Monday, May 29, 2006

More joy from Global Warming

And the latest report from the National Academy of Sciences says that, as the level of carbon dioxide in the air grows, the poison ivy grows bigger and leafier (3 times the size, they said), and produces a more toxic version of urushiol - that's the stuff that makes you itch, in case you wondered.

They didn't mention poison oak, which is the version we get here in California, but I can't believe it reacts any differently...

Saturday, May 27, 2006

What have we done to our soldiers?

In case anyone had any last, lingering doubts that Iraq is a parallel to that notable quagmire, Vietnam, we've just had the Iraqi equivalent of My Lai, in a place called Haditha. As with Abu Ghraib, it looks like the military command plans to blame it on the guys on the ground. And they wonder why they aren't meeting their enlistment quotas. Enlist, go to Iraq, a country where every household is allowed to have a Kalashnikov because there's no effective police force. Be in constant danger from IEDs and snipers, be entirely unable to tell the neighborhood regulars from the insurgents, and when you finally crack under the strain of losing one more buddy and shoot every Iraqi you can find, including an old man in a wheelchair and a 1 year old girl, it's your fault, and we'll send you to jail for it.

We did this to them, we the people of the United States. Even if we didn't vote for Dubya, and I didn't, we've sat by and muttered, and let this farce go on. These are our boys (leaving aside actual gender for a moment; besides, if there's been a woman in that squad I think it would have made the news). If they're like most Americans, they're kind, well meaning people who want to do the best job they can. Since they're Marines, we can further assume they are tough, seasoned professionals. They're even my neighbors: they're from Camp Pendleton, in California. And yet they did this: because we've put them in an impossible situation and left them there until they couldn't bear it any more.

When are we going to stop this? When are we going to impeach the President who got us into this? When are we going to admit that whatever happens in Iraq from now on is not up to us, and cut our losses? And by the way did anyone else notice the Iraqi foreign minister backing Iran's right to enrich uranium?? So much for a stable, democratic U.S. ally in the Middle East.

Friday, May 26, 2006

What a Week

This must be the week for legal extravaganzas. The most obvious, of course, is the Enron trial. The conviction of Ken Lay and Jeffrey Skilling is extraordinarily satisfying; as a colleague of mine said on a conference call yesterday morning, "Maybe there is justice after all." From what I've read about the trial, the worst move either man made was to take the stand in his own defense. I've never believed, on the face of it, that either man could have gotten where he was and still be so stupid as not to realize what was going on; and from first hand observation of the two on the witness stand, evidently neither could the jury.

But if I'd been on the jury, one remark of Mr. Lay's would really have stung. This jury was middle America doing its civic duty: a school principal, a dairy farmer, a personnel manager, a dental hygienist. These were people whose entire net worths were less than Ken Lay's debts. And to this audience he had the gall to complain that "It was difficult to turn
off that lifestyle like a spigot."

On balance, the jury decided that if they could be responsible to their employers, and keep their jobs and their families going (at night after the trial) for four months, Ken Lay and Jeff Skilling ought to have been able to be responsible to their employees and shareholders. And I think that says it all.

And then we have legal extravaganza Numero Two-O (to quote the inimitable Molly Ivins), the honorable (?) representative William Jefferson, D-La., whose House office the FBI searched last week for evidence of bribery. Mr. Jefferson, as is his right, insists that he is innocent; but let's keep in mind, folks, this wasn't one of those NSA warrantless wiretaps. The FBI had gone to court with probable cause, and they had a warrant. Moreover, they have a videotape of Mr. Jefferson accepting $100,000 in cash from an FBI informant (who was also wired for sound), and they found $90,000 in cash in Mr. Jefferson's home freezer, giving a whole new meaning to the phrase "cold cash". (I couldn't resist.) Unless you can think of a rational reason why someone would store that much loose money in a freezer, I think Mr. Jefferson has some explaining to do.
He claims there are "two sides to this story", but he doesn't seem inclined to offer his side now. I will merely comment again that the price of Congressmen seems to have gone up since the Abscam affair in the '70s; the Abscammers sold out for a mere $25 grand apiece.

Mr. Jefferson's personal rectitude, or lack of same, however, is much less astonishing than the reaction of the rest of Congress. The immediate response of certain Congressional leaders was to complain that the FBI had no right to search a Congressional office, and to demand the return of the seized documents. Nancy Pelosi gets a point for asking for Mr. Jefferson to step down from the Ways & Means Committee; she loses one for being right there with Denny Hastert asking for the documents back. This whole incident is being shouted as a threat to the separation of powers, which is the most ridiculous claim I can imagine. And Mr. Jefferson seems to think that his seat on Ways & Means is some kind of personal fief, to which he has a right, whereas in fact that membership is a privilege, which he has just jeopardized.

You know, you couldn't make this stuff up. Do the members of Congress actually think they should be immune from criminal investigation?? Or only from criminal investigation by the FBI, because it's part of the Executive Branch? I suppose the overworked Washington, D.C. police department is supposed to investigate bribery of a Congressman, in between drug busts. Many of us have been saying for months that nobody, not even the President, is above the law, and Rep. Jefferson, that includes you.

And on top of all of this, President Bush steps in and seals all the documents from everybody for 45 days, putting them in the solicitor general's custody. I didn't think he had a dog in this fight, but he says he's giving everybody "time to cool down." If it was anyone else, it would almost sound like a rational statement; but given the source, I'm suspicious of the motive. Maybe I'm being unfair.

Saturday, May 13, 2006

High School Daze

Judge Robert Freedman of the Alameda County Superior Court has just slapped some 380,000 California high school students in the face. This is the 89% or so of students who studied hard, did the work, made the extra effort, and passed the California high school exit exam. Thanks, Judge Freedman. You've just told the entire world that a high school diploma in California is nothing more than a gold star for attendance. Park your butt in the classroom long enough and you can graduate. You may not be able to read, or speak English, but by God, you're a high school graduate.

Judge Freedman says the 47,000 students who haven't passed the exam have not had an equal opportunity to learn because their schools are terrible. This is probably true; the California school system is a disgrace. But - how many kids in those terrible schools did pass the exam? I can't find the numbers school by school, but for the kids in the low-end schools who passed the exam, this is a terrible insult. They've just been told that their hard work was worthless.

The young woman who filed one of the lawsuits was quoted as saying, in Spanish because her English is so bad, that she was happy because now that she'll get her diploma, she can go on and become a nurse, as she wants. I hope to God I'm never a patient on a ward where the nurse doesn't speak English. I wonder how she thinks she's going to complete nursing school in Spanish?

If the schools are so terrible that only 89% of students can pass the exit exam (which isn't that bad if you think about it), the solution is not to eliminate the exam for everybody, to accomodate the 11%. The solution is to improve the damn schools, and hold the 11% to the mark of completing the exam. I'm sorry, I think at least some of this is just a desire to walk up and get the diploma with friends; and I have very little sympathy for it.

Friday, May 05, 2006

On turning 60

I'm still not sure I want to write this. I'm not sure what I want to say; or even what I think.

I recently had my 60th birthday - the "Big Six-Oh". When I turned 40, I told myself that I was aging as a good brandy does: mellowing, improving with age. It helped that I got married again that same year; nothing like a good love affair to give one confidence! I suppose I can still say that, but there's less confidence behind it. And yet: I don't look 60. My hair isn't gray (just the occasional silver thread; I get that from Dad's side of the family). My face isn't especially wrinkled (lots of expensive moisturizer, religiously used!). Since my first knee replacement, I've exercised regularly; I haven't been in
shape this good for years (still overweight, though). I don't think I act 60, whatever that means. Why am I so unsettled?

I look at people and wonder how old they are - and I suddenly realize they may be younger than me. This is very unsettling. I was the oldest child of the youngest son of a large family, so I was usually the youngest person in the room (except my sister); I skipped the first grade because I could read, so I was always the youngest person in the class. I'm used to thinking of myself as the youngest person - although the last few years working with 20 and 30 something computer kids has gone some way toward curing me of that! How did I get to be older than so many people?

What have I done with the time? I didn't have children; too late for that now. Not for me the thousands of dollars and months of discomfort, trying desperately to beat the biological clock. It was already too late with my second marriage, I didn't want to have a teenager in my fifties. That means, whatever happens at the end, it's up to me to cope. Not having children seemed like the right decision at the time; these decisions always seem right at the time. One doesn't always see through to the end; maybe one gets through by deliberately not seeing through to the end. I
took care of my mother in her last years; who will take care of me? My husband is eight years younger than I am; does that mean he'll be around to do it? Is that fair to him? And anyway, just having kids doesn't mean they'll take care of you when you're old.

I've had two careers; I've done the best I could at them, still working on the second one. People tell me they think I'm good at what I do. I've recently gone back to singing, and I know I'm good at that - not solo quality because of the asthma, but a good solid choral singer, able to hold the part and keep the beat, and anchor weaker singers. I'm beginning to think perhaps I can write. I don't feel I've made a difference; the world isn't necessarily a better place because of what I've done. On the other hand, I don't think it's a worse place. Maybe that's enough. But what do I do next? When I retire (and when
do I retire?), then what? I don't have an answer yet.

The time - where does it go? The older you get, the faster it goes by; I don't think anyone under 50 really understands the lyrics to Harry Belafonte's "Turn Around", or to "Sunrise, Sunset" from Fiddler on the Roof. I just turned around and it's May; wasn't it January yesterday? Where did it go? And the
the less you have left, the faster it goes. We only get so much. No matter how you measure it, more than half of mine is gone. Now what?

"But, Mother of God, where are they then? And where are the snows of yesteryear?" Francois Villon, 15th century.

Blogger Weirdness

I just learned something. If you start a post and don't publish it, and then do another one on a different subject, and then go back and finish the first one and publish that, the post that you published second will be below the one you published first, because it's saved under the date you started it, and Blogger won't let you change the date. Bizarre. Obviously the people who built Blogger value linear thinking.

There. Now it's in the right order.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

"The Immigrant Uprising"

Anonymous David asked, in his last comment, "What does the immigrant uprising look like from your vantage point?" This is a serious enough question that I think it deserves a post, not just another comment.

First of all, David, go back and read the comments under my post "Walls and Borders" (March 21), especially Boggart's long comment on the view of the situation from a residence 11 miles from the Mexican border. I don't necessarily agree with everything in it, but most of Boggart's points are really well taken.

I saw the immigrant uprising from the viewpoint of my office on the 6th floor of a building near a main street in northern California. It was amazing to watch - at least 10 visible blocks of people, filling the sidewalks about 3-4 abreast, walking quietly onward for another 4-5 blocks before they turned right toward a park where they gathered. When I saw them they were stopping for traffic lights, although some of my co-workers said they didn't at first. I didn't see any flags, just all those white T-shirts. That was the day the garbage guy didn't come around to my office to empty my wastebasket, and the cleaning lady didn't refill the toilet paper dispensers. Nobody was really inconvenienced; the office building is immaculately maintained.

If you mean, what do I think about all this, I don't know. As Boggart pointed out, there aren't any easy answers here. So I'll just give some random impressions, please don't expect these to be consistent or to make sense:

I read an English translation of the Spanish version of the anthem, Nuestro Himno, and I was tremendously moved. It's a staggering compliment to our country, our flag, and our ideals. You'll find the translation at the bottom of the article at the link.

James Sensenbrenner is freaking insane, absolutely barking mad, if he seriously thinks he can classify 12 million people as felons and then do anything realistic about it. We can't handle the prison population we have now.

Not to mention making felons of teachers who teach their children and doctors who heal them; I guess the good Christians of today want to throw the Good Samaritan in jail. Besides which, you can catch an infectious disease from an illegal immigrant as fast as you can from a good Murrican citizen; faster, in fact, because they don't have health insurance and so don't go to the doctor until they're REALLY sick. Once upon a time we had a concept called "public health" but we seem to have forgotten it.

This country was built by immigrants who came here with nothing but their hands and their work ethic; we didn't limit immigration until 1924 (except for the Chinese). The undocumented illegals are a whole lot closer to those immigrants than to some of our current citizens. "I lift my lamp beside the golden door" - but the golden door isn't on the Mexican border, apparently. Some people seem to think, my family is aboard, now pull up the gangplank, and that gives me kind of a queasy feeling.

On the other side of the coin, it takes years to become a citizen legally, and granting these people amnesty will skip them to the head of the line, and that's not fair to the people who've tried to obey the law. Do we have all these illegals because Reagan granted an amnesty in the eighties?

On the third side of the coin (sort of like the third half of the show on Car Talk), the urge to not let people in because they're not like us is not only racist and xenophobic, it's boringly racist and xenophobic. All the things they're saying about the Mexican illegals now have been said, in the past (in only approximate reverse order), about: the Poles. The Slavs. The Italians. The Irish (for generations, "No Irish need apply"). The Swedes and Norwegians. The Germans (and that was Benjamin Franklin, ranting that they refused to learn English and they bred like rabbits, and haven't we heard this before?). Which of those were your ancestors? The real question is, why don't we want them to come here? Why do we feel so threatened by them?

Finally, a little full disclosure, so to speak: it's very likely my lace-curtain Irish, boned-lace-choker grandmother was a wetback (as we used to call them before it became politically incorrect), all 5 feet 2 inches of her. A Canadian wetback: she came to the country in 1921, and just never bothered to become a citizen; and sometime in the 40's she insisted on going home to Toronto to see the relatives, and they had to smuggle her back across the border because by then you needed papers. She's dead now, God rest her; if they want to deport her they'll have to dig her up.

So I don't have any answers. I can't argue with Boggart's points about the load on our services, and the taxes they don't pay, it's all too true; but this whole country is built on immigration, right back to the "Native" Americans whose ancestors came over the Bering Strait in the last interglacial, or whenever. The only continent in the world with people who really can't be called immigrants is Africa, it's the only place the species evolved. Everybody else is an immigrant
at some level; and I think we need to quit arguing about who has the "right" to be where, and start trying to think of the practicalities that we all need to deal with, like educating children and preventing epidemics.