Sunday, June 30, 2013

Good Morning Jessicca

Letter to my Daughter
Sunday, 30 June


The Los Angeles Times reported it was 122 degrees in Palm Springs Saturday.  Talk about a heat wave – that will get your attention.  If it’s July in Death Valley and you’re an inhabitant of Furnace Creek then the thermometer topping 110 or more may be business as usual.  Even there, though, heat registering more than 120 degrees is notable.  That kind of heat will clear the streets.  Your ice cream will evaporate from the cone.  People start to talk.  Is this planet Earth?

Hey, people – stop acting like Chicken Little here.  We’re in the Mojave Desert, OK?  I mean, duh?  So things got a little carried away; it happens.  Everyone’s getting jittery with all this talk about Global Warming.

Are you nuts?  Get your head out of the sand.  What’s it going to take for you to wake up and do the math?  Record tornadoes, record heat, record drought… it’s all just coincidence, right?  Maybe when it becomes too hot for anyone to barbecue on the Fourth of July you’ll come around.  Maybe when we’re all wearing heat reflective clothing and special headgear that we keep charged in the freezer before going outside – maybe then you’ll ask yourself, “What’s with the climate these days?”

Some people argued about cigarette smoking and cancer in the 1960s.  There wasn't enough proof to make a reasonable connection.  Some people felt the government overstepped a line when they ordered car makers to put seat belts in the family car.  You can’t tell people what to do like that.  Besides, the vehicle may catch on fire in a wreck.  I feel safer being thrown free from the car.  In fact, when I sail through the windshield I’ll be sure to hold a lit cigarette in my hand.  Screw you, Uncle Sam, and your minions of know-it-all, dictatorial bureaucrats. 

People herding cats have an easy time of it compared with trying to persuade this society of obstinate voters.  At least cats don’t involve themselves in name-calling or bicker day and night on the airwaves.  From the appearance provided by televised news it takes a special person to be a politician.  Is it that they actually enjoy quarreling or have they just bit the bullet and braced themselves for the nastiness of it all?  Can they turn it off when they leave work for home or does it carry over to what it is they’re having for supper? 

“What’s this?  Are we celebrating ‘I’m in love with Pasta Month’?”
“Let’s not start, Stan.  Maybe you should have had a drink before dinner.”

And they’re off.  Is it a natural talent to be able to compartmentalize your life and not take your work home with you or is it a skill that can be learned?   You've spent the better part of the day planning for a lovely evening and now you catch a glimpse of your spouse being lambasted on cable news as a corrupt nitwit.  He wants to overthrow America and strut about the White House wearing no clothes.  Somehow the flowers on the dinner table have lost their fresh appeal.  The splendid meal is drained of flavor and the delightful dinner conversation is a no-show because the tongue in your mouth feels like a misplaced stone.

Oh, I had such ideals when I went into public service.  We were going to accomplish big things.  Money isn't everything.  We were going to engineer meaningful change for society.  Enriching people’s lives would be its own reward.  Now we’re in an uphill fight for reelection.  The marriage, the family life seems like every other aspect of my life – a Hollywood set made for public consumption.  Only my personal assistant, Kelly, knows what I’m going through, understands the real me.

Is there ever really a sunrise for this frame of mind?  Or is it always just the alarm going off next to the bed that pulls your chain and your engine stumbles to life?  Can you remember what you had for breakfast?  Why?  It doesn't matter.  You’re driven by a cause bigger than you.  That’s what you tell yourself.  Maybe that’s the problem.  Maybe it’s time to rethink our assumptions.  The experiences of our lives, the events that truly ground us to some kind of personal meaning, have become like the scenery that blurs by when we’re traveling at ninety miles an hour.  Everything beyond the boundaries of our iPhone or iPad belongs to the realm of peripheral vision.  Is this what it means to live the dream?  I hope not.  Point me to the porch.  Hand me a lemonade.  Let’s watch from the shade the freight train trumbling by, together.  


Thursday, June 27, 2013

Stalin's Caution

Joseph Stalin

Joseph Stalin was a communist but he was also first and foremost a Russian nationalist.  As the communists in Greece learned Stalin would cut you off at the knees if your interests differed from those of mother Russia.  Similarly the Soviet dictator gave only perfunctory support to Mao’s communists in China during their civil war with Chang Kai-shek.  North Korea got Stalin’s support of an invasion of South Korea only after he felt certain the U.S. would not intervene militarily.  Russia had an enormous army and, for Stalin, the Soviet Union’s sphere of influence only extended to areas his army could safely impact.  This meant his focus was on Europe and Russia’s historical interest in Turkish and Iranian land, both adjoining this vast nation.  Stalin would shell out a few bucks to fund communist party activity in South America but he, otherwise, wasn’t going to challenge the United States in the Western Hemisphere.  It didn’t make military sense.  He hadn’t the naval resources to provision a Russian adventure across thousands of miles of American patrolled ocean.  Why should he take such risks when his Marxist beliefs told him it was inevitable that capitalist nations such as the United States and Britain would eventually weaken each other in wars brought on by their greed?  Communism was an historic inevitability.  He only had to be patient and wait.

In understanding Joseph Stalin it might be instructive to look at the argument he used to out maneuver Leon Trotsky for the leadership of the Soviet Union when Lenin died in 1924.  Trotsky, founder of the Red Army, advocated sponsoring continued world revolution.  Stalin was more circumspect.  He said now wasn’t the time for Russia to become involved with foreign adventures.  The nation needed rebuilding following its disastrous role in the Great War as well as a subsequent civil war that was only recently resolved.  Stalin advocated building the Soviet Union into a great military power.  This would require converting its primitive peasant society into an enormous industrial economy.  The Soviet Union faced powerful, potential enemies along its borders.  Japan was off its Pacific coast in the east.  The Japanese already controlled the Korean peninsula and were rivals with the Russians for control of Manchuria.  The Japanese humiliated Russia by sinking her Pacific fleet in 1905.  Japan was rapidly growing in power and the nation’s leaders had ambitions that threatened Soviet interests.

China shared a long border with the Soviet Union.  At present she was a fragmented, undeveloped nation but this would not always be the case.  Defending Russia’s southern borders would require an enormous investment in troops.  Most menacing of all, though, to Stalin and the Kremlin leadership, were the powerful capitalist nations of Western Europe, particularly Germany.  They were all openly opposed to communist rule of Russia and Stalin viewed them with utmost suspicion. 

Whereas the United States was separated from the rest of the world by two vast oceans, requiring a powerful navy to protect its trade routes, the Soviet Union faced all its threats close at hand, along its landlocked borders.  Historically Russia was always viewed as a land power having vast numbers of men available for her army.  Stalin’s muscle was primarily with his tanks and his many infantry divisions.  He would have thought investing his nation’s military credibility in manning a distant outpost across the Atlantic a foolish enterprise that promised little upside to the risk involved.  This was probably on the minds of many members of the Politburo, the ruling council of the Kremlin, when the Soviet Union’s leader, Nikita Khrushchev, vowed military support of Cuba’s charismatic new leader, Fidel Castro.  Khrushchev boasted of the audacity of setting up camp in the American lake that was the Caribbean – implying the move would have been too bold for the legendary Stalin.  Encouraged by his view that the young, inexperienced Kennedy was a weak and indecisive president, Khrushchev placed nuclear armed ballistic missiles in Cuba.  This would lead to the fateful 1962 superpower confrontation.  Although Khrushchev procured Kennedy’s pledge of not invading Cuba in return for packing up the missiles and returning them to Russia, the world would largely view the venture as resulting in a humiliating defeat for the Soviet Union.  Members of the Politburo agreed when they deposed Khrushchev two years later, labeling his schemes as “harebrained.”  The Castro brothers remain in control of Cuba after more than fifty years, surviving the downfall of their benefactor, the Soviet Union.  While their economy has never recovered from the loss of Russian subsidies they have been able to build trade ties with China and other nations.  And while they never represented a dagger to America’s heart they persist in being a thorn, thumbing their nose and jeering at Uncle Sam ninety miles from his beautiful white Florida beaches.

Related Topics:

Castro Si, Batista No

Strategic Bombing

21st Century Air Force

Confronting Nuclear War

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Good Morning Justin...

Letter to my Son
Sunday, 23 June

Hop Scotch

Good Morning Justin…

The other day the dog, Jake, had his long coat of fur shaved very short so he could better endure the heat of summer.  He now looks half the size of before.  Where he once reminded me of an Eskimo’s dog, the kind that pulls a sled across snow, he now appears as a young coyote, not yet fully grown.  It was the same last summer.  More than once people have asked me on our walks where the other dog was, thinking I had two to care for.  No, this is still just Jake.  He is so much happier not having to wear that long, heavy coat in the sweltering heat.  Imagine you getting bundled up in a thick winter overcoat before stepping outside to bask in the tropical sun.  It might not drive me mad but you best stay clear of me.  I would be very irritable.  Offering me a tall, cool lemonade would only serve to illustrate the ridiculous nature of my predicament.  What’s this – lemonade on ice?  I’ve got an idea.  Why not relieve me of this horrendous coat?  It’s driving me crazy carrying this steam room about. 

So Jake is now happier but he still does as before and spends the heat of the day sprawled out beneath the deep shade of a tree.  He mostly spends his nights sleeping directly beneath the starry sky.  Small, curious stars also fly about the yard during early evening.  It’s the fireflies working very hard to stay aloft.  They make ungainly fliers with bodies almost too large for their wings.  The phosphorous lamp that is their tail is a beacon slowly flashing on and off to announce their availability to the opposite sex.  Hey, I’m over here.  Why don’t we get together on some leaf and make it happen?  The rendezvous is likely to be a simple romance.  Your first task is to make sure you’re dealing with the same species and, once that is affirmed, you need only discover your lover’s complementary organ.  It’s the single’s dream of carefree, no guilt sex. 

As we move up the evolutionary ladder it becomes increasingly challenging to make a couple.  Some birds have elaborate dance steps as part of their mating ritual.  You frustrate your partner to no end if you can’t get your moves straight.  Was it left step, right step, left step then extend my wings before I hold up a piece of nesting material or do I flap my wings after I show her the sprig?  Never mind.  She’s moved on to someone else. 

Imagine the difficulty in being a porcupine.  These solitary creatures meet only one day out of the year.  It’s like everything happens only on Sadie Hawkins Day.  If you lose track of the day you’re plain out of luck.  Here I am running around the forest in hormone overdose mode only to find the place is deserted because the big day was yesterday.  There’s a beaver stream nearby.  I think I will hit on the one with the cute aspen twigs.

Of course, the signals, rituals and charming behavioral cues involved in human courtship can seem complex, contradictory and confusing.  People write books on the subject.  We all have favorite songs relating the highs and lows of romance.  As a ‘for instance,’ here’s a lyric from way back when: 

I’m getting married in the morning,
Ding, Dong, the bells are going to chime…

To possibly being followed one day by the Hall and Oates lyric

            She’s gone oh I, oh I’d
            Better to learn how to face it…
            She’s gone – what went wrong?

Of course, these are musty examples from long ago.  They've been replaced by contemporary renderings but the emotions expressed are the same – exhilaration and loss.  Every one of us carries songs like these within us from a very young age because the feelings and experience they express are universal.  We have no problem relating to their basic message.  Love is a blend of honey and thorns.  I think I was aware of both by the tender age of seven – loved, then dumped for another in the second grade.  It’s all love.  It may strike you on any given day.  A simple trip to the pet store to buy your turtle food may result in a young lady giving you an extra moment of her day.  You find it’s just enough to set the phosphorus in your cheeks all aglow.


Saturday, June 22, 2013

Castro Si, Batista No!

Castro enters Havana, 1959

Over the years Latin America has been viewed as an awkward stepchild by those setting U.S. foreign policy.  This was particularly true during the Cold War when president’s made their reputations in foreign affairs dealing with their superpower rival, the Soviet Union.  The attitude toward South America of benign neglect was particularly true during the presidency of Dwight Eisenhower.  While residing in the White House Eisenhower spent most of his time dedicated to preventing hostilities in an era that introduced nuclear armed ballistic missiles and brought visions of thermonuclear destruction to the popular imagination.  He gave little thought to the effect a sugar monopoly had on the economy of Cuba.  What was best for the Cubans should be decided by Cubans so long as the solution didn't involve introducing a pro-communist government into the Western Hemisphere.  In 1954 Jorge Arbenz, the elected president of Guatemala, was overthrown by the CIA because his rhetoric and policies provoked Washington’s fears of communism.

In the early morning hours of New Year’s Day, 1959, Fulgencio Batista fled Cuba with his family, ending his corrupt, tyrannical reign of the island nation.  He was driven from power by a young, charismatic leftist named Fidel Castro.  Castro’s movement gained widespread popularity because it promised to reform the economy, provide education and medicine for all, and establish democratic elections.  Despite the fact that Cuba was among the wealthiest nations in Latin America its largely rural population survived on an average annual income of about $90, lived in homes often with dirt floors, and very few of its peasant inhabitants had running water or electricity.  Nearly half the population was illiterate, a third suffered from intestinal parasites and one person in seven had tuberculosis.  The dominant sugar industry provided low wages and only seasonal employment.  Resentment was widespread that Americans owned 40 percent of the sugar plantations, 80 percent of Cuba’s utilities, 90 percent of its mining and most of its oil refineries.  Cubans generally believed wealthy Americans collaborated with Batista to keep him in power.  It’s little wonder then that Castro’s anti-American rhetoric was widely believed. 

Castro was careful to distance himself from Cuba’s communist party and he initially avoided open relations with the Soviet Union.  This is because he feared a Guatemala-styled intervention by the U.S. into Cuba as well as the fact that Cuba’s population was largely Catholic and anti-communist themselves.  Fidel Castro’s standard response to American accusations of his being communist was that Yankees typically branded all Latin reformists as communist.  While Castro was anti-American it is likely he wasn't a communist when he first took power.  Unlike his more bookish brother Raul, who concerned himself with Marxist ideas, Fidel was the man of action, a born leader with an intense ambition for power and the need to rule.  He was a bearded romantic in army fatigues and he would see to it that his control of government would not be contested.  Once he arrived in Havana it wasn't long before Castro postponed his promised elections.  Why would a man with enormous popularity cancel the vote?  He didn't want to validate elections as an institution.  Times are not always favorable to those running the show.  Circumstance can easily sway people’s opinion.  Castro would not jeopardize his vision of the long term good to the fickle results contained in a ballot box.  It was important that people quickly acclimate themselves to the reality of there being no alternative to that of Castro’s rule. 

By the fall of 1959 Castro has the first of several secret meetings with a Soviet envoy while Eisenhower gives a green light to aid Cuban exiles in their fight with Castro.  Castro views Washington as hostile and aggressive while Eisenhower sees Cuba as falling into the communist bloc.  Mutual suspicions prompt actions that validate the fears each nation has of the other.  Hundreds of Batista’s men are executed.  Exiles launch raids of sabotage against Castro’s Cuba.  Castro nationalizes America’s Cuban possessions.  Washington legislates an economic boycott of Cuba.  Castro orders most American embassy personnel out of Cuba.  Eisenhower breaks off diplomatic relations with Castro’s government.  Castro solicits military aid from the Soviet Union.  The CIA begins training a Cuban army in Guatemala.  Talk between the two nations is limited to public airing of charges against the other.  There is nothing to impede an escalation of events that leads first to an invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs and, later, a nuclear confrontation between the two super powers when Soviet ballistic missiles are discovered on Cuban soil. 

People would like to believe their leaders make rational, informed decisions.  We would like to think mechanisms are in place that would thwart the worst of human catastrophes.  How reassuring these thoughts were they only true.  At the core of our highly evolved, intelligent existence remains a factor we call the roll of the dice.  It’s the ever-present gamble we make in placing devastating power in the hands of human nature.

Related Topics:

Stalin's Caution

Strategic Bombing

Confronting Nuclear War

21st Century Air Force

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Good Morning Jacob...

Letter to my Son
Sunday, 16 June

Rush Job

I hope that you and I will one day again be able to take walks together.  Much of the energy I place into my projects is with this goal in mind.  I use the hands given me to do with as best I can.  There is a reason for everything we do.  We don’t have to know what that reason is for this to be so.  A coyote bays at the moon without considering why.  What need is there for him to know?  He may not even realize he’s a coyote.  It doesn't matter.  He is as life prescribes. 

Once again I draw pictures.  It’s one of those ventures where I don’t know what it is I am looking for except that I will know it when I see it.  That seems to be the rule of this game.  Do you find your instincts can appear counter-intuitive to what it is you are trying to do?  We can attempt the seemingly obvious yet find it as maddeningly elusive as writing our name while viewing the results in a mirror.  Doing what we think we ought to be doing only sends us in the opposite direction of where it is we want to be.  I find myself in life time and again stubbornly insisting on making the wrong approach.  What simple trick of the mind have I overlooked? 

It would be an easy conclusion to make that I have so far failed in what it is I have tried to do.  Failure here is a term incorrectly applied.  It is too definitive and simple an answer to be useful.  Trying to visualize the peeled-back layers of one’s own human mind is not like a round of horseshoes.  I can be far from my mark and still find the results interesting.  In some things it is better to make the most from an inadvertent gesture.  A God-awful choice has its own revelation.  The hunch I want myself to believe in is that the path to personal success is by way of making a series of right disastrous choices.  I’m stuck with myself.  Ugly ducklings don’t always turn into swans.  I’m sixty-four and my use of color and form still reminds me of goulash found in an alley behind the restaurant.  It seems evident by now that I wasn’t put on Earth to make roast duck.  I’m here to convince you that corn and green beans in tomato sauce is ravishing.

The challenges we choose for ourselves go a long way towards defining who it is we truly are.  The clothes we wear are largely influenced by the fashion of the time.  Our pick in career may be a muddled mix of motivations that includes mundane matters of money and opportunity.  Certainly our choice of a spouse suggests something significant about us, though, I suspect biology and timing play a bigger role than we would like to think.  No, if you want to know who it is we really are then look at the rock we volunteer to endlessly roll uphill.  I once knew a man many years ago that had a rare genetic defect.  Each finger of his hands was one knuckle short.  Despite his resulting limited agility and lack of reach his burning desire was to play the piano well.  He did.  The result was not a repertoire of familiar show tunes.  His style suggested the rapid course that water takes down a steep mountain stream.  His was an approach to the keyboard you would hear nowhere else.  It was music of a strange sort, but it was music. 

There is always something odd to be found in the character we each display.  We may try to hide it from view because our particular quirk appears so ridiculous, so indefensible to our own mind.  Sure, someone that doesn't know us well may have a good laugh at our expense but they haven’t had the time to sample the savory blend of seasonings that make up our seven course personality.  And yes, not everyone is going to take to us, no matter what.  We don’t all appreciate almond slivers in rice… or whatever it is that makes your particular psychological concoction uniquely you. 

I make pictures, though I never figured out how to draw.  I love drawing though learning about it never interested me.  I just put my shoulder into the rock, hope for the best, and start trudging uphill. 


Sunday, June 9, 2013

Good Morning Jack...

Letter to my Son
Sunday, 9 June

China Manned Space Program

Did you see the picture of President Obama greeting the Chinese leader Xi Friday at the Annenberg estate in Rancho Mirage, California?  They both wore dark blue jackets with white shirts open at the collar.  The two day summit was described as “constructive”, which in diplomatic terms means the two men exchanged differing views.  This is as would be expected.  Both the United States and China are powerful, economic competitors and have contrasting political governing philosophies.  What is important is for the two nations to build a relationship that encourages a respectful dialogue and enables the two governments to work together where there is common ground.  The alternative to diplomacy is a world of constant tension, with China and the U.S. constantly exchanging charges and counter-charges in the press in an atmosphere of suspicion and open hostility, much like what existed between America and the Soviet Union over the course of the Cold War.  We do not want to repeat the madness of two nuclear-armed militaries facing off with their fingers on the trigger.

China grew from what was essentially a rural, developing nation to that of the world’s second largest economy with remarkable speed once their Communist leader, Mao Zedong, died.  He had lead a largely peasant army in the overthrow of a pro-Western leader, Chiang Kai-Shek, in 1949.  Chiang’s legacy continues today with a separate Chinese government remaining in power on the island of Taiwan.  Continued United States support of Taiwan is one of the many points of friction mainland China has with the government in Washington.  It can be argued that disagreements between our two nations have more to do with competing national interests than with conflicting political ideology.   Many economists anticipate China to overtake the U.S. as the world’s economic powerhouse during the course of this century.  The resulting repercussions would go beyond economics and would reduce this nation’s global political influence.  In fact, this is already occurring.  While the United States government struggles with containing its deficit budget, China is investing vast sums of money in building a global infrastructure that will assure it access to resources needed to fuel its economic growth.  Uncle Sam no longer carries the fat wallet that once opened doors.

Germany is the economic powerhouse that dominates Europe.  Until recently the same could be said of Japan’s relationship with Asia.  In the previous century both nations brought devastation to their societies by choosing military aggression as their means of achieving what they have peacefully attained today.  Their leaders had not the wisdom to realize faith in one’s ideas and the resourcefulness of their people can alone overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles to their goals.  It is important that the leaders of the United States also appreciate this fact.  Competition between nations, between cultures and between ideals is never fully resolved among the people viewing the world stage.  The Cold War ended with a clear decision as to which societal approach to governance had greater merit.  That struggle ended more than twenty years ago.  The world has moved on.  An entirely new generation has come of age.  We have reinvented ourselves technologically into an era that would have seemed science fiction to those who witnessed the fall of the Berlin Wall.  That is the nature of progress.  That is the nature of human kind.  We continually take on new challenges and we don’t slow down for anyone.  I tell myself, "Get used to it."


Sunday, June 2, 2013

Good Morning Jessicca...

Letter to my Daughter
Sunday, 2 June

Jessicca's Holiday Visit

Good Morning Jessicca…

Jeremy turned 32 yesterday, the age I was when he was born.  We had a barbecue to mark the occasion.  I handled the fire.  Generally, I burn everything to make sure things get done in the center.  We had scorched corn on the cob with charred burgers and dogs.  Throw chunks of meat into the flame and hope for the best.  I’m a primitive man at heart.  Jeremy said it was tasty.  He’s a good kid.

Jake, the dog, also had a burger on a bun, with catsup.  The two small boys here exchanged theirs for a hot dog, which was more to their liking.  Their mother, Erin, is riding north today with her boyfriend, Bryan, on his Harley.  It’s a half day ride to West Virginia and they need to get an early start if they are to beat the coming rain.  It’s a near new bike.  The last one was crunched this spring on a mountain road.  An oncoming pickup crossed over into Bryan’s lane and he had to lay the bike down.  The woman driving smoked the truck’s tires right over the top of the bike’s front wheel.  No one was seriously hurt.  Erin has a scar on her knee but she and Bryan were both wearing leather and managed to avoid serious road rash.  Bryan says there are two kinds of bikers – those that have wreaked and those that are going to. 

With any luck we define our own life’s journey.  We choose from options, take chances, and move on from there.  Some options are leisurely ventures.  Others may involve split-second timing.  Some begin casually enough and then, in a sudden turn of fate, become a hair-raising episode.  You choose a path, chart your course, enjoy the sun, feel the breeze.  An instant later your eyes jerk skyward.  Your mind quickly sorts through an onrush of confusion.  Horror is a flash preceding a mind-numbing stun.  I must pick up the scattered blocks, everywhere.  Yes, thank you.  Are these your blocks, also?  What?  No, I think the pain belongs to you.  People appear like stooges in a movie.  Here comes the horror again.

I think I will water the garden this morning.  It’s going to be hot.  The wild flowers are just beginning to stretch their spindly stems skyward.  Their roots flourish in crumbly soil containing the right hint of moisture.  The robin patrols.  He cocks his head and spies movement.  Gotcha!  Life is a crawling banquet.  Soon there will be time to nap on a full stomach.  June is a month delicious with days.

For the human kind of life form civilization began with readily available water coursing beneath desert sun.  It’s a blessed combination.  We no longer need to daily track down our food.  It grows about our feet.  The land is bountiful.  Time is plentiful.  Relaxation is fertile with ideas.  We fashion words to share our thoughts.  Living is a river of sun rises.  The sun flees the night.  Stars are lost mothers of small people.  Woman is the magic.  Look on her.  Always I look too long.  She keep me.  She make joy in me.  She anger me.  She is the center.  Why she so?

Civilization begins with woman.  We start with her.  She is both chicken and egg.  I am not like her.  I pull legs off insects to see what they do.  Life seems a captive force that gives objects the ability to yearn.  I want to believe that all existence has explanations.  Except for woman the most satisfying experience is to believe “This is why.”