Old Well: UNC Chapel Hill Campus

Saturday, December 31, 2011

New Year reflections

Can you believe another year is gone?

And quite a year it was. I lost three of my heroes: Kevorkian, Jobs, and Hitchens.

Key world happenings included the Arab Spring, setting in motion regime change in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, in turn, inspiring protest in Syria and Russia and leading to the founding of our own Occupy Wall Street movement.

European economies experienced unprecedented strains, with Greece, Ireland, Spain, Portugal and, now, Italy facing fiscal default, with potential to affect global markets and renew recession.

In Washington, Congress saw itself embroiled in unprecedented partisan conflict over government spending and revenue sources.

In December, the last American combat troops withdrew from Iraq, bringing an end to America's nearly decade long war.

Some things didn't change at all:

In the Middle East, Iran, by all informed accounts, continued efforts to achieve a nuclear bomb.

Here at home, our economy remained enmeshed in stagnancy, with markets weak and millions unemployed.

At the personal level, we had a joyful event in the marriage of Matthew, my step-son, to Meredith in a lovely September wedding at a horse ranch, with the foothills of Sonoma County, CA, as its backdrop.

Last January I began this blog. Now, nearly, a year later, it has somehow survived.

I hope good things happened for each of you as well.

For me, entering into a new year always has this spooky edge to it, given our inability to know its events, doubtless a good thing. The idea should be to live with the flexibility of trees, flowing with rather than against life's winds. We can just maybe push a new year in a direction more to our liking, choosing to act rather than react.

To be sure, 2012 will see another presidential election, dooming us to ubiquitous sound bites orchestrated to manipulate voter trust. As I write, I foresee a third political party, led by Ron Paul; the nomination of Romney to oppose Obama; and a decisive victory for the latter. The health of our economy will prove the defining issue.

I think most of us are likely to view the passage of a year with mixed feelings. Hopefully, we came out on top in 2011.

A new year, on the other hand, can help rekindle our hope it will conclude better than the one we relinquish. If humans possess any nobility, it includes its capacity for buoyancy, the fervency to take resolve to somehow compensate for the previous year's follies of external events and our own inertia. After all, life is hardly all fate and conspiracy, caprice and malice, or simply a throw of the dice.

The poet Tennyson expresses my sentiments, and I think yours, in these memorable lines from In Memoriam. I wish each of you the New Year's best.


Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky,
The flying cloud, the frosty light;
The year is dying in the night;
Ring out, wild bells, and let him die.

Ring out the old, ring in the new,
Ring, happy bells, across the snow:
The year is going, let him go;
Ring out the false, ring in the true.

Ring out the grief that saps the mind,
For those that here we see no more,
Ring out the feud of rich and poor,
Ring in redress to all mankind.

Ring out a slowly dying cause,
And ancient forms of party strife;
Ring in the nobler modes of life,
With sweeter manners, purer laws.

Ring out the want, the care the sin,
The faithless coldness of the times;
Ring out, ring out my mournful rhymes,
But ring the fuller minstrel in.

Ring out false pride in place and blood,
The civic slander and the spite;
Ring in the love of truth and right,
Ring in the common love of good.

Ring out old shapes of foul disease,
Ring out the narrowing lust of gold;
Ring out the thousand wars of old,
Ring in the thousand years of peace.

Ring in the valiant man and free,
The larger heart, the kindlier hand;
Ring out the darkness of the land,
Ring in the Christ that is to be.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

No, I will not give-up my computer!

I smile every time I read something about simplifying our lives, conveyed online, usually on a blog, harping on Zen or the like, yet dependent on high tech. That's not to say I don't admire writer Wendell Berry, who eschews TV and computers, writes everything out, since he practices a consistency I admire, though choose not to practice. I may admire Thoreau, but I'm not for building a cabin in the woods or begging the Amish to show me in. I will not give up my computer.

Can you imagine a world without the computer? Actually, I can't do it, as it's become a staple of my daily life with its untold benefits. I think it's probably the same for you. This holiday season, for example, we've been able to Skype with our children on the West Coast, and for free. I don't know about you, but we did our Christmas shopping all online. Smiles come to our faces every time we drive past our biggest mall with its jammed parking.

If we want quick info, there's Google or Wikipedia.

Want to find a good movie, starting times, prices, you've got it.

Want to stick around the house instead, then you can stream that movie right into your computer, iPad, or television.

Get a reserved seat for a concert or sports event? No problem.

Like a good book or music album? At your finger tips.

Like to travel and at the best fares? Good lodging? Car rentals? Try Orbitz, Expedia and the like, or go direct to the airlines themselves.

Me, I'm a news buff and draw on my iPad for my daily fix.

Computers are also changing the way we learn, and present in virtually every school. Computers are making college accessible for millions, especially working adults. As a retired educator, I know this area first hand, having taught several courses online.

When it comes to having a bit of fun, it's exciting to play scrabble, chess or bridge with others across the globe; or in your privacy, play mind games such as Sudoku, WhirlyWords, and Ladder; do crossword puzzles, or for just sheer fun, have a go at Angry Birds. No need for guilt here about wasted time. Medicine increasingly tells us that playing these games keeps our minds young, our reflexes nimble, and may even ward off dementia.

Some say computers are lessening our social contact. Unfounded in my book, what with Facebook and Twitter, along with countless chat sites offering a wide range of interests. I ride an MP3 500 Piaggio scooter. Sure enough, there's a forum dedicated to my scooter. Believe me, I couldn't ride without it.

Time Magazine has just selected "The Protestor" as its annual person of the year for 2011, a year that began with the Arab Spring and the subsequent collapse of entrenched tyrannies in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya; incipient revolts in Syria and in Russia; and in our own country, the groundswell of the Occupy Wall Street phenomenon. All of these dynamic, history shaping movements have been, and are, energized by the Internet's capacity to publicize and coordinate universally in mega seconds. Isolating us? I think not.

I like languages and I'm crazy about Spanish. With a computer, I can now listen, read, and share one of the world's most spoken languages.

And let me not forget my being able to blog with you guys out there across the globe, a number of you responding via Twitter. By the way, my largest number of readers next to Americans, happens to be those of you in Russia, followed by Germany. The Internet makes this togetherness possible, and I rejoice in my new brothers and sisters.

If you asked me what I thought was the greatest of tech break-throughs, I'd be hard-pressed. They all build on each other: Gutenberg's movable press, widening reader access; the steam engine, ushering in the Industrial Revolution and leading to railroads and, eventually, to cars and trucks; the typewriter, electric light, radio, telephone, TV. Don't forget the airplane. How about the miracle of movies, today's primary art form? The list goes on. I can't really say which has been the most ground-breaking, but I do know computers, enhanced by the World Wide Web and its HTML linkage, has made all of us players in the modern landscape.

Gotta go now. Got emails to send out!


Monday, December 26, 2011

America's assault on walking

Whatever happened to the good old activity known as walking? Doubtless the ease in using a car to get where you want to go is its principal cause. Add to the list, our addiction to television. According to the American Time Use Survey (June 2011), the average American watches TV nearly three hours a day. It's just so much easier after working all day to adopt the couch-potato route.

I don't know about you, but in America we walk so seldom that sometimes I have this paranoia about it akin to the way I feel when I bring cloth bags to the grocery store as a gesture to keep things green. Hey, am I the only guy doing this thing? What am I, some kind of goon? Hey, stop your staring!

But, then, walking can prove quite hazardous these days. Here in Lexington, Ky, we've lost several pedestrians to cars over the last several weeks, people simply trying to cross the street. Guess you don't have to ride a motorcycle to invite danger. Looking for an adrenal rush? Can't beat walking! In 2009, The National Highway Traffic Safety Board reported that some 4200 of our fellow citizens were bumpered into eternity, another 59,000 injured.

Doctors nonetheless frequently recommend walking as part of the health regimen, say 30-minutes five days a week minimum; and, oh, emphasis on vigorous. Strolling just doesn't cut it. Damn! Why do they have to weigh me down with still more guilt?

I don't know how it goes in Europe these days, but I have memories as a student there walking with European friends distances measured in hours, not miles. How far is it to Magdalen (an Oxford college). Answer: about a half-hour. I so hope the American paralysis, already widespread over there, has exempted walking.

It wasn't like this for me as a kid. In Philly, we didn't have this yellow funnel showing up at your door. I walked to school day-in and day-out over a mile going and coming in all kinds of weather and through all kinds of danger (not necessarily of bumper mode). I was hit by a car once, but I take responsibility for that, a 10-year old jay-walking kid not looking both ways.

On days off from school, I mean days I took off as a hookey addicted kid, I'd easily rack up miles that would test the limits of any pedometer, scouting the sites of the downtown city. On several occasions, I'd even venture walking over the Ben Franklin Bridge to Camden, NJ, no mean feat as any Philadelphian can tell you.

Just maybe behind our growing aversion to walking lies a value shift, or preference for insularity over the great outdoors. Gone are the porches that once fronted American homes. Today we prefer our stadiums domed, our shopping in sequestered malls. We ride around in our cars with windows rolled-up. Blame it on the rise of air conditioning, if you will, but the plain fact is we venture out less.

Even our children. When I was a kid, I couldn't wait to gulp down breakfast and get to the good stuff like playing stick ball against factory facades in urban streets. Nowadays, more often than not, many of us have to oust our kids from their rooms, away from keyboards, video games, and cell phones, thrusting them outside. On a summer day, our streets resonate a Stephen King air of eery quiet in their absence of children. Where are the Jonnys and Susys riding their bikes, running down the street, playing hop scotch or jumping rope? Where have all the children gone? Long, long time ago.

For the few of us still mustering that evening walk, the same solemn emptiness as evening huddles in street corridors and, everywhere, a blue light emanating from house windows.

Our aversion to walking extends even to what wilderness remains. We want roads. We want even more of them so we can look out from our metal cages, while enjoying the boon of instrument panels that can nullify outdoor temperatures. As adults, we take our insularity with us in an umbilical cord of laptop, smart phone, and iPad. Our assault on walking is simply a facet of our declaring war on the great outdoors. We want our gadgets with us in our tents.

Now the wilderness is one thing. What we really prefer are parking lots. The idea is to park close and keep the motor running.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

On life's caprice

Guest editorial: Karen Joly

My wife, Karen, wrote this piece yesterday and I suggested she allow me to publish it for our blog readers. I think she speaks to many of us of life’s whacky incertitude and our need to get on with life each day in the here and now. RJ

A 22 year old Texas A&M football player was killed Thursday when he swerved to avoid a vulture in the road and ran into an 18 wheeler head-on. He had, earlier in the day, been with his teammates as they delivered packages to the needy.

I am over twice his age and yet I think about how short a time my 58 years seem...how I have articles of clothing or even pots and pans that are older than he will ever be..and it comes to me that, in the grander scheme of this planet's history, how minuscule, how truly fleeting our lives are.

Why did this kid, Joseph, only get 22 years? Why have I made it safely to 58 thus far? And then there's Dad. Saturday he will be officially just eight years shy of the century mark. Granted, some days he barely knows what's going on, but he still "is."

I delude myself daily with some false sense of security, avoiding the reality of my own mortality, a denial born out of my fear of winking into oblivion as those who have gone before me: Mother, all my grandparents, Steve Jobs, Elizabeth I, Aristotle, and billions of nameless others who left this world, some after mere seconds, some beyond a century...all of them gone nonetheless.

See, I love life. Beats the alternative. In fact, I'd give anything to spend every day that is left to me doing what I did this afternoon: riding a saddlebred around the arena...walking, trotting, and cantering until my toes are numb, my arms fatigued, my legs absolute rubber. I may have been riding only nine years, but I can say without hesitation that life would suck worse than a two-bit whore if I had to give it up.

Also, I love my life with RJ. He is a good, kind, fiercely loyal man. He is hardheaded, passionate, and spoils me rotten. In our 18 years of marriage, we have enjoyed more fun times than not...and I look forward to as many more as good fortune will allow us. (Because that's what it is after all: fortune...fate...chance...metaphorically, a roll of the dice.)

Though I'll take what I can get, the Karen model comes with this caveat: Driver is highly competitive and exceedingly greedy.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Time for a third party?

And so the defiant uprising of House Republicans has come to its whimpering end, as I predicted in my previous post. Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell played a big part in this turnabout, publically decrying the House stance. President Obama would allude to the senator in his plea yesterday afternoon for House Republicans to accept compromise with the Senate version. A repentant Boehner now admits recalcitrance wasn't the wisest thing for House Republicans. I will put it more bluntly: setting up a Rubicon was just plain dumb, ironically casting Republicans into a pro-tax increase faction while making Democrats look like the party of the 99 percent.

I think the fallout likely to linger, with Republicans generally perceived as a special interest constituency catering to Wall Street, this despite overwhelming Republican support in the Senate for a two month extension. The average Joe Citizen is governed more by impressions than specifics.

What we really need is a viable political alternative. For years, it used to be that the two major parties simply functioned as mirror images, until a robust Conservative versus Progressive alternative began to emerge in the late 60s. Now the choice is again diluted, this time by ideological purists who make it folly for most of us to vote for them.

I think it's high time for a potent third party to give Americans a true option. This third party could be parented by disaffected moderate Republicans. Yes, they really do exist. The history of third parties is that they can't win. Still, they often serve their purpose in influencing the major parties. They can also be spoilers, venting their dismay, and denying incumbency, as happened in 1992 with the defeat of Bush senior, not because of reneging on his "read my lips" pledge not to raise taxes, but because of Ross Perot's entry into the race, siphoning off 18% of the vote. This made possible the election of Bill Clinton, with less than 50% of the vote. History would repeat itself in 1996, with Perot again entering the race.

In 2012, a viable mainstream candidate could actually win as opinion polls continue to show widespread disaffection with the Washington entrenched of both parties, including our President. Here the going gets rough. Just who would lead that third party? I'm open to our putting our heads together. There's still time.

I know one thing: America needs a hero. Hey, where's Josiah Bartlet when you need him?

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Theater in D. C.: political impasse once again


Those of you who keep up with the news are aware of the House Republican leadership’s torpedoing the Senate’s recently passed legislation allowing for a two month continuation of the payroll tax, unemployment insurance, and an increase in Medicare reimbursement fees for doctors. It waited until the Senate adjourned for the holidays to turn up the heat in getting a bill more to its liking in its severer aspects, contending a one year extension is less disruptive to the market place.

Although House Speaker Boehner has announced the appointment of eight House Republicans to serve on a compromise committee to work out the differences, Senate Democrats appear unwilling to return to Washington to secure an agreement by year’s end. The House had passed its own version on December 13, but it included several controversial measures including provisions for financing the legislation.

In fairness to House Republicans, however, the House passed bill called for a one year extension of the payroll tax cut and unemployment benefits, which President Obama had also called for. It also preempts a 27% Medicare reimbursement cut for doctors through 2013, or a two year extension.

The bottom-line behind the Republican action in the House lies in the under reported details of the House version.

Key aspects of the House passed bill:

Blocks the EPA from imposing new restrictions on industrial boilers.

Requires the President approve the Keystone XL oil pipeline with 60 days, unless he declares the project as not serving the nation’s interests.

Requires a freeze on he pay of civilian federal employees through 2013.

Raises fees charged by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac for mortgage insurance.

Eliminates Medicare coverage for preventative medical care.

Raises Medicare premiums for retirees exceeding $80,000 income, which would include social security and pensions.

Prevents illegal immigrant parents from collecting child tax credit refunds.

Cuts off food stamps and unemployment benefits for the wealthy.

In short, House Republicans desire a fuller implementation of their bill’s provisions. Its foot-dragging is, doubtless, a throwback to the November, 2010, election that replaced many incumbents with militant Tea Party devotees, who feel they must fulfill their mandate to the electorate.

To do so, they are willing to resort to brinksmanship.

Likely outcome:

Despite only a ten day countdown remaining and the usual media stint for promoting a worse case scenario, I am confident the House and Senate will resolve their differences. I take the speaker’s defiance to be simply theater. Do Republicans really want to risk the fierce censure of the American public come January 1 and new elections?

House Republicans have gotten themselves into a corner in their back-room tactics, to say the least. The danger is that they may choose to save face rather than reconcile with their Senate colleagues, which includes many Republicans.

While we may not always like it, good politics often calls for pragmatic approaches to secure the welfare of the people, not the narrow interests of ideologues callous to the suffering of millions of their citizenry.

Do House Republicans dare to go there?

Do they dare to repeat by their actions Marie Antoinette’s damning dictum: “Let them eat cake”?

I think not.

Measures, complicated to be sure, nonetheless exist to save face and resolve the crisis. A settlement will be reached, though even then, not to everyone’s liking.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Quiz on American presidents

Quiz on our Presidents?

We're all human, even our Presidents, of whom there have now been 44 in our brief appearance on the world scene. Let's have a little fun and see how much you know about some of them. My answers come at the end. Be patient. Don't cheat.

1. Which president spoke to his wife in a foreign language to avoid others from listening in? Extra credit: which language?

2. Which president liked telling racist jokes?

3. Which president formerly served as a public executioner?

4. Which president was known for his high pitched, squeaky voice?

5. Which president hated cats and would shoot them?

6. Which president was our shortest?

7. Which president killed a man and never served a day?

8. Which president had a different birth name?

9. Which president spoke with a lisp?

10. Which president couldn't stop running to the outhouse?


1. Herbert Hoover. He and his wife were both fluent in Chinese, having resided in China during the Boxer Rebellion.

2. Woodrow Wilson. He was considered an excellent mimic.

3. Grover Cleveland. While sheriff of Erie County, NY, in the 1870s, he twice put the noose around the condemned and sprang the trap door.

4. Abraham Lincoln.

5. Dwight Eisenhower. In his retirement, He would shoot stray cats at his Gettysburg farm.

6. James Madison. He was 5'4". Our tallest? Abraham Lincoln and Lyndon Baines Johnson at 6'4".

7. Andrew Jackson. He had killed a man in a duel, surviving his own wounds.

8. Gerald R. Ford. He was originally named after his biological father, Henry Lynch King, who abandoned his family.

9. John Adams. He refused to wear dentures.

10. James K. Polk. He suffered from chronic diarrhea and would die from a bowel disorder.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Christopher Hitchens: a great heart stops

I woke up around 3 AM this morning, not unusual for me as I grow older and sleep less. When I do, invariably I resort to my iPad, usually tapping on the BBC news. I was saddened at the banner headline announcing the death of Christopher Hitchens from pneumonia as a complication of esophageal cancer. He was just 62.

I came upon Hitchens late, starting to read him, hit and miss, about 10-years ago. I never read any of his columns in Vanity Fair where he wrote monthly. I did, however, read several of his books, and I presently have his just published Arguably, a collection of many of his essays. An Oxford grad, he wrote 17 books, notably among them, God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.

Articulate and fearless, he proved a formidable debater with short patience for proponents of the irrational such as religionists, whom he held were an inveterate threat to freedom and intellectual integrity and "the world's main source of hate."

In politics, he aroused the fury of the Left in his embrace of the Iraq war. Saddam was a menace worth getting rid of. He hadn't started out this way, being very much a part of the 1960s ferment in opposing the Vietnam war. It turned him off when the liberal establishment manifested its tepid response to the Ayatollah Khomeini's call for the death of writer Salman Rushdie.

One of my delights in reading Hitchens was his unabashed willingness to take on all comers rather than follow engrained opinion. Among those he excoriated were Mother Teresa, Henry Kissinger, and Hillary and Bill Clinton.

I was also drawn to him because we frequently shared the same heroes; for example, Paine, Franklin, Jefferson, and Orwell.

Several years ago I concluded I could no longer accept the religious framework of my earlier years and embraced atheism. It made sense and has given me an abiding peace. Vanished are the mental squabbles concerning good and evil. We live in a world not of Mind, but of cosmic dice. Hitchens never failed to render my own dissonance into eloquence. He not only gave me comfort, but more importantly, courage. It's just as difficult for Atheists to come out as it is for gays, perhaps more so, as lately gays have more traction in the mainstream.

One day, like a lightning bolt, it suddenly flashed upon me that I was a child of that remarkable phenomenon in history known as the Enlightenment. In its embrace, I found new heroes, among them Hitchens, bold devotees of rationality in a world governed largely by impulse and indulgence, to its own peril.

As Hitchens bravely noted in his final weeks, our lives are rationed. It follows then that we should measure out appropriately our individual portion wisely. In this, Hitchens was our exemplar as a fervent warrior for humanity's potential secured by Reason and bold excoriator of hypocrisy and cant.

Just moments after his death, Salmon Rushdie movingly tweeted, "Good-bye my beloved friend. A great voice falls silent. A great heart stops."

A candle has, indeed, gone out, but its spark remains to light yet other candles.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

P. S. to There they go again!

Well, the Republicans have done it, passed a bill of unprecedented meanness. For the full scoop and in conjunction with my previous post, please see Bill Passes.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

There they go again!

As I write, the Republican dominated House is about to vote its pleasure on continuing the payroll tax cut, that is, the downsizing of paycheck contributions to Social Security formerly set at 6.2 on the initial $106,800 of income. This percentage had been in play since 1990 until it was cut this year to 4.2 as a move to stimulate consumer spending and help rekindle the economy.

The President would like to see it cut still more, or to 3.1 in 2012. The Republicans, bent on reducing deficit spending, have also included a measure to reduce federal unemployment insurance benefits from the current 73 weeks to 33 weeks. (Federal benefits begin when workers have exhausted state unemployment compensation, which usually runs 26-weeks.) They are also proposing a means test for Medicare recipients who have income exceeding $80,000. Income includes Social Security benefits, which is already subject to taxation. It's a curious kind of legislation: one hand gives; the other takes away.

Since Republicans have made much of their opposition to increasing taxes, you would think it would be a no-brainer to agree to continue the payroll tax cut, but this isn’t the way this increasingly irascible party of ideologues thinks these days and it’s here they’ve revealed their hand, making a proviso in the bill that the controversial, now delayed, Keystone XL Project be implemented speedily, all of this in the face of a promised veto by the President. Seems they’re more interested once again in corporate profits than the welfare of the American people, many of whom cannot find work in an economy spun on its heels by a Wall Street/Banking axis.

The Republicans amaze me. If ever there were a political entity bent on self-destruction, you have it now in this current goon squad defiantly bent on disrupting the political process, callous to the middle class and the growing poor.
Just look at the pack of loonies seeking to run against the President in 2012. This is the cast of characters who’ve accused Obama of not being American born; deny global warming; want to cut back the EPA’s budget, if not abolish the agency; support a cut-off in aid to nations allowing abortion; and have vociferously opposed gays. One candidate denies evolution. One candidate, a former front runner, withdrew amid multiple accusations of harassing women, while the current front runner seems to prefer serial polygamy, though touting family values. GAWD, this is more fun than the circus!

I'm looking forward to November 2012 and Americans throwing these architects of gridlock out of office in what increasingly promises to be a landslide of their own making.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Looking through a glass darkly: the Strauss-Kahn case reexamined

All of France is a buzz, and why not? New revelations suggest that former IMF head, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the once preeminent obstacle to French president Sarkozy’s reelection, may have been set up by hotel maid Nafissatou Diallo, who accused him of rape when she entered his room at the Sofitel Hotel in New York on May14.

We know that New York police initially regarded the case as credible, only to drop the case given a plethora of inconsistencies in Diallo’s account. Additionally, she had been overheard on a telephone call, telling a friend there was a good deal of money to be made. The Guinea-born maid had also lied at several points on her immigration application.

What’s reignited the bonfire is a just released surveillance video showing two hotel security personnel conversing with Diallo after the alleged rape, then dancing after her departure. Strauss-Kahn supporters say it lends evidence that Diallo was part of a set-up. Wallace Thomas, Diallo’s lawyer, says it does nothing of the kind; that, in fact, it supports Diallo in showing her reporting the incident to security personnel.

What may matter, however, is that one of the two individuals, the other unknown, has been identified as Brian Yearwood, who had been recently in communication with John Sheehan, security expert with Acor, which owns Sofitel and whose boss, Rene-Georges Querry, had once worked with a man presently in Sarkozy’s intelligence.

Before one scoffs in unbelief, I strongly recommend he/she read veteran investigator reporter Edward Jay Epstein’s detailed account appearing recently in the Dec. 22, 2011 New York Review of Books. Epstein’s no slouch when it comes to investigative reporting, possessing a special acumen for coming up with what others miss.

Key swipe records, to which Epstein had access, indicate a waiter enters the suite at 12:05, allegedly to clear the breakfast trays. We don’t know when he left, since key swipe records only record entrances. The waiter later refused to talk with police investigators.

At 12:06, Diallo enters. We don’t know when she left, except that she reenters at 12:26. In short, she and Strauss-Kahn may have been together 20-minutes. We do know that Strauss-Kahn called his daughter at 12:13 to tell her he would be late for their lunch. It’s likely that Diallo was with Strauss-Kahn for seven minutes, or in the interval between her entering the suite and Strauss-Kahn’s call.

Mysteriously, Strauss-Kahn’s BlackBerry has its GPS circuitry disabled at 12:51, which required technical know-how.

At 12:52, Diallo is brought to the hotel security office for questioning. Present are Brian Yearwood; the hotel’s chief engineer, Adrian Branch; the hotel’s security chief; and an unidentified tall man who had escorted Diallo to the office.

At 1:31, Branch calls the police, or one hour after Diallo first reported the incident.

Two minutes after the call, Yearwood and the tall man move into an adjacent room and “high-five each other, clap their hands, and do an extraordinary dance of celebration that lasts for three minutes.”

Strauss-Kahn has admitted to the sexual encounter. The big unknown is whether Diallo initiated it to obtain forensic evidence against Strauss-Kahn.

And who was in nearby room 2820, which Diallo entered before proceeding to the Presidential Suite, room 2806? She would tell police she didn’t enter room 2820 after the assault, but key swipe records indicate she did. Why did she lie?

Why hasn’t the tall man been identified?

Why haven’t we been told who was the occupant in room 2820? Was it the tall man? Did she consult with him just before going into the Presidential Suite, then afterwards? We know he escorted her to the security office. Where did he come from?

Strauss-Kahn’s BlackBerry has never shown-up. BlackBerry records indicate it never left the hotel. Was it stolen to eliminate Strauss-Kahn’s intent to have it checked by technical experts for bugging? We know that he had received a text message earlier in the morning from a friend working in Sarkozy's political office warning him that his BlackBerry email to his wife had been read. He should be aware his phone might be under electronic surveillance.

Is all of this far fetched? Consider that Sarkozy was facing a good probability of defeat up against Strauss-Kahn in next April’s elections.

The lust for power often drives politics and is surely up there with those two other primary motivators in the repertoire of human behavior, sex and money.

Think about the farce of the recent Russian election.

Think back to Watergate.

Friday, December 9, 2011

On the dividends of a late read

I read a lot, eagerly, omnivorously, and in doing so sometimes overreach, ordering books I can't possibly get to in the short term; hence they accumulate in heaps on my office floor, as my shelves are already squeezed. I confess my gluttony, yet without repentance. Liking books isn’t a bad vice, I think, and I’ll hardly bankrupt our family budget in doing so.

Sometimes, however, I’ll guiltily raid one of my piles, snatching a book that’s lain there goodness knows how long, with the end result that it’s somewhat dated in what it has to say. Take, for instance, my latest snatch, Bill Bryson’s I’m a Stranger Here Myself: Notes on Returning to America After Twenty Years Away. Well, here’s a book that came out in 1999, or 12-years ago, and I’m reading it just now. I deserve what I get.

But sometimes there are dividends in doing a late read, as time’s passage can afford a new perspective. For example, Bryson, in a chapter called, “The Numbers Game,” has this paragraph, mind you, written pre-1999:

No matter where you turn with regard to America and its economy you are going to bump into figures that are so large as to be beyond meaningful comprehension. Consider just a few figures culled at random from this week’s papers. California has an economy worth $850 billion. The annual gross domestic product of the United States is $6.8 trillion. The federal budget is $12.6 trillion, the federal deficit near $200 billion (p. 51).

Well, let’s see what time’s warp has done to those stats.

Today, the worth of California's economy has swelled to $2 trillion.

The USA annual gross domestic product (GDP) is now over $15 trillion.

The approved federal budget for 2011 is currently at $3,360 trillion. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2011_United_States_federal_budget#Total_spending

As I write, the federal deficit exceeds $15 trillion. http://www.federalbudget.com/FederalBudget. The figures increase every second. Remember, it was just $200 billion when Bryson wrote his book 12-years earlier!

I don’t know about you, but I find this sobering, if not downright scary. We’ve gone from a budget mess to the very precipice. Ironically, the bailouts and stimuli to the economy, rather than helping us, are contributing to our economic malaise, turning the United States into a full scale deficit crisis. Somewhere, we’ve got to stop the fiscal hemorrhaging. Ok, my figures update Bryson’s 12-years ago. What’s going to happen over the next ten years? I don’t think any of us want to go there!

For a sense of just how much money is dripping away into interest payments on accumulated debt exceeding $15 trillion we can’t do better than Bryson’s fantasy analogy of earning one buck for each dollar you could initial to determine how long it would take you to earn just a trillion dollars:

If you initialed one dollar per second, you would make $1000 every seventeen minutes. After 12 days of nonstop effort you would acquire your first $1 million. Thus, it would take you 120 days to accumulate $10 million and 1,200 days--something over three years--to reach $100 million. After 31.7 years, you would be as wealthy as Bill Gates. But not until after 31,709.8 years would you count your trillionth dollar (and even then you would be less than one-fourth of the way through the pile of money representing America’s national debt). That is what $1 trillion is (p. 52).

As I’ve said, sometimes it’s serendipity to read a book later rather than sooner. Unfortunately, not many in the right places seem to be reading--or listening--at all. I think of other problems experiencing the “kick-the-can-down the road” syndrome,” for example, accelerating climate change, a nuclear Iran, a world with insufficient water, population overload.

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Mr. President, teach us to believe again

A century ago, or in 1911, Teddy Roosevelt traveled to Osawatomie, Kansas, delivering a message of progressive populism that stirred a nation and has become known as the “New Nationalism” speech. In that speech he championed a new America founded upon genuine democracy and social justice: an 8-hour work day; minimum wage guarantee; insurance for the elderly, unemployed, and disabled; political reform; and a progressive income tax. Teddy just happened to be a Republican.

Yesterday, President Obama gave the greatest speech in his political career--not only with his inveterate eloquence, but more importantly, in his compassion for our millions in economic stress, largely through no fault of their own, victims of an oligarchy of the wealthy, the conspiracy of corporate and banking interests, the callousness and cowardice of our political leadership. I’ve heard or read many great speeches over a lifetime. This one, delivered in obscure Osawatomie, Kansas, where Teddy Roosevelt spoke long before, may herald a new Obama in a likely second term, no longer under partisan pressure, enabled and willing to implement the dream he articulated so ably in 2008, only to retreat repeatedly from that vision of peace, prosperity, and social equality. We would like to believe. Teach us how. (See my end comments.)

Now, just as there was in Teddy Roosevelt’s time, there’s been a certain crowd in Washington for the last few decades who respond to this economic challenge with the same old tune.  “The market will take care of everything,” they tell us.  If only we cut more regulations and cut more taxes – especially for the wealthy – our economy will grow stronger.  Sure, there will be winners and losers.  But if the winners do really well, jobs and prosperity will eventually trickle down to everyone else.  And even if prosperity doesn’t trickle down, they argue, that’s the price of liberty.

It’s a simple theory – one that speaks to our rugged individualism and healthy skepticism of too much government.  It fits well on a bumper sticker.  Here’s the problem:  It doesn’t work.  It’s never worked.  It didn’t work when it was tried in the decade before the Great Depression.  It’s not what led to the incredible post-war boom of the 50s and 60s.  And it didn’t work when we tried it during the last decade. 

Remember that in those years, in 2001 and 2003, Congress passed two of the most expensive tax cuts for the wealthy in history, and what did they get us?  The slowest job growth in half a century.  Massive deficits that have made it much harder to pay for the investments that built this country and provided the basic security that helped millions of Americans reach and stay in the middle class – things like education and infrastructure; science and technology; Medicare and Social Security. 

Remember that in those years, thanks to some of the same folks who are running Congress now, we had weak regulation and little oversight, and what did that get us? Insurance companies that jacked up people’s premiums with impunity, and denied care to the patients who were sick.  Mortgage lenders that tricked families into buying homes they couldn’t afford.  A financial sector where irresponsibility and lack of basic oversight nearly destroyed our entire economy. 
We simply cannot return to this brand of your-on-your-own economics if we’re serious about rebuilding the middle class in this country.  We know that it doesn’t result in a strong economy.  It results in an economy that invests too little in its people and its future.  It doesn’t result in a prosperity that trickles down.  It results in a prosperity that’s enjoyed by fewer and fewer of our citizens.  

Look at the statistics.  In the last few decades, the average income of the top one percent has gone up by more than 250%, to $1.2 million per year.  For the top one hundredth of one percent, the average income is now $27 million per year.  The typical CEO who used to earn about 30 times more than his or her workers now earns 110 times more.  And yet, over the last decade, the incomes of most Americans have actually fallen by about six percent.

This kind of inequality – a level we haven’t seen since the Great Depression – hurts us all.  When middle-class families can no longer afford to buy the goods and services that businesses are selling, it drags down the entire economy, from top to bottom.  America was built on the idea of broad-based prosperity – that’s why a CEO like Henry Ford made it his mission to pay his workers enough so that they could buy the cars they made.  It’s also why a recent study showed that countries with less inequality tend to have stronger and steadier economic growth over the long run.

Inequality also distorts our democracy.  It gives an outsized voice to the few who can afford high-priced lobbyists and unlimited campaign contributions, and runs the risk of selling out our democracy to the highest bidder.  And it leaves everyone else rightly suspicious that the system in Washington is rigged against them – that our elected representatives aren’t looking out for the interests of most Americans. 

More fundamentally, this kind of gaping inequality gives lie to the promise at the very heart of America:  that this is the place where you can make it if you try.  We tell people that in this country, even if you’re born with nothing, hard work can get you into the middle class; and that your children will have the chance to do even better than you.  That’s why immigrants from around the world flocked to our shores. 

And yet, over the last few decades, the rungs on the ladder of opportunity have grown farther and farther apart, and the middle class has shrunk.  A few years after World War II, a child who was born into poverty had a slightly better than 50-50 chance of becoming middle class as an adult.  By 1980, that chance fell to around 40%.  And if the trend of rising inequality over the last few decades continues, it’s estimated that a child born today will only have a 1 in 3 chance of making it to the middle class. 

It’s heartbreaking enough that there are millions of working families in this country who are now forced to take their children to food banks for a decent meal.  But the idea that those children might not have a chance to climb out of that situation and back into the middle class, no matter how hard they work?  That’s inexcusable.  It’s wrong.  It flies in the face of everything we stand for.


Mr. President,

We would like to believe you, but works are more convincing than words. The Occupy Wall Street movement with its many unemployed, debt-ridden students, disenfranchised homeowners, disillusioned returning veterans is just as much about the failure of government as it is about the egregious wrongs of an unfair distribution of wealth. We’re tired of politicians and their manipulations,their evasions and opportunism.

Mr. President, teach us how to believe again.


The American people

Sunday, December 4, 2011

How banks war on you and me

According to Wikipedia, "Bank robbery is the crime of stealing from a bank during opening hours." Let me try a new definition: "Robbery is theft from the people during opening and closing hours." Yes, banks are quite capable of committing crimes, and often do, as bullies motivated by greed. Banks, in case you missed it, were the primary culprits in fomenting our economic downturn in 2008, the worst America has faced since the Great Depression and likely to continue for several years. In the process, they've been able to pull off nearly a trillion dollars in bail out money to cover their profligate scheming and spending, passing their debts on to the citizenry; another two trillion has been spent in trying to re-right the economy. What is more, along with behemoth corporations, banks are kingpins in a concerted effort to dismantle government regulation, giving them a freer hand in accumulating profit.

The banking sector is grateful for our help, screwing us at every turn in efforts to extract still more from the masses they've victimized, moving with alacrity in foreclosing on money that shouldn't have been loaned, often for houses no longer worth their original loan amounts, and doing so without properly reviewing delinquent mortgages (i.e., robo signings). With regard to bank issued credit cards, despite government efforts to safeguard consumers from excessive interest escalation, the banks have found other ways to accumulate capital, imposing charges, for example, on using tellers rather than ATMs and fees on checking accounts below a designated amount. Take Bank of America, for example. It had originally opted to charge debit card users $5 monthly. Public outrage, however, curtailed its implementation. Look for the banks to move more quietly to introduce other charges. You name it, they've got a gimmick, proving it's easier to catch a greased pig than a banker in his Mercedes.

Although our government rightly views consumer spending as a key catalyst to stimulating the economy, banks have made it difficult for many to borrow money, especially for mortgage loans, requiring up to 20% down payment. Obviously, this leaves out many young people and middle class wage earners. Home construction, along with the auto and aircraft industry, is a key component of the American economy. Currently, banks are sitting on a mound of money while looking for better investment returns elsewhere. You and I don't figure into the equation.

Make no mistake about it: both Wall Street and the banks created the bubbles that got us here, resulting in millions without work and depleted federal and state coffers. It's gotten so bad that many cash-strapped states are now resorting to selling off their infrastructure such as highways to raise revenue and avoid upkeep outlays. Ultimately this represents an impetus yet again in the dismantling of government, transferring the people's assets to the private domain. It's among a speculator's greatest dreams, and don't think for a moment that Wall Street and the banks don't have their eyes on it.

Bank manipulation, or fraud, isn't anything new. Take for instance, the banking scandals of the 1980s involving many savings and loan institutions. Insiders would falsify the books, making a failing bank appear healthy. Ultimately, the failing bank burdened the federal treasury with making good on consumer deposits up to $100,000 under USFDC guarantees. That means you and I paid the bill for their malfeasance. Hey! Sounds a lot like those recent bailouts. It continues to be difficult, however, for the courts to prosecute since the statutes require proof of intent to deceive.

Fortunately, we have a few watchdogs looking out for our interests, though scarcely enough, given the systemic problem of banking kleptomaniacs. Last week, Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley sued five of the nation's largest banks, alleging illegal foreclosures and deceptive mortgage servicing.

This suit seeks accountability against the banks for both cutting corners and also rushing to foreclose on homeowners without following the rule of law. There is no question that the deceptive and unlawful behavior by Wall Street and the large banks played a central role in causing this economic crisis. We believe they are not too big to have to obey the law.

The suit names Well Fargo, Bank of America, J. P. Morgan Chase, Citigroup, and GMAC.

The Tea Party has it all wrong. We don't need less government. We need more.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Procrastination: taking the thief captive

Do you procrastinate a lot? Do you live in the moment, caving in to impulses? I know I do, even though people think I’m productive. If I do accomplish anything, it’s generally out of remorse for having wasted yet another day getting very little done. Next thing I know, the days become weeks; weeks, months; then years. Getting something done at last takes on the note of self-flagellation. I must be punished.

It shouldn’t be this way for me or you. I honestly don’t believe it’s in our genes, which should come as good news, since it means we can do something about it.

The why of it:

Its formula is very simple. We don’t find hard work pleasurable, especially when it prevents us from engaging in socializing with friends, indulging in TV, web-surfing, or the social networks. Besides, we work all day. When we get home, other duties await us. Hey, give me a break!

Now this isn’t all bad. If we practice a structured procrastination that allows us to reward ourselves along the way, we actually might feel up to doing the laborious, but meaningful. The problem ensues when diversion turns into all play and no work. Johnny doesn’t finish his broccoli by first eating dessert.

Coping strategies

Say no

This is very hard. Behaviorists, in my mind the most insightful in the psychological sciences, have empirically demonstrated our relationship with other animals in being conditioned by stimuli-response mechanism. Behavior gets reinforced by the pleasurable and discouraged, even extinguished, by the unpleasurable.

Procrastination is a matter of being unable to control our urges. We confuse our desires with our needs. Fortunately, we can do exercises that strengthen our will power and, in the long run, foster our happiness. Try saying no to that extra portion or that invite out. Work on saying no to that impulse urge to buy those Bose noise cancelling headphones.

You can help yourself say no to interruptions by setting up time-space parameters. Set up a scheduled time slot, preferably in the early morning while your energy level is still high and before you do anything else. Work in a specific setting, conducive to focus, i.e., away from family, friends, loud noise, etc.

Say no to interruptions of any kind apart from emergencies. This is your time. Your space. Your closet from the world. Be ruthless.

Related to achieving impulse control, or delay of gratification, is improving your ability to focus. It’s why I’m high on yoga, meditation, or games of skill such as chess, sudoku, or scrabble. Besides, they stretch our brains as well. (See my previous post.)

The great pioneer in self-control studies was Walter Mischel of Columbia University and, later, Stanford. Ultimately he came up with the marshmallow test in which school children were offered a choice between an immediate treat or two treats if they could just wait a while. Those able to delay gratification seldom cheated, were more intelligent, more socially responsible, and more ambitious and likely to succeed. Being able to say no says something about you. It isn't innate. It's acquired. (For a fascinating look at Mischel's work, see David Akst, We Have Met he enemy: Self Control in an age of Excess, Ch.8 (2011).

Set up daily tasks

I recommend shooting for one task per session, or daily. Take writing, for example. For longer pieces, I like to go for quantity, say five pages or a chapter. If learning a language, a minimum of 30 minutes or say 15 minutes for review, 15 minutes for new material, 15 minutes for listening practice. If it’s a household or outdoors project, spread it out, maybe into several days with specific goals established for each day. The idea is to take things in steps. Rome wasn’t built in a day, as the aphorism has it. I’ve always liked the Chinese way of putting it even better: “The longest journey begins with the first step."

Be clutter free

You probably won’t see this mentioned very often when it comes to overcoming procrastination, but high on my list is a conducive work space. I just know I’m more motivated if I have a clean desk, organized shelves, good lighting, a comfortable chair. If nothing else, a clean space gives me a sense I’m in control. Hey, I can actually find things, whether in the office or shed. Your space should make you glad to be there.

Reward yourself

Try to make it fun. Take a break, maybe every 30 or 60 minutes. Pour another cup of coffee, or get into those freshly baked cookies. Don’t linger. 10 minutes and you should be back at it. Reward yourself for every step accomplished, not just at the end result. And when you do achieve the end result, hey, go for the Bose headphones!

Create time

How often have you said to yourself, fine and good, but I just don’t have the time? That’s nonsense. It’s been estimated that a commuter on a train or subway, just reading 15 minutes a day, could read several hundred books over a three year period or through a set of encyclopedias. I average a book nearly every 10 days simply by reading while waiting for a TV program or just to relax in bed before falling asleep. At the doctor’s office, I always have a book or smart phone along for e-books. You get the idea!

In college, I was an English major, specializing in Victorian literature. In the flow of things, I came across Anthony Trollope, one of the era’s most talented and prolific novelists. Trollope got some of his contemporaries mad. He was a postal inspector riding frequently on trains. He’d write for 20 minutes or so, then put the pen and paper away. Ultimately he wrote 47 novels, many of them still esteemed, and dozens of short stories.

Settle for imperfection

Chances are you won’t get it right the first time. Be easy on yourself. It isn’t where you begin, but how you end up.

Vary your routine

Doing things the same way day after day leads to staleness and diminished interest. Try shaking up your routine by substituting new tasks, new approaches, different rewards, etc.

Start right now

Resolutions are only as good as their implementation. Ben Franklin in his inimical wisdom, put it best: “You may delay, but time wiil not, and lost time is never found again.”

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Brain-tickling: n- back tasking

I’ve just returned from North Carolina, visiting my wife’s father in a nursing home. He turns 92 this Christmas. Right now, he’s recovering from a series of falls, the last one resulting in a broken ankle and hence nursing facility. Daddy is lucky in some respects, for the facility strikes me as well run, with sensitive staff (blessed with a sense of humor), decent meals even if institutional, and clean premises.

Yet in all of this, I couldn’t help taking in the white-haired residents, all of them in wheelchairs. Some seemed fixed, no movement throughout the day, heads bent, silent. One dear lady, presumably a stroke victim, courageous, tried to greet strangers, but she might well have spoken another language. In place of words, cheerily pitched sounds, but murmurings for all of that. In nearly a day at the place, I saw few visitors. If “loneliness is and always has been the central and inevitable experience of every person,” as writer Thomas Wolfe held, then its apex must be old age.

And yet there are things we can do to ease our journey into our senior years. For some time, I’ve been exercising daily, and rigorously, on our elliptical machine. Now I’ve added strength exercises three times a week, using weights to enhance muscle growth. After recently taking a bone scan test, I was delighted to learn I hadn’t lost any height, an occurrence as high as 80% in seniors.

I keep up with testing in general, whether annual blood checks or colonoscopies every three years, given my family’s cancer history. I get a flu shot every fall.

I haven’t touched meat in 15-years. I learned just the other day that only 15% of vegetarians suffer heart attacks. That’s good enough for me.

So much of preserving good health lies in adopting a preventative regimen, as Medicare and health insurers now increasingly recognize and encourage.

But there’s an aspect of maintaining good health that needs more attention. Consider that half of those past 85 suffer dementia. Now that’s huge! Think of the cost and the suffering, the diminishment in human dignity. We need to exercise our minds as well as our bodies.

I subscribe to Massachusetts General Hospital’s Mind, Mood & Memory. In its recent issue, the newsletter notes the success of those who exercise their brains, hence slowing down Alzheimer's, or even preventing it. Cross word puzzles, Sudoku games, learning a language, etc., all help--and a lot. This hits my palette, for I’ve generally favored games of mental skill like chess over games of chance.

New research indicates that the key to warding off dementia lies in boosting working memory. But how best to do this?

Turns out there’s a brain exercise called n-back that not only stimulates working memory (the kind used in reasoning and solving problems), but increases IQ. Hey, it actually makes you smarter!

Well, this got me going on my own research. I even bought the iPad application N-Back Suite. It’s as gorgeous as it’s friendly to users, allowing for stretching the mind through sensory stimuli (letters, images, sounds, colors, etc.).

With n-back tasking the idea is to remember items appearing in sequences. You can adjust your speed and there are ten levels of difficulty. Most of us will be lucky to get to level 3. It’s challenging.

It’s been tried with children and young adults, too. After 30 days of exercising for 20 minutes, results showed significant gains in fluid intelligence, i.e., the ability to recognize unfamiliar patterns and solve problems. IQ scores averaged 5 point gains. These results lasted 3 months, even though the participants were no longer doing the n-tasks. MGH neuropychologist Mimi Castelo calls the results “impressive.”

If all of this interests you, here are some web sites that offer sample n-back exercises. But don’t forget the iPad application I mentioned earlier.



Good luck!

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Holding the President's feet to the fire

If you go to the Obama campaign site Obama, you’ll read its boast of the EPA initiating restrictions on mercury and other pollutants from coal and oil fired power plants during the President’s tenure.

Just recently, the Obama administration announced its reaching agreement with the nation’s auto manufacturers to increase vehicle fuel efficiency to 54.5 mpg by 2025,

Perhaps the best news for environmentalists is the State Department’s recent announcement that it would delay construction of the Keystone XL pipeline to review its previously approved routing, ultimately deciding its verdict after the 2012 elections.

These seeming environmental breakthroughs, while making good copy, masquerade sobering truths.

Take the Keystone delay, for example. While this change from approval to delay has apparently rekindled environmentalist enthusiasm for Obama, Greens should be forewarned it probably reflects politics rather than sincere commitment.

You may remember that just last August hundreds of protestors against the pipeline, which would transport carbon-heavy tar sands from Canada to the Gulf, were arrested outside the White House, leading many environmentalists to think seriously about not supporting the President’s reelection.

This caution has apparently been tossed to the winds by the Keystone delay. I think this is a mistake. (See Rekindle.) Obama is simply just another politician governed by pragmatics, hence quite willing to pander rather than stick to principle in order to keep power. The Keystone Project delay is about re-routing only, not abnegation, and environmentalists are foolish not to note the difference as well as its ominous time-line.

Underscoring my suspicion is Obama’s earlier September decision to shelve new EPA proposals on smog. The President justified his decision on the basis of not wanting to jeopardize the economy by imposing new pressures on industry and business. Republican House speaker Boehner had argued that one of the EPA’s proposals would have cost $90b. Never mind, however, the consequences for those millions with respiratory problems. Clean Air Watch called Obama’s turnaround “political cowardice.” I agree.

As for the original Keystone plan that routed the pipeline incredulously through the sensitive Oragulla Aquifer, it was the Obama administration that signed on.

Won't anything ever change in Washington? If we hold our ground and not conflate rhetoric with meaningful change, it will.

The bottom line is that we must hold the President’s feet to the fire.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Harvesting awareness

Use your eyes as if tomorrow you would be stricken blind. Hear the music of voices, the song of a bird, the mighty strains of an orchestra, as if you would be stricken deaf tomorrow. Touch each object you want to touch as if tomorrow your tactile sense would fail. Smell the perfume of flowers, taste with relish each morsel, as if tomorrow you could never smell and taste again.
--Helen Keller

Are you a sleep walker? I’m not talking here of those who walk about rather than lie in bed when they sleep. I mean the way many of us live our lives, asleep to what goes on around us. Not surprisingly, we lose out on life’s conversation.

As sentient creatures, we’re able to respond to stimuli in the guise of sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell. Think about it! Just take away any one of them and you get the picture. While losing your sight or hearing are surely impacting losses that severely limit, so is the loss of other sensory capacities. Imagine what it would be like being unable to relish mashed potatoes with gravy or the pleasure of your tongue indulging a chocolate ice cream cone.

My favorite poet has always been John Keats, poet extraordinaire in his sensory awareness. Reading a Keats poem is something like being locked up in a bakery. The one thing he feared was death, which he viewed as horrible in its annihilation of the senses, an end rendering us but sod. But we don’t need to die to forfeit awareness. Some of us are downright zombies in the here and now.

We live in a world now pervasively scientific and technological. They have their place in helping us live more ably and comfortably. And yet they often fail us when we live only for the quantitative or functional. We are not simply physical or material creatures. We are spirit, with the capacities to not only think, but to feel and choose. What would our world be like if we didn’t have music, or image (art/photo/film), smells of freshly cut hay, dinner on the stove, or garden roses? What if we couldn’t feel that soft velvet, the clasp of warm hand, the softness of the beloved’s cheek?

More than ever, we live in a world that can so busy us that we can become callous to what really matters. Each day simply repeats yesterday’s routine. Tomorrow promises more of the same.
Life is brief and tomorrow shouldn’t be assumed, for we live in a random universe. Our heaven lies in the Now.

Here are some tips that may help you increase your awareness and, consequently, your pleasure in life’s rich tapestry:

Keep a journal or blog

I can't think of a better way to improve my awareness of what happens around me, or within myself for that matter, than keeping a journal or maintaining a blog: who, what, when, where, how. Writing this blog is a prime example. I've been writing on myriad topics for almost a year. Thinking about a topic has kept me on my toes, forced me to think about what I hear, see, or do. Good journals and blogs can be on anything, but simply centering in doings is more like keeping a diary. It's not going to grow the senses. Select like you would at a gourmet restaurant, choose according to your palette, but choose wisely. Write not only about what matters, but why it matters.

Find space

We all need moments for ourselves. I find some of my best times are when I'm outside, working in the yard, the world very far away. My senses are kindled, and the birds, rustling leaves, and even the lowly worm, get noticed. Though I'm raking leaves, I'm alive, my mind a bubbling stream.


I'm still working on this. Health authorities increasingly cite research, indicating a host of benefits in its alleviating stress and consequent anxiety, those salient features of modern life. Ironically, letting go or emptying ourselves leads to replenishment of awareness as we become absorbed in our breathing rhythms and are reduced to the sensory essentials. You can meditate anywhere with no equipment needed. Yoga, especially hatha yoga because of its slow pace and easy postures, affords a wonderful way to purge life's pollutants and yield not only relaxation, but a reduced heart rate, lower blood pressure, better sleep, and improved moods.


Become an omnivorous devourer of books, quality magazines and journals. Reading stimulates and prompts new conversations. But choose wisely. Some books are meant to be read; others, to be chewed; some, to be spat out. Some magazines, pulp publications devoted to stardom and gossip, are better left in the rack.


Reacting is fundamental to achieving improved awareness. When you read, go to movies, converse with others, see or listen to the news, ask questions, make associations, think about the validity of underlying assumptions, reign in generalizations. Be wary of too much TV. It breeds passivity, dulls the senses, makes the mind lazy, steals time for better things. Socrates wisely tells us that the unexamined life isn't worth living. Don't be a sponge. Be a hose.

Change your routine

Waking or driving, do you take the same route to work or school? Try a different one.

Always eating at the same restaurants? Go for adventure. At home, why not try that new recipe?

Always watching the big three: football, basketball, baseball? Why not take a peek at soccer, lacrosse, or hockey?

I think you get my meaning. Routine dulls the senses. Hey, it happens in relationships, too. Take heed!

Monday, November 21, 2011

Only the rich get to see Europe

I had promised my sister-in-law, ailing in Germany, that my wife and I would be visiting her next June. That may not be possible.

I couldn’t believe my eyes when I checked into Orbitz this morning and discovered the cheapest fare was $902 with United/Continental. Wait! It gets better. That’s just the airfare. Add taxes, $617.19, and you’re looking at $1,519.19 per person. In other words, the taxes are two thirds the actual fare. I think that’s outrageous.

I decided to find out why the high taxes. It’s the EU countries that are doing this. Scrapped for cash to finance their deficit welfare-state budgets, they’re looking everywhere. Tourists don’t vote. Voila! Well, and I think I’m not alone, I’ll vote with my feet.

Have they no clue they're busting their own economies? No more flotillas of Americans and Canadians. Already, you can hear the screams of the European travel industry, not to mention airlines. So far, to no avail.

It’s amazing. I can book a trip from Lexington, KY, all the way to gorgeous Hawaii for just 754 rt, taxes included.

What a mess Europe's gotten itself into. For decades since WWII, they’ve pretty much thought they had a free lunch, given their generous government outlays. Did they really think Disney World would go on forever? As is, they’ve got this heavy value added tax on virtually everything you buy, their touted free medical care is escalating in cost, and all of this while cutting their defense spending, already meager, by 50% in some countries. What a milk toast ally!

They don’t work as hard as Americans. Most retire 30 years and out. Vacations average 6 weeks, versus two for Americans, many of them not taking any vacation.

What’s awful is that their sorry mess could plunge all of us on this side of the pond into recession again. But what do you do about people who riot in the streets whenever austerity measures are adopted?

And there’s a warning in all of this for America to get its own financial house in order to avoid becoming a version of Greece, Italy, Portugal, Spain, and Ireland. My own state of Ky is nearly 8 billion dollars delinquent in funding pensions for its public employees, including teachers.

Republicans, cutting spending without revenue increases through higher taxation won’t get the job done.

Democrats, increasing taxes without meaningful cuts in spending only delays our day of reckoning.

Better book that trip to Hawaii--don’t I wish--before Congress fancies imitating our European brethren and we all go down the tubes.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Evolution's triumph: the Sandhill Crane

You can't mistake Sandhill cranes, resplendent with red crowns, wide wing spans, and long legs.

Every fall, they come to Kentucky by the thousands, transients pursuing a rest stop as they wing their way to winter feeding grounds in the Mississippi delta, Florida, Mexico and Cuba. They draw their name from their principal migratory feeding ground along the Platte in Nebraska, with its 75-mile stretch of grass secured sand dunes.

They're enchanting birds to watch and listen to. You can hear them coming a long ways off in what sounds like a thunderous French r made deep within the throat. These are creatures who sing and dance. Couples, who mate for life and live up to 20 years, actually sing in mutual cadence, sometimes leaping up and down.

They’re among our most ancient birds, stretching back several million years and preceding humans. By the early part of the Twentieth Century they had been hunted virtually to extinction. Through careful conservation, they've rebounded, though still threatened principally by habitat loss in Mississippi and Cuba.

Lately, they've been in my thoughts. Last spring I had been reading Carl Safina's impassioned lament for nature's vanishing wildlife, The View from Lazy Point, and several times he alluded to and quoted Aldo Leopold's Sand County Almanac, a collection of Thoreau-like observations on nature and man's troubling despoilment of it. I was not disappointed.

In the course of this beautifully written book, Leopold comes upon the Sandhill crane:

A glint of sun reveals the approach of a great echelon of birds. On motionless wing they emerge from the lifting mists, sweep a final arc of sky, and settle in clangorous descending spiral to their feeding grounds. A new day has begun on the crane marsh.
When we hear his call we hear no mere bird. We hear the trumpet in the chorus of evolution. He is the symbol of our untamable past, of that incredible sweep of millennia which underlies and conditions the daily affairs of birds and men.
The sadness discernible in some marshes arises, perhaps, from their once having harbored cranes. Now they stand humbled, adrift in history.


This week here in Kentucky, the Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources announced it will take applications for permits from Nov. 15 through Nov. 30 and hold a drawing Dec. 5 to select up to 400 hunters, the first state to do so East of the Mississippi. Hunters may take up to two sandhill crane then, or until hunters take 400 birds. The season will begin December 17.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Water: managing a precious resource

In North America, we take water availability for granted. This may not be our future.

One of our greatest challenges over the next several decades will be meeting our water needs, whether globally or in the USA. We can live with less oil or coal, find alternative fuels, or develop new technologies. Not so with water, an element vital to sustaining food production and keeping ourselves alive. Though as humans we can be a narcissistic lot, the truth is we’re composed of up to 90% water.

I was reminded of this fact several weeks ago after a three day bout with the stomach flu, with all its unpleasant symptoms. One of the first things you learn is to replace lost fluids quickly and amply. If you don’t, you risk dehydrating and its ultimate consequences, kidney damage and even shutdown.

When Americans think of drought, they probably think of Africa, certainly in the news lately and in past decades with its devastating water shortages. The reality is that what Africa is experiencing is becoming increasingly apropos for earth’s more prosperous regions as well. Take Australia, for example. Sydney draws its water primarily from capacious water storage facilities, drawn from rainfall and held in check by dams. In fact, Sydney’s reservoirs exceed New York’s storage capacity 4:1. Even so, the water flow into Sydney's nine dams fell 45% between 1996 and 2003. The situation, even now, remains critical. It hasn’t rained plentifully in New South Wales for a very long time.

In the U. S, particularly California and the Southwest, water sufficiency, always a problem for essentially desert regions, has become a gnawing challenge. Southern California depends for much of its water on Northern California, to the latter’s consternation, since it’s also become plagued with serious water shortages. Normally dependent on melting snowpacks from the mountains, this source is proving unreliable, with snow melting earlier before it can consolidate in yet another link with rising global temperatures. Elsewhere, while Los Angeles is certainly under threat, one of America’s fastest growing cities, Las Vegas, may well run out of water, and very soon.

Consider the Midwest. Beneath America’s agricultural heartland lies the Ogallah aquifer, stretching through eight states, South Dakota to Texas. Used as a primary irrigation source, it’s now seriously depleted through over pumping. We are producing agricultural bounties drawing on tomorrow’s water.

If I had time, I could explore with you the causes for increasing drought and, ironically, for some areas like my native New England, unprecedented rain and snow with ensuing floods such as Vermont recently encountered. I wish I also had time to explore proposed solutions such as building more dams, which actually create other dilemmas. My focus here is on conservation, the wise use of water to make it go round and last longer.

1. Get rid of your lawn, or, reduce it sharply.

A 2008 NASA study concluded that grass lawns in the U. S. exceed the entire land area of New York state. In fact, one third of our water use is spent on our lawns or, shockingly, 200 gallons of water per person, per day. Lawns can be replaced or reduced with native, drought-resistant grasses of short height, needing little water. Attractive ground covers such as Irish moss or creeping thyme can help do the job. You’ll save on your water bill while reducing gas mower pollution and insecticide run off as well.  If you’re a garden keeper, plant varieties of flowers and vegetable with lesser water needs.

2.  Install water barrels.

Think about this: an inch of rain falling on a 1000 square foot roof generates 600 gallons of water, which can then be used for your flowers and vegetables. I installed one last summer with a eighty gallon capacity and found it filled up after a brief shower. More and more communities are imposing restrictions on water usage and water rates have been rising as new treatment plants become needed. I’m hoping to plant several raised garden beds accessed to this barrel through a hose.

3.  Be conservative in using water in the house.

In buying water products such as shower heads, faucets and toilets, look for the EPA’s WaterSense label. You can find such products online at

If you’re planning to build a new home, a family of four can save up to 50,000 gallons of water annually in a certified WaterSense installation. That’s sufficient to do 2000 laundry loads a year and a savings up to $600 on water bills. Savings can also be had by confining washer/dryer purchases to Energy Star products. (Tankless water heaters, by the way, can save up to 20% in energy costs per year and don’t require periodic flushing.)

Repair dripping faucets promptly.

4.  If a city dweller, opt for a green roof.

All of the applications I’ve mentioned have business and industrial applications as well. In Chicago, green roof gardens are catching on, with some 200 now in existence, including City Hall. Green roofs provide not only space for growing vegetables, but capture storm water while simultaneously cooling the urban landscape.

5.  Stop eating meat.

This recommendation may surprise you, sounds crazy, and is least likely to be adopted, given our cultural biases. But I mention it anyway, just for the record. A recent study by the Agricultural Water Management indicated that cutting animal product use by just half would result in a national reduction of dietary water requirements of 261 billion cubic meters annually by 2025. To put this in perspective, this is the equivalent of 14 times the annual flow of the Colorado River.e ample

The point in all of this is that you and I can take steps now to assure we have ample water at minimal costs in a world where this will be a decreasing reality.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Lebensraum in Texas

On October 31, the United Nations Population Fund announced that world population had reached a watermark 7 billion.  This couldn’t come at a worse time, given global warming. Combined with diminishing economic and natural resources, it possibly heralds a doomsday scenario of accelerating species extinction, famine, and mass starvation.  Some would argue our demise has already begun, given the continuing rise in sea levels, devastating drought, and declining resources as more humans compete for their place at the table.  In the 19th Century, it was clergyman Robert Malthus who provided the first numerical analysis of exponential population growth, and he lived in a world not facing the spectre of climate change as the great complicator. 
For the most part, science has been able to keep Malthus at bay with its progress in developing new crops less impervious to insect and drought.  Such gains, however, have now slowed, given their inability to stay even, or ahead, of population growth.  Adding to this developing tragedy is its impacting the world’s neediest, those living in Africa or developing nations such as Afghanistan and Pakistan.  As I indicated in one of my first posts back in January, the unrest in North Africa has been essentially over rising food prices, now consuming up to a third of a family’s budget.  To the South, or African Horn, starvation threatens several million Somalis, Ethiopians, and Eritreans.
While Northern Hemisphere nations scramble for oil, the major crisis in resources, namely water availability, dwarfs all other resource challenges. By 2025, the International Water Management Institute projects that nearly 2 billion people will live in areas lacking sufficient water to sustain agriculture.  But this crisis will affect the wealthier nations as well.  In the U. S., the rich underground water table that feeds the generous corn and wheat bounties of the Midwest is dropping precipitously..  In Australia, huge areas, particularly near Perth in the west, once known for their wheat and vineyard harvests, haven’t seen rain in several years.  Less wheat and corn translates to less surplus available for third world nations.  While the wealthy nations will work out coping strategies, it’s the already poor who will suffer yet greater degradation. Uncurbed population growth exacerbates their suffering.
Not everyone agrees with the dismal portrayal I’ve given here.  In a lead Time Magazine article (Oct. 26, 2011), writer Bryan Walsh argues we have the resources to not only take care of 7 billion, but many more. Moreover, there’s good news on the birth control front. In 1950, the average woman had 5 children, now down to 2.5.  Present world population growth is just 1.1  a year. True, population continues its rapid rise in sub-Saharan Africa, but this is offset by their low impact on resources. "[The] real problem for the world is that each of the 300 million people in the U. S. consumes as much as 32 Kenyans do,” Walsh argues.
Personally, I think people like Walsh are living on another planet. More people means more environmental degradation in the form of carbon emissions, declining wildlife habitat and loss of fauna and flora, more competition for oil, gas, and, yes, food.  We may be able to feed ourselves now to the point of waste and obscene obesity, but this doesn’t help distressed populations in Africa and Asia.  Soon we will not even have sufficient grains to export and alleviate our guilt, or is it our complacency?  Have we forgotten the spectre of global warming that is fast changing the equation?
I have to laugh at those who argue like Walsh that we could fit the entire world population into Texas and wouldn’t exceed the density of New York City, a place he finds tolerable.  Personally, I shudder at the prospect of every place looking like Jersey or NYC. Has this guy ever been to India, a nation with just a third of China’s land size, yet destined to surpass China’s population in the next decade?
United Nations population projections (2010):
2010 2050 2100
United States:  310m 400m  478m 
Russia: 142m 130m  110m  
Nigeria: 150m 425m  740m 
China    1b,300m 1b,200m  941m 
India     1b,225m 1b,692m  1b,551m
Afghanistan 31m 76m 111m 
Uganda  33m 94m  171m 
Pakistan 174m 275m 261m

More people--more pollution, hunger, poverty, resource depletion, habitat loss, flora/fauna extinction, accelerated climate change.
Hot off today’s environmental news: Africa’s western Black rhino now officially declared extinct.
More:  25% of mammals now headed for extinction.
No problem:  We could fit the entire population of the world, both now and later, into Texas.  Hmm, wonder how Texans might feel about that.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Raising cain

News media have been preoccupied of late with the sex scandal surrounding Republican presidential candidate Herbert Cain to the point of nausea. I suspicion he may indeed be guilty of harassing women, what with a total of four women leveling charges, two of them publically, and a settlement years ago with another.

More women may be involved who haven’t come forward. As they say, “Where there’s smoke, there’s fire." One of the women going public gave very specific detail. Still, Cain simply denies the charges, blames some of his fellow Republican competitors, or even pulls the race card. He seems to be increasingly recovering from amnesia, each new day belying his initial bear-faced denials.

Americans need better than this, and clearly this guy’s running his campaign from the seat of his pants. If conservative Republicans remain loyal, it’s probably more their fear of Romney, whom they don’t trust, than Cain charisma. Anyone but Mitt.

Right now, it might be a pretty thing to see Newt Gingrich walk through the door. The several debates clearly evidence a man with articulation skills and a defined approach to America’s many ills that merit more listening. Without the baggage of Mitt, who likes camouflage, he could prove a strong Obama adversary.

But back to the media. In all this scuttlebutt, you’d think they’d make parallels with the myriad women linked to Bill Clinton across the years, and I’m talking about the pre-presidency years: Dolly Kyle Browning, Judy Gibbs, Gennifer Flowers, Kathleen Willey, Deborah Mathis, Christy Zercher, Elizabeth Ward, Paula Jones. As President, he showed follow-through with Monica Lewinsky in the Oval Office, who probably would have appreciated a good set of knee pads. The candidate Clinton makes Cain look impotent, a mere groper.

Yet not a word from the media about having gone down this road before. Is this lapse simply political bias at work? Or is it just another instance of press frenzy for the story-of-the-moment? Wait a little bit and they’ll move on to something else.

Ironically, today Clinton is one of the most well-liked politicians in recent memory, a caring, good-will ambassador bent on good deeds. People often forgive not out of charity, but because they forget.

If one likes Cain he might urge him to just hang in there. As I’ve said, time blurs misdeeds. What’s more, today's miscreants often become tomorrow’s heroes.

Unfortunately for Cain, he’s a Republican, conservative, and black.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Right-on, Elizabeth!

Elizabeth Warren, Democratic aspirant to the Senate seat held by Republican Scott Brown in Massachusetts, recently came out with what’s now become a widely publicized comment, subsequently picked-up by YouTube and Move On websites:
There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own. Nobody. You built a factory out there? Good for you. But I want to be clear: you moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for; you hired workers the rest of us paid to educate; you were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for. You didn't have to worry that marauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory, and hire someone to protect against this, because of the work the rest of us did.
Now look, you built a factory and it turned into something terrific, or a great idea? God bless. Keep a big hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.
Her comment rests on the assumption that the rich aren’t paying their fare share in taxes. In a previous post I’ve shown that the top 1 percent do pay 38 percent of the federal tax; however, this isn’t the bottom line. It’s what they don’t pay in taxes, given limitations on payroll taxes on social security, or sharply reduced tax brackets, once 70% before the Reagan era, now 35% max, etc. And then there are the investment loopholes and off shore tuck-a-ways a la places like the Cayman Islands and Swiss banks.

Concurrently, many of the middle class at substantially lower income levels pay at a high 28% clip. That includes my wife and me.  The unpleasant truth is that the rich have exponentially  increased their economic disparity with the middle and working classes to the point where the future threatens something resembling the two class set-up common to many South American countries of some rich and many poor.

We now learn that 20 million of our fellow Americans live in poverty. Forty-three percent of our unemployed, those age 50 and above, have been out of work more than a year. Unemployment among minorities, the fastest growing segment of our population, approximates the squalor of the Great Depression. The average indebtedness of a college graduate, a good many unable to find meaningful work, stands at $25,000, all of this at a time when corporate profits have soared 12% over the last decade, despite the 2008 down turn.

Sounds like Jacques Rousseau, but in the fine print of Warren’s spirited quote lies the idea of the social contract, that those with means have a responsibility for those who lack. The perquisites of the wealthy rest on the labor of the working poor and middle classes, as Warren points out.

Here in Lexington, KY, local government, facing severe budget limitations, is impinging on health care benefits for its employees, who are being asked to pay a larger share; for families, that’s some $600 monthly. Get real! As prolific social commentator Barbara Ehrenreich astutely observes in her 2001 classic, Nickel and Dimed, “Something is wrong, very wrong, when a single person in good health, a person who in addition possesses a working car, can barely support herself by the sweat of her brow. You don’t need a degree in economics to see that wages are too low and rents too high.”

Ehrenreich writes of employees in the minimal paying service industries, or of the working-poor, but her observations are no less valid for the vast majority of middle class families, too.

It was essayist John Ralston Saul who famously observed, “Everyone has an equal right to inequality.” Let the rich, the banks, the corporations try on the other fellow’s shoes, and I can promise you bellowing howls and light-year speed in concocting remedy.

Right-on, Elizabeth!