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Unpopular Ideas

Ramblings and Digressions from out of left field, and beyond....

Location: Piedmont of Virginia, United States

All human history, and just about everything else as well, consists of a never-ending struggle against ignorance.

Thursday, January 31, 2008

With Margaret Truman's Departure

A few days ago we were informed of the passing of Margaret Truman Daniel, the daughter and only child of Harry S. Truman, and also of Bessie Truman, who was precisely the kind of ever in the background and very un-Hillary Clintonesque kind of Presidential wife that all red-blooded, non-thinking American males prefer so much.

Margaret Truman was 83. That startled me. I thought of her as being a contemporary, and I didn't realize that she had reached such an age. It meant that the same sort of thing had happened to me -- as if I didn't already know.

I remember Margaret Truman for two things.

One was her bearing, the few times that I saw her on TV. She had the most studied, haughty-looking way of arranging her being that I have ever seen. I doubt that even the highest, most privileged French or English monarch of centuries past ever managed to outdo her in that respect, and the modern English royalty certainly doesn't and can't.

I wonder how she accomplished that. She must have worn out her mirrors. Her hauteur was astonishing, considering that she came from plain-spoken parents and from the rough-hewn "Show Me" state of Missouri. Was it because she was an only child, and the daughter of the most powerful man in the country and the world? Would she have been the same if her parents had never left Missouri, the state that, besides her father, had also produced characters like Mark Twain and Jesse James?

That kind of bearing was all the most surprising when I found out, just now, that for a long time she was a distinguished writer of detective novels. That's a genre of writing that I would never have associated with a person who affected so much queenly presence.

The main event with which I associate Margaret Truman happened at the outset of her shorter career as a concert singer.

For her debut she gave a recital in D.C., for which she was panned by Paul Hume, who was then the highly regarded music critic of the Washington Post. This was in 1950, when the Post was a great newspaper and still decades from passing into less enlightened hands and its subsequent degeneration into the uncharitable, right wing-leaning rag that it is today.

It was also only nine years after the appearance of Orson Welles' masterpiece film, "Citizen Kane," which detailed the life of a newspaper magnate whose power approached that of a President. In that movie Kane's young wife is also a singer, and he pushes her opera career so much that he stoops to rewrite an unfavorable review of her performance, written by his best friend.

Harry S. Truman went Citizen Kane one better. Totally incensed by Hume's review, he sat down and dashed off and quickly mailed off a brief but scathing note to Hume, in which he threatened, if he ever saw him, to kick the critic in an especially sensitive and vital part of his anatomy.

This, mind you, is the most powerful man in the world, the commander-in-chief of a huge array of military and police forces. In other countries he would have been tempted and advised to leave the matter to his gendarmes or other individuals, who could have brought down the hammer hard on Hume and his employers, for such a transgression on his daughter's dignity.

But no, Harry S. was going to take care of this entirely on his own, and he responded not as the all-powerful U.S. President, victor in the most ferocious and large-scale war the world has ever seen. Instead, he reacted as any normal, proud, outraged father might have. And as a result, no approbrium was heaped on him for having acted in a way that some might have seen as too undignified for a Chief Executive, and after that to my observation Hume and the Post continued to operate as they always had.

There have been so many matters that have come and zipped past me that now most are hanging from the ceiling of my mind only by one memory each, and in Margaret Truman's case this is it. I thought that what Harry S. did on her behalf was a true demonstration of what the American Ideal of democracy is all about. Yet this incident that spoke so loudly to me and maybe to others as well is not mentioned in the memorial statement about her that appears on the website of her father's library. I can understand why. I can concede that, among other reasons, it said much more about her father than it did about her. But we can be grateful at least that her efforts furnished the occasion.

Candidates for the Presidency traditionally try to show how they are part of the "Common Man." But with that one little incident, and with the exception perhaps only of A. Lincoln, Margaret Truman's father showed, as no other President that I am aware of has quite managed to do, that he was indeed, for all his high trappings of office, still, in spirit, one with all the ordinary citizens of the country.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Today's Primary Winnowing

So the results of the Florida primary are in, Hillary Clinton and John McCain have won on the Democratic and Republican sides respectively, and in the same order John Edwards and Rudolph Guiliani have dropped out.

It's too bad about both men. A lot of people whose opinions I respect preferred Edwards over Clinton and Obama, and maybe his day will come yet.

I take a dim view toward Guiliani's positions. but I did pay attention to his big gamble, of skipping the primaries in the small states. This wasn't because of any disdain I might have for those states, and in fact I have fewer questions about Iowa and New Hampshire than I have about Indiana and Idaho, or Texas and Oklahoma, and a couple of other pairings as well. But I was interested in seeing how Guiliani's strategy would affect primary campaigning in future years, if he had succeeded. I hoped it might shorten the season, which goes on far too long and in fact never ends.

Now, with the "National Primary" just a week away, Hillary Clinton is the frontrunner for the Democrats, and that's okay, and John McCain is in the lead for the Repubs.

The country would be in trouble no matter who the frontrunner for the Repubs is. That's been the case for a great many years.

But it is extra daunting to try to imagine John McCain as President. I don't understand at all his appeal to moderates and senior citizens, as the media proclaimed in Florida. I think of his thought processes as being every bit as jumbled as those of the man whose bloody boots he would like to wear.

I told my wife this morning of how McCain said recently that he wouldn't object to keeping American soldiers in Iraq for 100, 1,000 or an even longer number of years, with the strict proviso that no American soldiers are killed. But every day it appears that at least one American soldier is killed, and recently the Iraqis offed a much larger number in a single day, and there's no reason at all to think that they wouldn't have a similar appetite in 2, 5, 10, 100, and 1,000 years from now.

My wife exclaimed, "That means he's for withdrawing American troops right now!"

That's what a logical person would think, but it's certain that McCain and logic are not on speaking terms with each other.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008


Today in Common Dreams appeared an interesting and important article from the U.K., From Buses to Blogs; A Pathological Individualism is Poisoning Public Life, by Madeleine Bunting, and it was followed by, when I read it, a 68-message comment section that was just as curious as the article. The comments were generally more civil than those that I have seen usually following Common Dreams articles, maybe because it wasn't about the Democratic Party, or maybe because the subtitle read: Our shared spaces have become a bear pit. This ever-crumbling civility risks our wellbeing and points to a bleak future. People were more serious, and some of the comments were so long that they amounted to articles in themselves.

I wasn't as alarmed as the author and the commenters. You might think that the reason for that is that I can't possibly be in any position to notice a growing lack of civility, because things have so ordered themselves that I live in a situation of such surprising isolation,on a planet that we are told is teeming with over 6 billion other human beings. Every day even in cold winters I spend long periods outside in plain sight, yet there are so few people around that it's rare that anyone ever sees me except my wife, and nowadays even she doesn't lay eyes on me for weeks at a time, due to her mercy missions to Florida. This degree of solitude is amazing, when you think about it.

Actually, though, this isolation should put me in a better position than most to notice such changes in civility, during the infrequent and brief times when I have to enter the outside world. That would make the changes more abrupt for me, and those are easier to see than the gradual ones that everyone else is experiencing. Yet, whenever I do emerge, I never notice any kind of a shift in behavior, and instead everybody I see is acting the same as ever.

Could this be because I live in Virginia, and in backwoods Virginia at that, where certain codes of conduct, even if increasingly archaic, are still strongly in effect? I would not differ with the lady on this count, because I think civility depends on the person and the place, and right now I'm not in one of the places where uncivility is fashionable.

But it seems that I disagree with her on the merits of individualism. I think of individualism as being a virtue and almost never a fault, and I can go so far as to say that I personally value individuals much more than I do groups.

Maybe Britishers define "individualism" differently from Americans, or maybe it's just me. In the article the word seems to denote self-absorption, the "Me, me, me!" thing, and joining with impromptu mobs to get what one wants. But where I come from, "individualism" refers instead to self-reliance, and to a value system that places the achievements of lone persons above those of committees. It seems to me that the great "Eurekas!" in human progress have usually been the result of individuals sitting alone in small places and mulling over the problems at length and in depth.

The other case in which I part company from Ms Bunting is her criticism of weblogs, which she says contribute to the incivility in today's world, but again that could be a matter of definition.

To my eye a weblog consists of two parts: the posts written by the weblog's proprietor, and the comments added thereto by the readers. And the main point of weblogs is the freedom that they offer to allow people to express their points of view in any state of dudgeon that they choose and that is true to who they are. So I'm thinking the article's author should have distinguished between those two parts, and the criticism should've been directed mainly to the tailend comment sections. They can and often do get out of hand when it comes to common courtesy, a situation that is aided and abetted by the complete confusion and even chaos that results when there are a lot of comments, and they sail off in all sorts of directions.

But maybe she isn't referring to all weblogs. Maybe she just has in mind the big leaguers, the ones that have gotten so popular and the comments come in so thick and fast that they take over and become the weblog itself, with the proprietor's posts growing increasingly brief and becoming reduced to the same function as a short diving board at a very big pool.

Unsurprisingly I am not familiar with that kind of situation or even how it is reached. That is what another kind of "splendid isolation" does for you.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Ms Clinton, No Contest

It's amazing, the conceit that people have, that this years-long campaigning is important in choosing the person most qualified to be the U.S. President. In reality all the speeches, strategies, polling, primaries, and what not in large part are highly wasteful of all sorts of things, and they rarely count for much in the last analysis, which is performance in office, once that person is elected.

For instance, in the campaign eight years ago, did GW Bush say, “If elected, I will invade Iraq, and a rational reason be damned?” No, he absolutely did not, to my recollection. Instead he said all sorts of other things, all of which are now long forgotten, while that greatest of war crimes committed by any person wielding the powers of the Presidency is the one big mark and legacy of his time in office.

Actually, as far as the eventual results are concerned, making the Presidential choice is very simple, and little different from thinking over the neighbors on your road ...or being a personnel director.

When a person applies for a job, the first and often the last question employers ask is what kind of experience does the applicant have in that field.

On that basis alone, Hillary Clinton is the winner by a long shot. Unlike the other aspirants in either party, she even has the rare great advantage of having so much experience in operating out of the White House that it is almost unfair. She is more experienced in that respect than any Presidential wife in recent history, due to the eight years of constant acid-throwing that she and her husband had to weather from the unrelentingly hostile Republicans on the most flimsy of pretenses. And weather it that duo did, and what's more, in fine style, so that only the most obdurate of her conservative opponents can argue that at the end of Bill Clinton's two terms, the country wasn't in immeasurably better shape then than it is today or will be 11 months from now when a new President is sworn in. Just two counts alone show that – the Govermental red ink wasn't nearly as deep, and the country wasn't mired down in multiple military quicksands on the other side of the world, in countries that were invaded by U.S. officials for the most specious of reasons.

Employers also look for signs of character. I would argue that again Hillary Clinton has been tested and given a passing grade more than any of the other candidates. I would never deny McCain's years in a prison camp, but, in spite of the shock and unending derision that I know such a statement would draw, I would claim that the rigors he endured there were in many ways not as painful or as much of a test of his mettle as were the more numerous psychological stabs and hits that Hillary Clinton has had to endure from McCain's playmates in the mudpile, and for a much longer time. And anyway I have questions about the five years of torture that McCain is said to have endured. If he was tortured that much, how could he possibly be still alive, and not only that but also still in possession of his sanity and all his faculties? Torture is an extremely heavyweight business, and after that much of it, there shouldn't be much if anything of a person left, no matter what he's made of. I am still looking for a good answer to that question.

Employers also look for intelligence. If an intelligence test applicable to the knowledge that a person should have to be President was available, I would defy any of Hillary Clinton's opponents to beat her out – or to be quicker than she in coming up with the right answers. In fact it is precisely the superiority of her intelligence to that of all but a very tiny number of American males that has always worked against her.

Therefore when you think about it, there's no contest. Hillary Clinton should be hired for the job as U.S. President by her prospective employers, the American electorate. If she's not chosen, it will mean that they are the ones who will have been out to lunch, not her.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Winter's White Light

The winter here in the Piedmont of Virginia, just east of and in sight of the Blue Ridge Mountains, has been more severe than others that I can remember in recent years -- temperature-wise that is. It's the kind of weather toward which skeptics of global warming are surely pointing, and never mind how much all the fresh water from the melting Antarctic ice shelf might be already disrupting the all-important ocean current called the "conveyor belt," which is responsible for keeping eastern North America and western Europe temperate.

We've only gotten one snowfall, it's true, and that was nearly three weeks ago, and it amounted to little more than two inches. Yet here in what I call our "frost pocket" of a little creek valley, small patches of that snow still can be seen, especially in my lower garden, which borders the creek. We're lucky that right after that snowfall, we had enough days in the 40's to melt most of it, or else we'd be in trouble, because it's been so cold ever since, with morning temps of 15 and 7 degrees F becoming routine.

At around 7:30 this A.M., in daylight though long before the sun started showing over the ridgetop trees to the south across the creek, the landscape suddenly took a peculiar tint, and for a few minutes everything was bathed in an extremely pale light, as if Nature had mixed more white than usual with its other colors.

I was tempted but I knew I had to avoid saying instead that Nature had stirred in too much white. That's because Nature keeps everything in such unerring balance, including what it chooses to put on its brush, it never applies to the canvas of the planet mixtures of colors that are out of key with each other.

--In the highly unlikely event that a bonfide religionist should ever read the above passage, I can easily imagine he or she sneering and saying, "Why must this infidel always turn aside from the Truth that has been Revealed for so long and that requires that he should always say 'God' instead of 'Nature?'

That kind of thing is among the many reasons that I chose to leave the fold and to spend my days instead wandering through the wilderness of the non-religious. One finds among the "faithful" far too many of the ungenerous in spirit.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Walls and Their Futility

One of Robert Frost's most outstanding poems, "Mending Wall," begins:

Something there is that doesn't love a

If you had, like me, an imperfect recollection of this poem and could only recite that line and the equally memorable last line:

Good fences make good neighbors

you would think that the poet had learned the error of his thought. But actually the poem is about how the poet joins his neighbor in the spring to repair the rock wall between their properties that has undergone its annual damage in the preceding fall and winter, and in the process they gently pit against each other their opposite philosophies about the merits of walls (Frost says that his apples are not likely to cross over and eat his neighbor's pine cones), with of course neither changing the mind of the other.

Notwithstanding the need to keep cows in their fields, and the fact that in only two countries in the world, the U.S. and Israel, do people feel themselves so much under siege that they're busy walling themselves in from their neighbors, the writer of the first line of Frost's poem has the truth of the matter on his side, while the speaker of the last line is operating in an ancient darkness.

The happiest thing that has happened in recent days is that the Palestinians have breached the wall between Gaza and Egypt and have poured through the gap by the tens of thousands to buy badly needed goods, and meanwhile also to enjoy this freedom, if only temporarily, from one of the several prisons in which they have been incarcerated for so many years by Israelis, Americans, and Egyptians.

The Israelis seem to have studied the means used by oppressors to pen in and otherwise mistreat Jews in the past, and they have a habit of employing those same means against the Palestinians -- which suggests, ironically, that those badly mistreated Jews in oldtime Europe are in no way connected with modern Israelis, no matter how much the opposite may seem to be true.

I'm thinking of how walls were erected around an abandoned foundry in Venice to coop up the Jews at night, back in the middle ages, and how that led to the erection of similar walled-in ghettoes in other European countries. Then, more recently, in the Second World War, you had the Nazis walling in the Jews in Warsaw, before the Jewish fighters started fighting their way out, hoping for help from the approaching Soviet Army, which, however, took a break from their labors of war and thereby gave the Nazis time to finish brutally rendering the breakout null and void.

In that same ancient Europe, and on other continents, too, cities routinely were surrounded by high, King-Kong-like walls, similar to the ones that the Israelis are nowadays building and using to ghettoize themselves against the Palestinians in the West Bank. But it should be remembered that after improved munitions finally finished the job of showing the unacceptability of walls, people in those cities found ways to make themselves good neighbors after all, without those time-, effort-, and material-wasting barriers.

Therefore the Israelis, in the interest of their long-term well-being, should welcome the Hamas breaching of the Egyptian wall. In the ensuing relief, no one should object if they meanwhile made it appear as if the break was all their idea after all.

But in the hamster wheel in which both the Israelis and the Palestinians are locked, such a release from the Furies and the Fates can never happen, can it?

Friday, January 25, 2008

Toward the Revolution

If the private state of my mind had any influence on things, it could be said that actually the assessors severely understated the value of my property, because in my mind its value goes far beyond any measurement in terms of dollars and cents. In fact, hardly a day goes by that I don't look at my house and land and marvel at how fortunate I am to have them. Sometimes I even think that it's a wonder that somebody, seeing this marvel, hasn't come along and tried to take it away from me by force.

I know that if I were suddenly one day to dig up diamonds in my creek, word of it wouldn't even have to get out. Instead the find would be instantly sensed by the nostrils of the greedy, which are more sensitive than those of a dog, and suddenly my days in this life would fall into seriously short supply. So maybe, I think in those unhinged moments, in the case of my property I am only protected by the fact that anyone passing by on the road above my house would get a perception not of a shockingly rare and priceless piece of property but instead only of a group of trees no more remarkable than any others that can be seen by the thousands and millions all over this county and over much of the Eastern Seaboard, while they would see, nestled among those trees and nearly the same color, only a shed-like structure that could be a house, with a brown tin roof and with its back to the road.

Because of all this regard I have often wondered – not to my mental benefit – what catastrophe could separate me from this property. Among the ones that easily come to mind, I have most often feared losing it through something going wrong with paying the taxes. And one of those “somethings” has to do with the taxes becoming too high to be paid by someone like me with limited means, and that is a threat to many others as well, in this county.

So we who came in on this road early with not many dollars and having accumulated not that many more in the years since, tend to get uneasy whenever we get new neighbors of two kinds: those who build bigger and more imposing houses than anything we have, and those who build nothing and are rarely seen because they choose to stay in the cities and have just bought the land as an investment or as the site just maybe of a home for when they retire or when they otherwise see fit to remove themselves to the country. In both these cases big money is paid for the houses that are built and for the land, prices far beyond anything we paid years ago, and that accounts for how high our adjoining land has come to be appraised.

A short distance down the road, our creek goes over a picturesque waterfall about 12 feet high. There, at the same time that I started building, a guy built himself a little cabin and did a very poor job of it. Years later another man bought his shack and replaced it with a veritable little palace, complete with a fancy overlook for the waterfall, though I had never thought it was a good site for building anything, because it is in a gorge where the sun doesn't hit at all in the winter. Yet he was able to sell that in his turn, for over 400 K. But, after putting out all that money, the new owners themselves have left their chateau standing empty, and meanwhile the price they paid is reflected in the value our land is supposed to have and consequently in the taxes that we must pay.

I've been wondering if this is the main way that land is redistributed in this country, from the less well off into the hands of the more well-off, who, unconsciously or not, can take the attitude that if you can't afford to live somewhere, then you shouldn't be there, and never mind that you were there first and have been there for a long time. I have the impression that you can see this kind of thing happening all over the country, and maybe it has taken place throughout history, an insidious kind of rapine that is only reversed by events as messy as revolutions.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Our Land Reassessments

One day two weeks ago, all the property owners in this tiny rural Virginia county of about 13,000 simultaneously opened a piece of mail that immediately drew their full attention, and in most cases this interest was accompanied by genuine shock. It was a notice from the county government showing the results of the latest land assessment, which is done every five years.

My notice was probably typical. Already in the last reassessment, done in 2003, the 20 acres on which my wife and I live had been judged to be worth three times what we had paid for it in 1976, 27 years earlier. Now, in 2008, what the county is calling the “fair market value” of our land has jumped up to being four times what it was only five years ago, or 12 times what we paid for it only a generation back!

To me, and I think to most others of my neighbors throughout the county, this news is on the crazy side, and I wish there was some way I could simply ignore it, but I can't, because of one cold, hard fact. This means that, through no fault of our own, our property taxes are going to go up again, and maybe pretty sharply this time, unless the four county supervisors do something about the tax rates that will make things bearable.

I've been asking around to some of my nearest friends and neighbors, and they've had the same reactions, and I think most people are waiting for the hearings on the rates to begin, though provisions also exist for them to question the assessments. Almost all have had an increase of about four times in the land value, while on our houses the jump averages a little less than twice as much as the value set in 2003, leading to a total jump of about two and a half times. Still, I am struck by the fact that they're saying that my little wooden house that I built myself – I mean really really built myself and not with the use of contractors, as many people, using the language sloppily as usual, have done when they claim to have built their houses “themselves” -- this 1,400 square foot “green oak” house with one bathroom and two bedrooms, that I built myself for only the $15,000 cost of the materials and the septic tank, is now officially worth eight times that.

Though it is typical of these uncomfortable times, this is a troubling development. At least it is in my case and in those of two of my neighbors on this road, who also bought some acres here and built their houses with their own hands at exactly the same time as I, and likewise still heat their modest abodes with wood.

Some would say that instead we should jump up and down with joy, at seeing how the presumed market value of our property has risen so sharply.

The kicker, however, is that when we bought our land, its monetary appreciation was among the least of our considerations, and even now we have no intentions of ever selling it. Instead we saw our land as a great place on which we and our families could build a house and live for the rest of our lives, peacefully and humbly, with enough surrounding woods to look at, to explore, to insulate ourselves from more than just the wind, and to furnish fuel to keep warm in frigid winters like the current one, and in the meantime we could provide a good stewardship over that land, doing our bit to keep it in nearly the same wondrous state as nature had maintained it through the eons. We thought we and the land were safe from certain unpleasant forces that we had already seen rolling over the cities and the suburbs. We thought we were protected, deep in the howling wilderness, for at least the next hundred years. And for 32 years we enjoyed exactly that kind of assurance.

But notice that I didn't say “insurance.”

Now the real howling wilderness, of “investment,” with all its accompanying threats, has stepped up its pace and is coming after us, with a vengeance.

Meanwhile it's interesting that one of the meanings of “invest” is “to surround with troops or ships (as in a siege), so as to prevent escape or entry.” .

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Stipulative Taxes

Taxes are necessary to maintain civilizations, but in the current American system, when unsavory characters are pushing the buttons of power, as at the present time, this gathering of revenue changes and instead becomes simply a form of extortion, indistinguishable from mob figures barging into a New Jersey candy store and threatening to break the show windows, the proprietor's legs, his children's heads, or any other highly valued objects in the establishment, unless protection money is paid.

It's tragic that the general inertia of this huge nation is so great that trying out other systems of taxation on the national level is unthinkable.

The alternative method I have in mind for today is what I call Stipulative Taxation.

I make no claim to having invented this idea. Taxes have been a closed book to me from the First Day. But there have always been enough other wackoes around with unmoored brains that would have led them to reach the same conclusions.

By Stipulative Taxes I mean allowing the taxpayer to choose the exact areas of governance in which he wants his contributions to be used. So, if he felt that the nation is already sufficiently protected, and he doesn't want his money to go toward any more bombers, tanks, or all the atom bombs in the world, and if instead he wanted his seashores and his forests and his mountains and his deserts and his lakes to be preserved, with all the flora and fauna in them, then his money would go toward the efforts of the as yet nonexistent but absolutely necessary Department of the Environment, and with only a penny or two to the War Department, as the “defense” establishment used to be called in a more honest age..

It would be my hope that instead of for bullets and guns, the largest share of the monies collected would go to the education system, with no football teams to be humored. The most important thing a government can do is to make sure that the people it serves are well educated. With a highly educated populace, the solutions to all the other problems become apparent, or the problems are avoided in the first place.

This idea makes a lot of sense of me. Therefore it has to be completely unworkable.

For one thing it would never be approved by the U.S. Congress, because they would defnitely receive the shortest end of the stipulative stick.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Taxes, in California

"As California goes, so goes the nation."

That is a venerable statement that you hear sometimes, made in politics. But has California always been the state mentioned? I can't remember. I do recollect that the reference almost always has to do with elections. But nowadays it seems to be true in many other areas, among which is one of the major fronts in the currently raging New American Civil War -- taxes.

Because the California government no longer has enough money coming in to allow it to cover its commitments for the common good, and because there are no longer enough dodges left to cover the shortfall, namely massive loans, some of them taken out by the governor himself, recently the Conan the Barbarian guy proposed massive cuts in spending all across the board.

--What a chore it was to type the last nine words of that previous paragraph, in my attempt to use some authentic economic jargon, which always looks so distasteful, sounds ugly, and often is so disheartening and toxic in its meanings. But don't mind me. I am very much a child of the Great Depression, having been born at the precise moment when things really started getting serious, and that is as good a thing as any to blame for my lifelong avoidance of the subject of economics, in all its manifestations.

Nevertheless, to my impaired eye the obvious solution to the California government's woes is to ask the citizens to increase their contributions to the common good, that is, to cough up more in taxes. But vital reproductive organs of Mr. A. Schwartzenegger and by extension the state itself are caught in the wringer of ideology, and for Mr. A. S. that's not an option. This is because, aside from the concealed agenda of preventing any further Civil Rights advances while whenever possible rolling back the ones that have already been made, the other chief tine in the blood-dripping Republican pitchfork has for a long time been cutting taxes. It is always the first and the last words that you hear rolling from their mouths when they are soliciting votes. And that pitch usually works, to the point where I wonder how there can be any taxes left to cut, it's been done so often lately, especially since the GW Bush takeover.

I also wonder what the wealthier people do with all the taxes that they avoid paying. They don't otherwise finance any of the myriad beneficial activities that they depend on governments to do. That has to mean that they just salt it away, to line their coffins on those terminal days that, try as they might, even their vast stashes of cash can't help them to avoid. Or they buy real necessities, like new faces and bodies, swimming pools, boats, giant TV's, and flights to distant, supposedly exotic places, from which they return, unfortunately, and with not one iota of enlightment newly installed in their heads.

Taxes are supposed to make a civilization possible, but there are legions that have never heard that, or, if they have, they don't buy it, or if they do believe, they still cast that idea aside, so prevailing is the urge to hold tight to every penny in sight, and let civilization be fed to dogs -- as if none of these "good" citizens live in that same civilized world.

So, instead of asking for an increase in taxes, even a modest one, A. Schwartzenegger proposes to make cuts in a plethora of areas that will make his state less civilized.

One feature of his proposal was a real shocker, considering the nature of his political running buddies, since their agenda invariably includes stuffing as many citizens into prisons as possible. Jailing people is a steady growth industry, with the raw materials always at hand. Yet the Cal guvnor wants to discharge 22,000 nonviolent, non-sex offenders, i.e, drug victims (of the legal system), from the jails, so that he can also disconnect a large number of prison guards from their jobs.

We can safely predict that should his plan be implemented, that part will have been quietly dropped from it.

Monday, January 21, 2008

An Emperor Goes to the Doctor

Today I went to see my physician Hermogenes, who has just returned to the Villa from a rather long journey in Asia. No food could be taken before the examination, so we had made our appointment for the early morning hours. I took off my cloak and tunic and lay down on a couch. I spare you details which would be as disagreeable to you as to me, the description of the body of a man who is growing old, and is about to die of a dropsical heart. Let us say only that I coughed, inhaled, and held my breath according to Hermogenes’ directions. He was alarmed, in spite of himself, by the rapid progress of the disease. …It is difficult to remain an emperor in the presence of a physician, and difficult even to keep one’s essential quality as man. The professional eye saw in me only a mass of humors, a sorry mixture of blood and lymph.. This morning it occurred to me for the first time that my body, my faithful companion and friend, truer and better known to me than my own soul, may be after all only a sly beast who will end by devouring his master. But enough. …I like my body, it has served me well, and in every way, and I do not begrudge it the care it now needs. It will fall to my lot, as a sick man, to have the best of care. But no one can go beyond prescribed limits; my swollen limbs no longer sustain me through the long Roman ceremonies; I fight for breath, and I am now sixty.

In such elegant language, so began a book-length epistle meant for his heir and -- farther down the line by nearly two thousand years -- for us, by one of the masters of the ancient world, a "good" Roman emperor, as imagined by Marguerite Yourcenar in her wondrous 1957 "meditation on history," Hadrian's Memoirs.

It is interesting and enlightening to see how, over such long stretches of time, things change greatly in their outline but hardly at all in their basic substance. Contrary to what is commonly thought, this is why it is not in any way a waste of time to minor, in college, in Classics.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

The San Francisco Tiger

I am a little surprised at how long the coverage is lasting of a tiger attack at the San Francisco zoo, when one escaped and went after some customers. One guy is dead, and the tiger is also dead, though you have to wonder as to whether it would have been possible to shoot her with a tranquilizer dart instead, plus adding the required four feet more to her restraining wall. Also you have to think once again of the felicity of zoos.

I think of all the happy hours in my childhood and also in my early adulthood that I spent at the zoo in D.C., where my greatest interest was not in the tigers and lions and such but instead was always in the snakes, the poisonous ones. One of the first photos of me, taken by my father, shows me standing somewhere at the zoo, at age 4 or so, smiling and holding what looks to be an apple.

But all the while that I was at the zoo, I always felt sorry for the animals cooped up in there, and I could never reconcile myself to it. On the one hand I and everyone else could never have otherwise seen such exotic beings, and also zoos perform a great service in preserving endangered species, such as panda bears, tigers, and many others. But on the other hand zoos are those most dreadful of structures, prisons.

I guess the preservation thing tips the balance, as does letting people see the animals, because that has to lead to greater support for preserving them and their distant habitats wherever possible. And meanwhile efforts are always being made to keep the animals in zoo habitats that allow them as much freedom as possible. So, the last several times that I was at the Washington Zoo, I enjoyed entering a huge enclosed area in which a visitor could walk under (at some small risk) and through all these different species of colorful small birds that were singing and swooping about and perching in trees and such, while only thin strips of plastic hung vertically over the entrances kept them from escaping. And I wondered whether the snakes really cared, as long as they were given enough to eat. They never seemed much interested in moving about anyway.

Tigers were a different story. Quite often they paced about, looking for a way out, their eyes seeming to be filled with wonder as to what had happened to all the miles that their ancestors traveled, searching for the thrill of the kill. Their restlessness was the same as that of a hungry house cat.

I think of the physical equipment of a domestic cat as being such that it is able to go anywhere it chooses, and it only chooses not to because it is so lazy, contrary, practical, and mysterious, in that order. I wonder if a tiger, looking as it does only like a very large tabby, is similarly able -- or would be if it wasn't prevented from making proportional leaps and bounds and strolling along on the thinnest of edges only by its size and weight.

The continued news coverage, which is now focusing on the chance that the tiger was taunted, gives me the definite impression that the two guys who were mauled and even their friend who died are not getting much sympathy. Instead their experience is only putting an exciting edge on the always interesting experience of visiting a zoo, plus showing the folly of not recognizing that a tiger is a cat with attitude and the equipment to back it up, decisively, plus zoos are places for admiration and prayer and not for teasing.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Robert J. Fischer, aka Bobby, of Chess

Today we hear that the highly dynamic spark that was the essence of Bobby Fischer has parted company for good from his corporeal being. It happened in Iceland, a sputtering little island in the North Atlantic that was first discovered in 1972, when Fischer and a Soviet grandmaster, Boris Spassky, played a match there to determine the world champion of chess. Fischer won handily in 21 games, 12-1/2 to 8-1/2.

For this his name if nothing else came to the attention of his countrymen and he was nationally hailed as being the victorious "Cold War Warrior." But I would bet that Fischer and Spassky, like many grandmasters before them and those that were to come, took all that with as large a grain of salt as they could possibly manage.

The chess world sees its game as being absolutely unconnected with all surrounding political and social considerations, and believes that it would be a magnificent idea if world leaders could work out their differences on a chessboard, instead of playing their game with real people and whole populations, resulting in misery and death to millions.

One of Fischer's most interesting competitors, the also late Paul Keres, was one of the best examples of this. An Estonian, he got caught in territory that the Germans occupied during WW 2, and as a result he, like another chess immortal, Alexander Alekhine, played in several tournaments that were sponsored by the Nazis. After the war some castigated them for that, yet, though no country had suffered from the Germans nearly as much as had the Soviets, they, having grabbed tiny Estonia for themselves, were quick to embrace Keres in their bear hug, after first giving him, I suppose, a good talking to. Yet through all that, he just calmly kept on playing his usual very high level of chess, as if nothing much had really happened.

The one glaring exception to this is one of Fischer's "descendants," former world champion Gary Kasparov, who recently has been getting himself arrested for protesting Putin's policies. But we can be certain that in this he is establishing no sort of a new trend.

Though Fischer was born and raised in Brooklyn and so presumably was a citizen first of the U.S. and later of Iceland, in reality Fischer was always mainly a citizen of Caissa, the chess world.

I missed out on a rare, great chance to play in a tournament that Fischer also attended. It was sometime in the early 1950's, in D.C. I think it was the Eastern Open, and I surely would've entered that, if I hadn't been somewhere hundreds of miles away, in the service of the U.S. Air Force. This was probably just before Fischer became the U.S. champion, at age 14.

I will always think that if I had been there, not only would I have been able to watch him playing, up close and in person, but also maybe, just maybe, I might have been lucky enough to play him, in one of the early rounds, because it was an open tournament. And maybe, just maybe, taking advantage of what would have been his certain underestimation of me, I might even have come away with a hardfought draw, as I managed to do with several of those other arrogant New York city types, though they were considerably lesser lights. But that of course, is only a far-fetched notion and nothing more.

Fischer's greatest heydays came after my most active years in chess, but I remember, after returning to chess following one of my long "sabbaticals," I noticed how the general style of playing chess had changed, and it had become much sharper and more tactical than I remembered. And it all seemed to be because of the example set by Bobby Fischer.

In a comment that I left on NTodd's Dohiyi Mir, I spoke of how Fischer was a lone David who had to face a whole phalanx of Goliaths, mainly Soviets who, unlike him, had their whole chess-crazy country behind them, yet he largely bested them, and despite that they had only the greatest respect for him ...and fear.

I was partly thinking there of a tournament book in German that I have. It was the 1959 Candidates tourney, played in Yugoslavia. The book has a picture showing Fischer standing with the other players, a group of the then very top players of the world, including Keres, Tahl, Smyslov, Reshevsky, and Petrosian. Fischer was 16. All those other guys were much older, and they were all longtime legends in themselves. They were shown all wearing business suits. Fischer, however, as if he wasn't already set apart from them, wore a thick sweater.

I could really relate to that. In D.C. and in NYC I showed up for several job interviews in similarly "inappropriate" garb. And, as with Fischer, it never seemed to make much difference.

Now Fischer has added to the tradition of native-born American chess marvels who show up, go over to Europe, pound the best minds there into the ground, and then a short while later vanish from the scene. I'm thinking of Paul Morphy, the New Orleans whiz of the 1850's, and of Harry Nelson Pillsbury and his victories in the 1890's, especially in the great Hastings tournament of 1895. Though physically Fischer lasted longer than those two, till age 64, he spent the last half of those years locked away inside his own head, much like a man of far greater wealth and notoriety but of lesser real achievement, Howard Hughes.

But, like Morphy and Pillsbury, Fischer hasn't actually gone anywhere. For those most fortunate of folks, the serious chessplayers, there will still always be the great games that all three, especially Fischer, have left behind in abundance.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Weather, the Gifts from the Skies

I am a big enthusiast of weather, especially in its extreme forms.

This doesn't mean that I look at the Weather Channel every day, though I do check the forecasts on the Internet whenever I turn on my computer, and sometimes several times a day. And when news of something serious is predicted to come this way, I feel exactly the same anticipatory excitement that I would, say, at buying a new car. With exceptions such as the two "Open Water" films, a good movie on the dish doesn't hold as much drama as a screen on the Weather Channel showing four or five hurricanes lined up in a row and marching inexorably one after the other across the ocean from right to left, from Africa to the Caribbean.

I'm also still well aware that many people immediately south of here and extending into South America are instead filled with dread -- though possibly also with a related kind of excitement -- not knowing whether the luck of the wind shear or whatever will turn their usually idyllic vacation spots into scenes of whirling water, debris, and widespread destruction and even deaths.

So wouldn't you know it.

In all this time I've never been in the "right" spots at the right times to experience such events. Like the many who can say the same thing, I can wonder. Is it just me? Have I been blessed or what?

Of course, by having never lived farther from the Atlantic than about 250 miles, I've been brushed by numerous hurricanes, but none enough to bring me any physical or material damage, or even inconvenience. A couple of days of heavy rain and that's always been about it. No floods or anything on my street or road.

--Except that once when the Air Force stationed me on Okinawa, being new to things I underestimated one typhoon's force and didn't sufficiently seal up the edges of the heavy steel shutter that covered my barracks window, and the water driven in horizontally by the terrific winds completely soaked my cot. But having to sleep on a soaked bed didn't bother me much, as I was at that age, in my early 20's, when young men easily endure such indignities and worse, up to and including submitting to having their lives thrown away to absolutely no purpose, in those mass displays of human idiocy, cruelty, and indifference called wars.

I've been moaning the lack of recognizable snows that have come this way in recent years, and until this morning this winter had been no exception. But three hours ago one started falling, and now there are more than two inches accumulated, with a little more snow and then sleet and freezing rain predicted, into the night.

That should do good things for the ground and for the trees and the shrubs and all the other entities around here that depend on the atmosphere bestowing enough water, including my well. The skies have been a little light on that kind of thing lately. So I'm glad and thankful.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Guiliani's "Spec"

As a consistent Democrat voter (read "partisan" and proud of it), I was paying no attention to Rudolph Guiliani till Andante in her weblog The Collective Sigh posted a very incisive piece in which she likened him to another man who had once played a major role in her life and whom therefore she knew very well. Thus alerted I saw a second article that pointed out the highly interesting gamble that Rudolph Guiliani is taking in the current election cycle, in which he is foregoing serious efforts in the several "first" states, in favor of saving himself for Florida and then for the thousand pound gorilla, the Super Primaries on 5 February, not even a month from now.

So, also as a voter who has taken little interest in which one of the current frontrunners wins the Democratic nod, because I regard all of them as equally deserving of taking it all, I am paying more attention to Rudolph Guiliani and his strategy than to anything else.

Here then is a hilarious excerpt bearing directly on this, from "Joel's Florida Diary," in "The Trail, A Daily Diary of 2008," that appeared on the Washington Post site today.

... Giuliani's strategy, though unorthodox, is not entirely crazy. He may yet prove to be a genius. He's challenging the Central Dogma of modern presidential politics. That's the one that says you have to spend months campaigning in Iowa amid the corn and soybeans, talking to citizens in towns with names like Stover, Chaffville and Swineburg.

You must drive tractors and cite the virtues of the latest genetically modified seed corn that is capable of growing in outer space. Then, when you Exceed Expectations, you ride your new momentum into New Hampshire, bonding with flinty characters in towns named Squilchem, Flemborough and Scratchy Notch. Your New Hampshire victory will then propel you, with Newtonian certainty, to the nomination.

That's the "retail politics" system, and it has generally worked for many years, bolstered in large part by political reporters who love the candidate-on-the-hay-bale paradigm.

So what else can we say? Nothing except that my gut feeling is that the Republican choice will be either John McCain or Rudolph. None of the others have recognizable faces, except F. Thompson, and he seems to be in the contest only because it was expected of him, and, as a sometimes serious actor in movies, he probably has just enough integrity left to know that that's all horse flops.

In that diary Joel cited an analogy made by somebody, who said that Guiliani's strategy is like a pro football team passing up the entire regular season plus the playoff games, and taking to the field only for the Super Bowl.

I don't think that analogy works. It is too extreme, and instead I offer one from chess. There you have what is called a "speculative sacrifice," in which a piece of value is given up for what at first sight appears to be no obvious advantage and instead could even be a bad mistake, and not until five or six moves later, or sometimes much later, does the point become clear. Of course this doesn't always work, but it is always a stirring thing to see, even when it occasionally happens that the sacrifice works, yet that wasn't the player's intention at all, and instead he had merely been struggling to redeem what he had thought was a blunder.

In any case, in New York City they play a lot of chess.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Fire -- a PIP (Post in Progress)

I wonder how many of the more thoughtful members of prehistoric tribes, when they were looking around for things to worship other than themselves, thought of fire?

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Horsing Around in the Hormuz

Once, one night in a parking lot in Delaware when I was young, I was an unwilling witness to an incident that started when a carload of teenagers, girls and boys, pulled up alongside another carload of slightly older but still young people and called them "blackheads."

One of the persons in the car thus addressed had already become something of a collector of racial epithets of the sort that he might experience, though so far he had only had a couple directed at him. So he could only smile, because just a glance was enough to tell him that the teenagers were only the kind of scatter-brained twits that he had seen many times before, in Maryland, when he had been a teenager himself, and they could have been no danger to anyone.

But the others in the car, five in all, were -- or pretended to be -- highly incensed, and they piled out of the car and advanced toward the teenagers in a threatening manner, whereupon the teenagers promply sped away.

The offended car took off after them, and after two or three blocks pulled up beside the teenagers at a red light.

The teenagers' response was completely unexpected. They challenged the offended car to a drag race.

Those in the offended car were so taken aback by that move that they could only stare, and the teenagers took advantage of that lull to zoom away again, and that was the end of it.

Long afterward -- and more than once -- the man who had been amused by the "blackheads" shot, which he had never heard before, was bitterly attacked by one of the others, the lone female, in the offended group, for having done no more at the parking lot than opening the car door and putting a foot out, while wondering what anyone in their right mind could possibly expect him to do in what he had had no trouble seeing as being nothing more than a piece of some nitwit theater.

The way that a "confrontation" in the Hormuz Strait a few days ago mirrored this most minor of incidents in the Wilmington of the zipgun era is an accurate indication of the importance of the former event, no matter how many parties hoped it could be whipped up into a first class international crisis.

The teenagers paralleled the Iranians darting about in their little motorboats, while the offended parties corresponded to the two U.S. destroyers that appeared to have been mocked and challenged, even if, with barely a twitch of their high-powered equipment, in seconds they could easily have reduced the several motorboats to a few scattered smoking fragments floating on the water. To their credit, however, the officers and crews of the U. S. warships turned out to have been more like the bemused non-participant in the Delaware "hostilities," while the U.S. news media and high Administration officials matched the woman who had hurled so much invective and egging on of the troops at the top of her voice, yet had never herself gotten out of the car.

You almost -- but not quite -- have to feel sorry for those American and Israeli hawks who have been yearning for years to get an excuse to deprive Iran of the nuclear capability that it might or might not already have, while the nations of which these raptors are such toxic citizens have long been bristling with so many nuclear weapons of their own that they are in the inevitable process of badly poisoning themselves with the costs of having and maintaining the things. And it can never be forgotten that these war-wishers also have the even more important though seldom admitted goal of depriving the Iranians of control over their oil.

Now, with less than a year left of their days at the buttons, the time is fast running out for the Bush Admin to do anything. Their only window for making the attack may be their last two months in office, if a Democratic President is elected, so that the whole ensuring mess could be thrown into his or her hands. I don't see how that could possibly play well anywhere, even in Israel, which has, I think I've read, a populace that is largely and wisely not quite in tune with its more bellicose leaders and theorists.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Rebecca De Mornay and Hillary

I can't make up my mind as to whether I first came to like Hillary Clinton because I thought she resembled Rebecca De Mornay, or I became interested in Rebecca De Mornay because something about her reminded me of Hillary Clinton.

Those multitudes with taste inferior to mine will be amazed and disdainful to hear of such a match-up.

This linkage is partly explained when you hear that I first became aware of Rebecca De Mornay when I saw a film in which she played the most alluring trial attorney that I have ever seen, in a movie, and certainly that would also go for the millions of real trials that it has been my overwhelmingly great good fortune never to have seen. Part of that effect was achieved by the simple, sheer dress that her character wore, in place of the usual business suit or some such -- a garb belted at her waist in such a way as to memorably suggest the virtues of her anatomy, which, at De Mornay's current age of 45, seem to be present in almost exactly the same quietly harmonious proportions.

I don't remember the name of that film or anything else about it. It could have been "Guilty as Sin," made in 1993, with Don Johnson.

I was also struck by her presence in "By Dawn's Early Light" (1990), in which she collaborated with Powers Boothe in piloting an Air Force B-52 and narrowly avoiding a nuclear apocalypse.

I might add that I also think Rebecca De Mornay has the most beguiling name in all of filmdom, approached only by that of Lolita Davidovitch, who just happens to rival her closely in many other key respects as well.

But in recent years I haven't seen Rebecca De Mornay in much, and I hope that she isn't having to struggle to free herself from that terrible La Brea-type acting tarpit that has engulfed so many so-called "older actresses" just when they are, in fact, entering their prime of everything. I last saw her in the highly bizarre HBO series of last year, "John from Cincinnati," and that was troubling. In it she played an endlessly irascible grandmother, if you can believe it. I didn't, and I was deeply disturbed by the fact that her character, Cissy, was scarcely allowed to be on the screen even for one second without being totally pissed off about something. It was intensely jarring and discordant also because De Mornay still endlessly looked great.

Recently Rebecca De Mornay was arraigned on a charge of drunk driving.

The L.A. cops seem to be having a field day lately, grabbing showbiz figures for drunk driving. That is no surprise. Drunk driving is such an easy and tempting crime to commit, and if what I've read is true and that at any given time, one in every 25 drivers on the road has had one too many, then there must be many more Hollywood figures tooling dangerously around on the freeways who haven't been similarly nabbed.

I have to admit that if I was an L.A. cop in a cruiser car and I saw Rebecca De Mornay weaving about in a machine, I'd stop her, too, partly for her own protection, but mainly just to see what she would have to say for herself. Surely she was only charged because when the cop flagged her down, she flipped out and, having still not recovered enough from having immersed herself so thoroughly in the role, she was powerless to stop from going back into character for "John from Cincinnati."

I hope that soon a movie will be made about Hillary Clinton (with Big Dog tagging along). There shouldn't be any doubt whatsoever about the best person to play her.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

The Anti Hillary Clinton Venom

I continue to be struck, baffled, and somewhat sickened by the breadth and depth of the hatred for Hillary Clinton, among those people of her own tint..

My awareness of this dates as far back as 1991, during the turmoil that surrounded the nomination of Clarence Thomas for the Supreme Court, following which Thomas' now lengthy service on that bench has been every bit as mediocre and humiliating as his detractors expected..

I observed that, just as a lot of men of the same color as Anita Hill, Thomas' chief accuser, hated her because they disliked her attempt to out the so-called "brother," a large number of Euro men, even those who ordinarily seemed to be people of good sense, similarly had only evil to say about Hillary Clinton, I am sure mainly because she didn't stay "in her place" as the typically retiring, deferring Presidential wife. Instead she got right out in front there on several issues, especially "her" health bill, and that was most likely why it failed rather than because of its own merits or lacks.

Even worse, though they would never have admitted it, these bozos also couldn't help noticing that she was far more intelligent and capable than 99.9 percent of them. And meanwhile those Euro women who couldn't stand her either did so as much as anything because she was married to Bill Clinton, and because she didn't summarily dump him during the impeachment fiasco, as any red-blooded out-of-her mind, enraged American wife would've done. Worst of all, consequently she didn't leave him free to make his way into their embraces instead.

I was dumbfounded, because try as I might, I never heard of anything that she had done that could be considered in the least reprehensible, and this was years before GW Bush's bandwagon ravishing of Iraq.

This anti-H. Clinton hatred continues to be so fashionable that there's no need to search for examples of it in the right wing rants. A look at the comments attached to this and other articles in the supposedly progressive Common Dreams will do. So much vitriol is being thrown at her there, expressed in a large variety of wild accusations, that I would think that if anything these views would instead hurt Barack Obama and any of the other candidates with whom she is competing for the Democratic Presidential nomination. Who needs friends like these?

I hope Obama in particular and his workers will approach such apparent support with the greatest caution, and will dispose of it as they would any bags of hyena poop that they find thrown into their campaign car, because it is not support for him at all. The only good thing about him, I am sure these people think, is that he has managed to give H. Clinton a good run for her money, and this gives them a new pretense to splash more acid on her.

I think we can safely bet that if things were to work out that these Repulican foxes in progressive and independent's clothing felt that they had chewed up H. Clinton to the point that somehow she ceased being a Presidential possibility, they would fall upon Obama next with equal violence and voracity. After all, his hue would make him fair game at least as much as her gender and her absolute refusal to sit in the back of the bus has always done Hillary Clinton.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

A Quote That Should be Preserved

A certain acquaintance, an unusally voluble and energetic lady named G., told me that recently she got into a big fight with her boss. When she emerged from the office, the boss's secretary asked her how things had gone.

"Well," G. answered quite cheerfully, "either I'm going to get fired today, or I'm going to get everything I've ever wanted, or something in between."

That about covered it all, I thought.

McCain, on Wings and a Prayer

I have a neighbor down the road who used to be a Navy pilot during the Vietnam War. While I have serious reservations about the missions he went on, I have told lots of people how much I admire what it took for him, in the way of mental and physical proficiency, to be able to steer a very fast and highly complicated jet fighter plane off the deck of an aircraft carrier, guide it somewhere hundreds of miles away, and then find his way back to that same boat in the water and land on its deck, and often at night, too! In my mind that's nearly unbelievable.

I have an inkling of what this involves because during the Korean War I was in the Air Force, working on the "line" outside, maintaining radios on both fighters and bombers.

John McCain did exactly the same thing as my neighbor in the same war, and in fact there's a news reel showing him, among others, dashing furiously about on his carrier's deck trying to get planes out of the way when an accident erupted and one or more caught fire.

My neighbor apparently didn't have McCain's affinity for disaster, because he didn't go through a similar event nor was he ever shot down over enemy territory, as was McCain, who however was lucky that he wasn't gunned dead on the ground then and there and instead spent the next six years of his youth in the highly rewarding atmosphere of a North Vietnamese prison camp, the painful experience that most distinguished McCain from the majority of his earlier colleagues, and was most likely the main thing that propelled him into becoming a U.S. senator from Arizona.

Now he has come from behind in the campaigning to win the New Hampshire primaries, and in a sense that makes him the front runner, though most likely not for long.

Despite his win and despite having done one or two good things during his senatorial time, mainly not going along with the Bush Admininstration in its toleration for torture, I think McCain is actually flying these days by the seat of his pants. For all the considerable mental qualities that he showed for being able to pilot an aircraft carrier plane, all those toxic substances that he must've inhaled fighting fires on carrier decks and warming up and flying planes and unleashing munitions into the air and surviving the vapors of a prison camp must've have damaged his thinking abilities, as evidenced by his becoming a Republican politico. And if the youthful fumes aren't the cause, then his genes must be betraying him, because now he seems to be entering an early dotage, and that is shown by the attitudes that he has revealed lately.

I've already posted on how he blamed Hitler's emergence on the U.S. isolation of those years. This idea is absolutely ridiculous, because of many factors that were at work from the 1920's on up to 1941, especially what Americans were drinking or not drinking in those days, and the U.S. could no more have brought the Nazis up short during their rise than Sisyphus could have kept his rock from rolling back down the hill for the umpteenth time.

Then more recently McCain said he would be content to leave American soldiers in Iraq for another hundred years, or a thousand or a million -- on one proviso, that none of them are hurt or killed. He cited the example of Germany.

That's crazy, too, on lots of grounds, among which are that there's a food problem in Iraq, and a women problem in Iraq, and a geography problem in Iraq, and a religious problem in Iraq, and a tunes problem in Iraq, and a heat problem in Iraq, and the list goes on and on.

And just yesterday, after doing something or other in the same room that he used at a similar point when he likewise won in New Hampsire in 2000, he said that there is no superstition in which he won't indulge.

I would think that superstition would be a highly doubtful contributor to deciding what buttons to push and what controls to operate when piloting a vastly outsized Concorde of a nation like the U.S.of A.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Mind on Autopilot

I have no idea how many others have it, but my mind came equipped with an autopilot feature. When I've had to deal with some task that used up a lot of thinking and figuring, long after the problem has been resolved, or the deadline has passed, or whatever, my mind will keep right on working on the problem, as if nothing at all has been settled, and instead other ways still badly need to be cooked up and considered.

It has been several days since I stumbled at K.'s party, trying to recite a bunch of lines from Whittier's "Snowbound" by heart. Yet, ever since, my mind has been busily filling in the spots where I drew an embarrassed blank, and also it has driven me into memorizing still more of the poem, even parts that I had never packed in before. And, miracle of miracles, it actually seems to be working, and now, instead of 114 lines, I may be up to 150 or more.

Luckily my activities allow me to do that while doing other things, and meanwhile I think there's no better exercise for the mind -- especially an aging one that's consequently getting more and more brittle and curling up at the edges -- than memorizing a long poem that one likes. Why, with any luck, if I can keep this up, I could end up packing in all the 600 and some lines (17 printed pages) of the poem, including the central parts about the Whittier family and their friends that had never before much interested me -- in just the same way that I feel the Book of Job as drama starts going downhill as soon as the Comforters appear.

The fact that "Snowbound" is in a definite meter and a simple rhyme scheme helps, as does my isolation, which allows me to recite as loud and as often as I want, anywhere on the property or in the house. (After a week's return, my wife is again in Florida, seeing to her hopefully recovering mother.) Those things help greatly with the memorization, though I can't make up my mind what to do about Whittier's frequent off-rhymes. In 1865 in Vermont could "on" really have rhymed with "sun" or "miracle" with "fell?" These things barely look okay on paper, and they're on the jarring side when spoken aloud.

My only concern is that as I get deeper into the poem, the parts "behind" will start dropping away again. The only solution seems to be to keep reciting much of the beginning of the poem over and over again, which is not a comfortable thing to do.

All the while, I keep thinking of the pert little English actress, Helena Bonham Carter, in "Conversations with Other Women." It is a two-person film but she has the most lines, and I continue to be amazed that she was able to memorize them so thoroughly, along with all the accompanying intonations, facial expressions, and body actions. I realize that "Conversations" is a movie, and that most likely it took some weeks to make, but I'm certain that if it was a play instead, she could do exactly the same thing, and I'm endlessly impressed. She had a LOT of lines!

But I'm amazed that plays can be done at all.

I never thought that I could be an actor. I'm sure that I would start thinking too much and mess up. Also I have long thought that if I was ever in a play, something perverse in me would definitely drive me to drop some lines and lose my cool on purpose.

I was in a play once, in college. It was Ayn Rand's "The Night of January 16." I was on the jury. I didn't have any lines at all. But later someone did compliment me on being the only one up there in the box who looked really interested in all that was going on.

Monday, January 07, 2008

A Day Before New Hampshire

There's a well-known news "source" that is highly damaging to the U.S., which, however, has a very poor appreciation of that fact. It's named after a certain furtive, chicken-killing animal, the hunting of which by the English gentry was so memorably dismissed by Oscar Wilde as being "the pursuit of the inedible by the unspeakable."

By now you can call the name of this source, so let me just say that today it claims that a big Irish bookmaker has just paid out $75,000 to bettors who wagered that Barack Obama would be the Democratic Presidential nominee.

As this toxic news "source" that claims to be "fair and balanced" has long shown that it harbors only the deepest of ill will toward the Democrats, I'm wondering what the dodge here is. More reputable sources don't seem to be reporting this very odd bit of news.

It's hard to believe that any bookmaker in his right mind would do such a thing.

After all, only one popularity contest has been held so far, the one that Obama won, in Iowa, a state that is noticeably long on cornfield acreage but short on people. Another small but supposedly indicative state, New Hampshire, is still a day or two from holding its primary,and then later, stretching deep into the spring, will come the numerous people monsters, and, smarting from Iowa, and New Hampshire, they may find quite different things to say of much greater weight.

So I feel certain that no matter what that news "source" and its Irish bookmaker say, absolutely nothing has been decided yet.

In horseshoes, we have a saying that "Anything can happen in horseshoes." Another old saying that I've always liked, about the uncertain working of events, goes, "Man proposes but God disposes." But my favorite is, "My goat would have gotten to Mecca if it hadn't been for the wolves by the side of the road."

Besides, most American sportspeople go to the track to see and to bet on races that last somewhat longer than the one or two seconds it takes for the horses to break out of the gate.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

The Memory Thing

Last night our neighbors across the road, K. and his wife L., held an event that has become something of a tradition -- a birthday party for him that features poetry readings by all in attendance.

I never read my own poetry. Instead Last year I read from Wallace Stevens' "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird."

For this year I decided to try to recite, as much as I could, from memory,the first sections of one of my very favorite poems, "Snowbound," by John Greenleaf Whittier.

Whittier is big in my book because of two things: he wrote "Snowbound," and he was a staunch abolitionist.

In "Snowbound" he beautifully recalls a snowstorm from his boyhood days on a farm in Massachusetts. I thought it was especially apt because just a few days earlier K. and I had been lamenting that nowadays we don't have nearly the number of memorable snows that we used to get 20 or 30 years back. In fact most years we hardly get any at all.

I knew from the start that this would be a much more formidable undertaking than it would have been long ago when I was 20 or 30 and my memory was still good enough that I could play chessgames blindfold. "Snowbound" is 600 lines long, and it's too bad that I didn't attempt to memorize it in those earlier days. I think I could have done it, but I only tried later, and never got much above 100 lines, and before yesterday I could only have been sure of the first 8.

Also there would be people looking at me, and in addition, as soon as I got to the party, I shot myself in the knee by drinking a glass of wine. Whatever the reason, from my point of view my reading was a disaster, though I was assured by one and all that it was a big success.

First of all, before I even got started I had to stop midway in my introduction because I suddenly started losing my voice -- it was the wine, everything was the fault of the wine -- and I had to get a glass of water before I could go on. Then I got up to about the 30th line and stumbled and had to consult the copy I had in my pocket. And later I stumbled some more, and finally, somewhat short of where I had hoped to end, I had to end while reading entirely from the sheet.

I subjected myself to this reciting from memory in the presence of others because, fascinated by the changes associated with getting elderly, as I seem to be, I just wanted to see, first, how much I could memorize anew, and second, how much of it I would be able to recite. Before leaving home I did manage to rememorize quite a chunk, and now with nobody around and no alcohol affecting the blood in my head, I think I could recite everything that I had tried to pack into my head, 114 lines in all.

It was an unusual night for my usually heavily subdued ego. With thousands of poems around here to choose from, for her contribution my wife read a published poem written by none other than me, and believe it or not, I listened with as much interest as anyone else, because I had completely forgotten that I had written the poem or that it was in that anthology. In fact, I still barely remember the poem, and that is troubling.

Later, another close neighbor and friend, G., with whom I pitch horseshoes almost weekly, decided he would follow up "Snowbound" by relating episodes involving me, him, and snowstorms of the past. In the course of the last one, he spoke of how I, while in my 60's, rode down our steep, ice-covered road on a sled. He asked if I remembered that, and he was badly disappointed when it turned out that I didn't, though others there did.

This night reminded me that in spite of my best efforts, I have lost big chunks of my earlier life, parts that had finally existed only in my memory. But I'm aware of the advantages of that, too.

Saturday, January 05, 2008

That Carl Guy

Through Mustang Bobby in a post in his BarkBarkWoofWoof I became aware of the paragraph below from a NY Times editorial by Gail Collins, in which she eloquently expressed the same view that Mustang Bobby had, about the sad situation that the caucuses of a lightly populated state like Iowa appear to matter more than those of many larger states, just because their first shots in the Presidential candidates popularity contest happen to come later.

Tonight, the Iowa Deciders will divide into 1,781 local caucuses. Past history suggests that a few of these gatherings may not draw any attendees whatsoever and that several others will consist entirely of a guy named Carl. Attendance has no effect on the number of delegates involved, and we hardly need mention that the whole thing is weighted to give rural residents an advantage. Iowans in politically active neighborhoods where 100 people show up may find their vote is worth only 1 percent as much as, say, Carl’s. This gives them the opportunity to experience what it is like to be a New Yorker or Californian all year round.

You will have no trouble deducing why that passage drew so much of my attention and gratitude. As I commented to another post by Mustang Bobby, those Carl guys are doing their bit toward carrying on the voting process that is supposed to help make this country great, while his local colleagues are choosing to be lax about the whole thing and instead are staying home and gobbling pizza, though they must know that the eyes of all the other voting parts of the country are upon them, and instead they just get ol' reliable Carl, though that, in the immortal words of Lenny Bruce, isn't all bad.

I would never want my vote to matter as much as 100 or even 2 others, but I can't help appreciating the irony there, because when I was young, my vote had the precise value of zero. For a while as a citizen of the Nation's Capital, I wasn't allowed to vote for the President at all, or for the city's mayor or anything else. Instead, until D.C. later got a still unfair measure of home rule, it was and still is under the thumb of various reprobate Congressmen, who come and go and have no stake at all in what goes on beyond the gray and white limits of the Federal districts. And meanwhile in large areas of the rest of the country people had to march, suffer, and sometimes die before I and others of my hue had the right to go to the polling places and safely and without any nonsense do our U.S. citizen thing.

Even today, when I vote, which is whenever I am supposed to, without fail, I can't forget a man who proudly spoke of how happy he was to cast his ballot in the opposite direction and so cancel my vote -- a man of my same age but who unlike me, had had the advantage of being born with the color that always allowed him to vote with no questions asked, a man who, for instance, has fought tooth and nail to successfully avoid ever having to fulfil his civic duty as a juror, while I have reported to serve on juries whenever called.

It's personally interesting also that Ms Collins picked the same name as mine when I recall my experience in serving in caucuses, here in rural Virginia, some years ago when I was politically active, because I always thought they were the weirdest part of all in the political process. It's so ...so ...I can't find the right word. ...It's so irregular ..raggedy.

In our case, as Democratic committee people, we would do nothing except group together in different spots in the same large courthouse room, according to the candidate we liked, and we would be counted, and that would be it, and to me it had all the air of nothing more than an elementary school playground event.

Maybe that was why Ms Goodwin made such dire predictions about the attendance in Iowa. I don't know if she was right, but if she was, then we should thank goodness at least for all those dedicated dudes with my name. Right?

Friday, January 04, 2008

The Creation

A while ago the Creationists started downplaying their old designation and gave themselves a more authoritative-sounding label, and now they're purveyors of "Intelligent Design" instead. But doesn't the very fact that they felt obliged to change their name a sign of their recognition, even if unconscious, that their beliefs essentially hold about as much water as a torn fishing net?

Meanwhile in all the years since Darwin and his host sea captain had their differences, not much has been achieved by Captain FitzRoy's people of a lasting nature in what one would think would be religion's main purpose -- to improve the human species. Instead, as often as not, religion, especially in the area of warfare, has brought misery to large numbers of people. But those on Darwin's side, the scientists, have come up with innumerable achievements that for a long time have had profound effects on the lives of nearly everyone living, even if how much of it is all for the good is still an open question -- except of course for the medical miracles. . ..

But the Creationists are not deterred, and now, under the cloak of "Intelligent Design," we find them trying to turn those scientific advances back on the scientists, and one of the ways they try to do this is to say that what scientists have devised, found, and calculated merely proves the rightness of the Biblical story of creation.

In a website called Talk Reason, where you can find all that you might want to know about these tactics, there's a highly interesting critique of books in which a man named G. L. Schroeder attempts to use nothing less than Einstein's Theory of Relativity to show that the universe really was created in only six days, by God.

As best I can understand, this man concedes that the universe was created 15 billion years ago, as calculated by scientists. However, he argues, the first eight billion years were merely the first day, not in the frame of reference of mere mortals but in God's frame of reference, which is quite different.

As things slowed down from the initial explosion of everything out of what appears to have been an incredibly compressed ball of energy no bigger than an orange or maybe a fire engine, according to this Creationist the next four billion years were the second day, etc, adding up to 15 billion years on a post-Adam, human frame of reference, or, neatly, six days on God's frame, before God decided to scoop up some mud to make Adam.

For, as that energy shot outward, it changed into mass as per Einstein's equation, and that steadily increasing mass brought about gravity, and all that gravity did something or other to time, so that, if there had been clocks able to gauge all this, they would, in our idea of 15 billion years, only have shown the passage of six days.

Of course I'm not any sort of a scientist or a theologian, yet this notion strikes me as being so far off the wall that I figured I could throw in a couple of reservations here that just might have as much validity as all the impressive-sounding thinking involved in this "equation," and that includes, I'm extremely sorry to say, the Theory of Relativity itself. Einstein otherwise was an extremely cool guy, but his theory, it seems to me, is far too unnecessarily difficult to understand, and consequently not many people really understand it, though multitudes might try to tell you otherwise. You shouldn't have scientific theories that few understand. It opens the way to too much suspicion of a snow job. Newton did a much better job with his Laws of Motion.

I didn't read anyone saying exactly whether God had anything to do with the sudden expanding of that tiny ball of energy, and if so, why God chose that particular moment 15 billion years -- pardon me, six days -- ago. And where was God before that happened, because it's easier to think of God as being in the universe with us, instead of hovering out beyond it in a great and very cold nothingness, where presumably nothing could or would want to exist, including God, and no self-respecting member of the faithful, or infidels for that matter, would want to consign God to such an event horizon anyway..

The Creationists must be really desperate, to come up with such an unbelievably far-fetched argument. It gives new meaning to the term "reaching." It's not even a leap of logic. It's just pure, unadulterated nonsense -- yet this is just the kind of thinking that the Regressives feed upon and try to regurgitate on everyone else as manna from Heaven.

What about the people who wrote the stuff that was eventually scraped up together to make the Bible, after the emperor Constantine ordered everybody onto Christianity? And what about the countless millions who have so lovingly and reverently clasped the Bible to their chests in the hundreds of years since then? When the Bble was written telescopes were still thousands of years from being invented, no one had any idea that there was so much universe, and the Albert Einsteins of the day were just getting around to sensing the implications of bath water.

The Bible, for all its invocations of Heaven, is a down to earth book, and to its authors and all the subsequent editors, not to mention all the readers and students of the Bible up to the present day, a day was just that, a day -- the period from one sunrise to the next -- and if instead they had had 15 billion years in mind, they would long since have written and said so.

Surely devotees of the Bible must believe implicitly in what was in the minds of its creators, and I'm amazed that the Creationists let people see them trying to plant concepts in those ancient minds that couldn't possibly have been there.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

The Evolution Front

The New American Civil War has other fronts besides the still burning but seldom discussed issue of Civil Rights. Another is the steadily enlarging issue of so-called "Illegal Immigration," which could just as well be called "Civil Rights for Latinos" (instead of for Rainbows). Another is Climate Change. Another is Gun Control. Another is the Drug War. Another is Terrorism, and on and on. But the most entertaining and informative one features the battle between Evolutionists and Creationists.

As far as I know, the only blood that has been shed in this fight so far is the intellectual kind, but that may only be a matter of time, because the opponents are going at it with every bit of the same fury that can be found across all the other fronts. In some ways here the hostilities could be even worse, because they involve that all-important ingredient of the human ego, reputation. Yet it's important to pay attention because in this struggle one can see many of the tactics and strategy that the Regressives employ on all the other fronts, and it's all the clearer because Intelligent Design's approach is so narrow and focused. It's proponents make no attempt to show the Designer or Designers hard at work in their workshops or showing how they set their creations out into the world or even to put faces on these Divine Artists. Instead the advocates are bent almost solely on saying "Ah-hah!" at every gap or incorrect conclusion that they think they've found in the evolutionary record.

This struggle is not new or homebrewed. Instead it has been going on since long before Darwin published his "Origin of Species," and it was permanently sharpened in the middle 1800's as a result of what has all the appearance of two punk kids going out on a lark, in a genuine sailing ship to the South Seas, and with government money to pay their way.

We have the vision of oldtime ship's captains as being crusty old rascals, on the order of Captain Bligh and Melville's Ahab. Yet I've seen more than one film lately where ship's officers of that era are depicted as being little more than recent high schoolers. Was sailing over the oceans so dangerous in those days that even ships captains had about the same life expectancy as second lieutenants in Vietnam? Did only one or two voyages suffice to convince them that if they wanted to be grandfathers or even fathers, landlubbery was the way to go?. Still you have to wonder how, in 1829, the English Navy could have given a mere 23-year older named Robert FitzRoy a real ship with a real crew and permission to sail thousands of miles to distant and exotic places.

Besides dutifully charting coastal waters, FitzRoy also hoped to find proof that the Holy Bible had the right scoop on how the universe and everything in it was created. And so, to keep his mind sharp on the long journey, he took along a fellow indulger in oddities who was even younger, a 20-year-older named Charles Darwin.

Though the two stuck it out together for five years, they engaged in so many arguments at the Captain's table that they became enemies, and that makes me wonder, because Darwin's thinking was still a distance away from the theory that has bent so many people's noses out of shape ever since, in their dead certainty that apes, much less dark Africans, were not in their line of ancestors. Instead, as a naturalist, he meant only to collect some of the many wonders of Nature. So did Darwin come up with his big concept less because during the trip he noticed how adaptations to environments and the life experience seemed to bring about changes in living things from one generation to the next, and more because he had grown too fond of countering FitzRoy at every turn?

In any case, this struggle was already in the air, and even after Darwin came up with the content of "Origin of Species," it was years before he published it, out of fear of the religionists, and when, 25 years after the voyage of the Beagle, a meeting of English science biggies was called to discuss Darwin's theory, FitzRoy attended, still floating his quite different beliefs, and now today, in the battle between the Evolutionists and Creationists, the whole thing still is Current Events, and, despite all the discoveries in the last 200 years, little about this disagreement is really new.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

The New American Civil War

Though many will not have noticed it, and an even larger number would have noticed but would not want to concede it, there's a New American Civil War being waged right now, and ferociously, though so far not involving the use of weaponry such as firearms, except when police get involved or in the scattered acts of hate groups. This battle is not confined largely to one region, as was the old conflict between the blues and the grays of the early 1860's. Instead it is being fought on a wide range of fronts.

This time the two opposing forces are Progressives and Regressives, but as they have yet to adopt distinctive uniforms, they can't be easily seen. But a good look at the Democratic and Republican parties helps, as does hearing the strident but stifled outcries for third parties.

I date this War as having started in 1968, when it became clear that the Civil Rights Movement had resulted in changes that threatened to become permanent, and that has become the muffled but very real underlying theme of the fighting ever since.

That's why those who were the targets, or if I can be so bold as to say, though many have fought hard to make the term unfashionable, the victims of Jim Crow are in the best position to see this War in its clearest outlines ...that is, those who are industrious and conscious enough to use their brains for things other than incessant dancing and singing and drooling over ballgames.

The year 1968, when both M. L. King Jr. and R. Kennedy were shot dead, following J. Kennedy's death by the same means five years earlier, was the apogee of a series of assassinations of prominent progressive political leaders, and those events were one of the declarations of that War.

Another was the beginning of the defections of prominent Southern demagogues from the Democratic Party. They found a home in the Republican Party, and that, along with the subsequent election of numerous new figures like them, marked the rising success of that party. The hidden agenda of the Republicans, to prevent any more advances by Rainbows (i.e. "blacks") while rolling back the changes that had already been made, is the main cause of that success -- the dirty big secret that will never be admitted by the American Bulk, so steeped are they in the fashion of refusing to call things what they really are -- a tactic that the Regressives have found to be especially useful ever since the days of R. Reagan.

Prior to 1968, when the Nation was more unified, and the North went along with the obscene legal restraints on persons who were "guilty" only of having ancestors who had been slaves from Africa -- repressions that were practiced openly in the South -- Progressives and Regressives could be found in both parties. Since then, however, the people that take the announced ideals of the U.S. seriously have been confined largely to the Democrats, while those who don't are somewhere else.