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Friday, October 31, 2003

The Crystal Ball

On NPR this morning the host asked the always overly unctuous deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz if he would care to predict what will happen in Iraq. I forget Wolfowitz’s exact response but it went something like this, “Yogi Berra, the great Yankee catcher, said that it’s dangerous to make predictions, especially about the future.” What a down-to-earth kind a guy that Wolfowitz, a baseball fan, funny, and a populist. Just the kind of guy you want in your Defense Department when your objective is to bomb the shit out of countries to take people’s minds off how shitty their own country is being run.

I’ll make a prediction for you Mister Wolfowitz: Iraq will be a lawless shithole six months from now no matter how many billions of dollars we will pour out of our social programs to prop up Bush’s not-thought-out-at-all plan to take over a major oil producing state to hand over to his frat brothers in the energy business. I predict that Iraq will be our West Bank but more of a public relations nightmare (if that is possible and I’m sure that it is). Think of Iraq as a Viet Nam with a bigger cultural gap between host and occupier.

I think that if we are going to occupy Iraq indefinitely then we should do away with this “all volunteer army” myth that we have had since the end of conflict in Viet Nam. Let’s see how much support Bush has for his war plans when all of us are forced to send our family members over there to play catch with fanatics tossing RPG’s. This time around let’s do the draft the right way: No more deferments for college, men and women both go, we’re all in this together. If this were the case Bush’s approval rating would be made up of his childless cabinet members.

If you think I’m happy about the fact that GI’s are dying over there because it makes Bush look bad you are full of it. I was a member of the military fraternity back in my adventuresome youth. I was against the war back when it was just a nasty rumor and I’m against it now for the same reasons: I don’t see any good coming from invading a Muslim nation. Not only do I not think such action will make us safer but I feel that the exact opposite is true. Under Bush’s leadership the U.S. has usurped Israel on the Muslim’s shit list. Does that make you feel safe?

I realize that this essay, written in a manner of minutes, isn’t serious but then again I don’t see too many of the principals in the Bush administration being too serious about this either. When asked about the recent bombings in Bagdad Bush says that they are a sign that we are making great headway, that the bombings show the frustration of the counterinsurgents. This sort of reasoning is so flawed that you don’t even know how to approach it. To carry this reasoning to the logical (illogical?) end it would mean that when everything is perfect in Iraq everything will be blown up.

I don’t see Iraq as a military problem; I always saw it as a diplomacy issue that would have succeeded on a diplomacy level had we not abandoned that avenue in favor of military action. Lord knows we’ve had our share of diplomacy failures but none have been as disastrous as our military failures.

If you really want a prediction look back to the fall of Saigon, think of Iraqi loyalists hanging on to the skids of our helicopters as they leave that country for good. I hope that I’m wrong.

Wednesday, October 29, 2003

A Map of the World

I’ve been trying to plan a trip this fall. Ten days to two weeks is all the time I can really spare but other than that I don’t have any other limiting factors. I don’t think I want to go anywhere in Latin America because I am planning my baseball trip to Cuba sometime early next year. In this, my time of indecision, I have been fervently studying maps.

I have a whole box of maps. Lots of road maps from every state, world maps, a road map of all of Europe, and lots of these great Michelin maps of individual European countries that I have driven around at one time or another. The Michelin maps are insanely well made and contain every road and goat path. They fold out into 4X4 feet squares—too big to open inside of your car. I have city maps, topographical maps of the mountains near my home; I even have a few sea charts. I like to know where I am at all times. I always can point to the general area of true north—not exactly a marketable skill these days but I am what I am.

I have a bound American road atlas that looks to be as old as the interstate highway system. It is terrifically dog-eared and has several cross-country trips behind it. Now it is folded open to my current state of residence, Washington. I am inspired by maps, inspired to travel new routes or to rediscover places I’ve been before. In fact, I would say that I am more interested in rediscovery than in trying new things. I don’t think that this means that I lack a sense of adventure; I think it means that I’m not promiscuous—I prefer to get to know a place than to have a casual affair and move on.

For me, I am better served with gaining an intimacy of a locale rather than having a brief encounter that I’ll soon forget and which will leave no mark upon me. I haven’t been to as many places as a lot of people but I would like to think that I know the places well that I have seen. I think that my psyche has been shaped by my fascination with the age of discovery. One of my greatest interests in reading are the great discoverers: Magellan, Columbus, Cook, Sir Richard Burton, and all of the others.

Like everyone born in the last century and since, I have been faced with the fact that there is nothing new to be discovered on this planet. I hate all of the attempts at denying this like the mountain climbers who want to be the first to scale such and such a peak. What a lame attempt at immortality! Face facts. If it hasn’t already been done you won’t get famous doing it now. All of the maps of the world have already been printed; you are just going where someone else has already been.

Where should I go? Maybe I should close my eyes and throw a dart at a map of the world.

Tuesday, October 28, 2003

La Vitta Is Not Too Bella

For several years now the publishing world has been awash with books chronicling the lives of middle-aged yuppies moving to small villages in France and Italy. A recent movie, Under the Tuscan Sun attempts to transfer this genre to the big screen. This fantasy of becoming a European peasant with a swell house seems to be pretty pervasive if you believe the best seller lists and box office numbers. Do Europeans fantasize about moving here to set up house in some rural setting?

After spending some time on Google I came up with no findings for searches like “Under the Nebraska Sun” or “A Year in Wheeling, West Virginia,” not even when I translated these into the applicable European languages. I would presume that this is either a market that is ripe for the picking or Europeans aren’t interested in finding out what it is like to live in the suburbs and go shopping at Wal-Mart (this is National Pick On Wal-Mart Month). I wonder why this is?

Perhaps it’s because Europe has decided not to shred every evidence of their past like so many incriminating Enron documents, that it is worth it to maintain older architectural structures (in France it is some sort of federal offense to tear down an outhouse). But the appeal of living in Europe goes beyond the “This Old House” syndrome; perhaps people realize after a certain level of material prosperity that a good way of life isn’t about how much stuff you surround yourself with in your cocoon (or crypt).

You could explain away this phenomenon as Americans’ curiosity with foreign cultures except that most of these memoirs contain a strong theme of escape and by escape I don’t mean a flight of fancy. I mean escape like a desperate prison break, like getting away from something as fast and as far as possible, like running for your life.

Don’t expect me to define la vitta bella for you in this crappy little essay; just don’t think you can buy it like in those tiresome ads for Master Card where all of life’s pleasures are rung up on a cash register and charged on your credit card with the result being “priceless” bliss. Your bliss isn’t priceless, it is costing you 19% interest and the statement will be at your house at the end of the month. Have you been planning your escape?

Saturday, October 25, 2003

Rethinking Econ 101

Like it or not, we're in a class war and there ain't no Switzerland.

On NPR this morning an economist who writes for Slate magazine was defending Wal-Mart’s policies of paying its employees low wages. He said that the overall benefit to society was worth it because consumers get cheaper prices at Wal-Mart than at stores which pay workers more. This makes those other retail outlets “less competitive.” The conservatives point to NPR as evidence of the liberal media. This guy from Slade was slightly to the right of Agosto Pinochet. NPR didn’t offer a counter argument. I am giving it here.

Slavery was also a good thing for a lot of people. It wasn't a very good thing for those on the business end of a bull whip. This fetish with keeping down costs is an economic idea with so many holes that it is hard for me to believe that it makes sense to anyone.

I have been having this argument with friends over the past couple of weeks. I have listened to them bad-mouth unions and speak out against mandatory vacations for full-time workers. They all present the basic argument that the fucking tool for Slade put forth: We must let the market decide wages and if you aren’t happy about your vacation policy you can get another job—this is a free country after all. This laissez-faire economics is taught at every university in this nation. It was what I was taught as an economics major at Indiana University. I used to buy into this philosophy back before I had looked at the world and didn’t know any better. The only contrary opinion was socialism and of course we knew that was really bad.

The problem is that there is absolutely no successful model of this type of economy we are in such a hurry to implement. The more the U.S.A. moves to dismantle the government programs that since the depression have ensured a more egalitarian society, the worse things are becoming for the lower income classes. On the other hand, if you travel to Western Europe it is extremely apparent that these social democracies do a better job of taking care of all of their citizens than we do here.

Forget about the damage Wal-Mart is doing to this country, what disturbs me more than anything else is people’s attitudes about money and class. On issue after issue Americans are showing that they really don’t care about those less fortunate than themselves. We aren’t willing to pay taxes because we feel that we are supporting a lazy underclass. Never mind that this simply isn’t true, that we are paying a bigger proportion of our taxes to fund a defense industry that is entirely out of control and is completely devoid of an overriding philosophy as to how we should be defended.

I don’t think we as a nation are over-taxed and I don’t think we need to save 20 cents on a pair of underwear at Wal-Mart if it means their workers make less than a living wage. I think every American has the right to health care. I don’t feel that these views are liberal; they are simply the views of a citizen. I refuse to believe you if you say that we can’t afford to give every worker a living wage with benefits.

to be continued…

Monday, October 20, 2003

What Kind of Friend Am I?

I had a friend come visit for the weekend who I haven’t seen in several months. His flight got in Thursday evening. I wasn’t at the airport to meet him like any decent human being would expect. I was sitting in a bar with a group of friends watching the final game of the American League Championship Series between the Yankees and the Sox. I vectored him from the airport by cab to our corner of the bar. As thoughtless an act as not picking him up at the airport may have been, I can only say that had I missed that great game because I was fetching him, our friendship would now be in jeopardy.

I also failed to take him to the airport when he left on Sunday morning (hangover) so if friendship is measured by trips to the airport I’m batting .000 so far. Cab drivers need to make a living, don’t they? Have you ever even considered that before in your close-minded definition of friendship?

I think that instead of the “I need a ride to the airport” kind of friend, I’m more of the “Hey man, I need some help getting rid of this body” kind of friend, or the “Can you help me sneak out of the country and live the rest of my life on the lam?” kind of friend. A taxi can get you to your flight on time but just try and have a cabbie help you get a forged passport or help you find an apartment in Rio or some other place without an extradition treaty. That’s right. If you need real help, like surreptitiously crossing a border, you’ll come looking for me, won’t you, little miss judgmental?

Wednesday, October 15, 2003

Your $87 Billion Contribution Is Not Tax Deductible

Let’s get this straightened out right now. The $87 billion that Bush has requested to rebuild Iraq is an $87 billion Bush reelection campaign package to be paid for by the American people. Without this gift, the spiraling chaos in the war-ravaged Iraq will surely shanghai any chance he has of being reelected (I hesitate to use the term ‘reelected’ since he wasn’t elected the first time). The terribly bad idea of invading Iraq and its consequences are our collective responsibility and not that of his administration. With $87 billion to spread around I could bomb every orphanage on the planet and make it look like a good idea. That wouldn't make it a good idea.

Forget about the sweetheart deals Bush is passing out to all of his fraternity brothers, the true motivating factor for propping up Iraq is his short-term desire to win the next election. After next November Bush won’t give two shits about Iraq or Afghanistan. His pro business-at-any-cost agenda has been steamrolling through an intimidated congress since he took office. He needs a few more years to see it through to completion. There are still social programs he has yet to dismantle, child welfare safety nets he needs to dissolve.

For the first time since 9-11 Americans have finally put aside their fear and have started to question his foreign policy. A couple of G.I.s die each day, car bombs go off, no weapons have been uncovered, and Saddam is still on the loose. Bush tells us that all he needs to make Iraq look like it is on the road to stability (until his next election) is a paltry $87 billion. This was a guy who was elected by his promise of getting government off of our backs so we can all spend our family’s inherited wealth in peace like he does.

Not too long ago Amtrak asked for $500 million to continue operations on the eastern corridors and was highly criticized by the conservatives. The Right couldn’t understand how our national infrastructure couldn’t be made to make a profit. Now we are being asked for 174 times that amount to pay for infrastructure in a country 5,000 miles away sitting on some of the largest oil deposits on earth. I won’t even go into the irony of the ease with which we will abandon our energy-efficient mass transit options like trains to mire ourselves in a part of the world simply because of the fossil fuels found under their desert sands.

Does anyone really believe that even with an infusion of $87 billion Iraq will blossom into a flower of democracy in the Middle East? The Middle East has been blessed with unimaginable oil wealth for the last 40 years or so and I don’t see democracy even attempting to rear its timid head in the region. I do believe that with $87 billion to spend, America could be a flower of democracy and much more of an egalitarian nation than the present survival-of-the-fittest conservative model we are currently test driving.

Saturday, October 11, 2003

Adventures in Reading

In case you didn’t read today’s papers there were a few things you shouldn’t have missed. There were two front-page articles exploring the lower depths of the Bush administration’s contempt for the environment. Other than that you could have skipped everything else in the papers and gone out and enjoyed your day. That is unless you’re a baseball fan. Baseball fans need to take a half hour out of their day to read every word printed about the four teams still vying for the championship.

In an article that seemed like some horrible Onion parody of the news, the Bush administration is trying to ease laws prohibiting the sale, trade, and hunting of endangered animals. American endangered species will be unaffected by the legislation but foreign animals need to take cover. The Bush people said that the revenue poor nations will receive from hunting permits for their nearly-extinct wildlife will help them protect said wildlife. Evidently some rich assholes (friends of the administration I’m sure) want to hunt down and kill—for sport--some sort of endangered goat in Afghanistan. The new legislation will also allow circuses to capture and imprison foreign endangered animals to use in their American productions.

I am not making this up. I could not make this up. This is too fucked-up to make up. You can look it up. Someone please tell me that it was all a big hoax and the joke is on me. Hello?

In an unrelated but equally repugnant article the Bush people also want to undo a lot of conservation laws that will make it easier for strip mining companies to desecrate public land in their search for precious metals. Yes, we really need to get the government off of our backs so we can kill off all of the wild animals that threaten us and so we can strip away that pesky crust of the planet earth to find shiny metal for our jewelry.

Thank God I could escape this insanity in the sport pages. I read every word about the baseball series going on now. The Seattle Times has an excellent baseball writer in Larry Stone. My passion for baseball borders on the absurd this time in October, especially with play off games as exciting as we’ve had so far. We also have the Cubs and the Red Sox in contention who haven’t won a series in forever--one since 1912 and the other since 1918. A Cub fan at the game had a sign that read “If we win this one we can relax until 2098.” With our own team staying home for the play offs everyone in Seattle has become rabid Sox and Cub fans. People clap at the TV’s when either team scores.

With our executive branch selling permits to kill endangered animals you need something like great baseball to keep you from losing it.

Wednesday, October 08, 2003

Tabula Rasa: Silence and an Empty Page

I wake up, I get a cup of coffee, I hit the space bar a few times to revive my laptop, and I stare at a blank screen. I take another sip of coffee. I begin to wake up, my eyes are able to focus better on the small characters on the screen, and I stare at a blank page. I may write a few hundred words which I reread and quickly abandon. I return to a blank document and start over. I don’t know how many entries I have made on this webpage but every one has started out similarly.

For every essay posted on this page I have probably left an equal number unfinished; either abandoned to the bowels of my hard drive or simply deleted. I used to scribble on legal pads. I would write down an idea for a gag and work through a few sentences before attempting to compose a more thorough version on the computer. I have stacks of legal pads filled up with gibberish. All this makes me wonder how many hundreds of thousands of words I have either deleted from my computer or tossed in the garbage.

My brother and I used to correspond with each other prolifically. We had each written hundreds of single-spaced pages that we kept in a single, on-going document. We both lost these documents that chronicled our thoughts and intellectual development over the period of about five years.

I lost mine when I chucked my old Texas Instruments laptop. When I went from WordPerfect to MS Word I couldn’t get the documents to convert. I had the old computer lying around so I figured that one day I would figure it out. I forgot how to print from WordPerfect so I didn’t make a hard copy of this document. I finally pitched the old computer. I also lost several hundred letters to friends that I had written during the time I had that machine. I don’t mention this because I feel it is any loss to the world of literature.

All of the notebooks rotting in landfills and all of the zeros and ones deleted into thin air are like all of the notes I have played on my piano. It’s a good thing that those poorly-played musical phrases are gone forever. The tossed notebooks and deleted entries are also where they belong. All of that was simply practice. This is practice.

Thursday, October 02, 2003

Juggling Life

The hardest thing about life is making the time to do all of the things you should be doing. As much as I try to juggle everything, a few things are going to fall to the ground. This doesn’t mean that they can’t be picked up and tossed around at some point in the future.

All of this becomes an even bigger problem during the playoffs for a baseball fan. Priorities change. Just about everything in life was put on hold last night as Boston met Oakland in the first game of the American league division series. Just let me say that it was one of the best darn baseball games I’ve ever had the pleasure to watch—a bases loaded walk-off bunt with two outs in the 12th inning won it for the A's. Oakland’s manager Ken Macha said it best, “Shame on anybody who missed it.”

Between great baseball games I like to think that I work pretty hard at the various things that I do that help me to become the kind of person I would like to be when I grow up.

I studied jiu-jitsu for a few years and got pretty good at it. I literally beat my brains out to learn it but since moving to Seattle I haven’t given it much thought. I got together last week with a friend who is about at my level to work through some techniques. It felt great to put on my gi and roll around on the mat. My basic fighting skills are still pretty high, but I have forgotten a lot of the Japanese terminology (Tai Otoshi? What the hell is that?) as well as a lot of the more esoteric nuances of judo and jiu-jitsu. I don’t really care to get back into martial arts to any serious degree, but I also don’t want to forget everything I spent so many years learning.

For the past three weeks or so my piano has served as a laundry hamper. I haven’t played a single note. I came home last night and leaned over the laundry basket on the piano bench and played a section of a Goldberg Variation. I was listening to some piano music on the stereo at the time. This made me realize that my piano is out of tune—yet another excuse not to practice. I thought about sitting down and playing but I decided to read instead.

I suppose that I am writing this to shame myself into getting back into the groove of playing piano again. I never used to have this problem when I first started about six years ago. My enthusiasm was absolutely boundless even though I was really bad at it. I think my overly-competitive nature got the better of me with the piano; I just felt like I wasn’t getting any better—or at least not better fast enough. I don’t know why this bothered me. I’m not really that good at anything else.

Playing the piano, even at my level, is certainly better than ignoring this huge instrument that dominates my small apartment. This is also true of the foreign languages that I have learned to varying degrees of imperfection--Spanish being the only one I use regularly. Perhaps my eclecticism (dilettantism?) is a defense mechanism. I can rationalize not being very good at one thing because I spend too much time doing so many other things.

Wednesday, October 01, 2003

To Each His Ownership

I’ve never owned a new car. I’m sure that I never will. The joy some people experience from “new car smell” is alien to me. I’m too afraid of becoming asphyxiated by the noxious stench of “car payment” to enjoy the smell of new plastic. I’m guessing that the smell of a never-previously-owned automobile lasts for maybe two payments, three tops. That leaves you with some where around 46 months of payments on a car that smells no better than the one I paid cash for. Buy some geraniums; they smell a lot better than a new car.

Athletic shoes are my answer to new car smell. I love buying a new pair of athletic shoes. I love buying athletic gear in general. I have three bicycles and have thought seriously about adding another to my collection (one of those cool no-speed bike messenger minimalist jobs). My compulsions in buying athletic gear are fairly manageable and not too expensive. I don’t have any problem spending money on anything that will motivate me to go to the gym or exercise; on anything that will make me go faster or make me stronger. I figure can I either spend money now for athletic gear or pay ten times that amount in a few years to some heart surgeon to clean out my arteries.

If everyone thought as I did about cars the automotive industry would be in pretty sad shape. Convincing people that the only way to go is to buy a new car is essential to auto manufacturers. Whether or not people can afford a new car doesn’t factor into the equation as far as car makers are concerned. You never see an advertisement that says, “Buy our car, if you can afford it.” The principle tenet that drives marketing is to make people feel inadequate with what they may already have, even if that is perfectly adequate for their needs.

You are what you drive if you let this kind of thinking drive you. The New York Times Magazine this week ran a whole section on the automobile and its place in our lives. As close as the magazine came to questioning the merits of the automobile--over, let’s say, public transportation--was a piece on some Oregon hippie who makes his own fuel out of bacon grease (I wasn't aware soy bacon yielded grease). This eco-friendly article followed another piece praising the glory of gas-guzzling pick-up trucks. Of course, any criticism of the automobile in general may jeopardize the magazine’s ad revenue from car manufacturers.

I won’t go so far as to say the automobile is evil, but I will say that many Americans are in way over their heads financially from the car choices they make. They have been manipulated by a culture that is constantly telling them that in their cars lies their identity. I’d rather be a nobody.