Friday, April 30, 2010

E Pluribus Unum

By Tom Kando

What is this "mandate" that America should largely stand for individualism, separatism, localism, autonomy, self-reliance, and so forth? Good values, to be sure. But the opposites are equally essential: Collectivism, union with others, the greater good of the commonweal, mutual interdependency.

Of course, the dialectic between these two poles is the eternal political question. The contrast between the right and the left, individualists and "socialists," conservatives and "progressives," the Tea Party and "liberals."

What troubles me is the presumption that the Tea Party, and conservatives long before them (Ronald Reagan, William Buckley, George Will, etc.) are more in touch with America’s true political soul than are their opponents. Quoting the Constitution, Thomas Jefferson and the other Founding Fathers, they incessantly remind us that America was founded on such principles as the protection of strong local (e.g. states’) rights, and individual rights (most of the amendments). We are told that the Constitution and the Bill of Rights emphasize "negative" rights, i.e. things which the government may not do (deprive citizens of their freedoms), rather than affirmative rights, i.e. things which the government must do (e.g. provide every citizen with a minimum level of safety and a minimally adequate standard of living).

True enough. However, what is not true, is that America’s basic political soul is therefore located on the individualistic side of the political spectrum. After all, the country was founded on the principle of union for the greater good of all. Our name is the United States. The Civil War was fought in order to preserve the Union. Our motto is E Pluribus Unum. One of the bases of our political system is that we are our brother’s keeper, and that together we can accomplish far more than if we each go our separate ways.

Some of the current political debate reflects appalling ignorance. For example, the other day Chris Matthews was interviewing libertarian Ron Paul, asking him whether or not he agreed that the government has a responsibility to provide retirees with a minimum standard of living (through Social Security), or all citizens with health insurance. In sum, should there be a social compact?

To me, such a conversation is idiotic. It re-invents the wheel. These things were settled long ago. Has no one heard of John Locke or Thomas Hobbes? What about the Federalist Papers and Alexander Hamilton? The conversation has been taking place for centuries. While everything in life is a matter of degree, even so-called Jeffersonians agree that civilized society is only possible through the social contract. The question is not whether we should give up some of our individual rights and resources (e.g. submit to income taxes) in exchange for a better life for all, but how much.

The fact that America has been the most successful society in all of history is due, precisely, to the fact that it was able to unite a larger group with greater collective resources than any previous society. Is this what the Tea Party wishes to dismantle? leave comment here

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Vive La Différence!

by Madeleine Kando

I am back in my cramped little airplane seat on yet another visit to Holland. It is as if the plane, the crew and the passengers had been put in a state of suspended animation since my last trip, all waiting for me to return. The same bald heads are peering at me over the back of their seats. Bald heads, baseball cap heads, turban heads.... They are all still there as if I had never left.

My flight promises to be long and boring. As I am studying my co-passengers' crowns I cannot but admire nature's propensity for variation. I pass the time wondering what kind of individuals are attached to these little pieces of hair. Take the person in front of me. The ears on his head are beet red and stick out like Dr. Spock's. I wonder if he speaks Vulcan.. And what about that gorgeous tuft of red hair two rows down? Her sunglasses nested inside that abundance of red curls, totally wedged in even when she bends over to read (mine would fall off and crash to the floor). Oh oh! I see a sinister looking head with a hood draped over some dark hair. What if he is a terrorist who is waiting for the right moment to blow us all to kingdom come? I wonder what the back of my head reveals about me? Someone must be wondering about that excentric woman who forgot to comb her hair that morning.

Diversity doesn't stop with crowns of heads, you know. Take my co-passengers' voices for instance. Most of them are muffled by the sound of the engines. They constitute the background noise for my long, boring flight. But five rows down there sits the inevitable rotten apple. Not only has nature endowed this individual with a queue-tip shaped bald head, but his voice is so loud that it could wake up the dead. We all have to listen to his life's confession, whether we like it or not. His perfect English has such a strong Dutch accent that it sends shivers down my spine. Unable to concentrate on my writing, I finally put in my earplugs.

Sitting here in my little cubicle, I feel like I am trapped in Plato's cave. The only way I can experience reality is through the eyes of the flight attendants who keep reminding us to keep our seat belts fastened. I envy their freedom. Is it like that in jail? Prisoners must be gaging time by their meals, their once a week visits, their time to go for a walk.. Us unfortunate passengers aren't even allowed that luxury.

Holland has also been put in a state of suspended animation, all my friends, the buildings, the trams... all frozen in time since my last visit. Including Ata, my 96 year old mom. Except that she might soon disappear altogether because of her age. Suspension is temporary but death is permanent, you see.

I have arrived in Holland. I am dragging my memories behind me, comfortably piled up on a long tailcoat following me with every step. The trees are in bloom. The fresh Dutch air on the polders around my mom's flat are flavored with childhood memories. Diversity also extends to my thoughts here. I am all over the place in my head, free from the drudgery of everyday life.

I will meet my mom's friends and admirers (she is a famous ex-photographer). They will all be very interested in each other, less so in me. In their eyes I am the one that has been put in a state of suspended animation since I left Holland many decades ago. I practically don't exist any more. My visits are usually too short for me to unfreeze and become part of their small, insulated world.

But that's ok. There wouldn't be any room for me here. I am used to living a stretched out life and being back in Holland feels like I have to keep an imaginary seatbelt on. Too many rules and regulations. Too many cliques. This diminutive, well-organized country couldn't function without them. That is the price you pay, I guess, to live in a 'just' society, a society without extremes.

I will soon leave again, revisit my hooded, balding, red-haired friends in my small window seat. I will hopefully fly over the notorious Eyjafjallajökull volcano, back to the land of the free. For me, Holland will revert back to a state of suspended animation and my mom's acquaintances will put me back in the refrigerator until my next visit to this beautiful little country. Bye bye Holland. leave comment here

Sunday, April 25, 2010


By Tom Kando

Having just returned from Europe, I suppose I should report to you about the recent air crisis.
On April 14, Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull volcano erupted. As a result, there began the next day a near-total cessation of all air travel in and out of Western Europe. All air traffic was grounded. Hundreds of thousands of passengers were stranded at airports from Oslo to Milan, from Belfast to Frankfurt. Local and transatlantic travel came to a complete halt. The days passed, soon a week went by, with no end in sight.

This unprecedented disruption of world travel and commerce even dwarfed 9/11, when flights resumed after 4 days. Coincidentally, yours truly happened to be in the thick of things, having just spent nearly a month in Holland and scheduled to fly back to California on April 21. Miraculously, I suffered no delay. For it was precisely on April 21 that KLM and the Dutch authorities, among a few others, decided to resume at least some flights in and out of Amsterdam. I was one of the few lucky people whose flight was re-instated. Hundreds of thousands of others were no so lucky. Airports in Brussels, Dusseldorf, Copenhagen, all of Britain and Scandinavia remained totally shut down.

Among my own acquaintances, the unlucky people included this blog’s co-manager Madeleine (maybe she’ll report her frustrations to you herself). Madeleine was scheduled to fly to Holland on April 17, and of course that didn’t happen. Others close to me who were also negatively impacted included my French Aunt Maria who was visiting from Lyon and couldn’t fly back, a young California friend named Tyke, who got re-scheduled to fly back from Holland an entire week (!) later - he is still in Amsterdam as I write this!

As we all sweated things out over the past few days, not knowing when we would be able to fly, and who among us would get out and who wouldn’t, there was a lot of conjecture about the situation: Did the authorities handle things right? What about the pain and the cost to stranded passengers (many sleeping on the floor across European airports for a week), to the airlines (losing $200 million a day), to the economy, to Iceland?

Looking at the superb, cloudless, clear-blue sky over Holland, I said something un-educated but common-sensical, early on: "It’s hard to believe that flying is dangerous...Is it really necessary to ground all flights all over Western Europe ?"

I know, safety must come first. Those tiny silica critters that make your engine stop and make you crash are invisible, floating at 40,000 feet. What do I know? Still, clear-blue skies, all the way to the sun; zero ashes anywhere in Holland, in the air or on the ground.

When Mount St. Helens blew in 1980, the sky over Sacramento - thousand miles away - got really dark. When Mount Spurr blew in Alaska in 1992, I happened to be in Anchorage. You should have seen the city: carpeted with a centimeter-thick layer of ash. We had to wear breathing masks outside. But now? Absolutely nothing noticeable, not in Holland anyway.

After about five days, I began to read articles (in the Herald Tribune, the NRC Handelsblad) and I saw televised panel discussions which vindicated my own uninformed feelings: Many experts said that the authorities had over-reacted. True, flying in some areas was dangerous - in Britain, Ireland, anything close to the event, any place affected by the wind. However, air travel in many other sectors was perfectly safe. This was confirmed by dozens of test flights. (The wholesale prohibition on flying had been based on computer models). If you avoided Iceland by safely flying to the south, transatlantic crossings should be no problem.

Of course, the airlines had been saying this all along. So, slowly, Europe realized that the blanket grounding of nearly all flights was costly and unnecessary, and bit by bit flights resumed. I was one of the early beneficiaries of the authorities’ return to their senses.

And another thing: The Boeing 777 which took me back to San Francisco had over 400 passengers, but I noticed many empty seats, with some people sleeping comfortably sprawled out over two or three adjacent seats! What’s going on? Why is Tyke still waiting in Amsterdam, along with thousands of others?

Finally: If you can spell and pronounce the volcano’s name - Eyjafjallajökull - you deserve a PhD in linguistics. leave comment here

Friday, April 16, 2010

97 Years Old, Travelling around Europe

By Tom Kando

I have been in Europe for several weeks. Twice a year I go to my mother, who lives in Bergen,an hour North of Amsterdam. She is almost 97, and going strong.

Last week, we decided to drive down to see my Swiss cousin Hans and his wife and kids. They live in the town of Solothurn, an hour South of Basel, about 1000 kilometers from North Holland.
We took off around 10:00 AM. Although it's possible to get to Solothurn in one day, I decided to do it in two days, for my mother' sake. After all, there are some special requirements for a 97-year old, things like frequent pit stops, and so on.

So I drove, mom sat next to me, sometimes we chatted, sometimes she dozed off, I played the CDs of Cannonball Adderley, Serge Gainsbourg and Maria Callas. We were both warm and comfortable, even though it was raining cats and dogs outside.

We drove through the Belgian Ardennes and across the famous battlefields of Bastogne,then through Luxemburg. My mother slept through that entire country - all 35 miles of it. By 5:00 PM, we were racing down the French Autoroute across the Alsace. On our left we could see the beautiful Vosges mountains, still snow-capped in April.

We got to the town of Epinal around sunset, and we decided to look for a hotel. The first three establishments were all fully booked. Finally, I found a road-side Formula One motel (a French chain) which had one room left, for the unlikely price of 29 euros, with an optional 3-euro breakfast.

Mmm.... How could this be, I wondered? What do you get, for such an implausible amount? I asked to see the room. It turned out to be a matchbox, a nearly cube-shaped room about 9 feet long, with a bunk-bed consisting of a regular bed at the bottom and a much narrower bed on top. The nearest toilet was down a totally dark hall, around the corner and up the stairs. The room did have a sink.

We had little choice but to take the room, since every other hotel seemed to be full.

Before retiring,we decided to sample the vaunted Alsacian cuisine - you know, maybe one of those mouth-watering Franco-German sausage dishes, with a great Alsacian or Moselle white wine. Unfortunately, the only restaurant which we found open happened to be Serbo-Croatian. But what the heck, we were hungry. Skewered lamb, kabob, such things can also be good. Unfortunately, my meat dish turned out to be nearly 100% pure fat. What I ordered should have been listed on the menu as skewered grease, or skewered lard. That was my French culinary experience on this trip. I washed it down with coca-cola.

Next came the challenge of sleeping. Climbing up the ladder to the upper bed was an impossibility for my mother, and a severe challenge for me. I reached the top bed at the cost of a seriously strained side muscle and a banged-up knee. I spent the first half of the night up there, hitting my head against the ceiling every time I turned in my bed.

After a visit to the bathroom in the middle of the night, I refused to climb up the ladder again. Instead, I grabbed the upper mattress and tossed it on the floor, where I spent the remainder of the night - getting very little sleep.

The next day, we hit the road early, tired and eager to reach the comfort of cousin Hans' beautiful chalet-like house in the fairytale-like medieval town of Solothurn. First, we had to cross the Vosges and the Jura mountains, and cross into Switzerland in the city of Basel. Easily done, I thought. With less than 400 kilometers left, we should be at Hans' house by early afternoon.

Everything went well, until we reached Basel. That city - the metropolitan region - straddles three countries: France, Switzerland and Germany. We reached the main Franco-Swiss border, but then decided not to cross there, because if we did, we had to purchase a damn $40.00 tollway sticker in order to proceed on the main motor way. I told the custom guy that I wanted to take a secondary road into Switzerland, and drive to my cousin in Solothurn on a free and leisurely two-lane road.

So he gave me some vague instructions as to how to do that, beginning by turning back into France and driving to a minor border crossing a few kilometers away.

This is where our problems started. Our car didn't have GPS. I still use an archaic device called a map. It's made of paper, and I like it. But my map didn't do me much good. I did manage to cross back into Switzerland, but then I got hopelessly lost in the suburbs of Basel. I tried to weave my way through the city in the direction of Solothurn, i.e. South, relying on road signs and on instructions from the people I accosted. Sometimes, these people spoke French, sometimes they spoke German, sometimes Schweitzer Deutsch, an utterly incomprehensible patois - Basel being a multi-lingual city. This went on for a few hours, in heavy city traffic.
At one point, we seemed to have finally left the city behind us, driving once again across open rural land. Thank God, I thought, we are doing better. A moment later, we approached a farmer walking down the road. I stopped and asked him to confirm that we were, indeed, driving towards Solothurn. His answer:

- Ach Nein. Zat is totally wrong! Zis ist Germany!

So back we went, to Basel. And across the city.

In time, I did find my way. By 4:00 PM we had finally found the proper road signs and the proper roads. By 5:00, we pulled up in front of Hans' house. Since morning, we had crossed six countries, darting in and out of some of them multiple times!

Our three-day visit was an absolute delight. Trips to mountain chalets, a boat trip down the AarRiver, raclette and fondu for dinners, and delightful company. It doesn't get any better.

However, we only sampled the idyllic life of my Swiss relatives for three days (remembering that guests, like fish, reek after three days).

So, on Monday morning we took off again. Hans had shown me the most efficient return route on my map, avoiding Basel and the Vosges mountains. The return trip was mercifully uneventful. This time, I was so efficient that I reached Holland in one day. We didn't even have to spend 29 euros to sleep at some godforsaken motel. By 8:00 PM, we pulled up in front of my mother's apartment. Mission accomplished. The headline should read: 97-year old visits six countries in one day. leave comment here

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Merchants of death

by Tom Kando

Today, I just want to resume my political diatribes. Unlike Madeleine's witty and upbeat posts, I am more of a bad-news kind of guy. Sorry. So here is the bad news for today:

The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute's figures about world armament sales for 2008 are out: In terms of individual companies, first prize goes to Britain's BAE Systems, which became the world's largest arms maker.

In 2008, it enjoyed military sales of $32.4 billion. The remaining top five spots all belong to American companies, namely Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, Boeing and General Dynamics. Total arms sales by the world's 100 largest armament companies rose to $385 billion in 2008, i.e. a 10% increase from the previous year (Herald Tribune, April 19). Apparently, the Great Recession has spared the weapons industry.

In terms of national military spending, the US of course remains by far the top spender, followed by China. However, on a per capita basis and as a percentage of GDP, dozens of countries outspend both the US and China. Many of those countries are among the poorest in the world, for example numerous African nations.

In terms of arms exports by countries, the US still ranks first, followed by Russia, Britain, Germany and France.

So here you have it, folks. Business has never been better. Thanks to our countries' lucrative arms exports, you and I can have great lives, travel to Europe and Hawaii and eat out a lot (Note: sarcasm here).

I realize that I sound like a radical simpleton. But don't you agree that this obscenity bears repeating, over and over again? leave comment here

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Texting and Driving

by Madeleine Kando

I was driving to work and listening to NPR when I heard that a ban is looming on texting while driving in the state of Massachusetts. I immediately texted this news to my friend while driving.

I am joking, of course. I am one of those morons that cannot even text when I am not driving. When my friends ask me why I don’t text, I blame it on my antiquated cell phone keypad. But the truth is I just don’t have enough coordination to do the ‘2-thumbs’ keypad dance that I so admire when I watch my daughter text.

I am not sure how this new law would be enforced though. There are so many things you can do at ‘below the window level’ of your car. I will let your imagination roam on that thought, but who is to know whether you are innocently folding a piece of paper, taking the cover off of your coffee cup or just twiddling your thumbs?

On the other hand, I am surprised they haven’t started regulating what you can do while driving a lot earlier. If I had to make a list of all the things I am doing while driving, it would by quite extensive. I have been known to eat, drink, sing, talk, occasionally think, dance in my seat and of course swear at other drivers. I regularly do my facial exercises while driving (that often scares other drivers more than anything else), I have been known to pick my teeth, comb my hair and put on lipstick. I could go on but I don’t want to loose your interest, so I’ll stop.

A hundred years ago people would have laughed at the need to regulate our activities while driving. Driving was almost unheard of to begin with, but pushing on a minuscule piece of plastic with two thumbs would have been thought of as the actions of a lunatic.

A hundred years in the future, however, we might have to design laws against other lethal combinations. There might be a ban on drinking in the dark. (Soft drinks in the future might contain such bizarre additives that they would undergo a deadly chemical reaction in the absence of light). Or we might need laws against eating while flying. Our food will be engineered in such a way that it might explode at high altitudes.

Reading and chewing gum might be against the law. Why? Well, what if the book you are reading is so shocking that you swallow your gum, choke to death and your family sues the author for involuntary manslaughter?

Don’t misunderstand me. I am all for regulating texting while driving. I am just surprised that no-one has come up with the following brilliant idea: If texting means looking down or away from the road, why not design a steering wheel with a built-in keypad? Holding your steering wheel and using your thumbs for texting wouldn’t be any different than a handheld device.

If you decide to steal my brilliant idea and market it, I will come after you and demand a cut. So be forewarned. Bwahahaha! leave comment here

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Child abuse: a secular or religious crime?

by Madeleine Kando

Ever since the French and American Revolutions, a cornerstone of modern Western society's legal and political system has been the separation of Church and State. Only ONE law applies to ALL citizens: The civil-criminal law of the STATE. Before that, until a couple of hundred years ago, there were TWO parallel and competing legal systems - that of the secular authorities, and ecclesiastical law (Canon Law).

These are some questions I have been asking myself:
If a bishop becomes aware of a priest or other bishop molesting a child: does he report it to the church or to the police?
If he reports it to the church: does the church have a duty to notify civil authorities?
If the bishop does not report it (to either the church or the police): is he charged with a crime himself?
If a child is abused by a priest and reports the crime to the priest’s boss (the bishop): does the bishop have a duty to report it to HIS boss (the Pope I guess)
If the Pope doesn’t report it to the police, should he not get punished himself?

What are the legal obligations to report to the authorities a crime known to you? I am not a legal expert, and this is a murky area. But certainly, there are circumstances under which failing to report a crime known to you makes you an accomplice, subject to criminal prosecution.

What I am reacting to, is the curious position of the Church. The Church seems to feel that this is still the 12th or the 17th century, when Ecclesiastic law was as valid as the laws of the state. That the Church can handle the crimes committed by some of its members IN HOUSE.

You see, this is what I cannot figure out: We live in a civilized society where the rule of law is supposed to be sacrosanct. That’s why we gasp when we hear stories of family members not being charged with murder when they stone an unfaithful wife to death in some remote barbaric Muslim country that is ruled by SHARIA LAW.

Now: what exactly is the difference between that and our society condoning the protection by canon law of pedophile priests or bishops or Popes ? It seems weird to me that the church's efforts to handle these crimes in-house are not unanimously condemned. It is as if employees of the Bank of America had committed some crimes, then their supervisors found out about these crimes, and only reported them to the CEO, thinking that this was their only legal (and moral) obligation.

But it is my understanding that in the 20th and 21st centuries, there is no legal difference between the Bank of America and the Catholic Church: When their employees commit crimes, they must undergo punishment at the hands of the State. Not in-house.

I read up a little bit on what the punishment is under CANON LAW for priests who molest children. They get removed from the priesthood (sometimes permanently). You see, they don’t lose their freedom and get put in jail. They are not prevented from working as teachers in secular schools where they can go on molesting children. They just loose their job. That is what CANON LAW has to say about punishment for child molestation.

Maybe that is why there are so many priests who abuse children. The punishment under canon law is really not so bad for a child molester. They just get defrocked. It sure beats spending time in a tiny prison cell. leave comment here

Friday, April 2, 2010

Everyone Is The Center of The Universe

by Madeleine Kando

We are all at the center of our lives. From one day to the next, we create our own universe, our own ‘life’, our own memories, hopes for the future, disappointments, regrets and hopes.

Thank God for that. Can you image if we all had to make room for each other’s past? Each other’s hopes, disapppointments and regrets? There would be no room any more. That’s why we are so ‘self-centered’. It’s a matter of survival.

While I was growing up and testing out the waters of my own existence, I often experimented with the thought of being someone else. I fantasized being my best friend, Annemiek. I wondered what it would be like to have that long, reddish hair, those sexy lips, those long legs.. strutting about, turning men on wherever I appeared. I met her older sister once. She was the intellectual type, with a big chin and a cold stare. Nothing like my best friend Annemiek. But I started to ponder about how it was for Annemiek to grow up with a sister like that. In fact, as I was slowly stepping into Annemiek’s ‘life-circle’, mine started to fade into the background. I stopped being at the center of my own universe. I started to be dangerously close to Annemiek’s center.

One day I saw Annemiek walk down the street arm in arm with my boyfriend. That was the day I realized that staying at the center of my own universe was a much better deal for me. So I stopped trying to be at other people’s center. I sacrificed my curiosity and mental experimentatioin for a more down-to earth ‘self-centered’ apprpoach to life.

After all, if everybody’s life was vying for attention, it would be like an incredibly complicated mandala: circles overlapping each other ad infinitum, until the whole surface of your life-page would turn black. One circle has to remain in the forefront, and that is YOUR circle.

On the other hand, we all overlap somewhat. I overlap with my sister and brother. We have the same past, having grown up in the same family. Even our present is overlapping more than someone I never met who grew up in the African desert. This gives us the capacity to ‘empathise’, to ‘feel’ for each other. Feel each other’s happiness, sorrow.

I still wouldn’t mind circle hopping every once in a while. It sure would beat boredom. If I was my friend Janice for a day, I would wake up in the middle of 350 acres of beautiful New Hampshire countryside and realize that I knew everything about horses. My thoughts would’nt feel quite right. I wouldn’t be the worrywart that I am now, but take things as they come. (Janice is the ‘seize the day’ kind of woman).

I wouldn’t mind being at some famous person’s center for a few days, a genius like Gandhi or Einstein. My husband couldn’t say: ‘Ah, it’s you again’ when I entered the room. I would be a totally new me. Wouldn’t that be cool? If I was the famous ballet dancer Margot Fonteijn for a day I would dazzle my audience with my grace and physical prowess.

On the other hand it took me all these years to be me. Years of selecting from the myriads of choices that life dishes out to humans. And then there are centers of the universe that I never would want to be, not even for one second. If I woke up one day as Sarah Palin and I would find that my political knowledge was that of a 6th grader.. That I would believe in Creationism and that my favorite sport would be shooting wolves out of an airplane.. I think would kill myself. Maybe being me is not so bad after all. At least, that way, I don’t have to be her. leave comment here