Friday, February 26, 2010

What Are The Odds?

Relying on intuition only, I predict the following:

There’s a 40% chance that the Democrats will get it together and force a health reform package through Congress in 2010.

0% chance that during the next three years Republicans will cooperate with Obama on any important domestic issue. 100% likely their fundamental policy will be to obstruct.

15% chance the Giants will make the playoffs this year.

50% chance “The Hurt Locker” will beat out “Avatar” for best picture.

75% chance “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” will be gone by the end of the year.

1% chance either the Feds or the State of California will be able to balance their budget within the next 10 years.

10% chance that we will have a mutually constructive partnership with Iraq five years from now.

50% chance Woods will play at the British Open in July.

30% chance the US will get past the group stage at the World Cup.

50% chance that before the summer ends India and Pakistan will get together again for more talks.

5% chance the current US strategy in Afghanistan will achieve results an unbiased observer would call successful.

90% chance that this year talking will not work, Iran will not change its nuclear program and additional sanctions will be imposed. And while they’ll be an increased burden on average Iranians, they won’t work either.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Washington's Birthday

I wonder how many Americans under 40 know that today, February 22, used to be a holiday. No school today. No mail deliveries. Banks and financial markets closed. All to celebrate the birthday of our first president.

Then, 39 years ago, Washington’s Birthday was replaced by President’s Day. Never really replaced though, because someone decided that President’s Day has to fall on the third Monday in February. That means it comes between Feb. 15-21.

As kids (long ago when the world was very young) we knew that Lincoln’s birthday is also in February, on the 12th. It was never a formal holiday, which I thought was inappropriate since I would rather have celebrated Lincoln than Washington. Besides, if we celebrated both of these guys we’d have had another day off from school – obviously a good thing, although I guess some parents didn’t think so.

I’m sure that 40 years ago President’s Day proponents made the argument that bagging Washington’s day wasn’t really a slight since we’d celebrate him close to his birthday and have a chance to celebrate Lincoln too. They’d both win, since President’s Day would never fall on Lincoln’s birthday either.

I wonder if there was any discussion about lumping both presidents together with Valentine’s Day and doing a triple play on Feb. 14? Not likely. Nor did anyone think to include my birthday, the 23rd, in the conversation. (For those of you who have or will wish me a happy birthday, thanks.)

Of course, making sure that President’s Day is always on a Monday is practical. And certainly good for retail businesses. So if there are losers they’re long dead and gone, moldering in their graves, not caring whether we celebrate them or not. Or is that a cruel way to put it? Okay, then let’s say they’re looking down on us from heaven, smiling and happy that we remember them sometime around their birthdays.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Misc. Thoughts

Thoughts for this morning – in no particular order:

Negotiating a deal with the Taliban and isolating Al Qaeda is a better long-term solution for Afghanistan than any counterinsurgency strategy, no matter how enlightened.

Meaningful talks between India and Pakistan will have a greater impact on stability in South Asia than military action in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Moving further west – the killing of a senior Hamas guy in Dubai was certainly a Mossad operation. As to all of the controversy about bogus passports, disguises and using innocent people’s identities, I can’t figure out or even come up with a plausible theory about what’s going on.

Will the problems with Greece’s economy have any impact on the trip we have planned later in the year? Probably not.

I enjoyed this week’s Champion’s League games. Man U did a good job in Milan. Arsenal was terrible against Porto. Blaming the referee doesn’t change that. I’m looking forward to Chelsea against Inter next week. I think Chelsea can win but wouldn’t bet against a Mourinho-led team.

Yesterday was a good day for “USA – USA” in Vancouver. Three gold medals ain’t bad. I’m still frustrated and pissed off about NBC’s decision to put the West Coast on tape delay for major events.

I’m as disgusted with Washington – the Congress, the partisanship, the hypocrisy, and Obama’s inability to break the logjam – as people on the left, right and center. I don’t see a glimmer of hope that anything will change for the better in the foreseeable future, no matter who wins in November. I’m with Evan Bayh – it’s all a waste of time.

Spring training begins this week and hope springs eternal for Giants fans, even without much hitting.

MillerFest – a 9-day celebration of my birthday – begins today. Now that’s a good thing.

Have a nice day.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Persian Magic

As you may remember we visited Iran last April, and I wrote positively about our experience. Our timing was fortuitous. The Iranians were welcoming foreign tourists, including Americans, and weren’t engaging in violent demonstrations on the streets. If our trip were scheduled for this year we’d cancel it.

With all that has happened, my warm feelings for the Iranian people and interest and respect for Persian history and culture hasn’t diminished. So when Sandra suggested that we attend a concert at Zellerbach Hall on the Cal Berkeley campus called “Masters of Persian Music,” I was happy to say “Sure, let’s do it.”

The concert was last night. It was magical!

The program featured two acclaimed figures of Persian classical music: Hossein Alizadeh and Kayhan Kalhor. Alizadeh plays the tar (plucked lute.) Kalhor plays the kamancheh (spiked fiddle.) In addition to performing, Alizadeh has composed several film scores, for Gabbeh, A Time for Drunken Horses, and Turtles Can Fly. Kalhor is a three-time Grammy Award nominee.

The first half of the concert, with only these two playing, was seductive, mesmerizing. We were well and truly transported to a different time and place. After the intermission the virtuosos were joined by a singer and four other musicians – tombak (percussion,) santour (dulcimer,) a flute-like wind instrument called a nay, and a bass tar. The vocals were taken from classic Persian poetry.

The hall was full. I’d estimate that a third of the audience was Persian. The evening was about music, not politics. I overheard people talking, and their emphasis was on things cultural, a refreshing change from the news of the day, which is dominated by nuclear enrichment, sanctions, and repression.

Is it possible to live in a world in which this kind of Persian Magic is the norm, not the exception? Possible, yes. Likely anytime soon? Unfortunately, no. In the meantime, Masters of Persian Music can be found on iTunes. I’ve downloaded one album and will go looking for more after I’ve posted this message.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Message #2 - Shit Happens!

This is #2 in a series of messages. The first one was posted on January 4.

When was the last time you had a perfect day? Everything went exactly as you wanted it to go. No problems. No hassles. Nothing went wrong. Everyone behaved like you want them to. Perfect.

You can’t remember? Never happened? That sounds about right. Why? Because in life, Shit Happens! If you want it to be different, find another universe to live in. In this one, that’s the way it is.

So the question is not, “How can you avoid what you don’t like?” The answer to that is, “You can’t.” A more relevant question is, “How do you react to the shit you can’t avoid?” How do you respond when things go wrong? In other words, how do you cope with the stuff that life throws at you?

Countless thousands of people throughout history have had something to say on this subject. It’s kind of like everyone has a favorite cure for hiccups. Hold your breath. Breathe in a bag. Gulp down a glass of water real fast. None of their great cures ever worked for me. But that never stopped anyone from telling me what I should do.

So it is with handling life’s problems. There are some great cures. Brilliant pieces of wisdom. Insights that revealed themselves only after 20 years of meditation in a cave in the Himalayas. Available now, customized especially for you, in easy-to-swallow doses. And no need to suffer or deprive yourself. You can get the answer while drinking your second cup of coffee and reading email.

So, am I going to give you yet another answer to one of life’s great mysteries? Sure. Why wouldn’t I? After all, I’ve spent lo these many decades on the front lines of the battle to figure it out.

And it is a battle. From the time you were an infant you wanted it to be different than it is. How you expressed your frustration or displeasure with what life was throwing at you varied as you grew older, but the basic problem remained the same: you wanted it – whatever it was – to be different.

As a baby you screamed and cried to get what you wanted. Then, when you were a little older you threw tantrums. As a teenager, you sulked. As you became an adult you adopted more sophisticated methods. On the surface how you responded to what was upsetting you may have looked different. But what was really going on was that you were doing adult versions of screaming, crying, throwing tantrums, sulking or whatever other behavior had seemed to work in the past. And even if it didn’t work or change anything, at least it gave you a chance to vent.

Behind it all you had the same motivation you’d always had: you wanted life to be different than it was. You hadn’t figured out or even considered the possibility that what was going on was the natural order of things – shit happens.

Having said that, I need to make a distinction. There are unwanted situations in your life that you can prevent. They are not inevitable. You can predict that if you do ‘a’, ‘b’ will happen. For example, based on past experience you know that if you contradict or correct your partner in front of other people you will piss her off. If your intention is to piss her off, you know how to do it. That is an avoidable situation. Today I’m not talking about what is predictable and avoidable. I’m talking about what is unwanted and unpredictable.

The universe of unwanted and unpredictable shit that can happen is limitless. Often the instances are not major events. A car cuts you off in traffic. Your customer support person on the phone is incompetent. Your network connection is down and you can’t get online. Your newspaper isn’t at the front door in the morning. A person at the grocery store is rude. The plumber makes an appointment to repair your toilet and doesn’t show up.

At other times what happens is big. Someone you love dies unexpectedly. The company you work for goes belly up and you’re out of a job. You learn that your partner is sleeping with your best friend.

In life you can find reasons to be upset ALL the time. Or not. You may not be able to control all the people and circumstances that surround you, but you are in total control of how you react to them.

A disclaimer: When it comes to control, I’m either the last person in the world you should listen to or the first. On exercising control in my life I’m near the gold standard. I’m a control fanatic. I am on the extreme end of wanting everything in my life to work flawlessly and be done “My Way.” The song was written for me. I have done it my way for as long as I can remember and I never want it to change.

OK, you ask, when should I accept the fact that there are some things I can’t control? Yes, it is important to recognize when you’ve reached that point, but take an honest look at yourself. You’ll see that usually you stop short before you’ve tried everything.

Many years ago, during one of the unique twists and turns in my working career, I managed a car racing team. (Don’t ask. That’s a story for another time.) The driver (and boss) was absolutely unreasonable when it came to getting things done. He would bend the earth if that’s what it took.

We had ordered two cars from a company in East Anglia, England. They’d promised to deliver the first one by a certain date and it was overdue. The manufacturer was blaming the transportation people, the truck people were blaming the airlines, the airlines were pleading ignorance. I figured – well, they said it had left the factory, it would get on a plane one of these days soon, and then we’d have it. I took this message to my boss.

“Have you done everything you can do?” he asked.


“Well, did you call the trucking company directly.”

“No, I accepted what the manufacturer said.”

“Did you call the airlines?”

“I talked to someone in London, yes.”

“Did you talk to the head of Customer Relations?”

“Not the head man, no.”

“Did you call the President of the company?”


“Well, how can you say you’ve done everything you can do?”

I got the message. I was hearing from him every hour or two. I was now pursuing this car like it was the Holy Grail. I found out everything. When it arrived in London. When it arrived at the airline shipping facility. What plane it was to fly on. When it would land. Everything.

A few days later we had the thing. And I had a new mission. The second car was due to be shipped in a couple of weeks. I’d organize this trip like the Pope and the President were traveling together and I was in charge. And I did. I knew the itinerary and the details in advance. This one would arrive on time. You can bet on it.

Whoops! Sorry. If you had bet you’d have lost. All my planning went down the tube when the biggest snowstorm in 50 years hit the East Anglia area of England. Nothing moved. No cars, no trucks, no nothing. I was fucked. But this time I didn’t hear much about it. No hourly phone calls. No interrogations. My guy knew I’d done everything possible, so no intervention was needed. My “going beyond what is reasonable” education was complete.

Finally, what about the stuff you can’t control? What about the shit that is unwanted, unpredictable and uncontrollable? Earlier I said the relevant question about what is unavoidable is “How do you react?” What’s important to remember is that you have choices.

You can do today’s version of behavior from the past. That’s a repeat of the crying, sulking, stamping your foot routine. It didn’t change or eliminate the cause of your upset then, and it won’t now.

You can say the situation is hopeless, you’re helpless, and the only answer is to give in, succumb to the shit that has happened. That’s much too passive for my taste.

You can pray. Maybe you are one of the majority of people in the United States who believe prayer can change what you don’t like. I’m not a part of that majority. If it makes you feel better, fine. Pray. But I see it as an abrogation of responsibility. I’d rather see you increase your personal power, not cede it to a “higher” power.

You may say, “Wait. It’s not either/or.” Again, fine. If you say so. For me, though, it is either/or.

You can take it out on the people around you. Or blame them. That’s guaranteed to do a lot of good, right? You’ll alienate those who love you and whatever you want to be different will remain unchanged.

The bad news is that you can’t change the bad news. So you are back to square one, right? Not quite.

When I’m on the receiving end of unwanted, unpredictable bad news, what do I do? I’m not so enlightened that I don’t get mad or sad or experience whatever other normal human emotion is evoked. Trying to be cool or superhuman or above it all isn’t useful. So first of all, don’t try to suppress what you’re feeling. If you’re pissed off, be pissed off.

If you can’t change it, if it’s not going to turn out your way, what then? Accept the way it is. You don’t have to like it. You don’t have to agree with it. You don’t have to think it’s fair. You can wish it had turned out differently. But in the end, if life throws something at you that you don’t want – and there’s nothing you can do about it – and you can’t change it:

Accept the way it is and move on.

Easier said than done, right? Yes. No question about it. Easier said than done. It may take a while for you to move on. That’s OK. So long as at some point you do move on.

Am I telling you to forget what happened? No. It may be you will never forget. Time will dim your memory, but you don’t have to forget in order to move on.

Am I telling you to pretend that life will be the same as before? No. Life will never be the same. But that’s true whether you are faced with bad news or not. Life is a succession of ever-changing moments and events.

Maybe you think that you did something to cause what happened. It’s possible you did. And it’s also possible you didn’t but think you did. Irrespective of what the truth is, am I telling you to deny responsibility? No. Even in a worst case scenario, though, you are not helpless.

If there is something that happened for which you are responsible you can acknowledge your responsibility. To take responsibility is not to condone what you’ve done. It doesn’t give you a “Get Out of Jail” card to use if you repeat your mistake. It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t clean up any mess you’ve created. It is an act that frees you if you’re stuck. If you are frozen in place by guilt or remorse or anger, taking responsibility allows you to move on.

You can’t change the past, but you can transform your relationship with the past. Let’s say a person you love suddenly dies. It is an unwanted, unpredictable event. You had nothing to do with what happened. Yet, you are filled with regret for what you didn’t do or say to your loved one who is now gone. Now, you think, it’s too late. You missed your opportunity.

Not quite. You can forgive yourself. Forgiveness will give you freedom. You can be sorry for past actions you didn’t take, but if you forgive yourself you will be free to cherish and enjoy the memory of your relationship, even though your loved one is no longer here. You will have transformed how you see the past.

How do you forgive yourself? It’s really hard. Listen carefully. Ready?

You forgive yourself by forgiving yourself.

That brings us back to where we began. Life is fired at us point blank.

Shit Happens!

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

36 Years

February 9 is a special day for Sandra and me. It was the date on which we met in 1974.

While we have a special celebration on this day, it’s only one of 365 days during the year that we celebrate our relationship. Which may be one of the reasons we’ve gotten along so well for such a long time. We don’t take each other or our being together for granted. We acknowledge it every day with a word, a gesture, a toast, an expression of appreciation for the other, something spontaneous from the heart.

A friend recently wrote: “Sounds like you and Sandra don’t need reasons to celebrate. If you consider a new career add ‘The Art of Staying in Love’ course as an option. You definitely have the right idea.”

I’ve been asked for the secret of our success. I’m sure there are several profound and insightful answers to the question, but here are a few simple, easy-to-do suggestions:

1. Say “Please.”

2. Say “Thank you.”

3. Listen to what your partner is saying. This is especially true for men. Listen to what she’s saying, guys. Even if you’re not really interested.

4. Don’t go to sleep angry.

5. Say “I’m sorry.”

6. Be willing to compromise.

7. Don’t yell.

8. When you want to get even, resist the temptation to do what you know will inflame the situation.

9. Don’t hide your appreciation. It only takes, “Have I told you how terrific you are?”

10. Do unto others . . . etc.

Happy Anniversary to Us!

Monday, February 08, 2010

Super Bowl

Overall, I’d give the Super Bowl high marks this year.

The game itself was a good one. Both teams played well. The result was in doubt until near the end. The underdog, America’s favorite this year, won. So most viewers could go on with their lives in a ‘feel good’ state.

The halftime show was well done. I don’t have any particular affinity for The Who, but I enjoyed their performance, and the accompanying laser show was effective. Overdone? They always are, but this was less offensive than many in years gone by.

Contrary to my usual pattern, I watched quite a few commercials. Justification? Curiosity. On the negative side:

I found those geared to the younger demographic (like Doritos) either insipid or beyond my ability to understand. The heavy focus on cars and beer bored me. Danica Patrick should stick to racing. I prefer that unattractive people keep their pants on. The Denny’s chickens should be served for dinner. I didn’t watch movie and TV promos. The Tebow pro-life ad that got a lot of pre-game attention was too vague to be offensive.

On the plus side, I thought Coke was very creative. The career-oriented websites did well, as did some of the other online business ads. I liked the Snickers commercials.

TV coverage of the game was good visually. For me, Nantz and Simms are inferior to other top announcing teams, and they did nothing last night to disabuse me of my prejudice. I didn’t listen to what the other pundits had to say before the game, at halftime or when it was finished. I’m sure I missed some brilliant insights.

Thanks to a really good game I’d give America’s favorite extravaganza a B+.

Friday, February 05, 2010

Great Cathedrals

I’ve been reading and looking at “Great Cathedrals,” a book that’s been in our library unopened for years. It’s a big one: 11” x 13”; nearly 2” thick; weighs 8 pounds. It’s phenomenal!

With text and 257 color plates, “Great Cathedrals” features 36 cathedrals in France, Italy, England, Germany and Spain. Even though I have visited 10 I’m finding that I don’t know very much about them and virtually nothing about the 26 that are new to me. So it is like seeing them all for the first time.

While I have no use for religion, I’ve always been fascinated by structures used for worship. All of them – cathedrals, synagogues, mosques, temples, shrines, chorten, stupas, pagodas, and more. I’ll go out of my way to see both the buildings and the art they have inspired.

I recall searching for (and finding) an old synagogue in the narrow lanes of Yangon when we visited Myanmar a few years ago. I recall making sure I paid my respects to Michelangelo’s Pieta in St. Peter’s every time I passed through Rome. I recall being welcomed into extraordinary mosques in Egypt, Turkey, Syria, and Iran. I recall the smoke and bells and chanting in the temples of India and Sri Lanka and Bhutan. Memorable experiences, all of them.

So it is no surprise that “Great Cathedrals” would mesmerize me. The text provides the history and explains the architecture. The photographs draw me in. I’m left wanting to see more. To revisit old friends and make new ones. I think I will.

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

How We Rate

S&P ratings for countries and U.S. states were listed in today’s NY Times. Here’s what I noticed:

California was given an A-. Rank: 50th out of 50 states.

California rates at the same level as:




California rates slightly lower than:


Czech Republic


South Korea

California rates slightly higher than:


South Africa



States closest to California at the bottom of the list are:






Countries with the lowest ratings:







Dominican Republic

Monday, February 01, 2010

Magnolia Time

I know we’ve turned the corner on winter (my least favorite season) when we make our first visit of the year to the Botanical Gardens in Golden Gate Park. For 2010 it was today.

We never know exactly when the magnolias will bloom. In the past we’ve sometimes waited too long, and they were past their peak before we saw them. Other times, the reverse. Sandra has her calendar marked for the third week of January. That’s early enough to assure we won’t miss the show.

So this was a little late for a first visit, but the weather has been so wet and nasty for so long I wasn’t incented to go before today. Turns out this was the perfect day.

While magnolias are our main draw, they are not the only attraction. Camellias and rhododendrons share the stage. They all begin flowering about the same time. And each is magnificent in its own way.

When we arrived at the gardens we thought we’d see very little. A lovely magnolia tree near the entrance that stands like a welcoming host is usually in full bloom by now. But its pink flowers didn’t yet fill the entire tree.

Inside we could see that a magnolia grove on the far side of the lake showed patches of pink, but not a lot. Didn’t matter. We’d keep going and see for ourselves. The more we walked the more pleased we were that we’d come. It was true that some of the trees had more buds than flowers and some of the blooms showed signs of damage from the rain. But as we kept going, around every corner and across every patch of green we’d see pink magnolias.

The white magnolias will come later, as they always do. And the pink ones are not yet at their peak. But that too didn’t matter. They are gorgeous.

Several of the rhododendrums were at their peak. Glorious. A deep red, most of them. Stunning. The camellias were just beginning. Most were buds, so they’ll be later bloomers, probably near the end of February.

Spring doesn’t officially begin for about seven weeks. But I’m declaring it’s already here. And to prove me right I noticed that it stayed light till nearly six this evening.

We’ll return to the Botanical Gardens in a week or ten days to check out the next phase of Magnolia Time.