Thursday, June 29, 2006

Need to Know

There has been a lot of talk swirling around lately about the media and whether it tells us, the public, more than we need to know. But what disturbs me most is how much it seems to be an insider business.

A "for instance": Jack Burkman is usually labeled a "top Republican strategist" when he appears on cable news shows. I learned to despise Mr. Burkman back during impeachment days for his smarmy, oh-so-sanctimonious pronouncements about Bill Clinton. I always thought he positively exuded self-righteous insincerity but I kept in mind that I could be seeing him through my own biased lens as I had nothing on which to base that judgment.

Well, now I do. It seems that the pious Mr. Burkman recently happened to pass a group of young women who were in Washington for a Gay Pride celebration. Taken by one of the girl's impressive bosoms, he turned back to introduce himself and give her his business card. She text-messaged him once and he then contacted her several times. Before it was over, he offered to pay the girls' hotel bill and to give them $1,000 if two of them would have sex with him, (using a much blunter term than "having sex").

The girls, who remember were in Washington to celebrate gay pride, thought it is rather a joke until they decided to google Mr Burkman's name and discovered that - hey, this guy is, like, someone kind of important! They then posted the business card he'd given them on MySpace.com, outing him as a dirty old man, so to speak.

Now, none of this so far surprises me. Most of us probably know that the opportunities for hypocricy and perversion exist in abundance in Washington, even among those who most profess their undying commitment to family values.

No, what I hate is that only a few week's later, I see Jack Burkman on Scarborough Country discussing the flag-burning amendment. In that same, holier-than-thou voice that he used with impeachment, Burkman raves on about how the flag stands for America, symbolizing the integrity and morality of the USA and that only unpatriotic liberals would be against a flag-burning amendment but since they have no honor and really hate the goodness of America, they couldn't possibly truly believe that flag-burning is akin to free speech. Those aren't his exact words, of course, but it is definitely the thrust of his argument.

And did Mr. Scarborough call Burkman on his two-faced stance in which he reveres the morality of America on the one hand while propositioning young women to trade sex for money on the other? Does he question him about his evident ultra-confidence in his own studliness in believing that he can "turn" young lesbians straight with the power of his sex appeal? (Ah, now I think of it, maybe this was his mission - perhaps he thought he was doing a good thing by using sex and money to turn these young ladies away from homosexuality.... nah.) Did Scarborough care to tell his viewers that the very man who was lecturing them on moral values had only weeks before proven that he wouldn't know a moral value if it smacked him in the face? Nope, Joe did none of these things. It was a conspiracy of silence. Evidently, Joe felt he had no responsibility to reveal to his audience that they might want to take into account that the man who was sermonizing them needed a remedial course in morality himself and that perhaps, a slimeball isn't the best representative Scarborough Country could find to lecture us on integrity.

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Hard not to be Cynical

Well, Gee, while I was gone to New York and then trying to play catch up at work, our politicians did absolutely nothing to make me more optimistic about my country's immediate future.

- The Republicans once again killed an increase in the minimum wage which hasn't been raised from $5.15 an hour since 1997. But, guess what? While they decided $5.15 was good enough for poor people, they voted themselves a raise because the cost of living has gone up, don't you know, and we, the people, must continue to support them in the style to which they've become accustomed. Meanwhile, a new study shows that American CEOs now make 262 times what the average worker makes. Average for a worker is $42,000 and for a CEO it is $11,000,000. The Chief Executive Officer makes in a week what the worker makes in a year! Can anyone say, "the rich get richer, while the poor get poorer?" (Personally, I'd be thrilled to make the $42,000 that is the figure given for an average worker's annual salary).

- Meanwhile, the House voted a big tax break for the very rich. Estates worth up to $5 million for individuals and $10 million for couples would be exempt from paying any taxes. Estates worth up to $25 million would be greatly reduced from present rates. If the legislation passes the Senate, it will represent roughly $280 billion in reduction of income to the federal government. This is about what we've spent on Iraq so far, meaning that the lower classes provide the bulk of the funds and the soldiers. This was a bi-partisan bill, with about 36 Democrats voting with the Republicans.

- The Republicans killed two Democrat resolutions regarding the Iraq War. John Kerry's resolution included a "date certain" (mid-July) to start a draw-down but the resolution supported by Senate Minority Leader, Harry Reid and other Democrats was basically a plan to at least start discussing what a scenario to end the war might look like. Evidently, this simply cannot be allowed. We must cleave to the President without question, marching in lockstep, or be labeled a "cut and runner", if not a traitor - but cutting and running from what? Bush has said that he will leave it to the next president to decide what to do in Iraq. It seems that he does not plan on leaving under any circumstances, regardless of what happens in that country. Why else have we built permanent bases and the largest, most expensive, most luxurious embassy of any we have in any country? I do expect, however, that there will be at least a modest drawdown prior to the 2006 elections and probably another, larger one as we near the 2008 presidential election.

- It appears as though the Republicans (I place most of these decisions on the Republican doorstep because they control everything so naturally most of what happens is what they decide will happen) have given up on immigration reform for this year, instead they will embark on a series of "discussions" throughout the country. This is actually probably a good thing as both parties and the people are quite divided on this issue. Although I support stronger border security, I would rather see no reform bill at all than a guest worker program that allows employers to continue to exploit cheap labor at the expense of American workers. If our representatives really want to do something substantive, they should seriously crackdown on employers who knowingly hire illegals for slave wages with no benefits. I do believe that if we are to have stronger security, we should bite the bullet and hire the number of professionally trained customs agents we need rather than use the stop-gap measure of having National Guard troops rotate in and out every few weeks.

- Congress is going to take up flag burning again. It amazes me that with all the truly serious decisions our representatives have to make that they would waste their time on this non-issue. Google "flag burning" and see what you find, which is that there are almost no instances of flag burning in this country. Still, it's nice for Katrina victims living in FEMA trailers as hurricane season arrives, that, while they may have to worry about losing even these pitiful homes, at least they won't have to be concerned about anyone burning the flag while they're drowning.

- The Gay Marriage Amendment went down to defeat as everyone knew it would. It was simply a political bone the Republicans had to throw to their conservative base. In fact, they lost two votes since the last time they brought this up.

- The New York Times revealed that not only does the administration insist on its right to monitor our phone calls, not on a case-by-case, "only those people who are contacting Al Qaeda" basis as they once insisted, but by means of a vast database vacuuming capability, and now we discover that they are doing the same with banking records. Once again, they claim they only do this in a very select way. So it all boils down to trust. If, in fact, you trust their intentions, have they proven you can also trust their competence? Well, they just lost the personal information of practically every American veteran due to records being stolen from an administrator's home - which, number one, shouldn't have been removed from the agency and number two, shouldn't records of such sensitivity at least have been encrypted, for God's sake? And then, last week, it was also reported that the personal indentifiers of 29,000 sailors were actually posted on a website for anyone to rummage through. And as another little aside, the Democrats tried to introduce legislation to send information to all the affected soldiers and sailors on how to protect themselves from identity theft but nope, Republicans said that would cost too much.

- Back in the olden days of Tom Ridge's leadership of Homeland Security, it always seemed that oh-so-coincidentally, every time something negative was reported about the administration, the security color code went up to remind us that we'd better fall in line with giving up our civil rights because that was all that stood between us and another terror attack. That has stopped and we've been stuck on "Elevated Security" for some time now. But, lo and behold, when the bank record program is revealed, the F.B.I. catches seven of the most pathetic excuses for terrorists I have ever seen. These guys were as likely to have been able to pull off any large scale, or even small scale, attack as Larry, Curly and Moe. I don't think any true Al Qaeda operative would have trusted them with a b-b gun. Of course, Fox News has a completely different view so maybe I'm wrong.

- Three inmates at Guantanamo commit suicide and our side calls it a P.R. stunt, and a case of "asymmetrical warfare". I don't know how bad these guys really were and the thing is we never will know because they are considered by President Bush to be enemy combatants, (a designation he can make single-handedly about anyone) which is a whole new category of prisoner we have invented strictly for the war on terror. By an excruciating perversion of definition, we declare they do not fall under Geneva Convention regulations and can be subjected to extremely aggressive interrogation techniques, (also known as torture). We do not have to charge them, allow them an attorney, let them have contact with their families, give them a trial or declare that we will ever do these things. We can just keep them forever in a state of limbo. Seems to me that being in this situation for years would be depressing and most often, loss of hope and extreme depression is what provokes suicide. According to the notes they left, they also hoped to draw attention to the desperation of the other inmates at Gitmo. To me, what we are doing there is against every principle we ever believed America stood for. If they are guilty, then charge them, try them, convict them and if warranted, give them the death penalty. Instead, we refer to them cynically as "detainees", a innocuous word that implies a temporary condition. Strange that we used to make fun of a president who said "it all depends on what the meaning of the word is, is". Now, we have an administration that takes "parsing" to an entirely new level.

All in all, the couple of weeks have not been good ones for working class Americans. But, then, I can't remember the last time we did have a good week.

Monday, June 19, 2006

Thoughts from the Road

I gathered up a ton of change and threw it in my console compartment because I knew most of my trip would be spent on toll roads. Ha-ha. That shows how long its been since I travelled toll roads. Tolls have gone up so much, I should have collected ten dollar bills instead of quarters!

Although I have to say that the service areas on the toll roads have gotten a lot nicer. Used to be, there'd be a Sunoco station and a McDonald's. Now the buildings are spacious and airy with clean restrooms and information booths and you have four or five different eating places including restaurants, bakeries, ice cream stands and coffee shops and just about every one included an outside wagon that sold sunglasses as well as a machine peddling their state lottery tickets and a gift shop where you can buy mugs or sweatshirts or key chains featuring the particular state you're in. In other words, they have all the bases covered for providing anything a traveler might be convinced to spend money on. I bought a $1 scratch off ticket in each state I went through to see if any place was luckier for me than Indiana. Nope, losers all. Made me feel right at home.

I forgot that once you get to a certain point in upstate New York, you don't just get down off the highway to find a strip of eating places, motels and convenience stores. I bitch about these boring, generic fast food alleys in other places I go but, man, would I have been glad to see one that night. Where I got off, there was nothing. It was late Sunday. There was no place to ask directions to a possible place to stay. Going through the downtowns of old New York cities like Amsterdam and Schenectady, which I would have considered picturesque during the day, only looked gloomy and seedy and unwelcoming at 9 o'clock on a Sunday night. I finally forged on to Albany although that was farther than I needed to go on the grounds that the capital of the state was bound to have a known motel. I finally found a convenience store open on the outskirts of Albany. The clerk there told me under no circumstances to stop at any of the motels until I'd passed the K-Mart because they were all "rent by the hour" places. I have never been so glad to see a Comfort Inn in my life.

It is sort of surprising to discover what music holds up on a long trip by yourself. I could barely stand to listen to an entire c.d. by some musicians I thought were my favorites. I frequently found myself hitting "next" to by-pass a song that couldn't hold my attention. I would not have predicted that Joe Cocker, Aretha Franklin, George Michael, Eric Clapton and Credence Clearwater Revival were the c.d.s that were good all the way through. You realize when you listen to one c.d. after another, for hours on end, that there was usually a good reason that the songs that became hits became hits and the rest were filler to finish out the album/tape/c.d. Every now and then you find a "b" side that never made it on the charts that becomes a personal favorite but it is rare.

You have to go fast on the toll road or you will simply be run over by semis and aggressive motorists. I used to stay in the middle lane on six-lane highways but after traveling so far with Bryan Cox, I now head directly for the fast lane. I mostly kept my speedometer on a steady 80 miles per hour. The troopers on the toll road must understand the situation because they just flew past me without hesitation. I saw a few cars that had been stopped and I can't imagine how fast they must have been going to get a speeding ticket.

I bonded with the truck on this trip. When you travel a long distance together and a vehicle is faithful and reliable, you develop affection for it. Twenty-four hours on the road together turned us into partners.

As always, a long trip proves what a changeable, wonderful country we live in. Relatively flat farm fields turn into the grape vine-covered hills of wine country which turn into steep wooded slopes and then steeper mountains, dotted by antique villages. The highway almost kisses a great lake then crosses and, sometimes runs beside, broad rivers. If you had the time, you could get down to visit historic sites and museums dedicated to rock and roll or baseball or railroads or the Erie Canal or women's suffrage....but of course, I had no time and so I sped on.....

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Problems with Appliances

I'm getting ready to leave for New York in about an hour - off to a Writer's Conference in Saratoga Springs for a week. I tried to get everything settled for Mom so she doesn't have anything to worry about during the time I'm gone but life, of course, rarely every cooperates with those kinds of plans.
It all began with our old washer and dryer. They'd both become cranky in their old age. The washer would simply quit spinning while the clothes were still waterlogged, saying, in effect, "I'm tired, that's all I'm doing". The dryer used a different technique. Put too many, still soppy because of the washer, clothes in it and it would resist by kicking off the breaker. It finally got to the point that it would only agree to dry one pair of jeans or two towels at a time. You can imagine how much time Mom spent doing laundry facing this kind of appliance obstinance.
So, I went to Sears and bought a new washer and dryer. I made sure they could have it delivered and installed before I left for New York. They brought it but it turned out, there was one problem: they couldn't install the dryer because in my old house, the plug-in (into which I've plugged my dryer for 15 years) was a "stove plug-in" and not a "dryer plug-in" (and using the incorrect plug-in would void my warranty). And it seems that Sears appliance installers can't do anything their contract says requires an electrician. So the Sears man asked John, "if I tell you exactly what you need and how to do it, do you think you can put in the plug-in?" John said he could. I gave him a significant check to buy the various items he needed. He successfully replaced the plug in and we were good to go.
The Sears guys had not been able to hook up the washer either because it couldn't be placed where it belongs until the dryer could be plugged into the new plug-in and pushed into its designated location. But, that's no big deal, said the Sears man, "all it requires is attaching the hoses and plugging it in."
But when John attached the hoses, there was one problem: it leaked. He worked on it himself (somewhat grumpily because he and Lisa were trying to get ready to leave for Florida). He never could figure out where to turn off the hot water. So I ended up calling Tri-W and they came and turned off the water and fixed the leak, pushed the washer into place and plugged it in. (I haven't got that bill yet so I don't know how much the leak-fixing cost me).
"Hooray," said Mom, "I'm ready to wash, wash, wash!" - which she needed to do by then because we had basketsful of dirty clothes that had been stacking up while all this delivering and wiring plug-ins and repairing leaks had been going on.
Only problem: the new dryer kicked off the breaker exactly as the old one had. Mom was devastated and I was pretty distraught myself. I told the girls at work about it and Tammy offered John's services to come take a look and see if he could figure out what was going on. After checking the situation out, John decided that the cause had never stemmed from the dryer itself but rather, that I had a defective breaker. He offered to install a new one which he did the next day. Bless his heart, he didn't charge me anything at all for his labor but the materials cost about $80.
Mom, paranoid by now, ran the dryer long enough to dry a couple of damp towels and sure enough, it ran like a charm and didn't stop until it buzzed to say the towels were dry.
So, once again, she was ready to start in on our growing mountain of dirty clothes. Only problem: the washer ran about a cup of water into the tub and shut itself off. We called Sears. Naturally, the washer is under warranty but the problem is: they can't get a repairman here until June 21.
So, I'm off for a week in New York. I'll be coming home with a huge totebag full of dirty clothes. That will be on June 17.
I think I'll tell Mom to call me on the 21st when the Sears man comes. I'll use my lunch hour to come and supervise his visit.....and I don't plan on letting him out of the house until he proves to us that we can finally do our laundry!

Saturday, June 3, 2006

A Horrifying Experience

Usually, we use stamps at the Prosecutor's office but this month, we ran out before our claim check came for a trip to the Post Office and so we were told we could use the postage meter in the Clerk's office.

"Just go on down," Tammy told me, "one of the gals in the Clerk's office will show you how it works."

"I've used postage meters before," I said confidently, "although it has been years ago."

Sure enough, Lana was processing a huge stack of mail prior to taking it over to the mailbox. She said I could watch and she'd explain what she was doing as she went along. It looked like a pretty simple process. She just placed the pile of mail onto the little shelf that fed it into the rollers. Slick as could be, the envelopes swished through and emerged at the other end with postage printed in red neatly on the upper right corner. When she finished, she asked if I thought I could do it.

"Piece of cake," said I.

Little did I know that Lana had not warned me that the Clerk's office postage meter is obviously a victim of Multiple Personality Disorder. The same machine, which was oh-so-cooperative, when Lana was using it, became crazed when I took charge.

Instead of sedately taking my envelopes one by one, it reached out in a rage and grabbed the entire stack before I could stop it. Envelopes were going through three or four at a time, some of them sideways, before shooting out the other end, to land on the table, the floor, some of them even flying through the air, threatening to disrupt what I knew was Important Official Business taking place right beside me, presided over by the Clerk herself.

Somewhere in the middle of the stack, the mail got hung up with about 20 envelopes lodged in its tray. The whole process just stopped while the machine let out a frantic, "whir, whir, whir!" If I'd known how to do the Heimlich Maneuver on a postage meter, I would have tried it, not that I gave a damn about the evil machine but just because I didn't want to be accused of killing County equipment.

I tried tugging on the stuck envelopes from my end but they wouldn't budge. Thankfully, the postage meter was finally able to gag out the stack and proceeded to continue mangling my mail.

Shocked by the viciousness of the postage meter's attack, I was paralyzed into inaction and simply watched this catastrophe unfold. Eventually, the pile of mail had all gone through and the machine subsided into silence to my enormous relief.

But my poor envelopes..... Most of them had wadded-up flaps, twisted into a gluey mass by the postage meter. I tried to press them back down as best I could. I even re-licked some of them but that only made them soggy as well as mis-shapen.

And the postage on most of them was perverted. The metered cost on several of them had been split in half so that I had some envelopes with only the 3 of the 39 cents and some envelopes with only the 9. Some of them actually had the postage on the back. On these, I wrote little notes of apology to the post office.

"Please find postage on the back of envelope. Thank you. I'm sorry."

I then drew a little arrow pointing to the edge of the envelope. -------->

On the ones that had stuck, the postage ink was one long smudge. 3333333399999999. Hopefully, the postal employees were able to translate this into a single 39 and not 333 gazillion, 333 bazillion, 333 katrillion, 999 papillion, 999 billion and 999 million....cents.

A few of the envelopes contained colorful and incomprehensible graffiti all over them, sort of like some the the railroad cars you see pass by when you are waiting at the railroad track - if the artists had only been able to afford red paint.

Anyway, our claim check should be in the office on Monday. I'll volunteer to make the trip down to the Post Office. Call me easily intimidated but I'd do about anything to avoid going another round with the postage meter.