Wednesday, June 28, 2006


When my marriage first fell apart, I told friends in that whistling-in-the-dark humor you develop for such occasions that now was my chance to find a 19-year-old blonde. The men leered back, the women gasped. Little did I know that I would get to fulfill my dream.

Before I go into that, let's take stock of what's involved in this dream.

Everybody knows, or has seen it on the street: a 40- or 50-something driving a red sports car. In a Volkswagen commercial, it's described as an "ego emission." Instead of Rush Limbaugh's drug of choice, Viagra, some men get the red Triumph.

I am fifty-ish, have mostly gray hair and carry what personals Web sites charitably describe as "a few extra pounds." My marriage fell apart: I knew I was screwed (or rather, not likely ever again). I am not exactly bait even for post-pregnancy Britney.

So I went to support group meetings, to dances, to various socials and uncovered that I am not exactly unattractive, that -- Deo gratias! -- women look at faces, at intelligence, at grace and charm (and, yes, some also look for hefty wallets, but we'll overlook those). So if you find yourself in a similar situation -- no, you are not dead in the water at middle age; even men look beyond the obvious.

But you're still not 17 or 22.

I was thinking such thoughts during a trip across the country. On my flight back, the plane stopped somewhere in the Midwest (Chicago? I guess, that's in the middle somewhere, no?).

That's when the plane started to fill up and next to me (I was on the two-seat side) sits down a young woman who is blonde. She needs help with this and that and I gallantly provide what help I can offer. She sits down, I go back to my book.

Drinks come and they make me feel talkative, so I start a conversation. She is 19 years old. I smile a mile wide but of course she has no idea why. She thinks I'm just being friendly.

I decide to play Dick Cavett, the friendly talk show host who encourages shameless public narcissism by figures from whom one can't fail to learn something. (I'll never forget Orson Welles talking on Cavett's show about the lawsuits after "War of the Worlds" and the one claim that they actually paid: news shoes for a woman whose heels broke in the middle of a panicked rushing crowd. Trivia to tuck that away for moments such as this one.)

A 19-year-old young woman probably wants to tell the world where she is going and why. Indeed!

My putative fountain of youth was from Lyons, Kansas.

There is such a place. Look it up: I have. Population 3,732 (2000 Census), it is a farming community near a campsite used around 1540 by the expedition of Francisco Vasquez de Coronado in his search for the Seven Cities of Gold. (Conquistador: "Where are the Seven Cities of Gold" Indian: "Over there, yonder, can't miss them.")

She was coming to Washington on an internship, she recounted in a voice that seemed to grow squeakier by the moment. My mind computed the political implications and legal ramifications of the word "intern" in the 00's; I didn't like the outcome. But, hell, who's a little airplane flirting going to hurt?

So I asked what kinds of issues she was interested in and what organization she was coming to work for. I rapidly became ever more horrified as she detailed the entire Religious Right's political agenda, as if the entire world agreed, and as the internship sponsor she named one of those neocon organizations that I am sure have "666" carved on their headquarters' entrance.

Of course, I forgot! Nineteen-year-old blondes no longer wear flowers in their flowing tresses as they journey to San Francisco. They're more likely eager to wear jackboots in the Political Gestapo, as they seek to immolate homosexuals and "baby-killers."

And their history! I got a lecture on how conservative John F. Kennedy really was -- never mind that I had actually been alive the day he was shot.

Those blue eyes began to look beady. That smile to seem sinister as I pretended -- oh, how I pretended! -- to be amused. She flicked her hair back, she made eye contact; she was clearly flirting. I was clearly horrified.

Once I managed to steer matters to more neutral topics I found there was little common ground. Neither music, nor literature, nor movies nor even TV (I had a TV then) drew a single connection. Her blonde hair looked ever more bottled.

Then it was her turn. Whether she knew the tricks or was genuinely naive, she charmed with questions about Washington. Cognizant that I was with The Enemy I wasn't exactly eager to help her succeed, yet soon enough she began to remind me of my kids.

That's when the bubble burst and I simply turned into a surrogate father-figure. By the time we got to Washington I pointed her to the right Metro train and was happy to see her, her 19-year-old blonde hair, squeaky voice, beady eyes and neocon views go.

Maybe it's a 91-year-old I should be looking for ... I can talk a good game about FDR, Sinatra, the "Thin Man" series and that bestseller, "The Citadel." Or is my voice too squeaky, my eyes too beady, my views too conventional?

Monday, June 26, 2006

Lynching Words

Perhaps it was the Washington Post story on Sunday about a DWB ("driving while black") horror that primed me, but I was appalled during a taxi ride today to hear a woman recount with alacrity that her son, obviously white, had applied to college describing himself as "African-American."

Let me paint the scene for you.

I have overslept and in a vain attempt to "win the day" and make it in to the office first, I flag down a cabbie whizzing by my building. The female cabbie, one of relatively few in this city, seems a little gruff, but I later discover that what I attribute to personality is merely a choppy foreign accent. Another detail important to this story: she's black, I'm not.

I give her my destination, she starts driving. I take out a novel I am reading and ignore the vehicle until we come to a stop a few blocks later.

In Washington cab drivers can pick up as many as five passengers, so long as no one is taken more than five blocks out of their way. It's common, on the leafy avenue on which I live, for cabbies to cruise their way downtown and slowly fill up their cab. For them it spells the difference between making merely $11 for a 25-minute drive and making up to $55 for more less the same effort.

About five blocks from where I am picked up, a tall, spindly, graying and very pale middle-aged white woman flags my cabbie. She stops, my destination is cited as the priority (first come, first served), the new passenger agrees. She gets in, smelling of mothballs; it is clear that she is not going to work. She seems chatty; I leave the chatting to the two women and dive back into my book.

Before the driver has time to roll up all the windows and turn on the air-conditioning to accommodate the new passenger, the new rider has found the flimsiest of excuses to announce that she once lived in Africa. It turns out the driver is from Liberia and the passenger lived in that West African nation and met every minister and president while she lived there.

There is no question in my mind that Memsahib (the title Indians used for British colonial officers' wives) has no idea how outrageously patronizing she sounds. She quizzes the driver about her family name and origins, just so she can show off that she somehow can identify the driver's tribal origins. Meanwhile she mourns the loss, in the aftermath of a military coup, of what was obviously a mansion in an august neighborhood whose name the driver apparently recognizes.

Then she spouts the detail that arouses my ire.

"My son was born in Africa," she says, "and he applied to college identifying himself as, you'll never guess, ha, ha, 'African-American.' "

I count to ten and decide to ignore this. But the woman won't let it rest. She goes on to blather about how American blacks are not African-American, not like her surely very pale, very white son.

I can resist no longer.

I point out that by identifying himself as "African-American" in college applications her son has taken the place of a descendant of slaves; surely her son has no American slaves among his ancestors. Affirmative action, which I wholeheartedly applaud, exists to redress the deleterious effect of three centuries of slavery and one century of discrimination -- not as the source of amusement of Memsahib.

The uneasy driver, trying to find a middle ground between her passengers, comes to her aid, saying, "of course, the father is black."

"No," says my fellow passenger.

"But you were a missionary," the cabbie adds helpfully, galloping once more unto the breach.

"No," she declared, "we were doing aid work."

I ask with which agency and out tumbles "USAID."

An "aha!" moment dawns. USAID is the Agency for International Development, an agency of the State Department, ostensibly the benign side of U.S. foreign policy in the Third World.

Part of what it really does was depicted in the Costa-Gavras film State of Siege, in which Yves Montand plays the role of USAID agent Dan Mitrione (who is given another name in the movie). Mitrione, a cop and FBI bully, was sent to Brazil (1960-67) and Uruguay (1967-70) as a USAID official, ostensibly to deliver the latest techniques in city traffic control.

Known for saying that torture should inflict "The precise pain, in the precise place, in the precise amount, for the desired effect," Mitrione made the torture of political prisoners under the military regimes with which he worked a routine and coldly scientific practice until he himself was kidnapped and killed in 1970 by the now-extinct Tupamaro guerrillas.

Couldn't happen to a nicer guy.

USAID ... you name it, they've done it: union-smashing, bribing, covert torture-training. Their least harmful works have been to subsidize the export of unneeded and expensive U.S. goods that have ended up ruining local manufacturing and local farmers in developing countries.

All this and more comes cascading through my brain and I realize it is way too much for what remains of the cab ride. Besides, my putative student, the USAID Memsahib, lacks the pre-requisites for U.S. Imperialism 101.

So I try a more direct, personal approach.

"You were a representative of the U.S. government, living at the highest level, far above everyone else. Your son didn't have an iota of the experience of what a real average African lives through," I say. "When he calls himself 'African-American' he is essentially lying and obtaining for himself an opportunity set aside for those much needier than himself whose opportunity was stolen 400 years ago."

To which the woman has two things to say, the relevancy of which the reader will judge: (a) she is Jewish; (b) I am "a pig."

I smile. When the insults spew out, they have no argument to make.

Still, this woman is not alone in this very cosmopolitan Washington, in which so many lead or have led affluent lives abroad (not all for groups as awful as USAID) and now bask in the self-satisfaction that they have bestowed what they conceive of as their superior way of life to people of whom they think fondly, but never quite as equals.

Tucked under the "joke" that her son is "African-American" is the active negation of an identity asserted by American blacks as a part of their communal regeneration. Very much like all the humor about "political correctness" made popular by the neocons, it's a cover for attempting to turn back the clock -- in this case, to the days of Jim Crow.

The net effect is that since lynching black people is not merely illegal but also socially frowned upon, some whites are reduced to lynching words, black words that might give non-whites the idea that maybe they're entitled to a share of power and wealth.

I find it appalling and wrong, precisely because I am white and I am an American.

(This post is retroactively part of Julie Pippert's Hump Day Hmm and BlogRhet's "Let's Talk About Race, Baby" week long initiative.)

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Love as Capital

A correspondent's inquiries have sparked some thinking about the difference between "falling in love" and "love" and the possible nature of romantic love, starting from the premise that it's the glue between men and women.

To date, to kiss, to fall in love are all components of love. Sometimes it's a coup de foudre, sometimes it's gradual. But they're all one thing. Or are they?

For years I believed that, while love between a man and a woman began with passion and sex, it somehow transmuted into something else "higher," less lustful, more spiritual. Although I was not a son of Calvin or Jansenius, I found Western dualism a hard thing to shake: I'd been taught there is something relatively base (matter) and something much nobler (spirit), and that the spirit lived on long after the matter died and decayed.

The philosophical lineage of these ideas we can leave for another essay, but I will venture that, viscerally at least, they have wide currency. Certainly, children know this:

John and Mary sittin' in a tree
k -i - s -s - i - n -g ...
first comes love,
then comes marriage,
then comes a baby in a carriage.

Once there are diapers and schools and homework, out goes the passion, the mystery, the hormonal drive. If a man and woman survive within a marriage, you suppose it is because their love has changed from sizzle into something else entirely different. Charitably you call it companionship.

But in fact, with divorce now normal, this construct falls apart.

There is no "higher" romantic love. Eros will always involve taking leave of one's senses and doing the irrational for reasons of the heart, as Blaise Pascal wrote, that reason does not know.

So falling in love is suspending reason; while loving is, perhaps, persisting in the madness against all evidence to the contrary. Her guffaw, which irritates everyone, is to you a charming little hiccup; his flatulence does not smell.

Does love, then, exhaust itself? Could romantic love be, as my correspondent suggested, an essence stored up as a treasure in limited quantities?

If love is a substance itself, if one distributes it too freely its value drops. Or, as in some traditional cultures, love as capital is expressed in a certain status, such as virginity.

Could you run out of this capital, this essence, could you be forever devalued without a virginity of some sort? Is this what happens to marriages and love affairs? Is love spent out?

If love is capital and falling in love an expenditure of capital. Love might be a gamble -- or an investment.

My heart resists this. Love seems inexhaustible so long as people exist to be loved.

Saturday, June 24, 2006

Slings and Arrows

Nothing reminds me more of the powerlessness of a single individual than sitting down first thing in the morning in a car that refuses to show signs of life no matter how you insert and turn the key in the ignition.

It's not just the helplessness of being unable to displace 1.6 tons of metal and upholstery down the road to the mechanic. Nor is it the patent inability to impress upon roadside assistance staff that waiting for two hours is not really your idea of fun.

Nor is it, finally, the notion that there's really nothing you can do about the frustration but to let it bore holes in the thin veneer of confidence in life you had finally developed.

Shakespeare said this, and so many other things, best:

Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them?

As you wait for things to get better, for help to arrive, for someone to show the slightest pity, you begin to think of the myriad ways in which a seemingly vast army fires its slings and arrows at you in daily living.

Think of the phones that don't work, the computer components that weren't right or didn't work out of the box. The bus driver who couldn't be bothered to stop where you wanted, even though you rang the bell. The fellow worker who doesn't care if his sloughing off means you have to work harder.

At every turn the slings and arrows chip away at your armor until one day you lie bleeding, wondering just how long you can hang on all alone.

Do you take it or do you fight? Which do you think is better? What if you lose?

In the end, you know, you'll lose. In the end you'll be aged and alone and no one will understand any of your references, if they bother to try to understand you at all.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Saying the L-word

Is there any other word in the English language so fraught with ecstasy, anxiety, depression, thrill, and even hate as the L-word? And no, I don't mean "liberal." I mean the other one, the four-letter L-word: "love," as in "I love you."

Why does it feel as perilous as the nuclear button when it sits on the tip of the tongue, about to roll off into the ether? Why is it so easy to bathe our children and families in it, yet it is so hard to say to a lover?

In its pure, laboratory form, love is great. Walking through flea markets. Repainting your place together with the inevitable dab on the tip of the nose. A trip to Paris.

In real life, love comes alloyed.

Love comes with balls and chains: she wants, he wants ... something that has nothing to do with what you signed up for. And, oh, when did you ever sign up for anything?

Should the guy always say it first? What does it mean when it is said in one of those steamy moments one can't quite describe in a family blog?

What if she doesn't say anything when he says it? Does it mean it's all over?

Some people say it all the time. In one family I know, its members always take leave of one another with the words, "Bye, I love you." The farewell seems to guarantee a warm closure. If the person departing gets hit by a truck, you don't have the angst-ridden remorse of not having declared your affection: he or she knew, at the home's portal, that there was love.

Others are afraid it will lead to legal proceedings.

And what about responding to "I love you"? From my years in newsrooms, where no conversation is private, I've heard many a co-worker's side of the following phone call:

"I love you," she says.

"Me, too," he says, hoping no one realizes what everyone does.

Me, too? OK, so it's a crowded newsroom where you might not want to broadcast your affection.

But what about rewinding to Saturday night, in the wee hours. The traffic outside has died down as has your passion. You turn to her, look in her eyes and say, "I love you." Your heart is racing, a band is playing the Coronation March in your head. You are in bliss.

Then, without skipping a beat, seconds later, she says, "I love you, too." Now you've done it!

You're both in love. Flea markets, remodelling, Paris. Or is it?

Was she too quick? Why didn't she just say, "I love you" (emphasis on "you")?

Is this merely a courtesy? Maybe it's like on those mornings when your parakeet has died, your son's run off with his high school teacher, your car's just blown up in the parking lot. Then someone says, "How are ya?" You reply, "Fine."

"I love you."

"I love you, too."

Maybe we should say "I glove you" just to test the reaction.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Happy Father's Day, Andy Brown

I have just finished watching the pilot episode of the television show that eased my way to healing my "distraught heart." That's the term the narrator and one-man Greek chorus uses for the malady afflicting the main character, Dr. Andy Brown (Treat Williams), when told the good doctor speaks out loud to his dead wife.

The show is Everwood, a family drama set in an eponymous fictional town in Colorado, to which world-renown neurosurgeon Brown has moved from New York City with his son Ephram (Gregory Smith) and daughter Delia (Vivien Cardone) after the death of his wife Julia (Brenda Strong) in a car accident. In the picture above, from left to right: Ephram; Dr. Abbott the local doctor (Tom Amandes), jock son Bright (Chris Pratt); Delia; Andy; Amy Abbott, Ephram's love interest (Emily Van Camp).

Throughout the show, the most powerful character for me was the affable, sometimes corny, always quick-with-a-quip Andy. The character is fiftyish, only a year younger than me, yet often enough I adopted him as my role model. I ached as he attempted to communicate with his concert-piano genius son, he engaged in rediscovering love in middle age, attempted to grapple with his own demons and those of others, even as he made a fool of himself.

This particular drama never topped the charts through the four years that it ran before its last episode on June 5, but it was the top of my "must see" TV for two and a half of those years. It was, however, a show that delivered to TV-land the two essential actresses of the top-rated Desperate Housewives. Wisteria Lane's deceased Alice, whose death and narrator role set off the first season of Dantesque desperation, played in an earlier incarnation, so to speak, none other than Andy Brown's Julia. Similarly, Marsha Cross was Dr. Abbott's HIV-infected sister before she was Bree Van De Kamp.

But as narrator Irv (John Besley) might have said in Everwood, you could find out that and more anywhere else.

My interest in Everwood arose in a particular way. For 25 years I had not had a television; then I bought my first color TV in the middle of Everwood's second season in the winter of 2003.

Like Everwood's Andy Brown, I suffered from a distraught heart. My wife had left after 27 years of marriage and I was living in an emotional haze as confusing as Andy's and with difficulties communicating with my younger son that rivaled his own struggle with the sarcastic, often cutting Ephram. Amid the disintegration of my family, I was ripe for the picking of any television producer with a clever way to pluck at the heartstrings.

No surprise, then, that when I found Everwood, it became my sacrament, my therapy and my most precious entertainment. Case in point: I was asked to serve on the board of a nonprofit for which I volunteered and only agreed when I found out that board meetings did not coincide with the show.

My first viewing of the pilot came later, when I was given the boxed set of the first season, which had begun in 2001. For one summer I eased my Everwood-withdrawal with the episodes I had never seen before.

My viewing it again on Father's Day this year -- today -- probably has something to do with my knowledge that Andy and Ephram, who started out so rough with each other in the Oedipal struggle depicted in the pilot, gave me hope. Over the years they eventually talked things out, and as Andy stabilized and Ephram matured, they came to have a worthy relationship.

It's a hope that has not come to fruition in my life yet. Today, neither of my sons has called nor written. (Really, it's not their fault, even though it's a symptom: their mother, in a classic case of pre-emptive rejection, banned the celebration of Mother's Day; the now-grown children's assumption was that I felt the same way, even though I do not, see here.)

Nor am I on the path to a final romantic resolution, all tied with a bow as TV could do in the final episode, when Andy finally wooed the woman we've all been cheering for him to connect with.

Still, two weeks ago, when the camera panned away from the final kisses and embraces, to reveal the sleeping town of Everwood in its last night, I wished I could go there once again one day. Alas, I can't. There is no Everwood; the show, indeed its network, has been cancelled.

But I can still spend Father's Day with my favorite father and wish Andy, wherever he is, a well-deserved day.

Monday, June 12, 2006

If I Founded a Religion

If I founded a new religion, it would be like one of those novels in which the protagonist struggles, yet in the end sees a new and better life ahead, one wrought by a transformation full of insight.

What do I mean? Let's see ...

In Joseph Heller's Catch-22, mile-high military absurdity ends in the quiet triumph of a secondary character who succeeds, in an uncanny, unbelievably impossible way, at finding a path out of war. The story ends with the reader's laughter at the thought that all is possible. Pity Heller had only one good novel in him -- but, hey, that's more than most of us.

One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest by Ken Kesey and The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy by Douglas Adams have a similar breakout feel to them. Whether it's escaping Nurse Ratched or humdrum life on this planet, both transport the reader to new possibilities. Of course, On The Road by Jack Kerouac does the Route 66 version.

Considerably less action packed, the tale of Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, lends itself to a cinematic happy ending as Franco Zeffirelli discovered in making his 1996 adaptation.

Then there's the ironic touch of Fifth Business, the first of the Deptford trilogy by Canadian writer Robertson Davies. I was reading this novel the day my younger son was born. The entire trilogy is a deeply Jungian exploration suitable, of course, for religious mythmaking. Although there isn't a happy ending, the final insight turns the story inside out, leaving that "to be continued ..." feel of a good myth that never really ends.

I closed the book, called the hospital and learned that mother and son were well.

But perhaps the style of mythmaking I like best is that of John Irving. I particularly liked The Hotel New Hampshire, which was poorly received by critics, and The World According To Garp, the novel that made him rich. All of Irving's novels have a gentle ironic humor as his plots pile on a cast of oddballs in situations that are often grotesque -- as life really is.

But the pain is always meaningful, even though rarely in the way those who inflict it think it is, and, again counterintuitively to the conventional thinker, the pain often leads to conversion and redemption, as in the beloved work A Prayer for Owen Meany.

Why haven't I launched a religion, then ...? That's easy.

I find that I am more often than not mired at the beginning of my plot (and humanity's, really), or too far from that final insight. Or else I am at the end of reality, with nowhere to go, as in trummer-literatur (rubble literature) of my favorite author, Heinrich Böll.

A Nobel laureate, Böll was a German Catholic whose pacifist family was resolutely opposed to the Nazis. Unlike the present pope, Böll managed to avoid enrollment in the Hitler Youth; but even Böll could not avoid being drafted into the Wehrmacht (army).

He was sent to fight in Russia, where he was wounded (inspiration for the novella "The Train Was On Time," which revolves around the thoughts of a soldier returning to his unit on the Eastern Front). He was rotated to the fortifications of France and was captured during the Normandy invasion. Eventually he was repatriated to his native city of Köln, then bombed out, much as the settings of so many of his stories and novels.

Indeed, his "last" novel was his first, "The Silent Angel," published nine years after his death. The work is set in an unnamed smoldering German city right after defeat in May 1945; an army deserter, Hans Schnitzler, searches the widow of his fallen comrade Willy to give her the man's greatcoat, which contains an important note in its pocket.

An excerpt:

The priest was startled to see a figure suddenly rise before him, his thin yet swollen face grimaced nervously, and he clutched his hands around the thick hymnal.

"I beg your pardon," said Hans. "Could you give me something to eat?"

His gaze wandered across the priest's sloping shoulders, past his large ears, to the square in front of the church: old trees in bloom, their trunks half buried in rubble.

"Of course," he heard the priest say. The voice was hoarse and weak, and now he looked at him. He had a peasant's face, thin and strong, a thick nose, and remarkably beautiful eyes.

"Of course," he said again. "Will you wait here?"

"Yes." Hans sat down again. He was amazed. He'd made the request because it occurred to him that the priest would have to try to help him, but he was amazed to find that someone actually existed who would agree without hesitation to give him something to eat.

I find we are all similarly stunned.

Friday, June 09, 2006

Straw Man

Missing from the hoopla over the killing of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi is the fact that there was no such insurgency, nor much less Al-Qaeda influence, in Saddam Hussein's Iraq. All of it stems from a U.S. invasion and occupation based on George W. Bush's lies.

So, in effect, Bush has simply destroyed the straw man he set up as a whipping boy for his right-wing voters. You know, the gullible guys (they're mostly guys) who are now cheering as if this were a football game.

The next shoe to drop -- wait for it -- will be when the Bushies spring a "surprise" attack on Osama bin Laden in October, as close as possible to congressional elections ... or is Osama being saved as the October surprise of the 2008 presidential election?

Everybody does know that the Bushies are saving Osama for the best news cycle propaganda-wise, right?

This isn't historical drama: it's a transparent ploy by a president whose war policy is opposed by two-thirds of the electorate.

In fact, already the conventional analysts are saying they don't expect the insurgency to abate one whit. Although they claim to be Christian, the Bushies forget the lesson of the 2nd century writer Tertullian, who wrote, "the blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church."

Indeed, according to the Jerusalem Post, Al-Qaeda's second-in-command, Ayman al-Zawahri has proclaimed al-Zarqawi a martyr. "God bless the prophet of Islam in Iraq, the persistent hero of Islam, the Holy Warriors Abu Musab al-Zarqawi," al-Zawahri said, "who are confronting crusaders and their apostate aids and the merchants of religion."

Not only is there no abatement, but the Al-Qaeda no. 2 is calling for a rejection of a Palestinian referendum and for more violence in Darfur in response to UN intervention. "I call upon every Muslim and everyone who has faith in Sudan, and every fervent Muslim in Darfur to confront the Zionist Crusader plot to occupy the lands of Islam," he said.

Far from solving anything, this new murder dressed up as an act of bravado and bluster, will ensure that "mission accomplished" will be the last thing ever said of Bush's misadventure in Iraq.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

The Real Dangerous Border

God bless those Canucks, they've made my point for me: the dangerous border lies north of us, not south. Someone, give George Bush a compass, please!

No less than 50 Al-Qaeda connected folks have been discovered trying to cross from Canada into the United States, all of them with nefarious purposes. That's not counting the bunch just detained in the vicinity of Toronto.

How many along the Rio Grande? None. Zero. Zip. Zilch.

That's not because the northern border is more fiercely defended. It is not. I have crossed it many times and have seen teenagers allowed into the United States on the strength of the names handwritten on their school notebooks. Or, in the reverse, I have witnessed disheveled folk with no sign of a gainful occupation accepted into Canada as landed immigrants on the hunch of a border inspector.

Granted, most of that was 30 years ago. However, some of it was just after 9/11.

In comparable times, I crossed into Mexico and back. What a difference! Guard dogs, inspections of everything imaginable, questions, questions, questions. Checkpoint Charlie in Berlin had nothing over the Tortilla Curtain.

What's the difference? Come on, take one guess ... yes, that's it!

I admit it. Swarthy Alfonso Queda from Suchitlan, Mexico, whose great-great-grandmother some hundred times removed was probably raped by a Muslim invader of medieval Spain, likely looks a lot like good old Al Qaeda. Certainly more than beefy pink, red-headed Al Caton from Hamilton, Ontario.

Yet Osama's operatives don't appear to have chosen the southern route.

Who wants to wander aimlessly through a desert in areas in which even experienced people native to the region die of thirst? (No 70 virgins await you in Muslim heaven for that.)

Moreover, what university educated Muslim, fanatical though he may be, wants to have to hide among the most downtrodden people in the U.S. Southwest, in slums surrounded by the most bigoted kickers in the whole country?

Finally, courtesy of what once was called the British Commonwealth, loads more people from Muslim countries have links to someone in Canada than to anyone in Mexico. (In fact, Osama's grievances would probably be directed squarely and accurately at his own home-grown pashas, rather than the West, had it not been for a century or three of British mischief in the Near East -- but that's a thought for another post.)

In the end, the conclusion is all the same: the "homeland security" angle to "immigration reform" is just so much hot air and pandering to the GOP's bigot base.

Ask Osama, G-men, if you don't trust me. (Oh, wait, I forgot ... you guys let him get away!)

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Confessions of a "Futbol" Hater

For the eight and a half years that I lived in Argentina, when I was between the ages of 9 and 17, whenever a soccer championship approached I fervently requested of the Divinity that the national, or most popular, team ... lose.

Why was I such a heretic in soccer-mad Argentina at the age that most boys are fans, not foes, of sport? Let me count the whys.

Because when the favored local team beats a rival the fans come out in sweaty, smelly, noisy droves honking cars, blocking traffic, making an absolute nuisance of themselves.

Because when the leading team then wins a regional or national league championship, even more fans, some from the team's defeated following, come out in sweaty, smelly, noisy droves honking cars, blocking traffic, making an absolute nuisance of themselves.

Because when a national selection team wins an international championship, the Libertadores de America Cup or the World Cup, out come millions of people (in addition to the regular fans of particular teams), people who have never even imagined the feel of a soccer ball's leather, in sweaty, smelly, noisy droves honking cars, blocking traffic, making an absolute nuisance of themselves.

What's my beef with sweaty, smelly, noisy droves honking cars, blocking traffic, making an absolute nuisance of themselves?

First of all, they all claim "we" won.

Speak for yourself, masked man. "We" didn't win anything. The people who won are the 11 men who trained a lot. Unfortunately, these are the same fools who, when someone puts a microphone in front of them (hugely bad idea), come up with gems such as: "We played hard and the other team fought hard too, but I guess we had better spirit."

Pro-found! One point for soccer players over American football players: they don't say "dee-fence." But that's because Americans have essentially stunk at soccer so far and are light-years away from making a dent in the sport.

Second, when it gets international, soccer becomes the worst instigator of hate-a-thons.

Argentines call Brazilians names, racism pops up, bloody dictatorships prop themselves up; there's even one recorded war (Honduras-El Salvador, 1969) set off by an international soccer match. (Trivia: Hondurans expelled all the Salvadoran immigrants and found themselves suddenly lacking mayors, watchmakers, cobblers, essential folk; the Salvadorans are known in Central America as the hardiest, rise-to-the-top folks in the region.)

Thirdly, like almost every commercialized sport, soccer promotes illiteracy and stupidity and big soccer events simply impose both on the majority, fans or not.

Take the term "fútbol," as the sport is called in South America. It comes from "football," which is what the English youths who brought the sport called it in the 1880s. But then there's "orsaid" (or-SYDE), for off-side and a whole variety of sandlot Spanglish that makes the players look even more illiterate than they are already.

Of course, to folks as poor as Brazil's legendary Pelé once was, futbol has been the path to upward mobility, much the way basketball remains in South Central LA, South Side Chicago, Harlem or Anacostia. But think of the millions of shattered dreams!

Fine, you may say that my attitude is a betrayal of guydom, that maybe I just didn't get the "sports gene" all guys get. Guilty as charged! My sons never had my competition for the sports pages.

In the next two months I intend to studiously avoid all talk, broadcast or news of the FIFA World Cup. I can't stand futbol!

Friday, June 02, 2006

The Idiot

Friday afternoon, minutes to closing. I'm sick, trying to supervise my company via e-mail. Then I learn that someone has committed a devastating error: he has e-mailed proprietary internal information to all our customers, instead of our publications.

I am surrounded by idiots!

Two people checked this. One was less experienced than the other, his oversight is forgivable. But the other, who has been setting up this routine e-mail for five years, what is his excuse?

I would like to put him in front of a firing squad, then have the squad shoot and miss killing him, the way the French did in Madrid when Napoleon invaded Spain.

(People talk about the "cruel Spanish," but no one ever mentions the round-the-clock summary executions by the French in Madrid, with firing squads so exhausted that they routinely missed and left people bleeding to death for as long as three days.)

OK, so I won't execute anybody.

Instead, let me ponder the idiot for a moment. The Greek idiotes had nothing to do with the 19th- and early 20th-century common word for a condition now called "profound mental retardation."

To the Greeks, the word was more closely connected with the name that Sigmund Freud gave to the unconscious center of very basic, visceral desires, such as hunger, rage, and sex. I'm referring, of course, to the Id.

(Yes, yes, the Greeks didn't develop scientific theory about the unconscious, but their art and culture showed an intution of it, much as Fyodor Dostoevsky explained guilt with pristine clarity 40 years before Freud came along. This is why Nietzsche was absolutely right in calling Greece the cradle of every archetype in Western thought. But I digress.)

The Greeks believed that democracy could only thrive if people participated in public life and concerned themselves with the interests of the community. Those who focused too intensely on their own self-interests without regard for the commonwealth were called, you guessed, idiotes. The selfish idiot made bad decisions for the community and eventually his incompetence is what stuck to the word, instead of the original selfishness.

The ancient Greek sense of an idiot explains perfectly well what is going on in our economy and our society. Everywhere incompetence reigns supreme, from the White House to the tradesmen that service your house.

Indeed, yesterday a military helicopter crash in perfectly good weather killed four people in Georgia. So I searched for military helicopter crashes and got over 4.8 million hits. Crashes in Georgia, in Iraq, in California, everywhere.

There's even a Web site for military humor with a whole category of jokes about helicopter crashes!

Based on an actual 1995 purchase by the Royal Air Force of Chinook helicopters similar to the one crashed in Georgia, I'm guessing that each one of these babies costs about $60 million.

So, ha, ha, funny, a group of 20-somethings piloting the craft, or a group of 40-somethings who built it or maintained it, just wasted $60 million of our tax dollars! (And let's not forget the human loss.)

When you observe the self-serving leadership and the self-serving tradesmen and the self-serving military incompetents and all the idiotes that seemingly have taken over, is it such a mystery that everything is going so wrong everywhere?

At the core, incompetence flourishes because we have lost attentiveness to detail, caring, pride in one's work, or a genuine interest in the effect of one's behavior on the community at large. The citizenry and the mass of employees have become atomized Ids, looking after their primal urges and little else.

The company be damned, the taxpayer be screwed, the nation go to hell, the world ... the world doesn't even exist to the Id.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Time Machine

I am sick. Sore throat. Coughing. Sputtering. Sneezing. Mild fever.

Remember when you were a kid? You could take a day off from school, lie in bed and mother would bring you cookies and puzzles?

I want a time machine.