Archives for category: politics

We used to live in a community constructed around a golf course.   The topography is beautiful and it’s a nice place to live, regardless of one’s feelings about golf.  Since I’ve quit the sport for life several times, we were not “members” of the club. Still, we occasionally joined members at the clubhouse for dinner.  Most are impressive and accomplished people, enjoyable to be around.  We typically discussed children, sports and the weather.  We compared restaurants, travel and traffic. We did NOT discuss politics.

Once, when my wife, Katie and I arrived for a dinner with three other couples, three of the eight seats at our table were empty.  We learned two husbands and one wife were elsewhere in the building attending a fund-raiser for a Republican congressional candidate.  Amanda, whose husband was at the meeting, told the rest of us she doesn’t agree with her husband’s politics, so she didn’t attend, but she expected them shortly.  The five of us agreed emphatically we wouldn’t discuss the fund-raiser when the three attendees arrived.

 

*****

To our surprise, however, when Tom, Mary and Amanda’s husband, Harry arrived, they burst with missionary zeal. Not only did they wish to discuss politics, they appeared to have been enlisted to do so, to bring enlightenment to the apathetic or, worse, progressive-leaning in their midst.

“No one could be happy with the way America is going,” declared Harry, the most excited of the trio, as he sat down to my left.  “Don’t you think it’s time we got this country turned around?  We’re under siege!”

I had a sinking feeling my tongue would not obey my brain.   “I don’t see the pitchforks,” I said, gesturing out the window to the sun-splashed golf course, just as a blue heron took flight over a lake in the foreground.

“You know what I mean,” said Harry. “The country is going down the tubes.  We’re not where we want to be.”

I suspected he was repeating parts of the presentation he’d just heard, but I couldn’t resist responding literally. “We’re sitting here at dinner in a lovely setting.  All of us are retired or semi-retired, without financial worry.  Isn’t this exactly where we want to be?”

Harry rolled his eyes.  “You just don’t get it, do you?”

“No, I definitely do not,” I admitted.

*****

For the past couple of years, while the national political scene has become increasingly polarized, I’ve tried without success to comprehend the Republican mindset.  For sure, Democrats can also be inconsistent.  I’m familiar with those from growing up in a Democratic household and attending a Quaker school.  I don’t condone Democratic inconsistencies, but I understand them.

For instance, my father, who died in 1994, was nearly socialist in terms of economic policy.  Yet, as a victim of numerous robberies and burglaries at his downtown business, he rabidly supported a “tough-on-crime” mayor.  In addition, while he railed against the Vietnam War like a draft dodger, his personal fastidiousness caused him outrage when he saw longhaired or sloppily dressed men.   In the 1960’s and 70’s, in particular, he was appalled on a daily basis.   I didn’t always agree with his hard-to-reconcile positions, but I comprehended them.  They sprung rationally from his experience or personality.

But modern-day Republicans?  As Harry asserted, I don’t get it.  I wonder about it.  I shake my head about it.  I can’t figure it out.  In the prosperous country club milieu, I couldn’t find any Republican who admits supporting the stated positions of their preferred candidates.  In Harry, Mary and Tom, I saw the opportunity to gain an understanding.

“Let me play the devil’s advocate,” I said, as innocently as possible.

“Sure, bring it on,” said Harry, spoiling for a debate.

Mary and Tom, sitting across from me, regarded me sympathetically, like a poor student in need of enlightenment.

“Do you believe a woman is equal to a man and should be paid the same?” I asked.

“Of course,” said Harry.

“Sure,” said Mary, as though my question were the most naïve she’d ever heard.

Tom nodded.

“Should a woman have control over her own medical decisions?” I asked.

“I know what you’re getting at,” Mary jumped in.  “I know it’s not part of my religion, since I’m Catholic, but I completely believe a woman should make her own decisions about abortion.”

“Wow,” I said.

“We have daughters and grand-daughters,” said Tom.  “Of course we think they’re entitled to equal pay and to control their own bodies.”

“What about gay people?” I asked. “Are they equal, too?”

“Of course,” said Mary.  “Even if you don’t actively support equal rights or gay marriage, why would you actively oppose it?”

“Good question,” I said.  “I can’t figure that out either.”

I became aware the rest of the table had paused to listen.  Katie, to my far right, made a facial expression I took to mean:  “Are you sure you want to do this?”

Intrigued, or reckless, I plunged further: “Do you think there should be reasonable background checks to prevent domestic abusers, mental patients and ex-felons from obtaining guns?”

“Absolutely,” said Harry.

“That’s just common sense,” added Tom.

“What about fracking?” I asked.

“I’m all for it,” said Tom.

“It’s for the economy,” added Harry. “And energy independence.  Are you against it?” he asked me.

“It’s not appropriate in North Carolina,” I said.

“Why not?” asked Mary.

“Because we have a large population, a tourist economy, sandy soil conducive to leakage, and only minimal oil or gas,“ I said.

“Well, is it EVER acceptable in your view?” asked Harry, warming to posing the questions.

“It might be appropriate in North Dakota,” I said, “since there’s tons of oil there, almost no people, no tourists and the soil isn’t sandy and permeable.  Still, even there, the chemicals should be disclosed.”

“Agreed,” said Tom.  “You know, we may be Republicans but we do care about the environment.”

“Absolutely,” said Mary.  “We breathe the air and drink the water, too, you know.”

“See,” said Harry, beaming, gesturing warmly to the entire table.  “We can have a serious, political conversation here.  We can reach reasonable conclusions.  We can respect each other.”

“Absolutely,” I said.  “On to another subject.”

Harry’s wife, Amanda, patted my right arm.  “You go get ‘em,” she said.  “I have to go through this every day at home.”

Everyone laughed.  I turned back to my three-person panel.

“What about the concept of ‘clean coal’ and the alleged ‘war on coal’ that Republicans blamed on Obama?”

“Haha,” said Tom.  “No one’s stupid enough to think coal can ever be clean.”

“But why do Republican candidates claim it’s wonderful?” I asked.

“You gotta get the votes,” said Tony.  “The birthers and the crazies love that stuff.”

“So you agree that the low price of natural gas has more to do with the plight of the coal industry than Obama?” I asked.

“We know that,” said Mary.  “But we do have to protect the people in the coal states.  Their economies are bad.”

“That’s right,” said Harry.  “What can those poor people in Kentucky and West Virginia do without coal mining?”

“I suppose their economies did fabulously in the past 150 years WITH coal-mining?” I said.

“Oh, there you go,” said Tom.  “Getting sarcastic.”

“Well?” I asked.

“What do you suggest those people do for a living?” said Harry.

“Perhaps,” I said, “instead of strip-mining the tops of their mountains, companies could develop wind turbines or solar panels and construct the necessary grid connections.  Those projects would create thousands of jobs, without spills and without explosions. Did you know there are now more solar workers in America than coal workers?”

All three of them looked at me wordlessly.  Finally, Tom asked:  “Are you serious?”

I nodded, but before I could say: “Look it up,” Mary began to explain her motivations for supporting the GOP.   “There are two main things:  securing our border and education.”

“And don’t forget welfare fraud,” said Harry.

“And the need for more military spending,” said Tom.

“Whoa, one at a time,” I said. “Let’s discuss the border.”

“We have to know who’s coming in,” said Harry.  “Anyone could be pouring across the Mexican border.  Democrats don’t take it seriously.”

“You do know Obama presided over more deportations than any other president?” I said.

“I heard that,” said Tom.  “But he set the wrong tone, with the amnesty and all.”

“Terrorists are crossing over every day,” said Harry.

I had to ask:  “How many of the 9-11 terrorists were from Mexico?”

“Oh, you’re good,” said Harry.  “Very good. But if we had a wall at the border, we’d worry a lot less about bombers.”

“You mean like the Tim McVeigh?” I asked.  “Did he choose tacos for his final meal?”

“Very funny,” said Tom.  “We have to know who’s in the country.  We have to fingerprint them.  We have to know who’s around.”

“I agree that would be ideal,” I said. “But the FBI knew about the Boston Marathon guys.  They ‘checked them out.’  It didn’t prevent the bombing.”

“Security will never be perfect,” said Harry.  “I still think the first step is to secure the border.”

“And who’s going to build the wall?” I asked.  “When it’s finished, will the laborers be asked to finish painting on the Mexican side and stay there?  Who picks the fruit, mows the lawns and cleans the houses?”

“Those are problems,” said Mary.

“Would you deport all those people?” I asked.

“Of course not,” said Tom.  “We need some way to legalize them.”

“Did the candidate say that in his presentation?” I asked.

“He can’t SAY that,” said Harry.  “Everyone understands that.”  He gestured to the rest of the dining room, filled with cheerful, prosperous diners.

“After all,” said Mary.  “We’re a nation of immigrants.”

*****

My hamburger had grown cold.  My sweet potato fries had long ago been stolen by my tablemates.  I took a deep breath and plunged back in.

“What’s the Republican solution to education?”

“It has something to do with testing and parent choice,” said Mary.

“Okay.  What about them?” I asked.

“I’m not really sure,” said Harry. “But we also have to make teachers do a better job.  They need to be professionals.”

I asked:  “Would you support raising their pay?”

“Not with raising taxes,” said Mary.  “Nothing can be solved with taxes.  As the candidate said, we need to cut waste and fraud.”

“Ah, that’s a good phrase,” I said. “Sounds like Fox t.v.”

“Don’t make fun of Fox,” said Harry. “MSNBC is just as bad.   There’s a lot of waste and fraud in government.”

“Especially welfare fraud,” said Mary.

“And food stamp fraud,” added Tom.

“I don’t condone fraud,” I said.

“And it costs money we could otherwise spend on our military,” said Mary.

“Is that why the GOP proposes to raise military spending while lowering social spending?” I asked.

“That’s right,” said Harry.  “We need strong defense and there’s plenty of money available on the social side.”

“I agree we need an effective military,” I said.  “But I suspect fraud and waste in military spending far exceeds welfare fraud in real dollars.  No less a hawk than John McCain pointed out that there are billions, with a B, dollars of waste and overruns in our weapons programs.  Welfare fraud is measured in thousands and millions.”

“So you think Boeing and Halliburton executives are worse than welfare queens?” said Harry.

“They can be,” I said.  “It’s just that when those executives are crooked, we aren’t as interested because they look like us and we’d enjoy dinner or golf with them.”

“That’s very cynical,” said Tom.

“Still true,” I said.

“How do they get away with that?” asked Mary.  “Why don’t we hear about that?”

“Could it be because defense contractors make huge political contributions?  I don’t think many welfare recipients do,” I said.

The table quieted for a moment as we concentrated on the dessert menu.  The rest of the table had tired of our debate and resumed chatting with each other.  I wondered if I’d ever be invited to the club again.  Still, I figured I’d gone so far already, I might as well finish the conversation.

“So tell me,” I began, addressing Harry, Mary and Tom.  “Your positions deviate from the stated Republican positions on, among other things, guns, gay marriage, women and a path towards legal status for undocumented immigrants.  Once you verify that military spending is at least as wasteful as welfare spending, you’ll look at that differently, too.  None of you profess to be against environmental regulations.  How do you support candidates who don’t express any of your relatively reasonable positions?”

“Like I said before,” said Tom.  “They have to get elected.”

“So what voters are they talking to?” I asked.

“Those people out there,” said Harry, gesturing to the windows.  “The people out west, and in the deep south, the ones who liked Sarah Palin.  You know, the nut-jobs.”

“So you feel the Republican candidates don’t actually believe what they’re saying,” I said.  “They’re just speaking buzzwords to get the votes of the low-information, low-education voters and then, basically, winking at the high-end Republicans like you?”

“Bingo!” said Harry.  “That’s what they have to do.”

“So you have no problem with the disconnect between the stated positions of the candidates you support and what you believe to be their real beliefs?” I asked.

All three nodded.  I found myself where I’d begun.  (And this discussion took place BEFORE Trump)  I STILL don’t get it.  If there is not a rational, real-life explanation for why these intelligent, kind people vote the way they do, is there an irrational explanation? What factors influence them? I hesitate to ponder too deeply lest I dislike my own conclusions.  Readers are encouraged to weigh in.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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NECESSARY DISTRACTION

 

 

One recent morning I lie awake at 4:00 a.m.   Involuntarily, and uncontrollably, my brain flits through dismal thoughts:  Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s health; the Con-Man in DC; carbon emissions growth; stock market collapse; and, the Philadelphia Eagles’ quarterback situation.

I struggle until 7:00 when I arise, open the shades, look out the window and notice something new.  The pond across the street, normally placid and uninhabited except by slow-moving turtles appears to have a surface disturbance. As I focus, whatever moved disappears below the surface so quickly I wonder if I’ve imagined it.  Several seconds later, a bird reappears.  It looks like a miniature duck, but what kind?

I reach below my desk for the “Field Guide to Wild Birds.”  I scroll through twenty-two pages of common ducks and also a few rarer ducks I’ve seen, including, hooded mergansers that visited last summer and Muscovy ducks, the huge green/black fowl I’ve seen at the zoo.

Aha, our visitor is unmistakably a female “bufflehead.”  She is described, as follows: “Among the smallest of ducks, grey-brown with an obvious oval of white on her cheek.”   As predicted in the guide, she dives incessantly for insect larvae.  She remains below the surface for fifteen-twenty seconds at a time.  She is tiny, much smaller than the standard mallards one generally sees.

I haven’t spent too much time pondering ducks in my life, but if there is one thing I know about ducks, it’s that they mate for life.  Is our duck a widow?  A divorcee? Who’s heard of a pond with one duck?

 

*****

 

 

I grew up across from a pond.  It served as a water feature on the Bala Golf Course, an Irish Catholic institution that zealously excluded everyone else.  The several times I ventured onto golf course property during hours of play, a “ranger” appeared magically as if an alarm had been tripped.  He’d drive a golf cart down a hill from the clubhouse shouting: “No trespassing!  Private property!  No trespassing!”  Needless to say, my six-year-old self ran home immediately.

In Philadelphia in the early 1960’s it was understood there were Protestant (WASP) clubs, Jewish clubs and Catholic clubs.  If one wanted to golf ecumenically, I suppose, one went to a public course.  In a way, my exclusion from Bala probably saved me from developing a golf habit, along with the expense, time and frustration that entails.  Thank you, discrimination.

Meanwhile, back to the pond…. In winter, when no one golfed, the overwhelmingly Jewish population of our neighborhood considered the pond the local skating rink.  As soon as sub-freezing temperatures arrived, I cheered for the developing ice like a sports team.  Intellectually, I’d learned from my older brothers, it required at least four complete days of below freezing temperatures to create ice thick enough for skating.  Alternatively, it required 7-8 nights of nighttime freeze if daytime temperatures climbed above thirty-two.  Still, from the first transparent appearance of ice on the surface, I nagged my mother every day asking if the ice were ready.

The pond also hosted ducks.  I recall they were exclusively mallards, with the green-headed males and greyish females.  We’d save stale bread to feed the ducks in the corner of the pond where a waterfall prevented freezing.  The ducks ate ravenously, and we felt virtuous.  Recently, I’ve read it’s not healthy for them to eat bread, and local ducks I’ve encountered don’t seem interested.  Could they have gone on a species-wide health kick in the intervening fifty years?

 

*****

 

A week later, the mystery of the single bufflehead continues until one morning, a male appears.  He’s much larger, with brilliant white highlights between otherwise brown and gray feathers.  It’s exciting!  Our girl has found (or been found by) a mate.  They spend all day diving together.  My faith in duck companionship is restored.  By spring, I expect ducklings to brighten the pond.

The next morning, he’s gone. “What happened to our boy?” I wonder.  Am I over anthropomorphizing?  After a couple of days, the tiny female departs, too.  Our pond is again uninhabited except for turtles – no harm, but no fowl.  I realize I miss the daily speculation about her situation.

 

*****

 

Little came of my early skating career. There were few kids my age and teenagers didn’t want a six-year-old in their hockey games.  And, though I owned a stick and a puck, I wasn’t equipped to do more than skate in circles.  When the NHL Flyers came to Philadelphia in 1967 I realized for the first time there existed such a thing as specialized ice hockey skates – quite different from my figure skates.  Though I passionately embraced a rooting interest in the Flyers, I immediately sensed the rough and tumble of hockey were best observed from a distance – baseball and tennis embodied my interests better – no body checks or elbows.

And although the excitement of skating on the pond loomed large in my youthful mind, even before global warming took hold, skating was only possible for a few days each winter. Truthfully, I was a so-so skater with a tendency to quit at the first onset of frozen toes and fingers. Skating, for me, became just a prerequisite for the hot cocoa waiting back at the house.

 

*****

 

It’s been several weeks since the little bufflehead and her short-term suitor disappeared.  The pond remains placid except for an occasional visit by a flock of Canadian geese.  They are charming enough as long as they stay in the water.  But their invasions of the surrounding grass leave a trail of, shall we say, debris.  The pond seemed so alive with possibility when the bufflehead was around.  Now, it’s still pretty, but it looks empty.  Is there anything in the news I’d want to think about today?  Hmmmm.  How does one attract ducks to a pond?  Google, here I come….

 

 

 

 


DISILLUSIONMENT

 

 

I wistfully recall my excitement when I visited Washington, DC on a fifth grade trip. We took a bus to the Capitol and walked as a group through its marble hallways.  Legislator’s offices were heralded on both sides by imposing wooden doors. To me the doors signaled power, purpose and prestige.  A flag or motto indicated which state’s representative was behind each door.  The vast enterprise of American democracy impressed me so much!  We were hushed and uncharacteristically well behaved for twenty or so eleven-year-olds.  When a door opened and a middle-aged man emerged, adrenaline swept through me.

“Could it be?” I wondered.  “Could I be just steps from a real-life senator?”   My classmates craned their necks.

“That was an aide to a committee,” the tour guide announced.

“Oh, just an aide,” I told myself, unimpressed.

Still, the aura of being in our seat of government was awesome.

 

*****

 

Fast-forward fifty years.  If I were to take a word association test, I would associate “Congressman” with “narcissist,” “crook” and “hypocrite.”  The personality traits “craven,” “obnoxious” and “needy” come to mind.  Of course, it’s unfair to paint with such a broad brush, just as it was naïve to perceive total greatness half a century ago.   But the aura is long gone.

For me, the first cracks occurred with the election of Nixon and the subsequent secret bombing campaigns. Attending a Quaker school during the Vietnam era compounded the daily drip of skepticism I received at home. My father snarled, “Good for nothing” or worse in response to mentions of politicians in the news.  He was even-handed in his distaste.  It mattered little whether Democrat or Republican, just as it mattered little what denomination a religious leader represented. The man called out hypocrisy when he saw it, and he perceived it everywhere.

The Watergate hearings of 1973 probably finished off whatever confidence I had had in individual politicians.  At least, I felt, the process vindicated our system.  It wasn’t fast or easy, but a reasonable amount of the truth eventually came out, and some of the bad guys were punished.

 

*****

 

Political focus dimmed during my prime working and child-rearing years in the 1980’s and ‘90’s.  Following the bumbled election of 2000 I reluctantly tuned in again.  I realized I had no respect for our president whatsoever and succeeded in never hearing him speak for longer than it took to reach the remote.

When the Iraq debacle was ginned up, I resurrected my father’s reflexive disgust.  “Liar, idiot,” I said to the television, and anyone within earshot, whenever the evil vice-president or arrogant Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld appeared. I noted how smoothly their messaging evolved from “We will be greeted as liberators” to Rumsfeld’s formulation: “Iraq will be a long, slow slog.”

The night in 2003 we commenced “Shock and Awe,” my eleven-year-old son, Sam, and I were in our basement kicking a soccer ball, as was our wont.  CNN murmured in the background.  Their ubiquitous “Breaking News” noise (something they used sparingly compared to present-day constancy) alerted us to pay attention: flares, fireballs and bombs lit the sky over Baghdad.

Commentators excitedly speculated about our chance to hit Saddam Hussein directly and end the war in just one day. I was extremely doubtful there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.  I believed our motivation was nothing besides Lesser Bush’s desire to outdo his father who’d refrained from sacking Baghdad in 1991.  I take credit for declaring IMMEDIATELY the only beneficiaries of the fiasco would be the mullahs in Tehran and the likes of Lockheed Martin, who produced military hardware.

Yet, I’ll admit to considering Dick Cheney’s formulation here:  “the one-percent rule.”  For him, it meant, if there was even a one percent chance Iraq had nuclear weapons, we had to eliminate them.  For me, it meant, maybe, just maybe, there is a one percent chance our military could actually succeed in changing Iraq’s regime.   I would have been pleased enough with that result, I suppose, despite my lingering sense that we were simply making Iran great again.

After a few months, it was clear to anyone with a brain (not to Fox watchers, in other words) that total, one hundred percent cynicism was warranted. My one percent of hopefulness was gone.

 

*****

 

And so we come to another round of warfare as distraction in 2018.  Shall we call it Desert Stormy?  Once again, we have a clown who declares:  “Mission Accomplished” when any objective observer knows Syria is mission impossible.  Though I harbor some hope in the ingenuity of individual humans, I question the sanity of anyone who aspires to political office.  The dishonesty and fecklessness of our “leaders” is displayed daily on cable TV.  I’m sorry to believe the ideals I felt as a child, however naively, will not exist for today’s youth.  Sad.

 

 


REPORT FROM DOWN UNDER

 

A visit to Australia and New Zealand is a sprawling event. It’s hard to characterize or describe each aspect of the experience so I’ll dissect just a few, namely:

 

THE TRAVEL is daunting. For us, it involved a five-hour flight to Los Angeles, a three-hour layover and a fifteen-hour flight to Sydney. When we arrived, we found ourselves fourteen time zones ahead of North Carolina. Ten a.m. equaled midnight to our bodies. Advised to stay awake until “normal” bedtime by all the literature, we proceeded, Zombie-like, for the first day of sightseeing.

“Ah,” says an observant reader, “Why didn’t you sleep on the plane?”

“Can’t,” I reply miserably. “Never have, apparently never will. Even the sleeping pill had no effect.”

 

THE PEOPLE are friendly. If you pause on a street and look confused, chances are excellent that one or more pedestrians will offer assistance. Often, they insist on leading you to your destination if it is within a block or two. Others consult their phones for directions or flag down other strangers for consultations.

 

CAUCASIANS ARE IN THE MINORITY. In Sydney, particularly in the vicinity of the airport or university, most people are Chinese. As a person who is open-minded in terms of immigration issues this fact provokes no immediate negative reaction. However, I wonder how I would feel if my hometown, Philadelphia, somehow became 80% Chinese. Would it, in essence, still be Philadelphia?

I believe Australians struggle with this issue in private but they accept the influx as an economic necessity. I sensed some resentment when speaking with several Australians during the course of our tour, but they are too polite to complain openly. An Aussie sitting beside me on the plane captured the attitude when I said I looked forward to seeing how Australians live.

“You staying in Sydney?” he asked. “Good luck finding some.”

 

THE SCENERY, particularly in New Zealand, is amazing. Days of seeing snow-capped mountains, fiords, glaciers, swift-moving rivers and waterfalls means I may not have to travel to Alaska or Iceland in the future. Below the mountains are the greenest of green pastures, populated by domesticated deer, cows and millions and millions of sheep. The latter had just birthed and the lambs, be it one or two or three per mother, are sooooooo cute. No more lamb chops for me.

 

RUGBY is an obsession in both countries. Before this trip, I believed rugby to be a primitive form of American football played in total obscurity. Now, having scanned newspapers and surfed television, I know there are actually THREE types of rugby, each with its own networks, teams, leagues and fans. Not at all “obscure,” rugby is pervasive Down Under. How does a country of only twenty-four million (Australia) or four million (NZ) support such so much infrastructure?  The passion for sport runs deep. Aussies are pretty good at tennis, too, and facilities for recreation are everywhere.

IN MELBOURNE, our final stop, we anticipated bringing home memories of vast public gardens, stunning architecture and commerce. Though we saw some of those things, our primary impression is quite different. The evening we arrived, the local rugby squad had won a championship game and jubilation ensued. The next morning, fans were still stumbling around, hung-over, clad in the black and yellow of the Richmond Tigers, a team based in the very neighborhood in which we were staying. One store clerk, dressed dutifully, confided that she wasn’t really interested in rugby, but her admission came in a whisper, lest she offend her boss or a local customer.

 

POLITICS rarely came up in public discussions with our tour-mates. Since we were the only Americans, couples sidled up to us privately, at some point to ask, of the United States: “If I may, what happened?” “How is this possible?” We knew what they were wondering. How did a reality television buffoon become president? We tried to explain two things: 1. Part of the enjoyment of being abroad for us was to NOT discuss “he who shall not be named” on a daily basis; and, 2. Suffice it to say one cannot underestimate ignorance and hatefulness.

I LEARNED that Australian politics is much like ours though they have not YET descended to total lunacy. As in America, solid majorities of the population support protection of the environment, freedom of choice for women, equal rights for all and gun control. However, as in America, government is controlled by money. For instance, mining interests battle alternative energy projects though there may not be a country in the world more suited to solar, wind and geothermal power. Religious groups battle women’s rights and gay rights and their older cohort show up to vote.

GUN CONTROL is the exception, perhaps because there is not a wealthy, native industry as we have in America, along with twisted reverence for the Second Amendment.   In 1996 in Australia, the mass murder of thirty-five took place with semi-automatic weapons. It was the deadliest of thirteen such events in the preceding eighteen years. In its aftermath, a CONSERVATIVE government acted to buyback all but necessary hunting and farming-related firearms and to ban semi-automatic and automatic weapons. The population acquiesced without drama and Australia’s rate of gun violence is now miniscule.   There have been no mass murders since 1996, and firearm-related suicide rates have dropped by eighty percent!

 

AFFECTION for Americans adheres in New Zealand and Australia, though the Las Vegas massacre occurred during our last night in Melbourne which provoked an outpouring of news coverage about “What is wrong with America?” Still, there is a deep reservoir of patience. Largely without complaint, both nations Down Under continue to contribute troops to every one of our military adventures.

QUESTION I asked several veterans in both countries: “Why is there no resentment, at least about failed expeditions in Vietnam or the second Iraq war?” Each time, the response hearkened back to World War II. Apparently, when Japanese warships threatened invasion Australia and New Zealand appealed to Winston Churchill for help. He refused, citing the burdens his troops were already facing from Germany. America, however, sent ships immediately and routed the Japanese. We sowed seeds of affection still alive seventy years later. I hope we don’t poison the field or take it for granted. Hanging up on Australia’s prime minister last January was probably not a great first move by the con-man, but….

 

DOUBTLESS Australia and New Zealand are wonderful destinations. If only they were closer. Both countries have a pace and friendliness that seems like the America I imagine of sixty years ago. They are comfortable countries for an American, as they speak the same language, but with enough accent to make you feel you’ve “gone somewhere.” Cars on the left side of the road reinforce the difference.

 

OBVIOUSLY, if one visited America and saw only Miami and New York they could hardly claim to have “seen it.” If the flight were five hours or less I’d want to visit Down Under again and again to see all the places not included in our trip, including, but not limited to: the Outback, the Great Barrier Reef, the cities of Brisbane, Canberra, Perth and Auckland, among others. Perhaps, when the jet lag is finally forgotten, once and for all, after another month or two… I’ll consider it.

 


 

AN UNLIKELY BROMANCE

 

For some reason, I’ve recently been pondering our relationship to politicians.  There can be surprises.  Consider Frank Rizzo, the mayor of Philadelphia from 1972-1980. During his term, he distinguished himself for brutishness. Describing how he intended to deal with opponents, he declared, on several occasions: “By comparison, I’ll make Attila the Hun look like a fag.” For reasons I never understood, my non-threatening, mild-mannered father adored this man.

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Before he was mayor, Frank Rizzo had served as police commissioner. His reign featured continual charges of police brutality. Admittedly, the late 1960’s and early 1970’s were challenging times for big-city police. Potentially violent protests bubbled up from radical students as well as from organizations like the Black Panthers. To be fair, many credited Rizzo’s aggressive tactics with keeping a lid on several situations that could have spiraled into deadly riots. Even his opponents admitted as much, though they were grudging in expressing admiration, understandable from their perspectives on the receiving end of nightsticks.

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Considering my father’s clothing store was in a neighborhood conducive to trouble, I eventually comprehended why Frank Rizzo’s “law and order” platform appealed. But his manner was so repugnant! Opponents, including my siblings, referred to him as “Ratzo.” Yet, my father, in the face this scathing skepticism and derision, remained supportive.

 

*****

My father was an active member of the Marshall Street Store Owners Association. This was a robust organization in the 1940’s and 1950’s, when the street featured over one hundred stores. By the late 1960’s, however, Marshall Street’s customer base had moved away and development of malls added another challenge. In a misguided effort to revitalize the old shopping area and its deteriorating neighborhood, Philadelphia bought out and razed half the stores with the stated intention of rebuilding them. Half the remaining stores were left empty. Unfortunately, the city’s “Redevelopment Authority” ran out of money before the “redevelopment” part occurred, leaving a skeletal streetscape like a depression-era movie. By then, my father was the only storeowner willing to act as “President.” As such, apparently, each year, commencing in 1972, he received a Christmas card at the store signed: “Mayor Frank Rizzo.”

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“Look what I have here,” proclaimed my father, proudly brandishing the card when he strode into the house after work. “It’s from Frank Rizzo himself.”

“He didn’t really sign it,” said my mother.

“I don’t think he knows how to write,” said my sister.

A teenager at the time, I found my father’s worshipful attitude oddly touching. I’d rarely seen him express affection for a public figure, even an entertainer, aside from Ed Sullivan. And I’d NEVER seen him express affection for a politician. Yet, here he was, wielding a Christmas card as though it were the sweetest thing he’d ever seen. I wanted him to be right. I wanted to believe the card was truly “personalized” but, after looking at the machine-like tone of the ink, I, too, concluded someone had stamped “Mayor Frank Rizzo” onto a standard mass-produced card. I remained silent.

Certainly, I thought, my father, a confirmed skeptic, would look at the card again and agree he was mistaken. He had to know the new mayor had more to do than individually sign hundreds of Christmas cards that were sent to every club and organization in the city. Shockingly, instead, my father doubled down on his faith.

“I’m sure he signed this himself,” he said, “and I want to send him a card back. Do we have any Christmas cards?”

“We have Hannukkah cards,” said my mother.

“Can we get a Christmas card?” he asked. By “we,” he clearly meant my mother.

“I’ll get you one tomorrow,” said my mother. Not generally given to blind obedience, she, too, seemed taken aback by his fervor, and, perhaps, a little touched.

 

*****

 

The receipt of the annual holiday card from Mayor Rizzo became something of a family joke. My mother, sister and I looked forward to making fun of it, but each year, we were a little more private about our scoffing, a little less likely to do it in front of my father. His earnestness was simply too sincere to mock — openly. So proud of his personal connection to Philadelphia’s most powerful man, my father would bring the card home and place it prominently on our fireplace mantle, front and center of any other cards.

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After the first year, my mother automatically presented my father with a card to send in response, without discussion. For the next seven years, as long as Frank Rizzo was mayor, she’d even address and stamp the envelopes, a task my father somehow handled at the store, but couldn’t manage at home.

“Should I sign ‘Lou’ or ‘Louis Sanders?” he would ask, each year.

We would stifle the roll-of-the-eyes reaction and urge to say: “It won’t make any difference. He won’t read it anyway.”

“Either way will be fine,” my mother would respond.

 

*****

 

 

As the 1970’s proceeded, Marshall Street, which barely survived, continued to deteriorate. Additional store closings and robberies sapped my father’s determination to remain open. After being pistol-whipped by a thug in 1979, my father reluctantly agreed to give up his business of over fifty years. But what about the building? My father listed it with a realtor for $50,000, but no one made an offer. Hardly anyone looked. It was in a worthless location.

 

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“Someone offered $2,000 today for the bricks,” he reported one evening, dejected, as we sat down to dinner.

“Why don’t you call the mayor?” said my mother. “His term ends in a week. It’s now or never for him to reward your loyalty.”

It was clear to me that her tone was ironic, but my father’s expression brightened.

“Do you have the number?” he asked.

Home for the holidays from law school at the time, it occurred to me I’d never seen my father dial the telephone at home. My mother found the number for the Mayor’s office in the phone book and wrote it down for him. He went into the adjacent kitchen where there was a phone. As he shut the door I heard him pronounce:

“This is Lou Sanders, President of the Marshall Street Store Owners Association. Is the mayor in?”

My father’s discussion continued for several minutes though I couldn’t make out every word.

“Who could he be talking to?” I wondered aloud.

“Who knows?” said my mother. “I guess the mayor has employees.”

“Dad’s probably interrupted their card game,” I said.

“Good thing the Eagles aren’t playing now — they’d never have answered the phone,” said my mother.

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I heard the kitchen door open, and my father returned to the dining room.

“Well?” said my mother.

“Who did you talk to?” I asked.

“The mayor’s assistant,” said my father, casually. “Is the coffee hot?”

“And what did he say?” asked my mother.

“We’ll see,” said my father. “I told him to thank Mayor Rizzo for the Christmas card, and to wish him well in his retirement next week.”

“That’s all you discussed, for ten minutes?” I asked.

“We’ll see,” he repeated.

Coyness was not a personality trait I’d ever seen in my father. Clearly, he was not going to share any other details of his conversation. When he left the room several minutes later I said to my mother: “It’s kind of sad he’s willing to humiliate himself like that. I bet the mayor’s office had a good laugh.”

She nodded in agreement.

Imagine our surprise a week later when my father received a check in the amount of $48,000 from the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority. A short cover letter advised that the City had chosen to purchase my father’s building “in its ongoing campaign to accumulate valuable commercial properties.”

An unknown clerk had signed the letter, but a handwritten postscript appeared at the bottom, in blue ink: “Warmest regards, your friend, Frank.”

 


ELECTION NIGHTMARE

A number of readers have expressed surprise the election has not figured prominently in my writing. The reason, I suppose, is the subject is like a slog through a swamp, and the prospect of voluntarily wallowing in the muck for several hours is not appealing. Nonetheless, since I find myself awake at 4 a.m. with despairing thoughts bouncing through my head like ping-pong balls (a much more enjoyable subject) this blog post is not actually voluntary. I hope it will prove cathartic.

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*****

In the words of Richard Nixon, let me be perfectly clear. I don’t “like” Hillary Clinton. It’s not that she’s ever done anything to me personally. And, of course, I’ve never shared a meal or a conversation with her. She might be “likable enough,” as Obama once conceded.

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The problem is her shell, though hardened as an understandable reaction to thirty or forty years of attacks, presents as a lawyerly dissembling that disturbs me. Something is off. Something is amiss. When the circus that defines the Clinton’s comes to town, I find it exhausting. Oh, how I’m going to miss “no-drama Obama.”

But what I feel towards her opponent is an emotion so far from the blandness of “not liking” as to be irreducible to words. After “detest” and “loathe” and “abhor” I’m not sure what else I can conjure.   The language needs something stronger to express the feeling of despair, of embarrassment, of shame that he engenders.

*****

I am not a low information voter. Unlike many Americans, not only do I know that each state has two senators, but also I know the names of ours in North Carolina. Faceless factotums (lackeys) they may be, but Burr and Tillis they are.

I’m not ignorant like some coal miners who believe the charlatan when he says he’ll bring the jobs back. Anyone capable of deductive reasoning and/or of resisting fraudulent come-ons knows it is plentiful and cheap natural gas, not “Obama’s war on coal” that has consigned their careers to the slagheap of history.

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I’m not ignorant like some assembly line workers who believe the charlatan when he says their industries will return. Clearly it is the inexorable march of technology, not governmental policy that is primarily responsible for the elimination of their positions.

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It’s not so much contempt as pity and sadness that I feel for those who can be so deluded, who can be manipulated to vote against their own interests. Sure, lowering corporate tax rates will help the working poor. Haha. Very funny.

I reserve my contempt for those who live behind country club gates yet perceive themselves to be under siege. I despise the ones who enjoy social security, Medicare benefits, mortgage-interest deductions, corporate and government pensions yet cheer and aspire to the avoidance of taxes. Even worse in my estimation are the forty-year-olds, the parents of young children, who have daughters, who profess to want “change” above all, and will vote for a pig, a misogynist, a groper.

*****

I’m among the segment of voters, said to be between two and six percent, who believe the environment is the most important issue. At the risk of sounding like a Hallmark card, the earth is special, it’s unique and it’s all we have. Caring for it, preserving it, restoring it is vital.

America should be and could be leading the way in resolving this issue. Clean, inexpensive, sustainable power should be a win-win for society, even for all of mankind. Creating profits and jobs while improving the environment are not mutually exclusive concepts.

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Republicans breathe air. They drink water. Richard Nixon signed the Clean Air and the Clean Water Acts. How did this issue become partisan? For some reason, probably after significant focus-group polling of low information voters, the same group of propagandists who denied cigarettes are unhealthful has been busy mucking up the truth. Their candidate professes to believe climate change is a hoax. On this rare matter, I take him at his word. He wants to eliminate regulations; he will withdraw from the Paris Accords just entered into by 190 nations.

To those who choose to ignore the scientific consensus I can only ask: Do you ever look at a sunset? Do you listen to a bird sing? Do you appreciate the majesty of a large tree, other than as an obstacle on a golf course?

*****

If I did not care about the environment in particular, the issues of education, basic human decency, women’s choice, gay equality, efforts to promote gun safety… all of these would be sufficient to make me vote for Hillary Clinton. The alternative is too appalling. (Again, I’ve failed to find a word strong enough to express my disappointment if she loses).   And if she happens to be impeached for whatever sins she has committed, real or imagined I’m okay with that. No problem! What the country might truly enjoy, and what might help me sleep again, would be several years of Tim Kaine, whoever he is.


RECENT IMPROVEMENTS

 

The election season shows the value and even the NECESSITY of such technological advances as the DVR and, in its absence, the humble mute button.

 

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Thanks to them I have not yet endured the entirety of a single political advertisement. I began to ponder what other developments in the last quarter century have improved my life.

 

The first two I thought of are in the realm of food, namely: seedless grapes and watermelons. I’ve found the latter may represent a sacrifice in terms of sweetness but, overall, still an improvement.

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GPS devices strike me as wonderful products, helpful without a downside. In a low-tech sort of way, “Post-it” notes are helpful.

 

Unknown-2.jpeg At the other end of the spectrum are personal computers. A related development that strikes me, at least, as ambivalent, is the smart phone. Do they make life better? Or is constant connectedness a scourge?   Doubtless they are convenient, but they are also intrusive and dangerous when viewed in the context of distracted drivers or pedestrians.

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I can’t think of a downside in caller I.D., unless one misses the frisson of suspense in picking up a telephone “unprotected.” For me, Facebook and its ilk are in the “mixed blessing” department. I recognize the joy of those who “stay in touch” with their thousand closest friends. I even succumb myself every week or two just for a peek. But at the risk of sounding like a hopeless curmudgeon, after five or ten minutes the vapidity sends my finger to the “X” button. Still, I admit it’s an easy way to KIT.

 

Doubtless there are thousands of other developments, big and small, that were barely imaginable when I was a child, that now improve my life. I’ve not even touched on the realms of medicine, science or transportation.   Some readers may view hover boards as modern miracles. How about mountain bikes? High-end tennis strings? Yoga pants?

 

I invite readers to weigh in on the most important developments they enjoy. But for the next two weeks, I’m satisfied to have my mute button and a DVR.

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