Tuesday, October 28, 2008

I have done my civic duty

Today I voted. It was remarkable for two reasons: It's the first time I've voted anything close to a straight Democratic ticket, and it's the first time I've voted in a presidential election when it wasn't the first Tuesday of November. Let's hope I don't have to do anything so radical again.

It was a beautiful day here in Wichita, Oct. 28 and the lines were snaking through the corridors at the Presbyterian church. We all showed up thinking to avoid the rush, and thereby created the rush a week early. No matter. We were mostly in good spirits. Long lines are bad, but this wasn't the DMV, we didn't have to be there. We showed up because we're good citizens, doing our duty, and it doesn't hurt to have friends and neighbors seeing us do it.

We shuffled forward every minute or so, looking at our watches and thinking back on all the TV ads and debates and all those cards and fliers that have come in the mail. We thought about who was the terrorist, and who was the crook and who was soft on crime and who twice declared bankruptcy and who failed to pay taxes and who has been guilty of unseemly behavior. We thought about who supported the Iraq war and who sat down with a '60s radical and who spent way too much on a makeover and who reacted the wrong way to a dumb question.

Then we got in front of that touch screen and we voted on the issues. Well, except for those judge races, where they could all be closet jihadists or John Wayne Gacy and we'd never know the difference. You see the name, and you see the space below that says "Write in," and you think, write in what? We'll give them a shot. If they were pure evil, we'd have heard about it, right?

So now I've voted, and now I'm tuning out the presidential race, and all the state races and all the local races too. I'm just tuning them the hell out. I'll tune back in next Tuesday.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

We've seen these skits before

We went to see W. last night. It was entertaining if not illuminating, and for anybody who still sees the need to defend George W. Bush, it was about as fair as you're going to get from Oliver Stone. If I were Roger Ebert, I'd give it about two-and-half stars.

I say entertaining because the various gaffes perpetrated by the Bush administration over the last eight years do add up to absurdist comedy when assembled by a competent director. The movie plays like a succession of Saturday Night Live parodies, some funnier than others. The central joke is not that Bush is a fool; it's that we elected a fool. Twice -- the second time long after the depth of his foolishness became manifest.

I say the film is not illuminating because all of this stuff is well known, thanks to a succession of Bob Woodward books and Bush's own press conferences and speeches. Oliver Stone isn't adding anything to the body of knowledge, just stirring in some imagined conversations between Bush and his parents, and a succession of dream sequences featuring the current president lifting his arms to wild applause in an empty baseball stadium.

Nobody ever accused Stone of being too subtle. He applies symbolism with a trowel. In one scene, Bush and his advisers are walking on his Texas ranch, discussing when to start the Iraq war, when the president realizes they've wandered off the road. Hmm. What could that mean?

Finally, it's risky business to make a movie about people who are not only still alive, but in some cases still in the administration. If a portrayal doesn't ring true, it becomes obvious. Condoleezza Rice might want to consider a lawsuit when she sees how Thandie Newton played her: a muttering lapdog whose every movement telegraphs submission. This is not the Condoleezza Rice we've seen on TV, and it undercuts the authenticity of the film. That said, Richard Dreyfuss has managed to make Dick Cheney even more smug and sinister than we've all imagined. And we've imagined quite a bit.

I don't think W. will have any impact on the election, and I can't believe that's what Stone intended. Those who support the president won't see it; those who loathe him were never going to vote Republican anyway. I'd say it's worth a look; just check your politics at the door and don't expect to learn something you didn't already know.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Just in time for Christmas

You read all the time about images of Jesus and the Virgin Mary appearing in frosted windowpanes and moldy sheetrock and certain fast foods, but when a doll starts babbling about Islam, suddenly it's news.

I have to admit I laughed when I saw this story in the Wichita Eagle, about the woman returning her Little Mommy Cuddle 'n Coo doll because it appears to be endorsing the views of the Prophet Muhammad. In the video accompanying the story on the Eagle's Web site, the little tyke does seem to be saying "Islam is the light."

Then again, if you keep listening you can imagine all sorts of alternate phrases: "Please turn off the light." "I am not too bright." "Palin is alright." Play it backwards and you might hear "How about those Phillies?"

I don't know. Hard to imagine that Mattel, whose talking-doll business presumably relies on non-Muslim markets too, would knowingly mass-produce a proselytizing doll. Why not also dress it in a burqa? No, what we have here are some random syllables that just happen to sound like the doll wants to hand you a pamphlet. Too bad for Mattel, but it's comedy gold.

In any case, I want one. These things are going to be collector's items.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

If you build it, they won't come

Talk about a sign of the times: The managers of Golden Gate Bridge have decided to go ahead with plans to install a $50 million suicide net. Given the anguish among erstwhile high-rollers in the Bay Area, it was either that or install turnstiles at either end to accommodate all those wishing to make the leap.

A suicide net is a interesting paradox: Just by having it, you guarantee that it will never be used as intended. For those really interested in killing themselves, a 20-foot jump into wire mesh will have limited appeal. Might as well hurl yourself into the plastic balls at Chuck E. Cheese. Certainly you wouldn't look any more ridiculous when the authorities arrive to fish you out.

If they build this thing, I hope there's some oversight. I know that if I were a suicide-net contractor, I'd be tempted to cut corners here and there. I'd build, say, a $35 million net and pass the savings along to myself. Nobody would be the wiser, right? Except for the occasional "Jackass"-style thrill-seeker, of course. But that's just all part of natural selection.

Friday, October 10, 2008

In times like these...

So the proud airship known as Wall Street is going down in a billow of flame. Evidently there was a leak in the gigantic bag of hydrogen that was the U.S. economy, and nearby stood some short-sellers and derivatives traders lighting up their cigarettes. Oops.

Things are getting bad and intend to get worse. Time magazine leads with a photo of Depression-era guys standing in a soup line. GM stock is about the same price now as the year before I was born. There's a minus sign in front of the most important number on my 401(k), and that number is close to what used to be my annual salary. Worse, my friends in OPEC are barely making ends meet, now that oil has gone from $147 a barrel to $78. Might be a slim Christmas even in Qatar. Ha ha.

Times like these, you need to take a deep breath, look at the big picture. I look out the window in Wichita, and the sun is shining and there's a young couple in a new Jeep Liberty cruising by to take a look at the house next door -- on the market two days and already under contract. Guess their bank didn't get the memo about the credit crisis. The dog is curled up on the couch, untroubled by the rising price of Purina. Our bills are modest and payable. We still have ways to cut back. We still have our health. We knock on wood.

I'd hate to be on Wall Street now, one of those guys with a headset and a cell phone, clutching my head and grimacing in agony as red numbers scroll by. For them, this is all visceral and immediate, even though they'll punch out at the end of the day and go home and eat dinner like they always do. When things change on a global scale, those changes take a long time to arrive at your front door. Yes, the airship is coming down and we may yet end up with bones broken and clothes alight. We may yet engage in mortal struggle. But for now there seems ample time to stretch.

Times like these, you turn off CNN and look up at the sky. Maybe you also turn to the poets. Robert Frost, for example:

We may as well go patiently on with our life,
And look elsewhere than to stars and moon and sun
For the shocks and changes we need to keep us sane.
It is true the longest drouth will end in rain,
The longest peace in China will end in strife.
Still it wouldn't reward the watcher to stay awake
In hopes of seeing the calm of heaven break
On his particular time and personal sight.
That calm seems certainly safe to last to-night.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Not amused in Wichita

I'm trying to remember the last time I heard of someone doing a skit in blackface where it didn't provoke a certain amount of outrage. I think I have to go all the way back to 1993, when Ted Danson tried it. Oh, wait: People got mad about that too.

So really, Arkansas City Mayor Mell Kuhn should have seen this coming. Perhaps during early rehearsals for the skit featuring "Smellishis Poon and the Red Hot Poontangs," he might have reflected that comedy relying on racism ceased to be funny about 50 years ago. And that's the bigger crime here: Yeah, it's racially offensive, but what's worse is that there are still people out there who laugh uproariously at this kind of crap. It's a crime against comedy. This is where I need to point out that Mayor Kuhn's skit was named the winner at the fundraiser where it was performed.

The Wichita NAACP is predictably annoyed about this, and they've wrung an awkward apology out of Mayor Kuhn. The mayor, in his defense, cites movies like Norbit and The Nutty Professor as his inspiration. Fair enough. But Mr. Mayor: Eddie Murphy is black. And I shouldn't have to mention that those films weren't funny either.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

A debate I can't bear to watch

Think of the stupidest thing you ever said. Now think if that stupid thing had been captured on video and replayed about a thousand times a day, usually to the sarcastic asides of late-night comedy hosts. Sarah Palin may botch tonight's debate too, but I'll give her credit for just showing up. It can't be pleasant, going from powerful woman to punchline in the space of a couple of weeks.

I'm not sure I'll be able to watch this debate. I hate seeing people humiliate themselves, even if they should have known what they were getting into. Gov. Palin never came off as one of those pompous, bombastic poseurs who cry out for a pie in the face and a kick in the ass. She's just a happy woman who always got by on a smile and a cheerful stubbornness about having her way. She thought it was enough to know a thing or two about cracking the whip. Who knew they were going to get all specific?

This has been a terrible presidential campaign, not so much vicious as utterly vapid, and too long by half. Gov. Palin's mangled and meaningless sentences invite mockery, but Obama, McCain and Biden have not been much more incisive. Have they? Taken at face value, the central message of both campaigns -- change -- is about as vague as it gets. Note to Gov. Palin: the key to saying nothing is to say it in sentences that can be diagrammed. You might stay below Jon Stewart's radar that way.

Just one more month to go. I don't think I need to watch any more debates. I'll be voting for Obama, unless it emerges that he once shot a man in Reno just to watch him die. It won't be because I think he'll accomplish even half of what he promises. He'll disappoint us; they all do. But beyond the high-flown rhetoric he strikes me as a patient, thoughtful man, and the times call for such men. Boy, do they. Women too. Too bad Gov. Palin does not qualify.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

An instance on Old Manor Road

When you wake up to a steady car horn at 3:45 in the morning, a lot of possibilities suggest themselves, none of them good: A petulant drunk punishing a long lost girlfriend; a particularly inept car thief, a dead body slumped against a steering wheel. I got up and looked down at the darkened street. No lights came on; no furtive footsteps could heard receding down the block.

The horn went on and on. Three minutes, then five, then ten. No cops came; nobody but me peered out the door to investigate. The brunette was a little worried, but the dog wasn't. Finally I shrugged, made sure the door was locked tight, and went back to bed. I wondered how long it would be until the car's battery was as dead as its driver.

The horn stopped after awhile. The abrupt silence was mysterious too, but I figured I could rule out the dead-body scenario. I picked up the book I'd been reading and finally drifted back to sleep. It didn't take long. Yeah, I might read a lot detective stories, but that doesn't make me a detective.

This morning I walked the dog and didn't see any police tape in the neighborhood, didn't encounter anybody who could shed light on the Case of the Curious Car Horn. I could probably go door-to-door and eventually find out, but I have a feeling that would alarm the neighbors more than a 10-minute blast of a horn in the wee hours.

So I'll put this one in my cold-case files, one of those mundane mysteries that will remain that way. The old saw is true: Fiction has to make sense; real-life doesn't. I guess that's the biggest reason that when stupid things happen, I pick up a book. It's been that kind of year. Let's just say I've reading a lot lately.