Saturday, December 01, 2007

The War Comes Home

Just when you think things couldn't get much more screwed up in the 'War On Terror', not one, but two bizarre things happen within days of one another, and, strangely enough, they didn't happen in the labyrinthine halls of Washington, DC, nor the distant deserts of the Middle East. They happened in Sea-Tac Airport (the airport that serves the greater metro area of Seattle and Tacoma, WA), and in the tiny town I live in, Port Orchard, WA, just across Puget Sound from Seattle.

First, the airport story. Two soldiers from nearby Fort Lewis had just arrived with the body of a fallen comrade killed in Iraq, escorting it home to Virginia. On the tarmac, an impromptu honor guard was formed by Port of Seattle police, airport fire and rescue, and military personnel. One of the police officers then took the two soldiers up to security. The TSA screener checked the ID of all three, including the police officer, and sent the soldiers through the metal detector. Because both soldiers were decorated veterans, their combat ribbons and medals set off the detector. Rather than send them through again, or wand them, or even take them to a private facility, this defender of America in a TSA uniform, had them strip down to tee shirt, pants, and socks, in full view of everyone there. While I have no problem with a politician or a bureaucrat having to wait in the same lines as everyone else in airports, this begs the question: "What the fuck were you thinking?!?"

Then it gets weird. As a preface, I should give a brief overview of the town that I reside in now. It's a slightly bluer collar version of Mayberry. You're just as likely to see a postcard-picture view of an idyllic harbor as you are to see a 50 year old mobile home with weeds up to the windows. Half-million dollar gated homes may be blocks away from a working chicken farm. Bikers and brokers pass each other on the street every day. It's diverse, but the scale is small. There's somewhere around 8,000 people here, if that. And this is the county seat too.

Anyways, Port Orchard, WA got a visit yesterday from the Westboro Baptist Church in Kansas. Have you heard about these folks? The Southern Poverty Law Center classifies this sect as a 'general hate group'. They go around the country disrupting funerals of soldiers killed in Iraq. Not because of a war protest, but because they believe those soldiers are killed because of 'divine retribution' for the U.S. tolerating homosexuality. Several Westboro Baptist members (anywhere from 6 to 15 of them, depending on the news source) came to Port Orchard to protest the funeral of Sgt 1st Class Johnny C. Walls. They carried signs that said things like: "Pray for more dead kids", and "God hates fags". Nice, huh? But then, something extraordinary happened.

Even before the Westboro protesters showed up, hundreds of counter-protesters lined the streets around the intersection. They carried flags, they carried signs. They were bikers, they were housewives. They were gay rights activists, they were truck mechanics. They hooted, they honked, they cheered, they wept. Groups that on a different day wouldn't notice one another, high-fived and whooped across the street, as well as when they passed one another.

This isn't where I grew up, and Chicago will always be Home for me.... but from yesterday on, I'll always be proud of Port Orchard, Washington.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Checks and Balances - and Other Lies My Teachers Told Me

No one part can be
more powerful than any other is.
Each controls the other you see,
and that's what we call checks and balances.
"Three Ring Government" - Schoolhouse Rock

It was scary enough when he won the Electoral College vote in Florida, the final and deciding state in the election, certified by Katherine ('Tammy Faye Bakker, The Next Generation') Harris, a Republican fund-raiser and Attorney General under the President's brother Jeb. But okay, maybe it was sour grapes. We moved on (well, some of us did).

Then the war on terrorism. Without declaring war. And the WMDs that were there.. then weren't. Then were. Then of course the links between bin Laden and Hussein that weren't. Then the links between the 9/11 attack and the Iraqis (Never mind that 17 of the 19 terrorists were actually Saudi nationals, and none were Iraqi).

But most of that was gleaned from clandestine organizations, so the White House could do a "he said, he said" song and dance, and most of the "pay no attention to the man behind the curtain" goings-on were at least debatable on the left and right.

The most bizarre stuff (for me at least) has happened in the last few months. Either believing the Cheney/Rove cabal, or with the "what me, worry?" of a lame duck president, Dubya has figured out a way to single-handedly turn a republic into a monarchy.

For those of you who don't remember the famous "Checks and Balances" portion of your 7th grade Government lessons, it works like this: The Executive Branch (the President) is limited by the Congress, who can create laws to regulate Presidential powers. The President is also theoretically watched over by the Judicial Branch, who interprets the laws of the land.

The problem here occurs in some of the "side benefits" of the office. For instance, the President is entitled to declare "National Emergencies" and make decisions to send troops overseas without the proper declaration of war. The words "National Defense" have become the "Simon Says" of this administration. We can apparently wiretap without the inconvenience of due process, or even judicial notification, U.S. citizens, because the National Defense is at stake.

Okay, even that I can give latitude on, because I DO understand that I DON'T understand, all the implications and complications of covert operations. But then we get this: Months ago, U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales fired eight U.S. States Attorneys, allegedly for purely political reasons (in several cases, to hire more "loyal Bushies", in the words of Gonzales' former chief of staff). When the Senate and House Judiciary Committees issued a subpoena for former White House Counsel (and briefly Supreme Court nominee) Harriet Miers to testify about what role, if any, she and/or the White House had in the firings, the White House reiterated it's long standing demand that no current or former White House officials would be permitted to testify under oath, to the committees, citing 'Executive Privilege'. The interesting thing about this, should Congress hold Ms. Miers in contempt of Congress, she would still have Dubya to pardon or commute any sentence. And try as they may, I can't see a National Defense defense for Gonzales, Miers, or the White House.

Think this is an exaggeration? Two words for you: Scooter Libby. Scooter was Vice President Dick Cheney's Chief of Staff, and also served as a chief assistant to the President. Scooter was also the man convicted of one count of obstruction of justice, one count of making false statements to the FBI, and two counts of perjury to the grand jury, all during the investigation that Scooter leaked the information about a covert CIA agent's identity, then lied about it. Libby got 30 months in prison and a $250,000 fine. He could have received a maximum prison term of 25 YEARS in prison and a $1,000,000 fine. So it wasn't like he had the book thrown at him. But apparently Dubya thought it was too much anyways. Before spending a day in jail of his sentence (he was ordered jailed pending his appeal), Dubya commuted his sentence, saying in part:

"I respect the jury's verdict. But I have concluded that the prison sentence given to Mr. Libby is excessive. Therefore, I am commuting the portion of Mr. Libby's sentence that required him to spend thirty months in prison."

Yeah, the portion that made all four counts convicted on punishable by up to 25 years...reduced by 90% - that portion is 'excessive', so we'll make it nothing. Zip. Zilch. Nada. Judges? We don't need no steeenking judges... George W. Bush: Oil Magnate, Baseball team owner, Texas Governor, President of the United States, Judge, Jury, Commuter. Three Ring Government indeed.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

A Long Overdue Salute to Dad

One of the earliest posts on this blog was about my parents' 50th wedding anniversary. There I gave a brief description of my mom and dad and their background, but today, on Father's Day, for obvious reasons, I'm thinking more about dad.

About 13 years ago I was running a Theatre box office in Skokie, a suburb of Chicago, when I got a call from dad. He was calm, quiet, but insistent. He needed me to take him to the hospital. After the immediate "what's wrong?", he told me he felt fine, but his doctor, on getting his test results from a routine checkup earlier in the week, was meeting him at the hospital. Pronto. As I only worked about four blocks from where he lived, and the little hospital rendezvous concerned his heart, the doctor and my dad decided it'd be prudent for me to take him. He was admitted that day and operated on the next. A double bypass.

The good news is it was a complete success, and his recovery so complete that even now his doctor's usual response to dad's regular checkups is a lament that a 73 year old is in better health than his 50-something doctor. The reason this incident comes to mind is how my thought processes ran that day.

It's a pretty amusing little irony that while I can't remember what I had for lunch two days ago, I remember exactly what I was thinking while I waited for the outcome of that operation thirteen years ago. The only close family mortality issue I had ever dealt with up to then was my grandfather's death, and that was a sudden heart attack. No surgery, no extended hospital stay. It was right to the mourning stage. This was scary. There was time to think. Everyone kept telling me it was going to be just fine, it was routine. Like any open heart surgery is going to be routine.

My first thought was how would I deal with it if he didn't make it? Cliches kept running through my head. Would my first thought be: "I haven't told him I loved him?" I decided it wouldn't be, because although I hadn't said it to him in many years, I knew he knew. I actually began to (speaking of cliches) sort of see HIS life, as it passed before MY eyes.. his life with me, that is. I remember thinking, even at the time, that I was putting together a eulogy of sorts for the man, in my head. What I came up with, with regards to regrets, was a rather simple one: I had never told him how proud I am of him.

Dad and I saw eye to eye on virtually nothing when I was growing up. He was a 'wrong side of the tracks' kind of guy, a greaser who hung out with questionable crowds, went into the army shortly after high school. Not a big reader, or the intellectual type.

What he was (and is) is the hardest working human being I have ever met. When my brother and I were growing up, dad managed paint and hardware stores (mostly for Alan Saks, opening and running any new Saxon Paint stores up in the Chicago area). He worked five days a week on a good week, six or seven on most others. He worked a couple nights a week (Tuesdays and Thursdays - that's another odd thing to remember). We lived in a middle class Chicago neighborhood where everyone on the block knew everyone else.

We got by most times, and in a good year, we did better, in lean ones, maybe a little worse. But we never lacked for anything. I never appreciated the work he did, until much later, after I'd spent a number of years in retail management after college. And his work was much more physically demanding than mine ever was. Every time I saw him at work he was on a ladder fixing a lighting fixture, or dismantling a display, or boxing cartons, or building something.

In time, when he was in his 50s, my parents came into some money when the people who raised him (my great aunt and uncle) passed away. One of the things I find most remarkable about the man is his life didn't change when he came into the money. Not that it was millions, mind you, but enough that they didn't need to worry about the bills. Probably for the first time in his adult life in fact.

When the time was coming for him to finally retire (he had, from his late 50s on, finally given up management and was working as a salesman for a paint wholesaler), my mother and I had a bet that he wouldn't actually retire.... She said he'd finally settle down and relax, I disagreed. Sort of. Dad's concession to retirement was to cut down the hours. He travels some now (reluctantly), and still goes, three or four times a week, a block away to work at the car wash. Dad has always loved cars, and talking to people, so now he gets to talk to people while he supervises the kids who dry the cars. Oh and mom? I win the bet.

Anyways, the whole point of this is just to give Robert Henry Paullin a shout-out on his day. I love ya dad, and I'm very proud of you. And see? You made it into print (of sorts), and it didn't involve a subpoena... ;)

Sunday, May 27, 2007

The Party of the First Part.... Or.... A Platform and it's Planks - A Debate of One

Politics is supposed to be the second oldest profession. I have come to realize that it bears a very close resemblance to the first.
Ronald Reagan (1911 - 2004)

Well, after my latest (and lengthiest) hiatus (we'll pretend you noticed), I've decided to respond to the first sets of debates the Democrats and Republicans set up (semi-affectionately referred to as The Clueless and the Evil Empire, respectively).

For years and across many subjects, my criticisms and complaints have been met with choruses of "Well, do YOU have a better idea?" And now, at long last, I do, thankyouverymuch. So I've decided to make my own platform, complete with planks. The issues as I see them for 2008 and beyond:


The problem:
We have 1,952 miles of border separating America from Mexico, and another 5,525 miles of American/Canadian border to patrol, not counting the thousands upon thousands of coastline bordering the U.S. against the Pacific and Atlantic oceans, and the Gulf of Mexico. And tens of thousands (the actual number varies greatly by the political color of the teller's state) of illegal immigrants are taking American jobs and social services, especially in the migrant worker-related industries.

Let's look at the SOURCE of this massive influx of humanity: They want, and get work. How do they GET this work you ask? Most of the time, it's because they'll work for pennies on the dollar compared to the legal minimum wage. How is that possible, you ask? Because there are only two groups of people in this country who worry about the welfare of the illegal immigrants in this country: The civil libertarians (The A.C.L.U. and like-minded groups), and the owners of the businesses the migrant workers work for. From small, family-operated farms to huge conglomerates, every season they all are strapped for field workers to harvest time-sensitive crops. Even the groups that CAN afford to pay a living wage say that it literally becomes impossible to get and keep workers. So, will they turn their collective backs on a group not only willing to work in their fields, but willing to work there for a small fraction of the money they'd have to legally pay? Sorry, no matter what your motives, that's an almost impossible temptation to pass up. The rationalizationists get to say they're helping their fellow man (or woman), as well as keeping the rest of us from having to pay $15 a pound for seedless green grapes. This of course leads to red faces galore when the Immigration and Naturalization Services people get around to checking green cards periodically.

The solution: The solution is in two steps, one which might piss off the left, and one the right might find equally wrong: First, make the borders truly secure. Not close them, mind you, but make every square mile of American border a true checkpoint. Impossible you say? We haven't the manpower, nor the funding to even begin such an endeavor? That's the beauty of this plank of the platform. I HAVE the solution to that, but, curiously enough, it's in the solution section of the next plank. For now, just trust me, we could make this work, at least a lot better than it does now. AND cheaper.

The second step involves one of those things the right hates: Actual government enforcement of its own laws. Once the procedures are in place for regulating the immigrations into America, every single incident of paying a worker, legal or not, an ILLEGAL salary, would be met with fines AND jail time.

The War in the Middle East:

The problem: Fairly self-explanatory. A civil war that we're intervening in (interestingly enough, there seems to be almost as many Shiites as Sunnis protesting American occupation of Iraq lately) that is being touted by the Bush administration as protecting us (and the world) from terrorism is being waged, at the cost of tens of billions of dollars a year, not to mention the priceless cost of young lives. Here are some horrifying statistics for you: On May 1, 2003, when President Bush declared the end of "major combat operations", according to CNN, the U.S. government reported that 139 Americans had been killed. More than 3,000 more Americans have been killed AFTER the end of "major combat operations". According to some estimates, over $392.5 BILLION has been allocated to the Gulf War. And how effective has it been in curbing world terrorism? As of April, 2005, as reported in both the Washington Post and the SF Gate, the U.S. State Department, in it's annual report to congress, decided not to include the little factoid that worldwide, terrorism had gone from the previous record high of 175 reported incidents, to 655 in 2004 . That included incidents in Iraq (which Bush had previously said was 'stabilized') that had gone from 22 to 198 in the one year. Can't imagine why the State Dept. didn't want to include that to the public.

The solution: This is the centerpiece of both this plank and the one above on immigration. Unlike some bleeding heart liberals, I DO believe in a strong defense. I believe in defense of our way of life. I believe that every one of the U.S. soldiers in the middle east should be brought back to America, and be given the job that they were promised in the recruiting offices: Protect our country. They can be stationed on every border, and can see their families on a regular basis. The border patrols would be more than a bit improved, going from a squad of I.N.S. border rangers in jeeps and SUVs, to patrols of trained Rangers, Strykers, and Marines in humvees and tanks. Train the soldiers, use the borders to perform war games and exercises, and use the Navy to patrol U.S. waters around them. The Canadian coalition forces can still participate and do their thing on their side of the border to help out too.

And as a bonus, these border forces would be a lot better trained and equipped to deal with the drug runners in Florida, along the Gulf coast, and across the Mexican border. Would there still be illegal aliens? Of course. But I can pretty much guarantee the reduction of casualties by probably 99%, along with a huge reduction in imported drugs.

Gasoline/Oil Prices and Supplies:

The Problem: Yes, I know that globally we pay less than half what
most of the rest of the world pays, and I've heard the arguments from the left that unless it becomes too expensive, the U.S. won't conserve what fossil fuels we have left, nor have any incentive to find alternatives. But what bothers me about the current state of affairs in this niche is, it's simply illegal. The anti-trust laws as I understand them, state categorically that competitors cannot conspire or collude with one another to set a price, high OR low, for their product. Every time the price of crude oil goes up, the pump price is raised, within a day or two. OK, that makes some sense. But when it goes DOWN, the pump price doesn't follow. Here's another interesting tidbit of info: Here in the Seattle metro area, the local radio just announced a one cent per gallon decrease in the average gas price all the way down to $3.40 per gallon. The price of crude oil just dropped over $2.00 a barrel this week, down to $62 and change. What's interesting about this is that that same local radio station just mentioned that this time last year, gas prices locally were $2.40 per gallon. And according to NYMEX numbers, the price of standard light sweet crude oil was up over $65.00 a barrel in May of 2006, or $3.00/barrel MORE expensive. I think I know where all the former Enron accountants are working now.

The Solution: The reality is, the oil lobby has been bulletproof for a whole lotta years where collusion investigations are concerned. Whenever anyone looks into anti-trust, collusion, or price-gouging in the oil industries, men in black suits, red ties, and big cowboy hats scream about government control and 1970s gas shortages. Yes, the oil companies are allowed to make a profit, but just like any other industry, they should also be allowed to be investigated for collusion strategies. And if regulation becomes the only way, since apparently they can't or won't regulate themselves, then it needs to be done. And investigated by an INDEPENDENT prosecutor, not a Justice Department that is filled with political appointments (see Alberto Gonzales do his version of "Who's on First" following the partisan firings of all those States Attorneys).

And for the less important planks (less important to me that is):

I can't figure out why a 'National Language' designation for English pisses so many people off. No one is proposing the language police restrict what language you speak, nor who you speak it to. I'm unfamiliar with a lobby for American turkeys who were turned down for the Nation's symbolic bird (Although it is true that no less a personage than Ben Franklin lobbied FOR the turkey to be that symbol on the U.S. seal). Personally, beyond the occasional American tourist boorishly feeling that English should be understood WHEREVER Americans may visit, I'm not aware of, for instance, a movement in Mexico to make people speak English. I go to Mexico, I presume I will have to make myself understood in Spanish. Especially if I decide to move there. But, it's not that big a deal for me, so we don't have to do anything about it.

Flag burning/desecration amendment. Hmmm... Another one I just don't get the logic to. Yes, I understand the symbolic nature of the flag, and that people believe that people have died for it. The problem is, people have NOT died for the flag. They HAVE died for the IDEALS that it represents. One of the biggest of those ideals is, ironically enough, freedom of speech. Not 'good speech', but speech. The freedom to express anything you want to express, simply because we are not fascists. In my youth, there was a big to-do about hippies wearing a flag patch on their jeans... many WWII and Korean vets were outraged that 'those dirty commie hippies' would 'sit' on the flag. In the 80s, 90s, and beyond, people literally wrap themselves in the flag now as a gesture of patriotism, including wearing a flag emblem in a many more dubious places than the seats of jeans. The right rails furiously against the left trying to take away their 2nd Amendment rights 'to bear arms', but might shoot you with those arms for availing yourself of the 1st Amendment. I'm not sure any amendment was more important to the founding fathers than another, but IF there was, I'd think the first one would have been the one they thought of first.

Okay, that's all I can think of for now, and I have only one thing to add, with apologies to the enigmatic Lyndon Baines Johnson: "I will not seek, nor will I accept, the nomination of any party for a term as your President." Although, I don't look bad in a black suit and red tie.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

"That Trick NEVER Works!" / "This Time For Sure!"

My brother just turned 46 yesterday, and, in a bit of bizarre bit of transference, I think I'm having HIS midlife crisis. As ugly as it was facing my own 49th birthday almost 3 months ago, somehow his birthday this year is more disconcerting. My kid brother, who I taught how to play baseball AND basketball (very shortly before he began to beat me at both sports, the ungrateful spawn) is 46 years old, complete with wife, 4 kids, suburban home, very successful mid to upper management career, multi-car garage complete with multiple cars in it. I'm not certain, but I think somewhere along the line. a gypsy switched our lives.

On the upside, he's fatter than I am (barely), and has less hair (considerably) than I do. But I'm not bitter. Ok, not THAT bitter. Ok, so I am that bitter.

But moving right on, before the senility kicks in again, this charming little reverie got me to thinking about the underlying rant for tonight's theme: Cartoons. Not anime, not graphic novels, not computer generated anything, but honest to God hand-animated cells. I realize everything evolves, including entertainment, but, at least through the rose tinted glasses of hardly-20/20 nostalgia, the cartoons of a couple of generations ago were smart enough to be entertaining for me when I was in grade school, as well as being cynical enough for me in high school. Rocket J. Squirrel, Bullwinkle Jay Moose, and their friends Boris Badenov, Natasha Fatale, Fearless Leader, Captain Wrongway Peachfuzz, Dudley Do-Right, Mr. Peabody, Sherman, Snidely Whiplash, and the gang in 'Fractured Fairytales' (yeah I know I'm showing off, but I prefer to think of it as celebrating, and I'll be getting a lot deeper into cartoon esoterica shortly) were funny, witty, AND a satire of the Cold War.

Boris and Natasha (Boris' name is probably a play on Boris Gudenov, a 16th century Russian Tsar, and/or from Boris and Natasha of War and Peace fame) were spies from 'Pottsylvania' (Russia) who worked for the nefarious Fearless Leader (who always reminded me of a skinny version of General Burkhalter from "Hogan's Heroes" (actor Leon Askin, who passed away in June of 2005 at the age of 97). They were always foiled in their bids for world domination by our plucky heroes. Mr. Peabody and Sherman used the Wayback Machine to tell pseudo-historical tales, complete with pithy pun-filled closing lines.

"The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show" may have been the Citizen Kane of cartoon shows in my youth, but they weren't the only stars back then. There was Secret Squirrel and Morocco Mole, Atom Ant, the Tennessee Tuxedo crew (Chumley, Phineas J. Whoopee, Commander McBragg, Klondike Kat, Savoir Faire, and the Go-Go Gophers), there was Underdog and Polly Purebred, Tooter Turtle and Mr. Wizard, and many many more.

And the voices.... Don Adams (Tennessee Tuxedo), Wally Cox (Underdog), Paul Frees (Boris, Captain Peachfuzz, Inspector Fenwick, and many others, including, oddly enough, the voice of "Josephine", the female persona of the Tony Curtis character "Joe" in "Some Like it Hot" as well as "Crusty" the hermit crab in "The Incredible Mr. Limpet"...the last two I didn't know until tonight), Larry Storch (Phineas Whoopee), William Conrad and Edward Everett Horton (narrators on Rocky and Bullwinkle and Fractured Fairy Tales, respectively), Hans Conried (Snidely Whiplash), and so many others.

And that doesn't even touch on the classics from the 40s and beyond that were still very much in vogue in the 60s and early 70s.... The Warner Brothers most spectacularly. And while we're mentioning cartoons, and Warner, a moment of silence for my own personal choice as the Most Valuable Entertainer in history (MY history anyways), Mel Blanc. He'll get his own tribute from me at the end of May on his birthday.

But for now, for reasons that elude me, just remembering those old cartoons has the calming, reassuring feeling of visiting an old friend - I'm sitting here at 1:25 AM, remembering Mr. Wizard's incantation-answer to Tooter Turtle every time he wandered off and got into trouble: "Drizzle Drazzle Druzzle Drome, time for zis vun to come home." And you know what? It ALWAYS worked.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Baseball, Hot Dogs, Apple Pie and Steroids

Ahhh, the sounds of spring approach. Major League Baseball spring training games have started in Arizona and Florida, optimism from Seattle to New York, from Milwaukee to Miami is as high as it's going to be all year, and the bitching about steroids in general and Barry Bonds in particular, is back in full throat.

For those of you who just bussed in to Earth, hate sports, or live in Kansas City, I'll recap Bonds-Gate: San Francisco Giants' right fielder Barry Bonds, who went from a very slim, very fast, very talented youngster who hit lots of home runs and stole a lot of bases in the late eighties (top picture) to a very talented bald old guy with bad knees who hits even more home runs and who now is built more like actor Ving Rhames (bottom picture) , is now the second most prolific home run hitter in major league history, with Hank Aaron's crown in sight this year.

The issues first started a few years ago, when a scandal broke out about former home run hitter Jose Canseco and steroid use. This 'blockbuster' news shocked almost no one, as Canseco looked like he stepped right off of Muscle Beach, hit long home runs, and had a very short career (at least in good years). The scandal took off when Canseco revealed in his book "Juiced: Wild Times, Rampant 'Roids, Smash Hits, and How Baseball Got Big", that 85% of major league players took steroids. While that number has been hotly disputed by many in the game, several of the big names named by Canseco have since either admitted steroid use, tested positive for them, or both.

Since then (2005), several 'sub-scandals' have been reported, most notably from the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative (BALCO) allegedly supplying steroids to a number of baseball players. Barry Bonds trainer since 2000, Greg Anderson, was the BALCO employee indicted. Despite three separate reports that federal investigators were about to indict Bonds for perjury last year in denying he used steroids, and despite an admission later in the year that Bonds was indeed a target in that federal investigation, no indictments were ever filed, failing any proof. There was also a big story just a week or two ago about Human Growth Hormone (HGH) being sold on the internet, in numbers exceeding hundreds of thousands of dollars, to groups from high schoolers to pro baseball and football players.

Of the players, coaches, trainers, and ex-players either naming or named by these scandals, none is receiving the backlash that Bonds is. Sportswriters who complain bitterly that Pete Rose should be in the Hall of Fame despite his admitted gambling on baseball are jumping on the "asterisk" record bandwagon. These are the people who say when Bonds breaks Aaron's record, he should have an asterisk by it, denoting it was somehow questionable. This would be funny if it weren't so pathetic. Most of those same sportswriters (the older ones) were writing when Aaron himself was chasing Babe Ruth's record back in the early 70's. Nobody seems to remember the death threats, the disrespect, the plain old-fashioned bigoted hatred that stalked Aaron. The protests, the death threats, the boycotts. That a black man would DARE to claim the home run record from the legendary Babe Ruth. But this too passed, and now, bizarrely enough, the outsider is the 'home run king' that's being subverted by the pretender with the 'performance-enhancing drug' crutch.

My problem with all the Barry-bashing isn't about whether or not he does or has used steroids. It's about the double and triple standards that come with every record that falls eventually. And all of them do, sooner or later. But legends not only die hard, they die really really cranky.

Let's look at the objections one at a time: He built his body up chemically. Ok, let's assume for just a moment, that he didn't. Let's assume, just for one split second, that it was done with state of the art training and nutrition. Training and nutrition that didn't exist 40 years ago. On machines that didn't exist. With the benefit of 40 years of sea changes in body building. Obviously that's a benefit that Bonds' predecessors didn't have. Is that cheating?

Secondly, let's assume the allegations are indeed true. If steroids are indeed that prevalent, even if only half or two thirds use them, why is Bonds achieving so much more than his contemporaries? He's presumably hitting against genetically engineered pitchers, and other hitters are doing the same, yet he's hit more home runs than anyone in history but one. Not to mention, if he's so bulked up, how is he able to hit the fastest pitches from these chemically created Frankensteins? From 2002-2004, he hit .370, .341, and .362 (two of those three led the league in hitting).

Thirdly, times and the league itself change. Let's look at the legendary Babe Ruth. From 1901 until 1919, the home run leaders in the American League averaged 8.9 home runs. All season. This was in the so called Dead-Ball era, when the ball was literally wound very loosely, the same ball was kept in play for over 100 pitches, spit, and other, more disgusting foreign objects were legal, and foul balls were not counted as strikes. Players like Frank "Home Run" Baker, who led the American League in home runs four years in a row, and Frank Schulte, who held the major league home run record with an absurd 21 in 1911, have never been heard from again, after the ball and rules were changed in the 20's and players like Babe Ruth started hitting them. How fair was that to the previous record holders? Ruth, and Gehrig, and Jimmie Foxx, the golden boys of the golden era, played the best ball of THEIR time, and were the record holders. No one "asterisked" their records because of "unfair" advantage.

Players get bigger, better, have better training regimens, and the sport evolves. Every sport does. Perhaps baseball's biggest draw is also it's biggest bigotry: It's a game that evokes the past, and things pastoral. It's played in a 'field' or a 'park', and almost everyone has waves of nostalgia when they think of baseball in their youth. But the people that play the game evolve. They play to compete, they play to win, they play to make money. To vilify the use of some of the tools and not others, is just plain hypocrisy.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Role Models: The New Parent Trap

Two disparate and incredibly stupid incidents occurred on the "public stage" recently, both of which are classic examples of the types of things I'd love to avoid even knowing about, but have been on television, the radio, and in the papers. They have another thing in common, and I'll get to that in a bit.

Britney Spears (I paused here while typing that, as I was half afraid my computer would crash as I wrote it...It didn't) apparently walked into a hair cutting establishment, asked the stylist to shave her head, and when the stylist refused, Britney shaved it herself, the front half of her head now looking like Sinead O'Connor, and the back looking like Lenny Kravitz. She then went and got a tattoo on her lower hip and another on her wrist. This is apparently front page news on MSNBC and Reuters'.

On Wednesday of last week, former NBA star Tim Hardaway, apparently unable to contain himself at the recent coming-out-of-the-closet of former NBA non-star John Amaechi, spewed the following hogwash in a radio interview: "You know, I hate gay people, so I let it be known. I don't like gay people and I don't like to be around gay people. I'm homophobic. I don't like it. It shouldn't be in the world or in the United States." Does Timmy have a right to his opinion? Of course he does. Does he have a right to use a public interview as a forum for his opinions? Absolutely he does. Just as any advocate of gay rights would have the same right. My problem with it in fact, has little to do with his opinion (no matter how moronic). My problem is with the media that keeps the story going on and on and on. In the last 5 days, I've heard no less than 7 stories (or sidebar pieces) on this one lunatic ramble, on the radio or television. When I've heard exactly none about the public support he's gotten, including one of his coaches in the NBA (I only found out about it while looking up stories on Amaechi to make sure I got the quote in it's entirety).

Anyways, for some reason, today I got to thinking about one of my oldest rantable peeves, the argument that celebrities should be expected to be role models. Because the celebrity gauntlet runs so wide, I'll concentrate on athletes here.


There was a time, probably up until the late 70s or early 80s in fact, that athletes' personal lives were their personal lives. Even on the field. Baltimore Orioles manager Earl Weaver, noted for bumping, spitting, kicking dirt, and worse at umpires in the middle of a game, on national television, used to call his star relief pitcher Don Stanhouse "Full Pack".... Because, said Weaver, that was how much he (Weaver) used to smoke when Weaver would bring Stanhouse in to finish a game. Yep. He'd stand on the dugout steps and smoke, not 5 feet from the fans. Many of the stars in the game then (the 60s and 70s) were hugely out of shape, even for baseball players. "Boog" Powell looked pretty much like you'd think he'd look with that name. Mickey Lolich, a pitcher on the world champion Detroit Tigers in 1968 had a belly that Santa would envy. Gaylord Perry, a Baseball Hall of Famer, was so famous for his spitballs (along with assorted other foreign objects put on the ball, all against the rules) he titled his autobiography "Me and the Spitter".

Rookies were hazed, veterans were respected. Players and managers that drank, caroused, gambled, and were sometimes arrested, were treated with a "boys will be boys" attitude. Billy Martin, a legendary player and manager for the N.Y. Yankees for 35 years, had fights numbering in the double digits with baseball players, including not one, but TWO separate incidents with pitchers on the team he was managing at the time (different teams). He drank often, and had fights beyond his 60th birthday. One of my favorite Billy Martin episodes was in 1972, when he was managing the Tigers, the Topps Baseball Card Company took his picture for his baseball card. He smiled and extended his middle finger. It wasn't caught until the card was released. Oh yeah, Billy Martin's number is now retired by the Yankees, and his plaque hangs in Monument Park in Yankee Stadium.

The point is (yes, Virginia, there IS a point here somewhere) that athletes are paid lots of money to do one thing: Put butts in the seats, so the people paying them all that money can make even more money. I guarantee if people stopped paying admission prices, owners would stop paying multi-million dollar contracts to anyone who can fill their auditorium with bodies.

Straying once more to the entertainment field, I'll finish with the band Judas Priest, and their trial in 1990. They were sued when two young men, one 20 and one 19, killed themselves, after listening to what their parents said was a subliminal message in the song "Better By You, Better Than Me". While the suit was dismissed on its merits, the implication is still scary today. If you write a depressing book, can you be blamed if someone reading it takes his or her life? If you choose to use steroids and take the attendant risks, are you endangering someone else's child? If your parents raised you badly and you become famous, do you take over the responsibility of someone else's child-rearing skills? How bone-chillingly frightening is it to raise your child for so many years, then have a 20-something year old spoiled brat come by and muck it all up? Actually, I think it's a pretty chickenshit position. You raise your child as best as you can, then you trust him or her to look at the world that's out there, and make the right choices.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

A Chef Out of Time

So here I was last night, watching one-third of my holy trinity of latenight cable television channels, The Food Network (the other two being ESPN and The History Channel, a.k.a. "All Hitler, All the Time"), when I realized what a truly culture-changing phenomenon this is. The Food Channel. It's made icons of Emeril Legasse, Rachel Ray, Alton Brown, Mario Batali, Bobby Flay, and dozens more. "Iron Chef" has become a party game at many of the trendiest parties (at least here in the northwest). Rachel Ray has three regular TV shows as well as her face on Nabisco products and Extra Virgin Olive Oil (there's a Popeye joke in there somewhere, but I'll let it be), Emeril has cookware, spices ('Essence of Emeril' no less), and more, not to mention the fact that you can probably go into the heart of the smallest towns or the biggest cities all over the world, throw an imaginary pinch of salt hard at the ground and yell: "BAM!", and most of the people within earshot of you will laugh and point and say: "Emeril!"

And with mostly 24/7 coverage of all things food, there's enough smart cooking shows (Alton Brown's "Good Eats", Batali's "Molto Mario", or "Iron Chef" for example) to avoid the insipid ones ("How To Boil Water", "The Secret Life of...." and "Rachel's Tasty Travels" leap to mind). But it's the star-making power that boggles my mind. Until 10 or 15 years ago, cooking shows, from the fun ("The Galloping Gourmet") to the serious ("Julia Child") were all on public television. The four major networks wouldn't, as a rule, touch them.

Which got me to thinking about my favorite television chef, the Frugal Gourmet, Jeff Smith.

Jeff Smith (1939-2004), the "Frugal Gourmet" was a native of Tacoma, WA, near where I live now, and made his name at the public television station right near where I grew up, WTTW, in Chicago. He apparently had two completely different personalities, depending on who you talked to. Some have said Smith was a megalomaniacal dictator who had to have everything his own way, and micromanaged his staff into oblivion. Others, including two of his long-time assistants, and a host of longtime friends and associates, say he was a man who laughed easily, was magnanimous, generous, and a culinary genius. About 10 years after he moved his production back home to the Seattle area, seven men charged Smith with sexual abuse as young men years earlier. He denied the allegations and was never charged with any crime, but he and his insurance company settled the suits out of court, and his career was over. He continued to cook for charities and charity events, even while confined to a motorized cart until he died in his sleep after a long bout with heart disease in 2004.

I obviously don't know any more about those incidents than what was subsequently reported, but I think I understand, a little, about how a parishioner can stay loyal to their man of the cloth when he is accused of something as scandalous as that. I met Mr. Smith in the mid-80's, when doing a story about his Frugal Gourmet show, for a college newspaper article. After inquiring with the producers at WTTW, they in turn referred me to Mr. Smith directly, who not only agreed to an interview, he invited me to watch two days of his show's taping, from script meetings to filming. It was a fantastic experience for me. He was "on" every moment of his time in the station, whether it was in meetings, pre-cooking sessions, or in front of the camera. He was indeed a bit of a control freak, which he freely admitted to when asked about it: "When the show is seen, whether by 1 person or thousands, they assume I'm responsible for everything that goes on on my show. And because I take that responsibility, I'm going to do my best to make sure that I know about everything that happens on it. If I mess something up, I'm going to make sure I tell the audience that I messed it up." I saw him yell at several of his assistants in those two days, but I've got to tell you that he pled "mea culpa" about his own missteps a lot more often, and the times he spent laughing with the crew were much more plentiful.

I watched other cooking shows like Julia Child's, but back then her show (for me) was more akin to how I watch do-it-yourself construction shows now: I didn't understand a thing about it, but it was fascinating to watch the techniques. It was like auditing a Quantum Physics lecture, in Chinese, but with it somehow producing really good looking food at the end. But The Frugal Gourmet was different. He explained it, from the historical and cultural background of sitting down at the table with friends, to why it can be cooked like that, or not like that, to short cuts to the same tender morsels. I'm hungry now, I'll be right back. Feel free to grab a bite while I'm gone.

Ok, that's better. I understand that those allegations are horrific, and, if true, gave Jeff Smith his just desserts in ending his career. But since I don't know if they are, what I base The Frugal Gourmet's impact on my life is what I know. I love to cook, I love the history of food, and I love to eat, which accounts for my body type (besides, who needs six-pack abs, when you can have a whole keg?). At least two of those three things I attribute almost exclusively to Jeff Smith. I like to think he would have at least three good shows on the Food Network if things were a bit different. Hell, maybe I'd even watch less of the History Channel then.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

What If They Gave A War, And No One Came?

In June of 2006, Ehren Watada, a First Lieutenant in the U.S. Army, stationed right near here at Fort Lewis, WA, made headlines when he became the first commissioned officer in the U.S. armed forces to refuse deployment to Iraq. His first court-martial began February 5, 2007 and ended today, two days later, with a mistrial declared.

Lt. Watada has said he's willing to deploy to Afghanistan, which he considers an "unambiguous war linked to the Sept. 11 attacks". His request to be deployed to Afghanistan was denied, as was his attempt to resign his commission. He has added that he is not a conscientious objector, as he is not opposed to all wars as a matter of principle, and that he believes this war (the war in Iraq) is an illegal war, based on the War Powers Act of 1973, requiring the President to receive congressional approval for military operations within 60 days, as well as the the basic charters from the United Nations, the Geneva Convention, and the Nuremberg Principles, all of which bar "wars of aggression." Lt. Watada contends that any approval obtained by President Bush was based on incorrect information regarding weapons of mass destruction and the ties of al Qaeda to Saddam Hussein.

It is further Lt. Watada's position that based on the doctrine of "Command Responsibility", he could be tried as a war criminal. Interestingly enough, the Command Responsibility Doctrine is sometimes referred to as the "Medina Standard", based on the "My Lai Massacre" in Vietnam, which Capt. Ernest Medina failed to prevent. It holds that a commanding officer, being aware of a human rights or war crime violation, will be criminally held responsible if he does not take action to stop it.

With the Army charges, Lt. Watada is facing up to four years in prison and a dishonorable discharge if convicted (a charge of "contempt for officials" was dropped at the outset of the court martial). And before the mistrial today (one of the papers Watada signed earlier was apparently in error, so they have to start again) , it looked like a very quick trial and conviction for the Lieutenant. The bulk of Lt. Watada's defense was based on the illegality of the war, and with it the war crimes liability connection. But on January 16th, the presiding judge in the pre-court-martial hearing ruled that Watada would not be allowed to present evidence regarding the Nuremberg Principles or the legality of the war, because the legality of a war is a "nonjusticable political question", and consequently ruling that the order Watada received to deploy was legal. Let the butt-kicking contest begin, Mr. One-Leg.

Anyways, to the point of this blog. I don't know Lt. Watada at all, and can only hope his sincerity is real. Because he's probably going to be a sacrificial lamb for his beliefs. I suspect that when all is said and done, he'll face very little (if any) jail time, but he's got to be looking at a dishonorable discharge, and he's going to be about as popular as a Dixie Chick at a NASCAR race with a sizable crossection of the U.S. armed forces and their veterans.

The reality is, there's no way the government can do anything but win this case. If they somehow lose it, precedence is set for every single soldier, sailor, marine, and flyboy to pack it up and go home. AND, if that weren't enough, the rest of the world that aren't coalition-ing suddenly has a whole wing set aside in the Hague for American war criminals.

So no, Lt. Watada, you ain't gonna win. What you might accomplish is an eventual resumption of that time-honored tradition of going to war when we actually have a country to go to war against, not to finish up the First Dad's missions. I'm hoping it will help define what war is really, and that war really is hell, and that the reasons for undertaking it should never be based on "U.S. interests." Only on U.S. freedom and survival.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Reading And Writing And.... ?

Awhile back I wrote a curmudgeonly little piece on the abandonment of the liberal arts curricula in today's schooling. Upon further review, I want to amend it to include the apparent abandonment of education of almost any kind.

Two different brouhahas have surfaced in the last few weeks in this state (Washington) that just make me shake my head about the state of education today. This state has a pretty good reputation for its intellectual habitues, from companies like Microsoft and Boeing, to renowned institutions like the University of Washington and Washington State University.

A few months ago, the first outcry began filtering out as a result of the decision last year to make passage of the Washington Assessment of Student Learning (WASL) mandatory for high school seniors to graduate. This test has been given for years, but was more of a monitoring guideline for the various Boards of Education to compare against. The WASL gives pass/fail grades in four categories: Reading, Math, Writing, and Science. The WASL is given every year from 3rd through 8th grade, and then in the 10th grade. The passing grade is based on meeting or exceeding that particular grade. Anyways, last year the legislature (or the WA state Board of Education, I don't know which) passed a measure that said that by the time the current freshman class graduated high school, they needed to be at least at a 10th grade level in the four WASL categories.

There were the usual complaints, valid or not (that's a different discussion), about cultural biases in the construction of the WASL, but the feces didn't hit the fan until a couple of months ago, when the first wave of WASL scores were released. Now bear in mind a couple of things. First of all, if a child fails the WASL at any point, he/she can make it up. As far as I can tell, in fact, they can make it up as many times as becomes necessary. AND, they only need to retake the portion of the test they failed, not the entire set. AND, they have a number of free tutoring options available to all students. A month or so ago, a committee was set up to actually repeal the requirement that students pass the math portion of the WASL before graduating. As I write this, they're still discussing this option.

Before writing this, I checked the "Washington State Report Card" put out by the Washington Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction to see what those WASL scores have been. As of the '05-'06 school year, the statewide scores were: Reading: 82%, Writing: 79.8%, Math: 51%, and Science: 35%. Yes, 65% of the Washington state sophomores, juniors, and seniors combined were scoring below 10th grade level in science, and almost half were below 10th grade math levels. No wonder parents are panicking.

And then came the kicker (at least for me). This past fall and winter have been particularly nasty for most of the state weather-wise. This fall there were floods in large portions of the western half of the state (the part that includes Seattle, Tacoma and all their suburbs), and this winter we've already had snow and ice storms exceeding anything the natives have had here for many years. The number of days many school districts had to close this school year already has made it impossible for those children to log as many hours in school as they are required to by law, without either extending the school year or the hours per day in class. The same children who reveled in those days off are now, of course, incensed at the prospect of having to go to school into June and in some cases even longer. Their disappointment I understand. They're kids. It's the indignant parents I'm not sure I get. A good many of the same parents who insist their children shouldn't have to be held accountable to an actual learning standard are insisting they be taught more, faster, and with less class time than ever.

It's a Catch-22 of classic proportions: Everything is automated and computerized and hand-held, to the point that math done in one's head is about as necessary a skill as being able to weave one's own sweater on a hand loom. On the other hand, the skills that need to be in place to put together those automations and computerizations and miniaturizations, are being cut off at the base. We're creating a smaller and smaller sub-class of science and math professionals to operate the next phase of whatever area of industrial or scientific revolution we are in for. It's a bizarre reverse Darwinism: Survival of the Thickest.

In the heyday of the intellectual, people like Bill Gates and Paul Allen (Microsoft) Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak (Apple), Robert Noyce and Gordon Moore (Intel), and hundreds more, made computer-related breakthroughs by pioneering developments in math and science that pushed the envelope for their field of study. And made lots of money too. Will the culled and cultivated intellectuals eventually come out on top again? Or will the pyramid be inverted? Will the brightest minds in math and science be nothing more than money-making tools for the business elite?

If you're young, and a prodigy (i.e., you can do multiplication tables without using your toes), the world may well be your oyster as you get older. If you don't wind up on some future assembly line of developers for someplace like Microsoft, designing the operating system for Windows 2020, in a room, ironically enough, without windows.

Friday, February 02, 2007

A Long Time Ago, In A Jungle Far, Far Away

And it's one, two, three,
What are we fighting for ?
Don't ask me, I don't give a damn,
Next stop is Vietnam;
And it's five, six, seven,
Open up the pearly gates,
Well there ain't no time to wonder why,
Whoopee! we're all gonna die.

Country Joe and the Fish
"Fixin To Die Rag"

This past Tuesday, January 30th, was the 39th anniversary of the beginning of the Tet Offensive in the Vietnam War, arguably the most famous series of battles in the Vietnam conflict, and also arguably, the turning point, both politically and militarily, of the war. Some of the most indelibly imprinted images of the war came from this period, including the breaching of the U.S. Embassy walls, the subsequent reinforcing of Embassy personnel, as well as the Pulitzer Prize winning photograph by Eddie Adams of a summary execution of a Viet Cong prisoner.

Today, we have the proposed "troop surge" in Iraq, and I'm confident that the debate going on about this is manned by men and women much more eloquent and adept than I am at this. So I'm going to talk about the American "Police Action" of the internal civil war in that other country, the one two generations ago.

Actually, that's not accurate. I'm only going to refer to Vietnam in "Big Picture" terms. The reason I was thinking about the Tet Offensive in particular, and that war in general, is tied to a memory, nearly spontaneous, that I had this week, about the man who gave me one of my earliest regular jobs - a man who was a teacher, a mentor, and a friend.

The year was 1974 or 75, I don't remember which, but I was either a sophomore or junior in high school in Chicago. About three blocks from the high school, a new ice cream parlor was opened. The guy who opened it was a hippy in his mid twenties, complete with long hair and tye dyed shirts. Barry was a childhood friend of an older cousin of mine, so when he asked about local help when he opened, I was recommended. The first interview lasted probably two hours. More precisely, the interview lasted about 5 minutes, when he offered me the job. The rest of the conversation was more... eclectic, to say the least.

We talked about the name of the new place, and its significance. He was calling it "Teth", he said, because of its Kabbalistic meaning, as a letter in the Hebrew alphabet. Much to my dismay, I can't recall many of those specifics. It sucks being old with this porous of a memory. Later I learned he was also in Vietnam during the Tet Offensive. I don't remember him telling me the name had significance to the offensive, but in retrospect, I am sure it did. We talked about ice cream (This guy was Ben AND Jerry, combined), we talked about Jimi Hendrix (he insisted that the real line was "'Scuse me, while I kiss this guy", as during both shows he saw him in, he proceeded to kiss his bass player. I've always suspected he was trying to yank my chain, but in the years I knew him, he never failed the straight face when telling me that "fact"). And we talked about just being a 'mensch' - doing right by people, regardless of who they were. Customers, vendors, staff, or people on the street.

Business started off pretty well. We were busy most of the time, although being short-staffed probably made it seem even busier than it should have. It was probably about six months later that I began to notice the first changes. The off-season wasn't going as well as he had hoped, and the bills began to get a bit bigger. As one of only two employees he had then that were with him from the beginning, I was working a lot of hours for a high school kid. Then those hours were trimmed a bit.. and a bit more... I'd be hanging out there, just talking to Barry, but not on the clock, as we didn't have much to do besides talk. There were days it resembled Floyd's Barbershop in Mayberry. Just hangin' out, talking.

Slowly, the clouds began to hover around those conversations. I'd never seen even a hint of a temper where Barry was concerned, the voice was slow, and measured, and always with a hint of a smile, way deep down. Then, a comment about a vendor that "had it in for him". I thought it was a joke, but the trademark smirk never surfaced.

Barry had always been a spiritual man, more Kabbalistic than a classically religious Jew. He'd frequently talked about ghosts, but in a benign, naturalistic way. It wasn't too long before 'they' were out to get him. Vendors who wanted to get paid became ghosts who were after him. In his defense, Barry was the kind of man who would think nothing of letting debts owed him go unpaid, until the person got back on their feet. In fact, he did this frequently with his own customers. He was just unable to understand why anyone who wasn't evil wouldn't do the same for him. A wonderful man, scary-bad businessman.

The paranoia got worse. Agents were lurking behind all doors. THEY were out to get him. Stories about Vietnam began to filter out. Early on, he wouldn't mention his time there at all. Direct questions about it were gently steered away. But the occasional story, mostly about the violence, the evils of war in the jungle, began to work their way into the conversations. He would actually look over his shoulder, seeing things he wouldn't mention, then forcibly block them from his thoughts.

But there were times when you could tell the scary stories from places like Khe Sanh and Hue were beginning to hang out in the now, for Barry. The dislocation was getting more pronounced.

To be honest, I don't remember if I left to go off to college, or if he went out of business before then. But either way, it was a short and troubled life for the Teth Ice Cream Parlor on Foster and St. Louis Avenues in Chicago.

The pseudo post-script here isn't any better. A number of years later (sometime in the mid eighties), I saw, sitting on a street corner in Uptown, with a full beard and in old camouflage fatigues, Barry, or his doppleganger. He was talking softly to himself, complete with small gestures. I didn't say a word to him, probably so I could keep the pretense in some part of me alive, that maybe it wasn't Barry. And maybe it wasn't.

There have been a wide range of reactions to the soldiers of the Vietnam War, from taunts of baby-killers to chants of hero, to everything in between. The veterans of that era have had faces from those portrayed in "Born On The Fourth Of July", to "Casualties of War" to "Once We Were Soldiers", but mostly they were kids in their teens and twenties, dropped into a place they'd never heard of, asked to do the unthinkable to people they'd never met. The casualties were absurdly high, but when I think about my friend Barry, I think those casualties were much worse than most of us realized.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Let's Talk About You. What Do YOU Think About Me?

We cross our bridges when we come to them and burn them behind us, with nothing to show for our progress except a memory of the smell of smoke, and a presumption that once our eyes watered.
Tom Stoppard, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead

So here I was the other day, indulging in that creepiest of children's games this side of "...step on a crack and break your mother's back", the counting of celebrity deaths in groups of three. There was James Brown on Christmas day, 2006, Gerald Ford a day later, and Yvonne De Carlo on January 8th, 2007, to name the three that leapt to mind. I realize that many famous people die almost every day, certainly every week, and that we simply group them in threes and then start the next three whenever we notice. I suspect it probably has something to do with ancient superstitions going back to pre-druidic practices. Or maybe a Victorian prank, I don't know.

At any rate, there's been a longish lull between posts here recently for a couple of reasons: First, and the lesser of the reasons, is I haven't had much of any import to impart. The reason that's the lesser of the reasons? Having anything of import has never been a criterion for any of my rants, rambles, or musings. The more substantive reason slowly became more and more apparent over the last few weeks.

I was in a minor accident earlier this month (minor in terms of cosmic importance anyways, it shook me up pretty good). I was rear-ended while stopped and waiting to turn in a rainstorm. Car is still getting fixed, my shoulder was separated but getting better, and I've already received a fair settlement from the other driver's insurance company. The problem is, this is the first accident I've been involved in in 33 years of driving, so now, of course, I'm driving like a little old lady, which can't be a particularly safe thing to do, not to mention that I approach intersections like a S.W.A.T. team approaches a meth lab. And believe me, I know how to drive offensively AND defensively. I grew up in Chicago.

The followup to this little life-glitch happened a few days after the accident. I find out that a friend of mine was just recalled to Iraq for the second time in 8 months, because he teaches bomb and mine disposal. He has a couple of kids at home and his wife has Macular Degeneration in both eyes and is almost blind in one. Oh yeah, and this friend of mine is in his late forties and ALREADY did a full tour in Desert Storm I.

AND THEN, I'm reading blogs like Mother Courage, by a high school classmate of mine (I've mentioned her before), about a mother with a son in the line of fire in a desert.

And I, bless my ego-centric heart, am writing about pet peeves, cloned food, and reunions. I suddenly felt like Burt Bacharach sitting between Bach and Beethoven the first day in Composing 101. Suddenly Saliere seems an even more sympathetic character to me.

But, much like the old joke that ends: "...But enough about me. Let's talk about you. What do YOU think about me?", I realized that scale is a relative thing, and a blog (this blog at least) is for presenting who I am and what I think, much like the original use of places like Chicago's Haymarket Square, where the original soapboxes (real soapboxes) were set up for anyone to state an opinion, and hundreds did, from the trivial to the monumental. So, what the hell. Back to the podium, if a bit tentatively.

This last bit of reasoning got me to thinking about mortality, raison d' etre, and legacies. It is said that no one dies as long as someone remembers them. The reality is no one remains immortal, and the most famous of the famous is gone from memory in the blink of an eye, in the greater history of the world. Memory becomes history, and we've already talked about how screwed-up history can be. Then history becomes legend, and legend becomes myth (didn't I steal that from one of the Lord of The Rings prologues?) The most famous (or infamous) last the longest, but everything fades as mythos after mythos rise and fall.

Beliefs are obviously a difficult concept to discuss, especially in a world where there are people who will not only die but kill (and in some cases both) when your beliefs contradict theirs. I've spent many years fairly comfortable in the position that I believe in very little, but I believe in the possibility of almost everything. There's another old joke about a very pious rabbi who is on his deathbed, when his family comes in to see him receiving the last rites from a priest. His children are aghast, and when they ask what in the world he's doing, the rabbi replies: "Couldn't hurt." I don't know what happens to me after I die, and I expect that I'll find out when the time comes. I wonder because I don't know, along with everything else that I don't know. That being said, if God (in any incarnation) actually DOES contact me, I expect I will believe with every fibre in my being. Proof doesn't necessarily have to be empirical, just convincing. If not, I just hope He/She/It understands a questioning mind and skeptical nature. If not, oh well. I can't justify "in-case" belief (In case there IS a vengeful God who'd be irritated I doubted).

So one does what one can do. I'm not actually a believer in the concept of reincarnation (although I may be as close to a believer in that as anything), but hell, if I can get a mulligan on this life for a shot at living a better one, I'm there. Short of that though (***TRITE ALERT***TRITE ALERT***), the more people you influence positively, the longer you live. Sure you get remembered for negative influence too, but who needs THAT kinda Karma?

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Send In The Clones

Did you read recently that meat from cloned animals is apparently getting closer to FDA approval? That the FDA declared in December that cloned meat and milk is no more unsafe than it's old fashioned cousin? Do you care? To be honest, I thought I'd care more about this by now. I seem to be caring less about the ramifications of eating a cloned Kobe steak today, than I do, say, the ramifications of warrantless secret wiretaps being legal in America solely on the sayso of some deputy bureau chief in the CIA, NSA, FBI, DoD, or any other random collection of letters. Wow, that was some run-on sentence there, wasn't it?

When Dolly the sheep was presented to the world in 1997, people were polarized (well, some people were) - Was this a good thing? Was it the first chapter in a real-life "Jurassic Park"? Or maybe "The Boys From Brazil"?

I am not a medical ethicist, speaking of which, is a pretty odd notion: There apparently are codes of ethics, set up much like federal, state, and local laws are, including professionals whose job is to interpret these codes, for an entire profession. But that's another blog for another time. Anyways, NOT being one of these professionals, I find it interesting that the twists and turns of advancing medicine always seems to fall over itself when it comes to codifying those ethics. At what point is life being alive? A heart beat? A brain wave? For half a minute? For a minute? What happens if you get a life support machine to restart a heart, or lungs, long after any measurable brain function? Does the soul, or mind, or whatever ineffable criteria by which someone defines a human, remain when no part of the brain functions? If one is in excruciating pain (we'll just work for the moment within the realm of physical pain, not emotional) every moment of his or her existence, is this life? Is life defined by quality or quantity? And if one measures life according to a pulse or a breath or a brain wave, why do we (with few exceptions), have no problem with euthanizing an animal in pain that can't be healed, while we charge doctors who assist a terminal human in suicide with murder? The A.M.A. and their lobby occasionally remind me of the writers on all the incarnations of "Star Trek": The Prime Directive, that holiest of holies - sayest thus: 'You shall not interfere in any manner of a native culture's development or history - Unless it contributeth to the story line'. Bearing in mind that I'm a huge fan of most of the 'Trek incarnations, you hafta wonder what Gene Roddenberry was smoking when he developed THAT as the Prime Directive of a group dedicated to exploring the galaxy and meeting and interacting with new cultures.

Lest you think this thought is meandering away again, I think it's relevant to any discussion of clones, and what constitutes a life, as well as what constitutes an artificial one. For example, take the fairly straightforward concept of artificial insemination. Widely held a very reasonable next step for a couple unable to conceive the old fashioned way. Ok, take it one step further (or, perhaps not further, but a different course): fertility drugs. They will promote ovulation, as well as markedly raise the risk of multiple births. Let's say you have taken a fertility drug, increased your ovulation, and produced quadruplets. Is this in any practical way different from having a single baby cloned three times? Besides the random effect of whether or not the extra ovulation will take, you are using artificial methods to reproduce a baby.

And yes, I realize the above example is a hugely simplified one, in a complex conundrum. But I meant it to illustrate that the technologies contained within cloning are a lot more involved than worrying about skinheads cloning Hitler. Actually, I think it's a lot like the development of the atom: It's a weapon, as well as the basis for radiology. Were more people saved by X-Rays than killed by an atomic bomb?

Cloning technology is the laboratory for cures of diseases at the genetic level. And I'm not unmindful of the abuse potential inherent in any genetic manipulation. But the questions that are begged are not unlike any technological leap forward. Many on the religious side of the fence (and this includes any of the Judeo/Christian ones), for instance, make their case against allowing the 'plug' to be pulled (on terminal patients hooked up to life support) based on the fact that man shouldn't be "allowed to play God". I never see it postulated that man is ALREADY playing God by hooking up the patient to a machine man created to keep the patient alive in the first place. Or by curing any disease at all, for that matter. As much as it horrifies me to hear of parents who refuse medical treatment for their children on religious grounds (and very little makes me angrier or sadder, actually), at least it is consistent with the man playing God theory. The bottom line is that for good or ill, man makes those calls based on his or her own conscience.

And personally, I believe that mankind should work to cure every ill he can, however he can, including at the genetic level. Every generation in recorded history has shown us madmen and monsters that can (and will) use whatever technology is at hand to manipulate power. The best that we can do is the best that we can do.

And to tie this back to the more immediate future, much of the negative reaction people seem to have to having meat from cloned animals is safety-based. Have you ever been to a modern-day meat-packing plant? Know what's in a hot dog? Ask a friend (or the child of a friend) who works in almost any fast-food restaurant about the horror stories. Here are a couple more tidbits that might put you right off your feed: According to the New York Times (referenced through Wikipedia), every year, 5,000 deaths, 325,000 hospitalizations, and 76,000,000 illnesses are caused by foodborne illnesses within the U.S. alone. And according to the World Health Organization, in industrialized countries, the percentage of people suffering from foodborne diseases each year has been reported to be up to 30%. And that's just the reported cases.

Now, again, not purporting to be a genetic scientist, it still seems to me that if you can isolate the healthy animals in the food chain, reproduce them, and serve only the healthy byproducts of that reproduction, count me in.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Paging Dr. D.... Happy Birthday, Grandpa

For many years I memorialized my grandfather on the anniversary of his death with the traditional Yahrzheit candle, then just a few moments of reflection on both his birthday as well as the day he died. But this year, as it is his first birthday since the birth of this blog, I thought I'd introduce (albeit posthumously), a hero of mine, and one of the most remarkable people I've ever met personally.

Milton A. Dushkin was born in Chicago on Wednesday, January 4, 1911. His father, Sam (Shmuel), was a talented painter from Kovno (now Kaunas, Lithuania). In fact, we still have several of Sam's works hanging in my parents' house. He came to Chicago from Kovno in 1903, some 39 years before it was turned into the ghetto shtetl that saw over 80,000 die in the Holocaust there.

Young Milton was a prodigy. He got through grade school, high school, and college in 13 years (7, 3, and 3 respectively), and medical school a semester early. He finished his residency and had his own medical practice before he turned 24. His younger sister Leah also did well in school, in a time and place where not many young Jewish women in Chicago did.

The newly-degreed Dr. Dushkin hung out his shingle in Des Moines, IA as a General Practitioner. In the '30s this meant he was a pediatrician, obstetrician, family doctor, and even surgeon. Before the outbreak of World War II, Milton enlisted in the army with his brother-in-law and best friend (also a doctor), Werner Eisenstadt. They were both commissioned officers, and when war broke out, Milton was assigned to the China/Burma/Indian Theatre of operations (CBI), and Werner to the European War. Funny thing about that was that Werner, to his dying day in his 90s, spoke with the heaviest German accent I've ever heard.

But back to our Dr. Dushkin. He plunged into the war with both feet. He was a Major when he was assigned to Dr. Gordon Seagrave, a.k.a. "The Burma Surgeon", who headed up what would eventually become the first M.A.S.H. units, mobile surgical units that went with General Stillwell and Merrill's Marauders, to carve and keep open a path from India through Burma to send relief to China, with the bulk of the Japanese army determined to stop them.

In his book "Burma Surgeon Returns", Dr. Seagrave writes about my grandfather: "I selected my executive officer, Major Dushkin, a fire-eater who seemed determined to take vengeance on the Japanese for all the sins of the Axis against the Hebrew race." And..."It became immediately apparent to Dushkin that the captain in charge was determined to have nothing to do with him. But you couldn't do such things to Dushkin. You couldn't keep him quiet if you put him in a padded cell. At Ningham, in order to keep everyone from going mad, we had to issue an order forbidding him to pull any wisecracks before 3 P.M. Dushkin blithely changed P.M. to A.M. and kept on going."

And finally, also from "Burma Surgeon Returns", this snippet sums up the man (seated in the picture left) as an officer: "Major Dushkin was a wonderful letter writer - to his wife. He used to write her such wonderful letters that he lost his censorship privileges for three months! He wrote to no one else, not even reports to his C.O. I soon learned that once Dushkin got away from me on a flank move, he and his detachment would be completely lost, then suddenly reappear again half a hundred miles away. It was no use worrying about him. He would undoubtedly take good care of himself, or his boys would see to it that he didn't get hurt." Although I wouldn't come into the good Doctor's world for another 15 years, that was exactly the same man I knew and loved. Oh, by the way, I have a box full of those letters he wrote to my grandmother and mother. I doubt it was all of them, but there ARE a bunch... And sure enough, parts of them are blacked out, or even cut out. Gotta love the Army.

Moving on a few years, Dr. Dushkin moved up from Major Dushkin, to Lt. Colonel Dushkin, to bird-Colonel Dushkin, staying active duty and, because he apparently didn't think being the father of two, a Colonel in the U.S. Army, and a successful doctor was quite enough on his plate, he decided to go back to medical school and become a Psychiatrist. And he finished this degree a year early too.

By this time, my father had just completed his tour in Korea and had married my mother (the former Tanya Dushkin). My father, unlike his new father-in-law, had no intention of making the Army his vocation. He was a corporal who had seen quite enough of the 38th parallel, the DMZ, and even kimchee. As part of his enlistment deal, he had to serve 3 years active, then either 6 years reserve, or 3 years "active reserve". He chose the latter. As part of that he had weekly meetings with his reserve outfit, where they trained in case they were ever to be called up.

During one of these training weekends, my grandfather, who by now was the Chief Medical Officer for my father's division, decided he'd like to have a bit of fun. As part of the readiness training, all active reservists had to be kept up on all inoculations, in case they were needed to go overseas. They all had shot records with them, and all shots had to be updated on a yearly basis. There were something like 9 shots, all with large-gauge and painful needles, to be given. But you spread them out over a year and it wasn't so bad. My father had just gotten the last of his shots for the year when he was stopped in the hall by Colonel Dushkin (who made him salute at full attention, just because it amused him). After the salute, the Colonel asked Corporal Paullin for his shot record. My father grinned, knowing it was full and correct, and handed it to the Colonel, who promptly tore it into little pieces. The grin turned into a near sob... Colonel Dushkin then handed a blank shot record to Corporal Paullin and told him he had til the end of the day (their last day on this training weekend) to get it filled.

My parents lived right next door to my grandparents, with both houses connected by an intercom. That night my father answered the intercom with difficulty, because both of his arms were almost useless. My grandmother asked him what was wrong. He proceeded to call her husband all sorts of names. My poor, perplexed grandmother only replied that must be why her husband was laughing so hard he was almost crying. Later, he claimed that "If the Army offers you something for nothing, you take it." But I think it was for marrying his only daughter.

After he retired from the Army, his flourishing Psychiatric practice really took off. At various points in time he headed up the Psychiatry Departments at Cook County Hospital, Thorek Hospital in Chicago, and the Elgin Mental Health Center in Elgin, IL among others, all while handling a large private practice. He is credited (at least by Time Magazine) with naming the ailment many had in 1961 "nucleomitophobia" - fear of the atom. He even had the distinction of being one of convicted serial killer Richard Speck's Psychiatrists.

I was the first (of his eventual 4) grandchild. And personally, I like to believe I was his favorite. While my brother inherited my father's work ethic and people skills, I was the intellectual clone of my mother, who in turn had her father's proclivities for reading and intellectual pursuits. Even as an adolescent and teenager, my grandfather and I had discussions, debates, and even arguments. Although those were few and far between, because we also shared most of our liberal views.

My grandfather's father died when he (Sam) was 56. So in fact had several other males in his family. And given that by the time my grandfather was approaching 56, he was about 80 lbs overweight, a pipe and cigar smoker, and had had several previous heart attacks, he was pretty excited when he passed his 56th birthday without incident. But he knew, even then, that he was on borrowed time, and he decided that he had lived his life on his terms for a lot of years, and wasn't about to diet, or give up anything that contributed to his love of life.

One of those loves was the Cubs. He took my brother and me to probably 10 or 15 games a year at Wrigley, and we'd never miss a home opener. He would good-naturedly complain every year about the prices, and loudly looked forward to the day he'd qualify for senior citizen rates. When he had his last heart attack, in May of 1975, he was 64 years old. He had missed it by 11 months. Months after the funeral, my mother and I were the only ones in the family (including extended family) that really hadn't cried. This perplexed most of the family, considering we were probably the two closest people to him in his life, besides his wife. But mom and I both knew that he had lived exactly the life he would have chosen, almost without exception. In fact, to this day, I believe his only real regret would be missing out on the damned senior rates at Wrigley Field.