22 March 2009

I wish I had studied more diligently

Once I took Economics 101-102. I think I even studied both macro- and micro- economics. I read Samuelson’s text from cover to cover. I certainly passed the course, and learned something about guns and butter and supply and demand. I learned more about the latter when I read the first volume of Capital. Later, I read Michael Harrington’s The Other America. I have certainly followed economics ever since, even as I have followed politics, aware from the beginning that there was some intimate connection between the two disciplines.

I read in the New York Times this past Saturday that the tax on bonuses for those employees of companies that received federal bailout monies has come under fire. The lead in Herszenhorn’s article says: “President Obama hesitated Friday to endorse legislation to severely tax bonuses paid to executive of companies that accepted taxpayer bailout funds.”

I hope they tax the hell out of them, and I hope to hell that the IRS studies rigorously the tax returns of these well-off citizens to make sure they return every penny due us.

But I am puzzled by the logic of Vikram S. Pandit, the chief executive of Citi-group. According to the article, Pandit sent a memorandum to employees decrying the high tax (90%) imposed by the House on those who received bonuses from companies which were recipients of more than 5 billion dollars in bailout funds. Pandit is reported to have said, “The work we have all done to try to stabilize the financial system and to get this economy moving again would be significantly set back if we lose our talented people because Congress imposes a special tax on financial services employees. It would affect countless number of people who will find it difficult, if not impossible, to pay back the bonuses that they earned.”

So here is my confusion: my understanding has been that Citi-group was one of the biggest culprits in the Banking collapse. So, these bonuses (money for exceptional work!) are going to people who didn’t do a very good job at all. And now I am supposed to be sympathetic for the terrible straits these greedy people find themselves in as a result of their own incompetences. I’m perplexed by this logic.

Second, these people having to pay back some of the huge bonus money they received (usually in sums in excess of the salaries that working people generally make in say, a ten to twenty year period) hardly arouses my sympathy. They may just have to sell the Lexus for a Prius, or the second house and suffer a stay-cation. I am not concerned.

21 March 2009

Complaints and Complaining

I write about complaint; I complain about complaint. Dear Lord, I complain. And finally, hearing myself this one time today, I have suddenly realized how boring it is to myself to listen to me complain; I cannot imagine how numbing it must be for others to hear me. Well, I can imagine a bit because I keep decrying the complaint of others. And we all think that our complaints are interesting, and that is partly why we complain. Plus, our complaints help legitimate our definitions of the world. Plus, our complaints obviate our having to act: complaining is the only act in which I need to engage. C’est tout!’

I’m vowing to quit. C’est tout.

So, this week alone I finished two articles, continued reading through a book I only partly understand, and begun a wonderful novel, Friendly Fire, by A.B. Yehoshua, and didn’t piss off too many people.

Thank you, Michael.

13 March 2009

Issues of the Heart

So, I’ve got an enlarged aorta. I may have had this condition for several years, though perhaps it has grown more severe lately. I don’t know. And neither do they. I have been in good health almost continuously for my six decades, and though I have suffered some illness in the past two years, I have continued to run, to work, to eat well, and to function in a vital manner. My new book was published last week! Yesterday’s run was wonderful and strong.

But today I’ve got an enlarged aorta. It was discovered in a CT scan ordered for an issue wholly unrelated to my heart. Indeed, was it not for this unrelated issue (having to do with lungs, actually) and the resultant CT scan, I wouldn’t know I had an enlarged aorta. I would have remained innocent of imminent mortality. And yet, today, knowing I have an enlarged aorta, I feel vulnerably mortal. I feel substantively different. I am the same, but I feel different. And were it not for the fortuitousness of the CT scan, I would never have known.

What is it about knowledge that makes it so dangerous? Of course, that is the first Biblical story, isn’t it? Adam and Eve and the Tree of Knowledge. For years I have thought that leaving the Garden actually started their lives: outside the Garden was where the work had to be done; outside the Garden life was hardly perfect and the world (young as it was) was in need of repair. But this knowledge of an enlarged aorta is not where life begins. Or is it? Doesn’t this knowledge begin a new perspective on my life in which my mortality will play a greater part and have more substantial influence.

This aortic enlargement is in a stage right now that is hardly life threatening, and may not require addressing for another several years, or even another decade. But somewhere down the line, when I want to live longer, they will have to open up my chest and fix my heart! Ironically, it is a repair I have sought for years.

08 March 2009

Cicely, Alaska

When was the last time you visited Cicely, Alaska? It is one of my favorite places in the United States, nestled in my consciousness so securely that even Sarah Palin’s Alaskan presence can’t really displace my affections for Cicely.

Of course, Cicely, Alaska exists only as the location of the television show Northern Exposure, a series from the early years of the nineteen-nineties. Joel Fleishman, a Jewish doctor from New York City, committed to serve several years in Alaska (he thought Anchorage, where several kosher delis operate successfully) in return for their scholarship help putting him through medical school. But Anchorage has no need for his services, and so they station him in Cicely, a town without, among other things, a kosher deli. (In one of the earliest show, Joel sends for bagels from Zabars, an Upper West Side Food Emporium. No one, least of all Maggie, who thinks she is flying emergency supplies to the Doctor only to discover she’s transported several dozen bagels, is impressed. Besides, there was no cream cheese.)

Anyway, it is the people of Cicely who attract me. Of course there is Joel, who exists in a constant state of culture shock but who slowly over the seasons becomes affected by the place. His antagonist is Maggie, a young, attractive woman who has escaped the high pressured life of the States and a somewhat domineering father, to settle in Cicely as a self-employed pilot taxiing people and supplies between Cicely and the rest of Alaska. She and Joel desire and reprove each other; Chris: a free spirit, hippie-ish young man who runs the radio station and who reads aloud on his program (Chris in the Morning) Whitman’s poetry, Tolstoy’s War and Peace, and, for Valentine’s Day, love poetry. Ed, a native American whose great hero is film director and actor, Woody Allen. On the episode I screened today, Ed received a kippah once owned by Woody Allen’s grandfather. Does it get any more multi-cultural?
But no, I don’t feel like summing up the characters in such brief vignettes, nor do I feel like exploring them in greater depth now. Suffice to say, each is complex, interesting and humanly, wonderfully vulnerable.

And what I adore about the show is the ease with which each of the characters lives her or his life. Their unquestioned acceptance of difference and alternative lifestyles is not practiced as blatant political statements, but rather, as a way of unquestionable life. Difference is what makes Cicely, but it is the people who make Cicely so wonderfully livable. Only cruelty and selfishness and meanness are not permitted residence. And whatever doesn’t harm anyone else is welcome to town. And shame is never permitted entry. What the characters are primarily interested in is the content of their characters, and everything else follows naturally from this wonderful ethics of not tolerance, but acceptance. More: it is as if the citizens of Cicely expect difference rather than merely tolerate it. More still: it is not mere acceptance: in Cicely, difference though it is real is hardly noticeable. It is a simple life in Cicely, Alaska, but a lovely complex portrayal of life. I think I watched it from its debut in 1990 or 1991, but am revisiting Cicely these days through Netflix. Today, just as the duel between Alexei and Maurice was about to begin, Joel broke out of the story and sought alternatives to the deadly duel. It was happily achieved. Détente won out again, and the superpatriot Maurice sat down in peace with the Troskyite Alexei.

Only in Cicely, Alaska. I love the place. I would live there—have sought Cicely everywhere.