31 October 2012


The terrible storm has passed and the damage is extensive. Millions are without power, and it may take several days before it is restored. In our part of the city things are fine, while nearby areas have severe problems. It is just a reminder of how much life can often boil down to chance, luck, providence, or whatever you want to call it, or being in the wrong place at the wrong time when disaster strikes. A tree falls and kills people who happen to be in a particular spot at the wrong time. Conversely those more fortunate have been at the right place at the right time, but given the way things actually unfold, they should approach this life with humility. For in truth, much of what happens is beyond our control. 

Natural disasters of this magnitude are unusual in New York; our disasters are usually more of the man-made kind. That makes the site of the streets in downtown Manhattan flooding and an actual river of water flowing through the tunnels all the more incredible. We’ve never seen anything like this before. It has been nearly two hundred years since something comparable happened. We have only been settled where we are for a few hundred years, and most places in this country far less. Thus our longer term experience is very limited. People who sometimes view us critically in places like Europe just don’t realize the extent to which the forces of nature are so much more powerful in America. The temperatures are far more extreme, as is the weather, with hurricanes, tornados, flooding, wildfires, etc. happening frequently. Some places are unusually wet while other places are extremely dry. For there is still a wildness here. In some parts of the country predatory animals still roam, while other wild animals are frequent visitors, even in urban or suburban areas. You can get as close to nature as you want, although up close we often find it less than idyllic. 

The notion that we are masters of this planet is laughable, given how powerless we are before the forces of nature. For all the impact we think we have had on the planet it is miniscule alongside of what occurs naturally. When people abandon spaces it is striking how quickly nature takes over again. The unexpected often happens. In the days leading up to this storm we knew it was coming, but prior to that no one could have foreseen it. All predictions of any kind are only viable for a very short term. Beyond that the future is unknowable. 

We often lament our misfortunes, while forgetting all the times we were lucky enough to avoid the worst. Life by and large has been good enough to instill a sense of comfort, to the point where many of have forgotten the phrase “count your blessings.”  Bad things happen to someone else, somewhere else. Some have even come to believe that they are entitled to be happy all the time, forgetting that life often consists of misery, suffering, and pain. Our ancestors knew this because they lived during times when life was a daily struggle for existence.  They were thankful if they simply managed to get through a day no worse off than before. In modern times we usually have modern problems, which are trivial alongside the havoc the forces of nature can cause. It takes a storm like this to remind us how insignificant we really are in the face of natural forces, which instill in us a sense of stunning awe, and if we are wise, humility. 

20 October 2012


There are millions of feral cats who live short, miserable lives. My cat Caesar, who just passed away, was far more fortunate in that he lived as good a life as any creature ever had. That doesn’t assuage the sense of loss, but does provide some perspective on how painful life always is for most living things. When we take in pets we free them from the cruelties of nature and in the process they become something more. A bond is formed. We give them names and they adapt to us as we adapt to them. Then we come to realize that this is, in some sense, a sentient individual with a distinct personality. 

Caesar was a source of endless wonder and joy to me. He had perfectly refined features, and even at the end the vet remarked how handsome he was. He was a very loving cat, unusually good-natured, gentle, and provided endless fascination in the way he interacted with the world around him. He became an intimate part of our lives, so that with his passing there is a deep sense of loss. 

This is something that anyone who has pets inevitably has to deal with, and our tendency is to feel sorry for them. But if we have treated them well, the sorrow is all ours, for death and loss is mainly painful for the living. Of course I will miss Caesar, but inevitable loss is a part of life that we have to deal with. That is far outweighed by the precious, immeasurably rich experience of having shared a part of my life with him. 

17 October 2012


No matter how this election turns out, Republicans have their work cut out for them as far as the national electoral map goes. Looking at that map it is clear the “red” states are retreating. I hate the terminology of “red” and “blue” states, especially since red is a color long associated with the left, that has improbably been glued onto Republicans.  This was foisted on us by NBC news some years back and I really hope we can get rid of this idiotic terminology. In any case the reality is that Reagan could get re-elected winning 49 states in a landslide. It is hard to see how that could be done today. 

When you get to the point where Virginia becomes a swing state, along with some western states, it is clear the party has a problem. In the not so distant past California was a swing state, even leaning slightly Republican, and even New York was competitive. Now both, with a huge number of electoral votes, aren’t even being contested. This has a lot to do with the miserable, dysfunctional state of the party in both states, for demography alone cannot explain such a precipitous decline. In addition a whole region of the country is basically written off. If Mitt Romney can’t carry a New England or even a northeastern state it is hard to see how any Republican can. The result is that the electoral vote math for Romney is very limited, to the point where nearly everything hinges on carrying Ohio. There is some irony here with regard to liberal complaints about the electoral college, for it is quite possible that he could win the popular vote and still lose the election. 

Whatever happens in this election, the national Republican party has to make a serious effort to reorganize and resuscitate itself in order to again be competitive across the board.  The usual mantra on this is being more “inclusive,” which is symbolic nonsense. What has to be done is to win more minds and hearts on matters that concern people, whatever their background, while building a viable organization. The latter is currently essentially ad hoc, put together from campaign to campaign rather than through any kind of sustained effort. 

The course of a national election is still going to be determined by the overall state of things, or at least the perceived state of things, If you don’t even try to make the case in several states the odds for winning only get worse and worse. A national election should not hinge on a particular state. We need nationally competitive parties again. 

06 October 2012


My first reaction upon returning home from a trip to Europe, (in this case Spain) is one of embarrassment. I can’t imagine what people think when they arrive here from abroad to a dismal airport, and then are transported along really terrible roads to their destination, at least here in New York.  The contrast with the immaculate roads and traffic system over there is stark, and even gassing up (albeit at high prices) is far more pleasant at extremely well maintained facilities. There is absolutely none of the all too familiar grunge we have here, apart from the unfortunate presence of graffiti.  That only exists because it is tolerated, as Spain still appears to be reacting to the Franco years and rigid Catholicism, and so have gone to the opposite extreme. 
Things have definitely changed. As my wife noted, decades ago there was virtually nothing around the coast of Marbella. Now the entire Costa del Sol is one long continuous chain of resort development, populated mostly by tourists from more northern European countries, especially Great Britain. But nowadays it is impossible to tell where anyone is from until they open their mouths, because they all are dressed like sloppy Americans. Often that consists of t-shirts with American subjects they might not even understand, jeans, and sneakers (or godawful flip-flops). So if you’re planning on traveling abroad and don’t want to stand out as an American, the good news is that they all look like Americans these days. It has become a generic “western” look. Good taste is another matter. 
Equally ubiquitous is the unfortunate presence of American popular culture on radio and tv. Now I love my country and I’m proud of it, but not of the crap that Hollywood puts out, which seldom reflects the true reality of American life. The radio is full of American music, or if not, Europop derivatives of it. The end result is that it is difficult to find any true local culture these days, and that is a sad thing. When traveling we want things to be quaint, with plenty of local color.    But people, given a choice in most places want to be “modern.”  Unfortunately the price of that is too often a loss of cultural authenticity. That is compounded by the idea of “Europe” itself. 
For Europe as it exists today is largely an American creation. American forces saved it from the Nazis and then the Communist tyranny, and continue to provide it with a defensive shield and one of the longest stretches of peace it has ever known. But after a prior century of horrible wars people have lost faith in everything and live only in the present, to the detriment of future generations. They can, and should be more than second-rate Americans, but that will only happen if a sense of nationhood is restored. They unfortunately are infected with the same self-loathing and obsession with “racism’ as the American left, and similarly denigrate their own past and institutions. But the truth is that they are the source of a truly great civilization and the foundation of our own. Our ties run deep and we share a common destiny.
On that basis I would favor even closer ties than we have now. It is kind of annoying when arriving there to see one line for EU members while we get lumped in with third world peoples. I think we ought to have a reciprocal special status for say, NATO members, in terms of movement, travel and trade. If this is categorized as  a “Eurocentric” view I’ll accept that and be damned proud of it. 
A few notes on Spain, specifically, and Andalusia, where I spent my time. Notwithstanding poor economic conditions the country is perfectly safe to visit. Whatever crime there is is petty thievery that is easily avoided with common sense. Driving to the major cities and sites is pleasant, outside of the congested coast. Gas prices were not as bad as I expected, considering what we’re paying here today, running about $6 per gallon. When you drive inland there is little traffic and wide open spaces similar to driving out west. Entering a major city is easy because all you need to do is take the main boulevard into town and follow the signs for the city center, where most of what you want to see is usually located anyway, and then park in an underground garage, which is easily found. The weather is still like summer, warm enough to swim, and there is still daylight until 8 o’clock. Castles, cathedrals, and gardens are everywhere, and a pleasure to visit. If you want to visit the Alhambra in Granada you need to get tickets months in advance, otherwise the only way you can get in is through tour operators, who scoop up most of the available tickets. It is worth a visit, but I think the equivalent site in Cordoba is more impressive, as is the cathedral in Seville. The sites are still attractive, and to the extent you can avoid other tourists, they can still magically transport you back to an earlier time.