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Saturday, December 10, 2016

Judging a Generation

Not infrequently on Facebook I see posts that bring on a wave of sadness. The posts I mean are not personal position statements thought out by the friend posting but what I think of as t-shirt or bumper sticker ideas the friend picked up somewhere else and reposted, so that now other friends are encouraged to “Share if you agree.” I never do. Never share, that is.

Sometimes I agree. Sometimes I identify strongly with the sentiment expressed. Other times I most emphatically do not. Either way, though, what so often brings on the sadness is an immediate gut response that, if put into words, would go something like this (if Fb allowed for italics, which it does not): “Oh, please, friends! It’s so much more complicated than that!”

(Americans, I read somewhere the other day, "don’t like nuance." There’s another blanket statement I can’t buy, because ain’t I an American?)

So now, to make good on today’s subject heading, here’s an example of what I’m talking about. The text reads as follows:

1944: 18 year olds [sic] storm the beach of Normandy into almost certain death.

2016: 18 year olds [sic] need a safe place because words hurt their feelings.

Then, of course, “Share if you agree.”


Originally I was going to title this post “Passing Judgments on Entire Generations,” but I figured that was too long a title. The subtext of the Fb post, however, asks us to do just that. It implies that one generation, that of World War II, i.e., my parents’ generation, was manly and courageous (at least, they men were, right?) and that a younger generation, my grandchildren, are a pack of whiny, sniveling, cowardly little babies. One generation all heroes, the other all sissies.

I don’t buy it.

Every generation has heroes and cowards, patriotic soldiers (some gung-ho, some reluctant), principled pacifists, and a majority of ordinary people who serve their country in thousands of diverse ways, at home and abroad. 

What did I learn from my parents’ generation? What was the most important lesson they taught me?

I’ll tell you. We were taught the Golden Rule. We were taught not that crying when picked on by a bully was shameful and babish but that bullying was shameful. That name-calling was shameful. That when we were witness to bullying and name-calling or any other kind of bad behavior, it was our job to speak against the bad behavior and speak up for the innocent.

And my grandchildren are being taught the same lessons today. They know that speaking out for what is right can be difficult, but they have the courage to stand up and be counted, and I am proud of their courage. I am proud of their sensitivity to the feelings of others, both those like them and those different from them.

“Kids today!” It’s a lament as old as the human race, but would any of us change places with our grandchildren? What a world they are inheriting! And well, it’s easy to gild the past and kick dirt on the present, isn't it? And the temptation is especially great as we grow older and seek cheap comfort in nostalgia. But how does that help anyone?

That's my bottom line. Do I have anything to say that's going to help anyone? Will sharing this or that somehow make the world better?

Because we need to ask what we can do to support young people in this confusing, difficult, threatening and threatened world. Because writing off the future of our country and the world makes no sense at all.

Monday, December 5, 2016

And Now, About That Five-Legged Dog

I’ll get to the dog in a minute, but first a couple of questions. How do you feel about living in a “post-truth era”? Are you convinced “there’s no such thing as facts”? 

Dan Rather – bless his heart! – has come out strongly on the side of facts and truth. Here are a few sample paragraphs for those disinclined to follow the link:
If people want to live in a post-truth world, where "elite" experts are all biased and facts are up for interpretation, I suggest they go all the way. 
You can go to a post-truth doctor who could say "well the elitist scientific tests say you have strep throat but I say it's cancer so let's give you some chemotherapy." 
Or you can go to a post-truth electrician who might say "well those elitist electrical manuals published in New York and those government regulations out of Washington say you should ground your electricity, but that's just a bunch of red tape." 
Or you can go to a post-truth auto mechanic who might say "well those elitist laws of physics say that this is how a braking system works, but let's replace your brake pads with fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies because they will smell better when you hit the brake pedal." If people want to live in a post-truth world, where "elite" experts are all biased and facts are up for interpretation, I suggest they go all the way. 
I was reminded of David Hume’s dizzying bout of temporary skepticism, brought on by pursuing justification down a rabbit hole. “How can I believe in the material world, when the senses sometimes deceive and there would be nothing illogical about nonexistence?” For Hume, dinner and conversation with friends, followed (or preceded) by a good game of billiards, sufficed to banish doubt. And as for the rest of us, outside of our own dizzying moments of metaphysical speculation, we have no choice, either, but to “believe in” the earth we stand on. We can no more doubt it while going about our lives than a fish can doubt the reality of water.

My father was no philosopher but an engineer. A “just the facts” kinda guy? Well, he also had a fanciful side that came out in a long-running serial bedtime story about a family of squirrels, and his inclined enough toward dreams that he encouraged me for years to enter the Kentucky Club tobacco contest to name a thoroughbred racehorse and win the horse. That is, he was enough of a story-teller and dreamer that, when I was a child, we shared common loves and interests.

On the other hand, he was a lifelong Republican and a proud army reserve officer, with very traditional conservative values, and our relationship grew strained during my adolescence. He was gung-ho the war in Vietnam and adamantly opposed to the E.R.A. So if he were still alive, where would he stand today?

I need to believe he would come down firmly on Dan Rather’s sturdy position, out of respect for the English language, as well as for facts. You see, in addition to classical music and serious poetry and opera, my father delighted in doggerel and shaggy dog stories and riddles, and one of his favorite riddles, sparking many riotous debates with small daughters, was this puzzler:

Q: If you call a dog’s tail a leg, how many legs does the dog have?

When we were little, my sisters and I readily fell for the trick question, eagerly shouting out “Five!” Then came the implacable, rock-ribbed parental lesson:

A: The dog has four legs. Calling a tail a leg doesn’t make it a leg!

Long after my sisters and I had ceased to be gullible enough to offer the wrong answer, my father continued to trot out his old, tired riddle.

But here’s the thing: the answer never changes. The answer would not have changed even if my sisters and I had insisted for all those years that the tail was a leg and that the hypothetical dog in question had, therefore, five legs. We could have chanted in deafening chorus (Yeah, sure! As if my parents would have put up with that sort of nonsense!): “Five legs! Five legs! Five legs! Five legs!” It wouldn’t have made a bit of difference.

Repetition would not have made the wrong answer right then, and it doesn’t make it right today. Calling a tail a leg does not make it a leg. Repeating a lie as the truth does not make it true, no matter how many times you tell the lie, no matter how long and loudly you shout and chant and intoxicate yourself.


Saturday, November 26, 2016

As Ready As I'll Ever Be

Migraine prevented me from cobbling together homemade treats on Friday evening, but grocery store treats seem to be filling the bill, as far as today’s customers are concerned on this Shop Local Saturday 2016. 

Except for a couple bursts of sunshine, the sky has been overcast and grey. All the better, perhaps, to showcase holiday lights. My little tree is twinkling away, and the 4,000 lights on the village tree will be lit in a couple of hours.

But the best, from my point of view, begins 20 minutes from the time I tap out these words: the decorated, horse-drawn wagon will be giving rides around downtown beginning at 4 p.m. I hope to get at least one decent picture of that to include later as a postscript -- because everything in life is better with horses.


Okay, my attempts to photograph the horses in the dark were none too successful (although I'm proud that this is one Northport tradition I started and that lines were long with families waiting for the village tour)...

...but the tree lighting was truly MAGNIFICENT!

Saturday, November 12, 2016

We Should Not Be Wall-Builders, Either

[What do you do when you can't sleep? I read and write.]

Saturday Morning Reflections

We who do not want to see a physical wall built between our country and Mexico must be careful not to build a social wall between ourselves and the Americans whose different views and votes carried the day on Tuesday, because “They” are not a homogeneous block but a diverse group, with diverse reasons for voting as they did.

·     Some are party loyalists and would have voted for the Republican candidate whoever he or she had been, and a certain segment of Republican party loyalists are of the all-government-is-bad stripe. (Ideologically, they are libertarians.) This group will always vote their ideology.

·     Others are one-issue voters (e.g., anti-abortion). One friend told me her group of Catholic women friends fall into this camp. All other issues, all other statements were unimportant to them.

·     Some “liked some of what he had to say” (e.g., “he talked about jobs”) enough that they could somehow set aside the rest. One woman told me she tried, in looking at both candidates, to set aside personality and character and look only at issues. Apparently there were people who could do that.

·     A very large segment flocked to the Republican Party because they had been feeling invisible and the Republican candidate paid attention to them. Most of the people in this group (amazingly! This came out in post-election coverage) won’t even care all that much if he fails to make good on his promises. Mobilization of the overlooked (overlooked by media and by mainstream politicos alike) is the #1 explanation favored by mainstream journalists in the election aftermath. I say it is significant, but it can only serve, in my view, as one explanation among others. We human beings crave simple explanations, but life is not always simple. Yes, this is an important factor (and we must all draw a lesson from it), but it is not the only factor.

·     Don’t forget that many who supported Bernie Sanders in the primary voted Republican in the election! Crossover vote from Democrat to Republican accounts for people (1) who believe that American workers have not benefited from trade agreements (I did NOT cross over, but I also believe that the agreements have benefited corporations at the expense of workers both at home and abroad; NAFTA was my biggest disappointment of the Bill Clinton administration) and (2) who want a president not beholden to the status quo.

·     Even the anti-Hillary contingent cannot be dismissed simply as anti-woman or anti-feminist. I voted for her but have never fully trusted either of the Clintons since NAFTA. Be honest, my dear fellow feminists: was she your ideal candidate? Not mine, but I voted for her because I mistrusted her opponent far, far more on almost every issue and could not stomach his behavior or rhetoric.

·     This brings us to racism and sexism and bigotry of all kinds. Undoubtedly, those played a part, and undoubtedly racism persists in this country, as does sexism and homophobia and xenophobia, etc. Unfortunately, too, the worst segment of that contingent now feels it has a mandate to act out its hate. And no, we cannot stand back in silence, and we cannot hide fearfully in our homes. We must oppose hatred and bigotry and persecution wherever we find them. But it’s important we not characterize half our country’s population on the basis of what I have to believe is a minority splinter contingent.

Nothing in my list above is meant to excuse odious speech or behavior on the part of the candidate or any of his supporters.

But now, two conclusions I hope you will share with me: First, supporters of the new president-elect cannot be dismissed as a monolithic demonic army of hate-mongers. And second, to prevent the social disintegration we so deeply fear it is important that we not build walls that would escalate divisions and turn our beloved country into warring camps.

President Obama never fails to amaze me, and he and the First Lady, Michelle, are the examples I would have us take for our own. We need to do as they have always done and continue to do: to oppose bigotry and hatred at every opportunity, to continue to listen to others, to demand and bestow respect for and on human beings, and to model the behavior we want to see surrounding us. I hope and fervently pray that the hour and a half the president-elect spent with the president the other day will have a lasting and beneficial effect on the future behavior of the man who will next inhabit the White House. I also hope, (somewhat desperately, I must admit: these are ugly, frightening times) that the president-elect will be inspired speak out publicly to rein in the worst behavior of his supporters. The sooner, the better. In fact, I hope it will have already happened before this post goes online.

Friday, November 4, 2016

Let's Tell It Like It REALLY Is

This year’s Republican candidate for the office of President of the United States is admired by his supporters for “telling it like it is.” Yesterday on the radio I heard a young college woman say that “our country is in crisis and we can’t afford ‘political correctness.’”

I saw red. 

The term ‘political correctness’ gets my goat. People say ‘politically correct’ when they suspect some truth is being covered over, and they say ‘politically incorrect,’ with a smirk, when taking pride in being offensive. At the risk of offending, let me say that the phrase makes me want to puke, whoever uses it, in whatever context.

What was the American language like before this nasty little term came into common usage?

We spoke of civil discourse, and we tried to be civil in our speech. We attempted to remain polite when provoked, and when anger got the better of us, we were ashamed afterward. We expected more of ourselves and one another – at least when sober. Of course, we fell from grace now and then -- we are human -- but drunken ravings were not the standard for public speech.

Manners and decency were respected in national life, as in smaller groups and communities across the country. Abusive name-calling intended to humiliate or belittle occurred, but most of us recognized it for what it was, because we were taught, by parents and teachers, to avoid hurting other people’s feelings. In turn, we taught our children the same lessons.

This country has seen crisis before. The United States began with a Revolution, survived wars, and struggled through crushing economic hardship during the Great Depression. We have been divided as a nation more than once in our past. Political campaigns have at times been ugly, and political cartoons have stooped to cruel caricature. But when has a candidate for the highest office in the land made public statements insulting women, minorities, people with disabilities, and military veterans?

And what is there in such statements that does anything to resolve crisis?

Cruelly inflicting pain is not courage. Spewing abuse is not honesty. Thoughtlessness is not any kind of moral standard, and preying on fear and encouraging hatred is not “doing what needs to be done.” Neither is any of that some kind of trivial, just slightly naughty “political incorrectness.” Rude, boorish, cruel, hateful, hurtful, and inflammatory statements need to be called what they are.

Speech is behavior, and inflammatory speech does not heal a nation.

“We don’t have time for political correctness,” the young college girl said. We’re in crisis, she believes. Given the reality of crisis, I would ask the following questions:

·      Do we have time for name-calling and scapegoating?

·      Do we have time to escalate fear and deepen divisions in our country, driving people further apart?

·      Do we have time to alienate sincere lovers of America on either side of the aisle – or out in the vestibule?

·      And if national leaders don’t model for young Americans minimum standards of decency, will we have time to start over, or will it be too late?

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Does One Really Intend All Consequences?

Imagine that you are lost in the woods with friends. Not a little city or county park, but a wilderness of thousands of acres. It’s a dark, stormy day, so you can get no fix on direction from the position of the sun, and one of your party has a life-threatening illness, making your situation all that much more frightening.

Stumbling around, you come to a river, and by some apparent miracle, there is a boat tied up onshore, large enough to hold all of you. One of your party assures the rest that heading downstream is your best possible chance for survival. Eventually the river will come to some kind of civilization, where help will be available. Food, warmth. Rescue. Survival! 

It makes sense, you all agree. You get in the boat, push off from shore, and begin to drift with the current.

The storm continues. As rain lashes your crowded little storm-tossed craft, the sense of urgency increases, and drifting with the current seems too slow a pace. Everyone now puts hands in the water and paddles furiously to speed the boat to safety downstream.

Meanwhile, the roaring wind in the trees along the river seems to increase along with your speed. The noise becomes deafening – just as your boat tumbles over a waterfall, crashing on rocks below. Some of the party are dashed on the rocks, others drowned. Perhaps one or two survive to tell the tale.

You did not intend death and destruction. You intended survival for all. If you’d had a map of the river, you could have foreseen the waterfall.

Unfortunately, there is no map to the future. The best we can do is to learn from the past. Or repeat its most hellish episodes.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Another Word For It

Said around the dinner table on Saturday by one of our guests (actually, my son): “I took debate in high school, and that is not debate.” So true, we all agreed. I’ve been saying the same thing for I don’t know how many election cycles, and it’s never been truer than this year, and whenever the subject cannot be avoided, I have resorted to “so-called ‘debate’” as my verbal reference. But the modification of the noun was still unsatisfying.

There must be something else we could call it, I kept thinking. But what?

Confrontation? Yelling match? Reality TV? All seemed at least partially appropriate but, again, unsatisfying, failing to get at the tragic heart of the disappointment. It is, after all, American democracy and perhaps the future of political freedom in the world that are at stake.

During the Monday morning early radio news, the word came to me: debacle. I said it aloud, trying it out.

“What? What are you referring to?”

“Instead of ‘debate,’ you know. What to call it. I’m going to call it ‘debacle.’”

The de- prefix makes the substitution particularly appropriate and calls up adjectives such as debased, degraded, and demeaned. Like debased and debate, it also contains the voiced bilabial plosive, with which a speaker can vent emotions such as disgust and disdain – Bah! -- while the hard C shading into a final L hints at spectacle, calling up sound and fury and barkers and circuses. And, of course the dictionary meaning....

When political satisfaction fails, there is some satisfaction to be found in the right word.

Late in the afternoon, glancing at Facebook, I saw that one of my friends had used the phrase “debacle of a debate.” Yes, Linda! You, too? But can we trim away the official designation we all agree does not pertain and be content with a single word to sum up what took place?

Debacle: “a stunning, ruinous collapse or failure, often ludicrously calamitous.” (New World Dictionary, 4th meaning)

Calamity inviting laughter? Joking at the approach to the gallows? Debacle!

Friday, September 30, 2016

Hell Is Other People’s Smart-Aleck Phones

Most of the time, I like other people. I enjoy pictures of other people’s dogs and cats and babies and grandchildren and vacations. I’ve always enjoyed personal peeks into other people’s lives.

When I was a kid, my family made two treks a year to a Christmas tree farm run by country friends, the first time to choose and claim our tree, the second time to cut it and bring it home – but not until after we spent a good portion of the day enjoying hot cocoa and holiday cookies and a slide show (or was it home movies?) of the friends’ summer vacation. I loved those images of the other family's life, and we made that second trek knowing and anticipating the entertainment that would be part of the day’s agenda. We were not kidnapped by it.

A couple friends and I used to get together in spring and fall to hike trails, have lunch, and catch up on one another’s lives. The catching-up often involved small photo albums. That was fun, too.

In an earlier era, not all that long ago, two people might meet and pull snapshots out of their billfolds to show one another. Fair enough. Nice! Cute kid! Or dog or cat or whatever.

But now, omigod, the ubiquitous so-called “smart” phones are in everyone’s hands – or on the restaurant table right beside the soup spoon – and there is no way to hold the attention of friend or stranger or family member when a phone demands to be given priority. “Just a minute. I have to take this.” Laughter. “Listen to this!” A text message is read aloud to you, from someone you have never met and very likely will never meet. The recipient finds it hilarious. You, not so much. Recipient must respond. You wait.

If the person you have met for this long-awaited lunch had only brought a handful of photographs, you might browse through the pictures while being put on live call-waiting, but no! Because the pictures, too, are now on the phone! And they are not arranged for easy access (they could be, but do you know a single person who has taken the trouble?), and you cannot take them in your own hands, but -- when at last your friend is at liberty to attend to your presence once more -- you must sit or stand patiently during a seemingly endless session of swipe, swipe, swipe – “No, that’s not it” – swipe, swipe, swipe, swipe.

I love my friends! I love my family! I’m often interested in strangers I meet! But am I the only one who often feels like a hapless hostage to other people’s phones? I’m here! Look at me! Talk to me!

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Sibling Estrangements

About 15 years ago, give or take, one of my sisters and I had an argument that led to a year-long estrangement. Eventually we got over it. (While we were not speaking, I don’t think my parents knew we were not.) Sometime between then and now, my two sisters had an estrangement that went on a considerable length of time. The igniting factor in the first instance was a disagreement over children’s behavior; in the second instance, there was dog behavior involved. 

How we raise our children, how we raise our dogs, how much attention we expect brothers and sisters to pay to our kids and pets and what kind of behavior we expect them to accept from those kids and pets – these are some of the knottiest issues between adult siblings, probably more problematic than money issues.

But money is sometimes involved with kids, too.

My father had two brothers, an older and a younger. The oldest of the three boys (their sister died shortly after World War II) had no children. When the youngest child of the youngest boy, a son, married and was looking for a house to buy, his uncle, recently remarried after the death of his first wife, offered to sell him the house he had lived in for years. My uncle’s price for the house was less than what he would have asked on the open market, but his sister-in-law, my cousin’s mother, thought our uncle was asking too much and thereby taking advantage of his nephew. What began as a family gesture of goodwill gave rise to bad blood that went on year after year of my two uncles not speaking to each other.

My father tried several times to play peacemaker, but it must have taken a miracle to get those two brothers back on speaking terms before one of them died. All those years wasted!

Two men we know, brothers, were estranged for several years, and it seemed as if they would never acknowledge one another again. Their father died before their rapprochement took place. Happily for their mother, she lived to see it. They are now business partners, all the bitterness and rancor buried with the hatchet.

Then there is the question of how much emotional support siblings expect of one another. When expectations don't match up, it can make for resentment.

But really, what is “unforgivable” between siblings? Is there anything? The long silences are hard on everyone, and it is never only the two feuding parties in the family who are affected. Whether or not other family members take sides or make every effort to remain neutral, there is a lot of collateral heartache. 

Is it any wonder people from different backgrounds have trouble getting along?

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

The Trouble With Too Many Facts

Imagine the following:

Imagine someone describing conditions of a town under siege and looking to allay the fears of those within the town. Let’s call him the Prophet, because the example will be easier if we have a name for him. The Prophet loves facts and has enough numbers and lists of numbers and statistics to fill thousands of written pages. “The situation is challenging, without a doubt,” he says to the people, “ but we are educated and intelligent and have all history and technology on our side to help us overcome our enemy.”

Tons of grain in warehouses, fresh water in wells and cisterns, herds of livestock and flocks of poultry, stores of preserved fruits and vegetables and spices and sugar – all this and more has been meticulously catalogued by the Prophet’s clerks, along with records of past sieges and their outcomes. Additionally, the Prophet cites what he calls the “Home Ground Advantage.” Those outside the walls, he reminds his fellow townsfolk, are sleeping on hard ground, far from their families, not in comfortable beds at home.  They will not want to continue forever in thankless discomfort.

But the Prophet’s chief message lies in his facts and numbers. Whenever a dubious voice is raised, the Prophet rains down a flood of facts upon the questioner’s head. He does not simply say, “Look at all we have!” but enumerates tirelessly until the questioner is overwhelmed by the sheer force of the wall of facts. The questioner feels stupid and falls silent.

What’s wrong with this picture? Are facts not important? Should we want not to be “confused with facts”? Should we instead make up our minds about what to believe and what to do without reference to reality?

I do not intend my example as opposition to facts or reality. What I see too often, however, is a blizzard or tsunami of facts thrown up as a smokescreen -- because when facts come in a blizzard or in a tsunami, they can be overwhelming and leave a crowd speechless with amazement. Historians are often guilty of this technique, but so are writers on economics, politics, and just about any other topic under the sun. Any “expert” with infinite facts at his fingertips can silence an audience – and, worse, can paralyze thought, which is my main concern.

“I'm only saying it because it’s true.” Have you ever heard anyone say that? What did it mean to you? Did it shut you up?

Here's something else that's true: The number of true sentences that any of us can utter at any given moment is infinite. We do not, therefore, make any statement simply because it’s true: we make it for some purpose. To make a statement is to begin to stake out a position, and to make thousands of statements is to stake out a huge area of ground.

As listeners, as readers, what do we need in addition to statements of fact?

If someone lays out a book-length position, complete with chapters and footnotes, bristling with dozens of facts on every page, I want to know: What is the basic line of argument? What am I being asked to conclude, and where, in the jungle of facts, are the lines of the argument? Sometimes the author has not constructed an explicit argument, and I as a reader have to infer it from hints. Other times an argument is explicit but rests on unstated or unexamined premises. Is there a hidden premise that, if brought forward, because false, defeats the conclusion?

Facts are important, but so are arguments. So too are values that lurk behind arguments.

Imagine another situation: One hundred people survive the siege, and the barbarians at the gate have all gone home. One survivor has a net worth of $1 million. The 99 others have nothing. The per capita wealth of the survivors is $10,000. This group of people is in pretty good shape, wouldn’t you say?

I hear someone saying yes, they’re in good shape, because the millionaire will need the labor of the ninety-nine and will have to pay them for their labor if their civilization is to enjoy a renaissance. Ah, but does survival necessarily entail a renaissance? And what if the millionaire can get work done – planting, harvesting, sewing his new clothes – simply by providing enough food to keep the workers’ bodies and souls together?

The number of survivors is a fact. The per capita income is a fact. Interpreting facts, predicting outcomes and making decisions based on available facts – that is something else again. That will depend on what you are trying to prove and what you want to see happen.

It is not enough to question facts. One must question the beliefs and purposes and values of people presenting facts. If no argument is given, an important question to ask might be, “What’s your point?”

Stop the tsunami in its tracks, freeze the blizzard in midair. Why are you giving me all these facts? You are trying to convince me of something. What is it?

[Just realized this is my 100th post on "Without a Clear Focus."]

Monday, June 27, 2016

Think You’ve “Heard Everything”?

The new horror story I read this morning has to do with banking and charitable giving. I want to urge all my friends and readers to get their hands on the July 14 issue of the New York Review of Books and read “The Undermining of American Charity” on pages 17 and 18 (or read here). The authors of the two-page feature are Lewis Cullman, a 97-year-old philanthropist who has given over 90 percent of his wealth to charity in the course of his lifetime, and Ray Madoff, a professor of law at Boston College and director of a philanthropic think tank at BC.

There is plenty of so-called “news” that the public doesn’t really “need to know” at all. This is information you do need.

DAF. Do the letters mean anything to you? They stand for donor-advised funds and are part of a very successful business plan undertaken by major financial institutions.

Say you donate directly to a charity. You will probably want to check its track record and make sure your donation is going to a worthy cause and not simply into administrators’ pockets. What if you have millions or billions to donate? How will you decide where to give and how much and when?

A DAF is a middleman between donors and charities. However much you put into a DAF account, you get an immediate tax break, just as if you’d donated directly to one or a number of charities; the organization, however, can hold your funds indefinitely, enhancing the parent financial institution’s bottom line and collecting management fees.

The story gets worse. By “indefinitely” you must understand no limit to the length of time “donations” can be withheld from waiting charities. You may die, your children may die, and your grandchildren may inherit the job of “advising” the DAF on charitable disbursements – however (BIG “however”), when you put your money in the DAF, you gave up all legal control over it. Courts have upheld the rights of DAF fund sponsors over wishes of donors. Yes.

There’s more, but you need to read the article, especially if you’re really, really rich and think a DAF is the way to make sure you come out as far ahead of the IRS as possible. Don’t be lazy, don’t be cheap, and don’t be stupid. Take responsibility for your own charitable giving and make sure the causes you want to support reap the benefit of your generosity.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Mom and Pop Lost Track of Time

Once Memorial Day is past, the days tend to blur into one another until Labor Day. It isn't that Mom and Pop are senile (she insists, somewhat defensively); it's just that they work every single day all summer long, with only calendar numbers to differentiate the days of the week. And so --

Pop: Today's Thursday, isn't it?

Mom: No, it's Wednesday.

Pop: Are you sure? I'm pretty sure it's Thursday.

Mom [now going over to Pop's belief]: No. Darn! I thought it was Wednesday, and I put the garbage out this morning. [It gets picked up on Wednesdays.] Maybe they'll pick up a day late because of the holiday? We'll find out when we get home, I guess.

Pop: I think that's right. Wait a minute, though. Were we supposed to go to dinner last night at your friend's house?

Mom [stricken]: Oh, no!

Pop: Was that for Wednesday or Thursday?

Mom: Wednesday! Oh, no!

Mom reaches for the phone to call friend, preparing an effusive, embarrassed apology in her head.

Pop [calling to Clare in shop next door]: Clare, is today Wednesday or Thursday?

Mom [Looking at her calendar]: It's Wednesday. Thank God!

Another crisis averted in the lives of Mom and Pop!

Thursday, May 19, 2016

A Wise Friend's Response

A friend of mine who works for a Christian-based organization was asked to sign a declaration of faith as a condition for continued employment. She read it through and said sadly that she was unable to sign. "Why?" she was asked. "Because I don't believe it," she said in her direct but very sweet and honest way. She said, sadly, that if she had to sign to work there, she would have to resign.

They didn't want to lose her.

"What could you sign?" they next asked.

She thought a minute and then said, "I could sign that I believe in being kind to people."

The people took the paper away, and in the end no employees had to sign anything. My friend prevailed by standing her ground without yelling or shaking her fist at anyone.

Friday, May 13, 2016

Name This Plant -- Then Pull It Up!

This is an enormous colony of the dreaded garlic mustard, across from north Lake Leelanau between Leland and Northport, not too far north of the Clay Cliffs conservancy trail. Last year it looked to me as if herbicide had been applied to this area; if so, it failed in its purpose. The colony on M-22 looks to be flourishing this spring, and even expanding its territory. I noticed new clumps between this large colony and the drive to the Clay Cliffs parking lot.

In the same family as toothwort (and cabbage, Brussels sprouts, etc.), Alliaria petiolata is yet another member of the Brassicaceae family. “Especially invasive in forests,” says the National Audubon Society Field Guide to Wildflowers,
it can become so abundant as do dominate the ground layer, adversely affecting the native species.The garlic-flavored leaves are edible.

The most effective method I know of for discouraging this plant (and not killing anything else around it that has managed to survive) is to pull it up by the roots. It comes up easily (I pulled garlic mustard with a friend in her woods a couple years in a row, and there is very little there now), and if you want to make garlic mustard pesto with the leaves, go right ahead. Just don’t compost the plants you don’t eat, or they will take over your garden, and you’ll have nothing else!

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

My Philosophical Work

For a few years, I worked with a friend who had a garden business. She designed, we installed, and often we did maintenance through the season. One day I told her I was mad at Hegel. She was amused but interested and asked why. I told her it was because of Hegel's definitions of 'organic' and 'inorganic.' Tacitly rejecting vitalism (without giving it so much as a formal nod), Hegel called 'inorganic' anything that reproduced itself -- living things, repetitious work like planting or weeding, cooking or washing dishes -- while 'organic' was his more highly valued term for human inventions bringing something new into the world, be it a railroad or a new philosophy. Naturally, in the evolution of spirit as Hegel laid it out, he, Hegel, came out at the top of the heap. Ellen's frown grew deeper, and at last she exclaimed, "Now I'm mad at Hegel, too!" Ah, the comfort of a loyal friend!

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Mom and Pop and the Garden

The garden has been Mom's project, right from the beginning. Last year, though, she fell down on the job completely and let it go to hell, which for a little backyard garden means going to grass, old strawberries, and strong-rooted clumps of violets. But on Mother’s Day, Mom was determined to get busy with reclamation.

Pop and a friend had a different project. When it was almost completed, they sat down on the porch for a coffee break. As Mom passed through, pausing to request a drive down to Cedar later on for a big old sausage sandwich, Pop asked --

Pop: How’s the garden coming?

Mom: Pretty good. It’s slow, but I’m making progress.

Pop: So-and-so [neighbor] has a walk-behind cultivator. What would you think of using that?

Mom: You mean with a motor?

Pop: Yes. Wouldn’t that be easier?

Mom: Do you remember when you borrowed Ken’s rototiller one year?

Pop: No, how did it work out?

Mom: It was like one of those bull-riding machines in a bar!

Pop remembers, and he and his friend burst into raucous laughter, with tacit agreement that Mom will continue to work in her own slow way, with quiet hand tools, even if it means getting the peas in late.

(Yes, it will be shaded in late afternoon.)

P.S. after Tuesday morning's work:

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Mom and Pop and Horse Trailers

Mom and Pop were returning from a trip to town along a back road when suddenly Mom saw something that made her smile and sang out happily, “Horse trailer!” Then a question occurred to her about the working of her husband’s mind.

Mom: Do you notice horse trailers when you’re driving?

Pop: Sure. Of course. Why wouldn’t I?

Mom: I don’t know. I just wondered.

Pop: I’ve even thought of buying a horse trailer to carry paintings in. The paintings could stand up straight. It would work great. I’ve looked at a couple in the past year. One was a good price, but it was too rusty.


Mom [incredulous]: Did you ever think what that would do to me if you brought home a horse trailer? With no horse and no intention of getting a horse?

Pop [laughs]: What it would do to you? It isn’t about you!


Mom: A horse trailer? That is so about me!

Both laugh, at themselves and each other.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

South to Whitewater

Return to the West, VI: South to Whitewater 

When I consult the United States road atlas and see what a relatively small area, even of Arizona, is occupied by Cochise County, down in the southeast corner of the state, it astounds me to recall how much we found to explore within its boundaries. Our home base territory was basically Sulphur Springs Valley, extending south from the Dos Cabezas range between the Chiricahua Mountains to the east and the Dragoons to the west.

(On the other side of the Dragoons is the San Pedro Valley. Everywhere in Arizona, mountain ranges are the general landmarks by which one orients oneself in space, with specific formations and peaks serving to fine-tune location.)

We had reason early in our three-month stay to explore to the south, because every spring sandhill cranes fly north over the continent to Canada to nest and raise young, and in recent years a few pairs of the stately birds have begun spending their summers in Leelanau County, where we had learned to look for them each year. Now people told us that in Cochise County, Arizona, we might see as many as ten thousand at a time, down in the Whitewater Draw. If a thousand cranes mean good luck, what must ten thousand cranes portend?

“Where would you like to go first?”

“Could we go to Whitewater?”

Our most direct route was to backtrack halfway to Willcox from Dos Cabezas and take the Kansas Settlement Road south to Hwy 191.

Straight as a string, with a kink or a knot here and there, the Kansas Settlement Road drops south through the Sulphur Springs Valley, full of mystery and surprises. For instance, we drove by many times before realizing there was a parking area giving access to the Willcox Playa from the south. More obvious, with its big painted sign out front announcing the business, was the Kansas Settlement Gin Company, but we never saw any sign of activity around the buildings. Bonita Bean was a different story. (A kink in the road goes around the bean company.) Monsieur Jean, our neighbor, was one of many who bought his pinto beans in bulk down on the Kansas Settlement Road.

A recent modern development -- I know it to be recent and modern because an old-timer at the regional museum shook her head over such goings-on -- is an enormous dairy farm on the Kansas Settlement Road. To feed dairy cows and supplement grazing for beef cattle, huge green fields irrigated by irrigation systems line the road, looking almost like urban electric towers and lines. Sun makes rainbows in sprayed water, and wind blows a fine mist through the air, and it is beautiful – but painful, too, to think of sun and wind evaporating so much water, pumped from deep underground, before it does any growing thing any good at all.

While we were in residence in Dos Cabezas, results of a well survey were reported in the weekly newspaper, with figures for present water depth compared to that ten years previously. In Willcox, wells had typically lost less than five feet. Most alarming and dramatic losses were, not surprisingly, along the Kansas Settlement Road, where many wells had lost fifty, some as much as sixty feet, heavy losses attributed to “groundwater overdraft,” i.e., pumping too much water out of the ground. (To the north, between Willcox and Bonita, also heavily irrigated land, losses were reported between 30 and forty feet.) Besides cattle in the one large confinement operation (CFO), plantations of nut trees, also heavy drinkers, may be seen along the Kansas Settlement Road.

Another stretch of road indicated the presence of small residential holdings. Private road signs at regular intervals announced roads with Western names, such as Mule Deer Road, obviously intended to appeal to snowbird winter home-buyers. The name I liked best, though, wasn’t for a road but for geological landmarks named on our map of the valley as the Three Sisters. I always smiled to see the Three Sisters appear along our road south.

Somewhere along the way – was it on the Kansas Settlement Road or beyond it, where we had already joined the highway? – a little gas station and convenience store appeared at the side of the road, announcing


out in the very middle of nowhere. I can’t speak for the “pastries” (my skepticism always kicks in when I see that word, which usually indicates the availability of fried donuts), but the store offered plenty of cowboy boots and hats and shirts.

And then we were sailing through empty land again.

To reach the Whitewater Draw, it is necessary to leave the main road and travel by washboard, but the slow-down is well worthwhile. It is also necessary, for the fullest viewing pleasure, to leave the parking lot and walk the path around various ponds. 

Yes, ponds! At least, that’s what they look like. I’m not sure what creates and holds the water in the Draw, but to my lake-starved Michigan eyes it seemed nothing short of a miracle. Beautiful water, the surface stirred by wind, edges soft with plant life and frogs and water birds of various kinds, all of it stretching out deep and wide, a tractor working far in the background and hazy mountains beyond the farmed land. (I tried not to see the irrigation framework.) It was transporting to be near so much water in southeast Arizona. That was the first miracle of the day.

Then came the second miracle. On that first visit we made to the Draw, the January wind was fierce, cutting through clothes and attempting nonstop to tear hats from heads and scarves from throats, and yet everyone in the relatively large crowd of human visitors was smiling as if at a choir of heavenly hosts. People were hunched over against the cold, holding onto their hats, clutching their coats to keep them closed, but beaming beatifically, faces upturned to the sky and glancing now and then at other passing humans to exchange thrilled smiles of amazement. Because there were, literally, thousands of sandhill cranes, soaring and circling and calling, coming gradually lower and lower until, a few at a time, they let themselves join us on earth..

Leaving the draw, dazed with visions, we continued toward Bisbee, a town David remembered from a visit over two decades before. The vegetation changed somewhat that close to la frontera, the border with Mexico. But I will leave memories of Bisbee for another post.

The cranes, the tens and thousands of cranes....