Sunday, August 20, 2017

OVERSEAS TRAVEL: FUN, WITH SOME PAIN



 My wife Anita and I go to Italy a lot, usually by way of Holland and France. My mother (now 104 years old) lives in Holland, so each year we first spend a couple of weeks with her and then we travel South. We feel that pound for pound, Italy has more to offer tourists than any other country, closely followed by France.

Intercontinental travel gets harder with age. But we haven’t thrown in the towel yet by just going on cruises and organized tours. We still run around Europe independently by car, by train and by airplane. This usually leads to some unsettling experiences.

The last time we flew to Rome from Holland, we had our first “interesting” experience immediately upon landing at Fumicino airport late in the evening:

After deplaning, we both hit the first toilet we could find, a fairly common practice. Then, we proceeded towards baggage claim. Only AFTER we were outside the security area did we realize that Anita - who is diabetic - had inadvertently left her insulin pack in the bathroom which she had just visited.

Panic! Diabetics need to have their insulin on hand. Without it, the situation can become life-threatening within hours.

We spent the next half hour running around and asking Italian officials how to proceed.

And here, we experienced (again, as in the past), the common-sense, courtesy and common humanity of which Italians seem to have such an abundance: After we explained our problem to security guards, they permitted us to RE-ENTER the secure area! Then, under supervision of ticket agents, we were allowed to search several bathrooms for the forgotten insulin. It was difficult to retrace our exact steps in the labyrinthine Fumicino airport, so we had to check out many bathrooms.

After an hour-long search, we found the medical pack. I wonder whether Homeland Security would have been equally flexible. Had the same thing happened to us in this country, might the authorities’ response not have been: Tough luck. Just go to the nearest emergency hospital and get yourself a new supply of insulin, cost what it may...?

* * * * *

We also returned to Venice. Our experience there was mixed. It was a bit of a pilgrimage, as Anita’s ancestry stems from there.

To be sure, I have always found the mysterious watery city magical. However, the crowds are worse than ever, with gigantic cruise ships disgorging thousands of tourists every day. San Marco Square can be a nightmare. Venice can be very tiring. The best part are the vaporettos , which take you from the airport to your hotel, and to the gorgeous and colorful islands of Murano and Burano, where you can eat great food and shop for famous lace and glass work.

A much better experience was Verona. That Tuscan city is a jewel. Its Roman arena, while not as large as the Colosseum in Rome, is better preserved, and it is used for a variety of events. We went to a rock concert there by the Italian idol Zucchero. For three hours, the band played ear-shattering rock, blues and other genres, while thirty-five thousand Italian housewives, businessmen, businesswomen and youngsters stomped, jived and sang along enthusiastically. A true feast!

Italy remains awesome. We hear a lot about its problems - economic, demographic, political. These don’t loom very large when you are there, at least as a visitor. The country appears vibrant and comfortable. Its people are diverse, but not extremely so. They don’t appear to be overwhelmed by a flood of refugees and illegal immigrants from across the Mediterranean. Do those tragic folks live in hidden refugee camps, invisible to tourists and middle-class Italians?

We always stay at the Paba, a tiny hotel one block from the Forum and the Colosseum. The owner is Alberta, a lovely and loveable sixty-something woman. She brings breakfast to our room every morning.

We had another “interesting” experience on our departure day: The taxi that picked us up to get us to the airport was driven by a phenomenally beautiful middle-aged woman. Clearly a hardworking mother, possibly single. Incredibly charismatic, charming, competent.

Alas, as we drove down the Via Imperiale to circle around the Colosseum, we got rear-ended pretty badly. We weren’t hurt, but our necks didn’t feel too good. Also, the trunk could no longer be shut and hold our baggage.

The beautiful taxi driver promptly got out and discussed the matter with the imbecile who had hit us and caused a monumental rush hour traffic jam at the foot of the Colosseum. The discussion took all of five minutes. Within seconds she had taken all the necessary pictures with her iPhone, and insurance and personal information was exchanged in courteous and businesslike fashion. Her mission was to deliver us on time, and she wouldn’t flinch from that. She promptly transferred our baggage from the non-working trunk into the back seats and we were on our way before we knew it. What professionalism! What sang-froid!

* * * * *

Over the years, we have had many such “interesting” experiences when traveling overseas. Anita was mugged at Paris’ Gare du Nord. Her assailant didn’t get anything from her, but he did cause her back pain. A few years ago, two Roman punks grabbed my briefcase. I ran after them and got it back. I was already in my seventies, so I am proud of this. But that too, caused me some physical pain. We have missed our share of train and airplane connections. Sometimes a train stops for several hours in the middle of nowhere, as it did once due to a suicide in Holland, and another time due to a collision with a cow in rural France.

In 2005, it took me three days to get back home. I was supposed to connect at Heathrow, but the Russell Square terrorist attack in London created havoc with all air traffic.

In 2010, I was forced to spend an extra week in Europe because of the eruption of Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull volcano (try to spell that!).

I can do without surprises or “interesting” experiences (remember the old Chinese curse). Unfortunately, the only real surprise when traveling is if there is NO surprise. By and large, surprises are inevitable.

Ideally, you would be transported to your destination, beamed there by Scotty. The old Greyhound Bus slogan “Getting there is half the fun” is false. Getting there is not fun. What’s fun is BEING there. That’s why we haven’t given up international travel.
© Tom Kando 2017;All Rights Reserved
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Friday, August 18, 2017

American Fascism, Donald Trump and the Slippery Slope



 No day goes by without one more outlandish behavior by our non-President. Howard Dean said it well the other day: Currently, America does not have a functioning president. There is guy who got elected to the White House by accident. No rational person seriously views him as a real President. He is something else - a celebrity, an actor, an oddity, something else. We and the rest of the world have to live with this for the foreseeable future, but this country is now essentially without a functioning president.

A good illustration of this is the flap about Charlottesville: A group of racist Nazi white-supremacist KKK fascists held a rally, they were confronted by a group that opposes racism, violence ensued, the fascists murdered a young woman.

Then, Trump argued in front of the entire planet that both “sides” were equally at fault. Read more...

Thursday, August 10, 2017

North Korea



We just returned from a three-week Hawaiian vacation and I am happy to resume blogging.

When starting up again, the first question is, what shall I write about? The choice is always between something fun, like a travel story, or something grisly, like Trump or North Korea.

Unfortunately, I have to select the latter, since our blog is primarily about current affairs. So right now, I am going to talk about the most important issue in the world today. Next time I’ll tell you about some of our funny experiences on our recent trips. The most important thing in the world today is the face-off between two lunatics - Donald Trump and Kim Jong-Un.

Now don’t misunderstand me: I am not engaging in moral equivalency between the US and North Korea, or between the two countries’ regimes. The US, despite its unhinged President, remains a functioning democracy. North Korea is an indescribably totalitarian, militarized insane asylum. Read more...

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Democracy in Chains: A True Horror Story

by Madeleine Kando

Preliminary Note: My knowledge of politics and economy is not adequate to give this book its full credit, but I felt it was important enough to write about. It describes the Far Right’s vision of a ‘good’ society, one that safeguards liberty for the few at the expense of elementary fairness and freedom for the many. Knowing that the majority of Americans do not share this vision, the billionaires backed Far Right has been working toward their goal by stealth. If you do not have time to read this 240-page masterpiece, just read the last chapter, the conclusion. It is horrifying.

‘Democracy in Chains: the Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America’ is so disturbing, that it takes a while to realize its full significance. Nancy MacLean, a professor of history and public policy at Duke University, suggests that James McGill Buchanan, a libertarian economist and Nobel laureate who taught at George Mason University and died in 2013, inspired the billionaire Charles Koch’s campaign to “save capitalism from democracy — permanently.”

Almost 70 years ago, Buchanan was already promoting the ideas that define libertarianism: Individual freedom, unfettered capitalism and minimal government intervention. In his view, the majority cannot dictate what the individual should do, especially when that individual is rich. He was against everything that a progressive society values: public education, Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid and of course progressive taxation, i.e. everything that is essential to making a society more fair and just.
Read more...

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Restorative or Retributive Justice: Which is better?

by Madeleine Kando

One of the most entertaining ways of getting a grip on the difference between ‘retributive justice’ and ‘restorative justice’, is by watching the TV series ‘Lilyhammer’, starring Steven Van Zandt, Bruce Springsteen’s lead guitarist. It is about a former New York gangster named Frank "The Fixer" Tagliano, who is placed in the Federal Witness Protection Program and sent to Norway to start a new life.

Frank becomes a respected (read ‘feared’) local citizen, mostly due to bribes and intimidation. His ‘American’ method of doling out justice soon finds fertile ground in this over-civilized, rules-bound society. Norwegians ‘talk’ to work through conflict, but Giovanni’s Maffia style methods often get faster and more effective results. Lilyhammer makes fun of Norway’s soft approach to crime and oddly enough the show is incredibly popular in Norway. It must give Norwegians an opportunity to satisfy their thwarted sense of ‘retributive justice’. We all seem to have a desire to take revenge on the ones that have wronged us, whether we live in Norway or somewhere else.

What is Justice?

One of the earliest versions of justice can be found in the Egyptian goddess named Maat. She has an ostrich feather in her hair and a lioness by her side. Cosmic harmony was achieved by correct public and ritual life. Maat weighed the heart of a dead person on a scale against her ostrich feather. If the heart was lighter than the feather, it passed the test and was granted eternal life. If If it was heavy with the weight of wrongdoings, the lioness by her side devoured it and the soul was set adrift into chaos.

But since Plato and Aristotle, there has been a constant battle amongst philosophers on what justice really is: is it God’s Devine Command? Is it something that has been agreed upon between members of society? Or is it a Natural Law, like the law of gravity? If justice is what is commanded by God, is it morally good because God commands it, or does God command it because it is morally good? In other words, does justice exist on a higher order than God, who just follows the rules of justice, or did God create justice, like pulling a rabbit out of magician’s hat? Read more...

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

The Gathering Storm



I’m reading a marvellous book - Sean Carroll’s Brave Genius. It’s about the French Resistance movement during World War Two.

I’m not going to review this entire book. I just mention it because its first chapter evoked a frightening parallel in my mind: That first chapter is about the so-called “Phony War” which took place in Europe from September 1939 to May 1040, when the shooting war actually began:

Officially, World War Two began on September 1, 1039, when Hitler invaded Poland and the allies (France and Britain) declared war on Germany. However, what followed was what the French came to call the “Drole de Guerre,” or the “Phony War.” For over eight months, there was practically no fighting between the Germans and the allies. The major shoot-out began on May 10, 1040, when Hitler invaded the Netherlands, Belgium and France. This phase lasted barely five weeks and ended with the defeat of France. Read more...

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Is Trump's America Increasingly isolated, and are Americans Exceptionally Stupid?



A Dutch friend just sent me an article by Mars van Grunsven in De Groene Amsterdammer (Make America Exceptional Again).

Its main thesis is that America is increasingly isolated from the rest of the world, and that Trump is speeding up this process. It also discusses, as so many have done in the past, the presumptuous belief of many Americans in “American exceptionalism.”

My comments:

1. Isolation? The assertion that America is increasingly isolated implies a dichotomous view of the world: America vs. the rest of the world. But this is nonsense. America is just one out of a couple of hundred countries, some friendly, some hostile, some indifferent. America may enter into new sorts of alliances, with nefarious dictators such as the Philippines’ president Duterte. It is best to see America as a primus inter pares, in the near future maybe secundus or even tertius...just one of the world’s relatively large countries, also a flawed country, as many other countries are. So, not all that exceptional.

2. The Future? If a small country like North Korea can insulate itself and persist in its insane ways for many decades, surely a huge place like America will be able to continue its idiosyncratic culture indefinitely (its attitudes towards guns, sex, race, the economy, science, religion, the environment and everything else). Read more...

Monday, June 19, 2017

With Trump’s Budget Cuts, Americans Should Worry About Their Health and Safety

By Morgan Statt **

We can spend all day taking a look at the way Trump behaves. The media loves to analyze his every move, so much so that it’s hard to forget when he essentially shoved the leader of Montenegro out of the way or that time he tweeted out “covfefe.” By the way, did you know an Illinois lawmaker is looking to turn into federal law a ‘COVFEFE’ bill focused on documenting Presidential activity?

There’s an understandable reason why the media wants to highlight his behavior. It enables us to find a bit of comical relief in the caricature of Trump as we cope with the realization that he’s actually our President. But, there comes a point when we need to remember that Trump isn’t just a dramatized photo we can marvel at. He’s our President, and the scope of changes he’s hoping to bring about could have a very damaging effect on our health and safety. For starters, his 2018 fiscal budget proposal should cause a high level of concern for American consumers. Read more...

Sunday, June 18, 2017

How Jared Kushner gets Rich off of the Backs of the Poor



You probably never heard of the ‘EB-5 Visa Investor Program’, but it is a favorite of real estate developers who are looking to fund their projects with low cost capital. The Program was created in 1990 and provides a method for Immigrant Investors (the majority are Chinese) to obtain to obtain United States visas as a path to permanent residence. By investing upwards of 1million dollars into a commercial enterprise, wealthy foreigners and their families are granted green cards, so long as the investor can prove that 10 U.S. jobs have been created as a result of his or her investment.

Originally intended to benefit poor and rural communities, called a Targeted Employment Area (TEA), where the jobless rate is 150% of the national average, it is now being used and abused by wealthy urban developers like Jared Kushner, the President’s son in law, as a way to finance real estate projects at a below market price. This is exactly how ‘Trump Bay Street’, on the Jersey City waterfront was financed at below market rates, through EB-5 investments. Kushner secured $50 million in funding from about 100 investors from China, South Korea and Vietnam.

That would already be cause for ethical concern, considering how Trump and hence his chief advisor, Jared Kushner, are railing against the Chinese takeover of our economy, but Kushner wanted to sweeten the deal. His investors, he announced, would only have to pay half of that million dollar to get a path to citizenship. Read more...

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

How Big is the Universe and How many Stars and Planets are there?


With assistance from Dr. Gene Barnes


1. So far, the most distant body we know of in the universe is GN-z11, a galaxy about 13.4 billion light years away. In other words, what we see of GN-z11 today left that body 13.4 billion years ago, which is not long after the birth of the universe, which occurred 13.8 billion years ago (see: The Most Distant Objects; The Farthest Reaches; The Age of the Universe).

 2. Time: If the universe were 1 year old today, the sun and earth would have formed about three months ago; life on earth would have begun about two months ago; dinosaurs would have roamed around the world for about one hour yesterday, then disappeared; the first hominoids would have appeared an hour ago, Cro Magnon man one minute ago; Columbus would have crossed the Atlantic a second ago.

3. Distances: One light year is about 9.5 trillion kilometers. So GN-z11 is located at 13.4 billion x 9.5 trillion kilometers from us. This is 127,300,000,000,000,000,000,000 kilometers = One hundred and twenty-seven sextillion kilometers (1,273 x 10 to the twentieth power).
Read more...

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

The Dubious Friends of Donald Trump

 With Additional Research by
The title of this article is borrowed from a Dutch film which documents or alleges a worldwide web of criminal activities, with ties to the Trump organization. See The Dubious Friends of Donald Trump. These activities involve many men from the former Soviet Union (several said to be tied to or part of the “Russian Mob”). A helpful article is the Sacramento Bee, May 30, 2017; McClatchy Washington Bureau, Other sources include Mafia-linked Figures, Felix Sater, Forbes Billionaires, Trump and the Oligarch ‘Trio’ and The Diplomat.

What emerges is an incredibly colorful and complex worldwide net of criminal activities by shady characters from Kazakhstan, Russia, Israel, the Netherlands, the United States and elsewhere. These transactions involve billions of dollars in dozens of countries all over the globe.

The story reminds me of the Tintin capers I enjoyed so much as a boy, or intrigue a la James Bond and Jason Bourne, with a tinge of Don Corleone thrown in. I suppose this topic should be taken very seriously. But for now, just enjoy:

According to the McClatchy Washington Bureau, two fugitive oligarchs are accused of laundering Kazakh money in US real estate, some of it owned by Donald Trump. Read more...

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Let's Raise Taxes Already!



The Trump disaster is upon us. More specifically, the Trumponomics disaster is upon us. That is, the President and his Republican goons are going to try to pass a massive tax cut to benefit the super rich.

You don’t have to be an economist to see why this is a disaster. And I am not even talking about the immorality and  the injustice of making the rich even richer and the poor even poorer. No, what I am talking about is what this is going to do to the federal budget and the national economy.

One of America’s most obstinate problems is that its government is increasingly broke. It is broke  the same way that you would be broke if you kept increasing your debt year after year, and kept spending more and more of your income to finance your debt,  i.e. on  interest payments.  Each year you would have less  money left over to buy things. This is a vicious circle. Currently, Uncle Sam spends each year nearly  half a trillion (!) dollars  more than it collects  in taxes. Read more...

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

The Stories Cemetery



I went to the stories cemetery today. I had wrapped my latest story due for burial in a plastic cover, taking care that it would not wrinkle. I gave it a last gentle stroke with the palm of my hand before I carefully placed it in my bag.

It was one of those rainy, gloomy days, a perfect fit for my long overdue homage to all the stories that died a premature death. I walked down the unkempt lanes, weeds growing abundantly, partially covering some of the epitaphs. Some had been carved with great care, betraying the author’s ambivalence at having to let go. An ornamental gravestone read: ‘In loving memory of ‘the Crooked Warrior’. Died prematurely, due to lack of good diction.’ Another one, this one barely legible: ‘Here lies ‘the Missing Slippers ’. Died due to a lack of stamina’. ‘Died due to a bad plot’. ‘Died due to too many words’, etc. It was all so depressing, so I stopped reading.

I found our family plot, and looked for a good spot to lay my latest story to rest. The epitaph I had prepared read: ‘On this spot lies ‘the Weathervane’. Died prematurely at the tender age of 3 weeks, due to lack of inspiration.’ It took me a while to finish digging; my glasses began to fog up because of my tears, but I finally placed the plastic bag carefully in the grave and began to cover it with dirt.

I was about to pat down the earth, when I felt a small stirring under my hands. Did I bury a little creature together with my story by accident? I must have imagined it. So I kept going. Now, there was a distinct movement that I couldn’t ignore. The soil heaved and heaved, until I saw a small piece of plastic appear. Read more...

Sunday, May 14, 2017

The Dream of the Godfather's Hyman Roth has come True



“Michael, if I could only live to see it, to be there with you. What I wouldn't give for twenty more years! Here we are, protected, free to make our profits without... the goddamn Justice Department and the F.B.I. ninety miles away, in partnership with a friendly government. Ninety miles! It's nothing! Just one small step, looking for a man who wants to be President of the United States, and having the cash to make it possible. Michael, we're bigger than U.S. Steel.”
 (Hyman Roth, The Godfather II)

 After having written dozens of articles about Trump, Hillary Clinton and the presidential campaign during the year leading up to the election, I was hoping to get away from that tedious topic. And I have.

However, the media have not. The problem remains, and it is the media’s responsibility to keep reminding us daily that we live in an unacceptable situation: We have a president who should not be president. It’s that simple. The Trump presidency is upon us, but it is unacceptable. Read more...

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Identity Theft



My mother-in-law, Yopie, is turning a hundred this year. She lives very very far away from her children, her grandchildren and her great grandchildren, of whom she has so many that she cannot remember most of their names.

Yopie has always been better at remembering faces. Voices as well, until she turned deaf, first in one ear, as a result of a severe ear infection, then in the other a few decades ago, give or take. Now that she is embarking on her second century of life, a name or a face is not even a guarantee for success, as you will soon find out.

On her hundredth birthday, she will receive a letter in the mail from the President, congratulating her on her long life. She insists on all of us being there when the letter arrives, her five children and their respective wives and husbands, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

So we pack our bags, my husband, the children and I, and resign ourselves to the prospect of spending our holiday in freezing Holland instead of beautiful Bali. With some effort we convince my husband’s older brother Sam, who has settled in Greece after a divorce from his English lawyer wife, to join us. He never leaves his goat farm, you see, not even for one day. He is a recluse and hates to travel, always using his goats as an excuse to stay away from family events. Read more...

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Childhood Memories



I was born in Budapest, but we fled from Hungary to France two years after the war. I was seven then, my sisters were five. We were refugees and our life in Paris was difficult. My parents couldn’t find jobs. Soon my father went back to Hungary, reasoning that he would be better off living under Communism with a job than under Capitalism without one. That was the last we saw of him.

My mother did finally find a job working in a photo lab on the Boulevard Saint Germain, in the 6th arrondissement. She had to be at the lab from early morning to eight at night. She had a nearly two-hour long commute each way, combining a long walk, then a bus, then twenty-five subway stops.

We didn’t see much of our mother during those years. Sometimes she paid for a horrid, witch-like care-taker (with an ugly mustache). We also spent time in cheap boarding houses. At times, we simply took care of ourselves, feeding ourselves and putting ourselves to bed. My mother would get home well after ten. How well I remember her gentle good-night kiss, how happy it made me, even as it woke me up.
Read more...

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Bravo la France, Bravo the Monde!



 The election of Emmanuel Macron to the French presidency on May 7 is a victory for France, it is a victory for Europe, and a victory for the world. 

We now have a pattern: During the past year, the British people have voted to exit from the European Union, the US elected President Trump, while the Austrians elected a Green Party President, the Dutch turned back Geert Wilders’ nativist insurgency, and the French elected the centrist Emmanuel Macron to the presidency.

It appears that the two Anglo-Saxon nations have  given in to the politics of fear, hatred and division, whereas other countries (so far) opt for the politics of hope, progress and unification.

It may be that the United States and Britain, having been largely dominant in the world for the past couple of centuries, are having difficulty adjusting to a diminished role and a reduction in privilege. Read more...

Saturday, May 6, 2017

Against Nuclear War and Social Injustice



 The mission of Physicians for Social Responsibility is to help protect the public against threats to global survival, specifically nuclear warfare and proliferation, global warming, and toxic degradation of the environment. It offers testimony to Congress and delivers professional and public education. It is a national network with 50,000 members and e-activists, and it is the U.S. affiliate of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, winner of the 1985 Nobel Peace Prize. It is not necessary to be a physician to be a member or a supporter of this excellent organization.

One of the Sacramento chapter’s major functions is the Annual High School Scholarship Essay Contest. This was the 13th consecutive year that the contest was held, a period during which over $150,000 has been handed out.

The contest consists of responding to a prompt in an essay of 500 or fewer words. Each year a different prompt is used and the essays of past contest winners are posted on the PSR/Sacramento website at www.sacpsr.org.

This year’s prompt was the following statement by Franklin Roosevelt: “Democracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely. The real safeguard of democracy, therefore, is education.” Read more...

Monday, April 17, 2017

A Conversation with Ata, my 103 Year Old Mother

Ata Kando


I watch Ata struggle with her blankets. She has returned from one of her numerous trips to the bathroom, trying to settle back in her recliner close to the window. My sister Juliette moved it there on her last visit, so that Ata can look out, although she cannot see much any more. Just spots, she says. My mother has grown thinner and smaller since last September. When she shuffles across the room, leaning on her wheeled walker, her hunchback is now so prominent, that she has difficulty looking straight ahead.

She breathes heavily, groans and sighs until she finally settles in her usual comfortable position. Then, her sweet smile returns and she is ready to engage with the world, which is now me, on my latest visit from America.

It’s a beautiful Dutch spring day and I ask Ata if she would like to take a ride to the beach that afternoon. But even brief day trips are no longer part of our routine. Her world is reduced to trips to the bathroom and to her bed at night.

A few years ago, when she was only 96, we could still go on overnights together to places like the Ardennes. As the years passed, our trips got shorter, but my visits to Ata were always fused with the joy of driving through beautiful Holland together.

This time it is different. Ata no longer leaves her recliner. She no longer reads, listens to music, or watches TV. She cannot smell the blooming cherry trees in front of her large bay window. Her extreme old age has sneaked up on both of us, as one by one, her senses have abandoned her. Read more...

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Some of the Things I Remember from World War Two




War is on my mind lately, because of the saber rattling by the boy who leads North Korea and our own man-boy leader. It’s scary, when two mentally unstable heads of state face off, and they both have nukes.

Also, I just saw The Zookeeper’s Wife. The movie is better than the credit it gets. It’s about World War Two, in Warsaw.

I was barely over 4 years old when the war ended in Europe, and I grew up in Budapest, which is “next door” to Warsaw, so to speak. This movie brought back many memories. It’s interesting how one becomes more forgetful in the short-term when one ages, but also how long-term memory sometimes resurfaces.

The Battle of Budapest between the Soviet Red Army and the Axis Powers - Germany and Hungary, primarily - took place in the winter of 1944-45, one of the coldest on record. It is estimated that it resulted in 40,000 civilian deaths, 150,000 Soviet casualties, dozens of thousands of German and Hungarian combat deaths, and half a million Hungarians transported to the Soviet Union (Siege of Budapest).
Read more...

Friday, April 7, 2017

Tower of Babel, Cacophony, or Multilingualism on Testosterone?




So this morning I Skyped with my family in Holland (actually, it was morning for me, evening for them).

My mother Ata lives in Holland. She will turn 104 in a few months. This week, my sister Madeleine, her daughter, her son-in-law and her grandson were all visiting Ata. They are all from America, but my sister Madeleine is an immigrant, like me.

In addition, there were a couple of Dutch ladies there, wonderful women who volunteer to provide my mother with immense assistance. Altogether, there were more than half a dozen people in my mother’s Dutch flat while I was skyping with her from Sacramento.

So this skyping event was exceptionally international, which is not unusual in my family.

We were all born in Hungary. I was seven when we left that country, and my twin sisters were six. The three of us soon forgot Hungarian, but it has always remained our mother’s primary tongue.
Read more...

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Is Patriotism Good or Bad?




 There is a lot of talk about patriotism these days. The new president wants to make America great (again).

 Also, I just read J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy. It’s a pretty good book. The author describes with great honesty his feelings about his Appalachian origins, and his feelings about that subculture, as well as about America in general. He was a marine for four years and served in Iraq. He is an “enlightened” patriot. He gets teary-eyed when he hears Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA.”

So I am thinking: Why don’t I get teary-eyed when I hear that song? What’s the matter with me? I am an American, too!

And why do I admire Colin Kaepernick, the San Francisco 49er quarterback who kneeled during the National Anthem instead of standing at salute? The vast majority of the public in the stadium booed him, and he might not be hired by any NFL team next season. His act of defiance was in support of the “Black Lives Matter” movement. He is paying a high price and I I find his behavior heroic.
Read more...

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Hundred Places that will Change your Life?



In the summer of 2016, the National Geographic Magazine published a special edition about “Hundred Places that Will Change Your Lfe.” It describes one hundred  fabulous places in fifty-five  different countries.

As an inveterate traveler, I had to look into this. For one thing, after seventy years of worldwide travel,  - how many of these spots have I had seen?  Regretfully,  I have only been in 32  of the sites listed by  the National Geographic, and only  in 19 of these 55 countries - just about one third.  Oh well, I’ll check out the remainder in my next life.

The National Geographic  divides its list into four categories, each containing 25 places: (1) Mind,  (2) Body, (3) Spirit and (4)Soul:

The first 25 sites  are places where you  may go to enrich yourself mentally and culturally. To clarify the point, the magazine quotes Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. ,who once said that “A Man’s Mind is stretched by a new idea or sensation, and never shrinks back to its former dimensions.” Here are some examples of such places: Read more...

Monday, March 27, 2017

Juicy French Politics



The current administration is mired in controversy, ranging from conflicts of interest and foreign meddling in our elections, to sexual misconduct, but looking at what is happening in France, we certainly don’t have the monopoly on political scandals.

The French Presidential elections are around the corner and of the five candidates that are competing for the job, two are under investigation: Francois Fillon, leader of the conservative party ‘Les Republicains’ and Marine Le Pen, leader of the far right populist party ‘Front National’.

If you think it unethical for Trump to hire family members to help him govern, you only have to look at France to see that nepotism is not exclusive to America. Giving positions to family members is actually common amongst French politicians, but the latest scandal going by the name ‘Penelopegate’ was too much to swallow for the French voter.

Francois Fillon, is charged with paying his wife $1 million with public money for a job as his assistant, that she never fulfilled. Fillon is seen as a hypocrite, since he has proposed cuts to civil servant jobs to save money. Read more...

Sunday, March 19, 2017

It's the Birthrate, Not Immigration




Just for once, let me NOT write about Trump - although, even today’s topic is prompted by what he stands for, namely white supremacy.

White supremacists include Geert Wilders and Steve King. The former is a Dutch nativist, a Dutch Trump, who fortunately just lost an election in the Netherlands. King is an Iowa congressman who recently said that   “We can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies.”  This apes Breitbart News, Trump adviser Steve Bannon, the KKK and all others in Europe, America and elsewhere  who, under the guise of “nationalism,” believe that the white race has a corner on human civilization.

Today, this white panic is prompted in part by the fact that whites make up an ever smaller percentage of the world’s population. There is panic at the prospect that people who are white andChristian are increasingly being replaced by people of color, people who are Muslims, etc.
Read more...

Saturday, March 18, 2017

The Takeaway from the Dutch Elections

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte and Geert Wilders


Holland is in the news this week. They just had their elections and thankfully, the populist PVV party did not win the majority of votes, although it came in a close second. The rest of the world has been watching the Dutch elections closely, since it is the bellwether country for populism in the entire continent. Like the flu, populism is contagious, but the PVV’s relative defeat showed that the Dutch built up some resistance against the populist virus. France has Marine LePenn, leader of the National Front, Germany has the AfD, Italy has the Five Star Movement and Hungary is governed by ultra-right-winger Viktor Orban.

What does this disease consist of, you might ask? It manifests itself in the form of nationalism, anti-immigration on the right and anti-capitalism and a push for redistribution on the left. The ugly side of populism on both sides, is that it is based on exclusion, be it the ruling elite or immigrants, it pushes itself off by demonizing the ‘other’.

Geert Wilders, the leader of the PVV, is often referred to as the Donald Trump of the Netherlands. His is the second largest party at the polls, but that doesn’t mean that the PVV will even be part of the Dutch government, since no other party wants to work with him because of his extreme views on immigration.

In a nationally televised pre-election debate, the ‘Turkish crisis’ was discussed. This is in reference to two Turkish ministers being barred from campaigning in Holland in a bid to drum up support amongst the Turkish residents for Prime Minister Erdogan back home. This caused Turkish authorities to accuse the Dutch of being’ Nazis’. An angry crowd staged an all-out protest outside the Dutch consulate in Istanbul, stabbing oranges with knives and drinking gallons of orange juice. An outsider might conclude that the Turks have finally gone bonkers as a result of being ruled by a madman, but it appears that the color orange is linked to the Netherlands and stabbing oranges was their way to show their displeasure with the Dutch. Read more...

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Jane Mayer’s Dark Money: an Eye Opener

Jane Mayer


I always knew that money was a big influence in politics, but I took it as a given, an unpleasant fact of life, like the harsh winters in New England. But after reading Jane Mayer’s ‘Dark Money: the Hidden History of the Billionaires behind the Rise of the Radical Right’, I realize that there are different types of money spent on politics. Hard money is regulated and has to be account for, but soft money, also known as dark money, is not. This type is now so entrenched in the American political system, that it would take an earthquake of enormous force to dislodge it.

Of course, the biggest players in the story of dark money are the Koch brothers. I was not aware of the extent to which they are responsible for the rightward trend in American politics and how far they are willing to go to advance their political ideas, not to mention their fortunes.

They have been at it for almost half a century, inheriting their libertarian (if not anarchistic) views from their grandfather, Fred Koch, whose rabid anti-communism did not prevent him from making a fortune building refineries for Stalin and later made lucrative business deals with Hitler, whom he greatly admired.

Koch Industries’ corporate rap sheet is miles long. They were found guilty of countless health violations, causing the death of several employees. They were convicted of falsifying emissions output figures at their refineries; they willfully disregard safety regulations, which they consider ‘socialistic’. ‘My freedom is more important than your life’ should be the industry’s motto. Read more...

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Oh, Oh, Amerika



 I just read the book by that title, written by the Dutchman Charles Groenhuijsen (2015).

The premise of the book is similar to that of Rick Nieman’s What we Can Learn from America: An Optimistic Story about the Promised Land (2015), which we reviewed a few months ago (see What we Can Learn from America). While it provides a detailed critique of most of America’s many flaws, its basic theme is that the country is on the road to progress, and that it enjoys many advantages over Europe. In other words, it is one more optimistic and sympathetic analysis of the USA coming from the Netherlands. Interesting.

In this article, I will summarize Groenhuijsen’s book, and conclude that (1) the author is overly optimistic and that (2) his prognosis might have been more negative if he had written the book AFTER Donald Trump’s election rather than just a few months before.

First, what is good about America, according to Groenhuijsen?

● For one thing, Americans are becoming more liberal in their lifestyle. Gay marriage is now the law of the land, more and more jurisdictions are legalizing recreational marijuana, the country is becoming more secular; church attendance is declining, etc. Read more...

Sunday, February 26, 2017

President Trump Stress Disorder (PTSD)



Yesterday, I watched Trump addressing a crowd of core supporters at the American Conservative Political Action Conference. **

My visceral reaction was a tremendous sense of doom. Not because he said anything new, which was accusing ‘the dishonest media’ and repeating all the platitudes that we heard during his campaign, but because of the crowd’s reaction. The speech went on for an hour and as the crowd exploded in a chant of ‘USA! USA!’ shivers went down my spine. At the height of this frenzy, Trump turned his back to the audience, showing the world that they have completely surrendered to him and nothing that he can do will change their allegiance to their leader.

How did we get to this state of madness? Gone are the good old days when I could go about my daily life, a life of relative harmony, a life of simple pleasures like taking walks in the forest or wonder whether it was too early to plant my seedlings.

Trump has put an end to all this normalcy. Now I worry about politics every minute of the day. It is like finding out that your child has a major disease and suddenly all your time is taken up by learning everything about that disease and feverishly trying to find a treatment plan. But in the end, would I not rely on the medical experts to tell me what to do? Read more...

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Evil Rising




I just spent nearly a month in Europe. It’s interesting to compare notes:

Europe is also experiencing a resurgence of nativism, xenophobia, anxiety and rightward politics among its still dominant white bourgeoisie. Like the US, Europe is also flirting with neo-fascism. Holland has its Geert Wilders, France has its Marine Le Pen, Hungary has its Viktor Orbán, etc. These are all far-right demagogues, already in power (Orban) or likely to win upcoming elections (Wilders, Le Pen).

Why is this happening?

There are the obvious alleged reasons, ceaselessly reiterated by the pundits. These include:
1. The threat of foreign influx - largely Muslims in Europe, Latinos in the US. In other words, the demographic threat to the primacy of the traditional, white, European-American dominant majority. This is aided and abetted by the ceaseless chatter about terrorism.
2. De-industrialization due to globalization and automation, greatly increasing economic insecurity.
3. Social change, including the decline of patriarchy, which makes men angry.
In sum: A feeling of being threatened, of losing ground, especially among groups that previously held all the cards.
Read more...

Saturday, February 11, 2017

The Art of the Trumpf

Frederick Trumpf, our President's Grandfather


Some people are lucky. They have family names that elicit respect, like names of Scottish clans or old Saxon names like Armstrong or Goodrich. But others have names that are a warning sign for those who are unlucky enough to cross their path.

One of those names is ‘Trump’. It is a surname derived from Old French ‘tromper’, which means, "to cheat". The word ‘trumpery’ first appeared in English in the mid-15th century with the meanings "deceit or fraud". To trump up means, "to concoct with the intent to deceive"

Donald Trump’s original family name was Drumpf. It is derived from the word "Dumpf", which means dull.*

The ‘Drumpf’ family originates in Kallstadt Germany, where the first known person with that surname was Hanns Drumpf. He was so dull, that his relatives advised him to go into the wine business, so that he would be acceptably entertaining, at least when he was slightly inebriated.

Dullness being a trait that is passed on to your offspring, his son Johan Philip Drumpf also remained in the winegrowing business. He was often seen in the local wine cellars, sampling his own wine and making bad jokes, trying to hide his genetic boorishness. ** Read more...

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Will the Real Bambi please Stand up?

Mirko Hanák, 1967


The first time I saw Bambi, I was nine years old. Ten minutes into the movie, I had to leave the theatre, unable to handle Bambi’s mother being shot. It took another 5 years before I mustered the courage to watch the movie in its entirety.

You can say a lot of things about Disney, but he was a master puppeteer at manipulating his audience’s emotions, young and old. He was also an incredibly clever businessman who plagiarized most of his stories, including Bambi.

I found this out when I recently discovered the original Bambi story. It is written by Felix Salten, a Hungarian Jew, whose original name was Sigmund Salzmann. Like many Jews in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, (including my own grandfather) he changed his name to be more accepted by the society around him.

He lived in Vienna, which was the center of European culture in those days and became quite famous as a writer and critic. His most famous work: ‘Bambi, A Life in the Woods’, is a masterpiece if you ever read one.

Contrary to Disney, Salten was a terrible businessman. He sold the movie rights to his story for a mere $1000 to MGM producer Sidney Franklin, who in turn, sold it to Disney. The rest is history.

After having read the original, part of me feels that, although Disney’s Bambi deserves a place in history for having captivated the hearts of millions of viewers, it has also overshadowed one of the most beautifully written stories I know. Read more...

Sunday, January 29, 2017

I was a Refugee



 Trump has signed an executive order banning immigration from a number of countries. This affects first and foremost refugees - for example from war-torn Syria.

So this is an opportune time for me to share with you my own past, as a refugee:

I was born in Budapest at the beginning of World War Two. My family survived the horror of the war, the Holocaust (we are Jewish), the Nazi and then the Soviet occupation. My first foray out of Hungary occurred one year after the end of the war, when I was sent to a refugee camp in Italy. I remember sleeping in an underground bunker. Then, a year later, we fled to Paris. I was seven. We became refugees in France. My only official identity paper was a United Nations document declaring me to be an “Apatride.” This means “stateless,” someone without a country. I remember this card well. It carried the familiar UN Logo.

For the next thirteen years, I grew up in Paris and in Amsterdam as an “apatride.” It was practically impossible to travel even into the country next door. Even visiting friends in Belgium, seventy miles away, required a visa, which required almost insurmountable bureaucratic endeavors. Read more...

Our Many Brains



It has long been known that our heart has a cluster of neurons that can influence the way we feel and think. Proof of this can be found in cases of heart transplants, whereby an inexplicable change occurs in the recipient’s personality.

After waking up with his new heart, Greg Swanson of Tulsa, Oklahoma, turned from being a fun-loving, hard drinking, skirt chasing Casanova into a shy, introverted bookworm, who suddenly needed prescription glasses and was afraid of everything except his 17-year old hamster, Jesibel. Medical staff found that the donor of the heart had been a reclusive, hamster-loving, semi-autistic genius who had blown himself up while working on an invention.

How do we explain this sudden transformation? Research has shown that the heart contains a cluster of neurons that not only functions autonomously to regulate its own rhythm, but that it also tells the brain what kind of person it wants to inhabit. Evicted against its will, a donor heart will tell its new landlord in no uncertain terms who is the boss. Read more...

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Why I Marched



I marched with 150 thousand others yesterday, joining the Women’s March in Boston. Why did I sacrifice my precious Saturday to stand in an over-packed subway car to take me to the heart of Boston to join an ocean of women and men wearing pink pussy hats, brandishing signs of every imaginable shape and size with slogans ranging from ‘Dicktator’ or ‘Keep your tiny hands off my equal pay’, to ‘the pussy strikes back’?

I did this because I am angry, frustrated, disappointed, but mostly because I believe that doing nothing is not an option. By marching I showed the world, you, myself, that the time has come to say ‘this has gone too far’. It felt better than standing in my kitchen, listening to the news while cooking dinner and feeling helpless, hopeless and powerless.

I marched because marching binds people together without using words. When 150 thousand pairs of feet do the talking, people listen. I marched because it gave me strength, even if it was just for one afternoon and if there is anything that can be called ‘action at a distance’, yesterday’s 600 marches throughout the entire world deserve that description. Read more...

Friday, January 13, 2017

Racism and Other Evils




 Since the presidential election, I have come to a point of mental rest and clarity: I am now convinced that the great division in our country today is simply between Good and Evil. After you weed out all the chaff and the noise, all the accidental aspects of specific issues, there remains one clear and simple fact: On one side are hatred, rage, racism, chauvinism selfishness, greed, violence, xenophobia, deliberate lies, deception and ignorance. On the other side are hope, compassion, acceptance, courage and goodwill. By and large, those who elected Donald Trump are on the bad side, and - yes, I’ll simply call a spade a spade - liberals are forever the good guys.

Flawed as we all may be, the political Right is immeasurably more evil than liberals are. The latter may often be incompetent, lazy, they may compromise their ethics and run for cover.
Read more...

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Petals



‘I don’t think I am drinking enough these days,’ said the rose petal to no one in particular. ‘I feel a bit dehydrated and it’s not good for my complexion.’ She looked at the petal over on her right with slight envy, noticing a marked difference in tone.

A ladybug, who was lazily crawling up the side of the rosebush overheard. ‘Don’t worry about it. Drinking is overrated, a fad if you ask me,’ he said.

‘It’s easy for you to say,’ the petal said, ‘you have legs but I am stuck here perched on a rosebush. Why they had to plant us in the sunniest spot in the garden is beyond me. Have they no compassion?’

The petal sighed which caused her to droop a little more. The brighter colored petal on her left looked at her with some disdain and said: ‘You haven’t used the treatment I recommended. Dew drops should be applied daily from left to right.’ She twisted a little to show off how rosy she still looked and started to hum with satisfaction. Read more...

Monday, January 2, 2017

Gender: Is it a Thing of the Past?



My grandson's name is Marshall. A big name for a little 4 year old. His long curly hair is the color of pure gold; the shiniest, softest curls cover his sweet little face. His eyes are blue, with a twinkle of mischief when he is happy, a dark stare that makes you shiver inside, when he is not.

He is my little man and I am head over heels. I never had a little man of my own, so this is a free-bee for me. He has entered my golden years and I feel like I won the lottery.

Because of his long blond hair, people in the street exclaim what a cute little girl he is. It's the privilege of young children to not be pinned down yet by their sex. We treat them with affection not yet tainted with judgment. They are not yet saddled with the burden of gender identity and we treat them the way we respond to pets, without any expectations or prejudice. He has long hair? So what if he is a boy? Read more...