April 25, 2013

The Decider

Today, President Obama along with all the other living presidents will be in Dallas to participate in the dedication of the George W. Bush Presidential Library. The occasion lends itself to yet one more opportunity for critics and defenders of Mr. Bush's record in office to have another go at it.

In thinking about Mr. Bush's time in office, the first word that popped into my head was "squander," a wonderful word of uncertain origin but whose roots go back to the 16th Century. The word has three primary meanings: to spend extravagantly or foolishly; to scatter; and to lose (as an advantage or opportunity) through negligence or inaction. Most often we hear it used during sporting events when a team loses a big lead: "They squandered the lead."

In that sense, I think it could be fairly said of Mr. Bush that in terms of the two big items on his agenda, he squandered the lead. First the economy. He inherited a robust economy when he stepped into office. By the time he left, we were poised on the Great Recession of 2008. Maybe some of that wasn't his fault. The deregulation of the financial industry was a bipartisan effort. The decision to cut taxes belongs to Mr. Bush. The name says it: The Bush Tax Cuts. As a result of that decision, the government surplus he inherited disappeared, and the lack of a surplus tied one hand behind the government's back when it came to reacting to the economic slide.

The single biggest event in recent history occurred on Mr. Bush's watch: the attacks on 9/11. The entire country-- hell, the entire world -- was united in its reaction to the horror of the events and in the determination to punish those responsible. When President Bush told us that "the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon" we were 100 percent in agreement. The invasion of Afghanistan to oust the Taliban was supported by all of the American people.

Then came one of the most baffling decisions in modern memory, the decision to invade Iraq and oust Saddam Hussein. In a single stroke, President Bush squandered all the good will he had earned in his response to 9/11. The reasoning behind the decision to invade Iraq is still somewhat of a riddle. The aftermath is clear. Spending on the war, coupled with the tax cuts, accelerated the growth of the federal debt. More significantly, instead of a nation united, we became again a nation divided.

President Bush called himself "The Decider." That's not a bad job description for the president: the decider-in-chief. As such, President Bush made two key decisions that will define his legacy: the decision to cut taxes and the decision to invade Iraq. Forget everything else. Those are the two things that define the Bush administration.

The net result of those two policy choices was to squander a huge surplus that he inherited and to squander the enormous good will he had rightly earned throughout the world in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. Sure, a lot of the messes we face today are the result of a bipartisan effort to escape and evade responsibility for dealing with long-festering problems. But the Bush presidency added to those woes in a major way by squandering the gains of previous presidencies, including his father's. As far as I'm concerned, that is George W. Bush's legacy: squanderer-in-chief.

April 21, 2013

The Heart of The City

The investigation into the Boston Marathon bombings now enters a critical phase. We have the "who" of the case settled, but much investigative work remains. The weapons and explosives had to come from somewhere. Tracking those purchases back to their sources, interviewing anyone who ever came in contact with the suspect to piece together the sequence of events leading up to the April 15th bombings, searching back in each man's life to find the turning point ... all this will take time. There will be aftershocks for many months to come.

Which gets us to the "Why?" Why did they do it? What was their intent? To seek revenge or to make a point? Where is the manifesto, the statement of grievances, the list of sins for which they would have us do penance in blood? Who or what were the influences in their lives that took them from angst to anger to anarchism?

The question that haunts me is how did a nice kid -- a kid described as "wonderful ... completely outgoing, very engaged ... not overtly political or religious ...like any other high school kid." -- how did the kid next door become a terrorist bent on killing innocent people. Where did it come from, this capacity to do evil that transcended all moral bounds? We need to understand the journey these two men took from kids to killers. We need to know who got them started down that road and who helped them along the way.

Did Dzhokhar Tsarnaev wonder how his life got this crazy as he lay in that boat for hours? Did he give a moment's thought to all the people he killed and wounded and wonder how it got to that? Did he remain committed to his still unknown cause or did he ask himself if it was worth the cost of a brother's life? Did beg his God for forgiveness? He has lived to tell the tale, and I want to hear what he has to say for himself.

In one of  Tsarnaev's last Tweets, he said, "Ain’t no love in the heart of the city, stay safe people." Turns out he was dead wrong. There was an amazing amount of love in the city of Boston, the kind of selfless love that led strangers to rush side-by-side with first responders headlong back into danger to give aid and comfort to the wounded. An individual act of evil spawned countless acts of bravery and goodness.

If only the haters would understand that simple lesson. The way to fight evil is not with more evil. You don't stop killing with more killing. You don't gain justice through injustice. If you want a better world, you have to live a better life. 

Whether you read the Bible or the Koran or the Talmud or the Tibetan Book of Wisdom, the answer is the same. "Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful." "No one of you is a believer until he desires for his brother that which he desires for himself." "All things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye so to them; for this is the law and the prophets." Amen to all that.

April 16, 2013

Boston

The day after. Time for things to settle. Time for the shock to morph from numbness to fear to anger ... anger at the person or persons unknown who lit the fuse ... anger at the death of a child ... anger at the horrific injuries that left dozens wounded and maimed.

Who did this? Why did they do it? These questions burn a hole in our in our hearts, but we already know the answers. Who? Another in a long line of cowards who prefer to let other people die for their cause. Why? To impose their morality on the rest of us, for make no mistake about it, people who do this sort of thing are first and foremost people who believe absolutely and totally in the rightness and morality of their judgments about the sins of others. They see evil everywhere but in their own hearts.

The list of suspects is long as the history of the world. There are dozens of groups and individuals determined to punish us for sins that reach in a long, unbroken chain back to an original sin that resides in some dark corridor of our genes, one twist of fate too many.

I have no doubt that the bombings in Boston have their root in some festering grievance, real or imagined, against a group, a government, most likely our own. Already we hear lots of talk about actions undertaken by the U.S. government in other parts of the world that have led to the deaths of innocent bystanders. Yes, this is a conversation that needs to be held. We the people do need to take a long, hard look at what has been and is being done in our name. But acts of violence such as the bombings in Boston only make that conversation harder to hold.

Hear my confession. Bless me, father, for we have all sinned. From cluster bombs to land mines, from armies of God to armies of children, we are all sinners. We need to stop. We need to listen to the voices of the victims. But it's hard to hear those voices above the explosions of bombs.

Hold a mirror to the evils of the world if you must, but don't make us look at them through a gun-sight. When you undertake to commit violence, you become just another moving part in the problem. To be part of the solution means to have the strength to turn away from violence and embrace peace.

This is what the bomb-throwers don't get. Their individual act of violence is not excused by our societal acts of violence. The moral choices we make as individuals have to matter more than what the herd decides. Change has to begin with me, then you, then the next guy. If individually we choose to forswear violence in all its forms, then the group will follow. It's our only hope, our last chance.

April 14, 2013

Weeds

Well, vacation's over, and it's back to reality. In this case, reality presents itself as a thriving mass of weeds threatening to engulf a large area in my backyard that was supposed to be the exclusive domain of some hydrangeas and my vegetable garden. I guess the weeds didn't get the memo.

Weeds are blown in my the wind, dropped from a bird's intestine, brought in on an unwary gardener's shoes or pants. Once established, they quickly spread into any available niche. Just look at any sidewalk crack, and you will likely find something growing out of it. That's the thing about weeds. They keep coming at you. You can't turn your back on them or they will take over.  It's what they do.

Still, you have to give weeds their due. Despite our best efforts to eradicate them, weeds survive and thrive. You can nuke them with chemicals, pull them out root and branch ... their response is, "That all you got?"

And what makes them weeds, anyway? Looked at objectively, some weeds have flowers that are quite attractive. Weeds perform all the beneficial functions of plants and have the virtue of requiring zero maintenance. And yet, in mankind's perverse inability to leave well enough alone, we methodically attack those things that grow effortlessly and replace them with plants that require constant feeding and watering and pruning and yes, weeding, to keep them going. Does that make any sense?

Some think we should make a virtue of necessity. When weeds took over an abandoned section of New York's high-rise railroad, some Upper West Siders wanted them goner while others liked what they saw and wanted to leave things as they were. The High Line is now an urban parkland, weeds and all.



That level of enlightened thinking has not reached my backyard. Slave to convention that I am, I will go to the tool shed and grab my spading fork and gardening gloves and spend the next several hours --maybe days -- uprooting perfectly good plants because ... well, it's what I've always done.

And when the job is done and the weeds are gone -- either turned back in to the soil or placed in large paper bags for removal by the city -- I will look upon my creation and pronounce it good. At least until next weekend, when the weeds will have recovered their toehold and the battle begins anew.

April 10, 2013

Here Beside The Rising Tide


We all experience psychic events. Some of us process the signals a bit louder and clearer than others, but I believe we are turned to receive if only we allow ourselves listen. I certainly have gotten the message, so to speak, and I have talked with many people who have seen and heard many strange things, from talking ghosts to visions of dead people to dreams foretelling the future.

What got me thinking along these lines was a thought I had about recurring dreams. In my case, for as long as I can remember -- and that's getting to be a pretty long time -- I have had two recurring themes when I enter the dreaming world. The first is a night sky filled with a dizzying array of objects ... constellations, spirals, things moving, things bursting, untold thousands of them .. a dense-packed night sky. The feeling is somewhat ominous.

The second theme is massive, surging waves of sea water washing over roads and beaches in a rising tide that takes everything with it. Usually I am driving a car and trying to get some place and am forced to go through or past dangerous stretches of rapidly rising water. Sometimes I am standing on a beach watching enormous waves of biblical proportion roll on to the beach. Definitely ominous.

As noted above, I have been having these two sets of dreams for decades. If you go to the Internet, you will find many sites happy to render some sort of Freudian explanation for dream symbols. Rising tides indicate life changes that threaten to overwhelm us, that sort of thing. Up until yesterday, I was content with those explanations.

But as Freud noted about dreams, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. Maybe my dreams about rising tides were just that ... dreams about rising tides. As so often happens when you sit by the ocean and let your mind get in synch with the waves and the gulls, you see and feel things differently, which is what happened to me yesterday while sunbathing on the beach in Kitty Hawk, my mind an even blanker slate than usual.

Suddenly, I had a different explanation of my dreams, a new Gestalt. What if my dreams of rising tides weren't simply the stowing away of Freudian flotsam and jetsam? What if they weren't symbols? What if they were visions of the future?

At this point, it no longer matters. Too late wisdom arrives. Rising sea levels are no longer the stuff of dreams. Just ask the folks in New Jersey. Or maybe sooner than we would like to think, Miami or New York or San Francisco, where the oldest continually operating tidal gauge in the Americas has tracked an 8-inch rise in coastal waters since 1854. How about Rotterdam, Bangkok, Tokyo, or Shanghai or any one of the cities most in danger from rising sea levels?

There is poetic justice in all this. Ocean acidification -- the increase in acidity due to increased absorption of the carbon dioxide we have poured by the millions of tons into the atmosphere in the last century -- is attacking the foundation of the ocean's food chain, plankton. The sea gave us life, and we are slowly killing it.

The ocean strikes back through the very mechanism that is endangering it. Rising temperatures lead to melting ice which raises the sea levels that threaten the millions of people who live at the sea's edge. And so the rising tide that laps gently at our shore becomes an instrument of our own destruction, one we created. Maybe more like rough justice than poetic justice, I guess you could say.

April 8, 2013

Motorcycle Memories

Driving down to North Carolina on I-95. Up from behind me comes a biker, riding a Harley Fat Boy. He switches lanes after giving a hand signal, and I'm thinking back to when I rode a bike and I don't remember using hand signals. I used to ride the dotted line, sliding from one side to another as I wove my way through traffic. You don't see bikers do that much any more, but when I was riding -- this would be 1970-72 -- it was common to see bikers busting up the white line between slower moving cars. I mean, what's the point of having a motorcycle and then driving it like a car?

It began when I got out of the Army and resumed civilian life. I went back to work in Washington, DC, at the Department of Agriculture at 14th and Independence Avenue, right between the Washington Monument and the Smithsonian. I rode a pedal bike back and forth to work, a distance of maybe four and a half miles, downhill to work and uphill from work.

This got to be a bit of a chore as August rolled around and the days got hazy, hot, and humid . One steamy afternoon, I found myself sitting between two cars on K Street, their engines throwing out enormous waves of heat on top of the humidity I was feeling. Not to mention I was smoking about 5 packs a day back then, a habit I brought home with me from the war. Anyway, sitting there in the stifling heat, my lungs desperately trying to find some fresh air among the exhaust fumes and residual cigarette smoke, I had a bit of an epiphany. I liked riding a bike, I just didn’t like pedaling it in city traffic in the middle of summer. What if my bike had a motor? Seems like that would be a whole lot easier.

A friend let me ride his motorcycle a few times in a parking lot. I survived that and went to a dealership in Arlington, VA, where I had been stationed for a few months at Fort Meyer, and bought a Suzuki 500cc two-stroke. After the sale was complete, I cranked it up with the kick starter – no fancy electric starters back then, thank you very much – and immediately proceeded to drive straight towards the side of the building, only managing to stop it inches from the brick wall. The salesman asked me if I was sure I knew what I was doing ... not an unreasonable question. I assured him I would be fine and actually made it all the way back to DC without incident.

After that, I spent a few months learning how to ride a motorcycle half-assed properly. I would go out to a winding stretch of road in an area of DC known as the Palisades. There I would take the turns at a little faster speed with each run. My aim was to go maybe 5 percent past my comfort zone, figuring that in a panic situation that’s what I would have to do. The war was still very much in my head, and I labored under a confusing mix of survivor guilt, which leads to reckless behavior, and acute situational awareness, which made you calculate your survival situation every two minutes.

On days I was feeling mellow, I would take the bike out and flow through the s-curves, tilting my body this way and that to adjust to each curve. On days when I could feel the hot breath of the war on the back of my neck, I would push deeper into the curves, sliding into the oncoming lane, heedless of the blind corners where I couldn’t see any oncoming vehicles until it was too late. Or I might go to an isolated stretch of straight road and push it up to 100 miles per hour, just to see what it felt like.

The Suzuki was a little two-stroke rice burner, with an annoying whiny engine sound, but it had rapid acceleration and could get from zero to fuck-it in about six seconds. Once I learned how to dispense with using the clutch to shift gears, I could run through the gears seamlessly. Once I got out of first, if you weren’t ahead of me by then it was pretty much over. I would run the engine up to the max torque zone at about 4000 rpm's and dump it into third. By then I would be doing over 60 miles per hour. The bike didn’t have a lot of top end speed, but it got there pretty quick.

It took a lot longer to learn to relax the muscles for long-distance runs, like the time me and my buddy rode up to Nova Scotia. Part of that came with the ever-so-gradual ebbing of the war from a 24/7 presence in my head to a time when I could actually go several hours without thinking about it. Eventually time passed, I got married, and traded the bike in for a washer and dryer. As Gandalf observed in Lord of the Rings, he who cannot part with a thing at need is no longer free.

A few years back I thought about getting another bike, but decided against it. The decision was really not that difficult. Getting licensed was way more of a hassle than it was in 1970. More to the point, I wasn't the same guy with the same reflexes I had back then, but in my heart, I knew I would want to drive like that guy. A lethal combination.

I may have tempted death back in the day.  When you feel the Grim Reaper tap you on the shoulder and get to live to fight another day, you develop a false sense of invulnerability, a shield of denial to fend off the fear and guilt that comes with survival. But I guess we do get a bit wiser as we get older. Like smoking, which I gave up in the 1980's, I don't miss having a motorcycle. I see the bikers out on a beautiful day, feeling the micro-climates in each dip and turn of the road, but I don't miss it. Really, I don't. Not much, anyway.

April 6, 2013

The Mess In Washington

Yup, the mess in Washington is still there, and it doesn't look like it will be leaving town anytime soon. It seems to me that the essence of the problem comes down to two men: President Obama, a leader who isn't a very good politician; and Speaker of the House John Boehner, a politician who isn't a very good leader.

This week's failure to communicate centered around an offer by President Obama to slow the rate of growth of Social Security by applying a technique called chained CPI -- CPI being the Consumer Price Index, a basic measure of the cost of living -- to come up with lower numbers for the cost of living increases that automatically kick in to raise the level of Social Security benefits.

A chained CPI says that if steak is too expensive, then people will switch to chicken. In other words, as things get pricier, people adjust what they buy to make up the difference, so they don't need as much money to maintain. Let them eat chicken!

That may indeed be the sort of twisted logic that only an economist could dream up, but it does kind of make sense. We do adjust to what we can afford. The question really  is whether Social Security beneficiaries are entitled to keep on eating steak, metaphorically speaking.

The president's critics on the left answered with a resounding Yes, reacting as if he had stuck a dagger into the heart of Social Security. My God! Slow the rate of benefits growth? The horror! The reception among Republicans wasn't much warmer. Speaker Boehner, looking like he had just swallowed a lemon, brushed off the president's proposal the way one might swipe at an annoying fly that just won't go away, replying that if cutting the rate of growth was such a good idea then it didn't need to be linked to cuts in taxes, and did I mention that you can forget about any tax increases? Oh yeah, the mess in Washington is very much alive and not so well.

Into the middle of this debate comes an unlikely bomb thrower in the form of David Stockman, who was the budget chief under Ronald Reagan. He recently wrote an op-ed piece in the New York Times that pretty much took down the entire Washington establishment. Here's a sample:
With only brief interruptions, we’ve had eight decades of increasingly frenetic fiscal and monetary policy activism intended to counter the cyclical bumps and grinds of the free market and its purported tendency to underproduce jobs and economic output. The toll has been heavy.
As the federal government and its central-bank sidekick, the Fed, have groped for one goal after another — smoothing out the business cycle, minimizing inflation and unemployment at the same time, rolling out a giant social insurance blanket, promoting homeownership, subsidizing medical care, propping up old industries (agriculture, automobiles) and fostering new ones (“clean” energy, biotechnology) and, above all, bailing out Wall Street — they have now succumbed to overload, overreach and outside capture by powerful interests. The modern Keynesian state is broke, paralyzed and mired in empty ritual incantations about stimulating “demand,” even as it fosters a mutant crony capitalism that periodically lavishes the top 1 percent with speculative windfalls.
Well, I guess that pretty much covers it. Stockman traces the rise and fall of the American dream from Roosevelt to Regan and beyond. Everyone is to blame. No one escapes his harsh indictment of a cozy alliance of politicians and Wall Street that has left Main Street crucified on a cross of fool's gold.

The only things worse than the problems he describes is the fix he proposes, "a solution so radical it can’t happen." Paul B. Farrell, writing in MarketWatch, lists Stockman's eight steps:
  • Stop all government subsidies of capitalism: “a sweeping divorce of the state and the market economy” ending “crony capitalism.”
  • Eliminate incumbency: A “sweeping constitutional surgery” with “amendments to give the president and members of Congress a single six-year term, with no re-election.”
  • No more elected officials as lobbyists: “Prohibiting, for life, lobbying by anyone who has been on a legislative or executive payroll.”
  • Overturn Citizens United: End the fiction that corporations are humans.
  • Balanced budgets: “Mandate that Congress must pass a balanced budget.”
  • Close all Wall Street derivatives casinos ... Purge “corrosive financialization that has turned the economy into a giant casino since the 1970s.” No cheap Fed loans, no bailouts, no deposit insurance.” Reenact the Glass-Steagall.
  • Stop Fed micromanaging the economy: No more cheap money. No debt buybacks. No investing in private companies. Fire the Fed’s central planners. Restore “The Fed’s original mission: to provide liquidity in times of crisis but never to buy government debt or try to micromanage the economy. Getting the Fed out of the financial markets is the only way to put free markets and genuine wealth creation back into capitalism.”
 I found myself nodding in agreement with most of the list. But you know what? Stockman is right. It ain't gonna happen. At least not in the present climate of gridlock. Not until we reach twilight's last gleaming will politicians get serious about fixing the mess in Washington, not until the meltdown is so complete, the electorate so broke, busted, and disgusted that they will reach the final stage of grieving for a lost American dream and accept the obvious. Less in benefits and more in taxes. Less for Wall Street and more for Main Street. Less money in politics to buy elections and more money in my wallet to buy groceries.

This isn't rocket science. It is hard. It requires everyone losing their privilege and doing their fair share, from the bottom 1 percent to the top 1 percent. We lived high on the hog for a long time. Now the bills have come due, and we need to cut back and throw a little more into the pot. The stuff that Stockman talks about is complicated, but the aim is simple: Fix what we all know is broken.

April 4, 2013

Why I Like Music From The Fifties

Sherlock Holmes, after listening to Dr. Watson's rapturous description of farmsteads on the English countryside, replied, "You look at these scattered houses, and you are impressed by their beauty. I look at them, and the only thought which comes to me is a feeling of their isolation and of the impunity with which crime may be committed there. ... the lowest and vilest alleys in London do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the smiling and beautiful countryside."

I think of this passing by a church on the way home. It is Easter Sunday and the parking lot is filled with cars. The service is just ending and the faithful are slowly making their way out of the church, stopping to chat with friends before getting into their cars to head home. Like Watson, I think of the normalcy and safety represented by the scene, something right out of a Norman Rockwell painting, the little girls' white Easter dresses matching the white clapboards of the church.

Then I remember a conversation I had many years back, when I was volunteering at a local youth hot line. The original intent was to provide a safe place where latchkey kids could talk away their fears and older kids could safely reveal the secrets that had lead them to think of suicide. After a year or so, the pervs started showing up.

Most were obvious and pathetic. This caller made a real effort to sound like he had a problem. The details escape me, but the gist was the caller -- a man, his voice pure country -- had gotten into one situation after another, usually with a pretty young girl who may or may not be married, always someone in the church ... never his fault ... just the victim of misunderstandings and other people out to get him.

Oh, hell yes he had a problem. He was a stone-cold sociopath. His hunting ground was the little church he had wormed his way into somewhere out in West Virginia. His prey was anyone he could get to believe his line of bullshit. I'm sure he was good looking and freshly scrubbed, with a sincere manner that would last as long as it took to get what he wanted.

Two things crossed my mind as I listened to this guy ask about where we were and what we did and how he was thinking of moving to our area, some place bigger where there weren't so many small-minded folks. First, I was glad we couldn't be found, because I'm not ashamed to say he scared me. Second, I wanted to know where this church was so I could drive out there and tell them there was a wolf loose among the flock.

If you have never felt the hot breath of an evil so clear and present it menaces even over a phone line, be grateful. It leaves you permanently changed. You are a victim just by mere contact. You don't look at things the same way any more. The church is no longer just a congregation. It is no longer just a safe haven from the troubles of the world. It is a hunting ground.

And that's why I like music from the fifties, which to me includes songs recorded while I was in high school, so that adds the first couple of years from the sixties. When I think of evil and the many ways it manifests itself every day -- just read the headlines from any news service for stories of rape and murder, and any of the seven deadly sins you might care to mention -- I feel a need to recapture the innocence of a time in my life when such thoughts were the last thing on my mind, not the first.

These songs, even though they are mostly about broken hearts and broken dreams, lift my spirits in a way that no other music does, except possibly for Dixieland jazz. And it is that CD I reach for as I go past the church on Easter Sunday. This music is my church, my sanctuary, the place where only happy memories are allowed entrance. It may be that a little bit of soap will never wash away my tears, but listening to the Jarmels sing about it washes away the years and leaves me feeling better.