Wednesday, August 31, 2005

On the Fragility of Human Nature

Watching the news reports as they come in about the disaster that was Hurricane Katrina, a number of random observations come to mind:

There's a fine line between what we perceive as greed and survival. It's easy for us, watching the horror on the sidelines, to be critical of the looters in New Orleans, pillaging their way through ruined stores, for food, water, clothing and (weirdly enough) high-end TV's and electronics (real useful when there's no power). Sure, some of the looters are probably the same ones who were carjacking and robbing people in the French Quarter just a few days ago, but most are those too poor to leave before Katrina hit and are just desperate for something, anything to cling to while the waters continue to rise. Put US in that same situation, no way out and death staring us in the face, and see what we do.

Having said that, any looter found to be armed, threatening police, National Guard or emergency personnel, ought to be shot on sight.

Never underestimate Mother Nature. Apparently a lot of people, particularly in Mississippi, were thinking Katrina would be like Camille in 1969 and stayed put, assuming that, since Camille didn't get them then, Katrina wouldn't get them this time. Surprise! Katrina was much bigger and much nastier than Camille even on her worst day. We think we've got Nature licked just because we can dam up her rivers and lakes, mine her riches out of the ground and tame the lesser mammals, but the Old Lady continues to pull the rug out from under us.

Numbers equal numbness. One person's death can be a tragedy; hundreds make our eyes glaze over. CNN was talking about Katrina's aftermath this morning then cut in with a special report about well over 600 dying in Baghdad during a Shiite religious celebration; most of the victims, women and children, were trampled in a stampede. The voice of the reporter barely changed in tone, but what was she supposed to do? Break down and weep? Natural disasters, even those as well covered as Katrina, create an enormity of scale that our small minds can barely comprehend. I cannot even imagine what the folks in FEMA see when they look at the reports.

The veneer of civilization is thinner than we think. Reports out of the disaster area have been talking about the lootings, but now it seems to be getting much worse, with armed carjackings and people walking up to reporters and cameramen demanding money or food, sometimes with weapons in their hands. It wouldn't surprise me if some of these people were in church on Sunday and with reputations of being "good" people. It doesn't take much, does it, to strip off that veneer of politeness, of consideration for others, and to reveal the animal instinct underneath that is willing to do just about anything to survive.

I'm not trying to be cynical about human nature, just realistic. I've been through a few hurricanes (mostly near misses) over the years and had to wait in long lines at Wal-Mart or Lowes for supplies and seen little old grandmotherly-types hoarding batteries and camp stove fuel cans. I know that, had Katrina taken the course it was supposed to have taken after going through South Florida, it might have been us taking the brunt of the winds and rain, not those poor souls in New Orleans, Mississippi and Alabama, and it might be me crawling over others to grab stuff out of the local grocery and convenience stores with the other looters.

Desperation breeds changes in our character that we cannot possibly imagine outside of it.

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Happy 87th, Daddy

Today would have been my Dad's 87th birthday. He was born August 30, 1918 in Chicago, IL; however, if you asked him, he would have claimed that he was born up there while his parents were on an "extended vacation" from their home in a small settlement just to the southwest of Lake Okechobee in Florida. He hated the idea of not having been born in the South and never wanted anyone accusing him of being born a "Yankee".

You'd probably have liked my Dad. He was a lifelong mechanic, loved working with just about anything that could be worked on, even when he wasn't at work. His hobbies at home were cutting and polishing rocks and restoring old "flywheel" engines, even dabbling in old sock-knitting contraptions and cord-weaving devices that I never knew existed. He wasn't the best-educated guy around (it took him a couple of years extra to finish up high school down in Lakeland) but that doesn't mean he was dumb; he just didn't get a whole lot of out of traditional education. He was the type of person who made everyday things work in America. He worked for over forty years as a Pontiac mechanic at a dealership in Sarasota, day in and day out. He took a half-day out one time when he hurt his back, but otherwise he worked unless he was on vacation. He paid his taxes, groused about politicians (particularly Republicans; he was a life-long Democrat, although he was anything but a liberal in most of his views) and really didn't trust guys with beards (which made me really popular around the house when I came back from college my freshman year for Christmas break with a very scraggly beard; our only true yelling and shouting match came over that).

My Dad enlisted in the Army Air Force right after Thanksgiving, 1941 and was in Camp Blanding in Florida when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Fortunately for the AAF, he got the assignment he wanted and was best suited for; a B-24 bomber mechanic. He was sent for training to Texas, then California and then to Oklahoma. His group, the 98th, was sent to Palestine and moved westward across Africa to Libya, then up to Italy as the war progressed. He never talked about his experiences, though one of his best friends from the group lived in Sarasota and his son and my older brother were friends in high school. In the mid-Ninties I finally heard about a stash of photographs my Dad had in a bureau drawer along with his diary from 1944 and we had a pretty good time talking about his experiences. To hear him tell it, the worst part of it all was the extreme weather conditions in the desert and in Italy (always cold and damp), otherwise it was just another day at the office. It wasn't until later that I found out about the strafings by German aircraft at a port in Italy and the time he was trying to defend a British seaplane from saboteurs while manning a .50 cal. machine gun one night in Libya.

He loved my mother. They met in Sarasota at a party while he was stationed at what was then a military airfield (now the airport) and working part time at the Pontiac dealership. They got married, had my older brother, suffered the loss of his father, scraped up money to buy a house from his mother, suffered the loss of a month-old baby boy and then had me in 1955. They took everything in stride. They fussed at each other from time to time about things, Momma handling the finances and doing most of the talking to her two boys while Daddy worked hard to keep the money coming in. We took vacations each summer and drove all over the United States, looking for rocks and fossils, camping most of the time to save money, sometimes staying with relatives and friends in odds and ends of places I'd never heard of and probably wouldn't recognize even now.

About five years ago at this time of the year, my Dad was diagnosed with mesothelioma, an agressive and invariably fatal form of cancer caused by exposure to asbestos. Being in the car repair business got him exposed to that stuff pretty much every day from brake pads and transmission parts. He told us in the hospital after his surgery that the practical jokers in the garage would use compressed air to blow the asbestos dust from brake pads over the guy working on them; a lot of those guys have died of mesothelioma already or will pretty soon. Daddy looked at his cancer treatment as just another job for a different type of mechanic to do; take out the bad parts and make the rest of it work. It didn't end up that way; he died in December, 2000.

My mother missed him terribly, though she wouldn't say it in so many words when I would see her, but you could tell. She died in 2002. They are together again in a memorial park in Sarasota, in a nice, uncrowded section near a tree, just down the way from his mother and father. Whenever I get down that way nowadays I stop by and talk to them, thanking them for the way they raised me (at least in retrospect) and for what they left me, both in material and in memories.

So, Happy Birthday, Daddy. I miss you something awful.

Monday, August 29, 2005

The Big Blow

Unless you're a foreign tourist in New Orleans, you probably know about Hurricane Katrina, which at this moment is getting ready to turn most of the Big Easy into the the biggest toilet bowl in history. It slowed down a little bit from the 170+ m.p.h. winds it had Sunday to "only" 135 m.p.h. this morning when it made landfall. The trouble is that this hurricane is huge, with clouds covering about half of the Gulf of Mexico. It's essentially a F3 tornado on steroids.

What did Floridians think when Katrina moved more towards the west? "Thank God it isn't US again!" The original computer models on the National Hurricane website showed the monster coming up the Gulf towards my little part of the world. Of course, just because we didn't get the big bullseye painted on the Big Bend this time doesn't mean we won't get another one in a few weeks. The experts are telling us that the bulk of the tropical storms for this season probably haven't even happened yet, which will make the rest of this fall SO much fun. I suspect that the prescriptions for antidepressants are starting to skyrocket all over the Gulf States.

Perhaps this should remind us that we are at best a fragile species. We have to live in a cocoon of a very specific mix of gases not found on any other planet in this solar system. No potable water for a few days and we're toast. No food for a while and our body begins to devour itself in a frantic attempt to keep the cells happy. Yet, we've begun to think of ourselves as the masters of this planet, able to overcome anything and everything that Mother Nature or God in some of his more unpopular "Acts" throws at us. It doesn't take much, a tsunami here, a massive hurricane there, to reestablish the fundamental concept that we're breakable.

As much as we like to think that we're noble, loving and kind to each other, let's remember that the National Guard gets called out to places like New Orleans just as much to prevent looting and thievery as to protect lives during disasters. When bad things happen, people tend to turn into opportunistic vultures (as they did down in Peru last week after the crash of an airliner; people from surrounding villages literally stripped the crashsite bare of luggage and scrap aluminum for their own use while troops sent to guard the site for investigators just moped around). It's only afterward the danger has passed that the angels of our better nature (and government) step into keep things peaceful and start putting things right. No, we'll still crawl all over each other to get out of the way of a coming disaster when we see it coming.

The latest technology of satellites and radar, which helps us see the uncontrollable coming on a moment's notice over the Internet, is both a blessing and a curse. Yes, the Web helps us prepare with more time than ever before, but it also begins the frenzy earlier than ever. Maybe being unknowing and unprepared wasn't so bad.

20/20 Foresight

As someone with a little bit of training in the field of history, I think that the current wave of revisionism within the blogging/conservative talking-heads world is very interesting. A lot of the columns/blogs or shows I watch on TV or listen to on radio have a clear message: ALL PAST DEMOCRATIC PRESIDENTS WERE IDIOTS AND/OR TRAITORS! Ann Coulter, Sean Hannity, Michael Savage and the granddaddy of them all, Rush Limbaugh, along with all the more minor conservative "experts", pundits, bloggers and people who write into the local newspaper to give their Big Elephant-tinged opinions all seem to have an amazingly similar outlook and it all involves splashing every Democrat in U.S. history with tar and feathers, while every Republican has been a genius. Ronald Reagan, to listen to all the aforementioned, is practically a god who single-handedly whipped up on the Commies and made the U.S. a wonderful place to live.

What freakin' planet were these people living on, particularly during the '80s? In my opinion, the last really good Republican President was Theodore Roosevelt and even he had his moments that, in the light of the present day, weren't so hot. Lincoln, the first true Republican as President, is one of my heroes, but remember, he also played pretty fast and loose with the rules when dealing with opponents during the Civil War, suspending such minor rights as habeus corpus and occasionally even free speech. Compared to Lincoln and Roosevelt, however, every Republican President since has either been a crook, a reactionary or a do-nothing. Anybody remember the Teapot Dome Scandal of the Twenties? How about the Depression? How about them old white-bread Fifties, when I was born, under good old Ike? Pretty good times unless you were black or suspected of being a Commie pinko sympathizer (or at least called one by someone behind your back). Howza 'bout Nixon? Or Ford? Or Poppa Bush (remember "READ MY LIPS! No new taxes!")?

But they all pale in comparison to Reagan and George W. Bush. Conservatives nowadays almost go orgasmic at the mention of either of them. Reagan's face is on just about any website or advertisement about the purchase of gold coins, because he's the guy who allowed all of us little people to own gold again as a hedge against the coming dark days when the dollar became a second-rate currency (oops! That seems to have already happened under the bold leadership of our current President). He was called the Great Communicator, basically because he took his massive skills in acting and read stuff written for him by any number of conservatives like Peggy Noonan (who's making a living these days, as far as I can tell, writing books about how wonderful Ronny was). Frankly, Ronny basically spent the Soviets under the table, mortgaging our future by building an 800-ship Navy, looking into Star Wars-type technology for shooting down incoming warheads and making supposedly not-for-public-consumption statements about bombing Moscow and starting WWIII. He let Ollie North run wild, trading stuff to the Iranians (not our friends then or now) and supporting ruthless guerillas in Nicaragua, all in some weird back-door deal to free hostages in Lebanon. I never understood that stuff then and still don't. I just know that Ollie gets a lot of TV time on FOX News as "consultant", which ought to tell you a lot right there.

But even Reagan pales in comparison to W, the new poster-boy for the right-wing of American politics. Give him credit, he (or rather his managers like Dick Chaney and Karl Rove) has managed to bamboozle the electorate not once, but twice. It helps when your brother (the Governor) and your campaign coordinator (masquerading as the Secretary of State) give you a hotly disputed election in Florida, of course. W, through dirty tricks, outright lies and pandering to the religous nutcases who think that the earth was created 6,000 or so years ago, has managed to get us into one of the worst situations our country has ever been in, yet his supporters still weep at the mention of his name and reject all calls to critically look at what he's done (or not done) as President.

Republicans used to proudly say (before Reagan and Bushes 1 and 2, of course) that they were the "Party of Peace", since they hadn't started the Civil War (them bad old Southern DEMOCRATS did that one), the Spanish-American War (well, Teddy had a little bit to do with that one, but the Spanish blew up the Maine first! Well, they probably didn't, but that's never bothered too many Big Elephants); WWI was a Democratic job as was WWII. Korea? Well, that was Truman's mess that Ike got us out of. Vietnam? Democrats again and it took a Republican like Tricky Dick to extricate us with honor (and got thousands of refugees in the bargain). However, starting with Ronny Raygun, we've managed to get into all sorts of foreign adventures, whipping up on such menacing world powers as Grenada, Panama and Iraq (not once, but twice!).

Don't get me wrong; Democrats have managed over the years to screw up things just as much as the Big Elephants, but at least they aren't quite so smug about it, nor nearly so self-righteous. Democrats tend to feel guilty about taking taxpayers' money and getting servicemen and women killed in foreign adventures. Republicans just tend to make proclaimations and self-serving defenses about such things. The day will come, with any luck, when a new centrist political party will rise up, unfettered by the nutcases of most 3rd-Party forays, and bring some sense back to the land of the free and the home of the brave.

Until then, we'll have to settle for folks who keep telling us how much better they are equipped to run things than the rest of us poor bastards.

Thursday, August 25, 2005

Kill 'Em All...Part II

If you've been keeping up with the latest news you've noticed that the 700 Club's Founder and Chief Poo-Bah, Pat Robertson, has done two things of significance since his faux pas about the U.S. illegally assassinating the President of Venezuela. First, he claimed that he'd been "misinterpreted" by the "liberal" media and all them mean anti-Christians out there as saying he thought Hugo Chavez should be killed when he really meant "kidnapped" or otherwise "taken out" (yeah, like that's SO much better?). Second, the Right Rev. Pat issued a written statement on his website essentially apologizing for his misstep in saying Chavez should be assassinated, then proceded to quote the martyred German theologian Deitrich Bonhoffer (killed, along with hundreds of others, by Hitler's goons after an abortive assassination attempt late in WWII) to somehow justify his "mistake".

Robertson STILL doesn't get it. The world does not revolve around him and his right-wing religious ideology. He's been saying wacky stuff like this for years; he claimed that feminism leads women to kill their babies and into lesbianism, that judges are "more dangerous" than Islamic terrorists and that a well-placed nuke at Foggy Bottom, home of the U.S. State Department (and probably, in his eyes, still full of Commies from the McCarthy era) would do our foreign policy a world of good. It seems to me that we've prosecuted any number of Arab Americans under terrorism laws for saying less than the stuff that Robertson's been getting away with for years. Maybe it's because no one really takes the senile old coot seriously except those folks who obviously have more money than sense who keep supporting the puppet ministry turned global religious empire that is the 700 Club.

There's something inherently dangerous about someone with that much power and influence who supposedly has God speaking in his ear every few moments with a "word of wisdom". There's also something inherently dangerous about the numbers of people who, like sheep to the slaughter, follow morons like Robertson and the rest of his televangelist ilk. The worst part about it is, however, that there are a lot of folks in the right wing of the political spectrum who really do think we should be in the assassination business. Don't like that country's policies? Why, just shoot the guy running things! Think that country over there's got nukes WE don't think they should have? Invade 'em.

Next thing you know, we'll be sending a crack hit squad out to bump off Jacques Chirac, then maybe Vicente Fox and maybe Vladimir Putin. Of course, if we have the success with them that we had in trying to off Fidel Castro (one of our plots apparently involved putting a powder in his beard that would make all his hair fall out), they don't have much to worry about. Nope, Robertson should stick to what he knows best; fleecing his flock.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Kill 'Em All, Let God Sort 'Em Out

Pat Robertson, TV evangelist, failed Republican Presidential candidate, University founder, bon vivant and Man About Town, has managed to add yet another title to his list of stellar accomplishments: rank idiot. On his 700 Club show last night, apparently during his nightly "taking softballs--oops, hard-hitting questions--from the audience" segment, Robertson said that the U.S. should send down a "covert squad" to "take out" Hugo Chavez, the erstwhile President/El Dictator of Venezuela, since he's spreading "Communism" and "Muslim extremeism" throughout the Americas. According to Robertson, it would be just a lot cheaper to assassinate him NOW rather than have to spend billions later in fabricating intelligence about "weapons of mass destruction" and sending in our troops to conquer and occupy Venezuela for years, fighting an insurgent war while we wait for them to develop a Constitution that will insure the uninterrupted flow of their oil to the U.S. for decades to come.

Well, that last part was really just me putting words into the Right Rev. Pat's mouth, but you get the general idea. The man is a moron, albeit a rich and influential moron. He's also a fascist and obviously very interested in the U.S. becoming a religious theocracy with guys like him (unless all the other TV evangelists BUT him get "taken out" by his covert 700 Club hit squad) running things because God speaks directly to them each and every day. Who needs democracy when the Big Guy is telling the Patster what to do? Rip up the Constitution and replace it with the Ten Commandments; take all the judges out and shoot them at dawn (well, having been a lawyer for a couple of decades, I'm not sure that's such a bad...NO! NO! BAD lawyer!); send all those evil Democrats in the Congress home along with those liberal Big Elephant posers who think that a woman should have the right to chose whether or not to have an abortion, who aren't repeating the party line as it comes out of Karl Rove's mouth. Nope, if Monsignor Pat had his way, we'd be assassinating or invading everyone who disagreed with us. Mothers, get ready to have LOTS and LOTS of babies to act as cannon fodder for the new Christian Republic of the Americas (What? You thought Canada and Mexico would still be around after El Presidente for Life Robertson gets done undoing NAFTA and CAFTA? After Canada didn't help us in the WAR on TERRORISM? Not a chance. Besides, I'm sure Pat will be told by God after his ascention to the Holy See of the Americas that He always intended the U.S. to include all of North America when He lead all those white settlers here originally).

The arrogance of guys like Robertson never ceases to amaze me. They talk a lot about how God blessed America, how we were supposed to be the great example of godliness in an increasingly secular world, yet it is OK for us to shoot foreign leaders and invade the foreign lands we don't agree with. Don't get me wrong, Chavez is also an idiot, but he's a democratically elected idiot. The Venezuelan masses elected him fair and square (maybe; it depends on who got to the ballot boxes first) and he's managed to survive an attempted coup that the American Ambassador was, of course, terribly surprised by when it happened. No, Chavez is there because the rich elites, who've run Venezuela for decades, who've not shared the wealth or land with the formerly powerless hoi polloi, are now upset because the little guys have finally put someone in power that talks to and about them (stuff like that has historically helped thugs like Chavez, Hitler and Mao Zedong to take over countries while everyone else wonders what the heck is going on). It doesn't mean he's good for them; I suspect that eventually Chavez will either turn Venezuela into a Cuban-style dictatorship or he'll have his head blown off in a military coup as seems to be the usual standard in that part of the world. However, none of that gives Pastor Pat the right to assume that God's blessings are on a government-sanctioned murder of someone who isn't in lockstep with American policies.

Maybe I'm being too hard on our increasingly senile-sounding evangelical nutcase in blaming just him for his pronouncements. Actually, I blame W and his right-wing cabal, who by their invasion of a county that DID NOT INVADE US or, by any credible evidence, HAVE ANYTHING TO DO WITH 9/11, have made it fashionable for the Robertsons among us to say outrageous stuff like that on TV (while at the same time screaming that a bared breast on a TV show should be prohibited). They are the ones who broke the rules while proclaiming that they were working within the U.N.'s rules (when the U.N. wouldn't give its imprimatur to our new Holy War) because everyone else was too lily-livered to take out bad old Saddam and his weapons of mass destruction that didn't really exist. It's gotten to the point where mainstream folks in interviews, even relatives of those killed in W's adventurism, are parroting the Big Elephant line that if we weren't fighting the terrorists in Iraq now, we'd be fighting them in the streets of New York City tomorrow.

It's sad and it's wrong.

Friday, August 19, 2005

All of God's Children Got Guns, Part II

Someone in my office has been bringing in scads of old magazines and putting them in the Men's Room for reading material. It does open up few new thresholds for discussion, since most of them deal with military issues (not history, necessarily, more administrative and career-oriented). However, I looked through a copy of the NRA's monthly rag with the finely chiseld features of a famously conservative Hollywood actor (and well-known gun nut) on the cover and felt compelled to rant a bit on a public level.

Just what in God's name is the problem with these folks? Apparently the NRA no longer stands for the National Rifle Association; if I'm reading their propaganda...oops, I mean drivel...oops, I really mean positions correctly, the acronym should really stand for National Republican Allies. Apparently these folks are SO fanatic about the right to own their own AK-47 (a damn good huntin' rifle!) that no other social issues matter any longer. Cooling-off periods, registration, licencing, background checks or anything else designed to keep nutcases and real crooks from getting everything from pea-shooters to anti-aircraft guns are consistently opposed by the NRA. Since the Big Elephant has sold its soul long ago to fringe causes, why should blubbering over supposed 2nd Amendment Constitutional rights be any different? I suspect that just about every Big Elephant-carded politico is probably a card-carrying NRA-ite as well. Most of this particular magazine was, outside of the usual technical reviews of new guns and ammo, taken up with trashing Democrats, John Kerry in particular, and making sure that everyone knew how much the NRA had given to the Big Elephant National Committee, crowned off by a big map of the 2004 election showing how many states were "red".

Look, I like guns as much as the next red-blooded American male. As a Boy Scout I learned to shoot 22 cal. bolt-action rifles and my best friend in high school took me out one Saturday with his dad and older brother just outside the city limits of my hometown so that we could blast away with an assortment of firearms at vicious milk bottles filled with water ("Shoot twice, they're dangerous when wounded!"). It was my first experience with semi-auto handguns, 22 cal. and, even better, a 9mm Belgian Browning taken off of a dead Nazi in WWII. Since then, I've also had the experience of shooting skeet with my brothers-in-law (unfortunately, skeet aren't all that tasty on the dinner table). I like guns. I'd love to have one or two and be able to go out to a shooting range and blast away from time to time.

BUT, from reading the newspaper and watching the news over most of my adult life, I've come to realize that a lot of guns are used to kill the ones we love, either by kids getting into boxes irresponsible parents leave around unlocked or by those involved in domestic violence as a final solution to personal problems between soon-to-be ex-spouses. Of course, the NRA usually counters with their little page of how some 98-year old granny packin' heat took out some 19-year old punk who was engaged in a home invasion robbery or how a 5-year old got out the family Uzi, loaded it up with a magazine of teflon-coated 9mm rounds and whacked a drug-crazed mafia hitman coming to take out his parents. Sure, OK; I'll bet that for every example they cite of manly (or womanly) self-defense, there's probably fifteen to twenty examples of someone's kid committing suicide by 45mm or a stupid husband taking the easy route to instant divorce from his wife with a shotgun. The NRA has gone from an association that used to stand for education and common sense in gun ownership to a fringe bunch of fanatics who, if you scratched the Big Elephant surface of probably more than a few of them, you'd find a closet fascist who would love nothing more than to see the U.S. of A. turned into a religious theocracy and one-party dictatorship.

We've got a local grandmotherly type (well, just imagine a sawed-off Arnold Schwartzenegger with a skirt and wrinkles) here in Florida who's been one of the bigwigs for the NRA over the years. She recently whined about the passage of a law in Florida last session that allows law-abiding people carrying licensed handguns to start blasting away whenever they feel threatened by someone else--NOT in actual, physical danger mind you, where you're defending life and limb in your home--just if you feel threatened and can, after the fact, articulate how you felt threatened by the little old homeless lady who was just LOOKING at you strangely before you pumped her full of lead. Our NRA heroine was proclaiming that the State Attorney's Association, which opposed the law, was a bunch of "bleeding-heart liberals"! Most of these guys are somewhat to the right politically of Ghengis Khan, but apparently not right enough for our pistol-packin' Grandma. She's also been fond of saying over the years that if the weenies in the government would just "enforce" the current laws, all those outlaws who use guns to kill people wouldn't be able to anymore, because they'd be playing "hide the sausage" with people of similar ilk in the State Prison system. She forgets, of course, that her ultra-conservative fringe allies in the Big Elephant camp don't like taxes that pay for prosecutors' salaries and bigger and better jails equipped with well-trained correctional officers instead of poorly-paid guys and gals in rural counties that no longer have any industries other than penal in nature (those other jobs long since been sent over to Asia or South America by our loyal Big Corporate types with the nodding permission of the Big Elephant-in-charge).

The NRA has turned into a Johnny-One-Note; "liberty" for them means one thing, "GUNS, GUNS and MORE GUNS!". Nothing else matters. Crummy schools don't matter. Our sinking status as a champion of personal rights (other than gun possession) world-wide doesn't matter. The rights of the Average Joe and Josephine to not have to worry about gangs better armed than cops doesn't matter. Nope, according to the NRA, everyone should have a gun (better two or three) concealed somewhere on their body at all times to be able to defend themselves against the bad guys (usually Democrats and Government agents trying to take the guns away). Nothing else matters, even if we eventually turn into a Third-World wasteland.

Guess we'll really need the guns then, won't we?

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Blogging Molly

In grinding out my modest contributions to the world of blogging, I've noticed that, once again, I've come late to the party. Two blogs, started quite some time ago (at least in the world of blogs; last month was a long time ago in this business) have already been picked up as BOOKS, for heaven's sake! One is about one young woman's attempt to cook everything in Julia Child's French cookbook while the other is about a young staffer in the U.S. House of Representatives who apparently spent more time sleeping around than working for the public good (well, considering how many guys she was sleeping with, they probably thought it was a very PUBLIC good). The latter has already managed to be sued by one of her former lovers when she apparently gave out enough information about him to blow his cover in the Beltway.

Obviously, my life just isn't interesting enough to warrant the publishing of my random thoughts and rantings in book form. I don't sleep around (my wife has stated rather pointedly over the years that she'd A. Divorce me; B. Take me for all I'm worth; C. Hunt me down and shoot me and D. Be very, very sad if I ever did such a despicable thing. She's got nothing to worry about) and I doubt that my family could handle my cooking sweetbreads and brains as part of a culinary journey. While my occasional rantings probably show off my centrist political leanings, I have a hard time being nasty and cutthroat, so my rants won't be making the national blog scene anytime soon; I'm too nice a guy. Yeah, I think Bush has lead us down the wrong path and his right-wing cronies like Rove have opened up a new avenue of political dirty tricks that'll probably lead us into religous theocracy one day, but I'm sure that they are personally very charming fellows who probably sleep with teddy bears at night.

My life is actually quite boring. That's why you'll never read my name in newspapers or hear it bandied about in gossip columns. We don't usually stare at cars driving along the road, staying in their lane and doing the speed limit; we DO rubberneck at horrific wrecks and idiots weaving back and forth, shoehorning their way in traffic to gain a few seconds (and wasting gas) to their eventual destination. On the highway of life, I'm the guy driving a Camry the speed limit in the right lane all the way into town. I don't see a lot of messages on my answering machine from People Magazine, wondering about my sex life.

Being anonymous does have its advantages. Most of the time I can go and come as I please without having to worry about someone recognizing me and wanting to know every detail of my oh-so-interesting lifestyle (well, I do occasionally get recognized, but usually by folks I've dealt with in Court; I'm just waiting for one of them to pull out their NRA-sanctioned, 2nd Amendment-protected Saturday Night Special and bust a cap in me). No one is going through our trash on a regular basis looking for, well, trash (except the feral kitty-cats or the odd raccoon in our neighborhood). I'm Mr. Cellophane incarnate.

Of course, not being famous and well-read does have its shortcomings as well. I wouldn't mind trading checking accounts with J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter's creator. I wouldn't mind having the occasional syncophant slobbering over me from time to time instead of the yellers I get most days on the telephone at my job. Yeah, I know, celebs whine all the time about how they have no privacy and how they can't go anywhere without being mobbed; sure, they're crying all the way to the bank into their bottles of Evian.

Oh well, dear reader, I'll just keep honing my craft here in my little anonymous blog, telling the truth the way I see it. Perhaps someone with more time on their hands than a normal human should have from a big publishing house will see my little missives and decide that I'm the electronic incarnation of James Thurber and will convert all this from electrons on a screen into ink on a page. I'm not putting a down payment on a BMW just yet, however.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

They Are Expendable

John Ford's 1945 movie, "They Were Expendable", deals with a unit of PT boats in the Phillipines during the opening days of WWII. All the boats, and many of the men, are lost as the movie goes on. The movie tends to overrate the effectiveness of the PTs to some degree, but what I've always found intriguing about it is the undertone of doom for the Americans. You know that they're going to lose in the Phillipines, that those who are captured are probably going to suffer terribly, but as an admiral tells the commander of the PT squadron, "This is what we train for".

I suppose we've forgotten to some degree what it is like to be the underdogs. Since the end of WWII, the United States has been a superpower, able to extend its arm into all sorts of world troublespots, sometimes for good, sometimes apparently meddling where we weren't wanted or needed by the locals. Yet it was in WWII, fighting countries that were in many ways superior to us in men and material at first, that the United States truly became united. I think that the title of Tom Brokaw's book, "The Greatest Generation" is a bit overblown, not because I disagree that those men and women overcame terrible obstacles or made terrible sacrifices to preserve our freedoms, but because it almost sounds as if OUR generations since then are somehow lesser in character or purpose. Perhaps it is because we've lost our focus and our idealism, becoming cynical along the way as we've seen greed and selfishness take over.

That's what should bother us about our current situation. We have many thousands of young men and women in Iraq and Afghanistan, fighting under terrible circumstances with many being killed or horribly maimed. Many of our troops are from the Guard, not full-timers paid and trained to take on such massive responsibilities like the Regulars, yet they are frequently asked to pay the ultimate sacrifice just as often. Why are they fighting? Most of us realize by now that the 9/11 terrorists had nothing to do with Saddam Hussein or anyone in Iraq, that the tales from the Administration of "weapons of mass destruction" were so much bunk and that the current party line from the Big Elephant types, that our troops are fighting "over there" to keep from fighting them "over here" is equally so much tripe. Yet every week new units are called up and sent over to fill in the gaps left by those killed by roadside bombs and suicidal fanatics who think that they are defending Islam from a modern-day Crusade.

It doesn't help any that our President and current majority leadership, aided and abetted by so-called "commentators" like Ann Coulter, Sean Hannity and most of the rest of the Fox News Network, seem to be calling for a Christian Crusade in the Middle East. Coulter has essentially said as much, indicating that we Americans should just go into most of the Arab countries, kill the fanatics and convert the remainder to Christianity (of course, most of these "chicken hawks" aren't signing up in droves to enter the military and help out; no, they see their job as being on the "home front", converting the former liberal hordes to the neo-conservative banner of Christianity and Right-wing views). Of course, we're really in a chicken and egg dilemma; were the terrorists there to begin with or did we create them by invading? From a purely historic view, I think we've helped fuel the terrorist movement by our policies since the 1960s and our apparent inability to realize that the longer we're tied to the Middle East by our addiction to oil, the harder it'll be to leave them in the dust of history.

The movie comes to a point where John Wayne's boat is strafed by a couple of Japanese fighters and a number of the colorful "old" Navy guys on his PT are killed. Wayne's character, a lieutenant named "Rusty", just about loses hope, knowing that the Phillipines are essentially lost along with his command. His girl, a nurse on Bataan, is probably gone forever as well. He gets a little bit of hope when he and a few remainders of the squadron are flown out on the last C-47 to leave before the Japanese seal things off. Others are left behind for almost certain participation in the Bataan Death March. They were expendable, but at least it was for the best of causes; are our modern troops being expended in the same way and really for the same cause? To question our purpose in being in Iraq is to often be considered a traitor nowadays or to be accused of "not supporting our troops", but to question our motivations in being there is the highest tribute we as citizens can give them because it is exactly that purpose for which most of them think that they are fighting.

I just wish they weren't considered to be so expendable in a cause that our leadership can barely articulate.

Verbosity, Thy Name Is...

I'll confess; I'm verbose. Yup, as I've said in an earlier post, I'm a believer in the concept of "Why use one word when a whole phrase will do?". This has gotten me in trouble over the years, mostly with my wife, who for years has tried to shorten my style of story-telling in family gatherings; apparently I was making everyone glassy-eyed with details that no one really wanted to know. She'd start stomping my feet after a few minutes and I began to realize that my career as a raconteur (that's "Story Teller" to you non-French speakers out there) was going to be rather limited unless I did some editing real fast.

The worst of it came when I was talking about my father at his very informal funeral a few years back. I made some notes and talked about him for a while; after we were done, my sister-in-law came up to me and said, "Man, you really are verbose, aren't you?". At first I took a little offense at that, since I figured, hey, if you can't be verbose at a family member's funeral, when can you be? But I soon began to realize that verbosity does have its advantages.

In my line of work, the legal profession, verbosity is almost a given. Judges can be incredibly verbose, particularly in giving their opinions (and trust me, Judges ALWAYS have opinions, whether you ask for them or not) and in what other profession can you find written opinions poured over by generations of lawyers and lawyer-wannabe's looking for the meaning in each and every word? Lawyers have discovered that, by being intentionally verbose, weak arguments and outright lies have been covered over like bad mashed potatoes with gravy so that no one really notices.

When you are verbose, lots of little facts can be lost in the forest of details. This can be a good thing when the facts aren't real helpful to your personal cause. It's probably not a bad idea to submerge the fender-bender you had earlier in the day in the midst of a rehashing of your work day as you talk to your spouse. Being succinct with damaging facts can be a bit traumatic, particularly when you aren't really very good at confrontations.

I've learned to recognize the effects my verbosity has on others, the rolling of the eyes or downright glassiness in expression, the quick shifting of topics to keep me from meandering about and the occasional feigning of death. I've started going to VA (Verbosity Anonymous) meetings, but I'm not really sure how effective it'll be; the first person to introduce himself usually ends up speaking all night.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Not So Intelligent Design

To slide, ever so gently, back into my rant-oriented mode:

I see where our Fearless Leader has come out on the side of teaching "Intelligent Design" in schools as a counterweight to the evil of Darwinism. Apparently, W has concluded, doubtless after much personal research and investigation by "Top Men", that the idea that Man descended from apes is so personally abhorrent and disgusting that our children should now all be taught that some mysterious "force" out there created everything in the Universe by some master plan, that things in Nature are just so darn complicated that it couldn't have been left to the crap shoot of evolution.

Well, let's remember that "Intelligent Design" is essentially warmed-over Creationism, the idea that God created the world some six thousand or so years ago, as defined by the life spans of those in the Book of Genesis and subsequent biblical characters and on-going history. Apparently, from what I've read of other "flat-worlders", oops, I mean those who are apologists for the literal reading of the Bible, to believe anything else is a direct slap in the face of belief in God Himself, a denial of Jesus' existance and resurrection and probably a tweak to the nose of Billy Graham. Look, I've been in the Fundamentalist camp myself, but I also had parents who were rockhounds, who collected fossils and minerals from all over the United States and the rest of the world and I'm here to testify that six thousand years or so ain't gonna cut it. One of the preachers who conducted my wedding actually told me one time that "Maybe God put those fossils there to test your faith". Ouch! Mea culpa, mea culpa...Nahhh.

Are we really that narrow in our view of God or whatever we want to call him? Why do we think that God even works within our limited definition of "time"? The six days of creation and one day of rest as told to Moses (as the supposed author of the first five books of the Old Testament), might have simply been the Holy Spirit's way of communicating a concept utterly beyond a mere human's capability of understanding. Why would God be limited to creating everything in six days? If He is all-powerful, why not do it all in one day? Again, the problem is in our ability (or that of our ancestors centuries back) to understand how all of this came about.

I prefer to believe that if God did create all of this, he did a wonderful job and whether I choose to believe that he did it in six days or in a Big Bang with an evolutionary progression to all things great and small, it doesn't denigrate His greatness. As a poet back around the turn of the last century said, "Some call it Evolution; others call it God". The folks who are limiting God are the ones who say that it had to be done in six literal days, that every creature and plant now living on this world were created in their present nature during that time and that physical processes necessary to create fossils and minerals that should have required eons are simply little tests of faith scattered about by God to trip us up.

Besides, if God did create us in His image, he's got a heck of a sense of humor. Nipples on men? The duck-billed platypus?

Monday, August 08, 2005

The Name's the Thing

I cannot see how anyone makes a living by writing. Oh sure, there are those writers who seems to just luck out in a particular genre, like J.K. Rowling with the Harry Potter series. She's richer than the Queen of England now, all from the doodlings of an idea on a napkin when she was an unemployed single mother on welfare. Why couldn't I have come up with the idea of a boy wizard? Probably because my mind is always about one or two steps behind the Next Big Thing.

Just writing this blog is a chore sometimes. I'll sit around and fiddle with ideas, type something out that I think is more boring than the warnings that comes bundled with my prescriptions, then backspace my way out of trouble and start all over again. If I was a newspaper writer, I'd be toast in a few days; either I'd have trouble coming up with stuff to say on a daily basis or I'd constantly overrun the space limitations. Those of you who've been reading me know that verbosity is probably my middle name. Why use one word when a whole phrase will do? Nope, the editor would kick me out on my keister faster than Superman could change in the janitor's closet.

It isn't that I haven't any opinions about daily events or the world at large; heck, I've got 'em coming out the wazoo. No, I usually question whether or not I've really thought something through and whether or not what I've written makes any sense at all. I look back at some of my earlier postings and wonder just what the heck was going on in my head that day; I hadn't been drinking (might have been better if I had) and I sure hadn't written an outline and gone religiously by that as a guide. Nope, I just wing it here, typing away in my spare time with whatever pops into my head.

My style can't be called stream of consciousness, since I'm not really just laying out random thoughts like Steinbeck's dimwitted narrator in his little imaginary county in Mississippi or in Joyce's Ulysses (which, from all accounts I've read, is SO hard to read and bizarre that maybe I do have a future in this business--just make it really, really long and hard to understand and you too can make a fortune!). Nope, what you read is something akin to what I would say to you in person without the constant repetition and mumbling, just with a few more moments of reflection dumped into what's going through my fingertips onto the screen.

The two hardest parts of this writing stuff are (1) The TITLE and (2) The CATCHY LAST LINE. If I can figure out the Title, it helps to set the tone for the rest of the piece, but it's that Catchy Last Line that seems to be the thing that might set me apart someday, that'll make me a little more like my hero, James Thurber. That's what is so difficult, trying to be witty and urbane in my writing like Thurber was in coming up with that last little twist before you log off my site, something that'll make you laugh or make you think.

So, what's with the Title of this piece, you may ask? Beats me, I was shooting for something else and got on a tangent. And where's the Catchy Last Line? Ask me after I get home and think about it for a while. It'll come to me...

Saturday, August 06, 2005

Moody Blues

After rereading my last entry, I've come to the conclusion that I shouldn't write when I'm in a mood. All I ever do is needlessly worry my wife who reads these from time to time and calls me as soon as she reads one of the darker ones, reassuring me of her love and support (and probably hides the whiskey and the rat poison before I get home).

There's a fine line between being despondent and just down in the dumps over everyday stuff you can't control. The trick is not letting it get so bad that you start looking for a straight razor to slit your wrists (having cut myself more times than I can count shaving with the two and three-bladed cartridge variety, I can testify that they won't do the job). Most of the time it just takes a good piece of music, a good joke or something similar to push my mind away from the brink of the abyss.

I've read about teens who commit suicide and I've always wondered what it is that drives them that far. Of all of us, teens should be the most hopeful; they've got youth and usually optimism on their side. It's us old geezers (figuratively speaking), who've been around longer to have some tough times, who wonder and worry if we'll have a job tomorrow or if, by the time we retire, there'll be no more Social Security and all the money we've saved for retirement will be just enough to buy a loaf of bread once a week, who might be hoping that Alpo will be coming out with some more palatable flavors, who might be looking at the cup of hemlock a bit more longingly. Suicide is rarely logical, however, and those who engage in it, particularly the young, are usually desperate or think that they are lacking in options, at least as far as I can tell from what I read.

I knew a kid back home who, during my freshman year in college, hung himself. My mother, always the cheerful one, sent me a clipping about it. It hit me pretty hard, partially because I was away from home and going through some rough emotional times as a result, partially because I was a pretty sensitive type who had a difficult time distancing myself from events like that. A year or two earlier, a young woman who worked for a TV station in my hometown had calmly announced on the air that, in keeping with the station's policy of bringing its viewers the latest in "blood and guts", pulled out a gun and killed herself while the cameras were rolling. I obsessed over that for days, thinking essentially that if she'd only talked to ME, maybe she wouldn't have done it. There was no logic to my sadness over her death, only the wish that I could have done something to stop it, even knowing there was no way I could have.

It's when you're down that you need to take time to look around and realize that you're really pretty lucky. We do live in a prosperous country, even with all its faults. We are allowed, for the time being anyway, to say and think what we wish and to disagree with the powers that be. We do have the opportunity to make something better for ourselves and our families if we won't let our fears or self-doubts stand in the way. I'm a pretty lucky guy. I've got a well-paying job, a loving wife and two daughters who have stayed away from all the things that I as a father dread, and my house is paid for. Just because my hair is about gone on the back of my skull, what's left is pretty gray and thinning daily, just because I don't have the body or stamina of a 25-year old or the bank account of a professional athlete doesn't mean I can't be happy. Just because I can't go back and undo some of my mistakes, can't go back in time and live with the hard-won wisdom of age in a younger body...gee, now I'm depressed. Where's the whiskey and the rat poison?

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Frankly my dear, I don't give a damn.

There are days when it's fun to be alive, when everything is going well, the people around you are happy, when work is bearable, you're not being tortured by past mistakes and sorrows and your outlook for the future is cheerful.

Then there are days like today.

It is the weather? Is it chemical? Is it fatigue? A combination? None of the above? It really doesn't matter, because it simply IS. There are days when, as the old saying goes, it just doesn't pay to get out of bed. Everything is uphill; nothing is easy. Everything looks dark and nothing looks like it's going to work out.

Maybe it was the dream I had in my shortened night's sleep of the good old church days, being around all the people who were doing so much better than I was, who were supposedly doing God's will, growing and becoming more like Jesus (or so they said, anyway), while I was piddling around in my self-doubt, not converting anyone to be twice the Son of Hell that everyone else was converting. I felt so left out.

Maybe it's the neverending pile of unresolvable crap at my job, the people I'll never be able to make happy with any decision I make, who blame me for things far and away beyond my control, but because it's MY name on the bottom of the letter, it became my responsibility in their eyes.

Maybe it's the dreams of a better life that seem to always be just out of reach.

Maybe it's my dreams for others that seem to be out of reach, because I cannot control their choices or change their minds.

Maybe, just maybe, it's simply the weather.