Down Memory Lane

I can think of no worse thing to happen to a person than to lose one’s memory. The dreadful scourge of Alzheimer’s, which eventually took the life of my father, has to be far worse for anyone than the myriad diseases and deteriorative conditions that afflict the elderly. Personally I would prefer to be bedridden and immobile and still retain my mental faculties than be the picture of good health with a full head of still brown hair and not recognize either myself or my loved ones and not recall any of my personal history, which describes my father’s condition before he succumbed to a merciful death

Memory is such an amazing and necessary quality. It makes you alive by placing you solidly along a continuum of life experiences. And even more amazing is how it works. I don’t know what the scientific names for them are but I’ll simply call them short term memory and long term memory.  At night when I am ready to go to sleep I often review the duties I should have completed to be ready for tomorrow.  Did I make the coffee? Yes, I recall rinsing out the carafe, filling it with water and pouring the right amount into the chamber. I also remember specifically being extra careful to make the measurer level with coffee since it was a bit strong yesterday. Did I take my pills? Yes, I recall filling a glass of water and taking them. Are my clothes ready for when I get up? Yes, tomorrow I plan to exercise downstairs, so my shorts, t-shirt and sweatshirt are ready, and my sneakers are where they should be. OK, I remembered all those events. But will I remember them tomorrow or the next day? No, absolutely not, because somehow my brain says that I shouldn’t have to. Why would I remember these specific events for longer than a day? Not necessary, so I am allowed to forget them. So memories of these routine activities are soon gone and gone forever, making room apparently for activities and events of greater importance or more proximate in time

Apparently there is also something that we could call “temporary memory” as distinct from “short term memory” – those memories that our brain “dumps” periodically to make room for more permanent memories. Short term memory contains those incidents, feelings, impressions that one can remember from last week or last month, that may or may not become part of long term memory, as opposed to all the minutiae of routines, incidents, feelings, impressions, smells, etc that clutter our brains for a day or two and then are forgotten. 

All memories when first formed are “short-term”.  But over time, the physical representation of the memory in the brain becomes more stable through a process known as called consolidation. The stabilized memories then become “long-term” memories. 

And my long term memory still is okay. When it’s quiet and there are no distractions and I am up alone in the early morning, my long term memory still functions quite well. Those childhood memories and impressions are still there. Those names of people I knew long ago, or worked with, still come back just fine. Yes, some names and faces are growing hazier with the passage of so much time (I’m 79 now), but for most purposes, my long term memory is working as well as my short term memory.

We are our memories. Our memories are our existence. Without our memories we are nothing. Our personalities and mannerisms are linked to memory. We are composed of all those events lodged in our memories. All those events – our childhood, our education, the trauma, the struggles, the losses and victories, come together and truly make us who we are. If all this is obliterated by disease or other incident, we essentially cease to be. We are nothing, although still perhaps still physically whole, because that essential quality, memory, is missing.

All of us, the children of Charles Ralph Friedly, our father, have to be very conscious of memory, I think, because of how Dad died. His wife, our mother, saw his memory and personality fade. She observed the growing helplessness and panic as he steadily lost the essence of himself. I am always asking myself (and I am sure my brothers and sister do the same) – can I remember what happened yesterday, the day before that? How about last week, last month? And do I remember the year before last? Hmmm, yes I can so for the time being I can rest easy. I don’t have Alzheimer’s…at least not yet. Yet, like most elderly people, there are times when I can’t remember the names of certain individuals, so I’m content to refer to that person for the time being as “what’s his name?’. Also, the names of certain objects escape me from time to time. So I’ll blurt out some nonsensical sentence like, “Does what’s his name still have that thing he bought years ago?” Or since these times are becoming somewhat more numerous, this inquiry becomes a more routine “Does whatsizname still have that whatchamacallit?” Yes, I know, a bit ridiculous but that’s old age coming on. I don’t think that it means the beginning of Alzheimer’s.

There was one time in my recent life, however, that I thought that my brain might be succumbing to some early signs of this dreadful condition. While in my last job, I experienced what I can only describe as a total memory blackout. The immediate circumstances I can’t recall. I may have been sitting in my office at my desk alone, shuffling through some papers or preparing to make a phone call. Or I might have been talking to someone sitting across from me or I may have been on the phone. But suddenly I was terrorized by the realization that I didn’t know who I was, where I was or what I was doing. I couldn’t even remember my own name. Some horrible mental cloud had momentarily obscured my actual existence. I had to look at some papers on my desk to find out my name, had to get my drivers license out of my wallet to see my face and realize that person’s face was really me. Yet nothing really clicked. The association of the name on the letter or the face and name on the driver’s license, the people in the family pictures on my desk, with me, the guy sitting helplessly at that desk, just was not there. The feeling of terror and shock that I didn’t know who I was, where I was and was suddenly nameless, was indescribable. My memory had stopped. Thank God, after a few minutes, this horrible feeling passed and all became normal again. But the experience was truly terrifying and I thought for awhile that this could mean the beginning for me of what happened to my father. 

Looking back, I think that this frightening experience could have been the result of some kind of momentary blockage of blood flow in my brain. Maybe it was caused by something I ate, or didn’t eat. Maybe all those scotches at the end of the day were catching up with me. All kinds of things ran through my mind. But really I think that the extreme tension and stress I was experiencing at that time on my job were the real cause. I don’t know precisely how stress affects the brain and memory but it certainly can’t be good. So sifting through all the potential causes, this seems the most likely. I can’t begin to describe that period of time on this terrible job, in fact, over the several years since, I have done my best to forget it. But the stress to which I was subjected undoubtedly took a temporary toll on my health, both physical and mental. 

As we get older, we seem to have more and more memory lapses or absent mindedness that worry us a great deal. However, most of these problems are commonplace and should not be a cause for worry. And we all have experienced them. A short article in an AARP publication lists them:

  • Blocking – can’t think of the name of that person or book or movie even though it’s right on the tip of my tongue.
  • Scrambling – remembering most of an event but not sure how or when it happened.
  • Fading away – you think you should remember something but cannot because too much time has elapsed and memory has been “swept away” by the brain to make room for more.
  • Struggling for retrieval – just met someone and already can’t remember the name, or the name of that movie or book you’re trying to recommend.
  • Muddled multitasking – getting so involved in a task that the first or second one is forgotten, e.g. something boiling away or overcooked on the stove while you are doing something else. 

And then there is another interesting aspect to memory that was described in an article in the New York Review of Books , which I resurrected from my files to reference for this article – the phenomenon of “reconstructive memory”. This occurs when there is an incident in our past which may have indeed happened, but over time, we tend to inadvertently embellish with a little bit of fiction – details that fit the general configuration of that central memory and perhaps enhance it. Sometimes these embellishments add to the notability or daring of the deed or occurrence we remember, or they perhaps they are gathered and attached to that specific memory in order to enhance our perceptions of ourselves. Often these fabrications are exposed when siblings or friends may recall an event at which they were present in totally different ways. Their respective memories are not necessarily faulty: it’s just that their memories of this single event have been enhanced, diminished, or detailed by each’s idiosyncratic personal fictions. Or, as the author Oliver Sacks related, a particular memory may not be one’s own at all but may be adopted from another, as long as it fits neatly into a previous memory structure of sufficient strength and importance.

I have experienced this phenomenon several times myself. Detailed memories surrounding a certain traumatic event in my childhood or early adulthood have proven to be fallacious or at least richly embellished, since they were perceived in strikingly different ways by siblings or others present during the occurrence. I have lived with the notion that certain of my vivid memories are immutable and have been surprised by the fact that they are malleable. One group of such memories relate to Hurricane Hazel which struck the eastern seaboard, including my state of New Jersey in 1954 when I was 12 years old. My memories of a tall chimney crashing down on the house yet not penetrating the roof were refuted because when Hazel smote New Jersey our family no longer lived at that particular house. However, my memories of seeing the WAWZ (our church radio station) transmission towers blown down and lying in the fields was in fact corroborated by others. Perhaps I had mixed my hurricanes up and it was another that took down the chimney when we did in fact live at that house. But what I thought was an accurate recollection simply was not.

Another interesting thing about memory is how we can commit what one might call “accidental” or “unconscious” plagiarism or, certainly more comforting, “legal plagiarism”, when ideas clearly gleaned from others, perhaps from their writing or lectures, find a solid place in our own memories because they fit so well with our own previous experiences. Thus, these ideas, now embraced as our own, are called up to embellish and illustrate our own thought and writing and we never think to attribute them to others. All of us have experienced this phenomenon in one way or another. Particularly, much academic writing must be of this nature. A student of a particular discipline writing about a subject within that discipline is never alone. He may endeavor to attribute certain ideas to others, like all academics should, yet little of his thinking is truly original but is really just what has been distilled from all of his reading over the years and embraced as one’s own. The real challenge is where and how to distinguish and draw a line between what can readily be attributed to another and what is an amalgam of personal experiences and knowledge which cannot now be separated into what is truly personal and what has been gleaned from others.

Thus plagiarism can be honestly accidental. Who knows the sources of the “deep insights” or the “epiphanies” or “revelations” that I experience while thinking and writing in the early morning. Are they my own or have they been derived from something I’ve read earlier and adopted and adapted for my own? They certainly seem to be my own but referring back to the article by Sacks, I’m not really sure. Sacks calls these incidents “auto-plagiarism”, or more precisely, an even more technical term, “cryptomnesia”, which I could not even find in my dictionary. 

Sacks relates a great example of this phenomenon – when George Harrison, of all people, was accused of plagiarism and was actually sued, when his song, “My Sweet Lord” was deemed too similar to another song, “He’s so Fine” by Ronnie Mack, recorded eight years earlier by The Chiffons.  Indeed, listening to them both confirms great similarity in melody and refrain. But apparently the judge in the case, although finding Harrison guilty of plagiarism, generously deemed Harrison’s mistake not deliberate, casting it into the category of accidental or inadvertent plagiarism described above.

It might be useful to tie all of these notions about the malleability of memory, i.e. “reconstructive memory”, “auto” or “accidental” plagiarism together with a great quote from Sacks, offered by Nicole Krauss in her review of his book, Rivers of Consciousness – “There is, it seems, no mechanism in the mind or the brain for ensuring the truth…. We have no direct access to historical truth … no way by which the events of the world can be directly transmitted or recorded in our brains; they are experienced and constructed in a highly subjective way…. Our only truth is narrative truth, the stories we tell each other and ourselves — the stories we continually recategorize and refine.”

Sacks’ opinion deals directly with one of the dreadful negative effects of reconstructive memory – the unreliability of eyewitness testimony in criminal convictions. Fully two thirds of wrongful convictions, those overturned by the introduction of DNA evidence, involve faulty eyewitness testimony. In these cases, “reconstructive” memory is faulty and may have been hastily adapted to fit a preconceived idea of the witness’s self importance. 

This phenomenon has been illustrated by tests done on a variety of people. For example, multiple individuals are shown a video of a car crash, yet each observer sees something different than the others. One can’t remember the colors of the cars or which car entered the intersection first; another can’t tell which was going faster, whether a man or woman was driving, who was standing in the intersection or whether a bicycle was actually there, and so on.

Eyewitness memories are usually “contaminated” by the stress endured by someone involved in the incident or by previous remembered experiences. The uncommon and exaggerated excitement or shock of observing a certain occurrence can easily get in the way of accurate recollection of the event. “Lineup” identification processes are similarly fraught and unreliable.

A well documented example was featured in the New York Times a couple of years ago – the dreadful experience of Penny Beerntsen, who misidentified her assailant, resulting in his spending 18 years in prison before being cleared by DNA identification of several hairs of the assailant. The incident was described by Debra Tolchinsky in her short film and in the Netflix series “Making a Murderer”, which features the story of her misidentified assailant without Beerntsen’s perspective.

Before closing this lengthy article I would like to mention several more remarkable characteristic of memory. One is outlined in Claudia Hammon’s fascinating article about time: that without memories of the past, we cannot exist in the present, nor can we predict a future for ourselves. When we think of the future – where we’ll be years hence, what kind of health we will enjoy, what we will be doing – all of this has to be considered in terms of the past and present. Evidently we employ the same part of our brain when considering the past and imagining the future. And it is this that allows us to consider different scenarios of the future before we decide which choice to make or road to take. This ability to simultaneously consider the past, present and future is what makes humans unique and is also what enables us to be creative and conceive and generate works of art. We’ve obviously known about this relationship between the past and the future for a long time, as Hammon reminds us that Aristotle “described memories not as archives of our lives, but as tools for imagining the future”.

And one other fascinating attribute of memory is recounted in Rosenfeld and Ziff’s article “Making Memories”, all based on a review of a book by Luke Dittrich about the famed patient “HM”, who had a part of his brain, specifically parts of the hippocampus removed. “HM”‘s unique condition and especially the nature of his memory loss spawned many useful studies of the brain and memory and the article discusses several of those.

It goes on to state that apparently all memories are subjective, idiosyncratic for the individual and tailored for that person’s unique “self”. In fact, for the memory to work properly it must have created a “self”, an image through which activities and events are actually lived and then remembered. This image of self also includes a three dimensional image of one’s body, dynamic and changing because of our movements, and created from sensory responses to those movements. With our eyes closed we have no problem touching a chosen part of our bodies in any attitude with the finger or hand. This “map” of the body explains why someone will remember a limb that has perhaps been removed and can actually feel it still there and even fancy yet touching it, though gone. The filtering of events through our unique body image ensures that memories of those events are subjective and are ours alone. Another experiencing the same event will over time and space remember it differently because of filtering it through their own self and image.

I have enjoyed this little jaunt “down memory lane” through the miracle and mysteries of memory itself and have found that the selected readings and attempts to digest and relate their content to myself and others dear to me have been stimulating and meaningful. What is rather sobering since I live now in old age is that, regardless of their quality and quantity and their value and meaning to me presently and to others, all those memories are but temporal. Certainly hard to conceive now, with my body and brain still functioning satisfactorily, that at the death of my body in the not too distant future, poof, all those precious memories will disappear.

Face It

I have a real obsession with faces. I see them everywhere. When gazing absentmindedly out of the bathroom window here in Vermont, suddenly a face will emerge from the irregularities in the grass on the lawn or from the bark on a tree. Yes, there are the two eyes, between them what passes for a nose and yes, below the nose is what could be a mouth. And sometimes there’s even the hair, a forehead or the ears or a chin. I don’t ever really look for a face but when my eyes will relax and go out of focus for a moment or two, it just sort of comes out. If I look away toward some other object in my view I may lose that particular face, but another may appear when looking a different direction or at a different surface. And when this occurs, it’s always a face, nothing else.

Faces are obviously important to me. If I meet a new person, perhaps the friend of a friend or a new service person who comes to my house to do a job, I will look intently at his or her face and eyes, trying to gauge what kind of person they are. I look for a kind, understanding face or perhaps one expressing respect, resolution or confidence. I think that faces are the passageway to the inside of a person and show what kind of person they are.

Now, from a developmental, evolutionary point of view, faces are even more important. We absorb a face into our memories, not a name, explaining why when we definitely remember a face we often forget the name. In ancient times, it was the face that identified a friend or foe, certainly not the name, reinforcing why faces are so important.

In my precious former profession, education, when interviewing teachers, I became accustomed to paying attention to teaching candidates’ faces, always looking for an expressive countenance, because I had noted over my career that the most successful teachers were those whose faces were mobile and expressive, who “wore their hearts on their sleeves” and were able to show children how they felt. Teachers with expressive faces were always the best disciplinarians. Their faces showed students that they cared, through easily showing pleasure, disappointment, surprise, concern and humor through their faces and body language. I have always claimed that good teachers control their children with the raised eyebrow, not the raised voice. Children inherently want to please us and we have to constantly demonstrate an appropriate response.

As an elementary principal I supervised many teachers over the years who never had a single discipline problem and also had a few that failed utterly at running good cooperative, joyful classrooms. Or one group of children would be “full of troublemakers” according to their teacher that year but the exact same group would go on to the next grade and be the “best class I’ve ever had” to another teacher. Why? The teacher’s expressive face, demeanor and body language, but especially the face, meant the difference.

With regard to remembering faces I should relate an amazing story about face recognition. Many years ago while at a Mexican restaurant in Tucson, Arizona, I was struck with the familiarity of the face of a waitress working there. I knew that face from somewhere in the past but could not remember where or how. After glimpsing her several more times as she conducted her job and noting her voice and body language I finally decided that I must know her from Cambridge, Massachusetts. I was convinced that she had been a cashier at the Harvard Coop, where I regularly went to buy LP records for many years after I had been a graduate student. She specifically had manned a cash register in the record department. But….how could this be, how could I be sure, after being so far removed from that Massachusetts memory, both in distance and in time? How could that face belong to someone whom I encountered in this somewhat insignificant role at least five years ago in the past at a place over two thousand miles removed from Tucson?

Upon mentioning this conviction to my wife, who shook her head in surprise and disbelief, claiming that I had to be mistaken, I resolved to approach the young lady and ask her about my strong belief that she once worked in the record department at the Harvard Coop in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Finally summoning my courage, approaching her and asking the question, she beamed with surprise and pride and said that yes, she had worked for several years in precisely that establishment before moving to Tucson. Absolutely amazing, the depth, power and memorability of a face. Oh sure, the fact that his young lady was attractive probably had something to do with my memory of her, but nevertheless, I will forever be amazed at this incident.

And speaking of faces, I have to discuss that of our President, Joe Biden. Listen, I’m awfully happy that he won the presidency. I shudder to think what our country would have been in for had our fascist friend Donald Trump won a second term. But of course I would much rather have had Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders as our leader because of their authentic “for the people” propensities so evident in their careers and campaign proposals. 

Unfortunately there is little authenticity to former machine politician Joe Biden who for 34 years represented the Cayman Island-like state of Delaware, save the now hackneyed declaration that “he’s a good man” and that he is genuinely empathetic because he has “suffered loss”. Indeed, losing the loved ones President Biden has lost over the years would soften the hardest of hearts and souls and he wears the empathy badge quite genuinely. And I do think that he genuinely cares.

And during this horrible pandemic that has now killed well above half a million of our citizens and thousands more world wide, it has been wonderful to have a leader who can say the right words to us, to be a credible “comforter in chief” as it were. His recent speech on the subject, sympathizing with those millions who have lost loved ones, was impressive, made even more so by knowledge of his personal experience with loss.

But when watching our president during any kind of emotional outpouring, something is missing. Perhaps I’m being petty, but I don’t see Joe’s face reflecting any anguish, sadness or empathy. Whether he has been outlining legislative goals on the campaign trail, accepting the results of the election, or extolling the virtues of the nation and pledging to uphold its values during his inauguration speech, Joe’s expression is pretty much the same – the same beady eyes, the same immobile mouth, turned down at the corners in a perpetual grimace, and of course, the same blindingly white teeth, big and lots of them…when he smiles.

As I noted above in a different context, I think the face is everything in human communication. The frown, the raised eyebrows, the smile, the knitted brow, the eye roll, the clenched teeth, can often convey emotion and understanding that words cannot and can certainly punctuate words and phrases and give them emphasis, additional meaning and emotional impact. Look again at President Biden’s speech about the pandemic – the words are perfect and quite meaningful, but we are left hanging without validation from his expressionless face. 

Now, we should ask why is this? Why is our president’s face so empty of expression…of whatever kind? Anger, laughter? When looking back at the many pictures and videos of Joe in the past, it is clear that his face has changed – dramatically. Remember his famous aside to President Obama after the Affordable Care Act became law? “This is a big f——-g deal!”, he chortled in the president’s ear, his whole face smiling and reflecting his glee.

The moment after Biden’s remark

Other pictures and videos from his many years in the Senate, show a face full of expression, able to show sarcasm, surprise, concern, or embarrassment quite easily. Actually, even when then Senator Biden ran against Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination in 2015, his face was fine. But something happened to that face between his run against Clinton and his run for the Democratic nomination in 2019. 

Biden 2012

Now, we all know about the vanity of politicians and Joe Biden was never an exception. As a balding senator, in fact the victim of a very unseemly process, where the hair seemed to thin severely but uniformly, no bald spot or receding hairline for Joe, his vanity response was his famous hair plugs – swiped from his neck and various other places where the hair was thick and then inserted into his scalp. Okay, baldness assaults the best of us and we all deal with it in different ways, including the famous “comb over” (https://ralphfriedly.com/2016/07/04/the-comb-over/). But Senator Biden’s answer for his problem was quite radical and obviously quite expensive. 

Biden then

Well, all this was fine – we got used to the “hair plug look”, but why mess with the face. Joe’s face, aside from a sagging double chin or wattle, was always fine. His smile and his hearty laugh were always engaging, as my son Conrad can attest, when Vice President Biden visited with and thanked his Peace Corps group in Jordan in 2008. Really, Biden’s engaging personality, favorably supported by those expressive characteristics, was one of his finest attributes. But apparently his vanity expanded unwisely well beyond those hair plugs after he ran against Clinton in 2015. It was during his run against Sanders and Warren for the Democratic nomination, that his supporters and we voters noticed a fundamentally altered face and its resulting negative characteristics.

Biden now

Yes, Joe Biden is old. Hmm, well maybe not so old since he was born in the same year I was, 1942. I’m already 79; President Biden will turn 79 in November. But he is without doubt the oldest person to become a US president. The closest to him was Donald Trump, who when he was elected in 2016, was 70 years old. But to me that’s not a good enough reason to change an engaging and expressive face to one that’s most times a complete cypher, in an ill advised effort to look younger. His wife, “Dr. Jill”, should have advised against it.

President Biden

But President Biden, a devoted exerciser, is trying to ensure that his body is up to the exhausting role of US President. He’s been known to challenge opponents to push-up contests, among them President Trump. And yes, he would have easily won. But in my humble opinion he should also have exercised, not excised, his charming and distinguishing facial characteristics, retaining the expressive face of the “lunch bucket Joe” that we grew to respect and love as Senator and Vice President.

Addendum

Another story about facial expression that I wanted to share but that would not fit easily into any of the above, concerns a Mark Twain book, me and my father.

I mentioned in another article that many of my favorite books were purchased at a used book booth at Packard’s Farmers Market on route 206 in Somerset County, New Jersey when I was a youngster. One of them, an ornately bound first edition of Mark Twain’s “Innocents Abroad”, was quite special. I remembered some clever illustrations in the book dealing with interpretation of facial expressions that I wanted to consider for this article but of course this precious book was on a bookshelf in my study in Scottsdale so I abandoned the idea.

But, would you believe it, after idly typing the title and author into google, a scanned version of exactly my first edition came up and after looking through the chapters and pages, I found the exact page, illustration and text that I wanted. Both the illustration and Twain’s text describing the expressions caused lots of uproarious laughter from both me and my father when sharing them. They still don’t exactly fit into the article but here they are, along with the text – I hope you enjoy them:

Twain’s text:

There is an old story that Matthews, the actor, was once lauding the ability of the human face to express the passions and emotions hidden in the breast. He said the countenance could disclose what was passing in the heart plainer than the tongue could.

“Now”, he said, “Observe my face – what does it express?”

“Despair!”

“Bah, it expresses peaceful resignation! What does this express?”

“Rage!”

“Stuff! It means terror! This!”

“Imbecility”.

“Fool! It is smothered ferocity! Now this!”

“Joy!”

“Oh perdition! Any ass can see it means insanity!”

Elder Statesmen

I was disturbed by the worshipful reverence implied in the smaller news item inserted into the story of President Biden’s inauguration on January 20 of this year.

Sure, most Americans were happy to see the end of the chaotic, disastrous and disgraceful presidency of Donald Trump and happy to usher in what we all hoped would be a much more deliberate, thoughtful, honest and transparent presidency. Although Joe Biden’s tenure has yet to be judged, the end of Trump’s certainly has caused a national sigh of relief.

And I assume to help make that point we were treated to a dramatically posed and videoed meeting among three of our ex-presidents: Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama, where we could hear them reminisce and ruminate about the “peaceful transfer of power” in which they all participated and position themselves as contrasts to the last four years. For many viewers and observers perhaps it worked. I mean, who wouldn’t look good next to Donald Trump. Whose administration would not shine when compared to the destructive wrecking crew of ne’er-do-wells who populated Trump’s cabinet – from Betsy DeVos to Scott Pruitt – all bent on destroying that which they were appointed to protect. 

But I had a problem with this video – not with the sentiment expressed by these ex presidents about the peaceful transition of power, which was quite appropriate, but with being reminded as I looked at each one and remembered their respective eight-year presidencies, of how flawed our recent presidents and their legacies have been. The reflective gathering of these three should have been not a celebration but a commiseration. All three have huge black marks on their respective administrations that will define them forever and that history will not erase.

In order – Bill Clinton and his “triangulation” strategy caused no end of misfortune for America. His “middle ground” abandonment of principles of the Democratic Party that got him elected and embrace of right wing policies to ingratiate him with the Republican Party resulted in some disastrous legislation. His crime bill, in the words of NYTimes columnist Charles Blow, “…flooded the streets with police officers and contributed to the rise of mass incarceration, which disproportionately impacts Black men and their families. It helped to drain Black communities of fathers, uncles, husbands, partners and sons….”. 

And then there was Clinton’s welfare reform bill which would “end welfare as we know it”, when he took another page from the Republican playbook by changing welfare to a block grant program for each state, inadequate to begin with, and which assured significant disparity among more and less generous states. His program also dictated onerous work requirements which presented impossible transportation burdens for poor families and, worst of all, ran out at an established point, depositing many one parent and struggling families right back into the gutter of despair and hopelessness from which they were trying to escape and where they remained. 

Then there were Clinton’s clumsy foreign policy forays, which included “Operation Infinite Reach” – the bombing of purported terrorist havens in Afghanistan and a western built pharmaceutical factory in Sudan, claimed to be manufacturing nerve gas. These attacks were violations of international law and failed to achieve anything except enhancing Osama bin Laden’s reputation and strengthening the terrorist resolve that resulted in the disaster of 9/11. Along with his ill-conceived assault in Somalia culminating in the infamous Mogadishu firefight of October 1993, our friend Bill should be forever contrite and repentant.

Another signature bill of Clinton’s presidency was the oft-touted North American Free Trade Agreement, known better as NAFTA, which accelerated the departure of  manufacturing from America to low wage countries like Mexico. Why the hollowed-out cities of Michigan and Ohio with boarded up factory buildings? NAFTA is the reason. The loss of well paid, unionized manufacturing jobs was a huge contributor to destroying the middle class and making the United States the most unequal country among OECD nations. With NAFTA the corporations, their CEO’s and their stockholders got richer and their former employees got poorer.

The corporate takeover of Medicare also began with Bill Clinton. It was during his administration that private healthcare corporations were first allowed to administer Medicare programs to seniors. First called Medicare “Choice” programs, they eventually morphed into the myriad “Medicare Advantage” programs of today, which offer “enhanced” medicare providing additional benefits like dental care, hearing and drug coverage and so on at great taxpayer cost through requiring Medicare to pay a hefty annual coverage cost to private companies, who then profit by limiting coverage (See my upcoming article on this subject).

And then, of course, Clinton’s dalliance with a White House intern forever blemished the US presidency. Yes, one might argue that other presidents had their weak moments too, certainly FDR, Eisenhower and Kennedy come to mind. But Clinton’s were not tastefully hidden but blazoned in the headlines for all of us to see and feel. 

So perhaps President Clinton, standing so dramatically with those two other ex presidents, should have been apologizing to his colleagues and to the American people instead of discussing the “peaceful transition of power”.

Then there was George W. Bush, the biggest failure of all, standing in the twilight with Bill and Barack. He manipulated intelligence and initiated a catastrophic war of choice with Iraq which should be described with terms like “illegal. war crime, deception, lies, immoral, mass murder” that cost trillions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of lives while making the world a more dangerous place. In addition to the money, now calculated by Brown University’s Cost of War project at $1.922 trillion (averaging about $8000 for every US taxpayer) and the lives lost, estimated to be more than 300,000, we left a dreadfully unstable and still struggling Iraq. Plus our friend Mr. Bush gave the ok for “black sites” and legalization of torture, leaving a most shameful and permanent blemish on the character of our nation. Actually, the costs of Bush’s entire “War on Terror”, which would include not only Iraq, but also Afghanistan and military actions in more than 80 other countries all over the globe, and which accomplished little but further deterioration of our reputation, have tallied an astonishing cost of $6.4 trillion and 601,000 precious lives lost. Thank you, George W. Bush.

 And of course, we remember “W”’s disastrous reaction to Hurricane Katrina. It’s really hard to imagine a more detached, uncaring posture in the face of such a huge disaster, but there he was, after interrupting an already disgracefully long 27 day vacation on his Texas ranch, disdainfully viewing the deadly catastrophe from the distance and safety of Air Force One. Then, eventually on the ground and finally trying to lead, he comes out with his immortal statement to inept FEMA director Michael Brown, “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job”. This dismal performance as president in the face of terrible disaster will long be remembered.

And guess who privatized and deregulated the Texas power grid, severed it from those in adjacent states to prevent any federal oversight, and placed it under the control of the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT)? Yes, George W. Bush did all this while serving as governor of Texas, calling it “The nation’s most extensive experiment in electrical deregulation” – an extraordinarily expensive and deadly experiment, with Texas residential consumers paying ten of billions more for their power than state’s traditional utilities, most of it going into the pockets of investors, power company CEOs, and the campaign coffers of Texas Republican politicians. And we all know what happened when the changing climate sent a huge cold wave to Texas this past winter – approximately 800 people died and the the state sustained billions in property damage. Thank you for that too, George W. Bush.

So Bush, as detailed in a superb New York Magazine article the “painter”, the “artist”, is trying to launder his reputation and sanitize his legacy with his vapid portraiture. Oh yes, “inspired by Churchill”, he is painting portraits of immigrants, including fellow war criminal Henry Kissinger and marketing a  book celebrating his “artistry” with all the power he can. Why? Does he need the money? Hardly – he’s been a multimillionaire for decades for whom politics and now art have been a hobby. He’s just doing everything he can to make us forget his disastrous presidency and unfortunately we’re mostly going along with him. And George W. Bush, war criminal, had the gall to appear on BookTV being interviewed by none other than his own daughter and expounding  on his new career and book. 

Oh, and let’s not forget that like every good Republican president, “W” also cut taxes for the wealthy in 2001 and 2003 under the guise of “tax relief”, a Frank Luntz term that I illustrated in another article. So George W., paint and pontificate all you want. You will never live down the legacy of being one of the worst, most disastrous of all US presidents.

And good old President Barack Obama, now basking in the riches obtained by he and Michelle’s movie production deal with Netflix and the considerable royalties from the first volume of his presidential memoirs, should be sadly looking back at a failed presidency. Oh sure, he was a distinguished leader on the world stage, might be the most eloquent of all of our presidents, and indisputably was our first black president, but he could have done so much more, were he not locked in the embrace of neoliberal orthodoxy. His vaunted “hope and change” never materialized – we all hoped but nothing much changed. 

Surrounded by advisors recruited from the ranks of Goldman Sachs he chose Wall Street over Main Street, bailing out the very same big banks that caused the financial crisis of 2008 instead of prosecuting them and failed to help the millions who lost their sole store of wealth – their homes. Yes, President Obama refused to prosecute those who caused the crash of 2008, in contrast to the thousands of prosecutions following the savings and loan debacle of the ’80’s and ’90’s and chose instead to bail out the big banks, the real culprits, instead of common people who were losing their homes. And the stimulus finally passed to stop the hemorrhaging of jobs and livelihoods was far too small, causing the recovery to drag on for much too long. Furthermore and very important, this choice fueled an era of populist rage and resentment that infected the country and paved the way for  the election of Donald Trump.

And while all of us hoped for something better, President Obama forever doomed American medical care to be a for-profit corporate “product” by allowing the Affordable Care Act to be virtually written by the health care and pharmaceutical industries. True, it extended “affordable” healthcare to additional millions of people but at the huge cost of government subsidies to healthcare corporations. “Obamacare” – ostensibly a compromise between liberals and moderates, was in reality a giveaway to the already corporatized healthcare industry. And Biden’s much touted “enhancement” of Obamacare and the aforementioned Medicare Advantage programs have tightened corporate America’s grip on American healthcare and have made transition to a much less expensive and far more efficient single payer government run program which would cover every single person in the country from birth to death increasingly difficult and now maybe impossible.

Also, it was President Obama who, perhaps unwittingly, signed the deceptively named Ensuring Patient Access and Drug Enforcement Act, which stripped the DEA of power to staunch the flow of opioid pills outside of normal avenues of prescription and distribution, protecting drug manufacturers and their distributors and making it easier for them to get away with exacerbating the epidemic of overdoses and death. And it’s interesting to note that the bill’s most passionate advocate, Representative Tom Marino of Pennsylvania, was later nominated by Donald Trump to be his “drug czar”.

Plus while president our friend Barack Obama embarked on a series of ill advised and illegal executions, an example of which certainly was the much ballyhooed “capture” of Osama bin Laden, who actually was murdered extrajudicially instead of being brought back to the US to face justice. Yes, our “constitutional scholar and professor” president who campaigned against the death penalty, actually kept a “kill list” and was only too happy to execute any number of Muslims without charges or trials, some of whom were US citizens, along with dozens of innocent bystanders, who likely were deemed mere “collateral damage”.

Another shameful feature of the Obama presidency was his treatment of whistleblowers. Of course, Mr. Obama, boasted of his administration’s “transparency”, promising “a new era of open government”, but betrayed that pledge time and time again, spearheading eight Espionage Act prosecutions, more than all US administrations combined. The Obama administration’s treatment of Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden, James Risen, John Kiriakou, Jeffrey Sterling, Thomas Drake, Shamai Leibowitz, Donald Sachtleben, Stephen Kim, Jeffrey Sterling, John Kiriakou and the very latest, Daniel Hale, whose prosecution began under Obama, continued through Trump and will conclude under Biden, was shameful and contrasts shockingly with the preferential treatment of David Petraeus, guilty of the same sharing of government secrets.

When considering the aforementioned, why President Obama received the Nobel Peace Prize remains a mystery. Conjecture suggests that this award was perhaps a veiled repudiation of the previous administration, or perhaps some “hope” based on Obama’s overtures to Muslim countries. But it is amazing that so many of his administration’s actions violated the honor of this recognition. Quite contradictory also, especially in view of his promises to work toward a “nuclear-free world”, which probably helped him win the Prize, was his authorization of a trillion dollar program to “modernize” the US atomic arsenal with its 5800 warheads already capable of destroying the world and everyone in it several times over. 

I should add that President Obama and his pompous blowhard Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, repeatedly betrayed and damaged my precious chosen profession, public education. Obama and Duncan, both private school products, demonstrated little knowledge of public education and its important role in American democracy and displayed little awareness of the causes of its problems. They continued the detached and useless tenets of George W. Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” involving standards, test scores, competition, and school reward and punishment, simply using different names – “School Improvement Grants” and “Race to the Top”. And both presented charter schools and “choice” as solutions to public school struggles, sucking away precious public school resources and depositing them in private pockets. 

And one more thing – as a dedicated Democrat, I was terribly upset to see President Obama, the leader of my Party, and his dedicated supporters, throw virtually all of their effort and resources into his 2012 reelection, to the detriment of national Democratic concerns. During President Obama’s eight years in office, when Democrats like me could feel some pride in a Democratic presidency, the Party lost more House, Senate, state legislative and governor seats, a net total of 13 governorships and 816 state legislative seats than under any other president. Among the states lost by Democrats were Wisconsin, North Carolina, Iowa and West Virginia, all key to the victory of Donald Trump in 2016. 

And finally, the great humanitarian, President Obama, who so sensitively and eloquently reflected the grief and concern of the nation at at mass shootings in schools and churches, even singing “Amazing Grace” when he “ran out of words”, did absolutely nothing to impede Israeli land theft, settlement expansion and human rights abuses, all violations of international law, during his presidency and worse, sat by while the US funded Israeli war machine killed thousands of Palestinians during the Gaza “war” in 2014 including 551 children and 299 women, while injuring over ten thousand and orphaning more than fifteen hundred children, all the while mouthing the same tired platitude, “Israel has the right to defend itself”. Instead Mr. Obama rewarded this criminal nation by signing a 10 year, $38 billion aid MOU with Israel. This $11 million per day “tribute” to Israel has recently ballooned to $20 million per day as our politicians stumble over each other in their eagerness to “help Israel”. “

So President Obama, enough with your well honed speeches and sanctimonious and thoughtful demeanor and enough with your “presidential memoirs” which gloss over your mistakes and failures. If you really want us to forget, why not impress us by trying your hand at building homes for the poor with Habitat for Humanity like President Carter did, or maybe join Stacey Abrams knocking on doors to expand voting opportunities for poor people of color. Oh, and one more thing –  it was Obama’s EPA that approved toxic chemicals for the fracking industry, that break down into deadly “forever” poisonous compounds called PFAS which threaten people and wildlife through soil and water contamination.

Before publishing this bleak assessment of our last three presidents’ legacies, it might be only fair to consider a few of the best things to emerge from their respective administrations. Hey, it wasn’t all bad.  However, what most consider to be Bill Clinton’s major achievements – NAFTA, his crime bill and welfare reform, I have asserted to be major failures. Yet he can be proud of the first balanced Federal budget in many years. George W. Bush has been lauded for PEPFAR (President’s Emergency Plan for AIDs relief),  a successful humanitarian effort to combat AIDS in twelve African countries. And ironically, what’s commonly viewed as Barack Obama’s greatest achievement, the Affordable Care Act, I include above as a major failure. But he should be recognized for the DACA program, his Consumer Protection Bureau, joining the Paris Climate Accords, the Iran Nuclear deal, reaching out to Cuba and for his active support for LGBTQ rights. But, all considered, in my view the achievements of these three remarkably flawed presidents were far outweighed by their errors, mistakes and failures.

Vermont Again

This has been a most difficult year. About a year ago we all became aware that there was a deadly virus spreading around the world and concerned countries took various measures to protect their populations – with greater or lesser success. And the US, as we all know, was unfortunately in the latter category. And, again as we all know, the reasons were clear: lack of Federal leadership and action, the inability of the medical community, with its resources proscribed and limited by corporatized, for-profit systems, to respond sufficiently, and an ignorant and incompetent president who utterly failed to respond and lead.

As individuals, like the nations of the world, US citizens responded differently too. Some heeded the pleas of the medical community and followed the now dreary dicta of masking, social distancing and hand cleansing. And some did not but selfishly went about their everyday activities without protecting themselves and others. And over time it became apparent that states too, responded differently. Some required citizens to practice good medical hygiene and some did not. And many suffered the consequences of that differentiation. By summer and into the fall of 2020 some states, among them our home state of Arizona, were suffering infection rates among the highest in the world. And some, like my adopted state of Vermont (my spouse’s native state) were among the lowest. So, motivated by these differences, we decided not to return to Arizona in November as customary, but to remain in Vermont through the winter, thus making this already “most difficult year” even more stressful.

Yes, we chose to stay in Vermont because statistically it was “safer”. But I had never experienced an entire  Vermont winter and my spouse had not experienced one since she was quite young. And this particular winter, unfortunately, has proven to be among the harshest over the last decade or so. Yes, we had visited our summer home during the winter several times over the approximately eleven years we have split time between the two states, but the experiences had been uneventful – some snow, some ice or some slush. But this winter, which we are still dealing with in early March, has added a devastating and depressing dimension to this already disastrous year. And at our ages, 78 and 70, dealing with a Vermont winter has not been easy.

After a beautiful October, usually one of the finest months of weather in Vermont, we passed through a somewhat unremarkable November – brown grass, bare trees, some rain, steadily increasing lower temperatures, but nothing unexpected. And we enjoyed a pleasant pandemic Thanksgiving holiday with our Florida daughter and granddaughter who had remained in Massachusetts for the same reasons we were still in Vermont.

But in the middle of December we experienced a truly frightening event – a snowfall the like of which I had never experienced. Beginning in the late afternoon of December 16, the snow continued all night, accumulating at the rate of a couple of inches per hour. I arose around my usual time of about four in the morning, turned on the outside light on the front deck and was astonished to see snow accumulations and drifts approaching the top of the four foot railings. And it was still coming down heavily.

Lower deck 4:00 AM December 17

In the morning as the snowfall slowed we began to explore what was necessary to get outside. I could not even open the storm door on the front porch because the snow had come almost up to the doorknob and I could not get the door open. The back door was somewhat better – even though the snow had come well above above the top step on the stairway, because there was not a flat porch on which it could accumulate, I was able to open the storm door enough to squeeze out with one of my snow shovels which thankfully were accessible, having been stored in the downstairs garage. In trying to come down the three steps I was astonished to realize that the snow depth was well above my knees and thighs and almost to my waist. I literally could not move, it was simply too deep. So to get anywhere I had to dig a trench in which to walk, so I dug my first such trench out from the porch steps and then around the deck toward the front of the house where my spouse’s bird feeders were located because I knew that she would want to replenish them especially in the midst of such a huge snowfall. Thankfully, despite its incredible depth and quantity, the snow was relatively easy to shovel, being more of the light and fluffy variety rather than the wet and heavy type.

Bobbie and her bird feeders December 17

Later that day, as the storm slowed and finally stopped, I gazed at the quantity of snow and actually felt afraid. What if one of us suddenly fell seriously ill, sustained a heart attack or a broken bone from a fall of some kind and had to get to a doctor or hospital. Forget it, there was absolutely no way. Dorset municipal plows had already cleared the road leaving a six foot mountain of plowed snow effectively blocking the end of our driveway. During the winter our driveway has routinely been cleared, even in our absence, by Jerry Merrow, a groundskeeper from Rutland who mows lawns in our area during the summer. Mr. Merrow handles the snow with a good sized gasoline powered snowblower so I wondered how he could handle a snowfall of this depth when the opening on the front of his blower was only about 18 inches high. For the rest of that first full day dealing with this snowfall, we did little more that express concern and wonder at the snows awesome depth.

The next day around noon, with the storm finally gone and a bright sun illuminating the monstrous drifts, Jerry arrived with not only his snowblower, largely ineffective in snow of this depth, but with a helper with a pickup truck and snow blade, along with the customary assistance of his teenaged grandson armed with his snow shovel. Starting with the massive pile at the driveway entrance, and pushing right and left, the pickup truck was able to slowly make its way up the hill toward the house. Now, before leaving in the fall and before the first snow, it has been my practice to insert four foot fiberglass reflective wands every eight or ten feet along the edge of the long curve of the driveway so that it’s marked for anyone plowing or snow-blowing the drive. In this case, however, the markers had virtually disappeared because of the depth of the snow. So the plow, unable to follow the curve of the actual driveway, missed much of it and shaved strips of sod from the lawn and picked up various rocks trimming the edge of the drive and the long curved flower garden, all of which were now lodged in the huge piles of snow created by the plow.

Eventually, the plow got close enough to the house for Jerry and his snowblower to take over, which was quite interesting to observe. His blower simply burrowed into the snow in many places, the depth and quantity even covering the chute blowing out the snow. However, with the help of his snow shovel-armed grandson and some additional shoveling by me, Jerry’s blower was able to create some space around our parked and snow covered Ford Taurus and space up to the garage door finally freeing up our little four wheel drive Suzuki Grand Vitara, making us feel considerably more confident about being able to handle an emergency. Because truly, before the driveway was cleared, we would have been totally helpless if we had to get out or get another vehicle, like an ambulance or fire truck, up to our house.

Our Ford Taurus sedan December 18

After the driveway was cleared, I proceeded to dig a trench along where I remembered our walk was, down to the stone steps to the driveway. Bobbie, armed with the other of our two snow shovels decided that she would attempt to dig from the other side of the driveway up to the front porch to free that up. Eventually she finally made her way to the porch and we both cleared off enough snow so that the front storm door could open.

Trench to the front porch December 18

I have to admit, looking back, that this initial snowstorm was quite exciting, despite its massive size and threatening aspects. Both Bobbie and I, along with Jerry, the snowplowing guy and his helpers, had been able to respond appropriately and restore some measure of personal safety. And after having done that, we were able finally to marvel at its remarkable depth and bright beauty, which had effectively obliterated all irregular landscape features, covering them with a smooth stark cover of white.

Wondering what would happen to all this snow was answered about a week later when we were blessed with two very oddly warm days above 50 degrees on which a southern wind blew intensely and we were blessed with large swaths of snow melting and exposing areas of brown grass. During this time I was finally able also to clear the lower deck of virtually all of the snow on it. However, even this big thaw failed to completely melt the huge piles of snow left by the plow on its uneven trip up the driveway. Those piles, full of rocks, driveway gravel and strips of sod from the lawn, remained.

Driveway mess December 20

The two days of thaw ended quickly and the real Vermont winter resumed, with all of its numbing cold and continuing snowfalls, beginning with a very deep, heavy and wet snow, which became a foundation layer of frozen slush, to form the first of many snow layers since then, and burying the afore-mentioned several huge leftover piles of plowed snow full of unsightly lawn, garden and driveway detritus.

January 22

Since that time in December and after a very quiet and lonely Christmas we have gone through over two months of additional (ten to be exact) snowstorms that required Jerry’s driveway and walk clearing, and dozens of “snow showers”, all of which have deposited their layers of new snow upon the old, in varying thicknesses. This constant blanket of snow has thickened and thinned, because of the sun and some evaporation but has remained at a depth of between one and two feet because of constant unrelenting freezing weather. We’ve had dozens of nights of below zero and single digit temperatures and daytime temperatures also in single digits and teens and even a couple of days when even the “high” temperature remained at or below zero.

February 2

And after each snow, we’ve dutifully shoveled as much as we could, again clearing the walks to the bird feeders and down to the driveway, again clearing the upper and lower decks and the front porch. These duties have not aged well and have gotten monotonous and burdensome very quickly. I can see little pleasure in shoveling snow when I know well that more will come again very soon and present the same challenge. And the repeated snows, accompanied by the packing, the occasional slushy wet version and the occasional sunny day contributing some softening and melting, along with the repeated very low nighttime temperatures, have caused what has remained on the walks and driveway to turn to solid ice several inches thick. We have not seen the driveway gravel or any of the flat stones or brown grass of our walks since that pre Christmas thaw. And simply walking down the driveway to get the mail has become a dangerous challenge. The lower deck too over this winter has accumulated unremovable snow and slush to become a coat of thick ice. Recently with some sun and temperatures near freezing, I have been able to pry some chunks loose and toss them off the deck into the snow. I must say, it’s been nice to see more and more of the deck surface reappear.

February 22

Our poor Ford Taurus has been coated again and again with a new blanket of snow, which I have brushed off each time, only to be coated again. I have periodically started the car and let it idle for a half hour or so to make sure the battery stays charged. In the meantime, our little Suzuki has stayed snug in our tiny garage beneath the living room and has faithfully taken us through the winter on necessary shopping trips, even a couple all the way to Trader Joe’s and Costco in Burlington.

And our propane furnace and radiator heating system has performed admirably all winter so far (knock on wood), striving mightily to maintain livable temperatures inside the house, although I have not enjoyed paying the last couple of monthly fuel bills of $400 plus which have come over the last months. Oh and incidentally, I have had to accommodate Dorr Oil and Propane’s deliveries by digging and keeping clear a trench from the road to the underground propane tank and marking its location.

March 7

The worst aspects of this winter have been the dreary boredom of it all. Sunny days have been rare and gazing out at the dull constant white and shades of gray of this eternal blanket of snow has been quite depressing. The time has passed far too quickly. For example, many times I have thought it to be Wednesday and it was already Friday, or have been astonished that February came and went so quickly and it’s already March. Unfortunately it is a fact that time flies by when activities are constricted and one day resembles another. For time to pass slowly, one needs new experiences, new scenery, new people, new travel, new challenges and new learnings, as it did in our youths or working adulthood. And what of these have we experienced here in this bleak and colorless Vermont winter when today is an exact replica of yesterday and this week was exactly like last week and same with he months?

And during this relentless sameness both Bobbie and I are fighting some depression – thankfully not the serious, debilitating, clinical kind, but the listless boredom, lack of interest in anything kind, during which many required tasks are rarely begun, much less finished and one no longer cares about very much at all. The days are spent in bored computer searches, occasional television news, getting the mail (consisting mostly of catalogues and other junk mail), opening it and allowing it to sit around in ever increasing piles. I mean what kind of life is it when the day’s highlight is going down to get the mail, or replenishing the bird feeders, or emptying the trash and navigating the ice to take the containers down to the end of the driveway to be emptied?

Meal preparation and consumption are boringly the same. Every morning for me it’s been my breakfast “smoothie” of water, yogurt, egg, “Orgain” protein powder and frozen berries and for Bobbie her oatmeal, yogurt, frozen blueberries and almonds. And for lunch it’s eggs in some form and then a salad for supper. Yes, all nutritious but frightfully monotonous. We seem incapable of departing from this simple norm for our meals. We simply have neither the creativity nor the energy required.

Same with the daily chores of maintaining our home – doing the wash, folding clothes and putting them away, filling the dishwasher, putting dishes and silverware away. All just as dreary as the meals, adding nothing different to our daily routines. And all constrained and limited by the boring white and constant bone chilling cold outside – the tasks and the environment conspiring to mesmerize our daily existence and sap our creativity and spontaneity.

Through all of this I’ve managed to maintain my exercise routine, despite developing a desperate hatred for every single phase. First, twenty pushups, then a specified number of arm and shoulder exercises with first, ten pound dumbbells, then the two twenties. Then twenty more pushups and finally climbing onto the elliptical machine for a tedious 30 minutes. But in spite of the relatively sensible diet and the regular exercise my aged and pitiful body has accumulated ten additional pounds of fat around its middle which is still with me and which will require considerable will power and effort to get rid of.

Looking back on this dreadful winter, both Bobbie and I are concerned about its effect on our daily lives. The terrible monotony of every day and every week seemed to smother energy and ambition. Despite having both of my scanners here in Vermont, one working with my Mac and the other with an older but still functional Windows PC, and piles of old photographs and slides to digitize and organize, I never really got going on this extensive project. 

And the best I could do with my blog, to which I used to add pieces at a regular rate, is simply start new articles during rare spasms of interest rather than finish any of the dozens already begun. I simply did not have sufficient enthusiasm and concentration required to put the finishing touches on any articles. Several mostly completed were rendered useless and out of date by changing facts or conditions and had to be discarded. Others, with more timeless and universal import, I just did not have the motivation or energy to complete and publish.

Also quite oddly, I never read a single book all winter. Oh yes, the overall quantity and quality of my reading remained quite high, consuming the Times and the Post each day, along with other favorite websites offering a liberal or radical view and analysis of political, social and academic developments, like Common Dreams, Alternet, Truthout, Public Citizen, Pro Publica, Consortium News, Mondoweiss, Counterpunch, Jacobin and others. But whatever resolve it takes to simply grab a book from our bookcase, sit down and read it, I simply did not have. Oh, I tried but never got past the first several pages before giving in to walking aimlessly about the house looking for something else to interest me.

Although I cannot speak for her, my spouse Bobbie, who was apparently stricken by the same malaise, with each day’s activities so restricted by the weather and covid 19 isolation, virtually the only things she accomplished on a regular basis were replenishing her bird feeders and perusing items on her computer. We both killed considerable time watching television, mostly news programs on MSNBC and PBS and selected offerings from Book TV on CSPAN. Our Roku streaming stick offered some occasional respite from these offerings but even with access to hundreds, we watched precious few good movies. Again….little interest.

So basically, with all the time in the world, we wasted most of it and accomplished very little. Neither of us really realized what was happening, until we read a very interesting article from the Guardian about how the fateful combination of isolation and boredom can do terrible things to the brain. While the article dealt mainly with factors related to the lockdown isolation of the covid pandemic, our condition was exacerbated by the additional conditions imposed by an especially challenging and debilitating Vermont winter. Thankfully, the article made clear that in most cases, the “brain fog” developed under these conditions is temporary and with the resumption of more normal activity and socially interactive lives it dissipates and memory, feeling, passion, ambition and energy can return to former levels.  

March 11

On the brighter side, things are finally looking up. Here in mid March, we are both looking forward to obtaining our second covid 19 shots and then at the end of the month driving back to Arizona for long delayed doctor and dentist appointments and to attend to the needs of our house and Bobbie’s little Honda HRV, parked now in the garage for nine months straight. Yes it has a charger on the battery but it should have been started and driven a few times. I hope it has not sustained any lasting damage from such a long period of inactivity. And our house, although son Conrad and special friend Tara have visited a few times, will likely need some serious inspection and  maintenance. 

And best of all, the weather forecast for this week, March 8 – 15 contains some awfully good news – temperatures in the forties and fifties and even a little rain towards the end of the week. Finally, finally, we may see this eternal blanket of dull white snow shrink in size and depth. And finally we may see some stones peak through the ice on the walks and gravel once again appear on the driveway. Perhaps we may see some areas of brown grass emerge from the white on the lawn. And perhaps we can break out of this snowbound and icebound isolation and take a long walk.

March 11

I do know this, even though flying would maybe make more sense, I am eagerly anticipating the drive to Arizona and back again in early May. It will be thrilling to again be on the road, watching the scenery, even if only Interstate Highway scenery, slip by and feeling in control of our own destiny again. And will we spend another winter in Vermont again? Absolutely not, we’ve learned our lesson. But will we happily return to spend the summer and fall here. Very definitely.

A Way with Words: The Devious and Devastating Genius of Frank Luntz… and More

I mentioned Frank Luntz in my article “Shared Values” , in which I willingly gave him credit for the clever term itself – I mean what could be more effective in garnering American support for rogue nation Israel than hearing about how similar it is to the United States? While my article made clear that these “shared values” are  fallacious, I do, however begrudgingly, give Luntz all the credit. His talking points for defense of Israeli aggression and human rights abuses have indeed been effective, as noted by Patrick Cockburn writing in British newspaper The Independent. He was masterful in his Israel Project handbook, for example after the Gaza slaughter of 2014, advising Israel supporters to always appear empathetic, “no Palestinian mother should have to bury her child” (even though that child was killed by Israel) and describing Palestinian negotiating points as “demands” because Americans dislike people who make “demands.”

Dr Luntz has always claimed, “It’s not what you say, it’s what people hear”. And he has masterfully put that knowledge to work on behalf of Republican conservative causes for  decades. He was responsible for all the clever Republican soundbites during the election of 1994 wrapped in Newt Gingrich’s “Contract with America”, the title of which was also Luntz’s idea. Here we find all kinds of examples of his ingenuity, from the use of such terms as “tax relief”, “job creation”, “personal responsibility” and “taking back our streets”, to the undeniably worthy goal of imposing term limits on “career politicians” so that they could be replaced by “citizen legislators”. In addition he advised Republicans to “talk like Newt” by describing Democrats in pejorative terms like “corrupt,” “devour,” “greed,” “hypocrisy,” “liberal,” “sick,” and “traitors.” 

Luntz’s work for the Republican Party in the area of taxes has been particularly effective. It was he who suggested always using “death tax” instead of the perfectly reasonable and accurate terms “estate tax” or “inheritance tax”. In a memo to Republicans, he even recommended staging press conferences about opposing or reducing this tax “at your local mortuary” to dramatize the Issue, stating that “I believe this backdrop will clearly resonate with your constituents….death is something the American people understand”.

Dr Luntz’s term for reducing taxes, “tax relief” is brilliantly conceived, cloaking our very necessary contributions to common safety, order and the public good as nasty unfair burdens. Employing the phrase “tax relief” suggests that taxes are an affliction that Americans need to be rescued from and ensures that those proposing the taxes are portrayed as villains, while those fighting against them become heroes. Use of this term was employed by George W. Bush promoting his tax cuts, primarily benefitting the wealthy but advertised as something quite different, nicely illustrated in this incredibly deceptive photo-op. Right there in front of all these cute, struggling American families is Frank Luntz’s term and sitting down to sign the bill providing that “relief” is our hero, George W. Bush. 

Republican talking points about health care are also representative of the influence of Luntz. A favorite term used by Republicans to describe “Medicare for All” or any other government program covering all Americans is “government takeover”. Dr Luntz earned the 2010 Lie of the Year award from Politifact for his promotion of this phrase starting in the spring of 2009. “Takeovers are like coups,” Luntz wrote in a 28-page memo. “They both lead to dictators and a loss of freedom.” Right, and added to this are always the buzzwords “choice”, where health care is concerned, and “competition”, as if anyone seriously ill or facing a medical emergency has the time and the information to properly “choose” the right doctor or hospital, or examine some kind of list and find the most cost effective providers. While I’m not sure of its origin, it certainly could be Luntz, another favorite term employed by those fighting single payer programs is “rationed care”, totally fallacious but quite effective, like the others mentioned above.

Luntz enjoys putting together his “lose” and “use” lists of words according to the topic at issue.  For example, about climate change and green technology, which he opposed, he suggests the following:

  • USE: Cleaner, safer, healthier. LOSE: Sustainable/sustainability.
  • USE: Solving climate change. LOSE: Ending global warming.
  • USE: Principles and priorities. LOSE: Values.
  • USE: Reliable technology/energy. LOSE: Ground-breaking/State of the art.
  • USE: New careers. LOSE: New jobs.
  • USE: Peace of mind. LOSE: Security.
  • USE: Consequences. LOSE: Threats/Problems.
  • USE: Working together. LOSE: One world.

Anyone can see how cleverly selected or rejected these words are. For example “peace of mind” instead of “security”. He’s right – the first suggests a threat of some kind and therefore has negative connotations, the second does not.

And here was his “lose and use” list for Republican before the 2006 midterm election: 

BI Graphics_Rhetoric 1

Other “use and lose” pairings that he has suggested more recently are rather than “undocumented worker”, use” illegal alien”, a much more negative and threatening term. And when discussing school vouchers, putting public money into corporate pockets, never use “school choice” – always say “parental choice”. And Luntz urged Trump chief of staff Mick Mulvaney to move away from the dry phrase “funding the border wall” to the more evocative term “border security” — a language tweak the White House has obviously adopted.

As a very successful pollster, Dr Luntz has tested all kinds of political slogans and catchphrases. One of his most successful was used by now Senator Rick Scott in his last run for Florida governor and was likely responsible for his narrow victory – “let’s get to work”. In an oft-used commercial Scott was depicted heading down an alleyway while putting on his jacket, appearing like he was looking for a fight, with the words appearing – “Let’s get to work, let’s get it done”. Certainly much more effective than defining problems and suggesting solutions or plans. And clearly it worked. And presently billionaire Democratic presidential candidate Mike Bloom has adopted Luntz’s phrase for his multi million dollar TV ad blitz – “Mike will get it done”.

I would like to add a few more examples of clever use of language in politics. Certainly the Democratic members of Congress took a page from Frank Luntz’s book with their extremely effective use of the term “kids in cages” to help describe the dreadful situation on our southern border. And although it cannot be attributed directly to Luntz, the Bush/Cheney administration’s deceptive use of the term “enhanced interrogation” to describe what was clearly and plainly torture, in dealing with captive suspected terrorists during the Iraq War. And just the other day I read a description of how corporations get away with paying little or no taxes on their billions in profits – it’s their use of ‘lawyers, lobbyists and loopholes”, a very definitive and resonant phrase to be sure.

Also I should add a few examples of political language employed today to cast doubt on much needed debate and embrace of tenets of dominant candidates vying for the Democratic nomination. In a brilliant article for Truthdig, R.J. Eskow dissects and defines some favorite phrases being bandied about by most of our “moderate” (read “corporate”) Democratic candidates. Several of the more striking are “free stuff” which Eskow defines as “A term of contemptuous dismissal for public services that are commonly available in other developed countries and which any decent society would make available to all human beings”; ‘I don’t think anyone has a monopoly on bold ideas” really means “I don’t have any bold ideas”; and “I know how to get things done”, (of course trumpeted constantly by Joe Biden) really means “I intend to use a political approach that hasn’t gotten anything done in years”.

And finally I would like to add a few oxymorons to this discussion of clever use of words. A favorite of mine that I use as a definitive example of an oxymoron is “military intelligence”. Others that are used in political discussions are “fighting for peace”, “bureaucratic efficiency” and “congressional ethics”. And George W. Bush enjoyed describing himself with the fallacious term “compassionate conservative”. Certainly, in this time of striking divisions in politics, it might be illustrative to suggest several that define our times. “Moderate Republican”  and “billionaire Democrat” are certainly oxymorons today. Obviously there is no such thing as a moderate Republican presently and the very existence of billionaire Democrats like presidential candidates Tom Steyer and Michael Bloomberg, are contradictions in terms as repudiations of what a Democrat is expected to embrace. And I will add my own original contribution to the lexicon of  political oxymorons, one which circles back to my first paragraph and Frank Luntz’s work for the Israel Project – “Israeli justice”.

And one more thing, after his house was narrowly saved by valiant Los Angeles firefighters from being burned in the Skirball fire, Frank Luntz has seen the light (and felt the heat) and has joined the ranks of climate change believers, offering passionate and personal testimony recently to Congress on the urgency of dealing with its effects. Also, observing that “It’s hard to be partisan when you see the damage being done”, he has abandoned his long standing association with the Republican Party. Who knows, he may decide to share his devious and devastating talent with all political parties.

Wooster High

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After encountering problems during the start of my senior year in the church school in which my family was involved, in the fall of 1958 I was sent to live with my Aunt Margaret and Uncle Emil Baxstrom in Wooster, Ohio and enroll for the balance of that year in the high school there. After my cloistered life in the Pillar of Fire church schools,  attending a big public high school was a tremendous shock. 

I remember my Aunt taking me in for registration with Principal Roland Sayre. I was attired in an outfit I had worn occasionally in my last school – striped pants and Wellington boots, and jacket and was sporting a ducktail haircut, a common hairdo among many kids in 1958. I recall Mr. Sayre glancing at me somewhat skeptically out of the corner of his eye and my Aunt’s manner with him and the office staff being – how shall I put it –  somewhat embarrassed or maybe apologetic? Anyhow, I was duly enrolled and placed in the appropriate sections of my required classes. 

In a couple of my classes and study halls I was somewhat concerned because most of the kids seemed a bit rough and not all that studious. Could this be because I was placed in those particular sections based upon my appearance rather than my ability?  However, in some other classes I did seem properly placed. Over time I decided that my hairdo was problematic and vowed to change it. After getting a flattop I couldn’t believe the changes. The “nicer” girls seemed to take an interest in me and the better dressed and more articulate boys became much more friendly. Yet it was always the same person underneath the hair, long or short. What a difference appearance makes in high school.

There was a store, more a snack and soft drink place down the street from Wooster High, I don’t remember the direction or its name, where some of the less savory students gathered during the lunch hour. And it was during one of these forays where I remember encountering a very cute girl that was in a couple of these classes, who seemed to be interested in me. She drove a new Chevy convertible and was quite flirtatious while I had the long hair. After the flattop Donna Burris didn’t seem interested any longer. Or perhaps her interest was simply not reciprocated – after all, at that time I had little means to begin or maintain any kind of relationship with a young lady. 

I had a really difficult time during my first few days at Wooster High getting used to the huge hallways and getting from one class to another in a timely fashion. Lockers and their operation were new to me as well. And gym class, for which I had to purchase the required shorts, t-shirt and jockstrap was new as well. And need it be said, to strip down to change and shower in front of classmates was a brand new experience that I had a difficult time with as well.

I will always remember my teachers that year. Mr. Nick Dellerba was a wonderful civics teacher. One theme of our survey of US government that ran throughout the course was discussion of the second Hoover Commission’s study of our national government and its recommendations for improvement. Mr. Dellerba was quite critical of some aspects of government and were I to encounter him today I would definitely classify him as a liberal, who strove to give his students a portrait of democratic constitutional government that was not above criticism and which could always get better. I wonder what Mr. Dellerba would say about our government today and what recommendations for improvement he could offer. I believe that civics was required of all students at that time at Wooster High and I certainly hope that it still requires that knowledge for all of its students. Statistics show that such courses are offered less and less in today’s high schools and are rarely required, an unfortunate circumstance indeed, in a country that still considers itself a democracy.

Miriam Myers was my trigonometry teacher. An elderly, kind and caring person she did a fine job of teaching the class. It was for this course during that senior year that I obtained a top quality slide rule, the “computer of the ’50’s”, in a fancy leather case that I could attach to my belt. So I could really put on airs as I got more used to my new school – displaying not only the short haircut but now the slide rule on my belt. I must have convinced myself that I cut quite a figure there in the halls and classrooms of Wooster High. But as I recount in my description of my first couple of years at Rutgers University, I failed a required freshman math course, even as a slide rule owner. How the mighty had fallen.

Another teacher I remember well was physics teacher Ray Harper. Mr. Harper seemed like a decent kind of guy who might be more comfortable considering the the work of John Deere rather than Isaac Newton, but in his quiet and effective way he taught us what we needed to know. It was in physics class that Rich Carroll and I enjoyed each other’s imitations of Mr. Harper’s unique mannerisms and voice inflection. His “l’s” were pronounced with a “w” inflection –  a bit like “cowege” rather than “college” and “wewll” rather than “well”. It was in physics class that Rich and I had to choke back paroxysms of laughter at Rich Weber’s extensive and detailed pantomime of a jazz musician carefully opening his saxophone case, putting his instrument together, wetting the reed, inserting the mouthpiece and then silently gyrating and puffing up his cheeks with effort playing. Hilarious – and Rich used to do this while Mr. Harper was lecturing and explaining physics concepts. 

And then there was a most kindly, sweet, bright and well dressed elderly lady who taught senior English, Lucile Nesbitt. This was a class that I enjoyed very much and in which I obtained stellar grades as well. I remember especially Miss Nesbitt’s drills on important vocabulary anticipated to be encountered on the College Boards. In retrospect, I don’t know if this vocabulary information really ever helped but I presume it did. It was in English class that I sat near Kitty Guthrie, a girl whose charm, personality, beauty and stature were truly imposing. I remember that Kitty passed me a note in class in which she wrote, “…you remind me of someone named Paul, of whom I was very fond…” Of course, that set my heart all aflutter and my spring-long crush on her began. I badly wanted to ask her to the Prom that spring but could never summon the courage. It was likely just as well, since I had neither the means nor the independence to squire a date to such an event. I would have had to suffer the ignominy of my aunt or uncle having to drive us to the prom and pick us up, so it’s just as well that it never happened. I always thought that perhaps a good looking, highly verbal and social classmate like Larry Drabenstott, had accompanied Kitty to the prom but a gracious letter from classmate Rich Briggs many years later, indicated that Larry had not been her date. Who was the lucky guy? To this day I don’t know – perhaps Kitty did not even attend.

Another teacher I remember, not because of his teaching ability or sensitivity but because of polar opposite traits, was PE teacher John McCreary, whose blunt orders like “OK – listen up now…” did not make PE classes any easier nor expectations any clearer, but merely added to the overall traumatic nature of PE at Wooster High. Mind you, I had never played many of the sports to which I received my first exposure there at WHS; my former school had much more limited offerings. However, I did my  best and was grateful for the forbearance of various helpful classmates. I remember especially Howard Zuercher teaching me some of the basics of wrestling.

Speaking of Howard, I should mention my school bus trips, quite interesting since Wooster  school buses picked up kids of all ages from surrounding communities and delivered them to their respective schools. Consequently, all my cousins – Sandy, who I believe was just starting high school, Ted, maybe junior high at that time, Jack in elementary school and Margie Ann, whom I think may have been just starting Kindergarten, and myself were all picked up by the same bus. Howard was another high school student who rode our bus, as was another student I remember well, Russ Flesher, who lived on a nearby farm. Russ I think did drive a car on many school days but also was on the bus quite frequently. Regarding Russ, my aunt many years later sent me a Wooster Daily Record clipping containing the awful news of Russ’s tragic death in the Viet Nam war and Rich Briggs in his informative early ’90’s letter recounted the notable highlights of Russ’s short life. What I remember most about Russ was not only his friendliness and helpfulness to me and others but his notable public speaking ability, which I must have seen and heard demonstrated in classes and perhaps also in school assemblies.

Another student I remember well for her beauty, attire, mystery and aloofness, was Vicki Vore. Vicky was quite attractive and seemed to dress more like a mature adult than a student. The mystery about her, whether true or not, had to do with her being a dancer at a club in Cleveland…or Akron…or Columbus. Of course this knowledge allowed my imagination to run wild – dancer? Club? Big city? What kind of club? What kind of dancing? I never did find out much about her. All I had was little bits of information from friends and my fruitful imagination. I don’t remember her being in any of my classes. If I had ever been able to know her, I am sure she would have turned out to be quite normal and not deserving of any of my foolish conjecture. And her lofty dance reputation was more likely centered around her involvement and leadership in that discipline and related activities right there at school.

And thanks to Stanley Zook, who as a member of the 1959 yearbook staff, was able to employ his photographic talent to produce and edit many of the photographs included in the volume. He graciously took that picture of me, replete with my long hair, that rests on the final page of student pictures. But I hope that Stan was not responsible for the confusing misspelling of my middle name, which should have been not “Barstrom” but “Baxstrom”, my mother’s maiden name and of course the surname of the family with whom I lived that year.

During my time at Wooster High I don’t recall ever visiting a counselor, or even being steered in that direction by any classmates or teachers. Sometime during the early spring, however, after hearing so many other students announce their college plans and realizing I had none I panicked and proceeded to develop some of my own. I managed to take the College Boards that spring at Wooster College and applied to and was accepted at the institution close to my New Jersey family home – Rutgers University. In retrospect I wish I had explored admission and scholarship opportunities at other schools through WHS’s counseling office but simply did not, so attendance at Rutgers remained my sole university objective. 

In retrospect, while life with the Baxstrom family was pleasurable, my social life in Wooster for that half-year plus of school was virtually nonexistent. Any friends I made that spring were school friends only – I  never saw any of them after school or on weekends. At school I listened enviously as boys would recount their weekend escapades and discuss dates with this or that girl, or visiting a favorite lounge outside of town, presumably to imbibe. I don’t know anything about the drinking age in Ohio at that time – it would not have mattered anyhow for me – but it may have been 18 for 3.2 beer as it was in many other states. My life pretty much consisted of days at school and evenings and weekends at home reading, doing household chores or homework. During this time I did receive a valuable introduction to basic carpentry through helping my general contractor uncle on a house or two he was building in the Akron area – developing skills which I have employed all of my life.

I never had the means to get involved in any after school activities. I have marveled at the rich opportunities for extra-curricular programs – athletics, clubs or performance groups, back then at Wooster High School and envied the extensive involvement in such areas by many of my classmates. My constrained personal development at that time could have been handily enhanced were I to have taken advantage of some of the many opportunities then available to me. But my school life seemed at the time to be confined to the limits of the school day and never expanded beyond.

Looking back on my time at Wooster High School, I am ever grateful for the opportunity. It was and evidently still is a great public high school, with an enviable record of providing a solid education for all students  and sending most to a variety of post – high school educational programs. I thought of Wooster High as almost a prep school, so extensive was the interest in and commitment to higher education for its students. I believe that any upstart charter school would have a difficult time seeking to co-opt some of the clientele of Wooster High, because of its commitment to providing an appropriate high quality education for every single student.

Addendum:

I will be attending the 60th reunion of my class at Wooster High School in September 2019. After all these years of many other scheduled reunions, many of which I presumably could have attended and did not, why this one? Good question – I have asked it myself many times. Certainly I wish I had done a better job of keeping in touch and attending an occasional reunion. But what’s special about this one certainly is that it may be the last. Some in the class of ’59 have already passed on. The rest of us are now in our late 70’s so who knows who will still be around five years or a decade hence. It’s doubtful that I will recognize anyone and that anyone will recognize me. Nevertheless, I plan to reintroduce myself to classmates and to enjoy this time with people I have not seen for sixty years but with whom I shared the brief but wonderful experience of attending Wooster High. My sincere thanks for those responsible for organizing this occasion, especially to Sonja Henney Tugend for her diligence and persistence in locating me and extending the invitation.

I guess I view that brief time at Wooster High as very formative for me and an experience that set me on a more deliberate and considered path to higher education and a career. Life in the Baxstrom home was calm and organized and we all had a role to play in maintaining that home and that too helped me grow significantly. I will always be grateful to my aunt, uncle and cousins, for making space for me and accepting me as part of their family for that year. They were all dear to me then and remain dear now. 

And a final note about Kitty Guthrie who has remained faintly in my awareness and my imagination ever since that senior year at Wooster High. I have often wondered about her – where she is and what she has accomplished. Through the magic of Google, I discovered  that both she and her law school professor husband, George Pring, have enjoyed long and productive careers and have recently been associated with environmental matters. For example, Kitty and her husband are co-authors of a handbook for creation of ETC’s – environmental tribunals and courts. Kudos to Kitty (and George), for devoting their talents and energies to an area so crucial to human health and survival.

Vermont Redux

Today I am compelled by circumstances to offer some additions to an earlier blog entry about my beloved adopted state of Vermont. As I futilely tried to find the weather channel forecast for Vermont late yesterday and realized that the internet was not working….again….for the second time in as many days and tried to phone our company about the problem….again… but ruefully realized that our house phone doesn’t function without internet and so tried my cell phone to call and could not, since my cell phone works here at the house only when the internet is on and I have to drive halfway down Danby Mountain Road toward the village of Dorset to get it to work, I realize that I’m living in what amounts to a third world country – Vermont – where you can never take modern conveniences, like electricity, telephone and internet for granted but must fall on your knees with amazement and gratitude when they do work and can be relied upon.

Yes, two days ago I noticed that the internet was phasing in and out. One moment when I was trying to retrieve an article from the New York Times I got the “cannot reach server” sign and threw my hands in the air and rolled my eyes in frustration, punctuating with a little strong language, and the next moment, when trying to find the same article, there it was on my screen just like normal. Accordingly, I called (when the phone service had phased in and was working) Consolidated Communications, the latest iteration of our constantly evolving telephone/internet company, to complain and was directed to conduct the usual drill – unplug the modem, wait a minute or two, them plug it back in and hope the internet comes back up. Well, I conducted the drill again and again and sometimes the internet came back and sometimes it did not. Finally Consolidated Communications said they would “check things on their end” and send someone out to check here as well. With the internet still fluctuating on and off, a young man in a panel truck arrived and said they had discovered something “on their end” and had fixed the problem, but he would install a new modem for us just in case. OK, the new modem is installed, has functioned for a couple of days but now the internet is off again. Is it “something on their end” again or is the new modem not functioning properly? What the hell is wrong now?

Native Vermonters, like my wife, her relatives and friends here and around Dorset, will tell you apologetically but factually that indeed, such conveniences as electricity, telephone and internet are not always reliable here in Vermont and cannot be taken for granted because of one simple fact – trees by the millions grow here, trees which in a winter snowstorm or summer thunderstorm can be blown down and take some wires with them. Or perhaps the pole itself, transporting those vital functions, will be downed. So this I understand, no problem – trees and their peculiarities are a fact of life here in Vermont. So, I ask, if this is such a problem, why not just put the electrical power underground, as is often done in other locations? Well, the answer to this perfectly reasonable question brings me to another complaint about my beloved adopted state of Vermont – rocks, stones, boulders, whatever you choose to call them, of all sizes and dimensions are underground everywhere in Vermont – sometimes at or near the surface, sometimes deeper, but they are always here, and how well I know.

Last week, in an uncommon burst of generosity, I thought I would indulge my spouse and finally install some much needed edging around some of her flower garden areas to repel the ever advancing invasive grass and weeds from the adjacent lawn. So I ordered a few more boxes of plastic six by eight inch edging pieces that attach to each other and are simply tapped (pounded?) into the ground with a hard rubber mallet. Well, I know what lurks under the ground here so when I begin a task like this I always stretch a string between two stakes, then drive my square edged spade into the ground along the string to get a straight line to form a long groove into which to drive the units of plastic edging. Well, along that twenty foot line, I find only perhaps five places where the spade goes straight down to form a groove for the edging. Elsewhere I get a “clunk” or, worse, a “clank”, when the spade strikes the virtually ever-present rock. So I move my spade slightly toward me or away from me, or to the right or to the left, to find where the spade might go down unimpeded, so that perhaps I can get alongside or underneath the impediment to lever it up and out of the ground. Most times, my sturdy faithful spade is sufficient to the task and up comes the rock so that I can now continue down the line for the edging. But occasionally it is not, so I have to go to the garage and grab the most essential garden and landscaping tool I own – my heavy steel “digging and tamping” bar, which I raise and slam down into the ground combining its considerable weight with what remains of my strength to get underneath or alongside of the much larger object which is impeding my edging job and which my spade cannot dislodge and finally lever it out. 

This absolutely essential (in Vermont) tool, I had originally purchased to assist in a huge project to which I had committed several summers ago – the construction of a post and rail fence along the frontage of our property. To dig the holes for the posts, I had optimistically but foolishly rented a gasoline powered post hole digger which once here, had to be wrestled into position and the revolving auger digging blade lowered into the ground. While this machine may have worked well for the first few inches of the hole, it would inevitably strike a rock and just sit there and spin, halting its progress downward. When more weight was applied to the auger side of the machine by me or my wife by sometimes actually sitting on it, the digger might finally dislodge and regurgitate a medium sized stone and proceed downward. However, inevitably it would encounter a more sizable obstruction and just sit and spin regardless of any additional weight applied. So then I would have to withdraw the auger, push the machine aside, turn off the engine and dig the stone out manually and this is best done with a bar and a spade. So ultimately, having learned that a powered post hole digger was useless here on our property, I returned it to the rental place in Manchester and resigned myself to completing the entire job manually with my steel bar and a spade. I think that the powered post-hole digger helped me minimally with only four of the total of 25 or so holes.

Some other example of struggles with Vermont rocks – in spite of my impassioned pleas to stop buying items to plant and instead just maintain the beautiful flourishing gardens we have already started and nurtured, my spouse had insisted on purchasing a couple more items – a magnolia tree, which we hope will survive in this harsh climate and a really pretty butterfly bush. So after making excuses and delaying, I was in an optimistic mood recently and so finally consented to plant the magnolia. But as usual, the spade went in a couple of inches, then stopped…a rock. Ok, well I’ll try a little over this way, but again clank – a really big one I guess. Forgetfully armed only with the spade, I made the trip to the garage to retrieve the steel bar. By the time the hole was  dug, I had not only a pile of dirt but had removed also a pile of rocks. 

And the whole process was repeated a few days later with the planting of the butterfly bush – me starting out optimistically and happily but in no time sweating and swearing and prying out rocks. 

And then there are the roads here in my beloved Vermont. I have never driven on worse roads. State route 30 from where we live to Manchester has asphalt patches on the asphalt patches. And all are cracking and coming apart. Time to patch up the the patches on the patches. Yes I know how damaging the severe winters are on these paved roads. But comparing Vermont’s roads to those in other states that endure equally severe winters, there is no comparison. Why? Is Vermont behind in the science of road building and repair? My guess is that they’re building and repairing roads the same way they did fifty years ago. There have likely been some advances – time to learn about them and apply them. I really do think that a favorite Vermont adage uttered by every road crew boss, every tradesperson, every town manager is, “Well, that’s the way we’ve always done it….”

And then there are the deer. I mentioned in my previous article about Vermont how important deer hunting season is here. It seems like virtually the entire state shuts down for these several weeks. However, there seem to be more deer than ever here, and it appears that most are unfortunately concentrated near our modest little property. Perhaps drawn by the several old apple trees that border our lawn which drop their bounty each fall, deer seem to frequent our place far more than should be normal. And our plants suffer as a result. They love to eat the tops off of the bluebell plants that are in the woods around our grass. We moved a quantity of them to our gardens this year and they strolled through and ate the tops off of them there as well, so no beautiful blooms. Worst of all, we were shocked upon our return from Arizona this spring to see that they had rendered a dozen or so of the lush arborvitae trees along our fence virtual arboreal skeletons. And I still don’t know if I should wait and see if they come back or simply remove them and replace with something deer-proof or if impossible, at least deer-resistant. 

And a few other complaints about other occurrences that seem inexplicable except in terms of third world countries. I buy a gallon of regular milk every so often to use in my coffee and an occasional bowl of cold breakfast cereal. I use it slowly but it’s usually gone by the expiration date. However, just the other day, I was shocked to have it turn sour (yes, I had put it into my coffee that morning and was disgusted to see little curdled bits floating around as I mixed it in) a full week before the expiration date. Hey, I had hustled home and put it into the refrigerator promptly and had never left it out. So is there yet another third world condition here – inadequate refrigeration? Hey, my refrigerator works well and I have verified the inside temperature. So is the problem at the dairy, at the transportation or packaging facilities or at the supermarket? And this was not the first time my milk has gone sour quickly. It’s happened at least a half dozen other times over the past few years. What the hell is going on here?

And one other thing before I end this article. Vermont seems not to care about customer service. When I’m here I miss so much the humor, the helpfulness, accommodation, the obliging manner of retail clerks in Arizona, where the customer is valued and is always right. Here it seems to be just he opposite. I am made to feel that I am a troublesome intruder, an inconvenience. I do realize that retail clerks can be way too attentive and that drives me nuts too. I remember a few years ago when every clerk, shelf stocker, and cashier at Home Depot was evidently forced to greet every customer with a cheery “How are you today?” It got on my nerves so much that I was tempted to reply, “None of your damned business how I am. Just tell me where I can find the nails”. But I am tired of being ignored by unhelpful retail people. The other day when I bought groceries, I not only had to put up with a silent sullen cashier, but had to bag all my grocery items myself. So in Vermont, it seems that the customer comes last. Who’s first? I don’t know but the customer be damned – from dishonest tradespeople to lazy and unresponsive retail clerks, no one seems to care.

And with a Ford car this time in Vermont I decided to obtain the much needed oil change from a local Ford dealer after the long drive to Vermont, in order to set up a relationship where I could feel that my needs would be looked after. What an ordeal. Upon entering the service department, one guy was on the phone and another was on his computer. I chose to stand in front of the computer guy’s desk to be waited upon. Yes, I waited and waited until he finally and begrudgingly got off his computer, apparently put out at my presence, and asked what he could do for me. Finally, I was able to explain that I had an appointment and would leave my car and be back in a couple of hours to pick it up. When I returned, that guy’s desk was empty and the other guy was again on his phone. So guess what – a service mechanic came through the door and offered his help, took me to a desk where I could pay the bill – but that lady was on a lunch break so he took me back to the guy who was on his phone, finally off, and I paid the bill and collected my keys. I’ve been to all kinds of auto dealers in my life but have never experienced anything like this. But thank God for the mechanic, who, greasy hands, smudged uniform shirt and all, did seem to care. How does this dealer stay in business, pray tell? Must be selling a lot of cars – I don’t think there’s many repeat customers in the service department.

And finally, on the negative side of the ledger, I have to mention the bugs. Whenever I venture into the coolness of a pleasant Vermont evening, I have to coat my exposed skin with some kind of repellant to prevent being assaulted by bugs. A particularly troublesome insect is the notorious “no see-um” or “biting midge”, a tiny bug whose bite seems much worse than that of a mosquito. A “no see-um” bite somewhere on my scalp or back of the neck raises a bump like I had been hit  with a hammer. And that bump itches too. Evidently, the tragic insect die-off caused by  overuse of chemicals on farms, lawns and gardens has not affected these nasty little insects. Actually, I’ll bet that their numbers have been augmented by the demise of natural enemies. Whatever the cause, the lure of a warm humid evening is easy to resist here in a Vermont summer. However, all bugs have their seasons, so hopefully they’ll go away soon. 

And then there are the ticks. These nasty, sneaky and dangerous creatures fall off their original hosts, the ubiquitous deer here and wait to attach themselves to us unsuspecting humans and infect us with any number of tick-borne  diseases, the most notorious of which is Lyme Disease. I have received my share of bites, two just this summer, neither of which have apparently infected me. And I have received them in the past. During the summer of 2017 I came down with a frightening attack of arthritis. It seemed that every joint in my body was swelling and painful, as if I had been injected with some kind of poison. Of course I suspected Lyme so finally had the blood test which was negative. I’m still fighting the arthritis, which  rheumatologists in both Vermont and Arizona still insist is “osteoarthritis”. Nevertheless I am convinced that those tick bites have something to do with this condition and so plan to get another test, since it’s only about 80 percent effective anyhow. I am always troubled and confused by Lyme Disease because the more you read about it the clearer it becomes that it affects different people in different ways and at different times. A prominent example is Kris Kristofferson, whose recent memory loss and confusion was blamed on dementia, presumably Alzheimers, until some enterprising doctor ordered a test for Lyme which turned up positive. It became apparent that Kristofferson had likely received a tick bite while filming “Disappearances” in 2005. Where? In Vermont. So I’ve not yet finished researching the cause of this sudden encounter with arthritis. I’m convinced its cause is Lyme.

But…on the other hand, I should reinforce and add to the many compliments I offered my adopted second-home state before. Experiments in socialism are alive and well here in dear old Vermont. My spouse’s favorite mail order company for her gardening needs, Gardener’s Supply, the company from which I had purchased the afore-mentioned  boxes of plastic edging, is wholly owned and operated by its employees. Yes, its gracious salespersons, stockers, maintenance and office people work hard to increase company profits, which accrue directly to them and their families, not to a Jeff Bezos, a David Koch, a Walton or an amorphous army of wealthy stockholders. At Gardeners, the employees are the Bezoses, the Kochs, the Waltons and the stockholders, which adds to the pleasure of shopping there. This is how it should be, is it not? If employees work hard, they should receive a fair share of the profits.

And Vermonters are well ahead of the curve in other crucial areas as well. Shortly we will become the first state to outlaw plastic bags. And to prepare, I am now carrying cloth bags in the car for grocery shopping, although I often forget that they are there. And also, Vermont is moving toward keeping organic matter out of landfills and will at some point in the near future, actually require residents to deal with their own organic throwaway garbage, preferably by composting. We’re thankfully ahead of that curve already too, being the proud possessors for some years now of a “Green Johanna”, a barrel type of composter made in Sweden. Our little box garden in the back produces some pretty good vegetables, thanks to the rich compost that has been mixed into its soil.

And I should add to my previous compliments about politics here in Vermont, that this little state still produces Republicans that think and care. Yes, just like our staunchly Democratic neighbor to the south, Massachusetts, we do elect a Republican governor occasionally, the latest incarnation being Governor Phil Scott. Along with Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker, these guys are a throwback to Republicans like Mark Hatfield or Nelson Rockefeller, principled people who were practical, sensible, honest and honorable. Actually politicians like Scott and Baker are middle of the road governors, closer to Democrats actually in the way they govern, than the more radical prominent Republicans of today.

And Vermont continues to be significantly ahead of other states in the recognition and legalization of alternative life styles, characteristics with which many of our fellow human beings are born and over which they have no control and thus should be entitled to the same rights and privileges which the rest of us enjoy. Yes, Vermont was the first state to allow civil unions for gay couples, a remarkable achievement accomplished way back in 2000. Congratulations, Vermont.

Well there, I’m done with my second article about Vermont, my complaints and my compliments. And in spite of everything, I really do enjoy the people, the weather, even the roads and the rocks here and wouldn’t want to spend my summers anywhere else. Good old Vermont.

Oh Please, Come On Now

The New York Times’ most recently hired columnist, quintessential Zionist and Israel booster (and not coincidently or insignificantly Israeli citizen) and former chief editor of the Jerusalem Post Bret Stephens, whose engagement in my opinion was a terrible mistake, recently got his bowels in an uproar, his shriveled heart thumping, his palms all clammy, his teeth clenched with righteous indignation, his brow sweating and his self control all aflutter, after his employer published what he called an “anti-Semitic” political cartoon in its International Edition. Thank God we have Bret to define anti-Semitism and keep us on the straight and narrow with this incredibly biased bit of writing.

Stephens fits neatly into a category of writers and pundits who fancy themselves some sort of moral guardians of our media, jumping swiftly to label any criticism of Israel or civic public demonstrations against Israel as “anti-Semitism” while ignoring this rogue nation’s defiance of international law and violation of human rights. If you wish to observe Stephens and his friend Dennis Prager, of “Prager University” fame, in a revolting gush of admiration for each other and Israel and mutual rejection of basic democratic rights embodied in the BDS movement, take a look at this c-span interview.

I was going to disregard this whole distasteful episode until comedian Bill Maher thrust it in my face on his May 3, 2019 Real Time show. Yes, there was Bret Stephens himself in person as Maher’s guest to again spew his paranoid self pity and self righteous outrage in plain view of  Maher’s millions of viewers. And Maher himself, whose work I generally enjoy, until he opens his mouth to expose his ignorance about the Middle East, of course showed the cartoon and jumped aboard the Bret Stephens train of hurt feelings and righteous umbrage.

And, accordingly, the commonly accepted “paper of record”, the New York Times, fell all over itself convulsing, apologizing, even disciplining the editor of the International Edition for publishing this cartoon. And prominent Zionists worldwide leaped to accuse the Times of bias against Israel, not to mention anti-Semitism. Jonathan Greenblatt, the CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, said the cartoon exhibited “stereotypes that suggest Jewish control”. Israel’s ambassador to the United States Ron Dermer said that the paper had “become a cesspool of hostility towards Israel that goes well beyond any legitimate criticism of a fellow, imperfect democracy,” Oh my God, you have to be kidding me. The Times (joined often by our other very prominent paper, the Washington Post) is the most strident cheerleader for Israel in the country. To get more pro-Israel reading one has to go directly to Haaretz, The Forward, Tablet, the Jerusalem Post or the Times of Israel. Actually Haaretz, especially through its columnists, is often more honest in its criticism of Israel than the Times or the Washington Post. And our own erudite sage and deep thinker, Vice President Mike Pence told CNN, ”We stand with Israel and we condemn antisemitism in ALL its forms, including @NYTimes political cartoons”……”It wouldn’t surprise me if this was published out of Tehran or Damascus, but it does not belong in The New York Times or any credible media outlet”.

Now, about the cartoon itself – here it is. Like most political cartoons, it is making a few important points. First, a blind Donald Trump is being led by guide dog Benjamin Netanyahu. Second, Trump is wearing a yarmulke, not because he is Jewish but because he is sucking up to Israel and trying to flatter its supporters. After all, he was the first American president to pray at the Western Wall, cutting a rather ludicrous, not to mention totally hypocritical figure as he posed for the photo.

And this fakery and flattery works both ways. Israel Katz, Israel’s transportation minister, plans to name the Jerusalem Old Town station on the planned new underground near the Western Wall the “Donald John Trump Station”. And of course, a yet non-existent settlement on the planned illegal annexation of the Golan Heights will be named “Trump Heights”.  

So Israel flatterer Donald Trump is blind but is being led by Netanyahu. What’s anti-Semitic about this cartoon, pray tell? Is it the garish colors, uncommon for most political cartoons? Or is it the star of David identifying the Netanyahu caricature? The star of David is on the national flag of Israel, displayed at government functions and waved at rallies, and it’s on their warplanes – it identifies Israel for God’s sake. Or one could say that the Trump caricature represents the United States and the guide dog Israel: Israel is leading and dictating US policy. However one interprets this cartoon, it is legitimate political satire and is not anti-Semitic.

Now, I’ve seen anti-semitic political cartoons before. Certainly Nazi Germany’s leading purveyor of anti-Semitism, Julius Streicher’s Der Stürmer, published hundreds during the 1930’s. Yes, there were always the prominent noses, the bags of money and the evil conspiratorial miens. Now those were the real sensational and repulsive anti-Semitic memes, about which I can understand Jewish anger, concern and revulsion. But this cartoon? Oh please, come on now. 

The prize-winning Portuguese creator of this cartoon, António Moreira Antunes, has been drawing political cartoons for Lisbon papers for decades. He has denied that it is in any way anti-Semitic. But in a frenzy, critics crying anti-Semitism dug through his past work and came up with another cartoon which António produced and published during the Second Lebanon War. The cartoon depicts one leg tied up with explosives and attached to an Islamic crescent moon, and another leg – adorned with the American flag – attached to a bloody Star of David. So what’s anti-Semitic about this cartoon, clearly portraying US-supported Israel and an Islamic terrorist, both stained with Lebanese blood. What’s the problem here, when the red and white stripes clearly represent the US and the crescent clearly represents the Muslim religion. Hmm, maybe the star of David again?

Well, back to the New York Times. To make matters worse for the anti-Semitism scolds and kvetches, a few days after the António cartoon was published, the International Times published this cartoon by Norwegian cartoonist Roar Hagen which depicts a Moses figure – a conceited Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with sunglasses taking a picture of himself with a selfie-stick while apparently descending from Mount Sinai. Oh my God – back to back anti-Semitic cartoons published by the Times! What does this cartoon convey other than the pride and arrogance of Israel and the hubris of its prime minister? Oh, there’s that star of David again, inscribed on the tablet Netanyahu is bringing down from the mountain. Again, please, come on now.

And to make matters worse and underscore their paranoia even more, another António cartoon that drew the ire of Jewish groups was dug up and waved about. This 1983 caricature won him the top prize at the 20th International Salon of Cartoons in Montreal that year. According to a JTA report from July 1983, the cartoon depicted “Israeli soldiers tormenting  Lebanese women and children” in a depiction reminiscent of a famed photo of Nazis tormenting Jews during the Holocaust. A spokesman for the Canadian Jewish Congress called the cartoon at the time “a defamation of the Holocaust… artistically dishonest, morally obscene and intellectually indecent.” Baloney. António courageously directed our attention to the incredible irony of how Israelis have become much like the Nazis in their treatment of Arab people, whether Lebanese or Palestinian. This makes a political point – why deny it? It’s a work of political art pure and simple.

And in my own daily reading I ran across this cartoon on one of my favorite websites – Mondoweiss, a website that meticulously and evenhandedly examines the nation of Israel and its treatment of the natives it’s attempting to disinherit and displace – the Palestinians. From its homepage: “Mondoweiss is an independent website devoted to informing readers about developments in Israel/Palestine and related US foreign policy. We provide news and analysis unavailable through the mainstream media regarding the struggle for Palestinian human rights.” The website is owned and edited by progressive Jewish journalists, Scott Roth, Adam Horowitz, Tova Perlmutter and Philip Weiss. Here’s the cartoon. Is it anti-Semitic? Hey Bret Stephens, why not weigh in on this one? It’s got caricatures of Trump and Netanyahu and yes, there’s that infernal star of David. My God, this is anti-Semitic. Why? Oh no, it’s not. Why? Bret, we need you to tell us about this cartoon, please.

And one more thing – if the New York Times wanted to increase its already heavily Jewish roster of columnists with another Jewish pundit, they should have raided the ranks of Haaretz columnists and obtained someone of the international reputation and stature of a Gideon Levy or Chemi Shalev, both of whom continue to write about Palestinians, Jews and Israel focused through the objective lens of justice and humanity, courage and kindness, human rights and international law, rather than a sniveling Islamaphobe and warmonger like Bret Stephens, whose June 14, 2019 column was entitled “The Pirates of Tehran: If Iran won’t change its behavior, we should sink its navy.” I couldn’t agree more with Paul Blest of Splinter News: “Some days, it’s difficult to understand what the New York Times saw in columnist Bret Stephens when they hired him. On others, it’s obvious: what he lacks in basic journalistic ability, he more than makes up for in raging, spitting Islamophobia.”

Finally, with people like Bret Stephens and his ilk spreading all this nonsense of anti-Semitism in a renowned political cartoonist’s work, along with the bleating of the heads of hordes of Jewish organizations about the worldwide “rise of anti-Semitism”, there’s real danger of losing sight of what real anti-Semitism is. Are people pressing for Palestinian human rights, those who oppose Israel receiving billions in US aid, who protest Israeli apartheid, anti-Semites? Are those who question US congress members’ slavish support of Israel because of the wealth of their Jewish donors anti-Semites? Am I an anti-Semite because I think that Sheldon and Miriam Adelson’s support of Trump, reactionary Republicans and their being Israeli citizens is un-American and a threat to our country? Does my refusal to purchase items made in Israel or in the Occupied Territories make me an anti-Semite? Think about it. I don’t think so.

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The Trump Whisperer

Donald J. Trump’s presidency is truly frightening in so many ways. As I have written here before, he is totally unfit to be president and has chosen equally unfit cabinet members to run governmental departments, many of whom actually oppose the mission of their specific agency. The recent revelations of the Mueller Report, although not focusing specifically on governance, have reinforced the notion that this presidency is a disaster for the country from which we will be a long time recovering. And if this president does not deserve impeachment, then which ever will?

But one of the most fearful aspects of this grotesque presidency is the presence in the White House of senior presidential advisor Stephen Miller. Mr. Miller, although never vetted or approved by the Senate, has emerged over the first couple of years of this presidency as one of the most powerful individuals in Washington. He clearly has Trump’s trust and his ear and can easily be imagined leaning over his shoulder constantly offering advice on not only immigration but our foreign policy positions on Israel, North Korea, and Iran and a host of other issues. And much like Rasputin’s evil influence in the twilight years of the the Romanovs in pre-revolutionary Russia, he exerts a nefarious influence on our White House court and its orange faced monarch.  

I really think that Miller performs a required White House function as the “Trump whisperer”, à la the “The Horse Whisperer”, working persistently and diligently at calming and focusing the President and planting perverse ideas in his head. And we know how empty that head really is  – of history, of geography, of culture, of the arts. With him throughout the 2016 campaign and now at his elbow, side and back so constantly as a senior advisor, Stephen Miller has become also Trump’s Svengali, exerting with his considerable intelligence and omnipresence a powerful and nefarious influence on his boss. In the words of Washington Post columnist Greg Sargent – “He is one of the leading figures pushing the Trump administration toward increasing venality, corruption and lawlessness.”

Where exactly did this guy come from? Blazing a controversial trail of contrary, belligerent and passionate conservatism with a heavy dose of xenophobia and white nationalism throughout his high school and college careers, Miller entered the political field not through running for office but by forging a career as a doggedly conservative staff member of quite similar politicians. After graduation he worked as press secretary for Congresswoman Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, then for Arizona Congressman John Shadegg, both rabidly conservative and reactionary Tea Party Republicans, the former tinged as well with her well-known nuttiness, demonstrated in such statements as the “Founding Fathers stopping slavery” and “the first shot heard at Lexington and Concord, New Hampshire”.

Prior to joining the Trump campaign in January of 2016, Miller had served several years working for Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions, later appointed as Trump’s first Attorney General.With Sessions, he rose to the position of communications director, playing a key role in defeating the  immigration bill proposed by the “Gang of Eight”, incidentally the best immigration bill ever put forward by our Congress – a series of compromises  which would have solved most of the problems relating to immigration and prevented it from becoming such a controversial issue today. Most surprising is to discover another not so well known success of Miller – taking a hiatus from the Sessions office to run the campaign of ultra-conservative Dave Brat, then a political nonentity, who roundly whipped Republican Majority Leader Eric Cantor in 2014, one of the most surprising election results of that year. Interesting how easily one can relate Stephen Miller’s political internships with politicians like these with his connection to the many outrages of the Trump administration. 

So it’s not surprising that Stephen Miller was able to ride this string of successes straight to the Trump campaign where he wrote speeches for Trump, often served as the “warm up act” for his rancorous rallies and played a key role in Trump’s unlikely but ultimately successful campaign for president. Miller composed the speech Trump gave to the Republican Convention that year. He also helped write Donald’s controversial inaugural address in which the astute observer can easily recognize some trademark Stephen Miller sentiments and phrases, like “American first”, “protect our borders from the ravages of other countries” and “unite the civilized world against Radical Islamic Terrorism”. 

Early in his White House career Miller appeared on several of the Sunday morning political shows which exposed his acerbic, arrogant and petulant manner. For example, on an early appearance on CBS’s Face the Nation, Miller’s controversial statement – “Our opponents, the media and the whole world will soon see as we begin to take further actions, that the powers of the president to protect our country are very substantial and will not be questioned” – provoked a great deal of consternation. And on Jake Tapper’s CNN show, State of the Union, Miller went on to state, “The president is a political genius… who took down the Bush dynasty, who took down the Clinton dynasty, who took down the entire media complex”, eventually arguing vehemently with Tapper, then refusing to leave the CNN studios and having to be escorted out by security. These appearances were so offensive and counterproductive that the Trump administration apparently decided that they did more harm than good. So his public appearances on these kinds of venues have diminished considerably in recent months. Actually the coup de grâce for his string of appearances may have resulted from his appearance on Face the Nation with his almost totally receded hairline adorned by a treatment of what appeared to be some kind of  spray-on hair, which became the butt of a string of jokes and ridicule from a bevy of late night comedians.

From the beginning of the Trump presidency, Miller’s fingerprints are all over its cruel and immoral immigration policies, from the early travel ban on Muslim immigrants, to the sharp reductions in the number of refugees accepted by the United States, to the policy of separating migrant children from their parents, to the threat of transporting hordes of immigrants to sanctuary cities. Miller has also played a key role in the prevention of the publication of internal administration studies proving that refugees had a positive effect on government revenues. HIs Uncle, David Glosser, noted in an op-ed that he wrote for Politico: “I have watched with dismay and increasing horror as my nephew, an educated man who is well aware of his heritage, has become the architect of immigration policies that repudiate the very foundation of our family’s life in this country.” 

More recently, Miller has been responsible for the housecleaning at Homeland Security which resulted not only in the resignation of Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and the rejection of Ronald Vitiello as new ICE director, both individuals deemed “not tough enough” on immigration, but also the purge of Secret Service Director Randolph Alles. And it’s not hard to imagine that this “senior advisor” has exerted his nefarious influence on other issues too, such as moving the Israeli Embassy to Jerusalem and one of Trump’s latest perverse idea – pardoning members of the military that have been accused or convicted of war crimes. Also, it’s clear that Trump’s latest hare-brained scheme of the threat of tariffs on Mexican goods resulting in a great “deal” was hatched by Svengali Miller. And I would not doubt for a second that Miller had a great deal to  do with the controversial citizenship question proposed by Republicans for inclusion in the 2020 census.

So what do we do, what can we do about Stephen Miller. That he enjoys Trump’s confidence and has made himself virtually indispensable to him is indisputable. What’s also clear is that to have a senior advisor whose positions on key issues are narrow, reactionary, immoral and dangerous guiding this president is a serious threat to the country.  The House of Representatives needs to exercise its oversight responsibility and call him to testify and discuss his role in major presidential decisions and rulings. He needs to be brought out from the protective veil of the Oval Office and exposed for the danger and threat that he is. Whether the House does this or not remains to be seen. Certainly there are other investigative concerns the are demanding its attention right now. But Stephen Miller must be investigated, exposed and removed before more harm is done.

And a short addendum – can you imagine how horrified I was to catch a glimpse of Trump administration grifters, liars and crooks – Ivanka and Jared, Steven Mnuchin and yes, I can’t believe, none other than Trump’s whisperer, Svengali and Rasputin – Stephen Miller, all framed by one of the grand porticoes of Buckingham Palace. What a disgrace and insult to the dignity of the British royal family. Who decided to bring these detestable individuals along on this state visit, and why? Anybody know?


Still Ranting

Taxes

I’m furious. Why? My income taxes went up while corporate taxes and those of millionaires and billionaires went down. How do I know? This realization has nothing to do with the size of my refund – I know refunds vary with how much money was withheld and that my withholding may have been adjusted with the passage of the new tax law. No, my tax preparer provides three columns for me to examine – my income, deductions and tax totals for the last three years. And while my  income and deductions have remained static, my federal tax has gone up. I find this incredible – we are just barely clinging to middle class status and here I’m being dinged for more money to fund our reckless and wasteful military and provide more billions for Israel, while corporations, the wealthy and ultra wealthy are contributing less. 

As I noted in my article on taxes, we were scammed by the Republican “tax reform” law – the “Tax Cuts and Jobs Act”. This law not only reduced taxes on corporations and the wealthy but even further reduced the estate tax (oh, how Republicans enjoy calling this the “death tax”) and actually abolished the alternative minimum tax, which previously had prevented many wealthy taxpayers from escaping the income tax altogether. So certainly the hideous grin of Texas Representative Kevin Brady, one of the major authors of the law, the joy of then “Squeaker” of the House “Lyin’” Paul Ryan, the delight of our “chinless wonder” Senate Majority Leader  and the braggadocio of our grotesque lying president were well placed – lots more money for their wealthy friends and less for the middle class, despite their disingenuous claims to the contrary. And filing your tax return on a postcard? Another lie. Oh well, we all knew what this tax bill really was, didn’t we?

And to make me boil with rage and helplessness even more, can you imagine how I felt reading that Netflix, fresh from its best year ever – the most subscribers, the highest profits the company has ever had – $845 million, paid no federal or state taxes at all. In fact, Netflix received a $22 million rebate from the IRS. And to add insult to injury, one of the world’s most valuable corporations, owned by the world’s richest man, I’m talking about Amazon here, not only paid no taxes on income of almost a billion dollars, but actually collected a refund from the IRS. Specifically, the company virtually doubled its profits in 2018 from $5.6 billion the year before to $11.2 billion and for the second year in a row did not pay a single penny in federal income tax. In fact Amazon reported federal income tax rebates for 2017 and 2018 totaling almost $270 million. What’s going on here? What kind of a country is this?

And perhaps you can share my anger when you see that Amazon and Netflix were but two of many huge and profitable corporations that paid no Federal tax last year.  The revelations in this article from ITEP (Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy) really upset me. Not only are its facts surprising and shameful but they underscore another Republican lie concerning this terrible tax bill – that, while corporate taxes were to be reduced, loopholes would be plugged. Nope, the loopholes are still there, as this article clearly indicates. And the number of profitable corporations paying zero taxes has dramatically increased.

Also, while we are talking about taxes, I should mention that bipartisan legislation is now being considered in our Congress to make it illegal for the IRS to provide programs to enable taxpayers to file their taxes for free. It would be so easy for this agency to virtually complete the returns for most taxpayers, as is done in most developed countries. After all, the IRS already has our salary and withholding information and practically all deductible figures are sent from the banks and mortgage companies directly to the IRS. Well now, despite the IRS having virtually all of the information required to file a tax return for most taxpayers, the Congress, instead of letting the IRS make this process easy and inexpensive for us, is guaranteeing profits for H & R Block and for Intuit, the maker of TurboTax. So it’s clear that the lobbying efforts and campaign contributions of these two tax preparation companies have really paid off. Tell me that this isn’t a “quid pro quo”. Oh, and incidentally, H&R Block’s new CEO Jeff Jones will collect a $995,000 annual salary and a $950,000 signing bonus to join the Kansas City-based tax preparation company. Plus bargain stock purchase options.

Insurance

And if these revelations were not enough to provoke paroxysms of anger and rage I sat down a couple of months ago to pay my auto insurance bill on two cars. As AARP members and elderly retirees, we insure both of our cars, a 2016 Honda HRV and a 2009 Toyota Corolla (now replaced by a car of similar value, a 2008 Ford Taurus), with The Hartford, assuming we are getting the best rates. Well, despite accident-free records, both drivers a year older and the cars a year older, I found that our insurance rates had increased. Again enraged and upset, I called Hartford to inquire and was given some nonsense about accident rates, repair and replacement cost algorithms and so on that had “forced” them to increase their rates. Right, and still angry I looked up the salary of the “president” of The Hartford, whose printed signature was all over my policy papers. Douglas Elliot’s salary is $8 million per year. But he’s not the highest paid executive at this ripoff insurance company. Hartford CEO Christopher Swift makes $13 million per year. And The Hartford paid annual dividends of $1.20, 2.5 percent of the stock price, pretty good for its wealthy shareholders. And of course these dividends are taxed at long-term capital gains rates depending on your bracket (federal rates are 0%, 15%, or 20%). A chunk of my meager income was taxed at 22 percent. 

Why is it necessary to pay executives like this? What exactly do they do that makes them so valuable? Either salaries like these need to be reduced to make them line up with executive salaries in the 1950’s, 60’s and 70’s or they need to be taxed away with rates that also existed then. And when discussing this, let’s stop using pejorative terminology like “soak the rich”, “tax the wealthy” and “raise taxes on the rich”. We should use more neutral terms like “paying their fair share”, “progressive taxation” or “restoring taxation to 1950-1970 levels”.

And while I have touched on the auto insurance problem in this great country of ours, I’d like to say a few more things about it. Have you ever wondered how much auto insurance companies pay for their plethora of TV ads? Well right now they invest over $5 billion a year on advertising, instead of using that money to reduce rates. Yes, your rates pay for “Mayhem” and “Good Hands” from Allstate, “Flo” from Progressive, the “We know a thing or two because we’ve seen a thing or two” from Farmers and of course, our winner, the clever ads from Geico, to which this one company devotes over $1 billion per year. And yes, we pay for all those ads with our swollen insurance premiums. 

While living in Kuwait from 1996 to 2000, I was pleasantly surprised by how inexpensive insurance for our car was. As I recall, we paid about $50 a year for our insurance. Why? The entire program was administered by the government. There were no private companies advertising and “competing” for our business; no one making profit or seeking to “increase profit”; no CEO’s pulling in multi million dollar salaries; no stockholders; no advertising; there was no one “at fault” in a collision (the police took care of that and assessed appropriate penalties) and there were no “ambulance chaser” personal injury lawyers. There was just a single, simple state-run company providing an essential service to the people of Kuwait. If you were in an accident, the state insurance company paid to have your car and you fixed and the other guy and his car repaired. Simple. You know, auto insurance…. and home insurance….and medical insurance….in fact all insurance, should be non profit and state run. And yes, if this is socialism then God bless socialism. Private enterprise, profit, stockholders, TV ads and multi-millionaire CEO’s should have no role in enterprises necessary for the public good.

Venezuela

And a couple of other issues in the news lately deserve comment and a dose of outrage – first, the situation in Venezuela. The problems in Venezuela are not the result of “socialism”, as our president and his supporters would have us believe. The major problem is corruption, which ought to be up to the people of that country to address. And the other problems are the result of cruel economic sanctions instituted by the United States which have destabilized the country and have hurt the people of Venezuela far more than has its political corruption. Nicholas Maduro, who appears to be successfully hanging on to power, was elected president by the people of Venezuela. The imposter, “head of the opposition” Juan Guaido, was not. Yet this pretend head of state has been feted and awarded legitimacy by the likes of Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Pompeo and is presently seeking “direct communications” with Pentagon officials with the goal of establishing greater military ‘coordination’ with the United States”. 

The US conveniently forgets that the policies of the revolutionary governments of Hugo Chavez and his successor Maduro were embraced by the common everyday people of Venezuela who elected them. American efforts to “restore democracy” to the people of Venezuela are thinly veiled schemes to restore the country’s vast oil reserves to the multi-national oil companies who were thrown out of the country with the accession of Chavez. Head “regime change” hawk, national security adviser and “Mustache of Doom” John Bolton stated unequivocally for Fox News – “It will make a big difference to the United States economically if we could have American oil companies invest in and produce the oil capabilities in Venezuela.” Oh, and creepy convicted war criminal Elliott Abrams has been resuscitated and appointed Special Representative for Venezuela to coordinate the efforts to destabilize the country with sanctions, starve the Venezuelan people and make sure that quisling Juan Guaido becomes president and the multi-nationals pump and profit from the oil instead of the state. Nice. By the way, until he named himself president, 81 percent of Venezuelans didn’t even know who Guaido was. And he won his own assembly seat with only 26% of the vote. 

Ilhan Omar

And regarding Michigan Representative Ilhan Omar – I cannot believe how courageous this young lady has been in the face of the massive onslaught by corporate media, especially Fox News, and pro-israel members of Congress. All Representative Omar has done is tell the truth, unfortunately a truth that we are not accustomed to hearing in Congress or in the media. She has criticized the power of AIPAC, which does have the power and has used it to bring down members of Congress who have dared criticize Israel. Representative Omar has dared imply that it’s “the Benjamins” that our politicians covet while sucking up to Israel. Again – the truth. It is likely that the the money of billionaire Israel acolyte Sheldon Adelson was responsible for the election of Donald Trump – a massive last minute ejection of millions of dollars into crucial states. 

Mark my words – as we speak, money is being accumulated and targeted to “primary” Representative Omar, and to consign her to the ranks of others who have dared criticize Israel – Senators Max Cleland, Adlai Stevenson III and Charles H. Percy;  Representatives Pete McCloskey, Cynthia McKinney, Earl F. Hilliard and Paul Findley. Want the full story?- read Findley’s book, “They Dare to Speak Out: People and  Institutions Confront Israel’s Lobby”. And the latest AIPAC casualty, distinguished award winning journalist and filmmaker Leslie Cockburn who with her husband, journalist Andrew Cockburn, had written a book critical of the US/Israel relationship, lost in her 2018 campaign to represent Virginia’s Fifth Congressional District after being accused of “virulent anti-Semitism”. She was beaten with significant help from Jewish organizations by nonentity distillery owner Denver Riggleman whose only claim to fame was “Bigfoot Erotica”.  In her and Mr. Cockburn’s 1991 book, “Dangerous Liason: The Inside Story of th3 US – Israeli Covert Relationship” Ms. Cockburn had committed the cardinal sin of being critical of Israel.

How dare someone like New York Representative Eliot Engel, himself, as an Israeli citizen, a walking attestation of Omar’s suggestion of a “dual loyalty” problem among some members of Congress and many in our government, accuse her of “anti-Semitism”. This is the problem –  the reaction of so many Jewish politicians, full of bristling paranoia, crying antisemitism at every little criticism of Israel or its mighty US lobby, AIPAC. The whole Ilhan Omar controversy is simply a perfect example of the old maxim “the truth hurts”…..for some people. And thank you, Representative Omar, for being brave enough to share that truth.

Well, AIPAC is right, their massive operation – a staff of 200 lobbyists, researchers and organizers; a $47 million annual budget; 100,000 grass-roots members, almost double the number of five years ago; and a recruitment drive on 300 college campuses – is for lobbying only – the organization itself does not give directly to candidates. But…AIPAC does marshal the donors, obtain the commitments and makes sure the collected totals get to the right people. AIPAC is probably the most successful and efficient “bundler” of campaign dollars of any lobby in Washington. As noted in a recent Haaretz article “AIPAC mobilizes an army of supporters who are inclined to support pro-Israel candidates with their votes, time and money” and “trained its activists to cultivate friendly lawmakers by donating to their campaigns and campaigning for them.” So, Representative Omar is absolutely correct – it is about the Benjamins, baby. And the “Benjamins” keep coming. At one recent AIPAC dinner in Boston a minimum of $5 million was raised in a single evening. 

And how successful is AIPAC’s lobbying effort? According to Josh Block, spokesman for the premier Israeli lobbying group, getting in to see Congressmen “is like pushing at an open door.” And guess what, there’s even an AIPAC chapter here in my own home city of Phoenix, headquarters of the Southern Pacific Region. They even held a formal dinner in Phoenix which I would have liked to attend but didn’t get my invitation. It was likely lost in the mail.

AIPAC Phoenix cordially invites you to the 2019 AIPAC Phoenix Dinner. For more information, please contact us at (602) 277-3318 or PhoenixDinner@aipac.org.

Oh and by the way, most Americans don’t know that AIPAC is probably operating illegally – it really should be registered as an agent of a foreign government. In a remarkable Huffington Post article published a couple of years ago, journalist M. J. Rosenberg makes the strong case that AIPAC is violating US law by not registering as a foreign agent.

The author reminds us that the “abnormal” spectacle of prominent politicians from both parties echoing the unseemly sentiments expressed by Vice President Mike Pence -“every freedom-loving American stands with Israel because her cause is our cause, her values are our values and her fight is our fight”- directly violates the principles promoted by none other than George Washington in an incredibly prescient passage from his Farewell Address – “…a passionate attachment of one nation for another produces a variety of evils...” and so on. Every word, written long ago in 1797, seems to predict and indict and rebuke our tolerance and veneration for Israel and its AIPAC lobby.

Presently every foreign nation that lobbies in Washington must register under the Foreign Agents Registration Act…..except Israel. And why is Israel the privileged exception? Well, Mr. Rosenberg reminds us that AIPAC’s founder came up with a legal trick – he defined AIPAC “not as a lobby for a foreign state but for Americans who support that state”. This is a spurious distinction, to be sure, but is evidently sufficient to allow AIPAC to meddle in our elections, fund or defund candidates and take a stand on crucial US foreign policy issues with absolute impunity.

And you can be absolutely sure that if Congress or the President would try to withdraw this privilege and treat Israel like any other nation with a promotional presence in Washington, the cries of anti-Semitism would be deafening.

More about word choices

And before I conclude this article I would like to add a bit more to my prior observations about how we choose our words. The media seems to choose carefully when describing wealthy people of different countries. Here in the US, we commonly use “billionaire” or “successful businessman” to describe certain individuals like Bill Gates or Jeff Bezos. But it’s always “Russian oligarchs”, not “Russian billionaires” or “successful Russian businessmen”.

And when we describe armies and government departments that oversee the military, we choose our words selectively as well, depending on what’s being described. The third most powerful military in the world that has fomented violence on defenseless civilian populations, illegally and violently occupied “captured” territory and  violated the borders and airspace of other countries hundreds of times is called the “Israeli Defense Forces”. Controlling the US’s 700 military bases around the world and dividing the entire world into “commands”, starting unprovoked wars and “military actions” in dozens of places in the world is the US “Defense Department”. What “defense” – who’s attacking us, pray tell? At least Germany and Japan were honest in World War II. Japan called its armed forces “The Imperial Japanese Army, Navy and Air Forces” – no “defense” at all.  And Germany’s “Luftwaffe” translates to “air force” pretty straightforwardly, but its “Wehrmacht” does translate into “defense force”. Hmmm – some defense force. However, the highest level did not mince words – Oberkommando der Wehrmacht (OKW), “High Command of the Armed Forces”. Nothing there at all about “defense”.

And take a look at how we discuss what I would call a man fighting to defend his family and reclaim his house and homeland against tyranny and occupation – a freedom fighter. But it’s never a Palestinian freedom fighter – instead it’s always “Palestinian terrorist” or “Palestinian militant”. Or in other countries subjected to American hegemony, like Afghanistan or what’s left of Iraq, such a person, fighting for his family and home and his own agency is not a freedom fighter or a patriot but an “insurgent”. And I think I mentioned in my article about “shared values” between the US and Israel how inappropriate it is to describe the land thieves, the serial violators of international law who have stolen and continue to steal Palestinian land “settlers”. Please – this word connotes courageous clearers and tillers of wild untamed land – “pioneers” as it were. These interlopers, generously subsidized and protected by the state of Israel and their international supporters, are thieves, pure and simple, not “settlers”.

And finally

Jeffrey St. Claire writes in a recent issue of CounterPunchOn Saturday, Sacramento DA Anne Marie Schubert announced that her office would not bring charges against the two police officers, Terrence Mercadal and Jaren Robinet, who shot and killed an unarmed Stephon Clark in his grandmother’s backyard last March. Clark was shot 20 times. He was holding a cellphone. The decision is appalling, bur scarcely surprising. Between 2005 and 2017, there were more than 13,000 fatal shootings by police, but only 80 cops were ever charged with manslaughter or murder. Of those 80 charged, only 28 were convicted of a crime.  And for more on this issue you should read the following article from the same journal