Saturday, January 24, 2009

Inside this teahouse in Kabul, men gathered to watch the Obama Inauguration. These places remain unchanged from when I was last there 38 years ago. Men, and only men, gather in these joints, heated by wood-burning stoves, where the drink of choice is hot tea, sweetened, and the talk ranges across all things local -- or at most, regional.

That is how it was four decades ago.

Now, there is a TV, which in this shot, has captured all eyes in the house. When I lived in Afghanistan, there were no TV's.

And now, also, Afghans, like Iowans, no longer have the luxury of contemplating only their local environment. Like all of us, they are part of a global economy.

The Afghans' main exports, to date, have been terrorism and opium. In this context, I can understand if most Westerners feel like hating all Afghans, as ignorant, violent primitives all too willing to die in the name of Allah than to do anything productive with their lives.

But I've known another kind of Afghan, albeit in a time when our world was not so polarized by hatred as is now the case. If our new President can do anything to bring our world back into balance, it would be this: To allow the ancient teahouse tradition to return to its better days, when hatred of the West was not on everyone's lips but the promise of modernity was.

Then, this special land can and will start exporting, not violence, but the most succulent fruits and nuts ever known in Central Asia, not to mention kabobs, korma, nan, and so many more dishes, as first documented by Marco Polo, and later validated by me, among many others.

Peace in Afghanistan just might mean peace in all the world. Plus, all of us who love tasteful food could then feel a new wave of pleasure at the name of this ancient land. Imagine that! Breaking bread with one another, rather than blowing one another to smithereens.

Might it happen?


Friday, January 23, 2009

What Was in Cheney's Boxes?

And why was he carrying them? Outgoing Vice-President Dick Cheney witnessed the Inauguration in a wheelchair, after injuring his back moving boxes himself from his office to his home. It is routine, of course, for professional movers to do this work, not the Vice-President, particularly one who is aged with heart trouble. Certainly for all the legitimate material, professionals did the job.

But Cheney, more than any other member of the Bush administration, was implicated in many scandals involving the withholding of information from public disclosure, and therefore, it is logical to conclude he's decided to be the sole custodian of some of his most controversial documents.

It follows that he wouldn't want anyone but himself to touch those boxes of secret papers, so that no paper trail be created via the tagging systems used by government movers.

Think back. He refused to reveal who influenced his secret energy-policy work in Bush's first term. Later, he was deeply involved in the torture decisions, such as water-boarding, following 9/11. (Strangely, during a round of "farewell" press appearances, Cheney admitted this role, which now seems likely to help trigger war crimes investigations, and probably charges against him, at least overseas, if not domestic courts.)

But there was so much more. The volatile Valerie Plame scandal, where Cheney threw his loyal aide Scooter Libby to the wolves, although hand-written notes on key documents bore powerful evidence of Cheney's involvement. Prosecutors couldn't get Libby or others to "turn," thus in the end Cheney escaped the consequences for his illegal actions once again.

The enormous illegal surveillance effort undertaken not against terrorist suspects but against millions of law-abiding Americans is only now beginning to come to light. Cheney helped architect this, as well as other programs to blatantly violate Americans' civil liberties, in ways we will still be discovering for years to come.

The Obama administration has promised a new transparency, part of which, in my view, must include not only what our government does in the future but what it was doing these past eight years. This represents a delicate challenge for Obama, who clearly does not relish disrespecting political opponents or predecessors in office.

But to ignore the errors of the past is to risk repeating them. A good start would be to investigate what was in the boxes that strained Cheney's back. My educated guess, rooted in human psychology, is that those particular boxes have an important story to tell.


Thursday, January 22, 2009

Historically Symbolic Leadership

The sight of President Obama in his Sox baseball cap, working his newly encrypted Blackberry, is likely to be as symbolic of his Presidency as was the photo op of President Eisenhower on the golf course half a century earlier.

In the '50s, with an aging war hero in the White House, and the economy growing rapidly with the fruits of victory in World War Two, Ike captured the middle class dream of reaching your golden years successfully so you could hit the links. Furthermore, the sight of him conducting the world's business while relaxing on a golf course set an image that remains so solidly at the essence of the fantasy of the successful businessmen that it retains great power to this day.

Now comes Barack Hussein Obama. His sport is inner-city hoops, and, when told that he would have to give up the networked communication habits that so dramatically carried him to electoral victory -- his answer was "No, we can't!" He rose to power via that ever-present Blackberry, laptops, Facebook, and an aggressive email list in combo with a dynamic wesbite,, that helped whip up that astonishing pent-up excitement visible on the Mall on Tuesday.

Meanwhile, his staff yesterday encountered a White House mired in the technological "Dark Ages," with few laptops, no personal or external email links, unplugged, analog phones with ancient cords, and desktops "working" on six-year-old Microsoft software.

Out with the old. In with the new. The Obama team will have to go all the way to the root and rebuild a White House IT system suitable for the 21st Century. Fortunately, by all indications, they've easily got the chops to do so. They're already patching together gmail accounts, cellular aps, and other web-based workarounds while more fundamental technological changes can be installed.

One interesting development -- the Obama team reportedly prefers Macs to PCs, which might be one reason Apple's stock is trading up today, in defiance of another general market turndown.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

The Guilt-Ridden Father as Job Seeker

Half-listening to an NPR show the other day, I heard a guest who works with people who have been laid off refer to losing a job as "one of the most traumatic" things that can happen to you.

If true, I'm probably suffering from PTSD by now, as my career has been so riddled with unexpected layoffs, transfers, company closures, and other untenable circumstances that forced me to move on. My father's generation grew up with an expectation that a job was pretty much for life, or that at least a series of jobs within a single company or a small number of companies was what his future would hold.

Many of us who came to age in the 1960s rebelled against that life model, opting instead to create or join alternative institutions, build them from the ground up, and eventually move on to the next challenge.

"Serial entrepreneurs," you might call us.

There's nothing wrong with this model; it's one way the society grows and becomes more productive. Small businesses generate many of the best new ideas and products that enter our economy, and it's always been that way.

But this lifestyle, which carries additional risks to those working within more traditional careers, becomes extremely difficult to balance with supporting a family. The hours a person burns worrying about their kids during periods like the present one are one of the worst types of stress I see around me, as well as within myself.

It almost feels as if you are "making yourself sick with worry" -- one thing my father always warned against. I wished I'd listened to him better, or somehow picked up his coping skills, which were much less self-destructive than those prevalent in my generation.

The skies have darkened today; the weeks of sunshine have passed. It's so very gloomy, inside and out.


Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Mend Our Brokeness

There are tears in the streets today, tears of joys.

There are moments that no words can fully capture. Today is one of those moments. The graciousness of our new President toward his predecessor was wonderful.

His speech was not political in any way. He became President even before he was sworn in, because the program ran beyond noon, the Constitutional deadline for these transitions.

And then, wonderfully, because the Chief Justice of the United States messed up administering the oath, he gracefully saved the moment.

Speaking only for myself. I've never been prouder to be an American. God bless our new President!


Monday, January 19, 2009

Tonight's Music is Sweet

Some two million people are converging on our nation's capitol tonight in anticipation of witnessing the most emotionally charged moment in our nation's history.

Racism has long been the ugliest thing about this great country.

I witnessed its horrors throughout my childhood. An early memory is when my cousins claimed that black people "smelled different." In every Michigan city, I could see that blacks lived in the worst part of town. My friends and relatives made fun of these people. They told jokes that so disgusted me that later, alone in my bed at night, I swore I would never turn out like them.

It wasn't that I knew any black people or had any black friends.

It was that I myself was an outsider, lonely, awkward, virtually friendless, and considered very weird by others who did not share my geeky obsessions.

In many ways I was a white Negro.

Luckily, when I got to college, one of my roommates was black. He and his friends soon became my friends, to such an extent that I was invited to join one of the two all-black fraternities at the University of Michigan.

But, as much as I appreciated the offer, I didn't like the idea of fraternities. I was so far outside the mainstream in my sensibilities that I preferred hanging much further away from the center of college culture, which is how I discovered journalism.

Journalism is, of course, a profession suited for outsiders like me, for those people who really can never fully fit in, but who feel they have a story to tell nonetheless.

Accordingly, my very best college reportage ended up being devoted to the civil rights movement. Six of us idealistic young reporters drove to Memphis, Tennessee, to cover and participate in what (little did we know) would be the last march ever led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Somewhere, I still have old faded photos of us as we made our way through the gauntlet of troops with guns and bayonets, supposedly there to protect us. I will spare you the racist epithets these "protectors" spat out at us as we passed.

But, tonight, and tomorrow, a new music is ringing across this land. All of the awful, racist hatred that has so stunted our growth as a people will now have to be set aside as we welcome our new First Family to lead -- not just some of us -- but all of us, into a better future.

May God bless the new President of the United States!


Sunday, January 18, 2009


A mind like mine is excited by the following things -- women, colors, music, trees, plants, water, and probably most of all by numbers.

So, it is time to take stock of the economic performances of this and its sister blogs, Sidewalk Images, and Seaglass. We have posted 1,866 columns to these three blogs over the past two-and-a-half years.

Thanks to you, dear visitors, we have been blessed by 42,958 visits (23 per post) and 827 clicks (1.9%) on the Google ads that support my work. These clicks have yielded $264.82 in revenue.

Therefore, the monetary value of my work is roughly 14 cents per post.

That number makes me very happy. I was born on the 14th day of the 4th month in the second year following the end of WW2, i.e., in the second wave of the Baby Boomers.

For that reason, if I could earn $0.14 for every one of my posts going forward, I would be a happy writer. I'll be poor but the numerical Gods will be in order.

Thank you!


Personal Journeys ( e.g., Tricks) of the Mind

I've got nothing useful to say about death today except this: Create some small piece of art every day. It matters not whether it's "good;" it's the act of creation that is satisfying.

I'm defining art broadly. For example, as a congenitally peripatetic experimenter, I shoot images of the streets around me and post them to our sister blog, Sidewalk Images. Much of the quality of this photography is trash, mind you, and qualifies as art only in my blue, blue eyes. As my designer friend Mary once said, "You might want to work at getting them in focus and also on the composition."

She was right about the focus, but wrong about composition. I take the images in exactly the form I see them, often at about a two-o'clock or ten o'clock angle. These are usually cast-off pieces of material on the sidewalk.

Sometimes the granularity of the sidewalk itself is so compelling that the item itself simply serves as a useful focal point, as my main interest is in the tiny, packed-together circles of stone that compose the (never-smoothed) cement.

I recall learning how to pour and smooth cement as a boy, in the '50s, working with my Dad, as we built the carport, where we later hung a basketball hoop. The problem with learning to play basketball there was the ceiling to my stadium was so low, I had to be able to perfect hitting line drives into the basket from any distance beyond a couple feet.

Of course, like a bonsai tree, that's how my game developed. I was stunted.

The next time I got the opportunity to erect a basketball court, it was in the '80s at our little wooden cottage in Mill Valley, on a huge lot with fruit trees, the work of an Italian truck farmer half a century before.

The lot rose gradually from street level in a series of terraces until it reached the ridge where the house sat. Along the way were some of the most exotic, succulent fruits still growing after years of neglect, but in ever-declining numbers.

Growing fruit has long been one of my most persistent fantasies. I love every stage of the process, from the dried seed cracking open, yielding a fresh new sprout, helped by soil, sun and water into a seedling, then hardening (the male phase) into a stalwart trunk supporting many branches (much as in software development), which then, in springtime, sport new buds, excited at this chance at life.

The buds open their tender lips to form luscious flowers with the bud still at the core (the first feminine phase), that then willingly accept the long, vibrating penetrating fertilization by the suitable organs of bees and birds to -- wallah! -- create their children: Rounded, moist, sweet, sour, pithy apples, pears, peaches, cherries, apricots, persimmons, avocados, durian, coconuts, coffee beans, and on and on and on.

Banana trees are probably the fruit-bearing plants I know the best, from my years as a reporter investigating the uses of pesticides overseas. There's nothing quite like the sight of a tight cluster of bananas, yellowing, even if they sometimes are hiding a deadly tarantula in their innermost places.

Fruits are a modern luxury. For my father, growing up in a one-room farmhouse without heat or plumbing in Canada early last century, the winter holiday season meant two treats from fruit trees -- an orange, from the tropics, and maple sugar candy, from the trees standing on the land around their cornfields.

All of my children have, according, received little boxes of maple sugar candy from me from time to time.