Saturday, December 31, 2005

Gollum and Godot

The justice department has decided to track down whoever leaked the FISA story to the New York Times and Washington Post.   Why don’t I feel better or safer?  Let’s see, for one I was under the impression that the Attorney General was supposed to be protecting the Constitution and myself rather than the Administration.  Believe it or not, it’s been thirty five years since Daniel Ellsberg copied the Administration’s Secret History of the War in Vietnam.  I’d say that we as a nation haven’t learned a lot in the last thirty years.

The administration chose to prosecute Ellsberg and Anthony Russo.  At the same time, the White House decided to “dig up dirt” on Ellsberg by breaking into his psychiatrist’s office.  Ellsberg though that going to the Times and Post with the papers would help end the war.  Instead, the papers indirectly led to the impeachment/resignation of Richard Nixon.  The war continued into the Ford administration so they could make Miss Saigon and the Deerhunter.

The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (1978) sprung from these events and I suppose that compounds the irony.  Even though Richard Nixon climbing into that helicopter in 1974 felt like the final act, a lot of issues never got settled back then.

1)  When the Justice Department restrained the publication of the Pentagon Papers for 10 days, the Supreme Court didn’t say that the press has an unfettered right to publish without restraint.  The Court determined in NY Times v. US that the administration hadn’t met its burden of proof to allow it to restrain publication of a sensitive story on national security grounds.  
     The Pentagon Papers were literally historical.  They documented the misdeeds and lies of four different administrations in Vietnam.  Oddly, the Nixon administration wasn’t one of them.  The papers included no current information about troop positions, weapons, etc.  They did include information like the US knowing that elections in Vietnam weren’t free and fair or that the Tonkin Gulf Incident never actually happened.  
    The Court contemplated the possibility that there might be a national security matter sensitive enough to permit prior restraint.  We still don’t know where the line is.

2) Russo and Ellsberg were the beneficiaries of a mistrial because of government misconduct.  The court never looked at the issue of whether or not their act of civil disobedience for releasing classified information to the press was still criminal.
We don’t know when whistleblowing of this sort should be rewarded or punished.

3) FISA was the product of a congress that was fresh from dealing with serious questions presented by Presidential disregard for process.  It meant to lay out clear procedures even when the Executive was pursuing information involving foreign affairs.  
It would indeed be ironic if this post-Watergate set of provisions became the basis for yet another impeachment.

One of the proposed grounds for the impeachment was the secret bombing of Cambodia.
The publication of the papers raised a number of questions about the limits of presidential authority in war.  What role did Congress play?  What did people have a right to know?  Where did presidential discretion begin and end when it came to national security?  

Because the president got implicated in a common crime, we didn’t actually answer those questions thirty years ago.  

  1. Perhaps the deepest irony  was that after all of the fury over whether or not they should be published, I suspect that only a handful of people have ever read them in full.  I confess that I’m not one of that handful.  That said, the papers themselves weren’t an indictment of a particular president since they spread across four administrations.  As a whole, they documented an unannounced shift in the way foreign policy was actually conducted by the Executive.  

After World War 2, someone or some group of people determined that separation of powers, checks and balances, and consent of the governed might not be fast enough to cope with a world of airplanes and nuclear weapons.  This wasn’t a democratic or a republican thing.  If the executive was to have powers outside the Constitution in matters of war, then it also couldn’t afford to be wrong.  Vietnam was the tragic result.

In the years after Pentagon Papers/Watergate, nothing fundamental about the Executive/Intelligence/Defense Establishment changed.  We knew that Nixon had gone too far, but we never had a serious national discussion of how it happened and what to do about it.  There was much more wrong than just the fact that Nixon was President at the time.  

I personally believe that George W. Bush committed an impeachable offense.  
I have no idea whether or not he will actually be impeached in the next year or two.  It’s critical though that we understand that the problem runs much deeper than who happens to be president.  For fifty years, we have been getting into wars for reasons that most Americans don’t understand and that aren’t shared with the general public.  Worse yet, once we are committed to these wars, the executive is “constitutionally” incapable of correcting its mistakes.  What’s supposed to be a streamlined warmaking process instead more closely resembles Godot.  We can’t explain how we got there and we can’t figure out how or when to leave.  

W and his cronies are merely the current face of the problem.  Our system of government was purposely designed to trade off efficiency in favor of avoiding the corruption inherent in the concentration of power in a single group of individuals.  Two hundred and twenty years later, we have a Gollumish president more drawn to the ring than what it might accomplish.  

If we are to survive another thirty five years, I suspect we will need more than the “perfect” constitution.  We’ll need to be the kind of people who can make such a document effective.  There may indeed be times when someone will have to make decisions outside the process and do things in secret.  At the same time, we have to have ways to hold those individuals accountable.

Personally, if someone had done these things and actually made my family and me safer, I might not be so upset.  The thing we should be most upset about is that there’s been no tradeoff.  The administration hasn’t made us any safer from outside dangers and we certainly aren’t safer from the dangers of giving the wrong people too much power.  Chasing the leaker is yet another reminder of that fact.  

     I wonder what would have happened if 33 years ago, the Nixon Administration had acknowledged the Pentagon Papers instead of attacked them.  

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Thursday, December 29, 2005

Murder Ball 2005 (Movie Review)

I play basketball twice a week with a group of other mostly middle-aged guys in an elementary school multi-room near my house.  The multi has an indoor outdoor carpet instead of a hardwood floor.  Every couple outings, I get some little injury that sends me to Kaiser where some tech will say something like “I know you don’t want to hear this, but after a certain age you really shouldn’t be playing sports like basketball.”

It’s perfectly reasonable advice and I’ve never been a macho guy by any stretch.  I don’t take it because, at the risk of sounding like Robert Bly,  there’s still the shadow of a warrior in me down there.  If I let it die, I tell myself that I’ll be truly old.  A few weeks ago one of my basketball friends recommended Murder Ball.  

Murder Ball is a documentary about wheel chair or quadraplegic rugby, a contact sport for athletes who have some disability in all four limbsthat was originally called “Murder Ball”.   In fact, it's as much demolition derby as it is rugby.

This riveting MTV production expertly crosses two genres that at their best explore the human spirit.  The first is disability movies like the Sea Inside, Coming Home , My Left Foot, and The Mighty.  Usually these celebrate the spirit and mind/heart that survives inside the disabled individual with the notable exception of the Jane Fonda does guy in wheelchair section of Coming Home.  In addition, they are almost always painfully politically correct.  The second genre is the competition/sports docudrama.  Most recently Spellbound and Mad Hot Ballroom became unlikely docuhits by ferreting out the competitive fire in venues that looked nothing like football.  In this genre, the competition becomes a metaphor for life , triumph, etc. and all the kids wind up being loveable.   Murder Ball crosses the two genres then stomps on both of them.

Murder Ball focuses on three individuals.  Mark Zupan, is the star of the U.S. team, who is equal parts fierce warrior in his chosen sport, spokesperson for both the sport and the possibilities of life beyond a life changing accident, and occasional philosopher.  Joe Soares is the Bobby Knight of the sport, a man who would have been a great athlete had it not been for polio and who became a great athlete anyway.  Soares is so driven that it doesn’t just border on demonic, you  expect him to sprout wings and fly around the gym like some devil beast who then rips his opponents hearts out and eats them.  The drive defines him and lets him transcend his body yet it also is shown to limit him as a father and a husband.  Soares, once a great player, is forced out of the game by his own physical degeneration and instead of taking the news gracefully vows revenge against his long dominant US team by coaching Team Canada. The third major character is Keith, a young man yet to become a player, who is just finishing rehab after a motocross accident.

Unlike the standard Hollywood gonna get me an Oscar portraits of disabled people, these are scary dudes.  They’re angry.  They hate their limitations.  They’re routinely crude and abusive.  Soares is shown  berating his son at a barbeque because he doesn’t know how to check his steak to determine if it’s the way he likes it.  Keith comes home from rehab to a newly decorated house fitted with ramps and accessible bathroom and says “This sucks.”  Zupan ‘s relationship with the best friend who drove the truck that resulted in the accident is shown as both less than idyllic yet somehow tenacious.  “Right after the accident, I just about blew up his pager because I was calling him so much to make him feel my anger,” he admits.  The result is not a lifelong bond or loving buddies a la Rory O’shea Was Here.  As you watch the former best friend revisit the site of the accident, there are no epiphanies or there is no sudden eloquence.  There’s just pain and guilt.

In another sequence, the guys play a joke on an able bodied person by stuffing one of their teammates into a box and tricking her into lifting it.  In between they drink beer, talk about getting hardons, and work on daily routines like putting on shoes or feeding themselves that they once took for granted.  

That anger over their lost physicality takes form in their chosen sport.  These guys don’t get off on writing poetry or being Steven Hawking, they express themselves by crashing into one another in armored wheelchairs.  Where most disability movies celebrate the spirit transcending even not needing the mundanity of the physical body, Murder Ball makes the case for the opposite.  These guys are celebrating the fact that they still have bodies.  They enjoy getting sweaty, wrestling with one another, and competing.  One of the best moments in the film comes when one of the guys tells the story about someone congratulating him for being in the Special Olympics.  He responds by saying, “Nothing against the mentally disabled, but the Special Olympics are about honoring mere participation, this is about winning.  We’re real athletes and competitors.”

To them, an essential part of being alive is still having the body outside the sea inside.

Midway through the movie, the players talk about still being um “players” and the ways that being in a wheelchair can serve as a surprising chick magnet.  One subtext of the movie is that all of the guys are shown to have perfectly happy dating or married lives, though only one winds up with a woman who also has a disability.  In fact, part way through,  I began wondering if there were female murderballers out there.  Where Spellbound and Mad Hot Ballroom have deeply feminine sensibilities in which boys and girls compete together and against one another, Murder Ball is pure testosterone.  

Ultimately, it’s a movie with two strong subtexts, masculinity and America.  If you just had the soundtrack, you would be virtually certain that this was a gladiator picture or a football game.  Murder Ball is an unrepentant celebration of male expression of men who respond to having their masculinity and adequacy challenged at the most fundamental level.  In turn, it is also a meditation about what it means to be an American male.  The frame of the movie is the US’s fall from dominance in the sport.  Joe Soares, the player who sought revenge against age by coaching the Candian team, gives a moving speech about what it means to be a disabled American.  As a Portugese immigrant, he discusses what his life might have been in another country and praises the United States for being the place where he got to make a “whole” life for himself rather than being hidden in a closet or being considered a symbol of familial imperfection or feebleness.  Soares also emphasizes the “make” part of the equation.  He expects to be active and competitive not subsidized, even when at certain levels he depends on the support of others to survive and just play his sport.

For all the principals, there’s a mixture of impotence, anger, and cluelessness that all but screams NASCAR dads.  I don’t know if it’s intentional but the last scene of the movie makes an interesting political statement.  As the U.S. team seeks to reload, the coaches and Zupan go to a rehab center to expose disabled Iraq war vets to the sport, where for the first time you see women trying it out.  It’s a much more eloquent statement about where America is headed and where it stands in the world than I’ve seen in any Michael Moore movie.

I do have to include this warning.  Murder Ball, as its name implies, is the polar opposite of a chick flick.  It’s literally bloody and profane.  There is male sensitivity in the movie, but it’s effective because the individuals are so unselfconscious about it.  Director Henry Rubin and writer Alex Shapiro use a jerky handheld video style where the picture never quite holds still.  I suspect this was done on purpose because it gives the movie a raw, choppy feel that’s true to its subjects. Unfortunately, the jerkiness gets in the way of the viewer getting a feel for the sport itself.  The camera has little sense of the apparent tactics and flow of the sport, so the action sequences come off as scoring fests.
As great movies do though, it doesn’t back off from being disturbing which also happens to be the reason it has so much heart.

One of my first online friends was a man who had spent his entire life in a wheelchair due to muscular dystrophy.  It was several months before it even occurred to me that he had to use voice recognition instead of a conventional keyboard   He had  wonderful stories about how he’d learned a lot about human nature because of the way that people in rooms simply assumed that he wasn’t there so they literally said what was on their minds.  He also had a great sly sense of humor where he would say he was happy but not jumping for joy.  Often we talked about football and other everyday stuff, but sometimes we would get into conversations about how he saw himself when he dreamed.  If he’d never walked in waking life, did he imagine himself as able-bodied in his dreams, etc.  Of course, he would find a way to take my prying questions and turn them back on me.  

He made a living as a computer programmer, owned two homes, and live twice as long as he was supposed to which meant that he almost made it to forty.  I was literally the last person he “spoke” with and shortly after my friend died, I got an e-mail from him, something that momentarily scared the hell out of me.

As it turned out, it was his best real life friend who was shutting down his deceased friend’s computer.  I  exchanged messages with this guy for a bit to compare notes on our extraordinary mutual friend.  This is what I remember best.  I learned that my friend’s greatest love as a child was going to amusement parks to ride the roller coasters.  They always got to go first in line and though unusually composed, he would go into rages when the operators tried to keep him off the coasters because he wasn’t “tall enough”.  

Up to then, it had never occurred to me that a quadriplegic could ride a roller coaster, though obviously there’s nothing to stop him from doing it.  It had never occurred to me that a quadriplegic would have wanted to, yet this was his way of showing that he could be as physically fearless as anyone else.  We never met in person.   This is the sort of movie, he might have made.  


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Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Barron's Shoots Down Snoopy

Barron’s is owned by the Wall Street Journal and of all publications printed this Thomas Donlan's Barron's Editorial on Impeachment on Monday December 26, 2005.  This is the rough equivalent of Sports Illustrated running an article that says Americans spend far too much time talking about football and leering at young women in bikinis or People magazine coming out against the cult of celebrity, diets, and the over importance of glamour and physical attractiveness in our society.  Sports Illustrated does actually do that sort of thing, but it’s always in the wake of steroid scandals, riots at NBA games, or recruiting trips at the University of Colorado.  People tends to do it after suicides, drug rehabs, or some epidemic connected to extreme diets or surgery.  Barron’s reasoning is simple enough- the constitution and its balance of powers still matters.   and the administration’s surveillance program broke with both.In short, the business community believes in the rule of law too.   

This is that moment in the Karate Kid where the students turn on the bad sensei and realize that they shouldn’t be cheating against Daniel San because it’s not karate anymore.  It’s the scene at the end of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest after Macmurphy gets lobotomized when all the voluntaries start checking themselves out now that they see who Nurse Ratched really is.  
It’s the point in Katrina where the President says “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job!” or lands on an aircraft carrier and points to a sign that says "Mission Accomplished". Whoops, I forgot, real Americans aren’t quite as sensible as the ones at the end of movies.

I don’t have a lot to add to the Donlan editorial.  It’s one thing when Harpers says a Republican president has committed an impeachable offense, it’s at a whole different level when the financial mainstream starts telling a Republican president that he’s been a bad boy. I can only imagine the calls between the White House and the Wall Street Journal this week.  Who will the administration pay to write the rebuttal to this one? (in the meantime, I'm curious to see what strange stuff the right wing blogs will dig up on Donlan and the Wall Street Journal's Publications)

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Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Family Stone (movie review)

We don’t see many movies in the theater anymore.  It’s gotten expensive and my wife has become increasingly sensitive to noisy people in the theaters.  She gets so irritated with rustling, off-movie chatter, and chair kicking, that she’s come close to starting fights in nearly empty theaters.  On the other hand, we get lots of apologies from theater managers and occasionally free passes.  On my end, I’ve gotten so used to DVDs that when I see a movie in the theater I stay at the end and try to click the screen to see the deleted scenes and the director’s commentary.  Since it was the day after Christmas, we relented and went to see the Family Stone.  If you wonder why I keep reviewing chickflix, the answer’s simple I’m the only male in the household and they always tell me to watch  movies with explosions in them by myself.   If I want to see a movie with my wife and daughters,  it tends to be female fare from my wife’s Merchant and Ivory preferences, to the older daughter’s black people swearing at one another comedies.  

Family Stone , directed and written by Tom Bezucha, is one of those big family Christmas movies webbed together by a name cast, intersecting storylines, revealed secrets, and a home that only exists on the pages of magazines.  Like many recent family movies, Family Stone examines the theme of thinning the herd.  In this case, it’s prospective fiancée/daughter in law Sarah Jessica Parker, working hard to take Carrie Bradshaw through the bad makeup mirror, who drives the dramedy.

Terms of Endearment was probably the first box office dramedy, a mixture of laughter and pathos calculated to win actors academy award nominations or at least some acting credibility.  James L. Brooks’s Terms paid off big for Shirley Maclaine, Deborah Winger, and Jack Nicholson.  This time, the candidates are Diane Keaton now making the shift into older woman roles last visited with Nicholson in   Something’s Gotta Give-Rachel Macadams, Canadian actress, looking to escape teen movies-Craig T. Nelson who mostly plays variations on football coaches-Luke Wilson, looking to stop playing patient boyfriends.  There’s a guy who escaped from a role as Hugh Grant’s hearing impaired younger brother in Four Weddings and a Funeral to play a likeable gay hearing-impaired family member.  Actually Ty Giordano was never in Four Weddings and a Funeral, just a nearly identical role in Ashton Kutcher’s A Lot Like Love.  Finally there’s Dermot Mulroney and Claire Danes from Home for the Holidays.  Whoops Dermot Mulroney was Dylan Mcdermott in Jodie Foster’s ode to Thanksgiving complete with gay brother (Robert Downey), but Claire Danes was in that movie too, making her a potential queen of the holiday dramedy at least for this juncture of her “So Called Career”.  The other template for Family Stone appears to be the Katie Holmes, pre-I’m having Tom Cruise’s baby thing, vehicle Pieces of April.  

In addition to the too many to choose from plotlines with common elements, the dramedy has to find a way to segue between the funny elements and the tearjerking elements without coming apart.  While James L. Brooks may be the king of the genre, particularly when it comes to getting his actors oscar nominations through manipulative plotlines, Lasse Hallstrom (My Life as a Dog, Gilbert Grape, and Once Around)  is imho the master of the form. Hallstrom has an affection for small light moments dropped into depressing circumstances that keeps his movies more organic than calculated.  For example, My Life as a Dog used the backdrop of the mother’s nervous breakdown to moor the  young narrator’s more whimsical life with his aunt and uncle.

Like Family Stone, Hallstrom’s  Once Around, not a successful movie in many ways, has a similar unlikebale character, Richard Dreyfuss, dropped into a warm consciously inclusive family.  Hallstrom though has the sense to play it gently and not to work too hard to redeem his most obnoxious character or suddenly change him.  Bezucha’s film, on the other hand, is hellbent on making everyone happy and thus misses the point of dramedy which is that family life is bitter sweet rather than zany sweet and calculatedly painful in turns.

Bezucha starts out  Parker as a shrill parody of an overachieving business type who barks out orders to associates on her cellphone while Christmas shopping, a role that must have been on sale at the cliché factory in the hidden Hollywood basement.  While Mulroney works hard, Bezucha makes no effort to make us understand why he’s so smitten with Parker, other than the fact that she’s better at business than he is.  The two then get dropped into Mulroney’s self-consciously progressive, but ever so slightly judgmental, family which demonstrates its sensitivity and oscar worthiness by signing whenver Giordano is in the room.  

Predictably, Parker strikes out as she swings for the fences in a living room where no one  even follows baseball.  She then calls in her sister, Danes, who for some totally unexplained reason is nothing like her, to come help her out and advance the part of the plot that’s so old that even Shakespeare visited one too many times.

The movie has some fine moments at least partly because the actors are genuinely talented.  There are silent scenes of palpable tenderness between Keaton’s acerbic mother and Nelson’s moral center father.  Luke Wilson  makes a genuinely funny stoner scratching under his shirt as he talks to Parker in the driveway in the snow.   Macadams does her bit as the family’s “Mean Girl”.  Bezucha also finds a way to give Danes an earthy but still glamorous magnetism that almost make the holes in the plot fade away.  There’s also a very effective scene when Parker delivers her Christmas gift to all the members of the family and catches the resonance of plot elements of which she can’t be aware.  

Unfortunately, Bezucha, who came out of advertising, forces the elements as if he were doing demographics analysis for a commercial.  Too much of the movie feels photo shoot calculated from the perfect New England bus stop where snow happens to fall at the right moments to the various never a hair out of place or uncoordinated but ever so casual look of the family members. One never for a moment believes this might be a real family or an actual town.  By its nature, dramedy is manipulative, but it’s also supposed to be heartfelt and the elements are supposed to work together.  Instead of mixing in this movie, they bounce right off our hearts made more like stone than flesh from watching this movie unfold.  

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Thursday, December 22, 2005

Must Love Dogs 2005 (movie dvd review)

 I’ve been a Diane Lane fan since her turn as a prodigy chastely kissing Thelonius Bernard under Il Ponte Sospiro in a Little Romance (1979).  Lane was 14 at the time and had appeared on the cover of Time Magazine.  For many years, she was the actress who had done things at early ages, e.g. star in Coppola’s Cotton Club at 19.  For a variety of reasons, none of them talent or look, Lane either didn’t get the break or chose not to get the break (Searching for Deborah Winger) that would make her an A list star.
     I’ve also been a John Cusack fan.  Cusack has made something of a career of playing comic dyspeptics from inverted Clark Gable in the Sure Thing (Rob Reiner’s take on It Happened One Night), to Say Anything’s romantic aspiring kickboxer, to a hyper-competitive air traffic controller in the underrated Pushing Tin, to a list-obsessed record store owner in High Fidelity.  

     Costarring them seemed promising enough. Unfortunately, Must Love Dogs (2005) just doesn’t hunt at least if you're hunting for inspired laugh out loud comedy.  Since Lane made her way back to the low A list playing adulteresses in the very good Walk on the Moon and Unfaithful, it seems like she’s still been struggling to find the right vehicle to build on her Oscar nomination for Unfaithful.  Under the Tuscan Sun was a travel brochure disguised as a movie.  Fierce People didn’t get general release. Perhaps someone reasoned that romantic comedy would work for her.  She, after all, appears to have the biggest necessary ingredient to be a female romantic comedy lead, the camera loves Diane Lane and she certainly can act.  

     I suspect much of the reason this prolonged Gary David Goldberg ad for perfect doesn’t work the way it should rests with Goldberg's unimaginative direction and episodic script (Family Ties, Spin City).  If you remember the dog who serves as the symbol of Goldberg’s Ubu productions, it appears that he decided to turn his company tag line into a feature length movie.  Part of the joke in Must Love Dogs is that neither of the principals in the movie actually owns a dog, they’re just borrowed as dating props.  

  Like the dogs in the movie, Goldberg seems to have borrowed much of the formula for this movie. There’s a straight out of My Best Friend’s Wedding group performance of the Partridge Family Theme Song, he even lets Dermot Mulroney (it happens that he was in My Best Friend’s Wedding as the title character) do the bit where the fishhouse waiter jumps into the scene to play the piano.  In another scene Christopher Plummer recites Yeats at a family gathering in a straight steal from the funeral Yeats reading in Four Weddings and a Funeral.  In yet another scene, Stockard Channing’s online flame turns out to be younger than expected, any of about twenty John Hughes movies and done much better in another variation in Napoleon Dynamite. Wisecracking sister, shallow best friend, horny senior citizens, blind date from hell walk on montage, to late night condom chase from any of dozen of made for cable comedies or network sitcoms also get put on the leash.  In fact, Dogs has a sitcom episodic feel and punchline rhythm, reminiscent of James L. Brooks, another tv writer turned movie maker, at his worst.  

The greater sin though is that Goldberg assembles the elements for the formula, then doesn’t seem to pay much attention to how they actually mix.  You can see how they’re might have been a movie.  Lane’s large family is a bit too overbearing and it hints at  more interesting roots for the failure of her marriage beyond the left for a younger woman thing and as a much more organic barrier for her frustrations with intimacy outside the family unit.  There’s also much more to the slightly oedipal/Elektra vibe given off by Lane’s relationship with her Irish poet of a father, Christopher Plummer. Similarly, Cusack’s fascination with wooden boats, lifted from Message in a Bottle, doesn’t follow through.  The camera never pans the details of the boat itself.  In fact, you never see a closeup of Cusack’s hands working on his beloved hand built boat.  Instead, Goldberg blunt instruments Cusack’s romantic poet side through his repeated watching of Dr. Zhivago, a riff on Nora Ephron’s script from Sleepless in Seattle with Meg Ryan’s obsession with Affair to Remember.  Sadly, Goldberg plays it all as if he were directing for the small screen.  Imagine for instance, the wisecracking butcher role in the hands of early Woody Allen or even Ben Stiller (Allen’s more commercialized illegitimate movie son).  Goldberg, instead, appears satisfied to gather all his stolen pieces and then apply a minimum of visual or comic imagination to any of them.

The biggest loss may be in the very natural chemistry between Lane and Elizabeth Perkins (they are real life close friends).  Perkins character never goes beyond that of wisecracking sister who hands John Cusack a package of meat.  In fact, the romantic comedy mongrel quality of Must Love Dogs is oddly reminiscent of another Cusack disaster, America’s Sweethearts which couldn’t decide whether it was a Billy Crystal movie or a Julia Roberts romantic redemption vehicle and wound up campier than the movie within the movie done by Christopher Walken’s character.

Now that I’ve spayed Goldberg’s movie, I’m also going to reverse field.  We don’t have an elaborate home theater, just a dvd player, a two speaker stereo, and a 27” Trinitron and in this environment I suspect Must Love Dogs finds its niche in the entertainment multi-mediaverse.  

I’ve always had a softspot for sitcoms and I’ve been known to sit in front of the tv for large portions of my life mindlessly watching equally mindless sitcoms and other network fare.  The movie fills that hunger perfectly well.  Lane and Cusack are always engaging regardless of the material.  Perkins, Channing, Mulroney, and Plummer remain fine character actors, even if each one seemed to sprout from some different movie or breed of dog in this movie. I should mention that Julie Gonzalo who plays a pre-school aide/later model competition in the movie will also likely soon be everywhere.  In any case, I suspect this was a career detour or decent paycheck for all of these actors, all of whom did their parts perfectly competently here.

I do, however, wonder if Lane has the slight looniness needed to make romantic comedy her niche.  For some reason, her most memorable roles have always been sexual adventurers from Lonesome Dove to Walk on the Moon even vehicles like Little Romance and Fabulous Stains shared that tension.  Even when Lane does wholesome e.g. My Dog Skip or Hardball, there’s the a sexual feel to it that may not be as blatant as Big Town or Unfaithful, but it makes casting her as  mainstream perky girlfriend character risky.  I don’t think Goldberg had any idea what to do with it.

If they changed the name to Might Like Dogs  or Kill Some Time with Dogs and billed it as a movie length sitcom/romance, I’d certainly recommend it.  To be honest, as much I find fault intellectually with the movie, my wife and I sat and watched the thing without complaint and even laughed at times.  Sometimes shallow, derivative, and predictable makes for perfectly satisfying home entertainment.   Think of it as taking gourmet ingredients and turning them into perfectly good leftovers for a tv dinner.  

Rating:  two and a half milk bones.

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Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Promoting Patriot Minutes

J. Edgar Hoover, father of Unwarranted Wiretapping in a happy moment

  I have to confess that when I took a job with the vast right wing conspiracy (VRWC), I thought it was going to be a better deal than it was.  Among other things, there’s no union, no prevailing wage, no health benefits, no daycare, no provisions for repetitive stress injuries, and no overtime.  Elaine Chao did invite us to her house in Kentucky once though and it was really nice to see her close connection to ordinary working people in person.  They didn’t even charge for the valet parking. There are other perks as well.  Bill Frist has been known to give really good stock tips now and then and I’ve heard if you work for the VRWC for a while there are some technically legal real estate deals you can get in on.  Though both assume that you have money to invest in the first place.  
One perk is that we get to beta test a lot of their ideas for America.  Sure, it’s not always a good thing.  Last year, a couple of my coworkers got sick from some tainted meat that met the current “no obvious” signs of contamination rules and one or two of them had daughters get pregnant while at abstinence camp, but we all know that that’s just the price of freedom and personal responsibility.  I did, however, draw the line at far right oncology for an aunt who had a malignancy.  As far as I could tell, the doctors at the Intelligent Design school of medicine looked a bit too much like Oral Roberts.  One of my favorite perks though has been Patriot Minutes.  

I first heard about Patriot Minutes when Dick Cheney comped me to a visit last weekend to the VRWC Production facility sometimes also known as Industrial Might and Magic (IMM).  This is the place where they make, among other things, vote counting machines, the black box used by the President in his first debate in 2004, and the prototypes for Sith Mind Control that already work with some thirty percent of the people answering opinion polls.  My favorite was the red screen.  If you know much about special effects, you know that Hollywood uses a blue screen where actors do things like fly over the moon on  a bicycle or get blown down a hillside by a tornado.  

The Red Screen doesn’t produce visual effects, though it can.  Instead, you can use the red screen on any media and make any set of facts appear momentarily favorable.  Primitive versions of the device used to always make people say “Clinton did it”, but it’s gotten more sophisticated than that.  Now it applies a variety of “hot buttons” like “9/11”, “anti-Christmas”, and “hidden tax” in seemingly random fashion to make the effect of the red screen technique less obvious. The red screen can do some amazing things though, for instance, when was the last time you saw the Downing Street Memo? Or how about this trick with The Rest of What Iraqis Think.  Still, I think the most amazing thing was the way the red screen made some 2150 flag-draped coffins disappear without a trace along with 16,000 disabled veterans.  Just see if Siegfried and Roy could manage that one.

It truly was nice of the Vice President who genuinely seemed to feel guilty about our misunderstanding over my project to condense the Constitution to two hundred words so Americans would actually read it.  As you may remember, Dick Cheney and I got in an argument over whether my side deal to also edit the Bible was a separate document from the Constitution and thus two contracts.  The Vice President had spent most of the nineties driving very hard bargains with his principal client and I think it was difficult for him to get out of that mode.  

In any case, we never got to the business about a separate Bill of Rights and they then made the mistake of getting one of Charlton Heston’s speechwriters to replace me.  For the last four years, the President used that version of the Bill of Rights as his reference.  Rather than actually condensing the document, the Heston speechwriter cut corners to bring his version under bid and just cut out all but the second amendment.  Sadly, no one warned the President so he simply didn’t know about the first or fourth amendments for instance. Even worse, the President had to depend on Harriet Miers's memo to explain separation of powers. As Jack Abramoff once told me at the president’s Crawford horse milking party, “You get what you pay for.”

At the time, I wasn’t sure if he was referring to legislation or the president himself.  
Anyway, after I got to play with the red screen for a few minutes, Dick Cheney was nice enough to offer me some new writing assignments for the VRWC.  BTW, the red screen technique works wonders for the vice president.  In person, he keeps mentioning things like his support of the Contras, his vote against the release of Nelson Mandela, and making jokes about that whole energy task force business.  On the red screen, all of that disappears and the Vice President looks like someone’s favorite rich uncle instead of the lunatic who told us that the insurgency was in its death throes a mere five months ago.  A couple people there mentioned that you don’t really want to see Anne Coulter without the red screen, but I didn’t really believe that stuff about the fangs and the scales.  

Dick and I talked about my career in the incredibly competitive world of left-wing blogging and I told him that I thought my hope of getting even a few hits a day was a lost Koz.  Dick explained to me how right wing bloggers do better and they don’t have to write very well or actually be funny.  “We even send you your ideas and talking points,” he told me, “You don’t have to do any analysis on your own, in fact we discourage it.”

  Somehow, we got on the topic of warrantless searches and FISA and I had mentioned that warrantless searches were like ticketless airline travel.  “Who wants to wait in line when they can just go to a machine feed in all their personal information and save a few minutes?”  and then a light seemed to go on for the Vice President.By the end of the afternoon, I found myself as the lead strategist for promoting Patriot Minutes should the need to bypass FISA fail in the court of public opinion.

The premise behind Patriot Minutes is simple. They already exist in another form.  Should you go to Safeway or any other major market, you’ll be asked if you’re a Safeway club member.  Instead of paying exaggerated prices for items, you just pay regular retail if you let them track every single grocery purchase you make on their database.  I’m fairly protective of my own civil liberties, but I’ll do anything for a three percent discount.  VRWC research has found that 98% of Americans will give up any semblance of privacy for about a one and a half percent discount.  The beauty of it though is that it’s not really a discount at all.  They’re just charging you regular price, it’s the people who want some semblance of privacy who pay extra.

Patriot Minutes are part of a cell phone “Freedom Plan” that gives the government the right to tap all of your conversations in exchange for paying your normal monthly rate.  If you decide to  “Rove”, thus insisting that your calls from say Time Magazine reporters not be logged under the plan, you get surcharged for ten times your normal rate.  There is a setting on any cell phone that will keep you from “Roving”.  This should never be confused with “Roeing”, you will find that you can not, for instance, call Planned Parenthood with your phone set to Rove.  This though is a small price to pay for freedom. For the especially patriotic, there's even something called "raving minutes" for when you jam talk show lines. I do have to admit that I’m not sure how the government proposes to translate all the conversations they get through Patriot Minutes.  When I asked the vice-president about Sibel Edmonds and her claims that no one was translating most of the wiretaps in Turkish or Arabicanyway, he didn’t have much to say.

One of the beauties of the “Freedom Plan” is that there’s no reason not to use your Patriot Minutes.  Should you not want to use Patriot Minutes, it would be a clear sign that you have something to hide.   That’s why only people actually named “Rove” or who are designated by anyone named “Rove” who choose to “Rove” under the plan or who refuse the plan go on a special customer list.  If you have something to hide then you obviously are a terrorist and shouldn’t be entitled to privacy on your phone line anyway. In other words, everyone gets their phone tapped.  Under the “Freedom Plan”, as you accumulate Roveing minutes, you will win free trips to undisclosed locations in Eastern Europe where your privacy will be so completely respected that it will be impossible even for your family and closest friends to find you there, one of the many hidden benefits of the freedom plan  These trips not only come at no extra charge, they come without charges.

Although I’m still working out the details for promoting Patriot Minutes via ads featuring Judith Miller and Bob Novak (I already use mine and I didn’t even have to sign up), Dick Cheney has already approved my slogan,
“Patriot Minutes, the cost of freedom is cheaper than ever.”

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Sunday, December 18, 2005

Third and Eighteen in the Green Zone

Watched two seemingly different events today.  Early in the day, I saw the last quarter of the 49ers 10-9 loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars.  Later in the day, I watched the President call me a defeatist for not recognizing that the US is actually winning the war against terror.  Last year, the 49er’s got a new coach, Mike Nolan who as it happens is the son of a former 49er coach.  They had such a bad year last season that they wound up with the top choice in the draft, Alex Smith, a quarterback from Utah.  

At the beginning of the year, Coach Nolan predicted that the 49ers would win or at least contend for the division title with the talent they had.  Instead, they are tied for the worst record in the league for the second year in a row.  They also predicted that Alex Smith would be a star.  Today, I watched him go 0-9 passing in the fourth quarter of a close game.  With a minute left and the game at stake, Smith’s last two passes didn’t come within ten yards of hitting their target.  Coach Nolan promises that as soon as the talent gets better, the team will get better.  49er management talks about winning at some point in the future. Over the last few weeks, they’ve stopped telling the fans “when”, “how”, or “with which players.”

In football, winning means winning the Super Bowl or at least consistently getting close to making the Super Bowl.  Few fans accept anything less.  No one thinks it means getting the top choice in the draft for a second straight year or losing close games to playoff teams.  Certainly, despite the speeches we give our kids about trying hard, football fans do not settle for the players are still trying really hard regardless of the score.  I wouldn’t be shocked to see Mike Nolan and Alex Smith get another year, but no serious fan would confuse the 49er’s with a winning team or even a team that’s showing clear signs of say “seeing the light at the end of the tunnel.” Somehow those kinds of teams don’t get a delay of game penalty on fourth and three and forty seconds left on the clock.  

The President tells us that victory in Iraq is at hand, sadly I’m old enough to have heard that line before.  You know what they say about fool me once and at least LBJ had done things on the domestic front that I actually admired.  He tells me that the elections themselves are a sign of victory despite the violence that immediately preceded and followed the event.  He assures me that the Iraqis will soon be defending themselves, but somehow stayed very vague on the specifics.  Maybe it was  the line that more or less goes “Iraqi forces are already providing security for some Iraqi cities?”  Somehow when they name less than five cities and none of the cities are Baghdad, it doesn’t make me a whole lot more confident.  I ask this, when Dick Cheney visited this weekend was he ready to be guarded by Iraqi forces?  When Iraqi forces start taking a primary role in defending the Green Zone, I’ll feel more confident. I think the only air attack the Iraqi military could defend against right now might be the 49ers.  

Do I want an immediate withdrawal?  Is that really the only alternative?   Actually, if you’re not going to tell me what it means to “win” and in the meantime even more Americans and Iraqis die or are wounded not accomplishing anything in particular, then I have to wonder what the heck they’re dying for.  Does anyone remember how many more Americans died so the US could have Nixon’s “peace with honor”, it was roughly 21,000 of the total 58,000 American deaths in Vietnam.  And what happened to the “honor” part.  Last time I checked, all of Vietnam was still communist.  Oddly, it’s one of the last places in the world that still is, so what’s that tell you?   Had we known that would happen by 1974, what would you want to have done in 1969? If you happened to be a family member or friend of  one of the 21,000 Americans who essentially died for no reason while Nixon/Kissinger engaged in what they knew to be a charade, would you be a “defeatist” or would you prefer the illusion for another couple years.  I recently linked the mother of a son who already died in this war,  Gold Star Mom Speaks Out link,  I ask the President how many more grieving families are we going to make so he can hold on to his illusion of victory.

At different times, the administration says different things about what it means to win this war.  Sometimes, the President insists that it’s a war to eliminate terrorism completely.  As satisfying as it may seem to blow up terrorists for blowing you up, it can only be part of an effective strategy to end terrorism.  It’s a bit like thinking that the death penalty will end murder completely.  In both instances, you have to take a serious look at the conditions that make people become terrorists (often it’s because someone blew up their family) and why individuals become murderers (I mean the ones we convict, not the ones we seem to have elected).  Again, one finds a surprising correlation between experiencing violence and deprivation while growing up and a later propensity to kill someone else on purpose.

Other times, the President, as he did tonight, suggests that victory will take the form of a stable government in Iraq that can defend itself.  I don’t think this is impossible.  Saddam was corrupt, evil, and had bad taste in interior decorating, and he managed to do that for many years so I suppose it’s possible for W. and friends.  If this is going to happen any time soon, I assume that we’ll see some numbers.  How many Iraqi soldiers and police will it take?  How much will it cost for us to help them do that?  How long will American troops need to stay in Iraq and how many will need to stay there?  What are we giving up to have this happen?  Some argue that the price of escalating the war in Vietnam turned out to be the domestic war on poverty?  Is the price for us really something like social security, functional public schools, a functioning transportation system, or the rebuilding of our own Gulf Coast?  It’s quite possible that the real domestic price of this process might be actual protection at home from terrorism.  It’s more than a little shocking to find out what we haven’t been able to do about protecting Americans directly from terrorism in the United States.  

At the end of this season, someone’s going to ask Mike Nolan and John York exactly what they do plan to do to make the 49ers a winning team in the foreseeable future.  If they gave the sort of answers the President gave tonight, how much would you bet on the 49ers for next year?  

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Friday, December 16, 2005

Winning the War Against Christmas

Global Warming Christmas Tree

I have to say that I was disappointed not to get my “Happy Holidays” card from the White House this year after all I’d done for Karl, the Architect, Rove over the year.  You try to run a poetry workshop with Donald Rumsfeld  in it then come back and talk to me about your definition of torture.  At least, they’re not paying me in White House bucks anymore.  Knowing that Karl has been busy with his attorney Robert Luskin recently, I sent him an e-mail this time instead of calling him and he was nice enough to wish me a “Merry Christmas” in those very words even and send along the following document titled “National Strategy For Total Victory in the War Against Christmas.”

  1. The liberal plotters against Christmas are not members of any nation’s armed forces, except when they happen to be members of the U.S. armed forces.  This means that they are not signatories to the Geneva convention and thus not subject to any of the provisions of that treaty.  For this reason, we recommend the implementation of “Operation Enduring Inquisition”.

Plotters will be identified and rounded up in the middle of the night by a special unit of the CIA that will land on their roofs and come down their chimneys in  red suits (we’re still confused why it’s now good to be in a red state when it used to be really bad to be a “red”).  The liberals, of course, will be easy to identify because they won’t have put out cookies and milk and will likely not have maxed  their credit cards (easily verifiable through the continuing provisions of the Patriot Act)  Anti-Christmas terrorists will then be taken into custody, flown to southern Spain, and questioned.  

     While we do not endorse torture in any form, unless it’s tortured explanations having to do with John McCain negotiations with  White House about the torture bill, the Spanish have a long tradition of helping non-believers appreciate the seriousness of traditions like Christmas.  In fact, practices like Waterboarding have their roots in the Inquisition, an early  successful Spanish anti-terrorist operation. The practice was later brought to the Americas by the Puritan founding fathers themselves and used to minimize problems by identifying Wiccans who even then were plotting against Christmas while exploring their oneness with native American spiritual traditions.  If these anti-Christmas zealots happen to be members of a known religion, please take care not to actually flush their so called “Holy” texts down the toilet.  It’s okay to deface these texts,make fun of them, or threaten to flush them down the toilet,but actual flushing is a little too much like baptism.

     With the use of the appropriate techniques, we should be able to uncover anti-Christmas cells currently operating throughout the United States.  One sleeper cell was even uncovered in the government printing office where the President’s own Christmas wishes were turned into a “Happy Holidays” cards.  The President assures us that he knows the source of this leak in the printing office and will let Bob Novak know who it is.

  1. The Constitutional Amendment plan was recently disrupted when Duke, Top Gun, Cunningham who was slated to introduce it had to resign his seat in Congress.  This was after Tom Delay the first Congressman in charge of introducing the amdendment was redistricted out of this strategy by a partisan prosecutor who was overheard telling a judge “Happy Holidays to you too”, just a week ago.  The amendment is simple.  It reads “Anyone referring to a holiday between Thanksgiving and New Year’s must either specify the holiday as the Day When our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ was allegedly born even though this may well not be the actual date and the Eastern Church does not observe December 25th  or say “Merry Christmas” with a clearly inflected emphasis on the “Christ” part or be sentenced to death.  There shall be no penalty for Jews who happen to say Happy Chanukah after saying Merry Christmas, particularly if they happen to be neo-cons.  In addition this amendment bans abortion and flag burning and is part of the Founding Father’s original intent for the Constitution.”  

If the Amendment does not get the necessary votes in  Congress, see the Diebold backup plan for state referenda.  

  1. Tell the world that you have evidence that the secularist terrorists have Weapons of Christmas Mass Destruction.  There is clear proof that some of them tried to buy Kwaanza gifts in Niger.  We also have evidence that some of their agents promoted the use of aluminum tubes in artificial Christmas trees.  Of greater concern, we have reason to believe that they have been stockpiling large quantities of intercontinental land-based mistletoe which they are planning to deploy at office Christmas parties to disrupt the traditional family unit.  

We will let it be known that should they not give themselves up, we will kill them all in order to save the spirit of Christmas.  Our first choice name for this “Final Solution” had to be shelved, we are working on an alternative.  

  1. Special Provisions of the Patriot Act already provide for a black ops unit funded as a faith-based initiative to undo the proliferation of “Happy Holidays”.  
Projects include a Britney Spears/Kevin Federline Christmas tv special in which Britney makes a phone call to have Jessica Simpson come over for Christmas Egg Nog  and party down with Kevin as the two share insights about their faith.  Britney Spears has already been paid for the project.  The DVD has a deleted scenes reel of a Nick Lachey Christmas.  This replaces a Michael Jackson Christmas special which had to be cancelled due to the fact that he moved to Dubai and that the crew could not get him away from the manger during rehearsals.  

Bruce Willis has already been signed to star in an action movie in which a special ops veteran of both Iraq Wars comes home to take out any individuals who say “Happy Holidays”.  When he blows them away with his Glock, his signature line will be “Wishing you a Merry Christmas Scumbag.”  As a measure of Willis’s patriotism, he has on his own accord offered to take one million less than his usual four million dollar fee which he last got before that movie with Dakota Fanning tanked.

The faith-based unit has also located the mythical federal building where they weren’t allowed to have a Christmas pageant.  An unindicted associate of Timothy Macveigh has already been assigned to teach them the real meaning of Christmas.  

  1. Appoint Supreme Court justices to re-interpret the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the Constitution.  We still have no idea how our Christian founding fathers accidentally put this language in the Bill of Rights.  We are working to correct the problem.  Clearly, there were no Hindus or Moslems in Colonial America, except for a million or so slaves who happened to be Moslems and they weren’t citizens.  A strict constructionist who did not make law would see that the Founding Fathers meant for the clause to refer to Establishment of one Protestant Sect over another.  This may be a problem, however, since five of our justices may be Catholic.  

Nonetheless, we are confident that Judge Alito will respect the Inseparability of Christian Church and State so clearly embodied in our Constitution and in Thomas Jefferson’s personal copy of the Bible.  

In the meantime, we are making incredible progress in winning the War Against
Christmas.  It is unfortunate that no network other than Fox reports the good news about our efforts in this battle for the soul of our nation.  In the meantime, Christians tragically remain a persecuted majority in this country unable to enjoy the simple freedom of ignoring the sensibilities of members of other faiths.  It is one of the reasons we are proud that the Iraqis endorsed a constitution proclaiming their country a Christian state like our own.  There is no room for Islamic fundamentalism in a world soon to  be left behind by Christian fundamentalists.  In the meantime the president has privately assured us that we are doing a “heckuva” job.

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Theobertarian Dictionary Part 7 (Christmas)

Theobertarians Celebrating Christmas the Right Way

I’m personally not a big Christmas person.  For many years, I’ve associated the holiday with emotional stress due to some bad Christmasses.  My wife, who loves Christmas, isn’t crazy about this fact.  She’d prefer that I joyfully be volunteering to put up lights on the side of the house, go to the local tree farm and cut down a tree while sipping hot cider and singing carols, and that I be a bit more full of Holiday cheer or at least help bake cookies.  Instead, I have a tendency to act more depressed than happy.  I don’t help send out Christmas cards, in fact I don’t even open the ones that arrive in our mail.  I don’t think this makes me a bad person, but I probably wouldn’t want to be around me at Christmas time and I imagine it’s not fun for my family.  Most years I try to act a little jollier, but I haven’t this year.  In fact, I’ve been more or less Grinchlike.  

This all makes me feel personally responsible for this “war on Christmas” thing.  I’m not a right wing Republican and I’m not personally Christian.  I imagine that I must be the very sort of person John Gibson had in mind in his complaint that in the name of tolerance we are destroying Christmas by secularizing it and thus weakening the fabric of American society.  If you keep going with this logic, Al Qaeda is likely to catch some public official saying Happy Holidays instead of Merry Christmas and take this as a sign that Christian faith in an America hobbled by the First Amendment is not as strong as Islamic Fundamentalist faith in soon to be Islamic Republics where the US can pay for its press as part of a military strategy.  

I do have to report that even though I spent some time as a card carrying member of the ACLU, I even had an internship there when I was in high school, I have never been personally invited to plotting sessions against Christmas.  I’m very disappointed in this, in that I’ve always wanted to be an “A” list liberal and to be included in such parties.  Apparently, A list liberals gather together to the beat of obscene subversive hip hop music, dine on non-genetically enhanced vegetarian or even French food, dress up like Michael Moore, and figure out ways to celebrate the deaths of American soldiers with Quakers, disable the Federal government from stopping terrorists, whisper sweet nothings in Patrick Fitzgerald’s ear, and plot the downfall of the United States.  Even if I’m not on the list for invitations, I should at least be on their listserv.  Perhaps has some sort of “Easter Egg” feature on their website and no one’s sharing the key combinations with me.  

Christmas:   Is a Christian celebration to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ.  Many scholars believe that Christ was born in the Spring, not the middle of winter and that he was likely born a few years B.C. (if you can wrap your mind around that paradox).  The Romans, who eventually became officially Christian and according to the DaVinci Code rewrote the gospels, apparently felt in the 4th century A.D. that it would be a good idea to better celebrate Christ’s birthday on the traditional holiday of the Saturninus Festival which may have coincided with the traditional winter solstice.  They’d just made the change to the Julian Calendar in 46 B.C. and likely didn’t want to further confuse matters.  This means that in addition to all the other things the Romans invented like good roads, aqueducts, personal boxes in the Coliseum to watch Monday Night Gladiators, the Romans also came up with observing Washington’s birthday on the nearest Monday etc.  

The Romans celebrated Saturninus by feasting, postponing business and warfare, exchanging gifts, and temporarily freeing their slaves.  They even had a custom of choosing one slave to be master of the household as a ceremonial kind of thing for one day.  Mmmmm.  There was also later a festival for Sol Invictus, which had Persian origins,  that fell on the Winter solstice.  Apparently after Constantine died, the ever efficient Romans didn’t want to waste all those Sol Invictus gift wrappings, decorations, and department store window displays of Sol Invictus Claus on his chariot loaded with gifts like Charlton Heston and Russell Crowe DVDs led by Rudolphus the red nosed elephant captured in the Punic Wars.    

What isn’t clear is whether or not the Post-Constantinian Romans immediately started saying “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy Invictus or Saturninus festival”?  The Roman’s failure to enact laws requiring its citizens to say Merry Christmas instead of “Have an awesome Saturninus festival Doodi and Doodeae” likely served as a significant factor in the fall of the Empire.  The Romans also lacked anything like the Fox Network to protect the integrity of the Holiday and thus ensure the safety of their empire from the Gracchi and their political progeny.  

According to Theobertarians, Christmas is the most significant retail celebration of the year.  After 9/11 the President urged Americans to respond to the tragedy by shopping more and not losing “faith” in the economy.  Bill O’reilly refers to his fondest Christmas memories having to do with anticipating the gifts under the Christmas tree, customs which I suspect are made more explicit in some of the gospels that were more popular prior to the Council of Nicaea.  If you actually read the surviving Gospels one might even come to the very odd conclusion that the really important Christian holiday should actually be Easter, about which Theobertarians never complain.  You want to be upset about something, how about having schools call what was once Easter vacation “Ski Week”? And about this Easter Bunny thing, talk about triviliazing the significance of a religious holiday with an Easter Egg hunt on the White House lawn, shouldn’t W be praying instead?  
And then not having any days off around the actual Easter, lent, good Friday, etc.
Theobertarians , however, consider Christmas the more important holiday because it potentially combines commerce and Christianity and doesn’t involve “giving things up” and all that downer stuff associated with Easter.  After all, one of the biggest pre-lent Easter celebrations in America was traditionally, Mardi Gras in New Orleans, and you know what the Theobertarians said about New Orleans and sin.  

This explains why most of their complaints about the “secularization of Christmas” have nothing to do with anything that’s actually in the Bible since the Bible doesn’t ever really talk about Christmas or how to celebrate it say in the way that Muslims observe Ramadan. In any case, you’d think they’d be complaining about aspects of Christmas that had something genuinely Christian about them.

For whatever reason, they seem to be most offended by those things that have about as much connection to the gospels and the early church as say Kwaanza has to Africa. (for those who don't know Kwaanza was conceptualized by a professor at Cal State Los Angeles) Okay, before I move on to my big scoop here, though, I’ve always been confused by this immaculate conception business.  First God promulgates a commandment about adultery, then the Holy Spirit knocks Joseph’s wife up.  Second, if you’re going to make such a big deal about immaculate conception and divine intervention, what about all those instances of divine contraception in the Old Testament where God keeps making non-believers barren for various reasons.  I’m not talking Roe v. Wade here, just wondering about all this Immaculate contraception and what it means.  

Okay, I know that Dictionaries don’t normally include anecdotes, but here’s my story….see part 2 National Strategy to Win the War Against Christmas….

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Monday, December 12, 2005

Santa Clara Makes Final Four (volleyball)

Broncos MAKE DRIVE TO San Antonio

I’ve slipped into some more advanced stage of volleydad syndrome.  Last week, another dad asked me if I wanted to drive two and half hours away on a Saturday night to see a college match that didn’t involve either of our daughters.  Not only that, neither of our daughters nor Mrs. Boris expressed any interest in attending the thing.  We went anyway with the relatively lame excuse that there were two former Empire players at Santa Clara, Crystal Matich and Anna Cmaylo, and that this was Santa Clara’s first attempt to make the final four.  The club has also historically had a recruiting tie to Dave Rubio and the University of Arizona. (Rubio is extraordinarily personable, my older kid didn’t go to Arizona but I happened into the Arizona team in Oakland airport one time and Rubio came up to me to say Hi three years after the fact)  In any case, I hopped into the car with fellow volleydad and we made the drive alternately talking about various iterations of volleyball, real estate, and the nature and origins of consciousness.  I think the simple truth is that we were going through high school season withdrawal and the club season is still about a month away. Feel free to insert your suggestion for a twelve step or should it be “three step approach” program. Though if you subscribe to Prepvolleyball, we don't call it falling off the wagon, we say falling off the bubble.  

     I suppose this was a healthier form of male bonding than say what happens in the movie Sideways, particularly since there were no women involved other than the ones we watched play volleyball.  First off, I was surprised to find the Stanford campus all but shut down on a Saturday night at eight pm.  Even Jamba Juice was closed.  They may have been mourning their loss to Santa Clara in the second round, but it might also have been dead week.  Second, I hadn’t been to Maples pavilion since they remodelled it and did away with the slinkys under the floor that made all the intramural geeks feel like Bill Walton until Walton actually showed up to play intramurals there one year.  It was a bit of a shock to see a Jumbotron screen above the floor where Gordon King, in an intramural basketball game, once inadvertently threw me out of the key and into the sidelines with a flick of a wrist thicker than my biceps.  I wish I could tell you that I then came back up the floor and dunked on the New York Giants tackle to be, but I actually didn’t dare go near the key again.   Fortunately for my daughter, genes aren’t everything in volleyball and had I gone back in the key in that game I wouldn't have been around to have a daughter.

     In any case, the scariest thing for most volleydads to see in a college match is someone like Kim Glass who officially comes from Pennsylvania but looks more like she grew up on the planet Major Vertical.   Glass lists at 6’3” but looked to be more than 4” taller than other players in the court who were listed at 6’0”.  Making matters worse, she’s a very smart hitter who adjusts well to bad sets (there were a bunch of them) and who reads the block.  On top of that, she plays back middle in serve receive (19 digs).  In the great scheme of volleydad fantasies for one’s daughter, I had to admit that Kim Glass is simply out of reach.  In the course of the match, she had 37 kills.  

     I’ve come to understand that this is the subtext of being a volleydad.  Any match you watch, there’s this little dialogue in your head about how your own kid might or could fit into such a match some day.  This is especially the case when one of the players came from the same high school and club as your own kid. Even without Kim Glass, my own humbling answer was,”Geez, I’m not so sure.”

     After watching even very good high school volleyball, it’s easy to get seduced into thinking that high level division one volleyball isn’t that much different.  Often you do that thing in your head where you go “Well, if so and so made it out of here and got there, then….”  The hardest hit in a top level Norcal match would be about an average or well below average hard swing in a college match.  It’s not just the hitting though, the defensive gap between high school and college is much more profound.  Even on a so so defending team like Arizona, the court gets covered.  On a really good defensive team like Santa Clara, it’s not just Walters, their very fine libero. ( I should mention that Brittany Leonard AU’s freshman libero from Mitty also played well)  Any five players on the court cover tips and get in the way of Glass/Abernathy blasts better than the best libero you’ll see at the high school level.  One thing we parents often miss is that after two years of college training and competition, the players who played in your league are a long ways from the level they were at when they were in your league. For example, Matich was a marginal defender on back row line just two years ago (despite her other obvious assets) now she’s excellent at it.  

     Okay, saner people already know this sort of thing.  Fellow volleydad and I also happened to wander into a great match attended by maybe two thousand people.  If you’re wondering why college volleyball rarely gets on tv, this is the reason.  This was a match to get in the final four with a local team involved.  Santa Clara’s not a big school and they did bring a healthy rooting section all dressed in red complete with mascot wearing a prop rescued from a set in Godfather Part One or maybe Seabiscuit.  Throughout the match they chanted “SCU, SCU” which I first thought was a regulatory agency, this being Silicon Valley that wasn’t entirely out of the realm of possibility.  I’ve heard stories of whole campuses here chanting “IPO IPO” though that’s for teams that like to run the option.  Once in a while the U of A would chant back “U of A, Uof A” which sounded moren  or less like “USA, USA” and made me half expect to see Kurt Russell on the sideline posing as Herb Brooks.

     Instead it was Dave Rubio, who looks vaguely like a distant younger relative of Dave Shojii, looking vaguely pained and resigned to his own team’s wildly inconsistent play throughout the evening.  Whenever Arizona could get the ball to Glass and Abernathy on the left with a good pass and set, generally good things happened, though Abernathy went hot and cold throughout the match.  The problem was that every time they got a sideout, Arizona would miss its serve in the second game.  At that level, the college game is not that far from high school.  Also, they kept seeming to do it while Glass was in the front row.  The U of A setter still found ways to get to Glass, setting her half a dozen times back right and even back left at least once.  Since she may well be hitting the ball close to eleven feet up, I suppose it’s not that strange that you barely notice that she’s hitting from more than ten feet back.  Abernathy can be almost as spectacular in that she has a way of going up and staying up until she finally swings, the way they used to describe Connie Hawkins jump shot.  (he didn’t worry about the defender jumping with him because he would just stay up until the defender started going down).  Rubio also runs some odd substitutions.  Dyck comes out for one rotation when she’s right front and her team is serving for Ayers, sometimes Butkus would come in back row as well (the entire night I don’t think Arizona won a point in this rotation).  Abernathy comes out after she serves then comes back in the middle back spot.  (talk about specialization for those two subs).  

     On the Santa Clara side of the net was a totally different team.  Where Arizona has a pile of top ten recruits, like Glass and Abernathy.  In fact, Bre Ladd, one of their middles, was actually the national high school player of the year the season all three committed to Arizona.  The Broncos aren’t as awe inspiring physically.  Okay, that’s volleycode.  Arizona has three very athletic black players in their rotation.  Santa Clara does not. (I do want to talk directly about race and class and junior volleyball at some point in some other blog)   This is not to say that there aren't a lot of black volleyball players who happen to get by on skill and savvy. What Santa Clara has instead is a much tighter team concept.  It’s a team whose defense is so good, that they use it to attack back.  I’m not sure how often they ran plays that went something like dig ball, rotate to place, dig ball, quick set left, hit between block or set surprise slide into more or less empty court but it happened enough for Mcgivern to get 24 kills.  Mcgivern wasn’t as spectacular as the Arizona lefts, but she consistently got kills when her team went into counterattack mode.  
For whatever reason, there seemed to be a consistent gap in the Arizona rightside block when Ladd and Dyck were together up front. (I’m not sure that this matchup ever got addressed much, but I wasn’t watching that carefully)  Freshman left, Brittany Lowe also got double figure kills and came up with a bunch of digs.  Muratore and Cmaylo got the better of the middles matchup though Lamb generally looked pretty good (just ten attempts) when she had chances.  Almost 70% of Arizona’s sets went to their 2 lefts. One other huge factor was that Matich was literally all over the court either getting digs or managing to get errant passes back in play.  If Santa Clara had any clear advantage in the match it was the difference in the setting.

     After a first game where Arizona seemed to hit and block at will, that Arizona team appeared to take a vacation.  In the second game, Santa Clara started blocking some, but it was mainly a matter of Arizona stopping itself.  In addition to repeated service errors at crucial points, there were 5 ball handling errors during the night, four on Dyck.  There likely could have been a lot more.  In game 3 service errors and Santa Clara’s inspired defense kept Arizona from ever tying the game.  At this point, the momentum had clearly shifted and I wondered if Arizona could get itself back together enough to keep John Wallace from hopping up from his chair to applaud his team.  The SCU fans started hauling out final four signs as well.

     The fourth game was probably the most different of the night.  It started point for point until Glass appeared to go way wide on a roll shot.  The ref called a somewhat phantom touch and Santa Clara appeared thrown off by the call.  For the next ten minutes, it was the Glass/Abernathy show and it felt like Arizona hit about .600 for the game with Santa Clara not even getting a hand on what appeared to be a year’s worth of highlight kills.  It was 30-15 and wasn’t really that close.

     Somewhere between the third and fourth game, the PA guy announced the results fo the other three elite eight matches as the crowd collectively scratched its head and applauded the prospect of Orange clad Tennessee volunteers finding their way there, Rob Patrick was a Stanford assistant at one time.  Can you imagine the odds four years ago of Tennessee making a volleyball final four?   In any case, after the 4th game show where the Wildcat lefts made the volleyball look like a giant white paneled superball, it looked like Cinderalla time had expired for Santa Clara.  It didn’t happen that way.

     Santa Clara got a kill on the first point from the left.  Arizona went to respond at 1-0 and Dyck was called for a bhe.  Abernathy got blocked.  In fact, it looked like there was a blocking adjustment by SCU in the 5th game.  I looked up and Santa Clara had gone up 4-0.  This clearly didn’t make Kim Glass happy.  She has a very expressive face and you could see that she clinched her jaw and lasered her stare to announce that this wasn’t going to be her last match.  She came up with 7 kills over the next 12 Arizona points.  Glass has a very distinctive Saduharah Oh kick with her jump foot on her jump serve which when on has to be one of the scarier weapons in college volleyball.  As she went through her ritual, I saw a man in the front row of the Arizona section with his eyes partly closed, shoulders drooped, murmuring something to himself, not quite looking directly at the server.  I’m almost certain that it was Kim Glass’s dad who clearly must be yet another volleydad.    

     Arizona pulled to a 9-10 deficit and Santa Clara didn’t seem to have a way to stop Glass.  Just as I thought, here it comes, Matich set Cmaylo on the slide and she ripped it.  The ball hit just beyond the ten foot line and bounced up at a 45 degree angle.  The place went crazy. For whatever reason, each time the Santa Clara middles got big kills, the jumbotron screen would run a close up of their smiling face as they rotated out and back to the bench. So there was Anna Cmaylo on the screen trying to pretend that this happens all the time, yet unable to hold off this ear to ear grin.

Abernathy came back to life and got a couple kills and the score become 14-13 Arizona.  This I think was the measure of the Santa Clara defense.  Glass took four good swings and SCU via Brittany Lowe either dug them crosscourt or they softblocked each one until Glass went long on one last swing.  I don’t question going to the big gun with the season on the line, I do question Arizona’s going all John Riggins about it.  They made no attempt to disguise it nor did they even try to have Glass hit from any spot other than a pure 4.  Santa Clara, knowing what was coming, was able to throw its resources into stopping Glass.  Of course, that doesn’t mean that even a team that knows what’s coming stops Glass.  Over the next four points though, Glass took five more swings and Lowe must have dug every one in the back corner.  Finally on Santa Clara’s second match point, Glass changed the pace and rolled a shot short right which as it happened was wide open.  The ball sat on the tape for half a second….In some ways, it would have been fitting for it to have just stayed there.  
     Within seconds the student section emptied out and Santa Clara players were jumping up and down on their side of the court.  Charita Stubbs (Johnson) once a great U of A middle consoled Glass on the AU left side of the net.  Believe it or not, AU’s two senior lefts had 61 kills in the match and lost.  Like football, this suggests that it takes a balanced offense to win at the highest levels in volleyball. My volleypal suggests that any time you set a player 84 times in a match, she’s likely to be maybe a fraction of a second slower than she might have otherwise been.  Stubbs then motioned to Santa Clara that they would let the other team celebrate rather than stop the mania for the traditional handshake.  Santa Clara thus became the first WCC team to make the final four.

     In terms of my life as a volleydad, I’m not sure what’s happened here.  Is it possible that I’ve made the shift into just being a fan of the sport?  Perhaps one day my volleypal will write the definitive treatise on volley consciousness.  In the meantime, I have learned that volleyball can still be fun even if your kid isn’t playing.

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Sunday, December 11, 2005

Eminent Domain in China

Sometimes I come across an international story like this Eminent Domain in China that touches on virtually every issue that I’ve been thinking about over the last few months.  First off, my grandparents all came from Guangdong province which was once the part of China with the largest number of young men forced to leave for California or Malaysia to avoid famine.  It’s said that for many years whole villages were supported by payments from overseas Chinese relatives.  Guangdong was also the last section of the coast to become part of what we know as China under the Ch’in and the site of much of the Opium War in 1842 (kind of an early version of the Contra drug scandal) Because so many immigrant Chinese in California in the 1960’s were Cantonese, many Americans assumed that Cantonese culture, food, and language, represented all of China.

Second, the incident which made the mainstream media linger here for about ten seconds  foreshadows one direction the “global” economy and its fifteen dollar dvd players might take.  All in one, we have social planning backed by armed force, wind power, eminent domain, and a horrific incident where the government claims that the protesting citizens rioted and threw explosives (the villagers claim it was fireworks) and the locals insist that the police simply opened fire.  In the meantime, the Chinese government has “sealed” the town from outside media. On Sunday, the commander of the police unit was arrested for his role in the shootings, suggesting that the Chinese do act somewhat faster in these matters than Americans do about torture.   link to BBC story  According to officials, 3 were shot.  According to the locals 20 people were killed.  

As with any industrialized country, China’s spectacular economic growth comes with a social price.  If one wonders how all those Shanghai skyscrapers pop up so quickly, one of the keys has been a system in which the Chinese government proclaims its own redevelopment zones, offers the residents a token amount, then shows up with bulldozers in a matter of weeks or months.  Not a lot is said about where or how these people are relocated and whether or not the compensation would be sufficient to resettle them.  This is the first time, I’ve seen the same scenario in the Chinese countryside.  With talk of no one knowing exactly how many of the protesters were killed, the incident draws ready comparison to Tiananmien.  We Americans often forget our own history of Haymarket Square, Douglas Macarthur busting up the bonus marchers, the Seattle general strike, etc.  In the midst of al the Iraq news, we also haven’t paid a lot of attention to the Connecticut eminent domain case, Kelo v. New London, that gave local governments the power to condemn private homes for the “economic” good of a private development plan.

Recently Governor Schwarzenegger toured China and assured the world that he felt human rights concerns about China were exaggerated and touted the co-development between California and China of alternative energy opportunities.  Mmmmm….

Over the last year, I’ve noted the odd convergence between America and China’s economies possibly best exemplified by Walmart.  China calls its take a “mixed economy”.  The US insists that it’s the champion of the “free market”.  There are points, however, when both places eerily look like the final days of capitalism as sketched out in Das Capital, with economies driven by nothing more than the search for surplus value and the majority of workers being ground closer and closer to the margins.  I know it’s bad form these days to talk about Karl Marx being accurate about anything.  I should also say in fairness that shooting protesters has nothing to do with free market capitalism or necessarily with Communism.  I just wonder, now that Marxism is on the wane in the world as a political system why is it that his analysis of the excesses of capitalism is looking more rather than less accurate?
The United States has been notably silent about the shootings in Guangdong province thus far.  It’ll be interesting to see how the current administration does respond.  Since we owe the Chinese huge sums of money, it’s a bit like telling your rich uncle that he did something that offended you and risking being written out of his will or our having our debt called in and being written out of G8.
Robert Reich article on China Capitalism w/out Democracy

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