The Trickster and the Fool

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It’s disheartening to see the U.S. – North Korea kabuki theater performed again and again, always to the advantage of the Kim dynasty and the disadvantage of the West. The dictatorship has one unerring talent: the ability to fool American presidents into playing their zero-sum game. It starts with the rhetoric – bombast hurled at the new U.S. leader in hopes it will be returned (worked like a charm this time around). Then the nuclear brinkmanship (the reason for NK’s program being diplomatic leverage), and the ensuing worldwide panic, followed by the “high level” talks that pull all threatened parties into the mix (China, South Korea, Japan, etc.). The cumulative effect of these actions and their media-grabbing headlines is the only one the Kim dynasty is interested in, namely worldwide recognition of the power, legitimacy and importance of the North Korean regime.

But Kim, like the American president, is playing mostly to a domestic audience. The message? “It would be dangerous to remove me during this (never-ending) crisis.”

Americans should (but probably don’t) remember that this all played out previously, in 1994 under the Clinton administration and later between 2006 – 2007, as the Bush administration announced a “path to normalization” with Pyongyang. For both “agreements” North Korea had agreed to demolish its nuclear development facilities (!) and in the 2007 negotiations provided (doctored) footage to prove it had done so. Clinton and Bush were, of course, hoodwinked as today’s evidence shows. The 1994 Agreed Framework and 2006-2007’s so-called Six-Party Talks were nothing but stall tactics. The result is a nuclear-armed North Korea, now with ballistic missile capabilities. Soon they will have a nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missile, if they don’t already, capable of striking anywhere in the world.

Today, apparently, the regime released three American prisoners , two of them having been scooped up under the current U.S. administration in order to create the leverage Kim is now strategically ceding. This is of course part of the wider, long-range gambit, which also includes a seeming cool-down between the two Koreas. Now the U.S. president will become overconfident. He will strut into the summit trap Kim has set thinking he has “the advantage.” (It’s The Art of the Deal, you know.)

I predict that at the peak of bilateral negotiations, per the dog-eared script, the Kim regime will find an excuse to introduce delay after delay as they produce false promise after false promise, backed by false evidence, their mission having already been accomplished: widespread media coverage of their power and influence, and a U.S. regime that has completely lost face by walking into their predictable, time-worn diplomatic trap. My question bares repeating: How will he react?

This is why the Obama administration refused to even engage with North Korea – they knew from Bill Clinton and George W. Bush’s experience that there was nothing in it for them. Unless sponsor state China does something about the Kim regime’s recklessness, there is nothing to be done by any other parties short of starting a world war:  China, Russia, North Korea, and Iran versus an isolated United States.

I hope it comes out differently this time, I hope North Korea is serous about denuclearization. But I’ve never seen the sun rise in the West.

Update: When I’m right, I’m right. Also – that was fast.

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No Gold Watch

Today I will be honored for 20 years of service to my company. It’s an odd feeling. I don’t think there will be a gold watch, which is good because I don’t really wear gold. When I add up all the compensation I have received, it seems like a lot. But they got 20 years of my life (so far) in return, or at least a goodly portion of those years’ waking hours (and some sleepless nights).

When I started my career, I thought I wanted to be a university professor. Then I discovered that’s like wanting to be a rock star –  beyond the commonplace thing called “talent”, one must also be in the right place, at the right time, have a lot of luck, and know people who can help (and want to help). Not to mention money. I had none of that. I remember distinctly – every PhD program or M.A. level instructor position I looked at had the standard late 1990s attempt at diversification remedy built in: “Women and minority candidates are strongly encouraged to apply.” And I understood that, because faculties were (and are) heavily weighted with the white men who used to get pretty much all the plum jobs. So that didn’t happen.

I’m not bitter – I enjoyed teaching at UNO as a graduate student, and I’ve been an adjunct and might be again. But when I see what’s happening to higher education in the 2000s, I feel relief that I’m not locked into a paranoid system that now seems to be largely a crucible of political warfare and mutual suspicion. Accommodations, intellectual rigor, and safe spaces do battle with right-wing insurgents who want to “target” liberal “indoctrination” (and individual professors) at the university, while a majority of one political party now believes higher education does more to harm the country than help it. Seriously. They believe this.

So I just do what I know how to do, try not to complain too much, and show up every day (or at least the vast majority of days). It’s been a good policy. I am at peace.

Secular Trinity

You live, and you grow, and you change. At some point you realize you’re an adult (for me, around age 25). You feel at that point you are not going to change anymore, although it still remains difficult to imagine yourself as middle-aged (and forget about “old”).

You feel “done” maturing, as if at 25 (or whenever) you will simply lock into place and be the “you” that you are now for the rest of your life.

There’s some anecdotal truths around this. For example, artistic tastes. I believe they tend to form as part of childhood and adolescence, and of course one’s taste matures and is refined by experience. But at some point, usually late adolescence, you have kind of “decided” what kind of art, music, film, philosophy, etc., that you “like” or identify with, and this gets rather chiseled in stone for many people. This is why, for example, Journey and Foreigner are still touring.

(Artists are an exception. They are always looking for the new. But given enough time, even they may lose their taste for the now.)

We’re amazed at how richly detailed our childhood memories are, our adolescent and post-adolescent memories. The time between age 6 and 21 seems a lifetime in itself, a kaleidoscope of change, when recollected at age 50. But the time after that, and all the way up to the present, seems a fleeting moment, punctuated by memories of only the most obvious junctures of change (career start, marriage, children, deaths of relatives, new job, big vacation, etc.). Personally, I can barely remember anything that happened between age 25 and 35, but I have a huge catalog of incredibly distinct memories from childhood and adolescence.

Science now has good evidence that there is a reason we have such vivid memories of childhood and adolescence—our brains are wired to create more permanent memories during these years. It would seem to go hand in hand with our greater ability to learn at a younger age.

And, as science has also proven, as you get older time does literally move faster. At least from the individual’s perspective. Gyp!

I’ve also noticed that physical aging is not a steady degrading of one’s appearance from “youthful” to “codger.” It’s a process with fits and starts. Nature, in her wisdom, seems to be most “interested” in us between the ages of 12 and 40. This makes perfect evolutionary sense if you think about it. And so, I don’t know if it’s by design or just a function of human aging, but it seems I did not age at all, physically, between age 20 and 40. I remember, when I was about 31, I walked into my first college class as an instructor. Some of the students laughed, and as I took my spot at the podium and smiled at them, some of them told me to quit fooling around and get a seat before the instructor arrived. I looked about the same as I did at 18. They ended up being a good class. (And that’s another thing – youth relates to youth. It’s not fair. A lot of things aren’t.)

Why this variability in physical aging, memory creation, and perception of time? I believe it’s because Nature has great use for us between the ages of 12 and 40 – to create and raise the next generation. I’m not saying that’s anyone’s “duty” by a long shot. Every life is valid. I mean that that is our usefulness to Nature, which is insistent that life will succeed, and indifferent to what happens after we help in that task. It is our “golden” time, the time when we are most vital, most animated, and most attractive. It’s all useful to be thus, in terms of evolutionary success. And when we get past that period, we are, I’m afraid, no longer so useful to Nature. We are free to stick around, perhaps to advise, but we’re largely relegated to being observers in the continuous cycle, the generational game that is center stage.

And then, when we aren’t looking, the fun begins.

There used to be an old joke about how when Dick Clark reached age 75 he was going to age all at once. Yeah, he was youthful for a long time. But then he wasn’t. And many are, as I was, slow to age. But to quote my old bud Robert Frost: Nothing gold can stay. Time is, as they say, the great destroyer. Or, if you’re a Jim Morrison fan: No one here gets out alive.

So now I do age. My face is fatter, my hair is thinner and coarser and grayer. My middle is more of me. My skin was perfect, now I’ve got more “character” in my face. I have a crown on what used to be a molar. I’m allergic to everything. My eyes are less bright and can’t see menus in dim restaurants. My body is, in general, less cooperative than it used to be. And I’ll be honest, it gets to me sometimes. All things being equal, it’s better to be young, healthy and beautiful. Right? Sure.

But all things are not equal.

Lately, I have felt a very odd transformation occurring. I can only describe it as being less “me” and more “us”. For my entire life, and largely based on my lifestyle, I’ve been a loner, even an outcast. It was always “me” and “everyone else.” It felt right, it felt safe and contained, and my personal philosophy had a lot to do with the idea of the “sovereign individual,” beholden to no one, bowing to no creed and no nation. I was (and am) a devotee of that famous iconoclast William Blake’s iconic statement: “I must create my own system, or be enslav’d by another man’s.”

That’s changed, at least in part. I would like to say it changed the day I married, but that would be dishonest. I was 28, still in Nature’s grip. I was not done figuring out who and why I am. I had a long way to go, and perhaps that was mutual. I suspect it was, and that’s fine. Nothing important is easy, nothing valuable happens in a moment (well, a couple of things). Building a life – an identity – I find it’s a lifelong process. And once I had decided upon my identity, way back then, it felt sound, but now it has shifted again.

Marriage is complicated, as the divorce and single-parent statistics attest. It’s not always worth it. And, most of all, the future – and our future selves – cannot be predicted, they will come to pass as they do, not as we will them to. So some fail. Marriage is a planned sacrifice of sorts, a giving up (eventually, if the union is successful) of a part of oneself, in order to accept being part of another self. I didn’t really understand this when our drunk minister, Reverend Fred, said the words in October 1990, that we were now “one.” I thought I did, but I didn’t.

Now I do. And not only do I feel I am truly not one person anymore, I’m not even limited to being two people. I can look at my daughter now, hear her words, witness her mature identity growing, and it grows like the acorn into a replica of the old oak. Really. She is a true part of the “us” that we are now, and there’s no competition regarding whom she is “more” like, because in a rather profound way we all seem to be the same person. Of course we are physically independent beings, with as much free will as anyone may have (or think they have). We have our own likes and dislikes, etc. But we do not go it alone, not at all. We are “in it” together, the “it” being life. We share it, as I have never before understood sharing.

No, it’s not readily explained.

But I know this: I’m no longer me, and it’s no longer me against the world. I’m us, and we’re us. And we are a world, within a world. And it feels better than anything I’ve ever felt before.

Growing Up Socialist

Based on my upbringing, it’s almost impossible that I would turn out to be anything other than a card-carrying socialist. This truism would make my father roll over in his Arlington National Cemetery grave, I suppose. But he – as an intellectual – would also have to agree with my reasoning.

Dad was a South Omaha Polish Catholic boy made good, graduating from West Point in 1958 to embark, along with his new wife (and my mother), on a globe-trotting career in the U.S. Army. He was a career man, with two tours in Vietnam attached to an SVA (South Vietnamese regular army) unit, a Signal Corps officer who retired at the age of 45 or so.

This means that as a child I also traveled the world, often living on federal property, and was essentially raised within the U.S. Army culture. It is a 100% socialist culture.

In the military, everyone has a job. Nobody is starvation-poor, and nobody is mega-rich. For 2016, the Army pay scale lists the lowest private at about $1600 a month and the biggest, cigar-chompingest four-star general making about $19,700 a month. That’s a difference in pay, between the lowest-paid grunt and basically the CEO of the Army, representing a factor of 12.3. Compare that to someone at Wal-Mart making minimum wage ($1,200 a month) and the Wal-Mart CEO making, let’s say conservatively, about $1.5 million a year or $125,000 a month. That’s a factor of 100+. (Top-earning CEOs make $125,000 an hour. Side question: how does one “earn” $125,000 in one hour? How is one person’s “labor” equal to the labor of 17,000 minimum wage workers?)

In the army, as in a classically imagined socialist society, there are “party members” (officers) and the “proletariat” (enlisted). Officers “run things” (executive) and the enlisted “do things” (labor). The executives get better pay and more perks—they have college degrees and undergo extensive educational training (War College, Command School), not to mention the added responsibility of being in charge. But those in the ranks of labor are provided for as well – in addition to base pay the enlisted soldiers in the barracks eat for free, have free housing, and free uniforms. (Officers pay for most of these things unless deployed in a war zone.) Yet everyone is guaranteed vacation (30 days a year last I checked) and sick leave. And if you get really sick, guess what? You’re covered, because health care is free. Provided you make a career of it, a soldier gets free medical care for life, plus a fair pension after twenty years of service. (Right now the pension is 50% of the soldier’s highest average 36 months of pay, regardless of rank, and this is in addition to Social Security retirement benefits.)

Everyone is covered. There are no homeless, there are no “illegals”, there are no charity cases, there are no elderly workers left high and dry by raided pension funds or crappy 401K plans.

Because of the “uniform” quality of life in the military—nobody stands out, nobody is singled out for special treatment—the military has largely marginalized the effects of American racism and classism in its culture-within-a-culture (except for the traditional, generalized class differential between officers and enlisted). Obviously these effects cannot be entirely eliminated. But as folks like Colin Powell have shown, a black soldier faces no institutional barriers to success in the military. He or she can get all the way, as Powell did, to the very top. You don’t have to come from any particular family or go to any particular school. (West Point helps, but again, anyone with the chops to succeed there is welcome. There’s no tuition—students get paid—and of course room and board are free. And you have a good job the day you graduate.) As you may recall, the military was even out ahead of the rest of American culture on gay acceptance. Women, in a culture invented for men, have had a rougher road, but they too are progressing. The army just graduated its first two female Rangers last year (both West Point graduates).

It’s simple: an egalitarian culture promotes and nurtures egalitarianism in its members, who feel a natural sense of dignity, of being respected within the culture no matter their individual role. Regular soldiers, not generals, tend to win the highest of military decorations. Most enlisted soldier’s I’ve known regard officers as “different” than them in their career path, not “better” than them because of their rank.

Of course, the U.S. military is an artificial culture in that, socialist as it may be, it is completely dependent on the greater American economy for its continued existence. The military is not an economy, it does not “produce” anything (aside from abstract “security”), it only consumes tax funds. The U.S. military is not the answer to our struggles with corporatism/oligarchy, but it does serve as an object lesson in how to build a fair and equitable societal structure, one in which all can thrive and all can live with dignity. We can learn from it.

Why Now?

It feels like I could have written this item a long time ago. Maybe, because in my past the word “socialism” was roughly equivalent in the American lexicon with terms like “godless communist” or “evil empire,” I felt like it would be a wasted effort. I mean, I think I’m pretty safe in arguing that before 2016, no socialist of any kind could have expected to be nominated for the presidency, let alone occupy that office.

And maybe that’s still true. At this writing, the bean counters expect Hillary to win the Democratic nomination this summer despite the extraordinary grass-roots popularity of her Democratic Socialist challenger, Bernie Sanders. She simply has the math in her favor, and – not incidentally – the party apparatus and its many veteran Democratic voters.

But the phenomenon of the nation’s young people “feeling the Bern” and coming out for the man in huge numbers looks like a harbinger of a new direction for America. It feels as though the dismantling of the oligarchy may come, if not next year, then soon—regardless of who wins the next presidential election.

Next: What’s in a Name? Plenty.

Are You Trying to Kill Me, Mister?

During a recent diversion on an Internet “forum” dedicated to a novel (yes, I’ve come to my senses since then), someone proposed a thread of topics on “amazing things that have happened to you.” I rather liked the little tale I told, so here it is, slightly…modified.


 

When I was about 11 I lived near Naples in southern Italy. My neighbors were an American expatriate married to an Italian woman and their family. Even though he was American and lived in an American enclave, you got the distinct impression he didn’t like Americans. At least, he didn’t act very cordial to the adults in our little housing area. As foreigners of the same nationality living abroad will tend to be, the rest of us were quite chummy. But not this guy.

Their son, who loved everything American, which probably pissed Dad off even more, was quite fond of me. They were planning a trip to the beach, at Sorrento, and he invited me to come along. Sounded good, so along I came. I didn’t consider him a great friend, but he was OK, and I was hoping to see his hot older sister in her underwear or, better yet, naked.

So we go to Sorrento. At one point, the Dad said we would go rock climbing. I’d never done it, but being a game lad I was ready to give it a try. So we all headed out to a cliff he knew of that was apparently good for rock climbing.

We got out onto this cliff, which was very steep, and here I was suddenly clinging to rocks on a sheer cliff, which I soon discovered ended about 50 feet down in a completely sheer (90 degree) sea wall, itself about 20 feet high, and below that were rocks and crashing waves. The sea wall went on for as far as one could see in both directions.

I realized that if I lost my footing and fell–50 feet down the rocky cliff, then the 20 feet of the sea wall and onto the rocks jutting from the sea–I would probably be killed.

The going got tougher. I could barely find any places to hold on–the rocks seemed to get further apart, with only scrub in between. A few times I almost fell, and grabbed instinctively onto the scrub plants to keep from falling.

“Don’t do that,” says my friend’s dad, “those won’t hold you.” He’s perfectly calm, like he couldn’t care less if I do fall.

Meanwhile, he and his son are scrambling along like mountain goats, obviously experienced at this and familiar with the terrain.

Somehow, I made it to the top of the cliff. I didn’t get too freaked out at the time, but later realized that I could have easily fallen at any point on that climb–especially since I was only 11 and completely inexperienced at rock climbing.

Later, we’re going to go swimming. These guys are big swimmers, and since I’ve only been in Italy a few months, I have never experienced swimming in surf. “We like to swim out to that rock,” Dad says, pointing to a large moss-covered rock about a hundred yards out in the bay. “Kind of a race.”

They dive in and start swimming to the rock. So off I go after them, quickly realizing how difficult it is to swim against a current. But I make it to the rock, only to realize it’s wet mossy surface means you don’t get to climb up on it and rest – you have to tread water next to it. “OK, well, let’s head back,” he says. I’m not sure I can make it, but being a kid I don’t say anything. I just start in after them.

I almost didn’t make it. They were way ahead of me, standing on the beach while I was about halfway between the rock and the shore. I slowed way down, treaded water for a while to rest, then swam some more. I finally made it, but was completely exhausted. A few more yards and I would not have made it.

It was strange. After a while I realized that the guy was probably hoping I would either fall off the cliff or drown in the sea–perfectly explainable “accidents.” He seemed disappointed for the rest of the trip, didn’t speak to me much.

I’ve often wondered since growing up what kind of person would toy with a child’s life like that, concluding that the guy was kind of nuts.

I pretty much avoided that family after the trip.