Tuesday, December 30, 2008

New World A'Dawning

We’re almost there folks, the end of 2008 is around the corner, peeking at us from behind a veil.
Tomorrow I deliver a bunch of my pictures to an art show in Salisbury for an art show. Who knows, I might even sell some. Stranger things have happened. But that’s for next year. Tomorrow we toast to the ending of one of the nastier years on record. I know, I know, we need to look forward, and I am doing just that. Many have remarked at how The Shrub is walking away with nary even a nod to the troubled times. He’s done just fine thanks. He has even enjoyed himself. Huh! I wonder when?
Still, he will be gone soon. He’s really already gone from our national psyche. No one pays any attention to much of what he says. They/We are all looking to Obama for guidance and for intelligent leadership.
How to toast? Well, I recommend a traditional ending to this very untraditional year. What tradition? Well, yours, anything that suggests continuity within your own life and family. For us, we will celebrate, just the two of us, as we have done many times throughout our 53 years of marriage.
We will prepare some good food—clams sautéed in garlic butter and wine, Swedish meatballs, some shrimp, homemade sourdough bread. We will open some fine wine, and at midnight pop open a bottle of champagne. But before that, we will watch our traditional film – Casablanca—the most romantic film ever made. We will time the film, so that we can watch it as we graze on our splendid repast, and then, as the film ends, we will switch to Times Square. We will watch the craziness taking place there, in the Square, and we will, like the assembled throng, await the falling of the ball, signaling that the year has really come to a close.
At that moment, we will toast each other, and toast all of our loved ones., and toast the friends who have brushed our lives, but whom we rarely see. It’s good to know they were once part of our lives, and many remain so.
And, so we will move forward into the Brave New World of Tomorrow, with its fresh beginnings, and bright promise.
We’re ok. So are you.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Hasten the New Year

The New Year approaches with a vengeance. But we should all be grateful to see 2008 disappear into the dust. What did we ever do to deserve such a nasty year? Were I religious, I would doubtless blame it all on God, but what a relentlessly malevolent God she would have to be to deliver such awfulness. An utterly disgusting political campaign, redeemed finally by the outcome—hey, we finally elected a decent, smart, honorable person. Wow! Who’da believed that? But the campaign that preceded the outcome must have set some records for ugliness. And I don’t even have to mention Barracuda Barbie.
Then the collapse of the world’s entire financial system, with cries from the geniuses that brought it on, of, “wow, we didn’t see that coming.” Really, you idiots didn’t see it coming? Wow. I guess all you CEOs, economists, stock brokers, commodity traders must really have shit for brains.
And now, to finish off the year, we have the traditional bombarding of Palestine by the Israelis, prompted of course by the Palestinians themselves via their constant rocket attacks. When, I wonder, will the Hamas idiots grasp the simple fact that Israelis don’t like having rockets fired at them. Now, they sit around whining about the fact that the Israeli air force killed a bunch of them. Makes you wonder when they will learn. You shoot at Israel; they shoot back, generally with much worse effects. The definition of insanity—doing the same thing over and over, while expecting different results.
And of course, we have these totally crazy people who are still walking into crowded places in Afghanistan and Iraq, with explosives strapped to their bodies, blowing themselves, and lots of others, to bits, still looking for their 71 virgins, I guess. (what do the women get, I wonder??).
Only 23 days left, until an intelligent life force takes over in Washington. The expectations grow daily.
Meanwhile we will just have to suck it in, and await the arrival of decency.
23 days . . . and counting . . .

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Happy Holidays

Hope vs. Gloom. That’s the challenge of this particular holiday season. Whether one should rejoice in our own good fortune—I do every day—or to seek yet more news of the growing economic calamity of the global financial meltdown.
Whenever I have sat down to write something, whether for my Blog, or for my weekly article for our local newspaper, now defunct, I had to decide which of my two sets of thoughts I had to try to convey. I’m perhaps known more for gloom and doom than for my sunny side. I was even castigated by readers of the Concord Standard for being too negative. My standard position on this issue has been, “if you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.”
George Bush has been such a complete disaster that it has been somewhat difficult to put on a smiley face and pretend that everything is really ok. It isn’t folks. It really isn’t. I sometimes wonder why someone as smart as Barack Obama was willing to put his brain to the test this way. Between the Islamists, who are perennially outraged at us, enough to persist in their attempts to wipe us from the face of the Earth, and the financial wizards Bush set free to pillage and plunder, I wonder how anyone can begin to recapture the magic of the holiday season.
Then, when we stopped at our daughter’s home this morning, Samantha, our granddaughter, wouldn’t let me leave without giving her a hug. She provided the needed spark of light—the warmth and essential reason for happiness in this season. It is really all about sharing love unconditionally. Whatever President Doofus does, or doesn’t do, my granddaughter still wants a hug. And so do I.
When asked about the fact that Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11, President Doofus responded, “So what?” So, there is really no helping or pardoning him. We really must just move on, leaving him to whatever personal Hell is awaiting him in his billion dollar mansion in Dallas (27 days, folks). But we need to move on. We need to look ahead. Really, we need to look into the faces of our children and grandchildren, and see the love in their eyes. We need to smile at a stranger and wish them well.
Maybe next year will be difficult. Hopefully, we will be able to weather this perfect storm. But we need to remember that this really is the first day of the rest of our lives. We need to smile, just because there is still love in the air. Capture the love. Hold it close. It will help to guide us through this storm.
We must never forget that there are many people falling by the wayside because of our inept leadership. They need and mostly deserve our help. But we must not let that keep us from continuing on this strange and wonderful journey called life.
A joyous holiday to all of you out there who occasionally take the time to read my wandering prose.
Live in peace.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Career Planning for The Shrub

So, I guess The Shrub won’t have to bomb Iran as the climax to his career. Overseeing the collapse of the entire global financial system should prove adequate. I believe it is now down to under 30 days (29 but who’s counting?) before President Doofus returns to his billion dollar mansion in Dallas. It leaves me breathless actually, watching all this destruction. Iraq, New Orleans, the entire oversight structure of the Federal Government, and now the global financial system. I leave out Afghanistan, since they seem to have brought all this wrath down on themselves.
But it makes me wonder what the Doofus will do once he leaves office. Jimmy Carter, our finest ex-President, has been running around the nation and the globe building houses for poor people and trying to bring peace and stability to the world. Ronald Reagan ran around giving speeches for several million each. Bill Clinton set up a foundation in an attempt to shore up weak places and also bring some order in the world. Al Gore, the guy we actually elected President, has been trying to sound the alarm about the need to change our ways—again peace and stability to a future world.
So, what might we expect of President Doofus? He’s going to be hard pressed to emulate Reagan. I mean who in their right mind would pay this guy to give a speech? He’s illiterate in two languages. So, unless he speaks some extinct language we don’t know about, he is hard pressed to be entertaining.
Still, I can’t see him playing bridge with the other Dallas suburban multi-millionaires. Most of them are probably trying to figure out whether to sell their Hummer, their Rolls, or the family silver on E-Bay to be able to make the mortgage payments on their several mansions. Tough to be so rich and so broke at the same time.
Can’t see the Saudi’s inviting him to dinner. Remember Osama Bin Laden? He was. after all, a Saudi.
Maybe he could become a Somali pirate. Yeah, that’s it, the perfect after-the-fall career. I mean, he’s been kind of a global hit man, he and his comrade in arms, Dickie Bird Cheney. Yeah, a real pirate. That’s the job.
Wow. I ought to go into the post-career counseling business.
I wonder what ever happened to the Dickie Bird? Where is that spider hole, anyway?????

Friday, December 19, 2008

Life and Good Fortune

As I begin this, my 75th year, I am aware of good fortune, and the role that fortune--perhaps luck, or simply happenstance, plays in our lives. I have often thought back to that period growing up in New York City, in a family known more for its dysfunction than anything else. When my Mother decided, on her meager income, to save money during The War, and to use that money to buy a house in the suburbs--more like "the country"--our lives changed in unpredictable ways. For my brother, it meant packing up and leaving one of the city's premier high schools, Stuyvesant, and finishing his high schooling in a small town upstate, Spring Valley. For me, it meant shifting my life from the streets of New York City, to a fairly rural life in a community with a small lake, a small population, and relatively placid schools. I cannot know what my life would have been like had we stayed in midtown Manhattan. It might have been radically different.
I also remember sitting in our porch, thinking about college, looking wistfully at a catalog I had received from Stanford University, with pictures of palm trees and tiled roof buildings--exotica. I still remember having no doubt about college--none. Yet, we had no money. There was no money, yet my brother had gone off to work and college, paying his own way. I imagined I would do the same thing. Instead, my sister and her husband helped. But I think back, wondering what my life might have been had I decided that we could not afford college and gone instead to work, or perhaps into the service. Life would have been very different.
And then there's India. I was getting really tired of the Defence Industry, and traveling hither and yon to various military contractors and installations, working to make better systems to blow up the world. Then someone told me that we had won a contract to work in India on a USAID project. I thought for a few minutes, then made a call on a pay phone (remember those?) to my wife back in San Francisco (I was in San Bernadino at the time). I said, "Hey, honey, how'd you like to go live in India for a year?" She thought for a minute and replied, "Sure, hon, why not?" So off we went, on the adventure of a lifetime--one that still, to this day, amazes people, not least, us.
So, as we continue on our adventures--life is after all, a GRAND ADVENTURE--I am always aware of fortune and happenstance, and decisions made that change one's course in life. Some work better than others, but they are all part of the game of life. They weren't preordained. They were made by me, with a little help from my best friend--my wife of 53+ years.
Nice. Grand really.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Running for Old People

So, too soon we grow old, and too late we grow smart . . .
Ahhh . . . the days do grow shorter as we approach our elder years.
“Approach . . . what do you mean approach? You’re firmly in the grip of elder years.”
No, no, no. Haven’t you heard? I’m approaching 74. That’s the new 47.
“hahahahahahaha . . . yeah right. Face it, you’re an old geezer.”
No, really. I know I’m approaching 74, but I feel much younger.
“What, you feel 73 ½?”
No, I mean, I feel younger. I feel much as I did in my . . .hmmm . . . how do I feel? Fifty? Sixty? Not forty, surely. I don’t know. I just don’t feel 74. I know I can’t run 13 miles any longer, but still . . .
“What, you ran 13 miles once? On purpose?”
Yeah, I used to run every day, to escape mental fatigue during the Reagan years. I had fixed runs of 3, 6, and 13 miles. I could run mostly along the C&O Canal. I would run to cleanse my mind of Reagan crap.
“So, bubbaluh, what have you been doing during the last 8 years? Running like 50 miles a day to cleanse your mind of the Shrub?”
Well, that’s a problem. And it does relate to being older.
See, since I can’t run like I once did, we now walk, and do some weight exercises. It’s nice, but not like running. And the Shrub has been wearing us all out. He’s relentless. Every time you think he’s surely at the end of his tyranny, he finds some new way to be outrageous. Puts a strain on all of us. Tough to remain mentally healthy with him at the helm. It’s kind of like having a totally crazy man steering your cruise ship. You’re trying to enjoy yourself, and he keeps doing totally crazy things. I mean, who would have guessed running the economy into the ground, no below ground, right at the end? I thought maybe he might try to bomb Iran, or some other crazed act at the end. But overseeing the second Great Depression. Man, that took some forethought. He’s truly going out with a Big Bang.
“So, now you feel better?”
No, why would you think that?
“Well, since you can’t run any more, seeing as how you’re really old, I assume that you have adopted ranting as the backup alternative to running. See, if you continue to run your mouth, it’s kind of like marathon running. A new form of mental health, in these stressful times. Running for old people.”

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Science as Policy

Wow, what a change after the Doofus Administration.
Imagine, a Nobel Physics prize winner as head of the Energy Department. Wow!
Commenting on Obama's personnel selections, CAP's Director of Climate Strategy Daniel J. Weiss said, "After the anti-science Bush administration, this is like going to a Mensa meeting after eight years of being trapped in the Flat Earth Society."
Actually, the Flat Earth Society is a great way to characterize the Bush Administration. I mean, think Arabian Horse Association and FEMA head.
President Doofus apparently spent way too much time at college inhaling illegal substances, so he didn’t get to meet a lot of actual students, i.e. people attending college to learn something. So, he ended his academic career as ignorant as when he entered it. Now, we may actually get some intelligence in our top leadership positions. Intelligence . . . what a concept.
I keep thinking of the Peter Principle in connection with this current guy. Remember that principle?
The Peter Principle is the principle that "In a Hierarchy Every Employee Tends to Rise to His Level of Incompetence." While formulated by Dr. Laurence J. Peter and Raymond Hull in their 1968 book The Peter Principle, a humorous treatise which also introduced the "salutary science of Hierarchiology", "inadvertently founded" by Peter, the principle has real validity. It holds that in a hierarchy, members are promoted so long as they work competently. Sooner or later they are promoted to a position at which they are no longer competent (their "level of incompetence"), and there they remain. Peter's Corollary states that "in time, every post tends to be occupied by an employee who is incompetent to carry out his duties" and adds that "work is accomplished by those employees who have not yet reached their level of incompetence".
Now really, doesn’t that explain the Bush Administration?
My theory is that Bush himself reached his level of incompetence as a Yale cheerleader. It was all downhill from there. How else to explain a life as filled with utter failure as his?
And now, he has less than 40 days left to screw up our Nation.
Whoooeeee! 40 days people.
We can do it!

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Blackwater & Anarchy

I am reading the most recent newspaper article on Blackwater, this one about the trial of five Blackwater employees who are charged with the illegal killing of innocent civilians on a Baghdad street corner. Blackwater, if you recall is the US security firm headquartered in our very own North Carolina. For many millions (now over a billion?) of dollars in sole source contracts, Blackwater provides “security” to diplomats and other non-military officials who attempt to do business in the anarchic state of Iraq. I guess because Iraq is anarchic, largely lawless, Blackwater feels free to dispense its force at any time and in any place it chooses. Iraqi citizens are incensed, as well they might be.
Blackwater exists in Iraq mainly because we and other states choose to pretend that “normal business” can still be conducted in Iraq, so long as adequate security can be provided. Diplomats, commercial firms eager to do business, and others try to live and work in Iraq. They hire Blackwater to secure their workers. Blackwater provides this security by arming its employees perhaps better than our military, and by giving them a certain “freedom of action” to carry out its assigned mission.
Regardless of the outcome of this particular trial, I am left with this thought—why should we need to spend money on Blackwater? The logic seems to be something like this: Iraq is a highly dangerous place, between those nasty IED’s (improvised explosive devices) and the even simpler explosive vests worn by the faithful to blow up people, places and other onlookers. The place must resemble the trenches in France during WW I. Therefore, security services like Blackwater are necessary.
I would certainly agree that some force is useful if one insists on living and working in Iraq. I am drawn to the belief, however, that Iraq is a war zone, where killing is random, and law is largely absent. Normal business carried out by non-Iraqi’s should not exist in Iraq. Diplomacy should not exist in Iraq, so diplomats should not live there, and, therefore, should not need the services of Blackwater.
Let’s be clear—Iraq is an anarchic state. There are others—Afghanistan, Somalia, and, lately, Pakistan. In such countries, not yet nation-states, we need a military presence, and probably police forces, but not diplomats. Diplomats come later, after these states achieve civilized status.
I would argue for a brand new role for the world body—yes, the United Nations. We need some way for the UN to declare certain states to be anarchic, and then to move armed forces into those states to secure the states so as to protect its citizens. The people in Somalia, Afghanistan, et al, should not have to wonder when an armed gang will swoop into their village to cut off the heads or hands of various citizens.
If we can afford to pay Blackwater, it occurs to me we can afford to pay for more US/NATO/UN armed troops-actual soldiers. We pay Blackwater forces several times what we pay US troops. Why not hire more actual soldiers? They are at least accountable to the various military chains of command for their actions. Blackwater needs to leave places like Iraq. Maybe Exxon could then hire Blackwater to escort its tankers throughout the pirate-infested waters off the coast of Africa.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Beginning to Feel a Bit Like Christmas

It’s beginning to feel a bit like Christmas. Not because it’s snowing or anything like that. But because various people report that it is snowing . . . somewhere else. I can still remember it snowing in Bethesda, on a Sunday morning, as we watched out our living room window at snowflakes falling and accumulating.
Trees are arising all around us, sparkling house lights are coming into view, as people begin their decorating.
Daily, we get reminders of both the season and the dismal economic times through which we are passing. We are grateful for our health, and for the fact that, for the moment, we are still economically afloat.
I had really quite forgotten my life during the early 1940s, when my Mother struggled to keep food on the table—it was rationed, as were her wages. We never experienced the bread lines of the 30’s, to my knowledge, although I have only spare memories of that time. That early stock market crash, caused by precisely the same kind of greed and stupidity as has now caused the latest crash, had less effect on our family, because we owned no stocks, no real estate, no car. We bounced around from apartment to apartment, staying just ahead of the bill collectors. Then we stabilized at being simply poor.
Now, we actually know people being hurt, perhaps even ruined financially by the fools in whom, the Nation entrusted its economic future. We have been hurt also, just not as badly as people who were poised to retire on their company’s stock holdings, only to find those holdings now worthless. We have not been hurt as the many millions who irrationally bought houses above their income levels, because they wanted a piece of the American pie. Now they find themselves facing a homeless, bankrupt Christmas.
So, having so far escaped the worst of the current crisis, we are profoundly thankful. But we are thankful, with one eye watching our backs, waiting to see if someone or something else is approaching from the rear. Our past is never so far away that it is beyond recognition. Our grandparents, unprotected by such systems as Social Security and Medicare, literally ran out of money, and then time. Again, we are fortunate.
So, we look forward to yet another happy holiday season, mindful of the many people who face a more bleak future. Will we ever learn, I wonder? We have been regaled for decades with tales of the depression, and why it could never again occur—we had systems built in to prevent such occurrences, we were told.
What they neglected to tell us is that the folks we left in charge have been systematically dismantling those protective systems to the point where they simply disappeared. Now we have a new group of folks coming in to fix the roof on our collective national house, which is currently hemorrhaging. Let us hope that the incoming folks remember the earlier dismal days, and act to erect safer edifices to protect the Nation from the fools within. . . and there will always be fools within. .

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Auto Bailouts

So the Big Three—those “walking dead men” called US Auto Makers—are soon to arrive in Washington, this time via automobile. What a concept—AutoMakers driving to a meeting, at which they are begging for gold.
As I best understand it, their begging bowls keep getting larger (images of Pinocchio and his growing nose keep springing to mind). They now want something closer to $40 Billion—hmmm, pretty soon they’ll be talking real money. GM will cut costs by dumping dealers, and eliminating lines—like Pontiac and Saturn (Hummer anyone?). Ford and Chrysler have similar ideas, although Chrysler seems closer to going over the cliff regardless of what they do. I guess the last Chrysler bailout (remember Lee Iaccoca?) didn’t work too well.
While nobody really wants the US automakers to disappear( well, not completely true—there’s always Toyota, et al) the whole thing leaves me kind of breathless. They go on for years, decades really, making cars that are demonstrably inferior to the competition, and now come hat in hand because they can’t survive the competition. Yes, the global recession is hurting them, but how come Toyota, Honda, et al are not facing bankruptcy?
It is reasonable to argue that the auto makers are no more to blame for their woes than our bankers and other financial thugs. True enough, and I’m still awaiting an explanation of why that suggestion that we dump AIG and send the money instead directly to the American people (checks for $400,000 each was suggested) isn’t an inherently better investment than giving the money to AIG.
Still, I guess our financial betters know more than we do about such things (oh wait, they don’t know more, do they?).
Well, I’m going to stay tuned for this fascinating debate about whether and how much money we will print, or borrow from the Chinese, to keep our auto industry afloat.
Still, I really could use that $400,000 guys . . .

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Early Morning Thoughts

A friend sent me an article written by an author in India. The author wrote to complain about the news media’s coverage of the Mumbai savagery. I read, and read, marveling at both the anger and the underlying assumption. The author argued, passionately, that the media was hung up on reporting the disaster from the perspective of rich people, i.e., those people residing at the Taj Mahal Hotel, and perhaps even the Oberoi. The article left me wondering what the author expected of the news media covering the tragedy.
She argued that other places had been hit and people killed in those places, but it was only the playgrounds of the rich and famous that received coverage. She kept arguing that the Taj Hotel wasn’t a real icon of India. That the railway station was as iconic and deserving of greater coverage. She was right of course, but it seemed to me that she missed the point of TV news. I kept thinking, TV news is all about entertainment. It uses actual news events to sell soap, or coca cola. In India, maybe it is used to sell Tata trucks.
Of course it doesn’t provide coverage of all the news. Ours doesn’t here either. US TV news focuses on drama, or comedy—theatrical coverage, that facilitates the selling of cars, or coke, or Wal-Mart. It is why we gave up watching TV news of any kind, even PBS. Instead, we read actual newspapers, in our case a daily Charlotte Observer and a Sunday New York Times. We supplement those news outlets with on-line outlets—the BBC, and the Manchester Guardian in Great Britain, the Washington Post and New York Times on-line editions, and something called The Thai-India News. We also never fail to watch PBS’ The Bill Moyers Journal, perhaps the finest journalistic program on the air. Moyers makes you . . . gasp . . . think.
We observe here that journalism seems a dying enterprise, to be replaced by Entertainment Daily. Newspapers may be the first to go, if our rapidly shrinking Charlotte Observer is any indicator. I guess people increasingly don’t read—they twitter, chatter, and blather on about American Idols. Maybe our 35-40% school drop-out rate is to blame. But who’s to blame for the drop-out rate? I’d love to blame Wal-Mart, or organized religion, but I’d surely miss the mark.
Maybe President Obama needs to focus on education first. Unfortunately, the 12th century folks who keep shooting up the world’s stages, seem intent on denying him that luxury. They keep shouting, “look at me, look at me. I’m important.” And look he must, if we are all to survive.
One wonders whether, in the dark hours, before dawn brings the light, he awakens, and thinks, “why did I do this to myself?”
And then, at that same moment, I awaken, and think, “Great heavens’, we are lucky we have a person of some intellectual prowess at the helm. Go back to sleep, Richard. Barack will wrestle with the latest mess.”