Saving The American Way By Declaring Martial Law


Title: Raven Rock: The Story of the U.S. Government’s Secret Plan to Save Itself While the Rest of Us Die

Rating: 3 Stars

This breaks American history into several phases. The first phase, of which not much time was spent discussing, was I guess what you’d call the innocence phase, which ended at the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

This was an age where the president was very accessible to people. Up until the beginning of WWII, the White House was open. You could just go in and walk around just like any other public building. Amusingly enough, up until the 1910’s, not only could you walk into the White House, if the president wasn’t in, you could just walk into his office and literally sit in his chair. For someone who has lived in a radically different era, this is pretty much unfathomable.

The constitution created the role of vice president and that was pretty much all that it said about succession. Concepts like presidential succession and continuity of government was just not something that was seriously considered. This is all the more astonishing considering the fact that during this time, three presidents were assassinated (Lincoln, Garfield, and McKinley), and a couple of more died in office (Harrison, Taylor, Harding). There was no provision at all to replace a vice president. In the case of Madison, a two term president, both of his vice presidents died while he was in office. In fact, after one of them died, Madison himself became dangerously ill for several weeks. If he’d died and Congress was not in session, there literally would have been no one to succeed him. And no one seemed to care.

This was the situation for the first 170 or years of America’s existence.

And then we dropped the atomic bomb. And then the Soviets detonated their atomic bomb. And then the Cold War started.

This ushered in the second phase. Suddenly, our leaders, all conveniently and centrally located in Washington D.C., realized that one bomb could quite literally wipe out the federal government. With the rise of ICBM’s, the government could be wiped out with little more than thirty minutes notice. There were credible rumors that the Soviets had smuggled in components of an atomic bomb to their embassy in D.C., which meant that maybe the government could be wiped out with no notice.

This set off decades of planning and billions of dollars of expenditures. Caverns were carved out of mountains to serve as hardened facilities for rump governments. Billions were spent on advance warning systems watching for impending missile attacks. Shadow governments were defined to spring up in case of destruction.

Obsessed with making sure that one good turn deserves another, many, many billions of dollars were spent creating massively redundant systems that would guarantee that, if the American leadership was decapitated, that a full retaliatory strike on the Soviets would be unleashed.

What did that buy us? Our fail safe systems several times gave off false warnings of full incoming attacks. One came so close to retaliation that a call was placed in the middle of the night to President Carter’s National Security Adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, telling him that America was under attack. He decided not to wake his wife because he thought it would be better for her to die in her sleep.

The shadow governments that were supposed to be stood up post attack were a joke. First of all, there was no provision to save anyone’s families. The men (and yes, there were pretty much all men) would be required to abandon their families. Even during drills, unsurprisingly enough, many men simply refused to leave.

Ultimately, after all of the talk of setting up shadow governments with functioning laws and legislative bodies, it was clear that the end result was always going to be a dictatorship. The planners freely admitted this. Yay! We saved America! Let’s all live under martial law now!

We had all of this planning to meet the Soviet menace and their tens of thousands of nuclear weapons. So, what was the action that tripped our Continuity of Government (COG) processes? Nineteen guys with box cutters.

9/11 and its aftermath is the third phase of phase of our history. All of the plans that had been laid over the previous 50 years were tested out in real life. Shockingly enough, they failed miserably. George W Bush, aimlessly circling in Air Force One across the plains of America, had no access to what was going on. Occasionally, the plane would pick up local television signals as they flew over so he picked up tidbits. Secretary of State Colin Powell, flying back from Peru, had no access to information. Even Dick Cheney, in the fucking situation room of the White House, discovered that the situation room did not the ability to have two audio signals happening simultaneously. He could either hold a secure telephone call or he could watch CNN, but the room did not allow him to do both. Congressmen and Senators, who were supposed to be evacuated, milled around the Capitol building, sitting ducks if another plane were to appear. A plane containing FEMA personnel flying to D.C. to render assistance was almost shot down by a fighter.

It was a mess. Clearly, the answer is to spend untold billions of classified dollars remaking the plans and building even more structures, and so we did.

It’s a fascinating story. It is also chock full of facts that I found to be hilarious, such as:

  • After Pearl Harbor, the Secret Service frantically tried to find an armored car to transport FDR in. The only car that fit the bill was a confiscated one that Al Capone owned. For a while, the presidential limousine was a gangster’s ride.
  • Even into the 1960’s, security was occasionally laughably bad. At the time of JFK’s assassination, LBJ was living in a house in D.C. (this was before the VP residence). His address and phone number were listed in the D.C. phone book.
  • As part of the post apocalyptic planning, the IRS developed a plan to continue to collect taxes in a nuclear wasteland.
  • During the last days of Nixon’s presidency, worried about his sanity and alcohol abuse, Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger quietly warned all of the military leaders to ignore any launch orders from Nixon. Similarly, on Nixon’s last flight, he assured everyone that he’d have the nuclear football (the suitcase containing the codes) until he landed. Unbeknownst to him, they’d already taken the football away from him.
  • The person involved with Reagan’s extensive COG was none other than motherfucking Oliver North. In a previous post, I’d nominated Kim Philby as person of the century. Oliver North gives him a run for the money. He was part of the Operation Eagle Claw, which was the failed mission to rescue the Iranian hostages. This was one of the opening salvos of the war in the Middle East that America has been fighting for coming on four decades now. He was a key player (possibly even the architect) of Iran Contra. And now I find out that he planned Reagan’s COG? Forget about going back in time and killing baby Hitler. How would the world be now if we just went back and killed baby North?

So, given all of this, what’s with the three stars? Although the tale is at times harrowing, infuriating, and hilarious, this was just absolutely bogged down in acronyms, obscure programs, and tedious plans. I appreciate the amount of research that went into this work, but the amount of research actually buries the narrative at many points. There were several times that I felt my eyes glaze over and I know that I just mindlessly skipped past many pages.

There is a great story to be told here, and most of it is told. It’s just hidden among a blizzard of arcana.


Purdue Pharma and Xalisco Tag Team America


Title: Dreamland

Rating: 4 Stars

Two forces collide at a vulnerable time in America.

After a couple of decades of globalization, there are broad swaths of the country economically depressed. Trapped in small towns where all manufacturing has left and main street businesses have been destroyed by Wal-Mart, all that’s left is low wage jobs at places such as Wal-Mart. People want to work but can’t get work and ultimately give up wanting to work.

At the same time, in slightly more successful towns, there are middle to upper middle class kids that are bored with pot and want to experiment more dangerously.

Into the void steps the small Mexican city of Xalisco in the small state of Nayarit. The people there are mostly poor, doing back breaking work growing sugar cane. The farmers in the hills have a long history of growing poppy and there is a local tradition of cultivating it to grow black tar heroin.

Starting small, a few of the local townspeople cross into the US and start a modest drug operation. Unlike the more famous Mexican drug cartels, they eschew violence. In fact, they intentionally stay away from those cities where gangs are already established. They set up bases in modest places like Columbus, Ohio, or Santa Fe, New Mexico.

They bring up young Xalisco men to serve as their delivery drivers. These young men are paid a straight salary and must not use drugs themselves. They haunt methadone clinics and give out free samples. They hand out business cards. If an addict calls, the drivers will deliver to the addict’s home. If an addict complains of bad service, he/she will be given free drugs. Since heroin addicts are used to having to go to the rough part of town and try to negotiate with street dealers, this is obviously a huge step up in customer service. They’re basically the Domino’s of heroin.

And like Domino’s, they quickly franchise. They seek out any mid-size city that does not already have a gang presence and that has a methadone clinic. That’s the signal to them that there are heroin addicts there and that they are not being well served. They quickly fan out to many cities spanning many states.

In the one instance where racism actually helps out the black community, the men from Xalisco are unsophisticated country boys from Mexico and believe that black men are violent, so they have another rule of never selling to a black person. All of the addicts that they serve are white.

Since they’re dealing almost directly with the farmers that grow the poppies, the heroin is essentially uncut, so it’s significantly more powerful. Just that fact alone makes the heroin more dangerous and causes more overdoses.

Along with what the author calls the ‘Xalisco Boys’, there’s another development. In 1979, a Dr Jick, who kept a database of medical records, noticed that very few patients that were prescribed opiates became addicted. He thought that was interesting, so he and a graduate student named Jane Porter submitted a letter (one paragraph) to the New England Journal of Medicine stating that fact. Dr Jick forgot about the letter and went about his business.

Later, a scientist at Purdue Pharma figures out a way to create a pill comprised of oxycodone that coats the pill in such a way that the drug is released over time. Hence OxyContin was created.

Along with this was a revolution in pain management. People began to study pain and wanted pain to be listed as the fifth vital sign (along with the normal body temperature, pulse, respiration rate, and blood pressure).

Purdue Pharma then sent an army of sales people out to doctors. Doctors, who previously were very reluctant to prescribe opiates, were now effectively being told that not treating pain could be considered malpractice (since pain was so vital to a patient’s health). Also, that one paragraph letter by Porter and Jick was now being called a ‘landmark study’ proving that, for people in pain, that opiates are not addictive. Since this was in the 90’s, the letter wasn’t online, so no one apparently decided to check up on the details of this ‘landmark study’. There was some pseudo-mystical explanation that somehow pain prevents the euphoria of addiction (and no, I’m not making that up).

So, there was an explosion of opiate prescriptions. But that was OK because opiates are not addictive and because of the time release nature of OxyContin, right?

So…it took addicts about 5 minutes to realize that if you crush the pill, that destroys the time release shell of the pill and then you’re left with pure oxycodone. Even worse, the makers of OxyContin actually placed a warning on the box that crushing the pill would increase the dose.

From that knowledge, an entire underground drug industry was built. Pill mills quickly cropped up. Doctors that could get no other jobs (convicted of crimes, lost their licenses in other states, themselves addicted) set up clinics where they did nothing but prescribed pills and only accepted cash. Some of the clinics served as pharmacies as well. Entrepreneurs would round up a car full of addicts and drive them from doctor to doctor to get prescriptions, would give the addicts half of their prescription and then sell the rest. Senior citizens sold their prescribed pills to supplement their retirement income. At one point, the town of Portsmouth, Ohio had an underground economy based upon pills, where addicts shoplifted or sold their possessions in exchange for a fixed amount of pills.

However, over time, even the OxyContin pills would not be enough to feed a person’s addiction. At that point the Xalisco Boys would step up and start selling the addict heroin.

Young white men and women, high school age, looking for a little danger, found themselves addicted, and often dead. The children of policemen, the children of bankers, football players, cheerleaders, they all found themselves addicted. Children would die of an overdose and the parent, ashamed, thinking they were the only ones, said that it was a heart attack. This secret shame let the epidemic continue on unabated.

There were more deaths in Ohio due to this epidemic than Americans killed in Iraq. More people died than in the crack cocaine epidemic. More died during this time than died of HIV.

If there is anything approaching a silver lining to this is that, at least in the Southern and Appalachian states, there is a growing awareness that drug addiction is not just a black problem. After a couple of decades of draconian drug sentences, there is now an understanding that drugs are a problem for all of us, and perhaps addicts should be treated instead of imprisoned.

This was a sobering work, obviously. It was well researched and well written.

The only glitch that kept it from being a pure five star review is the afterword. After all of the talk about the forces (economic, social, global) that led us to this point, Quinones makes the odd point that maybe the root cause is that kids don’t play in public parks anymore. I guess that you can make an argument that social isolation is not great, but to close with that statement, after laying out all of the other forces at work, seemed, well, I’m sorry to say, kind of asinine. The afterword, at least in my edition, is written in a slightly different font than the rest of the book, which almost led me to the paranoid suspicion that this was somehow covertly inserted into my copy. Such was the difference in tone and style between it and the rest of the book.

The Red Death Held Illimitable Dominion Over All


Title: It Comes At Night

Rating: 4 Stars

I’ve noticed something interesting about this film. According to rotten tomatoes, the critics are highly favorable. Top critics give it an 88 rating. However, the audience score is exactly half of that (44).

I think I understand why (or at least a working hypothesis). It’s marketed as a post apocalyptic horror movie. It’s never explained, but apparently some kind of contagion has pretty much wiped out, at least the local population, if not global.

This puts you immediately in mind of The Walking Dead. You think of a plucky group of survivors desperately trying to fight off zombies as they try to find a place to survive. This is nothing like that, so if the audience is expecting something along those lines, they will be disappointed.

However, critics see a shitload of films every year. After a while, I’d think that you’d get sick of the same formulas. This is not a typical horror film, so I’d imagine that the critics would breathe a sigh of relief at the attempt of trying to bring something new to the genre.

Be that as it may, I enjoyed it. I’m not a huge fan of horror, so the fact that it was way more psychological than horrifying made the film more satisfying to myself.

The basic plot (discovered via very little disposition) is that some kind of highly contagious infection is raging through the area. As I’ve mentioned above, it’s not known if it’s local, national, or global. It’s clear that not even the characters themselves know how widespread it is.

Regardless, a husband, wife, and teenage son (Paul, Sarah, and Travis, respectively) are now holed up in a highly secure house in the wilderness. They’ve just buried Sarah’s father, who has died of the plague. Shortly thereafter, a man (Will) tries to break into their house. The family captures him and ties him to a tree to see if he’s contagious.

After determining that he’s clean, Will explains that he has a wife and young child (Kim and Andrew) that are at a house some distance away. They have food but are desperately short of water.

Paul’s family has water but do not have any fresh food. After discussing it, Paul and Sarah decide to let Will and his family to live with them.

They do so, and for a short while, all is happy. Clearly, Paul, Sarah, and Travis were unhappy and going a little stir crazy. Having three new people in the house allows them to share chores, relax, and even have a little bit of fun.

Ultimately, the two families end in conflict. Will’s story does not completely make sense. Travis hears strange sounds outside. Andrew might be infected. All of this ends up with conflict between the two families. Suffice it to say that there is not a happy ending.

This was produced by A24, which also made The Witch. This has a similar feel to that film. You have a family, independent and isolated, trying to make do in a harsh wilderness. You have an outside otherworldly kind of force that may or may not exist, trying to destroy them.

Horror movies are pretty much always dark places. With this film, it’s even darker. Most of the action takes place inside. The house is completely boarded up, so there is no natural light. The film ends up feeling claustrophobic. Since the film gives no indication of the circumstances that brought the world to this end, you find yourself getting caught up into the claustrophobia yourself.

This is very much a minimalist kind of film. There’s only a couple of settings. There are very few wide shots. There are really only five characters who have any lines at all. This minimalism is used to nice effect. It does feel like the world is winding down or dying off.

You sense the paranoia that must build up between families awkwardly trying to coexist. They hide guns from one another. They try to catch each other up in lies. On the one hand, they are codependent. On the other, you get the sense that one false move will destroy the equilibrium of the relationship and it will quickly devolve to violent death.

So, despite the fact that this is a dystopian world in which the dystopia is never defined, that this is a tense psychological battle in which the truth is never truly discovered, and it appears by the end that the world will end grimly and quietly, I still found the movie enjoyable.

It stayed true to its nature and followed its course come what may. With no compromise in vision and no tacked on happy ending, I found it to be a rewarding experience.

In case you’re wondering about the title of the post, it’s the last line from Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death. In the short story, there is a plague rampaging. With little regard to those suffering, Prince Prospero walls off an abbey so that and his noble friends can be safe. It does not work. Death cannot be held back using locks and walls.

Paul here shares the same conceit as the Prince. If only he can make his house secure enough and if he can make the brutal, hard choices that he knows that he must, then he can protect his family. By the end of the film, as with the Prince, he understands the futility of his actions.

A Quiet Life Meticulously Told


Title: Stoner

Rating: 5 Stars

First things first, this has nothing to do with drugs. ūüôā

This is the story of William Stoner. He’s a farm boy who is sent off to college so that he can study agriculture and apply the knowledge that he’s learned there back on the small family farm. Once there, he takes a mandatory introduction to English literature. He falls under the thrall of language and decides (with the help of a mentor) that he wants to become a teacher. He does so, falls in love, has a child, lives in an unhappy marriage, has a short but passionate love affair, gets caught up in a faculty politics, gets cancer, retires, and dies.

That’s pretty much it. Stoner does not live a big life. He does not live a heroic life. He doesn’t even live a particularly happy life.

And I think that’s kind of the point.

John Williams takes a inconsequential life, and in simple prose, gives it a much richer meaning.

One of the themes of Stoner is duty. In the year 2017, that probably sounds quaint. However, William understands the duties that are expected of him and he quietly, without complaint, shoulders them. He goes off to the university so that he can better help his farmer parents. He has a moment of crisis when he confesses to them that he wishes to stay at the college, studying for his masters, and then to teach. His father, himself a disciple to duty, understands his duty as a father to his son, and grants his permission for Stoner to continue.

William’s marriage to Edith is dreadful. She, mentally unstable and treats him with hate. At no point does William even contemplate leaving her. He understands his duty to her and faithfully fulfills it. Edith, at most times, wants nothing to do with their daughter, Gloria. In addition to his work at the university, William is the parent that feeds and clothes his daughter. In the current time, that is not particularly shocking. In 1965, I’d imagine that this would be treated as some sort of heroic devotion to duty.

Another theme is adherence to some kind of other world idealism. When WWI breaks out, William’s two best friends, Finch and Masters, sign up immediately. However, after careful consideration and with no trace of cowardice, William decides that staying at the university is more important to fighting. He risks his friendship with Finch and Masters, not to mention possible future career impact, in making his decision.

In a similar manner, years later as a professor conducting a review of a student, he feels duty bound to fail the student even though the student is a protege of his department head, Professor Lomax. Lomax takes his revenge out on William in the ensuing decades, refusing to talk to him and denying him a promotion to full professor until William is dying of cancer. In William’s world, accepting a known poor candidate into the ranks of teaching would be a complete abandonment of duty and a betrayal to the higher call of teaching, so even though he knows that he will pay a steep price, he cannot allow the student to pass.

In lock step with his obligations to duty, his life is filled with sadness. He has an unhappy marriage. His child, Grace, growing up in an unhappy house with an unstable mother, lets herself get pregnant just so that she can escape. Her reluctant husband almost immediately goes off and dies in WWII. Grace in turn abandons her child to her in-laws and starts to lose herself to alcohol. Even William’s affair with Katherine, for all of the joy that it gives him, is ultimately forced to come to a premature end due to Lomax, and he then must return back to the duties of his unhappy marriage and middling career.

In this dreariness, there are moments of what can be described as awestruck passion. The first time that William reads a Shakespearean sonnet. When his mentor offers him the career opportunity of teaching. The first time that he sees Grace. The first time that he actually gets his teaching groove on and realizes that he can teach and inspire. His first moment of passion with Katherine. In a dull, dreary life, these moments shoot off like fireworks.

Williams is saying that even in the most dull, monotonous, and nondescript lives there are these moments of passion, joy, or spirit. Lying on a deathbed, looking back on one’s life, ¬†a person can remember and re-live these moments. It is these moments that make life worth living.

The Sociopath With A Conscience


Title: The Talented Mr Ripley

Rating: 5 Stars

I think that I saw this when it first came out in the theaters, way back in the previous century. I don’t remember being all that impressed by it, but it seems to have aged really well for me. Sometime in that same time frame, I also read Highsmith’s book. Although her most famous work, I don’t remember blown away by it either. Perhaps I should give that another shot as well.

The movie opens at a wedding reception where Tom Ripley (Matt Damon) is playing the piano. He is wearing a borrowed Princeton jacket. Dickie Greenleaf’s father, a wealthy shipbuilder, sidles up to him and asks if he knew his son, Dickie (Jude Law), who also went to Princeton. Ripley bluffs enough to impress the father. The father later offers Ripley a substantial amount of money to go to Italy to try to convince Dickie to come home. Ripley, actually quite poor, agrees to try.

Ripley heads off to Italy and ingratiates himself in with Dickie and his fiance, Marge (Gwyneth Paltrow). He is dazzled by their lifestyle and completely won over by Dickie’s charms. He immediately confesses his true mission to Dickie and by doing so, cements their friendship.

Dickie is a shallow, spoiled man, so ultimately the charm of his friendship with Ripley fades. Ripley, seduced by the lifestyle and in love with Dickie, cannot give it up. Ultimately, they have a confrontation, and Ripley murders Dickie.

Ripley is a gifted mimic and finds himself easily able to take on Dickie’s life. He convinces Marge that Dickie has abandoned her and he then flees to Rome.

As Marge’s suspicions are heightened, as Dickie’s father comes out to investigate, and as the Italian police are investigating, it becomes a tense cat and mouse game for Ripley to stay a step ahead of everyone.

A couple of themes stood out to me while watching.

One is that the rich are truly different than the rest of us. They all look haughtily down upon Ripley. He is treated almost as a pet by Dickie. Dickie’s true best friend, Freddie (Philip Seymour Hoffman), maliciously ridicules Ripley, just because he can. Even Marge, who is one of the more sympathetic characters, treats him with casual contempt. He is a toy for them to play with, and then to be set aside when bored. They seem to barely recognize the possibility of his humanity.

The overt gay theme is interesting. The novel was written in the 1950’s. Highsmith, who was herself gay, had to be careful with how to work this theme into the novel. The film is also set in the 1950’s, but even in the year that it was filmed (1999), although much better, was still during the time of don’t ask / don’t tell. The film was pretty overt in its expression. Ripley talks regularly about the dark basement where he keeps all of his deepest, most disturbing secrets, and wishes that there was someone in his life that he could share this with. Since his metaphorical basement includes several murders and probably a lifetime of other acts of evil, he undoubtedly never will be able to share. Although his secrets are much darker than his sexuality, it speaks to the secret life that gays had to live during those times.

Ripley tries so hard to fit in. He is a natural mimic and is a very quick study. He just has so much ground to make up. He knows it and takes every opportunity to suck up new knowledge and to ingratiate himself with everyone he meets. ¬†It’s a desperate life that he lives. He realizes that every moment he is on a knife’s edge and one wrong move could result in Dickie, Marge, or Freddie thoughtlessly casting him out of the paradise that he’s managed to weasel into and into the inferno that he probably thinks that he deserves.

The acting is superb. Jude Law lights up the screen with his charm, and then, when displeased, darkens it immediately. He is truly the feckless spoiled man-child who just takes it for granted that everything will turn out well for him. Philip Seymour Hoffman is wonderful as the hedonist Freddie, not even trying to disguise the fact that he treats his lessers as a lower form of humanity, and pretty much everyone is his lesser.

At the center of all of this is Ripley himself, Matt Damon. Ripley is truly a sociopath. He will say or do anything to get what he wants. He will smile and endure all kinds of both subtle and overt abuse if at the end he is still ahead. He will murder. He will lie. He will steal. He will flee.

Despite that, and here’s the contradiction, you sense his vulnerability. He knows what he is doing is wrong and he knows that it will haunt him. He might achieve his goals but he will always be haunted by what it took to achieve them. Damon does an outstanding job embodying this contradiction. He is the desperate poor boy, nose pressed against the window, desperately trying to get inside. He does so, at the price of his soul, and he knowingly pays it, knowing that he’ll always hate himself.


Contrarian Historian Hatorade


Title: The Politicians & The Egalitarians

Rating: 2 Stars

I picked this book up pretty much on a whim. I was just wandering through a book store and, as per usual, I checked out the staff selections. I mean, who would have a deeper passion for books than people working at a bookstore? So, I saw it there on the rack, read the back of the book blurb, and took a dive.

On the surface, it showed a lot of promise. Especially recently, in our hyper polarized political world in which we live, the idea of compromising politicians and the dirty wheeling-dealing of the legislative process has given politics a bad name. Reading a book that grants the possibility that sometimes social progress lurches forward via the half a loaf of compromise approach might not be such a bad message now. Also, given the ever increasing economic divide that our country has experienced over the last several decades, some few kind words about the radicals that rise up in history and tilt at windmills in the name of our country’s ideals of equality of opportunity to pursue life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness might be a soothing balm. Understanding the ying and the yang of the compromising politician and the rigorous absolutism of the egalitarian might have made an entertaining read.

Alas, this book was not that. It was a series of essays of various political figures. There were essays on Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson, John Brown, W.E.B. DuBois, and others. I was expecting that each one would be placed somewhere in the category of politicians or egalitarians or maybe how the pull of one or the other somehow moved the subject to a certain position.

But no, it was not that. Instead, a lot of it seemed to be throwing mud at previous historians. Apparently, over the last several decades, Thomas Jefferson has had some fair amount of shade thrown at him. You have to admit, it doesn’t look good for one of America’s philosophes, espousing equality for everyone and traumatized by the institution of slavery, to have had several children with a slave and upon his death, break up his slaves’ families¬†in an auction to pay off his bills. However, here, Wilentz goes to some lengths to try to reclaim Jefferson’s reputation. Fair enough, but what does that have to do with the theme of politicians and egalitarians?

Even more oddly, some of his essays don’t really even have anything to do with politicians or egalitarians. He wrote an essay on the Homestead strike. He wrote another essay on the difference between liberals and leftists. He even wrote one about junk history, specifically focusing on Oliver Stone’s The Untold History of the United States.

What is the tie that binds all of these together?

To top it all off, he closes (without not even so much as an afterword to try to tie these essays together) with an essay on Lyndon Baines Johnson. Robert Caro has spent much of the last 30 years writing a mammoth biography of LBJ. He’s finished the fourth volume and is trying to finish the fifth before he dies (he’s in his 80’s). These works have won national book awards and Pulitzers. Wilentz spends a significant chunk of this essay trying to take Caro down, basically claiming that Caro made a fundamental mistake in an assessment of LBJ’s character in the early stages of his work. He is now trapped by¬†that mistake and as the decades unfold, is being forced to write within this trap of his own making.

OK, maybe that’s kind of interesting…if you’re a contrarian historian looking to take the piss out of someone, but again, remember your title and theme…you know…politicians and egalitarians?

He does try to tie this essay back to the theme by contrasting LBJ as the consummate politician who got shit done with Barack Obama, who theoretically wanted to be post partisan but was unable / unwilling to get down into the muck to actually get it done. Ultimately he even concedes that minor point by admitting that LBJ had huge majorities in both the Senate and the House, while Obama did not for most of his term.

Probably the only reason why this didn’t fall down to 1 star is because some of the essays were interesting (ie I didn’t know all that much about W.E.B. DuBois, so I found that essay enlightening).

I’ve Lived In Interesting Presidential Times

When you look back over all of the United States presidents, you see a lot of boring looking white dudes.

However, I posit that, during my lifetime, we’ve had a selection of presidents that defy that normalcy (as one of the more extreme nonentity presidents, Warren Harding, might say).

Let me go through the list:

John Kennedy: Sure, I was only five months old when he died (I was nowhere near Dallas, I swear). He was the last president to be assassinated. That’s pretty big. And oh yeah, he hid the fact that he had a very serious disease, was regularly getting amphetamine injections by a physician that literally went by the name Dr Feelgood, among many other drugs, and for decades took¬†corticosteroids, which among other side effects, leaves you randy as a goat (which of course, he apparently did nothing to fight).

Lyndon Johnson: He almost certainly won his first senatorial bid through overt fraud. He was so proud of his, um…johnson… that he’d regularly whip it out for effect. As president, he once personally called his suit maker (don’t presidents have handlers for that?) to make sure that the next suit would have adequate space for his ‘bung hole’.

Richard Nixon: Where to begin? Well, first of all he’s a conservative Republican that actually created the EPA and for a time was thinking of supporting a basic income plan (where all citizens are guaranteed an income). He was a lifelong red-baiter that went to China and negotiated arms deals with the Soviets. Apparently when he was drunk, he’d order nuclear strikes that were somewhat conveniently ignored. And, oh yeah, he would have been impeached and probably convicted but instead chose to be the first president to resign the office.

Gerald Ford: He was the first president to assume the office without ever actually receiving an electoral college vote (vice presidents are also elected via electoral college; since he followed the resigned vice president Spiro Agnew, and then the resigned president Richard Nixon, he never actually was voted on in any way by the people). Also, Gerald Ford was not his birth name.  His name was Leslie King, but almost immediately his mom separated from his father because he was abusive. A couple of years later, she met and married Gerald Ford, who gave the young boy his name.

Jimmy Carter: First of all, Jimmy? Seriously? Not a presidential name. A United States President that is attacked by a killer rabbit? What is this, Monty Python? Or a born again Christian thinking that it’s a good idea to give an interview to Playboy magazine, admitting that he has many times lusted in his heart for other women? More seriously, he has been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and is generally considered something approaching a secular saint, but he authored the Carter Doctrine, which basically said that the Middle East is a vital US interest, thus involving us in forty years of war, thousands of US soldiers dead, hundreds of thousands of civilians dead, and trillions of dollars of military spending gone to waste.

Ronald Reagan: An actor? I mean seriously, at least vote for a movie star, not a second class mediocrity (Bedtime for Bonzo, anyone?). We have the arch social conservative who was the first president to be divorced and only went to church when there was a good photo op to be had. He was the first president since Woodrow Wilson who was obviously incapacitated by the time he left office. He was the only president in my life time that actually probably did deserve to be impeached (Iran Contra, read about it here).

George H.W. Bush: This is the first of two parts. He is the¬†father part of the second father/son combination of presidents that have been elected. Considering the fact that the first father/son were the Adams’, it can be safely said¬†that American leadership has not been evolving in a positive direction (although fair to say, despite their gifts, the two Adams’ actually weren’t stellar presidents either).

Bill Clinton: The second president ever to be impeached. Like the first, Andrew Johnson, he was acquitted by the Senate (although Clinton’s outcome, unlike Johnson’s, was never in doubt). He was another one that just couldn’t keep it in his pants. Unlike JFK, Clinton lived in a time of media ubiquity. Therefore, although reporters during JFK’s time hushed up his indiscretions, with Clinton we all got to enjoy tales of oral sex, semen on dresses, and improper use of cigars.

George W. Bush: This is the second of two parts. He is the son part of the above mentioned father/son combination. Isn’t it great that we live in a country where anyone can be elected president? That we live in a meritocracy? Oh yeah, he’s also the fourth person (first one in over 100 years) that lost the popular vote but won the electoral college. And the first one since Rutherford (aka Rutherfraud) Hayes to probably have won through¬†electoral chicanery (Florida is one fucked up state if you’re black and you want to vote).

Barack Obama: Oh yeah, we elected a black guy. How weird is it that when I first wrote this list, I almost forgot him? Just in case anyone thought that the United States is some kind of post-racial nirvana, we got to enjoy eight years of people calling him a Kenyan Muslim socialist atheist. Oh yeah, he was also the third¬†sitting US president to win the Nobel Peace Prize (before people get angry at me, I know that four presidents have actually won it, but Jimmy Carter won it in 2002, way after his presidency). Teddy Roosevelt was the first, which is kind of hilarious considering his basic bellicosity and Woodrow Wilson won for his work setting up the League of Nations, which is further proof that history has a sense of humor when considering that the US never joined it and the League was singularly ineffectual in stopping fascism and the second world war. It’s not clear exactly why the Nobel prize committee gave Obama¬†the prize in the first year of his term unless it quite literally was a thumb in the eye of George W. Bush. ¬†Regardless, considering that by the end of his second term, he was regularly raining hellfire down upon citizens in neutral countries from unmanned drones, the peacemakers in Stockholm might be wishing for a do-over.

And of course, this bring us to Donald Trump. Fuck, why not give the narcissistic reality television star a shot at it? He wants to run it like his businesses, which I’m really hoping is a campaign promise that he has no intention of holding to since he regularly runs his companies into bankruptcy. Oh yeah, he’s now the fifth person that has lost the popular vote but won the electoral college (at least this time, it wasn’t done fraudulently). For those keeping score at home, the Democrats have won the popular vote in six¬†of the last seven elections but have only served four terms and are now currently going through some existential identity crisis. ¬†Isn’t American style presidential elections fair and fun?

So, there you go…the rogues’ gallery of presidents that have served in my lifetime. You can say a lot of things, but it certainly hasn’t been boring.

First Days of R-Ball

My brother and I had visions of becoming tennis players.¬† However, living in Rat City, unlike someplace like Orange County, there was not a lot of opportunities for coaching or even playing.¬† We’d walk down to the local high school, which had two courts in somewhat primitive condition.

One year, for some reason, we decided to join a club.¬† It was called Tennis World, located in basically a converted warehouse in the middle of industrial Duwamish. ¬†It was, I don’t know, maybe 5 miles away from our house (maybe more, but not 10, I don’t think).

When we start going there, I’m probably somewhere around 15 and my brother Brian is¬†20.¬† We’re a couple of scruffy Rat City punks with $10 rackets playing on open courts side-by-side with people who are taking this sport way more seriously than we are.¬† We are continually hitting the tennis balls into other people courts, probably unknowingly committing a host of unwritten tennis etiquette violations, and generally making a nuisance of ourselves.

Eventually, we got sick of hitting the ball 2 or 3 times and then having to trudge off to God knows where to retrieve it, all the while apologizing to increasingly miffed-looking elderly couples in their sparkling clean white attire.  We investigate the club further, and we discover the racquetball courts.  These are enclosed.

Hey!¬† We can hit the ball anywhere we want and no matter how poorly we hit it, you never really have to walk more than 5 ft or so to pick it up.¬† We have just lean’ed out our process!

We buy $10 racquetball rackets and start to play.¬† Eye protection is mandatory.¬† I’m wearing prescription glasses at this phase of my life, so I just wear those glasses on the court.¬† Of course, these are not safety glasses of any kind, so if I ever actually got hit in the glasses, not only would the lens probably shatter into my eye, but the frame itself would probably disintegrate into projectiles that would end up lodged deeply in my cerebellum.¬† I have¬†a pair of old beat up glasses that have an obsolete prescription.¬† Brian pokes out the lenses from them and uses them as his ‘safety’ glasses.¬† We’re set.

We’re pretty clueless regarding such things as strategy or technique, so it was pretty pathetic in there.¬† On top of that, occasionally we’d get mad at each other (or to be honest, maybe just bored with the game), at which point the goal of the match migrated from scoring a point to inflicting maximum pain upon the other. ¬†In that situation, serving became a decided disadvantage, as you became a moving target that the service returner could line up in his sights with minimal ease and with maximum velocity.

Being brothers, we had a code (and this applied to all of our sporting endeavors, not just racquetball).¬† Never show pain.¬† Even if you just got absolutely nailed by a rubber ball moving at 100 miles an hour and all you wanted to do was to curl up in the corner and whimper for your mommy, the only acceptable response was to look down at where you were hit, and calmly say…”That’ll leave a mark”.

If anything positive came from this, it’s that I now have zero fear of the ball.¬† I’ve been hit so many times that I know that really nothing bad is going to happen to me (especially now that I wear¬†real safety goggles).

Interestingly enough, I still abide by that rule.¬† Now that I’m proficient (and slightly more mature), I actually very rarely hit my partner (95% of the time, I play a guy named Russ).¬† However, when I do accidentally hit him, I’m serious, he is such a fucking baby about it.¬† He’ll walk around grimacing in apparent agony, bending over, taking deep breaths, acting as if I just shot him with a bazooka.¬† I have to feign concern, but seriously, my only thought is a slightly smug…yeah…that’ll leave a mark.

Of course, when he hits me, he is profusely sorry and is genuinely concerned about my well being.¬† I’m like, dude, I’ve been hit worse in Nerf¬†gun fights.

Another interesting thing between my brother and me is that we were both intensely competitive with each other.¬† Of course, being 5 years younger, and let’s face it, my brother was a husky guy while I was more likely to be blown around in the wind like a kite. ¬†Therefore, even though I was very competitive and I hated to lose, the fact is that my brother could kick my ass my entire childhood in pretty much all sports (not so much now…revenge is mine!!!).

Brian knew that if we actually played real games, he’d kill me and I’d end up storming off vowing to never play again.¬† So…we never kept score.¬† We basically played one very long game (for the entire hour), just like it was a game, except we didn’t keep score…ever.¬† We probably played for close to, I don’t know, maybe 5 years together, and we never played a real game once.

After I started at Boeing, I played occasionally but I didn’t play much with my brother anymore.¬† I’d just started working with this new manager, and during some conversation or other, it turned out that he used to play racquetball.¬† We decided, hey, let’s give it a shot, and now here are, nearly 30¬†years later, and I’m still playing Russ, once a week or so.

And yes, I keep score with Russ.¬† Real games.¬† And yes, I care deeply whether I win or lose.¬† Over the years, I’ve probably won about 60% of the games that we’ve played. As I’ve aged, especially over the last year or two, some of my competitive instinct has died down. Maybe it’s not life or death that I win every racquetball match. ¬†Maybe I’m actually growing as a person (it could happen!). Perhaps there will come a time when he’ll start dominating me.

However, I have not let that happen yet.¬† ūüôā

An interesting thing about Russ is that he’s -very- religious.¬† When I get tired / excited, I have a tendency to revert back to my Rat City days, so when I miss a shot, all I want to do is to scream an obscenity.

However, Russ really does not tolerate poor language.¬† Therefore, the most that I allow myself to say is something along the lines of ‘shoot’, ‘gosh darn it’, or ‘doofus’, when really all I want to do is to scream Motherfucker!¬† It gets very challenging to contain myself.¬† At one time, we played cut-throat with a guy who was ex-military, and one time, he got really frustrated and screamed in anger “Fucking Jesus Christ!”, which broke I’m not sure how many commandments in Russ’ little book.¬† Shortly thereafter, we quit playing with him.

Now, over the last several months, I’ve started playing with another partner, a woman. It’s fair to say that she has a significantly more salty vocabulary than¬†Russ. I’m now¬†free to scream, yell, and curse to my heart’s content.

However, after all of these years of controlling it, I find that I can’t. I still find myself saying ‘shoot’, ‘gosh darn it’, or ‘doofus’.

God damn you to hell, Russ.