30 April 2009

Cheney vs. Churchill

Our President, he's pretty smart.

I can't imagine that I'm the only one that took Obama's reference to Churchill's decision not to torture during World War II and laid it side-by-side with Cheney's recent statements and comportment over the last decade or so... or week or so. More than ever it shows how poor our political leadership was in the aftermath of the tragedy of 9-11. Instead of men and women with the confidence of their convictions we had Bush and Cheney; instead of lions, we had mice.

During the Battle of Britain, there was a real fear, both in London and Washington, DC, of a Nazi invasion of the UK. The point of the Battle was for Germany to control British air space so they could launch an invasion from France across the Channel. There was legitimate concern about Britain's very existence as a sovereign nation. Russia was not yet in the War. The United States, while sympathetic, was not yet in the war. Britain was alone. The Nazis had conquered all of Western Europe in six months, destroying the largest land army on the continent, the French, in six weeks, and they had a two to one superiority in planes. They were on the attack, had the momentum, had statistical superiority, and were fighting over British, not German, airspace. The British people were nightly being terrorized by whistling bombs and were sleeping in Tube tunnels.

From August 23rd to September 6th, the Luftwaffe started night time bombing raids on cities. The RAF was also badly hit with 6 out of 7 main fighter bases in south-eastern England being put out of action.

There were Nazi sympathizers in all levels of British society, up to the royal family. The southeastern quarter of the nation was being hit, nightly, by German air attacks. Plymouth, London and Coventry were all destroyed.

In custody in the UK in the Fall of 1940, while all of this was happening, were Nazi prisoners of war. Churchill was unequivocal - despite the grave threat to the very existence of his nation, he would not authorize barbarism, surrender the principles at the heart of British society, or yield to fear and expediency - the Prime Minister did not torture.

Compare that to the days after 9-11.

As devastating as those attacks were, and as confusing as the aftermath, compare the two. We had leaders who were scared, who yielded with cowardice to their basest instincts, who lied to us, and who gave the attackers a far greater perverse achievement than they could otherwise have claimed. We yielded part of our national identity to a small - disciplined, resolute and well organized, yes, but small - group of infantilist religious zealots. They murdered 3,000 of my countrymen and women. The person pulling the strings has thus far escaped justice. And my national leaders gave up, gave in, caved, and betrayed their sacred duty to those murdered, to the Constitution, and to me and every other citizen of my nation. And for what? For craven tangential political aims and short term political advantage.

Instead of "Blood, toil, tears and sweat" we showed cowardice. Instead of Churchill's words:

You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word. It is victory. Victory at all costs - Victory in spite of all terrors - Victory, however long and hard the road may be, for without victory there is no survival.

Let that be realized. No survival for the British Empire, no survival for all that the British Empire has stood for, no survival for the urge, the impulse of the ages, that mankind shall move forward toward his goal.

I take up my task in buoyancy and hope. I feel sure that our cause will not be suffered to fail among men. I feel entitled at this juncture, at this time, to claim the aid of all and to say, "Come then, let us go forward together with our united strength."

We got, on September 21, 2001, from our President:

By aiding and abetting murder, the Taliban regime is committing murder. And tonight the United States of America makes the following demands on the Taliban:

-- Deliver to United States authorities all of the leaders of Al Qaeda who hide in your land.

-- Release all foreign nationals, including American citizens you have unjustly imprisoned.

-- Protect foreign journalists, diplomats and aid workers in your country.

-- Close immediately and permanently every terrorist training camp in Afghanistan. And hand over every terrorist and every person and their support structure to appropriate authorities.

-- Give the United States full access to terrorist training camps, so we can make sure they are no longer operating.

These demands are not open to negotiation or discussion.

Fine words. No action. They are still training and are threatening the stability of an ostensible ally, and one with nuclear weapons; bin Laden is still at large; we are still at war in Afghanistan; we are still occupying Iraq (I wonder how things would have turned out if President Roosevelt had invaded Panama a month after Pearl Harbor?).

My country is bankrupt, our national standing is lessened, the sacred blood of our youth and the wrested treasure of our collective labor have been squandered as though they are worthless.

And we tortured.

I will never forgive President Bush and Vice President Cheney and their cabal for the wantonness with which they acted, and the travesty that they perpetrated on my nation.

The cowards who led us here are beneath contempt.

Sayonara, Pontiac

For years, I didn't own a car, and I'm not proud to say that I had a certain smugness about it. If I'm honest I'll admit to a pleasant glow when people would react with disbelief, especially when I lived in SoCal.  "I ride my bike," I'd say, or "I rent a car when I need one." Git.

Anyway, for years I could afford to pay a little extra in rent to live where I really wanted to live because I didn't have a car payment. Honestly, I didn't know how others did it. I had trips to Thailand and Norway that wouldn't have been possible if I'd had the costs of private transportation, and I lived right in the heart of urban areas which obviated the need. In Denver I'd take the 6 bus to the 52 bus for much of the year, though sometimes I'd have the White Blight, the old 1979 Chevy Caprice Classic that the Jesuits had bequeathed to the admissions office for in-state recruiting. It was worth about a buck seventy so I think they didn't care if I took it home with me sometimes. But for most of the year I didn't have a car, and I got along fine. I got to know Denver in a different way than had I been passing it at 35 miles an hour in sealed comfort.

When I was 36 I purchased my first car from Mrs. Takamura, in Honolulu, for $1200 cash that I had to borrow from a friend. It was my dream car - a 1986 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme, two door. Cutty. I loved him. (Here's what he would have looked like had I had him restored - same color and everything.) He polluted badly, both doors were banged up and he had roaches inside - I had to bomb it with bug spray, twice - but man, what a ride. I could steer with one finger, and it had an original Delco with the preset radio buttons that made the needle jump when you pushed them in. It had power everything, though, okay, the power seat adjuster didn't work on the driver's side.

It was a hooptie, a "cholo car" according to one friend, a behemoth that was bigger than you'd think. On the days when I drove to work and had to park in tiny little spaces designed for mid-90's Accords, I never worried cuz I'd just park next to the wall and bang my door against it. It was already dinged up, so why did it matter? It didn't. When I'd drive over the Pali I'd careen down the mountain, aiming more than steering, riding the brake a little. When I'd go Windward side I got a lot of looks, and more than one bruddah pulled up next to me and said "Eh, nice ride brah!" and we'd exchange flashed smiles and shakas. When I'd drive out to the parking lot at Ka`ena Beach park up past Makaha, I'd leave it unlocked; no one ever took the floor mats or lighters or change from the ashtray. I never worried about Cutty; I owned him, he didn't own me. And I loved that car. It didn't have glass T-tops or spoke rims, but man, I loved that car.

Oldsmobile, the company that made the Cutlass Supreme, was founded in 1897, and was the oldest car brand in America when it was phased out, beginning in 2000 and completed by 2004, when the last Oldsmobile rolled off the line. Sales in 1985 topped 1,000,000 cars, and it was the third most popular brand behind Chevrolet and Ford in that year. In 15 years it went from being #3 in US sales to being eliminated.

My current car, Christine, a silver Pontiac G6, is one I'd wanted for a while. This was the car that was going to save Pontiac - it was well reviewed, well designed, good on gas, safe, fun to drive, and it didn't look like everything else on the road. When they first came out I was dizzy with lust - I really wanted one, and I looked at them, but reason prevailed and I didn't drop money I didn't have on a new car. I waited two years, renting one every chance I had, until there was a good selection of used G6's - and then I sprang. (I am devoted to American cars.  I have always preferred American cars, visually; I just love 'em.)

If you'd have told me in 1985, the year I got my driver's license, that Oldsmobile and Pontiac would both be eliminated in money saving moves to keep GM from executing bankruptcy plans, or that Chrysler would probably not survive the year, I absolutely would have believed you. 1985 was a great year for Oldsmobile, but a terrible year for Detroit, for Union labor, and for American cars. My parents had a used Reliant K wagon (photo right, ours was red), which inspired our mechanic to ask my mom if she scoured a three county radius to find lemons.  They had a Plymouth Volare, stick shift, which, to quote Tom and Ray, was completely unencumbered with the engineering process - you would have to kick it into 1st gear on dry days, and on wet days, well, you just started in 2nd.

The movie Mr. Mom was released in 1983 and Gung Ho came out in 1986, both based on the premise that the American auto industry was shedding jobs; I remember people joking about bumper stickers that read "The last one out of Michigan, turn off the lights." I had two brothers who couldn't find work and so moved to Texas, like thousands of other midwesterners. I remember the federal government bailing out Chrysler (and me writing a fan letter to Lee Iacocca telling him that our family always bought Chrysler products and that I hoped he could make it). I remember people talking about high gas prices, and while I'm just young enough that I don't remember gas lines, my family did and we talked about it.

So where was the leadership over the last 25 years? Where was the long term planning, the discipline, the preparation and execution of agile contingencies to accommodate higher gas prices, new market tastes, or evolved economic realities?

It wasn't there, and now we are looking at the world's largest corporation, GM, going into receivership, the likely bankruptcy of Chrysler, and the elimination of two founding components of the American century, Oldsmobile and Pontiac. They aren't going to be the last. Here's hoping we learn a little something from this round. I'm tired of buying stuff from companies that get eliminated.

29 April 2009

60? Careful, Icarus

Arlen Specter has changed parties. Why the big fuss over one septuagenarian white dude from Pennsylvania? Because with 60 votes the Democrats can override a filibuster in the U.S. Senate, and thus bring to vote pretty much anything they want. Right now, they can't, and Democrats being Democrats they don't have the spine to bring things to the Senate floor that the Republicans are even threatening to filibuster, which is nearly everything.

I'm not a big Specter fan - Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito, anyone? - but it's a crucial vote at a crucial time. It would have been tough to pick up two to three more Senate seats in 2010, the most likely being New Hampshire and Florida, which tells you something, so if Franken is seated and Lieberman holds to caucusing with the Dems, there's your super majority, there's your enacting of a lot of President Obama's ambitious agenda, there's your replacement of one, or two, or three Supreme Court justices. (And, by the way, do we really need to have FIVE of the nine Supreme Court justices being Catholic? Right now, it's Alito, Scalia, Kennedy, Thomas and Roberts, for 56%! The country is only 24% Catholic, according to Pew.)

But here's the thing to keep in mind, that Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) pointed out in a (slightly diffuse and rambly) Op-Ed piece in the NY Times: it wasn't long ago - 1998 - that the Republicans were scarily close to a Senate majority of 60. They "over-reached," and they are now in the political wilderness. From Senator Snowe:

To the contrary, we overreached in interpreting the results of the presidential election of 2004 as a mandate for the party. This resulted in the disastrous elections of 2006 and 2008, which combined for a total loss of 51 Republicans in the House and 13 in the Senate — with a corresponding shift of the Congressional majority and the White House to the Democrats.

Obama and his crew aren't the venal, vicious Rove and Cheney and Bush, but let's face it, Harry Reid is no Lyndon Johnson or George Mitchell and Nancy Pelosi is no Sam Rayburn or Tip O'Neill.

The lessons from the Republicans are clear, and giving in to hubris will be a temptation. It seems to me, however, that if Obama can lead Democrats in Congress and the Party as a whole through his legislative agenda of pragmatic progressivism, he'll be able to dramatically alter the direction of the nation for the next generation. Infrastructure, clean air, urban schools that graduate more than half of their black kids, an energy policy that doesn't involve expending blood and treasure in the Middle East, and on and on, all become possible. So, welcome Senator Specter!

But about that next Supreme Court vacancy, maybe you could sit that one out?

19 April 2009

Top (Bottom?) #2 and # 1 All Time Most Crushing Sports Defeats

To review,
#5 - January 16, 2000; Titans 19 - Colts 16
#4 - 2000 NBA Finals, Game 4, Lakers 120 - Pacers 118
#3 - January 16, 2005, Patriots* 20 - Colts 3

So, I've finally recovered enough to get this over with and recall the top two. Part of what was delaying me was searching back through my memory to make sure that I wasn't missing anything particularly devastating, that this would truly capture the awfulness of my sports fan history (and not be like those polls of the greatest songs ever that have the top ten from the last three years).

And there have been other awful losses, let's be clear.
2008 NCAA, 2nd game, Marquette loses to Stanford 82-81 in OT on a circus shot.

The Montreal Expos had baseball's best record at 74-40 and were six games up on the Braves when the players strike began on August 12, 1994. Les Expos would never recover - the franchise didn't get a new stadium, the management authorized a fire sale of their best players (Larry Walker, Mois├ęs Alou, Marquis Grissom, Rondell White, Wil Cordero and Pedro Martinez, among others, within two years) and the first Major League expansion franchise in Canada relocated to Washington, D.C., as the Nationals in 2004. At least they stink, though it's cold comfort, and while not technically a "loss" and so probably ineligible for inclusion on this list, it was a terrible string of bad luck for a proud and promising franchise.

The incessant and inexplicable Colts losses to the Patriots* for much of this decade, particularly the gut wrenching 24-20 loss at home in the RCA Dome to a Patriots* team we had on the ropes for the whole game but didn't close out, in part because Anthony Gonzales dropped a sure touchdown pass that hit him between the 1 and the 1 on his uni; the embarrassment of the UH loss in the Sugar Bowl to Georgia (though unlike many of the others, this one was not "one we had"); the inability of Marquette to beat inferior teams in the state of North Carolina (how do you lose to ECU?!), in Tampa against USF, or against Dayton anywhere (how are we 1-5 against them over the last decade?) all have taken their toll.

Of a lesser order of magnitude (for me), how about all the times that the Purdue Boilermakers pull defeat from the jaws of victory against Notre Dame and ____ (insert Big Ten opponent's name here)? Green Bay losses to Chicago? Teams from the Midwest crapping the bed every bowl season? And on, and on...

But nope, I've thought about all of them and here's the top (bottom) 2 -

#2 - Chargers 23 - Colts 17
How's this for a headline? "Sproles, Chargers shock Colts 23-17 in overtime upset" This was the Colts season to win the Super Bowl. The Patriots weren't even in the playoffs; the Steelers were beatable (cuz we did it in the regular season); the NFC wasn't impressive. I really, really thought that the Colts were going to win the Super Bowl. Before the playoffs I looked around and thought that Marvin Harrison, Hall of Famer, wasn't going to hang around forever (he's now gone) and Peyton isn't getting any younger; this was our year. Well, except it wasn't. A crappy San Diego team (and that's not sour grapes, they were terrible - they barely made the playoffs from the worst division in the AFC) once again beat a superior Colts team. I've written about my emotional reaction in another post. Just awful.

#1 - UConn 93 - Marquette 82.
This was a killer not just for the result, but because the season, and four of the most impressive individual careers in the history of Marquette University basketball (#'s 1, 2 and 8 in scoring; #'s 2 and 7 in assists; #'s 1 and 4 in steals) ended here. Dominique James, the point guard who came back every year to graduate a Marquette Golden Eagle and help his team return to a Sweet Sixteen, Elite Eight or Final Four, was injured at around the 4:00 minute mark of this game. It was a broken bone in his foot, and that quickly an amazing season was one of could-have-beens. He was effectively done for the season and for his career, or so we thought at the time. The team was completely different without their four-year-starting point guard, and it couldn't have come at a worse time as Marquette had the toughest stretch of games of any team in the country - remaining opponents from that time had a .837 winning percentage. We lost them all. I felt just sick watching that game, and thinking about how it must feel to be that young man. It's fair to say that I've never worked as hard at anything in my life as he had at basketball for the past four years while he was in Milwaukee. He was a good kid - all of them were, Jerel and Wes and Dwight - they had great character and represented Marquette so well. When I saw James go down and realized that he wouldn't be back before the end of the season I just felt sick - that all that those four had worked for would come to no more wins, no more deep runs in the NCAAs, no Big East title. Losing to UConn at home without him hurt, yeah, but just in my gut I knew that one amazing college basketball career was over, and three others were diminished, and nothing could change it. Any other time in the season, any other opponents lined up - things mighta been different. But I guess that's one of the take away lessons of sports, and one way that athletic competition can matter: you learn how to lose. Tough lesson. Tough loss.

15 April 2009

It's getting crowded

I love Sporcle - they have great quizzes and I almost always learn something, even if it's that I'm not as smart as I think I am (and who doesn't need reminded of that now and then?).

Their latest quiz (here if you want to try before reading on and hearing the spoilers) was to guess the countries projected to have the largest populations in 2050, as reported by the US Census Bureau International Database.

The projected growth over the next 40 years in some of the poorest parts of the globe is staggering; for the most populous 50 nations of the planet, population growth is projected to be 41%, from 5,876,674,514 to 8,267,749,021.

This raises deep concerns about carrying capacity, environmental degradation, political instability and sharing progressively fewer resources.

Bangladesh, to pick one of the more egregious examples, has a current population of 154 million, or about half that of the U.S., in an area slightly smaller than Iowa. This works out to a population density for the whole nation that's equivalent to that of New Jersey, our densest state. Per capita income in Bangladesh is US$1500, and one of the nation's largest export is its people, who go to work in Persian Gulf states and in southeast Asia and send remittances home. If projections hold, Bangladesh will have a population of 233.5 million, or an additional 79.5 million more people, in forty years.

That is like adding the population of Turkey, itself the 17th most populous nation on the earth, to Bangladesh over the next forty years.

How can Bangladesh, which is now a "...poor, overpopulated, and inefficiently-governed nation," cope with adding Turkey? And while Bangladesh is growing by 50%, its rank in the world's population table actually DROPS, from 7th (2008) to 9th (2050) - it's overtaken by Nigeria, growing at a shocking 81% rate from 146 million to 264 million (which is like adding every man, woman and child in Mexico, the world's 11th most populous nation), and Ethiopia, tripling its population from 82 to 278 million (which is the near equivalent of adding Brazil, #5).

Nigeria is a highly unstable state with a Christian and animist south and Muslim north, a weak central government, and strong inter-state rivalries between those with large deposits of oil and natural gas and those with less or none, but at least Nigeria has some resources and most of its people are literate and fed - though the challenges of feeding and educating Mexico on top of Nigeria for Nigeria's fragile infrastructure and resources is just staggering.

Ethiopia's per capita income is US$800; 80% of its people rely on agriculture and most of the state's economy is dependent upon coffee production and the hard currency coffee exports bring. How can a nation dependent upon crop exports feed 2.5 times more people? Ethiopia cannot feed itself now; how will they feed Brazil, too? If projections hold, there will be 38 million Ethiopians under the age of 4 in 2050. That's Poland - an entire nation as populous as Poland, under the age of 4.

These aren't the only examples; there are plenty just in the top 30 most populous nations. Sudan's population is projected to go from around 40 million to over 88 million people (like adding South Korea's total); Yemen from 23 to 71 million (which is like adding South Africa's total to a county with only 2.91% of arable land); Madagascar from 20 million to 56 million (in a country with only 5% of arable land, a failed central state and a recent coup d'etat).

The United States will have enough challenges accommodating the 135 million more of us there are expected to be in 2050 - which is like adding the current population of Japan to who is already here. How will we handle it? We can't rebuild the bridges we have now, so how will we provide the necessary infrastructure for another large nation's worth of people? Where will we get our water? And if we don't know how we'll manage, then nations with weak systems, insufficient resources, poor central planning and no money are likely going to be overwhelmed by the task.

I'll be 82 and on my way out in 2050, so chances are I won't have to worry too much on a personal level. Sure would like those coming after me to have something to drink, though, and maybe a meal or two a day. Sure makes my thoughts about my 401k seem a little petty.

14 April 2009

My Summer Friends (1 of 2)

I was very good at entertaining myself when I was a boy, and I can't remember ever feeling lonely. I had a very active imagination and I could stare at maps for hours and read encyclopedias for days. I would take what I read and apply it in our gravel driveway and front drainage ditch, building watercourses, rivers and lakes when it would rain and brushing gravel around with my hands when it was dry to make streets, roads and nations. I'd name them the St. Lawrence River, the Rhine, the Liffey, the Danube, or Alsace-Lorraine, the Holy Roman Empire, Ulster; I'd recreate the momentous events that I'd read about, armadas and wars from history, though with the Catholic Irish, French, Austrian or Spanish always winning over the apostate Protestant powers of England and Germany. Thank god I grew up in a small town like Fowler, Indiana, where eccentricities like this were indulged and broadly taken as a sign of intelligence.

I hadn't always had to entertain myself, though.

There were no boys my age in our house as there was a seven year gap between me and the next eldest brother, and while I liked playing cards and others games with my sisters they were older than me, too, by four and five years, which is literally a lifetime when you're four.

The only neighbors we had, the family across the road, were in the words of my grandmother "not real neighborly." That was fair enough, as far as it went - there was some issue of our dog Ginger getting shot at with rock salt by one of their boys, which sounds improbable now as I write it but that was said and believed at the time, and there were some other, unnamed sources of bad blood between respective older brothers. (The youngest boy, Kelly, was a lifeguard at the Fowler pool and always very nice to me, it being easier to be nice when we weren't around our families, I suspect - but that's a different story. Kelly was four years older than me, in any event, and a McCoy to our Hatfields for all practical purposes.) Their youngest daughter was developmentally disabled, and so for a combination of reasons our playtime together was pretty limited. Our mothers got along (to the chagrin of both fathers), and there were times when Stephanie and I would play while our moms talked, but it wasn't often and it wasn't long.

In my youngest memories - from three and four til when I was in grade school - my ma was a county health nurse in Benton County. Among other things, it was her duty to make sure that the migrant farm workers who came up from Mexico to work in the fields and at the Joan of Arc canning factory in town were taken care of. It was a duty she took seriously, and likely would have dispatched if it weren't part of her job as she was personally invested in their physical and spritual well-being. This was not a popular job; even today Benton County is 98% Anglo, and in the early 70's the Mexicans just stood out. Some kids at my kindergarten were "not real neighborly," saying that the Mexicans smelled funny and that they were dirty. This struck me as odd, even then, because I'd never seen any of my school friends around any of the Mexicans so how could they make such assessments? Some people in town some were outright hostile, some were ambivalent and some were good and decent - but even in this last group there weren't many who pursued fraternization. My ma did, and I loved it. I'd look forward to the Migrants' arrival because it meant that my summer friends were back.

They would arrive in late spring and immediately move into what was called "The Migrant Camp" next to the Joan of Arc canning factory. I can remember very clearly visiting the Migrants in their "camp" - cinder block heat sinks with one bare bulb hanging from the cieling. Some were every bit homes and were occupied by families and well-settled with furniture and touches of domesticity: curtains, tablecloths and pictures of Our Lady of Guadeloupe. Other houses in the Migrant Camp were simply four bare walls, a dirt floor and a bed, some without doors and windows, and usually occupied only by men. Even at that young age I sensed poverty - here were people with less than us, and we had less than anybody else I knew. But I also remember guitar music and singing at night, and a sense of community, and always feeling very safe. In fact at that age I wouldn't have known how to express that, having never been afraid anywhere I'd ever been, but I certainly was never afraid at the Migrant Camp.

I was always welcome in their homes when I'd show up, alone on foot or on my bike, and I'd be fussed over in Spanish by women with jet black hair, and offered aromatic food and something to drink, just as their kids were welcomed and fussed over and fed in our home. We had always been taught that if someone offered you food or drink you declined the first two times in case they were being polite and couldn't afford to share what they had, and to accept only if something was offered a third time. Whether because of that or other reasons I don't remember too many meals with my summer friends (or any of my friends, for that matter, through grade school), but we were in and out of each others' homes and in the way of kids we didn't think a thing of it. It was natural for me: we had a statue of the Virgin Mary up on our filing cabinet, so that felt very similar, and if their kitchens and their clothes smelled different than ours it was nothing to be remarked upon because Gramma's kitchen and clothes smelled different than ours, too. As the summer wore on I no longer noticed the scents, any more than I noticed from one night to the next if ma was making fried chicken or fried bologna for sandwiches. We were together a lot, my summer friends and I, and some of their mothers would grow comfortable enough to bring their laundry over to do their washing in our tired but functional washing machine and then hang it out on the clothesline with ours, and some days we'd cook together and eat in our back yard under the shade of the sugar maples on our big picnic table.

(When I moved back to Los Angeles from Hawai'i and was apartment hunting, I looked at one place near Vermont and Marathon Streets by LA City College in what appeared to be a predominantly Mexican American building. As I walked up the stairs I passed the laundry room, and the scent of the fabric softener from the dryer vent immediately took me back to Fowler, Indiana, in 1974, and the smell of my friends' clothes, and I got a tightness in my chest from the force of the nostalgia, remembering the early summers when I was three and four.)

13 April 2009

My Summer Friends (2 of 2)

We lived on the south edge of Fowler, the first house that was really out of town but not yet in the country, and the Migrant Camp was right next to the grain elevator, maybe four minutes by foot and two by bike. Mrs. Cantu, the only adult I remember being truly bilingual, would come by maybe once a week and talk with my mom while us kids would run arond in the yard, or in the garden, or run back and forth to the Camp, or play on the hot blacktop of the county road in between. A rare car or passing truck would impel us into the cattails in the ditch on the west side in early summer, or after it got hot and dry into the Johnson Grass on the east side. The driver would always wave to us, but none with as much gusto as the UPS guy who would come down our road maybe three times a summer.

Once every couple of weeks a group of us kids would get to have "haircut day." Seven or eight of us - always me and Jesus, and sometimes Carlos, or Javier - would come into the house and line up in no particular order, and take our shirts off, and first get a very short buzz cut from Mrs. Cantu while we stood barefoot in our shorts on a sheet in the kitchen, and then we would run laughing into the bathroom and get water and soap all over as we got our hair washed by Mrs. Rodriguez, who kept up a non-stop patter of Spanish as she laughed and chided us for making a mess, and then we'd go back out to the kitchen and step up on the stool by the sink to get our heads combed through with a small, fine-toothed metal comb by my ma, one by one, in the bright sunlight streaming through the south-facing kitchen window.

I know now that she was checking us all for lice; what I knew then was that it was a game for us - it was fun to be fussed over and it was something different than our routine. I remember, vividly, how dark my friends' skin was compared to mine, and how my shorn blond hair looked when it fell onto the black clippings already on the sheet under me. Boys first and fastest, and freshly shorn we'd run back outside, shirts off, wet, shoeless, to play tag or catch or hunt for snakes in the fields while it was the girls' turn.

I can't imagine how hard my summer friends' parents worked in those fields or in the insufferable heat of that canning factory - and I had older siblings who worked there too, so I knew it was hot - the long hours and the heat and the low pay. The Migrants were mostly Catholic and yet none of them went to Mass at Sacred Heart; I remember asking why and not getting an answer. My mom persuaded a priest at St. Joseph's College, 30 miles away up a two lane blacktop road, to come and say Mass for them in Spanish on Saturday evening, and sometimes I could go. (That priest was one of the celebrants at my ma's funeral mass, and he recalled her efforts on their behalf.) The Migrants were far from home and largely isolated, they worked impossibly long hours at physically demanding jobs and had only one day off a week - it must have been a lonely, difficult life for them and for their families. And yet us kids were insulated from that. I was, certainly, and while I hesitate to speak for my summer friends I think they were, too. My memories from then are of joy at their arrival and the long, never ending days of summer and sunshine and laughter that we shared.

When I was six or seven, they quit coming. We didn't know why, or perhaps I should say that no one told me a particular reason why. My ma suggested that they found better work closer to home and that we should be happy for them, but that we could ask god to look after them, just in case.

One night that first summer without my summer friends, as I was getting ready to go to bed, I told ma that I wanted to be Mexican. When she asked me why, I told her that they laughed and sang a lot, and they talked more than we did, and I liked hearing Spanish, and I liked their brown skin and black hair and smiles, and I missed them. She told me I had good reasons but that wasn't something I could change; I was who I was and I'd have to make the best of it.

I remember asking in my prayers that night three times, just to be sure. I was disappointed to wake up Anglo.

09 April 2009

Thoughts on Indonesian elections

Much was made this week, rightly, of President Obama's trip to Turkey, a NATO member, majority Muslim nation, applicant to the EU, and key strategic partner in winding down the Iraq war. As important as Turkey is strategically to the United States, we can't end our conversation with the Muslim world there, of course.

The most populous majority Muslim nation in the world, Indonesia, is going to be absolutely critical for the U.S. in the coming decades - for outreach to the Muslim world and for U.S. diplomatic and strategic progress in Asia. Indonesia is the 4th most populous nation in the world (full table of populous nations here, the results of which may surprise you, or if you want to challenge yourself and have fun stop reading this and take the Sporcle quiz) and a rising economic power, with the 17th largest economy in the world and a year on year growth rate of 6.8% in 2008 and projected at 5.5% for 2009 (Asia Times Online). It stretches across the second most strategic location in the world, from Thailand to the Philippines to Australia. Anything being transported on the surface of the earth from East Asia (and the #1, 12, 14, 15, and 25th most populous nations) to India (#2), Africa and Europe (were the EU a single nation it would be next at #4) has to go through Indonesia. Anything being transported on the surface of the earth the other direction, from the EU, India, Pakistan (#8), and Bangladesh (#9) to East Asia goes through Indonesia. Singapore is four miles away; Malaysia, another moderate, rising Muslim nation, shares a long land and sea border. Even in 2009 shipping routes matter, and with standardization of the 40ft container and multi-national corporations continuing to chase cheap wages around the globe, this will likely continue to be the case. Indonesia's continued stability is critical, it's a growing power, and if the relationship is well-managed Indonesia could be a very helpful ally, advocate for U.S. interests, contributor to global stability in places like Afghanistan and the Sudan, and counter-weight to China. Were it to implode or disintegrate, and there are significant independence movements in Aceh and Irian Jaya, were it no longer a strong central state able to ensure open shipping lanes throughout the Straits of Malacca - unlike, say, Somalia, a failed state in whose vacuum pirates have flourished - were it be radicalized away from secularism and towards a more militant form of Islam than what is currently practiced, it's not too much to say that the global economy would be severely disrupted.

(Were I pursuing a PhD in urban planning I'd love to investigate what exactly the implications of this would be - stronger north-south inter-American hemispheric ties and the continued maturation of Brazilian and Argentinean economies due to increased access to US markets? Stronger U.S. partnerships with Japan, South Korea and the Philippines due to their loss of access to European and Indian markets? Overland infrastructure - bullet trains, perhaps? - from China's manufacturing centers through Kazakhstan and Russia to Europe? The overthrow of Egypt's [#17] corrupt and ineffective government, finally, due to a sharp drop in foreign reserves generated by the Suez Canal and the resulting inability of the state to uphold its social contract? In any event, it would be disruptive.)

There was an election there yesterday and this morning, our time, and it was fair, democratic, peaceful, and well attended. Those results are all good news for a young democracy - there have been free and fair elections only since 1998. It's also likely good news that the moderate centrist Democratic party of the current President won, and that all Islamist parties together combined for under 26% of the vote. (The Straits Times [Singapore] has its usual good coverage on the preliminary results.)

After presidential elections this summer we'll know more about how fast and in what direction Indonesia will be able to move; if Yudhoyono has a large enough bloc of votes in parliament to form a singly party government without coalition partners and to move forward on reforms, it will likely mean continued economic progress, stability and transparency, which would also likely mean good news for many Indonesians, Americans, and a certain former resident who now lives at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in DC. We need all the friends in the Muslim world we've got, and after his charm offensive in Turkey don't be surprised if President Obama speaks to the Parliament in Jakarta.

07 April 2009


No, Vermont DIDN'T have gay marriage before - the only states until Wednesday night to "allow" same sex couples to marry were Massachussetts, Connecticut and Iowa (though not til late April). Vermont was the first in the country to have a Civil Union bill, and while that's not the same thing it did get this whole ball rolling.

(What's in the soil or the air of New England that it's the home of brave people who think about liberty and justice, who believe ths state can be an instrument of good and of redress, from John Adams to Ted Kennedy to the trailblazers in the Vermont state legislature?)

Why is this significant, beyond the obvious fact that gay and lesbian Vermonters will now be able to have legal support to their unions? It's significant because it's the first time in the U.S. that a legislature voted for gay marriage - and voted for it overwhelmingly, over-riding a Republican governor's veto (and no, I have no idea how Vermont got a Republican governor), with a 23-5 vote in the Vermont State Senate and a 100-49 vote in the Vermont House.

Groundbreaking day!

06 April 2009

Foul-weather fan?

In thinking about the top/bottom five all time most devastating defeats in my history as a sports fan, I noticed a pattern - of course the worst losses, those which made you want to call in sick, or drink for two days, or which woke you up in the middle of the night four days later with the play in question going through your mind, were ones that my team was supposed to win, or was in a great position to win.

I looked at some history, and for most of my life the teams I supported were truly awful - the Pacers in the 80's were so bad that they literally gave away tickets to my high school honors society, student council and band (all seven of them). And when we took the bus down to Indy to watch that game, we were 25 of about 6,000 people in attendance. That was 1986, and our odds were slightly under half that we'd see the Pacers win. And we had a blast.

Pacers Year by Year history:

1991-92 40 42 0.488
1990-91 41 41 0.500
1989-90 42 40 0.512
1988-89 28 54 0.341
1987-88 38 44 0.463
1986-87 41 41 0.500
1985-86 26 56 0.317
1984-85 22 60 0.268
1983-84 26 56 0.317
1982-83 20 62 0.244
1981-82 35 47 0.427

TOTS: 359 543 0.398

In the years while I was developing loyalty to the Pacers, they had one winning season - and that by 2 games. They were brutal. The expectation was that they would lose, and if they snuck up on someone and actually won a game, well, that was a bonus, and if they actually made the Playoffs, are you kidding!, that was fantastic. We were usually an 8 seed and the 1 seed usually made quick work of us while looking ahead to a team that mattered.

What about my true football love, the Colts?

1984 4 12 0.250
1985 5 11 0.313
1986 3 13 0.188
1987 9 6 0.563
1988 9 7 0.563
1989 8 8 0.500
1990 7 9 0.438
1991 1 15 0.063
1992 9 7 0.563
1993 4 12 0.250
1994 8 8 0.500
1995 9 7 0.563
1996 9 7 0.563
1997 3 13 0.188
1998 3 13 0.188

TOT: 91 148 0.381

The first 15 years of my love of the Colts they lost 2 out of 3 games. They made the playoffs twice, in 1987 when they won the AFC East with a regular season-ending win in the Hoosier Dome against woeful Tampa Bay (a game that I attended), and then promptly lost in the playoffs to Cleveland; and then again in 1995 when Trudeau lead the Cardiac Colts on their magical, underdog trek to the AFC title game.

Then the ship was righted, in the single biggest turnaround year-to-year in NFL history from 3-13 to 13-3:

1999 13 3
2000 10 6
2001 6 10

And then Dungy arrived, and it has been a staggering string of excellence and dizzying records:

2002 10 6
2003 12 4
2004 12 4
2005 14 2
2006 12 4
2007 13 3
2008 12 4
TOT: 85 27 .759

So for the last seven years, the Colts have won more than three of every four games, a benchmark for excellence that is just shocking to think about. In the regular season they have been the most successful professional franchise in North America over the last seven years.

To go from being just awful - fans would sit, unecumbered by many neighbors, in the top rows of the Hoosier Dome with bags over their heads, in shame; five would sit together and spell out on those bags "Count On Losing This Sunday" - for fifteen years to being one of the most successful franchises in the history of the NFL is unprecedented.

What about Marquette men's basketball? Well, again, when I started at MU we were pretty terrible:

1987-88 10 18
1988-89 13 15
1989-90 15 14
1990-91 11 18
1991-92 16 13

This was a program with a proud tradition that I honestly didn't know too much about when I got there, but those were some lean years. I went to every home game and some road games, we shouted ourselves hoarse while losing to Dayton and Butler and Bradley and Evansville and Iona and Valpo, and to Notre Dame and Wisconsin over, and over, and over. It was what I knew.
But then things got better:

1992-93 24 9 (Lost, 1st round NCAA)
1993-94 21 12 (Advanced to Sweet 16 by beating SW La and Kentucky, lost to Duke by 10)
1994-95 17 11 (NIT Runner up)
1995-96 23 8 (Lost, 2nd round in NCAA)
1996-97 22 9 (Lost, 1st round NCAA)
1997-98 18 10 (NIT)

For a little while.

1998-99 14 15
1999-00 15 13 (Tom Crean's 1st year)
2000-01 15 14

And then we were crazy good, winning regularly, and going to the post-season every year.

2001-02 26 7 (Lost, 1st round NCAA)
2002-03 27 6 (Final Four, lost to Kansas)
2003-04 19 12 (NIT)
2004-05 19 12 (Lost, 1st round NIT)
2005-06 20 11 (Lost, 1st round NCAA)
2006-07 24 10 (Lost, 1st round NCAA)
2007-08 25 10 (Lost, 2nd round NCAA)
2008-09 25 10 (Lost, 2nd round NCAA)

There was that magic Final Four year, 2003, where we got shellacked by Kansas; and then a lot of loss and frustration. The ugly 2007 first round loss to Michigan State where we managed only 18 first half points. The heartbreaking losses in the second round in 2008 and then again this year, in games that we had - we HAD - and couldn't win.

As I've thought about all of this I've decided that I'm the opposite of a fair-weather fan; I'm doggedly loyal when my teams are terrible, finding fun in their foibles and reveling in those rare, radiant runs of success. I cut my teeth on bad teams, I learned early how to handle it. I had years of practice of taking pride in sitting down at a bar in Burbank, or Pittsburgh, or Denver, or Honolulu, and saying "Nah, I'm a Pacers fan," to raised eyebrows and comments like "You know they're 17 games back and in 4th, right?" And I would serenely smile and say, paraphrasing my dad paraphrasing a sportswriter from the 1890's talking about the 12th place Cleveland Spiders baseball team, "Yes, but on a clear day they can see 5th!"

I'm loyal. I can handle low expectations and regular losses, and take pleasure in the upsets and being one of a small, hardy band. But what about the successes?

When we were at the Marquette - Georgetown game this year, my friend Michele (also from Indiana and a long suffering fan like me - if you have a high tolerance for obscenities, see my email to her after the Colts lost to San Diego this year in the playoffs) turned to me after looking at the student section and said "I'm glad we sucked when we were here; we always had good seats."

It's true. And it's also true that, as a fan, I can't seem to handle success and the increased burden of expectations that success puts on a team. The brilliant team with talent that's supposed to win and doesn't? Far more painful, for me as a fan (if there were a way to quantify it), than the joy I get after one of my teams overperforms, like a scrappy Marquette men's team who over-achieved and beat #4 Cincinnati 62-58 despite having a losing record, on February 10th, 1999, for example.

Maybe I'm a foul-weather fan. I can't turn my back on Marquette - I went there. But the Pacers are pretty bad again, so I can get behind that. And maybe until the Colts begin their long, inexorable slide into mediocrity or pure awfulness, I should think about the Lions. Maybe I'll invite my friend Michele. I've heard you can get tickets.

03 April 2009


So, you might have heard the news - gay folk in Iowa, in about 21 days, can marry. The state Supreme Court's decision was unanimous, and their reasoning was pretty clear. I hadn't known before today that the motto on the Iowa State Flag is: "Our Liberties we prize and our rights we will maintain," but it seems particularly resonant today.

Others have written more in depth than I could about the import of this and the legal thinking underpinning it - Lawdork in particular, here. I did want to mention that Iowa's state Constitution, like Mass. and unlike California's, is very hard to change - it takes two consecutive state legislatures to vote to amend, and then before the change is enacted it must go before the people to be voted on in a state wide election. That would seem to indicate that the earliest that discrimination could be written into the Iowa state constitution is 2012, but both houses of the Leg have said they have no plans to take it up, at least for now.

The longer this is the reality, the less likely it is to get overturned. The more that people see gay folk getting married, the less they are going to care about it. The more that older folk die off and Gen X'ers and Y's and Milennials become a larger percentage of the voting block - and to indulge you coasters, yes, "even in Iowa" - the more likely it is that these cultural wedge issues will stop working.

Two items -
1. Senator Harkin, Iowa's very liberal Democratic Senator, had this to say:

My personal view has been that marriage is between a man and a woman, and I have voted in support of that concept. But I also fundamentally believe that same sex couples in a civil union should be entitled to all the basic legal protections and benefits of marriage.
I know that this decision will be very hard for many to accept. But I also know that it will provide many committed same sex couples and families important rights, as well as an important sense of recognition and belonging.

Well, thanks for the support, Senator - but Brown vs. Topeka Board of Education, which any 11th grader in your state's top-of-the-tables public high schools (your students did have the highest composite SAT scores of any state in the country; 4th highest ACT scores; and one of the lowest dropout rates) could tell you, already settled the question that separate isn't equal; civil unions do not marriages make.

And let's reverse the question - why is the state involved in religious unions at all? Let religions do what they want, but when an adult Hawkeye, or Hoosier or Texan or any American shows up before a judge in this country with another adult that he or she has hoodwinked or bamboozled into wanting to live with her or him for the rest of their lives - the state should for the common welfare support those two love besotted fools and give 'em the certificate. And call it marriage. OR, alternately, stop calling anything that you give to two people who show up and want to make a similar declaration "marriage." Call them all "civil unions" when issued by civil authorities, and if two people want to recreate the hackneyed medieval European rituals of property exchange* in front of someone who claims to know something about an infinite divine after a few years of study, then hey, it's a free country. Go get a "marriage" from a preacher.

The issue, while emotional, isn't complex - it's easy: equality before the law. That's it. It is a fundamental belief of our civic institutions or it isn't. We know separate isn't equal. We know that "civil unions" for same sex couples and "marriage" for different sex couples isn't equal. So we have to decide that we extend the franchise of "marriage" to same sex folk or we get government out of the business of granting marriages to anyone.

And it's so great reading all the huffing and puffing of those opposed to same sex marriage - the paucity of the intellectual arguments is, frankly, embarrassing. "It demeans the institution" they wail, without any supporting evidence. If that were one of my kids writing that in an essay, I'd say "Show, don't tell. Examples? Evidence?" "That's the way it's always been" is another favorite. Like the Court said today (and read the decision - it's pretty clear):

Since territorial times, Iowa has given meaning to this constitutional provision (of equal protection), striking blows to slavery and segregation, and recognizing women’s rights. The court found the issue of same-sex marriage comes to it with the same importance as the landmark cases of the past.

And the court went on to say, unanimously, that like those landmark cases of the past status quo doesn't equal the way things ought to be. We are rightfully embarrassed by the status quo of a generation ago - banning the kinds of unions that gave us our President, for example - and keeping things the way they are because that's the way they are is not even an argument.

Not one of the "arguments" in support of banning gay marriage even passes the laugh test in a civil court room; the only arguments to ban are religious. And we live in a civil society. And the Iowa Supreme Court did the right thing today for those brave men and women who sued to be equal before the law.

Freakin' awesome.

Oh, #2? It was this article about a gay kid playing big time D-I college football on a team in the "Bible Belt." Read it, the whole thing. If football players in the Bible Belt can say things like "I know about you, and if anyone ever messes with you, you just tell me who they are and I'll beat the crap out of whoever it is," c'mon, seriously... gay marriage? It's gonna happen. Everywhere. Soon. The cultural ground has shifted.

As long as brave men and women continue to stand up and come out and say that, yup, we are equal before the law and expect to be treated that way, the tortorous arguments of the past just won't be sufficient anymore.

So lead on, Iowa. And thanks for the reminder that "Our Liberties we prize and our rights we will maintain" means all of us. E pluribus unum.

*(And no, for the record, I do not hereby waive any future rights to recreate the hackneyed medieval European rituals of property exchange. The bf is from Iowa, after all...:)