Monday, April 27, 2009

Turning Fifty

Turning Fifty
No, not me. My child. Somehow, when I turned fifty, I got up, yawned and then moved on. I remember it well; 1984, that bellwether year in fiction. Our youngest was just off to college. We were officially “empty-nesters”. And then I turned fifty. Ok, so now I’m fifty. Wow. At least I’m not depressed, like I was when I turned 37. What's for breakfast?
Then daughter #1 turned fifty. We missed the party, because the party planners didn’t get around to inviting us, until we were already booked for a no-change event. We participated from afar, but the birthday still seemed distant.
Then the other day, daughter #2 turned fifty. We had a gathering, and everybody laughed and wept, and whooped it up. Nice. The party was in advance of her actual birthday, just because another guest was arriving from Germany and we scheduled a joint celebration. On the actual birthday, April 24th, we drove to Montross, Virginia for a surprise birthday celebration. She was surprised. We were thrilled that everyone managed to keep our visit a surprise. They’re building a new home, a retreat, nestled on the water, on a creek that leads to the Potomac. Because they are still building, she didn’t expect any visitors. So, we shared the day with our daughter Kathleen and her husband, to celebrate her fiftieth birthday. Heavens, that seems a long time ago—1959. Eisenhower was still president. Eisenhower!!!!
When we mentioned our planned visit to several people we know, we were greeted with a shocked look. “you have a child who is fifty????” Well, yes. We also have a granddaughter who is 30-ish. Again, stunned looks.
There are many signals of the passing years. Having your first child; having your last child; sending your first kid off to college; becoming an empty-nester; becoming a grandparent.
But somehow, you’re really, really old when one of your kids turns fifty. You can’t laugh about it and say, “yeah, I was married really young”. Because when your kid turns fifty, it doesn’t matter how young you were. You’re still old.
But I don’t feel old! Hahahahahaha. Yeah, but you are old . . .
So, we toasted our daughter on her fiftieth, and we all smiled. Because it was sweet. And because we were there to celebrate.
Another of life’s little signals that mark the inexorable march of time and the years. Time really does keep on marching. And we need these little reminders every now and again that we must strive to live each day to the fullest. We need to stop to smell or just admire the flowers in our lives. The moments are fleeting, but each one is to be cherished.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

New States

You know, the more I think about Governor Perry of Texas, and Governor Palin of Alaska and their secessionist tendencies, the more I am drawn to believe that we need some kind of option for the more idiotic members of our Union. I know that Mr. Murdoch and his Fox News Republicans would chant, on cue, “Love us or leave us”, but perhaps we need another option.
I know we are not going to allow Texas and Alaska to leave, really more on principle than any serious value they bring to the table. Alaska’s pretty of course. Texas is . . . well, it’s Texas. But perhaps we could collect the nation’s idiots and forge a new collective somewhere. I was thinking maybe they could all go to someplace like Guam, or Tinian Island. They’d be happier there, surrounded by other fellow idiots. And think of how much happier we would be if Sarah the Impaler and her hubby, Gov. Perry, Rush, Glenn Beck, Mr. Hannity, the Newtster, and of course, Charles Krauthammer were to depart. Maybe George Will could join them and begin scolding his fellow idiots so as to enhance their dress standards. We could allow each of them to select, say 100 or so fellow idiot “friends” as in Facebook to accompany them. Wouldn’t want them to be lonely after all. We could arrange for a supplies boat once a month with ample supplies of oxycontin, plantain, and frozen MacDonald’s Big Macs.
They’d be happier there obviously, and without any TV, radio, or Internet, they wouldn’t ever again have to listen to news about President Obama’s approaches to convert the US to a fully Socialist State. See, that’d be nice. They could all just relax and drink Plantain MaiTai’s.
Just a thought.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Mr. Murdoch

Remember in the bad old days, “you’re either with the terrorists, or you’re with us.” We all, of course (the thinking population) scoffed at such crude analysis. Lately, I find myself being drawn into such crude thinking, as I listen daily to reports of Fox News, and wonder about their sponsor, Mr. Rupert Murdoch. What can he be thinking, or planning as the case may be? A separate report on the potential threats from (now) right-wing extremists in the US is a bit discomfiting, and I begin to wonder how these disparate facts assemble, or not.
Mr. Murdoch has essentially beat the drum relentlessly to press his extreme right wing thinking on the Nation, through his media outlets, principally, but not exclusively Fox TV channels. His acquisition of the Wall Street Journal was disturbing, although hardly surprising, given its already heavy lean toward the right wing. But in a country in which largely, there is no serious left wing, I wonder why this heavy handed (Fox News) press to the right, bordering on fanaticism. Some of the leading lights on Fox News seem frankly crazy. Most are just witless and overpaid readers, who speak whatever is placed in front of them. But some on the extreme wing of the right seem to be seeking power independently, like Rush, our dear, drug addled fat-man of the right, the current intellectual head of the Republican Party.
But Mr. Murdoch’s role on the side of Republicans makes me queasy at best. I wonder what he gets out of his press for Republican victories, and why his approach now borders on the crazed, when his side has lost power at the polls. It may all just come down to money—Mr. Murdoch simply makes more money when his Republican friends are in power. But it troubles me when very rich people seem to be advocating near revolts, as in the teabagger protests, simply because of a change in power achieved through entirely democratic means. Their means, and surely Mr. Murdoch’s means may well deserve closer watching, for the moment through our fourth estate processes.
Perhaps, though, Mr. Murdoch needs to be on somebody’s watch list.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Dumb and Dumber

Our dear Senator Richard Burr, after listening to a briefing on Capitol Hill, immediately rushed to the phone to call his wife. He told her to go immediately to their nearest bank ATM and begin withdrawing their funds. Take out as much as they would allow. Then go the next day and take out more. Then go the next day and take out more . . . but you get the idea.  Apparently, it never occurred to the good Senator that, with one check and a single visit to the bank, his wife could have cleared out their entire account. I would characterize his behavior as Insider Trading for the Terminally Dumb. Senator Burr has never given us any hint that he is of normal intellect, so perhaps I should treat this as another example of “suspicions confirmed.” But really, Senator, wasn’t that over the top, even for you? And, by the way, I didn’t hear you go immediately to the press briefing room to instruct the press lackeys that they should rush to their telephones to warn the public via their news outlets, of the impending bank crash.  Nope. You just warned your wife. Nice touch.

And on another front, the Republican-Rich-inspired TeaBagger marches were wonderful, weren’t they? I mean, those photos of the very rich marching to protest tax hikes on the very rich; definitely awe-inspiring. Makes me proud to be an Amurrican. Apparently, stupid invasions, eight years of deficit financing, illegal interrogation practices, black prisons, lying to the people daily, corrupting every agency of government, and, lest we forget, allowing one of our  cities to drown from a hurricane through inattention, never got the dander up of the very rich.  Now that this President wants to do something to begin stopping the hemorrhaging, and to fix the myriad problems created by rich republicans, only now do they find common cause in protest.

Ya gotta love the rich. Makes me think of that saying by Napoleon, “religion is what keeps the poor from murdering the rich.”

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Blackbeard the Somali

So, I assume I am now in a time warp, and I am living in the early 1800s. Blackbeard is roaming the high seas in search of rich treasure troves from English and Spanish galleons.  While the US Navy sits by watching, the pirates casually retrieve (well, probably not so casually) the captain who tried to desert their tender loving care.

And what is the world’s response? “Well, um, uh, yeah, ok, I guess we could scarf up a million bucks. Sure why not?” And what is the pirates’ next move? They hijack yet another ship.

Other latter day Blackbeard’s, aka Blackwater, tried putting their services up for grabs to the highest bidder—no takers. Huh? Blackwater, which had no legitimate role in Iraq, now has an almost ideal role as armed escorts to the nation’s shippers and none will hire them?  I read that there are “liability issues” with having heavily armed guards on board. And apparently there is no liability issue associated with being hijacked by heavily armed pirates?

So, where’s the NRA, and the Republican gun crowd on this issue? Doesn’t the “Law of the Sea” have anything instructive on such a big issue?

Now, I’m not really a big believer in the law of the gun, but man, if ever there was a case for blowing the little shits out of the water, this one seems to be it.  No drones, armed with predator missiles for this scenario? They’re only good for blowing up Pakistani villages? Remember the Vietnam "Free Fire Zones"? How about "Free Fire Ocean Zones"?

But this all gives rise to an earlier Blog, where I noted that many so-called countries are not really nations at all. I said that Iraq, Afghanistan, and Somalia are really failed states and need the “protection” of the World body, aka the UN. Actually, Somalia isn’t really a failed state—it isn’t a state at all. It’s just a part of Africa currently with no government at all. So, since it is home to the pirates, someone adult needs to move in and take charge. The pirates are in this for money, pure and simple—no jihad for them. But, that being so, they need a place to park their money, and . . . a big and . . . someplace to spend it. If they are denied safe haven in Somalia, or someplace else, it kind of takes the fun out of piracy.  In the 1600s (I think) the Brits moved into the Indian subcontinent and took over with a few thousand troops. So, we’re saying that in the 21st century, the “world powers” can’t subdue a small part of Africa that has no troops and mostly small arms? That being so, why are we spending $700 billion on “defense”?

And elsewhere, we just received a form letter from one of our banks (forever nameless). Chase (oops) sent us this note saying that they're raising the interest rate on our credit debt, because, well, because they can.  They screwed up and made a lot of really bad loans and other “deals” so now they have to recoup from those folks who actually pay their bills on time.  They also told us that they reserve the right to cancel our contract any time they chose, for any reason they chose, or for no reason at all. Just for the hell of it.  Now that’s called chutzpah. Apparently the Chase (oops) folks skipped out on that Harvard MBA class on Customer Relations. Well, on the other hand, maybe Harvard’s Customer Relations class is called “Screwing Your Customers while smiling, 101.”

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

How Free is Free Trade?

Free trade sounds like a no-brainer, right? What could be wrong with Free Trade?

I suppose the 1950’s era shopping malls were one of our first experiments with free trade. I still remember the battles during the 50's between the Stanford Shopping Center and the town of Palo Alto. The shopping center opened, and Palo Alto had two choices—fight back, or give up. The town fought back with small, unique shops that were not duplicated in the big shopping center. Many towns simply gave up.

Then came Wal-Mart. Low prices dominate. Again, what could go wrong? Well, almost everything. Wal-Mart’s preoccupation with low prices was really a not-so-thinly disguised predatory marketing concept aimed at eliminating the competition; and who was the competition? Well, small town shops, for one. They couldn’t compete, so many simply gave up. But Wal-Mart’s couldn’t stop. Low prices had eventually to give rise to moving its sourcing off-shore. Wal-Mart moved to China, metaphorically.

Then came free trade, globalism, call it what you will. Decrying free trade is all about pissing into the wind, I guess.  Free trade/globalism didn’t really begin with international trading. If you examine industries within the US, it is clear that the movement of industries within the country preceded its move to other shores. Textiles is the pre-eminent example, as it shifted from New England to the South, and then it just kept moving, with lower labor costs serving as the motive force. But other industries, like iron and steel, in fact almost anything that could be manufactured and that required labor, was going to move.

Enter China. I guess, like many people, I never paid attention to the rapid shift of country-of- origin from almost anywhere to China. I know that virtually everything in Wal-Mart’s is made in China. But, since I never shop in Wal-Mart’s, it didn’t seem to matter much to me. But increasingly, I began noticing that, wherever I shopped, the country of origin was China. One day, I walked into a Sears, looking for a leaf blower. I asked the clerk whether he could show me leaf blowers not made in China. He shrugged, and said, “I’m afraid I can’t help you.” Now the reason I wanted a tool made someplace other than China was not jingoistic. I would have bought one made in Japan, or Denmark. No, the reason I didn’t want a Chinese made leaf blower was quality. I had become accustomed to the single dominant characteristic of all Chinese made goods—they are essentially all CRAP. That is, price seems to be the sole criterion. Quality, per se, has disappeared. Even when the Chinese products look good, they perform badly, break early, or threaten to kill you. Why do large wholesalers continue to buy Chinese products? Price, and price alone.

Americans have become addicted to low price and what drives the American market, drives all markets.

Is there an answer to this global dilemma, short of trade barriers, which proved calamitous during the 1930s? I don’t really see any quick solution. I do see a possible path, however. That path would be characterized as one containing high quality, unique products. As a beginning, for example, maybe Home Depot could create a “Not-Made-in-China” section of its store, focusing on tools or other products that are guaranteed high quality, and, of course, made someplace other than China. I say Home Depot, because I expect it will take, initially, larger stores with more capital, to begin moving us out of this current mess. Later, as the public becomes more attracted to high quality, boutique stores could begin to re-enter the market, sort of the way some shops are now re-entering small town America, offering unique products not found in large shopping centers.

Maybe, once the public becomes aware that, “Too Big to Fail” is not a virtue, but a vice, smaller will come back into vogue, and quality will regain its rightful place in the Global lexicon. And perhaps then, much as the little textile town of Kannapolis is experiencing, as pictured above, Phoenix can again rise from its own ashes. 

Monday, April 6, 2009

Crazy Days

Hard to remember that President Obama has only been in business for a little over two months. One wag, commenting on how fast Shrub has become an afterthought joke, thought it remarkable, on April Fool’s Day, that a day had already been named for Bush.

But the problems the imbecile created, or simply enabled, remain to foul our global nest. The recent North Korea boffo missile launch just underscored the multiplicity of serious issues facing our new President. It’s almost grotesque when you think about it. I mean, Shrub & Co. inherited a huge budget surplus and relative peace on the planet (well, someone is always shooting someone, somewhere, generally in the Middle East).  That he ignored threats from Bin Laden and his gang of thugs was typical—he ignored almost everything after all, but especially hard facts and Truth.  As a result, he handed President Obama the most complicated barrel of snakes possible to imagine.

And the sniping has been relentless, certainly from the clueless Republicans, but now it’s coming from his own side as well.  Krugman is attacking from the left for not doing more and bigger things, while the right wing attacks for filling the land with socialist concepts. It’s almost enough to make you want to just turn it all off, or throw up . . . whichever comes first.

Meanwhile, the Fox News Crowd, masquerading as journalists, maintains its lenses on Michelle, as though we had elected her Queen of the Universe and it was their job to monitor her. Happily, Michelle is a classy lady, who seems able to ignore most the TV Idiocracy.

I’m trying hard to make believe it’s Spring, and I have more important things to do than worry about whether North Korea is lying about its “satellite” launch, which seems to have fizzled somewhere in the South Pacific.  We have baby fish in our pond, and they need and cry out for attention. Kim Jong Il or whatever he calls himself, will just have to wait. Maybe the Chinese will move in and put him in some basement apartment, while they take over—you know, like they did with Tibet.

And then there’s all the crazy people in the Middle East, with Israel beginning to resemble the other crazies, with its latest appointment to high office of someone who seems to need to be medicated. The Egyptians are growing tired of their “peace”, and I imagine the Jordanians are becoming similarly restive.  Maybe we can arrange a brand new approach to the Palestinian problem. How about, instead of that infamous “Two-State” solution that nobody seems to really want, that we arrange a three state solution—Egypt, Israel, and Jordan. Egypt gets Gaza, Jordan gets the West Bank, and Israel gets Israel and . . . peace. And the Palestinians have to give up throwing rockets and get a real day job in Egypt or Jordan—you know, like cooking falafel, or making some nice hummus.

That would be nice.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Small Towns

Is Small the new Big?

The other evening, we were in downtown Salisbury, a small town near our small town of Concord. We noted, gasp, people walking in the downtown area . . . after 6:00 PM. We came out of the local community playhouse, after an enjoyable performance, and we went into a wine bar—blues café next door. We saw, again, gasp, people seated at tables, sipping a glass of wine and listening to a live blues singer-guitarist. And this was, mind you, nearing 10:00 PM, when all good local small town folks are supposed to be safely tucked in their Wal-Mart-inspired bedrooms.

The next day, we were on our regular 4.5 mile walk, and as we entered our downtown Concord’s main street, we went into the local Chocolatiere shoppe. Yep, right there in downtown Concord, we have a shopkeeper who hails from France and who makes fantastic chocolate desserts, and who is, by his own standards, doing fine in terms of his business.

Our local Italian restaurant across the street, Gianni’s, hosted a wine pairing dinner last week—pairing each of seven courses with a compatible wine. Think of that, a wine pairing dinner, accompanying Italian cuisine worthy of Manhattan, right here in our small town of Concord, a town previously noted for being boxed in by, not one, but two Wal-Mart’s. And Gianni’s is also doing fine, despite the economy and the normal winter doldrums.

If you think you might need to visit Asheville so you can buy a truly unique gift for someone close, hold on, we have a small, local unique gift shop in our small town of Concord. Little Feather bills itself as "the shop that means you don't have to visit Asheville". Little Feather is also holding its own in our current depression. You can't buy its gift items at Wal-Marts.

On many Saturdays, we also go to a Farmers' Market In Charlotte, where we buy meat, eggs and other food products from local, "Slow-Food" activist farmers. We buy beef, pork, chickens, goat, ostrich, local green vegetables, and other products directly from people who actually grow and produce these products. None of the people have large, industrial farms. Nope, they're all small farmers who farm using sensible and largely organic approaches. Their products are not available at Wal-Marts.

Conversely, my wife and I were at one of our many mall shopping centers, and we noted the closed shops there—not one, but many. The economic depression, brought on Bush and his greedy banker friends, has begun biting large corporate America in the ass.

Makes me wonder about the possibilities of small town regeneration. Maybe, if we really could tune out Fox News and all that TV noise, and begin reading books again, we could return to that yesteryear, when small towns were mostly all that we had, and local folks actually shopped at small, local shops, attended small, local restaurants, and enjoyed the aspects that make small towns each a unique cultural experience. The homogenization of America as propagated by large malls, super-size-me fast food franchises, and Made in China Wal-Mart crap products might actually be reversed.

A small town might actually exist near you, if you look. Go ahead, look, the shops won’t bite you. They might even surprise you. You might get to like life in a small town again.