Monday, January 30, 2012

SAVING THE NATION


      The people know what must be done to rescue the great United States of America from stagnation and dysfunction of every sort, beginning  in Washington and morphing to the state and local level. There will be little advance to our historic new frontier, to our manifest destiny, scant hope that our children will remain in or join the middle class until money no longer controls Congress and other branches of government. The only way to end billions of dollars in lobbying -- now set at about $3 billion annually, $4.7 million for each senator and House member -- is by a constitutional amendment to require full public financing of congressional and presidential campaigns and to ban special-interest cash, gifts and jobs.
The amendment is necessary to address lobbyists’ predictable, hypocritical cry of free speech denial. That right can and must be satisfied by conducting public hearings, town hall forums and national referendums on issues where great and extensive voice should be heard. 
The ordinary American, whom the late and wonderful columnist Ernie Pyle would describe as the really extraordinary citizen because he/she is so common, so ordinary, so concerned with being decent, raising family, doing the job right, is now without representation.
President Obama can proclaim, as he did in a strong and clear State of the Union speech last week, that the country can recover from a near depression by doing this and that, following traditional Democratic ideals, and Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels can counter that platform with solutions presented in his Republican-conservative response, but neither person will move forward an inch until the special-interest stranglehold withers in both Congress and the White House.
Greatly bolstered by the unwise Supreme Court decision -- the Citizens United ruling by the Supreme Court -- greed takes no holiday in Washington, and its example is copied in our states. The system is so perverse that even well-intentioned, once idealistic officials must take the cash if they are to wage successful but uber-expensive election battles.
Ask the average American -- Ernie’s people, you, the sort who ties shoelaces every day and shows up for work (or did when you had a job). They know that Congress and the isolated White House are broken institutions, stuck in stalemate, supposedly over ideology but really over meeting lobbyists’ demands. These moneyed people run your government, ever more so, day by day.
We people require a constitutional amendment to end their influence. Not their voice -- listen to that and any other in public hearing. But make these suitors keep their wallets in their pockets. The relatively small amounts required for reasonable campaigning and paid for by the taxpayer will prove money that will save the nation. 

Sunday, January 22, 2012

HOW'S THE WEATHER?


    Blauvelt, N.Y. -- My part of the universe, in the Northeast not far from New York City, was hit over the weekend with a small snow, about 6 inches. From the pre-storm hype, though, you would think the Blizzard of ’88 was about to fall from the skies. Even a national drug store chain e-mailed to “stock up on storm supplies TODAY.”
The weather is changing, surely. Super heat in Texas, floods in the Midwest, tornadoes in New Jersey (not Gov. Christie), ice in Seattle, extraordinary drought and too much rain in areas unaccustomed to both. What gives? Environmental pollution? Cyclical weather patterns catching up? Or, at least with flooding, nature not finding the old flood plains to fill when it rains since Huggy Bear Estates or other “progress” construction now occupy the sites?
What does give is that no matter why the nation -- the world -- has been experiencing weird weather, media hype over many storms is overdone. I am not talking about disastrous weather, where reporters take great chances to accurately give the who, what, when, where, why and how. No, storms like the six-inch snow we faced in this part of the Northeast.  Except for several hours when the very cold road surface turned powdery snow into dangerous ice, the snow came and went and was hardly a storm in the sense of 15-inch, blowing white stuff we have tackled over the years. 
Yet every newscast from mid-week on warned of possible dire situations: roads blocked, power out, emergency rooms jammed, first responders overwhelmed. Comparisons were made to a major storm about a year ago in which New York City found itself behind the eight ball when it didn’t clear streets quickly enough and cars were abandoned by drivers who perhaps should not have been out in the first place. Apples and oranges, this comparison.
The media were underwhelming, and I can say that. I was privileged to toil for a newspaper for 42 years at a serious sheet where good and underpaid reporters, photographers, deskmen, editors, printers, pressmen, delivery people and advertising staff took the job to heart and sought out “real” news. Not just fluff, for there has always been that. Not just the dog saves man story, always that too. Not just the tabloid “Headless torso found in topless bar” copy. But the day-to-day, seemingly ordinary  government news that, after hard digging, reveals corruption, malfeasance or incompetence. We and others didn’t always do the job the best we could, but we tried. And with enough of us trying, the news got out.
Newspapers today have lost their ad and circulation bases, and so their staff. More fluff fills the pages instead of news. On TV, its “news” shows are more about entertainment, and the stories seem to come out of reality shows. They relate little to the average Joe and Sue trying to make ends meet, keep a job, pay taxes, have a decent quality of living.
Remember when some of us picked up a date and you didn’t have anything to say to the mother? You talked about the weather. Today, the media, my old shop, is a-courtin’ readers, viewers, listeners, Tweeters, Facebookers, but this time talk about the skies won’t get them anywhere.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS


     The last time this scenario played out, I was upstairs, age 13, laying vinyl-asbestos (yes, asbestos) tile and my father and brother Craig were downstairs watching  a 17-inch TV -- the Giants were playing. This time, 57 years later, my father was still watching the Giants, but on a 38-inch flatscreen, and I was also doing my thing -- flooring. Only he was upstairs and I was on the ground floor of his bi-level home. Some things never change.
I was the handyman -- even as a young boy -- in my growing-up family in Spring Valley-Hillcrest, N.Y. My father is not exactly all thumbs, but he certainly did not inherit the hands-on, do-it-yourself abilities of his father, a smoking pipe maker, and his grandfather, who fashioned cabinets. Since my dad subscribed to Popular Mechanics, sometimes Popular Science, too, and simply because I took a liking to things electrical, mechanical, to wood, etc., I picked up this or that skill. Local tradesmen and my shop teacher Mr. Carroll didn’t hurt, either.
Nor did my parents’ trust. How else can you explain allowing a seventh grader to install an electrical outlet so his mom could use her very first washing machine? I didn’t burn the house down -- in fact I was super careful -- and the word got around so that I was soon working in this neighbor’s house or that.
But back to flooring. It took some time, but my father found a few bucks here and there, and some scrounged materials, to finish two bedrooms in the expandable attic of his Cape Cod home. He and my mother bought the place in summer 1953 for $12,500, and the idea was that if later the family found need and had some savings and offered sweat equity, the attic could be finished. So, in 1955 the Gunthers were at that stage. Some wiring was in, set by me. Wallboard, a ceiling, doors, trim, paint, wallpaper arrived too, with labor from my grandfather and Ike Pfeffer, a neighbor. We were ready for the floor, and I talked my dad into buying a three-tone (light, medium, dark) 9 inch by 9 inch Armstrong tile, in a “cork” style. I would install it, first following instructions by measuring the width and length of the room and marking the starting point.
Tiling went easy, and to cut it, I softened the  tile in a lukewarm oven, then used a knife. No cutting, no asbestos dust. My guess is the floor is still in that old house, safe for the environment as long as no dust is created by sanding it, breaking it up, etc. I must say that the overall look was grand, and I can see it still in my mind.
Now, decades later, I am laying new vinyl, non-asbestos tile, over, yes, vinyl-asbestos in my dad’s 1964 Pearl River, N.Y., home. He’s a single man now, our mom having passed away in 1999, but he’s with it at almost 90. I get to take care of the house, but the fact is I’ve always taken care of it, and the one before this one. It’s the DNA I was granted.
Whatever thoughts I had years back laying the Armstrong tile are long forgotten -- perhaps they were of girls, school, future, cars, electrical work. Today, now retired, doing flooring or otherwise, I still think a bit about girls, no school, though, not much about the future, not really about cars, but electrical work, yes, since I do some volunteering with that skill.
Most of all, downstairs cutting tile in 2012, I am grateful I spent time in 1955 doing the same job upstairs.

Monday, January 2, 2012

THE NEW YEAR

  
     Although most of us have already ushered in the new year, perhaps celebrated, maybe made resolutions, felt as if we had a fresh start and wondered where 2011 went, another season is about to come soon, the Chinese lunar new year, celebrated on Jan. 23 as the most auspicious animal in the Chinese zodiac struts its stuff.
Amidst end-of-the-world Mayan and other predictions for late in 2012, the Year of the Dragon is traditionally associated with new beginnings and good fortune.
That’s the sort of balance Oliver Wendell Holmes, the great U.S. Supreme Court justice, would have favored in his persistent optimism.
So, what will 2012 be like, tempering any astrological or other predictions with the obvious: whatever the omens portend, you are the real master of your fate?
  • America will have its next presidential election, and where that will lead could cause even an optimist to tear hair out, considering the undeniable fact that just as soon as the winning campaigner leaves the stump and has his (her?) last roast beef dinner with the common folk in the village social hall, the big door closes at the White House and the new leader of the free world doesn’t see real people ever again, at least while in office. Only the scripted will have the president’s ear. Elected senators and congressmen shut their own big doors. Maybe the Year of the Dragon will offer enough fire breathing to burn the locks of all these blocked passages and let Joe and Sue Citizen come visit a spell and be heard.
  • Most likely, crazy weather will cause trouble, as has been nature’s habit of late (or is it humankind’s?). Solar flare-ups won’t help, especially in communication disruption at a time when there is almost no discourse without electronics. (Isn’t it odd that with a greater ability to communicate, we seem to hear each other less?)
  • The world’s banks, said to be sitting on some $17 trillion, may finally get off their duff and use the money they gained through no hard work of their own to actually put people to work. So far in history, the world has not progressed without investment.
  • Reality shows may -- deservedly -- lose their appeal when common sense in people awakens them to the fact that they have been sitting in the modern Roman Colosseum yelling for blood as victims sacrifice one another. 
  • Twitter Tweets, Facebook blurbs, phone texting and anonymous postings to online material may at long last find melody, rhythm and sense, some structure that allows understanding beyond pig-Latin shorthand, awful grammar and incomplete thought.
  • Organized religion and atheists, too, may realize that there can be no exclusive god or theology since we are all born as we are, into whatever belief. As a result, we are held harmless for such fate and its consequences except when we do no good, or even if we fail to do good. In short, if any god is the cat’s pajamas, it’s because he (she?) is good. Do good and you are “religious,” even as an atheist. 
Actually, good is an ultimate act of faith in this ride on earth, and that’s where I leave this piece in a year that some predict as half empty while others like the Chinese see half full. If we blow up or end up better off on December 31, 2012, it’s the flowers left on our path that will make us smile and prove our worth, however long the earth lasts.