The Stillness of New-Fallen Snow

January 28, 2007

The trees fell down last October.

We had this really freak snowstorm that dumped two feet of snow while the leaves were still green and on the trees.  The trees couldn’t take the accumulated weight and throughout the night limbs came crashing down along with the power lines.  Although all of Buffalo and the surrounding suburbs saw significant damage, the hardest-hit areas were those with the oldest and grandest foliage.  Those canopied streets are gone now, and whole neighborhoods have a different complexion.

It was a wonderful and revealing experience.  For me, the best part of the whole thing was the silence to which I awoke the following morning.  You get accustomed to the hum of the refrigerator motor, the furnace, the fluorescent lights and all fans that run on AC – that hum pervades the space around us.  Once the power failed it looked and felt like a different world.  I know that I could survive in it should the need ever arise, but I wonder how many others would see it as an opportunity rather than a disaster.

Survival is a funny thing.  As a society we would panic if the things we take for granted – electricity, water, fuel, food – were to fail us.  Other parts of the world without these basics can function as if it were just another day, less refined than ours perhaps, but usually survivable.  We’re so spoiled.

Every American needs to spend time in a third-world country, so that we can appreciate what we have and to help prepare us for when we inevitably become part of the third world.


Heroes and Villians

January 22, 2007

Jason Dunham dove on a live grenade and sacrificed his life to save his fellow soldiers. I would say he had a lot of courage.

Jason lived just south of here, in the rural town of Scio in Allegany County. I’m not sure if it was country living, a decent upbringing, soldier training or a combination of all three, but when the grenade was dropped at his feet he reacted by covering it with his helmet. The ensuing explosion was absorbed by the helmet and by Jason, and eight days later he died of his wounds. I’m sure that he knew his life was most likely about to end, yet he reacted in a most ultimately selfless way.

We have many soldiers, and civilians, who are capable of and do exhibit this level of courage. We call them heroes. They include Jason, and Martin Luther King, and John McCain along with many others. They are an inspiration to all of us to stand up for what is right and good.

In the Middle East there are young people who convictions so strong that they are willing to die for their cause. Their kindred call them heroes. We call them terrorists.

I condemn them for their attacks because I do not feel that their cause is just – but I would say they have a lot of courage.

It’s All in the Asking

January 21, 2007


New York State Senator Dale Volker has been a state senator forever. In New York, an incumbent seems to get replaced only when he dies. The election process in New York is pretty much rigged so that incumbents have something like a 99% likelihood of being re-elected. Worse, it’s rigged so that with few exceptions, only the major political parties (Democratic, Republican) are able to get on local or statewide ballots. In New York, the candidates are hand-picked by a powerful few long before the election. We get to choose one of two. Which do I choose, the rock or the hard place?

Okay, so I’m stuck with Dale Volker forever. He spent years telling Western New York that nothing could be done about the highway tolls at Buffalo’s boundaries. When the Thruway Authority was sued by Carl Paladino, a local developer, on the basis that the tolls were illegal, the Authority decided to take the toll booths down rather than fight the case in court. Senator Volker couldn’t jump on the bandwagon fast enough and in fact, almost fell off the flatbed truck that was being used as a stage for all the other politicians who stood in front of the reporters, praising each others’ efforts for a job well done. The local news channels filmed it. It was pretty funny. Not so funny was the ensuing video taken of Dale Volker trying to deflect credit away from Paladino and toward his own “efforts”. You can see it on Buffalo Pundit, one of the better blogs focusing on Western New York issues.

When it comes to expressing my opinion of someone, I generally work hard to find kind words – or at least accommodating words – so that I do not needlessly denigrate the individual. I cannot find those words for my state senator.

Dale Volker is a pompous ass. Every year he sends me a “Legislative Questionnaire”, which he claims to “know what you are thinking and seek your views concerning issues and matters of particular interest/concern to you. The questions, however, are intentionally worded such that the only reasonable answer is the one that Volker wants to receive. An example of the one-sided questions:

The New York State Court of Appeals has mandated that the New York State Legislature must increase school aid by billions of dollars for New York City. The request could mean huge increases in state taxes and real property taxes in upstate New York. Do you think the court of Appeals has overstepped its jurisdiction?

Another example: Would you support the State of New York assuming the local share of your county’s Medicaid program as some government officials, business leaders and editorial boards have suggested, even if it meant your state taxes would increase by billions of dollars?

What’s the purpose of the superfluous phrasing except to lead the reader to the answer that Volker wants? Every year he puts out this questionnaire, and every year I cringe at it. This year, question #16 asks: In your viewpoint, what is the most important issue facing New York State government (choose only one): Taxes, Economy/Jobs, Education, Budget Spending, Cost of Living, Crime. By far the most import issue facing New York State government is the government itself. These guys just don’t get how ineffective they are, and until they start doing a little introspection our wonderful state is going to continue to bleed jobs and people. Dale Volker is the problem, not the solution.

I sure wish that some politician, somewhere, could demonstrate that he/she is more interested in doing something for their constituency rather than getting re-elected. It doesn’t happen around here.

Dear Babsy

January 20, 2007

There was this sophomore I met while in my 6th and final year of college. I really liked her and to this day we maintain an email and Christmas card relationship. I went to her wedding; she and her husband came to mine. She defines one of the crossroads of my life, one in which I had to make an important decision and wonder what the other path would have had in store for me.

Our lives are full of crossroads and I often find myself reminiscing down the ones not taken. We can all name a few that are common to everyone: The critical job decision, the broken relationship, the big move. There are about 15 or 20 in my life and these blogs will eventually hit upon most of them, as they define who I am today. My dreams down those paths usually start out the same but end up entwining my present to the point where their nonsensical nature wakes me up. Usually they are not disturbing but sometimes they are. Mostly though, I can’t remember them. I try to fall back asleep and force the dream to come back but it never works.

I miss the people at those crossroads. I hope that in death I may see them again. I love them all.

What’s Behind Those Eyes?

January 17, 2007

Al and Kathy Sanchez showed up to the Comptek/Barrister reunion party on September 29, 2006. I was going to go but decided instead to meet some friends at Curtain Up, the formal start of the theater season in Buffalo.

Kathy used to work at Comptek/Barrister, two companies that were one company but then split into two when Comptek went public (and Barrister soon followed). Comptek was purchased by Northrup Grumman and its name has been retired. Barrister has gone through several ownership changes and I believe still exists as a quasi-viable company somewhere in the South. Every year many of the employees who worked at these high-tech companies still get together to reminisce – we enjoyed each others’ company then, and still do today: the bonds are strong.

Al and Kathy supposedly had a great time there, and from the warm, wonderful shot of the two of them with another friend, they look like the great, happy, settled, couple that everyone knew them to be.

Comptek Reunion 2006

Only Al Sanchez has been arrested and charged with being the “Bike Path Rapist”, the person responsible for at least 5 rapes and 3 murders since 1981. He raped and killed his last victim, a mother of four young kids, on the day of the reunion. He looks great in the photograph.

He is the epitome of a normal guy. Only he’s not normal at all. There isn’t a lick of guilt in the photograph. No anger, no remorse, no paranoia, nothing but a normal guy having a great time with friends.

In the biochemistry of our brain we produce all kinds of chemicals that cause us to react in certain ways. Al’s biochemistry allows him to shelter away a horrific urge that must occasionally overwhelm him, and propel him to do things that virtually all of us find repulsive and wrong. Behind that warm, smiling façade is a killer.

Maybe he’s an innocent man, wrongly accused – which would explain the photograph. But the police and district attorney sure don’t think he’s innocent, and the fact that his DNA supposedly matches the DNA taken from 5 of his victims would lead me to think that he may have had a hand in their demise.

I am spooked by the existence of this photograph as much as I am spooked by the existence of this man.

Where are the Books?

January 11, 2007

We are spending a God-awful amount of money to support the Iraq and Afghanistan war fronts.  I believe we are closing in on direct costs of $1 trillion.  The indirect costs – mainly in replacements for damaged and destroyed equipment – is going to raise the total bill to probably closer to $2 trillion.  This is borrowed money; the Bush administration has never included it in the federal budget and instead has called it “emergency spending” since the beginning of the war.  While unaccounted war appropriations might be harder to come by in 2007 with a Democratically-controlled Congress, it is plain that this country will go into an unfathomable amount of future debt to continue blowing things up.  The recently-announced increase in troop strength in Iraq will only exacerbate the flow of red ink.

From the very beginning I have questioned our government’s (and society’s) willingness to solve its terrorist problems by trying to bomb the hell out of them.  It doesn’t seem to be working very well.

I have a different solution that doesn’t appear to get much press (or consideration, for that matter):  Don’t bomb the hell out of them them, educate the hell out of them instead.  Buy them books.  Take one-tenth of what we are paying for armaments and offer to purchase any amount of reading and writing material that any government or other organized group requests.

Am I advocating that terrorist groups be given Qurans and taught how to make bombs?  Absolutely, as long as they are also being taught readin’, writin’ and ‘rithmetic.  I believe that any educated society is far less likely to find its ultimate solutions behind the boresight of a gun, and more likely to cherish their improved standard of living.  China is rapidly learning that lesson.  Europe and Japan learned it 60 years ago.

Key government officials probably know that education is the least expensive path to peace and will never embrace this alternative to war, as it will ultimately result in the demise of the U.S.  In just 20 years China has trained enough of its population to co-opt a huge slice of the U.S. manufacturing sector.  India is not far behind.  We are rapidly losing our intellectual edge to other parts of the globe, and the results do not bode well for our future.  Imagine what the rest of the world could do if they to had access to a huge cache of educational materials and a solid educational system.  In the face of much of Asia, we are a lazy society and bound to fail as the rest of the world works harder and gets smarter.

Helping to educate the uneducated will help us win the war, at the cost of losing our global dominance.

The French Café

January 7, 2007

There are some really pretty women who go to my church. I wonder how many other men watch them as they go up to communion dressed in anything from jeans to their Sunday finest. I have to let them come into my view and then leave without turning my head or glancing with my eyes, for fear that someone would notice and then I’d be really embarrassed.

Does God get mad at me because my mind wanders to things of the flesh during Mass? Or does He get a kick out of where I find beauty and is happy for me? My wife asked me once about what I think Heaven is like. Here’s what I tried to describe to her.

Imagine a French café, with small, round wrought-iron tables and matching chairs, black and white checkered tablecloths, a thin vase with a single rose on each table, tiny mosaic tiles on the floor, bigger tiles on the wall up to the wainscot, pink paint above that, a few paintings, a moulded plaster ceiling, big fans up there. There’s accordion music coming from one corner. I’m sitting in the café with my spirit friend (for my wife’s sake we’ll say it’s her) discussing the day and in walks Adolf Hitler. He glides up to a table of Jews and says “Did I do okay? Did I play the part well?”

I believe that when our lives are over we – in a spiritual sort of way – get together to discuss the outcomes and the roles that God wanted us to play. I believe that we start out as spiritual beings and pick those roles in order to see what it’s like to “live” them. I will not be surprised to find that I’ve had dozens, hundreds or millions of roles as a bug, a fish, a 13th century slave girl and a 3-legged Arspansian from the planet Greelock. Although I have no interest in dying tomorrow I’m looking forward to the adventure.

What about the truly evil people in this world? What about Adolf Hitler and Attila the Hun and Jeffrey Dahmer? How is justice served up for them? I have an alternate theory as well, and it’s got to do with our spiritual sphere of intimacy. I know that I am happiest with those whom I am most intimate. What could be more intimate than sharing one’s mind and soul? “Good” people who die may have a sphere of intimacy greater than “bad” people who die. In one extreme is God, whose sphere of intimacy encompasses all other spheres (He knows us and we know Him). At the other extreme is the absence of God. A really, really bad person has a zero-radius sphere of intimacy, interacts with no one and is truly, forever, alone.

I’m not sure which of my Heavens is closer to the real thing. The most likely answer is “neither”, but I imagine that it’s a pretty good place regardless.