Tuesday, July 31, 2007

July 31, 2007--Day Off

We had to get an early start to catch the ferry to cross Lake Huron, and so . . .

Tomorrrow, Wednesday, something from Ontario.

Monday, July 30, 2007

July 30, 2007--In Wyoming: Holly & Chris

I was brought up in a family that did not believe in friends. Or even in the concept of friendship. Thus, by the time I graduated from college, I had established no lasting friendships. And since from everyone I knew who had these kinds of relationships—those formed during childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood—this meant that I would never have real friends because real friends, if not carried over from early in life, could not be made during middle age much less even later. This was one of the axioms of that era, equivalent to the theory, actually assertion, that one’s personality, one’s very being was fully formed by no later than age eighteen. The rest of life was a matter of playing out that hand of intra-psychic cards.

So, like my parents, I focused almost all of my relating on my relatives, or what my Aunt Fannie, a strong proponent of blood being thicker than water (as if water flowed in the veins of everyone with DNA different than ours), called “My wonderful family!” I can hear that exclamation point even now, lo these many decades after I first felt it.

At the time I didn’t question any of these assumptions, these forbidding a priori givens. I merely motored on, preparing myself in a variety of ways for responsible adulthood. Always keeping in mind my father’s admonition when I took the risk to ask, rather tell him, if it was permissible to want a life with connections beyond just my loving immediate and extended family, was it acceptable to want to seek happiness in various ways likely to be different from his and their definitions? When I found the passive, conditional-voice courage to ask this, he admonished me with something that has echoed through all of my life and against which I have attempted in recent years to struggle—“What does happiness have to do with anything?” Period. End of story. So get on with it. Which I attempted to do.

But later, feeling somewhat bereft and isolated from the kinds of warm relationships I saw among the people I knew, friendships that clearly meant so much to them, that obviously enriched their lives, and in many cases were stronger and more profound than what they took or got from their own families, I struggled, first, to try to understand why I was taught not to trust strangers and to seek all warmth, love, and security from just within my family; and, second, I tentatively began to reach out to others to see if there was any possibility of forming later-in-life versions of friendships—pushing against the more pessimistic developmental perspective and admonishments of my formative years.

In regard to the first struggle--My mother’s immediate family managed to get out of Eastern Europe but a decade before the Nazi anschluss and the subsequent pogroms and ultimately the Holocaust. Those of her relatives who remained behind, thinking it would all pass them by, never made it beyond Auschwitz. And so, when they arrived in America and later learned the full horror of what they had escaped, they huddled together even more, isolated in their foreignness, their Jewishness, and their perceived vulnerability. Even here. In America!

My father’s people were more secular, solidly middle-class bourgeois Austrian Jews who came to the United States in the 1880s, never agreed to be ghettoized on the Lower East Side, learned English quickly, made a good living, bought a house in a mixed neighborhood in Brooklyn, and considered themselves both superior to the Polish and Russian Ashkenazi Jews. Above all they felt assimilated and decidedly American. It seems that the first thing they did after buying the brick house on Bedford Avenue was figure out how to get to Ebbets Field so they could root for the Dodgers in person—it didn’t get any more American than that.

But then, just as they were settling in to be quite comfortable, they were battered by the Depression and discovered than not only were their savings worthless and their house dramatically diminished in value, but also in the eyes of others in even more desperate circumstances they were JEWS and were thus collectively responsible for what the country, their country, was suffering. They were seen to be a part of the universal “Zionist conspiracy” that had inflicted this nightmare on America and the rest of the world. And so when my father and his brothers and sisters went out looking desperately for work, willing to do anything, even things decidedly beneath them, they were met with literal signs that said--

“No Jews. No dogs.”

So indeed, what did happiness have to do with anything? And who could you trust? Basically no one. In truth, though from both families’ experiences it is no wonder they would turn inward, they also found that you could not, even when just fighting to pay the rent and feed your wife and children, you could not casually trust everyone in your, to quote Fannie, “wonderful family.” I could tell you some of these stories if that were the subject of the day. Suffice to say that I suspect my father and my Uncle Harry, who reside now in side-by-side graves in Mt. Lebanon Cemetery, are still not talking to each other.

So is it any wonder that these two families, with my blood an equal mix of both, would orient me not to trust strangers and thereby not to believe in friendship. In a world red in tooth and claw, where dangers and worse lurk, though they are not perfect—Mt. Lebanon being a case in point--when it comes to friends versus family, no contest.

But, second struggle, when I looked around for counter examples in my own family I noticed that my cousins Nina and Murray, to cite two, had not allowed the family promulgations to define their lives—in both cases they carried dear childhood friends along with them well into and beyond their middle years. They were still family stalwarts but they had reserved equal emotional energy for lifelong friendships. So with their example before me, with considerable trepidation, I pushed myself to begin to reach out to others, seeking at least the possibility of relationships. I thought, if I can succeed at that, which would be a big step, who knows where it might lead. I might actually make a few friends!

Which brings me to Holly & Chris.

For some years now Rona and I have been “regulars” at Jenny Lake Lodge in the Tetons of Wyoming. This means that we return there each year on exactly the same dates as in all the previous years. And we are by no means the only guests who do so—we understand that fully fifty percent do and so that means we see many familiar faces each year when we return. And in this new mode of seeking relationships, since dinner is provided and the place is small, it is easy and natural, even for me, minimally to nod hello and ask how other regulars fared during the fall and winter. Of course we hear many stories about illnesses and operations and children graduating from college and plans for the future when we all will be working less or, better, not at all.

Chris & Holly have been regulars for about ten years. Their time at Jenny overlaps all our days but for one—they leave the day before we do. More about that in a moment. Last July, after just nodding at each other in the lodge for at least two years, Chris asked if we might like to meet one evening for a drink before dinner. Sensing that my interest in wanting to do so was tempered by some ambivalence he must have sensed seeping up from all of my deep early-life conditioning (which in itself was impressive since he didn’t even appear to be Jewish), he suggested that we meet for only a half hour before our dinner reservation time. Just enough time to do a bit more than nod and ask how long we each had been coming to Jenny, which cabins we had, and if we hiked or rode or did both. About as much discussion I had had with anyone at Jenny in eight years of regular ensconcement. We might actually have time to begin to get to know each other, exploring the usual--Where are you from? Where were you from? Are you still working? At what? Or when did you retire and what did you do now with all the time you have? Do you travel to places other than the Tetons? Are there any places you like as much? What are you reading? Anything good? And what makes you laugh and feel good? These later questions are of course not posed, but we discover each other’s sense of humor, or lack thereof, experientially.

So we met at 7:30 the next evening for a drink; and there was so much immediate frolicking and laughing, almost too much to engage in in public at the rather sedate Jenny, that Michael the manager came over to us, not to admonish us but to ask if rather than two tables for two for dinner, perhaps, if he could arrange it, might we prefer a table for four?

To cover my nervousness about this prospect, I told Holly & Chris about a former colleague who after a rough divorce eventually began to date. He found the experience so depressing, he experienced so many unhappy evenings where after fifteen minutes both he and his date realized that it was not working that he developed the concept of the progressive date. They would agree to meet for a drink. If that went well they would move on to a light dinner. If that was pleasant, they would go to a movie. But if at any stage either one was not feeling positive about their prospects, they would have social permission to say, “It was very nice to meet you”; and that would end the evening.

Part in jest and part to protect myself from the tremors of an potential impending acquaintanceship, I suggested that we proceed with a progressive dinner—If Mike could hold the second table, let’s maybe begin by having appetizers together, I suggested; see how we do; and if it goes well, proceed to the soup course; and then to the salad; perhaps possibly all the way to the entrée; and who knows, maybe even to dessert!

And so we proceeded, and things began to work, to “click” between and among the four of us. We progressed from course to course and by the time the salad was served signaled to Mike that he could release the second table. We had such a good time that evening and over the next few days that when it came time for Holly & Chris to depart—a day before our time was up—I felt an overwhelming and unfamiliar feeling of sadness: I realized that unless we figured out how to meet between then and the following July it would be a full year before we could in person resume our acquaintanceship and progress perhaps beyond that to . . . ?

Now here we are again this year, back in Wyoming, back at Jenny; and all I can think about after resuming my love affair with the mountains and meadows and lakes and air is—Where are Holly & Chris? Are they OK? Chris had had some “medical issues” during the fall and winter and so . . . . But right there in the lodge the first evening we saw them, and they looked healthy and radiant and we happily picked up right where we left off.

Mike had already reserved a table for four, a little apart from the others correctly suspecting that we would again be laughing as much as catching up with each other’s lives and he didn’t want the other guests to be disturbed by. Our dates this year turned out so well that, after one of them, Holly, who is by nature not that kind of gal said, “If this were a real progressive date, we’d now go off to bed together.”

So, Dad, I hope things are fine with you and that maybe even you and Uncle Harry are talking. If not, give it a try because, take it from me, happiness is indeed worth pursuing.

Friday, July 27, 2007

July 27, 2007--Fanaticism LXXXV: King Me

Last night after dinner, at a lodge on the northwest shore of Lake Superior, just miles from the fabled Mesabi iron mines, Rona and I settled in by the fire to sample some the board games that were available to guests.

We began with Chinese Checkers. Though I am not certain about the origins of the game or the political correctness of its name, it was a childhood favorite of each of ours. You remember it—the object is to move all 15 of your color-coded marbles from their triangular home base across the board and into all the vacated spaces of your opponent’s base. The first one to do that wins. Which I did—three times in a row.

And so we moved on. To tic-tac-toe. Less demanding for certain but with an even more intriguing name—I leave it to you to Google its origins. Since we are in the Northwoods pretty much everything here is made of wood or wood products—even, I think, the bread we had with dinner last night. (It does though do wonders for your system, if you catch my meaning.) Thus there was a wooden t-t-t playing field and carved wooden Xs and Os. Rather than drawing a version of a big pound sign on a pad and marking the resulting spaces with pencils or crayons, up here one slaps one of these tactile Xs or Os onto the board, with a clacking sound. It takes about 45 seconds to play a game and it almost always ends in a draw. The only time it doesn’t is when you play speed tic-tac-toe, allowing 10-15 seconds for an entire game thus making one prone to errors—which is the only way you can manage to lose.

Therefore we moved on to the greater challenge of Checkers. The non-Red Chinese kind. We played two games, the rules coming back to us as we made our diagonal moves, and I won both games. By now Rona had had enough of games and me, me winning I suspect, and said, “Tomorrow night we play Scrabble,” knowing I can’t spell even easy words like seperate [sic] or publically [sic].

Back in the room, not talking to each other in spite of the calming calls of the loons glad that the heat had at last broken, I did some catching up with an accumulated stack of NY Times. And wouldn’t you know it, from about a week ago there was an article (linked below) about how a computer called Chinook, up in Canada of course, had “solved” Checkers. Before this Chinook was capable of beating any human player but it could be mastered by other, more powerful computers. But now, Chinook’s inventor has made it so extra-powerful that it can master all 500 billion billion (this is not a typo) possible Checker configurations and thereby assure that every game, just like tic-tac-toe, must end in a draw.

The article notes that in contrast to all of these Checker patterns, lowly tic-tac-toe has a mere 765—also not a typo. No wonder it only takes a few seconds to wind up in a draw. And here I thought we were playing at the grand master level. Oh well. Back to lounging on the lawn.

But next week, when back in the New York combat zone, we plan to move onto chess with its gazillions of possible combinations and permutations. Let’s see how well Rona does with that after trouncing me tonight in Scrable [sic].

PS: Wouldn’t you know it-- tonight at 8:00, in the lodge, they’re having a Chinese Checker Round-Robin; and you know who won’t be competing? Wrong . . . me.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

July 26, 2007--Wednesday In Wyoming: Trackin'

It was hot—mid 90s by the early afternoon—so we settled quickly into a morning routine of activity, reserving afternoons for reading with the expectation that before long the books would drop onto our chests and we would roll over into a deep siesta. All part of the languor of a long-day in the Tetons.

We took to the same gentle hiking trail each day after coffee. The basic String Lake Loop with its accompanying variations. Basic was the 3.8 mile Loop itself, around the glacial lake that is called String for obvious reasons—from any elevation that offers a glimpse of its full configuration, a string it what it most resembles. One heads out north along its eastern bank, the water lapping close on the left, across its narrow width the looming Tetons and just a glimpse of sun-awakened Cascade Canyon, with the Ponderosa saturated woods rising quickly to the right—bear country, especially this hot and dry year with the grizzles, desperate for carbohydrates, venturing down to lower elevations in search of anything edible that will bulk them up for the long hibernation season. So wear some bells or at least keep up a loud chat if you don’t want to become a part of their food supply.

One trail variation veers further east, up a steep ridge toward Bear Paw Lake, another topographically named site. But it adds another mile and a half in each direction, much of the trail in full sun and so for us Bear Paw will be for another visit. A second variation twists further west than the basic loop and arrives at Paintbrush Canyon with its vast meadows of flowers, Mountain Lupine to my taste first among them but also there are fields of Indian Paintbrush, Columbine, and Fireweeds. Even in this scorching season they put on a symphony of color.

But because of the heat we take it easy, concentrated morning after morning on the simpler, less-demanding paths, slipping through this repetition of routes into a state of meditative heat prostration. The mind drifts under these conditions, a wakeful dreaming. Almost at times toward delirium, but still we put one heavy foot in front of another, pushing ourselves along with the knowledge that a simple lunch, a cool cabin, and yes our bed will be our rewards for all the effort and tedium.

A tedium that leads to heightened perceptions: of the ant trails that intersect ours, of the subtle sections of the forest where there are the greatest concentration of birds of all feathers, of the Marionberry bush from yesterday which today is about to show it long-delayed first green fruit—and insights: beyond the clichés about ecological interconnectedness now felt beneath the sweat as visceral truth, in the burnt glades about the rhythms of decay and regeneration, and about what can be quickly learned when slowing down.

But in spite of my midsummer immersion in nature, I am a city boy still and my mind these mornings, despite the “perceptions” and “insights,” also drifts aimlessly, toward nothing. And not the Eastern Nothing so dearly sought. So, unproud of myself, I then look for distractions.

On the first stage of the Loop, along the lake’s eastern shore, before needing to decide whether to continue the Loop west or veer toward Bear Paw, a stride or two behind Rona, to extract myself from my torpor, I begin to study the shoeprints on the trail, hoping that among the many laid down by hikers I might spot the occasional imprints of elks’ hooves or those of mule deer or, if most fortunate, by the royal bear. That would be exciting!

And remembering from my Boy Scout Tracking Merit Badge days that in addition to animal tracks the best way to search them out is through a careful examination of their distinctive droppings, I thus turn equal attention to these less elegant but definitive clues of the wild. The ability to distinguish between the pellets of rabbits and young deer and the balls characteristic of elk and moose and of course the clusters deposited by bears as they tear at fallen, rotting trees in search of mouthfuls of delectable termites, is an art form all unto itself, one that I find myself practicing.

But, sadly, since there wasn’t enough poop on the trail to engage my interest, except from horses—we shared the way with them—I was left to turn my full attention (as much, not much, as I could muster in the rising heat) to shoe prints. And these did not prove to be disappointing. Some were quite distinctive, standing out in their unique patterns from the more mundane left by Vasques or other high-end gear; and from others I could track hikers who had been on the trail that day as opposed to the day before from the sharpness of the impression not yet eroded by the elements or other venturers.

I remembered from boyhood detective stories how the keenest forensic-minded sleuths were able to look at just footprints in the wet earth beneath windows through which murderers had made their escape and thereby determine by the freshness of the edges precisely how long ago the crime had been perpetrated, how tall the killer was (from the shoe size), and even, in Sherlock Holmes’ magnificent case, how much his prey weighed (from the depth of the shoeprint), and even if he had a telltale limp—if there was evidence of a slurring of the left foot as opposed to the right. So I as well of course took to this kind of investigation. Especially the latter, of the Sherlock Holmes’ variety, though it was admittedly unlikely that any crimes had been committed along the way. Except perhaps for an occasional straying off the track, into the woods at those places where the Park Service had placed signs to indicate the area was under “regeneration.” In this unspoiled land that would be crime enough to incite me.

There was one shoe pattern that quickly came to intrigue me. I wish I had the capacity to draw it here for you since I feel certain that you too would find it of enough interest to engage your unaddled imagination. As opposed to all the other prints where the indentations were left by the full surface of both the sole and heel, this one, though the sole impression revealed all of its outline, from the heel of the boots there were fan-shaped impressions, with the narrow part of the “fan” close to the sole and the wide part radiating out toward the back of the shoe. (From this fascination of mine, you can begin to see the paucity, at the worse of these times, of the perceptions and insights I was capable of rousing.)

And I did in addition notice that these small fans in the soil had the sharpest of edges, suggesting that we were not that far behind whoever left them. I urged Rona to pick up the pace, thinking that maybe we would thus be able to overtake him, minimally take sight of, if not capture our quarry. And so she did, but to no avail. Even after an hour of this literally hot pursuit, even passing some other hikers, we found no one on the trail ahead of us leaving these unique clues.

So I turned to other imaginings—how tall might he be? This I determined by his shoe size. I placed my size 13 Vasques over his and determined mine were at least two sizes larger and therefore he must be about five feet ten as opposed to my 6-4. I confirmed this by walking, literally, in his foot steps, shortening my stride to replicate his. This took some effort, to chop my stride this way, especially on the up and downhill slopes, but the fact that his was about six inches shorter than mine confirmed that I had been correct in determining his height. And he was a “he” I concluded since at all the very steepest places, from the boot prints, it was obvious that he took to showing off his macho by bounding up the hills, in defiance of the heat—he took those inclines on his toes, digging in, rather than in the flat-footed manner of which I was only capable even when, in true detective fashion, I tried to duplicate his. He must be, I assumed in part to save face, much younger than me to be able to expend so much effort and put on such a good show for what I could only assume was his girl-friend hiking companion. In all that heat--quite a guy!

Perhaps most interesting, since we took pretty much to the same trails every morning, was to find that every day he had been out there shortly before us because no matter which variation on the basic String Lake Loop we took, there right in front of me were those now familiar and unusual fanned heel prints. These by then had become so fascinating and mysterious to me that they were interfering with my earlier ability to see more insightfully and take on the calm from the majesty surrounding us. I couldn’t take my eyes off the boot prints, peering relentlessly as the dusty trail itself, becoming oblivious to the pleasure and the lessons that could be derived from the wild.

By the fourth morning, at the risk of spoiling Rona’s communion with the pristine, to hopefully rescue myself from involvement with my doppelganger hiker, I finally began to share with her some of what I had been struggling with—as context, my Boy Scout days (this of little interest to her—how many more stories from my boyhood could she endure?) and my love of Sherlock (from this I got at least an acknowledging nod of the head—she was not ten feet ahead of me on the trail). And then I told her about my tracking and how I had become obsessed, it was that, with the man with the fan-shaped shoes.

As this did elicit at least some interest, Rona turned to look back at me, it was after all about the here-and-now and not yet more stories of mine from decades ago, I said, “Stop a minute. Let me show you. I’ve been studying them now for days and can tell you he, yes he, is vigorous, at least 5-10 in height, weighs about 150 (from the depth of the impressions), is young—I’d say no more than twenty-five, and doesn’t limp. This I know from The Hound of the Baskervilles in which Sherlock Holmes. . . . Oh, forget him and take a look at this.”

I pointed at the ground near where I was standing. “Look at this, I bent to be better able to point out the special characterizes of the boot print—by then I had become its world’s leading authority, “See how the impression from the sole is conventional. How it defines the full outline of the front part of the boot?” I looked up at Rona who had walked back down the path toward me to get a closer look. From her demeanor I knew I was about to lose whatever little interest she had extended to me.

In a panic, I was desperate to get to the heel print. I pleaded, “Wait, wait, here’s what I really want to show you. Look at this. Have you ever seen anything like it?” At that Rona did take a careful look—she was clearly still willing to indulge me, but made no response. “Isn’t it remarkable?” Without looking up at her I knew she was shooting me a skeptical look—“remarkable” was more than she was likely willing to grant me, perhaps there was another brief moment of indulgence I could hope for before she resumed her own walk in the woods. She was not going to let my frustrations interfere with her own experiences—not that I could blame her, I would do the same thing if the roles had inconceivably been reversed.

“See the fan? I mean the unique shape of his heel? I’ve never seen anything like that. And what is most amazing is that every day he has been on exactly the same trails as us. Perhaps just an hour ahead as revealed by the unweathered edges of the boot prints. Look, please, give me a second so I can show you.”

For a last time Rona turned and walked back to me. As she stood by my side, with me still bent over to point out the findings from my hours of detective work, I noticed that the most recent, sharpest-cut heel prints of my tormentor appeared to have reversed themselves on the trail. Until that instant all had pointed forward. Now here were some that indicated he had done some circling back. Intriguing!

Rona moved closer to me and joined me in scrutinizing the ground before us. How excited I was that she was becoming as interested in this mystery as I. It would make our remaining time in the Tetons additionally enjoyable. We would have yet another interest in common. With her help we would likely even be able to catch up with and meet our trail mate.

And then in a flash it all became clear to me—my mountain secret sharer was none other than Rona herself!

Of course--who on the trail had always preceded me? Rona. These maddening boot prints were being put down by her shoes as she led me around the lake and through the forest.

So she was not a “he, is” four inches less than 5-10 and decidedly much, much less than 150. At least I got the no-limp part right.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

July 25, 2007--A Question

I’ve been wondering—What else do we expect to hear in mid-September from our generals in Iraq other than “there is evidence of progress and we need more time”?

Since they will be evaluating the implementation of their own plan, how likely is it that they will say that it is not working?

In any other situation—business, education, medical research—in order to take the measure of the validity or effectiveness of a new program, strategy, or discover we would insist that the evaluation was carried out by an independent source.

The last “commander on the ground” who evaluated the effectiveness of his own strategy and got his commander in chief to go along with his conclusions was General Westmoreland in Vietnam. And we know how well that worked out.

A great mystery to me is not why President Bush, who is committed to “staying the course” would be awaiting the assessment from General Petraeus who will endorse that policy, by why the Democrats in Congress are being taken in by this.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

July 24, 2007--Toward Bismarck

I'm on the road between Billings and Bismarck and so it is difficult to get much typing done. I hope to have something tomorrow--more about time in Wyoming.

Monday, July 23, 2007

July 23, 2007--Shell Game

It seems that about every time the president is in political trouble about his war in Iraq three or four predictable things happen: the president goes on the road and in every speech mentions Al Qaeda at least 25 times to remind us of the (false) connection between Al Q in Iraq and 9/11; Office of Homeland Security Secretary Chernoff declares that we are in immediate danger of being attacked by terrorists (last week this threat was based on his “gut feeling”); President Bush arranges to have a colonoscopy and while he is under anesthesia we are informed that VP Cheney will be in charge (this to scare us even more than the threat of an impending terrorist attack); and the U.S. military announces that Al Qaeda’s “number two” in either Afghanistan or Iraq has been killed or captured (though we are never told how they seem to keep producing new number twos in such quantities or ferocity).

So it was not much of a surprise that a few days ago we learned that Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, Abu Ayyub al-Masari’s deputy in Iraq, had been killed. One problem—Abu-the-former, after being killed kept issuing incendiary statements about the U.S. crusaders and what Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia was going to do to us. This had our generals puzzled, perhaps even a little frustrated. One can only imagine them thinking—These suckers can’t even stay dead.

But this puzzle was solved last week—the U.S., with some embarrassment, had to admit that al-Baghdadi didn’t exist. I don’t mean that he was really dead and his pronouncements were prerecorded; rather that he never existed—he was made up, he was a fictitious character! A creation of, hold on, Masari’s. (See NY Times story linked below.)

One might legitimately wonder why he did this—just to torment us? To keep us running around in circles, wasting energy and resources? Actually, the truth appears to be much cleverer than that. Masari created Baghdadi as a way to overcome the suspicions and resulting local political problems he was having in Iraq among the Shiites, because he is Egyptian. Though they recognize the authenticity of his hatred for the U.S. occupiers, the cleverness of his strategic and tactical thinking, and his ideological purity, Iraqis are not in the habit of trusting Egyptians, especially in dominant roles. So Masari invented Baghdadi; placed him at the head of a non-existent organization, the Islamic State of Iraq; and, here’s where Masari displayed his brilliance, as an Egyptian swore allegiance to the Iraqi Baghdadi. And then as an act of true genius Masari got Osama bin Laden himself to publicly acknowledge and endorse Baghdadi.

He not only fooled his Iraqi compatriots but us as well—for more than a year. How are we supposed to contend with such an enemy? I say, fight fire with fire. If they are lying and creating fictional characters and realities, we should do the same. Let me give you some illustrations of what I’m thinking:

Let’s come up with a few whoppers to justify our involvement in Iraq. Here’s a good one--claim they have weapons of mass destruction and missiles that can reach Western Europe in 15 minutes. Have our National Security Advisor talk about mushroom clouds over London. I’ll bet that will get everyone riled up. You might even get the Senate to vote to go to war. It would be my guess that most Democrats would be fooled because none of them will bother to read the real intelligence documents. They’ll be too busy primping for their presidential bids.

Then, after deposing the Middle East’s latest Hitler, lacking an adequate plan to manage the occupation and bring democracy to the region, while things are unraveling, get the president to climb into a jump suit, have his jet land on the deck of an aircraft carrier, and declare, “Mission Accomplished.” That should work.

Finally, four and a half years later, when the National Intelligence Estimate reports that the real Al Qaeda is back to its pre-9/11 strength, simply ignore it and get everyone on TV to say “they’re on the run.” Who will disagree?

I know what you’re thinking—these illustrations of how we might make stuff up to further our cause are just too obviously untrue for anyone to believe. Perhaps you’re right. Maybe, if we want to get away with using Masari-like tactics we have to come up with better material.

Wait, I’ve got a good one—tell everyone that when they did the colonoscopy on the president the other day, though they didn't find much to be concerned about, they did find his head. I guarantee that 70 percent of the public would believe that one.

Friday, July 20, 2007

July 20, 2007--Fanaticism LXXXIV: Flushing

The media had its daggers out after the recent Live Earth six-continent extravaganza. One would have thought with the now virtually untouchable Al Gore fronting for it that the affair would have been adored by the press. Instead on Fox as well as in the NY Times the commentary was blistering, especially in regard to the apparent hypocrisy of many of the participants (including the former vice president) who made speeches about what we need to do to heal the earth while living high-carbon lives. How many arrived in gas-guzzling private jets? How many sounded ridiculous when they proclaimed the virtues of recycling while owning multiple 10 thousand square foot homes?

I watched a lot of it, loving Madonna’s performance, and did make note of these contradictions; but after having my fill of the next-day’s condemnations, found myself getting more annoyed with the criticisms than the celebrities’ preachments.

What the hell are we as individuals supposed to do to in the face of potentially calamitous climate change? Single handedly end our nation’s and the rest of the world’s addiction to fossil fuel? Go out to our garages and invent new solar-power technologies? Design a mass-transit system for Los Angeles that people will actually use? Get the Chinese and Indians to stop building superhighway? Force George Bush to sign the Kyoto Protocol? Build a windmill on the top of my 250-apartment apartment building in New York City?

I know--we as individuals are supposed to work though our political system to elect Green-minded officials and then keep the (solar) heat on them to do some of these kinds of things. Sure.

As a case in point about how well this kind of approach is working take a look at the current fiasco in the U.S. Senate where there are almost as many amendments circulating about how to extract ourselves from Iraq as there are senators. So what can we expect of them and other so-called political leaders when it comes to requiring auto makers to make more fuel efficient cars or taxing oil companies for their windfall profits?

Some of the most talented and inventive of us are working on technologies like the newly created microbe that might have the capacity to devour the CO2 in the atmosphere; but if I want to do something I’m left with the prospect, like (forgive me) Cameron Diaz, of doing a lot of little things that make at least some difference and perhaps contribute to a shift in cultural and political consciousness that is essential to anything substantial changing.

Thus, I’m getting obsessed about my garbage. Though we live in a 14-storey building and we have trash chutes, I have become a recycling demon. I’m even careful to bundle tiny used note pad pages in with the newspapers, relentless in distinguishing between newsprint and coated paper though New York and perhaps no one else makes that distinction. We’ve replaced all our incandescent light bulbs with screw-in fluorescents, even though there is a delay in the light switching on and they give off less light, which also has a tendency to flutter. Of course I turned our AC down (or is it up?) so that though there is cooling there is less than in previous years.

And there are a few funkier, more fanatical things that I’ve been doing, some of which I am going to have to leave to your imagination since I do have a shred of self-image I want to attempt to preserve.

Though New York’s reservoirs are at the moment quite full, and whatever water I contribute to saving will do nothing to alleviate drought conditions in the U.S. west and elsewhere in the world, I have become a water-conserving fiend. For decades I left the sink water running when I brushed my teeth—even using lukewarm water which is unnecessary and wastes the fuel oil needed to heat the water. Now I use only cold water and turn it on only three times while brushing—initially to wet the brush (this, I am thinking, may be unnecessary since I use “wet” toothpaste); halfway through to wash the remaining paste off the brush; and when finished, once again to clean to bowl and to clean the brush. [I’m sure I can do better and look forward to receiving your suggestions.] This working the water tap is not as easy to do as it might appear—it requires some juggling and manual dexterity. But I’m getting better at it morning-by-morning.

Now I call upon your imagination because I turn to the subject of flushing. There are two of us and, say, we each “go to the bathroom” on average five times in 24 hours. Under ordinary conditions that would require 10 flushes. At a couple of gallons a flush (we have old-fashioned bathroom equipment) that adds up to 20 gallons a day, or 7,300 a year. Assuming, in my obsession about this I represent a case of arrested Freudian development, how might I cut down on this aspect of my use of water?

Once you figure it out, try it. It works and I suspect it will help make you feel virtuous. And it also contributes to making a difference.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

July 19, 2007--Lazzy Day

No typing today. Will return tomorrow with more Fanaticisms.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

July 18, 2007--Wednesday In Wyoming: Sue Ellen

In the Safeway parking lot in Estes Park, Colorado, on route to Wyoming we met, let me call her, Sue Ellen.

Into the bed of her battered pickup she was loading dozens of 24-packs of Pepsi, regular and diet; Seven-Up; Sprite; Dr, Pepper; and H&W Root Beer. It was hot, maybe over a hundred in the shadeless lot.

“Sheet,” I thought I heard her say.

Ordinarily I would have ignored her, especially in this heat and considering I was lugging a sack of my own groceries. But, perhaps because we were beginning our vacation, had nothing urgent to tend to, or maybe as the result of being a little oxygen-deprived from the altitude, I stopped and offered to help her unload her enormous shopping cart, large enough, it appeared, to hold a full-size refrigerator. She was soaked through from the effort but didn’t acknowledge my offer and again, this time I was sure I heard her, muttered to no one I particular, “Sheet.”

I should have taken the hint and moved on; but, trying to be helpful, and perhaps to lift her spirits, I said, “Looks like you have quite a party planned for the weekend.”

At that she wheeled on me and, with hands on her considerable hips, dripping sweat on the asphalt, spat, “I should be so lucky.” Maybe really meaning to say, “Why don’t you go back to where you came from. The last thing I need is to be talked down to by a big-city faggot like you.”

With a snort she turned away from me and resumed unloading her cart. She had nothing but sodas in it—no chips, no beer, no cold cuts. She seemed to have told me the truth when she said what she said about not having a party planned. Again I should have gone on my way, but for some reason didn’t. Maybe, as I always do when traveling in rural areas, I was clinging to romantic notions about how friendly and welcoming folks generally are who live in small towns, and I didn’t want my first encounter to be so off-putting. It threatened to impart a sour note to a time we hoped would be sweet and relaxing—we had been so stressed the last few weeks back in New York. So in as light and friendly a tone as I could muster, considering how she had dismissed me, I said to her aggressively turned back, “You must have a large family.” As I spoke these words I was mortified to realize I was likely being inappropriate—too intrusive and intimate—and perhaps insulting, considering how large she was and thus what I might be unintentionally intimating about the size of, not the number in her family.

Without deigning to face me, still half-buried in the shopping cart, she said, giving equal, measured emphasis to each syllable, “I do not know what your problem is mister. I’m workin’. Is that OK with you? Or don’t you have anythin’ better to do? Like maybe having a glass of Chablis wine or somethin’?”

Though that should have been more than enough to suggest to me that it was time to join Rona in our rented car—it was clear from the look on Rona’ face that she was feeling, even though she was too far away to hear, that I was making a total ass of myself—I stood there watching the soda lady slam case after case into her truck, uttering now a stream of “Sheets.”

“So what’s your problem? I’m beginnin’ to think that you’re quite a creep. Or worse.”

“No, really, I only stopped to help, thinkin’ you could use some considerin’ the load you got there.” I caught myself unwittingly slipping into my version of Western-speak and also was alarmed by my careless use of the possible “load’ double entendre. But, undeterred, I pressed on, “You told me in no uncertain terms that these are not for a party and that you’re workin’,” I couldn’t control/stop myself—blame it on the altitude. “Mind my askin’ what kind of work you do with all them sodas?”

“I run two vendin’ machines,” she muttered under her breath.

“Sorry? I didn’t follow you.” What business of mine was any of this. I thought in another minute Rona would be askin’ where’s the nearest divorce court. And I could surely understand why. But I was fully into finding out what all this soda was about. “‘Vendin’’ machines’? You said you ‘run’ ‘em?”

Why she continued to deal with me, I’ll never know, but she did, “Yeah, like I said—I got two: one out by the gondola, you know that goes up that mountain over there,” to show me where she swept a massive arm in the direction of town. “The other one’s down outside the ‘mergency room. At the hospital.” She tossed her head to the right in the direction of, I assumed, the hospital.

That’s what you do? Your work, I mean? You said you was working.”

“So what’s so wrong with that?” Before I could say “Nothing,” she raced ahead, “I know what you’re thinkin’—‘Big freakin’ deal—this bitch’s got two little soda machines and she calls that “work.”’”

“No, no really, that’s not what I’m thinkin’; but I am thinkin’ . . . .” Thankfully I cut myself off before I could add, “What I am thinking is how you can make a living from this.”

“Right, you’re wonderin’ how I can make a livin’ from this.” She noticed my impossible-to-contain smile. Rona leaned on the car horn and I tossed a grin in her direction to indicate that things were going better, and as a plea to her to give me a few more minutes.

“Well . . . .”

“Fair question. Though it’s frankly no business of yours.” She paused as if considering whether or not to finally end this. I would not have blamed her—I was way off base. But still I stood there just looking toward her. “I ask myself that every freakin’ day,” she had decided to continue with me, “And can’t come up with a good answer. But I’m not cut out for desk work and I’d kill myself before I’d work in one of them motels or restaurants again—‘Can I get you some more coffee?’ If I ever have to say that again in my life, all the time smilin’, I’d cut my wrists or put a bullet through that guy’s head. Of course I’m kiddin’, you know,” I thought I saw the first inkling of a crooked smile. “Though I wouldn’t want you to thinkin’ I’m violent or anythin’. Though if you asked Gil I’m sure he’d have a different story.”

“Gil?” I asked.

“Yeah him. Carly’s father.”


“My daughter. Just turned fourteen. That’s her in the cab.” I looked in that direction and saw a mass of streaked hair just above the back of the passenger seat.

“She looks nice,” I said, not knowing what else to say.

“Shot him in the balls.”

“Sorry--Who? Where?”

“The balls. His dick. Probably what you’d call the penis or somethin’” She snickered at that. Seeing me cringe, she said, “I’m Sue Ellen by the way. You already met Carly.” I introduced myself and extended my hand which Sue Ellen didn’t take.

“It’s not my business, But why did you . . . ?”

“‘Cause a her.” She indicated she was referring to her daughter.

“Gil . . . ?”

“That’s right. I told him six months prior I’d cut his balls off if he touched her again. Which I didn’t, but I shot him there front and center after I found him in her room at 2:00 am.” She looked over toward Carly. “Never needed to do any time for it. Everyone knew he got what he deserved, includin’ the police and the sheriff. They all call him Capon now. Lots a laughs all round. That prick bastard. I shoulda shot ‘em dead!”

“I’m sure Carly’s happy you didn’t. I mean they might have put you in jail and maybe even taken her away from you. You know, put her in a foster home. That would have been, who knows, even . . . .”

“Worse?” Sue Ellen completed my thought. “I’m not so sure ‘bout that. Look at me--I’m such a good mother? Maybe Carly’d be better off with someone else. And I’d be where I’d at least have a roof over my head and get three squares a day. Don’t sound so bad to me.” She was now looking me straight in the eye. I found it difficult to return her look—this was way, way more than I had been seeking when I stopped to offer to help with the sodas. I had just wanted to be friendly, chit-chat a little, and maybe soak up some local color. Here I found myself, less than two hours after landing in Denver, in the middle of a family soap opera. Feeling like a total creep with nothing helpful to say or offer.

Still I tried, “I’m certain things will get better for you. Carly’ll graduate from high school, maybe then go on to college, and make a good life for herself. Isn’t that what we want for all of our children?” I wasn’t about to tell her then that I didn’t have any children of my own. “My father used to call it ‘improvement in the breed.’ Sounds a little insensitive—children are of course not horses.” To give emphasis to this later point, riding the hot superheated late afternoon thermals, we both became aware of the ripe smell of fresh manure lifting from the stables just below the parking lot. “But my dad’s was a good point nonetheless, don’t you think?”

“To tell you the honest, with all due respect—‘cause I assume he otherwise was a fine man--but he sounds like an asshole. There’s not much improvin’ in the breedin’ ‘round here, not even with the horses. And when it came to me and that shit Gil, what popped out in Carly ain’t such great shakes. I’m sure it’s all Gil’s fault, but she’s been on lithium for six years already, got kicked out a school more times than I can count, and I’m sure’ll be droppin’ out for good soon as they let her. Of course knocked up just like me. So there’s your improvin’ in the breed for you.” Snorting again, she dismissed me with the back of her had and returned to loading up her truck.

Rona gave the horn two brief taps. She had given me the time I had sought and, sensing things had not gone well, in spite of my earlier grin, was looking over at me lovingly and sympathetically.

Not knowing how to think about her situation or what else to say, feeling guilty and wanting to get away, I said clumsily, “All the best to you, Sue Ellen. And to you Carly—good luck. Nice to meet you.” Her window had been rolled up all this time and I’m sure she had not heard one word that had passed between her mother and me.

Without looking back, I loped over to our car, tossed the groceries into the back seat, climbed in, gave Rona a peck of a kiss, shifted into reverse, and headed back to our motel. We needed to make an early evening of it. The next leg of the drive into Wyoming was more than 400 miles and we needed to get an early start.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

July 17, 2007--Hikin'

Taking the day off to hike around String Lake.

Will return tomorrow with Wednesday In Wyoming: "Sue Ellen."

Monday, July 16, 2007

July 16, 2007--"Dirt Under My Feet"

As a current events junkie, the highlight of that aspect of my life was a visit to the National Archives to listen to the first of the Nixon Tapes when they were made public. Crunched uncomfortably at a dilapidated carrel, wearing World War II vintage headphones, I sat transfixed as I heard the scratchy but unmistakable growl of a voice that was Nixon’s conferring late into the night with John Mitchell, his political fixer and lifelong coconspirator. Clearly they had already shared at least a few drinks. If the taping system had been of higher quality, I feel certain I would have been able to pick up the sound of ice cubes clinking in Nixon’s tumbler.

Mitchell could be heard in the background assuring his Chief that all they needed to do to get Watergate behind them was squeeze this senator or put pressure on that journalist. Nixon grunted, not saying much, taking it all in. And then he said, “John. It’s over.” “No, Mr. President,” Mitchell protested; but Nixon persisted and in a mortally tired voice said, “Everything will come out. It’s too late.” And how right he was. No one ever accused Nixon of being anything but smart.

So it is a continuing pleasure of sorts that from time to time, over the decades, additional tapes have continued to be released by the Archives or the Nixon Library. Just last week, for example, more deliciousness became available to those of us who can’t get enough of Nixon. (See NY Times article linked below.)

My favorite new segments have to do with Nixon, after winning reelection in a landslide in 1972, directing his staff to plant examples in the press about how warm and caring he was. To counter the prevailing image of him as cold and unfeeling. What Nixon inimitably called “the warmth business.” About himself he said that he had been “nicey-nicey to the cabinet, staff, and Congress around Christmastime” and that he had treated cabinet and subcabinet officials “like dignified human beings and not dirt under my feet.” History, logic, and psychoanalysis teach us how difficult it is to prove a negative.

While savoring these latest Nixon tidbits, I began to hope that George Bush also has a taping system in the Oval Office. What might we overhear transpiring between our current president and his chief political strategist Karl Rove when those recordings are released by the oxymoronic George Bush Library? Since it will take at least a decade before this happens, I thought I would give you a sneak preview since, like Bush and Rove, I too believe in wiretapping:

GWB: So, Rover, how did our Rangers do yesterday?

KR: Not that badly Mr. President, we lost only two.

GWB: How could that be? We weren’t playin’ a double-header, were we?

KR: Oh, sorry, I thought you were asking about how things went down yesterday with the War. You know, with our Special Forces--those Rangers, the Fighting 75th, out there in--where were they again yesterday--Anwar [sic] or some other God-forsaken hell-hole. Two of them got blown to smithereens by an IED, those animals.

GWB: Come on now, you’re supposed to be my brain, heh-heh. I’m talking’ baseball here—about my Rangers, my Texas Rangers. How did they do last night? Teixeira, or whatever his name is, get any hits? He’s been in a slump. Kinda like me, heh-heh.

KR: You’re not in a slump or anything like it. You remember what I told you yesterday how when the going gets tough the tough . . .

GWB: Yeah, yeah [if this were on video tape we would be able to see the president dismissing his Architect with a wave of the hand]. But to tell you the truth I’m fed up with them towel-heads. I should have listened to Laura and Mother—they said I would have made a great Baseball Commissioner. I never should have let you make me president. Hell, right now I could be out in Los Angeles tryin’ to figure out what to do when Barry Bonds hits four more homeruns. Everybody’d be cheering me rather than makin’ fun of me like on Saturday Night Live.

KR: I keep begging you to forget about what those East Coast homos are saying about you. If it was up to them al Qaeda’d be running this country already. And it wouldn’t be just our women wearing burkas, if you get my meaning.

GWB: She keeps beatin’ on me to read more books. Books, books. She wants me to shut the damn TV and think about history. I don’t have time for that while we still have a chance to win the Wildcard.

KR: But you know the Rangers are in last place and . . .

GWB: Sort a like me. No, no. Don’t try to smooth things over all the time. I may not be much of a historian—that’s what I married that librarian for—but I know how to count and I also know what Yogi said about the Fat Lady and it bein’ over.

KR: You mean how it isn’t over ‘til it’s over?

GWB: Somethin’ like that. You know if he wasn’t a Yankee from New York I’d have that little Eye-talian fella come over for a visit. It would help take my mind off things. With what’s goin’ on over there and her whinin’ all the time that I should be thinkin’ about my leg-a-cy I’m about to lose my mind. I tell her that I’ll be gone by legacy time so why in heck should I care about that? She’s even arranging for some historians to come by to meet with me. Can you imagine? I’ll need to take up drinkin’ again.

KR: I wouldn’t do that if I were you. We only have 18 months to go so I would recommend that . . .

GWB: [Imagine another dismissive wave of the hand.] She gave me these books about Lincoln and Nixon to read. Can you believe it? The first one got shot and the other almost went to jail. Jeeze. She’s even got Condi beatin’ on me. That’s why I hired her in the first place. To read all that stuff and then fight around with Dick, that old pork chop, and figure out what to do. I mean, what I should decide. ‘Cause like you said, that’s me--The Decider. That decider thing was one of your real good ones Big Guy. Even better than that Bring ‘em on and Mission Accomplished. The fool press lapped it up.

KR: I’m not sure about that. Because it’s a good thing for us to have the press with their shorts in a bunch because whenever that happens the Base eats it up. They like to see their president standing tall and taking responsibility.

GWB: Well, that’s me. I take responsibility. Who stood up for that midget Scooter Libby? Who supported that Mex Gonzo? And I’m taking the heat for exercising my, what did you call it, executive sacrilege, about your emails and . . .

KR: That’s privilege, sir. Executive privilege.

GWB: Right, right. I knew that, heh-heh, I just wanted to see if you was payin’ attention.

KR: Always. [The sound of an off-mike snicker appears to be audible.]

GWB: Now, would you be a good boy and pour me some more of that Gatorade. I wish they’d let me have a real drink. All that talk about exercisin’ reminds me that I need to get upstairs and onto my treadmill.

KB: Here you go. No ice just as you like it.

GWB: And next time, make sure when I ask about the Rangers you know what I’m talkin’ about and have the scores with you. All that other shit can wait.

Friday, July 13, 2007

July 13, 2007--Fanaticism LXXXIII: "Why Would You Want to Help Those People?"

Some one needs to explain to me the ideology of second-hand smoke.

OK, I get the "morning-after pill." I disagree with the theology cited to object to it, but at least I get it. Life begins at the moment of conception it goes—even when there are just two undifferentiated cells—therefore, to take a pill the next day means that . . .

Thus when Dr. Richard Cremona, George Bush’s Surgeon General for five years, testified before Congress this week, though as SG he was considered to be the Nation’s Doctor, and in that role he thought he was supposed to speak with an objective and independent voice, still, as a political appointee, it should have come as no surprise to him to learn that the Bush administration, of which he after all was a part, would expect him to promote abstinence over contraception; and certainly they wouldn’t want him pushing RU-486 pills. But couldn’t they, he now complains, have at least allowed him to point out the scientific evidence that even brief exposure to second-hand smoke represents a significant health risk? Is the Bush administration at the highest level so cravenly beholden to the tobacco lobby that they would put pressure on him to ignore this obvious danger?

I am pleased that Dr. Cremona has finally stepped forward to unburden himself (see NY Times article linked below), but what did he think he was doing to from 2002 to 2006 when he unquestioningly went around the country selling the Bush agenda? When Karl Rove instructed the good doctor to praise George Bush’s health polices in all of his speeches by literally inserting the president’s name three times on every page (there was someone in the White House whose job it was to do the counting—if he was so unhappy about this Cremona should have used a smaller type font size), did he think he was a free operative? I suspect he was happier with his deal than he is currently saying.

Be that as it may, with his emerging from the closet we have another inside look at how everything in this administration is politicized, with health policy now also serving as a metaphor for the lager agenda and problem—at best, cynical pandering to the religious right at every turn or at worst ideological and theological fanaticism.
The Bush folks were so thorough and obsessive that Cremona was even directed not to attend the Special Olympics because you know which family is prominently involved with them. Dr, Cremona testified, “I was specifically told by a senior person [we can easily guess who that was] ‘Why would you want to help those people.’”

The systematic assault on science that the doctor’s testimony reveals—from opposition to stem cell research to ignoring the evidence that abstinence doesn’t work (I could have told you that without spending even one dollar on studies) to ignoring the obvious about global warming—this is metaphoric because it is identical to the Bush administration’s ignoring evidence for ideological reasons in the foreign and domestic policy arenas. Just two examples--cutting taxes for the wealthy does not lead to a trickle-down benefit for the middle class or poor, and of course we have the unmitigated disaster in the Middle East.

But not to worry about our Surgeon Generals—C. Everett Koop, Ronald Reagan’s SG, who appeared before Congress with Dr. Cremona, as anyone who watches TV knows, is the very well-paid spokesperson who stars in infomercials for Life Alert; and Dr. Cremona himself is now vice chairman of Canyon Ranch, a high-end resort and development company. Where I suppose he makes sure there is no smoking. Abstinence on the other hand . . .

Thursday, July 12, 2007

July 12, 2007--The Croak of the Bat

The first half of the baseball season just ended with the annual All Star game. It was played out in San Francisco and served as a sort of scene-setter for Barry Bonds who soon, with just four more, will pass Hank Aaron as the top homerun hitter of all time. Babe Ruth will then languish in third place.

So it was no surprise that home runs were the theme of the two-day event—the first night saw the increasingly popular Home Run Derby, where some of the leagues’ biggest boppers swung for the fences; and the game itself saw the first-ever All Star inside-the-park homerun off the bat of Seattle’s Ichiro Suzuki.

But though he did not manage to hit one during the game itself, everyone was talking about Bonds’ assault on Aaron’s record. It is a baseball tradition for record holders whose records are about to be eclipsed to say, in spite of what they really feel, that “Records are made to be broken.” Frequently, if the record holder is still alive, he will tramp around from game to game waiting for so-in-so to steal the record-breaking base, play the new record number of games in a row, or hit one more lifetime homerun.

With Hammerin’ Hank still around, one would expect this consummate good sport and gentleman to be in the stands next week when Bonds creeps up on his record. But he will not be there because, as everyone knows, there is considerable controversy surrounding Bonds’ achievement—he is at the center of a steroid-human growth hormone scandal. Nothing other than his cheating by shooting himself full of these banned substances can explain his massively bulked-up body and his cartoon-size head. And all the home runs.

Even the baseball commissioner, who hovered around the ballpark in San Francisco, has not as yet decided what to do—Should he be there when the inevitable occurs? Should he officially call the record into question, designating it as dubious by affixing an asterisk next to it in the record book? And what will they do about admitting Bonds to the Hall of Fame once he retires—will he join Pete Rose, an undisputedly genuine superstar, as banned for life because of his alleged cheating? No one ever called Charlie Hustle’s career hit record into question—Rose’s transgression was betting on his team to win. So what will they do with the egregiously transgressive Bonds?

And then there is the matter of the bats themselves. Like the ones that Barry Bonds uses to hit all his home runs. From a report in the NY Times (linked below), it seems that the ash tress from which Major League bats are made are about to become extinct. Because of a killer beetle and, can you believe it, Global Warming. In order for ash trees to experience the kind of annual growth they require to impart the special characteristics needed for the best bats—density coupled with flexibility--they need warm summers and cold, long-enough winters. They are no longer experiencing these kinds of seasonal rhythms and thus before too long there will be no more suitable ash.

If Major Leaguers have to move on to aluminum bats, with a feeble ping replacing the solid crack of a well-hit ball echoing in the still of a summer night, we might as well watch Little League.

But there is a potential bright side to this sad situation—President Bush, a certified baseball fanatic (apparently it's the only thing about which he is truly knowledgeable), doesn’t believe in Global Warming. Maybe the situation with ash trees will get his attention and he will finally drag himself up out of the La Z-Boy in the White House TV room and do something useful like endorsing the Kyoto Protocol.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

July 11, 2007--Très French

I remember a time when the very fact of having been divorced was a killer virus to being elected President. True, Adlai Stevenson had other problems—he was terminally boring and was running against Ike. But having been divorced didn’t help.

But then along came twice-married Ronald Reagan and he changed everything. His reputation for earlier randiness may have even contributed to a climate in which Bill Clinton’s popularity soared as the public learned more and more salacious details about his trysting with Monica.

Now we have something quite different—a long list of viable Democrat and Republican candidates who have had private lives that seem, well, French.

Forget Newt Gingrich who is huddling in the wings waiting to be called back into service. Sure he was carrying on with one of his staffers while vilifying Clinton from the floor of Congress and endlessly on TV—that’s the normal kind of hypocrisy we have come to expect from our political leaders. Look right now at poor Senator Vitter who was busy making speeches in the Senate about the sanctity of marriage before racing back to his office to get phone sex from the DC Madame.

I’m talking here about front-runner Rudy Giuliani who first married his cousin; then fooled around with his press secretary while married to Donna Hanover, wife number two or three; and then moved on to openly take up with Judy Nathan, dump Donna via a press conference, got kicked out of Gracie Mansion, and moved in with a gay couple before making an Honest Woman out of Judy—who we know is now already, in her fantasies, redecorating the White House.

I’m also talking about Barack Obama, as far as we know married just once, who has a wife who, on on the campaign trail, rather than looking up at him adoringly with The Gaze while he delivers his stump speech, continuously makes fun of him—not just about how difficult it is to get him to take out the garbage (standard stuff) but how full of himself he is, how abstract and detached he can be--In other words, she says the same kinds of things about him in public that his political opponents whisper and pundits proclaim.

And then of course there is the leading non-candidate, former Senator and actor Fred Thompson who many Republicans on the right hope will soon swoop in and rescue them from the secular likes of Rudy and, until yesterday when his campaign imploded, John McCain who can’t be trusted because he supports campaign finance reform—please explain that one to me.

But how will the Religious Right contort themselves to overcome the fact that Thompson, in the words of the staid NY Times, has a “trophy wife”? (Article linked below.) Yes she’s accomplished, yes they have a couple of cute kids, but still she’s about 25 years younger than he and the Internet is filling with pictures of her, with her permanent tan, in “form-fitting” gowns. Nothing worse than that has appeared yet—but stay tuned. As a hint of things to come, former rightwing Republican congressman Joe Scarborough, on his MSNBC TV show compared Mrs. Thompson to a stripper!

On the other hand, as we thread our way through our national and personal obsessions these domestic arrangements might ironically wind up helping Rudy and Fred and Barack (though he is in danger of getting wimped out by his Mrs.): For every estranged family-values oriented voter there may others who see these guys to be cool. On the Web site Footballguystalk.com, one poster wrote, after learning about Thompson’s babe of a wife, “I think he’s my new idol!”

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

July 10, 2007--The Fifth Reel

On Saturday, Ryan C. Crocker (that’s his real name), our ambassador to Iraq, when assessing the situation there, said:

In the United States, it’s like we’re in the last half of the third reel of a three-reel movie, and all we have to do is decide we’re done here, and the credits come up, and the lights come on, and we leave the theater and go on to something else. Whereas out here, you’re just getting into the first reel of five reels; and as ugly as the first reel has been, the other four and a half are going to be way, way worse.

(NY Times article linked below.)

Though I’m not sure if he’s talking about Iraq or the film Transformers, he needs to get out of the Green Zone more because there are a few other flicks he should check out because if we’re in a five-reeler and have seen only one half of the first reel, that means, at four-plus years per half-reel (that’s how long we’ve thus far been fighting in Iraq), by my math that means we have about 40 more years to go before we get to the end of his movie.

Didn’t he or any of his masters see The Battle of Algiers? If they had, and it’s only three reels, they would have seen where this one was headed and wouldn’t have had to buy a ticket for the sequel.

But in a way Crocker is right—Nightmare On Saddam Street is about to be over. At least our direct, daily involvement is about to grind down. With all the formerly-hawkish Republicans up for reelection in 2008 getting restless in their seats and about to head for or be sent to the exit, all we are waiting for now is Senator Warner (also up for reelection in Virginia, a state tipping rapidly in an anti-war direction) to suggest using the “redeployment” beard. There are even hints that John McCain, just back from Iraq with his campaign in shambles, may trot out the R-Word.

And the Bush administration is scrambling to keep things from further political disintegration—poor Tony Snow had to stand out on the humid White House lawn this morning to appear on all the network morning shows as well as the three cable news channels. He did his best to spin Republication defection as “honorable” because what Senator Domenici and others are really calling for is a way “to win” with “honor.” Actually what they are calling for is winning their own elections.

This is the good news—our troops will soon begin to redeploy. I suspect, though I support this, that the really bad news will then likely begin. Yes, the Bush team perpetrated arguably the worst foreign policy blunder in U.S. history, pretty much everyone agrees with that; but, since the results of that is the reality the world now tragically faces, who among even the most insightful can sketch out a script for an outcome other than chaos? Five reels indeed.


Monday, July 09, 2007

July 9, 2007--Is Paris Burning?

I’ve been struggling for a while to come to grips with, or at least to some understanding of my obsession with Paris. Paris Hilton.

As the blogger of Behind The NY Times I should be ashamed to admit that this obsession is not of the cultural-studies variety—an expression of my eagerness to extract meaning from even (especially) the tawdriest manifestations of popular culture. Though I have tried to do that too, more I have totally enjoyed following her escapades and have looked forward each day to the guilty pleasure of sneaking a peek at what might be written about her on the New York Post’s notorious Page Six. I will even admit to occasionally checking her out on the Internet. And it has been impossible for me to check out any groceries at the super market without thumbing through The Enquirer or The Star. Both could be depended upon to dish up something titillating.

But what ever happened to my Paris? She got arrested, was sentenced to serve some hard time, actually went to jail, got out of jail for a few days, was reincarcerated, and then was set free after serving her sentence. As a result, I would have thought she would indefinitely inhabit the front pages of the tabloids and been covered 24/7 on the cable news channels. But she has pretty much slipped from sight. OK, so she’s on probation and is keeping a low profile or has found God, but this shouldn’t be stopping the paparazzi. Where are the photos of Paris walking her dog, Paris at her neighborhood Starbucks, or Paris in church? Nada. (Thus no articles from the Times or anywhere else linked below.)

Here’s what I think happened—she made the mistake of talking.

A day or so after being let out of jail she appeared for an “exclusive” interview on The Larry King Show. In snippy comments after her hour with Larry, gossip columnists and media critics alike pointed out how phony and scripted she seemed. Evidence for this was when after she told Larry how she read the Bible every day while in prison and he asked her what her favorite passage was, she looked to the side, presumably at her notes, and, not finding the “answer’ there, said something like “They’re all my favorites.”

Never mind that this is in fact quite a profound answer--how can mere humans rank or choose among the words of God—what they failed to mention was that the problem with her appearance was the very fact that she appeared in the first place; and by talking, uttering speech of any kind, she shattered the illusion that was at the heart of what made her a truly world-spanning celebrity.

Paris is/was about the way she looked and acted, and this hypnotic image was promulgated expressly because she never was heard to speak when being truly Paris. Yes, we did hear her on The Simple Life, but that was when she was in effect ripping herself off—when she was Paris doing an imitation of being Paris. Whatever we more deeply felt about her came exclusively from the images flickering silently on our TV and especially our computer screens.

She is thus, was thus, the first Internet mega-celebrity, but ironically suffered the same fate as those much-lower-tech shimmering silent film stars who lost their allure once they were forced to talk.

Friday, July 06, 2007

July 6, 2007--Fanaticism LXXXII: Human Penguins

Who was it, Santayana, who said: “Those who cannot remember history are condemned to repeat it”?

There are apparently some who both lived and remember history but are still in danger of having to repeat it. Case in point—a Holocaust survivor, a respected German-Jewish writer who lives in Cologne, Ralph Giordano. He has been leading the opposition to plans to construct Germany’s biggest mosque in this ancient city, home already to Germany’s largest Catholic cathedral and a significant number of surviving synagogues.

Fortunately Herr Giordano is not in the vocal majority, though who knows what most in their hearts really feel about the Islamification of Germany.

Thirty or so years ago industrial growth was so rapid that Germany needed to “invite” so-called “guest workers” to come for what they thought would be a while to do the work for which there were insufficient local workers or to take on mechanical and service tasks that young Germans were no longer willing to endure.

Well, nearly 3.0 million guests stayed on to become a version of permanent immigrants. Many came from rural parts of Islamic Turkey and brought with them their traditional forms of culture and religion. Depending on who you listen to, they either refused to learn German or any of the local customs, thus resisting calls to become integrated; or they were not welcomed by the “real” Germans and thus frustrated retreated into their own ethnic enclaves and ways of life.

Considering that the 9/11 plot was largely hatched in Hamburg, this latter view is not widely accepted or popular. But it may be closer to the truth as Germans struggle more and more with the proliferation, symbolically and concretely, of mosques next door. Even the one planned for Cologne, which is intentionally designed to be “modest” in size (the minarets at 180 feet tall would be only a third the height of the cathedral’s spires) and open and welcoming in feeling with its clear glass walls has engendered opposition if not ambivalence. Cologne’s Catholic leader, Cardinal Joachim Meisner, is not exactly opposed to its construction but said, “I don’t want to say I’m afraid, but I have an uneasy feeling.” (See linked NY Times article.)

But the one who should have the uneasiest of feelings should be Ralph Giordano himself. He who remembers from his own life the requirement under the Nazis for Jews to wear yellow Stars of David and the subsequent roundup and slaughter of most of his family, he above all should be very careful about what he advocates for fear of what that could call down upon any people, including himself, who embrace opinions, culture, and religious practices that are not sheltered within the majority.

He views mosques in Germany as “symbols of a parallel world.” He does not want to see women in the streets of Germany wearing burqas.” He says, “I’m insulted by that—not by the women themselves, but by the people who turned them into human penguins.”

Perhaps he is too old and addled to recall what his fellow Jews were called not so many years ago on those very same streets.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

July 5, 2006--Building 18

Lost in the Scooter Libby commutation and the Paris Hilton incarceration is Building 18.

Remember that? It’s not ancient history. Just three months ago conditions there and the public and Congressional response to them dominated the media. How could we treat our wounded and maimed Iraq veterans as if they were a national embarrassment to be cast aside?

And we learned, Walter Reed was just one example of a national disgrace. Even President Bush, who spends much of his time praising these heroes, had to acknowledge there was a problem and as a result appointed a high-level commission to look into the situation at the 1,200 veterans hospitals and care facilities around the country. Remember, he managed to get Donna Shalala to co-chair it?

And . . . ?

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

July 4, 2007--Better Angels

We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

Abraham Lincoln
March 4, 1861

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

July 3, 2007--"Excessive"?

Once again we have a President of the United States struggling with a definition. Most recently, Bill Clinton, when confronted with the accusation that he had sexual relations” with “that woman,” famously said: “It depends on what your definition of ‘is’ is.”

With his successor, President Bush, we now have a glimpse of his ruminations about the definition of “excessive.” In this case, of course, how it applies to the sentencing of Scooter Libby. Though Bush said, when commuting Scooter’s 30-month prison sentence, that he “respected” the jury’s verdict, he “concluded” “after carefully weighing” all the arguments surrounding the case, that the sentence is “excessive.” And thus he set it aside, cleverly “commuting” it rather than “pardoning” Libby. (Though he can still do that later or at the end of his term.) (See linked NY Times story.)

Never mind that the federal prosecutor was a Republican; forget that the trial judge, a Republican appointee, followed the Federal Sentencing Guidelines which were signed into law by George H. W. Bush, a sentence upheld yesterday by a three-judge appeals court with a Republican majority, including one who was appointed by George W. Bush; forget that this is Bush’s first use, after six and a half years, of his presidential power to grant clemency; forget that as Texas governor he presided over 131 executions, granting just one stay based on DNA evidence but in not one case offering clemency to anyone; but do remember that if he really wanted to pander to his waning right-wing base, shouldn’t he himself be guided by federal law and remain strong in the face of serious crimes? Isn’t that what true conservatives stand for? How do they put it when packing the federal courts—they appoint “strict constructionists” who do not “legislate from the bench”? (Though apparently it’s OK to do so from the White House.)

The folks who are applauding the President’s sense of justice and generosity of spirit are the very same ones who demand that judges follow sentencing guidelines after the conviction of drug dealers—five years mandatory for first offenders who are caught with 5 grams of crack cocaine (that’s just 0.18 of an ounce). As a sidebar, the more middle-class “crime” of possessing powder cocaine requires the same five-year sentence for being caught with 100 times as much—500 grams.

Let’s be frank here—President Bush did what he did not out of concern for the excessiveness of the sentence. If that was his issue he could have cut the time to be served in half—say 15, rather than 30 months. Or would that also be excessive?

No, this was not about being compassionate; it was done to assure that Scooter Libby keeps his mouth shut. In his dual role as advisor to the President and Chief-of-Staff to Vice President Cheney, oh what stories he could tell. So the scary thought that if Scooter had been hustled off yesterday to a Paris Hilton-type cell, locked down for 23 hours a day, and then had to fend off Sweet Pea in the shower, how long do you think it would it take before he placed a call to the federal prosecutor, clamoring to make a deal? Two days? A week?

Monday, July 02, 2007

July 2, 2007--Hey, Ralphie Boy

In my old neighborhood, none of our parents drove us to afternoon or weekend “activities” such as team sports. One reason was that there weren’t any. The other—hardly anyone had enough money to own a car.

So what did we do with ourselves when school was out? There were no video games. In fact, there was pretty much no video anything. The D____’s were the only ones who had a TV and we were not allowed to go over there, especially after dark, because it was whispered that Mr. D____’s money came from selling French playing cards and making dirty movies.

My father offered the following advice—“If you’re bored, go bang your head against the wall.” Since this had limited appeal, in the absence of organized activities we were left to our own devices, which meant street games.

Kids would pour out onto the streets in front of their houses and the younger ones would on their own organize games on the sidewalk that involved marbles, baseball cards (they were not viewed at the time as collectables), used rubber heals from shoes, and even bottle caps. Older kids would vie for possession of the “gutter” with the cars, peddlers, and Good Humor trucks so that they could organize their Ring-A-Levio (don’t ask), Johnny-On-The-Pony (really don’t ask), Three-Feet-Off-To-Germany (for sure restrain your curiosity), and especially their punch and stickball games.

For these latter games, sewers would become home plate and front and rear tires of parked car would stand in as first and third. The fattest kid on the block, who couldn’t catch a ball of swing a cut-off broom stick bat, would stand in the middle of the street and serve as second base. We were very democratic in that way—there was a role for everyone and everything.

But all of this is pretty much gone. In some neighborhoods it’s not safe any more to be out on the street playing in traffic. In other, meaner situations, assuming anyone would be interested in organizing a game of touch football, kids would have to dodge stray bullets as well and defensive ends. It is only street-game nostalgia nuts who today get out their old Spaldeens and stickball bats for a last hurrah. (See NY Times article linked below.)

Any kids who manage to pry themselves away from .kkrieger or can look up for a moment from their new iPhones would be less surprised to see dinosaurs roaming the streets than to spot 66 year-old Stephen Swid stepping out again onto his field of dreams, Sheridan Avenue up in the Bronx, for his annual stickball reunion. He remembers how Mickey Mantle used to stroll over to join in after a game at Yankee Stadium. And I remember Jackie Robinson, no kidding, coming out to play on my East Flatbush streets.

Swid tells great stories about the “old days”—and isn’t much of this really more about the stories than the actual playing of the games? He recalls how one day the Mick hit one so high and far that they never found the Spaldeen. And how on another day a team from around the corner came by to challenge the one from his block. That in itself was not so unusual, but since everyone was poor it was unheard-of that anyone would be outfitted in uniforms—uniforms when no one could afford even a new pair of Keds? They were black and gold and very spiffy. Swid learned there were designed by the unfortunately-named, very unathletic Ralphie Lifshitz. Though he couldn’t catch a bouncing ball, after Ralphie became Ralph Lauren he nonetheless turned out pretty good.