Tuesday, December 27, 2011

NOTES FROM TANZANIA: What I learned in a third-world country

Mt. Kilimanjaro as seen from the city of Moshi.
(skip this and go to “What I Learned,” below, if you're short on time)

    I recently spent three weeks in Tanzania. For those of you who, like me, are geographically challenged, Tanzania is a country of 41 million people on the east coast of Africa, just south of the equator, below Kenya, above Mozambique, and east of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Tanzania is a stable country, free of civil wars. It is a third-world country, so called—its per-capita income is about $40 per month—but its people are not, for the most part, starving or naked or cold. It does have a fairly high incidence of malaria, Q fever, tuberculosis, and AIDS, and, as a result, a goodly number of widows and orphans. Go to this web site for the U.S. State Department’s description of Tanzania . Compared to most other African countries, Tanzania is a safe place to visit.
     I went to Tanzania to work for two weeks and to go on safari with my son and daughter-in-law for one week thereafter. My work was teaching. I am part of a program designed to provide educational services to medical students at Kilimanjaro Christian Medical Centre in Moshi, which is a city in the foothills of Mt. Kilimanjaro, in the northern interior of the country. Duke University has a grant to help provide these educational services. One of the goals of the grant is to improve the English-writing skills of Tanzanian medical students, whose studies are in English and whose national language of government is English. (Swahili is the spoken and written language of the general population.) Duke has subcontracted out this English-teaching part of the grant to some of us affiliated with the English Department at Virginia Tech.
     So I went to Tanzania as an English teacher. For two weeks, my colleague Jane Wemhoener, who directs the Virginia Tech part of the program, and I met with first-year medical students and ran a few classes on English writing. For the next four years, we will try to teach these students how to improve their writing in English via email while we’re here in the United States, but we wanted to introduce them to the program in person. That’s why we went to Moshi.
     On this blog post, I will share my impressions of, and some of my experiences in, Tanzania. My friends and family have asked me to do this.
      First, however, a few words about tourism:
      It is easy to visit a “third-world” country like Tanzania with the wrong attitude. It is wrong, I believe, to pass judgment or make comparisons on such a trip—to say, for example, that “their” way of doing things is better or worse than “ours” or that their children are cuter or their landscapes more majestic, or less cute or less majestic, than ours. It is wrong to treat a safari in the Serengeti like a visit to a zoo, in which you merely ooh and aah over the elephants and lions. It is wrong to treat a Maasai village and its dancers like an exhibit at Disneyland, there to entertain you with their “quaintness.” You shouldn’t go to a place like Tanzania to be amused or to feel superior (or, in the case of some people I know, to feel inferior) or to check certain animals off your list. 

Like kids everywhere, Tanzanian kids are beautiful.

      It’s hard to find the right attitude when you’re a tourist, anywhere. I struggled with my own tendency to declare Tanzanian children cuter than those elsewhere, for example, even though they do have wonderful, illuminated smiles. I have traveled just enough to know that children everywhere are damned cute. The children in China, the Netherlands, Scotland, and Japan are terrifically cute. But so are American kids. When I was in Beijing with my 12-year-old son many years ago, people would stop us on the street and say, “He your son? He beeeeeautiful!”
     And I struggled with my own tendency either to pity or to over-admire Tanzanian women who walk 15 miles with 40 pounds of bananas on their heads (no hands) to get to Saturday market.
     And I certainly struggled with my tendency to pass judgment on Maasai men, who, by my lights, practice all kinds of abusive sexism.
     I worried, for a time, that I was a voyeur in Tanzania, using the people and the landscape there as nothing more than a reality television show. This was especially true when I was in a huge Land Cruiser gaping out the window at the lions in Ngorongoro Crater or gaping at the tomato sellers in the roadside vegetable markets or gaping at the children herding cattle and goats by the sides of the roads. I didn’t want to be a voyeur. I knew, however, that not all travelers are voyeurs, and not all tourism is voyeuristic. One can, I reminded myself, gaze without gaping.
      Anyway, I believe the key to being a pure, moral traveler is this: Travel to learn and to experience. That’s all: just to learn and to experience. Leave aside all judgments, moral or aesthetic or political. Leave aside the idea that what you see is there for your amusement or for you to check off on some list so you can brag to your friends later. Instead, think of what you see as making you a somehow larger human being. That’s what all good learning is. If you remember that you are a small, unfinished person and have lots to learn, perhaps you’ll approach tourism with the proper humility, and you’ll show the people and landscapes that you see the proper respect.

A typical Tanzanian road.

What I Learned, What I Experienced

      Anyway, here are some of the things that happened and some of the things I learned in Tanzania, in more or less the order I learned them:
      The road from Kilimanjaro Airport to Moshi is one lane in each direction, paved, utterly dark at night, snakes crossing in the headlights, with bone-jarring speed bumps every two miles or so to keep cars from speeding. This was the best road we traveled. Almost all other roads were unpaved and rather spectacularly bumpy, often with rocks sticking straight up three or four inches, everywhere. I wouldn’t take my Subaru Impreza on 98% of Tanzania’s roads.
      On the outskirts of Moshi, as we drove in the dark on the way in from the airport after our arrival, we hit a traffic jam, which is nearly unheard of at night outside of cities in Tanzania. Turns out there had been an accident in the road ahead, and the citizens of the village where the accident occurred had come out to demonstrate loudly against the poor road-safety conditions. The police were called. Shots were fired (in the air, we think). People ran away past us in the dark by the side of the road. This was our welcome to Tanzania.
      Tanzania has some good beer. Kilimanjaro and Tusker brands were my favorites. At roadsides, we often saw grain spread out on cloth on the ground to dry, being prepared for locally made beer. We were warned not to drink the locally made beer.
      Our luggage arrived intact, but one our housemates had tried to bring in 16 pairs of running shoes for children at an orphanage in Moshi. Eight pairs of those shoes had been stolen from her luggage in transit. Half of Jane’s Power Bars had also been stolen from her luggage. Theft from luggage at the airports in Tanzania—esp. of things like running shoes—is common. We also tried to mail 150 copies of a soft-cover book to our Tanzanian students. To this day, four months later, they are still being held by Tanzanian customs agents. The implication is that someone needs to pay a bribe to have them freed.
      I went to a Lutheran church service in Moshi. There was a wonderful 12-person choir, with very distinctive African harmonies. The sermon was long and almost entirely in Swahili, except for these English phrases: “Guilty or innocent!” and “Sliding down to hell!” We English-speakers did not take this personally. In the middle of the sermon by the very serious preacher, a little boy wandered in, walked up to the preacher as he was preaching, and asked for something. The preacher stopped, smiled, and handed the boy a basket. He then explained (in English) that the boy needed the basket for the offering in his Sunday school class. During the entire church service, two live chickens, wrapped in cloth and well behaved, were on the church floor. These later proved to be the offerings of certain parishioners. 

With the help of an ngata, a Tanzanian woman can carry almost anything on her head.

     Tanzanian women carry all sorts of things on their heads: big jugs of water, large bags of rice, giant bunches of bananas, tied-up piles of kindling wood. They are aided by something called an ngata—a kind of cloth donut made by twisting a rag and tying its ends together. This goes between the head and what’s being carried and kind of flattens out the system. Simple and ingenious. One cannot buy an ngata; it is too simple to make one oneself, out of a rag. People laugh when you ask to buy one.
     The main paved roads in Moshi and Arusha (a nearby, bigger city) are teeming with pedestrians, bicyclists, van-buses (packed, literally, to overflowing with riders, their heads sticking out the windows), taxis, and thousands of cheap Chinese motorcycles called piki-pikis. The driving is very, shall we say, aggressive. Only those vicious speed bumps keep the velocities sane. The bicycles look like WWII-era one-speed English racers.
      A dollar is worth 1,760 Tanzanian shillings, which usually come in the form of very old, dirty, worn bills. (Theory: You can judge the state of a country’s economy by the age of its still-circulating bills.) You can buy a 16-oz. Coke with a threadbare thousand-shilling bill and get change in return. A huge rice-and-beans lunch with a Coke runs about 2,500 shillings ($1.50).
      “Hapana” means “no” in Swahili. “Asante” means “thank you.” “Hapana, asante” is what you say to the many Tanzanians who beg you for money or try to sell you something on the street, which they will do rather doggedly, especially the young men. Sometimes you have to say “Hapana, asante” rather doggedly.
      For less than a dollar, you can get a wonderful avocado as big as a grapefruit in Moshi, picked to just the right ripeness by an old lady at an open market. If you plan to eat it tonight, you get a riper avocado than if you plan to save it for tomorrow—avocados custom-chosen for ripeness. The guacamole from the avocados is phenomenally good.
     Although you have to take malaria prevention pills before, during, and after going to Tanzania, it turns out that, according to the research at the medical center where I was, in this part of the country at least, Q fever is more common by far than malaria. Q fever has symptoms similar to malaria. You don’t have to take Q fever pills to visit Tanzania.
     The European, English, and American expatriots living in Moshi periodically enjoy something called a “hash.” This is a run/walk/jog over many miles through the countryside, with planned stops to drink primarily alcohol at manmade oases created by whoever is in charge of that particular hash. I learned that this “sport” is practiced all over the English-speaking world. I had never heard of a hash.
     Across the unpaved street from the Kilimanjaro Christian Medical Centre hospital is a shanty-shop strip mall—tiny, slapped-together shops with tin roofs and abundant Coca Cola signs, all shoulder-to-shoulder. Here there are small bars, vegetable shops, cloth shops, shoe shops and so on. There are also at least five shops that sell only caskets, their wares on display to the street. Again, this is right across the street from the hospital, where many people die of AIDS, tuberculosis, and other such diseases. We’re told that so many caskets are made and sold in Tanzania that the industry is a major contributor to deforestation. (I don’t know if this is true or just a rumor. The forests in Tanzania still seem plenty lush.)

Tanzanian markets have an abundance of gorgeous fruits and vegetables.

    At a small vegetable market in Moshi, I bought lots of fruit and vegetables: mangos, pineapple, passion fruit, avocados, bananas, tomatoes, potatoes. I thought the man selling the food said my purchase cost 80,000 Tanzanian shillings. I began to hand him that. He was shocked. He said I owed him 8,000 Tanzanian shillings. That’s about $4.25. Very embarrassing. I wouldn’t have thought twice about paying $40 for that much food.
      Tanzania grows lots of kinds of bananas. My favorites were the little ones, about 5 inches long. Dense and sweet.
      The electric power goes out occasionally in Moshi and other cities, for anywhere from 15 minutes to ten hours, randomly.
      It was difficult to go jogging on the rocky clay roads and paths of Moshi, but I tried one evening, with one of our housemates. We went on a back path through maize fields. Children followed, laughing and pointing. We were “wazungu”—crazy white people. (“Mzungu” is one crazy white person.) The path went past houses and impromptu bars selling “mbili”— the undrinkable (by wazungu) local homemade beer. There was, I was told, one tennis court in Moshi, at a private school. I didn’t play tennis there. The one attempt at jogging was my only exercise, other than walking 1 1/2 miles to and from our office each morning.
      It’s difficult to know what to call someone in Tanzania. First names, tribal names, and family names are all mixed up, and sometimes a family name (like “Joseph”) sounds like a first name, and sometimes people call themselves by different names depending on whom they’re with. We had a very hard time keeping our students straight, and how do you alphabetize when you don’t know which name is which?
     Internet connections are slow and spotty even in a major city like Moshi, but they do exist.
     Kilimanjaro is a majestic but modest mountain, almost always clothed in clouds. We got to see the snows on top only twice, for a few minutes.
     The meat in Tanzania is generally tough and gristly, but tasty. The cows and goats are scrawny. Ordinary American cattle are almost twice as big as Tanzanian cattle. The goat sausage called mitura, though tough to chew, is one of the tastiest meat dishes I’ve ever had.
     First-year Tanzanian medical students speak so softly you have to stand within two feet of them to understand what they’re saying. Third- and fourth-year students speak up a bit more.
     About a third of the Tanzanian medical students were women. About a fifth of all the students were Muslim. Most were very fervent Christians. Many end their writing assignments by saying “May God bless me” or some variation thereof.
      Young Tanzanian men—including medical students—shake hands rap style, with several shifting grips that I couldn’t keep up with.
An African pied crow, common in Tanzania.

      Tanzanian crows have yellow vests.
      Tanzanians almost unanimously love to dance and sing. This is not stereotyping; it is, according to my students, simply true.
      The temperature in Moshi in November tops out at about 85 degrees. Very pleasant. November and December make up the smaller of the two rainy seasons. The more popular tourist season is the dry season, in late summer, when the herds of animals migrate to water holes.
      Bargaining is expected by cab drivers and most shops. If the cabbie asks 8,000 shillings to take you somewhere, you can probably get him down to 5,000 or 6,000.
      Our clothes in Tanzania were dried on clotheslines, but then they had to be ironed by a hot iron to kill the larvae of the mango flies, which lay their eggs in drying clothes. If a mango larva get on you, it enters your skin and must later be cut out corkscrew-style.
     Tanzanian schoolchildren in Moshi wear blue-and-white school uniforms.
     The trees and bushes in Moshi are lushly flowered and deeply fragrant.
     It’s safest not to drink the water in Tanzania unless it has been boiled or comes from a bottle. It is difficult to learn the habit of brushing your teeth with water from a bottle.
     The medical students want to improve the country’s health-care and educational systems. One wants a grant to start a farm for raising laboratory animals such as rats, because the high schools have no animals for biology students to practice on. Another just wants better cadavers at the medical school.
      All teaching lectures at the medical school are given in English. This must be terribly difficult for many students, who are not strong in their English. Their teachers’ English, in more than a few cases, is also not particularly strong. Many of our students knew medical terms like “cyanosis” but not words like “agony” or “dazed.”
      The medical students have all learned their English, not from native English speakers, but from teachers who have been taught by teachers who have been taught by English speakers. The students are, in other words, three or four removes from first-rate English. They also speak with a strong British accent and claim that sentences end with “full stops,” not periods.
     The students are used to being lectured to. They were not, at first, comfortable with our request for class participation.
     There are excellent Chinese and Indian restaurants in Moshi. I had the best sweet-and-sour pork I’ve ever eaten at the Panda Chinese Restaurant. The Indian restaurant where we ate is named, oddly, El Rancho. It is also excellent.
     “Shantytown” in Moshi is the street with all the big fancy houses—just the opposite of what “shanty” means in the U.S. The biggest house on the biggest compound belongs to the Catholic bishop. Another big one belongs to the Lutheran bishop.
     China is very busy in Tanzania and the rest of southeast Africa, building infrastructure like power stations and making its industry indispensable. This appears to be part of some kind of long-term political plan.
     Ninety-five percent of all Tanzanian cars and vans are Toyotas.
     Termite mounds are everywhere in northeastern Tanzania, up to 10 feet high.
     Nairobi flies by the millions showed up one day at the offices of the program we worked in. These are small flies whose saliva stings terribly if it gets on you.
The typical pose of a Maasai man.

      The small goat and cattle herds that fill the savannah and roadsides in the Kilimanjaro area are often tended by Maasai children as young as six or seven. They all carry inch-thick, 4- to 6-foot long herding sticks. The typical posture of a Maasai man is with a herding stick held horizontally behind his neck and with both hands draped over it.
      Maasai men dress in bright red-and-blue plaid robes. The Maasai are long and lean, like NBA shooting forwards. The men of all other tribes dress in drab pea-greens, browns, and blacks—mostly Western-style clothes. The men of other tribes are stockier than the Maasai. The women of all tribes dress in bright, beautifully patterned cloth.
      American tourists love the colorful Maasai men, who look regal and tall and wear great clothes. But the other tribes disdain the Maasai. Our drivers, who were from other tribes, unanimously said that the Maasai steal cattle and goats, mistreat their own women, practice polygamy, fight poorly, and are too lazy for any nonagricultural job other than security guard.
     At Arusha National Park, about 40 miles from Moshi, where we day-tripped one day, we saw Cape buffaloes, zebras, baboons, kudu, tiny dik-diks, flamingos by the thousands, and wart hogs. The big hit was the colobus monkeys, large black and white creatures, with long white tails and a distinctive yelp. They look like big skunks.
     One day we drove 40 miles to a small village to meet a wood sculptor who lives in the middle of what seems to be a dense banana plantation. He’s a true artist named Lawi. His house/hut is sticks and mud, with a cow and a goat under the same roof. He’s young and very modest. His “exhibition studio” is a window-lit hut with fantastic wood sculptures all over the floor. I bought an abstract sculpture of a kneeling woman with her arms over her head (a common theme in markets, but his is like no other we saw). This sculpture would go for $500 in a Fifth Avenue gallery, I sincerely believe. Lawi sold it to me for 15,000 shillings—about $8.50. We all bought many pieces, all cheap. We didn’t want to take advantage of Lawi, but we also had to be careful not to insult him by implying that he didn’t know the worth of his own work. He and his young family (his teenage daughter kept accounts of our purchases) were clearly very happy that we purchased about $80 worth of sculpture among us. The wood he uses he collects himself from the forest.
     The main commercial center of Moshi is teeming with people, cars, piki-pikis, and bicycles. There are hundreds of small shops, nearly all selling cloth or cloth handbags. How do they all make a living? As white tourists, we were besieged by sellers. At every corner, in the shade, is a line of people at outdoor sewing machines.
     If you want to make Tanzanian students laugh, call something or someone “kichaa.” It means “crazy.” They thought I was “kichaa” when I acted out the word “agony,” which they did not know in their reading. I told them I thought Swahili plurals are kichaa because there are so many ways to make a plural (one doctor is “daktari,” and many doctors are “madaktari”; one tree is mti and many trees are “miti”; one book is “kitabu,” and many books are “vitabu”; one giraffe is “twiga,” and many giraffes are also “twiga”). My students laughed when I told them Swahili plurals make me kichaa.
     One of our best meals was at a saloon/restaurant in the middle of a dark back alley of saloons and shops barely lit by Christmas lights. We wouldn’t have felt safe without locals from our program office. The goat sausage and tomato-cucumber salads were wonderful. We had to leave around 9:00 p.m. because, according to one of our staff, after that the area “gets rough.”
      There is a frontier-city kind of roughness to most Kilimanjaro-area towns: Lots of tough-looking young men, usually hawking something aggressively. Things (vegetables, sandals, toys, soccer balls, t-shirts) being sold off the ground on every inch of sidewalk. Kind of a “Deadwood” feel. But we were assured by our driver that we would be safe walking down such streets. If anything were to happen to us—a pickpocketing, say—all the bystanders would try to catch the thief. They might, we were told, then beat him to death.
     At 5:30 or so each dawn, we could hear the Muslim call to prayer from the main part of Moshi several miles away. Tanzania is about 1/3 Muslim, 1/3 Christian, and 1/3 tribal religions. The Christians, again, are quite fervent, in an evangelical way.
     At one of my class sessions, the med students wanted me to tell them about the United States. I gave them the usual population and political-system facts. But they wanted to know how much money LeBron James makes and what Arnold Schwarzenegger is doing now. They also wanted to know if Freemasons still controlled the American political system. (This is an ongoing tabloid rumor there.)
       After a big downpour one day, a major bridge to safari country washed away, killing a truck driver and his companion. Another downpour washed out a road to Lake Manyara, also on our safari itinerary. But both the bridge and the road were instantly repaired (by hand, mainly with piles of rocks) by the military and locals. Nothing must inconvenience the safari trade, which is a huge source of national income.
      The food at Onsea Hotel in Arusha, where we stayed to prepare for safari, is wonderful! It’s prepared by the gregarious Axel, who trained as a chef in a fancy culinary school in Belgium.
Livestock, often tended by children, are the wealth of the Maasai.
      Arusha is a frighteningly crowded, heavily trafficked city of about 2 million people.
      The road between Arusha, which is in lush banana and coffee country, and Tarangire National Park, where our safari began, passes through dry savannah—Maasai country. On the savannah are many small Maasai compounds, with mud huts looking like the top half of acorns planted in the ground. The compounds are often surrounded by acacia bushes, whose sharp needles keep away hyenas and other predators that will otherwise eat the cattle and goats that are the Maasai source of income and food. Maasai wealth is measured in livestock. We’re told the Maasai still practice female circumcision; our drivers, who were Christian, find this and other Maasai customs like polygamy and daughter-selling disgusting.
      Hanging from trees around Maasai villages are 4-foot logs. We were told these are for bees and their honey.
      In Tarangire National Park we were privileged to see scores of elephants, zebras, wart hogs, impalas, water bucks, baboons, jackals, little vervet monkeys, and giraffes. In our Land Cruiser, with its lift-up top, we got to within 20 feet of elephants and giraffes and most other animals. To them, apparently, we are just another large harmless creature. I liked the impalas and the jackals—elegant creatures. Giraffes and elephants move slowly. The people of Tanzania tend to move at a giraffe-like pace.
      At the reception desk of the tent lodge in Tarangire, my son (in whose name the reservation was) was asked to sign a waver saying that we couldn’t sue if one of us was eaten by a wild creature. This was no joke. We were forbidden to leave our (quite elegant, cement-based) tents after dark. After dinner, we were escorted to our tents in the dark by flashlight-wielding Maasai guards.
     In the middle of the night at Tarangire tent lodge, my son and I, in different tents 15 feet apart, heard a lion between the tents! It sniffed the tents and emitted a sound like a deep purr/growl made by something as big as a bass drum. Terrified, my son and I both stayed stark still in our respective tents, not even waking my son’s wife when she was sniffed by the lion. We were cowardly of lions. Later we heard the territorial bray of the lion nearby.
      In the morning, we emerged from our tents to 15 or so elephants tromping right between the tents, only feet away from us. The elephants made a sound like a deep growl made by something as big as a bass drum. It had been elephants, not lions, we had heard in the night. Major humiliation for son and father. (The “braying,” on the other hand, was, we were told, probably a real lion, but much farther away than we had thought.)
Lionesses resting with cubs—a common sight on our safari.
    At Tarangire, we also saw a lion and her cubs, across the river. And a monitor lizard. And many more elephants, 30 or 40 at a time, often within a few yards. And ostriches, which are ungainly, with their stalk-like necks, bulbous bodies and backward-bending legs. And another lion, sleeping right at roadside under a bush, with a dead dik-dik in the bush behind her. Lions, like domestic cats, seem to sleep a lot. Nearly all the lions we saw on safari (and we saw dozens) were resting. We never saw a lion running or even walking quickly.
     The safari roads everywhere are unpaved, rutted, bone-shakingly bumpy. Many mud holes. (We had to pull a fellow safari van out of one mud hole.) Six hours a day on such roads takes a toll on safari travelers.
      Thousands of trees in the safari parks are broken in half—the victims of elephants. The thick-trunked baobab trees are often made bark-bare by elephants rubbing on them.
      The village outside Lake Manyara had been hit by the deluge two days before and was deep in gooey chocolate mud. Gooey chocolate mud is common in rainy seasons.
      A troop of hundreds and hundreds of baboons in an open Lake Manyara field was very impressive. They like to play tag. Lake Manyara also has giraffes, elephants, zebras. Probably our most beautiful lunch spot was on Lake Manyara, about a quarter-mile from the lake, looking across the vast beach, where three giraffes moseyed along, a lone zebra grazed, and pink flamingos marched left, then right along the shore.
      When we stopped our Land Cruiser at a petrol station on our way to our next safari destination, children and young men banged on the windows to get us to buy jewelry and cloth. “Hapana, assante” did not send them away. We finally had to just ignore them.
      The hotels where we stayed on safari were way overstaffed—more employees than guests. We wondered if there was an agreement between the hotel companies (most based in Europe) and the government that a certain number of locals must be hired and paid full-time, no matter the season. We were in one of the slower seasons. It’s a bit intimidating and discomforting to have employees hovering around you all the time in restaurants and hotels.
      On the way to the Serengeti, we stopped at the Oldupai Gorge (“Olduvai” is wrong), where the Leakeys and others discovered early human remains. A young Tanzanian paleontologist gave an excellent lecture on the origins of man. Much interesting information: e.g., black-skinned people have less hair on their bodies than white-skinned people (makes sense; they didn’t need it in hot climes), and white skin, it is theorized, was better able to generate vitamin D in cold climates where there was less exposure to the sun.
     In the Serengeti plain, we drove into the middle of the vast herds of wildebeest. There were millions of them, stretching to the horizon in every direction. The distant horizon itself was serrated with the silhouettes of wildbeest. One was reminded of the lost herds of American bison.
     Also in the Serengeti: zebras, giraffes, ostriches, Thompson’s gazelles, storks, elephants, baboons, topi, jackals, hyenas (sleeping in the mud, sometimes in their own urinated mud), two leopards resting almost invisible in trees a hundred yards from the road. Hartebeest are the shyest of the animals, seen only from great distance. Here and in Lake Manyara we saw scores of hippos, usually wallowing in hippo-piles in rivers and mudholes, occasionally lumbering on land. Got to see seven lions sleeping on a pile of rocks.
      Hotels on safari will not cash traveler’s checks.
We saw a mama and daddy wart hog chase off a cheetah after the cheetah grabbed one of their babies.
      Leaving the hotel one morning in the Serengeti, we saw a family of warthogs—mother, father, three babies—crossing the road. Suddenly, out of the grass leaped a cheetah, which had been utterly invisible, even though the grass was only a foot or two high. It grabbed a baby wart hog. The parent wart hogs chased the cheetah, which tried to escape by climbing a tree. Cheetahs don’t climb well. The cheetah dropped the little wart hog and jumped out of the tree and ran away. The wart hogs moved on, less one baby, which was probably left in the grass (we couldn’t tell). We waited for the cheetah to return, but it didn’t. It had returned to invisibility. All this took place in about 10 seconds—our one sighting of a predatory chase and capture. A hyena sensed something from half a mile away, moved closer, and considered checking the scene out, but decided not to.
     It’s very odd to see a Maasai man, in full robes, on a bicycle or on a cell phone.
     Tanzanians really do say “Hakuna matata,” as in The Lion King. It means “no big deal” or “nothing to worry about.” This applies to every situation that is not immediately life-threatening. If blood is not flowing, then hakuna matata.
     Guinea fowl are everywhere in Tanzania.
     Best lion sighting we had was in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, near the Ndutu Marsh, where our driver, Ben, took us off road (allowed there, but not in most places). In a bunch of bushes we saw five lionesses and five cubs playing and resting, not 20 feet away from us, ignoring us. A lovely hour spent watchng them. (Ben was a master at finding interesting animal scenes. He also was well versed in zoology and botany, and he spoke excellent English. He was pretty much self-educated. An impressive and pleasant fellow.)
     Ngorongoro Crater is a huge flat valley. Again we saw all the major animals, including elephants, lions, giraffes, in great multitudes. The highlight was a black rhino—in fact, a black rhino mother and daughter. This is very rare to see. Rhinos are almost extinct, thanks to poachers.
     Bicycles are a major mode of transportation on the paved highways in Tanzania. Boys and men (never, it seems, women) ride them carrying big burdens of sticks or rice or passengers. They must walk the bikes up the hills.
     Roadside shops and bars often have interesting European names, like “Paris Saloon” and “Maryland Bed and Breakfast Resort” (which appeared to be all of one cement room).
     Lots of U.S. t-shirts in Tanzania: “Just Did It!” and Obama portraits. Even some NY Yankee caps.
     There is one European flight out of Kilimanjaro airport each day. It goes to Amsterdam via Dar es Salaam. The trip back to Roanoke took me a total of 36 hours. In the Atlanta airport, I saw a man wearing a t-shirt that said, “Mzungu.”


This is the t-shirt I spotted on a traveler in the Atlanta airport at the end of my trip to Tanzania.  "Mzungu" means "aimless wanderer" in Swahili but has more or less come to mean "crazy white person."

Thursday, October 27, 2011

DID I EARN THE RIGHT TO LIVE TODAY? A retired baby-boomer ponders how he should spend his days

Must I live like Mother Teresa to deserve my life?

Or can KenKens also be part of a worthy life?

     This morning after I got up from bed, performed my morning ablutions, and breakfasted, I spent a half hour answering personal emails and perusing the local newspaper. I then spent most of the morning watching a “Great Courses” educational video called “The Joy of Mathematics,” which returned me, happily, to my high-school days of quadratic equations and geometry proofs. Then I took a half-hour nap. Then I had lunch while watching The Golf Channel. Two minutes ago I began this blog post.
     This afternoon, after writing here for a bit, I plan to skim today’s New York Times online and download the Times’ crossword puzzle and KenKens, which I expect to finish in 30-45 minutes. Sometime this afternoon I may, if it’s not too hot, spend a half hour clipping the front hedge. Early this evening I will play two hours of tennis. After that, I’ll have dinner, then spend several hours in our tv room watching the Yankees play baseball, flipping back and forth between that and random sitcoms and other sports. During commercials, I’ll catch up on a back issue or two of Time magazine or The New Yorker. Before I go to sleep around midnight, I’ll spend an hour in bed reading an interesting book about the Civil War. At various times during this whole day, I’ll enjoy some easy conversation with my partner Gail and, if he calls, my son Alex.
     My question as I turn out the light tonight will be this: Did I earn the right to live today?
     I will not teach anyone to read today. I will not help the hungry or the sick or the homeless in any way. I will do nothing to improve the life of a single other human being today unless—and this is a stretch—this blog post itself serves some meaningful purpose for those of you reading it. I made not a single sacrifice of time or energy today to lessen the suffering or lighten the load of another human being.
     So I ask again: Did I earn the right to live today?
     The question itself suggests the privileged life I lead. Only a very small percentage of the world’s population can spend a day like the one I describe above. The rest of the world’s people work—and most work hard—to earn their existence. As one of the first of the baby-boomers, I fully retired this past spring. This means I no longer have to work to earn enough money to live; I no longer have to provide any service to the rest of humanity in order to earn my way. I can spend my days pretty much as I wish, limited only by the fact that I am not, by U.S. standards, exactly rich. (My annual income, thanks to Social Security and pensions, is about $50,000 per year—rich by world standards, but not by U.S. standards.)
     Again, mine is a life of privilege. I will be awake for about 16 hours today, and, as you see, during that time every single thing I do will be an exercise in personal pleasure, self-edification, or (in the case of clipping the hedge) self-service.
     This is, by almost any criteria, a selfish day. Should I then be ashamed of it, and therefore of myself? Did I deserve to live today? This blog post is my attempt to explore that not-so-easy question.     
Was Albert Schweitzer's life more worthwhile than mine?

     Now, it is true that not all of my days are so purely self-serving. I do occasionally give some time and energy to others. I voluntarily help coach the local boys’ high school tennis team for a few hours per week. I teach classes about writing, free, about twenty or thirty times per year. During election years, I work for my candidates a few hours a week for a few months. I edit the resumes, letters, and other documents of my friends and former students, gratis, whenever they ask me. I donate about 5% of my income to good causes. Starting this fall, via the Internet, I’ll begin teaching Tanzanian medical students how to write better in English, so they can apply for grants and create public policy to help combat AIDS and tuberculosis in their country; I’ll be paid a little for this, but only a fraction of what I would normally charge for my time. I tip handsomely and hold the door open for others. I perform little kindnesses for my friends and, occasionally, strangers. I am not entirely selfish.
     Yet I estimate that I spend less than 10% of my waking hours helping others or providing any services to the world. The other 90% of the time, I’m playing golf, say, or reading books, or watching tv, or doing crossword puzzles. Ninety percent of my time, in other words, is pretty much devoted to personal pleasure and self-improvement. I give maybe 10 hours a week, maximum, to acts of volunteerism and charity.
     What is such a life worth? Should I be ashamed for giving so little of myself to others? Did I deserve to live today?
     You might think that the very fact that I’m asking these questions suggests that I am, somehow, ashamed. I’m not, though. I’ll examine my feelings about this after I’ve done the NYT crossword and KenKens. I’ll be back in a half-hour or so.

    I’m back. The Times crossword and the KenKens were easy today—a pleasant bit of exercise for an aging mind.
    Did I earn the right to live today? Perhaps the crossword and the KenKens are a good place to start the discussion. It is pretty well accepted by most philosophers that improving the lot of mankind is a worthwhile thing to spend one’s time on. Well, I’m part of mankind. Doing the crossword puzzle and the KenKens is not just a diversion; it is, according to psychologists, a way to keep my mind supple and strong, and even, according to some studies, to help ward off dementia. By improving myself, I have, no doubt, improved the world.
     Likewise, when I play tennis or golf (especially if I walk the golf course), I am keeping myself healthy—surely an important contribution to mankind, since I am part of mankind. My sports activities also lower my stress levels. Watching the Yankees engages me with the world, entertains me, and thereby relaxes me (when it doesn’t, in a perversely pleasant way, set my nerves on edge). Reading books and magazines makes me a better-informed citizen and stretches my mind.
Is watching the Yankees on tv a waste of my life?
     All these things improve me. Therefore, they improve a small slice of mankind—the me-slice.
     But they don’t improve the lives of anyone else. True, if I have in fact helped ward off dementia and if I stay healthier a bit longer, I have made my son’s future life no doubt a bit easier, since he won’t have to worry so much about caring for me later on. And keeping myself healthy and happy no doubt makes the world a better place than if I were unhealthy and unhappy; unhealthy and unhappy people raise our insurance rates and, in my experience, tend to make other people unhappy, as well. But all that is rather hypothetical. In my retirement, I find myself spending 90% of the time indulging . . . myself. This isn’t a bad thing, and it’s better than making myself unhappy, but is it enough? Does this earn me the right to live?
     The question is, of course, loaded. What does “earn” mean in this context? I didn’t “earn” my existence in the first place. I simply found myself alive one day. Is it even relevant to ask if we’ve “earned” our life? I don’t know the answer to that—our cats certainly don’t seem to worry about “earning” their life—but it seems to me that, as self-aware creatures, we generally want to live a life “worth” something. And do we “earn” life only by doing good for others? I don’t think so. Socrates, for example, said that the unexamined life “is not worth living.” This blog post is an example of my examining my life, so is my life “worth” more because I’ve written it? I’m with Socrates: I strongly believe the answer to that is yes. 
Our cat Spot Junior never asked if he deserved his life.

       I believe, then, that making myself happy and healthy (and keeping myself awake to things) is a legitimate part of living a worthwhile life, not just because it does good for me, but because, since I’m part of humankind, it does good for humankind. And I believe that examining one’s life, as in this blog post, is a worthwhile way to spend a piece of one’s existence.
      I also believe that consciously appreciating one’s existence is a worthwhile way to spend a part of one’s life. Relishing a good baseball game, basking in the beauty of great books or great art, swimming in glorious music, weeping over a powerful movie or even laughing over a particularly funny sitcom (Modern Family comes to mind) are worthy ways to spend one’s life, as long as one consciously appreciates them along the way. Good conversation and sex are also valuable.
     In sum, I believe that all these activities—from 18 holes of golf to great sex—help me earn the right to live.
     But is that enough? My conscience—and a few thousand years of moral philosophy—tells me no. They tell me that I have not earned the right to live unless I have done good for others. More importantly, philosophy aside, I feel that I need to do good for others in order to deserve my life.
     This, then, raises two questions: What good works should I do? And, How much time should I give to good works?
      The first question strikes me as rather easy to answer: Anything you do to improve another person’s life is worth doing. At first blush, it seems obvious that helping a boy improve his tennis game is less “worthwhile” than feeding the starving or helping end torture or teaching an adult to read. But what seems obvious isn’t necessarily true. Helping a young man learn a skill—even just a sports skill—is valuable in itself, and the pleasure, confidence, good health, competitive escape, and general satisfaction that come from a lifetime of playing decent tennis is, I can tell you first-hand, a worthy addition to that kid’s life. It will make him happier, and happiness, though not the same as bread to a starving child, is no small thing to give
      So I make no distinctions: Anything you do to improve another person’s life is worth doing.
      The second question, as I said, is harder: How much time should I give to good works—that is, to doing for others? Is ten hours a week enough? Is twenty? Should one devote all one’s free time to serving others? Jesus might say yes. (Interestingly, teaching seemed Jesus’ favorite form of giving, as it is for me. Of course, if you’re a Christian, you believe he gave more of himself than just his words and an occasional foot-washing.) Mother Teresa and Albert Schweitzer, it is said, gave virtually every waking moment of their lives to helping others. 
My father, Terry Weathers, committed most of his life to helping others.
     For 50 years, my father worked 40 hours a week on his paying job and, on top of that, gave four or five hours a day to his volunteer work for things like Little League and, for most of the last thirty years of his life, his crusade to make public-school financing fairer for poor school districts; on the day he died, at age 83, he delivered Meals on Wheels that afternoon to old people in his community. My father exhausted himself in working for others. He enjoyed a ball game on tv and reading the daily newspapers, but he gave, I’d say, 80% of his time to others. Community service gave him great satisfaction.
     But I find I can’t live up to my father’s legacy. I don’t even want to live up to it. My self demands more of my time. Oh, I shall continue to give my money to the ACLU, Doctors Without Borders, the YMCA, and Special Olympics—that’s easy. But I will dole out my time very sparingly: teaching a little tennis here and some writing there, working for my preferred political candidates when the time comes, and occasionally putting my thoughts on this blog, for whatever good that does anyone.
     So did I deserve to live today? I don’t know. I do know that I did live today, and I actively appreciated that living. Tomorrow I may change my mind, but for now, this day will do.

Was Jesus' life more worthwhile than the Laughing Buddha's?

(This post was begun August 25, 2011 and finished October 27, 2011.)

Monday, October 3, 2011

Under Fall’s Pretenses: Woodbane Suffers the Equinoxious Effects of the Season

A lethal dose of October.
     “Nurse! Quick!” shouted the doctor, picking a leaf out of Woodbane’s hair. “Prepare a sedative! Get me eight full-spec lamps! Stat! This man has had a lethal dose of October!”
     Stretched out on a gurney was Woodbane himself, his eyes wide and a crooked grin on his face. Two orderlies were rushing him toward the Intensive Care Unit. The doctor was running alongside. I was in close pursuit, having just sped Woodbane to the hospital by car. As we all raced down the hallway, leaves flew off Woodbane’s windbreaker and out of his hair, and in the confusion I found myself wondering if the doctor had really said what I thought he’d said. Then they wheeled Woodbane into the ICU, and the door closed in my face. I found a bench in the hall and waited.
     Woodbane lives two houses down from me. Just a few minutes earlier, we had been standing on his front lawn, where he was making leaf piles with a wide bamboo rake. He seemed fine, his white hair sticking straight out from his red face, his eyes gleaming. It was a beautiful autumn day, and Woodbane had been rhapsodizing, as is his wont. “Behold!” he said. “How the brazen breeze sends shivers through the half-clothed trees! How the random clouds, pushed from the north, rush south to pile cold and dark upon the horizon! How the sun stares low and cool, making of bright branches a bewilderment of shadows! Ah! See the coed with her thick sweater and windburnt cheeks pedal by on her bike!” Suddenly, Woodbane switched from rhapsody to nostalgia. “Alas,” he said, leaning on the rake, “for the good old days, when the scent of the burning leaf gave deathless seasoning to the season’s death, and the chapped-nosed girls sat wrapped in blankets on the fifty-yard line!”
Alas, for the good old days, and the scent of burning leaves.
     At that point I was feeling a little dizzy myself—Woodbane’s carryings-on often do that to me—and I thought about going home. But just then a large cloud passed in front of the sun, turning the air cold and gray, and suddenly Woodbane fell straight over backwards into a pile of leaves. Rake still clutched in his hand, he just lay there, a horizontal one-man American Gothic. At first I thought he was joking—illustrating, perhaps, his love of leaf piles. But when my pleas had no effect—“Woodbane! Woodbane! For heaven’s sake, man, get up! You’ll catch your death!”—I knew that he wasn’t fooling. I dragged him to my car and raced him to the hospital. . . .
     After fifteen minutes or so, the doctor opened the ICU door. He was a small old man, with shining spectacles. He wasn’t smiling.
     “May I speak with you a moment?” he said, motioning to me. They had pulled a curtain around Woodbane’s bed. The curtain seemed to glow.
     I stood up. “Will he be all right, Doc?” I asked.
     He frowned. “Well,” he said, “we might have caught it in time. But your friend is a sick man, a very sick man.”
     “What is it, Doc? What’s he got? You can tell me. I’m his best friend,” I said. I reminded myself of a bad movie.
     The doctor hesitated. From behind the curtain I heard Woodbane mumbling. “Chapped cheeks!” I thought I heard him say. “Standard time! The light! The light! Oh, coeds!”
     The doctor looked at the curtain and shook his head. At last he sighed. “Simply put,” he said, “we believe your friend has an acute case of October.”
     “Sorry, Doc,” I said. “Did you say an acute case of October.”
     “You got it,” said the doctor. “October.” Seeing my confusion, he went on. “Let me explain,” he said. “About twenty years ago, medical science discovered a previously-unknown disease that strikes millions of Americans every autumn. Its victims are extraordinarily light-sensitive, and as the hours of daylight get shorter, they become sluggish, depressed, even suicidal. We call the condition ‘Seasonal Affective Disorder.’ SAD, for short. The only remedy for SAD is careful doses of bright, full-spectrum—white, to you—light.” He looked in the direction of Woodbane’s bed. From behind the glowing curtain came the buzz of fluorescent tubes and the voice of Woodbane mumbling, “Catch your death! Pretty red cheeks!”
Full-spectrum light: the only remedy for SAD.
     “But, wait, Doc,” I said. “Woodbane wasn’t depressed. In fact, he seemed kind of, well, ecstatic. I mean, he was going on and on about the wind and the clouds and this girl on a bicy—”
     “—Ah! A girl!” interrupted the doctor. “I suspected as much. You see, my friend, when SAD hits men . . . well, the effects can be doubly devastating. For men, an extra element enters into the equation: SEX—with a capital X. Studies have shown that from September to October, the production of male hormones takes its largest leap of the year, then peaks in November. In the United States more babies are conceived in the fall than at any other time of year. Add to this the fact that cooler weather suddenly turns the lethargy of summer into the energy of autumn—plus all sorts of other factors we have yet to understand, such as the prospect of death brought on by the brilliant but dying fall landscape—and some men experience a veritable rush of desperate hyperactivity in October.”
     “Touchdown!” called Woodbane’s voice from behind the curtain. “Oh, snuggle!”
     “Wait, Doc,” I said. “I thought you said this disease—Seasonal Affection Disorder—”
     “—Affective,” corrected the doctor.
     “Whatever. I thought you said it made people sluggish. Now you’re saying it makes them hyperactive. Which is it?”
     “Both,” said the doctor. “Which is precisely the danger. Half the victim says, ‘Let me sleep!’ The other half says, ‘Let’s boogie!’ Half is hot, half is cold. The result: the victim cracks like a hot cup plunged in ice water.” He nodded somberly in the direction of Woodbane. “All we can do now is pray—pray, and hope for an early spring.”
     As I started toward the exit, I heard Woodbane’s voice call out from behind me, “Rage, rage against the dying of the light! Hey, kiss me, baby!”
     Outside, a fresh chill evening wind was scattering leaves, the sunset burned a brilliant yellow-pink, and I held the door open for a beautiful nurse with Asian eyes. All told, I found it pretty depressing.


This story first appeared in Memphis magazine in October, 1987.

Friday, September 23, 2011

FIPE HUNT: The five-paragraph monster that lurks in the lives of freshmen

I dedicate this post to everyone who has ever had to teach or learn the five-paragraph essay.

Hopeful freshmen with healthy colons on a beautiful autumnal day at the beginning of their college careers.

An ulcer-stricken freshman after a semester doing battle with the five-paragraph essay.
      Every September, several million 17- and 18-year-olds, fresh from the realities of pushing perfume at Sears or backpacking in the Rockies, enter for the first time the Oz of college. They should be warned: higher education offers nothing as real as rose water or as substantial as trail mix. The halls of academe are instead built on foundations of dream—and nightmare. On the one hand, for example, these fresh-faced freshmen will get to float through immaculately crisp November afternoons while huddled under improbably cozy blankets on impeccable 50-yard-lines with impossibly gorgeous dates who have implausibly clear skin and unthinkably excitable hormones, and this will spoil them for the plain, pock-marked realities of real life forever after. On the other hand, as if to pay for such rare dreamy moments, they will have to endure certain horrors: they will be asked to wrestle with Plato and Chomsky and other thinkers who are out of their weight class throughout interminable afternoons in musty lecture halls; they will be forced to torture rats until the pitiful inbred rodents learn to tap-dance on metal bars in rank psychology labs; they will be made to spit verbs and disgorge adjectives in strange languages that they will never have to speak in real life. But of all the unrealities the kids must face there is one that is more preposterous, more unnatural, more terrifying than all the others put together. It is . . . the Five-Paragraph Essay. The abominable Fipe.
     In the real world there is no such thing as a Five-Paragraph Essay. It does not exist in books, newspapers, or magazines. It is said to live only in locked desk drawers in the dim, airless corridors of the top floor of the English Building. It is quarantined there like the four-legged chickens in the cages of the aggie school and the recombinant viruses in the retorts of the biology lab. If allowed to escape, the Fipe could in fact be a danger to the general environment, spawning five-paragraph corporate memos, five-paragraph love letters, and, gasp, five-paragraph emails. Given its origins, however, it is unlikely that the Fipe could live for long outside the English Department’s stale atmosphere. For the Fipe is a monster conceived by the high priests of the ivory tower: The Freshman Composition Instructors. The Instructors themselves are creatures who fainted and failed in the real world long ago and who thereafter retreated to a tiny fantasy-filled empire where, like the Wizard, they can impose whatever strange and arbitrary rules they want on those unlucky enough to stumble into their domain. They reign by bluff and bluster. “Connect!” they bellow. “Explain! Develop!” They sometimes speak in magic tongues designed to awe their subjects: “Ref! Org! Awk!” they cry. Before them the callow freshman cowers, like Dorothy in the smoke of the Emerald Palace. Whenever they sense rebellion, the Instructors simply send their subjects out to find the Fipe, thereby distracting them from all other pursuits.
The Most High Instructors of Freshman Comp: Keepers of the Five-Paragraph Mysteries
     But few are they who have seen the face of the Fipe. In fact, it is said that only the Most High Instructors themselves know what a genuine Fipe looks like. Its brow is thought to be gray, lined, sweaty, and vague—it bears, in other words, the unmistakable symptoms of A Main Idea. Its body, like that of certain insects, has three indented parts, each connected to the head by a network of nerves as fine and fragile as spider’s silk. It has a tail, sometimes long and bushy, sometimes short and bare. It is reported to feed on specific examples and concrete images. (“The beeping watch on his hairy left wrist, for instance, gave Jane the hives”—chomp! “Two wet sweat socks and a pair of soiled jockey shorts lay on the bishop’s pillow”—gulp! “An orange cat patchy with ringworm recited the prologue to The Canterbury Tales in the fetid pound”—chomp! gulp! burp!) The Fipe’s favorite pastimes are said to be arguing, analyzing, clarifying, comparing, contrasting, supporting, defining, discussing, reflecting, and telling tales; no one, according to legend, can stand to be around it long. The Fipe is rarely passive, except when unwell. No two Fipes look, smell, feel, sound, or taste exactly alike, though each must be perfectly Fipe-ish in its own way. No freshman has ever caught a genuine Fipe, though once a semester a girl who wears heavy glasses will come running into English 1101, Section 32, flushed with hubris and armed with a perfectly printed manuscript, swearing she has snared one. Three days later, The Instructor, wearing a smirk of sympathy, will return her offering to her, its body bleeding red ink and its forehead carved with a large scarlet “C”—and that will be that. The Fipe, whatever it is, will remain at large. The girl with the heavy glasses will never be seen again.
The girl who thought she had snared the Fipe instead received a scarlet C and was never seen again.
     In recent years, a movement has surfaced in some English Departments to end the annual autumnal hunt for the Fipe. The movement’s adherents, some of whom were once inner-sanctum Instructors themselves, claim the creature is nothing more than a superstition, like the Fat Liberal or the Blushing Republican. In fact, in some areas of the country, mostly on the coasts, mysterious campus sects are said to practice rituals designed to call up creatures larger and smaller, less perfect and less symmetrical than the Fipe; youthful members of such sects are encouraged to bring in shapeless eight- or ten-paragraph animals that bear only the vaguest resemblance to the Fipe. These creatures are said to be pleasing to the eye, and the youngsters inordinately fond of them. The Most High Instructors consider all this heresy, of course, and the Fipe hunt remains in effect throughout most of the nation. Without it, The Instructors claim, the minds of the nation’s youth will deliquesce into sugar-free, decaffeinated soft drinks, and they will be left as errant as butterflies. The heretics say that that might not be so bad.
     In the meantime, this autumn, as always, as the whiz of the Frisbee and the roar of the frat are heard throughout the land, eager freshmen have once more wandered onto our yellow-brick campuses. With their bright eyes, clear heads, and healthy colons, they have arrived blissfully ignorant of the Five-Paragraph Essay and its dangers. Before the final bell tolls, the healthiest of them will be bleary, blithering, and ulcerated. Making certain of that will be the Most High Instructors of Freshman Comp.
     And the Wicked Which of the Worst: The abominable Fipe.

A freshman paper bloodied in the quest for the five-paragraph essay.


The original version of this essay first appeared in Memphis magazine in October 1987.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

WHY IT'S OKAY TO RAISE TAXES ON THE RICH: If anything, the wealth of the wealthy is now undertaxed

Warren Buffett (top) and Bill Gates (bottom): Two nice rich people who think that taxes on the rich should be raised.
Recently the local newspaper has been full of columns and letters praising rich people for the jobs they create and the taxes they pay. Most of these columns suggest that those who, like President Obama, want to raise taxes on the rich must “hate” them and are engaged in “class warfare.”
     I don’t hate the rich. I know a few millionaires, and most of them are decent, generous people. I like them.
     Nevertheless, I do think it is appropriate to raise their taxes in order to buttress the federal budget and thereby protect all our grandchildren from future financial crises.
     Let me explain my position with a hypothetical but realistic example:
     On the one hand, we have Richie Rich, CEO of Rich Inc., a Fortune 500 company. Last year, Rich made $2 million in taxable income (line 43 on Tax Form 1040).
     On the other hand, we have Average Joe, who made $50,000 in taxable income working for Mr. Rich’s company—rather better than average income for an American worker, but solidly middle class.
      Both Joe and Richie are married, filing jointly.
      For 2010, Joe paid $6,666 in federal income taxes—about 13% of his taxable income.
      For 2010, Richie Rich paid $629,760.25 in federal income taxes—about 31% of his taxable income.
      In other words, Richie, whose taxable income was just 40 times as great as Joe’s, paid almost 100 times as much in taxes. This seems to suggest that Richie is indeed paying more than his fair share in taxes.
      Until you look closer at the facts.
      First, Joe is left, after federal taxes, with about $44,000 in spending money. Richie is left with about $1.4 million. Anyone feeling sorry for Richie yet?
      Second, the average Fortune 500 CEO in the U.S. in fact earns not 40 times but approximately 200 times more than the average worker. It is likely, in fact, that Richie, if he’s an average CEO, has earned another $7 million in stocks, stock options, dividends, deferred compensation, and so on. Stocks and stock options do not figure into his taxes. Instead, they are placed in his investment portfolio.
Since President Obama's stimulus plan took effect, the stock portfolios of the rich have increased 60% in value, yet stockholders pay no more than 15% in taxes on their stock dividends, capital gains, or increased wealth.
       Let’s look at that portfolio, which is a key to thinking about this subject. Let’s say Richie received $6 million in stocks in early 2009, as part of his CEO compensation. Since President Obama’s stimulus package went into effect that year, Richie’s stock portfolio, if it has kept up with the stock market as a whole, has risen more than 60%. (The Obama stimulus has been very good for corporations and rich people—don’t let the Republicans tell you otherwise.) That means that in the last two years, Richie, in addition to his salary, has grown wealthier by about $4 million. How much in taxes has Richie paid on that $4 million? If he has not sold his stocks, he has paid. . . nothing. If he sells those stocks after holding on to them for more than a year, he will pay taxes at a rate of just 15%—the top long-term capital gains tax rate. If he's been earning dividends from those stocks over that time—and I promise you he has—he has paid taxes on those dividends at a rate of just 15%. In other words, Richie will pay taxes on $4 million plus dividend income at just about the same rate that Joe paid on his $50,000! In fact, if Richie has held on to his stocks, he has paid no taxes on his increased wealth at all.
     Third, Joe last year paid a payroll tax (which goes toward Social Security and Medicare) of 4.2% of his entire taxable income. Richie, on the other hand, paid a payroll tax on only the first $106,000 of his $2 million income. In other words, Richie paid Social Security and Medicare taxes on just 5% of his taxable income. If both retire at age 66, Richie will get monthly social security checks that are double the size of Joe’s. Yes, Richie has put double the amount into Social Security, but will he really need social security at all? (Most supposed problems with the future solvency of the Social Security system would be taken care of with a “means test” on recipients: If you are rich enough that you don’t need Social Security—say, you make $100,000 or more per year by other means, such as dividends—you wouldn’t get it. The money you have put in would be considered your patriotic contribution to the security of the rest of the elderly population. Republicans don’t seem to believe in this kind of patriotism.)
The rich get a nice fat tax deduction on the mortgage interest for their big houses. Renters get no tax break at all.

      Defenders of the rich often note that Richie also buys big-ticket items—expensive cars, yachts, houses, etc.—on which he pays large sales taxes, while Joe, spending less, pays much less in sales taxes. True, but Joe, to make ends meet, must spend nearly all his leftover income on such things as computers and clothes for his kids, cars for himself and his wife, and gasoline to fuel the cars. Richie, on the other hand, can afford to spend a nice tidy $700,000 per year on stuff (only half his after-tax income) and still have $700,000 or so left over that never is subject to a sales tax (and is probably put into stocks or tax shelters the profits from which will never be taxed at the highest taxable-income rate). Bottom line: Percentagewise, Average Joe pays a lot more in sales taxes than Richie Rich.
     Finally, there’s a good chance Average Joe can’t afford a house; he rents. Richie Rich, on the other hand, has two big houses. He gets to deduct the mortgage interest on those houses from his personal income. Joe gets no such deduction. Who’s getting government welfare in that case?

This CEO says he plays golf 100 times a year. The average Fortune 500 CEO earns 200 times what the average worker does.
      I’ve never met a CEO who works 200 times as hard as the average worker—indeed, several of  the superrich CEOs I’ve known (and I’ve met a few) spend a certain number of their “work” hours with a golf club or a martini in their hand; I’ve seen them. (For more about CEO golf, go to this link.) Nevertheless, I believe that any person who creates a successful company from scratch, creates jobs, and pays his workers a reasonable wage is to be applauded. Indeed, opponents of an increase in the taxes of such people claim that raising their taxes (especially raising the capital gains and dividend taxes) would discourage them from starting new businesses and investing in innovative companies, thereby stalling out the economy and costing jobs. Higher taxes, they say, will sabotage entrepreneurship and fatally damage the financial system.
     History, however, says otherwise. Once upon a time (from 1950 to 1980), income taxes on the rich were above 70%, and the capital gains tax was double what it is today. Did the economy stall? Was there a slowdown in the creation of new companies? Were jobs lost? No, quite the opposite: It was one of the most economically successful periods in American history, with thousands of companies from Holiday Inns and McDonald’s to Microsoft and WalMart spearheading a huge growth in American enterprise and a vast increase in jobs.     
      So here’s the question: Would a 5% tax increase on the millions of dollars an enterprising businessman might earn really prevent him from creating a company that he expected to be successful? Not any of the businessmen I’ve ever met. They’re smarter, more confident—and, happily, greedier—than that.

In 1976, when Apple was founded, the capital gains and dividend taxes were 2-3 times higher than they are today, and the top income tax was double what it is today, but that didn't stop great entrepreneurs from starting great companies and hiring millions of workers. (For more on the history of capital gains taxes, see this link.)