Monthly Archives: September 2010

Seeing Stars

A Hubble Space Telescope image of the R136 sup...Image via Wikipedia

Sometimes I imagine that I live in the world before electricity. I am lying on my back looking at the night sky and it is a stunning display. The stars whirling across the sky are a dizzying mystery. I have no TV, I have no cell phone, I have no computer, no radio. Only the sky with its myriad lights, some blinking, some steady.

No city aura softens the blackness of the night. It is a moonless night. I like the moon, but I like moon-free nights best for watching the heavenly lights. They may not even be called stars yet. How much do cities dilute the dark? Are there spots in Outer Mongolia where no city aura weakens the light show? Or do the lights of the giant cities bleed into the lower atmosphere so that no night is as deeply black as it once was.

Maybe I live before fire was discovered. Maybe I and my “family” lay in a row with our heads forming a level line and look for patterns in the stars. We make up stories about the patterns. We invent an entire cosmology. We pass it on to our children and through many generations until we reach a time where there is so much light bleaching out even the darkest night that people only see a tiny portion of the stars and cannot imagine how well they entertained us, once upon a time.

As compensation, we have the Hubble telescope which unveils a whole other dimension of cosmic beauty.

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House Shopping – Last (I Hope)

I have seen all the contractors. All the measurements have been taken. These are the things I wanted to do:

New kitchen cupboards
New kitchen countertops and sink
New kitchen floor
New furnace and AC
New refrigerator
New windows on porch
Fence in back yard (split rail)
Paint throughout

What I have learned is that if you invite someone into your house to give an estimate, the cost of any project will always exceed $1000. Many projects will always exceed $5000. We are talking very simple projects here. So how many projects do I get to do? I get to do the 1st five.

Next the appraiser has to look over the house and decide if the projects will raise the value of the house to the value of the mortgage plus the rehab loan. If not I am not sure what happens. Maybe I can buy the house at the original price without the rehab loan. Perhaps they will make me complete different projects. As soon as I turn in my estimates I wait, again. This is a long process.

Blame Labor Unions?

All of a sudden labor unions are an enemy in America. People blame the labor unions for the loss of our manufacturing jobs. Labor unions, according to this version, priced the American worker out of the marketplace. Labor unions have, in this estimate, ruined the free market and reined in capitalism. Labor unions are responsible for the currently depressed economic state in America.

Teachers unions are under fire also. They are, apparently, responsible for forcing school districts to keep bad teachers through the practice of tenure. They are also holding schools back academically by supporting old hide-bound rules and practices.

But we have all studied the history of America without unions. Profits ruled then even more than now. Long hours, low pay, inhuman working conditions, cruelty, child labor – rampant Capitalism is not pretty without the counterpoint of labor unions to defend workers.

Perhaps labor unions (which, incidentally, are made up of American workers) were not keeping their heads up. Perhaps they were not looking at the writing on the wall. They may have thought that jobs were secure and that wages would just go on keeping pace with prices. They sort of knew other markets were waiting in the wings, but they thought American business would stay in America. Although the development of a global economy was inevitable, they (we) just weren’t expecting it now.

Teachers without unions could be fired for any reason or no reason whatsoever. They could be fired for expressing an unpopular idea. Imagine what could have happened to teachers who spoke out against McCarthyism. What about teachers who do not want to teach only “creationism”? Academic freedom is extremely central to a democracy. The 1st Amendment to our Constitution protects freedom of speech. But we still have people who want to ban books.

If tenure is a problem, work with unions to use the window of opportunity that exists for firing “bad” teachers. If the window is too short make it a bit longer. Work with unions on a great evaluation system, perhaps a peer review system, so a paper trail exists when a teacher needs to be pulled out of the classroom. Retrain where possible, let go where necessary, but don’t get rid of fail safes that guarantee academic freedom.

Our labor unions are not the villains that they are being painted in the media. However, maybe they have become a bit set in their ways. If they keep defending wage and hours standards for jobs that don’t exist they will ensure their obsolescence.

I am not like Ahmadinejad. I do not believe capitalism is dying. Obviously it is alive and well and living in China. Small businesses spring up naturally wherever there are people. Capitalism is a grassroots phenomenon. So are labor unions.

"Bazinga"

I am seeing an ominous trend in the American auto industry. Instead of making cars smaller it is loading cars with technology. Auto makers advertize live-flow TV, Wi-Fi connectivity, On Star, GPS, Satellite radio, HD radio, wireless, hands-free cell phone service and on and on. I see this as a possibly worrisome trend. If they start putting in microwaves and vending machines I will get really nervous. I know we’re not supposed to be distracted by any of this stuff while we’re driving. Does the American auto industry know something we don’t know? Will we soon be living in our cars? Just kidding, I hope.

Oops, excuse me!

Why are farts funny? When we were young my brothers found farts hilarious. They lit them on fire, they had contests, they rated them on a stench scale which went from tolerable all the way to having to leave the room. I found all this fart talk disgusting and a really cheap shot at humor.

My dad didn’t let the boys use the word fart when he was around so they invented the term butt snort, which for some reason became buck snort.

In those days only low life people farted out loud. Anyone with manners left the room. All this farty talk really embarrassed me. Belching was considered off limits also, but is also experiencing a comeback, although not rated quite a funny as a good buck snort.

They never had fart jokes on TV or in movies when I was young. I’m not sure when fart jokes became the norm, but I think it probably dates somewhere near the release of Animal House.

I began to trace the history of farts in the media while watching Two and a half Men because they are such a staple bit on that show. These days I find myself smiling at fart jokes while giving my head a rueful shake. Have we plumbed the depths or can we go lower? Actually, I believe both Chaucer and Shakespeare appreciated a good fart story.

Chapter 20 – With the Taylors Again

Tyler came home from Vietnam in 1969 because his twins were born quite premature and very tiny. Two little boys fighting to breathe while their lungs developed. They weighed two something and one something and it was not thought that they would live. Tyler, who had spent his time in Vietnam in the motor pool thanks to the many hours spent with Hobart with his head under a car hood, was released on a hardship discharge. Even though he was not a combat troop, he had seen enough to last a lifetime and did not want to talk about it. The winter was spent visiting the hospital and waiting for the twins to add weight. Sara, always an anxious woman, held up remarkably well once Tyler got home. One twin was a great concern to the doctors; they were quite negative about his chances.

This was the first Taylor family crisis in which life and death of an infant was involved. My mom and dad had friends whose young daughter was killed in a farm accident and our favorite aunt died of kidney disease. But these guys were babies and they were Tyler’s babies. The Taylors rallied to help Tyler and Sara by lavishing lots of home cooking, love, and attention on them.

By summer the twins were both home and doing very well. They were curly blonds like Tyler had been and their intelligence was already obvious. Tyler and Sara bought a mobile home and some land out in the same sticks where Annie’s family lived.

Gertie and Jason also had a boy, also curly blond hair, but much chubbier – a very smiley social butterfly who had charmed his way into all our hearts. I was the only one of the first four without a husband and a child and Augusta was feeling it. One day she tried to fix me up with a poor, unsuspecting door-to-door pots and pans salesman. I still insisted that I was not interested in marriage or children, but to Augusta this was just some poor self-image denial crap. A life without marriage and children was unfathomable to her. Luke we did not talk about.

With four babies, well three newborns and one toddler, Sundays were one long baby fest. I did love all my nephews and my niece and clamored to hold them just like all my sisters and my mom did. They never touched the floor when they were at gramma’s. As soon as one person looked ready to set a child down, a new set of arms appeared to whisk the child away.
It was the summer of the above ground pool. Everyone decided we would finally get a swimming pool so Hobart picked up a kit for an 8-foot diameter pool. An 8-foot circle had be cleared, although a spot was chosen that took advantage of whatever grassless spots were left. All stones had to be cleared from the space and sand laid down and raked out level. Then the plastic retaining wall could be put together, the liner smoothed into place, and the caps that held the liner could be snapped over the liner. The filter was assembled and placed but would not be turned on until the pool was full. This project was much easier than the cellar wall project and was actually completed in one Sunday. The guys, Dean, Tyler, Jason and Robert got quite drunk on beer. Hobart was grouchy and disapproving. By the end of the day the hose was in the pool, the babies were cranky and Hobart was somewhat mollified with a good barbecue.

Sundays that summer were spent in the pool and the backyard, although the moms, Felicity, Gertie, and Sara, spent most of their time watching babies and helping with lunch and dinner. The guys spent most of their time working on cars, standing around with beers, belching, farting, getting hot and sweaty, and finally jumping in the pool. Sometimes they got a little too fried and threw women in the pool who were not even dressed for swimming. Hobart knew his sons liked their beers, but he never realized how much until drinking was not intermixed with work, but instead with recreation and hijinks. It was obvious that Hobart regretted putting up that pool.

The Taylors started to have arguments about child rearing. After all there were three new adults in the family who had not been raised in the Taylor household. Dean had spent a lot of time at our house as a teenager and he also grew up in Smithvale, but his mom was a stern no-nonsense kind of woman. He did not have brother, just three sisters. Felicity and Dean did not always see eye-to-eye where Abby was concerned, Felicity coming down on the side of being at the baby’s beck and call, Dean on the side of letting the child cry sometimes. The Taylors were not sympathetic to Dean. Sara was just a plain fuss-budget, perfectly reasonable probably considering the boys had almost died, but still miles away from the laid back Taylor style. She had the number for Poison Control memorized, and, if speed dial had been available then, the number would have been programmed in. Gertie’s Jason was from a very dysfunctional family and he was a Southern boy. He still talked about rebels and Yankees and nothing Gertie did with his son satisfied him. (He did think of the baby as “his”.) The Taylor clan absorbed the newcomers, but was altered by them. There is nothing like a big, friendly family, though, and we changed them too.

Robert was also showing signs of settling down. One of Morgan’s friends was hanging around and Robert was not pushing this Ellen girl away. He was embarrassed about it, God forbid anyone should tease him (Mr. Torture), but when they thought they could avoid notice by the big mouths (Tyler, Dean and Jason) they say side-by-side on the couch, not saying much, but obviously intent on proximity.

My life had nothing in common with my brothers and sisters lives. They had no idea how my life went from day to day and I’m sure they did not want to know. I liked my life but I knew better than to share too many of the details. Obviously, they knew Annie and had met Linda. They knew about Lena by reputation, but had never met her, and they knew Luke because he used to hang out with Robert. They knew about my losing my job and about the Austin Healey, but we did not discuss the job search I was supposed to be conducting or how I was paying for the car. I suspected they talked about me a lot when I wasn’t around.

When I was home with the Taylors, however, I did as the Taylors did. If I arrived stoned, I left straight, not being a big drinker. I held babies, discussed babies, cooked, set tables, did dishes and swam like everyone else. But I didn’t fit in like everyone else and I thought they were the backward ones, the ones who were marching out of tune with the times. And even though I didn’t fit in, I kept going home, not wanting to completely surrender my membership in the Taylor clan. And I wouldn’t have missed the babies for anything, but I would have been happy to miss Augusta’s concern and Hobart’s disregard.I was in the 60’s, but my family was still in the 50’s. And I knew how to inhale.

Another Point of View, Mr. Trump

I want to address the issues Mr. Trump talked about on Wednesday. I want to talk about the decline in respect for America. We are “experiencing technical difficulties” and we are in a transitional period, but we are still a great nation. When we opened up trade and allowed businesses to relocate we were recognizing that only a truly global economy would work for the future. If one country corners all the wealth there will be no markets for its products. If one country flaunts all the wealth and hogs all the natural resources the poor around the world will eventually rise up and rebel.

Sharing the wealth started out as a good thing. I think, perhaps things have gotten out of balance in that all our businesses wanted in on low labor costs and new markets so they all jumped ship, or too many jumped ship. Will our labor force accept lower wages for awhile? Will our local and state governments lower the cost of doing business in America? Will we accept dirty air and dirty water and toxic waste to lower costs? Or will we just hope that we are the country that comes up with the next new thing?

I believe that we could not keep all the manufacturing for America. This economic evolution was natural. However, since things have gone too far in one direction we must now find a way to tip the seesaw back in our direction. Isn’t this the dialectic? We do need some great leadership in this endeavor.

As far as whether America has any traits worthy of respect, I would say that our humanitarianism has been at an all time peak. We are the guardians of the underdogs, the victims, the downtrodden, the oppressed. We are exploring our spiritual side. We are more interested in figuring out how to live lightly on the earth than we are in materialism, although we don’t want our quality of life to change very much. This new “spiritualism” doesn’t always gain us respect because some tyrants want no interference.

Perhaps we do tread where we should not and perhaps we don’t need to rescue everyone (won’t be able to). It’s also possible that some of the people we try to “save” are not asking for help. Or maybe it’s a matter of “no good deed goes unpunished.” But our regard for human freedom and human rights is one of our best traits. I think we should get some credit for that. Maybe some countries love us and hate us at the same time, but we have never been without our detractors. I’m not sure we are currently any less popular.

So maybe we’re not “over,” maybe we are just changing. Of course a global economy requires adjustment. Mr. Trump, maybe your expertise will help us through this transition.

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Donald Trump’s Take

Donald Trump in February 2009Image via Wikipedia

Donald Trump was interviewed by Wolf Blitzer on CNN yesterday. He talked about Obama, our image overseas, and our economy. He does have 5.4 billion dollars so I imagine his economic opinions are of interest, at least they are to me. He also spends a lot more time overseas than most of us, so he probably gets an earful over there. I would guess, though, that his opinions about Obama may not carry much more weight than anyone else’s, although he certainly has more influence.

Mr. Trump says that we are losing the respect of the nations in the rest of the world, but I’m not sure why. This is another thing that is about money and therefore, about slippage. In the perception of others we are not first in anything anymore. We are not first in standard of living, not first in education, not first in manufacturing. Perhaps we are not even first in innovation. Mr. Trump seemed to feel that we gave away our spot at the head of the line of nations and that we need to get it back.

Donald Trump also said that he’s a “hawk” who believes that, on this occasion, we need to get out of the wars we are in. We need to manufacture things again, and we need a 25% tariff on Chinese goods. We are funding the Chinese economic transformation and not getting any respect for doing it at all. It was quite interesting to hear his viewpoint and I want to respond to it, but I need to think about it some more, so I will let it percolate until tomorrow.

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Human Wars – Our Finest Selves

War is terrible. To be caught in the middle of a war must seem like you are stuck in hell. Sometimes, in order to prevent a war from coming to you, you have to take the war to the soil of the aggressor. It is impossible to avoid national guilt when people are dying anywhere at our hands. We often do not feel like our best selves and we shouldn’t. Once we decide we must defend our country, or our way of life, or our freedom, and we go to war we are supposed to support our country. We sometimes have trouble with this although we almost always support our soldiers.

In recent wars our motives have sometimes been complex and both selfish and altruistic. We are preventing a repeat of 9/11. We are protecting a country’s residents from ruthless leaders, we are protecting human rights, we are leading nations to democracy, we are defending our economic interests, and on and on. Instead of staying home reacting to events we decide to get out there and “mix it up.” Here at home, depending on which motive we tune in to, we find our emotions oscillating. While we always mourn, some motives seems worthy of the expenditure of our soldiers lives and health. Other motives make us question the human toll.

One of our frequent motives for war is to defend the rights of women and children. Women and children are worth defending. Horrible crimes are being committed against these groups. Their human rights are often disregarded or deliberately trampled. These are not women and children who have been previously empowered in any way. They don’t know how to organize; they don’t know how to defend themselves.

I know we are stepping on people’s religious beliefs, at times, in our struggle to provide women with basic human rights. In fact, I think this may become a nexus of conflict. What we see as a threat to freedom, others see as an intrinsic religious rule written in holy texts and practiced for centuries. I believe our regard for the human rights of women and children is part of our finest self and I believe we cannot help ourselves when it comes to defending women and children. However, war should not be our go-to strategy in this particular battle. For one thing, women and children suffer most in war. For another, these traditions run so deep in some cultures that when we attack something so deeply and firmly held, we must take our time, and use our words, and keep pushing for a gradual evolution. We need to be careful that while we are expressing our finest selves we don’t antagonize our neighbors so much that they decide to do something rash like annihilating everyone.

Cat Wars

I have a cat. She is a fluffy, tawny tiger with medium length fur. She is a semi-feral cat that I adopted when she fell ill. Ten years later she is living with me in my mother’s attic. And she is not happy. She has been an outdoor cat, but has not been outside in over a month. She’s starting to act a little “stir crazy.”

My cat is upstairs because my mom also has a cat that lives downstairs. Last night, my cat, Princess went down the stairs and encountered Mom’s cat, Willow. Now we have a stand-off. Princess is acting very nonchalant. Willow’s tail looks like one of those old raccoon tails college students wore in the 40’s or 30’s or 20’s (whatever).

Cat protocol is very strict in these matters, I believe. The older cat usually dominates. But Willow was the first cat in the household even though she is the younger cat. Who’s the boss? That’s what the cats are trying to decide, but it’s a tough call. Why can’t they share? Do cats ever share?

So, how will we get Princess to go back upstairs? If we leave them both downstairs at night how will we get any sleep? How did cats and people ever get together any way, since we live on opposite schedules?