Thursday, December 31, 2009

Book Review: THE ALEXANDRIA LINK

The Alexandria Link is Steve Berry's latest effort. Berry writes suspense novels a la Robert Ludlum, with his own sort-of agent Cotton Malone in every one. What sets Berry apart from most in the field is his willingness to construct his plots around esoteric arcana from world history--the Knights Templar, theories of an ancient "mother civilization," and in this one, the survival of the ancient Library of Alexandria. The premise is that the library survived over the centuries, and that it contains an older version of the Old Testament that proves that the Jewish original homeland was in Arabia, not Palestine. There is a supersecret order of privileged wealthy men in pursuit of the library, to use for their own nefarious ends, and several people connected to Malone--a former Treasury lawyer/secret agent that people seem to drop dead around like flies-- turn up again in this book: his ex-wife and people connected with his Danish benefactor Henrik Thorvaldsen. Although some aspects of the novel--indeed, all of Berry's novels--defy belief, most notably that the body counts that do not seem to arouse any suspicion, his willingness to take some thought-provoking but generally scoffed-at notions seriously makes his books extremely readable and interesting, and this one is no exception. I am surprised, frankly, that Hollywood has not latched onto Berry's canon; it virtually cries out for someone like George Clooney to establish a long-term franchise making Cotton Malone movies.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Book Review: THE HERETIC QUEEN

The Heretic Queen is a novel of ancient Egypt, Michelle Moran's second effort about the ancient Egyptian court. The heroine is Nefertari, niece of the famous Nefertiti, and the book chronicles her path to becoming the chief wife, and therefore Queen of Egypt, of the Pharaoh we know as Rameses II. Moran takes some liberties with history for the sake of the narrative, with beneficial results, and the tale is full of intrigue and suspense. There are fleeting references to the Hebrews and Moses, but mostly it is a story of the web surrounding any royal court, and the bodies and dark deeds in the corridors of power. It is a highly readable and engrossing book.
Although Moran notes, at the end, the necessity of tinkering with the historical record, there is one basic liberty taken that I cannot let pass without comment. The novel is set in the early 13th century BCE, and that may well be when Rameses came to the throne. But the events surrounding the Exodus almost certainly were a result of the eruption of Thera in the Aegean Sea, and that eruption took place in 1628 BCE. Simply put, the Hebrews were long out of Egypt by the time period of this book.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Book Review: JUDAS

Judas is a rather ambitious effort by scholar Susan Gubar to fashion a biography of someone virtually everyone has heard of--Judas Iscariot--yet no one really knows anything about. There is precious little information in the New Testament about him, and what there is surprisingly often is not corroborated by the other information. Gubar examines these incongruities at length, and also seems to have examined every reference to Judas in print or in art in twenty centuries. There are three inescapable conclusions. One is that people tend to see what they want to see in Judas and project their own views and biases onto him; easily 99.8% of what has been written about him is conjecture and fiction. The second is that institutions, too, both ecclesiastical and secular, have used the scant information as a means to their own ends, with its most deadly manifestation being, indirectly, the Holocaust. Gubar focuses rather extensively on the Judas-as-representitive-of-Jews commentary and portrayals and how that has been used as the basis of anti-Semitism over the centuries. The point could have been made less exhaustively and improved the book's readibility.
But the book's major point, even if not explicitly stated, is the third conclusion: that there is a basic paradox contained in the story of Judas that is not able to be rationally reconciled, and that is whether Judas acted of his own free will or whether he was an unwitting agent of an omniscient deity. Most Christian sects insist that God is all powerful and all knowing, yet condemn Judas just the same, even though if that premise is true, Judas really had no choice; they also insist that the Crucifixion was necessary for the salvation of mankind, but for that to be true, one man's eternal damnation was required. The contradictions vanish if either of these suppositions are removed, but Christianity as currently practiced would be unsustainable if that happened, so the paradox is accepted and explored--has been for nearly two millennia, and will be for many years to come, in many works that are no doubt easier to read than this one. The book is informative, but dull, and ultimately somewhat disappointing because of it.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

U2

I have conversations with a lot of different people about a lot of different things at different times. But one I have had recurrently over three decades is silly and yet meaningful--silly because it doesn't happen and isn't going to, and yet meaningful because it does provide an anchor of sorts and is a window into our minds, of what we have found durable and lasting in our own hearts and consciousness. The premise, or actually question, is this: what group/individual has come the closest to providing a soundtrack to your life?
For most of my life, I would have said Bob Dylan, I suppose, but it's kind of hard to maintain that when some of the songs I identified with most were written when I was a baby, and he hasn't really produced anything I have actually liked in about two decades. I was just talking about this with a couple of (young) people a few weeks ago, and I thought to myself that it's sad that one of them picked Kelly freaking Clarkson. I mean, I suppose Clarkson isn't really annoying or totally vapid, but she's a pop star, no more, no less, and came to the attention of America through American Idol, which I find to be a microcosm of many terrible long-term trends coming together in American life. But really--Kelly Clarkson? I listen to Star 105, which plays basically hits that aren't rap, and so unfortunately, I am well aware of Clarkson's body of work. Her two most "introspective" or "meaningful" songs are an anthem pointing the finger at a parent for her own psychoses and, more recently, a paean to a messed up relationship that she nonetheless can't break away from because she "loves" the guy. UGH. And without sounding too judgmental, if this is the type of life you can identify with, your life is not only pretty sad, but you are terribly unequipped to improve it.
Anyhow, I was looking through my CD's the other day looking for Christmas CD's, and it hit me like a diamond bullet: I have bought CD's (actually, the first few efforts, I bought records, too) of U2 over a span of what will soon be 30 years. I bought Boy right after I got out of high school in the summer of 1981, when it first became available in the US, and I got October not long after MTV came on the air, when "Gloria" was one of the fifteen videos that MTV played. I wore out Under a Blood Red Sky, and played The Unforgettable Fire so much at college that Mike Keller hid it on me. I've bought Achtung Baby twice, 15 years apart. I have bought All That You Can't Leave Behind and How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, and it looks like I am going to have to buy No Line on the Horizon because I didn't get it for Christmas.
And the individual songs: I could play, at one time, the chords to I Will Follow. At various times in my life, "New Year's Day," "A Sort of Homecoming, " "Wire," "Bad," "Even Better Than the Real Thing," "Streets With No Name", and "Beautiful Day" have accurately captured what was going on in my life at the time. And recently, as I have become more comfortable with my personal concept of God and how He relates to both me and the world, I have rediscovered Achtung Baby with a vengeance; indeed, I just quoted from "One" on Facebook today after a brief and distressing conversation with Sabrina's mother.
U2 had a reputation for being overly serious in their youth, and also for being overtly religious in a world that frowns on that (ask Bob Dylan). I thought the first had some merit in the 1980's, but the band has stayed true to themselves and to each other, and their body of work has reflected an ability to grow and learn that almost nobody who has become famous and rich has. And unlike some others who talk a good game with their religious faith, the members of U2 have put it into practice. Bono has used his fame and fortune not for personal gain, but as a soapbox to ensure that the problem of endemic debt of the Third World to the First World not only became known, but has also been able to broker some progress and solutions. How many other celebrities can say that? You hear about pet causes, but rarely does it get past the level of "Hey, I'm Alec Baldwin, and George Bush is a nitwit" or "Meat is Murder." Bono and the other members of U2 have actually done something to make the world a better place, not just their pet cause or their corner of it. And their vaunted religiosity is not rote or affect. It has been mindblowing for someone in mature recovery to listen to Achtung Baby again; these are people who struggled and struggle with some aspects of their faith, don't accept platitudes for an answer or shrug their shoulders and maintain the same empty gestures of outward belief.
In short, they act like what they sing about--that God is the axis their lives revolve around, and that they are constantly seeking knowledge of God's will and the power to carry it out. Just like I am. So yes, if I have a soundtrack to my life, it is U2 songs that are playing.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Merry Christmas

No ranting today. This might be the best Christmas I've ever had. There have been no problems at all. Sabrina's overwhelming joy at getting the things she most wanted was heartwarming, and her still-apparent belief in Santa absolutely melted my heart. My family has been pleasant to each other with no nastiness or ugliness. My mother's memory is slipping a little, but she still is going strong. Even Sabrina's mother made herself scarce yesterday and was pleasant when I brought Sabrina over there this morning.
A fitting way to commemorate the birth of the man whose precepts are the blueprint for living a happy and meaningful life. I don't dwell on the theological questions regarding Jesus, because few people are openminded on the subject and I don't find commonly accepted ideas believable. But his teachings, the gospel, the way he outlined for us to live our lives, is the way I try to live my life, and I continue to do so because it works. I am happy, I am useful to others, and I feel a sense of purpose and meaning I spent 40 years looking to find. I don't need to believe that a Savior or a demigod was born to celebrate the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, and the best way to commemorate his birth is by giving freely of one's self to those we love and care about and to practice the principles at the core of his ministry to the best of our ability.
When we do that at Christmastime, we all feel good. When we do that as a matter of course, our lives get better and better, and we feel the love and acceptance we all, at heart, crave and need. The Golden Rule is the best way to celebrate Christmas (with the corollary "Don't wait for someone else to do it first"). And there is nothing but nothing more rewarding to see than the love we are capable of having for each other actually exhibited, and for a child to bask in that love freely given. God bless us, every one.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Christmas Eve

Nothing major today. Rachel and Jessica just went home. For the first time, they got not only me and my mother gifts, but something for Sabrina as well; she lit up like an Xmas tree as she opened her electronic coin bank. Myself, I am gratified to see them finally, after a decade, accepting everyone on this side of the family as integral parts of their lives. Very heartwarming to see. It's been a pretty casual day; went to the store early, but we left the house by 10 AM and aren't planning on going back until late. The only last minute thing I forgot was to return the Redbox videos, and that will only cost me 2 more dollars.
As Sabrina matures and the magic element of Christmas recedes (and will likely vanish after this year), it is good to see the holiday spirit of goodwill and enjoyment of family kicking in. It is helping that my sister and her tribe won't be around until Sunday, but so far my other sister and Sabrina have been hanging out, my mother isn't stressing out bigtime, and my brother won't be here until dinnertime. Just a nice convivial and happy atmosphere, nothing contrived, and most of all nothing overtly commercial.
Like Christmas is supposed to be. Merry Christmas to all, and it will be a good night :)

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Book Review: THE SCARECROW

The Scarecrow is Michael Connelly's effort from earlier this year. It is not a Harry Bosch novel, but focuses instead on two other characters from previous books, FBI agent Rachel Walling and reporter Jack McEvoy (whom I suspect is modelled on Connelly himself). As always in a Connelly novel, the plot is complicated but plausible, the information given about some field of public interest is mind-boggling (in this case, the worlds of Internet security) and other related matters (life in a public housing project in gang-dominated LA; the dying newspaper business) are illuminated in succinct detail , with the twists and turns of the particular murder mystery riveting. All in all, it's a great book, a worthy addition to the Connelly canon.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Book Review: BIGFOOT

Bigfoot, subtitled "The Life and Times of a Legend," is Joshua Blu Buhs' look at the Bigfoot (and to a lesser degree, the yeti) phenomenon of the last 60 years or so. Buhs does not focus on whether or not the creatures exist, although he very clearly seems to believe that the evidence points in one direction, but rather on why the creature gained and maintained a hold in many minds and the significance of that hold. Buhs argues, rather persuasively, that the belief in Bigfoot arose of white male unease and fear over the radical changes in American society from the mid-50's onward, and is that belief is more a function of class identity than anything else--that those who believed and may still want to believe tend to be anti-intellectual and/or working class. Having lived through the heyday of the phenomenon during my adolescence--this was the first time I had heard of the once-ubiquitous Sunn Classic "documentaries" in at least twenty years--this was a rather novel take, and one I, from an adult perspective years later, entirely agree with. Bigfoot the creature has never been found, because it doesn't exist, but Bigfoot the legend is everywhere, from beef jerky commercials to Western festivals, and is not going to go away, because like many working-class motifs, it has been co-opted and rendered harmless by the more highbrow elements of the society.
For what its worth, I did want to believe when I was younger. But the fact that none has ever been found, and nothing other than films and footprints has ever surfaced in the way of "evidence," I have to believe that there is no primate lurking in the forests of the Pacific Northwest. It is like an elephant playing in the snow; if it was there, you would see unmistakable evidence--this is not, after all, a mouse or even a decent sized cat, but allegedly larger than a gorilla. There simply cannot be any population of these creatures still in existence without fur or shit or bones or a carcass or a capture or something coming to light by now.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Simmering

This is not a good way to be feeling four days before Christmas. About the only thing that went right today was my paycheck actually being delivered to work today. Sabrina's hyper as we get closer to the actual day, and is straddling the line between merely distracting and really annoying. Every time I walk in the living room, the guinea pig chirps like an alarm needing a battery change because I haven't been bringing in grass (maybe I should just set her outside for ten seconds, and she'll figure it out).  The gift coffee I ordered f has not gotten to me yet.  And Sabrina's class is having a party on Wednesday, and I am one of the grade parents, so of course Sabrina has asked me three times if I am going to call Vincent's mom (I am) and told me three times that Mr. Vasquez needs to have stuff by tomorrow or else he has to buy it (a little notice would have been nice; this is strike freaking two, Dario Vasquez). Sabrina's mother wants to bake cookies with her tomorrow after school.
The last, at least, I can live with, but I am guessing that at 6:30 when I am supposed to pick her up, I am going to get a call that they are at WalMart getting those goddamn portraits. But that's a projection.
Anyhow, I am bubbling away just below the surface, and I sincerely hope that Sabrina does not agitate me further after she gets out of the shower. Because I have noticed that while I am more patient than I ever have been, when I blow, it tends to be Vesuvian. And I don't want that to happen. I just heard Sabrina pulling up the bath mat, which she has been very lax about for months. That's a good sign.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Book Review: BEHIND TIME

Behind Time is a fantasy novel by Lynn Abbey. The heroine, Emma, is able to walk in a sort of nether world of spirits and semi-demons, which is a good thing because her own mother has gone into a coma because forces in that world are fighting to extinguish her life. Despite that rather unlikely premise, the book moves right along, in both worlds, and with the aid of a three-centuries old ghost and her mother's windbag husband, along with several friends in the real world that she has told her secret to, all ends well, and Emma and the ghost are poised to become linked in the other world. This was the second in a series, and I may just hunt down the first.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Tis the Season

...for holiday cheer--and holiday nonsense. I was treated to a double dose of Shannon Christmas cheer today. In the morning, Sabrina called me early to tell me that her mother wanted to know if "A Christmas Carol," the show at the Cider Mill Playhouse that my mother had bought tickets for weeks ago after consulting with Shannon to see if she could take her, would be over by 5 PM "because she made an appointment to get pictures taken." I ended up leaving most of that rectification up to my mother, who told her in no uncertain terms that the play would not be done, much less the dinner afterwards. The pictures got rescheduled... this is about the tenth year in a row there has been some sort of drama over pictures. Shannon is not rational on the subject of portraits in the best of times; those kids sit for pictures three or four times a year. This year, with her living paycheck to paycheck, it is even sillier than normal for her to shell out this kind of money for it. I theorized years ago, after noticing her mother and her sister were the same way, that this is some sort of psychological denial at work in the family Anderson. The family Anderson is like a brood of animals, in that few if any of the attributes one sees in most families, even other dysfunctional ones, are present in their dynamics (to take one example, Shannon and Marlaina are twins, and they can't stand each other. You know any other twins that hate each other? I didn't think so); they simply happen to be related by blood. But the photo galleries on display over every inch of available wall space in every apartment she has ever had are proudly pointed to as evidence that this is a "normal" family. It doesn't fool anyone who knows her, but I think it is her own psychological fortification, for her own benefit. She will never admit it, except in truly dire circumstances, but Shannon knows how fucked up her family really is, and the family portraits are some kind of dim reassurance that like most people, she too has a functional family. I stopped getting on her years ago about that aspect of it; what we clash about now is that she always seems to schedule these sittings for times when Sabrina has something else already planned, for weeks in many cases. This is SOP for Shannon; she just assumes that the rest of the world is going to accomodate her whims of the moment, and catches major resentments (and thus is able to convince herself that she is a victim of a cold and unfeeling world) when she finds out that the rest of us are not on standby waiting for instructions from her about what to do next.
As I said, Grandma handled that one. We had a nice time at the play and at dinner, and then when I returned her to Shannon's, she had that expression on her face that said more unpleasantness was coming. She asked my plans for Christmas Eve. I said that they were the same they've been for the last six years; Sabrina and I will go to my mother's home for the traditional Christmas Eve dinner, followed by gift exchanges for my side of the family, and then home to await Santa. I told her that since Christmas Day is on a Friday, I was planning on taking Sabrina over there about 9 AM and letting her stay there until Sunday. No, that wasn't good enough; she wants her Christmas Eve. I said, simply, "No." Christmas Day has never been more than lounging and a big meal for me; Christmas has always been, since I was a kid, Christmas Eve, and even though I don't cap it off with Midnight Mass anymore, that's how I celebrate Christmas. I'm not changing my traditions for the sake of some overgrown adolescent's feeling slighted because her own actions have caused her daughter to not want to be around her. She is not pleased.
But then, she never is. I am not responsible for her feelings.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Book Review: CEMETERY DANCE

Cemetery Dance is the latest effort from the team of Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child in their series focusing on FBI agent Aloysious Pendergast, all with a supernatural bent. This one is about a series of murders in New York City that are apparently being committed by zombies (or zombiis, as the correct spelling apparently is). The mystery itself moves along and is an engrossing read, and the information about the reality of zombii-type religions was certainly new to me as well, as was the information about far northern Manhattan, the last wildish area on the island. It can be read without reading the prior Pendergast novels, which is good, because I haven't, but a minor annoyance is that there are references to prior novels made that are opaque. But this 400-plus page mystery flew by, and the resolution was satisfying.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Health Class Presentation

Yesterday, as I have been doing twice a year for the last five years, I went to Union-Endicott High School, the high school I graduated from 28 years ago, and talked to two of the health class teachers' classes about the reality of drug addiction. I've never felt it was helpful to sit there and just give a speech; for one, I have heard too many people in Narcotics Anonymous who give sanitized and self-serving versions of their "story, and for two, I always prefer question-and-answer because you know you're talking about something at least one person is interested in every time you open your mouth.
I never fail to be surprised by how much attention the classes actually pay. I have become very attuned to this sort of thing, and without fail most of the class is riveted from beginning to end, and on a few occasions, every single kid has been. Yesterday was no different. Most of the questions were asked from the points of reference of the kids there--a lot of stuff about "what did your family think/do, how did you get started, what was UE's drug scene like when you were here?" And I am glad to talk about that stuff, because one of the messages that kids like to hear is that they have it harder than their predecessors did--on this front, at least, they do, because I can remember alcohol, pot, and once or twice Qaaludes being around when I was in high school, but no heroin, no pills, no coke or crack, no meth, no ecstasy, no acid, etc you-get-the picture. But it resonates with them also because if it can happen to someone from their background, the possibility exists that it might happen to them. I have gotten sixty notes if I have gotten one over the years that said something like "Thank you for telling us what it's really like and what some of the effects are when you're addicted. I had no idea."
That's why Christine and Dave have me come in--because they really don't. What passes for education on drug abuse--and one of the things I emphasize strongly and repeatedly is that alcohol is a drug-- in high school focuses heavily on physical effects (in one ear and out the other to a bulletproof teenager) and legal ramifications if caught (which has the effective message not of deterrence, but of redoubling and refining efforts to conceal using); neither makes more than a miniscule difference. When someone who has lived through addiction and recovered, who can tell them what addiction feels like as well as the consequences of it, talks to them on a level they can relate to emotionally--well, it has an effect. Part of what I tell them is that abstinence is not a realistic expectation for their age group, which is greatly appreciated, and I urge them to focus on being aware of their tolerance for and awareness of consequences--if you are 17 or 22 or 25 years old and already picking up charges or getting in other sorts of trouble because of your using, you might want to consider whether you want to continue doing it. Because ultimately, stopping doesn't happen until the addict gets tired of paying the price that he or she is paying to use.
And that message gets heard. I know it does; I've been told it does, and I've had confirmation that it does from kids I've seen years later who have told me that they stopped doing a particular drug because they didn't want the baggage they were accumulating anymore.
And the other thing I get questions about every time I go there is how to help somebody how has an issue. I tell them what my experience: make your own boundaries about what is and isn't acceptable as clear as you can make them, and if the person violates those boundaries, you have to let them go. An addict cannot use for long without enablers. There is not a hard and fast rule about what constitutes enabling--but if an acquaintance repeatedly takes a friend out of their comfort zone because of their substance abuse, the friend is the one that has to put their foot down. Does this bring about immediate change? No, not usually, not with one person putting their foot down--but a dozen people doing it might be the difference between someone smoking pot or drinking or smoking crystal meth for a few months instead of ten years or until an arrest. And this, too, resonates, especially with girls who are struggling with boyfriends who are assholes under the influence.
I do it not for recognition, not because I want to save the world, but simply because the message of recovery needs to be shared to be effective. Christine and Dave both couldn't believe I came in on a vacation day to do this, but honestly, it was no burden at all, and it was something more constructive than Christmas shopping or cruising the Internet or even reading a book. Life is meant to be a shared experience.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Book Review: MONTY PYTHON'S TUNISIAN HOLIDAY

One of the forgotten gems of the 1970's was Monty Python. Not everything Python tried worked, but when it did, the result was sidesplitting, uncontrollable laughter, for minutes at a time. No one but no one could make a silly sketch go on longer, building on the absurd to the point where the audience was literally helpless with laughter. My first experience with them was Monty Python and the Holy Grail, which remains perhaps the second funniest movie of all time (This is Spinal Tap is beyond anyone's reach), but for pure consistency of effort, the Pythons set a standard that some pretty good comedy groups (Second City Troupe, Whose Line is it Anyway, Kids in the Hall) haven't been able to match.
And they were a product of their time and place. I read a book earlier in the year about the Rolling Stones that was written by a fan who was allowed into the inner circle. The author of this book, Monty Python's Tunisian Holiday, Kim "Howard" Johnson, became part of the Python entourage in a similar way; he was a huge fan, he started a fan magazine, the Pythons saw it and liked it, and suddenly Johnson was invited to Tunisia, where they were filming Life of Brian, to be part of the movie. Johnson was there for weeks, standing in for actors and having a bunch of small roles, and partaking in the general fun and silliness--and in the process getting to know all six of the Pythons and several others close to them, and in the end becoming friends with all of them, just like the kid with the Rolling Stones. I don't know if British artists are different than American, or if it was more a product of the 1970's culture, but that kind of access and growing close to the stars simply does not happen today, and it is something else that has been lost in today's corporate-dominated world.
The book itself is, as are all matters Python, entertaining, with some really inspired and funny moments interspersed into a fairly straightforward account of the making of a movie in another country. It is both informative and entertaining, a real pleasant way to spend a day off.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Book Review: MELTDOWN

Meltdown is British journalist Paul Mason's detailed account of not only the global financial crisis that started in 2007 with the collapse of the subprime housing market, but a look at the entire economic model that produced it and a gaze into what might happen. He makes a convincing case that things have changed irrevocably, that some sort of state involvement in the economy is now not only necessary but inevitable, and that unregulated financial-institution capitalism is no longer viable. His main point--that the economic health of the developed countries depended, since 1980, on the crushing of the labor unions and the extension of credit to those who had no hope of paying it all back--is dead on accurate, and clearly, despite the political leadership of the West's inclinations ad beliefs, not restorable. Given what has been coming out of Washington during the "change" administration, we are in many more years of floundering, not until a new mindset attached to new bodies is holding the reins of power.
And by then, China and other Asian nations may just well be in charge of the world's economy. It's not a optimistic book, nor should it be. We cannot be a consumer nation forever, especially if we are not really producing anything.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Book Review: DANGEROUS GAMES

Dangerous Games is not some suspense novel. It is Canadian historian Margaret MacMillan's study of the uses, purposes, and application of history as a craft. Sold in Canada as "The Uses and Abuses of History", this slim volume is a wonderful response to the age-old question, "Why do we have to learn about this stuff?" In a nutshell, because the best guide to living the best life possible is learning from experience, and failing to know what one's experiences are and mean is a prescription for disaster. No one subject dominates the book, but the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan are referred to more often than any other events, and it is clear that the Bush Administration illustrated perfectly the adage that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, and that lessons applied haphazardly or inappropritately can lead to colossal catastrophes. It boggles my mind that a President of the United States could start a war intellectually justified by and modelled on an intervention that did not work--but Bush apparently used the French war in Algeria in 1954-62 as his guide to the Iraq adventure, without noticing, apparently, that the French lost. It is impossible to understate how frustrating it has been to be a thinking American in the last 30 years; it is like being trapped in Sartre's hell, a place with no exit.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Sad Beyond Belief

I had to mail something at the Post Office this morning, so I went to the main annex down in Center City, and figured I would hit the ATM by the courthouse as long as I was down there. Going down the sidewalk was a woman who looked vaguely familiar, but I didn't pay a lot of attention as I pulled off onto the side street and then into the M&Fee lot. As I was pulling out after getting the money, the woman was crossing in front of me--and made the sort of eye contact that those with drug histories are familiar with, the one that says that she is looking to get in the car with the intent of improving her finances.
And I recognized her. It has been seven or eight years, but she used to go to meetings, used to be clean. I couldn't think of her name right away. She said something and I shook my head and waved her through the intersection, and she got this disappointed look on her face that I well remember, and I pulled out and drove away. I had to stop at the light by the YWCA, and saw her in the rear view mirror walking slowly, doing what used to be and probably still is called the "Ho Stroll." As the light turned and pulled away, I saw the driver of a car coming up Hawley Street pull over as he passed her, and the last thing I was able to see before I got past the courthouse was her going up to the door.
My thoughts were not judgmental, far from it. I was more grateful than anything else, grateful that my particular evil genie has somehow been stuffed back in the bottle and I have found the ability to not summon it again. I also wonder what her story is now, how she ended up doing what she is doing yet again, a good ten years or more since the last time she was resorting to this particular ways and means to get the next one, what is going through her mind, how awful and disappointed in herself she must feel, how much more of her soul has shut down and may remain forever inaccessible.
I have lived with two women (after they got clean) who prostituted for drugs and was in a relationship with a third for a time, and got to know dozens of others while I was using drugs and in recovery. My views on the subject are different than most people's, and I have no compunction in saying that most commonly held perceptions about it couldn't be more wrong. Very few, if any, women I have known that engaged in this behavior did it because they were "nymphomaniacs" or enjoyed the experience. It is simply a way to get money to pay for drugs, in virtually every case; there are some that will deny it and say they are doing it to pay bills and such, but if they are, it's because they are spending their legitimate money on drugs of some sort. It is not really a moral issue, or at least one that reflects solely on the woman; after all, you can't sell something if no one will buy it, and there is always someone looking to buy what is being offered. Every single day, there are guys driving around Binghamton that I know what they are looking for; there are signs that cannot be missed, to those who are aware of what they are looking at. Yet no one seems to take the buyer to task... one of the most uncomfortable situations I have ever been in was when I was living with Lila about 8 years ago. Lila had been clean for some time, and had been working as a unit aide at Wilson for several months. One of her co-workers' son got into a car accident and was killed, and I went with her to the funeral home. The family was lined up by the casket, and as soon as we walked in Lila went white and visibly sagged, and then started to get very agitated the closer we got to the front of the line. I thought I knew what the problem was, and after a very hard time giving condolences and getting out of the room, I found out I was right; the co-worker's husband was a former trick. And I remember feeling some real anger at that moment. Lila had been arrested and had her name in the paper and had lost her children and was still struggling to put her life together. The drug use contributed hugely to all that, but her enablers were a hundred people like this guy, who no one ever knew were doing what they were doing, and they had to pay no price other than the occasional uncomfortable moment. It doesn't seem right, and it isn't.
If there is one thing that pisses me off, it is hearing so-called "respectable" women claim "I would never do that." Well, excuse me, but a whole lot of women do--they're just not doing it on the street and spending the proceeds on drugs. I have known countless numbers of women who have stayed in relationships with men they really don't like or that were unhealthy because they were not willing to give up a standard of living or their accumulated possessions. And to my mind, they are as much, if not more, of prostitutes than women hawking their ass on the street. At least the woman today, whose name, I remembered by time I got to the West Side, was Mary Beth, is going to do what she does and get her money and be on her way; she is not living a gigantic, painful, endemic lie like the woman who can't stand her husband but can't summon the courage to leave. At least when she engaged in sexual activity with the guy in the car, she didn't have to pretend to be enjoying it, she didn't have to make the breakfast or pick up his clothes or attend some function or pretend to enjoy talking to him or any of two thousand other distasteful things that are part and parcel of crappy relationships.
And speaking selfishly, I have not had anxiety about whether I am--worthy, let's say-- in some areas of a relationship for a decade. One part of being with someone that has sold themselves regularly that one notices right away is that it is instantly apparent whether they are emotionally involved with physical intimacy. To be blunt, it feels very good when you are able, as a man in a relationship, to be able to involve a woman who has prostituted in an emotional sense, that they are actually enjoy having sex with you and are capable of opening up. The two I lived with, I know I was able to melt the ice, to tear down the walls; the third I was not able to, which is one reason the relationship did not last. For a few weeks, it is possible that you are being played. For years--no, it isn't. And even after we broke up, neither Shannon nor Lila ever said that that area of our lives together was unsatisfactory or a burden, far from it.
And part of that was understanding and acting in a fashion with them that they were not expected to be sexual circus performers or professionals. The biggest problem I ended up having with both women was not that I didn't measure up in that area, but rather that dealing with the emotional damage and scars that doing that inflicted on them. Put bluntly, prostitutes see the worst that men have to offer, and it takes a lot of patience and understanding to deal with, to overcome. Men who are with women who are now clean but who have these sort of pasts have to understand that there are going to be significant long-term issues that have nothing to do with the man himself, and have to be prepared for the consequences. For an added bonus, it almost always goes back longer than the period of prostitution in active addiction. I probably have known around 40 women over the years who have prosituted well enough to know some of their personal stories (when you use crack, days are 24 hours long, 7 days a week, and you end up, even against your inclinations, doing a lot of talking and listening to those around you). Every single one was either molested, sexually abused, or raped before the age of 16, many much younger than that. Of course it creates self-esteem issues; of course it creates a deep-rooted impression that her only worthy attribute is as an object of sexual gratification; of course it causes emotional detachment, a circumstance of being able to engage in sexual activity without emotional involvement far beyond what most "normal" women can do.
And I guess that's what I would plead for the next time someone sees, hears of, talks about a prostitute. Try not to see the vacant-eyed desperate adult looking for the next one. Try instead to envision the little girl living in dread of the bedroom door opening at 2 AM, of grandpa sticking his dick in his 10YO granddaughter's butt, of the middle schooler whose first sexual activity was five shots of whisky followed by a gang rape. And see if you summon up some compassion instead of sitting in judgment.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Do They Know It's Christmas?

It dawned on me today, listening to the local station that plays only Christmas music, that it has been a quarter century since "Do They Know It's Christmas?", the 1984 effort by European rock stars to relieve famine in Ethiopia. It stands as a time capsule, a reminder of a better time and better place, and also as a stark reminder of how different Americans truly are from other people in the world, even those in "developed" countries.
In 1984, Ethiopia was in the midst of a famine made much worse by Cold War politics, and some Irish and British rock stars made a song that the proceeds from sales of which would go to famine relief. Everyone that was anybody at the time in Europe contributed to the song. It has held up remarkably well, for a number of reasons: 1) It is about the true spirit of Christmas--gratitude, giving, selfless motives, but most importantly, about taking action to help our fellow men, not just talking about it. It is, in short, consistent with the message of the man whose birth Christmas is a celebration of. 2) It was written from the heart, not specifically to sell CDs (records and tapes at the time). 3) Ego was conspicuously absent in the making of the record. Not everyone got a line to sing (although inexplicably, Paul Young--Paul Young--got two), and the two biggest participating stars at the time, Sting and David Bowie, sang only one line and in the chorus, respectively, and Bowie is never shown in the video at all. And, facetiously, 4) it is a video monument to 1980's hair. The mullet had its finest hour in the video; Locks for Love could make wigs for the population of Louisiana from the hair on display.
And it has held up even better when compared to its lame American counterpart from early 1985, "We Are The World." Taking the points referenced above, 1) only Americans could pen and sing a song ostensibly for the relief of famine victims that celebrates themselves in the song title; 2) it was explicitly written bland and inoffensive to appeal to as many people as possible. The European effort was written by two avant-garde New Wavers; the American record was written by Michael Jackson and Lionel Ritchie, who were seen as whitebread as African-Americans (at that time, at least, Jackson was still recognizably African-American, before the bleaching/alapicia/whatever-it-was got started in earnest) could get and thus made it all right for white people to buy. In view of Jackson's and Ritchie's subsequent falls from grace, perhaps the lameness of the song is a metaphor for the masks they were living behind at the time; 3) There were 22 soloists on "We Are The World." There were 6 (six) on "Do They Know It's Christmas?" In other words, the Euros subordinated their egos to the cause, the Americans used the cause to inflate their egos. Even as 4), the video for "We Are The World" was lamer, largely because there were many of the Americans who were simply hard on the eyes.
And as an added note, the Euros have held up better over 25 years. Bono and U2 are still among the world's most important musicians; Sting and Paul McCartney are still considered to be major figures, and some of the others (Duran Duran's guys, George Michael, Jody Watley) were not as big as they were going to get. On the American roster, almost all of them were at or past their prime; the only ones with staying power were Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan, and even they saw their professional apogee before this effort.
And "Do They Know It's Christmas" still packs a wallop. Hearing it alone in the car, I defy you to not sing "Feed the World; let them know it's Christmas time again" loudly. I know I do. Even Sabrina does.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Book Review: IMPEACHED

Impeached is noted historian David Stewart's trial at the administration and attempted impeachment of Andrew Johnson. Stewart goes into intense detail over the actual impeachment process--the weakness of the case, the complete and total combativeness of Johnson, and the drama surrounding the actual trial. But he also goes into a great deal of detail over things not generally known--the almost-certain bribery of Senators to vote for acquittal foremost, but also the intensely pro-Southern bent of Johnson. The backstory, the undercurrent of the entire impeachment process was the incredible leniency toward Confederates and antipathy towards the newly freed slaves that Johnson displayed. The Republican supermajority in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War has come down to us, 150 years later, as "Radical," but their point of view at the time was the very legitimate question "What the hell did we just fight a civil war for if this guy is going to let the same people run the Southern states and effectively re-enslave and terrorize the black population?"
And indeed, like so much of American history, what we generally suppose to be true today has been sanitized and whitewashed (pun intended) by Southern sympathies and views, which have not changed appreciably since 1861 on most questions, including race. The myth that somehow these racist thugs were some sort of American nobility has so ingrained itself into American culture that it has become accepted wisdom--and it is total bullshit. The Southern power establishment were ruthless racist animals then, and their view of the world and the struggle which they should thank their lucky stars did not eradicate them from the face of the earth has unfortunately become how most Americans see their own history. To take the most egregious example, everyone knows that Robert E. Lee was one of history's greatest generals, winning victory after victory against hopeless odds and only succumbing to the North's superior numbers of men, while Ulysses Grant was a plodding drunk who only beat Lee because he had three times the manpower pool. This is nonsense. Lee was competent, capable of brilliance, but ran rings around some really bad Union generals for three years--but didn't fare so well when the Union sent in the first string. Grant wasn't a Scipio Africanus or Hannibal, but his Western operationss were innovative and effective, and his Vicksburg campaign was one of the most brilliant in history, considering the difficulty of terrain and the objective to be taken. Grant's Virginia campaigns against Lee were also very effective; the common view is that Grant lost a lot of men, but he kept moving south and forced Lee to react to him, he did not let his armies get distracted by Lee's desperate atttempts to get him to relieve the pressure, and he made sure that Lee stayed put while the Union's other forces took care of other fronts. Grant, not Lee, was the best general in the Civil War, and was probably the best general this country has ever produced. But to read your average American history book, you'd think he was a bumbling idiot who got lucky to win.
This sort of tommyrot is all over American history, which I am not going to go into excruciating detail about but is pervasive. And it serves, as I have mentioned before, to excuse and ignore the great American sins, the gangrenous infection in its collective soul that blows every cherished delusion Americans hold dear straight to hell. I refer to the endemic and innundating racism, coupled with our total worship and thralldom to greed, to the almighty dollar. Everything is for sale and always has been, and we have had our foot on the necks of those darker skin than those of northern Europeans for 400 years, all while ponificating at the top of our lungs that we aren't, a sort of proto- "Can't you read what we write in our wonderful-sounding documents for posterity? Who are you going to beleive, me or your own eyes?"
No wonder the rest of the world hates us.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Is This Guy For Real?

I should know better by know, but everytime I see the name "Paterson" in a headline, I stab myself in the eyeballs and click on the link to see what His Accidency said today. His pronouncement was not a lot different than his recent pontifications; the state is running out of money. He now says that he is not going to pay money already allocated for the 2009 budget, even though he knows he will be sued--which continues a recent trend among executive types, who basically want to do their jobs and those of the legislative branch, too, of taking blatantly illegal and unconstitutional actions in the name of "fiscal responsibility." Never mind that, dating back to the Magna Carta, the legislative branch has always been the part of the governmental apparatus in a democracy that has the power of the purse... but I digress. This sort of stuff coming from His Accidency is not new, and despite the legion faults of the Legislature, they so far have moderated his more fanciful impulses in this area.
But what was new today was his added remarks. For the governor of New York State to defend Wall Street executives and the bloated bonuses they want to be paid after receiving government bailouts is staggering. To then add that the recent attention paid to the conviction of a former state legislative majority leader on corruption charges shouldn't draw as much attention as it does is an even more mind-boggling statement to make. Does he not realize that greed and misappropriation are two aspects of the same issue? Does he not even attempt to make the connection that most of us average people do that the true waste of money is in making the rich richer and by elected officials stealing?
Of course he doesn't. He is one of them. And he is never going to get it. The mindboggling part is that he was actually moronic enough to say so in public; most polticians are too smart to rub the taxpayer's nose in it this way. Never mind voting the bastards out. The only way the system is going to be fixed is by revolution, a massive bloodletting. Most Americans think it's unthinkable here, but it's getting closer, and if the cuts start to force real, prolonged pain in regular people's lives, it's going to be real thinkable real soon.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Winter Chorus

Tonight was Sabrina's winter choral concert. Sabrina has done well with chorus and music in general for the last several years, but she is really starting to progress very well. She came home from school with a permission slip to be signed for a choral project that will take all winter, and I was surprised to find out when we got to the school tonight and I talked to Mrs. Brigham about it that she is one of only four kids in the school who were asked to do it. She is also the only kid in the 5th grade left on viola, and will probably be doing NYPHSMA later this year, like her older sisters have (she was fiddling when practicing tonight after the concert, a development I have decidedly mixed feelings about, but that's a post for another time).
The concert was lovely; there is nothing sweeter than three dozen grade-schoolers doing their best to sing in harmony and largely succeeding. But the only reason I know it was was that this year, I sat in the front row, and thus was able--barely--to actually hear the singing. It wasn't that the kids were singing softly, either. It was an auditorium full of adults who refused to stop talking, that provided what was, no joke, a low roar in the background. I simply could not beleive that there were that many assholes in the crowd, and Mr. Chilson, the principal, couldn't either; he got on the microphone and essentially told the adults to shut up. It helped, marginally... I was talking to Mr. Chilson after the concert during the Holiday Open House, and he said that the school needs the sound system that it is scheduled to get next summer, budget willing. But he smiled when I suggested handing out Tasers to the teachers for the spring concert, and since that is the last time Sabrina is going to be there, I am going to give in to the temptation I just narrowly managed to beat back tonight and tell some bozo carryiNg on a conversation behind me WILL YOU PLEASE SHUT THE FUCK UP WHILE THE CHILDREN ARE SINGING, YOU CRACK ADDLED BITCH?
I have strange fantasies in middle age...

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Book Review: FATAL JOURNEY

Fatal Journey is Peter Mancall's history of the voyages of and mystery surrounding the eventual end of Henry Hudson. Although other, earlier explorers have generated more historic notoriety, Hudson, because most of his career was spent exploring the Arctic and because his death was never confirmed, has not gotten the recognition of a Columbus or a Magellan (although his name, at least, is very familiar to New Yorkers, if not many other Americans). But the book does recount his search for a northern passage to Asia (I was not aware that he tried to do so going east from Great Britain, getting as far as Novaya Zemlya, and over the pole, getting as far as Spitsbergen) over four different voyages, and his final journey, which ended, for him if not some of his crew, in Hudson Bay in mid-Canada. The circumstances of the mutiny that caused him to be set off adrift are exhaustively detailed, and the author makes some reasoned guesses as to his ultimate fate (he leans toward Hudson surviving into another winter, but not much longer, on a remote island in Hudson Bay). The book is informative without getting bogged down in minutiae, and the reader is left with much more information about both Hudson and the Amerindian cultures of northern Canada and early 17th century New York.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Grinches

Why do adults feel it is their mission and their place to tell late elementary-school age kids the "truth" about Santa Claus and Christmas? I have been fighting this battle for a few years now. The first one who wanted to tell Sabrina there was no Santa Claus was her mother about three years ago. That was easy to dismiss as Shannon's self-centeredness: she was having financial issues and wanted her daughter to know that Christmas depended on a parent's wallet size. I told Shannon at the time that it wasn't the quantity of presents, or even the idea of presents, that make Christmas special, but the spirit of giving and love, and that in any event there is nothing wrong with young kids beleiving in a little magic in the world--God knows it gets beaten out soon enough. Then it turned into "Well, she's going to get mad because she is going to think I was lying to her"-- which would not be the case if Shannon didn't lie to her regularly about 85 other things. Shannon eventually told her that she, Shannon, has to pay Santa Claus to come to her house--which Sabrina just takes with a grain of salt and a wink, knowing that Santa comes to Dad's house every year.
This year, Sabrina has been coming to a gradual awareness without my help. She no longer thinks that Santa comes with flying reindeer and to every house in the world--I think geography in the 4th grade took care of that. But she does firmly beleive that Santa is a spirit and that the spirit is responsible for the gifts under the tree on Christmas morning. And although she believes it as sort of a Yule ghost story, that concept is actually pretty accurate, and when the ultimate time comes, that's how I am going to play it with her--that all the talk about the spirit of Christmas is not wrong or a myth, that you end up giving presents to one another because of love, not because of crass materialistic acquisitiveness.
I was at Sabrina's preschool intramurals yesterday morning when two boys and her starting talking about Christmas and something was said about Santa. Jeremy, in her grade, said there was no Santa, that he had caught his grandmother wrapping one year, while Derek, a year younger, simply was completely dismissive. I could read Sabrina's face and the doubt creeping in, so I interjected that Santa does not wrap presents (never has in our house) and that Santa does not come to houses where there is no belief in him. Derek was still argumentive about it for a few minutes, but eventually he subsided because Sabrina told him that part of the bargain for Santa to come was good behavior, which Derek still struggles with and which in the early years of school was simply not present for him (he is one of the few whom I can say definitely needed some sort of ADHD medication; he is a completely different youth than he was two years ago. But I digress). But Jeremy and Derek are kids, and these are the kinds of things that kids go through; and they all learn from each other. That's OK.
But it's the adults that insist on informing 9 and 10 year olds that there is no Santa Claus that I have a major issue with. Why? What is the motive? Do they really have the kid's best interests at heart? What is the harm in a kid coming to realizations naturally? Why is it so important to them that their kids have "mature" views at that age? It has nothing to do with the best interests of the kids; like so many other things in today's American society, it has everything to do with the adults' own perceived psychological needs. THEY can't be bothered to put in the extra effort for a month a year for another couple of years to maintain a kid's beleif that maybe there is more to the world than the hellish, selfish bullshit that they are surrounded with, and so the curtain is ripped aside. THEY can't get with the concept that it isn't about how many toys you have; why would they, when they are carrying around boulders on their own shoulders about their own place in the world? I HATE this sort of thinking, when adults in childrren's lives think and act like children, that put their own shallow and selfish wants over their children's needs, whose egos and psyches come in front of their own children's. And then they wonder why their kids are disillusioned and disengaged when they get to be adolescents. It isn't because they still want to beleive in a Santa Claus. It's because of the realization that their parents didn't care enough to allow the youth to figure out what Christmas is about for themselves.
In short, it's because of the realizaton that, for their parents, even at the one time of year that is supposed to be about selflessness and goodwill toward your fellow men, much less one's supposed loved ones, it's still all about them. And kids are extraordinarily sensitive to manifestations of this, and do not forget it, even if they come to an accomodation (mainly because they have to) regarding it. But it's not exactly a prescription for future emotional fulfillment to realize that you are the product of an environment where hypocrisy and selfishness reign unchallenged.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Book Review: TWO FOR JOY

Two For Joy is the second in Mary Reed and Eric Mayer's John the Eunuch series, murder mysteries set in sixth century Constantinople. The vibrant, forgotten world of the most important polticial entity of the medieval period is again vividly brought to life, with perhaps the most revealing accomplishment of the authors being that long-forgotten matters such as the various doctrinal disputes of the young Christian church are made relevant and accessible to modern readers. The actual murder mystery is a good one, as well, with numerous twists and surprises, and more of the character of John and his associates is developed. I love this series, of which there are now seven, and I eagerly await the next installment, especially now since all the gaps are filled in. Like any good series, any of the books can stand alone, yet taken together they make a seamless fictional biographical narrative of a rather interesting character.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Book Review: CONFIRMATION

Confirmation is a book by alleged UFO abductee Whitley Streiber that claims to have confirmation of alien presences on earth. I tried to be openminded about this book, I really did. The first part of the book went into major detail about UFO sightings and recordings made here and in Mexico, and the author constructed a plausible case that the sightings and abductions didn't go away in the 80's and 90's, just the media coverage in this country did. Then the second part went into the alleged details of the contact, and I started losing interest; ultimately, it isn't interesting reading about "missing time," of supposed abductees losing track of time yet somehow finding some sort of spiritual awakening during the blank periods. And then I got to the pictures in the middle of the book of the videos of the Mexican and other sightings--and rather than being the "best" images ever recorded, they are either indistinct or look like every other hoax I've ever seen. In short, this is one of those subjects where you either beleive or you don't. And I don't.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

An Act of Courage

I am often proud of Sabrina, but I was never more so than about thirty minutes ago. She got her Odyssey of the Mind practice schedule last week, and one of the days that they practice late is Wednesday. Wednesdays since the beginning of the school year, she has been going to her mother's so that she can accompany Shannon's youngest child to the Baptist church gathering for kids. They are not church members, and neither are most of the attendees, but a fair number of kids Sabrina knows go to it, and she reluctantly agreed to do so in September. She signed up for Partners, a parent/teacher activity that starts in late January, so the day was already coming when she would tell her mother that church camp was in the past, but with OM now going until 4:30, there simply was not enough time to do homework, viola practice, shower, and church camp, too.
So after discussing the matter with Dad, she called her mother tonight--putting it on speakerphone--and told her that she wasn't going to go to church camp. As I knew she would, her mother immediately told her she wanted her to come to her house on Thursday and stay until Sunday. Sabrina took a deep breath and said, "I don't want to do that. I want to come on Friday." Her mother made a comment about "What about my time with you?" and then went silent for about ten seconds and then spluttered angrily, "I love you too! See you Friday."
And Sabrina hung up, and has gone about her business. She says she is glad that it has been dispensed with, and she is resolute that she is going to be here during the week no matter what. She did tell me earlier, before calling, that her mother, as has happened countless times in the past, has not kept her promises, that she is smoking in the house and yelling all the time and cursing and generally being the unpleasant woman she is. And Sabrina just doesn't want any part of it.
But still, it took a lot of courage to make that call and that statement. And I am proud of her.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Book Review: "THEY HAVE KILLED PAPA DEAD"

"Papa" in the title of Anthony Pitch's book is the father of Tad Lincoln, and "They Have Killed Papa Dead!" was his way of announcing to the White House guards and staff that Abraham Lincoln had been shot and mortally wounded. The book is an account of the plot against Lincoln's life by John Wilkes Booth and his cohorts, in exhaustive but never boring detail. Unlike most accounts of these events, it also includes the plot against Lincoln's life before he even took the oath, in 1861, and a fairly detailed account of the trial, execution (of four), and prison terms (of the other four) of those arrested as part of Booth's conspiracy. The book is no comfort for those who prefer to believe that some of the conspirators were innocent; whether they all deserved the punishment they received is an open question, but there is little doubt all were guilty. For me, this book was a wonder of wonders; it substantially added to my knowledge of a subject I already thought I knew a great deal about.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Christmas Season

Today is the Sunday after Thanksgiving, which has meant, for the last eight years, that it is the day to put up Christmas decorations, which will be up until January 8. The dates are not coincidental. Although I am not a religious person--by strict definition, not even Christian, since I do not believe that Jesus of Nazereth was divine or that he rose from the dead--I nonetheless am well aware that Christmas is a celebration of the birthday of Jesus. I am also well aware that he was not born on December 25, but that doesn't matter; he was one of the most influential people in history, his teachings and suggestions on how to live one's life I follow to the best of my ability and are in large degree the reason why my life over the past nine years or so has been the best it ever has been, and it is entirely right and justifiable to celebrate his birth, even if one does not believe that he was divine. The last Sunday in November is often the first Sunday of Advent, the liturgical Christmas season, and January 8 is the day after Orthodox Christmas. I was nominally Eastern Orthodox during the time I was married, and I still find it more attractive than any of the other Christian sects, because of its emphasis on the community of believers and on living the gospel instead of merely paying lip service to it. The Orthodox Church calendar is 13 days behind the secular calendar for a couple of reasons, and one is that it was the calendar that was in use in the Roman world at the time Jesus was born (one could quibble that Jesus himself certainly observed the Jewish calendar, but since the Church is more a product of the Greco-Roman world than Judaism, the practice is justifiable); not only that, my older children still observe Christmas on the 7th of January. When I was married, I liked attending Christmas Eve services on the 6th; it felt more holy, more sacred, more in tune with what the day is supposed to signify than the commercial orgy and sickening celebration of the golden calf that Christmas is, for the most part, in the United States of America today. I may, when Sabrina is completely past belief in Santa Claus, start going again, although there is a movement afoot to finally bring the Orthodox calendar in line with everyone else.
In any event, we put up our decorations in about twenty minutes, and then our tree. Why, in this day and age, anyone still buys a dead organic tree is beyond me; there is no logical reason to chop down an oxygen producer and bring a fire hazard into your home anymore. I have had a 6-foot artificial tree for eight years now, and it does this home just fine, as it did the apartment in Webster Court before it. I have bought various boxes of ornaments every year, to the point where it took us three hours to get them all on the tree. None of them have been expensive, by the way; there are some that were bought years ago at Ames, some from Dollar General, some from various odds and ends, some we have made, and this year, two sets of little reflective glass balls from KMart. I like a lot of lights on a tree, and I like to sit in the dark and watch the lights play off the ornaments, and Sabrina, obviously, likes it now, too. We have a little Nativity scene and a plain tree skirt, nothing fancy or gaudy, with just blue and white strings of lights and no blinkers. Keep it simple, keep it timeless, and above all keep it in line with what the holiday is supposed to be. I got a train for Christmas a few years ago, and put it around the bottom of the tree that year, but I thought it ruined the effect, and wasn't sorry last year when one of the track pieces snapped a connection and now the train won't work. I also am not one for candle and candle lights in the windows; it's the celebration of a birth, not a funeral or a somber occasion, and of man's better nature.
Sabrina is almost 11, and this will be the last year, I am afraid, for any sort of Santa belief. New this year is her telling me that Santa is a spirit, but she does believe he is real and that he brings presents. I see nothing wrong with a little girl believing in something that makes the world a little magical and less burdensome. I have been fighting a battle with her mother for years on this issue; Shannon wanted to tell her at 6 that there was no Santa basically because she didn't want to be bothered with maintaining the magic. I have no patience for adults who want to rob children of their childhood in any circumstance, but when it's my daughter involved, I have even less. Shannon did try to tell her two years ago, but all that resulted was that Sabrina told her she will be spending every Christmas Eve here from now on, because Santa comes to this house. Last year, her mother tried to recover some ground by saying she has to pay Santa to come to her house, but Sabrina just doesn't buy it, and this year it's not even an issue.
She is currently sitting in the living room looking at her handiwork, and enjoying it. And I know 20 years hence, if there is still some semblence of civilization left, my grandchildren will be believing in Santa, and in a magical time of year, and that we are celebrating the birth of one of the most influential and good men who ever lived, a man who had a better answer for the eternal question "What is the meaning of life?" than anyone before or since.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

A Night Out

When I was college age and maybe for a couple of years afterwards, one of the big nights out was Thanksgiving or the day after; everyone was in town, and it was a good chance to get caught up with people without having to get caught up in the everyday drama of everyone else's lives. Although I certainly do not look back at my drinking days through rose-colored glasses much anymore, I do fondly remember a few of those gatherings as fun evenings. As time has passed and we all moved into middle age, those type of events seemed as long ago as a Victorian tea, a reminder of a better time and place when all was still possible.
That is a highly romanticized and inaccurate view, I know now, but nonetheless, it is one of the basic human archetypical feelings that is impossible to eradicate. And like all mythical edifices, there is a substantial amount of truth to it. One of the unexpected wonderful things about Facebook has been an unexpectedly strong connection to that time of life. Of the approximately 80 friends I have on the site, probably half of them are people I knew in 1981, the year I graduated high school. It is only in the last year or so that I began to truly appreciate that connections made in that time of my life have turned out to be much more durable and much more important than connections made in college, and (with the exception of those I have made in NA, which is a fairly unique circumstance) in any other area of my life.
Last night, there was a Facebook-enabled get-together (well, let's give credit where it is due; it is largely through the efforts of Beth Petrolle Marsh that it happened) at a local bar, and I ended up talking with a number of people I grew up with for three hours or so. And a couple of truths dawned on me more strongly than ever:
1) On a less serious side, there is MUCH more variety in the way men age than the way women age. There was not a single woman there that looked completely and totally different than she did 30 years ago, and in the cases of some, it is stunning how little change there has been. With guys--not even close. A number of people did comment on how I look basically the same, and upon reflection, I guess I do--I still have my hair, even if thinner, it's still mostly black, and while I am a little thicker, it's not like I have ballooned up a hundred pounds. But there were a few guys there that I had no idea who they were until names were exchanged. You get massive paunches with men, serious scalp exposure, the ravages of time upon the facial visage--the full monty. I am grateful on a daily basis for a huge number of things, but I guess I can add one more now.
2) The more serious realization is that the influence of having been immersed in a common culture, a product of the same soil, is immense and immeasurable (wasn't that sentence a masterpiece of alliteration LOL). It dawned on me while I was talking to a couple of people I didn't know very well--at all, truth be known--that Lori knew but who had gone to high school when I did about a number of different developments--divorces, school district matters, the general freakiness of homo intoxicatus, the effect of local events on lives. And the thing that struck me was how little, even among people who didn't really know each other well, had to be explained or gone over or recounted. There is this massive common infrastruture that provides an instant bond that cannot be created. Maybe I am not saying this very well, but I was comfortable last night--even though it was a bar, where I don't ever hang out, and even though I am normally not the most social of creatures. Granted, going there with Lori helped, and the last half-hour or so we were just talking with each other. But the level of comfort and familarity surprised me, that after almost three decades and three lifetimes worth of experiences, that I could feel that way.
It is, in its own way, like NA--a fellowship of sorts. Growing up in this area is something we all did, just like being in active addiction is something all of us in NA have in common. Maybe that was why it seemed so comfortable, because I am used to that sort of commonality. But there are differences, too, and I guess they could stand a little scrutiny. When I first started reconnecting with people on Facebook, I was a little startled by how many people seemed to have had the Rockwell lives--still married, kids normal, jobs for years, that sort of thing. But the more people I get connected with, the more I see that the mid-40's age group that grew up in Endicott are just a cross-section and microcosm of America. Many have moved. A fair number have divorced, some more than once. Some have died, others have known tragedy. I know of a few others who have had drug problems, with various degrees of recovery. Some have done well in a material sense, others are scraping by. Some are doing what they have always wanted to do, others have seen their careers go in different directions.
In short, we are all just living our lives. But there is a bond between us that I never would have dreamed was as durable as it is. And in many ways, I cannot believe how much we noticed of each other back then, even if we didn't think we did. Lori mentioned to me that she always remembered that I got good grades; I know I did, but I had no idea anyone else was paying attention. Another woman mentioned to me last night that we had been in the same homeroom for years--and we had, but again, I had no idea anyone paid attention to that stuff. There were a few people there I recalled stuff about that wasn't in the forefront of their minds, either, but is still real and enduring.
And it actually feels good.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Book Review: HITLER'S EMPIRE

Hitler's Empire is Mark Mazower's study of how the Nazis actually attempted to administer the parts of Europe that they controlled, beyond the Holocaust (although that is covered as well). It is not surprising, given that the Nazis were a collection of thugs, fanatics, and opportunists, that their half-baked racial theories translated into inefficient and unworkable practices. For all the Nazi talk about living space, there were too few Germans to fill it, and those that were repatriated to the Homeland--oops, Fatherland-- often didn't want to go. But the overriding characteristic in addition to the brutality was the venality; the Nazis stole what they could, and tried without dissembling or making excuses to exploit the remainder. The Nazis are seen as a modern plague, the worst that the twentieth century had to offer, but a more accurate picture would be that they had a medieval worldview that was implemented with all the technological prowess of the modern world--stripped of all rationales, they were simply a band of murderous plunderers, descendants in spirit of the bands of rapine mounted knights in the Dark Ages that led to the Crusades and the wars of religion. The incredible inefficiency of their administration--they often had overlapping jurisdictions, where officials of the state, the Nazi Party, and the SS all had responsibility for the same policy goals in the same places--is, at heart, a recoginition that they were making it up as they went along, because their primary focus was, despite their rhetoric, on the destruction of the old order rather than building anything new. And in some ways, their contempt for the Marxists and their fantasies of the "withering away" of the state had their antipode with the Nazis; all would be well if only all the undesirables and undeserving were eliminated. They certainly did their best to make that happen, and that was the biggest reason why World War II saw deaths in the tens of millions.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Thanksgiving

Taking a break from ranting today. Just enjoyed a very comfortable day off, spent with my mother, brother, sister with her kids, and Rachel and Jessica. Just picked Sabrina from her mother's, and kind of just vegging out. This has never been my favorite holiday, but I have to say, bad as it sounds, that since my father died, it's become a lot better--no arguing, no picking on people, more of the Hallmark postcard it's supposed to be. And it's the one weekday during the year when I have nothing to do all morning.
Tomorrow I will be doing some things with the Boo Bear--haircuts, certainly, and maybe skating or something--but no shopping. I take vacations in December simply to be able to shop stress free ten days or so before Christmas. It is disconcerting to see so much open today, but as I said, I'm not ranting today, just observing. The world has changed in so many ways since I was a kid, and like so many of those things, there are good and bad things about it.
I don't need a special day to be thankful; my life is a study in gratitude. But it's nice when the rest of the world is on the same page as me.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Book Review: ROYAL AND ANCIENT

Royal and Ancient is an older book about the British Open in general and the 1999 Open at Carnoustie (the van de Velde one) in particular, by Curt Sampson. It did not help the author's cause that the three golfers he chose to focus on that week were not in contention. The history of the Open itself was mildly informative, and his account of the tournament was interesting, and captured van de Velde's collapse in a humane and sympathetic way that TV commentators and other writers really haven't. All and all, it was a pretty fair way to spend a gloomy Sunday.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Book Review: DEAD POOL

Dead Pool is a look by one of the country's more distinguished science authors, James Lawrence Powell, at the water problems in the Southwest, past, present, and future. He makes a very convincing case that both major Colorado River resovoirs are unsustainable, and that there is a total lack of responsibility and foresight by both politicians and populace in the area in preparing for the new reality. Although filled with scientific information, the prose is lively and the book never drags. And unlike many authors, who stop short of carrying their thoughts about the future to their logical conclusions, his description of what might happen in Arizona in the next 40 years is realistic and somewhat frightening.
And it ties into a pet subject of mine. Water is even more necessary than food, and if people were meant to live in the West, they would have been there in large numbers long ago. Cities like Phoenix and Las Vegas simply should not, by nature, exist and eventually cannot and will not sustain themselves. As irritating as living in the Northeast can be, as economically depressed as it has become, the long term benefit of living here is that we will always have water, and that we will have temperate weather still as global warming takes hold. In other words, the rest of the country is going to have to come back to us. There will be another American Civil War in the future, and it will be over water. My hope is that we Yankees kicked their asses once, and that we can do it again. And after victory this time, none of this "let 'em up easy" crap. Make the red states really run red. But then, I'm a known nut job...

Saturday, November 21, 2009

RIP Gus

Got to my mother's to do laundry this morning, and she told me that Gus LaDue, a major figure in my life for 40 years, died last night. Gus was pretty much indescribable... he has had a trucking/repair/used car operation for a long time. His son Kenny is one of my better friends, and Gus and my father were very close. Gus had a thousand quirks if he had one--he was irascible, and there were certainly boundaries that could not be crossed with him. But he was also perhaps the most forgiving and kind-hearted man, underneath the bluster, that one could ever hope to find. The list of people Gus has cut major breaks to, many repeatedly, would run into at least four figures. This is a man who bought his neighbor's home so that the poor man, who had ALS, could die in a familiar surrounding without having to find a place to live while he was dying. This is a man who housed and gave jobs to dozens of people with substance abuse problems, and never completely closed the door on any of them even after they burned him time and again. This was a man who never charged interest on a debt or bill, who was happy if you paid him back pennies at a time. This was a man who was available to those who needed him all the time; if your car broke down 300 miles away, his wrecker would be on its way within 20 minutes, and your car would be in his shop and worked on as soon as he could get it there. I could go on and on and on, but this is a major, major loss for the community, for my family, and for me.
He had been sick for a few months; he is one of a growing number of people I know of that went into the hospital for an operation, caught some antibiotic-resistant infection while recuperating, and never came out. He was not a good patient, more than once removing tubes and respirators because he was annoyed or bothered, and I am sure he wore out some doctors and nurses. He lived a hard life in some ways; he walked with a limp and was blind in one eye because of injuries suffered while drinking years ago. But he had put it down over a decade ago, and never relapsed, and yet did not make those around him stop drinking and partying, a miracle of sorts I wished I knew the secret to.
And to bring this home, Gus was always very, very good to me. At my wedding, he did not attend, but gave me an envelope with a ridiculous amount of cash in it the morning of the wedding. When I slipped into active addiction, he never shunned me. When I got clean, he cut me a multitude of breaks, and even more so after my father died. I got five cars from him over the years, never having to put a dime down on some, and never once getting pressure to pay him back. He repaired all of them at some point. I have owed him money for eight years, paying him no more than $25/month and occasionally adding to the bill; the only comment he ever made was that it was nice knowing he was going to get the money at the beginning of the month, and saying that my getting and staying clean was the best payment I could make. He came to me a number of times for advice on how to deal with some of the women in his life who were out of control, and even though he rarely followed it, he always respected what I had to say and always tried to steer those he was dealing with in my direction.
Kenny, as I mentioned, is one of my better friends, and I know that as much as he may have known this day was coming, he still has a tough time ahead of him. Gus will be cremated--I don't think he has set foot in a church in my lifetime--and I will make time for the service, even if it means blowing off part or all of a mandatory training Tuesday. And whether the area knows it or not, it lost one of its better human beings last night. He will be missed, and one of those who will miss him the most will be me.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Book Review: LEAR'S DAUGHTERS

Lear's Daughters is a reissuing of what were, in the 1980's, two science fiction novels by Marjorie Kellogg (Bradley, at the time). The liner notes described it as a "prophetic vision" of a world where climate has gotten out of control. While the climate is the story in the book, it has little to do with the earth's current problems, and so I felt a little taken in after finishing the book.
But only a little. The plot has the standard sci-fi novel flaws (stock cast of space crew--idealistic crew, greedy and ruthless corporate types; the aliens are actually different humans), but the characters are subtle and relatively beleivable, the aliens show a learning curve, the portrayal of the alien world is realistic, and the plot twist at the end still surprises even though some aspects are telegraphed hundreds of pages in advance. I got caught up in the 740 pages within a day (it kept me off Facebook for three days), and I was almost sorry to see that the standard, the-day-is-saved ending employed, since for much of the novel the Destruction appeared inevitable. Although not quite as advertised (which is not, after all, on the writer), the book(s) were quite worthy on their own merits and well worth reading.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Actual Note Sent Home

(Background) Sabrina's teacher this year, Mr. Vasquez, is attending grad school attempting to get his master's, which is the reason he gives for not giving much input with his Monday folders or commenting in the homework books--"very busy man."
(Recent event) Parent teacher conference was scheduled for tomorrow at 12:30 when the notes went home a few weeks ago. Yesterday, Sabrina verbally tells me that Mr. Vasquez wanted to move my time to 11, right after school ends. When I asked why, she said, "He broke his arm playing basketball, and he has a doctor's appointment." I thought, but did not say aloud, "very curious set of priorities. You can find time for basketball with your 'busy' schedule, but not for communicating with the parents of your students." However, since I had to come to the school anyway to pick up Sabrina at 10:50, I told her to tell him that yes, I could meet at 11.
(first note sent home today) was a petition by the health clinic staff, asking parents to sign it so that the school based clinic, which is all that and more, can remain open and fully staffed; our esteemed governor's idea to cut 10% of school aid in mid-year could very well force it to close. I signed it like John Hancock did the Declaration; no one is going to need their glasses to read my name.
(second note sent home today) "Dear Parent/Guardian: Unfortunately, I have to reschedule our meeting time for Wednesday, November 18th. I will be happy to meet with you on Monday, November 23rd. Below are some available times. I apologize for any inconvenience. Thank you, Mr. Vasquez."
Parent/guardian looks at the sheet, and every time on it is open. In other words, he never gave anyone an option to choose Monday the 23rd when dates were originally being scheduled. A cynic can certainly make the case that the broken arm is a convenient excuse for taking a day off he was planning on taking anyway.
(note going back to school tomorrow) "Thank you for at least having the grace to apologize. However, I'm not happy about it. Luckily, I was able to switch around appointments and am blessed to have a job where I can be flexible. Not everyone has this luxury. I find it hard to believe that the only possible time this week that you could keep a doctor's appointment is during scheduled parent/teacher conferences, and it certainly sends a message to some of the less-committed parents that education is not in fact a priority, since even the teachers seem to believe that other matters come first."
I signed up for the first available slot, 12:15 on Monday. Something tells me that there is going to be at least one parent he's not going to be "happy" to meet with, especially since I intend to emphasize again face to face that in a district like Roosevelt, where so many children come from households where education is not seen as a priority, where many parents have resentments with the school district dating to their own school days, it is vitally important that the considerable progress that has been made in the last seven years through the efforts of Mr. Chilson (the principal) and many faculty members who go well beyond the 7:30-3:00 class time in order to foster a love and appreciation of the entire learning process in youth that aren't going to get that sort of message at home in making Roosevelt a miraculous academic success story--it is vitally important that that effort not be undermined by staff that are less than dedicated to their jobs, that are more devoted to their own pleasures and their own career prospects than to the youth they teach--because they are not only teaching academics, but they are, like it or not, role models for the youth in their classroom as well. I am not going to back down. I already left the PTA secretary's job because the adults running it are self-centered twits, and I have no compunction about getting into it with this guy. I have not been impressed thus far with him; the effort just isn't there, and we all have excuses if we choose to avail ourselves of them.
And I cannot help but contrast Mr. Vasquez with Mr. Stayton, Sabrina's 3rd grade teacher. Mr. Stayton got an administrator's degree several years ago, and has applied for principal positions elsewhere and no doubt will get one some day. He has infant twins, and two other children, as well. But Mr. Stayton's Friday folder was a running, year-long dialogue with the parent who signed the book; his parent-teacher conferences took 20-30 minutes; he took the time to actually read, internalized, and made reference to and nurtured the personal stuff that his students put into their projects in class; the last day of class, he gave each kid a small token that symbolized some character traits; he even gave parents his cell phone number and (gasp) actually answered it on a Sunday, and the other three times I called him that year, too. In short, if every teacher in this world was like Tim Stayton (or Cindy Berg, or Jackie Weingartner, or Maggie Annuziata, or Linda Lowell, all of whom have had Sabrina for different grades and been dedicated, effective teachers in every sense of the word), our educational system would be magnificent.
Unfortunately, like any large group of people, the ability level of the faculty of a good-sized school is distributed like a Bell Curve. And Dario Vasquez is, two months into the year, already firmly rooted on the left hand side of the curve.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Another Victory

The Vikings were the national 1:00 PM game today on Fox, and I managed to see most of the game. They didn't play particularly well, the Lions played reasonably well--and the Vikings won by 17 and the game never, ever appeared to be in the slightest doubt. I have not tuned into a Vikings game for over two decades and felt the same degree of confidence that I am starting to feel now--that they are, barring some awful calamity, going to win the game. Today was a perfect example; they had two turnovers that in the past would have proved horribly deflating, the officials certainly did not give them any breaks, and the other team really played about as well as they could. But the game was never out of hand.
And I continue to be amazed at how many good players they have. Their second best offensive player for two years was Chester Taylor, and he now looks like he shouldn't even be in the league. Bernard Berrian was the best receiver on the team last year, and he is no better than the third best on this one. Even Peterson, good as he is, has a disturbing number of no-gain plays and a habit of putting the ball on the ground. But Rice, Harvin, and Shiancoe are getting better by the week, and the offense is starting to look like the 49er offense when Montana and Young were running the team--no weak links, no one you can ignore.
And their quarterback is playing the best he ever has. It may not last, but the knucklehead throws and the temptation to do it all himself are not there right now. He has 3 interceptions through nine games; a fair number of good quarterbacks have thrown three in a game this year. I am pleasantly shocked by this development. I wonder if he read all the papers saying what a selfish ass he was for the last two years, and I wonder if the bicep surgery he had in the summer fixed what was a big problem last year, but this is not the same guy who played for the Jets last year, or for the Packers in 2005-6.
Hmmm. Just thought of something. If there is a franchise that has had worse karma than the Vikings for 40 years, it is the Jets. Maybe all that was wrong with him last year was that--it was the Jets.
Anyway, they play Seattle next week, another game that they shouldn't have to be superb to win. I really thought they would have a harder time without Winfield than they have, and the guys who have had to step up have done nothing but become more useful for later in the year. New Orleans is starting to struggle, and I can't take either a Wade Phillips or Andy Reid team seriously in the playoffs. If the Saints continue to be mediocre, the game in a few weeks against the Cardinals may end up being an NFC Championship preview. One could have easily believed Favre and Warner would have met for it ten years ago, but in 2009? What a strange world we live in.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Book Review: THAT INFERNAL LITTLE CUBAN REPUBLIC

That Infernal Little Cuban Republic is Lars Shoultz' look at a hundred-plus years of relations between the USA and Cuba, with a particular emphasis, of course, on the Castro era. The book is extensively researched, and a great source of non-partisan information about the early years of the Castro regime, in particular. Shoultz demonstrates rather convincingly that Castro may not have been Communist when he took power, but he certainly intended to radically change relations with the United States, and his turn to Marxism was not out of established character either for him personally or for any revolutionary of his time and place across the globe.
But as a United States citizen who has never lived at a time without a Communist Cuba near Florida, my primary reaction to this book was disgust--not with the author or the book, but the way this country has conducted itself in its relations with Cuba both before and after Castro. There were many minor examples of wrong-headedness, and many small-minded villains, but there were six overriding points, made over dozens of times and hundreds of pages, permeating the chronicle. More to the point, they are still very much in play in today's political world in Washington.
1) The incredibly patronizing and ignorant attitude of an depressing large number of people over a century who made decisions and policy based on stereotypes of Latins and their alleged hot tempers, indolence, and inability to work hard. This is racism at its worst, and it still, unfortunately, is a factor in today's world, not so much regarding Cuba, but most certainly affecting decisions made in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other regions in the "war on terror," which we should never forget is a war on people.
2) While no Presidential administration covered itself in glory in Latin American affairs, the most egregiously offensive was Ronald Reagan's. Every official, every policy, started with the basic premise that world Communism was intent on taking over the world, and this was the only guideline allowed to affect what was done. Contrary evidence was ignored, and while this happened to a degree in every admininstration over 50 years, only Reagan's made shit up and then acted on the basis of the lies. But then, to those of us who lived through Iran-Contra, this is not surprising, is it? If the campaign to ever put Reagan on Mount Rushmore succeeds, I will leave this country, with only the clothes on my back if necessary.
2a) As an aside, before the Bush II administration, the most dangerous individual cabinet officer was not, as I previously beleived, either John Foster Dulles or Mitchell Palmer. It was, without a doubt, Alexander Haig. Thank God that this fool was shoved out of office after only 18 months; he was every bit as dangerous as his detractors in the early 1980's said he was.
3) The United States has an attitude that one often sees in interpersonal relationships but is not often expressed in international diplomacy. The basic premise is that since the United States fought a war with Spain to help Cuba achieve its indepedence, Cuba should be forever grateful to the point where it should never, ever take any position of importance contrary to the interests of the United States. There are many reasons why this is fallacious, but the two main ones will suffice. One is that, from the standpoint of the Cubans, if this were to be true, then the Cubans will have in effect traded one master for another--in other words, they are still under the control of someone else. The second is that, using the same logic, since the United States would never have won its independence without the aid of France, it should never take any position or action that the French government does not approve of. The United States explicitly rejected this notion before it was twenty years old, and there is no reason to hold Cuba to a standard that we have never held ourselves to.
4) The biggest reason why the United States has been concerned well out of proportion to its actual importance with Cuba has little to do with security or competing ideologies. It has everything to do with money and national self-image. The United States, quite simply, was exploiting Cuba economically worse than Spain ever did. Castro not only stopped it, and not only did not pay compensation, but he called a spade a spade while doing so. And we absolutely hate him for it. The loss of substantial amounts of what people in this country have always cared most about, filthy lucre, was bad enough, but Castro blew up our own cherished illusions about ourselves while doing so, by showing without a doubt that those who supposedly crave our "freedom" in fact are quite happy without it.
5) The single most obnoxious--and effective--lobby in a country full of obnoxious lobbies is that of the Cuban-Americans in Florida. Because of Florida's importance in presidential electoral politics, it is considered suicidal-- and maybe, given some of the rhetoric heard, not just figuratively-- to make any accomodation with Castro's Cuba. And it simply is not right. The Elian Gonzalez case years ago was ample evidence of this, when America was treated to the sight of a child being kept from his surviving parent for months for no good reason other than the Cuban-Americans hatred of Castro. And what is it based on? Basically, the Cubans in Florida now are the descendents of the indigenous collaborators of the economic rapists of Cuba before 1960. Again, it's not real news to realize that economic considerations are at the root of political questions, but it is a betrayal of our ideals as a nation to kowtow to this kind of pressure coming from these kind of people.
And 6) it is sobering to realize, reading what was said and done in the previous two generations by those immersed in the Cold War, how wrong they were. About virtually everything. the Communists were not intent on world domination; they could barely feed themselves. They weren't involved to half the degree the more hysterical bed-wetters in this country claimed in unrest around the world. I was already cynical about the "war on terror" long before reading this and a couple of books that chronicled Cold War events in the last couple of years, but after reading them, I freely admit that I think virtually all arguments in favor of intervention virtually anywhere else in the name of "freedom" are absolute, total bullshit. These people in charge of policy know less than a reasonably well-informed citizen, simply because the citizen isn't emotionally invested in fitting what he sees into a closed-minded view of the world that allows him or her to pursue their livelihood. It's really depressing to find that the ignorance and hysteria is endemic, that the myopic and paranoid will always have the upper hand, and that those who exploit that myopia and paranoia always seem to be able to profit economically from it at the expense of even rudimentary justice and fairness.
No doubt, some time in the near future, there will be a "triumphant" return to Cuba, and it will be a "free" country once more. And ten years after that, the economic feudalism will be back intact, and everyone here will wonder why the Cubans don't seem more happy with their lot.