Friday, May 29, 2015

May 29, 2015--Best of Behind: The Dump

Dump season is about to begin. 

When we relocate to Maine on Sunday, without pickup service, we bring our refuse to the Bristol Dump, or, as it is officially known, the Bristol Transfer Facility. But everyone calls it The Dump and thinks of refuse as garbage.

Here then from June 7, 2010, is an account of our initial visit--

We arrived for the season and at top of our list of things to do was finding the town dump and buying a resident's sticker since we planned to take charge of our own garbage.

This was our priority since we hauled quite a bit of stuff up here and knew before unpacking that we would have a lot to throw out. Both the bags and boxes in which we packed things and a great deal that the previous owners left behind which we either didn't need or like well enough to keep. We also want to live as green a life style as possible up here in Maine, so sorting things out the right way--their way--and recycling them as directed was something we wanted to get right on top of.

So where the dump is, its hours, and how we needed to behave and interact with them was something we have been thinking about for weeks.

You may be wondering why all this seeming angst about refuse. Why all this concern about how to behave and interact with it and those in charge of its disposal. Fair enough.

These concerns derive from our experiences some years ago with the East Hampton dump. As with much else in the Hamptons it was not always pleasant.

First, to control the amount of rubbish tossed into the landfill the town limited the number of dump stickers it sold to residences each year. So there was a rush at Town Hall to purchase them the first day they were available. If you were too late to acquire one, your only choices in regard to your trash were to arrange for expensive private carting (this is the South Fork after all and everything out there comes at premium); you could take your garbage back to the city with you Sunday evening (more than you might imagine did this); or you could skulk out in the middle of the night and dump your garbage either in the woods or stack it by the fence at the entrance to the dump.

This later option disappeared one summer after the dump managers set up a closed-circuit TV monitoring system that caught the likes of Calvin Klein and Martha Stewart disposing of their refuse in this unsavory manner. Among other things, those of us in the relatively low-rent district muttered, "This is how the rich get richer." It also for months gave us lots to gossip and chuckle about. “Can you imagine?  Martha?

One more thing--in the tony, status-seeking East End having a dump sticker affixed to your front bumper was another way of letting everyone know that you owned a house in the Hamptons. And if you were able to get in line at the Town Hall at 6:00 on the day they first went on sale three hours later, after filling out half-a-dozen forms, showing two pieces of photo ID, and either the deed and/or two local utility bills, not only would you secure one, you would also be assured of getting a bumper sticker with a low number.

Low numbers of all kinds were symbols of status--low-number beach parking permits were coveted (these were for gaudy display on your car’s side window) and especially low telephone numbers.

324-0002, for example, is the number for the legendary local paper, The East Hampton Star, which has been around for seemingly hundreds of years. For so long, in fact, that when they started publishing telephones hadn't even been invented.

Therefore, to have a number of your own in which the last four digits were less than 1,000 meant that you were in residence before the Wall Street bonus babies and the other nouveau riche descended on the place and plopped McMansions into million-dollar-per acre potato fields. In fact, when we sold our modest house, the buyer paid us an extra $1,000 for our phone number. True, it was "only" 324 3026, but at least it had the coveted 324 (the population had grown so large that the telephone company ran out of 324s and instituted the prefix 329); and 324 with 3026 was thus worth literally more than, say, 329 5024. And thus a $1,000.

You get the picture. And therefore, considering our history with garbage, you might understand our dump anxiety as we were taking possession of our Maine cottage by the bay.

On Friday morning with our back seat and trunk almost as full of trash as it had been the day before with clothes and dishes and pots and glassware and food mills and knives and bathroom items and tagine pots, we found our way to the Bristol dump. Actually, the South Bristol “Transfer Facility.” Everything these days seems to be a facility.

To get to it, off the Bristol Road, you turn up Transfer Road and the first thing you notice it that there does not appear to be a guardhouse at the entrance. In East Hampton there was one that was a mini-mansion unto itself and ensconced in it at all times was an imperious, dour municipal worker who took great pleasure in scrutinized dump stickers and turning away anyone whose had expired or was affixed too far to the right or left or, better yet, any of the uninitiated who wandered in without any sticker at all. Actually, his greatest pleasure seemed to be to slow down and especially scrutinize anyone in a car costing more than $75,000. As if he suspected there was an illegal immigrant hidden in the trunk.

Into the Bristol Transfer Facility we trailed behind a couple of battered pickup trucks and a 25 year-old Volvo. We felt a bit out of place in our new Passat station wagon still shiny from the car wash back in New York, not yet coated with splatterings of the ubiquitous Maine mud. The car in that regard is still a work in progress.

At the facility there is no signage in easy sight, nothing to direct you to any of the huge bins into which others were purposefully transferring recyclables. But before wandering about among them, we though to go to the office to ask about purchasing a dump permit and how to display it.

The office was easy to locate and so we parked and wandered over. There was no one in it and so we turned toward an area where it appeared people were dropping off still useful items such as old pots and pans and bicycle parts and toaster ovens and floor lamps, the sorts of things we would subsequently be wanting to dispose of after sorting through what had been left behind by the pervious owners at the house.

At a makeshift counter, receiving these items, were three men who clearly were employees of the town.  With lots of bantering back and forth they seemed to know everyone lined up with still-good stuff that might be of interest to others in need of a second-hand Mixmaster.

“This here one is still working,” said a woman with an old electric fan.

One of the grizzled workers was holding it up close to him so he could scrutinize the wiring. “Bet better than Old Jeb back home,” he chuckled. “Workin’ I mean,” he said with a broad wink. She laughed along with him.

Someone else passed parts of a drum set across the counter. It too underwent close inspection to see if all the mechanisms were intact. They appeared to be. “So Junior’s finally given up on this I see,” a younger facility worker in a New York Yankee cap said to the middle-aged man, Junior’s apparent father, dressed all in flannel.

“Not exactly. I’m the one’s givin’ up. He’s still sleeping so I thought to scoop this damned thing up and bring it over to you. Let someone else take it home to his kid. Spread misery around I always say.”

It was then our turn. Expecting to be treated as an outsider, again from our East Hampton experiences, I turned to the Yankee fan, thinking at least as a fellow Bronx Bomber follower, he might look more favorably on me. I thus took the stranger’s risk to say, “Hey, I see you like the Yanks. Must be a rarity ‘round these parts.” Glancing toward one of his colleagues, I added, “They let you wear that here?”

Let me?” he said, “They insist on it. This is a dump after all. Fit place for those chumps. We're all Sox fans here. Serious ones.” He pulled at the beak of his cap to make sure I understood that he meant the Yankees were the ones fit for a dump. Worried that I had misstepped, I was pleased to see he was smiling.

“We just moved into a house up here. Down the road toward the Point and want to join the transfer facility. I mean, learn how to use it.”

“Well, good for you,” it was the grizzled worker, “Thanks for helping us out with your taxes.” At that he broke into full-throated laughter. Friendly laughter. I was beginning to feel the tension draining from me.

“I mean, can you tell us where we have to go to get, I mean buy a dump sticker.”

“Right here,” the Red Sox fan said now with a full smile, pointing at the office.

“Great,” I said. Thrilled that we didn’t have to find our way to the Bristol Town Hall and get on line next Thursday, or whenever, before dawn. “I pay you? Here? Or wherever?”

“Right here.”

“An how much does it cost?”


Nothin’? You mean, nothing? Really?” He nodded. “That’s great.” By the time we left East Hampton a sticker was costing about $100.

“Can I get one now?”

“Any time. Any time we’re open. That’s five days a week. We’re closed on Wednesdays and Sundays and on as many holidays as possible. Even Arbor Day.”

“That’s terrific,” I said. That sounded like a green thing to do—to close on Arbor Day. “Bet you spend the whole day plantin’ trees.” It was my turn to grin.

“More likely cuttin’ ‘em down. But I was just foolin’ you ‘bout that. We’re open that day, whenever it is, but you should check the schedule before draggin’ yourself over here with a carload of trash. Nice car, by the way.” He pointed over toward our Passat. I was glad to see that it had acquired more mud from the pitted road that lead to the dump.

“Now about that sticker. Let me go inside and get you one. In the meantime just put your name and address down here. So we can have a record of you.” He passed a clipboard to us on which there was a crumpled sheet of paper that already was half full of names.

“Looks to me,” I said, “that the last name on the list is George Clooney. Does he have a place near here?”

“Not likely,” I received another smile, “Someone wrote it down as a joke. This ain’t one of those fancy kind of Maine towns. Like Kennebunkport. Though we do have the Kresges summering nearby. You know, the folks who own K Mart. Real nice folks. But no Hollywood types. Thank goodness.” He turned to the office, “Give me a moment and I’ll get right back with you.”

I asked Rona if she wanted to put her name on the list. “Only if it’s after George Clooney,” she said with a touch of irony, suggesting I was trying too hard to fit in. “You need to calm down a bit. This is not East Hampton. That’s in part why we want to be here. To get away from all that posturing, and here you are doing your version of it. Try to relax. Everyone thus far has been friendly and welcoming.”

“That’s true,” I admitted, “I am overdoing it.”

“Just a bit?”

I shrugged.

“Here you go. One transfer facility sticker. And the price is right.”

“Thanks. Much appreciated,” I said. It was slipped into a brochure that listed the hours of operation and the various recycling categories—tin cans; newspapers with inserts; clear, green, and brown glass; corrugated cardboard; brown paper bags; aluminum foil and trays, magazines and catalogs; and bulk waste such as shingles, brush, furniture, mattresses, and “demo wood.” I thought we’d have some of all of these and realized that being green in Maine looks like a full-time job.

As we walked to the car, I found the yellow facility sticker in the brochure and must admit hoped it would have a low number. Old habits die slowly. I noticed it did not have any number at all—not a high one, not a low one.

I showed this to Rona and she passed me a look that said, “I told you so.” But, she noticed, there were no instructions about where to affix it to one’s car. “Go back and ask them. I’ll begin to unload the trunk.”

I walked back to my new friend and asked where they required us to attach it.

“Oh, I forgot to tell you about that. Just put it in your glove compartment.”

“In the glove compartment? Not on the bumper or window or anything?”

“You can do anything you want with it, but around here everyone puts it where I told you.”

When I rejoined Rona, with a combination of confusion and delight, I said, “We’re not in the Hamptons anymore.”

She just smiled.

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Thursday, May 28, 2015

May 28, 2015--Return Tomorrow

Prepping to leave for Maine. I will be back here tomorrow.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

May 27, 2015--Safe Rooms

The latest thing in New York City real estate chic are safe rooms where owners can hide from intruders; those seeking to do them harm; and, for the seriously anxious, protect them from chemical or nuclear attack.

This is post 9/11 behavior for those in fact feeling that kind of serious threat or just another form of conspicuous consumption.

According to a report in yesterday's New York Times some with safe rooms that set apartment dwellers back six figures to construct are pretty comfortably set up and stocked with enough provisions and entertainments to accommodate them for some time--until burglars leave or when after a terrorist attack it is considered safe to venture out.

Some, who do not have an extra bedroom that can be converted into a safe room, are fortifying closets and bathrooms. Though in Manhattan closet space is at a premium. When Gwyneth Paltrow had a town house in the city, her safe room doubled as a closet. A typical New York solution to never feeling you have enough square footage.

But according to safe-room contractor Tom Gaffney, president of Gaffco Ballistics . . .

The world is a very scary place right now, especially for people of means; they feel cornered and threatened. When you have so much to lose, and you can afford it, you put a premium on your safety.

My first thought--why then have a place at Ground Zero, New York City? Why not hole up in the country where you can build an electronic moat around your place and have the perimeter patrolled by security forces armed with attack dogs and the latest weapons?

But the Big Apple is irresistible even for the hyper-nervous. And for the Middle Eastern and Russian billionaire condo owners, looking for safe havens for their ill-gotten wealth, in spite of the perceived threats, NYC is still a good and safe-enough deal. Worrying about intruders or even chemical attacks is something they are used to back in their home countries.

It all, as they say, comes literally with the territory.

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Tuesday, May 26, 2015

May 26, 2015--Osama bin Laden's Instructions to Applicants

Last week, the Department of Homeland Security published a list of the books and papers Navy Seals found in Osama bin Laden's bunker in Abbottabad, Pakistan. In the press, most attention was paid to his books. Even Michiko Kakutani, the New York Times chief book reviewer, wrote about his reading habits, especially taking note of his obsessive interest in the United States and the West.

She noted how bin Laden was particularly interested in American foreign policy. Among other volumes, on his bookshelf were the report of the 9/11 Commission; Bob Woodward's Obama's War; Paul Kennedy's Rise and Fall of Great Powers; and Noam Chomsky's Hegemony of Survival: America's Quest for Global Domination.

Mention was also made of a job application form that job seekers were required to fill out if they wished to be considered for al Qaeda. Little was said about it beyond the question about which next of kin should be notified after recruits were blown to smithereens in a suicide bombing. The role most likely to be assigned to Westerners.

Here are other questions from the actual application--Osama's "Instructions to Applicants." Including how it might be filled out by an eager Western al Qaeda follower--

Date of arrival in the land of Jihad:

I do not yet have my airline ticket. I am waiting for a sale or to use frequent flyer miles and when an aisle seat is available. If accepted by your organization I will keep you informed of my plans. I assume a one-way ticket makes sense.

How long do you plan to stay in the Jihadi theater?

I did not know it was a theater. But that sounds cool. The timing, of course, is up to you. I imagine your associates set the schedule for training, propaganda videos, and suicide bombings.

Are any of your friends in the Jihad theater?

Maybe my college roommate. He took a course in Islamic history and one summer his parents took him on a trip to see the pyramids. I haven't been able to reach him lately. He doesn't respond to my texts or emails so he may already be in the theater.

Education Level: Primary . . .  Elementary . . . Secondary . . . College . . . 

Forgive me, Imam, but in my country "primary" and "elementary" are the same thing. So as not to confuse recruits who, unlike me, do not have college degrees, perhaps eliminate one or the other. I was a communications major in college, had a GPA of 3.40 and 1,450 SAT scores.

When did Almighty Allah bless you with this gift?

I decided what to do with my life while watching a rerun of Lawrence of Arabia on Netflix.

Have you researched or invented anything in any domain?

After college, since there were no jobs available, I worked on developing apps for iPhones. And I have this idea for a Jihadi video game that maybe could be used for training purposes. It's called Doorway to Paradise. If you'd like, I can send it to you by email.

List the countries to which you have travelled and the purpose of the trip(s) . . .

One summer after my junior year I went to France and Italy to take in the sights. My favorite place was Venice. I loved all the canals.

How many trips have you taken to Pakistan and for what reason(s)?

None yet but I am looking forward to visiting. There's a great Pakistani restaurant near my apartment that I go to all the time. I always have chicken tikka and saag paneer.

List the experience or expertise you have in any area.

I know Facebook, Snapchat, Twitter, and Instagram. Also word-processing, Photoshop, and Excel. And I have a drivers license with no moving violations and know how to use a stick shift which I assume will be useful if you decide to accept me into al Qaeda.

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Monday, May 25, 2015

May 25, 2015--Long Weekending

I will return on Tuesday.

Friday, May 22, 2015

May 22, 2105--Best of Behind: The Quiet Room

This was from August 3, 2007 and is a friend's favorite. She asked me to post it again--

It wasn’t a good sign that I didn’t know where to find the belt for my bathrobe.

I had never been to a spa before and when the very nice attendant helped me slip it on, after seeing me struggling to find the belt and sensing that I had come to the conclusion that it was not for some reason included, in a hushed voice, since we were in the Quiet Room, she told me it was hanging right there on the back where it had been stitched in place. Embarrassed for the first of a number of times to come, she as gently as she spoke, reached behind me and drew the two ends to the front, asking, “Do you need any help tying it?”

Only slightly embarrassed this time, trying not to sound inappropriately uncalm considering where this was transpiring, I said, “I think I can manage, thank you. I do have one at home, but it has a belt that comes strung through the loops.”

At last with me securely belted up, she asked, “Can I give you a tour?”

“That would be nice,” I said.

“Well, let’s start right here in the Quiet Room. As you can see the lights are very dim. That’s intentional. It helps guests to relax. And we also have these relaxation beds.” She pointed to about twenty of these arranged in a dimly-lit circle that she said is an “ideal arrangement to induce relaxation,” adding, “It’s a very spiritual arrangement.”

My eyes by then had adjusted to the light and I could see the teak-wood, slatted chaise-like relaxation beds covered head-to-foot with various layers of linen sheets and terrycloth towels. I also noticed that they were not adjustable and that the end where one was to presumably place one’s head was quite a bit lower than where one’s legs would wind go.

“If I lie on one of them,” I asked, “won’t I get dizzy, and,”  knowing my propensities, “maybe even pass out? I don’t want you to have to call 911.” I chuckled less from my sorry attempt at humor than out of nervousness.

“That wouldn’t be a problem at all. We’re very close to the local hospital. You might have seen it when you drove here from Auburn.”

“I didn’t see it but it’s good to know it’s right here. I feel certain that will help me relax.”

Ignoring that ironic barb, or missing it entirely, she pressed on, “I don’t know if you noticed the music we have here in the Quiet Room. It was very carefully selected by our spa manager. He came to us from California and put these tapes together especially for us. They’re very relaxing and meditative don’t you think?”

“Oh yes, I can hear it now.” What sounding like wind chimes accompanied by a lute was faintly audible as if descending from the vaulted ceiling which I saw was covered with fluffy frescoed clouds. “The music does sound very meditative.”

“I’m so glad you feel that way because at 4:30 this afternoon, the spa manager himself, Evan is his name, he will be conducting a meditation and relaxation session right here in the Quiet Room. If you’d like, I can reserve a relaxation bed for you. We still have a few free, including one right over there by the water fall. I know it’s hard to see because of the way Evan has the lights turned down but maybe you can hear it. He adjusts the flow of the water just so, so at the same time you can still hear the music and also the relaxing sound of the water. Should I save a place for you? There’s no extra charge of course and Evan wants guests to know he doesn’t accept gratuities.” I nodded, thinking I should sign up for something. All the other scheduled activities sounded too strenuous for total relaxation—Pilates, aerobics, fasting, purging, colonics.

“And,” she continued, looking very pleased that I was getting drawn into participating in at least one thing that they had obviously taken so much care and thought to organize, “Did you notice that these specially-designed bathrobes do not have any pockets? Though all the brochures say this is so guests will not bring cell phones to the Quiet Room, it’s really because Evan doesn’t want anyone to have any money with them. He feels strongly that we should ‘leave the world behind,’ that’s what he always says, when we enter here.”

She smiled ecstatically—I knew that because I could see, through the gloom of the scented air, the light emitted by the whiteness of her glowing teeth.

“Also there’s one more thing I must show you. I feel that from the way you responded to the music that this will be one of your favorite activities while you’re here with us.” Again gently, she turned me away from the semicircle of beds and pointed toward what appeared to be a cedar-wood door. “Right there,” she said, “behind that door is our Eucalyptus Shower.” While my eyes strained to adjust again to the even-dimmer light in that corner of the Quiet Room, Shelly, she had introduced herself, remained stationary, still smiling broadly and pointing at the shower door.

“I have to confess, though you’ve probably figured it out by now, that I’m not that experienced with spas and I’ve never heard of that kind of shower. How does it work—do they put eucalyptus in the water?”

“You’re being silly again,” she punched me softly and conspiratorially on the shoulder of my robe, “It’s really a steam shower.”

“Steam? That sounds pretty hot to me. I have very delicate skin. Though,” I winked at her, “you already told me the hospital is just down the block.”

“Actually it’s down the road; but you don’t stand under the steam like you do in a water shower. You would get burned if you did that.” Exactly, I thought but didn’t say anything. “It’s more like a steam bath. We make steam and put eucalyptus oil in it. Everyone in California takes them. Evan feels it’s good for your spirit as well as your body. It’s aromatherapy. You know about that I’m sure.” I chose not to contradict her, hoping the eucalyptus steam bath wasn’t going to be too big a part of the session I had signed up for. Having grown up in Brooklyn I was still more of a regular water shower kind of person.

                                                                   * * *

It was nearly 4:00 and since I had a half hour to kill I decided to walk around the grounds. They are very beautiful, and from the inn’s brochure I understood are modeled after Monet’s garden in Giverny. I wandered around a bit, over the arched wooden bridge that spanned the water lily pond just like the one so familiar in Monet’s late paintings; and before I knew it, it was time to return to the Quiet Room.

In fact, it was nearly four-forty. I was ten minutes late but thought that would be all right, since for an experience of the kind I was about to have, leaving the world behind, as Evan always said, I felt certain no one would be watching the clock.

But I was wrong—pacing back and forth by the door, tapping on his watch was, I was sure, Evan. Blonde streaks such as his could only come from California. In a harsh whisper he admonished me, “Everyone else is here waiting for you so they can relax. Please get onto your relaxation bed so we can begin.”

Pulling my robe even tighter around me in an attempt to make myself invisible, I slunked over to, wouldn’t you know it, bed number 13. As quickly as I could, half tangled up in my ankle-length robe, I lowered myself onto the bed, not at all gracefully since, as you know, the head end was so much lower that that for my legs. But I did manage to get settled without choking myself with the belt.

Almost immediately I realized that much too much blood was rushing in the wrong direction; and, as unanatomically correct as it may seem, I was getting quite dizzy while lying down. I had feared that this would happen at the end of the session when attempting to get up.

To cover my anxiety, sotto voce, I said, as the etherial music continued to envelope us, “Lying here like this reminds me of a being in a mausoleum.” And, as I looked around at the other nineteen lying there wrapped like mummies in their oversized robes, if they had been orange and not white, we would have looked at lot more like the 38 members of the Heavens Gate Hale-Bopp cult who committed mass suicide together back in 1997 than guests paying $500 a night so we could relax.

I vowed that if I survived the session and managed to avoid being raced to the hospital, at dinner later than night in the inn’s award-wining restaurant I would be sure to have their legendary Mood Altering Warm Chocolate Cake with Bourbon Ice Cream and Toasted Walnuts. As they note on the menu—“Because You Deserve It.”

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Thursday, May 21, 2015

May 21, 2105--Riyadh, Saudi Arabia: Help Wanted. Must Be Willing to Travel

Though oil prices have declined precipitously during the the past year, things appear to still be looking good for our former-best-friends in Saudi Arabia.

There are numerous unfilled openings for well-paying jobs across many sectors.

Including for executioners.

According to the New York Times, there are so many waiting to be beheaded (or be-handed) that on the Ministry of Civil Service's website the Saudi government is advertising for up to eight executioners.

No special skills are required nor any particular kind of educational background. Just the ability to "carry out the death sentence according to Islamic Shariah after it is ordered by a legal ruling."

Candidates, though, must be able to handle a heavy workload since there apparently is a huge backlog of murderers and those convicted of other major crimes who need to be beheaded plus many others, thieves, who are waiting to have their hands chopped off.

But it appears that there is a shortage of experienced swordsmen in many regions of Saudi Arabia and so it may be some time before all eight positions are filled. In the meantime, those on Saudi Death Row are piling up. Last Sunday, a man convicted of a drug offense was publicly beheaded, making him the 85th person executed thus far this year. According to Human Rights Watch during all of last year "only" 88 were beheaded. So you can see what executioners there are facing.

In the past, the execution business was a father-son profession, with the job passed down from generation to generation. This appears to be less true today; and of course, to alleviate the shortage, it is not likely that fathers will pass down the sword to their daughters. Among other things, how would they be able to get from assignment to assignment since women in Saudi Arabia are not permitted to drive. Thus the public job posting.

On the website there is no mention of how much the jobs pay. Traditionally, since even in Saudi Arabia these are not full-time jobs, these swordsmen typically work as guards for members of the royal family and then do their beheadings on the side, apparently receiving a bonus of at least $1,000 per. How much they get for amputating hands is not known.

But I have a solution for the hard-pressed Saudis--perhaps they should consider subcontracting with ISIS. It appears that they have no shortage of members experienced in beheadings.

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Wednesday, May 20, 2015

May 19, 2015--Shark Tank Losers

Thus far there are seven officially declared candidates for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, including Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, and Ted Cruz. Another three or four have expressed interest--former Texas governor Rick Perry, former New York governor George Pataki, former senator Rick Santorum. Five or six more are formally exploring the nomination--Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, Chris Christie. Among the latter two groups all will soon become declared candidates.

Another three have expressed interest, including Congressman Peter King of Long Island and Maryland governor Bob Ehrlich. Hovering is a group of 30 or more who at one time or another ran or thought about running and may surprise by jumping into the race. Among them are my favorites Michele Bachmann, Ted Nugent, Sarah Palin, and Herman Cain.

Realistically of these 50 or so candidates and potentials only four or five have a real chance of winning the nomination--Scott Walker, Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, and perhaps Rand Paul. They are the only ones with big bucks behind them.

Perhaps another two or three could emerge from the pack because they appeal to the Republican base which ultimately can nominate even someone unelectable in the general election--a Mike Huckabee, Ted Cruz, or Rick Santorum.

Why then are former congressman Allen West, neurosurgeon Ben Carson, Indiana governor Mike Pence, and Ohio governor John Kasich either running like Carly Fiorina or posturing and thus signaling that they might like Bobby Jindal?

I call them the Shark Tank candidates--they are in the race knowing they will lose, but in losing wind up winning.

You know Shark Tank? One of my favorite TV programs, it is a reality show where small business owners present their products or services to a panel of very wealthy investors that includes Mark Cuban, among other things the owner of the Dallas Mavericks basketball team; Barbara Corcoran, real estate mogul; and software billionaire Kevin (Mr. Wonderful) O'Leary. Usually for a few hundred thousand dollars that the aspiring entrepreneurs seek to grow their businesses, they give up 10 to 50 percent ownership in their companies. The sharks who make the deal--investing their own money--then serve as mentors for their new partners.

In almost every instance the deals work out to be very profitable with sales typically doubling, tripling, or quadrupling over a year or two.

AirBedz was a winner. The owner received $250,000 for a share of ownership in a small company that makes air beds that inflate quickly because of their internal pumps. Kisstixx, a sexy lip balm was offered $200,000 and saw its sales skyrocket. AVA the Elephant, a plastic elephant that helps kids take their meds, secured a $50,000 investment and in turn saw its sales soar.

But the losers also tend to do very well. Scan, a mobile smartphone app that enables users to read bar codes, did not receive backing but as the result of being showcased on Shark Tank began to gross millions. As did Chef Big Shake, a seafood operation that calls itself the "home of the original shrimp burger."

Studies show that it is more the very fact of appearing on ABC TV and than being repeatedly rerun on CNBC than the money that supplies the lifting power. It is calculated that appearing on Shark Tank is worth $4-5 million in free advertising.

So, in this context, how much will it be worth, personally worth to, losers all, Newt Gingrich (yes, him) or Ben Carson or Rick Santorum to appear in televised presidential debates? Millions, some calculate in speaking fees, book contracts, and the biggest prize of all (chime in Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee), a show of their own on Fox News.

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Tuesday, May 19, 2015

May 19, 2015--The Rodham Boys

Well, John Bolton has decided not to run for president. Remember him? George W. Bush's choice for UN ambassador? Knowing he wasn't confirmable because of his hyper-hawkish ways (Bolton was ready to bomb Iran even before John McCain was), he received an interim appointment and was a favorite on the Sunday talk show circuit and at other times was always on Fox. As much for his tell-it-like-it-is style as his flamboyant walrus mustache

In a field of otherwise bland candidates, I would have loved to have seen him squeeze himself and that mustache into the Republican clown car. Oh well.

But for those of us who can't wait for the GOP candidates' debates to begin--especially now that our favorite TV shows are shutting down for the season or, like Mad Men, the duration--the GOP Show has the potential to help us get through the summer doldrums and then much of next year.

But just when I thought the comedic potential of the 2016 lineup would not equal the fun provided last time around by Herman Cain and Michele Bachmann among others, that I'd have to settle for Rick Perry, Ben Carson, and hopefully Donald Trump, Jeb Bush, who was supposed to be the adult in group, has gone off the tracks and may, it turns out, be good for a few laughs.

The last few days were not good for him politically, but for entertainment he won the week.

It took him four or five attempts to tell interviewers if he would have invaded Iraq if he knew then what he knows now. That the intelligence data was phony, "sexed up" by Dick Cheney.

First he said yes, then no, and seemingly yes again before asserting, though he loves his brother, no. I came away as confused as he. But amused.

Among other things, since he's been thinking about running for president for at least 20 years, one would have expected that for that inevitable question he would have precooked an answer. If Ted Cruz has managed to do so, why not the supposedly-competent Jeb Bush whose brother after all made that mess.

On the other side, Hillary also didn't have much of a week. In fact, a few more like the last one and Bernie Sanders will start to look good to more than the talk show hosts on MSNBC. But, as always, the Clintons can be counted on to be an ongoing soap opera.

This time it's not about Benghazi, Emailgate, or Clinton Cash, though the news at the end of last week about how Bill and Hillary pocketed $30 million in lecture fees over the past 16 months, makes one wonder what wisdom they must impart to justify more than $200,000 a pop for a speaking engagement, but about Hillary's two less-than accomplished brothers--the Rodham Boys. Boys who remind me of Jimmy Carter's extended family of hucksters and hustlers.

We know that corporate folks will pay-to-play with the Clintons, but Hillary's siblings?

In familiar behavior for people related to relatives in power, they used their family connections to open doors and get them into deals that they would have been excluded from if they were, say, my brothers.

For example, according to a recent report in the New York Times, after the earthquake in Haiti, brother Tony Rodham tried to get Bill Clinton--who, through the Clinton Foundation was supporting relief and rebuilding efforts-- to help him and his partners secure a $22 million deal to rebuild homes. In a subsequent law suit, Rodham explained how "a guy in Haiti" had "donated" 10,000 acres of land to him and testified how he pressured his brother-in-law to get the project funded.

"A deal through the Clinton Foundation. That gets me in touch with Haitian officials. I hound my brother-in-law, because it's his fund that we're going to get our money from. And he can't do it until the Haitian government does it."

Not deterred when things didn't quite work out, Tony worked on Bill Clinton to get permission for investors he was representing to mine for gold, again in Haiti.

When he presents himself to corporate groups seeking speakers, he refers to himself as a "facilitator," an honest appellation that could cover the entire extended family.

BREAKING NEWS--South Carolina senator Lindsay Graham just announced he'll be running for president. This is great news. He's hilarious.

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Monday, May 18, 2015

May 18, 2015--ISIS Takes Ramadi

It was reported yesterday afternoon that ISIS forces took the Iraqi city of Ramadi, the capitol of Anbar Provence--the site of George W. Bush's famous "surge."

Despite intensive U.S. missile and drone strikes and a seemingly strong defense put up by Iraqi security forces, ISIS drove them from their positions and took control of the city. With a population of 500,000, Ramadi is Iraq's 10th largest and lies just 68 miles west of Baghdad.

I have one question--

How did this happen?

Over 10 years we spent hundreds of billions of dollars of American taxpayer money to train an Iraqi defense forces that could defend itself from threats of this kind.

In much less time, with little money and materiel, apparently under the radar, the Islamic State, is clearly able to launch attacks successfully in spite of what one would imagine would be effective resistance by the U.S. and the Iraqi army that we trained.

If we wanted an army that could fight, we should have hired ISIS to do the training rather than turning it over to Blackwater.

How is it that this training of ISIS forces was unknown to us?  Don't we have drones and satellites to keep an eye on such things? ISIS trained thousands, not a few dozen, and this should have been apparent to us from week one.

Why is it that using Google Earth I'm able to see Rona's 2x4-foot planters on our terrace but the U.S. and its allies weren't able to spot ISIS efforts to train what is feeling to be an invincible force?

Can anyone help me out here because I am very confused. And angry.

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Friday, May 15, 2015

May 15, 2015--New York, New York: Cat On the Run

"Is that a cat racing around the book stalls at the Strand? I mean, not a street cat. It has a collar."

"I can't see it," I said, straining to look through traffic to the other side of Broadway.

"There, under that bookcase," Rona stretched to point. "Darting back and forth as if possessed."

Finally spotting it, I said, "I've never seen anything like that. Only feral cats here. And even that's unusual. No one in the city lets a cat out on her own or takes one for a walk or anything."

Now the cat was heading toward us, zigzagging in a attempt to avoid the cars and trucks that were slamming on their breaks to avoid hitting her.

About ten yards behind the cat a man raced after it in hot pursuit. The cat was running hard and it took all he had to keep up with it. He too was almost run down by a careening motor cyclist.

Reaching our side of the street, the cat raced halfway across a plank that spanned a construction site, over a deep cut in the sidewalk, and then came to a halt, panting visibly, but feeling protected as if she knew it would not be safe for the man to walk out on the plank. It was not secured and would likely, with him, tumble into the excavation.

He too was panting. We had stopped to watch right at that corner, quite close to where he stood, half bent over, gasping for breath. The cat, though quivering, still glared at him.

"That yours?" I asked.

With two head pumps he nodded, still bent over and panting. Sweat and saliva dripped from him.

"I wouldn't go out on that board," I advised. "Looks dangerous."

That seems to mobilize him again and he defiantly, as if to show her and me, tapped one toe tentatively on his end of the plank. It wobbled, almost coming loose from where it had been placed by the workers who were nowhere in sight.

"Fuckin cat," he muttered, spitting toward it. The cat, clearly familiar with him and his behavior, rose on its haunches and looked as if it was planning also to hiss and spit.

"So it must be yours," I said, not knowing what to say to be compassionate or helpful. It was hot and we wanted to get to the Union Square Market before some of the vendors were sold out.

"All she does is eat, drink, and piss. Shits too."

"That's what they all do," I said, Rona was tugging on my sleeve. "That's all any of us do when you get right down to it." I thought to try something that, if not sincere, felt philosophical.

"See that over there?" He pointed halfway up the block toward 13th Street.

"Can't say that I do."

"Well, that's where I live."

I looked up the street and didn't see anything but commercials buildings and street-level stores.

"Not up there but down there." He pointed at the sidewalk about 30 feet north of where we were standing. He launched a glob of phlegm toward Broadway.

I still wasn't following him. By then Rona was pulling hard on my shirt and whispered, "I want to get to the market before some of the vendors leave."

The cat stayed put. As if to taunt him, she began licking herself.

"Without her I have nothing going for myself."

"I'm not following you." I was sincerely confused. No longer feigning interest.

"That's where I live and, if you want to call it that, work." He continued to point toward the sidewalk.

"I'm not . . ." But in truth I was, and so stopped stammering.

"No one would even stop to piss on me if it weren't for her." He snapped his fingers at the cat but she didn't move. She kept licking herself.

It dawned on me finally that he "lived" on the sheets of cardboard spread on the sidewalk. Next to them was a plastic garbage bag full of his few things. And a bowl for water for the cat and what looked like an upturned cap in which I imagined there would be a handful of spare change.

As the weather had warmed up recently, a number of streets near us had filled up with homeless people, some with rather elaborate setups. We must have walked by him numerous times on the way back and forth to the market, always, as usual, with eyes averted.

"It's a life," he said, shrugging his shoulders as if to explain or apologize. "And the only reason any folks toss me a quarter is because of her. They care more about the fuckin cat than me. But I get it," he wanted to say more, "I'm nothing to look at and she can be pretty cute. Especially when she's hungry. Which is all the time."

"I think I understand," I said feeling contrite.

"Think about it--people care more about cats and dogs than humans. Not that there's that much human about me." It felt as if he wanted me to join him in feeling sorry for himself.

"They leave their savings to the ASPCA when they die but won't even send a check to programs for the homeless. Not that I think about myself that way. Homeless I mean. Though to tell you the truth I don't know what else to call the way I live. For Christ sake I sleep on a fuckin refrigerator carton and beg for nickels. Not much of a home."

He was doing it again and so I was happy to see the cat raise herself up, stretch, and then dart toward him.  Once more back across the plank.

He lunged at her, trying to scoop her up in his arms. Again, he almost tumbled into the excavation. Leaping off the plank, the cat cut sharply north up Broadway with him again in literally hot pursuit. I was beginning to think he would give himself a stroke or heart attack.

But just as he was seemingly about to collapse, the door to a 7-Eleven opened and the cat darted into the shop. He ran after her and though the sun was glinting on the windows, making it hard to see what was going on inside, the fact that agitated customers were pouring out suggested that the cat and the man were creating havoc.

"Can we go now?" Rona again asked. "Why did you have to get involved with that? I mean I'm sympathetic and all that but you know I'm not feeling well today and want to get our shopping done and then back into bed. I mean, on any other day, I'd be the one who would need to be dragged away."

 Which was true.

By then things seemed to have calmed down in the store and in the next moment the door swung open and he stepped out onto the sidewalk, into the sun. In his arms he was cradling the cat, who was audibly purring, and as he got closer to us I could see he was sobbing.

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Thursday, May 14, 2015

May 14, 2015--"Mobile Is Now a Magic Word"

Thus proclaimed the New York Times yesterday in two articles above the fold about Verizon's $4 billion dollar deal to acquire AOL.

Remember AOL's dial-up days? Well, that remnant of AOL's business wouldn't be worth $4 bill, but its lesser-known mobile and advertising technology is. At least to Verizon.

We'll see. Remember the Time Warner-AOL merger? From that disastrous situation Verizon should beware.

It appears that this time the deal is all about mobile. Since people are turning more to their mobile devices (smart phones and such) than their clunky PCs and laptops, everyone in the IT business is trying to figure out how to make money off those tiny screens. Traditional ads don't work so well in five-inch formats so what to do?

In Verizon's case scoop up AOL. In the case of traditional news companies and magazines, both of which are turning quickly into dinosaurs, it appears that they are scrambling to move as fast as they can beyond their digital offerings (like the NY Times on line) because these, though making some money, are not making enough to sustain high-cost operations such as the Times beyond the next few years.

So with newspapers such as the Times and the Wall Street Journal and networks such as NBC News realizing that young people especially--the Holy Grail for some reason for advertisers--are getting most of their news from places like Facebook, they are trying to figure out what to do--even at their potential peril. And so they are moving to make deals with Facebook which would allow them to publish some of their products--articles in the case if the Times and WSJ, and video content in the case of NBC. With or without ads since the reason NBC and the Times are agreeing to do this is the hope that mobile users will see what they are missing by not reading the whole NY Times or tuning in to the Nightly News to watch whomever will wind up replacing Brian Williams.

Traditional media have no choice because, as the Times reports, "That's where the audience is." The fear, of course, is that Facebookers will read one feed on Facebook from the Times and rather than race to subscribe to the paper's on-line edition, will feel that they got enough. They now know more about what is going on in Saudi Arabia but have no interest in anything else. So why pay the Times a monthly subscriber free when they can get what they want for free via Facebook.

The Times already represents from 14 to 16 percent of all Facebook traffic--amazing and counter-intuitive--and so they are gambling that this new arrangement will net them more direct readers.

Again, we'll see.

Facebook already plays a gatekeeper role in regard to the news available to members. Including what they choose to put on line from the Times. So who knows what the result of all this reconfiguration will be. It could work for the paper of record or accelerate putting them out of business.

So where does that leave me? I've been running Behind the (New York) Times for nearly 10 years. Thus far I've published 2,582 posts. Will this mean that if I want to try to keep my blogging going for another decade, with the Times relegated to spot appearances on Facebook, that I'll be needing to call what I do something else?

Say or Saving or, my current favorite, Face

All suggestions are welcome.

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Wednesday, May 13, 2015

May 13, 2015--Mother of Invention

"You haven't taken your nose out of that book all day."

"It's not a great book," I said, "But as you know, I'm fascinated by the Wright Brothers, and the new David McCullough biography is still fascinating. I mean, to me."

"Fascinating in what way?" Rona asked.

"You remember how about ten years ago we visited Kitty Hawk and were so impressed by what had happened there between 1901 and 1903, when the brothers were the first flew? The book is quite good on the Wrights' time there so that part is fascinating. The rest, only so-so."

"I do remember that. And though I hate flying in small planes I agreed to go up in a two-seater with you so we could fly over the same landscape where they had lived and worked. From Kitty Hawk to Kill Devil Hills."

"And then a few years later how, when in their hometown, Dayton, Ohio, we visited their workshop--a bicycle factory--and found the field not far from there--Huffman Prairie--where over the next few years in hundreds of flights they perfected their flying machine and learned more and more about controlled flight."

"So what do you think?" Rona asked, "Is their invention of the airplane the most important, world-changing invention of the 20th century?"

"One of them. To that I'd add electricity, the light bulb, radio, wireless broadcasting . . ."

"What about TV and, to me the most important invention of all, the computer?"

"Probably the computer. Not just the computer itself but the incredible software and peripherals that make the Internet, which we access with computers, so powerful."

"And," Rona said, "make social media like Facebook and Twitter possible. More than a billion people use them."

"Then there are the invented ways to access the Internet and all that derives from that--from clunky computers to all those so-called mobile devices."

"As with many others--all of these are powerful for both good and ill."

"Planes qualify as well," I said, "Only 12 years after the first flight, during the First World War, combatants of all stripes used planes for reconnaissance."

"And aerial bombing."

"All true," I said. "But back to inventions. We could have fun making a list of the most important ones of the past hundred years."

"But that would exclude the airplane since it first flew 102 years ago." She smiled at remembering that.

"Good point. Or we could see what we come up with if we tried to make a list of the most important inventions of all time."

"You mean like the wheel?"

"Yes, that's on many people's list as the single most important invention."

"How about the invention of democracy?" Rona asked, "Would that quality?"

"Sure. But maybe let's confine ourselves to material things like the plane and Internet. That feels like more fun."

"Well, we've already made a good beginning with the radio, TV, the light bulb and of course electricity itself."

"Though I'm not sure electricity is an invention. Doesn't it just exist and then people like Alexander Graham Bell and Edison figured out how to use it?"

"I'll have to look that up," Rona said, "And speaking about electricity, some would include the electric chair."

I looked at her skeptically. "Some saw it as more humane than hanging or the firing squad."

"I'll give you that one. But how about atomic energy?"

"Also it's maybe not an invention. But coming up with various uses for it certainly qualifies. Again for good or ill."

"If we want to talk about weapons, there have been hundreds of major inventions, including some--like say, guided missiles--that were world-changing."

"How about the printing press?"

"If you add movable type I think you've identified a paradigm-shifting one. With the ability to print books, periodicals, and newspapers maybe in its time it was as significant as the Internet."

"Then there's a very different category of inventions--musical instruments."

"Excellent point. Life would not be the same without the piano and violin and hundreds of others."

"What about in the medical field?"

"Probably as many inventions as for weapons. From anesthesia to . . ."


"To penicillin and then antibiotics. Also, vaccinations, pain killers, and tranquilizers."

"And testing techniques like all those for analyzing blood and MRIs. All inventions."

"For surgery alone there are hundreds. And don't forget the Pill. That changed the way we live as much as anything."

"How about in astronomy? Telescopes, satellites, and such? They also allow for accurate weather forecasting, which in itself is another invention."

"Related to that, there are all the navigation tools like the compass, which I'm sure some would say also changed the world. And of a very different sorry, how about air conditioning? One of my favorites," I said.

"Maybe I'd agree to refrigeration being on the list of top 25 or so, but not the AC, though I know you say you can't live without it."

"True. And to me personally at about the same level of importance, I'd add ATM machines--I hate standing on line at the bank."

"That's silly."

"Admittedly, but I'd also add another of my personal favorites."

"What's that?"

"The E-ZPass. I also hate waiting on line at toll booths."

"Time for you to stick your nose back in the book," Rona said. "The Wright Brothers are beckoning."

"Wait, one more, how about you--you couldn't live without your blowdryer."

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Tuesday, May 12, 2015

May 12, 2015--Water, Water

Rona was watering the plants on the terrace. It is a late spring here and she was trying to help the plants catch up with the calendar. Some savvy garden person had recommended a week of Boomerang application. Boomerang being a fertilizer that purports to help plants bounce back from the kind of harsh winter the city had endured.

"Just what they need," Rona said, adding, "A boost. But what the plants really need is just the right amount of water."

"Just like us," I said, "We too need just the right amount of watering. Come to think of it," I thought for the first time, "Why is it that they and we require water to live? To survive? We can do without food for weeks but only a few days without water."

Rona paused in her watering. "I'm embarrassed to admit that I too never thought about that. I mean the specifics. The biology in our case and the botany in theirs." She pointed toward her sage plants.

"I think it's universal," I said. "I mean I think all life on earth--animals, sea creatures, all vegetation--all, everything requires water."

"And maybe oxygen too?"

"Probably. Water after all is largely oxygen. H2O. The O being oxygen."

"Remember the time we were in the Namibian Dessert? You had work to do in Windhoek and I came along so after you were done we could take a week to look around."

"I remember that. Great landscape, great animals, interesting people."

"Unusual for us,"Rona recalled, "we hired a guide to take us into the dessert. It was amazing. Some of the world's biggest sand dunes. And . . ."

"I know where you're going with this," I said. "There were those pants that were millennia old. Thousands of years old. He said, the oldest plants on earth."

"How parched they looked. Actually dead."

"But from his canteen he wet one with maybe two, three drops of water. That was all."

"And with that they sprang back to life."

"As with Boomerang," I winked.

"Exactly. Amazing."

"I need to learn more about water. Probably from Wikipedia."

Which I did and here is some of what I learned--

First, the Namibian plant is Welwitschia, named for the German botanist who classified it, and, yes, some are more than 2,000 years old.

And, also true, all living things, all, require water to live. They, we use water in different ways--humans versus, say, sage plants.

For us water is essential to the proliferation of life. It carries out this role by allowing organic compounds to react in ways that contribute to cellular replication. It is vital as a solvent, dissolving many cell components and the chemicals and compounds cell division requires. In this way water is essential to many, perhaps most of the body's metabolic processes.

In one called catabolism, water is used to break the bonds of large molecules in order to generate smaller ones--glucose, fatty acids, and amino acids--to be used as fuel for biological energy. Without water these metabolic processes could not exist. And neither could we.

For sage plants and other flora water is essential to photosynthesis and respiration. Photosynthetic cells such as chlorophil use the sun's energy to split off water's hydrogen from its oxygen. Hydrogen is then combined with CO2, which is absorbed from the air or water, to form glucose and release oxygen. All living plant cells use these fuels and in this cycle oxidize the hydrogen and carbon to capture the sun's energy and, through cellular respiration, re-form water and CO2.  

"Come on out and take a look at the akebia," Rona called downstairs to me, luring me away from the computer. "It's about to bloom and the flowers have such a lovely scent."

"Your garden is amazing," I said. "As Wiki says . . ."

She cut me off. "Forget Wiki. Sit by the honeysuckle," She whispered. "I saw a humming bird. Rare for the city. But they love the nectar of honeysuckle."

"Sit very still," Rona suggested. I did and sure enough, after a half hour . . .

Welwitschia Plant

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Monday, May 11, 2015

May 11, 2105--Four Elements

I will return tomorrow with thoughts about one of the four classical elements--Earth, Wind, Fire, and Water.

Friday, May 08, 2015

May 8, 2015--Mike Huckabee

Mike Huckabee--or Mike Huckleberry as my mother refers to him--this week announced to no one's surprise that he is again running for president.

There is room in the Republican clown car for him since he is literally a lot smaller than he was in 2008, the last time he ran, thanks to lap-band surgery and the pressure to look slim on TV during the years he had a talk show on Fox News. He has little chance of winning the nomination but should see a bounce in his lecture fees and at the minimum during the campaign be good for a few laughs.

In regard to that, he started off with a few zingers--

First, to differentiate himself from all other GOP candidates, while calling for cutting or eliminating almost everything else, he offered strong support for retaining Social Security and Medicare pretty much as they are. Chiding other Republicans--specifically those many no-shows in the Senate who, on the public payroll, are running for the presidency--Huckabee called for cuts in their own fat government pensions and health care benefits instead of those of more vulnerable citizens.

This was a smart move for him, considering his likely 65+ year-old base of supporters, and fits right in with the Populist passion to take regular swipes at anything having to do with government.

But beyond this, he is such a fiscal conservative (a GOP requirement) that he advocated the elimination of much of the rest of the federal government. Supporting the military--another imperative--aside. For that he wants to spend more and presumably use our troops more aggressively than he claims they are at present. Do I hear in Iran?

From his perspective I get eliminating the Department of Education--the federal role in education has for decades been a Republican whipping boy, with claims that it exists only to promulgate socialist, secular propaganda in our public schools. Of course, neither Huckabee nor any of the others tell us what they would do about various forms of student financial aid (the largest part of the DOE budget) that even Republican critics use to help them and their children pay for college.

OK so we'll figure out how to make that work. Probably through privatization--give those programs back to the banks. Who cares if it would cost billions more than at present. If the private sector is in charge, to conservatives by definition that's better than the government playing a role.

And of course, top of the list of federal agencies to be eliminated is the loathsome IRS. Even poor Rick Perry last time around was able to remember that was one to the three programs he would eliminate--he needed help with the other two. Perhaps soon he'll tell us which they are since he too is about to grab a seat in the clown car.

Without the IRS why would anyone feel compelled to pay taxes? Talk about America becoming just like Greece where hardly anyone does.

But, of course, that would be a good thing--no tax money means no federal government. Sure, Huckabee and his colleagues would have to figure out how to pay for the military and border security. Their two favorite federal programs.

Maybe we'll privatize the military. Turn it into a for-profit operation. For example, let Boeing or United Airlines run the Air Force, GM or Ford the Army, and Carnival Cruise Lines the Navy. Issue stocks and bonds to support it and peg dividends to how many wars we can drum up and  . . .

And then we could hire Blackwater to take over border security. Look how good a job they did in Iraq where the Bush administration had them provide security for American operatives. No matter a host of them were recently convicted of murdering Iraqi allies.

Do we want the CIA, FBI, NSA? If so, is it possible to privatize them? We could contract with Facebook and Google to do the electronic surveillance. For marketing purposes, by collecting big data about each of us, they are already doing a version of that.

Do we want an FDA to offer assurance that our medications work and are safe? Not if we have to spend tax money to do so. But since we do want to avoid the undue side effects of new medications (the current scary ones are enough) we could turn the FDA functions over to Pfizer and Novartis. They'd jump at the chance to fast track the approval of their own new products.

Our crumbling federal highways and bridges? Sell them to Abu Dhabi. They already have experience running the parking meter concession in Chicago so maybe we should ask them to repave our interstates.

The Government Printing Office and Mint? Turn them over to Citibank. In the early days of the United States banks offered their own currency so this would be a strict-constructionist way to manage our money 2015-style. And while we're at it, get rid of the Federal Reserve. With Citibank controlling the money supply, who needs them?

Federal Prisons? Many states have already privatized theirs so why not the U.S. government.

The airports? A perfect role for JetBlue.

The postal service? A no-brainer--FedEx is already handling a substantial portion of our packages and is venturing successfully into mail service. So let's turn the rest over to them.

And of course we should sell the national parks to Disney. That's an easy one. Grand Canyon Land. Yosemite World. Love it! Now if Disney would only add a water slide at Old Faithful and . . .

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Thursday, May 07, 2015

May 7, 2015--Clown Car

I will return tomorrow with a piece about one of the latest passengers to squeeze into the Republican clown car--Mike Huckabee, who my mother refers to as Mike Huckleberry.

Wednesday, May 06, 2015

May 6, 2015--Liking Obama Again

A friend who back in 2008 supported the candidacy of Two-Americas John Edwards and then Likable-Enough Hillary Clinton after he dropped out, subsequently offering lukewarm support for Barack Obama when he defeated Hillary and then went through the same disillusionment cycle most of his supporters did after he was elected president when he couldn't seem to get much done domestically or act consistently internationally, over coffee the other day declared that she had gone back to liking him.

"Really?" I asked, a bit incredulously knowing her tepid interest in him.

"Yes, really."

"Tell me," I said.

"Well, first, consider the alternatives. John McCain and then George Romney. Does anyone think either one of them would have been a better president?"

"Actually, millions do. Have you checked out Fox News lately or radio talk shows?"

"Touché. But, since no one here is listening, I mean does any smart person think either McCain or Romney would be better?"

"I'll have to think about that since it feels a little elitist."

"Let me help you," my friend offered, "Those who still prefer McCain or Romney would have us at war with Iran. How does that sound? Part of my point is that we're not bombing them because Obama, who was mocked back in 2008 for saying he would negotiate with the Iranians, may be in the process of pulling off a truly historic deal which, if we got very lucky--and neither Republicans in the Senate nor Netanyahu in Israel mess things up--could, with Iran's help, redefine for the better many of the disputes and wars in the Middle East."

"I agree. Obama has messed up with red lines in Syria and not seeing the ISIS threat soon enough, but he knows the history of the region and realizes that when dealing with all the rivals factions one size for certain does not fit all."

"And so it may be one of those things-could-be-much-worse deals. Not my favorite reality--I'd like it to be simpler and more infused with hope and possibility--but life there is not reducible to a string of clichés."

"And domestically? Obamacare? I thought you hated that," I reminded my friend. "That he bargained away any possibility of Medicare for all, the famous single-payer option, when he may not have needed to."

"Well it's true that I think he was too quick to take that off the table but look at the results. First at least 16 million people now have medical insurance who didn't before Obamacare and even impartial parties acknowledge the cost of medical care has gone down and along with it so has our deficit. His critics were wrong on all fronts--that no one would sign up and costs would skyrocket. Obama gets a B+ from me for that."

"What about the economy? Yes, the stock market more than doubled during his six years in office, but what about the middle class and those in poverty? Didn't things get worse for them while the top one percent or five percent got richer and richer?"

"Again, no one wants to hear this anymore (though it's still true), but look at what Obama inherited and look where we are today."

"It's true," I said, "No one wants to hear about George W. Bush, saying it's now Obama's economy."

"It is. It is. But to ignore the economic crisis Obama inherited is not only unfair but intellectually irresponsible. To make a valid assessment of what Obama has done and failed to do it's necessary--beyond spouting talking points or making things up--to look at where things stood in January 2009 and how they are today. I already mentioned that the deficit is down by about two-thirds, unemployment levels are at 20-year lows, wages have ticked up a bit, the banks are being held somewhat more accountable, and the real estate market for most is stabilized. We also are seeing a strong dollar and are rapidly moving toward energy independence."

"And Obama gets credit for all of this?" I was skeptical.

"Of course not, but he's getting all the political blame for the widening gap between rich and poor (even by Republicans whose tax polices are really more responsible for that) and the continued slippage in the wellbeing of the middle class. So he's entitled to credit about the things that are working better."

"Anything else?"

"Well, this is admittedly just an outline. The full picture is more nuanced and balanced. This is to give you a glimpse of why I am liking Obama again."

"You never loved him."

"That's true, but I was enthusiastic about his election and to a lesser extent his reelection. But there are others things to like."

"Such as?"

"Immigration reform. I know it's controversial and maybe even illegal, but his executive order was a big, bold deal."


"Then there's Cuba for another. A big another. About Cuba I say, enough already. They are not a threat and though the Castros are still in charge, somehow, with countries such as Saudi Arabia, to cite one example, we have decent relations even though they are the opposite of a democracy. In fact, there's more freedom in Cuba. Women can drive and everyone gets educated."

"And they have the best cigars."

"Also," holding up her cup for a refill, "better cafe con leche."

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Tuesday, May 05, 2015

May 5, 2015--Brooklyn Battery Tunnel

The traffic was heavy heading out to Brooklyn earlier in the day and now, returning hours later, was still moving at a crawl.

"Let's take the tunnel, "Rona said, "I'm exhausted and the traffic heading to the Manhattan Bridge is stop-and-go."

"But, you know I've become cheap," I said--Rona rolled her eyes, "And the tunnel costs $8.00. So . . ."

"Not if you have E-ZPass. Look at the sign. Then it's only $5.54."

"Still expensive," I said, "But I'm tired too so, OK, let's take it. Let's splurge. Though how they came up with that 54 cents I'll never know."

Ignoring that, Rona said, "Let's try to get into the extreme right lane. We keep forgetting to do that. If we do, we can take Trinity Place north, right onto Sixth Avenue, which is the most direct route to the garage. That way we can avoid the usual snarl on the Westside Highway. And," she added with a wink, "since it's shorter, save money on gas."

"That's how to do it," I pointed.

"Do what?"

"Get into the extreme right lane. There, where the sign says 'All Trucks Use this Lane.'"

"Trucks only?"

"No, look. It doesn't say trucks only which to me means it's also OK for cars. If not, there's no way to get into the tunnel lane we want."

"But why is that policeman waving his arms at us?"

"Strange," I said, "I'm not speeding or anything." I slowed down even more and crept forward toward the stop sign. It was there, another sign said, so that trucks could pull over to be inspected.

"Post-9/11," Rona said. "I get it. But watch out!" She put her hand on my chest as so to restrain me. "That cop just ran onto the road. Right in front of us. up there by the stop sign."

"He looks all agitated," I said, "I have no idea what's going on." I came to a halt well before the stop sign. By then he was racing toward us. It was a warm day and so I thought I'd be nice and creep forward to cut down on the distance he had to run.

"Roll down your window," Rona said, "And be sure to be polite."

"I'm always polite."

"Half the time you're curmudgeony."

Before I could say anything else the officer, panting and sweating, leaned in my window. Holding on to the door as if to support himself.

"Didn't you see that sign?" He was pointing back to where I had entered the extreme righthand lane.

"I did. Is there a problem?" I tried to sound as calm and innocent as possible though, as always in these situations, my heart was racing.

"Didn't you see the sign?" he repeated, this time much louder. Shouting at me.

"If you mean about the trucks, yes I did." Rona placed her hand on my arm since my voice too was raised.

"Well, that was your first violation."

"First violation?" I snapped. Rona whispered to me to calm down.

"It's for trucks, not cars."

"The sign didn't say 'trucks only' and so I thought the lane was for trucks that needed to be inspected and for cars too since there's no other way to get to that righthand unless . . ." I pointed to the tunnel lane we wanted to enter.

"And your second violation," he cut me off, "was that you didn't come to a full stop."

"Full stop?"

"Yeah, here. At this stop sign." He slapped it, right up where I had come to a halt.

"I slowed down to almost a stop, well before the stop sign, when I saw you waving at me. And when you began to run toward us I thought I'd creep forward to the stop sign--the one right here--to make it easier for you."

"License and insurance card." Rona was already fishing for the insurance card in the glove compartment. "And step out of the car please."

"For what?"

"Step out please." His voice turned to ice though his face was beet red and throbbing. Rona poked me in the back. Slowly, with my hands showing, I got out of the car.

"That's a good boy," he said to me with a snarl.

I handed over my driver's license and insurance information. He took his time scrutinizing both, turning them slowly, holding them up to the sunlight, and squinting at them.  "Zwerling, eh? What kind a name is that?"

"It's mine," I said, admittedly with attitude.

Sweat was pouring off him dripping onto the road. Cars were racing by and two trucks by then had come up behind me and the drivers were beginning to tap on their horns. He glared over at them and they stopped.

He finally finished looking over my papers and threw them contemptuously through the window onto the driver's seat. "Get back in the car," he snapped, "and get the fuck outta here." He slapped his hand on the hood.

"Next time--if there is a next time--stay out of my lane or I'll write you so many tickets they'll take away your friggin license. Though how you got one in the first place is a mystery to me. But across the river there in Manhattan I suppose anything goes." He began to sputter and, finally finished with me, swinging his nightstick, started to head toward the first truck in line.

Back in the car, now also sweating, I pulled away at no more than 3 MPH.

As we entered the tunnel in the lane that would let us to Trinity Place, Rona said, "That was unbelievable. And scary. He's so full of rage." She was struggling with her thoughts then said, "Am I ever glad we're not black."

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Monday, May 04, 2015

May 4, 2015--Joy Ride

At least in Brooklyn, when I was a kid, when the cops, to teach us "respect for the law," took one of us for a joy ride, they had the guts to throw us in the back seat of their patrol car and beat us up with a rubber hose.

How different now where the cops lack the guts to do this with their own hands but rather, shackle someone, toss him in the back of a paddy wagon, and then take him for a "nickel ride," as it is referred to in Baltimore. And while on this ride they make intentional abrupt stops and starts and violent turns so the prisoner, unsecured, is thrown about in the vehicle and is sure to be slammed unprotected against the steel walls of the vans.

Most times, "to teach them a lesson," the victims wind up "just" battered, on occasion paralyzed and in a wheelchair for life, as in B'more, or as in the recent tragic case of Freddy Gray have their spinal column severed and in the process are killed.

Lesson delivered. Respect for the law.

And in Maryland, in Charm City, the cops have something else going on--the so-called "police officers' bill of rights. Passed by the state legislature there and, as reported in the New York Times, in at least a dozen other states, it gives special legal protection to cops. Maryland's is the first, passed in the early 1970s, and goes further than any other state in offering the police the most layers of protection from accountability or prosecution.

For example, the Maryland bill of rights gives officers 10 days before they are required to talk to investigators. Ten days more than any other Old Line State citizen. Common sense suggests only one reason for this week-and-a-half delay--it provides time for a potentially accused cop to consult with lawyers and colleagues who may have been involved in an abusive or felonious situation to align stories. In they words, to cover up what actually happened.

Other aspects of the Maryland law limits the amount of time officers may be questions and dramatically shortens the time an alleged victim has to press charges--90 days from the time of the incident even though the potential complainant may be in the hospital recovering from injuries.

These laws come to be put on the books as the result of police unions lobbying for them and contributing tens of thousands of dollars to local campaigns to assure the election of police-friendly officials.

In Freddy Gray's case it was only because of the pressure of protestors and the worldwide coverage his murder attracted that caused prosecutors and the police themselves to move things along so quickly.

There is understandable celebrating in Baltimore but savvy residence know how difficult it is to convict police officers of any crime, especially one this heinous. There is so much ambiguity about what happened in incidents of this kind and the police unions have limitless resources to deploy in the defense of their members that the likelihood is that all six who are charged will not be convicted. It almost never happens.

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Friday, May 01, 2015

May 1, 2105--May Day

I'm taking the day off to celebrate May Day. (Actually, to do a host of chores.) I will return on Monday.