Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Soldiers will be Soldiers

Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, recently said the situation there is serious and growing worse and the United States risks failure unless we send in more troops.

"Although considerable effort and sacrifice have resulted in some progress, many indicators suggest the overall effort is deteriorating. We run the risk of strategic defeat by pursuing tactical wins that cause civilian casualties or unnecessary collateral damage. The insurgents cannot defeat us militarily; but we can defeat ourselves," he wrote.

His statement precisely illustrates why a soldier should not be making foreign policy decisions. It’s all about the military.

From what I’ve read, McChrystal is an excellent soldier. He wants to win the war. That’s his mission, and that’s the problem.

From their first day of basic training, soldiers are trained to win wars. And our soldiers are certainly among the best in the world. If you want to win a war, you want the best.

But is winning a war in Afghanistan really in our best interests?

I don’t remember that we went into Afghanistan to win a war. We went into Afghanistan to capture al-Qaeda terrorists. Now we’ve stumbled into the same quagmire of tribal warlords and religious factions that sucked the life out of the Soviet military in the 1980s.

The solution in Afghanistan is not military. We must not let a military leader decide our course of action. That decision belongs in the hands of civilian foreign policy experts -- not warriors.

Monday, September 28, 2009

La Grange Rond

Photographing barns has been my passion for years. At last count I had close to 10,000 photographs of barns throughout the northeastern United States, plus some in Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky, Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, California, Arizona and the Province of Quebec

Quebec has hundreds of lovely little villages, each with a well-maintained church and many with colorfully painted barns. For my first photographic expedition across the border, I planned to photograph round and multi-sided barns. I studied old books, magazines and tourist guides. I found eight near the border and made notes of their location.


My wife and I set off from our summer camp in northern Vermont early one summer morning. An hour later, we crossed the border at Derby Line and stopped at the visitor center for a map. A pleasant guide apologized that she had run out of provincial maps, but she was kind enough to give us a photocopy.

Using my notes, I located the towns that had round barns on the map and plotted a route that would take us to all eight.


The first five took about six hours, including a picnic lunch overlooking beautiful Lake Massawippi. The farmers were gracious about letting me tramp around their barnyards snapping photos from various angles. I speak very little French; but most of the people in southern Quebec are bilingual and very friendly, so communication was not a problem.

The sixth barn took nearly two hours to find, but it was well worth the trip. It was part of a beautiful hilltop farm with a spectacular view. I got some great shots, but it was almost five o’clock in the afternoon by the time I was done.

West Brome

Back in the car, I looked at the map and then at my wife. “The next one is in St. Jacques la Majeur de Wolfston,” I announced in my best French accent. “It doesn’t look that far. Should we try one more before supper?”

“If you think we can make it.”

“It can’t be more than an hour and a half. Maybe two hours at the most.” I pointed to the location on the map. “It’s right here. And there’s plenty of daylight left.”

Two and a half hours later, I began to realize just how much the photocopied map had been reduced. Chris studied it closely.

“This scale of miles is pretty tiny. I think it might be farther than you think,” she said with an unmistakable hint of sarcasm.

We followed a winding secondary road. The scenery was gorgeous—miles and miles of forested wilderness, small mountains and spectacular views.

Ayers Cliff

When we finally reached St. Jacques, it was after eight o’clock and the sun was close to dropping behind the mountains. I had no idea where the barn was. There was nothing in the town but a tiny church and three houses. One of them had a small store in the front room.

I pulled up in front of the store and went inside. The two teenage girls behind the counter smiled.

“Bonjour. Could you tell me where I could find the round barn in town?”

The two girls stared at me blankly. After a long silence, I realized they couldn’t understand me.

“Parlez-vous anglais?”

They giggled and shook their heads no. Another long silence.

I couldn’t think of the word for barn. I remembered farm was ferme and round was rond.

“Rond ferme?,” I asked.

The girls looked puzzled.

"Rond ferme,” I repeated, this time slower and louder and accompanied by drawing circles in the air with my hands.

They looked at each other. It was obvious they had no idea what I was talking about. They weren’t deaf. They just didn’t understand.

I had no more than twenty or twenty-five minutes before the sun went down, and I had come too far to go home empty handed. So, I ran out to the car to get a tourist booklet with a picture of a round barn. I took it inside and showed it to the girls.

They took the booklet and walked into the back part of the house. I could hear people talking in French. There was much laughter.

The girls reappeared. The one carrying the booklet walked out onto the porch beckoning me to follow. Once outside, she pointed across the valley.

“Over there,” she said, mimicking my slow and loud delivery.

There on a hillside about a half-mile away was the barn.

She pointed to a dirt road across from the church and handed me the booklet.

“Bonjour. Merci.” I said awkwardly.

Within a few minutes, I was pulling into the driveway of the neat little farm. Luck was with me. Situated on a western slope, the barn was still in bright sunlight. It was not round but six-sided.

St. Jacques le Majeur

I knocked on the door, camera in hand. A woman appeared behind the screen door.

“Bonjour. Would you mind if I photographed your barn?”

The woman stared at me with the same blank expression. Another long silence.

I was running out of time. I pointed to my camera and then to the barn.


She nodded her head yes.

I walked out by the barn, set up my tripod and snapped a picture. I looked back at the house to find the woman and a child standing on the lawn watching me. I worked my way around the barn, taking pictures from different angles. Each time I glanced back at the house, there were more people. My wife was doing her best to be invisible as she sat in the car reading.

A pickup truck pulled into the driveway. A man and woman got out and joined the group. By the time I was halfway around the barn, a group of several adults and children were watching and chattering in French.

I finished the roll of film and walked back to the car. My audience was gone, but the woman was standing in the door watching me.

“Merci,” I said with a smile as I put my camera on the back seat and climbed into the car.

An hour and a half later, we were driving down the main drag in Sherbrooke, tired and hungry and looking for some place to eat. I wonder how many families in St. Jacques le Majeur were talking about the odd American photographer.

Understanding the Financial Crisis

If you want to understand just how the current financial crisis happened, listen to this broadcast of This American Life. Planet Money's Alex Blumberg and Adam Davidson explain it in a way that is simple, entertaining and infuriating. These two guys are very good.

You owe it to yourself to listen to this one-hour program.


Sunday, September 20, 2009

Ruddy Duck Designs

In the mid 1980's, Pat Harrington tried her hand at painting a wooden bowl. She has never stopped.

After retiring from teaching in 1997, Pat moved to Vermont to live and work. A self-taught artist, she combines painting with her love of wood and nature. Each of her hand-painted, decorative, wooden bowls is a one-of-a-kind creation. They come in a variety of designs and in sizes from 8 to 14 inches in diameter.

Pat purchases unfinished bowls in several different hardwoods from a bowl mill. She uses acrylic paint, stains and fine-tipped pens to decorate them and then finishes them with a water-based polyurethane finish. The grain of the wood including natural imperfections like holes and knots are frequently incorporated into her designs.

Pat’s bowls are intended for decorative use only, and they come with a stand for easy display. She refers to them as concave canvases.

Pat lives and paints in Rochester, Vermont. She displays her work at shows around Vermont throughout the year. You can see her bowls at the Vermont Handcrafters Fine Craft & Art Show in Burlington on November 19-22. The show is well worth the trip.

You can also see Pat’s work on her website at www.ruddyduckdesigns.com. Call her at 802-767-4589 or contact her by e-mail at pchrdd@gmail.com to purchase one of her beautiful bowls. You won’t be disappointed.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

The Passive Political Voice

Most writers avoid the passive voice. It makes our work sound weak and wishy-washy.

So it’s hard to understand why political speechwriters insist on using the passive voice for their clients’ speeches. It’s as if they want their clients to sound like impotent wimps. Or maybe their real goal is to relieve their clients of any responsibility for their actions.

We all know who made the reckless decision to invade Iraq, but all we have ever heard from George Bush is that decisions were made.

The Department of Homeland Security made catastrophic mistakes in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, but all we ever heard was that mistakes were made.

The CIA and the military committed heinous war crimes in Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, but all we ever hear is that crimes were committed.

Our paid para-military goons in Iraq raped and shot civilians, stole supplies and sold them to anyone who had the money, but all we hear is that illegal activities took place.

Investment bankers ripped off the citizens of the United States for billions of dollars, but all we ever hear is that fraud was committed.

It’s time we insist on the active voice from our government.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The Mugging of the Common Good

I was working on an article about how the financial, insurance and healthcare industries are manipulating our democracy for their own gain, when I came across this article by Robert Borosage. I can't say it any better.
Please take a minute and read it.