December 30, 2012

Wild Geese

Time pushes us along like leaves in the wind. Sometimes the wind blows hard, urging us forward. At other times, there is a brief lull. In those moments of reprieve, we can sometimes catch a glimpse of what we missed.

At the end of the road I travel daily, there is a farm that lays nestled among gently folding hills. A cornfield abuts the small country road that winds past it. At this time of year, the field seems bare, the dried corn stalks long since harvested for winter feed. In fact, the ground is littered with undigested bits of stalk and corn kernels the harvester swallowed and spit back up. The field is covered with the remnants of the last snow storm, a white blanket stretching out to the horizon, where it disappears among the bare trees standing guard along the ridge-line of the mountains.

The wild geese know about the field and the food it holds, the open expanse of worked ground matching their inner eye's mapping drawn from centuries of interactions with men and their plows. You hear them before you see them. The distant echoes of honking carried by the wind, heralding their arrival. Then the wavering vee formations emerge from the sky to the north, circling first this way then that way, finally coming in for a landing, wings flapping hard to slow the descent, a brief moment of awkwardness as they transition from sky to earth.

We arrived together, the geese in the field and I on my way to work, for once with a few minutes to spare. I was listening to Leontyne Price singing "Liebestod" from Wagner's Tristan und Isolde when I came to the STOP sign that faced the field. Across the road, I could see the snow geese dotting the corn field, their heads bent down as they searched for seed, oblivious to the other arriving gaggles. There must be hundreds of them.

The winds of time stilled to a whisper. Sight and sound merged for one magical moment. Sensing time's reprieve, I lingered to watch the geese circling down from the sky as Leontyne Price carried Isolde's grieving heart skyward on soaring notes. I stayed in that moment for a brief eternity. Then time was up. I had to get  to work.

But the after-images linger. I replay the scene in my mind over and over, just as I have replayed "Liebestod" a hundred times at least. This is the last memory I want to cling to as I lay dying ... the sight of wild geese settling onto the snow-dusted fields, Price's "Liebestod" floating through my head: In the billowing torrent, in the resonating sound, in the wafting Universe of the World-Breath --- drown --- be engulfed ---unconscious ... supreme delight! Love ... Death.

December 27, 2012

A New Year's Resolution

Another year, another gridlock. We are a society at war with itself, and we Baby Boomers are the chief combatants. It began in the early 1950s, when we had to take up sides in the Cold War. Then came Vietnam and Watergate, Reagan and Clinton. The battle lines hardened. Now we find ourselves at the edge of a cliff, and we seem quite ready to jump. 

It doesn't have to be this way. We must end this "us or them" thinking, the idea that it has to be either/or, my way or the highway. Instead, let's take the road less traveled. Let's start this new year out resolving to make it both.
  • It's not the Second Amendment or a safer society. It's both.
  • It's not raising taxes or cutting spending, it's both.
  • It's not standing by your principles or compromising, it's both.
  • It's not  rich man, poor man, it's both.
  • It's not the Muslims or the Christians, it's both.
  • It's not energy or the Earth, it's both.
  • It's not humans or all other life on the planet, it's both.
  • It's not this generation or that generation, it's ... all of us.
 We're all in this together. It's not either/or. Maybe it's not even both. It's bigger than that. It's all of us. Bruce Springsteen has a wonderful quote: "Nobody wins unless everybody wins." It's that simple, really.That is truly the American Way. We just have to work a lot harder at it. The lives of our children and grandchildren depend on it.

December 23, 2012

The Christmas Spirit

We've all heard the lamentations about the commercialization of Christmas. Nowhere is that felt more keenly than here at the epicenter, working in retail. Honestly, it just beats the Christmas spirit out of you. This was the conclusion of a scientifically valid random survey of retail workers scattered around the break room a couple of days before C-Day.

The disparity between how people are supposed to be and how they actually can be is, well, dispiriting. It leaves those of us in the front-lines hollowed out, desensitized by the constant onslaught of people driven frantic by the pressure to get their shopping done.

Let's face it. People are often at their selfish worst at a time of the year when we are all supposed to be infused with the spirit of giving. You want peace on earth and good will to men? Well, stay home then and watch old movies. Out here, it's a jungle. Welcome to the heart of darkness, waiting for you at the end of the line for the doorbuster of the day.

This is true of retail on any day, of course, but this time of the year really does seem to bring out the very worst. Not that there aren't random acts of kindness, but they are overwhelmed by the tidal wave of humanity pushing and shoving to be first in line, driven by the desire to get the most for the least as they buy dozens of presents for people they couldn't possible care all that much about.

This is what has struck me most this year, the extraordinary amount of gifts some people buy. You see the same people day after day, loaded down with packages. Who the hell are they buying them for? I don't even know that many people, much less that many I would buy a gift for. What sense of obligation impels people to feel that everyone who has ever crossed their paths deserves a little something at Christmas, even if it is a 99-cent piece of crap that no one in their right mind would want.

Speaking of which, I'll never forget the look on a customers face--this was several years ago during my first stint in retail--when she returned a gift and found out that it cost 99 cents. You could read the hurt in her eyes. Really? That's what I'm worth? Ninety-nine cents? I would have felt bad, but who the hell brings back a 99-cent gift anyway?

My disillusionment with humanity was first linked to Christmas back in 1969, when I was in Vietnam. On Christmas Day, we had a 24-hour truce, during which there was to be no fighting. That moment of peace illuminated the absurdity of war. We spend 364 days of the year killing the enemy and laying waste to the countryside, but on one day we can just stop the war and celebrate peace and joy? If we have it on our power to agree to stop fighting for one day, why can't we just leave it like that?

A part of me understands that I should be grateful for any 24-hour period when mankind can stop the madness and feel something akin to love and peace, when we can be our better selves. It won't last of course. It never does. The war resumes. The incoming tide of buying turns to an outgoing tide of returns.

Meanwhile, we few, we happy few, we band of retail brothers will sit around the lunch room table on Christmas Eve day and tell our war stories and celebrate our survival of another holiday buying frenzy. Then we will go home and open our presents. Oh well, what the hell, it's off to my shift, the power chords from Pink Floyd's "Comfortably Numb" reverberating in my head. For now, comfortably numb is about as good as it gets.

December 19, 2012

Another New Year's List

Science fiction is becoming science fact much faster than you might think. Behind the closed doors of the world's laboratories and research facilities, a strange new world is taking shape. While science boldly goes where no man has gone before, the rest of us are just taken along for the ride. No one asks us if we wanted to go. No one tells us where the journey might lead. What emerges from Pandora's Box after the lid is pried open, well, that's our problem.

The folks at University of Notre Dame's John J. Reilly Center for Science, Technology and Values have seen the future, and they are worried. They recently issued a list of Emerging Ethical Dilemmas and Policy Issues in Science and Technology. Any one of the items is enough to change your life. Taken together, they will change your world. The original article contains links to further resources on each of these issues. Many have been discussed in this forum. As we approach another new year, perhaps we ought to consider what kind of brave new world our grandchildren will be force-marched into unless we ask some hard questions today.

Personal genetic tests/personalized medicine: It won't be long before you can order your own genetic sequencing for about $1,000. And there will be a lot of people lining up for it. But then the real questions begin. Who will tell you what it all means? Will your insurance company pay? What about privacy? Does your spouse (or your boss) have a right to know? Should everyone have access or just those with the money?

Hacking into medical devices: Medical devices such as insulin pumps and pacemakers contain computer chips that can be easily hacked. Like cell phones, not a whole lot of thought was given to securing the coding or the data stored on them. Many devices were designed to allow doctors to reprogram them in an emergency. A professional hacker recently reprogrammed a pacemaker to deliver an 830-volt shock.What is a boon for mystery writers in search of novel ways to murder people could be a real problem if a criminal or terrorist decides to throw a scare into people ... literally.

Driverless zipcars: Google cars can be operated hands-off and are legal in three states. Think about an elderly person who has been told he or she can no longer drive. Wouldn't they jump at the chance to own such a vehicle? Google wants to have fleets of hands-off cars that can be shared by a group of users who pay an annual fee. This is truly a game changer. But how long will it take the existing legal and political and insurance system to catch up? Roadways would be shared by traditional and Google vehicles for decades. How would that work?

3-D printing: I've been fascinated by this concept for some time. Starting next year, Staples will offer 3-D printing to customers in the Netherlands and Belgium. Coming soon to a Staples near you! The impact of this process on manufacturing and society will be enormous. How many jobs will be lost when I can go to a kiosk at Bed, Bath and Beyond and print out my dishes on demand? How will law enforcement cope with a criminal element that can use ever-cheaper 3-D printers to create weapons on demand?

Adaptation to climate change: No need to spend much time on this. Regular readers already know how I feel about this. The cost of dealing with climate change, the impact of rising sea levels and extreme weather events, changing agricultural patterns and the resultant mass migrations, the military implications, our obligation to help other life forms on the planet deal with the mess we created ... the list of ethical issues is as long as the list of reasons why we screwed up so badly in the first place.

Low-quality and counterfeit pharmaceuticals: Is it okay for drug companies to control the manufacture of life-saving drugs? India doesn't think so. They favor manufacturing life-saving drugs, even If it violates US patent law. What about cheap versions made in Mexico or imported from Canada? How do we know they are safe? How can we ever know for sure that any drug has been manufactured safely? What about off-label uses? Who is in charge, anyway?

Autonomous systems: Is it okay to ask robots to fight our wars for us? Do you want a robot to take out your ruptured spleen? Is it okay to have machines that can take action based on what they decide is the correct thing to do? Who is responsible when things go wrong? Machines are getting a mind of their own. Sometimes that's a good thing. But anyone who has seen the Terminator movies will be a little worried. We need to make up our own minds on how we feel about this.

Human-animal hybrids (chimeras): This was a new one for me. Mixing and matching humans and animals at the cellular level is something that would cause most of us to say, "Whoa, dude. What's up with that?" Indeed, what is up with that? Well, scientists are taking animal eggs and sucking out most but not quite all of the original DNA and replacing it with human DNA to generate human stem cells that can be used for a wide variety of useful and worthy purposes. But is this a road we want to go down? For a lot of scientists, the answer is "yes." Others worry it will inevitably lead to new life forms that combine human and animal shapes and characteristics. Given our track record, I would have to say this is a legitimate concern.

Ensuring access to wireless and spectrum: This issue has been around since the late 90s when it became apparent that the Internet was a truly transformative piece of technology. Like some of the other issues raised here, there is a question of social equity that needs to be addressed. Is it fair that information and assistance is to some extent controlled by one's ability to access the Internet? Is it fair that certain governmental functions are only available through the Internet? Given that radio spectrum is a finite resource, who gets to decide how it is sliced and diced? How to reconcile increasing security needs with a greater demand for universal access?

December 16, 2012

Controlling Guns

The tragic events of Sandy Hook have already sparked renewed outrage at what many perceive to be lax gun control laws in America. While I agree in principle, two stubborn facts dim any optimism on my part that we will ever be free of this problem. In a country that has more gun dealers than gas stations, the millions of weapons out there already are a permanent part of the landscape. And no reform you can think of will prevent a middle-aged, well-to-do lady from buying a handgun or two for personal protection. Still, there are possibilities. What follows are a few simple suggestions for ways in which to rethink the issue of what to do about gun violence in this country.
  • Ban the import of all firearms. Why not? Isn't "Buy American" a good thing. What could be wrong with that? In 2010, 3,252,404 firearms were imported to the United States, as compared to 5.5 million manufactured here. Surely we can squeak by on the 5.5 million domestically produced firearms. If we need those other 3 million firearms, they can be manufactured right here in the good ol' U.S. of A., providing good jobs for Americans.
  • If your child died from an improperly constructed crib, those cribs would be recalled. If a toy is dangerous or is made from dangerous substances, it is removed from the shelves. If your child falls ill from tainted medicine or food, the medicine or food disappears from the shelves of your grocery store overnight. If your child is killed by an assault weapon, then ... what? We make it easier to own such things? Does that make any sense to you?
  • If you fill out a medical history form, you will be asked if you smoke. Why? Because smoking is hazardous to your health and increases your likelihood of serious diseases that can cost insurance companies a lot of money. Well, owning a handgun is hazardous to your health and to the health of anyone you might come in contact with. A study in the New England Journal of Medicine noted that suicide was the second-leading cause of death among Americans 40 years of age or younger, and more than half of all suicides are gun suicides.Sounds hazardous to me. Everyone who owns a handgun should be required to note that as part of their medical and insurance history. Failure to do so would be insurance fraud.
  • While we are on the subject of insurance, let's think about changing homeowners insurance policies to require that handgun owners prove they are securely storing their handguns. Maybe require a safe bolted to the floor, with a sturdy combination lock. If you don't report the handgun on your policy, then it voids your homeowners insurance. If the handgun is stolen from your house, then it voids your homeowner's insurance.
  • Allow private citizens to buy all the handguns they want, provided they are revolvers. The West was won with six-shooters. If a six-gun was good enough for Wyatt Earp, a noted gun control advocate in his own day, then it ought to be good enough for you. Does anyone really need a semi-automatic anything?
  • Let's worry at least as much about a handgun as we do about a 1987 Dodge Dart. When you buy a car, you fill out a change of title and provide a copy to the State. This in turn gets you a registration certificate proving you own the car. No registration, no car. The same rule should apply to handguns. Document all changes of ownership of a handgun just like you do a car. If you break the chain of documentation, you go to jail. 
I know for a lot of folks, the discussion about firearms begins and ends with the Second Amendment. Well, that's just not good enough. We don't put up with this kind of crap for anything else, why should firearms be any different.

How about we look at firearms in the same way that we look at anything else that is potentially lethal to children or adults? We don't ban all medicines or toys or cribs when there is a problem, just like we didn't ban the sale of cigarettes. But we for damn sure hold manufacturers responsible for any injuries or deaths from their product and we for damn sure don't sit around holding constitutional debates while our children are dying because of an improperly constructed crib or a toy that contains lead paint. We get rid of the damn cribs or toys or whatever it is that might even look like it could harm our children. How hard is that?

December 14, 2012

Starry, Starry Night

Last night was the beginning of the Geminid meteor shower. I happened to be awake around 11:30 p.m., so I went out onto my back deck to see what there was to see. Our deck faces south, and Orion's Belt is easily found. Somewhere around the second star to the right was the Gemini constellation, from which the Geminid shower took its name.

For once, it was a crystal clear evening. Half the time you go out, and you can't see a damned thing. That night, the stars shimmered brightly against the darkness of the night sky. A steady point of light marked Jupiter, king of the planets, some say a star that never made it to the show.

I stared intently at the sky and stars, waiting for a meteor. It struck me that what I was seeing wasn't there any more. Rather, I was watching a tape-delayed presentation of events that unfolded millions of years in the past. I let my mind loose to wander in the immensity of a time and space in which we were less than the twinkle of a star.

My reverie was interrupted by a bright streak that arced across the sky, gone as quickly as it came. Falling stars, shooting stars, stars shooting, stars falling ... shooting ... falling ... bright ... shining .. beautiful ... gone.

The night sky watched, unmoved. What did it matter to them, timeless and old beyond our comprehension, these brief evanescent streaks? But they matter to us. Here in our time, our place, when the most we can hope for is a brief shining moment when we arc gracefully across the horizon before being lost in the darkness.

We are one with the shooting stars ... the falling stars ... bright ... shining ... beautiful ... gone.

December 12, 2012

Decades Stun

The title of this post is taken from a verse written by Richard Condon, author of The Manchurian Candidate. The verse was at the beginning of Winter Kills, which was about the Kennedy assassination: Minutes trudge, hours run, years fly, decades stun. The source was attributed to a non-existent tome called The Keener's Manual.

Why do I bring this up? No reason, really, except I had this odd moment the other day, thinking about decades. Why I was thinking about decades? Well, I've been working on a book about the 1950s, which was partially inspired by a couple of typewritten pages written by an aunt about growing up in the 1930s during the Great Depression. Somewhere in my head, that got cross-wired with a book I've been reading about the Paris Peace Conference of 1919.

I know what you're thinking. 1919? Think of it this way. Every intractable geopolitical problem, every brutal war that haunted the 20th Century devolved from decisions made in Paris in 1919. So yeah, it's kind of important and interesting. Think of it as conducting a pre-mortem investigation on the bloodiest century in human history.

Anyway, in the course of mulling these disparate topics over, my subconscious came up with a 30-year pattern hidden in the decades. The 1930s were a decade filled with turmoil. So were the 1960s. The 1920s were a decade that spawned fundamental changes in American culture. So were the 1950s, or at least that's the thesis of my work in progress. The second decade saw a massive war, the war to end all wars. Three decades later came World War II. Three decades after that we were in Vietnam. Sixty years after the Great Depression, we saw another economic bubble collapse into a heap, leading to the mini-Depression we are still recovering from.

It's easy to carry this too far. Like democracy, history is messy, rarely pigeon-holing itself into neat little categories.Still, it does make you wonder. Mark Twain was on to something when he observed that history may not repeat itself, but it rhymes. Certainly, there seems to be pattern of enormous social and economic transition and growth, the boom, which is followed by the bust, then war.

So we have finally arrived at the big question lurking in the shadows of this essay. Is another world war possible? I have been thinking about that for many years. Likely? I hope not. Possible? For my money, yeah, it's possible. Why would such a thing happen? Other than the fact that we have lots of people who have a hair trigger thanks to religious and ethnic animosities that have festered for centuries? Can't think of anything, offhand, although you have to believe that an old world order that runs on petroleum and the products it creates--everything from gas to plastics to medicines--will find plenty of casus bellis as the pumps inevitably run dry. Add  to that the pressures of a changing climate, and, yeah, I can see plenty of trouble ahead.

Let's hope this doesn't happen ... again. Let's hope that for once, the past is not prologue to the future, that things don't rhyme, that the next generation can be the Walt Whitmans of the planet and come up with a new song of ourselves, one that celebrates "the common air that bathes the globe."

December 6, 2012

Autumn Leaves

God knows I'm all for saving the environment, but in doing so, some things have been lost that were truly a special part of the cycle of the seasons. I'm speaking of the autumn ritual of raking leaves into piles or neat rows along curbs and then setting them afire. The sweet smell of smoke, watching it curl lazily upwards through the trees, rekindles ancient memories of times when a fire was sometimes all that stood between life and death. There is a reason we are instinctively drawn to a camp fire.

I miss the aromatic tang in my nostrils, the dull haze from the smoke that blurred the divide between land and sky, the gentle crackling ... a sensory feast of sight, smell, and sound. It saddens me to think that my children and grandchildren will never know the simple pleasure of burning leaves. In today's world, where levels of man-made atmospheric pollutants have reached climate changing levels, even the smallest additional increment of carbon dioxide must be avoided. I get that. But still ...

What's worse, modern man, in his infinite quest to do less with less, has replaced one kind of pollution with another. Raking leaves used to be a Zen-like meditative experience, the repetitive back and forth motion freeing the mind to roam in the subconscious, where all great ideas are born. Then came the leaf blower, a noisy disturber of the peace that turns a ritual into a chore.

I'll be honest with you. Those friggin' leaf blowers drive me crazy. I'm out gathering up my leaves the old-fashioned way, with a hand-operated rake, and there's my neighbor with his electric or gas-operated leaf blower, making an almighty racket as he walks indolently back and forth across his lawn, letting the machine do the work, while I'm out here busting my ass.

On top of using electricity or gas to power the leaf blower, instead of putting the leaves in his flower beds where they will do some good, he, along with all my other neighbors, is putting them on the street, where they will be collected and taken to a landfill by trucks spewing anywhere from a half to a full pound of carbon dioxide into the air for every mile they travel.

Hmm. That gives me an idea. Maybe we should look at bringing back leaf burning as a way of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. While we're at it, let's ban those damned leaf blowers, too.

December 5, 2012

Obama Versus Boehner

When it comes to politics or anything else, my theory is that whoever frames the question will win the debate. Take the fiscal cliff. Republicans emphasize spending reductions, including immediate cuts for entitlement programs such as Medicare and Medicaid and future restraints on Social Security. Democrats emphasize revenue increases, including asking the top 2 percent to pay higher taxes than they do now.

Republicans want Americans to focus on the economy and job creation, a reasonable enough proposition. Democrats want people to think about fairness and sharing the burden, something deeply ingrained in the American ethos. Republicans offer cuts on Medicare and Medicaid. Democrats say let the rich pay a bit more. If question becomes which Americans take the biggest hit, the old and the poor and the sick or the top 2 percent income earners, well, you tell me, who is going to win that argument?

Before we go any further let's look at how things stand as of the moment. Both President Obama and Speaker of the House John Boehner have made preliminary offers, neither of which are intended as anything more than a sense of what chips are out there for bargaining.

President Obama:
  • Raise tax revenues by nearly $1.6 trillion ($960 billion over the coming decade by increasing tax rates and taxes on investment income on upper-bracket earners, and $600 billion in additional taxes).
  • Add $200 billion in economic stimulus from a combination of investments including infrastructure spending, extension of a payroll tax cut and jobless benefits.
  • Continue individual income tax cuts from the administration of former Republican President George W. Bush for all but the wealthiest earners.
  • Authority to raise the nation's borrowing limit unilaterally.
  • Delay across-the-board spending cuts for a year in exchange for future cuts of  $600 billion to entitlement programs.
Speaker Boehner
  • Raise tax revenues $800 billion through tax reform from unspecified closing of tax loopholes, unspecified eliminations of tax deductions, and reform of the tax code that would actually lower the current top tax rate, but with no higher taxes on the top 2 percent.
  • Unspecified healthcare program savings of $600 billion from health care cuts from Medicare and Medicaid;
  • Other savings from changes to unspecified mandatory spending programs of $300 billion;
  • Tying cost-of-living increases for federal benefit programs (i.e., Social Security) to the Consumer Price Index to get savings of $200 billion;
  • Further unspecified savings to domestic spending programs of $300 billion.
Republicans emphasize spending cuts over revenue increases. Democrats emphasize revenue increases over spending cuts. Both offer some suggestions as to what that might entail, but the words unspecified and future appear frequently in both proposals. The point here is not to come up with a final proposal. The goal is to frame the debate for the American people. What resonates with most voters: raising the tax rates for the top 2 percent wealthiest Americans or cutting entitlement programs that most Americans are entitled to?

If all of this sounds familiar, it should. We already had this exact debate during the presidential election. If I recall correctly, the president won that election convincingly, running on a specific program of keeping the Bush tax cuts for all but the top 2 percent. The president can fairly say that the American people have spoken on this issue.

Republican can insist that the idea is a bad one, that it will hurt the economy and stifle job creation. Who knows, they may even be right, although the idea that small business would be hit under Obama's plan is true only because many small businesses declare their income as personal income rather than as corporate income in order to get a tax break. Depending on which study you look at, only 3 percent to 7.5 percent of small business owners would be affected by Obama’s plan.

The real problem, as I see it, is not finding some common ground for compromise. That's what politicians do. Most of them, anyway. The House Republicans contain within them a highly fractious minority that refuses to go along with the plan, even if it is their own party's plan. If Boehner can't control them, then we are definitely headed over the cliff.

What's really dumb about this is that if we do go over the cliff, then everyone's taxes go up. Instead of worrying about the 2 percent, Republicans will have the 100 percent to contend with. If you want a sure-fire recipe for losing control of the House in 2014, this will do until a better one comes along.

November 29, 2012

The Federal Debt

By now, anyone who watches the evening news will be familiar with the "fiscal cliff," the dreaded leap into the unknown if Congress and the president fail to reach agreement on a perfect storm of tax and spending issues that all happen to converge after the 1st of the year. We have spent years kicking the can down the road. One more kick of the can sends it over the cliff.

Despite some reports that progress was being made, both sides remain locked in their respective positions and show no signs of giving anything away at this stage in the maneuverings. The president insists that any deal include tax hikes on the top earners. Republicans insist that any increase in tax rates for any group is just out of the question. Instead, they insist that the president solve the problem by cutting spending.

I just want to make one simple point. The federal debt is about money we have already spent. That's what debt is, unpaid bills for things you have already bought. Sure, you can also look ahead and see more of the same if you don't start living within your means, but that future debt doesn't have to happen if you do something about it, and doing something about it means understanding why you got into trouble in the first place. With that in mind, take a look at this chart prepared by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

Another chart, taken from a report issued by the Pew Charitable Trusts,explains the variance between the rosy predictions of  budget surpluses by the Congressional Budget Office in 2001 and the reality of expanding deficits.

Both point to the same culprits: the Bush tax cuts and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Yeah, yeah, I know there are other factors, but if you take away the tax cuts and the wars, the amount of debt drops sharply and the downturn due to the housing bubble becomes a much more manageable crisis. Republicans don't want you thinking about that. They want you worrying about Medicaid and other entitlements. Not one cent more for poorer Americans; millions for contractors to rebuild Kabul and Baghdad. And don't even think about the richest. They are the most endangered group of all, if you listen to the Republicans.

Like many Americans, I fully supported the invasion of Afghanistan and had many reservations about invading Iraq. And, like most Americans, I welcomed the extra income in my family's budget when taxes were cut.  But to first cut taxes and then to embark on two major wars without collecting enough taxes to pay for them, well, what did you think would happen?

President Bush and the Congressional Republicans made the same choice that Lyndon Johnson and the Congressional Democrats did during the Vietnam War. Rather than forgo his Great Society, President Johnson chose to hide the true costs of the war in Vietnam, relying on complaisant Democrats and war hawks in Congress to go along with the charade. Everybody got what they wanted, so who was left to complain? Just as today, the fiscal chickens eventually came home to roost and the bills had to be paid. It was ugly then, and it will be ugly now.

Economist speak of guns and butter, military and domestic spending, war and peace. The idea is you can do one or the other, but not both, at least not unless you are willing to impose a tremendous tax burden on the people, something politicians of any era are reluctant to do. Anyway, politicians are not economists. They want to have their cake and eat it, too. So do we, the people.

Well, we've pigged out, and now it is time to make a New Year's resolution to reform our sinful ways. For what it's worth, I believe that if tax cuts and defense spending were part of the problem, then they damn well ought to be part of the solution.

November 27, 2012

4° Celsius

Those in the know on the global warming front have officially despaired of limiting the average rise in global temperatures to 2°Celsius (3.6° Fahrenheit). Why? Simply put, it would take a massive world-wide effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions above and beyond what has already been committed to in various international agreements. And you and I both know that ain't gonna happen any time soon. Even if all current pledges get carried out, "the world [is] on a trajectory for a global mean warming of well over 3°C." This, according to a report prepared for the World Bank by the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and Climate Analytics.

Here is the money quote from the report's Executive Summary:
Without further commitments and action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the world is likely to warm by more than 3°C above the preindustrial climate. Even with the current mitigation
commitments and pledges fully implemented, there is roughly a 20 percent likelihood of exceeding 4°C by 2100. If they are not met, a warming of 4°C could occur as early as the 2060s. Such a warming level and associated sea-level rise of 0.5 to 1 meter, or more, by 2100 would not be the end point: a further warming to levels over 6°C, with several meters of sea-level rise, would likely occur over the following centuries.
The report goes on to detail the disastrous impact that a 4°C rise would have for the developing world. Agricultural production could suffer, and countries like Bangladesh, Egypt, Vietnam, and parts of Africa would lose arable land to encroaching seawater. Given that these countries are poor to begin with, they would have enormous difficulties in finding the money to cope with the impact of climate change. Even the richest countries balk when they see the price tag attached to building seawater barriers needed to protect coastal megacities. But its not like we won't need to come up with billions of dollars to repair the damage from the extreme weather events that are a hallmark of a warming climate.

Europe and the United States are meeting their greenhouse gas emission reduction goals, but keep in mind that the goals themselves were the bare minimum levels and are being met in the U.S. mostly by increasing production of natural gas through fracking, a practice which has its own burgeoning problems. Last year's mild winter didn't hurt either.

As for India and China, both are on a path to seriously increase their green house gas emissions. China is doing much better in the lip service department and may actually be getting serious about curtailing its use of coal, but experts warn that China's greenhouse gas emissions are unlikely to start falling before 2030. India, which recently suffered a catastrophic power blackout, seems poised to keep on firing up those coal plants.

In 2011, the wealthy countries reduced their emissions 0.6 percent last year, but developing countries saw their emissions grow 6.1 percent. Overall, the gap between what was promised in terms of emissions levels and what was actually pumped into the atmosphere is growing.

In an ideal world, we should have emissions of no more than 48.5 gigatons (44 metric gigatons) of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. The most recent data puts current emissions at 54 gigatons. The gap is expected to continue to widen to between 8.8 and 14.3 gigatons. (A gigaton is one billion tons.) As a historical point of reference, British coal production in 1829 was 15 million tons. In 2011, world coal production was 7.9 billion tons.

The year 2060 is less than 50 years down the road. My youngest grandchildren will deal with a changing climate for their entire lives. This is their new reality. Their only hope is if my generation wholeheartedly joins with them to make a commitment to seriously address the problem of a changing climate. So far, the abundance of looming trouble is exceeded only by the lack of political willpower to deal with the problem.

My advice remains the same. First, do your own research. The internet abounds with web sites presenting all sides of this issue. I recommend Spencer Weart's web site, The Discovery of Global Warming, as a good place to start. Second, listen to your gut instinct. Anyone who has lived as long as I have knows that things are different. You can feel it in the air, literally. Mother Nature is putting on a global warming show-and-tell program for us. It's up to us to heed the warnings and do something. The ounce of prevention has already become too little, too late, but there is still time to educate yourself and your children about the new world they will have to raise their children in.

November 22, 2012


My earliest memories of chestnuts are of scatterings of them on the ground beneath an old horse chestnut tree behind Georgie Casey's house on Beechwood Street. The fleshy green outer casing could easily be split open to reveal a beautiful brown seed inside. Something about the warm color of those chestnuts and the way they would feel in my hand, smooth and firm, made me, perhaps for the first time, really pay attention to something from the natural world. Of course, once the moment had passed, we would convert them to a pretend pipe, hollowing out a bowl and thrusting in a twig to perfect the illusion. Satisfied, we would walk about the yard like burghers from a Washington Irving novel, puffing contentedly on our chestnut pipes.

Other than that, my only exposure to chestnuts was once a year in my mother's turkey stuffing that she prepared on Thanksgiving Day. When I got married, I proposed adding them to my wife's stuffing, the result being the stuffing perfection that graces our Thanksgiving table. My main job--other than dish washing, no mean task in itself--is to remove the chestnut meat from its tough outer casing and a fibrous inner lining. This involves slicing an X on one side or the other of the chestnut and then heating it until it burst, either in the stove or in a microwave oven. They came out hot, which meant sore fingertips by the time the real job of extracting the nutmeat from the shell was done.

Chestnuts are considered to be a "brain" food because they are so high in complex carbohydrates, which is ironic given that the inner nut of the chestnut bears a strong resemblance to a human brain. The same could also be said of a walnut. The similarity in terms of the waves and inner folds in each is striking, as if, presented with a similar problem of housing a complex piece of genetic topography inside a protective outer casing, nature stumbled upon the same solution more than once.

Which got me to thinking about the brain in a new way, as a seed. I'm not sure what if anything that means, but when you think about it, there has always been a question of the relationship between plant or animal and seed or egg. Samuel Butler once observed that a hen is only an egg's way of making another egg. Are we just a brain's way of making another brain? Given that the entire purpose of the body is to provide a housing to protect and sustain the brain and to do its bidding when it needs observe something or wants to go somewhere, the question is not an unreasonable one.

For now, I am content to let my brain contemplate itself. There is turkey and oyster-chestnut stuffing to be eaten, along with sweet potatoes and green beans and pies and some white wine to wash it all down. For those who would enjoy knowing the secret to the ultimate stuffing, I must disappoint you. This recipe will remain within the family, to be passed down, I hope, for many generations to come. That's okay, though, as I have discovered that each variant of stuffing is fiercely defended by its proponents as the one and only way to make stuffing. However you prefer it, I hope your Thanksgiving Day is a good one.

November 18, 2012

Black Friday

Well, it's that time of year again. First, the good news. Thanksgiving Day dinner with all the trimmings. We will be roasting a 22-pound turkey with a stuffing that includes chestnuts and oysters, plus homemade cranberry sauce, a gaggle of side dishes, topped off with pumpkin pie and maybe a mincemeat pie. That ought to hold the two of us until the grandkids arrive later in the weekend.

Now the bad news. Black Friday. This will be my first one since I started back in retail. Compared to working on an election day, when I might easily work an 18-hour shift, I'm not really too worried about a mere eight hours on Black Friday. Still, it will be semi-controlled pandemonium. I'm working the second shift, so business will be at a peak, as will frayed nerves and tempers. In the spirit of the coming Christmas Holiday--the real one, not the fake made-in-China retail version--let me give you some helpful advice from my side of the counter on things to do and not do on Black Friday, or most other days for that matter.

Let's begin with the Number One thing not to do. Do not--I am begging you--do not come up to the counter, take a quick look at my name tag, and then start calling me by my first name, as if this will somehow be the beginning of a beautiful friendship. So not true. Instead, you will self-select yourself as a half-smart, manipulative goober who thinks I am as dumb as you think I look.

God, I hate that, and so does everyone else in retail. Folks who work in retail can generally size most people up from 20 feet away. Use my first name and a good first impression will be instantly adjusted downwards; any initial wariness will be deepened. You really have nothing to gain by pretending to be my friend. We are there to work, not to be your friend. That doesn't mean I don't have favorite customers, but like all friendships, they emerge over time and out of a basic compatibility. Just treat me with simple courtesy, which does not include greeting perfect strangers by their first name, and you will get the best effort I am capable of at the moment.

Other things not to do on Black Friday? Well, how about not calling the store to find out if that pink and white blouse you saw three weeks ago is still available. Assuming your call ever gets to someone who could actually answer the question, that clerk will no doubt have a line 10-people deep. You think he or she knows or cares about your blouse? Really? And if, by some miracle, the clerk actually goes and looks, and comes back and says yes, we have it, why, for the love of God, do you wait until then to ask if they also have it in a size 12 Petite. ARGGH!

And what better day than Black Friday to inquire about that little mix-up in your order that happened a few weeks back, you can't remember exactly when it was, but you just thought as long as you were in the store you would take care of it, and no, you don't have the receipt and the tags are lost, and I think it cost $19.99, but I'm not sure, could you help me? At this point the clerk is checking out the dark looks from the other customers who have been already waiting in line for 15 minutes. Who to appease, you or the mob? Either way, it's a lose-lose. I give you short shrift and now you are unhappy and the other shoppers are no less irritated. I take the time to deal with you and the angst down the line grows ever thicker by the moment. Sigh. Next.

I remember one year, in the middle of Black Friday, while I had a line umpteen people deep, this little old lady calls up to inquire about the status of her special order of china, the one with a pattern that her Aunt Hilda had when she was growing up and which reminded her of the wonderful summers she spent in East Nowhere, and it was several several months ago and she hadn't heard anything about it, and would I please check the status of her order? All in this soft voice I can barely make out over the din. Wonderful. Let me just drop everything and run back to the stockroom and root around in a pile of papers that hasn't been organized since the Reagan administration and maybe, by the grace of God, your order is somewhere in there. I'll get right back to you. Yes. ma'am, it's no trouble at all.

Which brings up another thing. Please, get to the point. I really don't need all the back story about how you got this dress in this particular color to match the bridesmaids colors in cousin Susie's wedding, but now the bride has changed her mind, all because her mother didn't like that color because it reminded her of the boiled asparagus she had at those miserable Sunday dinners she had to go to at great-aunt Agatha's house when she was a child, and you need a plum-colored dress, so could I please exchange these? I don't care. Really, I don't. I just want to take care of your problem and move on to the next customer.

Not that some stories aren't gut-wrenching tales of misery. There is a bit of the confessional involved when two strangers face each other across a counter. I remember the woman--a rough-looking lady with tats on her upper arms, her angry eyes fighting back the tears welling up in them--returning a whole bunch of baby clothes she had bought for her new grandchild but couldn't give because the daughter-in-law refused to allow her to even come in the house. Or the woman buying a nightgown for a friend recovering from chemo, or the young mother replacing the toaster because her house burned down, and she lost everything she ever had, or the lady going on a cruise that she planned with her husband who since divorced her and ran off with a younger woman, and now she can't decide whether to go alone on the cruise, but she guesses she will, seeing as how the tickets have already been bought and paid for. All these confidences exchanged in the time it takes to ring up a sale. No matter how hardened you get, you still feel some of their pain.

So enjoy your Thanksgiving Day holiday, and shop, if you must, on Black Friday. Just understand that most folks working in retail are no different than anyone else. Given their druthers, they will try to deliver pleasant and semi-competent service. They will do this in spite of seeing more of our hearts of darkness in a month than most will in a lifetime. All for the lowest pay the market will bear, under conditions that would wilt most customers in about an hour and a half. Be the one who brings momentary respite from the storm. For that, we will be truly thankful.

November 16, 2012

The Life of the Mother

Ireland is the focus of an uproar surrounding the death of Savita Halappanavar, a dentist born in India and living and working in Ireland with her husband, an engineer. She was 17 weeks pregnant when she was admitted to University Hospital Galway complaining of severe pain. Doctors conceded that the fetus was going to die, but because they detected a fetal heartbeat, and because as one doctor pointed out, "This is a Catholic country," she was denied an abortion, despite her and her husband's repeated requests. Two and a half days passed by, during which Savita was in agonizing pain. Finally the baby died, and soon thereafter, Savita also died of complications due to septicemia.

Ireland is indeed a Catholic country where abortion is basically prohibited, but twenty years ago Ireland's highest court granted an exception for cases where the life of the mother is in danger. The Irish legislature never addressed the specifics of how that exception should be administered by hospitals, so you ended up with a situation where doctors are extremely reluctant to act lest they place themselves in legal jeopardy.

Many argue that religion had nothing to do with it. They say this is a case of medical malpractice and that any reasonable interpretation of Irish law should not have barred doctors from performing what was clearly a necessary procedure to save the life of the mother. The Irish government has launched a series of investigations into the case. Meanwhile, activists argue that it is past time to clear up ambiguities in the Irish law and that Irish politicians should stop relying on the fact that Irish woman have much easier access to abortions in Great Britain.

These events clearly resonate here in the United States, where abortion was the center of controversies surrounding remarks made by a handful of Republican candidates. The push-back from voters has, I think, settled that question for now, but these people never stop trying. There is a small but persistent group in this country who, if they had their way, would allow no abortions under any conditions.

Savita Halappanavar's death exposes the contradiction at the core of the right-to-life movement with gut-wrenching clarity. Does the mother sacrifice her right to life the moment she becomes pregnant? Savita's mother went straight to the heart of the matter: "In an attempt to save a 4-month-old foetus they killed my ... daughter. How is that fair you tell me?" If you have a good answer to that question, I'd loved to hear it.

If God intended things to go like clockwork, (S)he surely could have created such a world. We didn't get that world. We got the world where things go wrong. Pregnancy is one of those things. The process of childbirth is just that, a process. Like any process, things can sometimes vary from the norm. When that happens, we are supposed to deal with it. That's the plan. We came equipped with intellect and judgment and ethics to help us deal with cases where things don't go as planned.

In my view, God placed that burden of choice on us purposely to inform our moral lives with the consequences of judgment. To dodge that responsibility by hiding behind the cloak of medieval theology is a choice that has its own consequences. In Savita's case, it really was a matter of life and death. Two lives hung in the balance. Only one could survive. Instead, both lives were lost. How do you not make the right choice is such a situation? You tell me.

November 14, 2012

Home Cooking

As parents, I think one of the most enduring gifts we can pass along to our children is a love of cooking. My wife and I both grew up watching our parents cook, as did our kids. My son and daughter are both highly proficient in the kitchen, and I have hopes for the grandchildren as well.

For many years, my mother cooked on a schedule, a necessity given tight family budgets of the late 50s and early 60s. I can't remember the exact sequence, but roast chicken was in the rotation, as was spaghetti and meat balls. I have vague memories of cube steak, the ultimate in economizing, along with dandelion greens salad. Friday was fish, and Saturday night was hot dogs and beans. Often, my mother would fix a pot of tomato sauce and just throw in chicken parts or pork chops and let it simmer for several hours.

Fast food did not exist, and we never had pizza that I can recall. Frozen anything was still in its infancy. Most vegetables came out of a can or the garden. I still remember some godawful yellow string beans and wax beans. Inedible and indigestible. As for asparagus, I avoided that up until just this year. I can endure it, along with mushrooms, which I have grown to like.

If we went on a road trip, my mother would make about a dozen or so pepper and sausage sandwiches on bulky rolls (topped with poppy seeds) and pack them in grocery bags. I can't remember if we had pizzelle, but I always had some for road trips. Who needs Mickey D's when you can have that!

On those rare occasions when my father cooked, it was a big to-do. He was limited to breakfast, as I recall, although he did create the grilled cheese with maple syrup specialty of the house. My first effort at cooking, in my early teens, was to essay cream puffs. I skipped right past the dull basics and went straight to dessert. They weren't too bad, although I suspect I had plenty of help.

I still like to cook. I just made up a batch of spaghetti sauce using a new recipe I found on my cell phone's recipe app. (You have to keep up, don't you know.) I cooked it in a slow cooker, although you could just simmer it in a big pot. I added a couple of ingredients, as I'm sure anyone would do when making their own sauce. I liked the recipe because it seemed kind of classic and simple. Plus, it makes a whole bunch, so if you like it, you are set for quite a few meals if you freeze it in portions.

1 pound - Italian sausage (chopped links or ground)
1/2 cup - onion -- finely chopped
1 12 oz. can tomato paste
3 28 oz. cans Italian style crushed tomatoes
2 cups - water (1-1 1/2 if using crock pot)
4 teaspoon - garlic -- minced
4 bay leaves
2 tablespoon - sugar
4 teaspoon - dried basil
2 teaspoon - dried oregano
4 tablespoon - fresh parsley -- chopped
2 teaspoon - salt
3 red, yellow, or orange peppers cut into smallish chunks
A dollop of red wine

In a large pot, cook and stir the Italian sausage with the onions until the meat is brown; drain fat. Add remaining ingredients, except the spaghetti. Bring sauce to a boil; reduce heat. Partly cover, and simmer for 2-3 hours, stirring occasionally. (If desired, simmer in a crock pot instead of a pot. Lessen the amount of water to 1 or 1 1/2 cups if using the crock pot method). Makes 12 cups of sauce.

November 11, 2012

Thank You For Your Service

I've been back working retail for a few months now. One of the things we do is to give service members and their dependents a discount. It's good for business, and it's a nice thing to do. Our way of saying "thank you" to the men and women in uniform and the families who support them. It's better than being spit at, which has happened to me, but those were troubled times. Still, it's not something I would ever say to a fellow veteran. I don't know why, but for some reason, it just never felt right.

Turns out, I'm not the only veteran who feels that way. I came across an article on NBCNews that talked about how a lot of servicemen, both former and active, feel uneasy when a total stranger walks up to them and says, "Thank you for your service." After years of thinking I was a horrible human being for feeling uncomfortable during those rare moments when that happened to me, it was something of a relief to know that I wasn't alone in those feelings.

I know what you're thinking. Why is that a problem? Shouldn't I be appreciative of the sentiment behind the words? Yes ... and no. Yes, I am happy that people have finally stopped blaming the warrior for the war, a phenomenon unique, perhaps, to the Vietnam War. But no, if in your mind you are seeing G.I. Joe when you hear that I was in Vietnam. That was someone else, not  me. I was the unfortunate son, a draftee who wasn't exactly rushing to enlist in an excess of patriotic fervor. And, like most veterans, I never saw actual combat. So, if you do, by chance, come across a real hero--who in my opinion is just about anyone who has endured Afghanistan or Iraq or been in actual combat--be sure to thank them for me, too.

Look, I totally get that Vietnam was unique in the American experience. Feelings towards soldiers have evolved, especially after 9/11, and this is as it should be. What the men and women who served in Afghanistan and Iraq have endured is unimaginable to someone of my era who was pretty much guaranteed a single one-year rotation, as opposed to the endless re-deployments we see today. The families also deserve our full measure of respect for their sacrifice.

Like I said, Vietnam was unique. No doubt about it, that influences my view of things. A critic of my small Vietnam memoir--yes, there are those who failed to be taken in by the magical spell of my words--noted that I was still angry about the war. Like most critics, he missed the point. (Inside literary joke, there.) True, I remain upset that it took so long for the public to recognize that the Vietnam vet was hurting in ways seen and unseen. That recognition is partly behind the current generosity of spirit towards our men in uniform. We don't want to make the same mistake twice.

But we do continue to make the mistake of thinking that wars are the answer to certain problems. War is never a good answer to any problem. My anger in the book was directed at those who seemed to forget the lessons we should have learned from the Vietnam  War: "... war is never inevitable, rarely necessary, and almost certainly not worth it in terms of outcome versus expectation."

I apply a simple test to any military venture that is urged upon us by the statesmen and politicians. Would I want my grandson or granddaughter to die for whatever cause was used to justify a given war? There are times and places where the answer would be, "Yes." But not nearly as many as the times we have been asked to put our men and women in uniform in harm's way.

So, by all means, let's support our men and women in uniform and their families. We should all be grateful for the choice they made to serve their country. If you want to express your appreciation in words and with a handshake, well, what better day than on Veteran's Day, when we honor the service of all soldiers, past and present.

But if you were to ask me, I would say that the best thing we can do to honor their choice is to make our choices on war and peace in a thoughtful and measured way. There is nothing worse than a war we come to regret or doubt. There have been too many of those, just in my lifetime. An end to all wars is perhaps too much to hope for, but an end to unnecessary wars, to wars of choice ... that should be doable.

November 8, 2012


So, now what? Another election, another four more years of ... more of the same? Let's hope not. Unfortunately, after all the dust settles, it's hard to avoid the conclusion that little has changed. Obama is still in the White House, the Republicans control the House of Representatives, and the Democrats control the Senate. And over on Fox News, they are still searching for the next Ronald Reagan.

So the stage is set for the next big drama, the fiscal cliff. This plot has everything you could want: taxes, deficits, and big government. The players know how to hit their marks. Both sides have their well-rehearsed lines memorized. Republicans will continue to say "no" to tax hikes. The Democrats will insist that the rich pay more taxes as part of any deal. Both sides say they want to cut government spending, but the devil is in the details.

The irony is that the details don't really matter. What matters is the symbolism of a deal being struck. Main Street and Wall Street both want the same thing. They want certainty. It really is that simple. Something, anything. Just get it done and move on. That's all anyone is asking.

The American people have taken on the role of a mediator during a particularly messy divorce. In effect, they have ordered both sides back to the bargaining table. For the last four years, the Republicans have been governed by one overarching goal, preventing the re-election of Barack Obama, mostly by lock-step opposition to nearly every thing he proposed. The electorate has sent the Republicans a message: get over it. Republicans now have a simple choice. Make some sort of deal or continue the obstructionism and risk being swept out of the House in the mid-terms.

Don't think that's likely? Take a look at who for who in this election. Susan Page, writing in USAToday, summed it up this way:
On Obama's side this time: More than nine of 10 African Americans and nearly seven in 10 Hispanics. A solid majority of women and two-thirds of unmarried women. About six in 10 of voters under 30. More than 90% of Democrats and nearly 90% of liberals. More than six in 10 of those who never attend religious services.
On Romney's side: Six of 10 whites and nearly six of 10 seniors. A solid majority of men and of married women, and nearly two-thirds of white men. More than 90% of Republicans and of conservatives. He won high-income voters, evangelical Christians, and those who attend who attend religious services every week or more often.
So, let's see. Democrats appeal to women, Hispanics, blacks, and young people. Republicans appeal to white males (angry or otherwise), conservatives, evangelical Christians, and the 1 percent. You tell me which party has the brighter future.

My solution to the current political impasse: Let's bring in celebrity chef Robert Irvine of the show "Restaurant Impossible." I can see him now, his massive arms wrapped around the shoulders of Obama and Boehner: "All right, you two, here's the problem. There's no one in charge! The front of the house is not talking to the back of the house! The staff doesn't know who to follow! You two have got to get your act together!! Work as a team, and we can make this the success I know you want it to be. Don't, and you will fail."

It's as simple as that. And as complicated.

November 5, 2012

Ohio: The Next Florida?

Today, in bit of a departure from the canons of internet blogging, I'm going to write about a topic I actually know something about: elections. I worked six years in elections management and have seen all the good, the bad, and the ugly elections you could ever want to see. But, if you believe the article I read on about four things that could screw up the counting of this year's presidential election, this could get really ugly.

Superstorm Sandy has held the nation's attention, but the still-evolving legal storm in Ohio over the counting of provisional ballots may prove to be far more damaging to the democratic process. It all began when the Ohio Secretary of State decided to issue an absentee ballot application to every registered voter in the state.

Just to back-up a second, there are actually three types of votes cast during an election. First, there are the ballots cast on Election Day, which includes in-person early voting, for those states that have it. Second, there are absentee ballots, typically for voters who will be out of town on Election Day or who may be incapacitated or otherwise unable to vote in person. Finally, there are provisional ballots. These are used when there is a question about the legitimacy of the voter or the vote being cast.

In Ohio's case, by sending every voter an absentee ballot application, an unavoidable train wreck was set  in motion. Here is the problem in a nutshell. Every voter who requests an absentee ballot will be flagged as potentially voting an absentee ballot. Some will indeed vote that absentee ballot and return it. Others won't vote at all. Some will go to the polls and try to vote there. That's when the trouble begins.

Since the deadline for voting by absentee ballot is Election Day, there is no way to know if a given voter has sent in an absentee ballot that wasn't received, thereby possibly resulting in a double vote. That's where the provisional ballot comes in. The whole idea is that the ballot is cast but the vote isn't counted until after the election, when workers review the records of votes cast on Election Day and compare them against the provisional ballots. Only when it is shown that a provisional ballot is the only ballot cast will it be counted.

Talk about time-consuming. I have been there and done that. As of this weekend, 238,678 Ohio voters who requested absentee ballots have not returned them. Any hope of a quick outcome from Ohio--which is one of a handful of states that will decide the election, nothing to get excited about folks--well, that ship may have sailed. Under Ohio law, the tabulation of provisional ballots won't even begin until Nov. 17th.

Oh, but wait. It gets better. Just last Friday, Secretary of State Husted issued an order requiring voters to fill out the identification section of the provisional ballot. Normally, this would be done by poll workers, a process required by state law. The kicker is, if the voter somehow screws it up, the provisional ballot will be tossed out. All of this is going to court, which will create confusion long after the election is over. This comes on the heels of another legal battle caused by Mr. Husted's open defiance of a court order to allow in-person early voting, something he feels is un-American.

If Mr. Husted's shenanigans throw Ohio and the election to Romney--and a lot of folks think that is what is going on here--the level of disaffection and distrust with the political process will spread even deeper into the center. Not that this is anything new for Ohio. Mr. Husted follows in the footsteps of a previous incumbent of his office, Ken Blackwell, who at one point four years ago said he would reject voter registration forms if they were not printed on 80-pound thickness cardstock. 

All of which goes to something I have maintained for years. When you want to really screw things up--whether it's malice, zeal, or stupidity--nothing beats an insider. All the election conspiracy theorists who worry about outside influences somehow disenfranchising us by monkeying with the voting machines or hordes of illegal aliens suddenly surfacing to vote on election day, they are looking in the wrong direction.

November 2, 2012

The Rising Tide

A few years back, I got interested in the topic of global warming and started doing my own research, a process I recommend to anyone who has questions about the reality of a changing climate induced by human activity. Just about all the sources agreed on two things: sea levels would inexorably rise and extreme weather events would occur more frequently. As a side note, the experts also predicted that sea levels would rise more rapidly along the East Coast of the United States as compared to the rest of the world.

The numbers have borne this out. Seth Borenstein, in an AP article published on June 15, 2012, for the Christian Science Monitor, reported that "sea levels have gone up globally about 2 inches (5 centimeters). But in Norfolk, Virginia, where officials are scrambling to fight more frequent flooding, sea level has jumped a total of 4.8 inches (12.19 centimeters), the research showed. For Philadelphia, levels went up 3.7 inches (9.4 centimeters), and in New York City, it was 2.8 inches (7.11 centimeters)."

What makes the rising tides so especially ominous is that people like to live near the oceans and seas and the river deltas that feed into them. Roughly 40 percent of the world's population lives within 100 meters (60 miles) of a coast. Fifteen of the world's 20 megacities (populations over 10 million) are sensitive to sea level rise and increased coastal storm surges. In the United States, 23 out of 25 of the most densely populated counties are along a coast.

Rising tides affect a growing proportion of the world's population. As that happens, the impact of extreme weather events is magnified. As once in a century storms roll through almost yearly, the cost in lives and money rises right along with the tides, and the measures needed to ward off the encroaching seas are measured in the billions of dollars.

We are facing some pretty ugly choices ahead. It's one thing to write off the Ninth Ward in New Orleans, but are we ready to do the same for lower Manhattan? Baltimore's Inner Harbor? Most of  lower Florida? (Let me get back to you on that one.)

As the political rhetoric about the debt heats up, think about how much the clean-up for this one storm will cost. A big share of that burden falls on the federal government, and, as we all know, shit rolls downhill, so guess who will be footing the collective bill for all this? Global warming may have received scant mention during the campaign, but you better believe it will become a major political issue.

By then, of course, it will be too little, too late. When it mattered most--when we really could have done something about this--the political process completely failed us. The science tells us that it would take a massive effort to limit (not prevent; that ship has sailed) the impact of global warming on the climate. Not only is such an effort not in sight, the talk is all about growing the economy, growth that will be based on burning even more fossil fuels.

For many of us, our gut instinct is telling us that this is not like it was a few decades ago. The science will confirm what you gut has been telling you. Climate change is not something to worry about twenty or thirty years from now. It is happening now, faster and with more intensity than was predicted even a few short years ago. Nature is adjusting on the fly, and unnatural disasters, like the temperatures and tides, are rising at an ever-accelerating rate. Like every other species, we are just along for the ride at this point.

October 29, 2012


Regular readers of this blog (we few, we happy few) will already know that I am a long-time believer in climate change induced by global warming that in turn is the result of burning billions of tons of fossil fuels in the geological blink of an eye. One of the hallmark predictions of the impact that climate change will have is more extreme weather events. So now every time there is a major weather event like the Frankenstorm that is passing over my head as I type these words, folks try to make it a link in a chain of evidence leading to proof positive that climate change due to human-induced global warming is real.

The problem is you can't quite get there from here. A single weather event is just that, a single weather event with its own unique causes. Climate is all about patterns over time. So ten years from now, we will have a truer sense of the context within which to place the current Frankenstorm, along with all the other storms before and after it. That said, I would offer a few thoughts to mull over as you stare out the window at the rain and wind for the next couple of days.

If ... and I say if ... this storm is a harbinger of the extreme weather events predicted by the science supporting climate change due to global warming, then, as they say, you ain't seen nothing yet. Think of a teapot over a gas flame. As the water gets hotter and hotter, the surface roils and more steam escapes into the air. The longer you apply the heat, the more energy you put into the water vapor.

Starting to get my drift? The average global temperature has risen 1.4°F over the last century. Unless something is done, oh, like yesterday, we will easily double that by the time my grandchildren are my age. Teapot Earth will be well on the way to a full boil. Imagine the Frankenstorms we will be seeing then. Quite honestly, I can't.

So much has changed in my lifetime, and yet I stare out the window into a future that looks as scary and uncertain as anything you could find short of a shift into an Ice Age. Of course, there weren't 9 billion humans when we had the last Ice Age. This raises a second huge issue.

When a tree falls in the forest and no one hears it, no one cares. When that tree falls into the wires that bring electricity to your house, you're damn right someone cares, someone who will expect money to be spent to repair the damage. Governmental budgets that are already stretched to the breaking point, well, it ain't going to get any easier.

According to an article in Scientific American, natural disasters around the world last year caused a record $380 billion in economic losses, double the previous record set in 2005. (Get used to hearing the sound of breaking records, part of what feeds my gut instinct that something terrible is happening.) Two-thirds of the losses were due to the tsunami in Japan and a very destructive earthquake in New Zealand. That still leaves about $125 billion due to weather, which accounted for nearly 90 percent of the natural disasters in 2011.

Since 1980, severe floods has almost tripled, and storms have nearly doubled. As Ernst Rauch, head of Munich Re's Corporate Climate Centre, noted, "It would not seem plausible that climate change doesn't play a role in the substantial rise in weather-related disasters." Here is a chart they produced:

Note the cautionary language, "this cannot be conclusively attributed to climate change." This is true for the moment. I believe time will vindicate those of us who have been arguing that we should have done something about this long before now. I also believe that the political and social gridlock over this issue has been driven by a literal handful of very wealthy individuals who have poured millions of dollars into the campaign to deny global warming, and they have done so to protect their own interests at the expense of all of us.

Big Tobacco was eventually required to shoulder the cost of repairing the damage caused by their products. I believe the day will come when Big Energy will be required to either compensate us for the loss or price the costs into their products. I don't want to face that any more than you do, but we have worked ourselves into a position where we are between a rock and a hard place.

Business as usual has taken us to the brink of an environmental catastrophe beyond our reckoning and close to be being beyond our control. The only thing more painful will be the adjustment to a world based on choices governed by the true cost of energy.

October 28, 2012

A Reluctant Voter

I will be voting sometime this week, God willing and the Frankenstorm don't wash us away. Maryland has early voting, something every state should adopt. I worked in elections for several years, and I can tell you the difference made by early voting is enormous, both for the workers and for the voters.

Truth be told, I was thinking about not voting at all, my reasoning being that it's time to step aside and let the younger folks, who will have to live with the consequences of forthcoming elections a lot longer than I will, have the decisive role in selecting their political leaders. My generation has done enough. Time to let the next shift take over.

The other source of my reluctance was the candidates. Mitt Romney may have been the best of a bad lot of Republicans, but his choice of Paul Ryan made that ticket an absolute non-starter for me. Ryan's ideas for government are so antithetical to mine, there is no way I want to see him get to within a heartbeat of the presidency.

Obama has my reluctant support, but he remains a mystery to me. There are so many things I really like about him. He is thoughtful, patient, and decisive. In a crisis, I believe he is a near-perfect combination of prudence and boldness.

What he isn't is a politician. Unfortunately, that is a huge part of the job description, one that he kind of sucks at. I respect President Obama. I loved Bill Clinton. The difference? Clinton was as smart a guy as you could want in a room, but he also loved the game of politics, the give-and-take of deal-making that drives things forward. Obama is the guy who strikes me as something of an outsider. He seems uncomfortable in a room full of politicians who smell blood in the air. Clinton just ate that shit up.

Of course, that's who we want running our country these days, political outsiders or businessmen. This idea that we shouldn't have politicians in charge of a political system is both foolish and dangerous. The president is not a CEO. Running the government is not like running a business. A president's board of directors are 535 unruly personages each of whom cares more about their next election than the president's agenda. You don't give orders; you don't rely on men of good will. Governance is a blunt-force trauma business, where the big stick better back up the soft words or you won't get anywhere.

There is a famous story told by a senior adviser about how Ike went to the White House and issued orders like the general he used to be, thinking that would be the end of it, and then couldn't figure out why nothing was getting done. Men like Johnson, Reagan, and Clinton figured it out. Maybe Obama will get it in his second term, if he gets one.

The way I look at it, whoever wins this election will be a single-term president. I'm already praying for Hillary in 2016. I see no other political figure capable of leading us out of the mess we have gotten ourselves into. Damn, guess that means I might have to vote one more time.

October 26, 2012

Texas Choses Life

Let me prevail upon your patience, gentle reader, by revisiting the can of worms I opened in yesterday's post, The Sanctity of Life. That post explored the notion that we preach sanctity of life but behave quite differently in actual practice. I believe that is hypocrisy of the worst sort.

I was prepared to let it go at that, but then I read about a court decision in Texas that upheld a ruling allowing the state to bar funding to Planned Parenthood as part of a program that provides low-income women with family planning exams, related health screenings and contraception. Here is Governor Rick Perry's reaction to the news:
"Today's ruling affirms yet again that in Texas the Women's Health Program has no obligation to fund Planned Parenthood and other organizations that perform or promote abortion. In Texas we choose life, and we will immediately begin defunding all abortion affiliates to honor and uphold that choice." (Emphasis added.)
In Texas we choose life. Really? Let's look at some numbers on executions compiled by the Death Penalty Information Center. The table below shows the top ten states:

488 11 13 17
109 1 3
100 4 2 3
FLORIDA 73 2 2 1
68 1
ALABAMA 55 6 5
GEORGIA 52 4 2
OHIO 48 2 5 8

Governor Perry thinks it is okay to ban funding for Planned Parenthood because "in Texas we choose life." This is the same guy who said, "If you don't support the death penalty and citizens packing a pistol - don't come to Texas." Call me crazy, but I don't believe you can justify a state-sponsored holy war on abortion by claiming that life is sacred while at the same time leading the league in executions.  Either life is sacred or it isn't. You can't claim that it is and then pick and choose those for whom life is sacred and those for whom life is optional. That's what I mean by hypocrisy.

This is not about the legitimacy of the death penalty or abortion. This is about hypocrisy. Certainly, I am no more consistent or inconsistent on these issues than anyone else is. I favor the death penalty in certain cases. I wish there was never a need to have an abortion. I also recognize that everyone else has their own views on these issues.

Personally, I have seen no evidence that life is sacred. God invented death, so what does that tell you? Anyone who has been in or even near a war will tell you that the other guy's life gets very cheap when it's your ass that's on the line. Ask yourself this. In a long-term emergency, how many days or weeks would go by before some of us were out in the street with pitch forks and axes, ready to kill or be killed over a scrap of bread or a bottle of water?

Like many things, my anger over the sanctity of life issue goes back to Vietnam. That war was a war fought against Communism. Remember all those dominoes that would fall if we didn't stop Communism in Vietnam? But Vietnam, like so many other wars, had a religious underpinning to it as well. It wasn't just communism. It was godless communism that was the archenemy. "Kill a Commie for Christ" may have started out as a joke, but it reflected a mindset prevalent at the time among the Christian right, the same people who preached the sanctity of life for the unborn.

So, yeah, don't talk to me about how life is sacred. I know better. Life is cheap when we want it to be. I try to make it as sacred as I can, and I believe most other folks do as well. I certainly don't claim some divine mandate from heaven that gives me the power and the right to anoint some lives as sacred and others as expendable. I leave that to the self-appointed spiritual guardians of the world. Maybe we should add arrogance to the list alongside hypocrisy.

October 25, 2012

The Sanctity of Life

Another Republican has stirred up another shit storm over rape and pregnancy. One said that pregnancy is never a by-product of a "legitimate" rape. Now we have another saying that pregnancy does occur in the aftermath of a rape, but it's God's will. Although these two guys seem be saying completely different things, they both end up in the same place, arguing that abortion in the case of pregnancy due to rape is not morally acceptable.

This line of reasoning begins with the assumption that life is sacred and must be protected from the moment of inception. The sanctity of life. How often is that phrase used to justify opposition to abortions of any kind. My question is this: What sanctity of life?

Am I living on the same planet as those who say that life is sacred? I don't know, because on my planet people die excruciatingly awful deaths every day, deaths that keep the concept of evil alive in our minds. That little girl who was murdered and dismembered and left in  dumpster?  Is that the sanctity of life that we are talking about? The millions of innocent soldiers and civilians who have died in war, often in unspeakably brutal ways? The old and the abandoned who die lonely deaths because they couldn't pay their electric bills?

This is the sanctity of life that preachers and politicians say God ordered them to defend to the death? If that's the best God could do, maybe (s)he should have gone into another line of work. Anyone of us could have designed a world that made more sense than that, because in a better world there would be no unwanted pregnancies, just as there would be no disease or war or poverty.

But we don't live in a better world. In our world, many lives are terminated early, most long after they have left the womb. Those deaths seem to be something a lot of supposedly moral persons can live with. They practice a form of pick-and-choose morality, where the life of the unborn is sacred but the rest of us, well, we're on our own.

Does that make Planet Earth a free fire zone, where we can do whatever we want to whomever we want once they are outside the womb? Of course not. What it does mean is that we must decide for ourselves where we draw the line. On the issue of abortion, that line is different for each of us, for many reasons. The unborn deserve protection, but so does the mother. That choice is often a cruel one, but it is a choice that must be made. How we make that choice defines us as individuals and as God's children.

October 19, 2012

The Lonely Atom

The designs of the universe are unknown to us, but we do know that to think with lucidity and to act with fairness is to aid those designs (which shall never be revealed to us).--Jorge Luis Borges

Driving back from the landfill along a semi-country road thickly lined with trees on both sides, with randomly spaced clusters of industrial buildings providing relief from the beauty of the landscape.  I am dazzled by the sheer profligacy of nature. Thousands of leaves form an autumnal portrait in green, yellow and red that will endure until the first frost, when the leaves will drop to the ground and become a sturdy quilt, warming the roots as they slumber until the new spring reawakens them.

Each leaf consists of billions of atoms of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen and assorted minerals. I think how lucky to be an atom that gets to spend a season on a tree, shape-shifting from bud to leaf, from green to orange or red or yellow. I pass by a storage building clad in a dull brown vinyl. Those atoms are locked in that ugliness for hundreds of years, until nature finally grants them a conditional release. What prior existence determined their fate? Why does one atom get to be in a tree leaf and another imprisoned in vinyl?

A million years from now every atom will have been reshuffled countless times. Nature persists by letting atoms consort in predictable ways, allowing them to make alliances to hold together against the pitiless onslaught of time ... a resistance, if you will, to the endless cycle of creation and destruction. Form asserts itself over and over. Particles self-organize into structures and organisms. Something there is that encourages this persistence out of chaos.

An individual atom has no sense of belonging to a whole. It is a part that has clicked into place, self-organizing a whole that will be much more than its parts. Like the atom, I have no true sense of the vast machine of which I am but a part. On the scale of the universe, I am a sub-atomic particle that evanesces in and out of existence a thousand times in the blink of God's eye.

Simple observation tells me that all is in endless movement towards formation and reformation. Atoms like to be in mixed company. They don't want to be alone if they don't have to be. The purpose of all this shape-shifting is far beyond my capacity to grasp ... unknown and perhaps unknowable. I sense a road being taken. I just don't know where it is going, but I am happy to be along for the ride in this unique and transient assemblage of atoms known as me.

A decade or so from now, the atoms that pump my blood and fill my mind with dreams will go their separate ways. What did it all mean? Haven't a clue. I do believe that I have a role in the scheme of things. It's not for me to understand the lines I have been given, merely to give as good a reading as I can while I strut my hour upon the stage. Perhaps it is indeed "a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing." I prefer to think not. And in that thought, I find a tendril of belief poking through the winter's leaves, reaching upward toward the new season.