A columnist of heart and mind

A columnist of heart and mind
Interviewing the animals at Children's Fairyland in Oakland. L-R: Bobo the sheep, Gideon the miniature donkey, me, Tumbleweed Tommy the miniature donkey, Juan the alpaca, Coco the pony

Friday, January 10, 2014

Deja Vu

Like you, I've been watching Chris Christie's unfolding bridge scandal with a combination of horrified fascination and an eerie sense of déjà vu.
It's all so Nixonian, with "I am not a bully" replacing "I am not a crook" as the iconic catchphrase. Of course, Nixon turned out actually to be a crook, and I have no doubt that New Jersey legislators who have crossed swords with the combative governor in the past will start trotting out other examples of his bullyboy style.
As of this writing, there is still no smoking gun connecting Christie directly to the bridge closure. But he has the reputation of being a control freak, to put it mildly, and it strains credulity to believe that his closest aides would dare to pull this off without his OK.
What's harder to understand is why politicians engage in such risky behavior, especially when it's so unnecessary. Nixon was already coasting to re-election in 1972. The economy was on the upswing, the Democrats were in disarray, the country was dazzled by his opening to China, and Henry Kissinger had come back from the negotiations with the North Vietnamese in Paris announcing, "Peace is at hand." (It wasn't, but we didn't know that at the time.)
So why did Nixon need to gild the lily by breaking into DNC headquarters at the Watergate? Why did Christie, who was already riding a 22-point lead in the polls, need to bludgeon Democratic mayors into endorsing him? And why did he - or, at least, his closest aides - take it so personally when one mayor refused, to the point of retaliating by paralyzing his city for four days?
I think the answer is that some very neurotic people get into politics. Nixon's mental problems are well known, and Christie may have been scarred for other reasons.
Sometimes a neurosis can be an asset in politics, especially if it makes you obsessive in pursuit of your goal. But neurosis also has a downside: Like actors, politicians often confuse the cheers of the crowd with love. And the more cheers they get, the more loved they feel.
So for Nixon, it wasn't enough to win 49 states; he wanted all 50. He wouldn't settle for a landslide; only an avalanche would do. And he was willing to take some serious risks to get it.
Ditto for Christie. He wanted to pad his victory margin so badly, he wasted $12 million of the taxpayers' money scheduling a special election for a vacant Senate seat in October rather than waiting for the regular election a month later, just so he wouldn't have to share the ballot with a popular Democrat - Newark Mayor Cory Booker - who was running for the Senate.
Nixon's won his big victory, but his risky behavior ended up destroying his presidency. And while Christie might be able to salvage his job as governor – but not if any more evidence linking him to the closure or the "traffic study" cover-up pops up – he can forget about being president. I'll bet Rand Paul, Paul Ryan and Ted Cruz are already preparing their attack ads.
Marx was right: "History repeats itself, the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce."
Reach Martin Snapp at catman@sunset.net.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Telephone Talk

Ten years ago, gerontologist Terry Englehart was working as senior resources director at St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Oakland, matching elders with services that could help them.
"In helping these people, I realized that no matter what their problem, they all shared one thing in common: They were really isolated," she says. "And there were not enough services to help them break through that isolation. What could I do?"
Then she heard about a program in New York called University Without Walls," which offers classes to seniors via telephone.
Bingo! She got a brilliant idea: Why not set up telephone discussion groups for homebound seniors? After all, who doesn't know how to use a telephone?
Thus was born Senior Center Without Walls, a free telephone community for California elders. 
She started out with only six people talking once a week. Today, Senior Center Without Walls offers more than 60 discussion groups each week, ranging from the light-hearted (jokes, pets, food, knitting, movies, and real-time games of Bingo and Boggle) to the serious (depression support, coping with loss, combating elder fraud and living with chronic pain).
On Thursday mornings you can join "Armchair Bird Watching," where you'll discuss the feathered friends you see out your window.
This winter and spring, SCWW will offer armchair trips to Italy, Ireland, Tunisia and Prague, featuring virtual tours by volunteers who have just returned from those places.
Senior Center Without Walls has been honored by the American Society of Aging, the International Association of Homes and Services for the Aging, and the Jefferson Award for Public Service. It's hard to think of another organization that does so much good for so many people for so little cost.
SCWW is sponsored by Episcopal Senior Communities, but it is strictly non-denominational. And IT'S FREE! All you have to do is call 510-444-5974 (or 1-877-797-7200 toll-free), and they'll send you a catalog.
Despite Episcopal Communities' generous sponsorship, Terry and her tiny staff – volunteer coordinator Amy Schaible and program administrator Susan Lee Linderman – still have a few expenses to meet, including the cost of the calls, so if you'd like to contribute, send a tax-deductible check to Senior Center Without Walls, 114 Montecito Avenue, Oakland CA 94610.
You can help in other ways, too, by sharing your own life skills. For instance, Sarah Kidder of Oakland, who is in her thirties, conducts a weekly group called Tech Talk, where she demystifies the Internet for seniors.
In a little less than 10 years, Terry Englehart has accomplished a wonderful thing. She has liberated hundreds of seniors whose ailments confined them first to their homes, then to their bedrooms, and finally to their beds. She has broken through their isolation and made life worth living again.
Alas, last week Terry called it a career. She and her husband Steve will enjoy a well-earned retirement, starting with a long-delayed trip to Italy.
But Amy and Susan are still there. And SCWW has found the perfect person to succeed Terry: Krista Brown, a longtime worker in the senior care field who is brimming with enthusiasm about maintaining Terry's legacy and taking it to the next level.
If you know a homebound senior who could benefit from this wonderful service, please let them know about it. You'll be doing them a big favor.