Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Lessons of the Holidays

Christmas season used to be so much fun, especially as a child. But as an adult--a senior adult at that--I'm beginning to empathize with the Grinch. I haven't reached the "Bah-Humbug!" state yet, but in racing all over South Florida looking for those gifts I suspect everyone wants, I'm getting old enough to wish it hadn't become such a frustrating thing.

I can appreciate why more people shop online, but even that can be a chore. Grandpa, God rest his soul, gave up the shopping frenzy after reaching age 75 or so and just gave cash in envelopes at the family gift-opening on Christmas Eve. "Ehh, what's that up in the tree?" he would say and point, and we'd all stare up at some small white envelopes with our names on them which he'd tucked away in branches earlier. We'd try to react with total surprise and delight each year. I thought about doing that, but it seemed like a cop-out since I'm still able to get around like everybody else. Someday it may come to that.

One year he introduced a novel wrinkle to this tradition that spiced things up a bit: he put up the envelopes sealed without any names on them, and let us choose one in turn. One had a twenty-dollar bill in it; one had a ten, another a five, and if memory serves me right, one had a one-dollar bill. He got a real kick out of our greedy reactions as one of us hit the jackpot opening the twenty-dollar envelope, and one got the booby prize one-dollar gift. This casino-style game wasn't very well-received by everyone, however, and he didn't repeat it the next Christmas. But he was just expressing the frustration of holiday shopping we all feel.

This year, as usual, we started off trying to get relatively modest gifts others could match without going into bankruptcy, but we always manage to overspend. We ask all the family members to keep it sane, but they want that "wow!" factor from our reactions when we open their gifts just like we do from them, and they get us too much.

One thing Scott came up with that helps all of us, however, is setting up a Wiki web page we can each access with our own passwords and post what we'd like for gifts, and each family member can change and edit the lists at any time right up through the holiday. Most of us post a variety of things we'd like, some kind of reaching and expensive, some pretty modest, many in between. So shoppers can choose what range they have in mind to give, knowing each gift will be appreciated. Its only disadvantage is the risk of duplications, but discreet phone calls usually help to avoid that. I still try to get one gift for each of them, though, that they really want, something they'll really like. Nevertheless, I end up buying more than one so we'll each have something to open around the tree besides an envelope.

The thing about Christmas giving is it comes but once a year, but it challenges us in many ways like no other holiday. Birthdays, being for only one person at a time, have so much more focus on what we ought to do and are much easier to prepare for. But Christmas is the only time we're expected to consider everyone simultaneously--each family member, each generation, each special friend--all at once, with some token of our love and regard.

So the holidays challenge us financially, personally, spiritually, emotionally, and certainly physically. Expectations are often unattainable, and the stress can be as severe as a job loss or divorce, moving, or an auto accident. It's no wonder Grandpa just had enough of it at some point and the tree envelopes solution made a lot of sense. But the rest of us know it's not as much fun to get a gift so easily given. When we open a present we suspect a lot of thought went into, and maybe effort, frustrations and sacrifice as well, we really do appreciate it, because we know the secret ingredient is love. And any gift given from love is the elusive link we hope for in all this--celebrating Christ's birth.

So Merry Christmas! Merry Christmas one and all.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

New Day

As I look out on a beautiful, crisp morning, I marvel that the sun, indeed, has again had the unmitigated gall to rise on yet another day, despite the world's financial crisis, despite the callous greed of corporate barons, despite the crimes and wars, despite all the sufferings of humanity and prophesies of doom and despair. Doesn't the universe understand how bad and hopeless everything has become?

The sun also rises, the persistent earth still glides silent through time and space, oblivious to all that advises against it, as it has since the world's beginning. Where can a better renewal of hope be found?

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Once Burned, Twice Shy

It has taken me a long look at the policies, promises, and personal characteristics of the Presidential and Vice Presidential candidates to finally decide whom I will support this election. To no one's surprise in my family, I will vote for John McCain and Sarah Palin. And I am at the same time very proud of those in my family who strenuously support Barack Obama and Joe Biden. Voting is a personal right, privelege, and patriotic duty of every qualified citizen, and each should vote for whom he or she believes will be the best President, regardless of other pressures.

That decision, however, has not been easy for me. Obama is clearly the more reasonable, relaxed and skilled organizer and facilitator. I expect him to be very adept at building support in Congress for his agenda and effecting major changes in the political landscape, and to administer with grace and alacrity. And I expect him to win, and win big. The reality of the financial crisis of October has handed Barack Obama the American Presidency on a silver platter, and there is nothing McCain or anyone else can do to assuage the angry wave of voters eager to punish the Republicans for it, though the blame goes back a lot farther than the Bush tenure. When the economic recovery comes, Obama will take the credit, though he will have done little, I fear, to bring it about.

The biggest problem I have with an Obama presidency is that I have too vivid memories of another recent silver-tongued orator who could, like Obama, charm the leaves off the trees with his reasonable tone and sincerity, whom several of my loved ones enthusiastically supported for his two terms, and whom I came to view as an out-and-out scallawag, liar, and man of shallow convictions, changing his positions with the polls of public opinion for political expediency instead of acting out of principle.

I readily admit President Clinton was a likable, warm fellow and a gifted politician. But his vaunted economic surplus after eight years came at the cost to me of most of my money. As a teacher of modest income struggling to raise three children, I saw what had been a slight tax rebate each year before Clinton change to a tax bill of several thousand dollars each year of his tenure in the White House. Bill Clinton, I found out to my chagrin, had his hand in my meagre wallet from day one, and I didn't appreciate it one bit, nor his claim to "feel my pain."

Obama, like Clinton earlier, has promised me the moon this campaign, and McCain has not. Barack says he will give me a tax rebate, affordable health care and much more. McCain tells me straight up he will try to keep the war going, lower entitlements like Social Security and Medicare, and tax my health benefits if I have any. But I believe McCain and I don't believe Obama. I'm not buying Obama's rhetoric as I once did Clinton's. Once burned, twice shy.

Oh, I wish so much we could find a moderate, sensible person to lead the nation instead of pitting flamboyant personalities against vacuuous demagogues. I don't care about color or gender, or even that much about ideology. I just want a decent, honest, fair-minded person with a little humility who's not out to redistribute the wealth or present an unyielding hardheadedness to the world. Maybe it's asking for incompatible qualities in the same person.

But lacking that person, I will vote for John McCain and hope like the dickens that if by some fluke he is elected that he stays healthy for his first term. I'd hate to entrust the Presidency to Sarah Palin, who seems so gosh darn something to the right that she can't learn to be politically adept in Washington--or at least it would take a while. Biden, on the contrary, would be great, but I'd hate the tragedy it would take to have him step in. Of the four figures involved, I probably admire Joe Biden the most. Had he been the Democratic candidate instead of Obama, I think I would have voted Democratic this time, because despite my ideological disagreements with him, I trust and believe him and have respect for his ability and experience. Why must we always seem to elevate the wrong candidate to the top of the tickets? Is it possible we vote for the best campaigner or the best speaker or the best entertainer instead of the best President? I wonder.

Saturday, October 04, 2008

Ben Stein Right On about the Financial Crisis

I've tried to speculate on what caused our October financial crisis from various writers who sought to blame the Democrats or to blame the Republicans or the Bush economic policies or greedy investors, lenders, banks or other groups. I was looking for a single cause, a single group to blame.

But the best comment I've found so far was Ben Stein's commentary this morning on CBS's Sunday Morning show. It seemed so insightful and on target that I taped it and transcribed his main points pretty much verbatim below:

  1. Liberals pushed lenders to make loans to clearly unqualified borrowers.
  2. Conservatives demanded no regulation of financial markets.
  3. Wall Street lied like mad about the true value of securities they were selling.
  4. Toxic bonds were sold all over the world.
  5. Speculators used fear and massive capital to drive down markets further then sell them short.
  6. Congress was unwilling to investigate or punish fraud.

The blame, then, was shared by both political parties, banks and investment houses, securities exchangers, investors, and both the executive and legislative branches of government.

I agree that all the above were probably culpable. But I would add the insatiable spenders and borrowers who sought to live the American Dream of big houses and expensive lifestyles bought entirely on credit and loans by others instead of by the fruits of their own labors and skills.

After all, no one makes anyone else buy anything. The buyer or borrower himself bears the ultimate responsibility to make prudent choices, and if he does not he has no one but himself to blame. A democracy demands people think intelligently for themselves. If they let others do their thinking for them, they aren't living in a democracy.

The Incorrectness of Political Correctness

It was a warm and fuzzy feeling to feel the nation's smug satisfaction in having nominated the first African-American Presidential candidate this summer. We were good folks after all, and it looked like maybe we were ready for a real change--until he started beating the sox off the white candidate in the polls following the financial crisis last week.

The financial crisis unleashed an even uglier crisis as crowds showing up at McCain's rallies calling Obama every evil name they could think of: "terrorist", "Arab" (I still don't understand what's demeaning about that) among others, and forcing McCain to defend his opponent's Americanism, honor, and patriotism at the very time he seeks an advantage through encouraging political mistrust of his opponent.

In other words, it was clear there are limits to what many Americans are willing to keep quiet about. The racism and bigotry hasn't disappeared at all. It has merely been held quiet for the sake of political correctness while all seemed under control. Now that Obama appears to be a breath away from actually being the next President, those voices have surfaced in all their ignorance and secret bigotry.

It will be interesting to see how the campaigns handle this newly-vocal, hard-to-believe element among the electorate. Racism has always gone into hiding when threatened to be exposed for the evil it is. That's why klansmen wore sheets. And it's why Hillary supporters, upset when Obama defeated her for the nomination, complained they'd vote for McCain before they'd vote for Obama. But people thought that was just sour grapes their candidate got beat. Maybe those who said it tried to see it that way as well. After all, none could admit they're just not ready to elect an African-American as President. But many would be more honest to admit it.

For all our "progress" in race relations, for all our surface cooperation with politically correct utterances, when things aren't going the way the white majority of this country thinks is to its liking, out come the slurs, the threats, the names and the racism in all it ugliness. So I wonder how far we've really come after all. If things reverse politically and McCain pulls back ahead before the elections, we may never know. After all, everyone wants to feel they are not prejudiced. But I suspect Obama--the uncannily effective organizer, speaker, fundraiser and campaigner who seems certain to win by the electoral numbers no matter what McCain does, He may even have to win by a Supreme Court decision in his favor. For I suspect there are more bigots among us who will claim they support Obama but will vote for McCain in the privacy of the voting booth than anyone imagines. I suspect Obama may win with a substantial electoral vote victory but a very lopsided popular vote minority.

So I wonder if political correctness is really better than unfettered truth, even if it hurts or offends. Maybe it would be better for ignorant bigots to be voicing their ridiculous slurs all along and be shouted down by more rational voices than to put a lid on their views till they won't be contained any longer. I've long believed people have to internalize their values for themselves; they can be encouraged by others but not forced. The proponents of political correctness have gotten legislatures to legally ban prejudice and bigotry in all its public forms, but I fear all they have done is just force it into the secrecy of the heart.

Who Has the Old Maid Now?

My apologies to any matrons I might offend, but the erstwhile popular card game of Old Maid is surely no more insensitive to mention than the now-politically-incorrect lyrics of Stephen Foster's "Old Folks at Home" or Mark Twain's common racial slurs in Huckleberry Finn.

The Old Maid in the card game was the one card you didn't want to hold at the game's end, or you lose. Many games have a jinx or gamebreaker property that defeats all the strategies and holdings a skilled player may otherwise amass throughout the game. In pool, for example, you must sink all the balls, but if you inadvertantly sink the 8 ball before the others, you lose, as your opponents cheerfully yell "Scratch!" in derision. Other games of acquisition like Uno, Monopoly, orEuchre penalize you for your properties or card values held at the end of the game. I'm not sure where the expression someone was "left holding the bag" came from, but it represents the symbol of scorn, the "white elephant" no one wants in the end.

And now we come to the sudden, staggering financial crisis of Wall Street, Main Street, New York Washington, world markets--everywhere--coming out of nowhere, taking all the banks and financial firms of Wall Street and all the politicians of both parties (and both Presidential candidates, who were apparently clueless as well) by total surprise and without apparent warning rearing up to ruin our credit, plunge us into homelessness and joblessness, general destitution and deep recession--perhaps depression, perhaps the end of capitalism and free market economy before it's over. We're being forced close to socialized medicine and health care, pushed toward government-controlled energy policy and production and, and now we may be pushed into socialized, government-run economic policy as well, if the trillion-dollar bailout mess doesn't buy the Old Maid card.

Make no mistake, the Old Maid card is the toxic, overvalued mortgages banks greedily made as loans-for-a-day to anyone with a pulse. Never mind whether the sub-prime, low-to-average income borrower understood them or had the faintest hope of making mortage payments; the lender quickly sold them to thirsty investment banks in bundles, passing the Old Maid around the table to somebody else, and getting more money to make more bad loans every week. There was no bad conscience in the lender's heart; the borrower got a nice big home, the mortage company got some good mortgages in the bundle along with the chancey ones and spread the risk, quickly rebundled them and sold them off in mortgage-backed securities to Fannie Mae and Freddy Mac, and the Old Maid went on around the table. Everyone was willing to overlook the unattractiveness of the Old Maid in the bundle they held, everyone was willing to say she was beautiful and continue to increase her dowry to suitable suitors as if she were the most beautiful card in the deck.

Then came the mortgage meltdown, the failure of the mortageholders to be able to make their house payments in the face of skyrocketing gas prices along with higher property taxes and insurance premiums based on inflated home prices. Ten thousand homes per day go into foreclosure; two million homes nationwide in foreclosure, jobs lost, factories closing, unemployment lines growing--. It's not that sudden, this crisis. It's the coming to a head of many crises since 9/11. But it was happening to someone else. Someone else had the Old Maid, not us.

Finally someone decided the Old Maid wasn't worth putting more asset risk into and stopped the credit flow. The effect was devastating as one investment firm after another sheepishly admitted they held Old Maids in their hands, and we witnessed the fall of giants: iconic firms like Bear-Stearns, Lehman Brothers, Merrill-Lynch, AIG, and finally Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae themselves, which were created after World War II to make sure home loans would be available to everyone, especially GI's returning from the war. They all failed, and their CEO's scurried off with the good cards in multimillion-dollar golden parachutes.

It took the fall of these giants to awaken the stock market to the crisis the rush to pass on the Old Maid to someone else had caused. And when the Congress failed in its frantic call by the Treasury Secretary to pass a 700-billion-dollar bailout to purchase all the Old Maids from all the banks left standing so the credit could flow again, the stock market lost over a trillion dollars in one day with the largest single point drop in history.

It took a week to make the timid representatives come around and rescue the plan, and they still did so reluctantly, only because of pork sweeteners they could offer their constituents to appease their anger with their own re-elections looming, and only after reassuring themselves about their own careers and fortunes. I think many realized it would be better to face the loss of their political seats than the loss of their own derrierres and personal fortunes in a financial armageddon.

Friday the House of Representatives passed the modified bailout. What it did was agree to take the Old Maid cards from the banks and investment houses--the federal government would hold the bad card through purchase of the toxic mortgage-backed securities from any firms which wished, for a discounted price which would provide immediate relief to revenue flow so that credit could once again flow freely and the nation could avoid a total panic and collapse into another Great Depression that might make the 1929 one seem pretty mild.

When times got better (?) the Treasury could sell them at at least the value paid or perhaps greater price, for after all the homes did not disappear and many had very substantial value and would be attractive to private and institutional investors to buy and sell and live in again, and the revised mortgages could enable many to refinance, stay in their homes, and stem the tide of foreclosure by overanxious, credit-strapped banks and other lenders. The Government was the one place which could afford to wait for several years for a chance to pass the Old Maid on back to the lenders which had originally created her, with a much-improved chance the game would not end before she could be paid off. The bailout this past week bought time for the game to go on, for the Old Maid isn't a threat to anyone so long as the game continues. Only if the game ends does she obtain.

But in the meanwhile, who holds the Old Maid in the deck? Every taxpayer. Welcome to the mysteries of the financial world, neighbor.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Reality Speaks Most Eloquently of All

First I admit my bias favoring conservativism in government. But that bias doesn't translate to a party affiliation. I have registered as an Independent for decades, and find no reason to change that this November because I jealously guard my right to vote for whomever I feel would make the best President.

To decide whether to vote for Senator Obama or for Senator McCain, I have followed whenever possible all the speeches, news articles, newscasts and opinion pages I could find on the campaigns, the issues, and the candidates since the primaries. And I have seen, with the external realities of world and national events and issues, each of the candidates attempt to grapple with the rapidly-shifting, complex issues facing the nation how each has wrestled to present his positions.

As November approaches, no one could have designed a more dramatic script of crises for both Obama and McCain to confront. Gone are the free and easy days for Presidents to simply memorize and spew forth their party line spontaneously at one whistle stop after another across the land. First there was the underlying issue of a war on two fronts continuing many years longer than anyone imagined or wanted to support. Although most Americans had supported our war against the Taliban in Afghanistan and search for Al Queda leaders wherever they exist, for several years the country has become more divided on whether to support the administration's continuation of the war in Iraq,

The war in Iraq was issue one in the last election and the midterm Congressional elections. It swept George W. Bush back to power for his second term, and within two years wrested both houses of Congress from Republican control. As early as a year ago it seemed the U.S. was losing the war and there was little hope of winning. Voices rose against further funding the war through a succession of several expensive bills as cries of "Bring them home now!" became a chorus.

Then came the troop surge, and it began to succeed, just as the primary season began as well. The war became the main campaign issue for both camps, Obama insisting the war must end regardless, McCain insisting the war continue to the victory the surge had begun to suggest might be possible after all and see it through to the end. John McCain had stood behind the administration's surge nearly alone in the Senate, and his courage was rewarded by a resuscitation of his flaggging campaign, which had seemed nearly lifeless and insolvent last July, and a succession of primary victories which had seemed impossible mere months before, and eventual victory in becoming the Republican nominee.

The war in Iraq was, however, soon to take a back stage to reality again as a succession of hurricanes smashed our Gulf states and focused everything on what to do for timely and effective response. As late as Monday night of the Republican National Convention, as Hurricane Gustav hit New Orleans, the convention had to be postponed--or at least reduced to administrative issues. President Bush and Vice President Cheney stayed in Washington to monitor the federal response. John McCain arranged for his plane to fly Gulf states delegates and their families where needed, and again campaigns took a back seat to real events. No sooner did that storm pass up through the nation's spine than Hurricane Ike came and caused worse. Again, the campaigns could only posture and lament in empathy. Threat, destruction, angst, loss of homes, jobs, and property heaped atop ever-worsening finances on Wall Street, loss of credit, inflated debts and inability of millions to meet their expenses.

The addition of Senator Biden and Governor Palin to the campaigns each caused a flurry of interest, and it seemed the race for President was finally on track for each party to put its best foot forward. The debates were approaching, and I looked forward eagerly to hearing what each had to say about the issues and help me decide my vote--for as I said despite my conservative preferences I recognize the individual is at least equally as important a deciding factor as his political stance. I look for how each decides small matters and speaks and reacts, not just what their scripts say on the hustings. I look for what I hear in the voice and see in their eyes, and the sense of passion each shows, and sense of grace and humor as well, for I will have to live with the next President's manner and speech for the next four years.

Then, it seemed out of nowhere, the Secretary of the Treasury and the Chairman of the Federal Reserve informed Congressional leaders in the late evening urgently convened meeting last Thursday that Armageddon was, effectively, only hours or days away. The United States of America was about to crash in the greatest collapse of the entire economy since the Great Depression. The only way to postpone the collapse was to legislate nearly a trillion dollars of bailout money for purchase of toxic mortgage-related debts from the big financial houses--all of them! And to do it without qualifications or wrangling, immediately! Because the house was on fire, and there was absolutely no time to argue: we had to get out NOW!

This, of course, came in the midst of a tightening Presidential campaign, and on the watch of the most unpopular President since Coolidge, whose credibility for crying wolf prohibited speaking of it to those leaders himself and forced his getting his treasury secretary and fed chairman to do it for him.

Predictably, even those august persons couldn't convey the urgency to the do-nothing Congress, and hearings were instantly arranged to discuss the matter instead of deciding it too quickly. After all, Congress surely had the rest of the week before the break began, and they had to measure the ramifications carefully. And if they had to delay a bit longer, well, surely the markets wouldn't collapse as predicted. It boggled the mind too much. Further, almost to the man and woman, both houses of the legislature were instantly beseiged with an angry, disbelieving constituency that their representatives even dared consider passing such a draconian giveaway to the fatcats of Wall Street to bail out their years of bad loans and mismanagement.

Still, no one wanted to be caught looking indecisive or bringing down the entire economy. Everyone agreed something had to be done. No one agreed what, or when, or how much, or under what conditions. Not much surprise there, sadly. What would these leaders have done in 1775 on July 4, I wonder, with the emerging nation's founding in the balance.
Once again, suddenly no one cared a whit about the Presidential campaigns, or about Barack Obama or John McCain--or even the always-fascinating news and views of Joe Biden or Sarah Palin for that matter.

It's all coming together for Act III now, it seems. And the candidates have agreed to disagree on even whether to suspend their campaigns till the financial crisis is dealt with in Washington, which McCain has decided to do, or to continue to campaign and speak out on what they see as the big issues, which Obama has declared he will do while keeping a watchful eye on unfolding events in Washington, each trying to appear more Presidential in so doing. McCain has said it's no time for politics and speeches or partisan arguments, and has cancelled participating in the scheduled debate Friday night, saying that it's time to deal with a vital real issue as senators and senate leaders, which both are.

Since both McCain and Obama view the financial crisis with similar ideas about what is needed, surprisingly, the only distinctions between the two I can make out are about how they conducted themselves in their decisions. McCain quickly raced to embrace the issue and return to Washington to join his colleagues in forming a response. Obama insisted on restraint and deliberation and called for concerted action in a joint statement plan which McCain jumped out ahead of with his unexpected, unilateral announcement.

Which do I think acted more Presidential? Decisive but impulsive? or cautious but noncommittal? In the face of the urgency claimed, it would seem McCain wins. But in the reality of the nation's overwhelming opposition, it would appear to be Obama. Again, I couldn't see any daylight between their behaviors that would seal my vote.

But I did catch a glimpse of something, I think, in the way McCain raced ahead and in solemn patriotic tones pre-empted his agreed-upon joint declaration with Obama, whereas Obama honored his and refused to make a big deal out of it against McCain. That, to me, seemed more Presidential.

It would also seem to me that this financial crisis, on top of the horrible economic state of affairs we have suffered through for many months now, and the draining wars on our national psyche, or what's left of it--would hand the Presidency to Senator Obama on a silver plate! I'm not sure any Republican could overcome the entire nation's dissatisfactions with the plagues of locusts and dust which have ravaged this land of late.

But I have learned that events not of any candidate's making, or even his political positions and ideology seem to shape the nature of the race more than the candidate himself, perhaps. Reality speaks most eloquently. And forty days is time enough--for Noah to sail the world and for something else--some other unforseen crisis--to happen. But it will be hard to top this one.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

It Is Mete to So Do

I got up today focused on tomorrow, September 12, my son's birthday, his last in his '20's. I was miffed about the way the New York post office blew the express mail delivery of the presents his mother and I sent. They got it there in twelve hours alright, but since he was working in the city, just left a notice to come get it at the post office. That's not what I paid $16 for, so I was "plenty hoo-hoo," as Hawaiians sometimes say when steamed.

Then I turned on the morning news and realized it was September 11. But in a real sense there is no more September 11. There is only 9/11, a day that will, like December 6, live in infamy as one of the most tragic days in our history.

I didn't want to get wrapped up in the commemorations and ceremonies at Ground Zero in Manhattan, the Pentagon, and the field near Shanksville, Pennasylvania. But I couldn't turn away. I couldn't turn away because I saw the faces of my countrymen and was riveted in the solemnity of the moment. As an American, I could not put 9/11 behind me, not this year, nor last year, nor any other of the seven years since September 11, 2001.

At 8:48 that morning I had just entered my humanities classroom at the university and was preparing to teach my 9:00 class when a colleague stepped in at the door and said, "CNN says a plane just flew into the World Trade Center!" It was terrible, I knew--a terrible accident, like the light plane that flew into the Empire State Building some years before. But when my friend opened my door again a few minutes later and cried, "Another plane just flew into the other tower!" everything changed in my mind. It was no accident. We were at war. My nation was under attack, on our soil, for the first time in my life. I didn't know by whom, but I immediately suspected terrorists, who had threatened us repeatedly and attacked our embassies abroad, our Marine barracks in Lebanon, the U.S.S. Cole and other targets around the world but had till then never succeeded in launching an attack on our soil.

My students were frightened and wanted me to cancel class. I said, "Anyone who wants to can go, but I intend to stay right here and teach this course. If I get scared off, the terrorists win." It was a pathetic false bravado I guess, but no one left. The horror of the full scope of the attacks unfolded after classes when we learned of the attacks on the Pentagon and United flight 83 over Shanksville en route to Washington when brave men charged the cockpit and saved an attack on the U.S.Capitol, or the White House, or other key target, readily sacrificing their own lives to save other Americans.

Yes, it was indeed a day that will live in infamy. But I also had a personal link to the events of that day, and I didn't find out till a couple of days later when I opened my morning paper and saw the face of a man I passed by in our Publix Supermarket aisle not more than a month or two before, peering out of a sinister black and white head and shoulders shot on the front page. His name was Mohammed Atta. He piloted the first plane into the north tower.

As I had approached and passed that man in that aisle we were alone, but so shaken had I been when I glanced into his intense eyes that I sought my wife in the next aisle to tell her, "Barb, that man in the next aisle there looks evil! I mean, really evil. He gives me the creeps!" My reaction was not unique. Residents of Tara Apartments where he stayed during his months in Coral Springs before the attack said he always made them uneasy also. I guess we had good reason. To this day I do not believe in judging people by their looks and recognize that appearances are often deceiving, but I am convinced that the hatred for this country and its people that that man carried in his heart could not escape notice in his face.

Today, though seven years have passed, I felt the need to listen, to watch, and at times to pray. I was very impressed with the ceremonies dedicating the amazingly fitting Pentagon Memorial, the Ground Zero reading of victims' names, the gathering on the site of United Flight 83 near Shanksville, and the solemn honoring of all Americans who perished in the attacks of that day.

When I had begun watching I was worried I would just get depressed. But the more I watched, the more I felt uplifted and proud of my country, its courage and bravery, its refusal to set aside the past and its lessons, and the sensitivity it showed to so respectfully honor the lives of those who perished that day. I saw today that America I grew up in with such pride, and felt the spirit of 9/11 once again which drew us all so close together as a people.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Here comes G through J

The bowling alley of hurricanes and tropical storms heading our way is in full operation: Fay, Gustav, Hanna, Ike, Josophine--they're all lined up for their turn to try to wipe us off the low-lying sands of South Florida. My community is on a mountaintop at 16 feet above sea level. That's because I'm almost 20 miles inland. But some of the oldtimers here tell of rowboats and canoes rowing and paddling on Sample Road, my nearest main street only 50 feet away.

Since moving here in Coral Springs in 1998, we've experienced probably twenty named hurricanes, some of them like Wilma, Katrina, and Andrew severe, ripping out our screen room and toppling our tall ficus trees. Now we can only watch what the tracks bring us and hope to dodge the hail of bullets this month. Three years ago, the year Katrina hit New Orleans, we had so many named storms the National Weather Service ran out of alphabetical names and had to go into the Greek alphabet to name them all. Remember that? I think the last English one was Hurricane Zebulon.

Then, by late October, just as suddenly as they had formed, they were gone. Our hurricane season begins June 1 and lasts till November 30 each year. But we very seldom get any major action till late July or August. When we do, they form off Cape Verde at the African coast and drift across the tropics westward. When they get into the Caribbean, however, they try to organize themselves into waves that hang around with nowhere to go till they decide to spin up into a tropical storm or hurricane and try to head north.

The natural track of hurricanes is to circle the Atlantic Ocean basin, which in normal times is surmounted by the Bermuda High, the humongous high pressure system that is the main guiding pressure for these storms. The hurricanes try to go up off the east coast of America and circle around until they cool off and dissipate in more northern latitudes. But this arrangement is often interrupted, especially at these peak times of September into October, by low pressure troughs that come across the continent. When one of these displaces the Bermuda High, whatever storm spins under Florida gets sucked right up to the north following that trough, and voila, we get hit. Sometimes the Bermuda High expands its high pressure westward to the Gulf, and voila, Katrina, Gustav, and other storms can't curve north till they get into the Gulf head north or west to the Gulf coast.

All these patterns are very cyclical, and we've had years where hurricane after hurricane sweeps up off our Florida peninsula and smacks the Carolinas silly, one after another. Other years the most ferocious-looking systems appear to be headed straight for us, only to be blown to bits by upper-level wind shear caused by El Nino or La Nina. Every once in awhile we get a hurricane that loops around all over the place and even returns to hit somewhere again. And Fay, our most recent to hit Florida itself, made no fewer than four separate landfalls as it curved up from Key West, headed east across to the Atlantic, curved back into Jacksonville and across to the west, emerged into the Gulf again, then came ashore one last time at Tallahassee and Pensacola. The only major areas of the state Fay didn't hit were Miami and Tampa. We felt her winds here for a week.

Hurricanes and Tropical Storms are part of living in Florida. We don't take them for granted, but we realize they are part of nature and forces to be reckoned with. We prepare for them all and hope for the best. But we realize they are nature's way of transferring billions upon billions of cubic feet of warm, moist tropical air for cooler, temperate air of northern latitudes. They are nature's air conditioners/humidifiers, and the exchanges must be made to avoid cataclysmic disruption of the climate worldwide. We stand in awe of these storms and respect them. But we'd still just as soon they do their mighty work offshore and in unpopulated areas, and steer around us.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Timid forecasters don't help anyone.

This weekend the first credible threat to become a hurricane headed our way appeared last Thursday as a disorganized tropical mass east of Puerto Rico. Unsure how to report it and not wanting to panic the public unnecessarily, our local NBC weatherman tried his best to ignore it completely. The other South Florida weatherpersons at least said we'd need to monitor it closely.

By Friday afternoon several stations reported the storm had reached 40 mph, and Tropical Storm Fay was officially the sixth named tropical system of the season. Though still very disorganized and slow-moving to the west, Fay was expected to brush south Cuba and head into the Gulf as had the past several systems, But Fay had a different potential track: a low pressure system centered over Denver was on the move south and east. The National Hurricane Center had projected it could arrive as a trough which could curve Fay north into Florida.

Friday afternoon my NBC timid friend acknowledged Fay but again refused to push the button that it posed any danger to us or we should begin to prepare for it. He reported only the facts of the present moment: Fay was now a tropical storm, moving West at 14-16 mph across Hispaniola. On to the local forecast.

I switched to Fox. A lady weatherman was urging the public to make preparations this weekend. Buy bottled water, batteries, gas, and any needed non-perishable foods, lumber or medicines--whatever would be needed to last about three to five days without power, should Fay curve our way. The cone of possible track of the storm's center, at that time, included the entire state.

I turned to The Weather Channel. A meteorologist reported Fay had the potential to "go right up the spine" of Florida, from the tip to the top.

Today our NBC timid soul finally got on board. Yes, we'd better get prepared, just in case. When I went to the grocery this evening people were hauling out cartsfull of bottled water and other supplies, trying not to appear panicked but not very successfully; their purchases belying their fear. I've seen that look in my fellow citizens' eyes before, several times. It says I can expect to drive in a community of total pandemonium if the power goes out, dodge the terrified fellow dodgem drivers as we play chicken at every dark intersection's automatic 4-way-stop mandate, grab every item on the grocery shelves like a Macy's supersale, and expect to hear the chorus of chain saws and generators all through the day and hot night till civilization is restored a block at a time.

School starts Monday, if Fay lets it happen. The districts won't let the children stand out in a storm, so if Fay comes close, this school year will begin with an extra day or two's vacation. We're used to this situation in South Florida; several years' first days have been postponed or interrupted by the approach of threatening weather.

But Monday doesn't give us much time. We have only Saturday and Sunday to prepare, board up, buy our supplies, set up our plans and get ready as best we can. I would have hoped that my NBC meteorologist would have been a bit more forthcoming about the possibilities of Fay coming our way. TV weathermen can go too far the other way, admittedly, and panic the population into a needless run on the system, but "We'll keep an eye on it for you" just doesn't cut it. At least report what the National Weather Service is predicting, and the National Hurricane Center is forecasting as the possibilities, given the interaction of pressure systems and trends. I think my NBC guy just looked out the window at the hot, sunny day, like most, and concluded nothing was amiss.

As I write, Tropical Storm Fay is projected to become a category one hurricane shortly after turning north over open water in the Florida Straits between Cuba and the Keys, continue north as a category one or category two hurricane, pass over Key West, and Tampa, and move up the entire state's west coast, curving further inland and eventually exiting into Georgia or Alabama.
Several years ago Charlie, a similar storm came inland before expected and curved right up the I-4 corridor. It decimated Kissimmee's streets, where my son, Scott, huddled alone in his dark apartment and watched neighbors' roofs blow off, street lights crash to the pavement, storefronts and signs blow to pieces and trees fall so thickly you couldn't even tell where the streets were. The city looked like a war zone. And Charlie was only a category two, they say.

Tropical Storm Fay could, with only a minor deviation, move up the Eastern side of the state instead of the Gulf side, as a category one or two hurricane just as easily, taking out half the metropolitan population and property without surprising anyone here. Or maybe the center of the state, or just as understandably, pass harmlessly northwestward into the Gulf and fizzle out.
With hurricane tracks it's impossible to know for sure.

I've seen hurricanes head north toward the Carolinas, do a complete loop, and return to S. Florida for another punch, like Katrina did several years ago, returning as a category one and crossing from east to west into the Gulf before curving north once more and eventually intensifying into the category four or five monster that devastated New Orleans.

One thing obvious to all who watched and most who reported, is that we were certain to feel the effects of Fay in South Florida no matter where she decided to go, or how weak or intense she would become. That much was clear last Thursday and should have been on every station then. Weathermen who don't have the courage to push the button and say "Look out, everybody, here comes trouble!," even at the risk of being labelled a Chicken Little, shouldn't be on the air.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Comments Appreciated

As an occasional blogger I've come to accept that a lot of visitors drop by for a minute or less and move on when they find no pictures or rants of interest. But I've also come to treasure a few non-family fellow bloggers who regularly read this blog and sometimes offer comment. My recent paeon lamenting changes going on at my university (and effectively cancelling core English and Art Appreciation requirements I'm qualified to teach) apparently touched a nerve in two favorite readers, by the thoughtful and passionate comments they offered (read in two posts below). They are friends and I view them as colleagues, though we've never met outside our blogs. I appreciate what insights they've given me about teaching and higher education very much. Thanks, Pat and Carol Anne. I'm keeping my mind open to returning to the classroom if I get antsy, and it would probably be at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton or Broward Community College if I do. I, too, have taught and administered in four-year universities, private colleges, and community colleges; and I, too, enjoy the latter perhaps best. But for now, I'm kind of looking forward to a semester of down time this fall to try some other ideas. At 69, with gas prices making driving even across town regularly a pain in the wallet, and with SoFla drivers all but running one off the road or shooting one if he looks askance at them, I'm in no hurry to jump back into the fray.

Grand Ole Opry-- Super Show, Super Folks

On our way to Indiana to see the folks this June, we stopped in Nashville for a Grand Ole Opry show. Last year we tried to see the fabled show, but there was no performance the night we were in town. We made up for that by watching some of the regulars of the Grand Ole Opry like Jeannie Seeley perform in Nashville Nights supper and show near our campground. But this year we made it on a performance night, and we loved the experience.

On Briley Parkway the main building (there are four Grand Ole Opry sites) sits next to a huge Gaylord Grand resort hotel on one side and a big shopping mall on another, so parking was no problem, and our tickets of $39 each for Mezzanine front row seats were very reasonable, I thought. Outside before the show we posed with Minnie Pearl and Hank Williams and Roy Acuff live lookalikes, browsed the souvenir store, and listened to a warmup band on the front plaza.

Inside, the seating is surprisingly on long curving benches rather than individual armrested seats, but the padded benches were comfortable for the two-hour show. As in any broadcast studio, the wood stage had equipment strewn about everywhere, with cameras. cables, microphones, lighting and props skillfully manouvered by operators and stagehands who pirhouetted about in an intricate choreography. Talent waited in the shadows diagonally downstage left to await their call, and at eight o'clock on the dot a brief history of the Grand Ole Opry, its stars, novices, and rich traditions flashed over three jumbotron screens left, center, and right. An announcer approached the podium and introduced Jeannie Seely, hostess for the first segment (sponsored by Cracker Barrel.) Other acts whom she introduced were Jimmy C. Newman, the Whites, and Carolina Rain.

If we'd paid closer attention to past Opry broadcasts on radio and tv more, we wouldn't have been surprised. We weren't just watching a closed musical show. We were involved in a live network tv and radio broadcast, syndicated worldwide as part of the studio audience du jour. The show was in four thirty-minute segments, each with two to four different acts, commercial pauses and its own brand sponsor.

The second half-hour (sponsored by Bass Pro Shops) was headlined by the venerable pint-sized cowboy crooner Little Jimmy Dickens, all of 87 years old this month and still going strong. His only complaint: something in his ear was bothering him, and he went to the doctor, who retrieved a suppository. "Oh thank goodness," he told the doc, "Now I know where I lost my hearing aid." The Little General Cloggers from Kennesaw, Georgia clogged away onstage and Mountain Heart bluegrass band completed the segment.

9:00 to 9:30 featured Jean Shepard, Bobby Osborne and The Rocky Top X-press, hootin' and hollerin' out "Good Old Rocky Top, Tennessee," with Bobby's son on bass fiddle (sponsored by Humana.)

But the last half-hour was for me the best. The curtain rose on Riders of the Sky singing the Rawhide theme they recorded originally for the hit show, and they did Roy Rogers' "Happy Trails to You" and Gene Autry's "Back In the Saddle Again" with warm audience participation. Connie Smith and Kathy Mattea closed the evening with performances sponsored by Johnson Controls.

I have to admit that country/western isn't always my favorite style of music, but overall it is more tuneful, foot-tapping in its rhythms and listenable in its harmonies than a lot of other more popular genres. I think everyone has a little bit of country in him or her, and some of it I really enjoy. It's a national music, the closest thing we probably have to a traditional American genre. Jazz is American as well, but not perhaps as enduring and unchanging. The country/western music we heard this night was the same fifty years ago, in style and instrumentation, themes of love and heartache, patriotism and courage, religion and family. And far from its lyrics bashing the society and everything in it like rap's often trash-talking obscenities often do, country/western is unabashedly patriotic and proud to be an American. I like that--a lot.

As we left for our motel, I couldn't help but be impressed with a couple of things about Nashville's stars, and the overriding impression was one of honesty and openness, no guile, no phoniness, no pretentiousness in any of them. They seem totally at home onstage or off, willing to share their lives and talents with anyone and anxious to help newcomers make it to the top. Unlike the superstars of Broadway and Hollywood, they don't seem to have the giant egos that make them like planets in orbit, avoiding the pull of other planets and stars, isolated in their own groupies and fans and very lonely. These performers--some multimillionaires--are seemingly comfortable in their own skins with all levels of society and with each other.

And why not? After all, there are thirteen hundred and fifty-two guitar pickers in Nashville, according to Lovin' Spoonful in "Nashville Cats." Everybody is a singer-songwriter, and they write about their lives and feelings. It's one of the few non-phony professional groups I've ever met, and I felt right at home. I remembered last year when we saw the Opry stars and regulars perform on their off-night, they waited on us, served us our dinners before they took to the stage to do the show. I remember the drummer bringing me my iced tea, and our waitress joining in onstage for a couple of numbers.

On our way back to South Florida we stopped in Gatlinburg for some Christmas shopping and the local ambience, and heard some more country/western local bands performing on the streets. So we had fun despite the straight line route this year, and counted ourselves fortunate. There are far fewer travellers on the roads this year than we've found in years past. People are taking "staycations," as the travel editors call them on network news.

USA Today reported Americans drove thirty billion fewer miles in the first quarter this year than during the same period last year. Yet that amount represents only 3% of our annual fossil fuel consumption, I believe it said. That is a staggering figure indeed.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

No Teaching beyond Christmas?

My college is changing its core curriculum and is basically no longer requiring things I teach: English, Literature, Humanities and Art Appreciation. They say the accrediting body, Southern Association, has changed its distribution requirements, and a consultant has assured them they can do it. It puts my continued teaching there at risk. But I'm doing the art apprec. this summer term--probably for the last time, and a "shadow English II Lit" this fall for those who have already completed English Composition I and will need it.

Whether they are risking re-accreditation, I don't know. I've been retired fulltime and out of the information loop for several years, teaching part-time only. But I can't imagine parents putting out the kind of money they charge to send their sons and daughters to a university that doesn't require English, math, humanities or public speaking courses. They say they're replacing them with interdisciplinary "dialogues" that students will begin in their sophomore years, and all faculty will teach.

I think they're crazy, and I predict that rather than enhance enrollment they will find students leaving in droves and not being able to recruit new ones. Who in their right mind will go to a university whose credits will no longer transfer, and may not continue to be regionally accredited? But I may not understand the issues, as I said, being on the outside now.

I had hoped to continue teaching at least one more year before I turn away from the rigors of the classroom altogether. I realize I will need to at some point. But I'm not looking forward to retiring completely. And I know I don't want to do the usual things well-meaning relatives and friends suggest to keep busy: volunteer work, golf, tennis, involvement in clubs, groups, church work, part-time work here or there. I'll be damned if I'll be a Walmart greeter or help people find galvanized nails at Home Depot. I'm a teacher

It looks now like I'll be able to keep teaching through Christmas, enough to stay out of trouble. I only need one section a couple of days a week to do the trick. Two is better, but at this point I'll take one. There's not much distance between one and two, but there's a vast distance between none and one. I'm hoping the university will come to its senses at some point and scrap the changes to the core. But I don't think it will happen for a year or two at the earliest, and that may be too late. If I run out of teaching opportunities before I'm ready to call it quits, I may try to get a class at one of the community colleges within driving distance. "Hello and welcome to Walmart" is not for me.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Parade of Shames

I could hardly believe my eyes and ears as I witnessed the evening news cover a limosine full of prospective home buyers being paraded from foreclosed home to foreclosed home in South Florida by realtors hired by the lenders to unload the seized properties. The video was festive and the mood bubbly. Here were bargain basement prices for many homes of much greater value than the asking price, and the sellers and buyers alike were drooling. One clip showed a small group of them toasting the occasion with champagne.

It made me ill. The apparent attitude was as if someone in a monopoly game had landed on a high-improvement property of theirs and they now got to seize all the opponent's properties, cash, and other assets and put him out of the game. How could people be so crass! Don't they realize they are dealing with people's former homes? With their lives? With what remains as all they had to live in? With what, but for the hasty greed and avarice of unscrupulous lenders, they would have been able to still be in until this horrible recession passes?

Millions, we're talking about, Millions of families have lost their homes across the nation to foreclosure, even as they have lost their jobs, in many cases permanently, and the government just drags its feet trying to do something to slow the process and get the banks and finance companies to work something out so people can stay in their homes. What's the rush? Those houses are not going anywhere. What's the rush to ruin lives? It's not like they will make more money by seizing and selling them for pennies on the dollar, for gosh sake.

And as for the parade of shames (not the parade of homes), if those champagne-tippling philistines have the money to bargain-shop for houses they don't even need for themselves but undoubtedly want to flip just for a fast fat profit, why don't they use it instead to try to help those foreclosed people stay in their homes and ride out these tough times? They're the ones who need help. And for that matter, the banks who created the crisis with their sub-prime loans, the government who refused to regulate it, the rich oil companies who have exascerbated the poverty of those poor families with their obscene gas prices, big corporations, the churches, synagogues, mosques, charities, and anyone else who can afford to offer assistance should do so as well. This is an unprecendented human crisis, not a time for bargain shopping. There aren't many things that are worse for a family than to lose its home. It's bad enough when it happens from natural disasters or accidental causes, but to look out your window and see a limo of greedy vultures drive by sipping champagne and eyeing your house is enough to push one over the edge.

At the very least, lose the champagne and lose the limo. If you can live with the idea that you have a home that was basically stolen at the misfortune of another, then at least have the decency to buy it quietly and discretely.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

If an infinite number of monkeys and typewriters....

Discouraged by no sales of my spreadsheet budget after a couple of weeks' trying, I turned again to internet publishing to renew my hopes of rewarding enterprise. I'd like to call it internet publishing because blog sounds so blug, though it's just a lazy word for weblog, but internet publishing sounds like a respectable use of my time.

I quickly decided I'm too old to fight the code for setting up my own site from scratch with Frontpage or MySQL or Perl modules, etc., which younger geeks seem to take to like ducks to water, and my best bet would be to either use this space on Writetosayit or start afresh with another blog. The thing about blogs on established host sites is that they're so easy to set up and maintain that I can get a lot of bang for my buck with minimal technical hassle. So I went shopping for another space to vent my angst.

There are many free and low-cost blog hosting sites out there, and I've tried several over the years. But one which was still on Google's directory of weblog hosts was BlogHi. BlogHi used to be very appealing to me. Along with Writetosayit, my nbknotes blog there attracted me to write well over a hundred posts, and offered several strengths I haven't found either here at Blogspot or anywhere else. Not only was it a free blogsite, it was the best-syndicated and best-set-up site of any I found, and within several months I found my posts reaching hundreds through the rss links and the site itself.

Out of curiosity I clicked it again, and was amazed to find my former blog still just as I had left it when I took my portrait avatar and my xml file of posts I'd written, and migrated to wordpress. The posts were gone, but the notebook template, header, and other sections and choices I'd made earlier were still there, all ready for me to just write another post! In fact, since I still have that .xml and .jpg, I realized I could quickly restore everything to my former BlogHi blog and continue as if I had never dropped out! Maybe my search for a "new" blog was over.

So I wrote and posted a little blurb welcoming myself back after a few years' hiatus, and felt really good about using BlogHi's comfortable and efficient, user-friendly and intuitive features. I was home again, in a sense.

In fact, with its advantages, I couldn't think why I left in the first place. I remembered a rough patch when the owner, an engineer at a Munich company, got out of it and sold it to someone else. I had scrambled to save my posts and migrate to another site before BlogHi closed up shop.

But what I had forgotten was the real reason I left BlogHi. And as I proudly reviewed my page as published, I scrolled down and instantly remembered. There, at the bottom, was what appeared to be some sort of box ad for a GPS device, with a button to push for more information. Foolishly, I pushed it, and made a few cents for the new BlogHi owners through Google's AdSense. You see, at BlogHi, the writer benefits from a free space to blog and post all he wants, but the company gets the money that accrues from advertising on the published pages, not the author.

I was livid. In fact, I remember blogging against that unfairness at BlogHi itself when I was getting quite a number of hits, only to find many of my fellows commenting, "Hey, it's a win-win situation, isn't it? We get free blogspace and syndication; they get some revenue to defray their costs."

That's not the way I saw it. I figured if I wrote it and chose to let Google put some non-intrusive ads on my pages through AdSense, I should get the revenue, or at least the bigger part of it, not the host. I felt like one of the proverbial infinite number of monkeys chained to an infinite number of typewriters, pecking away endlessly to see if all the great books would be written. That, I realized, was what really drove me from BlogHi hosting. I didn't want to feel like an employee every time I sat down to enter a post, with someone else reaping the profit of my efforts.

It's not that I expect to get rich at blogging or "internet publishing" of any kind, and I recognize that few personal blogs attract that kind of traffic to generate more than a pittance of revenue. But it's that the policy of BlogHi taking the potential pot with no way to reward the writer kills the hope of tangible rewards. And every writer hopes for tangible rewards in time, no matter who he or she is.

A host can't just give us a ream of blank paper and say, "Go to it, Bubba." We write and we publish our ideas because we hope that over time somehow we'll attract readers. And we hope that if our words attract enough readers, we'll be able to make some money at it. AdSense is the most accessible way a writer has to do that. Take that collection plate away, and the hope of income goes with it. We're left with only the rewards of seeing our ideas in print and receiving readers' comments--significant rewards to be sure, but not tangible.

I haven't tried AdSense here yet, and I doubt I will. There's something about spotting some ad for a GPS on my blog page that raises my dander. But I may try it on another blogsite, just to keep the hope of tangible reward alive.

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Going Down to the Office

When we were selling our hillside house in Huntington, Indiana, we were in frequent phone contact with our realtor, Marcellus Scher, and he'd always say when he'd be available "down at the office" next Tuesday morning or this Friday after four o'clock, etc. Sometimes when we'd call his wife would answer and say he was "down at the office," and we should call there, and repeat the number. But we never knew exactly where that office was. He had been with a big Realty office downtown for several years, but wasn't currently.

Finally one day we got an offer that he wanted us to drop by his house out on Stults Road to hear, and we drove out of town to the address.

I knew the house well. My parents' friends had lived there years before--a nice little Cape Cod box with a finished dormered second floor upstairs and a finished paneled basement. It was a comfy country cottage I'd been in in several times previously. Scher greeted us at the front door and sheparded us through the front hall directly into the down staircase.

"I went down to the office this morning," he said, "and I got an offer on your house--just a second." He fumbled with some keys and found the one he wanted, unlocked a solid door and stepped into "the Office," inviting us to follow and sit down around a big round antique table.

Thirty minutes or fewer later we had accepted the offer in writing and sold our house, and Scher locked up his "Office" as if it were located in the most insecure part of town instead of at the foot of his basement stairs, and we all climbed back up and were seen out the front door, with a nod to Missus Scher who glanced at us over her shoulder from the kitchen.

We've often chuckled at how serious Marcellus was about keeping a professional demeanor as he went to work on definite schedules by going ten steps down to his basement. Here was a man who kept his work separated from his private life with a zeal.

Now, as I try to feel my way into more internet publishing and marketing activities, I find it remarkable my "business," my "office," is sitting here on my laptop computer that I normally work with on my family room couch. When I go online to try to increase traffic to new sites or write some more help menus for the spreadsheet budget I'm trying to sell online through affiliate sites, I laughingly tell Barb "Well, guess I'll go on down to the office today," and she knows exactly what I mean.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

We Can Hide but We Can't Run.

I'm not sure what the main industry is in South Florida, but advertising is surely right up there. People who don't live here don't know what they're missing when they open their SoFla mailboxes. When I open mine I find layers of sundry ads of various sales and promotions, all unattached and slipping over each other so that only someone with a strong grip can keep them together long enough to get to the trash. These fillers clutter the mail and hide the first class items so well in their unbound, unstapled, loose-fitting, varied-size sheets and folds that we've more than once tossed something we really needed. Surely the military would like to know what their printers coat these thinner-than-newsprint flyers with, that makes them slicker than teflon or jewelers' oil.

And these nuisance ad bundles are there anew every day. The idea of them flying apart is so you have to pick them up, and presumably in doing so have to look at them. And it works. Frequently one or more of them slips out and falls on the grass, and despite my attempts not to look, I'm visually drawn to some sale price for some product or service before I can crumple it in my hand.

Today I learned from one that "I'm too busy to clean my own house," and that "Bertha and Crew Maid and Painting Service" would do it for me, for only-- . And from another I learned that "Loyalty like mine should be rewarded," therefore I should drop my cellphone carrier and switch to AT&T. Well, that doesn't seem very loyal, does it.

The magazines we get that seem so thick and meaty with reading when we carry them inside and open their pages dissolve into limp little pamphlets as they empty their loose ad insert cards onto our table. Barb then goes through and finds the glued ones and rips them out and throws them on the floor in disdain. What's left is a flapping mess with many jagged pages, and of course most of those are filled with ads also.

One particularly irksome new wrinkle has popped up on the front page of our Sun Sentinel newspaper, which now uses stick-on ads right over the front page headlines! Similar to sticky notes, these thin little three-inch square pests with their thinly-gummed backs can be gently peeled off and removed, but they still take some of the day's top story with them. Barb sticks them on our table items and vitamin bottles, where they continue to work their magic every time we reach for the Equal or pop a Stresstab. Again, the idea is to force me to notice something I didn't want to before the Sun-Sentinel will let me see something I did want to. Bad on them, say I, shame shame.

But advertisers are a shameless species. Some have promoted putting large ads in geostationary orbit so we are involuntarily urged to "Eat at Joe's" every time we try to look up and enjoy a pretty sunset. Others want to plaster their commercial messages over the inside of public restroom doors so we have something to read while--well--something to read, other than the graffiti. Still others want to decorate our shopping cart handles or force us to walk over their ads underfoot as we wheel through grocery aisles. If there were any way to invade our sleep, or even our eternal rest, I'm confident they would try. I'm wondering how long it may be before we will stare down at a dearly departed viewing and see "Betty's Beautiful Bouquets" tastefully arranged on the pillow next to the remains.

Sometimes we try to revolt against the onslought, but it's like shadow boxing with the rain. We join the national "Do Not Call" list, but of course the politicians exclude their causes, so we're swamped with electioneers' calls this year with its heated contests. Charities are also exempt from exercising self-control, and there are always those that just don't comply. We still get a barrage of calls from our college alumni associations every evening, and the "frat of police," as our caller I.D. announces. Fortunately, the caller I.D. works, so our super-cellular voice-announcing, coded-color-and ringtone phones all go off and broadcast "PFRATF OF POLIZ" with a loud, obnoxiously-instrumented tune so we don't inadvertantly bite out of habit. I guess we have barricaded ourselves about as well as we can against the commercial world. But I'm equally sure they will forever strive to find a way to wheedle and twist their way around our defenses.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

imposed upon by most indirect causes

Lest we forget how affected we can be by those myriad things that happen even continents away, consider my poor student from Venezuela who went home for her spring break. While there, she learned that her government refused to renew her visa to return to Florida and finish her semester at our university.

I seem to recall reading something about Hugo Chavez's threats to withhold visas to the U.S., among his usual rants against us "Yankee Imperialists," which are so frequent I hardly pay attention most of the time. But this time it affected me directly. My student's predicament led her to contact my administration, who promptly contacted me to arrange online work with her so she can continue to meet her requirements in my course and earn her credits. I'm also asked to report back to the administration as I proceed so they can monitor the situation.

The extra workaround isn't difficult but is time-consuming, as with any individual needs outside the regular class meetings. It's not really part of my responsibility as an adjunct instructor, but I'll do it, because it was no fault of the student--nor any fault of my university or even me. It's Hugo Chavez's fault, as I see it. Yet there's not much any of us can do otherwise, in fairness to the student.

I'm sure she flew down without her texts or assignments--it was her spring break after all--expecting to fly right back. But all her stuff's up here in her room, and I have no idea how or when or even if, she'll ever get it back.

The incident reminded me how fortunate I am to live in a free country which offers me at least some protections against the infantile whims and pouting gestures of a despotic leader.

Friday, March 14, 2008

The Ties That Bind

Once again my state, Florida, has bolixed up an election process, and once again it has managed to appear foolish in the eyes of the nation, and once again it's citizens are all a-dither for something to be done to set it right--without paying for it, of course.

In a pushy attempt to pre-empt the national Presidential primaries, our ex-governor Jeb and the Republican-dominated legislature moved up our primary by a couple of weeks, over the objections of just about everyone else in the country, including the candidates. Not screaming so loudly was Michigan, which made a similar cut to the front of the line by moving its own primary earlier as well. The Republican Party and the Democratic Party quickly levied punishment for breaking the rules: Florida's Democratic delegates were denied seats at the national convention, thus disenfranchising the state's democratic voters and rendering their primary votes moot. The state's Republican delegates were divided by half at that party's national convention. No delegates campaigned in the state, by their mutual agreement (though Hillary came down to crow over her victory briefly after the vote).

So the move to increase influence in the primary selection process backfired in spades. Not only did the state receive far less exposure to the candidates, with the chance to influence issues and positions, but they got next to zip. And worse, even with the primary taking place January 29, its results didn't alter anything at all. And worse still, Florida's delegates were unseated and the electorate punished with their votes not counting at all--surprise surprise.

Now both Florida and Michigan are scrambling to undo the damage and rush through a Democratic party do-over, either in actual balloting or a mail-in choice, but even that has the devil in the details and no one can agree on how it would be feasible or fair, or affordable. The national party won't pay for a repeat, nor should they.

What the legislature did not foresee--besides the foolhardy thumbing of noses at the national rules--was the tie. The tie between Obama and Clinton--or potential near-enough tie to make the super-delegates a factor going into the convention, and the very real possibility that neither can win enough delegates to capture the nomination outright. That effective tie means that something has to give. Someone empowered to elect the Democratic party nominee for President has to switch his or her vote. Actually, quite a few have to, to assure the number for victory.

But wait! Isn't each delegate bound by law to vote for the candidate the voters elected in the primaries and caucusses? Actually, not exactly. It's not against the law to switch. But wait! Isn't each delegate bound by moral obligation to reflect the will of the people's votes? Guess what. This is what is called hardball, friends, and anything goes.

So it turns out that the ties that bind, where elections are concerned, are not binding very firmly, that the back-room deal-making and phone call deal-breaking has already begun, both candidates promising the super-delegates the moon many times over to switch to their side.

And ironically, with Pennsylvania coming up in its primary in a few weeks, that state and others which follow, which kept their place in the pecking order of traditional primary dates, are now the ones which are apt to actually have the greatest impact on the election, not Iowa, not New Hampshire, not even Texas and Ohio. And certainly not 'lil ole Flawda, which in its reckless gamble just lost its clout entirely. The latest state to vote may actually be the one to put Mr. Obama or Mrs. Clinton over the top. He who laughs last,....

Oh well, at least we got to see a lot of Rudy Guiliani. He campaigned here and nowhere else, and came in last, and quit. The ties that bind aren't very firm.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Are We Getting Dumber?

This morning's Today show aired a segment asking if American youth were quickly becoming dolts, and citing as evidence that fewer than one of four college graduates could identify Iraq on a map; that ditsy Idol contestant Kelly Pickler, during an interview, did not know France was a country and Europe was not; that fewer than forty percent of American high schoolers had read a fiction or nonfiction book during the past year, and other eyebrow-raisers.

For years Jay Leno has sidewalk-interviewed "dummies" for us to chuckle at sadly. One, who said she was studying to be a teacher, couldn't recognize a picture of Bill Gates but instantly identified another of Harry Potter. Some couldn't name the nation south of Canada. The culprit, according to Matt Lauer's technology advocate, an NBC employee, was benign, not sinister--simply a changing lifestyle, a higher importance given by today's youth to "knowing how to use computers and the internet than to knowing Proust." With the internet's efficiency mere facts could now be instantly Googled or gained on Wikipedia--no need for tedious reading searches. Lauer's other guest, advocating for her book's position that yes, indeed, our youth are dumbing down significantly from previous generations, descried the technology monster which, she suggested, had made today's youth believe that learning basic traditional knowledge in wideranging fields of the languages, the social, natural, and physical sciences and mathematics, geography, history, philosophy, religions, the arts and literature was unimportant. What was important was what Paris Hilton wore to last night's party. Now that's knowledge that can be used, messaged and gossiped to posses and friends.

Another culprit cited by the dumb-and-dumber theorist was the media, who almost never attempt to raise the intellectual store of viewers but eagerly capitulate to the lowest forms of entertainment--inane reality shows as an example--sought by the greatest numbers, in a total sellout to commercialism.

Ah, Rome, Rome--are we so different in our decline from you? I have always been amazed at how quickly "civilization" can disappear. We falsely assume that knowledge once gained can never be lost, that law and order once established cannot be destroyed, that future generations, raised with the blessings technology has brought, will be better, live longer and stronger lives, become smarter and wiser, than their forebears.

It takes about two generations--perhaps only one--to nearly wipe clean an entire generation's knowledge and social memory, and along with that catastrophe to replace previously-held values. To do so requires only mindless entertainments, lowering of expectations and requirements, socially expedient promotions through grade levels, parental neglect and abandonment of any curbs on tv and computer use, the failure of the generations to interact collectively, and a sellout by government at all levels in order to get and maintain power, giving the greatest number of voters the ease and comforts they want rather than the challenges and opportunities for growth that they need.

Are we getting dumber with each generation? I'm not ready to say we are, though what a young adult today is expected to know is certainly different than it was twenty or forty years ago, as any employer can attest. Nor do I believe the fops paraded on tv by Leno or the gross ignorance suggested by books and articles is necessarily proof of decline. There have always been those who have learned more basic knowledge, always been those who have from lack of education or experience not become "smart" in this field or that. Such displays don't indicate whether young people today are better or worse at solving problems, at interacting in socially cohesive groups, at organizing purposeful activity, at living effectively and competitively in a complex world or instilling needed values in their children in turn. Nor do such displays of factual ignorance indicate much about the state of their conscience or their capacity to love, their sense of right and wrong, or their moral and ethical judgement. To me, these areas of the person are more important than whether or not someone has mastered Proust.

But it is worrisome that our expectations of what young Americans should be expected to know have become so low that I'm not laughing so much lately at the screened interview tv "dummies," not as entertained by the idea that ignorance is something to be proud of. It's not necessary for youth to turn away from technological gains--quite the contrary. Technology is a tool like fire or firearms that can be used for good or ill What people need to learn is how to use it wisely. Nor is it necessary for youth to read the entire canon of literature or master any other field of knowledge revered by their parents, in order to be considered "smart." But I do believe that parents, teachers, government, the church and other social institutions, the commercial sector and the media must share the blame for someone becoming an adult who cannot find his nation on a world map, and who is unconcerned that he cannot.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Fairness and Justice Demand a Hereafter

In the aftermath of last night's terrible storms, again I am reminded how fragile life is, and how we must treasure each day. Life is neither fair nor just, if awareness ends in death. The hereafter must continue awareness if only to restore what is lost, to mete out the fairness and justice this world does not, rewarding the good and punishing the wicked, for in this life too often the innocent suffer and the wicked prosper. There is too often neither fairness nor justice.

I know not the spiritual state of the fifty-plus souls whose lives were so suddenly and horribly ended, destroyed by the horror of the fierce tornados which swept through Tennessee and other states from the Gulf to Minnesota last night, but I know that they did not deserve such an end. It was just so unfair, so unjust! It is a terrible thing to realize that all those men, women, and children were cut off forever from their loved ones and friends in a few violent seconds. They had no chance, no choice, could not protect themselves from it, and certainly did not deserve to die.

Each man's death diminishes me, as John Donne said. I grieve for them, and for myself. The only way I can reconcile these things is through my faith in the rightness of a divine plan which I trust will restore the balance.

Truly Super Giants among men

For once the Super Bowl live up to its billing. What a game! going right down to the wire with valiant, inspired play by both teams throughout. I still can't believe Tyree's incredible helmet-catch and hanging on to the ball long enough that made the Giant's final score possible. It ranks up there with Franco Harris's legendary "immaculate reception" of the Bradshaw years--perhaps even surpasses it, because Tyree's catch was deliberate and fought for fiercely, not just one of opportunity or a lucky bounce. Sometimes we get to see an attitude emerge that a player or a team simply refuses to be denied the victory. That was the Giants last Sunday.

Friday, February 01, 2008

Oboy Oboy, Super Bowl and Super Tuesday!

This is the life. Super Bowl weekend, primaries and speeches running up to Super Tuesday’s twenty-two state primaries when we may get clear winners heading into the conventions--or may not. My guess is it will be McCain and Clinton, but I’m loving the dynamics of the candidates’ and their spouses’ interactions. It’s getting interesting.

And if the nominations are interesting, wait till the guessing heats up about running mates. I think if McCain gets the nod, he’ll tap Lieberman or Guiliani—possibly even Huckabee if he needs more conservative votes. If Romney wins, I’ve no idea. Mitt seems like more of a lone wolf than any other candidate running this season, and I haven’t seen any notable political friends campaigning with him. Huckabee can’t win unless his convention deadlocks and he’s the compromise, but that’s highly unlikely.

On the Democratic side, if Clinton wins, don’t look for her to tap Obama despite many feeling it would be the dream ticket, unless she can’t avoid it and still carry the black vote. She’d rather tap someone like Edwards or other Washington insider she’s worked with who could be appeal to the blue collar base. If Obama wins, there’s no way he’d pick Hillary for a running mate unless he had to have her aboard to carry the establishment faithful. As I wrote earlier, I’m afraid Bill’s going to scare off most potential veeps, relegating them to even less influence in decisionmaking than the White House chef. Of the four leading candidates, only Hillary has that albatross around her neck. The other spouses are gracious and appealing. Michelle Obama’s a little gregarious and outspoken, but within most folks’ tolerance levels.

And as far as race goes, or gender, I don’t think either matters as much as it did even eight years ago. I think America is ready for a female President or a black President, or even a female black President, if that person is perceived to be the best candidate for the job. What America is not willing to do is to elect a female President for the sake of change or a black President for the sake of change or the omigod, really? wow! factor, or because it would be historic. That happened with Nancy Pelosi’s election to Speaker of the House, and people quickly shrugged. If the novelty candidate can’t get things done, it doesn’t matter if they’re a Siberian yak, people will quickly abandon their support.

I am worried, however, about a charismatic candidate like Obama. Historically, charismatic leaders from the Kennedys to Ghandi to Martin Luther King, and most recently Benizir Bhutto—idealogues whose inspiring and eloquent words have made vast crowds passionate to follow them in their crusades for social change--have inflamed the worst elements of society’s fringe and drawn assassins’ bullets and bombs. It’s almost as if some people can tolerate anything but a really popular leader, someone they perceive could change things too drastically to suit them. I hope I’m wrong.

By the way, Go Giants! The Patriots are just too--too something. I want a new champ.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

The Field Is Narrowing--Thank Goodness

Okay, I don't want to be a spoilsport and pooh-pooh those Presidential hopefuls who threw their hats gleefully in the ring over the past year or so in both parties. But let's be honest, did many of them even bother to gauge their support or chances beforehand? I mean, at least Ross Perot had some support to show for his effort, and stayed with it till the end. But why did Tancredo or Duncan Hunter even bother? And why did Fred Thompson let himself be pulled into it if he didn't want it any more than he apparently did not, if his lackluster campaigning was any indication?

To me, it meant the early debates had to give time to candidates who really had little to distinguish themselves from the leaders. Ron Paul is at least a refreshing and consistent point of view, as his internet fundraising appeal demonstrates to everyone else's consternation. He hasn't a snowball's chance in you-know-where of being his party's nominee, but the others have had to allow and accomodate his debate time. Some, like Governor Bill Richardson, had impressive experience and skills to offer, but couldn't inspire the mainstream to get behind them with the votes or the funds to go very far into the primaries.

Today Duncan Hunter and Fred Thompson have thrown in their respective towels after poor showings in the early state primaries. But the race, as Mike Huckabee said in conceding the South Carolina victory to John McCain, is far, far from over. Who will be the ultimate nominee in either major party isn't clear yet, but the time draws near. Florida's ego-driven, ill-advised early primary that got their delegates barred from their conventions as of this writing backfired bigtime, with major candidates refusing to campaign in the state by a like advance date, and then we have Super Tuesday coming, when we'll probably get some sense of who's going to get the prize.

But I wouldn't be surprised if Guiliani, who has pinned all his hopes on a huge Florida victory, comes in second at best or even third or fourth behind McCain, Huckabee, and Romney, simply because they've kept themselves in the public eye and made the headlines and Rudy hasn't. Why he passed on every primary to date is mind-boggling to me, and that strategy alone, the poor decisionmaking, takes the lustre off his once-leading candidacy for me. If I am like most voters I want to hear what the leading candidates have to say about the issues, whether they're in Iowa, New Hampshire, Michigan, Nevada, South Carolina, or anywhere else. I don't want to have to wait till they build a base on some state down the road somewhere and not learn their views about the regional issues of earlier contests. Rudy seems to think all those ex-New Yorkers down here in Florida will vote for him. I think they may have if he had shown some spunk earlier. All he's shown me is he won't fight. He wants a sure thing. I want a fighter.

What may happen, if Rudy comes in less than a close second, which I think is likely, is he'll pout and drop out like no-show Fred, and Mike Bloomberg will jump in as an independent and scoop up support from the democratic side primarily, split the vote in that party and hand the election back to the Republican candidate again. He has the potential to be the Ralph Nader or Ross Perot that can't win the election but can make others lose.

On the Democratic side, I must say I was impressed by the well-informed arguments of Chris Dodd and the straight-shooting, direct answers of Joe Biden, though I doubt anyone so little willing to pander and primp to the voters as either of them would have much of a chance for a wide base of support. And Dennis Kucinic is, well, Dennis Kucinic. Good for him, but he's not a broad-appeal candidate for the same reasons as Dodd and Biden. No, the nomination will be won by someone willing to be more patient, considered, political and even-tempered to the sensibilities of the electorate at large. That, after all, is the art of politics. The winner will have that intangible ability to convince voters of almost every constituency, ethnicity, age, race and special interest that he or she will best represent their interests for the next four years.

It wouldn't surprise me if one or even both nominations went undecided clear to their national conventions--something almost unheard of in recent times. But I can remember some roaring ones from the past, let me tell you, and it's probably a healthy thing.

Nonetheless, I think if I had to bet on the nominees today, I'd bet on Hillary Clinton and John McCain. Hillary will finally win the Democratic nomination based on her greater national experience despite Barack Obama's inspired idealism and excellent speaking skills. The perception that he just doesn't have enough experience for the job will return at day's end, and all the idealism in the world won't overcome it. Hillary will run against John McCain, and McCain will win the election in a tight race, because, ironically, he will not have Bill Clinton, who will turn out in the end to be Hillary's greatest liability rather than her greatest strength. As the system showed when their roles were reversed, when he was in power and she was trying unsuccessfully to influence health care legislation, Americans don't want a shared Presidency, or even one which appears to be strongly influenced by a non-elected spouse of either gender. They want a single, clear, unequivocal leader. Well-meaning but outspoken spouses sank John Kerry and will sink Hillary also. In today's egalitarian mood between the assertiveness of spouses and the candidates themselves, the spouses would do well to remember the role of the vice president--golden silence publicly--and the fondness the country felt toward supportive but nonassertive first spouses of past Presidents: Mamie Eisenhower, Barbara Bush, Ladybird Johnson, and Nancy Reagan come to mind. Each championed noble causes effectively but non-politically and did not try to upstage their President in national affairs.

As the country slips into recessionary hard times, the economy will upstage Iraq, immigration, and every other as the deciding issue of this election, and will propel Mitt Romney to frontrunner status for a time because he will appear to have the best remedies and managerial skills. But ultimately John McCain will beat him for the same reason Hillary Clinton will get the Democratic nomination: experience, experience, experience. It's the intangible people consider in that moment they cast their ballots. For in that brief single moment they set aside personal preferences, prejudices, affiliations, special interests, and all the emotional clutter of the campaigns totally and vote their consciences: Who would be the best President for the next four years? Who would do the best job?

It's going to be interesting.