Saturday, June 30, 2007

Willard "Mitt" Romney Loses Race for Dog Catcher

"The company's latest model now includes air bags and a built in DVD player. All plastic kennels are crash tested and come with a complimentary Romney "08 bumper sticker."

Strange era, we live in. Last year, George Allen may have done himself in by calling a young Indian-American “Macaca” not only to the fellow’s face, but to his video camera. Mitt Romney’s presidential bid is being dogged by a story told by his own son, Tagg. Romney's eldest son decided to share his experiences with his father’s executive-decision making skil by familiarizing America with Seamus, the family’s Irish Setter. There were five Romney children, parents Mitt and Ann, and a single station wagon. Not many cars have room for seven people, luggage, and an Irish Setter. The future presidential candidate decided to secure the dog’s kennel to the station wagon’s roof for a four hundred mile drive. The dog either because of the rigors of riding on top of a car moving at sixty plus miles per hour or due to some preexisting intestinal condition came down with diahrrea much of which wound up on the back window of the car.

Tagg Romney explained that his father coolly pulled over to a roadside gas station, got a hose, washed off the car, the dog kennel, and the dog, put everyone back in their place, and the family got to their vacation destination in Ontario. After an outcry from animal activists and others, Ann Romney insists that the media has completely twisted the story. She points out that the kennel was not open sided, but close-sided. In addition, the dog lived a long time after that trip and in fact loved to ride on the roof of the family car.

Mmmmm…. I feel better already. There have been times when my wife has suggested after I failed to open the window after certain uncontrolled bodily emissions that she do something similar with me. I’ve since learned to just deny that it was me. After years of seeing other people’s dogs in the back of pickup trucks, I happened to rent a pickup truck some twenty plus years ago and thought I’d give my own dog, Nathan, the opportunity to enjoy the open air. No, we didn’t rent the truck for the dog, it was to move a gas kiln from Sonoma to Petaluma (no we never put pets inside the kiln). The dog was terrified even at ten miles an hour. A year or two later, the state of California made it illegal to let your dog ride in the back of a pickup without a harness. Apparently dozens of dogs every year were dying on sharp corners, sudden attempts to brake, and when they got excited at the sight of cats or mail carriers on the roadside. As much as those dogs enjoyed open-air rides, it wasn’t safe.

Obviously, dogs are different from one another just like some people crave roller coasters and others avoid them even at the risk of embarrassing themselves in front of their own children. Still, Nathan was a fierce enough dog. A few years later, he took control of an upstairs bedroom of a house that was still under construction and turned it into his personal domain. He held off the workers for two weeks by growling at them until someone tipped them off that it was my dog. I think it may have had something to do with the fact that most construction guys drive open pick up trucks. I imagine Nathan was afraid they were trying to give him a ride.

The problem for me with the Romney family defense is the diarrhea. I suspect that Seamus’s body was sending a message of its own. In addition, I looked at models of close-sided kennels. If it had a solid back wall, how did the diahrrea wind up spreading across the back window of the car? I know that's not up there with the magic bullet from the JFK assassination, but the logistics of the flying diarrhea are sort of perplexing to me. Also, does it make sense to you if your dog got that sick to just stick him back in the kennel on top of the car? Personally, I'm not big on being locked into an enclosed space where I just fouled myself.

I'm also not sure about Ann Romney’s insistence that Seamus continued to enjoy riding on top of the car after that. Some animals just learn that that’s the way things are if they want to go along with their families. Irish setters in particular are known for being both very tractable and extraordinarily loyal. I'm no dog psychologist, but I have heard that Setters tend to be more steadfast in their positions on social issues than Mitt Romney. The story did cause me to wonder about Governor Romney’s capacity for empathy.

Some things I wonder about.
1) If Seamus could vote for president, would he vote for Mitt Romney? Ann seems to think so.

2) Does Tagg Romney (would you vote for anyone who calls one of his sons Tagg?) now have to ride on top of the car in a kennel when the family goes on driving vacations?

3) Will there be a special episode of Law and Order with Fred Thompson asked to prosecute a prominent politician for cruelty to animals? I could see a scene where Fred Thompson and the prominent politician’s wives go shopping for brassieres together and discuss the difference between serial monogamy and polygamy.

4) A generation ago, Mitt Romney’s father George’s chance to be president ended when he told an interviewer that he had been “brainwashed” about Vietnam. Fascinatingly, it happened in a speech when the Republican Romney was explaining why he had decided to oppose the War in Vietnam.

Is it some sort of Carma that his son’s presidential bid may end because of a dogwashing story?

5) Does anyone else remember the photo of LBJ picking up the beagle by its ears? It was one of thsoe turning points in LBJ's popularity. btw, I did see one poll that suggested that Romney could fix whatever hits he's taken for the dog, by promsising to strap Anne Coulter to the top of his car. Imagine if Mitt Romney happened to be a Democrat, what names would she be calling the guy on some cable news show near you?

6) When was the last time you saw a kennel strapped to the top of a moving vehicle on the freeway with a living animal inside? Even Borat kept his chicken inside that ice cream truck.

6) Why is it okay to brag about how willing you are to torture people in a Republican presidential debate, but if you possibly mistreat a dog people suddenly think you’re not fit for the presidency?


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Thursday, June 28, 2007

A Bike Old Enough to Drink?

My touring bike turned twenty years old this week. Next year, even though I don’t drink I suppose I can pedal it to a bar to celebrate.

My twenty one inch pink, yes pink, Univega Gran Turismo has spent most of the last fifteen years hanging from a hook in our garage, but I brought it back in the last couple years as a “chores” bike. I use it roughly twice a week to ride into town to pick up odd items form the store, return library books and books on tape, and go to my regular basketball game on. I’ve had it so long that I don’t know if it fits me or I fit it though I’m probably thirty pounds heavier than I was in the summer of 1987 (ironically, that's more or less the weight of the Univega...eeeew). Of all the items I use on a regular basis, the Univega is the oldest. My Thorens turntable sold a few months ago was a few years older, but I hadn’t played records on anything resembling a regular basis for many years. Come to think of it, I also have a Bosch hand jigsaw that’s older, but I cut things with it maybe twice a year. The next oldest thing in our household is our Kitchen-Aid refrigerator-freezer which my wife keeps threatening to get rid of any time we stop spending money on club volleyball.

In the meantime, I’ve owned four television sets, four cars, six phones, eight computers, three PDA’s, three DVD players, two couches, three beds, and four toasters. I also had a General Electric clock radio that had taken up residence in the back bedroom that was older than the Univega, but I noticed that the cassette player in the radio had finally stopped working the other day. Perhaps more relevant, I’ve been through three mountain bikes as well. Two of the other senior manmade objects in our household are also bicycles. I gave my wife a blue Fisher Hoo-Koo-E-Koo mountain bike about a year before we married that she still rides (I’d originally bought it for myself and gotten her another bike, but she liked the way the Fisher fit better) and I took the Blue Nishiki Colorado that I’d bought for her. Two Christmases ago with the derailleur conversing loudly with the chain on the Nishiki and the bottom bracket making funny noises, my wife surprised me with a silver Fisher mountain bike of my own. My other bike was also a surprise gift eighteen years ago from my wife for my second birthday with her, a Celeste green Bianchi racing bike. She got upset both times because I guessed my gift before she gave it to me.

We are not supposed to love functional objects, but I make an exception for bicycles. The pink Univega with its eighteen speeds Suntour derailleurs, biopace chain rings, and twenty seven inch rims marked a dividing point in my life. My first marriage lasted just two years and four months and my wife left rather abruptly. We celebrated the Christmas of 1986 together by hosting my family (the first time I had done that), I went to return two videotapes rented for my nieces, and returned to find a note in our kitchen. While the marriage wasn’t going well, this was a shock since we’d both promised our marriage counselor not to do anything sudden over the Christmas Holiday. It was not an amicable parting especially after I learned a few days later that she had cleared out our joint savings account and hidden the money.

A few months later, I saw a newspaper article about a group called Bike Aid that was raising money to bring “intermediate” technology to developing countries by coordinating bike trips to the United Nations in New York City. My bike at the time was sixteen years old, a white Peugeot with a Simplex derailleur, maybe one of the worst derailleurs ever built, that weighed about four pounds more than the Japanese bikes that were beginning to take over the market. The group had gotten a deal on bicycles for those who did not have mounts that were up to the task of a cross country ride. The touring bike, a longer framed drop-handled bicycle made for carrying heavy loads and with an unusually wide gear range, was one of the more sensible cycling products ever. The Japanese were particularly good at it and Miyata built something known as a triple-butted frame that was strong, comfortable, and provided a smooth-stable ride on a variety of surfaces. The same frame was also branded by Univega and I believe Panasonic. In 1986 though, the touring bike died because of the sudden incredible popularity of the mountain bike, a craze that foreshadowed the SUV in the car world. The vast majority of mountain bike owners never road off pavement, their intended use, they just liked the rugged look and the comfort of the upright position. The irony, of course, is that riding upright is only more comfortable if you plan to ride no more than a few miles. The touring bike was and always will be a much better match for the way most people ride their bicycles most of the time.

Anyway, Univega which distributed out of Los Angeles sold Bike AID participants brand new Gran Turismos for about forty percent off retail, a price that was slightly below what dealers paid for them. Anyway, list on the bike was about 459 and I got one of the best mass produced touring bikes of all time for 274. Of course, there was the minor matter that almost all of their back stock was pink. When I started the trip, I had never ridden more than sixty miles in a day and on steep hills I often got off the bike and walked.

I made it to New York and had only one flat (outside Needles, California naturally) and one crash in New Jersey along the way. I’d gotten involved with one of the young women on the trip and she hit my rear tire mid-ride while we were chatting and riding at the same time on a bike trail just outside of Princeton. On the way, the Univega had made it across the continental divide which fell somewhere in the Navajo nation. Indian territories have the smoothest highways in America because they’re all federally maintained and have very little traffic. We had a downhill that lasted for something like four miles with no car traffic in either direction. The bike hit fifty four miles an hour and I wasn’t nearly as scared as I should have been. It hadn’t occurred to me that at that speed there’s no real way to stop a bike with two half-inch wide pairs of rubber pads and the squeeze of a hand.

I’d ridden through a day of drenching rain in Johnson, Tennessee without falling off and without any part of the bike rusting through. There were no towels in the gym we showered in afterwards and I had to figure out how to dry myself with one of those electric hand dryers built into the walls.

Also in Tennessee, which is a very big state if you’re going west to east, I got in trouble with a sheriff. One effect of riding for long stretches of time is that it’s not your legs or lungs that necessarily wear out. It’s the different bits of your body that are in casual but persistent contact with the frame and the vibrations from the road. Once you get the hang of setting up a cadence with your legs and heart-lung system, it’s things like your neck, hands, and crotch that wear out first.
Over time, the ulnar nerve running to my hand just wore out and the handlebars felt like fire. I had five miles left to go that day’s destination, a school for wayward boys founded by the husband and wife owners of several Florida A&W drive ins. I started riding without using my hands, not a good idea alongside a highway, but that’s both how stable the bike was and how much I’d come to trust it to keep me out of trouble while sharing thousands of miles of road with cars and trucks. Boss Hog began by yelling at me from his car, pulled me over, but let me back on the road (Southern justice) The last couple miles were very painful because I didn’t dare let go of the handlebars even with one hand.

At the end of the trip, I knew I couldn’t sell the bike. I packed it into a cardboard box and brought it home. It rode from Beverly Hills to San Francisco once with two female med students from Philadelphia. I rode my mountain bike and I lent the bike to one of them for most of the trip, but I insisted on riding the hills near Big Sur along Highway One on my pink bike.

Over time, I turned it into a cross bike by changing out the tires to Specialized tri-cross and giving up my toe clips in exchange for mountain bike style pedals. It had some adventures off road and served as my transportation during the week when I took a year to get a teaching credential. At the end of class, I’d ride the thing home along the El Camino Real between campus and Mountain View.

Amazingly, the derailleur, cranks, and brakes (other than the pads) are all original. Many years ago, 27 inch wheels disappeared in favor of the slightly bigger and metric 700 c rims. I worried that I just wouldn’t find replacement parts for the Univega and thought about moving it until I exchanged e-mails with Sheldon Brown, a bike shop guy in Massachussetts who venerates older bicycles. One his shop makes a point of carrying parts for bikes with screws, wheels, etc, that are no longer standard. Part of the genius of the Asian-bike takeover of the market in the eighties was that they standardized bike construction and design in ways the Americans and Europeans hadn’t managed. Second, he pointed out to me that the Univega deserved respect and care for having served me so well.

At a time in my life where I wasn’t sure about my own judgments about people or anything else and I felt incapable of any kind of balance. I wound up trusting in the capacity of twenty nine pounds of chrome molybdenum steel and two circles of rubber.
The Univega made it possible for two spinning strips of one inch thick rubber to keep me upright for more than three thousand miles in a wide range of conditions. In some very real sense, my Univega helped convince me not only that balance was possible in my world but that the portion of my life post-Univega could be better than what had preceded it.

My bicycle is three years older than my daughter. I knew my bicycle before I met my wife. One of our first dates was to let her ride my Univega the five mile ride up the hill to Occidental, California. She praised the bike. Last night I hopped on my eighteen speed bike (I still can shift easily into any one of the eighteen) to get to my basketball game and many of these things cycled through my mind as I pedaled. For some reason, I thought about the way the Aztecs had seen Cortez’s men mounted on horses and assumed that they were a single-joined beast.

One day the frame of my Univega will crack or there will be some key part of it that even Sheldon Brown can’t help me replace. By then it’ll have taken me many thousands of miles that can be measured and many of the sort that can’t.


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Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Confessapedia (What I did when I was alone with the Wikipedia)

For some time, I’ve had this odd habit of looking up the oddest possible topics in the Wikipedia, the online user-administered source on all things that are potentially interesting. When I was a child, the Encyclopedia Britannica played a special role in a lot of homes. They were sold door to door as the gateway to having your child succeed in school and life. Most middle class Asian families couldn’t resist. The biggest patch of bookshelf space was the 34 volumes of the adult edition, though many families only bought the red-bound children’s version. We had both and naturally the almost unreadable entries in the adult Brittanica generally served as my research for almost all school papers.

The Wikipedia is literally open-ended. There’s no limit on the ultimate size of the document and it’s continuously revised, abridged, edited, and refined. This has resulted in considerable controversy about the quality of the information within the Wikipedia since most any volunteer editor can slip in most any slant he or she wants to a given article. The recursive process involved in moving towards wiki-consensus on what belongs and doesn’t belong in a wiki posting is fascinating in its own right. Despite the controversy, if I want to know the basics about something, I find the resource reliable enough that I usually start with the Wikipedia. For example, the other day my wife and I had found a new Mexican restaurant in town and we were arguing about the exact ingredients in Menudo.

It turned out that Ricky Martin wasn’t normally one of them, but tripe or cow stomach lining was. Is there a difference? Sorry Ricky. Where did you go anyway? Well, I looked it up and learned that tripe did indeed come from cow stomachs and was a key ingredient of the soup and that Ricky Martin performed at the 2006 Winter Olympics and World Cup. In addition, he also has a fan in Queen Noor of Jordan who talked him into doing a concert there. Who knew? Ricky Martin could be the key to peace in the middle east.

One thing my cousins and I used to do as kids was look up pictures of body parts in the Britannica. The sixties Britannica had this wonderful anatomically accurate plastic transparency of a nude male and female (both white, though they had a black woman too I think) under “Anatomy”. It also did have articles on sex, penis, vagina, etc. Yes, that was the sort of thing we found exciting in those days until our parents bought Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Sex, the Sensuous Woman, and the Joy of Sex and started leaving them on the coffee table. That sort of thing really couldn’t have happened back then?

Of course, there was always Playboy, but to be honest there was something much kinkier about finding prurient material in anything that was supposed to be as good for you in school as the Brittanica. I remember one highlight of the encyclopedia’s annual supplements, basically an excuse to keep charging you for updates, was its coverage of Christine Keeler and the Profumo Scandal, an event which made little to no sense to me. For years, I found the chairs from the famous Lews Morley photo terribly exciting for some reason.

In any case, the Wikipedia (or is it the Whackapedia?) goes way beyond the Brittanica. It includes articles not just about sex, but on about every sex act you could ever imagine, including a few I’d never heard of. Just, toss in a term or name and see what happens. There are biographies of hundreds even thousands of performers in adult movies. There’s a list of every centerfold to ever pose for Playboy Magazine. Making it even more fascinating, each of these wings of the Wikipedia tend to be edited not by some stuffy London-based character who strives to make it all sound as clinical as possible, but by the folk who generally obsess on this kind of arcana. In other words, every now and then the article contains some odd bit of trivia or just plain unexpectedly weird information, urban legend, etc. about the less-talked about aspects of sexual imagination.

At the same time, I’ve spent an equal amount of time (I’m sort of OCD when it comes to sexual repression) looking up religious history. This too is manned by enthusiasts. Look up things like "The meaning of Life" sometime on the Wikipedia. Some of the articles are very entertainingly written. Actually, Wikipedia's religious section has far more articles marked with a cautionary “controversial” than its sex portions. Of course, the weird thing is looking at the Old Testament (Eastern religion doesn’t tend to be quite as weird as the big book from the Middle East) constantly reminds me that it’s even kinkier than the “sex” corridors of the Wikipedia.

I’ve learned there that after the flood the seven and hundred and fifty year old Noah got so drunk that his sons saw him naked so one of the sons apparently took it upon himself to have sex with his mother. Noah then throws out the son and condemns all of his descendants to a life of slavery. You find out that the people of Sodom and Gomorrah wanted to rape the angels who came to warn Lot and his people away from plain with the five cities. Lot responds by offering to let the people of Sodom rape his daughters instead. After Lot’s wife looks back to see the Lord’s destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah and gets turned into a pillar of salt, Lot’s daughters decide to have sex with him and both have children through the coupling.

If you wonder, why some of these deeply religious folk turn out to be child molesters or have odd sex lives, this is the reason. Too many of them read the Bible and take it literally. Btw, the wikipedia version of Bible stories tends to be much better because it doesn’t euphemize a lot of what’s going on.

I’m even in the wikipedia, or I was, but not for sexual or religious reasons. Two years ago, I found a mistake in an article about Mark Hannah, who was sort of Karl Rove’s role model. I wound up writing a posting about it and that wound up in a wikipedia article about articles about the Wikipedia. I also got in for making some technical correction about the Schenck Case.

So many years ago, the Brittanica seemed to be my window to the world. Even though I made a couple attempts to read entire volumes of the thing, I never remembered or understood most of what I read. In fact, that frustration made me think that the knowledge inside those 34 or so volumes was extraordinarily vast. It made such an impression on me that one of the first CD roms, I ever bought was Microsoft Encarta followed by a two disk text version of the Brittanica. I was amazed that something that once seemed so unconquerable could be reduced to two little silver disks. Fascinatingly, the wikipedia is a much better tool at least in part because it can't be physically contained in anything as static as a disk any longer. Though I think the Wikipedia physically exists on a set of servers in Tampa, Florida, it's clearly beyond those physical confines as an entity at this point and may be the closest thing we have to Gaia, the notion of a single mass of interconnected knowledge. I have no idea how big the whole thing is at any given moment or if any person could read any interation of the thing in a single lifetime. It literally contains more than any one of us could possibly know.

I imagine someday someone will do a serious study of the thing, kind of like climbing a Mount Everest of casual human knowledge. If they ever get to the top, they could check into things like finding the most searched topics on the Wikipedia, what the longest single article is, what article has been edited the most, etc. and I imagine it might tell us a most fascinating story about us.

If only I could type in a search term into my own mind and memories like that.


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Monday, June 25, 2007

Bong Hits for Jesus (Morse v. Frederick)

I don't follow individual Supreme Court decisions all that closely, but have always had a strong interest in first amendment issues that affect juveniles. For that reason, I was quite surprised that the current court (Morse v. Frederick (no. 06-278 2007) upheld the suspension of a student for holding up a sign at a school-sponsoered event in Juneau, Alaska that read "Bong Hits for Jesus".

The court of appeals had felt that the sign did not create or threaten a substantial disruption, a standard first established in Tinker v. Des Moines, a Vietnam era case in which the court upheld the right of students to wear black arm bands to school to protest the war. Surprisingly, Tinker v. Des Moines was the first case to hold that students had any level of constitutional rights. The Tinker standard was weakened many years later in the Reagan era (1986) Bethel School District v. Fraser in which a student had made an "obscene" speech that didn't cause a disruption. In Bethel, the court basically said "disruption or no disruption, we do not protect obscenity as part of a student's right to free speech."

Morse v. Frederick started in 2002 when the Olympic Torch Relay passed through Juneau and the school granted students' permission to attend and participate. Frederick, a senior at the school, helped unfurl a fourteen foot long banner that read "Bong Hits 4 Jesus". The principal then instructed the students to take the banner down. Frederick was the only student who refused. Morse, the principal, supsended Frederick for ten days for violating a school board policy that prohibits "any public expression that advocates the use of substances that are illegal to minors."

Morse took care to point out that she believed that the banner had advocated drug use as opposed to advocating legalization (which would have been a political statement) or religious beliefs about Jesus and that the school's mission was to educate students about the dangers of illegal drugs. In the Vietnam generation it was black armbands about the war. In Reagan's time it was obscene speeches filled with sexual innuendo. Today, it's behavior inspired by South Park and the Simpsons.

Chief Justice Roberts (according to Newsweek only 11 percent of Americans know that he's the chief justice) wrote the opinion of the court determined that Morse reasonably determined that the banner, nonsenical and silly as it was, potentially promoted drug use. In addition, he stressed the key role schools play in educating children about the dangers of drugs.

Justice Thomas agreed with the court, but wrote a separate opinion to argue that Tinker, the black armband case, had been wrongly decided.

final vote 5-3 (actually 5.5 to 3.5)
Roberts, Thomas, Alito, Scalia, Kennedy for the school
Souter, Stevens, Ginsburg dissented on the grounds that the banner didn't advocate any kind of behavior in particular and thus was not advocating illegal behavior per se. Stevens went on to argue that drug education should not wipe out the right to free speech in any context. He used the very provocative counter example of "wine sips for Jesus" which is both illegal for minors and a part of a Christian ritual.

Breyer agreed and disagreed in part and argued that the District simply has qualified immunity from personal damages and would have let it go at that. It won't be much discussed, but Breyer's opinion is significant. Many attorneys wondered why the court was so anxious to hear this case at all.

There is no question that W's appointments of Alito and Roberts have impacted the court. btw, the Attorney for the School Districtin this case was Kenneth Starr, you might remember him.

Other interesting tidbits.
1) Fredericak got in trouble for marijuana possession while at college
2) Frederick's father who worked for a company that contracts with the Juneau schools lost his job and won a judgment for 200 thousand dollars for wrongful firing.
3) The court made no mention of the "Jesus" part of the sign likely because conservative groups had supported the student because of the arguably favorable mention of Jesus in the banner.

A couple things.
The court's decision in this matter worries me because of the very subjective standard it endorses about the discussion of a given topic. In their view, the administrator could reasonably determine what was "drug" talk and what was not. Second, I don't exactly consider Frederick a hero of the first amendment. One generation of students fought for its right to protest the war at school. This generation went to court to uphold the right to wave a fourteen foot long banner reading "Bong Hits4 Jesus" which Frederick claims he carried because he wanted to get on tv. Sometimes, I think we deserve the country we have.

Thomas Jefferson who some claim smoked an occasional pipe of hemp leaf must be rolling in his grave.


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Friday, June 22, 2007

The Rape of Nanking-Iris Chang (book review)

"Portrait of the late Iris Chang 1968-2004"

The Rape of Nanking The Forgotten Holocaust-Iris Chang (1998)

I’m embarrassed to admit that even though I’m Chinese, I knew surprisingly little about the December 1937 atrocity known as the Rape of Nanking . While most westerners think that the invasion of Poland in 1939 was the first act of World War 2, the Rape of Nanking may have been the single biggest atrocity of the most destructive war in human history. In a thirty six day period in the winter of 1937, Japanese soldiers killed three hundred thousand Chinese (mostly civilians) and committed as many as eighty thousand rapes in a city that had roughly a million people just prior to the invasion. Chang’s book not only documents the carnage, but covers the events that led up to this “forgotten” holocaust, and explores the reasons that so little was known about the extent and nature of what has to be one of the most barbarous events of the last hundred years.

Reading (I actually listened to the book on tape) Chang’s book so soon after seeing Clint Eastwood’s Letters from Iwo Jima was an emotional-intellectual challenge. Where Eastwood’s Japanese soldiers come across as individuals with hopes, babies, wives, and a sense of honor and decency, Chang’s book consists of hundreds of pages of Japanese soldiers holding contests to see who can kill a hundred prisoners the fastest, gang-raping young girls, pregnant women, and grandmothers, looting homes, and performing unimaginable acts of senseless cruelty. Chang was a first-rate journalist who used a combination of Japanese, German, Chinese, and American sources in documenting what had essentially been a “lost” episode of history. Like most holocaust stories, I found it physically painful just to listen to the cataloguing of events, but it was also cleansing in its way like wiping away the grime from a window of an abandoned house. The inside might be filled with dust and rot, but you now know something worth remembering.

Chang chose a somewhat flat-toned journalistic style, letting the facts of the atrocities speak for themselves. In this case, the sense of reserve in which the outrage is left off the page, lets you feel the horror all the more. At times, you can tell that the author is holding back her own anger and grief so that the reader will see, consider, and respond without being led. This is especially effective in her physical description of the atrocities that include events like hanging civilians on a hook and using them for bayonet practice or discussing the Japanese practice of kidnapping women for rape and euphemistically calling them “comfort” women. It is equally effective when Chang describes the political and social conditions that led to the Japanese invasion by starting with Perry and running through the toxic pairing of a Japanese economic slump with the rise of right wing Japanese militarism/nationalism.

There’s probably not enough written about the importance of remembering Nanking as an event that was every bit as horrifying and massive as Hitler’s extermination of Jews, Slavs, Roma (gypsies), and homosexuals. Chang’s book probably did more than any single work in English to help ensure that Americans knew about the tragedy. It deserves to be read for that reason alone.

When you read something often affects the way you think about it. In this case, I had recently watched Letters from Iwo Jima and I’ve spent the last 4 years following news reports of America’s misadventure in Iraq. One may never know why tens of thousands of Japanese soldiers slipped into viciousness for an entire winter in Nanking, the Chinese capital, in late 1937 and early 1938 (Chang does make a very strong case for the fact that much of the carnage was ordered by the high command and that the emperor and the government were aware of the policy). Even more scary, we’ll always have to wonder why the world “missed” the event both as it happened and after the war. On the first count, I found myself wondering how the Letters from Iwo Jima Soldiers could be the same sorts of individuals who got loose in Nanking. Chang does not claim to have the answer, but her speculations should have some resonance for Americans today, ten years after the publication of her book and three years after her death.

1) Post-Tokugawa Japan encouraged a strong sense of Japanese exceptionalism that included the belief that Japan as a nation had a right to the resources of Asia as part of its destiny as a special nation.

2) The Japanese education system stressed unquestioning obedience and blind patriotism. (deliberate government policy) This belief encouraged the view that the Emperor and military superiors were infallible and defined “right” as whatever they ordered.

3) Control of Japanese politics by a militarist-industrialist faction which equated its own needs with the “good of Japan”

4) A view of the Chinese as different or less human.

5) A lack of institutional checks on government that resulted in no system of accountability.

I think it’s important to point out that there are significant differences of degree between some of what’s happening in contemporary America and in World War 2 era Japan, but I certainly was aware of the resonances. In particular, the persistent rhetoric that certain factions of the Moslem world simply want to kill all Americans or each other reminds me of the way the Japanese dehumanized the Chinese to get their soldiers to be ruthlessly efficient. Second, throughout the book there was a pairing of unrestrained violence and sexual depravity that hauntingly echoed Abu Ghraib.

So which view was more accurate? Is it Eastwood’s humanistic view of men at war in Letters from Iwo Jima or Chang’s portrait of evil embodied in Nanking (she does include instances of Japanese soldiers who were both horrified by what was going on and individuals who were deeply regretful about what they had done)? My guess is that both portraits are accurate.

The older I get, the more I suspect that people are neither naturally kind and “humane” or Hobbesian monsters who must be kept in check. We all have the potential for both and most of us have the capacity to choose between the two. This, however, can be manipulated in frightening ways by cultural and political forces. I don’t think that Japanese, German, American soldiers, or Iraqi rebels are any more or less vicious or kind than one another. War itself simply lets loose the worst and very very occasionally the best in all of us because it places so many in situations where the normal rules no longer seem to apply. No one is “good” simply because he/she wears a given uniform or waves a particular flag.

In some ways, the collective amnesia about the Rape of Nanking as described by Chang is even more haunting. For instance, I had no idea that as a prelude to the invasion, the Japanese bombed an American gunboat that was sailing away from the city loaded with individuals tyring to get out before the siege. FDR chose to let the Japanese pay reparations despite clear evidence that the attack was deliberate, a kind of test to see if the United States would attempt to protect its Chinese allies in Nanking.

Chang is especially good in describing the post-war attempts of the Japanese government and the Japanese ultra-right to literally erase history. She mentions one Japanese teacher in the 1990’s who was shocked to be asked by his high school students, “The Japanese and Americans were at war once? Who won?”

One of the saddest aspects of the Rape of Nanking is that large numbers of the guilty not only went unpunished, they played key roles in Japanese government and business after the war. In particular, a member of the royal family Prince Asaka may have been the one responsible for the order to kill all Chinese prisoners that turned a military operation into an atrocity. More than fifty years after the incident, brave Japanese scholars were still having to fight to get mention of the atrocities of Nanking into Japanese history textbooks.

The rest of the world also wanted to ignore this other holocaust. While Chang’s book has many anecdotes and characters who would be fascinating subjects for fiction or movie treatment, the most fascinating of all is one of the heroes of Nanking, John Rabe. Rabe was one of the leaders of the Nazi party in Nanking. Horrifed by what was happening, he used his status as a German official to rescue hundreds even thousands of Chinese from the Japanese. For the next twelve years, Rabe devoted his life to making sure the German government and later the world knew about the nature and extent of the massacre. He even sent a copy of movie footage and his documentation to Hitler.
Rabe was taken in by the Gestapo and told to stop speaking of the incident, presumably because Japan and Germany were allies. At the end of the war, his life and livelihood were ruined by the de-Nazification process in which he was identified as an active member of the party. It took years for Rabe’s role in saving so many in Nanking to have any impact on the bureaucracy to recognize that he had been a Nazi and a good man all at the same time. At that point, Rabe and his family had almost literally starved to death.

One of the more shocking aspects of the “coverup” is that China itself did so little to draw attention to the horrors of Nanking. Chang explains that the politics of the cold war encouraged Mao to stay relatively silent about Nanking in order to keep a trade relationship with Japan. In turn, cold war China and America occasionally used Nanking as an opportunity somehow to demonize one another. The Chinese tried to claim that Americans in the international zone betrayed Chinese in 1937. The Americans simply preferred not to make the citizens of a communist country sympathetic and were also committed to the inclusion of the Emperor and his family in a reconstructed and now pro-western Japan.

If there is one theme to the cover up, it’s the consistent suppression and manipulation of information for political purposes. As a result, most of the heroes of Nanking never were properly honored for their courage and heart and many of the villains went on to lead shockingly comfortable lives.

Saddest of all though is what happened to Iris Chang herself. A very fine non-fiction writer who wrote three books about three twentieth century tragedies, Chang slipped into depression that sometimes bordered on paranoia. Some believe she identified deeply with the suffering that she wrote about so eloquently. It’s fascinating to ponder her restraint in writing about some of these horrors (her last books were about the Bataan death march and a history of the Chinese in America that argued that even the most successful Chinese-Americans still feel like outsiders) and how the strong feelings she kept off the page may have stayed on within her. She took her own life near her home in Northern California at the age of 36. After the book she had crusaded, some say obsessively, to get the Japanese to officially apologize for their conduct during World War 2 and pay reparations to the victims. She may have internalized the pain of her subjects in a way that made gave her the energy to write about them yet made it hard for her to live herself. In a sense, she wound up yet another victim of not just the Rape of Nanking but the horror that still coarses through nations who insist that war is any kind of solution.


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Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Opposable Thumbs Revisited

I posted several months ago about one of our cats, Luna, who has learned to open our front door. We don’t have a circular door knob that requires an opposable thumb. Instead, our front door has a flat flange that you press down on to release that little wedge between the edge of the door and the door frame. About a year ago, Luna learned to jump high in the air land precisely on the flange with her front paws and push just enough with her back paws to pop the door open just before the latch re-engages. Yes, we lock the door, but that doesn’t keep Luna from continuing to try at all hours of the night and morning.

The other night, Mrs. CL and I were discussing possible solutions. Yes, I know, maybe just letting the cat come in at will might be one of them, but sometimes she does things like drag dead vermin to the front door, etc.

Mrs. CL wants to put adhesive strips around the door handle. Her theory is that the cat will miss and then find herself stuck vertically to the door one day and then stop trying.
This would be like flypaper at a ninety degree angle, but the neighbors might find it a bit strange to find a cat stuck to our door handle in that fashion.

My proposal was that I take half of a Leggs pantyhose container (I honestly don’t know if they still exist) and cut that in half then glue the half-dome just over the latch. The cat would then try to jump up, hit the rounded bit of plastic and slide off without engaging the latch. My wife insists that it would make our door look like it had a wart or something. I even promised to paint the dome the same color as the door. She still refused. Women can be terribly impractical sometimes.

My friend Karl Rove suggested that we blame the cat’s antics on liberals. I asked him how that would solve the problem, but he just shrugged and said, “Who cares about solving anything as long as half of America thinks it’s someone else’s fault.”

I then kicked Karl in the groin and told him that liberals made me do it. For some reason, our cat found this very funny.

In the meantime, the dogs, possibly inspired by the cat, have learned to open the sliding door and the side door to the garage. At least the cat doesn’t leave nose marks on the door when she comes in. One day, a bird found its way into our living room as well.
I’m convinced that our house used to belong to Dr. Doolittle.

I know there are many smart people on the internet. Some of them even come by this blog. If you can suggest ways to cat and dog proof our doors, I’d appreciate it.


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Sunday, June 17, 2007

Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles and Shower (movie reviews)

In the last few months, I’ve been surprised and pleased to come across two Chinese movies about male relationships that actually didn’t involve martial arts. In fact, if you substituted white females for the Asian males characters in both Zhang Yang’s Shower (1999) and Zhang Yimou’s Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles (2005), you would swear that you were watching something with Susan Sarandon and Natalie Portman. Actually, it was Wayne Wang who directed those two in Anywhere But Here. It was also Ang Lee who made the first mostly male chick flick, Brokeback Mountain. Boy, stereotypes can be a little misleading :}.

Both Shower and Thousands of Miles explore the relationship of sons estranged from their fathers. Shower is set in a suburban section of Beijing. Most of Thousands of Miles is set in Yunnan province, a remote southwestern part of China that some say served as the inspiration for Lost Horizon. In American culture, the image of Asian males often gets stuck between being too stoic and not sufficiently masculine. The interesting thing about both of these movies is that both directors manage to look at male sensitivity without turning any of their characters into Alan Alda. Takakura Ken (Black Rain, Mr. Baseball), the long time Japanese action star who plays the tacitrun Japanese father in Thousands of Miles has frequently been compared to John Wayne. Zhu Xu (King of Masks) , the elderly bath house owner of Shower, is a bit more talkative, but still largely communicates his love through gesture rather than words. In both cases, the two directors Zhang present the case for a different kind of Asian manliness too often unseen in western depictions of Asian male characters.

Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles makes its point by going cross-cultural. In this case though, the cross-cultural element isn’t about a clash between the west and some East Asian culture, Zhang Yimou (Hero, Raise the Red Lantern) who by now is well-established as one of the world’s great directors takes a contemplative look at fatherhood that borders on the sentimental. For instance, Riding Alone, is perhaps the only prison movie I’ve ever seen where warden and prisoners alike are shown to be honorable, respectful, and quite likeable. Ken plays a Japanese fisherman who learns that his estranged son is dying. The son refuses to see him in the hospital. With the help of his daughter in law, Ken decides to communicate with his Chinese mask opera loving son through a grand gesture.

Once in China, Ken’s character finds himself unable to speak directly with most of the natives and is forced to speak more openly and more directly from his heart when he does get the chance to communicate. After several complications prevent him from carrying out the gesture easily, Ken finds his own mission tied to a Chinese father separated from his son. In between, Zhang slips in an almost glossily sweet portrait of the Yunnan countryside and its people (most of the actors in the movie are first timers). This includes a great shot of an endlessly winding road up a mountainside that serves as a metaphor for the emotional journey and a great iconic shot of a village banquet in which the tables span the entire length of an ancient village.

A number of critics picked on Zhang for making too soft-edged a movie. The climactic scenes include a little boy hugging the main character and a recreation room filled with convicts crying at a slideshow of the same little boy. While I was bothered some by the use of Ken’s narration to hammer home any emotional points the viewer might have missed, I would argue that Zhang purposely went right to and even over the edge of sentimental to make his artistic point. He seeks to honor Asian culture for making a priority of the family, especially the bond between fathers and sons. This was especially interesting for me because I’m in the midst of reading Iris Chang’s The Rape of Nanking, which was the absolute modern low point of the relationship between China and Japan. At the same time, he uses the movie to remind viewers that there are multiple emotional traditions for Asian men. For instance,the sensibility of the New Age was created by Asian men and “speaking to and from the heart” has very deep roots in Asian culture.

One of Zhang’s techniques is genuinely striking. While Ken moves across the still unmodernized Yunnan countryside, he is supported by a plethora of hyper-modern communication devices. At one point, he goes to the top of a roof in Stone Village to converse with his translator so he can understand a decision made by the village elders. Throughout the movie, most of the news comes from thousands of miles away by cell phone, videotape, digital camera. In one scene, Ken and the little boy try to get rescued by alternately using the flash from a digital camera and an old fisherman’s whistle. Of course, the central act of the movie is Ken’s videotaping of the centuries old Mask Opera, Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles.

Some twenty years ago when Asian-female authors came into vogue in American culture, Ishmael Reed, the iconoclastic Berkeley-based African-American author, and Frank Chin the pioneering Chinese-American playwright and personality both complained that there seemed to be an American fascination with bashing Asian males. Some insisted that Chin’s criticisms in particular were fueled by jealousy of Amy Tan’s enormous commercial success. Still, much of the Asian women writer’s phenomenon did seem to focus a lot on foot-binding, daughter drowning, and other now abhorrent Asian customs. I do not deny that there are any number of frightening aspects about the treatment of women in Asian culture, but almost all cultures present a far richer mixture than that. Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles is perhaps the most eloquent answer I can think of to the demonization of Asian men as both emotionally closed and somehow not being tough enough.

Shower is a much more claustrophobic movie than Riding Alone. Almost all of the action takes place inside a soon to be obsolete neighborhood bath house. The owner and father, Zhu Xu, has maintained the place as a combination spa, community center, and counseling office in the face of the newer, faster-paced, relentlessly money-driven Globalized China. Pu Cun Xin plays the older son, Da Ming, who has left behind the bath house to make his fortune in the entrepreneurial cauldron of South China. In order to make that break, Da Ming has left behind and kept secret from his wife the fact that he has an adult developmentally-delayed brother Er Ming, Jiang Wu, who has stayed with their father. While it’s similar outwardly to the American movies Barber Shop and Beauty Parlor, Shower pushes a bit deeper at what is about to be lost.

In particular, the sweetness of the relationship between the father and Er Ming is rendered especially well. Er Ming is never made to be wiser or more articulate than would be realistic (something of a nasty custom in American disability movies) yet maintains a realistic dignity and likeability. There are also no big talking scenes that bring Da Ming to reconsider the place of what he has left behind in his life in the south. There is also, unlike American movies, no miracle rescue. Beijing is shown to be headed in the direction it’s headed in regardless (the virtues of showers vs. bath as metaphor is one of the little jokes within the movie). There is a beautiful image near the end of the movie where a minor street hustler character who spends the entire movie trying to make it in the new entrepreneurial China finally pays off his debt to the Bath House owner by fixing the neon sign above the establishment.

What can I say? The two best chick flicks I’ve seen in the last year didn’t have Shirley Mclaine in them (though she probably was an Asian man in some former life) and even had very few female characters and no climactic scene where all the characters emote at one another. Both were by and about Asian men. It’s nice to know that Asian men can be in movies without being Yakuza, martial artists, clients of Geishas, Shaolin Ninjas, or suicidal. Maybe some day soon, American movies will get a clue that Asian men and their traditions have things to teach the west as well.


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Thursday, June 14, 2007

Pardon Exrpess (another Karl Rove Adventure)

"Caspar Weinberger, former Secretary of Defense, was a "pardon express" client even before new "justice inhibitors" were added to the formula. Caspar not only was spared indictment, there was no one to testify against a former vice president who happened to be president at the time."

I got the following e-mail on my non-VRWC e-mail address from my old friend Karl Rove.

To all the friends, associates, independent contractors, and anonymous benefactors of the Vast Right Wing Conspiracy,

As many of you are aware due to events beyond our control practitioners of “political theater” and individuals who do not “support the troops” recently gained Congressional subpoena power through an antiquated but still legal process known as “democratic election”. While it’s not clear to us that they actually know how to use it, our friend the anonymous independent U.S. Senator from Connecticut has warned us that it may now be somewhat more difficult to lie, bribe, obstruct justice, or start needless wars for allegedly patriotic purposes. Just months ago, we were once in a position to award you the Medal of Freedom should you happen to get caught. Things have gotten so bad that some of you are even getting prison terms instead.

We may not take care of anyone else, but please be assured that VRWC takes care of its own. We are pleased to announce a new benefit for all those who work on behalf of the Conspiracy, Pardon Express.

What is it? How’s it work? Is it legal?

First off, Pardon Express is absolutely legal, it’s even expressly mentioned in Article II Section 2 of the Constitution,
The President shall have power to grant reprieves and pardons for offenses against the United States, except in cases of impeachment.

While that “impeachment” bit at the end might bother some of you since you may be helping to cover up crimes that might get the president and others impeached, fear not. The pardon office runs through the Department of Justice which is still in the capable hands of Alberto Gonzales who has not yet admitted to any criminal misconduct that he can actually remember (remember this advice, if you shoot someone then go get really drunk right afterwards, it worked for Dick Cheney). The Attorney General has so much confidence in Pardon Express that he himself and most of his senior staff have already registered for it with VRWC productions.

Here’s how it works:

Let’s say you participate in a major crime on behalf of the VRWC like exposing the identity of an intelligence operative. Obviously, none of us would do such a thing unless her husband deserved it, but that’s neither here nor there. As all of you have the memo, I’m sure you know that I had nothing to do with anything like that and therefore am speaking purely hypothetically here.

Let’s say you just help cover it up then refuse to say who ordered it even though the person you work for is say the Vice President.

If some nosy prosecutor comes along and persuades yet another runaway jury to convict you, Pardon Express goes straight to work on your behalf. One day, the press might be talking about 30 months in Allenwood, by dinner time you’ll be hanging out with your family in some restaurant eating onion rings.

First off, even before you’re tried, you will have thousands of people brandishing talking points, polished by yours truly, that claim that you can’t be convicted of covering up a crime that wasn’t a crime in the first place. Should you by some miscarriage of partisan justice happen to be convicted, hundreds of Federal officials will send letters to the judge saying that the verdict was completely inconsistent with the VRWC member we’ve all known and loved. At the same time, thousands of others will send anonymous but oddly identical letters to the judge threatening his loved ones and calling him horrible names.

In the meantime, the Decider himself will be directing the Attorney General to process the forms before you can even have a mugshot posted on Best of all, the AG has proven his ability under oath to forget absolutely any embarrassing details of your pardon.

Pardon Express is so effective that those in the know are even calling this the “Perfect Crime”. Why? Well consider this. You obstruct justice, get convicted, never say a word, then have the original cover up compounded by the pardon itself. You go free and no one still knows a single stinking thing about whatever you obstructed in the first place.
Who says two wrongs can’t make a right winger?

Not only will you be out of jail, our rapid rewards system for frequent indictees will earn you a new job with terrific and technically legal stock options with another VRWC member company in a matter of months or until you fall off the front page whichever event comes later. Look at what happened to everyone involved in Iran Contra after they were pardoned by the first President Bush and that was a good fifteen years before Pardon Express's new justice inhibitor forumla. Talk about a family with a long tradition of respect for this particular rule of law!

What is it?-

Pardon Express doesn’t involve any intrusive memberships, delayed charges on your credit card or your criminal record, or nasty clean up. It’s your one stop solution to committing crimes on behalf of the VRWC with impunity. Think of Pardon Express as the ultimate form of single payer insurance. Even though the single payer happens to be the American public, it won’t be the first time we’ve stuck it to them.

All you have to do is help keep us in power. That’s it. There are no hidden clauses, no special obligations, no tricky “use by” dates. I'll even tell you what to do, as long as you never acknowledge that we ever discussed the matter.

What better endorsement of Pardon Express can I give than to tell you that I have several dozen of them already lined up for myself? It’s so good, I’ll swear on a stack of Bibles about it, assuming the claim of Executive Privilege doesn’t work :}. Accept no imitations or feeble guarantees of immunity; insist on Pardon Express. It’s the only part of the Constitution the right actually will defend for the next 18 months.

Rightfully yours,


PS. Please destroy all evidence of this message immediately. I’ve been having a little trouble with my e-mail lately.

CL’s notes:

I have to give Karl some credit here for a great idea. I’d been complaining that as an anti-union pro-globalization shop, VWRC hadn’t exactly had the greatest employment package. No minimum wage, no health benefits, no overtime. I don’t think there’s a single reputable employer in America that offers Pardon Express to all of its loyal employees. Yet again, Karl has shown me the truth of that old right wing adage, looking out for yourself occasionally trickles down instead of trickles on the rest of us.

In the meantime, I’m sending Karl that parking ticket I got at the Hartford airport when that deregulated airline lost our luggage.

More Karl Rove adventures


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Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Cloture on Joe Lieberman (politics)

Joe Lieberman is one strange guy. Back in 1998, he was one of the few Democrats in the senate to cross lines and call for the censure of the President for being publicly dishonest about his relationship with Monica Lewinsky. At the time, Lieberman was widely praised for being a voice for morality in Washington. That public stance likely played a critical role in Al Gore’s decision to put Senator Lieberman on the Democratic ticket in 2000.

A few days ago, the same Joe Lieberman voted with most of the Republicans and no Democrats in a cloture motion to bring a resolution of no confidence in Alberto Gonzales to the senate floor. Even the Republican senate leadership wouldn’t go on record themselves to say that they actually had “confidence” in the attorney general. Instead, the argument was that the vote would merely be a political “show” and was thus inappropriate.

Personally, I’d be happy to have a senate that is genuinely concerned that the justice system has been politicized and that US Attorneys were possibly fired because they either prosecuted Republicans or refused to prosecute iffy claims of Democratic election fraud just before another election. The President, who believes in high standards, has repeatedly pointed out that there is no evidence of “criminal wrongdoing” so he has full confidence in Alberto Gonzales. I take it this means moral wrongdoing and incompetence are just fine in the Bush administration. Of course the “criminal wrongdoing” standard might be a high bar for large numbers of either party to pass, so maybe it’s just me.

I do wonder if Harry Reid et. al. did it backwards. The subtler thing to do would have been to put a resolution expressing confidence in Alberto Gonzales on the floor of the Senate. The resolution would then contain everything that the Attorney General had done wrong, prominently mention the President’s many statements in support of his attorney general, etc. The fifteen or so Republicans left who fully support the President on this issue would have then been thrown into a double bind. The Senate would bring the resolution to the floor and then all the Democrats could have voted against it while twenty or so Senators would have affirmatively expressed confidence in the Attorney General.

The bit that really scares me though is that Joe Lieberman, who still caucuses with the Democrats (one of his campaign promises after he ran anyway after losing his own party’s nomination), might well have voted “yes”. Lieberman ultimately voted against the impeachment of Bill Clinton, but he’s the one who suggested censure. If the Republican party line on Gonzales was that “no confidence” was simply symbolic, what was Lieberman’s justification for Gonzales? Is it possible that the independent Senator from Connecticut really thinks Gonzales is doing a good job?

Even more fascinating, if Lieberman was horrified by Bill Clinton’s public dishonesty about Monica Lewinsky, shouldn’t the same standard apply to the current administration?

How many times and how many ways have they lied about the war? Where is Senator Lieberman’s outrage over that? Where is the outrage over Gonzales’s claims that he couldn’t remember major details in his department over the last twelve months? If the AG wasn’t lying, wasn’t he at least admitting to extraordinary incompetence?

Compare the day Joe Lieberman put on a flak jacket to shop for rose-colored glasses in Baghdad to his statement of September 1998 about the need to uphold the integrity of public office. Is it a shock that he had to wander around in dark glasses?

Consider this irony. Joe Lieberman holds one of the senate seats once held by Prescott Bush, a Republican seantor who once chaired planned parenthood and who spoke out against Joe McCarthy. He is also the man who took the seat of Lowell Weicker, one of the first Republican seantors to take on Richard Nixon during Watergate. There is indeed a tradition of true independence for senators from Connecticut. My only question is what real principles are behind Loe Lieberman's most recent expressions of "independence"?


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Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Ducks and Weddings

My stepson got married this weekend next to a duck pond in Look Park in Northampton, Massachussetts. The day was slightly overcast, but the setting and weather were otherwise perfect. Some time between the vows and the cutting of the cake, my wife gave a toast to our son and daughter-in-law. Basically she said she was proud of them for all they had overcome together and how hard they had worked to do what’s necessary to be a couple. It wasn’t so much what she said as it was the emotion in her voice. She had a hard time speaking without crying, but got through it anyway.

I had planned to say something, but after my wife got through I felt that she had expressed it so well that it would simply be wrong to say anything beyond what she had said. I too often forget that eloquence sometimes has more to do with timing, delivery, a sense of sincerity than it does with the precise choice of words. Looking back, it was one of those moments where I was simply proud to be married to my wife. Actually, they happen a lot but too often I don’t pay attention enough to acknowledge them properly. Of course, there are plenty of the other moments as well, especially when she hops in the car for a long drive and announces ten minutes in that she really needs to go the bathroom, something which happened on our way to the airport from the wedding.

I should also mention that due to the fact that we spent all of the day before dealing with collateral issues from the East Coast airlines computer crash, I'd forgotten to charge the video camera. Pure dumb luck, the band shell just happened to have an AC outlet. Looking back, I was going to videotape the toasts, but my wife stopped me. I think she was that nervous about saying it just the way she wanted to say it.

There was a moment just before the completion of the vows when a pair of ducks flew in, landed on the surface of the pond, and began circling one another. I suppose I should google the mating patterns of ducks, but I prefer to simply leave that image in my mind as a sign from nature that the marriage is meant to work.

My stepson has not had an easy life as an adult mostly because of complications from a serious car accident just before he turned twenty. In the ten plus years since his life changed, he’s shown incredible courage and heart. Rather than turn inwards, he has insisted on trying to be involved in bettering his community and the world. In the meantime, he constantly tries impossible things. Sometimes, it doesn’t work, but sometimes it has. He managed to finish college on his own after the accident. He went off to the other coast on his own to make his own life. He’s become interested in and active in politics. Apparently he was one of five members of the Green Party in a rather large North Carolina town. He met a young woman who sees his best qualities and they have committed to a life together.

Part of that commitment was her realization that there was only one way for a young couple to get health benefits (something he has to have), earn a living, and have the opportunity to further her education. Seven months ago, she joined the army. I suspect that fact might surprise many people who’ve read some of what I’ve said about the war.
In fact, over that time my son and his wife have only seen one another about three times. She flew to Massachussetts on a Friday, had the wedding on a Sunday, then flew back to her specialist training less than twenty four hours after the wedding. Some honeymoon!

As a couple, my wife and I have slipped into another stage. One of our children has a family of his own. In the meantime, I hope we keep pushing one another to keep trying impossible things ourselves.


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Saturday, June 09, 2007

Simple Gifts (the real version)

We spent most of last night on an airplane to Hartford, Connecticut. Frontier Airlines lets you watch the 24 least interesting television channels imaginable with a swipe of your credit card. Between instructions of emergency procedures, I discovered that Fox News had been discussing the Paris Hilton matter for the last forty eight hours in a row. It strikes me that there's a simple compromise solution. Send her home then have Michael Vick dogsit that chihauhau ofhers for the next thirty eight days. They could do this split screen thing of Paris in her living room surrounded by floral arrangements and friends maybe wearing a rhinestoned monitoring bracelet around her ankle fretting about her dog on the left side. On the right, there'd be a shot from outside the walls of the Vick compound with the sound of howling dogs coming from the other side while someone occasionally tosses unusual looking water bottles over the top of the fence.

In the meantime, only twenty nine more American soldiers have died in Iraq for the month of June. It sure makes me feel better that Congress supports the troops. I do remember that in the old days, judges used to give first offenders a choice between enlisting in the armed forces and going to jail. Mmmmmmm....

We got to Hartford at five in the morning and had the good fortune to find that our hotel was not only willing to let us check in early, but their airport shuttle was running. A nice man with a Russian accent came to pick us up and mentioned that he'd heard that there'd been problems with flights all along the eastern seaboard the night before. Since our flight had already gotten in, fifteen minutes early at that, we didn't give it much thought. That was until our daughters called us to inform us that their flight to Hartford had been cancelled at the last minute.

The only plane they could get was to Albany, New York some two hours away and would it be possible for us to pick them up there. After three hours of sleep, we picked up our rental car a couple hours earlier then planned and drove towards Albany with the assistance of a Garmin GPS with a British accent. I was hoping that we'd get one with a California surfer accent, "Yo, gnarly right turn coming up man. Whoa Dude slow down there."

Maybe because I'm Asian, they didn't give me the Asian Driver model GPS. "Okay make lane change wihtout signalling, suddenly speed up...step on brakes for no reason."

I know someday soon, they'll have GPS units that tell halfway decent jokes. Ours may have been an early model of the joke telling version. At one point, we tried to drive to the Lone Star Steakhouse only to have it send us to a Brew Pub. I suppose we were lucky that our British accented GPS didn't try to make us drive on the wrong side of the road.

The drive to Albany was actually sort of pretty and my wife got to visit three states she'd never seen before. After getting the girls, I then insisted on stopping at the Shaker Museum which somewhat incongruously sits right next to the Albany airport. Actually, the Shakers weren't technophobes at all. I learned from the very nice docent that they were also very competent at business, it's just that they didn't believe in personal greed.

Most of my fiction is set in one of America's last ethnic towns, I'd forgotten about the tradition of religious utopian settlements in the Eastern half of the United States. The Shakers may have been the most interesting of them all. They believed in gender equality and sharing all wealth. They opposed racial distinctions and endorsed the practice of free speech. At the same time, they were both into an early form of slam dancing or sufi whirling while insisting that all its members were entitled to safe-decent housing, health care, and respectful treatment.

In the 1850's the Shakers were one of the few pro-abolition groups in the north who also pointed out that wage-capitalism as practiced in northern factories with child labor, below subsistence wages, and no safety precautions was yet another form of slavery. They also viewed alcohol and other habits as manifestations of slavery.

Basically, the Shakers were like an early version of the Green Party with one minor significant detail. They also didn't believe in sex, though they did believe in marriage. Unlike many of the other utopian settlements, the Shakers were economically successful and managed to govern themselves. In order to sustain themselves, they took in orphans whom they would "let decide for themselves" when they became adults and otherwise depended on converts. It also happens to be one of the few modern-day religious movements founded by a woman, Ann Lee, an illiterate English factory worker.

The kids were nice enough to humor me during our detour to Shaker history. My wife actually was quite taken with the place, I'm hoping she wasn't too inspired by the sex thing. It did strike me though that if there were still Shaker communities somewhere, it would be the perfect place to exile Paris Hilton for a couple months.

Eventually, we made it back to our hotel after a few GPS mishaps only to discover that the computer glitch that shut down all the flights also didn't route luggage. We're not sure if our daughters' luggage is in North Carolina, Albany, New York, or Hartford. We're hoping that it's in Hartford, since that's where we are for the next twelve hours. In them meantime, we're just happy to be together, safe, and happy.

Simple Gifts (traditional Shaker hymn)
Tis the gift to be Simple
Tis the gift to be Free
Tis the gift to come down to where we ought to be.


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Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Lewis Libby and the Simple LIfe (politics)

Lewis Libby was sentenced to thirty months in prison and required to pay a two hundred and fifty thousand dollar fine today by Judge Reggie Walton who noted the overwhelming evidence of Libby’s guilt and the fact that the vice-president’s former chief of staff had abused a public trust by interfering with a criminal investigation. Paris Hilton also went to jail this week for failing to comply with the rehabilitation requirements of a conviction for driving under the influence. Although her sentence is for 45 days, she will likely serve only 23 days in a “celebrity” wing of the LA County Jail.

Predictably, most Americans have likely heard more about Paris Hilton’s jail sentence than Lewis Libby. To some, her case has come to stand for the proposition that courts need to send a message that celebrities and people in positions of power must be subject to and have the same respect for the law as any other Americans. When Paris Hilton supported a petition to Governor Schwarzenneger seeking a pardon for her, a counter petition appeared to make sure she served her sentence and quickly gathered tens of thousands of signatures.

Perhaps less predictable, there are a large number of Americans who expect President Bush to pardon Lewis Libby before he ever spends a day in prison. There are a significant number of conservatives who insist that Libby deserves the pardon. In fact, several government officials sent letters to the judge that argued that Libby’s sentence should be suspended because he’s been a dedicated public official and has a family, apparently between breakfast meetings with Judith Miller at the Mayflower hotel. I suspect almost all of those people feel strongly that Paris Hilton should be doing time.

I’m left with the following questions.

1. How many more people know more about the details of Paris Hilton’s jail sentence than Lewis Libby’s? Why is that?
2. Why do more people think it’s more important that Paris Hilton serve her term than Lewis Libby?
3. Which one committed the more serious crime? Which one was flaunting the need to respect the judicial system in a more destructive fashion?
4. Why would you pardon someone who lied to federal investigators and who shows no remorse for it?

Now that some people believe that Dick Cheney’s phone number has turned up on the DC Madam’s client list and given that many years ago he had two drunk driving convictions of his own, I’d like to get his honest answer to those questions.

While were at it, I know that you have said that you have not spoken direclty to Mr. Libby since the investigation started, not even to see how he's holding up. If Scooter does have to serve any part of his term, do you plan to visit him in prison?

Anyway, I’m hoping to see a special edition of the Simple Life with Paris and Nicole serving as the Vice President’s chief of staff for a few days or maybe Paris can be attorney-general? At least I'd believe her when she tried to tell me with a straight face, "No criminal evidence of wrongdoing because I can't recall any of the details of a single deicision I or anyone else made while I was supervising them."

It's already the case that many on the right appear to hold her to a higher standard than Lewis Libby.

a counter view from Joe Klein


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Monday, June 04, 2007

Letters from Iwo Jima (movie review)

While I really like Clint Eastwood’s later movies, I never thought I’d say this and I mean it in a very positive way- “Letters from Iwo Jima is much more deeply subversive than Michael Moore’s Farenheit 9/11.”

Has Dirty Harry gone Communist? No, Eastwood’s companion picture to Flags of Our Fathers which shows the thirty five day battle of Iwo Jima from the Japanese perspective is actually humanist. Much like Das Boot. Wolfgang Petersen’s (1981) German take on life and death on a U-Boat in the North Atlantic, Letters makes its viewers see Japanese soldiers not only as men of honor, but as individuals with wives, children, and doubts about their duties. It is one of those war pictures that identifies the real enemies for both sides-fanatic patriotism, demonization of the enemy, ignorance, and the loss of the capacity to think and feel at an individual level.

At their heart, Letters and Flags are not only deeply anti-war, they are deeply anti-Iraq war. From its quiet beginning which starts with the arrival of General Korabayashi, Ken Watanabe (kind of Japan’s uber-actor in American movies he was also the male lead in Rob Marshall’s Memoirs of a Geisha) through a final movement that combines near constant gunfire with moments of poetic absurdity straight out of Celine, Eastwood’s point is simple. There are two kinds of enemies in war. The first is those people commonly identified as the enemy, in this case it’s the Americans and the Japanese. The second more critical enemy is the struggle by those on both sides to preserve their humanity, aka the enemy within.

Iris Yamashita and Paul Haggis’s (Crash) screenplay manage this by interweaving the perspectives of six characters who each represent different strata of Japanese society and levels of devotion to the traditional Japanese warrior code.

1) Saigo, Kazunari Ninomiya, is the most modern character. A baker, drafted into the war, whose wife has recently had their first baby, Saigo is simply determined to come home alive. In the meantime, he keeps his morale by constantly writing letters home to express his love for his wife.
In real life, Ninomiya was a member of the Japanese equivalent of the boy band, N Synch.
2) General Kuribayashi, Watanabe, is deeply patriotic and highly competent, but he has also spent time in America. He sees little sense in sending his men to a pointless death, yet does everything he can to defend the island. It likely should have been a five day operation since the Japanese had neither air or naval support. The battle took over a month.
It’s a very similar role to the Baron, his role in Memoirs of a Geisha, but Letters has the advantage of not “orientalizing” the Japanese and humanizing them instead.
3) Lieutenant Ito, Shido Nakamura, is the gung-ho (wow, I get to use that word in its actual context) junior officer who blindly insists on playing out the role of the uber-patriot. For most of the movie, he also has no perspective on the real situation and lacks any capacity to think about the real significance of his actions. Ito’s character is treated with a sweetly sublime level of irony that makes Tom Berenger’s character in Platoon look wooden and amateurish.
Ito is also vaguely reminiscent of some of the characters in The Final Days, the movie about Hitler's last days and life inside the bunker.

4) Baron Nishi, Tsuyoshi Ihara, is a dignified member of the ruling class who like Kuribayashi never loses sight of the connection between being both a warrior and a man of honor. He is also something of a celebrity which again is used in the storyline to tremendous effect in a scene with an American prisoner that spins irony into deep feeling for both sides.
5) Shimizu, Ryo Kase, plays a character thought to be a spy from the Kempaitai, kind of a Japanese version of the SS.
6) Fujita, Hiroshi Watanabe, plays a deeply loyal and professional junior officer who understands, but never openly questions.

In the meantime, Letters uses cinematography that slips between little patches of color to World War 2 vintage black and white. This evokes the feel of old-time war movies, Private Ryan (Spielberg co-produced Letters as well) being perhaps the last of those, while periodically reminding the viewer with the color that this movie also steps two full generations in the future away from that perspective. A team of Japanese archaeologists who locate the letters at the beginning and the end of the movie in two scenes with little to no dialogue gives the film just enough distance to let the viewer know that Eastwood wants the feel of old-time war movies, but not the perspective.

One of the tricky things about historical war movies is that the viewer knows who wins. Letters manages to lighten matters with bits of humor at key moments and keeping the different characters eventual fates in doubt even in the cases of those you know who will die. This is best exemplified by a double chase scene in which Saigo seeks to keep hold of a recently emptied honey bucket while being fired on by the approaching American fleet. The scene combines terror, humor, and the absurdity of war into a handful of frames by alternating Saigo's facial reactions and a fisheye shot of
a horizon-filling American invasion fleet.

Eastwood has won best picture twice for Unforgiven and Million Dollar Baby. While I thought that Martin Scorcese’s The Departed was excellent, I’d say that Letters is Eastwood’s greatest achievement as a director particularly when paired with Flags of Our Fathers.

The fascinating thing about Letters is that it tells the story of the battle from the Japanese perspective with American characters appearing only in cameos, yet the ending of the movie reminds us as eloquently as any movie I’ve seen about what is most critical about being “American” in any war.
There was a time when Clint Eastwood was thought to be conservative and even deeply reactionary in his movie making. While Letters-Flags certainly appear to be the product of some other Eastwood incarnation from say Magnum Force or the Original Dirty Harry, the truth is that Clint Eastwood’s movie characters and outlook remain deeply conservative in the best sense. To see them and appreciate them is to understand just how far America has strayed from the best of that tradition.
Watch Letters and ask yourself what the movie says about the limits of American power, the need for understanding and respect of other cultures, the tragic destructiveness of blind patriotism.
I’m not exactly sure why the right isn’t calling for Clint Eastwood’s head and boycotting his movies. Letters is telling us with all its pure cinematic eloquence through its depiction of the “Last Good War” that today’s America is no longer Dirty Harry’s America. If you combine it with Flags of Our Father’s condemnation of hoopla, exploitation, and the use of patriotism as political theater, Eastwood the director makes a deeply political statement by being unswervingly artistic.
The end result is both a great movie and a work which as we debate the “virtues” of the “Surge” more people need to see, appreciate, and ultimately act on.


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Sunday, June 03, 2007

Reading Aloud

Last night, I found myself sitting on a couch in my friends Susan and Misha’s living room listening to people read aloud to one another. Susan’s a regular member of my writer’s group, but for the last year and a half she’s hosted a monthly Saturday gathering of folk who get together to share items they haven’t necessarily written themselves. I’m awkward socially. It’s not that I don’t know what to do, though there were certainly times in my life when I didn’t, it’s more a matter of lacking some capacity to make small talk with people I don’t know. It’s not a lack of patience, it’s more that I’m not so good getting to that transition from chatter to the genuinely personal and more interesting.

I’ve done writing groups off and on for many years, but this was different. The nine people who came for the gathering shared dessert, then read a variety of items that had for whatever reason meant something to them. This ranged from a newspaper advice column to Thich Nath Hanh’s thoughts about incorporating Buddhism into one’s daily life, to bits of a novel that described amputating three legs from a Dachshund (Alexander McCall Smith’s very funny The Finer Points of Sausage Dogs).

One of the ironies was that one of the guests turned out to be a woman who lived two doors down from me for close to ten years. She was a very nice neighbor, but I think we spoke to one another less than half a dozen times during that stretch. I guess that’s a measure of how bad I am at small talk.

Once my friend Linda, also from my writing group, shared a touching piece she’d written based on her own father’s World War 2 diary, something she didn’t find until after his death, I took that as license to read something of my own. Over the last several years, I’ve taken to keeping my writing on my Dell Axim 50V PDA. On those occasions when I read to other people (they’re very very rare) I use it as a kind of teleprompter. I have a Stowaway Blue Tooth keyboard that’s smaller than the Axim and it also allows me to write when I have spare time some place away from my regular computer. Normal people use a pad of paper and a pen, but I used to always lose whatever I put on scraps of paper.

Anyway, I wound up sharing a story that I’d written more than twenty years ago back when I thought success with my fiction was inevitable. I’m not sure if the folk there were more curious about the PDA thing than the story itself, though they were nice enough to laugh at appropriate times. It was a very pleasant evening.

It strikes me that reading and writing need to remains social acts. Bud, Linda’s significant other, shared a long essay by Malcolm Jones from Newsweek, "Our Books Ourselves", about Baby Boomer’s and their relationship to the Paperback Book. We often forget that the “Sixties” were at least in part the product of unprecedented numbers of young Americans being expected to go to college converging with the cultural heyday of the paperback book and the vinyl long play (LP) record album. As the article points out, I still have very strong physical images of certain books whose presence in someone’s bookshelf signified certain things about that person. I remember the presence of Feminine Mystique, Catch 22, the Whole Earth Catalogue, Slaughterhouse Five often being the entrée to conversations when I was a teenager.

There are lots of teenagers today who read and write, but plays a far more central role for them socially than any words on paper. The one exception may be the Harry Potter series.

I do think it’s important to ride uphill in small but significant ways. Susan and Misha’s gathering struck me as one such attempt. The one sad thing was that there was no one there under the age of 45. Years ago, I used to help lead a “Great Books” group, a similar but more structured attempt to do something comparable. That too suffered from the fact that younger people seemed less interested and the group I was involved in quite literally died out.

A few days ago, I was part of an online conversation about why short story collections are virtually impossible for new authors to sell. Someone pointed out that if everyone who submitted short stories actually committed to buying and reading two volumes of contemporary short stories, the market would be a hell of a lot better.

A lot of us write, but I need to remember how important it is to share our own and others’ writings on a face to face basis. Next time, I'll try to read someone else's story aloud.


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