Wednesday, December 17, 2014


This formation on a rotting piece of beech tree reminded me of my little wildcat Pandora, who died in 2001. She ruled these woods.

She arrived as a kitten. The established cat, a one-eyed rescue named Moose, received her with good humor. She made it clear that our tiny house was too small to contain her energy. She got her kitten nickname, "the terrorist," because she would playfully but relentlessly attack the two dogs, the elder cat and us.

Her tutor in fierceness was a vagrant cat someone brought us whose coloring was eerily similar to Pandora's. We named this newcomer Scarlet, but soon changed it to Snarlet because she could not shed her feral ferocity. Somehow, Pandora managed to absorb Snarlet's combat and hunting skills while still maintaining a sweet nature.

When I found myself single again in my shack in the woods I had a lot more time to pay attention to the dog and the cat that had been left to me. Pandora spent most days and many nights outside. Even in the coldest weather she never used a litter box. She might spend the day indoors by the wood stove, but she'd be dancing by the door when I got home from work. She'd go outside no matter what the weather was doing, take care of business and come back in.

In milder weather she would spend the day outside. I would see no sign of a cat when I pulled in from work. Then she would appear. If I was in the car she would hop up on the hood before I could open the door. If I was on the bicycle she would materialize beside me. She would do the same thing whenever I took a walk in the woods. She wouldn't follow me if I went very far up the mountain, but she would go as far as our property extended. It probably just coincided with her attention span and the kind of terrain she felt like dealing with.

How much was luck and how much was skill? She never lost a fight,  except to her final illness. She spent days and nights in the forest with coyotes, foxes, fishers, bobcats, bears, owls, hawks and roving dogs. She seemed like a superhero. I heard some hair raising noises some nights, but there she'd be in the morning, paws folded contentedly under her, waiting for me to open the door.

It was about this time of year when she died. In dim light I still sometimes see a dark patch on the floor where I found her barely alive that evening. We rushed her to the vet to see if we could pull her back to us.

If you look at the tree formation from a different angle it doesn't look the least bit like a cat. It gives me a moment of remembrance and then breaks the illusion. The forest remembers and lets go. Even the wood itself will crumble before long.

Monday, December 08, 2014

Infamy seems to wear off over time

Maybe I didn't see much because I tend to avoid media most of the time, but Pearl Harbor Day seemed to come and go without more than a murmur.

I'm as bad as anyone. Caught up in the surprise attacks and extended campaigns of my own life I gave little thought to the Japanese attack more than 70 years ago that finally pushed the United States into World War II. As the Second World War appears to have solved fewer and fewer issues that plague us today, that great conflict between Good and Evil, as magnificent as it was, becomes a symbol of the frustrating endlessness and brutal human cost of that conflict.

We didn't even defeat the Fascists. They just rebranded, regrouped and took over the finance industry. They learned to be more subtle and play a longer game in their quest for world domination and discriminatory prosperity.

The dissipation of infamy happened suddenly in just a couple of years. The usual outlets that howl about exalting all things military shift their focus to the imaginary War on Christmas. The compression of the holiday season that follows a late Thanksgiving leaves little attention for remembrance of an inspiring defeat suffered before the midpoint of the previous century. Pearl Harbor Day suffers the fate of all children with birthdays in December. For years it was early enough to preserve its own little bubble of solemnity, but the accumulation of newer crises and the pressures of modern life have finally overtaken it.

We will never forget entirely. I'm not even saying that the degree to which we've forgotten already is entirely bad. Conflicts that occurred between people now mostly dead over political and economic issues that should never have led to war only deserve so much reverence before you have to shake your head and look at the whole shooting match as a waste of many things. It had to be done, but only because of events that precipitated it based on things that should never have been done.

Pull back far enough and Earth is a tiny dot in cosmic blackness, populated by microscopic beings who will destroy each other and the whole place, attempting to rule it. It looks large and invulnerable to us here in the roughness of its crust. We abuse each other mercilessly as we try to shape the illusion to please ourselves.

Tuesday, December 02, 2014

Another train blog

It's hard to write simple sentences in active voice when the concepts in your mind are not simple.

I could say bluntly that no one is harder to communicate with than someone who is a glass half empty person who thinks they're a glass half full type. But that's not true. What makes a person really hard to communicate with is ignorance and the lack of a sense of humor. Pessimists who think they're optimists present a significant challenge, but hardly the worst. So right away I get stuck with extra verbiage.

Give the pessoptimist credit for knowing that a positive attitude helps. But just knowing it doesn't mean you're doing it. If your talent and natural inclination tends otherwise, you have to practice like a 50-year-old beginning violin student.

Life experience makes it harder. As a realist, you have to acknowledge that setbacks and challenges complicate any action. The farther ahead you try to lay things out, the more stuff can fall on, grow over or wash out the path.

Some people are luckier than others. Your own luck may vary. Outlook once again affects one's perception of whether a particular break was good or bad. But some people do seem to go over smaller and less frequent bumps than others. Attentive work does not really manufacture luck, but it helps you prepare to take advantage when things shift in your favor. You can't spend too much time looking at someone else's life trying to find major chunks to incorporate. Not that I know anyone who does that, but it came up next in the train of thought. And I know I've been tempted to try it from time to time.

Sprawled across two seats, looking over at I-95, I'm glad I'm not driving. I'm also glad more people are driving, so I can sprawl across two seats. I keep tweaking different rail car designs to try to maintain capacity while eliminating unwanted seat mates. But then what do you do when you're traveling with someone and want to sit together? Here we are, back in the stupid best of all worlds.

I look down. I read, I write. I look up again and guess by the grunge that we must be near Bridgeport.

I left tonight's weather behind south of New Jersey. A snowstorm chased me out of New Hampshire and a snowstorm chases me home. We're outrunning it now, but I'm going to stop eventually. I'll go back into my life with a completely different sense of time than the people who stayed behind will have. I've been gone forever and no time.

6:58 p.m. -- Now on the Downeaster, rolling toward Dover. Soon I will know how badly my car is buried. I will find out whether I remembered to lock it as I hurried to the station a week ago to catch the southbound train.

Against my every expectation when I saw about a hundred school kids gather at North Station to catch this train, I enjoyed another private seat by a window. It's basically black out there..

So. Exhume the car and drive on. Home awaits.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Through space, time, and the Northeast Corridor

This is a landscape heavy with memories, not because I inhabited it but because of what I believed when I traversed it. My life was full of significance when it had not yet been filled with much else.

I think I just recognized a discarded washing machine from 1980. I spent enough time staring out of train windows that year.

Movement generates is own optimism most of the time. Just to be en route seems like progress.

Unspecified cool things lay ahead. Every experience was literary, artistic, cinematic. The stack of blank sheets in front of me did not intimidate me, regardless of what passing anxiety or depression might temporarily freeze me to the bone. I would fill them with wisdom and whimsy that would painlessly tease the straying world onto a gentle path of shared pleasure.

No ambition? Does that sound like no ambition? It may not promise steady upward progress through a prosperous bourgeois existence, as ambition is typically defined to do. But it is a massive undertaking to be pursued with deceptive casualness. There is no blunt and bludgeoning approach. One must relentlessly entice and not annoy. It may be impossible. And it's the only thing that will work.

Growing up, perhaps I received so little great guidance because I had no idea what questions to ask. I was advised to be on the side of good in a generic way, and to do my best to stay off the dole. Good enough as far as it went, but one can do shocking amounts of unintended damage in pursuit of what seem like bland and harmless personal success. Don't bring that up if you want to entice people into a different course for society. They feel threatened. Then you've lost your appeal.

I scribbled on those blank sheets with the enthusiasm and education of a sixth grader. I looked toward the far horizon while tripping over curbs and stepping in dog piles I overlooked in the immediate foreground. I waded eagerly into swamps and briar patches without regard for whether I could bill for the hours.

What a chump. Never underestimate the self-destructive power of the best intentions. Forget Hell. Hell is a selfish concept. Trying to do the right thing can sometimes be no better than a 50-50 shot, even if you yourself come out of it unharmed or enhanced. The footprints you leave could be enough to cut the slope and trigger an avalanche that takes out those behind you.

Bleached grasses and bare trees fill the scene behind many hours of thought. I've ended up living where they are the dominant reality for a solid half of the year. I can own a much larger patch of that than I could hope to claim in places that look more alive, more of the time. Those places fill and fill, making the people who live there pay steadily higher prices for smaller pieces. The overflow bulges steadily farther into country more difficult both climatologically and mentally.

I went willingly into the harsh landscape. I met it with my own impermeabability. It was my element for years. But events will teach you what you didn't know you didn't know. Along with knowledge aggregating in ways you hope and expect, stuff pries your mind open or forcibly aims your head in another direction.  You can either build stronger walls to keep your mind at its familiar width or you can work to incorporate more variations into your world view. I've seen it go both ways. And when formerly perfectly enjoyable companions decide to remain the same intellectual width they were, the space grows too small to hold you both for long.

Pride in harshness takes up less brain space than empathy. It's also less work. People can be such a burden, even the ones you supposedly care about. Much easier to have a set of standards that allows you to take people or leave them based on compliance. Is it conditional love or stern but admirable principle? Conditional love is what makes winners, according to a winner I used to visit by rail. I was softened and weakened by the indulgences of my parents. They did not use their affection strategically to force me toward achievement. That's how I remember her analysis at the time.

Time brings experience. Experience may bring wisdom. Or you just might get older without compensatory improvements.

Get off the train, emerge from the station and life is no longer linear. Progress is no longer automatic. You have to get yourself around. You could be going nowhere or anywhere. Anywhere is everywhere, so there really is no nowhere.

Friday, November 28, 2014

It jiggles the pen

The flickering sunlight and grumbling vibration induce a trance. The world is moving while the train stands still. The reflection of the train windows does not change on the passing backs of industrial buildings that flow eastward past our westward facing engine and string of cars.

Chunks of ice release from the train's top.  The air must have warmed above freezing.

A chain link fence corrals dozens of portable toilets on one side of a dilapidated brick building. On the other side of it, broken pavement and old roadbed sand fill a bin defined by concrete blocks.

Bare trees, fallen leaves, brown brick, oily dirt scroll by. The sun reluctantly rises above the horizon as we fly toward December with its even more reluctant sun. A warming globe is no lighter. It's not so much the cold that induces dormancy. Without photo there is no synthesis. Without photosynthesis, all other life plays defense until the sun returns in force.

Photoperiod will control the northward spread of southern species even as warmer temperatures change or end the lives of northern ones.

Rolling through Norwalk the cartoonist in me looks for people puking, and puddles of vomit everywhere.  I left East Lyme, eponymous home of one disease, and pass through this other unfortunate town whose name is linked to a physical discomfort.

I recognized Darien just from one unsuccessful job interview here in 1984. The part of town visible from the tracks has seen no need to change drastically in 30 years. Impressive, in this country so eager to plow under all that was smaller, quieter and slower in favor of wider highways, broader parking lots and bigger box stores. But with the state of rail in this country, there is no right side of the tracks. Anything near the tracks seems to be caught in time, whether as a quaint village vignette or in a permanent state of mid-dilapidation.

Just under 40 minutes from  New York, according to the conductor, a golf course to the left of us looks at first like a Revolutionary War fortification and battlefield. Earthworks and old stone suggest it. A distant building supports the impression until the obvious putting greens defended by their sand traps show what conflicts are contested here now. The banked earth and old stone leave unanswered the question of whether the land did see an earlier, more serious  purpose.

For the most part the view is unending dumps, depots and debris fields. Graffiti dresses up a lot of it, applied by unseen artists. It's easier to imagine it appearing by itself than to envision in real time detail a person or people going through the process. It's the work of mythical entities.

Nothing fronts on the railroad. Urban America turns its back to the tracks. What can we do from inside our can, rolling by until the next scheduled stop? There's no need to care what we think. Every place needs a utilitarian side. This is it.

I like the utilitarian side. The best part of Walt Disney World was the tunnels. I would rather be the bartender than the guest of honor and I'm better suited to be a dishwasher than a chef. Just don't make the mistake of disrespecting any of those roles. Know who serves you and how you depend on them. What is not you is not necessarily beneath you.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Immunization and reduced susceptibility

When I went for a flu shot today, the young woman who attended to the initial paperwork saw my address and remarked that she knew the road well. She said she also works for the Green Mountain Shooting Preserve. That's the place that moved in and took over what was once a beautiful area in which to take little walks, ski jaunts and mountain bike rides. It was where I used to be able to nip over for a quick dose of rising sun long before that light would reach my house. It has been barred to me since the early 1990s when the present owner posted it with warning signs about the gunfire that rakes it whenever the guys are practicing or the clients are actually there for a nice killing spree.

"Have you met Dave?" she asked. "He's such a nice guy."

I knew she meant the owner. I did not say, "Has anyone asked what the birds think?" I did say I had not made his acquaintance.

The nice young woman said she takes care of the birds. I assumed that she meant this was before the clients "take care" of them in the manner of Guido the hit man.

When I got home and went out back with the cats, we met a refugee from the shooting preserve's recreational death factory. I don't know enough about game birds to know the species of this particular survivor. It was speckled, seemed taller than a quail, and not terribly afraid of humans. I was able to walk quite close to it, talking quietly. It blended so well with its background that I could not get a clear photograph even from a few feet away.

These birds are unrescuable. They don't live in this climate naturally. They become easy meals for local predators or the winter kills them. I suppose I could build a nice chicken house for them and call it the Real Green Mountain Preserve (where we actually preserve something), but that could turn into a pretty big operation. Probably better to let the foxes, weasels, coyotes and bobcats clean up after the wasteful humans.

The Green Mountain Shooting Preserve website is full of happy talk about bonding with your fellow humans, and -- get this -- "enjoying the solace of nature." I'm sure nature enjoys the solace of a rain of hot lead.

In another context I wrote something about hunters salivating over a picture of a deer. I was told reprovingly that hunters don't do it for the enjoyment of the kill. If the people who line up to blast a flock of pen-raised birds aren't enjoying the process of killing, what exactly are they doing it for? Be honest. It only takes a minute to explain to critics that humans are predators and that killing things is fun. Hell, I've even heard that killing people is fun. I don't advocate it, but I understand it. Once you suppress your susceptibility to the plight of your target it just becomes a game. See how many you can blast. It's cool. Everything dies eventually. Why not have some fun with it?

Hunters have referred to the clean death they offer their victims, as opposed to getting shredded alive by a pack of predators, or dying of disease, or starvation. That holds up as long as the hunter does not merely wound quarry that then escapes to finish its agony, or, as happens with many of the shooting preserve's birds, misses entirely, leaving confused and unready creatures to fan out through the woods to suffer various fates. In no case does that life amount to much of a "happily ever after."

Right before getting jabbed with a needle did not seem to be the time to fire up a controversy at the pharmacy window. I don't want to make this woman hate her job and I probably wouldn't be able to make her see her employer for what he is in the few short minutes I would have had to crap in her pool. Maybe Dave really is a sweet guy who simply hasn't connected the dots in his lifestyle. I will say I doubt it. He's selling a death sport and sugar coating it to attract clients and deflect critics. Since he's kept the place going for about 20 years now, I'd say he has plenty of customers who enjoy snuffing out baffled featherbrains. You can't argue with success, right?

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Veterans' Day: Military Industrial Complex meets Guilt Complex

When the United States moved to an all-volunteer military force in the 1970s it addressed many of the problems that the military had suffered as a result of unwilling conscripts.

Once the Vietnam War ended, military service wasn't such a bad deal. You had to cut your hair and take orders, but you got cool machinery to play with and you could present yourself as a badass. We might still go to war with the Soviets. And if we do, those Russki bastards are in trouble! Especially as the 1980s ramped up under The Great Actor, military prowess became fashionable as its use remained genuinely unlikely. If The Big One hit, there were going to be a whole lot of fireballs in quick succession and then maybe some ground fighting, or maybe just a long period of lingering death. So it was safe to wear and rattle a saber. It was also safe to think of those volunteer warriors as another form of nerd, pursuing a taxpayer funded fantasy life with expensive hardware.

If you had the right specialty you could be thoroughly trained at taxpayer expense and then lured away by a private-sector employer to do the same job for much more money. Military service was just another career move.

At the end of the 1980s the Soviet Union crumbled. As the 1990s began, American military might steamrollered Saddam Hussein in the First Gulf War. Conflicts were picking up, but our forces prevailed routinely.

All this time the public paid no attention to the fact that the volunteer military had created a warrior caste separate from the everyday citizen. Military forces became just another service provider. It was a bit riskier business than most, but our technological superiority made the risk seem manageable. There was a little flurry of concern when we sent a large force to Kuwait. We made a point to welcome them back properly, to avoid any sense that we did not appreciate the fine job our brave fighters had done. Good. That's taken care of. Now, back to my stock portfolio.

With the attacks on 9-11-01, the national psyche abruptly changed. First there was a wave of enlistment and a less well documented wave of excuses for not enlisting. The Afghanistan War began. We watched the news. It seemed to be going well. Not Kuwait well, but well. We were cooperating with the local insurgents already fighting the Taliban. We were getting along.

Then came Iraq. To many of us this had all the earmarks of another Vietnam. Many details differed, but the general opportunity to wade into a tar pit was exactly the same. After the invasion established the American occupation, the strange war continued. Casualties mounted. Goals kept changing. All the while, military personnel were sent to do whatever it was we were doing over there, while the ordinary citizens were encouraged to shop and consume, to keep the economy going. The economy is the symbol of our country. It must be kept aloft at any cost.

While the troops were over there we sent them toothpaste, candy, and letters from schoolchildren who were being indoctrinated into the reverence we express for the warriors who face our heinous foes. Yes, you could grow up to be such a hero yourself. When troops returned home they were greeted with hugs, colored ribbons, firm handshakes and fervent thanks. Oh, the thanks. And that is the guilt complex. The noncombatants know they owe the combatants a debt they can never repay, because the noncombatants have not faced death in the same way the combatants have. Suddenly everything you do at home seems trivial compared to tense patrols among IEDs and snipers, or firefights in dusty towns. The warrior servants we created by separating military service from the timeline of every person's adulthood now face us with the knowledge that we let them go without questioning how we got to that point and how we might reasonably avoid it in the future. Most people want to think about it so little that they don't question the system at all. They just offer firmer handshakes, flowerier speeches and more fervent thanks. And tomorrow they move on.

Veteran's Day 2014

Time once again for the annual apology to the human sacrifices made necessary by the human predilection for violence. The fact that many of them are proud and happy to serve underscores how deeply ingrained the habits of combat are. They may be hopelessly ineradicable. Still, dreamers dream.

When someone suggests that humanity might redirect its energy from warfare to more productive and cooperative behaviors the smart kids say things like, "As soon as human nature changes, and we are no longer naturally nasty, violent, and savage. Human nature has not changed in all of human history (and prehistory, evidently). Once it does... yep, we're all over that." Indeed, it probably isn't even worth trying, because it's just a ploy to sucker weaklings into disarming and reaching out in trust and attempted friendship.

In a world of warlike beings, peace is temporary. One can only hope that the shit does not hit the fan in one's lifetime. Good reason not to have kids, because if you got lucky they probably won't.

War evolved with us. It comes from the unquestioned emotions of an animal, mixed with the higher level of imagination that develops in larger brains. Even as we could imagine peace we could also dream up more and better ways to take each other out. The temptation to try to eliminate a bunch of the competition supersedes the notion that we should make a stronger effort to kick that habit. Warily we square off, jab a few times, test the defenses. When the time seems right an aggressor launches an attack. The game is on. But it's not a game. It's a disgusting slaughter. We vie to see who is better at it. The survivors of this are called veterans. We revere them because of the hell they have faced. And the smart kids shake their heads when someone says they hope we can move beyond it some day. That day is never coming. But you know another Veteran's Day is, and another and another.

Thank you for your service, you poor fuckin' bastards. I really do wish you the best in the coming year and ever after.

Tuesday, November 04, 2014

The American Revolutions

Listening to the gunfire from up the road I thought about the Second Amendment fundamentalists, and how they like to talk about standing up to the government and criminals and powers of repression with their trusty shootin' irons. And I realized that we have had numerous revolutions in this country since the wars that severed us from Great Britain, and in all but one of them the winning side was mostly unarmed.

The Civil War was the one real armed conflict in America's evolution over a difference of political philosophy. All it really settled was the issue of that particular instance of secession and the legality of slavery. Slavery is a big issue, but obviously the underclass of former slaves endured many more years of harsh oppression after it was no longer legal to own them outright.

Just skimming history you can't overlook the labor movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, women's suffrage, and the civil rights  and anti war movements of the 1960s. These were politically effective revolutionary acts carried out largely without the use of force by the advocates of greater freedom. Armed conflict would never have yielded as satisfactory a result. Nor will it help in reestablishing civil rights and labor's power now.

A brutal dictator will not respect nonviolent protest. But we don't have a brutal dictator right now, and we can avoid having one at all if we get back to the individual liberties that matter and quit cranking up so much tension about the hypothetical necessity to shoot our way out of a situation. If it comes to that, every responsible adult, particularly weapon-owning ones, will have failed miserably going into the disagreement by letting the discussion get dragged into such unproductive territory that we have no recourse but to start shooting each other. And I guarantee if guns are outlawed and suddenly we need to have them to fight off our own government, freedom fighters will find them. We've seized arsenals before. We can do it again. Quit freaking out.

If society collapses and we need to establish our own personal forts, again we have no one to blame but our stupid selves. It may seem glorious in fantasy, but it will be nasty, brutish and short in reality.

The whole Second Amendment thing doesn't seem like the biggest issue in this election. The gunfire brought it to mind, and the "us or them" mentality in political discourse. After this election we will either have a Democratic majority in Congress, in which case the surviving Republicans will simply obstruct everything they can, or we will have a Republican majority, in which case they will enact whatever they think is a good idea. But if they're smart they won't do anything to make things much better for the common folk before 2016, because they can't risk making a Democratic president look good. So no matter what we have a tough couple of years ahead. Then we get to endure another expensive and nasty campaign starting in 2015.

Or people will get their heads out of their lower crevices and realize that we're all in this together, so we'd better start talking about how things really work instead of inflating scary monsters like Socialism and Fascism and kite fighting with them.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

"Good" versus "Evil"

No matter how good you try to be, someone will accuse you of being stupid or up to something.

This point of view gains strength from the existence of so many people who actually are stupid or up to something. And this is before we start to sort through the honest differences of opinion.

Somewhere under all the obfuscation and misinterpretation some things must be true. We can destroy our environment and render our planet at least highly unpleasant if not utterly uninhabitable. We can create widespread misery by picking on each other. Greed and corruption are worse than laziness. More people are thoughtless than are evil, but some people are genuinely nasty. Among them, some choose to do it retail, as criminals, while others go wholesale as national leaders with global aspirations. Initially, the key factors are a willingness to hurt others with little or no provocation and an enjoyment of their suffering.

Niceness and nastiness represent the ends of yet another continuum in human behavior. Almost no one is entirely nasty or totally nice to every living thing they meet. But you can generally pick up on reliable trends to indicate a person's probable bias.

All that is required for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing. That seems like a simple call to action. Get up! Do something! But you get the same result when a whole bunch of people who think they're doing the right thing are busy busy busy promoting their agenda and obstructing competing agendas with the result that nothing gets done. Problems grow worse as the argument goes on. We can't even agree on what the problems are. And some of those agendas will only make things worse. So we can't just randomly decide to throw all our weight behind any proposed solution as being better than nothing. We could hasten the destruction much more easily than we seem to be able to develop a consensus about what constitutes the common good and how we can attain it.

Political advertising fills the media right now. It's all pretty cynical. The campaign geniuses who produce the ads obviously believe that a significant number of people will be swayed by these little bits of melodrama that are stuffed with emotional triggers and very short on actual information.

All political advertising on broadcast media should be banned. I would rather sit through an endless Public Broadcasting fund drive, and those make me want to scream. However, the ads do fit the Halloween theme extremely well. What could be more horrifying, terrifying, sure to open the gates of Hell than The Opposing Candidate? Mwa ha ha ha ha ha! None can stand before The Opposing Candidate! Spawned by Satan! MBA from Hades University! Steeped in corruption, perversion, greed and lust! Thou shalt not vote for The Opposing Candidate! Dooooooom!

This message paid for by Americans for a Better America. We bring you everything you hope someone will bring you. Honest.

The little films give you a villain and a hero. Just as the annual flu vaccine contains three or four strains expected to be most common, a political ad can only contain a handful of key points the makers of it hope will inoculate you against infection by the wrong political choice. If distortion or outright lies seem like they'll have the desired effect, the end justifies the means.

After all the political theater dies down we'll be left with another batch of elected or re-elected officials. Most of them will have their sights set on 2016. Whatever they do or don't do will be shaped to fit the campaign narrative regardless of actual events.

The rich really benefit from expensive elections because even the well-meaning populists have to spend so much time raising money and building their image that they have much less time to spend on meaningful debate. Lots of people want to be in the information business. If people are properly informed they can make better choices. Ah yes. Better for whom?

I want to believe that people I perceive as good are good. But I think the principle of the secret ballot is as much to prevent embarrassment as it is to facilitate free expression of political will without threat of coercion. It's a sickening feeling when someone for whom you had high hopes turns out to be an idiot or a sleaze. Nobody's perfect. But when you've bet on someone's integrity and judgment you hope they manage to continue to display both at least until their term ends.

Sunday, October 05, 2014

Yes Means Yes Means No

It's easy for an old man with no power to speak sagely about sexual restraint, but I was not always that man. At one time I thought I was sexually attractive and a few women helped foster that misconception by exploring that potential further than with a cursory and dismissive glance. It was the 1970s. Men and women were figuring out a lot of things about themselves in a social setting that was pretty relaxed about taboos.

The backlash started in 1980. While parts of popular culture in the 1980s continued the movement toward social acceptance of various sexualities and other recreational habits, the conservatism of the Reagan administration rode the wave of reactionary repulsion. Where most media seemed to portray what was right about sex and drugs and rock and roll (and disco and whatever you're into) in the 1970s, the 1980s saw more portrayal of what was wrong with it as well. A buzz kill that may be, but it's also necessary to a truly complete discussion of the consequences of libertinism.

No question a lot of us could benefit from loosening up a little. But some of us could benefit from snugging it down a tad, too. But that's why you think and talk about things that may seem creepy and uncomfortable. It's why you draw out lines of speculation to explore possible results before you set them in motion.

California's recent enactment of the law requiring positive and ongoing consent before engaging in sexual activity, aimed at state funded universities to establish stronger safeguards against sexual assault, is misguided, unenforceable, doomed to failure and bound to lead to lots of litigation. But it's another step in the discussion about the general sexual relationship between people.

Sexuality is built into us. Some people have strong urges. Some people have no urges. Some people have urges for things that other people find incomprehensible. In most of us, admit it, when you see a stranger, isn't one of your questions, "would I want to shag that?" Come on. You know it's true. In polite society we don't act on it and usually don't even reveal that the thought flickered through our minds, but you know it did. If you think it didn't, start paying really close attention to every feeling, no matter how fleeting, that goes through you when encountering other people.

To think is not to act. It's merely the mind exploring possibilities, another trait that's built into us. It's why we live in constructed shelters, cook our food, bathe, treat illness and travel around in mechanical conveyances that go faster and farther than we could easily walk or run. It's what got us to the moon and makes us dream of traveling to the stars. It's how we invented the artificial heart and the motorized dildo. Ingenuity, baby.

If I could go back in time I would have less sex. I know, easy to say now after the fact. But the fact that I started believing this in my 30s, when I was still bursting with testosterone and foolish desires lends it more weight than simply the pendulous mass of an aged, reluctant phallus. It's mind over matter, because civilized society depends on it. Part of me regrets the opportunities missed to shag, but the wiser part realizes that in order to meet the standards of feminism with the strength of character they require, I should be able to witness the most piercingly erotic display without assuming an invitation. And certainly I should be able to walk among a throng of summer-clad lovelies and merely be happy for them that they can dress in comfortably scanty clothing that happens to reveal details I find sexually arousing. My arousal should not be their problem.

An impossibly high standard? Possibly. But people die all the time trying to climb the tallest peaks. Why not aspire? That's the thing about keeping your zipper locked: no one ever died of it. You can fall or freeze or have something fall on you and crush you as you assault the high mountains. The only thing that will harm you when you try to control your lust is whatever you brew up in your own mind.

In the 1970s I was immersed in a culture in which  -- supposedly -- the cool guys got lots of chicks and the chicks loved it. More things reinforced stupid male conceit than challenged it. I sought partners because sex is fun and if I'm enjoying it everyone must enjoy it. It seemed like the thing to do. It paid off in orgasms. What could be wrong with that?

Sorry about that. Like I said, if I could go back I would play hard to get, knowing full well that this would mean that I went ungotten. But the universe in which I actually lived has to exist for me to know why the universe I imagine would be better.

I'm not formally joining the celibacy camp or promoting virginity pledges. I don't believe in declarations of that sort. But if consent is revocable at any time ( "Affirmative consent must be ongoing throughout a sexual activity and can be revoked at any time.") that includes retroactively when the only standard of verification may be the conflicting accounts of the only two people in the room at the time.

Once again it turns out to be true: the only truly safe sex is no sex at all. The only way to have your nobility untarnished is to avoid rubbing it up against anything. So not only does the cool dude never ask for sex, but waits to be asked instead; when asked, the answer is a polite "no, thank you."

In the spirit of full disclosure, I have to admit that from time to time I still have sex in the context of my ongoing relationship. It gives me a more informed  understanding of the expression, "get lucky. " I do not initiate, but I don't say no when asked. I like to be asked. What can I say? I'm a horn dog. If I was young and virile and sought after I would face a terrific challenge combating a naturally lustful tendency. It's tough out there, guys.

Yes Means Yes reminds us all that nearly any sex can be considered a violation. Who with a scrap of decency wants to be a violator? I stand on the sidelines because I'm out of the game I was never very good at anyway, but I can still connect the dots. I can observe and point out what I see from up in the bleachers that may not be obvious in the confusion on the field. The ramifications of contact don't end when the impacting bodies separate. In some ways they last as long as either player is alive. I'm not talking about unintentional pregnancy or the transmission of disease. I'm talking about how an experience changes as the echoes Doppler down the tunnel of time and the light hits the image differently as long as the memory lasts. What seems okay at the time, and even shortly afterwards, may turn into a regret at some point. So what is the statute of limitation on perceived sexual violation? If a violation took place, its heinousness never diminishes. Look at how we continue to hunt down World War II concentration camp guards in their 90s. If the standard of violation is revocable consent "at any time" that means any sexual contact remains an open case forever. This was always true in a way. Yes Means Yes merely codifies it officially.

Don't be a filthy brute. Just walk away. It's the next stage in evolution.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

The End of the World

Humans tend to equate the end of the era of human domination with the end of the world itself. That's so cute. The planet existed for billions of years without us and will probably continue to orbit and support life long after we have knocked ourselves off our own pedestal and broken it up so we can throw the pieces at each other.

After World War II, legend has it that there was widespread support for the idea of a world without war. The one just ended had killed enough people and damaged enough real estate to make many survivors believe we could no longer accept armed conflict as a way to settle intellectual disputes.

Of course we continued to have wars. We just did not let them get out of hand. They tended to be inconclusive and unsatisfying, no matter how savage and bloody they may have been in their own theaters, and how divisive they might have been on the home front.

Against the backdrop of the Cold War it was easy to believe in Armageddon as a conflict between two political philosophies in control of discrete and contiguous land masses. It would be the conventional war of the past, scrawled immensely with enormous weapons. Probably no one would survive.

As the collapse of the Soviet Union demonstrated, preparing for Armageddon is not very economical. You have to have a balance of trade that supports your militaristic expansionism. Merely being armed and dangerous is nowhere near as effective as being rich and ruthless.

In the late 1990s the threat of superpower conflict seemed to have been banished forever. Indeed, this may be true. In the 20th Century we had the incorrectly named War to End All War. In the 21st Century we have the Wars That Can Never End. There's the one between corporate capitalism and Islamic radicalism. There are internal struggles and international chafe areas all over the world.

Separatism is the new nationalism. Dissolution has replaced unification. It's more important to refuse to lose an argument than it is to solve a human problem. Anyone, anywhere, might suddenly find themselves standing next to a suicide bomber. It doesn't happen often in some places, but there's really no reason it couldn't. Because you can't do anything about it, you can't worry about it. If someone is so pissed off at the world that they're going to flip out and kill a bunch of people you can't guarantee to stop them without completely abandoning civil liberties and making everybody go around naked under surveillance cameras. Even then, someone at some level will be wearing pants and giving orders. Or maybe a shirt and no pants. Our leader could be an exhibitionist.

Watching news coverage of the Islamic State and other thinly veiled excuses to commit murder, you can see the logic and the economy of small-scale conflict spread over a widening area. Because it travels on ideas rather than an advancing front of conquered and assimilated territory, a battle of sorts can break out anywhere one or more interested parties can equip themselves with cheap and available materials to spread a little bloodshed. Once people thrust away the idea of living in peace the logical result is fighting.

The people who like to fight and the people who like to watch them accuse anyone who speaks against it of being chicken. Don't think we should fight? You must be a coward. Right. Because those are the only two choices: warrior or coward. It's typical lazy binary thinking, to which humans are subject everywhere.

This would seem to imply a sort of unity among the warriors against the cowards. But the warriors need enemies to fight, not just weaklings to exterminate. Among both the peaceniks and the fighters, factions argue. In the peace camp the arguments just get bitchy. The warriors declare each other enemies and have another war. The result is fragmentation of both sides into smaller pieces that don't get along. The armed and dangerous crowd, often manipulated by the rich and ruthless, battle wherever they can. The bitchy arguments of the peace promoters get very bitchy indeed. Unkind things are said. It's very painful. It becomes very hard to put together a guest list for a party.

The conflict that brings down civilization and returns humanity to scrounging for food in a harsh landscape will not be the spectacular exchange of nuclear missiles, although someone may manage to get a few nukes mixed in. It will be more and more little bombs, rockets, bullets, clubs, knives, kidnappings, beheadings, torture, maiming, IEDs, rocks, bottles, here, there and everywhere. It will be one failed state after another. It will be breakaway republics reabsorbed by their old imperial masters, festering with armed resistance to both independence and absorption. It will be fighting for the sake of fighting, just to prove we can take it.

Maybe we'll burn out the fighting urge before it takes everything down. It seems doubtful at this point, but you never know. What fuels it now is the sense in so many people's minds that they could be the winner that takes all. So put together a band of fighters and start your campaign. Imagine your own Thousand Year Reich, or whatever your culture likes to call that empire of power and control so dear to the grandiose. Or maybe you envision a rational anarchy in which liberated people live in perfect individualistic harmony without paying any taxes to a stupid, intrusive government. Or maybe theocracy is your bag. Your group of true believers will create the nation favored by God to rule the planet. Unfortunately, just a few miles away, a similar group has formed. Take up your weapons. The first glorious battle is upon us. It certainly won't be the last.

Any survivors of this global conflict probably will be no wiser. They'll just be hungrier, more weather-beaten and less well armed. Some of them may be the kind of cowards who talk about living in peace, but we've seen how little traction that has. It will just be a whining noise in the background.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

"Affordable Care"

After hearing some hopeful things about the Affordable Care Act in New Hampshire from friends who have been using it, I finally had to sign up myself after the insurance from my wife's former employer ran out.

To start with, it's not affordable. Even with my "subsidy" in the form of a tax credit I would be paying more than $300 a month to have a deductible of $5,750. The $40 co-pay for doctor visits isn't bad, but at my income level, $300 a month is a chunk, especially when you consider that I have to pay out of pocket for everything up to $5,750 and, if I did get seriously ill, would still have to go to work to earn the money to keep my premiums up. And of course the deductible resets every year.

I'm not a political pea-brain, so I don't blame Obama. Indeed, the people who make Obama a bad president are the same people who made George Bush a bad president. In the case of Bush they reinforced everything he did. In the case of Obama they throw roadblocks in front of everything. So one president drove us down a rocky slope and when the next one tries to steer us back onto the road the yahoos keep grabbing the steering wheel and stomping on the brakes.

I did not vote for Barack Obama in the 2008 primary in part because his health coverage proposal was basically like Mitt Romney's system in Massachusetts, based on private insurance that everyone has to buy. After he won the general election, Obama began adding better features to his proposal, like the publicly funded option which would, in fact, blessedly have killed the private insurance industry and set us on a path toward a true universal coverage system. But the insurance lobby and the largely Republican political operatives who serve them made sure that went away.

I know that plenty of Democrats have financial obligations to corporate interests. But most issues tend to divide pretty neatly between the D's and the R's.

If someone said they were going to repeal the Affordable Care Act and replace it with a universal, single-payer system and some strong, rational controls on medical service and drug pricing I would support it instantly. And that's simply never going to come from the Republican side of the aisle.

Meanwhile, that leaves me unable to afford Affordable Care. I will return to the ranks of the uninsured, get my self-pay discount from medical service providers, pay the much more affordable tax penalty in lieu of the fat honkin' premium and hold on for Medicare.

Is this all there is?

On the eve of the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks on the United States, the president announced the escalation of a bombing campaign against more enemies. The "Freedom Isn't Free" crowd would tell you this is the way of the world. Implicit in that statement as it is used today is that "freedom" is always bought at the cost of warfare. The "free" gain their little clearing in the hostile world by laying down a constant barrage to protect its perimeter. War without end, amen.

If there was a God, I would have more respect if He, She, It showed up with something other than wrath and a flaming sword to punish the ungodly and reward the faithful, since that would simply be an eternal perpetuation of the same crap that has spoiled human existence. Psychologically, if you want to punish the wicked, let them truly feel and understand their wickedness. Don't just rough them up to try to make them physically regret getting caught. But that, of course is much harder than the simple application of violence. It would take an all-powerful god to to apply it.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Can thought be taught?

This article about not sending your kids to an Ivy League school caught my eye on Google News. I contains a lot of questions about the purpose and usefulness of college that I had when I was IN college in the late 1970s. Alas, you get no credit at all for being decades ahead of your time.

"The first thing that college is for is to teach you to think. That doesn’t simply mean developing the mental skills particular to individual disciplines. College is an opportunity to stand outside the world for a few years, between the orthodoxy of your family and the exigencies of career, and contemplate things from a distance."

When I read that I remembered my own thoughtful childhood. It wasn't quality thought, but thinking was habitual. Indeed, it was almost a disorder. What might be mistaken for attention deficit disorder can really be a swirl of thought triggered by something an instructor said that we were meant to gloss over and move on. Significant concepts go unrecognized all the time. To the thoughtful, nearly everything is thought provoking.

Over the years I have met a large number of people who seem to do very well without thinking too much at all. Some of them are successful business owners. Thoughtfulness does not necessarily correspond directly to education level or commercial success.

I'm all in favor of anything that helps people to be more thoughtful and more interested in reconciling concepts intellectually rather than confrontationally. I just don't know if college can create a quality in a student that was not already latent.

I did learn to think better in college, but that process was already underway and continues to this day.

My ability to observe and analyze on sight has helped me to survive more than any rote fact I ever absorbed. I may not be able to spout Latin or quote the classics, by I can figure shit out. Do I wish I had paid a bit more attention in school? Certainly. But the ability to extract basic principles from a situation and apply them to future and more complicated situations is more important than a brain full of Jeopardy-winning factoids. If I was as ignorant as I am AND less capable of thought I would be truly and deeply screwed. As it is, I can cling by a fingernail for a while longer.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Strange Day

This is a strange day, and not just because it started at 3 a.m.

The cellist rolled out of the driveway at 0330 this morning on her way to Maryland to take an orchestra teaching position there. Her 15-year struggle in the cultural wasteland of northern New England had worn her down to the point where she did as crusty locals tell incomers to do, and went back where she came from.

The decision was not made lightly. It doesn't not reflect on the happiness of our marriage or her ability to deal with the climate and isolation of northern rural life. We're not as far north or as rural as the state has to offer, but we're well clear of anything that would be mistaken for urban or suburban. Such a place has many attractions. High-quality arts education is emphatically not one of them.

Northern New England seems actively hostile to her profession. When it comes to serious music education they only like half-assed shit that makes everybody look bad, but does not single out individuals as particularly bad. It is a pact of mediocrity. The few sites where music is pursued at a somewhat higher level are like small, low islands facing the waves in a cold, empty sea. Those islands are already populated with other castaways, eating everything that grows or washes up. They're as likely to push another person's raft back out to sea as they are to try to accommodate one more on the island. To be fair, there's only so much food and shelter.

A parting like this creates a strange new reality for both people. The one going forth has to undergo the displacement, homelessness and a new job. The one left behind has to live with the sudden absence of the partner. I have to relearn how to live alone, but not really completely alone, because I have to maintain the place we had in such a way that she can return when her time permits. But when she's not here, she's not here. I have to do everything in a larger and more complicated facility than I would have if I lived truly alone. While she is occupied by all the new things in a new job -- regardless of the familiarity of the profession -- I have to get used to being here, missing only the most important person in my life.

In 1996 when we started into our relationship, I could have lived with a seasonal cohabitation. We had that for a couple of years, but never really questioned that we would merge our living arrangements. She liked New England. Maryland was clearly sagging under the weight of surplus population. So she came here, full of hope. Once she'd given it more than a couple of years we could never go back to the way it had been when she was a plucky single woman living in Baltimore and I was a mountain hermit living in New Hampshire.

We both gave up much for what we gained. So this reconfiguration to something like that earlier phase is not and does not try to be a return. It's a new game. For one thing, I can no longer afford to be in this house by myself. If I suddenly had to make do without the financial contribution of my spouse I would virtually disappear as I cut off things like cable, phone and Internet to reduce expenses. The nice cushion I had in the mid 1990s has been whittled away by necessary expenditures as we tried to stay afloat while she pursued her career in this cultural desert. What a couple of idiots, right?

We did not know she was terminally ill when we got together. I don't even think we knew it by the time we married. So that casts a shadow over any vision of the future. How soon will her kidneys fail? How much will she be able to work once she goes on dialysis? It's not a matter of months, but no one knows for sure how many years it might be, while research creeps along in search of treatments that might extend kidney function, let alone cure the disease. So there's that.

Obviously no one knows how long they have. Her brother dropped dead in an instant from a heart condition no one knew he had. We all know someone like that, perhaps even several people. And there's cancer, blood clots, ALS, MS, car accidents, bathtub falls,... But having a specific ticking clock adds to the sense of urgency when the person you wanted to spend your life with needs to spend significant amounts of time pursuing her adult professional goals a considerable distance away.

Today I stacked the last of the firewood. I usually solo that chore, so the lack of another person did not stand out. But the task made me think of winter, and preparing for winter, and all that needs to be done before then. Subtracting my wife made the prospect look more intimidating than normal. Winter, even in the age of global warming, is a primal force around here. You need to be ready and you need to stay ready for as long as it lasts. It is the season around which everything else revolves, the season of darkness and cold indifference to life. We are grateful for all that is not winter, even if we love the opportunities winter brings. If you're not using winter's advantages, its disadvantages loom monstrously.

I consider returning to Maryland, but only to a place outside the sprawl. Even then I don't know if I could afford it. One thing about hardscrabble places like rural New Hampshire, the cost of living is pretty low. Income is low, too, and the physical demands are greater than in southerly climes, but somehow a balance is possible that I never found in Maryland with my patchwork of credentials and experience.

Once the tourist economy fails along with the middle class, New Hampshire will have nothing. There's a bit of industry in the southern part of the state, but the job creators will have no incentive to put a facility in a place with so little transportation and communication infrastructure unless they're attracted by sufficient numbers of desperate people willing to work for cheap money. We're probably a couple of years from that, but nothing indicates that the political and economic trends will change course to prevent it. But in my new strange world I can't let myself look too far ahead in any case.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Money is a virus

Money is a virus. It cannot replicate itself without a host. Because corporations receive the political status of people, the host does not actually have to breathe and eat and all that jazz. But the virus depends on susceptibility. The people in the corporation act merely as the regenerated cells of an organism in which genetic coding is activated. One cell sloughed or killed is replaced by another.

Every person is affected to some degree. Some get it much worse than others. While it suffers nothing at all from the death of an individual or even a multitude, someone must remain to desire it.

Through inheritance, money infects generation after generation. The inherited form can cause all kinds of symptoms mimicking the earned form, but actually more debilitating to the patient. A person who has inherited a severe case may feel special in their delirium, and exhibit paranoid and defensive behavior.

Because the virus has both desirable and undesirable effects, highly susceptible individuals will justify their unwillingness to treat their condition by spinning myths that accentuate only the perceived advantages to themselves and others as a result of infection. In this way it mimics a drug. The virus affects the brain as well as the body.

As with the bacteria in our intestines, we need some money to maintain a healthy condition. But exactly like the bacteria in our intestines, too much of the virus throws us far out of balance. The illness of one can have damaging consequences for many people, even those who have not been directly exposed to the sufferer.

When we die out, will our money remain like dormant viruses, until another species of hosts develops susceptibility and takes up the dropped tokens of our social disease?

Tuesday, July 15, 2014


The cellist has found a job in her specialty, teaching orchestra. It's back in Maryland. In mid-August we become a long distance couple.

Couples have been pulled apart by economics throughout history. There are no good old days to which we might return. Her career here has been a constant struggle. Because her specialty is teaching orchestra her life will be somewhat of a struggle even where conditions are the best for someone with her skills. She left a full time position in Maryland 15 years ago and is returning only to a part time job. So-called non essential subjects like music and art get carved away by budget cutters, their faculty disregarded as hobbyists and dilettantes compared to "real" teachers.

Here in the harsh and rocky wilds of northern New England the grim people who pride themselves on facing grim reality set their grim mouths in a tight line and ask, "what did you expect? We told you it was no good here."

You should have learned to do something useful. But even useful people are struggling. There always seem to be more people than jobs. You take what you can get where you can get it.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

The Republic of the Gun

I was going to title this "Guntopia," but that term is already used pretty heavily by the people who would enjoy living in Guntopia.

I had this sudden brainstorm that the best way to bring about the armed society is for the armed to start killing the unarmed simply for being unarmed.

You could set some limits. You could warn the general population that this was going to happen, to give the undecided time to weapon up. You could exempt people below a certain age. Spouses who had signed a dependency contract and wore a badge to signify that they were under the protection of an armed person would be off limits at least for round one. Later, of course, when disputes are settled by combat, it might be necessary to take out someone's spouse to teach them a lesson or to advance the conflict. It's about eradicating dissent, after all. Disagree at your peril. This thing could escalate. When it does, the baddest ass will prevail. And this is how God intended. The quick and the dead.

After the mass slaughter of the pacifists there would still be plenty of firefights. The slaughter wouldn't even count as a firefight. It's more like the extermination of a pest. Once that's out of the way the real fun begins, against worthy adversaries who know the value of combat skill and equipment.

No doubt some defectives would appear in every generation and start whining about peace. A quick one through the forehead will take care of that. Maybe you give them a little time to grow up, but once they hit 18 or 20 they need to start seeing the light or you'll have to put a skylight in their skull.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Conservative conceit

It's been almost a year since a relative of mine used the conservative assertion that some person or persons we were discussing "isn't old enough to be conservative yet." It still bothers me coming from a family member, when I might have brushed it off from some idiot on the street, the television or in an opinion column.

I first ran across this snotty put-down back in the 1990s. I'm sure it's older than that, but that's how long I've had to be aware of it. It's one more subtle way to turn a discussion of issues into an exchange of insults. By all means, be patronizing.

As further proof that I'm living my life backwards, I have steadily grown less conservative as I have gained life experience and listened to the stories of more and more people. I have my limits, but anyone to my right would surely say I am and have been headed in the wrong direction.

Over the years I have steadily scoured out remnants of racism, sexism and homoanxiety I had acquired simply by growing up privileged and white in the 1960s and '70s. Sure, lots of white people were braver and more noble in support of the advancement of all the repressed and downtrodden, and others were far worse in continuing the oppression, but in the middle were doofuses like me who laughed at certain jokes without thinking hard about them, who treated women at least ever so slightly like a prey species and worried about whether we might be homosexual because male classmates were questioning our manhood. Even referring to heterosexual orientation as manhood, as if it was the only form of it, is a holdover from a more simple-minded past.

Fiscal conservatism can be sensible. I don't like to waste money, even if I do get along with all sorts of freaks and weirdos and believe that no one should make 700 times as much money as someone else who has a job and tries to be useful. I happen to believe that the government established by the US Constitution is basically a good model for addressing a bad situation, namely the need to have a government to take care of the routine details of running a society that allows for ample citizen input. The channels of input have been bought out by financially powerful interests masquerading as "the Private Sector." If they can be reclaimed, the big old rickety ship of state might actually start working for the benefit of all once again.

Conservatism in its worst form tends to reject ideas based on their source and to act on the basis of fear. While the conservative may brandish weapons and say warlike things, it is the emotional first line of defense against a world perceived as inherently hostile. If they are correct, and the human race is incorrigibly violent and duplicitous, I'm even happier not to join anyone's hate club and not to have subjected any offspring to the Planet of the Assholes.

I know my relative's fear springs from a time he was very small and still innocent, and had the very bad fortune to be thrust into the middle of desegregation in the schools in a city that was only just recovering from a period of racial violence. Oops. He's not a swastika-wearing skinhead, but he's one of those people who still keeps the N-word available in his vocabulary to describe dark persons who do things of which he does not approve.

Other influences have contributed to solidifying his position. I never argue about it. There's no point. Everyone has to try to find methods that get them successfully through one day and the next for as long as they keep getting more days. While I believe that many -- if not most - of the positions strongly held by today's conservatives are bad for the future of humanity, I know that no one can change this by acts of force. And if it can't be changed by persistent spread of knowledge and a gentle insistence on productive discussion and action, it won't be changed at all. So back we come to the self-fulfilling prophecy of conservative dystopia. They'll have been right because their intransigence brought about the culture of violence and distrust they feared existed all along. The only freedom comes through the skillful use of weapons against whoever tries to muscle in on you.


Friday, June 13, 2014

Reshaping the Political Debate

Listening to some political analysis of the fall of Eric Cantor on NPR, I realized that the only way to get the debate away from partisan squabbling is to disband the Democratic Party and have everyone register as a Republican. Instantly the people who only look for the (R) or automatically vote against the Democrats will either have to start figuring out where they stand on each and every issue or quit voting.

Such a move would completely change the familiar election process that has been letting us down so consistently. Why have a primary and a general election when everyone's in the same party? There would be no us and them. It would render the brand name of the politician meaningless and turn the focus instead to the individual's fitness to meet the needs of voters.

It will never happen, of course. Some people can't live without their group identification. Within the greater Republican Party would develop subcultures that would name themselves and publish their separate ideals in party platforms ranging from Communublican to Libertublican. There would be secret handshakes and coded necktie patterns. Next thing you know one or more of these groups would feel the need to declare their discrete identity. But it would still be hilarious to see what happens in the first weeks or months after every voter joins the R Party

Monday, April 28, 2014

Economic whoas

How can economics be a science when everyone lies about money?

I had this thought this morning over my eggs and toast, and not for the first time. But economics was in the news, with Thomas Piketty's new book and all.

If I did not have to work for a living I would spend all my time reading. But since I can't spend all my time reading I spend hardly any time reading, because there's no point to stimulating my mind when I have to spend so many hours of my life focusing on the tedious intricacies and annoying interruptions of my trade. You also need to take time simply to breathe and observe the life around you. Without the need for gainful employment that's how I would spend the time I wasn't reading. Or writing. Or drawing.

Piketty's work is being glorified and machine gunned because it addresses economic inequality. Economic inequality is also glorified and machine gunned. I tend to side with the machine gunners on that one. Or perhaps those wielding brutal pruning saws, since a little inequality acts like differential atmospheric pressure in fostering healthy circulation rather than stagnation in our financial climate. But massive inequality has an equal if not worse tendency to grind the economy to a crawl. And as we can no longer deny that the economy is as global as the environment, what crawls here drags everything down.

As I searched the web on the topic "economic science" I discovered that many people question its right to remain among the sciences. It has -- as you no doubt expected -- its detractors and supporters. The first page of search results contained thought-provoking snippets enough to keep me occupied for several unproductive days.

This piece by Alan Wang in the Harvard Crimson addresses some of the challenges faced by economists in their pursuit of solid principles and successful predictions. "Economics is not, and will never be, at the stage where models can precisely predict the day on which a financial crisis will start before it happens,..." writes Mr. Wang. The statement accepts without question that the crisis will occur. And Wang tangentially addresses why this is so: "...what is the building block of economics? People. Economics does not study any unit smaller than a collection of people. And human behavior can never be absolutely predicted or explained—not if we wish to believe in free will, at any rate."

People: sneaky and noble, sleazy and altruistic, and all motivated to falsify or conceal for reasons both lofty and lowly. There will be a crisis, and another crisis, and so on, because people will try to get away with shit. They'll slip this one past and it will work, so they'll try another and another. Next thing you know you've got a bubble on your hands or all your working class jobs have gone across an ocean.

As economists try to predict the future by laboriously getting further behind the present by studying all they can find of records from the past, people are producing, consuming, trading and transporting as best they can. The principles that guide them are basic: get more than you give, if possible. Try to get a lot more than you give without anyone noticing until you're so big no one can take you down. Then feel free to be as arrogant as you like about it. If there's action, get a piece of it.

What's so complicated? Wealth can't be created without a basis. The basis is finite. Therefore, wealth is finite. How it is distributed depends on human agreement to social conventions. Do you accept that a bold and ruthless person deserves title to all he can seize, or do you favor more general compensation for every contributor to the economy? These aren't economic questions. Economics are the result of these factors, not the origin.

If you want to be the robber baron you will never agree that you should pay workers more or give more in taxes, because that comes out of your own bottom line. If you want to see all contributors enjoy as high a standard of living as the total amount of wealth will allow, you will never agree to let "the free market" decide anything. You'll need to work out some rules, which will lead to arguments, tricky language, lawyers, loopholes and the natural advantages of more money over less money. Inequality is like a controlled burn. The right amount of fire in the right place at the right time renews the vegetation. Too much, too seldom, results in catastrophic conflagrations. Maintaining a fair economy takes a combination of intelligence and empathy that may simply be impossible. We may be doomed to live from one conflagration to the next. And the economists will be sitting in a blackened landscape saying, "we should probably get some fire hoses pretty soon."

Friday, April 04, 2014

Another nightmare scenario

What if you never  figured out which ones were your lucky underwear? You would go through life having good days and bad days, randomly pulling skivvies from the drawer, never knowing you could have exerted any level of influence on the outcome of job interviews, dates, sporting events and other pivotal events in your life.

Right now, start studying the correlation between your undergarments and the kind of day you have. Chart it! Mark the appropriate garments! Think what might depend on it: your very destiny.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Very Appealing Candidates

Having chimed in on a few national political issues over the years, I am constantly deluged with requests for funds to support political candidates and advocacy organizations that represent the interests of the less corporately connected elements of society.

The running theme in most of these appeals is that billionaire backers are bankrolling the forces of destruction and my $3 or $5 or $10 or sometimes an odd but symbolic amount like $12 will go a long way to help in the fight against oligarchy, plutocracy, runaway capitalism and all the ills of our wealth-worshiping culture. This is grass roots fundraising.

It seems sensible: ask the people of limited means for tiny little contributions. But in reality the processing costs for such a small donation probably eat much of its value. Even worse, a site that appears to support one candidate may actually be raising money for the other side. Or some other sinister interest might have a fish hook in the bait. The one time I did make a contribution to a political candidate I discovered my credit card had been compromised. It's made  me leery, since I am one of those people of limited means who can't afford any financial errors. The card company covered me, but I still had to go through the inconvenience of changing card numbers.

The problem starts with the reliance of political candidates on copious amounts of cash. Even if the candidates and their direct organizations are limited in their sources and use of money, the outside groups that support them channel huge sums to shape public opinion. And even though the campaigns seem to go on forever, they start and end with emotional appeals rather than level-headed discussions of the pros and cons of proposed courses of action. That discussion is never conducted in public because manipulative interests don't really want it done in the open.

You might observe that even a number of small contributions add up to less than I spend on coffee every year. True, but when I pay for a cup of coffee I get a cup of coffee. I know the people at the coffee shop. I know my money helps them in their lives just as the money they spend where I work helps me. The money I throw at social change provides no such assurance. It's like when millions of people chip in after a natural disaster only to discover later that the money was mostly wasted on unhelpful bullshit. You want to feel good, you want to do good, so you trust the people who say they're going to take your contribution to provide that good. In the world of natural disasters there's a clear set of problems and a slate of obvious remedies. And even then the remedial organizations manage to screw it up.  In politics it's even worse, because of all the power and influence at stake. Participants have many built-in motives to mislead.

Assuming for the moment that many of the candidates and organizations trying to fund their resistance to tyranny a few dollars at a time are legitimate it still doesn't change the fact that we little people are in a spending contest with billionaires and rich corporations. We should not be in that position.

The fundamental problem is our undue respect for wealth. If a little rich is good, more rich is better. So most rich is best, right? They call it meritocracy, wrongly assuming that money is an accurate gauge of all values.

Sorry, people. There IS something wrong with being rich. But where is the line between "doing okay" and "filthy oligarch?" Personally I put it down the scale, not far above "doing okay." But just releasing that money into the wild won't make everything fine. If all the newly-minted thousandaires decided to spend their money on destructive, polluting equipment and activities and rampant development we would destroy our ecosystem even faster than we already are. We still need to talk about problems as rational adults.

I'd like to say I didn't think we're screwed, but I think we're screwed. I've heard more about Gwyneth Paltrow in the past week than about efforts to reform campaign finance, promote sustainable energy production, support family planning, rein in climate change and on a large scale treat each other with more courtesy and respect. I just don't see what my $3 is going to get me. How many commercials will it take to instill those values?

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

March is the brightest month

In the snowy part of the Northern Hemisphere, March is the brightest month. The sun is strong and the white cover on the ground reflects it upward even under the evergreens. This makes the arrival of actual warm weather a bit of a step back, visually. The warmer air holds more moisture, breeding more haze and clouds. The brown earth and flattened vegetation revealed by the melted snow looks deader than the gaunt twigs in the gloom of November. This all died last fall and has been lying around crushed beneath the snow ever since.

The first few days or even a couple of weeks in spring have lost the hope of reflected sun and still don't offer the solace of green shoots. Warmth is relative, and greater warmth will only wake up the bloodsucking insects faster. If I was going to go away from here for any part of the year it would be that gap between meltdown and green up. But I would feel guilty.

The people who come here for the very best of any season, particularly the ones who can afford to buy a luxurious house to occupy during those times, are cheating. I'm sure many -- if not most -- of them would say they have to live the way they do and they envy those of us who live here all year, but we know that's bullcrap. They chose that life and they're cherry-picking the best of our conditions the way they take the best of everything else they can get their hands on.

I know that sounds resentful. Sorry about that. It isn't really. I don't care much either way. Their influx makes life here possible the way lots of seasonal fauna and flora do. I just wonder how many of them would earn their good times if they had to endure the bad ones to get there. Would they divest and depart forever? Some sort of life would be possible here even without them. It would be less lavish overall and more practical.

I keep wondering what one of Wolfeboro's celebrity residents would think if they saw the place in its winter disarray. Would they be so grossed out by it that the unshakeable image would ruin summer for them as well? Once in a great while we'll see one of the uber-capitalist tycoon types in the off season, but any sighting of the high-end summer folk is limited pretty completely to summer, and high summer at that. So even though someone might have been coming to town for years, they really only know a few weeks of it.

If someone put in a fracking well near one of the tributaries to Lake Winnipesaukee and let chemicals flow down to turn the water weird colors, would the few best weeks of summer hold their value? Lucky us, we don't have that kind of rock under us. But what if other businesses started locating big facilities even a few miles from the lake? Our image of quaint purity would be blown.

Timber harvesting used to be the big industry in the northern half of New Hampshire. Residential development has squeezed forestry and agriculture in the southern half. The commercial development that followed simply provides for the hordes of consumers occupying the sprawl around urban centers. Rural character recedes northward to the point where already dim economic prospects darken almost to complete blackness. In the transition zone we live off our looks. Big money looking for deep rurality goes to Montana or Wyoming. Sorry, North Country. Screwed again. But south of the notches and north of the sprawl we try to maintain our balance: easy to get to, but not too easy. Quaint and peaceful but not too boring or remote.

The mud is going to be epic this year. Looks like the weather pattern is not going to shift suddenly and completely to warmth. We may get more snow to add to what already has to melt. The slow infusion of meltwater makes the deepest, most persistent mud. The top layer of ground thaws to pudding before the frost has left the deeper layers, so the water has nowhere to go. Grudgingly the earth softens so that the water can soak down, but when it is fed by glacial snowbanks the process can take weeks.

The process, no matter how dismal and endless, is fascinating. How much more ugly can it get? How long will it remain dank, murky and hypothermic? We need to market this. Come to New Hampshire! See if you can take it! Check out how unbelievably useless and gross conditions can be! Drink like a local! Experience the season of alcohol and comfort food, when there's really nothing else to do. Be amazed!

It'll be a little while yet. There's still some spring skiing. And then...

Monday, February 03, 2014

February, that long short month

February comes in like a groundhog and goes out like something wet and cold.
On Groundhog Eve we held our annual celebration. We shifted it from Groundhog Day to avoid a big football game that would have curtailed the attendance of some guests. It also seemed more appropriate to celebrate the predictive powers of the celebrated rodent by holding our Second Annual Groundhog Day Jam and Poetry Slam before this year's decision was known.
The dinner ended with the traditional cake.

Guests brought their own culinary contributions. These are groundhog cookies built on Nutter Butters.

The evening was filled with poetry and song. Since this was a larger gathering than we'd ever had, a bunch of new people became aware of the possibilities of satirical groundhog-themed versions of well-known music and poetry. There were also several original compositions.
The party used up not only the last of my roasted coffee but the last bean I had on hand. Fortunately, ten pounds of green pulled in as the old stuff departed. Here is Peru Cafe Succhia and Kenya Githembe.

The fastest way to roast with the equipment I have is on a high-powered stove burner. I'm shaking the beans in a popcorn popper. When they really start to roast there's a lot of smoke. This shop vac arrangement pulls a lot of smoke and blows it out the window. When I'm really on my game the smoke alarms don't go off at all. Today I had a few chirps during each roast, but not bad.

Since shaking the roaster is about all the exercise I get these days, I welcome the activity. Bike commuting season will return. For now I have to get as much benefit as I can from household chores and fidgeting. Being heavily caffeinated certainly helps with the fidgeting.

February will lead to March, an even longer month. The government hath decreed that we shift our daylight pretty early in March, which opens up outdoor possibilities pinched off in the darkest time of winter.  But we're a long way from that.