Friday, November 30, 2007

Of Teenagers, Despots, Truth, and Strength

Forget about a YouTube presidential debate. Let's have a presidential debate with questions asked by teenagers.

Teenagers are keenly observant and have excellent bullshit detectors. That's why the youth center where I work had our teenaged members conduct the job interviews for our new teen coordinator, asking their own questions and giving us their assessments of the applicants.

That is also why, in a high school auditorium in New Hampshire last week, Barack Obama was asked whether he ever tried drugs. This was not just a question about marijuana. Teenagers ask frank questions to measure your willingness to level with them.

In 1992, when Bill Clinton was running for president, he spun one of his most infamous Clintonisms: "When I was in England, I experimented with marijuana a time or two, and didn't like it. I didn't inhale and I didn't try it again." If anyone in America bought this story, they weren't teenagers.

Here's Obama's answer in November 2007: "There were times when I got into drinking, experimenting with drugs. There was a stretch of time where I did not really apply myself...It's not something I'm proud of. It was a mistake as a young man."

So - he inhaled, right? "The point was to inhale. That was the point."

This is a good answer for reasons having nothing to do with marijuana. A candidate for president is asked a question about personal indiscretions, he admits to one while omitting unseemly details, and treats it as a teaching moment for young people instead of making some cheesy evasion.

During campaigns, I watch the candidates for clues about how they would address their constituents and how they view leadership. To what extent might this respectful and candid answer, uttered before a room of teenagers, say something about how Obama views the presidency?

A Republican candidate, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, might have revealed something of himself when he commented about Obama's answer about marijuana:

"I agree with the sentiment that nobody's perfect and most of us, if not all of us, in our youthful years have engaged in various indiscretions we wouldn't want to have paraded in the front of a newspaper. On the other hand if we're running for president, I think it's important for us not to go into details about the weaknesses and our own failings as young people for the concern that we open kids thinking that it's ok for them."

Mitt Romney's campaign theme is strength, strength, strength. He will be the toughest on drugs, on immigration, on security, on terrorists. He's campaigning to be elected America's strongman. He remarked on Obama's dialogue by saying a candidate should not be too candid about their past - and, presumably, he felt Obama was being too candid.

Romney the Strong is revealing the ragged edge of his views on what is "presidential." It might not be "unpresidential" to make mistakes in youth, but it is definitely NOT "presidential" to admit to them. Of his own indiscretions, not that he was admitting to any, he said he would adopt President Bush's strategy of silence.

He didn't say that in front of teens. Teens would have rolled their eyes at him. Teenagers know well that when an adult says, "I tried marijuana and it sucks, don't do it," they are not endorsing it. You can fool a teen once you've earned their trust, but they're not this dumb.

I'm not suggesting that the presidential candidates should clutter up the fake debates with personal exposees - please, no. I am only noting that one of candidates for president does not view candidness and honesty (when coupled with a positive message) as a "presidential" quality.

Romney the Strong would prefer to cover up the traces of inconstancy, of flaws and weakness. The President must be Strong. Presumably, this would apply more urgently while serving as President. Presumably, mistakes would also need to be covered over, kept from Congress and the public. Errors in judgment or military strategy, violations of international conventions, measures that violate the Constitution, might also have to be covered over so that the Strong President can do what needs to be done.

It is especially interesting, coming from Romney, since he has famously changed his mind about a number of issues. And I would hope so! Having lived longer, raised a family, and held a number of important positions in the private sector and in government, we should only expect that he has learned things and altered his opinions accordingly. But you won't catch Romney the Strong admitting he was wrong in the past or explaining to an interested public how, as a reasonable person, he came to change his mind. That, we assume, is not "presidential." ?

Teenagers have other reasons to turn away from Romney, but independently of that, I think they would smell a strong whiff of tyranny in these statements by Romney the Strong. Certainly I do.

Please, let us not have another "infallible President." Let us not have a leader who confuses strength with secrecy and control. No more of that. Let us have a leader who equates strength with accountability and upholds the truth. If Obama is such a man, let's sit down with our teenagers and listen to him together.

And whatever happens, ask the teens what they think. That means a lot to them.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Please Don't Slam The Door

At the center where I work, I share a bungalow known as "the trailer" with a staff of seven: the Executive Director, the development team, and another director. This trailer is also where the photocopy machine, the color printer, and the postage machine all live. We see a lot of human traffic throughout the day, people darting in and out, very often in a hurry.

This is what our day sounds like:




KA-BLAM!! people slam the door in and out, all day long.

The slamming breaks everybody's concentration and barks everybody's nerves. Hard to write grants and interview volunteers and everything else we do while the building is shaking and lamps are wobbling on our desks as if the blue line train had veered from its course and slammed into us.

It bothers Scott the most, so naturally he is the one who took the initiative and posted the sign on the door:

Please don't slam me.

-The Door

As he explained to many visitors, the door often slams so hard that the lamp on his desk shakes and threatens to fall. The possibility concerns him greatly. That lamp is poised to fall at any moment - one hopes there won't be an earthquake.

Anyway, here's what our day sounded like after he posted the note:





* * *

Since that didn't work out, I tried an email. A short, friendly, funny email that worked in a suggestion right out of Thich Nhat Hanh: maybe use the door as a reminder to slow down, take a breath, and proceed mindfully. Can't hurt, and might even be good for your life. Was it Thomas Merton who was asked what he had learned first in the monastery, and he said, "How to close a door?" Well, someone said that - and how wonderful it is. That was a good monastery.

Here's what our day sounded like after my beautiful email reached the staff:





* * *

At this point, Scott announced a strategy of shame. When someone slammed the door, he would announce them on the intercom. Within minutes, he was calling people out.





And so it continued.

To be completely honest, it is easy to slam this door unintentionally. The trailer is not the sturdiest of structures - more of a temporary structure. The door is as solid as any of the walls. It doesn't take more than an extra footpound of energy in the wrist or fingers to slam that door, and any one of us in the development trailer is liable to slam it in the haste of a moment.

Which means that inevitably, on his way out to another part of the center, Scott slammed the door.

And I did what had to be done:


As the staff laughed, the trailer door slowly swung open. Scott stood in the frame. He gazed sharp, flaming daggers at me, a gunslinger ready to draw, and he said: "Did I slam the door?"

Unanimous assent: he had definitely slammed the door.

Scott said, "Well. I owe you all an apology. And I owe this door an apology, most of all. Dear door, dear colleagues, dear center, I apologize from the bottom of my heart." And with this song of contrition concluded, Scott turned on his heel and departed once more...

...SLAMMING the door as hard as he could.

So, once again, I did what had to be done.

When Scott returned to his office, he found his desk lamp overturned and lying on its side, light beaming upward, a ray of dust particles glowing.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007


Back in September, I began a series of blogs about this year's Burning Man festival out in the Black Rock Desert of Nevada.

There were memoirs here, here and here. My car even had a say about its experience. If you were here, you may remember reading about the interesting weather and some of the mischief I got up to.

And then there was the art, including a few pieces I photographed and described here. There was the explosive notoriety of this project, for instance, and the pure fun of climbing around on this towering sculpture.

Well, there's more, and I don't want to let too much time go by without telling you about a few more pieces, and sharing some pictures. Today, let's have a look at Peter Hudson's Humouroboros. And remember to click on the pictures for a larger view.

* * *

As a child, you may have played with a zoetrope. It sat on a table top, you lined the inside of the top part with a strip of paper with pictures on it, then you spun the top and peered through the slots to watch an animated image of horses running, or oil derricks davvening away, or whatever. The earliest animated cartoons came to us by way of zoetropes.

Humouroboros was placed way out on the playa, so that as you made the approach you were impressed by a free-standing metal tree, vaguely umbrella-shaped, whose "fruit" was a team of identical chimpanzees that clung to each branch.

This piece is really meant to be enjoyed at night, but by day you can enjoy the construction and design of the piece. Each monkey clung to a branch, and each branch had a green "snake" with a hand for a head, clinging to an apple. When viewed in zoetrope effect, the snakes wind progressively down the branches toward the chimps, crawl into the mouth of the chimp, and are swallowed.

At the base of the tree, there was a station of drums meant to be played. Late in the week, the drum heads had been smashed in, repaired with duct tape, and smashed in again. Here I am surveying the damage:

Suspended over each drum, hanging at eye level, were monkey masks for the drummers to wear while they banged away:

Finally, the tree was surrounded by several stationary bicycles:

This being Burning Man, when you see a bicycle on the playa, you are expected to get on and pedal, just to see what happens. When enough people got on the bicycles surrounding the Humouroboros, the tree began to rotate. As the rotation got up to a certain speed, strobe lights were activated. The motion and the strobe lighting created an animated scene of monkeys swinging from the trees as the serpents wound down the branches and down the chimps' throats. Ideally, while this happened people would be drumming furiously while wearing the monkey masks.

The video quality (which someone graciously posted on YouTube) cannot approach how much fun it was to view this scene in person, among the other revellers, but at least you get a sense of how it worked.

This piece was enormously popular, and there was often a party atmosphere hanging around the "monkey tree," as it was commonly known. Last I heard, Humouroboros was headed for the after-Burning-Man event known as Decompression, as it would be a serious contender for most popular piece of Burning Man 2007.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

That Was Thanksgiving

We took a road trip for Thanksgiving and we overdid things a bit. No, not the food; I mean the driving. For a few days, we spent the majority of our time in the car, which is a silly way to pass a holiday: more time spent "getting there" than "being there."

First we drove to Deming, New Mexico and arrived in time to sit down and eat Thanksgiving dinner with my fiance's family. We were welcomed by her parents, her brother and sisters, and the most enormous German shepherd I have ever seen.

No, I mean truly. There are dogs so large they almost become not dogs anymore. You don't treat them the way you treat regular dogs. When a dog is of a size that it could swallow a Great Dane, we're not in dog territory anymore. This German shepherd in Deming, this is a dog that can fetch aircraft carriers. This is a dog you have to look up at to say hello. This is a dog whose paws are occasionally checked for missing toolsheds it may have stomped on. As some dogs bury bones, this dog buries cars in the backyard. When we arrived and got our bags from the car trunk, I thought I saw another lunar eclipse and realized that couldn't be right. Then I felt a bucketful of warm, happy slobber hit the brim of my hat and realized this was no eclipse.

Her name is Molly. And I am told she is still growing.

We sat down to dinner, and the house was warmed by the dog laying down around the entire house and engulfing it in fur. Sarah's mom prepared a surprise for me, a special vegetarian entree alongside the turkey and green bean casserole and stuffing and traditional Thanksgiving whatnot: fresh, spicy, home-made cheese enchiladas, armed with the hottest local chile peppers. The gesture brought tears to my eyes and a sniffle to my nose - not so much because of the sentiment, although that was surely appreciated, but because these were hot New Mexico chile peppers. And the sauce was delicious, which prompted me to keep eating, until my breath was starting to ignite the candles on the table.

Does this place have chile peppers? Deming is very close to Hatch, known internationally as The Valley of Scorched Tongues when its annual chile pepper festival inflates the village's population from 1,600 to 30,000 for one week. The place is a riot of hot red peppers hanging from every storefront, as we saw when drove through Hatch the following morning.

I had some business in Santa Fe and spent another five hours in the car, rolling up into big, fat flakes of warm snow falling on Albuquerque and Santa Fe. My appointment in Santa Fe consisted of coffee, a hot bowl of soup, and a conversation that took about 90 minutes. We had planned on taking a leisurely stroll through the Plaza but it was turning out not to be that kind of day, as the snow fell and fell. So we just got back into the car and headed back to California, that long drive across New Mexico, up up up into Flagstaff, back down another side and into the mojave desert.

So there you have it! A holiday reminding us about the beginnings of American life, spent the way so many Americans spend modern life: footloose, car-dependent, more time spent in transit than in being, yet happy to be among family, food, and an enormous, loving dog.
That was our holiday - thanks for reading.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Hitting The Road - See You All On Sunday

We're going for a little ride to New Mexico. It's Thanksgiving, you know.

Enjoy this while I'm away.... (No, I am not the musician. But I love ukuleles.)

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Foggy Basin Breakdown

Another morning of dense coastal fog has wrapped the city up in a cold grey blanket. LAX has shut down a couple of runways. The Burbank airport, which is where you really want to fly in and out of Los Angeles, was shut down for yesterday.

The roads have been perilous, even more so because Angelenos do not change their driving habits in response to bad weather. This is why, almost every day, you can flip on the radio and hear about traffic fatalities on one of the freeways - especially in wet and foggy weather. By the way, you must have a look at this hilarious local road rage blog. Local drivers are menaces under ideal conditions. Decrease the visibility or slick up the roads, and you have a high speed melee right out of the Mad Max movies.

Foggy mornings were once my favorite kind of morning to walk around in the woods near the monastery back at Providence Zen Center. They make a good walk here in the city, too, especially during this time when I live near Griffith Park, but my mornings have been stumbly, clattering around in an internal fog that is resistant even to very strong coffee.

My fiance prepares for her day in a storm of activity, as she has been sleeping later in recent days, and as she climbs into her own road warrior to brave the interstate, there is a moment of quiet where my body finally feels warm and it is time for me to face the gauntlet, pick a route, and drive into South Central.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Need Some Laughter?

Have a good week.

Saturday, November 17, 2007


The word refers to "guests" in Aramaic, and an Israeli movie by that title gives an American viewer a most hospitable welcome to a Breslover neighborhood in Jerusalem. The simple genius of the film is how this joyous comedy about nightmarish guests at Sukkot actually turns the viewer into an honored guest in the home of a Hasidic family devoted to Torah and prayer.

Ushpizin (2004) was written by its lead actor, Shuli Rand, who was an acclaimed artist in Israel before he became devoutly religious in 1996. Rand struggled with this dual commitment, and did not appear on screen for eight years: until he starred, in this film, as the put-upon yeshiva student Moshe Bellanga. Rand would not play opposite a woman other than his real wife, and thus Mrs. Michal Bat Sheva Rand made her acting debut playing Bellanga's devoted and fiery wife.

The plot has the qualities of a beautiful fable and is rich with comic possibilities. A rabbi and his wife, struggling through hard financial times, unable even to scrape together the shelter in which they must dwell for Sukkot, pray fervently for a miracle - and rejoice when an anonymous gift of cash comes through for them. Then a pair of escaped convicts show up and take full advantage of the couple's hospitality, where they are welcomed as "holy guests." The rascals wreak havoc with the ritual, the neighborhood, and the couple's marriage. Their faith and their relationship is tested as they wonder, in all sincerity, whether something is going terribly wrong or whether God is simply testing them.

As the shady buffoons get a gentle and understated education about Jewish devotion, Breslover-style (with direct and sincere prayer, forgiveness, humility, and explosive joy) - so do we. One of the most touching performances I have seen on camera is the scene in which Bellanga secludes himself to a park bench and speaks directly and conversationally with God in a monologue that was almost hard to watch for being so open-hearted and tender. A single moment of nakedness like that can sear a performance into your memory for a lifetime.

Indeed, prayer is very much a part of the story and the everyday life of these protagonists, who are ordinary and likeable people. It struck me as sad and foolish that Hollywood won't make movies about people like this. When Hollywood produces a religious movie, it's going to be a movie about Jesus or a television mini-series about Moses; or it will be Narnia since that has wider appeal.

But a movie about ordinary folks who pray every day, without treating prayer as something freakish or ridiculous? I haven't checked the listings today but I don't think that movie is playing at The Grove. As someone raised in a very secular household, who was not raised around open prayer, I am someone producers might worry about. Viewers like me might feel alienated and run away from a movie where prayer is endemic. Yet I did not feel alienated in the slightest. I felt like an honored quest.

Friday, November 16, 2007

About Magazine Subscriptions

Most of the time, I don't subscribe to magazines.

It's not that I don't like magazines. I love them. Here and there, for about a year at a time, I've subscribed to The Nation, The Atlantic, The Sun, Harper's, Parabola, and others that don't come to mind. Then there are the magazines I buy when I'm prowling bookstores: Glimmer Train, Poetry, Paris Review, Brick, Zzyzyva. I adore them all. Lately, I don't read them as much because I don't prowl bookstores as much.

This is why, we are told, we should subscribe! Subscribe and have the magazine delivered to your house, by gum, and you just might save money off the cover price in the bargain. Well, that sounds nice. It's a joy to receive a fresh new magazine in the day's mail, stuffed with good reading.

There is, however, a "man on the moon" question here. You know what I mean, right? These are questions prefaced with the phrase: "If we can put a man on the moon, why can't we....?" My man-on-the-moon question with respect to magazine subscriptions is, why are my magazine subscriptions always messed up?

For one thing, it seems like every magazine uses the same automated subscription service headquartered in Iowa. That's where your bills come from, and that's where you send your money. There seems to be one company doing the billing for all the magazines - and there is always a problem with my subscription.

  • Missed bills.

  • Double bills.

  • Double subscriptions (which means double billing, and the possibility of going into collections even though you've paid for a subscription).

  • Name problems, address problems.

  • Frequent billing for renewals - after I've renewed.

Recently I decided to subscribe to The Atlantic again. They just keep publishing articles I want to read, damn them. And the lunacy has begun right away: a couple of days after receiving my first issue, I get my first bill.

The bill says: "SECOND NOTICE" and relays a condescending message about how paying my subscription fee "must have slipped my mind."

Meanwhile, I've been trying to subscribe to their website to read the stuff they are putting up there. This appears to be a simple process: you just type in your 10-digit account number and your ZIP code. I can handle that. The problem is, the website looks over my 10-digit account number and tells me it doesn't recognize my subscription. It's sort of like the maitre d' who goes, "Hmmmm. I don't seem to have you on my list. Could it be under some other name, monsieur?"

So I wrote to the help desk: Hi. I put my 10-digit account number in correctly, but it doesn't recognize the account number and will not subscribe me to the website. Can you help?

And a few days later, I get this email back from them: Thank you for emailing us with your question. To subscribe, simply put in your 10-digit account number.

Are these magazine subscription people going to participate in the Iowa caucuses? If so, anything is liable to happen.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Why Campaigns and Small Flubs Matter

Part of me really belongs in New Hampshire. Especially when it comes to voting.

The voters of New Hampshire and Iowa enjoy a certain status, and as long as they take voting seriously they deserve the keep the honor. Those who take their time and have a good look at a candidate to get a measure of them as a person, are models for us.

My tendency is to look at how a candidate campaigns as a sample of how they might govern. This is not what we are taught to do: we are taught to hold our nose and shut our eyes to the sins committed on the campaign trail, which is called "silly season" by some. This is part of the larger and unspoken lesson, which is that popular campaigns don't really matter.

An example I have cited before comes from the 2000 election, when Governor Bush's campaign covertly mailed some very ugly flyers making some disgusting allegations about his rival, Senator McCain. The fliers questioned his wife's race and his own mental health. Really vile Karl Rove stuff. As the Republicans stood waiting to go onstage for a debate one night, McCain looked at Bush and just said to him: "George." Bush, not looking at McCain, only replied: "Hey, John, it's just politics." That way of thinking sends a chill down my spine. It is no surprise that that man turned out to be something far darker and deadlier than the "compassionate conservative" he presented of himself. It showed me, in 2000, that this was a man who would do anything and say anything to win an election, after which he would do whatever the hell he pleased. He revealed himself in that one backstage moment. "It's just politics."

Undaunted, I like to behave as if I believed I had a choice in selecting my leaders, and if a candidate is bullshitting me in the campaign, I have got to expect they will govern the same way. The party affiliation means little to me in the end if the candidate speaks to me truthfully, understands and respects the Constitution, and seems to have a good judgment. The campaign is their audition, if you will: a microcosm of the judgment they might exhibit in office.

* * *

Sometimes the media and/or rival campaigns will take something silly and blow it up into a silly flap, but sometimes the flap finds oxygen only because of an unnecessary slip of judgment on the politician's part. This, as I wrote here recently, has plagued the Clintons.

So there's a ruckus going on this week about a Hillary Clinton event where, it turns out, a question was planted. It seems like a silly thing. There's nothing unusual about seeding a question here or there.

But looking at the campaign as a microcosm of how Hillary Clinton might govern as President, one has to ask: what were you thinking? In matters of state, timing matters very much. A planted question stands out in 2007 because during six years of Bush's government, we have endured faked press conferences, tampering with the White House press corps, repeated instances of columnists being paid to write partisan propaganda in their editorials, and numerous other deceits.

Is this really the year to be planting questions or otherwise appearing comfortable with deceiving voters?

I do not fault Hillary for this alone - but it was her rally, and so she is the one being embarrassed about it, and I feel that familiar feeling I get with the Clintons: where is this person's judgment?
We shouldn't make "flapgate" out to be more than what it is - but for me, it brings up a recurring question.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Natural Wisdom

To my recent slew of blog recommendations, let me add one more for your interest.

Meet my friend Ji Hyang, an American Zen nun for almost all the time I've known her, who follows her own trajectory in many senses, writes beautifully, and has a lovely blog following her travels.

We share taste in blog templates, it would seem...

Monday, November 12, 2007

Emergency Response

Last night, I was cooking up a pot of chili while my fiance was on the phone talking to her mother. It was a fine Sunday evening: cold outside, warm in the kitchen, with delicious smells pouring into the air of jalapenos and tomatoes and cumin.

In the midst of this yummy scene, I heard the dreadful sound coming from the busy street corner near the apartment house. It was a furious scream of tires scraping pavement, and several loud bangs in rapid succession. A whisper of glass and debris snowing on the street. Definitely a bad one, and possibly a very very bad one.

I called to Sarah: "I'll be back." Turned the heat off the chili, and was out the door in seconds.

Let me pause here and tell you something about my employer. Among the many wonderful things the place does on a daily basis, the center also pulls off a few amazing things. For instance: closing our doors for a day and having the entire staff trained and certified in CPR and First Aid. In addition to everybody's salary for the day, the center paid for everybody's training. APCH figures that having everybody trained to respond to a medical emergency makes the center and our community a little safer, and was worth the investment. How about that.

So I ran out there last night in case these skills might be in need. At this point, the accident had happened just seconds ago, and within a minute I was on the scene. Two cars were totalled: a sedan had its front end completely flattened, and a Lexus SUV had apparently been punched into oncoming traffic, coming to rest perpendicular to traffic. This vehicle was also a mess. As in: wheels missing. Other cars had bumped into one another in the immediate aftermath.

In the Lexus had been a mom and two young girls. Good people were already there, keeping close to them as they slowly emerged from the vehicle and walked - uninjured - to the curb. Mom said they all lived right in the neighborhood, and were just making a run down to Pazzazz Sushi. (Good place, by the way.)

The two girls had been bounced around pretty hard and were feeling pretty scared. One girl was crying. A woman hugged her, while a pleasant-looking fellow tried to calm her by making her look at things. "See that stop sign? Now look over there. See that tree?" Interesting to note the various responses to a child's terror. Shortly after that, she looked up at me - eyes soaked with tears and flush in the face but otherwise alive and healthy and grateful. What could I do but smile? So I did just that, and said, "Wow! I bet that was really scary, huh?" A sniffle and a nod.

Mom was wearing a polite but unmistakably pissed-off smile. A car is a car; she and her kids had made it. Even so, her smile was whiffling through her palm pilot and summoning the phone number of her attorney. Somebody's people are hearing from her people this morning, I have no doubt.

Several cars broken, no one hurt. Not one injury requiring emergency care. So I did the most helpful thing I could do: got out of the way. Went back into the apartment, turned the fire back on, and finished cooking that pot of chili.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Moist Briefing

Dear Mr. Attorney General,

Congratulations on your appointment. I know it got a little bumpy there when you said you weren't familiar with what waterboarding is. There are people who expect a candidate for attorney general to know something about this, as if it had a long and notorious history.

I have a suggestion, now that you are in charge and will be tasked with the solemn duty of covering for the crimes of your administration. (Crimes, that is, with respect to this international law, and you know who answers to international law, don't you? That's right: foreigners! Not us!)

My suggestion is that, to pull focus away from what we are doing, we need to change the name of the technique.

Let it be said that the press is doing its part. They have a way of referring to waterboarding as "simulated drowning." Well, I love that. Between you and me, Mr. AG, we both know that waterboarding is DROWNING, and there is nothing simulated about it. Just because we're not holding their heads under a lake, or throwing them off a pier wearing cement overshoes, doesn't mean we're not drowning people. Introducing water into people's nasal passages and throat, so as to block oxygen and force them to choke - that's drowning.

Trouble is, word is getting out. Folks are beginning to realize, wait a minute, we are drowning people. And they're asking the usual bleeding-heart questions. So we've got to smokescreen, and call it something else entirely.

My suggestion: we call it moist briefing. How about that? It will take them at least to the end of Bush's term for them to figure out what that is! It sounds almost pleasant. It's not torture, and it's not even interrogation; it doesn't even sound coerced. These nice folk we captured several years ago and have held in captivity cut off from any contact with the world, in the harshest possible conditions, are briefing us just on the off-chance that they still have any relevant information (or that they ever did).

From this day forth, erase "waterboarding" from the lexicon - even from classified materials. Call it moist briefing from this day forward, and you and the President have legal deniability even if the snoopy press does catch on before the next inauguration.

I ask for no reward. I'm a simple man, just trying to help my country break free from the Constitutional and moral shackles that bind my President.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Beware! We Breed!

For the last couple of days I have been away - I hope you checked in on some of my blogging pals. There are some I forgot, of course, like all of the MySpace bloggers and Adam Gertsacov and others....

While I was away I found myself at a table full of colleagues and ventured to announce an important bit of news that has filled my life for the last eleven weeks. "Sarah and I are having a baby," I said, simple as that. Glasses were raised in toast. Congratulations were uttered.

I attempted to go further, to remark on the drastic change pregnancy has made to our life together, that the changes started right away, and that I have certainly been feeling the impact. I started this by saying, "If you have noticed me tired lately..." and was immediately cut off by censoring howls.

By way of shutting me up, a voice yelled: "She's the one who's pregnant." And I was welcome to say nothing more. So I sipped my wine and watched parents with their children in the restaurant until I could leave politely.

Anyway, Sarah (the one who is pregnant, in case anyone was unclear about that) harbors a babeling with tiny arms and legs forming and a strong heartbeat. Candidate names are gently flung around the house, and we have reading about what's in store for us week by week; the first baby toys have been acquired, as well as maternity clothes; all kinds of plans I've never thought about are suddenly underway. It is quite a time.

I will not post ultrasound pictures on the blog. This modern practice of passing around ultrasound pictures eludes me a bit. When I have received such pictures via email, I have felt a bit taken aback. "Here, look at a picture of my innards." I would have been willing to take the mom's word for it - and would have waited patiently for adorable baby pictures.

So no ultrasound pictures here. And I'll be discrete about sharing stories of my anxieties and fatigue and things I've never had to think about before, but some of that material is bound to work its way in as June approaches and the baby arrives.

When I came home from the conference, still surprised and a bit ticked by my treatment at that dinner table, I found Sarah resting on the futon watching the film Knocked Up on DVD. She looked up at me and smiled.
* * *
UPDATE: When I finished writing this entry and posted it, I heard laughter from the bedroom. Usually this means that the evil bastard cat has done something halfway endearing. So I walked into the room and found the lady trying on various maternity clothes, laughing gaily at the sheer size of them. Her favorite was a t-shirt emblazoned with the words MOMMY NEEDS SLEEP - a shirt the size of a bedspread.

In a few minutes we're walking down to the farmers market to buy some apples. You need anything?

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Meet Some Of My Friends

For the next couple of days, I will be at a conference away from the computer.

In the meantime, perhaps you might enjoy a look at some of my friends' blogs.

There's always something excellent to read over at Theriomorph's site.

Dr. Lori does a wonderful photoblog of her life teaching english (and Zen) in a small New Hampshire town here.

K. writes hilariously about her obsessions here.

Jane Redmont, a theological scholar, writes about faith, good food, sports, and whatever else distracts her from scholarly duties here. She also posts her semons, which are quite good.

I keep up with news about energy and the environment here and here.

For non-partisan analysis of political lies, spin, and bullshit, I keep looking at FactCheck. Bookmark this one.

And, since it always comes back to the food, please know my friend Andrew is starting up a video blog demontrating basic cooking for guys who don't cook. It promises to be very funny.

See you all this weekend!

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Joining Names

Sarah said she wants to be a D'Ammassa. Moreover, she would do it sans hyphenation.

This was a strange thing for me to hear. I have gotten very used to women keeping their own names upon marriage, and it hadn't actually occurred to me that Sarah would become Sarah D'Ammassa. Not that I mind.

When the current mayor of Los Angeles was married in 1987, he was still Tony Villar. Upon his marriage to Corina Raigosa, he spliced the names together and came up with Villaraigosa. Now they are pursuing a divorce - I don't know what they're going to do about their names now.

The approach wouldn't work for us, anyway. Willamassa?


Sarahnon Dilliassa? Algerah Williamma?

Sheesh. This is all a lot more involved than I ever imagined.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Fencing With The Fiance

Sarah: There's a parking spot. Right in front of the building. Lovely.

The Beast: Actually, the doctor said something about exercise. I was thinking we'd park down the hill at the supermarket and walk back up.

Sarah: Oh. Well, that's fine. You do look like you need some exercise, so go ahead and park down there. Then you may carry me up the hill.

How To Defeat The People

"There is no better illustration of exactly how far right political discourse has swung, and how self-loathing and beaten down the Democratic Party has become, than that among its presidential candidates, the one most willing to consistently, unapologetically stand for the things on which the party is supposedly built (some of your more basic civil liberties) is also the guy who believes in aliens."

That is from Rebecca Traister's amusing piece on today, about presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich. She is not saying anything especially new, just noting one more time with great amusement that a lot of Democratic voters will not vote for the candidate who actually represents their values and positions, because they have been told that the candidate they want will not be "electable."

This is exactly the way to defeat the popular vote. You have to train people not to trust the candidates who match their beliefs and aspirations. Instead, you train them to look for a candidate who has been packaged a certain way, and who has the support of the largest cash donors. You have to make people forget that any candidate who appears on the ballot is "electable." That's how you defeat the popular vote.

Ralph Nader is used for this end in most conversations I hear about him. To this day, there are people who sound sensible, blaming Ralph Nader for the election of George W. Bush in 2000. Ralph Nader was, after all, a third party candidate who appealed to left-wing voters that may not have felt represented by Vice-President Al Gore. It was a close election, and so one can understand the temptation to consider every vote for Ralph Nader a "wasted vote" or, worse, a "vote for Bush."


Let's look at some numbers.

In 2000, the number of people of voting age was 205, 815,000.

The number of registered voters? 156,421,311. Big drop!

The number of voters who actually showed up and voted? 105,586,274

(These figures are provided by the Federal Elections Commission.)

Number of popular votes cast for Ralph Nader, according to the Federal Elections Commission?


So we get opprobrium for fewer than 3 million who voted for the candidate they wanted, but no widespread outrage about the fifty million registered voters who stayed home? Just about as many people who cast a vote for the winner cast no vote at all, but shame on those three million people who participated in the process by voting for the candidate they felt was best.

And if you're going to tell a voter that they "wasted" their vote by voting for the candidate they felt was best according to their judgment and reflection, you are asking for a knuckle sandwich, brother. What about the vote you "wasted" voting for someone you didn't like, who lost the election anyway?

And what about the 50.4 million votes cast for George W. Bush? Here is the part where the "spoiler" bullshit actually becomes funny. The emotional logic here is that those three million people were doing some thing irresponsible by voting for a candidate they wanted; the 50.4 million people who voted for Bush are off the hook.

If we want our elections to be anything more than a sham, we are going to have come to terms with competition and the elementary concept that when one candidate wins, other candidates lose. And yes, a three-way election is more competitive than a two-way contest.

So I urge you registered Democrats to vote for what you want. If that's Hillary Clinton - wow, but okay. Vote for her. And if you read Dennis Kucinich's platform and find yourself nodding and wondering why the other Democrats aren't saying these things - maybe that's why Dennis Kucinich is there, and maybe he deserves your vote. Don't let yourself be bullied into voting for one of those other bastards just because they've got more money. And you right-wing Republicans, that goes for you, too. Get behind a good, sensible right-wing conservative who speaks to your values, and vote with all your heart. Put that person in the race and I'll have a look. You're not stuck with Giuliani unless you choose to be stuck with him. If we're going to think that way, we might as well dispense with primaries and elections and admit that large corporations really are in charge.

And that would truly, truly be sad. The one sacred choice left to Americans, minimized and rendered less meaningful already because of the way money dominates politics, finally neutralized by fear and shaming.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Death Is Progress

Heard a sad story on NPR this morning about the city of Port Arthur, Texas.

The city is surrounded by billions of dollars' worth of oil infrastructure that enriches several large, very familiar-sounding corporations. Yet the city itself is declining badly, and has been in decline for quite some time. Some residents are so badly off, blue tarp distributed in the wake of Hurricane Rita in 2005 is still the only roof for some houses. Downtown is boarded up and neglected. The residents have suffered the fallout from industrial accidents.

One of the people interviewed for the story suggested this imbalance was an example of racism, yet it appears to be an example of a much wider indifference. Our large industries do not care for small places, even the small places that supply them with their goods and materials.

A spokesman for Valero protests that the company pays taxes, obeys federal regulations (such as they are!), and donates to local charities. He feels, therefore, that Valero is a good corporate citizen. We have paid for our redemption, now hand it over. These protests are easy to utter in an office and perhaps, by now, they are even easy to say in a ghost town surrounded by pipes and refineries.

What makes it so easy for a Valero spokesman to stand in Port Arthur and say, "We have done enough?"

It is the determination, the manifest destiny, the heavily-fortified optimism about a global economy that requires victory over regional economies and their communities. In order for the global economy to progress, resources cannot remain under the control of the communities living on them. Loss of jobs and subsequent migrations of working people and the dissolution of communities is required for "progress." Read a chilling apologetic for it here. This really is the logic of global neoliberalism.

The suffering of Port Arthur is, therefore, to be considered a merely a correction, as "microeconomic" loss leads to "macroeconomic progress." People are "resources." Livelihoods are "jobs." Suffering is a "cost" easily written off - by those who benefit from it.

And the death of a community? That's "progress."

Friday, November 02, 2007

A Legacy of Unnecessary Lies

The fourth basic precept of Buddhism is a simple promise not to lie. I vow to abstain from lying. Simple. Unequivocal. One may parse the definition of a "lie" in one situation compared to another, but there is at least a bold and clear statement of a direction. I will not lie, because the lie does more harm than good; it leads to suffering.

It's the kind of bright line politicians are loath to draw, and that is one reason we get so frustrated with them, or give up on them altogether.

When I look back on the presidency of Bill Clinton, I see a tragedy. I view his governance and his legacy as being tarnished by one whopper of a lie, told under oath. A lie that was not necessary in the first place. It was the decision to lie that turned a tawdry indiscretion into an event of enormous consequence, when the country had to endure the spectacle of a President being impeached because he lied about a blow job. My liberal friends out of principle (and bias)blamed the Republicans for this alone; but what of the stupid, unnecessary lie that armed them?

Clinton was (and is) so personally popular, he could have pulled off a mea culpa (as he had done during his first presidential campaign) that honored the truth and made the blow job go away. In a matter of weeks, the media would have moved on to other stories and Clinton would have to answer only to his family, not the Congress, for his cigar breaks.

Instead, he lied and you remember the rest.

Presidents lie and sometimes presidents do the right thing by lying or at least by being evasive. We accept that a president might not be in a position to tell us, for instance, details about diplomatic negotiations or national security. If a lie is justified by some greater good, by and large people are going to be flexible and forgiving. It is the stupid lies, the lies that are not necessary, the lies that are overtly oafish and self-serving, that hobble a leader.

I think of this when I consider Hillary's answer to a question about archival materials. A clumsy, reflexive, slippery lie about the national archives and Bill Clinton's request that the letters he and Hillary wrote to each other during his presidency be withheld until 2012. She was asked if she and her husband would withdraw the request and allow the documents to be released; she said, "It's not up to me." She could have said no. Or yes. Either answer would be an opportunity to demonstrate leadership and resolve, and return to the important issues.

Instead, the listener groans as one evasive answer, one clumsy dodge that wasn't necessary, over a peripheral issue, opens up a deeper conversation. Her political rivals cannot be faulted for asking a legitimate question: haven't we had enough of this?

I certainly have. I have had too much of this. No more, please.

Thursday, November 01, 2007


At lunchtime, one day after Halloween, I found this lovely blog about bats.


Culinary Subterfuge

Do you feed kids by burying vegetables in their treats? Do you get them to eat zucchini by mashing it up and baking it in their pancakes or brownies?

There are two cookbooks that hit the market at the same time: Deceptively Delicious by Jessica Seinfeld (the wife of Jerry Seinfeld) and The Sneaky Chef by Missy Chase Lapine, which both feature recipes that call for pureeing vegetables and sneaking them into the kids' treats. Indeed, the books are so similar, there has been a plagiarism flap.

Mimi Sheraton had a good comment in Slate about this, asking the same question I have: is this really a good way to introduce kids to vegetables? Grinding up perfectly good food and destroying its God-given shape, texture, aroma, flavor, and encouraging kids to eat brownies and cakes regularly?

My father grew up thinking he didn't like vegetables, because my grandmother more or less boiled everything until it was mush. Only after he married my mother, a good cook, did he learn abou the variety of vegetables available, the joy of combinations, the miracle of sautee, the layers of firm and soft textures, the balance of sweet and sour, the dazzling landscapes of good sauces.

At some point I entered his life, and I was a terribly fussy eater in spite of my mother's culinary powers; so I see there are parental skills that also come into play. I do not suggest, sitting here childless, that this is easy. I would suggest that these two cookbooks are presenting an easy way out that might create weird eating habits beyond the scope of a typical fussy child.

Also, the concept of mashing cauliflower into macaroni and cheese is just weird.

In the interest of full disclosure, I have practiced some stealth cooking as an adult, mainly with respect to tofu. Not all fussy eaters are children. Children have had but little time to develop and nurture their prejudices. Adults walk around with decades of eating habits on their backs.

As a vegetarian cook, I rely on certain foods that a lot of adults are loath to try: tempeh, tofu, and other soy products in particular. Never mind that my "soy nog" tastes exactly like egg nog. Never mind that the cheese-free cheesecake I can make for you (and very easily!) is delicious and light. Never mind that I can pan-fry tofu for stir fries that is so tasty people will snack on the tofu and leave the vegetables standing alone. The idea of tofu, in the minds of the uninitiated majority, is that tofu is a squishy and flavorless ooze. The very word triggers a gag reflex and they will refuse a meal rather than be subject to it. I have even been asked by suspicious eaters, "Is there going to be tofu?"

So yes, I have practiced a little bit of stealth cuisine. I have served you "nog" that had no eggs or dairy milk in it. Having drunk it, you said to me, "Oh that is so wonderful and I am such a wicked person for doing that to myself," and then and only then have I said: Have some more. It's all right. And then I told you what was too good to be true: This nog is non-fat. What? No! Begone, devil, you tempt my spirit with lies!! This nog, in fact, is rich with protein and is calcium enriched. No!! No! Be silent! The same goes for that cheesecake. It has no cheese or milk in it. It is not bad for you; in fact, it's one of the healthiest things you've eaten all day. You shall bewitch me!! Aaaaah - pour me another glass, I am lost to perdition!!!

So I am not without guilt, I suppose. Perhaps I make excuses for the practice when it comes to fussy adult eaters. After all, if my job is to feed them, then I must feed them. Generally, I err on the side of revealing my ingredients (if not my recipes). Part of this is to educate people about new foods, but also because people surely have a right to know what I am feeding them. This will, after all, become part of their bodies.

When I was a monastery cook for a few months, we had a visit from a monk who observed very strict veganism. Making accommodations for him was not encouraged, yet I found it an interesting creative challenge, to find alternatives to butter and milk. Not to mention the Shakespearean complexity of the mutual stealth - those who would have me fool the vegan were themselves being fooled into eating vegan food for a few days.