Monday, September 29, 2008

Grim Reality

I got back from California in time to see the United States House of Representatives do their level best to assure my work life will be another 20 years. One day you are sipping tea and eating scones in a lovely hotel dining room and the next day you are Uncle Billy from “It’s a Wonderful Life” realizing that you mislaid the Building & Loan’s deposit and that your life has changed forever.

 

Well, actually it’s not that bad. All we ever had (we being selfish baby boomers) was an expectation of a rich and rewarding retirement. No one has taken anything tangible away from us, only our dreams which , by the way, by world standards were bloated, selfish, piggy dreams anyway. As my partner Allensworth would say, this is a nice little practical joke on the 401k generation. All of us making our prudent investments and taking our tax credits every year and looking at the accumulations. Then there were the prudent decisions made in home purchases where values rose like skyrockets looking toward that inevitable day of our cash out. From there we drifted off to some allegorical beach to spend our golden years drinking wine and  tipping the illegals who set up our lounge chairs at the condo pool.

 

Vanity, Vanity, all was vanity, not to mention loathfully self absorbent, totally irresponsible and in the end, utterly unrealistic. Ah the baby boomers, those who worked so hard only to be taken down by those we convinced needed an expensive house to be part of the American dream. It seems like only last week we were laughing and making merry. “Where be your gibes now ? Your gambols ? Your songs ? Your flashes of merriment that were wont to set the table on a roar ? “  I see the blurred and bleeding  black and white flickering image of the bootleg gangster staring up at the camera in disbelief from his final prone position, “Is this the end of Rocco ?”

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Mile high apple pie

60 miles northeast and 4,000 feet straight up from our little slice of heaven on the upper San Diego coast (also known as Porter Timeshare I or, more familarly as Wade's First Folly)is the mountain town of Julian. I had never heard of Julian until our handy man and friend Ken (currently living over our garage while recuperating from emergency hernia surgery)mentioned it to me before we left.Ken is not only an excellent painter, but is pretty well traveled and so we elected to journey up there.

Upon first blush, Julian reminded me of Bisbee, Arizona. Both are cute old mining towns which had their hey day in the late 19th century. Bisbee was a copper town, and may be again. Julian was a gold town some half century after the original California Gold rush. Both went down badly after the mines closed and have come back in the last twenty years by reinventing themselves as "cutesy". But they are different places. Bisbee thrives on its art colony image, everyone there is a sculptor or painter. It is also proud of its town slogan, "Bisbee, the town too high to care".

Julian, on the other hand, decided to stake its future on baking.This is a place known not only justly, but almost exclusivly, for its apple pie. When we told folks around the hotel we were headed to Julain they gave us a knowing smile and said; "going for some apple pie !" Not a question, an exclamation. Apparently no one has ever driven up the mountain to Julian for anything other than apple pie, and since it is a winding drive of hairpin turns and no guard rails, you spend a lot of time on the trip muttering to yourself that this better be "some fucking good apple pie".

Unbeknownst to me, there is a "Julian apple" and are many orchards in the area. I never got a real good look at a Julian apple, but based on what I saw in the apple salads I saw served, I understand it to be a green apple.The town area is about two blocks long with buildings from the 1890s on both sides. Most of the shops are loaded with the usual tourist crap and most of the eateries advertize apple dishes and paraphenalia.We saw apple pie, apple salad, apple omlets. apple dumplings, apple cobbler, apple crisp, candy apples, caramel apples, apple caramel pie, apple boysenberry pie and apple pumpkin pie. The apple piumpkin pie is just now in season. Between mid September and early November the apple town reaches kind of an apple frenzy highlighted by "Apple Days" or something like that. Based on the flyers, it looked to be bigger than "Come and Take It" days in Gonzalez, but very short of the kind of festivities seen at the "Watermelon Thump" in Luling.

The town was also considerably devoid of tourists considering that we were there in the very heart of apple season.The locals went about their business (which was mostly cutting up and serving pie) in a quiet unassuming way.There was not a lot of civic boosterism going on.The one real estate establishment was closed but had several amazing values posted in the window, all for around the one million dollar figure.No matter where you go in this amazing country of ours, you can buy yorself a nice place for right at a million dollars. You can live in Manhattan or Maui, Scottsdale or Julian, Austin or Kerrville and you can walk up to a real estate place which will have pictures in the window of some version of perfection for right at a million dollars.Sellers of real estate never lose their optimism.No matter where you live, 6% of a million dollars is still $60,000. Shoot, sell half a dozen houses like that a year and you yourself could afford to buy one (if you can get an a.r.m at under 7%, you can always refinance when the rates go down).I have often complained in this blog that the country was coming to ruinantion through cheap and unchecked credit, but real estate salespersons need to shoulder their fair share of the blame and after the coming revolution I am going to insist on show trials and execution of every agent who had his/her picture in the local paper bragging that they were now in the "Gold Circle" of whatever Corporate Criminal Real Estate outfit they worked with. I will spring the trap door myself.

Coming back down the mountain, loaded with apple pie, I had wonderful views of this golden state and wondered if in a year it will be anything like this. The beginning of the American Dream, Republican version, began right up north in Orange County, home of Nixon and Raegan. Two cars and a boat in every garage, four bedrooms and a pool in every backyard. As the appliance store salesman in Austin used to advertize, "You don't need money, just a little something down." The California way of life, which became the American way of life, has lived on borrowed money and borrowed time for many years.Was that the end in sight I saw coming down the mountain ?

Monday, September 22, 2008

I'm Driving a Cadillac myself

Nothing is so calculated to make you feel guilty as to be on vacation at a resort spa, during the worst economic chaos since the great depression.Well,maybe one thing is. When I went to pick up my full sized category rent car in San Diego, I found a Cadillac waiting in my stall. I checked the name on the electric board above the stall and there I was, Winston Porter. I looked at the contract in the car and there that was, my weekly rate with my 30% discount.Somewhow the Hertz gods, through a screwup or a favor had given me a Cadillac.

I am not a Cadillac guy. The only time I ever rented a Cadillac was after I totaled a Lincoln Continental in Tucson in 1988 and had it towed back to thr Hertz agency. Broyles and I were in the front seat of the tow truck and saw the looks of horror on all the Hertz employees faces as we pulled up to the picture window, which looked out on the parking lot. I casually strolled into the office and flipped the keys to the nearest agent. "I'll be needing another now." For some reason they gave me a Cadillac, which was the first rental car I had on that trip that I did not destroy.

I suspect that the reason I got the Cadillac this time is because of my objection to the Ford Taras,the normal car they try to slip you in the full car bracket.I have had them place "No Ford Taras" on my computer listing at the (ahem) Number 1 Club and they have been good about complying. Although pulling up to the nicest hotel in Las Vegas,in my Hudayi, directly behind a Porsche and a Lexus did not make me look like a high roller, still it was better than a Taras.This time, the person who booked me said, "now you want the Taras class, right ?". I said, "No Taras please." This was followed by loud keyboard clicking and an embarrased apology. "OH " she said, "it says no Ford Taras, I am so sorry." Well, this is not the biggest sin in the world (asking me to sit in one of those tall bar style chairs at a Mexican restaraunt is)and I told her not to worry about it. Maybe she did, when I got here, presto, a new Cadillac.

Now a Cadillac used the be the top of the line in autos. Even when talking about other goods, the Cadillac was the standard for the best."Man, that Winchells in the Cadillac of Donuts." But the Cadillac is not the Cadillac of autos anymore.Even when Travolta's character Chili Palmer called his Aerostar the "Cadillac of mini-vans" the Cadillac was really no longer at the top. As we pulled away my wife mentioned that my car was nicer than the Cady. I drive a five year old Toyota that has been through a haill storm. Despite that, I have been proud to be seen here in SoCal (that's what we call it) tooling around in the Cadillac. All of this remeinds me of my Uncle Clifford.

Uncle Clifford was a shady figure in my childhood, he was not the only uncle I had who got divorced, but he was the only Uncle I had who did not then remarry the same woman he had divorced.He was the only single sibling of the nine ,if you did not copunt my Uncle Bryan who was deceased.At any rate, I saw Clifford only rarely,usually at the tail end of a family Christmas party.I asked my Dad about him once and Dad sadly shook his head. "Let me tell you about your Uncle Clifford, a long time ago he bought a used Cadillac which he kept for several years. Everytime during those years that he saw someone he knew he would ask "What are you drivng these days." After the answer, no matter what it was, Clifford would grin and say "I'm drivinbg a Cadillac myself." Which in 1959 meant something if you did not already know that it had 100,000 miles on it, which virtually everybody did.

My dad was trying to make a point. Don't pretend to be what you're not.It is a hard lesson for a human being to learn abd even when you learn it you need a refresher course sometimes. I am not a Cadillac driver. I am not even a Cadillac renter, I know that, my friends knows that and even Hertz knows that.Of course they don't know it here at the hotel, so let's keep it between you and me.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Where will all the blogs go ?

The biggest news of the recent financial crisis broke last night, but I am heartily sick of writing about it. Likewise, I think I will puke if I write another blog about Sarah Palin and the latest national election to be dubbed “the most critical election in our lifetime”. This is a hell of a country where every four years things are so much worse that the new election supersedes the last one as “the most critical election in our lifetime.” Couldn’t we, just once, have an election where people could say, “vote any way you want folks, this is the least critical election of our lifetime, it won’t matter a shit who wins” ?

 

Since for all I know, the country will soon plunge into a depression circa 1929, I probably owe it to posterity to continue to chronicle capitalism’s demise. But suppose this all gets straightened out ? Then what have I got ? If I have access to this blog in my dotage, I will look back and wonder why every story in the fall of 2008 was about some economic issue that is not only long forgotten, but downright boring. Which raises an interesting question, where will all of these blogs go ? Will they exist in cyber space forever, or fade away as the years go by and technology changes ?

 

Despite all of the hoopla in the national news, there are other stories which deserve to be remembered. For instance, former ball player and actor Joseph Petcka (Brawny Paper Towel commercials and Sex in the City) goes on trial in New York today for the murder of his girlfriend’s cat, Norman. Actually, when it’s a cat, they call it aggravated cruelty to  animals and not murder, either way, Norman is down to his last eight lives.

 

According to the prosecution, and there were no eye witnesses to the slaying, Petcka killed Norman in a violent drunken rage because his girl friend, Lisa Atobelli, “loved Norman more than him.”Atobelli was not an eyewitness to the alleged murder because Petcka had awakened her in the middle of the night by kneeing her in the ribs.Atobelli did the logical thing and left the apartment which, unfortunately for Norman, left him as the scapecat.

 

Defense lawyer Charles Hochbaum has called Norman’s death a “tragic accident” and “unintentional”. Apparently, according (I guess) to the kitty coroner’s report, Norman “accidentally”died from receiving “broken teeth, a broken leg,A TORN  TOUGNE, massive internal injuries, bruised lungs, a bruised liver and a chest cavity filled with blood.” How the poor cat accidentally had his tongue torn out is going to be a hard sell, even to a New York jury, but for all I know this Hochbaum is the Perry Mason of feline massacres. There is also, believe it or not, a self defense possibility as Petcka had informed Atobelli, post knee in the ribs, that Norman had “attacked him”. The picture of Norman, a cute yellow cat, seem to belie this accusation, but you can’t judge a cat by his whiskers. My understanding is that Morris the cat, who Nathan greatly resembled, was one mean and destructive kitty when off camera.

 

I expect that by this time tomorrow, Mr. Petcka will be receiving a two year sentence for his crime. That’s the maximum punishment  that catacide carries under New York law. I don’t know what the hardened criminals Petcka will meet in Sing-Sing think about cat abusers, but I suspect that pretty boy Petcka had better get himself a “daddy” right away in prison if he wants to keep his own tongue.

 

“Mills” may be off for a few days. The next installment will probably be from sunny California. May be the news is better out there.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Why the ship be sinkin'

Reporter: What do you think is happening to the team (New York Knicks)?

 

Michael Ray Richardson: The ship be sinkin’

 

Reporter: How far do you think that the ship can sink ?

 

Michael Ray Richardson: The sky’s the limit.

 

 

If there was any doubt that the “ship be sinkin’” it was resolved yesterday when the life boat went out to Merrill Lynch and an inadequate life preserver was flung to AIG. I think that the time has come to engage in that peculiarly American tradition of recrimination and finger pointing by moving past the fact that the ship be sinkin’ and start focusing on who  is to blame for the sinkin’ of the ship.

 

 Every crisis, plague or disaster that is not sent by God,  is caused by one of two things, idiocy or greed. The worst crises  we ever face are caused by the confluence of human greed and  idiocy. That is what happened here. Soft hearted Democrats manipulated the mortgage rules in this country which opened up loans for people who could not afford them. Greedy lenders (mostly Republicans) figured out complicated financial instruments to make money off of  the  absurd loans that a six year old child would not have made, with the inevitable consequences that no one could pay off their loans and the value of housing, artificially driven up by too many people buying homes, thus spurring on the home building industry, crashed. This particular housing crisis has been going on for about one year. Lenders have been failing at an alarmingly regular rate and now the failures have grown to include others who have a big share of the phony paper, investment banks and Insurance companies. Anyone in the field of private placement is probably vulnerable to a certain extent, so I expect that many of  the big Life Insurance companies will start looking shaky by October. All of this caused the Federal Government to begin  a disastrous policy of bail outs until, over the weekend, the political will to continue was abruptly lost. Predictably the stock market is crashing and much of the wealth (phony or otherwise) built up since the last flim- flam (the dot com bubble) is disappearing from 401Ks. This means that the many of the people thrown out of their houses are also paying on the back end by the market crash. This is normally called adding insult to injury but the injury was self inflicted anyway, so the insult was probably deserved too.

 

In the final analysis, the ship is sinkin’ because the American people will not stand to be told that they are not allowed to have something simply because they can’t afford it, and the market is committed to not only telling people they can afford these items, but finding ways to profit off of the ill conceived purchases made by the morons spending the money (which they don’t have). The current administration (the Captains of the Ship of fools) hit on the absurd notion that the American people could have what they could not afford by borrowing the money from China. When that scam finally was exposed over the last few months, the country has gone into a kind of self delusion that everything will work out all right because we are America and we are always going to be smart enough to think up the next con to allow the party to keep going. So now it is time to point the finger. The bad news is that the finger can be pointed by virtually every American right into a mirror. As Pogo used to say, “we have met the enemy, and he is us”. We have come a long way since we could proudly look to Longfellow for deserved inspiration ,as did Roosevelt and Churchill:

 

Sail on oh ship of state

Sail on oh union strong and great.

Humanity with all its fears

And all its hopes for future years

is hanging breathless on thy fate.

 

 

 

 

Monday, September 15, 2008

Upon the Sand

“and everyone who heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them not, shall be likened unto a foolish man which built his house upon the sand: and the rains descended and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat upon that house; and it fell, and great was the fall of it.”        Sermon on the Mount, Jesus of Nazareth, quoted in  “ The Gospel According to St. Matthew”, Chapter 7, verse 25-26     

 

 

Jesus of Nazareth, who spent his whole ministry teaching though metaphors, certainly left a nice one for us to think about with regard to the late Hurricane Ike , the soon to be late Lehman Brothers Bank and the all too quickly to be late American economy. The pictures this morning, in full color and hi-definition, of houses floating in the Gulf of Mexico say much about those of us who choose to build our houses upon the sand, that is, just about each and every one of us. While not all of us have beach houses on the Texas coast, most of us have managed to sculpt our financial lives into a pretty nice sized sand castle. Many of those castles are more than 5,000 square feet with bathroom suites with double shower heads, gourmet kitchens  and entertainment rooms featuring 48 inch flat screens and sound around sound (the audience is listening).

 

At the beginning of last year, Lehman  Brothers paid out $8.7 billion in bonuses to their staff. Many of those hot shots getting seven figure bonuses for being able to hoodwink other rich guys (and a few middle class ones) into dumping real money (and some big corporations and governmental entities into dumping funny money) into the churning, soon to be burning American economy. I guess that if you held onto your seven figure bonus, it made it a lot easier on you to carry your belongings out in a cardboard box yesterday, while the soon to be not so big wigs at Lehman begged the Secretary of Treasury to assume some of the risk in a fire sale to whoever turned out to be the last sucker to buy Lehman stock. Alas, it was not to be, although Bank Of America swooped in and grabbed Merrill Lynch (we’re bullish on America) to add to their seemingly endless collection of down and out institutions. BOA is rapidly assuming the role of Mr. Potter in this newest production of “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

 

Potter: You and I were the only ones who kept our heads during the depression , you saved the Building and Loan and I saved everything else.”

 

George Bailey: “Well some might say that you stole everything else.”

 

When did we all move out of the rock neighborhood and begin to build our mansions upon the sand ? When did the great American dream turn into the great American scheme ? I guess that no one knows for sure. My belief is that it was the first time a fellow took his family to a big meal at “21” and paid for it with a Diners Club card, knowing that he did not have enough money in the bank to cover the check and hoping that he would have enough when the credit card bill came. After that, we quickly moved from a welfare economy, where a government redistributed income to “take care of  everything you need” to a consumer society where the government borrowed enough money to “give you everything you want.”Under the old system we taxed and spent, under the new system, we just spent. We  probably we reached our zenith a couple of years ago when it became possible to buy houses upon the sand even if your monthly income could never hope to support the monthly mortgage payment. The fact that we decided to do this at the same time that we began running a two country war and paying for drugs under Medicare probably  hastened the collapse of the sand houses a good deal.

 

Now we will get to see it all wash away, float out into the Gulf or the Atlantic or the Pacific. It is a terrible thing to have a nightmare, but it is much, much worse to wake up from a beautiful dream, especially an American dream, and find your bed filled with sand. “Great” is the “fall of it”.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Hurricane as Tragedy

Blow wind and crack your cheeks ! rage ! blow!

You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout

Till you have drench’d our steeples, drown’d our cocks…

Crack nature’s moulds, all germens spill at once,

That make ingrateful man !,     Shakespeare, The Tragedy of King Lear, Act III, Scene II

 

 

Ike has come and gone, but he will not be forgotten for many, many years. It was the Greeks who separated theatre into comedy and tragedy, different sides of the same coin. My father was never fond of Greeks. The man who would chastise you for the slightest negative remark,  racist, sexist or religious, once muttered something under his breath to me  to me as we walked away from a Greek convenience store owner. “What’s wrong with Greeks ?” I asked. “Oh, came his reply, they just kind of think that they started the whole thing.” Came the reply.

 

One of Dad’s favorite restaurants was Gaidos in Galveston. An ancient seafood palace begun by a Greek immigrant who started out selling  trout sandwiches to fishermen at the turn of the last century. I have no idea how Gaidos looks today. I assume that its plate windows are smashed and its roof in tatters, hopefully, unlike its contemporary, the Balinese room which floated away to sea on Friday night, there will be enough left of it to start over. If there is a will to start over.

 

That’s the real question. Why would anyone want to start over ? How many times can you get knocked down ? Can you get up after you have been knocked down this hard ? I guess we will see. My aforementioned father pronounced Galveston dead after Carla struck, 47 years ago this month. He was right in that it was never the same again in many respects, but it had begun a semi-renaissance of types over the last twenty years. The Strand had been redeveloped, new hotels and condominiums were built or were being built, you could almost hear the Phil Harris Orchestra over the ringing of the slot machines, as if Attorney General Will Wilson had never taken that  hatchet to the very symbol of Galvestonian independence. But it was not to be. Ike picked up where General Wilson left off.

 

Almost as hard as going through a hurricane is waiting one out from far away, when you have loved ones in the storm. It has gotten much easier though. Thanks to cell phones, I was never out of touch with my family in Houston. Their voices were calm and their serenity gave me an overly optimistic view of the tragedy right up until I started seeing the pictures of people floating off of their roofs wearing life jackets. There is a lifetime memory. This is not the time, nor the place to vent my feelings about adults who would subject their young children to something like this by ignoring a mandatory evacuation. But I am pretty sure that I will remember this and write about it at some future date. It is child abuse, pure and simple, and the state ought to treat it as such.

 

So with all the lights out, my old hometown of Houston tries to put itself back together again, which it will in short order. In the words of George C. Scott in “Dr. Strangelove”, I’m not saying that their hair didn’t get mussed, but they will bounce back. Galveston may be another story. As the planet warms, the storms seem to me to be getting more frequent and much wilder. What was once an every twenty five year event may soon be an every five year event, with more frequent precautionary  evacuations. I’m not so sure that that is much of a way to live. My guess is that a few of the citizens if the Island will agree with me.  Can’t see the developers of those skyscraper condos that were just finished over on west beach selling out anytime soon. Somewhere in Galveston there is just some tragic flaw, one that makes these tragedies inevitable. There comes a time when even the bravest stop fighting the inevitable.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Hurricane as Theatre

Galveston Island and low lying parts of Harris County are all but empty of  their citizenry  this morning as the first Hurricane to hit that area in twenty five years, and the strongest in almost fifty years ,takes aim on the Houston SMSA. I can only imagine the frenzy my old home town is going through this morning, as my old friend Bennett used to say “Nobody suffers like Houston”. And that is without media and governmental figures fanning the flames of what was already wide spread panic. Houston, historically, was the big winner in the Galveston Hurricane of 1900 and has always nervously looked over its shoulder in fear that karma in the form of an enormous storm would balance the books.

 

None of the Houston fears, many quite rational, would be quite as inflamed without the help of our Governor who yesterday used the term tsunami in describing the storm and said that he had access to computer models showing that without his ordered evacuation, 1.5 million people would lose their lives to Ike. I would say I doubt the computer models but that might be an insult to an inanimate object. Throughout the rest of the speech, Governor Haircut referred to 1.5 deaths, not 1.5 million deaths. Maybe that’s the model he really saw. 1.5 deaths over a weekend in Houston would be a net benefit to the city as long as everyone else stayed indoors. More people than that lose their lives in knife fights in bars off Telephone Road over the course of your average Houston Saturday night. This is the same Governor whom, for patriotic reasons, missed the first day of the recent Republican National Convention because “politics was not as important as saving lives”. When interviewed after the storm hit the next day he told a national news reporter that it was a matter of “Republican Governors in Republican states taking care of their people because that’s what we do.” You won’t see 2,000 people drown in Texas like you did in Democratic controlled New Orleans by God.

 

And speaking of New Orleans, recently spared a second disaster by an eyelash, it was announced from there this morning that those people feel a great appreciation for what Houston did for them  in the Katrina aftermath and want to return the favor, they also said that they were not opening any shelters, but had thousands of available hotel rooms at competitive rates. Come on down ! That may be the most heartfelt offer  I have heard since the Gulf War in 1991, when a car dealership just  outside of Fort Hood announced that they were proud of our fighting men and wanted them to know that  there at the dealership their sales personnel were “fighting to put them in a new car”.

 

Nine shelters have opened in Austin and Channel 8 sent their spunky girl reporter( I know, I know, but she really is a “girl reporter”, she can’t be more than 16) to Bastrop to interview refugees as they breakfasted at the Texas Grill  this morning. She   interviewed one family who had booked a room in San Saba. Let us pause here. You are escaping a Hurricane and can go anywhere you want (outside of a beach resort) and you choose San Saba ? What four star accommodations await them there ? Then an elderly woman who lived half a mile from the beach in a mobile home was interviewed and with little resignation said that she would have nothing to go home to. Her dwelling would be swamped and washed away. It really was a sad moment, but raised the question of why anyone would choose to live in a mobile home on the Gulf ?

 

All of this is without mentioning the 24 hour weather channels who report the storms in the same manner that CBS broadcasts a football game. Sure they want interested people to get the basic information, but mostly they are interested in the ratings. I’ll bet a thirty second commercial spot on the Weather Channel has to pay 10 time the normal rate during a Hurricane. I imagine that several hotels in the French Quarter have already bought up most of the time. Somewhere on a coastal highway, the intrepid Geraldo Rivera is speeding to the latest catastrophe. Like Teddy Roosevelt who “only wanted to die in battle” Geraldo knows that his best chance of becoming part of history will be to die bringing reports of twenty foot storm surges to the viewers of the Fox Network.

 

All of this would have a tinge of humor, instead of horror, to it if my aged mother did not still live in Houston, in a house that has survived a previous “storm of the century” but is uncomfortably close to the cement walls of Braes Bayou. My mom has already had a pretty bad one two punch this year and I suppose this is the icing on the proverbial cake. Lest you think that I am an ingrate for not moving my mother to Austin, let me just say that I checked and  there appeared to be no more room for her  at the Red Cross shelters. My brother, as readers of this blog know, is the only reliable son in the family, has moved in with her to see that she comes to no harm.

 

So we face another one, as long as men go “down to the sea” we will have to bare up to these disasters. It is our heritage, for we humans spent millions of years evolving so that we could climb out of the sea. But the sea is always there, ready to take us back home.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

The storms of our youth

“ We are running from the storms of our youth into more of the same.”  Thea Gilmore,  “Inverigo”

 

 

I walked with my mother into the A&P that Saturday in September, 1961. I saw something that I had never seen before. Panic on aisle four. Every housewife in the neighborhood was hastily filling up their “baskarts” with non-perishable food, distilled water, candles, batteries and masking tape, so as to better meet the coming Hurricane dubbed “Carla”. Carla was the seminal storm of my youth . It is the first time I recall knowing a storm by name. Other than for the Cuban Missile Crisis, it is the only time I ever saw the A&P run out of distilled water. The A&P also  ran out of masking tape during that October, 1962 crisis. As Kennedy negotiated with the Russians , I recall seeing people tapping up their windows in the hopes that it would prevent glass from flying into their home during a nuclear holocaust. Texans are an  optimistic bunch by nature. But I digress.

 

I thought about this as I watch Hurricane Ike bearing down on my hometown this morning. Hurricane preparation has changed since 1961. Today hundreds of buses are heading to Houston for a more or less orderly evacuation of part of the city. In 1961 people mostly stayed home to ride out the storm. Those that left piled the kids into the station wagon and drove off at the last minute to sponge off of some relatives for a few days in Austin or Dallas or west Texas. I sat on the street corner of Birdwood and Bob White as storm clouds gathered and watched the Woodums head up for Austin, Snuggles the Boston Terrier sticking her head out the window of the unairconditioned car. It was like they were going on a picnic.

 

My father was never one to panic. As the storm grew nearer and its fury increased until it became the largest hurricane in the history of the Gulf, my father downplayed the emergency. He set about taping and boarding windows, filled the bath tub and every available receptacle of the house with water and directed my mother to cook a big roast which he felt would feed the family for three days. Looking back on it, I wonder why he was not concerned about the lack of refrigeration for the beef which sat on our stove throughout the duration of the storm. Family lore says that he never really got worried until the most conservative of the local weathermen conceded that “we might be in for a little blow.”

 

Frankly, I did not know what to expect. There was not exactly a lack of news, it was just that there were few media outlets and they all went off the air by midnight and did not restart until the next morning. Then again, there was no way to broadcast much of the emergency. Cameras were the size of large outboard motors and could not be hand held. There were no satellites, no real news from outlying islands. There was just a guy on the news with a map and a black pen drawing squiggly lines that became fainter and fainter as the storm approached and the television picture began to turn into what we used to call “snow”. The last thing I recall seeing on Sunday before the family T.V. set went out was Joe Garagiola describing a game winning home run that Nelson Fox of the White Sox had hit against the Minnesota Twins. Then darkness slowly fell, the winds began to really pick up and a light rain began to fall. My father came home from one last run to the 7-11 and the family shut itself in and turned on the radio which would be our only source of information for much of the next couple of days.

 

Much is made now days of Dan Rather of Channel 11 establishing his reputation by driving to Galveston and lashing himself to a tree to report the effects of the storm. I don’t know that many folks could have seen very much  of that. T.V. antennas blew off of roofs and everyone’s electricity failed. Mostly you sat around by candlelight and commented that you sure had never seen rain like this before. Every few hours my family would eat a roast beef sandwich and have a warm soft drink or a drink out of the giant bottle of distilled water. They did have bottled water in those days, but it came only in the five gallon jugs. It was also distilled, the kind of water my mother used on her ironing and it  tasted flat and almost dead. I hated it. To my immense gratification, we never had to drink out of the bathtub.

 

When  the wind finally died down and the rain let up we all went out to see what God had wrought. To an eight year old, this was the most amazing thing of all. I had never seen fences and power lines blown down, trees literally ripped out of the ground, windows and gutters smashed and shingles blown off roofs . It was a sight to behold. We gathered up every kid in the neighborhood and walked barefoot around the block, risking typhus and electrocution so that we could report back that everything over on Ariel looked as bad as it did on Birdwood. When the T.V. finally came back on, we discovered that Galveston had been pretty well blown down, although because of the sea wall, had nowhere near the damage that it suffered in 1900. Still, Galveston has never been the same again. After a day or so, the refugees began to drift back to the neighborhood and, worst of all, we had to go back to school. But forever after, it was a badge of honor and point of great pride that you had ridden out and survived Carla. We talked about the storm for years, and over time the legend of it grew and grew. Only after Katrina did I finally admit out loud that some folks might have gone through a little worse in other storms As Ike (how can they name a storm after a nickname ? No one is christened “Ike”) comes in, reported and analyzed live for us twenty four hours a day, I realize the difference in what we used to go through. None of us were really scared. We did not have enough news reporters telling us how terrible things were going to be and how important it was to flee to high ground. we were happy in our ignorance, and in some ways I think that all of this reporting has made the storm experience even worse. Good luck to those in the path of Ike. I will be praying for you. Keep a look out for Dan Rather, he does not have a lot to do these days.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Depends on your definition of Sexual Relations, and perhaps the length of your arms

While I have no time to write about it today, I did want to point out a wonderful statement in the newly released report of scandal in the Bush Department of Interior. It seems that a certain Mr. Smith of that department was engaging in sexual relationships with some employees of companies he was negotiating with on behalf of you and I and the rest of the taxpayers. The report notes:  “Sexual relationships with prohibited sources cannot, by definition, be considered arms length.”

The feeling of Impending Doom

Every standard test for depression, after they ask you if you are going to kill yourself, asks the following question: Do you have a feeling of impending doom ? An affirmative answer to this question and some others (“Do you have trouble pulling the covers from over your head and ever getting out of your bed ?, Have you stopped eating all together ?, are you eating more now than you ever have ?”.) will give a trained therapist a clue as to whether you are suffering from clinical depression.

 

The real problem is that sometimes the reason that you have a feeling of impending doom is because doom is impending. Several people on the Titanic had it when they were told their ship had struck an iceberg, a good many of the passengers on the Hindenburg had it when they noticed flame on the dirigible and the respective Presidents of Fanny Mae and Ginny Mae must have had a feeling something like that when their receptionists buzzed them the other day to announce that there was a group of people from the Federal Government in the reception area who wanted to have a little chat.

 

My belief is that anyone in this country who does not have a feeling of impending doom is not paying very close attention. Doom may not be impending but it is certainly doing a very good job of appearing to be impending right now. As the financial crisis moves from sector to sector, financial to real estate to insurance with no firewall able to stop the conflagration, it is possible to get a little concerned about the future of the American way of life ?Somewhere in Beijing and Shanghi,right now, there is a discussion going on about whether it makes sense to continue to buy American debt. Would you buy it ? From a country that has essentially guaranteed every mortgage in the country. Folks, you better demand a good yield on those savings bonds. You can get as excited as you want about the Presidential election, but all the winner will be able to do is make a start in cleaning up the mess. What this election calls for is a Churchill to offer nothing but “blood, toil, tears and sweat” and these yo-yos are debating among themselves as to  which economic class deserves a tax cut and whether the term "lipstick on a pig" was meant to apply to the governor of Alaska. Talk about diddling while Rome burns.

 

On the other hand, it may be that things are not so bad at all and that I am just clinically depressed. Gosh I have been hungry a lot lately.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Mavericks

Who is the tall dark stranger there ?

Maverick is the name.

Ridding the trail to who knows where,

Luck is his companion

Gamblin’ is his game.      Theme song from the television show “Maverick” starring James Garner

 

 

If you had a dime for every time the Republicans said maverick last night you could buy yourself a Euro. Of course before the Republicans took power in 2001 you could have bought yourself two Euros. It is interesting to see a party running against itself on primetime television, asking to be able to come in to fix the mess that they themselves made, priding themselves on two candidates who have stood up to their own party. One might think that if they were running against their own party, that they would not be so hard on the Democrats who, after all, are only trying to do the same thing.

 

The Democratic convention peaked too late and I believe that the Republican convention peaked too early. Governor Palin, eight years removed from her position in the Wasilla PTA made the forceful case on behalf on behalf of “Sam’s Club” members everywhere against those arugula eating elitists who will talk about you one way in Scranton and then laugh at you behind your back in San Francisco. The Republicans are plowing fertile ground and while I do not believe that they will win the present election, everyone seems to agree that the suburban Costco buyer is the Republican of the future. Those folks are neither black nor white, rich nor poor, city nor rural, they are the struggling middle class who make enough not to have to have an adjustable mortgage, are underwater on their SUV loan and can’t  send their kids to private school unless they give up their health insurance. And Sarah Palin knows how to speak to them.  If she is not running for President herself in eight years, it is only because of some future screw up. If she stays on course, she could be the face of the 20s.

 

So where does that leave the “short gray stranger” ? The Maverick of 2000, 2004 and 2008 ? Playing second fiddle to the future, that’s where. A footnote in the struggle between the recovery of Camelot under the Obamas and the return of Nixon, the original Republican “ have not”, the one who ended the Rockefeller wing of the party forever. It is hard to get elected when you are not even the star at your own convention, as McCain will soon find out. Make no mistake about it, those folks last night were cheering a hard working mother of five trying to balance a job with five children, one baby with Down’s Syndrome , one teen who is pregnant and one young man on the way to the killing fields of Iraq. And who despite all of that still had the spunk to poke Obama right in the eye with a sharpened stick, crafted over the last week by some of the meanest speech writers in the nation. She spoke for each evangelical suburbanite who has felt looked down upon by some ageing Yuppie at work, those who feel that their fundamentalist religious beliefs are considered a joke by the media and the scientific community, who think that the flag is not a symbol of something grand and powerful but is itself grand and powerful, to be saluted and potrayed in high definition on a jumbotron at a political convention or a football game (go ‘Bama ! ). In short, these are the Babbitts  of the twenty first century.

 

 

So as McCain “rides the trail to who knows where” hoping that “luck is his companion” and understanding that “gamblin’ is his game”, we await his acceptance tonight in the Twin Cities. Watch him closely, we shall not see his like again in the Republican party for a long, long time.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Palin's Big Night

An all time record number of viewers will tune in tonight to see governor Palin’s acceptance speech. Many will tune in to see if she will be wearing that tight leather mini-skirt from the picture of her that is currently  circulating on the web. Many will tune in for the same reason they drop by a side show at the circus or read People magazine, to gawk at the subject matter. Many will want to see if the former (and perhaps present) Pentecostal  will actually speak in tongues or  handle serpents while on stage. I think that most Americans (at least a bare majority) will simply be curious as to how the former Mayor of Wasilla will do on one of the world’s biggest stages.

 

Because of her background, there is a temptation to think of Palin as the Mayor of that town that used to be portrayed on “Northern Exposure”. My wife likens her to Maurice Minnifield, the former astronaut who ran that town. I prefer to think of her as the mayor of Mayberry, either the little fat one who urged Jimmy Stewart to kiss Donna Reed in “It’s a Wonderful Life”, or the snarling sarcastic one who used to play the role of “Darb”, one of Ozzie Nelson’s buddies on the “Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet”. I suspect that we will find that Palin is like neither of these types. I expect her to be more like the pregnant North Dakota cop in “Fargo”. Like that woman, I suspect that most people will find Palin endearing if they can get past her unfortunate accent.

 

Librarians nationwide may soon turn out in force against her. She apparently wanted to ban certain books from the library in Wasilla. I’m not sure that this book banning is that big a deal. Cities ban library books all the time. They do it in the intake process. If a library does not think that a book should be on the shelf, they will simply not order it. That is a censorship just as sure as yanking the book off the shelf, it is just done in secret. Admit it, if you and I ran the library (there is a Doctor Seuss book by that title) we would keep a pretty good handle on what books were let in. For starters I would go down to the airport and ban anything that was being sold at the newsstands there. That would get rid of most of the really bad fiction and “How to Make a Billion dollars” books that clutter up libraries, bookstores and airplanes across the country. I would also ban the biography of any movie star who was never nominated for an Oscar. I can’t believe that people actually read biographies of Suzanne Summers and Marylou Henner. I would also ban books by Lance Armstrong, whom I find  obnoxious, but that is admittedly  a personal prejudice.

 

Who knows ? Maybe those are the kinds of books Palin wanted to ban, not ones about  gay cowboys or gay penguins or old musty volumes of “Tropic of Cancer”. In fact, if Palin will stand up and denounce self help books tonight, she has my vote. Maybe she’s not into censorship, maybe she just has good taste (the leather mini-skirt not withstanding). That husband of hers looks like a real reader, possibly a Cheever fan. He is probably in a book club in Wasilla, maybe even one that reads Jane Austin.

 

I think that in the end we will all decide that there is only one valid reason to vote against Palin,and it’s a damn good one, his name is John McCain.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Knocked up is not knocked out

I awoke on Saturday to my wife’s version of the initial Sarah Palin rumor, that she had hidden her daughter Bristol’s pregnancy and taken the child to raise as her own. This scenario, which is played out on many television shows, most recently, “Desperate Housewives” is so familiar to the American people that it seemed plausible to many. Especially  so when combined with the Governor’s story that she went into labor before making a speech in Dallas, made the speech and then flew back to Alaska on a commercial airline, while in labor, to have the baby. Not a lot of folks elect to get on an airplane for a ten hour flight  while in labor. As it turns out, of course, Bristol Palin, teenage daughter of Her Honor is pregnant by a kid who looks like he might work at an Anchorage Safeway. Rumors die hard however, when I confronted my wife with the fact that Bristol was going to have a baby she replied, “Sure, her second one.”

 

Putting aside the biological odds against this happening, it shows just how much a politically motivated person like my wife is willing to believe in the heat of the campaign. Especially a person who probably saw this happen numerous times on “All My Children” and so  does not look upon the story as particularly unusual. The fact of the matter is that this is a “dog bites man story”, three out of every ten  teens in this country get pregnant every year, with 90% of the pregnancies being unplanned. I assume  that the teen pregnancy rate is higher in Alaska where the nights are six months long. Think about it. It’s pitch dark and 25 below, what else have these kids got to do ?

 

Having said all of this, these Palin gals are certainly the poster children for the Right to Life movement. Here, within a few months they are given two chances at an abortion that, if statistics are to be believed, a good majority of the American people would understand, and they elect to carry the babies to term. One thing we can say about Governor Palin, she is no hypocrite.

 

In the end, this is a non-issue in a political campaign. There will be enough questions about the viability of Governor Palin as a candidate without getting down into the mud and slinging same over an issue that only  matters to Republicans anyway. Democrats all believe in free love, albeit with effective contraception. It would be pretty nervy of them to use it as an issue when their own candidate’s mother gave birth to him at the ripe old age of 18. Being the father of an 18 year old daughter, I am not insensitive to the Palin’s feelings on this, and I hope and assume that the story will go away.