Thursday, November 23, 2006

Thanksgiving Thoughts

Yes, I know that most of what they taught us in school about Thanksgiving wasn't precisely accurate. Although I do think the historian who claims there were no turkeys (spelled "turkies" in the 17th century) at the First Thanksgiving is overstating his case. Just because nobody wrote down, "We ate turkey" doesn't mean they didn't; and certainly the wildlife in that area at that time included turkeys. In fact, it still does, if you get far enough from town.

Just because the historical details have been muddled over the years by people trying to prove a point, doesn't mean that the whole idea of Thanksgiving is baloney. The basic idea of a day when you are thankful for what you have, with no specific requirement to tie those thanks to any religious celebration, is a good one. We spend too much time worrying about what we haven't got. This may be a disorder of youth, although God knows it isn't restricted to young people; but young people are immune and immortal.
(Or think they are.) Older people are more aware of what they might not have. Most of my regular readers know that I have two replacement knees. I still give regular mental thanks for the simple, incredible fact that I can walk. Again. Without a cane, at a normal pace, for blocks, without any pain. I remember 5 years ago, looking out the window at people walking their dogs, at the joggers, and feeling a blinding envy.

I'm grateful that I live in a gorgeous house, in one of the most beautiful areas in the world, the San Francisco Bay Area. I'm grateful for the man I've been married to for twenty years. I'm grateful that I have as much as I need, and never have to wonder whether to pay the rent or buy groceries, because we always have money to do both. I'm grateful that I have a job which doesn't require me to stand for hours and be yelled at by angry customers, like the one my mother had. (The artificial knees don't stand as well as they walk...) Sometimes I'm just grateful that it's a beautiful day (it is today), or that a hummingbird is noshing on the Mexican sage in the front yard. Last week I was grateful - and laughing - to be able to watch the penguins in the Monterey Bay Aquarium hassle the photographer who was trying to take photos of them: they tried to eat his chinos, and his camera strap, when they weren't sitting on the aquarium lady and asking to be petted. (Now I know why the aquarium lady wears waterproof overalls.)

There are lots of things I don't have. I don't have an especially expensive car; but I have a good reliable comfortable vehicle. I don't have the latest snazzy techno-gadgets; but in general, I don't want the latest snazzy techno-gadgets. Although I do enjoy my iPod. I don't wear designer clothes; but at my weight, I'd look dreadful in designer clothes, all of which assume you can never be too rich or too thin. I have all the books I want. The point isn't what you have; it's whether you're satisfied with what you have.

People who are so poor they have to decide between paying the rent and the utility bill are, in fact, unhappy about what they haven't got; but those people, by God, have a right to be unhappy. The dissatisfaction I'm discussing here is usually in people who don't have to decide which bill to pay, and who are still not happy, because of what they don't have, but think they need. The ability to identify what you really need, and sort it out from what you merely want, is very liberating. It also frees you from the tyranny of things on sale: if you don't need something, and wouldn't use it, it's not a bargain, even if it is half price. This is why I don't belong to Costco: Costco's whole marketing strategy is based on getting people to buy stuff they don't really need, in quantities they don't really need, merely because it's on sale.

This has rather rambled on, but you get my point. And so I say: I'm thankful, and I hope all of you are thankful as well; more, I hope you all have things to be thankful for. Have a great day, and never eat anything bigger than your head (with thanks to B. Kliban).

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Cleaning House

Well, the Democrats did it - they took back the House, and they have a razor-thin majority in the Senate. Really razor-thin when it will rely on Joe Lieberman, who lost the Democratic primary and went on to win his seat back not only without party support but with the Democrats supporting his opponent. Great start, guys. Actually, if I could say one thing to each member of the Democratic leadership, it would be Han Solo's advice to Luke Skywalker: "Don't get cocky."

Just to illustrate this, we now have Charlie Rangel, newly elected chief of the House Ways and Means committee, all set to reinstate the draft, a move that polls have shown is opposed by 70% of the American public. Nancy Pelosi is reported to be a great political leader. Surely she must see what a disastrous idea this is. Mind you, this isn't a new idea for Mr. Rangel - he's been pushing it for years. But if Pelosi can't herd her cats any better than this, the Democrats may have a very short time in power this round.

Mr. Rangel's chairmanship of Ways and Means illustrates something else that worries me about this Democratic takeover. Look at the list of committee chairmen. The Dems have stuck with straight seniority for chairmanships: that means there are only 2 committee chairmen under 60 (and none under 55), Kent Conrad of N. Dakota at Budget, and Tim Johnson of S. Dakota at Ethics. Furthermore, three of the new chairmen are over 80: Akaka and Inouye of Hawaii, and Byrd of West Virginia. I have the greatest respect for these men, especially Dan Inouye, but how about some new blood and new ideas?? I objected to Phil Angelides, as I've said elsewhere, because of my feeling that he ran for governor because it was "his turn." This is just more of the same: people are chosen to run the Congress, and the country, based on time in office, and we don't get the full benefits of any ideas the new folks might have.

I'm not arguing for legislative term limits. They are a disastrous idea, and the California legislature is the primary example of it. The only term limits we need are the ones we impose when we vote the rascals out. (Fairly drawn district boundaries and public financing of campaigns would help, too...) But I do think that the party and the country would benefit if legislative committee chairmanships rotated after a set number of years.


Like most of the rest of the universe, I can't imagine why O. J. Simpson has done it. Publish his appalling book, that is. There were I think 8 people in the country who actually gave him the benefit of the doubt, and assumed that he must be innocent because he was acquitted. He's just changed all 8 minds.

I've read at least one speculation that he did it because he can't stand not to be in the limelight; he's hooked on the talk shows and seeing his name in the paper. If that's true, he's even sicker than I thought, and I hope the trend continues of refusing to carry the book or air the interviews (except for Fox which will run anything), because that's the real punishment, and the only one that will hurt him.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

The Sinking Ship

The rats are going over the rail. The doomed band is playing "Nearer my God to Thee" on the promenade deck of the Titanic. People and groups have come out against the current situation, that I never thought to see:

Richard Perle, the anchor of Republican defense departments since Ronald Reagan, has said that if he'd known how this would work out, he would have suggested other strategies.

Kenneth Adelman, who said that liberating Iraq would be "a cakewalk", now says the Bush national security team is "among the most incompetent teams in the postwar era".

Most telling to my mind, the Military Times Media Group, a Gannett subsidiary which puts out Army Times and its sister sheets, will publish an editorial Monday in all its titles (liberally leaked in advance), calling for Rumsfeld's dismissal, on the grounds that he "has lost credibility with the uniformed leadership, with the troops, with Congress and with the public at large."

If you yourself have never been around the military, you may not realize how apocalyptic this is. They have to be hearing this from their readership, the serving military; in fact, the editorial will say that "active-duty military leaders are beginning to voice misgivings about the war's planning and execution." The American military just doesn't do that. The code that says you never criticize the brass is tremendously strong. But the American military is also nothing if not pragmatic, and the truth of the situation in Iraq is sinking in.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Online Networking

The online networking sites seem to be past it. Old news. According to an article in the San Francisco Chronicle yesterday, it's too, too exhausting to maintain an active social life online. "Social networking fatigue", they call it.

I'll admit I've been following the flap over MySpace and FaceBook and all the other online hot spots. I actually joined one of the "class reunion" sites, after my high school class had a reunion; but I've never found any real information there (why would you put real information up on a site like that?), and no one ever really tries to contact me. (My email address is there, not much else.)

The networking sites do remind me of something, though. They remind me of The Naked Sun, a novel Isaac Asimov wrote in 1957, when Tim Berners-Lee was 2 years old, computers took up entire rooms and had 64K of memory, and the World Wide Web wasn't even a hallucination. Except that the Inimitable Isaac hallucinated, in The Naked Sun, the planet Solaria, where people live one to a dwelling, miles apart, and never come together in person at all; where they communicate with each other by projecting images of themselves, through which they speak. Electronic communication in place of human interaction.

It isn't possible today to approach the astounding isolation of the Solarians; for one thing, there were only twenty thousand of them on the whole planet, a number which seems as absurd to us now as it did to Asimov's detective Elijah Baley, who lived on an Earth that was a massive rabbit warren of crowded multi-level cities, with no open space left - Baley is an agoraphobe. But it's possible for, say, an addicted gamer living alone to go for days without leaving the terminal except to get food, sleep, or relieve himself; never to see another human face or have a direct conversation. And in the cases where we approach this, we approach the Solarians - they were afraid of germs, of contagion, and so they stayed apart and only spoke with each other through electronic media.

It's dangerous for us to do this. We're social beings; we need other humans. We need to talk, sing, dance, eat with each other, even if none of it has any deep significance. The trouble with the networking sites is that they foster the illusion that you don't actually need to meet people in order to be their friends; and that is a contradiction in terms. Unless you actually meet someone, you will never know if they are honestly describing themselves, or merely sustaining a brilliant, coherent lie. As the cartoon says, "On the internet, no one knows you're a dog."

It isn't, by the way, necessary to have a purely electronic connection in order to lie to someone; I've read cases of extended deceptions done entirely by letter in the 18th century, when travel was very difficult. It's just easier on a terminal.

Leaving apart the issue of honesty and dishonesty, we need direct contact with each other because that is the kind of animals we are. We need to hear each other's voices, touch each other's hands. We need to get out in the sun, feel the wind, walk in the rain. If we isolate ourselves and never go outside, we harm ourselves; and we harm each other because we forget how to deal with each other. Let us try to be more together, to be in the real world, and not place a flat-screen terminal between us and reality.

And for those of you who comment on my blog, please don't take this to mean that I think you're lying to me about yourselves; in fact, I don't. I'm just aware that I'm accepting your word, the evidence of things not seen; as you accept my word about me.