Thursday, August 31, 2006

Theobertarian Dictionary 9 (Blame it on Rumsfeld)

(Norwegian authorities recently recovered Edward Munch's "The Scream" after it was stolen at gunpoint two years ago. Officials said the damage was far less than expected, but the painting did look a whole lot more scared after the events of the last two years)


When I was young, it was a sign of having old-fashioned values even of having moral fiber to not start blaming everyone else the moment something went wrong. It was considered a sign of virtue if in the course of a fight or an argument, you took a moment to think about any ways you may have contributed to the situation. Anyone who seemed to be part of a mess who’s first reaction was to say “It was their fault” and who then started to blame everyone but himself or herself was generally considered by any thoughtful person to be a scoundrel, a bully, or Joe McCarthy. Long ago, personal responsibility was considered one of the touchstones of being a conservative. Even the Bible seemed to agree, not that Theobertarians actually read it.

"Pride goeth before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall" (Proverbs 16:18).

I have since learned that “blaming America first” is the cause of anything that afflicts our country. Take for instance the falsification of the evidence of weapons of mass destruction before the war. Why do people insist on blaming America for that? Clearly it’s Saddam’s fault for letting us believe it. If not Saddam’s fault, it’s the fault of those UN Weapons Inspectors who failed to turn up non-existent evidence. If it’s not their fault, it was the French who were stupid enough to tell us that we should give inspections another chance. If not the French, it was the CIA since the CIA spends all its time looking for intelligence in countries that are not America. Clearly, anyone who blames America for what Americans did can’t be a truly patriotic American. Those who are doing the “blaming” are obviously the ones who are destroying America’s credibility in the world as a nation that only goes to war when it absolutely must.

Consider Katrina which happened almost exactly a year ago. Obviously, we should blame mother nature for the fact that more than 1,800 people died. Perhaps it was Fidel Castro. Notice that Havana didn’t get flooded. If we blame the administration for not acting fast enough, we couldn’t blame the Democrats in Louisiana. Why blame anybody? Instead we should play the guitar at a rally, buy Ferragamos, or hang out with guys towing facsimile trailers who aren’t necessarily living in trailers with names like Rock Head, republican candidate for Alderman.

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld had it almost exactly right in his speech to the American Legion in Salt Lake City. He pointed out that “blame America first” is responsible for the fact that there are ten times as many articles about Abu Ghraib than there are about an American medal of honor winner. He does fail to mention that 9/10s of the stories about Abu Ghraib found their way into the news as a direct result of Rumsefld’s attempts to cover it up and deflect blame from the administration. There’s also the small fact that two earlier stories about American heroism, Jessica Lynch and Pat Tillman, (both of whom I consider heroes for other reasons) might have affected the credibility of actual tales of courageous-patriotic American soldiers.

There is a small distinction here that I hesitate to point out because it’s so trivial. Critics of the war aren’t blaming America. Most critics of the war are blaming Donald Rumsfeld, George W. Bush, and Dick Cheney for misleading the country, failing to plan the occupation, and for their inability to cope with the insurgency/civil war that was the direct result of their incompetence.

btw, I do know of a major politician who was very scrupulous about not blaming his own country first. He blamed the Jews instead. I know that the Secretary of Defense has studied him. He said so himself.


Many years ago, I had a history teacher who was McGeorge Bundy’s history teacher. Bundy was his star student, a relationship written about extensively in David Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest . Richard “Doc” Irons taught his students that Chamberlain et. al. had made a serious mistake with Hitler because they treated a wolf like a sheep. “Hitler”, he explained, “Was clearly a predator not someone whose hunger was fed by the Munich accords not appeased or sated.”

Bundy grew up to help make American policy in Vietnam where he applied Doc Irons’s history lessons with a star student’s enthusiasm. The result was a disaster and most historians now look back and say “Had Bundy et. al. understood Asia, they would have seen that Ho Chi Minh was not Hitler.”

If I’m following Rumsfeld’s reasoning, Islamic terrorists are analogous to Hitler as he threatened to take the Sudeten. They are not to be negotiated with only destroyed. Is this the same Rumsfeld who flew to Baghdad to shake hands with Saddam during the Iran-Iraq war? Is this the same guy who recently met in 2001 an Iranian arms dealer tied to the Iran-Contra affair. If you remember, we traded missiles with some of these embryonic Hitlers. Of course, it was W’s father who was accused of trading with the Nazis, not Rumsfelds so I won’t bring it up.

If you’re going to accuse other people of appeasement though, you shouldn’t live in a glass house. I, for one, wouldn’t want to look too closely into American ties to countries filled with Islamic terrorists like Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. Should we be getting ready to invade those places too?

I am a little puzzled though. Hitler was the one invading other countries. As far as I know, we’re the country occupying another country right now and threatening to invade Iran with talk of teaching them American political values. If you want to go back in history some, it was the Baathists, the movment that Sadaam idenitified with, who expressed some admiration for the Nazis as literal National Socialists. Islamic Fundamentalism is religiously-based rather than national. That doesn’t mean that religious groups don’t invade other people’s homelands. Think about the Crusades.

A small clue: maybe the post World War 1 history that matters here isn't Hitler as it is the promises broken by the Western powers after the breakup of the Ottoman Empire. Has the Secretary ever shown any signs of studying that history?


One of the newer thought balloons I’ve been hearing lately is that the Left only complains and criticizes, they don’t have a plan to fix things. Yes, okay, maybe there are a few things wrong with our Middle East policy, our economic policy, and our environmental policy, but why should I vote for any group that doesn’t have a clear blueprint for fixing things.

This is how I see it. I let you take the family car because you lied about why you needed to go somewhere. When I asked you about it first, you told me that I didn’t really love you. So instead of doing whatever it was you were expecting to do, you got in a huge wreck that wiped out our insurance policies. Now you won’t tell me first what happened, won’t let me see the car, insist that I be “positive” about your accident, and won’t even let me get close enough to inspect the vehicle. In fact, you tell me that you have no plans to give it back to me.

Instead you say, “Well you don’t have a plan to fix it, so why should I trust you with it?”

Well, I saw your plan in action and as best I can tell you’re just going to get into an even worse accident. Give it back while there’s still some hope of trying to fix the thing. Otherwise, we’ll all be stuck.

So, imagine if we took this case to Judge Wopner, Doctor Phil, or even Judge Judy and let them vote on this in November….Can we say, “It’s time for some tough love?”

It sure as heck isn’t time for appeasement, because I know exactly what you’re going to do with what’s left of our car and yeah, I do blame you first, because this is about what you did. No, I’m not going to blame everyone else, after what’s happened I’d have to be Rummy to see it any other way. Got it?

note; if you happened into this from some other place, Theobertarianism is a political philosophy that combines nominally Christian moral order with none of the spirituality and libertarian distaste for government regulation without the dedication to personal freedom. It also happens to be the prevalent political philosophy in the United States.

Other entries in the Theobertarian Dictionary

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Tuesday, August 29, 2006

He's Baaack (The Return of Don Nelson) sports

"NBA fans everywhere celebrate the Warriors' attempt to quote Santayana"

Oakland sports teams are much more sentimental than I ever imagined. I looked at the papers this morning to find out that Jeff George, who didn’t leave the Raiders on the best of terms, had returned as a possible backup quarterback for his old team and its new old coach Art Shell. At various times, the A’s have arranged for swan songs for Jose Canseco, Reggie Jackson, and Rickey Henderson, though Rickey forgot to retire. Some time in the future, I imagine we’ll see the return of the Giambi brothers to the Green and Gold. Even in politics, this is the city that elected Jerry Brown mayor. Now the big story is that after twelve years out of the playoffs, the Warriors have brought Don Nelson back to coach the team. I’m waiting to hear about their deals to sign Chris Webber and Latrell Sprewell some time later this week.

Chris Cohan, the Warriors owner, not only fired Nelson twelve years ago, he sued him for taking another job as head coach of the Knicks. He’s now paying the sixty six year old coach six million dollars a year over the next three years. Yes, you’re right that’s three 6’s in succession. For those who don’t remember the story, Nelson has a long history of being a coach who takes teams from nothing to contention, but who can’t get them to the finals. He managed this in Milwaukee, Dallas, and at Golden State. I’m not sure what to say about the Knicks except that Larry Brown who also has added value everywhere else he’s gone bombed out there too.

With Run TMC (Hardaway, Richmond, and Mullin, the current Warriors GM), Nelson was all set to make the jump from playoff team to championship contender with the addition of Chris Webber. Webber preferred to play power forward so Nelson traded for a true center, Rony Seikaly by giving up one of Webber’s best friends on the team Billy Owens. Webber’s complaints about Nelson’s “negative” coaching style grew more vocal and Cohan decided to keep the coach instead of the budding star in a it's either him or me scenario. A few months and a sudden loss of chemistry later, both star and coach were gone. Him or me somehow turned into Donyell Marshall. A year or two later, Latrell Sprewell was choking his coach. The Warriors have not had a winning team since.

Psychologists sometimes encourage traumatized patients to “relive” the incident and work through it again. Perhaps this is what Cohan’s up to. He’s tried 8 coaches since Nelson and the team still plays as if jinxed. Nelson may be the only person on earth who has the counter-spell. Mullin, as a protégé of Nelson’s, already has assembled a group in Nelson’s image in that the roster has no center who can score, a bunch of scorers on the wings, and more than its share of player who didn’t grow up in the United States. In addition, like traditional Nelson teams, the current Warriors don’t play much defense.
They do, however, still have Michael Pietrus who came to the team as the “Michael Jordan of France”. With the emergence of Tony Parker and Boris Diaw since, Pietrus is now more like the Sam Bowie of France.

I think I do understand Nelson’s motive for coming back. At one point, it looked like Nelson senior was trying to set up his son Donn Nelson junior as his successor in Dallas. Instead, Avery Johnson emerged as the coach in waiting and once given the job took the Mavericks to a level that Nelson senior had never managed, the NBA final. It’ll should be a little while before Donn Jr. has any hope of taking the job away from Johnson. In the meantime, Donn Sr. could certainly bring his son/assistant back to Golden State along with maybe Grandnelsonnn III, second assistant.

More significant, I believe that Nelson loves coaching and that this is a no lose situation. Yes, the team might lose, but if he does he can blame it on the bad karma from twelve years ago and the idiocies of Chris Cohan. If the team happens to win, Nelson will have the entire bay area basketball community proclaiming his wisdom and greatness. As the second winningest coach in NBA history, Nelson who remains an excellent judge of talent might just manage to get a winning season out of what most consider a talented but underachieving roster. Basically, it’s his chance to be Pat Riley, though without having to get beaten by Texas Western in Glory Road or even having to win the NBA championship. All Nelson has to do is make the playoffs in the next two years.

In the meantime, Ken Macha needs to watch his back. I’m sure the A’s must already be in talks with Tony LaRussa and Art Howe.


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Monday, August 28, 2006

Whacko (John Mark Karr and several thousand more recent killings of children)

Okay, the DNA tests suggest that John Mark Karr wasn’t Jon Benet Ramsey’s killer and that all he may really have wanted was a little attention and a free ticket out of Thailand.  It never ceases to amaze me how many people out there become experts on tabloid murders.  Thirteen years ago, I remember getting into long conversations with regular people about O.J.’s DNA (I’m pretty sure that was the first time DNA testing became a pop culture item), Ron Goldman’s life history, and the kinds of footprints left by various brands of shoes.  After finding out more than I ever really needed to know about the poor Ramsey family a decade ago, it doesn’t surprise me at all to see how well versed so many folk are on the details of John Mark Karr’s weird confession.  I could walk into any supermarket tonight and hear people in the checkout line going, “Of course he didn’t do it.  How could he have been in Boulder that day, no signs of drugs in the girl’s autopsy, he stopped in Boulder four years later with his family to do research, and what was up with that sex change operation?”  

Am I the only one wondering why those same regular Americans don’t ask about a bigger more current spate of killings of children?   How many Iraqi children have died in the last three plus years?  I’m not just talking about the number blown up in explosions or shot in gunfire, large numbers have apparently died from less dramatic causes like malnutrition.  

I ask myself the following.  If regular Americans can see the inconsistencies and outrageous aspects of John Mark Karr’s version of events, how come they can’t see the many inconsistencies, misstatements, and outrageous claims made about our war in Iraq?  
Why is John Mark Karr a “whacko” while folks who still want us to believe that Saddam had imminent weapons of mass destruction and ties to 9/11 or that the current situation in Iraq where 68 people died over the weekend in bombings is turning a corner somehow aren’t “whacko”?  

Of course they misled us.  Of course this mission was not accomplished.  Of course key administration decision makers made significant mistakes.  Of course thousands of children have died even though their mother never put them in child beauty pageants as a consequence of a lack of an even vaguely competent plan.  

Okay, maybe I’m wrong and maybe I’m going too far here, but shouldn’t the people running our country be subject to the same level of scrutiny as John Mark Karr?  


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Friday, August 25, 2006

Planet Rodney Dangerfield (dissing Pluto)

We lost a planet from our solar system this week and it couldn’t get Jon Benet Ramsey off the front page.  Talk about lack of respect for a celestial body! I grew up being told that there were nine planets in the solar system. It wasn’t as big a deal as knowing all fifty states and their capitals, but it was very high on any educator’s list of basic facts that most if not all students should know back then.  If you could name the planets in order from Mercury which was closest to the sun out to Pluto, you were really doing well.  If you could name all the moons, of which Pluto has three so far, they started fitting you for a pocket protector and a briefcase.  Pluto, which was “discovered” in 1930 was so much a part of our culture that Mickey Mouse’s (a creation of the 30’s himself)  had a dog named for the 9th planet.  I never did figure out why Goofy, also a dog, happened to be Mickey’s pal and knew how to talk , but Mickey kept Pluto as a pet. I guess that might have been the first hint that the outermost outer planet might not be long for our worlds view.  

No, Osama did not build a suitcase bomb and blow up the smallest planet into asteroids. You see, they'd collected all this plutonium and now instead of being an element, it's just a dwarf element. You build a bomb with plutonium now it's only a weapon of mixed destruction along with c-4, phosphorous shells, and John Bolton.

Back in the 1800’s, Ceres, the largest asteroid in the belt between Mars and Jupiter had status as a planet too.  Ceres which is even smaller than Pluto had the misfortune of being the largest object among thousands circling the sun.  Not long after its discovery, Ceres got demoted to asteroid status for about a hundred and fifty years until some astronomers decided to try to bring it up to the majors again in 2001 along with a big icy object with the unromantic label UB 313.  Instead of promoting Ceres, the association tightened their definition of planet and wound up creating this whole bogus category “the dwarf planet”.   
Basically Ceres got brought up out of the asteroid league and poor Pluto got sent down in the process to join Ceres and UB 313 as  part of the dwarf division.

To add insult to injury, Pluto’s largest moon Charon which is almost as big as Pluto itself (with two objects, how the heck do you tell which is orbiting which?)  also got bumped into consideration for dwarfdom.  That has to be the ultimate in being dissed if you’ve gotten used to being a planet to have your own moon catch up with you.  One could, however, look at it another way.  While Pluto was a planet for seventy five of our years, in Pluto time it was like a third of a year so maybe they never got all that used to being a planet anyway.  It's not even baseball season yet on Pluto.  

Aside from being a serious insult to dwarves or little people, I’m wondering what the Hades this means?  Does this mean Pluto can’t get into galactic bars now?  Did Pluto lose its right to vote in interplanetary elections.  And how can you have moons and still not be a planet?

I really think that they should have lobbied for "lite" planet instead of dwarf planet. You know, "All the rotations, but now less filling." A dwarf star for instance is in serious trouble compared to a regular star, because the dwarf part means that it's on its way to being a dead star (though not like Jim Morrison). On the other hand, a light year is way better than a regular year. Instead of being 365 days, a light year is way too far to even think about, which when you think about it is like "lite" beer vs. the regular stuff. One is an alcoholic beverage and the other takes way too long to get drunk. Dwarf planet gets you roles in intergalactic productions of the Wizard of Oz. Lite planet, can you imagine the royalties they'd start getting for the Pluto diet?

Anyway, I just never thought astronomers were exactly the sort of guys and (girls) who whispered, “Well to tell you the truth size does matter.” I guess I should have known, they've alwasy been the sort who liked to calibrate and tell. Actually, that isn’t quite true, they're telling everyone they dumped Pluto not because of its size but how it orbits.  See, there are always other ways to please astronomers.  For about 20 earth years out of 229 it crosses into Neptune’s orbit.  In the old days, all you had to be was a big rock orbiting the sun.  Now, they’ve got so all these requirements, you have to orbit, be round, win the swimsuit and talent portions.  In the meantime, apparently Pluto’s stopped speaking to Neptune entirely which is very sad given that we might not even know about Pluto had it not been for Neptune.

  If you don’t know the story, Neptune was the first planet discovered by implication instead of visual observation.  Although the three body gravitational problem remains something of a mystery, Neptune’s existence was predicted because Johann Gottfried Galle found eccentricities in Uranus’s orbit.  I can just see those scientists in 1846 giggling “There’s something weird about Uranus.  Eeewww!”

In turn, they soon figured out that Neptune moved funny too and people started looking for Pluto.  I’m still thinking about how this is going to mess up all those astrologers.  It just doesn’t sound the same to get told that you're going to lead a long and happy life because Mars is aligned with dwarf planet.  Anyway, Clyde Tombaugh started doing time lapse photographs looking for the planet implied by Neptune and became the first American to get credit for discovering a planet in 1930.  The only problem was that Pluto was much too small to be the missing planet.  When I was a kid, no one knew how big Pluto actually was.  It wasn’t until the 1980’s that they figured out for sure that it was the smallest “planet” in the solar system and the one furthest from the sun.  Talk about your runt complex.  Anyway, now that the drug testing is in on Pluto (you know are you a legitimate planet or are you A-steroid?), Tombaugh is just the first American to discover a dwarf planet.  Even more amazing, Tombaugh’s widow is still alive.  Now the lady can’t get into her local observatory without a reservation anymore.

What if there turns out to be intelligent life on Pluto?  Are we going to have to say,”Sorry we can’t get excited about you guys because you’re not from a real planet?”

  Of course, the beings of Pluto, who maybe really do look like Mickey Mouse’s dog, could come back at us and say “You know what?  We’ve been watching you longer than you’ve been watching us and Earth doesn’t count because you don’t have real intelligent life just some sort of dwarf intellect.  Give it another couple years and do what you’re doing and there’s going to be an asteroid belt between Venus and Mars and you won't even be a dwarf planet, you’ll be like blastocyst planet. Woof woof.”

In the meantime, can you imagine all the lawsuits now?  There are all these kids who got a C in science because they could only name eight planets and then didn’t get into the college of their choice.  Not only that, the outer edge of our solar system just shrunk by several million miles.  They must be in a frenzy at the interplanetary title company.

What next?  Someone’s going to tell me that the United States isn’t a democracy any longer?


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Thursday, August 24, 2006

Parent Group Confirming Letter to Board (volleyball)

photo on left is courtesy of arctic ferret
who has nothing to do with the NCVA and lives in the Midwest.

(The Parent Group was happy to find the World's Oldest known McDonald's when driving back from a tournament in Utah.)

The parent group recently sent the following confirming e-mail to the NCVA Board.  Please note, I was not the author of the note (wish I had) , but as a member of the group fully endorse it. The author then received an e-mail from the NCVA Commissioner that confirms that she passed it on to the board members and that she always clears anything she writes to the group with all members of the board before she sends it.

Members of the Board of Directors, NCVA:

The ad hoc parent group in NCVA made a presentation at the June BOD meeting of the NCVA. At that time we were told to expect a response from the board dealing with the issues and concerns we raised. We understood that a lot of ground was covered in the meeting and that a response would take some time. In eary August we contacted the Commissioner to ask when a reply would be forthcoming. On August 21, our group received the following reply from Ms. Donaghy:

begin letter from NCVA

Dear ….

The NCVA Board of Directors has answered many of your questions regarding policy in previous correspondence. The Office staff has done the same via email or letters and in person at the meetings. You were supplied a binder of the girls 2005/2006 handbook at the second meetings with instructions that many of your answers to you questions can be found in this publications, which is also posted on the website. I am currently updating the 2006/2007 Girls Handbook. We also have received copies of emails that you have received from Jon Lee with answers to many of your questions.

In addition, the Board will continue to commit time to discuss between them many of the ideas presented from all of our stakeholders. We are sure you will continue to see this as the seasons progress.

We have communicated with you in previous correspondence that the NCVA Board of Directors has not established an official NCVA Parent Group, please refrain from presenting yourself as a representative of a NCVA Parent Group.

In regards to the letter addressed to NCVA Board Chairman, Diane Mazzei and myself- received on August 16, 2006, you will receive a response from the NCVA Board Chairman by the end of next week.

End letter from NCVA

It is unclear to us whether this reply constitutes the board's promised response to us or is the Commissioner's take on where matters stand. If this is the board's official response, you may be certain that the parent group is extremely disappointed by it. We understand that Ms. Mazzei will be responding separately to Mr. Fong's recent letter, and earnestly hope that the board as a whole will not be so dismissive of the parent group as is the case in the Commissioner's letter. As expressed many times, we would like to work with the board to achieve a better volleyball experience for all in the Northern California region. We are looking for much more than a simple assurance that NCVA will commit time in the future to discuss issues amongst the board members. We are looking for a response to the specific issues raised in our presentation as we work to find a way to maintain an ongoing, non-adversarial relationship between concerned parents and other advocates and the NCVA. May we expect any such response from the board?

"In our PowerPoint presentation we offered potential solutions to certain problems. These recommendations have not yet been addressed by the BOD, the Commissioner, the Handbook binder or Jon Lee at USAV. To refresh your memory, we are including a summary of the presentation (see below). We have been waiting for a reaction to our suggestions. We are very open to further dialogue about them but cannot adequately participate if board meetings are closed, unannounced in advance and conducted without accessible minutes. Some of our suggestions could lead to substantial volunteer commitments from parents.

Please note that the parent group has never characterized itself as an "official" group representing the NCVA organization. We will continue to be careful about avoiding any such characterization. However, it is a fact that we are mostly parents of players in the NCVA community, and we will continue to call ourselves what we are--at the moment, an ad hoc parent group that is expanding as others involved in NCVA activities take an interest in us. Our mission is the same as yours, to provide the best possible support for volleyball in our region. To this end we are dedicated.

Any reply to me will be forwarded to the others in our group. This letter was approved in draft form by our group.

Parent Group Board Presentation was also attached

Begin e-mail from NCVA
e-mail from the NCVA Commissioner:

This email is to inform you that I have forwarded your email to the NCVA Board of Directors. I would also like to inform you that I have been directed by the Board that all correspondence to ..... from me is reviewed and approved by the NCVA Board of Directors before it goes out.

Donna Donaghy

End e-mail from NCVA

Link to my other volleyball articles

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Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Party of 5,000, your table is ready in Fallujah, Beirut, or Wherever (Individual Ready Reserve)


There’ve been a handful of stories about the recent Marine call up of  thousands of Individual Ready Reserve (IRR) for active deployment.  The current number of US Troops in Iraq appears to be about 138,000 and as more than a few have noticed the number seems to go up not down as we continue to turn the corner there.  I did a bit of research and learned that prior to 2004, IRR was generally referred to as “Inactive Reserve”.  Traditionally, all military commitments are for eight years, but one completes “active” status at the end of four years.  I imagine recruiters used to sell contractees on the notion that the last two years were completely “inactive”.   

During the IRR period, you were not assigned to any unit, you don’t get paid, and the only requirement appeared to be that you needed to tell the government where and how to find you.  Back in 2004, several thousand Inactive Reserve got a surprise when they were suddenly reactivated. (apparently, many tried not to show up and a significant number were no longer fit for service) This meant that they got a letter that told them to stop driving the taxi cab, going to school, or staying home with the kids and report for duty to a newly-assigned unit (fwiw military police units are a popular choice).  In the same year, the military showed its empathy for those called back into active service by dropping the “Inactive” part from the acronym and substituting “Individual”.  Those lucky few thus went from being inactive “couch potatoes” to being “individualists” again in that hotbed of individualism, the armed services.  

One of my first thoughts about this whole eight year thing is that our President is supposed to spend eight years in office and is currently headed into his last two.  Am I the only one who thinks that IRR might be a good idea?  We could let him go back to clearing his mountain bike and riding brush in Crawford and say “Hey, thanks for your service, we’ll just call you if we really need you, wink wink.”

I assume that he’s investigated this already though since he has extensive personal experience in working out the limits of an obligation for military service, particularly when it comes to the “inactive” part.  

My second thought is that words like “Inactive” and “Reserves” evoke the sports world.  (Since sportswriters constantly use war metaphors, I like to use sports metaphors when talking about war)  When a teams starts playing its “reserves” extensively, one of two things has happened.  The game is out of reach and the outcome no longer can be much affected by who happens to be on the field or your team is in big trouble.  The reserve quarterback comes in because the starter got a concussion from being hit on the blitz.  You get put on the active roster when the general manager either has a bunch of injuries or they just don’t want to spend the money any longer for real major leaguers.  The reserves usually try just as hard and often they are very talented, but they’re not active for a reason.  They’re too young, too old, simply worn out, injured, etc.  If a coach has to use reserves extensively, it’s a favored excuse for losing.

The other place you hear about “reserves” is in the finance world.  A family shouldn’t dip into its reserves or savings to say buy a new boat, buy recreational  drugs, or or buy lottery tickets to stabilize the Middle East.  A business doesn’t use its reserve funds unless there’s a real emergency unless it wants to generate some very serious deficits very fast.  

The common term for the use of what were once “inactive” reserves has been “backdoor draft”.  Many believe that resistance to Vietnam came from the fact that middle-class children were suddenly being drafted to serve their country.  As a result, more and more Americans began asking “Uh, why are we doing this exactly?”

The all volunteer army, even if they don’t go in knowing that eight years really was eight years or more, has the advantage of saying “You exercised your free will in signing up for this and no one’s making you do it.”    

We live in a country that’s big on the notion of individual free will.  I’m not sure what it means that there may not be enough people who want to exercise their free will to sign up for this war any longer now that they know more about the fine print.

I think the more sensible way to characterize the use of what were once our “inactive” reserves is that someone’s treating the war as a serious “emergency”,(in fact, IRR could only be activated with a declaration of national emergency by congress, something that happened post 9/11) even though the vast majority of Americans aren’t acting at all like we’re in the midst of an emergency.  I, for instance, don’t go to bed thinking about ways to help the war effort or make major purchases with our national emergency in mind.  I suppose that if terrorists did make another major statement on U.S. soil or if there were another Katrina, an earthquake, or other disaster that might require the armed forces at home, I’ll have the comfort of knowing that our emergency forces are half way across the world protecting us from weapons of mass destruction in the only country in the Middle East that didn’t seem to have an active program to create them.  

Is this mom and dad spending the money they were saving for the kids’ college educations on crack cocaine or is it mom and dad fending off some serious problem and not wanting to worry the kids more than necessary?  Personally, I tend to think of it as the former, but let’s assume it’s the latter.  I have to ask, are they spending all our human resource and financial savings in a way that’s actually effective?  When do you tell the kids that the family’s in big trouble?  What happens when you share the truth with them about how big that danger really was?  

How about a combination of the two?  Imagine that mom or dad simply has a bad gambling habit and it’s gotten so bad they’ve tapped into our savings without discussing it with us.  It’s not really a family emergency, they don’t want to level with the kids because to do so would be to lose any respect or authority for how they manage the family say come November.  In the meantime, they dip into reserve savings telling us that it’s for concerns that no one dares question and just go about your lives as if one shouldn’t be all concerned that we have no savings anymore. Fortunately we don't have to worry in this country about individual illness or serious accident, because all families in America have health insurance regardless of mom and dad's personal bad habits.  

Even if it didn’t start as an emergency, it’s definitely one now. We're either in big trouble or we're getting in bigger trouble because mom and dad are idiots.  So why are we being encouraged to sleep through it? Isn't that something that a mom or dad with a gambling habit might encourage as opposed to how an actually vigilant mom and dad might behave?

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Monday, August 21, 2006

NCVA August Response (volleyball)

note: Received the following e-mail response from Donna Donaghy, NCVA Commissioner. I won't comment for now, please feel free to comment below though.

The NCVA Board of Directors has answered many of your questions regarding policy in previous correspondence. The Office staff has done the same via email or letters and in person at the meetings. You were supplied a binder of the girls 2005/2006 handbook at the second meetings with instructions that many of your answers to you questions can be found in this publications, which is also posted on the website. I am currently updating the 2006/2007 Girls Handbook. We also have received copies of emails that you have received from Jon Lee with answers to many of your questions. In addition, the Board will continue to commit time to discuss between them many of the ideas presented from all of our stakeholders.

We are sure you will continue to see this as the seasons progress. We have communicated with you in previous correspondence that the NCVA Board of Directors has not established an official NCVA Parent Group, please refrain from presenting yourself as a representative of a NCVA Parent Group.

In regards to the letter addressed to NCVA Board Chairman, Diane Mazzei and myself- received on August 16, 2006, you will receive a response from the NCVA Board Chairman by the end of next week.

Thank you,

Donna Donaghy
cc: NCVA Board of Directors

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Friday, August 18, 2006

Bellarossa Interviews Me

Bellarossa was kind enough to include me for her most fascinating “Interview With Bloggers” project. (if there’s a theme, we seem to all be nerds or at least a bit off center. What a shock :}) Bella’s own page is in turns funny, thoughtful, personal and is always well-produced. She also keeps a Chicago comedy updates page at the Bastion.(the graphic at the top here)

by the way, the bike trip was from Los Angeles to New York. Also the most gratifying experience I may have had as a blogger may have been getting a note from a woman whose daughter had passed away who asked to link one of my posts on her daughter's tribute page.


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Senator Cowpie (George Allen, S.R. Sidarth, and Macachismo)

This morning, I was sitting over my breakfast of machaca, a Mexican dish made up of eggs, sausage, and spices, when I turned to my wife and said “Hey Ca Ca head, how you doing this morning?”

For some reason, she got mad at me even though I was clearly joking and didn’t really understand that Ca Ca was slang for “shit” head.

“Do you talk to your boss that way?” she asked,“Or your mother?”

“Don’t believe mom, you remember she told people I held her by her feet over Niagra Falls a few years ago and she wound up taking it back more or less?”

“But that was after you hung that noose on the tree in her front yard and you told her you were worried about losing your job because she wrote about what you did in Niagra Falls.”

“I love my mother and my country deeply dear, that’s all that should matter. Where are you going with this?”

“I’m just worried about the kids. You’re their father. They need to see a Dad who treats his family with respect actually who treats everyone he meets with respect. I know that's sort of old-fashioned, but I like being conservative about some things.”

“Sheez, I was just kidding around, making up names.”I have a few more bites of my breakfast and pat my stomach.

“I have to say Dear, that this Moose Ca Ca stuff is pretty good?”

“It’s “machaca” not “moussaka”. Moussaka is a Greek dish made with eggplant and if you’re going to call me stupid names don’t you think you could cover a little better than that?"

“What do you mean?”

“Well there are any number of other things you could have claimed you were trying to say?

If you were trying explain away calling me “ca ca” by saying “Oh, I was calling you monkey head instead. How lame is that? What’s the friggin difference? You could at least have made like Mel Gibson and said you were drunk.”

“Look, why are you making such a big deal about whatever it is I said, get over it already. That's the trouble with you. You always focus on the negative, never anything constructive.”

After I clean the machaca off of my shirt and pants, I decide to apologize.

“Honey, if it hurt your feelings, I’m really sorry. You see, I was at this rally yesterday and someone came up to the junior senator from Virginia and called him “Cowpie”.

“You don’t call a senator “Cowpie”.

“Well he was wearing cowboy boots and I think the pie part was just being playful. The guy was from Marin or something and I don’t think they call them “cowpies” there.”


“Naw, I think he was just trying to get out of trouble.”

“I thought you said the senator didn’t mind.”

“He didn’t, it was like twelve security guys who roughed him up then escorted him to his car.”

“So you thought if someone could call the senator that, it would be okay to call me “Ca Ca”.
“Look, there’s a difference between kidding around privately and being in public in front of a video camera and calling someone an ethnic slur while you know you’re being taped.”

My wife hands me another shirt.

“True, if you’d call me that on videotape in front of a crowd of people, I’d just figure you were incredibly stupid.”


Peace restored, I pick up our morning copy of the National Enquirer.

“How nice, the Enquirer and every other paper in America is writing a giant apology to the Ramsey family, for basically taking a couple who had their six year old daughter murdered and accusing the family of her murder and the mother of really really bad taste.”

“Yes, dear. It’s too bad that Patsy died two months ago. Can I see the story.”

I pick up my copy of the paper again and do a double take. “Whoops, it’s not here. Let me check online.”

After my wife glares at me for bringing my PDA out during breakfast, she reaches for the Enquirer.

“Dear this is a lurid article about the guy who confessed not an apology.”

“You see dear they can’t apologize yet.”

“Why not yet?”

“Well, until he’s tried and convicted, it would be premature to apologize. It’s not premature when you accuse a parent of killing her own kid, but well you know….”

“I wish I were a paper or a tv show, I feel guilty and no one even reads my blog.  I’m sorry Jon Benet Ramsey’s family.  I was wrong  and I’m ashamed for even thinking it.”


“Wow dear, this is like apology morning. You say you're sorry for calling me a Ca Ca head and now this.”

“Well, being a real man means learning to say you’re sorry.

“Dear, isn’t it love means never having to say you’re sorry?”

“You might be right, did you know George Allen Junior was the inspiration for….”

“You’re kidding, Love Story? Senator Cowpie?"

“Well actually I was thinking Divine in "Lust in the Dust".

“Oh wow, I can totally see that. They have the same kind of how you say, "macachismo" .”

“Say good night Gracie.”

“Good night George, go crawl back under your rock now.”


I had a most interesting conversation with my daughter this evening. One of the cliques at her high school in way Northern California calls themselves the “Hicks”. As a pride thing, they like applying Confederate Flags on all their personal possessions.

“Dad, they tell everyone they do it because they say they’re proud of the South….but they’re not from the south, never even been there.”

“Do you think that’s why they do it?”

“No, I think they know what it means. They’re just too chicken to admit it. You don’t see anyone who’s really from the South who’s not white running around with a Confederate flag.”

I suppose it’s a typical teenage thing to let the prevailing adult culture (it’s very blue here and poltically correct shade of blue at that) know that you’re going to reject whatever it is they’re telling you to think or do. Somehow the conversation with my daughter, whose way brighter than I am in so many ways, made me think about Senator Cowpie. He knows what he’s doing. He doesn’t have the guts to admit it, but he wants you to vote for him to be in charge of protecting us. In the meantime, he’s so stupid or foolhardy he does it while he knows he’s being videotaped? If he ever apologizes sincerely for what he did to S.R. Sidarth, I hope enquiring minds are there to let us know about it.

note: Re the Ramseys, some doubts have been raised about the reliability of the confession in this case. I'm not sure that changes anything about how "premature" and genuinely cruel this may all have been.

Jim Webb for U.S. Senate

The OJ Effect

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Thursday, August 17, 2006

Letter to NCVA re: Board Nominations (volleyball)

note: The following is an update of the Parent Group's correspondence with the NCVA. AFter some discussion, the group realized that there were some ambiguities in the bylaws with respect to getting parent members of the board nominated. The Parent group is interested in nominating three members of the group for the board itself and felt it was important to address this before the next board meeting. text follows

Dear Ms. Mazzei,

     Ms. Donaghy was kind enough to let the parent group know that the NCVA would be getting back to us about our recommendations made at the June board meeting.  We look forward to the region’s response, but it also occurred to the group that there were a few minor matters to pursue.

  1. As you are aware, one of our recommendations was that parents should constitute at least 25% of the board.  We were looking at the bylaws and noted that the only identified way to add a board member would be for a member of the current board to nominate someone thirty days (30) in advance of a board meeting.
We do not know when the next board meeting is scheduled to take place (Ms. Donaghy didn’t mention one in her most recent e-mail), so the group would like to nominate three potential board members, and we are specifically requesting your assistance in moving this along (assuming that you are willing to help us, if not please pass this request on to the other current board members). At least one member of the parent group may have been nominated already, but there doesn’t appear to be any way to confirm when such a nomination occurs.

In any case, the group feels that it has three individuals who have a mix of experience and skills that should serve the region and more importantly our children well.  

We do understand that the current board has the minimum 5 members and no current member of the board appears to be a parent.  We recognize that the board has not yet determined that it will designate seats for parents, but given the 30-day issue and the fact that we don’t know the board’s meeting schedule we hope you can work with us.  

  1. There does not appear to be a policy at this point about the publication of minutes, at least not in the bylaws.  We’d like to request a copy of the minutes for any meetings from the last two years (2005 and 2006).  If it is a matter of NCVA policy not to share its minutes with its constituents, could you please let us know that specifically?  

Would it be possible for NCVA constituents to know when and where board meetings are held and what the public agenda items are in those meetings?  If it’s the Region’s policy not to reveal the time and place of its meetings, please let us know that that’s the case.

  1. We did get an e-mail from Ms. Donaghy mentioning that we should keep working with region staff around “operational” matters, while the board would respond to us when it came to matters requiring board authority. The group does have some concerns and seeks clarification around both the issues of background checks and the Region’s due process procedures described in the handbook.  We’re not sure if these are “Board” matters or “Operational” matters.

  • In our first meeting with Region staff, Ms. Donaghy let us know, much to our relief, that there have been no problems with sex offenders or molestation issues in the region.  We have received some information since our meetings that such issues may have come up in the fairly recent past within the region.  As parents interested in protecting our children, we would like to get some clarification on this.  

I recognize that this is delicate and involves multiple confidentiality issues, but are parents entitled to know how many incidents or even accusations there have been within the region over the last ten years?  Is it the policy of the region not to release any information about these concerns?  If so, how can parents take care in cases of individuals who might not be say, on Megan’s list, but who have been accused in some way that does not meet the criminal standard or even the NCVA’s standard, but possibly meets a parent’s standard for concern?

I noticed from the handbook that the background check provisions were implemented in 2003-2004, some 8 years after the due process issues came up in the Midwestern case.  Did the region have a background check policy in place prior to 2003?  

In any case, have there been any accusations made in the last 5 years against people associated with NCVA clubs?  We do not need specifics, but given that we have no way to communicate directly with the board, we are asking the question in this way.  If there have been, how often has the NCVA’s due process system been used since its inception?

  • As a second matter, this was not in the Powerpoint presentation, but was discussed in our meeting with staff at USF prior to the board meetings.  While there does seem to be a due process system in place, there is no defined system of how one makes a complaint that guarantees some level of protection for the accuser.  It’s not even clear at this point to whom one may make a complaint to with some assurance of an investigation.

We would like to know if this is a board matter or an item to be worked out with region staff.  Finally, we’d like to work with the Region on this critical level of protection for our children.  There was a recent case in Palo Alto that reminds us how difficult it can be and how much more prevalent the problem is than most imagine.  As we said, we were glad to hear that the region has never had problems of this sort. Personally, it makes me feel a bit over-cautious to worry about this sort of thing, but as someone charged with the welfare of the thousands of children who play in NCVA, you most certainly understand our interest in having the most effective system possible in this area.  In particular, I have regular dealings with the Department of Human Services in my county and would be happy to help the region develop reporting procedures based on the way other agencies handle them.  

  1. Finally,  we would like to request a copy of the NCVA’s articles of incorporation.  There remain some details of how the organization works that still remain unclear to us.  For instance, now that we have the bylaws it appears to be a membership organization with the board members being the only members, but do the articles that create the organization make it a membership or non-membership organization?  It’s hard for us to tell without the articles themselves.?  

Obviously, the question of what the rights of NCVA constituents happen to be has been on the group’s collective mind.  In particular, USAV appears to have policies calling for “democratically” run regions.  The parent group is trying to get a clearer idea of what that means to the current board and staff.  Since we don’t at this point have minutes or any say in nominating board members, we are left to request a written response on the precise “meaning” of the term within our region.  

In any case, we hope you are doing well.  We look forward to working cooperatively with both the staff and the board (maybe some day very soon some members of the parent group can join you on the board). I’m  sorry to make these requests in such formal sounding fashion, but we thought it might help clarify some questions that didn’t get touched on in the 30 minutes we had before the board back in June, before we did hear from NCVA.  


Cc: Jon Lee, Donna Donaghy

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Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Ocean in a Box (fiction)

At Grey Sparrow Journal

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Tuesday, August 15, 2006

The Last Cantonese Warrior (fiction)

This story appears in the Spring 2008 Issue of the Kartika Review. The name was changed to Hidden Menu.

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Monday, August 14, 2006

Military Recuriting Irregularities (the GAO Report of August 2006)

Note: I know this isn’t as entertaining as most blog rants, but every now and then I like to keep my political blogging discipline by looking at the source materials.  It never ceases to amaze me how often folks from both sides tend to cherry pick from reports like “Military Recruiting- DOD and Services Need Better Data to Enhance Visibility over Recruiter Irregularities” and since most of us never read them we get a very different impression of what’s in them.  I believe it’s something that all political bloggers should force themselves to do from time to time.  

Way back in 1812, the United States actually went to war with England at least partly because the British were waylaying American citizens, usually merchant sailors and forcing them into the Royal Navy.  As reasons to go to war go, this may have been one of the better ones.  Recently, the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) weighed in on  irregularities in military recruiting over the last two years.  The problem isn’t enormous, roughly 409 substantiated cases (GAO report page 19) out of 4,388 in 2004, though more than 64% of the alleged cases are neither substantiated nor unsubstantiated.  The problem though is clearly growing.  In 2005 there were 629 substantiated cases of improper recruiting for the armed forces out of 6,602 and a 68% rate of unresolved cases.
Not surprisingly the GAO found fault with the fact that the various service branches had no central system of oversight.  Each branch measures and defines the effectiveness of its recruiting system in a different manner.  Nonetheless, the problem at this point remains well below 1% of the number of inductees.  

Of course, if you happen to be the parent of one of the close to 5,000 young men and women (actually they raised the induction age this year so many aren’t all that young) who were brought into the armed forces under false pretenses or outside protocol, you might think it’s quite a big number. It might trouble you to find out that the number of criminal recruiting violations found in 2005 nearly doubled from 2004, though the number remains relatively low (68) one must consider this is still a system in which the particular branch evaluates its own conduct.  I doubt, however, that any of the violations consisted of hitting someone over the head with a club and then dumping the “recruit” onto a plane headed for Baghdad, so there’s been considerable progress since 1812.

The really shocking item in the report is that the Department of Defense found that over half of Americans between ages 16-21 are ineligibile for military service because they can’t meet the DOD’s service entry standards (p. 23).  This is largely due to medical or health issues (read large numbers of teenagers are simply too overweight or out of shape)  or they lack a high school diploma or equivalent, fail the armed forces vocational aptitude test, or have criminal records or are deemed too anti-social (now we know the real reason Rush Limbaugh didn’t serve).  

GAO identifies one simple fix.  Three of the branches evaluate recruiters on the number of contracts they sign rather than the number of their recruits who actually make it through basic training.  The Marines are the lone exception.  The practice is something like evaluating a major league baseball scout on the number of players he or she signs instead of whether or not any get to the major leagues and help the team.  (p. 24)  This sounds vaguely like corporate accounting practices.  GAO reports tend to emphasize oversight- this report is no exception. One of their themes is that there aren’t genuinely accurate ways within the armed forces to measure or correct the problem.  They specifically cite the fact that recruiters are evaluated and promoted based on the sheer number of recruits they bring in with little oversight about the how or even the quality of the actual recruits.  

Now this is the interesting thing, the Department of Defense was given the opportunity(p. 43) to respond to the GAO’s recommendations and findings (a regular practice with their reports).  While the DOD agreed that an oversight framework was needed (how could they not?),  the Department specifically rejected the notion of establishing a central processing command to track and report recruiting irregularities.  What was their argument?

  1. They claimed that this would duplicate the measures already in place with the individual service branches- in case you forgot, GAO found significant problems with those measures.

  2. They insisted that GAO had found that the problem was not widespread- this despite the fact that the rate virtually doubled in a single year and GAO found that recruiting irregularities were more than likely underreported by the systems that the DOD claims don’t need to be duplicated and that GAO’s recommendation is “premature”.

  3. At the same time, DOD acknowledged that even one incident of recruiter wrongdoing can erode public confidence-Why does that number 621 confirmed violations from 2005 come to mind?  Also two thirds of cases each year are classified as “unresolved”.  It’s worth mentioning that GAO’s data came directly from the service branches themselves.  

This may not be impressment, but I’m not impressed either.  The DOD doesn’t seem terribly concerned that amidst all those numbers is someone’s son or daughter who might have been “coerced or tricked” into signing.  Imagine, those unqualified recruits who may be slipping into the service, may be someone who’s protecting your own son or daughter’s flank somewhere outside the Green Zone.  
Somehow, it doesn’t shock me that Secretary Rumsfeld’s people just don’t care that much to address the issue effectively or before June of 2007.  After all, it’s not their children who are being lured by military recruiters who may or may not be regulated appropriately.  
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Anne Zwicker Kerr (The Murder of American Values in Lebanon)

I’ve never simply linked someone else’s essay on this blog, but I’m doing that for Anne Zwicker Kerr’s essay on Lebanon.  She is the widow of Malcolm Kerr, former president of the American University there who was assassinated by Islamic militants in 1984. (She’s also Steve Kerr’s mother) Instead of being bent on revenge, she makes an eloquent plea for building understanding between cultures and condemns current U.S. policy there as a departure from that approach.   The Murder of American Values in Lebanon.  

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Sunday, August 13, 2006

Woody Allen and Steve Martin Reveal Themselves as Twins Separated at Birth (Match Point and Shopgirl move review)

(warning some plot spoilers below)

I generally don’t think of Woody Allen and Steve Martin as all that similar as personalities.  Allen’s identity is deeply rooted in being Jewish, being from New York, and neurotically anxious.  Martin’s identity has largely been Southern California, being relentlessly white, and more in the comic tradition of the clown with a mask.  Where most people assumed that Allen’s persona was some extension of his real self, Martin’s wild and funny guy was always elusive at a personal level.  His material rarely revealed anything about his real life self or his non-stage personality.  

The two men, however, have enjoyed surprisingly similar career arcs.  Both have roots in standup comedy and as comedy writers. Allen started with the "Show of Shows" (the relatively short-lived but critically loved fifties television variety show) and Martin started with the "Smothers Brothers Show" which arguably was the sixties version of Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca. Both owe some of their career to Carl Reiner (Allen through Show of Shows and Martin through his first movie, “The Jerk”)  Both have always combined slapstick with an incongruous philosophical bent.  Both have a thing for anachronistic music.  Allen plays Dixieland clarinet.  Martin used to incorporate the banjo into his act and has ties to the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. Eventually, both men segued from being “comics” to mostly making movies.  After starting with movies played almost exclusively for laughs, each stripped back the schtick to move on to more serious films and some claim to “auteurship”.  

  Allen negotiated the turn roughly when “Annie Hall” darkened into “Manhattan” with a brief trip to his inner Ingmarr Bergmann in “Interiors”. Martin started playing with the possibility some time after "Roxanne", though he still plays funny guys when he appears in other people’s movies.  Thanks to the slightly asynchronous magic of renting dvd’s, I was struck by how two of the most successful comic minds in America managed to make startlingly similar movies, Allen’s  “Match Point”  and Martin’s “Shopgirl” (directed by Anand Tucker but written and clearly shaped by Martin) at almost exactly the same time.

“Match Point” is the tale of a retired tennis pro, Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, who marries well (the wife is played by the unfailingly excellent Emily Mortimer from “Dear Frankie” and “Lovely and Amazing”) but finds himself unable to resist his more passionate attraction to a failed American actress, Scarlett Johansson.  Historically, the post-comic Allen has been a restless movie-making spirit. Allen has dabbled in genres or parodies of genre as diverse as documentary (Zelig), the musical “Everybone Says I love You”, gangster playwrights “Bullets Over Broadway”, and the nature of narrative itself “Melinda and Melinda”.  In fact, the one thing one might have said about Allen’s movies over the last twenty years is that he’s made a fetish of not repeating himself.  That said, “Match Point” is rather surprisingly a near exact reprise of the themes and plot of his 1989 movie “Crimes and Misdemeanors” with Martin Landau and Angelica Huston standing in for Rhys-Meyers and Johansson.  

Some have called Woody Allen America’s most European film maker in that he pointedly eschews flash for a more intimate style that explores personality in favor of plot or glitz.  Probably the most notable thing about "Match Point" is that the neurotic New York Jewish perspective that trademarked his early movies has disappeared entirely and that Allen completes the transformation by moving his milieu and most of his characters to London.  It is as if Alan Konigsberg (Allen’s birth name) became a movie-making version of Zelig, one of his own fictional creations.  Allen’s world becomes British manor houses, tennis clubs, and the sex lives of wealthy people who have none of Allen’s body-image issues. The only remnant of the standup comedian that remains are his formerly incongruous metaphysical references.  Match Point in some ways is a modernized take on Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment.  

Martin’s “Shopgirl” is the story of the young woman, Claire Danes,  who works the glove counter at an upscale department store in Beverly Hills who catches the fancy of a wealthy older man, Steve Martin.  Where the original Steve Martin once made balloon animals and red rubber noses to get laughs, the Martin of “Shopgirl” is too reserved for his own good.  Jason Schwartzman plays an updated version of Woody Allen’s original persona as Dane’s clueless would be boyfriend whose character somehow both parallels and crosses Martin’s (at one point literally so).  

     While Martin dabbles a bit more in the older man-younger woman thing, a quality that got it compared to “Lost in Translation” which happens to star Scarlet Johansson  opposite Bill Murray, Allen and Martin’s films share themes in a way that’s more than a little striking.  Both explore love triangles in which the inter-relationship of passion, love, the power that comes with money, and morality plays a prominent role. In both movies, one leg of the triange is less a person than wealth itself.  In each case, the Rhys-Meyer’s and Dane’s characters happen to be imbued with artistic sensitivities.  Dane’s character draws, we later learn quite well, and Rhys-Meyer’s loves opera (Allen uses this to mount an operatic plot).  Allen and Martin use the artistic bent to suggest that both characters have sophisticated souls that belie their origins.  

     Martin’s character in “Shopgirl” is a classic rich man who appears to have been emotionally-stunted by his own material success.  His swimming pool is always empty, his two houses untouched by the presence of anyone else, and he is repeatedly shown eating take out food by himself while watching television alone in his kitchen.  Even his courtship of Danes is materialistic.  Rather artfully, Martin gets us to like the guy despite all this, because he keeps sending the message that the character who is a professional “logician” wants to be emotionally capable of the risk of intimacy.  One is led to believe that he genuinely likes Danes yet plays out the cad role at a deeply unconscious level.  

     Rhys-Davies is made out to be an individual who knows better, because he’s not much removed from his roots as a working class young man who used his talent for tennis to pull himself closer to the upper classes.  While his wife and in-laws are all made out to be perfectly agreeable and unusually generous with his marriage into the family, a life of wealth has in some way bought off his conscience.  He likes Mortimer but is more attracted in ways that he can’t control to the lifestyle that comes with it.  Like Martin’s movie, Allen makes us feel something for the ultimate cad as a victim of circumstance, a man who somehow got in over his head without even knowing it.

     In each movie, fate or synchronicity plays a significant role in the plot.  In Martin’s movie Schwartzman happens in and out of Danes’s life at key moments.  In Allen’s movie a metaphorical net point determines Rhys-Davies’s fate.  Visually, both movies present the trappings of wealth with a kind of shallow shininess.  In each case, the movie leaves the viewer sensing that too much money corrupts the heart.  
     Over the years, Allen’s personal life has become a bit too well known.  As his love life became more notorious, Woody Allen himself has noticeably withdrawn from his own movies though he has on occasion used Jason Biggs and Will Ferrell as surrogates for his old on screen persona.  Strangely “Match Point” is an example of the paradox of the more a film maker tries to hide, the more personal things seem to become.  While there is no indication that Allen’s affair and eventual marriage to his “stepdaughter” with Mia Farrow has caused him any guilt.  “Match Point” is a meditation on the guilt that comes with succumbing to forbidden and arguably incestuous passion.  Allen, who was quite a decent tennis player himself (something many people don’t know is that the actual Allen is both competent athletically and musically), is never far from Rhys-Meyers inner self and he makes the viewer feel it.  You like the character so much that by the end of the movie you are rooting for him to get away even though you know perfectly well what he’s done.  In some way, I suspect Allen still longs to be loved and embraced by his public the way he once was.  “Match Point” is almost an attempt to play that out in an almost Jungian fashion.  The more Allen tries to convince you that the movie has nothing to do with him, the more you realize that he’s playing out his own sense of loss and in a small way expressing his own regrets.

     Martin has largely kept his personal life out of the tabloids, despite the fact that he was linked to Anne Heche who was also linked to Ellen DeGeneres.  Martin’s only marriage was to Victoria Tennant who was in his early movie “The Man with Two Brains” and has also been linked to Sex and the City’s Kristin Davis and Broadway mainstay Bernadette Peters (“Pennies from Heaven”)  He has been in some ways the rare celebrity who has enjoyed considerable personal success and fame while keeping what appears to be a genuinely private private life.  It is, however, hard to watch “Shopgirl” without thinking that Martin wanted to tell us something very personal about the way money and fame can interfere with one’s ability to connect emotionally with someone else.  While I doubt that Martin in real life has picked up department store clerks, he very skillfully uses the metaphor of her role as a glove saleswoman to suggest that Martin’s own character is slightly afraid of actually touching things and getting his heart dirty.  The narration implies that Martin picked Danes to woo because she at first glance appeared so inappropriate by reasons of age, station, and education as a candidate for a serious relationship.

     Martin’s character though longs for what he refuses to risk.  Much of the movie is a sort of emotional thriller about whether or not he will finally develop the necessary awareness.  Some of Martin’s earlier movies like “Pennies from Heaven” and “Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid” have revealed his own deep affection for movies and movie styles of the past.  “Shopgirl”, with its near Dickensian title, has the feel of a thirties morality/romance a la Ernst Lubitsch.  This, however, may be the first time that Martin has tried to reveal something intensely personal as if he took “LA Stories” and asked himself the question what does all this really say about me.

Outside the psychologist’s couch aspect of the two films, both succeed largely because the directors get fine performances out of their actors.  Rhys-Meyers and Martin both manage to make cads likeable enough for the viewer to buy into the story.  Johansson is simply one of the best actresses of her generation.  In “Match Point” she combines her character’s overflowing sexual appeal with a haunted psyche that comes right to the point of going to the limit without drifting into parody.  

Danes brings a non-cookie cutter attractiveness to the screen that’s rather refreshing and the director uses her ability to shift from frumpy to erotic when she feels desired by shooting her distinctive nose from different angles.  She also brings off her character’s slightly depressed quality with a few minimal strokes, a tug at a dress, shots of her preparing for dates, and an occasional quizzical yet blank look.  When she finally gets to her confrontation with Martin’s character, she’s able to convince you that she is the sort of person who can make the choice she does.  Schwartzman is one of the funniest actors I’ve seen recently.  In the laundromat scene where he attempts to pick up Danes, he uses things like his out of focus conversational distance and stabs of eye contact to bring off a goofy but unexpectedly appealing character in just a few frames.  Bridgett Wilson is also quite funny in her stock role as the blonde gentlemen don’t actually prefer who works the perfume counter.  

To be honest, I miss the funny Woody Allen and Steve Martin, but both are still making interesting-well crafted movies.  “Match Point” and “Shopgirl” would both be worth a look even if you’d never found either entertainer funny at all.

other reviews here


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Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Congratulations Ned Lamont

First, my congratulations to Ned Lamont.  The early stories of the Connecticut Senatorial primary all seem to read, "Lieberman loses announces that he will run as an independent" with a big picture of the loser and barely any mention of Ned Lamont.   After appealing to “party” in the waning stages of the primary campaign, somehow the soon to be former senator’s loyalty to his party appears to be very suspect.  To think that six years ago, Joe Lieberman came within a few chads of being Al Gore’s vice president.  
Now, he’d rather keep alive his hope of keeping his senate seat than to help the party that nominated him for national office win back the senate.   

While the anti-war blog world is celebrating Lamont’s victory as their victory as well, I need to caution that winning a Democratic primary 52-48 when opposition to the war among voters in general is running close to two to one is a very small step indeed.  Say what you want about a political neophyte defeating an incumbent senator in his own party’s primary, but to borrow a phrase from the administration, “Please don’t let any blog try to convince you that the anti-war movement has turned a political “corner.” “

There’s a lot of work to be done, but one of the first steps will be to now get Ned Lamont that senate seat especially if that paragon of sportsmanship and party solidarity Joe Lieberman insists on running as an independent.  

History suggests that in any war, atrocities on both sides are almost inevitable.  The most recent-more-detailed reports about the rape and murder of an Iraqi girl and the murder of her family by U.S. soldiers in Mahmudiya should serve as a reminder that the moral high ground is an elusive thing in wartime.  We need a congress that remembers that and does its job of protecting this country by restoring the notion of accountability through the balance of powers to our system.    


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Sunday, August 06, 2006

Please Tread on Me (Seeing America one garage at a time)

There were a lot of things I should have been doing this Sunday, but I needed to go see my mother and also my daughter was determined to get a treadmill for herself.  She even offered to use her own money, earned from working on weekends and over the summer at the local ice cream parlor.  In my town, the ice cream is hand-packed and sells for four dollars a cone.  With the help of, we found that used exercise equipment sells for less in my mother’s town than it does where we live, maybe because everyone’s buying expensive ice cream here instead.   I used the occasion to talk my daughter into going with me to see her grandparents and hunting for the best available deal in exercise equipment.

For most of the last eighteen months, my daughter hasn't talked to me much which I’ve been hoping has more to do with the mysteries of adolescence than the realities of our relationship.  With the older one, we got our alone time when I drove her to volleyball tournaments since the younger one was a baby at the time.  Now that the youngest one is the only kid in the house, the tournaments have been a whole-family event for us so we haven’t carved out as much alone time together.  

The first treadmill was about seven miles from our own house.  Earlier in the morning, we had surfed the net looking for recommendations on buying treadmills.  The simple advice was “If you’re serious, don’t buy anything that was less than two thousand dollars new.”  

We wanted to spend no more than three hundred dollars.  The consumer reports website also strongly suggested not buying used treadmills from gyms or from anyone that had had them for longer than a year or two.  Not surprisingly, hardly anyone sells any two year old item that cost two thousand dollars new for less than three hundred dollars unless it’s either a stock IPO or a boxed set of CD’s by American Idol artists.  
In any case, we thought we’d check out a “home-use” treadmill that was on the older side of the Consumer Reports recommendations simply because the guy was asking two hundred dollars and lived so close to us.

As we prepared to knock on the door there, my daughter and I started talking about the ideal seller, from our perspective, of a used treadmill.  The simple answer was that we wanted someone who was a bit on the flabby side, but not so heavy that he or she might have bent the rollers or stressed the motor. A man appeared who looked to be the first cousin of the guy in “Office Space” who obsesses over the stapler (which is also more or less what I look like these days).  I asked my questions about horsepower, roller size, the composition of the deck.  The guy responded with the purchase receipt from six years ago and his maintenance records.  He assured us that he’d never used it more than three times a week and used it for walking not running.  We believed him on the second count.  I made it clear that it was indeed my daughter who would be paying for it. The guy asked her where she went to college.  I made a lowball offer.  He said he’d see how the next two days went and get back to us.  “You have my phone number?”  He assured me that he did, but I sort of doubted it.

The second man lived in my mother’s town.  He told me that he used to own an exercise equipment store.  His duplex was a bit run down and he was carrying a baby as we talked.  The garage was filled with old exercise bikes and a “Precor”, more or less the Mercedes of exercise equipment, treadmill with meters that looked like they came from the 1990’s.  The man was very friendly and helpful and the thing was clearly built like a tank, just a tank from the last war.  It felt solid enough, but I couldn’t understand why a guy who was a dealer couldn’t tell me how old the treadmill was.  On the other hand, the motor looked both huge and very clean and the tread itself was shiny and black.  

We talked some more about Morocco, his native country.  He said, “You know, Casablanca.”  
I said “Marrakesh” and he was very happy that I knew more than one city there.  
“Well to be honest,” I told him, “I only know Marrakesh from the old song.”
“Yes, Casablanca,” he answered, “A great movie.”
I didn’t bother to correct him.  I was afraid if we started talking Crosby, Stills, and Nash that he might think that I’d really come to buy something other than exercise equipment.

My daughter said nothing as she watched us talk around the question of whether I was interested enough to make an offer. When I was a teenager, my dad used to like to take me along when he had to go buy supplies for the restaurant.  He was a master of the “have a friendly conversation” while really talking business.  “You build a relationship even a friendship and then you talk prices, they want to do business with you once they start thinking that you’re coming back,” my dad would explain.

I never got it down, my dad used to always know a little something personal about each of his suppliers.  In one warehouse, he might be talking about the Giants.  In the back of a storefront, he’d talk about someone’s relatives who were still in the old country.  Another visit, he’d be bringing the guy behind the cage a cigar to try out or even appetizers from the restaurant.  I’d forgotten how adept my dad was at bargaining in the pre-craig’s list world.  

Back in the car, once again, my daughter and I talked about the fact that we’d made two appointments to see treadmills in my mother’s town and how that meant the first guy would have had to have presented us with an irresistible bargain before we’d give up the chance to check out the last deal.  She pointed out that the man’s exercise store couldn’t have been too successful given his house, but also mentioned that he must have needed the money for his baby.  

The last stop was a giant, very much in shape, ex-Marine with two small babies.  He offered us something to drink, explained that he was the second owner but that neither he  nor the original owner ever used the thing much.  Unlike the other treadmills we’d looked at earlier in the day, this one was dead quiet and smooth.  We made an offer, he rebuffed it.  I asked my daughter what she thought and she shrugged and said it didn’t make much difference.  I started to write a check, he wanted cash, we had to drive to the bank.  

I said something about his maybe getting out of the corps at the right time, he  responded by saying “Depends on how you look at these things.”  

We took the machine apart to jam it into the back of our little station wagon.  I watched from the car while my daughter withdrew the money from her own bank account.  My mother had offered to pay for the treadmill, but I said “No.”  My mom tends to be over-generous especially with her only grandchild, but I had this perverse sense that I wanted my daughter to make a major purchase with her own money.  This is the year, she’ll get her license, get her braces off, etc.  I guess I like knowing that she is in many ways more grown up than I was at the same age.

On the way home, my daughter asked me about my writing and my novel for the first time.  I asked her about the boys who had been calling the house and for the first time she answered without getting upset.  Every now and then, she would glance back at the mass of metal parts of the Pacemaster pro.  We unloaded the machine, screwed it back together, and cleared a space in the garage.  So many other things I should have been doing today, but there’s a certain pleasure in taking your kid along with you to visit the garages of complete strangers.  She kept saying, “I just need it to last two years, a year and a half really before I’ll be away at college.”  

Why do I want this particular treadmill to last forever?


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Thursday, August 03, 2006

A Little Earthquake (Mel Gibson, the Giants, Striking Out)

"I haven't figured out whether the graphic on the right is an old Richter Scale Readout or an EEG for the guy on the left"

Last night we were watching television when the house started shaking. The television stayed on, a good sign, and the creaking and shifting went on for about twenty seconds. My wife’s first instinct was to make us turn everything off. My first instinct was to channel surf to see how big and where the earthquake was. Our sixteen year old daughter’s reaction was “Wow, that was really cool.”

I figured the opportunity might not come along again soon, so I did take a second to go up to my wife and kiss her passionately so I could ask, "Dear, did the earth move for you too?"

My daughter gave me the worst look for saying it, but it was worth it.

It turned out that it was a relatively small earthquake, a 4.4 on the Richter Scale, and in the end, it was my friend Hagrid (he always seems to know these things) who said via phone“Mmmm….let me look it up on the U.S. Geological Survey website .” (it's always a shock for web addicts like myself that there are actual websites with serious information on them)

In about thirty seconds plus the twenty more seconds it took to translate Greenwich Mean Time back into American time (according to USGS the quake happened on August 3 not August 2, talk about a predictive model :}), we figured out that this was the quake that hit our living room and why he didn’t feel it at all some seventy miles due south of our living room. Apparently, some people in San Jose did feel some tremors, but we are talking about Hagrid here who's big enough that the earth moves anyway sometimes when he comes down for a rebound or from blocking at the net. After he read off a bunch of GPS coordinates, I managed to figure out the the epicenter of this quake was between ten and twenty miles from my house. A 4.0 is the equivalent of a thousand tons of explosives going off (think about Iraq there for a moment). Since the Richter is exponential not linear, a 4.4 is actually a lot bigger than a 4.0, but it’s still a relative baby as far as the news is concerned which explains why they didn’t interrupt the Friends reruns even with an info bar at the bottom of the screen to tell the world about it.

My first thought was that God didn’t like everyone making fun of Mel Gibson and was letting us know, but it occurred to me that if God really cared that much about Mel Gibson then he/she wouldn’t have let him hit aliens in Halloween costumes with baseball bats in M. Night Shyamalan movies. How does one go from Gallipoli and Year of Living Dangerously to channeling Father Coughlin so easily? A .12 blood alcohol level doesn’t really explain it. I did find out though that Mel Gibson is one of the hostages to be named later being demanded by Hezbollah. I was sort of squinting funny at one of the pre-beard Mel Gibson photos and it did occur to me that Mel could be made up pretty easily to play George W. Bush, maybe in the fourth installment of Mad Max which is after all a series about what the world will be like if you give W. everything he wants.

In the meantime, my wife was going “This might be a major disaster and you’re calling magical creatures on the phone and riffing on Mel Gibson?”

She was right, Hagrid and I should have been communicating by owl, but all the birds and dogs in our neighborhood were making a huge post-earthquake noise party. I know that there’s been a lot of talk about using animals as earthquake predictors. I have to say that in our neighborhood the technology was just a little bit off with the timing. In any case, Hagrid is a “Giant” and it struck me that the last time I felt an earthquake this big was in 1989 when the Giants were about to host their first World Series Game since Bobby Richardson’s outstretched glove in 1962. In 1989, the Giants not only got swept by the A’s, it was one of the worst routs in series history and the earthquake gave the only Bay Bridge Series in the two teams 40 years of co-existence in Northern California an unintended symbol in the cracking of the Bay Bridge.

It just happened that this little earthquake came in the midst of a Giants 9 game losing streak, though they did beat the Nationals yesterday afternoon. It’s clear to me though, if you really want to prevent earthquakes in Northern California, they need to give Brian Sabean a 200 million dollar payroll and some ability to recognize talent in baseball players who are younger than 34 or at least who weren’t playing in the majors during the 1989 season.

While I never want to be in a truly bad earthquake, I as a native Californian have come to love them in their way. They’re a regular reminder that nothing is permanent or completely predictable. Even hanging out with your family laughing at Friends reruns needs to be savored.

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