Comments on life, the universe and everything from an aging Sixties survivor.

Location: Massachusetts, United States

Ummm, isn't "about me" part of the point of the blog?

Tuesday, May 31, 2005

California Trip, Part I

Received Wisdom, from Jack Kerouac to William Least Heat Moon, says that you can't possibly see "the real America" from the Interstate.

Logistical reality says you can't drive across the USA in 96 hours unless you see little except the Interstate. Actually, we did it in 93 hours, and I suspect we saw, in outline, some American reality that many other eyes have missed.

Take our motel the first night. We started off with each night's stay booked and held to that for three nights. The first night we spent in one of those older motels glued together by a loose marketing confederation. They're usually owned by Indians or Pakistanis, tend to be reasonably priced, modest in amenities but neat, and also tend to be a bit shaky on the concept of Internet reservations. I suggest this phenomenon, which has quietly gathered momentum over the past ten years or so, is a very traditional story of making it in America. Apparently not everyone thinks so, if one is to judge by the number of motels I saw that advertised themselves as "American owned." Know-Nothingism is very much alive.

I never did get the patio breakfast in Albuquerque (more on that later), nor did I nosh at Shoney's. If you're trying to toss a spoonful of sanity into a cross-country road trip, choose other company than your wife. Choose it, at least, if your wife has the maternal bit in her teeth and is determined to spare her (adult) daughter a long exposure to a rental car (and ourselves a day's rent on same). We ate bagels, peanut butter and juice-box OJ for breakfast, following the 0445 wakeup my wife decreed, underway. Lunch was at truck stops as a rule.

It was during a long-ago road trip that I first became aware of a slice of "real America" that has eluded many blue highway elitists: the subculture of interstate truckers and truck stops. It really is a subculture. Independent haulers especially live in their rigs, getting food, sleep and showers at the stops. Legend decrees it a male-only environment, as legend once said of sea captains. The reality is that long-haul trucking is often a spousal undertaking, as seafaring actually was. If I had been on the road a month later I bet I'd have seen entire families. I have enough of that elitism to be sorry that independent truck stops have largely been swept away by franchised chains. The chains do bring a certain quality control that the old truck stops lacked (the romance of the old-time truck stops was somewhat sullied by their dubious hygiene).

Chain or no chain, you'd have to be very sleepy indeed if you couldn't distinguish between the Pilot truck stop in Erie, PA, and the Flying A stop in (I think) Mclean, TX.

It also struck me that uniformity of consumer culture is one of the few things that gives us a common identity. Perhaps we should be more attentive to that, which is hardly new. The dominance of national brands has been around over a century, with local entrepreneurs adding regional accents to whatever brand they are touting. The scale is larger but the habit is the same.

These thoughts, and the geological question of where the grasslands begin, occupied most of my conscious thought until we reached the Mississippi. John McPhee's Founding Fish, on tape, filled in the intellectual chinks.

I grew up on the Merrimack River, and was mildly surprised when I discovered it included in someone's list of great rivers of America. That ingrained inferiority complex stayed with me until we crossed the Mississippi at St. Louis, where I was amazed to discover a river not a whole lot wider than the Merrimack.

Enough for the first round, then. We'll see what else recovered memory can dredge up.

Saturday, May 21, 2005

H-hour -21:
The California trip is at our throats.

Emily was home a total of 11 hours yesterday, slept four of them, and spent the rest dividing her spoil into what we store here, what she takes on the plane, and what we load in The Grape for the trip.

The Grape is a burgundy 1995 Nissan Altima which will finish this journey with 150,000 miles on it. It passed an extremely anal-retentive diagnostic check a month ago and seems to be running better than my newer car. For the past three years, Emily has proven adept at packing all her worldly goods into this mid-size sedan. There had to be adjustments that accepted the fact that there would be two parents, not one young adult, in the car, and that said parents needed to change clothes once in a while on the trip.

So, we're about to drive off to look for America: Stay tuned.

There are two approaches to justice.

The party who says "I'll see you in court!" expects impartial treatment.

The one who says, "I'll see you before His Honour!" expects preferential treatment.

The administration has made clear its preference for the latter approach. The American public, even conservatives, appear to prefer the former. The linked article does indicate a preference for "conservative" over "liberal" judges, despite the desire for thorough scrutiny.

Here's a novel idea. What say the administration nominates the best judges, not the best conservative judges or the best liberal judges? If they have any value at all in their role, it will be due to an ability to leave ideology at the courthouse door and consider cases before them on merit, not against the fixed templates of partisan and sectarian polity. That group of lefty pinkos who wrote that quaint document, the Constitution, apparently had something of the sort in mind.

One measure of a party's confidence in its ideas is a willingness to subject them to the sort of impartial scrutiny that only an independent judiciary can deliver. Measured by that standard, the Neoconservative gauleiters again fail miserably.

Give me judges who think (Think, n: a brain activity the opposite of ideology) . Irish in-laws notwithstanding, I'll happily abide the decisions.

Friday, May 06, 2005

Fleeting Pleasures

Just for today, I'm enjoying seeing the New York Yankees in the AL cellar.

Could this explain George Steinbrenner's increased interest in horse racing? After all, if his horse doesn't win, he can always kill it and eat it. This would be more difficult with Derek Jeter.

Then again....

Some years back I worked for a native New Yorker who, as a boy, was part of the crowd watching the filming of the climactic scene of "King Kong." They really used the Empire State Building for the ape's final fall. In an unlucky moment, Larry said, it occurred to the directors to just shove the ape dummy off the building, trusting to the police cordon to keep the dummy secure at the bottom.

Wrong: this was a New York crowd. The dummy had no sooner hit the pavement than the crowd broke the barricades and tore it to fragments for souvenirs.

So, if I were in a Yankee uniform these days. I'd watch my back, especially if Steinbrenner invited me to dinner.

Thursday, May 05, 2005

More Ugly Americanism?

It seems like being dense about the working of foreign governments is a requirement for American media today.

I don't expect the local jamoke on the police beat to understand that Tony Blair is not "running for a third term." It does seem reasonable to expect world news reporters to understand it.

For the uninitiated: The Labour Party, not Blair alone, is contesting a national election. Whether they "win" or "lose" depends not upon Tony's good looks, but upon the ability of the party at the local level to return a majority to the House of Commons. If Labour doesn't keep a majority, Blair is out. It's a very simple concept, and one of the appeals of the parliamentary system. Apparently, it's too simple for our pundit-driven news organisations to grasp. They also seem puzzled by the idea of holding a general election in just six weeks, which is another attractive feature of parliamentary systems.


Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Our Town

The name of my town, Marblehead, is frequently an apposite description of its residents. This "town" of 21,000 would qualify as a small city in most states, including my birth state. It clings to the common Massachusetts delusion and maintains its political purity with a town meeting form of government. Now, whilst most Massachusetts "towns" conduct business via a unicameral legislature called a town meeting, Marblehead clings to the "pure" open meeting form. Any registered voter can show up, speak, and vote.

This leads to variable results. Our middle school, the largest public meeting space in town, can seat 1800 people in four rooms, about 15 percent of registered voters. The predictable result (if you've played this game a few times) is that shifting coalitions of interest groups dominate the meeting, and attendance reflects pretty much what's on the warrant for that night.

Unpredictable results happen when people unclear on the concept try to read the municipal tea leaves.

A few weeks ago, a special town meeting, which usually attracts a scant quorum, was filled to capacity and spent over three hours debating a single issue, pay-per-throw trash collection. Although it's a coming idea, Marbleheaders of all political stripes tend to be "contr'ry minded" when it comes to paying for things they don't want to pay for, and anything that smacks of additional public regulation and inspection.

The issue arose at the same time that the Republican Town Committee, with a little help from our most noxious political product, Citizens for Limited Taxation, had begun a campaign of running stealth candidates for public office. One wonders why. The town is largely Republican (at least Paleo-Republican). It has had a Democratic legislator for over 20 years, largely because the incumbents have done a fair job at legislating and have no discernible ambitions for higher office. Although that race is explicitly partisan, last fall's Republican offering never, first to last, posted an advertisement proclaiming her party affiliation. Their most successful stealth candidate was John Liming, who won a selectman's seat in 2004.

Liming is one of many illustrations of the premise that Republican horror of "moral relativism' falls short of condemning one of its own. Liming was elected as a native (he is), a non-partisan (he isn't), a college graduate (he didn't) and for a brief period a pro athlete (he wasn't). He has been shocked and offended that most town voters think his character is half a bubble off plumb.

Republican though they are, "Headers" don't care for rancourous partisanship. Call it tradition. Town meeting had been sitting for over 150 years when the Constitution was adopted, and it does damn fine without these newfangled parties. Liming's blatant partisanship--he stuck the "liberal pinko" label on any animate object that disagreed with him-- had annoyed a few people before the defects of his resume became public.

Liming has become a charter member of the local Neo-Republican chapter of Slow Learners Anonymous. For one thing, he's running for re-election. For another, he was one of the chief misreaders of Town Meeting tea leaves.

Our pay-per-throw town meeting was a parliamentary disaster. Town meetings draw on three centuries of precedent to maintain civil discourse that allows for fireworks and humour, but keeps malevolence and eccentricity in check. This one was chaired by an assistant moderator who soon proved incapable of keeping the meeting orderly. The hot-button topic had drawn hundreds of inexperienced "agin" voters who mistook Town Meeting for a youth hockey game, hallooing and catcalling opposition speakers with abandon. In a setting that combined the most charming features of an anarchist convention and the Taiwanese legislature, Liming , the RTC faithful, and CLT's resident pit bull, Barbara Anderson, pulled out the heavy guns, and threw anti-liberal vitriol by the litre at every opposition speaker.

Liming, Anderson et. al. looked at this fiasco and concluded a) that winning the issue meant they'd won the public hearts and b) that they had a mandate for this year's general meeting and slate of stealth candidates.

Well, Meeting's over. We still have to get past the municipal election and the annual sheep-dip called the "Prop 2 1/2 override," but that alleged Neo-Republican mandate was strangely silent. Most of the supporters turned out not to be. A number of them seem to have stayed home in response to CLT's latest demonstration of its commitment to the rule of law. The lobby hired Gerard "Tooky" Amirault, central figure in the notorious Fells Acre day care abuse case of the 1980s, and put him to work as a researcher in their office. The office happens to be across the street from the "lower middle school" (grade 4-6). Whatever one thinks of the jurisprudence of the Fells Acre case, Amirault happens to be a Level III registered sex offender out on parole for a child abuse conviction, as well as the most inexplicable poster child of the Massachusetts Right. Barbara Anderson was
shocked and offended that some middle school parents and erstwhile supporters rather thought the CLT action was indecorous. That may be evidence that the evil genius of 1980s state politics has lost her perfect pitch.

Nope, the Republican partisans were swarmed under by the town's real geniuses at issue politics: dog owners, school parents and town employees. The first night was dominated by dog owners outraged at three warrant items that seemed to infringe on the rights of their pooches to bark when they want and shit where they please. The second night was owned in part by school parents who were offended by the partisan contention that the schools didn't need to be excellent, only adequate. They were a happy coalition with town employees (my wife included) who are accomplished at bringing out the vote for their raises and department budgets. As usual , I swallowed my principled objections to this form of legislative manipulation, bowed to higher authority, showed up, and raised my hand as instructed.

Maybe next year I'll cast my lot with the aginners and she'll let me stay home.