October 26, 2007

A Heckuva Job

Here is how the Bush Administration handled the California wildfires this past week: First, on Tuesday, FEMA notified reporters at 12:45 p.m. that it would hold a press conference 15 minutes later. FEMA is located in Southwest Washington, D.C., a city with the third worst traffic in the United States. Not surprisingly, no reporters made it on time. However, FEMA went ahead with a fake news conference featuring FEMA staffers pretending to be reporters. Apparently, Jeff Gannon and Armstrong Williams were unavailable. The fake news conference was televised, and the television news networks cut into their broadcasts and ran it live. Here is an example of the grilling that the fake reporters gave to FEMA Deputy Administrator, Vice Admiral Harvey Johnson:

QUESTION: "Are you happy with FEMA's response, so far?"
JOHNSON: "I'm very happy with FEMA's response so far. This is a FEMA and a federal government that's leaning forward, not waiting to react. And you have to be pretty pleased to see that."

Then, a FEMA staffer even said "last question" to make the phony press conference seem even more like a real one.

Once the ersatz FEMA press conference was outed by Washington Post reporter Al Kamen, even White House Press Secretary Dana Perino, who routinely defends the most outrageous Bush Administration behavior with straight-faced spin, was unable to defend this one. She said:

"It is not a practice that we would employ here at the White House or that we -- we certainly don't condone it."

The day after the fake FEMA press conference, President Bush held an "emergency cabinet meeting" regarding the California wildfires, in order not to be caught appearing inactive during a major disaster, as was the case with Hurricane Katrina. Dick Cheney was filmed falling asleep during the meeting. Turns out, Cheney is a serial sleeper when it comes to such meetings.

Fake press conferences and falling asleep during emergency cabinet meetings. Doesn't that perfectly sum up the Bush Administration view of government?

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October 24, 2007

Trick or Sex Treat

Halloween for adults gets more sexual each year. Last year, I gave three simple tips for a successful Halloween costume. Tip number three was "Be Attractive." This year, women -- and the companies that market to women -- are getting the Sexy Halloween Costume message even louder and clearer.

Evidence of the Sexiest Halloween To Date can be found near my home. A temporary Halloween Store recently opened in a large empty retail space. The first thing one sees in the front window is a poster of a blonde wearing a sexy bee costume, next to a the large capitalized word "SEXY" and accompanied by the caption "'Bee' Hot & Flirty!" That, of course, is my third rule for costumes nearly verbatim, plus a poor pun.

Inside the store, two entire walls are labeled "Adult." Along one of these walls is an entire collection of Playboy costumes and accessories for women. These include "Bossy Kitty," "Racy Referee" and "Scandalous Pirate." On another wall in this section are generic sexy costumes, including another "Sexy Pirate," "Saucy Nurse" and, presumably, her boss, "Sexy Female Doctor" complete with a mini-length lab coat containing the embroidered name "Dr. Anita Hardwon."

I am headed to a Halloween costume party this Saturday night, and will be curious to see how the Sexy Halloween Costume trend plays out, especially since (1) this is Southern California; and (2) it could be pretty warm outside.

By next year, I expect that some Halloween Store near me will have a closed-off "XXX-Adults Only" section guarded by a burly -- or very curvy -- bouncer.

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October 22, 2007

What I Learned in the Fire

In Southern California, we have all four seasons: earthquake, drought, fire and flood. As anyone with cable knows, right now it's fire season, autumn, if you will. And the fire season is largely a result of the other season, drought. I live pretty close to some of the major fires. Yesterday, I took Spencer for a walk. We ended up at an overlook by the beach, with a good view of the smoke from the fires up in the hills. Other people were standing there, looking at the scene and taking pictures. I learned a few things about these California fires:

1. Who Was Santa Ana, and Why Does He Keep Breaking Wind?
There is a phenomenon called the Santa Ana Winds that largely causes and fans the fires. The very strong Santa Ana winds blow from the Northeast. Now, nearly every day for eleven months since I moved here, the wind has blown from the west, straight off the ocean. But the smoke from the fires was blowing the other way, from the hills toward the ocean.

2. It's All About the Animals
A woman came up to me and Spencer, and she was nearly in tears:
It's so terrible. I keep thinking about all those poor animals up there.
I tried to make her feel better:
But this is just natural, right? Even if there was no population up there, these fires would happen anyway.
I don't think it worked:
But ... the animal hospital even burned down.

3. Beachgoing Causes Oblivion
Down on the beach, with the same excellent view of the giant cloud of smoke drifting off of the hills just a few miles away, people were frolicking on the sand and in the ocean as if it was just another Sunday. It was a very strange sight. Would people in Iraq, for example, continue playing their fun game of soccer if bombs starting to go off just a few miles away? I don't know, maybe they would.

4. Horrible Fires Make for Pretty Sunsets
Gorgeous red sunsets, in fact. It has something to do with the sun's reflection on the smoke or dust particles. This thought should make me feel guilty, like saying that global warming is causing the loveliest warm weather in the fall.

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October 18, 2007

Cheney and Giuliani Heart France

The French have rehabilitated their image among Republicans as cheese-eating surrender monkeys. Remember when, after France lobbied the world against the U.S. invasion of Iraq, U.S. Republicans declared a cultural War on France? Item: House cafeteria now serves "freedom fries" and "freedom toast." Item: "John Kerry looks French."

What a difference a few years makes. Several days ago, Dick Cheney's wife Lynne dropped the bombshell that Dick Cheney and Barack Obama are related. But the bigger news to me is that Cheney's and Obama's common relative was French! Republicans are scrambling all over Capitol Hill to tell the press that "funny, Cheney doesn't look French."

Now comes word that leading Republicans, including Rudolph Giuliani, Willard Romney and Newton Gingrich* are in love with French President Nicolas Sarkozy. Giuliani even dreams about Sarkozy.

I guess we will now have to add "fickle" to the list of uniquely American traits.

*Politicians' cute nicknames are merely devious attempts at faux familiarity.

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October 14, 2007

Name that Euphemism

"Euphemism" -- the substitution of an agreeable or inoffensive expression for one that may offend or suggest something unpleasant; also : the expression so substituted.
--Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary

No word in the B vocabulary was ideologically neutral. A great many were euphemisms. Such words, for instance, as joycamp (forced-labour camp) or Minipax (Ministry of Peace, i. e. Ministry of War) meant almost the exact opposite of what they appeared to mean.
--George Orwell, "1984," appendix (1948).

Euphemisms are increasingly creeping into our vernacular. Here are some examples of euphemisms we use every day, often without thinking:

1. "Gay." "Gay" used to have a real meaning, and now that meaning is lost. One can no longer innocently say, as in the "Flintstones" theme, "you'll have a gay old time. "Second, "gay" is a misnomer. No one has demonstrated that homosexuals are happier than the rest of us

2. "Execute." Literally, "execute" means to carry out one's formal duties. As a euphemism, "execute" specifically means, to kill a criminal pursuant to a legal order. But saying "execute" takes the edge off of the killing. Instead of saying "the convicted murder was executed last night by lethal injection," wouldn't it be more descriptive to say, "the convicted murderer was killed last night by lethal injection"? Perhaps this would cause more people to think about the appropriatenesss of the death penalty.

"Execute" is also now used to describe non-legal killings by criminals, drug lords and the like, when the victims are killed in some cruel and deliberate manner. So now we hear on the news, "a gang member was shot in the back of the head execution-style, with his hands tied behind his back, by rival gang members last night." This common misuse of "execution" is unfortunate, since, if anything, it is a case where we would not want to mask the offensiveness or unpleasantless of the activity.

3. "Euthanasia." When I first heard this word, I thought they were talking about kids in China. "Euthanasia" means the mercy killing of someone who is suffering, usually in the late stages of a terminal illness, and often with the patient's prior permission. The verb "euthanize" means, to kill someone in the manner of euthanasia.

Nowadays, "euthanize" is commonly used to describe the killing of dogs and cats at animal shelters. I find this misuse of "euthanize" extremely offensive, because the dogs and cats being killed are typically not suffering from a terminal illness. They are killed simply because the shelters are overcrowded.

4. "Abortion." No matter what one's viewpoint is on this practice, "abortion" is a rather dry-sounding term that generally just means stopping a process, but as a euphemism, it means killing a fetus, or an unborn (or at least unformed) child in the womb. Note how three of the above examples of euphemisms are terms for different acts of killing.

Washington, DC must be the world's euphemism capital. The bills and acts that come from Congress, especially ones initiated by the Bush Administration and passed by the Republican-led Congress from 2001 through 2006, are named using some stunning euphemisms:

1. No Child Left Behind Act -- an unfunded mandate on states that has left millions of children behind in their education.

2. Clear Skies Initiative -- a law that permitted power plants to continue spewing pollution into the air.

3. Healthy Forests Initiative -- a law that permitted more trees to be cut down. Hello, calling George Orwell.

4. USA Patriot Act (reminscent of the Patriot Missile deployed during Ronald Reagan's presidency) -- a law passed just after the 9/11 attacks which took away many civil liberties granted to us in the Bill of Rights.

Another area in Washington rife with euphemisms is the Department of Defense. In fact, "Department of Defense" is itself a euphemism, having been changed from the "War Department" in 1947. Here are some common euphemisms from the Department of Defense:

1. "Casualty." That means, a person who has been shot or blown up by a bomb, and either killed or wounded. It sounds more like an insurance term, like when your basement is flooded.

2. "Collateral damage." This one is especially insulting. It means, civilians who are unintentionally blown up when the military drops a bomb on a target.

3. "Rendition." This comes from "render," which is a vague verb that can mean "to give or make available" or "to cause to become." As used by your government, however, "rendition" means to nab a suspect, put a hood over his head, and fly him to a "black site" (a nice euphemism in itself) in another country where he can be tortured. We already have a word for this: "kidnapping."

4. "Contractors." That's how the Bush Administration describes the Blackwater USA private soldiers, or mercenaries, fighting in Iraq. I thought a "contractor" is the guy who builds the addition on my house.

A third rich source of Washington, DC euphemisms is the plethora of lobbying groups that spring up around every issue. Here are a few blatant examples:

1. The Swift Boat Veterans for Truth -- this band of right-wingers proved to be about anything but "truth," as they slimed John Kerry in 2004 by telling numerous lies designed to denigrate Kerry's military service in Vietnam.

2. Citizens For a Sound Economy -- a group funded by big business that seeks to remove regulations on businesses.

3. Clearinghouse for Environmental Education, Advocacy and Research (CLEAR) -- an anti-environmental group funded by big corporations.

4. Citizens for Sensible Control of Acid Rain -- a group funded largely by power companies, that fought efforts which would have tightened the Clean Air Act to reduce acid rain.

Perhaps the most egregious euphemism being thrown around Washington today is when George Bush says "we don't torture" but we do use "enhanced interrogation techniques" or "harsh interrogation methods." As was explained recently on "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart,"

STEWART: How is fake drowning, sleep deprivation, how isn’t that torture?
OLIVER: That is not torture.
OLIVER: Because we don’t torture.
STEWART: Meaning we don’t do those things?
OLIVER: No, no. Meaning if we do do those things, they must not be torture.

So next time you hear words like "truth," "fairness," "sensible" and "patriot" coming from official Washington, DC, try to avoid the urge to want to be euthanized.

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October 12, 2007

Ode to the Once-Mighty Mustache

Oh gossamer wings of chestnut brown
Soar high to the sky
Attain the celestial mile
When I smile
Fall down to the ground
On gravity's burial mound
When I frown
--Media Concepts (2007)

This is Cindy's first mustache.
--Derek Smalls, "This Is Spinal Tap" (1984)
Quick, name four things that come to mind when you hear the word "mustache." Here's my list:

1. Baseball players
2. Firefighters
3. Porn stars
4. The Seventies

I suspect that others' lists do not differ greatly from mine. How did the mustache (or "moustache") fall so far out of favor? Once the accoutrement of Presidents and scholars, the mustache is now the butt of jokes regarding working class stiffs and Middle East dictators.

The list of famous mustached men is extensive. It includes writers and thinkers such as Samuel L. Clemens a/k/a/ Mark Twain, Albert Einstein and Friedrick Nietsche.

Presidents and leaders such as Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Industrialists like Howard Hughes and Ted Turner (who both affected the pencil-thin mustache).

Artists and entertainers such as Groucho Marx, Charlie Chaplin, Salvador Dali, Oliver Hardy and Frank Zappa.

But somewhere along the way, mustaches came to be associated with villains. Perhaps it was the dynamic duo of Adolph Hitler and Joseph Stalin in the 1930s and 1940s. New York Governor Thomas E. Dewey probably lost the presidency in 1948 to Harry Truman because Dewey had a neatly trimmed mustache that people said made him look too smooth, like the guy on top of a wedding cake. In the 1960s, cartoon villains Snidely Whiplash of the "Dudley Doright"cartoons and Boris Badenov of "Rocky and Bullwinkle" continued the mustached villain theme.

During the past several decades, the mustache has also acquired a thick layer of cheese. First, it become the accessory of winking movie actors such as Burt Reynolds, media-hogging television journalists like Geraldo Rivera, and porn stars such as John Holmes. Even "Brady Bunch" dad Robert Reed grew a mustache to go along with his 70s perm. More recently, the full cheese mustache was a staple for New York Met Keith Hernandez, "Magnum P.I.'s" Tom Selleck, 70s white soul underling John Oates, and two-bit dictator Saddam Hussein.
It seems to me that the celebrity cheeseballs and the bad guys (and, in the case of Saddam Hussein, a combination of both) have ruined mustaches for the rest of us. We now associate wholly negative feelings with mustaches. Here's a quick experiment: try to conjure up a picture of Iranian President Mahmoud "no gays here" Ahmadinejad. In your mind's picture, does Ahmadinejad have a mustache? I bet he does. Wrong. He usually has a scruffy beard.

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October 02, 2007

Crowded House

I have recently developed a strong aversion to crowds. It started with airplane travel a few months ago. I no longer have a desire to go to an airport and put up with the lines and the delays to get on an airplane and go anywhere. Then it spilled over into movie theaters. I am a huge film buff, but I now have no intention of going to a movie theater to see a recently released film. I can't stand the rude people chatting on their cell phones, making stupid comments, and asking their partners to repeat the lines.

My disdain for crowds has also spread to street festivals and banks. I attended a large street festival several days ago, and, after a few minutes of talking to people and having fun, I looked down the length of the street and saw a sea of people that looked ten thousand strong. I walked around for a while in a daze, eventually ditching my friends and heading for the exit. Finally, the other day, a creepy little man with white hair kept stepping very close to me on line at the bank, even though there was plenty of room for everyone to stretch out. Each time he did this, I slid away, and he instantly filled the gap. I was about to tell him to get the hell away from me when the teller called me over to her window.

Is this aversion to crowds some kind of phobia? I don't know, but I have come up with a short list of places that I and will not go, based on the anticipated level of crowdedness:

Places to Avoid

1. Stadiums and sports arenas. The one exception is the Mets' home, Shea Stadium, next year, which I suspect will be quite empty.

2. Barack Obama campaign rallies.

3. Larry Craig's bathroom stall at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport.

4. Las Vegas hotel suites containing O.J. Simpson memorabilia.

5. Bomb shelters in Iran.

Places that are OK to Go

1. Sam Brownback campaign rallies.

2. Britney Spears' underwear drawer.

3. Congressional Democrats' courage-building sessions.

4. Blackwater's rules of engagement and sensitivity training sessions.

5. George Bush's skull.

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