Sunday, July 28, 2013

Ten Things You Should Be Able to Do (or Have) in America

1. Read books in the daytime. If you're an avid reader, then you know how awful it is to do most of your reading at night, when you're sleepy. Dropping off when you're mid-chapter is frustrating, and sometimes the book falls on the floor and then you're really screwed. Lunch hour can be okay, but if you're with someone, you're hosed. And if you have to go to a restaurant, even a fast food joint and get a table for one, you feel like a social nerd because you're all alone reading a book. At least thirty minutes of daytime time off should be given to readers.

2. Vacation boosters. Our induction range from IKEA has this cool little button called "booster," where you can spike the heat for short time. It's great if you're boiling water for pasta and don't want to wait. But people should also get a vacation booster button, where they can have, say, a couple of four-day weekends over and above their regular vacations. For example, those who just return from vacation are often those who need a vacation the most. If they could just get a booster a month or so after their regular vacation ends, their focus and general disposition would improve.

3. While I'm on it, the day after Thanksgiving and December 26 should be automatic days off. In fact, would it be so bad if the week between Christmas and New Years was a national vacation, or at least a part-time work week? It is anyway, so why not make it official?

4. Listen to regular NPR programming during local station fund drives, if you're a member. Someone needs to develop an app or whatever for members to shut off the desperate pleas reporters, executives and producers make intended to shame people into donating. If you donate, you shouldn't have to listen to the frantic hucksterism erupting from the hosts and reporters.

5. Bring your dog to restaurants.
Not like this, but you get the point
Okay, dog-dislikers will disagree. And it's getting better in some places, because you can bring your dog to a few places with outside seating. But in Paris a couple of years ago, I was struck by the number of restaurant patrons with pooches asleep under the table. I liked that.

6. Watch Game of Thrones all year round. A Kickstarter fund should be set up to underwrite continuous production.

7. Only pay for the cable channels you want. At last check, I counted hundreds of channels that I have to pay for in order to get the few I watch. Every once in a while, Sen John McCain makes a foray into writing a bill allowing ala carte cable. It never goes anywhere.

8. Buy a bottle of wine at a restaurant at a reasonable price. In a way, I get an outrageous price for an  Appellation d' Jean Lafitte 1916, or a pre-Mussolini Riserva Brunello di Montalcino. Few have a clue about them and most likely would never order them anyway, and those who do know what they're in for. But a Zin, Chardonnay, Merlot or whatever that you can buy at a local market for eight or ten bucks doesn't need to price out at a restaurant for three or four times that amount. You can get reasonably good vin ordinaire in France at a reasonable price, and likewise acceptable table rotwein or weisswein in Germany.

9. While we're on the subject of wine: Get reviews using terms that make sense. Terms such as "fruit bomb" or "hints of allspice" already push the envelope a bit, but when it comes to "floral," "nuances of leather" or "tobacco on the back notes," I'm totally lost. I'm not a bit interested in drinking floral tobacco leather, and neither is anyone else.

10. More, or larger, women's bathrooms in public places. Go to a ball park, zoo, amusement park, convention center or even restaurants, and you'll see women lined up at the loo when break time comes, while the doors to the men's cans swing freely. The insides of men's jakes are lined with urinals and toilet stalls. What collective genius decided that women should have the same floor space but half the pissoires?

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

From a Precipice Overlooking the River Styx

I don't recall who the first person was to have asked me what I wanted to be, but I remember having no idea. At some point, people asking me this question would try to supply the answer, since I clearly didn't have one. A fireman. A policeman. A doctor. Some noun or other. Try as I could to imagine myself being one of those, I always failed. Moreover, nothing else came to mind.

Once, at seven or eight, my mother took me grocery shopping and had me go to the meat department to present our order. Ed, the butcher, decided I was going to be a butcher and he said they'd make one out of me. Becoming a butcher was unappealing but I didn't say anything because I thought it would hurt his feelings.

Besides, when there are no answers, any one thing becomes as possible as anything else.

Later, as a sophomore in high school, some collective or other headed by my father decided I should be a lawyer. They all came to this conclusion because I was pretty good at Latin and lawyers had a lot of Latin in their vernacular. I even worked in a law office for a while. I liked the lawyers but couldn't imagine being one. As I recall, I did poorly on the LSAT, which was probably a good thing.

At the end of my fourth year of Latin, I was pretty good at translating Latin to English. That was because I didn't transcribe the text word-for-word or line-for-line. Instead, I'd read groups of sentences, even paragraphs, or, if they were poems, up to entire stanzas, and then translate what I thought the writer was saying. It was fun and I wondered if one could be a Latin-to-English translator. 

It was probably the closest I ever came to finding a noun I wanted to be. A professional noun. When I got to the University of Nevada, I found out I'd already had as much Latin as the only lecturer on staff. Besides, his pronunciation was wrong because he'd been taught by Jesuits and Catholics didn't use classical pronunciation. They pronounced V's as V's and not as W's, which would have mortified my high school teacher even more than it did me. "Iuventutem" has to be "you-wen-tu-tem," not "you-ven-tu-tem." Horrors!

So, the quest for personal nounhood continued unabated. I met with my university counselor, who looked totally bored as shit when I came into his office. He asked what I wanted to major in and I told him I didn't have a clue. I thought that's what he was there for. A linguistics professor in a tweed sportcoat with leather patches on the elbows, he looked at his watch, and then at the ceiling, then at me. He asked what I wanted to do.

"To do?" Not "to be?" Well. I cottoned on to the notion they were probably the same thing, although I didn't realize I was transitioning to adulthood, when, from that point forward, people would say, "What do you do?" instead of "What do you want to be?" (An aside, Dear Reader. There's an omitted predicate of "when you grow up" attendant to the latter question. I automatically added it to the former, and still do, even though I'm sixty-five and arguably "grown up.").

Silence. Cold sweat. Translating Latin to English was off the table. "Writer," I said, coming up with the first noun I could think of.

He said, "Write what?"

Oh, god. Nonplussed hell. I majored in "Undecided," and do you know what? I still am.

What's it all about, Alfie?Is it only for the moment we live? 
What's it all about when you sort it out, Alfie? 
Are we meant to take more than we give? 
Or are we meant to be kind?

I ended up pretty much just going with the flow, kind of hoping, I guess, some interesting noun or other would show up and become my mantle. The family business was, briefly, retail merchandising, then real estate investment and development. I fell into both, not so much by choice as serendipity, as though I'd chanced on the only place serving lunch for miles around and it was a cafeteria of unexciting choices. My first really big real estate transaction occurred when I was twenty-nine, and I remember standing outside the bank with a low six-figure check, made out to me, in my pocket. 

That one person could have so much money was unimaginable. I really didn't know how it had gotten there and thought the error would be discovered and I'd be rounded up any second. I'd pretty much shown up when I was supposed to have and had reacted to challenges along the way, but it wasn't as though there had been some grand plan. Some earth-shaking noun creation. It was a surreal moment, and when I put myself back in that time, it's still a little scary.

When you do whatever you fall into for your life's work, whatever it is, whether you like it or not, it becomes as familiar, if not as comfortable, as an old shoe. But at some point, you will--not "may," but "will--" espy an opportunity for a change and suspect you may have finally found your noun. 

But you also realize if you carpe that particular diem, you'll have to abandon your sanctuary of familiar comfort, navigate an unknown road whose signs you do not know. That's not so much hard as it is discombobulating. Your pressnt, if discomfiting, world may consist of  people who don't really know you, but at least they're your strangers, i.e., you all have rules of engagement you can fall back on and share a script everyone seems to have memorized.

The precipitate raison d' etre for this post is a friend wondering what the point was. Well, go figure, I guess. I remember, years ago, hearing of a Procter and Gamble laundry soap factory line in Sacramento. The company gave away free towels with the purchase of a box of soap, and the company soon discovered it had to hire mentally retarded people to stand in line and drop the towel into the box for eight hours a day. I was envious that nounhood could be so facile for some.

And in my life, I've encountered person after person who has been able to somehow incorporate what he or she wants with what he or she does for a living. Are they happy? They seem to be, and usually make sure you think so. But the question is absurd, really. If you want to know what it's like to be a fisherman, you have to walk in his shoes, said someone more clever than I.

At the same time, I'm ingrained to believe the greatest threat to the world is that someone else will save it (not my line--I cribbed it from Robert Swan. I don't know who he is, though). The same can be said for your country, your state, your city, your block. 

Your life.

When you plug away at something that ranges between "I totally hate this" and "I'll do this until something better happens," you have to assure yourself, falsely or not, that it's all for a greater good that will one day reveal itself. As you retreat into your sanctuary, you either think you're making the world a better place, or you're buying time, i.e., escrowing your life, for the possibility of something better falling from the sky. Why else would you do it?

As for the real estate thingy: My father said that nine out of ten deals go bad, but the tenth one bails you out. I wish my tenth one had occurred later in my life, but that's a story for another time. The point, if there is one, is that it's possible to approach the end of your journey and still have no idea where the road is going. Except that you do know. Everyone's road ends up in the same place.

When we lived in San Francisco, I briefly joined a networking group of liberal arts people looking for something else. About two-thirds of the members were women who had become lawyers and absolutely hated it. That's comforting, in a way, because while I've come to regret the many roads I haven't taken, I don't think I'm all that alone. I don't know, though. The possibility that I might be wrong is my iron shadow.

I guess whatever it was I wanted to be, I'm now it. But I'm still not sure what "it" is.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Media: Please STFU About Edward Snowden

I was thrilled when Daniel Ellsberg leaked the Pentagon Papers in 1971, but I also remember thinking, "we pretty much knew all that." Most of the revelations had to do with the lies the Kennedy and Johnson administrations had consciously and repeatedly told to the public about the conduct of the Vietnam war. The Nixon administration would lie as well, but that's another story.

But the whole Edward Snowden thing pisses me off on so many levels. Snowden, as those with a pulse know, is the National Security Agency (NSA) contractor who leaked details of the U.S. government's Planning Tool for Resource Integration, Synchronization and Management (PRISM) program. Under PRISM, the NSA can gather the metadata of every telephone, email and text message of every American both at home and abroad.

The way the news media has gone totally batshit over this revelation would be hilarious if it weren't so pathetic. Their newly-found outrage is akin to the "Casablanca" police Captain Louis Renault being "shocked" to discover gambling at Rick's nightclub. Excuse me, media people, but have you been asleep since the Patriot Act was passed in 2004? Have you ignored the outrage of Senators Ron Wyden and Mark Udall over the years?You are really claiming this is news?

Or  is your new-found indignation due to the Obama administration's spying on one of your own, FOX news reporter James Rosen? Or did some collective light go on when the Justice Department subpoenaed ABC reporters' phone records? I guess it's okay to spy on the American public, but it's an outrage to do it to a reporter. The mainstream press, quite honestly, has been asleep at the switch for the entire 21st century, with it's "Oh! What a Lovely War" attitude towards the U.S. invasion of Iraq and it's concomitant indignation over the U.S. military's policy of embedding reporters, unless they were one of those embedded.

Next, Snowden himself. The"revelations" he outed, what? You mean you didn't know? See above ref. to Patriot Act and Sens. Wyden and Udall, above, please. Okay, here's Plucky's revealed secret: Guess what, America (and World): The U.S. can, and does, spy on you and it has all manner of technotricks to learn what it will. By the way, so does France, Britain, China, Russia, Germany, Israel, and...oh, why go on? Man the presses! 

When Daniel Ellsberg decided to reveal the Pentagon Papers, he first took them to several important people, including Henry Kissinger and a couple of liberal U.S. senators.Snowden couldn't be bothered with something so banal, I guess. No one was interested, so Ellsberg gave his paper trove to the New York Times. And he stayed in the U.S. to face the consequences. But Snowden?

When the shit hits the fan, you can duck for cover or stand and face the fire, to paraphrase Col. Slade in "Scent of a Woman.". And Snowden did the former. The weenie beat it so fast that you could play cards on his coattails. He's like the kid who heaves snowballs at others and runs to the safety of his parents' front porch, where he commences to heave more snowballs at the pursuing mob. Oh--Snowden did tell his girlfriend of six years he'd be away on business for a bit. How noble.

But it worked out okay, didn't it? Because now the debate among commentators and those few in the public who actually give a shit is whether or not Snowden broke the law (he did) or if he committed civil disobedience by becoming a whistleblower (he did, maybe). But these two arguments are conflated and really have little to do with the reality of the situation. 

Snowden may have broken the law, some say, but American interests weren't damaged. Somehow, this fact justifies everything, so Snowden, in fact, performed a brave public service in accord with his conscience.

Bullshit. He didn't reveal anything we didn't already know.

Not only did Snowden break the law, say others, but the NSA wiretapping disrupted fifty terrorist plots to harm Americans!

To which I say, bullshit again. Just as government spokespeople once raised the shibboleth of "stopping communists" to cloud the truthfulness of its press releases, they now make truth opaque with the specter of stopping terrorists. The so-called government "Credibility Gap" of the 1960s is the near-total lack of credibility in the 21st Century.

Look. Everyone knows about the ubiquitous (and likely iniquitous) governmental spying overreach. The sick part is a majority of Americans being willing to trade security for privacy. The crime is repeated government lying and misrepresentations of the danger of terrorism so that Americans are unduly fearful. Death from too many Big Macs outnumbers death from terrorists, but no serious person considers government monitoring of fast food joints to be a useful option.

When Ralph Waldo Emerson visited his friend Henry David Thoreau, who'd been jailed for refusing to pay a poll tax underwriting the Mexican War he opposed, Emerson said, "Henry David, what are you doing in there?"

To which Thoreau replied, "Ralph Waldo, what are you doing out there?"

Snowden became a NSA contractor with the specific purpose of stealing classified information and was successful. An act of conscience or Narcissism? A dangerous breach of security or a brave deed resulting in a get-him-at-all-costs Obama vendetta? 

Take your pick and enjoy the meaningless debate. He told us little we didn't already know and, like Emerson, has chosen to remain out there, lobbing his little pebbles of information at the big mean U.S. government for so-called journalists to ooh and ah over, fueling debates whose sound and fury signify nothing.