Black Ice

Recently reading a piece in the New Yorker by staff writer John Seabrook about his “black ice” near-death experience, my own very similar, and also almost fatal experience, was resurrected with a jolt and begged to be memorialized in writing. 

I have often reminded my son Conrad that fate (or God, if you wish) is watching over him and is saving him for some very special achievement, for already in his young life he has survived three potentially fatal experiences, where only a slight change in circumstances would have resulted in his death. Looking back at my own much longer life, I fortunately can recall but one such experience for me – and that is the one which I am about to describe.

“Black ice” is the common term for the thin layer of ice that forms on pavement when it is raining and the road surface and ambient temperature are at or below freezing. Of course the ice that forms under these conditions is not black but is so named because it doesn’t appear as the more visible packed-snow type of ice that also presents a challenge for winter driving. This you can see and can deal with; however, black ice is usually a surprise, covering a roadway invisibly, while the black surface of the road is still clearly visible – hence its name. Also, when driving in snow, or in snow packed so thoroughly on a road surface that it becomes ice, your vehicle’s tires can still retain a bit of traction – control of your vehicle is a challenge but enough is retained for at least some traction and steering. On black ice, however, there is absolutely no control – traction required for acceleration, steering or braking is lost completely.

I must have been about 35 or so, then living by myself in the house at 7 Brook Street in Plympton, Massachusetts, which my brothers Richard and Glenn had built for me. On one late winter evening I had spent a pleasant hour or two with a female friend living in neighboring Kingston, intending to drive home afterward, get to bed and rest up for the next day’s work at my job as elementary principal in Duxbury. I had shared a delicious dinner with her but had drunk no alcohol of any kind, so I was pleasantly sober and alert.

I was then still driving my Volkswagen camper, described in my previous article about the cars I have owned. Now, any VW bus of that vintage, including the much more spare and simple Kombi and the heavier camper with its convenient Westphalia trappings, is a notoriously poor handling vehicle – very unwieldy and top-heavy, woefully underpowered, and, with so much more weight in the back where the engine and drive train were located and so little up front, rendered dependable steering under any slippery conditions, somewhat challenging. 

In addition, the VW bus positions the driver and front seat passenger right up front, over and a little in front of the front axel, without any of the crash protection of the protruding front engine and axel of a standard vehicle. Even the steering wheel on this vehicle was a bit awkward to handle because it was almost horizontal. Of course, in spite of the vulnerability, this seating afforded great visibility for the driver and front passenger, if it mattered at any time.

Well back to my story. Snow had been forecast, but when I left my friend’s home I noted that is was cold and raining lightly but not yet snowing. I recall that I could hear the sound of my tires on the wet pavement during the initial segment of my trip home. Having experienced the challenges,  threats and risks of winter driving in New England for some years, I was comforted by this sound – it was wet pavement, not ice, upon which I was driving. As I left the village of Kingston behind me when I turned up Route 80 toward Plympton, I could still claim to be driving on wet pavement because I heard that comforting sound. But as I proceeded up the several miles of the darkened and isolated stretch of the road leading toward my home, one of the last things I remembered was that the sound of my tires on wet pavement had changed – I could no longer hear that sound. That’s when it happened. I guess I was driving at or below the speed limit, maybe 40 – 45 miles per hour, when I realized that my VW camper was slowly rotating, spinning down the road at the same speed I had been driving, totally out of control. I was absolutely helpless – there was no steering, no brakes, no control of any kind. That’s the last thing I remembered until waking up in the Plymouth hospital the next day, with terrible pain in my chest and my aching, pounding head bountifully bandaged.

Later discussing my accident with the policeman who found me, I found that after spinning totally out of control on black ice, I had struck an electrical pole, effectively putting out people’s lights for miles around. The impact was on right side of the front of the vehicle, the passenger side, and that side of the front was crushed in clear to the passenger seat. If I had struck the pole just a little more to the left, I would likely have died instantly, crushed by the pole and the steering wheel. As it was, my body had evidently struck the steering wheel, breaking several ribs and my head had struck the windshield, giving me a severe concussion and multiple cuts, the former of which had rendered me senseless until I woke up the next morning. The policeman said that he had found me moving and apparently conscious, lurching around the interior of my bus trying to extricate myself while bleeding profusely from my head wounds. An ambulance he had summoned had taken me to Plymouth hospital, where my cuts were treated and I was put to bed until I recovered consciousness.

I don’t remember returning to work immediately after my accident. Perhaps it had occurred during our winter break and I had sufficient time to recover before returning. I do remember that the head cuts healed quickly and completely but the broken ribs were another matter. For a long time I had great difficulty even breathing without significant pain and a cough or a sneeze made me cry out, so this injury required a much longer time for recovery. My first contact in the hospital was with my friend and her two children, who showered me with attention and concern which I am sure hastened my recovery. 

Well, that was my one and only near fatal experience. My son is two up on me and I hope it will stay that way. I certainly don’t want any more for either of us. But “black ice” is always a concern for me in winter driving. I am in Vermont now as I write this and even though it’s April and springtime should be here, it’s unfortunately still winter, with conditions perfect for “black ice” at night. It’s been snowing and raining with temperatures hovering around 30, sometimes in the high 20’s at night, and a little above freezing during the day. Needless to say, I am staying at home, well provisioned by the groceries I bought last Friday on the last leg of my journey. I refuse to go anywhere until a general rise in temperature arrives this weekend. And perhaps I should  conclude by injecting this otherwise serious piece with a little humor from Comedy Central’s Key and Peele and their discussion of “black ice”, alluded to in the afore-mentioned New Yorker article. 

 

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Why We Drink

I have to laugh, really. People dressed in suits and lovely dresses at a wine-tasting event – smelling, observing, pouring, sipping, commenting, exclaiming, celebrating. Or long articles about some remarkable new (or old) wine derived from a particular grape from a special vineyard in a certain country. And both the sippers and the writers employ a lexicon of special adjectives to describe it – like “impudent”, “woody”, “flippant”, “fruity”, “decadent”, “lazy”, “buttery”, “intellectually satisfying”, and so on. 

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Or people, maybe younger, maybe not dressed in suits and lovely dresses but in much less formal attire, perhaps in jeans and plaid shirts, extolling the virtues of the latest “craft” beer. Wow, that tastes really “accessible”, “aggressive”,  “caramel”, “hoppy”, “assertive”, “bright”, and so on.

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 Or some mustachioed elderly gentlemen in tweeds and vests lounging in leather armchairs and sofas at their exclusive club, being served some expensive single malt scotch or Tennessee sour mash whiskey, either “neat” or “on the rocks”, and murmuring to each other as they sipped that it tasted “smooth”, “malty”, “peaty”, “youthful”, “oaky”, “mellow”, “austere” or “smokey”.

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Oh, come on now. You are tasting or drinking this stuff mainly because it has alcohol in it, not because of any special flavor or “feel”. You there, wine sniffers, tasters and sippers, would you be gathering there in your finery, affectatiously tasting all of those different wines if they did not contain alcohol? Maybe you should just consider savoring and comparing the different grape juices before they were fermented. Or perhaps set up a “grape tasting” event comparing the grapes themselves. No, let’s be honest – the big reason that you wish to fancy yourselves wine connoisseurs is simply that the wine contains alcohol and imbibing the alcohol makes you feel good. 

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And you guys over there at the brewery sampling all those different craft beers. If suddenly the alcohol were removed from the beer would you be gathering together like this – laughing and carrying on, hoisting those embossed mugs and glasses to toast the brewer that created this marvelous stuff? What if it didn’t contain alcohol but still tasted more or less the same – would you really still be drinking it and enjoying it so much? Hey, why not an O’Doul’s instead of that Kilt Lifter? Of course, if we’re honest, you are enjoying that rich craft beer or even that bland Bud LIte for one reason – they contain alcohol and the alcohol makes you feel good.  

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And you distinguished gents in the tweeds – you’re really enjoying that exclusive scotch or bourbon. You’re drinking it properly too – you’re moving it around in your mouth, letting the vapors penetrate the sinuses; you’re breathing minimally so you can appreciate the flavors and aromatics…..and savoring every sip. But honestly, gentlemen, if that expensive single malt or sour mash had no alcohol, would you be drinking it at all? I think not, because after the flavor and the aroma, both good, of course, you are drinking this stuff because it contains alcohol and the alcohol makes you feel good.

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Readers, I’m not impugning our collective enjoyment of the myriad flavors of wine, beer or whiskey (or gin, vodka, rum, brandy and the rest). Sure lots of it tastes great and if our taste buds and palates are in good shape can truly be savored and enjoyed. But…..and I beg you to consider….if these libations did not contain alcohol, would we be drinking them? I mean would we seek out anything at all that tastes like gin if it did not contain alcohol and could not conveniently become a martini or a gin and tonic?

Humans consuming alcohol has been around since we homo-sapiens began to populate the earth. No one knows when man first squeezed some grapes to render the juice, then accidentally let it sit around for too long, finally drank it and noticed that he felt great, much better than when he drank the juice fresh, and then began to leave it around for longer on purpose, finally perfecting the process of wine-making.

Beer was purportedly discovered (or invented) by the ancient Sumerians and enjoyed in ancient Egypt as well. Now exactly how did this happen, do you suppose? Maybe some guy was cooking up a nice barley soup for supper, threw some handy herbs in for flavoring, but forgot about it, letting it cool down and sit for a few days or weeks. Then when he finally got around to consuming it, wow, it tasted a little different and made him feel good! Voila! – beer was invented (or discovered?).

While the discovery of wine and beer were perhaps fortuitous accidents, the family of varied liquors or spirits historically resulted from a purposeful process because all have one thing in common- the process of distillation. All were developed over the centuries by distilling alcohol from sugars or starches acted upon by yeast, producing the alcohol by the natural process of fermentation. Sugars yielded the rums, grains the whiskeys, other starches the gins and vodkas, berries the brandies and so on. And it’s worth noting that some of these distilled spirits were first used as medicines, particularly gin. And also, the triangle trade developed as the popularity of rum rose -slaves bought in Africa for New England rum, traded in the West Indies for sugar and molasses, and these to New England to make more rum. And the first licensed whiskey distillery in the world, “Old Bushmills Distillery” located in Ireland (how appropriate!) still produces whisky today.

A visit to a huge warehouse type of liquor store like “Total Wine” or “BevMo” is an incredible experience. There they are – hundreds and hundreds of different wines from all over the world, an astonishing number of different beers, also from everywhere, from small craft brewers and huge conglomerates, and a truly impressive array of spirits – dozens of different scotches, whiskies, brandies, gins, rums and vodkas. And you know what? Everything in this bewildering array of beverages has one thing in common – alcohol – that substance that makes you feel good. Everyone who walks up and down the isles, dropping bottle after bottle into their shopping cart is buying the same thing, alcohol, only adorned in different trappings.. 

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And I’m no different than these people. I enjoy a scotch on the rocks sometime around 5:00 almost every day. The scotch I drink is relatively inexpensive because it’s a blended, certainly not a single malt and is aged for only thirty-six months. But it’s still 80 proof so I drink it because it relaxes me and makes me feel good. Oh yes, I wish I could afford a more exclusive scotch to enjoy each day, but I can’t. So I have my House of Stuart, Scoresby or Clan McGregor, depending on what was on sale. And I pour it over the ice cubes, sip it and it tastes quite good. And because I get that nice relaxed feeling, I really don’t care that it’s not Macallan, Johnny Walker Black, or Glenlivet – although I do sometimes sacrifice and buy some of these to keep on hand for special occasions. But for my much-anticipated daily drink, my inexpensive blendeds do just fine.

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 And if for some reason I don’t have my scotch, I may drink some red wine, usually Charles Shaw merlot from Trader Joe’s, famously known also as “Two Buck Chuck” or Kirkland cabernet sauvignon from Costco, both actually quite well regarded. They both taste great, don’t give me a headache, go down well with whatever I’m eating and are reasonably priced. While comparatively inexpensive, they’re certainly not the cheap rotgut that’s shared by the unfortunate alcoholic vagrants gathered under our city bridges or sold by bootleggers on our Native American reservations, like Roma Tokay or some other cheap wine that may give you a buzz but also likely indigestion and a massive headache. But to further make my point, exactly why do they drink this stuff? I don’t think that groups of poor down and out inner city vagrants or poor native Americans on the streets of Farmington, Shiprock or Gallup, New Mexico, gather in groups and discuss the various flavors or bouquets of the liquid in the flat bottles stuffed in their back pockets. No, they could care less about the taste – they’re just trying to get that buzz, the good feeling that comes from the alcohol.

So friends – let’s not kid ourselves. It’s perfectly ok to admit why we enjoy alcohol – it relaxes us and makes us feel good. It’s not necessary to deceptively cloak that enjoyment in cloying rationales like aroma, taste, or feel, or attach any of the hundreds of picturesque adjectives to the beverage we’re enjoying. It’s ok to just say – it tastes fine and makes me feel good. 

Reasons for Seasons

I grew up in a family with solid farm roots – Dad from a farming family in Missouri and Mom from one in North Dakota. I also married two spouses from farm families – one the daughter of a New Jersey truck farmer and the other the daughter of a Vermont dairy farmer. So I am steeped in farm values, habits and principles.

One of these is “make hay while the sun shines”, meaning that if the weather is good, you should be outside getting some work done. Or generally, when conditions are favorable, get something accomplished. You can’t plow or cultivate crops when it’s raining and the soil is soaked. You can’t harvest the wheat or the corn then either. Nor can you even do the wash and hang it on the clothesline to dry. So good weather requires you to get outside and get something useful done because the rain might come again tomorrow.

Growing up in the four seasons of New Jersey, this precept was demonstrated to me quite often by my parents, both of whom had obviously experienced the urgency of good weather. It was only on rainy days, or in the winter, that the pressure was not there. It’s winter – the hay has been cut, dried, baled and stacked, the wheat has been harvested and marketed, the corn has been cut and is in the bin, fruit and vegetables have been picked, peeled and canned, the potatoes and turnips are in the cellar, the wood is split and stacked, the coal bin is full, the stove is heating the house, you’re well provisioned and secure for the winter, so relax, read a book or listen to some music.

Unless of course you are a dairy farmer, as was my late father-in-law. These dedicated farmers had to milk the cows twice a day, every day, rain or shine, winter or summer. They also had to take care of the cattle year-round, making sure they were fed, healthy and comfortable. And then there were always calves to take care of. But at least in the wintertime there was somewhat less to do – at least the hay was in the mow and the silage in the silo.

So on sunny days, I have always felt uncomfortable about staying inside and involving myself in indoor tasks. I’m trying to read a book but the sun is shining in through the window and lighting up the page. Something is wrong here, this shouldn’t be. I should not be inside reading when the sun is shining. There has got to be some work outside to be doing. So I can’t concentrate properly and fail to appreciate or understand what I’m reading – the page and the words are blurred by guilt.

Before retirement, this feeling was minimized. After all, we weren’t farmers, we were educators, so we plied our craft rain or shine. No matter what the weather, the children came to school and their teachers taught them. The teaching and learning went on when the sun was shining or when it was raining or snowing. It was during retirement that this pull of the sunshine and the comfort of rain or snow became most obvious.

Retired, we began the practice of living for six months or so in the house we have owned in Scottsdale, Arizona since 2000. This home in Casa del Cielo, a subdivision of Scottsdale Ranch, is a “patio home” – tiny backyard, very close to other dwellings in the back and on both sides, separated by six foot walls. During the other six months we live in our little house in Dorset, Vermont, on the last little piece of my wife’s family’s dairy farm – 1.2 acres of grass, gardens, some woods and a brook.

So the only cold weather we now experience are the late spring and early fall of Vermont – both actually quite pleasant. In springtime we work on the house, repair some winter damage, rake leaves, dead twigs and branches and other accumulated winter detritus, while we watch the lawn turn from brown to green and harsh bare trees gradually become softly green with new springtime leaves. Then during the summer there is the actual work of living there – maybe some new gravel for the long driveway that needs to be purchased, delivered, dumped and spread; perhaps some new paint on the deck and the trim, and always the weekly grass mowing and related maintenance of the mowers. And my spouse is busy clearing dead vegetation from her gardens and planting, pulling weeds and mulching.

And now here in southern Arizona, we are experiencing our “winter” – some cloudy, cool and rainy days in November and December, but typically mostly sunny days starting with cool nights, perhaps an occasional frost, crisp mornings and then temperatures in the high 60’s and low 70’s. Later in January to April when we generally depart for Vermont, the weather has warmed considerably, The sun steadily rising in the southern sky becomes discernibly more intense as the days heat up to the high 70’s, 80’s and perhaps even the 90’s.

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During this time, we watch the green citrus fruit on our six trees gradually ripen to yellow and orange and around Christmas we pick and enjoy our first sweet tangerines. And soon we need to strip the tree, refrigerate the fruit, eat as many as we can and give away bags of tangerines to friends and family. Later we pick the oranges and squeeze and freeze the juice. Finally, right before we return to Vermont, we pick all the grapefruit, eat what we can and pack the rest in boxes to bring back to Vermont, store in our cold basement garage, and share with friends and neighbors.

And in March, we systematically care for the trees by spreading measured quantities of citrus fertilizer around them, watering it into the desert landscape and hoping for a spring rain or two to finish the job. And all this while, my spouse is enjoying tending her flowers and feeding her birds, while I work on organizing the garage and maintaining our vehicles – making sure they are properly serviced and vacuumed, washed and waxed.

And here emerges the problem that I hinted at in my first several paragraphs. While here in Scottsdale, Arizona, I find it very difficult to read or write because of the abundant sunshine. Typically, the only time I can comfortably read or write is early in the morning before it gets light, or in the evening after the sun goes down. The rest of the time I am dealing with the pull of sunshine and the urge to get something done because the weather is good – maybe only a walk to the mailbox, a bicycle spin around the neighborhood, grocery shopping or a trip to Costco but I find it utterly impossible to read a book or write anything when it’s sunny outside. Even cleaning up the desk in my study is uncomfortable when I can see outside. So to get anything significant accomplished there, I keep the blinds drawn, blocking the outdoors and making the room as dark as possible.

Now in southern Arizona there is a time of the year, like winter in the east where I grew up, when you are comfortable being indoors doing some reading, writing or sewing and do not feel compelled to work outside, despite the lure of the constant sunshine. This is the summertime, when the heat here becomes unbearable. It is during these hot summer months that you draw the blinds, make sure the air conditioning is working properly and hunker down and relax because it’s too hot to do anything outside. You do your shopping or eating out early in the day or in the evening when the heat is more bearable but spend the rest of the day on indoor activities. This is the season in southern Arizona that resembles the winter in the east – the outdoor work is done, you did it when the weather was cooler, so it’s ok to stay inside now.

And in Vermont, where rainy and cloudy weather is much more common, it is truly much easier to work inside, not only doing some reading or writing, but also some interior painting or work reorganizing the basement or cleaning out the garage. But on sunny days, we are pulled outside like a magnet. Hey – forget those dishes in the sink, forget clearing off the kitchen counter, to hell with the dusty floors that cry out for vacuuming, avoid that full laundry hamper – just get outside and mow that grass, mulch that garden, pull those weeds, repair that fence, rake that driveway. Do something, for crying out loud. Well, if it’s all done, which is rare, do not remain inside but instead take that favorite walk around Scallop Drive, a lovely, colorful, and fragrant 2.2 mile walk north on Danby Mountain Road, then west uphill on Scallop Drive, south along the wooded mountainside, then east downhill to Danby Mountain Road again and home.

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In the fall, right before the winter sets in and we leave Vermont, is when I feel the most intense influence of this farmer frame of mind. It’s October – the leaves have turned their stunning shades of red, yellow and orange, and have begun falling and, as they dry, begin blowing about the yard, accumulating in piles wherever the breeze drops them. My wife has cut her dead flower stems and collected what seeds she needs for the spring. She has dug up the bulbs she needs for planting next May. Her gardens are ready for the predictable onslaught of another harsh Vermont winter. And I have painstakingly cleaned up the mowers, changed the oil and air filters, disconnected the batteries, sharpened the blades and stowed them in the garage. I have carried the outdoor table and chairs from the deck and stacked them in the garage, cleaned up the barbecue, disconnected the propane tank and taken them there as well. I’ve carried the heavy steel milk cans from Bobbie’s father’s dairy farm, now painted a bold red and embellishing the entrances, porches and stairs of the house, into the garage and stacked them for the winter. All the rakes and shovels are hung and the big steel wheelbarrow is now in the garage too. I have turned off the outdoor spigots and opened the faucets so there is no residual water to freeze. And I have had the plumbing company come out and clean the boiler so it’s prepared and trustworthy for the winter.

But now what do we do? Instead of blowing the dust off those books, opening them to where we left off and settling down for a season of relaxing security inside a warm house while the cold wind and snow swirl outside, we pack some suitcases, box the big black books of cd’s and dvd’s, put our folders of receipts and records and my piles of journal articles in file boxes, pack them all carefully in the car and leave our snug house with everything done for the winter for the four day drive to Arizona. And there we do it all over again – contend with the eternal sunshine and the constant urge to get outside and do something, start getting up very early to get the reading and writing done and never experience that rare winter feeling of enjoying life inside looking out, reading a book, writing a letter or a poem, taking a nap, doing some sewing or baking some cookies, because all the outdoor work is done. We’ve left all that back in Vermont.

So now, avoiding the frigid winters in Vermont and the boiling summers in Arizona, there is little time to feel comfortable about being relaxed indoors and getting those indoor tasks completed. My spouse has been dragging her sewing machine back and forth between our two houses wondering why she never feels like sewing. And I drag my music and writing stuff back and forth wondering when I can focus my mind enough to get something significant completed. Well, having thought about it and experienced it, I know why. We are farm people drawn outside by good weather and happy to stay inside during less agreeable times. But going back and forth to obtain the best weather in both Vermont and Arizona and avoid the worst, we’re missing those special secure and relaxed indoor times entirely. However, I know we’ll experience them again someday, perhaps sooner than we think, because as we age, we’ll no longer be able to maintain two homes and will have to choose one to remain in year round. So again we’ll experience that secure and relaxing feeling during either a long Vermont winter or a hot Arizona summer – the outdoor work is done – relax and enjoy indoor activities.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fitness Frustration: Pet Peeves at the Gym

I have lots of “pet peeves” which I deal with by rolling my eyes, sighing emphatically, shaking my head, making a disparaging remark or maybe uttering a profanity or two. These include inconsiderate drivers, telephone salespeople, rap “music” and the person in front of me in the “about 15 items” supermarket line with clearly many more than 15 (and yes, I counted them). Thankfully, I avoid conflict by doing much of this reacting mentally, not physically, although my overall body language may give me away. But lately, I have extended the list of things that irritate me with the stupidity and thoughtlessness exhibited by many of the people I encounter in the gym at which I work out most days of the week.

I love this gym – it’s huge, it’s modern, with dozens of cardio machines of all kinds – bicycles, treadmills, ellipticals, stairclimbers, rowing machines, yes they’re all there. It also has more weights, benches, dumbbells and barbells than I have seen anywhere. Also, the selection of resistance machines is incredible. At 75 I’m not trying to put on muscle, I’m just trying to keep what little I have left, so I have a modest routine that I follow each time I go, rotating a series of resistance machines with dumbbells and other machines over a two-three day cycle and correspondingly alternating my choice of cardio machines. My daily session takes approximately an hour – around 30 minutes on the resistance machines or weights, and 30 minutes on whatever cardio machine I’m on that day. It’s a great workout and I experience a healthy exhaustion when I come home to shower and eat my breakfast.

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But every day I go, I am frustrated, bothered and irritated at what I see. It seems that there’s always some goofball lifting his weights or pulling or pushing the handles on his resistance machine who thinks he has to wince, grimace or grunt loudly with each of his movements. Sometimes I think – wow, this guy must be lifting (or pushing or pulling) quite a bit, to make such a loud and obvious show of effort. But when I glance at the weights or move to the machine and use it myself without adjusting, I discover that his exercise required but little effort – certainly not the loud and effusive demonstration of superhuman exertion that I just observed and heard. I mean, what are these people trying to do? Show off their strength? No, they’re not requiring or using that much strength. Trying to get noticed? Why? It’s a just a big gym – everybody is exerting themselves. To impress the cute girl using a machine across from him? No, too bad, she’s rolling her eyes. No, it’s just the “I’m important, I’m different, I’m exerting myself more than anyone else here” syndrome. Well thank God for the majority of exercisers who perform their activity quietly and unobtrusively, without the contorted countenance or the loud grunts.

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And related to this are the ubiquitous musclemen who not only gaze admiringly (and longingly?) at themselves in the huge mirrored wall behind the weight racks, but attract attention to themselves by noisily banging weights down on the gym floor when concluding their lift. This is especially the practice of those genuine weight-lifting types who perform a “clean and jerk” (with emphasis on the “jerk”) exercise with barbells and slam the loaded bar down with a startling, deafening clank. Hey, really not necessary, but if it garners attention, why not?

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Another pet peeve in my lovely gym is related to today’s world of cell phones and social media. I’m busy doing my machines, starting to breathe a little faster, by going from one to the other in rapid succession. But then I find a doofus sitting on a machine – just sitting, mind you, not using the machine – not pushing, pulling or lifting but just sitting there, taking up my next machine staring at his cellphone screen, perhaps thumbing a message to someone, perhaps just checking Facebook to see what a “friend” had for breakfast that morning, or if he got up feeling good, or had a great night last night. But there he sits – for five minutes, ten minutes, fifteen minutes (yes, I’m counting), occupying the machine that I want to use. My God, you inconsiderate fool, there is a refreshment area in the gym, with tables and chairs, there are stretching pads all over the place – go there if you want to play with your cellphone, don’t sit at a machine when someone else may want to use it!

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This selfishness and lack of consideration is demonstrated in other ways as well, usually with a couple of old guys chitchatting – one sitting idly on a machine (yes, the next one I was going to use) and the other leaning up against it talking. They both laugh, gesture with their hands, guffaw and chuckle, shake their heads in agreement or disagreement, and talk and talk and talk. For five minutes, ten minutes, fifteen minutes (yes, I’m timing them). One day, and I’m not kidding, two old fools, one on a machine and one leaning against it, were talking when I arrived at the gym, and were still talking when I left an hour later. Again, if these selfish and inconsiderate jerks want to talk – go sit down some other place and talk. Don’t occupy a machine when others may wish to use it.

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Occasionally when this has happened, I have asked the idle occupier of a machine, “Hey, pardon me, but are you going to use this machine?” Usually I’ll get a dark look in return but the person may really lay down the cell phone, grab the handles and resume his “reps”. Or if it’s two old doofuses I may get a highly animated emphatic apology as one old guy hastily scrambles from the machine. Or I might get an excuse and apology like “Gee, sorry, I didn’t know you wanted to use this machine”. Yeah right, you were sitting there goofing off for a half hour and thought you were the only one wanting to use that machine? Come on now, wake up, what planet are you on?

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Another pet peeve is not putting things back where you found them. One of the important maxims in the “Golden Rules for Living” that applies at home or anywhere else in the world is “If you move it, put it back”. Well, most people working out at my gym follow this rule. It’s really not that difficult – all the barbell weights are arranged in order on eight or so perfectly constructed racks arranged along the weight benches. It’s really easy to put them back after using them. And all the dumbbells are arranged on racks in sections numbered for the weight – there are the 10’s, the 15’s, the 20’s, the 25’s and so on. You just have to be smart enough to match the number on those you are using to the number on the rack – that’s where they belong. But always, always, someone who can’t read the numbers or who just doesn’t care enough to put things back where they found them, screws things up – there’s a couple of 30’s where the 25’s belong or 10’s where it says 15. I just can’t believe that people do this. Is this an ego thing? Hey, I’ll do what I want, to hell with rules or is it not caring, or is it just plain stupidity – gee, that 25 looked just like a 30. Whatever motivates people to do this, or disinclines them to do things properly – irks the heck out of me. So, taking the two 25’s I want to use off the spaces where 35’s go, I shake my head in disbelief and roll my eyes, hoping some offenders might see how frustrated I am. But of course they don’t and they don’t care anyway. The world has people like this and there’s nothing I can do about it.

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And probably the most frustrating pet peeve of all in my gym is watching the inevitable idiot who hops on board a treadmill, cranks up the speed to an adequate level, then increases the incline so he’s walking uphill, but then spends his whole time on the machine holding on to the bar or the control panel. This is stupid – you’re not really walking uphill, you’re being pulled uphill. You’re not getting a good workout at all. You’re hanging on to the machine for dear life, being pulled along. Oh yes, maybe you’ve seen other people do it and so you do it yourself, without a question or a thought about what it’s doing or not doing for you. You do your cardio this way for six months and still have the beer belly you had when you started. Moreover your cardiovascular condition has not improved one bit.treadmill Yet you think that because your treadmill is elevated 10 degrees and pointed toward the ceiling, you are getting a great workout. But you’re wrong, you idiot, you are holding onto the bar. Hey you fool, try leaving your machine at that same incline and letting go. Big difference, isn’t there? Now you’re really walking uphill, you’re swinging your arms, your heart is pounding, you‘re breathing hard, you’re actually breaking out into a sweat. This is a real workout. But there they are, always the same people – machine set at 10 or more percent incline, speed at 3.5 miles per hour, and they’re holding on to the bars, thinking they are getting a workout when they’re not. I can’t believe it. But it happens….every…..day.

But wait, there’s one more. Just this morning, when I was doing my cardio on a recumbent bicycle right under the CNN screen, some guy, already drenched and dripping (from his chin) with perspiration resulting from his encounter with another cardio machine, plopped himself down next to me to check the news and sip his waterexcessive-sweating-485x323. Then after polluting the air around me with a rare redolence of BO, got up and left, leaving the seat and back glistening with his sweat. This is disgusting. First, while it’s ok to sweat, actually good in the eyes of some – to help leach “poisons” from the body and whatnot – it’s not ok to offend others with the sight and odor. Nor is it ok to leave a residue on the machine. A rule to wipe down equipment after use should be established and enforced. And users of my gym ought to have the basic decency to bless their underarms with a stroke or spritz of deodorant before coming to the gym. Or at the very least, how about bringing a towel?

Really, I’m tempted to run off and distribute little printed notes that say “Hey, want to use your cellphone? Then find another place to sit”. Or “Hey, what to chat with friends? Find another place to chat” or “For God’s sake, man, stop cheating yourself…let go of the handles and really walk uphill” or “Hey, could you please wipe your sweat off the machine when you’re done?”. Or better yet, I wish my gym management would post some signs in convenient places saying “Use your machine and move on” or “Work out, don’t chat or text” and “Please wipe down equipment when finished”. Perhaps this huge gym should establish “texting zones” or “chatting areas”. Theres lots of room. And there have to be many other people just as frustrated as I am.

But I am sure they won’t and I’ll just go on this way – elevating my own heart rate and breathing rate not only through my workouts but through the constant frustration with the inconsiderate and egotistical people with whom I share this marvelous facility. C’est la vie.

 

 

 

They Are Missed

I have recently read a very interesting book with which I first became acquainted through reviews in the NY Times and the NY Review of Books – Robert J. Gordon’s “The Rise and Fall of American Growth: the US Standard of Living Since the Civil War”.

Mr. Gordon’s book is a fascinating mixture of economics and history which describes in great detail through prose, numbers and graphs the growth of the economy and the corresponding improvement in the standard of living in mainly what he calls the “special century” from 1870 to 1970. The main point of the book is to demonstrate that the improvement in the standard of living since the Civil War until about 1970 was huge and, despite our faith in continued progress through the benefits of technology, neither can nor will ever happen again. Gordon names “five great inventions” of this particular century – electricity, urban sanitation, chemicals and pharmaceuticals, the internal combustion engine and modern communication – any one of which, he asserts, had a far greater impact on our standard of living than the recent IT revolution.

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Professor Gordon sketches for us what life was like right after the civil war and compares this to life in 1970. By that year homes had central heating, electric lighting, toilets and electrical appliances to assist with household chores. We had automobiles, paved roads and telephones and performed our work in comfortable environments. We dressed in clothing that we bought from stores and ate fresh or well preserved food from supermarkets. If you could take people living then back to 1870, they would find city streets knee deep in horse manure, extensive travel very difficult or almost impossible, homes dark and cold. If you were a man you did backbreaking manual labor for a living; if a woman, you worked dawn to dusk washing clothes with a washboard in water you carried and cooked over a wood or coal stove. You had no fruit or vegetables in the winter and the meat and milk you bought could be bad. Your children were often ill or died of disease because there were no medicines to make them well. You carried in water to be heated for bathing in a tub. Your bathroom was a cold outhouse or a chamber pots emptied outside into the streets or fields. The contrast between 1870 and 1970 was quite stark, almost black and white, in terms of how people lived.

In reading this fascinating book and its descriptions of what life was like before the “five great inventions”, I couldn’t help but think of my parents and grandparents and what they experienced growing up. My Dad and Mom were both born in 1915, pretty much right in the middle of this “special century”, both into large farming families – Dad one of six children in Missouri and Colorado and Mom one of seven in North Dakota. I certainly wish Dad and Mom were alive today so that I could develop a more complete picture of what their lives were like as children and through them, what their parents’ lives had been like growing up.

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Ralph and Ida Friedly wedding day, both  21

I remember my father telling us children that he walked three miles to school every day when he was young. I’d like to know – on what kind of roads? Did anyone have automobiles or were his neighbors limited to horses and carriages? I do know that as a boy on the farm in Versailles, Missouri, he plowed fields and planted and cultivated crops with teams of horses or mules. Also I remember visiting the Missouri farm as a child and, looking back, I don’t remember the house having bathrooms. There was a primitive outhouse with an old Sears catalogue hanging on the wall from which you could rip a few pages to clean yourself up. Instead of a bath or shower, you cleaned up with a sponge bath in a protected area of the kitchen.

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Audra Frances (Arnold) 15 and Conrad Adam Friedly 26 in 1913

I wonder when my father’s family got electricity and how they lived without it when he was a child. I presume kerosene lamps provided the light and a wood cooking stove or a pot bellied stove provided some heat in the wintertime. And I presume that one’s body on top of and beneath a featherbed, with the bodies of brothers and sisters close by, was enough to keep warm in the unheated bedrooms of that day.

My grandfather, Conrad Adam Friedly, lost his farm in Versailles, Missouri in 1927 and moved the family to a farm on the plains of Colorado, east of Denver where the family tried again to make a go of it. I know little of these circumstances – if the farm in Missouri was lost, what means did the family have to buy a farm in Colorado? Or did they rent the farm or just work on a farm? My grandfather later moved back to Missouri with what remained of his family to the farm he used to own. How and when did that happen?

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Friedly family circa 1926 Dad second from right

More to the point and considering the book I read which raised all the questions, what was life like for them in Missouri, then Colorado, then Missouri again? Professor Gordon stresses that even while cities and towns across the country were making progress with electric lighting, bathrooms, sewage and running water, farms, especially in the rural south, lagged far behind the rest of the country. Looking at my father’s situation, I would have to assume that outhouses, carrying cooking and cleaning water, bathing in the kitchen, kerosene lamps, wood or coal stoves for cooking and heating were exactly what he had in his youth.

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Dad at Belleview, Pillar of Fire church,  15 or so

Gordon points out that there were differences between rural areas and suburban/city areas in how quickly these modern conveniences were provided. I would have liked to compare Dad’s primitive, hard-scrabble farm life in Missouri, which indeed was the south, to Mom’s prairie farming life in North Dakota, on the northern plains when they were both little children in the 1920’s. What do they remember about how their houses were heated, about bathing? Going to the bathroom? Running water? When did their families obtain their first tractor and put the mules and horses out to pasture? When did each family obtain their first automobile? How were their crops harvested? What were their dietary staples and how was most of their food preserved? I do remember Dad talking about butchering hogs and hams hanging in the smokehouse. And I know that farm families at that time “canned” food in the summer for consumption in the winter, filling and sealing mason jars, then “cooking” the sealed jars in huge pots of boiling water on top of a wood stove. Wait a minute, there was no wood on the treeless prairie plains of North Dakota. What was the fuel they used for heating and cooking?

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Four generations 1941: Standing Dad, Mom and Dad’s parents, Audra and Conrad; seated George and Ida Arnold, Fred and Donnie Friedly with Barbara, 3 years old.

What was school like for Mom and Dad when they were children? What memorable teachers did they have? Did they obtain their respective love of reading and desire for learning from them or from their parents? Mom’s parents were not educated but nevertheless obviously instilled a love of learning in their children. I know Uncle Arnold had a college degree and of course Uncle Emil, and finally Mom. Who else?

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Nels and Anna Baxstrom, Mom’s parents

I would love to ask the same questions of my father, were he still alive today. What do you remember of your teachers when you were a child? Does any one remain in your mind as a special inspiration? I suspect that Dad would claim that his love of learning began when, as a youth of 14, he left his family home and cast his lot with the Pillar of Fire church. And I know that Dad would eagerly tell me about one teacher in his Pillar of Fire experience as a high school student who inspired him – Agnes Kubitz, whom I remember too as a gentle, soft spoken, dignified, white haired teacher. I believe that she may have still been teaching at Zarephath when our sister Barbara was in high school.

Gordon makes a point of describing how clothing was sewn by hand in many families. Did both my Dad’s and Mom’s families have to purchase cloth from local stores and then sew their own clothing? Mom was an accomplished seamstress, perhaps this is why. When exactly did they begin to buy ready made clothing from department stores or from mail order catalogs? I certainly wish Mom and Dad were alive so that I could better understand this and so many other aspects of their childhoods and through that knowledge better understand them and  myself.

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Baxstrom family circa 1928, Ida (mom) second from left

I miss my parents for other reasons as well. Charles Ralph Friedly, my father, and Ida Marie Baxstrom, my mother, were not perfect people by any means. As noted in my article about him, Dad was rarely home when I was little. He fled family responsibilities by being busy teaching school in the Pillar of Fire Church’s Alma Preparatory School, or taking taking courses at Alma White College, both at nearby Zarephath. As noted in that article, Dad also pursued several part time vocations – such as serving as the community barber, with his faithful Oster hair clipper at hand, by serving as pastor at other nearby Pillar of Fire churches, like the one in Brooklyn, New York and by farming and selling his produce. But Dad had an awesome intellect that I never properly appreciated, my perception being clouded by my bitterness and resentment caused by his frequent absences. I wish he were here now so I could get his take on for example, today’s Republican Party. Even though a faithful member and supporter of the Republican Party (he even attended the 1952 Republican Convention in Chicago), I would fancy that Dad had a great deal of sympathy for the less fortunate and for the common working man. What would he think of the Republican Party today compared to that of his day, exemplified by these provisions in the Republican platform of 1956:

1. Provide federal assistance to low-income communities;
2. Protect Social Security;
3. Provide asylum for refugees;
4. Extend minimum wage;
5. Improve unemployment benefit system so it covers more people;
6. Strengthen labor laws so workers can more easily join a union;
7. Assure equal pay for equal work regardless of sex.

What would he think about the perennial Republican tax cuts for the wealthy and attacks on Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid? I know that he was constantly surprised and pleased by his own Social Security check which, though small, arrived faithfully every month, from that same Federal government that his political party liked to condemn.

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Emil, Elma and Ida Baxstrom circa 1932

I would love to ask my mother more about how her family came to send virtually all of its children at one time or another to the Pillar of Fire schools in Denver, where Mom and Dad eventually met in high school. I know that Mr. Clarence Yoder, somehow a church member, owned a quarter of land adjacent to the Baxstrom farm in North Dakota. But why and how exactly did Mr. Yoder wield such influence on Mom’s family? And who was primarily responsible for the final decision – her mother or her father? I know one brother, her youngest, Uncle Emil, left the Pillar of Fire in disgust after a few months there, calling the church a “cult”. How did the others feel? How did my mom really feel about the church? I do know that Dad’s parents adamantly disagreed about the church – his mother embracing it and backing Dad’s decision to leave his family for the church at 14. I wonder if Mom’s parents had conflicting opinions as well.

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Baxstrom women Ruth, Elma, Ida (mom) and their mother Anna, maybe 1930

And I would like to ask my mother about how she developed her affinity for music which exerted such a pervasive influence on all of us children? Did they sing a lot in her little Mylo school? In her Lutheran church when she was a child? Did her parents also enjoy music at home? Did they have a piano in the house? Who played it? How did she learn “Star of the East”, that song on the piano which became her trademark? Incidentally, thanks to the magic of Google, I was surprised to learn that this song was actually a Christmas carol, has beautiful lyrics and was recorded on the B-side of a Christmas record by Judy Garland.

And Dad, too, enjoyed music, enjoyed singing, which surely influenced all of us as well. Where did that come from? What church did he and his family attend when he was a child in Missouri and in Colorado? I know I could have asked many of these questions to some of Dad’s siblings when they were alive. But they are all gone now too and I didn’t ask. So I will never find out.

All the questions outlined above could have been extended to what Mom and Dad knew of their own parents’ childhood. What Mom knew about the difficulties of everyday life faced by her Swedish parents, Nels Baxstrom and Anna Jonsson, when they were children would have been very interesting. Also, I would like to have known what Dad knew of the daily challenges faced by his parents, Conrad Adam Friedly and Audra Arnold and their respective families when they were growing up. I just didn’t ask Mom and Dad these questions and regret it very much today.

So I miss my parents more than ever and at age 75 I’m wondering why. Right now I’m attempting to prepare a huge page of the Friedly Family with Mom and Dad, their birthdates and birthplaces on top and their children and progeny listed in order below, replete with birth dates, occupations and so on. Ralph and Ida Friedly would have been so pleased and proud to see this extensive list of individuals who, with an assist from the infusion of other rich blood, descended directly from them, and have pursued such a huge variety of careers and vocations.

It hit me the other day, during one of my early morning reveries, during which I seem to think most clearly and write most fluently, that perhaps the reason I miss my parents so much now, is that I’m getting on in years myself and have a clearer sense of my own mortality. Mom and Dad did indeed pass away but they continue to live richly in my mind.  With the inevitable end of my consciousness, they will finally fade away completely for me. So along with a final goodby to my own loved ones, it will be a final farewell to Mom and Dad as well. They are missed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hollow Patriotism: Honoring the Troops

Here we go again – the NFL’s annual “Salute to Service” – coaching staffs wearing Nike-manufactured military style jackets, hoodies and jerseys, and players sporting a camouflage towel, wrist band or an occasional pair of “camo” shoes. And for some teams even cheerleaders decked out in scanty camouflage outfits. What is all this for? How many of the NFL’s coaches and players have served in the armed forces? How many of their obscenely rich billionaire owners? Not many, I think. No, it’s a sickening, gratuitous, self-serving act that makes players, coaches and owners feel better for basking in luxury on their millions of dollars while the less fortunate among us risk life and limb doing the fighting in our ill-conceived wars.

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I wonder how our soldiers feel – missing loved ones, being under fire, losing comrades and buddies, seeing limbs blown off, face to face with the blood and gore, going to sleep at night fearing that tomorrow may never come, struggling with the question of what they’re fighting for, wondering who and where the enemy is? Ooh, I bet they feel really great when they are able to see a televised NFL game back at the base and see all the coaches, assistant coaches and other sideline hangers-on, even the Gatorade boys, wearing this olive drab and camouflage attire, with an American flag on the sleeve and “U.S.A.” printed boldly on the back. Yes, suddenly, our soldiers are overcome with emotion and get teary-eyed with gratitude at seeing how much these overpaid players and coaches appreciate their sacrifice. Yeah, right – instead, our servicemen must shake their heads sadly and roll their eyes at this spectacle of self-righteous condescension.

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How our soldiers actually feel is grimly illustrated in Ben Fountain’s, “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk”, a finalist for the National Book Award and now a movie . Billy Lynn is one of eight survivors of a horrendous Iraq War firefight, which, caught on tape, made them instant heroes, to be whisked back to the US for a two week “heroes tour” culminating in their halftime appearance at a Dallas Cowboys football game. The book and the screen adaptation focus on the soldiers’ awkward and embarrassed struggle to absorb this unseemly attention and an adoring public’s futile attempt to make them into something better than they are. After all, these survivors of a brutal incident in a mistaken war, were simply surviving, trying to protect themselves and each other.

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Guess what – our returning servicemen do not wish to be thanked for their service. They find such gestures, especially from people who have never served in the military or who would never even allow their children to serve, shallow, disconnected and self serving. According to Matt Seitz, in his RogerEbert.com review of the recent movie “Thank You for Your Service”, we have “…subcontracted war to lower middle class and poor people (and mercenaries), then allowed politicians to keep them mostly out of sight and mind after they’ve endured and committed unimaginable violence. Veterans are treated as human props in this country, posed in front of flags and trotted out at sporting events and momentarily flattered by politicians of both parties, even as legislators and presidents neglect their care or gut their benefits, and large sections of the public forget they even exist”.

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And actually, how do you think the coaches and players themselves feel about this childish dress-up fakery? Do their hearts swell with pride as they don this quasi military gear? Or perhaps do they shrink and feel a little bit ashamed? The number of veterans or active National Guard members among NFL coaches and assistant coaches is undoubtedly tissue thin and the number of active players who have served is thinner still. So does wearing an olive drab jacket with camouflage trim with the US flag on your sleeve, the big U.S.A. on the back and the Nike swoosh on the other arm or wearing the camouflage-team color and logo combination cap or the logo/olive drab knit hat make up for it? Do the players waving a camouflage towel make them feel okay about not serving in the military and merely awkwardly trying to honor those who do? Frankly, except for the most shallow players and coaches, I don’t think it does. And the most conscientious and sensitive among them likely wish the NFL would do away with this transparently weak cultivation of hollow patriotism.

How much does all this costumery cost the NFL? What is the cost to require NFL coaches to masquerade as military personnel? Thousands of dollars? Hundreds of thousands? Millions? This is a huge operation – check it out – 13 website pages ( http://www.nflshop.com/Salute_To_Service) of NFL “Salute to Service” apparel all featuring the logos of your favorite team on caps, jerseys, knit hats, jackets and hoodies carefully matched with the best of olive drab and “camo” designs. Hey, instead of paying this this kind of money to Nike to add to their hoard hidden in the Cayman Islands, why doesn’t the NFL send the money instead to Veterans organizations, to the grieving families who have lost a loved one “defending our freedom”, or to researchers trying to find successful treatment for the many veterans suffering from PTSD? This would be really caring about the military, instead of all the flimflam and fakery. Or better yet, they could contribute the money to organizations supporting peace in our world instead of war.

Also very upsetting at NFL games is the showy trickery of picking out a uniformed member of the crowd and zooming in to show him or her on the stadium jumbo-tron so that the subject can rise for a bow and the crowd can cheer its gratitude. A couple of years ago when, can you believe it, the military actually paid NFL teams for these patriotic shows, a “statement of work” agreement with between the Pentagon and the New York Jets stipulated:

• A videoboard feature – Hometown Hero. For each of their 8 home game, the Jets will recognize 1-2 [New Jersey National Guard] Soldiers as Home Town Heroes. Their picture will be displayed on the videoboard, their name will be announced over the loud speaker, and they will be allowed to watch the game, along with 3 friends or family members, from the Coaches Club.
• Place 500,000 Digital Banner impressions on the New York Jets website
• Kickoff each Home game with “Into Battle” Video Feature with Soldier/Crowd prompts
• [New Jersey National Guard] Branding on every Monitor, specifically 3 Minutes of IPTV L-wraps, in Met Life Stadium for each NY Jets 2012-2013 Season Home Game.
• Salute to Service Gameday Activation with enhanced presentation on Military Appreciation Game (DEC 2012)

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Yes, between 2011 and 2014, the Pentagon actually dumped 5.4 million dollars into the already bulging coffers of NFL teams to honor service members and put on elaborate “patriotic salutes” to the military. This disgusting misuse of Defense Department funds would have gone on much longer had not Senators McCain and Flake discovered it, publicized it and the Pentagon suddenly decided that the NFL should pay for its own glorification of the military.

The Super Bowls, the NFL’s crown jewels, have become huge military propaganda extravaganzas, the potentially competitive and fascinating game playing second fiddle to not only the typical dazzling halftime show but also to the football field-sized flags, the squads of Homeland Security soldiers with their Humvees “keeping us safe” and always the US Navy’s Blue Angels Delta formation thundering above the stadium and its cheering crowd.

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This contemptible practice of militarizing sporting events is even spilling over into other sports. I could not believe what I saw at the US Open last year. This essentially dignified international event was totally militarized, presumably because its schedule included September 11, 2016. But if we want to honor those who died on 9/11, would it not have been more tasteful and appropriate to scrap all the flags and the uniformed military and instead honor some courageous policemen or firemen who rescued so many on that dreadful day? What on earth did the American military have to do with 9/11 anyway?
Why are we so enamored of big colorful, noisy ultra-patriotic demonstrations at our sporting events? Why the “support the troops” signs on cars, why the dozens of programs to “honor the troops”, including 2015’s “A Salute to the Troops: In Concert at the White House” on PBS and “The Concert for Valor” on HBO?

Is it to ease our collective guilt as we sit on our fannies while mercenaries do our fighting for us? Is it because we love flags, uniforms, military bands and patriotic speeches so prevalent in Nazi Germany in the 1930’s and 40’s? Or is it to spread a veneer of patriotic respectability over what has become the American Empire – 240 thousand troops on almost 800 military bases in 70 different countries.

A related and far more pervasive but no less lamentable practice in the US that I have questioned for years is the playing of the national anthem before sporting events. Suffusing even the most humble events, for example high school basketball and football games with this musical celebration of “rocket’s red glare” and “bombs bursting in air” is a step much too far. It’s interesting that “national anthems” are not generally played at European sporting events. You don’t hear “God Save the Queen” before English Premier League matches. When you ask non-Americans about the patriotic spectacle that permeates American sports, they tend to find it abnormal and somewhat bizarre. Yet every sporting event in our country has to be introduced with this terrible song and its multi-octave melodic span. Careful now, if you begin on a note a bit too high you’ll never reach that “red glare” note. Flags, crowds, chants, applause, cheers and veneration of the military. Can’t I be patriotic without all this Nazi stuff?

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US participants, Universiade, Izmir, Turkey 2005

Hey, I am patriotic, in fact quite patriotic. That’s why I deplore what is happening to my country – its Presidency debased by Donald Trump, its Congress in thrall to corporations and big money, unable to accomplish anything at all for the general welfare of its people. I am proud (and a bit envious) that my brother Robert served as an officer in the US Army in Germany after he graduated from Rutgers University and my nephew, Winston, son of my youngest brother, served an extended term in the US Navy. While working in Kuwait from 1996 to 2000, my family and I were always comforted by visits to the US Embassy where we could rub elbows with our diplomats or to Camp Doha, the US military base, where we attended church services every week and joined our servicemen at a mess hall dinner. And while working in Izmir, Turkey, I attended the Universiade opening ceremonies and actually got choked up as the US squad of competitors and the US flag entered the stadium. Yes, I love my country and am proud to be an American. But I don’t want my love and respect for my country to be conflated with the military, the violence and death of war, flag-waving and patriotic songs and certainly not with the NFL and the exploitative violence it represents.

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I wish that we had the good sense and honest gratitude to honor other kinds of American heroes at our big sporting events. Why not honor teachers or nurses? These professions help others, they don’t harm them. They improve the world with knowledge and healing instead of destroying it with bullets and bombs. Oh, sorry, you just want to honor people who fight? Well then, why not honor the valiant people who fight disease and death all over the world – Médecins Sans Frontières, “Doctors Without Borders”. Or the people who courageously struggled to preserve life by fighting the ebola epidemic in Africa.

Ebola Fighter on TIME cover

Or at our big athletic extravaganzas, it might be appropriate to honor Peace Corps volunteers, who faithfully teach, help people and win friends for the US in 60 countries around the world for $338 per month while at the same time our much better paid armed forces create bitter lifelong enemies for our country by spreading death and destruction. Perhaps we should raise the salaries of our valiant and generous Peace Corps volunteers and maybe provide them some benefits that military veterans have. How about some Peace Corps mortgages, or Peace Corps medical benefits. They deserve these just as much as military veterans – who knows, maybe more.

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Peace Corps Volunteer Conrad Friedly with his special needs children in Jordan

So, my fellow patriotic Americans, can we please get our priorities straight? Can we support peace instead of war, enjoy our sports events without the military trappings and “Oh say can you see…” and honor those who improve lives rather than destroy them? This is what America needs to demonstrate if it truly intends to be an example for the world.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Interstate of Mind: Reflections on Highways and the Trucking Industry

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Our Interstate Highway System is an engineering marvel, now consisting of almost 48,000 miles of divided, multi-lane, limited access highways for vehicular traffic. Approved and funded by Congress in June of 1956, the original plan finally completed in 1991 and extended later, this transportation network was the realization of the dream of President Dwight Eisenhower. The need for such a system was planted in his mind when as a young officer in 1919 he participated in a slow, ponderous two month effort to move a military convoy across the country on the “Lincoln Highway”, now US30 and later when as the Supreme Allied Commander in 1945 was dazzled by the German autobahns. Embraced originally as a Cold War requirement to move weapons and armaments quickly across the country if necessary, the Interstate system has also proven to be not only a blessing for the auto traveler, but a boon to the trucking industry and as such, a perpetual thorn in the side of the railroad industry.

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I remember traveling by car in the late 1950’s during early phases of construction. Interstate 44 was still mostly US66, I-70 was mixed with lengths of US40, and the only really significant length of speedy limited access expressway at the time was the Pennsylvania Turnpike. “The Turnpike”, completed in the early 1950’s and now designated also as Interstate 76, demonstrated what travel across the country would ultimately become when the Interstate system was finally completed. And although a toll road, truck drivers and motorists were always happy to pay since the Turnpike made a formerly tedious drive across the Appalachians very quick and convenient.

While traveling across the country so much in recent years, I remain more thankful than not for these highways. Moving along quickly, munching on snacks, stopping only to fill up the vehicle and empty its occupants, making the time go by quickly by listening to recorded books, and arriving at that planned motel stop before dark, one can easily cover six or seven hundred miles (over 1000 km) a day, reaching the final destination with far less stress than when such a journey was predominantly on two lane highways.

However, in recent decades, this renowned network of high speed multi-lane roadways has become a mixed blessing. Even though I am still mostly moving along quickly, the thousands of huge trucks on the road are making the drive much less pleasurable and far more stressful and dangerous. Sometimes it seems as though our little car is the only such vehicle on the road. Looking ahead, all I can see are trucks and, glancing in the mirrors, that’s about all I can see behind me as well. And coming toward me in the other lanes are again….mostly trucks, with only a few cowed cars mixed in. There are about 15 million trucks on the road, and of these about two million are tractor-trailers. And while big trucks officially make up only a small percentage of all highway vehicles, they all unfortunately seem to travel the same Interstate highways that I do.

newsengin-17574164_031316-trucks-only-hs01Often, when passing a line of these behemoths, I am forced to suddenly brake, take my car out of cruise control and destroy my momentum when one of them suddenly pulls out in front of me to attempt to “pass” several other trucks. Then I sit angrily behind it, poking along at far less than the speed limit, waiting for the truck to slowly, gradually pass the others and finally pull in so that I can regain my speed. So many times, I have been tempted to lean on my horn and render an obscene gesture to the offending truck driver as I resume my speed and momentum and pass him. But I angrily have to remind myself again that these guys really control the Interstate highways, not citizen motorists in little cars like me. Truck drivers pretty much do what they want because automobile drivers cannot challenge a 40 ton, multi-axled, 18 wheeled vehicle barreling along at better than 65 miles per hour.

Trucks on I-40

Rest areas along our interstate highways are getting increasing frustrating to use. When the interstate system was first planned, rest stops were constructed at proper intervals as places for motorists to stretch, relax, shake off driver fatigue and drowsiness, visit a clean restroom and maybe eat a sandwich or two at a shaded picnic table. That’s all changed significantly with the advent of long haul trucks with built in sleeper cabs. Now, roadside rests look a lot more like truck stops, with rows of semi’s parked, day or night, with the drivers snug in their sleeper beds grabbing a few winks. Rest stops are now made more convenient for trucks, with “trucks only” parking areas, replete with elongated parking spaces for one way entry and egress. In fact, the most recently constructed rest areas that I’ve observed along the Interstates appear to be planned more for the accommodation of trucks rather than for automobiles. Also, entering or exiting a rest stop is increasingly difficult since a driver must often navigate among trucks which could not find a spot in the rest stop so are now parked on both shoulders of an exit or an entrance.

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Truckers have not only taken over rest stops but also any other spaces available to them. For example, Interstate 40 through Texas and Oklahoma is interspersed not only with rest stops but also by “picnic areas”, more modestly sized spots where motorists and their families can ostensibly park and have a picnic at one of several nicely shaded tables. Well, forget it – any “picnic area” you see is packed with trucks, their drivers relaxing in their sleeper cabs. Horrible conditions for a family picnic for sure – the expensive tables and shades totally wasted. I have never observed a family having a picnic at one of these facilities and have never wondered why.

The same disorder also now infects “scenic overlooks” along the interstates, where special parking areas have been constructed so that motorists can stop, gaze at and perhaps photograph a scenic valley, mountain vista or village. Well forget that too – it’s not worth stopping to gaze enchanted and enthralled by a picturesque scene when you have to first weave your way among parked trucks to maybe find a parking place, then endanger your life by crossing the right of way, then shorten your life with lungfuls of diesel exhaust. The “scenic overlook” is packed with idling trucks and sleeping drivers.
Along some stretches of interstate highway, especially in the west, there occasionally are what I call “dead exits”, where interchanges have been constructed but are not connected to any existing highway or road, presumably waiting for a time when they will be needed. These are quite handy if you need to relieve yourself for you can get off of the highway, stand on the other side of your car and go in relative privacy, then hop back in, easily get back on the highway and be on your way. However, now these interchanges are populated by trucks arranged along both shoulders of the exit and entrance, with drivers sleeping. So my convenient “dead exits” now have joined roadside rests and picnic areas as rest spots for big trucks.

I used to see a sign painted on the back of the trailers of long haul semi’s – something like “This vehicle pays $6000 a year in highway taxes”, as if we are supposed to feel sorry for the transportation company bearing such a burden. What the company’s sign doesn’t tell you is that, while indeed paying federal and state taxes as part of the cost of fuel they consume, their trucks cause far more damage to the highways than these meager fees could ever conceivably compensate for. It so happens that as the weight of a vehicle rises, potential road damage does not increase linearly but exponentially by a power of four. Thus a fully loaded rig does about as much damage as 9600 cars. When trucks are overloaded, as quite a few of them are, the damage is exponentially worse. For example, increasing a truck’s weight from the maximum 80,000 pounds to 90 results in a 42 percent increase in road wear: pavement designed to last 20 years wears out in seven. Trucking companies claim that while they represent only 11 percent of all vehicles on the road, they pay 35 percent of all road taxes. Big deal, because they surely cause 99 percent of all road damage. Clearly, if anything, big trucks should pay far more in road taxes than they do now. The highway taxes that I and millions of other motorists pay actually provide a gigantic subsidy to transportation companies. It should be noted that railroad trains do far less damage to public infrastructure. And furthermore, their fuel taxes don’t pay for the maintenance of railroad beds and rails. The railroads themselves do.

Trucks vs Trains Effiency curves

Another problem related to big trucks on the Interstate highways is the threat presented by the chunks and strips of cast-off tire tread that litter highway shoulders and right-of-ways. When my vision of the roadway has been limited by dusk, darkness or a huge truck in front of me, I have occasionally hit these big hunks of rubber and thought I had hit a two by four and seriously damaged the car. These unsightly road hazards are routinely cast off from improperly retreaded truck tires, purchased by an owner/operator presumably too cheap to buy proper new tires for his rig.

tirechunks
And there are serious problems with truck drivers themselves. When I was young and my mother and father would drive us children on long cross country trips to visit relatives, we were taught to think that truckers were the absolute best drivers on the road. Yes, back in the days of two lane highways, I guess we felt a camaraderie with truck drivers when after a big truck passed us, we would flash our lights to signify that he was clear to pull back in and he would blink his deck lights in acknowledgement – a pleasant little roadway “conversation” and exercise in highway etiquette. Unfortunately those days are long gone. Truck drivers today seem to instead exhibit a much more arrogant and aggressive attitude and very little politeness and consideration, much less any behavior that could be described as “highway etiquette”. And furthermore, they don’t seem all that competent or skilled. I have followed trucks that couldn’t seem to stay in their lanes and have veered into the left lane, then, overcorrecting, onto the shoulder. I have seen them pull in front of me without signaling and I have been cut off by truck drivers. Were they inattentive? Drowsy? Exhausted? Unskilled? Or maybe just plain stupid?

I have seen the mangled results of dozens of horrible collisions involving semi’s over the last several years and I have read about some very grim ones resulting in death, always of the people in the smaller vehicles, almost never in the trucks. Usually the truck driver, protected as he is, escapes injury or death, even if he is at fault. A recent well known example is the 2014 accident on the New Jersey Turnpike when a Walmart tractor/trailer moving at 65 miles per hour in a 45 mph zone, rear-ended comedian Tracy Morgan’s travel van, killing comedian James McNair and causing severe injury to Morgan and several other passengers. Walmart driver Kevin Roper, who had driven from Georgia to Delaware to pick up his load and begin his shift, had not slept in 28 hours, survived the accident unharmed.

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Walmart truck, Tracy Morgan’s van 2014

A few pertinent statistics – tractor-trailer crashes kill nearly 4000 Americans every year and injure more than 85,000. Since 2009 deaths involving big trucks have increased 17 percent and injuries by 28 percent. Six million vehicle crashes occurred in the US in 2014. Of those, 476,000 involved large trucks and buses – a 22 percent increase from the previous year. And there have been a steadily increasing number of truck driver violations. There were 326,818 violations noted during big rig roadside inspections in 2015. One of the most numerous was of truckers who failed to log, update, or provide accurate information regarding their record of duty status. Also there were 136,585 hours-of-service violations, where drivers violated their time limits. Many fatal truck crashes involve rear-end collisions. The Department of Transportation reported that in 2015 large trucks were involved in 27 percent of all fatal crashes in roadway work zones, even though they represent only about 10 percent of all highway traffic. These crashes are usually caused when trucks come up on vehicles stalled by the road work.

Part of the problem today with truckers is how they are paid – usually by the mile. And when you are paid for the distance you travel, you will do everything possible to drive as far as you can as fast as you can. Pay rates for a truck driver range around 50 cents per mile so covering four or five hundred miles a day yields a fairly decent day’s earnings. But again, payment by the mile induces drivers to abuse speed limits and the rules requiring rest stops at established intervals, thus dramatically increasing the chances of an accident.

Truck-Accident-Lawyer-Columbia-South-Carolina

With the trucking industry booming and always looking for drivers, I fear that they are scraping the bottom, as far as the ability and skill potential of drivers is concerned. And I am always surprised to see so many women driving big rigs today. So, admittedly sexist driver that I am, I do notice many “woman driver” characteristics exhibited increasingly by drivers of long-haul trucks, such as driving too slowly, or being indecisive and overly cautious or braking too often. Many times I have remarked in frustration, “that has to be a woman truck driver”, and, upon passing the offending truck and glancing at the driver, I see that I was right.

woman-truck-driver

 

While large truck fatalities have been skyrocketing — jumping 26 percent between 2009 and 2015, the American Trucking Association and the transportation industry have tried to make things worse instead of better. As part of the 2015 highway funding bill, they tried to include an amendment allowing states to raise the present 80,000 pound limit for trucks to 91,000 pounds. In addition, to meet their perennial driver shortage, the trucking industry proposed lowering the minimum age of interstate drivers to 18. Highway safety advocates came out decisively against this proposal citing Transportation Department statistics that show drivers ages 18-20 are involved in 66 percent more fatal crashes than those above 21.

In a rare demonstration of common sense, the weight increase proposal was defeated and a compromise was struck on lowering the minimum age. Eighteen year olds were allowed to drive trucks within state boarders, maintaining the 21 year old age minimum for interstate driving. However, a pilot program proposed by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA)was approved that will allow a limited number of individuals between the ages of 18 and 21 to operate commercial motor vehicles in interstate commerce if they have received specified heavy-vehicle driver training while in military service and are sponsored by a participating motor carrier. So now that the door for teenage long haul truckers has been cracked open, I am sure that the lobbying power of the trucking industry has the clout to open the door completely in the near future. Wow, teenagers driving tractor-trailers cross-country on the Interstates! Brilliant!

Yes, to me, there are far too many trucks on the road, and with the price of diesel fuel staying low, I feel there will be even more as time goes on. But when driving on Interstate 40 through New Mexico, I can’t help but contemplate the irony of the dozens of trucks carrying cargo right along side of Burlington, Northern and Santa Fe trains carrying so much more at a much lower cost. A freight train can move a ton of freight 484 miles on one gallon of fuel, while a truck can move the same ton only 80 miles on the same gallon. If so much more expensive then why is 70 percent of all freight transported by trucks? In addition to loading and delivery convenience, I am sure that massive government subsidy of highway infrastructure as exemplified in the Interstate System is a major reason.

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In addition, because of this inefficiency, the carbon footprint of railroad transportation is one tenth that of trucks.

Comparative carbon emissions freight

A John Steinbeck fan in my twenties, I happily added “Travels With Charley” to the list of his books I read. I later lived some of this book when I traveled with my “rez dog” Seymour, from New Jersey to Colorado, by way of Michigan’s upper peninsula, Duluth, Minnesota, across North Dakota to Miles City, Montana and then down through Wyoming to Denver, Colorado. I enjoyed the trip very much, enjoying wonderful scenery along the way, and couldn’t help thinking about Steinbeck’s statement (sometimes attributed to CBS’s Charles Kuralt https://www.fhwa.dot.gov/infrastructure/first.cfm ) about the Interstate Highway system. “When we get these thruways across the whole country, as we will and must, it will be possible to drive from New York to California without seeing a single thing.” How prescient he was, because that’s unfortunately true in my own experience. My seasonal 2500 mile trips between Arizona and Vermont have become incredibly boring, perhaps because of familiarity or the Interstates themselves, or maybe both. But when traveling either east or west, really, Steinbeck (or Kuralt) is right, I really don’t see a damned thing except the miles and miles of four or six lane highway stretching out in front of me, the thousands of trucks and that scattering of cars in front of me and behind me. The number of trucks will inexorably grow and our Interstates will become ever more crowded. Thank God for recorded books!

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The Real Problem With Taxes in America

Republicans in Congress, having failed at healthcare “reform”, that is – taking away health insurance from some 20 million people, are now getting ready for “tax reform”. Yes, the pundits and the Party are somehow calling it “reform”. Interestingly, this word is defined in my Oxford Reference Dictionary as “make or become better by removal of faults and errors” and in my Apple computer dictionary as “to make changes in something (typically a social, political or economic institution or practice) in order to improve it”. And if Republican “healthcare reform” is actually making it worse for the country rather than better, we all know what Republican “tax reform” will be – reducing taxes on the rich and on corporations. So, writers and reporters, pundits and talking heads, let’s be honest and stop calling this pending Republican-sponsored legislation “tax reform” and call it what it is – “tax cuts”, and to be even more honest – “tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy”.

Our country seems to have truly lost its mind. First we elect Donald Trump, then try to pass legislation that would cause over twenty million people to lose health insurance and now we are trying to reduce taxes on corporations and the wealthy. Why would we want to reduce taxes when we suddenly have huge bills to pay for the extensive damage wrought by the three monster hurricanes striking Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico, and record breaking wildfires in northern California, together estimated at upwards of a half trillion dollars? Also, why would we reduce taxes when the cost of fighting two wars and maintaining our American Empire with 240,000 troops overseas in 70 different countries continues to accelerate? And why would we want to reduce taxes on the wealthy when we already lead the world in income inequality and lack of upward mobility, both proven drags on any economy? And why would we want to cut taxes during a time of economic growth when there is little room for additional expansion? And finally, why would we want to cut taxes on corporations when corporate profit is at an all-time high and they are rolling in seas of cash?

Well, we’re cutting taxes on the wealthy and on corporations because their donors have bought and paid for it. And cutting taxes, especially for the rich, is an old and honored Republican tradition. The dismantling of our formerly progressive income tax structure with the top bracket of 91 percent, began with little nibbles under presidents Kennedy and Johnson (remember Kennedy’s “a rising tide lifts all boats”?) and then Reagan’s gigantic reduction of the top tier down to 28 percent.

Income tax rate by president

According to economic researchers Picketty and Saez, the destruction of progressive taxation of income is not only the most significant cause of U.S. economic inequality but also the cause of stunted economic growth. But never mind – the economy be damned – it’s full speed ahead for Republicans obliging their wealthy donors – 80 percent of intended cuts will go to the top one percent of earners. And another Republican tradition will be honored – when their tax cuts cause the budget deficit to explode, their solution will be to cut “entitlements” – Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, not to restore taxes to required levels. Nor will the Republican Party ever cut the Pentagon budget, which continues to relentlessly expand. Republicans pretend to care about the deficit when Democrats try to improve the welfare of our citizens and the healthcare and retirement of our elderly, but care little about the deficit when it comes to cutting taxes on the rich or funding the military.

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And Republicans continue to bray several myths to justify their folly. First is Trump’s blatant lie that “America is the highest taxed nation in the world”. Actually, as a share of GDP, the most accurate measure of tax burden, the United States is among the most lightly taxed nations in the world, ranking near the bottom of all the advanced nations of the world and well below the median.

101417krugman OECD taxes

The second blatant Republican lie that they have claimed for years is that “tax cuts pay for themselves”. No, they do not. There is absolutely no evidence that this is true on a national level. And on the state level reckless tax cutting, mostly in the form of abolishing progressive income taxes and relying on regressive sales taxes, in Kansas, Wisconsin and in my own state of Arizona, have seriously reduced state revenue and economic activity, causing serious harm to education and other state functions. This silly claim has been discredited again and again, yet still is the rallying cry for Republicans doing what they do best – cutting taxes and exploding the deficit. Just as George W. Bush put his trillion dollar wars on a credit card, the Republicans will be charging their tax cuts – feels good now but it won’t to later generations who will have to pay the bill.

Conservative economist and Washington Post columnist Robert Samuelson asserts in a recent column that “we need higher taxes”, are “undertaxed” and should not be considering tax cuts but tax increases instead. Our obligations and commitments require more revenue, not less, and furthermore, as noted above, we are pretty much at full employment right now, rendering increased economic activity from tax cuts unlikely.

The third flagrant lie in the Republican tax cut scam is, in Trump’s words – “…ending the crushing, the horrible, the unfair estate tax…” This fictitious claim that ending this tax would “…protect millions of small businesses and the American farmer…” is absolutely false. Ending the estate tax, or “death tax”, as Republicans have chosen to call it, is a time honored canard of the Republican Party. The estate tax will affect very few of the country’s estates as the following table makes clear. If anything, the estate tax needs to be increased because it is failing in its original justification – to break up huge fortunes and prevent the formation of oligarchies and plutocracies. Furthermore, since charitable contributions reduce taxes on any given estate, this tax is not only an important source of federal revenue from people who can easily pay but a valuable source of induced charitable giving.

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The fourth blatant lie from the Republicans is that cutting corporate taxes will create jobs. This is totally untrue. Corporate tax cuts will result in higher executive pay, stock buybacks to increase stock value or larger dividends to stockholders. As I asserted in my “Economics 101” article, corporations invest and create jobs when there is increased demand for their products or services. Corporations are right now sitting on massive amounts of cash. They don’t need more. What is needed is more money in the pockets of consumers – this would increase demand, increase hiring and job expansions. Additionally, as noted earlier, with the economy doing well and corporate profits at an all time high, why the big push to reduce corporate taxes? Also, the corporate income tax, as a percentage of federal revenues has been steadily dropping – from 33 percent in 1952 to about 9 percent today. Corporations are simply no longer bearing their fair share of the expense of running our nation. There is very little substance to the steady Republican drumbeat that U.S. corporate taxes leave our country at a competitive disadvantage to foreign businesses. With all the loopholes available to corporations and their tax lawyers, the much-decried 35 percent top rate is in reality less than 20 percent. Among profitable companies from 2008 to 2015 there were 100 companies that paid zero or less in federal income taxes for at least one year, and many of these companies received some form of federal tax rebate, totaling hundreds of millions of dollars.

2017-Revenues-2

Now, do we need real tax reform? Of course we do. We need to close loopholes that have enabled huge corporations like International Paper, Verizon and General Electric to pay zero corporate income taxes. We need to find a way to stop corporations like Apple, now storing more that $230 billion in profits overseas, from avoiding taxes on that income. We have to close the estate tax loopholes that have allowed the Walmart fortune to be handed down almost intact to all its worthless heirs. The estate tax should be increased, not decreased, and the amount protected from taxation should be decreased, not increased. Republicans plan not only to not only raise the amount protected for now but phase out the estate tax entirely, leaving oligarchic fortunes intact.

We should establish a sales tax on security transactions. Why do I pay sales tax on a $75 pair of shoes and huge multi-million dollar stock transactions among wealthy investors escape tax altogether? Senator Bernie Sanders and others have suggested a small tax of .01 percent on such trades that would raise a significant amount of money for our treasury – and from the investor class, the people who can most afford it. Furthermore, we need to establish a tax on carbon – this would accomplish two important objectives: raise additional revenue and reduce carbon in the atmosphere.

On the state level we have to prevent the ALEC-sponsored, Koch brothers-backed weakening of progressive taxation, by eliminating graduated income taxes to exclusive reliance on regressive sales taxes. Several states have already fulfilled this cruel promise and a dozen or so have placed it on their legislative agendas and are well on the way. Progressive taxation needs to return to states, not be reduced.

Well, late in this writing, the news is out – the House Republicans have approved and gleefully presented their “Tax Cuts and Jobs Act” bill. We have been subjected to an avalanche of Koch-supported TV commercials touting “middle class tax cuts” and and begging us to “support tax reform” and to “bring the middle class back”. As you can easily tell from what I have presented above, this bill is simply one more Republican effort to cut taxes on the wealthy. The truth of what this ill-advised program will do to our people and our economy is coming out daily from nonpartisan organizations like ITEP (Institute for Taxation and Economic Policy), TPC (Tax Policy Center), CTJ (Citizens for Tax Justice) and others. And that truth is that this program is just another massive tax cuts for the rich and corporations program with a few crumbs tossed at the middle class.
If ever approved in something near its present form, this horrible bill will dramatically increase inequality in our country, a shameful measure in which we already lead all the developed countries in the world. Furthermore, it will explode the deficit, significantly increasing the bill to be eventually paid by our progeny. Additionally, it will not create jobs. Demand creates jobs, not tax cuts for corporations and the rich.

More importantly, this bill flies in the face of American public opinion. Results of a recent Pew Research Center poll make it crystal clear that a majority of Americans think that taxes on the wealthy are too low, not too high. Similarly, Americans feel that corporations should pay more in income taxes, not less. But, American public opinion be damned, its full speed ahead for Republican tax cuts. Screen_Shot_2017_04_13_at_10.04.28_PM
The details of this plan can be found in many places. One of the better is William Gale’s very balanced description on the TPC website. Another, more concise and succinct list is that presented by Howard Gleckman, also from TPC:

  • It is a tax cut, not tax reform.
  • It is not the biggest income tax cut in history—not even close– despite President Trump’s repeated promises that it would be.
  • For households, it will almost surely create winners and losers. Many middle-income households are likely to pay more under this plan, not less.
  • It is not tax simplification. Indeed, for many taxpayers the House bill would make filing more complicated.
  • At the end of 10 years, it likely would end up increasing the deficit by far more than the advertised $1.5 trillion.
  • It will not lead to a 3 percent permanent economic growth.

And from ITEP’s website, “Richest Americans Benefit Most from The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act” lists and elaborates on the major provisions of the bill. The most egregious giveaways to the wealthy and corporations are without doubt the following:

  • Repealing the alternative minimum tax (AMT).
  • Reducing and eventually repealing the estate tax.
  • Establishing a special 25 percent rate for pass-through businesses.
  • Reducing corporate tax rates from 35 to 20 percent.

The Senate is now working on its own “tax cuts and jobs” bill. You can bet, since it’s being written by Republicans, that it will contain virtually all of the what the House bill contains. The American people neither need nor desire either of these bills. We need to fight this dreadful and disastrous proposed legislation in every way we can.

And when they’re defeated, we need to work to elect a Congress and a President who can create a fair tax system that yields the revenue we need to provide for the health and welfare of the American people, provide a well paying job for every person willing and able to work and repair our crumbling infrastructure.
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From Chaos to Clarity: My Undergraduate Education

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During most of my senior year in high school I gave little or no thought to going to college. While in the high schools run by the church in which I was reared most of us assumed that we would go right on to Alma White College, right there on the same campus. It was only when I moved to stay with my Aunt and Uncle in Wooster, Ohio for my senior year that I was forced to consider what comes after high school.

Even while at Wooster High, my experience was so isolated from what classmates were experiencing it was pathetic. Due to my initial appearance when registering (striped pants, Wellington boots and ducktail haircut), I was put into some pretty low levels of classes. When January came around some test scores of mine must have come back because I was placed in proper Civics, English, Physics and math classes. Also I think I did pretty well in an annual test for seniors called the Kent State Scholarship Test. But I don’t recall ever visiting with a counselor about college or getting any help whatsoever from school. However, with my Aunt and Uncle’s help I did sign up for the College Boards which I took at Wooster College in the winter and then sent away for application materials for Rutgers University, my very own “local” (ten miles away from my New Jersey home) university. I was duly accepted, received my thick package of registration materials, filled them out, sent them in and was ready to begin when I rejoined my family in August.

My not visiting with any counselor at Wooster High was indeed unfortunate. I guess I was quite naive about academic counseling and never realized actually what role it performed or what help the service provided in the college application process. I only discovered during my sophomore year in talking to my friend Bryan Garruto who happened to mention to me that he had earned a New Jersey State scholarship that paid his tuition at Rutgers because of his College Board scores. You can imagine my chagrin and disappointment when I discovered that my scores were higher than his and I could have had my tuition paid for. I could have been freed of much of my financial struggle requiring me to borrow tuition money on a federal student loan and borrow money for books and other incidental expenses from my father. A visit to the student aid office at Rutgers revealed that, having missed the opportunity to apply before the start of my freshman year, I no longer qualified for this award.

Rutgers University is the state university of New Jersey with the main campus in New Brunswick and other big campuses in Camden and Newark. I didn’t know much about the school before attending – it was simply the university located in New Brunswick, the big town on the Raritan River located about ten miles from my home where we shopped once in awhile. But Rutgers has some unique distinctions – it is the eighth oldest university in the country, founded as Queens College in 1766, one of nine pre-American Revolution institutions of higher learning. More than 67,000 students are served by over 22,000 faculty and staff. And, if you are interested, the first intercollegiate football game was played between Rutgers and Princeton in 1866.

Having taken some Masters level history courses at Rutgers, I guess Dad was happy with my choice and immediately began to take an interest. He took me in to the bookstore to buy my books for me and also my “dink” (a beanie hat that all freshmen were required to wear) and my navy blue and red (pardon me, scarlet) Rutgers tie, also required of freshmen.

During orientation week I attended, along with most of the other freshmen, an evening reception at the home of Dr. Mason Gross, the Rutgers president. I don’t remember much about how I got there – I could have driven in the family car or Dad could have taken me and picked me up later. After nibbling on snacks and grabbing a drink, I joined a very long line which moved slowly and finally moved you up for a greeting and handshake from Dr. Gross himself. What I remember most from this experience was simply the vastness of it all – so many people, so much confusion (for me probably, not for everyone else). And I remember a queasy feeling of displacement, of not belonging. I was definitely out of my comfort zone. I knew nobody and was a stranger among a huge mob of other strangers.

During these first years of college I continued to live at home. More properly, I should say that I lived on campus and  slept at home, because I was gone from the early morning until evening, spending my time between classes in the library, a facility which I got to know very well and became a retreat, a comfort for me. And my having to commute to school continued to exacerbate my feelings of discomfort and displacement. It also sharpened my resentment of students better off financially than I. They had the money to live on campus and enjoy college life and I did not. During these two years of full time study I never went to the university cafeteria once but instead bought my lunch and snacks from vendors who sold their fare from trucks parked on College Avenue and its side streets. I can remember many days sitting in the car shivering as I ate my cold sandwich and waited for my next class. Another place where I ate occasionally was a small restaurant run by a couple of Greek guys, Central Lunch on Albany Street in downtown New Brunswick. My standard choice here was a bowl of bean soup and a chili hotdog. I have never in my life tasted soup as good as this but I was convinced that the huge kettle was never really emptied – just new ingredients added from time to time to keep the kettle full – probably accounting for the aged flavor of the soup. Oh, and probably the most important reason I went there was that my lunch cost fifty cents – 25 cents for the hot dog and 25 for the soup.

The courses I took my first year were required of all College of Liberal Arts students: English comp, Western Civ, a basic math course, Economics, and a foreign language, in my case, German. Our big freshman class of about 1300 students was sliced up alphabetically for required classes so my acquaintances and friends included Billy Garbarini, Allan Fritz, Stephen Gottlieb, Bryan Garruto and other last names like Friedman and Goldstein. A grim fact circulating among us freshmen was that typically about half of every freshmen class “washed out” every year, so we always looked around at each other wondering who would or would not be there next year.

About some of the courses, the Western Civilization course was anchored by big lecture hall sessions presented by notables of the History Department, supplemented by smaller “recitation” sessions” usually taught by graduate assistants. However, I was fortunate to find my recitation section taught by one of the lecture hall stars and department luminaries, Dr. Peter Charanis, noted for his knowledge and writings about Ancient Greece, Rome and especially the Byzantine Empire. Dr. Charanis’ animated and colorful accounts of the dramatic careers of Justinian and Theodora were quite memorable.

Another memorable lecturer in the Western Civ course was Professor Henry Winkler  (no, not the Henry Winkler portraying Fonzi on Happy Days!), the author of one of our texts and an excellent teacher. His famous lecture on Nazi Germany routinely drew over a thousand students, many not even registered for the course, to our modest-sized lecture hall, many equipped with tape recorders which they arrayed around the lectern. Dr. Winkler’s history was good, but what really drew the crowd was his theatrical delivery, punctuated with timely and dramatic sarcasm and contemptuous sneers, drawing ooh’s, ah’s, boos and cheers from his predominantly Jewish audience.

Another course that I remember well from my first year at Rutgers was Economics 220, taught by Dr. Alexander Balinky, not only a very knowledgable professor but an excellent teacher. Highlights from the course that I remember well were our textbooks: “The Worldly Philosophers: The Lives, Times And Ideas Of The Great Economic Thinkers” by Robert Heilbroner and “The Theory of Countervailing Power” by John Kenneth Galbraith, both of which I kept in my bookcase and referred to for many years. The first, along with Dr. Balinky’s lectures, offered me invaluable first encounters with the contributions of Adam Smith, Karl Marx, Robert Malthus and John Maynard Keynes, much of which has remained with me and strongly influenced my opinions today. Galbraith’s book also made an indelible impression upon me which makes me lament the decline of labor unions in the US because their power, along with corporate and government power were an essential element of Galbraith’s theory.

Another highlight (or lowlight) from the course was not academic but is worth relating – my first and only encounter with large scale cheating in college. On the midterm exam day, instead of Dr. Balinky administering the test, a distinguished white-haired professor emeritus from the economics department arrived with the tests and an armful of bluebooks. He requested a couple of volunteers to collect the bluebooks when the course period ended and bring them over to the economics building, and then he left the room. Astonished, most of the students promptly opened their notebooks and texts to help with their test responses. Others of us did not and two of us – the aforementioned Bryan Garruto and I, after discussing the event, decided that we should share the incident with Dr. Balinky, which we did. Of course, at the next class, Balinky really let the whole class have it and reamed us out royally for betraying the confidence of the elderly professor who trusted us to be honorable, informed us that he was throwing out the bluebooks from that test and was administering another, more difficult exam at the next class. Looking back at the incident, I think that the decision to share what occurred with the professor was the right thing to do, although many students were irate that certain unknown students had chosen to “rat” on them. To my knowledge Dr. Balinky never pursued the incident any further, for example referring it to the Committee for Academic Dishonesty for action, perhaps because it was an isolated incident involving virtually the entire class.

The basic math course, Math 161-162, was very difficult and was an ego-crusher to someone like myself who had enjoyed success in math in high school and also was the proud owner and skilled operator of a high quality slide rule, the “hand held calculator” of the 1950’s. I had bought this prized instrument during my senior year of high school primarily for a trigonometry course and, snugly nestled in its nice leather case attached to my belt, was proudly displayed in the hallways of Wooster High. However, I struggled during the first semester of the course and barely passed with a “D” and then was totally overwhelmed second semester when I failed the course, putting myself on probation, perilously close joining the many others who were forced to leave after their freshman year. I will never forget the diminutive, manic little guy who taught the course, Dr. August Hercksher, whose explanations and examples left me completely befuddled. As I recall, there were many others who struggled with the course and failed it as well, offering some consolation. In retrospect, this course, along with English composition, must have been the courses that honed the freshman class down to size before advancing to the second year. Fortunately I did finally pass the course, taught by a different instructor when I repeated it during the summer and eked out a grade average that narrowly allowed me into my sophomore year.

And speaking of English composition, I was continually chagrinned to find that not only was I a mediocre math student but a mediocre English student as well, who hung his head sadly at every “unclear”, “cliche”, “illogical” or simply “???” scribbled by some graduate assistant in red pen on what I expected to be a stellar piece of writing. Fortunately, however, I didn’t fail the basic required English course as many others did but squeaked through with 3’s (equivalent to “C’s”) both semesters. A few other shocks that first year deserve recalling and recounting – my required freshman Physical Education classes and required ROTC. Everyone was required to take a swimming test during orientation week. When I arrived as scheduled, I was totally shocked to find that we were not allowed to wear bathing suits. Having to expose my entire skinny body, including private parts, to everyone else was deflating enough, but the ultimate shame was having to be fished out of the pool hanging on to the end of a bamboo pole proffered by one of the instructors (who did wear swim suits), after foundering midway on the required second lap in the pool. Thus I was consigned to beginning swimming instruction for my entire first semester, having to immerse myself in the cold pool water at the early 8:00 time of the class, especially shocking to the system after a chilly walk from my car. But most uncomfortable were all the unattractive naked male bodies and the potential genital pain or, God forbid, damage, when participating in the diving portion of the course. Fortunately, I passed beginning swimming and diving with flying colors and was involved in more pleasurable and more appropriately clothed sports during second semester.

And then there was ROTC, to which my introduction was being herded into a long line for the issuance of my uniform – wool worsted pants and fancy jacket with brass buttons, tan shirt, dress hat, plain toe GI shoes and black socks and black tie. The uniform fit well and looked sharp and wearing it was undeniably a boyhood dream come true. After being taught to properly heed drill commands “forward, march”, “column left” (or right), “halt”, “at ease”, and most welcome – “fall out”, we also learned how to march holding an M-1 rifle (bolt removed) on the right shoulder and later the basic rifle drills – “right shoulder – arms”, “present arms…” and the rest.

We gathered weekly for our initially pathetic efforts at precision drill at Buccleuch Park on Easton Avenue and adjacent to College Avenue in New Brunswick during the fall and spring of that first year. And since some of those days were quite hot and we had only our wool uniforms, our ranks were interspersed by a dozen or so cadets who had succumbed to the heat, fainted and “fell out” a bit early, before the official command to do so. And once a week during the year, we attended the classroom portion of our ROTC requirement, studying military “science” and history. Our ROTC unit also went on a long field trip to visit the huge Letterkenny Army Depot near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Yes, I was impressed by my first closeup looks at huge tanks, vehicles and guns and the hundreds of acres of similar armaments poised to repel invasions or to be transported overseas to “defend our freedom”.

Since Rutgers was a land-grant college, two years of ROTC was mandatory. However, sometime during 1960 ROTC became voluntary, so I took advantage and withdrew for my sophomore year, with few regrets. My brother Robert chose to take ROTC for his entire four years at Rutgers a few years later and served as an officer in Germany after his graduation. My aforementioned friend, Bryan Garruto, also chose to remain in ROTC. I should mention something about those valued friends like Bryan during my first year. Yes, they were guys I chatted and joked with before and after classes, but since I commuted to school, we never saw each other socially and never ate meals together. But they were fellow students whose fellowship I valued highly and whose company I sought at every opportunity, to alleviate the great loneliness I felt so acutely during that first year. Bryan was also a preceptor in one of the Rutgers dorms and would often appear bleary-eyed at morning classes because, as he put it, “the natives were restless last night”.

I know I could have eased the isolation that first year of college if I had involved myself in some extracurricular activities. It’s not that I didn’t’ want to – I truly didn’t know what I wanted. My enjoyment of music and singing did induce me to try out for the renowned Rutgers Glee Club, directed by legendary F. Austin (Soup) Walter. I did go to the Club office to set up a tryout, which involved replicating with my voice some simple one-finger melodies tapped out by Mr. Walter on his grand piano. I was crushed to be told that I didn’t make it – I guess my voice cracked on Walter’s high C (or was it a D or an A?). But at least I had tried. Since my friend Allan Fritz had tried out for and made the Rutgers baseball team, I briefly considered trying out myself. But thorough consideration of Allan’s long experience in high school, comparison to my own limited experience and the risk of more embarrassment after my Glee Club failure, dissuaded me from trying.

I did, however, involve myself in two cultural experiences that first year that were thrilling but lonely experiences. I bought a ticket and attended a Philadelphia Orchestra concert in our gymnasium. To see the famed Eugene Ormandy and this great orchestra live was a great thrill. Another time, after seeing it advertised, I bought a ticket and an express bus trip into New York City to see the famed Moiseyev Dancers from Russia, again thrilling but very lonely since I didn’t know anyone on the bus or at the performance.

I practically lived in the library during that first year of full time study. I was enchanted by the size of the place, the thousands of books and especially the shelves of bound periodicals. I spent many hours perusing old Time magazines, re-reading old familiar articles and contemporary articles published during World War II. I remember especially looking up one special 1955 issue of Time which included a picture of singer Patti Page with whose face and prominent décolletage I had fallen in love with at age 13. What an experience, what feelings, to see this picture again, there in the stacks of the Rutgers Library.

I was also pleased to find books by Mark Twain that were new to me and gave me much pleasure to read, among them “Sketches New and Old”, the stories in which I found hilarious. This book was illustrated by the same Twain illustrator, True Williams, whose incredible work I had enjoyed so much in my old and dogeared first edition of “Innocents Abroad”.

Along with many other students, I frequented the reserve room at the Library quite often to read assignments in books professors had placed on reserve. One memory associated with this area is that of a terribly crippled student who used to come often as well. Swinging an inflexible body on two crutches, he would approach the desk, get his book, tuck it between his arm and a crutch and approach a sofa. Then he would call for help from someone to lower his stiff body onto the sofa and place the crutches near him, where he would read his assignment. After reading he would again call for help and someone would come, tuck his crutches under his arms, lift him and his crutches to an upright position, pick up his book and tuck it between a crutch and his arm and he would be on his way to the desk and then to the outside. I helped him down and back up many times that year but never followed him outside to see how he got to and from the library. Also, for some reason, I never saw him around campus and was never in any of his classes. But I do clearly remember this man and how he bravely managed down there in the Reserve Room.

During those days in the library, my home away from home during my freshman year, I did lots of searching and lots of reading. But unfortunately little of the reading had anything to do with the courses I was taking, certainly explaining part of the reason I did so poorly that first year of college. I was getting a great education but paid a price in poor grades in my actual courses. Also, reflecting on that first year of college, I was terribly immature compared to my classmates, many of whom were military veterans. Here I was with my very parochial background, having just turned 17, quite lost on this huge campus among all these new experiences.

In addition, I am now convinced that I had a bit of Attention Deficit Disorder. When writing papers, listening to lectures and taking exams, my mind always wandered and I had difficulty paying attention. I was perplexed and upset as well by many classmates, who through their responses and questions clearly were my intellectual inferiors yet they always got much better grades than I on papers and tests. Clearly I was far less mature than many classmates but also could not focus or concentrate the way others could. After my year and a half working in Colorado after my sophomore year, I apparently had outgrown much of this ADD problem because I could concentrate so much better, as reflected in much better grades.

My loneliness and isolation on campus were considerably alleviated during my second year at Rutgers. Some time in the fall I was approached by a classmate by the name of Paul (can’t remember the last name) and invited to visit Theta Chi fraternity. After doing so, I was invited to pledge the fraternity, to me a really big deal. What a pleasure to realize that someone wanted me and valued my presence and companionship.

I was quite proud to be a fraternity pledge. In spite of the onerous tasks assigned to me such as memorizing parts of the Theta Chi manual and doing lots of favors for the brothers, it felt great to finally be a part of something and respectfully exchange greetings with my new friends at the house and elsewhere on campus. I selected a very dignified and distinguished senior, Jay Fein, as my pledge “father” to advise and help me as necessary. Another brother, Joe (can’t remember last name) made me memorize the first ten lines of the poem “Howl” by Allen Ginsberg. I can still remember the first line – “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked….” In the meantime I started eating my lunches and many dinners at the fraternity house, a real pleasure, in spite of the duties imposed on me as a pledge. These meals, however, cost money, so I reduced the cost by waiting tables and doing dishes as often as I could at the house. I also that year worked part time at Kendall Park Pharmacy, fairly close to New Brunswick to help with my expenses. However, I left school after my sophomore year with a sizable debt to Theta Chi which I was able to finally pay off that fall.

It was tradition at Theta Chi for the group of pledges to play a prank on the rest of the group – something that caused inconvenience and consternation, not destruction. So I borrowed my Dad’s pickup truck and at 2:00 or so at night sneaked into the fraternity house with the other pledges and quietly took all the fancy decorations off the walls of the house lounge room, took them to my house and put them in my garage. They were returned by us pledges after the proper amount of punishment was meted out to us by the brothers.

Later that fall, prior to our induction ceremony, we pledges were initiated or “hazed” by being made to wear burlap sacks with arm cutouts against our skin under our clothes, and required to stay awake for an entire weekend doing a series of onerous tasks, one of which included painting a hall and stairway. After the elaborate and very impressive ceremony inducting us a full-fledged “brothers” we celebrated in the party room in the basement which was outfitted with a full-fledged bar. Drinking that mug of beer with which we toasted our new status was my first experience with alcohol and for the first time I experienced the pleasant, exuberant and euphoric sensations induced by alcohol and thought of how foolish my parents and other church people were to oppose drinking and how much they had missed with their silly abstinence and sobriety.

The several fraternity parties that I attended that year were fabulous experiences that were brand new for me. The sound of live rock and roll music from the several bands that were hired for entertainment and dance was incredible. The music, the dancing and the camaraderie, lubricated and heightened by alcohol and the presence of a comely date (that a brother fixed me up with) created fabulous and memorable experiences for me.

I should also mention that the pain of my rejection for the Rutgers Glee Club was ameliorated somewhat by Theta Chi’s distinction as the “singing fraternity” at Rutgers. We almost always won the annual singing contest among the fraternities. I don’t know why, certainly singing ability was never a criterion for pledge invitations, but there was an ongoing interest in vocal harmony among the brothers at Theta Chi. We sang a lot together for no reason at all, so when the time came for vocal competition, we were ready. That spring of my sophomore year, we again won the contest hands down.

Another incident I remember well was the “Ugly Man Contest”, a considerably less notable competition among the Rutgers fraternities. When no hands went up at a dinnertime request for a volunteer and wishing to distinguish myself, I tendered my services. So I had the pleasure and the pain of being Theta Chi’s candidate for this undignified competition. But the preparation was not without pleasure. I accompanied a couple of brothers over to Douglass College, the women’s division of Rutgers, where their cute girlfriends and a couple of their attractive friends, provisioned by a few of their makeup kits, made my face over for the competition. I would like to think that making me up for an ugly man contest was a huge challenge for these girls, but I think that instead they looked me over and decided they had a pretty good head start for the process. I did not win the contest (thankfully!) but somewhere in the Theta Chi archives at 51 Mine Street is the picture of Ralph Friedly, the “Ugly Man” contestant for 1961.

My pledge group was rather small – as I remember there were five of us, of whom I remember two quite well – Gordon Moore and John Kelly. Gordon was a real gentleman and later became a teacher in neighboring Piscataway Township schools, eventually serving as a principal and then personnel director. I’ve had occasion to see Gordon’s name in print several times over the years. John I remember well for a different reason – I stole his cute, vivacious girlfriend from him. A bunch of us used to enjoy occasionally going to Staten Island where we could enjoy the lower New York drinking age. So over the Outerbridge Crossing from Elizabeth we’d go, to the first town, Tottenville, and then to the first big bar, the Totten Villa. One evening, John was accompanied by his date, Janet Domhoff, from nearby Carteret, and somehow, Janet and I ended up together. Janet was the first “outside”, that is, non-church, girlfriend I had ever introduced to my humble Zarephath home and introduced to my equally humble parents. I saw Janet off and on until my departure to Colorado in the fall of 1961. I don’t know what became of her – my Google searches have come up empty.

So in my second year of full time study at Rutgers I felt that I finally belonged there and had considerably widened my friendships through joining Theta Chi. I did considerably better in my courses as well, maybe growing out of my ADD cloudiness or just learning how to manage my time and study habits better. The best and probably the most transformative course during my sophomore year was “Masterpieces of French Literature in Translation”. This was a “dream course” because you carried a towering stack of paperback novels from the bookstore “English 420” bin, which included masterpieces like Flaubert’s “Madame Bovary”, Stendahl’s “The Red and the Black”, Zola’s “Germinal” and many others. The professor who taught this marvelous course, Dr. Serge Sobolevitch, was a fabulous teacher. He was also a dedicated smoker, whose first act upon entering the classroom was to carefully arrange three packs of cigarettes on his desk – Camels, Winstons and Salems. Then he would chain smoke these regular, filtered and menthol cigarettes in succession, never stopping for the entire class period. And yes, both professors and students could smoke in class back then. I loved this course and valued the opportunity to become acquainted with these mighty French authors and their enduring works. It also propelled me on the way toward minoring in English.

I did comparatively well in other classes as well that academic year 1960-61. I took my required science course, choosing geology, which I did find quite interesting. The course included a field trip to examine notable geological formations, yes, even in New Jersey and nearby Pennsylvania. The year included two semesters of American history too. One of the required texts was “George Washington: Man and Monument” by Marcus Cunliffe, which I remember well for shattering all the myths about our first president popularized by Parson Weems. I also took my second year of German, finishing my language requirement. And I should add that my two years of German were a big disappointment. For someone who had two years of German in high school, this requirement should have been a pleasure and a breeze. But it was not – I think a “2” (the equivalent of a “B”) was the highest grade I got over the entire four semesters.

I left school after my sophomore year and searched for a job to pay off my debt, finally obtaining a good-paying job on the assembly line at the Ford plant in Metuchen, not too far from New Brunswick. As I recount in another article , I was soon laid off from that job because of a congenital defect in my back but did barely accumulate enough money to pay off my debt. I had not the resources that would allow me to return to school full time and could not face continuing to live at home so I left New Jersey for Denver, Colorado, where I remained for the next 18 or so months working as a clerk for Navajo Freight Lines.

When I returned to New Jersey I resumed work on my degree at night at Rutgers University College. While there I took some great upper level history courses and several more sweet advanced English courses with the stack of paperback novels as the texts. Having gotten married and settling into a full time accounting job at Johns Manville Research, my life became much more stable and I was able to summon the discipline and will to succeed in my courses, attending class, studying and writing during my evenings and weekends. One semester I took 13 credit hours of work, yet earned good grades in all the courses,. Some of the courses were perhaps not as demanding or as competitive as the courses taught at the Colleges for Men in which I had been enrolled my first two years from 1959 to 1961, since they were sometimes taught by retired professors working part time or new professors jockeying for a full time job, but they were still challenging and stimulating. Some of the advanced history and English courses were in fact scheduled and staffed to serve both the full time and the part time Rutgers student populations and thus were quite competitive.

During this time my brother Robert started at Rutgers and as a liberal arts student later majoring in music, likely struggled with some of the same bewilderment and confusion with which I struggled. However, there were some significant differences. First, Robert was likely smart enough to apply for and receive the Rutgers state tuition scholarship that I missed. And somehow Robert managed to live on campus and he also tried out for and was selected to a major sport, heavyweight varsity crew (or rowing). His abilities and dedication even earned him the distinction of rowing at the key stroke position. And as I mentioned in my first “Home Sweet Home” article, Robert lived in a small apartment, a converted storefront, right around the corner from where we lived on Easton Avenue for awhile. So Rob likely felt much more a part of college life and the Rutgers campus than I ever did. Furthermore, the close teamwork required by his crew commitment must have earned him some lasting friendships, as did perhaps his ROTC for all four years. While Rob was at Rutgers, I attended, along with our proud parents and other family members, many of his local varsity crew races on the Raritan River in New Brunswick and at Carnegie Lake in Princeton. When thinking of Robert’s Rutgers career, his living on campus and his rowing success, I am always struck with conflicting feelings of envy and admiration – Rob did what I could not do – live on campus, perform much better in his courses and even earn his way onto a varsity sports team. What qualities and abilities did he possess as a young man that I did not? Did he have more opportunities than I or was he more resolute and did he work much harder? Or maybe he was just brighter.

So in 1965 I was finally able to graduate with a BA in history and English and the handful of education credits that enabled me to obtain a temporary teaching certificate and begin my career in education. Although for many years I never really stopped going to school, earning two more degrees while working as an educator, I was happy to put those chaotic and stressful years of undergraduate education behind me. My 44 year career in education, which turned out to be no less chaotic and stressful, and my recent retirement have brought me to this point – sitting in my leather armchair during the early morning hours in the basement study of our little Vermont house reminiscing and writing. Why? I don’t really know. It just feels like what I should be doing at this late stage of my life. Dear reader, if you were able to get through the 6000 plus words of this ponderous and detailed tome, thank you for your patience and for allowing me to share this part of my life with you.

Addendum

Reflecting on and writing about these difficult years moved me try to find out what happened to some of the dear friends from back then. I have to admit with some shame that I’ve never been good at maintaining friendships. Perhaps if I had stayed in New Jersey or remained in Massachusetts, things would have been different. Here in this beautiful green Vermont summer, my wife can gaze across the road at the house in which she grew up, changed a little now but still the same house. She can point to where her grandmother’s house was and where the barn and the “night pasture” were located. And she occasionally says hello to any one of several childhood friends from her elementary school days. I have no such opportunity. I have bounced around the country and the globe quite a bit in my life and have not cultivated those valuable roots and connections that others have. So most of my friendships have burned brightly and then were extinguished over time because of distance and years or my own carelessness. I could find no information on anyone I have mentioned from my days at Rutgers save Gordon Moore, whose name shows up in some googled documents, Stephen Gottlieb, who became a teacher and school administrator in the Plainfield, New Jersey area, and Bryan Garruto, who excelled in his undergraduate studies, served in the army, went to Rutgers law school, practiced law and became a judge. I learned all this from an obituary that I found on a Google search. Bryan passed away last spring.

 

 

 

 

Should Ken’s Thoughts About Gender Offend Her?

“What’s the difference between males and females?” Kenneth inquired of his wife Barbara one evening.

“What kind of a question is that?” Barbara responded. “Everyone knows the difference. Men have equipment that women don’t have, women have what men don’t have. Women are smaller, rounder, more delicate, softer. Men are bigger, stronger, faster, more angular. Men act rashly and impulsively. Women are more thoughtful and contemplative. Men are loud, women are quiet. Men are on time, women are late. Men never ask directions, women do. I like most of these things about men and I assume you feel the same about women. Okay, does that answer your question? What else is there?”

“Well,” Kenneth replied, “Those differences are obvious although some might be arguable. But what strikes me, what provokes the question, was thinking of more subtle differences. Take our granddaughter for instance. Even at four years old, she walks like a girl – a sweet, mincing gait, occasionally carrying her weight on her toes. She could be shorn of her long locks and dressed as a boy, but she would still very obviously be a girl. A little boy her age generally has a distinctly different gait and physical presence. Even disguised with long hair and a dress, that child would still walk like a boy, handle things like a boy and simply behave like a boy.”

“Boy (pardon the pun), you’re really getting into it, really figuring things out. Tell me more about your observations.”

“Okay, something else – even at the tender age of four, our little granddaughter holds her little tea cup differently, more delicately, with her little finger out. Her mother did not teach her to hold her cup this way, she simply does because something deep inside her tells her this is the way she should hold a cup. I don’t hold a cup this way, neither does our son, nor did he when he was four. Most fingers were utilized and that little finger was tucked in, touching the heal of the hand with the rest of them. Nobody taught him how to hold a cup either. Something deep inside him told him to hold a cup the way he did and our granddaughter does not.”

“How interesting, how analytical”, Barbara responded. “But I think you are behaving like a man – rather than simply accepting things, you have to analyze them, figure them out. I have observed these behaviors too I am sure, but never stopped to think about them, just accepted them and went on. Let’s hear some more analysis, professor. What else, what other behaviors, have you catalogued in that compartmentalized list of things that you call your mind?”

“Well, now that you asked”, Kenneth replied. “I do have a few more observations about males and females, men and women. How about the enunciation of the ’s’ sound? There is usually a distinct difference between the genders in the production of this common sound in our speech. The male ’s’ sound is rendered with the tongue farther back on the roof of the mouth behind the front teeth allowing more air to pass through for the ’s’ while the woman’s enunciation is made with the tongue closer to the front teeth and more pursed to let less air through. Try it – you’ll see what I mean. Hearing a man say his s’s more like a woman heightens the listener’s attention and awareness and immediately the man’s essential “maleness” becomes somewhat suspect and less complete. And when a woman’s enunciation of the ’s’ is male, her femaleness becomes somewhat reduced. And interestingly, I have noticed that this distinction of the pronunciation of the ’s’ sound as a sign of maleness or femaleness applies across many other languages and cultures.”

“Really, tell me more”, implored Barbara.

“Well, here’s an example – I have enjoyed seeing actress Jody Foster in many movies, among them, a couple of my all time favorites – “Silence of the Lambs” and “Contact”. And while Ms. Foster is small, delicate, shapely and beautiful, really quite feminine, there were always her ’s’ sounds, which made me wince and wonder. And then, sure enough, just in the last couple of years, Ms. Foster emerges from the closet and confirms my long standing suspicion. And then there is tennis announcer Mary Carillo, whose very masculine s-sound is quite striking and whose sexual orientation consequently has been a source of media speculation.”

“Come on now. That observation about the s-sound is quite interesting, but I wouldn’t paint everybody with that brush – the rule doesn’t always apply”, Barbara retorted.

“I agree”, Ken continued. “Certainly there are scores of gay females who are feminine in every respect, from their general overall appearance to the feminine pronunciation of the s-sound. And there are certainly many gay men who are masculine in every respect, including their s’s. A perfect example is Thomas Roberts, the MSNBC anchor, over whose incredible good looks and perfectly matched attire you have always swooned. I must say – I was surprised too when I read his interview account of love at first sight – falling in love with a man he met at a party, and later married. For Mr. Roberts appears heterosexual in every respect, including the pronunciation of his s’s.”

“Well,” Barbara admitted. “You’re right about that. I actually was a bit crushed and deflated when I learned that Mr. Roberts was gay. But in relation to what you mentioned before about females’ s-sounds, isn’t the pitch of a female voice more important, I mean doesn’t a low female voice sound masculine?”

“Hmmm, interesting question….I would say no. Some examples are the low voices of actresses like Marlene Dietrich or Lauren Bacall. Yes, low voices but distinctly feminine because of the feminine s-sound. Also some low female voices from popular music. Listen to Swedish singer Monica Tornell’s voice singing the Dylan classic “When I Paint My Masterpiece”, or Marianne Faithfull, her voice lowered significantly over the years by illness and lifestyle, sing “The Ballad of Lucy Jordan”. Both voices as low as a man’s yet clearly feminine – the old s-sound again.”

“Yes”, Barbara replied. “I have heard both of those songs by those artists and you’re right – voices pitched much more like a man’s yet I never doubted that they were women’s voices. What other examples have you taken note of?”

“Well then there are female athletes, especially tennis players, whose exhibition of these characteristics is quite striking. I don’t happen to have knowledge of the sexual orientation of any of them, save the long-public same-sex orientation of Billie Jean King and of Martina Navratalova. But there are female tennis players who, despite their height, strength, speed and hitting power, are still very feminine. Chris Evert comes to mind as a prime example, Martina Hingis is another. Some female players who are otherwise feminine in every respect, have a very masculine gait, almost a swagger, which to me calls their orientation into question. The very beautiful and otherwise feminine Canadian professional, Eugenie Bouchard, is an example – beautiful face, lovely blond hair, slim shapely body, even a spread in the annual Sports Illustrated bathing suit issue, but when she walks and talks (yes, listen to those s’s) I begin to wonder.”

“OK, if what you are saying is true…but it does seem to be a bit stretched and twisted to fit your preconceptions – how did we get this way?”

“Well, again, these characteristics seem to be innate”, Kenneth responded. “I don’t think that mothers teach their little girls how to walk daintily or to crook their little fingers when holding a teacup or that dads teach their sons to grip a cup handle or to walk a certain way. And I certainly don’t think that mothers or fathers ever correct their little girls’ or little boys’ enunciation of the “s” sound. In short, I know that parents can’t and therefore don’t teach their children how to behave to reflect their gender. It just naturally happens.”

“My God, your analysis is so detailed. And it’s so weird that you take the time to think about all this? What else is on your list?”

“Well, I’m so glad you asked. You’re a teacher and I’m a teacher. I’ve graded lots of writing papers – not as many as you, I admit, but certainly enough to notice that generally speaking, boys have different handwriting than girls. I can look back at those goodbye letters my kids at Irwin School wrote for me back in 1968, cover the names and still tell whether they were written by boys or girls. And I still have many handwritten letters from my father and from my mother. Both wrote very legibly but there’s a difference – Mom’s handwriting is more delicate and artistic – more curves and swirls; Dad’s is more harsh, linear and definite. Also, take a look at our writing – both quite different. When I’ve been in a bind and I’ve had to forge your signature on something – it’s been really difficult – I’ve had to hold the pen more loosely and concentrate on the swirls, the wider verticals in the l’s, h’s and g’s. And I am sure when you’ve had to forge mine, you’ve done just the opposite – really grip that pen, press more firmly, write more heavily and jaggedly. So think about it – you can’t deny that there are gender differences in handwriting. And our moms and dads or teachers didn’t teach us to write differently, we just did, because something deep inside us was guiding those pens and pencils.”

“OK so there’s handwriting differences. I can’t disagree but perhaps girls’ and women’s hands are not as strong as a boy’s or a man’s hands are, so of course the writing is different.”

“Nonsense, even if a woman’s hands are bigger, stronger, more mature than any given man’s or boy’s hands, you still get this swirly, circular, artistic and expansive kind of writing from females and a much more thrifty, spare, choppy and angular writing from a male hand. Strength, age, maturity and coordination have little to do with writing style. Gender has everything to do with it.”

“My God, anything else?”

“Indeed there is. Surely you’ve noticed how women and girls, even little girls, punctuate their conversation and provide emphasis with their hands. Think about it. And most of that hand and finger flavor for a conversation is done daintily and delicately with a flexible wrist. Yes, there are boys and men that often use their hands when they talk but this activity is much more limited and the wrist is usually rigid. And rather than two hands, a man might use the fist or a finger for emphasis. Remember the incredible job that the late Philip Seymour Hoffman did in portraying Truman Capote in the 2005 movie “Capote”? Let me tell you, he had those s-sounds and the flexible wrist and delicate hand and finger movements down perfectly”.

“Well, ok, maybe you’re right. I’m not going to argue with you about your observations. But where does all this get us? What’s the point? And don’t you think that you’re being quite sexist, pasting these kinds of labels on people? People simply are who they are and they are the way they are through no fault of their own. They didn’t choose their parents or the genes that determine and regulate the way they behave? I mean who cares about the masculine or feminine qualities of men and woman? Why do you spend your time cogitating about such things?”

“Well, there’s no point really. Maybe in my need to organize and categorize to better understand, I just loosely divide people, men and women, boys and girls, into groups, actually continua – one for females and one for males. At end of one are clustered all the characteristics that we commonly accept for extreme femininity and on the other are those that represent extreme masculinity. And along these continua are males with greater or lesser of the characteristics described and females with more or less of the characters defined as female. Also somewhere along those continua are gay men and gay women who perhaps exhibit some characteristics of the opposite sex, like that key s-sound or a distinctive gait. And I don’t really think that noticing things about people and thinking about them is at all sexist. I think that I’m just interested in those things and find that maybe I notice them more than other people. There’s nothing wrong with that – I’m not making a value judgement, just an observation.”

But before I stop talking, I have to mention one more thing, Barbara, please don’t roll your eyes, about the s-sound in one’s speech. Have you ever noticed the peculiar ’s’ sound that is exhibited primarily by some men from the southwest, especially Texas, that is more an ‘sh’ sound than an ’s’, like an exaggerated or ultra masculine male s-sound? They tend to pronounce the name of their state “Tekshesh”, pretty much like President Johnson did. Do you know what I mean? “Yesh, we live in the United Shtaytsh of America”. I mean it’s not a complete ‘sh’ sound but it’s close and definitely not really the commonly heard s-sound. You hear it from some of those retired generals that serve as the “military experts” or “ekshpertsh” as they would “shay” it, on cable news, excuse me, cable “newsh”

“Ken, really, that quite enough”, Barbara said. “You’ve ’s’ sounded me to death. I’m going to miss important words and phrases in conversations and newscasts now because I’ll be focused on peoples’ s-sounds. And don’t you think you’ve missed lots of important information yourself as your ears have strained to focus on these distinctions? Enough already.”

“Barbara, you’re really shomething elsh.”

Barbara shakes her head, rolls her eyes and goes back to the book she was reading before this conversation began.