December 31, 2014

Boss Man

I'm typing this on a Bluetooth keyboard that is linked to my tablet. The whole kit and caboodle easily fits inside a place mat on my kitchen table. That's a far cry from the first automated typing system I used.

This  was back in 1970 when I had just gotten out of the Army. I decided to remain in DC rather than move back to Boston mostly because I already had a job guaranteed me at the U.S Department of Agriculture, plus there was a recession on. So resigning myself to a life of mere money-making, I returned to USDA and settled in at my old agency, The Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service, a bureaucratic behemoth that ran all the farm subsidy programs.

I was put into a section that was responsible for issuing internal procedures, a massive library of manuals that filled an entire wall of book cases. This was an era still dominated by paper. An army of clerk-typists churned out ream after ream of paper drafts using electric typewriters, which at that time were the ultimate in electronic sophistication.

But just as the invention of the typewriter wiped out the copyist profession, so too were regular typists about to find themselves on the cutting edge of job extinction. These were the early days of office automation. The newest wrinkle was the word processing center. There were only a handful in the entire Federal government: two were in USDA, and for some reason, I was put in charge of one of them, most likely because no one else was willing to do it.

We used IBM MT/ST's, large rectangular boxes packed with vacuum tubes that were connected to specially-fitted IBM Selectric typewriters. Documents were encoded on magnetic tape about an inch wide. (You could actually see the magnetic coding of each letter on the tape, that's how big these things were.) The idea was you could revise segments of a document without having to retype the entire document. Since our issuances were redrafted many times, it seemed like a word processing center would make things more efficient.

My staff consisted of four black ladies, most of them a bit older than me, most of them reentering the work place after having had children. This was my first time supervising anyone, much less a group of women. The times they were a changing, and black power and women's rights were at the forefront of social change, and there I was, stuck in the middle of it all.

I learned a lot about supervising in the year or so I ran my little unit. As time passed, some of the ladies left for other work, others were promoted within my larger unit, and some were asked to leave. My greatest satisfaction came from recognizing talented people and getting them into better positions where they could advance and build a true career. I made some friendships that lasted my entire career at USDA.

Eventually, I was given a chance to join the regular staff. I spent the next several years editing issuances. Trust me when I tell you that pride of authorship could easily be the eighth deadly sin. Over the years, I learned what it takes to be a professional, to be able to do decent work even on the days you didn't feel like doing anything. I also learned that work should never be more important than the people doing the work.

For the rest of my time at USDA, writing and office automation would be the two abiding  elements of my work. I was lucky enough to ride the wave of personal computers and the Internet into a full-time job as a computer specialist, web designer, and programmer. Writing was an integral part of building web sites, as was the willingness to tear things apart and rework them endlessly until it was as close to just right as you could get it, something I learned in my years as an editor.

If you had asked me as a young man what I would do for my life's work, nothing of what I actually ended up doing would have made the list. No way would I have seen myself as a supervisor or an editor or a computer type. I just went with what I had at the time. I never said "no" when asked if I wanted to try something. But I always found a way to carve out a space at work that was my own, a space where I could take a chance on something new, where I could try something different and prove to myself and to others that I could get it done and that it was worth doing. For me, that's about as good as it gets.


December 21, 2014

Rush to Judgment

The Kennedy assassination is perhaps the most studied moment in modern history. The Warren Commission took nearly a thousand pages to arrive at conclusions that were immediately contested. The Zapruder tape has been dissected frame by frame. The events of that day have been painstakingly recreated many times. No event has been examined in more detail, and yet I doubt that anyone would say that the truth is fully known.

The Greek dramatist Aeschylus wrote that in war, truth is the first casualty. I would argue that the truth of anything is impossible to know, a truism we ignore at our own peril. Nowhere is this more evident than in the recent events in Ferguson and New York, events that more and more seem to have played a part in yesterday's killing of two NYPD patrolmen in Brooklyn.

The specific circumstances of Ferguson and New York have been gone over and over. Like the Kennedy assassination, there were many eyewitness accounts and videos of the events as they unfolded. Yet, after all the testimony both oral and visual, what do we really know? Two black men were involved in physical confrontations with white police officers (although in New York, the on-scene supervisor was not white). Both black men resisted arrest. In both cases, the policemen involved reacted with what turned out to be deadly force. Two men ended up dead in circumstances that no one thinks should have had that outcome. The debate goes on as to who was most responsible for what happened, who could have or should have shown more restraint.

If either side had reacted differently, perhaps we wouldn't be where we are today, dealing with another tragedy. A young man decided to kill the things he hated -- an ex-girlfriend, two cops and finally, himself. The debate will rage over what role the overheated rhetoric stemming from protests in Ferguson and New York played in motivating his actions. We may never know for sure. Clearly, this guy had a lot of problems we have yet to fully understand.

That won't stop the endless speculation on CNN and social media, or in the comments sections of online articles. It's funny how we always are told not to trust the media. But here's the thing: in today's world of Twitter and Facebook, we the people are the media. So, yeah, don't trust the media. Always keep in mind another truism: believe half of what you see and none of what you hear. How often do we need to see initial impressions turned on their head by later insights to remember not to rush to judgment?

We can never know the totality of events surrounding a moment in history, even when we watch events unfold on video. We can never know what was going on in someones head, what totality of life experiences influenced what they were thinking and feeling during a crisis. The truth of anything is impossible to know.

December 15, 2014

Midrash

There's a reason why the Pharisees get such bad press in the Gospels. They were the Christians' chief challengers in the struggle for the hearts and minds of the Jews in the immediate aftermath of the Second Destruction of the Temple by the Romans in 70AD. In fact, the Pharisees believed in the primacy of the Golden Rule and placed the highest value on compassion when seeking guidance from scripture. But every story needs a villain, and the Christians conveniently chose their arch-rivals to fill the bill.

As a way of coping with the loss of the Second Temple, the Pharisees continued and expanded a Jewish tradition of looking for new meanings in texts that might help explain what had just happened, a process called midrash. In applying midrash to texts, one skipped past the literal meaning of the words in search of new meanings, new interpretations that would have relevance to present day issues. In her book, "The Bible: A Biography," Karen Armstrong writes: "The goal was never simply to clarify an obscure passage but to address the burning issues of the day."

This wasn't something the Pharisees invented. The idea of reshaping the texts in the Torah to make them more relevant to contemporary audiences had been going on for centuries; nor were the Pharisees the only ones to look for new meaning in old texts. The new kids on the block, the Christians, also undertook to re-examine the Old Testament to find ways in which it presaged the coming of Christ. So yeah, a great deal of effort was expended on rewriting the Bible to fashion a narrative that would explain what was going on, be it the destruction of the Temple or the arrival of a messiah.

There is no better time of the year than Christmas to contemplate the harsh reality that writers don't let the facts get in the way of a good story. The only verifiable fact is that Christ was indeed born. Pretty much everything else we think of when we think of the Nativity -- the manger, the wise men, the virgin birth -- were written into the plot to create links back to the Old Testament in order to bolster the case for Christ as the messiah whose coming had been foretold.

And yet we cling stubbornly to the myth. Why is that? Maybe for the same reason that Hollywood continues to make movies about Moses, a figure who never existed. We need a narrative that explains the ups and downs of life, that connects us to those who went before us, that gives us hope, that somehow makes sense out a world that very often makes no sense at all. Certainly, there is more comfort to be found in the image of the baby Jesus in the arms of his mother than in the enigma that surrounds the riddle of quantum physics. A theory of everything is all well and good, but it doesn't comfort us when we grieve.

We are only human. We still need our gods. We still need our myths. The day that changes is the day we are no longer human. Some might welcome that day. Some might argue that day is much closer than we like to think, that we are well on the way to engineering our successor species. Will our replacements share a creation myth? Will they long for a redeemer, the great programmer in the sky? Or will they sleep a dreamless sleep and awaken to a world governed by algorithms? I for one am glad I won't be around to find out.

November 11, 2014

Flop

So I'm reading this book about Vietnam. Mostly photos, some narrative. The kind of book you flip through without spending a lot of time reading the text. Until you get to page 106. There you find a photo of a letter written by Jim Hart, who was assigned to the 12th Security Police Squad at the Phu Cat Air Base. He was in the Sentry Dog Section. With his partner Flop, Hart patrolled the perimeter of the Air Base. Like all such teams, they grew very close. Inevitably, there came the day when Hart would leave Vietnam. Hart describes the moment he said good-bye to Flop in a letter he left at the Wall:
I didn't want to leave you behind in Vietnam but I had no choice. I told you where I was going and I know you understood. I know you wanted to go home with me, please forgive me. I thought you'd be coming home someday. Had I had any idea the military had no intention of bring you home I never would have left you. The way you looked into my eyes; I really believe you were reading my mind. Coming home was great, but knowing you were still over there bothered me a lot. All these years, I never knew what had happened to you and there was never anyone to talk to who would truly understand what I was going through.
Anyone who has ever owned a dog knows exactly what Hart is talking about when he says Flop understood that he was being left behind by his master. You've seen that look in a dog's eyes when you are leaving, and you've seen the joy they experience at the moment of reunion. To know that moment will never come, to know there will never be that reunion, to know that you are leaving behind a partner who day after day, month after month, gave you total loyalty, total love ... Jesus Christ, how do you deal with it?

If there was ever a more gut-wrenching description of the cost extracted by a war, I haven't come across it. I read the descriptions of My Lai in that same book and was largely unmoved. Maybe unmoved is the wrong word. My Lai is something I don't dwell on, because you have to be willing to ask yourself if on that day, having gone through what the soldiers of Company C had gone through in the days and weeks leading up to the tragedy ... you have to be willing to ask yourself if you would have stood up or stood by. Anyone who says they have the answer to that question just doesn't get it.

If you are wondering what happened to Flop, what it was that Jim Hart found out, well, it's just what you might think if you imagined the worst possible outcome. Left behind by his master, Flop went from handler to handler, each of whom went home and left Flop behind. Finally, Flop had had enough and refused to work with anyone else. The Air Force put him down.

On this Veterans Day, if you want to think about war and what it does to the people who are caught up in it, then the story of Flop is as good a place as any to start. You come to understand that the war never ends. You leave it behind, but it comes home with you, a feeling of unfinished business that hangs over you for decades. No matter what you did, whether you were a grunt or a cook or a boy with a dog, so much is given, so much is left behind, so many wounds to the heart, wounds too painful to talk about even if you could find someone to talk to. We ask too much. Always, we ask too much.

Flop with Jim Hart
 The book is "Not Yet At Ease: Photographs Of America's Continuing Engagement With The Vietnam War," written by David Chananie.

October 11, 2014

Fifty Years After

An article published today in the New York Times takes a look at the controversy surrounding the effort by the Pentagon to stage a 50th Anniversary Commemoration of the Vietnam War. Which raises an interesting question. How do you commemorate a war that was a mistake, a war whose soldiers were branded as drug-addled losers and baby-killers, a war that was detested by a significant percentage of the population, a war that began with a lie and ended in defeat and chaotic retreat? Somehow, a pat on the back and a "thank you for your service" doesn't seem to cut it.

For that matter, whose war will we commemorate? Is it about the men and women who fought in it, the politicians and generals who got us into it and kept us in it, or the men and women who tried to get us out of it? That debate remains robust, judging by the comments that accompanied the article in the Times.

Most of the attention has focused on the web site, in particular an Interactive Timeline that purports to show the key events of the war. The gist of the objections is that the web site is just another attempt by the Pentagon to write a history of the Vietnam War that glosses over unpleasant events such as the massacre at My Lai and underplays what many people see as critical elements of the story, most especially the scope and impact of protests against the war.

There is some meat in the web site, especially the part called Primary Documents, a work in progress that includes many valuable source documents, including extracts from the Pentagon Papers and key diplomatic reports. Anyone seriously interested in learning the history of the Vietnam War should start there. Personally, I found the Interactive Timeline to be a failed effort, at least in this iteration. It's hard to say this without sounding disrespectful, but the decision to include the citations for every Congressional Medal of Honor winner in the timeline seriously disrupts the flow. Better there should be a separate area that lists all the CMH winners, with links to each citation from the related battle or action in the Interactive Timeline. Equally baffling is the lack of links from the Interactive Timeline to the Primary Documents area.

All that is beside the point. The Vietnam War has always been about more than the war and those who fought it. It was also about the changing times during which the war was waged and the changing attitudes of the American people towards their government. A social revolution became a political revolution as opponents of the war took to the streets to protest our involvement in Indochina. No history of the Vietnam War is complete without that chapter, and therein lies the difficulty with a Pentagon-sponsored history. Even fifty years later, it is clearly hard for the military to give anything more than lip service to a movement that at the time was seen by them as giving aid and comfort to the enemy.

For me, the reasoning behind the program --"to thank and honor veterans of the Vietnam War ... for their service and sacrifice on behalf of the United States and to thank and honor the families of these veterans" -- rings hollow. I'm sorry, but the brutal reality is that the hardest part of being in the Vietnam War was coming home. There was no grateful nation, there were no parades, no flag-waving greeters at the airports. Instead, we Vietnam veterans returned to a decades-long shunning by our peers and by many who served before us. We were the perpetrators of  horrors witnessed night after night, year after year, in the Living Room War. It was there we suffered our greatest defeat.

I had a chat recently with a Korean War vet. I said to him that they were the truly forgotten vets, which he agreed with completely. But all the while I was thinking that there's worse things than being forgotten. If we must somehow commemorate the Vietnam War, then let us do so by facing unflinchingly the hard facts about how we got into the mess, and how we got out of it, and what lessons we learned and have already forgotten. Nothing less will properly do justice to the millions caught up in the war, no matter what side they were on.

October 5, 2014

October Surprise

On October 5, 1968, I left the U.S. of A and headed west -- far west, all the way to where it turns into the Far East -- to begin my tour of duty in Vietnam. In the years after I came home, I would have this vague sense of unease around October, as if I couldn't quite find my bearings or keep focused on things. The shrinks have a name for this: anniversary syndrome. If you think about it, I'll bet you could rustle one up as well.

I am unaffected by it, for the most part. The flame of memory has long ago dampened to a mere flicker. A life has unfolded during the decades after my war ended. Each year pushes the memories further into the vault. But they never quite go away. Somewhere in the deepest part of my brain, nestled among some gnarly old neurons, they wait patiently for their moment to arise.

This year, many things have conspired me to get me thinking about that time in my life. An old friend from college comes for a visit and we go to see the Vietnam Wall. A guy I knew in the 1st Infantry Division gets back in touch after 45 years. Another guy I never met gives me a book about Vietnam. All of a sudden, I'm knee-deep in Big Muddy again, metaphorically speaking, of course.

So maybe it's no surprise that while I was cutting the grass I got to thinking about this guy I knew when I was working at USDA. Vietnam vets rarely talked to anyone about their time in country, and that included other vets. But K. and I worked together and soon enough discovered the big elephant in the room that we both shared living space with.

We would talk, K. and I, or rather he would talk and I would mostly listen.  I had a tour of duty; he fought in a war. My memories were of long shifts in the Tactical Operations Center listening to the war over the radio, spiced with nightly rocket and mortar attacks. His memories were of kicking his way into hooches, M-16 locked and loaded, a shotgun slung over his shoulder, a pistol tucked in his belt, and a knife stashed where he could quickly retrieve it. When he talked of those times, he would get that faraway look in his eyes -- not quite the 1000-yard stare, but close enough to it.

One day he came back from lunch and rushed into my office looking especially wild-eyed. He had been minding his own business when an old lady had her purse snatched. K. chased after the mugger, tackled him to the ground, and proceeded to beat and kick him to within an inch of his life. The cops had to pull him off. I think he was shocked at his own actions, and maybe a little bit scared by it. I tried to talk him through it, but we both knew it wasn't good.

The fact that his personal life was a mess didn't help. He was in a marriage that was doomed by his PTSD, and it didn't help that he was a good looking guy, the kind of guy who drew looks from the girls when he walked into a room. It was such an ego-boost for me when one of them would sidle up to me and want to know who that guy was. Yeah, thanks for asking.

Eventually, things fell apart and K. left town for a new job and a new woman. I never saw or heard from him again. I hope he found a way to live a reasonably normal life, although truth be told, K. always struck me as one of those people destined to live outside the bounds of normal. Then again, I doubt that any returning vet has much luck in finding normal any time soon.

I consider myself to be one of those lucky ones. I have incorporated the good, the bad, and the ugly into a workable 2.0 version of me. It's all good now, except maybe on a crisp October day when the wind blows from the west, the leaves rustle in the trees, and time sends a shiver rolling down my spine and I am that young kid waiting to leave on a jet plane, not  knowing when I'll be back again.

September 23, 2014

1963


If there is a ground zero of my youth, a time when everything changed, then 1963 would be it. In September, I was to begin classes at Georgetown University, the oldest Catholic college in the country. Inspired by the idealism of the New Frontier, I had enrolled in their School of Foreign Service, my hope being to join the diplomatic corps and help President Kennedy save the world. We all know what happened in November of that year, but in June there was another death of equal import. Pope John XXIII, the force behind the aggiornamento aimed at shaking up the Catholic Church, died of stomach cancer, leaving Holy Mother Church in a state of doctrinal uncertainty. The twin pillars of Western civilization -- church and state -- sustained mortal blows in a short period of time, leaving the rest of us dazed and adrift. The dream was gone before I even got started.

That realization came very quickly in the aftermath of the Kennedy assassination. For days we were preoccupied with the events surrounding the funeral. I was at the Capitol when the wagon bearing the coffin made the final turn and stopped in front of Jackie Kennedy and Caroline and John-John. I can sill see them standing alone on the steps of the Capitol. The months and years that followed only increased the feeling of being abandoned by history. What sense did any of it make now? The idea of going out to save the world for LBJ held little appeal. As the New Frontier segued into Big Muddy, the sense of a disconnect between the dreams I had and the reality I was facing increased.

Equally important was the tumult in the Catholic Church. In 1964, Latin gave way to the vernacular, and the altar was turned around to face the people. These were massive changes back then. I won't pretend that I was deeply religious, but like every generation of Catholics before me, I had been indoctrinated with a peasant version of religion at Sunday School that really got inside your head. Much of that was turned topsy-turvy by Vatican II. What little belief remained was further shaken by the Jesuits at Georgetown, who opened my eyes to a more sophisticated and less certain model of theology than was contained in the Catechism. Eternal truths weren't so eternal after all. This fed into the general dynamic of the times: question everything. I guess it was natural that the first thing I would question was my own sense of purpose in the world.

None of this was helpful in terms of my academic pursuits. Georgetown's School of Foreign Service had a very rigorous curriculum, a mandated triple major in history, government and economics, along with intense exposure to theology and a foreign language in the first two years. The fact that I was not a very attentive student didn't help. I was growing in all kinds of different directions back then, and academics was usually of secondary interest to my exploration of life in the big city.

As fate would have it, I managed to scrape by and get a diploma. (How I passed the final trial by fire of oral comprehensives -- a holdover from the Middle Ages that was dropped not long after I graduated -- is a miracle I have never fully understood.) I was lucky enough to make some life-long friends who managed to endure despite the decade-long tidal wave of social and political changes that swept over our generation. As for my education, the best was yet to come.

It's hard to understand the tremendous upheaval of the 60s unless you were raised in the 50s. The foundation of our early lives was the near-total belief in God and the American Way, best embodied in the Pledge of Allegiance we all had to recite as children. One nation, under God. So simple, so comforting, so solid; yet those rocks upon which we were to build our lives would be crushed by the tumbling tide of history in an astonishingly short period of time.

September 19, 2014

Pig Herder

The Great Frederick Fair is an annual ritual in our household, as it is in most households around here. Whether its the food or the animals or the rides or the shows, there is something for everyone. Country and city come together for a week, sometimes with unpredictable results.

A couple of years ago I was at the Fair with my daughter making our annual trek through the animal barns. Cows, sheep, goats, and pigs were held in stalls awaiting judging at their respective competitions. (Yes, Virginia, there is toenail polish for Guernsey cows.) Each animal class has its own show ring, and there are handlers -- usually 4H kids who have raised the animals on their family farm -- to lead them to the ring from the holding stalls.

We were in one such area near the pigs. Now these pigs weigh in at several hundred pounds, so handling them can be difficult. Such was the case that day, as two teenagers were trying to convince two unwilling pigs to move from their stall to the show ring. They were holding half-sheets of plywood as temporary fences to guide the pigs along. My daughter and I were standing nearby, along with a few other adults and children, as the pigs slowly made their way into the ring.

Suddenly, and with surprising swiftness, the two pigs made a break for it, heading straight towards those of us watching. Seeing as how there were children in the area, I decided to try and block the path of the pigs. One of them saw me standing in his way and paused long enough to allow his handlers to regain control and steer the pig into the ring.

The other pig continued on towards me as I backed up against a half-open gate that led out to another area of stalls and from there ... freedom. We both arrived at the gate together, the pig managing to get its head in the opening before I could completely block it. If you have ever felt several hundred pounds of determined pig pressing against you, then you will understand the urgency of the moment. It was man against porker, but truth be told, it was no contest. Rather than risk having my leg crushed or snapped like a twig, I stood aside and watched as the pig trundled off.

To add insult to injury, someone came up and asked accusingly if those were my pigs. My pigs! Jeez. Not hardly, I replied. Do I look like a pig herder? With that, we resumed our sojourn through the animal barns. I later ran into one of the young ladies charged with maintaining order in the pig barns and asked if our errant porker was recaptured. Yes, she replied, although she declined to provide details. With that, I settled happily into retirement from pig herding.

Part of the Big Loop at the Fair Grounds

September 18, 2014

Mother S

 Somewhere around my junior year at Georgetown, I started working at the Safeway -- or as I liked to put it, Mother S: She Feeds Us All -- on Connecticut Avenue, right above Calvert Street, across from the restaurant where I would propose to my wife a few years later. I needed the money to pay for the room I was renting for $40 a month and to buy food to eat. I had worked part-time at a grocery store during high school, so it was a natural fit. I'm not sure how I found the job or how I got there, although in those days, I got around mostly by taxi. Fares were cheap, the rates being rigged to favor the congressmen who mostly lived in the Northwest section of DC. The poorer folks in Southeast and Northeast no doubt paid more.

The swanky Shoreham Hotel--the Beatles booked an entire floor in 1964 during their appearance in DC--was right around the corner on Calvert Street. North on Connecticut were several large apartment buildings that supplied a steady stream of old ladies who would pay for their groceries with money hidden under their mattresses since the New Deal. Paper money was less standardized in those days; many older forms of currency such as silver certificates and U.S. bank notes were still in circulation. I did have one old lady who would try to pay with matchsticks. She would bend them back as if peeling off ones from a money roll. I would gently inform her that we only took money at this store. She would greet this each time as a fresh revelation, then she would put her matches away and fish money out of her change purse. Today she would be in a nursing home. Back then, she was on her own.

I made some good friends while working at the Safeway. There was a group of guys who called themselves the Oxford Otters, after a local bar called the the Oxford Tavern, which was across the street from the National Zoo. My usual role was that of the observer, standing on the edge of the crowd watching the play unfold, so to be accepted as one of the guys was nice. Maybe it was because, like John at the bar, I was always quick with a joke, but there was no definitely place I'd rather be than working with the guys or hanging out at the Ox. (None of this was especially helpful in terms of my academic pursuits at Georgetown, but there is more than one way to get an education.)

Phil was a simple man, an all-American guy who eventually ended up in Vietnam. I hope he made it back. He gave me my first ride on a motorcycle: a 650cc Triumph Bonneville. Heavy metal thunder as good as it gets. I knew at that moment I was born to run, and in fact I did get a motorcycle after I came back from Vietnam. The only rush that ever matched that first ride was my first time on a slick -- the UH-1D Bell helicopter you see in every Vietnam movie--cruising 125 miles per hour over the jungle at tree-top height, turning and twisting with the curves of Highway 1, and nothing to keep you from sliding off the bench and out of the chopper except your ability to weight-shift against the guy sitting next to you.

Joe was a burly Irish kid who, like me, was in college. He had a girl friend, something that up till then had eluded me. He was good-looking and blessed with an easy-going temperament that often kept us out of more trouble than we might otherwise have gotten into. Ron was a tall, thin guy who didn't work at the store, but he was part of the group from high school. He had a way with the girls that they found irresistible, another skill that up till then had eluded me.

Then there was Jack, the youngest of us but in many ways the oldest. As I think back, I can see in his eyes the thousand-yard stare that would become so familiar to me. There was a wildness in him that came from a tough family situation. We were close, or at least I like to think we were. He often said he didn't care about anything, but unlike most of us, he really meant it. When I got to Vietnam, I would think about Jack and not caring about things. It became a way of coping that got me through the war, although not without its own side effects. I hope he survived the sadness, but we all know how scars from childhood linger in the soul.

For me, working at Mother S was an interlude before I got on with my real life. For most of these guys, this was their real life. Whatever the future might hold, right then in that moment we all somehow understood that this was the last time we would have money enough and time enough and  freedom enough to fool around and just have a good time. So, we worked and we hoisted a few at the Ox. Sometimes we would head out to the Campus Club at GW University, where Jack would maybe get into a beer fight with one of the students. One time we went out to this place in the woods one of the guys parents owned. We sat around shooting the shit, drinking beer, and eating Vienna sausages out of a can. God, what fun it was, living the simple life in a world about to go crazy on us.

It ended for me with graduation and then being drafted into the army. I moved back to DC and lived and worked in that area for 30 more years, but I never saw any of those guys again. The last time I went down that way, the Safeway was long gone, as was the restaurant across the street. Time had rubbed out another part of my past, leaving behind only the memories. That's life in the big city.

The Old Location of the Safeway

September 16, 2014

America the Beautiful

October can be an uneasy time for me. Anniversary syndrome seems to be hitting me harder this year, the undertow of the past seeking to pull me deeper than usual into its grasp. Memories claw inside my head, crying to be let out. So I do what any American would do. I get in my car, crank up the Stones and hit the road ... because I'm in need of some restraint, so if you meet me have some courtesy. Clouds hurried along by the breeze, fields turning yellow under an autumnal sun, mountains rising up to kiss the sky.This is America the beautiful. This is a country that's all about breathing room, about second chances, about taking chances. It's what we are all about. Well, it's what we used to be about. Too often lately, the America I see and hear is fearful and timid, frozen up inside. When did we get so fearful that we have to arm ourselves to the teeth? What in the name of God are so many people so afraid of? When did our dreams become so crabbed and pinched that we can't share them with anyone else? When did we stop being risk-takers unafraid to lose everything and start embracing any politician who merely promises to let us keep the crumbs left behind by the rich? When did we forget about being a land of second chances, a land where stranger helps stranger, a land that embraces challenges not runs away from them? The land of Roosevelt and Kennedy and yes, Reagan? When did morning in America become the twilight of the Gods?

On the Road

September 15, 2014

Those Were the Days

If I was to chunk out the first quarter century of my life into broad blocks based on geography, they would be labeled "Cohasset," "Washington, DC," and "Vietnam." The rough draft of the man I am today was first sketched out in those places. Of the three, I would have to say that my fondest memories are of Glover Park, a working class neighborhood occupying the heights north of Georgetown.

I spent my first year at Georgetown University living in the Loyola Dormitory, adjacent to the School of Foreign Service, which at that time was located on 36th Street, between and N and Prospect Streets NW. In my sophomore year, I moved to a house in Glover park owned by a woman named Della, a spindly old lady who rented her basement apartment out to me and a friend of mine named Mike, who hailed from upstate New York. He would still get the local papers sent to him by his folks. A typical story might read: On Sunday afternoon, Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Salvatore visited the home of Mr. and Mrs. Anthony Catanzaro, where they were served coffee. (Does this America still exist?)

In my junior year, I rented a room in a house on Benton Street, which ran east to west from Wisconsin Avenue to Glover Archibald Park. I was introduced to the place by my friend Denny, with whom I would eventually share an apartment on Connecticut Avenue. The house on Benton Street was presided over by Albert J. LePain, a short, slightly bow-legged, balding martini drinker from Massachusetts. Albert was the head waiter at the Madison Hotel, one of the elite hotels in Washington.

Besides Denny, my other best friend was Jack Fitzgerald, a non-student who was a computer programmer, something of an oddity at the time. Other people rented rooms during my tenure there, but they are long-forgotten. It was Fitzie who introduced me to the crowd at the Grog and Tankard, a bar on Wisconsin Avenue run by a woman named Nina. (This was long before the Grog changed to a live-band bar. The place has since closed.)

There's a wonderful old Russian drinking song that begins with these words:  "Once upon a time there was a tavern, where we used to raise a glass or two." That place for me will always be the Grog. I would sit in a booth with Fitzie, who would be greeted by all the regulars as they came through the door. Some would join us as we sipped on our 25 cent beers and maybe a hard-boiled egg we would get from a basket Nina kept on the bar. (Don't knock it if you haven't tried it.)

This was a cast of characters every bit as varied as those in Billy Joel's Piano Man. Sadly, I remember only a few of them. One traveled from city to city setting up convention sites. Another was a chauffeur who would have a beer or two or three while waiting to pick up his party from a night at the Kennedy Center. Herbie would sit at the bar and nod agreeably as he listened to the occasional clueless tourist bemoan the pervasive presence of those gays in DC, never realizing that Herbie was one of them. Presiding over it all was Fitzie, the ringmaster of our little human circus.

It was at the Grog and Tankard where I first spent time with adults who weren't relatives. I listened as they told their stories. Through the laughter came echoes of the losses that had piled up over the years. These were men who had ended up alone, men who gravitated towards places like the Grog, where they could drink in the lonely crowd and relive the dreams they used to have.

Looking back over my own wins and losses, I realize that at no time was I more carefree than when I was sitting in a booth with Fitzie, listening to the stories unfurl. If I could go back to any one time and place, perhaps that would be it. But it doesn't work that way. We are propelled relentlessly forward from cradle to grave, with no way back. Who the hell came up with that system?

Physicists speculate about parallel universes where all our stories unfold in every conceivable fashion, worlds we are forever barred from entering lest the universe come apart at the seams of time. But I doubt those physicists ever spent much time in a place like the Grog, a place where parallel universes converged every night and we all got to live the life we chose instead of the life we got.

This is the first in a series of reminiscences about that time in my life. I beg the reader's indulgence in advance as I let my mind wander among friends and places too carelessly left behind.


Benton Street


September 11, 2014

Life Lines

Palm reading is an ancient art that seeks to unravel the lines of life and fate, head and heart that run through us. Walking with a friend yesterday, I came across these exquisitely intertwined roots flowing over and through the ground, their paths defined by the obstacles they meet as they stitch themselves tightly into the earth. Like a palm reader, I sought in these roots a metaphor for my life and my fate, my head and my heart, their lines determined by roots seen and unseen, woven through time by myself and others. In the end, we become entangled, each root nurturing the other, feeding something beautiful that in its time will flower and bloom.

August 21, 2014

Food Chain

I was out golfing this evening, trying to get in a few holes before dinner. Walking the last couple of fairways, I was surrounded by clouds of some swarming insect. Could have been lightning bugs, I'm not sure. There were hundreds of them crowding the air space in front of me, and I endured several mid-air collisions. All in all, not a pleasant experience, even for someone relatively inured to insects after living for a year in a tent in the tropics.

Suddenly, a monarch butterfly appeared, swooping and diving into the thick of the swarm. Feeding time. It struck me that as long as those swarming insects commune in the the early evening air by the hundreds and thousands, there will be something to eat them. And so life will go on, bigger eating smaller, all the way up the food chain to the apex predator--man, who is busily devouring himself. And when our twilight comes, the insects will still swarm and the butterflies will hunt.

August 19, 2014

Dagwood's Dog

Crosswords have been a part of my routine since my days at Georgetown, when a group of us would work them at Teehan's over coffee and doughnuts. (And yes, we did them in ink. That's how we nerds roll.) Yesterday's puzzle had a clue: Dagwood's dog. The answer came to me instantly, without thinking about it. It struck me how bizarre that was--the ability to recall a minor detail from a comic strip that I hadn't read in decades, this from the same guy often seen wandering aimlessly around the house in search of whatever it was he had forgotten he was looking for in the first place. Can't tell you what I had for dinner two nights ago, but ask me the name of  Dagwood's dog and I'm all over it.

Memory, like most brain functions, is defined and mapped but not really understood. You can look at all the images of synapses and neural networks you want, but you can't hold a memory in your hand. You can't weigh it on a scale or run it though a mass spectrometer. We understand the physical process of memory formation, but I don't think anyone truly understands how electrical pulses and chemicals are transformed into the sound of a song playing in your head or the smell of the yellow raincoat you wore in kindergarten.

Researchers say there are distinctly different types of memory, although how they define those categories depends upon who you are asking. Most models show three stages. We stick our head out the door and feel that it's a bit chilly. That sensory memory is moved into short-term memory, so we don't forget why we went looking for a sweater. Seasons worth of sticking your head out the door are stored in long-term memory. We remember the seasons differently than we remember the dates of the Civil War or how to change the oil in the car. Not all of it works seamlessly. That's why we forget things.

I have come to understand that forgetting is just as important as remembering. When I came home from Vietnam my brain was filled with memories of the sights and sounds and smells of the war. I could hear the artillery and the mini-guns and the B-52 strikes. I could smell the odors of thousands of years of human sweat. I could taste the fear. Eventually, time washed the memories away, just as the waves on a beach smooth away the sand castles we build. If I wasn't able to forget all that, I would be trapped in the war forever.

My goal became to remember as little as possible. The past and the future were ghosts I rarely summoned up. I yearned to live in the eternal present, the way animals seemed to do. Think about it, can you be happier than a dog? Yes, they have their labors and sorrows--nothing that lives is immune to fear or hunger or is not granted the grace of feeling pleasure, no matter how rudimentary--but for the most part they seem to live in the now. I know that is over-simplifying, but that's what it was all about, getting back to the simple life.

I was told once that pain has three components: remembering the pain you felt, thinking about the pain you were going to feel, and the actual pain. Eliminate the first two and you cut the pain down to manageable size. Works for me.

August 11, 2014

Climate Change Unchanged

Anyone who believes that human activities have changed our climate has to be a bit depressed. Very little has been done to stem greenhouse gas emissions. The latest U.N. report says we will have to cut those emissions by 70 percent in order to avoid an increase in average global temperatures of 2 degrees Celsius, which is equal to 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit. Such an increase would make today's extreme weather events look like the good old days they may well prove to be.

The United States remains highly resistant to the idea of climate change. Polls consistently show that two-thirds of Americans don't think climate change poses a serious threat. Five years ago, I compiled a Top-Ten list of reasons why climate change has met such a chilly reception here. On re-reading the list, which is reprinted below, I have to say that little has changed. Well, things have gotten worse, so yeah, there has been change--just not for the better.


Why Climate Change Is A Tough Sell in America


October 2009 – With apologies to David Letterman, I offer up my top 10 reasons why climate change is a tough sell in America.
Climate change is not breaking news. We Americans have grown addicted to stories that sweep over us like a giant wave. Climate change creeps in with the tide.
Climate change is not easy to understand. Weather is what you see out the window today. Climate change is computer models trying to guess what you will see out the window 30 years from now.
Climate change is not easy to explain.  Weather is Al Roker. Climate change is Al Gore.
There is no single plan to rally supporters around. Pretty much everyone agrees that greenhouse gas emissions must be reduced. But which ones, by how much and how soon, through what methods … these are all topics of intense debate.
The pain is here and now; the gain is off in the distant future. Doing something about climate change will cost billions of dollars right now. The ultimate benefit will be a more livable planet 30, 50, 100 years from now.  That’s asking for a lot to be taken on faith.
The human brain is not wired to think in terms of centuries. We pretty much live in the moment. Somewhere between the here-and-now and 100 years from now, we just stop listening.
Future shock rocks. We are being bounced from one crisis to the next like a ping-pong ball in a room full of mouse-traps. Sooner or later, we just reach the point where we just want to pull back into our shells and stop listening.
Resistance is not always futile. Controlling greenhouse gas emissions will cost big business some big bucks. If they can avoid or mitigate that future expense by financing extensive (dis)information campaigns, why not do it? Spending millions today beats spending billions tomorrow. It’s not like the average politician is looking for a reason to believe.
The political process is exhausted. The battle over health care reform has given the political process a severe case of battle fatigue. It remains to be seen how much fight is left in both parties as they try to confront an issue as complicated and contentious as energy reform.
Nation states suck at solving global problems. The world is a bunch of teenagers who have been sent to their rooms. Each room is a nation-state with a big sign on the door that says, “You are not the boss of me.” Collective action does not come naturally or easily at this stage in our geopolitical development. 

Reprinted from Fifty Years of Global Warming, available without charge at all major e-book outlets.

July 21, 2014

My Little Town

Not too long ago, I made a quick visit back to my hometown of Cohasset, located on the shoreline of Massachusetts Bay, about twenty miles south of Boston. The occasion was my older sister's birthday. I have three sisters, but my older sister and I are half a generation distant from my younger sisters, resulting in a tidal pool of memories unique to those years when it was just the two of us.

We spent our childhood on Stockbridge Street, a winding lane just barely wide enough for two cars to pass, dense-packed with houses perched on the rocky outcrops that define New England. Downtown Cohasset was a short walk from where we lived and the weather was free of the oppressive humidity that usually prevailed in early July, so it was natural that we would spend some time during my visit taking in the sights.

As we walked around our old haunts, it struck me that we weren't much concerned with the shops that lined South Main Street or the current residents of Stockbridge Street. Rather, our eyes were focused a half-century back, looking for the town we knew growing up. The present did not much hold our interest that day, other than as a reminder of what once was. We sought instead to locate the metes and bounds of a town no longer visible to the naked eye, a town that lived on only in memory.

Philosophers and scientists struggle to define reality and the passage of time which marks our progress through it.  Einstein wove time and space together into a single fabric -- all there, all the time ... so to speak. Some argue that reality is only a product of our perception. We see what we think we see. Others say that when we aren't looking, reality isn't there ... that the things we think of as real are only there when we perceive them.

Maybe that's how the past works. It's there when you look at it, waiting to be given form by our perception of it. Faulkner wrote that the past isn't dead; it isn't even past. It certainly felt that way as we walked the streets of Cohasset, clusters of memories assailing our senses like the fragrance from the honeysuckle that grew in the field across the street from the house on Stockbridge Street.

It may be true that time only moves in one direction ... forward. But I feel within me different drummers beating to different times. There are moments when I hear the distant beat of days gone by coming through more clearly than the present. Or maybe it's just that I have learned to listen for it, to linger in the moment when the orchestra conductor in my head taps his baton to get my attention and then begins to play a memory I once knew all the words to, but can now only recall the melody. It is enough.

May 29, 2014

Privacy

Two big stories -- Edward Snowden's release of government secrets and Elliot Rodger's deadly rampage in California -- raise serious questions about privacy. Where do we draw the line between our right as individuals to live free from undue governmental intrusion and the rights of the many -- acting through the agency of the government -- to protect themselves from the acts of an individual (or group) intent on doing harm to others?

Maybe the better question to ask is not how much freedom are we willing to give up to feel safe, but how much risk are we willing to take to feel free. That used to be an easier question when violence was mainly the result of criminal activity or crimes of passion. Most of us can live with that level of risk. It gets harder when you throw in cold-blooded attacks that have no basis other than hate, no purpose other than to inflict maximum casualties.

Edward Snowden came to see the electronic spying carried out by NSA as fundamentally unconstitutional. After his attempts to raise questions through channels proved fruitless, he loaded up a few thumb drives worth of sensitive documents and fled the country, where he began the selective release of information aimed at casting light on the extensive nature of NSA's data-gathering operations. Clearly he broke the law, but equally clearly he disclosed a range of activities that have provoked an intense national debate on just how far the government can and should go to gather information that might prevent another terrorist attack.

An equally intense debate has focused on the events leading up to Elliot Rodger's killing spree that resulted in six people dead and several more wounded. This young man was a walking time bomb, no question about it. His family knew it, as did his therapist. Both tried to warn police. But strict laws prevent the detention of an individual merely because he might do something bad. Prosecutors say their hands are tied by the law, which basically puts the decision to declare oneself a danger to society or oneself in the hands of the person under suspicion.

The need for some level of intelligence gathering, electronic or otherwise, seems obvious. And it would be nice to think that anyone mentally ill to the point of being dangerous would somehow be confined to a treatment facility until the danger passed. I remain conflicted on both issues.

Much as I am reluctant to admit it, Snowden's basic contention has merit. He argues that the NSA spying was and is profoundly unconstitutional and that it was his duty and his right to bring it to light. In this case, I think he was right to blow the whistle. That said, secrecy remains a vital part of intelligence work -- their right to privacy, if you will -- and we can't have people willy-nilly deciding that certain secrets shouldn't be kept.

As for the horrors of public mass shootings that seem to come almost daily now, other than the obvious issue of selling guns pretty much to anyone who walks through the door, I have no answers. The situations are as unique and as complicated as our humanity. I think we can all agree that sending cops to do a "welfare check" is clearly not adequate. Putting people in institutions just because we think they might be a danger to themselves or others is a civil liberties nightmare.  Singling out those who seek therapy doesn't seem the way to go, either. Maybe we just need to listen harder to what families have to say. If your own mother thinks you are a danger, then that should tell you something.

In both cases, drawing the line is proving difficult, maybe impossible. Maybe that is as it should be. These are not easy questions, so it is unreasonable to expect easy answers. That won't stop the politicians and the pundits from looking for the perfect sound bite, especially in an election year.

May 4, 2014

Odd Jobs

I was thinking about some of the jobs I had as a kid. My first job was as a caddie. We would haul one or two bags under the hot sun for four hours, all for the princely sum of $2.50 for a single, $5 for a double. We had a caddy shack where the pro would come to assign us work. I'm sure he dreaded looking in there and seeing me as the only one left. Truth be told, I totally sucked at caddying. I could never see where the balls went. I wasn't really strong enough to carry two bags, not to mention that I had to ride my bike several miles to get to the golf course. This would be when I was maybe 12 or 13 years old.

My first real job was working at the local grocery store when I was 16. It started out as a Tedeschis's but was eventually bought out and became a Stop and Shop, at least that's how I remember it. I was paid something like $1.25 an hour to run a register that was little more than an adding machine with a few extra buttons to indicate the department--grocery, produce, meat, whatever. The prices were stamped on the cans, but a lot of them were missing, plus you had to know all the produce prices. Bar codes were not in common use back then. We cashiers just had to know the prices, and I'll tell you, we moved people through as fast or faster than today. Just saying. (I continued doing this in college, working at the Safeway on Connecticut Avenue, a wealthy part of town filled with eccentric people. Don't get me started.)

The summer after I graduated high school, I worked in Boston for an insurance company. My dad knew the Vice-President of the company -- he could have been the President or the Treasurer, I can't remember -- and he got me a job in the billing department, which consisted of a very big room filled on one end with large tables that held thousands of monthly payments from customers and on the other with huge punched card sorting machines presided over by a guy named Jerry. This was pretty high tech stuff for the day. Punched cards were the transitional technology between completely paper-based operations and today's computer-driven business world. The thinking behind the use of punched paper cards was what created today's modern programs.

By far my weirdest job--if you don't count Vietnam as a job--was between freshman and sophomore year of college when I worked as a night janitor for a hospital in Dorchester. For those of you not familiar with the Boston area, Dorchester is really not the kind of place you want to be wandering around alone at night, particularly if you are a white bread boy from Smallville. I took the subway to and from Quincy, getting to work around 6 o'clock and leaving at 11 o'clock.

Two memories stand out. First, I had to clean the rest rooms. I would go into the Men's Room and things would be pretty much okay, the normal results of a day of usage. Then I would do the Ladies' Room. The first time I opened the door, I had a total OMG moment. The place looked like the aftermath of a tornado, paper and trash everywhere. It was like that each time I cleaned it, a real eye-opener. Second, I had to master the buffer, a cantankerous device with a mind very much it's own, something akin to riding a bull. I would grasp the handles firmly, squeeze on the levers that activated it, and the next thing I knew I was bouncing it off the walls. Eventually, I became kinda sorta okay with it, which helped when I went into the Army. You definitely didn't want to be bouncing that puppy off the walls with a drill sergeant anywhere in the neighborhood.

What got me thinking was the casualness with which my parent's dispatched me on these jobs, especially the one in Dorchester. I mean that was a dangerous place, as you would have quickly grasped had you been with me the night I walked the wrong way and ended up on a very dark and very deserted street. I guess my parents had to do that and much more when they were growing up during the Depression. Maybe they were oblivious to the risk, or maybe they understood that without risk you don't grow as a person. I wonder if today's helicopter parents would make the same choice for their kids. I hope so.

May 2, 2014

A New Normal?

At some point, single events become a trend. The dots on a graph form an arrow when you connect them, an arrow pointing the way towards a new normal. You see that the future really is now.

Climate scientists are reluctant to say that we have reached a new normal, but you don't have to be a scientist to feel that our climate has changed, and not for the better. One of the hallmark predictions of climate change is extreme weather. I think we can safely put that one in the "TRUE" column. Epic rainfalls, massive fires, prolonged droughts, polar vortexes, tropical-intensity heat ... you name it, we've had it.

Suppose I'm right. Suppose this is the new normal. What does that mean? Well, the first thing you need to understand is that the climate isn't going to stop changing any time soon. A few decades from now, these will be the good old days. Today's new normal will give way to another new normal that very likely will be worse ... potentially much worse. Weather records have been falling at well, a record rate. That will continue.

And the costs will keep on rising. First, damage from increasingly intense weather events will continue to mount.  Second, at some point we will begin to actually deal with the problem. Coastal cities will get serious about holding the rising seas back. Governments will finally start forcing serious cutbacks of greenhouse gas emissions. New energy sources will need to be developed.

That's the plan for the developed and emerging nations. The poor nations will just get poorer. Millions of subsistence farmers and fishermen will be displaced. God knows how many people will die from starvation an re-emergent diseases. Populations will be on the move. Local wars over ever-scarcer resources will escalate.

What can we do? Given that it's too late and we haven't even done too little, you'd have to believe that it would take a massive shift in attitudes and resources to forestall complete catastrophe in favor of severe dislocations. Scientists keep telling us there is still time to avoid the worst. I'd like to believe that. But ask yourself, is there any sign that governments and the governed are ready to do what it takes?

Policymakers talk of mitigation and adaptation. The mitigation ship has pretty much sailed. That leaves adaptation. This lede from a 2010 article in The Economist pretty much sums it up: "Global action is not going to stop climate change. The world needs to look harder at how to live with it." I would recommend this article to anyone interested in seeing what it will take on a global and local level to live with climate change. And remember, this was written in 2010. It's not like we didn't see this coming.

April 28, 2014

Déjà Vu All Over Again

One person who might benefit from the crisis in the Ukraine is Neville Chamberlain. He has been scorned for his "appeasement" of Germany after Hitler annexed Austria in March 1938. Hitler followed that by stirring up unrest in Czechoslovakia's Sudetenland, all in the name of protecting ethnic Germans, a process that culminated in the Munich Agreement in September of that year, after which Chamberlain declared "peace for our time." By March of 1939 Hitler was rolling through Prague, having taken control of all of Czechoslovakia. Well, it's déjà vu all over again, and the current crop of leaders isn't faring much better than Chamberlain, at least so far.

Chamberlain's big mistake was hoping that Hitler would be satisfied with the Sudetenland. Unfortunately for Chamberlain and the rest of Europe, Hitler had larger ambitions. He wanted to recreate Germany as it was before being sliced and diced by the victors after World War I. First came the annexation of Austria. Then came the seizure of the Sudetenland to protect ethnic Germans. Europe and Great Britain couldn't agree on what to do, their indecisiveness giving Hitler the green light to grab off the rest of Czechoslovakia.

Now we have Vladimir Putin, a man who says he is just looking for a little respect. He bristles at attempts to expand NATO and the European Union into countries that historically have served as a buffer between Russia and Europe. Like Chamberlain, who felt that some of Hitler's concerns in the Sudetenland were justified, I think a lot of people get that Russia doesn't like the expansion of Europe's sphere of influence into adjoining territories. And honestly, when trouble broke out in the Ukraine over just that issue, I don't think anyone was shocked when Putin grabbed off the very low hanging fruit of Crimea, given it's history and strategic importance to Russia.

The big question is whether that will satisfy Putin. Like Hitler, Putin has a grand vision for his country. He talks of rebuilding "historic Russia" and protecting the ethnic Russians in eastern Ukraine. You would think Ukrainians would have had enough of Mother Russia after Stalin starved seven million of them to death. But then again, the current crop of ethnic Russians came to the Ukraine to rebuild the population after Stalin's ethnic cleansing operations and the resulting famines.

So Putin plays a cagey game of lies and distortions, speaking out of both sides of his mouth with a fluency not seen since the days when Henry Kissinger ran the State Department. He treats the legitimate government of Ukraine as if it is an occupying force. He foments unrest while talking peace. In the meantime, caught up in the spirit of bringing back the good old days, pro-Russian Ukrainian separatists have been going after the Jews and the gypsies. I've always felt the typical middle European was just a half-step away from storming the streets with pitch forks and axes.

Like their fathers before them, today's American and European leaders wring their hands and issue stern denunciations. The main strategy seems to be to make Putin's rich friends suffer, in the hope that they will pressure him to ease up. Next will come a war of words on Twitter, no doubt. It's true, the world is in a different place today. We are more global. Russia is more vulnerable to economic sanctions. But history shows that people will eagerly drink the Kool-Aid if they feel they are on a mission to restore greatness. Maybe we should just "friend" Vlad on Facebook. If we give him enough "likes," then perhaps he'll stop being such a grumpy face.

While Putin moves pieces around on the chessboard, we sit and wait for ... what? World War III? Oh no, that could never happen. We are far too advanced for that. Surely, men of reason will surely find a way to appease ... check that ... negotiate a settlement. I'm sure Mr. Putin will not call our bluff and seize eastern Ukraine. And if he does, that surely will be the end of his ambitions. You folks in Poland and the Baltic Sea can go back to your homes. Nothing to worry about here. We will have peace in our time.

April 1, 2014

Climate: No Change

Back in 2009, there was a big UN-sponsored climate change conference held in Copenhagen. All the countries, great and small, would gather round and divvy up the globe into must-do, ought-to-do, and don't-have-to-do lists for reducing carbon emissions. To no one's surprise, the lists varied depending upon perceived national self-interest.

Those who produced the most carbon emissions wanted to do the least. Those on the front lines of climate change -- usually poorer countries relying on the good will of others -- sought immediate action. Emerging nations wanted to avoid anything that might impede their emergence. The conference ended in disarray, with each group blaming the other groups for failing to agree on anything other than to disagree.

Nothing has changed since that conference. Zero progress has been made towards eliminating what scientists decry as the single most significant threat facing humanity. Here is what I wrote in the immediate aftermath of the failure at Copenhagen:
"So where does that leave the rest of us? Pretty much on our own, I’d say. It is every man, woman and child for himself or herself. That can mean ... thinking real hard about what it might be like to live with the kind of problems you get with climate change: people on the move, scarcities of food and water, extreme weather, rising rates of disease."

A recently released U.N. Report entitled "Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability" stresses these same problems, no longer potential but very real. A summary of the report in the New York Times states:
“Throughout the 21st century, climate-change impacts are projected to slow down economic growth, make poverty reduction more difficult, further erode food security, and prolong existing and create new poverty traps, the latter particularly in urban areas and emerging hot spots of hunger,” the report declared.
The report also cited the possibility of violent conflict over land, water or other resources, to which climate change might contribute indirectly “by exacerbating well-established drivers of these conflicts such as poverty and economic shocks.”
... climate change is not just a problem of the distant future, but is happening now.
We are in deep trouble. Nothing has happened to reduce carbon emissions. Nothing has been done to prepare for the human and natural catastrophes that are coming our way. By every measure, things have gotten palpably worse. What was unthinkable just a few short years ago is now looming on the horizon line of our lifetimes.

Governments have let one window of opportunity after another slam shut. At this point, it would take drastic measures to get us to the lesser zone of risk, and there is virtually no political will in sight to make this happen. Instead, governmental leaders at the national level continue to be incapable of dealing with this problem. Local governments are doing what they can, but a problem like global warming requires a global solution.

Meanwhile, we the people must face a hard truth. We are on our own. There really is nothing to do at this point but to begin building our Arks in whatever way seems to make the most sense.

March 13, 2014

Does the United States of America Still Make Sense?

I was listening to a show on NPR about education in Finland. Finland is about the size of Minnesota. Like Lake Wobegon, the Finnish children are all above average, even though they don't start school until the age of 7. Finland consistently outranks the United States in math, reading and science.

Krista Kiuru, Finland's minister of education, talks about the "Finnish way," which includes day care and  preschool for every child under 7. This isn't a goal; it is a right, guaranteed under Finnish law. And the preschool teachers are college graduates who teach a curriculum which meshes exactly with Finland's National Curriculum Guidelines. We are talking horizontal and vertical integration to a degree unknown in this country, where textbooks are still determined by what the Texas State Board of Ed deems to be suitable. Really?

Okay, so the Finnish people pony up a bundle in taxes to pay for this. That would turn off a lot of Americans. But I'll bet there are some folks out there, especially parents just starting their families, who think this looks pretty darned good.

Could it happen here in America? Not a chance. No way, no how is Congress ever going to pass such a national system. Free day care? Free preschool? Seriously? And you got this idea while listening to NPR? Okay, next!

This got me thinking. What if we weren't a United States of America? What if were were a union of several totally autonomous regions, countries, area, ... call it what you want? Don't you think that the folks up in New England might be interested in the Finnish way? Ar maybe the Left Coast?

Suppose were weren't one big tent of a country? Suppose we were a territory consisting of geopolitical divisions that reflected a much higher degree of consistency than we have today? To some degree we have this with our system of states. But we also have the supremacy clause, which says that the Federal government prevails in any clash between Federal and state policy.

Then there is the matter of scale. Some states are as big as countries, granted, but there are smaller states who would benefit from confederation with like-minded bigger states. Somewhere between E pluribus and unum, there has to be a sweet spot: just big enough to be able to support the wishes of the populace, but just small enough to ensure a high degree of homogeneity in terms of political philosophies.

I'm not saying we would eliminate entirely the concept of a Federal level of government. I think of it as more of a tweak to the system, which after all was created in vastly different times and circumstances. Remember, that the country envisioned by the founding Fathers was the thirteen colonies along the Eastern seaboard, not an empire that spread from sea to shining sea. So yeah, I could still see a role for the Federal government, but one perhaps more strictly limited to the original intent, defense and certain common issues that require cooperation across internal boundaries.

This begins a series of pieces exploring this thought to its logical or illogical conclusion. For now, just ask yourself this question: When you first got what I was driving at, was your reaction "Hell, no" or "Hmm." I'm betting that there are some aspects of this idea that have an appeal, be it education or the environment, or the  business of business.

Or maybe this is just another way of exploring the dysfunctional nation we have become, bacause that is exactly what we are. The good old U.S. of A., the country that got things done, has become gridlock central. If we don't do something about it soon, we will end up on the ash heap of history, just like other failed empires. Think it couldn't happen? Think again.

February 13, 2014

Mass Murder

Elizabeth Kolbert, who writes for The New Yorker, has published an important new book with a very simple message: we humans are killing the planet. Literally. This message is not something we want to hear, but it is one we will have to learn to live with.

THE SIXTH EXTINCTION: An Unnatural History examines the notion of extinction, which turns out to be a surprisingly recent concept. Thomas Jefferson fully expected Lewis and Clark to find mastodons roaming the wild west. The assumption was that God's creations were permanent. It wasn't until 1796 that scientists were persuaded otherwise by the work of the French naturalist Cuvier.

Modern research has documented five previous periods of mass extinction, defined as the loss of a significant part of all life on the planet in a relatively short period of time. Some are due to external events, most famously the 6-mile wide meteor that struck earth about 65 million years ago. Others are attributed to lava flows, glaciers or earlier bouts of global warming.

Extinctions are nothing new. What is new and different about the sixth extinction is that it is man-made. Climate change due to global warming is a huge factor, especially for marine life. But so is the impact of 7 billion people competing for habitat. The heavy footprint of mankind on the planet is crushing out competing life forms at a rate far above normal -- by one estimate, 10,000 times the natural rate in the tropics. Fifty percent of all living species are facing possible extinction by the end of this century.

Cities spread relentlessly across open land and into the oceans and rivers. Forests are destroyed to feed our ever-growing appetites for animals, vegetables, and minerals. And you can add illicit drug growers to the list of forest killers as well. Ships carry invader species to fertile new hunting grounds; Kolbert writes that supertankers move an estimated 10,000 species a day around the world. Diseases are spread among animals with the same devastating effects as any global flu pandemic on humans. Our pathetic quest for longer sexual arousal has brought several species to the brink of extinction.

Life prospered when the exchange of carbon and oxygen was mastered over millions of years. Now we use the atmosphere as the dumping ground for billions of tons of carbon generated through the burning of fossil fuels and cement production. About half of that carbon returns to the sea, where it makes the water more acidic, with devastating effects on coral and the phytoplankton that make up the bottom rung of the ocean's food chain.

None of this is breaking news. Those of us who see climate change as a clear and present danger -- we're dismissed as global warming alarmists by those who deny its existence -- have been sounding the warning bell for several decades now. Politicians like to deal with difficult issues by pushing them off into the future, so it's no surprise that governments have largely ignored the warnings on climate change and over-population, choosing instead to burn our fossil fuel candle at both ends while paying lip service to reform. But the future has a nasty habit of arriving when we seem to least expect it. And by the time we figure out that the future is now, it is usually too late to alter whatever fate has in store for us.

I have always maintained that if you want to judge fairly who is right about the impact of climate change and human population growth on the planet then don't ask a pundit or a politician or even a scientist. Seek out instead the birds overhead or the beetles underground or the fish in the seas or the wildlife that live on the mountains and the plains.

They have no political agenda. They belong to no party. They merely do what they have to do to adapt to a changing environment .... or they die. And right now they are dying in record numbers. That's on us. The only question is when we will join the roster of the sixth extinction, for make no mistake about it, that is where we are headed. We are killing the planet that supports all life, including ours. We instinctively turn away from that thought, confident that we can trick Mother Nature one more time, but sooner or later it has to catch up with us.

Kolbert quotes Pope Francis during an interview. I'll give his entire quote here:
I wish to mention another threat to peace, which arises from the greedy exploitation of environmental resources. Even if ‘nature is at our disposition’, all too often we do not ‘respect it or consider it a gracious gift which we must care for and set at the service of our brothers and sisters, including future generations’. Here too what is crucial is responsibility on the part of all in pursuing, in a spirit of fraternity, policies respectful of this earth which is our common home. I recall a popular saying: ‘God always forgives, we sometimes forgive, but when nature – creation – is mistreated, she never forgives!’.
I'll close with another quote, this one from Loren Eiseley, another great writer and explorer of the natural world: “If it should turn out that we have mishandled our own lives as several civilizations before us have done, it seems a pity that we should involve the violet and the tree frog in our departure."

February 6, 2014

A Hard Winter

Geese float down from the sky in wavering V formations, their raucous honking filling the air with discordant riffs worked out over millions of years. They settle onto a nearby field and work in silence, gleaning the remnants of last year's corn crop through a thin layer of crusty snow.

It's been a hard winter. One storm after another. Last week's was spun out of a polar vortex, bitterly cold air that produced light powdery snow perfect for skiing and shoveling. This week's storm carried in moister air from from the tropics that made for large flakes that quickly aggregated into dense-packed snow that pulled against the shoulders as you tried to lift the shovel ... what folks call a heart attack snow. We are expecting another by the end of the week. And another after that.

I think back to childhood days in New England, when winter routinely came and stayed for long visits. I remember the intense silence of wintry landscapes, where the only sound was of dripping water thickening into icicles that would hang like fruit, waiting to be plucked. Bundled up from head to toe by harried mothers eager to get the kids out of the house, we run out and quickly gather up small bits of snow on the end of our woolen mittens and delicately lick at it with outstretched tongue. Then we would confirm that it was cold by studying the mist that formed when we exhaled the warm air from our lungs in large puffs. Dry snow crunched underfoot as we pulled our sleds back up the hill for another run. Snow-covered marshes and fields stretched out to a horizon that drew a sharp line across a clear blue sky that seemed as endless as winter itself.

The child is grown ... the dream not quite gone. For all of the aggravations of winter, there is a beauty in the stillness of the silent snow before which the universe surrenders. Coming home last night, I looked across a nearby farm to a line of ice-covered trees at the foot of the mountain, forming waves of delicate white fans glowing softly in the fading afternoon light, a Japanese print come to life ... ineffable beauty as fleeting as the melting ice that would soon be gone.

Geese Under a Winter Sky


January 21, 2014

Fleeing the Draft

On this day in 1977, newly elected President Jimmy Carter issued a nearly blanket pardon for all those who had fled the country to avoid being drafted during the Vietnam War. Out of slightly over 2.2 million draftees, about 100,000 chose to flee to Canada. It certainly crossed my mind at the time.

I was a college graduate and could have chosen the more genteel version of draft dodging known as grad school. Or I could have gotten married and had a kid. Neither of those options was available or viable, nor did I have any interest in pursuing them.

So yeah, I did think about going to Canada ... but not for long. My thought was that if I fled to Canada I would be stuck there for life, a fugitive from the law, never able to return to see my family except under clandestine circumstances. In a very real sense, I would be under the control of the Army for the rest of my life.

I decided I would rather roll the dice and take my chances on a tour of duty in Vietnam and be done with it one way or another, rather than flee to Canada and always have the shadow of being caught and sent to prison hanging over me. It was a "Live free, or die" moment, I guess you could say. Of course, like most folks who spout that well-known phrase, I pretty much stopped at the "Live free" part, not really considering the  "or die" aspect of the bargain.

Truth be told, I was not all that unwilling to go to Vietnam. Patriotism had nothing to do with it. I was curious, plain and simple. I grew up in the shadow of WWII and had read a lot of the books and seen most of the movies. I wanted to see for myself what it would be like. I wanted to see what I would be like.

I never regretted my choice, just as I never begrudged those who chose not to go. The year I was drafted -- 1968 -- was maybe the last year the war seemed even remotely plausible as an undertaking. If you were sitting around the house in 1970 or 1971 waiting for your draft notice, the choice of dying in what was clearly a lost cause or running for your life was kind of hard to ignore.

President Carter's decision to issue a blanket pardon was controversial, even though President Ford had also offered a more limited pardon. The traditional veterans groups like the VFW and the American Legion were bitterly opposed. Arguments were made that if we do this we would never be able to depend on conscription in the future. Those folks misunderstood the mindset of those opposed to the war and they underestimated the patriotism of that and future generations.

The problem was not with our patriotic instincts. The problem was with leaders who led the country into a war that ultimately had no demonstrable connection to our national security. Give us a reason that is persuasive, show us a clear and present danger ... folks will respond. Just look at how we answered the call after 9/11. Hell yes, I would have gone.

But then look equally hard at what happened as it morphed into a nation-building exercise in bringing democracy to tribal and religious cultures that had little experience and even less interest in it. But that's another story. Or maybe it's the same old story.

January 5, 2014

The Big Chill

An Arctic air mass has settled over the entire mid-section of the country, bringing with it the coldest temperatures in 20 years, up to 30 degrees below zero in the upper mid-west. Donald Trump and Rush Limbaugh have led a chorus of deniers who have taken great delight in pointing to these record cold temperatures as proof positive that global warming is a false alarm. And let's not forget those climate change scientists who got stuck in the ice in Antarctica. Uh, guys, here's a news flash: climate change does not mean the end of the seasons. We will still have winter. So, yeah, it's going to get cold, especially in Antarctica. But guess what? A very long and very hot summer is coming, maybe a whole lot sooner than we thought.

The confusing thing about climate change is that there are a lot of different things that affect climate, the introduction of massive amounts of greenhouse gases being but one, albeit a big one. For example, scientists are still puzzling over the role clouds play. Depending on the assumptions used, clouds can either retard or accelerate the warming process. The latest thinking is that the cloud cover will diminish as we move towards the next century, resulting in even higher temperatures because clouds have a cooling effect, so fewer clouds means less cooling.

This gibes with what I have been seeing more often: scientists are finding that as they refine their models, the results more often than not show that earlier estimates of the pace of climate change have erred to the low side. In fact, it seems that climate change is coming at us faster and harder than we thought even five years ago. One thing is indisputable: levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere are still climbing and governments aren't doing squat to address the problem. Okay, so that's two things.

Look, it's not that the world is going to end. But the living conditions of millions of people have and will continue to take a turn for the worse. Rising sea levels threaten most of the world's mega-cities: Boston, New York, Miami, San Francisco,New Orleans, Tokyo, Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Calcutta, Shanghai, Mumbai, Tianjin, Bangkok, Ho Chi Minh City ... even a slight rise in sea level will result in huge losses. Throw in extreme weather events and you have costs that significantly affect the world's GDP or gross domestic product, a common measure of a country's wealth.

A recent paper suggests that the tipping point --  when the average temperature of a location's coolest year will be greater than the average temperature of its hottest year between 1860 and 2005 -- could come as early as 2020 under a business-as-usual scenario. New York City could hit the wall about 2047. The best case scenario delays the increasingly inevitable until  2069 or thereabouts. Think about that. We are not talking about some remote time in the future. We are possibly talking 50 years from now.

My bottom line remains the same. The train has left the station. Given the current levels of carbon emissions and the potential from other, even more potent greenhouse gases such as methane that will be released in larger quantities as the ice melts ... if you combine that with the continued lack of significant action on the part of world governments, then you get a lethal chain reaction of cause and effect that is about to pass a tipping point of no return.

I won't be around to see it, but my children likely will be. Certainly my grandchildren will be right in the middle of it. Things will be worse in ways we can easily predict, but maybe better in ways we can't see right now. There are always winners and losers in anything ... the trained and the untrained, the prepared and the unprepared. Which will your children and grandchildren be?