Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Will there be a pre-buttal?

Remember last year?

Whenever I hear that odd term, I think of my sister's puzzlement in early high school when she first heard the term "button-front jeans." Because she hadn't actually seen the jeans (our parents were strong proponents of unbranded clothes - my first and only "designer" jeans in high school, bought with my own scarce money, were Guess jeans reminiscent of that Brooke Shields ad that anyone who came of age in the mid-'80s will no doubt remember. She of course looked better in them), and hadn't actually seen the term in writing, she heard "butt-in-front jeans." She couldn't for the life of her figure out how they'd accomplish that aim. (I think I would've been equally puzzled except that I was paying much less attention.)

So. Butt-in-front - pre-buttal - you connect the dots.

The kids will get to stay up late tonight, because (a) I'm not missing the speech, (b) we have no blank videotapes in the house even if I were inclined to tape it, (c) we don't have TiVo or its ilk, and (d) there's no way the little one will go to sleep in time for me to hear it; he's tough.

A moment of clarity

I just had a heck of a thought.

What if... stay with me, here... what if there's an overarching sense to all the silliness from the Democratic Party? Let's review:

  • Leaders of the party repeatedly declare the war in Iraq a "quagmire" and unwinnable in the face of clear evidence - such as Osama bin Laden's call for a truce and the coalition government that's forming in Iraq - that it's eminently winnable if we keep our concentration;
  • ordinary Democrat folks and some elected Democrats stay on message with "Bush Lied!" in the face of non-partisan evidence that he just, well, didn't;
  • the Left blogosphere's rhetoric, ranging from tediously repetitive claims that Bush is simultaneously dumb as a rock and sly enough to fool the entire body of the American public all the way up to calls for impeachment and even assassination, and Party leaders fail to denounce that rhetoric, instead even appearing as commenters and diarists on the blogs of some of the big offenders;
  • Kerry continues to make solemn pronouncements and take quixotic actions regularly, in spite of even Left-side commentators' head-scratching about his unbelievable "tone-deafness";
  • Gore continues to seek relevance in all the wrong places;
  • Cindy Sheehan may be running for the Senate against Dianne Feinstein;
  • Kennedy continues to see (or at least acknowledge) no irony in his moralistic scoldings of Alito;
  • public and private spokespeople for the party have staked out the side of the NSA program "controversy" that aligns them with the interests of terrorists, so that when they protest that they're for the program but against the method, they're vulnerable to widespread interpretations that they've again put a perceived privacy right of criminals ahead of a significantly more defensible right of law-abiding citizens to expect their government to take all prudent actions to protect them from physical danger;
  • and at every turn we're warned not to question their patriotism.

Maybe they have a double-secret agenda: to make the anti-war, anti-Bush case so completely batty and unacceptable to everyone with a shred of perspective or proportion that they ensure that the American will is bound to remain strong enough to finish the job in the Middle East. Maybe 9/11 was as crystalline a moment for them as it was for the rest of us, and they've just chosen a strangely Machiavellian course to address its imperatives. So we shouldn't question their patriotism after all - just play along, keep on acting puzzled and triumphalist and only give them the wink when we're sure no Islamist is looking.

Or maybe it's just the nachos. Baked chips, fat-free refried black beans, but of course real pepper jack cheese, a dollop of sour cream, and the Safeway Chipotle Salsa... mmmmmmm....

This parenting moment brought to you by the kid down the street

Last night my four-year-old daughter apparently used "the S word," according to the eight-year-old. As the oldest was shouting the accusation from the other room to me, the four-year-old was already in motion, racing for the kitchen where I was cooking dinner to forestall what she assumed would be the storm to follow.

"I'm sorry, Mommy," she began, then, her little face crumbling, "I'm sorry, MOMMY!!" and I was bending down to tell her, "It's OK, honey, everyone sometimes makes a mistake and says something they don't mean to, but remember that that kind of language isn't OK in this house," or words to that effect. I got as far as "It's -" and she was gone, stumbling up the stairs to her room in hysterical tears. We heard her slam the door and fully lose her grip, screaming with sobs.

Truth is, I was briefly amused and surprised that she knew "the S word." We don't talk like that. It's not that we don't know the words ourselves; we're just scrupulous about not using them in the kids' hearing (and frankly I no longer find the need to illustrate my points in exactly this way nearly as much as I did when I was younger). Then I figured it out: a neighbor kid has spent some part of the last three days over here, and though he's a friend of the oldest, the girl loooooves him and hangs around like a groupie whenever he's in the house. This kid is nice, polite, doesn't boot her out of the room or anything (in contrast to her brother) - but evidently he does run off at the mouth. He has an older brother with whom, according to my oldest, he engages in blue-language fights regularly, so there you go.

Poor little girl. I went up to her room and spent a good fifteen minutes trying to convince her that I wasn't mad, that I understood how things can just slip out; for the first ten minutes I was talking over her still-hysterical weeping. Eventually I got out of her the reason for her upset: she was angry and embarrassed at herself. It made me want to drop everything for the whole rest of the night and cuddle her, which, sadly, was not a realistic option. But at least I did get her calmed down, changed her into a pretty dress (I had to wonder at that request: yes, she was all sweaty and wanted to change clothes, but why a dress? Could she actually have "felt dirty" from using a bad word? Hmmm...), and held her hand down the stairs to eat her dinner. She commented on the whole scene later in the evening: "Mommy, remember when I was so upset because I used the S word?"

Oh, that she - that all of them - would remain self-policing. I know it won't happen, but what a wonderful world it would be if they did.

Don't make eye contact!


Thanks again, Protein Wisdom via Michelle Malkin, for reminding me to check the transcript. Last night on Fox News - I think it was Brit Hume's part of the evening, as I was laboring mightily on my Total Gym Pro Plus 2000 Xtreme or whatever the thing's called with my toddler cracking up laughing as he climbed on my chest - I heard one tiny snippet of Senate-speak. The tagline was something like, "From some senators we heard sound..." [cut to soundbyte of Kerry holding forth in sonorous tones, looking nice and tan from Davos - cheap shot, but what the heck - about how Alito's nomination was the result of a revolt on the Right to which the White House responded by predictably caving and putting up an ideological conservative. Imagine!] "...and fury..." [cut to Kennedy looking ready to pop a vein in his forehead, actually pounding on the podium as he declared, "He failed to demonstrate before this Judiciary Committee that he was committed to the continued march for progress!!?!" - thanks again to Michelle Malkin, as I've reproduced her quote rather than relying on my memory].

In the moment, I thought, "My, that's not exactly a passion-inspiring soundbyte there; how'd he get so het up?" There was a serious disconnect between the words and the body language.

So - the link again is here - Michelle Malkin filled in the blanks for me. Go read the transcript on her blog. It includes such nuggets as:

[...][T]hey [the Supreme Court] are the ones who changed this country inevitably with what we call the march to progress. The march towards knocking down the walls of discrimination that permitted us to pass the 1964 Civil Rights Act and public accomodations so people who's skin was not white who could go into restaurants and hotels. Public accomodations[sic]. The '65 act for voting. Voting rights. The '68 act. The public accomodations[sic]. The 1973 act that said that women are going to treated equally. The Americans with Disabilities Act that said that the disabled are going to be part of the American family.

All of that is part of the march for progress.

And my friends, the one organization, the one institution that protects it is THE SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES!!!

She adds at the end of that paragraph, "(Screaming at the top of his lungs.)"

You know when you're, say, serving dinner at your house to a group of people you don't know all that well, you're thinking, "OK, this is fine, everyone's getting along well," and you ask, "So, Bev, what do you do for a living?" and it turns out that she sells mail-order herbal supplements to cleanse your body of all the toxins that accumulate in your fat cells from the hormones in meat and milk and the pesticide residues on vegetables? And she goes on at some length about how everyone who actually cares about their health should only eat organic foods, and especially eschew engineered foods because who knows what you're taking in when you eat, say, a genetically altered tomato? And, remember, you made this dinner, and if there was something organic in it, it was in the chemistry sense of "carbon-based" rather than the new-age sense of "grown through the gentle ministrations of Mother Gaia and nothing else, except maybe some manure from free-range cattle"?

Awkward pause... and someone makes a valiant but doomed effort to segue out of the danger zone, and eventually someone else drops all pretense and just flatly changes the subject.

That's the sense of it. Kennedy, a senior Senator, the (gulp) eminence grise of the Democratic Party, going completely wild in defense of a competing branch of government - more: giving them sole credit for every advancement he perceives in American life - right in the middle of a bunch of other Senators. Add to that the implicit - no, explicit assumption that the "march for progress" is the goal of American governance. And, of course, the implicit (this time it actually is implicit) acknowledgment that the courts are the last refuge of the Democratic Party, or at any rate his ideological companions.

I just can't figure out whether Jeff Goldstein is trying to create a segue out of thin air or baldly changing the subject. All I know is that my eyes are unwaveringly on my plate.

Monday, January 30, 2006

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Yet another reason (if you needed one)

...to avoid a "timeline for withdrawal" from Iraq, even a milestone-based one. The usual line, which is indubitably true, is that a timeline gives al Qaeda and its cohort a target to out-wait. But even points along a timeline are dangerous:

What is the engine of our involvement in Iraq? A combination of the will of the American people and the will of the American president. I have confidence in President Bush to stay this course until circumstances make it apparent that we, and the Iraqi people, have won. (As Orson Scott Card says in Ender's Game, since when does the victor need to be told he's won?) In the will of the American people, I have less confidence - not because the American people have poor judgment, but because they're an aggregate, not an individual. So it's possible to affect their - our - sense of the worthiness of the cause by several means, including - here's the rub - missing milestones.

So far, Iraq has done a brilliant job of meeting the milestones set for it internally and externally. But let's say we set a series of milestones tied to troop withdrawals. How many milestones would al Qaeda have to disrupt before the American people's aggregate sense of our effectiveness in Iraq would be damaged beyond salvage? Better by far to keep Coalition troop levels fluid, able to respond to events, and keep our eyes on the prize: a stable, democratic, allied-with-us Iraq, as I said in my previous post.

Monday, January 23, 2006

Democrats' Quilting Bee and Debating Society meets here

Many moons ago, I was a high school debater. My partner and I were the #2 team among Department of Defense Dependent Schools competitors in the U.K., which, with $4, will get you a pretty decent latte. I note here, for real debaters out there, that the DoDDS system, convinced (and correctly so, at the time) that we dependents overseas would not be able to research our questions at all adequately at base or post libraries, created packets of "fact cards" for us. All we had to do was to sort and organize them, and become sufficiently familiar with them that we could whip 'em out during a debate to good effect. So DoDDS debate teams started with exactly the same bodies of fact, and a team won by dint of its rhetorical fancy footwork.

But when the spokespeople of one of the United States's dominant political parties embrace high school debate as a tactic, well, forgive me if I tend to roll my eyes. For instance:

So, when the extremist nutcases in our country start comparing patriotic Democrats and Progressives with Osama bin Laden, welcome the opportunity to point out that the present incarnation of the GOP is controlled by the religious right, the Theocons, who bear disturbing parallels to the most wanted man in the world. And you don’t have to be able to whip out a bunch of quotes, all you need to remember is a simple soundbite and they will open the door for you.

The religious right is Osama bin Laden light.

That’s how easy it is to turn the tables.

H/T to Jeff Goldstein at ProteinWisdom, a terrific and often terrifically funny blog I've spent a lot of time on lately. (Not necessary work-safe, and definitely not kid-safe! Jeff's observations are clear and frequently hilarious, but couched in sometimes-inappropriate language for these audiences. However, civil discourse is the general rule. This is no Kos or DU.) The above is from a Kossack who goes by the moniker DarkSyde (whatever). His comments refer to what he perceives as similarities between Osama bin Laden's fundamentalist Islam and the beliefs of fundamentalist American Christians... without the barest acknowledgement of the completely different approaches each takes to the cultural norms of which they disapprove. Hint: one supports stoning and beheading of violators of religious law. The other, in its worst socially acceptable incarnation, supports aggressive, sometimes irritating, but ultimately non-physical conversion attempts. (If this DarkSyde's intent is to convince the great American center that all fundamentalist Christians are on the same page as the monsters who drag people to death behind pickup trucks or leave them wired to fences to die in the cold, good luck to him.)

Point being, DarkSyde, who is a "diarist" on DailyKos (which means he actually gets a "column" rather than just the opportunity to comment), appears to believe that the important thing here is winning the debate, rather than determining what is in the nation's best interest and going about creating a plan to achieve that goal.

Back in high school debate, it was a truism that the negative side was the easy side. If you won the coin toss, you chose to be the "con" side, because all you had to do was to poke enough little holes, or a sufficiently large single hole, in the "pro" side's arguments to weaken it; you didn't have to present an alternative. It was absolutely the opposite of the Perry Mason courtroom, in which Perry not only always got his client off but did so by revealing the real killer; instead, the debate was decided more like a real criminal trial, with a "reasonable doubt" standard. If the cons could elicit the equivalent of a reasonable doubt, they won. The pros, on the other hand, had to present their argument and then defend it vigorously, hoping that they could poke sufficient holes in the con-side's hole-poking attempts that their reasonable doubts would be revealed to be unreasonable.

But high school debate ain't what we're doing here. Does it matter whether the NSA program, summed up as "eavesdropping on the conversations of known al Qaeda members with others, some of whom may be US citizens," is legal or not? Of course it does - but if it's not legal, isn't the important question how to make it legal rather than how long the high-fiving should go on? What is the goal here? Is it important that the Shi'ites, many of whom are followers of a conservative brand of Islam, won a majority in Iraq's recent elections? Of course it is - but is it not at least as important that they didn't win enough seats to control to ["the" - sheesh!] Iraqi government and must form a coalition government? Should we consider whether military commanders in Iraq ought to have asked for more troops on the ground in the days immediately following Iraqi liberation? Naturally we should - but as an exercise to feed into the next conflict, rather than a "gotcha" moment with no follow-up.

I hope to get my hands on L. Paul Bremer's new book, My Year In Iraq, soon. I've heard parts of two interviews with him lately, and not only does he utterly destroy arguments from "the other side" about whether, for instance, the Iraqi Army "should have been" dissolved and more Coalition troops "should have been" used in the early occupation period, but he stays brilliantly focused on the goal of bringing about a stable, peaceful, allied-with-us Iraq as a means to greater American national security and, not incidentally, a better world. He ain't doing high school debate either.

Update: Well, color me surprised. Apparently Blogger doesn't support trackbacks, and besides linking to sites I read (and emailing the authors, which I usually don't do because of the pretension factor), I don't actually know how to indicate to their authors that I've been reading them. Yet who shows up in the comments but DarkSyde him/herself and... Jeff Goldstein! Wow. I'm honored, Mr. Goldstein. Mr./Ms. Syde, well, thanks for the appearance - can't say as how I'm honored.

Mr./Ms. Syde, you continue to confuse a general similarity (ask yourself what orthodox Jews believe about women clergy, for instance - I bet it's "eerily similar" to what Osama bin Laden believes) with equivalence, and believe that by doing so you "win." My point is that with methodology as flawed as yours, your conclusion is invalid.

But even if we elide your method, your conclusion is still specious. You say, in the Comments, "In toto, both ["the extreme religious right" - as opposed to ordinary American Christians or even most fundamentalist Christians, as Mr. Goldstein points out - and Osama bin Laden] wish to force feed their specific version of religion, with all the associated Fatwas acting as a veto on the behavior of others, regardless if others share that view, with the full power of the state and law behind them." You make this assumption, fail to back it up, and ignore the really indisputable fact that while Osama bin Laden has (or perhaps "had" is a better word, these days, thank you Mr. Bush) real power and influence over policy in the real world, the "extreme religious right" has precisely zero power and influence. By "extreme religious right," I must conclude you're talking about an apparently invisibly tiny group of fundamentalist Christians who would actually seek and support the setup of an American theocracy, rather than the larger group of fundamentalist Christians who are content to work through the electoral process; otherwise your equation of this group with Osama bin Laden makes no sense. Anticipating your counter that an American government that includes any number, however small, of fundamentalist Christians is in fact a "theocracy," let me point out the important difference between a theocracy, or government based on religious offices and run by religious leaders - such as, for instance, Rev. Jackson or the Archbishop of Boston - and a government in which some leaders are devout in their religions, and share their devotion (or maybe just their cultural aims) with enough voters that some of their policy goals are able to be voted into law. Since you come from the "nuanced" side of the aisle, I'm sure you have no trouble understanding that difference.

Friday, January 20, 2006

Federalism: not for the faint of heart

The Supreme Court has spoken - and it's with a heavy heart that I admit I agree with their ruling, and can't imagine why Scalia and Thomas dissented. I can imagine why they might have disagreed with the Oregon law, as I do, but not why they dissented from the majority opinion that the Federal government does not have jurisdiction over this area of American life. (Roberts, I don't know well enough yet.)

I hate that law. My father, I understand, loves it, for reasons he and I don't discuss. I consider it one of the depths of depravity to involve healers in suicide. I don't doubt that doctors faced with their patients' pain and desire for release may feel an impulse to help them achieve that release - good doctors, at any rate, ought to empathize with their patients this way, just as family members sometimes pray for the speedy (or "happy," in the old Catholic formula) death of a loved one in agony. But to take the next step by bringing about that death - that's a line I believe we ought not to invite doctors to cross. (I also fear that today's allowing doctors to prescribe lethal doses of drugs for terminal patients could too easily evolve into tomorrow's mandating that they do so, a la the Plan B pharmacist debates. And can anyone doubt that there will be pharmacists who, still committed to their own principles, will refuse to fill these prescriptions? But these concerns of mine are for later days.)

However. This ruling is closely analogous to Roe v. Wade, this time decided in a strict-constructionist fashion. The repeal of Roe no longer looks like such an impossibility. I reluctantly see this ruling as a victory for Life, because if Roe is overturned and the legality of abortion returns to State legislatures, there is a chance that some, perhaps many States will outlaw late-term abortions, that some will enact limits on second-trimester abortions, that one or two may ban abortion altogether (probably with the usual medical exception), and a certainty that each of the fifty States will have the freedom to explore a range of policy options. Jane Galt addresses this point this week.

Now, it becomes incumbent on me to try to prevent Pennsylvania from passing a law similar to Oregon's. That, friends and neighbors, is federalism, and it's not for the faint of heart.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Microbrews on a Bud budget

And I do mean micro. We're homebrewers. More accurately these days, I'm the homebrewer; my husband benefits from my largesse. (Of course, he also pays for the ingredients, but - well, let me tell the story in its proper order.)

One of the first Christmas gifts I ever gave him, and to date still my biggest coup, was a homebrewing kit. It was a significant expenditure for me at the time - $50, when I was living on my credit card and working at my geology degree. It consisted of a giant glass bottle of sorts, a bunch of arcane tubing and fittings and things, and a bag filled with other smaller bags, accompanied by a Xeroxed piece of paper telling us in roughest terms what to do with all the stuff. Somehow, in an apartment so primitive we had to light the wall heater (the only heater we had) with a barbecue lighter (which led to some exciting moments from time to time), we managed to brew our first batch of beer - almost entirely wrong, in terms of procedure, but ultimately it came out rather well. Some points on which we erred:

  • The first step in beginning brewing tends to be glopping some very thick and preternaturally sticky stuff, malt extract, into a large pot of water - as close to five gallons of water as your pot will hold. You then bring the resulting thin sugar syrup to a boil and keep it there for about an hour, adding various kinds of hops at specific intervals to provide bitterness, flavor, and aroma. Ways to go wrong in this process abound: you can fail to dissolve the malt extract thoroughly and scorch it onto the bottom of your pot, which we did. You can forget to time when you started the boil, which we did. You can boil it over and make a mess the likes of which you've never seen unless you have one child with diarrhea and one with a stomach virus - see my previous post - which we did.
  • There is a critter called an "airlock" or "vapor lock" or "fermentation lock" that can be summed up as an S-shaped tube, held vertically so that the S is on its side. One end of the tube fits into a rubber stopper or other type of cap for the carboy, or giant glass bottle (or large plastic bucket, but more on that later). You fill the tube halfway with clean water, and the effect is that bubbles of CO2 that emerge from the wort as it ferments bubble up through it in a one-way fashion, keeping wild yeast and other contaminants out. Well. There's a first stage of fermentation that's very energetic, and requires either a bigger vapor lock than this little guy, more along the lines of a long piece of tubing with one end held down in a tub of bleach solution, or else some gol-danged headspace in the carboy. Otherwise you blow the cap right off, which is what we did. Being scientists, however, we determined that the process of blowing the cap off required - in fact was practically a definition of - positive pressure, so probably no wild yeast had been able to contaminate the pre-beer through the powerful blast of CO2 coming from the carboy. So we popped the cap back on and continued. (I should note that open primary fermentation was the rule in medieval breweries. But they also ended up with a lot of skunky beer, I understand.)
  • There is a little plastic cap at the bottom of the racking cane (the link is for a racking cane clamp, but the racking cane is pictured - you use it to "rack" the beer, or transfer it from one container to another by attaching flexible tubing to the hooked end and creating a siphon by means best left to the imagination). This plastic cap serves only one purpose: to keep the sucking-in end of the racking cane out of the trub, or gooey dead yeasties that coat the bottom of the carboy. Unfortunately, while we figured it had only one purpose, we figured that that purpose was to keep the end of the racking cane clean until we needed to use it, so we pulled it off and set it aside while bottling our beer. Consequently, that was one cloudy brew.
  • Beer bottles must be sanitized before you put the beer in, or who knows what-all could be living in them. We sanitized our first batch of some 50 bottles about 3 at a time by boiling them in our brewpot. It took forever. More efficient means: toss all the bottles that will fit into a full sink of water containing regular chlorine bleach (no scent, please, and no need for funny gel-like consistency - the cheapest bleach in the store is fine), rinse them in the hottest water your water heater will put out until there's not the slightest whiff of bleach remaining, and drain upside-down. Or, same method but with one of the various sanitizing solutions sold at brew supply stores, which generally have the advantage of not requiring rinsing. The downside is that these solutions are expensive. Or, if you have a dishwasher, put the bottles into it on the "sanitize"cycle if there is one, or just through a hot wash without detergent. (Detergent will pretty much guarantee that your beer will have no head.) With any method, start with at least visibly clean bottles - nothing that once held cigarette butts!

All right. So our first batch, a pilsener, came out pretty tasty in spite of it all. But since then, well over a decade ago, we've learned some things:

  • Beer brewed in two stages is better than single-fermentation beer. Besides, accomplishing the first, very bubbly phase in a six-gallon plastic bucket, then racking to a five-gallon carboy for secondary fermentation for the more leisurely phase, eliminates that blowing-the-cap-off problem and makes it a lot easier to clean out the trub, since it's at the bottom of an open-topped container rather than the bottom of a tall bottle with an opening the size of a fifty-cent piece.
  • A pull-out faucet is a Godsend. Trying to rinse equipment without one is an exercise in how to splash water all over your kitchen, or wherever you brew.
  • Moving from all-extract to partial-grain brewing, which involves the extra steps of steeping a few pounds of crushed grains in very hot water for a while and then sparging (or gently rinsing) the grains with more hot water, and collecting the sugar-water that results, not only makes better-tasting beer but also gives you much more of the sense of having done something - like making a cake from scratch. All-grain brewing, in which you start with nothing but crushed grains and have to come up with all the sugar-water from the steeping and sparging process rather than taking the shortcut of using malt extract - more like making a cake starting with wheat grains and sugar cane and some chickens - apparently requires about twice the time of partial-grain brewing, which many hard-core hobbyists counter by making double batches. I'm just not willing to devote that much of my house to brewing.

Our Beer Book, a ten-year-old beat-up blue spiral notebook in which we've recorded our brewing adventures since 1995, highlights our childlike wonder at actually creating, time after time, really good beer for the price of really bad beer. Even with our slapdash methodology, we've only actually destroyed three batches over a decade. Exclamation points pepper the pages, especially once we moved to Houston and discovered DeFalco's, Houston's one and only beer and wine supply shop, which inexplicably concentrates the nicest people, freshest ingredients, and best recipes in one rather unattractive storefront. Let me recommend the Sugar & Spice & Everything Nice Christmas Ale - like gingerbread in a bottle. Yum! And the Irish Red Ale, a proprietary recipe by one of the employees there (he gets a royalty payment for every batch of ingredients they sell, we were told), that is absolutely the best medium-bodied ale around.

Friday, January 13, 2006

Lost arts

Two out of three of my kids are sick, with the dreaded Intestinal Yuck. One is emitting fluids from one end, the other from the other. And we have houseguests arriving tomorrow. (As usual.)

So my thoughts have turned to the lost art of sickroom management, because in essence my entire house, all three stories, every bedroom and bathroom, the kitchen and the family room, have become sickrooms. In the time of the Spanish Flu, we'd all have been dead already. We're substituting Purell for quarantine and contamination of our favorite couch for sickbeds; when all is said and done, we'll (by which I mean "I'll") wash and quite possibly ruin the chenille throws that we've intemperately substituted for easily washable and bleachable bedlinens.

All because we don't have cable in every room, I guess, since television is the opiate of the undersized masses that inhabit this place. If, for instance, my daughter's room had had a cable hookup, which it only would have if we were inclined to put TVs in the kids' rooms, which we're not, then she would have spent all day today in bed rather than on the couch. So there's another lost art to ponder: the entertainment (or at any rate the maintenance of quiet and calm) of the non-reading patient. She doesn't do needlepoint or crochet; I might've been able to convince her to play with toys in bed, but for how long? So onto the couch she went, with a succession of DVDs to keep her mind off her stomach when she wasn't asleep.

I am not germ-phobic, by any stretch, no matter how long my blog entries on cleaning are. Ask my sister. Ask my husband. Ask my poor beleaguered mother-in-law, who would love for me to be a bit more methodical in my approach. My philosophy has always been - and I mean always - that if we clean too effectively, we deny ourselves the chance to be exposed to lots of microorganisms to which we can usefully develop immunities. Likewise, if we use antimicrobials on everything, we may be the last human witnesses to microevolution. (I doubt that the consequences would be that extreme - after all, even Stephen King didn't kill off the entire human race. But a couple of years ago, our youngest did have a run-in with antibiotic-resistant staph. aureus, which scared the dickens out of me.)

Where was I? Oh yes, sickrooms. My job in the past few days would have been incomparably easier if my sick kids had been confined to their bedrooms. But that hypothetical presupposes that they would also have been trained to expect confinement, which is a whole 'nother ball of wax.

On a related subject, I recently inadvertantly converted four friends to annual pillow-buying. Honestly, I mostly do it because, like ironed sheets, there's nothing like a new pillow to make an ordinary person feel like a queen (or king). But - well, it happened this way: I was out to dinner with some women friends the other night, and I mentioned in passing that I'd found the best pillow ever this year, having gone out as usual to buy new pillows for everybody during the January white sales - and one friend interrupted, "You buy new pillows every year? That must cost a fortune!"

Blushing, I pointed out that if you buy new pillows every year, you don't actually have to buy very expensive pillows. Several asked why I do it; I replied, relatively honestly, that it's because my husband is allergic (I didn't say to what; dust mites are probably a concern, but the Cat That Would Not Go To Kitty Heaven is a bigger deal, and he's not allowed near the pillows). I added, "I used to wash them spring and fall, but that was kind of a hassle -" and was cut off by a chorus that can be distilled to, "What are you, some kind of germophobe?" Which, I swear, I'm not. (I might add that until the husband started making enough money that pillows for the whole family were no longer a luxury that we'd indulge in only if we were flush at the end of January, we had the same pillows for oh, I don't want to think how long. I did wash them... occasionally. But I still pretty much never wash any hairbrush in the house, which is something my mom did frequently.)

The following morning, one of these friends emailed the rest of us that she'd just caught a piece on Today about the nastiness that dwells within pillows anywhere from two to 10 years old, and that the report further claimed that though allergen-proof pillow protectors will keep the mites and their, ah, bodily emanations out of your pillow, they don't stop the fungi and such that result from your being a living creature and sleeping and, um, drooling on that pillow. The whole crowd then engaged in a flurry of "Ewwww, gross!!" emails that resulted in everyone's going out to Target and buying this, which is the one I bought and look forward to all day, or similar. (And here I might add that I bet the Today piece was bought and paid for by the Association of Bedding Suppliers or something, to push up those January white sale figures. But truth is a valid defense, I always say.)

In conclusion, while I'd like to see a resurgence of certain lost arts and old-school rules (like "no shoes on beds," which never bothered me until Cheryl Mendelsohn raised the concern in Home Comforts, cited in my cleaning post earlier), considering pillows as family heirlooms (people used to! It takes a long time to collect enough goosedown for a pillow when you only have a dozen geese or so, I guess) is not one of them.

Monday, January 09, 2006

What should have been obvious

I want you to read this:

As you know, because the media parrot it incessantly, there were no links between al-Qa’eda and Saddam, because he’s a scrupulously secular Baathist and they’re fundamentalist Islamists. Good thing those pro-gay pro-feminist Eurolefties making common cause with honor-killing sodomite-beheaders don’t demand the same level of intellectual coherence from their own coalition as they do from the terrorists. Does George Galloway feel even a wee bit squeamish that his speeches are indistinguishable from David Duke?

Is there more to be said? Well...

An Iraqi of that name [Ahmed Hikmat Shakir, a member of the Fedayeen Saddam, Saddam Hussein's elite security force], Carney knew, had been present at an al Qaeda summit in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, on January 5-8, 2000. U.S. intelligence officials believe this was a chief planning meeting for the September 11 attacks. Shakir had been nominally employed as a "greeter" by Malaysian Airlines, a job he told associates he had gotten through a contact at the Iraqi embassy. More curious, Shakir's Iraqi embassy contact controlled his schedule, telling him when to show up for work and when to take a day off.

... [These ellipses, I note, elide a lot of vital stuff. Read the whole thing, as they say.]

Six days after September 11, Shakir was captured in Doha, Qatar. He had in his possession contact information for several senior al Qaeda terrorists: Zahid Sheikh Mohammed, brother of September 11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed; Musab Yasin, brother of Abdul Rahman Yasin, the Iraqi who helped mix the chemicals for the first World Trade Center attack and was given safe haven upon his return to Baghdad; and Mamdouh Mahmud Salim, otherwise known as Abu Hajer al Iraqi, described by one top al Qaeda detainee as Osama bin Laden's "best friend."

Among other things. I remember opining to my husband in mid-2003 that just on the face of it, al Qaeda must have been established within Iraq, or they wouldn't have been able to move so quickly and seamlessly into an "insurgent" role there. It takes time to establish relationships, especially those that depend on secrecy and an absolute intolerance for even minor betrayals. Safe houses, weapons caches, contact with high-level Ba'athists who might reasonably have expected to go into hiding upon the entry of American and coalition troops into Iraq - you don't achieve access to these things by showing up at the border and saying, "Hi, I'm on your side." Clearly, I said then, the relationships had been forged before. I've seen no reason, so far, to change my mind.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Law, order, and judgment

My husband and I argued for quite a long time last night over chicken tacos about what I like to call the "tempest in a teapot" that he likes to call the "tragedy of watching our nation become less free." I speak, of course, of the signals-intelligence/NSA/warrentlesswarrantless[grrrr...]-communications-intercept thing I blogged about here. The crux of our discussion is contained in our exchange that (my side) a President's powers in wartime are different from and appropriately stronger than his powers in peacetime, and that (his side) this is a war the end of which may not - probably will not - be obvious. He, I note, doesn't disagree with what the Bush administration has done, because this administration appears to have been careful in self-limiting its application of the NSA program in question. His beef is that Bush will not be in office forever; someday there'll be another Clinton (I hope not too soon) or Nixon, and the Bush precedent will give that person political and legal cover for less responsible use of the government's far-reaching surveillance capabilities.

I'll refer interested people to Tom Macguire for lots and lots of interesting information on the story. I found this entry to be particularly edifying. Don't neglect the comments. Tom is probably THE resource for the Plame-leak story as well, from all I've seen; frankly he's so deep into that story that I've completely lost track of who did what to whom. I suspect he'll be similarly thorough on this one.

Now that we have that out of the way... my husband and I are both correct, in my oh-so-humble opinion of course. Privacy, I've heard it said, is an illusion these days. The question is not what information is being gathered - assume that all of it is - or whether it's being stored - assume that all of it is. The question is what it's being used for. The government (I hate that over-broad formulation, but what are you gonna do?) ought to have little interest in me; I have no influence, no significant money, no contacts with unsavories, and I seldom talk about bombs or plots, though I do sometimes refer to my children as "pure evil," especially when they're still awake after 10:30. But the fact that I don't particularly care whether the government is monitoring my communications doesn't necessarily translate into a sense of "nothing to see here" from a civil liberties perspective. My husband's point is well taken: not every national leader is Bush.

[Side note: I confess that I love to make that kind of point; I think it probably drives reflexive Bush-haters nuts to hear it, just as referring to the non-Soviet West as "the democracies," as a contrasting term, e.g., "We in the democracies, unlike you Soviets...", reportedly infuriated the Soviet Union in its heydey, when it maintained that it was a democracy.]

John Adams famously said that "We are a nation of laws, not of men." I yield to no one in my respect for Adams, and only a little of that respect derives from my parvenu excitement that my children are his descendants, though I'm just a peasant Irishwoman. But he was a little off the mark: We are a nation of laws and of men. One often-cited advantage of our Constitution over behemoths like the unsuccessful EU version is its brevity and adaptability; it's written in sufficiently general terms that it remains brief even a couple of centuries and a universe of change after its drafting, because it didn't, and doesn't, micromanage. But it's obvious that a generally written law can be open to interpretation.

Equally obvious is that a too-specifically written law applies to too little in the real world to be useful for much, giving rise to more and more itty-bitty laws so that every circumstance is covered. I'm inclined to think that the balance we almost inadvertantly created - a framework that we've "fleshed out" with caselaw over more than two centuries - is The Way, not least because empirically it's proven to be so, so far. What it means, though, is that at times, particularly at critical times, we have to decide whether to try to circumscribe government action with law or to submit to the judgment of our elected leaders.

This principle is just as broad as the Constitution, and Adams can be forgiven for overlooking it, I think. Democracy was new and essentially untried (the Greeks' and Romans' experiences with democracy and republic being effectively lost to history at that point). The Founders were Hobbesian in their belief that men must be constrained by law because men were fundamentally - or Originally - sinful; but these same men, many of them, had already pledged their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred Honor to an abstract other than God, a singularly un-Hobbesian thing to do. Is it so unrealistic that they may have viewed themselves, and their compatriots, as different in kind from George III? And so they might have assumed that an elected chief executive would hold the nation's good close to his heart, and indeed I think they were right, in the main. It's the judgment of that chief executive that we must rely on, more than his motives.

At this point, the anti-Bush crowd sees a no-win situation. Relying on Bush's judgment, they might say, is certainly no better than relying on his morals. And that's where I ask for evidence. Occam's Razor is useful here, too: what reason might Bush have had for authorizing the NSA program? Any reasonable answer to that question does not include "personal gain."

Which does not address my husband's objection. But this part does: at this reading, 43 individuals have sat in the Oval Office, literally or figuratively. They were men of ambition, men who craved power on some level, or else they would not have pursued a job that makes men old. Not one of them has succeeded in becoming a dictator. The chances of one's achieving such a Hobbesian feat now, when the power of the citizen to be heard and to hear is greater than it's ever been, seems to me to be vanishingly unlikely. We're in the midst of a flowering of civil liberties unprecedented in history - but, like my darn kids, we complain because we only got four new Gameboy games rather than a new DS.

[Another side note: actually, my son is saving up to buy a DS. He knows full well that complaining about our not buying him one is not an effective tactic with us.]


The desire to be first with good news is, I think, inherent in most people. Ordinary people now have tools in their pockets and purses that enable them to make a bid for "first" with greater speed and reach than ever in human history.

God rest the souls of the twelve who died in the Sago Mine in the last few days; God protect and restore to health the one man who survived; and please, God, be with the suffering families whose mistakenly raised hopes were so tragically dashed by the truth. And God, while you're at it, help us all to see this terrible event, illustrated by newspaper headlines declaring the twelve alive and by scenes of jubilation from inside the church where the families had gathered, as a morality play teaching us to be careful of the speed with which we can gather and disseminate information. Deliberation, where news of life and death are the subjects, should still be the rule.

I admit that I'm much more of a cryer now than I was before my kids were born. But is it possible not to be moved by the sight of those families hugging and laughing and praising God, joyous, grateful for an impossible miracle, juxtaposed with their bewilderment, anger, and heartbreak when they learned that the message "we found all twelve" had been commuted by optimistic inference to "we found all twelve alive"? I hope that when their first shock has passed, they'll be able to realize that no one at the mine could possibly have intended to lie to them; the mine officials, it's certain, wanted nothing so much as that impossible miracle. Who is guilty? The ones, whoever they were, who rushed to dial their cellphones. Who can blame them? Not I... though I hope I'll remember to take three deep breaths and ask myself some hard questions if I'm ever in a similar situation.

If the mine was, as I heard alleged on the news last night, a notably unsafe place to work, I hope the mine operators are prosecuted to the full extent of their culpability, and that safety will dramatically improve there as a result of these sad deaths. I do say "alleged" because the former head of Mine Health and Safety Academy, or Mine Safety and Health Academy, or whatever he was that wasn't MSHA, said that the mine had been cited some 200 times in the past year for safety violations - but did not say how many citations a mine considered to be "well-run" and "safe" would have had. (MSHA and OSHA reporting are notorious in my experience for their, ah, scrupulousness - for heaven's sake, don't pull on a hangnail at work, if you're an OSHA shop.) Mining is a dangerous business. Years ago, when my husband worked for a summer at a gold mine in Nevada, he had the dubious pleasure of an MSHA bulletin for reading material that, on a biweekly-or-so basis, featured the top three or four horrible deaths at mines, complete with line drawings. Less horrible injuries and deaths were reported but not illustrated. It was both gruesome and instructive.

Later, when we both worked in the environmental industry, we received annual training on confined space entry, most of which consisted of "Don't do it! For God's sake, stay AWAY from that hole in the ground! If your buddy goes down into the hole in the ground, DO NOT go after him - you may DIE!" An underground mine is the ultimate confined space entry: every time a person goes into that hole in the ground, he or she runs risks of bad air, cave-in, power failure, fire (in many types of mines) that, if it is not immediately deadly, consumes available oxygen... Yet coal still accounts for about half of America's electricity production, and underground mining is still a viable and in many cases preferable option in, especially, the eastern states. These men were working at good and beneficial jobs in an industry much more dangerous than sitting in an office. If the explosion that ultimately caused their deaths could have been prevented by reasonable and prudent means, I want that fact known and those responsible punished. But I think the accident's cause and preventability are far from clear at this point.

I can't end on that note. I'll end as I did some entries back: May the souls of the faithful departed rest in peace. Amen.