DEAD WOOD

20
November

As late Fall retreats toward Winter, the woods grow silent and grim, largely lifeless. Winged creatures of all sorts have long since departed, while familiar four-legged denizens become mysteriously scarce. But it is the trees, most all nearly bald and indecently exposed, that underscore the bleak landscape that greets the observer. Not long before these same trees -resplendent in their green mantles – filled the woods with millions of leaves of all sizes and shapes, swaying and rustling restlessly as breezes hurried their way through its ranks. Then came Fall and the extravagant palate of color, nature’s own dramatic “fireworks” show, rivaling by day the managed explosions of night sky displays.
But with Fall’s passing forests around here now have little to offer except a dispiriting landscape of decay and death. Upon the forest floor are endless layers of dead and rotting leaves, once proudly on display upon the branches above, now cast off, destined to serve merely as shapeless ground cover in the years to come. All about, trees stand disfigured, having been rudely assailed by wind and rain, limbs broken, trunks cracked, root systems exposed, detached from the soil which once sheltered and nourished them. Most ominously, lying in every which direction, one discovers an arboreal graveyard: Trees, many of great length and bulk, which once soared toward the heavens, now strewn upon the ground, their fate sealed, at rest but not at peace. Were this a battlefield (which in some ways it resembles) no commander would dare proclaim victory. Indeed, the many jagged stumps would serve as forlorn monuments to the fallen.
Nature, perhaps out of respect, has begun draping some with green moss, hiding the advance of deterioration and decay. Most, however, lie about helter-skelter, frozen often at awkward angles, lifeless wreckage to haunt the area for decades to come, a morbid message to those sturdy trees around them.
The good news for those disposed to dwell on this desolate scene is that in time Spring and Summer will once again arrive, new life and a fresh dense vibrant mantle of green returning to blot out the underlying wasteland revealed by Winter.

Time – Tested

1
October

TIME-TESTED
Quantifiers usually have the upper hand in discussions when they marshal “hard evi-dence” to support their arguments. The numbers are assumed to “speak for themselves,” what-ever their origin or presumed precision. In that spirit, we present a recently compiled set of numbers, hitherto unavailable, derived from informal surveys conducted with real people relating to their daily experiences.
• How late do you usually arrive at parties? 15 minutes
• How much time elapses before you patch up a dispute with your wife? 2 days
• How often do you change bedsheets? 6 days
• How long do you wait before passing a “slow” moving car on the road? 2 minutes
• Brushing your teeth takes how long? 1 ½ minutes
• How long do you take to fall asleep? 15 minutes
• If your car is rattling, How long do you wait before bringing it in
to a mechanic 3 days
• How long after you decide you should have a will do you execute one? 3 years
• How much time elapses before you return the call of a bill collector? 2 days
• How much time do you spend showering? 6 minutes
• How long does it take to pass on a juicy bit of gossip? 2-3 hours
• After how many rings do you pick up a telephone? 3
• How long before you honk at the car in front of you after light changes? 2-3 seconds
• How long does it take you to complete your main dish at dinner? 8-10 minutes
• How long before you deposit a large check? Next day
• How many times have you watched your favorite movie? 4-5 times
• How often do you make physical contact with your husband
(hug, kiss, pat) ? twice weekly
• How often do you check the weather report in a day? 2-3
• When driving, how long will you wait before locating a bathroom? 22 minutes
• How often do you look in a mirror each day? 4-5 times
• How often do you check the time each day? 8-10 times
• Duration of social telephone conversation(female) 26 minutes
• Duration of social telephone conversation (male) 11 minutes

HIGH AND MIGHTY

3
September

Theodore Roosevelt, larger than life in so many ways, belongs on Mt. Rushmore, but I’m not sure that many Americans can explain why. The issue is that neither political party is eager to claim him. Republicans, despite Roosevelt’s achievements, have problems embracing his belief in activist government, his impatience with “stupid” Capitalists, and his 1912 campaign that split Republicans and handed the election to Woodrow Wilson. Democrats, while welcoming his reforms, are reluctant to credit a rival party or accept his views on racial hierarchy, not uncommon in his time and among his class, but hard to swallow today.
Roosevelt did it all. He was a western rancher, a cowboy, intrepid explorer, naturalist, hunter, athlete, soldier (he preferred being called Colonel), a wonderfully engaged father (to his six children) and yes, President of the United States, a figure known round the globe. And arguably the most well-rounded and intellectually gifted person to occupy the White House (in a close contest with Thomas Jefferson). A Magna Cum Laude, Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Harvard, he wrote over thirty books and countless magazine articles on a wide variety of subjects, loved poetry, read a book a day (there is wide agreement on this), spoke many foreign languages, and possessed an astonishing photographic memory.
Every American knew Roosevelt. He gave informal press conferences almost daily while his barber shaved him. Cartoonists had a field day caricaturing his teeth, smile, hat and glasses (he lost an eye while boxing in the White House). For a time the “Teddy Bear” became the rage across the country.
His energy was boundless, one might say manic. Shot at close range in Milwaukee during the 1912 presidential campaign, the bullet, while entering his chest, was slowed down by a metal eyeglass case and the folded speech in his jacket pocket. He was bleeding but still delivered the scheduled 90-minute address! (The bullet would never be removed.)
Roosevelt embodied the best of America together with certain less admirable features. He battled political corruption, raged against corporate excess and inequality, championed individual self-improvement and physical well-being, exemplified family values, promoted far ranging conservation measures and maintained that the federal government must assume an active role in redressing societal ills. On the other hand, he viewed white Anglo-Saxons as the essential bearers of civilization, and inclined to be bellicose and to glorify war. But he could be excused when, on September 2, 1902, while passing through Pittsfield, Massachusetts, he threatened to physically assault a street car motorman who accidentally crashed into his carriage, injuring the President. It would have been no contest.

PLAY BALL

25
May

Corona has triggered a great hunger in the land. Symptoms of sports deprivation are widespread for good reason. The usual calendar of sporting events has been wiped clean –basketball’s “March Madness”  vanished as has the NBA season. Ice hockey left us, and the regular baseball season never got under way. Ditto soccer. The Kentucky Derby was postponed, and it’s unclear whether the Japan Olympics will ever take place. We’re told pro football might be back, but who knows? Same with college football. It’s tough enough sheltering in place, but without sports, what’s a fan to do? Watching games and rooting for our teams has always consumed so much of our waking hours. So did talking about sports – what’s there to talk about these days?
What follows is surely no substitute for the games, but merely an effort, since we have the time, to examine why they mean so much to so many people. It is a given that fans, often so passionate, rarely are asked to explain their preoccupation. But in the absence of live sports, let’s step back and try to account for this enduring attachment.
• For many, it all began during the years in which they were growing up, especially for boys, and more recently for girls as well. Whether in school or afterwards, they played sports formally or otherwise. Many a suburban driveway featured baskets and backboards attached to garages. Informal pick-up games with friends were common. Out in the street fathers could be seen playing catch with their kids. If tennis courts were nearby there’d be many an occasion to play. Back inside the TV often was tuned into a game, sounds of joy or anguish erupting periodically as it progressed. Family outings to sports arenas and stadiums were events eagerly awaited, whether for football, baseball, soccer, basketball or hockey. Bottom line: whether as participants or spectators, sports activities were a joyful component of growing up in America. Fathers took the lead here, and even when mothers were not involved directly, most all were properly supportive.
• To be into sports almost always means you have favorite teams. The origin of fan identification and affiliation can at times be a mysterious process, but by and large it is linked to hometown loyalty. Of course Americans do move around a lot, so you may end up rooting for a team linked to a previous residence. Fans, however upon relocating, are capable also of switching loyalties. Of course, areas with more than one team can complicate matters, but also enliven the sports scene. In L.A., for example, the Clippers and Lakers contend for support; in the New York area it’s Giants and Jets, Yanks and Mets, and Knicks and Nets. Fans just don’t simply support their teams, but live and die with them. It becomes intense once they immerse themselves in the minutia of each team, viz. players, managers, owners, trade rumors, past history, future prospects, etc. They listen to hometown sports shows, pay close attention to the “experts” and analysts and to other fans calling in to voice their views. Being a fan confers identity, produces pride, introduces purpose, offers occasional exhilaration, but is not without its disappointments. Fandom means continually riding an emotional rollercoaster.
• People often become sports fans because they’ve come to idolize a particular player, often a star performer. They will declare their loyalty, demonstrate their familiarity with his record, and defend him against those who might question his achievements. They will confirm their connection by wearing a uniform or a jersey that bears his name and number, or collect memorabilia related to his career. We could mention such players as Michael Jordan, Wayne Gretzky, Pele, Messi, Tiger, LeBron, Michael Trout, Serena, etc., but it could also be countless others that fans for one reason or another are drawn to, welcome into their extended family.
• All sports have become immersed in statistics, each one generating an ever-growing cascade of numbers that drill down into and evaluate performance. Sports fans have been drawn into this often numbing numerical universe. As a result they’ve become conversant with “records” of all sorts and are quick to cite those that substantiate whatever sports debate may be underway. They may, for example, insist that DiMaggio’s 56-game batting streak will never be broken, or that no one will ever play more consecutive games than Cal Ripken, Jr. Don’t expect anyone to win more majors (14) than Jack Nicklaus, or collect more Olympic medals (22) than Michael Phelps. Remember when the Boston Celtics won eight consecutive NBA titles (1959-1966)? Can any team ever top that? It need not be record setting numbers that trigger debates. Fans now recognize that you can’t talk sports these days without statistical corroboration. The numbers don’t lie; do they?
• Of course the essence of all sporting contests is what actually happens on the field of play. For fans the outcome of each game is of principle concern, but along the way there is much to cheer and savor. Each sport has its distinctive and essential elements and moments of high drama. In baseball it may be a disputed call leading to a heated jaw to jaw standoff between a red faced umpire and manager, or an outfielder stretched out fully, glove extended to snare a long fly ball. In football thrill to a reverse, the running back, a phalanx of blockers in front, speeding ahead or a wide out weaving his way downfield, gaining a step on the defender and looking back as a long arcing pass heads his way. In basketball, a fast break is a thing of beauty, the ball whipped from player to player streaking down court, defenders unable to divert or slow down this offensive thrust. So is a series of snapped passes that finally arrives at an open man positioned in the corner, who gets off a three pointer that barely disturbs the net. In tennis there’s the moment of truth when a player, following up a looping shot deep into the corner, charges the net, hoping for a put away, or in hockey when forwards swarm around the net peppering a sprawling goalie with shot after shot at close range.
• No sport contest is without its dramatic moments. Can a boxer, backed into a corner and pounded by blow after blow, survive until the bell? What about no score, bottom of the ninth, bases loaded, three and two on the batter, or fourth and a goal from the three yard line with seconds remaining in the game, six points separating the two teams? Consider shootouts in hockey or soccer and the emotional rush and excruciating tensions they produce. In any sport there’s much to savor; every fan understands such rewards await him time after time.
• And for every man (less frequently woman) the world of sport is a place they can enter comfortably and find camaraderie, a common vocabulary, a space to congregate, debate and share vicariously in the athletic achievements of their heroes. It is an alternate universe where much can seem to be at stake, where victories can be celebrated and losses mourned, but in time forgotten. Always, there is hope – so long as there are games to be played.

COMMON MAN

25
May

Not for America the prerogatives of royalty or the privileges of aristocracy. No, the majority of those who came over to our shores were ordinary people. No surprise then that we’ve long celebrated the “Common Man.” In one way or another we’ve declared that the “average Joe” provides the essential ballast for the United States, the most durable democratic society known to the world. Indeed, it was “Common Sense,” that extraordinary piece of plain pleading by Tom Paine that in 1775 helped persuade the “man in the street” that the only logical and sensible course for America was to declare its independence from England. And not long afterwards, when the victorious revolutionaries concluded it was time to establish a national government, it was, they agreed, to be based not on Holy Writ or Royal Proclamation, but upon “We the People,” forever protected by a “Bill of Rights.”
Over the years, even as great wealth accumulated in America and the well-to-do established their pre-eminence, we continued to view the common man as properly representative of America. Thomas Jefferson was but one of a long line of observers who placed the simple yeoman farmer and the independent husbandman at the center of the new republic he wished to form. Andrew Jackson went even further, insisting that his presidency (1828) had ushered in a new dawn for ordinary Americans, whose interests he would champion. Every man, he asserted, was qualified to hold public office; the days of an elite cadre of office holders were over. Moreover, Jackson from Tennessee saw himself as representing the hardy men of the western frontier, those intrepid pioneers rapidly spreading out from the land establishing new western states, the driving force behind American expansionism and “Manifest Destiny.” Back, in parts of the east, at about the same time, individuals began attending common schools at public expense. Nowhere else in the world were ordinary people given such opportunities for formal schooling and advancement.
Throughout the 19th Century and into the twentieth, America’s self-image remained focused on the common man, in one form or another, starting with William Henry Harrison’s Log Cabin Campaign for the presidency in 1840. That basic structure of frontier life came to symbolize all that was simple and sturdy in the American character. Abe Lincoln’s days as a “rail splitter” confirmed his standing as a typical son of the pioneer West. Later on the cowboy took the place of the pioneer, assuring Americans that plain folks could be both essential and heroic. Decades later Charles Lindbergh took to the sky to remind the country that an ordinary American embodied all that was admirable and brave in the national character. When it came to heroism, GI Joe showed he was up to the challenge in World War II, vanquishing the formidable military forces of both Germany and Japan. Back home, millions upon millions of working men and women demonstrated that almost overnight they could produce absolutely astounding amounts of armaments and war materials, as well as consumer goods. And later on, during the Cold War, Rocky (Sylvester Stallone), our everyman, proved able finally to defeat his Russian Communist adversary in the ring and after that, as Rambo, salvage some honor for Americans in Viet Nam, thanks to his heroic actions there.
But any discussion of the common man must not omit the challenges presented to that venerable tradition, including the contradictions and inconsistencies that cropped up along the way. While the social and economic standing of your average American tended to locate him in the working classes, Americans came to see themselves either as aspiring to or occupying the middle class. The workingman (perhaps because so many were immigrants) rarely received the credit or status due him (except among Socialists). As their numbers declined, however slowly, farmers also suffered diminished status, especially as urban populations swelled and cities became cultural and commercial centers. It didn’t help that over the years rural people stuck to their bible and their guns or that “good old boys” imposed Jim Crow on black populations and lynched “uppity negroes” or that “hard hats” rallied round the flag and used it to demean dissidents. Consider also the impact of comedian Jay Leno’s TV stunts with his “man (or “woman”) on the street” interviews and quizzes. What did it say about typical Americans when the following questions were put to them? – “Who did Americans fight in the War of Independence?” “What divided East and West Germany?” “What month of the year do we vote for president?” and no one answered correctly? (“This is frightening,” remarked Leno.)
In recent years, defining the “average Joe” or analyzing “John Q. Public” or placing “everyman” under the microscope has become ever more complicated. Cultural expression has exploded into numberless enclaves; political polarization has confounded conventional conversation, and ethnic diversity has undermined unifying symbols. Michael Moore might once have spoken for the “silent majority” but that’s no longer the case.
At present, the common man has, however, a most prominent spokesman – Donald Trump. Admittedly not “of the people,” he has, however, positioned himself as “tribune of the people.” Both a creature of the mass media, and as the great “white hunter” of the business jungle he has tapped into many of the admittedly less admirable themes associated with ordinary Americans. He has encouraged isolationist sentiment and has embraced the military. He has lampooned elites and elitist institutions. He has promoted a narrowly cast version of religious expression. He’s tilted the scales in favor of white ethnic solidarity and demeaned minority populations. He has questioned the value and the substance of scientific thinking and the role of expertise. He has voiced the prerogatives of male chauvinism. His vanity and grandiosity far exceed the boundaries of traditional “tall tales.” Trump retains his hold on his base because he speaks like them, gives voice to their concerns, disappointments, and to society’s devaluation of common folks.
   
Ironically the Pandemic could rekindle our faith in and respect for the common man. We’ve come to recognize just how dependent we are on those that enable our society to operate (if even on a limited basis) so that the rest of us can shelter in place. The workers who keep the mass transportation system up and running, the trucks rolling, the garbage collected, the folks who police our streets, maintain our power grids, drive the ambulances and staff the hospitals, deliver our mail and packages, grow and harvest our food, stock grocery shelves – without them our society would rapidly descend into catastrophic collapse. And most of those folks have not done well by us in recent times. They’ve fallen behind, become more vulnerable, their rewards limited, their hopes diminished. Recognizing and celebrating these “essential workers,” highlighting their seemingly prosaic, but now heroic, roles could serve to renew our faith in and appreciation of ordinary Americans.
Throughout this crisis we’ve heard repeatedly that when in the past the American people were challenged, were called upon to confront hard times, deal with severe setbacks and
adversity, they rose to the occasion, persevered. If they are still made of that same “right stuff,” they should be able, once more, to lead us through this crisis.

TAKING STOCK OF THE MARKET

15
May

The New York Stock Exchange has been an American fixture almost as long as we’ve been a nation. Being “in the market” has been, and remains, of concern for generation after generation of Americans. This goes for me as well. I’ve made money, lost money – overall, I think I’m ahead, but am not certain. Still, I’ve always taken notice of “Wall Street,” come to understand at least some of what was going on, (although probably no more than a portion of the nearly endless ways to “invest”). What follows are more or less random observations derived from years of following the ups and downs of this incredible mechanism for money-making make believe. After reading this, it’s unlikely you will plunge into securities (interesting word), but you might come to appreciate the fact that the stock market will remain and serve as a prime engine of capitalism and like it, the source of endless dreams and periodic disappointments.
• Is the market yet another form of gambling? It can be. Do we not commonly speak of “playing” the market? Don’t we risk losing what we’ve ventured? How much do we really know about the company whose stock we’ve bought? Don’t we sometimes rely on a hunch or a tip from someone who is supposedly “in the know?” Isn’t our goal often enough a “quick buck?” Aren’t some attracted to penny stocks, the equivalent of a gambler’s longshot? A majority of those in the market will deny they are gambling, assure you they’re “investing,” though admitting there is an element of gambling involved. Nevertheless, bear in mind, they’ll note, that if you made a bet on the roll of the dice or the outcome of a game and you lost, the money is gone instantly, If, on the other hand your stock declines, your money has not vanished – the stock price in time could easily rebound. And if you are a “long term” conservative investor you’re comforted by the fact that, over time, the market has almost always gone up. And finally, there’s the risk that gambling can become an addiction. A stock addict? A species most rare.
• Public companies go about their business one day not much different from the one before or after it. But in the market, their stocks go up and down, register highs and lows, seemingly disconnected from the conduct of their business. In the market, every day can be a new drama, a unique arena, forces often unexpected and external, operating in one direction, then another. That’s why, for many, weekends prove lackluster (lacking excitement, because markets are closed). But then, on Monday, energy levels rise once again, with the 9:30am bell and the start of trading activity.
• “Buy low, sell high” – is among the oldest of market clichés. So is “you can’t time the market.” Here you are eager to get in but you hesitate, judging that the market or “your” stock will head lower. It doesn’t – you’ve missed a golden opportunity. But then you do buy the stock and it heads higher. Sell. Take your profit! You do, but it continues to go higher. Sometimes winning is “losing.” “Greed” has triumphed over patience.
• New Issues. A company is about to “go public.” Usually this stock is distributed by underwriters to “insiders” and substantial investors. The “little guy” tends to get shut out. Not always. Occasionally he gets some shares and almost always the price goes up. Carried along, these folks are in for a thrilling ride.
• A sports fan is always on the alert for rookie sensations, or newcomers who rapidly become the talk of the sports world. Same with stocks that generate widespread excitement and accelerate upward. There have been many such winners over the years. In recent months, companies such as Tesla, Zoom, Netflix, Amazon, Beyond Meat, some old, some new, have run away from the pack. Get on board – jump in while the momentum lasts. Or is it too late?
• If only. Lots of people will relate stories about investments they should have made, opportunities lost. It could be in real estate, a business, an invention, etc. For whatever reason, they passed on it. They could have made a fortune. Check various business sites and often you’ll spot an item about how if only you had bought IBM, Microsoft, Apple, Alphabet, Facebook, Amazon, etc., at the beginning, you’d now be worth. . … Maybe next time!
• On the lower end of Manhattan, near the Wall Street area, stands a bronze sculpture of a bull, a massive object that symbolizes investors’ fondest hopes. In a “bull market” a rising tide lifts most all stocks. Buoyant optimism and general euphoria prevails. Money pours into stocks, and bullish “gurus” predict dizzying heights for the Dow. Beyond that, the “wealth effect” kicks in, as people whose portfolio values have gained substantially feel flush and start spending more. (Until Corona arrived a bull market ran for eleven years!) But alas, “bears” lurk in the shadows and warn that there is obvious financial froth all about that bears little relationship to corporate profits and future economic trends. And so a classic tug of war occurs between “risk on” and “risk off” market players, between those with high hopes and others with fresh fears. Often stock prices can turn in an instant, market moods can quickly reverse course. Bears and bulls must always be wary of one another.
• Regular sports bettors know there are multiple ways to wager on a contest including on the winner (by beating the point spread) total points scored, (over and under) first score, leading scorer, etc. Likewise, the stock market offers a lavish menu allowing people to partake in a bewildering number of ways, including direct purchase, buying on margin, puts, calls, straddles, specialty mutual funds (including foreign stocks), index funds, and ETF (exchange traded funds) in all imaginable categories. Are you confused, feel over your head? Better turn to a broker or a financial advisor. In the market “the little guy” is usually at a distinct disadvantage.
• The stock market, we are told, is always “forward looking,” can be likened to a fortune teller. It is true. “Technicians” devise all manner of charts of previous stock performance and discover past patterns which they claim are predictive, but students of the market declare that its behavior is largely predicated upon looking ahead while largely discounting past performance. When, for example, long-term interest notes fall below current levels (inverted yield curve), they signal a slowing economy down the road and produce a market downturn, Traders carefully follow quarterly corporate reports because they almost always include “forward guidance,” a company’s prediction about future revenues and earnings. These then form the basis for evaluating the company when it next reports. If its profits fall short of expectation its stock price will likely slump. If, on the other hand, it exceeded the company’s previous estimates, expect the price to move up.
Most Americans who are in the market do so in order to secure their future well-being; to have ample funds available for retirement. If the American economy expands and the market rises accordingly, it will, for all its volatility and “irrational exuberance” prove its value, that is, provide Americans with their most significant safety net.

JAPAN RISES

15
May

Long viewed as a slumbering giant, China has, in recent decades, awakened and rushed headlong into the ranks of the world’s most powerful nations. Some even consider it on the threshold of overtaking the United States (especially in light of its forceful response to the Covid-19 Pandemic) in most categories of world influence. Recall that as recently as  the middle of the 20th Century, China had been humiliated by a catastrophic invasion by the Japanese and torn by a devastating civil war. But thanks to the emergence of a strong central government, a compelling ideology, and success in mobilizing China’s immense population it industrialized and modernized at a pace few thought possible. The Chinese people witnessed dramatic changes in their lives and now see a society, largely transformed, enjoy a quality of life few could have imagined not long ago. While there is serious fault to be found, no one denies the Chinese “miracle” has occurred, and that there’s scarce precedent for such a meteoric rise.
Would they, however, to consider the story of China’s long-time adversary, they would discover a nation that was itself dramatically transformed in rapid fashion a full century before China’s startling rise. The transformation of Japan, beginning in 1868, could even be considered more astonishing than even the Chinese ascendance, offering a model that China perhaps unwittingly followed, as it moved to replace a feudal society with a nation able to take its place among the world’s powers. General accounts mention Japan’s “Meiji Restoration,” and its abrupt awakening beginning in 1868, but then quickly pass on and omit what actually took place and whisk us to the end result of their process, i.e., the “proof” – Japan’s surprising victory in the Russo-Japanese War (1904-5), the first instance in modern times of an Asian nation defeating an established European power.
Japan might have remained a backward, feudal, rigidly hierarchical society, dominated by local all-powerful Shoguns, had not Western nations posed a threat to its very independence and self-imposed isolation from the world. It all began when U.S. Navy Commodore Matthew Perry sailed into Tokyo harbor in 1853 unopposed, after which he persuaded the Japanese to sign a commercial treaty favoring U.S. trade. Certain European nations soon did likewise, as imperialist-minded leaders were eager to control regions and penetrate distant markets across the globe. Because the Japanese feared they might be next and understood how vulnerable they were, profound structural changes became imperative. Working in behalf of a new Emperor (a 14-year-old installed in 1868) a dynamic cadre of rising leaders ushered in an era of dramatic changes across society. Local potentates were undermined, the Samurai class had its privileges revoked, and land reforms were introduced.
A central authority assumed control and promoted the semi-divine status of the Emperor as the supreme symbol of national pride and unity. The leadership openly proclaimed its intention to import the most advanced technology available overseas, the Emperor announcing that “Knowledge shall be sought all over the world.” Students as well as delegations of Japanese went forth, encouraged to observe and absorb whatever could advance the nation’s interests. For example, new criminal and civil codes were introduced along lines similar to those in France and Germany. And in 1889 a Constitution was proclaimed establishing Parliament (Diet) and cabinet and the office of Prime Minister. National conscription was introduced (requiring four years of service), and a Japanese army created. Furthermore, a newly organized public school system was put in place and six years of education made mandatory, while a national dialect was introduced to further advance the process of reorganization and national unification. The economy took off, the result of direct government intervention and stimulus. There was impressive growth of railroads, a merchant marine, communication facilities, coal mines, as well as chemical plants, munitions production and textile manufacturing. After a time most of these operations were sold off to private entrepreneurs who consolidated them into powerful economic conglomerates (Zaibatsu).
Would this extensive national makeover now enable Japan to hold its own in the international arena? The question was first answered in 1895 when Japan defeated China in the Sino-Japanese war and again in 1904-5 when the Japanese humbled Russia in the Russo-Japanese conflict. But Japan came away from the latter clash embittered, convinced that U.S. president Theodore Roosevelt, serving as mediator, intervened prematurely, eager to conclude a peace treaty, thereby depriving the Japanese of what they believed to be their just reward, especially after devastating the Russian fleet at the Battle of Tsushima Straits.
In the years that followed, Japan and the United States, both rapidly rising powers, grew increasingly suspicious of one another. Many sources of conflict went unresolved. The day of reckoning finally arrived on December 7, 1941, when the Japanese launched a massive sneak attack against the U.S. at Pearl Harbor. As the Japanese flagship Akagi headed toward the target, and while its sailors cheered wildly, it ran up the very same battle flag unfurled 36 years earlier in Japan’s smashing navel victory over Russia. The attack against the U.S. about to be launched would, the Japanese believed, at long last demonstrate that they had arrived, achieved Asian Supremacy.

TOUGH TIMES

4
May

As a student of American history, I long had the impression that much bad stuff had occurred in the U.S. in the years 1917-1920. But had we really experienced such a calamitous cluster? After all, consider the Russian Revolution and its convulsive impact around the world, the triumph of the “dries” and the onset of “Prohibition,” and arguably the “steal of the century,” when for $150,000 the Boston Red Sox sent Babe Ruth to the Yankees. But not until I dug deeper into those years did I conclude that a strong case could be made about these terrible times. Take note.
Accidents always happen, but some of the following stand out as both deadly and bizarre. Explosives were stacked along docks prior to shipment to our World War I allies and later to U.S. “doughboys” fighting overseas. These stockpiles were vulnerable. (The huge Black Tom blast – a case of German sabotage – had in fact occurred in New York harbor in 1917.) The following year brought another deadly blast with detonations over three days in New York, killing over 100, and also one involving TNT in Pennsylvania, claiming 200 fatalities. Then there was an immense forest fire in Cloquet, Minnesota, which took 453 lives; and a disastrous subway crash in Brooklyn in the midst of a transit workers strike, in which over 93 died; as well as a Great Train Wreck in Nashville, Tennessee, taking 101 lives. Consider also a dirigible crash in Chicago, the aircraft hurtling down onto a bank building, killing thirteen. Stranger still was Boston’s Molasses Disaster in which a huge tank of molasses exploded, releasing its contents in waves of deadly liquid (25 feet high in places), moving at top speed of 35mph, that engulfed bystanders, killing 21 and injuring 150!
Of course the overriding crisis of these years was the flu pandemic. First observed in January of 1917, it spread quickly in military camps where U.S, soldiers were training for combat in World War I. Ultimately, half of the American troops fighting overseas who died succumbed to the flu. Back home, most unusual was the fact that the flu proved especially severe among young adults, with outbreaks more widespread in the summer and autumn. A second and more deadly wave began in October of 1916. Mortality rates were calculated to be around 2.5%. Chicago was one of the many cities that closed theaters, movie houses, and prohibited public gatherings, while San Francisco mandated masks for many of its citizens. New York City required all flu cases to be isolated at home, and its health department outlawed spitting. Philadelphia was hard hit – more than 500 corpses awaiting burial, some for more than a week. In total, 28% of Americans became infected and overall fatalities may have been as high as 675,000. Post-war periods are typically unstable; this time even more chaotic when you add a pandemic into the mix.
Now introduce the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia and its repeated threats to stage world-wide uprisings in order to topple existing governments. Socialists in America had caused “trouble,” opposing the war, and were jailed for defying the Sedition Act. Anarchists were sending bombs through the mail to public officials. An explosion went off near the home of Attorney General A. Mitchel Palmer and, on September 16, 1920, a huge blast rocked the offices of J. P. Morgan on Wall Street, killing 38 – an attack attributed to anarchists. All this and more served as the prelude to the Red Scare producing an atmosphere of extreme peril that darkened those years. The FBI and local police staged raids in at least thirty cities, seizing thousands of suspected radicals – several hundred of whom – all foreign-born, were deported. America was not on the brink of revolution, but some leaders might be excused for thinking the ground was shifting under their feet.
Laboring men and women were deeply discontented owing to a combination of sharply rising prices and economic recession. Many prepared to go on strike, hoping to pressure employers. America’s first-ever General Strike occurred in Seattle, together with a major steel strike, walkouts of coal miners, longshoremen and even female telephone operators in Boston. Especially alarming was a strike by most of Boston’s police force, threatening the public safety. Americans generally remained unsympathetic to the strikes, accepting the view of authorities that they were largely the result of agitation by assorted radicals and Communists.
The position of African Americans after the war was even more precarious than that of most other Americans. Many had left the South encouraged to fill jobs left open by those entering the armed forces. Still, they encountered extreme hostility after they arrived. The KKK had once again become active and contributed to an acceleration of racist violence long prevalent in American Society. Race riots, both large and small, broke out all across the United States. In Chicago it raged over a period of about a week and claimed 38 lives. In Elaine, Ark., 300 were killed in three days of fighting. (In Tulsa, Oklahoma, a massive riot occurred in 1921, which destroyed the entire black section of the city and led to the deaths of a substantial and, to this day, unknown number of victims.) In short, the post-war period, difficult for most Americans, tested the black community even more severely.
The bleak characterization of these years became even more pronounced when we add the following events.
American troops are dispatched to Russia in an attempt to undo the Russian Revolution… The New York State Assembly expels five Socialist members for disloyalty to the United States… An armed robbery and murder in Massachusetts leads to the highly controversial trial of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti (executed in 1927)… Swindler Charles Ponzi, promising large returns with postal coupons makes millions from unsuspecting “investors”… Supreme Court rules regulation of child labor unconstitutional… Teddy Roosevelt dies in 1920 at age 60… President Woodrow Wilson suffers stroke and partial paralysis as wife assumes many presidential responsibilities… The U.S. does not join the League of Nations… Black Sox scandal, involving eight members of the Chicago White Sox, accused of World Series game fixing against Cincinnati Reds… Congress passes Volstead Act (Prohibition)… U.S. Military units cross over Mexican border in pursuit of Pancho Villa… U.S. Army Motor Transport Corps (including Lieutenant Colonel Dwight Eisenhower) drives 3,250 miles across country (Washington, D.C. to Oakland, California) and suffers 21 injuries and 230 road accidents… Local leaders of IWW (Industrial Workers of the World) lynched in Centralia, Washington… Prices double between 1916 and 1919… Yankee pitcher Carl Mays hits Cleveland Indians batter Ray Chapman in the head. Chapman dies the next day – first and only baseball fatality… Al Capone moves to Chicago.
Sure there was upbeat news in this period: Women’s Suffrage, for example. But overall, the evidence seems to support the conclusion that these were far from being “the good old days.”

HORSE SENSE

30
April

Horses have surely played a pivotal role in America’s story (and so have mules and oxen, but who speaks for them?). There’s a vast literature out there about these exceptional creatures, yet I could not discover any single account that encompasses the remarkably varied roles horses have played over the course of our history included in the American imagination. If that book is ever to appear I suggest it include a good many of the topics outlined below.
• Never before had the local populations in South America seen armed men riding horses. So formidable did they appear that  conquistadores were everywhere victorious and soon established the foundations of Spanish empire in America.
• Native American tribes that learned to obtain and ride horses, such as the Comanche, Crow, Cheyenne, Kiowa, and Blackfoot, became efficient buffalo hunters, and exceptionally formidable foes in battle.
• Horse thieves, whether, paleface or Native Americans, were a constant menace, especially in western regions.
• The first notable horse bred in America was the Narragansett Pacer, originating in Rhode Island and transported to the other colonies as well as the Caribbean.
• Mail service in the colonies depended upon horsemen travelling along post roads.
• To move about in Colonial America you’d best ride a horse, even within the cities, or consider boarding horse-drawn stage coaches offering seating inside or out.
• Get on a horse, let loose the hounds and go on a bracing fox hunt, an acquired taste for colonial elites, especially down south.
• Organized resistance to the British was made possible thanks to Committees of Correspondence established in many a colonial town. Keeping each of them abreast of developments were express riders whose horses galloped from one town to the next.
• The “Midnight ride of Paul Revere” on a borrowed horse saved the day after he had ridden out on false alarms on previous days. His warning enabled Sam Adams and John Hancock to escape from Lexington via horse and carriage. Afterward, a British patrol captured Revere and confiscated his horse.
• Thomas Jefferson referred to George Washington as a “renowned horseman of his time.” He cut quite a commanding figure on his two mounts, “Blueskin” and especially “Nelson,” both of which survived the Revolution and then retired to Mt. Vernon.
• Thomas Jefferson, long plagued by diarrhea, discovered relief by riding a trotting horse regularly. That exercise, he concluded, helped to strengthen his bowels.
• Cargo often passed through the Erie Canal, thanks to horses moving along the shore, pulling adjacent boats.
• In addition to the traditional roles of horses in agriculture, transportation, freight movement, war and recreation, they played a part in industry, e.g., in coal mines, in breweries (hauling barrels), grinding grain, pumping water and serving as the source of power in saw mills.
• In general, northern farmers preferred horses in the fields whereas southern agriculturalists had a preference for mules.
• U. S. Grant was widely acclaimed for his horsemanship which included training, managing and riding horses. It is estimated that for every soldier who died in the Civil War (750,000) five horses were killed. Mostly, horses pulled wagons, ambulances and artillery pieces. Notable cavalry units included those led by J. E. B. Stuart (South) and Phil Sheridan (North).
• Most famously, General Grant of Appomattox agreed to allow southern soldiers who owned their own horses to keep them so as to be able to plant their crops.
• Robert E. Lee’s horse, Traveller, is said to have gone into battle more often than any other horse in the Civil War. Traveller survived the conflict and outlived Lee, who died in 1876, by a year.
• Riders of the Pony Express carried mail, messages and newspapers, thanks to relays of horses between Missouri and California for a brief period (1860-61). It has, nevertheless, become part of American lore as a bold example of the America “can-do” adventurous spirit.
• The cowboy enters the pantheon of American heroes. He and his horse were viewed as inseparable.
• U.S. cavalry units played a major role providing security to Western settlers and railroad construction crews (Iron Horse). There were, however, many Indian wars in the late 19th Century. American troops did suffer a major defeat at the Battle of Little Bighorn (1876) at the hands of Lakota leader Crazy Horse.
• The 19th Century is considered to be the “golden age of the horse”, especially in America’s cities where they played an essential role in the urban economy relating to transportation (goods and people), manure production (used for fertilizer), valued for their bodies (hair, hides, bones and meat), stable construction and advances in horse equipment (harnesses and horseshoes).
• Horse-drawn railways and trolleys were at the heart of urban transportation and also encouraged expansion to neighboring suburbs.
• Horse racing became a major spectator sport during the late 19th Century, conducted on such notable race tracks as Churchill Downs, Pimlico, Saratoga and Belmont Park. Sizable crowds attended and over the years celebrated many an outstanding thoroughbred as Man O’War Dan Patch, Seabiscuit, Citation, Secretariat and Native Dancer.
• Horses served as a principal attraction in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Shows, as well as in the many rodeo exhibitions presented across the U.S. in the late 19th Century.
• Horses still played a significant role in World War I when, it’s estimated, that close to six million were employed. Cavalry units, however, were soon overcome by machine guns and tanks. Horses remained essential to the movement of supplies and artillery pieces to and from the battlefield.
• Modernized tractors began replacing horses in the fields after World War I. As a result, millions of horses became expendable and were eliminated.
• In the 1930’s, the New Deal’s WPA introduced the Pack Horse Library program through which books were transported by horseback to people living in remote areas of Kentucky’s Appalachian Mountains.
• World War II saw the last cavalry charge on horseback by U.S. Troops (Philippines, 1942). Jeeps, tanks, and other mechanized vehicles assumed roles once filled by horses. German and Russian forces, however, still employed sizeable numbers of horses.
• Horses became celebrities on TV and film. Consider “Trigger,” Roy Roger’s mount, and “Silver,” ridden by the Lone Ranger. Then there was Mr. Ed, the talking horse who enjoyed six years as a television celebrity.
• Let’s not omit horses trained to dive into deep waters (e.g., Atlantic City), merry-go-rounds where children rode atop painted wooden horses, and photographers taking pictures of children astride ponies.
• Wild horses by the tens of thousands are protected and continue to roam free today in parts of the American West. To some they represent a romantic reminder of freedom, and the frontier West. Others, closer to the scene, see uncontrolled overpopulation and damage to the region’s ecological balance.
So we have here a full, albeit incomplete, accounting of the roles horses have played throughout our history. Each topic cited requires in-depth research and interpretation. Hope-fully, someone will be inspired to undertake the task.

CASH OUT

29
April

Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day.
Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.

Long term, it makes sense to learn how to become self-supporting; short term, individuals must survive before reaching that point. Americans, though a charitable people, have been somewhat wary of “giving.” Charitable organizations, for example, over the years have often declared their intention to assist only the “deserving poor.” Furthermore, many people will defend not giving “hand-outs,” explaining that those on the receiving end risk becoming dependent. Besides, there’s no guarantee they will make appropriate use of the money. “They’ll just waste it on drugs, liquor or cigarettes.” In a society that celebrates independence and individualism, accepting government money, “going on welfare” has not been viewed favorably.
Such discussions have assumed greater relevance in recent times as various proposals have been advanced to dispense money directly to people undeniably needy. Before tackling this issue some historical perspective may be useful. In the past there’ve been occasional efforts to inflate the currency, put more money in circulation, hopefully to benefit those suffering economic hardship. The Federal Government, for example, issued paper greenbacks during the Civil War and some years later the Populist Party campaigned for coinage based on silver (in addition to gold) in order to augment the supply of money. In recent years the Federal Reserve has poured billions into the economic mainstream.
Still, it was not until the Great Depression of the 1930’s that direct, distributive proposals were advanced and championed by leaders able to generate considerable enthusiasm behind such ideas. They found fertile ground, given the massive levels of distress across the society, the inability of private charities and local governments to provide ongoing relief and the general belief that the American economy could no longer expand much beyond existing levels. It would, in fact, shrink because people without money could not become consumers of goods and services. Furthermore, amidst this widespread misery, American communists were busy recruiting and preaching their anti-capitalist gospel, pointing out the obvious – the private enterprise system had failed.
Such was the context in which strident voices began calling for giving money directly to people. Surprisingly it was the Federal Government that first responded via the Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA) of 1933, which called upon farmers to take land out of production and, in return, receive government money. In other words, stop cultivating a portion of land and get paid to do it. Out in California sixty-six year old physician Dr. Francis Townsend, referring to this AAA Program, went even further, calling for payments of $200 a month to all persons over 60 years old, if they agreed to retire and spend that bounty in the month it was received. Though economists quickly exposed the flaws and calculated the enormous costs of such a scheme, thousands of Townsend’s clubs sprouted across the nation, and millions more signed petitions in favor of cash payments.
At about the same time, another peoples’ “champion” arose, Huey Long from Louisiana. Inveighing against the Money Power and the entrenched Eastern elites he positioned himself as spokesman for the common man, publishing an autobiography entitled Every Man a King and called for a “Share the Wealth Society.” “Let no one tell you,” he thundered, “that it is difficult to redistribute the wealth of this land. It is simple.” He called for giving a “household estate” of $5,000 to every American family while also guaranteeing every family a minimum annual income of $2,500 per year (nearly double the median family income then). Americans of the time couldn’t be blamed for hoping that Long’s formula could come to their rescue.
President Franklin Roosevelt, the consummate politician, was not unmindful of the various economic nostrums being peddled and how bombastic populist leaders were attracting millions upon millions of supporters. He was also keenly aware of the devastating impact of the Depression on Americans and the immediate need for remedial action. And he responded. Billions of dollars went forth for emergency relief and job creation. The Social Security Act of 1935 would commit the Federal Government to dispense money to retired seniors. But it would not be a handout since they would, first, to have worked and contributed money to fund the program. That same legislation mandated that, at the state level, unemployment insurance programs be enacted with money distributed to those who lost jobs and were not working. Overall, Roosevelt’s New Deal laid the foundation for America’s first serious and reasonably comprehensive effort to establish the rudiments of a social safety net. There were “holes” galore and there was opposition aplenty to this unprecedented activism on the part of Washington, but the naysayers would, in the years ahead, be unable to dismantle much of what had been put in place.
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Even before the Pandemic hit, the reality of vast wealth inequality in America,and the general stagnation of middle class wages provoked discussions about ways of getting money out to people. The earned income tax credit, which distributed funds to workers earning sub-standard incomes, most considered to be a real boon to the working poor. Reports from overseas commented favorably about programs of money distributions (as well as cash child benefits). Stockton, California, has been experimenting with distributing sums of money directly to people; and in the 2020 Democratic primary, candidate Andrew Yang, energetically promoted the idea of giving everyone $1,000 a month (concerned that an accelerating Artificial Intelligence revolution will throw millions of Americans out of work – perhaps permanently).
Just as the great depression exposed how precarious were the lives of a majority of Americans, the Coronavirus has revealed the inadequacy of the support system available to people in this crisis. Tens of millions have no health insurance, or have policies altogether inadequate and overly expensive. Child care services are both costly and not easily available. Provisions for sick leave and paid family leave fall well short of peoples’ needs. Housing costs and rental expenses are seriously straining family budgets. Homeless populations continue to grow. The costs of college education, considered the key to social mobility, are on the rise. A majority of retirees acknowledge they have scant resources available at this stage of their lives. A 63% workforce participation rate suggests that large number of Americans will never go back to work.
The relatively good economic times that preceded the Coronavirus outbreak tended to conceal some of these problems; Coronavirus has exposed them. So can we expect to see a repeat of the1930’s, when dire circumstances resulted in the creation of at least a rudimentary safety net? Already billions of dollars are being distributed directly to individuals, with even more money likely on the way. Will our present crisis generate the kind of pressure and result in an innovative “new” New Deal, similar to that which burst forth in the 1930’s? If it does, we can at least take comfort in the fact that something fundamentally valuable and enduring has emerged from the wreckage that currently surrounds us – a measurable triumph out of a destructive tragedy.