Scotch Night

Last night, courtesy of my friend John, I attended Scotch Night at Rocky Fork Hunt and Country Club, which is a bit strange because I do not care for the smell or taste of scotch. The evening was presided over by a “Whiskey Master,” who described six different scotches that were served as different courses were served. Given my preferences I didn’t drink the scotch, but did taste it and try to detect subtle differences in appearance and flavor. I couldn’t. My palate simply is not capable of determining whether a particular scotch is prepared with orange peel or damper peat. It all smelled and tasted like scotch to me, and seemed to differ only in the strength of the scotch taste and smell.

However, the food was terrific and the company at our table was even better, and we learned the kind of extraneous, often unverifiable facts you learn whenever you go to a presentation about a particular topic. We learned that there are only 13 Whiskey Masters in the world, and how scotch is prepared, and that the cumulative value of the barrels of different scotches used to blend Johnny Walker Blue is greater than the total assets of the Bank of England. (I knew England has been hard hit by the economic downturn, but that seems ridiculous.) One useful bit of information was that, when you drink an alcoholic beverage, if you leave the drink on your tongue and breathe out, the warmth from your mouth will cause some of the alcohol to vaporize and be blown out, making the drink milder and about 20% lower in alcoholic content. This will be handy information the next time I drink something other than scotch.

Red Ball Jets

When I was a kid, my favorite sneakers were Red Ball Jets. At the heel of the shoe, where the rubber label was, they had a bright red ball that looked like the afterburner on a jet. They were cool-looking and definitely made you run faster — and as an overweight kid, I needed all the help I could get!

I happened to mention Red Ball Jets today, and to my disgust the people I was talking to scoffed at the idea that they ever existed. So, I ran a Google search, and to my amazement not only are there webpages discussing Red Ball Jets, there are even vintage, unworn pairs of kid-sized Red Ball Jets for sale on ebay — pairs like this one. They look just like I remembered. I can almost feel the cool canvas and smell the sharp new rubber tang in the air as I lace them on and run outside on a hot summer day.

I Hope I’m Wrong, and Maybe I Am

I have to admit I groaned when I was in a theater a few months ago and saw a preview for the new Star Trek movie. The last few Star Trek ventures have been pretty unsatisfying, and I just hate to see the old characters distorted by efforts to make them seem more “relevant” to today’s world. However, this review says that the new movie, simply called Star Trek, is well done. I’m keeping my fingers crossed.

Choices, Choices . . . .

One of the more interesting decisions that the Obama Administration will have to make has to do with examination of the activities of Bush Administration officials who were involved in the interrogation of suspected terrorists. Some groups and politicians who believe that American techniques crossed the line into torture are pushing for investigation and prosecution of the Bush Administration officials as criminals; other groups reject the allegation of torture, contend that Bush Administration approaches were legal and effective in thwarting attacks, and argue that any investigations or prosecutions will expose and thereby harm secret intelligence-gathering activities. It appears that the President has not really made up his mind on how to address this issue.

This issue was raised at a conference I attended this past weekend. One speaker, who addressed former Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson and his role in the Nuremberg trials of Nazi war criminals, urged that American should follow the “Nuremberg model” and zealously investigate and prosecute those lawyers involved in authorizing Bush Administration interrogation techniques as legal activities. That argument seems like a gross overstatement to me. There are no allegations that, during the Bush Administration, the United States committed genocide, or engaged in gruesome medical experiments, or sought to systematically exterminate an entire ethnic group. Whatever waterboarding might be, it simply is not comparable to constructing concentration camps with gas chambers that permit mass murder of innocents. To make such comparisons, it seems to me, cheapens what happened during the Holocaust and ultimately minimizes the monstrosity of the Nazi regime.

I have no problem with congressional hearings into our intelligence-gathering activities during the “War on Terror,” so long as they are done sensibly, with fairness and with due consideration for legitimate national security concerns. (Such conditions, of course, may not be capable of being met in the current political environment.) On balance, however, I think it would be a mistake for the President to authorize prosecutions of Bush Administration officials unless the investigations turn up egregious, obviously illegal actions. Our system is characterized by a peaceful transition of power from one Administration to another, and engaging in “witch hunt” investigations and prosecutions of officials in a prior Administration will harm that process — and make us look like a banana republic at the same time. Prosecutions that seem to be politically motivated also will not serve the President’s stated goal of unifying the country and healing divisions. And, there is always the chance that such investigations could lead to stories that indicate that the interrogation tactics of the Bush Administration in fact were instrumental in thwarting terrorist attacks — stories like this one, and this one, too. As the old saying goes, this may be an instance where discretion is the better part of valor.

This I Believe

One of my favorite continuing NPR features is “This I Believe,” which is based on a 1950s radio program of the same name hosted by Edgar R. Murrow. It features ordinary Americans who, in three-minute increments, share their deeply held philosophies. The series is coming to an end after four years, which is a shame. It is one of the few places in the mainstream media where you can hear the unvarnished thoughts and genuine voices of everyday citizens about how they try to live their lives.

What do I believe? In the power of saying “thank you.”

Columbine, Revisited

In addition to being Hitler’s birthday, April 20 also is the anniversary of the Columbine shootings, which happened 10 years ago. People are still searching for answers as to why it happened, and whether it has any lasting societal significance.

I’m not sure such questions can really be answered. Columbine is one of those horrible incidents — like, say, Jonestown — that will cause some talking heads to draw immediate, sweeping conclusions about entire generations but that don’t seem quite so profoundly defining after the years have passed. Fortunately, there wasn’t a wave of mass school violence in the wake of Columbine, just as there was no glut of religious cult suicides after Jonestown. To be sure, Columbine has caused parents, school administrators, and concerned citizens to focus on school violence and security, to examine the impact of bullying, and to consider how to connect with outcast students. At bottom, however, Columbine was simply the product of two deeply disturbed, disengaged kids who were eager to make some kind of twisted statement and leave some kind of perverse legacy. They failed. Ten years later, how many people remember their names, or their stories?

Adolf and Me

Adolf Hitler

Adolf Hitler

Today is my birthday. It also happens to be the birthday of Adolf Hitler. Der Fuhrer would have been 120 years old today, had he not blowns his brains out in the Fuhrerbunker as the Soviet Army closed in and then somehow had survived for another 64 years.

It’s a bit weird sharing a birthday with one of history’s great racists, fanatics, and mass murderers. When I was a kid and found out that Hitler was born on my birthday, I was both repelled and fascinated. I read everything I could find about him. He seemed to be surrounded by questions. How could a person become so anti-Semitic that he would launch the Holocaust? How could someone with an interest in cultural things like art and architecture also be a mass murderer? Why did many Germans find his oratory spell-binding, designate him as The Leader, and follow his will unquestioningly? How, in the 20th century, could an obvious madman become the leader of a major industrialized nation and provoke a world war that killed millions? I’m not sure that these questions have been, or ever will be, satisfactorily answered. As a youngster I wondered: could whatever have happened to Hitler to make him into such a horrible person happen again?

We shouldn’t forget Hitler — in particular, we should remember the obvious lessons to be learned from his career, such as the need for citizens to stand up for the rights of others and for countries to show courage in facing down tyrannical dictators who threaten the world order — but it is nice to see him recede in the rear view mirror a bit. After all, Hitler isn’t the only person who was born on April 20; other notables include Mohammed (possibly), Justice John Paul Stevens of the U.S. Supreme Court, and George Takei, who played Mr. Sulu on the original Star Trek. I have friends who seem normal (although one admittedly is a Michigan fan) who also were born on this date. More recently, for reasons apparently lost in a haze of cannabis smoke, April 20 has become “420” and is an excuse for college students to go outside and smoke even more marijuana than usual. It’s not much, but it beats Hitler anyday.

That’s Right, We’re Cool

Kish and I are at Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport, waiting for our flight. The airport has free wireless, so I thought I would use it to make my first wireless, public-area posting to the blog. It is pretty cool to be able to do this, and it just reaffirms how communications networks are changing our lives in unexpected ways.

Of course, the existence of free wireless does not change the fact that business travel is a pretty miserable, crowded, loud, hurry-up-and-wait experience.

Modern Art

One of Larry Rivers pieces

One of Larry Rivers' pieces

Last night at dinner we happened to get into a conversation about modern art, and it caused me to think about Larry Rivers. In college, I took an excellent art class that introduced me to many of the “modern” artists, such as Jackson Pollack, Mark Rothko, Jasper Johns — and Larry Rivers. I particularly liked Larry Rivers’ work because often it had an unfinished, dynamic feel to it. It was as if the artist had just walked away for a minute and the piece had been stolen from his easel. The subjects of Larry Rivers’ work also tended to have an ironic, humorous aspect. This piece captures both of those qualities, and is one of my favorites.

Sun-kissed

This afternoon Kish and I walked over to a mall adjacent to our hotel in Scottsdale. It was a cloudless, brilliantly sunny day, and after a few cooler days the temperature finally felt like it hit the 80s. I slathered on some suntan lotion, wore shorts, a Hawaiian shirt, and flip-flops, and sat on benches while Kish visited shops. The coconut oil in the suntan lotion had a summery smell, and the sun felt good on my face and embarrassingly white legs.

I like living where there are seasons, in part because I enjoy the transition from one season to the next. After a long, cold, wet winter, the warmth of spring and summer are welcome indeed.

Guys and Gifts (Part II)

It looks like President Obama isn’t the only guy who has struggled recently with the choice of an appropriate gift. President Obama’s gift may not have been sufficiently thoughtful in the eyes of some, but at least it didn’t have an overt and offensive politicial message like the gift given to President Obama by Chavez. I understand that America’s role in affairs south of the border has not been our finest shining hour, but seriously, do Latin American leaders really believe that America has done more damage to their countries than the corruption and greed of dictators or the death and destruction brought on by “revolutionary” movements ?

Desert Flora

I’m out in the Phoenix area for a conference, and last night I attended an event at the Desert Botanical Garden. It was a fine function, and one of the highlights was a chance to just wander around the grounds, looking at the different kinds of cactus and other desert plants. I like the brown and stony desert scenery and I like the plants — they are tough and spiny, differently shaped than plants back east, with unusual silhouettes that are pleasing to my eye. On this particular occasion, the Botanical Garden has unusual glass sculptures placed among the plants, but as nice as those sculptures were they paled in comparison to the attractiveness of the plants themselves. Kudos to Mother Nature!

I think part of the appeal of these desert plants is that we don’t see them every day. Perhaps if we had a yard full of prickly pear cactus, I might not find them so interesting. It makes me wonder whether westerners who come to Ohio for a visit marvel at our trees, and flowers, and lush green grass, which they don’t find in their home towns.

Teabags and Taxes

It appears that a number of people in different cities across the country showed up at “tea parties” to protests higher government spending and taxes — even to the point of throwing a box of teabags onto the White House lawn. It’s always difficult to know what to make of these kinds of events, or even how to determine whether the events really are spontaneous, grassroots gatherings, or activities coordinated by political parties, as this article indicates, or perhaps a little bit of both. Nevertheless, in this day and age, getting tens of thousands of people off their duffs and out from behind their computers to exercise their rights of free speech and assembly is no small accomplishment.