Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Open Letter to Vlad

Letter to Vlad
So, Vlad, baby, what the hell are you thinking/? This is the early part of the 21st century and you’re thinking it’s still 1950?  Look Vlad, we’re in a new era now. I realize that the Muslims of the Arab world still act as though they’re living in 1250, but I thought maybe you were a modern man.
Look, just because John McCain resides mentally somewhere in 1970, looking for a way to win the Vietnam War, does not mean that you need to still try to figure out a way to avert the collapse of the Soviet Empire.  It’s gone baby. But look, on the bright side, you still have mighty Russia, and potentially it’s bigger and bolder than ever. You just need to cool it on the war machine.
I know, I know, who are we to be preaching to you about avoiding military options. But, do you really want to emulate us? Remember your Afghan adventure? Worse than the Brits. And ten years later, we’re still stuck in the mud huts of Afghanistan and the sands of Iraq.  So, you want to emulate George W. Bush, dumbest President in the history of the US of A?
How, about just rolling back the tanks and leaving the folks in the Ukraine to fend for themselves. Offer them some bread, cheese and vodka instead of tank shells.
And look, Vlad, it’s not as though you’re without friends in high places. Remember, all  those big Russian rockets that carry a lot of our stuff into space to power our GPS and other space thingies?  Well, we still need them, cuz we’re too stupid to devote any of our financial resources to the space program. We’ve been too busy making sure our richest people don’t have to pay any taxes to notice that everything is falling apart around us. So, sit down and have a heart to heart with some of our GOPers. You know, Orange Man Boehner, and the VC warrior McCain. Just talk to them Vlad. Maybe offer them a ride into space.
But quit this Crimea crap, Vlad. I mean what’s next . . . another Charge of the Light Brigade??
Cool it man, and join the 21st century.
Tata Vlad.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Democracy Reviled

This year may be portentous for America. For months now, the Koch brothers, and others of their ilk (Karl Rove, for example) have been taking advantage of the Supreme’s Citizens United ruling to pollute the airwaves with misleading claims and pseudo-facts aimed at dismembering the democratic party in general, and Obama in particular.  Using the Affordable Care Act (or Obamacare as it has come to be known) as their main wedge issue, the extreme monied set has been waging war on democracy and the American people.

We have, it would seem, a kind of Perfect Storm going on, one which may well overwhelm our democratic system altogether.  What would replace that system, if our enemies of democracy succeed is a bit ambiguous at the moment. It would seem that the GOP now seeks a system in which, while remaining nominally a democracy, the United States government would become a true plutocracy, with nominal leaders in seats of power, from the president on down, but wherein those “people of power” would in fact be answerable mainly, if not solely, to the richest 1%.
Their purpose in seeking such power seems to be something like this:
1.       The government should never interfere with the operations of private sector business, ergo, the regulatory powers of government would be largely undone;

2.       The government should refrain from taxing the incomes of the very wealthy, so tax rates at the highest levels would be minimized;

3.       Systems that now operate as governmental systems, e.g., Medicare, Social Security, Medicaid, et al, would be transferred to privately operated systems of care involving voucher-like approaches, giving the plutocracy an easy approach to restraining or reducing the costs of those systems.

4.       Public systems of education, i.e., the public school systems, would gradually be phased out in favor of privately operated charter and/or religious school systems;

5.       All voting districts would be rearranged (gerrymandered) so as to favor the continuance of GOP control;

6.       Obamacare would be dismantled altogether, and the system would revert back to what existed in years gone by, i.e., the uninsured would obtain its health care by relying “on the kindness of strangers”;

7.       The military is at least somewhat ambiguous. The GOP leadership seems to love launching our military at anything that moves, but they are also singularly reluctant to devote any of their money (or flesh) to these causes, so it is a bit up in the air how they might shape and use our magnificent military machines;

8.       Lastly, perhaps, they would, of course, fill any vacant Supreme Court slots, and several are coming open, with hard right justices who will do their bidding (although the Supremes are a bit unreliable in that regard).

9.       Oh, and all members of the GOP would continue to speak as one, with all remarks scripted carefully by Mr. Murdoch’s screen writers. No deviant views would be permitted of course.

I have doubtless missed some of their more interesting ideas for replacing our current system of government with their own approach, but what the hell, I’m just one old guy.
One can predict some consequences of such a plutocratic approach to our government. One imagines, for example, that our cities would become something like Chinese cities—covered in a shroud of pollution; our waters may become soiled to a point of unusability; our middle class may quickly disappear, as the United States becomes a two-class society, the very rich and a class of serfs. Unemployment would doubtless increase, as we continue to move jobs overseas and as we destroy the public education system, thereby reducing the workforce quality. Perhaps most of the poor serfs could become migrant labor and household staff to the very rich.
I imagine over time, companies would become larger and larger, as the concept of monopoly disappears as a negative term. Maybe we will all enjoy “Wal-Mart—The Store for all your needs”. And the Faux News Network, owned and operated by Mr. Murdoch from his hideaway in the Cayman Islands, would become our only TV carrier and station. Newspapers will probably become extinct, and we will get all of our news from Mr. Murdoch.  Won’t that be fun??
So, I think I’ll just go find a little corner somewhere and suck my thumb for a couple of years, while the boys reshape our formerly great country.
Ta ta . . .

Sunday, March 16, 2014

The Best years of Our Lives

The Best years of Our Lives
A friend commented that, since his retirement, he has been living the best years of his life. Like me, he is now pushing 80. It’s hard to call him retired, since he writes books, lectures, still teaches and writes about ethics. He also writes a bit of poetry when he is so moved.
And now, he is planning to write a book about what he views as the best years of his (and everyone’s) life. He says:
“The realisation has taken some time to sink into me – that your retirement years are the best years of your life. Better than any of the 65 years or more that preceded them. The reason? You are at last free! Free to do anything that you want to do. If you want to take a university degree you can. .Or even a second degree, in an entirely different field, you can do that too. If you want to change the world, help feed the poor, make your country (or even the world)  a better place to live in, you can make that your goal. You can write letters to the editor, articles for magazines, join voluntary organisations, or even start your own campaign. My future years have come from my past years – from the stories of my life. Yours will too.”
So, he caused me to consider whether his assertion is accurate from my perspective. First, though, it does seem clear to me that “the best years of life” can only be defined by individuals. Retirement might be those years, but surely not for everyone. One example, my father-in-law. He worked hard his entire life, having been forced to stop his education at the 8th grade so he could go to work (that would have been during the early depression years).  But then, just as he was poised to retire, he began having mini-strokes. Finally, being already somewhat incapacitated, he had a large stroke that put him in a nursing home, where they cared for him in his final year or so, but during which he could not speak and was largely unaware of his daily visits by his wife.  So for him, I doubt that retirement was the best period of his life. Other examples could be cited, but I would assert that the best years is an individualistic concept.
So, what about me? I have been sort of retired since 2000, when I turned 65. I say, sort of because, when I announced my pending retirement, my two main clients said, “Hmmm, no, I don’t think so. We expect you to continue working with us for a while longer. So, I did, at least until 2007, when I just said, “OK, I am now fully retired”. Even between 2000 and 2007, I really only worked part time.
But let me examine my life a bit to see where retirement stacks up.
1.       Period 1: Let’s say, birth to 13. That defines my life in Brooklyn and Manhattan from birth until we left the City for Rockland County, after the War (remember WW II??). That period was a mixture of fun and kind of sorry times. My father was in and out, and not of much use as a father or husband. So, my mom had to keep the family alive.  It was also the period of WW II, which was interesting and ghastly at the same time.

2.       Period 2: Pre-high school. Oddly, while no longer even pretending to have a father, we lived a nice life. No personal clashes and a pretty nice, if Spartan life style. We had little money, but  we laughed a lot—at least I did. So, maybe a contender.

3.       Period 3: High School—I know, it’s only four years, but still, it defines an interesting period. All fun and games. My only responsibility was to attend school and get reasonable grades.  Not bad, I would say.

4.       Period 4: College—Another four-year period, but this one was enlivened by my marriage.  A pretty satisfying life period, I would say.

5.       Period 5: The Working Years—So, this period defines my working career, my family creation and sustenance. It is a period so full of life that it is difficult to summarize. Creating children, all of whom became wonderful, loving, responsible adults, who in turn created their own successful families. It includes a long and continuing loving relationship with my wife.  And it includes a career in which I worked for large and small for-profits, large and small non-profits, the government, and myself. Someone once asked me, “so you couldn’t hold down a job?” Well, yes, but stuff kept popping up in front of me to tantalize, and I have a notoriously short attention span.

6.       And the “working years” includes so much that was fun, and culturally fascinating that it would be difficult to set it aside. We lived during that period in California, both Southern and Northern, including a happy stint living in downtown San Francisco. It includes living four years in India, fascinating indeed. It includes a brief stay in Boston, and then a long period, over 30 years, in the Washington, DC area.  And that period was largely the 1970s, 80s and 90s. The 1970s was bursting and full of life—an ongoing, despicable war, lots of protests, lots of parties, and lots of stuff involving kids maturing.  All of that hectic activity slowed down during the 1980s and 1990s. By 1984, our youngest child entered college, so we were officially “empty-nesters”.

7.       Now, the empty-nest period perhaps deserves a look by itself, since it involves a kind of freedom from kid-responsibilities.  The children are now adult, or fast becoming so, and they begin acquiring their own lifestyle, separate and distinct from yours as parents.  We traveled a bit more, acquiring a taste for a little town in Canada, called Niagara on the Lake. A sweet little place, full of life, gardens, theatre, and fine dining and resting spots.

8.       Period 6: And finally, we come to our retirement years. As I said, earlier, I retired twice—once in 2000, and again in 2007. Carol, on the other hand, retired from paid work, as a librarian, in 2000, and then began work as an unpaid staff person, volunteering at schools, and at a social service organization.  Fourteen years later, she continues working. Well, a special focus of her retired work has been on producing quilts for sick kids at the Jeff Gordon Children’s Hospital. A nice bit of socially useful work, while remaining “retired” (i.e., unpaid).  I largely stopped doing anything socially useful, unlike my wife.  During my retirement years, I have written a bit, although refraining my writing for publication, unlike my friend. Mostly, I wrote stuff like a memoir, for my kids and grandkids.  I devised and continue to write into several blogs—one my “cranky old man” blog (www.artfulnotes.blogspot.com) another for my pseudo-art, called Observed Art (www.observedart.blogspot.com).  Finally, I began creating what I call my “farm foodies” blog (www.farmfoodies.blogspot.com) where I engage local farmers and other folks who cook fine food. I get them to divulge some recipes for how they fix the food they produce. It’s fun and not terribly demanding. I also pretend to artistry, by creating what is called digital art for our local art walks. It’s fun, although not very economical—I spend way more than I take in.  Still, it occupies the mind.

9.       Another of my retirement “activities” has been travel. Many folks talk about wanting to retire so they can travel. Then they retire and never travel. We have indeed traveled. We had already traveled more than most folks up to our retirement. For example, I had already visited 49 of our 50 states.  But we zoomed off to Australia to see friends, took a 9,000 mile road trip throughout the US of A, and made numerous trips to Canada, (to our favorite little town) and to northern climes to visit with family and friends.

10.   Now, it may well be true that retirement has been good to us. The time demands of work went away, as well as the responsibility for caring for kids and/or grandkids. Mostly that has fallen to our kids. Several issues have begun clawing their way into life, however.  First, folks we know and care about began dying off. Parents of course, but also siblings, and close friends.  Each time someone pops off a little signal sounds in my brain—you’re getting old, and your time is getting closer.  Then there’s the little thing of money. We were doing ok for a while, but two bank and hedge-fund induced stock market hysteria—crashes as they are known—produced a big hit on our retirement portfolio. So, we wound up with a bit less available money than we had hoped. That induces its own anxiety.

11.   Finally, is our own health. It had been really quite good. Then, seemingly quickly and without much warning, health problems began popping into our consciousness.  Joints begin to crumble; breathing problems have appeared for Carol. The ever present heart issues, and, for me, continued and now increasing eye issues, because of glaucoma have begun weighing in.  Health problems appeared surely when we were younger, but when you are younger, such problems can often be ignored.  When you are old, ignorance is no longer bliss.

12.   It’s interesting that the definitions—young, middle aged, old, are bandied about when we are younger then “old” but at some point, “old” begins to have real meaning.  Because, “old” brings with it a close association with death.  And death has different meanings for folks.  For the truly religious—the “believers”-- death seems to be akin to a welcome friend. Organized religion seems to focus on death as being the ultimate great trip—sort of a permanent vacation.  I have written about this issue in my ramblings on organized religion (the world’s greatest Ponzi scheme). If death is so damned desirable, I keep wondering, why don’t the true believers just off themselves?  When someone dies, folks say, “He is in a better place now.” And I keep wanting to say, “he’s not in a better place you idiots. He isn’t anywhere any longer.  He simply no longer exists—he has entered what I call the”night for which there is no morning”.

13.   But I digress. This is only to say that the retirement years change over time. Given that nothing remains unchanging, these retirement years present rather unique changes in one’s lifestyle.

14.   So, what to say about this large question?  Perhaps I would assert that “the best years of your life” could be the years in which you find yourself.  But “best” implies several things:

a.       Health: if your health is good, life is good.

b.      Money: if you have enough money, life is good.

c.       Personal relationships: if your family remains intact, your marriage healthy, your loved ones healthy, life tends to be good.

15.   If it turns out that, at one stage of life, you are so busy doing “A” (earning a living) that you can’t do “B” (write, travel, paint . . .) then one should re-examine lifestyle choices so that the tradeoffs are at least reasonable.
It may be that the question itself is either unanswerable, or simply a way of discussing the possibility that retirement need not be a total downer.  And that assertion would be true for many folks, not for all as noted.  Retirement does not mean that you must step off the planet. Indeed, many sweet years can be ahead of you.  But those years are not unending, so it is important that you take advantage of whatever opportunities avail themselves.