The Vote: “Cornerstone of Our Democracy”

“Our democracy itself is in the crosshairs. Free and fair elections are the cornerstone of our democracy and it has become clear that they are the target of our adversaries who seek to sow discord and undermine our way of life.” These words were spoken by the Trump administration’s Secretary of Homeland Security, Kirstjen Nielsen, in early August 2018. And in recent months, how often have we heard  and speculated about the serious harm that Russia has caused to US elections, that Russia is responsible for Trump becoming our president, that Russia will tamper with the upcoming midterms and somehow again subvert US “democracy”?

Well, guess what – the Republican Party and the US Supreme Court have done far more harm to US elections in recent years than Russia could have ever dreamed of doing. What’s that Secretary Nielsen said -“Free and fair elections are the cornerstone of our democracy”? Well, if that is so, why don’t we do all we can to make our elections “free and fair”, instead of corrupting them by making it steadily more difficult to vote and warping election outcomes?

In probably the most important election of our lifetimes, we went to the polls in November 2016 and voted for a new president. Well, at least some of us voted. Depending on what state you lived in, you may have had to present a picture ID which you maybe didn’t have; you may have found  early voting times reduced, lines impossibly long, registration restricted, polling places reduced or locations changed. Or you may have been stunned to find that your name had been removed from the voting rolls. 

What could be more fundamental in a democracy than the right to vote? Isn’t voting the foundation of representative government? Why then do we have a patchwork of voting regulations throughout the states? Why can someone register and vote the same day in some states and not in others? Why do voters have to show a picture ID in some states ? Why are there more stringent residency requirements in some states than in others? Why can you vote early in some states or vote by mail but maybe not in yours? HBO’s John Oliver captures and describes many of these problem in his usual profane and humorous way.

Some additional questions about voting in the United States – why is Tuesday, of all days, the election day everywhere? Why a workday, which places a major burden on working class voters and voters working on hourly contracts who can’t afford to take time off? Why not a weekend day when it would be easier for most people to vote? And why are national elections held in November? Perhaps summer might  be better for everyone. In most of the world’s democracies, voting is held on a weekend day or on a special voting holiday to make it easier for its citizens to vote, but not in the United States, the “world’s greatest democracy”.

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All of these questions and concerns, all of these obstacles and impediments to voting have been instituted by us, not the Russians. Republican governors and legislatures have striven mightily to limit the vote, not extend it, because in limiting the vote by requiring a picture ID or limiting locations where you can vote, or other measures, means limiting the vote of minority populations which vote predominantly Democratic. 

And these same Republican governors and legislatures have effectively gerrymandered voting districts in many states, resulting in candidates choosing their voters, rather than voters choosing candidates and thus rendering many districts uncompetitive. The “blue wave” anticipated by many in the 2018 midterms may not happen at all, despite an expected upsurge in Democratic votes. As a recent Times article noted, in 2006 a five and a half point lead in the national vote was enough to pick up 31 seats in the House of Representatives. But now, because of partisan gerrymandering accomplished in 2010, an increase of this size would net only 13. In the upcoming midterms Democrats will need an 11 point margin nationally to win back the House, a very difficult margin to attain.

The corrupt effect of partisan gerrymandering is perfectly exemplified in North Carolina. Republicans in 2016 won 10 of the 13 House districts – 77 percent – despite getting just 53 percent of the statewide vote, nearly the same result as in 2014. The Ohio vote from 2016 provides another example. Republicans won 12 of the state’s 16 House seats with just 56 percent of the vote. Since being gerrymandered by its Republican legislature after the 2010 census, the GOP has won the same 12 seats with Democrats winning the same four seats in each of the last three elections, despite a narrow margin statewide. The pernicious effect of gerrymandering, which really is disenfranchising a sizable portion of a state’s electorate is graphically explained in this Washington Post video.

A different kind of question people may ask is why vote at all? Many vote faithfully like good citizens should but nothing seems to change. In an era of billion dollar campaigns and apparently limitless campaign contributions by corporations, millionaires and billionaires, a person may be rightfully skeptical of what their individual vote can accomplish. Is my Representative or Senator going to heed my call, letter or email or attend to the call, letter or email from Jamie Dimon, Charles Koch or Sheldon Adelson or a member of the armies of  lobbyists representing other corporate interests?  In addition to voter suppression, cynicism resulting logically from these conditions certainly contributes to our disgracefully low level of voter participation in elections, usually around 50 percent.

But political optimists really do believe that the vote can dramatically change politics. After all, the Citizens United decision by the Supreme Court could be reversed by a constitutional amendment and such an amendment would be passed by voting. Money could be taken out of politics in the same way if we voted to do so. The ballot could limit use of the media for election purposes as it is in most EU countries. And public financing of campaigns similar to European countries could be established through the franchise. Our useless Congress could again govern and actually pass some helpful laws through debate and compromise, if we placed the right individuals in office through the vote. And gerrymandered congressional districts described above which are responsible for much of our congressional paralysis could be rendered illegal through the vote. 

So the vote, the franchise, the ballot, are fundamental to the functioning of our government and many feel that we should be doing everything we can to make voting easier and get more people to vote. But instead what we doing is making voting more difficult and more complex. Indeed, voter suppression has been called the “Civil Rights Issue of this Era” 

Another perennial voting issue concerns who should vote – a tension set up by the writers of our constitution between the “Hamiltonians” and the “Jeffersonians”, whether the franchise should be  granted solely to the educated and propertied citizens or to everyone regardless of education or wealth. Last year, the New Yorker featured an article  about selected first time voters and who they have chosen to vote for and why. And reading about the guy who was voting for Donald Trump because “Hillary will take my guns away and I need them to hunt every year for my food” made me wonder why the impact of his vote was the same as mine. Yes, historically there have been proposals from time to time to more heavily weight the votes of educated voters over those of the uneducated which seem tempting. However, all considered, I strongly support everyone voting, regardless of education, wealth or social standing. I really do think that  a majority of the population as a whole has a great deal more common sense to ultimately lead us in the right direction than people of wealth and property who will simply vote their narrow interests. The wisdom of the general populace is validated in nationwide polls on such major issues as healthcare, taxation, education, the military budget, to name but a few. In fact if Federal laws were established by national plebiscite, rather than by a congress beholden to big money and special interests, we would likely have a much better country.

Which brings me back to another concern about Election Day. Why on earth is our participation so shamefully low? Come hell or high water, “the most important election of our lifetime”, or whatever, voter participation in the US hovers around 50 percent, and that is for presidential election years. In off-years, voter turnout is far worse, usually 40 percent or so. In 2012, another of the many “most important elections ever”, voter turnout was an anemic 53 percent of eligible voters.  We boast to the world about our “vibrant and thriving democracy”, an example the rest of the world should follow. Well actually based on participation in our democracy, the very definition of the term, our democracy is barely breathing. 

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During the 2016 election, there were over 224 million American citizens over the age of 18 in the United States, and yet only around 157 million were registered to vote. And of these registered voters, only 58 percent bothered to vote in this “most important election in history”.

Well again, rather than make voting easy, we seem to do all we can to make it more difficult and more complex. Most people think that to vote in the US is simple – if you are a citizen, if you are over 18 years and registered, you can vote. But in fact, even if you meet this criteria, you may be turned away at the polls. Presently, 34 states maintain laws that request or require citizens to show arbitrarily specific forms of identification and in ten of those states the laws are very strict. So many Americans who do not have the time or the money to obtain these forms of ID are unable to vote. In fact, Wisconsin’s Attorney General claimed that his state’s strict voter ID law was responsible for throwing that crucial state’s electoral vote to Trump in 2016.

Voting integrity is certainly another reason for low turnout. Why should I bother to vote when my vote may be inadvertently discarded by unreliable voting machines run by incompetent officials? Last May the Georgia Secretary of State office reported a precinct in northeastern Georgia as having 276 registered voters ahead of the state’s primary elections in May. After the election it reported that 670 ballots were cast, a quite amazing 243 percent turnout. Later, the numbers were changed to 3704 registered voters, reflecting a likely more accurate turnout of around 18 percent. Who is his right mind can trust a system this faulty? This fall 43 states will use voting machines that are no longer manufactured and consequently for which spare parts are difficult or impossible to find. Thirteen states use voting machines that do not provide a paper record of votes cast. Good luck if machines break down or a recount is needed. Also, Georgia’s entire voting structure, yes, Georgia again, which was outsourced to a private company, Center for Election Systems, was shown to be extremely vulnerable to hackers. If I were a Georgia voter, I’d stay home. Wait a minute, also in Georgia’s Randolph County,  where 60 percent of residents are black and nearly a third live in poverty, announced their intention to close seven of the nine polling places because toilets and parking facilities were declared non – ADA compliant, requiring some voters to take a 30 mile round trip to one of the remaining two precincts. Really now – we are supposed to believe that officials were motivated by compliance compassion rather than voter suppression…..in a mostly black community…..in Georgia?

Another significant source of voter suppression is not allowing ex-prisoners to vote. Over six million Americans were barred from voting in the 2016 election because of “felony disenfranchisement”. In virtually every one of our states, Vermont and Maine being the only exceptions, citizens with a criminal conviction are permanently or temporarily denied their right to vote. So even if people convicted of a crime have paid their debt to society, they are generally stripped of this right of citizenship. And the array of obstacles placed in front of any ex-prisoner wishing to regain this privilege of citizenship is often very difficult to navigate. The seriousness of this type of disenfranchisement should not be underestimated. Florida, which has one of the harshest laws and also some of the most difficult barriers to surmount to regain this right, has had well over a million potential voters disenfranchised in this way during the last several presidential elections. If criminals who had served their term and had their full citizenship restored, it’s quite likely that George W. Bush would not have become president and we would not have had a trillion dollar war in Iraq nor the apparently eternal war in Afghanistan. HBO’s John Oliver discusses this problem in his usually profane and humorous, yet quite effective, manner. Relative to this, because of these laws, one in 40 American adults is ineligible to vote, nationwide, one in 13 adult African-American adults cannot vote. In Kentucky, Floria, Tennessee and Virginia, more that 20 percent of African-Americans are ineligible. It would be interesting to speculate about all the white collar crooks that are never prosecuted, but instead routinely pay huge fines for their crimes and misdeeds. I wonder if they can still vote? Incidentally, we are one of just four countries in the world that enforces post release restrictions on voting, the others being Croatia, Belgium and Armenia. 

A lesser known way that Republicans have succeeded in disenfranchising voters is by preventing people from voting because they owe legal fees or court fines, of course affecting mostly poor (and likely Democratic) voters. Republican legislatures have now passed such laws in nine states with not insignificant effect on voters. For example, in Alabama more than 100,000 people who owe this money, about three percent of the voting age population, have been stricken from voting rolls. These laws are unconstitutional because they really represent a modern day kind of poll tax. Why should owing money to a government agency or being too poor to pay ever be reasons to lose voting privileges? 

Many of these efforts at voter suppression have been conducted under the guise of “preventing voter fraud” which is virtually non-existent. Efforts to prove widespread fraud have been futile, the most recent being Trump’s “Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity”, headed by Mike Pence and the perennial king of voter fraud claims who has come up empty time after time, Kris Kobach, former Kansas secretary of state and now candidate for governor. This commission, now thankfully disbanded, had one major objective – to prove that the huge gap in popular vote totals between Trump and Clinton were the result of “massive voter fraud”. The most extensive and painstaking examinations of voter fraud have shown it to be so small as to to totally insignificant. 

The Brennan Center’s seminal report on this issue, The Truth About Voter Fraud, found that most reported incidents of voter fraud are actually traceable to other sources, such as clerical errors or bad data matching practices. The report reviewed elections that had been meticulously studied for voter fraud, and found incident rates between 0.0003 percent and 0.0025 percent. Given this tiny incident rate for voter impersonation fraud, it is more likely, the report noted, that an American “will be struck by lightning than that he will impersonate another voter at the polls.”

Our voter fraud friend, Kris Kobach, was also the author and main proponent of a program called “Interstate Crosscheck”, which stripped voter rolls in participating states on the pretext that citizens were double-registered. Crosscheck has tagged an astonishing 7.2 million suspects, yet no more than four perpetrators have been charged with double voting or deliberate double registration, and even those were likely accidents rather than serious efforts to influence an election.

Interesting how some Republicans have let the cat out of the bag concerning the real reason for voter suppression – Glenn Grothman, Republican of Wisconsin, predicted that the state’s photo ID law should weaken Hillary Clinton’s chances of winning the state in 2016; prior to the last presidential election Mike Turzai, Republican leader of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, predicted during the 2012 campaign that their voter ID law would “allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania, done”; Don Yelton, a North Carolina Republican Party county precinct chairman, told an interviewer that in 2013 , the state’s voter ID law would “kick the Democrats in the butt”. In 2012, Jim Greer, a former Republican Party chairman, said outright that voter ID laws and cutbacks in early voting were done for “one reason and one reason only” – to suppress Democratic turnout. So it’s perfectly clear why Republicans want to suppress the vote – they want to reduce the poor and minority vote, usually Democratic, so they can retain power, while all the while lying that it’s about voter fraud. 

In the meantime, some states are doing their best to make it easier to register and easier to vote while others continue efforts to repress the vote. Illinois recently became the 10th state, along with the District of Columbia, to enact automatic voter registration. Under the new law, all eligible voters will be registered to vote when they visit the Department of Motor Vehicles or other state agencies. which could add as many as one million voters to the state’s rolls. And at the other extreme, consider Texas, which is pushing relentlessly in the opposite direction. Republican lawmakers there passed in 2011, and continue to defend today, one of the nation’s most restrictive voter-ID laws. Supported by Republican Texas Governor Greg Abbott and vociferously defended by Senator Ted Cruz, this law requires a state issued picture ID for all voters but will accept a Texas handgun permit while not accepting photo college ID’s. Good old Texas – it’s easy to see why in 2014 this state ranked 45th in voter registration and dead last in voter turnout.

Incredibly, our own US Supreme Court has exacerbated the the voting problem in the country. Clearly, this “final arbiter” of legislative and constitutional conflict should rule to protect democratic practices and institutions like voting. But as we have seen over the last decade or so, a majority of Justices, their uniform plain black robes failing to obscure their pro-corporate, anti-democratic leanings, have consistently ruled against the vote and consequently against democracy. Starting with the Citizens United decision, which allowed unlimited money to influence elections under the guise of “free speech”, and continuing with the McCutcheon v. FEC decision which removed the limits from individual contributions to political parties and campaigns, our Supreme Court has continued to destroy our democracy. On June 25, 2013, the Supreme Court’s decision in Shelby County v. Holder effectively gutted the Voting Rights Act’s requirement that certain states with racist pasts had to have voting changes “pre-cleared” by the Department of Justice. Basically, Chief Justice Roberts wrote in the opinion, this protection was no longer needed because racism was over. “Over”? Come on, we all know this is nonsense – what kind of rose colored glasses is Roberts wearing? And of course, immediately after the decision, a number of these states, including Texas, immediately acted to strengthen voter ID laws to make voting more difficult, especially for the poor and people of color.

The Supreme court has refused to rule on Ohio’s egregiously gerrymandered House districts, allowing the state to continue sending a 75 percent Republican delegation to Congress supported by only slightly more than 50 percent of the vote. Also conservatives on the Supreme Court recently upheld Ohio’s strict method of removing infrequent voters from the rolls, a process that challengers of the law say disproportionately affects poor and minority voters. With its ruling in the case of Hustad v. A. Philip Randolph Institute, the Court’s activist majority in effect gave other Republican secretaries of state a go-ahead to resume the antidemocratic practice of purging fully qualified voters from registration rolls, just like in Ohio.

The Supreme Court also largely upheld Texas congressional and legislative maps that a lower court said discriminated against black and Hispanic voters, saying that the lower court was wrong in how it considered the challenges, and, according to Justice Alito, who wrote the opinion in the 5-to-4 decision, “did not credit the Texas legislature with a presumption of good faith”. The Court sided with the challengers over only one of the legislative districts in question.

On the issue of voter purges, a la Ohio, over the past year researchers at the Brennan Center examined data from 6,600 jurisdictions and found the median rate of purging across the country has risen from 6.2 percent of voters to 7.8 percent since 2008. That jump may seem small, but it’s statistically significant and cannot be explained by population growth. It amounts to an additional four million people being struck off voting lists.

All of this is underscored by a Harvard study that ranks American voting the worst in the western world for free and fair elections. In the “2015 Year in Elections Report”, the Electoral Integrity Project, conducted by 2000 election experts from Harvard University and the University of Sydney in Australia, defines “electoral integrity” as “agreed international principles and standards of elections, applying universally to all countries worldwide throughout the electoral cycle, including during the pre-electoral period, the campaign, and on polling day and its aftermath”. Conversely, ‘electoral malpractice’ refers to violations of electoral integrity.” In a massive study of 180 national parliamentary and presidential contests held between July 1, 2012 to December 31, 2015 in 139 countries worldwide, U.S. elections scored lower than Argentina, South Africa, Tunisia, and Rwanda — and strikingly lower than even Brazil. Specifically compared to Western democracies, U.S. elections scored the lowest, slightly worse than the U.K., while Denmark and Finland topped the list.

Clearly, for our democracy to thrive we need to change our systems of voting. Democracy should not be defined by allowing only those who are capable of figuring out how to get through a complicated system to vote. It should instead be defined as allowing the entire eligible population to vote and have a say in their government.

In order to increase voter participation and revive our dying democracy we need to Federalize all voting laws and make them apply evenly to every single state and to every citizen of voting age.  They should include simple methods of automatic voter registration, removal all voting restrictions and ID requirements, regulation and standardization of methods adjusting rolls when voters move or when they die, establishing a convenient common voting day, standardizing reliable and robust voting machines impervious to hacking, requiring a paper trail for voting, universalizing early voting and voting by mail. 

The removal of cynicism concerning voting and forcing our government to be responsive to the people who put them in office will require another, more difficult set of conditions – public financing of elections, total removal of private and corporate money from politics, limiting time for campaigning, limiting the use of media and making gerrymandering illegal so that every vote counts. It’s likely that we will need to drastically change the Supreme Court to accomplish this or pass a Constitutional amendment. Whether we have the will and the means to do either remains to be seen.

Justice and Accountability 

All of us, well most of us at least, have a strong sense of justice. Those who do wrong, who violate the law or commonly accepted norms must be held accountable and punished. When we see criminals unpunished and thieves enjoying their ill gotten gains and never brought to justice, we feel very frustrated. We manifest anxious anger and indignation at these outrages and our powerlessness to correct them and feel that society has let us down. Where is the law? Where are the police? Where are the courts? Why is there no justice? Where is this “rule of law” that is supposed to be fundamental to our society?

Conversely, we get a great deal of satisfaction when we see those who have violated the law brought to justice. We feel that the rule of law is still being applied and that we still live in a just society where there are laws, rules and norms that are still being taken seriously, applied and heeded. Once while driving on Arizona 377 approaching the town of Heber in a no passing zone, a huge black BMW sedan passed me at a very high rate of speed, seriously endangering my life. After collecting and calming myself, and muttering something about where are the cops when you need them, you can imagine my feeling of intense satisfaction when a couple of miles ahead, I came upon the flashing blue and red lights of an Arizona State Police cruiser pulled up behind that same black sedan. That reckless and dangerous driver will likely pay a hefty fine. Wow, there is justice, after all. 

But in spite of these occasional incidents that satisfy us and remind us that there are some laws that are being fairly applied and that there is some justice, we are daily reminded of significant injustices and violations of the law that go unpunished. The feeling of injustice leaves us wanting, creates of feelings of frustration and helplessness and feelings of distrust of those institutions in our society that are supposed to provide justice by arresting the bad guys who have bilked us, trying them and tossing them into prison so that they pay their debt to society.

Right now, taxpayers in states where the opioid epidemic has hit the hardest – states like New Hampshire, West Virginia, Kentucky and Pennsylvania, have been asked to pass legislation to fund programs to counter this epidemic. In fact there is now a Federal bill that will soon ask all of us to pay. The pharmaceutical companies and the medical profession that have manufactured, distributed and prescribed these dangerous and additive pain medications have raked in millions of dollars. So why are they not being asked to foot the bill for this terrible calamity. Why are taxpayers asked to pay for the ruinous greed and recklessness that have enriched a few? The facts are there – for example, over 22 million doses were shipped to one West Virginia town. Perdue Pharmaceuticals, the major manufacturer of opioids knew about he dangers yet continued to manufacture and market millions of these deadly pills.  But today I know of no efforts to prosecute this company or others or the medical profession for their glaring malfeasance.

And just consider the money that diabetes and heart disease has cost all of us as individuals and taxpayers. So much of this has been caused by our consumption of sugar. But big sugar has done a marvelous job of advertising over the years – “only 18 calories per teaspoon” (recently reduced to “16 calories” – why – have teaspoons shrunk?), “sugar for quick energy” and on and on. And the industry has packed “added sugar” into three fourths of all packaged food and has fought  against taxation of sugary drinks, a major cause of obesity, diabetes and heart disease. So the sugar industry has profited mightily over the years from this irresponsibility. Yet it has never been asked to pay one penny toward  the serious health problems which its ubiquitous product has caused.

And what about Monsanto and Bayer poisoning on our soil and farms with their deadly chemicals. Cloaked as “increasing productivity”, “feeding the world” or other euphemisms, these corporations continue to persuade our farmers to inject dangerous chemicals into our soil and our food. The recent revelation of traces of glyphosate, Monsanto’s Roundup, the most heavily used herbicide in the world and a cash cow for the corporation, in Quaker Oats and Cheerios, has recently received attention in the press. This revelation has revived the old argument of whether glyphosate is a carcinogen. Whether it is or not, this terrible chemical should not be in our food. If not causing cancer, which perhaps indeed has not yet been proven, then what about other potential effects – like damage to the endocrine or nervous systems? When serious harm to human health from this chemical will surely be proven one day, who will pay – the people or Monsanto? You know the answer.

The meat industry, the very epitome of inefficient use of foods, continues to thrive as the domestic and foreign markets for beef, pork and chicken continue to grow. Yet the the poisoning of our groundwater and waterways by manure lakes from feedlots and other concentrations of industrial strength cultivation of animals continues to grow unabated. Perhaps the massive profits of these industries should pay for the proper disposal of this waste instead of taxpayers. After all, years ago the tobacco industry was held accountable for the health problems resulting from its use and was required to not only place warnings on its packages but to pay billions of dollars for anti-tobacco advertising and to combat lung cancer. Where are the similar rulings against industries that are a threat to health today?

Also consider the dreadful attack on human health that has occurred in Flint, Michigan when someone decided to save the state money by changing the main source for the city water supply from Lake Huron to the Flint River. This dreadful chain of events has caused irreparable harm to the health of thousands of adults and children and has cost taxpayers close to a half billion dollars so far. But yet no one has been punished – not the Republican governor, not the city officials or anyone else. Where is the justice here, pray tell? Again, there is none, and taxpayers are left holding the bag for the unpunished crimes of a few.

What is going on in our country today? The savings and loan debacle of the 1980’s ended with over one thousand officials and owners going to jail for their part in the collapse. And in the early 2000’s the Department of Justice even set up a special unit to prosecute and punish the crooked executives responsible for energy trader corporation Enron’s abuse of privilege and power. Yet how many bankers and Wall Street executives have gone to prison for their part in the crash and near-depression of 2008, when $10.2 trillion in wealth disappeared, including $3.3 trillion in home equity causing thousands of people to lose their homes? That number is one – Kareem Serageldin, a senior trader at Credit Suisse, has served a 30-month sentence for inflating the value of mortgage bonds in his trading portfolio. No, instead of prosecution and prison, the executives and their banks and corporations got bailed out by us taxpayers. If the Justice Department prosecuted at all, mere fines were assessed. An example – in early 2014, just weeks after Jamie Dimon, the CEO of JPMorgan Chase, settled out of court with the Justice Department, the bank’s board of directors gave him a 74 percent raise, bringing his salary to $20 million.

Another issue – why have reckless banks and corporations who have broken the law in myriad other instances never been punished with anything more than just a “slap on the wrist” fine. Banks and corporations being fined for serious violations of the law has become so commonplace that they are actually budgeting for these serial transgressions – yes, actually establishing a budget line for fines imposed for illegal activity and violations of regulations. What about prosecuting the people who made these decisions and sending them to prison? Perhaps with personal risk instead of fines, these serial transgressions could be reduced.

And related to this, a series of recent pieces in the media relating to the machinations of Paul Manafort to hide income in overseas havens to avoid taxes on millions of dollars of ill-gotten gains, gives rise to consideration of how he got away with this kind of thievery for so long and how many others there might be who have done exactly the same thing but have not been caught. The Washington Post’s Catherine Rampell examined this issue passionately and eloquently in several of her recent columns and reminds us as well that prosecutions for white collar crime and tax evasion are at a three decade low. Yes, we have virtually stopped investigating and prosecuting these kinds of crimes so wealthy people are still getting away with tax avoidance, storing their wealth in overseas bank accounts and money laundering.  We prosecute people right and left for shoplifting or for driving without a license or for any number of other petty crimes. But the wealthy who park their millions in the Cayman Islands to avoid taxes or who don’t report millions in income, are rarely brought to justice and the crimes go on and on. According to one study, every year the United States loses $400 billion in unpaid taxes, much of it hidden in offshore tax havens.

Another well known example of no justice – no one has yet paid any kind of penalty for the lies and fabrications that were used to justify the Iraq war that resulted in countless deaths and trillions of dollars in destruction. Again, George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz and the rest of the liars and fools who perpetrated this war and sold it to the world and the American people, are now enjoying cushy retirements or life jobs on corporate boards. Many Germans did pay the penalty at Nuremberg for their crimes in prosecuting World War II, yet we have not lifted a finger to provide justice for the thousands of lives and the trillion dollars that the war in Iraq and the never ending war in Afghanistan have cost us.

And what about the terrible injustice of police brutality today? Black people get murdered right and left, and the perpetrators go free. Yes, no matter how blatant the act or how preponderant the evidence in police shootings, it seems that no one is ever punished with anything more than suspension with pay or banishment to a desk job. To mention but two of hundreds of incidents, although a wrongful death lawsuit was successful, no charges have ever been brought against Daniel Pantaleo, the police officer murderer of Eric Garner, whom we witnessed on video being throttled to death. Our warped justice system has focused instead on the guy who took the video, Ramsey Orta, who has since suffered prosecution and conviction for petty drug crimes. And Panteleo himself recently got a $20,000 pay raise while consigned to desk duty and interestingly, some $13,000 of this killer cop’s income last year was from “unspecified sources”, maybe bonuses? And  similarly, even though a lawsuit by the family was successful, the officer who shot Philando Castile, whose life ended as the world watched him bleed to death on cell phone video, was acquitted of second degree murder charges brought against him. And the list goes on. Reckless shootings, blatant killings by those charged to “serve and protect” us. Yet these renegade cops are the ones being served and protected. Where is the justice?

And how about our international best friend and “only democracy in the Middle East”, renegade nation Israel, which continues to flout international laws and basic morals? The world stands by and watches the Israeli Occupation Forces conduct target practice on unarmed Palestinian demonstrators and does not lift a finger to bring the perpetrators of these terrible crimes to justice. Instead the world looked the other way and focused instead on the rescue of 13 soccer players from entrapment in a cave. Where were these people, all the media, all the reporters, all the stories, all the TV coverage, as 120 Palestinians were murdered and 3000 wounded, many in a horrid, life altering manner because of special expanding bullets. Where is the anger and indignation about these killings of unarmed innocent people, including medics, children and the elderly? Why hasn’t this renegade nation been brought to justice or punished by the UN or the ICC? At this writing the number of unarmed Palestinians demonstrating the Gaza border killed by Israel is 174 and more than 18,000 have been wounded. Yet the corporate media doesn’t cover these atrocities, no talking heads take notice and the world does nothing – where’s the justice?

And while I am shaking with anger and a horrible feeling of powerlessness about these injustices, how about the damage wrought in Israel’s “wars” with Gaza, the world’s largest open air prison? Israel destroys infrastructure, homes, offices, hospitals and schools in Gaza in 2009 and 2014 with arms provided by the United States taxpayers, yet contributes not one shred of this largesse for reconstruction. What little of this that has occurred has come about through contributions from the UN, EU and a little from Arab countries, but not from the US or Israel. Why? Where are the laws and enforcement that are supposed to regulate nations’ behavior and their dealings with one another? Israel throttles Gaza, rations electricity, chokes economic activity, severely limits fishing, import of building materials and who pays for the privation caused by Israel? The UN, the US and the EU.  And while these insults to morality and international law go on, the US supports it all with $11 million per day of taxpayer money for Israel. Where the hell is the justice here?

And finally, the feeling of powerlessness, of helplessness in the face of the injustice wrapped in  corporate media’s purposeful neglect of facts and the truth, continues to haunt me when I read ad nauseam of “attacks on our democracy” by Russia toying with our elections when far more egregious harm is done to our increasingly frail “democracy” by ourselves. It is we, not Russia, who are constantly suppressing the vote through gerrymandering, voter ID laws, the reduction of precincts, removing names from voter lists and so on. It is ourselves, not Russia, who have allowed money to distort the election process and who have allowed oligarchs like Charles Koch and Sheldon Adelson to call the shots in our elections. Our own United States Supreme Court has been complicit in doing grievous harm to American democracy by equating campaign donations with free speech, allowing floods of secret money to distort our elections, dialing back the Voting Rights Act which permits states once again to discriminate against black voters, allowing states to purge voter lists and refusing to rule against gerrymandering.

Certainly I could go on and on about injustice in the world – US support of Saudi Arabia’s genocidal war in Yemen in which five million children face starvation and a cholera epidemic; our rigged economy which has stifled the middle class and enriched the one percent; the Republican party’s exacerbation of inequality through their “Tax Cuts and Jobs Act”; our baseless demonization of Iran on behalf of AIPAC and Israel; our heartless and inhumane treatment of refugees at our borders who are fleeing for their very lives; rejection of the Paris Climate Accords consigning future generations to struggle with the far reaching results of an inexorably warming climate; a young Palestinian man beaten to death by Israeli soldiers in his own home while family members listened. There is no justice.

The tension and anger persist and tear at my insides, exacerbated by my own powerlessness to change anything. But what I have recorded above will have to do for now. I have at least given voice in print about how I feel in a world heavy with injustice but light on accountability. And so I guess that I have done what little I could.

 

6 November 2018

The Democrats will not take the House back this November, nor will they win enough seats to become a majority in the Senate. I make this prediction confidently but sadly, with the hope I will be wrong. By predicting losses, perhaps I will jinx the election and the Democrats will actually win. But no, I have seen my political party do some really stupid things over the years and this is simply another year of stupid. 

If ever there was a time to win, it seems to be now. This horrible president and his millionaire minions and base iconoclasts have made a mockery of government, of decorum and dignity, of preserving the environment and of foreign affairs. You name it, they have messed it up. And now just the tip of a huge iceberg of corruption has been revealed. This should be easy but I fear that the Democrats will again snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

Why? It’s pretty easy, actually. Look at the recent record – Democrats haven’t exactly set the world on fire over the last couple of presidential terms. The “Hope and Change” of Barack Obama was meaningless. Oh we dared hope, kind of a lazy, useless concept anyhow, but very little change followed. Mr. Obama continued to represent big money, not the working person. He made deadly wrong decisions after the crash of 2008, doing all he could to rescue banks and corporations but very little to rescue everyday people. Under his watch the Afghan war continued and Guantanamo remained open, unions continued to die, wages continued to stagnate or even to diminish, the rich got richer and inequality dramatically increased. Working people felt ignored and forgotten by this president, but they reminded us that they were still alive and cared when they voted for Trump in 2016. Yes, Obama had dignity and class and in contrast to who now occupies the White House, we’re so thankful for that. But a president’s style and eloquence do not make the mortgage payments or put food on the table.

And “Stronger Together” Hillary was another dud. She had no direction, no underlying reason for running save the “glass ceiling”, and to so many voters, was just a continuation of the Obama emptiness. Moreover, she would have been an extension of husband Bill’s financial and corporate chumminess, which helped speed the downfall of unions and the rise of corporate power.  Bill had wedded his party tightly to big money and Hillary followed suit. And most important, Hillary had no policy depth or breadth in her campaign and said absolutely nothing about strengthening unions, reining in big money and increasing taxes on corporations and billionaires. If the Democratic Party had allowed Bernie Sanders to be nominated, he would have become our president, not Trump, for he genuinely addressed the long neglected concerns of working families. 

And look who’s leading our Democratic Party in Congress – Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer. My God, did you ever see such an uninspiring pair? From their shaky introduction of their lame Better Deal” program to their failure to address inequality issues and reshape their party in the formerly successful image of the American worker and farmer, they have been utter failures as leaders. These big money establishment Democrats have weakened the party, not strengthened it. 

And the DNC and DCCC still haven’t seen the light and are still trying to run middle of the road Democrats that are not that different from their opponents. The success in Democratic primary elections of honest, passionate and compassionate candidates like New York’s Alexandria Occasio-Cortez and Florida’s gubernatorial primary winner, Andrew Gillum, still fails to register with the Democratic establishment. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is overjoyed to back Arizona’s moderate Kyrsten Sinema to take Jeff Flake’s Senate seat, but really she’s not so different from her Republican opponent, Martha McSally. Therefore, because the candidates are virtually indistinguishable except for the “D” or “R” after their names, Sinema, her dramatic personal story notwithstanding, will lose because Arizona is still very much an “R” state.  If Sinema had the political convictions of an Occasio-Cortez or a Gillum, to go along with her story, she would win.

Another reason that Republicans will win is that voting is still rigged in their favor. Since Trump was elected by narrow majorities in key states which tipped the infamous electoral college in his direction, has it become any easier to vote? No, many states continue to be hopelessly gerrymandered, which our Supreme Court has refused ruling upon, while upholding efforts to restrict the Voting Rights Act and to purge voter rolls of people who have chosen not to vote in recent elections. Some states continue to require picture ID’s while others have cancelled early voting or same day registration. Others have outmoded voting machinery in place that is vulnerable to hacking or other abuse. None of this bodes well for Democrats because the voter groups affected by these repression efforts are those that lean Democratic – black, Hispanic, immigrants and the poor.

Ah, and then there is the simple but crucial issue of money. In short, the Republicans have the billionaires and the Democrats do not. Democratic candidates who have famously relied on individual donations rather than corporate super PAC money will soon drain the well. If I am any kind of example, I am completely tapped out and can no longer respond to the literally hundreds of email solicitations from many Democratic candidates which have cluttered and clogged my inbox. Citizens like me, barely clinging to middle class status, simply do not have the money to continue contributing to candidates, no matter how worthy. 

But the billionaires whose last minute infusion of millions of dollars put Trump narrowly over the top in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan, awarding him the electoral vote, have plenty of money and are still hard at work. Don’t think for a minute that the recent kerfuffle between the Koch network and the Trump administration will reduce the flood of money being poured into the Republican side of these midterm elections. The stream has not been reduced one single bit, but has instead increased. The Koch network pledged 400 million dollars for the midterms. That’s not changed and has been augmented by other billionaires not now in the Koch mix. 

And guess what – the Republican tax cut for the rich and for corporations will considerably increase the dollars contributed to support Republican candidates. The Congressional Leadership Fund, the super PAC closely aligned with Paul Ryan, is flush with contributions. Sheldon Adelson, whose company reported a nearly $700 million windfall from the tax law, has contributed $30 million; Timothy Mellon of Pan Am Systems, another Republican tax cut beneficiary, has tossed in $24 million, and the list goes on. Dark money spending has more than doubled over the same period during the 2014 midterms and is responsible for roughly two thirds of pro-Republican television ads. Conservative leaning groups, including the Koch supported advocacy groups, Americans for Prosperity and Concerned Veterans for America, account for four out of the five biggest secret-money advertisers. Democratic candidates simply cannot match this kind of money and the result will be more Republican wins and Democratic losses.

Another reason that the Republicans will retain their majority in the House of Representatives and in the Senate is that the Trump economy, whether he is responsible for it or not, is doing very well. Remember the old campaign quote, “It’s the economy, stupid”. Like it or not, the economy has always been the most important factor in election years. When things are relatively good, which they are now, voters are more complacent and do not feel the urgency to vote. And now, with unemployment at a decades low and with workers still failing to realize that the Republican tax cut was not really for them but for corporations and the wealthy, people will simply not bother to vote. There is little reason, Trump’s character, corruption and chaos notwithstanding, for people to come out in droves and vote to change anything. This midyear election will remain typical, with less than half of qualified voters participating, as usual. And this spells doom for the Democrats, who cannot win without markedly increased voter involvement.

And while there is no economic urgency to drive Democratic voters to the polls in November of 2018, there is considerable urgency of another kind for Republicans. A Democratic House will have subpoena power. Trump’s tax returns will be opened for all of us to see. Our president will be revealed as the corrupt crook he is and we can finally see why he is so enamored of Russia. A recent revelation by AXIOS of a spreadsheet being circulated among Congressional Republicans which lists potential investigations should Democrats take the house, will galvanize Republican donors to increase their contributions and congressional Republicans to redouble their efforts to retain their seats. When you’re cornered or your back is to the wall, you fight more fiercely. The threat of these disclosures will result in more Republicans coming to the polls in November, not more Democrats.

And finally, Democrats will not take back the House this fall because of the powerful voices of the pro Trump media. First, the network that has truly become “state television”, Fox News, now augmented by Salem Radio and Sinclair Broadcasting, will continue to back Trump and the Republican Party to the hilt, no matter what. And these voices completely drown out the less strident corporate opposition voice of MSNBC and the middle of the road noise from CNN and the other networks. And nobody much watches the most honest and factual news program on television – Amy Goodman’s “Democracy Now”.

And one final comment. For those Democrats who think that the recent revelations of more Trump associated corruption will sway voters, think again. The more bad stuff that is revealed, the more the Republican Party closes ranks around Trump and his approved candidates. So the president is not only a corrupt liar but also an “unindicted co-conspirator”? Well, we voters still have jobs, our 401K’s are doing great, we still have our iPhones, get any news we want from Facebook and can still go out and have fun, so who cares?

Traditionally the party out of power has always done well in the midterm elections. But like everything else in Washington, this time it will be different. And again, concerning everything I have written above, I fervently hope that I’m wrong.

Flying

Air travel is fairly common for me now at this point in my life. It has become routine and despite the delay and humiliation regularly dished out by the “Transportation Security Administration” (more about that later) it is quite convenient. In addition, air travel has steadily become cheaper as airlines have become deregulated. But on the minus side, the cramped seats, my usual proximity to a crying baby or a blabbermouth adult who insists on carrying on a one sided conversation about himself and his exploits in life, can make air travel miserable. For these occasions I usually carry earplugs which, when inserted do not shut out all the noise but do significantly suppress the roar of the engines and the ambient noise around me. And while they do not entirely shut out the blabbermouth and the crying baby, their insertion is a pretty clear sign to others that I don’t want to participate or listen. I just want to be left alone with the newspaper or the book that I’m reading.

I must reluctantly admit that I had never been in an airplane until my early thirties, when I flew in an airliner chartered by the Massachusetts Elementary School Principals Association taking participants from Massachusetts and adjacent states to the National Association of Elementary School Principals convention in Anaheim, California. On this trip I was chagrinned to realize how much flying experience other participants seemed to have that I did not. As if the breathtaking acceleration and take-off right over the threatening waves of Boston harbor weren’t alarming enough for a first-time flyer, I have to confess that I was startled and fearful when I saw the wings flexing as the plane took off. Honestly I guess I thought that a plane’s wings were fixed and totally rigid. I interpreted the flexing as a sign of airframe weakness and feared that these bending wings were about to snap.

Logan Airport

This memorable first flight also featured, courtesy of the Association, an open bar for most of the flight, which most of us enjoyed, particularly the group of principals from Maine, who apparently had not been out of the woods in years and imbibed rather recklessly. I didn’t drink that much but apparently enough to help me embarrass myself toward the end of the flight when flying over the Grand Canyon. As we did so, the pilot invited us over the intercom to take a look at the Canyon out of the left side of the plane, but when everyone left their seats on the right and dashed to the left side to lean over those seated and gape out of the windows, I yelled out in a panic, “No, no, don’t, it’s going to tip!” Everyone looked at me in astonishment and shook their heads sadly. Evidently I visualized that plane as a boat – if everyone went to one side, it would indeed tip. I definitely did not realize that the wings held up the fuselage in the middle quite reliably, regardless of how weight was distributed within it. Anyhow, I took considerable ribbing from my colleagues for the rest of the trip and on the return flight as well.

grand canyon from plane

 

Thankfully with more flying experience over the years I did not embarrass myself like that again. Certainly the greatest amount of experience was accumulated when we moved overseas to work for the American School of Kuwait for four years and then later spending several years in Izmir, Turkey. Then flying became very common, even habitual. The management of the American School of Kuwait obtained bids from different international airlines for the transportation of its newly recruited teachers from their country of origin to Kuwait and to their homes and back in the summer. Thus, while in Kuwait we were able to sample Alitalia one year, then Lufthansa and also Air France. All were good and offered the opportunity of pausing for a few days or a week in one of their hub cities. Thus we were able to enjoy Rome for a week or so on the way back to the US on Alitalia, Paris another time while traveling on Air France, and Frankfort and nearby Heidelberg while on Lufthansa. Later while in Turkey traveling on Lufthansa became the standard because of its convenient service between Izmir and Munich and then on to the US.

Of all these airlines, Lufthansa became my favorite. Lufthansa aircraft appeared spotlessly clean and very well maintained. The meals were delicious and bountiful and you could enhance them with liberal glasses of delicious German wine. One of the best memories for me of all those trips on Lufthansa was the welcome sight of a comely flight attendant strolling up and down the aisle offering refills from a bottle of white wine in her left hand and a bottle of red in her right. And as alluded to a few lines above, while there may have been a trace of doubt about the mechanical reliability of a plane maintained in Italy, France or some other country, there was never any doubt about the reliability of a plane maintained in Germany. Many years later, when our air travel became much less frequent, we used the considerable Lufthansa miles accumulated when flying back and forth from Kuwait and Turkey, when we flew to Italy to enjoy Venice and Florence and when we traveled to Jordan to visit our son Conrad when he was serving in the Peace Corps. And again on both trips – after a delicious meal there was the attractive flight attendant perfectly balanced by the bottles of white and red in either hand offering to refill your glass. We finally polished off the last of the miles with a very enjoyable two week visit to Kauai, Hawaii flying on United Airlines.

Lufthansa

But I have had some pretty unnerving experiences flying as well. While overseas on our way to a teachers meeting somewhere we flew in what was perhaps the worst airplane we had ever experienced – a vintage Jordanian Airlines two engined jet, maybe a Boeing 737, that was in awfully poor condition. The stained and ripped seats, torn curtains, and loose, rattling plastic trim, did not inspire any kind of confidence. But this dilapidated plane thankfully must have been mechanically sound because it landed us safely in Amman without incident, provoking a collective sigh of relief and providing an opportunity for our armpits and palms dry off a little.

Another stressful experience occurred right before we left Kuwait. when we finally responded to an ongoing invitation from one of our wealthy Indian parents to travel to acquaint ourselves with her country by staying in her “farmhouse” near Delhi and touring nearby cities. We finally planned to do this immediately prior to our final departure from Kuwait, planning a one week stay in what turned out to be a huge country mansion with a swimming pool, not a “farmhouse”. Well after our tours of the cities of India’s “golden triangle” – Delhi, Agra and Jaipur and focusing on our return we were harshly reminded of a sacred rule in overseas air travel – “confirming” return flights. Even if you had a bona fine reservation and the flight was paid for, passengers still had to call and confirm the flight or else there was the possibility of losing the reservation entirely. Well, while we knew this, we didn’t always remember. Our driver, who worked for the lady who owned the home at which we stayed, delivered us to the airport just fine, laden with our suitcases packed with mementos and spices from our tours and when trying to check in we found that our reservations had simply disappeared. I had forgotten to confirm the return flights. Shaking with anxiety, heart pounding and shirt drenched with nervous perspiration, I presented out tickets and pled our case with several agents and was finally able to obtain seats on a return flight that delivered us to Kuwait in plenty of time for our flight to the US the next evening. I never did and still don’t understand why and how reservations could be cancelled even though tickets were bought and paid for. 

But wait, that’s not all – the story and the stress continue. We had our tickets back to the US on BOAC, the airline with whom our school had contracted that summer, waiting for us at home with our packed and waiting suitcases. However, on the morning of the evening we were scheduled to leave we found that BOAC did not transport animals and we had three cats that we were taking back to Arizona, including our treasured Birman, “Monet”. So quickly we found seats on Lufthansa which did still carry animals in the cargo hold, but Lufthansa would not transport animals on flights terminating in Phoenix because of the heat. However, they could still be shipped to Los Angeles. So we changed the tickets to a Los Angeles destination where we all disembarked and collected our luggage and the cat cages. I booked a flight to Phoenix for later in the day for Conrad, Bobbie’s mother and me and the bulk of the luggage. We then called Liza, Bobbie’s daughter who was then living in Los Angeles for some help so Liza picked up her mother and the animals and drove them to Phoenix to meet with the rest of us. 

The most frightening airport I have ever experienced is Tribhuyan International Airport in Kathmandu, Nepal, in which we landed and took off twice, first on the international flight originating in Kuwait and second, on a local flight for a special trekking experience in Pokhara, Nepal. The airport in Kathmandu is of course in the same valley as the city, deep enough so that the plane had to make a rapid and steep descent from over the mountains surrounding the valley down to properly “catch” the runway at a point sufficient to allow a safe distance to slow and stop the plane. And when taking off, the plane had to accelerate very dramatically in order to gain altitude adequate  to clear those same high mountains. It was almost like the plane had to nose dive down after clearing the mountains in order to land and had to almost “blast off” to clear the mountains upon takeoff. 

Another concern relating to the final takeoff when we left Nepal is that our suitcases were absolutely bulging with gifts and mementos we had bought in this fantastic city and were considerably overweight. So for the first time in my life (and happily the last) I risked actually bribing an airport official to allow us to take them on. Yes, for a twenty dollar bill, the guy routinely tagged them and put them on the conveyor, no more questions asked or concerns expressed. However, the extra heft of our overweight bags in the hold made me even more nervous about the takeoff. What if our illegally heavy bags caused the plane to be just over the weight limit required to clear the mountains? Well, thank God, the plane took off just fine, accelerated at that terribly steep angle and successfully got us out of the valley and back home to Kuwait. 

After all that flying during my overseas career, interestingly the worst flying experience of my life was just last summer when traveling from Vermont to Phoenix for an important dental appointment. I had boarded a Southwest flight in the morning which was to go from Albany, New York to Chicago and then to Phoenix. Shortly after takeoff the pilot informed us that Midway Airport in Chicago was fogged in so the plane would land in Cleveland until the fog cleared. At the time, I did not realize it but the pilot should have also said …”or until passengers can be rerouted”. So after disembarking the plane I waited with my fellow passengers for some word as to what was next. When the fog cleared, were we supposed to re-board the flight and get on our way to Chicago? Of course there was the real concern then that even if this were to eventually take place, would we get to Chicago in time to catch our connecting flights, including my flight to Phoenix. So I milled about nervously with other passengers from Albany and waited. 

southwest airlines

But in the meantime, unknown to me, some passengers were actively seeking other alternatives to reach their final destinations. Eventually the announcement was made that my flight to Chicago was cancelled. Other flights to Chicago were full and while nervously exploring what else I could do, I found out that the flight from Chicago to Phoenix for which I was booked had already left. By then I was really concerned and wondered why Southwest was not more active in taking care of its passengers. Even if I successfully found an empty seat and rebooked for Phoenix via Los Angeles, Denver or Albuquerque, it didn’t look like I was going to get to Phoenix until the next day, too late for my appointment. Suddenly I recognized a family which had been seated near me on the flight from Albany, also bound for Phoenix as I was, in line for a flight to Tucson so quickly I had a Southwest agent change my final destination from Phoenix to Tucson and successfully boarded that flight. I reminded myself that Southwest also maintained a schedule of shuttle flights between Tucson and Phoenix so I reasoned that it shouldn’t be too tough to grab one of these and easily get to Phoenix. 

However,  upon arriving in Tucson with just my backpack (I had no idea where my suitcase was at that point), I discovered that it wasn’t Southwest that maintained the shuttle flights but American Airlines. Finally finding my way to American’s counters I was told that several of those hourly flights were cancelled and to get on the remaining early evening flight would cost me somewhere in the neighborhood of $300. Heck, I’m not doing that, it was more than the entire Southwest flight had cost, so what should I do? OK, I’ll rent a car and drive to Phoenix. Accordingly I rented the least expensive car I could find that could be taken one way to Phoenix, picked up the car and got on Interstate 10 from Tucson to Phoenix. Arriving in Phoenix two hours later, I first had to find a gas station to bring the car’s fuel gauge back up, then find the airport rental car facility which is now located several miles from the airport itself, return the car and catch the shuttle bus from the car rental facility to Terminal Four in Sky Harbor Airport where Southwest was located. The first thing I did upon arriving was to check with unclaimed baggage at Southwest – no Ralph Friedly bag. After inquiring, I was told that it would likely be on the next flight from Chicago, to arrive in an hour or so. So I waited for that next flight from Chicago and yes, there was my bag on the conveyer belt. Finally, suitcase in hand I showed up at the SuperShuttle desk for my ride home and was delivered to my house at around 9:00 PM, actually midnight on my body clock since I had gained three hours with the time change. I had originally been scheduled to arrive in Phoenix early in the afternoon after about seven hours of flying, airport wait time and the time change. Instead, it had taken about eighteen hours. But I had a good night’s sleep and was on time for my dentist appointment. 

Looking back on this experience, the stress of which probably shortened by life by a couple of years, I still don’t really know what I should have done and despite my extensive air travel experience, was obviously quite naive about these kinds of contingencies. The only thing I can think of is that I should have been far more assertive with Southwest and insisted that they take care of me. But ever since, when flying on Southwest between Albany and Phoenix, I have been careful to avoid Chicago.

A critical aspect in flying today is dealing with airport security, the beloved TSA. Rightfully instituted after the dreadful incidents of 9/11 and thankfully as a Federal agency and not a private one, as demanded by numerous congressmen and their lobbyists, I still have a considerable apprehension and dread when boarding airplanes. First, I heartily agree with the comedian who joked that TSA recruits were people who were likely ridiculed or beaten up while in high school because they wield their considerable power with such vengeful abandon, seeming to sadistically maximize and apparently enjoy the inconvenience and embarrassment they cause passengers.

tsa_airport_screening_checkpoint_passengers_lax-100722517-large 

There have been times when, after scanning my identification, I am whisked through security, but mysteriously there are other times when I have been subjected to absolute maximum scrutiny. On a recent trip from Philadelphia to Phoenix, my spouse was rushed right through, no lines, no shoe removal, bingo, she was approved for flight. But there I was, confined to the interminable lines where I had to remove my shoes (thank you, Richard Reid) and the lady in front of me her sandals (hey, TSA guy in the blue shirt – what on earth could she be hiding in those thin flimsy sandals?). And of course I had to take my laptop out of its case and put it in a plastic box separate from the shoes. But I was loudly reprimanded when I attempted to put my cell phone in the same box and was also loudly reprimanded when I failed to empty all my pockets, even the shirt pocket containing nothing more than a couple of 3 x 5 cards, and was loudly reminded to place those meager items in yet another separate box. On top of that I was placed in the body scanning booth and asked to lift my arms up while I was electronically scanned from head to toe. And if that wasn’t enough, I was subjected to the ultimate indignity – a groping by a blue shirted, rubber gloved TSA teenager just in case I was hiding a knife, gun or explosives in a remote body recess that had escaped detection by the body scanner. I was totally mystified, to have gone from what looked like routine pre-approval to being treated like a bonafide terrorism suspect. Can it be that I’ve been marked by the TSA because of some of my incendiary unpatriotic blog entries? My God, I’ll have to tone them down a bit I guess. But I suppose I should be thankful for the TSA. They do a good job keeping us safe and exhibit considerable patience when dealing with disgruntled, disagreeable passengers like me.

I have to say that, while airlines today do have their problems, all considered, you can’t beat the speed and convenience of air travel. I am getting fed up with these boring and stressful automobile trips between Arizona and Vermont to which we are limited because of my spouse’s canine friend that must accompany us. Yes, listening to recorded books on the trips makes them somewhat more bearable but still they are a huge drain on my increasingly limited energy and time. And the trips seem to get more expensive each time we travel, and the motels at which we stay get more expensive as well, not to mention less hospitable.

So I am looking diligently for a reliable used car small enough to fit in our substandard garage space here in Vermont, and assuming that our canine friend will not be with us forever, someday we will definitely be flying back and forth between these two beloved homes, in spite of potential TSA abuse and weather or scheduling contingencies. At least these trips will be quick.

 

On the Minus Side of Dying: Musings on End of Life

Over the past year or so, I have been consumed with thoughts of death. These have not been fearful thoughts, nor necessarily sad thoughts, although life has to be sweeter by far than death. But we all live and die. This is the way of living things – we are born, we live and we die. From the simplest of life forms to the most complex, this is the inevitable progression. And if life is a continuum, a straight line from birth to death, I hope mine is reasonably long, I don’t want it cut short. And if life is a course between two points, birth and death, I am thankfully still on the minus side of that course, still alive, though headed inexorably toward that end point.

I guess that these thoughts hit me for the first time when I was reading “Colossus” a biography of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the “father” of the atomic bomb last year. Halfway though the book I was struck by the thought that these remarkable people – the brilliant theoreticians and scientists, the skilled administrators, the talented fabricators, the president who made it all happen, are not with us anymore. Their lives, if notable, have been chronicled, their material achievements are listed for us to see, but they themselves are gone…forever. 

I have been reading biographies of famous people for many years but I have not necessarily thought of them as dying, or dead and gone. I was content to read about them and their lives and achievements but never was struck by the obvious fact that they are no longer with us. Why? I don’t know – maybe because I rarely thought about death itself – for me it was still such a long way off. I suppose that this change relates to my own old age and the now perceptible finiteness of my life. I was born, I grew, I was educated by school and experience. I lived and loved and became a father myself. But I will die – maybe sooner, maybe later…but I will die. In my younger days these thoughts rarely crossed my mind.

Another source for these thoughts and this piece of writing is the passing of a very close friend of ours, whose remarkable intellect, loving manner and vibrant personality are unforgettable. Even now, many months later, it is hard to imagine her gone. But is she really gone? Her appearance, her voice and her mannerisms are so alive in our memories, the memories of our children, who had the good fortune to know her, and in the memories of everyone else who knew her, that her absence is impossible to realize or accept.

In my mid-seventies now, I am grateful for my health. I am a trifle overweight, true, but I do still faithfully exercise on most mornings of the week. I watch what I eat, minimize the sugar and maximize the eggs and fresh (or frozen) vegetables and fruit. Foolishly, to treat a persistent sweet tooth, I still occasionally mix up and bake my favorite cookies, but amend the recipe by reducing the sugar and making it all dark brown, cancelling the chocolate bar and reducing the chocolate chips, using whole wheat flour and increasing the chopped nuts, while including almonds and hazelnuts. Then I ration my consumption by baking them small and keeping them frozen. Or if I’m feeling wiser, I’ll have an apple or some dried fruit if I am craving something sweet. And of course, likely not good for my health, l still have that scotch or red wine in the late afternoon.

And thank God, most of my body still works like it should. Yes the threat of personal embarrassment does rush me to the bathroom once in awhile and accordingly on long drives I consciously keep myself a bit dehydrated to minimize stops. I seem to be treating my hypothyroidism successfully and also treat a previously unknown bone density problem caused by that lazy thyroid gland with the necessary doses of minerals. I also am experiencing some lower back pain resulting from, I am told, deterioration of several vertebrae and a disc or two and some arthritis. Arthritis has also singled out a few key hand joints so I have tried to control inflammation by choosing certain foods and avoiding others. But on the whole, I think I’m doing ok. Those  organs and functions without which I cannot live – my brain, heart, lungs and digestive system, seem to be functioning quite well.

I have a  good friend back in our Arizona community who is about ten years older than I who tells me that while his seventies were okay, his 80’s have been quite different. He can really feel his  body giving out and maintaining this aging machine has become much more time and energy intensive in terms of doctor visits, scheduled medications, painstaking food shopping and preparation, and pursuit of required exercise. 

One thing that bothers me a great deal as I have grown old is that time passes so much more quickly than I thought it would. When I was young, it seemed that Christmas or the end of the school year and summer would never come. My high school and college years dragged on interminably as did my twenties and thirties. And now since I am retired I thought time would really drag and these ”golden years” would really stretch out, but surprisingly it been just the opposite. I have never experienced the hours turning into days, the days to weeks, the weeks into months and then years more quickly than now, exactly when I want things to slow down. 

I did a little research on this phenomenon and surprisingly the passage of time apparently speeds up with routine and sameness and slows down during growth and the acquisition of new experiences and learning. When you’re young every day brings something new and time stretches out. For example, think of how time seemed extended on that special vacation when you encountered new cultures, people, places and activities. And now during retirement when every day is more or less the same time passes more quickly. The new understandings, growth and learning acquired vicariously through movies and books, don’t have the same effect as real ones. I guess if I were wealthy enough to spend my retirement traveling and having those new experiences, these so-called “golden years” might pass much more slowly. But I’m not so I can’t and they don’t.

Some other thoughts and questions about my inexorable drift toward that final point on the continuum of life have occurred to me. What will I leave behind? Who will know that I’m gone? Who will grieve? What’s it all for? Will I be born again or just sleep forever, like I did before I was born and became conscious. 

One thing for sure, I don’t want to leave a mess behind me. I don’t want a spouse, child, sibling or friend sifting through a pile of my possessions rolling their eyes and saying – “Why did he keep this? What in hell was he planning to do with these? Why so many books – did he really read them all or just collect them thinking he would eventually find the time? And these jeans and sneakers – did he really think he would live long enough to wear them out? Why didn’t he get rid of things instead of just letting  them accumulate?” 

I really want to clean up my life like my Swedish kinsfolk recommend and make things easier for those I leave behind. Margareta Magnusson’s book, “The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning: How to Free Yourself and Your Family from a Lifetime of Clutter”, tells us what we need to do. I just hope that I can summon the energy and willpower sufficient to accomplish these recommended tasks when the time comes. But until then, I still have dreams of utilizing lots of my “stuff”, even now. But it’s so true – in recent months I am looking at certain possessions  and asking myself why I keep them. I’m never going to use them so why are they here? Having moved so many times we took advantage of each move to thin out our possessions and make ourselves a little lighter and more portable. But here we are – two houses, Vermont and Arizona, both full to overflowing. So clearly there is work to be done before I reach the end of that line.

And what am I leaving behind in terms of a legacy of some sort? I don’t mean money or wealth – there’s precious little of either to leave to anyone anyhow. What I mean is a legacy of good works, good deeds that some people will remember, at least for a little while. I hope my career in education has enhanced many lives – I’ll never really know.  But I hope that somewhere, somebody still remembers me and that my work on their behalf meant something in their lives. I was overjoyed to find that a few of my students from my first teaching job stumbled onto my article about them  and still remembered me fondly, but surely there are many more from subsequent experiences, at least I hope so. And once in a great while I hear of someone I once supervised saying some good things about me as a school principal or superintendent. Well, as the Mac Wiseman song says, “’Tis Sweet to Be Remembered

And then there’s the question of who will grieve my passing. In addition to my wife and son and my brothers and remaining sister, whom I hope will have retained at least a few fond memories and perhaps mourn my absence, there may be a treasured friend or two who may feel the same. Because of bouncing around the world and the country so much and thus scattering my friends and acquaintances, I don’t think that my survivors will have to worry about an overflow crowd at the funeral, if they even bother to schedule one. And I have requested that my body be cremated and my ashes thrown to the breeze from Yaki Point at the Grand Canyon. So that part of the end promises to be simple and quick as well.

And as it winds down, I cannot escape wondering what it was all for – life I mean. What is our purpose here, other than survival and procreation? What happens when I stop breathing and lose consciousness forever? Will I be “born again” or will I just sleep forever. It certainly is difficult to accept that my life will end – bang, just like that – and there is nothing afterward. But in fact there was nothing before it so why should there be something after? Jim Holt, who pondered the question of “why does the world exist” in his book of the same name, wonders why there is “something rather than nothing”, and suggests that “the life of the universe, like each of our lives, may be a mere interlude between two nothings.”

I envy my sister and brothers and my loving wife, who because of their religious faith, do not have to ponder these questions. They are secure in the knowledge and conviction that our purpose here on earth is to “glorify God” and that they will joyfully be greeted by loved ones on the “other side” after their death. Yes, Mom and Dad, and sister Barbara will be there, healthy and whole – I would love to believe this, but simply cannot. My religious faith has never been that strong. I mean will our loved and treasured pets be there too? And how about that rotten, worthless relative or that duplicitous subordinate who stabbed me in the back? Do I have to put up with them again on the “other side”? No, I think life might indeed just be a lovely experience with nothing before birth and nothing after death. 

Well actually there is a little  built-in immortality associated with my life. Because I have a son, parts of me, my DNA, my genes will go on living. I won’t know it but parts of me already present in my son will go on living in him and his children and in their children. This is wonderful to contemplate, but is this the purpose of life? 

My parents are gone, their parents are gone . They live on my my life now and the lives of my brothers and surviving sister. But after we are gone, do our children remember them and keep them alive in their minds? My dear sister Barbara is gone  but I can see her mannerisms and hear her voice in the movements and voices of her children. But how much of Barb will be left in her children’s children and in their children? And indeed, my wife’s recent addiction to discovering a multitude of previously unknown ancestors does make us wonder what fragments of their appearance and personality we display in our own.

I know I will die but I don’t know when or how. One often hears regarding someone’s sudden death – maybe a sudden fatal heart attack, perhaps a fatal auto accident or some type of dreadful explosion – “well, at least he didn’t suffer…” This I have taken to heart. I really don’t want to suffer. I’d like to die suddenly, instantaneously or perhaps in my sleep. I’ve gone to sleep, I’ve lost consciousness, I just don’t ever wake up. Easy and painless. But I don’t want to suffer the pain of illness and slow inexorable deterioration of my body or my mind. If I’m in pain, let me float into death on the soft clouds of psychotropic drugs. Or if I have my wits about me, please let me decide when I should die and allow those I love to do me this favor. They can hold my hand and kiss my cheek when I expire and before I go I can imagine them doing it. Also, I can tell them goodbye and tell them I love them. This is dying in dignity, enveloped by love and sweet memory: This is the way it should be.

I certainly don’t want to die struggling for life – fighting madly for a breath of air as I am drowning somewhere, or straining for oxygen as my lungs fail. Nor do I want to contend with the indignity of incontinence as I stumble toward death. When those senses and controls fail, I want my whole body, my heart, breathing apparatus and brain to fail as well. I certainly hope that our entire country permits assisted suicide eventually, as do most western European countries and several of our states. As our bodies deteriorate and we are engulfed in dreadful pain or our minds fail, I think that we or our loved ones should be able to decide when we die. 

I suppose that it will be difficult for someone who has thrived on strength, order and “being in control” to relinquish control to someone else, even a loved one. But we all do, I guess, as we drift toward the inevitable end of our lives. Yet there may be some comfort in finally admitting that I can no longer continue being strong and in control. At some point it will be impossible and perhaps it will be a relief and a comfort to turn myself over to someone who is younger and stronger and can care for me. But I dread the day that they take the keys to the car away from me. I hope I have the good sense to realize that I can no longer drive safely and relinquish them voluntarily.

Hopes and dreams are necessary to life so no matter how old we get so we need to keep them alive. We should always have a must-read book at our side and a must-do project in front of us. When we stop striving and stop dreaming, we’re done. We dream all our lives – we dream of perfect love and perfect happiness; we dream of having enough money to do anything we want; we dream of the perfect house, that perfect place; we dream of  finding answers to life’s eternal questions – why are we here? Where do we go when we die? And I hope at age 76 that I can and will still dream. I think when we stop dreaming, stop hoping, stop trying, then we are really finished, even if our bodies keep going.

I have had my little set of dreams, yes. And I am happy to say that some have been realized, but so many have not and I know now, will not. I’ve hiked the Grand Canyon rim to rim to rim (see upcoming article “The Grand Canyon and Me”); I’ve stood on the highest mountain in Arizona – Mount Humphries in the San Francisco Peaks; I’ve traveled to Ireland twice, Germany several times, driven from Frankfurt to Vienna…and back, seen so many historical sites in Turkey, seen the pyramids, the sphinx, Luxor and the Valley of Kings in Egypt, been on a safari in Africa, walked the streets of Dublin, London, Paris, Prague, Budapest, Cairo, Isdtanbul, Delhi, Bangkok and Katmandu. Thank God, thank God for all this. But many dreams still remain.

Some of those dreams yet unfulfilled – camping for weeks among the red rocks of Canyonlands, Sedona and southern Utah; camping in a wheat field in Kansas or North Dakota on a windy night; taking a “blue cruise” – sailing on the beautiful warm blue Aegean off the coasts of Turkey and Greece; traveling to certain other countries that have fascinated me – like Russia or the country of my kin, Sweden; art museums that I’ve missed – the Prado in Madrid, the Hermitage in St Petersburg, to name a couple. I’ve seen virtually nothing of other countries in my own hemisphere – I would love to explore Mexico and Central and South America. I’ve never seen the Redwoods, Seattle, or Yellowstone. I have never lived by the sea, even for a little while, not even in a trailer. To listen to the waves constantly, have them wake you up and put you to sleep would be such a thrill. And to daily see the water stretching out to the horizon to meet the sky would be so liberating and inspiring. 

One of the tragedies of death is the disappearance forever of the knowledge and experience accumulated. We indeed are lifelong learners, absorbing new information, new facts and valuable lessons our whole life. And then when we die it’s all gone. So I guess that’s what all this is – a legacy of some kind, certainly not one as rich and as lasting as those left by many a scientist, novelist, poet or composer but the best I can do – some reflections on family, life, politics, and the world. I write so that some of my experiences and therefore some of me might live on. My son, who’s very busy and involved in his own life and career, reads little of this now. But I hope when I am gone, that he will hold me close once in awhile by choosing to read some more of what I’ve written. And perhaps he will choose to share it with his children.

In spite of accounts of “near death” experiences, death itself continues to be a mystery. Perhaps reviewing Socrates’ opinion on death would be an appropriate way to end this piece: ”To fear death, my friends, is only to think ourselves wise, without being wise: for it is to think that we know what we do not know. For anything that men can tell, death may be the greatest good that can happen to them: but they fear it as if they knew quite well that it was the greatest of evils. And what is this but that shameful ignorance of thinking that we know what we do not know?”

Today I noted in the NYTimes that two of my heroes have passed away. One of my favorite novelists, Philip Roth, author of so many great novels, including my favorite of his, “The Human Stain”, died yesterday. And Richard Goodwin, liberal speechwriter extraordinaire, whose golden words spoken by the Kennedys, Johnson and so many others also passed away. Yes, we all die, but what a legacy both of these people left. Read their work and you will agree.

Sanctimonious Hypocrisy

This article had its genesis in three unrelated events – scrawled notes after attending a charity event with my wife in Phoenix a couple of years ago, similar impressions and a few jottings while watching, yet again, “Scrooge”, the wonderful 1951 Alistair Sim version of Dickens’ classic last Christmas Eve, and on the holiday itself reading a New York Times column which, in describing certain charitable acts, underscored my own convictions about charity. Unfortunately the article was never finished so I will attempt to finally sew the pieces together to successful completion. 

Have you ever read an article on the society pages of a newspaper about a multitude of befurred, bejeweled, betuxed and perfectly coiffed wealthy, arriving in their chauffeured vehicles, gathering for an event dedicated to some high profile charity? I am sure you have. There are the pictures of different couples, yes, dressed in their finest, happy to be there to help the sick or the poor. And the final tally of money raised through their pledges and contributions is supposed to invoke paroxysms of appreciation and gratitude among the eventual recipients of that generosity and among us sympathetic observers not blessed with the ability to give so much.

britain_downton_abbey_ball_lon835

Yes, these people, so rich that they cannot possibly spend what they have, make themselves feel so good, having contributed a particle or dash of their wealth to a particular cause. They do not think of erasing the conditions or circumstances that cause the deprivation or impoverishment of people in our society, but conspicuously contribute a shred of their vast fortunes so that they can go home, look in the mirror and tell themselves how generous they are and that they have “done their part” in “helping the poor”.

These people do not think of changing their government or their laws so that poverty and illness can be addressed and eradicated. They do not think of going to the source of a problem to find a solution. If they really cared they would put that wealth to work electing new politicians, passing laws and regulations, that would change the tax and welfare systems so that these problems could be prevented. Oh, but that would deprive them of this opportunity to step out on their little stage and show the world how benevolent they are.

But this is the problem, is it not? We spin our wheels, raise money, give to charities and maybe offer a prayer or two. Charity is a poor substitute for government action to solve problems of need. Charity and poverty – how inadequate one is to cure the other and temporary amelioration is not a cure.

A couple of summers ago my wife and I attended the “Circle the City Garden Tea”, an annual gathering of well-intentioned charitable givers whose efforts support medical care for the homeless. I felt very uncomfortable there among the many bejeweled, expensively dressed minor league philanthropists. While I try to give as much as I can to worthy organizations, charity makes me nervous because what I can give is so limited. While there that morning surrounded by people feeling very good about themselves for having bid on “silent auction” items, buying lottery tickets for other donated items and filling out pledge cards, I couldn’t help getting the feeling that all this giving was a cop-out of sorts. Most of the people present, it seemed would rather give some money and a little time, pat themselves on the back, go home feeling smug and superior (another nice charitable tax deduction to reduce their taxable income at the end of the year), rather than see their taxes raised to ensure medical care for everyone including the indigent and a floor under everyone which would provide security for them.

The very worthy and admirable founder of Circle the City, Sister Adele O’Sullivan, herself a medical doctor who has spent much of her life treating the poor, presented a welcoming talk during which she exclaimed “Oh, I wish poverty would just go away”. Well, Sister Adele, in western European countries people really do believe in helping their fellow man, put their money where their mouths are and do pay the taxes necessary to alleviate hunger, lack of medical care, and lack of shelter….for everyone. Yes, in countries like these poverty does indeed “go away”. 

sister adele o'sullivan

Do any of these people with the designer clothes, jeweled eyeglass frames, expensive hairdos, gushing about how happy they are to be there at the “Garden Tea”, really think that there will be fewer poor people, fewer homeless in need of shelter, medical care and sustenance on the streets because of their efforts? Yes, of course, every person who is helped, every person lent a helping hand to cure their addiction to alcohol or drugs and put on a path to a job and a secure future is a worthy achievement. But do these isolated successes cure the problem? Why don’t these people try to provide homes for the homeless? Or jobs so that they can obtain homes. Or if they are unable to work, provide reliable monetary support so that they can provide a home and sustenance for themselves? People in need should not be dependent on the vagaries of charity. If Sister Adele really wanted poverty and need to “go away” she needs to support a floor under us all beneath which no one could fall.

CTC-Garden-Tea-Party2

But unfortunately we aren’t doing this – the government, thanks to Republicans, is doing even less to break the cycle of poverty and homelessness, attaching “work requirements” to virtually every benefit from food stamps to Medicaid. The best seller “Hillbilly Elegy” by J.D. Vance has been seized upon by the political right as ammunition to further cut assistance and support for the poor. Vance attributes his “escape” from poverty to “hard work”, not “government handouts” and this is music to right wing Republicans’ ears. People are poor because they don’t work hard enough. People are poor because they grow dependent on government “handouts” that deprive them of ambition. 

Yes, hard work is important but sometimes there are simply no jobs or if there are jobs, they don’t pay a living wage. One of the greatest ironies of modern life in this country is that so many full time jobs don’t pay enough for people to support their families. The greed of so many companies today that have chosen not to pay a living wage to full time employees is deplorable and should not be tolerated in “the wealthiest country in the world”. All employers should pay a living wage to full time employees. If they claim they cannot or else they will go out of business, let them fold. If the product or service they provide cannot generate living wages for employees, that product or service does not need to be provided. Paying a living wage to employees needs to be just as important as making a profit on that product or service, having your stock price increase and paying dividends to stockholders. And paying employees properly should be required by law.

socks

My wife attends weekly Mass at St Patrick’s Church in Scottsdale and to keep peace between us, I usually try to attend with her. I enjoy many aspects of the experience – observing the centuries-old ceremonies and rituals of the Catholic church and appreciating the dedication, energy, leadership and humor of Father Eric Tellez, the priest who is chief pastor of the church. I also enjoy the beauty and grandeur of the church itself – its really a beautiful edifice, reflecting the faith and generosity of its huge congregation. But at certain times of the year I am disappointed to see this lovely church become an example of what upsets and troubles me, by collecting socks for the homeless and indigent. Okay, it’s better than nothing I am sure, but bringing socks to church is just another exercise in ostentatious giving. If it genuinely cared, the congregation would be politically active and elect the right politicians to raise their own taxes in order to provide decent paying jobs and eradicate poverty, rather than making a show of bringing socks to church. But there we are, parishioner after parishioner, including us, strutting up (or slinking up in my case) to deposit a package of Target or Costco socks in a bin. Wow, how generous, how selfless. We are now absolved of any guilt about not caring properly for our fellow man.

It’s Christmas 2018 and I am striving to deal with feelings deriving from two sources – our annual family viewing last night of the wonderful 1951 Alistair Sim version of “A Christmas Carol” and a column I just read from the New York Times this morning. In “Scrooge”, The Ghost of Christmas Present shows Scrooge what has become of his beautiful lost love, Alice, whose affection he tragically  traded for his selfish pursuit of wealth. Alice is generously and joyfully tending to the sick and needy in a poorhouse on Christmas EveAlice. The final revelation of this Ghost shows him dramatically opening his robe to reveal two gaunt, sickly and ragged little children. “This boy is Ignorance, this girl is Want. Beware them both, but most of all beware this boy…” he intones. Through the transformation of Ebenezer Scrooge, Dickens’ wonderful story reminds us of the real meaning of Christmas and impresses upon us our responsibility to care for those less fortunate.Ignorance and Want But just like the benevolent organizations to which I have alluded, this lovely Christmas story stresses that we do so through the unpredictability and unreliability of individual charity, rather than through the responsibility of societies and their governments. 

And in the column noted above, the author, Margaret Renkl, whose work I generally admire, begins by considering the contradiction of evangelical support of Senate candidate Roy Moore in Alabama and of a U.S. president who violates virtually every Christian precept imaginable. She then then exhorts Christians to rally around the teachings of Jesus in which all Christians should believe: “Jesus had nothing to say about birth control or abortion or homosexuality. He did have quite a lot to say about the poor and the vulnerable… Surely Christians across the political spectrum believe we’re called to feed the hungry, heal the sick, protect the weak and welcome the stranger.” Great stuff so far, but rather than urging us to elect politicians and pass laws that would help wipe out poverty, Ms Renkl loses herself in describing the wonderful things that she and her fellow Christians are doing to help the homeless.

During the winter months, members of “Room in the Inn”, a group involving Nashville area churches, go downtown and collect homeless people, take them to their various places of worship or shelters for a hot shower, a wholesome dinner, a good night’s sleep in a clean bed, a healthy breakfast the next morning and a sack lunch for later. But then, these same people take their one-night guests downtown and dump them off again on the same streets upon which they are homeless! What does this do, pray tell? Are these selfless and generous Christians of “Room in the Inn” doing anything to eliminate the root causes of homelessness? These people are homeless – they need homes and jobs, not one night stands of temporary shelter. No, just like charities such as Circle the City, and just like Ebenezer Scrooge’s lost love Alice taking care of the poor, they’re just playing round the edges, treating symptoms and not addressing causes.

 homeless shelterIf the reader will allow me the privilege of some divergence, I would like to conclude this piece with another quite different example of “sanctimonious hypocricy”. In the same way I am disgusted by charities beating around the edges of serious problems without attacking the causes, I am sickened by the way do-gooders ostentatiously go through the motions of demonstrating understanding and sympathy for one of the greatest injustices of our time – the stripping of the dignity, welfare, safety, livelihood and land of the Palestinian people in their native country, without ever saying anything about the root causes.

As I noted in my earlier article, there are countless stories in the media of the little efforts and little events that are purported to “bring Israelis and Palestinians together”. Maybe it’s a story, like the one I described in the afore-mentioned article about Israeli and Palestinians women temporarily shedding their enmity to gossip in a beauty salon, or it might be an isolated effort to bring Israeli and Palestinian children together in some school, playground or sporting event, so that they can show the world how they can get along. Maybe the story makes the nauseating feel-good final entry on the network evening news, or makes it into a similar area of the print media. But it always produces the same feeling in me as do charity events attended by the wealthy. 

Because these weak efforts are really obfuscations masquerading as solutions, only window dressing, covering and disguising the real problems. Oh, these innocent little Palestinian and Israeli children are joyfully playing together and loving each other, oblivious of the real factors and actions that keeps them apart. The daily insults, humiliation, attacks, beatings, deaths and  land theft go on, aided by the 11 million dollars a day US taxpayers provide to collude in these crimes. And our politicians of whatever party continue with their unqualified  praise of Netanyahu and his minions for their “only democracy in the Middle East” and “shared values”  with the United States, just to keep the money flowing into their election coffers. Please save me from the platitudes and the sanctimonious hypocrisy and let’s attack the root causes of these crimes with an arms embargo, cancellation of our $11 million per day support and hauling these Israeli criminals into the World Court for trial and sentencing.

So concludes this article about the sanctimonious hypocrisy of our many institutions which, while they might do some good, refuse to expose and address the real causes of poverty, deprivation and injustice and seek real solutions. But before we part company, it might be useful to share some reminders from notable people about our responsibilities and how to fulfill them.

“Overcoming poverty is not a gesture of charity. It is the protection of a fundamental human right, the right to dignity and a decent life.” 

Nelson Mandela, Former President of South Africa

“I am opposing a social order in which it is possible for one man who does absolutely nothing that is useful to amass a fortune of hundreds of millions of dollars, while millions of men and women who work all the days of their lives secure barely enough for a wretched existence.” 

Eugene V. Debs

“The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.” 

Franklin D. Roosevelt

“When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist.” 

Hélder Câmara, Dom Helder Camara: Essential Writings

“Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. This is not a way of life at all in any true sense. Under the clouds of war, it is humanity hanging on a cross of iron.” 

Dwight D. Eisenhower

Foresight in 2020

I read a column last weekend by my second favorite New York Times columnist, Timothy Egan (favorite – Paul Krugman) in which, after going through a list of potential Democratic candidates for president in 2020 and discarding them one by one, he finally settles on “building a better Biden”. Timothy, I’m not so sure, no, in fact I am sure – settling for Biden would be sheer folly.

During the 2016 campaign, like many desperate Democrats, I sadly realized the inadequacy of the Hillary Clinton campaign. From the meaningless slogan “Stronger Together” to her glaring Wall Street ties to her inability to articulate a Democratic vision for the country or even a reason why she was running for president, her campaign was hopelessly shallow. Yet, like many, I was shocked at her loss, especially the narrowness of it, losing the electoral vote in several key states by a mere collective 40,000 votes. But those key states – Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, will matter just as much in the next election and so Democrats have to consider what kind of candidate could have won these states in 2016 and will take them in 2020. 

Also like many other Democrats who followed the 2016 election closely, I could easily have visualized Bernie Sanders beating Trump soundly in these key states, just like the polls indicated. Bernie’s genuineness and his authentic rage at the both the Democratic and Republican donor-based establishments perfectly reflected the anger and desperation of the many voters in these states that threw the election to Trump. Also, during the late phases of the election and certainly reflecting on this dreadful loss afterwards, I couldn’t help but think that Joe Biden, with his blue collar Scranton, Pennsylvania roots, could also have honestly articulated and reflected the insecurity, outrage and resentment felt by so many disaffected voters in these key states. So I don’t entirely disagree with columnist Timothy Egan. However, I think he misses several important points, some serious and some superficial but no less important.

But first, I think that the Democratic Party has to get away from crying about why they lost the presidency. It wasn’t because of Russia or because of Comey or any of the many other petty reasons stated by Democrats. It’s because they had no message, ran a bad candidate and were, pure and simple, beaten by money. Oh sure, Hillary outspent Trump by a considerable margin overall but millions of billionaire donor dollars (read Koch, Adelson, Singer et al) were poured into the afore-mentioned states during the last months of the campaign and the Democratic candidate didn’t even bother to campaign seriously in them. 

Secondly, the lack of a convincing Democratic message lost the election for Hillary Clinton. In moving right over the years, illustrated by husband Bill’s sellout to Republicans and corporations by “changing welfare as we know it” and in embracing NAFTA, there was little that Democrats could convincingly say to address the insecurity of blue collar workers who had seen their unions, jobs and middle class hopes continue to disappear over the Bush and Obama years. Yes, Obama was the quintessential corporate Democrat, only disguised in black clothing. He sold out his country and his party with a continuation of the shrinking of unions and stagnation of wages and consequent diminishment of the middle class. And Hillary couldn’t ever dissociate from these Democratic trends, in fact she personified a perpetuation of them.

As Mr. Egan demonstrated in his column, it’s not difficult to sort through that grab bag of potential candidates. And there’s no shortage of such accounts by other pundits. So I will do the same, with several changes. Joe Biden does not distinguish himself in my list and I would like to suggest several “dark horses” – excellent choices that the other lists, Egan’s included, do not contain. And yes, I’ll use some extremely superficial reasons for rejecting a few otherwise substantial candidates, like age, blackness, voice and hair. Listen, please don’t dismiss hair – history tells us that Americans prefer political figures with hair. Our society views hair loss as a liability, and given a choice, Americans will pick the person with better hair. The days of Dwight Eisenhower and Adlai Stevenson are gone – substance has given way to image.  

Also, I should mention that it’s still way too early to be looking to 2020. Much could change between now and then. Some Democrats who test the water may find it unwelcoming, others will fall by the wayside for other reasons, some of which I will articulate below. But one of these people will be the Democratic nominee and very likely our president. So join me in taking a look at them:

  • Bernie Sanders – our hero, told it like it was, didn’t pull punches, accepted no billionaire donor money or PAC money, right on target with his policies and programs, knows what the country needs, likely would have become our president except for the Democratic establishment led by the Clintons. But unfortunately will be too old by 2020.
  • Elizabeth Warren – believes and says the right things but comes across as way too impatient, exasperated and whiny. 
  • Kamala Harris – attractive, intelligent, well connected, but way too California and way too new. And a “black” woman? I don’t think so.…and I don’t think black voters will think so either. And too tied to the Democratic establishment.
  • Chris Murphy – too young, unseasoned, inexperienced and too linked to his single favorite issue – gun control.
  • Sherrod Brown – genuinely liberal in his beliefs and legislative stands but always seems too angry. Plus something is wrong with his voice. (like I said  some serious reasons to accept or reject candidates and some superficial but real)
  • Cory Booker – pretty good candidate but manic mannerisms – bulging eyes, talks too fast and always seems ready to explode. Also some pretty tight ties with Wall Street money which would hurt him. Also is single – why? – may be an issue here of some kind? But, thank God…he’s really black, unlike Kamela and Eric.
  • Terry McAuliffe – a great Virginia governor with some notable progressive accomplishments. But much too tied to the Clintons and would be picked apart by the opposition over the long haul. Too bad because he’s good looking and has great hair.
  • Kirsten Gillebrand – has recently placed herself alongside of or maybe even to the left of Bernie on some issues. But is still a legitimate candidate to break the glass ceiling in many ways that Hillary was not. But ties to Wall Street could hurt her.
  • Andrew Cuomo – well connected and would likely run a strong campaign. But he has lurched right or left for so long, depending on the headwinds, that he seems without principle. Right now he’s lurching left to counter his quite liberal primary opponent.
  • Eric Holder – not a bad choice but his liberal credentials are cloudy and he’s tied to big money. And he’s not black. Or maybe just black like Kamala.
  • Jay Inslee – Washington governor with impeccable progressive credentials – not many negatives here but then he has that “west coast” stigma, although in this case at least it’s not California.
  • John Hickenlooper –  great Colorado governor and former entrepreneur with a record of liberal achievements which have helped turn his state fairly blue, but (shallow) is his name a handicap? So easily ridiculed, don’t you think? Hickenloopy, Hickenpooper, Chickencooper, etc.
  • Martin O’Malley – a good guy but weakened by overexposure during the 2016 Democratic primaries. And hasn’t done much since then.
  • Tim Caine – an establishment candidate whose liberal credentials are dubious – rather a Republican in Democrat’s clothing. Also, forever soiled by his association and unsuccessful campaign with Hillary Clinton.
  • Oprah Winfrey, Dwayne Johnson, Mark Cuban – forget all of these. They’e rich entertainers, not public servants. That’s what we have now and Democrats don’t need this. Nor do they need
  • Mark Zuckerberg or Sheryl Sandberg – yes, I can’t believe that these two pompous Facebook billionaires – he of the weaponized social media tech platform and she of the egotistical self-help books (see my upcoming article “The Great Books”), have been mentioned seriously by the pundits.
  • Julian Castro, Mitch Landrieu, Eric Garcetti, Deval Patrick – regardless of their very real liberal bona fides, none of these have the national stature and profile necessary to be the formidable candidate that the Democrats need.
  • Joe Biden – sorry Mr. Egan, but I just can’t take your suggestion seriously. He’s too old. Period. He came to Congress with fellow freshman Jesse Helms when the presiding officer of the Senate was vice president Spiro Agnew and while Bill Clinton and Hillary Rodham were dating in law school. Oh yes, he could break another “glass ceiling” by being the oldest president-elect in history but he couldn’t reasonable consider a second term, and who wants a president who’s an immediate lame duck? Plus, good old Joe has been known to be a little bit creepy and “handsy” over the years and as a drug warrior, incarceration hawk and death penalty proponent, he has been on the wrong side of more than a few legislative issues. And his cavalier treatment of Anita Hill’s harassment claims was responsible for the ascension of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court. Add to this that he is long gone from his humble blue collar Scranton roots and has ever been an eager supporter of the big money Delaware financial institutions, which have generously contributed to all of his campaigns. So, Timothy, Joe Biden is not only way too old but way too tarnished. And all this would be mercilessly highlighted by Republicans should, God forbid, he becomes the Democratic nominee. Yet there he sits, right on top of most pundits’ lists, including yours. My gosh, I forgot to mention his hair – the worst imaginable – hair transplants – bad enough, but they don’t even follow the natural lines of male pattern baldness. Superficial yes, but enough….goodbye, Joe.

 So, there you have the complete list, except for whom I would expect to be the strongest candidates, any one of whom has more honesty and genuine liberal credentials than any of the above save my Bernie Sanders. Why these great Democrats have been overlooked beats me. Let’s take a look at them:

  • Sheldon Whitehouse – ok, first let’s first be superficial – the junior Senator from Rhode Island has got great hair, really great hair. And how could an American presidential candidate ever have a catchier last name than “Whitehouse” – unless his name happens to be “Sheldon President”? Not hard to imagine what campaign slogans could be inspired by this name. Now let’s be substantive. Mr. Whitehouse has impeccable credentials. Public service is in his veins – he grew up in a diplomatic family with both father and grandfather in the foreign service as ambassadors. Mr. Whitehouse exudes intelligence, gravitas and substance and went to the right schools – St. Pauls and Yale. He has also written the requisite book – but not the typical book about himself and his views on the issues and the world. “Captured: The Corporate Infiltration of American Democracy” is a passionate and scholarly treatise on two of the most important issues faced by our country and the world today – corporate money in politics and climate change, and how they relate and intersect. The book has been written about in the New Yorker and discussed by its author in a great Book TV interview on C-Span. Oh, and I forgot to mention that Senator Whitehouse has authored another book – “On Virtues: Quotations and Insight to Live a Full, Honorable, and Truly American Life”.
  • Bill De Blasio – the mayor of New York City has impeccable liberal credentials and a stellar record of progress such as providing free universal pre-kindergarten for the city’s children, financed by a tax on the wealthy and significant progress in creating middle and low income housing. Mr. De Blasio said of Sanders, who swore him in for his second term, “From the bottom of my heart, the American political process will never be the same because of what you started,” He could do much more as mayor but but he has been handicapped by his greatest rival, Governor Andrew Cuomo. And on the superficial yet important side, Mr DeBlasio is tall, has great hair, is married to a real black woman and has bi-racial children. And he rides the subway to work each day, chatting with his constituents and finding out firsthand what’s on their minds. Mr. Mayor has not yet written the requisite book, but unlike many candidates who have, has had several very complimentary books written about him.
  • Gavin Newsom – the Lieutenant Governor of California has movie star good looks, and genuine Democratic credentials. His linkage with one of the greatest governing families in California history, his mentor Jerry Brown and father Pat Brown, doesn’t hurt, although just the fact of where he is from, could. Right now he’s focused on succeeding Brown as governor of California so It might be better for him to wait, but he has built a lofty reputation and has momentum going forward. Claims he will not run but many other candidates over the years, when they felt that forces enabling and requiring them to run were coalescing, have eagerly swallowed those words. Mr. Newsom also has the required book, “Citizenville”, about how citizens can use digital tools to improve participation in and effectiveness of democracy. And oh yes, he is tall and has great hair.

So there is the complete list – I don’t think I’ve forgotten anybody. Nobody knows who will ultimately be nominated by our feckless party, which seems always to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. However, I fervently hope that whoever it is will exhibit not only the strength and resolve necessary to win but the intellect, honesty, humility,  seriousness, dignity and sophistication, that are the precise opposite of the abomination that now inhabits the office, and will restore honor to the most important elective office in the world.

Black Ice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Why We Drink

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reasons for Seasons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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