Sock Quest

The boys are gone. Richard has moved downtown, Russell has left for Poughkeepsie, and they have left behind — socks. Lots and lots of socks. In so doing, they have inadvertently given me a new quest: to find a match for every orphaned male sock in the house.

This is an ideal quest. It is not unattainable, but it isn’t easy, either. It requires important qualities, like creativity, and inventiveness, and stick-to-it-iveness, as well as the ability to think like an abandoned sock. So far, I’ve found missing socks under beds, in random boxes and crates, in closets, tucked into old shoes, on desks, behind the washer and dryer, and under shelves. I’ve found socks that don’t appear to have ever been worn, socks that look like they have been put into a blender, socks that reek at levels approaching fatal toxicity, and socks that have been left rolled in a ball and then become calcified into a crusty brittle mass.

Still, I feel a rich reward whenever I locate the missing mate for a sock. If that happens, I try to wear the now reunited pair that very day, to experience the immediate satisfaction of a successful quest. As Lancelot, Galahad, and Don Quixote will tell you, any meaningful quest is all about prompt gratification.

Lockerbie Bomber: The Fallout Continues

Here’s an update on the Scottish decision to release Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi, the terrorist convicted of the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103. Great Britain’s Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, has finally addressed the issue after being quiet for some time, and he has drawn criticism both for his delay in commenting and the substance of his remarks. His statement seems pretty mush-mouthed to me — “I was angered by the welcome the terrorist received, but it was Scotland’s decision, and by the way we are committed to fighting terrorism and pursuing peace” — and probably was carefully designed to try to appeal to people of just about every political persuasion.

I am a fan of the Brits; they have been stalwart allies in the fight against terrorism. You do have to wonder, however, whether their resolve may be wavering. After all, the notion that countries should show compassion for someone like the Lockerbie Bomber is a novel concept. For example, Rudolf Hess spent 41 years in Spandau Prison after being convicted at Nuremberg. Hess died there — even though he had flown to Scotland in 1942 in an effort to negotiate peace and was arrested at that time. Hess was sentenced to life in prison, and in those days life meant life.

Drug-Addled

The latest story about the circumstances of Michael Jackson’s death is sad, but also symptomatic of how modern medical practices often seem to be extraordinarily reliant on prescribing drugs as the cure for every ill. The amount of medication Jackson apparently received is astonishing.

Can’t sleep? We’ll give you a drug, and if that doesn’t work we’ll give you another, and if that doesn’t work, we’ll try another. We’ve become accustomed to a world where there is a claimed wonder drug for every physical and mental problem. With the emphasis by patients and doctors alike on immediate, drug-induced relief from non-life-threatening conditions like insomnia, is it any wonder that there are instances of wretched excess?

New House

Last night as I was channel-surfing I saw an ad for the new season of House, which apparently will be starting up in September.  It came as a bit of a surprise, because I never know when new episodes will start for any shows anymore. 

(Don’t you miss the old days, when all shows started airing new episodes at about the same time kids went back to school?  You’d get the Fall Preview episode of TV Guide and be able to read short write-ups of all of the casting changes and programming changes for existing shows and descriptions of the new shows.  On any given night during the first week of new TV shows, you could watch a number of totally new shows and enjoy the return of old favorites.  It wasn’t pleasant going back to school, but at least the start-up of the TV season made it a bit more palatable.)

From the ad, it looks like House actually was institutionalized for mental treatment, which would quash my theory that the weird, dream-like ending of last season was just a Vicodin-induced hallucination.  The ad shows the good Dr. House with an institutional haircut and a grown-out beard that has replaced his trademark stubble, and we also see him haranguing Wilson from some rotary phone in the hallway of the psychiatric hospital.

I’m not sure what they are going to do with this plot line, but as I’ve noted before I like House, because it is one of the few consistently challenging shows on TV.  I hope that continues.

Dilemma ? How Can we Reverse this Trend ?

As of late I have been starting to wonder when radio and cable talk show hosts have gone too far with their comments. We can all recall Don Imus’s “nappy headed ho” comments that caused him to lose his job awhile back, but most talk show hosts say and do pretty much whatever they want without giving it a second thought.

Recently I heard that Rush Limbaugh made remarks comparing the Obama administration to the Nazis and Glenn Beck called President Obama a racist “with a deep seeded hatred for white people”.  As an average Joe I would hope that most of us know that neither of these statements are in fact true.

Heres an interesting article regarding the dilemma facing advertisers on some of the cable news channels. I’m in complete agreement with one of the spokespersons who said “we support vigorous debate, especially around policy issues that affect millions of Americans, but we expect it to be informed, inclusive and respectful”. Somewhere along the way we have lost these words, informed, inclusive and respectful when engaging in debate !

Limbaughs comment about Barney Frank, a gay representative, “spending most of his time living around Uranus”, is hardly respectful, in fact it is downright cruel. Yet nothing willl happen to Limbaugh and no apology will be forthcoming.

I’m glad to see that some advertisers are asking that their ads be pulled from Glenn’s show, but the article goes on to say that Beck had one of his biggest weeks ever when he made the Obama racist comment so why would we expect Beck to tone down his remarks ? In fact he will probably come up with even more outrageous remarks to drum up even more viewers.

Unfortunately, I don’t have the answers, but what can we do to reverse this trend ?

Obama: Be More Like LBJ

Yesterday’s New York Times featured an interesting piece comparing President Obama to Lyndon Johnson (“Could Afghanistan Become Obama’s Vietnam?”). The article speculated that Obama’s ambitious domestic programs could end up being derailed by an unwinnable war in Afghanistan, just as LBJ’s Great Society was by the Vietnam War. According to the article, President Obama himself has compared his situation to LBJ’s.

LBJ

LBJ

I doubt Afghanistan will ever become as big a pain in the ass for Obama as Vietnam was for LBJ, but the article made me think. I just read an excellent presidential biography of Lyndon Johnson by Doris Kearns Goodwin that led me to reconsider the former president. Despite his horrible handling of Vietnam, Lyndon Johnson was a brilliant, good-hearted man whom Obama could take a few lessons from.

Everyone’s talking about how Obama’s poll numbers are slipping as a result of the current Healthcare debate. What’s really hurting him, however, isn’t the debate itself but his mismanagement of it. President Obama has lost control over the national dialogue over healthcare reforms, despite calling numerous town halls and press conferences to dispel rumors and clarify his goals. He seems to have even less control over Congress, as Republicans, Blue Dog Democrats, and left-wing Democrats seek out their own policy goals, showing little willingness to compromise.

President Obama should consult the playbook of LBJ, perhaps the most skillful manipulator of Congress in American history. In her biography of LBJ, Goodwin notes that, contrary to popular belief,  his handling of Congress consisted of more than strong-arming. LBJ had a genius for reading people, discovering in the course of a conversation their fears and desires, and responding to them. To reward members of Congress for “good behavior” he promised them positions of importance, mustered up the support they felt they needed to vote a certain way (from newspaper editors, organizations, other members of Congress, etc.), or allowed them access to his personal popularity as president (which was, like Obama’s, originally quite considerable). To punish them, LBJ would withdraw his affection to make them feel isolated from his circle of power. Of course, strong-arming could be a component of LBJ’s “treatment”, but only when it was the most effective way, which LBJ somehow knew instinctively.

Instead of giving control of healthcare reform to Congress, I wish Obama would put himself in a position like LBJ. While LBJ’s legislation responded to the needs of Congress, it was always under his ultimate control. Like LBJ, Obama should also set clear objectives for his domestic programs, instead of adding or removing vital parts of legislation when passage appears uncertain, such as in the case of the public policy option in the current healthcare bill. Most of all, Obama should use his personal popularity to manipulate congressmen, while it still lasts.

Also like LBJ, President Obama should never forget the human element of his programs. While in action on the floor of Congress, LBJ might have seemed like a political machine, but behind all his machinations was a desire to spread the American dream to as many as possible. I’m sure Obama has the same desire, but he hasn’t been talking much about it lately. Obama needs to remind the American people that healthcare reform isn’t about politics or socialism or health insurance companies – it’s about spreading happiness, health and opportunity to as many Americans as possible.

Nap Time

One day last week at about 2:30 or 3 p.m., I seemed to hit the wall. I began to yawn and my eyes grew heavy. So, to combat the fatigue, I went out to the coffee station, poured some cold coffee into my cup, zapped it to fiery heat in the microwave oven, and slugged down some liquid caffeine. After guzzling a bit of the coffee, the combination of the hot beverage and the caffeine hit me, and I was off and running again.

Still, I thought: Wouldn’t it be nicer to take a nap, like in kindergarten? At Rankin Elementary School in Akron, Ohio, every kindergartener brought a towel to school, and after an hour or so of coloring, Play-Doh eating, playing with Lincoln Logs or building blocks, and whatever else we were supposed to be doing in kindergarten, Mrs. Radick would tell us to take our our towels, find a place on the floor to roll them out, and then lie down and take a nap.

At first, of course, it was impossible to sleep. You’d lie there, feeling a bit silly, looking at the other kids in the class, and maybe making funny faces. Mrs. Radick would walk among us, shushing us gently, and eventually you would close your eyes and magically fall asleep, even though it was the middle of the day and you were in the middle of a bunch of kids. After a while — how long were those naps, anyway? — the teacher would wake us up and we would be ready once more to tackle the punishing kindergarten curriculum, clear-headed and refreshed.

Several years I attended a CLE session that included a presentation on minimizing stress at work, and the speaker urged everyone to schedule, and take, a 15 to 30-minute “power nap” every day. The lawyers in attendance chuckled at such an outlandish notion — imagine, lawyers napping at work! — but deep down I felt the distant pull of the kindergarten towel.

Vacation Time: The Amusement Park Grand Tour

In the summer of 1999 or 2000 — I’m not sure which — UJ and I decided it would be fun to drive with Richard and Russell down to Mom’s condo in Stuart, Florida. The boys like amusement parks and so do I, so the plan was to stop at amusement parks on the way down and on the way back. On a hot summer’s day we left Columbus and drove down I-71 and then I-75 to Atlanta, where our first stop was going to be Six Flags over Georgia.

Georgia Cyclone at Six Flags

Georgia Cyclone at Six Flags

Road trips have their own unique feel, and often it doesn’t take long to get goofy. This trip was no exception and was filled with laughs and general silliness about the lame books on tape I had decided to try for the trip (including a particularly annoying rendition of a Stephen King short story about an evil chimp-with-cymbals toy that went “chang, chang, chang”), the coveted bag of Werther’s butterscotch UJ had brought along, and Russell’s grudging admission that he really didn’t like the eggs he ordered at a Waffle House. And, there were weird moments too, like when we arrived at our Atlanta motel, found that all the power was out, and a bunch of random, sketchy looking individuals were roaming around the parking lot by the office as we pulled in. These are the kinds of incidents that make road trips fun.

Montu at Busch Gardens

Montu at Busch Gardens

What about the amusement parks? Well, Six Flags over Georgia was a pretty good amusement park. It had one excellent ride — the Batman ride — and lots of good roller coasters, like the Great American Scream Machine, the Mind Bender, the Georgia Scorcher, as well as a pretty good mine train ride. It also had a lame haunted house ride and the most despised “thrill ride” of all: a “head banger.” A “head banger” is an upright coaster with some kind of head gear where the ride is so violent and shaky that your head bangs back and forth within the head gear. They give me headaches, and Six Flags had two of them — the Georgia Cyclone (pictured at left) and the Ninja. The Georgia Cyclone, in fact, is one of the worst head-bangers I’ve ever ridden. It was a brutally hot day, the food was pretty good and, not coincidentally, completely unhealthy, and the ice-cold lemon shake-ups went down easy.

We left Six Flags and drove down to Tampa, and the next morning found us at Busch Gardens bright and early. Busch Gardens was terrific. We went on the Mantu, an inverted roller coaster, about seven times, including three or four times in a row at the beginning of the day. We would finish the ride, see that that line wasn’t long, and then decide to ride it again. We also rode the Gwazi coaster over and over again, tried the Kumba a few times (which was a bit of a head banger, in my view), rode the train and the water rides, and looked at the birds and animals. The park featured some very good food and — because it is Busch Gardens, after all — offered some cold beers that hit the spot.

The Incredible Hulk Coaster

The Incredible Hulk Coaster

After a peaceful sojourn on th ebeach at the Suntide Condo on Hutchinson Island, Jim decided he had had enough of amusement parks and hopped a plane home. The boys and I, however, stuck it out, and on the northern leg of our journey we stopped at Universal Studi0s Islands of Adventure. I think this is one of the finest amusement parks I’ve ever visited. Because the park is laid out in a big circle, the traffic patterns make the park seem less congested, and it is kept spotlessly clean. You have to try the Hulk Coaster, which gives you the spectacular sensation of being shot from a gun, and the Spiderman ride, which is a very cool 3-D experience. We also liked the Dueling Dragons, a double coaster in which Fire Dragon races Ice Dragon, and Dr. Doom’s Fearfall. We got soaked on the water rides (particularly the Popeye and Bluto ride),got scared by the T-Rex, and watched the weird Poseidon’s Fury show. Good food, and really good visuals and buildings that complement the themes of the different areas.

The Hurler Coaster at Carowinds

The Hurler Coaster at Carowinds

Our last — and, frankly, least — stop on the amusement park Grand Tour was the Paramount Carowinds park on the border of North and South Carolina. This park seemed shabby, dirty, and run-down compared to the other three, and it really suffered by the immediate comparison with Islands of Adventure. We rode The Hurler rollercoaster, the Top Gun ride, and some other roller coasters, ate some pretty mediocre food, and quickly gave up the ghost. We may have been burnt out on amusement parks, or unimpressed by the attractions, or just ready to get home, but we ended up leaving much earlier than originally planned.

I enjoyed this trip a great deal, because I think amusement parks can be a lot of fun and because I enjoy driving vacations. I also liked the fact that this vacation has a special theme and concept. The upshot? I’d go back to Busch Gardens or Islands of Adventure any time. Carowinds, not so much.

Compassion For A Mass Killer?

Scotland’s release of Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi, the man convicted of killing 270 people in the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103, is an interesting story.  The stated reason for the release is that al-Megrahi, who is 57, has terminal prostate cancer, and he was released on “compassionate grounds.”  As a result, al-Megrahi served only 10 years of a life sentence.  After his release he flew home to Libya, where he received a hero’s welcome.

The reaction to the release has been swift and, not surprisingly, harshly critical.  I must confess I cannot accept the justification for the release.  Doesn’t “life” mean, in fact, “life”?  What difference does it make whether Al-Megrahi lived to a ripe old age before dying in a dank Scottish prison cell, or died in that same dank cell at an earlier age, due to prostate cancer?  The whole idea of a life sentence, in this case, was to deprive a-Megrahi of his freedom forever because he deprived 270 innocent people of their lives.

One of the ongoing debates after 9/11 is whether terrorists should be dealt with by the military, through the criminal justice system, or in some other fashion.  al-Megrahi’s release after serving only 10 years seems to make a mockery of the argument that the criminal justice system is the right means to determine and impose the punishment of terrorists.  Scotland gave al-Megrahi compassion that he did not deserve and that he never showed to the people he killed.  The relatives of the people he killed, and other civilized nations that are working desperately to thwart terrorism, have every right to be outraged.
Thever Lockerbie, Scotland, is carrying out the Lockerbie bombing that killed hundreds of people, is an interesting one.

“Inglourious Basterds” Review

inglorious-basterds1

Yesterday, my friends and I went to the Arena Grand to see Quentin Tarantino’s new movie, Inglorious Basterds, which he has supposedly been working on for almost a decade. At the very end of the movie, after carving a swastika into a Nazi’s forehead, Brad Pitt’s character turns to the camera and says “I think this is my masterpiece.” Obviously, Quentin Tarantino was speaking to the audience with this line, and is quite proud of this movie.

Tarantino should be proud. He took his usual routine – humorous violence, cool villains, non-stop cheesy pop culture references – and made it work in the setting of the Holocaust, a historical event that few like to joke about, at least openly. Tarantino’s style is toned down slightly, since the 1940s didn’t have the cheesy pop songs or fast food orders of the late 20th century, but everything is still there. When one character, known for killing dozens of Nazi SS officials, is introduced, his name shoots across the screen in bold, bright letters that look like they came from the seventies, and a power guitar chord is sounded. The movie also features a montage set to David Bowie and Giorgio Moroder’s early eighties hit “Cat People”.

Despite Tarantino’s sarcasm, I never felt that the gravity of the Holocaust was disrespected. Brad Pitt’s crew of American Jews intent on killing as many Nazis as possible is always understood to be on a righteous mission, despite their ruthlessness. If anything, the Holocaust setting makes Tarantino’s formula work better. Tarantino’s movies have always glamorized violence, and the fact that most of the violence in Basterds is affecting Nazis makes it easier to enjoy. The scenes that show the violence and hatred of the Nazis are intense and could upset some people, but they served to make Brad Pitt’s murderous acts more excusable and, frankly, enjoyable. They are certainly easier to root for than John Travolta’s character in Pulp Fiction and even Uma Thurman’s in Kill Bill.

The movie is flawed, mostly in the same ways all of Tarantino’s movies are flawed. The dialogue sometimes drags on too long and feels awkward, some characters (including Brad Pitt’s) are underdeveloped, and the movie itself is too long. But it is good, and Tarantino should get credit for presenting the Holocaust from a new, bold perspective, and doing so quite masterfully.

A Trillion Here, A Trillion There . . . .

The Administration will officially raise its 10-year deficit projection by close to $2 trillion, from $7.1 trillion to $9 trillion.  Yikes!  Even by modern inflated standards, that is a staggering sum of money, and it raises an increasingly daunting question:  who is going to buy the debt instruments that would allow us to finance that debt, and at what cost?  In order to entice investors to accept the risk that the United States might not be able to repay such extraordinary sums, might the Treasury Department have to offer higher interest rates and higher yields, thereby making it even more difficult for the U.S. government to pay off its debt and get back to a balanced budget?

There is no doubt that our country cannot continue deficit spending on this scale.  We have to reduce our deficits, and quickly, or we may face a real economic crisis in the very near future.

Vacation Time

President Obama and his family have left Washington, D.C. for a 10-day vacation in Martha’s Vineyard. From the descriptions in the press, it sounds like he will have a pretty good vacation, where he will play a lot of golf and spend time with his family. In fact, it appears that President Obama will comply with most of my five rules of thumb for a good vacation:

1. Leave your immediate area for somewhere new — There is no such thing as a really relaxing “staycation.” You don’t get out of your normal schedule, people at work don’t feel like it is that big of a deal to give you a call, and it is much too easy to slip back into the office for a quick phone call.

A scene from Marthas Vineyard

A scene from Martha's Vineyard

2. Go somewhere near water — Don’t ask me exactly why, but for most of us landlocked Midwesterners being near water immediately puts us into a more relaxed vacation frame of mind. (Of course, the fact that water also tends to go along with sun, beaches, waterfront bars, and cold adult beverages may help.)

3. Plan to do things on your vacation that are out of the norm distractions — President Obama plans to play golf, which is a good idea. It is impossible to play golf — or, at least, play it with any tiny degree of success — when you are thinking about anything other than your next shot. I like going somewhere where there are antiquities to see or interesting museums to visit for the same reason, because I tend to get immersed in the new things I am seeing.

4. Eat things you don’t normally eat — It might be pancakes for breakfast, or fresh seafood, or some kind of regional cuisine, but if you change your eating patterns and try something different, it helps to put you in that relaxed frame of mind.

5. Leave lots of time for family meals and talks — We’ve taken some great vacations as a family, and all of them featured relaxed time where we get a chance to talk more than we do normally. Often it is over a meal, or as we are driving to the next stop on the itinerary. Many of my most treasured vacation memories just involve being with Kish and the boys at some specific location, like eating shaved flavored ice in the town square of Assisi as the sun sets, or having a loose meat cheeseburger at a Maid-Rite restaurant in a small Iowa town.

Have a great vacation, Mr. President! You deserve a break.

The Carpenters, Or Bread?

I enjoyed UJ’s post on the Carpenters and his crush on Karen Carpenter. Although I can’t say that I had a crush on Karen Carpenter — nice hair, by the way, in that 1971 Australia performance footage! — I did secretly like some of the Carpenters’ songs, like Superstar. My only question is: Was it lamer to like the Carpenters, or Bread? I grudgingly admit that I liked Bread songs like Diary, although I never would have admitted it to my high school friends.

But, every self-respecting guy has to draw the line somewhere, and for me it was Barry Manilow. Unlike the studly males of Quahog, I never liked his stuff.

Another Step In The Right Direction

By all accounts, the election in Afghanistan went better than many expected.  Although there were some security issues and attacks, for the most part Taliban threats proved hollow and voters were able to vote without intimidation.  The BBC report on the election is here.  The results of the election will not be known for some time.

I think any true election — as opposed to the vintage Soviet-type shams where one candidate earns 99.8% of the vote — accomplishes something just by being held without significant incident.  Individuals who live in countries that have not experienced democracy need to learn to trust the system and their ability to exercise the franchise without retribution.  The act of voting also promotes a more active, involved citizenry and pride in country.  All of these things are positive developments.

Of course, holding a successful election does not mean Afghanistan won’t continue to face enormous challenges.  It is, however, a good first step toward a free society for people who have long been oppressed.

Afghan Hope

The elections in Afghanistan are about ready to begin. That faraway land is bravely attempting to elect leaders in the midst of war and attacks by the Taliban — who want nothing more than to intimidate voters into staying away from the polls and thereby failing to participate in democratic processes. This BBC story provides a good round-up.

Whether the country will be able to have a credible election under the circumstances is one of the questions that has to be answered. Still, you have to root for the underdog, and the underdog here is a fledgling democracy trying to get voting and democratic principles to take root in the face of enormous cultural, political, and military challenges. Good luck, Afghan friends!

Update:  The voting begins.