Saturday, October 10, 2015

Book Review: 17 CARNATIONS

Andrew Morton has a rather sleazy reputation in the world of biographies, largely because of his unauthorized book about Princess Diana almost two decades ago. 17 Carnations is his latest effort, also a bit of a strip-mining of another member of the British royal family, one long dead but controversial still after all the years--the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, the former Edward VIII and his wife, the former Wallis Simpson. The first part of the book are biographical sketches of both, and the second half basically deals with the former king's flirtation with the Nazis between his abdication and the time he took up his post as governor of the Bahamas in late 1940.
One can say that one wishes about the modern tendency to make celebrities of people that aren't very substantial, but frankly, in the early days of mass media, there were plenty of people that were world-famous without merit, too--and this couple is Exhibit A. Edward was a spoiled, vacuous twit of the first degree; Simpson was a bed-hopper in an era when that was not as common as it is today. The main focus of the book is whether either was a Nazi, and my belief is that the question is beside the point; neither one was a true believer in anything, but both flirted with Nazism because it appeared as though the Nazi/Fascist movement would keep them comfortable and give them what they wanted. Edward had a great deal of resentment for his family, and it seems likely that he would have taken the throne again if the Nazis had defeated Britain and pushed him forward--but it was not in his nature to commit or take concrete action, and in any event, he seemed much more concerned with maintaining his standard of living and keeping his possessions with him than in any particular position or job. It seems likely that she, too, wasn't necessarily a spy, but dallied with the Nazis because they, too, were a means to live a life she otherwise would not have been able to maintain.
This book merely confirms what I first thought about this couple when they edged into my youthful consciousness many years ago, when both were dying and I first heard the story--they were a pair of fops that no one really should have cared a whit about. Those that think Diana and Charles sullied the royal family's name should read this book, if only to get a better grip on what "embarrassment" really means. And the Duke of Windsor was a forerunner of the many second and third-generation scions of wealth that plague the world today--clueless, concerned primarily with his own comfort, and tone-deaf to an amazing degree.

Friday, October 9, 2015

The Tire Fire Party

I am unashamedly liberal, or progressive, or left of center, or whatever label one needs to use to pigeonhole and comparmentalize a complex world view into a sentence. And as such, I am moved to, depending on the day and the provocation, despair and rage when I see and hear what goes on in the modern Republican Party of American politics. There was a part of me that felt as low as I have ever felt about the future of my country just eleven months ago, when both houses of Congress passed into Republican control--but only a part of me, because there was and is another part of me that said aloud that these people, holding these views, not only cannot possibly handle the responsibility of governing, but with the putative reins of power in their hands, there will be no rocks for them to hide under anymore, and they will be exposed as the incompetent, stupid, and moral monstrosities that they are.
I wish I was as prescient as I was that day every day.
For starters, the ship of fools that is the pack pursuing the 2016 party nomination for President is a never-ending source of wonder, sometimes entertaining but more often infuriating. Of the major candidates, the ones that have been a part of the "big kids" table at their debates, the last one that had not commited a sin of either faulty intelligence or mean-spirited personality fell by the wayside yesterday, when John Kasich sneered at a female teen in the audience that asked him a question that he "didn't have Taylor Swift tickets." Nice. Not a single day goes by without some candidate either commiting a gaffe that in 1984 or 1972 would have sunk a campaign or without saying something that reveals a chilling lack of human decency and empathy with their fellow travelers on this planet. Not a single day. Everybody makes fun of Donald Trump, and on many issues and in many ways he is odious, someone that would be an utter disaster in charge of the country. He is almost comically self-absorbed, is a chronic liar, and is pathetically obsessed with attention and "fame." But what has become increasingly clear over the last several weeks is that his position atop the polls of Republicans running is not an accident. Why? Because the rest of them are either bigger assholes than he is or are transparently and terminally stupid. 
Ben Carson is being exposed as perhaps the dopiest and most out-of-touch candidate of them all; this week has seen him stumble from one WTF moment to the next. Carly Fiorina has been exposed as a total fraud and willling to lie repeatedly for the sake of a bump in the polls--and that perch will never survive major scrutiny of her reign at Hewlett-Packard. Ted Cruz is, simply, a failed human being. Jeb Bush has been revealed as having the intelligence of a simian and as a dangerously isolated rich fop (I love that word); he makes his brother look like a Rhodes scholar. Chris Christie is another failed human being. Kasich didn't look bad in this company until yesterday, but his record as Ohio governor reveals that he, too, is clueless and devoid of any empathy for most of the people he governs. Rand Paul alternates between moments of surprising lucidity and spouting beliefs that are outrageously nonsense; he reminds me of one of those people you run into that will seem normal for three minutes in a conversation and then start talking about the aliens transmitting messages through cell phones. Marco Rubio sometimes seems almost normal--until he is pressed for details, and then he reveals himself to be perhaps the most corporate-beholden candidate in the field, which is saying something. Mike Huckabee may be the single-most despicable public figure I have ever seen; this guy may well turn out to be the Antichrist--unless it's Bobby Jindal, whose shrieking in his pathetic attempts to get any media attention at all would be truly frightening if he had any chance of winning any election over the rest of his life.
Seriously--has there ever been a more loathsome or unappealing group of people running for any office ever? And just a few months ago, party people were gleeful about the "depth" and "quality" of the field running. I seriously doubt any of them feel that way anymore.
And the presidential sideshow isn't even as much of a train wreck as the House of Representatives. Last week, tired of fighting the nutjobs in his own party, John Boehner quit, effective early next month. But yesterday, his chosen successor also removed himself from the running--after zealots in his own party apparently outed him for having an affair with another member of Congress. And it has become clear that a rigid minority of Tea Party nimrods are going to vote as a bloc to ensure that no one can get elected to the post without promising to shut down the government, among other baleful outcomes that only the truly stupid and ignorant believe would be helpful. This impasse has no end in sight, and it will prove to be toxic to the nation before any traction is gained.
And it's fair to wonder "how the hell did we get here?" I could write for days on this subject, but there are a few easily identifiable factors. The biggest is gerrymandering in states that are controlled by Republican legislatures; they have drawn district lines that more or less ensure safe Republican seats--to borrow a phrase from British history, there are a lot of "rotten boroughs" in American politics today. The effect of the propaganda machine that is Fox News and the centralization of American mainstream media control over the last twenty years should not be minimized; there are a whole lot of people that vote that are either terribly misinformed or that choose to be stupid. The racial element of having a black President for the last six years is important, too; race and racism is still a huge part of American electoral politics.
And none of these major factors are going to change anytime soon. As awful as this House has proven to be, a changeover to Democratic control is not likely in 2016 or indeed on the horizon. The one possible saving grace is that the Presidency is likely to remain Democratic for the length of my life; there is no way that anyone could gain the nomination of the Republican party as currently constituted and be able to win a national election, especially since they are proving so openly to be incapable of governing even ineffectively. The problem is that most of those responsible for the dysfunction are in safe seats. When you have people like Steve Scalise, Louie Gohmert, the clown from Kansas (Huselcamp?), and the other assorted boils-on-the-ass-of-humanity that are part of the current House drama--remember that these guys weren't appointed. They won elections, which means that their home districts are full of people that this kind of bullshit appeals to.
And that's the true tragedy of American politics. Yes, the influence of corporate money is pernicious. Yes, there are concerted voter suppression efforts out there. Yes, there is a media propaganda machine in place that spews bullshit and hate and misinformation. But in the end, these guys are elected, by a whole lot of other people that their twisted values appeal to. The rot starts internally, people; it's the moral pygmies with withered souls that vote for these guys that are the ultimate problem.
And that poses an issue for the rest of us. Do we shun them, shame them, call them out? The way electoral politics used to work is that a third of the electorate was going to vote red no matter what, and a third was going to vote blue no matter what, and political fortunes depended on convincing the relatively open-minded other third to vote for one or the other. I think now that as much as 95% of the electorate is locked into their views and beliefs, and the entire spectrum of contested politics is devoted to winning the votes of no more than five or six percent of us. And that kind of more or less permanent polarization never resolves itself peacefully.
I've often opined that those that are pouring money into the electoral process are going to eventually tire of doing so if they do not get the desired results. And they're not going to retire quietly nursing their distress with a glass of Scotch; they will attempt to achieve their goals in other ways. And in some ways, I really think that there are elements out there that are welcoming the spectacle of a Congress that cannot get out of its own way. Because it will break down the resistance to other "solutions" that right now are anathema to even the most thick-headed, pusillanimous ignoramuses out there, and pave the way for a naked power grab in the future.
So far, we have made it nearly two and a half centuries without a coup attempt. But that run will come to an end, and I don't think it will be all that long before it is tried--no more than ten years. I hope I'm wrong. But I don't think I am.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

And The Scramble Begins

I wish I could say I was surprised. But knowing how governments and organizations operate, I knew that, once my employer sent a notice letter out a few weeks ago stating what day that my program was going to be shutting down absent intervention, that it was going to take a couple of weeks for any rumblings of a response to start to take place. And now, with only eleven days left, and preparations underway for the disposal of the program's assets and its personnel actively seeking other employment, there are finally some tentative proposals being made.
I don't feel like outlining what's being put out there; it's very likely that several different metamorphoses are going to be take place before some kind of plan is arrived at--and there is no guarantee that I am going to be interested in continuing in any case. I have not been applying indiscriminately for jobs, but the three I've put in resumes and shown interest in are jobs I would absolutely take without a second thought--even if "emergency" funding that prolongs the life of my current program for a few months comes through. My biggest concern about the end of this phase of my career has been less the possible decline in salary and/or benefits as it has been the possibility of a series of jobs, moving from one place to another seeking to hopscotch to a better place. If I do move on, I would much prefer both stability and the possibility of advancement within that organization--and the three positions I've pursued would offer that. I would rather take a manageable pay cut and start moving down a path that actually goes somewhere then stay another couple of months with the salary I have now while performing CPR on a program that's already clinically dead.
There are other possibilities being bandied about, but writing two reports this week for the federal agency that funded us for so long has driven home some things to me--sort of like the fog starting to burn off in mid-morning and revealing the squalor of a shanty town clinging to a mountain. And as grateful as I am to my current employer for allowing me to have a career, to grow professionally, and to have a job that made a positive difference in the community for many years--honesty compels me to admit that we stopped doing what made the program successful years ago. The only way I would continue doing what I am doing is if another agency took over the program, one that would allow me to actually serve the needs of the population we are trying to serve, not one that tries to graft a service model of what it knows how to do onto a population that doesn't need what it knows how to do.
And if there's been an epitaph in the making for the last three to four years, that's it.
I wish I could  think it is dawning on several people in higher places outside my own agency that our program, small as it was, served a real need, and that the population that we worked with isn't going to vanish because our program is gone. More likely, it is a question of dollars--there are funding streams that the county is currently drawing money from that require certain services to be performed and the money to be spent in a certain time frame. Nothing gets the attention of officials like funding streams being jeopardized... It will be interesting to see what kind of ideas are jerry-rigged together here in the next week to ten days. And whether they have any appeal to me at all.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Ain't This Special

Lindsay Graham is a Senator from the reluctant state of South Carolina, and also a fringe candidate for President of the United States. He's been in the news quite a bit in recent years, because he is perhaps the most vocal political figure that believes that something criminal happened in the Benghazi embassy attacks several years ago, and Hillary Clinton ought to hang from the gallows for it. Because he isn't batshit crazy on every social issue, he somehow has managed, at least until the last couple of months, to escape the nutjob label that most of his fellow aspirants for Republican candidate for President wear more or less willingly.
He is polling around 1% of the vote pretty much everywhere, and not much higher in his own state, which has an early primary, so Graham's Presidential campaign will be ending soon and he will be able to devote full energy, in a manner of speaking, to his day job. But he provided the nation with a seriocomic touchstone yesterday that was amazing in its chutzpah. South Carolina has endured incredible rainfall in the last week to ten days, and is experiencing massive flooding as a result. And Graham, as senior Senator from the state, has been openly calling for--demanding, to give what he's doing its proper name--extensive federal disaster aid for his state.
Now, before I go on, I will gladly once again cop to my anti-Southern views. I hate the South and everything it stands for. Its base moral value is hypocrisy, on virtually every question that comes to mind. It is a culture built on violence and ignorance, and it is hard to think of a single instance where the regional culture has been the first in the nation to embrace something new and positive. It is the core infection of social ills such as bigotry, social and religious, and is and has been irredeemably racist in culture since the 1600s. It is the place where the Civil War was ignited, where secession talk is still heard. John Calhoun was a sitting Vice-President of the United States when he advocated that the state nullify federal laws in 1832--he was from South Carolina. Preston Brooks nearly killed Senator Charles Sumner by beating him with a cane on the floor of the United States Senate; he was from South Carolina. Strom Thurmond, perhaps the most morally challenged federal government official of the twentieth century (racist, philanderer, lecher of the first degree, and pious-sounding hypocrite of legendary proportions), was a Senator from this state for a half-century; they sent his decrepit ass to the Senate when he was in his 90's and senile. The guy who interrupted Obama's first State of the Union address by shouting, "You lie?" Congressman from South Carolina.
And 2015 has seen this fetid outdoor privy of a place in the news constantly. Earlier in the year, a police officer in a Charleston suburb so egregiously killed a black guy minding his own business that he was charged with murder--only after video surfaced of him planting evidence on the dead guy. A teen boy spewing all sorts of vile racist nonsense massacred members of a Charleston church during the summer--and there were no shortage of apologists claiming that the state's atmosphere and racist history had nothing to do with the killings. This place has a running sore on the national soul for nearly four centuries. Pat Robertson is from South Carolina. Yes, I know that there are decent people in South Carolina--a few. But they are a minority, a very small minority, and about as effectual as the family of Lot in Sodom... And now, the state, as mentioned, is getting hit with floods of incredible proportions.
Let's backtrack a few years, to 2011 and 2012. When the part of the country getting hit with massive flooding was in the northeast. One of the small pleasures of dealing with the massive flooding that took place in my own community in 2011 was reading various comments from the southern part of the country that we "deserved" what was happening to us, that it was God's vengeance on us for not being racist, reactionary, and gun-obsessed. In 2012, when Sandy hit, many congressman and Senators actually refused to vote in favor of disaster aid for New Jersey and New York, a move that was construed as regionally motivated at the time, a shot across the bow that acknowledged that the Civil War, for these people, had never ended.
And as it turns out, one of those members of Congress that voted against federal disaster aid was--Lindsay Graham. Who was all over the news yesterday after his clarion call for federal aid for his state, because much of the media--first the Internet, and then even the mainstream news outlets--managed to recall his votes, and pointed out, somewhat gleefully, the rank and open hypocrisy. It's easier to kick someone when they're down, and since Graham's Presidential run is in a coma anyway, he was subjected to far more scrutiny and catcalls than Ted Cruz was in the spring when he made similar calls for assistance after floods in Texas, even though Cruz voted against aid for the Northeast in 2012, too. But Graham then made it infinitely worse by claiming to "not remember" voting against aid for states affected by Sandy. I'm not even going to dignify that claptrap with a response, other than to say that this is the kind of bullshit that apparently works to keep people in office in the South. Does he actually expect anyone to seriously believe him? No one with a functional cerebral cortex ought to--but I have a feeling that this is going to play just fine in the state he represents. Because that's what the vast majority of the people living there do regularly--lie through their teeth about what they do and why they do it.
I don't believe in a vengeful or punishing God. But it's amazing how quiet those that do that are concentrated in places like South Carolina and Texas have been. A few have made half-hearted attempts, claiming, as Robertson did, that we're all going to be plagued with calamities because gay marriage and gun control and whatever other fevered fetishes occupy the Southern mind. And the selective memory and the hypocrisy are all too common, and so are the attempts to have it both ways. I have caught some heat in recent years for openly saying that we let off the South far too easily after the Civil War; as a result, we have had to deal with a century-and-a-half Cold War, one that the decent elements of this country haven't been doing well in for some time. But because it is an inconvenient truth doesn't make it less true. Homo austris is a national cancer, a tumor on the national soul that needs to be excised. I personally would love to reopen the secession question and would love to see them go their own way; within a generation, the inherent contradictions and foundation of bullshit that is Southern and conservative culture would bring it all crashing down, and the rest of us could get on with making a decent society work better in our part of the continent.
And for now--no, I haven't forgotten Sandy and 2011 and the rest of the record. I sincerely hope that Schumer and Gillibrand and Hanna have the balls to vote against any aid package. If government is the enemy, and God is on their side, like we've been hearing for four centuries--then let God drag your ass out of the water. I know that that isn't going to happen, and there's a part of me that merely wants to toy with the shitheads for a bit before gritting our teeth and helping them.
But only a part. I can't decide, honestly, whether the relevant ancient literature here is Genesis 18, where Sodom would have been spared for the sake of ten righteous people. Because past experience would suggest that Aesop's tale of the Farmer and the Viper is more apt.
The moral of that fable is that kindness is wasted on the evil.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Dead Man Walking?

It's now less than two weeks before the end of my time with my current employer. And I am finding myself alternately amused and amazed at how people are reacting to the situation. Some people are finding it very hard to even make reference to the impending departure; they will talk about almost anything else rather than acknowledge the obvious. Others are quite open about asking me how I'm feeling and what I plan to do. And for others that I have dealt with professionally for years, it's like I never existed; I have not heard a word since the news became generally known. 
Most people that have admitted to the elephant in the room treat my demeanor and my attitude with a bit of disbelief. I tell them that while it is an inconvenience, and it's something I would obviously would rather not have had to deal with, the impending departure isn't breaking my heart, either; there has been a lot of unease over the direction the agency has been going in for a few years now, and while I am grateful for the chance to have built a career, it certainly hasn't all been cookies and cream over my time there. What I am seeing and hearing from those people actually tells me a great deal about them and their own situations--many of them would be devastated if they were facing the end of their own employment.
And not for the first time, I am discovering just how beneficial being in recovery has been for me. There's a phrase in the literature of the other fellowship that promises that those working a program of recovery will "intuitively know how to handle situations that used to baffle us," and I am finding that to be more and more true as my life rolls on. There is simply no point in wallowing in despair, self-pity, or anger over this development; to use that most trite cliche, it is what it is. I'm not going to find another job sitting behind closed doors and moping; one of the best ways to draw the positive attention of a future prospective employer is to handle yourself well in the death throes of your current job, especially in a smallish place like this where there aren't many secrets. But the events of my life over the past two decades have given me a most invaluable gift: perspective. I have been through much worse than this. I survived those travails, and I will certainly survive these. And it is not hard to see possible ways where God's will might be taking me here. There are a lot of changes coming up here relatively quickly, with Sabrina's becoming a driver and the Queen coming home. The job I have had was, in retrospect, a fantastic fit for what I've needed for the last ten years because I needed to be able to be as flexible as Gumby in order to be an effective parent and person. That flexibility not only isn't quite so necessary anymore, but I can also easily imagine it would actually turn into a detriment in the future. 
But more than anything else--we in America tend to define ourselves through our jobs. And I've learned that this shouldn't be the case. My job is how I earn a living, and of course I found a sense of purpose and fulfillment in it, or else I wouldn't have lasted thirteen years. But my job is not me, not all of me anyway. As a parent, as a man, as a friend, as a member of the community--I am much more than what I do for a living. This sense of perspective is something I have come to not only deeply believe, but to treasure. It keeps me on a more even keel, and above all else it ensures that I do not lose sight of all the good things in my life when a few things go south. I don't think I will be unemployed for long--but even if I am, I have wonderful children, a supportive (from a distance) family, and a good number of true friends. I am in a relationship that works and is healthy for maybe the first time in my life. I have some cushion; I am not a missed paycheck away from homelessness or being utterly destitute. 
All that's really happened is that a job is coming to an end. I'm not dying, and I am not a dead man walking. I don't know, this morning, what the future holds--but I am not all that worried about it. I will make it no matter what. And where I work and what I do to earn a living does not fundamentally change who I am. 
That many others so transparently feel differently is a rather sad commentary on the society we live in, I believe. We have lived in Corporate America for a long time. It's bad enough that the kleptocrats have as much control over our economic opportunities as they do. But I refuse to allow the bastards to dictate how I feel about myself and/or shape my view of my self-worth. 

Monday, October 5, 2015

Eight Random Observations About The 2015 Sports World

In no particular order:
1) Baseball's wild card system needs to be done away with--in fact, their divisional system needs to be done away with. We have a situation in the National League this year where the three best teams are all in the same division, which means that after today or tomorrow, either the Pirates or the Cubs are going home. Granted, it's better than it was a few years ago, when the Cubs wouldn't even have one playoff game, but the entire wild-card system was in part a tweak designed to alleviate the injustice of 1993, when a 103-win Giants team didn't win their division and didn't make the playoffs. The American League's issues with the system aren't as obvious, but honestly, none of the wild-card "contenders" were true playoff teams, either. I'm not a big baseball fan, at least in years when the Red Sox aren't good, but I don't see any real reason to keep the divisional setup. Just have everyone play a balanced schedule, and the top four or five teams play in October.
2) Television and television money was the underlying reason for baseball's playoff expansion, and behind a lot of other sports' decision-making recently, too. And reality is going to smack them all in the face soon--is already, in fact. TV viewership is declining, and the rights fees that networks are paying sports leagues are not sustainable. The reason we are seeing playoff games, and series, on cable networks is the attempt of those networks paying those fees to make the money back--but people are dropping cable in droves as the economic reality that most of the 99% don't get their money's worth out of cable is resulting in cable getting dropped from a lot of homes. I don't know what's going to happen in ten years--but it's not going to be pretty.
3) And some of the niche sports are seeing this happen already. It's only been one year, but it's clear NASCAR made a huge mistake taking the short-term payoff from NBC and switching its main network coverage there; it has become virtually invisible to the casual fan, with races on NBC's cable network and virtually disappearing from Internet sports sites. And with fan favorites Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart departing this year and next, the interest level is going to drop even further. NASCAR took the cash now to keep its overexposure funded for another couple of years--but ten years from now, there are going to be fewer races and fewer teams competing. And it will likely become more of a regional interest, rather than national, again.
4) Speaking of niche sports, Premier League soccer, which few in the United States pay attention to, is off to its most interesting start in years. The defending champions, Chelsea, are getting their heads handed to them this year. Goal-scoring is way up, for whatever reasons. And several teams that are never near the top of the standings are challenging for honors a quarter into the season. People gave up on soccer years ago as boring, and occasionally it is--but I would urge people to give it another shot. It's no duller than baseball or Syracuse football or a Devils-Panthers hockey game at its worst, and a really good match is almost NFL-level.
5) College football is more interesting than it has been in years If you like Arena football. I've had enough of these 63-45 games to last a lifetime.
6) And NFL games are starting to tick me off, too. The rain of yellow flags--pink, yesterday, but that's another story--needs to stop. And the league seems determined to penalize defense right out of the game. I watched a bunch of the Denver-Minnesota game yesterday, and I for one am sick of watching plays run by offenses designed to draw penalties on defensive backs. There is something fundamentally wrong with watching every quarterback and receiver openly looking for flags after every incompletion. This is bullshit, in plain English.
7) There is no current sports figure I dislike more than Peyton Manning. Go away, already. Is there a commercial this guy won't do?
8) I have friends that sell insurance for a living, and they assure me that Geico isn't usually the best option for insurance for most of us. But their commercials are, and have been for years, inspired and magnificent. And the new batch, with Europe singing Final Countdown to a microwave and the kracken on the golf course, are simply awesome. I can't wait to see what else they're planning this fall. Too bad they don't partake in the annual Super Bowl commercial fiesta.

Sunday, October 4, 2015


The Eternal World, a new novel by Christopher Farnsworth, takes a myth that has been present in Western civilization for centuries--the Fountain of Youth--and brings it into the modern world. The story posits that a band of conquistadors found--stole--the Fountain five hundred years ago and has been locked in combat with a proto-Seminole female warrior that survived the massacre that accompanied the theft ever since. The plot revolves around a genius genetic researcher who is hired to synthetically recreate the Water of Life, and what happens when he partially succeeds. The idea has some life, but much of the story is lost in the inability to make the supporting details work. The body counts, as often happen in these sort of books, are impossibly high for the official indifference displayed. The villain is simply too evil to believe. And the ending doesn't really satisfy. I've read worse books, but after a year of reading a number of really special thrillers and mysteries, this one seems very mundane and almost amateurish.