Sunday, October 12, 2008

When I was young

When I was young, I sat outside my parents’ house at 3AM looking at the stars through binoculars. Once a policeman drove by and asked me what I was doing. So I showed him the Pleiades.

When I was young I calculated how old I would be in the year 2000. The number seemed preposterously high. As if I had accidentally hit the “factorial” button on my first hand-held calculator instead of the “sum” button. I was sure there was an error somewhere. Some force would intervene either to prevent the year 2000 from coming or to prevent me from reaching it.

When I was young I worked on Wall Street. On October 19, 1987, I was on jury duty at Foley Square. I called my girlfriend, a graphic artist, during a break in the jury selection process. I thought she would wish me a happy birthday, my last before turning 30, but instead she asked me what was happening on Wall Street?! How was I to know? I was on jury duty at Foley Square. When I did find out, I was sorry I had missed the excitement, but otherwise I didn’t really care, because I didn’t have any money invested in the stock market.

When I was young, I rose at 6AM to do three laps of Central Park on my bike before work. I spent at least one day every weekend on a group ride outside the city. My vacations often consisted of bike tours. France, the California coast and Vermont were some of the destinations. When I coasted down a big hill, I thought to myself, “It’s great to be alive.” Buying a new derailleur and freewheel cluster was a big event. I had to save up for it....and for the bike tours.

When I was young I was an avid baseball fan. My obsession with the sport peaked in 1969, then again in 1986. In that year, I saw the seventh game of the World Series after spending what seemed like a small fortune for one ticket. In the days prior to the game I couldn’t concentrate on anything else. Then the big day came. It was the fifth inning, and my team was losing. It wasn’t possible that I had come through all this to see them lose in the seventh game of the World Series.

When I was young in New York taxis would have been a strain on my budget. So if I had to go somewhere with no convenient subway connection, I walked. I covered the distance from my sister’s apartment on 53rd between 1st and 2nd to my apartment on 55th between 8th and 9th innumerable times on foot. I virtually had the buildings memorized, and I enjoyed being out in the fresh, albeit urban, air, regardless of season.

When I was young I cooked. It seemed everyone else in New York was going out to the latest, most sublime eatery, and only I couldn’t afford them. I learned a lot about the culinary arts during those years, much more than I would have from going to those trendy restaurants.

In another week I’ll turn 50. Now I worry about the stock market.


Sunday, October 05, 2008

Toughen up the questions

It was recently reported that one of the vice-presidential candidates could not name a single Supreme Court decision she disagreed with other than Roe v. Wade. This got me to thinking.

So far debate moderators Gwen Ifill and Jim Lehrer have asked questions such as, “Who do you think was at fault for the sub-prime lending meltdown?” or “What promises have you and your campaigns made to the American people that you're not going to be able to keep?” These questions are too broad and easily avoidable.

What’s the use in asking these vague, sweeping questions about what the candidates would do once elected? What difference does it make? They’re going to break their promises anyway. So come on Gwen, come on Jim. You can ask tougher questions than that. My tenth grade history teacher could and did, and the only wounds my classmates and I sustained were temporary ones to our pride.

So rather than ask the candidates what they’ll do, why don’t we ask them what they know, on a wide variety of topics. Let’s focus on their knowledge of the past before we ask them to predict the future. After all, the past is all we have: the future is unknown, and the present is only a fleeting instant. Your reading of the first part of this post is already in the past.

Here is my proposed list of ten questions for the next presidential candidates debate (no wireless devices and no lifelines, please):

1) Name the nine Supreme Court justices and provide a brief biography of each.
2) An in-depth knowledge of our neighbors being necessary for the maintenance of a free state, who are your three favorite Russian authors/playwrights and how has their work informed the cultural heritage and collective unconscious of the Russian people?
3) How and when did Oklahoma become a state?
4) Compare and contrast the hotly contested US presidential elections of 1876 and 2000, including an explanation of how they were resolved and your conclusions, if any, about how our system for electing the president could be amended.
5) Who is the prime minister of Hungary?
6) Cite five of the [insert astronomical number] times your opponent has voted in favor of increasing taxes, including the names of the bills, their main provisions, and the approximate dates of the votes.
7) In studying the current financial crisis, what lessons can be drawn from the panics of 1837, 1873 and 1907 and the Smoot-Hawley Act of 1930? Choose any two, giving specific examples from each period.
8) What are the main provisions of the 14th Amendment to the US Constitution and how do they affect the lives of Americans today?
9) Summarize the primary scientific accomplishments and contributions of a) Niels Bohr, b) Linus Pauling, c) Marie Curie, d) Christiaan Barnard. (Choose any two.)
10) Which three 20th century economists do you most admire and why? In your answer, include an explanation of their economic theories and how you would use them if elected.

Now I suppose none of the candidates would excel on 100% of these questions, but wouldn’t it be a good way to separate the wheat from the chaff? Of course, we’d need a new slate of questions for each debate, lest the candidates study in the interim, but that shouldn’t be too difficult, either. Subjects abound!

Karl Rove, one of the great sages of our time, said in a recent Newsweek article that Ronald Reagan was a better leader than Woodrow Wilson, even though Wilson could have "given you 100 Supreme Court decisions he disagreed with whether you wanted to listen or not." Well, clearly Karl would not have wanted to listen, and the disdain for the lessons of history that he and his cronies have shown over the past eight years is what got us into the present mess. Oh, and personally, I think that Ronald Reagan was no better leader than Gary Cooper or John Wayne. He just had a larger stage on which to act.

Now I hear some people ask, “But what one person can answer all those questions? I bet only 1% of the population could.” This is exactly my point. I want the president of my country to be from that 1%. I don't want him or her to be a "regular guy" just like me. I don’t want an “elitist”, but I want someone from the country’s elite. Someone who's smarter than I am, who's better educated, more experienced, more dynamic, more courageous, more diplomatic, more articulate, more inspiring, more visionary, more compassionate, more able to multi-task, to analyze and to make the right decisions. It's a tall order, one I don't think an ordinary person can fill. But being president of the United States isn’t an ordinary job.

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