock was not something to be avoided, but was a desired part of the process. A relatively weak and unintrusive federal government is what our Founders intentionally framed for us and though we now know how intrusive an unfettered government can be, because of checks and balances, an ineffective government with a dominant Congress is what we have. Just what was intended.

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Friday, November 14, 2014

November 14, 2014--Best of Behind: Now That's Funny

Here is something from just two years ago--November 29, 2012--about the need for humor when things seem bleakest--

When was the last time Barack Obama said anything really funny? Excluding the jokes scripted for him for White House Correspondents' dinners. Like at the one in 2011 when he made fun of Donald Trump's birth certifcate. Funny stuff, but not really that clever much less spontaneous.
I ask because times like these demand that our leaders display a genuine sense of humor. Not just to help us deal with our fears but also to rally the public and make it possible, when struggling with tough issues, to reach consensus and strike deals. It's easier to come to difficult agreements if things are not always portrayed as portentous and grim. Humor has the ability to cut through the dire.
Case in point, the so-called Fiscal Cliff.
It's scary stuff even if you don't feel that it represents the coming of the apocalypse. On January 1st taxes will go up for all, especially for the hard-pressed middle class and working poor; all sorts of social safety net programs will automatically be cut; we may not be able to pay our sovereign debt; our credit rating which is already down a notch will decline further and this will lead to all sorts of nasty international ramifications; and . . .
I take it back--maybe this is the apocalypse. 
If so, then we desperately need to do a little laughing, and not just at the snarky jokes available every night from Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, but more the self-deprecating kind that is suffused with hard, often unpleasant truth that can best be raised with humor and, as a result, goes down much easier
There is one helpful example out there--Alan Simpson of the Simpson-Bowles Commission. It was created by Barack Obama in 2010 to identify "policies to improve the fiscal situation in the medium term and to achieve fiscal sustainability over the long run."
And, amazingly, even as bipartisan as it was (it included the scold Paul Ryan), the commission did come up with a tough series of recommendations that call for real tax increases and heavy-duty cuts in all federal programs, very much including for the Pentagon and Medicare. Ten members, five Democrats and five Republicans voted for it.
But then nothing happened. Facing a tough reelection campaign, Obama thanked them and promptly ignored the commission’s politically unpopular proposals, and the Republican leadership in Congress blanched at the recommended tax increases. So it went nowhere in a hurry.
But now, like Freddy Kruger, it's back because Obama decisively won a second term (he got 53 percent of the popular vote) and all sorts of tax increases and spending cuts will take place automatically at the start of the new year unless Congress and the president work out a comprehensive deal. So Bowles and Simpson have been resurrected and are making the rounds on Capital Hill and on the cable and Sunday talk shows.
Wyoming rancher that he is, the star of the two-man show is former Republican senator Alan Simpson. In addition to being at least as good as Bill Clinton at explaining things, he is also very funny, and this helps him get his difficult messages across; and, if we are lucky, may help save our economic day. He delivers hard truth in humorous, folksy ways and that makes the truth more palatable.
Here are some examples of Simpson unplugged, about the budget as well about other matters--
"If you want to be a purist, go somewhere on a mountaintop and praise the east or something. But if you want to be in politics, learn to compromise. And you learn to compromise on the issue without compromising yourself. Show me a guy who won’t compromise and I’ll show you a guy with rock for brains."
"I watch Republicans. They give each other the saliva test of purity, and then they lose and bitch for four years."
"But the thing that is really impossible to believe is that whatever adjustment we make and whatever has been suggested for the last 10 years in Social Security reform, from top to bottom, none of that affects anybody over 57. Where do I get my mail? From those old cats, 70 and 80 year-olds, who are not affected one whiff. People who live in gated communities and drive their Lexus to Denny's to get the AARP dissent. This is madness."
"Grandchildren now don't write thank you cards for Christmas presents. They are walking on their pants with their caps on backwards, listening to the Enema Man and Snoopy, Snoopy Poop Dog."
Ronald Reagan was funny--just look at videos of him fooling around with his political "enemy," Tip O'Neill as they figured out how to do business together. Then there was patrician Franklin Roosevelt, whose humor helped Americans get through the Depression. And, in spite of how he is portrayed in the current Steven Spielberg film, Lincoln was a great raconteur, which enabled him to get things done with his frequently contentious team of rivals. 
In fact I try not to miss Stephen Colbert; but maybe if our leaders would sit down over a Scotch and while negotiating make each other laugh while poking fun at each other and, more important, themselves, we'd get somewhere.

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Thursday, November 13, 2014

November 13, 2014--T-Shirts Make the Man

Like so many other things in Silicone Valley this trend likely started with Steve Jobs, for many years Apple's guiding genius.

Once, twice a year he would stride out on stage at their headquarters in Cupertino, CA, for a show-and-tell that featured the latest iPod, iPad or iPhone. Prior to that this was not what traditional CEOs did to launch their latest products. They would hang back in their corner offices and leave it to the sales and PR people to announce new Game Boys or office software.

Jobs, super salesman and egoist that he was, did this himself in dramatic fashion--in dark ambient light with only him, the Apple logo, and the newest MacBook Pro theatrically illuminated. And rather than appearing in a bespoke suit and Turnbull & Asser shirt and tie, he wore lived-in jeans and a body-revealing black mock-turtleneck shirt with the sleeves pushed up.

This became just as much his signature look as Gloria Steinem's aviator glasses or Donald Trump's comb-over. It also set the tone for other IT magnates. Everyone from Microsoft's CEO Steve Ballmer to Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg subsequently took to rolling out new products and services casually dressed. Zuckerberg shows up in his legendary hoodie or, more recently, in his Steve-Job's jeans and short- or long-sleeved T-shirt.
As reported in Tuesday's New York Times, Mark Zuckerberg, in spite of appearances, thinks a lot about his--if I can call it that--attire.

He wears an identical gray T-shirt every day. He said, "I want to clear my life so I have to make as few decisions as possible beyond serving this community." (My italics)

I get it--not having to think about clothes clears his mind. He avoids the angst of needing to think should it be the gray T-shirt again or maybe a blue or black one. It also saves closet space--one drawer is all he needs for a half dozen or so.

In the Times piece he did acknowledge Steve Job's inspiration--well and good--but claimed he is also influenced sartorially by Barack Obama.

Yes, he did comment about the "simplicity" of Obama's wardrobe. He didn't elaborate, but I suppose he means that Obama always turns out in one of his signature navy or dark gray Hart Shaffner Marx suits. Like Zuckerberg that too enables the president to make as few decisions as possible while serving the community. In his case that community being the United States of America.

In the meantime I worry about poor Steve Ballmer, former CEO of Microsoft, and Eric Schmidt, chairman of Google. Both are far from buff, a bit roly-poly and though they try to look sleek and youthful, when they appear on stage to reveal the latest in cloud computing or Google Glasses in their version of Jobs-Zuckerberg outfits, they look a bit disheveled.

But at least they don't try to stuff themselves into T-shirts.

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Wednesday, November 12, 2014

November 12, 2104--It's the Middle Class, Stupid

I promise--these will be my final comments about last week's midterm election.

My conclusion--It wasn't the economy, stupid, but the middle class.

The two are entwined, of course, but to understand what happened last Tuesday it's important to think about the economy from a middle-class perspective. This is especially true for Democrats if they, in our lifetimes, are to do better at the congressional and gubernatorial levels.

This time around, tactically, in campaigning, Democrat candidates avoided talking about the economy. This was part of their strategy to run as far away as possible from the unpopular president. The little Barack Obama said during the campaign season--again at Democrats' urging--was about how the economy was improving: unemployment was way down, the annual deficit during his first six years was more than cut in half, and the national debt was growing at a significantly reduced rate.

But if you have a job or are working two or three just to stand still, it doesn't excite or motivate you to learn that someone else, who had been unemployed, now has a job. And that person who now has a job might not be that enthusiastic either. He could be working just 20-30 hours a week, receiving no benefits, and earning only a little more than he would receive from various forms of public assistance.

So, very few in real-life situations are impressed economically, emotionally, or politically that the unemployment rate is down a percent or two. In fact, many don't even believe the numbers since they come from the government and are thus suspect. Because it has been a wageless recovery, what they are experiencing is their own precarious, deteriorating financial situation.

If you were in similar circumstances, what would you care about--the unemployment rate or your household's's bottom line?

Even more, who really cares other than theoretically about the deficit and the debt? This may sound cynical but, again, to people struggling with their own debt what's more real--what the government owes or their mortgage?

Those in the middle who are being squeezed hard--with everyone in the family working--may not know the statistics but they do know their earnings for more than a decade have not even kept pace with rising prices. They feel themselves working harder but slipping further and further behind.

And they are right.

The numbers support that perception. Since Barack Obama assumed the presidency, median inflation-adjusted middle-class income has declined. Last year it was $2,100 lower than it was in 2009. And lower still by $3,600 since 2001 when George W. Bush took office.

Blaming the government, especially those seemingly in charge (Obama and the Democrats, not Bush), is one way to deal with what has been happening to the middle class. They thought they were playing by the rules and that the miracle that has been the American economy would reward them or, more likely, their children. That trust has been betrayed.

Not to talk compassionately about this, as the Democrats didn't, not to focus all their progressive energy on the plight of the shrinking middle class, which they also didn't do, is not just politically ruinous but morally questionable.

It is hard to think what to suggest about this sad situation. What policies, what programs beyond empty promises would make a difference for the middle class? What evidence is there that any realistically realizable government policy might make a positive difference? Perhaps a middle-class tax cut? Anything else?

If true, then at least Democrats should take yet another lesson from Bill Clinton--figure out how to notice and feel people's pain and stop telling people what's good for them.

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Tuesday, November 11, 2014

November 11, 2014--Liberals

Shortly before leaving Maine we had breakfast with two very liberal friends. This was about a week before the recent midterm election and part of what we discussed was how they thought the results would turn out.

"Don't believe the polls," Arnie said, "He may be behind, but I feel certain LePage will be reelected governor. And easily. In fact, I predict we'll see a Republican sweep across the country."

"Why's that?" I asked. My read of things was that the GOP had a good change to take control of the Senate but thought Dems would do well in governors races.

"That's because we liberals don't get off our fat asses for midterm elections. We save our political energy for those years when presidents are elected. But we're good at complaining--in fact we make an art form of it--but when it comes to taking action we're not so good."

"Wouldn't you think," Jim said, "that women, young people, and minorities would be racing to vote this time around? Because if they don't, say goodbye to reproductive health care and, for that matter, health care more generally. And what do you think will happen to voting rights and education funding, especially money to help low-income youngsters pay for college?"

"When all the votes are in," Arnie said, "we'll hear all the whining and moaning and groaning on MSNBC."

"And excuse making," Jim added. "How the system is broken. Blah, blah, blah."

Sure enough, things turned out even worse than Arnie and Jim predicted and, yes, there is now all that liberal finger pointing.

Back in New York, after the election, I took up the conversation with other friends. They too complained that the system is broken. When I asked them what they had done beside sending out some checks to favored candidates and causes they avoided eye contact. I'm not even sure they voted. But they were full of jizzum about, again, the broken system.

When I said that I felt the system was broken only for us liberals, that conservatives are feeling pretty good these days about the system, that they are looking forward to that system getting government out of their lives (that should only be) and out of the business of spending their tax money on people who don't want to get off their duffs and work to feed their kids.

"Well," Sarah said, "that's because they have all these beliefs, unverified ones by the way, about the natural order of things. A version of survival of the fittest where competition and the market will take care of our problems. That is, if we leave things alone. As you know from history, this just doesn't work. But, if they believe," she said sarcastically, "to them it must be true."

"I agree with some of that," I said, "But let me ask you something--in fact, let me also ask myself something."

"What's that?" an equally frustrated Doug asked.

"Are there any beliefs that we have? Liberals I mean. Beliefs that are equally not verifiable from evidence?"

"You mean all the research and talk about the fundamental, even neurological differences between belief-oriented versus evidence-oriented people and how that affects political behavior?"

"Maybe. But not to get into that discussion, which in my view is based on still insufficient evidence, I'm simply asking if we who consider ourselves open-minded and minimally fact- or scientifically-oriented, if there are things we just believe."

Both Sarah and Doug stroked their chins, trying hard too come up with something they believe that was based on something like faith. I too sat sipping my coffee, asking myself the same thing, admitting it's not something I had thought too much about, satisfied as I am with how objective and rational I considered myself to be.

"Wait, I have something," I said all excited.

"I can't wait to hear this one," Doug muttered.

"Here's something I think that goes to our political and ideological core--don't we believe, without supporting objective evidence, that government should play a significant role to help our most vulnerable citizens?" Sarah and Doug stared at me blankly.

"You know, in health care, education, housing, things of that kind?"

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

"Look, I support all of these programs. At least the ones that work, which is a whole other conversation. But what hard evidence can we cite to support these beliefs?"

"The evidence that student loans help millions go to college who otherwise couldn't afford to."

"Again, I favor that. But that's about outcomes, not the truth from nature that tells us what must to be done. To support programs of this kind is not written on tablets but is based on following a set of beliefs about how we should behave toward each other. It's the right thing to do, I feel certain about that, but it's justified by how I feel about our various roles as citizens. I believe that's how we should behave as individuals and governments. With 'feel' and 'believe' underlined. Again, these core values are not evidence-driven. Maybe the outcomes are objectively measurable but not the underlying principles about the appropriateness or requirement that we act this way.

"Maybe," I continued, "we don't even having 'inalienable rights,' that these too are not from nature but socially constructed."

"In other words," Sarah offered, "you're saying we're no different than those who believe in a very limited role for government? Let the chips fall where they may in a survival-of-the-fittest mode?" I nodded. "I'm not interested in living in that kind of world."

"Neither am I," I said, "But I think it's a good idea to recognize, to acknowledge that we're not so different than conservatives in that much of our political core is as belief-driven as theirs. We obviously believe very different things and come to very different conclusions, but like them believe we do."

"If this is true," Doug sighed with a sense of resignation, "we are to some extent jerking ourselves around. Thinking about ourselves as superior--intellectually and, worse, morally superior to the Tea Party folks and their GOP enablers."

"Which is why," I said, "we too often sit around analyzing and complaining and excuse making. We're good at all of that and maybe even get it right--at least I believe that," I winked, "But I don't think it's helping us push back or do well at the polls--nationally, at the state level, and locally. We're losing on all those fronts. The other side is now even out-organizing us. They have the energy and momentum. OK, because they are more fervent in their beliefs; but since we share strong beliefs too we had better get up off our couches and turn off our iPhones and get to work.  Especially locally because that 's where the future leaders are coming from."

"I did notice a bit of a generational shift in last week's election results," Sarah said, "The Democrats felt old to me and the Republicans more youthful and energetic."

"Hillary beware," Rona said.

"One more thing," I said. "I know you have to run, but here's another problem that's under-discussed--Evidence is that minorities aside, Democrats, true liberals like us, are better educated and much more affluent than your average middle-class and rural conservatives--excluding billionaires like the Koch brothers of course--and we thus have been big beneficiaries of the Bush-era economic and tax polices, all of which were made permanent during the early Obama years."

Sarah was looking at me skeptically. "You, too have benefitted, " I said to her. "And me as well. Without getting into specifics, I have paid much, much less in taxes the past 14, 15 years than previously. And, I confess, I like that and thus do not feel that motivated to agitate to pay more. Even if it went to programs I believe in and at least theoretically support. I say 'theoretically' because I'm not that much good when it comes to political action and mobilization. I'll confess--I like my lifestyle and don't want to see too much of it change."

Doug said softly, "I think you're right," he glanced at me, "We have been too full of ourselves, believing that if we get the policies right the politics will follow."

"Obama said the same thing Sunday on one of the talk shows," Rona said.

"That view feels a little arrogant to me," Sarah admitted.

"I agree," I said, "I think so-called 'average people' perceive us and our policies this way. To them we come across as knowing better than they do what's best for them."

"I need to think about this some more," Doug said, staring into his empty coffee cup.

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Monday, November 10, 2014

November 10, 2014--Weekending

A niece turned 16 and through the weekend there were all sorts of celebrations and family gatherings. So many--all good--that I did not have the energy to write something. But I will return tomorrow with comments about Liberals that are sure to get me in trouble with some friends.

Friday, November 07, 2014

November 7, 2014--Best of Behind: The First Ladies of Forest Trace

Since I am sensing that there will not be too many more "Ladies," I thought to repost the first of them. It appeared on August 2, 2008--

Since whoever wins Florida’s electoral votes is likely to be the next president, rather than checking in with MSNBC or Justice Scalia to see who’s in the lead or who the Supreme Court will choose this time around, to find out how things are looking I call my mother who lives down there in a place called Forest Trace.

Forest Trace is for very senior citizens. The average age of the 400+ residents is about 80 and back in 2000 they were among the voters who punched the wrong sprocket on the paper ballot, thinking they were voting for Gore, but because of either shaky hands or misaligned ballots they hung enough chads, or by mistake punched a hole next to Pat Buchanan’s name, to send the election to the Supreme Court. And, as they say, the rest is history.

My mother has dinner every night with the same five or six friends, all of whom are lifelong Democrats who feel personally responsible for putting George W. Bush in the White House. Thus, this time around they are wanting to make up for what they consider to be their cosmic mistake.

As you might imagine, all but my mother were Hillary supporters. Actually, all but my mother remain Hillary supporters. They are among the disgruntled who feel that the nomination was snatched away from her by the media’s being unfair to her because she is a woman or because Barack Obama did not treat her with appropriate respect—remember, “She’s likeable enough”? They relate to her culturally and viscerally. They too stood by their men when they drifted, forgot their birthdays and anniversaries, didn’t help with the children, and failed to make an adequate living. So Hillary not only felt their pain, to their way of looking at things—forget objective reality—she lived it.

I was thus both curious and worried about what the ladies would think, and more important do, after John McCain rolled the dice and chose Sarah Palin to be his running mate. Would the residue of their feminist resentment be so strong that they would hold their collective noses and pull the lever or punch their chads for McCain-Palin just because he picked someone with the right gonads?

So Friday night, after her dinner, with considerable trepidation, I called my mother to see how McCain’s gambit was playing with my own personal Florida focus group.

She too was worried. She reported that most of the “girls” were very pleased with his selection and were now going to vote. Prior to this, out of on-going anger, to protest, they had been planning not to vote at all. Now, my mother said, they told her they were going to vote for McCain. When, she challenged them, saying both he and more important she were against all the issues and policies that Hillary supported, they shot back, “All we care about is that he chose a woman; and if we ever are going to see a woman in the White House during whatever little is left of our lives, this is our last chance.”

My mother was shaken and so was I. I tossed and turned all night, feeling that in spite of what seemed to be a fairly universal reaction that Palin’s selection would take the “experience” argument “off the table” and thus help Obama; and that any rational side-by-side comparison between Palin and Biden—assuming he didn’t come off condescending and patronizing during the vice presidential debate—that this too would tip the election toward Obama. Thus the ladies had me in a 24-hour state of political panic.

I say 24 hours because when I called my mother the next evening, again after dinner, I could tell by the bounce in her voice that things had changed.

“You sound different, mom,” I said.

“Yes, sweetie, I am feeling better. Much better.”

“Tell me. Tell me. What did the women say?”

“They’re all now going to vote for Obama.”

I resumed breathing. “What happened?”

“You know them, you met them the last time you and Rona were here. They’re all smart and well informed. They read all the papers, including the Times, and watch CNN.” I did recall liking them and thinking that they were still very much “with it.”

“Now that they know more about her,” I knew she was referring to Sarah Palin, “they are feeling insulted. They are now saying that John McCain is, what 72 years old, had serious cancer—and they know all about what that means—and has been saying all along that the most important thing is for him is to have a vice president who is ready on day one to become president.”

She knew I’d get the “day one” reference. “The girls now see that she is not ready if, God forbid, something happens to him. We have wars going on all over the place, terrorists still want to attack us, the economy—including their own pensions--is in trouble, and everyone around the world hates us.”

That was also pretty much my list. “So now that they have taken a second look at her and also realize that she opposes every issue that they fought for all their lives, some of them even marched for--you know Selma went to the South on Freedom Rides—they are saying that they don’t want the United States to be the laughing stock of the world. Things are already bad enough.”

“So? So?” I asked.

“They tell me they’re now all voting for Obama. And that’s not going to change.”

“I’m so relieved to hear that,” I sighed. “I’ll be able to sleep tonight.”

“Please, you need to get your rest. And be sure to eat.” She was still my mother. “I know what happens to you when you’re upset.”

“I will. I promise. I am so happy to hear that they will be voting for Obama. Florida is such an important state.”

“I know. In fact, you also know R___.” I did remember her. “Well,” my 100 year-old mother said in a whisper as if R___ might be able to overhear her, “She is not well. I think she may not be with us very much longer.”

“I’m so sorry to hear that,” I said.

“I told her to get an absentee ballot and to vote next week, because you never know what will be.” Her voice trailed off. “To tell you the truth, all the girls here, me too, should do that.”

I had to admit that made sense to me though I held back from adding anything that would contribute to further discussions about mortality.

It was almost nine o’clock and my mother, again full of enthusiasm said, “I have to go and watch Larry King, but be sure to call me again next week. With these girls, who knows, by then they could be voting for Ralph Nader!”

I could hear her laughing as she lowered the receiver to its cradle, making a note to call her then. I’ll be sure to let you know what the ladies are saying.

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Thursday, November 06, 2014

November 6, 2014--What Won On Tuesday?

It is much easier to understand who won on Election Day than to think about and describe what won.

First, the who--

With the single exception of Pennsylvania's's gubernatorial race, every governors race, every Senate race in which an incumbent was defeated went to Republicans.

Of the gubernatorial contests, again except in Pennsylvania, 4 of 5 incumbents were defeated--all Democrats, including in traditional Democratic strongholds such as Massachusetts and Illinois.

And in the Senate, where two additional incumbent Democrats could still be defeated in a runoff in Louisiana and at the end of the vote count in Alaska, of those not reelected, all seven were Democrats. Republicans held on to all their seats, mostly easily, and thereby ran the table.

And now what won--

The conventual, instant-analysis wisdom has it that this tide of victories for Republicans is the result of Barack Obama's unpopularity. That this midterm election was a referendum on his presidency.

True, but not the whole truth.

Added to the widespread frustration and anger at Obama's incompetence (less, his race), anyone with a sense of history knows that on average, since 1946, incumbent presidents' parties lost on average six Senate seats; and so, losing at least seven this time, is pretty much the norm.

True, but not the whole truth.

And then, inside-the-Beltway-think has it that more than anything else, this election revealed the breadth and depth of voter anger and frustration with Washington and, more broadly, government in general. It was a throw-them-all-out election.

True, but not the whole truth.

Not the whole truth because this analysis fails to note that both the governor who was most controversial in his governing and the senator up for reelection who most symbolized Washington and congressional gridlock, won handily.

Governor Scott Walker in Wisconsin, targeted for defeat by traditional Democrat constituencies, got 54 percent of the vote and soon-to-be Senate Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell in Kentucky received a whopping 56 percent.

That in a state where Bill and Hillary Clinton made a huge personal commitment to elect his opponent. Take note Democrats as you think about 2016.

If this was an anti-incumbent election, McConnell and Walker would have been among the first to go.

What then is going on? What then won yesterday?

The short answer--a certain kind of governing.

The kind that wants government to get governing out of the business of governing.

The big victors at the state and national level have at least one thing in common beyond party affiliation--a skepticism that government can or should be involved in people's lives (except their reproductive lives), a resistance to the country's involvement in overseas ventures (except to exterminate  with drones ISIS forces), or that government should look to solve social problems. Even to the point of denying that the problems Democrats embrace as problems are problems. These, most Republicans believe, should be left to the invisible hand of the market to sort out and resolve.

In addition, the form resentment and fear take that explains what won yesterday is the resentment that government selectively chooses who to take care of--poor people, minorities, immigrants, and incompetent union-protected government workers. This is at the heart of Governor Walker's appeal. As it is with two of my three governors--Scott in Florida and LePage in Maine, both of whom were reelected. At a time when middle-class people are struggling, they have little empathy left over for others who they perceive to be lazy and undeserving. And so they vote for those who promise to do little or, better, nothing.

Obviously, there is much to be thought about.

Minimally, freed of Tea Party pressure (this was an election that saw the resurgence of the current version of the Republican establishment), expect to see Mitch McConnell and John Boehner actually make some small deals with Obama to show that they can govern at least enough to retain their majorities, and expect Democrat candidates other than Hillary Clinton to emerge as it sinks in that she could easily lose in 2016 to a Jeb Bush, Rand Paul, and even more likely, Mitt Romney.

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Wednesday, November 05, 2014

November 5, 2014--The New Mediocre

As if we didn't have enough to complain about. We need to make it worse?

That's just what Vanessa Friedman did in a column in last Sunday's New York Times Review, "Mired in Mediocrity."

The title of her piece says it all--things globally, but especially in the United States, are stalled out because we are accepting, even embracing what she calls "the new mediocre."

Her bonafides? She is the Times' chief fashion critic and fashion director. More about that in a moment.

Let me summarize her indictment--

The idea that mediocrity is "the new normal" originates, Friedman claims, with Christine Lagarde, director of the International Monetary Fund, who applied that term to the global economy. It could use a jolt, Lagarde correctly suggests, to get it going, mired as it is, "muddling along with subpar growth."

Fine. But to generalize this to just about everything else is questionable. I do not want to come a across as Pangloss, seeing everything to be the best in "this best of all possible worlds," but to see everything to be the worst in this worst of all possible worlds goes way beyond the defensible and slips more into whining than legitimate analysis.

When she sees the newly emboldened Republicans putting forth an economic agenda that is made up of "a compendium of modest expectations," Friedman sees this this to be a manifestation of "the new mediocre."

Ranging far afield, she sees Twitter losing participants and thus income not because as a fad it is fading but because it has become an example of "the new mediocre."

"Old-guy action films" and "comic-book-hero" flicks that are predominating at the box office, squeezing out higher-quality art-house Indies, is yet more evidence that the the movies that are thriving--what else is new--are yet more evidence that "the new mediocre" is all-pervasive.

And then there is clothing, fashion, Friedman's expertise. Here she sees the same thing--mediocrity.

Enduring the recent spate of fashion shows in New York and Europe, she sees little evidence of new ideas among designers. Rather, she unhappily reports, everything seems deja vu--1960s-style "rock chick dresses," 1970s "flared trousers," 1980s "power jackets," and even 1920s "flapper frocks."

It doesn't get any worse than this, in this worst of all possible worlds.

I've been hearing from disillusioned and generally despondent friends that the Friedman piece sums up what they have been thinking and feeling about the contemporary world. That we are in fact mired in mediocrity. That this not only explains what they are seeing but also helps reconcile themselves to their own unhappy and frustrating circumstances. "It's not my fault," they are in effect saying, "but the larger world's."

I have been pushing back, claiming that though there is much to not feel good or optimistic about, to balance things, one could contemplate making a case in opposition to "the new mediocre" in support of "the new excellent."

A list of things to feel optimistic about would include--

All the advances in medicine and healthcare. Yes, the system for its delivery is deeply flawed, but if one has various types of cancer or needs life-saving, minimally-invasive surgery, with any good fortune, methods and tests and medications are now available that a scant few year ago were only dreams. "The new excellent."

If one is fortunate enough to be in the top 25 percent academically, public education capped by still the best higher-education system in the world could be considered an example of the new or continuing excellent.

Then there is Google, wirelessness, iGadgets, the Internet itself and all the possibilities that these enable--more "new excellent."

Evidence-based philanthropy, best exemplified by the Gates Foundation, which just last week announced it is stepping up its promising efforts to eradicate malaria, is, as part of "the new excellent," making progress on many fronts from environmental conservation to potable water to sustainable economic development. Yes, I know the counter list, but the picture is more balanced than the "new mediocre" people are claiming.

Even in regard to military hardware, while waiting for peace and sanity to break out in the world, drones, as one example of excellence of its own sort, enable battles to rage that inflict fewer civilian casualties than conventional methods. I know many of my anti-war friends (include me among them) will blanch at this, but in realpolitik terms this represents "progress."

At a different level of things to feel good about is the New Brooklyn, ATM machines, E-ZPasses, and the ubiquitousness of really wonderful coffee--my counter case to worrying too much about power jackets and flapper frocks.

One reason to consider the excellent to be at least as pervasive as the mediocre is that it can motivate one to shake the funk, get up off the couch, turn off the TV and iPhone (at least for a few hours a day), and look for ways to become engaged with making things a little better for yourself and the larger world. To take the opposite tack is to me to waste one's life.

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Tuesday, November 04, 2014

November 4, 2014--Ladies of Forest Trace: Darling

It is becoming more difficult to determine when it is best to call my more-than-106-year-old mother.

Time is having its inevitable way with her. She is losing vitality and spends more time than in the past resting and napping. So for me to establish a calling routine--she very much likes routines and rituals--is not working well.

Six months ago a good time to call was 12:30, after she had had her lunch. But now, even lunch is losing appeal. She is eating less and less with diminished interest. At times she doesn't rouse herself for it, sleeping until mid-afternoon; and so if I call at 12:30, it is more than likely she will not be available.

I try later in the day--3:00 sometimes works. Most days she goes down for a very early dinner, leaving her apartment at 3:30 precisely. Generally, that routine remains. But calling then can find her resting or not up to talking. I then try to reach her at 5:30 or 6:00 when she is back in her apartment, preparing for bed. On occasion, she is in bed before 6:00 and so my daily call is more frequently becoming an every-other-day occurrence.

Early last week I did reach her at the old familiar time--12:30.

Her aide told me she had a good lunch and wanted to speak with me. My mother, she informed me, in fact was eagerly waiting for my call.

Optimistic, I asked, "How are you today, Mom?"

"Doing the best I can," which is what she always says--true or not--to relieve me of any need to feel anxious and to let me know she is still not needing any more help or concern. Another example of her continuing, lifelong generosity and pride.

"You sound good to me," I said as cheerfully as possible.

"I am, darling." She sounded on the phone as if she were smiling.

"I'm so happy to hear that."

"And how are you?"

"I'm fine. Doing well. The weather is still nice and--"

She cut me off. "I love you darling," she whispered, and abruptly hung up.

I felt a wave of concern. This sounded so final, so conclusive. Would this be the last time I would speak with her? Was she signally something changed about her condition? Something dire she was intuiting?

As it turned out it wasn't the end or even the seeming-beginning of it. I spoke with her two days later--at 5:30--and she sounded even a little better.

"You do not need to worry about me, darling," she again reassured me.

"You know I will," I confessed. "That's the way I am. We are." We are a worrisome people.

Later that evening, over dinner with Rona, I told her about the most recent calls.

"Isn't it wonderful," Rona said, "to be your age and not only to still have a mother, but for her to call you darling. How I . . ."

Overcome with emotion, she couldn't continue.

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Monday, November 03, 2014

November 3, 2104--Transitioning

We are resettling in NYC (never easy) and thus I did not have the energy to write something. But I will return tomorrow, Election Day, with a new Ladies of Forest Trace.

Remember to vote early and vote often.