Archive for October, 2015

POLAR BEARS AND PATIENCE

Posted Oct 30 2015 by in OUR WORLD with 1 Comment

Canada’s Hudson Bay freezes in late November. Before then, polar bears gather near sub-Arctic Churchill, Manitoba—population 800. Carolyn and I flew there last week to hunt polar bears with binoculars and our iPhones. Wow!

Polar bears don’t hibernate during winter. Over four months they stuff themselves on seals, consuming most of their annual calories. On the ice, polar bears exhibit incredible patience. A bear may wait motionless for two days at a seal’s air hole. Rippling water or a seal’s scent alerts even a sleeping bear. Sharp claws reach down. Powerful shoulders yank the seal out of the ice.

In spring, the ice breaks up. Currents circle floes east and south. Bears swim to shore and embark on an extended land journey back to Churchill. In October and November, bear watchers like us also descend on the town. Literally. There are daily flights and an occasional train but no road in.

Our expedition took us onto the tundra—flat and rocky, a few low ridges, lichen and other minimal vegetation, sparse small trees, lakes and ponds, a dusting of fresh snow. Our guide drove an arctic crawler the size of a large motor home with huge tires featuring gigantic treads. (Carolyn got a brief turn.) The crawler offered a heating stove, bathroom, school bus-type seats and large windows.

Sunday morning we parked near the edge of the bay. Whitecaps flashed in the sun. We saw a Red Fox. It proved a good sign. Moments later, we spotted a bear half-a-mile away. (If a rock moves, it’s a bear.) It approached over an icy inlet and stopped within 50 feet of us. Two more—probably siblings—came by. The first bear scampered off. The siblings came up to our crawler and checked us out. Later, a fourth bear approached within several hundred yards but shambled on towards town.

On Monday we parked on the other side of the inlet. We waited quite a while until a bear appeared. It kept its distance. After lunch we spotted another pair of siblings. We drove around the inlet and found them. They settled down 50 yards off and napped, one sprawled on the other. It was twenty degrees. A stiff wind blew their coarse white fur. No one left the crawler. It wasn’t just the cold. Polar bears are predators.

Bears often come into town. Federal rangers armed with rifles and “bear bangers”—loud blanks—plus lethal rounds protect Churchill until 10 pm. Guests out and about after that are advised to take a taxi. Container traps baited with seal also wait. A trespassing bear triggers the closing of a door. Rangers tranquilize the bear, weigh and tag it. Then they put the bear into “jail”—a building with two-dozen “cells.” Bears get only water and ice. Human contact is withheld. A month later, a helicopter releases them 50 miles away. About 20,000 polar bears have passed through the jail since the 1980s.

It was a gift to see these beautiful creatures in their natural habitat. Will future generations enjoy that experience? Global warming is decreasing the area and duration of the ice. If we exhibit patience and skip a few short-term pleasures to invest in a healthier planet, the answer might be yes.

The blog will take off on November 6 and return on November 13.

Read the first two chapters of FLIGHT OF THE SPUMONIS here at www.davidperlstein.com. You can get a signed copy from me or order a soft cover or e-book at Amazon.com.

To respond, click on “comments” above then go to the bottom of the article.

IF IT BLEEDS IT LEADS

There’s a saying about local TV news: If it bleeds it leads. Car crashes, fires, train derailments, toppled building cranes and, of course, shootings all sell. Most national media aren’t all that different. Maybe that’s why we haven’t heard much lately about Syrian refugees.

Weeks ago, refugees and migrants dominated the media. Drowned bodies—particularly that of a young boy—appeared on TV daily. So did images of squalid camps, blocked border crossings and more fortunate people cramming trains to Germany. But that was then. This is now.

We’ve had another mass killing—this one in Southern Oregon. Floods ravaged South Carolina. Mudslides hit Southern California. And the presidential campaign continues. Donald Trump boasts. Ben Carson dissembles. Republicans point fingers at Hillary Clinton’s server. Still, Tuesday’s Democratic debate focused on issues and pulled outstanding ratings. Israel might again dominate the headlines, but Palestinians haven’t stabbed, shot and run over enough Jews yet to draw sufficient blood and thus major media attention.

Getting back to refugees, you’ll find updated news and commentary on the Internet, but you have to look. Yesterday, Reuters (Yahoo News) reported on talks between the European Union and Turkey to stem the refugee flow to Europe. The New York Times online posted a similar article although you had to scroll. Moreover, the printed San Francisco Chronicle ran a small page-four article (Associated Press) on refugee kids in Berlin schools.

PBS and NPR provide updates and context on key issues, but their well-educated markets are relatively small. Attaining numbers demands violence and tragedy. Cable news eagerly devotes coverage to such matters, repeating clips and comments over and again given much airtime to fill and often scant information. The networks have little time for background and context. For example, the CBS Evening News runs eight-and-a-half minutes of commercials in a 28-minute broadcast, which always concludes with a heartwarming story.

Of course, there’s print media. But most Americans don’t pick up a New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Economist, Weekly Standard, Atlantic or Foreign Affairs. Yes, some read these online. But many don’t read newspapers and magazines at all other than those at supermarket checkout stands.

I mentioned network TV news. Competition from cable news remains intense, so the networks experiment with quasi-sensationalism. Recently, CBS weeknight and 60 Minutes anchor Scott Pelley appeared out of control as he challenged Russian President Vladimir Putin. Putin kept cool. Pelley came off as the bully. Charlie Rose, known for his calm, respectful demeanor, seemed almost to leap from his chair when he interviewed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. I’m not a fan of Bibi, although this has nothing to do with my support for Israel’s security. Still, Bibi remained tranquil and thoughtful—and looked very good. Not so, Charlie. I suspect that new instructions have come down from CBS HQ: be serious journalists again, not advocates or provocateurs.

The media plays a crucial role in helping Americans make decisions. It doesn’t play it well when it dwells on the latest violent act, often marked by sound bites, inflammatory comments and inane commentary. As the classic TV show The X Files put it: The truth is out there. If Americans look for it, they’ll find it. That is, if they want to.

The blog will take off on October 23 and return on October 30.

Read the first two chapters of FLIGHT OF THE SPUMONIS here at www.davidperlstein.com. You can get a signed copy from me or order a soft cover or e-book at Amazon.com.

To respond, click on “comments” above then go to the bottom of the article.

THE CHALLENGE OF CHOICE

In 1990, I met new friends Yury and Svetlana who’d just come to the U.S. from the Soviet Union. I took them to the Toy Boat on Clement Street for ice cream. The choices of flavors staggered them. Over time, they learned to shop around. Still, retail choices aren’t always simple. Moral choices can be a nightmare.

B’reishit, the first portion of the Book of Genesis, offers two timeless stories concerning choice. In the first, God instructs Adam not to eat of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Bad. But the wily serpent convinces Eve to take a bite. She does and passes the fruit on to her husband who also indulges. Bad choices. Goodbye, Eden.

Next comes the story of Cain and Abel, the children of Adam and Eve. When God accepts Abel’s offering but not Cain’s, Cain becomes crestfallen. God offers Cain encouragement: “Sin couches at the door; / Its urge is toward you, / Yet you can be its master.” Evil tempts us constantly, but we are not condemned to making bad choices. Regrettably, God’s advice falls on deaf ears. Apparently consumed by jealousy, Cain kills Abel. In punishment he must wander the earth.

Who among us is not without regrets? It is in our nature as human beings to make bad choices as well as good ones. According to the Sages of the Talmud, Adam and Eve bequeathed to humanity the yetzer tov (the good inclination) and the yetzer hara (the bad inclination). These often place us at war with ourselves. Nearly two thousand years later, Freud wrote about the conflict of the id, ego and superego. Both religious and civil law attempt to keep the yetzer hara in check.

John Steinbeck made the Cain and Abel story the core of his novel East of Eden (1952). The brothers Adam and Charles Trask share a love-hate relationship. Adam’s wife, Cathy Ames, represents pure evil. The serpent perhaps? Cathy’s sons Aron and Caleb—supposedly Adam’s, more likely Charles’—also possess conflicting personalities. Caleb loves Aron, but Aron is the beloved child. Ultimately, Caleb gets Aron to enlist in the Army during World War One. Aron is killed in Europe.

Steinbeck pursues the theme of choice throughout this long novel. At its conclusion, he repeats an earlier reference to the Cain and Abel story that uses the Hebrew word timshel, translated as “thou mayest.” Caleb is told that he can dominate or master his sinful urges. He does not have to wander the world; he can build a life.

The Torah offers structure for making moral choices. The Talmud delves deeper. Still, sound choices never come easy. Modern-day thinkers often present challenging responses to making geopolitical choices in a complex world. Henry Kissinger, Secretary of State under Richard Nixon, wrote in Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy (1957) that some situations force us “to run risks in a situation which permits only a choice among evils.” We must not lose our principles, Kissinger states, but we cannot uphold them if we perish.

Today, Islamist violence in the Middle East and the plight of refugees along with poverty and gun violence at home confront us with difficult choices. I referenced Genesis, which begins the Bible. I’ll close with Ecclesiastes: “There is nothing new under the sun.”

Read the first two chapters of FLIGHT OF THE SPUMONIS here at www.davidperlstein.com. You can get a signed copy from me or order a soft cover or e-book at Amazon.com.

To respond, click on “comments” above then go to the bottom of the article.

ISLE OF TYRANTS

Posted Oct 2 2015 by in OUR WORLD with 2 Comments

Official photographs reveal picture-postcard images: blue skies, azure waters, white beaches, green hills dotted with expansive estates. A golf course, naturally. A red-tile-roofed village hugs the sea. Yachts bob in the harbor. A pristine airstrip barely intrudes. Not that residents ever leave. This is the Isle of Tyrants.

The island’s core residents live in enviable luxury. Every spacious villa includes a swimming pool, tennis court, putting green and indoor bowling alley along with leading-edge satellite TV. Security personnel discretely patrol manicured grounds. All are vetted by the Global Commission on Retired World Leaders (GCRWL). So are the cooks, maids, chauffeurs and other residence staff—as well as the townspeople who work in the gourmet supermarket, connoisseur wine store, Michelin-starred restaurant, health club and elegant shops. Residents shop a lot.

Vladimir Putin calls the Isle of Tyrants home. So does Bashar al-Assad. Their compatriots are former presidents, kings, rogue generals, drug lords and an ayatollah. Even a former caliph. Some live with family members. Others host thoroughly screened guests—young women of striking beauty and worldliness. A few young gentlemen as well. Nothing is too good for the island’s residents. They, after all, have been good to the world.

Of course, no one celebrates the crimes for which they are responsible—murder, kidnapping, torture and looting national treasuries among them. Rather, they are recognized for voluntarily exiting their countries. Putin speaks frankly. “Before the Isle of Tyrants, I could never consider leaving the Kremlin. I was virtually president of Russia for life… not by choice but by necessity.”

Each resident faced the same quandary. With so much blood on his hands and so much purloined wealth—the average portfolio reaches well into the billions—ordinary retirement seemed impossible. A tyrant’s leaving office and staying in his home country risked prosecution by the new government followed inevitably by life in a cell or, more likely, a gruesome death. Fleeing to someplace like Switzerland or Luxembourg posed the specter of a one-way journey to the International Criminal Court or a revenge-seeker’s bullet.

The world community developed a win-win solution. Tyrants could respond to a time-sensitive invitation and retire “standing up.” Requirements were relatively modest. Prospective residents would return fifty percent of their assets to their home nations and shelter the remainder until their deaths. In the unlikely event of murder, those assets would go to the GCRWL; no nation could profit from a capital crime. Residents then would pay a $100 million initiation fee (nonrefundable; villa included) and a $1 million monthly maintenance fee indexed to inflation. (The formula is complex.)

Residents may leave the island only in the unlikely event that the village’s state-of-the-art clinic and world-class visiting specialists cannot solve a medical problem. Yachts may sail anywhere within three miles of the island’s coastline. Armed vessels and aircraft escort them.

A number of tyrants have taken advantage of the island’s hospitality. In turn, war and terrorism have subsided measurably. At first the price for peace seems steep. Wealthy nations still underwrite shortfalls for expenses, including an anti-missile missile system, helicopter gunships and naval patrols above and below the sea. Yet net national-defense expenditures across the globe have decreased. The Isle of Tyrants appears to be the biggest bargain the world has ever known.

A second island is under construction.

Read the first two chapters of FLIGHT OF THE SPUMONIS here at www.davidperlstein.com. You can get a signed copy from me or order a soft cover or e-book at Amazon.com.

To respond, click on “comments” above then go to the bottom of the article.