Saturday, December 5, 2015

The Zen of Zero

-- By Tom Phillips

What is to be done?
On a busy shopping street in Japan last month, we passed a bank with a big sign in the window, advertising savings accounts -- with interest of one-tenth of one percent!  That's big money in Japan, where zero is the new normal.  And despite the best efforts of the Federal Reserve, it may be the new normal in the US.

Consider: the national rate of inflation in November was two-tenths of one percent per annum, entitling Social Security recipients to a cost-of-living adjustment of zero. The interest rate on my money market retirement account is actually negative, after fees -- the investment company raises it to .01 percent to avoiding "breaking the buck."

In the booming days of the 1950s and 60s, the Fed's job was to keep down the fires of inflation, which continued to rage through the 70s and up to the 1980s.  Then the Fed under Paul Volcker poured buckets of ice-cold water on the economy.  Inflation has never fully come back, and since the financial crisis of 2008, it's barely there.  Now the Fed's job is to fan the flames -- trying to generate a little heat -- up to what was previously the "normal" level of two to three percent.  But nothing works.  Even with trillions of dollars pumped into the money supply, inflation flat-lined in late 2015.

What's the matter?  Economists keep looking for things to return to normal --i.e. post-WW2 growth and inflation.  Apparently they can't see that there's something new under the sun, something so big that it weighs on economic growth like a millstone, getting heavier by the year.

I had to go to Japan to see it.  The problem is us -- the legions of us on the Road to Dotage.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Young Woman, Go North

by Tom Phillips
October in Siberia 

Flying from New York to Tokyo and back in late October, we looked down and saw endless stretches of uninhabited, frozen land – in northern Canada, Alaska, Siberia and Russia's Kamchatka peninsula. The topography was normal –  mountains and valleys, rivers of ice – but the weather was not suited to civilization.

Meanwhile we read in the New York Times that by the year 2100, the Persian Gulf may be too hot to support human life – that spending even a few hours outdoors would overtax our capacity to ventilate and hydrate our bodies.

What is to be done?  Amidst all the hand-wringing and doomsday scenarios, one notion keeps poking at my mind.    

Would it be wrong to suggest that as global warming increases, it will open up new areas for human habitation, even as it shuts down others?  It's too late to undo the effects of 150 years of industrialization. So we may have to do what humans have always done – migrate in search of greener pastures. Such pastures are already opening up – e.g. in Greenland, the ice-­capped continent that now has a growing season on its southern fringes.

Three of our daughters have already migrated to cooler climes – two to Seattle, one to the San Francisco Bay, where high ground and the natural air conditioning of the Pacific Ocean protect cities from excessive heats and flooding.

But why not go all the way? Twenty years ago, a fellow writer at CBS News announced she was quitting and taking off for Alaska.  Asked if she was looking for a job, Maureen Clark said -- No, I'm looking for an adventure.

A Google search reveals that she eventually got both – becoming a public affairs officer for the US Fish and Wildlife Service, writing and photographing the great outdoors of the biggest, most northern state.   

Commending such a step is not to minimize the damage and suffering that are inevitable from global warming, or to suggest that nothing needs to be done.  There is no easy solution for many people, particularly the poor in low-lying tropical countries.  But for the human race as a whole, we may have to move, or die.  

A hundred years from now, the Persian Gulf could be uninhabitable, and Florida will probably be under water.  So, why not beat the rush?  To paraphrase Horace Greeley, “Young Woman, Go North.” 

Or to quote Calvin and Hobbes:  Yukon Ho!

-- Copyright 2015 by Tom Phillips 

For more Adventures, click here

Friday, September 11, 2015

Early-Morning Aristocracy

“An early morning walk is a blessing for the whole day.”    H.D. Thoreau
“Tradesmen and domestics must use the freight elevator”   Sign in east-side apartment house

Morning Glories in Morningside Heights 
I get up early these days, partly because sleep is scarce in old age, but also because the hours around dawn are the best of the day, and I don’t want to miss anything.

From four to six, the city is as quiet as it ever is.  The breeze is fresh, the air is clean, a rare calm prevails.  And it's time to commune with the “early-morning aristocracy.” 

This little phrase occurred to me many years ago, riding the subway from the outer reaches of Brooklyn to a job in Manhattan that began at 5:30 a.m.  The subway car was full, but still quiet and calm.  All around me were sitting half-asleep, in various states of meditation, my fellow morning laborers: bakers, coffee-shop waitresses, horse-cab drivers, construction workers, nannies, food-cart vendors, garbage collectors, news writers, fishmongers, who knows what? They were up early so the city could get the running start it demands every day. 

Outdoors, other species predominate.  Pigeons have an early-morning dignity they lose when the sun rises higher.  Left to themselves, they strut and peck about the pavement, clearing the deck for the flood of pedestrians who will soon overrun it.  Dogs, wide awake, pull their walkers along.  The dominance is reversed after breakfast, when the dogs settle down for their long day’s nap, and the owners get about their affairs. 

Flowers preen as sunshine steals through the trees.  Morning glories climb the fence and open royal-hued reproductive organs.  Bees and butterflies oblige.

It’s all over by seven.  The coffee brewed, the pastries baked, the chairs set out, the news written, the ticker up and running, the garbage collected, the morning glories visited, the early-morning aristocracy yawns, and “dawn goes down to day.”   

Copyright 2015 by Tom Phillips

Thursday, September 3, 2015

The Spoils of War

Recently I was a guest in a college journalism class where students were reading my book, "A Beginner's Life."  Among their questions was this:  "Did you ever get shot at?"  Well, sort of, I replied, but it's not in the book.  I was chagrined.  So I told them, very briefly, my story of the first Persian Gulf War, which I covered for the CBS Evening News with Dan Rather.  Years ago I had written a chapter about it, but it wound up in the wastebasket.  It seemed just a bunch of typical "war stories," an excuse to brag that I was there.  Now I was kicking myself for trashing it.  So I went back and re-imagined it, and rewrote it, as follows: 

There is nothing in life so exhilarating, said Sir Winston Churchill, “than to be shot at, without result.”  

I couldn’t see that in my twenties, when I was of draft age and the Vietnam War was escalating.  I avoided the draft by accident – by the time it was reinstated in 1965, I was married and had a baby.  But I wanted no part of Vietnam.  When someone at CBS suggested I volunteer for the Saigon bureau, I wasn’t tempted.  I didn’t want to risk my 23-year-old life, or leave my fledgling family behind.

Twenty-six years later in 1991, the US was rushing troops into Saudi Arabia, following Iraq’s invasion and occupation of Kuwait.  Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein was massing troops near the border of Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, and could easily resume his march of conquest, sweeping down through the nearly unpopulated, lightly defended desert kingdom.  The US was preparing to drive him back – out of Kuwait, away from Saudi Arabia and its huge American oil operations.  

By then I had a new family, and six children altogether, two of them under six.  But this time, I felt the urge.  I had survived nearly half a century, and was willing to risk the balance of my life on a good bet that I would come home safe, and war would be an incomparable adventure.   I’d be cautious, and not take any stupid risks. I just wanted to see.

As a journalist, I wanted to witness the kind of destructive power that shapes the world we live in.  There is nothing like a war to alter the course of history.  Developments that would happen over decades in peacetime, or never happen at all, happen within days or hours in a war.  War is history speeded up, news that breaks faster than you can write it.
As an egoist, I wanted the badge of honor that goes with being a war correspondent, the badge my father never earned.  In my mind at least, it’s what separates the real journalists from those who would prefer to write about the world from the safety of their desks.  I also had a morbid curiosity about the death, destruction, and danger of wartime.  I’d seen the aftermath in London as a child, and I’d been on the edge of violence in Tiananmen Square, but had never been in an actual war zone.  I wanted to feel the frisson of mortal fear.            
As a father, my feelings were mixed.  I didn’t want my family to worry about me, though I knew they would.  At the same time, I wanted my children to have a father they could look up to, not one they felt sorry for.  I felt sorry for my father because he felt sorry for himself.  He never did the things he really wanted to do, never became the journalist he wanted to be, largely because of his own timidity. I had inherited some of that timidity, but I wasn’t going to let it rule my life.  I didn't consult my wife beforehand, or ask permission.  One day I just screwed up my courage, walked into Tom Bettag’s office, and said: “I’d like to volunteer for duty in the war zone.”

A family man himself, Bettag would go anywhere for a story, but he never would have sent me into a war zone on his own.  He warned me on the spot that we might wind up in Baghdad with bombs falling around us.  I gulped when he said that, but the die was cast.  I stuck with my offer, and he accepted.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

There Goes the Neighborhood

By Tom Phillips

When one has lived a long time in one place, any kind of change is worrisome.  Home is ideally the most stable part of your world, but all around, other people are messing with it, never asking your permission.  Morningside Heights, where our family has lived for 35 years, is in a continual process of change, and nothing new happens without a frisson of fear.  Even the plunge in the crime rate, which began in the 1990s and continues today, is cause for concern -- it's one of the factors that have driven real estate prices to astronomical heights, and brought in a whole new demographic and life-style.

Some day, we'll reach the tipping point where the old neighborhood is no longer recognizable.  And it may be just around the corner.  A block and a half from our house is rising an ultra-luxurious rental residence, a colossus of conspicuous consumption.  And it's rising on the very grounds of our most hallowed neighborhood institution, the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine.  They call it the Enclave.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

In Search of Lost Boys

-- By Tom Phillips

Many years ago, as a graduate student in psychology, I took a course called Memory and Attention, from which I remember only one basic proposition:  memory is a function of attention.   We remember what we pay attention to. 

I thought of Memory and Attention recently as I read Volume Three of Karl-Ove Knausgaard’s “My Struggle,” the story of a middle-aged man remembering his experience as an adolescent boy.  And because Knausgaard is often compared to Marcel Proust, who wrote a hundred years ago, I went back and re-read the first part of “Swann’s Way,” the beginning of that earlier six-volume epic, drawn from Proust’s memories from the same time of life.   

What's striking in both is the quality of their attention, the amount of experience they can extract and retain from a moment – Proust watching the twin spires of the church shift their perspective in the waning sunlight, as he walks “Swann’s Way” in the little town where he apparently spent just a few weeks of his young life.  And of course the most famous extraction of them all – the taste of the madeleine dipped in tea, the subsequent descents into the subconscious, and finally the awakening of the whole remembered scene, the town and its environs, all the feelings that were bursting the heart of a proto-poet at a tender age. The past becomes present, memory and attention are one.

Marcel Proust --1887
Proust’s memories are those of a pampered, sickly boy growing up in the 1880s, in Paris and a summer home in the countryside  – a dreamer, a wanderer, and a voyeur, a mama’s boy who keeps company almost exclusively with adults – a linguistic prodigy, a painter with words who becomes intoxicated with shifting landscapes, changing light, elusive tastes and scents, and wonders at the more or less stable characters of his upper middle-class relatives, and what he sees as the predictable, fixed behaviors of servants, tradesmen and the peasantry.   

Knausgaard’s boy grows up in the 1970s on an island close to the Norwegian shore, where the forest is being torn away for middle-class housing developments and a garbage dump, and lives his life escaping from a mercurial, sadistic father.  He comes alive in comic books, soccer games, suicidal fantasies, outdoor arson, Beatle songs, biking, skiing through the woods, wolfing candy bars from the convenience store at the gas station, foraging in the dump.  He spends his time with his peers, who pick on him for being buck-toothed, pear-shaped, too smart in school.   But he doesn’t care, he says, except when he does, when his response is to cry.  

Both boys are weepers, attached to their mothers, of dubious masculinity in their adolescent years.  Both are obsessed with sex, and romance.  Both are turned on by smells -- Proust's boy by teas, soaps, flowers;  Knausgaard's by chlorine, gasoline, exhaust fumes.

As literary creations, both are authentic in a way that’s rare in traditional fiction or formal biography.   And the source of their authenticity is their origins in memory.  You can’t make this stuff up.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Advice to Millennials

-- By Tom Phillips

Many years ago, when I was 17, I remember telling my girlfriend in a panicked tone – I’ve gotta figure out something I can be great at – the world’s best.    It was beginning to sink in that my pro basketball dreams were going nowhere, and I needed a substitute.  What could it be?  Acting?  No, she said, not acting.  

A few years later I took my confusion to a favorite professor, who must have been feeling cynical that day.  What can I be, I pleaded.  His advice was to become the world’s leading expert in a field not many people were interested in – Spanish cookery, for example.  I scoffed at that.  Soon, I set out for San Francisco, where I hoped to launch my career as an idolized folk-singer. 

Fast-forward thirty years or so to middle age, when a colleague of mine, a celebrated TV journalist, asked me what I was doing with myself.   I described my modest position as a newswriter, and he looked at me in alarm.  “That’s a wasted life!” he said.   

Wounded, I rallied.  Wait a minute – That’s not all I do.  I play music, I teach, I’m a minister’s spouse, a father of many.  He quickly apologized, but I could see where his values lay.  He felt that anyone with any talent should use it to the utmost – and not let other, lesser goals stand in his way. This fellow had dropped out of college to pursue journalism, his health was awful and his personal life was an unholy mess.  But he loved his work, and he was very famous, and rich. 

I think of these exchanges because recently a 16-year-old granddaughter of mine repeated, almost verbatim, my teenage panic speech:  I have to find something I’m great at!  Volunteering in a hospital had soured her on the medical field, so she needed a substitute.  What could it be?  Acting? 

The world is awash in bad advice these days, and has been for some time -- maybe since the dawn of the industrial revolution, when the one-trick pony entered the ring, and people began to hear that they should decide early what they want to “be,” and narrow their focus.  The new role models were industrial tycoons, or scientists in search of a cure, or mad artists, or fabulously wealthy financiers. Today we admire relentless entrepreneurs like Mark Zukerberg, pasty zillionaires like Warren Buffett, super-athletes like Tom Brady and Tiger Woods, and actors and rock stars who barely went to high school.  They’re all great at something.  

It was not always thus.   Back in ancient times, the goal of education was “mens sana in corpore sano” -- a sound mind in a sound body -- and learning was physical as well as mental.  And the ideal was not greatness or “expertise” in one subject, but a broad competency – the ability to recognize the soundness of an idea in almost any field of knowledge.  Up until modern times an educated person was able to move between fields of endeavor – applying knowledge of the arts and sciences to create, to invent, to do battle, to think and act across the whole range of human activity.   Such “renaissance men” are rare today, but they still exist.

Monday, May 4, 2015

The Walking Cure 3: Circumambulation

Mecca -- Pilgrims at the Kaaba
-- By Tom Phillips

Circumambulation is the simplest and easiest form of spiritual exercise. It means walking around, usually around something, often a holy object or site. Every religion practices some form of it.

Hindus walk around the inner sanctum of their temples in concentric circles; Zen monks walk in a circle between meditative sittings.  A Jewish bride circumambulates the groom. Catholic priests walk around the altar, shaking incense from a thurible.  Even Protestants will walk a labyrinth.

The most circumambulated place in the world is the Kaaba in the Muslim holy city of Mecca.  During the annual Hajj, pilgrims circle en masse, symbolizing the unity of believers.

Anyone can circumamabulate.  Even a child can do it,  and get something out of it.  Walking in a circle focuses the mind, creates a center.  Centering is the same as meditation -- the words mean the same thing.   And almost anything can be circumambulated.   The very act of circling creates a sacred space, marked off for contemplation.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

A Little Lear

At age fifty-eight, in the year 2000, I lost my long-time job writing the CBS Evening News.  At first I was confident I could reverse my fortunes and turn failure into success.  But as one scheme after another came up short, I began to feel rejected and depressed.  Then came what seemed like a brilliant idea.  The following is an excerpt from my memoir, "A Beginner's Life," just published by Full Court Press

It was time for a radical re-think.  I racked my brains for something I’d be good at -- something that suited my talents, but I’d never had time to pursue.  Soon a gem of an answer appeared – Shakespearean acting!  I loved Shakespeare, had read or seen most of the plays, and could speak Elizabethan English fluently, if not accurately.  An actress friend of mine, Nicola Sheara, encouraged me.  She’d been around the New York theater scene for decades, had performed on Broadway, and said, “Sure, go ahead.  In two weeks, you’ll be in King Lear.” 

Two weeks later, I was in King Lear! 

Visions of glory danced in my head as I made my way downtown to begin rehearsals for the role of Gloucester, the king’s loyal friend, father of the hero Edgar and the arch-villain Edmund.  I landed the part at my first audition, which I attended with at least a hundred other hopefuls, at the American Theater of Actors on West 54th Street.