Friday, December 7, 2012

Give Yourself This Gift!

'Tis, after all, the season for giving and from all appearances, we are in a perfect giving frenzy.  So, it may seem odd to suggest that a good gift to give yourself right now might be something called "the 29-day gift challenge."  On one hand, we are utterly obsessed with gift giving so where's the challenge? On the other hand, we are totally overwhelmed with gift giving so why do we need more of a challenge just now?

Here is the answer to both questions.  Just now, particularly just now, when we are consumed with giving gifts, we are probably doing both the giving and receiving unconsciously.  We have our lists and we are power shopping to get as much as we can at the lowest price possible.

This challenge is to give one gift each day and to do it consciously, just because.  Like the police officer in New York City who gave the homeless guy boots and shoes.  He saw a need and stepped up.

Oh, put away your credit cards.  This giving is not about money, although it could be.  This is very, very simple.  You just consciously give something each day for 29 consecutive days. And, write something about what you gave and who you gave to.

None of this needs to be complicated.  You just make a commitment to be mindful and look for giving opportunities throughout the day.  It can be as simple as a smile or as expansive as you choose.  Then you just make a note of it on your calendar or in a notebook or on you smart phone. "Gave smile and thanks to the sales clerk who checked me out today."

It's that simple.  And, you can up the ante just a little, if you are so inclined.  You can actually sign up for the 29-day Giving Challenge.  It's quick and easy and you can read stories of other people who have taken the challenge.  You can even download a free calendar page to track your progress.  You can enhance your experience by writing just a little more about your giving experience.

You can even get a copy of the book, 29 Gifts - How a Month of Giving Can Change Your Life, by Cami Walker.  Walker has multiple sclerosis and embarked on this challenge herself as part of her healing.  She was not healed in the traditional sense, but her life was transformed.  The 29-day Giving Challenge evolved from her experience.

I signed up because I want to open myself to some fundamental changes in my life.  I hope you will, too.  The worst that can happen is that you will make the world a little better place for 29 days.  That is not a bad downside.

If you decide to take the challenge, I hope you will stop back here and let us know.  You could consider your comments on this blog as one of your gifts.  I would deeply appreciate hearing from you!

Friday, November 2, 2012

Why I Want Big Government

If you are under 50 years old, you may not remember a time when government functioned pretty well and people went into government service as a calling.  In fact, these days it is a radical act just to suggest that such a time ever existed.

But, Government is what stands between you and the rascals who would happily fleece you at every turn.  Whether it is big industry dumping waste into public waters or big banks making off with your pensions, government is the only protection the mass of average citizens have and it should be big enough and strong enough to do the job.

In the ‘80s, Ronald Regan began the process of making government the cause of whatever was not working.  In The Wrecking Crew, Thomas Frank explains how Conservatives have systematically destroyed vital government services by putting them in the hands of utter incompetents and then complaining bitterly that they don't work.

As a result, Frank says, we expect little of government service providers and less of elected representatives.  By positioning themselves as perpetual "outsiders" (even when they have a conservative president and control of the Congress), Conservatives are never accountable for failures.  They simply don’t bother attempting to solve problems.  Whatever does not work is always the fault of someone else.  Failure is just a problem of not taking Conservative laissez faire principles far enough.

It has been a good strategy and it has worked up to now.  But, Thomas Frank and others are pulling away the curtain revealing the dirty tricks hiding in the dark.  Once you see it, you can never go back.

(Author’s Note:  I wrote this a couple of weeks ago, well before we started hearing predictions for Hurricane Sandy.  I remember that after the destruction of Irene last year, Republicans (notably Paul Ryan and Eric Cantor) wanted to “negotiate” for FEMA funding to provide aid to victims by trading other services for disaster relief.  Immediately after Sandy, I heard one little blip of that suggestion and then nothing.  Apparently, they decided that holding disaster victims hostage for political gain just before the election was not a good idea!  Negotiating relief in the face of disaster, however, is not longer unthinkable.  It is an idea that will be back.)

So now, how do you feel about the role of government in your life?  Do you believe government can work better for all of us?  What would it take to make that happen?

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Thomas Frank Is One Angry Liberal

Pity the Billionaire, by Thomas Frank

Have you ever wondered why the Conservatives are so angry even when everything seems to be going their way?  And where are the angry Liberals?  In Pity the Billionaire, Thomas Frank finds enough righteous Liberal anger to satisfy everyone and serves it up with a healthy dollop of withering humor.

So, why is Thomas Frank so angry?  Because crushing economic circumstances have brought tremendous power to the very ideas, beliefs, and people who created those circumstances.  And while Conservatives scream and yell and boo-hoo over their victimization, Liberals stand mumbling ineffectively in the background.

The Right has been very busy usurping all the Left’s arguments, turning them on their heads and demanding even harsher punishment for victims of the economic crash and even greater rewards for the perpetrators.  Too many of us are now thinking of the traders who made out like bandits before everything crashed and then cashed in at our expense afterwards as “the little guys” struggling bravely against big government.

Paul Ryan became the darling of big business by ranting for small business and entrepreneurs and blaming all our woes on government interference in free markets.  We have become a nation where “your mortgage is not MY problem” as one tea party rally sign expressed it.  We have a situation in which the guy in the breadline is worried about the guy lounging on his yacht!

Public discourse has gone all topsy-turvy and Thomas Frank explains how it happened with wit, humor, and righteous anger.

So, do you pity the billionaire?  Does government have a role in our recovery?  Can the policies that got us in this mess get us out of it?  And most importantly, who do you think should lead us through economic recovery?  Are you angry yet?  At this critical time, share your thoughts!

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Why I LOVE Paul Krugman

Economics -- Just shoot me now, right? It's dry, boring, and (worst of all) complicated.  Right? The best thing ordinary folks can do is leave decisions about the economy to the big boys who know what they are doing.  Right? Enter, Paul Krugman.
Paul Krugman

I am tired of people telling me economics is just too complicated.  It really isn't.  I love Paul Krugman because he offers clear, concise, compelling explanations of economic issues without the bombast of name calling and the self-righteous rantings of unsubstantiated nonsense.

If you want the whole picture, you can read his book, End this Depression Now   (or you can start with my review of it) and then you can decide for yourself.  I have read a number of books about how we got where we are, but not so many about what we need to do about it.

Krugman presents a map for cleaning up the mess and ending the pain.  He backs it up with facts, with analysis, and with sound reasoning.  It is easy to understand and important to try.

If you want daily updates, you can read his blog, The Conscience of a Liberal.

In the meantime, here is what you need to know.  First, the things we are told  "we all know" are most likely dead wrong.  For example, "we all know that government cannot create jobs."  Government can, has, and should be involved in a major jobs creation programs.  

Second, the information Krugman uses is available to everyone yet, for various reasons, the experts we rely on are lying to us.  If we continue to act as if they are telling the truth, we are choosing to be mislead.

Third, the deficit is not nearly as important as job creation.  For one thing, because the deficit is tied to GDP (gross domestic product), when GDP increases, the deficit is automatically reduced.  See how easy it is to understand?

Finally, the only thing really holding our economy in stagnation is lack of clarity coupled with lack of political will.  Krugman makes a good case for the clarity.  We are responsible for the political will.

That's why this election is so important.  More clearly than ever, we are choosing between continuing the path outlined by economic ideologues who have a major stake in ignoring actual verifiable facts and a path that is at least willing to look at the facts and try something different.

So, where do you stand on current economic issues?  Is the trickle down (or as Archie Bunker called it, "tinkle down") economic strategy helping you?  Do you think more tax breaks for the wealthy will create more jobs or do you want the government to take action and create jobs now?  How would you get the economy moving again?

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Can You Improve Your Odds of Surviving a Disaster?

The answer in The Unthinkable:  Who Survives When Disaster Strikes - and Why, by Amanda Ripley, is a resounding “Yes.”

The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes - and WhyRipley weaves survivor tales, scientific study, government policy, and more into a powerful narrative that provides amazing insight and life saving perspective into our understanding of disaster and how we respond to it.  She also tells us that we can improve our responses.  Something so simple as actually reading those emergency cards on all airplanes and choosing an exit to use if needed can make the difference between surviving a crash and not.

From survivor stories and scientific research, we are learning how our brains function in a disaster.  When something unexpected and threatening happens, most of us either do the wrong thing or do nothing at all.  Restaurant patrons finish dinner while the room they are dining in fills with smoke.  Airline passengers laugh when a flight attendant calls, "brace, brace."  People who should be evacuating their offices take time to turn off computers, search for the book they are reading, or make a phone call.

Some people even make up stories about what is happening – and believe them.  In a large scale disaster, victims often think it is happening only to them.  People exiting the Twin Towers expected to find activity on the street going on as usual.  They were shocked by what they actually confronted.

And, little things can make a big difference.  For example, more women were injured escaping from the Twin Towers than men because their shoes were a serious hindrance and had to be discarded.  Several survivors reported that they had to skirt piles of women's shoes in the stair wells as they descended from upper floors.  In a disaster, something relatively insignificant can become an enormous obstacle.

For all that, this is a surprisingly hopeful book.  Any of us can be caught in a disaster at any time and those of us involved are the true first responders.  With a little luck, a little information, and a little planning, we can save ourselves and possibly others.

We can't do much about the luck, but we can do a good deal about the information.  Something so simple as actually reading those emergency cards on all airplanes and choosing an exit to use if needed can make the difference between surviving a crash and not.

Ripley outlines some basic steps we can all take to improve our chances of surviving and some web sites we can visit for more information.  Some of the steps are basic and easy.  Others are more far reaching and complex. 
She even offers a few good suggestions to help you decide what you should be worrying about.

So, what disasters worry you?  Have you made any preparations?  Let us know!

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

What You See Is Not Necessarily What You Get

Until It's Over, by Nicci French

Astrid Bell is a bicycle messenger living in a house with six housemates who are all pretty much life stragglers -- those Peter Pan people who should have started a career, but are still languishing in that gray area between young adult and full-blown grown-up.  They have a history together that includes friendship, romance, and an array of interdependencies.

But all good things come to an end.  The housemate who owns the house wants to live there alone with his new girlfriend.  The house is breaking up and everyone has to find new living arrangements.  Of course, this comes at the worst possible time.

Astrid has just been accidently knocked off of her bicycle by a neighbor who is then found murdered near the house.  In fairly short order, two other women are murdered and it is the hapless Astrid who finds the bodies.  It becomes clear that she is somehow connected to the murders and, to some extend, she and the housemates are all suspects.

That stress and the stress of breaking up the household lead to arguements as the housemates turn on one another.  Eventually, the killer among them is identified and arrested to the astonishment of all.

That's the first part of the story.  It basically shows what is happening, follows the breakdown of long-standing relationships, and possibly shows how little we really know about those closest to us.  What you think you know at this point, though, is mostly just enough off to be entirely wrong.

The second part is from the point of view of someone else, a sort of ghost in the machine.  Incidents that earlier seemed just the product of the group's disintegration begin to take on a new, more sinister meaning.  One of the housemates has been gathering information and then using it to push just a little at a weak point and watch the havoc that develops.

I enjoyed this book.  The first part did a good job of revealing the characters, their interrelationships, their little cliques and grudges, and the peculiarities of their housing arrangements.  The second part did a good job of getting into the head of the killer and revealing both shrewdness and madness.

The author, Nicci French, by the way, is actually the husband and wife writing team of Nicci Gerrard and Sean French.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

One Book You Must Read Before You Vote

End This Depression NOW by Paul Krugman

I have read a number of books about how we got into the financial crisis of 2007 and I have a fair understanding of what happened.  That's all well and good, but that little bit of understanding left me feeling a little hopeless, as if it was all just too complex to really manage.  Even worse, it left me feeling that the most common solutions being offered were not likely to be very helpful.  

book cover In End This Depression NOW, Paul Krugman takes a different approach.  He considers what needs to be done right now to get our economy moving again and he offers a number of very specific suggestions.  Better still, his suggestions make sense because he supports them with analysis, metaphors, and examples -- all based on facts and "real world" observations.  These are things we can follow for ourselves, things we can consider from our own experience, things we can actually verify.

It makes you realize how much fluff is puffing up discussions of economic crisis and what needs to be done to deal with it.  I don't want to hear that "we all know government can't create jobs, but..."  I, for one, do not "know" that at all.  I believe government can create jobs and I know it can save jobs.  It just does not make sense not to do that.  

So, one of the things I like so much about this book is that it does make sense.  Not everything may be "right," but at least Krugman is reasoning from facts in the form of actual data.  He is drawing conclusions from past similar situations in a "this was the situation; here is what was done; here was the result" process that lets the reader see the reasoning.  Then you actually have something of substance to agree or disagree with.

Krugman points out that we have the same workforce, the same knowledge base, and the same resources today that we had just before the bubble burst back in 2007.  The solutions we need to get those things moving again are really not all that difficult nor, really, all that painful.

Here is my favorite story from the book.  A husband does not take good care of the family car and especially the electrical system.  One day, it will not start.  The wife wants to try a new battery, but the husband scoffs at the idea that a $30,000 car could be laid low by something so simple as a $100 battery.  He says the trouble is clearly something more dramatic, more complicated, and far more expensive.  The family, he says, must learn to walk and take buses until the real problem can be identified and resolved.

The wife has a problem, Krugman says, but not with the car.  Point taken.

I love this book -- so much that I read it straight through not just once, but twice.  The reasoning is sound, well thought out, and well documented.  The suggested fixes are doable and seem more likely to succeed than anything I have heard so far.  And if they are tried and fail?  Krugman says simply try something else until the solution is found.

Best of all, this is a hopeful book.  Before you drift off into painful hopelessness and dig in to the long haul of sacrifice, read this book!

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Exploring Some Very Fine Lines in Leadership

A First-Rate Madness: Uncovering the Links between Leadership and Mental Illnessby Nassir Ghaemi

First, I have to tell you that the author of this book is a well-credentialed professor of psychiatry at Tufts University School of Medicine and the director of the Mood Disorders program at Tufts Medical Center in Boston.

The next thing I have to tell you is that the thesis of this book is that the best leader in a time of crisis may very well be a person who has suffered some sort of mental illness.  On top of that, the very worst leader in a crisis may be one who suffers from normality.

The thesis is built on a re-examination of history with examples including Lincoln, Churchill, Kennedy, Roosevelt, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and Ted Turner as examples of leaders who managed crisis well despite evidence of some mental health issues.

In fairness, not just any mental health issue enhances leadership outcomes.  Schizophrenia, for example, is not helpful.  On the other hand, many leaders suffered from depressions, bipolar disorder, and hyperthymia which is, apparently, a sort of slightly manic temperament.

For examples of more or less normal leaders who were fairly successful until they were called upon to manage a crisis, his examples include Nixon, Bush (the second), and Tony Blair.

Ghaemi also provides a lengthy examination of Hitler and considers how he fits the thesis.  Initially, Hitler may have had a bit of the right kind of madness, but it was tragically mishandled by a doctor injecting him daily with early versions of methamphetamines. 

While Hitler's madness ballooned past any kind of madness that could be useful, the more chilling disclosure is that most of his closest subordinates fell firmly into the normal group.  Madness in any form, it appears, is not required of followers.

This is a fascinating book full of interpretation of little known historical facts.  For all of that, it seems to be well researched and it is certainly well presented.  More importantly, it challenges our understanding of both normality and mental illness and the biases we all hold for and against each.

As I read this book, I was inundated with the struggle of the Republican party to identify a viable candidate for the next election and I am none too happy with the outcome.  As we move into the party conventions, we seem to be more clearly at a crisis point.  Unfortunately, the madness of the Conservative Right is a much less than first-rate and Obama, like Carter before him, may be just entirely too "normal."  I am more anxious every day.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

An Engaging Story Well Told

I Still Dream About You, by Fannie Flagg

It surely must be one of those universal experiences to look in the mirror one day and realize that you probably are not going to have the life you imagined for yourself. That is what has happened to Maggie Fortenberrry. Because she grew up above a movie theater her father managed, she expected generally happy endings. Because she is a former Miss Alabama, she expected great great opportunities for herself.

At 60 something, she has come to terms with the simple fact that most of what she wanted from life was lost because of her own poor decisions.  With not much to look forward to except more loss and the inevitable physical decline, Maggie decides to exit this world in her own way at her own time.  And how to do the deed turns out to be more complicated that she expected.

Maggie is a very proper Southern woman, so she concocts a complex plan that guarantees success without mess or fuss, without leaving a body to be found, and without loose ends for someone else to untangle.  Just when she is ready to execute the plan, her life interupts. 

First, it's the whirling diverishes and accommodating a friend who wants to see them. Then, it's a hair appointment she forgot to cancel and she doesn't wnat to stiff the hair dresser.  Then, it's too much goat cheese (don't ask!).  Finally, it's Crestview, a lovely old mansion just up for sale and about to fall into the clutches of Babs Bingington, her archrival in the real estate business who scoops up the elegant old homes and sells them to developers.

That draws her into a mystery that must be resolved.

Along the way, Maggie saves the house and herself.  Although it does require a bit of unexpected good luck to bring some of the old dreams into her life, it is good luck Maggie has earned and along the way, she learns to let go of some of her perfectionism and enjoy her life a bit more.

As always with Fannie Flagg's books, the plot is moved by unique characters in bizarre situations responding in interesting ways.  I Still Dream About You was released in 2011 and it was very popular with book groups.  If you missed it, go back and check it out.  It is not Fried Green Tomatoes, but it is an engaging story well told.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Love, Murder, Intrigue, and Penicillin

A Fierce Radiance, by Lauren Belfer

This story opens in New York City just after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.  The main character is Claire Shipley, a photographer for Life magazine and a single mother.  She is doing a story about a young man who is dying from an infection and the attempt to save his life with penicillin.
It is one of the first times penicillin is being tried on a person and the process is fraught with perils.  The doctors do not know how much penicillin should be used or how it should be administered.  In fact, they are not even sure how the medication should be produced.
Claire does not realize that this project will become a major turning point of her life.  She meets and eventually falls in love with James Stanton, a young doctor working on penicillin research.  When a promising young researcher is murdered, Claire is drawn into the investigations.  When penicillin becomes a major focus of the war effort, Claire is drawn into the politics and intrigues of war.
At the same time, Claire is building a new relationship with her estranged father who is a self-made millionaire.  He is eager to establish a relationship with her and his grandson.  He also recognizes the potential value of the penicillin research and that brings him into surprising conflict with his daughter.
This is a satisfyingly complex story full for unexpected twists, danger, and resolution.  On top of all that, it is more or less historically accurate with the history presented in a way that is well integrated into the story and generally unobtrusive.
A Fierce Radiance, published in March, 2011, is Belfer’s first book since City of Light, published in August, 2003.  The new story shows that Belfer’s command of her craft is growing.  The story line is seamless and she more skillfully encompasses the history within the context of the story in this second novel.
This is a good read and I highly recommend it.