Powerless In Oakland


Editors note: To give this some context and for those who may not know, Simone is 92 years old and lives alone in her home

At 6 o’clock on Sunday evening, just as I was settling down to watch the Russian news, the image on the TV screen suddenly disappeared. I sat staring at the blank screen waiting for it to start talking to me. When it wouldn’t, I walked around the house and noticed that the radio had no display and the hand on the clock did not seem to be moving either.

The ultimate and conclusive test was to try the light switch and when no lights obediently showed up, my brain finally registered what was happening. No doubt about it. It was a power outage. How suddenly one plunges from the age of convenience to the dark ages before civilization. Perhaps not quite the Stone Age but the Candle Age. (Was there such an era?)

Well, thought I, at least there are plenty of candles in the house. I even found lots of matchbooks in a kitchen drawer. but I had the greatest difficulty striking a match and not having it break in my hands before it caught on so it took a while before I had a real candlelight feast on my dining room table. While pondering my other choices I found that my flashlight seemed to be missing some essential parts. Only my dumbphone still had a very bright display end told me what time it was. I then found the “Power Outage” number for PG&E and decided to call them while I could still see what I was doing.While I was waiting on the line listening to a lot of useless information, the recording was trying to convince me that I could get quicker service by going to their website. I wanted to tell it: Have you ever been able to get to the Internet during a power outage? But you can’t really talk to a machine except on a predetermined path. It finally got down to business and confirmed the outage and gave an estimated time for service to resume.

So I sat down to read the Sunday New York Times by candlelight.

The whole experience only lasted one hour and a half but gave me ample time to reflect on our total dependence on technology beyond our control and our utter powerlessness when the unexpected strikes.

Modern Exodus | Fleeing Countries

Fleeing Countries

In September, 500 migrants drowned in the Mediterranean Sea near Malta. Two survivors explained how they had left Egypt with Syrians, Palestinian and Sudanese refugees on board a rickety boat that was overloaded. Some were families, some children alone. They were bound for the Sicilian island of Lampedusa. All had paid the boatman in advance. Midway in the journey, over a dispute regarding transferring to a small boat, there was an intentional ramming of the boat and all but two of the immigrants drowned. It was not an accident and it was not an isolated case. It was cold-blooded murder. Every day, determined Africans flee the misery and dangers of their countries in un-seaworthy boats. Those who manage to make it across join thousands of people already crowding makeshift camps. They are so desperate that they pay fortunes for the dangerous journey. Because of the wars in Syria and Iraq, the situation has reached catastrophic proportions and the European Union finds itself unable to deal with it. It has created border patrols and detention centers thus earning the name “Fortress Europe.” In most countries, the right wing parties have been vociferous in denouncing these “parasites” attracted by Europe’s generous welfare system.

In Israel, the equivalent detention center for African migrants is called Holot. It houses thousands of Sudanese and Eritrean refugees who make a treacherous journey across the Sinai desert in search of a better life. Some make it all the way to Tel Aviv where they cannot find work and turn to crime. They are definitely not welcome. They are even offered money to return home. The problem is that Israel identifies itself as a Jewish State and an influx of 50,000 Africans threatens the country’s Jewish character.

Since 1990 the number of Central American immigrants to the US has tripled. Tens of thousands of children from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras are showing up illegally at the Texas border. Often without parents, they too are being taken advantage of by smugglers or coyotes who collect their money and abandon them. Many die alone in the desert, unidentified and un-buried. They too are leaving countries where they face misery and danger. They too want a better life. President Obama and the Congress are fighting over who is responsible for the situation and how to provide a path for citizenship for so many undocumented immigrants.

There is increasing chaos and instability in the world and a bigger than ever gap between poor and wealthy countries. While many countries squabble over the difference between migrants and refugees, this semantic battle is not helping those who are running away for whatever reason. What are the duties and obligations of the wealthy countries toward the poor ones?
When does egotism give way to generosity? And how much of a strain can they absorb without being overwhelmed? It is a difficult balancing act.

A New Enemy: A Letter From The Front

New Enemy

U.S, Army 37th Military Advisory Division Sept.–20–
Somewhere on the Syrian Border…

Dear Jane,

We arrived here last night. I don’t think I am supposed to tell you where “here” is but I think that is silly. With GPS and other technology the enemy must surely know where we are. No one is invisible anymore.

It is devilishly hot. It feels like 110 degrees in the shade. The new “No boots on the ground” directive is in effect so we have all been issued moccasins, not very good for a victory parade but they are supposed to be effective for sneaking up on the enemy and catching them by surprise. Anyway we have ample supplies in case they wear out. Speaking of the enemy I hope we get some guidance on who and where they are. In the good old days armies had distinctive uniforms and soldiers knew who they were supposed to kill. Here everyone wears the same raggedy clothes. We should have brought a supply of shirts saying “I am a moderate rebel” to distribute. Anyway, I think our job is to support and advise rather than kill. No one asked for my advice yet which is a good thing. As you know we had a crash course in Arabic before we left. I tried conversing with a fellow who looked harmless enough. He kept smiling and nodding. It turns out our instructor spoke with an Egyptian accent which no one here understands.

Before we left we were told of a vast coalition of people ready to fight with us. Maybe I will meet them later. Or maybe they are helping in other ways like rolling bandages or sending food packages.

We were also told that crushing and uprooting the Islamic State was not an easy task and that we were here for the long haul. But what I am wondering is how will we know when we have won? In the good old days and from what you see in the movies armistices were signed, and then there were unconditional surrenders. Treaties followed. Everyone shook hands and everyone went home. The End. But wars are not what they used to be. Anyway I hope I get someone to support and advise soon. Maybe he will even speak English.

Sorry if I sound downbeat. Hope you are well and I will write again as soon as I can.


It Ain’t Necessarily So


It ain ‘t necessarily so
It ain’t necessarily so
The things that you’re liable
To read in the Bible
It ain’t necessarily so

From Porgy and Bess by George and Ira Gershwin

According to a recent Gallup Poll three in four Americans say they believe the Bible is the word of God. Belief in God in European countries is much smaller. In France it is slightly over 23%. Religion is almost non-existent in Denmark and Sweden. I know that statistics can be misleading but these findings echo my own observations. Since my family and I arrived in the United States in the late forties religiosity has gotten much more pervasive. It seems to have spread like volcanic lava. Presidents Roosevelt and Truman did not end every speech with “God bless America”. According to the Huffington Post Richard Nixon was the first president to use that phrase. Ronald Reagan extended it to every phase of American life. Now Presidents also offer prayers to victims of catastrophes like floods and hurricanes and wherever and whenever misfortune strikes. Barack Obama has embraced this habit with a particular fervor.

It was not until 1954 that the phrase “One nation under God” was added to the Pledge of Allegiance. “In God We Trust” only appeared on our currency in 1956.
Our early Presidents had a very different attitude to religion. They were deists. They believed in the existence of a Supreme Being, a creator who does not interfere in the universe. Deism rejects the belief in a supernatural deity who interacts with humankind. The words Christianity, God, or Bible do not show up at all in our Constitution.

Thomas Jefferson said: It does me no injury for my neighbor to say that there are twenty gods or no god.
Benjamin Franklin was thought to be an atheist although some people dispute this. In Poor Richard’s Almanack he wrote: The way to see by faith is to shut the eyes of reason. And here is what Abraham Lincoln had to say: “The Bible is not my book nor Christianity my profession.”
Woodrow Wilson wrote that like every intelligent man he believed in evolution.
So it seems that America has regressed to a more primitive attitude and I think that this should disturb every thinking person.

The Power of Music





A news snippet caught my attention…Somewhere in South Africa, baroque music was being played in a vineyard and was credited with stimulating the production and improving the quality of the wine. I had heard of cows giving more milk and hens laying bigger eggs when they were serenaded, but unlike grapes, they have ears. Also why baroque music and not Strauss waltzes or Gregorian Chants? I was puzzled and decided to do a little googling. It turns out that it is not at all unusual to play music in vineyards for better quality wine. It has to do with vibrations and low frequencies. Loudness does not matter but it seems that plants do not like rock .

“Music has charms to soothe the savage breast, to soften rocks or bend a knotted tree” (William Congreve, 1697). Orpheus, it was said, could charm animals with his singing. The Pied Piper lured children with the magic of his instrument and don’t snake charmers control serpents with their flutes?

In “The Magic Flute” Pamino calls Tamina with his flute and Papageno pacifies wild animals with his glockenspiel. It also summons his bride Papagena to his side.

Do animals make music or feel its effects? Maybe their elaborate courtship rituals are accompanied by some melodic sounds. When we say that birds sing, is that what they really do? When dogs howl together are they performing in a choir? In laboratories it was found that rats did better and were faster after listening to Mozart. Pet owners know that their cats and dogs react to music. It sometimes agitates and sometimes calms them. But they are not really wired to appreciate sounds tailored to human ears. What strikes us as unpleasant or shrill may be music to them.

Researchers have found that music stimulates the brain and some are attempting to ascertain whether music can overcome depression or help people with Alzheimer’s since it can reach areas that words do not penetrate. Some melodies have traveled from so far away and so long ago that when we hear them we sometimes think we recognize them in a sort of ancestral memory.

In Robert Browning’s words: Who hears music feels his solitude peopled at once.