Saturday, October 30, 2004

Voting (2)

My first grown-up (sort of) job was as a teacher at a boarding school in Pennsylvania. A cozy little enclave in a—well, not cozy, actually, rather hard-bitten but small town, where people took note of new arrivals. There was a teacher at the school named Bill, a middle-aged man, absent-minded and rumpled, with crumbs of food in his mustache, Mr. Chips in the early stages of senility. But a very sweet man. Bill was active in the local Democratic Party. The first time we met he inquired politely about my politics and was pleased to hear that I intended to register Democrat. The next evening I got a knock on my apartment door, and was surprised to see Bill there, holding the voter registration forms in his hand. He came in, sat down on my awful Salvation Army couch, and filled out the forms FOR me, which was a little embarrassing. But it was an intimate and human moment. I definitely felt I was being ushered into something, with Bill as my guide.

My memory of Bill has a strange coda: Months later, Bill took me aside in the hallway of the school and told me, solemnly, that the party had been suckered and one of the Democrats on the ballot was a ringer, a Lyndon Larouche follower. Bill was very sorry to have to take the highly irregular step of urging me to vote for the Republican in this particular race. I followed his advice. That was one of the last times I talked to him before I moved away.

I mentioned earlier that I was traveling last week. I didn’t get online much from the road. What little news I got came largely from catching snippets of CNN or glimpsing the front page of USA Today. Looking at the campaign news through that prism, I was left with the feeling that Bush was unbeatable. Whatever Bush does on a given day is above the fold, while Kerry is always below the fold. What a relief to get back home and apply the comforting filter of my favorite blogs, reporting all the bad news for the GOP and all the reasons why Democrats should be energized.

But which filter is truer? The one with integrity or the one with market share? It’s an incredibly complex political culture we confront, a Rorschach inkblot we try to make sense of. And the act of voting this year feels to me like an urgent prayer—or if you prefer, a coin tossed into a fountain for luck, by someone who desperately needs for his luck to turn. An inarticulate plunk into a chaotic abyss, a gigantic input-output system that collects impulses from a hundred million directions, processes them and yields what? Wisdom, justice, vice, voodoo?

Doing my homework on the candidates then presenting myself to vote is keeping faith. Faith in what, I'm not sure. There's been a lot of disgusting news about mucking around with the voter rolls, and even if my candidates squeak through, it won't soothe all my qualms about our alienated system.

Voting (1)

The early-voting sites around here are drawing large crowds. I went to vote on Tuesday and had to wait 40 minutes in a line that snaked out the door and around the corner of the building. It was a beautiful clear day, fortunately.

The woman in front of me in line was lively and chatty, and we got an earful of her political views. “I’m sick of Bush AND Kerry. I wish I could vote for None Of The Above. Let’s see how we would do with no president for awhile.” The government just needs to get out of the way and let individuals fulfill their potential, which is unlimited in our free society. Another woman in line disagreed gently, bringing up discrimination against women. She recalled a job where male co-workers used to grope and grab her. Our heroine Woman #1 nodded, she too had been grabbed by men on the job. The solution there was simply to say No to these men firmly. Then she tied together the strands of the discussion thusly: “That was one good thing about Clinton. He was so busy messing around with his girlfriends, he didn’t have any time left over to meddle with the economy or anything.”

By this time I was biting my tongue so hard I liked to draw blood. (Bill Clinton didn’t take time to tinker under the hood of public policy??!?!) But there this woman was, with her cockeyed and extremely cynical views of the politicians, lined up to cast her vote a week early. I came to find out she needed to vote early because on Election Day she would be serving as a poll worker. She’d had to get trained—sure, she would get paid, but she had devoted quite a bit of time. Elections couldn’t be held without people like her.

I find the ritual of voting to be enjoyable and renewing: giving my name to the senior citizen keeping the list, receiving my ballot, filling it out. We have the paper ballots where you fill in the broken arrow, then feed the ballot into a scanner when you’re done. I enjoy the gauntlet of signs and poll greeters you pass through on the sidewalk outside the polling place. I like to give a wink to the Democratic greeter out there. I enjoy getting the “I Voted” sticker as I leave. If election boards shift more toward voting by mail or online, and surely they will, I will mourn the lost ritual of going down to one’s voting precinct.

Call me crazy—a little part of me also appreciates standing in line at the post office or the DMV. Those inconvenient cattle calls are rites of citizenship, I say. People of every creed, color, and background have to show up and be hassled.

Wednesday, October 27, 2004

Roll Over Bambino

The Boston Red Sox are on the brink of winning the World Series. It would be their first WS championship in my lifetime, indeed in my dad’s lifetime, though my Gran was three years old the last time. And she doesn’t turn 90 until January.

Assuming the Red Sox can seal the deal, this would be the end of the notorious Curse of the Bambino. The notion is that when Harry Frazee, Red Sox owner and Broadway producer, sold Babe Ruth to the Yankees in 1919 (in order to finance his B’way musical “No No Nanette”) a blessing was placed on the Yankees and a curse on the Red Sox. And you can’t deny that over the years the Red Sox have lost a lot of close contests under excruciating circumstances. Longtime fans can tick off the names on the roll of dishonor: Johnny Pesky. Denny Galehouse. Mike Torrez. Bill Buckner. Grady Little.

Bill Simmons, aka’s Sports Guy, is a lifelong Boston baseball fan, but he hates, in fact is offended by, the idea of the Red Sox curse. He thinks it suggests that Red Sox fans WISH for misfortune, ENJOY being seen as perennial losers. He prefers to think of the Red Sox nation as long-suffering rather than cursed.

I have to say, never having been a true Red Sox fan, the notion of the Curse has always appealed to me. Appealed to my Puritanical side, I should say. The baseball God is a jealous god, and Frazee’s disrespect to his franchise and to baseball’s greatest player deserved punishment. But perhaps 86 years in wilderness exile is enough. And my superstitious side feels that a Red Sox win would somehow bode well for the Massachusetts gentleman running for the presidency.

Certainly, there are several good non-supernatural explanations for why the Red Sox have fallen short so many times. Boston has often featured lineups that hit well but didn’t run or field or pitch particularly well. When you get to the playoffs, it helps to be able to win games in more than one way, and the Carmines were often too one-dimensional. Some people have observed that the Red Sox’s culture was one of brooding temperamental stars and a lack of team spirit, “25 players and 25 cabs.” There’s also the uncomfortable but valid argument that the Sox had a history of institutional racism that caused them for years to ignore the pool of talented players of color, and then for years afterward to have trouble attracting those players to or keeping them with the team. (See Howard Bryant’s Shut Out, an informative read despite being the worst-edited text I can ever remember grappling with.)

This year’s team addresses those problems. The core of the 2004 Red Sox, their emotional center as well as their core of talent, is a group of dark-skinned players: Manny Ramirez, Pedro Martinez, and David Ortiz. They seem to be fun-loving guys who help make for good team karma. At midseason this year, Boston traded away a marquee player, Nomar Garciaparra. Somewhat counterintuitively, the trade improved the team in two ways: (1) it lowered the stress level in the clubhouse, and (2) by substituting Orlando Cabrera for Nomar, the team’s ability to run, catch, and throw improved sharply. Pitching-wise, as patched-together as the Sox have often seemed the past couple of weeks, they have enough warm bodies, with a good mix of flamethrowers and junkballers. And you can't argue with the wisdom of going out and getting Curt Schilling and Keith Foulke.

I feel for the Cardinals (and for Jim B., my college roomie from St. Louis), but for once the Red Sox seem more well-rounded than their opponents. St. Louis has some big bats, but their pitching has looked pretty awful, and they are suffering the worst absence due to injury, starting pitcher Chris Carpenter. Wait till next year.

Tuesday, October 26, 2004

Kris or Krista

I was perusing the candidate endorsements in last week’s Independent, the alt-weekly paper here. There is a candidate for District Court judge here named Kris Bailey, who I had assumed was a woman. He is in fact a man, but as the Indy points out he doesn’t seem to mind our thinking His Honor is Her Honor. Bailey’s website doesn’t identify him real clearly—indeed, there is one picture of the Bailey family in which Kris’s WIFE is holding a gavel.

This makes a difference. I confess, on those down-ticket races where I probably know little if anything about the candidates, I often use the apparent sex of a candidate as a guide. All things being equal, I’ll usually vote for the woman.

The Chief Justice of our state Supreme Court, elected in 2000, is named I. Beverly Lake, Jr. (I is for Isaac.) He is a perennial GOP office seeker, got crushed in the 1980 governor’s race, won some and lost some other campaigns for various offices. His political fortunes improved, though, when he changed his name on the ballot, in 2000, to “Beverly Lake.” Quite a bit less masculine than “I. Beverly Lake, Jr.,” wouldn’t you say?

Electoral androgyny. Who'da thought this would be a conservative political strategy?

Monday, October 25, 2004


Notes from a week mostly spent in the arms of the airline industry:

I don't care what all your metal detectors say. My shoes are a weapon of terror against good taste--nothing more.

Towns and bodies of water should be labeled to help me identify them from the air.

My cab driver in Louisville took a liking to me, I guess. He showed where he keeps his Smith & Wesson. Then he told me a baffling story about the time a fare left a prosthetic leg ("still warm!") in the backseat, and never tried to reclaim it, though the cab office held onto it for years.

Hey, movie fans, have you wondered what Val Kilmer was up to, or down to, lately? Well, this month he's the cover boy for the American Airlines in-flight magazine. Looking ruggedly enigmatic in his photo, Val submits to a hard-hitting interview... about things to see and do in Santa Fe, his adopted hometown.

A shoeshine GIRL!

Well, for my afternoon libation I explored the delights of Concourse G. For my evening meal I think I'll wander over to Concourse F and see what gustatory surprises await me there.

The cover story of Inc. magazine is titled "Are You Underpaying Yourself?" Gee, could this be pandering to the readers?

I was sitting on the plane waiting to take off from Minneapolis/St. Paul (connecting en route to Kansas City) when the flight attendant came over the speaker, in an exasperated voice, telling us we were delayed because John Kerry's campaign plane was taking off and all other flights had to wait. (The passengers murmured their discontent.) A few minutes later, the pilot came on, in a more patient and understanding voice, saying that actually the problem was due to Dick Cheney's campaign plane. (Laughter and LOUD sounds of discontent from the passengers.) The delay was pretty short and we were on our way, but the next day at my conference I spoke to a woman from St. Paul who was on the flight, and she said the candidate who was in town was in fact Kerry. Now I'm wondering if life is just really confusing in a swing state, and/or if the Northwest Airlines pilot was playing mind games with us.

The cover of the Northwest Airlines magazine was Lily Tomlin, who at least got to talk about herself.

Chewing gum is my friend.

Wednesday, October 13, 2004

Bus Stop

Well, it's not every day you come to work and see the burnt-out shell of a bus parked near your office.

Bus 19 is a program of Christians for Israel. They have purchased the remains of a bus that was struck by a suicide bomber in Jerusalem early this year, with 11 people being killed. They travel the country displaying the bus (it's on a flatbed trailer) and raising awareness of the horrors of Palestinian terrorism.

Duke, in the face of protests, is hosting a Palestinian Solidarity Movement conference this coming weekend. Allowing Bus 19 to come was an 11th-hour conciliatory gesture to the anti-Palestinian people. That's also how come hardline anti-Islamist writer Daniel Pipes is speaking on campus tomorrow.

What can you say about this bus? On one hand, it IS affecting. Almost all the sheet metal is gone from the sides and roof. The glass is all gone. Seats are ripped out of the floor and scattered here and there. You can see where the bomber was positioned. The thick plywood floor is blown out in that spot, and one seat has all the fabric and foam rubber burned away.

On the other hand, it's like a fetus in a plastic bag that an anti-abortion activist thrusts in your face. The campus paper calls it academic expression, which it is most definitely not--it's an appeal to raw emotion. Are we guilty of intellectualizing the Israeli/Palestinian conflict here? Being as we're a university, I think we're in the business of intellectualizing things.

The bus arrived here yesterday. A quiet counter-demonstration began today. And as I was typing this, an e-memo came over warning about a bogus e-mail that appears to attribute pro-Hamas statements to Duke students connected with the PSM. So although none of this interferes directly with my work, it's not just another day at the office.

Monday, October 11, 2004

Work and Family

I've been spending time the last week or so at 11D, where the proprietor Laura has been hosting a blog conference on work and family. The gender politics of housework. The competing wants/needs of parents and non-parents in the workplace. What government should or shouldn't do for "nucular" families. Good stuff like that.

My bride and I, we're just hanging on, I feel. Trying to keep all the balls in the air, with a lot of drops or bobbles. We don't feel like we're doing a stellar job at home OR at the office. But neither of us wants to step completely out of work life for a substantial chunk of time, and I suppose we like the standard of living that our combined incomes afford us. In other words, we have a good-sized house in an attractive city with pretty good public schools. So things could be a lot worse. Money feels tight, however, and it's hard to see a time when it won't feel tight. The youngest gets out of day care in two years; the oldest enters college probably five years after that. Time is even tighter; we're harried and tired a lot.

Don't know if anybody saw "60 Minutes" last night -- a feature on professional women taking a hiatus in their careers to be full-time parents. It was a fairly thoughtful piece, but one undercurrent, to me anyway, was that Lesley Stahl was a little bit miffed that after all the crap she (and other women of her generation) took to carve out a place for women in the workplace, that the younger generation was "opting out" of that struggle.

One woman interviewed had been top of her class at Stanford Law School (I think it was Stanford; someplace high-falutin' like that), and she left her job to be with the kids while her husband, a surgeon-in-residency, brought home the bacon. The implication (or at least the proposition that she had to rebut) was that she was squandering her Stanford education.

I'm not quite doing justice to the 60 Minutes story. They discussed the problem of part-time work, namely how difficult it often is for part-timers to get satisfying assignments rather than busy work. They did interview a Harvard Business prof talking about innovative ways for companies to deal with the dynamic: perhaps maintaining an extended-leave relationship with an employee, with some peer contact and continuing education, for the 5-10 year period that he/she was a fulltime parent. But the story clearly viewed the dynamic as a problem, and its interviewees as economic assets, and education as a financial investment. (Three years of law school ain't a broadening experience like a semester in Paris, I realize, but I would have appreciated some lip service paid to the idea that a liberal education is a good in itself.) It sure would have been nice if stay-at-home dads with graduate educations and lofty career prospects could have been interviewed as well.

Wednesday, October 06, 2004


A lot of political blogs have commeneted on this Washington Post column from yesterday: Onetime Bill Clinton pollster Mark Penn saying that the conventional wisdom is all wrong--there are lots of swing voters who are going to be decisive in this year's campaign.

The point many have made is that Penn is off base when he says:
"We might all learn a lesson from Bill Clinton in 1992. He won by making the
Persian Gulf War irrelevant to the election. "

The first Gulf War was OVER in 1992. It had been well-planned, well-argued for, and had received multilateral support, and whatever people now think about the wisdom of leaving Saddam in place and abandoning the Shiite rebellion, in '92 there was consensus in the U.S. that the war had been a success. The present Iraq war is ablaze with controversy. It just seems silly to advise Kerry to shy away from Iraq as an issue. Bush went so far out on a limb, and with such troubling results so far, it was just dense for Kerry and Edwards not to confront Bush about it.

A few general observations: Mr. Penn, for obvious self-interested reasons, is making the case for a very poll-centered approach to campaigning. It's a silly conceit of mine that a "real" statesman would campaign and govern on principle, not pander to voters based on poll results. (Not just a conceit of mine--it's no accident when Bush boasts that he doesn't look at polls or focus group data.) But I think there are good reasons not to put enormous faith in polls that examine specific issues or divide us too finely into demographic segments (e.g. middle-aged white suburban women).

Polls are simply not as accurate as they used to be, for one thing. Americans have polled and telemarketed to death, the rate of response to polls and surveys has dropped considerably in the last decade or two (I believe this is true in marketing and social science contexts as well, not just politics), so for statistical reasons polls are less reliable. (I would welcome comments on this observation.)

I think what Penn is describing is the famous Clintonian art of triangulation. Some phrases that come to my mind are "awfully cute," "threading the needle," and "somewhat defeatist." It just seems to me that triangulation presumes (excessively) that the public is hostile to a progressive message, and the best result triangulation aims for is a 51-49 victory. Bill Clinton could perform this juggling act, shading the message differently for different audiences, and keeping the Democratic base just happy enough while offering goodies to the moderates in the general election. But campaigners as talented as Bill Clinton don't come along very often.

Maybe I'm not hearing reason about this, but I still don't accept the main premise of the column. I think there is more to be gained from drawing clear lines, rousing the base, and doing get-out-the-vote activities than from fetishizing swing voters, be they soccer moms or office park dads or whatever the hell.

Penn counsels the Kerry campaign to be positive and avoid "insults." I would reply that it is not an insult to look at Bush's performance and give it the harsh verdict that it objectively deserves. Also, to me, an aspect of being positive is really trying to unify us, and promote a common vision that applies to everybody.

Tuesday, October 05, 2004

Why NASCAR Is Stupid

Because it is not a sports league, it’s an advertising agency. Why else would NASCAR react so hysterically because Dale Earnhardt Jr. accidentally let slip a cuss word on TV?

Earnhardt screwed up. NASCAR fined him, which is appropriate. But NASCAR also deducted points from his ranking in the drivers’ championship standings. Knocked Earnhardt out of the points lead, in fact.

That violates the integrity of the competition. It's as if the NFL got mad at Terrell Owens for taunting his opponents after (legally) scoring, so they penalized the Eagles a touchdown or a win in the standings. Earnhardt screwed up in the PR function of his job, he didn’t break the rules of racing. But apparently the PR function is top priority. What are they crowning, the champion racer or Miss Congeniality?

NASCAR exists to turn its cars into billboards and the drivers into spokesmodels. The first words out of any driver’s mouth in an interview are thanks to his sponsor, Viagra or the U.S. Army or Rockwell Automation or whatever. I used to scorn Jeff Gordon because every time he won a race, the first thing he would do afterwards was pick up a big bottle of Pepsi, and be sure the logo was visible to the viewing audience while he drank it. (Poor guy’s body temperature was about 120, he needed an IV drip, but he was contractually required to drink fizzy sugar water, which no sensible athlete would quench his thirst with.) But maybe he considers himself lucky he didn’t have to take a swig of Dupont paint.

NASCAR wants to have its cake and eat it too. It wants to be G-rated for its corporate friends, but its fan appeal is based on the rough, tough, no-nonsense image of the drivers (especially the Earnhardts). They don't really want their drivers NEVER to swear or duke it out in Pit Row, they just want to administer wrist slaps. But if I were Dale Jr. I'd be pissed.

I'm a fool to let it bother me. I don’t even know much about stock car racing, so I don’t know how Earnhardt’s penalty (25 points) compares to the penalty (two laps) they assessed Robbie Gordon, who merely caused a wreck on the track deliberately a few weeks ago.

Friday, October 01, 2004

Not A Crossroads

Yesterday's post was a bit over the top, no?

I really expected the day's news to have an impact on the evening's Bush/Kerry debate. (I wonder if one of the many rules of engagement the two campaigns agreed to said anything about using late-breaking news?) Maybe the innocent-unsuspecting-kid aspect of yesterday's attacks got to me sentimentally, but I think on any other day it would have been a much, much bigger story. And it does get at the central question about Iraq: as every day brings new reports of vicious insurgent attacks, how do you respond: with stubborn resolve not to be driven out of the country? Or with deepening understanding that the US armed forces will never, never be able to achieve a non-catastrophic outcome?

Nobody is eager to admit failure in the face of terrorist violence, but failure is the fact of the matter. We screwed up terribly. The terrorist insurgency may be the final straw, but it wasn't the original problem; the original problem was Bush's reckless adventurism. A military force under the United States brand name cannot pacify Iraq; we have no credibility or good will there. We need some kind of international coalition to bail our pitiful asses out. Maybe no American leader can get that coalition, but it's for damn sure that the Bush government can't; it has no credibility or good will in the world.

I don't have too much brilliant insight about the presidential debate last night to add to what's already out there. I was yelling at my TV for Kerry to lambaste Bush about the International Criminal Court (how can any American respect a President so alienated from core American values that he won't sign on to a promise not to commit torture and genocide?). But Kerry done good, and my spirits are a lot better now than 24 hours ago.

It still boggles my mind that anybody can support Bush after seeing him on a stage alongside a competent politician. I know it's bad strategy to call him an outright dummy, but at times Bush hems and haws and wracks his brain for even a merely appropriate answer, to questions the assistant White House pastry chef could have told him to expect. I get embarrassed for him. At times he throws out facts that are only marginally relevant, just to fill dead air and give the impression he knows something about something. What was the point of name-checking Poland or the US ambassador to Sudan, other than to show that G.W. Bush does too have a couple of pieces of knowledge lodged in his brainpan?