Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Not A Party Pooper

Happy Birthday Lila

“I like birthdays,” said my granddaughter last year. “You get presents. You turn another number.” She had just turned five. “Next year, I’ll be six,” she added matter-of-factly and that day comes Saturday. She’s a New-Year’s-Eve baby who arrived just in time to give her parents a tax deduction for 2010. I’ll be in attendance, bringing her a present — the Calico Critters Hazelnut Chipmunk Family Playset. It’s a box of four tiny anthropomorphic chipmunk figurines for $25. If I were shopping blindly for a present to give her and saw this on a shelf somewhere, I would never have purchased it. It looks overpriced, but that’s what she wants according to her mother. It’s not the $25 because that’s not a big number for us; it’s the objective value — but then I’m not objective when it comes to my grandchildren. She loves those little critters.
It so happens that I turn another number soon myself: 66. I’ll be entering my late sixties, one could say, and I’m going to start collecting Social Security. I’ll only be getting 30% of what I would have otherwise been entitled to because of a law signed by President Reagan thirty years ago to prevent double dipping by teachers in states like Maine. As a career public school teacher in this state, neither I nor my school district paid into Social Security for my teacher salary over 34 years. We both paid instead into the Maine State Retirement System. Because I worked other jobs all during that time, I paid into Social Security for those salaries, and I still do in the form of self-employment tax because I still work part time. If I’m only going to get 30% of my SS benefit, I should only pay in 30%, right? But no, I have to kick in the entire amount. Will I get back what I paid in? Well, that depends on how long I live, and who knows how long that will be? I don’t want to know.
Will the checks continue if I make it past 80? Probably not unless serious changes are made. There are simply too many people collecting and not enough paying in. Any dummy knows that can’t go on forever but neither President Obama nor President-elect Trump have any announced plans to address that. There’s nothing but IOUs in the Social Security Trust Fund. More than 90 million Americans are out of the workforce and obviously not contributing.
Meanwhile, there’s more than $12 billion in the Maine Public Employees Retirement Fund. It’s over 80% funded and Governor LePage has made provisions to steadily increase that percentage. Compared to retired teachers in other states like California and Illinois, my pension is meager and I can’t survive on it alone. Teachers and other public employees there get defined benefits that are two, three, and in some cases ten times what mine are, but those states are close to bankruptcy because of it. According to Forbes Magazine, Illinois has a $111 billion pension shortfall in 2016. Chicago’s alone is $9.5 billion. California had an unfunded pension liability of over $500 billion in 2014. It’s worse now despite Governor Moonbeam’s rosy reports on California fiscal situation.
Democrats have been running those states for generations. They’ve made commitments to public employee unions they knew couldn’t be kept. They also knew they’d be gone when the bills came due and they didn’t care. It’s called “kicking the can down the road.” They’re still kicking, but the end of the road is approaching fast. Should the federal government bail them out? Over my dead body.
I’m at that stage of life during which many of my contemporaries are dying or becoming debilitated with various aliments. I’m not what I used to be, but I’m doing well compared to most, and so is my wife. We both hate to exercise, but we do it anyway and it’s paying off. She also nags me about eating vegetables. Life is good, for now. I’ve been on Medicare since my last birthday and she goes on it in 2017when she turns 65. But Medicare is another kind of Ponzi scheme like Social Security. More and more are collecting it but the number paying in isn’t nearly keeping pace. Are our “leaders” in Washington addressing that? You know the answer.
President Obama has been patting himself on the back as his administration is about to end. When it does, he will have more than doubled our national debt from $10 trillion to $20 trillion. All I can do about that issue and the others outlined above above is write about them. I’ll keep on pointing it all out to people, most of whom don’t want to hear it. When I attend my granddaughter’s birthday next Saturday where all my other grandchildren will be, I’ll think about it but I won’t say anything. Why ruin a good party?

Tuesday, December 20, 2016


Maybe there’s no such thing as a paperboy anymore. I haven’t seen one in decades, have you? I gave up my paper route fifty years ago after delivering the Lowell Sun every single day for five years. It was my older brother’s before it was mine and my little brother took over from me. We kept it in the family because it was a coveted thing. I averaged 40-50 customers and it took about an hour if I hurried. Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Sundays took longer because the papers were thicker and I couldn’t fit them all in my canvas bag with its wide, over-the-shoulder strap. I had to go back two, or sometimes three times to reload. Saturdays were easiest because the paper was always thin.
My bag said "THE SUN" on it

To learn the route I walked around with my brother shortly before he gave it up, then took it on myself when I was ten. The bag was heavy and my shoulder ached until I got stronger. Eventually I could ride a bike with it and things went quicker. I learned to deal with dogs and with people. Most were nice but some were a pain, sometimes literally in the case of a dog here and there. I’d try to make friends, but with some dogs it was impossible. If I turned my back on them they’d nip at my legs until I learned to turn around quickly and administer a swift kick. That usually took care of it, but sometimes it made things worse. Seldom did the owners come out and discipline those dogs, which is probably why they behaved that way.
Friday was collection day and I’d knock on every door. I’d hear “Who is it?” from inside. “Paperboy!” I’d yell back, “Collecting!” It was 42¢ for six days and 62¢ if they got the Sunday paper, which most did. Some thought they were good tippers if they gave me 65¢, but 75¢ was decent. Very rarely did anyone give me a dollar. Saturday mornings I’d meet the Lowell Sun’s district manager on the corner and pay him for the papers. 
The Lowell Sun building

Each week, I netted about five dollars, tips included. My father made me put three in the bank and let me keep two which I spent on comic books, chocolate bars, bicycle repairs, and an occasional movie. For those, I had to take a bus to Lowell and the bus stop was a mile away. He let me take money out for a new bike once in a while because it was a capital investment, but that’s all. The Friday collection just before Christmas was the biggest payday and some years I’d clear $100.
It was something I had to do every day and was most difficult when I had to leave an afternoon sandlot baseball or football game to deliver papers. Other players would beg me to stay longer — not because I was so good, but because the sides would be uneven when I left. Sometimes it rained, snowed, and there was heat and humidity. Sun truck drivers turned over often and sometimes threw my bundle in a puddle if I wasn’t right there to take it from them. Then I’d have to decide who to deliver the wet papers to. Sometimes they’d drop off the wrong bundle and I’d either be short or have too many.
My favorite time to deliver them was exactly this time of year. Not so much because of the big Friday collection day, but because it was cold and dark and I had the street to myself. I could see people inside their houses but they couldn’t see me outside walking along. I could see their Christmas trees lit up and all the other decorations. I could smell their balsam wreaths when I opened the storm door to put the paper inside. I liked to watch snow fall through the illuminated cone under a street light.
The obnoxious dogs were usually inside in winter but some of the good ones would be out making their rounds, going about their business as I was going about mine. They’d lift a leg here and there to mark their territory. They knew me and I knew them and sometimes we’d greet each other in passing.
When I finished, it was suppertime and the other nine people in my own family would be around the dinner table. My mother would open the door a crack and say, “Take off your boots on the porch!” I would, then walk past them all to hang my coat, my hat, and my empty canvas bag on a hook in the cellar hallway. Then my sister would slide over on the black-painted, pine bench my grandfather made to make room for me in my usual spot on the end.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Don't Do It

Never judge a book by its cover, they say, but sometimes I can’t help myself. What’s the first thing you notice about Donald Trump? The hair, right? For a long time, I couldn’t get past it and dismissed him from serious consideration. Who would go out in public with that coiffure, I asked myself. Think of the time it takes every day to make his hair look like that. It was hard to see it as anything but a vanity flag.
When I wrote about this before the election, several enthusiastic Trump supporters emailed me to express dismay. They saw what I saw, but to them his hair indicated he didn’t care what people thought. It was a sign of confidence and they liked that. They believed Donald Trump alone had the gumption to go to Washington, DC and turn things upside down, and that’s exactly what they wanted him to do. I knew I’d vote for him if he won the nomination but I hoped he wouldn’t. Neither did I expect him to win the general election, but he did.
Betsy DeVos

It’s only been a month, but I have to admit I really like what he's doing so far. The people he’s appointing are terrific. As a career teacher with strong opinions about how to improve education, I applaud his appointment of Betsy DeVos. The best way to improve public schools is to break the teachers’ union stranglehold over them. The best way to do that would be fostering voucher programs in our states and local districts — and the best person to do that is Betsy DeVos. She is a longtime champion of vouchers in her home state and supported with her own money. Vouchers would empower real innovation in education by breaking the public school monopoly and allowing private citizens to form their own, decentralized schools. Local control of education will bring real change, unlike that bastion of entrenched special interests and stifling bureaucracy that is Washington, DC.
I might have violated that “never judge” dictum in the case of another New Yorker — the writer, Tom Wolfe — but I never got the chance. If I’d seen Wolfe on the covers of Time and Newsweek dressed like a dandy courtier for Louis XVI, it is likely I would never have picked up Bonfire of the Vanities, the first of his books I read. I thoroughly enjoyed it and I was somewhat shocked afterward when I saw what he looked like. I was also surprised that it was his first novel. He was a successful writer of non-fiction up to that time and the move to novel writing seemed effortless. After Bonfire, I enjoyed A Man in Full, I Am Charlotte Simmons, and Back To Blood.
Language is Wolfe’s stock in trade, and he believes it a uniquely human ability that did not evolve from lower animals. Just a few months ago, he published Kingdom of Speech in which he ridicules two sacred cows of the secular left: Darwinism and Chomskyism. He claims Charles Darwin stole ideas from an obscure researcher named Alfred Russell Wallace and published them as his own. He also portrays MIT linguist and leftist demigod Noam Chomsky as vile and vindictive toward anyone who questions him. Anthropologist Daniel Everett’s work on the language of the obscure Piraha tribe of the Amazon is outlined in the bestselling Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes. It casts doubt on Chomsky’s long insistence that humans evolved with a “language organ” in our brains even if neurosurgeons have never found one. The language organ explains “universal grammar” in all language, Chomsky maintains. Piraha language, however, not only lacks “universal grammar,” it lacks tense. There is no future, no past, only eternal present. There are no numbers or colors either.
Piraha and Everett

Wolfe’s Kingdom of Speech enrages the left, but it cannot be attacked as religious hocus-pocus. While Daniel Everett is an evangelical Christian, he doesn’t argue from there. Rather, he bases his case on scientific observation while living with the Piraha for decades. And, Tom Wolfe is an atheist. He endorses Everett’s ideas from a logical standpoint and teases both Chomsky and Darwin for their pomposity. Typical of the left, neither Chomsky nor his defenders have any sense of humor which makes teasing them so much fun for Wolfe.
Wolfe has been cranking out books that are windows on American culture for a long time while Trump is just beginning his career in government. He could still screw up, but he seems to have already taken over the presidency. He’s leading us while Obama is yelling, “Hey! I’m still here! Look at me and my legacy!”
There’s a lesson for me in all this. From now on, I won’t judge people with facial metal, neck tattoos, or purple hair. I’m going to look past those things… I think.

Tuesday, December 06, 2016

Oh Little Town of Bethlehem

Pope Francis prays at Bethlehem wall. Message?

“Too much history, not enough geography.” That was how a veteran of the 1948 Israeli War for Independence described Israel. His name was Dan and he came to our house for dinner about ten years ago in the company of some old friends from San Francisco. My wife and I later toured Israel in May, 2007 and I can attest to Dan’s summation. It doesn't take long to drive the length and breadth of that tiny nation. There’s a definite lack of geography and every bit of it is contested almost constantly. In Jerusalem, it’s not unusual to see Jewish civilians walking around with automatic rifles slung over their shoulders while pushing a baby carriage. They’re in a constant state of war. Israel is located at what has been a crossroads between empires for millennia — throughout recorded history, actually.
Last month, Italian journalist Giulio Meotti wrote a short piece objecting to how the Vatican advertises tours of “Palestine,” or “The Holy Land,” but not tours of “Israel.” It seems the Vatican has as much trouble saying “Israel” as soon-to-be-former President Obama has saying, “Radical Muslim Terrorism.” Israel is a constant victim of radical Muslim terrorism — hence the profusion of AR-15s I saw there — and I’m thinking my church and my president are both refusing to recognize what is quite obvious to anyone visiting Israel.

“Catholic pilgrims spend virtually all their time visiting holy sites in Palestinian-run territory,” wrote Meotti, “staying in Palestinian Arab hotels and listening to Palestinian Arab tour guides. As a result, these pilgrims return filled with hatred towards Israel.”
Bus advertisement in Rome

That reads true because it’s exactly what our tour was like. We had a Palestinian guide and bus driver who were Christians from Bethlehem. In spite of the harassment Palestinian Christians were receiving from Palestinian Muslims, however, our guides were loyal to the Muslim view of things in that troubled land. For example, three times our bus passed the Battle of Hattin site in northern Israel at which Saladin defeated a Crusader army in 1187. Each time, our guide proudly described how Saladin outsmarted the Christians and slaughtered them. I was dismayed, but none of the other Mainers on our tour were disturbed by it.
Notre Dame Guest House in Jerusalem

Our first hotel was the Vatican-owned Notre Dame Guest House just outside the New Gate to the Old City of Jerusalem. Outside it, I could see bullet holes from battles during 1967’s Six-day  War during which Israel took control over Jerusalem for the first time since the Revolt of the Maccabees in 164 BC. The entire hotel staff was Palestinian and I was awakened by a Muslim call to prayer broadcast from a minaret just inside the Old City wall.
Inside the Church of The Nativity in Bethlehem

From there, we traveled to nearby Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity — the oldest church in Christendom. Five years before, it had been seized by Muslim terrorists who held hostages for 39 days, until an agreement allowed them to leave for Gaza. While we were there, Hamas terrorists in Gaza were fighting other terrorists from the Palestinian Authority — Yasser Arafat’s organization. Bethlehem was peaceful when Jesus Christ was born there during the Roman occupation, but it was relatively brief respite.
Your's Truly outside Seven Arches Hotel

At the end of our tour we stayed at the Seven Arches Hotel in East Jerusalem overlooking the Temple Mount and Dome of the Rock, but were instructed not to venture outside the hotel because it wasn't safe for Americans. This was the neighborhood where they danced in the streets following the September 11th attack.
Celebrating in East Jerusalem 9/11/01

I was surprised to learn that populations of both Bethlehem and Nazareth are majority Arab Muslim. When I asked why the Palestinian Christian populations of Nazareth and Bethlehem were leaving after 2000 years, both the bus driver and the guide said it was because they were looking for better jobs in America. I knew different, but neither would acknowledge that much of the migration is because of severe Muslim harassment. I saw posters of Yasser Arafat on buildings and each time we passed through an Israeli checkpoint going into and out of the West Bank they complained bitterly. Neither, however, would answer my questions about the war then raging between Hamas and the Palestinian authority even though we had to cancel our trip to Hebron’s tomb of Abraham because of it.

Yasser Arafat poster in Bethlehem

Finally, they said we would go to a dinner in Bethlehem at which the police chief and other municipal officials would be present and I could get answers to my questions. The restaurant was right beside the tall, Israeli-built, black wall. As we got in, however, the music was so loud conversation was impossible. Instead, we had to watch a solo dance performance by a Palestinian  using his Yasser Arafat keffiyah as a prop. I could go on, but yeah, Meotti got it about right.