Monday, May 2, 2011

Did I Learn Anything Last Week

Osama bin Laden was killed on Sunday by a special operations unit of  U.S. Navy SEALs. The killing took place at 1:30 in the morning. Four Chinook helicopters flew into Abbottabad a military town and home to three Pakistani regiments. Abbotabad is not in the rugged border area where bin Laden was thought to be hiding, but a mere 30 miles from Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan. The mansion where Osama bin Laden and his family was hiding out was the largest in town and 10 minutes by foot from a major Pakistani military post.

The Navy SEALs were done with their task in under an hour. A local resident unknowingly tweeted the event as it occurred. The soldiers went from room to room searching for their target. The President and his National Security Team watched the events in real time. The SEALs located their target and uttered the words the President waited to hear, "Geronimo ekia," or Osama bin Ladin enemy killed in action. Three other males were killed in the action including bin Laden's adult son and one woman who was caught in the crossfire. The others in the compound were escorted to safety and released to the Pakistani authorities.

Osama Bin Laden was killed in a hail of bullets. Osama bin Laden, if he were asked, would probably claim to be a martyr, suffering death for his religion. Most Americans simply viewed bin Laden as a coward. For what is holy and right in using innocent men and women in airplanes to kill other innocent men and women in buildings?

America's spontaneous reaction to news of bin Laden's death was to celebrate. First, it began outside the White House as hundreds and then thousands of young college students gathered to hear the news. They came from nearby George Washington and Georgetown Universities. Their collective voices joined in song and prayer. On 9/11 they were but children. They have not known of life without airliners as bombs, suicide bombs, underwear bombers, and constant security checks.Will a post-Osama world be different?

Like an ember this spirit of hope rose into the air. It lit at the site of the World Trade Center in New York the site where two planes crashed into buildings killing almost three thousand innocent souls. By this time, the President had spoken and news reporters were confirming the death of bin Laden. The joyous celebration spread from campus to campus and city to city across the United States.

Earlier in the day, before I heard the good news of Osama's demise, my son asked me if I learned anything this week. He, of course, was talking about something completely different, but the question stuck. Do we learn anything from this?

I learned that the President is one hell of a good speaker. Other politicians came on later and spoke, but none spoke with the authority or demeanor of our President. The ancient Romans would use the term "gravitas" to describe Obama's ability to connect with the public. Obama takes seriously his responsibilities, but handles the criticism he receives with good humor. This is a rare gift.

I learned that terrorists can run from justice, they can even hide for a while, but you can't hide forever. Goodness and justice triumph in the end, for that is the dominant nature of mankind. What has happened in Tunisia, Egypt, and now Libya, revolutions in which bin Laden shared no part, demonstrate the power of good people everywhere to make a difference. The reality of life is that we seek a better life.

And even then one wonders at the logic of Osama Bin Laden. His religion was one of  intolerance. Moreover, toleration was a crime punishable by death.

I have heard Osama bin laden described by some of his family and friends as a good Muslim. Like many other good Muslims, Christians, and Jew, I struggle with this. For how can a good Muslim believe that God justifies the purposeful death of  innocents in any struggle.Yet, this is the teaching in many, though thankfully not all, of the madrasas in the Muslim world.This I will never understand.

If one truly and rightly dates the war on terror, it began not on September 11, but on September 9, 2001. It was on that date that bin Laden carried out the assassination of Ahmad Shah Massoud, Lion of Peshawar and the leader of the Northern Alliance. Bin Laden did this in typical fashion though the use of two suicide bombers posing as reporters.

At the time, Massoud and the Northern Alliance were waging their own struggle against the Taliban and Osama bin Laden. Massoud was a former engineering student and commander of the struggle against the Soviet intervntion in Afghanistan.  "It is our conviction", he said, that,  "and we believe that both men and women are created by the Almighty. Both have equal rights. Women can pursue an education, women can pursue a career, and women can play a role in society -- just like men." On the contrary the Taliban and bin Laden subjected the women of Afghanistan to virtual house arrest and denied them any opportunity for education and meaningful employment.

I learned that friends will be with you not only in times of difficulty, but also in times of triumph. The people who matter, our friends spoke out and hailed the death of Osama Bin Laden as a triumph for freedom loving people in the world. And as President Obama note our fight against terrorism is not based on religion, race, or ethnicity. Our fight is based on principles, those of justice for all. All of Western Europe celebrated the death of Osama. Israel hailed the death of Osama a a great victory. Turkey, Jordan, and other responsible states congratulated the United States and the President.

I learned that recriminations come quickly. For immediately Pakistan was questioned for its role in "hiding" Osama bin Laden in plain site. How quickly we forget that Pakistan has lost more citizens in the war against terror than have we. In 2007, Benazir Bhutto a former prime-minister was assassinated for her views on human rights.During the war on terror, Pakistan has committed more troops, suffered more casualties, and paid a higher price in terms of its economy than the United States.

I learned that the world changes by a matter of degrees. Al Jazeera, the voice of the Arab world, carries a front page story quoting President Obama as saying the world is safer without Osama. At the same time, Al Jazeera in a banner headline implores the Syrian government to find and release its reporter Dorthy Parvez.America may have its faults, but it remains the best hope for a safer and freer world.

I have learned that Americans, as the President noted, pull together in times of trouble and triumph. I only hope that this national celebration of the end of evil that Osama bin Laden represented will give us some respite. For evil does not die with the death of one man.

Did I learn anything last week? Time will tell. Will there be retaliation by those of Al Queda who believe in continuing an unholy and unjust war on civilization? Will partisan politics bring us back to querulous bickering over public policy? Will this era of good feeling evaporates? Time will tell, but, for now, the President expresses the thoughts of all Americans when he simply says, "We can all agree this is a good day for America." .

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Ethan Frome

If you dig deep enough and you will find a story. And this search for a story will reveal a moment that is life altering. It is a moment where the the heavens above tilt one way or the other, and the course of the stars change for good or bad, and one's life is moved from happiness to desperation and misery, or, the other way around. A good storyteller who properly tells the story, will reveal that there exist other moments, other events, and other decisions that play a part in that final moment.

Edith Wharton, through the literary device of the flashback, uses an unnamed narrator to tell the story of Ethan Frome, a strikingly tall man with a powerful look despite his lameness, a man who now looks as if he was "dead and in hell." In what happened twenty-four years before, lies the story - a young man whose dreams were dashed by the decisions of those around him, and, ultimately, by his own choice.

Laid up in the small New England town of Starkfield for the winter, the narrator sets out to learn the mysterious story. When a violent snowstorm forces the narrator into an overnight stay at the Frome household, the narrator is told the story by Ethan himself.

Flashback - Ethan is walking through snowy Starkfield at midnight. In the basement lights of a village church, Ethan catches sight of a young girl in a cherry-colored scarf. She is his wife’s cousin, Mattie Silver, who has been living with the Fromes for over a year, helping to take care of the house and Ethan's sickly and bitter wife Zeena.

When the dance lets out, Ethan catches up with Mattie to walk her home. A sense of thrill is apparent between Ethan and Mattie, which, when the two arrive home, is also apparent to the sickly Zeena. Without a word to Zeena and with thoughts only of Mattie, Ethan goes to bed.

Ethan 's opportunity to be alone with Mattie comes the next day when his wife announces that she has decided to seek treatment for her illness in a neighboring town, and will spend the night there with relatives. Ethan is excited  and goes into town to make a lumber sale, but hurries home to Mattie in time for supper.

The evening meal between the two is a scene of non-verbalized thoughts; as well as, the unspoken presence of Zeena, symbolized by a favorite pickle dish which falls to the floor and shatters. Ethan fails in his courage to express his inner thoughts and the two separately go to bed. The next day Zeena returns and informs Ethan that her health is failing quickly and that she plans to hire someone to replace Mattie.

Spurred on by Zeena's resolve to remove Mattie from the house,  Ethan goes to the kitchen and kisses Mattie passionately. He tells Mattie of Zeena’s plans, but the moment is interrupted by Zeena herself. That evening, Ethan contemplates his choices. Unable to prevent Mattie's dismissal, Ethan contemplates eloping with Mattie, and even begins to draft a letter of farewell to Zeena. But considering his financial situation, Ethan realizes that his dream is unreal.

At breakfast the next day, Zeena announces plans for Mattie’s departure and the arrival of the new hired girl. Later, Ethan steals into town with a plan to collect an advance on a recently delivered lumber load, and thereby pay for his and Mattie's escape. But, on the way,  Ethan encounters a neighbor's wife who praises him for his patience in caring for the ailing Zeena. Her words touch his conscience and he returns to the farm..

Against Zeena’s wishes, Ethan decides to drive Mattie to the railroad station himself. Ethan takes a roundabout route and ends up stopping at the top of the village hill. There they agree to fulfill a sledding adventure they once proposed but had never undertaken. After the first run prompts Mattie suggests a second, but with a different purpose. Together, they will run the sled into the elm tree at the foot of the hill, and end their last moments together. Ethan rejects her idea initially, but is won over. Together, they lock themselves in a final embrace headed down the hill toward the big elm. After the collision, Ethan languidly reached out to touch Mattie's hair and feel her face. In the darkness that enveloped them, he saw her weakly open her eyes and say his name.

Twenty years forward and the narrator enters the Frome's kitchen where two frail and aging women bicker. The drone of their querulous chatter stops as the narrator enters; Frome, glancing about at the poor condition of the room, apologizes for the cold. Then, he introduces the narrator to the two women - the first a tall bony figure, with pale opaque eyes revealing nothing and reflecting nothing, as his wife, "Mis' Frome", and to the second seated, paralyzed woman in the chair by the fire, with eyes that had a dark-witch like stare, as —"Miss Mattie Silver".

Edith Wharton likely based her story of Ethan Frome on an incident that she had heard about early in her life. In 1904 a sledding accident involving four girls and one boy occurred on Courthouse Hill in Lennox, Massachusettes. One of the girls was killed when the sled struck a lamppost.

Wharton heard about the story from another of the girls who became her friend later in life. As tragic events go, it was the death of the girl that was long remembered. It remained for Edith Wharton to give the event a story that would live on. And while the story of Ethan Frome is fictitious, the characters and events are real enough that they resonate with readers even today.

Monday, April 18, 2011

To Kill a Mockingbird

The longer I live, the more I learn, that if one looks hard enough, there is a connection to anything and everyone.

Harper Lee wrote To Kill a Mockingbird, first published in 1960, it became an instant success and won the Pulitzer Prize for Literature. It became successful, because like so few other books, it novelized a subject that America desperately wanted to talk about, but, for which America could not find the words. Uncle Tom's Cabin and Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn are but two earlier examples of America's frustration of dealing with the touchy subject of race in America. In Harper Lee's case, the subject was the highly inflammatory subject, to Southerners and many Northerners, of black men and white women.For Harper, the events of her novelized story followed the events that occurred near her hometown in 1936, when she was 10 years old. To the American nation, the events also recalled the misjustice that befell the "Scotsboro Boys", over an alleged gang rape of two white girls by nine black teenagers on the Southern Railroad freight run from Chattanooga to Memphis on March 25, 1931. I repeat the word"boys" because that was the vernacular of the day, just as Mark Twain used the word "nigger" in Huck Finn.

For two decades following the arrest of the nine black  teenagers for a crime they never committed, , "the struggle for justice of the 'Scottsboro Boys,'  made celebrities out of nobodies, launched and ended careers, wasted lives and produced heroes, opened southern juries to blacks, exacerbated sectional strife, and divided America's political views."

This was surely fresh in the minds of America when Harper Lee brought out her novel about a lone white lawyer struggling to ensure justice in a bigoted southern town.The book was quickly made into a movie two years later. It starred Gregory Peck in the role of Atticus Finch the lawyer. The reaction was even greater than the book. Wikipedia summarizes the awards:

The American Film Institute named Atticus Finch the greatest movie hero of the 20th century. Additionally, the AFI ranked the movie second on their 100 Years... 100 Cheers list, behind It's a Wonderful Life. The film was ranked number 34 on AFI's list of the 100 greatest movies of all time, but moved up to number 25 on the 10th Anniversary list. In June 2008, the AFI revealed its "Ten top Ten"—the best ten films in ten "classic" American film genres—after polling over 1,500 people from the creative community. To Kill a Mockingbird was acknowledged as the best film in the courtroom drama genre.
 I could say that my connection to the film is my own childhood which paralleled that of Scout, the six-year-old narrator who grew up in a segregated south and observed the injustice of racial discrimination. I could say that as a lawyer, when I was older and practicing law, that I too took on cases that were never popular or politically correct. No, that is not the connection which intrigues me.

Instead, it is Harper Lee's sense of history as a framework in which all stories begin. Chapter One, page one. Harper Lee as Scout explains that the story begins not with the trial. Rather, it begins much earlier.

I said if he wanted to take a broad view of the thing, it really began with Andrew jackson. If General Jackson hadn't run the Creeks up the creek, Simon Finch (the progenitor of the Atticus Finch line) would never have paddled up the Alabama and where would we be if he hadn't? ...
 It was customary for t6he men in the family to remain on Simon's homestead, Finch's Landing, and make their living from cotton. The place was self-sufficient: modest in comparison with the empires around it, the Landing nevertheless produced everything required to sustain life, except ice, wheat flour, and articles of clothing, supplied by river-boats from Mobile.
The only thing Scout, a.k.a. Harper Lee, neglects to mention is that the land that produced the cotton was the product of slave labor of those black men and women that Atticus would later champion.

My grandfather was born in Alabama in the 1888. Before him, his grandfather, my great great grandfather, came to Alabama from Georgia and farmed the cotton in central Alabama not far from the Tallapposa River. The Alabama River of which Harper Lee speaks is formed by the Tallapoosa and Coosa rivers, which unite about six miles above Montgomery, the capital of Alabama. Once upon a time Montgomery was the capital of the Confederate States of America. My great grandfather was a doctor and his brother a lawyer, both in Montgomery.  But I do not know if they took on the challenges of injustice that Atticus Finch willingly took on.

Since, according to Harper Lee, Southerners are all about ancestors, mine came to Alabama before Simon Finch, I feel a little more regal in my heritage than she has a right to. I say this because Tallapoosa River land was the frontier before Alabama River land. Atticus Finch went to Montgomery to read law as did my great grandfather's brother. My great grandfather went to Montgomery to study medicine.

I digress, a problem of which my children frequently complain. The salient point that I am trying to make is that the Finches, like my own family, dispossessed the Creeks of Alabama in order to make a living raising cotton on the backs of slave labor. Now that is a burden to carry. And it is understandable that Harper Lee mentions the Creek Indians in only one sentence and the slave labor that raised the cotton not at all.

Each of us has to live our lives. Our moral standards are set early in life. The effect we have on others is how we act, not in the history of our fathers, or their fathers before them. And so Atticus Finch's principled stand against justice marks a turning point in the relationship of blacks and whites. Even Gregory Peck as Atticus learned from others. His lesson was is less of a legal one, than the human need to respect others regardless of color.

Color is not merely black and white. It is red and yellow and all shades in between. Alabama and much of the Southeastern United States was once inhabited by Indian tribes. For that matter, all of America was inhabited by Indians prior to the arrival of the first Europeans at Jamestown. The succeeding generations of all those who have gone before must not forget the past. But we must also remember to act like Atticus Finch in a time of crisis. Do the right thing.

My grandfather moved on from Alabama many years ago. Even then I know that I have relatives still living on the land once possessed by the Creek Indians. The cotton farms are gone, even if after the Civil War free black men and women picked the cotton that supplied the means of life to the new owners of the land. Guilt is something that is born by all of us.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Charlie Chaplin's Birthday

April 16 is Charlie Chaplin's 122nd birthday, but I would rather write about his wife Oona O'Neill Chaplin and her relationship with her father Eugene O'Neill. As you read on you can also watch Google's tribute to Charlie on his birthday.

Oona, Lady Chaplin was the daughter of Nobel and Pulitzer Prize-winning American playwright Eugene O'Neill and writer Agnes Boulton, and the wife of British actor, director and producer Charlie Chaplin.

Eugene O'Neill was the author of Long Days Journey into the Night, the semi-autobiographical story of his own depression and alcoholism. Eugene and Agnes had two children Shane and Oona. Oona was born in 1925 while her parents were living in Bermuda, during a period of heavy drinking by her father. In 1929, dad left mom for another actress. Oona rarely saw her father after that.

Agnes Boulton wrote of O'Neill in her autobiography, Part of a Long Story (1953): "He never seemed to be what is called drunk, but there would be some sudden and rather dreadful outbursts of violence, and others of bitter nastiness and malevolence when he appeared more like a madman than anything else."

Oona decides to pursue acting instead of attending Vassar College. At age 17, she meets 53 year old Charlie Chaplin. Father Eugene O'Neill refuses to give Oona his consent to marry Chaplin and disinherits Oona continuing to ignore her for the rest of his life. Oona and Charlie wed and live happily thereafter, having 8 children over a marriage that spans 35 years.

Eugene O'Neill is a turd who obviously can't come to terms with his own life. He goes on drinking binges and speaks of suicide. When sober, he writes prodigiously. He projects his own insecurities and failures onto his children. Oona's older half-brother, Eugene O'Neill Jr., was the son of a woman to whom papa O'Neill had reneged on a promise to marry before attaining success as a writer. This younger O'Neill, like father, suffered from alcoholism then, unlike father, committed suicide in 1950 at the age of 40. Oona's brother Shane became a heroin addict. He moved into the family home in Bermuda, where he supported himself by selling off the furnishings. Father also disinherits him before the other son commits suicide by jumping out of a window years later.

Oona finds happiness with Charlie Chaplin despite the age difference and despite Charlie's fading success in movies as "talkies" replace the silent film. The couple eventually moves to Switzerland because of Charlie's tax problems and the label of communist sympathizer by the US government. Oona renounces her US citizenship in protest.

In 1981 when Oona saw Jack Nicholson film Reds, where he portrayed her distant father, she wrote him a letter saying, "Thanks to you, I now can love my father". Nicholson remarked that "that is the best compliment I ever got".

After Charlie Chaplin's death in 1977, Oona fought her own unsuccessful battle with alcoholism. She died in Switzerland of pancreatic cancer in 1991.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Dear Heart

Dear Heart is a 1964 movie in black and white.

Evie Jackson (Geraldine Page) a small-town postmistress meets Harry Mork, (Glenn Ford) a womanizing salesman recently promoted, at a postal workers convention in New York. They fall in love; the only problem is his fiancee, a self-centered woman (Angela Lansbury) who already has a grown son.

Evie struggles with her small-town social mores, Harry tries to be true to his fiance, and the fiancee is a cold-hearted bitch. Romance wins out. The lyrics say it all:

Dear heart wish you were here to warm this night
My dear heart, seems like a year since you've been out of my sight
A single room, a table for one
It's a lonesome town all right
But soon I'll kiss you hello at our front door
And dear heart I want you to know
I'll leave your arms never more

A single room, a table for one
It's a lonesome town all right
But soon I'll kiss you hello at our front door
And dear heart I want you to know
I'll leave your arms never more

The original name of the movie was the Out of Towners, but the name was changed when Henry Mancini came up with a catchy tune that became the theme for the movie. The song was nominated for an Oscar, but lost out to the movie Mary Poppins with Dick VanDyke singing Chim Chim Cher-ee. Andy Williams recorded the song the following year on an album that went Gold. The song was subsequently recorded by various artists including the Ray Coniff Singers.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Change is a Sublte Thing

Just returned from a five state tour of Middle America - Kansas, Missouri, Illinois, Kentucky, and North Carolina.The ostensible reason for going was to attend the 23rd Annual Arts and Crafts Conference in Asheville, North Carolina.

The real reason was that I needed to get away and see things a little more clearly. My daughter would say, "Remove the veil of ignorance." I like to say, "Going to the balcony." Either way, it is a metaphor for stepping away from the field of battle, another metaphor, so that you get a better perspective of who you are and of the people around you.

Your question as to whether I have changed is intriguing. Change is often a subtle thing. We are so easily caught up in the tumult of life's events, that it is difficult to see how life's events affect us. No, that takes reflection which is better left to a time when one has the luxury of a cup of coffee and an easy chair.

Of the people I observed in my travel, there is too much to express in one essay. One thing I can say is that despite the infinite differences, we are pretty much the same. The only real distinction is in one's attitude to life. Perhaps it is best summarized in the statements of two people. The first in Elizabethton, Tennessee I asked, "What does one do around here for fun?" and her reply was, "Just work." The second a woman who left Houston Texas and moved to Cadiz, Kentucky, a town of 2,000. She now volunteers to run a non-profit community art museum, Janice Mason Art Museum. On the current exhibit of art by the local junior and senior high school, she says with heart-felt enthusiam, "Isn't their art amazing." We all struggle to pay the bills, to work out personal conflicts, and search for meaning to the changes taking place. To those who enjoy the process, it is exhilarating, to others, just work.

If I have changed, it is in my appreciation of the little things in life.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Hotel California

I mention this song perhaps too much, but Hotel California is one of the iconic songs of the 70's that anyone of my generation has listened to over and over again. Rolling Stones magazine ranks the song 49th on its top 100 list. And Guitar Magazine moves it up to 8th on its list of top 100 guitar solos. The songs lyrics are vague enough to let one put any kind of spin on the words, bringing back the "spirit of 1969" tempered by the disillusionment of the late 70's, and the excess of the drug culture.

"On a dark desert highway, cool wind in my hair
Warm smell of colitas, rising up through the air
Up ahead in the distance, I saw shimmering light
My head grew heavy and my sight grew dim
I had to stop for the night..."
Last night my Garmin went blank, I was lost on highway 50 heading west through the middle of Missouri. The Garmin went blank because new highway 50 was not yet registered in the system. I was strangedly paralleling the old Highway 50, now business 50, my car a blue icon floating in grey on the Garmin screen.

It was late at night, I was tired and up ahead in the distance was the sign Motel California. Who could resist? After all, I had to stop for the night.

Monday, February 21, 2011


 (My suggestion is that you should listen to the Eagles' Hotel California while reading this blog. To do so, just clic on this link, Hotel California. The youtube video will appear in a new window, so you can come back, unlike in the song.)

Day three or four, I am not sure for one loses track of time and place on the road.

My overall impression of traveling is a slide show of people and places. The look and the speech of the people varies from state to state, as does the landscape. One sees in Tennessee and North Carolina mountains, then the hollows (pronounced hollars in the south) where weather beaten shacks share space with mobile homes and even newer homes. Judging from the rusted out wrecks of old automobiles parked in so many front lawns that, yes, NASCAR,  is the number one sport in the south. There are also wide open spaces, devoid of people, where the oak trees shorn of their leaves in winter stand tall and straight on the hills like so many whiskers on on an unshaven face. Perhaps the better analogy is one of fingers pointing to heaven as a sublime message of  "He is there." Finally, one comes across the towns and cities whose location often owes itself to the chance that once upon a time someone was too weary to go on.

I too was tired of traveling and so I chose to stop on I-24, just over the border from Tennessee and into Kentucky at Cadiz. The weather finally turned rainy and so it is a good time to pull into port. The name of the town also has a certain appeal to me. Cadiz - it is the Spanish port from which Columbas made his several journeys to the New World. Interestingly, he didn't know that the discoveries he made were "new" and clung desperately to the belief that he had found a short cut to the fabled kingdom of Kublai Khan.

Lost in history is the reason for naming a town in Kentucky after Spain's most famous port.Cadiz is not a port city and only sports s population of little more than 2000 souls. But, by giving it an exotic name perhaps it has enticed a traveler to spend a day and a night or two.

Welcome to Cadiz. What a lovely place to stay. Welcome to the Hotel California. On a dark and rainy highway somewhere on I-24 in Kentucky.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Lost in Middle America, Day Two

Lately, I have felt that my life was turning into an endless series of dead ends. Each day I would get up - listen to my son argue about going to school on time; go to work - listen to everyone complain about this or that, it really didn't matter what the argument was about, it was just to complain; then go work out - only to find that my old injury, a bad hip caused by years of running, was not getting any better - I tell anyone now that my leg hurts so bad, that if I was a horse they would shoot me. So it is no surprise that I am beginning to feel and sound like a cranky old man even to myself.

This feeling of a death spiral into a miasma of sameness is a big part of why I took this car trip to Asheville, North Carolina. Sure, there is an Arts and Crafts fair at the end of the trip, located at the Grove Park Inn that provides the raison d'etre for leaving Wichita. But surely there is more to it than mica lamps, copper house numbers, and pottery. There is universal need to get away, to recharge the batteries, to reflect a little, and look at life through a different set of eyes.

Traveling by car provides that means of self-examination. A lot of writers have done it. Famously, in Travels with Charley: In Search of America,  John Steinbeck, with death literally knocking on his door, traveled with his dog Charlie in a motor home looking one last time for America and not liking what he found.

Then there was that great series of reports by Charles Kuralt whose On the Road segments for CBS News Sunday Morning show always struck a heartwarming chord. Kuralt hit the road in a motor home for 15 years before parking pen and home for the last time. Sadly neither Steinbeck nor Kuralt are with us any more, and so it is hard to know where to turn to when one wants to find real stories of real Americans in small towns.

I find that the first thing you discover when you travel is serenity. There sitting in the car with over a thousand miles of road ahead of you, you take a deep breath and count to ten before you exhale. The car wasn't a motor home, but it was a GMC Yukon with a front seat like a barcolounger, and a back that in a pinch was big enough to nap. Seated comfortably in my Yukon, all those petty squabbles pop and disappear like soap bubbles. And the routine of life's boredom is broken - drive where you want, stop when you are tired, get up when you want. This reminds me of Rousseau's famous saying, "Man is born free and everywhere he is in chains." Travelling breaks those chains and frees the traveller from any responsibilities. Of course Rousseau was speaking of class distinctions and social conventions, but the idea is the same.

Of course life is not perfect on the road. If it was everyone would hop in a cars and hit the road. No the reality of life creeps back in as you travel. John Steinbeck observed that the isolation of travel is the greatest burden to bear. Charles Kerault was lucky enough to get paid for travelling and every Sunday, he put all of his thoughts together in a broadcast to an audience that only wished that it could do for a living what Charles did.

The other great rediscovery that one makes travelling is that life is not an endless highway of beauty. Mixed into the scenic mountains, lakes, towns, and forrests are the blemishes that like real life remind one that you have to take the bad with the good.

This is day two of my trip and I am following my presumably inerrant Garmin dirrection finder. I plugged in the destination Grove Park Inn in Asheville, and off I go across eastern Missouri. The trip across Missouri is roughly 6 hours in a straight line using I-70, but driving the southern route on Missouri Highway 60 is a different story. Muntains and stop lights, twists and turns make for a much longer trip. I keep looking at my Garmin and wonder if all the twists and turns can possibly be right. We have to trust the big computer in the sky don't we? After all didn't Watson the computer just beat Ken Jennings and that othe guy who doesn't like to talk much on Jeopardy. I have alsways loved the comfort of having a map in hand and I still stop at each Welcome Center to get a new state map. But is Garmin a sign that Welcome Centers are a thing of the past. Google and iphones after all, like Watson, possess more information than all of the humans manning the collective Welcome Centers of all 50 states.

The Mississippi River beckons me and Garmin points me on, directing me to follow Route 60. Strangely though, at Charleston Missouri, I find that I am down to a two lane road. Off in the distance though I see the tall iron towers of the bridge that spans the Mississippi, and so I drive on, trusting Garmin, and ignoring all the signs that disaster looms.  These signs include one small reference to a detour that I didn't fully read speeding by at 75 miles an hour. Only after I recognize my error do I recall that the houses on this last few miles to the bridge have all become dilapidated, the gas stations all shuttered and closed, the road less travelled and less cared for. No, we are all blinded by our pursuit of success. We single mindedly drive on and ignore all the warnings that, only later, were so apparent.

Image from Wikipedia.

I will bring this story to a quick end. The bridge on Route 60 crossing the Mississippi from Missouri to Cairo, Illinois was closed and shuttered. Garmin the computer in the sky is not infallible after all. Funny, I was travelling to get away from all those dead ends at home and still I find one. The moral, I guess, is that you deal with life as it comes at you. You can't escape life by traveling, you just see it from a different perspective. If I had Garmin to yell at, or a highway worker to complain to I would about the misdirection or lack of signs. No, the only person I have to complain to is myself. And that gets one nowhere, like the place I am at.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Lost in Middle America

It is day one of my cross country journey from Wichita, Kansas to Asheville, North Carolina. The first part of the journey is a familiar path along Highway 400 in Kansas, past Augusta, Beaumont, Fredondia, and on to Baxter Springs where the old Route 66 briefly cuts into Kansas before veering south into Oklahoma.

I choose this route not because it is quicker. It's not. In fact the route though Kansas City along I-35 and then east on I-70 saves an hour on this 17 hour trip. But I wanted to stop in Joplin at Sandstone Grove. This 35,000 square foot Mansion, just off I-44 as you enter Joplin from the south, is an interesting mix of outdoor sculptures, water fountains, and home accessories of all nature.
Garmin's direction finder took me along I-44 east until Springfield, then onto Route 60 across southern Missouri through the small towns of Middle America. These small towns like Cabool survive on a variety of activities including farming and tourism. My first day's journey came to an end half way thourh Missouri at Willow Springs. This example of Middle America is home to less than  2,147 inhabitants, 97% of whom are white. According to Wikipedia, " The racial makeup of the city was 97.02% White, 0.37% African American, 0.84% Native American, 0.28% Asian, and 1.49% from two or more races. Hispanic or Latino of any race were 1.07% of the population." Let's see, in real numbers, this means that Willow Springs hosts 80 blacks, 18 Native Americans, and 8 Asians, along with 21 Hispanics.

It is hard to make conclusions about any snapshot of a city. Stereotypes often interfere with our ability to see life clearly. Willow Springs is not the cast from the movie Deliverance any more than the blacks, Indians, Asians, and Hispanics are outcasts, intoxicated, Chinese restaurant owners, or gardeners. No Willow Springs is a hard working community where I imagine people get along a little better than in most cities because they have too. Friendliness is not a foreign commodity. It is part of the soul of Middle America. A place where change doesn't come as quickly as elsewhere, but where American values remain as strong as ever.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

The Origin of the Financial Crisis

"The financial crisis that has been wreaking havoc in markets in the U.S. and across the world since August 2007 had its origins in an asset price bubble that interacted with new kinds of financial innovations that masked risk; with companies that failed to follow their own risk management procedures; and with regulators and supervisors that failed to restrain excessive risk taking."

From The Origins of the Financial Crisis
Martin Neil Baily, Robert E. Litan, and Matthew S. Johnson,
Brookings Institure, 2008

In hindsight it is always easy to understand a crisis. In the case of the financial crisis of 2008, the rise in housing prices exceeded the owners ability to repay the mortgages.

But there is also a  more fundamental cause to this crisis. It is is innate human tendency to believe in anything that exalts our own sense of worth or self. Humanity wants to believe in esoteric ideals of kindness, value, goodness, and progress. These ideals are embedded in our religious concepts, our family values, and our political system. Trust in our fellow human beings is an essential part of the social organization. Without these ideals political and economic systems fail and mankind degenerates into a paranoid state of fear.

Thus, it is not surprising that in 2008 a crisis developed in global financial markets. Individuals and the market suspended their rational minds in the hopes that economic prosperity, ushered in by Ronald Reagan's presidency and the fall of Soviet Communism, would continue indefinitely. This crisis is not a singular historical event. As economists and historians remind us, a recent parallel was the Great Depression of the early part of the 20th Century. But, that economic disaster was by no means the only historical incident in which the irrational exuberance of investors exceeded the value of goods they purchased. There have been several economic crises since the stock market crash of October 1929. Likewise, the historical evidence is that markets operate in cycles of boom and bust as investors leap into a market boom in order to take advantage of profits only to find that their speculative judgments are just that, speculation and not rational judgments.

Companies fail to follow management procedures because of the opportunity for profit. There is no disincentive for managers to avoid excessive risk taking other than the potential for corporate bankruptcy. But such a risk is born not by the manager, but by the corporation. And all too often, a corporate manager has previously feathered his own nest before the death knell of economic doom sounds for the company.

Regulators and supervisors also fail to restrain excessive risk taking. Either they are too often beholden to the managers, or themselves part of a system that rewards short term advantage over long term survival. Congressional over site plays an important part in regulating economic behavior. After all, Congress establishes the rules by which corporations play. The history of Congressional action from 2000 on reveals that Congress not only ignored the signs of instability in the market, but itself played an instrumental role in fostering loans to individuals who had no business borrowing, and to banks and corporations who lent money to such individuals. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mack failed because Congressional leaders permitted bad practices.

Is financial crisis inevitable? Perhaps it is because we are all driven to succeed, and we all have a disincentive to question our own judgments when events suggest that success is just around the corner. But perhaps we can lessen the risk of failure by creating better oversight of risk management, by increasing the risk to the decision makers, by separating regulator from corporate management, and by increasing the turnover in supervision so that new eyes and new ideas review the conduct of others. A little sunshine goes a long way to brighten the day.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Winesburg, Ohio

Winesburg, Ohio by George Willard is a snapshot of  small town rural America at the beginning of the twentieth century.

The book was first published in 1919, a year after the end of the First World War. For many returning war veterans the book was nostalgic. These youths left the cities, small towns, and farms of America to travel to a decidedly different Europe and experience in one short year the death and destruction that Europeans had endured for four long years. For a few veterans who enlisted before finishing high school, at seventeen like my grandfather, it was perhaps something simpler. Perhaps it was filling in a few missing pages in their life story. What they had missed by enlisting before the end of high school.

The book remains relevant today. It is the story of the awakening of a young mind.

The book begins with the writer, an old man with a white mustache, who has difficulty getting into and out of bed. But once this feeling of nostalgia is created, the story shifts in time to when the writer, George Willard was a young man living in the small mid-western town of Winesburg, Ohio. There are two points in our lives when we discover the essential truth to the meaning of life. One point is high school, just before we begin our life's journey, and the other is when we are near the end of the long road of life. 

And the truth is like this:

That in the beginning when the world was young there were a great many thoughts but no such thing as a truth. Man made the truths himself and each truth was a composite of a great many vague thoughts. All about in the world were the truths and they were all beautiful.


And then the people came along. Each as he appeared snatched up one of the truths and some who were quite strong snatched up a dozen of them.

It was the truths that made the people grotesques....

Rereading Winesburg, Ohio after many years, I am struck by the how time and age act on the writer's words. Then, I was like George Willard, the central character of the book. George was a high school adolescent, the writer for the local paper of Winesburg. As such he was both an observer of people. His descriptions of  of the people who populate his hometown make up the stories that became the book. Then it was fresh in his mind, later the characters and their impressions grew and took on a particular color and meaning.

Grotesques, he calls them, not because they are necessarily horrible, but rather because many of them had been shaped into caricatures.Some might be beautiful or amusing, but all were shaped by life and forced to wear of face that was not of their own choosing. Each caricature a mask of an exaggerated emotion. Each character a one-dimensional image of life. Each character the revelation of a truth or not even that, a half truth.

 "Oh, you Wingbiddlebaum, comb your hair, it's falling into your eyes," commanded the voice to the man, who was bald and whose nervous little hands fiddled about the bare white forehead as though arranging a mass of tangled locks.

Words can convey meanings that are not always understood. And so an off-hand remark to Wing Biddlebaum in Hands, the first story in the book has a special meaning unto itself.It is important to note that the reader of these words does not at first blush understand their significance to Wing Biddlebaum.Only as the story unfolds do we realize that these simple words set forth a cascade of memories that frame the telling of this story.

Grotesques as a word seems a little harsh to describe the characters of Winesburg, Ohio. And even Sherwood Andersen in his introduction admits that the word is use only to describe how in time the characters of the book  became big in the author's mind. Understanding this nuance, grotesque seems the correct word choice. Each individual reveals an important truth in the life of George Willard. Bing represents on one level the admonition to youth that one must try to "forget all that you have learned. You must begin to dream. From this time on you must shut your ears to the roaring of the voices [of others]." The story of the Hands is also an admonition. Failing to heed Bing's warning, life can become a retreat into darkness in which one repents daily of a weakness in not choosing individuality.

Friday, January 7, 2011

To a Mouse

It is a Friday morning in Kansas in January. The weather is turning frightfully cold, a "weary winter comin' fast", and I sit here "cozie", coffee in hand in a warm room.

What of the creatures of the world who do not share such luxuries? Robert Burns wrote of one such creature - a mouse, whose cozy world came to an abrupt and unexpected end one winter's day.

Robert Burns lived a short and, some would say, frightful life (Burns would say "cowrin, tim'rous"). He was born in dark and dour Scotland. His father died when Robert was 15. Robert and his brother Gilbert labored on trying to make a success as tenant farmers on a failing farm. A lawsuit made money scarce, and so Robert wrote.

He married his sweetheart, Jane Armour, over her parents' protests, but not before they had four children out of wedlock. After the marriage they had five more children. Meanwhile, Robert found time to have four other children by four other women.

One might guess that Robert Burns lived like the mouse - his "best laid plans" gone astray. Five women, eleven children, a failed farm, Robert Burns' later fame and fortune eluded him in life. Unlike the mouse Burns must have kept a fearful eye on his past, and another fearful eye on what was to be. One day, ploughing the fields of his farm, Robert turned up a mouse, and so inspired this poem.

He died on a cold winter's day of rheumatic fever at the age of 37. At the same time his wife was in labor with their ninth child.

by: Robert Burns (1759-1796)


WEE, sleekit, cowrin, tim'rous beastie,
Oh, what a panic's in thy breastie!
Thou need na start awa sae hasty,
Wi' bickering brattle!
I was be laith to rin an' chase thee,
Wi' murd'ring pattle!


I'm truly sorry man's dominion
Has broken Nature's social union,
An' justifies that ill opinion
Which makes thee startle
At me, thy poor, earth-born companion
An' fellow-mortal!


I doubt na, whyles, but thou may thieve;
What then? poor beastie, thou maun live!
A daimen-icker in a thrave
'S a sma' request;
I'll get a blessin wi' the lave,
And never miss't!


Thy wee-bit housie, too, in ruin!
Its silly wa's the win's are strewin!
An' naething, now, to big a new ane,
O' foggage green!
An' bleak December's winds ensuin,
Baith snell an' keen!


Thou saw the fields laid bare an' waste,
An' weary winter comin fast,
An' cozie here, beneath the blast,
Thou thought to dwell,
Till crash! the cruel coulter past
Out thro' thy cell.


That wee bit heap o' leaves an stibble,
Has cost thee mony a weary nibble!
Now thou's turn'd out, for a' thy trouble,
But house or hald,
To thole the winter's sleety dribble,
An' cranreuch cauld!


But, Mousie, thou art no thy lane,
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best-laid schemes o' mice an' men
Gang aft a-gley,
An' lea'e us nought but grief an' pain,
For promis'd joy!


Still thou art blest, compared wi' me!
The present only toucheth thee:
But och! I backward cast my e'e,
On prospects drear!
An' forward, tho' I cannot see,
I guess an' fear!

 The Robert Burns Archive

Read more about the death of Robert Burns.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Plato on Madison Avenue

The typical reaction on Gap's Facebook to Gap's new logo, released in October of 2010 is: "This is the worst idea Gap has ever had. I will be sad to see this change take place," a Facebook user said. "If this logo is brought into the clothing [store] I will no long[er] be shopping with the Gap. Really a bummer because 90% of my clothing has been purchased there in the last 15+ years."

The 20 year old logo was, and is, in need of a make-over. The need is demonstrated by lagging sales and the store's product line, which has changed little, despite the fact that its original demographic group has grown up and been replaced by a younger group, focused on health and fitness. Sadly, Gap misses the mark with its new logo. Perhaps, the focus should be on a new product line, and then let design form follow.

The idea of design puts in mind Plato's ideas on form. Forms are really nothing more than ideas. For instance, a chair is universally recognized as something to sit on. But, if a thousand people were given a  thousand pieces of paper and a thousand pencils, they would come up with a thousand drawings of what a chair looks like. To Socrates and Plato, his alter ego, forms are unchanging; the world of physical appearances is changeable. A logo change to Plato represents not so much a change in company as a change in which consumers view the company. And, by the measure of sales and customers, gap is not keeping up with the times.

Cultural distinctions highlight the differences in the way we view a product. For instance, whether I live in Florida or Montana will likely affect the way I see a chair. And, this distinction holds across countries, social and economic groups, and age.

The point for the designer is that design must be representative, amorphous, and simple. Gap's original iconic design, for instance, represented a straight-forward, no-sense expression of its no frills approach to clothing. this simple blue and white repitition of its company name was instantly recognizeable to its audience. no wonder that the generation x-er who wrote in on Facebook was "bummed" when Gap attempted to change his image of the brand.

What would Socrates say about this hullabaloo? At first blush, he might remark that it really doesn't matter much what form the logo takes, because Gap is really about an idea, cheap functional clothing for a new generation. Socrates was, by report, ugly, and so we might further conclude that he didn't care as much as to how things looked, just how they were seen. Reread the Parable of the Cave, if you doubt this statement.

To demonstrate that form does influence perception, I give the following example. To the left are the new and old Gap images with the colors inverted. My immediate thought is that the changes are symbolic of Urban Outfitters or Banana Republic.Design does affect our perceptions of the world. And, if this fails to convince you, think about the annual critique given to Hollywood's best and worst dressed stars at the Oscars.Lady Gaga in meat is revolting but attention grabbing.

Plato's failure to accept that we possess notions of beauty would render him incapable of finding a job on Madison Avenue. After all, even if our ideas on beauty are ephemeral, they exist at least for the moment.These ideas affect the flower we choose, the sunset that we admire, or the partner with whom we choose to dance at the party.

Design is a fundamental aspect of the human experience. And while notions of good and beautiful design may change with time, these notions determine our life decisions. Gap's Facebook fan (former?) expresses his new distaste for the company and so influences Gap's decision to take a new look at how it markets itself.

Socrates and Plato be "damned", a chair is not a chair if no one will sit on it.

Monday, January 3, 2011

The meaning of Auld Lang Syne

Auld Lang Syne - The Scottish phrase has been commonplace for centuries and isn't far removed from the English 'once upon a time'. Literally, the phrase means 'old long since' or, idiomatically, 'a long time ago'.

This explanation of the verse is my tribute to friends of old who are no longer here.

Auld Lang Syne

Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
and never brought to mind?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
and auld lang syne?

(Scottish poet Robert Burns (1759-1796) transcribed this now traditional New Years Day verse, having heard an old Scottish gentleman recite the lines. Burns admits to adding two lines to the poem. They are the third and fourth stanzas that reference time spent upon the braes and in the burns.)

For auld lang syne, my dear,
for auld lang syne,
we’ll tak a cup o’ kindness yet,
for auld lang syne.

(It is for the reader to decide who is drinking, childhood sweethearts or bosom buddies. These days it doesn't matter for friendship knows no gender.

If you didn't already know it, a 'cup o' kindness' is a drink. ) 

And surely ye’ll be your pint-stowp!
And surely I’ll be mine!
And we’ll tak a cup o’ kindness yet,
for auld lang syne.

(In a Scottish pub, drinks were poured from kegs with pint tankards the standard measure of drink. The stowp was the device on the keg which controlled the flow of ale. Here, each buys his own pint and toasts the other over a 'cup of kindness'.

This line is the most enigmatic of the poem, for traditional hospitality demands that a friend buy the others drink. My take on this is that the poet suggests that real friends do everything 'even-steven'. True friendship is not a debt of gratitude, but a bonding of souls.)

We twa hae run about the braes,
and pu’d the gowans fine;
But we’ve wander’d mony a weary fit,
sin’ auld lang syne.

(A gowan is a wild flower. 'Pu’d the gowans fine' romantically suggests 'plucking' or more appropriately 'courting' the fine young ladies upon the Scottish hillsides. Of course, it may also mean that the two were picking flowers.)

We twa hae paidl’d in the burn,
frae morning sun till dine;
But seas between us braid hae roar’d
sin’ auld lang syne.

('Paidl’d in the burn' translates as paddling in the stream, something, as a youth, was playfully done from early morning til the setting of the sun. Time and the broad seas have risen and roared, separating childhood friends. Interestingly, Robert Burns himself once thought crossing the 'braid' sea and emigrating to America.)

And there’s a hand, my trusty fiere!
And gies a hand o’ thine!
And we’ll tak a right gude-willie-waught,
for auld lang syne.

(The word 'fiere' comes by way of the French, suggesting a brave and proud compatriot. So, give me a hand my trusty friend and together we'll take a good drought of ale for the sake of olden times.)