Thursday, December 28, 2006

"A Ford, Not a Lincoln"

Gerald Ford said, famously, that he was "a Ford, not a Lincoln".

Perhaps Ford was just a Ford, but in all the glow that is currently accompanying his death this week, Ford's luster is looking pretty upscale.

I saw President Ford speak in Dallas. I drove to the see Ford alone in my parent's Colony Park station wagon, a Mercury, which is, by the way, an upscale Ford. I was 18 years old. As a teenager, I was appalled at pork barrel spending, and I applauded Ford for holding the record for vetoing so many of the Congress' pork-laden bills.

Nixon had been a dark, dark Dodge, and I liked Ford's straightforward, midwestern voice. And I liked his pipe. As I was growing up, my father smoked a pipe, and so to me that pipe was a graceful symbol of purpose and resolve, of authority and command.

All during the summer of 1974, when I was 16, I'd watched the Watergate hearings transfixed. Those hearings had a lot to do with instilling in me a lifelong fascination with presidential power and Washington wrangling. And Ford was no where to be seen, so he was untainted and truly new when he so suddenly took over the oval office. From dark Dodge to true blue Ford.

But if Gerald Ford really was just a Ford, who was the Lincoln? Well, Lincoln, of course. But there were some other Lincoln presidents as well. Johnson drove Lincolns. You can still see them at his ranch in Texas. But Johnson was really more of an SUV kind of guy. And the current president, also from Texas, is a pick up kind of guy, probably a cheap Chevy with no rear view mirror running on three cylinders.

Though he was killed in a Lincoln, John Kennedy might have been a silvery Chrysler convertible. And His Hollywood Holiness, Mr. Majesty Goes Primetime, Ronald Reagan? No humble 'man of mainstreet' there: flags on the fenders Cadillac limo all the way. Clinton, another Ford man, but his baby was a sky blue Mustang, and well, you know the rest. Which brings us back to the point about Ford. He didn't ask for the job. He didn't glorify the job. He might have worked the room, somewhat, by telephone mostly, but he didn't play the field or play to the people. And his self-esteem and genuine family values transcended the trappings of power and of those wranglings in Washington, mostly played out to keep power. He let it go. He brought workmanship and humility to the great sacrifices and deeper duties of public service.

Gerald Ford was a servant. Even that sounds old-fashioned now.

Too bad. I'm missing his leaden yet clear and capable speech, his workmanlike yet resolute delivery. And I miss the pipe.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Blink and Xmas Is Gone

I am pretty sure what Christmas is all about. I'm with Linus on this one. Except I'll take the twig of a tree and the underdog spirit and the holy spirit and the speech impediments and the humility and the quiet carolers and the magic dust and the sense of awe and just leave out the Christ child thing and the supernatural stuff. The worldly aspects are what do it for me.

But here it is today, the second day of Christmas, with ten more days of Christmas to go, but it seems Christmas is gone for another year. The traffic around the mall, which opened at 6 AM while Santa was still sleeping one off, is jam packed. There are lines of cars in the bank drive-thrus. It's back to business and business as usual. Gotta make a buck or figure out what more to buy with that gift card that's burning a hole in your pocket.

I don't have any holes in my pocket, but my pants and my mood do sort of match Charlie Brown's Christmas tree. Not only would I not want to leave that sad little tree on the lot, I also wouldn't want to throw it out in the trash 'til spring.

Meanwhile, most everyone else, it seems, is glad it's over. They were getting cabin fever. Now it's on to New Year's with friends and leave that dried out stuffing and that stuffy old family behind. Relaxing for days in a row, taking it easy for a week, that's for sissies. Silent night? What for? We've got cable and TiVo and bucks to burn and games to watch. Party hardy. Let's spill food and drink all over ourselves. Give me a new year. This one's toast.

On the second day of Christmas, it seems the Type A/Citizens-Gone-Wild Empire is back in the fast lane.

Monday, December 25, 2006

Christmas??? Back to the Reasons for the Season

As regular readers of A Better Nation know, I am an atheist. As a teenager and up until I was about 36, I was a downright demonstrative atheist. But then I came to see righteousness of any sort as a weapon that all too easily backfired. Nothing entrenches fundamentalists more than opposing fundamentalists, what many call "the enemy". So to acknowledge and function surrounded by the irrational superstitions of our species, I softened my tone and even my thinking. I gradually began (and it has taken years) to live a more virtuous life of acceptance, tolerance and compassion. Believe you me, some humility and self-depricating humor go a long, long way toward where I think most of us want to go, even that big one, Peace On Earth. So no demagoguery from me, though the journey toward virtue is an ongoing journey.

In that vein, then, don't we need a bit of a head's up here?

Whether religious or materialistic, and even as they protest the need to get back to the meaning of the holiday season, Americans have become fundamentalists of the "do unto others before they do unto you" sort, and what a perversion of the golden rule that is. That outlaw Jesus guy, he turned the other cheek, not that such radical forgiveness is letting someone off the hook. Turning thusly means that we acknowledge wrongs, but we don't prolong punishment, and we certainly don't escalate or glorify punishment.

So lordy lordy, not for heaven's sake but for our sakes, let's get back to basics. This sort of Christmas conversation and even conversion is what it's all about. For pagans and muslims and atheists and for born-agains alike.

The golden rule is: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. To achieve this, we must more often imagine ourselves in horrible circumstances, without resources, protections or health, without even the ability to help ourselves. We do unto others best when we take for granted not ability but frailty, not help but helplessness, not life day to day but death.

Our time is precious. And moments and days of goodness are as good as it gets.

Praise be to humans who exude such goodness.

Friday, December 22, 2006

A Passage to Peace for U.S.

CNN has just reported that an umbrella coalition of insurgent groups in Iraq have offered the U.S. the chance of a 30-day safe passage withdrawal. And even though the caveats the coalition have proposed are immense and risky and perhaps should be negotiated quickly with the aim to comply in general, I think this is an offer the U.S. should not refuse.

Get out with a 30 day ceasefire. Leave the large weapons and military bases behind. We have two weeks to decide. By my calendar, that means a major stroke of history in the region will be decided by on or about January 6.

Mr. Bush, there is an amazing opportunity in both the offering and the accepting (or declining) of this resolution. It may be a blow to your stubborn gut, but hit the negotiating table hard, but stick to their deadlines, and take it. Get out now, and we won't have to consider the draft and other imperial debacles.

Perhaps snapping up this chance with the good tidings of the holidays upon us (and the growing impatience of the American people) could even be seen as a "victory" of sorts. And clearly, if we did leave by February, the aftermath, for better or worse, could from that point on clearly be attributed to the success or failure of the Iraqi people to wrestle back their civility and governance from beyond the brink of civil and, moreover, regional war and worldwide jihad.

I say, in no uncertain terms, take the full two weeks to ponder this, but behind the scenes, start planning the withdrawal of ALL American forces, all American citizens, and the relinquishment of all U.S. claims to any lands, bases, or positions within the borders of the sovereign nation of Iraq.

If we truly want Iraq to take responsibility for itself, it will have to do so. It will have to deal with its own insurgents, its own internal strife and struggle, its own rocky road to civil governance.

From afar, we can wish them well and send food and books and billions for schools and even new buildings -- and put this chapter of outrageously meddlesome American imperialism to rest.

This would, I think, be a real step toward more peace on Earth.

Peace on Earth, and goodwill to ALL.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Dear Santa, Herewith: My Wish List

Dear Santa Benefactor, I have been a pretty damed good boy, considering. I've lived for most of a year without a refrigerator, thus saving much electricity. I keep the hot water heater on "vacation low" ALL the time, have for years. And no a/c neithers, and of course no T/V. So good for me.

I have some debts, and my heart aches about those, but my heart is good and well-meaning. I have spoken out against war and strife of all sorts. I am adoring anew some of my favorite Christmas carols. I don't rake religious nuts over the coals. And according to TIME magazine, I am the "You" of the Year.

So there. I deserve some stuff.

Some loot.

I'm a good boy, so gimme the goods.

Besides paying off debts and bills, which would be THE BEST PRESENT EVER, there is some fun stuff, if you are feeling decadent, and apparently from all the flat screen TVs you'll be loading into the sleigh, I am guessing you are a VERY decadent guy. And you eat too much, too. How can you live for centuries like that following the North Pole Diet? Are you strict about it?

Thought so.

Anyways.... Let's start with irony: how about a 32 inch flat screen LCD monitor from Target for only $598? NOT a TV, heavens NO, but a monitor. That way my TV-sin-slate is clear.

Then there's car insurance, a damned big expense, if you ask me, since I haven't filed a claim since early 1981. Damn, that's a lot of money I've spent for others' wrecks! Btw, Santa, does your sleigh have air bags, and do you get a slightly reduced rate for that?

Do those reindeer ever drink on the job? Just asking.

You know, Santa, like about a hundred million other people, I have an Amazon Wish List, and you can link to it here. But unlike millions of that billion, mine currently hovers at around 650 things. And I promise NONE are gratuitous or unworthy. Once every so often I comb over it to be sure it's doing ok and not just getting by but thriving. Guess all those things show how insatiable my appetites are for books and music and movies. Hey, I'm human, and amongst humans, those are not the worst desirables. At least I don't want a Daisy Doubleshot Over Under Whatever "Put Your Eye Out" BB gun, much less a hundred bunkers full of those woe-inducing WMDs, like our president and VP Cheney decidedly do. Like I said, I've been a good boy. Take THAT to the White House!

OK, now for Le List-Oh-Rama:

Here's something I've never asked for before, and if we are to believe what we hear, it is the most popular cop out gift of all nowadays, and that's the G.I.F.T.C.A.R.D., for Chrissakes. I'll take mine from Linens 'N Things, REI, Sierra Trading Post, Lowe's, Home Depot, Target, Hasting's, Lands End, Sears, Powell's Books, Half Price Books, Greyhound, Amtrak, AirTran or ANY airline, really.

Having been without one for the second or third time generally long enough, I do need a 'fridge, a small one, 4+ to 10 cubic feet, no more, preferably with an Energy Star rating for brownie points in Heaven.

And I need an electrician, a plumber and a carpenter. In fact, I hear this holiday and gift giving glut is all cooked up over the birth of one rather renowned carpenter, though it seems he really made his name in preaching.

I need a couch, but I think I'd have to approve. Let's just say, generally, sage or slate blue with a microsuede cover, long enough to lie down on (84" plus), and a sleeper model is a plus.

I need, and I say this as the manly man that I am, a Poulan Handyman 16" electric chainsaw, or BETTER YET, a Poulan PRO 18" electric chainsaw. Yessiree, bob, I'm cuttin' farr-wood.

I need some car work, and that might sound mundane, but hey, keeping up an aging car can cost more than all the furniture in your house, in just one year, all of a sudden, and the thing don't GO. Still, for better or worse 9and there is plenty of both), the car is part of the American (and by extention, HUMAN) religion I can come closest to finding orgiastic, at least as far as non-human powered things go. I've got that inner Kerouac a lot more than most!

And bicycles, my truest deities of transport...I am currently dreaming LIKE A KID of three: (1) A Redline brand 925 single speed, lovely with fenders, 54 centimeters. (2) A Bianchi Cross Concept or San Jose, your choice, 55 centimeters, and most of all, perhaps (3) a Dahon Mu SL folding bike, as is, right off the shelf, and I've seen these for an unbeatable $899 with free shipping, in case you want to take a, ungainly 20 pound load off your sleigh. As the Dahon folds up small, it would save me lots of effort and money to take on my road tripping adventures....

And at last for now, and most of all, here's a BTI -- that would be Big Ticket Item -- that may interest a true benefactor/believer in me and ABN: enough cashola to cover a WALK from Manhattan to Montreal I'd like to do as the basis for a book in the next year or two. Sounds GRAND, and it is. Be the first on your pole to help support a real stab at ART!!!

Oh and one final T.O. (that would be Tall Order): peace on earth, goodwill to... ALL. And I do mean... ALL.

Thanks Santa and thanks to all you ELVES, too. know you'll rock my world!

LorenZOO, who's been sort of a rather decent good boy

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

"Christmas is Killing Me!"

No, not me, I didn't say that. But a customer of mine on eBay did. She was the winning bidder for a Boy Scout compass for which the "winning bid" was less than $3. She'd waited to pay, as is often the case with such small items.

As is often the case with me for anything under $100, I'd gone ahead and mailed out her little compass to her. So I wasn't leaning on her, but apparently a lot of the rest of her week was and probably still is.

Yep, "you can get IT on eBay", including heartburn and holiday strife.

So if you read no further than this, please: If you are a relaxed person, please spread the wealth, your sense of patient calm and good cheer. If you aren't relaxed and of good cheer, take a seat and a powder. And keep your elbows to yourself, if you please.

People are shopping and shuffling and shipping gifts as if they had road rage. (I did go to the post office yesterday, so I know. Mailing stuff right now is a contact sport.)

This mania for a moveable feast of materialism is not exactly what Jesus had in mind (I'm guessing here, no special connection, believe me) when he made note of his own birthday, if he did. In fact, Jesus was probably not the sort of egomaniac to wonder how people would celebrate his birth in the centuries and millinia to come, though he did have his egomaniacal days, that's for sure.

I've got an eBayer upset with me right now myself. He "won" IT -- a used bicycle -- on an auction of mine on eBay a few weeks ago, even though I'd suggested to him near the start of the auction that the bike was a bit too big for him and perhaps also a bit funkier for his own comfort level. I could tell, even via e-mail, that his comfort threshold was low and that here was a grown man who easily felt threatened by the unseen, untouched, unmasted adventures of a used bicycle. I can't speak for the rest of his life. His home seem to have been immaculately conceived and is decorated like an antique store for dead saints. I delivered the bike on a Sunday afternoon, after he'd done all of his church goings on, and that seemed ironic to me. He was a gentle but shifty-eyed guy around who seemed to feel that delving into the adventure of eBay was like floudering in shark-infested waters. When I pulled up, he'd been cleaning his driveway with a toothbrush. OK, it was bigger than a toothbrush. I felt nervous and wary around him. I like the hunting and gathering, flea market lifestyle myself, living a bit more like this guy's savior than his hair salon (yep, you guessed it, dyed). Now Mr. Bike Neophyte wants out, and he is a major thorn in my SIDE. (Not in my crown, no crowns allowed here in the not-so-hallowed halls of ABN. Being on the staff at ABN does humble one. Or is that One? I'll leave the self-crowning to Monsieur Colbert.)

So, what churchy values is the Guy Who Got IT bringing to the deal gone wrong? Maybe some peculiarly American churchy values: watch out, there's them and us, the more you spend the more you save, get a good deal, get your deal done ASAP, before it's too late. Hmmm, sounds like the Christmas Crunch. He called me three times yesterday, telling me what is important. He is spreading a thin and pale threat of dread and self-centeredness, the antithesis to compassion, to patience, to what I wish the last few weeks of the year (and the first week of next year) were all about.

Now don't get me wrong, I like Santa Claus. The guy is whimsical, and I appreciate that. Eight tiny reindeer, I mean, what's not to love? And the other good thing is that some people are still whimsical about him and about the delicate and graceful rituals of it all. Good for them! But when it comes to Christmas, a lot is amiss in America.


Wednesday: My Wish List
Thursday: What I Am NOT Blogging About Until At Least January 8th
Friday: More about Christmas as a SEASON (Even for Secular Folk)

In the meantime, if Christmas is killing you or making you want to get smashed off your sled, think snow. Even in Tampa or Honolulu, think of the idea of snow or a lolling ocean. Think how good quiet seems. Peace is at hand if we make it ourselves. Turn off the TV and the radio in the car. Wherever you live, look up at the roof over your head. It's dry inside and at least a little more snug than it is outside. Look out the window. Sit in the dark with the twinkling lights.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Beyond TIME: People of the Year

Over the weekend, Time magazine announced that "You" are the "Person of the Year". You information age types, yes! Person of the year for taking pictures with your cell phone??? You for posting jerky junk to YouTube??? Oh, but THEN there are the "You" bloggers, which means ME!

So good for Time! Excellent choice! Name a better??? Which means better than ME? ME, I, Mr. ABN, yours truly, am now the ORDAINED, TIME-crowned, mylar-mirror-imaged PRINCE of the ITA, the Information Tech Age. ITA... Or does that stand for Idiot Talk Anyone? No matter. You're reading ME, so we're in this together. You're here. I'm here. I've ARRIVED. Welcome to my world!!!

'Course it does seem STRANGE that MOST of the people I know have very little to do with the "You" TIME is proclaiming, either as producers or consumers of unconventional, homegrown media and/or web content. Most of the people I know don't even like to answer their phones much anymore (unless they are SURE it's a cheery voice attached to a name or number they recognize AND if that person's got good news). And most of the people I know still use the WWW surfscape to do what they used to do beside a reading lamp or in their cars -- namely, read the news (from mainstream sources), write mundane notes to friends or, more than ever, to go shopping. So come on, no revolution THERE.

But beyond TIME's "You" of the Year, here, after weeks of Perrier-watered, red-carpeted, fully-catered consulation, are SOME OTHER Persons of the Year, according to the editorial staff here at ABN:

Most Influential Person Who is a Foreign Leader in the West: Hugo "I smell sulphur" Chavez, who recommended to us and to the UN that we read Noam Chomsky to understand the U.S. empire.

2006 Most influential Person Who Is a Foreign Leader in the East: Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (recently called "the Bush of Iran", so you know we're all in hot water).

2006 Most "Visible" Woman of the Year: Britney Spears (Brad's girls got some catching up to do)

2006 Most Admired Woman in America: Oprah Winfrey

2006 American Politician of the Year: Barack Obama (between the two O's, O-bama and O-prah, Illinois is looking rather ascendant this season)

2006 Political Comeback of the Year: No, it was not John Kerry, it was... Mr. Inconvenient Truth, Gore, Albert, the Man Who Would Have Been...)

2006 Most Influential Woman in America: Paris Hilton (WATCH IT! I can make a case for this)

2006 Philanthropic Person of the Year: Warren Buffett

2006 Misanthropic Person of the Year: starts with a D, as in... Dick (though it could be Donald)

2006 Most Missed Deity: Jesus Christ

2006 Most Missed Person of the 20th Century: Princess Diana

2006 Runner Up to the Above: Winston Churchill

2006 Most Missed Talk Show Guest Who Made Sense: Carl Sagan

2006 Interviewer of the Year: Charlie Rose (as with Oprah, give him a lifetime achievement award or something)

2006 Television Personality of the Year: Stephen "Truthiness" Colbert

2006 News Anchor of the Year: Stephen Colbert (no, it's NOT Katie Couric, Ms. Cute-But-Where's-The-BEEF, and sorry Stewart, 2004 was your year, now you're just a warm up act for the Cole Bear Rapore)

2006 Comedic Person of the Year: qui, QUI, Monsieur Colbert, n'est pas?

2006 Runner Up to the Above: Louis Black

2006 TV "News" Vamps of the Year, His & Hers Edition: Glenn Beck and Nancy Grace (CNN should be ashamed -- even Greta moved to FOX before stooping to cover ad nauseum the Pretty Dead Girl Parade)

2006 Sports Person of the Year: Andre Agassi (alas, the future doesn't look good for sportsmen who are not moonlighting as pimped up thugs on steroids)

And YOUR People of the "You" Year, dear readers???

Friday, December 15, 2006

Anderson Cooper 360 Blog: What is a Christian?

Last night, Anderson Cooper and crew will dabbled talking heads style in answers to the question, "What is a Christian?" There's a decent little plug for the program at Cooper's 360 Blog (see under Dec. 14), and the blog moderators are taking comments.

This morning, I left this comment, here revised for the readers of A Better Nation:

What is a Christian?

A Christian is someone who, I feel, above all else, does not harm others, perhaps not even in self-defense. Even Google, the owners of Blogger which hosts A Better Nation, has the very Christian tenet "Do no harm" as its mantra, trying to keep the soul in the machine.

Whether historical preacher or deity, Jesus was a notable and seemingly absolute pacifist who put peace and compassion above fighting back, much less starting a fight. Indeed, in this way, the Dalai Lama is more of a Christian than any fundamentalist and most of us regular folks, too.

If we are to emulate Jesus' life (or the declarations attributed to him), we exhibit kindness and compassion above getting what we want, above safety, above many worldly diversions, above businesslike schemes and ambitions. Christians are patient in traffic and while waiting for others. They take personal responsibility for themselves, no matter how overwhelmed or outnumbered. An example: we might perform acts of civil disobedience when the government (Roman or American) acts immorally, instigates violence, for example, or profits from the sale of weapons. I do not think a Christian could work for a weapons manufacturer or hold stock in such a company. I do not think that Jesus would side with the businessman to profit over the needs of people to receive basic amenities such as housing and medical care. Jesus was not interested in free enterprise, much less capitalism and consumption. Often just the opposite. He was a socialist, wanting the crowd to act as a whole as well as the best person in that crowd might act alone.

I am not a religious person, but I am a deeply moral person, and I think Jesus may well have said (or at least inspired) some very honorable values. And I think he meant what he said, not just for his time but for any time, for our time.

Jesus was not a rat race kind of guy. He wasn't corporate, for godsakes. He wasn't even a family man. He was a loner, a bohemian, and an iconoclast who (insert Irony here) became an icon himself. In the end, he became an outspoken, radical outlaw who put the Golden Rule to the test, even at great personal risk.

I would suggest that, if not as Christians by label then at least in the Christian spirit, we live less by desire and demand and more by compassion, peace and patience. These are the keys to the kingdom here on Earth, the best paths we have toward satisfaction with our mortal lives. Rather humble virtues, mixed with some bravery, some personal fortitude and peace of mind, are the real prosperity we seek in our pursuits of happiness.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

'Tis the Season

'Tis the season to live in peace and quiet, to prostrate oneself in prayer to a guy who owned a few carpentry tools, a robe, some sandals and, apparently, no Norelco.

Every year, we hear talk of people recommending we approach "the holidays" more simply, with more ease and comfort and quality time -- and less STUFF, a lot less stuff.

But did you know there's now a toothbrush with an "onboard computer"?

And doesn't it make you just a little envious of others when you hear that you are the last person on your block to not have a flat screen in the bathroom?

'Tis now the season of: increased dinner time traffic jams at the malls, millions anxiously arranging stress-spiced travel, elbowing each other for good tickets and goodies and gas.

The talk of Christmas being "too commercial" seems to be almost entirely talk. The few who really do revert to simpler times are rare enough to make the local news. But you're still more likely to get on TV by fighting for a parking place at the mall.

They say it's the thought that counts, but it really does seem to be the stuff that counts. What would Jesus put on his credit cards? And what do you mean he didn't have a credit card? He was the son of god for Chrissakes, he could get any amount of credit he wanted.

So it's up to each of us to put back some of the stuff in our shopping cards and leave it be.

I've been told I'm generous to a fault, and I have been. That means I used up a lot of my credit giving to others. But now, I've learned the limits down that road. Giving humbly and carefully is really honorable and elegant.

Try this: give a gift card with nothing on it, and say, "hey, it's the thought that counts!" Now THAT tests the foolishness of all this excess. To give a smile with such whimsy is worth a lot more than a geegaw or gadget.

I now tend to give smaller, inexpensive and singular gifts, usually one per person, very carefully chosen. And the care that I put into NOT piling stuff up really does feel good. You've got to be a little brave to leave the other stuff at the store. Make a list and check it often, look around, compare, think of special things only you could give to that particular person.

What really counts, when it comes to giving gifts?

The thought put into arriving at the choice.

The effort to find, select or make the choice.

The relative generosity of the choice.

Giving simple, inexpensive things is good, but then there is the flip side of that -- the sacrifice involved, relative to your means.

And so we should give and give not just to friends but to strangers, unexpected acquaintances, and distant friends. We should -- I should say, it would be GOOD -- to give far beyond obligation. Skirt obligation, even with spouses and family, as any sense of duty or obligation goes against the grain of giving generously.

No gift is obligatory, not a single one. If you feel guilt or obligation, you are not free, and giving is about freedom, the freedom to go above and beyond, the freedom to express affection with something tangible.

The other side of "you shouldn't have" is really not that the giftor shouldn't have but that the recipient may feel guilty and wants to lessen their feelings of guilt. So they're not free either.

Whether considering necessities or luxuries, giving is about joy and generosity and surprise and anticipation and whimsy and need. Downplay equity or payback. Downplay expectations. Downplay desire.

I'd say avoid the stacks of gifty junk. Think "what one thing would I give?" Make lists first and check them at least twice before you shop. Credit cards can be a thrill, but love and like are kinder and last a lot longer. Thus, with a bit of love and like, you'll give a little gift that keeps on giving.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

"Time is Running Out"

"Time is running out this shopping season, so hurry in to..."

Yep, that's right folks, once the "shopping season" ends, there won't be any more flat screen TVs, no more iPods in the color you want most, no more no more sweaters or winter coats or underwear or candles or Nutcracker tickets or caviar or cars.

All gone.

And no one shops in January. That would be lame. Instead, then they spend their bucks on fitness club memberships they'll then let lapse six weeks later, right after Valentine's.

So now is the time. Heed the ads. Hurry. Rush. Cut off those other ad watchers for a parking place close to the front door so you can load up in a hurry without having to lose any of those extra pounds you're packing on. Heave ho hoard. Get it done. Pile it up.

'Tis the season.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

"Generous to a Fault"

A close friend just called me "generous to a fault". Is there a fault in generosity? Can there be a fault to generosity.

Yes, I suppose if one gives away money or things that are not one's own, things which aren't theirs or money which gets put on credit that is painfully difficult to repay.

But beyond that limit -- that it, whatever it is, be freely yours to give -- I don't think there is a fault or a limit to how generous it is wonderful to be.

When someone says this, I think that what they mean is, 'you're so generous it makes me nervous (or puts me to shame)'. Let there be no shame. Give to the hilt.

For the next few days, I will blog on gift giving and being generous. 'Tis the season.

Monday, December 11, 2006

2008: Anybody but IOWA

I've got to remind A Better Nation readers of what I learned for working for Howard Dean in the heady pre-caucus days in Iowa, January 2004.

I learned that Iowa is not a good place to have an early shakedown for yet another crucial round of presidential candidates.

Iowa has got a lot of good citizens, and like its early primary cohort New Hampshire, a lot of citizens who care about politics. But the political passions in Iowa are a world away from those in New Hampshire. New Hampshire may tend to be conservative, but it also tends to be unconventional. New Hampshire's got that tough as rocks "Live Free or Die" motto on every license plate. In other works, the Granite State can be dynamic and passionate for progress. Not so Iowa. It is conventional in a twenty years behind the times sort of way.

Iowa's state motto? "Our liberties we prize and our rights we will maintain". Ho hum, Iowa, you tepid testing ground you.

On the ground that cold and wet January '04, in Des Moines, in Ames and in surrounding small towns, going door to door, I found Iowans to be passionate about only two things: (1) a sleepy-headed, sentimental version of the status quo, with heavy doses of apple pie and rose-colored glasses, and (2) protections and subsidies for farmers. Nothing else much gets on the radar there. Thus, social progressives, innovators, mavericks and edgy straight talkers get shot down, no matter how hot they are on the national scene.

And so, watch out. You think Hillary is in the lead? You think she's a juggernaut? You think she's unstoppable for the nomination, even if unlikely to win in the general election? Well, you'd be right on all these things.

But I'm telling you Iowa wants a decent looking, old-fashioned man. And what could change Iowa's mind? Not much, I don't think, not much. Iowa is just not a dynamic place. Why in the world are we starting things off there every four years? It's a disservice to democracy and a disaster for the nation.

You watch: In 2004, John Edwards came in a respectable second beyond Kerry. For better or worse, lots of Iowans really like the guy. They also really like their governor, big, broad and bland Tom Vilsack, and he's a shoe-in for the Favorite Son Vote. Yep, they could lay low for most of the next year, but Edwards and Vilsack, if they've got a few million bucks left to burn, will be at the top in that dark month of January 2008. These are the sorts of gentlemen that fit the Iowans' wish list a whole heckuva lot better than a Yankee Lady or Big City Black Man. Coaxed by some flashy media hoopla, Iowans will give the other candidates, seen as just another round of carpetbagging gladhandlers, some hearings. But in their hearts, Iowans aren't stretching far from home.

Friday, December 08, 2006

A President's Race and Gender: But What Really Counts?

This weekend, the New York Times is asking a question that has been asked, in various forms, for decades: 'Is American ready for a president who is not a white man?'

Well, first I'd have to ask: What does the NYT mean by "ready"?

By "ready", does that mean that, say, a white woman or a black man could or would receive the most votes, both popular and electoral?

Or that, if a non-white male were elected, would the nation accept the winner as legitimate and, moreover, be or become accepting of and thus comfortable with such a winner?

Well, for starters, let's just remind ourselves that winning the most votes doesn't make the candidate or the office holder a winner. Mr. Gore got the most votes, and Mr. Bush became president. And very few people would say that Mr. Bush was ever much of a winner and that now he seems very much a loser.

Yet until recently, Mr. Bush had the approval of more than half of the nation. So, obviously at least half of America is "ready for" a monomaniacal, mealy-mouthed dunderhead, a silver-spoon fed C-student privateering pirate, primarily ignorant of and irritated by the so-called "power of the people" and by what peace and personal freedom really mean.

And heavens, this is not the first time America has been "ready" to be shortchanged by losers appearing to be winners, presidents who showed outright either executive incompetence or a flagrant disregard for the law or both. Read: Hoover. Read: Nixon. Read: Reagan.

In 2004, America was ready to re-elect a president who’d obviously violated the United States Constitution and already exhibited an offensive disdain for public service and the virtues of openly democratic government. Many presidential scholars and historians are saying that the current president is the worst in American history.

Not that we are handling this president very well, as it seems the expectations of many have been lowered to the level of accepting a rotten and spoiled frat boy as president. We could do worse, but why go there. I'd say all of the potential candidates for president this next round seem far more capable and palatable.

So why NOT be "ready" for a much smarter candidate, a much more capable administrator, a more dedicated leader? Neither gender nor race matter at all compared to what Martin Luther King, Jr. called 'the content of one's character'. What really counts? I'd say a candidate's intelligence and dynamism, a command of broad perspectives and legal options, the ability to communicate openly and honestly, and his or her passions for the planet all people, especially high stakes diplomacy and the inner AND outer workings of government.

Any of the potential candidates mentioned thus far would be a VAST improvement.

And at least several have already verged on the masterful and perhaps even the heroic.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Baby Cheney Immaculately Conceived?

The brohaha has begun over VP Cheney's daughter having a CHILD. Thing is, her partner is a woman. Another thing is, there must be a rather more covert partner who is MALE. And this just seems to irk blushing bible thumpers GALORE. Heaven sakes, how could God let something like this happen to the Vice President?

These pious legions want their men and women to come in nicely matched and mated pairs, none of this mod gender swapping or gender bending or out of wedlock liberty for them. (Note the "LOCK" in wedlock.) And "Land of the Free"? Sure, just not THOSE freedoms. The GOP Loyals like things straight and NARROW or not at all. So how dare Mary Cheney announce she's PREGNANT this time of year. It makes the egg nog curddle.

And that name, Mary! Mary as in Virgin Mother? Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary seems to be more like it, and in December no less! What is God going to think? I wonder if there's going to be room in the Big Tent for her, much less the MANGER. Surely, surely she is without sin. He who lives on high (and rules the Senate), ye VP of little faith, give us a sign!

Oh, the woes of being Republican, living bass ackwards AND IN A CAVE (heterosexually, of course, but with plenty of Britney TV) in late 2006.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Rove V. Cheney

An acquaintance asked me who did I think was worse, Karl Rove or Dick Cheney.

I took a few minutes and got back to him.

Now it's true that Mr. Rove's bite is even bigger than his bark. But then so is Mr. Cheney's. In Mr. Rove's case it is because he is suave. In Mr. Cheney's case it is because he hides behind both cloak and dagger. Both are juggernauts taking this submarining administration toward the rocks. So I had to think on this a bit.

But not too long. The answer came:

Dick Cheney. Dick Cheney is the worser of two evils, I said, because he is (even if at the bottom of the ticket) an ELECTED official. And we have got to expect the best of elected officials. They owe it to their country and to the world to be models of what it means to be not just a public figure but a public servant.

Karl Rove, he's just a hired hack, a la down and dirty demogogues, not high falutin' democracy. Rove is just a hired hand, a gunslinger, without any credentials for or aspirations to being the Next-In-Line "Leader of the Free World'. Ouch. NOT that IT (the world) would be free if Mr. Cheney had his way. Come to think of it, not that it's free now, since it does seem the VP's fingerprints are on the steering wheel.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

A Self-Help Book That Helps

Now and then, when a friend is dabbling in an existential, emotional and/or mid-life crisis (which, by the way, can now occur anytime between the ages of 30 and 70), I get asked if any of the stacks of books lying around my home have helped. I say "well, of course I haven't read them all!"

But as it turns out, I have read some of them, and I can even remember some of the best, even some of the best so-called self-help books, which, for better or worse, are usually the sort of book that comes closest to helping a friend who is suffering an existential, emotional and/or mid-life crisis.

Some have these crises in chronic fashion, and they are often at a loss for tools, including the tool of believing that anything in a book can help. Some self-help books do become bestsellers these days, but you ain't seen nothin' until you discover by comparison how many prescriptions are written for feel good/"better than well" anti-depressants.

I got asked this question this week and realized, in this case, how slim were the chances that any particular book or little stack of books I might recommend would really hit home. Take a powder, blah blah blah. What some of us want in a time of need is a crowbar, a lever, a taste of real profundity that sticks with us for years.

So reread "The Little Prince" if by chance its profundities to beat all profundities happen to have slipped your mind.

But back the realm of more conventional "self-help" books.

Here is one that I can recommend more highly than any other, because it sticks to some real basics, good for anyone in any culture in any situation at any time.

The book is called, "How to Want What You Have" by Timothy Miller. The subtitle is, in the current vein of the genre, a bit New Agey: "Discovering the Magic and Grandeur of Ordinary Existence." Yes, too bad that we're such a bunch of cynics that words like "grandeur" and "magic" and even "existence" ring flimsy if not phoney. OK, so ignore the subtitle, and jump in.

Miller's book uses the practical tools of cognitive therapy to focus the reader on just three personal attributes, three attributes that we would all do well to improve:

1. Pay quality attention.

2. Express overarching compassion.

And 3. Show constant gratitude.

It's amazing how much else about our lives and values and stray paths makes more sense and can be put into better perspective if we really do make the effort to consider what Miller has to say about these three things.

No seven secrets, no ten items, just three.

If you happen to read "How to Want What You Have," let me know what you think.

Monday, December 04, 2006

The Wolf Man Blitzer

I attended a speech by Wolf Blitzer Sunday evening.

A bit strange to watch Blitzer interview John Kerry on CNN's "Late Edition" at midday in Washington and then to see him walk on stage just six or seven hours later at the Wortham Center in Houston.

Is Wolf the only prominent journalist now working in America with a beard? And would CNN let him keep the beard if it were dark and thick? Paula Zahn aside, I'd have to say CNN certainly seems to show off plenty of silver hair. (No wonder CNN's ratings can't compete with other television staples such as "American Idol" and "Dancing with the Stars.")

Blitzer started working at CNN in 1990, shortly before the Gulf War, and he was soon shipped off to Kuwait, though we have rarely seen him outside "The Situation Room" as of late. He seems to hold down the fort with his silvery deadpan elegance while Anderson Cooper and a stable of international reporters scurry off to farflung hotspots, if not quite the front lines.

Blitzer's talk, under the auspices of the Houston Holocaust Museum, was titled "State of the World." And Blitzer was about as packaged and predictable as he is on CNN.

As we left, I said that I hadn't learned anything, and that was the evening's weakness. But as Mr. Blitzer reminded us, he is an "old-fashioned journalist" who doesn't promote or reveal his own opinions. He acknowledged that he has opinions, but though off camera, he was on stage and never 'off the record.'

But then that is the best thing about Blitzer. He is what we need more of in journalism, especially in what he himself called "the mainstream media." As he said, there is certainly no outlet more mainstream than CNN." Too many so-called "journalists" and talking heads are behaving like news analysts, to put it politely, like pundits to use the current term, and even, a la FOX, like demogogues, bipolar propaganda-mongers. Blitzer ackowledged those but never by name. And so we didn't get anything personal from him, just the broad reminders that it's good we're paying attention (a compliment thrown to those of us in the audience), that multilateral talks and education are the keyes to solving the world's problems, even it's most violent and contentious problems.

And so it seems Mr. Blitzer is, without surprise, the air traffic controller, the person he seems to be on camera, an "old-fashioned journalist" who still has enough panache to let those he interviews (and their larger stories) speak for themselves.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Borat IS Don Quixote

Anybody else seeing this? The parallels between the Man of Kazakhstan and the Man of La Mancha?

Each politically incorrect. Each off on each his own haphazard quest to turn the tables on the foibles of his times, all the while on a chivalrously absurd journey to seduce the goddess of his dreams?

Ass smashing and cheek kissing Borat is not just a butt-of-the-joke clown. He's a bit more than a baffoon. He's on a Quixotic quest, indeed, and he might seem quite mod, but really, like the Don, he's oh so classical, more like Charlie Chaplin than Groucho Marx, more like Will Farrell 360 than that herd of gracelessly raunchy stand-ups on HBO.

Like Quixote and Chaplin, Borat tempers his lascivious farce with well-timed bouts of remorse and melancholy. Borat's got his Dulcinean obsession, Pah-MEL-ah Anderson. And he's got Azamat, his hapless, loyal and hopelessly out-of-his-element sidekick, a la Pancho Sanza.

Borat's even got a broken down old horse, this time a vintage RV that looks more like a portable storage unit than it does a roadworthy vehicle.

Surely there's a valuable dissertation topic here somewhere. Ph.D in Boratian Studies, anyone?