Friday, October 19, 2012

Weekend choices

Home and ready to begin the weekend. I've listened to my daily voice mail, a telemarketing call from some outfit wanting to know who in my house suffers from back pain. Next, I read that the young royal set is planning a big evening out, which is certainly a load off my mind. Actually, they could try something different and plan a big evening in and get started reading the next issue of The Economist. I don't get my copy until Saturday, but since they live in the UK, I'll bet theirs has already been delivered. Or, if they still want to go nightclubbing, I suppose they could read it in their cell phones, as I sometimes do during lunch.

If they were visiting my apartment, they could look at the issue of AARP Magazine that I got just today and check one of the headline stories, in which Bette Midler promises to reflect on "What I know now." What I know now is what I've known for months: that if Romney wins, this country will eventually turn into Guatemala, as noted in The New Republic just the other day.

As to the rest of AARP Magazine, the next big article is "Make the Most of Your Fifties: Energize Your Brain, Your Body, and Your Sex Life!" I'd say I've got a pretty good plan of attack on the first two; the third is perhaps best expressed by the title of the old hymn, Precious Memories.

Anyway, my big night out will consist of getting off my energized backside, walking 3 miles down Poplar Avenue to the Paradiso, and catching Argo, followed by a walk back home and a chance to take off some of the calories I absorbed when I ate that banana nut muffin at work today. But speaking of memories and the carnal side of life, I'll spare a thought for lovely Dutch actress Sylvia Kristel, the star of the long-ago Emmanuelle, who has died at 60 of cancer. Her film, considered incredibly daring in its day, was rather coolly antiseptic for something purporting to celebrate the pleasures of the flesh, but Kristel gamely played along, and her pretty face and quiet intelligence perhaps lent the picture more than its subject matter deserved.

© Michael Huggins, 2012. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your President

I am touched by Michelle Obama's humility, though I think I sense some confusion of thought in her latest appeal to me. She begins by noting her admiration for her husband in his ability to balance the duties of father, husband, and President, but then adds that there are times when he needs help.

Well we should all want to give what assistance we can to the Leader of our nation, though I'm not sure just what I can do in these particular cases.

Perhaps helping the President as a dad might be the easiest. If he cares to put Malia and Sasha on Air Force One and fly them to Memphis, I'll be happy to do with them what I did with my own kids when they were that age: take them to the Dixon Gallery, one of my favorite places, make remarks about history and culture appropriate to a child's understanding, take them out into the gardens to run and play, and then perhaps to the food court at Oak Court Mall for a nice snack. That part should be easy.

As to helping him as President, well, I think Michelle needs to understand that only one person can be President at a time—a fact, come to think of it, that Dick Cheney seems never to have quite grasped, though perhaps he thought he was merely filling a vacuum left by the incumbent. In any case, there are Constitutional restrictions on what I can do as a private citizen. But wait—I've got it! If I come to Washington, I'll simply take him to meet my cousin Kelly Kirk at the PowerHouse Gym in Woodbridge, VA, who will, to put it mildly, give Barack a reality check and protect him from the temptation to be self-complacent. If neither Kelly nor I can sign a bill into law or nominate someone to a vacancy on the Supreme Court, perhaps that's the next best thing.

In the third category, helping Barack as a husband, well, delicacy forbids me to explain to a lady in detail why that must be the one area where I can't really do anything at all. (Not to mention the issue of whether her husband would find it altogether flattering to think that his wife was writing to men she hardly knew to confide such a need to them!)

Again, perhaps I can do the next best thing and offer advice. He should, above all, refrain from saying things to her like "If you've got a nice bod, well, you didn't build that." A wife likes to be appreciated, after all. We'll start the discussion at that point and see where it leads us.

But perhaps I stopped reading too soon and Michelle really meant he needed help in other areas. She used to write to me a great deal about having dinner with her and Barack, though nothing ever came of it, but if she is really intent on that, they can certainly come to Memphis, and I'll take them to Corky's Barbecue on Poplar. Come to think of it, if they use Marine 1, the Presidential helicopter, that might be a real advantage, since there is never any parking at Corky's anyway, which is one reason I only eat there once a year, even though it's only 5 minutes from where I live.

So in whatever area this lovely lady thinks I can aid her and her family, I will be happy to give whatever assistance I reasonably can. Unless her husband's poll numbers improve, the time when any help from me could really make any difference may be short!

© Michael Huggins, 2012. All rights reserved.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Click for enlightenment

Computer games are not without value, as long as one isn't consumed by them; I enjoy online Scrabble, and if one wants to learn military strategy and tactics, it's better to play a war game than to go to war. Having said that, it's hard to know how some things can be usefully learned by gaming. I'm referring in particular to the "Walden" game I read about last night in the current issue of Harper's. Henry David Thoreau sought closeness to nature and emancipation from the conventional bonds of modern life, so he built a cottage, lived by a pond, took walks, and lived off the fruits of the land. Along the way, he had insights about the human condition.

How one could possibly impart anything useful about such an experience by designing a game around it is beyond me. If, as Samuel Johnson said, "Nothing is more hopeless than a scheme of merriment," that must be at least doubly true for a plan of enlightenment, especially in the form of a computer game. If one wants to do like Thoreau, why then, take a walk, spend a week in a rustic cottage, eat nothing but farm produce, and the like. I can hardly think of an activity less likely to achieve Thoreauvian results than to sit clicking a mouse or keyboard!

Still, this irony is apparently lost on some game developer, who forwarded a proposal to the National Endowment for the Arts requesting funds for this noble endeavor, explaining that playing the game might lead the user to "arrowhead moments" and enable progress for the gamer's "philosophical meanderings"—and some twit at NEA obliged the hapless techie with a $40K grant!

Now $40K isn't even a hiccup in today's galactically scaled federal budget, but it's the principle of the thing. Even granting the idea that the government must spend it on something, imagine how many meals for the homeless, textbooks for vocational training for dropouts, weeks at summer camp for poor kids—or, for that matter, copies of Walden (the original book, not the game!) might have been purchased for the same amount.

If anyone wants to grasp the existential roots of Tea Party rage, he could do worse than to consider this instance. There is an angry corps of voters that suspects, deep down, that large segments of government funds are at the disposal of clueless twits who can't change a tire, replace storm windows, or chop a load of firewood, who continually resort to precious and obscure circumlocutions that express no genuine feeling that any real person ever had--and who think it a fitting investment of National Endowment for the Arts funds to spend $40,000 on a computer game called "Walden."

© Michael Huggins, 2012. All rights reserved.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Above all, do no harm

I saw the young 20-something woman with the small dog while on my evening walk yesterday and didn't notice at first that the dog, perhaps a Jack Russell Terrier, was unleashed and uncollared. I was startled when the young woman approached me and said "Sir, is this dog yours?"

"Why no," I replied. "I thought it was yours."

I live in a great area for walking and follow a path, two or three times a day, that takes me down a street lined with shade trees and nice homes, into Germantown, one of Shelby County's nicest suburbs. I can walk there any time of the day or night without fear of any unpleasant incident. I had seen unleashed dogs in other neighborhoods before, never in this one.

The little dog seemed clean, healthy, and well cared for, very friendly, and apparently at home in this neighborhood; he probably thought he was just out on an interesting jaunt, to explore. The young woman and I chatted for a moment about the risk to dogs running about loose; that street, Poplar Pike, though not a commercial thoroughfare, is heavily traveled, and one sometimes sees raccoons that have been struck and killed by cars.

After a few moments, we shrugged at each other regretfully and continued on our opposite paths, with the dog following her.

But it was only a few moments after that when I heard the trot of its little paws and realized it was now following me. I had become the center of its little orbit.

Now what? I could have just walked on, but I didn't like the idea of this rather heedless little thing being struck and killed by a car. I had had a couple of unfortunate incidents over the years as a driver: 30 years ago, on a rainy night in heavy traffic on Yale Road in Raleigh, a dog suddenly ran right under my car as I drove at about 40 miles per hour; there was no possibility of stopping. And three years ago, at dusk, on Sam Cooper Boulevard in Binghamton, a fully grown Great Dane inexplicably launched itself from the sidewalk at my Saturn Sedan as I drove past at 40 miles per hour; the impact killed the dog and cracked a component of the car's air-filtering system; the part fell off into the street a couple of days later.

At another time, almost 20 years ago, I had been driving down McLean Boulevard in Midtown, I saw a cat calmly sitting in the middle of the street while cars drove around it. Getting out of my car, I saw that the animal had been injured, and I got it in my car, where it promptly lodged itself under the front passenger seat, and drove to the Memphis Animal Shelter on Tchulahoma, which wasn't open yet; I stood there knocking until someone finally came to the door around 9:00 and came to the car with one of those rods with a leather loop at the end to retrieve the cat.

I hoped for a better outcome for this little creature. I got him to come to me, and he actually let me pick him up and began to lick my face. I walked up Eastern Drive to where some kids were playing in their front yard and asked them to have their parents call the Germantown Pound. The dad came out a short while later and said he couldn't get an answer, but they lent me a leash. Since I'm one of the 15% of the population that still doesn't have a cell phone, I continued my walk down Poplar Pike with the vague hope of finding a Germantown cop. They are usually quite numerous, especially if you're driving faster than about 35 miles per hour in their nice suburb.

At Poplar Pike and West Drive, I found a man tending some shrubs and asked him if he had a cell phone, but he turned out to be one of my fellow abstainers. When I explained to him what I wanted, he told me that in fact, I was only a couple of blocks from the Pound and told me how to get there, so I kept walking. To see the two of us walking along, one would have thought the dog was mine; he eagerly explored his surroundings, within the limits of the leash, but was also very affectionate, as if I owned him and we were old friends.

As I walked, I thought "I'm taking a dog to the Pound." One of my first pets, when I was a boy, had been a dog whom we called Beauty; we bought a Golden Retriever pup for our kids when they were still small. I thought "I could take him home." Although I've never really cared much for small dog breeds, they fall within the size and weight guidelines for pets in the apartments where I've lived for 10 years. I thought "If this were a movie, the storyline would go something like this: solitary old coot finds a stray dog and takes him home, grumbling all the way, but the dog melts his heart and, eventually, saves his life by barking and licking his face to awake him when the apartment building catches fire during the night."

But I'm not really set up for a dog like the description I've read of Jack Russells: that they can be very destructive of their environment unless very well trained and can't be left unattended for long. Besides, I thought, it's possible that the owner of such an apparently healthy dog will miss it and call the Pound on Monday, asking if it has been brought in. I kept walking.

Reaching the Pound, I saw that it was closed but found someone nearby with a cell phone who called the after-hours number. The Germantown Police said they would send an officer to meet me and put the animal inside. I walked back to the Pound and waited.

It was a beautiful evening, with the Sun setting and few sounds except birds and the rustling of the wind. What a strange turn this routine evening walk had taken! The little dog seemed to sense that something was afoot and kept jumping up on my trouser leg, looking up at me as if for reassurance; he began to whimper softly.

The Germantown Police Cruiser drove up; the officer's shoulder patch said that he was a member of the SWAT Team (if they ever need a SWAT team for anything in Germantown, it will be the most exciting day in that community's entire 170-year history), but in any case, he was an extraordinarily polite and sympathetic young man of about 26 who thanked me for what I had done. We entered the building and immediately found ourselves in a gamy-smelling dark space, surrounded by the deafening roar of a couple of dozen caged dogs barking, besides the building's alarm, which we had triggered by entering. The officer pointed to an empty cage and asked me to put the dog there while he turned off the alarm.

I took the dog to the cage and led him inside, where I took off his leash. I could tell he was reluctant and really didn't want to go in there, but he trusted me and thought we were friends. I stepped outside the cage and closed it.

The officer, whose heart was really in the right place, immediately stepped up and slid a water bowl through an opening into the cage. He took my information and then said I could leave while he found some treats for the dog. I took a brief look around the place and saw a large, handsome German Shepherd; the sign on the door of his cage said he was 4 years old.

Ahimsa, the principle of doing no harm to any sentient being, is an important tenet of Buddhism, Hinduism, and Jainism. I have read that some Buddhist monks will go so far as to sew little fringes with small bells into the hems of their robes; among other uses, these devices are supposed to brush insects out of the way so that the monk doesn't kill one by accident.

I knew that after the officer left, the little dog I had brought there would see the door closed and be left alone in that dark space, surrounded by the roar of his fellow inmates and their outraged protests in the night. A dog doesn't understand why. Everything just is, and the present, for this little fellow, would be the experience of being alone in the dark with strange dogs barking around him for at least the next 36 hours, until his careless owner called. If you or I were so confined and had no more understanding of how, when, or why this might end, we would consider it a kind of Hell.

What if the officer had never shown up? Or what if I had located a policeman who had told me there was nothing he could do? In the middle of a very hot August night, 20 years ago, while on a late walk, I actually did go out into McLean Boulevard and flag down a squad car because I had become aware that a dog had been locked inside a trailer and thought it might die from heat exposure or dehydration; when I explained this, the officer called his superior but couldn't enlist the superior's help and said there was nothing he could do. (I realized afterward that I should have simply said I suspected the trailer contained a shipment of cocaine, and a whole group of officers would have been out there in short order with fire axes to break it open!)

If the officer had not responded last night, I would have taken the dog home. I have a sister-in-law who is fond of Jack Russells, and I would have called and asked her if she wanted another one. Had she said no, I would have started calling various friends. I know an elderly man with two granddaughters, 10 and 14, and perhaps they might like such a pet. In the meantime, I would have watched the dog like a hawk, wondering what he might spoil while my back was turned or I was in the shower. Years ago, when I was 16, our family's Basset Hound made a feast of one of my library books, which I had left open on my bed. Then, he had regurgitated the contents on my bedroom rug.

All in all, I'm afraid I was caught short by this moment. I accepted the officer's thanks and walked back down Poplar Pike to Eastern Drive, where I returned the borrowed leash to the kids whose dad had lent it to me. Then, I walked the couple of miles back to my apartment, poured myself a drink, and thought of what I might have named the dog if I had kept him.

© Michael Huggins, 2012. All rights reserved.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Is Rush a rat, is Fluke a flake, or does the truth lie somewhere between the two?

I'm glad The Atlantic's Conor Friersdorf included a video of Georgetown law student Sandra Fluke's intended testimony for women's health. Fluke, moved by the plight of a fellow student who needs birth control to protect against ovarian cysts, reports that an outlay of $3,000 for birth control during law school sans insurance represents a hardship for many students. I for one have to question that; this source says that birth control pills not covered by a prescription cost about $20-$50 per month, which, even at its highest, is probably less than most people spend in vending machines. Still, let's give these young people the benefit of the doubt for a moment and acknowledge that it may be idle to say that if they can afford Georgetown Law, they can afford birth control, when the high tuition and living expenses may be precisely the reason why they can't very well afford birth control, unless it is covered in their health insurance.

Needless to say, Rush Limbaugh's description of Fluke as a "slut" and his demand that she perform in a sex tape to earn money for contraception is vile beyond description. If there is a fit target for his taunts, it isn't Sandra Fluke or her unfortunate friend.

Still, we do have to deal with what another public figure, closer to the Fluke way of thinking, called "an inconvenient truth," and if this were a court case, someone ought to ask future lawyer Sandra if she really believes that her friend with the ovarian cysts represents the typical seeker of other people's money to pay for her contraception.

It will surprise no one that many college students are more sexually active than you or I. A report released several years ago by the University of Minnesota Boynton Health Service said, among other things, that 72% of college-age respondents reported having been sexually active in the year before the study. Young blood runs hot, and we need not be shocked at this nor object to the very practical consideration that most of these encounters probably should not result in a live birth; people of that age are not necessarily ready to be parents.

And the cost of contraception, unassisted by insurance, may not be so affordable on a student's budget, no matter what future earnings they may expect to pull down from a Wall St. law firm. As to denying coverage to people with medical conditions such as ovarian cysts, on the grounds that the product they use for this is also used with regard to purely discretionary behavior, that is monstrously wrongheaded and should not be tolerated in any humane society. It is of a piece with denying terminal patients in hideous pain "too much" pain medication on the grounds of the risk of dependency, which in their case, is absurd.

No, I do not deny that there are practical considerations on Sandra's side, but having said that, I do think she has played the fool.

When a nicely dressed student at Georgetown Law appears in a video, announces to the public that a certain sum for contraception is an undue burden on her and her friends, and cites, as her only example, someone who suffers from a medical condition, what can she possibly expect to be running through the minds of many of her hearers, and not Limbaugh alone?

Their likely thought is something like this: "Lady, what planet are you from? If college students wish to enjoy their sexual freedom, that is their choice, but then to expect the rest of us to put up the money for it? Are you out of your mind? Are you really this clueless and expecting to make a career in the practice of the law? Puh-lease!"

So here is my question: since condoms, which cost from 50 cents to a dollar apiece, run toward the lower end of the cost of birth control pills for a month's supply...

...if a male jock testified that he had a very active "social" life, and if he urged insurance companies to pay for condoms on the grounds that many of his fellow athletes were scholarship students from modest backgrounds with little discretionary income, and after all, the provision of condoms to males promoted public health...

...and if a female commentator replied by saying "Buy your own condoms, super stud, or keep it zipped"...

...would we see the same level of outrage?

© Michael Huggins, 2012. All rights reserved.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Zero-sum shopping

The new CEO of the J.C. Penney department store chain, Ron Johnson, has publicly admitted that his store's prices were needlessly inflated and its frequent claims of special sales and discounts useless and misleading. As reported in a recent issue of Time:
"According to the management-consulting firm A.T. Kearney, more than 40% of the items we bought last year were on sale. That's up from just 10% in 1990. Penney has been a notorious discounter, with nearly three-quarters of revenue coming from goods sold at 50% or more off list price--whatever that is--and less than 1% from full-price merchandise.

Inspired by the no-gimmicks pricing that enabled him to make Apple stores a retail powerhouse, Johnson intends to recast pricing at Penney's along rational lines and treat the public fairly:
"Instead of facing infinite discounts and promotions--there were 590 different 'sales' at Penney alone in 2011--the department store's shoppers will now see just three price categories. One will represent discounted seasonal items that change monthly. Another is clearance merchandise marked down on the first and third Fridays of each month. But the majority of goods will be offered every day at 40% or 50% less than the prices Penney used to charge. In retail parlance that's called EDLP, as in 'everyday low price.'"

Johnson is betting that the public is heartily tired of the fact that "all those Sunday circulars, flash deals and holiday sales events--which seemed more intense than ever last year--have turned shopping into retail combat."
"Johnson believes Penney's customers will appreciate pricing clarity, not to mention sleeping in. 'I don't think customers like having to come to a store between 8 and 10 a.m. on a Sunday in order to get the best price on swimwear,' he said."

Laudable as this is, some doubt its practical wisdom:
"'My intuition is that, in the long run, the changes won't be effective,' says Kit Yarrow, consumer psychologist and author of Gen BuY: How Tweens, Teens and Twenty-Somethings Are Revolutionizing Retail. 'A discount gives shoppers the incentive to buy today. Without that, there's no sense of urgency for people to purchase things that, frankly, they probably don't need.'"

I have no doubt that Johnson's conscience will be as pure as that of an innocent child and that he will sleep the sleep of the just at night. I am about as sure that he may as well tell his employees to start looking for other jobs and expect to be employed elsewhere within a year or two. Amazingly for a retail executive, he seems strangely blind to the parts of human psychology that affect the shopping experience in the first place.

There are at least two major kinds of transactions in the way people interact with each other. One is open, non-competitive, and based on the idea of everyone getting a piece of the pie. We see this in toy drives for poor children at Christmas; in that context, the idea that anyone in a disadvantaged group should suffer a loss, strikes all of us as intolerable.

The other kind, much more common--and, indeed, the mainspring of business, politics, sports, and, in its own way, even academics--is competitive. Your loss is my gain. Your second-place finish leaves open my shot at first place. When I recruited teams to compete in trivia tournaments, I and my team were always quite sincerely encouraging toward the teams we beat; we wanted the excitement and suspense of close competition. At the same time, as I often reminded my team, "It only takes one point to win."

Shopping is, to a large extent, the second type of transaction, and probably for reasons that don't do most of us a great deal of credit. Look at the inescapable power of words, meaningless in their actual context, such as "Exclusive," applied to sales, or "Confidential," on the cover of a tabloid; each encourages the consumer to imagine that he is about to be the beneficiary of something not generally available. To be sure, coupon-clipping is a harsh necessity in our struggling economy and in fact, I can remember rushing into Target in the half-dark of a winter morning, years ago, to buy diapers for my as-yet-unborn son because of a "special" price.

But even without the goad of necessity or any personal animus toward other consumers, shopping is, for many, a competitive activity in which my gain becomes sweeter if it is achieved at your expense. Laboring under a vague feeling, through much of life, that we are missing out on what should have rightfully been ours, we welcome the chance to claw back some otherwise forfeited value by buying better things at lower prices than our neighbor, in "exclusive" deals that our neighbor was too dull or timid to take advantage of. Black Friday sales are not some sort of aberration but a sign of something deep in human nature.

What will happen, as Time asks, when the novelty of Penney's reasonable and honest pricing wears off? Johnson hopes that shopper gratitude for the chain's straightforward approach will keep them coming back. I wish him well in that thought, but I think, rather, that he and his employees will find themselves in the position of the perfectly polite and well-groomed young man who finds, to his amazement, that even nice girls don't date him for long and turn, instead, to his tattooed, troubled, and footloose friend for excitement.

© Michael Huggins, 2012. All rights reserved.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

"Nirvana is where you are, provided you don't object to it." - Alan Watts

It's funny how much of our time is occupied with a constant, silent craving and twitching restlessness. Some people turn on the TV or radio as soon as they wake up, because they need reassurance that they are not alone. Others check their Twitter or Facebook pages for retweets or "likes," or the dating web site they signed up for, for new matches. Others watch the scales obsessively for the new, glamorous person they hope to be, or check their investments throughout the day for signs of pending wealth.

I've always been fascinated by the story of Taylor Touchstone, a 10-year-old autistic boy in Florida who spent several days naked, hungry, scratched, insect-bitten, and completely alone in 1996 in a Florida swamp crawling with alligators and poisonous snakes, where four Army Rangers had died on a training exercise the year before. An avid swimmer, Taylor had floated down a creek, away from home, and gotten lost; for days, he unknowingly eluded round-the-clock searches by local deputies, Green Berets, Rangers, and others. What struck me was that when he was found, but for some dehydration and sunburn, he showed no evidence of distress. With no sign of trauma, he simply commented that he had seen lots of fish and calmly sang "Row, row, row your boat" as he was being taken to a nearby medical center for observation.

The laser-like focus that seems common to autistics apparently preserved Taylor's emotional equilibrium; to him, everything, including tangled thickets, snakes, alligators, insects, and severe thunderstorms, were merely objects of calm fascination.

I have never been consistent in attempts at meditation, but I have noticed that one occasional effect has been to achieve a state of mind where one really doesn't want anything, in the needy, craving, itching, grasping sense. If it's a sunny day with a beautiful mountain view, a commendation from your boss, and plenty of invitations from friends, that's nice, and if it is cold, damp, dreary, with a bleak landscape in sight, an empty social calendar, and your boss muttering about staff cutbacks—well somehow, that's all right too, and it's all the same. I am not referring to a torpid indifference that clouds the understanding and paralyzes the will, but a stop to the chattering radio station in one's head that is constantly going on and on about how disappointing everything is and you surely deserved better. How few of us achieve that, even after a long life; how different the world would be if more of us did!

© Michael Huggins, 2012. All rights reserved.

Friday, January 20, 2012

You can't buy a reputation

Warren Buffett is on the cover of Time this week, while Newt Gingrich is attempting one of many comebacks. The world's second-richest man has designated 99% of his wealth for charity upon his death, drives himself in a 2006 car, prefers Cherry Coke to fine wines, takes most of his meals at the same local restaurant, and still lives in a house of quite modest scale in Omaha that he bought in 1958. The former Speaker of the House has a $500,000 line of credit at Tiffany's.

Buffett succeeded by focusing on fundamentals: as a "value investor," he picks underrated companies and holds them, as his profile says, "between ten years and forever." A single share of Berkshire-Hathaway purchased 47 years ago for $19 is worth $116,000 today.

Gingrich is perpetually at risk of destroying whatever he has achieved. Blamed for the government shutdown of 1995, he lost his "Contract with America" and was bounced from the Speakership a few years later over ethics charges.

Buffett can be justifiably proud of his achievements but is apparently a plain man. Gingrich presents himself as a pompous megalomaniac convinced that he alone can save the Republic from a dire fate. Buffett, wealthy enough not to care what anyone else thinks, speaks bluntly about the dangers of income inequality in our society and the bad example of the rich not paying taxes proportional to their wealth. Gingrich wants inner-city children to be put to work as janitors in their own schools.

Buffett married his wife, Susan, in 1950 and remained devoted to her until, late in life, Susan herself decided she needed to broaden her horizons a bit beyond what Omaha had to offer and moved, alone, to San Francisco, where she eventually died of cancer. Quite unconventionally, she actually approached another woman and brought her and Buffett together in a domestic partnership; the three even sent out Christmas cards as a group. Buffett accepted the arrangement but is still heartbroken over his late wife's death, according to the profile in Time.

Gingrich apparently broached the subject of divorce to his first wife while she was in the hospital recovering from surgery. Now, we learn from his second wife that he approached her about "open marriage." On that subject, a British woman, apparently a participant in a rather complex polyamorous arrangement, has weighed in via The Guardian. As she quite sensibly points out, Gingrich did not openly discuss his desire for a prospective new relationship with his then-spouse; he came to her after the fact and sought her acquiescence in a clandestine liaison that he had already carried on for some time. Whatever one may think of the unusual domestic arrangement of the Buffetts and Warren's new partner, it was undertaken honestly, without subterfuge and with the knowledge of all parties.

Forget Buffett's money; there is something in the character of such a man that is forever beyond the likes of Gingrich. Newt can fume about the media all he likes; in the end, one is reminded of a passage from Shakespeare's Measure for Measure:
There is a kind of character in thy life,
That to the observer doth thy history
Fully unfold.

© Michael Huggins, 2012. All rights reserved.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Meaning in no sound

I love silence. It is the place where thoughts are born, meaning is conveyed, and insight is achieved. What if no one said anything unless he had something to say?

Of course I love good conversation, beautiful music, the sound of the wind through the trees, a running stream, a child's happy laughter, or even the train whistle in the night. But silence, to me, has a message of its own; it speaks of things in good order and a mind at work.

At 3:00 this morning, briefly awake, I lay in the dark and noticed that there was absolutely no sound. It was not the emptiness of deafness but the peace of an hour that no one nearby felt moved to fill with mindless clatter. I felt like celebrating. I almost wished to stay awake to savor the beauty of such a moment.

© Michael Huggins, 2012. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

I complained that I had no Bentley, until...

Six or seven years ago, a young woman slated to attend her state university on full scholarship was in a car wreck while driving home from a wedding reception, and it changed everything. She endured months of surgery and physical rehab; one still sees the place where they had to open her throat to insert a tube. She moves, walks, and speaks awkwardly, reminding an onlooker perhaps of a victim of a neurological impairment. Of course driving is impossible, and she works at home, telecommuting on a freelance basis for a non-profit organization, but the hours are few and the compensation very modest.

I met her last April as I was coming home from my lunchtime walk. She had just crossed a busy intersection; it would have been an ordeal for her in any event, but she was trying awkwardly to carry some sacks of groceries. I stopped her and offered to help, and we walked to her apartment complex, which is just down the street from mine, chatting along the way. She was quite forthright about herself and her background, said the car wreck had been caused by her own negligence, described her determination to make a real life for herself despite her limitations, and said the groceries were for her first foray into cooking; she had only recently moved out of her parents' house into her own place.

Near her apartment, we parted, and I had never seen her since; when I happened to think of her, I wondered if she even lived in those apartments any longer.

We met again just over an hour ago as I was heading home, once again, from my lunchtime walk. She was startled when an apparent stranger called out to her by name, but I reminded her of our long-ago meeting, and she remembered. She's still cooking and had even ordered a cookbook online, which she hopes her mother will pick up at the Post Office today. Her work with the non-profit organization continues, though the hours are still quite limited.

She also was returning home, in her case from International Paper headquarters, just up the street, where she had attended a Toastmaster's meeting. To improve her confidence and her speaking voice, she had begun to attend Toastmasters, where she has become a Club Ambassador, which involves visiting other clubs, and is now working on her Distinguished Toastmaster's ranking.

Amazing the resilience of an admirable few in responding to adversity. While many of us grumble because we didn't get served fast enough at a restaurant, or we don't have a better credit score, or the car we bought didn't have all the options we wanted, here is someone whose range of effective operation, unaided, is contracted to a few blocks along one of the city's busiest streets, dangerous for her to cross, but with her attitude, she prevails and makes it the scene of a series of continuing triumphs. What if we could all demand that of ourselves as a matter of course, without needing to suffer a setback first?

© Michael Huggins, 2012. All rights reserved.