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October 21, 2004

'Tis the Season

I had a pretty static collection of blogs in NetNewsWire right up until a few weeks ago, when I started noticing the slow creep of political sites back into the mix.

I'm pretty happy with the plain old blogroll on the front page sidebar, but it seemed appropriate to toss up a seasonal roll that at least points to where I'm spending more time lately. It'll come down as soon as the Supreme Court decides who the next president is, some time in 2006.

No claims to balance, utility, or usefulness. It's just what I've been reading that's over and above what I normally read. Suggestions welcome in the mode of "I see you like x, try y."

I know: "Andrew Sullivan? Eew." But I'm reading him, so he goes in.

Posted by mph at 12:00 AM

October 18, 2004

We're With Nate

We're not usually fond of jumping on blogwagons, but we'll go along with Nate on this one.

Posted by mph at 11:21 AM

October 16, 2004

Now With Memetic Relevance

Jon Stewart showed up on Crossfire to plug a book, and walked away my hero for at least the next few weeks.

If you read the reductionist version of Stewart's appearance, you'll probably walk away with "OMG! Jon Stewart totally called Tucker Carlson a dick! LOL!" which is true as far as it goes, but it misses the other 20-odd minutes of Stewart taking Carlson and Begala to task for, well, for sucking; and for taking the opportunity to get people on their show to engage in a real debate and wiping their asses with it in the name of keeping things entertaining.

It's one of those rare moments of public sincerity that causes one to lean forward and watch a little more closely, because it's obvious that Stewart's nervous, a little upset, and aware that he's in the tank with a pair of seasoned asshats who really don't give a good god-damn what comes out of their mouths as long as it sounds like it has wit-like content.

Ed has some linkage to the footage as does Wonkette, but you should give Ed the traffic because he's a good guy and because Wonkette's "smart, dumpy girl who finally gets to hang with the cool kids" narrative has, in less than a year, entered into the inevitable and sad phase wherein the smart, dumpy girl pretty much becomes as big a tool as the bullies who were laughing at her in the lunchroom.

Because, like Carlson, she's escaped the dreary confines of having to actually report the news, it's understandable that she shares his lack of patience with lectures about the civic responsibility of the press. Because recognizing sincerity in others might actually cause her own shriveled conscience to itch or even pain her a little, it's natural that she'd characterize Stewart's comments as "pandering."

When you sit around asserting that everyone's bought, you can make your own disconnection from meaningful or conscientious action seem somehow virtuous.

I know, I know. Lighten up. She's just joshin'.

They're all just joshin'.

Related pudding:

Crossfire and every Sunday morning show where matched teams of ideologues scrum are a toxic result of analysis culture. They turn political issues that will have an effect on millions into a chummy game of one-upsmanship and backslapping bonhomie between members of the analyst class who want to make it very clear that at the end of the day the whole thing is a collegial debating society for the tragically witty. The language is hot, but the underlying attitudes and takeaways about political discourse are cool. Paul Begala and Robert Novak shouldn't be ending each episode of Crossfire with a congenial smile and a sly wink across the table, because the things they're discussing frequently involve the potential for untold human suffering. If they really consider themselves involved advocates for the issues they're so faux angry about, there wouldn't be so much smug "All in good fun" winking and smirking across the table, and there'd be more real incitement.

Update: Snappy's found the best summary of the encounter so far. And while we're sayin', Snappy needs to stick around.

Posted by mph at 8:06 AM

October 14, 2004

None the Wiser

Making the decision to move put me in a momentary frame of mind to wax eloquent about having a child and how different things start to matter. Today, however, was "Wisdom Teeth Day," so I'm not feeling particularly eloquent.

Dentists are a matter of long-standing anxiety for me. Worse than other people I know, who seem to be able to deal with them fine. Maybe it's the two root canals I endured at the hands of army dentists. Maybe it's the time a dentist burned my lips with some sort of sealing iron and I heard my own flesh sizzle. I'm not sure.

So I asked, when the oral surgeon confirmed that my wisdom teeth were a menace to the rest of my mouth, to be put under. And that's anxiety inducing all on its own. Dentists are my natural enemy, so being knocked unconscious while in the clutches of a dentist is sort of like a small pig taking a nap under the python tree.

I spent a lot of time last night tossing and turning. I was not at all fond of the warning I had to sign informing me that I could suffer facial paralysis or death. Then I started imagining the entire process of "being put under" as a sort of shrieking descent into blackness... a fuzzy-edged look up the well at a masked dentist and his demoness helpers. Then I got to thinking about people who are put under but retain consciousness somehow, enduring surgery with full awareness and sensation.

It sounds silly now, but I'm not rational where the dentist is concerned.

So what was it really like?

I showed up at the office a minute late. They took my copayment and I had about a minute to sit down and read an AARP magazine article by a retiree whose husband has discovered porn on the Internet. I was just rounding the bend on the conclusion ("Some porn is fine, but when you say 'I treat my husband right and he's got no room for complaints' [author's note: "ew"] you should make sure he thinks so, too,") when they called me back.

I'll hand it to the personnel in the clinic: They were very good at not making me think at all about the fact that they were going to gas me, drug me insensate, then cut four teeth out of my head. All the implements were tastefully covered with bits of sterile, cellophane-backed paper.

One of the assistants put a cuff on me to check my blood pressure (153/93, I think, which is very high for me) and pulse (89... also pretty high). I made a surprised noise and she laughed, telling me that other people come in with much higher readings. I was not comforted. The blood of Numenor has grown thin.

So in came the surgeon. He put another clip on the tip of a finger and made a joke about monitoring my finger's status very closely. One of the assistants slid a nose-covering piece of plastic over my face. The doctor slid a needle into my arm without any comment at all, then strapped my arm down. I asked what the plastic over my nose was for and he said they might slip me some laughing gas to ease me down, and then I felt someone closing my mouth and I watched the doctor walk out of the room. His assistant said "If you can get up, you can go to the recovery room now until your ride gets here."

And that was that. One second I was there, the next second I was still there, but with a mouth stuffed full of gauze and no sensation at all in my lips, jaw, or tongue.

"Ich dibben veel luk ah schlebbed" I slobbered. The assistant laughed at me and said "You were out." She was maybe even a little defensive about it... like I might demand to have the cost of the anesthesia deducted because it didn't work. Maybe people do that. Anything's possible.

I wobbled into the recovery area (a dark alcove with a bed and chair) and sat there updating all the categories in my Palm's calendar, because I figured that if I could distinguish an appointment or event as clearly belonging to either "editorial planning" or "personal finance," I must not have suffered any brain damage.

Al came to take me home, but not before we stopped to get chocolate pudding and lemon yogurt and a carton of organic free-range chicken broth.

I watched some Star Trek, checked in with the boss over IM, helped Amy with some hanging issues on this week's column, then saw Alison off and fell asleep gnawing on bloody gauze. I stayed that way for two hours.

I was still bleeding when I woke up, so I went to the next recommended stage of treatment, which involved gumming moistened tea bags. Don't know why it worked, but it did. No more bleeding. And no more wisdom teeth.

In the end, I'm glad I got put under. I'm not getting over my thing about dentists any time soon, and I'm past the stage in life where I routinely allowed myself to be terrorized in the name of personal or professional development. If I could, I'd even see about sleeping until election day. The suspense is killing me.

Posted by mph at 6:52 PM

October 13, 2004

Spider Season

Al and I have a tradition of treating spiders more like house guests than invaders when they a.) stay out of the bedroom and b.) stay where we can keep an eye on them. Man Servant Hecubus lived with us in Charlottesville for a year, handling the occasional fly before he wandered off, and we didn't mind him.

Portland evidently has a spider season that starts in autumn as the rain begins. Since we have a few big bushes in front of the house, we have several spiders sharing our front yard with us each year. The only time they're really a problem is when they weave a web from the bushes to the tree, since that crosses the path of our front steps. We usually manage to blunder into the web before it gets very far, so it's not a big problem.

I've been trying to get a picture of one of them for the past few days, and I was lucky to look out the window this morning and note that she was in one of the webs closest to the front porch and catching the morning light, so I only had to stand up on the knee-high wall and lean out a little to shoot her. Looks like she was getting ready to enjoy breakfast.

I'm not sure what kind of spider she is. An identification chart I found indicates that she might be a "garden orb weaving spider," but she's colored a little differently, the page is from Australia, and I understand that there are tens of thousands of different spiders with very specific regional ranges. I'm guessing "garden orb weaving spider" is even more generic among spiders than "pointer" is among dogs.

Maybe the lazy web will identify her before I get around to visiting the library for a spider identification guide.


Al and I spent some time talking a few nights ago, and it looks like we'll probably only have one more spider season in Oregon. Barring a change of heart or an unforeseen opportunity, we've decided to start thinking like we'll be moving to Indiana at some point in the next 18-20 months.

It's all pretty open-ended right now. The big issue for us is being close to family, and Indiana would put us a day's drive from Virginia and Northern Michigan, with the added benefit of being very close to a lot of friends. Indianapolis and Bloomington are where we're thinking, with an edge toward Bloomington.

I'm glad we made the decision. We took two years from our first decision to move from Charlottesville to Portland, which meant that when we got into the last five or six months of preparation we were already in the right mindset and ready to go. It was probably the smoothest move I've ever made. If we hadn't been driving a U-Haul with a car in tow, in would have felt more like a leisurely road trip.

So it's a long countdown, but it has definitely started.

Posted by mph at 7:18 AM

October 12, 2004

The Wisdom of John Kerry

It is very much worth the registration time to read this article about Senator John Kerry in Sunday's New York Times Magazine articulating his record and current position on the post-9/11 world. He has a logical, informed, optimistic, and compelling vision that would put the Bush administration's record to shame, if only he would describe it publicly.

The article ends with criticisms and caveats that seem motivated more by the usual "journalistic objectivity" (i.e., "don't wanna sound biased") than by the writer having any substantive disagreement with Kerry, and the only frustration I have is that I don't understand why Kerry hasn't said this before.

If the Democrats lose, again, it will be due to their squeamishness about voicing an eminently practical and practicable worldview in the face of the Republicans' martial hysteria. Yes, it will require an about-face from the public, a paradigm shift from the course cemented in the past three years. Nevertheless, I believe it is a shift that will align U.S. policy with reality and with history, and therefore it must come, sooner or later. It confounds me that John Kerry isn't absolutely driven to better articulate this vision in his campaign.

Extended excerpt follows:

Kerry's Undeclared War, by Matt Bai

Kerry came to his worldview over the course of a Senate career that has been, by any legislative standard, a quiet affair. Beginning in the late 80's, Kerry's Subcommittee on Terrorism, Narcotics and International Operations investigated and exposed connections between Latin American drug dealers and BCCI, the international bank that was helping to launder drug money. That led to more investigations of arms dealers, money laundering and terrorist financing.

Kerry turned his work on the committee into a book on global crime, titled "The New War," published in 1997. He readily admitted to me that the book "wasn't exclusively on Al Qaeda"; in fact, it barely mentioned the rise of Islamic extremism. But when I spoke to Kerry in August, he said that many of the interdiction tactics that cripple drug lords, including governments working jointly to share intelligence, patrol borders and force banks to identify suspicious customers, can also be some of the most useful tools in the war on terror.

"Of all the records in the Senate, if you don't mind my saying, I think I was ahead of the curve on this entire dark side of globalization," he said. "I think that the Senate committee report on contras, narcotics and drugs, et cetera, is a seminal report. People have based research papers on it. People have based documents on it, movies on it. I think it was a significant piece of work."

More senior members of the foreign-relations committee, like Joe Biden and Richard Lugar, were far more visible and vocal on the emerging threat of Islamic terrorism. But through his BCCI investigation, Kerry did discover that a wide array of international criminals--Latin American drug lords, Palestinian terrorists, arms dealers--had one thing in common: they were able to move money around through the same illicit channels. And he worked hard, and with little credit, to shut those channels down.

In 1988, Kerry successfully proposed an amendment that forced the Treasury Department to negotiate so-called Kerry Agreements with foreign countries. Under these agreements, foreign governments had to promise to keep a close watch on their banks for potential money laundering or they risked losing their access to U.S. markets. Other measures Kerry tried to pass throughout the 90's, virtually all of them blocked by Republican senators on the banking committee, would end up, in the wake of 9/11, in the USA Patriot Act; among other things, these measures subject banks to fines or loss of license if they don't take steps to verify the identities of their customers and to avoid being used for money laundering.

Through his immersion in the global underground, Kerry made connections among disparate criminal and terrorist groups that few other senators interested in foreign policy were making in the 90's. Richard A. Clarke, who coordinated security and counterterrorism policy for George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, credits Kerry with having seen beyond the national-security tableau on which most of his colleagues were focused. "He was getting it at the same time that people like Tony Lake were getting it, in the '93 -'94 time frame," Clarke says, referring to Anthony Lake, Clinton's national security adviser. "And the 'it' here was that there was a new nonstate-actor threat, and that nonstate-actor threat was a blended threat that didn't fit neatly into the box of organized criminal, or neatly into the box of terrorism. What you found were groups that were all of the above."

In other words, Kerry was among the first policy makers in Washington to begin mapping out a strategy to combat an entirely new kind of enemy. Americans were conditioned, by two world wars and a long standoff with a rival superpower, to see foreign policy as a mix of cooperation and tension between civilized states. Kerry came to believe, however, that Americans were in greater danger from the more shadowy groups he had been investigating--nonstate actors, armed with cellphones and laptops--who might detonate suitcase bombs or release lethal chemicals into the subway just to make a point. They lived in remote regions and exploited weak governments. Their goal wasn't to govern states but to destabilize them.

The challenge of beating back these nonstate actors--not just Islamic terrorists but all kinds of rogue forces--is what Kerry meant by "the dark side of globalization." He came closest to articulating this as an actual foreign-policy vision in a speech he gave at U.C.L.A. last February. "The war on terror is not a clash of civilizations," he said then. "It is a clash of civilization against chaos, of the best hopes of humanity against dogmatic fears of progress and the future."


Kerry's view [...] suggests that it is the very premise of civilized states, rather than any one ideology, that is under attack. And no one state, acting alone, can possibly have much impact on the threat, because terrorists will always be able to move around, shelter their money and connect in cyberspace; there are no capitals for a superpower like the United States to bomb, no ambassadors to recall, no economies to sanction. The U.S. military searches for bin Laden, the Russians hunt for the Chechen terrorist Shamil Basayev and the Israelis fire missiles at Hamas bomb makers; in Kerry's world, these disparate terrorist elements make up a loosely affiliated network of diabolical villains, more connected to one another by tactics and ideology than they are to any one state sponsor. The conflict, in Kerry's formulation, pits the forces of order versus the forces of chaos, and only a unified community of nations can ensure that order prevails.


This critical difference between the two men running for the presidency, over what kind of enemy we are fighting and how best to defeat it, is at the core of a larger debate over how the United States should involve itself in the Muslim world. Bush and Kerry are in agreement, as is just about every expert on Islamic culture you can find, that in order for Americans to live and travel securely, the United States must change the widespread perception among many Muslims worldwide that America is morally corrupt and economically exploitative. It is this resentment, felt especially strongly among Arab Muslims, that makes heroes of suicide bombers. The question vexing the foreign-policy establishment in Washington is how you market freedom. Is the establishment of a single, functioning democracy in the Middle East enough to win the "hearts and minds" of ordinary Muslims, by convincing them that America is in fact the model for a free, more open society? Or do you need to somehow strike at the underlying conditions--despotism, hopelessness, economic and social repression--that breed fundamentalism and violence in the first place?


Bush crystallized the new incarnation of this idea in his convention speech last month, notable for the unapologetic sweep and clarity of its vision. "The terrorists know that a vibrant, successful democracy at the heart of the Middle East will discredit their radical ideology of hate," the president said. "I believe in the transformational power of liberty. As the citizens of Afghanistan and Iraq seize the moment, their example will send a message of hope throughout a vital region. Palestinians will hear the message that democracy and reform are within their reach, and so is peace with our good friend Israel. Young women across the Middle East will hear the message that their day of equality and justice is coming. Young men will hear the message that national progress and dignity are found in liberty, not tyranny and terror."

Kerry, too, envisions a freer and more democratic Middle East. But he flatly rejects the premise of viral democracy, particularly when the virus is introduced at gunpoint. "In this administration, the approach is that democracy is the automatic, easily embraced alternative to every ill in the region," he told me. Kerry disagreed. "You can't impose it on people," he said. "You have to bring them to it. You have to invite them to it. You have to nurture the process."

Those who know Kerry say this belief is in part a reaction to his own experience in Vietnam, where one understanding of the domino theory ("if Vietnam goes communist, all of Asia will fall") led to the death of 58,000 Americans, and another ("the South Vietnamese crave democracy") ran up against the realities of life in a poor, long-war-ravaged country.


[Delaware Senator Joseph] Biden, who is perhaps Kerry's closest friend in the Senate, suggests that Kerry sees Bush's advisers as beholden to the same grand and misguided theories. "John and I never believed that, if you were successful in Iraq, you'd have governments falling like dominoes in the Middle East," he told me. "The neo-cons of today are 'the best and the brightest' who brought us Vietnam. They have taken a construct that's flawed and applied it to a world that isn't relevant."

In fact, Kerry and his advisers contend that the occupation of Iraq is creating a reverse contagion in the region; they say the fighting--with its heavy civilian casualties and its pictures, beamed throughout the Arab world, of American aggression--has been a boon to Al Qaeda recruiters. They frequently cite a Pentagon memo, leaked to the media last year, in which Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld wondered whether Al Qaeda was recruiting new terrorists faster than the U.S. military could capture or kill them.


If forced democracy is ultimately Bush's panacea for the ills that haunt the world, as Kerry suggests it is, then Kerry's is diplomacy. Kerry mentions the importance of cooperating with the world community so often that some of his strongest supporters wish he would ease up a bit. ("When people hear multilateral, they think multi-mush," Biden despaired.) But multilateralism is not an abstraction to Kerry, whose father served as a career diplomat during the years after World War II. The only time I saw Kerry truly animated during two hours of conversation was when he talked about the ability of a president to build relationships with other leaders.

"We need to engage more directly and more respectfully with Islam, with the state of Islam, with religious leaders, mullahs, imams, clerics, in a way that proves this is not a clash with the British and the Americans and the old forces they remember from the colonial days," Kerry told me during a rare break from campaigning, in Seattle at the end of August. "And that's all about your diplomacy."

When I suggested that effecting such changes could take many years, Kerry shook his head vehemently and waved me off.

"Yeah, it is long-term, but it can be dramatically effective in the short term. It really can be. I promise you." He leaned his head back and slapped his thighs. "A new presidency with the right moves, the right language, the right outreach, the right initiatives, can dramatically alter the world's perception of us very, very quickly.


Kerry's view, that the 21st century will be defined by the organized world's struggle against agents of chaos and lawlessness, might be the beginning of a compelling vision. The idea that America and its allies, sharing resources and using the latest technologies, could track the movements of terrorists, seize their bank accounts and carry out targeted military strikes to eliminate them, seems more optimistic and more practical than the notion that the conventional armies of the United States will inevitably have to punish or even invade every Islamic country that might abet radicalism.

And yet, you can understand why Kerry has been so tentative in advancing this idea. It's comforting to think that Al Qaeda might be as easily marginalized as a bunch of drug-running thugs, that an "effective" assault on its bank accounts might cripple its twisted campaign against Americans. But Americans are frightened--an emotion that has benefited Bush, and one that he has done little to dissuade--and many of them perceive a far more existential threat to their lives than the one Kerry describes. In this climate, Kerry's rather dry recitations about money-laundering laws and intelligence-sharing agreements can sound oddly discordant. We are living at a time that feels historically consequential, where people seem to expect--and perhaps deserve--a theory of the world that matches the scope of their insecurity.

Posted by pk at 9:00 AM

October 9, 2004

Sick Boy

Looks like Ben's got a mild ear infection in the wake of a cold he had a few weeks ago. Lots of crying today, followed up with a visit to the doc.

I'll admit it… I called him "The Boy Doctor" the first time we took Ben in for a checkup, but he's alright after all. He has a very good manner, and he's got less razor burn than the first time we met him. That razor burn had given off a sort of "just learning to shave" vibe I didn't dig.

The whole "doctor visit with sick baby" thing is pretty frustrating if a person doesn't pick up at the office.

IMG_3778_001.thumb.jpgYou have to navigate a voice mail system that wants to offer every single option but the one that might be something like "If your child is sick and you're pretty worried because this is a first and his crying has rendered you incapable of concentrating long enough to tie your own shoelaces, let alone sit through a lengthy voice mail menu read into the phone by someone who thinks that you probably need a lesson in calming down because the world won't end if we take a minute or two to get to option 9, press 1 over and over and over until we decide to answer … keep pressing… you haven't had enough… go on… press again… his crying isn't so bad… press it again, damn your eyes!"

Then you go to the office and the receptionist doesn't like the idea of saying 'Same insurance as before?' and going off the file… she wants the insurance card, and wants to make a copy, and wants to make more copies, and wants to HOLD THE CARD UP AND EXAMINE IT AN INCH FROM HER NOSE because… hell… I don't know why. She took forever. And she had a sour look while she did it.

The doctor was fine, though.

The office pharmacist was another slow one… evidently the brother of the receptionist to judge from their shared sluggishness. No way to impart a sense of urgency. I left Al and Ben in the lobby and sat by his dispensary window tapping my foot while his assistant dealt with a Chinese man who didn't say his name clearly enough for her to understand, so she refused to ask again out of some sort of embarrassment or timidity and instead asked the pharmacist which prescription was for "an Asian guy." Moment of panic on my part as I realized there were two "Asian guys" sitting around outside, but the pharmacist had a moment of clarity about how close his "helper" was to poisoning two innocent men and pushed his assistant aside to untangle the matter.

Al eventually came back from the lobby with Ben, who started crying again, and that seemed to impart the urgency needed for the pharmacist to finish the prescription. Can't have sick kids sitting around crying and breaking the tranquility of a slow Saturday afternoon. Especially not with all those Asian guys wandering around taking each others' prescriptions home.

Ben's fine, by the way. We got him some motrin drops, which seemed to help, and he slept in our arms for a good chunk of the afternoon. He hasn't done that much since he was tiny, and it's a wonderful feeling holding him like that. Once he woke up from his nap, he was giggling and trilling again, which was also wonderful to hear.

We also bought a Diaper Genie today. We had a no-name diaper disposal thing, but it was awful and we hated it. Today we bought the brand. Expect pictures, because the sight of a sausage-link-like string of diapers six feet long is sure to be impressive.

Handy baby shower "Tip for Mom" from the Diaper Genie people:

Use the Diaper Genie® pail as a funny, but appropriately themed, centerpiece for the table! Take a clean, new Diaper Genie® and fill the top with flowers. Decorate the sides with stickers, paint or glue on magazine cut-outs!

Or tell the mom-to-be that the friendship is over by giving her your old one, still smeared with poo and reeking of last night's "puree of summer squash and spinach" as processed by junior.

Either way, laughs all around!

p.s. The Ben gallery has been updated a bit.

Posted by mph at 11:04 PM

October 8, 2004

The pamphlets are here! The pamphlets are here!

Good to see the Oregon voters' pamphlets arrive in the mail today. Al and I are planning to sit down and have a pamphlet night so we're ready when our ballots arrive in the mail (which is about ten days away).

It's also good there's at least a little playful detournement going on in the "for and against" section of the pamphlet dealing with constitutional amendment 36. (Click that sample to read a prime example, but there are others.)

I don't have a ton more to say at this point, except to note that the drift of the "for" arguments (there are 10 pages of them) seems to be that this is a matter of "common sense" and teaching "elitist liberals" a lesson in democracy. There are 14 pages of "against" arguments, but I haven't read them very closely yet, either.

It seems that if Oregon's in play this year on the presidential election front, it might be because of the unfortunate energizing effect this particular matter had on right wing voters. Some have made the argument that this wedge was created at the national level, with constitutional amendment 36 being a consequence of things besides Multnomah County's own queer marriage initiatives, but others believe the way in which the matter was handled locally stirred the push to get this on the ballot.

It certainly seems that the issue has largely disappeared from national debate, but I'm not enough of a political analyst (not one at all, really) to have an opinion on whether the fact it came up at all was a matter of the right merely setting things in motion without wanting to campaign over them too stridently, or if it was something that was considered as a useful wedge issue, then pushed to the rear as better red meat issues presented themselves.

This will go down as a year of bad choices.

I believe the commissioners acted on conscience, but they did so in a context of broader concerns, at a point where angering a particular voting bloc into mobilizing more than might be normal could have an effect on more races than the local ones.

Related Pudding:

Posted by mph at 12:15 PM

October 4, 2004

Sunday Afternoon

Sunday was a good day for thinking. Maybe not a lot of conclusions, but some thinking.


Yesterday we went to the second service at the Unitarian church downtown. My first-ever Unitarian service, and a look at a kind of church I didn't ever see when I was going as a kid.

I went in fairly free of preconception. Al stopped me from putting on a jacket and tie, telling me I'd be pretty overdressed (it wouldn't have been that bad) so I switched to my nicest guayabera. But the service was pretty much the kind of service I've seen in any other church: invocation... offertory... doxology... sharing of joys and concerns... children's time (which is used to move the children off to "religious education," which is a minor shift from the Sunday-school-then-service pattern)... then a moment of silence and a sermon. Hymns scattered in the midst of it.

The only things that really indicated to me that I wasn't in a standard, mainline Protestant service would probably have to be the lack of any overt religious symbols in the sanctuary (that I could spot, anyhow) and the minister's mention that the children's "religious education" would be moving through a period where it focused on "our Judeo-Christian history." And the bulletin mentioned a class in the Bhagavad-Gita, but without any comment on how it was being taught.

The other thing that caught my eye was a Thursday meeting with members of the church board so they can explain their reasoning behind coming out with a statement against constitutional amendment 36 to members of the church. I'm thinking about going. (Sidenote: Unlike Sven and Gretchin's, my "No on 36" sign has lasted for a few weeks. We even bought a spare in case something happened to the first one, but so far so good. Our neighborhood's like that, I guess.)

I suppose I want to go because I'm curious about whether they'll address what they plan to do if the amendment passes and we do get a fully heterosexual definition of marriage written into the state constitution. Will they conduct unlicensed marriages in defiance of the law as a matter of conscience?

I guess another reason it seems useful to go is because of a nagging sense I've got that one of the things we're (we in a societal sense) losing is a collective agreement on the existence of "people of good will who disagree with us." That's been rattling around in my head for several weeks now, since reading Phil Agre's "What is Conservatism and What is Wrong With It?" several weeks ago. Everyone I know probably doesn't want to hear about it anymore, but it's still bobbing up and down in the front of my thoughts. Especially this paragraph:

Liberalism is a movement of conscience. Liberals speak endlessly of conscience. Yet conservative rhetors have taken to acting as if they owned the language of conscience. They even routinely assert that liberals disparage conscience. The magnitude of the falsehood here is so great that decent people have been set back on their heels.

[...] The flamboyant nastiness of rhetors such as Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter represents the destruction of conscience as a type of liberation. They are like cultists, continually egging on their audiences to destroy their own minds by punching through one layer after another of their consciences.

Agre has keyed into something that has consistently bugged me, but that I hadn't figured out how to articulate for myself.

The corrosive secondary effect of that assault on conscience, besides serving to marginalize people acting on a different set of principles, is the self-demonization of people who perceive "morality" and "goodness" to have become the property of a narrow collection of bigoted fundamentalists who presume to judge others' faith. Those bigoted fundamentalists make it difficult to speak about moral or ethical behavior without invoking notions of abstemious piety and literal-minded intolerance of dissent. That's a side matter, and I haven't really gotten around to articulating it very well, so I'll leave it be.

It seems useful to go because I want to see faith communities (this afternoon Phil called them "communities of conscience," which is better) that aren't on that side.


That side has been very much on my mind lately.

I think the reaction to Bush's poor performance at last week's debate is what got the wheels turning... the way people on conservative Web sites were in denial about his shoddy performance (not across the board... some were pretty game about the whole thing), as if there's ever been any doubt that Bush in a formal debate setting is worse than a fish out of water.

I read some commentator somewhere noting the way it'll be very hard for people who backed Bush early on to climb down from positions they were maintaining with great stridency. Yeah. It will be hard. Most of them won't do it. Bush was the guy who acted when they were at their most afraid. I knew people like him (and like his believers) in the army, too: Something goes wrong, and the first guy to wave his arms and run around yelling usually gets the most social traction. People are funny that way. And if you came in second in the "running around waving your arms and barking orders" running, pointing out that the guy who beat you to it probably messed something up just gets you a huffy "At least I did something." Sort of like Bush in that debate. And like his backers. "At least he did something."

But I haven't been engaging on that front much.

Phil sent me some links from writing I did last year. I was pretty surprised at myself. It was pre-Ben, so I had more time and probably more energy, but I engaged in a manner I just haven't in a while:

If you needed any more evidence that these people are nauseatingly false when they solemnly acknowledge the horror of war before beating its drums, this is pretty much it. Having destroyed Iraq's government and thrown the country into chaos, our responsibility is to fix the damned place, not use it as bait in a "plan" I suspect is primarily a fever dream of hack commentators who can't admit that Bush & Co. had no exit strategy. Sullivan, no doubt, thinks he's demonstrating more of that "steely resolve" a civilian with no input into foreign policy and at no particular risk from dying in the conflicts he incites must demonstrate.

So if I could be that strident a year ago, why not now? I noticed a moment of genuine outrage yesterday when I heard a piece of Bush's stump speech. Here it is as quoted by Slate:

He [John Kerry] said that America has to pass a global test before we can use American troops to defend ourselves. That's what he said. Think about this. Sen. Kerry's approach to foreign policy would give foreign governments veto power over our national security decisions.

So all the blood rushed to my head because I watched the debate and knew he didn't say any such thing. The rest of the Slate item pretty much makes the case. The charitable interpretations we could apply to the president... that he's surrounded by Svengalis... that he's the feeble boy prince with wicked and domineering advisors... that he cuts corners to keep things simple because he's kind of simple, but that he's still relating the world as he knows it... have to go out the window.

The man is lying. He got his ass kicked in the debate, so he's gone skulking back to his fans to lap up a little adoration for something even more petty than representing "I should've saids" as things he actually said. He's inventing "He should've saids" for his opponent. And he's treating his supporters with contempt.

So I let myself get a little angry over that.


Getting angry isn't something I like to do much. I remember when I used to go looking for reasons to get angry. Not "go hit someone" angry. Just "ineffectually outraged." It made me sort of sour and preachy and difficult... along with judgmental, hostile, and snide. Can't leave those out.

So for a while, after a few formative experiences I don't choose to relate, I got over being angry so often. It was a good move. I wasn't doing anything... I was just stewing. But I took from that a certain distrust of people who get angry when I'm not sure their anger is doing them any good. Or rather, I distrust strangers I sense get angry easily, and I become disappointed with friends when I think they're indulging anger needlessly, or to no effect. Maybe it's because I associate anger with a sort of weakness or failure. I know I think of my own irritable years as a period of weakness.

And it's not that I think anger is bad all the time. Some of those formative experiences I alluded to included learning that anger can make will tangible in a thick, humming, vibrates-in-the-air sort of way. Sometimes you need to get angry.

All the same, I mistrust anger. I mistrust myself when I feel myself getting angry. Sometimes I channel it into something else, as when the Abu Ghraib story broke and I found myself thinking "I wore the uniform those soldiers besmirched, and I hate them worse than any civilian who thinks he hates those soldiers could possibly know." The anger gave way to a different kind of misery, shame, and sadness.


So I've watched the swaggering this administration has indulged in... everything from the reductionist lying of this past week to Paul Wolfowitz declaring that a disgruntled Special Forces commander could come "tell it to [his] face," to the public destruction of Colin Powell's credibility in the name of an ill-conceived, poorly planned rush to war, to a mounting list of people who face character assassination and professional compromise for daring to speak the truth as they know it.

I won't dignify it with a link, but I note this evening that someone's still out there trying to make the case that Kerry's Vietnam service wasn't so great. And another piece of reading I've been working on is going through my head: George Lakoff's "don't think of an elephant!" reminds me that in addition to annihilating the conscience or monopolizing the discourse surrounding morality, ethics, and conscience, the conservative movement has truly mastered the art of the beneficial draw: They don't need to win, and they're often happy to not win. It's usually enough for them to raise enough doubt to keep the foot soldiers in line and perhaps neutralize the matter for the swings and undecideds.

An example:

The Swifties are going for broke in their shameless slurs of a fellow veteran, but they don't need to do anything more than plant doubt. No one wants any more than that. Just enough doubt for someone who's asleep to cock an eye, murmur to himself that there was something about that Kerry lying about getting his medals or something like that, and snuggle back under the covers until November.

But the Swifties are the most petty of the list, and sort of pathetic when compared to an administration that exploits a fearful populace to suit the assorted agendas of militarist utopians, backwards would-be theocrats, corporate shills, and millenarian thugs.

An angry reaction to all that still won't do me any good. It might make me write more passionately, but not much else at this point. I can't really vote furiously. I could, but it might render the ballot illegible. But another thing I've realized in the past few weeks is how much absorption with my home and family... my "mom, dad, baby boy" family... has caused me to keep up less than I used to, and made me more timid about uncorking with the opinions because I haven't taken the time to suss out all the angles and don't know if the mad I'm committing to is even, you know, still within its shelf life.


So yesterday afternoon, after coming home from church, Ben took a nap and Al and I watched "Spellbound", which is a documentary about spelling bee contestants at the national bee. Being a spelling bee washout myself (on the morning of bee day at the school, I went to the nurse's office claiming sickness, but she knew I was in the spelling bee and told me to leave her office unless I was really sick, so I went up and bombed in the first round), I felt for the kids who got eliminated, and I knew why they looked relieved when they walked off the stage.

People have made a lot of the suspense the movie generates, but I kept coming back to the children themselves. There's something about the bright-eyed vulnerability of junior high kids. They probably know to act jaded in their own circles, but in front of the camera and surrounded by adults, an essential sweetness comes out.

I put Ben in his backpack carrier and we took a walk up Mt. Tabor while Al caught a nap. I was hoping for a glimpse of Mt. St. Helens from the park at the top, but it was far too hazy. So we just enjoyed the walk.

Ben liked it whenever I stopped under a tree to take a picture of the leaves. I could see the shadow of his little hands reaching up to touch them while I'd fiddle with the camera, trying to capture that incredible, radiant, living luminosity a changing leaf has when it's not yet dried out, but its colors have changed and the sunlight is hitting it just right. I'm content to not be good enough to really capture that yet, because I have a few pictures that are close enough that I know what I was feeling and seeing when I shot them. Then I'd start walking again, I'd listen for the sounds that would tell me he'd managed to grab a leaf from a low branch, and I'd reach back to get it from him before he could eat it.

Ben chatters a lot on those walks. (If you've got QuickTime, I've got a movie you can watch from one of the last times we took him out in the backpack.) It's a sweet, contented sound. Some moments, I wish the walk wouldn't have to end, but it does, and there's something also very nice about bringing him home and playing with him for a while after, because it feels like the day has been just like that moment all day long.


And that's about that. No real beginning and no real end. Sunday was a good day that stretched out all over the place. And for as much as standing in the golden light of a changing tree or feeling Ben's hands on my neck as I carry him would push all the thoughts of what's not right away, they also demanded some thinking, which I did.

And because I spent so long confusing the act of being angry with "action," and because that instilled in me a certain resistance to even getting angry once I realized how foolish it was to think that my anger was doing something, it was useful to think about all that from a quiet remove and realize that giving up my yearning for a clattering, grinding, tearing, angry confrontation with Them ... that side... doesn't mean I've given up my right to say "You people need to stop this." They do need to stop. We need to stop them.

Posted by mph at 11:04 PM

October 1, 2004

Defective Star Wars DVD Replacement Details

I bought the Star Wars Trilogy on DVD a few days ago and took it home fairly pumped. I stayed that way right up until the scene where the Death Star blows up Alderaan (sorry for the spoiler), which consistently locked up or reset my DVD player.

I took the set back to Fred Meyer, where the clerk told me they were out of widescreen editions. So I checked back today and the clerk told me they're not only out of widescreen editions, but that other people have been complaining about the same scene (which occurs in Chapter 26). So a little googling netted me a lot more complaining from others with the same problem. One BestBuy clerk reported 50 returns on the first day the set was out.

A little more digging netted me a phone number: 888-223-2FOX. That's the Fox customer service line, which is taking names and addresses for a mass replacement disc mailing. The person on the other end of the phone told me they're still waiting for replacements to arrive, hopefully early next week.

If you're a true audiophile and have a decent sound system, maybe you'll want to skip the whole thing. It sounds like Lucasfilm hosed up the audio, reversing the rear soundtrack channel.

Posted by mph at 2:34 PM