Saturday, October 29, 2011

Let Us Now Praise Famous Men - Rev. Dean Brackley

Rev. Dean Brackley, 65, Dies; Served in El Salvador

The Rev. Dean Brackley belonged to an order of priests, the Jesuits, sometimes referred to as “God’s Marines,” because of a 16th-century founder’s military background and because of their long tradition of intellectual rigor as teachers and missionaries.

Father Brackley, who died on Oct. 16 in El Salvador, imbued that nickname with some literal meaning in 1990, when he left a teaching job at Fordham University to take up residence in the San Salvador university dormitory where six Jesuit priests and two women had recently been killed by government military forces.

He admitted to being scared. But the job description for replacements of the slain priests, all of them faculty members at the Universidad Centroamericana, seemed to have his name on it: “They wanted a Jesuit. They wanted someone who had a Ph.D. in theology. They wanted someone who spoke Spanish,” he told a friend. “I started looking around and realized there weren’t that many of us.” He said he would return in four or five years.

Father Brackley remained in the job for the rest of his life. A spokesman for the university said the cause of death was pancreatic cancer. He was 65.

His decision to go to El Salvador was not the first time Father Brackley had taken the road less traveled. In 1980, after completing his doctorate in theology at the University of Chicago, he had several teaching offers from colleges around the country, said the Rev. Neil Connolly, pastor of St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Manhattan and a longtime friend.

Instead, Father Brackley took a job with a church-sponsored community organization in New York called South Bronx People for Change, where he worked with drug addicts, helped tenants organize and acted as a go-between in tensions between residents and the police.

He had been there almost 10 years — and begun riding his bicycle to Fordham University to teach ethics and theology classes — when the six Jesuits, their housekeeper and her 16-year-old daughter were killed on Nov. 16, 1989.

Inquiries determined that the killings were carried out during an extended battle between left-wing insurgents and government forces, part of the country’s decade-long civil war. American-trained government soldiers, who considered the Jesuits leftist sympathizers, dragged the six priests from their beds in the university dorm, ordered them to lie on the ground outside, shot them in the head and then killed the women as potential witnesses. Nine soldiers were charged, but only two were convicted in connection with the executions; both were released in a general amnesty in 1993.

When Father Brackley told friends that he was asking the Jesuit order to send him as a replacement, Father Connolly remembers flinching.

“We didn’t exactly ask him not to go,” he said. “We just said, ‘Gee, Dean, you could do an awful lot of good right here. Why not stay?’ ”

“Father Brackley said ‘he felt called to continue the work’ of those slain,” Father Connelly said, though he told a New York Newsday columnist in 1990 that in some ways he was torn: “My body began to factor it in before my head — I found my knees shaking, without really knowing why.”

He was joined by five other Jesuit priest volunteers at the campus residence in El Salvador, including one other American, the Rev. Charles J. Beirne, an academic administrator who later became president of LeMoyne College in Syracuse. Father Beirne died last year.

Joseph Dean Brackley Jr. was born on Aug. 9, 1946, in Wynantskill, in upstate New York, the oldest of four children of J. Dean and Inez Brackley. He was ordained in 1976. He is survived by his mother; two brothers, Douglas, of Glen Burnie, Md., and Richard, of Mechanicsville, Va.; and a sister, Jane Davis of Brentwood, Tenn.

Father Brackley wrote frequently for the Jesuit weekly magazine America and wrote two books about Catholic theology and priestly discernment while teaching at the university in San Salvador and ministering to a rural parish about 50 miles away.

In the months immediately after the massacre, government soldiers were frequently stationed at the campus, ostensibly as guards. Their presence created an atmosphere of apprehension more than safety, Father Brackley told friends. But as it turned out, the killings had marked a turning point in the war, attracting worldwide attention and Congressional investigations. A peace accord was signed in 1992.

Throughout the 1990s, Father Brackley was the unofficial Jesuit greeter for waves of official and unofficial delegations of visitors to the killing site. Representative Jim McGovern, Democrat of Massachusetts, was then a staff investigator for Representative Joe Moakley of South Boston, who was chairman of one of the House investigating committees.

“It was a very dangerous time, emotions on all sides were very high, and Dean brought this peacefulness to the situation. He would greet the delegations and tell them the history of the war and the story of what happened at the UCA,” he said, referring to the university.

Every tour concluded with a viewing of the eight rose bushes planted in memory of the victims, and an introduction to the man who tended them, the father and husband of the two women killed.

Eugene Palumbo contributed reporting from San Salvador.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Poem of the Week - The Lanyard.

Billy Collins reading his wonderful poem, The Lanyard.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Bye Bye Miss American Pie...(?)

At first I thought the passage below was kind of not interesting but the more I read it the more intrigued I am by it and the more pressing the question it poses seems.

"We've changed the way we think of ourselves as citizens. We don't think of ourselves as citizens in the old sense of being small parts of something larger and infinitely more important to which we have serious responsibilities. We do still think of ourselves as citizens in the sense of being beneficiaries–we're actually conscious of our rights as American citizens and the nation's responsibilities to us and ensuring we get our share of the American pie. We think of ourselves now as eaters of the pie instead of makers of the pie. So who makes the pie?"

... from David Foster Wallace's posthumously published novel, The Pale King, set mostly inside the hallways and cubicles of an IRS audit center.

Monday, October 24, 2011

The Size of God...

A good, old friend of mine and I recently exchanged a few e mails on the subject of drug addiction and mental illness. (By way of background - my friend has (in the 40 years I have known him) pursued, thought about, been involved in and followed what I think is best described (however inadequately) as a devout and spiritual path. In contrast, "spiritual" is not the first word likely to come to any one's mind to describe my own path. Nonetheless he and I have over the years (and since the beginning of our friendship) often discussed spirituality and have over the years developed a language that works for us to talk about such things in ways that, despite our different perspectives, provide a way of understanding each other.

In any event, in the email exchange my friend was saying how hard it is to imagine the experience of "what it is like to be a patient on a locked ward of a psychiatric hospital or more to the point, what it is like to be discharged and out wherever again."

As an aside, he also said that he envied my chicken manure (a reference to my having told him that I recently shoveled 8 large bags of chicken manure that I got from our local chicken farm into my vegetable garden (we are both amateur gardeners).

I agree with him that it is questionable whether civilians can deeply imagine (i.e., know) the experience of addiction and mental illness (much as it is, for example, for them to "know" the experience of combat). I replied to him that I think "being a patient is Hell and that recovery is a miracle". It is interesting to me that, "non-believer" that I am, sometimes (and I am obviously not alone in this) I resort to religious language to describe certain types of human experience. In this case, my attempt to convey a sense of a certain kind of utter despair and helplessness and, on the other side, transcendence that religious imagery seems almost to have been invented for (among other things).

So that got me thinking again about the seeming divide between believers and non believers - it has never made sense to me and I have always had an aversion to the "us and them" aspect of the whole thing (and I mean this as to both sides of the divide). How can something that is not broad enough to encompass everyone without duality, without suggesting enlightenment and un enlightnment, without suggesting one path versus another, possibly lay claim to anything as big as "truth"?. Everyone knows suffering and everyone knows joy (and everyone knows the golden rule) and I am not sure it matters where you put (or don't put) God or mysticism into that equation or how or what you do to express your own experience of the meaning of it all. This leaves me somewhat on the sidelines of the whole discussion but only in so far as having any answers, questions I got plenty.

And then today, I happened upon this concluding paragraph to an article I was reading on the weekly "Sugar" column of the daily Rumpus web site (
). The article is about a woman's questioning of her own faith and experience upon receiving her young daughter's diagnosis of a brain tumor and struggles through treatment (the daughter is in remission). I found the article to be a moving discussion about faith. No conclusions - just thoughtful (and I think beautiful) questions:

"What if you allowed your God to exist in the simple words of compassion others offer to you? What if faith is the way it feels to lay your hand on your daughter’s sacred body? What if the greatest beauty of the day is the shaft of sunlight through your window? What if the worst thing happened and you rose anyway? What if you trusted in the human scale? What if you listened harder to the story of the man on the cross who found a way to endure his suffering than to the one about the impossible magic of the Messiah? Would you see the miracle in that?"

Friday, October 21, 2011

Pity and Loathing in front of the coffee shop...

I happened to run into a pretty down and out group of semi juvenile delinquents who were hanging out in front of the coffee shop where I stop to get my morning coffee. I was in an unusually expansive (and brave) mood which resulted in our having a conversation about self pity and self loathing. One of the young men suggested that his self pity is when he feels sorry for himself for circumstances that, through no fault of his own, are real handicaps. In his case he was raised by a single Mom who was mentally ill and had no job. His childhood was not an easy one and he felt stigmatised and different than other kids his age and he feels resentful, angry and sorry for himself - self pity based on negative circumstances inflicted on him by the world.

One of the other young men said he experiences self loathing which he described as a form of self pity based not on external circumstances but rather on the guilt he feels for being imperfect or "less than" - for example being a self described "selfish, impulsive, asshole who keeps fucking up and should know better"... -- self loathing based on negative circumstances inflicted on him by himself. This is then made worse by the fact that being an impulsive selfish asshole is a disadvantage of his own making which makes him feel more guilty which, in turn, makes him hate himself more and on and on.

Our conclusion was that self loathing is a lot like self pity but with the added ingredient of guilt. We also decided that in both cases these feelings served as a basis to justify bad choices as in "I have it so bad that my angry, resentful attitude (coming from either self pity or self loathing) is justified. (almost as if the attitude had a will of its own which manipulated its host (the brain) into believing it was justified so that the brain would not adjust thereby prolonging the life of the attitude rather than allowing the brain to see that the attitude is mal adaptive, does not work (i.e.,it does nothing to improve our circumstances) and therefore make a change).

As an aside I was really impressed by the level of thought of this rag tag, fucked up, limited, semi comatose collection of misfits. It was like the Dirty Dozen meets Wittgenstein.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Should We Legalize Drugs?

I am concerned about eliminating a motivator to not use or to quit using drugs. Drugs work - they eliminate pain, make you forget, produce euphoria. Then they stop working because you get sick or you crash your car, or you lose your job or you lose your kids or you OD or you get arrested. Sometimes you get arrested before you get irreparably sick or before you lose your kids and as a result of being arrested you become convinced to get clean. I am not sure we should eliminate a convincer.

In addition, our current system is kind of a hybrid of the criminal justice and public health approaches to addiction. A lot of addicts get treatment because they have been mandated through the legal system. Drug courts are empowered to impose treatment as an alternative to jail, addicts who have been busted get treatment to lighten their sentences and parents seek help for kids early on because their kids got mixed up with the law.

There are valid theories that support legalizing drugs: it might eliminate criminal activities around the illicit drug trade, it would reduce crime, it would transform drug addiction from a criminal issue to a public health issue, clean needles would reduce disease etc. In support of those theories people often point to real world examples such as Switzerland and Portugal (see for example The New Yorker article, October 19 issue, about Portugal). But those situations have yielded mixed results, the data is not complete and a lot of subjective interpretation of the data is going on.

I worry that the net effect of legalizing drugs would be more addiction, not less.
I am not saying that avoiding legal consequences would be sufficient motivation for anyone to remain clean (although it might be) nor am I saying that there aren't other motivators aside from legal to seek treatment. I am just saying that the legal system appears to have play a positive role.

PS. The Supreme Court in a landmark and controversial case decided, based upon the doctrine of separation of church and state, that state supported drug rehab programs (whether prison based or via parole or probation conditions or through hospital or clinic rehabs) may NOT require attendance at Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous programs because of references that the 12 steps of AA make to a "higher power". This despite many interpretations that a higher power is not necessarily a religious concept - many in AA interpret God to be "Good Orderly Direction" or "Group Of Drunks" (referring to the AA meeting itself) and despite significant evidence that AA and NA are by far the most effective long term drug treatment programs in existence. As you can guess, I strongly disagree with the Supreme Court decision.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Unified Theory Of Capital Management

Often times I find that very simple, unsophisticated stuff is right on. For example, hokey as many may seem, I think self help books get a bad rap because there are a lot of exploitative crummy ones but some make prefect sense. Same with cliches that are often overlooked or dismissed as simple minded, For example I believe that "act in haste, repent in leisure", "familiarity breeds contempt" and "absence makes the heart grow fonder" speak volumes about impulsive behavior and relationships.

With that introduction, below is an article that is simple yet I think gets to the heart of some of the psychological underpinnings of the ways that people think about money, investing, saving, careers, retirement and financial risk.

But the thing I also like about this article is that that it implies something important - that people view the continuum of control that they actually have over their lives in different ways. That is as much a "spiritual" issue (for lack of a better word) as a financial one and therefore touches on everything including our 401(k)'s.

The Surprising Money Habits of Successful Entrepreneurs

(Carl Richards is a certified financial planner in Park City, Utah. His web site is

After many years of talking with entrepreneurs, a calling that seems to appeal to the creative side of people, I’ve come up with what I define as the Unified Theory of Capital Management.

It goes something like this: We all have at least two types of capital that we should be managing: our personal human capital and our financial capital. In simple terms, human capital is the ability we have to earn money. Financial capital is our savings or investments.

So why should this matter to you?

Based on my experience and talks with entrepreneurs, I believe everyone, not just entrepreneurs, needs to manage these two types of capital differently than they do now. So I came up with some strategies to help you manage these two distinct, but connected, resources.

For personal human capital, you want to do three things:


For financial capital, you want to do two things:


The majority of entrepreneurs express a strong desire to focus on things they can control, or have at least some control of. For example, I’ve noticed that it’s hard for entrepreneurs to invest in the stock market because they have no control over the outcome.

I remember meeting with a friend of mine whose family had owned a fairly prominent real estate development company that was successful over multiple generations. Behind my friend’s desk, the same desk that his grandfather and father sat at, there was a framed stock certificate.

When I asked him about the stock certificate and why it had such a prominent place, he replied that it was the first and last publicly traded stock that the family ever bought. When the stock started to go down, it proved too frustrating for the family because they couldn’t do anything to fix it. They couldn’t paint the fence, change the zoning, remodel or come up with a new marketing plan. Things seemed completely out of control. So they made a decision to focus on those things that they were good at, in this case real estate development, and then protect the money they made.

Again and again, I’ve heard successful entrepreneurs say that their success came from similar focus on personal human capital and those opportunities where their creative skills, relationships and experiences can mitigate potential risk. But once they make their money, they protect their financial assets by investing far more conservatively than you might think given their propensity for making risky business decisions.

One thing that I’ve heard over and over is that the way to become wealthy is through focus and concentration, while the way to stay wealthy is through diversification and protection. To that end, you do not have to be a creative entrepreneur to benefit from the Unified Theory of Capital Management.

Everyone can focus on improving personal human capital — compounding it — by looking for ways to take on a side job, increasing salary and improving skills and education. Then, look for ways to protect the money through diversification using conservative investments.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Poem of the Week - A Rabbit As King Of The Ghosts - Wallace Stevens

Wallace Stevens (1879 - 1955)
A Rabbit As King Of The Ghosts

The difficulty to think at the end of day,
When the shapeless shadow covers the sun
And nothing is left except light on your fur?

There was the cat slopping its milk all day,
Fat cat, red tongue, green mind, white milk
And August the most peaceful month.

To be, in the grass, in the peacefullest time,
Without that monument of cat,
The cat forgotten on the moon;

And to feel that the light is a rabbit-light
In which everything is meant for you
And nothing need be explained;

Then there is nothing to think of. It comes of itself;
And east rushes west and west rushes down,
No matter. The grass is full

And full of yourself. The trees around are for you,
The whole of the wideness of night is for you,
A self that touches all edges,

You become a self that fills the four corners of night.
The red cat hides away in the fur-light
And there you are humped high, humped up,

You are humped higher and higher, black as stone?
You sit with your head like a carving in space
And the little green cat is a bug in the grass.

(from "Harmonium," 1923)

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

I Guess Eisenhower Was A Socialist...

During the Eisenhower administration (1953 - 1961), the tax rate on the richest Americans was 91 percent. With tax rates high, the wealthy built factories and bought new equipment and hired workers. The economy boomed. High tax rates on the wealthy seem to have turned them into better job creators then than the low tax rates we have now.

Just to be clear:

Earned income is income made from a job.

Capital gains, in contrast, is money made from the appreciation in value of something one owns (assets such as stocks, property, art, ...), rather than money earned from a job.

Average families gets most of their income from their jobs, and thus the tax rate on earned income is most important to them. The wealthy get most of their income from the appreciation of assets, and thus the tax rate on capital gains is more important to them. (Side Note: salaries paid to managers of Venture Capital Funds, Hedge Funds, and Private Equity Funds are classified as "carried interest" and taxed at the lower capital gains rate. There is no justification for this and it amazes me. PS - a lot of corporations structure their executive compensation in ways that enable them to also pay tax at the lower rate or in tax deferred retirement accounts (neither of which are available to non-executive salaried employees).

It is considered to be almost gospel today that capital gains should be taxed at the far lower rate of 15%. This is why the middle and working class, who are dependant on earned income, effectively pay taxes at a higher rate than do the wealthy. By the way, a higher capital gains rate would encourage long term investment because capital gains tax is not paid until the sale of the asset.

In 1953 - 1961, capital gains were not treated differently from earned income, so the rich paid 91% tax on capital gains. Since then the rate has dropped from 91% to 15% - makes no sense - but if you earned most of your money from investment income - it sure is favorable to your personal pocketbook. If most of your income is from your job - it sure seems unfair that you pay a higher rate on your income than a wealthy person does on their income.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Republicans and Democrats keep fighting over budgets; Chinese shop for global assets.

In 1977 the Brazilian weekly “Manchete” published an article entitled “Os argentinos brigan, os brasileiros compran”. (“the Argentines fight, the Brazilians shop") –referring to the flow of Brazilian tourists coming to shop in Buenos Aires when the peso was low due to political volatility, which usually triggered a rise in the dollar and other currencies relative to the argentinian peso. (The photo above is a picture of Brazilian tourists at a hotel in Buenos Aires from the above mentioned magazine article.)

Look at the consequences:















Argentina's GDP in 1976 was 180% that of Brazil and in 2009 it was 90%. China and the US are today like Argentina and Brazil were in 1976.

American Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in 2009 was nearly $15 trillion, while China’s was $5 trillion. By 2017 many economists consider it a virtual certainty that China's GDP will surpass the U.S. and by 2030 it will be more than double that of the U.S. In the last 20 years Argentina's economy has been stagnant - high unemployment, no growth, flat wages. Brazil's economy has flourished. Argentina has persued a low tax, weak peso economic policy while Brazil persued a higher tax, higher growth, strong currency policy.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Occupy Wall Street

I was struck by a sign held up by one of the Occupy Wall Street protesters. It read, "I care about you". In the last decade we have seen buildings brought down by hijacked airplanes, a decade long "war on terror", sanctioned torture, wounded vets, financial system excess and collapse, unprecedented long term unemployment, dysfunctional government, a careerist every man for himself ethos that has warped the notion of an honest day's work into an obscene free for all on Wall Street, a middle class under water in housing and retirement accounts, increasing austerity in education and social services...the list goes on and on. It does not surprise me that an alternative answer to the question "why are we here and what are we doing?" is emerging and that experiments in "sustainability", "disruption" and "DIY" (do it yourself) are part of the current counter culture. I have no idea what the answer is but "I care about you" seems like a reasonable starting point. I think the kid who wrote that sign has a future.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Good People

From the Short Story "Good People" by David Foster Wallace published in the New Yorker February, 2007...

“…he was answered now with a type of vision, what he would later call within his own mind a vision or moment of grace. He was not a hypocrite, just broken and split off like all men. Later on, he believed that what happened was he’d had a moment of almost seeing them both as Jesus saw them—as blind but groping, wanting to please God despite their inborn fallen nature.”

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Odd fact of the day...

The day after flight 1549 crash landed in the Hudson River without the loss of a single life the numbers 1549 were so frequently played in the NY lottery that ticket sales had to be shut down for fear that if the numbers hit the lottery would lose millions. The winning numbers in the New York lotterry Pick Four turned out to be 1548.


I went to my 40th high school reunion in NY this week. It reminded me of what for me was the biggest part of my high school experience - 11th grade as an exchange student in Marcos Paz Argentina. That was 1969. I have been back to Marcos Paz many times since but my trip back in 2008 was special. Below is a video of my arrival. That was a reunion.


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