Thursday, June 26, 2008

Out With the Crowd

A government as large as ours does reports on itself from time to time, sometimes revealing things that would surprise you. I was listening to a few details of such a report on the radio the other day. The story of what became of the Justice Department, the government arm we once thought of as representing all of us in court, was pretty sad. The chief blunder here (and we must speculate that it WAS a blunder and not a plot) was in turning over personnel matters to political employees. Need I add that we are talking about the Bush administration here?
In less time it took to snap your fingers, the Department went from a rolling juggernaut of
intellectual power and legal expertise to one which grants favors for the silliest reasons and bars the door to qualified applicants for reasons that seem far removed from simply desiring the best and brightest . Among the causes for receiving the "black spot" barring employment was - belonging to an organization opposing domestic violence. Go figure.

A wedding had almost the entire family gathered last week in a place I don't pretend to know - the megalopolis of Southern California. My own role in the preparations was almost nonexistent, but some work naturally had to be done, and though it was hot, the details came together nicely as the two young people (as we old folks like to call them) got just the start they had planned. They'll be living over a thousand miles from where the wedding took place, but that's another story.
One of the daughters in law thought it would be nice to take a side trip to Sea World in San Diego, and a dozen of us did. Think of what you would pay for a minor league baseball ticket and multiply it by ten. That was the cost of getting in, but that didn't stop us. It was, I won't say hot, but warm over the course of nine hours there. Didn't matter. The kids, all under five, were stressed a little and needed to be greased over and over with industrial sun block. Done.
I had fun, and not all of it involved the ocean flora and fauna. I like watching the people. All the world's ethnicities were represented, some in larger numbers, some smaller. Standing in line was minimal since the park features few rides, but a number of short length "shows". I tried to think how the crowd would have been different say, ten years ago, and thought of a few ways. In 1998, there was none of that ultra-thin mesh fabric designed to keep one from sweating. There were fewer cell phones ten years ago, and surely there were fewer tattoos, particularly on women.
The shows themselves? Well, it wasn't so much the things the animal attractions did, but that they did anything at all that impressed me. How many places in the world can you see performing dolphins, seals, walruses and, most of all, killer whales? These last were in the range of four to six tons of marine mammal, capable, we were told, of eating 250 lb. of fish each day and fifty lb. in one bite! Lots of feeding during the show kept the orcas' minds off the edible limbs of their trainers and on the business of - show business!
I had to wonder as the show concluded after a half hour or so of leaping, splashing, posing and diving - Who first had the idea of training these huge flesh recycling animals, and how did they start? "You know, I think we can get these lovely creatures (You say they're called 'killer whales'?) to do tricks, and thousands of people will come to see them every day. You there! Little guy who doesn't speak English. Get in the tank and see if you can get this fish to jump through a flaming hoop. A bonus? Oh, let's talk about that later. Could someone please bring us a flaming hoop?"

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Back "Home"

I was once in the audience when Jesse Jackson came campaigning. A good number in the audience were college students from far and wide, and Jackson had the task of not only getting them locally registered to vote, but also to come out in person to the mid-winter caucus. He tried to get the students to think of themselves as "locals" by saying something like "where you put your head the last three nights - That's home!" The audience laughed, but I thought he had made a good point. In fact, it made me a bit irritated when people I knew, mostly from church, who were local homeowners and voters would talk of "going home", usually to a state a thousand or more miles away.
We've just marked three years in California. It's so vast and complex that we'll never "get" it all, but we have no plans to leave. Having said all that, it's not possible to disassociate completely from the place that was our home for 30 plus years - Iowa. And anyone paying attention has noticed that the good folks of Iowa not only took a hammering in winter, but have lately also suffered from floods far beyond anything they've had in memory.
I suppose it will take them years to sort out and calculate all the damage to roads, homes, bridges, crops, pastures, city buildings, civic records and another thousand ways to collectively and individually suffer. And, to a lesser extent, some businesses like carpet cleaners and auto detailers will be in a position to reap a gigantic windfall from this disaster. The president went there, and has plans to go back, so the political angle will certainly be exploited if possible.
A thousand city blocks were submerged, with the city offices of Cedar Rapids among the first to go, situated as they are on an Island in the Cedar River. I saw it all like most of you - from
media like CNN and the BBC. I had been in Cedar Rapids during the '93 flood, but as one of our daughters, a sandbagging veteran, put it, "THIS flood kicks that other flood's butt!"
To tell the truth, if I were picking disasters, floods would be preferable to drought, which I also experienced, in 1988, when every lawn turned brown, the heat made tennis all but impossible, and crops simply failed. The earthquakes I've felt here have been more like those motel
vibrating beds than the disaster that everyone forecasts, though I know that could change.
Regardless, it's all 2nd hand now. They need me out of the way of relief and cleanup, and so I'm reduced to gawking like everyone else. Who was that guy who said "You can't go home again"? I guess he had a pretty good point, too.

Monday, June 09, 2008

Crabs, Anyone?

You may have heard over the weekend of the passing of Jim McKay, the longtime main voice of ABC Sports. He was in his eighties and long retired, so a little confusion about him is natural. In the 1960's it was McKay who hosted a then-groundbreaking weekly program called ABC's Wide World of Sports. They really did go all over the world, and the events themselves had a tremendous variety. McKay helped us see the world a little better through sports, letting us know in the process that it wasn't just a matter of hits, runs and errors, wins and losses.
ABC also brought us the Olympic Games in those days, and it fell to McKay to bring us first hand the tragic unfolding of the Munich games (1972), at which eleven Israeli athletes were kidnapped and murdered. It was one of television's most memorable moments when McKay, on the air for sixteen continuous hours, had to inform the world that the Israelis were all dead. That footage, by the way, turns up in the movie "Munich".

So now it's summer, when we look for new ways to have fun without, hopefully, giving up the old ones. Around here, where nature gives us such a boost, fun includes the Humboldt Crabs. They aren't a species of sea food, but a baseball team now in their 64th continuous season. Technically, they are a non-profit local organization assembled to provide the best baseball available to a community with no minor league attachments. The players are all in college, all spending their summers here to gain valuable experience. The team is such a great draw that almost all Crab games are played at home.
Up close and personal? Absolutely. The stands are full of all kinds of aficionados: the experts who can judge (or think they can) the potential of a major league slider, the kids who want to chase around eating bad food, the band, made up mostly of the nearby Marching Lumberjacks dressed in their yellow T-shirts and hard hats, couples of all descriptions and even single people confident of finding new or old friends at the park. Last year's team was 42-12, so there is usually plenty to cheer about.
Of course, there are a few things that could be better. The ball park, such as it is, seats only about 900 people, the stands are a rickety wooden affair that strikes me as a law suit waiting to happen and only a 25-foot fence bordering left field keeps home runs from flying onto the county's busiest highway. Temperatures around here are tricky, and it's often a tough call to tell whether or not to take a jacket. Only the earliest fans get to park near the ball yard, while everyone else walks at least a block or two.
But no one ever went broke going to these games. Tickets are $5 for adults, with a buck off for seniors! I can get there in about 20 minutes, so even the nation's most expensive gas isn't much of a problem. Selling food and beer helps make a little money, but not too much. On second thought, if these are my biggest problems, then I absolutely have the world by the tail.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

The Perils of Piety

I recently became aware of an organization with the purpose of helping buyers of a certain service get their money's worth. Nothing wrong with that, but the name they chose kind of stops you in your tracks. Have you ever heard of the "Funeral Consumers Alliance"? I'm all for getting value from your purchases, but if I'm down to the time of consuming a funeral, the only one I want an alliance with is...... the Big Guy himself!

This year's presidential campaigns have demonstrated something to us that we should have already known: ministers and their message don't mix well in the political realm. It isn't as of this has never been tried before. One of the more effective ways of "going negative", in fact, has been to try to reveal one's opponent as somehow insincere about his/her faith. It's great to help your supporters feel morally superior by showing what a lout the opponent is.
Getting men of the cloth to actively back you because of your OWN virtue, however, seems to be a lot trickier. The problem is that, while the marketplace has a number of the professionally devout available for hire, they also seem to think they are employed by a higher power, and have usually left along trail of statements that proves the opposite.
Senator McCain's short tryst with the Rev. John Hagee is a good example. It's hard to think the McCain folks didn't know Hagee was a walking volcano when they signed him on. Maybe he was just there to protect McCain's Right flank from the Mike Huckabees of the world, but it wasn't too long before all types of Hagee's verbal artillery shells began landing at McCain's feet. The Senator had no choice but to cut ties and let the Rev go before a full scale eruption left Republican body parts scattered across the landscape. He also dumped his less-famous Heavenly mouthpiece from Ohio - the one who claimed that we are already at war with Islam.
You probably know all about Senator Obama's problem with one of the Lord's anointed. It wasn't so much his fault as that old devil, videotape, that appeared to reveal his long time minister from Chicago, Rev. Wright, as a fire breathing white hater leading, it appeared, his congregation to something just short of armed resistance. Poor Obama, who would rather have his fingernails ripped out than appear or sound like some kind of black rabble rouser, finally had to dump Wright AND his church.This ploy seemed to have a little traction when used by Ms. Clinton against Obama, so you will no doubt see the "issue" raised again by the GOP early and often in this year's campaign in order to equate Obama with 1988's black villain, Willie Horton, the Dukakis-parolled thug who rose from two-time loser to fear symbol, chasing a million or two votes into Bush Senior's column via some scary TV commercials.
Perhaps as the campaign gets going everywhere someone out there will show us how to get and keep these guys as campaign assets without the "loose cannon" effect. I think it's just as likely, though, that clergy's active role in campaigns might be greatly reduced as a way of ducking out of the issue as diplomatically as possible. Given the egos of some of these righteous right, the shouting may not even go down in volume as the candidates cringe at the heat being generated all around them.