Monday, September 29, 2008

Bless the Good Ship National Park Service and All Who Sail in Her!

I don't know about you, but for your correspondent, the sun shines just a little brighter, the birds sing just a little more sweetly, the clouds take on just a bit a more benign fluffiness, on those Mondays that follow that Any Given Sunday when the Washington Reagans kick the snot out of the sorry, stink-assed, dogfaced titty-babies who call themselves the Dallas Cowboys. In Dallas! In Dallas!

That's some sweet Monday Morning Goodness.

That isn't what I want to talk about, though.

A shortish period of enforced leisure came to an end Friday when a job, its start-date cruelly put off for a week, reared its head. I fought the heebie-jeebies of both boredom and terror (have you read a newspaper or a blog lately?) by going into Full-On Raging Tourist Mode.

Well, think about it. The kiddiewinks are in school, so they can't follow Daddikins around the museum or park declaring their boredom and demanding ice cream. Wonder Woman was beginning to show signs of wear and tear, the result of a bored and anxious hubby out on the screen porch with his face glued to a laptop screen reading the 250th comment in a week-old thread at Sadly, No! Something had to give, and I decided to visit my anxieties and ennui on our National Park System.

I'm very glad I did.

Monday, the first day my soon-to-be employers told me to cool my heels, saw me at Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, with my camera and binoculars dangling foolishly from my neck. (I regret to say that I'd forgotten to actually charge the camera's battery, giving me a useless, clunking appendage to carry around all day, but ah, well. I'll just pretend I took all these; who's gonna know the difference?) It is possible to drive into the center of the town, if you know the Backdoor Bolivar Heights trick, but as I say, I was in Full-Tourist mode, so I parked at the lot at the edge of town to take the Park Service Bus in with the retirees and the schoolkids on a field trip.

While waiting for the next bus, I stopped in at the little Visitors Center, which was manned by a Park Ranger. I picked up a copy of Joseph Barry's The Strange Story of Harper's Ferry, a 1904 history more notable for its eccentricity than its accuracy -- it contains a short version of John Mobberly's life that (rather amusingly) gets very nearly every fact wrong. I mentioned this to the Ranger, and he perked up considerable; he knew everything -- everything! -- about Mobberly, who after all was born only a few miles away and whose lifeless body was strung up in Harpers Ferry, the townspeople dipping their handkerchiefs in his blood to keep as a souvenir.

It's unsurprising for a Harpers Ferry Park Ranger to be interested in this tiny, obscure Civil War guerrilla but what was remarkable was the intensity of his interest. We talked through two bus cycles, all other calls on our attention the merest trifles. He did attend to a few other customers, folks wanting directions or maps, but -- and this is the point I wanted to make -- he was willing to talk to me as long as I was prepared to listen.

Down in the town, I arrived just in time for the Ranger-Guided Tour, and I joined the small crowd around a trim gentleman with a white nineteenth-century vandyke beard and smart straw hat. He warmed to his topic, John Brown's 1859 Raid, a chat he'd clearly given many times before, and in which he expertly elucidated the circumstances in which the United States found itself on the cusp of tearing itself apart. The tour began outdoors, then made its way into the Provost Marshall's office, where maps and a large mural, showing Harpers Ferry at the time of the Raid, helped him paint his word-picture. We were invited to compare the town in which we stood to the mural: The munitions factory that attracted Brown here is gone, as are many of the commercial buildings that depended on the factory. The town has flooded many times, and all that's left of the mills that lined the riverbank is river-smoothed stone foundations. The tour ended at the firehouse itself where Brown's sons and many of his followers were killed by Marines under the command of Robert E. Lee.

The mural at the Provost Marshall's office triggered a memory of George MacDonald Fraser's classic Flashman book, Flashman and the Angel of the Lord, which put Flash Harry in with Brown's raiders. After the Ranger's tour was over I went back in to get a squint at it. Some of the buildings in Fraser's picaresque and very funny book are no longer standing, and I thought if I could place them on the mural I might understand the plot better. The Ranger, fresh from his hour-long lecture, was standing near the mural, and I caught his eye.

"Excuse me," pointing at the mural, "is this the Wager Hotel?"

"Flashman and the Angel of the Lord," he said, simply. I gaped.

"Well, that's what you're reading, isn't it? Nobody's ever asked me about the Wager Hotel who hasn't read it."

Amazing. For the second time that day, I found myself deep in engrossing conversation with an extremely knowledgeable person who cared profoundly about his topic. He recounted MacDonald Fraser's researches at Harpers Ferry (describing them as impeccable and thorough), noted historical unlikelihoods that were necessary to advance Fraser's plot, other books -- fictional and non- -- I might enjoy, recited parts of Uncle Tom's Cabin, offered his nuanced and subtle opinion of Brown's motivations and heroism, listened to my anecdote about John Stevens, expounded on the relationship between the Irish navvies who built the C&O Canal and the African slaves who lived here (Why didn't slave labor build the canal? The slaves were more expensive than the Irishmen! No joke), and answered a question about the now-destroyed bridge over the Potomac.

Again, the point must be made: I was the person who had to (regretfully) end that conversation. At no point did he ever betray irritation at my boatload of questions -- quite the opposite -- nor did he ignore anyone else who came into the office with a request for a map or other information.

Both of the Park Rangers who spent an hour each out of their days to entertain, to explain, to elucidate history for a curious civilian, were uniformed U. S. Government employees. Dedicated, decidedly underpaid, extremely knowledgeable civil servants. Believe it or not, there was once a time when the U. S. Government was a place where you looked for employment if you wanted to help people, to advance the cause of human ennoblement. I can't help but think that that spirit might have motivated the two men who made my day so enjoyable. About in my mid-teens, I started hearing exactly the opposite -- the first stirrings of the Reagan Revolution. It grew and grew until it became conventional wisdom: Government doesn't solve problems; government is the problem.

Wonder where my Park Ranger friends' retirement funds went today.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

A D.C. Tableau

I received this yesterday, in an email from a trusted friend, a former co-worker of the author of this anecdote. It is not -- I repeat not -- a viral email making the rounds. It is, I'll grant, a friend-of-a-friend story, but I trust implicitly the person who passed it to me, and know that he does not brook urban legends lightly. I have left it unedited, save to redact the author's name and to make one edit for clarity. DC Coast is a restaurant at 1401 K Street.
From: [name redacted]
ok, so it's highly possible that my mccain confrontation may be boring you to tears by this point, but it never fails to infuriate me every time i think about it. here goes:

so - i'm in the valet parking lane outside DC Coast at 14th & k streets, in my car (a miata, mind you, not exactly a tough-girl ride). as i'm waiting for the valet attendant to come, sitting with my hazard lights on, a car comes flying down 14th street and moves into the service drive - which is exactly where the valet stand is.

rather than be patient, the black town car that is now behind me immediately puts the car in park, turns on the brights/high beam lights, and a man proceeds to get out of his own car and come to my car window. all of this happens in a flash - in a matter of seconds i go from calmly waiting for valet to banging on my car window. important to note - this is all in full view of those also waiting along the sidewalk and in the DC Coast front-window area.

a roll the window down, and a man is yelling at me, cursing (f-bombs and the like), irate that i need to move my car immediately and that i get out of his way. i look's JOHN MCCAIN.

no, i'm not joking.

i don't want to get sued for libel/slander, so i will only state my opinion on this part - but he was quite red in the face and (again, my opinion) clearly smelled of booze. after the initial fear wore off, i started laughing, rolled up my window, and drove around the block so he could pass.

maybe it was a past-life-miata flashback, but i'm not sure what raised his ire to the point of f-bombing an innocent valet parker...but it raised MY ire enough to call the washington post's reliable source [gossip column]. i relayed my story and suggested they could contact others outside DC Coast who witnessed the scene.

at the time, he had not yet declared he was running for president, but evidently his reputation was already known. the post called to confirm my story with mccain's office - and while his office denied it, the post had said this was not the first story of this type they had heard, but unfortunately it would be a case of senator-said/unknown person-said.

if you think this is quality behavior for a would-be U.S. president, feel free to vote for him - but if this kind of temper can be sparked by something as minor as driving in downtown traffic, do we really want him as the leader of the free world?

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Pitchforks & Torches at Dawn

Pardon me while I emit copious streams of bile from every hole in my head...

A nose job in a hospital with a private nurse in attendance had been something of a rite of passage for Joan Asher's children. But when her fourth and last child was ready for her own rhinoplasty recently, Ms. Asher asked her to postpone it.

The financial markets were simply more out of whack than her 16-year-old's proboscis.

"The other noses were more prominent," the stay-at-home mother from a tony New York City suburb in Westchester County told her 16-year-old daughter. She could get hers done when things settled down.

The financial crisis on Wall Street has New York's well-to-do reeling....

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Boiler Room

"That was your homework—to watch Boiler Room."—Lisa Taylor, Ameriquest loan agent, quoted in the Los Angeles Times, February 4, 2005
Yeah, that plan to put all our Social Security money into Wall Street sure looks like a winner from this end, don't it?

Dean Starkman explains the mortgage meltdown as clearly as I've seen it done.

"This American Life" did a great show in this back in May. I listened to the podcast while waiting for Freddie to finish soccer practice, and by the end of it I was a wiser -- if exponentially sadder -- man.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

The Grownup Strategy

Wow. For two minutes, a presidential candidate for a major party sits and speaks directly to the American people -- and addresses them like they aren't gibbering idiots. The Grownup Strategy.

Wonder if they'll fall for it.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

This Thing Must Be Done

John McCain wants a blue-ribbon commission to ponder the economic hell in which we find ourselves.

Barack responds:
Now I certainly don’t fault Senator McCain for all of the problems we’re facing, but I do fault the economic philosophy he subscribes to. Because the truth is, what Senator McCain said yesterday fits with the same economic philosophy that he’s had for 26 years. It’s the philosophy that says we should give more and more to those with the most and hope that prosperity trickles down. It’s the philosophy that says even common-sense regulations are unnecessary and unwise. It’s a philosophy that lets Washington lobbyists shred consumer protections and distort our economy so it works for the special interests instead of working people.

We’ve had this philosophy for eight years. We know the results. You feel it in your own lives. Jobs have disappeared, and peoples’ life savings have been put at risk. Millions of families face foreclosure, and millions more have seen their home values plummet. The cost of everything from gas to groceries to health care has gone up, while the dream of a college education for our kids and a secure and dignified retirement for our seniors is slipping away. These are the struggles that Americans are facing. This is the pain that has now trickled up.

So let’s be clear: what we’ve seen the last few days is nothing less than the final verdict on an economic philosophy that has completely failed. And I am running for President of the United States because the dreams of the American people must not be endangered any more. It’s time to put an end to a broken system in Washington that is breaking the American economy. It’s time for change that makes a real difference in your lives.

If you want to understand the difference between how Senator McCain and I would govern as President, you can start by taking a look at how we’ve responded to this crisis. Because Senator McCain's approach was the same as the Bush Administration’s: support ideological policies that made the crisis more likely; do nothing as the crisis hits; and then scramble as the whole thing collapses. My approach has been to try to prevent this turmoil.

In February of 2006, I introduced legislation to stop mortgage transactions that promoted fraud, risk or abuse. A year later, before the crisis hit, I warned Secretary Paulson and Chairman Bernanke about the risks of mounting foreclosures and urged them to bring together all the stakeholders to find solutions to the subprime mortgage meltdown. Senator McCain did nothing.
Folks -- particularly my local readers in the DC area -- this thing must be done. Virginia is the place where the whole shitstorm is going to play out. Fuck lipstick. Fuck sex-education for kindergartners. We must be warriors.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

"This Is Water."

I can't know what was in David Foster Wallace's mind when he took his own life Friday. He was a little less than two years younger than me, and a far better writer and thinker than I'll ever hope to be. The news that someone in my age cohort couldn't take it anymore -- whatever "take it" means in this context -- is saddening and frightening both.

This political season has been so far even more frustrating, depressing and shocking than the 2004 fiasco, and obsessively reading political blogs for weeks on end, as I have, has whipped even my even-keeled mind into a case of the Howling Fantods. The idea that this country might be poised once again to swallow a pile of bullshit so dense that it bends gravity, makes me want to climb a clock-tower and just start taking people out.

I won't, though. Wallace was my age, but if I'd been born a few years later and been blessed with the same educational opportunities, I might have been privileged to hear Wallace give the commencement address at my alma mater.

That way sanity lies.

And the so-called real world will not discourage you from operating on your default settings, because the so-called real world of men and money and power hums merrily along in a pool of fear and anger and frustration and craving and worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom all to be lords of our tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the center of all creation. This kind of freedom has much to recommend it. But of course there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talk about much in the great outside world of wanting and achieving and [unintelligible]. The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.

That is real freedom. That is being educated, and understanding how to think. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the rat race, the constant gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing.

I know that this stuff probably doesn't sound fun and breezy or grandly inspirational the way a commencement speech is supposed to sound. What it is, as far as I can see, is the capital-T Truth, with a whole lot of rhetorical niceties stripped away. You are, of course, free to think of it whatever you wish. But please don't just dismiss it as just some finger-wagging Dr. Laura sermon. None of this stuff is really about morality or religion or dogma or big fancy questions of life after death.

The capital-T Truth is about life BEFORE death.