Tuesday, May 20, 2008

The Slings And Arrows Of Outrageous Fortune (Temp Town Dispatches, Vol. 2)

I love getting emails like these in my inbox about prospective jobs that include sentences like these.

MUST have been employed directly through a law firm with good tenure. This is NOT a job for someone who has been temping a lot. If you feel that your background matches the above description, please send resume to me.

I wasn't planning on applying for this job anyway, mind you, since they asked for other things I didn't have and it's outside of any area I have much knowledge in, but nonetheless seeing your likely continued fate spelled out in explicit terms like that makes for a lousy way to start one's working day. And it's not as if it makes any difference; those of us stuck in Temp Town know full well that people who have been stuck down here (for whatever reason) that this listing wasn't meant for us.

The danger comes when you get it in your head that you're not qualified for any job listing. When combined with long, draining work hours, you just stop bothering to apply for jobs after a while; you just kind of assume that the sentences in boldface apply to every job listing out there.

You just want to say "Look. I know I'm screwed. Could you at least try not to rub it in my face like that?! Is that really too much to ask?"

You learn, at one level, to let it roll off you like water off a duck's back. This wasn't even meant as a slight at me personally, and really, most of the slights one encounters in Temp Town are inadvertent. Every once in a while, you run across an imperious associate or partner, or a power-tripping support staff person, who likely gets treated like dirt by their bosses and subconsciously decide they're going to take it out on other people; if those people have some advanced degree but you get to boss them around nonetheless, even better.

And there's very little you can do to these people, but that sort of goes without saying. Without going into unnecessary detail, There are ways of making life more difficult for them, but you're never going to get the satisfaction of them knowing that you're getting back at them; you just can't afford that sort of luxury. You just have to think of yourself as an Agent of Fortune, so to speak, a vehicle through which karmic debts are repaid. Blessed with a higher breaking point than many, I have yet to succumb to the urge to pull off anything in this vein, but I've seen it done.

Anyhow, the little slights aggregate over time - the hall monitors, the petty rules changes - and when you throw in a few rejection letters from job applications, and the awkwardness that comes when someone asks you what firm you work for - it can leave someone feeling pretty low.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

California Dreamin'

The California Supreme Court has overturned that state's ban on gay marriage. The text of the decision can be found here.

The actual holding is buried on Page 79 of a lengthy 121-page opinion.

Accordingly, we conclude that the right to marry, as embodied in article I, sections 1 and 7 of the California Constitution, guarantees same-sex couples the same substantive constitutional rights as opposite-sex couples to choose one’s life partner and enter with that person into a committed, officially recognized, and protected family relationship that enjoys all of the constitutionally based incidents of marriage.

Naturally being who I am, I pretty much had to write about this, and I spent a couple of days thinking about what I thought of this court decision, being an attorney, a gay man, and someone very interested in the intersection between law and politics. I have a lot of conflicting thoughts.

The interesting wrinkle regarding California compared with other states is that, unlike in many states, the Legislature has taking a series of steps, outlined in the decision, to grant something that closely resembles marriage equality without using the word marriage, out of a combination of a desire to avoid contradicting directly the language of Proposition 22. For these unions California used the term "domestic partnership," a popular term for private companies who grant benefits to same-sex couples rather than the term "civil union," which is used by Vermont and seemed to be the more popular term to refer to the theoretical grant of this right by most other jurisdictions.

This has been a big argument in the gay community - whether advocates ought to be willing to trade whatever gap exists between full civil marriage rights and what might exist in a bundle of rights established by these statutes for fighting the semantic battle on somewhat more favorable turf.

I have generally thought of myself as a pragmatist, more interested in concrete benefits and incidents than I did in the often symbolic value of labels, and had thus been more on the side that said that the fight for the term "marriage" was by and large not worth the trouble. In my own discussions with people not overly invested with either the pro-marriage quality side or the opposition, I found a lot more resistance to redefining the notion of "marriage" than I did when talking about the various practical legal affects of marital status on a series of legal relationships.
While it in some ways fun to lighten the mood of discussions of this sort with "Gays want to get married - why shouldn't they be as miserable as straights?" and other glib jokes... points about hospital visitation and inheritance rights were fairly good at (metaphorically) melting some cold hearts on this matter.

The court majority made what sounded to me like a fairly good argument by way of the following observation that the alternative nomenclature of "domestic partnership" is in some ways inadequate:

Whether or not the name “marriage,” in the abstract, is considered a core element of the state constitutional right to marry, one of the core elements of this fundamental right is the right of same-sex couples to have their official family relationship accorded the same dignity, respect, and stature as that accorded to all other officially recognized family relationships. The current statutes — by drawing a distinction between the name assigned to the family relationship available to opposite-sex couples and the name assigned to the family relationship available to same-sex couples, and by reserving the historic and highly respected designation of marriage exclusively to opposite-sex couples while offering samesex couples only the new and unfamiliar designation of domestic partnership — pose a serious risk of denying the official family relationship of same-sex couples the equal dignity and respect that is a core element of the constitutional right to marry. As observed by the City at oral argument, this court’s conclusion in Perez, that the statutory provision barring interracial marriage was unconstitutional, undoubtedly would have been the same even if alternative nomenclature, such as “transracial union,” had been made available to interracial couples.

The phrase "transracial union" did send a shiver down my spine. Especially when anyone looking to challenge the term might have had by definition an issue of standing, if it proved legally equivalent to marriage, or, if it did not, a continuing equality denial issue.

There were two dissenting (technically, partially dissenting) opinions, neither of them especially hyperbolic in their critiques of the opinion. That seems like a small credit to afford them, but not after reading, inter alia, Justice Scalia's rant of a dissent in Lawrence v. Texas.

From one California dissenter:

The majority refers to the race cases, from which our equal protection jurisprudence has evolved. The analogy does not hold. The civil rights cases banning racial discrimination were based on duly enacted amendments to the United States Constitution, proposed by Congress and ratified by the people through the states. To our nation’s great shame, many individuals and governmental entities obdurately refused to follow these constitutional imperatives for nearly a century. By overturning Jim Crow and other segregation laws, the courts properly and courageously held the people accountable to their own constitutional mandates. Here the situation is quite different. In less than a decade, through the democratic process, same-sex couples have been given the equal legal rights to which they are entitled.

I used to be of the opinion that the potential costs of seeking judicial remedies to marriage inequality would prove to do far more harm than good to the cause.

It's consistent with the opinion I've held for a long time that Roe v. Wade was the best thing that ever happened to the Republican Party, but that's another post for another day.

A few things changed.

1. I became persuaded that same-sex marriage is not nearly the electoral winner that conservatives and many analysts think or thought it is or was. Its effect on the 2004 election was somewhat exaggerated, and the issue didn't help the Republicans in the 2006 wipeout. The indicators appear to be pointing in the right direction.

2. After Massachusetts recognized gay marriage, and other states recognized civil unions, civilization did not come crumbling down, fire and brimstone did not rain down upon my home state, and things continued as they had been. Things went on there as more or less as before; maybe some places got a slight uptick in tourism. I'm not entirely sure what the antis thought was going to happen but those looking for a catastrophe didn't find one.

3. I saw photos of and read accounts by some of the individuals involved in the controversy. It's not difficult for a [presumably] heterosexual California judge, and even for (especially for?) a relatively young and single gay man, to urge caution, prudence, and patience. It's a little more difficult, I would think, to do so if judges and politicians (and voters for that matter) make sure that you and the partner you have chosen to settle with for life remain forever strangers in the eyes of the law. I decided I didn't really have standing to demand that of the litigants in question.

The part of the dissent I find problematic is embodied by the last sentence I excerpted. Maybe there have only been gays and lesbians denied their rights for fewer than 10 years as far as that judge is concerned, but otherwise I can't figure out where the clock started. It's not as if the plaintiffs in this case could have their relationships given legal recognition before Proposition 22 passed; many of their relationships predate Proposition 22.

From a personal standpoint, I've been dating people that I couldn't marry for reasons wholly related to our gender for more than a decade.

I'm very happy for the Plaintiffs. They will now have the day denied many of us for so long.
Hopefully others like them will have their days before long.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Red Lenses

After yet another extended period of silence, I am back to remark on something fairly frivolous.

I'm going to Camden Yards tomorrow night to see the Red Sox in their first trip to Baltimore to play the Orioles this season. The Orioles are still hovering around the .500 mark, as they have often done in May, so their fans' enthusiasm for this young season remains for now. At the same time, I expect to see a lot of fans wearing red and to get abuse heaped on my fellow travellers, though we're more than able to give back as good as we get, so to speak.

It's sort of part of the range of sports fandom and there's certainly a range of how other people see you and your team (excluding the permanent haters - Yankee fans for the Red Sox; Michigan fans for Ohio State etc.) that depends on how they do. And with success comes bandwagon fans, and also more people who want to see your boys taken down a notch or two. And the more fans your team has, the more times you're going to just cringe when you hear (or hear about) what other people in your fan base say or do.

I know that I'm lucky to a be a lifelong Red Sox fan, since I've experienced every part of that cycle, and fans of many teams have not. It might come at the price of seeing more of your brethren make asses of themselves in public, and at other people sneering at your T-shirt, but you have to take the bitter with the sweet sometimes.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

You've Got A Friend In Pennsylvania

The Keystone State votes today.

It's kind of funny; a Pennsylvania native friend of mine despaired back in December that his state was going to have no say in the nomination process. I didn't really disagree with him at the time, but he probably regrets having said that after sitting through weeks of continuous media attention and an infinite loop of candidates' television commercials.

Supposedly Hillary Clinton is going to get the validation she needs to keep her campaign going today. The Obama campaign has had some difficulties in recent weeks and while it could easily have been worse, there are some uneasy feeling in the pit of some of our stomachs.

At this date it's hard to say much of anything about Rev. Jeremiah Wright, or Bill Ayers, or that hasn't already been said by someone else dozens of times; I bring it up so no one chimes in and says I'm ignoring the elephants in the room or am part of the "Obama cult" that excuses all his shortcomings and amplifies those of Clinton and/or McCain. I'm not happy about everyone with whom Obama has associated himself, but I never expect to be happy with everyone who supports the same candidate for President that I do. I would have liked to have seen some more discretion on his part...but going to be that's part of the package when your preferred candidate isn't someone who has spent his entire life grooming himself for the White House. People with lifelong Presidential ambitions try to keep their distances from the Wrights of the world, and, for better and for worse, that's not quite Obama. What's more important to me is that I see no indication that Obama harbors black nationalist or anarcho-syndicalist views and that anyone who honestly believes that there's a chance he does probably wasn't a persuadable voter to begin with. I see no indication that the individuals who have caused the controversies in question would have any role in the formulation of any policy in a hypothetical Obama administration, and no indication that Obama has promised anything in terms of programs or policies toward them in exchange for their support.

And then there's the "elitism" question, which has given us the curious spectacle of a bunch of millionaire talking heads claiming blue-collar bonafides while attacking, in particular, Obama and his supporters as elitists.

It's definitely a sign of style-over-substance politics when people can, with a straight face, label "populist" can be applied to an administration which has presided over levels of wealth concentration in fewer and fewer hands without recent precedent, all led by a man who describes his "base" as the "haves and the have mores." All based on this notion of whom the average person would rather have a beer with - and the man doesn't even drink!

For whatever it's worth, here are the remarks that caused the controversy:

You go into some of these small towns in Pennsylvania, and like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing’s replaced them. And they fell through the Clinton administration, and the Bush administration, and each successive administration has said that somehow these communities are gonna regenerate and they have not. And it’s not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.

It's somewhat clumsily expressed, but it sounds a lot like the narrative, popularized by, among others, Thomas Frank, that's been much discussed in Democratic circles since 2004. When blue-collar white voters in the Rust Belt perceived that there was little or no difference between the two major parties regarding pocketbook and lunchpail issues, all that was left to vote on were cultural issues - abortion, school prayer, same-sex marriage, gun control, immigration. (Frank's book of course is about Kansas rather than the Rust Bust specifically, but his chapters dealing with Wichita and the Kansas City suburbs apply very well to places like Pennsylvania and Ohio.)
The conservative movement has been very skilled at tapping into these sorts of issues to create the well worn "red states" narrative that has served paid big political dividends for them.

You've heard it before. It usually mentions French wine and/or cheese, sometimes incorporating Italianate coffee-based beverages and Swedish auto manufacturers. It's further proof that people in this country define themselves and their peers far too much based on consumer products.

Going after Hollywood, Manhattan, and Berkeley has provided the movement with a handy replacement for the race-based appeals the GOP used to help turn the South solidly Republican but have now become something of a liability for them in more recent times. In the case of Obama, it's a convenient line of attack against him that scarcely discuss his race.

There is nothing even remotely proletarian about any of the three remaining serious candidates. Besides, I thought the American national founding myth was that there was no such thing as class.

Democrats have picked up on the Frank thesis and definitely altered their message in 2006 - they've essentially given up on federal gun control, have treaded more lightly on the abortion issue, and found a slate of candidates in many places (Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia is the exemplar) who were often for one reason or another - military record, neo-populist appeal, authentic regionalist appeal - tougher targets for standard-issue Republican attacks. Combine that with an unpopular administration pushing unpopular policies, and with a series of embarrassing and mostly Republican scandals on Capitol Hill, and it proved a winning combination.

It would have been far better if Obama had more clearly emphasized that it was the politicians turning their backs on the working-class voters all the while making empty promises and insincere platitudes were the ones who were at fault, rather than the voters, who were simply working with what was given to them. It would also have been a nice tactical shot aimed more squarely at the Clinton administration, many of whose signature accomplishments were actually Republican ideas. To say that voters to "cling" to something reminds too many of Linus van Pelt and his security blanket.

The ubiquity of Frank's narrative explains why there's been so much battling over NAFTA in the Democratic race this year despite trade with Canada and Mexico being a very small part of the reason for widespread American de-industrialization, and despite the widespread consensus that an attempt to turn back the clock at this time would not bring the lost jobs back. NAFTA has enormous symbolic value to those who saw it as the quinessential betrayal of American laborers, as the moment at which the Democrats became indistinguishable from the Republicans in their eyes regarding their interests. It's no accident that the Republicans took over both houses of Congress in the election following the NAFTA vote. One continuing problem with regards to NAFTA - originally sold to some doubters as a way to help reduce the incentives for Mexicans to become illegal immigrants, it in fact exacerbated the issue as the small-scale Mexican agricultural sector was stomped upon, leading many more farmers and farm workers to try to cross the border in such of economic opportunity.

Obama's tough talk on trade is an attempt for Obama to broaden his appeal within the party beyond his current twin bases of the black vote on one hand and the reformist wing of the Democratic Party - many of the same people who backed Howard Dean four years ago, or Bill Bradley four years before that - on the other. Hillary's following suit is, well, is a Clinton trademark, an attempt to co-opt a portion of the opposition. To the extent either is making promises he or she has no intention of keeping , they're part of the same problem they've been decrying.

All this, is of course, a typical politician's gambit, which is at odds with the Obama "new politics" brand label, one many of us find appealing. At the same time, I recognize that you've got to play some hardball to win; the good-government types weren't able to get Gary Hart, Bill Bradley, or Howard Dean to the White House.

And I'm fine with attacks on Obama based on issues like that. I'd rather talk about that than how well he bowls or how often he wears a flag lapel pin. Hillary doing a shot of Crown Royal is almost as funny as Barack Obama trying to bowl. And John McCain, whose been spared this thusfar because the media loves him and because the focus right now is on the Democrats, but given time I'm sure we could concoct a similar stupid human trick for him to perform.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Spring Is Sprung

Despite the cold in the air this morning, it's unmistakably Spring now. I have one of those thermometers that gives both the indoor and the outdoor temperature, and obviously all winter, it was always warmer indoors than out. Well, until well after sundown on Friday and Saturday, it was warmer outside the house than inside.

After a couple of days of taking care of things in and around the house, I had a bit of a case of cabin fever. Luckily, I found some suitable outdoor activity in the form of a bunch of guys who play touch football on the National Mall on Sunday afternoons. The downside of this activity was that, well, my left ankle in particular is not liking me today.

Next weekend, most of the plaid flannel shirts and winter coasts go into the storage bins.

Monday, March 31, 2008

Over And Under

I may technically be a little late for this, since four teams (including the one I root for) have already played official games that count in the standings, but today is Opening Day.

Here are my wild guess over/under win totals for all 30 MLB teams this year.

AL East: Boston 95-67, NY Yankees 92-70, Toronto 88-74, Tampa Bay 73-89, Baltimore 65-97
AL Central: Detroit 93-69, Cleveland 88-74, Chi Sox 76-86, Minnesota 73-89, Kansas City 70-92
AL West: Anaheim 91-71, Seattle 87-75, Oakland 75-87, Texas 72-90

NL East: NY Mets 95-67, Philadelphia 91-71, Atlanta 85-77, Washington 76-86, Florida 68-94
NL Central: Chi Cubs 88-74, Milwaukee 86-76, Cincinnati 78-84, St. Louis 75-87, Houston 73-89, Pittsburgh 67-95
NL West: Arizona 91-71, Colorado 88-74, Los Angeles 83-79, San Diego 82-80, San Francisco 63-99

Tuesday, March 18, 2008


These words I read in a blog comment set my mind spinning out of control.

Now here's somebody that Senator McCain should be listening to. Dr. Kanazawa has a number of good ideas.


One of the limits of the post-modern sea of culture in which people like myself swim is trying to figure out the meta-levels of facetiousness, if any, in this post. To wit: 1. Whether Dr. Kanazawa actually means any of that batshit crazy stuff about wishing Anne [sic] Coulter was President and nuked essentially the entire Mideast after 9/11 in that blog (A), or whether that was a Swiftian satire of sorts (B). 2. Whether the commenter - known on this board to be very pro-Israel and anti-Arab - endorses the sentiments of the linked blog (A) or is merely himself being facetious (B). 3. Whether that is actually the purported person posting (A), as opposed to someone using reductio ad absurdum on the extreme neo-con mindset (B).
That's eight (2x2x2) different possible interpretations of that. post. Only two of those interpretations, (A-A-A) and (A-B-A), deserve to be flamed.

In short, my head asplode.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Nobody Knows You When You're Down And Out

I found this piece in the Washington City Paper a little too self-indulgent for my tastes, but still parts of it somehow reminded me of the dark days between the 9/11 attacks and the barely-interrputed "prosperity" streak that commenced in the summer of '03.

And like a lot of things, it got me to thinking.

Sometimes, almost inexplicably, I get nostalgic for those two years. Even though I was blogging back then, and reading some of those entries - the personal ones, as opposed to the ones where I pretended to be a political pundit or a baseball analyst or pop culture commentator - made it clear that I was nowhere near as happy to be a slacker as the author of the article.
I had my fun though, in between gloomy blog articles. I met lots of interesting people and had lots of interesting encounters of the sort that I'm not going to discuss in detail here.

Get me in person and drunk; precedent suggests that I'll at least go into some gory details of my various exploits.

There is something to be said for not punching the clock and scurrying around in the rat race for a while, to just be able to wake up late every once in a while and just stroll around and see what you see. Especially in a city like Washington, where there are a lot of things to see, many of them free of charge.

But it's not as easy as it used to be.

Back in those days, rent was cheaper. I was living in a 2-bedroom apartment, the first floor of a rowhouse in Adams-Morgan on a shady corner that frightened hardcore yuppies but not our hero. Getting around town on Metro was cheaper, and I walked most places, especially when I was out of work; sometimes I walked to and from work, since it was sometimes faster than some of those buses.

Back in those days - and they weren't even that long ago, mind you - it seemed easier to make one's own way in the nation's capital. I knew where all the relatively cheap and edible all-you-can-eat buffets (generally Chinese or Indian) were, and the Tex-Mex joints where you could fill up on chips and salsa; if you did it up right, you could eat the one big meal in the middle of the day for not much money and eat light for the other two meals. I knew where the good happy hours and drink specials were, which could sometimes come in handy, as did the fact that I could stagger home from 18th Street, Dupont Circle, or Woodley Park.

But now when I visit DC, many of those places that sustained me are gone. Some of them have celebrity chefs, attract people from the suburbs who value valet parking, and sell the latest trendy cocktail in a martini glass for $10. It's not that there weren't places like that before too, it's that there's less and less room for everyone else and everything else. They were just easier to ignore.

I suppose there's some ironic justice insofar as it could be said that I played a part in displacing people from Adams-Morgan and the District of Columbia that in turn I got displaced myself, in that rents and prices shot up higher than I was willing to pay at the time for my own place.

When I have idle time sometimes I wonder who exactly dropping a million dollars to live on a noisy loft condo above 18th Street. I mean, if you're old enough to have that kind of scratch, I'd think you'd want a bit more peace and quiet than that sort of locale affords you.

All this does make me wonder what the interns do when they come to town now in the summer. Many of them have even less money to burn than I did in those days. Or the entire nonprofit sector, which is not known for lavish wages, especially considering the educational requirements that come with most of its jobs. I mean, if I had a nickel for every party at an Adams-Morgan or Mount Pleasant group house where the residents were all non-profit types...well, I wouldn't be a rich man, but I'd at least be able to fill the gas tank a few times. Or maybe they just all have rich parents now.

I'd love to blame this on George Bush and that Republican Congress the rest of the country stuck us with for years. And while the increased presence of the Young Republican type in Washington was an irritant to be sure, there's much more going on than a mere shift in the political winds. (Not to mention that I never spent much time on Capitol Hill, Georgetown, or in the Virginia suburbs near and beyond the Beltway that the Bushites tended to prefer; to the extent any of them found their way to Adams Morgan or Dupont, they were doing their best to blend in.) While good times for the well-off relative to the rest of us, a hallmark of the Bush era, does lead to more businesses marketing primarily to the well-off at the expense of the rest of us, the politicans aren't exactly trendsetters and there was a definite trend shift. Central cities were in again, as places to live and shop and not just as places where you cleared out when 5:00 came calling.

If there are any before-and-after photos of, say, 7th Street from E Street to I Street, or 14th Street from Thomas Circle to Florida Avenue, or U Street from Florida Avenue to 15th Street - the transformations are stunning. It takes many to fuel some of those things, and it's money that neither I nor many of us had to fuel it during the early stages.

It's enough to make one miss the bad old days when the District, outside of places like Georgetown, wasn't where it was at. If you could deal with a place that was a little rough around the edges, you could make your way here if you were careful and it didn't cost too much. It's gotten quite a bit harder.

I guess you could say that the first sentence of the above paragraph does sum up the appeal of Baltimore to some people, but that's another story for another time.

I'm just happy that those days of intermittent work and long layoffs in the middle of DC I had my 20s took place then rather than now.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Round And Round And Round

What a good sign that you're living an overintellectualized existence?

Ratt's "Round and Round" just came on the iPod, and I was trying to figure what percentage of the enjoyment I derive from the particular slab of glossy 1980s heavy metal is ironic, what percentage of it nostalgic, and what percentage of it is the fact that it has an irresistably catchy chorus.

Also, I remembered that the guy who played the guitar solo is now dead.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

From The Infield

We're getting closer to the finish line.

Voters in Texas, Ohio, Rhode Island, and Vermont are going to the polls today. This primary season has taught us to expect the unexpected, but today if Barack Obama can triumph in the two bigger contests it will seriously undermine whatever argument Hillary Clinton has for remaining in the Democratic race.

Looking at what Hillary Clinton has left for argument in her favor, I found, via Matt Yglesias, someone at Huffington Post making this argument for Hillary Clinton based on her credibility regarding matters of national security. To hear this person tell it, Hillary Clinton can "stand toe-to-toe with John McCain on national security."

You often hear mainstream media outlets saying that Democrats lack credibility on national security issues.

But at this stage I don't want "credibility" on national security, at least not in the sense that term is commonly understood. The people who think that the way to be "credible" on national security is be hawkish, to give the defense industry and military infinite funding, and keep thinking of new ways to sell new foreign invasions and adventures, and consider these things important, have their party and their candidate already.

Even if I didn't think that this type of thinking was insane...Hillary can be as hawkish as she wants to be and she's not going to move those voters away from John McCain and the Republicans. Those among us who think this Iraq war was a good idea and want to see more like it have their man, a man who happens to believe in the Bush Iraq strategy more than Bush himself ever did.

Furthermore...when a Democrat seeks "credibility" on "national security" the way that John Kerry did and Hillary Clinton is trying to, that Democrat is fighting on Republican turf. John Kerry's veteran status didn't help him much, and neither did Al Gore's for that matter. Hillary's tough talk won't help her much either. As long as those are the ground rules, the Democrats are going to be the "wimp" party, the "defeatist" party. That so many of them decided to strategically capitulate concerning the original Iraq War authorization, and then signed on to an effort to lay the same sort of groundwork for a war with Iran, makes observers think that they are either a watered-down imitation of the Republicans or a band of insincere, pandering politicos who want to have it both ways - neither one of which is particularly attractive to voters.

If the party marginalizes voices saying something like "This war was a fool's errand, that wasted countless lives and resources, and damaged our credibility worldwide in such a way that those who praise it can scarcely be trusted concerning other foreign policy matters, and those who called for it in the first place should have known better" like a majority of Americans actually believe at this point, the party is in effect narrowing its appeal.

I prefer someone willing to stand up to the ceaseless din of the war drums. "before George Bush decided to invade Iraq, there was no such thing as al-Qaida in Iraq."

Not that I expect the American public to be swayed overnight - but there are 8 months between now and Election Day.

And there is yet life beyond Election Day; it is time for liberals and progressives, and the Democratic Party as a whole, to think more than one cycle ahead, something we haven't done much of in recent years. You can see that in the rightward drift - sometimes slow, sometimes abrupt - of the country's politics over the last generation plus, a drift that is the product of a deliberate and at least partially orchestrated campaign by the conservative movement to change the national conversation. Note that this is distinct from and a little different than simply winning elections. If you're deft enough and can exploit positive short-term trends, you can win an election or two, or achieve the occassional policy victory. Every so often you can win an argument or an election on the turf of the opposition - they will sometimes stumble or self-destruct through overreaching, infighting, or personal scandal, or sometimes your side will have someone of enormous skill to level the playing field somewhat. But that doesn't change the fact that you're fighting an uphill battle from the start, and that under those conditions you will lose more often than you win.

Given the spin coming from the Clinton camp about their campaign as a whole, it's clear to me that they're effectively treating this election cycle as a one-and-done discrete event. This state doesn't matter, but that one does, and Obama can't win this bloc of key voters or Obama got too high a percentage of his support from this constituency or that demographic. While some of these things are not entirely inaccurate from the horse-race perspective of an outsider analyst, they betray a distinct tunnel vision regarding why elections and campaigns exist in the first place. Those of us who follow politics and stalk opinion polls like the paparazzi on Lindsay Lohan can gauge the electoral maps, mentally color the states, and add up the tallies, and it's important for a campaign to have people who are able to do that stuff.

But all that is different from what it takes to build a party, around a message and a narrative, a party that's well-positioned to win future elections. And the Democrats are to an extent missing that at the moment. What do Democrats stand for? That they stand against George W. Bush might be sufficient to do well in a mid-term cycle where Bush is deeply unpopular, but is insufficient for any purpose beyond that. Do they stand for the idea that there might be a better way to deal with global terror networks than picking fights in random Middle Eastern countries? That as the cost of lethal force grows ever cheaper, that other levers of power beyond overwhelming military strength, might be necessary? That the system of health care that provides the most profit to certain companies might produce inferior results in terms of actual health outcomes for the population? That shifts in taxation policy that make life easier for those who already have it relatively easy, and harder for those not so fortunate, might be unwise to undertake? That incarcerating 1% of the adult population might not be the best use of our fiscal and human resources alike? To the extent that these questions go unasked, they are replaced by generalities about "strength" and "morality" or the overall vapidity of celebrity gossip shows.

And lest the reader think I am talking about eschewing style for substance, I am assuredly not. Style can be crucially important. To get voters to the polls, you have to get people with a sort of natural, built-in apathy, to want to go stand in line on what might a cold, windy, or rainy day. You need to inspire, and the two most effective ways known to do so are to inspire either hope or fear. The cynic might say that fear is a more powerful motivator than hope is, and he might even be right. While I cannot say that the party to which I belong has never used fear as a motivator before, I can say that as things stand at the moment, the opposition is better positioned to motivate through fear (fear of terrorism, fear of foreign countries, fear of immigrants) than we are.

As such, we are left with hope.

And that is a big part of why I have chosen to support who I support, more than the fine points and distinctions drawn by their specific policy prescriptions, more than whoever is more or less "electable," more than anything else. It sounds fuzzy and naive but I think there's a strong practical element to it.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Trouble In Paradise

I recently came across this interesting article from the Atlantic regarding the possible future of suburbia. The main culprit driving the crisis referred to in the article is the fallout from the bursting of the real estate bubble, namely the subprime mortgage meltdown and resultant credit crunch. Nowadays even in the wealthier jurisdictions of this sort, including Loudoun, there have been more and more foreclosure auctions and fewer and fewer takers.

Being the quinessential urbanite (my long commute from one central city to another notwithstanding - it's mostly on a train) I had never quite fully understood the appeal of the outer fringes of metropolitan areas. But all through the 1990s and even during the early years of this decade, most of the country appeared to disagree with me as outer suburbs boomed, notably nearby Loudoun County, Virgnia.

Nonetheless, from an objective point of view, it had occurred to me that outer suburbia was becoming a less desirable place to live for a variety of reasons.

* Some people moved to outer-ring suburbs or exurbs to be closer to wide open spaces, but the building boom in such areas over the last generation has brought more and more people and traffic, their appeal has declined, unless one was willing to live ever further from the city center.

* Much of the mass suburbanization the nation has seen has been driven by "white flight," white middle class families fleeing urban crime, urban blight, poor performing schools, forced busing plans, and other maladies that befell central cities over the second half of the 20th Century in particular. (Of course at this point "white flight" is something of a misnomer in many places since black middle-class families joined the exodus as well and in some locales have created their own patches of suburban development, some of them quite prosperous.) However, as recent immigrant populations come to the suburbs in search of more affordable housing, they often bring challenges to the standard assumptions about infrastructure needs in the subrubs - local school systems unaccustomed to language issues, road and transit systems not used to needing to provide the transportation and/or increased road capacity that these populations tend to need. The result has been a backlash and a backlash to the backlash. I don't need to mention that they make the suburbs look quite different then they did a generation ago, but racism is not the only factor and may not even be the most significant one.

* And of course, there's the factor I always thought would really sour people on the long commutes and hours waiting in traffic - the increased price of fuel.

I read peak oil theorist James Howard Kunstler's The Long Emergency upon a friend's recommendation and dismissed a lot of it as a little over the top, and when his prediction of a massive collapse in the Dow in 2007 utterly failed to materialize, I discounted or at least took with a grain of salt most of what was in the rest of the book. But a portion of the book where he described a scenario whereby some low-density suburbs might become the slums of tomorrow always stuck in my mind. With gas prices seemingly caught in an ever upward spiral, depending on residents to commute 40 or 50 miles every day each way to get to and from work seems like an unsustainable trend.

Other countries, those that have higher gasoline prices, are already ahead of the curve so to speak. I recently cam across ann odd little fact about the film Juno. In the movie, the title character and her family lived in a working class/lower-middle class suburb of Minneapolis with relatively small housing stock, and the Lorings, the prospective adoptive parents of Juno's baby live in a large house in a wealthy exurban area. But like a lot of movies, much of the filming actually took place in Vancouver, Canada. And while the pattern suggested by the movie still largely holds true in most American metropolitan areas, it turns out that in metro Vancouver, the modest house where Juno lives is worth more than the McMansion where the Lorings live, mostly because one could more easily walk or use public transit in Juno's neighborhood than in that of the Lorings, where a private vehicle is a necessity on every trip.

The bottom line here?

We junked our cities over the last 50 years in particular, in part to distance ourselves from poor people in general, and in part distance ourselves from other people in general. To that end, we built superhighways to facilitate our movements through these former open spaces that have now been filled with subdivisions and shopping malls and starved public transportation investments in most places, creating entire metro areas based exclusively around long car trips. We created almost by accident a tax system - federal, state, and local - that encouraged and incentivized people to move to bigger houses consuming more and space and more and more energy further and further outward. We fostered a politics of isolation, of alientaton, and of radical individualism - but ironically did so using a complex system of government subsidies and public incentives to a degree that a truly free market could not have indulged.

It was a shortsighted and foolish call on our part, but it was hard to notice that as long as oil was cheap and plentiful. None of this necessarily makes us any more or less venial than any other nation or culture on earth, for it cannot be said that the siren song that led us to where we are would have gone unheard by other nations or peoples. Indeed we are watching China and India trying to repeat our patterns of consumption before our very eyes. Whether or not the disaster that the Kunstlers of the world predict comes to pass, things will have to change and the sooner that we change our mindset the sooner we can get started.

Friday, February 22, 2008


Another alleged monster snowstorm has failed to materialize.


Not that predicting the weather is necessarily the easiest of things to do, but the news media seem fairly skilled at riling us up. I'm sure that that there's not much milk, bread, or toilet paper to be found at local supermarkets.

I'm from up north of course, and if I really hated snow and cold as much as I sometimes think I do, I'd have tried to decamp for Southern California or Florida. But I have to admit that that weird phenomenon known as the Washington Snowstorm is annoying.

I would think that a city that gets at snow at least a couple of times a year would know how to handle snow better than this. But this is part of what John F. Kennedy meant when he described Washington, DC as a city with "Southern efficiency and Northern charm."

That was banal. I have some less banal thoughts, but they're not in a usable form yet.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Sense And Sensitivity (Temp Town Dispatches, Vol 1)

Lately, as days off have grown fewer and further between, I've been noticing one of the worst aspects of Temp Town that don't directly involve working conditions or the way the rest of the legal profession treats you as an untouchable.

When I'm on the clock or just off it (at either end) I notice that I'm more sensitive and in general and irritable in particular. That which is easy to ignore out in the open seems harder to suffer. I don't know if it's a lack of sleep, or boredom, or what it is. But something changes. The little tics and mannerisms of one's coworkers are thrown into high relief. Their speaking tendencies get noticed and scrutinized. Memoranda from supervisors and bosses about small matter at work that are objectively relatively benign can morph in one's mind into personal slights to one's dignity.

One person's tendency to act as self-appointed expert on everything, fond of confusing her various opinions with objective fact and smugly declaring them, seems to annoy exponentially more as the waking hours spent in a room where she isn't there grow shorter and more precious. I feel like I know her better than some of her relatives do, and I don't really want to know her. Another one's bizarre sense of entitlement cloaked in what might be self-deprecating humor grows more tiresome the more words she spends declaiming the not-all-that-dire straits she finds herself in.

I have my moments where I sound more like Larry David than someone truly put upon. I think the difference is that at some level I am aware that my concerns are often petty, so I tend to keep them to myself. Many of them revolve around my commute.

I wonder if being married is like this, except that one get to choose one's spouse and no one in this line of work gets to choose his coworkers. I certainly see way more of the people in this office than I do anyone else right now, and it's possible some of my married coworkers see more of me than they do their spouses.

Not all jobs are like this. Usually you hit it off with someone, and can develop good friendships, since shared adversity (such as it is) can bond people closer together. But that doesn't always happen.

Sometimes I think thoughts that make me not want to like myself much. Perhaps most people are like that, except some of them are missing the mechanism that tells them "Let's pull ourselves together and not act on what we know are bad impulses."

Existence in this sort of space makes one notice, and be sensitive to, small changes that in most contexts would go unnoticed. Small changes in temperature, general background noise level, the proximity of other people, the conversational tone of coworkers, the subject matter of conversations around you, the way one perceive the extent to which one's employers are watching closely, the way the workplace rules are changed (implicitly or explicitly).

And the little things can loom large.

For over a week I have watched my beloved Twix bars in the vending machine, buried beneath three Baby Ruth bars that I don't want. And finally someone has removed the last obstacle between me and that tasty combination of cookie, caramel, and chocolate that I so adore. And when the man who fills the vending machine comes by, I silently observe him place the candy bars into the slots that will determine what I do when the inevitable 2:00 food coma kicks in. In the normal world, off the clock, no way would I spent so much mental energy on how many candy bars stand between me and the Liberation of the Exalted Twix.

And I find it's not even just at work, but during the commute to or from work as well. I notice breaches of the little, mostly unwritten rules of acceptable rider behavior on Metro - people who stand on the left on the escalators, people who partially block the train doors when it's not their stop and there's plenty of room further in the train, people who stop at the top or bottom of the escalators because they're not sure where they're going next - that are relatively easy for me to ignore at other times. On those thankfully relatively rare times where I need to hit the roads during rush hour, nerves are more easily frayed when I'm going to or from work.

The slightest damn thing that happens on the Beltway can mean 30 minutes more time stuck on the road. And even a little precipitation is enough to foul absolutely everything up. And time never moves so fast as when you're trying to get to work so you can clock in...and never as slowly as when you're sitting there in the office.

And when I get home, not finding parking on my block, increasing ever so marginally the distance I'm going to have to carry my backpack and gym bag the next morning, just irks me more than by all rights it really should. Especially on any day where there's a chance I'll have to scrape ice or brush snow off the car.

I have no experience with the military or prison but I imagine that they might experience the same sort of sensitivities that seem petty and silly from a distance but not within the moment. And I'm guessing that in those sorts of environments, since the threat of death or bodily harm generally hangs in the air, some sort of survival instinct kicks in every so often that provides one with the sense of perspective that keeps one from wallowing too much in the moment. But seldom does such perspective come in Temp Town. A form of it surfaces when one learns that the end of the job, whether for everyone or just for you, will occur in the immediate future - but even then, it's generally on to the next gig before long. Not that I want to operate with my life in danger per se, mind you, I'm just saying that the small stuff would be harder to sweat if the proverbial Big Stuff were to surface. But it doesn't come; it's all small stuff.

At least until my next day off.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008


Early this morning, I noticed that some Facebook application, one of a million that has somehow found its way onto my Facebook page sent me some automatic email - the Compare People one. As some level, it's supposed to be and really is just a little parlor game. Most of the questions of a vaguely frivolous nature - who's the best singer, who's the best dresser, etc.

But not all of them.

I ran through some friend comparisons, mostly in a rapid-fire manner. I tended to skip the ones that involved Facebook "friends" I didn't know in person or didn't know well. But I wasn't really using deep thought neurons, so to speak.

And then I looked at how people rated me.

Apparently, while I am smarter, apparently braver (never thought of myself that way, but go me!) more dependable, have better taste in music, am more creative, and more useful than whoever it was I was being compared to. On the other side of things, I'm not the snappiest dresser out there and I'm not the most outgoing sort.

But then I felt something, like I was staring into something I probably should have looked away from, like Pippin and the Orthanc-stone. And I had never thought of myself as a particularly sensitive sort - but it felt odd. I don't think the people who rated some other person higher than me meant it as any sort of slight, but it still feels weird to see that most other people (either friends, or more likely, friends of friends I know either scarcely or not at all) that you got randomly chosen to go up against for this exercise were nearly universally deemed as kinder, as better friends, as more loyal and as more trustworthy than you. I don't care how unflappable you are, if that doesn't hurt a little bit, you're not human.

No one wants to travel with me versus whomever else, and would rather spend a day with other people...but apparently they would rather be stranded on a desert island with me. Go figure. This is probably a sign that I'm wasting too much time writing all this.

Continuing the thought from Saturday, it's yet another sign that knowledge, even imperfect knowledge to be taken as a grain - nay, a shaker - of salt, can be a burden of sorts.

I suppose between some unfortunate incidents I've been involved in and the kind of view of humanity that three years in law school taught me, I'm not exactly the most trusting soul out there, and that probably comes out in more contexts than I would like it to, and I imagine that if you're seen as someone who's slow to let his guard down, other people you encounter might sense a need to act in kind.

I am reminded of the time that I was at an internship and was asked to sort through a filing cabinet of junk - something that I would gain a lot more experience with on some of my old paper document reviews, not to mention filtering out all the junk mail I started getting once the marketing people found out I had passed a bar exam (and now two of them), once they found out that I have a decent household income (especially for a one-person household), once they found out I'm a single gay man, and once they found out I buy a lot of electronic equipment....I'm a freakin' marketer's dream. So I have a giant bin of junk mail to go through when I get a spare minute.

Therefore, the people who picked the other person in the "Who is more organized?" question were 100% justified, unless they opted for certain friends of mine who are demonstrably less organized than I am.

Anyhow, one of the things in there was a report that was evaluating the interns that I can't imagine I was intended to see. I got tagged as "very intelligent" and "a good writer" but also as "unstable" and "overly intense." It may seem funny to anyone who has not known me for long and who has never seen me play quiz bowl or been involved in any of my relatively rare athletic endeavors, but I suppose back in those days I could see how someone could see me as a bit intense, particularly in my former guise as an aspiring politico. But man, seeing "unstable" next to my name didn't feel good.

I'm not sure if it makes sense to be more disturbed by a negative opinion that comes as a surprise than such an opinion that one could anticipate, and yet that's just another sign that humans aren't necessarily rational creatures.

Although I decided right then and there not only that it would be imprudent to say something to the person who wrote it but that I was only going to let this bother me to the extent that I needed to present a better face to the workplace.

Seeing those words probably changed me a little for the better.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

All We Have Is Now

Long hours of boring work and a lack of social interaction give one a lot of time to get lost in one's own thoughts. Armed with the iPod and surreptitous websurfing...

The shuffle widget today brought me "All We Have Is Now" by the Flaming Lips, a song where the narrator is told by a visitor from the future that he and whomever he is speaking to are "not going to make it" and "not going to be part of the future."

I had always through my youth told myself that knowledge was always better than ignorance. That version of me would scarcely have hesitated to opt for the affirmative if asked something like "If an omniscient being gave you the opportunity to know to the minute how long you are going to live, would you let him tell you?" (Note that I'm further assuming that the answer doesn't involve the being killing you while saying "your time is up now.")

With some more age I wonder if that's still true. I've been told that human beings have more capacity for dread and terror than other animals. I wonder now if I'm more the sort of person who's going to be counting down the days, like I used to do as a kid during the second half of summer vacations, knowing exactly when I'd need to be back in the classroom.

But knowledge can be a burden, which at one point in my life I found very tough to acknowledge.

I suppose it would be useful at some level to know that the short term was all I had to look forward to - I'd worry less about student loan payments and working more overtime and such.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Barack Obama For President

"You drank the Kool Aid." That's what a couple of friends have told me when they found out who I was voting for tomorrow.

The Presidential Primaries in Maryland (as well as Virginia and Washington, D.C.) are tomorrow.

The Republican race is basically settled. Mike Huckabee has a barely breathing campaign, Ron Paul never really had a chance, and everyone else worth mentioning has dropped out. It appears that John McCain is going to be their candidate.

So that leaves the Democrats, a party with whom, conveniently enough, I usually identify myself. And, for a whole host of reasons I can get into later if anyone cares, there is simply no way that I'm going to vote to give more power to the Republican Party the way that it currently exists at the national level. And that their choice is John McCain, whose dislike by certain types of movement conservatives is a point in his favor, does not really change any of that. Just because I think John McCain is probably a better human being than George W. Bush does not mean I think he'd necessarily be better as President. Sure he sometimes takes moderate positions to make himself look good for the press; apart from a relatively ineffective campaign finance reform measure, most have little substance behind them. Perhaps most importantly, he will be selecting from the same pool as Bush for political appointees in general and judges in particular.

And at this stage, with all the other Democratic candidates having departed the Presidential hunt, we are down to Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. Either way, the choice will be a momentous historical first.

How did I make my call?

I used to look at candidate websites extensively and compare the minor details of their various policy proposals until I concluded that substantive differences in micro-policy issues don't generally amount to much. They would matter a lot more if we were electing a dictator, but whoever becomes President is going to have to get his proposals through Congress and they're going to have their own ideas. Presidents don't, except in the most extreme circumstances, get up-or-down votes on their policy prescriptions. And in any case, there isn't a ton of daylight to be found in most of the differences between the stated platforms of these two Senators. I find much in their respective records that I like, and a few things about both that concern me.

I look at Hillary Clinton, and I see someone who is capable, sharp, and a good debater. If it came down to voting for her vs. John McCain, I wouldn't hesitate to pull the lever for her. She's had everything but the kitchen sink thrown at her by the Republican attack machine, who probably have no new ammunition. She's been a fairly effective Senator by most accounts, able to work with members of both parties despite having been tagged as a "divisive" politican. There has been a lot of criticism aimed at her by Republicans and Democrats alike and not all of it is fair. I watched the Republicans turn John Kerry into a "divisive" figure, and having watched Kerry in action for nearly two decades, I can say that he if he can be pilloried that way so can almost anyone.

Hillary is in part selling herself as a sort of "bridge to the 1990s," harkening back to her husband's term of office. Which, to most people who aren't staunch Repuiblicans, looks even better thanks to the seven-plus intervening years of the administration of George W. Bush.
It was a more fiscally responsible administration, and one that pushed America's image in the world in a positive direction.

On the other hand, I see some causes for concern, particularly if we're talking about the Iraq War as an important issue. Likely opponent John McCain is even more enthusiastic about the ongoing conflict than the current White House occupant; the foreign policy neoconservative set was the only portion of the GOP establishment that preferred McCain to Bush in 2000. And what exactly is Hillary going to say when the topic is addressed? I look what happened to similarly compromised John Kerry, a combat veteran unlike Clinton, on this issue and I don't want a repeat. Yes, we all know that it was easier in 2002 for Obama, then a state legislator from Chicago, to take a stand against the Iraq War we all know was coming than it was as a Senator (even one with a safe seat) with an eye on the White House. But her subsequent hawkish remarks make such a plea for latitude ring somewhat hollow. Clinton voted for the Kyl-Lieberman Resolution, widely interpreted as the first stage of beating the drums for a war against Iran. Kerry by then had grown wiser, Edwards came out against the resolution (albeit he was no longer in the Senate.) However sympathetic one wants to be about the 2002 force authorization with respect to Iraq, a position taken by a large number of Democrats, the fact is that she has not only continued to defend that vote but in way repeated the blunder in 2007 with respect to Iran. Which makes her either a supporter of the Bush foreign policy agenda, someone still clueless about that agenda, or someone too frightened to take a clear stand against it. None of those possibilities reflects particularly well on her.

And the 1990s were not all wine and roses as far as Democrats are concerned. When Bill Clinton came into office, Democrats had at least institutional control of both houses of Congress, a majority of state legislatures and gubernatorial offices - and all that changed dramatically during his tenure. As masterful as Clinton was at playing himself off against the slash-and-burn Gingrich Republicans, the relatively ineffective (dare I say impotent?) Bob Dole, and the screaming banshees of AM radio - it did not ultimately help the party, who left the Clinton presidency disenchanted and rudderless. It made the unfortunate Bush Presidency possible. Clinton gained much of his goodwill among Democrats by fighting the Republicans more on style than on substance. We were so outraged by the nature of the Republican attacks on Bill Clinton and their overreaching that we sometimes forgot that he undermined his own Presidency with the Monica Lewinsky affair. Between that and his considerable charm, sometimes we even forgot that many of the accomplishments of the Clinton presidency - NAFTA and welfare reform in particular - were more the brainchild of Republicans than of Democrats. Now maybe Hillary Clinton is different, but if she has criticized any of these aspects of her husband's administration or stated that her Presidency would be a totally different story, I have yet to hear it. Their own manipulations and careful positioning have led many people to believe that the Clintons were far more liberal than they really are/were - and why on earth would we nominate a centrist whom everyone seems to think is a flaming liberal? (If we're going to go for the center, I would think we ought to at least get credit for that from swing voters.)

Don't get me wrong. If the 1990s are all I can have - if the alternative is more bellicosity, more make-the-well-off-even-better-off tax schemes, more Scalia acolytes on the federal bench - I'll be the first one to bust out the plaid flannel shirts. I'll refight the fights over a soundtrack of Better Than Ezra and Hootie & The Blowfish.

But if I see something that I think will be better, that's where I'm going. And I think I see something better.

When I look at Senator Obama, I see someone who looks more like where America is going than where America has been. I see someone I can point to and say "I guess anyone can become President after all." And there are a lot of people who don't believe that now, and I think we'd be far better off if they could.

I look at someone who has had life experiences that people my age and younger can relate to, someone who has not necessarily been gunning for the White House his entire life. I see someone has spent a good deal of time outside the United States, a good quality to have in someone whose decisions and statements cause ripple effects the world over.

When I listen to Senator Obama, I hear something that sounds different. I hear someone who can inspire people, even - to some degree - this somewhat hardened cynic, jaded by years of living in Washington and witnessing the whole sausage-making process at close range.

And furthermore, I see the same deftness and capabilities I see in Hillary Clinton, and without the baggage that comes with all the old wars. That's not entirely fair to Senator Clinton, who has a record of her own, but this is about who to vote for, not necessarily who "deserves" the nomination.

I've seen the game as it is now played up close - from the goalposts to playbooks. And it hasn't been all bad, but I think I'm ready to play a different kind of game. And that's why I am going to the polls tomorrow morning. Kool Aid and all.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Temp Town

What is Temp Town?

It's where you might end up if you made it through law school, passed a bar exam or two, but still somehow, one way or another, fell through the cracks of the legal profession. And being here will teach you all the different ways that that could have happened to people. It's a culture all its own, a veritable Island of Misfit Toys. People from all walks of life, with only the law license in common, can be found here. Calling the work professional might (generally) be something of a stretch, but it's not quite a proletarian experience either. You won't get rich doing it, especially considering how far in hock you probably went for that JD - but if you play your cards right, you can feed, clothe, and house yourself, and maybe even treat yourself to the ocassional fine dinner or snazzy gadget.

When you walk out of the work space - whether it's for an hour at lunch, for the night, or for forever - it's as if it doesn't exist. Your fate and the fate of whatever matter you're working on aren't connected in any meaningful way. Maybe you have a work ethic, or maybe your boss is good at figuring out if you do good work or whether you do much work. And maybe not.

If you're lucky, it's like visiting the Wood Between The Worlds, just a way station on one's way somewhere else. If you're not careful, though, it becomes something of a way of life.

Like much of nature, the profession's pretty good at kicking you when you're down. While here you never get to prove to anyone that you can do anything outside Temp Town, and it's assumed that you don't belong anywhere else after a while. It's sort of like an aspiring actress who ends up doing a few porn movies. Once you're a "porn actress," no one else is going to want to cast you.

As I am fond of saying, it beats sewing buttons on shirts in Bangladesh for $3.00 a day. And most working-class people don't generally like their jobs. They have to be bribed to do them.

I guess I am bribed pretty well, all things considered.

No one knows for sure if it's a place where one can hide from the elements of the job market, a fallback one can count on if he can find no other way to pay the bills. No one knows if the well that nourishes this strange landscape will dry up. It doesn't seem terribly efficient from a client's point of view, and yet it's much more efficient than the traditional law firm model of things.

Everything has a price and a value, and they're not necessarily related.

Temp Town is nothing like Hell as depicted in the Divine Comedy, but it can be quite a bit like Hell as depicted in No Exit.

It's where our hero now finds himself.

Friday, February 8, 2008

Patriot Games

In case you've been living in a fallout shelter sealed off from outside contact for the last week, last Sunday most of the rest of the known universe outside of New England (and the New England diaspora) got the Super Bowl result they wanted to see.

About the only positive thing to come out of this whole situation from our perspective that we have the new ability and desire to mock Bill Simmons the way that fans of the other 31 NFL franchises have likely been doing for a while now.

You know... it's not just that you jinxed the team, Bill. You don't need me to point that out to you. You did it in a tedious and obnoxious fashion, imputing motivations to people that make no bloody sense whatsoever. Yes, when we saw that the Chargers took out the Colts, the parallel to the Rockets beating the Lakers in '86 did cross some of our minds. But hardly any of us thought that either the Lakers or Colts lost on purpose subconsciously because they somehow knew the Celtics/Patriots were going to beat them. And if we did, we kept that nonsense to ourselves.

There, I said it. And I used to like Simmons, for which I have been much ridiculed by my fellow Baseball Think Factory dwellers.

Now every team that has anything like the kind of success the Patriots have had in the last eight years are going to get their share of bandwagon fans. Every team is going to have its share of obnxoious fans, and those two categories are going to share some overlap.

But, taking a broader perspective, this phenomenon will never cease to be weird to those of us old enough to be adults who have been following this team all our lives.

New England had a football team for years mostly out of a combination of inertia and the fact that Boston is the #7 media market in the nation (and were once higher than that.) They ranked a distant fourth in the hearts and minds of Boston-area sports fans among professional sports teams.

Part of this was the fact that they played in a crappy stadium way out in the periphery of Metro Boston, whereas the Celtics and Bruins played downtown and Fenway Park was a relatively short ride on the T. For many Boston sportswriters, this meant "Out of sight, out of mind." To go to a Patriots game involved sitting for an eternity on a long stretch of Route 1 that's possibly the least scenic stretch of road in the entire state, both before and after the game, navigating one's way in and out of expensive unpaved parking lots that often got muddy, followed by a long schlep to the stadium. The stadium itself was mostly cold, slightly bent aluminum benches that seemed to attract snow and ice like magnets during late season games; many fans bought personal pizzas so they could sit on the cardboard instead of on ice-encrusted aluminum.

And all of that is before mentioned their general lack of success, and a general lack of noted personalities of any kind. I'm not merely talking about titles or even team records; the Pats never really commanded anyone's attention. They were not the worst franchise in the league, but may have been the least noteworthy one. If you were to come up with a list of "Boston/New England Sports Heroes of the 20th Century," there would be at least a dozen Celtics (start with Bird, Russell, and Cousy and work your way down) and a dozen Red Sox (Teddy Ballgame, Yaz, and Pudge Fisk to name a few) on the list, not to mention several Bruins (Orr, Bourque, and Esposito for starters) and even a couple of boxers (Marciano and Hagler) and a pair of runners (Joan Benoit, Bill Rogers) before you got to any Patriots.

I don't mean to overstate this. Not to say that every season was bereft of hope. Most of their "good" seasons, many of which blur together in the mind, they finished somewhere between 9-7 and 11-5 and usually involved having to win either a playoff game or a crucial late-season contest on the road in either Denver or Miami. Which you could pretty much count on never happening. (Well, it did happen once, in 1986, but considering what happened after that, perhaps we were better off if it hadn't happened then either; for one thing, I wouldn't have had to add this run-on sentence to this essay.) And during the "bad" seasons, things could get really embarassing; while they weren't quite as bad as the New Orleans Saints, to name one, they could make up for that in other ways. Like that 1-15 season where a female reporter named Lisa Olson was sexually harassed in the Patriots' locker room, and in the course of doing so became as famous as anyone else associated with the team that year. If that wasn't bad enough, the owner of the time - Victor "Remington shaves so close, I bought the company!" Kiam - made a crude joke about her to the press. As best as I can remember the joke:

Q: What do Lisa Olson and Saddam Hussein have in common?
A: Both got to see Patriot missles up close.

Imagine rooting for a team like that.

Now imagine rooting for a team like that when your schoolmates are breaking ranks left and right. The NFL, partly because of the way the TV contracts are written, is more of a national phenomenon insofar as there seem to be lots more fans who pick teams based on something other than local civic affinity than there are in other pro sports leagues. In the 1980s there were plenty of older folks in New England who remember a time when the New York Giants were the "local" team. Some of those people, particularly in Connecticut, never abandoned Big Blue for the fledgling AFL franchise in Boston - and a fair number of them passed that affiliation down to their offspring. Teams with big national followings who were on TV a lot sold a lot of merchandise in my hometown in the 70s and 80s, from the "Steel Curtain" Steelers to the "America's Team" Cowboys to the "Silver & Black" Raiders. My own brother became enthralled with Dan Marino and his Dolphins, a fan affiliation he retains to this day. My stepfather, born and raised in Worcester like me, grew up a Dallas Cowboys fan. Heck, towards the end of some years the Pats would fail to sell all their tickets and get blacked out of broadcast TV, meaning that it was actually easier to follow some of the teams mentioned above. (Remember, these were days before instant results on the web or rolling boards of out-of-town scores on TV - hell, we had to guess where the first down marker was.) Little wonder that it looked for a season or so like the team was heading to what looked like greener pastures in St. Louis.

Usually fans of most of these other teams had nothing in particular against the Patriots. There was no reason to, unless you rooted for a division rival. It would have been a waste of perfectly good sports hate better spent on the Raiders or Cowboys or 49ers or Redskins or something.

Times sometimes change. First the Bruins systematically eroded their fan base by cutting corners and shipping anyone good enough to command serious money out of town, and before long they were losing 50+ games a year and replacing the Pats at the bottom of the pecking order. Then as the glow of Golden Age of Bird, McHale, and Parrish faded, the Celtics hit the skids and spent much of the 1990s near the bottom of the league. The Red Sox remained Topic #1, but Foxboro seemed a lot closer.

If you had told me at the dawn of the century that the Patriots, after one last year of the usual futility, would have seven straight winning seasons, six postseason berths, five AFC Championship Game appearances, four Super Bowls, and three Super Bowl titles, I'd have said that you were ready for a padded room. (And no fan of any team in any sport would turn down that deal if they were offered it.)

But not only that. A lifetime of cheering for this team and making it something of a matter of personal pride that you never bailed on them doesn't prepare you for the dynamics of this season. Not that we couldn't see it coming. Aside from a coach that has, to put it mildly, a public relations problem, some players that one sometimes wishes one did not have to root for (not that most NFL teams don't have at least one guy like that) on your team, and all sorts of other controversies ("running up the score," various complaints about officiating) there's a lot of ammunition lying around- enough that certain sports humor sites have been converted to round-the-clock Patriots-hate.

But those of us who have kept the faith have seen it all and experienced nearly the entire range of sports fandom, from objects of pity to middle-of-the-road to scrappy underdogs to perennial contenders to the team, above all others, that everybody else loves to hate. And there may yet be more acts to come.

It will most definitely not be easy, but it might help if we found someone to steal Gisele Bundchen away from Tom Brady. The last time Brady played back-to-back games that were this bad, he was bedding Tara Reid. It's part of my Billy Joel theory that explains how much cheesier his music became after he bagged Christie Brinkley, which conveniently enough also explains why Coldplay's first post-Gwyneth Paltrow album, X&Y, was mostly lame. I suppose at least Tom's taste in women has improved.

And, really, whatever happens from here on out, it's been a hell of a ride.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

And Then There Were Three...

I was going to write something about Super Tuesday but work and other things just got in the way. Oddly enough, it looks like, contrary to what people were expecting, the Democratic race (which I'll get to later) has considerably more drama left in it than the Republican race.

And now Mitt Romney is out of the race, leaving only John McCain and the longshots Mike Huckabee and Ron Paul.

As someone who's not even considering voting for any kind of Republican in November, I'll say that at some level I feel a little sorry for Romney. He has a history of competence in an executive office unmatched by any of the other candidates, and his record shows he'd be likely to place more value in capability than any of the other Republicans, which would be a welcome change after Bush. There's something to be said for genuine private-sector achievement, absent in other candidates on both sides and fairly a rare attribute among politicians, even in the business-worshipping GOP. I probably wouldn't like his policy agenda any than I like Bush's, or would like McCain's, but I think there would have been a better chance that I might not have the suspicion that he was trying to turn the conservative mantra "government can't do anything right" into something of a self-fulfilling prophecy as much.

But he had a tough row to hoe. Now, we just generally assume that politicians will say anything to get elected, but Romney over the course of his career has made that a little bit too obvious. You're not going to be able, the way the GOP exists in 2008, to pitch yourself as a Rockerfeller-style Republican when running for office in Massachusetts and then pivot your way 180 degrees and campaign on a hard-right platform and stay credible to primary voters.

And then there's the whole Mormon factor.

Many Evangelical Christians consider the Church of Latter Day Saints, even though they share similarly conservative politics in most cases, to be little better than a "cult." The LDS has what one could describe as a checkered history, but it doesn't make any more sense to blame Romney for the Mountain Meadows Massacre or some of the very strange beliefs about racial differences that once existed in Mormon theology than it does to blame the Spanish Inquisition on John Kerry. It wasn't a factor in Massachusetts, not just because Evangelicals are few and far between in the Commonwealth but because Romney never ran for any office as a "Christian." In that race, he was running as a manager, a competent technocrat who would provide something of a counterweight to a legislature dominated by Democrats on a seemingly permanent basis. It was a successful sales pitch to swing voters in the Bay State, a generally liberal-to-moderate set who tend towards the secular and weren't concerned at all with the details of Mormon theology or where and how it deviates from that of other denominations and sects. Even if those beliefs and teachings were difficult to reconcile with the values of most Bay State residents, pointing them out to Massachusetts voters would have been of no help to his opponent and might have even created a sympathy backlash for Romney.

Of course, hindsight being 20/20, we now know that Democrats' predictable and futile warnings in Massachusetts that Romney was a stealth candidate for the far-right proved to be true in a sense. He got generally high marks for his first year or so in office, but then he got the idea that his job was a stepping stone to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Around that time, Romney decided that he was opposed to embryonic stem cell research, which of course doesn't serve a state with a huge biotech industry very well. After trying on a few different positions concerning legal recognition of same-sex couples, he realized that his sales pitch to Republican voters in Iowa and South Carolina required him to adopt the view that any such recognition would be a threat to Western Civilization. Illegal immigration was a plague to be fought - except of course when it came to the people mowing the lawn at his mansion. He decided that he was now anti-abortion, not that that was a huge issue at the state level in anything but a theoretical sense. And suddenly the most liberal state in the country was being run - when Romney was around, as he was travelling a lot - by a dittohead.

Running for governor of such a state and running a national Republican primary are two completely different undertakings. In the latter, you're looking to appeal to a group of voters many of whom are looking for someone who is a "Christian" who is going to govern as a "Christian." And in that specific context, having a belief system whose tenets state that there are additional books to the Bible found in the 19th century that reveal that the Garden of Eden was in Missouri suddenly becomes a problem. If that wasn't enough, Romney was of course on record more than once as having previously professed to hold liberal positions on some major hot-button social issues. Primary voters almost couldn't help wondering to themselves whether he was lying to Massachusetts voters then or lying to them now. And I suppose I can't blame them too much.

Regardless of what I said above, two things please me about this development.

One, Romney was clearly the darling of the sort of people that fund the Republicans and their campaign apparatus, even more than the departed and largely unlamented Rudy Giulani. The money men distrust McCain as someone more than willing to sell them out (even if he comes around more often than not) for some quick favorable press and dislike Huckabee's attempts, however modest, to redefine Christian governance as something other than a facade for their favored policies.

Second, it goes to show that money isn't everything in elections, since Mitt was by far the richest man in this race and had the most cash to play with. In many ways, he is to the 2008 race for the White House what Phil Gramm was to the 1996 race. Money will help you get your face on TV, get your message to the the media, and ensure that lots of people will see your signs. But just as that money couldn't make Phil Gramm likeable by anyone outside his core audience, nor could it get voters to overlook what they thought was wrong with Mitt. The parallels are numerous, from the outright purchase of the Iowa Straw Poll by both men to the endorsements by local pols that proved useless in the end.

Third, the whole episode may have exposed more fissures in the conservative movement that has grabbed control of politics and government and done a lot of damage that needs to be cleaned up. The candidate promoted almost solely on the basis of keeping the different factions of the movement together, Fred Thompson, fizzled. The darling of the Christian conservatives, Mike Huckabee, is still in the race but is getting no support from anyone else. And now both candidates heavily promoted by the money interests, Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney, were rejected by the base. The only major faction of the GOP that is truly happy with John McCain as the clear-cut front runner is the neoconservative foreign policy set, as he's even more in favor of preventative wars than Bush.

The Republicans seemingly have their candidate in McCain, and while the media adores him and he polls well thusfar against Democrats, he currently owes neither the religious conservatives nor the Republican money machine anything, and that can only be a good thing.

Stay tuned.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

The Saga Begins

Here's my first post, which I suppose is where my manifesto as to what this blog is supposed to be about goes. But it's not really about anything. It is desgined with an eye towards mass consumption I suppose, but I don't really have a theme in mind.

I'll write about pop culture because it fascinates me so. I'm not really interested in celebrity gossip; I'm more interested in what the purveyors of popular culture actually produce - i.e. the things they're ostensibly famous for. I'm especially a huge music fan, as the blog title suggests.

I'll write about sports because, well, once upon a time I got into sports to have something to dicuss with my peers, and it all kind of mushroomed from there. I am a down-the-line Boston sports fan, which comes from my deep roots in New England, though I don't live there now. There will be more on that later.

I'll write about politics because, well, that's what almost every blog I read regularly talks about. I'm joining the fray after occassionally posting to various blogs, which I'll probably step up in an attempt to perhaps get similarly-minded people to start reading what I have to say.

And then there are the little observational slices of life that for some reason seem worth documenting.

I may include some things that are semi-personal, but this is intended to be about thoughts and observations I'm going to try not to talk much about my personal life, except in such a way that might interest total strangers in a non-prurient way.

Those are the goals anyway. We'll see how it goes.