Friday, December 29, 2006

Those Who Choose to Ignore History are Doomed to Rewrite It

A day or so after Iraq's highest court decreed that Saddam Hussein would be executed in 30 days or less, the execution was carried out. Shiites, as well as many Iraqi Christians and Iraqi-Americans danced in the street. To those that experienced, or had loved ones that experienced, Saddam's reign of terror, this is a perfectly understandable sentiment.

This brought my A.D.D.-afflicted mind round and round, about war crimes and justice, and terrorist versus freedom fighter, and so this blog will meander about quite a bit.

It's an oft-quoted truism that history is written by the victor. And this is never more true than in the history of governmental conflict. On the one hand, we treat the war on terror much as we did the war in Korea and the War in Viet Nam. When we treat with foreign nationals we believe are terrorists, we have a convenient double standard: We can suspend habeas corpus because they are prisoners of war, yet we have no declaration of war, and we can dispense with Geneva Convention constraints, because they're not really P.O.W.s, they're domestic terrorists. But in Korea, Viet Nam, and Desert Storm, we had a nation we went to (undeclared) war against. That kept things a bit neater: If you were North Korean, Chinese, Viet Cong, North Vietnamese, or Iraqi, respectively, you were the enemy. AND, you were over there too. The enemy today is the enemy within. Sort of like what the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) feared was the case 50+ years ago. Then the fear was that communism would undermine our way of life. Now the fear is that way of life will be blown up.

A major 'Catch-22' of our founding philosophy of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness is that freedom allows things many of us think are just wrong to occur. An example of this well before terrorism has occurred for years in the judicial system. An accused criminal is entitled to ALL the legal benefits of the judicial system, whether guilty or not. The right to a vigorous and thorough defense has created loopholes big enough to drive a truck through for the guilty, as well as methods to exonerate the innocent. Do you amend those rights to punish all the guilty? How do you separate the guilty from the innocent? And do we even know what constitutes a crime? Remember the famous definition of pornography: "I can't define it, but I'll know it when I see it." Are "unAmerican" statements illegal? Does voicing the opinion that a terrorist is right constitute "aiding and abetting the enemy"?

Every country, every culture, every group of people writes their own history based on their preconceived notions. The very same rationale that the founding fathers listed in the Declaration of Independence could have been quoted (and probably was) by the legislators in South Carolina on December 20, 1860, when they were the first state to secede from the Union. We won, it was our war of independence. They lost, they were the rebels. They said they had a right to self-government. The Federal government said they didn't. The same Federal government that "four score and seven years" before that, said they HAD that right.

The balance of power isn't about right, wrong, or fair, it's about the biggest kid on the block, and a game of Armageddon-chicken. In October of 1962, Soviet Premier Khrushchev sent a load of nuclear missiles to the communist island of Cuba, where they would have a 20 minute flight time to Washington, D.C. The C.I.A., the Defense Department and John Kennedy were incensed about this, and they ordered a blockade. Never mind that the U.S. already had nuclear missiles in several bases in Europe, including in Izmir, Turkey, which had a 15 minute flight time to Moscow. When it's our missiles, they're there for defense, when it's theirs, they're threatening us. They blinked first (although Kennedy secretly agreed to withdraw the missiles from Turkey - still keeping the others in Europe) and turned the missile boats around back to Russia. This was, of course, AFTER we had tried the badly messed-up coup to depose Castro in Cuba in the Bay of Pigs fiasco.

Bottom line, we do what we need to do, and I understand that. We do apparently need to sacrifice our ideals for the freedoms we keep, at least until we can figure out a way to do it while keeping safe AND free. I'd just sometimes wish we weren't quite so unapologetically smug about it.

Monday, December 18, 2006

The Death of Literature, The Adolescence of Technology, and the Birth of a New Art

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
Arthur C. Clarke (1917 - ), "Profiles of The Future", 1961 (Clarke's third law)

It wasn't too long ago that a liberal arts education said that you were well-rounded, intelligent, literate. A leader. Now it says you couldn't decide on a major, plan to be a student until you're 35, and will be grossly underemployed. In the nostalgic haze of, say, the 30's, you hear archeology department at an Ivy League school, you think 'Indiana Jones'. Today, you think 'Van Wilder'. A favorite semi-truism in Iowa City, IA, home of the University of Iowa (one of the highest per-capita cities of Masters' Degree holders in the country): "You know the last thing they teach in Graduate School? They teach the best way to say 'You want fries with that?'" And I first heard this from the Chair of a prominent U of I department.

My niece Kamryn (she's the one without the beard) is learning Spanish and French, as well as reading, writing, problem solving, and the ability to troubleshoot a malfunctioning computer. Oh yeah, and she just turned five. I'm a college educated, Mensa-qualified, well-read English Lit major who has taught Shakespeare in college. And my five year old niece can count in Spanish higher than I can. Not to mention can probably locate as many South and Central American countries on a map as I can (Damn you, Dora The Explorer). Yeah, well, I'd like to see Kammy conjugate a verb or write a scene in Iambic pentameter.

The point here is that there's been a sea change in what as well as how, we teach, and the subsequent value we put on the other stuff. At the risk of this morphing into another of those tired "things were so much better in MY time..." whines, literature is a curiosity. Television, in its infancy, tried to bridge the gap between the staid, "professional" news and entertainment industries, with "Playhouse Theatre" shows that showed live-to-tape stage productions, and the heyday of the respected news anchor, from Edward R. Murrow to Walter Cronkite.

Somewhere just past the Apollo 11 moon landing, with all of it's Cold War Space-Race results, and the increasingly complex arms race, the world, and most of all America, began to focus like a hyperactive ferret-on-cocaine, that is, on anything and everything that moved faster, farther, and smaller. Phones that were "mobile" went from being on a cord hardwired in your car, to being carried in a bag, to itty bitty gadgets you can talk on while taking a picture while listening to music while driving a car. And it's everywhere, from computers in preschools to bluehairs on bluetooths (blueteeth?).

Quality today is quantifiable. You judge the newest technology by how fast it goes. By how small it is. By how many tasks can be multitasked into the smallest (and thereby, most portable) container. Online Universities advertise online for people to learn how to program more online University website ads. It's a vortex of technology teaching more technology. Call me paranoid (and you wouldn't be the first), but I keep waiting for Keanu Reeves to show up at my door and tell me Morpheus wants to see me.

Best-selling books are either warm and fuzzy or tough love self-help tomes, or they're tell-alls about what the butler saw through the keyhole. Or they're mile-a-minute thrillers with the mystery du jour plot (du jour right now is, of course, anything Jesus/Mary Magdalene related that wants to be scandalous). Short attention span theatre, along with whatever you can do for me today. I fully realize that many, if not most, of what has been considered classic literature for a lot of years was, in its creator's time, under appreciated. But it scares me that in a hundred years, my great-great grandson might be faced with an opportunity to purchase a first edition Dr. Phil for a thousand dollars.

How many people with advanced degrees (Besides the ones with English Lit majors) today know what Juliet was really asking when she quoted one of Shakespeare's most famous lines: "Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo"? And I'll give you a tidbit you can probably win a bar bet with - back in the day, wherefore was 'why', not where. She wasn't looking for Romeo (hence her surprise when he calls up to her), she was asking rhetorically, why he had to be a Montague, of all people. The one family her family has been feuding with for years. Does knowing this little factoid help you in any way, shape, or form? Certainly not in any quantifiable way. But if you ever see or read "Romeo and Juliet", you might understand one tiny part of a piece of great literature, just a bit better. Knowledge, any knowledge, used to be useful for no other reason than it was knowledge. Now it needs to be useful knowledge. Moving to a point knowledge. Life is too fast and too important to dwell on things that just sound good. Or look good. Or make you think.

Some people like to just listen to good jazz. Or blues. Not to dance to, or to get psyched up to, just for the 'feel' of the music. I read for that reason. Shakespeare, Marlowe, Swift, Hobbes (both philosopher Thomas and the cartoon tiger), Dickens, Hemingway, Dorothy Parker, J.R.R. Tolkien, Dr. Seuss. And so many more.

And yet, as miserably depressed as I can get about the state of art and literature nowadays, there passes before my eyes periodically (as I browse the bedeviled technology Internet for hours at a time) evidence of the new art. The techno-art. The Computer Aided Drawing stuff (I love the fact that this piece of technology's acronym is cad. It somehow seems appropriate). The picture under the 'About Me' title above was done on a computer. Courtesy of Visual Paradox (Copyright 1999-2006 by Brian Kissinger). Mr. Kissinger has gallery after gallery of incredible art. Fractal geometry, Computer Generated Imagery (cgi just doesn't have the Edwardian flair that cad does).

It is the new art, and while it's still a bit antiseptic for me, perhaps it is in a phase of evolution. Machine becoming something more. Something with a life to it. Something with a soul. I don't mind the idea of the machines taking over the world quite as much if I can think of it converting digital files to music. Converting bits to pictures. Creating life from lifelessness.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

"Thou Shalt Not Kill" (Unless Thou Art a State or Federal Judicial System)

I periodically have a discussion with a member of my girlfriend's family about the merits of capital punishment. This member of her family (for discussion purposes, we'll just call him "Ed") is roughly two ideologies to the right of Barry Goldwater. Since I have actually "won" this discussion (I call it a win when "Ed" agrees to disagree amiably), I thought I'd take it public (public being a relative term, considering that to my knowledge there are roughly 10 people who read this with any regularity).

I used to be a devout capital punishment advocate. This despite the fact that normally I am just to the left of Timothy Leary (yeah, I know, but there really aren't nearly as many colorful leftists as there are right-wingers, and nobody else leapt to mind). My old standard reply was: "You commit a premeditated murder, you lose all your rights to life, as well as liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." This view sufficed for me for much of my adult life. A few years ago, and I have no idea when or why exactly, I realized I didn't feel that way any more. Every one of the arguments I was presented with in favor of capital punishment, I disagreed with. And basically, I was left with one overriding axiom:

If killing is wrong, be it on moral, religious, or ethical grounds, it simply doesn't get made right because the state says so.

We'll look at some of the tried and true answers for the capital group in a moment, but first, a disclaimer: This post is full of statistics. The first statistics professor I had in college had an enlightening (if sophomoric) analogy about the perils of statistic quoting - He said that stats are "like string bikinis - what they show is very interesting, but what they hide can be essential." The statistics below are by no means the be-all-end-all, but for me, they do illustrate the points.

1) It's a deterrent. This one's just plain silly. I'll give you a couple of good examples: In the state with the most executions since 1976 (when it became legal again), Texas, they have executed 376 people since then. New Jersey, since it re-enacted the death penalty laws in 1982, has executed exactly no one. Zip. Nada. Nil. Their current murder rate is 4.8 murders per 100,000 people. Texas' rate is 6.2 per 100,000. And lest you think it has anything to do with the law already on the books, let's compare Michigan, home of Detroit, often competing for the coveted title of murder capital, and one of 12 states without the death penalty. 6.1 per 100,000. That's just a shade less than Texas. Here's another related tidbit: According to a NY Times study, 10 of the 12 states without the death penalty have homicide rates below the national average, while half of the states with the death penalty were over that average. While I'm certainly not saying it encourages anyone to murder, I am saying there seems to be no hard evidence that it stops anyone either.

2) It costs the taxpayers less to execute a criminal than to keep him/her locked up for life. This is one of those counter-intuitive arguments that seems to be obvious, but isn't. In fact, in most instances it's simply not true. First of all, there are states like the afore-mentioned Garden State. Since 1982, New Jersey has spent $250,000,000 on 197 capital trials, resulting in 60 death sentences, of which 50 were reversed. There were no executions, with 10 people currently on death row there. That's approximately $5,000,000 per accused. On the 'cheaper plan'. Then there was a study done in Indiana by the Indiana Criminal Law Study Commission that concluded that from trial through incarceration to execution, capital sentences were 38% more expensive than if all defendants were sentenced to life without parole. That presumes a 20% overturned verdict ratio, including re sentencing. I won't bore you with more statistics, but suffice to say, for me, this was the one toughest argument to refute for me. Now it's at the least possible that it's as cheap or cheaper to incarcerate than to execute.

3) They killed (an) innocent person/people. It's just justice that they be killed themselves. Now this one would make sense to me on several levels. Except that the state keeps pretending it's justice and not revenge. In fact, I have less problem with a notion that would allow a victim's family to kill the murderer in just the same fashion as they killed their victims than the current system. That would at least be a true act of vengeance, and arguably, the just resolution. The most bizarre part of the capital punishment judicial code is the part about 'cruel and unusual' punishment. You're going to be KILLING him/her. You are going to be taking away their life. Forever. It is somehow cruel and unusual to make it uncomfortable while you do this??

For me the entire process of the death penalty is epitomized by what happens right before the injection. The lethal injection. The lethal injection that's supposed to kill you in seconds. They swab the condemned with alcohol. They certainly don't want you to get an infection, days, or weeks after they've already killed you. Talk about the height of hypocrisy.

But let me also be clear on a couple of other things: I do believe in life in prison without parole. I don't believe in bargaining down what qualifies as first degree murder to 12 - 25 years, with time off. I also believe that if you didn't actually do what you are convicted of, spending the rest of your life in jail allows your innocence to be explored. Before they have to grant you an acquittal posthumously. I believe the millions spent each year on capital cases (and their appeals) as well as the tens of millions spent each year on prisoner conveniences, should be put towards more penitentiaries and higher guard salaries. I'm not sure a weight room, color televisions and rec rooms are worth early releases for thousands of violent criminals because we haven't got a room at the inn.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

I'll have the CoorsBudweiserGuinessMillerSamAdamsPabst, please. On tap.

This is going to be a singularly unimportant rant, as rants go, but then again, it's probably more socially significant than the previous entry on pet peeves, if only by the narrowest of margins.

The two ostentatious vices I indulge in, albeit rarely (because in addition to being ostentatious vices, they're also expensive ones), are smoking good cigars, and drinking good single malt Scotch. The latter, being the rarer for me, is tonight's topic of bewilderment.

For those unfamiliar with the world of Scotch, there are two types of Scotch drinkers: The single malt people and the blended people. The single malt drinkers view the blended drinkers much as wine connoisseurs view people who prefer their wine with screw-off tops (and colorful names like Boone's Farm and MD20/20), and blended scotch drinkers view single malt patrons as pretentious snobs. Being periodically pretentious and often snobbish by nature, I am, and always have been, a single malt Scotch drinker. However, in this case, I just don't understand the alternative.

Blended Scotches (including some very famous and well-regarded brand names like Chivas Regal and Dewars) are literally amalgams of dozens, if not hundreds, of single malt Scotches that have been pawned off by single malt distillers, mostly their leftovers. Much of the distinction of any specific Scotch lies in two root ingredients - the local water, and the local peat. Like it's hoidy-toidy cousin the wine-grape, the local region produces very distinct tastes, based on the area within Scotland that it comes from. Saltiness, smokiness, peat content, and other criteria, combine to give every single malt locale a distinct flavor and a passionate following. Some are Highland fans, some Islay, and others places in between, mostly along the Spey river in Scotland.

Now I get the fact that some people don't like Scotch. It's an acquired taste, to be sure. And even within the single malt community, you'll have arguments over the 'best' place to distill Scotch. Much like wine afficionados fighting over regions of France, or Spain, or Italy, or Australia, or California or New York wines. And like brewers that tout their beer based on the local waters they brew with (think Coors in America, or Guiness in Ireland).

What perplexes me is the people that LIKE a blended Scotch. If you like a good Chardonnay, for instance, would you order a glass of wine that you knew was made from dozens, if not hundreds, of different kinds of wine grapes? That could have come from France, or California, or Kansas, for that matter? That they could be from any type of wine grapes, sweet or dry? Methinks not. You've probably developed a taste, or at least a mood for, a certain kind of wine, and more often than not, probably a favorite place that it comes from.

Bourbon, that most American of hard liquor, has evolved into such a specific entity that by U.S. trade law, it must be at least 51% corn (typically closer to 70%), with the rest of the recipe containing wheat and/or rye, and malted barley. No other dry ingredients are allowed. A concurrent resolution of the U.S. Congress restricted Bourbon to U.S. production (in 1964). No hybrid blends here either.

I'd never tell a Highland-type Scotch drinker that his lighter Scotch was inferior to the smokier tastes of my beloved Islay (Lagavulin, Laphroaig) or Spey malts (Macallan), because at least that's a specific choice made. A blended Scotch is much more akin to the 'garbage can punch' stuff we had in college.... You know, where everyone brings a bottle of something and pours it into the punchbowl. You'll get drunk either way, but with a single malt, you can at least enjoy the taste.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Free To A Good Home: Adopt A Pet Peeve Today

Since I don't do New Year's resolutions, but still like to self-evaluate and tweak the complex and often bizarre set of behaviors that are me, I decided to see if I couldn't find homes for some of my more troubling, and yet deeply unimportant, pet peeves. In no particular order:

Just don't call it 'White Chocolate'
. There is no such thing as 'white chocolate'. From unsweetened to bittersweet to semi-sweet to milk, and all shadings therein, the central ingredient common to all chocolate is chocolate liquor, the liquid or paste made when cocoa beans are roasted and ground. This carpet-bagging imposter contains no chocolate liquor, just cocoa butter. I have no idea why this is a peeve of mine.

When you say 'Irregardless', it doesn't mean what you think it does. This is a double-negative.

There is no such word as 'Supposably'. I had a supervisor, an adult woman with an advanced degree, who managed the entire Training Department for one of the top five auto insurance companies in the country, that used this word every time she wanted to say supposedly. And no, she has no accent whatsoever, and her family goes halfway back to the Mayflower.

The state in the midwest that Chicago is in is not pronounced the way it is spelled. My teeth grind every time I hear 'Ill-i-noise'.

It's a lot funnier when Homer Simpson talks about 'Nuculer' disasters than when the President does. Don't you think that ONE of the speechwriters the White House employs in the Communications Department would explain to the chief executive how that word is actually pronounced? Especially when the vast majority of the times he uses that word it's in a pretty important context?

His parents named him Colin, but he pronounces it like a part of the body most closely associated with the rectum? The man was General of The Army, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Secretary of State, would it kill him to be referred to the same way most other people with that name do? Think Colin Ferrell or Colin Firth. Although it was a nice picture caption with the President, Vice President, and Secretary of State (at the time) that could be called: A Bush, A Dick, and a Colin, when pronounced his way.

If it's new, how can it be improved? Self explanatory, except to advertising execs.

It won't hurt you to say please and thank you. Just be polite, dammit. The subset to this one is, if I stop to let you into traffic, a polite wave and/or smile will cost you very little of your roadrage momentum. I promise.

Feel free to give a good home to any of the above.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Youth Really Is Wasted On The Young - or - 'When Did They Get To Be So Interesting?'

I've been battling an affliction for months now, and it's getting worse, not better. Probably upwards of four or five months ago I first heard the vaguest of rumors, just the distant echoes of drums in the wilderness. There was going to be a reunion. Thirty years ago, I graduated high school.

So what? Personally, I figured there would have been a twenty-five year reunion, but since five years ago I didn't care any more than I did ten or twenty years ago, it's safe to say I wasn't all that miffed about not being able to miss another high school reunion.

The first one (at ten years), I went out of my way to miss. That one I had gotten the info on and couldn't wait to not go to. Ok, I did wait, but just long enough to tsk and cluck at the outrageous price they were charging, plus a cash bar. Feh (and feel free to insert your own cultural stereotype here). My indignation didn't last long, and it was forgotten.

I didn't realize I missed the twentieth anniversary until somewhere near the twenty-fifth anniversary. No invite. No problem. I figured I was much happier then than I was in high school anyways. I had sculpted asocialism into an art form by the mid-nineties.

At any rate, these first Rumblings of Reunion in '06 didn't do much for me either way. Although, in hindsight, I think I did notice the stirrings of a curiosity I didn't recognize. Then, quite by accident (I don't remember what I was initially searching for), I discovered a blog (as a quick digression, this thing isn't a blog so much as it is part musing, part autobiography, part community happening) that was walking me through life in a Chicago grade school in the mid-to-late 1960s. Not just from my generation, but my actual gradeschool. And my actual class. Yikes.

As I read it (and then read it again), I was astounded to learn that I was flooded with fond memories. Although I knew, in theory, that I was much happier in elementary school than in high school (Yes Virginia, there were no junior highs when and where I went to school. We didn't need no steeekin middle school - you went from vaunted 8th grader directly to taunted freshman after a single summer - but I digress again). Anyways, the author of this excellent blog (Jew Eat Yet), Danny Miller, who was one of the organizers of the reunion, was a sort-of acquaintance, in that what social circles we each had sort-of intersected at times. Much like a Haley's Comet sort of thing. I'd even been at his house for a party or two back in the day. I wrote a comment on the blog, basically thanking him for the trip down memory lane, he dropped me a note afterwards, and we each started comparing reminiscences. The quiet, smart kid with the way long hair and baby face who kept messing up the curve in school had turned into a witty, erudite, successful, semi-retired writer and editor. Overnight. Ok, thirty years of overnights.

Got me to thinking. I was now getting really curious about the whatever-happened-to-baby-jane factor of this reunion thing. My mother thought I was nuts ("You haven't seen or heard from these people in thirty years, why now?"), my girlfriend thought I was nuts ("You've never mentioned these people before, why now?"), my cat thought I was nuts ("Quit looking at '' and feed me, dammit!").

Then, as if this wasn't weird enough yet, another of the organizers of the impending reunion - we had gone to a relatively small high school, so they were organizing a triple-class reunion with the classes of '75, '76, and '77 - dropped me an email on the very day Danny wrote me back. Barb had seen my comment on Danny's blog and wanted to say hi. Barb (a year younger than me) was a closer friend (closer in the context that we actually hung out periodically - I didn't have a lot of friends back then that I saw with much regularity), and when we caught one another up on our lives the past thirty years, saw a bunch of parallels. Someone else that turned out to be a fascinating adult.

Unfortunately, I couldn't get to the reunion, and to my complete amazement, I agonized over not going. To make the point even more indelibly, Danny sent me a link to another of our classmates' blogs, an expatriate now living in England (as is Barb, by the way). Donna is another of those that I literally spent nine or ten years in classes with, but never ran in the same circles. Her blog is a thoughtful, witty, intimate, and at times heartrending set of writing based mostly about her only son who's a U.S. Marine in Iraq now. And this from a dyed-in-the-wool liberal dove. Regardless of your personal views of American involvement in the middle east, you need to read this one too (Mother Courage). Yet another of the classmates I never got to know in all those years that have wonderful stories to tell. Who knew?

So here I am, eager for more stories, more experiences. I'm suddenly fixating on the next reunion, and I don't do patience very well. This will be an annoying ten years. And I blame you, Danny.

Friday, November 17, 2006

A Small Hole in the World, Only Noticed Years Later

(Blogger's Note: I wrote the piece below, all but the last paragraph, almost a year ago, initially intended to be included in a blog - I left it out because it seemed somehow too personal. Last week I got the souvenir booklet from my 30th High School reunion, which I wasn't able to attend, and on the 'In Memoriam' page, I saw my friend's name and picture. Somehow, now, this piece seems more relevant, although I have no idea why)

About a year ago, my mother, in a phone call, told me that a childhood friend of mine had died. This isn't someone I've remained close to. In fact, I don't think I've seen Esther in upwards of 35 years. At the time she told me, I remember saying: "Oh, that's too bad.." and that was that.

Lately, I've been thinking about that reaction. First, a bit of background on my 'neighborhood' at the time: The first house I remember living in was on a small, close-knit block on a one-block long cul-de-sac street called Monticello on the north side of Chicago. Actually, cul-de-sac isn't even accurate. It was a single city block that simply stopped at the end, which abutted up against a river (which in reality was probably a creek, but to a 5 year old, it was a raging river, thank you). In front of that river, up on the bank, was a large, sturdy chain link fence, which in turn was set up behind a number of concrete embuckments (I seem to remember something like five of them). These embuckments were large, rounded rocklike things, probably about 5-6 feet high, that were painted industrial green. I have trouble remembering what I had for dinner last night, but I can still recall the exact feel of the cold painted concrete on my hands as I climbed up those rocks to sit, as if it were yesterday. And I was last on this block in 1966.

This block was pretty much a complete world for me. The neighbors were always the people we saw, in every social situation. They were family. This was in the early to mid sixties, and it was a time when neighborhoods in the city were much like what the suburbs were going to become later in the decade: Block parties, doors left open, eveyone looked out for everyone else. The block had something like six families with children, several elderly couples, dogs that everyone knew, petted and fed, and you knew every house by the people who lived there, and they had lived there for years. Our house (which seemed more than big enough for me, mom, dad, and my kid brother) was a tiny two-bedroom postage-stamp of a house that had a front door that was really a side door, and that side door was about 10 feet from the side door of the house next door. Esther's house.

Esther was a grade ahead of me, and something like six months older. My brother wasn't even in preschool yet, and Esther was a combination sister, buddy, co-conspirator, and girlfriend (in a 1st grade kind of way). We'd play GI Joe, baseball, and doctor, all in the course of a sunny afternoon. Sure there were the others on the block, the Goldens with their troop of six kids, Little Jody and Big Jody (the odds of two different families on the same block having girls named Jody never amazed me as much as it probably should have), and the older kids a few doors down, but when push came to shove, it was always Esther and me. There probably wasn't a total of five days in four years when we didn't play together.

Then we moved. Not far the way I measure distance now, about a mile and a half, but to a third grader before the advent of soccer moms (or many moms that even drove at all, much less an SUV), it was another continent. Fortunately, third graders are also remarkably bulletproof when it comes to the trauma of relocation. And the new house was a two-story Georgian of positively gargantuan proportions (at least by third grader standards). By the time I got midway through grade school, the house on Monticello was a quaint memory that I had no time for thinking about.

Esther and I ran into each other probably a total of three times since I moved from there, all when we were both in different high schools. Then I heard, when I was in college, that she was sick. Again, I was too self-absorbed to manage anything more than an "oh, that's too bad..."

I don't know how old she was when she died, but I do know it was way too young. As I get older, the regrets compound, and certain periods of one's life take on the "golden age" tinge that we middle-aged baby boomers harp on over and over (and that we spent years making fun of in our parents).

Mostly though, I regret I never got to tell Esther the place she had in who I was, am, and will be. And all in the space of a few scant years. I have had many, many acquaintances since then, and more than a few friends, but there's only one first real friend in your life, and despite all that goes on around you, there's a little hole in the world that stays there when that friend is gone. Even when you don't notice that space for years at a time. I miss her a whole lot, and the worst part is it's years too late.

If you have the good fortune to have your first friend ever somewhere in your roll-a-dex, or even know what city they live in, do yourself a favor and look them up. There will come a day when you (or they) will regret not doing it, only after it's too late.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

I M 2 Lazy 2 Write.. R U?

Every now and again, there is a nice byproduct to voting, even in local and statewide elections. This past Tuesday I got to help a candidate lose his election bid, rather than help one win. I realize this might sound like semantics, but sometimes you just want to see someone lose more than wanting someone else to win.

In my little corner of the world, an area on the opposite end of Puget Sound from Seattle, WA, sits the Washington State congressional district 35, a nice mix of blue collar (Puget Sound Naval Shipyard, as well as logging, automotive, and construction businesses) and white collar (the older affluence of Gig Harbor, and the newer money of Port Orchard and Bremerton). You're as apt to see a beat-up '79 Chevy half-ton pickup covered in mud driving past you on the road as you would an '06 Mercedes SL convertible.

The incumbent, a distinguished-looking 69 year old man named William "Ike" Eickmeyer, has been a state representative since 1997, and has had a quietly undistinguished career so far (head of a local canal committee as well as serving on the Natural Resources and Capital Budget committees). No scandal, no heroics.

Enter the challenger. A 40 year old Republican named Randy Neatherlin. I first saw Mr. Neatherlin's name on a campaign poster that said: "Randy Neatherlin... I M 1 of U." For the rest of his qualifications, I quote from his campaign website directly:

"Randy's many ventures included being a cowboy, bodyguard, tree trimmer, logger, roofer, drywall hanger and both sales and management for Colonial Corporation, where he was responsible for about 50+ employees. Randy is currently creating a television advertising and marketing firm which already has three customers under contract. Randy currently is the owner of My Friends Carlot, a used auto sales dealership and repair shop. Randy also still owns one of his first companies, a cedar shake and shingle mill in Belfair.

With such a wide variety of experiences, he has truly earned his tagline, 'I M 1 of U.' "

I'm sorry, but abbreviating am, one, and you is fine for a text message to a high school classmate, but not for a serious adult vocation, like being a State Representative, for example. I have no problem with Mr. Neatherlin personally, and in fact, agree with several of his stances, notably on limited government and taxes. But a shorthand sentence that he is one of us is hardly the qualification I would want my Representative to be leaning on. I don't want 'one of us', I want the 'best of us', I want someone above the crowd, to lead, not be an example of the ones who are lead.

Unfortunately, this is symptomatic of politics, education, athletes and role models in general. No one wants a leader, no one wants an ideal. Everyone looks to find the warts, which in turn makes those who aspire to leadership roles sink to the lowest common denominator in order to 'fit in,' to be 'just one of the guys'. I don't think it necessary to gloss over people's flaws, nor to spin them into acceptability. By the same token, I think it's still acceptable, in fact necessary, to highlight what makes these leaders different. Not all important decisions are good ones, but most of them are controversial, and pandering to the masses will accomplish nothing great, save perhaps a great ability to pander.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Secrets of a Long and Happy Marriage

(Note: This blog was actually done 10/2/06, and brought over here from another blog. I wanted it to be a part of this one - and they had a lovely anniversary, and are still married more than a month later)

In five days, my parents will celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary. I find this an exceptionally remarkable milestone, all the moreso because to this day I find it hard to believe they ever even dated. Not because they're "the parents" (well, not solely because of that), but because it's entirely possible that two more dissimilar characters have never dated in all of recorded history.

My mother came from a reasonably well-to-do family on the "nice side" of Des Moines, IA. Her father was a successful doctor, her mother the prototypical doctor's wife, aka the perfect hostess and mate. Mom was an intellectual, the daughter of the single brightest mind I have ever known personally. Mom's careers have ranged from a librarian to executive secretary for firms as large as Leo Burnett and Marsh & McLennon. She's as familiar with Spongebob as she is with Springsteen as she is with Shakespeare (thanks primarily to her grandchildren, my younger brother, and myself, respectively). Oh, and she's completely and utterly cooking-impaired. The reason I included that tidbit will be made apparent later in this blog.

My father, on the other hand, comes from Chicago, raised by a very frugal and hardworking couple (his aunt and uncle). His father died when my father was 18 months old, and his mother couldn't afford to raise my father and his sister, so their aunt and uncle did. Dad struggled to get out of high school, went right into the army, served in Korea as a corporal (radio operator in the Signal Corps), and has war stories...hundreds of war stories.. Dad was (and is, for that matter), a salesman. He's what used to be referred to as a people person. He's also the hardest working person I've ever seen, but he is a product of his environment. If I were to tell him that Leonardo Da Vinci was an artist, a sculptor, an inventor, an advisor to royalty, and a writer, he'd be just as likely to answer "Man couldn't hold down a job."

Mom's version of the perfect vacation day is reading by the pool. Dad's is talking to the hotel engineer about how well the filter in the pool works.

In the old days (read: when my brother and I still lived at home), he'd yell, she'd smile and nod, he'd yell some more, she'd smile and nod, ad infinitum. In the 30ish years since then, they've both sort of moved towards the center. He rarely yells now, and she in fact sometimes does. Neither of them confesses to any idea at all how they've lasted this long, but I have a theory.

I mentioned earlier that my mother can't cook. This, by the way, is not a secret to her. She doesn't like her cooking any more than I do. You know the old joke about what the jewish wife makes for dinner (reservations)? My mother's picture in on the original printing of that joke. My father, on the other hand, actually likes it. Not like a devoted husband tolerating it for his wife's sake, but asking her to cook. My mother and I would BOTH be complaining about what we were having for dinner (while she made it) more times than I can count when I lived there. But dad, bless his heart, loved it.

Which brings me to my theory: The first few years they were married, it was the whole 'opposite attracts' thing.... then it was the kids....not many people they knew divorced who had kids...of course, it could be that both were afraid they'd wind up with custody... and finally, after my brother and I moved out, they reached the key component to marital bliss:...::::::drumroll::::::: they figured out the perfect compromise to food. Now they split going out to eat and cooking in. Going out let's mom eat food she actually likes, and dad gets to talk to the waiter, manager, busboy, and customers... When they stay in, mom has to cook, but at least afterwards she can read a book or watch TV, and dad gets to eat food HE likes.

Happy anniversary mom and dad.

Vote Early, Vote Often - Oh Wait, I Don't Live in Chicago Anymore

It is that time of year again, the first Tuesday in November of an even-numbered year. This is the year I vote in all the available elections, as opposed to the one in two years, when I vote for every office except the big one.

Before I defend not voting in the Presidential election, I've got something to say to those people who get righteously indignant, puff out their collective chests, and huff: "If you don't vote, you don't get to complain". My response: "Huh?" Silly me, I thought that the first amendment guarantees the right to free speech to all citizens, not just the ones who choose to exercise their voting rights. It always seemed to me that that argument was similar to the ones raised by the "America - Love it or Leave it" contingent. Free speech is for speech, not for "good" speech. Note I didn't say ALL speech, because I understand there are things one can say that can affect everything from personal to national security. But I have a hard time with the stretch that if I think a given administration is behaving badly, someone or something might be at risk. Except perhaps, that administration's next term.

But about the Presidential election. There are really only a few things you need to know about the Electoral College, and they're probably things you were taught in school, but perhaps didn't fully understand. The usually accepted version of the form of government we live in is a democracy. It is not. At least not fully. And I'm not talking about conspiracies, lobbies, and 'shadow governments'. Our major form of government is a republic. We elect officials for a given term of years who make laws (the exception here being 'binding referenda', where the public votes on a policy, law, rule, or policy). If those officials don't make the laws we like, we vote them out in the next election that their term comes due in.

For the President, we elect the people who elect the President. Sort of. Those electors are elected in various procedures at the state level. States have differing numbers of electors based on the populations of the states. Can you name a single elector in your state? I know I can't. Some states have rules on how their elector has to vote (popular vote tallies, etc.), but 24 states do NOT have any rules on how their electors vote. Let me repeat that. 24 state electors, representing some 257 electoral votes, have NO rules on the books on how they have to vote. If a candidate gets every single vote in Illinois, for instance (one of those 24 states), those 21 electoral votes could, legally, go to his opponent. Is that likely? Of course not. But it can. Corruption, back-room deals, and conspiracies significant enough to alter an election are a lot more plausible in a pool of 538 votes than one of 120,000,000+.

There have been at least three incidences of the winning Presidential candidate losing the electoral vote since 1824, when the current system was put in place (1876, when Hayes beat Tilden, 1888, when Benjamin Harrison beat Cleveland, and of course, 2000, when Bush beat Gore). Think about that for a moment. More people, in three separate elections, voted for a single LOSER in an election than a winner. How does one reconcile the one-person/one vote, your-vote-counts philosophy with the reality? Are the people really more important in Texas, California, New York and Pennsylvania than they are in South Dakota, Maine, New Mexico, and Nevada? That's why both parties spend the dollars and invest the time in visiting the populous states. They only have to win a handful of states, not the whole country. Instead of disenfranchising one area of the country, they can do it to every region.

So, while I will continue to vote in every election I am eligible to vote in that does not include an electoral college, I certainly won't condemn anyone who doesn't vote and say they don't have a right to complain. Personally, I don't mind at all if my neighbors don't vote. In fact, I'd prefer it. I saw a comedian doing a bit a long time ago about prejudices against gay men. He said, "Hell, I wanna see more gay men. The more men date one another, the more women in the pool." The less voters in my district, the more weight my vote carries.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Commercial or Propaganda? If You Believe The 'Truth', I Have a Bridge I Want to Sell You

One of the truly interesting and strange byproducts of having a career that scoffs at traditional nine-to-five hours is you get to watch some surreal television. Specifically television advertising. And I'm not even talking about the local productions, the guy in his mid-sixties with the bad comb-over singing you a hoe-down on the joys of buying your next mattress from him. No, some of these are national commercials.

Some of them are well-produced enough that you don't even blanch at them until almost the next commercial break. My current favorite is for Now, I've never used their product, and it may well be a wonderful and useful service. However, this is their actual guarantee (as seen on TV): If you're not completely satisfied in 6 months (presumably with your dating life through their service), then they will give you 6 months free. Let me see if I fully comprehend this: If, for some strange reason, I don't think your product does what you tell me it'll do, I get to have it not work for me for ANOTHER six months? Talk about delusions of grandeur. Here's a company that figures their product is so good, even if it doesn't work, that I'll want to put my life on hold for a half a year more, their treat, just so I can see that it must not have been their fault I couldn't get a match I liked.

But the ones that are positively Goebbels-worthy, and what this blog is actually about, is a whole series of ads, ones that masquerade as public service spots. The '' folks. Not only can they tell half-truths along with the occasional untruth, there isn't even a venue for rebuttal, since tobacco advertising has long since left the airwaves. Allow me to help. As a semi-public service.

Every tobacco company in the world is a separate company. Certainly they have groups, and they lobby for legislation. Every industry in the world does. If an oil company breaks a law, and/or tries to cover it up with loss of life or ecological damage (think Union Carbide in Bhopal and the Exxon Valdez) the individual company is taken to court, not the oil industry. Were there internal memos circulated years ago to market cigarettes to minors? Undeniably there were. Was every tobacco company indicted? Nope. Yet every single tobacco company was included in the government's lawsuit, and every one of them is paying on the settlement. What do you think Shell Oil Company's reaction would be if the Federal Government sued them to pay an equal portion of the cleanup for the Valdez? Do you think Conoco was sued for negligence on Union Carbide's part?

Take some personal responsibility. The main thrust of the anti-tobacco lobby is that the tobacco industry has perpetrated a hoax on the American people about the dangers of smoking. I've been a smoker for well over 30 years, and before that. as of 1965 in fact, federal law mandated warnings on the every pack of cigarettes sold in America. First they said it was bad for you. Then (still upwards of 35+ years ago), they specifically stated: "...The Surgeon General's Warning: Smoking Causes Lung Cancer, Heart Disease, Emphysema, And May Complicate Pregnancy." AND...."Quitting Smoking Now Greatly Reduces Serious Risks to Your Health." AND... "Smoking By Pregnant Women May Result in Fetal Injury, Premature Birth, And Low Birth Weight." AND..."Cigarette Smoke Contains Carbon Monoxide." Did those warnings sound indecisive?

Incidently, ask any scientist what the definition of cause and effect is, and you'll find that cigarettes do not 'cause' Lung Cancer, Heart Disease, Emphysema. According to the definition of cause and effect, as soon as you have a person who smokes that does not get one of those diseases, you can no longer say it causes it. Almost everyone I know has a friend or relative that has smoked for years that never developed any of those diseases. And since the list of known carcinogens in our environment increases exponentially every year (and those are just the known ones), cause and effect does not apply. Does the empirical evidence suggest that smoking can greatly increase your risk for such diseases? Certainly. That is not to say that one causes the other. Another interesting correlation is how drunk driving is handled. Virtually no one, outside of MADD perhaps, says that alcohol kills. They warn that it impairs your judgement, and to 'drink responsibly'. A drunk gets behind the wheel after a couple of six packs, kills a family of five, gets a DUI, and goes home to watch a football game with three beer commercials every change of possession. But no one seems to see a corollary to alcohol ads and DUI accidents. Only cigarettes.

As I mentioned, I am a smoker. Not much, but I've smoked anywhere from a pack a day in my younger days, to the less than half a pack these days, for over 30 years. I am aware they are, at the least, bad for me, and at the most, contributing significantly to any number of respiratory diseases in me. I do not smoke indoors, including at home, and in fact, I have NEVER smoked indoors when I lived or worked with people who didn't, including well before the laws mandated it. I believe (I hope, anyways) that I would have the balls to take personal responsibility for my own smoking if it contributed to lung cancer, and not sue some evil boogie-man in the suit at Marlboro's parent company, RJ Reynolds, who somehow 'brainwashed' me into buying his product, while all the while he rubbed his hands and cackled maniacally. I am reasonably confident that I wouldn't sue because just a few years ago I had a lung cancer scare (that turned out, thank goodness, to be benign), and during the time between first suspicion and the negative result, I wasn't calling a lawyer, nor did I plan to. And yes, I am aware of the 'No Atheists in a Foxhole' theory, and that were I to get very sick I might change my mind. I simply hope I wouldn't.

When the AMA says that no matter how long you've been smoking, if you quit today, you stand an excellent chance of reversing the damage (before the disease is full-blown), I have even less sympathy for people who smoke for years upon years, and then upon discovering they have lung cancer, probably contributed to heavily by their smoking, blame the tobacco industry because they couldn't quit. When a participant in bungee-jumping is injured or dies in an accident, I don't remember hearing about bungee cord makers being fined universally for the inherent danger in their product. Even gun manufacturers have had all such universal suits against them thrown out in court for the danger of their products.

So, you know what? If you smoke, and you're worried about your health, then stop. There are thousands of support groups and aids to help, and hundreds of thousands of people (if not millions) in the US today that have successfully quit smoking. By the way, just for the record, I have quit for a year once, and for six months another time, in my adult life. I simply enjoy smoking.