Rain Rain Don’t Go Away Stay Around Another Day

RaindropsI loved the rain when I was a kid. It caused my parents some consternation that I loved most to play in the rain. The rain is almost magical. And growing up, it created a certain discord in me because I loved the rain but I knew that my father, a building contractor, could not work when it rained. And this was a problem because my father’s business acumen was very similar to that of Bob Belcher on Bob’s Burgers. That is: we were always living on the edge but proud of the quality of dad’s workmanship.

But there was something deeper about my love of rain. As I know I’ve explained before, I’ve always been highly skeptical of gravity. It’s like electricity. In college, the only course I had trouble with was electronics. I wanted to know why electrons went to ground. And my professors would always give me the same lame answer, “Where else would they go?” I don’t know! These people have such confidence in the universe. It was probably a mistake for someone with such a strong mystical and metaphysical orientation to go into physics. It’s like a Jew joining the Klan. But I did it and it was doubtless good for me.

This last month has been interesting in that we’ve had a lot of storms, but they come through and drop a quarter or a half inch of rain and that’s it.

But I still don’t trust gravity. I am a master of mechanics. I understand all the theory that explains why the Moon doesn’t fall on my head and why I don’t float away from the surface of the Earth. But when I see a big blue sky, I still think that all my years of experience being pressed to the surface of the Earth is just a great big bluff and that God is going to flip a switch and I’m going to go floating away. For millennia, people have been searching for the meaning of existence. But that’s what it is: God’s practical joke on Frank. Oh, how he will laugh!

Up until about 8 years ago, I was skinny. Painfully skinny. And my grandmother used to tell me all he time, “One day a wind will come up and blow you away!” But what was I supposed to do? Drink the milk she served that came from a cow? I knew there was something very wrong with all that and so I was always skeptical of food that didn’t come from inside a well designed box. And by the way: my grandmother was very small too, so I don’t know what she was complaining about.

Rain Rain Go AwayThis image of my body being blown away has never left me. But I don’t imagine wind. I just imagine gravity not working. And let’s face it: it could happen. It’s not like we have a contract. Remember Bertrand Russell’s example of the chicken: every day is great and then one day they cut your head off. Now, for the record, if gravity stopped, the atmosphere would immediately vanish, and we would suffocate if we weren’t first destroyed by high energy particles. But the fact remains that we would die — and fast.

Somehow, cloud cover and even nighttime makes me feel less exposed. And rain is even better because it is falling — a sure sign that gravity is still working as advertised and that God hasn’t sprung his little practical joke. But all this is just the result of my having a fanciful imagination. I understand that. There are very real feelings that go along with it, but I know intellectually that there is nothing to fear. The problem is that now there is a related fear that is very real indeed.

For the purpose of rainfall totals, the season starts on 1 July. And here in my hometown of Santa Rosa, we have an average rainfall total by the end of December of 11.4 inches. And last year, we had a very wet December with roughly 12 inches in that month along, but a total of over 17 inches for the season to that point. It looked great. It looked like our drought was over. But it wasn’t.

Normally, the first three months of the year have rainfall totals: 6.0, 5.2, and 3.6. But last year, we got: 0.9, 0.4, and 1.9. This year, we should normally have a total rainfall of 11.4 inches. Instead, we have 6.7 or 7.5, depending upon the source. It’s depressing.

But there is El Niño. This year, it is a very big one. But we haven’t seen much of it. This last month has been interesting in that we’ve had a lot of storms, but they come through and drop a quarter or a half inch of rain and that’s it. We are getting snow in the Sierras, and that is very good indeed. But not as much as we might hope. Still, El Niño is not supposed to really hit until later: January, February, and March. But currently, there is no sign of rain until 5 January at the earliest. And the promised rain has disappointed again and again in the past.

If things don’t change soon, people will float away — not into the sky, but to other areas that haven’t turned into deserts.

The Bunk of the Economic Uncertainty Crowd

UncertaintyNoah Smith is one of those super smart guys who also often annoys me. On Tuesday, he wrote, Don’t Blame Uncertainty for the Slow Recovery. Now, I am in complete agreement with him on this issue. But it bugs me when people take clearly silly ideas far too seriously. And this is one of those cases, although I’m glad that Smith is out there setting the record straight for all the fools who believe such hogwash.

The “uncertainty” hypothesis is that businesses have not invested since the financial crisis because they are afraid of the uncertainty of government policy. By this silly idea, businesses were frozen in terror, not knowing if they should buy new equipment for fear that the top marginal tax rate might go up. So companies were just sitting on piles of case waiting until they were absolutely certain what the future would be. If this sounds absurd, that’s because it is.

There are a lot of economists who I greatly admire. And even the ones I disagree with are brilliant in their way. But most of them don’t have much of a clue what it is like to run an actual business. Growing up, my parents owned a gas stations then a convenience store and finally a construction company. In addition, I’ve had micro-businesses all my life. And I spent a year working a business at the San Jose full-time flea market — the closest you will ever come to a perfectly free market. All of these experiences have colored the way I see business.

Rule number one in business is that it is all about uncertainty. Running a business is a matter of dealing with uncertainty. If you are fretting about how quickly you will be able to depreciate a piece of equipment that you buy next year, you have too much time on your hands. Actual business people generally won’t buy anything or hire anyone unless they absolutely, positively have no other choice. And they certainly don’t think in terms of the taxes they will pay on profits they haven’t made yet. And it isn’t just little old me saying this. I’ve heard the same things from Nick Hanauer and Warren Buffett.

If business were about certainty, then wouldn’t everyone have a business? And it doesn’t get any less absurd if you focus on political uncertainty. We live in a democracy. Because of the way elections are staggered, we get changes every year. Even at the federal level, we get different congresses every two years and potentially new presidents every four years. Change is a given. What those who have spent the last seven years run around complaining about uncertainty are really talking about is that they don’t like the policies on offer. It wasn’t uncertainty that they were unhappy about. Obamacare was gradually put into place and it was very clear exactly what was going to happen and when. The real complaint was that the policy was going to destroy business, because they didn’t like that policy.

We all know why this recovery has been so slow. Paul Krugman put together the following graph that explains everything we need to know. It compares the number of government jobs that were created after the last two recessions: one under George W Bush and the other under Obama. Every other recession looks just like Bush, but under Obama — because of Republican intransigence — the government has made the recession worse. This is really an amazing graph. (Note: the spike is temporary workers for the Constitutionally required 2010 census.)

Government Jobs After Recessions

So I’m glad to see that there is actual data that shows that uncertainty is the hogwash it always obviously was. But the original work was only taken seriously because there were people who wanted to push the idea for ideological reasons. And this new paper won’t stop those people from continuing to claim that the problem is Obama and all his newfangled ideas.

Morning Music: A Boy Named Sue

Boy Named Sue and His Other Country SongsShel Silverstein’s most famous song is probably “A Boy Named Sue.” It was a huge hit for Johnny Cash and it works well for him. But he makes the song too serious. You get the impression that it was the right thing to do to name the boy Sue. As a result, the denouement where the singer says that he will name his own son anything but Sue doesn’t work all that well.

Silverstein’s version of “A Boy Named Sue” off Boy Named Sue and His Other Country Songs fully embraces its silliness. And at the end, he goes crazy and shows that he wouldn’t just name his son something different, but that he still hates his father because it was terrible to have named him Sue. There might have been an upside to the name but it didn’t make up for the downside.

About a decade later, Silverstein wrote a followup, The Father of a Boy Named Sue off his album, Songs and Stories. Whereas “A Boy Named Sue” is a fun song, the followup is deeply disturbing. It claims that Sue lied in his song and that actually he’s a transvestite. After the fight, they reconcile and the father moves in with the son who takes care of him better than any daughter ever could. And the song ends with more than the implication of incest. Shockingly, when Johnny Cash covered the song, he kept the lyrics in, although he sings them so forthright that it doesn’t come off as creepy as it does when Shel Silverstein delivers when in a barely audible squeal.

Anniversary Post: Four Year Marshall Plan Ends

Marshall PlanOn this day in 1951, the Marshall Plan ended. It had distributed over $13 billion to rebuild Europe after World War II. That represents over $130 billion in today’s money. And you have to think about it relative to government spending at the time. Federal spending at that time was roughly $45 billion. The Marshall Plan lasted for four years. So that’s something more than 7% of our federal budget. This is probably why people today think we spend so much money on foreign aid.

In fact, we only spend upwards of 1% on foreign aid. What’s more, most of it is military aid, which is hard to claim is us giving out of the goodness of our hearts. Furthermore, by far the biggest recipients of our aid are Afghanistan and Israel. Those are countries that most people think we ought to be giving money to — at least by the people most concerned that we are too nice to the other countries of the world. The UK gives over half as much in foreign aid than we do, even though our economy is six times the size. The entire European Union has the same size economy as we do, but gives almost three times as much in foreign aid. Think what you want to about the US, but we are a stingy country.

In a poll earlier this year, the average American thought that 26% of the federal budget went to foreign aid. No wonder Americans think we are exceptional! We are exceptional: in our minds. Americans have been convinced that all the money they pay in taxes goes to help unworthy others. They think this even while they get their Medicare and live in houses they own thanks to the mortgage interest deduction. They are totally unaware of just what a hellscape America would be without the government.

The thing about the Marshall Plan is that the money we spent didn’t just help Europe. It helped the whole world and arguably the United States most of all. But somewhere along the line, Americans got the idea that we were just too nice. And as a result, we’ve suffered for it. Now we are very clearly an empire in decline. Since I was a little boy, I’ve watched as our policies have shifted more and more away from forward looking innovation and toward backward looking efforts to hang onto the power that we once had.

The Marshall Plan was one of the shining achievements of this country. And it is one that we would never be able to accomplish now. That’s because we are weak minded people who only think of ourselves and only on the shortest of timescales.

Ghostbusters Shouldn’t be in National Film Registry

National Film RegistryEach year, the National Film Registry (NFR) designates up to 25 films for preservation because they are “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.” And this year, just to show what a sham it is, Ghostbusters, Top Gun, Shawshank Enter National Film Registry. Not one of those films deserve to be acknowledged in this way. It’s not that I think they are bad films. They all have notable aspects. But they are also all boilerplate creations. I’m sure the NFR uses the “culturally” part of its criteria to slot these in. But then all it means is that big hits are going to make the list because they were big hits.

I’m not just being an old crank who wants to see obscure films make the list. But what is the point of the NFR? Does anyone think that Top Gun will be lost to us? They just released it on Blu-ray two years ago. Meanwhile, old films are literally disintegrating as we make sure the existing print of utter pedestrian recent films get special treatment. It is appalling. Even in that year, 1986, there were films that are far more culturally significant: Platoon, Blue Velvet, and The Fly to name just three. Top Gun stands out for one reason alone: it was the biggest money maker of that year.

But I understand. The National Film Registry thinks that each year it has to include a certain number of “name” films. Last year they included Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and Saving Private Ryan. Again: I’m not saying these films are bad. The question is whether they are significant. And they are significant in a way that doesn’t require the help of the government funded National Film Preservation Board. But I suppose there are a lot of would be fighter pilots in Congress who will be more willing to fund the program for another year because Top Gun was on the list.

But there are many worthy films that were added to the registry this year, and ultimately that’s a good thing. Perhaps most interesting is the inclusion of Fred Ott’s Sneeze. It was shot in 1894 and lasts a total of 5 seconds. Fred Ott was an employee of Edison, and in the film, he takes a pinch of snuff and sneezes (or pretends to — it doesn’t look very real to me). Of course, the film is already preserved by the Library of Congress. It is a wonder to me that we aren’t spending hundreds of millions of dollars finding old films like this, restoring them, and preserving them. It is our legacy.

Another worthy addition is the 1937 Disney short The Old Mill. It’s fabulous. But as you can see in the following print, it hardly needs preservation. But it deserves to be highlighted as an important moment in the history of animation. As usual with Disney, it is too cloying, but visually it is stunning.

Also on this year’s list is Preston Sturges’ Hail the Conquering Hero. Although I’m not sure just how important the film is, I think that Sturges has received too little attention. His films on DVD are not in the best of shape, with the exception of Sullivan’s Travels, which I think is overrated among Sturges’s films. Typical. Comedians don’t get much respect in Hollywood.

The 1929 short film Black and Tan is on the list. It is hard to find fault in that. It isn’t much more than an excuse to highlight Duke Ellington and his band. But it’s wonderful. There is a segment in it that took me a moment to figure out. Two men show up to repossess Ellington’s piano. His wife offers them five dollars each to just go away. They refuse. Then she offers them alcohol, which they accept. I thought that was odd, given that $5 is upwards of $100 today. But then I remembered: Prohibition.

There are lots of others, of course. Some I think really are important. For example, Imitation of Life is a great film that most people just dismiss as 1950s fluff. Yet it is a deep film that deals with racial issues more honestly than most modern films. If you haven’t seen it, you should seek it out. So I’m glad to see it added to the registry, even if there is little concern about it being lost or forgotten.

I’ll admit that I am offended by the inclusion of Ghostbusters on the list just because I don’t think it is a very good film. Last year, the NFR added Rio Bravo to the list and it’s kind of the same thing: a opportunity for a bunch of stars to mug for the camera. But it isn’t just that. LA Confidential was added as well, and although I really like that film, it doesn’t belong here. Big budget hits don’t need to be preserved.

One of the great things about these lists is that they introduce people to films they’ve never heard of. In my case, Symbiopsychotaxiplasm is new to me. And I see that my library doesn’t have it. But I suspect that now that it has been added to the National Film Registry, they will probably acquire it. But here it is on YouTube. I’ll give it a view tonight:

I realize that the people at the National Film Registry would claim that they have to include some “fun” films — that they want to present a variety of films. But surely there are far more worthy and equally fun films than Top Gun and Ghostbusters.

Eric Posner Wants to Help ISIS Destroy America!

Eric PosnerGlenn Greenwald wrote a depressing article, Those Demanding Free Speech Limits to Fight ISIS Pose a Greater Threat to US Than ISIS. Obviously, we know that the Republicans want to destroy everything that is good about America because they are vewy vewy afwaid. They’re like Private Hudson from Aliens: talking tough, but the moment there is a hint of danger, “Game over, man!” But I had hoped that the Democrats and other reasonable folk would be better. And to a large extent, they have been. They at least don’t wet themselves every time there is an attack. I noted before that Clinton wasn’t exactly great on the subject, Trump, Clinton, and the ISIS Freak Out.

Last month following the ISIS attacks in Paris, Cass Sunstein wrote, Islamic State’s Challenge to Free Speech. He starts off, “The intensifying focus on terrorism, and on Islamic State in particular, poses a fresh challenge to the greatest American contribution to the theory and practice of free speech: the clear and present danger test.” Oh yes! The clear and present danger test, which held that encouraging young men to resist the draft during World War I was a clear and present danger. I’ve always found it interesting that we shroud our authoritarian actions in a cloak legal mumbo jumbo. We should just be honest: we have freedom of speech so long as it doesn’t threaten the power elite.

It’s just depressing to see people like Professor Posner running around explaining that we have to get rid of freedom of speech, but not for authoritarian reasons, but for the good of the people. This is always what authoritarians say.

But now we have Eric Posner, clearly sitting in his own urine while he wrote, ISIS Gives Us No Choice but to Consider Limits on Speech. This is something that truly boggles my mind. When I was growing up during the Cold War, it was just assumed that people in the Soviet Union didn’t have freedom of speech because their leaders were evil and wouldn’t brook any dissent. And that was true! But that wasn’t what the people of the Soviet Union were told.

In the Soviet Union, the people were told that attacking the government was dangerous and that it put everyone’s life in peril. So it’s just depressing to see people like Professor Posner running around explaining that we have to get rid of freedom of speech, but not for authoritarian reasons, but for the good of the people. This is always what authoritarians say. It doesn’t matter how much you disguise it with nice words and legal reasoning. And where would it stop? “Terrorism” is a word that has no meaning outside, “Acts by people who our government has decided are enemies.”

But this is all about… what?! The Islamic State?! That’s the new boogeyman? As a country, we spend almost as much money on the military as the rest of the world combined. Yet some insurgent group half way around the world represents such a threat that we must destroy our most cherished ideals? And really, let’s face it: this is all about San Bernardino. Certainly, 14 people murdered is a tragedy. But if the shooters hadn’t been Muslims, no one would be talking about limiting the First Amendment or shutting down parts of the internet. (Although clearly Eric Posner has a long history of this.)

And then, I learned via Greenwald that the San Bernardino shooters were not radicalized by ISIS. According to PBS, “The FBI revealed in a criminal complaint this week that one of the San Bernardino shooters, the husband, Syed Rizwan Farooq, and an alleged co-conspirator who bought the couple’s assault rifles, were inspired by former al Qaeda leader Anwar Awlaki.” So it wasn’t even about ISIS. But that won’t stop the San Bernardino murders from being used as an excuse to dismantle our rights.

Eric Posner even cites the destruction of the First Amendment during wartime as a positive example. And since we are at war now, well, carve away my friends! The problem is that the United States is now always at war. But what does that matter to the authoritarians who want only to have the kind of free speech that they find acceptable. “You can say anything you want as long as I don’t mind!” It’s pathetic but not surprising. What is surprising is that people would be pushing this over such a minor threat as ISIS.

Morning Music: I Got Stoned and I Missed I

Best of Shel SilversteinLet’s go back to Shel Silverstein’s songs. As far as I know, he was not a drug user. But he wrote about drugs a lot. A good example of that is “I Got Stoned and I Missed It.” It’s a song that a lot of people have covered, most notably Dr Hook and Jim Stafford. The song sounds like a pro drug song, but the whole point of it is that the singer misses out on his whole life because he’s stoned all the time.

As is pretty much always the case, the music is super simple. The band might interject some passing chord, but it is just two chords: I and V. And truthfully, these are the kinds of songs that seem to be most joyous. Despite the lyrics, the song seems almost to be an advertisement for cannabis. Certainly the person who put this video together thought so.

Anniversary Post: Saddam Hussein’s Execution

Saddam HusseinOn this day in 2006, Saddam Hussein was executed. It’s an odd thing. I have very mixed feelings about it. On the one hand, he was an evil despot. On the other, far worse men live their whole lives in the lap of luxury. I certainly think he should have been brought to justice. But by the Bush administration?! It’s especially interesting because the Iraq War was only possible because of the 9/11 attacks, which Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with. So the mastermind of 9/11, Osama bin Laden, was totally forgotten by the Bush administration, but they got Saddam Hussein. Hooray!

I just don’t like the idea that Bush and Cheney will go to their very comfortable graves thinking that they somehow did a good thing in capturing and killing him. As it is, the net effect of the Iraq War has been the murder of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis. Is the death of Hussein in any way compensation for that? Indeed, his evil deeds were a thing of the past. He was a very useful tool in keeping Iraq stable without being able to do any major harm. He was put to death for things he did in 1982 — when he was our ally.

I don’t know. I suppose it is just the hypocrisy of the United States that most bothers me. And Saudi Arabia continues to be an absolutely horrible country, yet they are our ally. And it always will be. Because once fossil fuels become unimportant, we won’t care what despots in the Middle East do. We will just abandon them. We are a screwed up country. I remember watching during the lead up to the Persian Gulf War how Saddam Hussein was turned into some major villain. People like him are a dime a dozen. When they are useful to support, we support them. When they are useful to vilify, we vilify them. There is something really wrong with us. If the United States were a person, it would rightly be diagnosed as a psychopath.

YouGov Shows Love Is All You Need (Or Want)

YouGovTed McLaughlin put together some data that seems worth looking at as the year comes to an end, What People Most Want In Their Lives. YouGov polled almost 20,000 people in 17 countries about what they wanted in their lives. And as should come as no surprise, people all over the world want the same things. But that’s partly my bias. I focus on the similarities. Others, I’m sure, would focus on the differences. But the fact is that nowhere on the list is “kill the infidel” or “restore the Constitution to its real meaning.” People mostly want to love and health.

But there were some interesting findings in the poll. The countries that are most ostentatiously religious were also the countries that wanted “spiritual progress.” These included: Indonesia, USA, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, and Thailand. They are the countries with 10% or more wanting that. A lot of it is religious fundamentalism. And as much as I go on about atheism, I am very worried about fundamentalism. The place I differ with many people is that I think religious fundamentalism in the United States is the most dangerous.

Love is the biggest thing that westerners want: 19% of them. For the east, the number if only 9%. I figure this has to do with money.

Strangely, there isn’t much correlation between “spiritual progress” and “moral virtue.” In fact, the USA is number one in the disconnect here. It tops out in terms of wanting spiritual progress at 13%, but it’s in the middle of the pack with wanting moral virtue of only 5%. That represents the largest gap of any nation. I assume it is because American religious people think they already have moral virtue. As I’ve written about many times, salvation comes very cheap to Americans. It’s like Santa Claus: they just have to believe and they get an all access pass to heaven.

There is one big difference between what people in the west want and what people in the east want. Love is the biggest thing that westerners want: 19% of them. For the east, the number if only 9%. I figure this has to do with money. Although there are some very rich countries representing the east, China and Indonesia dominate. And people just trying to get by don’t focus too much on things like love. And this is the area that is most stark. The lowest love score for the western countries is for the USA at 15%; and the highest love score for the eastern countries is 10%.

YouGov Poll

But I have to wonder about some of these questions. “Success in my career” has the USA scoring toward the bottom of the countries. Given that Indonesia is at the top, it would seem like it is an indication of how happy people are in their careers. But I suspect that is not happening here on the home front. I think people here have largely given up on the idea that work can get better. They figure that work is about as good as they could hope. If they even have a job, that’s a good thing.

A related statistic is that people in the USA are towards the bottom in wanting more free time. Americans work on average 1,789 hour per year, yet they are less inclined to want more free time than the Germans, who work on average 1,371 hours — almost a quarter fewer hours. We are also less interested in making more money. Americans are amazingly good at self-oppressing. No wonder we live in a plutocracy.

But at least most people agree that all we really need is love.

Afterword

Because The Beatles didn’t believe the BS they shoveled, this is not The Beatles doing the song:

Henry Kissinger: Peace Prize Winning War Criminal

Henry KissingerI just watched The Trials Of Henry Kissinger. It’s based in part on Christopher Hitchens’ book The Trial of Henry Kissinger. It was published back in 2001, before Hitchens became just like Kissinger. Of course, that doesn’t mean that Hitchens ever forgave Kissinger. That was the interesting thing about Hitchens: he never went back on what he thought before. So a Kissinger in power in 2003 was just fine with Hitchens, even while it was clear as day that the actual Henry Kissinger of 1973 was a war criminal. Luckily, the film doesn’t dwell too much on Hitchens and provides Kissinger with a much more fair treatment than he deserves.

What most struck me in the film was that in 1968, the Johnson administration was on the verge of ending the Vietnam War. Kissinger was acting as a double agent — leaking information he gained from his position in the Johnson campaign to the Nixon campaign. And then Nixon used that information to convince South Vietnamese President Nguyễn Văn Thiệu to reject the deal. Had the deal held, Hubert Humphrey might have been elected president. But that’s not really what’s important. What’s important is that the war could have been over then. Instead, it went on for another five years.

Half of the Americans who died in the Viewnam War did so after that date. Hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese died after that date. And for what? So that Richard Nixon could be president? So that Henry Kissinger could further his career? Regardless of the way that you see it, there is no excuse for sabotaging the peace process. To me, it qualifies as treason. It makes the Watergate break-in sound like a trivial matter — even if you view it in its widest possible context. But this kind of thing seems to be acceptable now. Just look at the Republican letter to Iran that was meant to destroy the nuclear deal. It seems that among conservatives, their commitment is to gaining power and not the country itself.

Regardless, five years after Kissinger worked to destroy the peace deal in the Viewnam War, he brokered his own. He even got the Nobel Peace Prize. But I learned something new: the deal he worked out was almost identical to the 1968 deal he helped to derail. That’s really something. I wonder how people like that live with themselves. Is it really just that people who operate at that level are all psychopaths? Because that’s what it seems like.

There’s no indication that Kissinger or Nixon or anyone else actually thought that the Viewnam War was winnable. It was just a pawn in their little game. They were willing to kill hundreds of thousands of people on the theory that they could convince the American people that they had the secret to winning that war. I don’t think much of the American people, but I don’t think they would have gone for Nixon’s deal if he had been honest about it. There were two options. The first was that the war ends and that was that. The second was that the war continues on and we just hope for the best. I think the American people would have gone overwhelmingly for the first option.

Henry Kissinger is very old. Even if he weren’t, there would never have been any justice. But it would be right if he spent what little time he had left rotting in a prison cell. But even that is a fantasy. We’ll be lucky if after his death he gets anything but hagiography.

Morning Music: The Giving Tree

The Giving TreeElizabeth mentioned that she knew about Shel Silverstein’s poetry, “And oh, that book about a jerk of a person.” I correctly deduced that she was referring to The Giving Tree. The truth is that the tree is not real. It is rather the platonic ideal of motherhood or Mother Nature or certain conceptions of God: something that gets pleasure only through giving. The boy is all of us: searching for fulfillment from outside things and experiences — all of them doomed to disappoint.

It makes me think of the nature of friendship. A friend is not someone who helps you move to a new place; a friend is someone who you help move to a new place. It is, of course, great when friendship is reciprocated. But the nature of it is what you are willing to do and the feelings that you have. And so the giving tree has a very great friend in the boy. The boy, on the other hand, is a sad figure — alone in the world, apparently without friends.

Of course, if I wanted to, I could provide an endless number of interpretations of the book. It has much to say about aging and the need to be useful. All of the interpretations are poignant and edifying. That’s what makes it so great. “And the tree was happy.” It is what we all aspire to. We don’t need apples or branches or trunk for that.

Anniversary Post: LaGuardia Airport Bombing

LaGuardia AirportOn this day in 1975, a bomb exploded at the TWA baggage claim area at the LaGuardia Airport. It had the equivalent of 25 sticks of dynamite and killed 11 people. It remains an open case. No one knows who did it. No one ever claimed responsibility. Some of the possible perpetrators are the Palestine Liberation Organization, the Jewish Defense League, Fuerzas Armadas de Liberación Nacional Puertorriqueña, Croatian nationalists, and even the mafia. Or maybe it was just some crazy person. Regardless, it hurt a lot of people and had the effect of terrorizing the population.

What I continue to find shocking is that most people I talk to seem to think terrorism was something that started with 9/11. Most are even foggy on the USS Cole bombing. The Troubles were something that happened outside the United States and therefore never happened. But the truth is that terrorism is something we’ve lived with forever. The only thing that has changed is that we freak out far more now than we used to. In 1975, a deadly bombing was a terrible thing. But it wasn’t cause to change our very way of life.

Now it’s 2015 and a couple of maniacs going on a killing spree is cause for us go to war. Nothing matters but making us all feel safe. But not by doing anything about guns. That would be silly in that it might actually make people more safe. No. Instead we need to reduce our rights to privacy. And we need to stop “those people” from coming into the country. People go on television and say racist and patently false things like, “Not all Muslims are terrorists, but all terrorists are Muslim.”

People die unjustly all the time. The LaGuardia Airport bombing is a good example. People have always been murdered and based upon human nature, they always will be. But we are heading down a very dangerous path. We are looking at creating an authoritarian society that I don’t want to live in. The cure those on the right have to offer is far worse than the disease.