Saturday, August 30, 2008

the new decider

OK, but just cause I guess I gotta.

As great as Obama’s speech the other night was, and it was, if this whole presidential campaign were a movie that I was watching on TV, it actually wouldn’t have been until yesterday morning, with McCain’s announcement that he has selected Alaskan Governor Sarah Palin as his vice-presidential nominee, that I would begin backtracking in my mind to try to figure out when the dream sequence actually began.

In fact, I may go back to bed, lie down, close my eyes, open them, and see if it’s still true, this strikes me as being so utterly ridiculous. Where is the backwards-talking midget?

But let us set aside for now the question of whether the woman is worthy, or whether her background or credentials even remotely qualify her to take over the Presidency of the United States in the event that the actuaries prevail again.

Let’s just look at this pick, and Obama’s, from the perspective of what it tells us about how these men run things, and make decisions, because in both cases, their methods are on such vivid display.

In Obama’s case, the selection of Joe Biden turns out not merely to have been correct, it is the clear product of reasoned assessment – not cynical assessment, mind you – but a capacity to step back, take a slow, calm look and the pluses and minus of all the various candidates, include the politics of the choice, the personality, the intangibles and the tangibles, include the all-important question of whether he can present a running-mate with whom the country can rest easy, knowing that he or she would be capable of taking over at a tragic moment’s notice -- take all that in, check your gut, look in the mirror, and you come out with…Joe Biden. Correct. Ding, doing, ding. And it’s a choice that looked better and more obvious on day two than day one, better on day three than two, and today, well, today it practically closes the deal.

Now look at John McCain's selection and ask yourself if it doesn’t vindicate all of one's deepest suspicions about how this man goes about making decisions at this point in his life, even the very important decision which he has been given ample time to think about and mull? To be blunt, this is transparently alf-assed, ill-considered, seat-of-the-pants, hail-Mary bullsh*t, the only remotely legitimate appeal of which is that it gives the appearance of being gutsy, of being "out-there," of being “so crazy, you know, it just might work,” when in truth, it represent the worst imaginable combination of desperation, spinelessness, recklessness, and cynicism. Even those singing the praises of the choice can only do so by the tortured logic that it makes political sense. It’s only brilliant if it’s a brilliant shake-up, a way of winning a state, and some women, or shoring up the "base," but it has nothing to do with what the country needs out of an actual vice-president. It’s running-mate as prop. Moreoever, it demonstrates that McCain has no grasp of how the world actually works today – by which I mean, no apparent awareness of the fact that as of 11:00 AM ET yesterday there was some guy eating donuts for breakfast in his mother’s basement who already knew more about Sarah Palin than John McCain did, or his staff did, or anyone else in the Republican party did. I'm sure there were all thrilled.

In that respect, and with all respect to Ms. Palin, her selection as McCain’s running mate is a spit in the face; it’s an insult to his party; it’s an insult to the American people; it’s an insult to the grains of truth that still lingered in McCain's ever-diminshing arguments for being president – that these are serious times when we cannot afford to gamble. So serious that you would throw a completely unvetted political novice into the lion’s den of a presidential campaign, an assignment that will oblige her to face-off with Joe Biden (and God helps us all in watching what happens to the bar of expecations prior to that engagement – absence of drool will crown her the victor) and then maybe, just maybe, once she’s cleared that bar, have to go face down Vladimir Putin and Ahmedinajab and whatever other boogeyman that Republicans has self-generated when the great day of cosmic thermo-nuclear reckoning comes.

Donnez Moi un freno, as my cousin would say.

To all but the dead-enders, who are regrettably both legion and certifiably insane, there is simply no positive argument that can be made on behalf of McCain’s candidacy at this point – not simply because his policies are out of touch; not simply because he is temperamentally unsuited to the office; not because his command of polity of so scandalously uninformed; not simply because he has become an inveterate and shamleless liar in the course of this campaign; not because he has clearly made a deal with the devil and gives the appearance of being a man hollowed of his very soul; none of that, but because we can all see now, this is how he makes his decisions; these are the sorts of decisions he makes. Decisions where, if he can actually thump a table when he makes, well, it must be good. These are the decision of a gambler, which we know McCain is, a craps man (dumbest game there is) – a reckless rich gambler who plays with lots of money he didn’t make.

All along I’ve been of the mind that the very best argument for Obama, the best evidence we have for his worthiness, his readiness, his preparedness, consists is the campaign we have all watched him run, which by any objective standard has been a marvel of strategic execution, of economically and expertly deployed resources, of setting achievable goals, figuring out what needs to be done, and then doing it, whether we’re talking about his state by state, caucus by primary, breakdown of exactly what he would need to do to beat Clinton; or, say, pulling off a two week trip to the mid-east and Europe without a glitch; or holding rousing part convention that builds to an unprecedented climax. If this man can run the executive office with even a fraction of the aptitude he has shown running a campaign, I dare say we will be a very good and capable hands, (Indeed, on the basis of having watched his run so far, I’m willing to admit that Obama is one of the few individuals I might actually trust to go try and topple a foreign government and install democracy where it had never existed before. God bless him, as with all people who might even be able to pull such a thing off, he would never try.)

But that is not the point, the point is (and which needs be remembered as an answer to those fatuous boobs who would suggest that Palin and Obama come to this with equivalent experience and preparation): no. As has been said countless times by the Presidents themselves, there is no preparation for being President, other than life itself, but outside of that, maybe the best and only viable training ground for the Presidency is actual campaigning, and Obama has campaigned far better, more hitchelssly, with a stronger grasp for tactic strategy, integrity, purpose, theater, substance, ground game, air game, rope a dope, rebuttal, you name it, than any candidate we have ever seen. That’s how come he vanquished the most powerful political machine in his own party party. That’s how come he’s the first black man in the history of the United States to stand this good a chance. That’s how come we know he’s “ready,” because we have all been watching him in the hottest spotlight on earth for over a year now, and we have yet to see a bead of sweat.

While over on the McCain side of the ledger? An Amy Winehouse tour is run with more efficiency, more integrity, a more abiding sense of purpose...

...and certainly more recognition of the needs of the people in the seats.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

'Storm Steals Thunder'

So I think most Democrats would agree that the convention is working out pretty well. The Traditional Media got to have their fun, tittering about PUMAS and party rifts, chiding the Dems for maybe possibly screwing up this one, too, only to have the Clintons pull through and redeem themselves, and Kerry and Biden both step up to the plate and demonstrate that you can be tough on an opponent without being petty or personal or sounding like one the Heathers. Really, all that Clinton business and the tepid beginnings of the convention just provided the necessary suspense to up the ratings, and the TM and progressive bloggers played their part in wringing their hands, as I’m sure they’ll continue to do on the Dems behalf – ‘what suicide! A politician speaking in front of columns!’

Once all that is happily behind us and focus shifts to the Republicans, once we have learned whether McCain has decided to counter Biden with Droopy Dog or Lyle Waggoner, one wonders what bogus memes, out of fairness, the TM will be taking to the Republican Convention, what false sense of suspense will they be shoving down the throats of the American viewers who haven’t managed to find CSPAN. The obvious and most accurate backdrop for the event would be one of depression and apathy, that this is not a good moment for the GOP so who even knows who’s going to show up. Tagline: Has John McCain garnered enough loyalty within the party that its heavy hitters (whoever they are) will actually set aside their own self-interest, (which would dictate they be somewhere in the Cayman Island right now, or on a mushing holiday) and muster up a rousing endorsement of McCain, or an equally rousing smear of Paris Horton, er, excuse me, Barack Obama?

That’s probably too loaded and lengthy and disrespectful a meme for the TM to play. More likely they’ll buy the line that McCain should be getting trounced right now so it just goes to show what a resilient fighter he is that the polls are all so close. ‘Don’t count out John McCain!’ But they really can’t avoid such questions -- the ones about the awkwardness of the occasion -- when it comes to the President, can they? He kinda has to go. He’s scheduled to, anyway, which does make one wonder: how IS the McCain campaign, not as yet noted for its finesse, going to finesse the fact that what, under normal circumstances, would represent the high-point of their party convention – i.e. the full-throated endorsement of the sitting president – could very likely, in this instance, play like a cough at the funeral of someone no one ever really liked?

Seen from that perspective, and wishing only the best for those now standing in harm’s way, this storm off the southern coast that everyone seems to find so ironic, Gustav, could be a godsend for the GOP -- politically, at least -- insofar as it could provide Bush a legitimate out, whereby he has to go pretend to do his job, roll up his sleeves and help move crates in a fireman’s line. His endorsement can literally be phoned in from the flooded front porch of some desperate victim (preferably, a you-know-what). The Republicans can give the appearance of actually finally “getting it.” More important, they can avoid the prospect of writing, lighting, producing, and distributing the best campaign ad the Obama people ever came up with: George W Bush taking McCain’s hand and shouting, “This man here is my choice for the future of America!” all to conclude with another one of those delicious arm-pit sniffing hugs.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

musical suggestion #2, Yekaterina Ervy-Novitskaya

I have to confess, I’m a little embarrassed that my first entry under what I hope to be this blog’s most recurrent category, musical suggestions, turned out to have been such an obvious one. Shostakovich’s Seventh is a great symphony, granted, and the Bernstein/Chicago rendition is tremendous. Still, recommending it to a potentially interested listener out there is a little like recommending Gone With the Wind to a cinephile.

So, just to establish a little more steet cred, let me for my second recommendation suggest a recording that’s a little farther from the beaten path.

Yekaterina Ervy-Novistkaya was 18 years old when she recorded most of the selections on this LP in that most blessed of years, 1969. A devoted Prokofievian, this US debut featured are Sarcasms (which I’ve never really gotten), the Fifth Sonata (the second movement of which is kind of a must-listen), Fugitive Visions (an all-time fav), and the piano transcription of ten selections from Romeo and Juliet.

As far as I can tell, this is Ms. Novitskaya’s only solo recording. In a moment of far-flung procrastination a while back, I think I tracked down the fact that she married and moved to Belgium, where she is still teaching. Whether the brevity of her recording and performing career is a function of illness, bad luck, stage fright, or domestic obligation, I just don’t know. Whatever the cause, it is, like the death of Jeff Buckley, a point of intensely selfish regret to me personally, I consider this recording to be such a glittering (if sharp) gem. Fair to say, based upon the performances in this recording, I would listen to this woman play anything, anytime, anywhere.

That said, there is no quintessential performance on the record. For the Fugitive Visions, I would still have to give the nod to Richter. For the Romeo and Juliet, I’m not sure there is a #1 piano version just yet, and the same as with Glenn Gould, everything Ervy-Novitskaya plays should probably be heard as played by someone else, just for context. Her decision are not all agreeable. As with Gould, the virtue of the recording resides in the fact that she is such a distinctive player, and CLEAR. Spiky is a word that comes to mind. If she uses the pedal at all, I’m not aware of it. This is distinctly percussive playing for a distinctly percussive (piano) composer, but hers is a very heavy, sonorous finger as well. She hits harder and more emphatically than Prokofiev himself, whose playing can be heard on Pearl issue I am going to recommend just as emphatically. Most of the pieces on the Pearl LP were recorded in 1935. The sound is not good – a version of the third piano concerto, played by the composer and conducted by Piero Coppola, is unfortaunately distant (and a little hasty in parts), but the solo material burns through the mist more than clearly enough to substantiate what was often said about Prokofiev’s pianism, which is that for such a radical and brash composer, he was remarkably restrained player, one willing to the notes do the talking. The playing on his recording is all very respectful, subtle, at no point showy.

Ervy-Novitskaya is not exactly showy either. She clearly means to be a humble servant to the material, but her playing does call attention to itself, again, just because her sound is so distinct: emphatic, clear, very serious and ironic at the same time. Even so, and even though her decisions does not quite match Prokofiev’s, and even though he was famously cruel to players who took liberties with his scores or who seemed to have misunderstood his purpose, one gets the sense that he would have found Ervy-Novitskaya’s playing deeply, deeply pleasurable and affirming of his gifts. As idiosyncratic as it may be, she gets at an aspect of his music more directly than any other player I’ve heard, including Richter, and including Prokofiev himself.

For highlights, let me suggest the second movement of the fifth sonata, and just about all of Romeo and Juliet (with the possible exception, sadly, of the Knight Dance, which I’m ready conclude just doesn’t translate well to the keyboard). There’s a moment right at the end, though, track 38, as the bodies of the two young lovers are being taken away, the music is fading beautifully, drifting (yet marching) away, when out of nowhere, eleven rapid-fire chimes sound. In Ervy-Novitskaya's hands, a chilling, evanescent appearance of the devil himself.

For that, and countless other moments contained in this LP, my thanks to you Ms. Ervy-Novitskaya. If you are out there, if you have ever been tempted to reenter the fray, send up a flare, I will be first in line.

noun, verb, I told you so.

A little over a week ago (8/18/08) I wrote this to Andrew Sullivan in response to a pair of links he’d provided to separate pieces by Megan Mcardle and Dean Barnett, chiding the likes of Sullivan for harping on the ‘cross in the dirt’ story, suggesting it played to McCain’s advantage to draw attention to his time in the HH. McCardle and Barnett, I wrote,

‘should recall the Giuliani campaign. Was a time it would have been unthinkable that his connection to 9/11 could actually work against him as a candidate. But it did. Amazingly, 9/11 and Giuliani, juxtaposed, became a punchline, and it ultimately killed him.

...We should not assume the same couldn't happen to McCain-as-POW. ...if his campaign continues to double-down on his time in the HH, and uses it to try to deflect every single complaint against him - and there's no question that they will - it could easily begin work against him. One deft, viral YouTube rapid-firing the shamelessness with which McCain exploits that one chapter of his history - and a little help from Jon Stewart - could turn the words 'Viet Nam' into an embarrassing albatross for McCain.

A lot of people are already beginning to roll their eyes, and it's August.'

Just sayin'...

Monday, August 25, 2008

Pat Burrell, latter-day Hojo

Now let me cleanse the palette by saying this: the Philadelphia Phillies have just pulled to within a half-game of the Mets, largely on the strength of the play of Pat Burrell, latest in a long line of ‘Met’ killers – that is, players who, if they played against the rest of the league the way they play against the Mets, would be first ballot hall-of-famers. Jay Johnston comes to mind as another. Terry Pendleton, to a lesser extent. Derek Jeter, of course (though he will be first ballot anyway). But Burrell may be the Met-killer to beat all Met-killers, and this year it appears that he has begun to show the rest of the league what he has been showing us for years now. I think he’s hit 30 HRs so far.

For some strange reason, however, I refuse to give the man his due – perhaps because I know that up to now, his performance against the Mets has been so odd and freakish. I don’t buy him, and I actually don’t think I’m alone in this. Seems to me he comes close to leading the league every year in outfield assists, which is less a measure of the quality of his arm than the fact that everyone always runs on Pat Burrell. They just do, and I would too. No matter how many times he throws runners out. No matter how many times he cracks crucial late-inning home runs against us, I still wouldn’t want him. I still expect to get him out every time he steps up to the plate...

All of which is to say, I think I feel towards Pat Burrell exactly the way Whitey Herzog felt towards Howard Johnson.

Was less respect ever shown, or more soundly punished?

musical suggestion #1

If I keep this up, one element I’d very much like to include as a recurring feature would be musical recommendations. I don’t pretend to be anything other than a fairly avid listener. I was never a student of music, per se. Not a scholar. I play, but I’m not particularly proficient. I have, however, spent a scandalous amount of his time on earth listening, fairly closely, and quite repeatedly to a lot of music. There is no hyberbole in suggesting that some of my best friends in life have been pieces of music, and certain performances of certain pieces of music. They have carried me through difficult times, absolutely, and taught me. They have done that thing that art is supposed to do: Thery have refined me and my emotions. For better or worse, I would not be who I am without them.

In that regard, I’ve always considered that one of the kindest and most generous things a person can do for another is recommend a piece of music – say simply, “this means, or has meant a lot to me. Perhaps you should give it a listen, too.” Speaking for myself, I don’t think I’ve ever NOT taken such a suggestion, usually within a day or two of its having been made - just because I also think that being able to enjoy a piece of music is one of those rare pleasures in life to which there is no downside – as opposed to, say, eating, where some of the most delicious dishes also happen to be bad for you; or sex, where to have it with one person often means betraying another. With music, if someone else I know has managed to find a way to love a given piece, well, I want to find that way too. Why wouldn’t I? It’s pure profit.

Let me begin, then, with a recommendation that was specifically recommended to me. This would have been probably 18 years ago. I bumped into a college friend on Hudson Street in NYC – not someone I knew all that well, but he was working in the classical music industry, as an agent, and offered up the fact that he had been obsessing recently over the Bernstein/Chicago Symphony Orchestra performance of Shostakovich’s 7th. I was not all the familiar with Shostakovich at the time, and in fact, my classical interest, which I’d stoked pretty wildly in my teens, had gone dormant in my college years and early twenties, but I was at that time Jonesing for more than my pop/alternatice collection was giving me, and so on the strength of this quick recommendation, and the look of bliss in my friend’s eye when he made it, I went right out and purchased it.

I know from the first four measures that this was exactly what I’d been needing, longer and more flexible, more unpredictable lines. Only later would I come to recognize the relative disrepute into which the 7th had fallen. It’s one of those warhorses that suffers critically from being too popular, largely on the strength (or weakness) of what is widely considered to be a gimmicky first movement, the final twenty minutes of which is given over to a march that plays a deliberately goofy melody, oh, I don’t know, maybe twenty times in a row, upping the ampage, heightening, and wringing the thing until by the end it has literally become a monster (some say Hitler; others Stalin). Bartok apparently thought the passage so musically ridiculous that he went ahead and ridiculed it, to nearly equally inspired effect in the third movement(?) of his Concerto for Orchestra (a version of which I will also be recommending). Me, I like the Bartok spoof (surrounded as it is on one side by a gorgeous woodland idyll, then followed by one of the loveliest melody lines Bartok ever penned), but I also like the Shostakovich march, because it is catchy, and absurd, which just goes to show something I’ve often found to be true with the more melancholic composers: the fact that I’m always initially drawn to them by their humor. I thought Shostakovich was funny before I thought he was sad and beautiful, and the same is true of Schubert – I couldn’t believe how funny and charming the fourth movement of 960 was. Or the third. Loved it, and came to love the rest of him only subsequently. In the case of Shostakovich, there was the march in the 7th; the scherzo of the fifth; the middle section of the third movement of the seventh, which is actually my favorite movement of the symphony. His cello concerto.

Shostakovich snobs wil turn up their noses at much of this, tossing the the Seventh and the Fifth in the category of Shostakovich compromises, kowtowings to the pressure Stalin was putting on him (the composer’s own dedication of the Fifth refers to it as his response “to just criticism," Stalin’s proxies having been unkind about the Fourth.) Well, I poo-poo the poo poo-ers. True, the more radical and personal and defiant Shostakovich is beautiful, too, but if Stalin scared Shostakovich into writing the fifth, well, good for him – at least on that one count.

I’ll be writing more on this topic, I suspect – how different composers' respond to political pressure, and in particular Prokofiev and Shostakovich. Indeed, it was the purchase of the 7th that, in addition to single-handedly reinvigorating my taste for the big, muscular symphony, set off a joyous years-long competition between Shostakovich and Prokofiev in my living room, one that could be said to have yielded several books for me, and my style in general. For now, however, let this entry stand as an obvious recommendation of another obvious recommendation. It’s not news that the hungry ear of an uninitiated listener, yearning for long lines and dynamism and scope and lilting beauty, will find pleasures in the Shotzy’s 7th. What is news is that the particular recording at question should be so exceptional. (There is no exceptional, or consummate, recording Shostakovich's Fifth, so far as I can tell, which is odd, and a problem.) This version comes packaged with a recording of Shostakovich’s First Symphony, which is also pretty darn good, especially considering that he wrote it when he was something like nineteen, or seventeen. But it is the 7th which shines, and changed the game for me. This is an oozing, passionate, very live, very well recorded performance. It’s Bernstein being Bernstein, blooming and breathing. He and the engineers stand you right in the orchestra’s midst. The music enters the mind directly, and cultivates aggressively. I don’t know the last time I actually listened to it. I don’t know when the next will be, but thanks eternal to all involved, but especially Mssr. Bernstein, Shostakovich, and Bagdade, my generous friend on the street.

Friday, August 22, 2008

...and Mother Theresa, as herself

For the record, this post is really more about writing than politics.

Andrew Sullivan, among others, has been tracing the evolution of John and Cindy McCain’s adoption story, noting that, as with other stories the McCains like to tell, this one has undergone some noteworthy revision over the years. Specifically, it is only the later versions that make mention of the fact that Mother Theresa herself helped convince the McCains to rescue two girls from the Bangladeshi orphanage, one of whom they ended up adopting – their daughter Bridget.

Again, who knows? They did what they did. It’s a wonderful thing. Assuming the girl is happy and that the estate tax can be abolished, I wish them all the best.

What’s curious to me is the idea that Mother Theresa’s role in the McCain’s decision somehow makes it a better story. And I’m not denying that most people would agree it does. Juicier, anyway. But really it just goes to show what a bunch of hopeless suckers we all are for celebrity, even sainted celebrity.

Because from a pure storytelling perspective, the McCain’s revision is a mistake. It’s actually fairly common, in the course of conceiving a story (and I’m not suggesting that the McCain’s made this one up, I’m just speaking from the perspective of someone who does make stories up) that quite often you want for your protagonist to do something – say, get off the bus. The plot requires it. The question is, how do you get them to do it? Well, the easiest and least imaginative way is to have another character - a friend or a sidekick - urge them to: say, “buddy, get off the bus.” (The entire Academy Award winning screenplay of GOOD WILL HUNTING is nothing but this, so far as I can tell: one scene after another of girlfriend, friend, and therapist imploring Will to stop diddling and do something with his brain, which finally in the end he does).

So you create the sidekick and write the scene, and oftentimes the scene helps you figure out why the protagonist should do this thing (as in “get off the bus or you’re going to be late for school” or, alternately, “adopt the child, you’ll make her life much happier and you’ll feel better about yourself.”) And then the protagonist goes ahead and does it.

Something you come to learn as writer, however, is that more often than not, now that you’ve gone and written in that character, you’re actually better off without it. Now that you know the motive, all the sidekick is doing is taking power and initiative away from your protagonist, making him or her seem like a passive follower of advice. Far better to just go ahead allow your protagonist to do the thing you wanted him or her to do in the first place – get off the bus, or adopt the child. He or she will instantly become a much more dynamic, potent, and powerful character; one worthy of telling a story about.

Obviously, this is not hard and fast rule. Sometimes advice plays a role in our lives. Not all protagonists need to be dynamic and decisive. I’m just saying, it’s a natural part of the creative process, making up characters or situations that help you understand what your protagonist should do and why he or she should do it, and then cutting them in order to allow your protagonist to proceed thusly and heroically and compellingly. (Why did she get off the bus just then? How intriguing. I must find out!)

So the weird thing with the McCain story is that they added the sidekick in the revision. Now, obviously we know why. Mother Theresa is an excellent character. It testifies to the McCain’s own celebrity and importance that they actually got to meet her, and frankly there isn’t a producer in the world who wouldn’t go with the “Mother Theresa” version, provided her agent doesn't “bust my balls.” The downside, however, is that McCains actually come off as less powerful, less interesting in the Mother Theresa version than if the story had simply been, “we went to Bangladesh, we saw the child needed us and that we needed the child, and we knew what we had to do.”

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Obama hatred

The Anonymous Liberal has, as usual, a nice piece this morning about the hysterical, but predictable nature of Obama-hatred that is now taking shape in conservative corners of the TM and blogosphere.

It’s an especially interesting, and troubling, phenomenon in regard of this particular candidate, since the portrait of Obama that people like Andy McCarthy are painting in their minds is so completely, and comically at odds with the Obama that exists in the real world – that is, the one we see and hear when we actually bother to look and listen.

One can disagree with Obama’s policies. One could think he’s all talk. One could mistake his rope-a-dope for weakness, if one likes, but honestly now, go to Youtube and check out a clip of the man, ANY clip, and ask yourself if a more moderate, reasonable-sounding, measured, likeable, dignified, respectful, or ultimately calming presence ever graced the American politic stage.

Not in my lifetime.

This is not to say the man is a saint, or that the devil isn’t known to wear excellent disguises, merely that one is hard pressed to find, in Obama’s comportment, his demeanor, or in anything he has ever said or written (with the possible exception of the gun-clinging line, which was merely sloppy), any evidence that he is anything but an uncommonly thoughtful, balanced, evolved individual, or the kind in which evil does not happily find harbor. Face it, being a malicious or destructive thought trapped inside Barack Obama’s head would suck. There would be nothing to eat. And even if Obama did not seem so basically decent, the emerging right-wing portrait is so internally inconsistent, such a mess of spittle and contradictions, one wonders that it doesn’t dissolve from its own complete lack of integrity. The arugula chewing elitist subversive? Pick one and go with it, fellas. You’re giving Spock a braincramp.

It is, in fact precisely that - the figmentary nature of the current right-wing portrait, that ultimately calms the nerves regarding all these narrowing national polls. The truth is, a lot Americans probably haven’t gotten to know Obama very well yet. All they’ve seen are the negative ads. Roundabout convention time they’ll tune in and judge for themselves, and I suspect they’ll be amazed at how much they like the guy. You really have to hate yourself a lot not to.

And that is my point, I guess, that in order to preserve and nurse the supremely paranoid view that Barack Obama, of all people, is the human embodiment of some profound and dangerous liberal malignancy, people like McCarthy and those who read him are forced to shutter themselves from reality almost entirely, to go to the closeted place where only the purest fears and hatred can fester and grow, free from the sanitizing bother of fresh air and sunlight.

They are, that is to say, going to a very dangerous place. For all of us.

not glad you belong to me...

Here’s the problem. I’m PC. Windows XP, which may or may not be the explanation, but whenever I unplug an external component from one of my USB ports (which I have to do every day), the computer responds with a musicalized version of a tool falling to the ground. That’s fine. What’s not fine is that note-wise, this sound is a quarter-note interval of a fifth (G down to C, for instance), reminding me EVERY SINGLE TIME I UNHOOK MY HARDDRIVE of the first two notes of “You’re My Best Girl” from MAME, which is not a musical I really know that well, or like all that much. Even worse, it puts me in mind of a late vintage Lucille Ball, singing, which is not a good thing. Or Rosalind Russell, for whom I never found a warm spot. Point is, I don’t want to have that song, or those women, looping in my head every g*dd*mned moment of every g*dd*mned day, but I do and it has to stop.

I guess what I’m saying is, I need to open my control panel.

Fred and Ted

we’ve been reading a fair amount of Fred and Ted around here lately, and I’m still not sure what defining characteristics of those two dogs are - other of course than that Fred is tall and Ted is short. I guess it seems like Fred might be a little more fun, while Ted is a little more responsible, but I’d do much better on a test about Frog and Toad.

The Boy in the Red Hat

There was a small playground at the ‘Baby-house’ – which is what they called the orphanage we were visiting in Ust-Kamenogorsk. Tucked inside a plot no bigger than half a tennis court, they’d managed to fit a rock garden beneath some beech trees, a plank bridge, a puddle-sized pond, a little swing, and a slide. The pieces were all hand-carved, as were the four or five figure-posts that stood sentry throughout – a bunny, a cat, a bear.

The whole set was a donation, most likely – a gift of some appreciative parent-- and a thoughtful one, but maybe more picturesque than functional. During the three weeks we were there, I never saw a single child on it other than Theo, our son, and even his attentions drifted. Raised on the noisier, more ‘hardcore’ playgrounds of Central Park, he paid lip service to the swing – gave his pretend friend ‘Ding a few pushes – but soon enough he’d gravitate to the adjacent lot to inspect the wheels and windows of whatever car happened to be parked there.

We were there to find him a sister, and ourselves a daughter. Two years had passed since my wife and I had brought Theo home from Siberia. They were the two happiest years of our lives, so we’d returned to that general neck of the woods, looking to press our luck.

We prepared Theo as best we could, warming him to the idea, nugget by nugget. At first we told him that we were all going to take a trip together to meet some babies, and he was all for that. He likes planes, and babies too. But now that we were actually there, now that we were visiting the same baby girl every day and sprinkling our conversation more liberally with that word – “sister” – it was beginning to dawn on him what was really going on here.He had shown moments of characteristic largesse – offering hugs, smiles, and some uncommonly vigilant supervision of the babygirl’s pacifier (we weren’t allowed to use her intended name yet) – but there were other moments when he reacted the way you might expect any two-and-a-half year old to react, dragged half-way round the world to watch his parents coo and oogle and dote over a complete stranger – with his old toys, no less – and all for reasons which remained completely mysterious and therefore a little painful. He was dismayed. I was dismayed. I think we were all a little dismayed at first, the baby girl included.

So that’s why, for a certain portion of every visit, either my wife or I would take Theo outside to burn off some energy, get some fresh air, but really just let him know he had nothing to worry about. We loved him no less and beyond all measure. Hearts have room, that’s the great thing about them.

This morning was my turn. Theo had found a fairly large dump truck the day before, in the corner of the visiting room, so we took that down with us because, as I say, that windswept little playground offered only so much consolation. There also happened to be only car to look at that morning, and it was occupied, so Theo and I ventured over to the far side of the carport that divided the lot – a chevron ‘T’ cobbled together from concrete, plywood and corrugated tin. We found some rocks and soft dirt and loaded up the bed of the truck. I was suggesting we find a good construction site to dump the stones, but Theo didn’t seem all that interested. He’s still more in the hauling-for-hauling’s-sake stage, but even that proved more frustrating than fun. The pull-string on the truck was too short, so the fender kept barking against his heels and spilling stones, and none of that was the point anyway. He wanted to be held. I wanted to hold him, so after a few minutes we set aside the truck and I picked him up.

We were just standing there in our coats and hats, swaying in the wintry air, when a troop of children came round the near side of the building – orphans. Weather permitting, the caregivers at the Baby-house liked to take the toddlers outside once or twice a day. Here there were maybe a dozen of them, all bundled up in parkas, hats and scarves, and all moving very slowly, as I’d seen most such troops do – hand in hand, or mitten in mitten, looking down at their boot-tips as they walked, heal-toe heal-toe. It’s the caregivers who set the pace, of course – there were two in this instance, walking backwards – but I suspect the reason the children comply so readily is because they know these outings are precious: two times around the building and then it’s back inside, so no need to rush.As they came round the turn, one by one they lifted their heads and saw us, me standing there with Theo on my arm. They all appeared to be at least three years old, which is older than most parents like to adopt. I know that first-hand, and that the chances of any of these children being plucked from this place, and far grimmer futures, were growing slimmer by the moment. On some level, the children understood this too, but their expressions remained hopeful, entirely free of bitterness or self-pity.

There was a very pretty little blond girl who even used the word, “dada.” She smiled at us and waved. I waved back, thinking to myself how on earth, how on earth a jewel like that slip through, and how much longer could it shine?

The boys, just as precious, were a little more divided in their attention. They saw Theo and me, but they also saw the truck, loaded up with dirt and stones and abandoned there, so tantalizingly close to the path they were taking. A few of them stopped to gape, crouching down with yearning, pointing at it. Machina! Machina! they said, almost involuntarily, but still keeping an obedient distance. They knew - not theirs to play with. Not today, anyway. They made due with the view.

There was one boy, though, standing straight up, and he wasn’t looking at the truck. He was looking at me. He was wearing a black parka, dark green sweat pants and boots, and a bright red ski hat which clung tight to his head except for a knob at the top, which was flat like a spade.

He was a very handsome boy who would be a handsome man, strong and stout, I could tell from his posture – which resembled a sprung genie, or a lumberjack posing for a portrait. His chest was puffed out. His chin was high, and his expression as he looked back at me was entirely winning – like an old friend, like someone I hadn’t seen since college and hadn’t expected to, but here he was, of all places, taking great pride in his surprise appearance.

Yes, it’s me, he grinned.

I replied instinctively with an old in-joke – puffing out my cheeks like a blowfish. He laughed in recognition and did the same, at which point the caregiver called to him in Russian – Come along now. Let them be.

He took a step or two to leave, but he couldn’t resist. He looked back. I couldn’t resist either. I puffed out my cheeks again. He laughed again. The caregiver gave a firmer tug, and off he went, disappearing behind the cement side-wall of the carport.

I didn’t think he was quite finished, though, so I waited. A moment passed. Another moment, then sure enough, his head popped from behind the wall again. I responded with mock surprise – “You!” – and he ducked from view again, giggling.

I figured that was probably enough, even as much as I liked him. I didn’t want to disrupt the group’s walk any more than I already had, and I’m sure the caregiver wasn’t too keen on our game either, or my leaving the truck out there to tempt the children.

But of course it wasn’t only up to me. There was a ply-wood door in the middle of the wall, and through the slim crack I could now see the bright red of the boy’s cap, and his eye beneath. He was peeking through to see if I was still looking.

I pretended I wasn’t. I turned my attention back to Theo, who’d abided this whole exchange quietly and without jealousy. There was no threat here, just a nice little boy playing peekaboo. And when I did look back at the crack in the wall, the red sliver was gone. The caregiver had prevailed.

It was the truck that now beckoned, still bearing its load of stones and dirt. As Theo and I started back over to fetch it, I again suggested we find a place to dump it – maybe the playground on the other side. There was a spot next to the swing that looked like it could use some filling in.

Theo’s interest was still only mild. He didn’t object, but he clearly preferred to be held, so I obliged. I bent down and took up the string myself and started pulling the truck behind us. It was actually a fairly an awkward maneuver, given the length of the string, the fact that Theo – in parka and boots – probably weighed forty pounds, and that in order to get back through to the playground side of the carport we had to duck through the small opening that had been busted – literally sledge-hammered – into the concrete wall separating the two sides.
I took it slow for all these reason, but also because I wanted to give the three-year-olds time to move on ahead of us. I was hoping they might have rounded the far corner of the Baby-house by now.

Unfortunately, they were still very much there – still creeping along their little lane – as Theo and I emerged into view again. Worse, the sound of the plastic truck wheels on the pavement was intensely loud for some reason. The concrete was rough, and the carport must have been acting as a speaker, but all the children were looking back at us now, and the caregivers, and the boy in the red hat obviously, hoping this meant I’d come to resume our game.

I hadn’t. I kept my eyes straight ahead. I’d made my decision, but there was still a fair distance between me and my destination, the playground – maybe twelve paces, but twice as many of the slightly crouching mini-steps I was taking. I didn’t see any other way, though. With Theo sagging lower and lower in my arm, and the dump truck rumbling and thundering at my heels, I crossed the lot painfully slowly and in full view of the curious children. I could feel the confusion of the boy in the red hat, waiting to see if I’d quit acting now and look up at him; wondering why I’d turned so cold. Had I forgotten? Did I not see him?

We reached the playground finally, but there was a curb. I did my best to finesse the truck up and over, but I couldn’t. The truck bed flipped. The stones and dirt all spilled out into a neat little pile on the pavement. I could have scooped it up, but instead I left them there as if that’s what I’d meant to do. My arm was giving way, and I’d nearly made to the softer, quieter dirt the playground, where I knew I could take cover behind the posts, the trees, and Theo’s passing interest in the little swing.So that’s what I did. And at some point, I assume the boy in the red hat gave up on me and caught up with the others. Knowing him, I suspect he shook off his disappointment fairly quickly and turned the bright beam of his personality onto the next fortunate stranger.

But I’d been stung, reminded again, for all the talk of boundless hearts, how limited we are in our capacity to exercise them. I wondered if it was just me and something I still didn’t get, or could it possibly be true – testament to the dastardly rigging of the human condition – that sometimes, often times, what keeps us from extending ourselves further, giving more, loving more, is our sense of compassion.

Because that just doesn’t sound right.