My Fulfillment Package


The voice on a recent robo-call, in the masculine-but-chirpy tone of a game show host, said, “Hi, this is Tod, here to tell you your fulfillment package is ready! Having just come from the meditation room, I wondered what kind of fulfillment Tod was selling. “Stay on the line for details on how to get your medical alert package.” I hung up.

We all know Big Data is watching our every keystroke, and that “secure information” is an oxymoron, but although “they” may have accurately placed me in the medical alert demographic, they don’t understand my idea of fulfillment.  Or do they?

Every “positive psychology” poll I’ve ever seen on the key factors of happiness lists “good health” as most important, so perhaps Tod wasn’t that far off.  Or so you might think, unless you’d seen the third annual Chapman University Survey of American Fears, which lists the flip-side of happiness, things that get in the way of fulfillment. The top fear, listed by 60.5% of the 1511 Americans surveyed was, “Corruption of government officials.”

Understandable, especially this year, but it also tells me that the survey is skewed toward a young demographic. Trust me, when you get old enough to care for a parent with Alzheimer’s, the things you fear change dramatically. Plus, I’m cynical enough to believe that “corrupt government official” is usually redundant – like speaking of “wealthy millionaires.” (There are 383 of those in Congress, by the way).

Here are the results of the survey:

  • Corruption of government officials (same top fear as 2015) — 60.6%
  • Terrorist attacks — 41%
  • Not having enough money for the future — 39.9%
  • Being a victim of terror — 38.5%
  • Government restrictions on firearms and ammunition — 38.5%
  • People I love dying — 38.1%
  • Economic or financial collapse — 37.5%
  • Identity theft — 37.1%
  • People I love becoming seriously ill — 35.9%
  • The Affordable Health Care Act/”Obamacare” — 35.5%

Interesting to note that by a small percentage, more of us fear losing our guns than losing our loved ones.  Nope, not my fulfillment package.

However, fear of clowns didn’t make the top ten, so perhaps we can let Stephen King off the hook….

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Send in the….


Displacement: Psychiatry A psychological defense mechanism in which there is an unconscious shift of emotions, affect, or desires from the original object to a more acceptable or immediate substitute.

Any questions?

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How did it come to this?

While scanning yet another article along the lines of, “What to Watch for During the Debates,” or “What Each Candidate Must Do to Win,” a lightbulb went on, and I realized that all of the hype is nothing more than a media push for “eyeballs,” like the Super Bowl, except without the good spirits, camaraderie, pride in being American, or fun commercials.  

The League of Women Voters, being an organization of integrity and intelligence, pulled out as sponsor of this quadrienniel farce back in 1988, saying they had “no intention of becoming an accessory in the hoodwinking of the American public.”

We are told the election is neck and neck.  Of course we are!  As any writer knows, tension draws readers/viewers, and that drives advertising revenue, and that drives the bottom line of the six corporations that own almost all of our media outlets.  I’m sure they don’t give a rat’s ass which major party candidate wins; they’ll thrive either way. 

Does this election scare you?  If you are one of the 90% of Americans who know who you’ll vote for, of course it does.  Pundits on the right and left tell us daily of the potential horrors that await if our candidate loses.  I am reminded of the Star Trek episode in which an alien race that feeds off human anger and fear keeps the Enterprise crew at each other’s throats.  

Yes, I think there are grave dangers in our world, though I doubt very much that either of our contenders and our disfunctional congress can do more good than harm.

Am I worried?  

I keep thinking about that wonderful exchange, repeated three or four times, in “Bridge of Spies,” when fate forces Tom Hanks’ character to work with a Russian spy.

Hanks asks, “Aren’t you worried.”  The spy replies, “Would that help?”

So when (not if) I watch our sad national farce tonight and find myself feeling negative, I’ll remember to ask myself if the fear and hopelessness our media moguls, the DNC, and the RNC are peddling can help me or anyone else…

If not, I’ll do as we all do after a Super Bowl, regardless of which team wins, and get back to living my life, attempting to do as much good and as little harm as I can.

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Of cutting trees and the truths we cannot handle

George Washington and the cherry tree

George Washington and the cherry tree

The story goes that George Washington received a hatchet for his sixth birthday. With it, he damaged a cherry tree. When his father confronted him, young George said, “I cannot tell a lie. I cut it with my hatchet.” His father embraced him and said, “Your honesty is worth a thousand trees.” 

Ironically, this paean to honesty was the fabrication of Mason Weems, an itinerant preacher and one of Washington’s first biographers (the cherry tree myth). Politically expedient falsehood has been with us from the dawn of our Republic.

Readers of theFirstGates and movie buffs will recognize the other part of this post’s title as a partial paraphrase of the Jack Nicholson line, “You can’t handle the truth,”  in A Few Good Men, 1992, which I referenced through a link on August 8.

It came to mind last night as I watched Nixon, the third PBS documentary on American presidents I’ve seen this week. It’s a fascinating series for those interested in history, and especially during this disheartening election year. The truth I find hardest to handle is that even the pretense of truth has become optional during elections.

After his discharge from the navy after WWII, Richard Nixon ran for congress against five-term Democratic representative, Jerry Voorhis. Nixon won 60% of the vote, after, among other things, spreading the word, via anonymous telephone calls, that Voorhis was a communist.

“Of course I knew Jerry Voorhis wasn’t a communist,” Nixon later confided to a Voorhis aide.  “But I had to win. The important thing is to win.”  I was actually happy to learn that the lies that permeate this campaign are not a new aberration, but more a case of deja vu all over again. The only difference is that in earlier times, people caught in blatant lies were certain to lose – the appearance of honesty was a matter of style and decorum.

Political lies cross party lines, of course. Feeling compelled to be as “tough on communism” as Barry Goldwater in the 1964 election, Lyndon Johnson engineered the Gulf of Tonkin “incident” – a supposed torpedo attack on a US destroyer by North Vietnamese ships.  We now know the event never happened, but the lie won Johnson almost unlimited power to escalate the war in Vietnam, with tragic consequences for millions of people. It also set the precedent for fighting undeclared wars that remains a national disaster 50 years later.


I remember a hatchet incident when I was a kid in upstate New York. A boy who lived nearby chopped down a neighbor’s dogwood sapling with a hatchet. This was an especially serious act of vandalism, since dogwood trees were protected by law.

Not the brightest kid on the block, he did so while the lady of the house was home; she heard the chopping, looked out the window, and recognized him.  When confronted, however, the boy’s mother said, “It couldn’t have been my son. He told me he didn’t do it, and he doesn’t lie.” 

I’ve often wondered if that kid is in politics now.  He’d be a natural…

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Presidents acting presidential

George Washington, 1797. Public Domain

George Washington, 1797. Public Domain

Our Public Broadcasting System is re-running a series on recent American presidents, first aired in 2013. I missed it then, but caught the second episode of “Kennedy” last night (you can watch the entire program here).

The show was excellent. It outlined several glaring failures of the Kennedy administration: the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion; JFK’s failure to back the emerging civil rights movement; starting us down the slippery slope in Vietnam through mistaking a nationalist revolution for a global communist conspiracy.

Successes included staring down Khrushchev in the high-stakes Cuban missile crisis, and motivating the nation to put a man on the moon, which led directly to the high tech boom, and the laptop or smartphone on which you are reading this post.

Successes and failures aside, the most striking thing I noticed in watching “Kennedy” was that he looked and acted presidential in a way that current presidents do not!  Somewhere along the way, the stature and dignity of the office has been diminished.

It’s not that the presidents of my youth were exemplary human beings: Kennedy and Johnson were notorious philanderers, and Nixon was an angry alcoholic, who sometimes gave orders to “bomb the shit” out of countries that annoyed him (see Drinking in America).  It’s silly to imagine that those who aspire to the office have changed that much in 50 years. It’s rather that the regard we hold for office has diminished.

True, some people exude charisma, or in Johnson’s case, power. It’s also true that an aura often aura celebrities who die young – Kennedy, Marylin, Elvis, Princess Di, and Prince.

I’m tempted to quote what mythologists like Joseph Campbell and Robert Bly have said about the deflation of the archetypes of king and queen, but I think the answer is far simpler, staring us in the face, in our voracious need to pull presidents down to our level, and their willingness to cooperate.

At the start of the primary season, this year’s crop of contenders gathered in mass for the Iowa State Fair, and one reporter detailed which candidates were truly “just folks,” as opposed to wannabe’s, based on whether or not they knew  how to eat ribs.

The cover story on the August 1 issue of Time was, “In Search of Hillary?” What exactly are we searching for?  “Likes poetry, puppies and moonlight walks on the beach?”

I remember Cokie Roberts describing a meeting where Lyndon Johnson got angry and chewed someone out. “It took five years off my life,” she said, while noting that recent presidents, wielding the same power, do not command anywhere near that respect. It’s hard to imagine LBJ on Saturday Night Live or with Stephen Colbert, and during this election year especially, I’m not sure that trade of respect for laughter and buddy vibes has been a good deal for anyone.

Whether the loss of respect moves top-down, or bottom-up, or both, when presidential debates begin to look like the Jerry Springer show, and the rest of us behave accordingly, we’re in a world of trouble!

War reporter, Sebastian Junger, author of, Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, outlined one consequence for us in a PBS interview.

A war reporter, Junger was with troops during “hellish deployments,” but noted that some of the soldiers did not want to go home. Junger says that for most of our history, we humans have lived and thrived most in tribes or clans and, “The real an ancient meaning of tribe is the community that you live in that you share resources with that you would risk your life to defend.”

Only at war did many of the young men that Junger met experience this kind of connection. The lack of it, in our culture, is deadly in his opinion. Looking at our current election season, Junger says we look like opposing tribes, that hold each other in contempt.

“No soldier in a trench in a platoon in combat would have contempt for their trench mate. They might not like them. They disagree with them, but you don’t have contempt for someone that your life depends on. And that’s what we’re falling into in the political dialogue in this country. And in my opinion, that is more dangerous to this country than ISIS is, I mean literally like more of a threat to our nation.”

“I wish I had a tribe,” Junger says, “But we don’t. We just don’t. That’s the problem. That’s why our depression rate, our suicide rate, all that stuff is through the roof. That’s the tragedy of modern society.”

I remember watching Kennedy on TV as a kid. I remember walking to grade school in 1962, past a neighbor who was digging a bomb shelter. I remember “duck and cover” hydrogen bomb drills, which we all knew were ludicrous even then. But through all the fear, what I really remember, was growing up in a neighborhood, in “one nation” as we said during the pledge of allegiance.

I don’t know anyone who lives in a neighborhood or one nation anymore. Perhaps that realization is what makes this election so sad – an election like this couldn’t happen if values like “community,” and “nation,” to say nothing of “tribe,” weren’t so completely fractured.

I have some notions of what happened, but that is for another post. And as they say, we cannot even begin to imagine solutions for a problem until we admit that it exists and what it costs.

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2x2 Matrix: possible futures, by Gaurau Mishra. CC-BY-2.0

2×2 Matrix: possible futures, by Gaurau Mishra. CC-BY-2.0

Almost four years ago, I posted Change is the Only Constant, a discussion of the December, 2012 report of the National Intelligence Council, a consortium of the 16 major U.S. intelligence agencies. Since 1997, they have issued comprehensive reports on future trends after each presidential election and posted the reports online. We can expect the next installment this winter.

The 2012 edition, which predicts alternate futures for the year 2030, outlines some things that are certain, like aging populations in the developed world; some which are possible, and some “black swans” – potential surprises for good or ill. Here are two key predictions.

  • The rate of change in all areas of life will continue to accelerate and will be faster than anything anyone living has seen.
  • World population will grow from 7.1 billion (in 2012) to 8.3 billion in 2030. Demand for food will increase 35% and for water by 40%.

Keep this in mind as we look at a some current events.  I should preface these comments by saying I’ve long had a rule of thumb: never trust a politician who says, “I have a plan to create jobs.” Both presidential candidates have said those exact words this year.

The fantasy is that by pulling the right levers – cutting or raising taxes, threatening or cajoling China, building a wall at our southern border, and so on, we can restore whatever American golden age our imagination conjures. Maybe the 50’s, when we were the only industrial nation not ravaged by WWII. Maybe the 90’s dot com boom, when even your Starbucks barista had stock tips to share.

We all know that’s not going to happen. The truth is even harder to face than any elected or would-be elected American official has yet been willing to share.

On May 16, the BBC reported that China’s Foxconn, the largest electronics manufacturer in the world, where Apple and Samsung smart phones are made, replaced 60,000 workers with robots.  Chinese manufacturers are investing heavily in robotics. So much for bringing jobs back from China.

For an article in the August 1 issue of Time, (“What to do about jobs that are never coming back”), Rana Foroohar spoke to Andy Stern, a former head of the Service Employees International Union:  “Stern tells a persuasive story about a rapidly emerging economic order in which automation and ever smarter artificial intelligence will make even cheap foreign labor obsolete and give rise to a society that will be highly productive–except at creating new jobs. Today’s persistently stagnant wages and rageful political populism are early signs of the trouble this could generate.”

In a Common Dreams article published last week,  You Can’t Handle the Truth,  Richard Heinberg, steps back for a much longer view of our situation and says:

“We have overshot human population levels that are supportable long-term. Yet we have come to rely on continual expansion of population and consumption in order to generate economic growth—which we see as the solution to all problems. Our medicine is our poison.

“And most recently, as a way of keeping the party roaring, we have run up history’s biggest debt bubble—and we doubled down on it in response to the 2008 global financial crisis.

“All past civilizations have gone through similar patterns of over-growth and decline. But ours is the first global, fossil-fueled civilization, and its collapse will therefore correspondingly be more devastating (the bigger the boom, the bigger the bust).

“All of this constitutes a fairly simple and obvious truth. But evidently our leaders believe that most people simply can’t handle this truth. Either that or our leaders are, themselves, clueless. (I’m not sure which is worse.)”

“…any intention to “Make America Great Again”—if that means restoring a global empire that always gets its way, and whose economy is always growing, offering glittery gadgets for all—is utterly futile, but at least it acknowledges what so many sense in their gut: America isn’t what it used to be, and things are unraveling fast. Troublingly, when empires rot the result is sometimes a huge increase in violence—war and revolution.” (emphasis added)

The last major decline of empires, he notes, resulted in World War I. The US and the rest of the world are, in Heinberg’s words, “sleepwalking into history’s greatest shitstorm.”

“…Regardless how we address the challenges of climate change, resource depletion, overpopulation, debt deflation, species extinctions, ocean death, and on and on, we’re in for one hell of a century. It’s simply too late for a soft landing.

“I’d certainly prefer that we head into the grinder holding hands and singing “kumbaya” rather than with knives at each other’s throats. But better still would be avoiding the worst of the worst. Doing so would require our leaders to publicly acknowledge that a prolonged shrinkage of the economy is a done deal. From that initial recognition might follow a train of possible goals and strategies, including planned population decline, economic localization, the formation of cooperatives to replace corporations, and the abandonment of consumerism. Global efforts at resource conservation and climate mitigation could avert pointless wars.

“But none of that was discussed at the conventions. No, America won’t be “Great” again, in the way Republicans are being encouraged to envision greatness. And no, we can’t have a future in which everyone is guaranteed a life that, in material respects, echoes TV situation comedies of the 1960s, regardless of race, religion, or sexual orientation…”

Heinberg’s conclusions aren’t easy to digest, and are tempting to deny. Keeping attention on even a few of the significant points in the articles referenced here leads to disturbing conclusions.

If 16 US Intelligence agencies are anywhere near correct in their numbers, in 14 years, 8.3 billion people will be competing for 40% less water and 35% less food (in this case, living up to their name, the intelligence agencies don’t waste anyone’s time denying the effects of climate change).

Can we imagine “global efforts at resource conservation” in which nations co-operate, and at least try to send relief where it’s needed?  Like after tsunamis or the earthquake in Nepal? Or are we headed toward a survivalist wet dream?  Futures aren’t set in stone, said the NIA. It all depends on how we behave (sinking feeling in the gut…).

I can see it both ways. Speaking of our current election, someone recently said to me, “I haven’t felt this bad about things since 9/11. Maybe it’s even worse.”  Maybe so. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, we were a nation and a world largely united in awareness of our fragile humanity and revulsion at senseless suffering.

It strikes me that communities often pull together in the face of disaster when our leaders and governments won’t. That is Heinberg’s conclusion as well. Given our lack of competent leadership at the top, how can we build “local community resilience?”

I wish I knew. But since Iceland has more sense than to open it’s doors to American refugees, I’ll have time to think it over!  Meanwhile this quote from the Dalai Lama comes to mind:

“We can live without rituals. And we can live without religion. But we cannot live without kindness to each other.”

Changes are certain but futures aren’t set in stone…

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100 Years Ago – The Battle of the Somme

Cemetery at Poziers, France, in the Somme River Valley

Cemetery at Poziers, France, in the Somme River Valley

“I’ve never met a grandson of someone who fought on the Somme, or a granddaughter, who hasn’t said to me, ‘My grandfather never recovered.'” – Sir Martin Gilbert, historian.

One hundred years ago this morning, at 7:30am in northern France, 150,000 British, Canadian, Australian, and French troops went “over the top” to attack German trenches along a 40 km. front in the Somme river valley. Six months in planning, the assault was designed to break through the German lines and end the war in the west.

When the battle ended four and a half months later, more than a million men on both sides lay dead or wounded. British and French troops had gained just six miles of mud, strewn with corpses, many of which had lain unburied for months.

“The most gigantic, tenacious, grim, futile and bloody fight ever waged in the history of war.” – Lloyd George, on the Battle of the Somme.

When the first day’s casualty reports – 19,240 dead and 38,230 wounded – reached British headquarters, the high command assumed the figures to be mistaken; the battle plans, in the making for six months, were foolproof – they couldn’t go that wrong! The generals ordered the attacks to continue.

British Field Marshal Douglas Haig had launched a massive artillery barrage through the week before the assault to destroy the German trenches, not realizing that during the months of stalemate, the Kaiser’s troops had worked tirelessly on their fortifications. Some trenches were 30 feet deep in the chalky ground, reinforced with concrete and steel, with electric lighting, running water, and ventilation. An estimated third of the British shells fired were duds, and many that did explode were the wrong kind of shell – shrapnel rather than high explosive charges, which failed to damage the trenches or cut the barbed wire as planned. Quality control had suffered during the British effort to ramp up production of war material.

A few minutes before the attack began, the British detonated a series of mines that engineers had tunneled to place near the German lines. The effects were limited and not worth the clear signal they sent that the attack was about to begin. The craters soon became killing fields as the British troops struggled to cross them, with no cover, under fire from German machine guns placed along the eastern rims.

Many of the British troops were new volunteers and draftees.  On the assumption that to keep order, the inexperienced troops needed to march in close formation – and assuming the artillery barrage had cleared the barbed wire and dispatched the German defenders – the infantry was ordered to walk, not run, in close, shoulder-to-shoulder formations, carrying 70 pound packs which made dodging and weaving impossible anyway. Nine out of every ten men in a Newfoundland battalion were cut down in the first 40 minutes of the assault.

The units that fared best were those with young commanders, who ordered their troops to drop the packs, duck, and run forward.  Before the day was over, German gunners in the center of the lines, where the carnage was the worst, shut down their guns, unable to keep firing. They simply watched in silence as the British retreated with as many wounded as they could carry.

“When we started to fire we just had to load and reload. They went down in their hundreds. We didn’t have to aim, we just fired into them. – German machine gunner.


July 1, 1916, was and remains, the worst day in British military history. A generation later, during the Normandy invasion, it was a full 20 days before the combined British and American casualties would equal those of the first day of the Somme offensive.

One of the inexperienced members of “Kitchener’s army,” at the Somme was a young second lieutenant named J.R.R. Tolkien. Fortunately for millions of book lovers, his unit was held in reserve for the first week of the battle. Although he saw action and served to the best of his ability, he survived, unlike most of his school and university friends.

In October, Tolkien was struck down with Trench Fever, a serious illness related to Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, and also carried by ticks, fleas, and lice. This was likely a godsend. He was evacuated to Britain weeks before Haig broke off the offensive. While recuperating in a hospital in Birmingham, Tolkien began a story about three mystic gems called the silmarilli in the first age of a place called Middle Earth.

While celebrating Tolkien’s survival, we can only wonder how many other gifts we have never seen because those who might have given them died in France.

The first American casualty of the first world war was Alan Seeger, a 28 year old poet. Seeger graduated Harvard in 1910, spent two years in Greenwich Village, and then moved to Paris, where he thrived in the bohemian atmosphere of the Left Bank. When war broke out, he joined the French Foreign Legion to defend the land he loved so much.

In his last letter, dated June 28, 1916 Seeger said:

“We go up to the attack tomorrow. This will probably be the biggest thing yet. We are to have the honor of marching in the first wave.  I will write you soon if I get through all right. If not, my only earthly care is for my poems.”

Seeger did not advance with the first wave; his regiment was held in reserve until 4:00 pm on July 1, then ordered to advance on the village of Belloy-en-Santerre.  His friend, John Keegan, wrote in his diary:  “How pale he was! His tall silhouette stood out on the green of the cornfield. He was the tallest man in his section. His head erect, and pride in his eye, I saw him running forward, with bayonet fixed. Soon he disappeared and that was the last time I saw my friend. . . .”

These prophetic lines are from one of Seeger’s last poems, “I Have a Rendezvous with Death.”

Alan Seeger

Alan Seeger

God knows ’twere better to be deep
Pillowed in silk and scented down,
Where love throbs out in blissful sleep,
Pulse nigh to pulse, and breath to breath,
Where hushed awakenings are dear…
But I’ve a rendezvous with Death
At midnight in some flaming town,
When Spring trips north again this year,
And I to my pledged word am true,
I shall not fail that rendezvous.

From “I Have A Rendezvous with Death” by Alan Seeger


Between July 1 and November 18, 1916, there were 420,000 British, 200,000 French, and 500,000 German casualties along the Somme. Though we only know and can tell a few of those stories, it is good to do so at the time of this centennial.  Lest we forget their sacrifice. And lest we again entertain the delusion that a war can end all wars…

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Happy 100th Anniversary to the Schwarzschild Radius

Imagined image of black hole - public domain

Imagined image of black hole – public domain

There aren’t many things to celebrate about 1916, which set a new record as the bloodiest year in the history of human warfare, but an exception to that rule was discussed on a fascinating segment on Science Friday today, Tracing Light to Map the Cosmic Darkness.

German astronomer, Karl Schwarzschild, who was serving in the trenches, used his free time to solve the gravitational field equations of Einstein’s general theory of relativity. He communicated his findings to Einstein on a postcard. The great scientist didn’t like his solution, but recognizing its validity, he presented it to the Prussian Academy of Sciences in 1916. Ever since then, the Schwarzschild radius has defined a black hole.

Karl Schwertschild, 1873-1916, Wikimedia Commons.

Karl Schwertschild, 1873-1916, Wikimedia Commons.

And why is this important to anyone other than diehard Trekies?  Given that dark matter comprises 96% of the total matter in our universe – the stars, our earth, ourselves make up only 4% – it’s a rather interesting topic. Something to contemplate next time you’re under a sky full of stars.

One of Ira Plato’s guests, Sheperd Doeleman, Director of the Event Horizon Telescope project, hopes to soon have photographs of these objects that can’t be photographed. His other guest, Priyamvada Natarajan, Professor of Astrophysics at Yale and author of Mapping the Heavens, creates maps of dark matter, this mysterious background in which we and our universe dance.

This is a fascinating segment, so grab a cup of coffee, put you communicators on vibrate, and tune in for a wonderful glimpse at all we don’t know about our world.

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