Monday, July 31, 2006

I was thinking about Jerry Bittle the other day. Jerry was one of those friends that you meet on-line and think that some day you'll get together and have a beer and talk deep into the night. That actually happened to me with an on-line buddy -- we were up until nearly 4 a.m., laughing and talking and finding out that we got along just as well in person as on-line.

It didn't happen with Jerry because, before we could get together for those beers, he took a vacation to Central America and somehow had a heart attack while he was scuba diving.

And he left behind a wife and a couple of daughters and far more grief than my losing out on a night of beer and giggles.

But there is still that frustration -- He was working on a new strip, "Shirley and Son," about a divorced family. It was the most compassionate, wonderful, hilarious strip I've ever seen -- absolutely one of a kind. Dammit, I wanted to see how it came out. And I'll bet he did, too.

At the end, in the story arc Jerry was working on before his vacation, Shirley was starting to date, and I told Jerry I was about to go on a date from one of those on-line dating services. Her pics on the Web site looked good, I said, but I was a little concerned because she was a graphic artist. He wrote back that he wanted to hear all about my "Photoshopped blind date" and I meant to tell him all about it, but put it off. And ... well, then it was too late.

It certainly wouldn't have mattered in the grand scheme of things for him to have known that she invited her entire family along on the date, but he certainly would have gotten a huge laugh out of it. And I felt bad that I could have told him, but put it off because, after all, there's always tomorrow.

Jerry's bread-and-butter strip, "Geech," was a genius piece of timing. It was like the Bob Newhart Show -- the real one -- where you knew, as soon as Bob said, "I just want a quiet evening with no interruptions," that Howard was going to come through the door -- you knew it, but you laughed because it was like being in on the joke.

Geech was like that -- yes, predictable, but that was part of the fun. Rabbit would never go to Artie's for dinner. Ruby would never get a date. And the bathrooms at the gas station would never, ever get cleaned.

But with "Shirley and Son," he was reaching beyond brilliance. How he could be so knowing and compassionate without being divorced was a mystery to me. But he said he listened to his friends. Jerry Bittle was one hell of a listener.

I have a couple of missing friends who I wish I could have one more email exchange with, even if we never did get to drink those in-person beers. Jerry Bittle is absolutely the name at the top of that list.

By the way, his stuff is still available on-line here and here.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Back in June, I wrote about the inanity of network news, particularly the morning shows, which, at the moment, were endlessly replaying footage of a bear trying to climb into a hammock.

It may surprise you to know that Stephen Colbert can be even more incisive on the topic. I found this on Arianna Huffington's Web site, which in turn got it from Atrios.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

This week, Drawing Conclusions looks at the Lebanese crisis through the eyes of Israeli cartoonist Kichka and Lebanese cartoonist Stavro.

Meanwhile, Nellie Bly looks at "signing statements." Turns out W didn't invent them, he just perfected them to the point where they became a crisis. I would urge you to check the fine print at the bottom of the feature and take a look at the actual ABA report -- fascinating stuff.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Hope none of their parents are attorneys

This is a very early strip from "Cleats," which is one of my favorites. Bill Hinds, the artist-half of "Tank McNamara" and creator of "Buzz Beamer," a strip in Sports Illustrated Jr., is artist and writer on this one, which is about kids in rec sports. (A very early strip indeed, come to think of it. Visit the Cleats site for a look at how a strip evolves -- or is intelligently redesigned -- over five years or so.)

But this particular strip was the one that made me a Cleats fan -- it touched on an exposed nerve.

I keep waiting for some town attorney to pipe up at a meeting some time and say, "Do you know how much trouble we'd be in, if some kid got hurt doing this, and we issued the permit for it?"

And yet every summer, you've got the sports teams out at intersections in towns that aren't nearly as small as they used to be, panhandling for spare change from passing cars. Granted, the kids aren't often this young, but it's still an awfully foolish and annoying thing to do.

I don't have the same feeling about "boot drives," where the local volunteer fire department asks for contributions. I figure, if I'm ever driving through that town and end up in a ditch, those are the guys who will come get me out -- either as firefighters if it's serious or, if it's not, just as friendly guys who happened to come by.

But it's been a long time since I've had the kind of travel emergency that required me to attend a rec league game.

I also have no problem with the kids jumping up and down on street corners, waving signs beckoning me into the car wash. That's my choice, and if I've got a couple of bucks and dusty car, I'll succumb once in awhile.

But that's a far cry from "aggressive panhandling," which is what they call it when someone without a permit starts walking up to cars at stoplights and asking for change.

I believe in youth sports. But dodging traffic shouldn't be one of them.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Chuck Perrin, who runs a jazz club in San Diego, is a vestige of the old folk days in college. He was two years ahead of me and already famous when I arrived -- He'd fronted a major campus rock band and then opened a coffeehouse to showcase the emerging folk scene. He also acted in plays on campus, did some dj'ing on the campus radio station and ran a quixotic campaign for Student Body President. This was a campus of only 8,000 undergraduates, so it didn't take much to become well-known and any two or three of those would probably have done it.

By the time he left, though, he knew who I was, and when I put together a campus folk reunion in 1994, he came along and did a dynamite set. We revisited the idea last summer, only instead of being formal and having microphones and an actual venue, we just went to the house of one of the guys who still lived in town. That's Chuck playing, and the young person with pigtails in the foreground is his daughter, Asa.

It sure was interesting to be in a group of people who knew what they were listening to, as they each got up and took a turn on the folding chair, but let's not be age-snobs about it. Asa and the handful of other folkie offspring at the affair weren't the only people under 50 who showed interest in the music.

The night before, we'd gathered at a small bar near campus, mostly as a place we could all find as we wandered in from New York and California and Chicago and other places, and that, with college over for the summer, wouldn't be busy. The people who wanted to chat stayed upstairs and those who wanted to jam went downstairs to a very dank and barely-finished basement where there were some long folding tables and folding chairs. The thing went on until about midnight and we started peeling off to our various hotels and buddy-housing.

The next day, it turned out that those who had left at midnight were in fine shape and those who hadn't were in rough shape indeed, because, just as things were breaking up, a bunch of college kids had come into the place, heard the music and started buying drinks and making requests. What surprised the old geezers with the guitars was that these youngsters had a pretty good grasp of the Buffalo Springfield sort of era and were asking for appropriate, excellent songs that they maybe hadn't played in 30 or 40 years. But with a dozen musicians, there was somebody who would say, "Yeah, yeah ... I've got it ... um ... " and lead off, and the rest would follow. And on they went until the barowner had to throw them out so he could close.

They told the kids this was our "anti-reunion" -- a gathering not by class year but by who you want to hang out with, and the kids agreed that this made a whole lot more sense.

Or, as Chuck had remarked back in 1994, "My class reunion is next summer, but these are the people I want to see!"

It was a great weekend of music, but it was also a great weekend of hanging out with people who shared some basic beliefs about what you ought to do with your life. It wasn't an issue of hair and lifestyle so much as the consciousness with which everybody is still working, and the number of them who are making the world a better place through their efforts -- teaching or practicing medicine or practicing law with some idea of right outcomes rather than "victories."

There are good people out there, and they don't all dress in ways that make them easy to pick out and line up on this side or that. And they aren't all 50 or 60 years old, either. Still, there are days when it feels like they aren't there, and it's good to be able to point to a moment that reminds you they really are.

Anyway, the reason Chuck is on my mind is that I discovered a new Web toy this weekend -- Pandora Internet Radio, which allows you to set up your own "stations" by choosing an artist as a starting point. The "radio station" then selects musically similar pieces, and you can correct it as it goes along by giving each song a thumbs-up or thumbs-down. You can also add artists, and, while I was fooling around with it, I typed in "Chuck Perrin" and damned if they didn't know who he was.

And now you do, too.

Pandora is a lot of fun and it's free. If you've got any kind of fast connection, go play with it. And if you have slow connections, go to Chuck's site, particularly if you like acoustic jazzy kind of thoughtful music, because he's got a bunch of MP3s you can download and then playback at your leisure.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Just a few minor edits ...

David Horsey ran this cartoon in April, 2002.
It doesn't need much updating.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Given the state of world affairs, it shouldn't surprise anyone that both "Drawing Conclusions" and "Around the World with Nellie Bly" are covering Lebanon this week.

"Drawing Conclusions" offers a pair of cartoons by Sargent and Carlson that are both pretty funny, given the seriousness of the situation, and which come at it from very different perspectives.

And Nellie simply recaps 4,000 years of Lebanese history in 400 words. Another day at the office for our Nell.

Hot Mike!

No, no, not a reference to the guy in the picture -- though that skinny, brown-haired 32-year-old should not be overlooked despite the ciggie -- but to the implement of destruction in front of him.

All microphones should be considered "on." Don't rely on the red light. Don't say anything in the studio that you wouldn't want to go out over the air.

That said, there are hot mike stories and there are hot mike non-stories, and, as the Huffington Blog's Eat The Press page notes, the Bush hot mike event was a non-story. He didn't reveal any state secrets, and the fact that he used a scatalogical term for "stuff" is ... well, maybe humanizing, maybe boring, but hardly shocking. And it's absurd for anyone who has ever worked around microphones to be getting the vapors over this -- they've all got much better stories they could tell.

Anyway, doesn't anybody remember the derivation of the term "expletive deleted" anymore? Hell, we've heard a lot worse language from a lot better presidents.

And I don't mean that one. I'd have still said "better" but maybe not "a lot better."

However, as a for instance, here's CJR's Gloria Cooper reviewing "Reaching for Glory: Lyndon Johnson's Secret White House Tapes, 1964-1965":

... conversation between Louisiana's Senator Russell Long, literally begging that the Shreveport post office not be closed, and LBJ, refusing to help until they "get those damn Birchites out of that newspaper [the ultraconservative Shreveport Times] that called me a dirty, low-down, thieving, son of a bitch every day" for signing the civil rights bill. Though Long pleads that "we've got some good people who own that Times-Picayune who are hoping to buy that paper," Johnson will not be moved. "It hurts me not to do anything you want to do," he tells Long. "But God Almighty, don't you pick out the cross-eyed, stuttering, bowlegged girl and bring her up and say, 'Now, listen, this ought to be the beauty queen, and you name her, by God, and it's a favor to me!'"

Imagine what sorts of things he said when he didn't know the mike was hot!

Sunday, July 16, 2006

A few weeks ago, I heard a British military authority on the BBC say something about how, just as the British had ended the threat of the IRA, so, too, they would wrap up this problem with the Iraqi insurgents.

Now, I've thought about Northern Ireland a good deal in the context of what is happening in Iraq, but this made me sit up, because he and I were certainly coming at it from different directions.

I've been thinking less about the IRA as a terrorist group and more about the lessons of that difficult, destructive period -- that these violent groups cannot operate without the support of the local community, and that they will have that support as long as the community identifies more with them than with the authorities.

The two situations are not parallel, but there are parallels within them that deserve a little contemplation.

The round of "Troubles" currently ending in Northern Ireland began as a nonviolent civil rights movement based on the American model, but it quickly spun out of control at Burntollet Bridge. There, civil rights marchers were set upon by thugs, with the permission of the police.

We'd seen that in our own civil rights movement, of course, but when it happened here, the National Guard was sent in to preserve the rights of the demonstrators and those who wished to register to vote, who wanted to attend schools, to sit in formerly restricted areas, etc.

In the violence that followed, there was no such response either from the Ulster government or from Britain. At last, after Unionist gangs began burning Catholics out of their homes, the IRA came in to act as a de facto police force and the violence escalated, the British Army was sent in. It was a common observation by IRA opponents that the nationalist neighborhoods welcomed the army when they arrived -- and of course they did, because they assumed the army was there to protect them from the Orange thugs.

But that didn't happen. The police continued to conspire with Unionist gangs, furnishing them with information and weapons, and the Army was only moderately effective at breaking up this partnership. In fact, it was largely felt (and occasionally proven) that British intelligence and military continued the alliances on some level, though by no means as directly or murderously as the police had. Still, people saw the Army as an extension of the corrupt civil authorities.

And then there was internment.

"Through the little streets of Belfast, in the dark hours of the morn,
British soldiers came marauding, wrecking little homes with scorn.
Heedless of the crying children, dragging fathers from their beds
Beating sons while helpless mothers watched the blood pour from their heads.

Not for them a judge and jury, nor indeed a trial at all,
Being Irish means you're guilty, so we're guilty one and all.
Round the world the truth will echo: Cromwell's men are here again.
England's name once more is sullied in the eyes of honest men!

Armored cars and tanks and guns came to take away our sons
But every man will stand behind the men behind the wire."
-- Paddy McGheoghan, "The Men Behind the Wire"

The community saw men being held in prison with no charges being brought, denied the right to attorneys, not able to know the evidence against them or to confront the informants on whose word they had been locked up. They were denied the rights of civil prisoners but also denied the protections of prisoners of war, and they insisted that, if they were "special status" prisoners, then they deserved POW status.

Which led to the hunger strike, in which Margaret Thatcher proved her courage by allowing 10 young men to die, insisting that it was suicide and that her government would not be manipulated by terrorists and murderers. And the people in the streets just saw dead young men and a government that didn't care.

And meanwhile, the IRA had become stronger and stronger, but it continued to be a violent but politically oriented militant group. Consequently, there broke off insane hyper-violent splinter groups like the Irish National Liberation Army, which killed Mountbatten and Airey Neave, and the violence became more deadly. (The British blamed the IRA for all the crazy things done by the INLA and other splinter groups. The community knew this wasn't true, and while they might not have supported the IRA otherwise, this hardened their sense that the British were not acting in good faith.)

Besides, the stories of torture and mistreatment coming out of the prison at Long Kesh made people very reluctant to turn in their neighbors. They might not support the violence, but they couldn't let that happen to young men either, whether they were IRA, INLA or whatever.

The people had become afraid of the Army.

Cardinal O'Fiaich, the primate of Ireland, told me of driving by an Army checkpoint at night and two young men in a car crying out to him that they were going to be murdered, so he pulled over and observed the rest of the stop. He worked tirelessly for peace, but he couldn't turn his back on the danger faced by the people in his community, either. Many Irish were caught in the same bind. (How many Iraqis are caught in that bind?)

And now, this rape case in Iraq -- a bad apple, yes.

It reminds me of a time when the Yorkshire Ripper was terrifying the North of England, and a former soldier tipped to police that he thought maybe a fellow he'd served with in Ulster might be the Ripper. They'd gone out to a farm in Fermanagh, and this guy murdered the farmer and his son in cold blood. The police looked into the fellow and found he couldn't be the Ripper. The army refused to look into the murders in Fermanagh, however -- "for the good of the service."

We never heard about that case over here, but you can bet the people in the streets knew about it. And, as I said before, the violent men cannot operate without the support of the local community, and they will have that support as long as the community identifies more with them than with the authorities.

So, what ended the trouble in Northern Ireland?

Well, with all due respect to that "stay the course" British officer on the BBC, it wasn't a get-tough attitude. In fact, quite the opposite. Several things happened over a period of a few years.

There were a few reporters who didn't just pass on handouts from the British authorities but got into the community and reported on what was happening. Stories about people being framed or set up outraged the public in Britain and around the world, and the abuses seemed to stop.

There was an attempt at power-sharing. "Imperfect" doesn't cover it, but the people saw the effort and the effort mattered to them.

The end of internment. They put some men on trial and released the rest.

Jobs. Jobs. Jobs. Get those boys off the street and give them something to do. As the Irish economy grew, the violence decreased.

And as there was a greater sense of fairness and justice in what was happening, and in what people were trying to accomplish, the community felt more comfortable in letting the militants know that they didn't want violence in their community and that they wouldn't support it, materially or with their silence.

So, yes, there are lessons in the Ulster experience that could be applied to Iraq.

We're just too stupid to learn them.

Friday, July 14, 2006

Parts of this week were excellent

And a happy Friday to all.

You don't often hear the catchphrase, "Parts of it are excellent," anymore, but this is the source: An 1895 Punch cartoon in which a hapless young curate attempts diplomacy. Clicking on it should provide a larger image, but the caption reads:

Right Reverend Host: "I'm afraid you've got a bad egg, Mr. Jones." ............ The Curate: "Oh, no, my lord, I assure you! Parts of it are excellent!

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Slim burns the flag

This is one of two columns I repeated in the decade or so that I was a columnist. It first ran in the Press-Republican of Plattsburgh, NY, in 1990, then again in 1999 when it became relevant again, and is copyrighted to them.

I've been kind of watching to see if I wanted to run it now, but since Garry Trudeau seems to be providing an illustration for it today, well, here it is ... (How long ago was 1990? I had to explain who "Cliff" was.)


It was about 7:30 in the morning, July 5, 1970, when Slim decided to burn the flag.

The rest of us were asleep, recovering from a day-long celebration of the Fourth that had included barbecued chicken, rock and roll music, firemen, policemen and dog catchers.

It was a bodacious party.

Slim was over at 7:30 in the morning to see what was happening, and decided it would be a good time to burn the flag. Slim didn't live at our house, but he was over all the time and no one wanted to tell him to get lost.

You know Cliff, the guy on "Cheers?" OK, picture him about 18-years-old, wearing sandals, shorts and GI T-shirt and a string of beads around his neck.

That's Slim, and, like Cliff, nobody could really dislike him. But, like Cliff, he made it pretty hard for anybody to like him, either. He was just there all the time, being an expert and having great ideas.

Now let me try to explain the firemen, the policemen and the dog catchers.

The party was a little loud. The party was a lot loud. Someone in the neighborhood objected to our loudness and, I guess you might say, our entire way of life, which involved a lot of music and laughter and what TV Guide would call "zaniness."

So this neighbor just called every authority in the phone book. The firemen came to inspect our back alley for weeds. The dog catcher came to see if our dogs were running around without leashes. The policemen came to tell us to turn down the music. The policemen had a little chicken and we turned down the music.

The next morning, Slim decided the best thing to do would be to burn the flag. Slim figured that he would impress us with what a radical cat he really was. Now, if he had burned his draft card, he wouldn't have been able to get served anywhere, but the flag was still hanging from our porch roof from the day before.

So Slim took the flag down and started to burn it, but it didn't burn very well. It just sort of scorched, and the match burned down and then Slim noticed that his fingers seemed to be more flammable than the flag, so he shook out the match and tried to decide how to get the flag to burn a little faster.

We didn't keep a lot of accelerants around the house, but Slim had some firecrackers, so he took his knife and sliced them up and rolled the black powder out into the bottom of an empty, galvanized garbage can. Then he held the flag so it was half in the garbage can and he dropped a match into the bottom.

The windows didn't rattle, but there was a noticeable bang as the powder flashed in the garbage can. And the idea worked: The flag caught on fire.

So did Slim's eyebrows and mustache. The first people out of the house found Slim stumbling around the front yard slapping himself in the face, not so much blinded by the flash as by the ashes in his eyes. A normal person would have been a little terrified by this experience, and Slim probably was, too, but he was still Slim, so he crowed about what a great idea it was and how he had burned the flag with this dramatic gesture of revolutionary fervor.

The rest of us weren't so impressed. For one thing, it was our flag he had burned. For another, burning the flag was a dumb gesture. However we felt about the war and some other issues, we were all Americans, after all.

But we figured Slim was going to keep on being Slim, even with no eyebrows or mustache and with blisters all over his face. There wasn't much point in yelling at him and getting the place in a turmoil.

Instead, we devoted our energies to polling the block to find out who had called the authorities the day before. It turned out to be this retired professor who thought we were just terrible, disturbing the neighborhood where he had lived for 40 years with our music and our shenanigans.

We realized he had a point. We didn't tone it down a whole lot, but we started popping over from time to time to visit him and he turned out to be a pretty nice guy. He got to know some of us, and we got to know him and we found out we could live together after all.

Which is the way civilized people handle their differences. You try to understand the people you disagree with, and you usually find you don't disagree all that much after all.

As for the ones like Slim, that no one can understand, you ignore them and let them go their own, silly way. You don't make a federal case out of something that was only a flash in the pan.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Wow. Change of topic. Never mind the World Cup.

Riverbend, a young Iraqi blogger, has more important things to talk about.

I'm reminded of a Vietnamese woman I met at the University of Toronto during the war who explained that it didn't really matter to the average Vietnamese who was in charge in Saigon. They just wanted to not have tanks roll through their rice paddies crushing the dykes. They wanted everybody -- US, ARVN, North Vietnamese -- to just go away and leave them the hell alone.

Perhaps one potentially critical difference, judging from a couple of lines here, is that a large number of educated, middleclass Vietnamese stayed until the debacle at the end, because the cities were relatively secure. The young woman I met was in Canada to go to university and had every intention of returning to Vietnam once she had her degree.

But there doesn't seem to be a safe place to be in Iraq and you have to wonder what kind of brain drain is occurring and how it will impact the attempt to create a stable, productive society there.

They need people like Riverbend, and we need to stop pissing off people like Riverbend and breaking their hearts and crushing their souls. And I don't know how you can do that, when you broke all the eggs before you admitted that you have no recipe for omelets.

"You who build these altars now
To sacrifice these children,

You must not do it anymore.
A scheme is not a vision

And you never have been tempted
By a demon or a god.
You who stand above them now,
Your hatchets blunt and bloody,

You were not there before,
When I lay upon a mountain
And my father's hand was trembling
With the beauty of the Word."
-- Leonard Cohen "The Song of Isaac"

Please go read her blog, "Baghdad Burning."

(Later) Here's an interview with Riverbend in which she talks about her own background, politics and motivation for blogging.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

This week in Drawing Conclusions, we look at the death of Ken Lay ... and make jokes. Poor guy, doesn't anybody shed a tear for him? (Check out the trivia question at the very end.)

And Nellie visits Pamplona, which really was a pretty sleepy place until some Yank poseur made the rounds and wrote a book about it.

Huh? By what logic, eh?

I was intending to respond to Jimmy Johnson's request for enlightenment on the appeal of the World Cup, but am kind of tied up earning a living today. I'll try to get back to the topic, but, meanwhile, in the course of looking for cartoons, I came across this spectacular example of illogic from Rick McKee of the Augusta Chronicle.

Yes, folks, McKee explains it all: The reason Americans haven't been watching the World Cup is that we've been working to solve the crises of the world. The war in Iraq, nukes in North Korea, genocide in Darfur -- okay, not that one, but we've at least worried about it -- and the potential for a war with Iran (for or against, it's still been preying upon us mightily). And the rest of the world? Not a damn care, any of them! No earthquakes, no wars, no tsunami rebuilding, no missiles flying over THEIR air space, no disputed elections, no terrorist attacks.

The fact is, the whole damn world is paradise except for the US, and because of the US. And what's the result? We don't have time to watch the World Cup, nor the peace of mind to enjoy it.

Which is why we didn't watch it. Or the Superbowl last January. Or "American Idol." Or the World Series, the NBA Finals, Desperate Housewives ... Americans have given up on all forms of entertainment entirely. We're too busy taking care of the world.

Thanks, Rick. Now we understand.

When I do my political cartooning presentation in schools, besides all the examples of great cartoons, I have a few other examples. This one might make that cut.

Monday, July 10, 2006

Assuming I can work out the deadline issues over several time zones, this week's "Drawing Conclusions" is going to report on an unusual situation in South Africa, where semi-disgraced leader Jacob Zuma is suing political cartoonist Zapiro for making fun of him. Zapiro is not just a big deal in South Africa but is internationally known, so Zuma is taking on a large target.

I've got regular access to Zapiro's work, but here's the deadline issue: The politically-charged comic strip "Madam & Eve" has been tweaking Zuma's nose for the past week, and I've got permission from them to use their work in this week's feature, too. The trick is going to be getting the files here on somewhat short notice. However, I think I've got things in hand, so check in Tuesday after about 4:30 pm EDT and see what I manage to put together.

In the meantime, here's a look at the face of the new South Africa: A campus gathering from about a year ago. Imagine this cheerful crowd 10 years ago! South Africa has come such a distance, and Madam & Eve really has been part of the change -- cheerfully mocking the conventions of society and the politics of power and division through the process. The huge crepe paper statue is Mother Anderson, a character from the strip. The Madam & Eve gang put this on their Web site back when it happened, and I found it irresistable.

POSTSCRIPT: The deadline issues worked out just fine. I got hold of Rico, one of the M&E gang, and we were all set. But the taste-and-sensitivity issues proved insurmountable. The problem is that the feature is, after all, directed at children. Why couldn't Jacob Zuma have been arrested for shoplifting or running a cocaine ring? By the time I cleaned up the explanation of what he had done, it was incomprehensible and still would have lit up the switchboard. Nuts. This is a good story and an important issue, but not one we're going to explain to the kiddies.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

If I were planning to retire, I'd have a little less than a decade to finish setting things up -- assuming I called it quits at 65.

Now, to begin with, writers don't retire -- heck, Art Buchwald refuses to even die, much less quit writing. "Retirement" to me would mean cutting back to the point where I don't have to go into the office to do my job anymore. Or, like Andy Rooney, to have a setup where you have an office to go fiddle around in, as long as you produce three minutes of genial ruminations about potato chips or road signs each week for CBS and a couple of similarly off-the-cuff columns for the syndicate.

The other factor is that I retired at the beginning of my career. I spent 15 years trying to be a novelist. I'm glad I did, because it cleared the decks -- imagine spending all these years toiling along at work I was rather good at, but in a state of discontent because of the notion that, if I only had the time, I could write great novels instead. Having produced two novel-length manuscripts and several rewrites of each, I have disproven that idea.

Now I just work along thinking that, if I'd started earlier, I might not be so far behind my age cohort in terms of storing up mammon against old age.

Fortunately, a couple of years ago I read Peter Coyote's memoir of the Sixties, Sleeping Where I Fall, and it reminded me of what we really believed back then and the fact that, while some of the specifics were naive, the core beliefs were not. I'm content with where I have landed and how I got here, and, while I think the sorts of work we reward with large amounts of money are not always those that do society the most good, I'm only bitter about it when my 12-year-old car breaks down.

That said, Sandra Bell-Lundy's cartoon cracked me up yesterday. Scary thing is, this is a CANADIAN talking. I guess it's one of those times when an American reader has to wonder, did she already convert those projections to American measures? 'Cause I've got a pretty good sense of how the exchange rate between our two countries works out in terms of Social Services, and it's not in our favor!

Friday, July 07, 2006

Ralph Ginzburg 1929-2006

Oh there's a dirty paper using sex to make a sale

The Supreme Court was so upset, they sent him off to jail.

Maybe we should help the fiend and take away his fine.

But we're busy reading Playboy and the Sunday New York Times

And I'm sure it wouldn't interest anybody

Outside of a small circle of friends
-- Phil Ochs

"After all the legal, moral and psychological arguments are done, the fact remains that a man is going to prison for publishing and advertising stuff a few years ago that today would hardly raise an eyebrow in your dentist's office. This is the folly, the menace of all censorship -- it lays down rules for all time which are ludicrous a short time later.

"If it is right that Ralph Ginzburg go to jail, then in all justice the same court that sentenced him should proceed at once to close down ninety percent of the movies now playing and the newspapers that carry their advertising. Compared to the usual run of entertainment in this country, Ginzburg's publications and his ads are on a par with the National Geographic."
-- Arthur Miller

When will they ever learn?
I look at life as a series of opportunities to make this world a better place. One reason there's a problem is we've confronted them. The status quo was unacceptable to me. And therefore, it's important to deal with problems before they become acute.
-- George W. Bush, interview with Larry King, July 6, 2006

Wednesday, July 05, 2006


I got together with the kids this weekend and gave them the exquisite pleasure of busting my chops.

"I see you've got an EZPass," my son remarked.

"Yes, with your grandmother living downstate now, I finally gave in," I said.

"So," he nodded, "you don't want 'them' to know what groceries you buy, but you don't mind if 'they' know where you go and when?"

Hmm. Okay. Yes, I've railed against Price Chopper's discount card that tracks your purchases. And yet here I was leaving an electronic record of each time and place I drive through an EZPass booth.

I muttered something about everyone having a set of limits or something and left him smirking, but I thought it over on the way home -- a four-hour drive that, as it happens, involved not one single EZPass booth.

To begin with, we do each have our own limits. I think I'd feel differently if Price Chopper had a "marketing sample club" that anyone could join, and which offered a three-percent discount across the board. But I object to the way they advertise prices on the assumption that, yes, of course you have one of their cards. When they say bananas are 23 cents a pound, of course that's for their buddies only, but everyone is one of their buddies, right? It's not really bait-and-switch, because they DO specify "with Advantage card."

I guess I object to the assumption that we're all willing to be tracked and that giving up your privacy is completely normal and banal.

Privacy should be the default. If I choose to give it up, fine. But I'm insulted by the notion that I ought to, and by the assumption that I will.

Especially since I give it up all the time, willingly. You don't have to pay me.

Which brings us to the second part of the answer, which is that EZPass isn't the same as the Price Chopper card. Yes, they could use it to track my movements, but they could subpoena my credit card or cell phone records and achieve the same thing. You'd have to live on a cash basis if you really wanted privacy.

All EZPass is, really, is a way to use a card without stopping. There's no discount -- just the chance to avoid fumbling for change and to avoid sitting in the line at the staffed booth. Basically, the same sort of "convenience" benefit you get whenever you use a debit or credit card.

All of which Sonny Boy knows. He just gets a kick out of giving the old man some grief.

But let's go back to Price Chopper a minute. What's wrong with them wanting to track how various demographic groups shop?

For one thing, by offering specific bargains, they're spoiling the sample, unless their goal is to find out how various demographic groups respond to a 10 cent discount on bananas. An across the board discount for those who agree to be part of the study would be more valuable for purposes of sampling -- and it might increase shopper loyalty because (A) we'd think we were saving money overall and (B) we'd feel we were part of a special group and were getting special treatment.

Would I accept the card under those circumstances? I'd be more likely to if all they wanted was my age, income, ZIP Code and marital status -- but not my name or specific address. But if they were also going to mail me notices of special offers, well, gosh ... we all have our price.

Wrote the guy who wants his own work on password-protected sites, but gets pissed and closes out of a site when he's asked to register.

(The illustration is from Hilary Price's brilliant strip, "Rhymes With Orange," and is dated Oct 11, 2000. If you can't read it, click on it and it opens in a separate window and will be a little bigger.)

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Tom Toles: Cartoonist and Prophet

Remember back when the administration proposed creating a phony news bureau -- that is, a bureau that would produce phony news? There was an awful outcry, and the idea was abandoned.

At least, that's what they told us. And, on Feb 28, 2002, here's how Tom Toles summed up the short-lived experiment.

Now, here's a rumination on the NYTimes/White House kerfuffle, from the New Yorker:

Why put out phony news when you can succeed in making the real news LOOK phony?

Interesting times we live in.

Monday, July 03, 2006

Just in from celebrating the Fourth with the kids ... this involved a long drive and a lot of fun.

So in lieu of a well-considered blog entry, I offer this headline from July 16, 1920, which I retrieved from the microfilm records of the Plattsburgh Daily Republican probably a week or two prior to July 16, 1995, when I was researching the "75 Years Ago" segment of a piece I did each week.

It caught my eye.

The fact that it didn't apparently catch a copy editor's eye suggests that either the phrase didn't have that meaning back then, or the Lt. Gov. was from an opposing party.

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Happy Fourth of July

Please report all incidents of flag desecration to your local office of Homeland Security.

Thank you, and drive safely.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

Dave Kellett currently does a comic strip called "Sheldon," which is on but not yet released for syndication in print, despite what I suspect is a growing audience, since he's got a book coming out this fall.

But Dave and I go back farther than Sheldon, because we went to school together at different times. At my 20th reunion, I got into a conversation with some of the students who were working the affair and the result was a monthly column de-mythologizing the '60s in the Observer, Notre Dame's daily paper, which ran throughout the 93-94 academic year. And, of course, I had to subscribe to see what else was being discussed so my columns would be relevant.

That was when Dave's comic strip, "The Four Food Groups of the Apocalypse," began running, and I became a fan. When I was rummaging around in my attic looking for something else, I came across this example of the strip. It was good stuff then and it's held up well, though of course there's a lot of "you had to be there" in this gag. But that's how local strips should be!

(Note: I've placed the panels two on the top and two on the bottom to make it more legible, but it -- perhaps obviously -- ran on a single level originally.)

One of the bookmarks on my menu of daily stops is Slate, which replaced Salon but might find itself deleted soon. It currently features a "debate" about Wal-Mart between Jason Furman, described there as "a visiting scholar at New York University's Wagner Graduate School of Public Administration" and Barbara Ehrenreich, author of "Nickeled and Dimed" for which she took a job at Wal-Mart.

Here's where the piece started going off the rails - Jason Furman in the first installment of this back-and-forth writes:

I myself have never worked at Wal-Mart, and I can only remember shopping there once.

and, later in the same installment:

The single most careful economic study, co-authored by the well-respected MIT economist Jerry Hausman, found that grocery sales by Wal-Mart and other big-box stores made consumers better off to the tune of 25 percent of food consumption. That doesn't mean much for those of us in the top fifth of the income distribution—we spend only about 3.5 percent of our income on food at home and, at least in my case, most of that shopping is done at high-priced supermarkets like Whole Foods. But that's a huge savings for households in the bottom quintile, which, on average, spend 26 percent of their income on food.

No, Jason, it doesn't mean much. Especially since you manage to eat so much better than the rest of us and keep your expenditures at 3.5 percent. And, in return, your analysis doesn't mean much to me, because, yeah, I'm spending more than 3.5 percent of my income on groceries, and if I were doing it at Whole Foods, it would be quite a bit more than that.

This is what is known in the trade as a "thumbsucker," in which some writer sits in his office and meditates upon the world. Furman has done some economic studies. Ah. I see.

Ehrenreich is apparently no less out-of-the-demographic than Furman, but at least she's put in the real-world research:

We both want higher wages and more generous government social programs; we both voted for Kerry; we're both in the upper-middle class or pretty close. The difference, I think, lies in our mental ZIP codes. Where you see some unfortunate, but not really all that bad, numbers, I see human crises, and I see them in my extended family and my network of friends as well as in the letters I get from readers: The car that gets you to work breaks down and is going to cost $200 to repair. The baby gets sick so you miss a day's work and face the possibility of losing your job. Your back goes out and you can't scurry around the floor picking up tossed merchandise any more.

This is a polite way of telling Jason he doesn't know what the hell he's talking about. And much as I get tired of shout-fests and debates that degenerate into abuse, I think if she'd been a little more direct, I wouldn't be deleting Slate from my daily bookmark menu.