Friday, April 29, 2011

Born 76 years ago today

This photograph of my brother Alan was taken two or three years ago.  He is beginning one of his favorite hikes: a walk through Goose Pond State Park between Chester and Monroe, New York.
Once upon a time this road was called Lazy Hill Road.  It ran a few miles from Route 17 (now 17M) to Laroe Road.  It was populated only by dairy farms.   I have forgotten some of the names now but all the farms were located on the right side of the road with their backs to Goose Pond mountian and the creek that ran through the fields along the mountain's base.
At the top of the rise shown in the photo was the Tom Roe farm.  A mile farther was the Joe Piekara farm and then a farm called Sunnyvale which was the home of our maternal grandmother and step-grandfather, Maude and Thaddeus Mapes.  Alan and I spent a lot of our boyhood there.
Alan died last June so this is the first of his birthdays that I will observe without him.  I wrote about his death here last year.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

American Capitalism is failing

-A report has surfaced that Katie Couric is leaving the post of anchor of the CBS Evening News.    An item included in that news report states that her salary is fifteen million dollars per year ($15,000,000 each year).
That's the equivalent of $300,000 a year for 50 years.  She has a five year contract so her 5 year gross earnings have been $75,000,000.  That's $1,500,000 per year for 50 years.
Ms Couric's job is not worth that size salary.  Her talents and background and education do not support payment of that size salary.  So what was CBS paying for?  If one asks, one will hear words like 'household name', 'celebrity', 'large fan base', 'cachet', 'star', etc.
Who someone is can be important but it should not be more important than what they can do.
I cite Ms Couric only as an example of a trend that has been evident for years,  especially in sports  and entertainment.  Less well-known but equally offensive are the inflated salaries and benefits for top corporate officers.
This is a serious symptom.  The wheels and gears and chains that move and drive the American capitalistic engine are badly out of balance or sync.  There is a disproportinate relationship between product and value.  This is an infection that  weakens and devalues the structure of our economic system.
The American ecologist Eugene Odum put it very well when he wrote "Growth beyond the optimum becomes cancer."

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Kakistocracy is ...

...the form of government we have had for some years.  Perhaps as long ago as 1964.  It gets worse with each passing year.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

A FALLING OUT -- a short story

     All Spring and Summer there was talk about a ski area being built on Mount Forge.  This news seemed strange to me because I didn't know anyone who skied.  We didn't get a lot of snow in New Jersey.  Some winters we got hardly any snow at all.  But the word was they would make their own snow, if you could believe that!
     The news of this miracle came from Billy Romp, a high school classmate of mine.  Billy had gone to work at the ski area right after graduation.  He had always worked at some odd jobs, even when he was in school.  Anyway, Billy said he had spent most of the summer raking stones off newly graded slopes and then seeding the slopes and spreading salt hay on the seed so the rains wouldn't wash the seed away.  Now they were laying two lines of pipe up the side of each slope.  These pipes would carry compressed air and water to be mixed in a 'snow gun' and discharged under pressure to release a mist in the air that would freeze and fall to earth as snow.  He said there was lots of work, all kinds of laboring and construction, and they were hard up for help.  Chair lifts were going up, and rope tows, and it was all quite exciting.
     I had fooled around all summer, taking vacation, but near Fall I was feeling edgy.  I knew I needed to be doing something, getting on with my life as my father would tell me every day.  I should make something of myself, get a trade.  My father was a carpenter and he said he could make me one too but I said no.  I know that bothered him but I didn't want to be a carpenter.
     My friends and I talked about enlisting in the military or was it better to wait for the draft.  Vietnam was heating up then.  LBJ, the cowboy President with the sniggery smile, was throwing the good old USA deeper into the mud with every speech.  My father said that joining up would be good for me, make me grow up.  He had been in World War II and believed every man should do the patriotic thing.  I thought so myself, but I wasn't ready just yet.  I think that bothered him too.
So I went to Mount Forge and applied for work.  They hired me on the spot and they made it clear that I could stay on when the construction was done and work when the area was open.  Thee would be jobs manning the lifts and tows, making snow, grooming the slopes, maintenance of equipment, work in the ski rental shop, and other stuff like that.  The ski area would be open seven days and three evening a week.
Well it worked out fine for me.  I was willing to work all the hours they gave me and that made the owner happy because the jobs were seasonal and turnover was high.  Sometimes people just stopped coming to work and there would be no one to stand at a lift station or sell tickets and I would get called and say yessir and go racing in to save the day.
     Spring came and  the weather turned mild. The snow began to disappear from the slopes.  Skiing was open only on weekends to make the snow last longer but finally there just wasn't enough snow left so the place was shut down and layoffs began.  The owner asked me if I wanted to stay on to keep the place up, doing maintenance.  I had done a good job, he said.  I would get a nice raise and a title.  Mountain Manager, it was called.  I said yes, sure enough.  I loved that title.  Billy Romp and two other guys were kept on too.
     My father said I had taken hold really well but did this job have a future?  I told him that it had next year in it anyway.  Past that I didn't know.
     The next winter my father found out that his own job had future problems.  The USA was in a recession;  construction was off, and my father was out of work.  Temporarily.  Until next Spring.  After a week or so he asked me if he could get work at the ski area.  At first I thought he meant carpentry and I said no, but he said he meant any kind of work, something to do to make money.  Well, I asked the owner and he said sure, tell him to come on in.  He's got to be good.  Life father, like son, right?
     Dad was put to work as lift operator at the top of the longest chairlift on the mountain.  The platform where he worked was made of wood and stood about 25 feet above a jagged rocky slope. On the slope side of the platform there was a booth where the operator stood to watch the approach of skiers and make sure they were ready to ski off out of the chair.  Inside the booth was an intercom phone for communication with the base terminal and a mushroom button shutoff switch.
     My father did really well.  He was older than most of the guys who worked there but he knew how to fit in.  Things got better between us. He didn't even seem to mind that I was in charge of him, or that I was paid more than he was.
     One day when things were slow I made an inspection of the chairlift towers.  I had done this before.  I'd start with the bottom tower and walk my way up the mountain on the right-of-way under the cable.  I climbed each tower and checked out the sheaves for bearing noise or wobble and how the cable was wearing on the sheave lining.  As I was climbing down from the last tower near the upper platform I saw Billy Romp riding up to relieve my father for lunch.  He smiled and waved.  I yelled at him to tell my father to wait for me, we'd ride down together.  He nodded OK.
     I finished climbing down and walked the last 100 feet to the platform.  Dad was scrunched tight to the outside of the booth talking to Billy inside.  He saw me and waved come on.
Now the rules for safe operation of the chairlift were that the lift must be stopped for anyone getting a chair for a ride down to the base.  So when I got to the platform I stood to one side and watched an empty chair swing around the terminal and start toward me and I waited for the lift to stop.  Dad went by me and stood in the path of the chair and shouted "I told Billy not to shut it off.  Let's hop on."  I started to say no but I looked at Billy and he was laughing and I knew it wouldn't stop and that I had to get in front and do this horseplay thing with my Dad.
     I think he tried to bump me a little but I'm not sure.  I know he went for his part of the seat like a kid, fast, grinning.  Like I say, I think he tried to bump me over a little, maybe not.  I know I bumped him back but, just as the moving chair approached the platform edge, I saw I had bumped too far or too hard because I could see he wasn't on the seat and the chair left the platform and my father slid down and off onto the rocks below.
     For a moment I froze, then I looked back.  My father wasn't moving.  Billy was on the intercom calling.  I turned around.  Skiers going up on the other side of the towers pointed, gaping.  What happened? one of them shouted at me.  I saw a snowmobile with two ski patrolmen on it climb the slope, their jackets the color of dried blood.  They looked like statues on a frozen sea.
     I heard later that Dad, big man that he was, had hit the rocks hard, face down, breaking ribs, crushing his heart.
     People asked me What happened?   I don't know, I said.  I'm not sure.  Happened so fast.
I couldn't say what I thought, what I felt.
     Anyway, afterwards, I got on with my life, like he always wanted.  I was happy too. but I wasn't the same.  No, I was different in a way that I didn't understand.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Capitalism isn't working

The online firm Scottrade polled 226 registered investment advisors for their opinion on the amount of retirement money people will need to live at the level of comfort they are used to enjoying.
71% of them stated that one million dollars will not be enough.  People between the ages of 25 to 42 will require 2 to 3 million dollars for a comfortable retirement.  You young'uns better get hoppin'. 

Shortly after Katrina destroyed much of the Gulf Coast economy, the Governor of Mississippi was quoted as saying the first thing to do was get the casinos in Biloxi operating because "Casinos are the life blood of the state of Mississippi".  Wow, I wonder what Adam Smith would say about that!

Writing about a particular firm in the New York Times on April21, 2007, Brad Stone stated "revenues will inevitably flatten as the company matures.  If it wants to keep treating investors to torrid growth, the company needs to develop other ways to make money."  Again, what would Adam Smith say about that?

The Adult Entertainment Industry says there is room for pornography in the economy because "a market for porn exists".  The impramatur of the market is greater than the infalliblity of the Pope.

More news on gambling.  (Proponents call it 'gaming'.  Isn't that cute?)  The state of Florida is considering changing Florida into a state with full  casino gambling.  There are casinos in Florida now, mostly run by the Seminole Indians.  It is proposed to start with twenty-six counties and proponents claim the state could get S2.5 billion in first four years from license auctions and taxes.
Of course, this is being considered because the government is running a deficit and can't meet its obligations.  Legislators refuse to tax people because people who earn their money should keep it.  Except of course, they should remember to spend their money on slot machines and card games.  Then the state can tax the profits of the casino.  That's okay.
Not enough to fund education and schools with lotteries.  We must fund police, firemen, libraries, highway construction, etc. with gambling profits.
These are ideas from the 'family values people'.  What hypocrisy.  What cowardice.

Monday, April 11, 2011

The way my time passes

Each day I ride a great white stallion through the streets of my town but no one sees it happen. 
I stalk the halls of government, leaving instructions,  notes on policy,  economic proposals.   No one reads them. 
I court the most beautiful shopgirls in town but they remain unaware.

One of my standard night dreams is a failure to please someone.  My actions, or the way I live, are an affront to another person who lives (or hovers?) nearby.  I am troubled by this but take no action to remedy it.
The person whom I fail to please is always a stranger, someone I have never seen or met before.

Whoever I am to myself, I am a different person to someone else.
I am a different person to myself now than I was when I was twenty.
How many of me have there been?
Consider how people change as they mature.  The physical aspect becomes so different with age as to make one unrecognizable to acquaintances of 50 years ago.  Are there not interior changes, cognitive and emotional, that are as drastic as the exterior changes to the physical self?   Aren't there unseen scars, old healed-over wounds.  Isn't there  a graying of the soul?

How does  one remain happy when one knows there are reasons not to be so?
Are there no negative epiphanies?
Call it Jason's paradox:  a known secret, lost in found.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Howard Nemerov - The Vacuum (1955) (wife or dog)


The house is so quiet now
The vacuum cleaner sulks in the corner closet
Its bag limp as a stopped lung, its mouth
Grinning into the floor, maybe at my
Slovenly life, my dog-dead youth.

I've lived this way long enough,
But when my old woman died her soul
Went into that vacuum cleaner, and I can't bear
To see the bag swell like a belly, eating the dust
And the woolen mice, and begin to howl

Because there is old filth everywhere
She used to crawl, in the corner and under the stair.
I know now how life is cheap as dirt,
And still the hungry, angry heart
Hangs on and howls, biting at air.

I have had multiple reactions to this poem for the time that I have been reading it.  Who is speaking?  Who is being spoken of?  What is being spoken of?  What words have multiple uses?
I know there is a vacuum in a closet;  there is a vacuum left by a death.
Perhaps a dog has died, and recently too, his 'dog-dead youth' being the first months of bereavement. 'The house is so quiet now...'  Not only because the vacuum is stored away but the dog no longer howls or bites the air.  Who has not seen a dog snap and bark at a vacuum in use?  The vacuum with its grinning mouth howls back. 
The narrator says that his old woman has died but it couldn't have been a human who crawled 'in the corner, and under the stair.'  A dog would do that.  This sounds more like a man who lived alone with a dog which served as a substitute human companion.
'life is cheap as dirt' - a common thought for someone bereaved and unaccepting, but 'the hungry angry heart hangs on' howling.
There is a richness to this poem that I can chew on for a long time.

American capitalism fails again

A favorite trick is the reduction of size in a product while the price remains the same or, in some cases, even rises.  For example, a half gallon (64 ounces) carton of orange is now 59 ounces.  They don't hide the number.  The change is overt but deceitful.
A half gallon of milk (8 cups) no longer says 64 ounces.  Instead, the label reads: 
Serving Size: one cup.
Servings per container: about 8  (emphasis mine)
Covert and deceitful.
I wonder.  Have they thought this through?  How much lower can they take the size before it becomes an embarrassment?

Monday, April 4, 2011

Joe Bageant (1946-2011)

About three years ago I discovered Joe Bageant on the internet.  I don't remember the circumstances but I am grateful for the chance to have read his work.
Joe Bageant's writing was a joy to read.  He was  funny.  His friend, Fred Reed, tells of Joe describing a girl with pierced nose, lips, eyelids, and more, looking like she had fallen face-first into an open tackle box.
Joe could  put together a critical appraisal of rural America that  swept the stage of most other players
But I was most impressed by his fight for the underclass of America.  What underclass?  Why, all of it, but especially the poor whites of Scots-Irish descent who live in rural Appalachia.  Joe did not romanticize them.  He acknowledged their racism, their parochialism, their culture which was so much less stellar than that found in Boston, LA, or New York City.  But he recognized their pride, and their worth as humans.  And he railed against the system that ignored them, pretending they weren't there.
But let him say it: