The End of the World

March 21, 2015 1 comment

I have been watching “The Dig,” a TV show that—I’m not giving anything away—seems to be headed toward Armageddon, unless, one can only hope, the hero prevents it. In The Dig, fundamentalist Jews and Christians are part of the plot, which is not far fetched; all the ultra-religious, whether Christian, Muslim or Jews, have more in common with each other than they have with their coreligionists.
I bring it up because so far I have enjoyed the show. It is still in that early stage when new and unexpected co-conspirators pop-up every half hour and the viewer has little idea what it is they intend to do. Or why. They even have Essenes in the plot. I vaguely remember a mention of the Essenes as associated with the Dead Sea scrolls but as far as I knew they disappeared 2,000 years ago. Live and learn. (By the way, since they believed in celibacy, odds were they would dissapear. See The Shakers)
What fascinates me is the preoccupation with the end of the world, not only on the show, but in real life.
Isis (The Islamic State) fought hard to gain the Syrian city of Dabiq and its strategically unimportant plains. Seems that’s where the final battle between Islam and the armies of Rome will take place. I sure hope they don’t mean the Italian army. They didn’t fare too well when Mussolini send them to fight Ethiopians armed only with spears.
Fundamental Christians are also preparing for the end of days and the Rapture. That battle should take place near Har Megiddo (The Hill of Megiddo, hence the term Armageddon) which was strategically important way back, when caravans had to go through that valley. (I have been there. It is a lovely spot a couple hours north of Tel Aviv, with a small museum and various archaeological digs)
In The Dig even the Jews are in the end-of-world plot. Something about a prophecy involving the birth of a red heifer. Must be quite rare indeed, because the heifer is born somewhere in Scandinavia which led me to wonder what sort of monitoring of cattle births throughout the world they have in place. No matter. I didn’t know about any heifers. I thought we Jews were waiting for the Messiah, as we have for something like 3,000 years and that it would be a good thing when the Messiah finally arrives. Otherwise why would be waiting for so long?
These are big issues requiring deep contemplation. I do tend to analyze things but I am not as religious or spiritual as others. I am happy just sitting here, like one hundred and fifty generations before me, waiting. But this being the first day of spring, I am watching college basketball (March Madness) while it snows and snows outside. All day long. Looks like half a foot so far. I suppose that if it would be happening in the show, it would mean something.

Our Honorable and Learned Congress

March 20, 2015 Leave a comment

I must be getting old and ornery; in the past I was merely ornery. But more and more the actions of governments, ours as well as others, seem designed to annoy me–that is when they aren’t harmful.

I felt compelled to do something,which in my case means, writing something and send it to the paper. I sent this opinion to the Courier Times, where it will be published.

Sometimes I preface a statement with “in all honesty.” To me it has been a meaningless cliché, a way to start a sentence, until recently, when someone warned me that it is the sort of thing people say before they lie.

This led me to wonder about other phrases and terms I’ve thought devoid of meaning, merely the product of long established custom, such as the term “honorable,” as in the honorable so and so we use for our representatives.

All this rattled into my consciousness by the unexpected Senate gridlock on the anti-white slavery bill. For a brief period it was that rarest of things, a bi-partisan bill, a law to right a wrong. Unfortunately, the honorable Republicans failed to mention they had included an anti-abortion clause while the honorable Democrats claimed foul because they hadn’t read the bill. I am not sure how things work among the honorable Congress people, but down here, on earth, we read before we agree. And if it is written in the gobbledygook favored by the honorable people, we hire someone versed in the language to translate.

“That’s just politics,” a phrase that excuses all sorts of otherwise unacceptable behavior, seems to apply here. But why should it be acceptable? Why should a bill contain amendments and attachments and the like that have little to do with the intent of the bill? Why should bills be so long that members of Congress and their staffs will sign without reading them?

The US constitution was written using 4,400 words. The Bill of Rights with 492. The first amendment, establishing freedom of religion, speech, press, assembly and to petition the government, is forty five words long. By comparison, this piece is about 550 words long.

We are either willing to accept that laws, written in confusing detail and language inaccessible to most of us, can be crammed with unrelated items that wouldn’t stand on their own or, we are impotent because our honorable representatives don’t represent our interests.

I propose that if our representatives want a law authorizing the building of some road or bridge or the approval of some ‘pork’ so they can bring it back to their constituents as a sample of the good they are doing for their community, let them do so in a stand alone proposal. And if our honorable representatives want to grant someone immunity, or the the right to sell property without paying taxes on the gains, or any of the myriad other ridiculous attachments hidden in all sort of laws, let them propose it, in the open. If they want to ban abortion, let them introduce it as a bill. That would be the honorable thing to do.

No doubt people will say that I am naïve, that what I suggest is unworkable, that no one would vote for those bills, that only by sneaking them in, only by obfuscating their intent can a law be passed. Isn’t that the point? Shouldn’t we expect clarity, transparency and honesty from our honorable servants?

By the way, members of Congress refer to each other not only as honorable but also as “learned.” Having listened to some of them—more than a few, I’m sorry to say—I have sadly concluded they are anything but.

Cuba, the embargo and politics

December 18, 2014 Leave a comment

I was born and raised in Cuba but in 1961, three months after the Bay of Pigs fiasco and thirty two months into the Castro regime, having experienced and suffered under a repressive, totalitarian, communist regime, I managed to escape and sought refuge in the USA. I was nineteen at the time.
So it may surprise you that I am in favor of re-establishing diplomatic relations with Cuba.
Why? The embargo, designed to isolate Cuba, has been going on for about 55 years. The Cuban government blames it for some of its shortcomings, like the lack of food. Cuba imports almost 80% of the food it consumes, which is peculiar because Cuba is a very fertile land capable of three crops a year. So obviously this failure underscores the collapse of the Castro system and we finally have them where we want them, right? Wrong! The USA is Cuba’s main food supplier and Cuba’s 5th largest trading partner.
How is that possible? Well, maybe we sell them food for humanitarian reasons, right? Well, not really. As long as they pay cash our Agro businesses will argue that if we don’t sell them the food, someone else will. Might as well be us.
So instead we should use the embargo to choke of their source of income, their economy, right? Wrong again. Cuba gets most of its money from perfectly legal remittances by Cuban exiles to their families in Cuba.
So what exactly does the embargo entail?
For one thing, Americans cannot officially travel to Cuba. But Cubans with close relatives in Cuba can, and do so, often, bringing jeans and electronics and everything that their ‘close relatives’ in Cuba ‘need’ or can make a living by selling. Apparently that is different from exporting goods to Cuba which is strictly prohibited under terms of the embargo.
In short, the embargo and the lack of diplomatic relations are a political farce. The same Cubans who ‘support’ their families—and hence the regime—oppose reconciliation and the politicians, whether the Republican Rubio in Florida or the Democrat Menendez in New Jersey, eager for Cuban votes, have kept this farce going. If you don’t believe me just consider that after fifty five years of embargo the Castro brothers remain in power—Fidel is 88 and Raul, the current president, 83. We all know the definition of insanity; doing the same thing but expecting different results.
And please lets not bring up human rights or the freedom of Cubans because the USA is friends and have diplomatic relations with some of the worst offenders in the world.
So lets stop the nonsense and get on with it. If we really want the Castro regime to fail, lets resume diplomatic relations, let Americans export goods to the island, let Americans travel to Cuba and let Cubans get a real taste of how we live, let them get a hold of jeans and Rock and Roll and flat TVs and cars that run and in no time Cubans will demand access to those items, free enterprise will get a foothold and the USA will regain a friendly neighbor. Cubans are clever people who have been making do as best they can since 1959. Take it from me; some of my best friends are Cuban.

An inquiry into the unexplained disappearance of pens

January 17, 2014 Leave a comment

As long as I can remember pens disappear. When I was gainfully employed it was less of a concern because, presumably, I left them behind at meetings or in labs or at any of the many places where I spent time during the day: a modern ballpoint Johnny Appleseed. My secretary, on the other hand, likely suspected me of trading them in the black market given the frequency with which I asked her to order a new shipment. There was a silver lining, though: by the time I needed a fresh batch I had found an even better pen to order.
Alas, the new style pens never failed to disappoint. Time and again I was duped by a freakishly good specimen I had stolen from someone but by the time I realized this, that one extraordinary pen was long gone and I was stuck with a whole bunch of inferior pens.
However, even since I retired a dozen years ago, I haven’t been attending meetings or visiting labs and our pens still disappear. We bought a gross last year and we are down to the last box of twelve. Strangely enough not all pens disappear. Those that don’t work remain. Even after throwing them away, they somehow reappear, usually when I have an urgent need for one.
Ruth suggested a black hole exists by the kitchen counter, somewhere near the telephone. I’ve been scientifically trained so I set out to investigate.
Black holes, as you know, exert such a strong gravitational pull that even light can’t escape. So of course, they can’t be seen. Their gravitational pull is so large that nearby stars are accelerated to tremendous speeds. That’s one way to detect them. Another is by their emissions. Only high energy radiation, like gamma rays, escapes them. (Whether gamma rays escape or are expelled is a matter of conjecture. I submit they are expelled because not even black holes want gamma rays.)
Those proven astrophysical approaches didn’t seem applicable to my research. Neither did the use of pens as bait. Placing one on the counter led to its disappearance; but we already knew that. It was only when I placed a special pair of socks in the washing machine and could find only one afterward that I realized how the black hole worked. It selected one sock and left the other alone following a similar mechanism to the one it uses in devouring only working pens. Our kitchen black hole with subsidiary holes in the laundry room and my closet is selective. Perhaps it is only a black hole in training, a sort of dark gray hole.
But something was missing. Where were the emissions? Shouldn’t there be something expelled? Something nasty? The answer came to me by accident. Literally.
I tripped on a wire hanger. Where do they come from? I get my laundry shirts boxed and yet every time I turn around I find a few more wire hangers. The clothes Ruth buys come with peculiarly useless plastic hangers. And yet we are awash in wire hangers. That’s when I saw the connection. Gamma rays are as undesirable to black holes as wire hangers are to humans, unless we are in need of a makeshift antenna.
Ruth doesn’t think much of my theory—she doesn’t believe I loaded the washing machine either—but I’m getting a pair of lead gloves to handle the damn hangers anyway.

Categories: Uncategorized

On the nature of friendship

December 19, 2013 Comments off

When I left Cuba I lost my best friend. Ernesto, unlike many of my friends, kids I’d known since kindergarten, was a Christian, and dark enough to pass for mulatto.
We met in high school (Instituto de la Vibora), on a boxing ring, facing each other from behind sixteen ounce gloves, because the PE instructor caught us arguing. [“There will be no fighting in my class,” he was fond of saying]
After we punched each other for one interminably long round, we discovered we were neighbors, started to walk to school together and became friends.
We celebrated Batista’s fall together—Ernesto is the one who woke me very early on January first 1959 with the news that Batista was gone and we had to go capture Vibora high school, for the revolution. And yet, we didn’t become Castro’s acolytes. We remained on our seats while everyone else jumped to their feet to cheer, stomp and clap every time a movie house newsreel showed Fidel, or Che, or Camilo. We discussed our learnings endlessly—we used to talk for hours and hours and after saying good bye, talked some more—and after a few months concluded that Castro’s was to be a communist regime.
But we didn’t panic. We didn’t run for the hills. We set out to see what communism was all about. I soon concluded it was not for me but my friend embraced it, hook, line and doctrine. A couple ever worsening years later, I managed to get out.
We remained friends via long letters. I imagine my letters reflected my struggles (I have been known to complain) just as his letters reflected his environment, the excitement he felt as the revolution developed. His letters were tinged with unintended propaganda. If there is one thing Fidel Castro excelled at was propaganda, constant, relentless, repetitive, pervasive propaganda.
His letters made me angry. I was poor—refugee poor—and lonely. And cold. My other Cuban friends were in Miami or New York or almost everywhere else in the world, not in Boston. I was working my way through school while my parents, who came to the States a year after I did, struggled.
I didn’t have time nor patience for more of Castro’s lies. At first I felt compelled to challenge him and reveal the real truth. It was no use. I stopped writing.
In my mind he remained my friend. I never thought of him as anything else. With the advent of the Internet I tried to locate him. After years of trying I succeeded a couple years ago, only because he had done so well. He is a respected scholar and a published author.
My first email—sent through his publisher—elicited an immediate and happy reply. We resumed our friendship as if nothing had happened but the passing of fifty years. He didn’t question me, he didn’t ask why I stopped writing. We caught up by email, we exchanged pictures of wives and children and grandchildren. Pictures of our present selves.
At times I asked him about events we shared, moments I am including in my ‘forever in progress’ memoir. Each of us remembered things the other had forgotten. We exchanged so many emails I fear the NSA must have opened a special storage facility for them.
We still email from time to time. We remain friends, albeit separated by distance and circumstances. His emails are still tainted with Castro propaganda. He can’t help it. He doesn’t see it as such. It is what he believes. It is how things are over there. He is a communist of the first magnitude because he understands it. But I’m no longer troubled by his comments. I no longer challenge or try to argue.
Perhaps this means that after fifty years I have mellowed, or grown up, or perhaps I am able to separate political belief from the person’s inherent nature. He was a good man and a good friend back then and he remains so.
I would like to go back and visit. I would like to revisit places where events took place that are important for my memoir. I petitioned for a permit. I’m willing to bet that if I’m allowed to go, we’ll embrace and resume talking and interrupting each other as if nothing had happened. Maybe this time I’ll take notes so I can remember what it was we had so much to talk about.

Ghouls and activists on halloween

November 7, 2013 Leave a comment

A week ago I met an activist. He told me so, as we navigated through the ghoul, princess and demon infested streets of West Philly, on Halloween eve.

I’d been forewarned he would try to get me to talk politics, a subject I find pointless; no argument, no matter how valid, will change the other person’s mind. We believe—myself included—what we want to believe although, since I’m aware of this basic human failing, I tend to question my beliefs a bit more than most people.

He did bring up the subject, while I noticed that the best and cutest costumes had been inflicted on babies and toddlers too small to fight back, by mentioning that, as an activist, he’d been personally involved in saving the people of East Timor.

I was impressed. I once saved a toddler from drowning in a hot tub and once contributed in saving a girl from drowning in the sea, almost drowning myself in the process, but I’ve not saved ‘a people.’ He followed his disclosure by asking me what I thought about Henry Kissinger’s recent assertion that Israel would disappear within ten years. It turned out that my new friend, the activist, was strongly anti-Zionist.

I didn’t know how to respond so I said that I am pro-Israel and don’t care what Kissinger has to say. After all, as foreign policy mastermind under Nixon, Kissinger pushed for detente, (before the Soviets invaded Afghanistan) and for strengthening the Shah of Iran as the key to peace in the middle east. No one should be surprised. Kissinger is a Harvard graduate and Harvard, as more and more people are coming to realize, is not the school to trust in Cambridge.

By this time I had been able to admire a few dogs dressed up for the occasion, some wearing whole outfits and a few wearing capes. One medium sized, brown dog, trotted past me wearing a towel, which led me to conclude that either the owner was out of capes or the dog had just stepped out of the shower. Ruth grabbed me by the arm, either to rescue me or to remind me that the whole point of our being there was to enjoy watching our three year old grandson learn how to extort candy from strangers through threats of an unspecified nature.

I’ve thought a bit about my discussion with my activist friend and realized he was the sort of well meaning person always pulling for the underdog, as do so many of us. Like rooting for the Phillies, Philadelphia’s beloved baseball team, a team that has amassed a record 10,000+ losses in its less than illustrious history.

And yet, in the 2000’s, for a few delicious years, the Phillies became the best team in baseball, winning a World Series (for only the second time in their history) thus proving that now and then, an underdog can turn the tables.

And so it is with Israel, who was, and remains, the underdog. They are that rarest of real life examples when the underdog overcomes the odds—as well as seven well armed and thoroughly indoctrinated Arab armies.

So now that Israel appears powerful (they are), those who came in late and root for the underdog see them as the bad guys. In truth, there has been a shift among Israelites. The continued Arab hatred and unwillingness to make peace—Hamas textbooks claim the Israelites were annihilated long ago thus making Zionists impostors with no historic claim to the land—and their endless assault via boycotts, hijackings, bombs, threats of annihilation and what not, have pushed the Israeli labor party out of relevance, shoved the liberals to the middle and the moderates to the right. So I understand how Israel may seem, to those with limited historic perspective, as the big, bad guys, when in truth Israel, with a population of less than eight million, remains David to the Arab Goliath. (Cairo alone has the same population as the whole of Israel).

I have been hoping to meet my activist friend again so that I can run my underdog theory by him although, in truth, I know it will be pointless.

What does a statesman need to know?

October 19, 2013 Leave a comment

     I just learned [Thanks to Stephen Kinzer’s “The Brothers: John Foster Dulles, Allen Dulles, and Their Secret World War] that the Dulles brothers, who were in charge of overt (State Department) and covert (CIA) foreign policy in the fifties, were corporate lawyers. It gives me agita just trying to digest the idea that a background in corporate law can prepare one to run State or the CIA.

     Once given charge of American foreign policy, the Dulles brothers set out to redress their corporate defeats. First they went after Iran’s Prime Minister Mosaddegh, who’d nationalized oil company holdings of Dulles’ former corporate clients. The 1953 coup returned oil interests to the Dulles’ clients. And, oh, by the way, in exchange, it gave the Shah absolute power.

     Then in 1954 they deposed Guatemala’s President Jacobo Arbenz. He was a danger to another client, United Fruit, a company that at the time owned 40% of Guatemala’s arable land.

     The Dulles brothers didn’t stop there. They concocted the domino theory, fanned the cold war, refused to met with Stalin’s successor Malenkov, botched the Hungarian revolt, betrayed our allies after the Suez canal nationalization, got us into Vietnam after they refused to accept Ho Chi Minh’s victory and on and on, with the Bay of Pigs fiasco being the final straw. Is it all in the past? Not a chance, their legacy lives on—see Iran and Cuba and, well you get the idea.

     I earned an advanced degree in engineering from a very prestigious university and yet, to conduct engineering work for the state, county or city, I’d have to be licensed as a professional engineer. For that I’d have to pass a difficult, multidisciplinary test and be licensed by the Bureau of Professional and Occupational Affairs. I understand, just like I understand that none of us would want to see an unlicensed physician when ill. Our medicines and medical procedures have to be FDA approved. If we want tax advice we seek it from a Certified Public accountant. In short, our government has seen fit to protect us from our own gullibility and from charlatans eager to take advantage—no matter how charismatic they might be—by requiring most professionals to demonstrate knowledge and competence by passing a test. Unless said charlatans seek public office.

     Why don’t the same licensing principles apply to those who write the laws or set policy? I would much prefer that my alderman, councilman, congressman, senator and president, regardless of sex, race, religion, culinary preferences or anything, have demonstrated reasonable knowledge of local, national and global history and geography, economics, business, law, science, and most important, that rarest of skills, common sense, before being allowed to run for or hold office.


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