Sunday, February 25, 2007

Taking the Dogs to the Groomer

I used two of my personal hours at work to take Raleigh and Caesar to the groomer because I didn't think Mom could handle them on her own. The plan was for Mom to sit in the back seat with the dogs on an old comforter I'd placed back there to protect my new carseats from dog hair and dirt. As soon as we started off, Raleigh began howling because he wanted to come into the front seat with me. Mom kept a deathgrip on his leash. Raleigh's deep and indignant baying provoked Caesar into howling as well, although his howl is really a whining, high-pitched, chalk-on-blackboard, screech.

Yes, it was nerve-wracking but Carrie's Country Kennel is not that far out. Mom said she remembered exactly how to get there. So, we figured we could bear up under the noise for the few minutes it would take for us to arrive. This, incidently, was that day it was so foggy, you couldn't even see as far as the front of your car.

"Go to that road where Christi's grandma used to have her bridal shop," Mom directed me confidently." I picked my way slowly through the gloom and turned down the road.

"Now go to the next road and turn left." I was almost on top of the sign before it appeared, looming up out of the fog.

"Okay, it's the first house on the right. There will be a sign in the yard"

I crept up to the first house on the right. It did not have a sign in the yard.

Meantime, the dogs, if anything, had gotten even more hysterical. Over their cater-wauling, I pointed out to Mom, "I don't think this is the right place."

"I'm sure this is the way I came the last time."

"Well, Mom, they've moved then because it doesn't seem to be here this time."

I asked her (knowing in my heart how futile the question was) - "you don't happen to remember a road number?"

"No, I never paid any attention to numbers, I just knew how to get here."

"I don't suppose you put the card she gave you in your purse?" I inquired (gently).

"No, because I didn't think I needed it. " Her voice now contained an element of nerves and defensiveness." You know, maybe it was the road before the road we went down."

I had made it back to State Road 15 by then so I re-traced my path south and turned down the road before the Bridal Shop Road (Mom and I are both more into landmark signifiers than actual road numbers). I've been down this road (School Bus Road) a thousand times and I didn't ever remember a kennel on it....and I was right. No kennel. We forged on as Raleigh continued to try to pull Mom's arms out of their sockets and both dogs assailed our eardrums.

Mom was, by then, in full apology mode.

Raleigh howled; Caesar screeched; Mom apologized.

"I'm sorry, I'm really really sorry, really really really sorry."

"It's okay, Mom. It's no big deal. Don't worry about it."

I fumbled my cell phone out of my purse as I drove blindly into the, if anything, even denser fog than when we'd started out. I tried to close my ears to the, if anything, even louder, canine cacaphony. I called information and got Carrie's number. No answer. We could have gone back to a phone somewhere, of course, that had an actual telephone book and looked up the actual road number but our pioneer spirit had kicked in by then and we were determined to find Carrie's without the wimpy aid of an actual address.

After about 40 minutes of aimless wandering in foggy circles, we passed a house and peered through the fog to see the sign for Carrie's Country Kennel.

"Mom, look," I yelled out jubilantly, "there it is!"

We dropped the dogs off with Carrie. Mom was shaking from stress by the time she finally turned over the responsibility of the leashes.

When Carrie called to say the dogs were done, I told Mom I'd just run to get them by myself. She gratefully agreed. The fog was gone. I put a towel on my seat and let Raleigh sit in the front. He was happy and silent. The little dog curled up in back. He was content and quiet. They both looked beautiful with their new haircuts. And, in just a few short hours, Mom's and my hearing returned to normal.

French Lick

Brenda and I spent a night at the newly-renovated French Lick Hotel in French Lick, Indiana last weekend. All I can say is, thank God for wealthy investors who are also passionate about historic preservation. The French Lick Hotel cost millions to refurbish and it is truly magnificent. The lobby features vaulted ceilings, ornate plaster cornices and intricate mosaic floors. The rooms are beautifully appointed with poster beds, pewter bathroom fixtures, internet via the t.v. screen (and the most comfortable mattress I've ever slept on!) The hotel also offers a world class 27,000 square foot spa, a new pool complex, a bowling alley, shops and restaurants. It has two golf courses and let us not forget, the French Lick Casino (which hotel guests reach by way of an enclosed walkway), now the largest casino in Indiana.

Not only that but in May, a second hotel, the West Baden Springs , will open one mile down the road. From the outside, it looks to be even more spectacular than the French Lick.

The investors who poured their dollars into the two historic hotels and the casino hope to bring back the glory days of this area, which was once the premiere resort of the Midwest when actors and athletes, politicians and other members of high society from across the country poured in by railroad cars-ful.

You might wonder what the draw was? After all, French Lick is located more or less in the middle of nowhere so what would cause people to flock there? The answer is: the springs. French Lick bottled its spring water as Pluto Water and made claims that it cured all manner of ailments from alcoholism to diabetes, from hives to constipation, from indigestion to sterility.

The first hotel at French Lick was built in 1844-45. Of course, it wasn't the grand edifice that came later. The owner simply wanted to capitalize on the growing number of travelers utilizing the Buffalo Trace, a natural road created by buffalo migrations (the buffalo, also being drawn by the abundant water from the ever-flowing springs). In 1901, the hotel was bought by Tom Taggart, the colorful former Mayor of Indianapolis and head of the Hoosier Democratic machine. He embarked upon extensive improvements to the hotel, including elegant renovations to the lobby and other public rooms, wide porches, two 18-hole golf courses and expanded size by the addition of new wings. By now, millions of bottles of Pluto Water were being sold across the U.S. Tom Taggart put a picture on the hotel on the label to further market his resort.

And in the 1920's, another enticement brought people to French Lick - gambling. As more casinos were opened, French Lick became known as the "Las Vegas of the Midwest". French Lick drew high rollers like Diamond Jim Brady and Al Capone. The Roaring Twenties did roar in French Lick and its heyday continued clear up until the start of World War II. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was nominated to be the Democrat's nominee for President there in 1931. Hollywood stars like Bing Crosby, Abbott and Costello, Lana Turner and Groucho Marx frequented the hotel and golf courses. Trainloads of tourists disembarked at French Lick, Indiana.

Eventually, new attractions took people elsewhere. After World War II, America changed. The modern was more appealing than the historic. Pluto Water lost its luster (it was discovered that it contained lithium and wasn't suitable for drinking). Tom Taggart, seeing the writing on the wall, sold the hotel. In the 50's, gambling ended in the area. The hotel continued its downhill slide. Fortunately, a joint venture by the Cook Group and the Lauth Property Group, called Blue Sky, purchased both the French Lick and West Baden Springs Hotels. They have spent $400 million to preserve these two magnificent Hoosier landmarks. I truly hope the investment pays off - not just for them but for all of us.

So what about French Lick now? First, Brenda and I were there on the basis of a $99 a night special. The normal rate for our room is $240 a night. We considered having a massage as a way to pamper ourselves a little. A massage is $120 for 55 minutes. We didn't go any farther to inquire about manicures, pedicures, facials, mineral baths, etc. The food in the 1875 Steakhouse is extremely expensive - $40-$60 for a steak. But the buffet is doable for people on a budget - $20 for an evening meal that includes beef tenderloin, shrimp, ham and a large selection of vegetables, salads and desserts. So, the prices tell you that, generally, the less-than-affluent probably will not be staying at the French Lick, barring a "deal" like the one Brenda and I lucked into.

The casino is 42,000 square feet, all on one floor and offers 1,200 slot machines and 32 gaming tables, along with two restaurants. It bills itself as "Las Vegas-style" gambling, although I'm not sure exactly what that means. The slot machines are all new and most of them are multi-denominational so that you simply press a button that tells the machine what amount you want to bet. For instance, you can start out betting 50 cents, then press the button to switch to quarters, then if you choose, to dimes, nickels, two cents or even pennies. Hardly any of the machines are the straightforward old ones, where if three sevens, for instance, comes up, you win. On these, you have to decide on a complicated combinations of "lines" and "bets". Its difficult to tell what it takes to win or exactly how much you're betting at any given time, if you aren't a real gambling afficionado. I personally don't want to think that hard when I'm gambling on slot machines so I'm not a fan of these types of machines. Naturally, all these new machines play credits and give you receipts, rather than actual coins or even tokens. Over all, I wasn't all that impressed by the casino. (The Grand Victoria in Rising Sun remains my favorite Indiana casino.)

The other downer about going to French Lick is, well, French Lick. The town itself is shabby and depressing. Perhaps this will change with the influx of new jobs and tourists. In fact, it might be a good investment possibility for someone with a little cash and an idea for a restaurant or other type of business. A majority of the town seems to be for sale and I assume, you could get in on the ground floor now rather cheaply. Then you'd be in there if prosperity flows into the area. But for now, while the two hotels are beautiful historic treasures, the surrounding communities are not. There don't even seem to be old homes and buildings with character to use as a starting point (such as there were in Nashville, Indiana). Most of the houses are small and personality-less.

We went to see Larry Byrd's estate which is for sale for $8 million, although why anyone with $8 to spend on a home would choose to do it in French Lick, I couldn't even imagine. The home features an 8-car garage, tennis courts and 15 (count'em) basketball courts (who besides a professional basketball player would want 15 basketball courts?) The house is a large and somewhat glorified split level, certainly not coming close to suggesting a value of $8 million. I expect Larry Byrd will be sitting on this property for a while. (Mr Byrd, we were told, left French Lick after his mother died and now has homes in Greenwood, Indiana, and Naples, Florida).

Would I visit this area again? Yes, if the West Baden Springs offers a similar special on its rooms like the one we got for the French Lick, we want to go just to see that hotel.....and we would bet a little money at the casino while we were there. These two magnificent grand dames with their all their Hoosier history are well worth the trip.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Blizzard!

Mom baked bread. I read and plinked around on the computer and watched out the window as the snow came swirling down, watched as the drift out the back door got taller and taller, watched as the amount of traffic on Stitt Street got less and less. The last blizzard I remember was several years ago. During that one, John lived here and had just gotten a new Zelda game for the Nintendo, which he played obsessively for hours at a time. We thanked the gaming gods for that one as we truly believed it saved us from the nervous breakdowns that would have flowed from his raging restlessness had he not had Zelda to occupy himself.

This time, we were even luckier. John doesn't live with us any longer but he was in Wabash working on his house when the snow started and so he got snowed in with us. He has a 4-wheel drive truck and he also went to Tractor Supply and bought a snow blower. This is the first snowblower he has ever owned and so the "boys and their toys" syndrome kicked in big-time. He snow-blew and snow-blew. He did sidewalks, driveways, pathways to garages, the snow in front and behind the cars on the street. Some of this was rather, um, unnecessary. My sidewalks, for instance. I have a long, long stretch of sidewalk what with having three lots on the corner of Falls Avenue and Stitt Street. He created a deep path bound by high snow walls on each side. Made it really convenient for people walked on that section of sidewalk....except that he ended his blowing at the ends of my property lines so people walking on his path, who reached one end or the other, were then confronted by sidewalks that weren't cleaned off. The only thing to do at that point was to wallow across a mountain of snow to get to the street. So, what we actually had was a self-contained strip of sidewalk that no one ever used because they could neither get to it nor escape from it without risking death by drowning in a snowdrift.

The other thing that happened was that when John was coming from his house to ours, he stopped at Village Pantry to get more gas for the snowblower - one gallon. He'd already pumped the gas when he realized he'd left his wallet in his other coat pocket so that he had no money, none at all, not even one dollar and thirty-nine cents to purchase his single gallon of gas. So he called me and said, "Mom, you have to come down here and bring me $2.39."

Now picture me, curled up cozily in my house, safe from the raging storm outdoors, with no thought or inclination of going out. I had on houseshoes, no make up, hadn't combed my hair, wasn't at all worried about the snow stacking up in front of my car. At first I thought I would just walk down to Village Pantry. I put on my old clumpy boots and headed out. Within a few seconds and a few steps, I knew I would be going to Plan B. The snow was almost to my knees. With my heavy boots, each foot felt like a concrete block, as it resisted being lifted out of the snow. I though I would probably go into cardiac arrest before I reached Village Pantry and the store personnel would have lost patience and had John arrested for pumping gas he couldn't pay for.

I eyed Mom's car. It had a foot of snow on top it and and drifts in front and behind. I trundled through the snow to take a look at my car which was parked on Falls Avenue. It had a foot of snow on top and drifts in front and behind. I decided I had no choice but to try so I cleaned it off and got behind the wheel. I put it in drive, fully expecting to get stuck but, bless it's heart, it pulled out of the snow like it wasn't even there. My feelings about my new car went from "affection" to "love" on the car-bonding-o-meter. I drove down to Village Pantry with $2.39 clutched in my hand and got John and his gas out of hock.

Afterwards, I went back to being a couch potato, listening to the radio list all the various cancellations - schools and factories and offices and meetings. I looked out the window at the blowing snow piling up higher and higher. I watched the television covering the highway closings. I smelled the aroma of Mom's baking bread. And counterpoint to everything else, I heard the whine of the snow blower.

Always before, I have loved the actual weather of blizzard but there was always the nagging notion that when it was over, I'd have to figure out some way to get back to normal, someway to get the car unstuck and the driveway cleaned out. This time, I had the best of both worlds - the pleasure of watching extraordinary weather with its resulting days off while also knowing that John and his snowblower had removed the worry of dealing with the aftermath.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Tortured Thinking

In article in the Washington Post, Interrogator Eric Fair tells his story. Here is a small part of what he had to say:

"A man with no face stares at me from the corner of a room. He pleads for help, but I'm afraid to move. He begins to cry. It is a pitiful sound, and it sickens me. He screams, but as I awaken, I realize the screams are mine.....That dream, along with a host of other nightmares, has plagued me since my return from Iraq in the summer of 2004......The lead interrogator at the DIF had given me specific instructions: I was to deprive the detainee of sleep during my 12-hour shift by opening his cell every hour, forcing him to stand in a corner and stripping him of his clothes. Three years later the tables have turned. It is rare that I sleep through the night without a visit from this man. His memory harasses me as I once harassed him".

The moral of this morality tale seems pretty clear to me: you become what you do. Unless he is a true sociopath, the torturer becomes the tortured. No one with a conscience can violate their own honor so fundamentally and emerge on the other side without feeling themselves deeply stained by dishonor. When the Abu Ghraib scandal first hit our consciousness, it had its defenders and, in fact, it still does, two of whom happen to be the President and Vice President of the United States. But the evil of Abu Ghraib wasn't just what we did to those we considered our enemies but the evil we were willing to inflict on our own.

When I worked at the Sheriff's Department, the guys used to tease me, calling me their "token bleeding heart liberal". In truth, I was more liberal than most of them, although I think I am more moderate than liberal. But labels don't matter all that much. I'll accept liberal if that's what people think I am.

To me, torture isn't a matter of liberal, moderate or conservative, it is simple humanity. I am less religious than most people I know if you define religious as being sure of the details. I don't have the certitude about God and exactly what he expects of us that some have. I accept the faith of others at face value. They have a right to believe what they believe and if its not the same as what I believe, I mostly keep my mouth shut. But, I simply cannot agree that you can be a follower of Jesus Christ and also believe in torturing other living beings. Surely those who sincerely try to follow the concept of WWJD would have to twist their faith into a pretzel to think that Jesus would condone torture.

I wonder if even the people who made light of Abu Ghraib, such as Rush Limbaugh, who likened what happened there to college "pranks", could actually do it? Would be be unmoved as he heard another human being, cold, hungry, naked, sleep-deprived and in pain, pleading for mercy and simply shake him awake or force him back on his feet so the punishment could go on? Would he simply chuckle at the screams of the prisoners tormented by his actions? Would he be able to sleep like the proverbial baby after it was over, unlike Eric Fair? I expect Rush would vow that he could but I like to believe he is wrong and that for all his verbal verbosity, when faced with the reality, Rush would discover his heart.

Truly, as they say, 911 changed everything. It has changed America into a country I almost don't recognize anymore.

Sunday, February 4, 2007

Obsessed, yes.

* 126 American military killed in Iraq so far in 2007 - 39 killed so far in February (2/9/07)

Readers have said I am fixated on this war. Yes, I am - and the statistics above are the reason why. I'll write about it as long as I have to.

- This week, we learned that the final contingent of "surge" troops won't arrive in Iraq until May. There are stated reasons for what has been called "slow-walking" the additional soldiers to Iraq (necessary training, time required to produce needed equipment, etc) but I think the main purpose for this "slow-walking" is to buy Bush more time before he has to answer for his plan. Even politicians on his side have said that we should know whether the escalation is working in some relatively short time frame. Most frequently, the stated period has been somewhere between three and six months but presumably, Bush will argue that the clock doesn't even start ticking until all the troops are there. Thus, instead of a judgment on the surge, counting down from January, the Bush administration and its supporters will insist that they have until at least the fall of 2007 before any evaluation can be made. I think Bush thinks he can pull of one of two scenarios: a) the Democrats will end his war by cutting off funding and thus, he can say that they "lost" Iraq or b) he will run out the clock, forcing the next president to clean up his mess. If that president is a Democrat, as is likely, the Republicans will blame the Dems unto infinity for "losing" a war which was unwinnable from day one.

More and more, I feel a sense of deja vu about this war and Vietnam. I think the ending will be much the same. The people will force a withdrawal of our troops but that doesn't mean the politics won't affect our political discourse for a generation, just as Vietnam did. Just this week someone told me that we lost in Vietnam because we "didn't have the guts to fight it to the end but I wonder what this person thought would be the end and how long it would have taken to get there? We "had the guts" to stay for a decade and lose 58,000 men. It always seemed to me, we should have had a "gut check" long before that. And, in fact, we did. Just like now, the people wanted it over but their leaders just couldn't bring themselves to admit defeat.

- Last week in Iraq, a suicide bomber killed at least 130 people. The market where the attack happened was a place where Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds all gathered to shop so who was the target when it seems as if, whoever the bomber was, he killed at least some of his own? And this appears to be what Iraq has become now - a place where the killings have no particular target but are just done out of a bloodlust gone crazy.

- Our intelligence agencies finally released the National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq that the Congress had requested weeks ago and it gives a bleak assessment of the situation, saying that Iraq is essentially, beyond civil war. It is worse than civil war because civil war implies two groups vying for power but Iraq is multiple groups killing one another, as stated in the paragraph above, for reasons we can't even comprehend. The report does say though that Iran is not likely to be a "major driver of violence" in Iraq, although the Bush administration wants us to believe that it is. And why did it take so long for this report to be released? You have to assume that the president did not want it to come out until after his surge had already begun because it offers little hope that additional troops make much difference in the long-term.

But the proponents of the escalation of this war forge on despite all evidence that their predictions have been wrong in the past. Senator Joe Lieberman assured us over a year ago that the administration had a "strategy for success" in Iraq. Senator John McCain said over a year ago that he was confident, "we would see significant progress in Iraq in six months to a year." Why do these people, who have been proven so drastically off-the-mark, still have any credibility at all? And yet, McCain is the Republican front-runner for President. In fact, all the Republican front-runners are supporters of the president on Iraq.

- And speaking of the surge, the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office has reported that the 21,500 additional soldiers the president is sending to Iraq are only the combat component. It is estimated by the CBO that it will also be necessary to send another 28,000 of our military in a support capacity so actually, the number who will be going is more like 50,000.

- The Bush administration has requested an additional $140 billion for the next two years for Iraq and Afghanistan. What problems could we have solved in this country for that amount of money that has been spent on Iraq? We could have made Social Security and Medicare solvent for the forseeable future. We could have completely rebuilt New Orleans. We could have instituted a program of national healthcare. We could have repaired every substandard school in America. We could have fulfilled all the recommendations for Homeland Security made by the 911 Commission. We could even have devoted enough resources to actually win the war in Afghanistan. Red is the color of Iraq - red for the blood of our soldiers; red for the ink in our Treasury - and yet it rolls on.......