Thursday, January 29, 2015

The daily news vs. the kindnesses of strangers

Virginia Bergman: Here I am, and life is good.
It's still a popular notion that in order to get along with folks, you avoid talking about politics and religion. I have to tell you, though, that I grew up in a household in which politics and religion were about the only topics ever discussed at our dinner table, around the heating stove in winter, or out in the garden during the growing season. And we listened to the news on the radio every hour on the hour. I still remember radio broadcast greats like Lowell Thomas and Gabriel Heatter.

Decades later, I still follow the news. I'm aware of the ISIS beheading of hostages; U.S. drone attacks on targeted "enemies" to be killed without trial as well as any innocents who happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time; and here at  home, racially tinged incidents of police brutality.

Friends and acquaintances oftentimes admit they no longer watch the news as it's too depressing. And speaking of religion, a few friends, who also tune into the news, are convinced that the human race has become so depraved the apocalypse is imminent; these same friends count themselves among those fortunate believers who will all be saved at the "end of time" when the rest of humanity self destructs.

I beg to differ. Even with its focus on violence at home and abroad, the daily news does not get me down, nor do I lose faith in humanity. I'll tell you why. I'm a senior with arthritic joints, and I get around with a cane, which is challenging at times, especially in St. Paul, Minnesota in January. Nevertheless, all I have to do to keep my spirits up is get out and about to keep a medical appointment at the Ft. Snelling VA Medical Center (I'm a female veteran of the U.S. Air Force), visit my favorite library with its cool coffee shop, or go to the supermarket.

A couple of weeks ago, I arrived early for my appointment for a check up at the VA Medical Center and found a handicapped parking space in the huge lot. I still had to walk quite a ways through some mud and slush. A veteran, who was headed out, met up with me and offered his arm. He accompanied me to the entrance, grabbed a wheel chair for me and took me to my first stop at the X-Ray department. After my appointment, a volunteer gave me a wheel chair ride to the exit, but explained he was unable to take me any further. At that exact moment, another veteran took over and delivered me to my car.

You think I wasn't in a good mood when I got home that day?

On another recent occasion, I went to the library to return a few books and check out a couple that I'd placed on hold. Just inside the door, a staff member at her desk greeted me, and I stopped to chat with her. "I can check your books in for you right here," she said. Then  - I kid you not - she got up from her desk, retrieved my next selections and checked them out for me. She saved me a lot of steps that afternoon. I wasn't ready to leave, though. Just as I put my things down at my favorite table in the coffee shop, an employee brought my cup of decaf with lots of cream and placed it before me. Now that's service.

Visits to the library, especially in winter, always cheer me. No sooner do I get out of my car in the handicapped slot when yet another perfect stranger comes along and advises me, "There are icy spots out here today, and I'm assisting you to the entrance."

The supermarket I frequent is huge, but I'm able to push a cart up and down the aisles and find the items I need. At check out, all I have to do is ask, and someone - usually a nice young fellow - packs up my groceries for me, accompanies me to the parking lot, and helps me unload it all in the trunk of my car.

I'm not one to keep quiet about the kindnesses I regularly receive from perfect strangers; I hope I don't bore my Facebook friends with my frequent status updates on my latest encounters at the Medical Center, library, supermarket, or wherever. 

Here's the thing, folks: I manage to stay informed on the news from around the world, while simultaneously remaining optimistic about the future of humankind. It all kind of reminds me of these words by Julian of Norwich (a 14th century mystic): “All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well.”

Saturday, January 24, 2015

US drone attacks no longer "fueling terrorism" in Yemen

Malala meets with Obama (photo by Pete Souza). Courtesy of the Washington Post.
It wasn't too long ago that Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani teenager who suffered gunshot wounds for her support of education for girls in her country, met with President Obama: '''Yousafzai said she was honored to meet Obama and that she raised concerns with him about the administration's use of drones, saying they are "fueling terrorism."'

Sad to say, Obama ignored Malala's advice. However, events have taken over in Yemen, and US drone attacks have been thwarted. It's too bad it took the collapse of the Yemeni government to bring this about and hopefully reduce our nation's fueling of the terrorism it continues to spend billions to supposedly "fight."

Juan Cole (Informed Comment) reports:

Thousands demonstrated in Sanaa on Saturday morning against the Houthi take-over of the Yemeni government. Down south in Aden, there were big demonstrations on behalf of workers

The murky political situation in Yemen has left the US unable to continue its drone strikes and other counter-terrorism operations, since Washington no longer has a partner in the Yemeni government to authorize them and provide key facilities.

On Thursday, the President, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, and the prime minister resigned. Mansour Hadi had been the vice president of deposed dictator Ali Abdallah Saleh, who stepped down under street pressure and under the pressure of the Gulf oil states, in January, 2012.

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Thursday, January 22, 2015

In SOTU, Obama flunks the issue of income inequality

Courtesy of
In contrast to all of the rave notices from his excited supporters that hit my inbox after President Obama's speech Tuesday evening, Michael Winship at offers a different take: In SOTU, President Punts on Income Inequality. Winship reminds us of the real villain behind the widening gap between rich and poor in the United States:

Much of the buildup to President Obama’s State of the Union address made it sound as if he was going to read chapter and verse from French economist Thomas Piketty’s book, Capital in the 21st Century – you know, last year’s 700-plus page best seller, the one that was unexpectedly all the rage as it argued that vast economic inequality is as much about wealth (what’s owned) as it is about income (what’s earned). That one.

Matt Schiavenza explained it in The Atlantic, “Applying data gathered across several decades throughout the world, Piketty argued that when income derived from capital exceeds income derived from work, inequality necessarily widens. Or, in non-economics speak: The easiest way to get rich isn’t to make a lot of money. It’s to have a lot of assets in the first place. Better yet to inherit it.”
Not that anyone really expected the president to address Congress like a tutorial in global economics, but the Piketty meme took hold in a lot of the media. “Echoes of Piketty in Obama Proposal to Address Income Inequality” read a headline in The New York Times previewing the address just hours before it was delivered. The Washington Post’s Wonkblog predicted, “President Obama finally has his Piketty moment.” The paper’s Matt O’Brien wrote, “The state of the union is pretty good, actually, but President Obama has an idea to make it better: taxing Wall Street and the super-rich to make middle-class work even more worthwhile. It’s Piketty with an American accent.”

If only.

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Tuesday, January 20, 2015

It's expensive to be poor!

Courtesy of MediaMatters.Org.
Chatted momentarily yesterday with a few card-playing neighbors in the community room of my apartment building. We three Caucasians outnumbered the two black women. It was Martin Luther King, Jr.'s birthday so the topic of racism came up. A Caucasian woman held forth claiming no racism had existed since the 1960s and that blacks brought on their difficulties due to their lack of accountability. The black women remained silent.

Realizing that arguing with such obliviousness to reality was pointless, I stood up and said, "I respectfully disagree."

At which point, I went on my way.

This morning, I came across op-ed writer Charles Blow's column at the NY Times titled "How Expensive it is to be Poor." Blow touches on the Ferguson episode and effectively refutes my neighbor's charges of the lack of accountability among blacks:

Earlier this month, the Pew Research Center released a study that found that most wealthy Americans believed “poor people today have it easy because they can get government benefits without doing anything in return.”

This is an infuriatingly obtuse view of what it means to be poor in this country — the soul-rending omnipresence of worry and fear, of weariness and fatigue. This can be the view only of those who have not known — or have long forgotten — what poverty truly means.

“Easy” is a word not easily spoken among the poor. Things are hard — the times are hard, the work is hard, the way is hard. “Easy” is for uninformed explanations issued by the willfully callous and the haughtily blind.

Allow me to explain, as James Baldwin put it, a few illustrations of “how extremely expensive it is to be poor.”

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Monday, January 19, 2015

The State of the Union this Tuesday, or the state of President Obama?

The Boston Globe's James Carroll puts the performance of President Barack Obama, the 2008 hope and change candidate, in perspective as we await his State of the Union address Tuesday evening. Although the title of the piece refers to Obama as a disappointment, Carroll gives him credit for his achievements and holds out hope for positive developments:

When President Barack Obama delivers the State of the Union address Tuesday night, the nation will implicitly consider the state of the president himself. Six years ago, he was defined by the word “hope.” He had arrived on the scene as a political innocent, and many who voted for him inevitably projected onto the blank screen of his future a cluster of aspirations that had more to do with a generation’s longing than with likely trends going forward.

Still, Obama’s slogan “Yes, we can” had come to seem both an acknowledgment of the difficult road ahead, and a savvy rebuttal to the “realists” who ruled out as impossible any actual progress toward peace, justice, or broad prosperity. Early on, the president defied the chorus of naysayers, especially as he pulled the economy back from the brink of catastrophe. His considerable success with health care reform will likely define the core of his legacy.

But six years on, in many important ways, Barack Obama has become a figure of American disappointment, with last week’s inexplicable failure to properly honor the trauma of France only a latest instance of mystifying solecism. Obama’s political and personal enemies never saw him as a force for good, yet by now even many of his once-passionate admirers admit to a profound disenchantment. The shattering of an illusion tied to a figure of such intelligence, deeply rooted liberal purpose, and evident public virtue necessarily involves a further — and perhaps dangerous — disillusionment with democratic will itself.

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Sunday, January 18, 2015

Washington outsider Elizabeth Warren

Public domain.
With the 2016 primaries looming on the horizon, rumor has it the Democratic Party's extreme left is as addle-brained over Elizabeth Warren today as it was over Barack Obama back in 08.

So we've got another professor out there stirring up things with even more charisma than Obama mustered in 08. She has the same shortages of expertise and experience as Obama had, but the naive Lefties are blind to that reality.

Just as Obama's expertise in Constitutional Law and experience as a community organizer didn't offer insight into the legislative process in Washington, the economy (well, he did have nice ties to Wall Street), or foreign policy (the U.S. is still mucking around in Iraq and Afghanistan), Warren's narrow focus in economic theory doesn't qualify her to be the leader of the Western world. For example, what does she know about foreign policy?

Back in 08, Obama dazzled Democrats with his fundraising skills, and it appears now that Warren is equally gifted. But according to Karen Tumulty at the Washington Post, Warren might be relishing her power as an outsider more than any ambitions she might have to follow in Obama's footsteps by taking down Hillary Clinton, the current Democratic frontrunner:

Sen. Elizabeth Warren has an explanation for the singular nature of her power. 

“I’ll always be an outsider. That’s how I understand the world,” the Massachusetts Democrat said in an interview. “There’s a real benefit to being clear about this. I know why I’m here. I think about this every morning before I open my eyes, and I’m still thinking about it every night when I go to sleep.”
Being the target of that kind of focus can be an excruciating experience — the freshest case in point being investment banker Antonio Weiss, whom President Obama put forward last year as his nominee for Treasury undersecretary for domestic finance. 

Initially seen as a highly credentialed and noncontroversial pick for a low-profile post, Weiss found himself up against a storm of opposition, led by Warren, who said he was yet another example of Wall Street cronyism within the Obama administration. 

On Monday, Weiss wrote a letter to the president asking that his name be taken out of consideration.
The tussle sent yet another signal, maybe the clearest yet, of how Warren intends to wield her growing clout. It showed that she and her brand of populism are forces to be reckoned with — not only by Obama and his team, but also by the Democrats’ likely 2016 presidential nominee Hillary Rodham Clinton. 

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Thursday, January 15, 2015

Helping Dad set up his first apartment

Okay, so this item caught my eye today at the Onion, "America's Finest News Source," because it's set in Bowling Green, Ohio, up there in Wood County, a few miles north of where I was born and raised in the flatlands of the County of Hancock.

As usual, there's both a chuckle and a bit of truth to be found in the Onion's satirical news reporting. And can't you just picture a couple of tearful kids concerned about their Dad's welfare as they help him set up his apartment. I mean they're naturally worried that Dad's never been out there on his own before. Poor Dad:

BOWLING GREEN, OH—With their father marking the start of an important new phase in his life, the children of local man Barry Hunt told reporters they got a bit teary-eyed after helping the 49-year-old move into his first apartment Thursday.

Teenagers Veronica and Jared Hunt said it was all they could do not to cry as they spent the day with their dad unloading boxes from a U-Haul trailer, assembling a new Ikea coffee table, and finding a spot in the one-bedroom rental unit to hang his Cleveland Cavaliers calendar.

“I can’t believe he’s finally heading out on his own,” said Veronica Hunt, 17, adding that her father was only able to bring a few items from the house, including his favorite DVDs, an old box fan, a few mismatched utensils, and an unwanted futon from the basement. “We knew this day was coming, but there’s still nothing you can do to prepare yourself for it. I kept it together while we were getting him settled, but on the drive back home, the tears just started flowing. It’ll be hard tonight knowing he’s not asleep right there in the bedroom down the hall.”

“I don’t think it will be an easy adjustment for him, either,” she continued. “He puts on a brave face, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he finds himself getting a little tearful the first night, too.”

According to reports, the two Hunt children were able to keep their emotions in check this morning when they accompanied their father to Target and helped him pick out new bedding, a shower curtain, and a desk lamp. But Veronica and Jared admitted they both choked up a little when they arrived in the new apartment and their dad opened a cupboard to put away his favorite mug from a trip to Arizona they took years ago, realizing they would no longer see him drinking from it each morning.

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Sunday, January 11, 2015

Wonder why American meat consumption is declining?

Back in the good old days...
It helps to know that eating less meat is good for both us and the planet. I love beef, especially pot roast, beef stew, and chili made with hamburger. But the rising cost of meat in recent years has been converting me to vegetarianism. To make chili for the kids the other night, I paid $5.00 per pound for two pounds of the cheaper 80% lean ground beef. For Christmas dinner 2014, I planned to fix a beef roast, but the prices at my local supermarket scared me off, and I made pot roast instead, which cost me $15.00.

So I'm among those becoming a Vegan, not by choice, but by necessity. Over at the Christian Century, Steve Thorngate asks: What will it take to downsize the American meat habit? Um, see above... Seriously, though, Thorngate talks about nutrition as well as sustainability, etc., and he introduces some news in the meat industry:

I was a strict vegetarian for 10 years. Now I'm a sort of sometimes-meat-avoider: my wife and I keep a meatless kitchen but eat whatever when someone serves it to us and sometimes when we're out. As I've written before, the virtuous identity marker "vegetarian" is less important to me than it used to be. But I still think eating way less meat is the single biggest bit of lifestyle "greening" most Americans could do.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture's dietary guidelines restrict their official purview to nutrition; they don't address the other considerations that go into food choices. But last week, AP reported that this year's update to the USDA guidlines might include a focus on environmental sustainability—specifically, as a reason to eat less meat.

Well, not if the beef industry's lobbyists have anything to say about it. And in Washington, they have a lot to say and powerful contacts to say it toLast month, lawmakers attached a "congressional directive" to the Cromnibus spending bill, expressing "concern" that "agriculture production practices and environmental factors" might figure into nutritional guidelines (put out by the federal department in charge of agriculture). This wasn't legally binding on the USDA, but some combination of pressure from legislators and directly from lobbyists appears to have made the feds stand down. The new guidelines will be, as usual, just about nutrition.

Is eating less meat more nutritious? For a given individual, it's hard to say. It depends (just for starters) how much meat you're eating now, what kind, and what you'd be likely to replace it with. But for Americans collectively, there's little question. We just eat tons of the stuff, despite what we know about the health risks.

What's more, arguing that nutrition has nothing to do with environmental sustainability requires a pretty narrow lens on food. When we harm the earth, we harm farmland. We harm biodiversity. We jeopardize our own future; that's why they call it sustainability. It is shortsighted and dangerous to imagine that human and planetary health are separate categories. And large-scale meat production—especially of cattle and other ruminants—wreaks serious havoc on the land.

The good news is that American meat consumption is slowly declining, even without much help from the USDA guidelines. Yes, we're still averaging the better part of a pound a day each. But one reason the beef industry's on the defensive is that the American diet is already headed in a more sustainable direction.

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Thursday, January 8, 2015

"Baby, It's Cold Outside"

So far this winter only severe temps, unlike the deep snow of last Feb.
The congenial delivery man assured me that I wasn't the only one who refused to go outside in this latest Arctic blast here in the Twin Cities. Unloading my groceries, he said, "We've really been busy lately."

I thanked him and his co-workers for braving below zero temps so I wouldn't have to. And I've been congratulating myself since then for having the wisdom to order my foodstuffs and other necessities online. (Keep in mind that I have a steel plate in my leg that rebels against Arctic weather.)

From Paul Douglas, my favorite meteorologist, these words of encouragement:

Hold on, models continue to show a thaw by the end of next week. Today's clipper drops a slippery inch of powder, followed by one last subzero slap - for now. 2 more subzero nights, then a slow recovery next week. You'll be amazed and vaguely horrified by just how good freezing feels.
Go ahead and take a bow. You're surviving the coldest week of winter.

Okay, then.

In the meantime, sitting here at my computer in my warm apartment, I agree with AP writer, Dave Collins, we're dealing with "dangerously cold air." Collins reports the effects of severe weather across the nation:

Dangerously cold air has sent temperatures plummeting into the single digits around the U.S., with wind chills driving them even lower. Throw in the snow some areas are getting and you've got a bone chilling mix that may also be super messy.

The result?

School delays and cancellations, a fatal car pileup and worries about the homeless.
Here's a look at what's happening:
An 18-vehicle pileup that happened in whiteout conditions on a western Pennsylvania interstate has left two people dead and nearly two dozen injured.

Nine trucks, several of them tractor-trailers, and nine cars were involved in the crash Wednesday afternoon on Interstate 80 in Clarion Township, state police said. At least one of the trucks was carrying hazardous material, but no leaks were found.

None of the injuries was thought to be life-threatening, but three of the approximately 20 people taken to the hospital, appeared to have serious injuries. The others were treated for everything from bumps to broken bones.
School districts from the South to the Northeast and Midwest are delaying the start of classes or canceling school altogether.

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Monday, January 5, 2015

Which is worse, death or life imprisonment?

Which would be worse, death or life imprisonment? I'm opposed to capital punishment for obvious reasons: for one, killing someone to teach others that killing is wrong doesn't make a lot of sense. And if we aren't aware by this time that violence begets violence, we're obtuse - to put it politely. On the other hand, if you're only 21, life imprisonment could seem a fate worse than death. We can only speculate which option Boston Marathon defendant Dzhokhar Tsarnaev would prefer as he goes on trial for the deaths of three people and injuries sustained by at least 260 others.

Reporting for the AP, Denise Lavoie writes:

BOSTON (AP) — Potential jurors stared intently at Boston Marathon bombing defendant Dzhokhar Tsarnaev as jury selection began under tight security Monday in what could be the nation's most closely watched terror trial since the Oklahoma City bombing two decades ago.

Tsarnaev, flanked by his attorneys, sat at a table at the front of the jury assembly room. Wearing a dark sweater and khaki pants, he looked down much of the time but occasionally glanced at the potential jurors and the judge. He also picked at his shaggy beard.

When U.S. District Judge George O'Toole Jr. introduced him to the first group of prospective jurors and asked him to stand, he acknowledged them with a slight nod.

Tsarnaev, 21, is accused of planning and carrying out the twin pressure-cooker bombings that killed three people and wounded more than 260 near the finish line of the race on April 15, 2013.

Over the next three days, a larger-than-normal pool of about 1,200 people will be summoned to federal court to be considered as potential jurors.

The first two groups of 200 people each were given initial instructions Monday by O'Toole and then began filling out long questionnaires.

Twelve jurors and six alternates will ultimately be selected. The judge said testimony in the trial will begin on Jan. 26 and last three to four months.

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