Thursday, December 23, 2004

If You're Screwed, You're Screwed

For today's column I want to talk about how "Science Marches On!" I am very excited about a new discovery that finally gets at the underlying truth about life neither being a rose garden nor a bowlful of cherries. It also deepens the theory that the Rich Get Richer While the Poor Get Poorer, by sinking it to the level of biology and the reproduction of cells. It’s a very factual new discovery that is so scientific and at the same time so scary that it could make the basis for a great new film to bum out kids in high school.

The discovery is a long time coming. I remember reading in history books that way back in the Dark Ages the silly Dark-Ages-people all thought that life was "essentially" a waiting room experience with one good magazine that everyone fought over until they remembered that none of them could read, and then you died and went to heaven.

Then, in the Renaissance, science started, and all the beginner scientists started to believe that life blew. It wasn't until the 1800's before science-greats like Darwin and other guys who actually knew things figured out that life really sucks, as we now know today.

But it is one thing to know that life sucks. It is quite another to know HOW life sucks, or to possess the video. This is where 21st century scientists have it all over 19th century scientists: even though they aren't as smart, there's lots more of them, so when you put them all together they end up knowing more. Besides, they have cell-phones and digital cameras and laptops.

Anyway, here it is. Scientists just learned last month that if you experience long-term hardship, and if you experience it as chronic stress, then your telomeres will shrivel up. This is bad, the scientists say, because telomeres are the tips-of-the-shoelace thingies at the end of your chromosomes that need to be big and long so that your cells can divide and multiply. So it's like, you know, with shriveled telomeres your cells might as well be neutered, and pretty soon the cells you have die without replacements, and so do you.

There's more: they've actually figured out how much shriveling happens. As much shriveling happens in a typical case that we are talking about losing roughly a year of lifespan for each year of stress experienced. Give or take a month or two.

So let's say someone, we'll call him Herbert, was genetically predisposed to live 70 years if his life went as well as it does for normal people. But suppose instead the beginning of his life, for the first 35 years, is a genuine living hell, comparatively speaking. According to our old understanding we would have thought that at least Herbert would have had a second 35 years left to him during which things might start looking up. But now we know that Herbert's telomeres will be entirely useless as of his 35th birthday and Herbert will die of premature old age within days. Or a couple of years. Or he's already dead. Approximately.

Now, some see a silver lining to this discovery. They point out that the telomeres only shrink if you experience the stress. In other words if you don't know you're miserable you won't suffer the ill effects of it. Right, that's it, I could just whack myself up-side my head so hard I don't notice anything at all ever again.

No, there are only two alternatives. Either you're so stupid you not only don't know when you're suffering you also can't fully know when you're having a good time, i.e., you're a fish, metaphorically speaking. Or else you're a sentient being and every year that you suffer you lose that much opportunity to make up for it.

So we may sum up this new discovery as follows. If you're screwed, you're screwed. Unless you're stupid, in which case you're screwed.

Has there ever been a time when we could so clearly see the need for justice as this? Let's stop putting people through genuine living hells, at least until we can find a way to enlarge telomeres.

Thursday, December 9, 2004

Get Rich Quick

Last time we mentioned the homeless Kenyan teenager who found a roughly $5000 prize while urinating in a Nairobi park. As we said then, our motivation in mentioning that story was mainly to be able to use the word "urinating" repeatedly. As you can see, it can continue to serve that purpose.

But just when we were thinking that the Kenyan's story was one of a kind, we saw this one concerning a homeless Dallas man. Jay Sherman found out that a plate that his great-aunt passed on to him really came from the Titanic, the sinking of which she survived. The Czech company that originally made the plate has corroborated the story of Jay Sherman's great-aunt, certifying that the plate is one of theirs and one of a set made exclusively for use on the Titanic. So Mr. Sherman put it on E-bay with an asking bid of $49,995. As of this writing we don't know if any bids of that magnitude have been made but we are definitely rooting for Jay.

We are so happy for him and so much want him to succeed that if anyone out there were to come up with $49,985, we would kick in the last ten dollars to make the sale happen. That's a promise from me, Wes "Always Poised to Help in a Token Way" Browning. (I am subtly acknowledging a failing. Please forgive.)

In my own experience the finest way to get out of any one particular bout of homelessness is to have someone related to you die and leave you money. I highly recommend that the inheritance be in the form of cash, preferably small bills, personally handed to you in a sack by the dying relative just at the last moment, so they can hear you graciously thank them before you get the hell out of there and rent an apartment.

In my own case I didn't get cash. The money was held up in probate for three years. It came in the form of a check from a lawyer and I had to split it 50-50 with the ex as per the divorce decree or I wouldn't have been allowed to cash it at all. But my half paid for a deposit and a month's rent, new clothes, and three month's worth of groceries, so I didn't complain.

Another technique that you can use to get out of being homeless is to have a close friend leave the state and bestow upon you his apartment with the deposit and a month's rent already paid, just because he thinks you’re a cool guy who deserves a break. It's not as good as cash from a dead person because you don't get to choose the neighborhood, but it beats the freeway underpass, on account of the extra walls.

Some people get out of homelessness by selling drugs. I don't recommend this technique at all because it is not only illegal but puts you in dangerous company. I only mention it in passing here because I hear a lot of people say that they're afraid of homeless people because they're all "drug dealers and prostitutes." I guarantee you, if anybody you meet is a drug dealer or a prostitute, and they're any good at it, they're making enough for a room. The same goes for diamond smugglers and professional car thieves. In fact, the only diamond smuggler I ever met owned a house near Wedgwood outright, with a huge yard and cherry trees and a turn-around driveway. People like that don't get rained on.

Another way to get out of homelessness is to have the incredible good fortune to live in a society where the general public understands that (a) homelessness is the result of long-standing public policy decisions that have over time eroded the supply of affordable housing causing hundreds of thousands of people to be priced out of the housing market and to thereby lose the means necessary to maintain their employability and make themselves viable consumers of commercial housing, and that (b) the same public (the general public who originally stood by and allowed those public policies to go into effect and in some cases even clamored for them) has the moral responsibility to correct the effects of those public policy decisions, even to altogether reverse them.

But we've got a long wait now before anything like that will ever happen. In the meantime, let's keep our eyes open while we urinate in parks used by treasure hunts to hide prizes, and let's inherit plates imagined to have great historical value by folks with more money than they need.

Wednesday, November 24, 2004

Like Nipples on a Dude

Let's take some time off from News We Can Use and have us a short helping of Useless News!

I enjoy useless news, and what could be more useless than learning that, recently, a homeless 17 year-old Kenyan found a more than 5000 dollar treasure hunt prize while urinating in a Nairobi park? Evans Kamande found a small box, with a piece of paper inside, between the forks of a cactus. The paper turned out to be a voucher for the prize, which Mr. Kamande later collected from the local radio station that had been conducting the treasure hunt.

What possible use could we get from that? Maybe if we played the lottery we could conclude that we might be better off urinating in city parks. But, realistically, what are the odds that a Nairobi radio station would leave a voucher for a cash prize in Denny Regrade Park? So all we get is an excuse to use the word "urinating" repeatedly. But we could have done that without the excuse!

Here's some useless news from Graz, Austria. Professors from the Karl Franzens University there are taking part in a project to bring the news to the homeless of Austria's second largest city that laughter is the best medicine.

That's right. Frolicking, happy-go-lucky, Austrian university professors are spreading the word to homeless people in shelters and drop-in-centers that if they would just laugh more their immune systems would work better. Here is an actual translation of an actual hilarious quote from the "act" of one of these professors: "Phrases such as laughing yourself sick should actually be turned around to read laughing yourself well." STOP, I'm NOT in stitches! I'm well!

Sure, it would be useful if homeless people learned to laugh better. It might also help if they got plenty of sleep and avoided sweets. But how about getting them shelter?

OK, that brings us to news concerning world-famous Australian architect Sean Godsell. This guy designs cheap housing intended to shelter the homeless. His works include a converted shipping container that has been on display at the Smithsonian design museum in New York, and a bus shelter house – a bus shelter by day, a homeless shelter by night.

How does that qualify as useless news? Well, ask yourself, why are these things always in museums and never in use? In order for a shelter idea to be useful, people have to permit it to be used. What good is a bus shelter house when every transit system in the world is so hostile to the homeless that they not only wouldn't want to install Godsell's creations but they would furiously destroy existing bus shelters wherever homeless people rest at them?

Godsell also has designed a park bench shelter. It's a park bench by day and a safe home out of the weather for someone at night. They say the only problem with it is, no city will have it. And when cities don't want something that tends to be the end of it. Except for homelessness itself, of course. That, you can't legislate away.

Which brings us to the least useful news of all. No more useful than that the sun will rise tomorrow. No more useful than that George Foreman has a kid named George. No more useful than my left nipple: knowing that the neighbors N don't want a shelter in neighborhood X. (X can take on any value in the universe of all neighborhoods, and N can be any subset of the residents of X.)

Like, duh.

Guess what, some Kirklanders don't want Tent City 4 in Kirkland! Wow. You could knock me over with a feather. A twenty-pound feather with a three-foot handle.

Useless: "Not in my neighborhood." Useful: "What can I do to help?"

Useful is rare, useless is everywhere.

Thursday, November 11, 2004

Bitter Sleeping Pill

Well, here we are. It's the Dawn of a New Day, America Has Spoken, the fat lady has sung, and birds everywhere have flown south for four years.

The good news: expect a resurgence of Fifties-ish-style paranoia to feed a renaissance of the paranoia-genre of horror-scifi movies. With modern cgi technology and the experience of this year's election under our collective-consciousness belt, we can look forward to some terrific movies. Titles like the Attack of the Evangelical Masters, or Night of the Living Neocons, or Invasion of the Constitution Snatchers spring to mind, but I'm sure talented writers could sublimate them way up better than I could. Sublimation was never my forte. Vomit is my forte.

So tell me, do I sound bitter? Good, because I'd hate to sound like I was living a lie or in denial or anything like that. No, unlike 51% of whatever percent of America bothered to vote, I live in the world of Reality, not the world of Bush-Think. So if I'm bitter I'm going to know it, and I'm not going to care if I show it.

I don't mind the country's election choice nearly so much as the transparent mind meltingly bombastic canard of Cheney et al to the effect that George W. Bush now has a significant mandate. He does not. That the numbers of voters that put Bush over the top was a record does not erase the fact that the numbers that voted for Kerry was a record also. For an incumbent running for a second term, 3% is a slim margin. That was no landslide and I would put far more faith in the Bush Administration if it didn't consist of such cowards in the face of the truth that they couldn't even admit it and proceed from there.

If the administration can't rule without propagating fantasy after fantasy, then all of America will get into the act.

Do I sound bitter? Let's see, in news from Texas we've already returned to the days of after-school specials. The decision by voters all across America to affirm the lie that denying marriage to gays is justified has already begun to be followed by orders to require textbooks rewritten to reflect the majority opinion. As if elections determined matters of fact.

The precedent could lead to interesting new forms of oppression. For instance we can expect Texas to hold a state-wide initiative soon to decide Yes On Creationism, bypassing that whole free scientific discussion crap. Then when it passes, they'll announce that the majority has called it true so it's true. Schoolbooks will be rewritten, fools will gloat over the fall of the wise, and it won't be overturned because Bush will have, by then, installed additional fools in the Supreme Court.

In October 2001 I expressed the fear that the terrorists may win, because they might have succeeded in bombing us back to the Fifties. Well, it's happened. "What, Me Bitter?"

Hey, what's the worst that could happen? Sure, a man who's already prosecuted the first totally unprovoked war in American history based on fabrications has his finger on the red button. Sure, an arrogant blasphemer who thinks he's God's all-time favorite president has the power to destroy our environment for the sake of his corporate buddies, and he has the character and temperament to tell us it's for our own good and the Greater Glory of God. Sure, a "servant of the people" that thinks Habeas Corpus, the right to a swift and speedy trial, and the right to be free of unwarranted searches are all obsolete concepts has now got almost complete control of government. But you have to get over it, right?

So in the interest of getting over it, I propose a further slide into irrationality and denial and fantasy. Lets all say black is white and white is black and have us a four-year carnival of lunacy.

The terrorists are on the run. Osama is scared of the terrible visage of George W. Bush, Man of God and Macho Ace National Guard Pilot. If the terrorists do by chance succeed in striking America again, it will have been Bill Clinton's fault. Gays will never endanger our marriages again. Speaking out against a government of liars is an attack on America.

Sweet dreams, one and all.

Thursday, October 28, 2004

Nightmare of Elm Street

This is my last chance to yap about the 2004 presidential election before it happens. Also, I have no idea as of this writing how the World Series has developed, either. So let's talk about a metaphor!

The metaphor I have in mind has to do with the fact that I learned at an early age to dislike sports. I have told a part of this tragedy before. How I wore glasses in grade school. How, when it came time for us kids to play baseball for gym class, my teacher realized the threat that my glasses posed if I were hit in the face with a baseball. As she herself put it, my glasses would break into deadly razor sharp shards and pierce my eyes on their way to my brain, where doctors would be helpless to remove them, and I would either die in violent throes of agony, or I would be a vegetable for the rest of my life.

Therefore she made me go out and play right-field blind. Therefore I was hit on the head with a ball which I could not see coming. Therefore I did not die or become a vegetable, thank you teacher. Instead, I became traumatized for life.

Actually, I had already been traumatized for life three years earlier. That was when my father took me to a Red Sox game. I was six, and I had never seen a baseball game before. At the time we lived at Fort Devens, an army base about 35 or 40 miles from Fenway Park, so seeing the Red Sox was well within reach. It's also relevant that we were living on a street named after a Civil War battle, Chancellorsville Street. It has since been renamed Elm Street -- this is absolutely true -- to make it easier to spell.

You see, when I went to that Red Sox game, I thought the idea was to watch a baseball game, yell on behalf of the good guys, eat some hotdogs, see them win, and go home happy. My father had neglected to tell me that the good guys don't always win.

All he had to do to prepare me was to explain to me what our street name was about. Namely, what did transpire at Chancellorsville, Virginia in early May 1863, when they had the aforementioned battle? He could have said, "Son, we live on Chancellorsville Street. Have I ever told you what happened in the Battle of Chancellorsville?" And I could have said, "No, Dad, you suck. You're always watching Lawrence Welk. You never tell me anything." And he could have smacked me.

Or, he could have told me that when the Battle of Chancellorsville was over, General Robert E. Lee was generally considered the winner, since he had got the higher score. And this would have taught me that the other side (we, my father and I, being Northerners) sometimes wins.

Or, he could have really bored me to tears. He could have told me that, actually, General Lee went into the battle with only about half as many men as his opponent General Hooker, so the higher casualties on Hooker's side in fact represented a smaller percentage of losses for his total forces, and he was thus left with the larger force at the end, so you could very well say that the Union side won after all, so there.

Or, my father could have said that it was exactly during the Battle of Chancellorsville that Stonewall Jackson was fatally shot. Who knows, but maybe that particular casualty by itself cost the Confederates the whole War.

Or, he could have said, go read about it in a book, I'm too busy watching Lawrence Welk to talk to you now.

In any case, I could have learned that winning and losing isn't always what it looks like. I could have learned that the Red Sox could lose that game in 1955 but might still have a chance to win the World Series in 2004, or 2005, or someday after I'm dead. I could have been prepared for the 2000 presidential election, when the guy with the best score lost.

So what is the moral of our story? The moral is, don't demand that street names have to be easy to spell. What do elm trees have to do with presidential elections and baseball games? Nothing. So leave the names of streets alone.

Thursday, October 14, 2004

Tells of Indecision

Let's talk about the undecided!

There have already been a lot of people doing that. For example, just last Sunday, Andy Rooney, a TV commentator and veteran of the Hundred Years War, more or less came out and said that the people who haven't decided how to vote in the presidential election coming up are stupid.

That was very insensitive of Mr. Rooney, and we, of course, would never choose to emulate his politically incorrect example, however tempted we were.

Still, you've got to wonder, don't you? I mean, Bush and Kerry have each been around a while. They've been arguing with each other since Friends went off the air. The third party candidates have all declared their positions in detail. Some of them have run for president before. There's been nothing on TV but reruns and that Vanuatu junk, so there've been no distractions there. So what's it going to take to get the undecided to make up their minds? Do we have to buy them all beers and salted nuts?

Did you all notice how the audience at the Town Hall debate between Bush and Kerry included undecided would-be voters selected by the Gallup organization? I bet some of you imagined that to pick undecided voters you should just get a bunch of folks into a room, ask who all is decided, and then tell the ones who didn't raise their hands to get in the van. But if you think that's how it is done, that just shows how unscientific you are when it comes to undecidedness.

Actually spotting someone who is undecided about the 2004 presidential election requires great ingenuity, talent and professional experience. If you or I did it, we'd probably be still looking. But the Gallup guys got the job done right on time, and they probably only charged more than all the money I've ever seen in my life put together.

Just how do you find the undecided? Well, like finding the homeless, the gay, the vegetarian, the Scrabble enthusiast, the ambidextrous, or the Irish, it takes a keen eye and a deep familiarity with the culture of the target.

First, you must weed out unlikely subjects. You rule out anyone wearing a hat for instance. Anyone who can pick out a hat and commit to it for even a day can decide among this year's presidential candidates. It is no accident that there were so few hats in the audience of the Town Hall debate. The one guy with the beret just wandered in to bum cigarettes.

Do the socks match? Here's a dead give-away: right sock red, left sock blue. But other mismatches can also tell a woeful tale of indecision.

Pollsters regularly make use of vast archives of data from past surveys, which they share among themselves freely. So the Gallup people knew to contact the Pepsi people and obtain their extensive listings of people who couldn't complete the Pepsi Challenge. Gallup itself has amassed long lists of people who don't know if O.J. did it, or if Nixon should resign or not, or whether the Vietnam War was a good idea or not.

You know you might have someone who is undecided if they aren't sure whether we've been to the moon. Maybe we have, maybe it was a hoax, who knows? You might have an undecided person if they're waiting to choose between creationism and evolution for the final definitive study on the subject. Or they think there may be an answer nobody's thought of, perhaps dealing with can-openers.

When, looking for the undecided, you see someone who has a Pro-Life or Pro-Choice bumper sticker on their car, let them pass. You don't want to talk to the people who've made up their minds about stem-cell research, any of them would have no trouble deciding who to vote for. The people you want are folks who think maybe we shouldn't rush into this women's suffrage thing until we've looked at all sides of the issue.

They say there are still 5 million undecided voters for president in this country. Yikes.

Thursday, September 30, 2004

A Mutual Oral Act

Hooray! We're finally getting presidential debates! We are all suitably excited to see our great democracy in action, which we look forward to being imitated by all the nations of the world, especially backward nations where all people believe in false religions and use props!

That's right, we don't live in Gallagherstan. Our political parties have agreed that there will be no use of props by the candidates during the debates (which begin the evening of the day this issue appears, if the canary doesn't die.) So we won't have to see Bush draw Osama's face on a watermelon and then smash it. Kerry will not use ketchup in any way to "brand" his campaign. No one will stick his head in a rubber glove and blow. Both candidates will have to blow on their own.

And they will, if these debates go on. Thanks to the now infamous 32-page Memorandum of Understanding, the candidates are not allowed to do much else. As a result there is now general agreement throughout the country that these will not actually be debates. Critics have suggested various other characterizations, such as "scripted joint speeches" and "bi-partisan press conferences." I like the terms "un-debates" or "unbates" for short. "Planned verbal events" would be accurate.

Even the so-called Town Hall debate planned for October 8 doesn't allow for any spontaneous questioning. While the president's own rare press conferences have allowed follow-up questions from reporters, don't expect any of that at the Town Hall debate.

The questions asked in all the debates will be screened by the moderator, so might as well just be his or her questions. Neither candidate will be allowed to address the other. At the Town Hall event they've even gone so far as to ensure that the areas that Bush and Kerry move about in will not over-lap. No horseplay! No extended shots of Bush standing next to Kerry showing Kerry's five-inch height advantage!

There will be no imitations of Ed Sullivan introducing celebrities in the audience. You will not hear Bush say, "I want you all to give a warm round of applause to Donald Rumsfeld, that's him right there in the third row, Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld take a bow…" because the Memorandum of Understanding explicitly makes that sort of thing Verboten.

The Memo of Understanding gets especially surreal where it grinds on about how the questions in the Town Hall debate will not be limited as to topic in any way, and then immediately adds that the number of questions on foreign policy and homeland security must equal the number on economics and domestic policy. So in the reality of our two major political parties "not limited" officially means "limited." Why am I not surprised?

I saved the worst rule of the Memorandum for last. That one states that the candidates who participate in the presidential debates may not only not debate each other in any other forums besides the three agreed upon, but they are also specifically forbidden to debate candidates of any other parties before the election. We all knew that neither Bush nor Kerry wanted to debate Nader, say, but now they have tried to make it look like they can't do it because their hands are tied – "Our campaigns had to agree to this Memorandum." Right, and their campaigns wrote the Memorandum.

Here's something to look for in the debates, especially the first one. Watch for the candidates to stretch the rules (the rules that they themselves insisted upon) in order to show what mavericks they are. When Bush shows how macho he is by breaking the rule against directly questioning Kerry, and Jim Lehrer tells him he can't do that, look for the smirk. When Kerry proves he has what it takes to be a leader by taking bold and decisive action to step briefly away from the podium, watch how he then shows his sun-shiny personable side when he steps back.

After all, the first debate is all about who's going to defeat the terrorists. Everybody knows we're not going to defeat the terrorists by playing by the rules, right?

Likewise, we're not ever going to have a democracy in America so long as the Democrats and the Republicans continue to evade real political debate this way.

Thursday, September 16, 2004

Famous Lamous

OK. I was in a really foul mood when I was writing this column for last issue, and that may have caused me to froth excessively. But to refer to it as "my lamest column ever" as one person did is simply ignorant. My lamest column ever was in fact the Sept. 1, 1997 column, which opened with the words "In a world of Labrador Retrievers, I am a duck!! (OHHH YES!! OH YYESSS!! A DUCK, I AM, a DUCK, oooooooh yesss!)," and ended with the sad admission that I was not a duck after all. When I think of lame, I think of that column, which forever set the standard of lame for all columns everywhere.

There is absolutely no possibility that any new column I write will ever be as bad as the duck column, owing to the superiority of my current anti-psychotic medication. Still, I want to try. Because, what is life without hope? If we don't challenge our challenges, what will we challenge? I, for one, vowed long ago that I would not surrender to a shallow, vain, pursuit of excellence.

I could just write "I suck" 400 times and turn that in as a column. The management of this rag has assured me that they are prepared for that eventuality. There is in fact a not-very-secret document in a file cabinet in the back room entitled "Wes sucks" that provides no less than two plans. Plan A is to run an old column (preferably the duck masterpiece.) Plan B is to go ahead and print "I suck" 400 times and to sign my name to it.

But that would be too easy not only for me but everyone else involved. It would give the proofreader too little to do. I would not feel as though I had earned my complimentary copies. Homeless activists everywhere would be disappointed because I hadn't been active enough, they want me to break a sweat. At least every other line I should insert the words "and homelessness sucks too" in order to stay on topic.

So I am always on the lookout for creative new ways to suck without merely saying so. That's why I need television.

Without television and the great communicators that communicate to me on television, I would not know how to be as lame as I am. That's why I have shacked up with a sexy rich woman, Anitra "Pay-Pal" Freeman. I sweep the floor, buy the groceries and do the dishes. In return my woman buys TV and TV access for me. It's all so I can watch Andy Rooney and learn. ("Have you ever noticed how bourgeois I am?" is an actual quote. So is "Why do you think my head is so big?" and "Have you ever noticed lots of people call themselves people-persons but nobody ever calls themselves a thing-person?" )

Thanks to television and to its cousin the internet, I have learned that the only thing that matters to most Americans is the quality of middle-class life. Even poor people in this country don't really care about what other poor people are doing or how things are going to get better so that there won't be any poor people. All they care about are the latest adventures of middle-class people like they wish they were.

But I digress. What's important here is finding creative ways to be lame. So what I want to do today is to join the chorus of hand wringing over the fate of the middle-class in America. How about if I call attention to the tragedy of middle-class homelessness? Here we go:

"That's right. This is a huge problem, people. Every day tens of middle-class people become homeless. I'm not talking here about people who were middle-class who suddenly became poor and are now living on the streets. I'm talking about people who still are middle-class and are now living on the streets.

"OK, they aren't really living on the streets because no one with money would do that. But they're living in motels and hotels and RVs. Some of them are even living in Mexico, being forced to read Spanish for Travelers dictionaries and listen to Berlitz tapes at night.

"It is all the more a tragedy because these people pay the taxes that pay the truck drivers to deliver our government cheeses, and yet no one considers their plight(s)."

Yes! As lame as the campaigns!

Thursday, September 2, 2004

Squawking the Squawk

Lately we have been musing much upon the distinction between the rant and the rage.

Well actually, I just lied right off the bat in my first sentence there, since one muse doesn't amount to much "much", and really what I've been doing is ranting. But "much" is such a nice monosyllable, how can I resist it?

Then again, hey, if I muse at all, that interrupts the flow of my rants, so it's a big deal, right? Maybe that was a lot of musing after all. Yeah, that's it. I mused once. For 30 seconds I stopped yelling at the insane idiots presented to me in all their glory by CNN. So now I'm a regular philosopher. Pretty soon I'm going to be so thoughtful, I'm going to read a book. I'll show those idiots what "much" can mean.

"So, Dr. Wes, you say you mused. What, pray tell, was the content of your musing?" -- you might now be asking, if you were someone who talked like that.

Here's what I think is the difference. Let's say an idiot says something idiotic on the television. Subsequently throwing my shoe through the screen at the electronic image of Tucker Carlson, a right-wing CNN opinionator, would definitely be indicative of a rage. Merely uttering long strings of verbiage suggesting that Tucker Carlson had to be raised by whores because his real mother wasn't house-trained, or suggesting that Tucker was named for an alarming personal habit he developed when he was two and still hasn't kicked, or suggesting that Tucker Carlson "sleeps" with a ventriloquism puppet called "Sleeper" Carlson -- none of that would necessarily indicate rage (unless, of course, it was mean-spirited.) But it would definitely be a rant, because it would consist of words coming out of my mouth. OK, that wasn't a good example.

Let me illustrate it another way. Let's say I were a Vietnam War Vet, which I'm not, and suppose that some other Vietnam Vet in 1971 said some things that I interpreted as casting aspersions on me and still other fellow Vietnam Vets as yet undetermined. Were I to say that what that guy said in 1971 was a crock (which it wasn't actually, when you hear it all in context, but I'm being hypothetical here) and therefore he is now and will forever be a poopy-head, that would be me ranting. But if I were instead to insist that John Kerry didn't deserve his Purple Hearts and that he somehow committed fraud to get them, that could very well be slander and I might very well be accused of rage.

Rage is when I think I've been hurt, so I try to hurt back. Rant is when I'm just mouthing off. Or to put it another way, rage is when you do it; rant is when I do it.

No, just kidding there. It's possible to be a little objective about it. Take for example Bob Dole's incredible idea that Kerry didn't deserve his Purple Hearts because he wasn't wounded enough.

We all know that Bob Dole was wounded enough. But we also know that you don't have to lose the use of an arm to get a Purple Heart. Bob Dole knows that. Bob Dole also knows that if he has a problem with the Navy's policy concerning who gets Purple Hearts, he's a very powerful man and he can take it up with the Navy. But Bob Dole isn't interested in the Navy's policy. He thinks he's been personally slighted and so Kerry has to pay for it. Bob needs to SUCK IT UP.

See? That was a rant. No one got hurt, the dog doesn't have a broken leg, there's no food on the floor or the walls, and nobody is on their hands and knees picking pieces of prized Japanese earthenware out of the carpet.

Now let's contrast that with what's going to happen if George Bush continues to insist that there is no way he can lose the upcoming election. I am going to start hurting deep down in that place I hate to go, that Floridian-Harris-chad place. I am going to start saying, "Oh yeah, and how would you know, Mr. Bush, would it be because the election is already fixed?"

Somebody better hide the tea set.

Thursday, August 19, 2004

The Blue Pen Creeps Me Out

It's getting close to primary election time. That means it's time for one of my columns full of insightful and astute observations in connection with the Washington State Primary.

My first insightful and astute observation is that the Washington State Primary is happening at all. How's that for a kick in the pants? A while ago there were political parties suing Washington State for having a primary that let nonmembers choose their candidates for them. Then the members of those parties (called politicians) voted for us to have a new kind of primary where nonmembers could still choose candidates for their parties. Then our governor, a member of a party, told themselves that their first choice for a primary system was no good, and that left themselves with their second choice, namely a system that lets nonmembers of the political parties choose their candidates for them.

Here's how you do it: when you go to the polls, you lie and put down that you're a Democrat. That's because this is Seattle, and Seattle is a "blue" city, so your vote has the biggest "impact", vote-wise, if you are a Democrat. Or, let's say this was Bellevue. Then you would lie and put down that you were a Republican. I'm just so glad that the parties now have a primary they like, so they will quit whining about freedom of association and get back to doing politics and making all our lives miserable.

Speaking of politicians making our lives miserable makes me think of Mark Sidran and my second insightful and astute observation, which concerns the "Frankenletter" I received yesterday by email. That is the letter of endorsement for Mark Sidran for Washington State Attorney General written by Al Franken, my hero, sent to me from Al's very own personal email address For those of you that haven't got one of these (maybe you aren't someone Al would know, like I am) Al Franken was a big shot writer and performer on Saturday Night Live who wrote a very funny book about Rush Limbaugh and who went to Harvard the same time Mark Sidran did, and who may or may not have once been in the same classroom with him. Therefore Al is endorsing Mark for WA State AG, even though Al lives in the Bahamas or the Azores or Malibu or someplace like that, and none of us really care who he thinks should be WA State AG, anyway.

My only insightful and astute observation regarding all this besides observing that I wish Mark Sidran had been a Yale grad, is that Mark and Al could have relieved themselves of a lot of that tension by renting a motel room for an hour or so, and that way I wouldn't have to think of the Frankenletter every time I think of Al Franken, my hero.

My third and final insightful and astute observation concerning the Washington State Primary, which will be held on September 14th, is that the pamphlets King County sent out to explain the King County ballots are way cool.

Right away the pamphlet is exciting for me because it has a freaky talking blue lady pen on the front of it, wearing a clicker on her freaking head. She is saying, "There's a change in our primary, not the General Election, just the primary." (I know she's a lady because she's wearing makeup and she has hips and her feet are microscopic. She's definitely someone's hot mama.) On the back page is the ringing endorsement of the Seattle Times, from their July 23 editorial, which said, "Ballots are more approachable than expected." That's what you need, ballots you can approach.

Hint: when approaching a skittish ballot, hold your hand out with your palm up and fingers extended. That shows it you mean it no harm and wish only to "pet" it. Then, when it smells the tips of your fingers, you can grab it by the scruff of its neck, pin it down, and fill in its ovals.

Just above the reassuring Times endorsement is this fantastic quote from Citizen Robert Marum: "No matter how you feel about the open primary system, your vote is too important not to take part in the election."

That's right Washington Staters, your votes mean so much, you should vote them. So don't forget to do that. Obey the freaky talking blue lady pen.

Thursday, August 5, 2004

Old Fart Wises Off

Good news! Thanks to the Democratic Convention occupying the media, there has been no actual news lately.

This gives us here at Adventures in Poetry – meaning by us, me, Copyright Dr. Wes Browning – a chance to take stock of our life. A chance to sniff the winds of our change and dip our toes into the pools of our stagnation. To audit the account books of the psycho-social-biological records of our historic being. To see to whence we have arrived, and from whence we have departed. And to see who or what is all that in the cargo hold, and why is there a woman in our bed wanting something.

Well, first of all, we are old. We just did the dreaded calculation and discovered that our current incarnation has been breathing air for 20,000 days and a little more than an extra hundred. As a mathematician, let us put that number in perspective. That's one more than 19,999. If he saw 20,000 Republicans laid end to end, Rush Limbaugh wouldn't raise any moral objections. Jules Verne talked about 20,000 leagues, but we don't know what a league is, we're a mathematician, not a damn encyclopedia. If you saw 20,000 pigeons flying toward you, you'd wish you had an umbrella, etc.

We once saw a guy walk on the moon live on television. We saw the assassination of an assassin live on television. We saw several wars live on television, so many that we lost count, sometime around about Panama. Most of them we're unnecessary and a huge waste of lives, health, and money.

History used to happen in black and white, but now it's always in color. Conversely Red Square isn't red anymore. There's nothing left for conservatives to be better dead than, which must be disorienting for them.

We have lived to see the amazing Wolf Blitzer ask Jesse Jackson, in Jesse's capacity as a black spokesperson, why did Barack Obama, a black African immigrant running for the Senate, not speak before the Democratic Convention in Boston using the same kind of rhetoric as did Al Sharpton, a black African-American reverend who had been running for president. Why oh why, Jesse?

Just yesterday, after living a thought-filled and examined life for over 5 decades, we arrived for the first time ever at an adequate working philosophy. This was facilitated by the able conversation and intellectual assistance of our regular companion, the afore-mentioned wanting-something woman and person on whose kitchen floor we have sometimes slept, Anitra Freeman. With her help we came up with this: "Good things now, bad things later." When in doubt always refer to that formula. It's a plan of action that can't go wrong. For example, by using it, you will never force yourself to save dessert for after the asparagus again. You will know all the times that it would be better to be home in bed than. You will learn to appreciate the paper plates of life, and the other disposables. You will shower for the fun of it, not because you have to. There is the way of wisdom.

We have been homeless four times in our life. We mention this in part to fulfill our unwritten contract with Real Change and the Real Change Editorial Committee. Every column we write is required to make at least one mention of homelessness, directly or indirectly, or one local politician must be made fun of, or two national politicians, or we must directly advocate for at least two of the following: minority rights, free pizza for Real Change volunteers writers and "editors", free/more/better treatment for recovering [insert addiction here], cats.

Duck licking. Speaking of speaking of duck licking, every column should contain at least one non sequitur, and one abuse of logical accuracy, which may be the same. But that has nothing to do with the unwritten contract. We have digressed.

We have lived in the same subsidized housing for almost 7 years now, the same housing funded by the Housing Agency Formerly Known As Seattle Housing Authority, the housing that was granted after 14 months on a waiting list, the housing that was promised to me as being permanent, the housing that is now threatened by Bush Administration cuts in Section 8 funding, the housing that we will never move from until they haul my cold lifeless never-to-be-homeless-again body out of it. Or until they come up with something better. Like that'll happen.

Thursday, July 22, 2004

Sticker Shock

The price of freedom is eternal vigilance. Are you feeling all paid out yet?

I am. First, we had the scare of being told that if George Bush or Donald Rumsfeld, say, decided to label us an enemy combatant, we could be imprisoned without trial indefinitely, even for life, just by shipping us to Guantanamo Bay. A lot of screaming and a Supreme Court ruling finally succeeded in regaining our right to be free from indefinite imprisonment without trial.

Why should we have to fight for such a basic freedom from our own government, a government whose duty is to protect our freedoms?

Then a couple weeks ago our precious Homeland Security, WHICH WAS ESTABLISHED TO DEFEND THIS COUNTRY, decided to see whether the 2004 presidential election could be postponed in the event of a terrorist attack.

Well let's see, the Constitution doesn't allow a delay, so we'd have to change that, and state constitutions don't allow delays, so we'd have to change about 50 state constitutions, and lets see, we would have 4 months to do that and get straight who does the delaying under what circumstances and so NO NO NO NO NO, IT'S NOT POSSIBLE, AND HOMELAND SECURITY IS RUN BY DUMBASSES!

So they said something like, well yes we know all that but we're just "looking into" the possibility.

To Homeland Security: Please "look into" the possibility of doing something legal for a change, like how are you going to do your duty and ensure that elections go on IN SPITE of any terrorist attacks.

Why should we have to yell and scream at Homeland Security to get them to defend our national elections? Who needs terrorists when we have defenders like these?

Then, periodically, we hear about some citizens being arrested or detained for "trespassing" at a Bush speech for either carrying anti-Bush signs, or as happened most recently, wearing anti-Bush T-shirts.

How long will it be, do you think, before our government, WHOSE JOB IS TO PROTECT OUR FREEDOM, will grant that freedom of speech is one of those freedoms they have to protect, not trample? How much yelling and screaming from the rest of us will it take? Will this require a Supreme Court ruling too?

The latest assault on freedom in this country comes from the President's own Orwellian-named New Freedom Commission on Mental Health. They are calling for mandatory mental health screening for "consumers of all ages" in this country, beginning with grade-school students who can be easily accessed through the public school system, then going on to include pre-school children and eventually adults.

Psychiatrists doing these mass screenings would use government-approved flow charts to decide who is mentally ill. The kids who test positive could then be required to take psychiatric meds, to control their illnesses and make them happy consumers.

I don't think the Constitution once refers to citizens as consumers, much less as "mental health consumers." The term is a favorite of pharmaceutical companies, which is a very big hint from me to you telling you who is behind this crap.

Just make sure that when your kids go in for compulsory psyche screening they haven't been "consumers" of any sugar-frosted cereal lately, as points will be deducted for fidgeting. Anti-authoritarian behavior will certainly be a decision point on the flow chart, so better tell them not to wear anti-Bush T-shirts.

Elder Bush motto: Don't worry, be happy. Junior Bush motto: Don't worry, take your happy pills. Or else.

To paraphrase Dick Cheney, I think Bush should go screen himself.

Thursday, July 8, 2004

I Loved That Monkey

Let's talk about everything!

Usually, if I would have trouble deciding what to write about, I would blame it on being depressed. Maybe my pet monkey was just assassinated, or maybe I just found out that a certain legally prescribed medication shouldn't be, too late to stop it from turning me into a hairless goat. Or maybe my country was just taken over by yahoos and I started wishing I could move somewhere that had a constitution that the government in power respected.

Downturns like those can ruin your perspective so that you can't see straight enough to write about anything in particular, so you write about everything and hope for the best.

But upturns can have the same effect, I now know. Last week I got such good news that I am now giddy as a schoolgirl. I won't say why, because I'm such a tease, but I will instead distract you all with this: seeing Colin Powell sing as the construction worker in the Village People gave me new life and hope for America. How can you not love a man who can swing a hammer from his belt like that? Am I right, girls?

So here I am, feeling so good I'm ready to say: this IS the best of all possible worlds! Let's count our blessings!

Hooray! Saddam Hussein is being tried by the people we installed in his place, the very same ones we picked out because they hated Saddam the most! How great is that? They're even following our democratic example and making him submit to interrogation without letting him once see a lawyer! Not only that, but they're charging him with invading another country (Kuwait) without provocation! Our newly created allies have learned American democracy perfectly, and are beginning to master American hypocrisy too! I'm sure Saddam will have a wonderful trial, much better than any he could get from an international court. Maybe the Iraqis will even behead Saddam, encouraging more insurgents to behead more of us! Off with everyone's head!

Hooray! It's now OK for the President of the Senate to tell a Senator to go F-himself whenever it makes him "feel better"! Abuse of power and position be damned! It just feels good to tell the leader of the party out of power off for having the audacity to criticize one's precious self and one's superior political opinions. It's especially great to be able to tell some Democrat to go F-himself the same day Republican legislation passes to fine the bejeezus out of anyone else using the same word on TV or radio. Did someone say "hypocrisy"? I should have to call it H, or pay a gigantic fine! But even when we can't say it in print our leaders will still H. It will make them feel better!

Most of all, hooray for the newfound uses of detaining innocent people while calling them terrorists without formally charging them!

Last week the Supreme Court said you can't merely hold people as "enemy combatants" indefinitely. Eventually you have to allow them to legally challenge their detention, or you have to release them. This is called "human rights", something that we have said we were for, at least for the past 228 years or so, when we weren't doing the H-thing.

But the court will let the President detain potentially innocent people for reasonable periods of time, whatever that might be. I was worried about this loophole until I heard that the New York Times was reporting that the US, with Britain, had secretly traded Saudi prisoners held at Gitmo for Brits that had been tortured and held by the Saudis. How heartening.

The released Saudis were surely innocent; our government would never, NEVER, trade real terrorists even for innocent Westerners. That would be letting the terrorists win.

So there is something to be said for locking up innocent people, after all! Think of them as if they were pennies. Have a prisoner, give a prisoner! Need a prisoner, take a prisoner! It just saves trouble, and that's what America is all about!

Oh no. I AM a hairless goat.

Thursday, June 24, 2004

Seattle Likes Shiny Things

What is it about this city that makes us the perfect final resting place for Captain Kirk's command chair?

What other city is so enamored of 1960's-ish retro futuristic junk? Think of it: it's basically a big glorified swivel chair. Does it recline? Does it have a vibrator? Does it wash your feet? I don't think so. So what good is it? It was Captain Kirk's glorified swivel chair, that's what.

Of course, even though Seattle has the stupid chair, and even though I hang in Belltown within walking distance of it every day, I will never be able to confirm that it doesn't do those things. That's because Seattle isn't Star Trek world, where they eliminate money and people fight Klingons purely for self-fulfillment and the opportunity to have sex with space aliens. Instead, Seattle is Paul Allen world, where you need money more than ever, and I'm several billion dollars short.

I'm not blaming Mr. Allen for it, just holding him up as an excellent example of a Seattle-variety futurism junky. He embodies the disease, what I like to call futuritis. That would be, namely, the desire to immerse oneself in a world full of toys that would have represented the future if found lying around the place in say, 1962, while not even bothering to try to realize any of the social advances associated with the science fiction that popularized said toys.

It doesn't matter if the toys are really advanced technologically or not. They only have to be associated with futurism. So, for example, a monorail is just a pigeon-toed articulated bus driven back and forth on a dedicated, narrow, elevated, road. The technology is more than 80 years old. But make it shiny and run it through buildings instead of around them, like those transport tubes on the cover of 1940's science fiction magazines, and you've got something that scratches the futuritis itch.

What concerns me is that in the future there's a handful of ace pilots, engineers, and rich space-tourists, but nobody's sweeping the streets. Paul Allen is going to be able to rocket-man himself from West Seattle to Ballard in less time than it takes to fry an egg, but the rest of us will be living in the cardboard boxes the rocket packs come in.

Five beautiful illustrations of what I speak are provided by our new space-age gleaming robot toilets.

They're self-cleaning, when they work. When they don't work they need to be fixed. This can keep maybe a handful of specially trained hotshot automation maintenance experts pulling down the big bucks. That's great, until you consider that if the toilets didn't clean themselves we could spend the same money supporting a team of 15 or 20 janitors and their supervisors to clean them around the clock after every use.

But no, that wouldn't be futuristic. Janitors don't gleam. Anyway, we're Seattle, city of hotshot engineers and technicians. You have to care for your own, right? Let the janitors get work in Pittsburgh.

Besides, in the future we're creating, anyone working here as a janitor won't be able to make enough money to live. That's because we'll make sure that all necessities come only in shiny, gleaming, expensive, packages. So if you're not one of the highly paid professionals we favor, you won't be able to afford the life we shaped for you. No problem for us professionals: the toilets will clean themselves.

In Star Trek it all works because the Federation passes out energy-matter materializers like our government used to pass out cheese. Give a man a piece of cheese, he eats for a day; give a man an energy-matter materializer and an endless supply of dilithium crystals to power it, he can eat for life and also materialize slippers and jockey shorts whenever he needs them.

It's just the opposite of what futuritis gets us. In Seattle, science costs money, and technology doesn't make slippers.

It's all about priorities. We'd rather spend millions connecting West Seattle to Ballard, than making them each better places to be. We'd rather pay one technician than five unskilled laborers. We want a future full of toys, with no more people than absolutely necessary.

Thursday, June 10, 2004

It's All About the Timing

We've all had our bad hair days. But me, I get bad column days.

Everything was going great. Bush and Kerry were falling off things. Philadelphia's horse lost. We all had long faces. Chalabi had a long face. We saw comic possibilities.

CIA-George resigned, for "personal reasons." We thought of some lame ways to make fun of "personal reasons" in general. We could recall the "personal reason" we had once for paying a fine for late taxes, for instance. We had reasoned that we didn't want our person in a federal prison. Or the time we had a "personal reason" for quitting a job, reasoning that our employers were about to anyway toss our person headfirst out the nearest window.

Then we heard that there were some unofficial but strong hints that the Salvation Army in New York City might give up millions upon millions of dollars worth of social service contracts, including contracts to manage homeless shelters and soup kitchens, in the event that the city went ahead with a law making them pay benefits to employees married to the wrong sexes.

We want homelessness to end, but until that happens we want there to be homeless shelters. We want there to be soup kitchens as long as there are poor people whether homeless or not. In NYC rents are already as high as they will be here in week or two, so they need soup kitchens everywhere for the people who have no money left over after the rent. Our president, meanwhile, wants to promote the idea that faith-based organizations like the Salvation Army should be the principal providers of those kind of services.

What does it say about the president's Faith-Based Initiative when one of the biggest faith-based providers in the country exploits its clients to blackmail a city over social policies, rather than fighting those policies fairly through lobbying and litigation? I'll tell you what it says. It says that daddy has a column landing in his lap! Come to papa, sweet column!

Just as I was working out the details on that impending masterpiece, which was going to be the greatest and most timely and relevant sludge of rant that I ever slogged through, Ronald Reagan screws me royal. How can I write about the NYC Salvation Army's disappointing petty snit-fit when there's a magnitude 7.5 wake going on?

I asked that very question of my muse Cindy. For those of you who may have forgotten, Cindy is my own personal muse, the Muse of Other, AKA the Muse of Few Words. Eternally a henna-redhead until Wednesday, Cindy is a Spark off the Generic Muse Archetype, hence to that extent Universal, but, hey, get your own Spark.

Cindy said, "Well, you're annoyed Reagan picked right now to die, right? So why don't you write about how annoyed you are? I'm sure you're annoyed enough to fill your white space up."

Yes I am…

With a deadline minutes away all I can think is Borax and California actor-governors for $200, Alex, a chimp, jellybeans, Star Wars, "Win one for the Gipper," who really won the Cold War, Ronnie or the Soviets and their people, and Iran-Contra and Ollie North and Hinckley and Jodie and Nancy and stem cells.

Most of all I think if it wasn't for Reagan and his administration I wouldn't be writing here lo these nine years. If it wasn't for Reagan's initiatives, adopted just because he was such a smiling optimistic guy, homelessness wouldn't have reached the crisis proportions that it did starting in the mid-eighties, becoming so unmanageable by now that the Bush administration is ready to betray Section 8 housing and consign more than a million homeless people permanently to living in shelters run by immoral faith-based hypocrites who despise the people they get paid to serve so much they would use them as pawns in their cultural battles.

… very annoyed.

Thursday, May 27, 2004

Perils of Pope Pauline

Personally, I don't like to talk about abortions. It isn't that I have any problem discussing such controversial issues as abortions represent. It's just that, personally, I can't have any. Abortions, that is.

For, contrary to any previous claims to the contrary, I am not now, and never have been, a woman. Thus, there is not now, and never has been, a pregnancy option on the old Wesmobile. Since I can't get pregnant it is extremely unlikely that I would ever have to decide whether I should get an abortion or not. I might want to decide such a thing. I might even want to have to decide it. But I wouldn't have to decide it.

Likewise the Pope doesn't have to decide whether he should get an abortion. Like 100% of all other Roman Catholic priests, the Pope, AKA Bishop 001, isn't a woman, has never been a woman, and if he became a woman at this late date he wouldn't be allowed to be pope anymore. There can't be a Pope Joan Pauline.

If the Pope became pregnant, they would snatch his pointy hat and curly stick away, refer him to a home for wayward girls, and call together the Electoral College of Bishops to do that weird thing they do with the colored rocks and the smoke and elect a new man to lead the club.

So it is something to wonder at that not only does the Pope want to decide who else should get abortions, but that he feels equipped to decide this issue himself, personally, without even so much as asking for input from anyone, like for instance a woman, who might ever have need to decide whether to get one.

Ordinarily what the Pope decides on behalf of all women, none of whom get any say in the matter, wouldn't be a huge concern of mine, since my one-time relationship with the Roman Catholic Church suffers from considerable neglect. But now one of their lesser bishops is forcing me to jump into the gravy and roll around in it, if you know what I mean.

Here's the deal. Some pea-brain bishop in Colorado heard that some other bishops were saying that politicians who are pro-choice shouldn't be allowed communion. Having a pea-brain, this Bishop Michael Sheridan decided that just punishing the politicians for disagreeing with him wasn't enough. He would punish the voters themselves. So if you're in his diocese and you vote for a pro-choice candidate for, say, the presidency, no more Body of Christ for you.

Never mind that he doesn't know who votes for whom. As he puts it, "God knows." He has the power of guilt working for him, and he takes for granted that these, his people, are guilt-ridden people. He relies on the honor system for now. (Maybe later he will scour rolls of campaign contributors.)

Now if you have followed me so far you should have caught the fact that I do not now regularly consume Christ Body, nor do I live in Bishop Pea-Brain's diocese. So you could very well be asking, "Wes, why the hell do you care?"

I'll tell you why I care. I don't want to trade my American citizenship in for citizenship in a New Christian Iran of America, where some Roman Catholic bishop sets himself up as the Ayatollah of Colorado Springs and starts issuing fatwahs against anybody who doesn't vote for his candidate.

I want a government that doesn't try to tell me that holding someone's head under water and pretending to drown them doesn't constitute inhumane treatment. I'm still waiting to hear George W. Bush order such treatment stopped at Guantanamo. What's taking so long? Do we have to wait for the Wizard to make him human?

I want to be proud of my country. I want the people in my country to vote for a president who would not dismiss the Geneva Convention under any conditions.

I want Americans to have a free choice between torture and not-torture. I also want them to be able to freely choose against unjust wars, pre-emptive wars, and/or wars of economic exploitation.

I take this all very personally. I don't want my country to torture in my name.

Thursday, May 13, 2004

Torture Simplified

Warning: this won't be one of my more humorous efforts. Not only is the subject too sad, but I also think that I shouldn't have eaten that tuna fish casserole for lunch yesterday.

Continuing from last time and speaking of the value of a free press, has anyone out there reflected on the fact that CBS now plays an essential role in the briefing of the president?

If it weren't for 60 Minutes II, Bush wouldn't have known about the severity or the extent of Abu Ghraib abuses. Bush should publicly thank the 60 Minutes crew and invite them all to dinner at the White House. Bush should use the occasion to ask CBS to advise our military intelligence officers on how you actually learn things. For example they could explain to them that humiliating your sources doesn't work.

Or he could get Bob Woodward. Woodward got Bush and all sorts of administration officials under Bush to open up to him. I'm sure he didn't precede his interrogation of Bush by "softening him up" Pentagon style. He probably did it the way I would do it, by telling Bush what a great guy he is and what a cool president he's been, and "that tie looks absolutely fabulous on you, Sir," and "I'll bet you'll go down in history as the most compassionately conservative president we've ever had."

If I threw up during any of that I could blame it on something I had for lunch.

What we have here is a failure to communicate, on a scale so grand and epic it outdoes Hollywood. One hardly knows where to begin.

How about the fact that the Pentagon directed that some prisoners should receive "softening up" treatment prior to interrogations? Maybe that would be a good start.

So last October, when the Red Cross discovered that Iraqi prisoners were kept naked in dark barren cells for days at a time, and the interrogating officer said that the practice was just "part of the process," he was really describing a process that had been approved by the Pentagon.

Now to be fair where fair isn't deserved, the Pentagon's directive requires that such procedures only be used under orders from the top. But how does the Red Cross know who ordered what they saw? And how does the private who carries out the order in the prison to strip a prisoner know whether the original order came from a general or whether it came from the M. I. officer standing next to him telling him to do it?

The problem is, the description of what the Pentagon allows in the way of "softening up" (bad but not so bad) and the verbal descriptions of what was actually done are too easy to line up. I can easily imagine Rumsfeld, busy as he must be what with protecting the free world and expanding its borders by bombing the unfree world to bring freedom to it, would quickly skim a report of wrongdoing by prison guards at a military prison and not be alarmed.

He could have thought, "Oh, this isn't all that bad. They just got a little carried away doing what we told them to do. Hell, that's why we have a professional army, so we can expect our guys to have initiative."

Likewise it would have been easy to dismiss the Red Cross complaints. A general reviewing the complaints could easily convince him/herself that the Red Cross was misinterpreting the evidence. He/she could think that what they really saw was soldiers carrying out procedures that the Pentagon allows, procedures that would look similar to the abuse that was actually seen.

Meanwhile, Rumsfeld reminds us all that it's abuse, not torture. That is so true, Rummy, and we thank you all from deep in our hearts for pointing that out to us.

Torture is when I threaten to electrocute you if you don't tell me where you hid the nonexistent weapons of mass destruction. Abuse is when I threaten to electrocute you so you'll tell me an hour from now where you hid the nonexistent weapons. See the difference?

Thursday, April 29, 2004

Also Against Ending All Life On Earth

We here at Adventures in Poetry want to proudly go on record as being firmly opposed to eating babies. We are also against torturing animals, raping in general, pillaging, maiming, arson, stealing, and breaking other people's things for the fun of it.

We bring this up now because this week a bunch of folks suggested that I write today in support of the Seattle Times' decision last week to run Tami Silicio's photo of flag-draped coffins of deceased U.S. soldiers on their way home from Iraq. Yes I, Dr. Wes Browning, will personally stick my neck out right here on this page, and take a stand in favor of free speech and opposed to totalitarianism.

Let me sum up my position up right now, so that those of you who need no convincing can go back to eating your egg salad sandwich or making out or whatever you were doing before this column interrupted you: Totalitarianism, bad. Government propaganda, bad. Government censorship and lies, bad. Free Speech, good.

As you surely know by now, as it's been in all the papers, Tami Silicio put the Times on the fast track to its next Pulitzer by giving them the opportunity to defy the Pentagon's ban on printing photos of flag-draped coffins of U.S. soldiers.

I'll tell you how clueless I was. I was so clueless it never occurred to me that the Pentagon had a ban on printing such photos. Oh, I figured there was a rule against printing photos in which the identities of the fallen soldiers were indicated, sure. But surely not photos where you couldn't tell who was in the coffins.

But, no. Our government has a rule against it, and commercial military contractors like Maytag Aircraft are understandably afraid to defy the Pentagon that hires them, so they let Silicio and her husband go, and they would have fired her little dog too, if she had one and it was in range.

Now, some kinds of censorship I expect. I'm not saying I'm in favor of any kind of censorship, but I won't get all huffy about it if the Times is denied their First Amendment right to show naked people copulating on their front page. While personally I believe it should be up to the Times to decide whether that would be a good choice, I'm willing to let the opposition have that one.

But this instance of censorship is inexcusable.

Yet, the government is making an excuse, and we are forced to answer it. The excuse is that the photo could offend some people among the families of the dead.

Answer number one: Very few relatives of dead U.S. servicemen have stepped forward to claim offense in this particular case, probably in part due to the fact that YOU CAN'T TELL WHO THE DEAD IN THE PICTURE ARE, FOR PETE'S SAKE. Hello, you can't even tell if the coffins are occupied. Sheesh.

Answer number two: The freedom at the press is at stake here. The first amendment doesn't say its OK for the government to practice censorship if someone might be offended by something.

By the way, it probably would offend George W. Bush's sensitivity were he to read this column (which can't happen 'cause he don't read, he only looks at pictures) if I were to say that he deserves to be impeached for dealing with the Saudi oil producers to influence the next election. Should I therefore be prevented from saying it? No, because the importance of being able to say such things outweighs any offense it may give George W. Bush.

I care much more about the feelings of the families of fallen servicemen than I do about those of Bush, but the principle remains the same. Their feelings, whether appropriate or not, don't trump the national interest. And in this case the national interest does not lie with the Pentagon. It lies with freedom of the press and the freedom of speech.

Thursday, April 15, 2004

Next Time It'll Be A Magic 8-Ball

As you may have already noticed, we here at Real Change can't let an April Fools Day go by without writing some April Fools Day appropriate nonsense. Our sad frail egos are slightly stoked every year when we hear rumors of some of you being taken in even though our Managing Spoilsport always prints warnings to protect the truth.

But the real news outdid us all this year. Our little fib about the guy arrested for pushing a refrigerator down a street pales in comparison to, say, the story from Fort Meyers, Florida, about the plane searched because a psychic intuited that a bomb was on board.

As a spokesperson for the Transportation Security Administration in these times, we can't ignore anything." That's right, we can't ignore anything that might warn us of terrorism. Psychics, entrails, evil stars, voices in our heads, they all can be put to service defending our great nation from stupid terrorists. We need warnings! Everybody call and warn the government about bombs anywhere you think they might be. Somebody call the White House and tell them Rumsfeld has a bomb up his ass.

Then we heard about British novelist Ian McEwan's difficulties getting in to this country. McEwan wanted to fly in from Vancouver, BC, and made the mistake of telling our border guys that he would be giving paid speeches in our country. They actually told him that amounted to coming to the U.S. to earn money to "practice his lifestyle." I have no idea what they thought his lifestyle was, apart from novelist.

Speaking of April Fools, McEwan fooled a lot of people a few years ago with a phony psychiatric case report in an appendix to one of his novels. It was so convincing some psychiatrists quoted it and some critics dismissed the novel as merely an elaboration on a real case. Way to go, Ian!

So, anyway, it used to be that British novelists on speaking tours were given visa waivers at our borders, but Homeland Security officials now say, we have got to be vigilant so that we "don't have another 9-11." You never know when a British novelist might crash himself into a skyscraper on his way to giving a talk at Benaroya Hall.

Our favorite part of this story is the part where, in one of three interrogations he endured, McEwan was asked whether he wrote fiction novels or non-fiction novels. Everybody has read this as evidence that our immigration officials have the combined IQ of a seedless grape, but I like to give them the benefit of the doubt. Maybe the questioner was thinking, if he answers "non-fiction" that'll prove he's a fake for sure, it will.

Finally McEwan was let into this country. The reason given to allow him in was (this is really true) "this is attracting a lot of unfavorable publicity."

So here's the deal. If you are a suspected British novelist slash potential -terrorist slash lifestyle-offender trying to get into the US, and our border guys want to keep you out, just call all the newspapers on the west coast and make a big stink about it. Our guys will whine about what a threat you are, but they'll let you in because otherwise they'd look bad, even though they are sure you will whack us all with your books!mI've saved the biggest April Fool of the year for last. Every major newspaper in the country was fooled by the story from Fallujah about the four "civilian contractors" who were killed and whose bodies were mutilated and dragged through the streets. Pretty brutal stuff to be doing to innocent "civilian contractors".

But just three days later a squad of "commandos" from a private security company were reported repulsing a raid on US Headquarters in Najaf. The "commandos" were working for the same company as the four in Fallujah.

So what were they, "commandos" or "civilian contractors"? Answer: both! They were mercenaries! They were fully armed mercenaries in military style uniforms playing soldier of fortune in what is, let's face it, a war zone.

Look out: the April Fools bar has been set very high for next year.

Thursday, April 1, 2004

Bored Silly

Looking on page two of this rag you can learn a lot of things. Like for instance that Real Change is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization, that we don't consider publishing libel, that we have hotshot friends, and that in addition to being on the "Editorial Committee" I am also a Board Member. Or as we like to say, a bored member. Ha.

What does being a Board Member mean, you ask? It means a two hour meeting every month that almost always runs two and a half and feels like eight. It means sheepishly agreeing to man the phone banks periodically and then begging Anitra "talkmama" Freeman to go in my place. It means licking stamps. It means always having to be reminded which way is "in the red" and which way is "in the black." Port, starboard, port, starboard, how should I know?

It also means obeying the law. It turns out that Board Members have to not only NOT break laws themselves, but they have to keep the organization that they board legal too. What a pain! This is why, during Editorial Committee meetings I am always a dorky loser saying, "we can't say that."

Back before we got the 501(c)3 status we could endorse candidates. Those were good times. They would have been better if we really were high like people said, but we had fun anyway. Remember when I endorsed myself for mayor? If only there were a loophole in the law that lets us have that kind of fun again…

Maybe there is! I've been doing a lot of thinking about this, and I have been comparing the situation vis-à-vis various other federal rules. Let's consider the Prohibition of Assassination.

When it was learned that the CIA had planned to assassinate Castro, Jerry Ford issued an executive order that said, "No employee of the United States shall engage in, or conspire to engage in, political assassination." This order made no freaking sense whatsoever, since murder was already illegal, but Ford wasn't interested in making sense, he just wanted Castro to play nice in return.

But now George W. wants to say that Clinton screwed up by not ordering the assassination of Osama bin Laden when he had the chance, even though Bush himself didn't get around to modifying the Prohibition of Assassination to exempt Osama until Oct. 21, 2001.

What's interesting here are the grounds given for the exemption. One: we're at war. This justifies, apparently, not only murdering political leaders, but also murdering innocent people (AKA collateral damage) and imprisoning people (AKA enemy combatants) without trials, indefinitely.

Another reason that has been put forward is that Osama bin Laden is said not to be a political leader in the sense that Ford had in mind. They are actually saying that it is OK to engage in political assassination if the political figure in question doesn't rule over territory! The assassination by Israel of three-quarters blind quadriplegic Sheikh "not a real Sheikh" Ahmed "the Bomb-ed" Yassin has been offered up as an illustration of this new principle. He was leader of Hamas. Hamas wanted to control Palestine, but didn't. Ergo Hamas is not a government. Ergo the murder of Yassin, a political leader, is not political assassination. It is something else.

So there's the key. Maybe I can beat this 501(c)3 prohibition against endorsing political candidates by being very careful to only endorse people who aren't technically political candidates at all.

At first I was toying with the idea of endorsing a dead person. I've always had an appreciation of Eugene Debs and Norman Thomas. How about a Thomas/Debs ticket? (I'd put Thomas first to draw the youth vote. He's been dead less long. )

But now I'm thinking that any non-candidate will do, even if they're alive. And I was thinking, it's about time we had a female president.

For that reason, and because I feel like it, I hereby endorse Anitra "I'm Alive!" Freeman for president of the US. I have just informed her of my endorsement and she says she would like Alice Walker to be her running mate. So there you have it: Freeman/Walker. They're something else.

Thursday, March 18, 2004

Inaccuracy Is No Friend

In case any of you missed it, what with stocking up for St. Patrick's Day and what-not, Albert Einstein would have turned 125 last Sunday. It brought back some memories for me. As often happens when I am experiencing memories they bump up against current thoughts, and I feel the need to talk.

What brings back memories is the fact that 25 years ago I happened to be loafing at the Swiss Polytechnic, Albie's old grad school, and I witnessed the Polytechnic's celebration of his centennial. Boy the fireworks and the huge dance party were terrific.

I just lied for the fun of it. There were no fireworks and huge dance party for Einstein's 100th birthday. Einstein was the Poly's most famous graduate by far, but they didn't seem to care very much. One of the Poly's Jewish professors told me it was because Einstein had been Jewish. He insisted that it was not a sign of rabid Anti-Semitism; it was merely a lack of enthusiasm for Jewish-ness that was involved. "Besides," he said, "Einstein was German, not Swiss." Ah, labels.

One of the things we "editors" of Real Change do to prove our editorship is to read over these things the week after they come out and discuss them. We call it "issue review." We feel as though the papers are our babies, but when we see our newborns we are often shocked at the sight of her chin or the number of her toes.

Sometimes the shock is ongoing. Like when I see each new StreetWatch for the first time. It always makes me wince.

It isn't Emma Quinn's fault. Emma draws the material from police reports and can't and shouldn't edit them much. I wouldn't want her to; it's valuable to see how the police write these things up. It gives us all an important view into that world. But I never get used to it.

It's the roll call of the cast that mostly bothers me. Last issue we had: a transient Native American male, a homeless White female, a transient White male, a transient Black male, a White female, a transient Black male, and a transient Asian male, in that order. Run for your lives! We're surrounded by transients!

No wait, it's not that bad. My dictionary says that transients are people who are only staying for a short time, like an itinerant laborer or a temporary guest. It comes from the Latin for "one passing through." So presumably 5 of the 7 of our StreetWatch subjects are passing through Seattle. Maybe they're from Cleveland.

Run for your lives! We're surrounded by Clevelandites!

Or not. Turns out that by "transient" the police just mean "homeless." So the three times I was homeless in Seattle I would have been called transient, even though I'm from here.

But is the mislabeling right, even if it is consistent? And when it happens to be accurate, is it called for?

In the mid-eighties one of the dailies surveyed their readers and found that more than 50 percent came to this area within the previous 15 years. If that's the case with the general population, why stigmatize the homeless for their geographic mobility?

And what do they mean, transient Asian male? Am I to believe he was born there -- like Einstein was born in Germany, to be forever German, regardless of citizenship –- or am I to think he has Asian ancestry but is as American as I am, like most of the so-called "Asians" in this city?

My best friend in high school was Japanese-American. His father fought for his country, this one, in WWII, with the famous 442nd Combat Regiment. If my friend or his children were now homeless they would be "Asians" in our police reports. Such inaccuracy can't do any good in the long run.

Thursday, March 4, 2004

Wes and Kirkpatrick Kissing In a Tree...

A couple of days ago fellow "editor" Michele "I'm Back and I'm Bossy!" Marchand suggested that I write about that film City Without a Home that Adam Holdorf reviewed last issue. I saw City Without a Home myself (I like to call it Film Without a Clue) and Michele and I are in absolute agreement that it would be a good thing if I derided the film in a civil and thoughtful manner.

Unfortunately, in order to do that up right I would have to recap for you all what the film is about. I would have to tell how the filmmakers lived at Tent City 3 for eight days and interviewed a bunch of residents there. Then I would have to get all detailed and picky about why I thought the treatment was biased beyond belief. This would entail my remembering that fact to myself and raising my blood pressure.

I've done that too much lately. My whole last column was written in a pissy fit. I need to talk about something that amuses me. So, let's talk about recent constitutional amendment proposals!

One constitutional amendment proposal was recently in the news as California Governor Schwarzenegger backed the movement to allow foreign-born people to be president. Now, I'm all in favor of such an amendment, in spite of the fact that if it had passed in 1963 it would have allowed Barry Goldwater (who was born in the Gadsen Purchase) to have become president and I might not have enjoyed that. But if Schwarzenegger really wants the amendment to be passed, shouldn't he lie low about it? Does it really advance his cause to scare everyone with the prospect of a President Schwarzenegger?

I say let's annex Austria BEFORE we let that happen, OK?

But the amusing amendment for all time has got to be the one you knew I was going to bring up. That would be the amendment, currently being discussed in the House, intended to ban same-sex marriages. That would be the amendment of which arch-conservative James J. Kilpatrick has said, "This mean-spirited and bigoted resolution spits in the face of freedom." Me and James are in bed together on this one, ready to pick out a ring. OK, Anitra, just kidding. But seriously, I am a conservative today. Is that amusing, or what?

The amendment, in the form it is being considered in Congress, is called the Musgrave Amendment after its sponsor, Republican Congressperson Marilyn Musgrave. Its authors include lawyer Matt Daniels, who grew up with one mother and no father and doesn't want that to happen to anybody else and thinks this gets him somewhere with that, and Robert Bork, who might have been a Supreme Court Justice if the Senate hadn't freaked when they found out what a fruitcake he was. We now get to see just how right they were. That was some bullet we dodged.

You know your constitutional amendment sucks when legal scholars already can't figure out what it really means, not a hundred years after enacted, but even when it's proposed. Here it is: "Marriage in the United States shall consist only of the union of a man and a woman. Neither this Constitution, nor the Constitution of any state, nor state or federal law, shall be construed to require that marital status or the legal incidents thereof be conferred upon unmarried couples or groups."

The authors say the intent in the second sentence is not to ban civil unions but only to keep courts from mandating them, while allowing state legislatures to decide the issue. But in fact what they have written allows local officials everywhere to defy state laws altogether!

Let's say this amendment passed and say I ran for mayor of Seattle and won. Know what my first act in office would be? Quoting the Musgrave Amendment I would ban all marriages in Seattle. If gays and lesbians can't marry, I would say, then in the interest of equality nobody can. And the Musgrave Amendment would grant me the right to do that, because it says no state law can require marital status to be conferred on anyone who isn't already married!

Q. What reason does Marilyn Musgrave give for opposing same-sex marriages? A. None! She says she's a representative, not a minister, so she shouldn't discuss that! Is that a hoot, or what?

Thursday, February 19, 2004

We Need A Marriage Bank?

I'm writing this over the Valentine's Day/ President's Day weekend. The word now is that, at Mayor Gavin Newsom's direction, San Francisco will issue as many as 2000 marriage licenses to same-sex couples before the courts consider an injunction to stop them. Nearly a thousand have already been married in civil ceremonies authorized by the mayor's office and conducted by volunteers who have given up their three-day weekends for the honor.

And kids these days say we baby boomers had all the fun. Look out, there haven't been this many outraged bigots since those poor tired white people were deprived of Rosa Parks' seat at the front of the bus in 1955.

At least the white riders of that Alabama bus could justifiably whine that they were deprived of a seat. What with seats on a bus being a limited resource and all, you can strain your imagination and visualize how some white guy could get all up and righteous that HIS personal racially reserved seat had been usurped.

But today people declare that the "sanctity of marriage" entitles heterosexuals to have all of it even when there's no shortage! And were only talking about civil marriages! Nobody is forcing churches to recognize any of these same-sex marriages.

Speaking of the sanctity of marriage, the last I heard it was still a violation of the US Constitution for either state or federal US government lawmakers to promote the sanctity of anything or anyone in legislation. So why has the California legislature done so, we wonder idly and pointlessly, with un-bated breath and without question mark.

To me, the really interesting question lies with the clash of morality and legality. This subject is usually subsumed under the categories of "civil disobedience" and "human rights" and in my humble opinion grossly over-simplified at every turn in accordance with the ideologies of the simplifiers.

Not that I am a stranger to simplicity. Hey, I took Philosophy 105 and got me a C+ for the section on John Stuart Mill. I learned to spell "Stuart."

What I'm trying to say is, the courts have to figure out whether what Gavin Newsom is doing is legal. He says California's law is illegal under the state's constitution, and that he's only upholding the latter. In which case he is merely the only California mayor to take his oath of office literally in this regard.

But there is no question in my mind that he has done what is morally right. Morality falls heavily on the side of the oppressed, and no matter what Christian Fundamentalists may think Christians aren't oppressed in this country. To encapsulate, Christians are to same-sex marriages as white folks were to de-segregation. You can be one of the ones who get in the way, or not.

In the words of Jesus, "Get thee behind me, Satan." When you are oppressed I'll stand with you. When you are the one doing the oppressing you need to hear it plain and simple, so you can know when to get down off people's backs.

Speaking of getting the plain-and-simple out, and such: I've been obsessing about the practices of certain Christian missions lately, thanks to some semi-private input I've recently received. I'm talking about the practice of requiring poor people who are invited to a "free" meal to attend a church service beforehand.

This practice is wholly legal and justifiable to the extent, and just to the extent, that the meals are intended exclusively for Christians, and that we all are prepared to agree that non-Christians ought to fend for themselves. Let sinners, secularists, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, whatever, set up their own "free" meals for their own poor people, right?

But it has come to my attention that there are some who would go out of their way to call non-Christians to these feasts, without setting aside the church-attendance requirement for them. I just want to go on record, as saying that exploiting the hunger of poor people to promote your religion is immoral and reprehensible. Please don't.