Thursday, July 31, 2008

Beating Around the Bush

New revelations about the Bush Administration’s arrogant disregard for responsible governance seem to come cascading down around us every day. The latest comes in the form of a Justice Department investigative report that concludes that hiring decisions at the Justice Department were illegally politicized. In other words, the sign over the door read, Bushies Only. We suspected as much when former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, testifying before Congress on the firing of prosecutors claimed not to “recall remembering” being involved in or even being aware of the firing of prosecutors who were not Bush loyalists. Now, the report by the DOJ's own Office of the Inspector General and Office of Professional Responsibility states that
Monica M. Goodling, the White House Liaison at DOJ, and her deputies had broken civil service laws, run afoul of department policy and engaged in "misconduct" in the hiring and firing of prosecutors, judges, and other DOJ applicants/employees. Goodling is another Bush appointee chosen not because she was the best qualified for the job – she graduated from Messiah College and Pat Robertson’s Regent law school – but because she was a Christian conservative Bush zealot.

The Bush Administration has been infamous for its distortions and manipulations of the truth on many fronts. In another case, the panel that advises the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on lead poisoning was planning to strengthen lead poisoning regulations in response to science showing that smaller amounts than previously understood could cause brain damage in children. Before the panel could act, then Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) Tommy Thompson, a Bush appointee, rejected the recommendation and replaced two members of the panel with individuals tied to the lead industry.

It was also under Thompson that HHS downplayed the true cost of the prescription drug benefit law by $150 billion. The actuary that pointed out the true cost was threatened with termination if he revealed to Congress his estimate.

Last month, the NASA Inspector General found that White House political appointees in the NASA press office "reduced, marginalized, or mischaracterized" studies of global warming, toning down politically unwelcome conclusions. A news conference on global warming was postponed, according to a senior scientist, because the Bush Administration did not want any negative environmental news before the 2004 election.

Under the Bush Administration, scientists who work for and/or advise the federal government have seen their work manipulated, suppressed, or distorted, while government agencies under the direction of Bush appointees have systematically limited public and policy maker access to critical scientific information. The Union of Concerned Scientists has constructed a clever web site in the form of a periodic table illustrating the wide spread manipulation of science by Bush and his minions.

But hey, "Great job, Brownie."

Friday, July 11, 2008

Float Trip

Helen rolled carefully to the edge of the king waterbed – California Sail King, the hotel called it. She felt as if she were disembarking from a raft after a Nile float trip. Thank God this was their last night in Luxor. She glanced at her husband. He was lying on his stomach, with his arm thrown to the side where she’d just been. He’d started to sputter -- putt, putt, putt. Pretty soon he’d be grating air across the tremulous tissues of his throat and making a sound like the chainsaw he used to cut logs for their fireplace back home. She rose from the wobbling bed and went to the bathroom. She stood and looked at her naked body in the wall-to-wall mirror.

“This is a mistake,” she said. Her comment applied to both looking at her 40-year old naked body, and to the “second honeymoon” Harold had insisted they take. At this point in her marriage, Helen almost wished there’d been no reason for the first honeymoon. She showered quickly, toweled off, combed the water out of her hair without drying it with the blower, and tiptoed into the bedroom. She threw on the same wide-leg gaucho pants and long-sleeved linen blouse she’d been out in with Harold earlier in the day, grabbed her shoulder bag, and snuck out the door, concentrating on closing it very gently behind her.

Outside the air was still full of heat, humidity, and dust, the sky was just beginning to turn a darker shade of blue, and clouds across the Nile standing over the Valley of the Kings had a pink hue. Helen walked south along the side of the road. Twice taxies pulled alongside her, but she waved them away. An old man rode by on a small donkey. The man was tall and very thin and his feet practically dragged in the dusty road. He and the donkey had the same look of resignation on their dark faces.

People she passed stared at her with what seemed undisguised contempt. A woman in a chador made a hissing sound as she passed. It was then she realized that she’d forgotten her headscarf. She came to a field on her left. Mud huts were scattered about. Grasses swayed in the slight breeze that came off the river.

Suddenly a hoard of little ragamuffins hollering “Baksheesh! Baksheesh!” surrounded Helen. She tried to ignore the children, but they were persistent and aggressive. She was reminded of her husband’s words, “Never show them where you keep your money.” She pulled her bag tight across the right side of her body. She hurried along, making a point of avoiding eye contact with the begging children. She was sweating.

She came into a block with stores and homes lining each side of the street. The children were now blocking her way. A small, dirty boy with fierce black eyes pulled at the strap on her shoulder bag. Someone yelled at the boys, and Helen saw a man, only a little taller than some of the older boys, charge out of a shop and begin swiping at the boys with a crude broom made of reeds or hay. They scattered, laughing and shouting. The man approached Helen.

“You are fine, missus?” he asked, his head cocked to one side and his watery brown eyes searching her face.

Helen put her hand to her chest and took a deep breath. “Thank you,” was all she was able to muster.

“Please, you will come in my shop. Rest?

Helen could feel her heart beating. Perspiration tickled down the middle of her back. She shook her head, “No, that’s alright.”

During their morning walk, she and her husband had been assailed by countless shopkeepers, vendors, street merchants, calèche drivers extolling the virtues of their “bootifull” carriages, felucca cruise boat brokers, and the ubiquitous beggars from the very young to those who seemed to have dug their way out of the Valley of the Dead. She was loath to follow this man into his dark shop and be badgered into buying a cheap soapstone scarab made by “skillet artist sands.”

The man looked closely at Helen, “I will sell you nothing. You have tea. Soon it will be cooler. Then you will go. Yes?”

Helen glanced into the shop. Like most shops she’d seen on her morning walk with Harold, it was packed with goods of every description. But it did look cooler, certainly better than standing out here in the heat and dust.

“Come,” the man gestured towards the entry and bowed slightly, the setting sun highlighting the white in his thick thatch of hair.

Helen allowed herself to be ushered into the shop.

The man led her past the shelves facing the front of the store to a small, carpeted space in the middle of the store. A hammered brass tray decorated in the center with modeled plant ornaments stood on a cone-shaped base similarly decorated. Large pillows lay around the tray.

“Please,” the man gestured for her to be seated. Then turned to a samovar and began pouring tea.

Helen was glad to be sitting down. She hadn’t realized how shaky she’d been. And the shop was a lot cooler than outside. She glanced around and noticed that this secluded space was surrounded by Egyptian artifacts that looked considerably nicer than the cheap copies she’d seen in most stores.

The man brought tea in glasses set in filigreed silver holders. He pulled his galabea up and sat opposite Helen. He reached over and offered her rough cubes of raw, brown sugar from a bowl set in a holder shaped like a crocodile. She said, “No thank you.” The man smiled, took a cube of sugar and put it between his teeth. He slurped the tea through the sugar cube. Helen closed her eyes and savored the strong, aromatic tea. She thought of the river, and the reeds, and the date palms.

“This is very good, thank you,” she said to the man. He smiled and bowed his head.

They sat sipping their tea; the only sound the man’s slurping, which he did unabashedly. Helen gestured towards the sugar, “May I?”

The man offered her the sugar and Helen put a cube between her teeth and slurped her tea. “Hmm,” she murmured.

“Ah, you are a woman willing to try new things,” said the man.

“I wonder about that,” said Helen.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Going to hell in a handbasket

Dear Friends --
I remember when I was younger, much younger, I used to listen to my parents and their friends talk about how the world was “going to hell in handbasket!” I never understood what that meant. I mean, what is a handbasket, and how do you go to hell in one? On top of that, I didn’t think things were so bad when I was growing up.

Well, I still don’t know what that particular phrase means, but I tend to agree with the sentiment now. Maybe people my age just get cranky -- feel as though nothing’s as good as it used to be. But maybe not. Maybe there’s something to that observation. I’ll tell you something for sure – fishing’s not as good as it used to be. Here in my home state of Washington native salmon are on the brink of extinction. So that’s not a cranky old feeling. That’s a fact.

I’ll tell you something else. When I grew up in Los Angeles back in the middle of the Twentieth Century, you could smell the orange blossoms in the spring, and you could look up in the night sky and see the millions of stars, then wake up in the morning and see the San Gabriel and San Bernardino Mountains off to the East. Unless you think smelling exhaust fumes and squinting out with burning, red eyes at an orange-brown sky is a good thing, then I expect you’d agree things were better in LA then.

But these are just my personal recollections. And they probably color my thinking about a lot of other things – like the way we live, the way we bring up our children, the way we run our country. Things like that.

It never would’ve occurred to me when I was graduating from college in 1961 that kids going to school today, Elementary School at that, would be searched for weapons because 12-year olds and younger are shooting each other to death. I used to worry about my kids when they were growing up in the Seventies and Eighties, but I will tell you, I never worried that they’d go to school one day and get gunned down.
There’s been a lot of press over the years about efforts to get the entertainment industry to tone down the violence in films, television, and video games. I agree with that, and I’d add the Internet to the list. But the industry argues that there’s “no evidence” that the subject matter in these media influences people’s behavior. In fact, they argue that the films and television that they produce simply reflect society itself. You know, I don’t buy it. The biggest “e business” on the Internet is pornography and it isn’t there because it’s producers are simply “reflecting society.” It’s there because the scumbags of the world are out to make a buck any way they can. Pornography debases society and no one needs a statistical study to know that.

I’ve never watched a whole lot of television, but I’ve watched it for some fifty years and I’ll tell you what – in today’s television, from comedy to drama, almost nothing seems to be out of bounds. In the past, sponsors seemed to take some responsibility for the content of shows on which their name and product were advertised. Now, their primary concern is ratings. In other words, they’re interested in what percentage of their target audience is watching, not what they’re watching.

Corporate “social responsibility” seems to be on the decline generally. Senator John McCain once tried to get a bill passed that would’ve held executives personally responsible if their companies withheld evidence of product defects that resulted in injury or death. Members of the Senate beholding to industry special interests killed the bill. What’s worse, they were able to do this anonymously. Frankly, I feel strongly that one of the greatest threats we face as a democratic society is the unchecked influence of corporate and other special interests on our government. When George W. Bush, in his preliminary debate with John McCain before the 2000 Presidential Election, said that he wouldn’t support Campaign Finance Reform, I decided right then and there that I wouldn’t vote for him – ever –and I didn’t. I’m sorry that he was ever elected president, but I least I didn’t vote for him. Little did I know that not supporting Campaign Finance Reform would be the least of his mistakes.

Of course, I’ve got a lot of reasons for not voting Republican: I am in favor of paying down the debt, and saving Social Security, rather than making big tax cuts – who ever heard of cutting taxes during a war? I think we need to spend more money on education, not on the military (despite my 20 years in the Air Force). And I favor teaching science in our public schools, not hocus-pocus. George W. Bush wants creationism on the curriculum along side evolution. I say, “Nuts!”

Well, I’m rambling, but I’m old and that’s what old folks do sometimes. Now let me tell you what I’m reading. I’m reading an article in my automobile dealer’s magazine, of all things, “Drive,” from Subaru. It’s telling me that today 116 square miles of rain forest will be destroyed; 250,000 newborns will join the World’s exploding population; “at least” 1.5 million tons of hazardous waste will be released into our air, water, and land; Americans alone will throw away enough garbage today to fill the Superdome in New Orleans twice; some 40 to 100 species will become extinct. I’m a cranky old guy that, like my parents before me, thinks things are getting worse rather than better, and this article is telling me that at the end of today, “the Earth will be a little hotter, the rain a little more acidic and the water a little more polluted…crowded cities will be more crowded and the air…will be a bit dirtier…the web of life will be a bit more threadbare. Tomorrow it starts all over again” Hey, this is my automobile dealer talking to me! Guess what I’m reading in Audubon magazine, for crying out loud!

And speaking of “drive,” I don’t like paying more than four bucks for a gallon of gas any more than the next guy, but drilling in the Arctic Wildlife Refuge isn’t an option for me. It won’t have any impact probably in my lifetime, and haven’t we done enough harm to the environment? By the way, my son and his family live in Europe. They pay well over $8/gal for gas. They get along.

So here’s what I’m doing:
1. Vote the Republicans out of office – they had their chance and screwed things up royally. Let the Democrats screw things up for a change.
2. Turn the water off while I’m brushing my teeth -- turn it back on when I need to rinse.
3. Write this essay (don’t you find it helps to get things off your chest?)

I’m also thinking about meditation. If I understand it, you sit there and try not to think about anything. Hey, that could help. When I told my wife, she said, ”Meditation, hell. You need medication!” She could be right.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Missis Brau Returns from the Dead

Ah, the certainty of youth, when we know we know the truth

She was an old lady from the first day I remember her
and she grew older right before my eyes
In her anyanimal coat that shed
until it had no hair
A coat sewn together
of a thousand Mexican hairless dogs
The strangest coat I ever saw

Her own hair was only here and there
light and fine as spider webs
Aged though she was
she had no wrinkles
Not one line creased that brow
Sliced, sutured, and pulled smooth
Bathed in acid baths
Eyebrows could not survive
And so were painted on each day
as needed

She shuffled flatfooted
in leather sandals
slap slap slap
And carried a gigantic goatskin bag
The sandals, bag and wrap
Bargained for in Bogatá
where her acid baths were found

She was the oldest woman I ever knew
She made me chew
my food one hundred times
and hid my milk under her chair
She claimed that she could train our dog
He paid her no attention
She spoke to him in French
He was a Boston terrier

On her trip to Casper
to buy a sheep ranch
She disembarked the bus
and left her goatskin bag upon the rack
Filled with 100 crisp 100-dollar bills
She got it back
For who knew what was within
Anacondas coiling
in that ghastly bag of skin?

She was not lucky that way
with all her many millions
Schemers took it from her
sold her snow and sand and smiles
And held her hand
and when she died
On the table in the kitchen
of her one-room flat on Beacon Street
There was only just enough to pay
to take her by the feet
and carry her away

She was not enamored of this life
and often said she’d end her own
“I will sit me in the snow, I will get me a gun
and I will kill me”
She left instructions for disposal
“I want to be cooked”
she said

And after she was dead
her cremains in a small grey box
at Forest Lawn
My mother said she saw her ghostly presence
She came back to tell me
of the great hereafter
Mother said

I was just a child
but I knew it was a dream
Missis Brau was dead
Where could she have gone
in that tattered coat – that rag
slap slapping off to
who knows where
with that ghastly goatskin bag?