Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Tommy the Tiger (fiction)

 My grandfather used to keep cases of rough yellow-tinged paper in his basement.  The white-painted shelves at the foot of the stairway were filled with brown cardboard fifty-pound packing boxes.Each box announced in English that it contained three hundred yards of semi-premium paper in uncut sheets.   On the other side, what appeared to be the same message appeared in Chinese. I would guess that my grandparents had several miles of paper in the basement.  There were enough boxes that my female cousins built a playhouse out of them once when it was their turn to have to play in the basement and we boys then dismantled the playhouse into a castle wall when it was our turn.  As was often the case, my grandfather had helped a fledgling importer of Chinese paper whose product ultimately didn’t meet US consumer standards.  The great stack of boxes filled with rough yellow paper outlasted the venture by several years.  My grandfather would remind us, “The Chinese invented paper, so this is this is the best paper in the world.  See how heavy and thick it is?”

     Heavy and thick, of course, wasn’t a good thing for paper.  The paper itself wasn’t stiff enough to make good paper airplanes and yellow-brown was not really acceptable for schoolwork since it wasn’t lined or white.  It seemed that the Chinese entrepreneur had not understood that the American market demanded that paper be bleached bright white.  My grandfather would use it for keeping ledgers and making lists.  My grandmother would use strips of the paper cut with a pearl-handled pair of scissors that we weren’t allowed to use to keep score in all night mah-jong games.  In fact, the paper was quite good for the thicker splashier ink strokes of traditional Chinese calligraphy. We, however, would use it for drawing.  

Without the internet or videotape, we had only one way to visualize our fantasies at will and that was with ballpoint pen, pencil, or crayon.  Some evenings I would sit in the dining room underneath the crystal chandelier and draw whole factories worth of tanks, airplanes, and artillery.  A fascination with all things military just seemed to be part of being a boy at the time, so much so that the green crayon, for olive drab was always in great demand along with silver for gun barrel metal, and gold for well just being gold.

I rarely drew dead bodies. The goal was always simple, if you drew any kind of military vehicle; it had to have as many possible forms of ordinance hanging off of it as one could manage.  On the other side of the table, the girls would draw horses in endless iterations.  In between, we would fight over volumes of the Encyclopedia Britannica where find pictures of planes, tanks, horses, and sometimes breeds of dogs to use as inspiration.  In my pictures, the Japanese and the Germans always seemed to win not because I sympathized with them.  I just never mastered drawing a five-pointed star inside a circle to make American aircraft clearly American.  Also Panzer tanks had squared edges, so they were easier to draw.  If we got tired of our drawing, we would always end things by drawing a big mushroom cloud over the battle scene.  Looking back, I’m a little surprised that none of us wound up as murderers or as featured mercenaries in Soldier of Fortune Magazine, although a couple of my cousins are the oldest active paintball warriors in California.

In fact, the whole time, I rather curiously maintained a division in my head.  In real life, I admired the pacifists.  I idolized Martin Luther King not George Patton or Douglas Macarthur.  In play though, it never occurred to me to march around the living room supporting a boycott of lunch counters that didn’t serve everyone.  

In general, the parents ignored us when we drew.  We were, after all, busy and not demanding their attention if we happened to be drawing.  My father was the exception.  He would sit at the head of the table with a fountain pen and wait for our requests to draw favored objects.  He drew horses rearing on their hind legs, galloping, and grazing for my female cousins.  He drew three or four different kinds of dogs.  He would draw soldiers with rifles and bazookas.  In between, our requests, he would draw us.  Dad’s style always used a minimum of lines and managed to convey an impression of three dimensions and motion.  He could draw any object very quickly, it’s just that he had set ways of drawing things so his cars always seemed to come from the same manufacturer and his horses all had the same kind of mane.  He would draw for us as long as we asked him and almost never refused requests except when it was to actually show someone being impaled by a bayonet or for any of his airplanes to be dropping bombs or torpedoes.  I’m not sure which he liked more, being around kids or drawing.  

When it came to airplanes, my father insisted on drawing only one kind of plane, the p-40, an early World War 2 propeller driven fighter made by Curtiss-Wright.  He could draw P-40s from any angle and never needed to refer to any pictures as he would draw whole squadrons of them diving out of clouds or taking off into the sunset.  Each p-40 had a set of what looked to be shark’s teeth drawn near the front of the fuselage, the insignia of the Flying Tigers. I would plead with him to draw jets, which he considered too simple.  Sometimes, he would relent and draw a helicopter.  I even brought him a picture of an ME-262, Hitler’s experimental jet built right at the end of the war, but my Dad would tell me that he was tired of drawing that evening or that I might want to draw that one myself.  Once in a while, I even caught my father drawing Flying Tigers on his own time when there were no other kids around.  These were always his best and most sophisticated drawings as if each P-40 deserved a special level of care.

When former air force captain, Claire Chennault, approached FDR about letting the America Volunteer Group fly through a loophole in the Neutrality Act in 1941, my father was thirteen years old.  If you look in wartime pictures of Chinese teenaged boys from that era, you’ll find they are invariably dressed in white t-shirts and leather flying jackets, emulating the first American fighting heroes of World War 2, the group that Chennault put together that became known as the Flying Tigers, American pilots who had jumped into the war with the Japanese early by flying as volunteers for China. None of the real Flying Tigers fought as members of the American or even Chinese armed forces.  They were officially employees of an air cargo company that just happened to be in China. It also just happened that their contracts called for a five hundred dollar bonus each time they shot down a Japanese plane.  In those days, arrangements of this kind were a measure of how clever America was rather than how sneaky.

The Flying Tigers may have been the single most successful unit of the Chinese armed forces in 1941 and 1942.  There was no better expression of what it meant to be Chinese, male, and American all at once than to some day want to fly for the Flying Tigers.  In truth, while there were a handful of Chinese males who served with the Flying Tigers, none of them were ever pilots.  

For us though, the Flying Tigers were too Chinese and their planes were too clunky.  Twenty years beyond the war, we refused to imagine ourselves flying for Chiang Kai Shek.  One time, I even countered my dad’s elegant yet fierce Flying Tiger with an airplane with the face of dog.  My father held out his left arm between me and the yellow paper,” Don’t do that, “ he told me, “It’s disrespectful.”

It was more than twenty-five years before I thought about the Flying Tigers again.  My Uncle Tommy had died and Aunt Stella was sitting in her kitchen as they were preparing for the funeral.  I hadn’t planned to attend, but had come to Aunt Stella’s Sacramento house to pay my respects two nights before when Aunt Ellen brought out a brown leather jacket in a plastic dry cleaner’s bag and placed it flat on the table.  Aunt Stella started in tears that quickly became convulsions.  

     My Aunt Ellen said softly, “It’s what Tommy would have wanted to be buried in. It’s the way I remember him best.”

     Within seconds, Aunt Stella was yelling in anger at Aunt Ellen. This was hardly the first time I’d seen an argument break out among my father’s brothers and sisters.  Arguments happened with surprising regularity at funerals, weddings, birthday parties, and holiday gatherings.  The rest of the family and I slipped off to other parts of the house as my aunts worked through their disagreement.

     To be honest, I had almost no best memories of Uncle Tommy.  He said little to any of the children even his own kids when we were at my grandparents.  Much of the time, he sat in the TV room watching football or baseball games for which he always seemed to know the point spread.   He also said little to the other adults.  He would stay in the TV room, eat whatever was made though he never helped with the dishes, wait until my aunt Stella finished socializing with her siblings and parents, then would put on his overcoat and drive her home.  Although he always worked, we never really knew what Uncle Tommy did for a living and beyond having to say hello and goodbye to him when we saw him his interest in us and ours in him was virtually non-existent.

     As I got older and the family became more fractured, my father explained Uncle Tommy’s situation a little better. “Your Uncle Tommy has an MBA from Wharton, did you know that?”
     I shrugged.
     “He was also a star basketball player once.”

     Uncle Tommy was unusual among Cantonese men in that he was six feet two inches tall.

     “Then why doesn’t Uncle Tommy ever say or do anything?”

     “After the war, Uncle Tommy came back and never could find work that suited an MBA.  He looked, but he was too proud to take any of the jobs they were willing to offer a Chinese veteran with an MBA.”

     “So what did he do?”

     “Your grandfather started a Chinese Take Out restaurant.  He had your uncle manage it. When I came back after being in the army in 1953, I was supposed to help him.  The business went broke.”

     I knew that part of the story.  Uncle Tommy didn’t want my dad to do anything that had to do with actually managing the business since that was Tommy’s job except that Uncle Tommy didn’t do much about managing the business either.  More disastrous, no one in 1953 had figured out how to keep Chinese food from getting greasy after more than twenty minutes under a heat lamp.  My dad went off alone to manage another one of my grandfather’s conventional restaurants which he wound up running in various forms for the next twenty years.

  None of my Grandfather’s legitimate businesses ever made money.  All of them seemed to serve mostly as a source of  gainful employment and visa cover for the endless procession of cousins and village acquaintances, he “saved from the Communists” over a twenty-five year period.  We never could remember or pronounce any of their names.  For most of his working life, my father ran a business where he wasn’t allowed to fire any of his key employees and those same employees always went to my grandfather anyway when they had a problem with my dad.

     After the take out business, my grandmother would set up Uncle Tommy in various commercial ventures.  My grandparents would supply capital and Uncle Tommy would be given billing as a member of the board, development coordinator, or some other position that involved no actual responsibility but let Uncle Tommy stand up at openings and banquets to look tall and business-like.  There was the first Chinese discount store which lasted less than seven months, there were two import-export businesses, some sort of Studebaker dealership, even a business selling green tea ice cream to Chinese restaurants.  None lasted more than two years.  In the midst of all those failures, Uncle Tommy started gambling.  

On two occasions, my grandparents’ house turned somber as various members of the family wandered in and out of the closed doors of the breakfast room as they consulted with my grandfather and grandmother.  To save the family name and their grandchildren’s home, my grandparents paid off a seventy four thousand dollar marker to Bill Harrah in 1961.  In 1964, it was twenty three thousand dollars to the Golden Nugget.  In Paperson, it was understood that Uncle Tommy was to go nowhere near the lunch counter that fronted my Grandfather’s own gambling house.  Beyond that though, there was no other way to control Uncle Tommy’s compulsion, especially once Highway 80 made it possible to drive to Reno in one shot.

     We grandchildren never talked about it, but I suspect we all knew.  We especially never talked about it with any of Aunt Stella and Uncle Tommy’s three children.  This was even though we’d heard the story of how my cousin Alvin had had his MG repossessed in the middle of the night one time when Uncle Tommy bet the pink slip to his youngest son’s car.  Alvin had chased after the repo guys with a golf club only to have Aunt Stella coax him back into the house with the truth.

  After that Alvin had slowly slipped into eccentricity.  By the time of Uncle Tommy’s death, Alvin was living at age 49 in his mother’s house.  He shaved his head, wore all white, and talked to whoever would listen about the spiritual significance of UFOs.  Aunt Stella would tell others that Alvin was very philosophical and working on a new version of the Bible.

     Up to seeing the brown leather jacket on Aunt Stella’s table, I had assumed that what I knew about my dead uncle up to that point explained everything I needed to know about Uncle Tommy. I still am not quite sure how it fell to me to dispose of Uncle Tommy’s jacket that night, but somehow it did.  Possibly, it was because Paperson was on my way back home that night and that no one felt that Alvin was the right person to take care of the matter.  Possibly it had something to do with my relative closeness with Aunt Ellen.

I was sitting on the yellow couch in Aunt Stella’s living room, the same place where we had once watched the Beatles on Ed Sullivan for the first time when my Aunt Ellen came out with the jacket still in its plastic wrapper.

     “Lucky, I need to ask you to help with something.”

     “Sure, anything.”

     “I want you to take this jacket and bury it back behind the baseball field near Paperson tonight.  There’s a shovel in the garage and a flashlight.”

     I looked at her blankly as if I were waiting for her to tell me to make sure I wiped down the fingerprints.

     “You know, I loved your Uncle Tommy too once,” she sobbed.

     I sat on the couch as holding the jacket by the hanger in my index and middle fingers.

     “Lucky, you need to go now.  Don’t let Aunt Stella see you.”

     I’d always liked my Aunt Ellen better than my Aunt Stella and they had never much liked one another though it was more love-hate than hate-hate.  I didn’t have divided loyalties about Aunt Ellen’s instructions, it was just that the sudden appearance of the jacket as possible burial garb then its even more sudden unexplained banishment from Aunt Stella’s house were hard to process even for someone like me who’d grown up in the Tang family.  I also knew that Aunt Ellen’s judgment of family hot buttons had never been the best.

     “I should never have brought the thing here tonight,” she continued.

     I had naturally assumed that Uncle Tommy had kept his own jacket in a closet somewhere.  I had no idea why Aunt Ellen had been keeping my Uncle Tommy’s jacket for close to fifty years.  Before I knew it, the shovel and flashlight were in the trunk of my car and the jacket rested in its plastic bag draped over the passenger seat.  This was the only time I ever got in a car alone with any part of my Uncle Tommy.
     I knew the spot.  About a quarter mile from the town, there was a big clearing on which no one grew any crops.  One side had been turned into a baseball field because it was the one big open space near the town and we played there from time to time in summers.  The backstop was green painted wood and cyclone fence and home plate was made from a triangle of black rubber.  I had driven by a few weeks earlier when I showed Luke Howard Paperson.  You could still make out the baselines from the road.  Something about baseball fields lingers after their time hosting games passes.  It also helped that the baseball diamond wound up in the shadow of the KCLR television tower.  

     At night the fog settles in around Paperson and it’s so thick that one would not be able to see the pitcher’s mound from second base.  Had it been that thick, I don’t know that I would have been brave enough to stop and bury the jacket that same night.  For some reason though, that night there was no fog or damp.  It was dry, warm, and oddly hospitable.  I spent a good half hour burying the brown leather jacket in the damp soil behind the backstop.  I hung the lantern flashlight with the dry cell battery from a broken bit of cyclone fence in the backstop.  Aunt Ellen had insisted that I bury the jacket at least three feet deep without its plastic bag.   I dutifully followed her instructions. I had worn dress shoes to Aunt Stella’s and I wound up ruining both my shoes and pants for the sake of Uncle Tommy without exactly knowing why that night.

     It was Uncle Leon who told me the story.  We were at lunch and he was trying to get Luke Howard information out of me and I had to find a way to distract him so I asked him if he knew anything about Uncle Tommy’s leather jacket.  One can never completely trust any of Uncle Leon’s versions of family stories, but for some reason I don’t think he had any reason to embellish this one in his favor since Uncle Leon was eleven years old at the time. I’ve filled in some of the gaps in Uncle Leon’s version with some research.

     In 1941, my grandfather raised ninety five thousand dollars for the Chinese war effort, coincidentally almost the same total that my grandparents paid out to Harrah’s and the Golden Nugget in the early sixties on Uncle Tommy’s behalf.  Inspired by the stories of the heroism of Chennault’s Flying Tigers, my grandfather and Paperson’s elders decided to go a step beyond just turning over the money to the Koumintang.  They determined that they would pay for two p-40s, then twenty five thousand dollars each to the US governement, and train four volunteer crews of Chinese American pilots and send them to Rangoon to do their bit for the American Volunteer Group.  At the time, the American Volunteer Group was flying a slightly obsolete version of the P-40 with bullseye gun sights, mounting stays on the wings, and with three less pounds of torque for ascents.  As part of a deal with the British who held the order for the next 100 P-40’s, FDR had arranged for the British to get the newer models while the older models went to Chennault in China.  

     I wish I knew how my Grandfather who spoke limited English and knew nothing about military procurement arranged to get two state of the art aircraft from the Curtiss-Wright assembly in Buffalo, New York, in 1941 just as America was preparing to go to war even if the American people didn’t yet know it.  Somehow though, through various connections he actually got title to two civilian versions of the newer models and had them shipped by railroad in parts in unmarked crates to Paperson and unloaded in the middle of the night.  Even more remarkable, my grandfather got the planes outfitted with optical gun sights and the larger bore carburetors that made better performance possible.

Uncle Tommy, who was not yet married to my Aunt Stella, was going to be a member of one of the crews.  While no one in the town was supposed to know about this contribution to the war effort, everyone knew exactly what was going on.  Once the planes were assembled in the Pacific Steamer asparagus warehouse just above the river, the crews used the field that later became the baseball field and later yet the site of the TV tower to learn how to take off and land.  At dawn, one of the p-40s would take off make a sixteen-minute flight, land back on the field, then return to the asparagus warehouse.  

Uncle Tommy was not yet twenty one.  He was the youngest member of the Paper Tigers and they even let him copilot the plane once although he was just expected to be part of the ground crew once the plane got to Asia.  That made him the most glamorous male in Paperson at the time.  Aunt Stella began inviting Tommy the Tiger to gatherings at the house.  Aunt Ellen, who was a two years younger, took to following Stella and Tommy everywhere they went and bringing Tommy any story of the air war in south Asia that made either the American or Chinese newspapers.

A few weeks into the venture, TV Soong, the finance minister of China, arranged for a special meeting in Paperson to arrange for delivery of the planes and the crews.  I’ve  never figured out how they were going to ship two fighter aircraft privately from California to China in 1941, but apparently someone had a plan.  My grandfather, as was his way, stayed in the shadows and did not participate in the meeting.  It was a long heated meeting and Soong's representative laid out a dizzying array of concerns.  Chennault wanted control of the planes and wasn’t sure he was ready for Chinese American pilots who hadn’t been battle trained.  Joseph Stilwell, the American general assigned to the China, had gotten wind of the story and he wanted American planes in American hands even if America wasn’t in the war.  The Chinese air service wanted to guarantee that they controlled the planes and crews and wanted to make absolutely certain that the Communists never got access to either the planes or their trained crews.  That night, Soong’s representative left the Paperson locals bewildered by the complex politics of contributing to the defense of China from the Japanese. He left no clear instructions other than to wait to hear from his people.  

Eleven days after that, the Asparagus warehouse burned to the ground.  All evidence of the two planes disappeared though it was assumed that the planes had been destroyed in the fire. Given the situation, no one dared call in the police.  While immigration concerns were less of a worry in Paperson than it had been before the war, it hardly seemed a good idea to reveal that anyone there had actually been supplying an air force for another country from the proceeds of an illegal gambling house.

  The locals insisted to all investigators that the fire was an accident and never mentioned the existence of the planes, though a story in the Sacramento Union did mention sightings of the plane and speculated about their connection to the fire along the river.  It would be at least six months before new planes could be bought and the crew could finish its training.  On December 7th, two and a half months later, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and the United States entered the war. Uncle Tommy was drafted weeks later and eventually served as a mechanic in a tank unit in Italy that never saw action.  After he learned that there would be no Flying Tigers from Paperson, Uncle Tommy took off his brown leather flight jacket for the last time and for whatever reason gave it to my Aunt Ellen.  

Uncle Leon tells me that he was the only one who knew because he had seen Aunt Ellen with the jacket in the hallway that day.  
“Please, don’t tell Stella,” she had warned him.  “If you do, I won’t speak to you again.”
As it turned out, they stopped speaking to one another for a variety of other reasons over the decades.

     According to Uncle Leon, after the disappearance of the p-40’s, Uncle Tommy still wanted to go to China on his own and volunteer for service.  Aunt Stella had lobbied against the idea.  “You’ve been drafted here. Our future is here,” she had told him as had every other member of both families.
     “You’ll still be fighting the same enemies.  After we win the war, you can go back to China and help rebuild it.”

     Only one person agreed with Uncle Tommy.  I didn’t dare ask Uncle Leon if there was any romantic interest between Aunt Ellen and Uncle Tommy at the time.  I knew that she would never have expressed it directly even if there had been.  After the war Aunt Stella and Uncle Tommy never spoke about the Paper Tigers again even to one another.

According to my Uncle Leon, one of the crew mechanics from the Paper Tigers swore that he had gone to an air show and seen both of the P-40s in the Dominican Republic in the 1950’s serving as part of Trujillo’s air national guard.  He could even make out the spot where they had painted over the tiger’s teeth and the eccentric optical sight mounting was still in the same spot on the right side of the cockpit.  Whether it was true or not, everyone in Paperson believed that version of the story.  No one knows for sure.  

The old man Paperson locals were, however, absolutely certain that T.V. Soong had something to do with the disappearance of the planes. Years later, they claimed he was heard joking about how he had wound up with fifty thousand dollars by selling airplanes that never really belonged to China and had used it to help his sister in law buy land in Long Island. Why someone that important would ever tell a story like that doesn’t really make much sense.  It was more that over time Soong had developed a reputation as a greedy man.  Actually true or not, the story about Soong's joking fit a pattern that made it true in Chinatowns across America.

Money that went to China from Chinese farm workers and laborers often didn’t go to the war effort against the Japanese, it went into various Soong family members bank accounts.“The Soongs cared little about the outcome of the war or China itself”, the old men of Paperson would say “Except for Madame Sun Yat Sen, who was the one who loved China.”  The legend of the airplanes just gave their anger at the Soongs local form.

It never seems to occur to anyone that it might have been my grandfather who arranged for the abduction of the airplanes after he heard about the meeting with TV Soong.  He may well have contributed the proceeds to the Chinese war effort, but he had also likely figured out that the planes never would have made it to China and the Paper Sons would never really have become Flying Tigers. My Grandafther had built his own success on seeing a step ahead.  Even if he had a blind spot for the Koumintang, the party of Sun Yat Sen who had come from his Distirct, he may well have glimpsed    the vastly more complex political world beyond Papersons and measured the effect of what would happen againt the morale of the town that he had built.   As the owner of a gambling house, Grandfather always knew when to cut his losses. It also occurs to me that Uncle Tommy might have been the only person in Paperson, who suspected this alternate version of what happened to the airplanes.

My Aunt Ellen kept that leather flight jacket all those years in a closet while she watched Uncle Tommy return from the war, marry my Aunt Stella, and then deteriorate  in reverse Dorian Gray fashion from romantic international adventurer to failed businessman to compulsive gambler (all of which might have been forms of the same impulse).  All the while, she kept the jacket as fresh as the Tommy Owyang who stood on the wing of a p-40 in the middle of an open field at dawn next to the Sacramento River in 1941.  

  Had we known him in 1941, would we have liked him better?  I didn’t know what to do with the shovel or the flashlight that night so I tossed them both in the river as if they were evidence in some long overdue police investigation. The plastic bag, I tried to drop in a dumpster along Highway 80 that same night.  By then though the wind had picked up and the bag flew off into the empty field behind like some haunted wind sock.  

I’ve never seen or spoken to Aunt Stella or my cousin Alvin since.  I don’t even know if Alvin knows that his father was Tommy the Tiger.

link to history of the real Flying Tigers

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Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Theobertarian Dictionary part 6 Insurgents

For Sale Used Rambler Insurgent, Call Dealing Don at PNAC

Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld has decided that he doesn’t feel comfortable with the word "Insurgents".  According to him, the Iraqi uh….those people who oppose the US presence in Iraq by shooting at us and leaving improvised explosive devices all around the country don’t have a good reason for what they’re doing, so they can’t be “insurgents”.  Hello?  I suppose if some other country stationed 150,000 soldiers in Maryland, Virginia, and DC, we wouldn’t have a good reason either.  Yes, I know all of the Iraqi people were supposed to welcome our invasion with open rather than loaded arms, but just because it said that in Rumsfeld’s war plan doesn’t mean it’s true.   Some people may prefer having a homegrown ruthless dictator to being ruled by well meaning foreigners who happen to torture them, misplace their reconstruction money, and shoot white phosphorous shells at them.  

Just yesterday, the Supreme Court declined to hear the strange case of Sibel Edmonds, a translator/whistleblower who was fired by the FBI.  Hired as a translator shortly after 9/11, Edmonds complained about a variety of suspicious activities at the FBI, including failure to actually translate documents, odd entanglements between staff and suspects, and possibly even indicators that there was more notice about 9/11 than any cared to admit to.  The FBI fired her.  Edmonds sued.  On two different occasions, reviews indicate that the FBI’s actions were retaliatory and there is evidence that Edmond’s concerns had some merit. Just as odd, the Justice Department then started classifying everything about Sibel Edmonds, including an interview with 60 Minutes, after the fact.Her entire suit was dismissed because the Justice Department through John Ashcroft invoked the State Secrets privilege.  The Supreme Court just said “well it doesn’t matter if her claim might be true, there’s mighty sensitive stuff here and it can’t be allowed into court as a matter of national security.  Therefore, no justice for Sibel Edmonds.”

This may explain why a chunk of marble literally fell off the court façade yesterday.  There remains the seemingly minor matter:  no one seems to know what was going wrong at the FBI’s translation department and there’s no sign that anyone in the administation seems to care.  I am sorry that the Supreme Court turned down the case, I would have been fascinated to see Justice Kafka’s opinion.  In the meantime, I suppose they'll claim that this was just another example of "tort reform" in action.

Fwiw heres’s the American Heritage dictionary definition of "insurgent" and here’s their definition of "justice".  Perhaps we need to send Secretary Rumsfeld a dictionary.  I know Duke Cunningham will have some time to read the dictionary over the next few months so maybe he call help the Defense Department out in some other way than he had been.  Anyway, here’s their definition of "patriot".  

So, between Sibel Edmonds and Donald Rumsfeld, which of the two was actually doing something patriotic?  

Insurgent:  Have you ever noticed that President Bush has never referred to Timothy Macveigh as a “terrorist” or an “insurgent” nor has he ever declared war on various groups in the United States who blow up Planned Parenthood clinics.  Of course, many of those are part of the 30% who still approve of his presidency, so he wouldn’t want to call them bad names.  And what of that nice former Congressman who took money from a defense contractor in the middle of a war?  I suppose that’s just an act of greed rather than “insurgency” or “terrorism” even if we were making soldiers on the ground buy their own body armor while this guy was pocketing like a million dollars that might have gone to say I don’t know, buying body armor for like a thousand soldiers. It’s odd to me that Fox News has such an easy time spotting “traitors” and for the last two days, they’ve had such a hard time finding a way to mention Duke Cunningham.  

At the same time, according to the Secretary of Defense real “insurgents” must have a legitimate gripe against their government, be cohesive, and have popular support.  I looked at the most recent opinion polls  in the US and apparently 56% of the American people are insurgents when it comes to the War in Iraq.  

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Monday, November 28, 2005

A Disturbance of Fate (book review alternate history)

     This is hardly the most timely book review, but then A Disturbance of Fate ,seven locks press, by Mitchell Freedman is a work of alternate history, so I suppose normal notions of timeliness may matter less.  Although the book was a finalist for a Sidewise Award in 2004, I might never have known about this Robert Kennedy based what if had I not come across Freedman's blog one day because we’d both been at different times “on the radar” at the Daou Report.  At the time, I’d been experimenting with an interactive alternate history, Zimmerman Correction, which riffs off an alternate reality loosely built around a very different November 1963.  

     In the spring of 1968, I was in junior high and interested enough in politics that my parents let me stay up late enough to hear the California democratic primary results on a school night. In those days, they didn’t declare winners two minutes before the polls closed.  For whatever reason, I was the only kid in my class who was rooting for RFK.  There was one for McCarthy and the rest were all for Nixon.  Interestingly enough, I’ve never spoken to any of them in the thirty years since and the whole RFK RMN thing may well have something to do with it.  I went to bed happy that night having heard the announcement that Robert Kennedy had been declared the winner of the primary.  Less than an hour later, my parents woke me because they thought I’d want to know and I heard the name Sirhan for the first time and watched the footage of the Ambassador hotel repeated endlessly on the matching network reports.  As an adult, I’ve looked back at that night as one of many markers of the fact that as a mid-baby boomer, I’d felt the sixties, but didn’t live them myself.  Instead of a life filled with charismatic left leaning leaders, I grew up in an actual timeline in which Richard Nixon was arguably the  most liberal president in my adult life.  That night in 1968 was the last time I was unabashedly hopeful about America’s political future.  

Disturbance of Fate is a tireless exploration of what might have happened had Sirhan missed and what America might have been had the now seemingly extinct left wing of the Democratic party not lost its last charismatic leader.  Unlike Harry Turtledove’s popular and mind numbingly prolific alternate histories which often appear to treat the “what if” more as an amusing mind puzzle, Freedman takes on the task of imagining a post 1968 America with RFK with a heartfelt intensity.  This is the book’s greatest strength.  Freedman’s research and attention to detail is so passionate that his “what if” of an America that pulls out of Vietnam pre-1970, reaches détente with the Soviets, and discovers the commercial power of the Internet in 1976 that his events often feel more inevitable or actually historical than imaginary.  In this sense, Disturbance of Fate is highly unusual as alternate history in that Freedman approached it less as a point of departure than as an actual HISTORY.   The result is the first example I’ve seen of policy wonk alternate history.  It’s 600 plus pages of close analyses, data from studies, direct references to genuine historical sources and even footnotes.  The final product is almost more literal than literary as Freedman delves into delegate by delegate counts in his version of the 1968 Chicago convention, details precise election totals, and draws on his own expertise on the most exacting details of the legislative and judicial process.  

For the first two hundred pages that move from the Ambassador Hotel to RFK’s election in 1968, I fought with Freedman’s style.  He makes few if any concessions to writing a “novel” per se.  There is little physical description or idiosncyratic detail.  The book itself has almost no use for symbol, metaphor, selective ordering of scenes, or emotional build.  Instead, Freedman offers his what if as Theodore White style history in a seemingly endless series of policy discussions presented more or less as tran scripts of meetings.  The one big cost of this stylistic choice is that all of the characters even RFK himself come off a bit flat.  The one exception is RFK’s colorful vice-president, the populist Texan Ralph Yarborough, who serves in some ways as the moral force of the book.  For roughly a third of the book I found myself asking,”Couldn’t this guy have made some concession to being a bit more writerly and little less wonky and literal.”

Somehow though, I managed to quell my worst writers’ workshop instincts enough to keep pushing and something quite remarkable happened: the narrative magically seemed to pick up a momentum of its own. Disturbance of Fate is passionately imagined not so much as writer’s fiction but as a novel of ideas.  In that sense, it reminds me of Shavian drama which can be riveting even when long philosophical monologues by the characters would seem utterly untheatrical in any other hands.  Freedman is dead serious about presenting an America that might have been, but for the loss of RFK.  Rather than let us imagine how it might have been possible, he wants to make sure that we see how possible it was in exhaustive detail.  In this America, different heroes emerge, Yarborough, Chester Bowles, Julian Bond, Taylor Hackworth.  Freedman also looks squarely at RFK’s flaws including his marital infidelities, the wiretapping of Martin Luther King, and his association with Joe McCarthy early in his career. As a reader, I began to buy in literally because the author's commitment to his subject is so total and I began to welcome being taken into every detail of the RFK administration with Freedman’s high-powered policy microscope.

Once RFK’s administration takes hold, the narrative picks up a surprisingly riveting narrative force because it's full of well thought through surprises built on Freedman’s own nuanced understanding of the ways in which policy choices often have double-edged effects. For example, RFK keeps the vitality of the Democratic party by taking strong unionist stances at the expense of the more cultural agenda the real party took after 1970 with its emphasis on women’s rights, choice, racial inclusion, secularism, and environmentalism.  Even though he clearly admires and possibly worships RFK, Freedman the writer is disciplined enough to present an RFK presidency as anything but utopic even while it ventures into wish fulfillment.  On the ride, Freedman finds amusing fates for several individuals who became mainstays of what he calls “first timeline” America.  These include Ted Kennedy, David Duke, Ronald Reagan,Roger Ailes, Mo Udall, Allard Lowenstein, Disco Music (Freedman is something of a cultural conservative),  the AIDs crisis, and a surprising ominous appearance by Barry Sadler in the book’s apocalyptic appendix(the Green Berets) I suspect Freedman hated Barry Sadler’s martial version of Bobby Goldsboro song for pushing out progressive rock and this was a bit of humorous revenge.  At the same time, the Bush family barely exists in Freedman’s alternate history, I suspect because in his fantasy he simply wished away the abysmal president and his father.  

In the end, it strikes me that Freedman took a favorite RFK campaign quote, “Some men see things as they are and ask why.  I dream of things that never were and ask why not,” and tried to make it feel real (interestingly enough the quote comes from George Bernard Shaw).  Disturbance of Fate is an RFK monument, much in the spirit of David Halberstam’s RFK an Unfinished Odyssey, yet written from a very different aesthetic sensibility that emphasizes the actual stances rather than the charisma and tragic hero side of RFK that Halberstam caught so well.  As a work of alternate history it breaks ground in the way it takes the “history” of his point of departure with a historian’s devotion to source and documentation even of imagined events.  It’s an interesting direction for the genre, though I wonder if it will be much followed because I suspect few authors can match Freedman's meticulous level of research   In fact, the only glitch I picked up is that he may have Daniel Ellsberg married to Ruth Marx a bit before he actually divorces Carol Ellsberg (I'm not even sure about that one). As a monument for those of us, even those like me who have little actual memory of the living RFK(the closest I got was that Allard Lowenstein was a guest speaker in my administrative law class in 1980 roughly a week before he was shot by Dennis Sweeney), Disturbance of Fate, as much as anything I’ve read helps me to understand what we lost in RFK at a political level.  In other words, I suspect that Freedman actually accomplished what he set out to do.  Perhaps, we will find that “Why Not” America again.  


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Sunday, November 27, 2005

Learning HTML 2

I’m not a very visual person.  It’s even hard for me to shave because I don’t like looking at myself in the mirror any longer than I have to.  There’s this old guy with some sort of skin problem who looks back and then I had some odd condition called Cushing’s syndrome that altered the shape of the left side of my face a a few years ago.  Neither is like Elephant Man major, yet it’s enough for me to swear that the guy in the mirror isn’t me.  While I am the kind of blogger who obsessively checks his hit counts, I’ve not,in my seven months of Chancelucky life, ever spent nearly enough time making the site visually or user friendly.  Thankfully, my friend Mr. Pogblog even before we transformed to pixellated font-based life forms has always been one of the great encouragers of my writing, was kind enough to mention early on that I needed to learn to bold text to break up the page and to get me to learn to use span commands to excerpt the first couple paragraphs and thus not overwhelm the page.  Pogblog remains the most regular commenter here and it does wonders for me to know that someone is actually reading here than just doing URL driveby thing. In the meantime, I struggle to stay within shouting distance of her masterful command of the language and savagely inventive imagery.  Someone should think about publishing her conventionally so more people can have the benefit of her cultural window cleaning wizardry.  

Most recently, Alan Howard was kind enough to help me with del.ici.ious which appears in the right alley here.  Like this site, Life Through My Eyes  site includes content about widely divergent topics from comments about American avian flu policy to job interviews to an apparent fetish for Asian women (something that makes me a bit nervous.  I’ve wondered if he continues to visit my site out of hopes that I have a sister or neice he might fancy btw his friend Deidre sounds quite wonderful, at least based on his site). In any case, while one of the rules of sitetrapy building seems to be to have a nice “branded” identity,  I find I like blogging away on a variety of seemingly unrelated topics. I get a fair number of readers who are only interested in single areas of my site.  The tags on the right make it possible to click on a category and go straight to the entries that might be of interest.  

I’ve even taken to adding an occasional picture to the site to make it less text heavy, but I draw the line at posting pictures of younger single female relatives even though that would probably dramatically up this site’s hit count.  Of course, the fascinating thing to me is that Alan lives in New Zealand and we’ve never had contact that didn’t involve the exchange of a url of some kind.  Similarly, the blog has led me to Stamen (formerly Nicodemus)  another individual who lives on the other side of the world and whom I would never have encountered otherwise.  Stamen speaks a variety of languages active and archaic and revels in the spirit realm where science doesn’t quite meet perception and experience.  He may also have the distinction of being the world’s oldest blogger at age 85 (conventional years) and often I’m convinced he’s wiser than his years might suggest.

Equally fascinating, I appear to have regular readers who never comment here and I have no idea how they found this site.  It’s really quite flattering and fascinating to think that some unseeable individual is looking in my mirror. In any case,  I’m realizing that one of the differences between traditional paper-based publication and the stream of blogiousness is how subtly social blogmaking turns out to be.  This site would have looked and sounded far different, in fact it might have dried up on its own accord, had it not been for the variety of folk who quietly shape this place in certain ways.  Certainly if this site is becoming a bit more visually friendly, it has little to do with me and much to do with what remains an internet community that’s rather miraculously helpful and supportive in ways seen and unseen.  

I imagine that some day there will be a Carnot who ferrets out the thermodynamics of the Internet.  I’m sure that his/her/its laws will  include the tendency of all blogs to degenerate into spam, all discussion boards to ignite into flame wars, and for pop up ads to grow faster than the software that deals with it.  In the meantime, I marvel at the ways the net still enhances humane contact between individuals who might never have had the joy of meeting and sharing a few words and a little kindness.

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Saturday, November 26, 2005

Illegal Parking in Crawford

Cindy Sheehan returned to Crawford, Texas this week to hang out near the president’s ranch.  Two years ago, the President made a surprise visit to the green zone in Baghdad to serve fake turkey.  It should have said something about the state of the war had to be whisked in and out secretly.  We’ve never been so much in control there that we can assure anyone’s safety even the president’s.  Since Sheehan’s twenty six day vigil in August attracted worldwide media attention, the locals have made it illegal to camp on the roadside.  A few other things happened as well.  The president’s approval ratings dropped precipitously into the low thirties, just around the freezing temperature if we were measuring in fahrenheit instead of Gallup.  Hurricane Katrina pushed Michael Browne into the private sector as a private disaster consultant (some stuff you just can’t make up).  Some five hundred more Americans died in Iraq.  Scooter Libby got indicted.  John Murtha spoke out against the war.  There have been more explicit accusations of US use of torture, white phosphorous, and the president talking about blowing up Al Jazeera.  I’ve seen some of the right wing blogs try to claim that Cindy Sheehan is no longer news.  She’s no longer news for an interesting reason though: the rest of America is beginning to see it her way.

Last week, the president attended a Thuvan throat singing concert in Mongolia where he paid tribute to one of his historical role models, Genghis Khan.  It was, after all, the Mongols who sacked Baghdad in 1258 AD after they claimed that the enemy had weapons of Mesopotamian destruction or some similar reason for conquest.  Now that he’s back in the United States, where he’s much less likely to walk into locked doors while trying to escape the press as he did in China, I imagine he’s getting some well-deserved rest riding his mountain bike in his yellow jersey from the Tour de Crawford.  A few days earlier, Cindy Sheehan’s sister, Dede Miller, was arrested in Crawford for breaking the new roadside camping/parking ordinances near Crawford. In the meantime, there’s talk of another one of those pro-war protests in Crawford to let the president know that he shouldn’t feel obligated to meet with the mothers of just any dead soldiers or explain his war to them or anyone else.

The next couple days should be interesting.  Someone’s going to have to decide to arrest Cindy Sheehan again and someone’s going to have to explain why what was legal in August is no longer legal in November.  It should be mentioned that she was also recently convicted for protesting in front of the White House in DC a couple months ago.  Political speech in front of the White House apparently is a form of obstructing traffic.  I assume the President won’t be coming by to ask her if she wants some of the White House entourage’s leftover turkey.  Maybe they call it “Freedom Bird” in Crawford since Turkey refused to be a staging zone for the US invasion of Iraq three Thanksgivings ago.  Perhaps, the Bush daughters could come out and tell Cindy that they are almost exactly the same age as Casey was and how much they appreciate his family’s sacrifice.  Where have the twins been this last year?  

When Rosa Parks died last month, very few people seemed to notice that this heroine of the south died in Detroit.  After her heroic act, she left Montgomery because she couldn’t find work.  I don’t know what happens to Cindy Sheehan two days from now or forty years from now.  All I know is that she has a lot more guts than our president.  Am I the only one who sees what’s seriously wrong with that picture?  



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Friday, November 25, 2005

Turkeys and Their Discontents

The Wednesday before Thanksgiving, I was driving down my street when I saw a flock of turkeys waddle across my neighbor’s yard. We live in a town with agricultural roots. One of the biggest employers used to be an apple sauce plant that processed apples from local growers. Over time, the local growers couldn’t compete in their own county with growers from colder climates more than a thousand miles away. Now, the biggest local crop is grapes because my neighbors want to pretend that they run a small family winery in the south of France while they drive around in SUVS  and sell real estate and promote IPOs.  People do still raise things here, but the biggest local employer publishes books about Linux .  They took out a pasture to build their headquarters.

When we moved here fourteen years ago, our street was different. Five houses up from us, there was a couple who lived in a trailer who sold blue eggs from there Aruacana chickens.  One side of the street was a largely dormant apple orchard.  Deer came to our front door.  When my daughter was two, I came home one night and said “Dear where are you?”  My daughter answered “Deer live in the orchard.  Mom’s in the bedroom.” I was convinced that my daughter was some sort of lexical genius or at worst a future writer of sitcoms.  That was the same year, she had a chocolate doughnut for the first time and christened them “chocolate bagels.”

In any case, there used to be a hundred yard open space swath that cut through our neighborhood  and made the creek behind our house like a singles bar for wildlife. In our second month  in the house, we had to stop leaving cat food out on the deck because a seriously unattractive opossum had taken a liking to domestic life.  Over the years, we‘ve attempted to domesticate a variety of animals with varying success.  A rabbit died from sun exposure.  Baby chicks became chickens only to be turned into chicken dinners by our border collies’ newly discovered ability to dig underneath a wire fence.  Ducks either flew away or were ducknapped by a neighbor girl who decided she was more interested in our ducks than staying friends with our daughter. My daughter also rescued a baby bird who was abducted in the middle of a summer night by one of the cats.  So even if it’s not a suburban version of the Lion King, it’s still been a lot of critters.

The turkeys have been around for a few years.   The first time we noticed them, they were three streets away and used to wander across the pavement in front of traffic. My daughter would make us stop the car for a few seconds each time we saw one so she could point and laugh with delight as the turkeys crossed the road each member of the flock out of rhythm with the next. Now,that daughter has completed driver’s education and soon will be driving the turkey crossing without us.  I don’t know if some of those went feral and prospered or if they came from elsewhere.  A couple months ago, I spotted a flock of them wandering the local cemetery.  Now,they seem to be catching on in my neighborhood.This flock totaled about sixteen and they straddled my neighbor’s lawn in two distinct groups as they looked under bushes and in flower beds for whatever it is that wild turkeys happen to eat.  For the last day, my wife has been joking that the flock had at least three or four more members until a couple of the neighbors must have engaged in self-help for their Thanksgiving dinner.

In my mother’s town, there’s a street that got overrun by chickens that escaped from  someone’s yard.  One of their neighbors began feeding them, then locals started treating the street as a minor tourist attraction and fed the birds some more.  It’s not a good thing.  For one thing, the chickens attracted vermin and scared out smaller bird species.  Just in time for avian flu, the chickens got moved out somehow. I don’t know if the turkeys will fully establish themselves in our neighborhood and town.  They hardly seem to be the sort of animal that would flourish in a world of front yards and three car garages. and compete with cats, dogs, and raccoons.  I should also mention that we live less than fifteen miles from where Alfred Hitchcock shot the movie the Birds, so it’s easy to have darker thoughts about these turkeys holding pre-Thanksgiving raves in our front yards.  Perhaps, they are happy that so many vegetarians live in my county and they’re just coming by at Thanksgiving to say thank you in person.   Now that I”ve said all this, I have to confess to doing something very odd.  For the last year or so, I’ve been collecting airsoft guns.  These are Asian built modern versions of the old Daisy BB gun.  Instead of looking like replicas of the Rifleman’s lever action Winchester, these are faithful clear plastic replicas of uzis, sig sauers, and other modern weapons.  Instead of firing the ever dreaded steel bb, these fire a softer plastic bb at about two hundred feet per second.  At about ten feet, it stings a little.  At forty feet, you might not feel the impact.

That’s right, I drove home, spotted the turkeys, ran to my stash of airsoft guns, and went into my frontyard and took aim at one of the turkeys from about eighty feet away.  I missed my first four shots, then hit one in the hindquarters.  The turkey didn’t even seem to notice that it had been shot.  It just kept waddling at the same pace right past a set of sprinklers.   My wife and daughter were very unimpressed with my turkey hunting story.  In fact, they were so unexcited, they didn’t even bother to leave the kitchen where they were getting ready for Thanksgiving to either try to stop me or to see me act out some need to be a Robert Bly hunter gatherer.

For whatever reason, the turkey tasted better than usual this year, even though it came from a supermarket.  Or was it because it came from the supermarket?  I’ve never been hunting.  I’ve been fishing, but have never had the patience to actually catch anything.  I can now, however, say that I’ve shot a turkey and watched it walk away from death on the day before Thanksgiving.  Perhaps,  I was acting out some suburban version of a photo safari.  After a year of sporadically Buddhist meditations where we talk about honoring life among other things, I did this impulsive thing that was both harmless and aggressive all at once.  I am now the John Hinckley of neighborhood turkeydom.  

Sometimes I have no idea why I do what I do.  I can’t even promise that I”d never do it again.  My wife tells me that the neighbors are going to want to have me locked up if they catch me.


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Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Theobertarian Dictonary part 5

Coward:  As in everyday language, this word has pejorative connotations in Theobertarian English. Jean Schmidt recently used the word in a sentence on the House floor, “Tell, Rep. Murtha that “cowards” cut and run, Marines never do.”

After a fracas, Jean Schmidt subsequently denied that she was referring to Rep. Murtha then sought to remove her comments from the Congressional record.  Colonel Danny Bubp, allegedly the source of Schmidt’s Marine quote, then claimed that he never told Jean Schmidt to either say it or direct it at Murtha.  

This may seem strange, because in common parlance, one might call someone who doesn’t stand by his or her own comments a “coward” of sorts, especially when you happen to say it on videotape. To the untrained eye, this might look an awful lot like “cutting and running” .  

This is, however, the same Jean Schmidt who claimed that Paul Hackett’s service in Iraq didn’t count because it wasn’t real combat and falsely disputed his claim to be the only Iraq War 2 vet to run for Congress at the time.  She understands that real service is like the president’s National Guard duty, the vice-president’s deferments, and her own extensive time in military service to her country in times of war.  

In Theobertarian English a “coward” is someone who publicly disagrees with you and stands by what he or she said.  I imagine this confuses people like John Murtha who was himself a Marine for more than two decades and was even decorated for his service there.  People like John Murtha probably imagine that standing up for something and speaking out is an act of courage rather than cowardice.  

In Theobertarian doctrine there is a simple way to deal with “cowards”,  you just blow them up from afar or send someone else's children to do it for you.

postscript, it's worth mentioning that the Bush Al Jazeera revelation linked above puts the documentary Control Room
that ends with the US taking out an Al Jazeera correspondent as "collateral damage" in a different light.


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Monday, November 21, 2005

Two Kinds of Phase Out Plans

GM Engineers work on exciting new alternative fuel model, the Buick Moonshiner to compete with the Prius in 2009

Why’s it so hard to withdraw from a war and so easy to withdraw jobs GM cuts 30,000 jobs? I can imagine the following at a GM shareholders’ meeting if they ran their company the same way the administration is running the war.

CS (common shareholder):   We’re losing 4 billion dollars a year?

GM:  But isn’t it great that we’re not making Corvairs or Vegas anymore?

CS:  But that’s already done.

GM:  We were misinformed when we announced that we could turn the company around.

CS:  You told us the no interest buying incentives were working?  Did you lie?

GM:  You had the same information we did.  You held our stock all that time.  How can you accuse the company of lying?  Do you want the public to lose confidence and hurt our share price even more?

CS:  We want our company to make money. But, what’s the plan to fix the problem?  Do you have a plan?

GM:  If we close plants in the US, then foreign auto companies will overrun the US market.

CS:  They already are.  

GM:  If we close plants at home, then how will we generate the taxes to support the war in Iraq? Besides, you're ignoring all the improvements we've made.

CS:  If we don’t close plants, we’ll be a division of Toyota in a few years.

GM:  Almost all of the workers in those plants support keeping them open.

CS:  Do they have a choice?

GM:  When you talk like this, you’re just helping our competitors.

It’s simple enough for the real GM, they put together a phase out plan and address the fact that they are making more cars than they can actually sell at profitable prices.  Even though the administration has worked hard to disable the SEC, the company’s not allowed to lie about the obvious.  GM has a serious problem.  It can not just hold on to its plants and workers out of blind pride.  At some point, no company can sustain a losing venture forever.  I do hope GM finds a way to restore those jobs.  It might have helped if they had some models that are serious contenders to save gasoline or employ alternative fuels.  

Rumsfeld claims that there are 212,000 trained Iraqi security forces.  Even if true, this is a bit like McDonald’s or Walmart claiming that every worker it has ever trained is available to jump behind the counter and say “Welcome to Walmart” or to produce a super-sized portion of fries in under a minute.  It’s not at all the same question as how many workers do you actually have and how many of them really can work the swing shift tonight?  In fact, many estimates suggest that there are roughly 2,000 reliable Iraqi troops right now.

Consider this, these alleged 212,000 trained Iraqis are currently serving with a comparable number of coalition forces, who by all accounts are much better trained and equipped.  Even that’s not keeping the peace in Iraq right now.  How many Iraqis would we have to train before we can withdraw even 10,000 American soldiers?  Btw, there are only 27 million Iraqis and not all of them support our side.  Oh, and by the way, some of them have to make the non-security economy there work.  Has Arthur Andersen been helping the Secretary of Defense with his numbers?

How much does it cost to keep all those troops in Iraq?  So far, it’s about 200 billion dollars (for the war alone).  How much will it cost to train, what is it a million, more Iraqi security forces?  Why didn’t the Secretary suggest what the total needs to be?  How much of that money might have gone to spending on consumer items like environmentally-sounder vehicles?  How many American workers might be working in auto factories or other industries instead of launching white phosphorous somewhere in the Middle East?  

For such a pro-corporate administration, they wouldn’t be able to compete in the world market with real businesses unless they only marketed in competition with Mongolia.  No wonder, when Pres. Bush had a bad day in China, America found a closed door instead of the one it opened a century and a half ago.

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Sunday, November 20, 2005

Not Bewitched, Not even Charmed (movie review)

Like most other baby boomers, I grew up with sitcoms. I also didn’t have very discriminating taste. While I watched Dick Van Dyke, reruns of The Honeymooners, and MASH at various times, I loved the really indefensible stuff as well. I knew the time,day, and channel for F-Troop, My Mother the Car, OK Crackerby, the Beverly Hillbillies, and It’s About Time . I even watched  Petticoat Junction.

Magical thinking sitcoms that combined the newly minted wonders of videotape and the laugh track, were a particular favorite. I grew up wanting to be able to blink (I Dream of Jeannie), telescope my antennae (My Favorite Martian), and especially just wiggle my nose (Bewitched) to make things appear and reappear at will. I did, however, draw the line at being Hazel, a housekeeper with mysterious but undefined powers.

Bewitched was a favorite because it combined several childhood fantasies. First, the witchcraft thing embodied America’s future. Material goods were changing so fast and in so many ways that it seemed that anything was possible. In that time, television sprouted color and remote controls, radios shrank to the size of batteries, machines answered the phone, restaurants could produce food in under three minutes, cars had electric seats and landau tops, there were even devices that let you turn lights on and off with a clap of the hands. Second, Bewitched held out the ultimate dream for any ordinary American male. It was, after all, a show where a totally charmless not particularly attractive guy held a great looking woman in thrall. How stupid yet hopeful can a premise for a show get?Like witchcraft was somehow any worse than being an advertising executive in those days.

This means that despite its mediocre reviews, I was determined to eventually rent and make it all the way through Nora Ephron/Penny Marshall’s take on Bewitched&l. There’s been a long run of movie versions of sixties tv shows over the last decade for some reaon.  I suspect it’s some combination of a dearth of imagination in Hollywood, the prospect of a ready market through Nickleodeon (Baby Boomers taking their own kids to see the sitcoms they loved when they were kids), or just growing cultural vacuousness.  As a group, they’ve fared from abysmal- Dragnet, Starsky and Hutch, Leave it to Beaver, Dennis the Menace, an all black version of Car 54, My Favorite Martian, to funny but generally forgettable, the Brady Bunch and maybe the first Flintstones. You have to wonder, why they keep making or remaking the things. I imagine the simple answer is that they make enough money to keep failing.

Remaking the sitcom for the Tivo generation remains one of those unsolved artistic problems. Each time they try it, the directors get caught between loving tribute and self-conscious post-modern commentary on the campiness of the original. This mixture happened to work in the Brady Bunch  largely because the Bradys were an anachronism in their own time, so the movie version’s schtick of transporting them to the 1990’s allowed the movie makers to have it both ways, <strong>let the Bradys play it straight while Asian carjackers, sexually challenged best friends, and punk boyfriends collided into the family station wagon and paisley. </strong>It may have helped that the Brady Bunch remake started as a stage play where they could get the mix right. Dragnet went heavy on the camp and turned Joe Friday into a sitcom character.The result was one of Tom Hanks’s least memorable movies. In general, this attempt to turn tv nostalgia into a Bond like movie franchise has been more or less Mission Impossible, which they pulled off by giving up almost all pretense to paying homage to the original tv series.

There’s a simple reason for that.  Even though, they are as a group, dreck, the <strong>sixties sitcoms were still a reflection of a much more hopeful time</strong>.  In the sixties, America still believed in its own perfectability as a culture. Technology and magic were one. Social perfectability and tolerance were just a wise sitcom mother or father away. Solutions to all problems were never more than twenty seven minutes from being solved. Today’s idea thieves only seem to see the camp. While I love today’s reality tv, there is no more deeply cynical form of television in the way that reality tv marries the greed of the game show to the staginess of the sitcom.

In remaking the sitcom, modern directors seem either totally unaware or unable to face the pain of what our culture has clearly lost. Modern America has become so deeply cynical that we’ve lost the capacity to protest our own emptiness. Sitcoms always had this vanilla wafers and milk feel to them.They weren’t substantial or sophisticated, but there was something warming and hopeful about them. Our generation’s remakes it with Jolt Cola and low carb corn chips.“See how stupid and simple those old shows were?” they say, while the whole time failing to look in our own botoxed mirror.

Coming in, I had some hope for Nora Ephron and Penny Marshall.For one thing, <strong>Marshall came from Laverne and Shirley. She has multiple ties to the great sitcom family tree </strong>as the sister of Garry Marshall(Happy Days, Mork and Mindy) ex-wife of Bob Reiner (All in the Family) and former daughter in law of Carl Reiner(Dick Van Dyke, Show of Shows . If anyone understands the soul of the sitcom, it should be Penny Marshall and her family. In fact, Garry Marshall, in particular, has come the closest to preserving the innocence and warm magical non-realism of the sitcom form alive in movies that don’t directly footnote the sitcom starting with Pretty Woman, Dear God, Raising Helen, etc. (not that any of these were actual good movies).

Ephron’s screenplays have generally drawn on some of the same schmaltzy warmth of forties romances and sitcoms-When Harry Met Sally, Sleepless in Seattle, and You’ve Got Mail-(otherwise known as the Meg Ryan as America’s sweetheart trilogy). Two of those alluded directly to forties movies like An Affair to Remember and the Shop Around the Corner. Harry Met Sally is best described as a chickflick take on Annie Hall or if you include Reds, all Diane Keaton movies. The first two were directed by Bob Reiner. The third was Ephron’s own attempt at directing

I’m not at all sure just how Bewitched went so wrong. Ephron appears to have wanted to respect the sitcom’s heart by talking about the story as a “romance”.Somehow, she got sidetracked in other agenda. In the process, she takes on the shallowness of modern Hollywood with poolside deal meetings, audience approval ratings, entourages, etc. Perhaps she was trying to say that there was something sweet and innocent about the original Bewitched that modern Hollywood is incapable of understanding.  She certainly got an A list light comedy cast to bring it off with  Michael Caine (Samantha’s father), Shirley Maclaine (Endora), Will Ferrell, and Nicole Kidman, and even, the recently so white hot he’s seen everywhere and in everything,Steve Carrell

The result is a five ring circus without a ringmaster. There’s the attempt to evoke the original Bewitched, Ephron’s post-feminist philosophizing on the source material (Kidman was involved with another failed attempt to combine withcraft, romance, and feminism Practical Magic), the attempt to satirize modern Hollywood, and incongruously enough her attempt to take the romance seriously (some business about real love vs. manufactured love).

How do I put this? The best joke in the movie is the in joke of having Shirley Maclaine claim to have supernatural powers.  Frankly, Hollywood never does all that well when it tries to make fun of itself. It’s just never genuinely self-critical.The best thing about the nostalgia portion turns out to be Kidman’s nose.  They do a marvelous job recreating whatever it was Elizabeth Montgomery did on screen to make witchly things happen. In fact, Kidman does well at channeling Elizabeth Montgomery’s winning mixture of innocence, sexiness, and charm. Unfortunately, this is marred by Will Ferrell. While the multiple Darrins in the original never had much romantic chemistry with Montgomery, it still seemed possible to believe the marriage.

In the remake, Ferrell works the fatuous side of his fallen action star hard, but never manages to give any hint of a character anyone might really love.Thus when the movie closes on a set that’s built to replicate a set, the viewer winds up at least three levels away from feeling any actual romance. Both Marshall and Ephron are generally good at story.With Bewitched, however, it becomes surprisingly hard to even stay interested in the plot because we have so little interest in Kidman actually living happily ever sitcom with Ferrell. In fact, the disregard for actual chemistry between Kidman and the trying too hard Ferrell winds up twisting the movie itself into what appears to be either unintended cynicism or just over the top self-consciousness.

One of the other notable things about the original Bewitched is that it had maybe the most archly gay cast in all of tv. Part of the deeper irony of sitcom America always was the odd way it closeted those things that the sixties weren’t quite prepared to talk about. Robert Reid, the man who played father Brady, was gay, for instance. Bewitched was a show filled with gay icons starting with Paul Lynde’s Uncle Arthur, Vincent Price, Agnes Moorehead. Even one of the Darinns was apparently gay.This, of course, meshed admirably with the show’s subtext of secret hidden cultures and forces still lurking in America’s emerging suburban life then mythologized by the sitcom. Ephron and Marshall sadly did their best to avoid  that one at all costs. It seemed that all that self-consciousness only went so far.

Someday, perhaps, someone will take on one of the old sitcoms and get it right by aiming straight at what they really represent and what most of us love about them. I miss sitcoms because they remind me of what America has lost. They were trusting, simple, somehow predictable, yet hopeful visions of what we never really were as a country or culture.We might make fun of bellbottoms and Gladys Cravitz or Gladys Cravitz in bellbottoms, but that world was in some real ways much wiser and healthier than our own. Maybe somebody will get Pleasantville right some day so it doesn’t come out as Pretentiousville or Self-Conscious Campinessville.


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Friday, November 18, 2005

Just Another One of the President's Men

It’s been an odd year for Bob Woodward.  First, another paper winds up revealing who Deep Throat was, Mark Felt former assistant director of the FBI.  Second, in the most famous confidential source matter since 1974, Woodward makes a sudden appearance right after Patrick Fitzgerald finished rolling his opening credits.  The Washington Post had come out of the Judith Miller 85 days protecting Scooter Libby looking considerably more serious about its Pentagon Papers/Watergate legacy than the New York Times.  Now Woodward claims that some other senior White House Official mentioned Valerie Plame’s CIA connection to him weeks before Scooter Libby ever uttered the name.  For someone whom the right wing blogosphere insists was just a low level, non covert, analyst, Valerie Plame was an awfully popular topic of conversation at the White House.  

Thirty one years ago, Bob Woodward was lurking around DC parking garages and sending signals by changing the position of flower pots on his front step.  Now, the guy hangs out at the White House with insiders who casually talk about CIA analysts by name while he watches the President and staff make the big decisions about the war.  Never mind that all this is happening before Joe Wilson ever writes his op ed in the New York Times.  I’m trying to see the movie of this one.  Will they call it “Just Another one of the President’s Men”.  Maybe in the closing credits, Nora Ephron can do a blooper scene with Woodward getting hit in the face with a cream pie instead of Carl Bernstein.

I suspect this is what happens to you after you get portrayed in the movies by Robert Redford.  Once that happens, you lose track of the fact that you’re really supposed to be famous for exposing government scandals not hanging out with the guys who are in the midst of carrying one off.  At least he can give “Official X” a decent memorable name symbolic of the era like he did Mark Felt,  maybe this source can be called “Gay Marriage” or “Right to Life”.  

Anyway, I’m hoping my friend Official X, I mean Karl Rove, will let me do the screenplay for “Yet Another One of the President’s Tools.”  I’ve already got a scene written.

W:  “You know we could do that, but it might be wrong.”

BW:  “Wow, Mr. President.  You’re so incredibly thoughtful.  Let me make sure I make a note here that you had a second thought about something.”

RC:  Lewis, you actually finished Yale.  What’s a seven letter word for “fair game”?

LL:  Sir, I think some reporter told me you might try “Valerie.”

RC:  Okay, but does 9 across start with “F” or “P”?

LL:  I could call Judith.  She works for the Times, probably even knows the guy who does the Sunday crossword.

W:  So, okay, I tell everyone that Saddam has been looking to buy uranium somewhere in Africa.  

BW:  Wow, Mr. President you’re so precise and the coffee here is a lot better than it was in that parking garage way back when.

RC:  Just say the words that Karl wrote for you Mr. President.

KR:  I know there’s a Valerie who works at CIA headquarters.

LL:  I know a Valerie whose married to Joe Wilson.

BW:  Boy, I’m glad they’re just joking around and there’s no connection between any of this stuff.

RC:  Another latte Mr. Woodward? You won't have to find it under a rock here.
BW:Yes, yes, no smoking guns here either, not even a match.




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Tuesday, November 15, 2005

White Phosphorous

The United States admitted to using white phosphorous shellsas an offensive weapon in  the siege of Fallujah in 2004.  White Phosphorous is not a perfume endorsed by Elizabeth Taylor, it’s a high temperature weapon that sends off an intense white light on impact.  Whether or not, it’s officially a chemical weapon, it’s hard to describe it as anything else.  
Should  you be hit directly by white phosphorous you will burn so severely that there will be no way to stop the burning (water likely only makes it worse), there will be any number of toxic smells and after effects.  It’s a painful horrifying death as cruel as poison gas, napalm, or agent orange.  The charges first came up in an Italian magazine.  The US initially denied them, then denied that they used them as weapons, and now they deny using white phosphorous against civilians.  The US is also trying to suggest that there’s nothing explicitly illegal about white phosphorous.  In fact, it is apparently permissible as a kind of marker to light up an area for other kinds of bombs.  In this case, the military used white phosphorous to flush out its targets then hit them with “conventional” weapons.  Some of the evidence includes reports from soldiers claiming that they had seen enemy corpses that had been left ash white from being hit by white phosphorous.

I thought we went into Iraq at least partly because Saddam had used chemical weapons on other people.  The President insists that we don’t torture.  I’m relieved to hear that, even though if what we are doing with some detainees is not torture, I’d be hard-pressed to explain the differences.  I imagine he’ll also affirm that we don’t use chemical weapons, it’s just that it’s now documented that we used weapons that do everything chemical weapons do.  

I believe that virtually any human is capable of most anything.  One of the big differences is that some realize what they’ve done, they show remorse and take steps never to do it again.  Others never take responsibility or acknowledge their own actions.  Sadly, I already know which of the two sits in the White House.

Torture in the Green Zone

The following is a list of precautions for phosphourous from Your Encyclopedia on Phosphorous
"This is a particularly poisonous element with 50 mg being the average fatal dose. The allotrope white phosphorus should be kept under water at all times due to its hyper reactivity to air and it should only be manipulated with forceps since contact with skin can cause severe burns."

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Saturday, November 12, 2005

Cumbaya (volleyball mostly)

It’s a timeout during the fourth game of my daughter’s team’s match with their league rival.  My daughter’s team won the first two games much more easily than expected, but has lost its last five matches to their rival.  The third game went 28-26 to the other team. The fourth game started with a 5-0 run by the other team including four aces.  Her coach calls time out and the players gather in a circle at mid court arms around one another.  After a few seconds, it becomes apparent that my daughter and her teammates are singing.  One of her teammates, Kelsey Mcmahan, is an excellent singer who has a great version of the national anthem, but it’s clear that the point at the moment is not to sing well.  If it were, they wouldn’t be singing Cumbaya.  

Even up here in Northern California, where coffee does not come from cans and it’s not odd to have converstations with large trees, no group of teenagers links arms and starts singing Cumbaya in public as a serious spiritual gesture.  At one level, they’re being silly.  The crowd, however, doesn’t necessarily pick up on their song choice, so no one laughs or even seems to smile much.  Over the last two big matches, the team generally sings Cumbaya during timeouts, but they’ve also done the love theme from the Titanic and I suspect they may eventually choose some even goofier songs should the season go on much longer. At another level, though, my daughter’s team, no matter how the playoffs turn out, has succeeded at a very significant level.  

Teams find their own ways to bond.  With special teams, coaches encourage it, but they don’t impose the form it takes.  When a team starts developing its own rituals and makes them work, I’m convinced that they’ve crossed over into a realm where they are beginning to experience the best thing the team experience has to offer.  When things like this happen, whether it be touching the arch of the entrance to the gym, wearing the same scrunchee, dancing on the court, or singing new agey spirituals in front of crowds, there’s a good chance that the individuals on the court have created an identity for themselves as a team.  Whether the team that results has the talent to win the big match doesn’t ultimately matter that much, the sense of becoming a group with a common purpose is a special experience every child should have. They’ve reached a kind of grace as a team.  

Btw, I ‘ve discovered that Cumbaya or Kumbayah appears to have an interesting history.  It’s Gullah., a dialect of English spoken by a small group of escaped slaves in South Carolina who lived in relative isolation for generations.  The spiritual likely made it’s way to Angola in the 1930’s and then came back to the West as something that sounds “African”, which it is, but it’s like one of those e-mail routings where it goes to twenty seven different servers all around the world before it winds up at the ISP next door.  

Sports movies tend to glory in these details.  My daughter still drops Coach Carter in the DVD and I always find myself watching in the scene where the players start volunteering to run suicides and do pushups to help the erstwhile drug dealer/three point shooter with bad hair guy meet his deal with the coach.  In Rudy, it’s the point where the players start handing in their jerseys unless Rudy gets to suit up for his last game and get a career as a motivational speaker.  In Remember the Titans, I’d say it happens either when the big fat guy (okay not a politically correct term) starts singing at Gettysburg or when the players hold a sit in at a bar to remind people that Denzel Washington won an Academy Award once.  In Miracle, Mike Euruzione takes on Herb Brooks for bringing in a ringer at the end of tryouts and says “It’s either him or all of us.”  Okay, my daughter’s team has not had an “us” moment worthy of a sports movie, nor are they likely to be memorable enough a team to the outside world for anyone to much care, but I’ve seen enough teams to know that most don’t find their own “Us” moment.  Think about the Kerry campaign last year. :}  On the other hand, think about the Bush-Cheney campaign when they appeared onstage at the end of the Republican convention without Mary in their own "most of us" moment.  

I’m trying to savor this whole hold hands and sing Cumbaya thing, because it turned out to be such a strange week.  The linked worlds of club tryouts and high school playoffs intersected in our family’s life with more than its usual emotional force.  At the same time, I wound up in the middle of’s venture into message board reality tv.  I’d written a long article on a club volleyball team from ten years ago only to discover that the events of 1995 coincided with the most famous scandal/controversy in junior sports.  I spent a long time going back and forth with the editor.  My original version discussed the scandal openly.  The editor/owner of the site  was reluctant because it promised to cause a firestorm on his message board and because my story wasn’t meant to be about the scandal at all.  Ultimately, I agreed to edit it one more time and we left in a vague reference to what happened.  In the meantime, I got to call the fellow at the center of the scandal and check my facts.

For two months, I got to think of myself as some volleyball version of Matthew Cooper or Judith Miller.  No, I wasn’t protecting confidential sources from Patrick Fitzgerald, but I was faced with one of those dilemmas that torture real journalists every now and then.  What do you omit?  What do you have to tell?  How long do you have to keep reminding people of someone else’s past indiscretion?  For instance, how long does it have to be before one can mention Michael Jackson without mentioning little boys?  Can we now say Bill Clinton without saying Monica?  Can we refer to Oliver North without mentioning that he was convicted for theft?  

For almost a week, the article sat there without comment, then a woman who had been a former business partner of the club director in question, jumped into the fray.  She felt it was her duty to make explicit what my article had left vague and made a good case for her point of view in the process. The wife of the club director answered back.  The former business partner, now a prominent club director herself, answered the answer.  The wife of the club director answered again.  Other people started criticizing me for covering up or cheating history.  Suddenly, all the heat had nothing to do with my actual article and everything to do with the repercussions or lack of repercussions of a scandal from ten years ago and the fact that one club director was still involved in junior volleyball.  This definitely was no “Cumbaya” moment.

In the meantime on a seemingly unrlelated front, my daughter was feeling torn out of dual loyalties.  Our current club director had been my older daughter’s volley mentor for many years.  He coached her both in high school and club for five years and volleyball became and remains an important part of the older one’s life.  For three years, my daughter had a club coach who mentored, sponsored, pushed her development along.  In particular, in the summer before high school, my daughter wanted badly to make the team.  Her coach got her out playing in coed open gym and pre-season clinics that made a huge difference for her.  Last year, my younger daughter’s coach announced that she wanted to start her own club.  

     It’s hard to be the parent of a child who’s in the middle of a volleycustody situation.  My heart goes out to any families who find themselves in these kinds of situations.  It’s no one’s fault and junior sports has microscopic significance in the true order of world events, yet in our household all these club tryouts and who would be one whose team assumed greater significance than they ever should have.

     Last Friday, the President continued to indulge in the big lie.  This time, he’s saying he was wrong about Iraq, but so were those darned democrats who saw the same information he had seen.  Alas, that’s not exactly true.  It was the administration who gave the senate the information and as it turns out it wasn’t exactly the same information, because it didn’t include all those little pieces that the administration likely hid.  Let me put two small things together.  If the congress had the same info as the democrats, what the heck was Lewis Libby bothering to cover up?  Unfortunately, things have slipped so badly in the media, that they have headlines like “Bush fires back at critics” instead of the more accurate “There you go again.”  How bad is it, when you wind up lying about your own lying?

     Something tells me that most people who follow this blog, I hate to break the news  but there may be more people who know who really cooked the pre-war intelligence estimates than have ever read this blog, expect me to tie all of this together in my usual randomly associative fashion.  I’m not sure that I  know how.

     During that same volleyball match, my wife played one of these behind the scenes heroic roles.  The other school’s young male fans had taken to shouting lewd things at our players.  Their administrators didn’t seem to be inclined to do much of anything about it, apparently considering it a form of school spirit.  My wife made a point of talking to one of my daughter’s high school’s administrators and getting him to promise to come to the match.  This time, the refs did intercede on at least one occasion and though this didn’t stop this odd cheering practice completely, it made a difference.  My wife is one of the few people I know who sees these sorts of things and actually does something about them.

     I should also mention that because of the success of a stuffed electronic hamster brought by an online acquaintance to another tournament, I had bought one of my own through E-Bay and brought him to this match to play the position of good luck charm.  When the hamster’s home, I take care to keep him out of the reach of our remaining cats least we wind up with fake fur and little integrated circuits on our front doorstep.  

     It is not coaches who give teams their identity, ultimately it’s the players themselves who must find their epiphany.  When it happens, it doesn’t matter if it’s Joyce’s Dubliners or the Mighty Ducks.   I think much the same is true of countries and families.  Such  a long and strange week.  I think about what my daughter worked through with her team during a time of magnified teen volley angst.  I think about my wife’s quiet way of asserting herself to protect our kids, usually without even telling them.  I don’t even feel obligated to share all the bad things that ever happened to my family.  As fractured as the rest of the world seems whether it be volleyworld or geopolitical world, right now I’m just reveling in the fact  that all I seem to be able to hear is singing.  

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