September 20, 2006

The U.S. is Losing the War on Terrorism and, in the Process, its Soul

A portion of this year's National Intelligence Estimate, the collective view of our government's 16 intelligence agencies, was recently published in several major newspapers. The published portion states that U.S. involvement in Iraq has increased the threat of terrorism. This directly contradicts the appeals from President Bush and the Republicans to continue to vote for Republicans because their efforts in the War on Terror and the War in Iraq are making us safer. However, the NIE findings are no surprise to numerous people who have been saying for years that the U.S.' ham-handed Iraq War would be a terrific recruiting tool for new terrorists. Osama Bin Laden can sit in back in his cave while the Bush Administration does a better job of creating new terrorists than Osama ever could.

At the same time, Senate Republicans caved into President Bush to let CIA personnel continue to torture suspected terrorists or kidnap them and send them to other countries where we know they will be tortured. As this op-ed by Harold Myerson in last Wednesday's Washington Post eloquently explains, when Americans lower ourselves to the level of the terrorists, we have lost our moral values. I would add that we have lost our souls. Our nation has faced far greater danger before, including the danger of nuclear annihilation from the Soviet Union during the Cold War, yet we never had to resort to a policy of torture. We should ask ourselves as Americans, what do we stand for, other than making money?

If I were a fan of conspiracy theories, I would see a juicy one here. Who benefits from a continuing War in Iraq and War on Terror? First, President Bush and the Republicans benefit, since voters are often reluctant to change horses in the middle of a "war." Even though the war may not be going well, the voters may not want the uncertainty of voting for the other party. Bush and his officials have fueled this uncertainty by selling us fear. Whether it is orange alerts, Osama videotapes or Iran nuclear threats, Bush and his underlings seem to give us new scares right around election time. Bush has also used the state of "war" to grab unprecedented power from a Congress run by cowering Republican rubber-stampers. This power includes illegal wiretapping of Americans.

Second, oil companies and defense contractors who just happen to be cronies of Bush and his Cabinet ministers benefit from the War in Iraq and the War on Terror. Companies such as Halliburton reap record profits from no-bid contracts in Iraq. Oil companies earn record profits as prices are bid up due to the threat of instability or pipeline damage in war-torn oil producing countries (remember when we were told that Iraqi oil revenues would pay for the war?). In the old days, these corporations, and the people who ran them, were known as war profiteers, and the term is still apt. Indeed, some top White House and Cabinet officials directly profit from the war machine. These include Vice President Dick Cheney, who still earns money from Halliburton.

Meanwhile, the track record of Bush and his Republican-led Congress on the War on Terror and the War in Iraq isn't too good. Osama Bin Laden has not been caught. The War in Iraq remains a giant distraction from the real War on Terror, the one against Al Quaeda in Afghanistan and bordering countries, such as Pakistan, where Osama and his Al Quaeda executives may be hiding. The U.S. has devoted only one seventh of the troops and resources to Afghanistan as it has in Iraq. As a result, the Taliban is reconstituting in Afghanistan, and entire Iraqi provinces are "lost." The intelligence agencies of George Bush's own government find that Americans are less safe since the U.S. invaded Iraq. Hatred of U.S. policy spills over the podium at the United Nations. And the U.S. has lost its moral authority by resorting to torture.

If I were a Republican running for Congress this November, I think I'd run away from that record, fast.

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September 19, 2006

Tempest in a Coffee Pot

When I have business in Outer Siberia, a/k/a upper Rockville, I sometimes stop at Mayorga Coffee at King Farm. The latest visit a couple of days ago held a major surprise for me.

As I have previously posted, Mayorga at King Farm is somewhat sterile in look and tone. However, it has free wi-fi, and I'm not one to look a gift horse in the mouth, especially a gift horse with serious coffee breath.

During my previous jaunts, I noticed that Mayorga is operated by high school kids. Sometimes their friends drop by for loud socializing. This can be pretty disturbing for those of us trying to work. A couple of days ago, the worst disturbance thus far took place. A trio of high-schoolers walked in and took over the front of the room. They knew one or more of the workers behind the counter. One of the three, The Bearded One, was incredibly loud. Plus, he repeatedly dropped the N-bomb, and I wondered how the black customers felt about that. Another male friend encouraged him as they recounted stories to each other of beating people up. Then The Bearded One received a cell phone call, and shared it with the customers, including the special nickname he had for the caller.

After a few minutes, I was getting pretty fed up. Now, I don't begrudge high-school interlopers their boisterous fun in otherwise quiet coffee shops where I'm trying to work. Ok, yes I do. I was about to go over and ask them to lower the volume a bit. Then I recalled a similar incident a few years ago at 4 a.m. on the Long Island Railroad, where about a dozen inebriated high schoolers came aboard my car and starting smoking and yelling. I went over and asked them to stop smoking, since it wasn't permitted on the cars and, more importantly, I can't stand it. A standoff ensued between me and the Dirty Dozen, including their spitting at me. I had appealed to the conductors to do their job, but they were too chicken to do so. I always seem to take the role of Citizen Protector, and rarely if ever does anyone join me. I'm the one you see part way on the shoulder of the highway during traffic jams and construction tie-ups, trying to block the cheaters from riding up the shoulder instead of waiting like the rest of us. And I'm damn tired of playing this role.

So instead of having a confrontation with The Bearded One and his cohorts, I located the Mayorga Coffee web site and sent them an email to complain. After a few more minutes of work, I noticed that the place had become quiet again. I looked up, and the Unholy Trio was gone. Then I saw an email in my inbox. It was from Martin Mayorga, the owner of Mayorga Coffee. The email said that, as soon as he received my message, he called the shop and told the staff to get rid of the Three Musketeers. Martin also said that he would contact his manager to address the situation going forward. He agreed with me that it was unacceptible for non-customer friends of the staff to come in regularly and disrupt things for paying customers.

While it is premature to declare Mission Accomplished, I must tip my hat to Martin Mayorga for his surprising and rapid response. Martin has restored my faith in the possibilities of customer service. Now, if I had only told him about the empty paper towel dispenser in the men's room.

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September 18, 2006

When Real Life Intrudes Upon Blogging

I had a good run, blogging nearly every day for the past couple of months. But real life, in the form of a planned move to California, has put the kibosh on this practice.

The move may not occur, but if it does happen, it happens fast, so I am proceeding with full efforts, including packing, getting rid of stuff, etc.

The good news is, if the move takes place, I'll be sending dispatches from California, where the contrasts with DC are too juicy to overlook. I am also hoping to take some time to drive across the country and post some tales from the road.

So all is not lost, blog-wise.

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September 16, 2006

Guilty Pleasures of the Cinema

Are there movies that you must watch every time they appear on cable, even though they aren't even good films? Even though you may own them on dvd? If so, then, like me, you have a list of cinematic guilty pleasures. Here's mine:

1. Highlander (1986) -- this one tops my list. Maybe it's the premise -- immortal swordfighters gather in New York City for their final confrontation. Maybe it's the flashbacks to 16th century Scotland. Maybe it's the music of
Queen. Or maybe it's Sean Connery playing the Spaniard Ramirez with heavy mascara and an even heavier Scottish accent. Shocking!

2. Point Break (1991) -- Keanu Reeves as football-playing, surfing FBI agent Johnny Utah, who jumps out of an airplane with no parachute to nab Patrick Swayze as dead-president-mask-wearing, surfing adrenaline junkie Bodhi? Vaya con Dios, dude.

3. Encino Man (1992) -- Brendan Fraser as dethawed Stone-Ager Linkovitch Chumovsky is adopted by Stoned-Agers Pauly Shore and Sean Astin. It's worth watching for the many Pauly-isms (sample: "Well, he's got the buff spikes chillin' on top of his melon, obviously, right?, - dude, he's checking her cheeks! oh oh! - he's got the serious beak, and his own personal holding company full of fundage, bro, that he weases off of ma... ma..."). Fraser's earnest, wide-eyed portrayal as Link is icing on the cake.

4. Red Dawn (1984) -- The Russians and the Cubans nuke and then invade the American heartland, and it's up to Patrick Swayze (appearance #2) and fellow brat-packers Charlie Sheen, Lea Thompson, C. Thomas Howell and Jennifer Grey to stop them. I's right-wing jingoism at its corniest. Go Wolverines!

5. The Fifth Element (1997) -- Bruce Willis again effectively plays the Regular Guy inadvertently caught up in larger-than-life events, as his cab-driving Korben Dallas is called on to help save the world. Milla Jovovich as the alien Leeloo demonstrates that she should have stuck to modeling. Anything that comes out of her mouth is simply too annoying to hear. Fortunately, she is often scantily clad, thus the mute button comes in very handy. Features Chris Tucker in his breakout performance as effeminate tv host Ruby Rhod.

6. Waterworld (1995) -- the king of all clunkers. In the apocalyptic future, the ice caps have melted, the earth is covered in water, and thus The Road Warrior needs to be remade on boats. Like a slo-mo car accident, it's truly horrendous, yet I must stop to watch. Is it Dennis Hopper and his one eye? Is it Jeanne Tripplehorn and her lazy eye? Is it Kevin Costner and his precise sailing? Or is it Tina Majorino as the most annoying girl with a map of dry land tattooed on her back ever? It's a mystery to me.

7. Armageddon (1998) -- Bruce Willis (appearance #2) leads a team of oil-drilling "rockhounds" on a mission to blow up an asteroid that is headed for earth. Ben Affleck proves once again that, as an actor, he isn't fit to wash Matt Damon's socks. However, a solid team of supporting actors, including Steve Buscemi, Will Patton and Billy Bob Thornton carry the film to its predictable conclusion, with many funny moments along the way. My favorite is the list of favors that the rockhounds extract from Billy Bob in exchange for volunteering on their deadly mission. Liv Tyler as Bruce's daughter Grace is all red lips and blue-eyed tears.

8. Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992) -- this film might have qualified as a genuine rather than a guilty pleasure, if not for the presence of Keanu Reeves (appearance #2) as Jonathan Harker. Keanu cannot exorcise Ted Logan of Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure from any character he plays, and Ted does not belong in a 19th century waistcoat. Anthony Hopkins as Professor Van Helsing and Sadie Frost as the amorous Lucy also turn in laughably overwrought performances, raising the suspicion that director Francis Ford Coppola told his actors to turn on the afterburners. The only character for whom this works is Gary Oldman, whose slightly campy, lovesick Count Dracula is one of the most memorable movie characters in decades. Apparently Winona Ryder did not get the memo. Her Mina is sweet and understated compared to her fellow actors.

9. Roger Moore as James Bond -- this includes Live and Let Die (1973), The Man With the Golden Gun (1974), Moonraker (1979), The Spy Who Loved Me (1977), For Your Eyes Only (1981), Octopussy (1983), and A View to a Kill (1985). Of course, the James Bond franchise is beloved by millions, and the Roger Moore bond movies contain numerous exquisitely entertaining moments, which makes them guilty pleasures. Who can forget Herve Villechaize as Knick-Knack in The Man With the Golden Gun, calling for "Mitheur Thcaramanga" and "Mitheur Bond"? Moreover, for children of the 1970s, Roger Moore is the quintessential bond. However, Moore introduced high campiness to the character, an unforgivable sin for anyone who has read the original James Bond books by Ian Fleming. Even worse, Moore's acting is awful. His only move is the painfully executed double-take. He sees something, turns away slightly, then turns back in surprise. Watch as Moore does this over and over, and I promise you that you will never see his James Bond movies in the same light again.

1o. (tie) The Poseidon Adventure (1972)/Earthquake (1974)/The Towering Inferno (1974) -- these films defined the 1970s as the decade of the Disaster Movie. I find them just as interesting for their exploitative sexism and racism, which must have been de rigeur at the time but which, over 30 years later, are quite jarring. A couple of examples that come to mind are Victoria Principal's yellow t-shirt in Earthquake (that's a couple of examples right there) and Gene Hackman's instructions to various women to disrobe in order to climb to safety in The Poseidon Adventure (as well as the ensuing gratuitous shots of Stella Stevens taken from below as she climbs a ladder). Nevertheless, the all-star casts, what-if premises and state-of-the-art (at the time) special effects make these highly entertaining guilty pleasures.

Honorable Mention:

1. Terminator 2: Judgment Day
2. Natural Born Killers
3. American Psycho
4. Tommy Boy
5. Hot Shots Part Deux
6. Son-in-Law

7. Cape Fear (remake)

Well, that's my list. What's yours?

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September 14, 2006

Bumper Sticker of the Day

"Just Say No to Sex With Pro-Lifers"

This may be the bumper sticker of the year.

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September 10, 2006

California Flesh Bazaar

Last Friday night, I attended the
Angelino Magazine 7th Anniversary Party at the
H.D. Buttercup Furniture Mart in Culver City, California.This art deco landmark in the former Helms Bakery houses over 50 vendors in over 100,000 square feet. It was strangely satisfying to sip lemon drop martinis while sitting on new leather sofas displayed for sale. I was surprised to see all of the emporium's wares, including furniture, lamps and artwork, on display and not covered up for the party.

Also on display was a generous amount of pulchritude. The severely plunging necklines in the front of the women's dresses were matched only by their soaring hemlines below. They practically met in the middle. It must be the California version of female pattern baldness.

This was very different from events I have attended in DC, where the styles are often much more conservative. It was a real eye-opener. So, if I do not return home from California, there is no need to look for my picture on the back of milk cartons.

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September 08, 2006

Euphemism of the Day: "Pretexting"

Hewlett-Packard in big trouble. In an effort to investigate leaks regarding the 2005 ouster of its CEO, the company hired private investigators who spied on H-P's directors by delving into their private telephone records. To do this, the investigators stole the directors' social security digits, called the phone companies and posed as the directors themselves. H-P is using the term "pretexting" to describe this practice. Federal law prohibits "pretexting" if used to obtain financial information, but apparently there is no federal law outlawing "pretexting" for any other purpose. However, the matter has been referred to the California Attorney General's Office, which investigates computer fraud and identify theft. It has also been referred to the U.S. Justice Department, the Federal Trade Commission and the Federal Communications Commission.

"Pretexting?" That sounds like some beneficial technical thing a text messager might do, and perhaps the confusion is deliberate. The last time I checked, what the H-P investigators did is known as "lying," "fraud" and "identity theft." Do we really need a new word?

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September 06, 2006

Those Wacky California Drivers

A van is an excellent vantage point to spot bumper stickers on the 405 between Long Beach and Santa Monica, California (Southern Californians say "the" instead of "route"). Here is what I spotted on two cars within fifteen minutes, including a bonus license plate frame message:

Car 1 (Toyota Prius) -- Bumper sticker: "What's Our Oil Doing Under Their Soil?"
License plate frame: "Fighting Terrorism @ 50 M.P.G."

Car 2 (Chrysler Sebring convertible) -- Pink ribbon (Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation), accompanied by sticker: "Save the Ta-tas".
I really don't know what to make of that one.

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A Little T&A at the TSA

Yesterday I took my first flight since the "Liquid Prell" airline scare. I checked the Transportation Security Agency's website beforehand, so I would know exactly what liquids, gels and goops I could and could not bring into the airplane cabin. What I found was quite surprising.

The list of prohibited liquids is extensive, and includes not just beverages, but sprays, gel deodorants, hair gel, liquid lip balm, toothpaste, etc. In other words, pretty much any personal item that is not wholly solid. I found that the no-lip-balm rule is rough on a long flight where cabin humidity is set at Sahara levels. But get this: gel-filled bras and personal lubricants are permitted. In a separate section of the list, KY Jelly is specifically permitted as an "essential non-presciption liquid medication." Essential? Medication? What's going on? Are the airlines quietly trying to promote in-flight trysts to take passengers' minds off the inconvenience of all these prohibitions? Does the Mile High Club have a powerful lobbying presence in Washington? If so, they apparently forgot to include the whipped cream, which is a prohibited item. Look for the whipped cream amendment to follow soon.

My interest having been piqued, I then scrolled down the list to where sharp objects, tools and weapons were listed. As I suspected, no brass knuckles are permitted aboard the cabin. No spear guns either (insert Steve Irwin reference here). No axes and hatchets. No cattle prods. No sabers. There's no mention of light sabers, though. No meat cleavers. Too bad, I thought I might pass the time on my trans-continental flight with a little butchering.

But the list of permitted items is pretty shocking given our post-9/11 world: "Toy weapons - if not realistic replicas" are permitted. Hmm, might reasonable people, including air marshalls, disagree at the moment when a weapon is brandished on an airplane whether it is a realistic toy replica or not? Likewise, knitting and crochet needles are permitted. Knitting needles? Those long, really sharp metal things? As it turned out, the young Lisa Loeb lookalike seated next to me was knitting during the flight, and I'm sure that those needles could have been used very effectively as a weapon. Not to mention that one big pocket of turbulence, and I could have been the next Hathaway shirt model. Also, screwdrivers, wrenches and other tools up to seven inches in length are permitted aboard the cabin! Huh? What seems safer to you in the next seat, someone applying lip gloss or someone whipping out a seven-inch Phillips head screwdriver? Were the folks assigned to make this list all working on Iraq that day, and replaced by the B-team? Or was the list made by insecure men who held their fingers a couple inches apart and said, "yup, looks like seven inches to me, no chance that's gonna do any damage"?

Somehow I'll need to synthesize all this information to minimize the inconvenience of my flight home. Does anyone know if personal lubricant prevents chapped lips?

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September 04, 2006

Dying While Doing What You Love Would Suck

What struck me about Steve "Croc Hunter" Irwin's death was his producer John Stainton's quote: "He died doing what he loved best and left this world in a happy and peaceful state of mind." Really. Happy and peaceful, while frantically and futilely trying to pull a poisonous sting ray barb out of his chest.

We often hear this sentiment about adventurers and daredevils when they die young: "He died doing what he loved best." As if that's a great thing. I think it is dead wrong.

Who would want to die doing what they love? That would negate all of the pleasure they had doing that thing their entire life. Would you really want your last memory to be the sheer terror of doing what you love and having it go horribly wrong? Would a pilot who loves flying, the feeling of freedom and soaring through the clouds with the birds, want to die in a plane crash? Would a race car driver who loves the thrill of speed want to hit a wall at 200 miles per hour and be trapped in a flaming wreck? Would a man whose biggest passion in life is his wife want to be murdered by her, or to die of a heart attack while strolling hand in hand in the park with her?

I want to die doing what I hate. I want to die preparing my taxes. Or scooping up a dog's poop. Sitting in traffic on the Beltway. On hold in voicemail hell with a computer company's customer service. I want to die fighting health insurance company Scrooges over a claim they refuse to pay.

The whole dying-while-doing-something-you-love idea is a crock, or in Steve Irwin's case, a croc. It is simply a way for those of us still living to feel better. It is a form of deep denial regarding the cruel irony of death. Kind of like religion.

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September 03, 2006

Thanks to the Laborers

According to the Labor Department's website, "Labor Day, the first Monday in September, is a creation of the labor movement and is dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers. It constitutes a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country."

In addition to creating the Labor Day holiday recognizing workers, labor unions are partly responsible for the following: minimum wage (which stands at $5.15 per hour, has not been raised since 1997 and is thus worth considerably less in real dollars today due to inflation); 40 hour work week; restrictions on child labor; restrictions on sweatshops; and workplace safety requirements.

Some conservatives and Republicans bash labor unions and seek to destroy them. These folks sometimes say that the "free market" and "capitalism" will take care of the workplace issues listed above. Apparently, they want to return to the period prior to the 1930s, before the rise of labor unions and legislation protecting workers, such as the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938. We know what happened during that period. Child labor. Sweatshops. Unsafe working conditions. Locked doors. The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire.

People who oppose labor unions should not be taking Labor Day off from work. To oppose the unions and benefit from the holiday they established is hypocritical. As the U.S. Department of Labor says regarding the Labor Day holiday:

"The vital force of labor added materially to the highest standard of living and the greatest production the world has ever known and has brought us closer to the realization of our traditional ideals of economic and political democracy. It is appropriate, therefore, that the nation pay tribute on Labor Day to the creator of so much of the nation's strength, freedom, and leadership — the American worker."

Have a happy and safe holiday.

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September 02, 2006

My Victorious U.S. Open Tennis Match

With this week's U.S. Open tennis coverage of past matches due to rain, I recall my victorious tennis match there. It was the mid-1970s, and I was a wee lad, a "junior" in tennis terms. The Open was played at the esteemed West Side Tennis Club in Forest Hills, NY, just a few miles from its current location in the less fortunately named Flushing Meadows.

I remember walking around the arched ground level of the stadium before match time. In addition to the crowds lined up for food and souvenirs, I spotted a distinct queue. All heads were turned, and all necks were craned, toward the front of the line. I went to take a look, and saw a most unusual singles match being played. It took place on a table top about five feet long and three feet wide, with a net in the middle. It looked like a miniature ping pong table. However, instead of paddles, the two players each had a plastic spring-loaded cannon that they slid back and forth along their baseline to try and hit a small, heavy-looking ball over the net at each other. The table was raised in the center and sloped down at each end. Around the table was a green and white display with the words "Zing Tennis!" There were also some t-shirts hanging on the display, which matched the sign. One of the two players was a teenage girl decked out in Zing Tennis gear.

I asked someone what was going on, and was told that the line was to play the newfangled game against the Zing Tennis rep, and if you won, you got a Zing Tennis t-shirt. Since we were a bit early for the matches and this seemed like a fun game, and what kid didn't want a new t-shirt, I got in line with my friend. The line proceeded reasonably swiftly. Each new player practiced against the rep for a minute or two, then began playing. The rep was very competitive, and beat nearly everyone within a few minutes. Apparently, she did not have many t-shirts to give away, or maybe she just did not like losing. Eventually, it became almost time for the tennis matches to begin, so I started getting antsy.

Some time later, the kid in front of me took his turn. But instead of the usual cursory warmup period, he took his time, practicing every shot like the tennis players on the other side of the stadium entrance tunnels. So I turned to my friend, and said, rather loudly, "I hate it when someone hogs the game while a lot of people are waiting to play." The teenage rep glared at me and, in a rather unfriendly tone, said, "I hate it when someone complains about others taking too much time, then they take too much time themselves." I replied, "just for that, I'm going to beat you."

Finally, it was my turn to play. Under pressure from the Zing Tennis rep and the crowd that had heard our exchange, I practiced with her for just a moment, then said, "let's play." I had never before seen, let alone played, Zing Tennis. But then something happened that only happens to most people a few times in their lives. I got into the Zone. It's one of those feelings where you get in an ultra-relaxed state, tuning out everything around you except the task at hand, and can do no wrong. Elite athletes get into this peak state on occasion, when they win tournaments and set world records, and then wonder how the hell to replicate it.

The game lasted only a few minutes. I still recall a number of the shots. Like ping ping, the goal is to hit the ball over the net. But instead of bouncing when it lands, the heavy wooden ball rolls quickly down your side of the table. You have to slide your shooter right over to where the ball is coming and time your return shot precisely, all in a split second. It is also possible to put a spin on the ball by sliding the shooter ever so slightly to one side or another at the moment of impact. Somehow, I was able to do all of this instinctively.

When I won the final point, I pumped my fist and yelled "yesss!" The crowd cheered. The rep sneered. She turned around, grabbed a neatly folded Zing Tennis t-shirt, and shoved it at me. Victory was sweet. Victory was mine.

I don't think the Zing Tennis tabletop game sold well, if at all. But I proudly wore my Zing Tennis t-shirt for many years, until one day, shrunken and riddled with holes, it simply expired.

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September 01, 2006

Thanks Wonkette ... Sort Of

Yesterday I posted about my crush on Senator Mary Landrieu of Louisiana. It was intended to be lighthearted and satirical. However, the person I was with when I published it told me that it would likely generate a response. Was she ever right.

Wonkette ran an item about my post yesterday evening. Since then, my viewership has gone through the roof, with hundreds of visits last night and hundreds more today. I'm flattered that Wonkette did this. I enjoy reading Wonkette, and even have it linked on this blog. However, Wonkette threw the gutterball in this case, going with a more tawdry angle and using a vulgar expression that did not appear in the original post, either in the flesh or the spirit. "Schtup?" Does anyone even use that word anymore? I think it exited the vernacular along with "boff" in the eighties. Wonkette has certainly lived up to its credo, "Politics for people with dirty minds." However, the credo contains a typo. It should read, "Politics from people with dirty minds."

But they say any publicity is good publicity, right?

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