Friday, September 29, 2006

Stay informed

Read Michael Kinsley's column this morning in the Washington Post on Bush's contradictory position on his commitment to the "culture of life." Read Eugene Robinson's column in the Post on George Allen.

You know the rats are jumping ship

. . . when they come running to Bob Woodward to cover their ass. This morning's New York Times features a front-page story on Woodward's new book, State of Denial, which does not appear to follow the storyline of his previous two books on Bush's response to 9/11 and the subsequent build-up to the Iraq War. Bush at War and Plan of Attack were kiss-ups to the Bush administration rather than kiss-and-tells about the dishonest and manipulative scheming behind the decisions of the Decider, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, et. al. to launch the United States into the Iraq War. If the Times story represents a fair reading of the book (the reporters have obtained and read an advance copy), Woodward's high-level sources are lining up to say they were the ones who cautioned the White House against going into Iraq and/or managing the war and occupation the way it has. Woodward, because he is a pillar of the Washington political-media establishment, will have credibility with the mainstream media in a way that an independent and non-kiss-ass reporter like Seymour Hersh, whose work for the New Yorker over the past three years has been outstanding, does not

Woodward (and Carl Bernstein) deserved every plaudit he received after his Watergate reporting. But that independence soon gave way to ambition, and, by the early 1980s, Woodward began churning out books that looked like extended Variety Magazine articles, except they substituted politicians, campaign consultants, military brass, bureaucrats and the occasional media figure for show-business figures. His books offered nothing more than an inside perspective from the perspective of inside players on inside politics. Although Woodward rarely cites his sources on the record, you can usually tell who did most of the talking to him by the way they are portrayed in his books. The narrative he creates usually features a cast of good and bad guys; he rarely, however, offers any kind of assessment on the merits of decisions his powerbrokers make, or offer countervailing evidence to demonstrate they might have been wrong. If State of Denial makes the Bush administration squirm even a little, Woodward will have accomplished something useful -- for a change.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

The quitting point

A few years ago, the social critic Malcolm Gladwell published, "The Tipping Point," a book that tried to explain when fads became social trends. My first reaction was jealousy and anger. I'd always wondered about such things as when "everyone" added a North Face fleece jacket to their wardrobe, when rental car companies started "upgrading" their customers for no obvious reason, or how 9 year-old visitors to my house began asking me for sushi as an after-school snack, as if it came in a box and could be ready in 10 minutes. Of course, like so many great ideas I've had over the years -- pre-mixed tuna, celery and mayonaise being my best one -- I never followed through. As false consolation, my friends tell me I wouldn't be able to manage the tax problems that would come with new found riches. "Not quite," I tell them. "My wife is a CPA. This woman knows exactly how many kernels should be in a bag of Smart Food popcorn. If the Smart Food people don't include exactly 4 servings per bag, trust me, they will hear about it." A tax problem isn't the issue. Getting distracted by the next great idea is.

Gladwell was on to something, though, and his book is fun, interesting and easy to read -- precisely the kind of thing that academics like myself would do if we hadn't been trained in graduate school to be pensive, boring and write in impenetrable prose. And although he offers no clear empirical explanation to explain social trends, Gladwell does offer the reader a lot to think about. But I find myself using the tipping point metaphor in other contexts, most recently while waiting for my almost-8-year-old teenage daughter to come bounding out of the front door of her school to tell me "this has been the worst day ever." Except the social phenomenon I see around school, around my neighborhood, indeed, almost anywhere where you find the parents of young children, is something I'll call The Quitting Point.

Sitting in the sun on some raised bricks underneath a small oak tree, something hit me as I watched mom after mom (and one other dad and an older man I hoped was a grandparent) come up the sidewalk, eagerly seeking out their social circle for gossip and chit-chat before their young charges came running out with their list of demands for the afternoon.

"Did you get the email from Ms. June about pumpkin math," asked one who must have, in her elementary school life, been the student selected to make the morning announcements over the intercom.

"Yes, I did. And I am so excited! I just love pumpkin math," said another. "I think what we should do this year is to divide . . ." and then I just checked out of the conversation. Pumpkin math? Excited? Like an aphrodesiac? How . . . why . . . for whom? Dear God.

Then I looked across the plaza and saw a relentlessly smiling young mom wearing a grey, oversized sweatshirt with "MINNIE," as in the mouse, on the front, She was talking to an equally cheerful mother wearing a Salty Dog Rehobeth Beach t-shirt, who seemed nonplussed by the other three children she was hauling around. "Yes, they're all mine!" I've heard her say on more than one occasion to disbelieving other parents. "The Lord's blessed us five times."

"No," I thought. "I think someone wasn't paying attention in sex ed class all those years ago." Then again, she strikes me as the type that attended one of those schools that banished sex ed from the curriculum and encouraged their students to write letters to Nancy Reagan supporting her Just Say No initiative or sign an Abstinence Pledge in exchange for complimentary in-class pizza parties.

The dad, of course, was standing by himself reading a magazine. Moms don't talk to dads unless there was a prior social relationship in place before their children began attending school together. Now and then, we get the gentle reminder from the Room Moms who circle the school at drop-off and pick-up like the Queen Bees they either once were in high school or are now determined to become telling us "you do know there is a PTA meeting tomorrow night, right? It's in the all-purpose room. Do you know where that is?" The dad will remind no one of George Clooney, clad as he is in his "Mets-Yankees Subway Series 2000" t-shirt that, based on the grease stains up and down the front, doubles as his lawn maintenance outfit.

So here it is: When did we just quit caring? Was the woman in the MINNIE sweatshirt, over-the-knee hemmed denim shorts, half-calf white socks with the Champion logos facing out and clunky running shoes born that way, or did something just happen one morning and she decided to throw in the towel? It couldn't always have been like that. In an earlier life, some guy had to see her from across the room, or make unnecessary trips to her cubicle pretending to need another pencil, or notice that she stopped for coffee at the same place he did every morning and work up the nerve to ask her out. A woman had to nudge her friend when she saw the guy who, by now, probably hasn't bought a new shirt in five years and said, "Do you think you could find out if he's seeing anyone?" There had to be those first few moments of infatuation, the ones where you think to yourself, "Okay, be cool, this could be it. Don't overeat; don't talk about how pissed off you are that you've been demoted from the lead-off spot on the company softball team; and DO NOT talk about your non-existent old girlfriend, even if she makes a reference to the "bad place" she was in until she wanted to go out with you. There had to be that first shiver at the first touch of their hands, the "where is this going to go" feeling after the first kiss. There had to be, right?

No, I am not excited about pumpkin math, not now, not ever. I hate Sally Foster gift wrap season and all the other beg-a-thons that go on during the school year. During my one appearance at a PTA meeting five or six years ago, when my now "this-is-how-we-do-things-in-my-society" 12 year-old son was a much more charming first or second grader, I suggested that the school simply assess a student activity fee, similar to how colleges assess their students, based on a projected budget for extracurriculars over the year. This way, we'd have no overpriced wrapping paper, unused pizza kits and disgusting popcorn cluttering up our houses.

"Your Max's dad, right," came the icy response from the PTA president. She looked at me as if I had just walked into her church and, before an outraged priest, yelled, "No, you prove God exists. I'm good where I am." "We just don't do things that way here, she said, gradually raising her voice. "If you'd come to SOME OTHER MEETINGS BEFORE THIS YOU WOULD KNOW THAT."

Ouch!

Many years ago, I used to wonder about my older friends who referred to things like a night out with their wife as "date night," or justified an extravagant vacation alone or with their husband as "cheaper than therapy." What is up with that, I'd think. How much fun can that be? Where's the spontenaity, the romance, the feeling of not knowing where you're going or when you'll be back? Now, I get it. Reserving time for yourself is simply a way of sticking it to Sally Foster. Putting on a clean shirt and pants that don't look like you pulled them off the clearance table at Old Navy is a way of reminding yourself that, at least once upon a time, it wasn't always like this. These are the lessons I try to remember when the quitting point tempts me. Maybe today will be the day I change out of my cargo shorts and CITY SPORTS BOSTON T-shirt after I write this and before I pick my daughter up from school.

Maybe. But I doubt it.

So, so scary . . . life, that is

See the new Tom Tomorrow Cartoon here.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Backwards in Time

The peerless Michael Kinsley is the best Bushologist going. Read his latest column on the Decider's most recent "I never said it would be easy," explanation on Iraq.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Happy Birthday, John Coltrane

Today is John Coltrane's 80th birthday. His music still lives in every musician who has picked up an instrument since the late 1950s, so it's hard to see him in the past tense. What an amazing artist!

Friday, September 22, 2006

Judaism for Dummies, or L’shana Tovah, George Allen

Poor George Allen. No sooner does he learn than he is a Member of the Tribe – in good enough standing, yet, that he qualifies for automatic citizenship in Israel – does he find himself fending off the most complicated of all questions about his newfound Jewish roots: Is he religiously Jewish, culturally Jewish, or both?

For the uninitiated, let me explain the difference. There are Jews who believe in God, Jews who fight with other Jews over how to believe in God and then Jews who do not believe in God but consider themselves culturally Jewish. "An atheist, yes," they will respond. "But a Jewish atheist." For example, a Jewish atheist will nonetheless wince when he sees someone put yellow rather than golden mustard on a hot dog, or leave a Chinese restaurant if he doesn't see any Jewish people eating. He doesn't believe in God, but he will not, under any condition, engage in an activity considered SFG (strictly for goyim) -- camping, lawn-care, wood-working, model-train collecting, hunting, belonging to the NRA, etc.

To help George Allen with his past, I’ve put together a small quiz. Some answers are worth more points than others. The higher the total, the more Jewish you are. Results will be published next week.

More Jewish, you ask? What's that? A separate entry, for later. Sit down, have some cake, and read.

Domestic Maintenance

1. A light bulb burns out after you turn on the light in your family room. How do you react?

a.You screw in another light bulb and continue business as normal. (0)
b.You call out, “Duck,” drop to your knees, put your hands over your head, and count to three before looking up. (2)
c.You turn off the electricity, examine the bulb to make sure it’s really burned out, and take it directly outside to the trash can. You screw in another bulb slowly, with your head turned away from the socket, knowing at anytime you could blow the house to smithereens. (3)
d.Call an electrician. (4)

2. Your hot water heater explodes, flooding your basement. How do you react?

a.Put on your fly-fishing boots, grab a flashlight, fasten your toolbelt, and go have a “look-see” at the problem. (0)
b.Call 911. (1)
c.Wet-Vac the basement, then repair the hot water heater in 30 minutes. (0)
d.Call your brother-in-law the lawyer and tell him you want to sue the previous owner of the house. (4)

The Professions

3. Your son has just landed the dream job of every Jewish sports fanatic: he is working in the front-office of the Los Angeles Lakers. It’s a first job, and he’ll be the personal assistant to the personal assistant of the assistant general manager for concessions operations. When asked by friends what your son is doing, you tell them

a.He is part-owner of the franchise, with an option to increase his share after a year into his job. (1)
b.The truth. (0)
c.Your son will be fired within the first month because he’s in over his head. (4)
d.He is the assistant general manager, but really the brains behind the whole operation because the GM is a schmuck. (2)

4. At the law firm’s annual holiday party, you introduce your new star female associate – 27 years old, beautiful, brilliant, impeccably dressed in a tailored suit that shows off her three-times-a-week-at-the-Washington Sports Club body – to your wife. Your wife

a.Eyes her up-and-down, icily sticks out here hand, introduces herself, and says, “I had no idea those suits were back in style. Where did you find it?” (2)
b.Exchanges polite greetings with her, then turns to you and says, “You don’t think for a minute that a gorgeous woman like that would have sex with you, do you?" (3)
c.Greets her warmly, mentions that she’s heard all about her, boasts what a fabulous mentor her husband will be, and insists on having her over for dinner when her schedule permits it. (0)
d.Deliberately mispronounces her name at every opportunity, and whispers in her ear, “I'm not sure who you think you're fooling but it's not me. The last slut they hired lasted a year before they fired her for sleeping with half the firm. Word to the wise.” (5)

Family Relations

5. After several years of boycotting any family High Holiday event put together by your son’s shiksa wife, you and your wife reluctantly agree to accept their invitation to Rosh Hashanah dinner this year. Once dinner is served, you and/or wife make the following observation(s):

a.Sipping the matzoh ball soup, your wife arches her right eyebrow, rubs her tongue along the outer edges of her teeth, coughs, shrugs her shoulders, makes a squinty face and then says nothing. (4)
b.Thank your daughter-in-law for the invitation and apologize profusely for not coming in previous years. Now that you’ve learned what a fabulous cook she is, you’ll be over more often. (0)
c.You take a few sips of the matzoh ball soup, and then announce, “Is this how they make soup now? I guess it’s the new generation.” (2)
d.Suggest in the future they stop at Katz’s for their soup. Three quarts will feed plenty, and for $20 it’s not worth all the cooking to have the soup come out like it did. (3)

Restaurant Etiquette

6. You are out to dinner with your wife and two other couples. The host tells you that it will be a “few minutes” before they can put together a table for six people and you are welcome to wait in the bar. You do the following:

a.Walk into the bar, where the bartender calls you by name, and asks if you’ll have the usual. (0)
b.Say to the host, “Do you have any idea who I am?” and demand to see the manager. (2)
c.Slyly to report to your friends that the only reason they want you to wait in the bar is so that you’ll order a drink you don’t want and that you’re not about to fall for that. “That’s where the mark-up is, on liquor. That’s where they make their money.” You stay put. (3)
d.Pretend you had a reservation for six, and tell the host that the last time this happened – the 5 minute wait – the manager, “who you don’t believe is working here any more,” told you to come back again, “on the house,” so that he could have a chance to make things right. (1)

7. The check for six arrives. The total is $324.45. You examine the check first, announce the total, and then

a.Suggest that you split the check between the three couples evenly. You agree to tip on the tax.(0)
b.Perform a line-item audit of the check, and announce that you and your wife did not agree to order the third bottle of wine, deduct that amount from the check and then agree to pay one-third of the food bill plus your share of the two bottles of wine. You refuse to tip on the tax. (2)
c.Remind your friends that you and your wife “never really wanted to order wine in the first place,” and decide, “because we’re all friends,” you’ll pay for your share of the first bottle but not any the second and third. You also calculate a 5% tip on the wine, because "all they did was a pour a bottle." You refuse to fall for the mark-up scam. (4)
d.Announce to everyone at the table that, although you and your wife had the least expensive items on the menu, did not eat the appetizers, and didn’t drink any of the second and third bottles of wine, you’ll nonetheless split the bill three ways because “friendship isn’t worth saving $23.43 a person." You refuse to tip on tax. (3)

8. Upon arriving at a delicatessen, you notice several empty tables. The host seats you one table away from the drink station. What do you do?

a.You don’t notice. You’re busy thinking about that corned beef on wheat with mayonnaise that you had the previous week. (0)
b.Politely ask to be moved to a table less busy because you need some space to work. (0)
c.Stop the host halfway to the table, put your hand on his shoulder and not-so-quietly point out that “half this joint is empty” and you’re not sitting there. (3)
d.Sit down and wait until the waiter brings over the complimentary pickles, then tell him that you need to move because there’s a draft right over the table. You take the pickles with you to the new table, giving you two bowls. (4)
e.Wonder why Ed and Sylvia Rosen, who, to your knowledge, simply got lucky and made his fortune by buying that building off Rockville Pike when the timing was right, have their pictures with the owner on the wall and you don't. You mention to your friend the reason that the prices have gone up is that the wife's owner just found out he was schtupping one of the waitresses, and she's preparing to clean him out. (2)

9. When the waiter in a Chinese restaurant asks you if he can pack up the leftovers to take home, do you tell the waiter to include the white rice?

a.Yes. Mix in a teaspoon of water, put it in the microwave and “you’ll never know the difference.” (2)
b.No. The rice turns rock hard, you forget about it, and it just takes up valuable space in the refrigerator. (0)
c.Yes. But you ask him for fresh white rice, and mention that “our usual waiter always does that for us.” (4)
d.Yes. And you ask for a little extra for your sick relative who couldn’t come but “loves this place.” (5)

Sex

10. During sex with your wife, you suggest, since it’s your birthday, that you try something other than the missionary position. What happens next?

a.Your wife wakes up and says, “Did you remember to run the dishwasher?” (4)
b.“Hell, yes!” screams your wife. Smiling a devilish smile, she winks at you as she confides, “and you didn’t think I knew you were visiting porn sites on the computer?” She reaches into her nightstand, breaks out the handcuffs, fastens you to the headboard, hops out of bed, pulls down four different sex costumes for you to choose from, and tells you to hold on because she’s going to “punch your lights out” by morning. (-15)
c.After putting down her book, she turns off her mini-reading lamp and says, “Oh, for God’s sake, George, you're not 20 years old anymore.” Then she goes to sleep, but not before reminding you that she is playing tennis tomorrow morning and that you’ll need to take the kids to their therapy appointment. (5)
d.Your wife announces that she is not “some whore” from college and that “if this is your way of asking for a divorce, consider it done.” (10)

Happy New Year. Time to make the brisket.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

George Allen -- a shonde for the goyim

The headline was just too weird for words: "Allen Says He Embraces His Jewish Ancestry." It was sort of like passing one of those small brick buildings on Route 7 out in Virginia that says, "TAXIDERMY AND TAX RETURNS DONE HERE WHILE-U-WAIT. COME ON IN FOR OUR $6.99 ALL-U-CAN-EAT CATFISH SPECIAL EVERY TUESDAY NIGHT. LIVE ENTERTAINMENT." Get a deer stuffed, have your taxes done and enjoy some good eatin' all in the same place? Who can pass that up?

Other than John Goodman's character, Walter, in "The Big Lebowski," I cannot think of anyone less likely to have secret status as a Chosen Person than the former governor of Virginia and its current Republican senator, George Allen.

Walk into the office of any Jewish lawyer, and among the items I guarantee that you will not find are these: a spitoon, a gun collection, a Confederate flag, a tree with a noose hanging from one of its limbs, and a photo wall featuring some handshakin' with local and notable segregationists. Dam gurnit if George Allen's law office didn't feature all of the above. And I'm pretty sure that your new Jewish lawyer wouldn't be wearing cowboy boots -- not unless they had just been unveiled at the new Barney's trunk show. Jewish people just don't do the down-home "wanna come see my new truck" thing. Jewish people will show you pictures of their new boat (the one permanently docked and never used); point with pride to an oversized ACLU gala fundraiser poster signed by Steven Spielberg; show off a photograph with a famous Gentile client, usually a sports hero (preferably an African-American) or a sultry sexpot(think Jessica Simpson, Angelina Jolie, Heather Locklear or perhaps some high-end porn star like Jenna Jameson.; and, if they're really well-connected, even show you their framed and signed photo of . . . Sandy Koufax.

Allen's Jewish roots came to light yesterday when a reporter asked him, during a debate with Democratic challenger James Webb, the following question: "It has been reported," said local TV reporter Peggy Fox, that "your grandfather Felix, whom you were given your middle name for, was Jewish. Could you please tell us whether your forebears include Jews and, if so, at which point Jewish identity might have ended?"

Allen gave the "How dare you?" to Fox, and admonished her for bringing religion into the campaign. He lectured her on the importance of "freedom of religion and not making aspersions about people because of their religious beliefs." Such a sensible statement from a man who has openly courted the Christian Right during his political career, sponsored the moment-of-silence legislation now in effect in the Virginia public schools, opposes abortion rights and equal rights for gays because that's what his Christian faith tells him and pointed out at least twice during the debate that he was "raised a Christian." Allen, according to multiple newspaper accounts, was pretty worked up over the whole line of inquiry. The question is, given his open flirtation with racist politics throughout his career -- he has labeled the NAACP a subversive organization, opposed the establishment of Martin Luther King's birthday and supported and signed "Confederate Heritage" legislation commemorating the Civil War as stand for states rights and territorial integrity -- whether his anger is rooted in a concern that some less enlightened Virginians might think he's Jewish or whether he doesn't like the idea of religious identity as a test to hold public office. Somehow, I can't imagine a reporter asking a question to George Allen, Jim Webb, or Maryland senate candidates Michael Steele or Ben Cardin that goes something like, "Sir, is it true that your grandmother's uncle was a Methodist?" Or better yet, "Sir, do you care to comment on the fact that not a single member of your family is gay?"

Politics is played from the inside out, not the outside in. John F. Kennedy, a Catholic, had to go before the public and claim that, yes, he believed in the separation of church and state and would not act as the Pope's de facto man in the White House; Geraldine Ferraro, our first and last -- so far -- female vice-presidential nominee had to prove that she could play tough with the boys; and Joe Lieberman had to reassure nervous voters that he would indeed make a medicinal exception on shabbos and push the nuclear button if necessary. In the end, who cares if George Allen has Jewish heritage or not; what matters is why it still matters. And there is no good answer to that, at least not yet.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

The American Inquisition

So there was the Decider this morning, chest puffed out in his best "You forgot Poland!" pose, standing before the United Nations, and telling the rest of the world, including those nations with electricity, guns, bathrooms, access to the Internet and a sense of history from wars fought on their soil that America will continue to push the spread of democracy, whether those nations want it or not. "From Beirut to Baghdad, people are making the choice for freedom," said the president. And, without a trace of irony, he said the world faces a choice between extremism or freedom. And the Decider knows with whom he's down: "the peaceful majority."

Okay, let's back up. Just last week, the Decider, or as Eugene Robinson re-named him this morning in the Washington Post, the Inquisitor, was up on Capitol Hill attempting to scare a hapless Congress into supporting the torture provisions in his interrogations bill. If we can't engage in "extraordinary interrogation methods," such as simulated drowning, sleep deprivation, extreme positioning, and other techniques that clearly meet any reasonable definition of torture, then we can't catch the terrorists that threaten to do harm to our "homeland."

I'm not sure what War of the Worlds scenario the Decider envisions. Since he talks with God on a regular basis, there is a good chance he's keeping some pu-retty scary information close to the vest. Meanwhile, the Senate's three most respected voices on military affairs, John Warner, a former naval officer and secretary of the navy, John McCain, the nation's most famous Vietnam-era POW, and and Lindsey Graham, a former military judge, have come out against the Bush proposal. Former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Colin Powell, opposes the administration. These are all men who have experienced war, the taking of prisoners and other such matters. And they're all Republicans.

Who is on board with torture? Naturally, the combat experience-free White House, led by W and Dick Cheney, two draft dodgers; Bill Frist, the most spinless majority leader in recent memory and their apparatchiks in the conservative media, such as Bill Kristol, the editor of the Weekly Standard, and Rich Lowry, the editor of the National Review. Although neither has any military experience, both were recently praised as having the "courage" to ask for more troops for Iraq at a time when the tide seemed to be turning the other way.

Courage? That's like me coming out and demanding that we have mandatory flu shots this season, despite knowing full well that such a preventive health care measure is not in the budget.

Commentators like this remind me of guys I knew in college -- the Dungeons and Dragons types, who would sit around comparing notes on what celebrities they would or would not have sex with. "Hell, yeah, I'd do Farah Fawcett, but I wouldn't get near McKenzie Phillips with a ten-foot pole. But Valerie Bertenelli, that's another story. Shit, I'd take all them Charlie's Angels -- one after another." I'm sure the Angels were relieved and McKenzie Phillips devasted over the opinion of these oh-so-eligible young men, none of whom, to the best of my memory, ever came to me and said, "Ivers, man, can I use your room tonight? I just picked up Farah Fawcett at Harpos."

For the conservative media class in Washington that dominates the airwaves, the op-ed pages and the journals of opinion, war is a spectator sport. But for the people who experienced death and carnage up close, what it means to degrade another human being, and the horrors of war, these matters are not always about "securing the base" for the fall election season. I wouldn't vote for Warner, McCain or Graham if I could. I do, however, respect them, and that gives me hope that not all is lost.

Did he have any hair gel?

A man crashed his car at a security checkpoint on Capitol Hill yesterday, got out, and forced the capitol police into a lengthy chase before he was subdued.

Really, it's true. Yep, we are safer than we've ever been. Yep, yep.

The sociology of Starbucks

On a recent trip to Starbucks, I had the pleasure of waiting in line behind my favorite type of customer: the 50ish preppy woman, her hair held back by a black headband, wearing a white Lacoste polo shirt with the collar turned up, complemented by capris featuring some sort of strange collection of fruits, accessorized with a belt patterened in strawberries and rounded out with sockless Gucci flats. She was, naturally, sporting the latest in Fendi eyeglass frames, which she repeatedly took off and on, much like a turtle poking his or her head out of the shell, to signal the counter-workers that she was losing patience. And when it was her turn, she offered up something like this:

"I want a grande not-quite-half-caf with a shot of [unintelligible], with three-quarters of an extra shot, no foam soy latte, [something else unintelligible], blah, blah, blah . . ." The barista repeated the order back to make sure she got it right, which amazingly she almost did, except not to the satisfaction of her customer. I did hear a lot of, "Not quite this, not quite thats," though.

After going through this ritual a second time, the woman turned to me, as if we were members of the same "can you believe people like us have to go through this shit" sorority and said, "Sometimes I just want to strangle these people. I don't know where they come from."

To which I responded, "They're much nicer to you than I would have been. If this were my store, I would have asked you to leave."

Miffed, the woman replied, "I would have reported you to the manager and had you fired."

"I didn't say if I worked here. I said if this were my store. That would make me the manager and I wouldn't fire myself," I said.

"I would demand something," she responded, apparently quite unfamiliar with the corporate structure of small independently-owned retail coffee shops. "I will tell that if you worked here, I would ask to see the manager."

"Neither option works," I reminded her. "I wouldn't fire myself. Plus, I don't work here."

My friend the barista then handed me my coffee, on the house. Just coffee. No fractions, no currency conversions and no shots. I walked outside, and who do I see but the Coffee Lady in a dispute with a meter maid . . .

"And you're telling me that you're going to give me a ticket for leaving my car here for five minutes to get coffee?" When he reminded her that all the parking in front of the store was metered, and that there were no exceptions for affluent white Starbucks addicts to grab their Grandes and go (I exaggerate the second part of the sentence), she grabbed the ticket and began to get in her car when she noticed me standing on the sidewalk in front of her.

"And I suppose you put money in the meter, right?"

"No," I responded. "I rode my bike. I don't have to."

She just looked at me, threw her hands in the air, hoped in her Land Rover (which, by the way, is perhaps the unsafest SUV on the road) and screeched off.

And that was that.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Non sequitur

Around 11.30 Sunday night, I stopped into my neighborhood Giant on the way home from playing hockey to pick-up a few items my family deemed essential for Monday morning. As I walked from my car to the store, I passed a rather dour-looking guy carrying a plunger, a Costco-sized package of toilet paper and a bouquet of flowers. Part of me wanted to ask him what happened; but the other part of me -- the husband and father -- decided it was best just to leave him alone.

My 7 1/2 year-old teen-age daughter informed me this evening at dinner that "I need[ed] to listen her the first time because she wasn't going to repeat herself." About what? That she had had enough dinner and wanted to eat her chocolate cake from Booeymonger. When I told her there was still dinner to finish, she folded her arms, huffed and puffed, turned to the side and told me that "she was never speaking to me again." That is, until it was time to sing her favorite bedtime song, "In the Presence Of," by Yes.

I asked the counter-attendant at Dunkin' Donuts this morning if he had a "Retraction Cup for Bad Service" to complement the "Gratuities for Excellent Service" cup sitting next to the register. He had no answer. I asked him if he tipped people in convenience and quick-service stores like his own when he visited them. He told me he never thought about it. I asked him why I should tip him if he didn't tip his colleagues. He didn't know the answer to that either, and politely asked if I wanted to speak with the manager. No, I said, I just wanted to know when we passed the tipping point that created the tipping cup for businesses where the employees are just doing their jobs. He asked me if I wanted the 800 number. I told him I just wanted my apple fritter, and to have a nice day. And, no, I didn't tip him.

Alexander the Great

Ashburn, Va. – Standing by the glass, the first thing you notice about professional hockey players when they skate onto the ice is how just how tall, strong and fast they are. Of course, that sense of proportion is magnified a time or two when you spend most of your time on the ice coaching and watching 11 and 12 year-olds, or trying to avoid a trip to the orthopedist when playing against men your own age.

And the first thing you notice about Alexander Ovechkin is just how much better he is than everybody else.

Make no mistake – just to get invited to an NHL training camp means that a player has done close to cartwheels around every single obstacle course, survived a lifetime of 5 a.m. practices, tolerated amateur coaches who often appear a step or two removed from some sort of unlicensed mental health facility or, worse, prison, and been the best player on his team since he was old enough to skate. And while the Washington Capitals are still a ways from challenging the league's best teams, they do have some very good NHL players -- Dainus Zubrus, Brian Pothier, Alexander Semin and, of course, Olie Kolzig -- and a good handful of quality journeymen -- Chris Clark, Brian Sutherby and Matt Pettinger. But Ovechkin is not just better by light years than his teammates -- he is rightly considered one of the five best players in the world.

To watch him skate is like watching a seagull skim the water: you know he's touching the ice, but he moves so quickly and so gracefully that you wonder if his skates even cut the surface. His reflexes are so fast that you literally can't take your eyes off him or you will miss something. So exciting is he to watch that he had fans standing every time he came near the puck, and this was during a controlled scrimmage. Later, when the hitting picked up, Ovechkin collided with newly-acquired enforcer Donald Brashear, considered one of the NHL's toughest tough guys and best fighters, held his ground and got right back in the play. Skating back to the bench, Ovechkin and Brashear tapped each other with their sticks to acknowledge that it was just hockey. Once the season starts, it will be Brashear's job to protect Ovechkin on the ice.

After the morning workouts ended, Ovechkin came out to sign autographs for the 50 or fans who had hung around. He smiled and managed to say something nice in his broken English to everyone who put something in front of him, and reminded one kid who couldn't have been more than 7 or 8 to "play hard and listen to coach." Then, dressed in jeans and a ragged t-shirt, he turned and went back to the dressing room, where he is, by all accounts, amazingly down-to-earth.

Lured by gas a full twenty-five cents below what I would pay back in Bethesda, I pulled over to the Shell station next to the rink. Next to me, a brand new white BMW pulled up and stopped. The driver got out, walked around to the other side of his car, opened the gas cap and began filling up. We exchanged glances, then stared off into space as we waited for our tanks to fill. After we replaced our hoses at the same time, the driver looked at me and said, "You have nice day."

"You, too," I said. I had just gone gallon-to-gallon with Alex Ovechkin and pumped him to a draw. Who knew?

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Old Friends

A couple of weeks ago, my old friend Joey Pierce called me. Joey and I met 26 years ago, when we were roommates during our pre-freshman year summer orientation session at the University of Tennessee. The room to which we were assigned was actually a suite; my roommate never showed up, his did, but had gone off to do his own thing. I remember poking my head through the door that connected our rooms and seeing this Buddha-like figure sitting on his bed, reading from a collection of Woody Allen short stories. Then, I noticed the huge Yes -- as in the band -- belt buckle holding up his painter's paints. We spent the rest of the night talking . . . as only 17 year-olds can when they find that new friend they never knew really existed . . . the one that didn't go to their high school but they wished had, that wasn't there to hang out on weekends and talk about the important stuff and listen to the music that no one else was hip enough to get.

Joey and I stayed in touch through the years, then lost touch in our late 20s and 30s. A year and a half or so ago, with no prompting, Joey left a message on my office voice mail. No name, mind you, but just a reference to an old common musical interest. That, along with the unfamiliar area code, pretty much assured me it wasn't a former student still pissed off about a grade ("Yes, Ivers, you're the reason I'm working the graveyard shift at Kinkos' and living on my Aunt Sylvia's couch. Happy? Feel good about yourself?"), so I called back. And lo and behold, it was Joey.

We talked and caught up, and traded a few emails over the next several months. We fell right back into our old habits, talking about music, sports, politics, who we had seen in the previous 20 years and who we hadn't. But the last phone call bore fruit: Joey was coming to Washington to attend a Bar Mitzvah -- a far cry from our college road-tripping days to the Kentucky Derby -- and wanted to know if we could find some time to get together. Okay, so it meant driving over to Arlington, and having to slap a NASCAR sticker on my car to clear customs on the American Legion bridge. Well worth it.

We met in the lobby of his hotel. Joey is a lot lighter now, no longer quite the Buddha figure that presided over many an excursion into the counter-culture during our first two years of college, and almost completely gray. But he is the same easygoing, unpossessing and genuine guy he was when we met all those years ago. We spent the next two hours telling stories, looking through some great pictures that Joey had brought with him, and filling each other in on our current lives. It was hard to believe that was us in those pictures; even without dental records, there is no disputing that those two guys with the 70s haircuts were me and Joey. I got to meet his wife, Billie, and she was, as she could only be, as lovely, as real and as charming as Joey.

Seven years ago, I attended my 20th high school reunion. With the exception of the three people I had kept in touch since I graduated, I didn't have much more than 10 minutes worth of conversation with any of my old high school friends, even then ones with whom I played ball, drank beer in the parking lot and camped out for concert tickets. I mean, these were friends, but our emotional bond was temporal. Our paths crossed at a certain point in life and then we moved on. Before we worry about finding a mate, raising children, developing a career, staying healthy, taking care of a sick relative and negotiating the everyday hazards of life, we have the luxury of time to develop deep friendships. When else but at 17 can you debate for hours if the live or studio version of "Yours in No Disgrace" by Yes is better, or whether Take the Money and Run or Annie Hall represented Woody Allen at his best? Friendships at that point in time are solely about you and another person, and that inexplicable force that cements a bond between two people -- not because you work at the same place, have kids in school together or see each other on the soccer field or ice rink every weekend for six months.

A friend like Joey is different. Our emotional bond has remained unbroken since that first summer evening together 26 years ago. We have eased in and out of each other's lives since that time, but we have never remained far from each other's thoughts. Sometimes, I think we -- all of us -- are too afraid to experience the wonder that letting our feelings go can bring. We worry that getting too close to one person might make it harder to let them go, if and when that day comes. We worry that experiencing a moment of emotional intensity outside of a committed relationship means that a wife, a husband or a boyfriend has failed the test of perpetual love. We worry about sticking to rules that we didn't write. We worry about conforming to a make-believe Hallmark standard of emotional simplicity. We worry, we worry, we worry . . . so much so that we waste what can often be a once-in-a-lifetime chance. Sometimes walking through an open door can change a life, even if only for a moment. But if you're really lucky, like me, that feeling can last a lifetime.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Remembering Bill Evans

Bill Evans died at the age of 51 on September 15, 1980. I wouldn’t discover his music until a few years later. I was listening to an early 1960s Herbie Hancock album with a friend, who told me that I needed to listen to Bill to understand Herbie’s playing. He lent me a copy of the seminal Miles Davis-led recording, Kind of Blue, and told me to listen to the tracks that Bill played on, and then compare it with Freddie Freeloader, the sole cut on which Wynton Kelly (a great pianist) appears. My friend was one of those jazz guys who took a knowing drag on his cigarette, squinted his eyes, cocked his head just a little to the side and leaned into you to let you know that what he was telling you was really important.

Listen I did. And several hours later, and after playing Flamenco Sketches over and over, I emerged, fully converted to the cult of Bill Evans.

Gene Lees wrote that Bill has perhaps the most possessive fans of any musician that he has ever known. The first time I heard the Beatles on my own, my ears perked up as if some mysterious life force had just opened up a new world to me. I remember, in 1972, hearing, in a row, Long Distance Runaround by Yes, Living in the Past by Jethro Tull, and Do It Again by Steely Dan late at night on the radio, and thinking, “Wow . . . what is that all about?” My first experience with Coltrane I remember well: I put on Coltrane, the eponymously titled Impulse recording from the early 1960s, sat back down on the $50 garage-sale couch I had just purchased for my crappy graduate school apartment, and didn’t get up for an hour. Literally, I was so overwhelmed I couldn’t move.

Bill was different. After my Kind of Blue experience, I went to a second-hand record store to buy all the Bill Evans albums I could afford. For $3 a piece, I bought Waltz for Debby, Sunday at the Village Vanguard and Live at Shelley Manne’s Hole. I spent an entire afternoon listening to the Vanguard recordings, and then all of a sudden it hit me. I welled up in tears and just put my head in my hands. I had never heard music so beautiful, so meaningful, so heartbreaking, so genuine, so loving . . . so anything ever before. And once I learned about the difficulties he experienced in his life, his music radiated an even greater emotional wallop. I reported to my friend the jazz guy that I had begun the Bill Evans journey, and that I just wanted to reach into the speakers and tell him, “It’s okay, I know, I’ve been there, too.” My friend went through the whole routine with his cigarette, and said, “You feel like he’s talking to you, don’t you, in a way that nobody else ever has, right?” Bill devotees think they have a straight line to his heart, and his to theirs, that only they understand.

The place to start, of course, is the Complete Live at the Village Vanguard box set, which offers the legendary June 25, 1961 sessions from start to finish, including a new version of Gloria’s Step, complete with a missing few bars due to a recording malfunction. If you want to know where Bill was going at the end of his life, listen to the final Village Vanguard sessions from June 1980. The beauty, grace and otherworldly harmonic voicings are all there, but you will also hear a power and urgency that had reinvigorated his final years. It’s almost as if Bill knew that his time was almost up, and the moment had arrived to open his heart once last time to tell us everything he had ever felt.

The Braves reach the end of the line

The Philadelphia Phillies double-header sweep of the Atlanta Braves last night; coupled with the Mets defeat of the Florida Marlins on the same day, mathematically eliminated the Braves from the NL East Division title, bringing their remarkable – and probably never duplicated – 14-year string of division crowns dating back to 1991 to an end. 272 players wore a Braves uniform during their reign. And although the Braves one only one World Series (1995), and didn’t make it to the NLCS after 2000, my guess is that the Hall of Fame candidates who played for them during their run will wear a Braves hat on their plaque.

Here is my short list of Hall of Fame worthy players from the 1991-2005 era: John Smoltz, Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and Chipper Jones. If he can generate serious offensive numbers over the next five years, Andruw Jones will probably appear on someone’s ballot. He and Torii Hunter are the best two defensive centerfielders of their generation, and probably the best at their position since Curt Flood and Paul Blair. Maddux is a first-ballot entry; Smoltz, if not the first ballot, the second – how many other pitchers will have 200 career wins AND 154 career saves, and acknowledged by the sport in separate years as the best at his position? (with a MVP, Rolaids Relief and Cy Young in the bag); Glavine, if he makes it to 300 wins, is a sure thing. If not, he has longevity, consistency and two Cy Youngs on his side.

Chipper Jones rarely gets mentioned among today’s great players, or even those of the last 10 years. Go find another everyday player since Chipper broke into the majors in 1995 who has had a more consistent and productive career. And don’t forget – he’s a switch-hitter. To me, he is the most underappreciated great player of the last ten years.

Outfielder Jeff Francouer, the Braves 22 year-old star-in-the-making, was 7 years old when John Smoltz won his first World Series game for the Braves. So was catcher Brian McCann. Adam LaRouche was 11 and even Andruw Jones was just 14. Of course, Jones, in 1996, when he was 19, became the youngest player in history to homer in a World Series game. There will be a few more rough years ahead, but the future is bright.

Sports, priorities, sports, priorities, priorities, sports

Remember how 9/11 was going to refocus our priorities on the important things in life and give us the perspective we so desperately needed to put our misplaced societal priorities and rampant materialism in their proper place?

We have learned some important lessons from that day: that we don’t need clear and workable emergency plans to evacuate our major population centers; that duct tape and plastic sheeting will protect us against any sort of science fiction-level blast from the terrorist throngs that sleep quietly around us; that we should re-elect presidents, senators and representative who have no clue of what to do about anything; we should spend less money on transportation and port security; and, of course, we should invade countries that pose no threat to the United States and then claim, after they descend into chaos, that they pose a threat to our civilization.

But here in my little well-educated, hyper-attentive and affluent corner of the world, Bethesda, Maryland, . . . the kind of place that “supports the troops” but doesn’t provide any . . . we are in the midst of what educators now refer to as a “teachable moment” (this is what university administrators call plagiarism cases they don’t want us to prosecute for fear of offending a student or his/her family). In March, four students from Walt Whitman High, which considers itself a private-level public school, were arrested for robbing a Smoothie King in downtown Bethesda. Their payday was about $463. The kids were all caught and are facing a November 29 trial date for armed robbery.

Yes, you read that correctly. They robbed a Smoothie King. And it was, apparently, an inside job.

Okay, I did some stupid shit in high school. I TPed houses, tried to smoke some leaves from a tree in my backyard to see if I could get some kind of buzz, smoked other things that I knew would lift my spirits, visited bars with a fake ID, snuck into movie theatres where my friends worked, skipped school, forged by Dad’s signature for the sudden spate of doctor’s appointments my senior year – pretty standard stuff. But never did I call a friend and say, “Snag one of your dad’s guns out of the basement (I went to high school in a Republican neighborhood, and, boy, there were some families prepared to take on the Soviet Army!), round up the crew, and let’s go knock off the Pizza Inn after baseball practice.”

One of the Walt Whitman 4, Pat Lazear was a star player on the Whitman football team, so much so that he was already being recruited by major colleges, including powerhouses like Ohio State. Whitman’s principal attempted to expel him, but a county mediator allowed him to finish the school year at home and then assigned him to Wheaton High School in Silver Spring. Although he is sporting an electric bracelet around his ankle and subject to a 7 p.m. curfew, Lazear is still eligible to play football. Better yet, he is the captain, plays both ways and punts on special teams. And the recruiters keep coming. And coming. And coming.

Read more about it here.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

September 13, 2006

Except that no one cares

Former Georgetown society head pom-pom girl and current Washington ubermatron Sally Quinn made one of her mercifully rare appearances in yesterday’s Washington Post – in the Style section, natch – to offer her learned opinion on the leading issue of the day among Washington’s political-media establishment. And that is, of course, the outrageous double-standard to which Katie Couric has been subjected since taking over the lead anchor duties on the CBS evening news. Forget the fact that almost no one gets their news from the three major networks anymore; by 6.30 in the evening, most people know what they want or need to know from the Internet. Is it fair, Quinn wants to know, that Couric’s critics are focusing on her wardrobe and hair when they never do such a thing to a male anchor? In the absolute sense, looks shouldn’t matter; experience, journalistic skill and analytic brevity should. Quinn discusses her own experience as a journalistic hottie and concludes that she, too, was chased from the airwaves by the mean boys when she deliberately “dowdified” her looks so that she would be seen as a great mind and not just a lovely pair of legs. There is much more discussion of this weighty topic, with much of it centered on Quinn, on how life isn’t fair for women who are smart and hot. And that still, of course, includes her.

For $15 million a year to read 20 minutes a news a night from a teleprompter, I would put my less-than-Hollywood looks on HDTV and allow anyone who wanted to see every one of my cosmetic flaws in the highest detail possible. I admit I have never seen Katie Couric for more than 30 seconds or so on television. I have never watched the Today show and I don’t watch the evening news, and I don’t plan to start now. All I know about her is what I’ve gleaned from the magazines in the grocery store checkout line. The evening news that my parent’s generation knew – Cronkite, Huntley and Brinkley, John Chancellor, Tom Brokaw and, yes, even Dan Rather – is a dinosaur. If you want to know who watches the contemporary news programs, check out the ads.

Unlike her predecessors, Couric – like Brian Williams – takes over a job that is largely irrelevant to the formation of public opinion. In a different world – one with three channels and two daily newspapers – Cronkite’s opinion was the gold standard. His skepticism towards the Vietnam War – made possible in part by great reporting from Dan Rather – although late in the game, had a demonstrable influence on middle-class America. Does anyone believe that Katie Couric’s opinion, should she have one, on Iraq will change anyone’s mind? Niche networks make it possible for a viewer to hear or see anything he or she wants, regardless of the facts. Don’t like what you’re hearing about Iraq? Turn on Fox. Don’t get a good reception from Fox? There’s MSNBC and crazy Chris Matthews. In a medium dominated by an establishment media loathe to question official opinion and buffet of right-wing voices to blast all reason to hell, where does the concerned truth-seeker turn to for the truth?

The Daily Show, of course.

Found: the fifth dentist

Jews are not known for their accomplishments in professional sports or their ability to take news about their health in stride (“You mean that little wart below my big toe is not cancer? Thank God! Let’s eat!”), so it should come as no surprise that, given my track record of dental ailments, I have always kept an eye on what the American Dental Association approves for an oral hygiene regimen. In fact, one of the greatest mysteries to me as a kid, other than the true identity of the Masked Assassin from Georgia Championship Wrestling, was who in their right mind visited the “fifth dentist” from the old Trident gum and Colgate toothpaste commercials. Who can forget: four out of five dentists recommend Trident for their patients who chew gum; and four out of five dentists recommend brushing with fluoride toothpaste such as Colgate. This is startling enough – twenty percent of the dental profession was down with sugared gum and non-fluoride treated toothpaste. For a Jew with a propensity towards hypochondria, that is the equivalent of telling a Gentile that his new firearm only had an eighty percent chance of maiming or killing its intended target. Serious stuff.

But now I know who visited that lonely fifth dentist back then, and perhaps still does: Dick Cheney and George Bush. Cheney’s performance on Meet the Press this past Sunday (I read the transcripts but didn’t watch the show) and Bush’s prime time 9.11 speech (ditto) just make the mind reel. Wouldn’t do anything different? The world is safer? Iraq is turning the corner? Peter Angelos hasn’t ruined the Orioles? Crusty is coming?

Attention Flat-Earth Society: you have two new members for your mailing list. Just address it to the fifth dentist – it will get there.

September 11, 2006

9.11.01 – “the day that changed everything” – five years later

What has the Bush administration learned since the Day That Changed Everything? The short answer to this question is . . . nothing. Absolutely nothing. Is it really possible to overstate how incompetent, thoughtless and just downright wrong this administration has been about everything, whether in promoting a foreign policy that is completely and without exception counter-productive to the goals of American security or in pushing an irresponsible and morally indefensible set of domestic policies? Go down the parade of horribles in American presidential history, and you can at least find one – just one – positive accomplishment in almost every administration dating back to the turn of the 20th century. Reagan understood that Gorbachev cared about the survival and modernization of the Soviet Union, and set-aside the Hollywood tough-guy rhetoric and negotiated with the most threatening enemy that United States has ever had. Nixon opened the door to China and encouraged a policy of détente with the Soviet Union . . . and even created the Environmental Protection Agency. Herbert Hoover might forever be remembered for the Crash of 1929, but he was a smart man who encouraged interior management.
But the Decider? Name one . . . just one accomplishment. And, no, successful Supreme Court nominations do not count – those are freebees, especially when you control the Senate.

Rather than a long, meandering essay on squandered opportunities since September 11, 2001, I will offer some passing thoughts on where we are now, and whether there is anyway out.

Five years later, the United States has spent billions of dollars in pursuit of Osama Bin Laden and failed to apprehend or kill him. The war in Afghanistan is all but forgotten by the American public, which, for over two years, tragically bought into the Bush administration’s tale of deception about Iraq (with recent polling data indicating that the public is gradually wiping the sand from its eyes). Five years later, the administration has no coherent position on the al-Qaeda-Saddam connection that it promoted in the period after the 9/11 attacks and its decision to invade Iraq. The Vice-Chicken-Hawk-in-Chief, Dick Cheney, continues to repeat the same lies, deceptions and just flat out bullshit about the administration’s Iraq war plans and preparation to pacify and rebuild the country. Despite multiple government-commissioned reports (the 9/11 Commission) and government investigations (the Senate report just released, in part, to the public last week) that refute every single bogus claim put forth by the administration, and more recent CIA reports describing how the administration ignored intelligence estimates about the difficulties that democratization would face in Iraq, Cheney still offers the same truckload of lies. And, true to form, he accuses anyone who criticizes the Iraq war as aiding and abetting the “terrorists.” Blah, blah, blah . . . does this man ever stop?

Five years later, the administration continues to hold to the illusion that the world is safer as a result of deposing Saddam Hussein. Saddam was a rat bastard who did awful things to innocent people . . . really, who even argues that point? But the world is full of despicable tyrants, and a cold, hard fact of American foreign policy is that we always been selected about who we keep in power, who we believe we should depose, and who we should just ignore. Using force in foreign policy is much like buying a house – what you choose to do and how to choose to value your decision has everything to do with location. Why Iraq, which was contained quite well by the United Nations sanctions (that we insisted upon) and weapons inspections, and not Darfur? Oil, proximity to resources, what? Does anyone believe our intervention in regional conflicts or the internal affairs of another country is based on a merit-system?

Five years later, not one of the 5,000 detainees held at Guantanamo Bay and in other secret prisons run by the CIA has stood trial for crimes related to 9/11. Not one. All we have is the Decider’s dramatic, election year-driven speech of last week announcing that 14 suspected terrorists are being transferred from secret prisons to the Git while they prepare to stand trial. And what is really going to happen? Read David Cole’s analysis in Slate and try to convince yourself that anything meaningful will come of the Decider’s empty rhetoric.

Five years later, our transportation systems are full of security holes. Testers routinely walk on to planes with objects they shouldn’t have; there is no comprehensive system to screen cargo coming in and out of the country, whether by land, sea or air. And Amtrak? You can walk on board with VX rockets and the only comment you’ll get from am Amtrak official is that the café car is the third car down and is now serving breakfast.

Five years later, the FBI has no idea who wrote the Anthrax letters that killed and sickened dozens during October and November 2001. The reporting that has been done on the Anthrax scare strongly suggests that this was some homegrown nut or disgruntled federal employee, not a foreign terrorist.

Five years later, the administration has still not adequately addressed the mental and physical health needs of persons associated with September 11, whether as victims or as emergency responders.

Five years later, our major cities are woefully unprepared to deal with any sort of terrorist attack, regardless of whether that attack comes in the form of explosives or a chemical, biological or nuclear weapon. Katrina demonstrated that last year – a major city ravaged by a natural disaster, with thousands displaced, sickened and abandoned while the Decider and his crack team sat on their hands and did nothing for almost a whole week. New Orleans and lower Mississippi are still in need of urgent care and support. And as much as we would like to believe our own national mythology of people-helping-people-when-in-need, the fact remains that a few concerts and celebrity appeals will not bring that region back to life. Katrina was our first response to the emergency planning we had all been urged to undertake after 9/11. Unless the official response is to evacuate people into a decrepit indoor sports facility, bus them to the closest town that will take them and appeal to churches to feed and house them, by any standard the administration failed.

Five years later, we should have expected exactly the response Katrina got from an administration that told people to buy duct tape and plastic sheeting to protect themselves from terrorist attacks. I can still remember walking into hardware stores and seeing signs that said, “No returns on duct tape and plastic sheeting.” I still remember witnessing a well-dressed, black-bowed, blonde-haired woman (who had parked her Yukon with window stickers telling all who were lucky enough to read the pedigree of her children’s education next to me in the Giant parking lot) screaming at the manager to go find “more Goddamn bottled water in the back . . . now.” She stood next to a shopping cart full of Nutri-Grain Bars, peanuts, granola snacks and bananas. Nowhere did I see any toilet paper. I guess she never thought to question the wisdom of a high-fiber diet while sealed inside a duct-taped secured safe house constructed with plastic sheeting. I can think of a million other places I’d rather be when the Big Day comes, like on my deck with a cocktail, than trapped in that Bowhead’s plastic room without toilet paper.

Five years later, the Decider still cannot explain why the United States is in Iraq or what the “job” he insists “we must finish” actually is.

Five years later, I wonder how many pundits, commentators, government bureaucrats, college students and other citizen-boosters of the Iraq war have spent time in Iraq under the same conditions as the Iraqi people. Every time I read a column by some conservative Pollyanna on how conditions in Iraq “are much better than we are being led to believe,” I wonder if he (or she) has actually thought about packing the family up for a year abroad. I wonder how quickly our metropolitan sophisticates who believe that Iraq is the cornerstone of a new Middle East would last in a country with a near stone-age infrastructure. I wonder how long an American college student would last living under the same conditions as their Iraqi peers. Everyone I know who has been to Iraq for an extended period of time, whether civilian or military, has said the place is hell hole beyond their description. Everyone I know who insists we are not being told the good news hasn’t stepped foot in Iraq. Better yet, most of them haven’t stepped foot out of their comfortable professional offices or remodeled homes.

Five years later, over 2,660 American soldiers have been killed and over 19,900 have been wounded in Iraq. Over 130 American civilians working as contractors have been killed. As for the Iraqis themselves, estimates project that somewhere around 45,000 civilians have died since the U.S.-led invasion began in March 2003. This is leaving aside the validity of a Johns Hopkins study concluding that the Iraqi civilian death toll was closer to 100,000. And for what?

Five years later, the Decider’s argument for continuing the Iraq war still centers on protecting “our way of life,” “engaging the terrorists over there before they come at us over here,” and other such comic book-level nonsense. Here’s a question to think about: exactly what is that “way of life” the Decider is talking about? Seriously, is your daily life linked to success or failure in Iraq? Does anyone honestly believe that their morning Venti from Starbucks is in jeopardy unless we remake Iraq in our image? Unless you have a friend or loved one serving in the armed forces, do you even think about this war on anything less than an abstract level? What sacrifices have Americans made to fund the war or to make life easier for military families?

Five years later, the Decider tells Katie Couric that one of the hardest parts of his job is explaining to the American public the relationship between the war in Iraq to the war on terror.

Well, no duh!

Five years later, we have two former White House officials, Condi Rice and Alberto Gonzales, promoted to cabinet-level positions despite their mutual display of stunning incompetence in their previous posts. One blew off repeated warnings of the al-Qaeda threat and helped engineer the sale of the Iraq war; the other authored memos justifying torture as an interrogation and detention method. Neither was particularly good at what they did. But competence isn’t a relevant skill in this administration. Blind loyalty to incompetence is the ticket up the ladder of power.

Five years later, the Decider and VCHIC stand rebuffed on their effort to create a unilateral, unaccountable electoral executive branch. By a Republican-dominated Supreme Court, no less.

Five years later, Paul Wolfowitz sits ensconced at the World Bank; Don Rumsfeld is still Secretary of Defense; the VCHIC still makes the appointed rounds on the network news programs to offer up his lies; the Decider continues to live in make-believe world, hoping that his appeal to America’s need to believe in its own “exceptionalism” – that somehow we are God’s chosen people destined to lead the world – will remain the fog that he so desperately needs to survive the next 2 ½ years of his presidency.

Five years later, as the president prepares to address the nation on the challenges that face us in the post-9/11 world, we stand less secure, less competent, less together, more afraid, more delusional about the dangers that face us from our own government and more isolated than ever from the rest of the world.

Earlier this evening, I read Jonathan Rauch’s lead comment in the October Atlantic, which asks the right question about Bush’s presidential legacy – not whether it will be good or bad, but how bad will it be? Although I disagree with Rauch’s comparison points – as bad as Nixon (fair) or only as bad as Carter (unfair) – he at least admits that his belief that Bush was the right man to lead the nation after September 11 was wrongly grounded. I never believed that Bush had somehow entered Churchillian territory when he picked up the bullhorn at the World Trade Center and put on his show of false machismo. Not only did I believe then that he was the wrong man for that job, I believed he was the most ill-equipped man for the presidency since . . . God, who knows?

Perhaps at some point the public will wake up and demand real accountability from their leaders. Perhaps at some point the establishment media will stop enabling the administration and demand real answers to the tough questions they should be asking. Perhaps, but . . . probably not. Many years ago, the great H.L. Mencken wrote that no one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public. That still seems like a safe bet today.

September 10, 2006

Celebrating John Coltrane

This week will mark the jazz community’s celebration of John Coltrane’s 80th birthday. The Jazz at Lincoln Center Program in New York has put together a marvelous tribute to this giant of modern music. For more information on this program, and a schedule of the musicians paying tribute to Trane at various clubs throughout the week, see Ben Ratcliff’s article in September 8th’s New York Times Arts Section.

And do not miss the latest treasure mined from the vaults of Impulse’s early 1960s recordings of the classic John Coltrane Quartet, One Up, One Down: Live at the Half Note. This two-disc set features four extended versions of One Down, One Up, Afro Blue, Song of Praise and My Favorite Things. A brief warning: do not listen to this CD while driving, operating heavy machinery, threading a needle or attempting to balance your checkbook.

And some Americans now even know where Iraq is

If you haven’t found Tom Tomorrow in your weekly alternative paper or visited his This Modern World website, you should. Visit his site and check out his latest cartoon.


September 7, 2006

0 for 5,000 and counting . . .

If you went to your dentist two or three thousand times and he or she failed to diagnose the cause of your toothache, might it occur to you that you ought to find another dentist?

If your car stopped running and you took it to a mechanic who kept it for five years without explaining what was wrong or letting you know when you could have it back, do you think you might need to take your car somewhere else?

If your building contractor told you to expect your addition or renovation, after tearing down some walls and digging a new foundation, to be ready in four months, only not to return for four years, do you stick with this guy or look for someone else?

I can answer all those questions pretty easily, if for no other reason that I’ve confronted those situations in my real-life – okay, perhaps I exaggerate a little – the mechanic only kept my car for four months. So it astounds me how patient the public and the establishment media have been with the absolute failure of the Bush administration to prosecute any of the 5,000 or so detainees being held at Guantanimo Bay and the other secret detention facilities that the Decider revealed yesterday – surprise, surprise, surprise!, as Gomer Pyle would have said – have been run by the CIA since 9/11. The Decider’s press conference to announce the transfer of 14 accused terrorists to the US Naval base so that they may be tried before military tribunals is way too little way too late. Why now? Justice for the 9/11 families. Really? Or perhaps is it that the Decider’s men believe that the public likes their boss best when he talks tough, and with many Republicans seeing once-secure seats in Congress now up for grabs, it’s time to play the fear-and-loathing card.

In my view, the Decider would have been happy with the status quo – to keep talking tough while letting the detainees linger indefinitely just so he could say that he has the evildoers away. But the Supreme Court’s decision in Hamdan put an end to the fantasy of an executive branch gulag. The administration is now being forced by a court dominated by Republican nominees to do what it should have done from the very beginning – abide by the Geneva Convention, the rules of military justice and the appropriate processes of the federal courts. Had it done so, it might have had some success in putting some truly awful people away forever . . . and giving 9/11 families some of the justice that is way, way overdue.

And George Washington chopped down the cherry tree . . .

In this morning’s Washington Post, David Broder, affectionally known as “the dean of Washington journalists,” by the MSM, writes that journalists who believed Karl Rove had anything to do with the “outing” of CIA officer Valerie Plame have had their comeuppance as a result of former deputy secretary of state Richard Armitage’s admission that he identified Plame’s status in “casual conversations” with reporters Robert Novak and Bob Woodward. Published reports and commentary suggesting that Rove might have had a more central and directive role in pushing the Plame story were working off “conspiracy theories,” according to Broder. The lesson here, writes Broder, is for journalists to “[c]an the conspiracy theories and stick to the facts.”

Uh, no. . . . that’s not the lesson.

Far, far too many Washington journalists already follow Broder’s instructions, which can be translated as, “stick to what Washington establishment figures tell you.” There is a huge difference between facts, truth and government-supplied information. Yesterday, I heard a wonderful interview with Myra McPherson, the author of a new biography on the great 20th century investigative journalist I.F. (“Izzy”) Stone. Comparing him to Walter Lippman, an icon of the Washington establishment whose career ran parallel to Stone’s, McPherson pointed out that Stone’s views were built around an indeterminate desire to find facts and truth, whereas Lippman relied on what his high-minded friends in official Washington told him. Izzy Stone understood that all governments lie, and, yes, that included the United States. Lippmann became the prototype of the modern Washington establishment journalist – the one that believes, at best, that he or she is part of the governing process, but, far more typically, that membership in the elite social strata of the political-media complex in the nation’s capital is an end in itself.

That might make the carpool line at St. Albans more civilized. But it doesn’t do anything to promote healthy democracy and government accountability.

September 5, 2006

Meanwhile, in the “other” war on terror

This morning’s Washington Post features a front page over-the-fold photo of three Canadian soldiers who had just learned that a fellow serviceman had been killed after U.S. war planes erroneously targeted a contingent of Canadian soldiers engaged in an offensive against the Taliban. To read the rest of the story, which didn’t merit Page 1 coverage, you had to turn to page A14. This is the second “friendly fire” incident involving the United States and Canada – the first one occurred in 2002 when an American war plane bombed Canadian soldiers as they were training for a mission – and did nothing to boost our northern neighbor’s rock-bottom opinion of us and its waning support for Canadian involvement in the Afghanistan theatre. Prime Minister Stephen Harper has seen popularity plummet down to W levels as a result of fulfilling his campaign promise to make his Conservative-led government more supportive of United States foreign policy, whether in Iraq, towards the Israel-pan-Arab conflict. Sadly, the only time the Afghanistan war makes the papers – and forget the front page . . . not, with JonBenet Ramsey’s killer still on the loose – is when something really bad happens. Otherwise, it’s outta sight, outta mind. And, yes, believe it or not, it is possible to support the mission of the United States and its NATO allies in Afghanistan and still believe that Iraq was and will remain the American foreign policy FUBAR of all-time.

Just out of curiosity, does anyone remember the Taliban? You know, the regime that hosted Osama Bin Laden after we, the United States, supported his resistance to the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan? The regime that enabled the al-Qaeda terrorist network to operate unobstructed for almost ten years until the United States and its allies, which then included countries other than Poland, Australia, the various Corruptistans of Eastern Europe and a few dozen other countries that no one has ever heard of? How Fox-news watching Americans could actually name the top three leaders of Afghanistan, the major regions of the country, where the real “coalition of the willing” is conducting military operations and the country’s form of government? Come to think of it, how many Americans who support the Iraq war, and yes, even the ones who say the war was a mistake but we need to stay until we “finish the job,” could name the country’s three major ethnic regions, the current president and prime minister (careful, that could be a trick question) and which parties, leaders and ethnic groups we back and which ones we do not.

I’m guessing, and I could be wrong . . . but not very many. Oh, well, never let facts get between an American and his nationalism.

Dude, like, I’m so, like, whatever, you know?

Overheard this morning as I was walking across the AU campus:

Cool dude 1: “Dude, like, what are doing up, like, so early, man?” (Note: it was 11.45 a.m.)

Cool dude 2: “Oh, man, I’m like so going to drop this, like, class I went to this morning because this teacher’s, like, insane.”

Cool dude 1:“’s up?”

Cool dude 2: “Like, I go there at the crack of dawn to hear this guy start wailing about ‘active class participation’ and shit like that. I’m like, whoa, hold on man, I’m doing anything at, like 10 o’clock in the morning. This guy’s like, I expect you to do the reading and participate, and I’m thinking, man, what are you crazy? I need to find some dude who is going to tone it down.”

Don’t worry; he will. This is college in the 21st century, and the purpose of college now is to give the students what they want, even if it’s not what they should have, not what they need or what is in their best interest.

September 1--3

Travelling. Back on Tuesday, September 5.

August 31, 2006

Summer snowjob

Has a press secretary to a Republican president ever received as many questions about a primary race between two Democratic candidates as Tony Snow has about the Ned Lamont-Joe Lieberman race? Could it be that Lamont’s supporters in Connecticut, as well as those supporting him outside the state, understood quite well that returning President Bush’s “favorite Democrat” to the Senate to continue supporting the Iraq disaster made no sense? And now the White House has openly backed Lieberman by refusing to endorse Lamont’s Republican opponent because, in Snow’s words, the “Connecticut Republican Party has asked us to stand down on it, so we will.”

“Stand down?” W-h-h-h-a-a-a-t? In there a military metaphor that this administration of chicken hawks has met that it doesn’t like?

The Vice-Chicken-Hawk-in-Chief had this priceless commentary on Lieberman’s defeat:
“The Dean Democrats have defeated Joe Lieberman. Their choice instead is a candidate whose explicit goal is to give up the fight against the terrorists in Iraq.”
The Dean Democrats? Weren’t they defeated TWO years ago in the 2004 presidential primary season? Oh, well . . . never let facts get in the way of a good story. But Snow had no problem with the VCHIC’s observations. “I think the Vice President was well within his rights, and I think correct, in making that analysis and assessment.”

Of course, there is the possibility that Lamont’s supporters didn’t want to endorse an administration whose one explicit accomplishment in Iraq has been to create a legion of terrorists to flail against.

You would think there is nothing funny about this. But read the White House transcripts of Snow’s press conferences and you’ll come away thinking that Robin Williams is doing lunch-time stand-up as a condition of his rehab. Notice all the (laughter) inserts into the text. By all accounts, Tony Snow is a bright, charming, courteous and nice-looking man. But he’s also bullshitting the public on the most important issues of our time. And the “liberal media” – does their treachery have no bounds? – giggles right along.

This is who leads us now.

Mom-tested, kid-approved, so let’s eat

After my seven year-old teenage daughter complained that our cereal choices were “disgusting” and that I “go to the store right now to get some new flavors,” I headed right up to our local Giant to straighten out this latest crisis before we pushed the level on our family drama chart to nuclear meltdown. But apparently, General Mills, Kellogg’s and the other members of the Cereal Mafia aren’t comfortable with Dads making these difficult choices on their own. No, no, no . . . not unless the cereals are “Mom-tested and kid-approved,” like Kix, which are to Trix what Hydrox are to Oreos, or “Fruity Fun that Moms and Kids Love!,” like Fruity Cheerios. Even though I do 104% of the grocery shopping in our house and even more of the food preparation and cooking, the tacit approval of Dad isn’t good enough. “Why can’t you stop buying the stuff that’s good for us and just buy the stuff we like,” pleads my earring-clad, mop-haired twelve year-old son.

Because, dear boy, none of the cereals, nor any other product in a grocery store pitched to kids, comes with the “Dad-tested, kid-approved” label. Come to think of it, have you ever seen a laundry commercial with a smiling father nodding approvingly over getting that nasty chocolate pudding stain out with new Tide, you know, the one with the “secret” stainfighters? Read Parents magazine, or any of the other publications designed to make well-educated mothers feel inadequate by featuring articles like, “Yes, you can have great sex with your husband, get dinner ready, Blackberry your boss and supervise a play-date of 3 year-olds without medication or Margaritas!,” and count the number of men you see in the ads. Women have the glass ceiling in the worlds of business and government, but men face a different set of challenges, limits, stereotypes and sometimes just ignorant behavior from women when they attempt to enter the domestic realm as an equal. More on this in later postings. For now, don’t miss the sale on water pistols in the seasonal aisle at CVS. They’re “Dad-approved,” just like the NASCAR stickers and remote-controlled golf balls.

The Decider faces his critics

With somewhere around 37% of the country saying, “You’re doing a heckuva job, Decider,” President Bush has decided to take his defense of the Iraq War directly to the people by facing down the . . . National Convention of the American Legion in Salt Lake City, Utah.

He offered the usual two-step: Iraq is the new front in the “war on terror”; Islamic terrorists and jihadists are the 21st century equivalent of Nazis and the Italian facists (note: how come Imperial Japan never gets lumped into the historical parade of evil regimes? That was the nation that actually attacked us, not Nazi Germany); and my perennial favorite: "If we give up the fight in the streets of Baghdad, we will face the terrorists in the streets of our own cities," he said.
Uh, Decider, we already have terrorists in the streets of our own cities. Except they’re Americans killing Americans for drug money, thrills, because they’re determined to “protect” their neighborhoods (ethnic warfare in the United States is as American as all the choices in a mall food court, where the only apple pie you’ll find is deep-fried at McDonalds), because they failed to pay extortion money, because they don’t want the victim of a sexual assault to identify them or . . . for any one of a number of reasons. More Americans die from gunshots than in any other Western nation. Simply because they’re not doing it for religious reasons or because they hate our foreign policy doesn’t mean they’re not terrorists.

August 30, 2006

So here we are, the first entry on the first day of my new blog. No smiling men and women in suits with shovels to celebrate the ground-breaking, no red tape, no 30% off sales for the first 100 readers or wannabe models handing out free bags of swag. All you get is my unfiltered opinion on . . .

Uh, hello, South Dakota, what are you thinking?

Since Timothy McVeigh, Jeffrey Dahmer and the Unabomber haven’t managed to puncture the Great American Myth of the Midwest as the bulwark of common sense and down-to-earth values in a destitute culture dominated by the Hollywood, the programmers at Comedy Central and liberal Establishment of Washington (which, if you live here, you know is really quite conservative), along comes the South Dakota legislature to give it one more shot.

In March 2006, the state legislature passed a law prohibiting women from obtaining an abortion for any reason except if the procedure was medically necessary to save the life of the mother. The law, which, of course, is patently unconstitutional, was so off-the-charts crazy that not even the nation’s largest anti-abortion rights groups, such as Americans United for Life, supported it. Now, pro-abortion rights activists have managed to get the law on the November 7 ballot as a referendum. Their thinking is that, given the chance to vote, and to think of the law, in the privacy of a ballot booth, as something that could affect them, their sister, their mother or their best friend, most South Dakotans will not support such an extreme measure.

I don’t know enough about South Dakota’s electoral landscape and political culture to make any kind of prediction about the law’s chances of being invalidated. But I do think this not-so-little battle illustrates the absurdity of discussing abortion in terms framed by the business of marketing and the categorical hazards of political rhetoric. The Washington Post reported on August 29 that a recent Maxon-Dixon poll showed that just 39% of respondents in South Dakota supported the ban as written, compared to the 59% that would support restrictive legislation that permitted exceptions for rape and incest.

So this means . . . what? Rather than compare the “pro-life with exceptions” respondents to the “pro-life-only-death-exception” respondents, we would do better do realize that most Americans, even those who describe themselves as “pro-life,” are really pro-choice. Once you established exceptions, you are pro-choice. This is really no different than opposing the death penalty except in cases involving terrorism or sex-related offenses. You either oppose the death penalty or you don’t. Limiting its application is not the same as opposing it.

And let’s not forget the small matter of making abortion a Class 5 felony under Nebraska law. A felony means someone has to go to jail, pay a fine or serve probation. Under the law’s current construction, the abortion provider is subject to the criminal sanction. But why not the pregnant woman? After all, she is a co-conspirator by any legal definition, seeking out, as she is, an illegal act. And so, arguably, is the person driving her to an abortion clinic. And so is the receptionist, the office manager and the staff nurses. And so is everyone, apparently, but the . . .

man responsible for contributing to the pregnancy, even if the act was consensual. Suppose a woman has an abortion because her husband doesn’t want to have the baby, or doesn’t want to have another baby, or doesn’t want to have another boy/girl? Suppose she has the abortion against her will? Do we go to the Patty Hearst defense here?

The answer is: no one knows, because no one has thought much beyond the rhetoric of electoral politics. Hopefully, South Dakota will wake up supporters of abortion rights, especially those “pro-choice Republicans” who, like any clear-thinking person, cannot possibly have any other reason to support President Bush anymore.

Et. Tu., Fatt Matt?

My friend Fat Matt Collette wanted me to include something about hockey on my blog. Done and done, buddy . . . we whipped you fair and square last night, 4-2. Enjoy the championship game from the stands.

John Scofield x Jack DeJohnette + Larry Goldings = What is there to say?

The immodest Buddy Rich, in an uncharacteristic utterance of modesty, once said that the best drummer in the world might be playing weddings in Des Moines, but he – Buddy – had just been lucky enough to catch a break. His point was that you should simply appreciate a musician for what he or she does, and not engage in endless arguments about who is better that whom.
Good advice . . . when it applies. On Saudades, the new release from John Scofield, Jack DeJohnette and Larry Goldings, some musicians are clearly better than others. Conceived as a tribute to the great drummer Tony Williams’ first band, Lifetime, Saudades smokes, rocks, swings, gets dirty, rubs a little grease and just keeps ya shakin’ for close to two hours. Sco and Jack are at the top of their games on this recording, illustrating quite well why their peers believe that they, well . . . have no real peers. Larry Goldings has long been an underrated organist. Having backed the likes of Michael Brecker, Goldings demonstrates that he an equal partner in high-level musical conversation. Not a dud or wasted note on this recording, with the cut Spectrum, taking honors, at least from me, as the most stunning display of musicianship.