Notes from the Perimeter

Thursday, May 23, 2013

30 Ways to Enjoy Summer in the City

Ah, summer!  Time to shed those layers, open the windows and head outside.  The season can invoke fantasies of pounding surf and golden sunsets, or tumbling creeks and soft nights garlanded with fireflies, but summer in the city can offer its own unique outdoor attractions.  Here are 30 suggestions for getting out and about in urban environments -- use them to spur your own imagination.
    1.    Explore opportunities to dine at different sidewalk cafes.
    2.    Contact a local animal shelter and offer to walk a dog.
    3.    Identify every small park in your neighborhood and have a picnic in each one.
    4.    Join a softball league.
    5.    Locate every community garden in your neighborhood and check out what's growing.
    6.    Pledge to rediscover your own city -- by walking.  Some cities are eminently walkable, others not so much, but every city has its own unique neighborhoods that are best explored on foot.
    7.    Find a roof garden, deck, porch or fire escape where you can sunbathe (with sunscreen, of course).
    8.    Volunteer some time with a children's outdoor summer program.
    9.    Make a list of farmers' markets in your city and patronize each one.
    10.    Learn about the independent ice cream vendors in your town and sample their wares…. or make your own.
    11.    Walk in the rain, as long as the rain isn't part of an electrical storm -- if it is, find a safe spot to watch the show.
    12.    Take a sunset cruise.
    13.    Look in your local paper for listings of outdoor concerts, plays, and movies -- most cities have several such events every weekend.
    14.    Many cities are becoming increasingly bicycle-friendly so investigate the bike paths and cycling routes in your town.
    15.    Enjoy a cocktail at a rooftop bar.
    16.    Sports are always exciting activities, but in addition to major league games you might look into your city's minor league teams -- they can be fun and far less expensive.
    17.    Buy a few bulbs and become a guerilla gardener: find a neglected city park and, without disturbing any existing landscaping, carefully plant those harbingers of future blossoms.
    18.    Plan a roving al fresco dinner party with neighbors -- every household prepares a course and the guests walk from front porch to front porch.
    19.    Do something in a boat: cities almost always have a water aspect  (ocean, river or lake) so find the boating opportunity -- sailing, kayaking, canoeing, speedboating, etc. -- that most appeals to you and get out on the water.
    20.    Check if your town has ropes courses and/or zipline facilities and get high.
    21.    Does your city host a monthly art walk?  If not, organize one with local shops and galleries.
    22.    Get up before dawn and find a scenic spot to watch the sun rise.
    23.    Fly a kite.
    24.    If your city has outdoor fountains designed for children's play, find one and soak your inner child.  Or run though a sprinkler.
    25.    Plant a garden: on your deck, in your back yard, on a windowsill.
    26.    Take a walk with a pad and pen: write a poem about the summer ambiance in your city, and create a drawing to go along with it.
    27.    Participate in a walk, run or ride for charity.
    28.    Find out if any museums in your city have outdoor cafes: satisfy your hunger for art and good food.
    29.    Discover your local arboretums and cemeteries -- the latter, especially, can be lovely, and peaceful, venues for contemplative strolls.
    30.    Circle August 11 and 12 on your calendar and make plans to watch the Perseid meteor shower.  If you're lucky, the skies will be clear and dark enough to showcase these celestial fireworks in all their grandeur.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

8 Tips for Obama from the Romney Debate Playbook

As the third presidential debate looms, we thought Obama might still appreciate some help in upping his game.  Here are 8 tips from an imagined Romney Debate Playbook.

1.  Go light on the details.

Speak in generalities; don't give your opponent the opportunity to trip you up on the specifics.  After all, if you spell out the particulars, people might find out what you really think.

2.  Deny past statements.

So what if you said something yesterday that you've decided you don't mean today.  Bygones!  Not too long ago Mitt was pro-choice but now he's against abortion regardless of circumstance.  To describe his change of view, he uses words like "grown" and "evolved."  However, make sure you use the word "evolution" only in a personal context -- whatever you do, don't mention it with regard to that theory of species progression or anything that contradicts Creationism.  In fact, assert that you're creation-ing yourself as you go along!

3.  Don't let facts get in the way of a good line.

Facts -- and fact-checkers -- are pesky little things that can pin a candidate down.  Telling the truth?  That's a strategy for losers!

4.  Claim your opponent is doing what in fact you do.

This psychological ploy has been used to great effect by everyone from cheating spouses to cornered politicians.  It's called "projection."  Running around on your wife? Accuse her of infidelity first!  Stirring up class anger and resentment?  Say that's what Obama is doing.  It's the Republican way!

5.  Be multiple choice.

Don't take a stand on an issue -- you might alienate people who support a different position.  Mitt has turned flip-flopping into an art form; he employed this tactic when pressed on his plan to slash taxes for the wealthy and his true feelings about the "47%."  When he is about to get caught in an outright lie, he beats a hasty, and strategic, retreat into "I can't remember" land. 

6.  Tell people what they want to hear.

Who needs bad news, even when it's true?  Don't bring people down with talk about austerity and sacrifice.  Paint a pretty picture.  And if your opponent brings up any harsh realities, do like Mitt and just say it ain't so!  Then accuse him or her of "not believing in America."  Works every time.

7.  Bully the moderator.

Don't be a slave to the clock!  If you run out of time, well, just keep going -- that's what Mitt does.  His long history as a bully (from cutting a gay classmate's hair to pet abuse to large-scale layoffs) has taught him how to roll over just about anybody.  But be sure to get all righteously indignant if your opponent tries to finish a sentence after the bell has rung. 

8.  Smile. Smile. Smile. Smile. SMILE.

Don't forget to smile. All the time. No matter what the topic of debate. A smile says, Hey, look at me -- I'm the man!  A smirk is okay.  A smirk, especially when your opponent is talking, says, Can you believe that guy?  But a thoughtful, even pensive expression might suggest that you're contemplating the nuance of an issue -- what a concept!  There are no nuances in Mitt's Playbook -- there's only his firm and committed position du jour.  Blind the people with a dazzling smile and they might forget to look for what you're hiding.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

4 Whimsical Speculations, & 1 Serious Question, About What Romney's Tax Returns are Hiding...

Despite continued pressure, and the specter of an issue that just won't go away, Mitt Romney still refuses to release most of his tax returns from the last decade, a decade in which he served as CEO of Bain Capital, parked money in off-shore accounts, and found a way to pay, as his 2011 return indicates, far less tax than your average school teacher. 

It's hard to imagine that his refusal to come clean is simply arrogance -- it's hard to imagine that he's not hiding something, something big, something for which he's willing to pay the price of keeping the questions about his finances alive and unanswered.  What could it be?  Here are four whimsical speculations and a deadly serious question.

1.  Marriage exemptions. 
Mitt's returns indicate that in addition to his eldest wife Ann, he supports several more sister-wives, thus upholding a venerable Mormon tradition.  Since Mitt has claimed that he pays only the minimum amount of tax owed, and not a penny more, he didn't hesitate to make full use of these deductions in order to reduce his rate to a desirable 14.5%.

2.  Marriage exemptions version 2. 
Mitt's returns indicate that in addition to his eldest wife Ann, he supports several more wives, only these are brother-wives, thus begging the question: are his diatribes against gay marriage a case of "he doth protest too much"?

3.  Business expenses.
While Mitt isn't anxious to reveal that among his many business ventures is the R-Money chain of for-profit abortion clinics, he is particularly proud of their slogan: "R-Money Can Fix UR-Problem."  

4.  Business expenses version 2.
It might seem counter-intuitive for Mitt to advocate overturning Roe v Wade in light of his abortion-clinic profits (see above), but as his tax returns show, Mitt is ever resourceful.  If he is elected president, and is successful in reversing abortion legality in the US, R-Money is poised to go offshore and open for business in China and Mexico, places with which his other outsourcing activities have made him quite familiar.  In addition, promoting abortion in Mexico will help with his Latino problem by reducing the number of immigrants and potential Hispanic voters.

Now to get serious….

5.  Was Romney a tax evader in 2009?
In a recent Huffington post, Anthony Badami raises a disturbing question: in 2009 did Mitt Romney take advantage of an IRS tax amnesty program for tax evaders?  Is that why he refuses to release his 2009 tax return?  If that's the case, then the GOP presidential candidate committed a federal felony, one for which he applied for, and received, amnesty.

 Now, in this silly season of half-truths, exaggerations and downright lies, that's a fact that certainly would shake up the race even more than Romney's bully-pulpit (well, just plain bully) debate performance.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

How to Tell When a Politician is Lying

 "How can you tell when a politician is lying? When his (or her) lips move."  That's a tired old chestnut, but the truth is, whether assessing a candidate or a loved one you fear is cheating, human beings are pretty lousy at detecting deception.
Politicians can be especially tricky to catch out since most of them have had so much practice.  Between spin doctors, speech writers, media consultants, pr managers, sycophants and their own often monumental egos, those who would dine at the public trough are trained to stay on message and exude confidence, sincerity and trustworthiness.  Perhaps more importantly, they develop a keen sense of what we, the citizenry, want to hear: we warm to positive messages and flinch from painful truths.  And because so many of us are woefully ignorant about the details of the issues, we like sheep are easily led. 
The best defense against a lie is knowledge.  If your paramour insists that he was watching the Sunday game with his buds but you happened to catch a glimpse of him in the lobby of the boutique hotel where you'd had brunch, well, there you go, both metaphorically and probably literally.  But apart from firsthand knowledge (or other reliable evidence) are there verbal and nonverbal clues that can give a liar away?
Lying is harder than telling the truth. Lying is stressful.  To be an effective liar requires that one rehearse and memorize detail rather than rely on memory.  Because of the anxiety associated with lying and the perceived sense of the importance of the lie, the liar often will give him- or herself away.  This is especially true of politicians since their lives can be exhaustingly busy and lies require energy and constant attention. 
Experts tend to agree that none of the standard indicators is completely fool - or politician - proof.  Some people are simply really good at lying.  Many signs, such as the fleeting facial tics known as "micro-expressions," are extremely difficult for a lay person to distinguish.  When applying these clues to detect lies and liars, it's good policy to temper hubris with modesty: understand that you might get it wrong. But careful use of them might help you get it right.
1. Notice eye contact.
It's a myth that liars won't or can't make eye contact.  However, look for unnatural eye contact: either the person is unable to maintain contact or s/he fixes you (or the camera) with a strained and aggressive stare. 
2.  Read body language.
Pay attention to such indicators as crossed arms or legs, slouching, or tilting the head away: these can indicate the discomfort that accompanies lying.
3.  Follow the eyes.
Many researchers posit that when the eyes look up and to the right (his or hers, not yours) this suggests that the part of the brain linked to the imagination is being triggered.  Conversely, the eyes looking down and to the left might indicate the part of the brain linked to memory.
4.  Shake out the hands.
Often liars' hands will speak eloquently of deception.  Watch for clenched fists, covering the mouth or part of the face, rubbing the eyes, scratching on or behind the ear.
5.  Pay attention to detail.
The person who offers too much detail, especially unasked, might be lying.  Because the narrative of the lie is fabricated, the liar can often be tripped up by inconsistencies in the story, especially if the same questions are asked after some time has passed.
Politicans' lips move and it's not always lies that emanate.  To truly become a lie detector, you need to arm yourself with knowledge, information and intuition.  But if you do notice someone's pants on fire….

Sunday, June 26, 2011

My Travels in Argentina...

I've begun working on a mystery graphic novel set in Buenos Aires, where I recently spent four months doing, among other things, some travel writing. Since my protagonist is a travel writer & sports blogger, this excerpt seemed especially apt.

Super Sunday (Argentina-Style) & the Meaning of Home

February 7, 2011. It wasn’t easy finding a sports bar in Buenos Aires that would be broadcasting the Big Game. Mention “Super Bowl” to most porteños, as the denizens of Buenos Aires call themselves, and you’re likely to elicit a blank stare or a yawn (accompanied by that most Latin of gestures, the dismissive air-swat). The biggest excitement I encountered was amazement that a thirty-second commercial could actually cost $3 million (dollars no less, not pesos) – ¡puta de dios!

However, I did locate a venue, a club called Sugar, in a very lively, bustling area called Palermo Soho. Sugar, run by an American if his accent could be believed, was deep, dark, excessively noisy and I would venture to guess that nearly every norteamericano in BA, in particular those younger than 30, was there. I had taken a willing but utterly baffled new amiga with me, and we ended up sitting at a table with two American women from San Francisco, Lydia and Clara. Clara had just finished a three-month apprenticeship with a protégé of Buenos Aires’s (perhaps) most famous chef, Francis Mallmann, whose cookbook Seven Fires is considered by many to be one of the best guides to all things grilled. Lydia, her friend, had come to visit for the final two weeks of Clara’s stay.

The game was broadcast on two large screens, one at the very back of the very narrow back room, and one near the entrance. Diana and I had arrived early in order to get a seat and perhaps (at least in my mind – Diana never did have a clue about what was going on) watch some of the pre-game show. Our screen, which rippled gaily in the breeze from the open front door, was partially blocked by a large brick column and a group of boisterous young Americans who continually jumped up and over the backrest of the booth in front of us to get mas y mas cervesas. We could barely see what was going on. The possibility of hearing anything in the din was non-existent, and, in any case, the commentary was in Spanish. Instead of the usual pre-game sampling of interviews, musical performances, and prognostications, what seemed primarily on offer were clips from recent soccer matches featuring the team Boca Juniors. (A friend here, a native porteño, a cultured, erudite man, in utter seriousness informed me that one particular game between Boca Juniors and their deadly rival River Plate was simply the most important game ever played in the history of sport. In the history of sport! The most important!) The commercials were all Argentinian – none of the most expensive ads in the world made it this far down.

Sugar is renowned, at least in the ex-pat community, for its reasonably authentic buffalo wings and when ours finally arrived (the handful of waiters were run off their feet so our food showed up during the half-time show) we were able to confirm that we might easily be in any American city if cuisine were the only distinguisher (well, maybe not Pittsburgh since the majority of Sugar’s patrons were cheering for Green Bay). The most prominent brand of cervesa was Stella Artois. Everyone spoke the universal language of burgers and French fries. But clearly we were not in Kansas any more.

I’ve been reading Pico Iyer’s remarkable book The Global Soul in which he examines exiles and immigrants, fractured identity, the transformation of cities, the rise of a new tribalism, and the eternal, human search for home. (The book, which is deeply optimistic about the ultimate value of multiculturalism, was published in 2000 – it’s hard not to wonder how differently he might have viewed his subject if through the lens of 9/11 and its aftermath.) In the barrio surrounding Sugar there were far more people outside than in: enjoying their cafes con leche, their conversations (on and off cellphones, occasionally both together), their early dinners (or late lunches since dinner in BA usually beging around 10:30), oblivious to something designated “super” unfolding nearby. English was discernable in the ambient roar of the club but the prevailing rhythm was Castellano.

When one is a traveler in a foreign land and not just a tourist (as defined by the degree of time and solitude), one begins to understand what ‘home’ is and what it’s not – at least a little. I have ‘home’ in the form of my bank account (which, god willing, is sufficient to see me through my visit), my facility with the world’s most dominant language, the Internet and Skype so family and friends can be present at least in some electronic form, the airline ticket that in three months will return me to my familiar life. I’m lucky to have made a few friends here and I’m learning enough Spanish to get by and even, sometimes, communicate. The local economy is benefiting from my presence and I’m enjoying pleasant encounters with shopkeepers and the women in my dance class. I’m not an exile or a refugee or even someone seeking a better life in a place far away (and willing not just to pay but also to abandon whatever I must to get there). My being here for an extended stay isn’t tinged with loss, except for the temporary deprivation of the comfort of understanding the unspoken rules, of having a place within the community. You might even say that on some basic level, I’m experiencing what it’s like to be a stranger in a strange land.

Perhaps, as the heated, often vicious and simplistic, debate about immigration policy rages on in the United States, we need to remember that most immigrants bring something to give, and not just come for what they can take. As Iyer notes, immigrants hold our dream of the promise of America and in believing, they help realize it. Maybe we need to examine the view through their eyes. We need to know what it’s like to be on the far side of the glass. That’s one reason I’m here – to engage in that conscious act. At Sugar, I was watching the Super Bowl but in fact I was, like so many people in so many alien places, on the outside looking in.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Don't Be Mean to the Girl: Gender, Power and the Politics of Pretty

When Christine O'Donnell upset the Republican applecart in Delaware on Tuesday, Karl Rove called her, among other things, "nutty." Oh Karl. That's just not nice. One thing that seems to be true in these through-the-looking-glass days of American politics is that you can't be mean to the (Republican) girl.

It's difficult to evaluate the candidacy of O'Donnell without the calculus of gender. In a day-is-night kind of way, O'Donnell would seem to benefit from the fact of being a woman in the way that her flaws and missteps are apparently tolerated. For example, last year O'Donnell's financial disclosure statement for last year indicated an income of $5,800 (although later she said she made "more" but refused to say how much). Would a man in those circumstances be considered anything other than fiscally questionable? Probably not. Perhaps unfairly, we equate masculine power with material substance. But how do most people define feminine power? This is an overstatement, but in O'Donnell's case it seems to less about having things than getting away with them.

The Weekly Standard recently unearthed new details about a nearly $7M gender-discrimination lawsuit O'Donnell filed in 2005 against the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, a conservative not-for-profit think-tank. The claims she makes in the lawsuit are revelatory, of her character and modus operandi. In it, she asserts that she was fired due to the organization's policy that women were not allowed to be in leadership positions (a charge the company denies). She insists that she suffered such pain and mental anguish that she lost her ability to make a living and enjoy life (poor baby). Her career was thwarted, she proclaims, since the organization reneged on its promise to pay the tuition for her master's degree at Princeton, tuition, by the way, that would likely cost the organization about as much as O'Donnell's yearly salary (a statement from Princeton noted that she was never enrolled in a master's program there). Ultimately O'Donnell dropped the lawsuit; however, to read the text is to see emerge the portrait of an unstable, histrionic, incompetent and whiny woman on the warpath for someone to blame.

When I was coming of age, in those heady days of "women's liberation," what mattered was strength: of character, of action, of ideas and ideals -- the willingness to fight not just the traditional forces of oppression and reaction arrayed against us but also the secret traitor within.

As Simone de Beauvoir aruges in her seminal work of feminism and existentialism, The Second Sex, women are too often party to our own enslavement. In accepting traditional roles with their trade-off -- the chilly landscape of autonomy for the promise of refuge -- we are choosing security over risk, status over disenfranchisement, the known (however limiting) for the unknown (however exhilarating). To be self-governing is to accept responsibility: for our choices and decisions, for our successes as well as the many mistakes we will make. It can be a tough and perilous road -- far less daunting to let others make the rules.

Christine O'Donnell and her fellow Grizzly-ettes turn all of that on their well-coiffed heads. The female power they wield is less a matter of integrity than wiley-ness, but it certainly comes in a pretty package. Good looks with its currency of sexuality apparently are a requirement of this particular sorority. As one commenter said in response to an article about Rove's dismissal of O'Connell's chances, a lot of Delawarians might vote for her anyway because she's "attractive and gorgeous." Subvert female sexuality and you have female compliance -- and a kind of collaboration that ultimately is nothing more than betrayal.

The image of woman that O'Donnell embodies is one that most of us fought fiercely to repudiate: manipulative, amoral and fragile. We are not to mind the inconsistencies, the emotional lash-outs, the prevarications, the glib oversimplifications of issues. When she plays the woman card, O'Donnell is asking for indulgence, not respect. Don't be hard on me, she says -- don't be mean to the girl. And even an old misanthrope like Rove ultimately caves.

(First published in in September 2010)

Natural Rejection: Texas Judge Dismisses Creationism Degree Lawsuit

In a decision that’s bound to further rile the advocates of creationism-as-science, Austin federal judge Sam Sparks has dismissed a suit filed by the Dallas-based Institute for Creation Research. Its graduate school (ICRGS) had petitioned the court for the right to offer a master’s degree in science education from a biblical perspective. To use a distinctly non-evolutionary metaphor, in his rejection of the suit the judge tore the ICRGS a new one.

First, a little background: in 2008, the ICRGS applied to the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board for the right to offer master’s degrees in science education grounded in a literal interpretation of the biblical version of creation and the vigorous repudiation of evolutionary theory. The application was rejected due to the strong bias toward creationism; the ICRGS then sued, claiming that the board violated the institute’s first amendment rights of the free exercise of religion and freedom of speech.

Part of Sparks’s opinion states, “Having addressed this primary issue, the Court will proceed to address each of ICRGS’s causes of action in turn, to the extent it is able to understand them. It appears that although the Court has twice required Plaintiff to re-plead and set forth a short and plain statement of the relief requested, Plaintiff is entirely unable to file a complaint which is not overly verbose, disjointed, incoherent, maundering, and full of irrelevant information.” (Thanks to Care2’s Scott Pasch for pointing out this out.)

One irony here (of so many) is that California, where the ICR graduate school is based, has allowed the degree to be conferred since 1981. In California, the graduate school is accredited by something called the Transnational Association of Christian Colleges and Schools (TRACS – their acronym, not mine), a body not recognized by Texas. According to their website, TRACS “was established in 1971 to promote the welfare, interests, and development of postsecondary institutions, whose mission is characterized by a distinctly Christian purpose….” (Oddly enough, I visited both the ICR and TRACS websites but found no mention, not in the “Updates” or “Daily News” sections of either, any mention of the suit dismissal. Could this inexplicable absence be an example of unnatural selection? Holy moley!)

Why did California, with its reputation for being open to all manner of unorthodox ideologies, permit the ICRGS to teach creationism as a scientific methodology, with the prize of recognized masters degrees in the offing? If California views creationism as just another iteration of “you say tomatoes and I say tomahtoes,” well, I beg to disagree. Creationism is much more of the “my way or the highway” school of thought. And what’s up with Texas, whose school boards rewrite US history with apparent impunity? One can only marvel. Apparently, the thinking of both Judge Sparks and the Texas Board of Education was that while theology might infuse and inform many disciplines, science isn’t one of them.

For many people, especially those who rely on fundamentalist doctrines as the foundation for belief, science and religion coexist uneasily if at all. In this Weltanschauung, the primary religious text is literally the only vessel of truth, and ‘literal’ is the operative word: any view that allows for interpretation or (gasp!) an evolving understanding of the tenets is unacceptable. Thus, the role of science is to confirm, not to challenge.

I take no issue with religion as a way of acknowledging and making peace with the great mysteries of life. I heartily support the moral and ethical guidelines that underlie most of the world’s great belief systems. However, I believe that science and religion lay out two different paths to truth. As Texas Commissioner of Higher Education Raymund Paredes said, “Religious belief is not science. Science and religious belief are surely reconcilable, but they are not the same thing.”

I balk at the imposition of a narrative of uncertain authorship and provenance (a narrative I consider to be part historical record, part literature, part mythology and part spiritual longing) – one whose fundamental principle is that faith needs no proof – upon our inspired (divinely or otherwise) human ability to comprehend the miraculous workings of our miraculous universe.

Creationism, for me, is a pale, feeble construction compared with the majesty of evolution and all that evolution implies: deep time, a vastly rich and complex system, purpose in seeming randomness, and the moral imperatives of emergence and extinction. That might not be the underlying cause of the Texas decision, but, as with evolution, I'll take what I can get.

(first published on in July 2010)