Monday, June 30, 2008

Election 2008—the “Big Mo”

In the world of sports, momentum is a well understood concept. If you expect to win, you have to have momentum going in, and you have to sustain it throughout the game. Of course, the other team or players sometimes are successful in changing the momentum but not often. Simply put, momentum is the will to win and overcome your opponent no matter how tough the game becomes. In spite of a knee injury, Tiger Woods found a way to win the US Open. And in spite of Kobe Bryant’s best effort to rally the Lakers, Boston won the NBA championship.

This election year sports Barack Obama against John McCain in the national championship for President of the United States. And in spite of McCain’s best effort so far, Obama clearly has the momentum. He has had the momentum since first winning the Iowa primary, and spite of a couple of good runaway second and fourth quarters when Hillary won California, Texas, New York, and Pennsylvania, Obama maintained the momentum by winning virtually all of the smaller states. Hillary played it to the final second, but had to graciously concede defeat. If Obama sustains the momentum throughout the election campaign, John McCain is going to end up seeing his best days behind him.

From day one, Obama has remained steadfast in his message: “I’m asking you to believe. Not just in my ability to bring about real change in Washington . . . I’m asking you to believe in yours.”

That he is also running openly as a populist and a socialist would seem counter-intuitive to becoming a serious candidate, but considering how much hardship has been created for everyday working folk by capitalistic greed, McCain’s message of “pro-growth; pro-democracy” seems to be falling on deaf ears.

Recently Obama announced he would forgo public funding of his campaign and instead would rely on the individual donations of his supporters. McCain called foul, and said Obama has gone back on his word when he promised he would take federal funding for his campaign if his opponent did the same: "This is a big deal, a big deal," McCain said. "He has completely reversed himself and gone back, not on his word to me, but the commitment he made to the American people."

To McCain it is an issue of character, but to Obama it is a slam dunk of playing hard against his opponent and moving on. It would do McCain good to stop squabbling and get back to the game by giving up public funding as well.

Regardless, public funding or otherwise, McCain is going to have to play his best game by convincing the American people that he is every bit as sincere as to why he thinks he should be the next President of the United States, and I believe he is.

However, with recent failures in mortgages, rampant increases in energy, food and other goods, and stagnant wages, the Republicans are fast becoming a party that is about to be completely ostracized come November 4th. When you consider the average American who hasn’t had any significant pay increase in the last two years, you can only imagine the emotions that begin percolating when their paycheck hardly covers basic expenses. People are mad, and when people are mad, they get on that roller coaster of emotion and take a ride with whoever is promising a better deal. That is why Obama has the momentum, and John McCain doesn’t. People want change, not political principles or ideology. However, the change people might end up getting might be considerably less in their pocket then they may realize.

Carter was elected because Gerald Ford was perceived as a continued extension of Nixon’s presidency. During Carter’s presidency, we had run-away inflation, and a president who could not be decisive on anything. The Democrats are taking advantage of the perception that McCain’s presidency would be a George Bush third term—different face, yes, but business as usual.

Of course the Republicans will have only themselves to blame should McCain lose the election. George Bush has been largely ineffectual in his leadership during his second term, and perhaps has been too focused on Iraq and Afghanistan, and not enough on domestic issues here at home. His economic stimulus plan, though well-intentioned, was too little, too late. And if the housing crisis continues to worsen, and gas prices continue to spiral upward, George Bush is going to cast a huge shadow over McCain’s campaign that will make it near impossible for him to step out from under.

Regardless, Obama is not going to fold or collapse mid-way. Whatever statements made about him as inexperienced or incapable of leading this country are contrary to the image of a man who is poised and confident in his message and is skillful in his tactics. He’s on the move, and he’s going to be hard to stop—not because he is convinced he will win; but because he has envisioned himself as already won.

During the election of 1980, Bush declared he had the “Big Mo,” but Reagan, who had to tough it out a couple of times had the momentum from the beginning and was able to sustain it throughout his campaign. He won the GOP nomination and the presidency. If Obama continues to move forward as he has been, then he will be the next President of the United States.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

“. . . The Surpassing One We Make”

(In Response To Your Card)

By the bank of the river, naked,
You clutch a clump of pussy willows
With both hands and slowly bend
And pull downward, forming

The shape of a heart, and for
The first time I understand
The significance of what it means
To say, “I love you.”

Let me cross, then, and grasp
Your hands, and together be grafted
At the rib, for you need no longer doubt
Whether or not I perceive the subtlety
Of our instinct to surrender as two reeds
Planted as one among the replenishing water.

By S L Cunningham

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Leonardo da Vinci’s needed to address global issues

Saturday night I went to the movies to catch “Iron Man,” which turned out to be much better than I had anticipated. I found that I was particularly mesmerized by Downey’s performance, and thought it was one of the best action-hero flicks I’ve seen in a while.

After the movie, I headed to The House of Pies for my usual patty melt with a cup of coffee and a slice of egg-custard pie for dessert. It’s your typical American diner and there’s nothing retro about the d├ęcor. According to the manager, they’ve done little upgrading since it first opened in 1964.

I took my usual stool at the counter. The place was buzzing, and a lot of spirited conversation seemed to be going on, especially with the two gentlemen sitting to the left of me.

“It just makes me sick whenever I go fill up for gas or buy groceries. Can you believe how much we’re paying these days? I spent $98 bucks to fill up my tank the other day.”

“Just a repeat of 1980,” said the other guy sitting next to me.

A repeat of 1980? Back then the jump in fuel prices from about 67 cents a gallon to a $1.10 did create a lot of panic, especially with the long lines that snaked around entire blocks. A couple times when you finally made it to the pump after spending two hours in line, the attendant came out and put up the sign: “Out of gas. Closed.”

Whenever I had to get gas during that time, I made sure to bring plenty of work with me. I remember writing an entire term paper for English in one of those lines. But what hardship we endured affected us mostly in terms of convenience, not economics, since we already had become fairly accustomed to rampant inflation during the seventies.

One of the funniest things I remember when gas crossed the $1 threshold was that many stations had to sell it by the half-gallon, since most pumps back then didn’t register more than 99.9 cents.

“Don’t know about 1980,” said the other guy. “All I know is that my damn truck’s eating up all my money and I got less in my wallet at the end of the month than I did a couple months ago.”

The waitress set down a cup of coffee and took my order.

Earlier that day, CNN reported that the national average for gas is now $4 a gallon, though here in Houston, were still hovering around $3.89. With no end in site, I imagine it won’t be too long before we’re well past $4.

The guy sitting next to me picked back up on his argument with the other guy. “Adjusted for inflation, the price of a gallon of gas in 1980 is only slightly less than we are paying now. It really isn’t that much different.”

“Well, don’t know about that. But if it keeps getting any worse, I’m going to be getting rid of my truck. Going to slap a “For Sale” sign on her and kiss that baby goodbye” said the other guy as he stood up to leave.

In 1980 I was a full-time student at Cal-State Long Beach. I was on the GI Bill that provided me with a monthly check for $348. I also took home about $360 a month by working 20 hours a week as a tour guide on the Queen Mary. Altogether, my total monthly income was a little over $725 a month.

Rent was $150. Electric and phone was around $18. The only other expense I had was car insurance that averaged out at about $12 a month. I didn’t have a car payment.

The car I had at the time, a 1971 Toyota Corolla station wagon, was easy on gas and fun to drive. It had a 1.3 liter engine that put out about 110 horse power and got about 26 miles to the gallon. Not very efficient compared to today’s four cylinder engines, but certainly much more efficient than most V8’s at that time that averaged about 15 miles to the gallon.

I did drive around a lot, then, especially with many weekend excursions to Los Angeles. After gas had crossed a buck a gallon, I cut back some, but not much. Still, I never spent more than $7 to $8 a week on gas.

Even though money was tight at times, I never felt like I was impoverished. After I added in my monthly food budget of $60, I still had over half of my monthly income left. Much of that was used to buy books and cover student fees, but I still had enough left where I could go out to eat on a pretty regular basis.

I looked at the patty melt and fries my waitress placed in front of me. There isn’t anything more satisfying then the aroma of a hot toasted sandwich off the grill, and a plate of sizzling fries straight from the fryer vat. I asked for the ketchup bottle from the guy sitting next to me.

As he handed me the bottle, he asked, “What do you think about the high cost of gas?”

I looked at him and said, “Don’t know really, except that it seems to be creating more of an economic hardship for everyone than it did in 1980.”

No sooner than I finished my sentence, he whipped out his but-adjusted for-inflation-argument on me. “Well, yeah, gas at $4.00 a gallon seems high, but adjusted for inflation, today’s price is only slightly higher than what people were paying for a gallon of gas in 1980.”

“That may be true,” I said, “as I took a small bite from my patty melt, “but what I don’t think anybody is taking the time to look at is the ratio of income to the cost of gas, food, shelter, and other expenses.” That is the rub I have with this guy who doesn’t think there’s any real difference from then and now.

In terms of adjusting for inflation, items today may not cost much more than they did twenty-five, thirty years ago. What has changed. though, and what makes us pay more attention to ever increasing prices, is that the ratio of income to the cost of gas, food, and shelter has become disproportionate over time. In my estimation, wages have not kept up with inflation over the years, and as a result we are making less but paying more.

“Ratio of income?” he says, “What’s that got to do with anything. Wages are higher today than ever before.”

I grabbed a napkin and took out my pen from my pocket, adding up my expenses for food, gas, car insurance, and utilities. In 1980, my total expenses only ate up 36% of my net income. I added up my expenses that I’m spending now on those same items and discover that it takes up 54% of my income. Thus, as I explained to him, I am actually paying more with less.

He didn’t have a response right off. After a few minutes he looked at me and said, “Never thought of it that way before.” He picked up his tab from the counter. “How much was a cup of coffee and a slice of pie back in 1980?

“Most places? Forty cents for a cup of coffee and a slice pie would set you back for about $1.25”

“Well, adjusted for inflation, $4.85 today seems about right. Not all that much more now than then.”

“True,” I said, “except that today you have less discretionary income to spend on pie and coffee then you did in 1979, thus it actually costs you more to enjoy it today than it did back then.”

“Well, got me there, I suppose.”

He shook his head and walked toward the register to pay his tab.

I went back to finishing my egg-custard pie. As I was taking a bite, I thought back on the movie I seen earlier. If only we could develop a power source similar to Tony’s “Ark Reactor,” but on a much larger scale that would not only propel our vehicles, but also provide energy for entire cities.

In the movie, Tony (aka “Iron man”) is referred to as the “da Vinci” of our time. Today, more than ever, we need real Leonardo da Vinci’s to address the myriad of problems were faced with today—not just with oil dependence, but with the depletion of other natural resources, pollution, emerging economies in third world countries, and global poverty.

By S L Cunningham

Featured in the Culture section of Blogcritics

Monday, June 2, 2008

All quiet on the home front

"War - I know it well, and the butchery of men
Well I know. . .”
Homer, The Iliad

Houston, Texas -- This first day of June 2008 is turning out to be a real scorcher. It’s just past noon, and the temperature’s at 94 degrees with a heat index of 101. In spite of the hot day we’re having, I head out to Memorial Park for my Sunday afternoon walk on the mountain bike trails that meander through a lush green and densely vegetated forest featuring giant loblolly pines and massive water oaks.

In a city the size of Houston, it is good to have a place such as this. As soon as I step into the forest, the canopy erases any sense of being in a large metropolitan area. It isn’t too long before you find yourself taken in by the smell of pine and magnolia. Aside from the physical benefits of a five mile hike, it is also good to have a place for wrestling with any particular angst you may be experiencing, which, in my case, I have been experiencing a lot lately.

It’s been one year since my son was deployed to Afghanistan with the 173rd Airborne Division. He’s a paratrooper assigned to 2nd Platoon, Battle Company, 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry. Since “Operation Rock Avalanche,” last October, his unit has made its home at Firebase Restrepo in the Korengal Valley; an outpost built on a mountain outcropping, “rockbag” by “rockbag.” It was named in honor of Army medic Pfc. Juan Restrepo, who was killed by small arms fire after his unit came under attack by the Taliban.

In an article that appeared in the January 2008 issue of “Vanity Fair,” Sebastian Junger wrote: “The Korengal is widely considered to be the most dangerous valley in northeastern Afghanistan, and Second Platoon is considered the tip of the spear for the American forces there.”

Certainly his time over there has not been easy for him or the men he serves with, but they have handled the situations they’ve had to face remarkably well, especially the cold winter months they had to endure. But with the generous donations they received from friends, family, and the community of Belfast, Maine that adopted the 173rd, they had an ample supply of tuna, beef jerky, hand warmers, arctic socks, and thermal underwear that made being out in the cold a little easier to take.

When I asked my son in an email how he was holding up to the weather, I got a response that was the best possible assurance he could give me that he was going to be just fine: “I don’t think I’ve ever been this cold before. It got down to -5 or so. And you know it wouldn’t be the first time I’ve been in -degree weather; after all, it got to -30 once in Maine. But I was never like, hmm, let’s go . . . sleep outside in it.” And sleep outside in it they did through three long months of sub-freezing temperatures, snow, and ice.

When my son was here on leave last month, you never got any sense from him that he had been through one hell of an ordeal. It was so good to finally see him. Running around for whole a year carrying 80 to 100 pounds of weapons, ammo, and other equipment has put muscles on him that make young women fawn into long stares whenever he walks into a bar or nightclub. We spent one night in Austin to take in the “blues scene” and I had just as much fun watching the young ladies clamoring around him as I did listening to the music.

Needless to say, I will be glad when he is finally home safe and sound. It has been hard not to worry about him. I try to assure myself constantly that he will be OK but even still, it is not a particularly easy thing to do. That quintessential “What if?” always seems to linger in the back of my mind.

While leaning against a giant pine overlooking the meandering water of the Buffalo Bayou, it occurs to me just how scarred to death I’ve been these past several months that something terrible might happen to him. And even though I felt relived when he was here on leave, I have started to feel anxious again knowing that he’s back in the thick of it, and has three hard months left to go.

Sometimes I chide myself for even thinking such thoughts, but the truth is I really don’t know how I would react should I ever become the parent who comes home to find two Army soldiers waiting for him at his doorstep. I can only imagine the pain and grief a parent experiences over the loss of a son or daughter killed in action. I cannot say what that experience would be for me. It is one I hope I never have.

Even though it is a sultry hot afternoon, the shade from the trees towering above, with a slight, constant breeze, makes for a comfortable walk along the trial that runs along the bank of the bayou. I reflect back on a letter he had written to his grandmother that he shared with me. In describing his experience in the Korengal, he said:

There's no other time in your life
that you will feel as alive as you do
in the seconds that you are in a real
firefight. There is no comparing it.
Jumping out of a plane is one thing:
you face the probability of death with
a certainty of success. Success is not
guaranteed in the Korengal. Everyone
wears the same face; everyone gets the
same feelings. We all are aware that
every bullet has a final destination.

Spoken like a true warrior with keen insight and understanding of the reality he has to contend with each and everyday.

As I head back to my car, I reminisce on my experiences I had with him during his childhood. Among my favorites was the time when he was three years old during the Christmas of 1989. We had just finished decorating the outside of the house with blue Christmas lights. He liked the effect so much that he wanted to camp outside in front of the lights. And so I pitched the tent, piled in lots of blankets and rolled out the sleeping bags. It was a cold night, but not anywhere near as frigid as were the long winter nights he experienced in Afghanistan.

It is good to spend time out here in the woods. I especially like how the mid-afternoon sun filters down from the tops of the trees, enhancing the lushness of the undergrowth. As I walk out from under the canopy, I am greeted by a blast of hot air from the parking lot. “He’ll be just fine” I say to myself. “He’ll be just fine.”

By S L Cunningham

Published in The Waldo Independent, 6 June 2008