Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Emily Dickinson and War, in Seven Words

I do some research and writing on the American Civil War, and a couple years ago in my reading I came across a reference to a quote attributed to the poet Emily Dickinson...something about immortality or death "striking sharp and early."
Ms. Dickinson lived during and after the time of that war. Turns out the quote in question was, surprisingly, not in a poem, but rather in one of her letters to a literary friend, Thomas Higginson, who was then serving in the Union army.  With the country waking up to the dawning realization that the American Civil War was an event of catastrophic proportions, Ms. Dickinson was concerned for her friend.  In an 1862 letter, she writes:
Perhaps death gave me awe for friends, striking sharp and early, for I held them since in a brittle love, of more alarm than peace. I trust you may pass the limit of war; and though not reared to prayer, when service is had in church for our arms, I include yourself.

And then this gem, in the same letter, which in seven words may come closer to the meaning of war than any other words in the English language:
War feels to me an oblique place.
Ms. Dickinson's short sentence seems to imply a number of thoughts: dismay, helplessness, quiet anger, unfamiliarity or indirectness.  I sense she felt a lack of understanding of the forces that could bring otherwise sentient human beings to that dark place.

Fast forward some 150 years.  So now death has struck, sharp and early, in that oblique place, for some 4,423 U.S. personnel in Iraq, and for some 2,285--and counting--U.S. personnel in Afghanistan (DOD official casualty data, here).

And even as the conflict in Afghanistan chugs on, seemingly undirected and self-propelled, winding down yet suspiciously permanent, the saber-rattling continues for military intervention in Iran...from many of the same Very Serious People who were responsible for the wars of the 2000s.  Far from being shamed and discredited, they continue, inexplicably, to hold court and are still looked to as elder statesmen. 

They should heed the uneasy words of Ms. Dickinson.

War feels to me an oblique place.

A place to which we must not venture.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Fire on the Mountain 50K Results

Below is the email that I sent to my long-time running buddies, describing the race on Sunday.

Ultrarunning update.  Jody and I ran the Fire on the Mountain 50K on Sunday over in western MD.  I struggled through the first half—woefully undertrained and mostly trying to rely on “muscle memory”—and was seriously considering dropping at the midpoint.  I had fallen 3 times, which I almost never do, and I just wasn’t feeling the mojo.
However, Jody helped me regain my will to live and continue, and the race actually got easier for me in the second half.  
Preliminary results are up here and show us at 88 and 89 of 111 finishers, in a time of 8:10.

In a massive touch of irony, I also note that I would have won the 60+ age group if they had had one.  Pretty funny, for someone who would have quit except for Jody’s encouragement. 

Prior to this race I have always parroted the mantra that in the race you vow to keep running unless doing so would cause injury.  Merely being tired or hitting the wall are not good enough excuses to drop, if you are physically able to continue your forward motion.  At all points in the race, physically I could easily walk and even run whenever I chose to, so I certainly did not meet my criteria for quitting.  My mind was just weak for awhile (unlike Pete, whose mind is weak all the time!) and it took Jody’s steady presence to remind me of that. 

Note that Jody had just run a 50K only 2 weeks prior, so his effort on not-fully-recovered legs was quite stellar.

Anyway, although I am still hobbling around from the real beating my legs took, it was a pretty good day.  A great day, actually, spending a day in the woods doing what I love to do.

Still planning to join you all for a perimeter run soon.


Monday, October 28, 2013

Fire on the Mountain 50K...and War

Well, yesterday was the running of the Fire on the Mountain 50K.

I will post more about it after the results are up (unavailable as of this writing).  It was a tough race for me but provided some very valuable lessons.

Now, while I was happily running my heart out in the wild mountains of western Maryland, former vice-president Dick Cheney was on a Sunday morning show, uttering some chilling words (via Firedoglake, here):

On ABC’s ‘This Week’, host George Stephanopoulous asked Cheney about the effectiveness of diplomatic talks in Iran.
“Is military action against Iran inevitable?” he said.
“I have trouble seeing how we’re going to achieve our objective short of that,” Cheney said.

Maybe the Iranians are playing us about the nuclear ambitions, making nice and sounding reasonable.  But when you are talking about war--as in WAR, you know, where real people die--I'd like to think that the Very Serious People who run this country would be a tad more interested in listening and giving the benefit of the doubt, as opposed to immediately ratcheting up the firepower rhetoric.

In other words, talk first, and if that fails THEN begin to make very cautious noises in conjunction with the UN about the knuckle sandwich school of problem-solving (as well as all other potential non-lethal options by the world community).

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Cats in Art: The Living Room (Kirchner)

From my continuing weekly Sunday series of cats in art. I'm using some ideas from the coffee table book, The Cat in Art, by Stefano Zuffi.

Image credit Artflakes, here, The Living Room,  Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, 1920, oil on canvas, 35" x 59", held by Hamburger Kunsthalle, Hamburg, Germany.
You just gotta love a painting that contains only a cat as the sole focus.  Yet for me the painting is a bit jarring: the cat's black fur contrasts starkly with the vivid colors of the sofa.  Moreover, the cat is horizontal while the vertical striping of the background dominates the rest of the image, lending another discordant note.
Zuffi comments:
Even in this context, however, the black cat maintains its age-old indifference, calmly purring on the divan, impassive and reassuring.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Posting to Resume

Mister Tristan--the blog, not the 5-year old human being--has been dark this week while the bride and I hosted a dear friend who was visiting from out of town.

Lots of meals out, short local activities, movies, just sitting around...a week from heaven.

Normal posting will resume tomorrow with a Cats in Art post.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Bye Bye Breaking Bad...and Ultrarunning

Somehow I missed this "obituary" a couple weeks ago when the Breaking Bad finale aired.  The bride and I have been fans pretty much since the get-go--it was compelling drama.  Mighty big shoes to fill by somebody.

[credit Boing Boing, here, who got it from somewhere else]

And of course, what fan can forget the phenomenal and haunting final musical choice, Baby Blue by Badfinger (the music starts at 53 seconds in):

Link is here if the embedded video does not play.

Oh, and the link to Ultrarunning?  This song is in my head.  Really in.  My head.  I can't run a step without the soundtrack beginning to play.

Not that that's all bad--I've had plenty of other thoughts and music unbidden in my brain that, for awhile, I could not escape from--so this one is actually a desireable effect.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Cats in Art: A Pair of Cougars (Audubon)

From my continuing weekly Sunday series of cats in art. Currently I'm turning for a few weeks to John James Audubon.  I thought I was finished with Audubon, then I uncovered a 5th image to post about.

Image credit here, A Pair of Cougars, John James Audubon.

If you recall from the previous posts in the Audubon series, Audubon is much better known for his stunningly beautiful paintings of birds. Per Wikipedia, "His major work, a color-plate book entitled The Birds of America (1827–1839), is considered one of the finest ornithological works ever completed."

What many folks don't know is that Audubon also set out to depict all North American quadrupeds (primarily four-footed mammals). His three-volume The Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America, published in 1845, contained this illustration.

This pair of loving kitties is a welcome change from some of Audubon's other works--and their sometimes disturbing attributes.  These guys seem to me to almost have a whiff of Oriental art about them--they would seem equally at home in a Japanese panel. 

The cats are relaxed and happy, and as we've seen before, Audubon captures well the notions of power and grace (the usual third component, stealth, is absent in this image).

Saturday, October 19, 2013

This is Why the Nation Needs Universal Health Care

Somehow the simple laws of cause and effect get lost in all the rhetoric.

This from Kurt Eichenwald a couple weeks back at Vanity Fair magazine:

The first thing to understand is that when people don’t have insurance, it hurts other people with insurance. In fact, the uninsured affect the finances, quality of care, and availability of medical assistance to every person in a community, regardless of their insurance status.

This is the fundamental issue that too many people do not understand. There seems to be this belief among some that those who are uninsured simply go off and die somewhere, thus having no impact on the medical-care-delivery system in the United States. But the opposite is true—the uninsured have some of the most dramatic effects of any group on our nation’s health-care system.

Here’s why: they seek out care, but usually when their once easily treated conditions have blossomed into a serious illness. Because private doctors do not take them, and because free clinics are not readily available, the uninsured seek their care in emergency rooms.

The rest of the article is full of great analysis and discussion of medical economics and is well worth a read.  But I wanted to highlight this fact specifically.
Also ran across another blog post, this one relating a personal experience with cancer, that deals with this issue:
Obamacare requires insurance companies for the first time to cover everyone, regardless of any preexisting conditions. There's no more disqualifying condition than cancer; without Obamacare, I would now almost certainly be uninsurable if someday in the future I try to get insurance on the individual market. And we know what happens to people without health insurance in the United States: they die.


Friday, October 18, 2013

The Shepherdstown Mounting Block

I previously mentioned this limestone mounting block from the streets of Shepherdstown, WV, here (my hat shown on top for scale).  "Mounting block" meaning a step once used to help people mount horses or get into wagons.

In that post I talked about a historic quest of mine, to cross the nearby shallow water ford on the Potomac River, as Confederate General A. P. Hill's division did in 1862 to save the day for the Rebels at the battle of Antietam.

Anyway, the bride and I were in Shepherdstown on Tuesday enjoying a leisurely German meal and Octoberfest beer on the outside patio of the nearby Bavarian Inn (web site here).  We later walked on German Street and browsed through many of the eclectic shops found there, then again encountered the mounting block.

This time I took a shot that also encompassed the adjacent parking meter (talk about old meets new!):

The sign made the smart ass in me wonder whether in days before automobiles, a person could only use the block for ponies or small horses.
  [image credits Gary]

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Blogger Software Issues Fixed, at Least for Now!

OK, looks like the draft and edit modes are now working again.  I can once again edit previous posts and work on saved drafts.

First things first, please revisit my Cats in Art post from Sun 13 Oct--I have added back the missing image of the carved lion's head. 

You should check it out, here.

Another Golf Ball...and Ultrarunning

[Image credit Gary]

I'm running out of titles for this series of posts.

Yet another golf ball found while running over the weekend. This one was embedded in a roadside embankment at right angles to the road, so it is unlikely to have so landed after having been, say, thrown from a moving vehicle.  For those of you following this theme, my last previous post on the found golf ball phenomenon is here, just a few short weeks ago.
As usual, no habitation nearby, no golf courses...just another mysterious golf ball.
For the photo I strategically placed the golf ball on my 2010 Umstead race hat, just because I felt like a heroic figure today.
The link to Ultrarunning, of course, is this: when these disguised alien eggs hatch, that unknown apocalypse will begin, and you will have wished that you had run more.

NOTE: this is one of my short and complete posts; Blogger software is still not playing well with working in draft mode.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Issues Remain With Posting Here

OK, here's what is happening with the Blogger software that is hosing me up.

If I start a post, save it, and then go back to work on the draft, the software freezes and I cannot re-access the draft for editing. 

Likewise if I want to go back, say, to correct or add to a post already published (for example, my Cats in art Post from Sun 13 Oct that was posted without the images) the software also freezes up.  The draft has become uneditable.

It seems that the only way I can post anything is to write the entire piece and post it at that sitting.

While that may not seem to be a big deal, it's just not the way I usually do it.  I use a lot of images in my posts and typically go ahead and dump photos out of my camera or iPhone into a number of separate drafts to work on later.  I also may do some research on the side to uncover additional facts and data.

Then I go back and write the accompanying narrative.

I have brought the issue to the attention of Google but who knows whether there is any software engineer on the other end who has even seen the problem report, much less be working on it.

So for now expect light and short posting here on Mister Tristan (the blog, not the 5 year old human being)....



Bear with me please....

Monday, October 14, 2013

Where I Run: Cemetery on Grindstone Hill Road

Here's another cemetery post to go along with that from last week. Every cemetery, every headstone, tells a story.
The Grindstone Hill cemetery is new and small, comprised of only 3 recent graves. It is adjacent to a very conservative church--perhaps German Baptists--whose members do drive, but only black cars, and which has separate doors in the front for the men and the women.  There is no sign indicating the church name or denomination, just a plain white building.

The headstone I found most interesting is a large limestone cut block, such as one would find in an old house or barn foundation, or wall. Except that the front of the stone has been smoothed and the inscription placed there.

First the rear and one end; the stone is approx 2' long and high, and about 18" deep:
Now the other end and the front:
I suspect that this stone has been repurposed as a memorial marker from its original use as part of a home or barn.
Now one final image that's pretty haunting. Seems that this family had the misfortune of having not one, but two, newborn daughters die right after birth, about two years apart. I can't even begin to get my head around that sort of grief:

The rest of my run was consumed with thoughts of never, ever taking anything for granted.
[all images by Gary]

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Blogger Software Still Hosed

Looks like--I think--I was able to post a Cats in Art post earlier, although it seems that the images did not appear.

Which kinda defeats the purpose of a visually-oriented posting.

Stay tuned and please be patient, while I try to iron out the issues with the Blogger software.  Although based upon previous experience I will not hold my breath.

Cats in Art: Head of a Lion (unknown Indian Artist)

[Gary note: using my iPad for this post, as Blogger software and my PC still seem not to be playing nice.  Hope it comes across OK]

From my continuing weekly Sunday series of cats in art. I am using some ideas from the coffee table book, The Cat in Art, by Stefano Zuffi.  This particular piece of art featured today was one the bride and I personally viewed and photographed at the Freer Gallery of the Smithsonian in Washington, DC.  We were there with our niece a few weeks back attending the Library of Congress' National Book Festival, held on the Mall.


Image credit Gary, carved limestone from a gateway pillar at the Amaravati Stupa, state of Andhra Pradesh, India, unknown artist, 2nd century CE,  held by the Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC.

In this life-size sculpture of the head of a female lion, I love how the artist managed to capture what the explanatory panel calls the "noble strength" of the lion.  For me, the word grace comes to mind...again.  As I review some of my Cats in Art posts, I seem particularly partial to the word "grace," but upon further reflection that word is such a natural fit.  It perfectly conjures up the blend of strength, power, and agility that is the cat.

Seeing this sculpture up close--I could have touched it if I wished--was a wonderful experience.  I can well image the stone carver from 2000 years ago lovingly crafting this kitty.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Blogger Software Issues

Seems like Blogger is acting up today.  I am having trouble editing or creating new posts, so hang tight if new content is not happening.

Specifically I can;t seem to get Sunday's Cats in Art post to take.

Where I Run: Cemetery on Reservoir Road

There is a family plot--meaning not near to any church--on Reservoir Road northeast of Greencastle, PA, that I frequently run by.  The small cemetery, which sits quietly on the top of a small rise, is some 4 miles from my home.  By "small" I mean that it is about 50' x 100', containing some 20-30 headstones.  Many trees grow in this cemetery, but none are particularly large.

The borders are as follows: a road is on the south side; a pasture to the west; rocky terrain and a treeline to the east; and a cultivated field to the north.  In 2013, corn was planted in that field.

Although it is not immediately adjacent to any farm, there are several farms within a third of a mile so I assume this was a collective burial site for those families.  The grass is mowed during the summer and the overall appearance is good, so some one is responsible for upkeep.

However, many of the stones are displaced, in that they are leaning on trees or even toppled over on the ground, no longer anchored to the specific grave they once marked. 

I always stop and meditate for a few moments whenever I run by.  The other day I was struck by this particular stone, which appears to be that of one William Hoke.  The date is unreadable, but most stones in this cemetery date from the early 1800s.  The stone is one of the "tree leaners,"  which may actually be some feet away from where William is actually buried. 

I photographed it just to show that in the old days, a frugal stone carver decided that there was no point in squaring up the portion of the stone that would be underground:

For what it's worth, I actually approve of the short cut.  It's practical.  And probably the departed William Hoke would have approved as well.  Back then, when hands supplied the labor rather than machines, such a short cut would have simply made sense.

Unlike Ultrarunning, which to most people makes no sense.


Thursday, October 10, 2013

The Difference Between a Jogger and a Runner

It's been said--and I'm pretty sure that it was by Dr. George Sheehan, the so-called "running philosopher" that I grew up reading as a young runner back in the early 1980s--that the difference between a jogger (a term I despise, by the way) and a runner is an application form.

As in a race application, which separates the sheep from the goats and the "serious" runners from the, well, not so serious.

I just entered the Fire on the Mountain 50K, to be held later this month in western MD on 27 Oct 2013.  I am ashamed to admit this, but this will be my first Ultra in 2013.  Events, calendars, but mostly a lack of motivation have conspired to make this so.

But...having sent in my app (although in today's world, I entered online), I feel strangely liberated, excited, pick the adjective.  The words of Goethe come to mind, about whom I blogged here:

Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back. Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one's favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamed would have come his way. Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it. Begin it now.

Although my training has been fairly low mileage, I have a secret weapon, because I'm an old guy: the advantage of "muscle memory."

That is, I have always had the almost uncanny ability to train little, yet still be able to pull out a decent enough performance on race day.  That's why I call it muscle memory--decades of running have apparently instilled a deep measure of fitness into my body such that I can go long--VERY long--on any particular day without any particular preparation.

That said, I did crank out an easy 10 on Wed (and Friday's post will reflect some meditations about a local cemetery that I routinely stop at) that went quite well.  This weekend or next I will log a 20 miler, and voila!  I will be sufficiently prepared for the 50K.

Such is the beauty of muscle memory.


Tuesday, October 8, 2013

President Obama's Negotiating Skills...and Ultrarunning

Over at Hecate's blog (seriously, she IS a witch) one often finds novel and interesting things.

Case in point is this post of Hecate's, here,  wherein she takes the President to task for screwing up the budget negotiations with the Republicans.  As a high-stakes negotiator herself, in her "normal" lawyerly life, Hecate offers these tips.  The days are off since this was written but the concepts remain the same:

For most of his presidency, he’s shown a disappointing tendency to engage in a practice that lawyers call “negotiating against” himself. He stakes out a position — generally one that’s already far to the right of what his followers want — and then, without obtaining any concessions in return, simply volunteers to move closer to the Rapeublicans position. More than once. Sometimes, even after he’s won, he’ll change a program to make it more palatable to the other side....With this Congress, Mr. Obama’s negotiating strategies have been disastrous. They simply believe, generally with good reason, that, eventually, he’ll cave to them.)
So, I’m an old woman who didn’t go to HLS and wouldn’t presume to imagine that I could lead the United States. But I’ll still, as someone who’s actually been in the field, practiced law, and successfully negotiated good outcomes for my clients, presume to give Mr. Obama some advice.
If I were sitting today where you sit, Mr. Obama, almost at the confluence of the Anacostia River, the Washington Chanel, and the Potomac River, here’s what I’d do:
I’d announce that, now that the government’s been closed for two days, I’m unwilling to sign anything but a clean bill to fund the government, except that now I also want the Rapeublicans to approve all of my judicial nominees who have been languishing in Congress lo these many years.  
Tomorrow morning, I’d eat breakfast, put on my nice suit, walk out into the Rose Garden (it’s gorgeous in DC this week) and announce that now that I’ve slept on it, I won’t sign anything except a clean bill with approval of all of my judicial nominees and statehood for DC. I’d wave to the reporters, go play golf (include a woman this time, Mr. President), review their homework with my daughters, and get a massage.  
On Friday, after I had lunch at the Palm with my wife (have the crabmeat cocktail and the steak salad, rare), I’d walk up to Dupont Circle and say that I’d been discussing it with Ms. Obama and, now, I’m unwilling to sign anything except a clean bill with approval of all of my judicial appointees, statehood for DC, and a new bill of Elizabeth Warren’s choosing.

Read the rest, here.  It's that good.  You gotta love Hecate's take-no-hostages approach.

Oh, and the link to Ultrarunning, because, see, on this blog I feel obligated to at least occasionally salute in the direction of our hallowed sport even if many or my posts are political in nature?

I often negotiate with myself as I train or race.  If I run, say, the slight uphill to that big oak off to the right of the trail, then I'll allow myself to walk the rest of the hill. 

When I get to to the next aid station--and not before--I'll take of my left shoe and see how bad that sore spot actually looks and whether I need to deal with it or just suck it up until the end.

I'll pass on running today since it's raining but I promise myself I'll run 10 tomorrow.

Tell me why...Is it hard to make arrangements with yourself?

Seems apprpriate.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Laurel Highlands Ultra

This race is held annually the seconds Saturday in June.  The next running of this 70.5 mile race in southwestern PA is 14 June 2014.

The race website tells us:

The 70.5 mile race traverses the entire Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail in southwestern Pennsylvania, combining beautiful scenery with challenging terrain.  

Why am I discussing this race right now?  Well, for one, I have always considered this one in the back of my mind as something I'd like to do.  The distance--though odd--is a good step beyond the traditional 50 miler but not as arduous as a 100 miler, so it has a certain appeal.  Second, since I grew up in western PA I am familiar with this trail and the geologic significance of the ridge upon the trail resides.  Last, the website says that registration for the 2014 race will be open " the fall of 2013..." though it appears not to be active yet.

But the REAL reason I am mentioning this race right now is that it was first discussed in 1767 (nearly 250 years ago) in the journal of Charles Mason.

Yes, that Charles Mason, of Mason-Dixon Line fame.  I've blogged about the Line before (most recently here) and my quest to visit and photograph as many of the original mile marker stones as I can, located as I am only some 8 miles north of the Line.

See, a friend just loaned me a used book entitled The Mason and Dixon Line, Story for a Bicentenary 1763-1963, which was produced and published by the state of Pennsylvania.  On pg 83 we see some excerpts from Mason's journal from 1767, where we find this nugget, describing the ridge upon which the present-day race is run:

Laurel Hill (or rather mountain) is a Wild of Wildes; the Laurel overgrown, the Rocks gaping to swallow you up, over whose deep mouths you may step.  The whole is a deeply melancholy appearance out of nature.

Kinda make you want to run it, no?

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Cats in Art: Texan Lynx (Audubon)

From my continuing weekly Sunday series of cats in art. Currently I'm turning for a few weeks to John James Audubon.

Image credit here, Texan Lynx, John James Audubon.

If you recall from the previous posts in the Audubon series, Audubon is much better known for his stunningly beautiful paintings of birds. Per Wikipedia, "His major work, a color-plate book entitled The Birds of America (1827–1839), is considered one of the finest ornithological works ever completed."

What many folks don't know is that Audubon also set out to depict all North American quadrupeds (primarily four-footed mammals). His three-volume The Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America, published in 1845, contained this illustration.

This image to me is quite odd, strange in the same sense like the one of the bobcat that introduced this 4-part series, here.  While that cat looked psychotic and demonic, this one is just focused on licking its privates.  In both cases, not a very graceful pose to adorn what was meant to be a comprehensive rendering of the animals of North America.

All in all, Audubon kinda struck out in his kitty art.

Friday, October 4, 2013

More Worst Person in the World...and Ultrarunning

As seen on the NBC Nightly News on 3 Oct, Representative Randy Neugebaum (R, Texas), after having voted with his party to shut down the then rude and argumentative with a National Park Service ranger who is enforcing a closure in the DC area.

[Video credit YouTube, here, if the embedded does not play]

The arrogance, the hypocrisy, the unapologetic nature of this joker's attitude simply defy belief.

As I continually say, I gotta get out more on the trails and clear my head.  The bride and I were up on the Appalachian Trail yesterday with some friends to scope out Bailey Spring a couple miles inside the PA border (it is barely running due to no rain to speak of for the past 6 weeks).

I am not certain whether the AT is an outright Federal corridor or some type of public-private joint ownership deal, but there was no evidence of closure.  Though as a practical matter, it'd be absolutely unenforceable.


Thursday, October 3, 2013

Retirement Blues, or The Dumbest Retirement Policy in the World

Another great link caught by Mike the Mad Biologist on 29 Sep, here.  He points us to a must-read article in Salon, here, that I mentioned a couple days ago.

You need to read the whole thing, but here's a big excerpt:

The Dumbest Retirement Policy in the World 
It was a bad idea from the get-go, but new research shows that America’s 401(k) revolution has left us even worse off than we thought. Here’s a look at how we got into this mess, and where it will take us if we don’t wise up.
Thirty years ago, as laissez-faire fanaticism took hold of America, misguided policy-makers decided that do-it-yourself retirement plans, otherwise known as 401(k)s, would magically secure our financial future in the face of gyrating markets, economic crises, unpredictable life events, stagnant wages and rampant job insecurity. It was an extraordinary shift in thinking about public policy: Instead of having predictable streams of income from traditional pensions, ordinary people with little financial expertise would suddenly transform themselves into financial gurus, putting money aside and managing complicated investments in tax-deferred accounts.
There were red flags along the way. 401(k)s were originally supposed to supplement pensions, but clever corporate cost-cutters decided that voluntary individual accounts would replace them. Big difference! Meanwhile, throughout the 1990s, the national savings rate fell. Real wages dropped. As Helaine Olen details in her book Pound Foolish, Americans started borrowing against retirement plans to pay the mortgage or send the kids to college. The media was basically out to lunch, and politicians went on claiming the nonsense that individual retirement accounts would encourage savings and turn us all into professional money managers. The stock market would bring us double-digit returns. Whoopie!
Reality check: In 2007, the financial crisis destroyed America’s retirement fantasy. Jobs evaporated or were downsized. The stock market took a nosedive. Millions of Americans who had worked hard, straining to sock away a portion of their salary for 401(k)s, watched helplessly as a black cloud formed over their golden years. In October 2008, the Congressional Budget Office revealed that Americans had lost $2 trillion in just 15 months — money that will likely never be recovered. Not long after, President Obama betrayed the public by turning away from the jobs crisis to create a deficit commission whose leaders had the stunning lack of foresight to advise cutting Social Security at a time when the retirement train wreck was quickly picking up steam.

My favorite quote above--in a sad, headshaking way--is this:

It was an extraordinary shift in thinking about public policy: Instead of having predictable streams of income from traditional pensions, ordinary people with little financial expertise would suddenly transform themselves into financial gurus, putting money aside and managing complicated investments in tax-deferred accounts.

So here we are, with millions of people facing an uncertain retirement future, and the Very Serious People in DC want to whack Social Security because "we can't afford it."

There's a special place in hell for these folks, I hope.  I'm fortunate because I am retired Federal worker who has a defined pension (until they mess with it). 

See, in the 1980s (if I recall the date correctly) the Feds brought out a new 401k-based system (called FERS, for Federal Employees Retirement System).  They made it mandatory for new hires and optional for those older employees already in. 

Thankfully, I remained under the "old" Civil Service Retirement System--CSRS for those of you who speak Fed.  What a smart, but lucky, move.  I just figured at the time that if the Feds were pushing the new FERS so hard it must be to their benefit and not mine.

I was correct.


Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Resequence These Words: Asylum, Inmates, Running (and a link to Ultrarunning)

Plus include the words "are" and "the" (twice).  Then you'll have the real explanation for the government shutdown this morning.

Along these lines, I ran across a great article in Salon, here.  The main gist dealt with retirement--about which I will post much more in a day or so--but this paragraph also jumped out at me and seems relevant to today's government news.

It's all part and parcel of the same dysfunction, as the die-hards try to selectively whack pieces of the government based upon their misguided ideologies.

As Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson write in their book, The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger, it’s not just lack of money and material resources that weaken a country, it’s the gap between rich and poor itself that makes things fall apart. This explains all kinds of incongruent phenomena, like why babies born in the U.S., a wealthy country that spends more on healthcare than any other, are more likely to die and have a shorter life expectancy than those born in Greece, a much poorer nation. And why murder rates, the number of teenage births, and obesity rates are higher in unequal societies, despite their relative wealth.

The link to Ultrarunning?  It's a rather egalitarian sport, meaning "Affirming, promoting, or characterized by belief in equal political, economic, social, and civil rights for all people."

Out there in the backcountry, we are all just athletes doing our best to enjoy a peculiar pastime.