Wednesday, March 31, 2010


I'm working on my taxes again, and I've just learned that over $6,000 of my Social Security benefits in 2009 are taxable. Boo. I walked back downstairs, hoping maybe I'd get some solace from deer in my back yard. (Or, at least, see that the light cover of snow had evaporated away.) Well, the snow was gone, but deer were nowhere to be seen. Very late March snow is like that; so, apparently, are late March deer.

What to do? I was done for the day with the taxes. Enough of it. And deer couldn't do the trick. I needed some music.

Simon and Garfunkel sang one of the coolest, funkiest, songs I know. It is called "Cecilia," which starts out with the singers pleading with the title gal to come home, "come on home."

Then the tempo shifts dramatically, joyfully:

She loves me again,
I fall on the floor and I laughing"

I woke up this morning with the song in my head. It was minutes - minutes! - before I started thinking about the Internal Revenue Service. Let's hope I have a similar first-thing song in my brain tomorrow morning. (And maybe some deer in the back yard.) They're all a good way to gird up for those STATE forms, which are coming up next.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Taxes and deer

Hmm? "Qualified dividends?" (Qualified for what?) "S" corporations? (What? Syndicates? Shipping companies?) Stock costs "plus purchase commissions and improvements, minus depreciation, amortization, and depletion." (Huh?)

Welcome to the world of income tax time, which I've entered this afternoon. I'm only a little way into it, but it leaves me wandering my rooms, stunned, trying to figure out how to be honest amidst a blizzard of cant, acronyms, and jargon intelligible only to specialized CPAs, IRS agents, and politicized policy wonks bent into one political shape or another.

So, less than half way through the 1040 form, I walked (staggered) downstairs, moved zombie-like into my kitchen, and gazed out at three does enjoying my back yard. Colored in spring-time brown, getting fat, perhaps, by a birth due in a few months, the does seemed relaxed, nibbling on tiny shoots of early springtime blades of grass, lifting their black-tipped tails and pooping where they would.

Envy might be against one of the Ten Commandments. But, hey.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

A little peace

Three good-sized mule deer does - two bedded down on my grass, another searching for springtime lilac buds - are hanging around at 8:15 p.m. in my back yard, feeling comfortable, it seems as the sun drops away, even though their movements activated my back yard light. (Which drew me to my back window in the first place.)

I had been watching and listening to the final installment of 24 half-hour lectures on A. Einstein, cool dude. (A bit of a sexual philanderer, but hey.)

The lecture, taught by Professor Don Howard of Notre Dame, ended with an interesting story about a Chinese guy named Xu Liangying. Xu, to make the story short, translated Einstein, and the effort made him and his translations an important impetus for democracy in China. That democracy remains unfinished in China, of course, as does Einstein's fervent struggle for world peace, remains unfortunately the case.

But, as I look down out of my kitchen window at the does, tails and legs tucked away but ears erect, nesting in for the night in a place in which they feel safe, I don't begrudge those deer a little peace.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Einstein's tongue

Thinking about Albert Einstein, I'm not pondering his amazing physics, or his philosophy of science, influenced as it was by Arthur Schopenhauer and Baruch Spinoza. I'm thinking of his powerful humanitarian nature - the nature that only his celebrity as the century's biggest brain kept him from the clutches of J. Edgar Hoover.

Hoover, like all too many conservative types at the time, figured that anyone who backed civil rights must be a subversive ... probably a communist, so definitely someone to imprison in case (or when!) cold-war hostilities turned hot. Senator Joe McCarthy, whose election from my home state of Wisconsin is my own (although childish) version of original sin, was among the scary guys wanting to do in people like Albert Einstein. But Einstein, ignoring the goons who reminded him so much of the Germany he fled in 1933, continued to champion the causes of World Government, Zionism, Pacifism, and Civil Rights. Cool! (He befriended the top black performers of the day, like singers and actors Paul Robeson and soprano Marian Anderson - not to mention the folks in Princeton's black community just across the tracks from his house.)

Einstein, graying hair askew, no socks on his feet, walking across those railroad tracks in Princeton, would, said one young black observer, "talk with anyone." He was in America, trying to invent a unified theory of everything, thinking hard about the problem, but he would give his undivided attention to the first black person he met.

For a long time, I had a famous photo of Einstein, wild hair and all, sticking out his tongue at the camera. I left that photo in my old newspaper office when I left for good. But I'd like to think that, hey, even if I'm unable to do the physics, I at least have that tongue.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Political befuddlement

Politics seldom fails to befuddle me. For instance, I was one of those people who in 2004 was convinced that George W. Bush would be unseated. Even after the Democratic nominee showed up in uniform with a snappy salute, I shook it off. Of course Bush would lose. How could he not?

Okaaay ...

But this week, reading so much about the passage of health care reform - Obamacare in GOP speak - my befuddlement knows no bounds.

WHAT has happened to the Republican Party?

As a little boy - kids are great fans of a sitting president, no matter who they are - I LIKED Ike. And as I grew older, I respected the serious Republicans who may have had conservative values, but who also were deeply committed to responsible government. Then along came Barry Goldwater's extremism, quickly followed by the GOP's "southern strategy" to wrest the South from historically shameful Democratic control via equally shameful sops to the radical religious right, a few nudge-nudges to racists, and scorn of Eastern "elites." (So much worse, say, than Enron "elites," or those latter-day "elites" that brought us the recent economic unpleasantness.)

But, sadly fallen as the GOP may be, I could never have imagined their foot-shooting attack on health-care reform. Even now, Republicans are predicting great strides in coming elections based upon a "repeal health care" campaign. Wha?

I fear that the GOP - the second party so necessary to American politics - has dumbed itself down into a scary and bad-for-the-country rejection of reality. I'm not just talking about "birthers," or the senders of racist emails, or the "tea party" goofuses angry about what? - tax cuts? - but the whole, unanimous Republican establishment that thinks attacking health reform is some kind of winning strategy. Their fiscal arguments, coming after so many years of outrageous Republican presidential and congressional spending, are palpably hypocritical.

It's as though planet Goldwater, circled by moon Reagan, was destroyed by comet Bush, and all the people said: "Yes! Now we're getting there!"

I've been wrong before. (A whole bunch of times!) But I can't help but think that when voters go the polls in November, a great many will think: "Republicans - oh yes, they're the people who don't want me to have health care."

Monday, March 22, 2010

Sign of the times

Why do deer, probably very young deer, insist on pooping in a (nearly) perfect half circle around the door to my garage?

Are dim-headed, cud crewing, spry but cow-like ungulates who spend the most satisfying part of their day munching on regurgitated stomach contents somehow programmed to excrete their little piles of stuff in meaningfully placed bunches? I don't think so.

But their "sign," little piles of poop still trying to steam hours later into the pristine Montana air, are perversely welcome. Deer are visiting again!

I didn't see them, those night visitors, but new poop - dark and moist - tells its own tale. As do the countless blades of grass bent down to make a deer bed, distinguishable in the dark only by the shine of the night-frozen dew that outlines the pressed outline of a deer at rest.

I've been raking leaves lately, and deer sign mingles with the dry leaves as I scoop them into a plastic bag. But that is OLD deer sign. NEW deer sign: That I like to see!

Sunday, March 21, 2010

More tumbling

A comment about my recent blog about how the glass that we often call a tumbler was so named was a pleading comment indeed. "You can't stop there," it said. "You can't leave us hanging!"

The comment referred to the fact that originally, beverage glasses called tumblers had a pointed or a convexly rounded bottom - hence, I assumed, the name "tumbler." (You couldn't put it down without it falling over.)

Well, OK. I took out the heavy guns and consulted the Oxford English Dictionary. According to the OED, the whole idea of the shape was "so that it could not be set down until emptied." I guess toasts could not be satisfied with a mere sip. The definition also mentioned that such cups "were often of silver or gold."

The first citation was dated 1664, but I was surprised to see that pointed or rounded tumbler bottoms lasted quite a while. A citation from 1865: "Rings of pottery ... evidently intended to serve as supports for these earthenware tumblers." And from 1876: "The guests were supplied with tumblers or glass vessels which, being rounded at the base, could not stand upright, and must, therefore, be emptied at a draught."

More alarmingly, perhaps, it turns out that there was a related meaning. A tumbler also could be "a toy, usually representing a grotesque squatting figure, having the center of gravity low and the base rounded so as to continue rocking when touched." A citation from 1851: "Her legs tucked up mysteriously under her gown into a rounded ball, so that her figure resembled in shape the plaster tumblers sold by the Italians."

I think I can stop here.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Einsteins' first daughter

The kidnapping of a young girl hits us like a blow to the head. One thinks of Elizabeth Smart, the Mormon kid abducted at age 14 and found nine months later. One thinks of all too many youngsters taken away, most not found alive. But this evening I'm thinking of another young girl, who simply has disappeared out of history itself.

I'm thinking of a child named Lieserl. Disappeared to us, even though she was none other than the first daughter of Albert Einstein.

Lieserl no doubt wasn't kidnapped. She must have been adopted, somewhere. But, to us, no less totally gone.

Einstein had fallen in love with Mileva Meric, a beautiful but poor serb who had overcome great odds to earn degrees not only in medicine but in physics. Einstein's parents rejected the idea of marriage, but in 1903, a year after Lieserl was born in January, 1902, they married anyway.

But why didn't the couple bring their daughter to live with them? And what happened to her?

One suspects Lieserl must have been a very smart person. But, despite the research of many historians and biographers, any and all details of her life remain unknown. Lieserl is one of those mysteries that both fascinate us, and make us sad.

Friday, March 19, 2010

A call from a kid

When I was growing up, back in the 1950s and 60s, a ringing telephone that turned out to be a wrong number was nothing more than a passing irritation. Apologies were made, and click went the phone.

But this evening, I got a wrong number that was kind of cool.

My phone rang at about 6:40 p.m., and I looked at the caller ID. It said something like "ALLTEL," which MIGHT be someone I wanted to talk with. So I clicked it on and said, "Hello?"

Immediately the caller said, "Oh, I must have a wrong number. Sorry." I said, "Hey, thanks for calling anyway."

Kind of a smart-ass response, I suppose, but already I was thinking: She (it was a young her) and I (who never will see 60 again) exchanged information in an interesting way.

First, this young woman, probably in high school, could tell immediately that my voice was that of an old fart. And I, hearing aids and all, could tell she was a kid. But more than that, the stresses on the vowels, the breathiness, the almost ineffable changing way the language was being used to express a sort-of-sorry-but-not-really dismay, all told me I was talking with a youngster a couple of generations behind (or, more accurately, in front) of me.

So it was a cool wrong number. High school teachers must know exactly what I'm talking about. But at any rate, hey, it beat the hell out of a frantic call telling me my car's warranty was expiring.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Don't Worry. Be Happy

A little over a year ago, while I was undergoing (successful) radiation treatment for prostate cancer, (pass the Viagra, please), I learned that my long-time position as editorial page editor was being eliminated. Such a luxury as an editorial editor no longer could be afforded by the idiots who ran a huge chain of monopoly newspapers.

Wow. It was a shock. And, sure, I was blue for a while. Until, before long, I realized I wasn't. I was happy.

It makes a guy question what the hell happiness is. And that's why I so eagerly read a review in this week's New Yorker by Elizabeth Kolbert. It was a review of several new books about exactly that - happiness.

The books (skip over this part if you don't care) were Derek Bok's "The Politics of Happiness: What Government Can Learn from the New Research on Well-being," Carol Graham's "Happiness Around the World: The Paradox of Happy Peasants and Miserable Millionaires," and Daniel Gilbert's "Stumbling on Happiness."

The authors all zero in on well-documented and counter-intuitive study results: While, to be sure, the rich report being happier than the poor, it turns out that lottery winners were no happier than non winners, 50 years of American prosperity and economic growth have made the average American no happier than his 1950s counterpart, and, yes, around the world and not only in this country, money and happiness don't equate. For instance, the percentage of people in Nigeria who rate themselves as being happy is the same as the percentage of people in Japan, although the per-capita Gross Domestic Product in Japan is nearly 25 times higher. Reviewer Kolbert wraps up her piece by suggesting that, in any event, fervent attempts to grow the economy at the expense of wrecking the Earth might not be a good trade-off.

I would agree. But the fact is that there are lots of theories about all this happiness stuff, none particularly convincing. I don't have a better one. But as I settle into my recliner with a good book - in this case, the new novel: "The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson" - I think I'll just be happy. Not to worry.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Deer, learning

For the first time in about a month, as I happened to pass by my front door, I noticed out of the corner of my eye the passage of a deer in my street.

I stepped outside my door - at 50 degrees, it warm for Helena at 8 p.m. on a Saint Patrick's Day evening - and saw not one but three mule deer. Each was a youngster - yearlings in a couple of months - and each of them appeared really tentative as they left the blacktop of Warren Avenue and paused on the grassy boulevard of 11th Avenue to my south - a busy street on which vehicles zoomed by, headlights sweeping, engines roaring, blasting the evening quiet.

I watched the deer, silhouetted by the passing headlights, obviously scared, ears turning this way and that, deciding that crossing 11th Avenue was a dumb thing to try. One by one, they moved back onto my street, crossed it, and disappeared into the darkness between houses on the other side of the road. They were learning the ways of urban deer.

Those young animals seemed lost, afraid - motherless - but elegant nonetheless. Maybe sometime, later this year, one or two of them will make that leap of faith into my back yard.

Monday, March 15, 2010

The Holy Tumbler

The search for the Holy Grail has been an effective metaphor for an epic quest over many centuries. In recent years the search myth has been mined by writers of the Dan Brown ilk, resulting in much gold. But the grail, which in medieval legends was the cup (or the platter) used by Christ at the Last Supper, which was brought to Britain but disappeared after its keepers became impure, and which knight after knight vainly sought (until such worthy seekers such as Percivale and Galahad got on the case), isn't what I'm concerned about today.

Instead, it is another table piece I ponder: the tumbler.

That simple glass, a common, ubiquitous liquid container without stem or elaborate base, called a tumbler in a recent passage I was reading, mystified me - and became a bit of a grail of its own.

After all - I'm sure to the chagrin of many a student of English as a second language - the word "tumbler" means many things. It can refer to an acrobat, for instance. It can be, in former times, a breed of dog used to chase rabbits, or a breed of domestic pigeons that would somersault backward in flight. It can mean the moveable piece in a lock that allows a bolt to be thrown, or the part of an old gunlock that sets off the mainspring. Or it could be the revolving compartment into which newly washed clothes are placed in a dryer.

But all these definitions have to do with the act of tumbling. What does "tumbling" have to do with a mundane drinking glass?

Being the bold knight that I am, I delved into my dictionary. It turns out that the original tumbler was not the simple drinking glass that we all know, but a different kind of drinking glass - a glass that had no base, but had a pointed or convex bottom. If you set it down, it would ... tumble!

Hey, call me Sir Galahad, finder of this particular grail, and join me in a tumbler of mead! Just don't try to set it down on the table.

Monday, March 8, 2010

A look back in thyme

I was listening, the other night, to one of the albums in a set given to me by my son some years ago - a set consisting of five albums produced by Simon and Garfunkel between 1964 and 1970. This particular album, which I hadn't heard for decades, blew me away, all over again.

It was called "Sounds of Silence," and I think it informs the boomer generation better than any other music - including that of rock stars, pop divas, the Beatles, even Elvis. The songs of writer Simon, and the stunning tenor of Garfunkel, spoke to kids of our time. And the "Sound of Silence" (the song title lacked the "s" that was on the album cover) pretty much said it all.

The song actually appeared on Simon and Garfunkel's first album, called "Wednesday Morning, 3 a.m.," but by early 1965 - a time when the Beatles where in mid-invasion and Dylan was driving kids nuts - a record producer named Tom Wilson added to the all-acoustic, folk-rock song "Sound of Silence" a rhythm section and an electric guitar. He delivered the singers' second album, and the result - "Sounds of Silence" - was just what young people really wanted to hear: songs for people alienated by war in Southeast Asia, aghast at stubborn rejection of something so right as an end to racial segregation, and deep unease at what seemed to be an empty consumer culture.

The song "Sound of Silence" starts like this:

"Hello darkness, my old friend,
I've come to talk with you again,
Because a vision softly creeping,
Left its seeds while I was sleeping,
And the vision that was planted in my brain
Still remains
Within the sound of silence."

The song's lyrics kept getting better, as did the duo's work on subsequent albums. The voices, especially Garfunkel's, were unforgettable - until it all ended far too soon after a song of solace called "Bridge Over Troubled Water."

I'm sure there are deep truths to be found in albums like these. But I think I'll just quit now so I can put on "Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme."

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Ever heard of this guy (6)

Every American generation, as it ages, becomes aghast at the changes it sees coming. This was never more true than for the very first American generation - the well-educated aristocratic Founding Fathers who gave birth to the world's first and, somehow, lasting, egalitarian democratic republic. Federalists like Hamilton and their opponents like Jefferson and Madison alike had envisioned a "classical" democracy with deep roots in Rome and Athens. Instead, as they grew old, they saw about them a money-grubbing, anti-intellectual country where, as Jefferson wrote in his last year, the land was filled with citizens "whom we know not, and who know not us."

Representative among them was a rural Pennsylvania politician named William Findley. Findley, born in Ireland in 1741, arrived in the colonies in time to rise from a private to a captain in the revolutionary War. He served in both houses of the Pennsylvania legislature, and was elected as an anti-Federalist to the U.S. House for terms from 1791-1799 and 1803-1817. (In 1811 he was designated the "Father of the House," the first to be awarded the honorary title.)

Findley was among the first to promote the interests of the "self-made man," spurning the aristocratic goal of "public interest" as little more than the self-interest of the rich. This sort of thing drove most of the Founders nuts.

I thought of Findley today as I read a first-hand report in the latest New York Review of Books from last month's Tea Party Convention in Nashville. Author Jonathan Raban went to the convention not as a journalist, but as a member of the movement, figuring his libertarian disgust with government surveillance, warrantless wiretapping, etc., qualified him.

His report centered on ways that the convention showed schisms among the tea sets. It seems religious-right folks didn't really turn on the anti-big government Ayn Rand types. The latter were rather unmoved by rousing speeches by birthers, those who saw Obama's election as "our Pearl Harbor" and our subjugation into the Third Reich, and folks who figured the election was the result of a plot by immigrants.

And then came feature speaker Sara Palin, apparently loved by all who were there. You've heard her stuff before. But Raban made the point that just as liberals take for granted Palin's stupidity and unfitness for office, so certain conservatives feel the same about Obama. And if the current president proves unable to reverse the disasters he inherited from Bush, those conservatives, despite their schisms, might just gather enough middle-ground votes to put Palin in office.

Somewhere, Thomas Jefferson may be shaking his head yet again.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Going with the flow

Yesterday I decided to go to a grocery store - with a stop at a book store - and so I ventured out onto the ice that is my back yard. I've made a path, marked by big shoe-sized holes in five-inch snow just outside the ice zone, to get to my garage without having to traverse the frozen water. Once inside the garage, I pressed the button to raise the door so I could back my car into the alley. The door went, grind, grind, oof, and settled back to remain closed.

I've been through this before. Snow melts all day, and water piles up against (and under) my garage door. Then, when the sun sinks, the water undergoes what scientists call a phase transition. What I call a piece of ... well, the door won't open. Ice has frozen it shut.

I have in my garage an interesting farm implement. It's a hoe, with an ax-like handle and a big iron blade. A friend I once knew who came from Peru gave it to me; perhaps it came from high in the Andes. Something had to dig to up those original potatoes.

Anyway, I used the implement to pry the garage door loose, pressed the button again, and the door rose ... to reveal a big old pooch (some kind of shepherd mix) apparently attracted by the sound of my door-freeing efforts. The doggie walked up to me, lowered his head, and waited to be scratched behind the ears. I obliged.

Then it walked past me, into my garage, sniffed a tire on my car, lifted a leg, and marked the tire for all dogs to smell. Then it walked out into my back yard and passed out of sight.

Hell, I was off to the store. I got into my newly marked vehicle, backed out of my garage, and headed off to the supermarket. But I left the big door open to let the pooch exit my otherwise fully fenced yard whenever he felt like it. It's called going with the flow.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Situational ethics

Hypocrisy is endemic among all politicians, Democrats and Republicans alike. (If you don't like the term, call it "situational ethics.") I might find it easier to find such hypocrisy on the GOP side, you might find it resonates more strongly among the Democrats. A bridge to nowhere in Alaska? A decades-long stream of federal money into West Virginia? It really doesn't matter - keeping score is pointless. This, after all, is a democracy. Making sausage never has been pretty.

But for a perfect example of hypocrisy, check out Republican Sen. Jim Bunning of Kentucky, who put a "hold" on legislation backed by both sides, a hold that means an end to many job-sustaining infrastructure projects, stopping some 400,000 unemployment benefits, and so on, because, gosh, we're spending money off the books!

Hey, everybody agrees that it would be better to always pay as we go. But former pro-baseball player Bunning suggested tapping yet-unused stimulus money to pay for the legislative package - even though he's already wept at any stimulus spending at all. And, of course, Bunning somehow managed to keep his feelings in check during the Bush years of wildly off-the-books spending. Now, with Obama in the White House, suddenly it is simply awful.

Giving the finger to an ABC reporter, or being heard saying "tough shit" during Democrats' pleas that he relent, we can put up with. It is the hypocrisy that grates.

I don't know if is there is some law that mandates that former ballplayers have to be right-wingers who care not at all for Americans who are hurting. After all, professional athletics is the ultimate meritocracy, and the athletes who succeed don't spend a lot of time worrying about those they shoved aside. Still, on the ball field, you either grab that hot grounder or you don't. And if you don't, any amount of hypocrisy isn't going to endear you to your fans. Or anybody else. Let alone those 400,000 unemployed, the victims of your situational ethics.