Presidential Debates Are Shaping Up to Be Ridiculous

In the last 10 presidential cycles, there have never been two so disliked candidates from the two major parties (fivethirtyeight.com) and yet only those two will be on stage for the crucial televised national debates. This is patently rigged and ridiculous.

See my petition HERE to do something about it.

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There’s so many things I hate about Paris. Chief among them is that it’s so goddamn beautiful

I hate that every store you might want to go to shuts down by 5.

I hate that nothing’s convenient. For instance, there are no convenience stores.

I hate that there’s no screens on the windows. But there are mosquitoes.

I hate that there’s no air conditioning.

I hate that the cars are so small.

I hate the indifference of waiters along the Champs Élysées.

I hate the McDonalds on the Champs Élysées.

I love the end of the Tour de France along the Champs Élysées.

I hate that everyone walks and parks anywhere they want.

I hate the lack of ATMs.

I love that the post office has ATMs. Although that’s weird.

I hate that in July (and June and August and even May) everywhere you go, you hear American voices.

I love the sound of French conversation at a sidewalk cafe. And of a good argument in French (between the doorman and a delivery guy, just now.)

I hate the labor laws, the 35 hour workweek, the practical inability to fire anyone.

I hate the taxis. Full stop.

I hate that the taxi drivers burn Uber cars, and that the Paris Criminal Court fined Uber and questioned its executives about “illegal activity”.

I love that there seems to be no sense of racism against blacks.

I hate that there seems to be a strong sense of racism against Muslims.

I love that in Paris you can see so many of the greatest works of art in the world.

I hate that many of those works were stolen from other great societies such as Italy and Egypt. (In which, France is not alone…ahem…Britain…)

I hate that everywhere, people seem to be smoking.

In some weird way, I love that everyone seems to be smoking.

I love the architecture.

After a while, I hate that all the architecture is so…French.

I HATE the four hour, interminable dinners.

I LOVE the chocolate croissants.

I hate the snooty Bordeauxs.

I love the white Burgundy’s (Chardonnay for you Americans)

I love the Arc de Triomphe. (Come on…have you seen it?)

I hate that the Arc de Triomphe glorifies war (specifically, Napoleon’s) and that the Nazis marched underneath it on June 14th, 1940. Does war beget war?

I love the soaring grace and testament to human engineering achievement that Gustave Eiffel gave to the world in 1889. Only to be outdone, in pure competitive spirit, by the Ferris Wheel, in 1893.

I love the fact that the Impressionists broke the rules of the Paris art scene at the all-important salon of 1863, and daring to be different, invoked the “Salon of the Refused” thus bringing to life some of the most sublime painting the world has ever seen. (If you do nothing else with yourself, go to the Musée d’Orsay)

I hate that these young rebels, upon becoming the old guard, disagreed about the direction of the movement and rejected its younger members, just as they had been rejected by their older academic peers, thus ushering in, by 1906, Post-Impressionism. (That’s not really true. I love the creative destruction of the old. See Taxis and Uber, above.)

A decade ago, I reunited with a French physician from Paris whom I considered a friend. Breaking the ice, I said, “So, how’s Paris?” Stupid question, I know, but I was trying to break the ice you see. Coldly, he responded, “Paris, will always be Paris.” That was the end of the conversation. Paris will always be coldly calculating, and beautifully warm. Light, and dark. Somehow, inevitably, it embraces its contradictions.

Why can’t I just get a nice microbrew IPA instead of this 1664 shit?

Death

I have been thinking about death for a long time now. Well, for several years at least. That seems like a long time to me. Not in any morbid, fearful, or obsessive way. Just looking at it. Turning it over in my mind. Getting close to it, just to feel what that’s like. Knowing for certain that I will get to experience it one day (or at least have it happen, if by definition there’s no real experience), it makes sense to me to take a look now in order to see if it’s possible to get comfortable with it ahead of time. So far I’d say it’s going well. I do feel that I’m getting ever slightly more comfortable with the idea. Rather than have a strange and possibly scary visitor knock on the door one day, why not choose to have that visitor be a friend, if we could make such a choice?

Maybe one day I will find something significant to write about from this pursuit of making a new friend, but meanwhile, I was immediately attracted to this article when I saw it online. “This is right up my alley. I’ve been thinking about this too,” I thought when I saw the title. Turns out it’s just beautifully written. The content, yes, but also simply the words. I think this author has a wonderful talent for words. If you like, you may form your own opinion by reading the piece here.

Here’s a good podcast on the subject including consequences of knowing exactly when you would die.

There’s a fascinating TED talk from an ambulance driver who has faced many people in their last moments, and what he said to them.

The Fable of Earth and Jupiter

Once upon a time, there was a proud, hard working, and just a little bit self-important guy named Earth. He was really good at what he did. He was a beautiful blue and green, and had many, many little creatures that he took care of. There were small and large creatures, smart and silly creatures, fast and slow ones, but whether on his land or in his water, he cared for them and saw that they had what they needed to thrive. And thrive they did, and he was very proud of his work in that regard. Around him, and bound to his orbit was a beautiful, silver haired woman named Moon. They worked really well together, cooperated on everything, and in a way, each enhanced the other. Earth was larger, with his blues and greens shining out toward Moon. Moon was smaller, but her beautiful, bright silver illuminated the nighttime on Earth and brought a certain wonder and mystery to Earth’s creatures that he nurtured and took care of. Earth was in charge of this happy family, and he took a lot of pride in that.

The whole family spent their days in the orbit of a much, much larger father-figure, Sun. Sun was warm and gracious and friendly, and provided the essence of life to Earth’s family, and Earth was thankful. Sun was so much bigger, and his yellow shone out so much brighter, that Earth never presumed to try to be Sun, or take Sun’s place. Earth was blue and green. He could never be such a bright yellow.

There were other parts of Sun’s family that orbited him like Earth did. There was a dry, angry little red-headed man named Mars that just sat and brooded a lot. There was a bright, hot-headed, gassy woman named Venus who just talked all the time and would never shut up. There was little Mercury. In a weird way, it was closest to Sun and they had a funny, tight relationship, but no one really understood why, what they talked about, or even quite what Mercury really was. But it didn’t matter, no one really cared all that much. And then there were the Asteroids. They were a crazy, messy group of workers way out on the edge of the Inner Area that were all very small, not very pretty, didn’t have much personality, but there were a lot of them, and they just worked every day and didn’t complain, so it wasn’t hard to have them around. Earth knew these other folks in Sun’s family, but didn’t talk to them too much. It wasn’t that he didn’t like them, it was just that he wasn’t in charge of them—they were Sun’s problem—and he was busy focusing on taking care of his own family. Sun, for his part, had plenty of time for Earth, warming him and his family with a nice yellow glow, coaching and encouraging Earth’s creatures to grow and do their best. And Earth was proud. And also just a little bit protective of and dependent on this time with Sun. It meant a lot to him. But Sun was always generous enough, and so Earth was happy.

Until one day when Earth was feeling particularly comfortable and competent and started staring off in space looking at the Outer Areas. It was then that he noticed a really large guy out there. Way out in an area he didn’t even really know was Sun’s territory. The guy was named Jupiter. Jupiter was confusing to Earth. He was huge, first of all, about one tenth the size of Sun, which seemed impossibly large. And he was made entirely of gas, like Sun, but didn’t glow the same way. Instead he was complex, indiscernible, with all kinds of swirling colors rotating around in his atmosphere, including one giant red spot which sometimes was tame, and sometimes seemed to erupt with intensity, defining Jupiter like no other feature. More and more, Sun seemed to really like Jupiter. They were fundamentally the same: both were large balls of gas; Jupiter could one day be a Sun, a father figure himself if only he got bigger, glowing yellow and nurturing a family of his own, and he probably would be some day, Earth thought. Sun and Jupiter spent their time talking and laughing and seemed to be really close. Earth received just as much warmth and light from Sun as usual, but it seemed like now something was missing. Sun looked past Earth when he was talking to Jupiter. They were so different: one rocky and wet and blue-green, and one huge and gassy and multi-colored, a giant, much more like Sun than like Earth. And Jupiter was way out there, in the Outer Areas, travelling exotic places, learning unknown things. Plus he had a large following: four big orbiting friends and many other smaller ones. Compared to Earth’s small creatures and one, delicate, silver-haired partner, Jupiter seemed like a King. There was an even more exotic, more distant guy out there too, a little beyond Jupiter. With crazy rings, and thousands of icy orbiters, he was smaller than Jupiter yet also a big ball of gas, way bigger than Earth, and he had certain style and panache that was indescribably cooler and sleeker than even Jupiter’s. Together with Sun they made an exciting trio, one Earth felt he could never compete with, let alone be a part of.

One day when Sun, Jupiter and Saturn (as the good looking, stylish guy with all the rings was called) were off on one of their trips, way off in some foreign place, talking and cavorting and having a grand time together, Earth’s blue color was feeling particularly blue. But through this melancholy cloud he had gotten himself into, Earth noticed something—something small on his surface. Some of his creatures were waking up for the morning. They were cute and happy and contented. He’d miss them if he had to go off on some exotic foreign voyage in the Outer Areas. His beautiful Moon was shining brightly in her dark, luxurious orbit around him. She was so lovely some mornings; he couldn’t believe his luck in having her around. The soft waves of her presence washed over his seas and the happy creatures in them, and slowly that morning, he started to not feel so blue. Sun hadn’t left him; he was still around. He just had other friends. And Earth liked his little Inner Area, albeit with angry Mars and crazy Venus and mysterious Mercury hanging around. He wouldn’t want to live in the Outer Areas anyway. How cold and distant it must be! He was good at what he did here. He had creatures and Moon around him who loved him. He didn’t need Sun’s company as much as he thought he did, just like Sun didn’t really rely on him either, after all. He realized he was happy to receive the yellow rays that he did get from Sun, and all was right with his world right here. And Earth’s green contentment glowed a little brighter that morning, and he felt a lot less blue.

***

Way, way out, beyond the Outer Areas, beyond Sun’s closest peer and friend, Mr. Centauri, way beyond thousands of other men and women like Sun, beyond even Sun’s ability to see what was further out there, a benevolent face looked down. In some mythologies, it was called Milky, but no one really knew for sure. It looked down on the little tiny family that Sun had assembled, and the little tiny problems that Sun’s family sometimes had, and chuckled quietly to itself, smiling just a little.

***

Be good at what you do, thankful for what you have, don’t be jealous of others—you wouldn’t want to be them anyway—and always know, no matter what position you’re in, there’s always someone or something higher than you.

A Chance Encounter

I had had a somewhat disappointing day on a business trip to Chicago. The good news was that I was done sooner than expected and just able to catch an earlier flight. I was going to be in a middle seat due to the last minute change, but getting home earlier was well worth it. I boarded the plane in a hurry, found my row and sat down. The row was empty, but I was sure that wouldn’t last. Within minutes a nice couple came down the idle and immediately said, “Are you sure you’re in the right row?”

“I think so,” I said without confidence and pulled my ticket out of my pocket. “Nope, you’re right, sorry about that,” I said as I quickly got up and moved my stuff to the row ahead. I travel a lot for work and usually don’t make that kind of mistake. I must be quite distracted, I thought to myself.

I settled down into my new center seat next to a very small, very old, and elegantly dressed lady in the window seat. I had barely gotten my briefcase under the seat in front of me when she turned, looked me up and down and said, in perfect English but a sophisticated Old World French accent that belonged to a distant decade, “I am glad you are big in height and not wide. I hate it when a big fat man sits next to me on a plane.” I am 6’4″ so that was a reasonable observation, but she said it with so much charm and good humor, smiling up at me like she was very proud of her joke, that I had to smile.

“Yes, I’m pretty tall,” I said. “The one disadvantage of that is airplane travel.” She smiled back and that was the end of the conversation. I took a closer look at her. Her face was spritely and alive with intelligence, and although clearly very old, she looked good, as if she had shed as many years as came her way. She was dressed quite elegantly in a long coat with an intricate French Country fabric design. She had on a huge stone ring that was at least double the width of her tiny, deeply wrinkled fingers. She wore surprisingly up-to-date glasses and her hair was just so. It was normal, like she had done it herself, not the thin, frosted, hair-sprayed helmet typical of an old lady that spends too much time at the hairdressers.

I made a business call or two. I checked my email on my phone, played some words against unknown partners on my Wordly app, and suddenly noticed that although everyone was on-board and seated, we hadn’t moved in a little too long.

Then the speakers blared. “This is your captain, the IEM on-board has just decided to stop working. The mechanics are here looking at it, and hopefully we can get it back up and running soon. We’ll give you an update when we have more detail.”

I’ve flown enough to immediately realize that this means hours. Mechanical stuff is never quick. They won’t let us off the plane, because when it is fixed, they’ll want to leave right away. We were just going to have to sit here for hours. I was already grumpy. The row I was in didn’t have the extra leg-room of United’s Economy Plus. We had to keep our seat backs upright which was beginning to cramp my lower back, and there was very little air coming out of the vents, so despite being December in Chicago outside, it was getting hot. Ugg, I thought, and got out my iPad to watch a show.

About an hour later a flight attendant made an announcement. “We apologize for the inconvenience and appreciate your patience, and we’ll be underway as soon as we can,” along with a bunch of other equally useless information. The little old lady suddenly turned to me, her face again lit up with a crafty smile and said, in her delightful French accent, “What do zay mean zay appreciate our patience? What choice do we have?” and chuckled to herself, shaking her head.

“Yes, I know. They always say stuff like that,” I replied. As charming as this old lady was, I’m almost never in the mood to talk to people on planes. I’d already had a busy, hard day. I’d had to manage customers, be charming and conversational myself all day, and now just wanted to zone out on my way home and not have to interact anymore. I politely went back to watching my video.

Not five minutes later, she tapped me on the arm. “If zay really appreciate our patience, zay could give us a drink! Now zat would be appreciation!” she said with a twinkle in her eye. Now the old lady had my attention. I like a drink or two myself and had already definitively decided to get one on-board once we got in the air. If we ever got in the air. I paused my video and took out my earphones.

“Yes, now that would really be showing us their appreciation!” I said warmly. “Why don’t they do that for making us wait?” She shrugged her shoulders in mock question, her eyes narrowing as if contemplating becoming a leader of a nascent revolution among the passengers pointing out the hypocrisy of the airline and demanding drinks for tardy departures. Again the conversation ended and I went back to my video.

Finally, two and a half hours late, we departed. About an hour into the flight, when the drink cart began to come around, I took out the free drink coupons I had due to my flying status, tore off two, and handed one to her. “Would you like to have a glass of wine?” I asked presumptively, given her earlier interest in a drink and further assuming her drink of choice might be wine due to the accent.

“I don’t know, how much does it cost?” she immediately replied.

I waved the coupon in front of her face a little more obviously. “No, here’s a coupon. Because we had to wait for takeoff,” I said.

She took it like it was the gold coupon found by Charlie winning entrance to the Chocolate Factory. She looked at it in amazement, and then up at me. “I, I, I, I, well…yes…zank you very much.”

“No problem,” I said quickly and went back to what I was doing so as to make her not feel obliged to thank me further.

When the flight attendant got to us, I ordered a Budweiser and sure enough, she ordered white wine. The drinks came, and the flight attendant came back to collect the coupons. I handed her mine, and the old lady’s was in her hand but she was quite busy concentrating on opening the screw top of her small bottle–and failing. The flight attendant held out her hand further to the old lady. She waved her off with an angry frown, “No, no, it’s OK. I can do it,” she said bruskly as she continued to struggle, beginning to crack the perforations in the screw top.

I leaned in close to her. “No, she wants your coupon,” I said gingerly.

She paused for the slightest second as recognition came over her face. “Oh, yes, yes, of course,” she said, that charming smile returning to her face. She handed the coupon over, and with a new frown fixed on the bottle, struggled to finish the task of opening the screw cap. I went back to my laptop.

A little while later, without warning, she turned to me and proclaimed, with profound, but somewhat mock awe, “Did zhoo know, we are flying on a Rolls Royce?”

In fact, in an earlier career, I was an engineer for GE Aircraft Engines, one of the makers of large jet engines that are sold for the Boeing 737, the model we were presently flying. The other two competitors being the American company Pratt & Whitney, and the British, Rolls Royce. So I immediately recognized what she was saying. There was probably a logo on the engine nacelle outside her window. I leaned over to glance out the window to confirm, and sure enough, there was the mark of the famous car company.

“Yes, isn’t that interesting,” I said. “We’re pretty special,” I added with a smile of my own while she relished in her clever observation. Again, the conversation ended.

The flight finally coming to an end, I had to pack away my electronics. In a much better mood now on account of the beer, a little escapism watching the premier of The Americans on my iPad, and in no small part to this little old lady’s charm and humor, an earnest conversation began between us.

In the short time left in the flight I learned that she was originally from Bordeaux. She had lived there during the Nazi occupation of France during World War II. Her brother had fought for the Resistance Movement and at one point a rumor spread that Germans were in town asking for him by name. She and her brother immediately escaped to south-eastern France, occupied by Fascist Italy. They were safe there because, “Italians are not really soldiers zhoo know, zay are just interested in zee pretty girls on zee beach” She waved her hand dismissively. Her father however, was not so lucky. He had fought in World War I and had survived a German mustard gas attack. As a consequence, his lungs were damaged and weak. The Nazi’s came to their house and not finding her brother, took her father instead. He was in prison for several months and finally died there, as his lungs gave out.

She divorced one husband in the late forties after the war and got a job as a nanny in England. She always wanted to come back to France, so upon the nanny job coming to an end, got a job working for the now-occupying US Air Force in France. In addition to her official duties as a translator, she also helped the American families get settled, helped their kids acclimate to school, and involved herself in most aspects of her employer’s lives. She became so close to one family that a few years later, they sponsored her immigration to the United States.

“How did you learn English so well in the first place?” I asked.

“Oh I zhust studied it in school, and I loved the language so much that I keep studying it after grade school as well. But I had no one to speak to, so I zhust learned from books. Zat’s why I never lost my French accent. Reading zee words, you read zem as they would sound with French letter sounds. People have tried to get me to loose my accent, but I just never could,” she said with a chuckle.

“I still imagined I would take my skills learned in America and go back to France. I even went to university here and got a Bachelors in Clinical Psychology, but sixty years later, here I am still,” she said flopping her hands down into her lap, a little deflated but still smiling up at me. This was when I learned she was 92 years old. Yes I thought, her size, her hands, her frail movements did speak of her age, but her wit, her humor, the glow on her face and twinkle in her eye were timeless.

“Zhoo know one time, ” she began, “I was in an elevator, and these kids were there, you know how kids like to push all the buttons? And they were pushing the buttons, and one accidently bumped me. It was really an accident, he didn’t mean to do it, but when he bumped me I fell over and broke my hip.” I winced. “And you know I was in incredible pain. It’s very painful when you break your hip, and the only thing I can remember from when it happened was one of the kids leaning over me and saying, ‘Is she dead?’ and the other one leaned over to look and said, ‘No, she’s still breathing,'” and she let out a hearty laugh. “You know it was just so crazy and funny. Here I was in incredible pain, and these two kids are asking, ‘Is she dead?’ It was like something you’d see in the movies!” she said with mirth and enjoyment.

“And I was very lucky you know. Zay say when you break your hip, that’s it, you have like six months to live, but I always try to look at the humorous side of things in life and zat keeps me going,” she concluded evenly.

She was travelling with her daughter, going to visit her son and grandchildren in Marin County, California. Her oldest grandchild is 40 and the youngest 7, I found out. Another set of children and grandchildren live in Texas.

As I said ‘goodbye’ and ‘Merry Christmas’ to her and began walking off the plane, I was struck by this fascinating old lady and the gift of meeting her that I had been given. I hoped sincerely that I live to be her age, have as much family around me as she does, and most of all maintain a fresh, child-like outlook on life, full of humor and goodwill even in the most trying times. The last quality undoubtedly the key to the first two.