Friday, February 26, 2010

Theatre of the Damned

Washington certainly is a bottomless pit when it comes nutty behavior. Politicians dip deep into the well of insanity and never fail to bring home the crazy in gigantic trainloads. It would probably be a little more amusing if they weren't dicking around with billions and trillions of our dollars and basically screwing with the future of the entire planet and every living creature on it. Things have been getting a little tedious lately with all the sex scandals, such as South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford and disgraced Presidential candidate John Edwards, among many others. Let's face it - hearing about old white guys getting their swerve on and acting like hormone-crazed frat boys rates pretty high on the "ick" scale. I'm an old white guy and I think it's pretty unsavory. But occasionally the denizens of Capitol Hill outdo themselves when it comes to massive silliness and a true spectacle emerges for our entertainment and edification.

That's what happened at the Health Care Summit held yesterday in DC. President Obama got together with a roomful of Democrats and Republicans, ostensibly for a come-to-Jesus meeting where they would thrash out the different philosophies that have been colliding recently and preventing any real progress in fixing our ailing health care system. The Republicans have been complaining that they've been shut out of the whole process and Obama said, you want to come to the table to talk? - fine, we'll do just that. But instead of hammering out some kind of compromise that both sides would be able to support, however unenthusiastically, what we got were both sides digging in their heels and preening and posturing for the camera, and saying precious little of any use.

The live television coverage let us sit in on this confab, which truly did look like the staff meeting from hell. On one end we had the unnaturally orange Representative John Boehner, or John Boner as I like to call him, pontificating and blustering in true Congressional fashion while saying absolutely nothing. On the other side we had Senate majority leader Harry Reid, who looks like he should be managing an H&R Block office in Akron, getting ready to work on someone's taxes. In the middle was Obama, uncomfortable with his role as ringmaster in this hellish Cirque du Batshit. Next to him was Vice President Joe Biden, looking and sounding surprisingly cogent and on the ball. Joe Biden looks like your uncle who always seemed to have had a little too much to drink even at 8 in the morning, and who would laugh at his own jokes and screw up everything no matter how simple. When Biden appears to be the voice of reason and sensibility in any gathering, you know things are on the verge of heading south in a big way.

But there were a couple of fun things to watch in this whole seven-hour grindfest. One was Obama sniping with his former Presidential rival John McCain. Obama had to tell McCain that the "campaign was over" and he should drop his tired blathering. McCain cackled in his usual cringe-inducing, pseudo-pedophile way and said that was something he was "reminded of every day." I bet he is. Why anyone gives this silly old man any airtime at all is beyond me. He looks like a character from The Muppet Show that was created to be an understudy for Statler and Waldorf, the two old hecklers in the balcony, but was discarded because it was too creepy.

But the most amazing thing was a brilliant segment on yesterday's "Hardball with Chris Matthews" show. They put together little snippets of the speeches the Republicans gave at the summit, and it clearly and hilariously showed them repeatedly using the exact same words and language. With robotic consistency that would make the Cylons from Battlestar Galactica jealous, they shamelessly used the same phrases over and over again, which consisted of "start over," "clean sheet of paper," and "step back." It was pretty eye-opening to see how thoroughly rehearsed and coached the Republicans were. It's like they had been drilled to within an inch of their lives like third-graders learning math tables and were told, probably by Darth Cheney, that if they strayed one iota from the party line they would dissolve into a messy puddle of goo like the Nazi Ark-snatchers at the end of "Raiders of the Lost Ark." It was plainly obvious that they weren't saying what they truly felt and thought, but were slavishly parroting what their puppet masters told them to say. In a time and place where we really needed the participants to be actively engaged in finding a solution to possibly the biggest crisis we have to face today, what we got was the same-old-same-old, much to no one's surprise.

And President Obama still does not get it. For some reason he still clings, Don Quixote-like, to his dream of bipartisanship even though it's been made painfully clear over and over again that the Republicans have no intention at all of cooperating. They only want Obama and the Democrats to fail, no matter how much it would cost the country. Like the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, a bipartisan agreement is both irresistible and unattainable for Obama. The Republicans have always said that it's their way or the highway, but Obama still tries to hold out hope that they'll come on board. Now the Republicans are spitting mad that the Democrats will push the health care overhaul through using the process of reconciliation, which is a way of combining the Senate and House health care bills and only requires a simple 51-vote majority, instead of the inconvenient 60-vote supermajority. When Republican Lamar Alexander tried to do a pre-emptive strike and chastised the Democrats for threatening to use reconciliation, Harry Reid in an amazingly righteous show of cojones told the Repubs to STFU because since the 1980s, reconciliation has been used more than 20 times mostly by Republicans, and if it was good enough for Republicans in the past it's good enough for Democrats now.

Well, the show is over and the Health Care Summit of 2010 is history. Comedic history, but history nonetheless. What Obama said was absolutely true, and that is the American people do not need another year of pointless, mind-numbing debate, which is what it would take to come up with another health care bill from scratch, as the Republicans want. We simply can't afford to keep the status-quo; health care has to be fixed and even the stripped-down, neutered bill we have now is better than nothing. We can only hope the Democrats can find a way to get this done, since the Republicans will not lift a finger to help and will in fact obstruct at every opportunity. They are truly the "Party of No," as in No Brains, No Help, and No Morals.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Winter Into Spring

Here in the desert our winter season doesn't last very long. Usually it starts around Thanksgiving and runs through December and January. By Valentine's Day, the weather has started to feel springlike, blossoms start to appear on trees and flowers begin to pop up on outdoor shrubs. Winter keeps a tentative, unsure grip on us, preferring to exert its chilly power in fits and starts, sending us scurrying for our sweaters and flannel bedsheets in between plenty of pleasant, sunny days.

In many parts of the country our excuse for winter weather hardly qualifies as such, and in fact would be considered balmy April weather. I remember growing up in western Pennsylvania when we would get snowfalls in late November and winter would lock us down in a death grip until Easter. There would be no doubt in your mind at all the winter was in charge - you sometimes did not see the sun for weeks on end, and the gloomy, leaden skies complemented the somber dark brown of the trees, devoid of their green leaves. The days were short, listless and gray, and the nights seemed endless, when temperatures plummeted into single-digit-or-below range, and everything seemed trapped in a vise-grip of ice and snow. When winter finally decided that it was time to give it up and move on, it grudgingly released its grip, seeming to be unsure of letting go and always ready to snap us back into an icy prison in the blink of an eye. I recall Sundays when the afternoon temp would get up to maybe 40 degrees F., and the first couple inches of ground in our back yard would thaw out, leaving a squishy layer of mud everywhere that would swallow up your shoes if you took one misstep. There would be such a fragrance of moisture, dampness and new life in the air, as the soil woke up and regenerated itself. Then at night the full moon would shine brilliantly high up in the dark sky with a frigid, crystalline light as the ground would re-freeze and we would repeat this cycle again the next day.

No such luck here in the desert, where the best that winter can do is maybe force the nighttime temps down into the mid- to upper-twenties for a couple of hours, and then play havoc at the airport when early-morning flights are delayed until the sun comes up and melts the frost off the airplane windshields, things like de-icers being no use to us normally. This year we've been particularly favored with a lot of rainy weather (with more to come this weekend, I've heard) which has made the weeds in my yard grow like crazy, and has given the open desert all around us a distinctly lush, green tinge.

Up in the starry sky, the seasons inexorably plod along as the earth cruises in its orbit around the sun and the spring constellations herald the approaching equinox. Leo the Lion leaps up off the eastern horizon and halfway into the sky in a single, powerful jump. Right behind him is Virgo the Virgin, stretched out in a languid sprawl low in the southeast, as if she's deciding whether or not to get up off her fainting couch and grace us with her presence. Invisible to our eyes, Virgo contains one of the largest objects in the known universe, the Virgo Galactic Supercluster, a gravitationally-bound group of hundreds of galaxies, whose combined gravity can be felt in every corner of space. Shortly after dusk the famous winter constellation of Orion, one of the handsomest and most conspicuous constellations in the sky after the Big Dipper, is riding high in the south, followed by his ever-faithful dog Canis Major, and protecting the skittish, shy Lepus, the celestial Hare, crouching at his feet. Eventually Orion will sink into the western horizon for a six-month nap, and if you stay up long enough and you get to see right before dawn Scorpio the Scorpion raising its pincers above the horizon as its blood-red heart Antares briefly comes into view before being swallowed by the sunrise.

But for me the sure sign of the passage of time is the appearance of the second-brightest star in the night sky Canopus very low in the south. Canopus is in the constellation of Carina, the keel of the ship Argo, and it is so far south that from here, it pops above the horizon for just a couple of hours before it dips back down below and disappears. Canopus is only visible in the evening for a month or so, and does not show itself again until next February.

So it looks like we blew through another winter season here in Paradise. I wish it would last a little bit longer, because winter does have it own, understated charms. A little more winter would be a welcome buffer against the vicious, snarling devil-beast that is summer, which grabs hold of us with a terrifying ferocity and forces us to drastically alter our lifestyle and live by its draconian dictates for nearly five long, grueling months.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

What a Blight!

We've all gotten pretty used to ridiculous, completely senseless things happening in government at the federal level. As a matter of fact, it makes the news when someone says or does something that actually makes sense. On the state level, a fair number of idiotic things happen but that's due mostly to the bad genetics and lack of education of the backward, inbred Neanderthals that somehow get elected to the Arizona legislature, sometimes over and over again. But much less frequent are blatant displays of undiluted stupidity at the local government level, which generally stays off everyone's radar as long as the garbage gets picked up regularly and the water keeps running. But when some local government agency does jump the rails, they bring home the crazy in big huge buckets, and it is something to see.

Such is the case with Phoenix Neighborhood Services Department (NSD), a local government entity entrusted with ensuring that Phoenix remains the "Best Run City in the World." Their website says their mission is to "to preserve and improve the physical, social and economic health of Phoenix neighborhoods, support neighborhood self-reliance, and enhance the quality of life for residents..." They are committed to "building vibrant neighborhoods" and they regard their ''investment in healthy neighborhoods [as] an investment in our residents, a sense of community and shared pride." That's some heady stuff right there, and a noble venture if there ever was one. Let's take a little look at the Phoenix NSD in action - shall we? - and see exactly what it is they're doing to make the fifth largest metropolitan area in the nation such gosh-darned wonderful place to live.

Consider if you will the recent experience of Erika and Billy, longtime residents and undisputed good citizens. They came home one day and found a notice of violation from the NSD waiting for them. What heinous crime did these thoughtless scofflaws commit which disrupted the peace and serenity of their lovely neighborhood, turned it into an unsightly disgusting blight and prompted the NSD to take such a stern action? Now brace yourself, you may want to put a pillow or two on the floor in case you take a header off the couch from sheer shock. They had a couple of boxes near their front entrance, and two palm fronds on the ground. Oh, the humanity! You have to understand, too, that Erika and Billy have a huge, wide front yard and the entrance to their home is set back a good 30-40 feet from the street. So the boxes were not right next to the street where they could offend the delicate sensibilities of everyone who stumbled by. You had to really take a good look to even see them. And the recent rainy, windy weather caused a lot of things other than palm fronds to fall on the ground.

The NSD notice said that someone reported their property for a possible violation and that an inspection would be made in the near future. If this horrible effrontery to decency was still on display then a formal violation would be issued. The notice also stated that the citizen-snitch who ratted on them "might be anonymous." Oh really? Does anyone think that any of the neighbors would really give a serious crap about a couple of boxes and palm fronds? Does anyone think that people really have time to waste caring about pointless nonsense such as that? Or do you think that what actually happened is that someone in the surrounding area got busted for some kind of violation and the NSD made it their business to prowl around just looking for things to write up. That's some kind of "anonymous" source. And they obviously didn't care how stupid, trivial and asinine the violation might be.

This is how the city of Phoenix is squandering our hard-earned tax dollars - harassing law-abiding, tax-paying citizens with utterly moronic, monumentally stupid things like citations for boxes and a couple of palm fronds. This is what the NSD wastes their time and our money on, at a time when city budget deficits are so dire that policemen, firemen and other public service workers - you know, people who actually do something useful and valuable every day - are in serious danger of losing their jobs. At a time when youth programs, senior citizen programs and libraries are either having their hours cut back or are being eliminated altogether, our tax dollars are wasted paying the salaries of a bunch of pointy-headed dimwits who have nothing better to do with their lives but root around looking for things to write up as violations. At a time when the city council recently passed a tax of 2% on food purchases, to take effect in April, because Phoenix is so poor and has no money.

Wouldn't anyone with normal sensibilities be deeply embarrassed to cite as a blight violation a couple of boxes of rabbit supplies and two palm fronds? You'd think so, but apparently the NSD employees have very little shame or self-esteem and even less common sense. How pathetic it is, in a city where you can easily drive anywhere and within minutes find home after home with enormous piles of garbage and tattered furniture and useless appliances on their front entrances, that the NSD instead chooses to target a home with a couple of boxes and palm fronds. I would rather be unemployed and on welfare than demean and humiliate myself with such a worthless, pointless excuse for a job.

The bottom line is this: Before one person from the fire department or police department loses their job due to budget cuts, and before one library or one senior citizen center cuts back its hours, they should eliminate every person and every position from the NSD. If this city is supposedly run so damned well, they will stop wasting our money on stupid agencies like the NSD and spend it on things that really make sense and enhance the quality of life of its citizens.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Slow-Motion Train Wreck

The drama of John Edwards' fall from grace continues to spin hilariously, tragically out of control. A galaxy-class train wreck which hasn't yet reached its peak, the sordid, tawdry details just keep on coming, like Cheerios rolling out of the General Mills ovens. It still amazes, confounds and delights the rest of us who sort of have the normal ration of morals.

Former campaign aide and snubbed bromance-partner Andrew Young is working the talk shows with a vengeance and intensity normally reserved for the publicists of a young Hollywood starlet who somehow forgot that wearing panties is a fairly good idea when you are getting in and out of cars. His book detailing the whole tacky affair is due out tomorrow and it's sure to be a top-seller, if not a cultural milestone, just like the tell-all book "Game Change" that came out a couple weeks ago, spilling the behind-the-scenes dirt of the 2008 presidential campaign.

It seems as if the American public cannot get enough of highly-detailed accounts of the scandalous behavior of politicians. That may be due in part to the fact that there is no scarcity of this scandalous behavior and in the hyperactive, instantaneous news cycle of the internet and cable television, we are constantly bombarded by all kinds of ludicrous conduct practically the minute they see the light of day. Maybe Americans have made up their minds long ago that politicians are vile loathsome pigs and every new report of love children or illicit trysts just reinforces and validates that opinion. Or maybe it's like watching the audition shows of "American Idol" - seeing legions of the terminally crazy lose their minds in a very public fashion make us feel better about our own lives. Or maybe, I like scandals because they give me reason to use cool words like "tacky," "tawdry," and "sordid." Whatever the reason, political scandals are like media crack-cocaine, and that monkey shows no sign of getting off our backs anytime soon.

But once we get past the sadly-obvious fact that the Edwards situation has more cheesiness than a Wisconsin state fair, we begin to see the debris field of broken lives and hearts, of promises and confidences betrayed, and marriages and families torn asunder by conduct of the most selfish and thoughtless kind. When stuff like that hits the fan, everybody gets splattered with something nasty. Even cancer-striken Elizabeth Edwards, who throughout most of the emerging scandal was sympathetically cast as the Wronged Woman, has been portrayed as a shrieking, batshit-crazy harpy.

A scandal of this magnitude requires an enormous, highly elaborate web of lies and deceit to contain it. It takes on a life of its own and rapidly becomes unsustainable. Even the most carefully-constructed house of cards has to collapse under its own weight, and that is what we are witnessing now. Apparently Edwards and his erstwhile collaborators thought they could get away with something, but the harder they tried to keep it under wraps the more it started to trickle out. I don't know how Edwards expects his children to be able to weather this whole situation. They are what soldiers call "collateral damage," that is, innocent bystanders who get hurt solely because they were unlucky enough to be in the wrong place when everything goes to hell. And what about this "love child?" To me the most outrageous, immortal aspect of this whole thing is that Edwards tried to get Young to assume paternity for the child. It's completely astonishing to me that you would deliberately lie about who is a child's father. Someday she would have discovered the truth, and what a horrible, life-shattering revelation that would be. I could not even imagine living through something like that.

So, when we last saw John Edwards he was wandering through the pulverized landscape of earthquake-ravaged Haiti, trying to find himself some sort of redemption in the rubble and tragedy, a very apt metaphor for his political dreams. That was probably the only place he could find people more miserable than he is. The big difference is that the people of Haiti did nothing to deserve their current predicament, the senile babbling of Pat Robertson notwithstanding. Edwards, on the other hand, did everything he could to deserve his sorry fate, and I have absolutely no sympathy for him. I'm saving my sympathy for the children of the Edwards' and the Youngs, who have perfect examples of how responsible adults do NOT behave.