Saturday, August 31, 2013

The Magical Misdirection Tour

There are a lot of people worried about whether we're going to be shooting off a few fireworks in Syria this weekend to celebrate the Labor Day Weekend.  Quite frankly, I am too; but probably not as much as most.  There's been enough fireworks in the Middle East over the last couple of years (actually the last couple thousand years, but whose counting), and in spite of the recent cost in lives and treasure for 'Arabian Adventures', things don't really appear to be getting any better there.  After all, this part of the world is very hot and has too little water (two things which tend to make people cranky), and it seems unlikely that either will change.  So let's move on ....

Wait, that's it.  You're willing to brush off everything going on in Syria, Egypt, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan with no more than a short paragraph!

Yep ...

You see, we are living during the 'Magical Misdirection Tour', and it's time we stopped being taken in by the latest bit of political sleight of hand we're witnessing.  Congress is about to come back from their summer vacation to face once more a dismal and epic failure to pass even a single part of next year's fiscal budget.  Instead of apologizing for the failure to do their job however, what we'll hear instead is a lot of high minded discussion (see bloviating) about the terror or necessity of 'shutting down government' in order to facilitate future partisan point-scoring in the year leading up to a mid-term election.

If we fail to applaud to this bit of played out pretense, the second act of the looming debt ceiling awaits just beyond.  Yes, the same legislative body that brought you the 'House Banking Scandal of 1992' (Remember.  This was where members of the House were allowed to overdraw their personal checking accounts without penalty) will once again need to take up the unfortunate situation that borrowing on the national account is about to exceed its limit.  Recognizing the dire 'damsel on the train tracks' nature of this situation and the need to resolve it before the nation supposedly defaults on its debt, both major political parties will seek to ... make it about re-election next year.

The President meanwhile, had been focusing his attention on the cost of a higher education and the burden of borrowing money to finance it.  Of course the fact that such costs have gone up by over 250 percent in the last thirty years has nothing to do with the government providing low interest, unsecured loans to pay for it, regardless of whether the degree obtained in the process would provide an income which allows the student to pay the loan back.  Instead the President would like the government to 'evaluate' schools, and find forgiveness for loans taken out by students who go to work for non-profit organizations or the government itself. (There's a level of hypocrisy here that needs to be delved into, but not today.)

Oh and let's not forget that the Administration once again has its laser-like attention focused on jobs in this country.  (How many times have we heard this one before?)  Apparently, being the President whose biggest effect on employment thus far has been to turn more full time employment into part time employment through the Affordable Healthcare Act is not enough.  The Commander-in-Chief has yet to make any concrete proposals on how to get good, high paying jobs back into this stagnant economy, but perhaps its not too late to jump on board the $15.00 per hour for fast food workers movement.  Force them to unionize like federal workers and this could have the double benefit of paying back supporting unions by way of dues.

So let's assess where we are.  We're told that the growth in the national debt is slowing in one hand, but we have to raise the debt ceiling in the other.  We're told that we can trust the government to watch over us when the NSA is spying on some of us and the IRS is conspiring against others. We're told that we need to re-elect experienced politicians to lead in Washington when those in place for over 20 years cannot perform even the most basic functions of getting an annual budget passed or produce readable legislation.  Suddenly however, just when the anger really starts to get going over all the crap being shoveled on us in this country by our nation's capital the most important thing in the world is suddenly (wait for it) ... 


Wait.  Hasn't this civil war has been going on for over a year?  So why does jumping into now sound like a good idea?  Does it make any real difference to a Syrian population that the rest of the world has mostly abandoned whether the lives of the over 100,000 already killed were ended by bombs, bullets, or poison gas?  Why is this alleged gas attack different from the previous one that the President said would be the 'red line', but wasn't?  Wouldn't shooting a few cruise missiles, dropping some bombs from air strikes, or making some drone attacks likely kill even more and cause even more destruction?  Then again ...

Could all of this political theater be little more than a distraction from the phony scandals in Washington?  Could their timing be any more perfect for this Administration?  Is there a better bit of misdirection than showing pictures of poisoned women and kids that didn't matter a couple of weeks ago and haven't mattered for the last couple years (not to mention parking some warships in the Eastern Mediterranean) to keep us from noticing the insidious poison of the ruling elite infecting this country from Washington DC?

Well played Federal Government.  The media now speaks of nothing but about our strategy (such as it is) for dealing with Syria, so the American public will no doubt fall once more for the charlatan's tricks.  Fast and Furious?  Benghazi? The IRS and the NSA? The Debt Ceiling and the Budget?  Immigration or Tax reform, who cares?  The list goes on and on, but they're all old news now that we've got some fresh meat to feed the public.  What was crucial to this nation's survival just days ago is about to become little more than the footnote to a growing list of things we've lost sight of.  Welcome to the continuation of the Magical Misdirection Tour of 2013. Enjoy the show.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Three Blind Mice Should Make No Comment (Please)

There was certain inevitability to the dialogue in the wake of the Treyvon Martin case involving what has been termed 'white on black' murder (in spite of the fact that George Zimmerman might also be considered Hispanic, since one of his parents is).  In the weeks that have followed since Zimmerman was found innocent of the charge of second degree murder, we have unfortunately had instead a number of examples of 'black on white' murders brought to our attention, and a constant stream of vitriolic commentary wondering why 2013's Three Blind Mice of Bigotry have failed to find a voice with which to speak out with the same never-ending stream of divisiveness that they did since the tragedy of young Mr. Martin's death.

Fortunately or unfortunately for those focused on retribution in this country, and depending on which bit of nonsense you were intent on promoting, the nation (and the rest of the world) has continued on it merry and murderous path to provide all of the examples of Humanity's worst behavior that anyone could possibly need.  Just in the last week, two of these 'black on white' murders apparently occurred when an 88 year-old WWII veteran named Delbert Belton was beaten to death in Spokane, WA; and a college baseball player named Christopher Lane was shot to death while jogging in Oklahoma.  These are just two of far too many murders that occurred in the US during that period in various racial combinations.  There are unfortunately, hundreds of examples of such crimes every week and thousands of examples every year, with families left to mourn loved ones whose lives have been tragically cut short by the misdeeds of others.  There's no real surprise in these statistics, but there is a sadness in knowing that it's been going on since Cain killed Able.

Regardless of the sentimental pronouncements by the left and right however, these deaths are not a clarion call for gun control, a product of the relaxation of marijuana laws, or (as our three undiscerning agent provocateurs of race baiting would have us believe) a continuing acknowledgement of right wing racism in this country.  After all, hundreds of thousands are dying in Syria for reasons that have nothing to do with race, car bombs explode and suicide bombers continue to ply their trade in events that have nothing to do with the drug cartels, and new mass graves continued to be discovered around the world in places that these three sightless test lab animals of discrimination have never spoken of.  

There are some however, who hold these three in contempt for the dearth of public statement on some of these recent acts, but I'm not one of them.  Oh don't get me wrong, there are strong feelings of contempt stirring in my bosom; but they're reserved for most of the pronouncements these three make and the policies they espouse, not their silence.  In fact I welcome it.  

The Reverend Al Sharpton, in spite of having a MSNBC pulpit five days a week, has remained curiously (and blessedly) silent in recent days.  Then again, Mr. Sharpton is no longer a young man, and perhaps he's a bit worn out from carrying that racial chip on his shoulder for so long.  His reputation after all, has only suffered over the years by the verbal ejections from his pie hole, going back as far as 1987 and the spotlight he brought to the case of Tawana Brawley.  His random and unreliable recitations since may have gained him some questionable status within his community over the years, but they've left him today with nothing to show for his efforts but some shiny suits and the dubious reward of a prime time venue on a failing network.  I'm afraid that the best that can be said about the Reverend Al these days is that the factual basis of his offerings are as anorexic as his appearance  He helps his cause most by refusing to contribute to the discussion.

Now the other Reverend, Jesse Jackson, finally did get around to issuing a statement on the Oklahoma shooting, but it was one so anemic that we can only assume that the Reverend was off his game during a week that saw members of his immediate family packed off to serve in a way that many other recent Illinois office holders have before them ... in jail.  In such banal statements however, the Reverend Jackson may have shown far more wisdom than one would normally give him credit for.  I would never suggest that in light of this family situation, the Reverend's time and attention might better be focused on his own problems (and bookkeeping); and I'm sure that his lack of attention simply means he's far too explaining the facts of life (and law) to his grandkids.  Besides, unlike most of his causes, the current ones present no opportunity for the kind of camera time used for fund raising, nor a corporation that might be held hostage for a healthy 'donation'.  I suspect that the Reverend, far more savvy than his MSNBC religious counterpart, will see the value of discretion and continue to lay low while public opinion swings away from his cause.

As for the President, his spokesman evidently had not been watching the television news (where the White House evidently gets all its information), and therefore was unable comment when recently queried.  Having returned from vacation, the Commander-in-Chief himself was instead busy touring some of the nation's centers of higher education, subtly threatening those institutions with a form of government scrutiny normally only reserved for oil and pharmaceutical companies.  Hinting vaguely at price controls while promoting the value of borrowing money from the government to pay the inflated costs for a largely valueless education in a stagnant economy; he likewise had nothing to say on these recent events.  With luck and good advice, I suspect that such silence will largely continue.  

The President after all, is pretty darn busy these days.   After getting up, it's time to draw (or erase) another red line to lead from behind while watching the ongoing slaughter occurring in Syria; all while discussing which side of the Egyptian 'Arab Summer' he's going piss off next (or is it more?).  Then it's time to issue a morning statement blaming the Republicans for wasting the country's time with hearings over the phony scandals in the IRS, the NSA, and the DOJ whose revelations continue to make his Administration look as crooked as (if not more so) than the one in Chicago that his former adviser Rahm Emmanuel runs.  Later he can take a short break from cover ups and political castigation to circumvent Congress by issuing a few regulatory changes, unconstitutionally delay the implementation of a law or two, and encroach on the separation of powers; but before you know it, it's time for lunch.  Then it's back to a busy afternoon of insulting his political opponents by accusing them of things they might do (but haven't yet), followed by issuing another statement decrying their unwillingness to work with (give in to) the guy who just insulted them without a fight on any issue on which he expresses an opinion (not a plan, just an opinion).   The next thing you know, it's time for dinner.  If there's not a taxpayer-funded awards ceremony or concert going on that evening that sequestration hasn't interfered with, there might be time to squeeze in a hard-hitting interview on getting a new puppy with Jim Colbert or Jimmy Fallon (I sometimes get those two mixed up); or maybe with some luck, some 'night putting' before bed. 

But listen, we're far better off if these three carriers of racial 'hoof in mouth' disease steer clear of pronouncements on such events.  Let's be honest, their inability to cast an objective light on the subject would not add to anything meaningful to the national dialogue.  Their normal divisiveness might in fact further inflame already incendiary tempers, rather than quiet them.  As for what the two Reverends might want to believe about their so-called exalted standings in the community where such discussions are involved, the need for their proselytizing is dubious at best and toxic at worst.  And as for the President, he could stand to learn a lesson in the value of leaving local affairs to the local leaders and saving his Solomon-like wisdom for what appears to be a wholly inadequate foreign policy.  

Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) once said, "It is better to keep your mouth closed and let people think you are a fool than to open it and remove all doubt."   My advice to our three rodent racial dividers would therefore be that when asked, they should stick to a consistent message:  

"No Comment!"

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Oz Medicine

(Disclaimer:  This post has nothing to do with 'Dr. Oz' or his TV show, which I have only noted in passing while channel surfing.)  

For those of you a bit surprised about the inclusion of a mid-week posting this week, I have to tell you that you're not the only one.  It appears however, that there may some potential side effects to living in the "Land of Oz" (aka Kansas) that some of us may be particularly susceptible to; and I now appear to be running the gamut of these conditions.

As many of you might know, I recently completed what I now like to call 'Tin Man Surgery', in which extensive and extremely necessary repairs were done to veins and arteries around an organ that was apparently in absence in one of Dorothy's companions in "The Wizard of Oz" as well apparently as in many Conservatives.  (No, not my brain.  Try not to jump ahead, please.)  In spite of living in the Wiz's balloon 'fly-over country' however, I was seemingly blessed with some local 'rock stars' of the medical profession and the repairs were not only successful, but my expeditious recovery currently has me up for 'Miss Open Heart Surgery 2013'. (You should see the swim suit competition.) 

In the days since my return home from the hospital however, I seem to have traded the condition that I shared with Dorothy's metal companion for that suffered by one of her more herbaceous ones.  I have recently discovered that my interest and ability to write either quantitatively or qualitatively (writing a lot or well) seems have suffered in a corresponding fashion to my return of the good health of that vital pump in what I am beginning to consider might be the possible onset of 'Scarecrow's Syndrome'.  I am now more than a little concerned that repairs insuring that blood is now properly circulating around my heart have somehow diverted this vital fluid from reaching the near perfect vacuum between my ears.  

As a result, these days find me either unable or unwilling to keep up with my former docile pace of two blog posts a week.  As for concerning myself with the discipline of the multiple personality disorder more commonly known as the staff here at JBS where the lexicographers of the SOS Dictionary are concerned, or facing the mess in the locked attic room (that I keep in my mind) better known as the Department of Just Blowing Smoke Security; forget about it.  This combination of raging inability and apathy doesn't even speak to the apologies that I owe Michael Miller and the staff at the Toledo Free Press for failing to annoy them with nonsensical weekly efforts offered for publication in their well-esteemed product, let alone the constant re-writes that follow in vague but futile attempts to make them at least coherent, if not intelligent offerings.

My continued inability to properly identify the cause for this problem, let alone truly accept responsibility for the resulting lack of literary output leads me to believe that yet a third yet undiagnosed malady may be lurking in the wings.  Such cowardice in the face of (and piled on top of) such inexcusable laziness may in fact be an indication of the first stage symptoms of another one of Dorothy's literary traveling companions.  As fragile as my current mental state is however, I'm not sure if I could face a confirming diagnosis and discovering that I might indeed be suffering from the onset of 'Cowardly Lion's Disease' on top of everything else (though that may just be the fear talking).   

This dilemma is further complicated by not knowing which of the medical professionals that I'm working with in the Sunflower State that I should consult regarding these concerns.  Try as I might, I'm not sure how to determine which of their specialties these maladies might fall under, if any at all.  Since most of them have signed off on my recovery (Oh, if they only knew!), and I am therefore not scheduled to visit with any of them any time soon; I hate to bother them with what may in fact be no more than post-operative psychosomatic disorders.  

Perhaps the symptoms that at least I believe that I'm experiencing might not fall under any of the extensive training that any of them have received, and instead another medical professional must be called in.  (I wonder if Dr. House might be interested in taking my case, though I better hurry before he finishes his final season.) 

Now I'm sure that many of those reading this might by now think you have a pretty good idea or two of who might best be consulted (and I might even be tempted agree with you), but instead I think that I would to take these thematic medical complaints to their absurdly logical conclusion.  Yes that's it!  Dorothy did after all have one other companion on her journey through Oz that I have yet to consider ... Toto.  I need to get on the phone with a local veterinarian first thing tomorrow ....

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Bitter Harvest

One of many parts of the budget process left hanging when our legislators ducked out of Washington DC for their ill-conceived summer vacation was passage of the Farm Bill.  Now traditionally, passing a Farm Bill in Congress is never a problem.  Bi-Partisan agreement for them (always a danger sign) has usually been pretty simple to achieve, since in 1973 such bills began combining some of the worst of government handouts.  For the first time however Republicans in the House violated one of those previously unwritten 'I get mine and you get yours' rules in federal budgets by attempting to separate the SNAP program (better known as Food Stamps) from the various subsidy and federally-supported crop insurance programs provided to Agribusiness.  As members traded accusations of waste, fraud, and abuse, it was often difficult to tell where the acrimonious language about corporate subsidies began and rancorous words over starving children ended.   

Now the USDA who's in charge of the money for both programs was justifiably concerned, and has been doing their damnedest to see the money for both programs substantially increase over the years (no doubt thereby increasing their own influence and  power in DC).  They've even gone to the extent of creating literature, programs, and media efforts to sign people up for SNAP (though technically, it's not legal to recruit for SNAP).  With the aid of a number of private groups in recent years (some of whom are receiving other government subsidies) they have in fact been hugely successful in increasing SNAP enrollment from 17 million in 2000 to 45 million in 2011.  The total budget outlay for the program, which once stood at a mere $18 billion in 2000; saw Congressionally approved increases (including one that was a part of the original stimulus program); that have brought it to $72 billion in 2011.  

Not to be left behind in this bi-partisan effort of grabbing what you can, one of the most effective lobbying groups in the country has similarly helped to see crop insurance for farmers, once at $1.5 billion in 2002,  grow to $7.4 billion in 2011.  Even a GOP that has supposedly been taken over by its radical right-wing seems content to leave mandated bio-fuel requirements in place; insuring not only that prices for crops used in their production will remain high, but that their production will be supported by subsidy and insurance programs.  Supposed Free Market advocates in the legislature have likewise retained the crony capitalism of restrictions on things like sugar imports to a mere 15% of the domestic market, while subsidies to sugar producers remain at over $2 billion per year (according to the CATO Institute).

I can hear the cries now however.  "Wait," the populists shout, "there's a difference.  Farmers are just regular, hard-working folks doing a difficult job in tough times.  They're not someone looking for a handout."  Really!  First, let's recognize that regardless of popular myth, we're no longer talking about the gentlemen farmer in agriculture when today 50% of food production comes from the biggest 2% of all farms in the US.  But even if we look at traditional family farms in this country, let's look at how badly those farmers have been doing financially.  Average crop production was up across the country again last year, land values have increased at a double digit rates for the third year in a row, and crop prices look to be up once again in 2013; according to the magazine "The Week".  Farmer income in this country in fact averaged $87,289 in 2011, almost 30 percent higher than that of the average US household income of the same year.       

As for 'hand outs' available for farmers, let's talk a bit about programs begun during the 'Dust Bowl' that were designed to prevent the collapse of agriculture in this country.  Instead of well-intentioned assistance, since the Agricultural Act of 1949 we now 'subsistence farmers' who largely 'subsist' on their checks from the government.  That's the same government which long since made the practice of paying farmers not to farm (a program designed to keep crop prices up) a permanent part of agriculture legislation.  

This means that in the name of caring for 'farmers', typical government program abuse has led us to a point where we send farm subsidy checks to 1,500 residents of New York City (none of whom are not making Salsa to my knowledge) for rural land they own elsewhere.  Extensive efforts by the Just Blowing Smoke Research Department were unable to confirm if any of these same people were simultaneously enrolled in SNAP, but it's possible.  Between the government imposed import controls, crop subsidies, and crop insurance, it would seem difficult if not impossible today not to profit by tilling the fields these days (or not tilling it, as the case might be).

Oh I'm sure that the budget battles will begin again when our esteemed national legislature returns to DC next month.  Congress has shown themselves all but incapable of passing the annual budgets that they're obligated to, relying instead on the magical misdirection of continuing resolutions to promote and prolong partisan bickering for political purposes.  I suspect however, that somewhere amidst the noise and distractions of raising the debt limit and passing that next continuing resolution however, a quiet compromise will be reached with regards to various parts of the Farm Bill.  The seeds of waste, abuse, and corruption were planted long ago in the fields of food production and food assistance.  They've been ably fertilized over the years by lobbyists for Agribusiness and watered by decades of elected officials running for the highest office in the land in early primary states and those who could see no further than the federal funding they could brag about bringing back to their districts.  Considering that sorry state of affairs, it's should therefore be no surprise that we have little more than a bitter harvest to look forward to where the Farm Bill is concerned.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Vacation - My Favorite Time of Year

This time of year brings back many fond memories for me.  Like many children who grew up in the Dark Ages, when video games included such exciting titles as 'Pong' and ... 'Pong', many future nerds were forced by their parents to spend some part of summer vacation time outside, unwittingly exposing their bodies to the deadly UV rays coming from the sun (as opposed to the deadly rays of energy that we were told were coming from primitive television sets at the time).  Apparently there was some addictive property to such UV exposure however, since before we knew it we were not only willing to be ripped from our pre-cable interior existence and our complacent suburban lives, but soon found ourselves actually looking forward to being deported to the even more primitive living conditions which our parents called 'Vacations'.

For my family (and a group of my cousins), these summer migrations became the annual "Great Northern Pilgrimage"  (please note that the word 'White' was not used in the title, since the Canadian border was never crossed).  Early versions of these Lewis and Clark cross country (or more accurately Ford 'Town and Country') expeditions began with simple border crossings from Illinois to Wisconsin for a return each year to nature (along with the lumberjack championships in Hayward), but eventually even the lure of day long fishing and learning to log roll began to pale as expansion of the Interstate system allowed civilization to encroach on these escapes.  Overcrowding soon caused the clan to continue north and west, moving across the Minnesota border many miles, before ending up in an area north of Brainerd called Fifty Lakes.  Here there was little exposure to newspapers, none to television, and the only real concerns were whether the fish were biting or the bear outside of the bait store might be interested in a bottle of orange pop if we made a trip to it for more worms. 

Though unfortunately those days are far behind me, this time of year remains my favorite; not because I'm on vacation, but because both Congress and the President are.  After one last gutless bit of misconduct in sparing themselves from the onerous obligations of the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), The Teleprompter Kid and Gang Who Couldn't Shoot Straight (at least with the American Public) road off into the sunset for some well-deserved time off Interestingly enough, this summer escape for Congress dates back to the founding of this country and the fact that our nation's capital was built on a bug-infested swamp suitable for only for the habitation of blood-sucking parasites in the days before air conditioning was invented.  (A tradition which has apparently changed little over the intervening years.)  

The President is now temporarily off of his stump speech tour of promoting the recovery of the middle class by vacationing on an island where the truly rich go to escape the plebeian company of the semi-rich and upper middle class (Martha's Vineyard).  There, having traveled with his staff of cooks and servants (and a special fight for the first pet), he'll be able to rest, relax, and form a clearer understanding of the hardships of a growing class of people who remain unemployed or underemployed, while renting a multi-million house ($6.7 to be exact) from a Democratic donor and enjoying rounds of golf at private country clubs.  

Congress meanwhile, is taking a five week break from its partisan bickering to purportedly return to their constituencies and re-establish contact with the 'little people' who sent them to Washington in the first place.  (Besides, all the lobbyists on K Street left town.)  The fact that most of those that they're likely to see are at local events are those contributing to the future campaigns of these professional incumbents is probably only a coincidence (if not a political necessity).  There may be a town hall meeting or two where the unwashed can show up, but they're likely to be held in Senatorial districts not up for re-election or safe Congressional districts.

This year, a lot of people are very angry with the President and Congress for abandoning their posts, since they've done such a lousy job of doing their job that not one Appropriations Bill from the nation's annual budget has been passed a mere six weeks before the fiscal year is set come to an end.  They're concerned over the rumored political strategies from both sides of the aisle threatening to turn the process once again into a series of contentious 'Continuing Resolutions' that allow their elected representatives to write even worse legislation than usual, while ostensibly resolving their petty political squabbles.  And while this last minute annual budget mess is going on, many can't help but likewise notice that the debt ceiling again needs to be raised, and that the only thing keeping the US from defaulting on its debts are some bookkeeping tricks performed by the Treasury Department that would get you thrown into jail if you tried them.  Some might find the presence of such dual national financial crises a curious time for those in charge to leave.  Not I however ...

I find that any departure of the nation's perpetrators at any time provides some necessary time off for the rest of us (and the more often, the merrier).  Without glacially-paced Congressional hearings and discussions of speculative Congressional strategies, I sleep safe at night knowing the nightly news will be far more boring.  With the President off the stump speech circuit (at taxpayer expense) and on vacation (at taxpayer expense), even the cable news show pundits seem far less bitter in their rants.  With both parties off doing fund-raising at home instead of writing comprehensive (incomprehensible) 2,000 page legislation in DC, their miserable minions in the daily newspapers report on cheery weather trends and state fair attendance instead.  Without the constant polling data telling me that no one believes it's getting any better out there, we're allowed to complacently accept our roles as a low information voters, and the world is far more at peace.  Oh sure the problems are still there, but it's not like our elected leaders were making a real effort at resolving them before they left (rather than attempting to make political points); and at least they will be made no worse for a couple weeks while the inmates take a break from running the asylum.  We can all relax while the Harry Reids and the John McCains take time off that they don't deserve ... to give us some that we desperately do. 

No, those days of my youth are over, and it's unlikely that I will be making a 'Great North Pilgrimage' any time soon. There will be no fishing involved for me this year, and bringing that bear a Nehi or Orange Crush these days (if he's even still alive) is far more likely to get me a nasty phone call from New York Mayor Bloomberg (if not a visit from the ASPCA).  But that's Okay with me; for even in these changing times, vacation is still my favorite time of year.