Wednesday, October 1, 2003

Fear Factor 101

My brother's girlfriend is warm; witty; generous - ideal sister-in-law material. What my cruder kinfolk call "a real keeper." She's also something of a pop culture savant, the kind of girl my brother, himself a walking encyclopedia of kitsch, never dared dream existed but I'd always hoped he'd find. (Which I'll admit was as much for his sake as for my own. I mean, if there's anything I've learned from all my years as his sister, it's that being his sister is great fun. Indeed, a roomful of people like him is my idea of party heaven. Consequently, any cozy little get-together with the real deal and his girlfriend is pure bliss.)

Except for maybe our cozy little get-together of last month, when, smack dab in the middle of a friendly discourse on who was "Bewitched's" better Darren, Dick York or Dick Sargent, my brother's girlfriend snarled something unprintable about the USA Patriot Act.

At least it felt like a left-of-center, out-of-nowhere sort of snarl at the time.

Because, now that I think of it, we'd already declared Dick York the better Darren and were discussing Mrs. Kravitz, "Bewitched's" sickeningly nosy neighbor character, when my brother's girlfriend got snarly. (And the thoroughly unlikable Mrs. Kravitz, what with her total disregard for other people's privacy and her overly suspicious little mind, is the stuff of the ACLU's - of which, it should be noted, my brother's girlfriend's father is a prominent member - collective nightmares.)

In any event, my brother's girlfriend's segue, however "logical" in retrospect, knocked me for a loop.

I heard her say, "It's scary to think that the government can hack its way into your laptop without probable cause." And I heard myself think, "Yeah. Especially since the government doesn't have anything better to do these days than wonder what a native citizen who's never gone to flight school; applied for a Yemeni passport; beaten an explosives rap; married a mullah; sued Louis Farrakhan for child support; or taken the Fifth on behalf of Sirhan, Squeaky, and 'kindred spirits everywhere'" has bookmarked on her sleek little Sony.

And I heard her say, "...assault on our basic liberties," which reminded me of my late '90s visit to the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennessee.

Sited at the vastly refurbished, long defunct Lorraine Motel - the scene of Dr. Martin Luther King's 1968 assassination - the NCRM is one of the most moving memorials to injustice, intolerance and the indomitable human spirit I've ever seen.

A genuine Rosa Parks/Montgomery, Alabama city bus; simulated "Freedom Rides;" galleries of liberty-loving luminaries, from the Boston Tea partiers to the Anti-Defamation League, from "Civil Disobedience" author Henry David Thoreau to the founders of the AFL-CIO; Dr. King's eerily preserved (down to the 35-year-old cigarette butts in the ashtrays) Lorraine Motel room...

"Are we keeping you awake?" my brother barked.

"Oh, sorry," I said. "I was just thinking about the Civil Rights Museum in Memphis. Next time you two get out that way, you should skip Graceland and check it out."

"What does that have to do with the Bush administration's -"

"A-ha!" I interrupted. "There it is, the 'Bush administration.' And what are we blaming it for today? Kim Jong Il's hairdo? The Beatles' break-up? Your DSL service?"

"What do you mean?"

"What I mean is, have you even read this Patriot Act you're so afraid of?"

"No," my brother yawned. "And I don't want to. Not now, anyway. Let's watch 'Billy Jack.'"

His girlfriend said, "yes, lets. And no, I haven't read it, either. But the thing that scares me -"

"- is the messenger," I interrupted again. "Scratch someone who opposes the Patriot Act and, more often than not, you'll find yourself scratching someone still bristling over Election 2000."

"No way," my brother's girlfriend said.

"Way," I replied. "Try scratching, say, one of your dad's cronies; subtly, of course. Something along the lines of, 'I see you're opposed to the Patriot Act. Might I interest you in a 'Not my President' bumper sticker, as well?' You'll see."

"Well..."

"Speaking of fear," I interrupted yet again, "are you afraid of the Pirates of the Caribbean ride?" "Of course not!" my brother and his girlfriend, both big Disneyland freaks (I told you they were compatible), squawked in unison.

"You can thank your dad and his cronies for that," I said.

"What do you mean?" my brother's girlfriend asked, for the second time that night.

"What I mean is, it wasn't so long ago that your dad and his cronies were afraid that the Pirates of the Caribbean ride was, to paraphrase you, an assault on the basic liberties of pirates. And prostitutes - 'wenches,' in Disneyspeak. So they lobbied to make the ride politically correct, even had the damn thing shut down for a couple years. And now that it's, oooh, no longer 'scary,' well, for me, anyway, it's boring beyond belief."

My brother's girlfriend said, "What does that have to do -"

"- with the Patriot Act?" I interrupted for the fourth and final time (that night, anyway.) "Everything. Because one person's misplaced fear is another person's justifiable concern. Here in Ojai, for example, a lot of people are worried about a local government official's proposal to turn an old jail into housing for the mentally ill. Anyone in favor of the idea dismisses the naysayers as paranoid loons. Or, worse, intolerant. Despite the fact that the local government official in question has admitted, more than once, that such a facility, if approved, could 'evolve' into something entirely different than what he's proposing.

'So what!' the supporters cry. 'What about the basic liberties of the criminally insane? Have we no compassion?'

Beats me. I still haven't decided if the Supreme Court of 1882 - which other trivia buffs will note included, surprise, surprise, one Stephen Field from California - was wrong or right to declare the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871 (giving government the authority to prosecute Klansmen as terrorists) 'unconstitutional.' But I'm leaning towards wrong.

Hey, am I keeping you guys awake?" I barked at my brother and his girlfriend, both of whom were, much to my chagrin, unabashedly snoring.

"Oh, sorry," said my brother. "Do you still have 'Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf' on tape?"

I did, but we were all too pooped to watch it.

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Wednesday, September 17, 2003

No Joking Matter

This guy walks in to the UN and applies for a job as a translator. He completes the 15-page application; attaches his resume; drops it off with someone in Human Resources; and goes home - not really expecting anything to come from it, but, hey, he thinks, it couldn't hurt.

But no sooner had he gotten through his front door than his wife squeals, "honey! The UN called! They want you to come in for an interview right away!"

Excited, he throws on a tie and runs all the way back for his interview.

An hour later, his wife again meets him at the front door, squealing, "Did you get the job? Did you get the job?"

"N-n-n-no," the guy says, clearly dejected. "And I b-b-b-bet they d-d-d-d-idn't hire m-m-m-me because I'm J-J-J-J-J-ewish."

Sound familiar?

It should.

People like Art Torres, Chairman of the California Democratic Party, and Cruz Bustamante, the Golden State's Lieutenant Governor, have been telling a variation of this very joke ever since Bustamante's boss signed a bill that makes it legal for illegal immigrants to drive.

In Torres' and Bustamante's version of the joke, a guy walks into a recall; does, predictably, nothing about it (see the California energy crisis) except whine and cry that he doesn't belong there and it's all been a big mistake; wonders why people aren't falling all over themselves to bail him out; whines and cries some more; realizes his whining and crying is falling on mostly deaf ears yet fails to see the irony of the situation (see the deaf ear this guy turns on anybody that doesn't pay him for the privilege of "listening" to them); finally sees the irony of the situation; decides that listening, or at least pretending to listen, to his constituency, paying or otherwise, is his only means of escape; then decides - and here's the punch line - "Nah. That's a little drastic. I'll just pretend to listen to some of the constituency, the ones whose votes are for sale. Then" (insert Snidely Whiplash-like "nyeh, heh, heh" here) "I'll get everyone else to pick up the tab."

I know; it's not very funny. In fact, it's not even remotely funny.

But don't tell Torres and Bustamante, both of whom grin like canary-swallowing cats when they get to the "...everyone else" picking up the tab part, that. One poor guy, Congressman David Dreier, made the mistake of telling Torres that, not only did he find the joke unfunny, he found it insulting. And he told Torres this on national TV, to boot.

Torres, already infamous in the thinking, i.e., other 49, states for calling Proposition 187 "the last gasp of white America" on national TV, outdid himself this time: "That's because you and everyone else in your 'camp' hate Latinos; you always have," he snarled - managing to make MSNBC's Chris Matthews' hair go an even whiter shade of pale.

Huh?

Is "illegal immigrant" a synonym for "Latino" on Torres' planet? Because, here on Earth, immigrants - legal and otherwise - come from all sorts of places. And even if they didn't, I don't see the connection between being opposed to the idea of rewarding illegal behavior and being a racist.

But Ernesto Cienfuegos, Editor-in-Chief of Los Angeles' La Voz de Aztlan, might. In July, Cienfuegos wrote an open letter to the Committee on Chicano Rights for the purposes of complaining about "recent representation in the Mexican-American community.

There are many naive Mexican-Americans that think it is good that Art Torres is the party's state chairman," wrote Cienfuegos. "They don't realize that Art Torres was placed there, not by us, but by the Jewish/Gay Alliance. He is there not to principally serve our interests but those of the gay community. Art Torres is an out of the closet homosexual, and the vast majority of the Mexican-American community would not support the Democratic Party if they knew the truth."

(I wonder if the vast majority of the African-American community would support Bustamante if they knew the truth about his fondness for the "n" word.)

"We are no longer being provided representation in government by elected officials that should be providing our community a voice. This problem is now endemic in Alta California, all the way from the Lieutenant Governor, Cruz Bustamante to our local city councilmen and school board members. These elected representatives are not representing us but have become mere lackeys of the two party dictatorship, mostly of the corrupt Democratic Party. They have sold out the 'real' interests of the Mexican-American community and their entire focus is to enrich themselves and their cronies," Cienfuegos sputtered.

Closer to home, the 0.8 percent of Ojai Valley residents that support turning the old Honor Farm into housing for the mentally ill are telling their own version of the joke. And they, too, botch the punch line.

In their version, a guy doesn't walk in to anything, but rather, out of something - a housing facility for the mentally ill, to be exact.

Of course, it's perfectly legal for the guy to walk out of the facility, but that fact doesn't comfort the neighboring residents very much, and...here it comes, the so-called "punch line," this means the neighbors are a bunch of compassionless crackers.

"A bunch of intolerant jerks," the supporters scoff; "afraid of anyone different from themselves."

Uh, right. And Ward Connelly, the black author of Proposition 54 (which, if approved, would prohibit state and local governments from using race, ethnicity or color to classify students or employees in public education) is a cracker, too, I suppose.

Okay, so maybe I am prejudiced - against people who don't know how to tell a joke. I hate anyone who doesn't know the difference between "funny" and "insulting."

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Wednesday, August 20, 2003

Speech Impediments

The nonprofit, California-based Center for the Study of Popular Culture, led by recovering leftist David Horowitz (author of such apologetic confessionals as "Radical Son" and "Hating Whitey") has officially endorsed the as-yet-unratified Academic Bill of Rights. And all I can say to that is, phew! It's about time somebody, or rather, a bunch of somebodies, did.

Because, let's face it: When it comes to education, the Golden State's reputation is less-than-sterling.

Which I wouldn't lose any sleep over (after all, even a state's entitled to a wild night on the town now and then, as the fine people of Florida know all too well), if we didn't seem hell-bent on tarnishing it further.

What's the difference between an educational system like, say, Afghanistan's -- that is, Afghanistan's pre-2002 "system," when no boy was left behind and every teacher was Taliban-credentialed -- and California's?

The answer, if you ask California Polytechnic State University at San Luis Obispo student Steve Hinkle, whose attempted posting of a Cal Poly College Republican-sponsored flier in the school's Multicultural Center was deemed "disruptive" and "insensitive," is a resounding "not much."

Indeed, one of the five students who'd interrupted Hinkle's constitutionally-protected right to post the flier on the Center's public bulletin board alerted campus police, so offended was she by the flier's content.

That was in November. So imagine Hinkle's surprise when, in January, he was fingered as the "suspicious white male passing out literature of an offensive racial nature."

Confused? So was Hinkle. I mean, the race card was just so elementary school, so yesterday, so Gray Davis (see the "English in the Classroom" initiative, roundly condemned by the childless; out-of-touch empty nesters; a bunch of upwardly mobile white men whose own kids attended private schools and, of course, pandering politicians of indeterminate orientation like Davis.)

Weren't colleges supposed to be hipper than that?

Apparently not.

On March 12, Cal Poly's vice provost, W. David Conn, convicted Hinkle of the crime of "offending several students," sentencing him to "write each offended student a letter of apology...subject to the approval of the Office of Judicial Affairs," else risk suspension and/or expulsion.


Duly appalled, Hinkle appealed to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), which in turn appealed to the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights.


It wasn't the first such appeal, according to UC Berkeley's "Daily Californian" writer Regina Chen, whose August 15 editorial on the subject is -- not at all surprisingly --subtitled, "Potentially Offensive Speech Must be Allowed."

What is surprising is that a paper like "The Worker," er, "Daily Californian," would publish such a propaganda-free piece like Chen's, a piece that opens with this factual-yet-catatonia-inducing statement: "Responding to letters from across the nation about the state of free speech on college campuses, the Department of Education recently sent a strong reminder to universities that campus speech regulations should not infringe upon First Amendment rights."


Chen goes on to cite the Hinkle/Cal Poly "conflict," which, she rightly declares, began when Hinkle went to post a flier "publicizing a conservative speaker" (who just so happened to be a, gasp, UC Berkeley alumnus).

What Chen doesn't say is that the conservative speaker and Berkeley alumnus, Mason Weaver, is black; nor does she mention the fact that the offended students were all black, or that Weaver, a best-selling author, is one of the most sought-after speakers, black or white, in the nation.

Hmm, has anyone ever seen Michael Newdow -- the guy who wants "under God" taken out of the Pledge of Allegiance? I'll bet he's got horns. Ditto the "educators" who took the words "Christmas" and "Easter" out of public school vacation calendars. Or else just really thin skins, unlike the skins of my junior and senior high school classmates: sixty percent of the former and fifty-five percent of the latter were Jewish, i.e., didn't "celebrate" Christmas or Easter. They didn't care what you called a two-week break, just as long as there was one.

But back to the Hinkle case.

Until as recently as three weeks ago, Cal Poly was denying any wrongdoing. Perhaps the Department of Education's letter hadn't yet arrived, or had been misrouted. But as of August 7, as Chen notes, "the school published a message entitled, 'Cal Poly, the First Amendment and Free Speech,' reminding students that the university remains an open forum for free speech."

Okay, so maybe everyone with half a brain, that is, everyone who'd understood, right from the start, that "The West Wing" wasn't a documentary, knows that college is where conservative thought goes to die, that an institution of higher learning is no place for a Republican.

But what about the people who don't know? The people who, bless their hearts, entered the California public school system the year the "New Math" was launched; were taught that "school prayer" was something only oppressive regimes imposed; who never learned how to use a locker, never having had one themselves; who graduated not only with scoliosis (from never having had a locker to keep their books in) but without ever having heard the "i before e except after c" rule?

Who's going to stand up for them?

Then again, who wants to?

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Wednesday, August 13, 2003

Voter's Remorse

Boy, does my cup runneth over or what? TWO elections in just as many years!

Because, next to the Lifetime Movie Network (where even true stories are "based on true stories"); macadamia nuts; Beale Street; Benjamin Netanyahu; platform shoes (which, contrary to The Fashionistas' every-twenty-year refrain about their being "back in style," never went out of style); the color purple; Designated Smoking Areas; the Buffalo Springfield; Tony Blair; airtight alibis; unfounded allegations (but only my dad's unfounded allegations, which are always a delightful blend of the preposterous and the blasphemous); Navy whites; Paris (the casino, not the city, which is okay, too, but hardly doable over the weekend); and run-on sentences, I like elections best.

Granted, I used to like elections more than I liked run-on sentences, but that was before so many other people started voting. And the wrong way, at that.

Still, who'd have thought that, with six billion people on the planet - approximately five billion of whom live and, worse, drive in Southern California - I'd get a break like this? A chance to, as the wisecrackin' toughs of Hollywood's heyday would say, throw the bums out?

Make that one bum, one Joe "Gray" Davis. Hell, even if our Pal Joey gets to keep his ill-begotten governorship (as his party faithful hopes he will), this election won't have been for naught.

Indeed, it's going to be a lot harder for Joe to lie, or to lie on such a grand scale, at least. For who can forget the whoppers he was telling last year at this time? The lies he told to get reelected? Even the party faithful (and you know who you are) must remember that he shaved some thirty billion dollars off the budget deficit, calling it "manageable" right up until Inauguration Day. And it wasn't some vast right-wing conspiracy that made him say he'd veto any bill giving illegal immigrants drivers licenses. He came up with that lie all on his own. And now he's telling big Latino voting blocs that he's changed his mind: "Vote for me and I'll grant every illegal immigrant a drivers license! Maybe even a new car!"

Shameless, utterly shameless; even Davis' old boss, Jerry Brown, can't find anything nice to say about him.

Then again, Brown was never much concerned with making nice-nice, no sir. Call him Governor Moonbeam all you want, just don't call him a Yellow Dog Democrat.

And despite the fact hat my dad used to charge Brown's father, Pat - as well as Eleanor Roosevelt and LBJ - with the most outlandish things, always prefacing his dinner table slander with a straight-faced "Everyone knows..." or "It's common knowledge that...", I never came to believe that being Republican meant being right. (Heck, when George I said, "Read my lips," I did; they said, "No new taxes." And when, what do you know, those lips turned out to have been telling tall tales, I voted accordingly.)

Sure, there may be some folks calling for a recall for all the wrong reasons; I'm just not one of them. I'm just happy that we're not all so sun-addled that we've forgotten the true meaning of "democratic."

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Wednesday, July 16, 2003

Style Council

Well, I'll be.

Or rather, I am. Pleased, that is; pleased as punch, even. Two floors down from tickled pink and across the hall from happy as a clam, if you want to get technical about it.

But even if you don't want to get technical about it (and I wouldn't blame you if you didn't), you might want to know this: it's not a half-bad way to feel.

Okay, so maybe you already knew that. Maybe you're pleased as punch right this very minute, sitting there thinking, "Well, duh. Why doesn't she just get on high and tell us breathing's not half-bad, either?"

Or maybe you're the chronically, perhaps even congenitally, pleased sort -- and if it weren't for finding "The Collected Poems of Rod McKuen" in my attic one long ago spring cleaning, I'd never have believed such people existed -- in which case you, too, are thinking, "Well, duh..."

Fair enough. I'd probably be thinking much the same thing if the foot was in the other mouth, or if I was standing on your side of the fence, or, well, never mind. All this warm fuzzy business has clearly gone to my head.

And why wouldn't it? When you've been in a state of agitation for as long as I have (how long, exactly, I couldn't say for certain. I do know that Rolling Stone magazine was still about music and Miz Lillian was the First Mother when I started answering the phone the way the late Dorothy Parker used to answer hers -- "What fresh hell is this?" -- but answering machines were invented shortly thereafter, and life tickled me pink on many a subsequent occasion, and before I knew it, it was the 90s and I wasn't so much agitated as I was angry, tempered by frequent, if fleeting, bouts of joy, and after that, well, that brings us to the present. Let's just say a long time.) "pleased as punch" is the last place you'd expect to find yourself.

But thanks to our very own City Council, or two-fifths of it, at least, pleased as punch is where I am, and boy, is it a swell place to be. I dare say a girl could get used to this.

Of course, I probably shouldn't -- get used to it, that is -- because, let's be honest: I don't really belong here. I can't even vote, not on any Ojai-specific things, anyway.

Oh, sure, I've got the right zip code and belong to all the same property tax rolls as the folks who flood City Hall on Tuesday nights; I'm even part of the same "community" as they are, I just don't have the right address.

Consequently, I didn't get any say in what 200 of my fellow community members proposed last Tuesday night -- even though they proposed it in my name and, yes, even though I agree that the United States Attorney General does tend to take things a bit too far.

But that doesn't mean I would've signed their petition, a petition declaring, what, exactly? That I'm mad as hell and not going to take it anymore? That I'm taking my marbles and going home? Nyah, nyah, nyah, we don't like you, Mr. Ashcroft?

Please. That's not my style. And it's not the style of another 10,000 or more people living downwind from City Hall, either. People whose children attend Ojai schools, whose dollars support Ojai business, who volunteer their services to Ojai organizations and support Ojai-based charities, people who, despite their very Ojai-ness, were all but invisible to their petition-circulating neighbors last Tuesday night.

Fortunately, it wasn't the style of two out of five City Council members, both of whom showed the petitioners the real meaning of "thinking globally, acting locally."

And I couldn't be more pleased about that.

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Wednesday, May 28, 2003

Time after Times

In the beginning, or at least the beginning of this month, there was William Bennett, that self-styled viceroy of virtue whose prodigious gambling losses, once revealed, set many a tooth a-gnashing and many a garment a-rending.

Then came Jayson Blair, that now-former New York Times reporter whose stories, it turns out, were precisely that: stories. Figments of Blair's fertile - but nowhere near as fertile as former Washington Post reporter Janet Cook's - imagination. (Although, to be fair, Blair didn't make ALL of his stories up. Some, the genuine, fact-checked ones, he simply "borrowed" from other reporters. Reporters working under the national, i.e., syndicated, radar, at newspapers with names like "The Cowtown Gazette" and "The Honest Injun Herald.")

As it was with Bennett, many teeth were gnashed and many garments rended.

And verily I say unto anyone listening, why? Indeed, wherefore all the hue and cry?

Cook, whose fictitious account of an eight-year-old heroin addict garnered her employers a 1981 Pulitzer Prize - which, of course, was returned, ahem, Posthaste - clearly warranted our attention. She lived, after all, in the house that bona fide journalists and, dare I say, bona fide patriots, Woodward and Bernstein built.

But Blair, well, c'mon: Blair worked for the New York Times. Surely there are more important things to fulminate over than some guy who, to coin a phrase popular with out-of-work Baath party loyalists, "was just doing his job."

For the Times is as much about straight reporting and the unvarnished truth as the (thankfully) as-yet-unpublished Jerry Falwell Papers are.

Yes, it boasts the best, perhaps even the WORTHIEST, crossword puzzle of any Yankee daily, ever. And no native Noo Yorkuh - or any self-respecting urbanite, for that matter - is ever completely dressed without a Times under his arm. (Unless it's Sunday, when many Times's can be found doing duty as makeshift deadbolts and/or doorstops.)

Now that I think of it, maybe that's the problem: too many Times's aren't being read. Because if they were, there certainly wouldn't be all this teeth gnashing and garment rending going on. (Except for in those circles where teeth gnashing and garment rending is considered a sport - which, incidentally, would explain the outrage over Mr. Bennett's hobby.)

Really, methinks that, if more Times's were being read, especially on Sundays, when the Times is at its most National Enquirer-esque, rather than being read about or used to accessorize outfits and prop open doors, we'd be able to focus on the more pressing issues of the day.

Such as, is it "al-Qaeda," "al-Qaida," or "al Qaida," no hyphen?

(No one addressed this during the "Khaddafi/Ghadaffy" days, either, and it's been bothering me ever since.)

All this horror over something that happened at the "just the facts, ma'am" Times?

Somewhere, Jack Webb is laughing.

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Wednesday, May 21, 2003

80's Hades

This may come as somewhat of a surprise to the people who think Rush Limbaugh and I were separated at birth (and I've no doubt it will surprise, if not out and out offend, some of my fellow Ronald Reagan Fan Club members), but I hated the 80s. With a passion. Indeed, with a gag-me-with-a-spoon-like passion.

All that conspicuous consumption! Forget Abscam, the Ayatollah, even ALF. Conspicuous consumption ó not to be confused with "wretched excess," which, unless the subject is body fat, is an oxymoron anyway ó is what made the 80s so dreadful.

Take those ridiculous and annoyingly ubiquitous "Baby on Board" signs. Who, pray tell, were those signs meant to alert? Drunk drivers? "Whoa, there's a baby in that car. Better pick another lane to weave and bob in."

No. Those signs were meant for other Beamer/Volvo-driving upwardly-mobile professionals. Those signs were yuppie code for, "Yo, check me out! I, too, delayed childbearing on my way to the top, but I'm still fertile! Now put THAT in your sushi and smoke it!"

The 80s credo, "more is more," was evident everywhere. If you think SUVs are, as Ralph Nader would say, unsafe at any speed, think back to the 80s, when it was virtually impossible to see two cars ahead of yours what with all the sky-high hairdos everyone wore. We took our fashion cues from the folks at "Dallas" at "Dynasty," donning 10-gallon hats to ride mechanical bulls and sewing shoulder pads into our bathing suits. Bigger, we declared, was better.

Perhaps the lowest 80s moment was the advent of the Tell All Talk Show, which gave everyone, rich and poor alike, an opportunity to be shamefully conspicuous. The 80s made Merv and Mike Douglas passé, sidewalk shrinks out of Oprah and Phil.

What was wrong with keeping things in the closet, with celebrity guests who revealed no more than their upcoming projects? Ratings, I guess.

More was, after all, more. The more we told on ourselves, the higher the ratings.

And, boy, did we tell on ourselves! Gleefully!

In the 80s, every manner of consumption was justified.

If you had a problem with Twinkies, you were hypoglycemic.

If you couldn't manage to "just say no," it was because your dopamine receptors were depleted.

And if you had to kill your parents? Why, you were suffering from Menendez Syndrome.

Nietzsche claimed God was dead; Helen Reddy claimed He was a She. But the 80s, well, the 80s claimed God, and any notions thereof, were profitable ó and then set about conspicuously proving just that.

New Age Mystic Centers, Christian theme parks (one such proposal called for the Sea of Galilee Walk), Marianne Williamson, Funky Cold MedinaÖGod was everywhere. And His, or Her, children, even His estranged children, like Madalyn Murray O'Hair, were making a killing.

The worst thing about the 80s, of course, was their very conspicuousness. Too big to ignore, they never really went away. They just, well, mutated.

Junk bond kings gave way to dot com princes to Kenny-Boy Lay and the Enron gang. Tell All Talk Shows gave way to the Starr Report and reality television; blame games to class action lawsuits. And New Age spirituality heralded the end of Easter vacations and the beginning of vernal equinox breaks, not to mention "What would Jesus do?" ad campaigns and Michael Newdow.

On the up side, Grace Slick's daughter changed her name in the 80s. Once called "God," she disappointed her unconventional mama and changed it to "Muffy." That's a little bit better, don't you think?

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Wednesday, May 14, 2003

Better's Up

So the author of "The Book of Virtues," Bill Bennett, likes to gamble. And...and nothing. I've been waiting for the other shoe to drop, but, apparently, there IS no other shoe. Indeed, "Right wing activist racks up millions in gambling losses" was followed by "Reagan's Education Secretary Gets Comped at Caesar's Palace," which was followed by "Former Drug Czar says the Slots 'Relax Him,' which was followed by, well, more of the same.

Am I missing something? I mean, must one renounce ones gambling jones if one is a Republican? And, if so, must I - I mean, must one - do so before the next election?

While I've never been a constitutional scholar/registered Democrat, I never had any trouble understanding my PoliSci 101 textbook (and no, it wasn't a remedial class). As a matter of fact, I did rather well in PoliSci 101, even managing an "A" on the final exam.

Which is why all this tsk-tsking over one man's hobby, a hobby that, to my mind, there's never enough time to indulge, has me so stumped.

Again, am I missing something? Did I sleep through the ratification of a twenty-eighth amendment, an amendment that seems to give everyone who's been sniveling about the Patriot Act a gander at my financial records, a peek into my private life, and basically repeals the fourth amendment? Was I holed up in a noisy casino when God issued that eleventh, "thou shalt not place wagers" commandment?

Golly, I hope not. That would be embarrassing.

But not as embarrassing as letting myself get so caught up in a Marxist-like frenzy that I'd dash off some "How Dare the Man who Wrote 'The Moral Compass' Show his Face in this Town Again" manifesto for all the world (or at least that part of the world still grumbling about, yawn, hanging chads) to see.

Honestly, what does a penchant for felt tables, black chips, free drinks, all-you-can-eat buffets, rows and rows of colorful - and, if you're lucky, musical - machines have to do with a belief in, oh, say, "traditional family values?"

I happen to have a penchant for such stuff myself, as do key members of my "traditional," i.e., parents are married and of the opposite sex, family. And not once has our collective fondness for the expression, "double down" led us into evil. None of us has ever taken a life, beaten a child, held up a convenience store, chanted "Death to America," burned a cross, cheated on our income taxes, cuckolded our mates, poisoned an animal, drove drunk, or even made rude noises in church.

So where do people - and you know who you are - get off clucking over Bennett's "significant" gambling losses? One recent, late-breaking "news" story on the subject devoted a whole sidebar to "what Bill's losses could have bought." (I couldn't read past the subheading, but I'm guessing "8,000,000 Communist Manifestos" was on the list.)

The way I see it, Bennett's gambling losses are only "significant" to Bennett. Unless he robbed me to pay for one of his Las Vegas junkets, they're none of my concern. Heck, I've got my own losses to worry about.

But nothing so worrisome that two days' worth of comped room service and a courtesy limo won't cure. Yee-hah, Nevada, here I come!

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Wednesday, February 19, 2003

Protests Too Much

Remember the Saturday Night Live "version" of 60 Minutes' old, pre-Andy Rooney program-closer, "Point/Counterpoint?" The Jane Curtin/Dan Aykroyd takeoff on those Sunday night face-offs between political commentators Shana Alexander and James Kilpatrick?

Sure you do. In today's politically parallel climate, you can hardly turn around without hearing someone call someone else an "ignorant sl--;" er, let's just say there are an awful lot of people trying to make a point in the stupidest ways imaginable.

From the shores of Old Europe - oh, don't make that face; it's petulant France with all the Iraqi business interests, not to mention Baby Doc Duvalier, not me. And what about "I'll say anything to get elected" Gerhard Schroder? Must have gone to the Gray Davis School of Politicking - to the banks of Lake Casitas (where woe betide anyone who isn't wearing a "Free the Steelhead" T-shirt), dissent has never looked uglier.

Wait, yes it has: On Saturday Night Live. But that was television, o ye of ideological differences, you. Did all those "Kids, don't try this at home" disclaimers go for naught?

Take last weekend's so-called peace rallies, "so-called" because, from where I sat, less than half the teeming throng was rallying for peace. There were people carrying "Free Palestine" (take it to the Gaza Strip, pal); "Decriminalize pot" (uh, dude; wrong rally); "Kill Bush" (there's a real peaceful message for you), and a variety of other decidedly stupid signs.

Who ever imagined Madonna would come across as the most "intelligent" protester: "I'm not anti-Bush," the pop music mogul told MTV; "just pro-peace."

What a coincidence, so am I! And I know a lot of other people who are pro-peace, too! In fact, I'd bet every sane person on the planet is pro-peace - perhaps even pro-love, pro-health, and pro-happiness, too!

Want to protest a war? Then protest a war, for Pete's sake. Don't believe a preemptive strike on Iraq is warranted? Then why didn't you say so? Calling those who do "imperialistic pigs" doesn't exactly get your point across.

Just as no one in his right mind would take to the streets with a "No peace!", "Disease rules!", or "Up with hate!" sign, no one in his right mind would respond to people who can't stay on message.

But all this is moot, anyway, because your average heart is made up long before your average mind, and it takes an awful lot of work, if not a cataclysmic event, to get the two to meet (much less get along.)

Case in point: A friend of mine hated anything that even smelled "conservative" - I was always sure to burn some "Eau du Berkeley" incense in the den if I knew she'd be coming by - until her brother was killed in the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001.

In the 18 months since, however, not only has my friend, a working artist, deigned to meet with Rudy Giuliani, she's come to like him so much she's adding his portrait to her gallery of "stars" (Che Guevara, Molly Yard, et al) What's more, she's no longer ashamed of her other brother's job - FBI agent.

It shouldn't take a cataclysmic event to get people of opposing viewpoints to meet each other halfway. To paraphrase Rodney King, can't we all just play fair?

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Wednesday, January 15, 2003

Hoosier Daddy

The good people of Indiana are, for reasons I've never understood, a little wacky on the subject of their home state. No one from Indiana is ever just from Indiana, no sir. "I'm a Hoosier!" they'll gleefully exclaim, as if being a Hoosier were akin to being an Olympic gold medalist or next-in-line to the throne. The more exuberant of these folks use their home state like credentials, handing out business cards that might read something like, "John Doe, Hoosier, M.D.," and putting things like "Current Hoosier" or "Lifelong Hoosier" under the "Special Skills and Qualifications" section of a job application.
How I envy these sweetly daft souls! How content I would be to be known for being a bit wacky about where I live, instead of trying to content myself with living in a state known to be peopled by the just plain wacky! A state that seems to get more demented, more deranged, and downright ridiculous by the minute!

Like the whole Hoosier phenomenon, I've never understood how a place as big and as grand as this place once was could let itself go, could let itself be taken over by lunatics. I'm not the only one who's noticed, either: In a Letter to the Editor just last week, a local gentleman very eloquently eulogized the apparent loss of our sanity, asking if others had "ever thought the same."

I don't know about anyone else, mister, but I sure have! Bless you; just knowing that more of my kind are out there, that there are other refugees from the plant Common Sense walking this state (the same state, incidentally, that produces the ridiculous commercials lamented in your letter), is a comfort.

We're also the same state with the highest health, home and car insurance premiums, thanks to a system that favors irresponsible, uninsured motorists, illegal aliens, and litigation-happy crackpots over people from our planet. I had the audacity to submit a homeowner's insurance claim and was - as you knew I would be - promptly canceled.
And "stupid voting" did indeed land us in the fix we're in; we're the king of stupid voting!

Perhaps it's because we have more morons per capita than any other state. What other people in the land would take their political cues from Sean Penn? Would say, "Well, if Sean says Iraq's weapon-free, then Iraq must be weapon-free."

What other people would give a baby to the highest bidder (think Michael Jackson, who, let's be honest, will never be mistaken for Ozzie Nelson - or even Robert Young.)
What other people would purport to stand for peace while wearing the hue, if not the cry, of the Black Panthers, the plague, and an insidious lung disease?

Add to this the fact that we give the looniest among us the choicest judicial posts, ensuring our madness in perpetuity. As if being home to the judge who ruled in favor of a bitter ex-husband at the expense of the Pledge of Allegiance wasn't embarrassing enough, we're also the proud owners of the court that recently decided it would deny any judge who supported the Boy Scouts a bench. What next? Will golfers be forced to renounce the evils of Augusta before getting a cart? Will public schoolchildren caught saying "Christmas vacation" forfeit their right to a winter break?

Anything's possible in the land that set O.J. free. And I'd probably be a little spooked if I thought I was alone. But now that I know I'm not, well, nyah, nyah, nyah, you nut-jobs, you. Catch me if you can.

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Wednesday, January 8, 2003

Woe, Canada

As plenty before me have no doubt discovered, Thomas Hardy was wrong: You CAN go home again. And you can do it pretty easily, too, when you're motivated. Even if you're flying coach through several time zones while toting a barely housebroken toy poodle as carry-on.

When all you've thought about for the last couple of days is going home again, panhandling Hare Krishnas at LAX give you a warm fuzzy and the smell of smog at 2:00 am fills you with the kind of loony longing that napalm did Robert Duvall in "Apocalypse Now."

When you're just plain homesick, even the "me-no-speaky-English" parking lot attendant who can't explain the extra 219 miles on your ostensibly "garaged" car's odometer doesn't bother you - much.

Nor does all the middle-of-the-night traffic which, under any other circumstances, would have you snarling, "Where are all these *%$#@ people going at this ungodly hour?!" but which you now regard with Zen-like detachment: "My, there sure are a lot of clever vanity plates, aren't there?"

Leaving home; that is, hitting the road, seeing how the other half lives, going on holiday - traveling, in short -has long been one of my favorite things. Coming home; that is, unpacking, wading through bills and/or other bad news, and reentering a housekeeper-less, mini shampoo-less, room service-less norm has long been one of my least favorite things - even when I've come home from places where there was no such thing as room service; places where I screamed "ugly American" without saying a word; and, yes, places where the very water is considered a weapon of mass destruction.

Which makes my recent, dare I say, triumphant, return home all the stranger. After all, it's not like I'd been in Yemen or on the Ivory Coast, gauchely throwing greenbacks at any quaintly-clothed native or gun-toting rebel who'd let me take his picture. I'd never even left the continent, for Pete's sake; I'd merely gone to Canada. Canada! A country I'd always had a soft spot for, had always been reluctant to leave, and in which I'd always found something new to love.

I loved it for spawning Neil Young, the Crash Test Dummies, and Donald Sutherland; for having the prettiest currency in North America; for its wide open spaces - so wide, it hardly noticed when we divested it of Alaska.

I loved it for Maggie Trudeau, whose Studio 54 antics helped push Miz Lillian and Brother Billy off the front pages for a while. I loved it for its kindness to conscientious objectors, but what I loved most was the Epcot Center aspect of it: veddy British in the west; tres French (its "other" language, in fact) in the east; a virtual Frontierland in the middle, and socialized medicine everywhere.

Ironically, it's that very aspect that made me run for the nearest airport last week.

It's as if they can't decide what they want to be when they grow up, but still expect us, whether tourist, subject, or citizen of the republique alike, to play by the rules - whatever those are. They seem to change from city to city.

Just when you thought Toronto, for example, had settled on being Western Europe, it goes all Eastern bloc on you: In 2004, anyone caught smoking a cigarette in a car with a child under 19 will be cited and fined for "abuse."

Yet, elsewhere in the province, a serial sex offender, thief, and convicted drug dealer, spent less than a total of two years in jail. Upon his latest release, two days before Christmas, he broke into an elderly couple's home and attempted to rape the wife as her husband slept beside her. No "fascist" three strikes law in Ontario, no sir.

News reporters across the country refer to Al-Qaeda as the "alleged perpetrators" of the terrorist attacks on the United States. An article in the Toronto Star went so far as to say, "...following the U.S.'s actions (a snippy word for 'behavior) against the Al-Qaeda network it blames for the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks."

'It blames?' What, are we accusing the wrong guys?

Long the most overtaxed people on Earth, with levies imposed on everything from taking up space to breathing too much air - socialized medicine doesn't just grow on trees, you know - Canadians have been flocking to the Great White North's newly legit casinos in droves. Why the rush to sink billions of severely deflated (but still darned pretty) currency into U.S. made slot machines? Gambling winnings, believe it or not, are the only thing in Canada that isn't taxed.

Worst of all, medicine is no longer free; it hasn't been for years. Health care, says Parliament, is going private.

And they say our chief executive is a moron.

Note to Canada: Call me after you've decided what you're going to be when you grow up. In the meantime, I'll be spending my greenbacks elsewhere. Maybe even Yemen, which at least has the decency to hate me to my face.

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Wednesday, November 6, 2002

Stop the Vote

A local department store recently launched an ingenious advertising gimmick - "Bring in your 'I have voted, have you?' stub for select discounts" - that has me all atwitter. And not because I love a bargain, which, of course, I do; heck, who doesn't? Not liking a bargain is like not liking your current governor but stumping for him anyway; wait, let me start over. Not liking a bargain is like not liking something you haven't even tried; oh, forget it.

What I'm trying to say is, it isn't my self-seeking, consumptive nature that has me all atwitter about this particular marketing strategy, but said strategy's implications on society as a whole. I mean, think of the possibilities! Imagine how much unpleasantness could be avoided if we were to apply, no, make that ENFORCE, a "produce the stub, please" policy to, well, just about everything!

Take actors. What if we made them produce some sort of stub qualifying them for the political arena before we gave them backstage, and all too often frontstage, passes to such arenas? (This being a democratic society, I won't suggest that we make everyone - butchers, bakers, candlestick makers, even actors - produce some sort of stub certifying an IQ over 85 before going to the polls. But don't think I wouldn't like to. Suggest such a thing, that is.)

My toes verily curl imagining a society where the cuddly Lous, a.k.a., Ed Asners, not to mention Meatheads, a.k.a., Rob Reiners, of the world are made to furnish more than their SAG cards before they get to play statesmen, advising the minions on "a woman's right to choose." A culture where an Academy Award-winning portrayal of Sister Helen Prejean doesn't automatically confer grandstanding rights on capital punishment.

And don't get me started on the Ben Afflecks of the world, eye candy so sweet it hardly matters whether they're able to walk and talk at the same time. What does matter is that these people are paid to look good, not hold court on subjects they can barely pronounce. In a "produce the stub" culture, people like the eminently photogenic Ben, who, like Rob Lowe before him, would have to know more than where the best post-convention wingdings are before being allowed to "counsel" us less-attractive schlubs. People like the eminently photogenic Ben, who hasn't even bothered to vote (see: County Clerk-Recorder Registrar records for Los Angeles; New York; and Cambridge, the three cities Mr. Affleck claims residency in) since 1992, wouldn't have a soapbox to stand on.

I dare say this could be a utopian society if everyone adopted a "produce the stub" mentality.

Staging a "No War for Oil" protest? Splendid. Just be sure to weed out any marchers who didn't arrive by electric car, bike or foot, or who didn't support drilling in the Arctic Circle, and you can all but guarantee that the right people will sit up and take notice.

Headed out to your local Planned Parenthood? No problem. Just don't forget to bring the stub verifying that you're either (a) pregnant or (b) an adoption services worker.

The possibilities, as you can see, are endless.

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Wednesday, August 7, 2002

Richly Deserving

Most of us, especially those of us who don't keep our life savings under the mattress, aren't all that shocked by the flurry of post-Enron exposes about corporate hi-jinx. Disgusted, yes; shocked, no. It may indeed be a sad state of affairs, the masses responding to all this handcuffed Armani with little more than a suspicion-confirming snort, but no sadder a state than, say, the back end of the 90s, when the masses couldn't care less about corporate hi-jinx, particularly the commander-in-chief's. "Yeah, so what if the CEO takes too many 'meetings' in the executive washroom? Our bankbooks never looked better."

Funny how obscene money looks in another person's pockets. In fact, once it started leaving ours, we began developing a sixth sense. That's right: we saw rich people. Sometimes they scared us, but more often than not, they disgusted us. Some of us were both scared and disgusted, and, as scared-disgusted people sometimes do, began making sweeping generalizations. Not that one currently sweeping the nation - that the rich are an evil lot - is anything new. Remember "down with the Establishment?" The decade that began at filthy rich JFK's helm ended with that tired old notion, just as the Great Depression, led by filthy rich FDR, began with it. Heck, blaming the rich for all the world's ills was a fashionable colonial pastime, enjoyed by even filthy rich Jefferson himself on occasion.

Interestingly enough, this exceedingly unoriginal thought has begun making the rounds in Ojai, a place known more setting trends than following them. The not-so-great Depression we're in? Blame filthy rich GWB and Co. California's woefully mismanaged budget? All Dubya's fault. The Taliban, the Titanic, grandpa's tinnitus? No doubt the work of the current crop of Washington fat cats.

As always, it isn't the masses leading the revival but the upper end of the middle classes. And just how do I know that? Easy; the people on the lower end of the economic spectrum are too busy struggling to keep a Dodge in the garage/their place on the Sycamore Housing development to set trends, even tired old trends. As fun as a round of flay-the-rich sounds, who has the time to play?

Glad you asked. Because the urge to jump on the bandwagon, be part of the in-crowd, get jiggy with it, etc., is a powerful one, and should you succumb to it, it's important to know how the game's played, as everyone has different rules.

It's like this: the higher the tax bracket, the harder, even dirtier, a person plays. It's highly likely, for instance, that a guy who says he's been 'disenfranchised' (a fancy way of saying he's mad about not getting his way) will also say he blames the rich for all the world's ills when, in reality, he only blames the rich he doesn't like. Find another teammate if this makes you uncomfortable.

Take the letter I read last week, in which the writer brought out a favorite chestnut - the 2000 election, stolen by the filthy rich - to "explain" all this bad behavior we're seeing in big business. He closed his screed by chastising the masses' lack of outrage, its subsequent lack of embarrassment.

Lack of outrage? Friend, I spent the twilight of 2000 in a perpetual state of outrage, an outrage so intense that, whenever that OTHER filthy rich camp (see Dun & Bradstreet on the Gores of Tennessee) made like Bolsheviks with its "will of the people" whine, I'd quite unwillingly pop a vessel.

And embarrassment, well, you don't know from embarrassment. That uncomfortable compassion you have for people whose act is bombing? Magnify that discomfort some hundred times and you'll know how I felt when I heard, "no controlling legal authority;" "vast right wing conspiracy;" or, "if that man wins, I'm leaving the country." (Note to Alec Baldwin: Here's your hat, what's your hurry?)

Or how humiliated I was by the presidential pardon of a billionaire fugitive, the "Room for Let, Quaint Lincolnesque Décor" ad that ran in Variety for eight years, and the U-haul a certain New York senator backed up to the White House when she thought no one was looking.

To say nothing of the embarrassment I feel for people who snarl, "yeah, well your mother wears army boots" or some other non sequitur whenever they don't get their way.

See, if I were to play flay-the-rich, I'd need to know if my teammates counted failed presidential candidates with millions of dollars in stock in Occidental Petroleum, a stake in a zinc mine, thousands of dollars in support from Adelphia, WorldCom, even Enron - stuff like that. If they didn't, I doubt I'd want to play.

To paraphrase F. Scott Fitzgerald, "people who hate the rich are different from you and me."

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Wednesday, July 10, 2002

'Toon In, Drop Out

If in spring a young man's fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love, then summer must be the season when a young man - heck, everyone's - attention turns to their navel. And you know what they say about that, don't you? You don't? Well, neither do I. But I do know that too much navel contemplating, like too much anything, isn't good. I do know that idle hands end up in you-know-who's workshop.

Three summers ago, the Cartoon Network banned Speedy Gonzales from the airwaves, calling the Mexican mouse "an offensive ethnic stereotype."

Yet, for three years running, human Hispanics, most recently in the form of the League of United Latin American Citizens, has been begging the Cartoon Network, which owns the rights to not just Speedy, but every Warner Brothers cartoon ever created, to put the mouse back on the air. "Speedy Gonzales is one of Cartoon Network Latin America's - where shorts of the cartoon regularly run - favorite characters!" they cry. "He's a cultural icon," they whine to the, get this, ANGLO American network brass.

But, as of summer 2002, their bilingual arguments were still falling on deaf, white ears. (The word for "no" is the same in Spanish as it is in English.)

You'll recall that it was a bunch of gringos who got their gauchos in a knot over the English in the Classroom initiative five Junes ago, and it was a bunch of idle palefaces who took issue with the Frito Bandito a generation of summers back.

I don't have a medical degree, but I can smell an alarming trend from cinco paces back. And it seems to me that white man's brains don't do well in the heat. (So it's a good thing Congress doesn't convene in the dog days of summer.)

Many Julys ago, Sambo's Restaurants started going belly-up. Apparently, there was a gaggle of non-African American people who found the Little Black Sambo dolls the restaurant sold offensive. Summer after summer, the dolls disappeared, until, one day, neither the dolls - The little stuffed tiger was so cute! It even had a plate of pancakes and a teensy pat of butter! - nor the coffee shop itself could be found anywhere in Southern California. (There's one in Santa Barbara now, but the damage has already been done. And the food, frankly, just isn't as tasty without the dolls.)

In the summer of 2000, a cluster of Anglo businessmen opened a Krispy Kreme donut shop two miles outside Koreatown in the greater Los Angeles area, effectively crucifying about 10,000 Korean American entrepreneurs in the process. Were these white men's hands too long idle? I mean, there were plenty of other sites in the greater Los Angeles area to establish what is probably the country's one-million-and-sixth Krispy Kreme donut shop. Or did they, like so many other of my brethren, just go crazy from the heat?

It occurs to me that, since Cartoon Network owns the rights to the Warner Brothers mother lode, Daffy Duck and Porky Pig aren't long for this world, either. I'm guessing that the former will be declared offensive to neurotic fowl by the summer of 2003; the latter? Well, that's a tough one. For one, there is the weight-conscious population to consider, most of whom have already had it up to their double chins with mean-spirited oinking jokes. On the other hand, there is the Lap Dancers Union of America, all, presumably, big fans of Porky's racy, i.e., bottomless, ensemble. And what about the Speech Impediment faction, who look to the pig for inspiration? Who say, "by golly, if h-h-he can st-st-st-utter and be a st-st-st-ar, why can't I?

Phew. It's a good thing I keep my idle nose buried in as many books as I can when the mercury rises. There's not much damage a person can do when she's catching up on her summer reading.

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Wednesday, December 26, 2001

For Auld Time's Sake

Save for that "What if They Gave an Election and No One Conceded?" affair, the year 2000 was monumentally uneventful. Unless the sheepish expression worn by the millions of people left wondering what to do with (and where to store) some 32 tons of generator batteries; 40 trillion liters of purified water; half a billion lightsticks, and enough cold, hard currency to buy Panama and a few dozen kilos-worth of Noriega's pet GNP counts as an "event." Or, rather (as was the dawn of Y2K itself) "non-event."

I imagine most everybody wishes 2001 were as uneventful, or, at the very least, that September tenth had been so inexplicably long the calendar was forced to skip to September twelfth just to keep the cosmos on track. God knows I've had similar flights of fancy.

But the grim truth is that 2001 will go down as the year that Evil nearly triumphed over Good, the year that Good - and, in retrospect, Complacency - took a ghastly beating.

Yet I would also hope that the tail end of 2001 goes down as the season that put the brakes on pandemic self-absorption; reflexive litigiousness; indifferent profiteering, and Jesse Jackson's audacious pursuit of immortality. For it was, it really was.

Which isn't to say all was Nirvana. Why should it have been? The world's never been without hubris, hostility, and horse you-know-what, though no one ever said it would be. For that matter, no one ever said life was supposed to be fair, and it's probably safe to say no one will ever promise me a rose garden. The important thing is, Evil merely 'nearly' triumphed. And from this unspeakable misery, a good-sized number of us quit behaving as if it already had.

For the first time in I don't know how long, "what can I do for you's" outnumber "but how does it apply to me's?" something like five-to-one. People are beating more and joining less, trading in their shrugs for strength of character. Money still talks, just not as loudly.

Even locally, where "special interests" and special interest groups often reign supreme, there are signs of better things to come. The most recent one came in the form of a cogent letter to the editor, written by a reader who shall rename nameless - lest my esteem for his point of view reflect badly on him.

Indeed, it's not out of the realm of possibility that a person might look upon an endorsement from me the same way he would a Trojan horse. And I know firsthand how unsettling it is to earn the wrong person's affections. About 20 years ago, an obsessively flirtatious friend of mine was going through her self-described "slumming" phase, which entailed dating a series of unsavory characters. One character, however, was particularly unsavory. Though he, like the others, was "Botticelli-faced" (again, her description), simple-minded (by anyone's description), and well acquainted with the words, "bail shall be set at..." he knew even fewer colorful adjectives than her other overgrown delinquents and used a single word - begins with an "F" - for all of his noun, verb and adverb needs. Worse, any bodily functions best kept suppressed in public were, to him, cause for celebration. Therefore, when he "gallantly" told my friend he thought I was more his type than she was, I was torn between wanting to beat him up and throw up. But I digress.

In no uncertain, albeit diplomatic, terms, this reader made mincemeat of the notion that Evil is ever warranted. When we make excuses for depravity, he concluded, we're no better than the depraved.

I couldn't agree more. It's that sort of mindset that kept us from being severely, instead of nearly, beaten last year. To him, and to everyone else who took stock of what we almost lost in 2001, I offer a hearty auld lang syne.

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Wednesday, September 12, 2001

Smoking Out Big Brother

George Orwell hadn't already been sputtering "I told you so's" at every séance he'd been summoned to, he'd sure as heck start now. Unless, of course, that he himself, fiction's Great Prognosticator, is too dumbfounded for words (even smugly terse ones) and chooses instead to remain gratefully and quite silently dead. At least where this issue's concerned.

But the soon-to-be enforced ban on outdoors smoking, much as it out-Orwells even Mr. Orwell, shouldn't render the living silent. It was silence, after all, which lead to the "Candid Traffic Violator Camera." (And if it wasn't excessive silence and/or a scarcity of sound defiance that let this sorry excuse for a 'public safety' measure slip by, then it must have been mass stupidity. What, did people think that Allen Funt would be writing citations? "Smile! You're on Big Brother Camera!")

Okay, so it wasn't mass stupidity. I knew that. Really, I did: an outbreak of mass stupidity would've warranted at least one report from the CDC, perhaps in the form of a travel alert, like, "Epidemic idiocy rages through the Golden State." Yet no such reports have, to date, been filed. Nor has the U.S. Surgeon General issued any warnings, although, now that I mention it, that's not saying much. As late as 1996, the annual Surgeon General's Report on Mental Health favored endorsed electroconvulsive therapy, a.k.a., shock treatments, "...as a safe, clinically- and cost-effective way to treat severe cases of manic depression and schizophrenia"-- a dismal disclosure, yes. Though hardly a surprising one, considering the 'cost-effective' part; government-sanctioned, a.k.a., subsidized, lobotomies were all the rage in the 40s. In fact, Rosemary Kennedy's 1941 lobotomy was actually performed in Washington, D.C., at the request of her father, JFK's dad. Rose Williams, Tennessee's sister, was "treated" in 1943; Frances Farmer, too outspoken for her own good, that is, too outspoken for a commie-paranoid country's good, got hers in 1948. But I digress.

A person doesn't have to be addicted to that ol' debil tobaccy hisself to see how utterly audacious it is to legislate people's bad habits. Which is exactly what this chutzpah-ridden state of ours aims to do come January, 2002, when it officially becomes a crime to "...be caught using tobacco products within 15 to 25 feet of a playground, sandbox, park with slides, or any place children congregate."

Let's see if I have this straight: Californians will be free to smoke without impunity 25-and-a-half feet away from a sandbox? A sandbox, I might add, that will more than likely be jam-packed with the toxoplasmotic droppings of some confused cat, no doubt owned by -- oops, scratch that -- no doubt 'the significant other of' someone with more than his own share of bad habits.

If "yes," I'd suggest that the tax assessment (equipping more than 100,000 sworn police officers with a finely-calibrated tape measurer won't be cheap) generated by this make-believe war on make-believe thugs be reallocated the second the war's initial investment in arsenal is recouped. I'd further suggest that such reallocation go towards beefing up the state's gang task forces. Or towards replacing the Candid Traffic Violator Cameras with live cops. Or, for that matter, towards repainting the diamond lanes.

If "no," well, I 'd suggest the same things; the fine points of this legislation don't interest me one whit. I can't get past the fact that the same populace who protested Frito-Lay's exploitation of banditos; who clamored for the rights of mechanical whales (though it wasn't until "Free Willy 3" that Willy started sharing in the box office grosses); who lobbied for the removal of such insensitive, exclusionary terms as 'Christmas vacation' from the public school system -- well, I just can't figure out why such a people would pick now, of all times, to clam up.

This is no time for a collective shrug or cutesy remarks like, "I don't know what apathy means and I don't care." This is one of those times, like the aforementioned lobotomy-happy years or the McCarthy-blighted 50s, when every citizen's, not only the nicotine-addicted citizen's, constitutional rights are at risk. And, since it's fashionable to ostracize smokers these days, anti-smoking laws provide the perfect front for self-serving, overly ambitious politicians. When it was fashionable to ostracize the mentally ill, the would-be furriers of those days hid behind the Dept. of Health and Human Services, where they could go about the business of issuing outrageous decrees and mandates relatively undisturbed. And, when it was fashionable to ostracize liberals, the nation's premier Pinko hunters could and often did use their so-called authority to gag or out and out exile anyone whose politics they didn't like.

So, now it's the smokers' turn in the mushpot. But the San Diego Assemblyman who authored the bill (at the urging of his constituency, a number of whom worried that "all the cigarette butts" their kids kept finding and eating was harmful to their health) and the governor who signed it into law shouldn't get too comfortable. Californians are a fickle bunch. I'acull bet that, before the year is out, flogging smokers will have become passé. And the next fashionable target? Hmm, I don't know; how about negligent parents? Like the indiscriminately breeding fools too lazy to keep an eye on their kids, much less teach them not to eat the stuff they find in sandboxes.

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