Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Learning New Math in the Desert

The trip had started in Rochester NY, when I answered the ad of a girl looking for someone to ride with her to the west coast. My final destination was Long Beach.

This particular day had started in Cheyenne and my thumbing had begun in Little America, the biggest truck stop in the country after she’d dropped me off to head further north.

And this particular leg of the journey had begun on the dirty, slushy streets in the south side of Salt Lake City.

The pickup stopped and the driver said he was headed south on Rt. 15. My four or five previous rides, dragged out over a four-hour period, couldn’t have taken me fifty miles all told. At last I had a ride that was going somewhere. 

The first thing I observed getting into the truck was the case of oil on the floor. The second thing was a bottle of whiskey on the seat.

If you want to make a living driving the interstates you have to have a routine. If you just eat when you’re hungry and sleep when you’re tired you’ll never survive the long haul. This man had a routine.

 About every thirty miles he would pull over, throw the hood up and pour a quart of oil into the smoking engine.  Then he would get back in and throw a swig of whiskey down his throat and we’d be back on the road again.

In between fill-ups, I learned that he worked for the power company and was heading back to his home in Arizona. At least that’s what he said. I never knew the real story about the drivers who picked me up just like the drivers never knew the true story about me.  Hitch hiking is a good time to try out lies to see which ones fly.

He said he worked for the power company and that was fine with me. All I cared about was that Rt. 15 would take me right into LA and had already decided to leave him whenever he left Rt. 15.

But there was a problem. All those rides in the morning that didn’t go anywhere had used up a lot of time and it was now getting late, and worse, it was getting dark; and I hadn’t really seen a city since we left Salt Lake. I really didn’t have a plan other then jumping from the car if he ever got so drunk that he drove off the road and flipped over.

That’s when he told me his plan—or part of his plan. As he pulled off of Rt. 15 onto a smaller road and I was just to ask him to let me out, he spoke up.

“I don’t think you’re going to have much luck getting a ride on Rt. 15 tonight,” he said. “Not from here but I have a better idea for you.”

He told me he was going to get me to a place where I would have no trouble getting a ride. The only problem I had with that plan was that the road he turned onto seemed to be going deeper into the mountains. It was beginning to get dark and it seemed that our’s was the only car on the highway. In the distance I could see the lights of a house or two scattered here or there but they were few and far between. If this weren’t enough to cause me to worry the engine was smoking more and he was getting on a pretty good buzz.

I thought I was in for trouble but I didn’t know what kind of trouble and how much trouble. It was around this time, as my worries were mounting, that he began talking about politics and education and Russia and Russian education. I didn’t know whom I was dealing with and was barely paying attention to him as I tried to pick out anything in the passing landscape that might come in handy down the road.

We were definitely in the middle of nowhere, and by nowhere I mean total and absolute blackness—with just a truly breathtaking number of stars shining down from above and the light from his headlights that seemed to reach out all of twenty feet ahead of us. This is when the thought occurred to me that except for his truck and the dinky light illuminating from it, this is the sight I would have seen a hundred million years ago, traveling along the same landscape.

I was trying to plan ahead on how I would grab the whiskey bottle if I had to and whether I would be able to hit him hard enough to knock him out—and could I get control of the wheel when he informed me that actually the best thing to do would be to stay with him in his trailer overnight and get a early start the next morning.  This trailer, he explained, was about half way between his home in Arizona and Salt Lake City. 

Now I was really kicking myself for not getting out when I had the chance but kicking myself was pretty much all I could.

We drove for a couple more hours leaving one road after another for smaller, bumpier, more isolated ones until finally at last we arrived at his trailer and I could breathe a sigh of relief.

We were in Salina, a small town on the edge of Fishlake National Forest.  He pulled his truck next to a trailer parked in a small court just off the road.  He put some stuff in the trailer and then we walked to a little bar down the road that could have come right out of “Gunsmoke.” 

There were no chairs or stools at the bar, yet that is where he chose to eat.  We ordered up some chow, ate it standing up, had a few drinks and talked to the locals who all seemed to know him.  He really was a lineman for the county and I was beginning to feel better about the whole situation. 

It was here that he reintroduced the subject of Russian education—particularly math.  It seems their way of adding and multiplying was better than our way but he could only vaguely remember how their way went.  We worked on it at the bar and then went back to his trailer to work on it some more.  Through a process of trial and error we finally figured out how they did it. 

Seems instead of going from right to left and carrying a lot of numbers back and forth, they start at the left and just kind of kept a running number in their head.

I’ve read several articles explaining the system since then but this was the first time I had ever heard of it.  By the time we went to sleep that night we were both pretty drunk and doing any math by any system would have been hard.  Still, considering what I thought I was getting into just a few hours earlier, everything worked out pretty well.

He had a bed over his that had a clearance all of a foot and a half but I had no trouble falling asleep.  He told me not to wake him up in the morning.  He said all I had to do was get on the road outside the trailer and I would have no trouble getting a ride. 

He was right.  The first car arrived about five minutes after I did and the driver said he was going to LA.  We made one stop in Las Vegas so he could place one bet and by nightfall, I was back in LA.







Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Sack of Potatoes startin' to look good—again

Potatoes doing what they do—nothing. Ya gotta love them.
I wrote a novel a while back entitled, Postal Service, which detailed the daily working of the USPS. Much of the novel centered on the relationship between management and the work force.
At one point, I suggested to a fellow carrier that we would be better off with a sack of potatoes as a supervisor. Naturally, when this got back to my supervisor—as these things always do—she jumped to the conclusion that I had accused her of being as dumb as a sack of potatoes.

I explained to her that anyone smarter than a sack of potatoes would know that wasn’t my intention. I told her she was an instigator, a trouble maker, someone constantly looking for a fight. I added that a sack of potatoes sitting at her desk, while unable to accomplish anything good, would nevertheless be incapable of creating so much havoc as she did on a daily basis.

Because of climate change, we are not even beginning to look a lot like Christmas, but it’s beginning to look like a sack of potatoes in the Oval Office wouldn’t be such a bad idea.

What if on November 8, 2016, Republicans who couldn’t bring themselves to vote for Hillary Clinton, instead wrote in the name, Sacko Potato? What if American voters put a sack of potatoes in the Oval Office instead of Donald Trump?

To be sure, nothing would have been accomplished in the last year, meaning we would still have a vacancy on the Supreme Court. Also, we wouldn’t have had...well, actually that’s the only thing we wouldn’t have. Nothing else has been done.

So what else might a sack of potatoes not done?

For starters, it wouldn’t have named a foreign agent as head of the National Security Agency.

It wouldn’t have named Cabinet Secretaries to departments they want to destroy.

It wouldn’t have pulled out of the Paris Accords, which now essentially include everyone except us.

It wouldn’t have insulted virtually every leader in the world who isn’t a dictator.

It wouldn’t have waged a year-long war-of-words with a thin-skinned, arrogant, ego-driven boy-man—in short, his mirror-image.

It wouldn’t have gotten into spats with every significant member of Congress—Democrat or Republican.

It wouldn’t have gotten into public feuds with the NFL or the NBA or athletes in general.

It’s safe to say it probably wouldn’t have received the support of white supremacists, who are very particular who they hang around with.

It wouldn’t have turned on the free press while, at the same time, embrace conspiracy theorists.

It wouldn’t have insulted American Indians, Americans living in Puerto Rico, Americans who didn’t vote for him, Americans it happens to disagree with, or any American with a basic understanding of history or a working knowledge of the English language.

It wouldn’t have put its self-interest ahead of the country’s best interest.

It wouldn’t have turned the White House into a pre-school playground.

On almost any day, you can hear the news coming out of this administration or read a tweet coming off the president’s phone and say, “No sir. A sack of potatoes wouldn’t have done that.”

In the end, there is a lot that a sack of potatoes cannot do and will never be able to do, but thank God, for all the things that a sack of potatoes cannot do and will never do. That’s the sack half full/sack half empty look at potatoes.

It’s why sometimes I wish there were a sack of potatoes sitting in the Oval Office right now, stinking up the place instead of the stinker we have.  

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Houston to Earth: We Have a Problem

There is a tendency by some to think climate change—if they believe it at all—is only about the temperature rising. If that were the case, then the solution to the problem would be bigger and better air conditioners.  Problem solved.

Unfortunately, scientists, who were roundly criticized by politicians who openly admitted they were not scientists, warned us from day one that there was more to it. Incidentally, day one was several decades ago if it were a day.

As temperatures rose, they advised us, ice would melt, seas would rise, weather patterns would change, and in the case of the Artic, sea lanes would open up and the long-sought after Northwest Passage would finally present itself—just when we didn’t need it. Natural occurrences like hurricanes, tornados and typhoons would occur more frequently and be more destructive.

It was all hyperbole, critics claimed. Politicians told us scientists were just trying to scare us. I’ll tell you what isn’t hyperbole. The number of politicians trying to scare us to promote their own agendas, which makes their criticism of scientists, sheer hypocrisy.

So, I have these two images competing for my mind’s attention right now.

Image result for Houston Flood

Houston, submerged under two feet of rainwater, after four days of continual rain. This storm was larger and more horrific than those of the past because the Gulf of Mexico is a few degrees warmer than in the past—something scientists warned us about.

Then there is Senator Jim Inhofe, Republican from Oklahoma, standing on the Senate floor holding a snowball, not so much to denounce as to ridicule climate scientists.

“I got this from outside,” he said. “It’s very cold out there.”

That’s like saying, “Gravity, what gravity? Don’t you see that plane flying overhead?” The fact is, winters and the resulting precipitation are changing drastically from the patterns we had become accustomed to—again something climate scientists predicted.

When Senator Inhofe’s vaudeville act was over, he tossed the snowball to a colleague, but an aide caught it instead. Every time I see this clip, I wonder why the aide didn’t throw it back. You don’t have to be an expert on winter to know that’s what you do when someone throws a snowball at you.

Obviously, people unaware of snowball etiquette are simply going to have to adjust—just as people unaccustomed to four feet of water in their living rooms are going to have to adjust to these changing times.

Because the times—just as Bob Dylan and climate scientists have predicted—are changing.

Climate is changing. Weather is changing. The debate over whether these changes are man-made will continue as scientists provide more convincing data and non-scientist politicians come up with even more creative props.

As for the rest of us, we should be saying what the good folks of Houston might be saying.

“We don’t care who’s responsible—just do something about it.”

They might have a point.

A push toward cleaner energy might not help, but it certainly won’t hurt. A push for energy efficient vehicles and appliances might not help, but it certainly can’t hurt. A push to break away from our fossil fuel dependency, fueled by an almost fanatical dependency on plastic might not help, but it certainly won’t hurt.

Looking to the future is certainly better than looking back to the past. This is what enlightened men have always done.

The dams surrounding Houston, which failed to various degrees—just as the levees surrounding New Orleans failed during Katrina—are part of America’s infrastructure.

That’s right. Infrastructure is not just a word thrown around during political debates. It is real things—roads, bridges, dams, sea-walls, levees, subways, runways and the electric grid among other things. What isn’t infrastructure is a Mexican border wall.

Instead of keeping immigrants out, or sending the ones who are here back, we should be bringing them in to work on massive building projects that aren’t towers, casinos and sports arenas. Yes, there is enough work to go around, yes, there is enough money to pay for it, and yes, this is real.

Houston is not an isolated case. It sits between a massive gulf of water and a massive amount of flatland. Miami and Fort Lauderdale sit between the Atlantic Ocean and the already saturated Everglades. Norfolk, Los Angeles, New York City, Chicago and dozen more coastal and water-bordering cities are at risk.

There is work to be done everywhere.

Is it man’s fault? Dinosaurs would have loved the luxury of being able to debate the arrival of a life-destroying asteroid—maybe blame a tyreneronussauris rex, who no one liked anyway, but when it was barreling towards them, it didn’t matter. They just wished they could have done something about it.

We can do something about our current situation. We can accept the idea that we may be at fault and stop doing what we’re doing, fix the things we can fix, and stop pretending we know more than the experts.

One more thing. Any time some buffoon throws a snowball at you, throw it back.



Tuesday, August 29, 2017

A Fable

The Fable of
The Wolf and the Human

The wolf was walking along the sidewalk looking as best he could to be a large but friendly dog. He came across a man sitting on the curb and looking sad. A terrible tragedy appeared to have occurred. The wolf was aware of the reputation wolves had and knew the risks posed should his identity become known. Still, he was not without empathy and he was always in search of a good story.

“What’s wrong, man? You don’t look well.”

The human looked at the wolf and smiled confidently.

“You don’t fool me. You talk like a human, but I wasn’t born yesterday. I know a dog when I see one. And don’t think for a moment that I think you are a friendly dog. If I’ve learned anything in my life, it’s that looks can be deceiving.”

“I guess I can’t pull the wool over your eyes,” said the wolf who still looked like a dog and spoke like a human. “As I was saying, you don’t look well. What’s wrong?”

“Everything is wrong. A terrorist attack. A human has done great harm to his own kind. He has killed innocent people. He has destroyed all that was good and replaced it with evil.”

“I have heard of these terrorists, you speak of. They multiply like rabbits, I am told. Do you know what group this one belonged to?”

“This group? That group? What difference does it make? For all I know, he could have been a lone wolf.”

As he spoke these words, the human could have sworn he saw the dog cringe.

“I’m sorry. I meant you no harm. I know many people associate dogs with wolves—think they are one and the same. I assure you, I am not one of those people. Wolves are evil. Everyone knows this. Dogs—even one as large as yourself—are man’s best friend.”

“It’s the phrase itself. Lone wolf. I know what you humans mean when you speak it. A deranged individual, a loser, a man not so much without a heart as one without a soul. Someone for whom, life has no value. A monster able to create great destruction which greatly exceeds the measly little space he occupies in his very large world.”

The human was at a loss for words. He had never heard a human speak so eloquently, much less a dog.

“I suppose you are right. I haven’t thought about it much. Terms get thrown around a lot.”

“Do you know what I know about wolves?”

“I wouldn’t think you’d know anything about wolves.”

“And I don’t think you know anything about anything. So I will tell you what you don’t know. Wolves don’t kill other wolves. We don’t do so as individuals, nor in packs. We certainly don’t raise armies.

“In all of the animal kingdom, there is only one species that kills its own kind, and it does so in every imaginable way possible. Humans are, in fact, the most dangerous animal on the planet. They are a danger to themselves and to every other animal. They kill as lone individuals and as armies and everything in between.

“To call a lone human killer a lone wolf is an insult to every good wolf who has ever lived.”

“So now, you speak for wolves?”

“So now, I speak as a wolf.” As he said these words, his legs stiffened, his back arched and his muscles became taut. He raised his head until his eyes met the human’s eyes in what could only be described as a terrorizing moment.

The human realized for the first time that he was talking to a wolf. The first thought to cross his mind was that he did not have his gun with him. It was the second time in the last few minutes he had harbored that thought.

If I had my gun, I would shoot this bastard before he kills anyone.

That was the thought that popped into his head when he first saw the terrorist. What didn’t occur to him was that if the terrorist didn’t have a weapon, he wouldn’t need one, and no one would have died.

The wolf, who was very perceptive and thought he might even be endowed with a sixth sense, could only laugh and shake his head.

“You humans don’t have a clue. You kill every living creature you come across, including yourselves, and then brag about your great genes.

“Do you know that all of the species of animals alive today have been around longer than humans? They will still be here long after you are gone. Most of the animals that aren’t here are gone because of humans.”

“Not the dinosaurs.”

“No, not the dinosaurs, but it’s interesting that you bring them up. The dinosaurs were a victim of fate but they never succumbed to folly. They were around for over 165-million years. Humans have only been here for 200,000 years. Know why the dinosaurs lasted so long?”

“I haven’t thought about it.”

“They didn’t have trigger fingers. For all this time, humans have thought their thumbs were what separated them from all the other animals. I got news for you. It’s that trigger finger that’s going to do you in.”

“So we’re the bad guys?”

“You said it, not me. I’ve got another question for you. Do you know who kills most wolves?”

“Let me guess. Hunters? Human hunters?”

“Yeah, only we don’t call them hunters—or humans. We call them lone humans.”

With that, he lunged at the human, sinking his teeth into the human’s neck, using his paws to fight off the human arms that were flailing about like twigs in a hurricane. When the fight was over, the wolf dragged the human into an alley, where he left it for the rats to dispose of.

As he walked away, he turned back once and sneered.

“Now, that’s what a lone wolf terrorist attack looks like.”





Tuesday, August 1, 2017

The weight of a bad promise

This article appeared in the Virginian-Pilot, on July 30. They made one change replacing, "They gave us images of Uncle Sam in an ob/gyn clinic, donning rubber gloves and preparing to do what our current president has bragged about doing without gloves." with simply, "They gave us images of Uncle Sam in an ob/gyn clinic.” I kind of expected the change but it would have been interesting to see Republican “Fake news” (the ad) featured alongside the real news (Trump on tape) that he and his supporters would like us to forget.     

THE MOST COMMON defense I’ve heard for the Republican “Repeal and Replace Obamacare” bills, whether they be from Senators or Congressmen, is that they made promises to their constituents and they must keep their word.

President Obama also made a promise—to the country as a whole—to extend health care coverage to everyone, Democrats, Republicans and Independents alike. He kept that promise. Interestingly, Republicans on the day he was elected promised their base they would have nothing to do with this effort, and on day two and every day afterwards, continued with their “Repeal and Replace” promise.

Republicans warned about death panels. They gave us images of Uncle Sam in an OBGYN clinic. They continually tell us the richest country in the world can’t afford to do what every other country in the world does routinely. They are at a loss as to why drugs costing $70,000 in this country only cost $7,000 in other countries. Worst of all, they appear to seriously believe that money spent on poor, elderly, and sick people can be better spent by millionaires and billionaires.

Oh, what a tangled web we weave...when first we promise to deceive.

Yeah, I know. It doesn’t go this way. How about this one?  Don’t make promises if you can’t keep them, or if you shouldn’t keep them.

Promises always make life difficult.

I know this from watching Law and Order, the History Channel, and listening in on any interview with any Republican politician on any news show.

The cop shows up at a crime scene, feels remorse for the helpless victim and says something that makes his partner cringe. “Don’t worry ma’am. We’ll get the guy who did this.” He might have the best intention, but he can’t predict the outcome of the case and his partner let’s him know this.

General MacArthur, when driven from the Philippines promised, “I shall return.” Luckily, for him, he was able to keep that promise but it didn’t come about easily and the cost was high.

Then you have the GOP for the last seven years, promising to repeal and replace Obamacare. Unlike the poor cop on the beat, or MacArthur boarding a boat, they didn’t have what you might call honorable intentions. The driving force behind their promise was to stick it to Obama.

“Repeal and replace” has become the holy grail of Republican politics. Every Republican in every state in every district for the last seven years has been running against Obamacare.

How has this ruse paid off? What has it gotten them?

Well, it’s taken a while, a lot of money, and a lot of bad faith promises, but they finally have complete control of the federal government—Executive, Legislative and Judicial branches, and a fair share of the state governments. What they are learning, in the words of the titular head of the party, is that health care reform is harder than anyone thought. Repeal and replace is even harder still.

Yet, all we hear from these opportunists is, “We made a promise—to our constituents—and we have to keep that promise.” What their constituents are telling them is, if they replace, “Repeal and replace,” with “We’re going to take away your health insurance,” many of those constituents are prepared to replace their elected officials.

There are good promises and there are bad promises.

If you make a good promise, work hard to achieve it, but eventually fail, people will be mad but they will probably understand. This is the way it was for a long time for politicians trying to extend health care benefits until Obama finally succeeded in doing so.

On the other hand, if you make bad promises, work extra hard, even fanatically hard, to achieve them but keep coming up short, sensible people are going to say maybe you should rethink the original promise.

This is the problem with health care in America. Too many people don’t have coverage. Drugs are too expensive. Pharmaceutical companies are motivated more by making a profit than making people better. So are insurance companies. Scam artists are taking advantage of patients, insurance companies and government agencies to make a crooked buck.

A promise to fix these problems will go a long way to making people forget Republican s have spent the last seven years trying to fulfill a bad promise.     

Monday, July 24, 2017

Going Down

    As a TV star and narcissist par excellence, Trump is no newcomer to the world of self-promotion. The man understands branding better than a steer on the Chisholm Trail headed for Abilene did.
    What he doesn’t seem to understand is appearances—how things look to someone who isn’t name Donald Trump? On a side note, he’d approve that I mentioned his name in this piece again.
    To my point, though, no one has been able to convince him that his tweets do him more harm than good. His desire is to look like a man on top of things, a man engaged, a man fighting back. Instead he comes across as an insecure, bitter old man–child who has never taken no for an answer and isn’t about to let anyone tell him what to do as long as he has blood pumping through his thumb and a charged up iPhone.
    He is too much, “What you see is what you get” to understand the finer points of symbolism. That’s too bad because symbolism isn’t voodoo. It’s not mystique. Symbolism is very real. It’s just not always obvious. It’s usually not a good prognosticator, but it is damn good when it comes to evaluating something in hindsight.
    Take for instance, Trump’s announcement that he was going to run for president. We’ve all observed the scene a hundred times.
    Trump and Melania, riding the escalator down from their penthouse in Trump Tower to the lobby where fond admirers and reporters are waiting. The obvious message was simple. The country had sunk into such dire straits that he could wait no longer. The country needed the unique brand of leadership that only he could provide.
    He didn’t need the job of president. He was already, in his opinion, one of the most powerful men in the world, but he was willing to put all that aside to serve his country; to, in his words, help “Make America great again.” He would trademark that phrase and sell a million hats with that motto, but he wasn’t in this for the money. It was all about service.
    It was a grand sight to behold—the splendor, the enthusiasm, the anticipation.
    Who could have imagined that escalator ride was the beginning of the end?
    This is not to say people didn’t already know who Trump was. What he represented. His story was well-known. Adulterer, blowhard, consummate consumer, discriminator, egomaniac, philanderer.... The discrimination suits, bankruptcies, labor disputes, and ugly divorces were nothing new. For sure, something about his hair didn’t make sense.
    His supporters were willing to forgive all of this. Maybe not forgive, but they certainly didn’t give much thought to any of it. No one seemed to care. He was the boss of, “The Apprentice,” and for many people that was enough.
    Nevertheless, after that ride on the escalator, something changed. We didn’t necessarily get any new information—and for sure, many people continued to admire him, as they always have, in spite of his faults, but something did change that day.
    He was still rich but we don’t know if he is as rich as he says. Of course, no one will ever know exactly where his money comes from. Always considered a smart businessman, people now question if taking away the qualifier, businessman necessitates also throwing away, smart. No one has ever heard a complete sentence leave his lips.
    He appears to be lacking in the basic knowledge of how anything works outside the construction industry. Government is throwing him for a loop. Treaties—forgetaboutit. Loyalty—don’t ask.
    Still, the question haunts us, should we be surprised? Shouldn’t we have seen this coming? Many supporters, don’t understand the question. They ask, “See what coming?”
    Anyone who remember when department stores had bargain basements, does understand the question and knows the answer is yes, we should have seen this coming. 
    That escalator ride down from his penthouse to announce his run for the presidency, the highest office in the land was a symbol, a sign of what was to come. 
    No one takes the down escalator to go up.

Friday, March 31, 2017

The Business of America—Making Billionaires

The word on the street—and the street I’m referring to is Pennsylvania Avenue—is that the next big undertaking in the city that never wakes up to reality but always knows how to put a good spin on a bad message will be rewriting the tax code.

This isn’t the only talk in the city where talk couldn’t be cheaper. Russian involvement in last year’s election is another hot topic making the rounds. Topping off the discussions is Putin but more and more, interactions between Russian oligarchs and Trump subordinates are making their way into the conversation.

Oligarchs, and the word itself seems to suggest the sort of evil ogres found hiding in the swamps and dark forests of children’s fairy tales, are those billionaire bullies siphoning off the Russian wealth and depositing it in their personal bank accounts around the world. They are allowed to do this because they support Putin, who has stashed his own wealth in crooked banks around the world.

The banks often serve as nothing more than money laundering facilities. On the surface, it would seem that every Trump associate has at least one, and usually several, Russian billionaire bully friends (BBF’s). On the surface it is an embarrassment of riches because everyone involved are rich and they all should be embarrassed.

Most of this is not new information. It simply wasn’t well-known information until Trump ran for president. What I do find surprising about Russian oligarchs is how well known they are in Russia. Everyone seems to know these corrupt, bullying, billionaires situated at the seat of power in a corrupt, bullying government that thrives on stealing its nation’s wealth. There is no effort on their part to disguise their identities or hide what they do.

I guess that’s the beauty of Communism. It’s bad, everyone knows it’s bad and no one cares that it’s bad.