Pinewood Derby

I don’t follow auto racing, but I did enjoy Kyle Busch’s appearance on Colbert last night. He’d just won something called the Sprint Cup, which somehow involves driving a car really fast–I don’t entirely understand it. But he seemed like a bright and agreeable young man. And then Colbert challenged him to an auto race, involving Pinewood Derby cars. And I felt a little tug of nostalgia.

I say this without pride, but I do believe that I was the worst Pinewood Derby father in the storied history of that competition. Pinewood Derby, you see, is something Cub Scouts do with their Dads. It involves Dad and Cub carving a race car out of soft pine, painting it, and then getting together with all the other Cub Scouts and their Dads and racing the cars against each other. A Pinewood Derby track is just a straight track downhill; you perch your cars on the top, a lever releases both cars simultaneously, and at the bottom, judges watch carefully to see who won. Perfectly simple.


So when my oldest son, Kai, was old enough for Cub Scouts, this was an activity that was much anticipated, talked up by Cub leaders and wildly excited little boys. I knew about it, of course; I’d been a Cub Scout, after all. I don’t remember if we did Pinewood Derby or not, but I had friends in school; I wasn’t a complete ignoramus. So when my son brought home a car building kit, my initial response was that this was going to be fun. A father/son activity; educational and enjoyable. Build a car together. It didn’t seem all that challenging.

To turn a block of pinewood into a race car requires, of course, tools, and the ability to use them effectively. That leaves me out.  I can’t build anything, or repair anything. As a Boy Scout I did earn Home Repairs merit badge, because my Dad (who has mad carpentry skills), figured (correctly) that home ownership was likely to be in my future, and that I should know how to do some basic repairs. He was also the counselor, and apparently, I replaced enough light bulbs (my one skill) to get the badge. And that merit badge has served me well. Just yesterday, a stair rail broke, and I knew exactly what to do. I Googled ‘handymen-Provo’ and found a guy who knows how to fix stair railings, and watched with great interest as he did a thoroughly professional job of it. That’s my attitude towards carpentry; I think it’s good for the economy to pay people to do it for me.

But, boy, was that not true of the other Cub Scout Dads in my son’s pack. They didn’t just cut the wood so it looked vaguely automobilish. They used lathes and mitre boxes and power sanders. Their process involved all sorts of even more exotic tools, which they owned and knew how to use. They had copies of the official Pinewood Derby rules, and knew, to within a micron, what the cars weight limits were. They melted lead, and poured it into cunningly prepared recesses in the chassis of their cars. And their boys helped, presumably, in processes involving happy, involved hours of father/son interaction. They built wind tunnels in their basements, and experimented with variously aerodynamic car shapes.

Me, I was just trying to keep the wheels to stay on. That’s harder than it sounds. And my poor son sat patiently, making suggestions and pitching in. We did have a good time painting the darn thing. It looked menacing, I’ll tell you. We did a bunch of coats of paint. Our car looked . . . amateurish, but hey, we did all the work ourselves. Building the car was frustrating, to me, because I didn’t know what I was doing and didn’t have any tools, and wouldn’t have known how to use them if I did have some. Basically, we used a rather dull kitchen knife. Good thing pine’s a soft wood.

So, anyway, came time for the Pinewood Derby. And I desperately hoped that Kai wouldn’t be embarrassed. I hoped we wouldn’t finish last every race. I hoped our car would at least look kinda cool. I hoped Kai, at least, would have a positive experience, or at least remember it afterwards with some fondness.

We finished last in every race. In fact, we never once made it to the bottom of the track. Basic gravity should have allowed us to at least finish, but the wheels kept falling off. It wasn’t just that all the other cars looked faster than ours, they even looked cooler. In fact, all the cars were seriously badass looking, except for ours. And then they ran, so smoothly, so beautifully, so darned fast.  It was a pathetic, humiliating morning. And afterwards, Kai was busy comforting me. That’s how awful it was; my eight-year-old son kept patting me on the back, telling me not to cry.

And the other Dads. Oh, my gosh, the other Dads. If they’d been jerks about it, if they’d crowed, or bragged, or laughed, or mocked, I would have understood. It would have been more satisfying, because I would have had people for which I could have worked up a good healthy hatred. But no; their reaction was much much worse than that. They were kind. They were compassionate. They made numerous helpful suggestions. They took pity on us. They offered to fix the wheels, until it was discovered that it was against the rules. They honestly couldn’t have been nicer.

(And when they weren’t being nice to me, they were busy comparing notes. What was the optimum molten lead placement? Could I see your air tunnel? Was acrylic-based paint more aerodynamic than water-based? Jerks).

And so, that Sunday, I couldn’t bear the thought of going to Church. All those other Dads, all of them Elders, all of them members of my quorum. I knew that if I went, they’d keep on being nice about it. They’d make reference to it in Priesthood, and would derive a gospel lesson from it; ‘the Parable of the slightly slower Pinewood Derby Car, and also poor Brother Samuelsen’s.’ Kai would have to deal with it too, the good-natured ribbing from the boys in his Sunday School class. Kai was, even then, an extraordinarily mellow and kind-hearted guy, and I knew he’d find the humor in the experience quickly enough. That was all we needed, after all; to laugh it off. But I wasn’t capable of it. Not that first Sunday. Not a chance.

Nor the next Sunday either. Too soon.

Nor the next Sunday, as it happened. The whole thing still rankled. And I remained filled with indignation. I mean, how dare they? The nerve of it, them being all friendly and helpful and kind! Outrageous!

And then the fourth Sunday, I realized that I was being an idiot, that it didn’t matter, and that I needed to get my sorry butt to Church. (It’s possible that my wife may have helped me reach that realization). And so I went, and of course all the guys in the quorum couldn’t have been nicer. They assumed I’d had the flu or something, and were glad to see me again. And I realized that they really were nice guys. Just better with their hands than I was.

Still, it’s hard to even think about Cub Scouts or Pinewood Derby, or the prospect of building things. Even today, assembling things gives me the heebie-jeebies. I’m just not good at construction, and that’s okay; I have other strengths. There are people who are good with their hands, who will do it, for cash. And that’s okay.

See, my problem with Pinewood Derby wasn’t that I suck at carpentry. It’s that I was poor. If only we could have purchased a race car. . . .




Syrian refugees, and our ridiculous politics

I’ve been obsessed lately with politics, and most particularly the reaction here in the States to the recent terrorist attacks in Paris. Europe is absolutely deluged with refugees from the Syrian civil war and from the continued brutality in Libya. Our allies in Europe are all trying to decide how many refugees they can accept into their countries. The US has been asked to take only 10,000 refugees, that’s all, and President Obama has agreed. France, victims of the recent attacks, has agreed to take many more. Our 10,000 constitutes only the tiniest fraction of the total number of suffering, homeless, impoverished people seeking shelter. And the American Right has become unified in its opposition to providing shelter for desperate people. It’s becoming the defining issue of this campaign; conservative cowardly intransigence.

They claim to be protecting America. From the potential for terrorism. Which is preposterous; the refugees in question are fleeing terrorism and violence, not committing it. And before they arrive on our shores, they’ll have undergone a rigorous screening process. Or irrelevant side issues get raised; ‘why can’t we help our 50,000 homeless veterans first?’ Homelessness is an entirely different issue than refugee relief (refugees don’t tend to require mental health treatment, for one thing), plus Republicans in Congress keep voting down aid for American veterans. So ignore that one.

Meanwhile, in addition to the humanitarian and Christian imperatives that would seem to require that we welcome these refugees, there are any number of strategic considerations. Large numbers of refugees, sitting in squalid, over-heated camps, are prime candidates for recruitment by groups like ISIS/Daesh. If we are indeed in a hearts-and-minds war with Daesh, an ideological war for the future of Islam v. The West, why not show exactly what our values are, why not demonstrate the essential kindness and compassion of which the American people are, at times, capable? The Daesh propaganda line is that Westerners are Islamophobic and godless hypocrites. It’s a message Daesh is very good at communicating via social media. Why not show the world clearly and unmistakably how wrong they all are?

Is there such a thing as national character? The American people can, at times, demonstrate a tremendous capacity for charity. But we’re people, like anyone else, equally susceptible to appeals based on fear and paranoia. We’re capable of great courage; also great cowardice. We’re a Christian nation when it suits us to be one, but our Christianity does not, apparently, extend to applying Matthew 25: 34-45 to public acts. Meanwhile, the Republican candidates for President have given voice to the most despicable expressions of fear-mongering Islamophobia, appealing to our worst natures. Sadly, that’s working too. When you hear politicians citing the Japanese internment camps as a positive example from our history, something well worth emulating, the only real response is to call for the lads with the butterfly nets.

It doesn’t help that I’m convalescing, with leisure time to watch TV and surf the ‘net, and read. And that distorts perspective, does it not? I’m becoming obsessed with this one issue, the issue of Syrian refugees. Obsessed with the images of children in the arms of their parents, walking, dragging all their possessions in carts and wagons, or floating to shore on boats, desperate for some safe harbor. And the concerns about terrorism expressed by our conservative friends strike me as completely preposterous.

In short, I’m losing my sense of humor.

And that gives me pause.

I’m losing my sense of humor. In a political season dominated by Donald Trump and Ben Carson, I’m losing my sense of humor? Not seeing the funny; does that even sound like me?  I’m so furious, I can’t see how ridiculous politics have become. I’m losing my sense of the absurd. And Donald Trump is running for President.

Donald Trump, with the fly-away hair and the trophy wife and the ridiculous self-importance. A guy who bases his entire campaign on bluster and braggadocio. A guy who seems to invent utterly preposterous policy prescriptions out of thin air, and then defend them ferociously, only to see his poll numbers trend. . . upward? He’s not a political candidate, he’s a cartoon caricature of one, but the joke’s getting old. Of course, it would be fantastically dangerous for our country (and the world!) if he were to actually be elected President, but that seems unlikely. He might win the Republican nomination, though that seems equally unlikely–the nominee will probably be Marco Rubio or Ted Cruz. Both of whom are scary enough. But then, funny is funnier when the stakes are high. And our politics have become terrifyingly hilarious.

Ridiculous, but dangerous. Preposterous, but potentially lethal. In America’s past, the Know-Nothing party was built on pure xenophobia, but the Know-Nothings never actually won an election, though they were a malignant cancer on our politics for many years. In our past, we’ve seen political movements based on hatred before; the anti-Masons, the anti-Irish, the anti-Chinese. Jim Crow. Our current politics isn’t that vicious; our capacity for actual violence has, blessedly, diminished. Instead, all we have are silly people saying nonsensical things. Jeb Bush suggesting we only accept Syrian Christians, for example, or Ted Cruz calling the President out for insulting him by quoting him accurately, or Dr. Ben and his pyramid grain silos. And Trump calling for a national registry of Muslims. These aren’t serious candidates for high office. And that’s a bit disconcerting, of course. But come on. It’s also pretty funny. Right?

Not so funny, of course, to see American Christians playing the role of innkeeper in an international Nativity. It’s funny to see a whole generation of politicians lose their minds; not so funny to turn away widows and orphans. Thank heavens, on this issue, there’s one grown-up in Washington. And his name is Barack Hussein Obama. Sorry, conservative friends, but in your heart you know it’s so.



John Grisham, Rogue Lawyer: book review

I have a confession to make; I really like John Grisham novels. I’ve read them all, I think, even the YA Theodore Boone, Kid Lawyer books, which are actually great fun. I fully agree that Grisham’s not a great prose stylist. He writes legal thrillers–so does Scott Turow, who is a better writer by far, a point Grisham has conceded. (In fact, Turow and Grisham are friends, and have worked together politically in opposition to the death penalty). But Grisham tells a great story, creates memorable (if a trifle flat) characters, and gets the legal details of his fictional cases right. And his heart’s in the right place. Grisham gives a lot of money for shelters for victims of domestic violence, and many of his novels seem to be as much about publicizing problems in the American legal system as they are about being entertaining potboilers.

I just re-read the last paragraph, and it occurs to me that my praise is pretty grudging. This is, after all, a writer who I really enjoy, and who has provided me with untold hours of reading pleasure. It’s quite possible that, as a fancy-pants intellectual type, I’m possibly a trifle embarrassed about liking a best-selling author of genre novels. Yikes. So let me start over; I really like John Grisham’s novels. And I just read the most recent of them, and it’s a corker. Get it; read it. Enjoy.

Most Grisham novels are about young idealistic lawyer protagonists. Often, Grisham’s heroes work in big soulless, horrible, New York law firms, hate everything about their lives, and quit when given a chance to Make A Difference (but for a lot less money). Grisham’s novels posit the law as a fundamentally neutral force in society. It can do a lot of good, in the right hands, and can shield and protect the worst elements in American society in the wrong hands. Grisham’s sympathies (and therefore, our sympathies) are with underdogs, but underdogs don’t really win all that often, which is why, in his more recent books, Grisham’s heroes have often ended up disillusioned. There’s also usually an issue Grisham’s books deal with; the plight of black-lung-suffering miners, for example, in Gray Mountain. Anyway, that’s Grisham; a popular story-teller, and a good guy, a man with a soul and a conscience, who uses his unique place in popular culture to try to do some good in the world.

His newest, Rogue Lawyer is a terrific read, but it’s really a departure. The hero, Sebastian Rudd, is a mean, tough, son-of-a-bitch, the ultimate bottom-feeding lawyer. He defends murderers and drug lords–he’ll defend anyone. (He couldn’t care less if the guy he’s defending is guilty or not–he’s going to try to get him off). He trawls for personal injury cases. He’s also a tremendous lawyer, though pretty thoroughly unethical; he’s constantly skating right on the edge of disbarment. He figures that prosecutors cheat and lie, so he needs to as well. His office is a van, and his best friend is also his bodyguard. His favorite recreation is MMA–his hobby is managing kick boxers. He’s divorced, and pretty well despises his ex-wife, but they manage to keep things (barely) civil for the sake of their son, a nice kid who Sebastian genuinely does love, though he nearly loses custody when he takes the kid to an MMA cage match.

Rudd is, in short, one of the most memorable and compelling lead characters Grisham has ever created. And the way Grisham uses him is equally fascinating. Usually, a legal thriller focuses on one case; Rogue Lawyer gives us four, each of them terrific. And each case illustrates beautifully a serious problem in the American legal system.

In the first case, for example, Rudd is defending a drug-addicted, brain damaged eighteen-year old accused of murder, a murder he did not commit. Not that Rudd cares if he committed it or not, but as it happens, Gardy, the defendant, is actually innocent. He’s also a loser, a semi-homeless petty thief, with multiple tattoos and piercings and a perpetual smirk to further endear him to a middle-class jury. The murder victim is young, attractive, female and middle-class. The prosecution wants the death penalty. It’s a highly publicized case. And Rudd’s client didn’t do it.

And that’s exactly the kind of defendant most likely to be found guilty despite the lack of any forensic evidence, and exactly the kind of defendant likely to be given the death penalty. And, frankly, Gardy is the kind of defendant likely to be assigned a public defender. He gets lucky; Rudd takes the case, not for the money, but precisely because it’s a highly publicized case; he loves notoriety. And, of course, Rudd’s defense is riveting; the description of the trial’s a real page turner. But the entire case, and Grisham’s discussion of it, is clearly an indictment of our entire criminal justice system relating to capital cases. I loved it on both levels.

The whole book’s like that. Rudd becomes a kind of symbol of both the worst and the best aspects of the American legal system. He’s a tremendous lawyer; he’s also a cynical, scabrous, mean, foul-mouthed jerk. And Grisham uses him superbly, to shed light on where our legal system has gone wrong, where, in particular, our lawmakers have failed. We see the consequences of the over-the-top militarization of the police. We see how far cops will go to protect their own. We see a venal and corrupt governor, who Rudd is able to manipulate to get some rough justice for a client.

The book’s going to be a movie, and I found myself wondering who would play Rudd. Who has that edge; who can play mean? Leonardo DiCaprio, maybe.

The entire book’s a thrill ride, thoroughly enjoyable, and pleasantly thought-provoking. It’s a fast and easy read, but it’s also trying to do some good in the world. I loved the time I spent with Sebastian Rudd, and can say that Rogue Lawyer is easily my favorite John Grisham novel. And I really like his work.


Paris, and terrorism

I was riveted this weekend by the images from Paris, of the terrorist attacks that rocked that great city. I can only join many other voices expressing that volatile and contradictory range of emotions such attacks provoke: helplessness and resolve, heartbreak and outrage, hope and hopelessness.

I was particularly taken with the various responses from those oh-so-unofficial American spokespeople, late night talk show hosts. John Oliver responded with vilely appropriate profanity. (A**holes, he kept calling ISIS, which echoes the recent tendency, by President Obama and others, to call ISIS by the organization’s Arabic initials, Daesh, which, apparently, sounds a lot like an Arabic insult; ‘he who causes discord.’ ‘A**holes,’ in other words).

Jimmy Fallon invoked the power of love, and Stephen Colbert (who only heard of the attacks near the end of his Friday show), was appropriately and movingly awkward and inarticulate. Trevor Noah focused instead on the remarkable humanity of the people of Paris, who queued up to give blood, and opened their doors to stranded strangers. My favorite response, though, was Larry Wilmore’s: he expressed solidarity with the people of France, then said this:

And on a personal note, my daughter was born on July 14, Bastille day, and she’s been a Francophile ever since. And I promised her when she was a girl that for her eighteenth birthday, I would take her to Paris. Now, that birthday is in eight months. Do what you will, terrorists, but you can go to hell, because that trip is still happening.

The question that’s been consuming me is this: ‘what do we do now?’ Obviously, one answer to that question is Wilmore’s; we continue with our lives. We recreate, we go to cafes and movie theaters, we ‘go to Paris.’ Terrorism is a tactic, first and foremost, intended to intimidate. We defeat terror by refusing to become terrorized.

But the emotions an attack like this one provokes are direct, raw, and visceral. We respond with fear and with anger. Understandable. And there’s a certain immediate satisfaction to the moral clarity of straightforward calls for revenge. There are certain things we expect our leaders to say, such as French President Hollande, declaring that France would be ‘ruthless’ in response. “Oh, yeah!” we might respond. “Take ’em out. End them.” And we could do it. The United States is the greatest military power the world has ever seen. Put together a coalition, with French forces and NATO forces and (please heaven) some Sunni Moslems, and let’s put ISIS down. We could do it.

And then what?

Which is why I was so grateful to Colbert for adding, on his silly celebrity talk show, another perspective; that of Col. Jack Jacobs, a Congressional Medal of Honor winner and expert in the region. I thought this exchange, between a comedian and a genuine military expert, was illuminating:

COLBERT: What has happened so far in response to the attacks in Paris.

JACOBS: Actually, not a lot. A few more air strikes. Everyone has decided that something has to be done, but at the end of the day, really nothing significant will be done, because it’s not possible to knock these guys out unless we’re willing to commit a large number of troops.

COLBERT: How many troops?

JACOBS: Several hundreds of thousands, and for a long time. It’ll take a decade, two decades. It’s time-sensitive. We’re not going to do it, and we can’t get the people in the region to do it, even though they have an interest in making sure these guys. . . .

COLBERT: Why can’t. . .  I mean, if it’s several hundred thousand people, obviously it seems like a coalition would be the answer, not one country, because so many countries have an interest, and so many countries have been attacked by ISIS at this point. Why don’t the regional powers there want to do anything about it, why not Saudi Arabia, why not Iran?

JACOBS: They’re at each other’s throats. Saudi Arabia and Iran are duking it out for domination and influence in the area, so they’re not going to coalesce. As a matter of fact, if you throw Turkey into the mix, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Iran, they all have pretty powerful armed forces, very very good air forces . . . so right now, who’s bombing Raqa? The United States and France. There’s an argument that says that we ought to just shut up about trying to unseat bloodthirsty despots, because in the past they’ve kept the place together.

COLBERT: Would ISIS exist if Saddam Hussein was still in power?

JACOBS: I think not. I think it’s an outgrowth of that. These are Sunni apocalyptic people who are waiting for, not waiting for the end of the world, they are hurtling toward it, and want to bring everybody with them.

COLBERT: So if you had control of our armed forces, what should the United States do right now to try to destroy ISIS, because part of this is that they have nothing to negotiate, they’re not looking for anything from us.

JACOBS: No, no. Everything’s non-negotiable, they want you to die and they want to die themselves.

COLBERT: So how do we give that to them?

JACOBS: Well, we can do it. There are a couple of things to consider here. We’re not going to be able to do it by dropping conventional bombs on people. Militarily, the only purpose for bombs, is to pave the way for people on the ground to seize and hold terrain, long enough to create an environment to create a real government to take out the trash and  . . . we’re not doing it, and it takes a quarter of a million people to do it, probably just in Syria,

COLBERT: Any good news, Colonel?

JACOBS: Well, I stayed at a Holiday Inn Express last night.

What I love about this exchange is its recognition of the political and logistic complexities of the region, and how ISIS (sorry, Daesh) is able to flourish precisely because of the political vacuum created by previous well-meaning attempts to de-complexify things. Could the Iraqi army clean things up? The Iraqi army is 95% Shi’a. Eastern Iraq is largely Sunni. The people of that region are far more likely to see Iraqis as oppressive than as liberators. Syria is in the middle of a civil war, and Russia supports a different side in that civil war than the US does. The Kurds are able to provide an effective fighting force, when they’re not being bombed by Turkey. Is the answer a  regional coalition? Between Shi’a Iraq, Shi’a Iran, Sunni Turkey, Sunni Saudi Arabia? And independence-seeking Kurds? How likely does that seem?

Meanwhile, Libya is a basket case, with four regions each dominated by a different warlord. One of them, ISIS. Poor Lebanon is overrun with refugees, who they are heroically trying to provide for, with inadequate UN help.

And in the US, a bunch of Republican governors have said they won’t allow Syrian refugees into their states. Nosireebob. Because, who knows, some of them might be terrorists. I’m embarrassed to admit that Mike Pence, governor of Indiana (where I grew up), is among them. I’m proud to say that Gary Herbert, governor of Utah, is not.

We cannot, cannot, allow that kind of unreasoning fear to govern our responses to the Paris attacks, or similar attacks in Kenya, or in Lebanon. Fear and anger are insufficiently complex emotions to deal with the complexities of the current situation. We cannot give in to them, tempting though they are. Simple-minded solutions lead to the ultimate simple-mindedness; the fanaticism of suicide bombings and beheadings and vicious extremism.

We also cannot give in to Islamophobia. ISIS/Daesh is supported by only the tiniest percentage of Moslems. That’s why President Obama insists so strongly on avoiding the phrase ‘Islamic extremists.’ We can’t conflate this tiny group of violent nihilists with mainstream Islam, or allow a terror tactic to define a great world religion. And let’s remember: the Syrian refugees are fleeing violence, not seeking to establish terror strongholds in the West. We should invite ten times as many Syrians to settle in the US. Doing so would greatly bless our nation.

Let’s be smart about all this. Let’s embrace its complexities. Let’s reason together, with whoever we have the ability to reason with, and let’s remember our common humanity. Let’s remember the great ideals of liberte, egalite, fraternite, even while remembering the time when those great words were twisted and warped by murderous Jacobin terrorists in the French past. Even terrorists, are, after all, our brothers and sisters, though desperately misguided ones. Open, direct warfare will accomplish nothing.

What will work? I don’t have the faintest idea. And neither does anyone else. And that’s okay.



The Tyson zone, Dr. Ben and The Donald

The ‘Tyson Zone‘ is something the sportswriter Bill Simmons came up with to describe certain train-wreck celebrities. It’s named after the boxer Mike Tyson, and it essentially describes someone who has made such a public mess of his life that there’s almost literally nothing you wouldn’t believe if you heard it about them. Let’s suppose someone said to you ‘hey, did you hear about Mike Tyson? He’s converted to Scientology?’ or ‘He’s having himself surgically turned into an iguana?’ Or ‘he’s become a cannibal.’ You’d sigh and then you’d say something like ‘well, it was just a matter of time.’ You wouldn’t question it, no matter how preposterous it might be. Lindsay Lohan is in the Tyson zone, I think, as are most of the Kardashians.

So is Dennis Rodman. Remember when you first heard that Dennis Rodman, the former Chicago Bull basketball star, had befriended Kim Jong Un, recruited a pickup team of former NBA basketball players, and was in North Korea, playing pickup ball with a North Korean team of stiffs? That Dennis Rodman had become the closest thing America had to a diplomatic contact with the world’s most reclusive and insane dictator? It seemed, uh, implausible. But Rodman’s in the Tyson zone. There’s literally nothing we won’t believe about him. And of course it turned out to be true.

Anyway, I got to thinking about the Tyson zone while laid up the last few weeks, watching the American presidential campaign, and especially the Republican side. I think both Donald Trump and Dr. Ben Carson are in a kind of political Tyson zone. They’re certainly the two Republican frontrunners, despite the fact that neither has any political experience whatsoever, and despite the fact that neither seems to have the vaguest notion what exactly the President of the United does in our system of governance. But they’re doing well, playing the contrasting roles of id and superego–bombast vs. somnolence, braggadocio vs. self-effacement.

They’re both Tyson-zoners in this sense: the popularity of both continues to strain credulity. It doesn’t seem to matter what they promise, or propose, or stand for. They stay popular, no matter what. That’s why the Republican debates are appointment television. We really, genuinely, don’t have any idea what the candidates (and especially the two poll leaders) are going to say next.

It started when Trump questioned John McCain’s military heroism. That was it, the pundits all said. That was the blunder that would end Trump’s campaign. Instead, he got more popular. He offers no policy specifics, except ‘it’s going to be awesome,’ about some program he clearly hasn’t thought through at all. It doesn’t matter. A substantial percentage of the Republican electorate has decided they like Donald Trump, and it doesn’t matter what he says; he’s in a political Tyson zone.

Same thing with Dr. Carson. The pyramids were grain silos? I figured it for a gaffe. It wasn’t; his base liked the notion just fine.  I understand that he’s a committed Christian evangelical, and that he doesn’t believe in evolution, but gravity? But it doesn’t matter; Dr. Carson is bullet-proof. We need the Department of Education to spend its time investigating universities for liberal bias? Sure, why not.

And that’s why the Republican debates are so entertaining. In a sense, they’re all in a Tyson zone.  The new holiday coffee cups used by Starbucks aren’t sufficiently Christmas-y? They are red and green, after all. But no. Raise the minimum raise? No, actually, it needs to be lower. Because: robots. When the entire field seemed intent on debating the relative moral merit (and financial prospects) of welders and philosophers, the debate veered off the shoulder and into the ditch.

Still I’m not sure anything quite matches the preposterous absurdity of the media digging into Ben Carson’s past, and discovering him to have been an exemplary youth and upstanding citizen, to which scurrilous allegations Dr. Carson furiously calls ‘foul,’ as it’s exactly the kind of smear we should expect from biased liberal media types. He did too try to stab people! Don’t believe all those lies about him being an A student overachiever! He was a hard-core pre-teen gangbanger, yo!

That’s where Dr. Ben becomes so marvelously entertaining as a candidate. Take, for example, the Popeye’s Chicken story. In this story, he was standing in line at a Popeyes, trying to order, when a gunman stuck a gun in his ribs. According to Dr. Carson, he said to the guy “I believe you want the guy behind the counter.” And that’s what the thug did; he went for the counter guy.

So various media outlets tried to confirm that story, and found nothing. And Dr. Carson was furious; they were questioning his veracity. But what’s so weird about the story is how bad it makes him look. He doesn’t come across as remotely heroic; quite the contrary. And he’s the only source for the story! He told his very unflattering story about himself, then seems to have taken umbrage when the media questioned whether it really happened or not? What? Seriously?

So in a way, Dr. Carson’s in an opposite/Tyson zone. Every time he tries to make himself sound like a gangsta, it turns out, he was actually a good guy. And that, for some reason, infuriates him. How dare you call me exemplary! Whereas Donald Trump continues to pull screwy ideas out of his hat, and that doesn’t seem to matter either. And there’s every possibility that one of these two guys could be President. May you live in weird times.


The Zen of hospitals

I’ve been ill.

And being ill, placing one’s life in the hands of medical professionals, subjecting oneself to medical tests and invasive procedures and the routines and protocols of a modern American hospital can be a humiliating and abasing experience. It certainly leads to self-absorption, a preoccupation with me me me, a focus on what body parts hurt and how much and whether the pain is worse today than it was yesterday. You have the time and leisure to indulge in almost comical amounts of self-pity. You tend to whine a lot, frankly. You know you don’t look attractive, and you don’t feel much obligation to behave attractively. You feel rotten, and don’t much care who knows it.

If I am a Christian (and I certainly try to be one), I need to strive to be a Christian even when feeling crummy. That gets tricky because Christianity is essentially other-directed–do unto others. As a Christian, I remained obliged to look for opportunities for service. Can be hard, when you’re weak as a kitten, and almost wholly dependent. Which is why, as a basic hospital-spiritual-survival strategy, I found my mind turning more and more to the teachings of the Buddha, and to the Four Noble Truths, bearing in mind that my acquaintance with Buddhism is almost hilariously shallow and my understanding of it preposterously limited. I have done a little reading; that’s all. A little meditation. But if the basic orientation of Buddhism is that worldly existence is fundamentally unsatisfying, well, try checking into your local hospital.

I am not, by the way, going to make the usual gibes about how inedible hospital food is, how uncomfortable the beds, or how bossy the nurses. In fact, the biggest surprise was to discover that hospital food (at least as provided in Utah Valley Hospital), has suddenly and shockingly become delicious. I was provided a substantial menu, with dozens of tasty choices, which I ordered via room service. The food was fresh, well prepared, beautifully seasoned. Ordering meals became the highlight of each day. I thought my hospital bed was remarkably comfy (aside from not being able to move around much, because I was hooked into so many tubes and gadgets), and I thought the staff were all, without exception, kind and thoughtful.

It’s just the routines that get to you. The hourly checking of vital signs. The beeping of the IV drip, and all the other noisy implements of healing. The DVT-prevention squeezy stocking things on your legs 24-7. The constant need by the staff to draw blood, to measure urine output, to dispense various meds at maddening intervals. The infuriating infrequency of doctors’ visits, and the excruciating pace at which medical information is dispensed. A hospital stay can come to feel like a relentless assault on your dignity and autonomy. And even though all those nice people are actually engaged in a project you actually do support (keeping you alive), it’s so easy to become peevish and resentful.

What you feel, in fact, is dukkha. The physical and mental suffering associated with aging, illness and death. But, and this is crucial, Buddha taught that we grow only when we accept dukkha, and grow beyond it.

So. There was one morning when I’d had a particularly tough night’s sleep, and hadn’t managed to keep the previous night’s dinner down. I was hungry, and I was cranky. And the nurse came in and suggested that I order breakfast. It took around 45 minutes for meals to arrive, and there was a medication she wanted me to take in about 30 minutes. And it was important that I not eat until after I’d had that med. So the timing seemed propitious, and so I ordered. One breakfast menu item was for french toast, which looked tasty; it also looked mild enough for my poor stomach. So I made the call. That was the routine; this one medication, followed by a yummy breakfast.

My room door was ajar; I could hear what was going on in the nurses’ station. And suddenly, I heard a man start yelling. From pain, frustration, fear? I will never know. He went on and on. He screamed, over and over. My breakfast arrived. It sat on my table. The man kept yelling. I knew that the nurse didn’t want me to eat until she’d given me my medication. I knew why she hadn’t come; I could hear this poor guy. And resent him, because I was really getting hungry, and the food smelled delicious. And still, the man yelled.

So: major annoyance and anger. Where was my nurse? Where was my pill? I wanted to eat, darn it! French toast! With syrup! What’s up with this jerk, yelling his fool head off? I wanted my doggone breakfast! I wanted it NOW. That’s how you get in hospitals.

I thought: ‘dukkha.’ So I closed my eyes. I thought about what a perfect opportunity this was to exercise muscles, like ‘humor’ and ‘patience,’ that are too seldom used. I closed my eyes. I don’t want to say that I began meditating, exactly, or that I was praying; not really. Sort of a combination of both. Just trying to clear my mind, trying to focus on this poor man, clearly in deep distress, and the poor nursing staff desperately trying to help him. I ignored my cooling breakfast; I ignored the room clock. I crossed my hands across my chest and I just tried to get my head right with God, frankly. Let the time pass; let the moment linger. And I started to count my blessings.

Yes, I thought, I’m ill. But I have good doctors, a diagnosis, a prognosis, a course of treatment. I’m going to get better–conditionally better, to be sure, but better enough to continue to do the things I love, maybe even make myself a little useful.  I am married, I thought, to a wonderful, strong, smart, funny, kind-hearted woman. I thought about her, my wife, and how much I treasured her love. I remembered when we were dating. I remembered good times we’d shared. I began to think of my children, each of them individually, and how grateful I was to have these smart, funny, clever, decent, good people in my life. I focused on each child in turn; I thought about great experiences I’d had with each one as they grew into adulthood. I thought about students I had taught, and how much I had learned from them, and how inspired I’d always been by their wonderful questing minds.

An hour and twenty five minutes after my breakfast arrived, my poor, harried nurse came in with my pills, full of apologies, which I waved off. I asked about the distressed man I’d heard; was there anything I could do to help? She said they had it covered. Another nurse came in, and had to take my vitals; another had to draw some blood. And then, finally, I was able to enjoy my breakfast. And it turned out that cold french toast (washed down with brackish milk) tasted just fine. I enjoyed that breakfast immensely.

The First Noble Truth of Buddism, is, of course, dukkha; dissatisfaction. But the Fourth Noble Truth is the possibility of liberation from dukkha, through correct conduct and meditation. (And yes, I know, I’m a bumbling neophyte). Still, to that tiniest of degrees, I found a way to reconcile my paltry and inadequate understanding of a religion I have barely studied with my own faith, one I so falteringly practice. And I found some measure of peace, some tranquility.

And this: while I was in the hospital, I was visited by two men in my ward, young family men, fathers of small children. One was my home teacher; the other, his neighbor. And they visited me, and gave me a blessing, a blessing of peace and healing. And what was so remarkable about that extraordinary act of kindness was that it wasn’t remarkable at all. It’s just what we do, we Mormons. And that sustained me, that blessing, and its efficacy, and their faith and humble beneficence. And that, in turn, helped me through the Crisis of the Late Breakfast. It put my querulous selfishness into a truer perspective.

I was mostly just an inert lump in a hospital bed, waiting for medications to reverse a deadly infection, waiting for a miracle; a quotidian miracle to be sure, the miracle of modern medical science. Still, I needed a miracle, and I got one, a miracle called ‘antibiotics.’ I also needed strength, and faith, and patience, and still do. And I’m grateful, endlessly grateful, for my time in the hospital, for words of prophetic counsel, from Buddha and from my ward. All truth is helpful, all principles of truth are blessings. And God’s hand steers the helm.



In which I save the Republican Party

All of the sudden, my newsfeed is full of stories about the disintegration of the Republican party, about how that party has become ungovernable. The immediate emergency is the inability of the majority party in the House to choose a new Speaker, which has, as its proximate cause, the decision by current Speaker John Boehner to quit. And I’m not sure who was happier about him quitting–the ultra-right conservatives in the House and elsewhere, or Boehner himself. Let’s face it; when people hate each other this much, it’s time for a divorce. Irreconcilable differences indeed.

Only once before in its history has the House been in this much turmoil over choosing a new Speaker. That was the Speakership contest that took place from December 5, 1859 to February 1, 1860. Essentially, Republicans wanted John Sherman, of Ohio, and Democrats wanted absolutely anyone except John Sherman, of Ohio. The splendidly named Garusha Grow, R-Pa, was also in the fight, as was a Virginia Democrat, John Bocock. The crucial issue, it turned out, was when, and under what circumstances, various men had read a particular book. A poorly written, poorly researched rant called The Impending Crisis in the South, by one Hinton R. Helper, it had the one dubious virtue of being a book with something in it to offend absolutely everyone. In fact, as Bruce Catton has noted, it’s unclear who Helper despised more: slave-owners, or black people. For two months everyone in the House stood and screamed at each other about it. (Sherman, it seems, had endorsed it, without reading it first).

Eventually, one William Pennington, R-NJ was elected, in part on the theory that he was elderly and in poor health, and probably wouldn’t last all that long. As it turned out, he lived until 1862, at which point the whole nation was on fire, and boys were killing each other in very large numbers indeed. And John Sherman, of Ohio, is known today, if at all, as the brother of one William Tecumseh Sherman, of the burning of Atlanta and March to the Sea fame.

I raise all that history to point out that any time you’re involved in an American political dispute, and the closest parallel anyone can point to is one that led directly to the Civil War, that’s probably not a good thing.

For a political party,or really any organization, to function, someone has to be in charge, and that person has to be able to impose discipline. Who is the current head of the Democratic party, right now, 2015? Easy: it’s Barack Obama, right? Who is the current head of the Republican party? Well, honestly, it should be the Speaker, since Republicans control the House. So is John Boehner in charge? Of anything? No.

Think of the greatest Speakers in American History. Henry Clay, Thomas Brackett Reed, Sam Rayburn, Tip O’Neill. They ruled by persuasion, certainly, by the conferring of favors, and through subtle threats, but they did rule. They wielded power. Reed is probably the name you haven’t heard of, but he was one tough cookie. In his day (1895-1899), the minority could block votes by refusing to answer a quorum call. If there weren’t enough people ‘present’, nothing could be done. So Reed called for a quorum vote, and then when members didn’t answer, he’d call them present anyway. And had the doors locked, so they couldn’t just run off. It turned into an entertaining spectacle, let me tell you. The House continues today to operate under the ‘Reed rules.’

To save the Republican party, John Boehner needs to wield power. The problem is that he has a substantial minority of Tea Party conservatives in his party that have made it clear that they do not want to govern, who believe that they were elected to the House specifically to obstruct the work of the federal government. And he has no effective way to impose party discipline. And he’s quit. And the people who want the job, and there are a lot of them, don’t want to govern either.

I have a plan, a workable plan, that will save the Republican party, save Boehner’s historical legacy, and move the country forward. It does require that Boehner stay in office until January 2017, when the newly elected Congress convenes. He may not be willing to do that. But he’s the only person who can save the Republican party right now.

Here’s the plan. John Boehner needs to expel the Freedom Caucus from the Republican party.

The Freedom Caucus, or HFC, is approximately 40 Tea Party Republicans who vote as a bloc, and who seem determined to disrupt anything approximating regular order in the House. The reason that I say ‘approximately’ is because they’re pretty secretive; nobody knows quite who belongs and who doesn’t.

Here’s what Boehner needs to do. First, announce that he’s not quitting after all. Second, meet with Nancy Pelosi and cut a deal with her. If she’ll promise to provide sufficient votes for him to stay Speaker, then he will agree to allow votes on a certain number of crucial pieces of legislation. My guess is, at a minimum, she’ll ask for a clean budget agreement, a debt ceiling increase, and a highway bill, to rebuild infrastructure. Offer her this too: he’ll call for a vote to rescind the Bush tax cuts on the wealthy, with all revenues targeted towards deficit reduction.

Third, he calls a meeting of the Republican caucus. In that meeting, he says this: I have called a vote to raise the debt ceiling for tomorrow. If you vote for the bill, good, because it’s going to pass.

If you vote against it, though, then we have a problem. Vote against it, and you are expelled from the Republican caucus. You will lose your committee memberships and chairmanships. You will not be allowed to caucus with Republicans, speak on the floor, introduce legislation, introduce amendments. I will send notice to your constituents that you are no longer considered members of the Republican party. And you’ll be assisted in moving from your current offices on Capital Hill, which will be reassigned; currently, your new office spaces are being used for janitorial supplies.

There will be an uproar. I suspect that we’ll see an immediate vote of no confidence in Boehner’s leadership, a vote to remove him as Speaker. But with the solid bloc of Democratic votes behind him, he’ll weather that. I suspect that this action will hasten the creation of a third party, the Tea Party. That’s great too; it’s been inevitable for a long time, and a healthy third party will only enhance our national political conversation.

The result, however, will be a new Republican party, smaller perhaps, but more focused on governing, a disciplined party, a party that stands for something positive. It brings back the party of Lincoln and Eisenhower, and yes, even the party of Ronald Reagan.  I think it’s the only way to move forward. And we’ll be able to include John Boehner’s name among the great Speakers of history.


The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominees: 2016

By request from a fan. Plus, I love this stuff.

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has announced its candidates for 2016 induction, and unlike most years, there really aren’t a lot of hard calls here. I suspect that my choices won’t all win, but they should. ‘Cause I said so, that’s why. As always, I’m following the RRHOF’s lead by listing the bands alphabetically. And I’d love your feedback.

The Cars: Six pretty good albums, in a long career. Then, when they broke up, Ric Ocasek became an important producer. Nirvana and Weezer both cite them as influences. I’d put it this way: the Cars were a very good band that never quite managed to be great. Considering, this year, their competition, they’ve got to be a no.

Chic: Their tenth (10th!) nomination, which puts them in Susan Lucci territory. I think they have a pretty good shot at finally getting in, someday. And my no vote isn’t anti-disco prejudice; I think their career is a little short, and their impact a little too slight for me to vote for them. Essentially, they mark a bridge between the last days of disco and the beginnings of rap. That’s not insignificant, but sorry, Susan; no this time too.

Chicago: Rock critics have massively disrespected them over the years, and this is their first nomination, despite being Hall-eligible since 1994. But they’re far more musically sophisticated than anyone realizes, and their greatest hits resume is amply loaded. I’m more a fan of the early Terry Kath Chicago than its mid-80s Peter Cetera soft rock incarnation; I think maybe their longevity hurts them. And, yes, I know, your high school prom theme was Color My World. Get over it. Chicago is an easy yes for the HOF.

Cheap Trick: Just a good, consistent, hard playin’ rock and roll band. They were punk influenced without ever quite being a pure punk band, and a metal band that was just that tiny bit too idiosyncratic to quite count as metal. Plus, I don’t know about you guys, but to me they’re a lot like the Ramones; great sound, but is it possible that they’re . . . kidding? Unserious? But that lack of pretension is part of their appeal. Love their music, but no.

Deep Purple: Most people know Deep Purple for one song: Smoke on the Water. They’re way more important than that. Incredibly important hard rock band, featuring guitarist Ritchie Blackmore, and their brilliant keyboardist Jon Lord. The one possible knock on DP is longevity; they kept changing their lineup, and the sound changed with each incarnation. My Lady from Tokyo is one of the great rock songs, too, and I love this band, but they’re up against powerhouse competition this year. So: no.

Janet Jackson: She has certainly sold a great number of records over the years. She’s a household name, and she did manage to fight her way clear of her older brother’s shadow. She’s a big star. I’m not going to vote for her, but she’s a lock for the Hall this time around.

The J.B.’s: James Brown’s back-up band. And yes, they were important figures in the development of funk. They’re still just an important guy’s back-up band. No.

Chaka Khan: She’s just an extraordinary singer, mostly doing R&B, but with roots in jazz, and a constant willingness to experiment and innovate. I think her problem is that she gets lost in the shuffle a bit, because she’s an R&B singer well past the golden age of R&B. I’m not going to vote for her, but I would be delighted if she somehow made it in.

Los Lobos: “Oh, yeah, those guys who played La Bamba in that one movie that one time.” Well, no. Incredibly important band, fusing various Hispanic musical forms with good old-fashioned American rock and roll. I wish I could say yes to them, but there are other bands that to my mind are even more significant.

Steve Miller: It’s incredible to me that Steve Miller, and of course, the Steve Miller band has yet to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. It seems to me that every time I get in my car and tune it to a classic rock station, I’m hearing The Joker, or Fly Like an Eagle, or Abracadabra. And, pretty much inevitably, I start singing along. But no, he still isn’t in. And I’m okay with him staying out one more year. And I’ll keep singing along.

Nine Inch Nails: Brooding, nihilistic, transgressive, alienating; Trent Reznor’s music, to be honest, isn’t quite my cup of tea. But it’s brilliant music, and nobody’s been more influential. One of the greatest covers of all time is Johnny Cash’s cover of Hurt. Reznor’s also David Fincher’s go-to composer. Easiest yes on the ballot.

N.W.A.: The rise of hip-hop as a major cultural force began with N. W. A. It’s unconscionable to me that they still haven’t made the HOF. I hope the new hit movie about them, Straight Outa Compton might make a difference. In any event, they’re an easy call. Yes.

The Smiths: In the past, I have argued against their inclusion. But I have had cause to reassess my views. I’ll admit, straight up, that their music just doesn’t speak to me. But they’re the voice of youthful alienation, depression, longing, exclusion. People who love their music love it with a heart-felt passion that has to be respected. And they’re incredibly influential. It’s time. Yes, to the Smiths.

The Spinners: Because it’s essential that absolutely every R&B vocal group on Atlantic Records ever be represented in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. I mean, seriously, every single one. Not on my dime.

Yes: I can’t believe it. Yes has been nominated by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The quintessence of progressive rock, a band that committed all sorts of aesthetic sins (musical complexity, with a classical and jazz/fusion sensibility! Concept albums! Obscure and possibly even (gasp!) pretentious lyrics!). Meanwhile, they made magnificent music for forty years. Chris Squire was, full stop, one of the greatest bass players in the history of recorded music. Steve Howe an extraordinary guitarist. Rick Wakeman, a miraculously inventive keyboardist. Bill Bruford a jazz drummer of amazing range and sensitivity. All topped by Jon Anderson’s soaring tenor. Yes, yes, a thousand times Yes! In fact, I’m going to play you off with Roundabout. (A song they got kinda tired of, to be honest, but still). And tell me that’s not a great rock and roll song!





The Speaker of the House battle, and the apocalypse

The Kevin McCarthy era will be missed. In the week–more or less– since John Boehner skipped to a press conference podium singing “zippity do-dah, zippity eh,” to announce that he’d finally had it, the speculation had been the House Majority leader Kevin McCarthy would be the new guy. He got a nice roll-out, starting, on Monday, with what was touted as a substantive address on foreign policy for the supposedly friendly audience at the John Hay Initiative, a neo-conservative policy center. It went not so good. Rachel Maddow had a lot of fun with it:

If you don’t want to bother with the link, here are some highlights:

Those who return home are being disrespected by the VA that can’t keep the simple promise to all of our heroes to the need when they need it most.

We must engage this war of radical Islam if our life depended on it. Because it does.

This “safe zone” would create a stem a flow of refugees.

Unlike during the surge in Iraq when Petreus and Crocker had an effective politically strategy to match the military strategy.

We have isolated Israel while bolding places like Iran.

The absence of leadership over the past six years has had a horrific consequences all across the globe.

In the past few years alone, I have visited Poland, Hungria, Estonia, Russian and Georgia.

It defies belief that the President would allow the ban on Iranian oil exports to be lifted, and also stands by a Russia blackmails an entire continent–all the while keeping the place of the band on America.

Hungria. Create a stem a flow. The place of the band on America. Stirring words indeed.

So, okay, the presumptive new Speaker of the House, it turned out, can’t speak. That would seem to be a fairly essential requirement of the position. However, the next day, it turns out, talking to Sean Hannity, McCarthy was quite coherent.

Everybody thought Hillary Clinton was unbeatable, right? But we put together a Benghazi special committee, a select committee, what are her numbers today? Her numbers are dropping, why? Because she’s untrustable. But no one would have known any of that had happened.

Everyone knew this, of course, that the House select committee on Benghazi wasn’t interested in Benghazi per se, but mostly in doing as much damage as conceivable to Hillary Clinton’s Presidential campaign. But you don’t say it.  So, of course: outrage. From the left and right, as it happens, Democrats feigning anger (while secretly delighted) over this revealed unconscionable politicization of the House’s investigative role, and Republicans genuinely furious that the big doofus was dumb enough to spill the beans.

Who knows? He still might have survived. Thursday morning, at an 8:00 caucus meeting, it looked like he might still become Speaker. By noon, he was announcing that he was withdrawing from the Speakership race. What? Why? Well, there are these titillating rumors, see. . . .

The news outlets that broke the possibility of an affair between McCarthy and a fellow House member are not reputable sources. Probably, McCarthy is as pure as the driven snow. After all, both McCarthy and the Congresswoman in question are Family Values Republicans! It does appear, though, that certain scurrilous emails circulating to House Republicans about that oh-so-unlikely affair were a factor in McCarthy’s withdrawal. Especially given that those emails would not have had much impact in the absence of actual hanky-panky. Anyway, Kevin McCarthy’s staying on as Majority Leader, and the search is on for someone, anyone, willing to take on the oh-my-gosh-so-absolutely-thankless job of Speaker of the House.

(Meanwhile Mark Takano, D-Ca, trolled Republicans by running a Craigslist ad for a new Speaker. It was very funny, especially when the fake ad insisted “Babysitting experience STRONGLY PREFERRED”)

Various conservative luminaries have modestly offered their own poor services to a grateful nation in need. One is Darrell Issa, whose last name always sounds, to me, like Jar-Jar Binks trying out a new contraction for ‘I am.’ Issa was on Morning Joe this morning, trying to sound like Michael Corleone giving orders to Luca Brasi: “we need someone who will go to the mattresses.” He also dissed a rival Speaker wannabe, Utah’s own Jason Chaffetz, essentially because, Issa suggested, Chaffetz isn’t conservative enough. Seriously. Chaffetz has, he darkly intimated, treasonously floated, on occasion, the possibility of (gasp) compromising with Democrats. Another Congressman, the splendidly named Florida Congressman Daniel Webster has also thrown his nickle into the fountain, leading a waggish friend of mine to call a potential Chaffetz/Webster showdown ‘The Devil and Daniel Webster.’

(Full Disclosure: Jason Chaffetz is my Congressman. I live in his district. If elected Speaker, he would certainly be the best kicker ever to serve in the role; he handled field goals and PATs for BYU football team in days gone by. Personal aside: I have never voted for the man, and wouldn’t if the alternative meant facing a firing squad.)

So what happens now? Rachel Maddow laid out the four possibilities. And there really are only four.

1) Paul Ryan. It doesn’t have to be Paul Ryan, but someone like him; a respected national figure serving in the House who could bring the tattered shreds of the House Republican caucus together. Basically, realistically, that means Paul Ryan, Mitt Romney’s running mate, smart, young, a policy wonk. Who really, seriously, desperately does NOT want the job. And I don’t blame him. Ryan’s ambitious; he wants to be President. The House is in such disarray, serving as an interim Speaker would almost certainly damage those aspirations.

2) Mitt Romney. While Speaker is a Constitutional office, there’s no requirement that the Speaker actually be a House member. They could pick someone who is not in Congress to serve on an interim basis. Mitt Romney is not very liked by hard-core conservatives, but he is, again, a respected national figure. made a strong case for him.  Personally, in the unlikely event that Romney’s offered the job, I would hope he doesn’t take it; I like the man personally, and would spare him that misery. Other, similar choices include Newt Gingrich (boo!), and Senator Ted Cruz. He’d have to quit running for President (yay), and he’d have to leave the Senate (yay). Otherwise boooooooooooooooooooooooooooo!

3) Nobody. It’s certainly possible that the House is so dysfunctional that they never, ever, are able to elect a Speaker. If they can’t, then the House shuts down. The Constitution is clear enough; without a Speaker, they can’t vote on bills, they can’t hold committee meetings, they can’t debate. They can’t do anything. It would shut down the government. For some Republicans, that may not be such a bad outcome.

4) John Boehner. Rachel Maddow thought this was by far the most likely outcome; that Boehner will not be allowed to quit. That his own patriotism would prevent option 3, and that he would end up being forced to finish the next 18 months as Speaker. Let the new Congress pick one, in 2017, after the election. Boehner was joking recently with reporters about a nightmare he’d had in which precisely this is what happened.

The fact is, the next eighteen months are going to be horrible for whoever is in that job. There’s a budget that has to pass. There is a debt ceiling that absolutely, positively has to be raised, a task that the Tea Party Right, amazingly, opposes. The Highway Trust fund is broke, and desperately needs more funding. Collapsing bridges and undriveable highways beckon. And those are only three of the really tough calls.

And the simple fact is, there are members of the House who are–and I say this with the deepest respect–crazy. By crazy, I mean that they have focused all their attention on a few frankly tangential issues to the exclusion of essentially everything else.

First, they are obsessed with the supposed leadership failures of Barack Obama, and describe the current state of America in the most apocalyptic terms. And the fact that the country is doing pretty well right now hasn’t really penetrated their consciousness. Any cooperation with this President is tantamount to treason. That’s why they hate Boehner; he hasn’t obstructed Obama at absolutely every turn. Just most.

Second, they are obsessed with the national deficit and debt. They are convinced that a financial cataclysm is right around the corner, with hyperinflation, the collapse of financial institutions and resultant violent anarchy. That’s why they so oppose any budgetary process that doesn’t radically cut discretionary spending, and why they are so violently against raising the debt ceiling (an absolutely routine bookkeeping task, something most countries don’t even bother with, that’s also completely necessary). In fact, of course, no such economic collapse beckons, though the debt is certainly something we’re going to need to deal with at some point, as a reasonably low priority. Doing so probably involving a tax hike (which the Tea Party also opposes) and cuts in defense spending (ditto).

Third, though, is something trickier. To some people on the Right, the country has seriously gone off track. The wrong people seem to be in charge, and a bad culture is emerging. That’s why Donald Trump’s ridiculous call to deport 11 million undocumented workers has resonance, or why Ben Carson’s comments on why Muslims shouldn’t be eligible for the Presidency struck a chord. It’s just a discomfort with . . . I don’t know what to call it. Post-racial post-modernity? The way things are? To call it racism is perhaps too strong; most Republicans aren’t cross-burners. But they’ve been made to feel . . . unwelcome. It’s hard to combat, because it’s more a feeling than anything else. But as the Republican base gets older and whiter, it also gets crankier. And the House Speakership fight is only a minor skirmish in a larger war.

Look at McCarthy’s speech above, quoted with such glee by Rachel Maddow. Yes, it’s certainly incoherent. But it’s not entirely gibberish. Unpack it carefully (keeping snarkiness to a minimum), and what he’s saying is something Yeats said much more eloquently.

Turning, turning in the widening gyre; the falcon cannot hear the falconer. Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere, the ceremony of innocence is drowned. The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity. . . and what rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouches toward Bethlehem to be born? (W.B. Yeats, The Second Coming)

Obama? All the while, keeping the place of the band? On America?  No wonder the Speaker fight is being so fiercely waged.



Sicario: Movie Review

Sicario is one of those movies that come with a lot of hype that it doesn’t quite live up to, while remaining an awfully good movie anyway. Emily Blunt plays Kate Macer, an FBI agent specializing in kidnapping cases. She leads a SWAT team into a very nice home in Chandler Arizona, a Phoenix suburb, only to discover a horror show; dozens of bodies sheetrocked into the walls. Her handling of the case brings her to the attention of Matt (Josh Brolin), who recruits her into an anti-drug task force he heads up. She soon meets Matt’s partner, Alejandro, (Benicio Del Toro), who, she’s told vaguely, is a DEA asset. She’s never quite sure of Matt either–what agency he works for, what his authority might be, though her superiors make it clear that questioning any of that is way beyond her pay grade. And so begins her slow descent into the moral quagmire of America’s (and Mexico’s) war on drugs. Kate’s a cop’s cop; she wants to bust bad guys, build cases that can be prosecuted in a court of law; she wants clear-cut rules and procedures, and she want her work to be by the book. Matt and Alejandro make clear what they think of her naivete. That’s not remotely what they do, though what they do does seem to have been approved by someone. By someone ‘elected,’ she’s condescendingly informed.

I’ve heard this movie described as shocking and profoundly disturbing and a revelation. I didn’t find it to be any of those things. These are movie tropes of an ancient lineage; morally ambiguous cops who stray outside normal procedures to disrupt and disturb the heads of big drug cartels? We haven’t seen that before? Like in every episode of The Wire? Or the deeply troubled cop seeking revenge for the dreadful things some bad guys did to his family? Seen it all before.

A ‘sicario’ is, as an early title informs us, an assassin. I suppose part of the mystery of the piece is to figure out which of these characters is, in fact, not a cop, but an assassin, a sicario. Except that I figured that out twenty minutes in. Not to spoil things by spilling those particular frijoles, but it’s not all that difficult; I’ll bet you figure it out too, just as quickly.

So it’s really a pretty conventional example of the ‘nihilist cop revenge narrative.’ Like, say, The Departed, The French Connection, Chinatown, all the Dirty Harry movies, Heat, Traffic, Bullitt, Training Day, all the Lethal Weapons, End of Watch, Donnie Brasco, LA Confidential, or The Untouchables? It’s still stylishly made, and exceptionally well acted.

Del Toro is particularly magnificent. He looks ravaged, and all the more dangerous for it. Near the end of the movie, he explains to Kate why she could never fight the war that consumes him. “You’re not a wolf,” he says. “And this is the time for wolves.” And later, when she’s given the chance to shoot him, she can’t bring herself to do it, in part because he had earlier saved her life. His Alejandro is haunted, compassionate, and utterly ruthless. It’s a brilliant creation. Brolin is equally terrific, playing a cheerful cynicism, perhaps even a trifle gleeful in his nihilism.

It’s Emily Blunt, though, who the movie is built around, and she’s fine. For me, though, she seemed just a trifle too naive. A woman with her history dealing with criminals wouldn’t seem quite so surprised (or appalled) at Matt and Alejandro’s antics.

And, thank heavens, the movie does finally place the blame for the destruction and death and mayhem of the drug wars where the blame belongs; squarely on the shoulders of the American people. In the film, Brolin casually mentions the 20% of Americans who regularly use illegal drugs. In fact, the number is nowhere near that high; it’s more like 7.5%, and most of that is marijuana; only about two million Americans regularly abuse cocaine and meth. That’s still a sizeable market. Add to that the tendency of American voters to prefer anti-drug hysteria for sensible drug policy, and our usual casually Trumpian racism towards Mexico, and we have all the necessary elements for a first-rate drug war. Cocaine is a commercial product, and its price is controlled by the immutable laws of supply and demand. Treat drug abuse (and addiction) as a public health problem and not a criminal problem, and demand would drop, leading to a drop in prices, and, presumably, lucrative criminality. This is a stylish and fashionably hopeless (and to be honest, a fashionably sentimental) movie. But it describes a problem that could be solved.

And not by running around shooting the poor soldiers and mules and corrupt (but soccer-playing) cops of the Mexican drug cartels.  No matter how mean they were to your poor lost daughter. We need sensible policy, working in concert with Mexican officials and authorities. Not an army of American Dirty Harrys.