Sunday, January 29, 2006

Hell on Earth

What’s your worst nightmare? The thing so bad you can’t even truly imagine it? Turn on all the lights and sit with your back to a corner and we’ll examine it. Everything you’re about to read really happened. Just be glad it didn’t happen to you.

Say you’re a musician. A trumpet player. You graduate from one of the best music schools in the world, then spend ten years playing with the orchestras in Boston, New York, Vienna. Never quite able to grab the hot gig, but always working.

The lack of steady income gets old after a while and you end up far away from the madding crowd of musical high society. Just to pick a city at random, let’s say Portland, Oregon. There you’re stuck as the assistant behind a man more acclaimed as a douche bag than a trumpet player for ten years, putting up with his attitude and whining and sorry playing because the job’s yours when he’s gone. Somewhere along the line the music director changes, but the signals don’t.

Then the douche bag retires.

The orchestra has auditions. No big deal, they have to replace someone, and the auditions can be for an associate if the principal job is filled from within. (Nudge, nudge.) People come in from all over and play. You play. And finish second. The winner is the single person in all recorded history you’d like to spend your career sitting next to less than the douche bag who just retired.

Up until today you thought the worst thing that had ever happened to you was losing a coin toss for a ticket to see the Boston Celtics win Game 6 and clinch the 1986 NBA Championship. That was a nude beach during Carnival compared to this. What have you done to deserve this?

You think a minute. Remember the time you ran off to get married? All the male friends you had reduced to the subjects of burlesque were good sports about it because they knew some day your bachelor party would come, and all debts would be settled. Remember the wedding announcements you sent? After the fact?

Life’s a bitch, and karma is its agent on earth.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Shakespeare was Right

The Home Office is about to relocate to wholly-owned digs to provide you, dear reader, with the service you deserve. There will be the inevitable fits and starts along the way; this is only to be expected at my advanced age. As in any real estate transaction, lawyers will enter into it. As in any real estate transaction so close to Our Nation’s Capital, (aka the Bend Over and Spread Your Legs Capital of the World), lawyers will enter into it where you least expect them.

The property in question is a townhouse, part of a Homeowners Association. This association isn’t so bad: the Master Deed and By-Laws run a mere 31 pages. The original Home Office resided in an association which by-laws were sent over in a heavy-duty binder. Why the Andover Heights Condominium needs 31 pages while the Constitution of the United States can get by with three is a question for greater minds than mine, and there is no shortage of those.

People around the country sometimes wonder why housing prices escalate so much in the DC area. The only local industry is government, and we’re in the midst of a presidential administration originally elected in large part due to its devotion to reducing the size and expense of government.

Reading my condo documents has explained a lot. I thought I was just buying a house; just last night I found out that what I’m buying “is basically a rectilinearly shaped parallelepiped.” Damn right that’s worth more money than just a house.

And it’s not just the physical parallelepiped; we get air—front and back—too. The front of our humble rectilinearly shaped parallelepiped “is a vertical plane through the forwardmost point of the roof, so as to include all of the wall and air space directly under overhangs, if any.” (Emphasis added.) Thank God we got that squared away.

I understand this level of detail is designed to avoid confusion about who has to fix what should the excrement hit the thermantidote. That being said, maybe even more confusion could be avoided if the terms were easily understandable by someone with a Masters degree. (Granted, it’s in music, but still.)

What possible reason could there be for this paroxysm of obfuscation? Wouldn’t everyone benefit if the terms could be discussed without a background in surveying or geometry? Why must every circumstantiality be formulated in such recondite argot? Wait, though this be madness, there is method in’t.

Who might benefit from such elutriated phraseology? Among all the people potentially involved in a real estate transaction, who might possess the expertise to procure and perpetuate such atypical cognition? Could it be someone who can choose to look it up every time it crosses his desk and bill you for rectifying his alleged ignorance?

A lawyer, perhaps?

Don’t get me wrong, I believe in delayed gratification. I’ve waited fifty years to become the principal trumpet of a major orchestra, and I’m willing to wait another fifty. It will be worth it. Aside from the house hunting and the mortgage company’s anal probes, buying the domain of which you will be the master should be a joyful experience. How secure can anyone feel in their domicile if they aren’t sure they have an understanding of the rules to which they will be subjected? Why should anyone have to go hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt, then have to pay some pettifogger to explain to them that their rectilinearly shaped parallelepiped is as defined, “notwithstanding the definition of general common elements presently set forth in Article 21, Section 117A(g) of the Annotated Code of Maryland (1957 edition as amended).” Just so they don’t confuse it with Article 21, Section 117A(h)?

In Shakespeare’s Henry VI, Part II, Cade promises a utopian society, should he ever become king. Seven half-penny loaves will cost a penny; three-hooped pots will have ten hoops; it will be a crime to drink small beer. (I have no idea what any of that means. It still makes as much sense as my condo documents.) His friend, Dick, sees an obstacle, and offers a simple, effective solution.

The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers.”

To which Cade replies, “Nay, that I mean to do. Is not this a lamentablething, that of the skin of an innocent lamb should be made parchment? that parchment, being scribbled o'er, should undo a man? Some say the bee stings:but I say, 'tis the bee's wax; for I did but seal once to a thing, and I was never mine own man since.

I’d trade the pleonasm of my association docs for that loquacity any day. I’d vote for Cade for king, too. I’m not sure what he means by that small beer and ten-hooping stuff, but I’ll bet he doesn’t say nuke-ular.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

The Big Five-Oh

Well, today’s the day. The Big Five-Oh. A lot of things happen in 18,264 days, and I like to think I’ve learned something from them. That doesn’t mean I have. You be the judge; I’m not as impartial as I should be.

Several things stick out. The first memory I can positively situate in place and time is sitting in the back seat of the family car driving up the hill toward our new house on October 13, 1960, listening to Jim Woods describe Bill Mazeroski’s home run to win the World Series. That a baseball game is my earliest memory probably says a lot about how some things have worked out since then.

I was in Mrs. Trulson’s third grade class on November 22, 1963, when I learned that President Kennedy had been killed. I wasn’t sure what the big deal was, but by the end of the weekend I knew something major had happened.

On July 20, 1969, I sat cross-legged on our living room floor and watched Neil Armstrong take a small step that everyone remembers everything about, except how to do it again. A different living room in Norwood, Massachusetts held me on January 28, 1986. Within a year I sat in a car and listened to Richard Feynman describe how O-rings lose their resiliency in cold and knew I would never feel the same way about NASA again.

A nurse said, “Would you like to see your daughter?” and I peeked over the curtain separating my wife from her Caesarian incision and saw the Sole Heir for the first time. On March 1, 1991, I became a better son, and understood that nothing was as simple, or as easy, as we’d like it to be.

Two strangers in a San Diego elevator looked at me like I had no clue about life in general after my perky morning greeting, and told me there was something different about September 11, 2001.

I stood with a hand resting on my dining room table on April 22, 2003 when Bill Ray’s son told me his father had died. Not being a surprise didn’t make it any easier to take.

Graduations, weddings, jobs, all have strong memories. The specifics have a tendency to blur, mixing in the Cuisinart of experience to create lessons you hope to get something worthwhile out of. Season with some common sense and a healthy bullshit detector, and you get the Top Ten Things I Think I Know at Fifty. (Anyone worthy of reaching fifty should know you don’t know you know anything.)

In no particular order:
· Intelligence without introspection is like sex without orgasm. It’s nice, and it’s better than not having any, but what’s the point?
· If the worth of a man is measured by the friends he keeps, then Bill Gates has a ways to go to catch me. That doesn’t mean specific friends should be kept at all costs. People are your friends through their actions, not their words. You have not lost a friend if you cut loose someone who misuses your friendship; he has.
· I make every effort to treat people as they would like to be treated. I pay everyone I meet the compliment of assuming the same about them. This is why some think I am an SOB.
· My favorite age for The Sole Heir is whatever age she is when you ask me.
· There is a great difference between being a good guy and being a good man. Just because my brother makes it look easy doesn’t mean it is.
· It is unconscionable that any child should go sick or hungry in a nation wealthy enough to spend over a trillion dollars to redraw org charts and call it Homeland Security. Security is built from within, not enforced through edict.
· The primary difference between most politicians and most whores is wardrobe, as well as when, how, and what it costs for them to show you what’s under it.
· Humans as a species are neither inherently good or bad. Americans are not nearly as good as we like to think we are relative to the rest of the world, even France.
· Those who proclaim their Christianity too vocally seem to want New Testament tolerance and forgiveness for themselves and their friends, Old Testament fire and brimstone for everyone else, choosing their own standards for casting the first stone. Christianity does not own the franchise on hypocrisy; it does employ many of the store managers.
· Life is too short to hold grudges. It’s way too short to tolerate injustice.

Any reasonable fifty year-old must assume most of the sand has run out of the hourglass. The trick is to savor every grain as it falls through the neck. The good years are always with us, if we keep realistically adjusting our definition of good to mesh with what’s important. In the timeless words of Senator John Blutarsky, “Nothing’s over until we say it is.” I can’t even hear the fat lady singing yet. That may be because my hearing’s no better than my eyesight or my feet. I prefer to think it’s because there’s no better place for me to go just yet, and, at the rate things are going, there won’t be for quite a while. Things are fine in the place I’m at now.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

Because His Lips are Moving Again

Earlier this week, Vice President Dick “Darth Vader” Cheney said the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 could have been averted if the president had the power to secretly monitor the conversations of two of the hijackers without first getting a court order. This is a prime example of how the Bush Administration has run the country into the ground using smoke and mirrors, arguing “oranges” every time someone criticizes them by saying “apples.”

First, the easy answers. There are lots of ways those hijackings could have been averted without violating the Fourth Amendment. The FAA could have banned potentially dangerous sharp objects like box cutters. They reacted by banning everything from scissors to nail clippers, which amounted to locking, bolting, and nailing shut the barn door after the horse has been flown into a building.

Faulty administrative procedures played quite a role. Instead of spending what’s approaching a trillion dollars on the Department of Homeland Security and excising large chunks of the Bill of Rights in the name of this alleged security, why weren’t the heads of the FBI, CIA, and other relevant organizations told in no uncertain terms to find ways to share their information, or we’ll find someone who will? The government had enough information to stop the attacks if anyone had bothered to make sure it got into the right hands.

These issues have been debated before. The primary approach utilized in Cheney’s remarks is another Administration standby: only address part of the argument. Never mind that leaving out the salient features of the criticism invalidates your argument; who’s going to look that deeply into it?

Hardly anyone is criticizing the surveillance itself; it’s warrantless surveillance that has people’s drawers in a knot. The special courts for secret warrants existed prior to 9/11. These warrants can be issued retroactively for up to 72 hours if speed is an issue. If the government was so sure monitoring the phone calls of these two guys could have stopped an attack, then why didn’t they get a couple of warrants? Cheney’s comments imply more than ample probable cause.

To take Cheney’s disingenuousness one step further, the Bush Administration has never shied away from assuming the broadest interpretation of presidential power, especially as it relates to the other branches of government and the public. Does anyone really think they would have hesitated to take extra-Constitutional means before they got the war powers resolution, which they are essentially interpreting as the granting of dictatorial powers?

Think “dictatorial” is too strong a word? Bush and Cheney continually stress the safeguards and good judgment used to ensure no innocent Americans have their rights trampled on. Whose good judgment are we depending on? George W. Bush. Let’s look at his history of good judgment, just since he’s been president. Cutting taxes in time of war to create record deficits. Invading Iraq in the name of 9/11, knowing full well Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with it. Getting us stuck there, with over two thousand Americans killed since Bush’s Priapic exhibition on the USS Abraham Lincoln, when he announced “mission accomplished.” The repeated assurances that the insurgents were a small cadre of “dead enders” that were forever in their “last throes,” so they should “bring it on,” we can handle it. Is that who you want making the decision about whose rights are observed and whose aren’t?

And for you Bush supporters out there, what about when he’s gone? The next president gets the same powers. Do you want Hillary Clinton making those decisions? John Kerry?

The terrorists can do no worse than kill a few of us. These power grabs have the potential to destroy us. Once you start down the slippery slope, each incremental diminution of rights seems less significant than the last, until one day you look around and nothing’s left. Simon Bolivar is known as the George Washington of South America. Let’s hope no one ever has to be referred to as the Oskar Schlindler of the United States.

Sunday, January 01, 2006

Don't Believe Everything You Read

The following item, with accompanying photographs, has been circulating the Internet via email. It refers to an event that took place in December of 2004. It’s a good story, and Denzel Washington’s a good guy, but it’s also a good object lesson for the old saw, “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.”

Don't know whether you heard about this but Denzel Washington and his family visited
the troops at Brook (sic) Army Medical Center, in San Antonio,Texas (BAMC) the other day.

This is where soldiers who have been evacuated from Germany come to be hospitalized in the United States, especially burn victims. There are some buildings there called Fisher Houses. The Fisher House is a Hotel where soldiers' families can stay, for little or no charge, while their soldier is staying in the Hospital. BAMC has quite a few of these houses on base, but as you can imagine, they are almost filled most of the time.

While Denzel Washington was visiting BAMC, they gave him a tour of one of the Fisher Houses. He asked how much one of them would cost to build. He took his check book out and wrote a check for the full amount right there on the spot.
The soldiers overseas were amazed to hear this story and want to get the word out to the American public, because it warmed their hearts to hear it.

The question I have is why does (sic):

Alec Baldwin, Madonna, Sean Penn and other Hollywood types make front page news with their anti-everything America crap and Denzel Washington's Patriotism doesn't even make page 3 in the Metro section of any newspaper except the Local newspaper in San Antonio?

Here ends the piece that has been circulating on the Internet. The reason no other papers picked up the story of Denzel’s spontaneous check writing is because it didn’t happen.

No criticism of Denzel Washington is intended or implied. He did come through in “a big way,” to quote a Brooke Army Medical Center spokesperson, and now serves on the Board of Directors of Fisher Houses. See this link for verification :

It’s still a great story, and hats off to Denzel Washington for stepping up like he did. Let’s just remember not to be too quick to tar too many people with the same brush. Alec Baldwin, Madonna, and Sean Penn are loudmouths whose opinions get a lot more credence than they deserve because they’re celebrities. That’s not a media issue, that’s a media business issue.

It’s not just television and radio entertainment programming that looks at ratings anymore. Newspapers, magazines, TV and radio news, all are focused on getting maximum readers or viewers. This places the emphasis on reporting the news most people want to hear. Do you really think any reporters worth their salt thought the Michael Jackson trial was the most important thing going on in the world last June? Name two stories that received more coverage. That’s because the average mouth-breathing Joe Six-pack was interested. The media reports what Baldwin, Madonna, and Penn say because it’s easy (and therefore cheap, saving even more on the bottom line), and because people are a lot more likely to read or listen to what they say instead of someone who has made a career of studying such issues, but we never heard of.

Again, kudos to Denzel. The sad truth is, his generosity should not have been needed. We sent these people off to fight our war without anything like the support services they, and their families, need. How many of the same Joe Six-packs who teared up over this story are far more willing to bash a celebrity for being anti-war than they’re willing to insist their elected representative do anything about the situation Denzel took action on? This isn’t something on which we should be depending on charity. People acting in our name spent our tax dollars to put the troops in harm’s way; why aren’t we as vociferous about demanding those tax dollars get spent to ensure they get what they need after the inevitable consequences have taken place?

The next time anyone gets in a lather distinguishing “patriots” who support the war and those who don’t, let’s not forget that not supporting the war doesn’t mean not supporting those who fight it. Conversely, supporting the war doesn’t mean supporting the troops, or they wouldn’t have been sent there with inadequate equipment and insufficient Stateside facilities in the first place.