Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Year End Take It Or Leave It

Another year of married bliss passed yesterday. Our celebration was much like last year's - very low key. It's a little mind-blowing to realize all the people we know who hadn't even been born when we got started as a family. We don't necessarily think of them as young, either. What do they think of us? I'm not even asking. I am, however, still playing tennis, and so I have at least one remaining link to youthfulness.

I've seen another TV commercial that makes me chuckle. The scene opens in a forest. NO people at all. The camera slowly pans to a very old car, perhaps from the late 1940's or early 50's. This wreck is clearly going nowhere ever again, at least not on its own. But wait. That's when you notice that music is coming from somewhere, and a shot of the car's interior shows that it's actually the car radio! That's when we get the message, though we never actually see the product being sold. It's a car battery. As an added yuck, even the music coming from the radio is of pre-rock vintage. Yes, I know you can fix the TV to skip the commercials, but what's the hurry?

 Our trip up north earlier in the month featured a few stops in antique stores. We aren't collectors by any stretch, but Mona was patient enough to indulge this little urge I have to look around at such places for - who knows what? One thing I couldn't pass up this time was a book showing pictures of dozens of collector wristwatches.
The written content of this book is light, but the pics of the watches, some valued in the mid- five figures, are pretty interesting. I didn't know, for instance, that military use was a big factor in the increasing popularity of wristwatches, nor that battery-powered watches only came into broad use after the 1960's. Rectangular or square dials were once much more prominent than today. Maybe this isn't earth-changing stuff, but it beats sqatting on the couch watching interminable bowl games.

Allison sent along a picture of our new grandson, little Alfred, Alfie, Alf, Freddie, Fred, Fredo. He's a fine-looking baby, but there was something a little askew in the picture, which Allison herself pointed out. "This blanket makes my baby look like he has jaundice" was the caption, and, sure enough, although the baby's fine, we knew instantly why bright yellow baby blankets will always be way down the list behind white, blue, pink, etc.      

Monday, December 23, 2013

Watch Your Back

Some years ago, Mona found a bargain on Christmas stockings. I can't recall the mark-down price, but they seemed like a deal. They even had names on them. The only problem was that the names weren't our names. We still have the stockings. This year I'm "Brian" and she's "Rachel". I hope for our sake they were good this year.

Now, imagine that you live in an isolated country, in which the truth is hard to find and sometimes even harder to understand. The ruler of this nation is just in his twenties, latest in a string of family dictators who have governed with an iron fist for over half a century. The young man has been trained outside of the country's educational mainstream, if at all. His whims are commands to those around him, and not only does he have only scant understanding of life for the country's common folks, he doesn't even know, nor will anyone tell him about these deficiencies.
What's more, the country has, by hook and by crook, acquired nuclear weapons. This means that the world's best known nations frequently attempt to hold talks with the young man regarding his foreign policy which, at least on the surface, is based on an outdated notion of world domination, impossible for such a small, backward country. The young man sees these efforts by other nations as his due.
The nation has had some news leak out just lately. An uncle of the young man, once thought by many to have had a role as a valued adviser, was arrested, convicted and executed within a 48 hour period. Citizens who have any comments on these events are only too eager to join the chorus of condemnation in the harshest possible terms. Hanging, we are told in so many words by these hyper-patriots, was too good (!) for the treacherous uncle.
What must it be like to try to live in North Korea? The spooks can't watch everyone every minute, but guessing when they are watching or listening has to make life very complicated. What's more, today's bedrock of truth might become tomorrow's foundation for treason, so there's the possibility of being too loyal. North Korea is now so different from South Korea that anyone who defects (and it isn't an easy trip) to the latter is required to attend classes which teach the new arrivals what it's like to live in a free country.
It's easy to make fun of Dennis Rodman and his unexplainable connection to the Kim family. He can travel back and forth without difficulty since he is both an American and famous. The comedians can sneer and chuckle at North Korea since doing so doesn't require taking any risk. But watching your back every day to avoid arrest or worse seems at best an exhausting way to go through life. I don't see anything funny in it. 

Friday, December 20, 2013

On Christmas

I have never been a huge "Christmas" guy. Some years we're a little late getting the decorations up. I'm not obsessed with traveling a thousand miles or more to observe Christmas. Most Christmas music gets me scrambling for the "off" switch. Gifts are nice, but life goes on, with or without them.
The exception to my blase' attitude is Dickens' "A Christmas Carol". I don't know how many versions exist on film, but I have a hard time turning off any of them. I've even been choked up by an animated depiction of the story. Dickens could not have known that his lifetime was spent in a time and place in which capitalism was at its very worst, but even then, people found ways to enjoy life, no doubt unaware how future generations would see them.
An important scene in this short volume takes place near the beginning, when Marley's ghost confronts Scrooge, warning him to avoid the fate he himself had met. Scrooge, taken aback, makes a feeble attempt to compliment Marley on his business skills, even though Marley had been dead seven years. But the ghost would have no part of being patronized. "Business!" Marley laments with the perfect hindsight of post-mortality, no doubt speaking for Dickens himself, "Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance and benevolence, were, all, my business.The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!" Different film adaptations may have these words phrased differently, but they never fail to deliver a punch to my emotions.
Although he is the main character, Scrooge is more a project on which to build a good man than the story's actual hero. There are several admirable characters in the story, but none, I believe, more so than Bob Cratchit, Scrooge's long-suffering clerk. Cratchit is a family man who struggles to stay employed by Scrooge while asking the occasional  favor of the boss, such as taking Christmas as a paid holiday. He is all too aware of Scrooge's shortcomings, but refuses to rail at him, even to his own wife, who has no such compunction. Cratchit is also the father of a little boy, Tiny Tim, whose health threatens to end his his young life. I have great respect for Cratchit, who must deal with life's complications as best he can, under circumstances that would buckle the knees of most.
Of course, there's a happy ending. Scrooge sees, with the aid of supernatural spirits, things both as they are, and as they could be, and his conversion is complete. He even joins the Cratchit family for Christmas dinner, a goose purchased that very morning, and promises on the spot to pay for the best health care available to Tiny Tim.. And who hasn't teared up at the little boy's holiday wish, "God bless us, every one!"? Not me, I can tell you.    
So, is Christmas the "most wonderful time"? I suppose it's like saying that Valentine's Day is the "most loving day" or that Thanksgiving is the day of the"most gratitude". These are attitudes we should aspire to every day. But it's impossible to oppose a day set apart to manifest Christian love. Anyway, I hope I never get in the way of someone being happy.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Milestones Pile Up

We traveled up north lately, and enjoyed ourselves, though some of the most interesting things seemed to happen to other family members. They are at the stage of life where they do things that I have never done.
For instance, I had not considered the chances of one of our children helping skin a "harvested", which means "dead from gunfire or arrows" deer. My father hunted antlered mammals with my uncles in the Colorado Rockies every year when I was growing up, but I never participated beyond helping eat the fruits of his labors. Imagine, therefore, seeing a picture of the skinning (which is a little gross) being done by our oldest - daughter! Let's hear it for Laura!
When Leah, our youngest, left home to be married, she couldn't drive a car. She picked up the skill a couple of years later despite periods when she and Dane decided to not own a car, just using one from time to time through companies in Portland that offer cars on a per use basis. That changed last week when they were given a car by older sister Allison and her husband Scott.   
There was one remaining challenge. Neither Leah nor Dane had expertise driving a car with a manual transmission. Picking up that skill is a little tricky, and they were frustrated when even open parking lots didn't offer enough room to learn how to use that darn clutch. One of their first times on a public street found them having to stop in an "uphill" position, then start again. Dane is sure Leah will be the one to use this car the most, but at the moment, he's the better of the two at mastering the skills needed. Go get 'em, Leah and Dane!
The aformentioned Allison and Scott were surprised to find themselves expecting a baby after having the second of two boys (no girls) six years ago. The due date for baby #3 was figured to be this past Monday. For reasons I couldn't guess, Allison had always been deadly accurate meeting the date. Even so, nothing much seemed to be happening Monday, other than shopping, until evening, when the delivery machinery began to roll into action. If I had it to do over, I might not have stuck around offering useless advice as the contractions became stronger and closer. If you're going to be in pain, then spectators are the last thing you would want. But we did hang around until it was decided it was time (around 11:30) to head to the hospital.
To make a fast story short, things really kicked into gear once they arrived, with the baby (another boy) popping out at 12:02, just twelve minutes after they arrived. This made Allison late for delivery a total of three minutes for all three sons. The third, who hadn't been named when we left the following morning, and who still might not be, came out so fast that he resembled, Allison was told, a baby born by C section, which means he looked pretty good. He seems, like his brothers, to resemble  his father. He looked darn good when I got to handle him about eleven hours later. For the record, he checked in at 7 lb. 12 oz., pretty big considering his mother's small dimensions. Hooray for Allison and Scott! 

Friday, December 06, 2013

So Many Headlines

Nelson Mandela passed away yesterday. Many others who knew him personally have commented on his life, and I have nothing to add to these accounts. I will admit that it's almost impossible to think of someone who's been imprisoned for twenty seven years emerging, not only as a well-known figure, but as the central candidate for president of a country going through earth-shaking change, as South Africa was in the period immediately following apartheid. That would have required a person unlike anyone I have ever known.

Everyone has their own opinion of our new system of health care distribution known as "obamacare". It does seem, however, that the Republican Party is willing to do some things to reverse the law that border on sabotage or armed rebellion. Here in California, you can find a website that looks like an official spot for enrollment. Turns out that it is not only not able to process applications,  but it contains material designed to convince people to not have any coverage. Of course, should someone actually become sick or injured, the GOP of the Golden State wouldn't so much as send a get-well card. There goes the old Republican value of  "taking personal responsibility".

Every time I think I've mentioned Vania King for the last time, she pops up again in some new,  surprising context. Just yesterday, I saw the Chinese-American tennis pro being interviewed at the site of some mixed martial arts event. You know MMA, that fighting style that invariably ends in blood and pain that many people (myself included) find disturbing. Right now, it's a hot item for PPV fans, to say nothing of surgeons and first aid pros.
Anyway, there was King, who has probably never deliberately harmed a fly in her life, going on about how exciting these MMA fights are. She admitted that they seemed "brutal" at first, but now she's past that, kind of like a bullfight aficionado, I guess. Keep reading this space for more fascinating details of Vania King's life.

Did anyone notice Rush Limbaugh's latest self-appointed duty? Now he's taking on the Pope, especially His Holiness' comments on rich and poor people, which El Rushbo described as "pure Marxist". After all, the Great Man declared, doesn't the Catholic Church itself have lots of ...money? How could they have built all those super cathedrals without plenty 'o cash, huh? I guess the next time some one asks the rhetorical question "Is the Pope Catholic?" we'll have to check with Rush before answering with confidence.

Finally, I noticed that the Purdue University (that's in Indiana, folks) basketball team has a guy with a ready-made name for someone assigned to play tough defense - Smotherman. What a great excuse for someone shooting two for twelve against the Boilermakers. "What do you expect, man? Smotherman was on me like mustard on a hot dog." 


Monday, December 02, 2013

Brought on Themselves

We had another little bear encounter last week. I don't mean the bears were small. They didn't seem fully grown, but couldn't be described as "little", either. What was little was the length of the encounter, in which I saw four of them (from inside the car, I would add) run across the street near our house, heading back into the enormous gully we have instead of a back yard.
That's pretty much it. No damages or threats of any kind. Still, how many Americans ever get the chance to see bears anywhere outside a zoo? I'm thinking - not many.

On Saturday evening, I was sure that it would be wonderful bragging in this space about the stupendous weekend enjoyed by my Iowa Hawkeyes. The football team had already beaten Nebraska at Lincoln (something not done by anybody too often), and the basketball team seemed on their way to their third victory in as many nights at the tournament they were playing in the Bahamas.
Alas, the big lead they had on the Villanova Wildcats petered out in the second half, and the game was finally lost in overtime. So we'll have to downgrade the weekend to merely "terrific". The football team finished the regular season at 8-4, which isn't eye-popping, but the four losses were to teams with a collective record of 44-4. Yikes!  

People you know are now whining about what happened in the U.S. Senate. How dare Harry Reid and his band of (majority) Democrats change the Senate rules on filibusters! It's a power grab! It's unconstitutional! It calls for vituperative revenge when Republicans regain control of the Senate, at which time there will be HELL to pay for this act of treachery! And that's how the GOP moderates (if there still is such a thing) express it.
Needless to say, I don't see it that way. Although the term "nuclear option" gets thrown around, this measure by Senate Democrats actually only changes the rules on filibusters for individual presidential appointments outside of Supreme Court and Cabinet appointments. This isn't a constitutional matter, because it falls under the Senate's authority to make and revise its own rules.
More important than the nuts and bolts of Senate operation is the reason behind the change. It boils down to this: Republicans started to use the filibuster, actual or threatened, in a way never before used in order to oppose all Obama appointees, even those they would normally have ratified without difficulty. How bad has it gotten? The filibuster's use to oppose Obama judicial appointments constitutes one half of ALL such uses in the nation's history, all in the less than five years.
So, what was Harry Reid to do? He had extracted a promise from Senate GOP leaders that the filibuster would be only used for good reason, but this promise was easily ignored, and was. The choice came down to: keep things the same with the understanding that real power, the power to block things from happening, would stay on the other side, OR re-tilt the playing field just to get judicial vacancies filled, which is part of the Senate's duties. Reid and the Democrats finally concluded that the downside risk on doing something was so low that a change was justified. The hubris of Senate Republicans caused this defeat when they underestimated the Democrats' willingness to finally act. Their only option now is nasty threats, something that we should be quite used to by now. They brought all this, absolutely, on themselves.