January 27, 2006

Kudos to the Organizers

Last night, the annual "pinewood derby" was run for our local Cub Scout pack. It's one of the two events my scout loves each year, though his dad (me) has woeful woodworking skill. Actually, it's not the lack of skill but rather the lack of patience. When I think of all the things I could be doing on a Saturday afternoon, spending hours and hours perfecting a little, wooden car is not really near the top of the list. In fact, I would say it falls slightly below "laundry" and "mowing the lawn."

Last year's race was a tremendous success for us. We created an inspired design of the USS Hornet that won a "most original design" trophy. The quality of the woodworking was questionable at best, and it was slow as a snail compared to the fast cars, but there he was, up on stage receiving a trophy.

This year, I felt it important to have a discussion about expectations.

By the end of the race night, we had achieved our goal of getting a 2nd place run in one of the heats, and we never finished lower than 4th, but still the car (a tugboat design) was, shall we say, less than speedy. Tugs are not designed for speed, after all. And, looking at the other designs, and knowing that he'd won a trophy for design the previous year, we were not expecting much.

My hat, however, is off to the organizing committee. In addition to the trophies, they awarded certificates to all the other boys who entered cars. Ours was, by luck, the very last one to be awarded, for "Best Maritime Design." Other awards included "Most Heavily Armed" (for a tank car), "Most Likely to Pull Someone Over" (for a police car), and "Best Use of Hardware" (for another police car with real lights that blinked).

The transformation simply amazed me. The last half hour of the night, E was desperate to go home, knowing he wasn't going to win anything. He was frustrated, tired, disappointed, bored. Then, he walked up on stage, shook hands with the race official, and got his certificate. As we walked out of the venue, he was all smiles and showed me his certificate. He asked, "Can we frame this?"

Right before bed, he got out last year's car and last year's trophy and lined them up next to this year's car and this year's certificate right near his bedroom door, so he would see them right when he woke up. What magic a simple thing like a certificate can bring to a little boy's life.

January 24, 2006


I failed to interest the small, independent, mid-list publisher in my first novel, "Across the Stream." Their rejection letter says they publish two books per year, and mine didn't make the cut. No indication of how many submissions they get.

Back to the Writer's Market to submit again.

January 19, 2006

travel poetry

coffee-stained papers
crumpled on an airplane seat
haiku from the road

channels mislabled
Law & Order on AGAIN?!
I wish I could sleep

sudden gusts of wind
sweep across bare, white plateau
farts in hotel bed

big mac for dinner
taxi stinks like an ashtray
how was your flight, sir?

smiling stewardess
no, I don't wear red makeup
pen leaking again

2222 and counting

Do you ever watch your odometer when it gets close to some milestone number? Do you ever watch it to try to see the exact moment when it rolls onto that number, to the point of endangering everyone on the road while you glue your eyes to your dashboard?

Oh. Um... well, me neither.

Anyway, I just noticed that 2,222 is a pretty palindromic number. That happens to be the number of dead American soldiers due to the Iraq war at this moment (as reported by icasualties.org).

Unfortunately, like a car odometer, it can't go any lower once it's hit that number. Or rather, maybe it can. You know, an unscrupulous person could set the odometer back in order to sell a used car. It's not unprecedented for the current administration to work a little creativity into figures they report, particularly about the war.

January 18, 2006

that's interesting makeup...

Today I flew through Chicago to Washington, DC. The flights were really quite nice except this little episode.

I like to use the pens we have at work. They are microball-roller style, very fine point, very smooth feel. The only problem: Put them on an airplane, and one out of three times they'll spring a leak, right at the tip where your fingers are.

It was the red pen today. I realized before it got too out of hand, though very quickly my hands looked like I'd lost a fight with a kindergarten art project. The pen was tossed, and I switched to traditional ball-point.

About ten minutes later, the snack cart came by. The flight attendant gave me a nice smile and for some reason made sure to let me know that the drink cart was right behind her. Sure enough, a few minutes later the drink cart came by. They gave me what I asked for, then as an afterthought I figured I'd ask for some napkins to try to clean up my hands.

That's when she nodded and said, "I was going to ask." Odd; she couldn't possibly see the ink on my hands from the aisle. I was in the window seat. As she handed me a stack of napkins, she said, "I thought it was some sort of new thing, like an Indian red ink mark, only to the side." The Japanese guy in the aisle seat then nodded gravely and said something along the lines of, "It's pretty bad."

They coached me through wiping as much of the red smudges off my nose and chin as possible, but it wasn't until two hours later when I visited the restroom that I was able to wipe most of it off, at least to the point where it didn't look worse than a minor skin irritation.

Other than that, the flight was great.

January 17, 2006

a "writing" group

I love my new writing group. I've attended three meetings for a total of five hours now, and we've spent approximately thirty minutes writing. But we talk a lot. Which is kind of a different experience for me. The only downside to this writing group is that it occurs once a week during prime soccer-playing time.

The group consists of sevenish people (five to seven usually), and I happen to be the only man. Which is OK with me. The ages of the women range from the indescribably young (she really is turning 29 next month) to the world-weary (fifties, I think), but all are kind and interesting and fun. This is not a diverse group--all educated, white, suburban people. We meet at a coffee shop (not Starbucks) in what might be the wealthiest, whitest town in the east bay. I come in from Walnut Creek and can feel the whiteness of this mall, that's how nondiverse it is.

Anyway, I'm glad I've found this group. While I may not have written much in my 5 hours of meeting with them, I have gained inspiration and momentum and comeraderie and have managed to write about 10,000 words more than I probably would have if I weren't hooked in with them.

January 16, 2006

why I am scared of our president

I have no doubt that George Bush thinks he is doing everything in the best interests of America. I just think he's dreadfully, dangerously wrong. Everything he's done has been calculated to consolidate power into the hands of the president and to marginalize the judicial and legislative branches of government. Everything he's done has been done in the name of "national security." However, everything he's done has pushed the country in the direction of becoming a police state, or an authoritarian structure.

Why is this not good for the average citizen? What harm could there possibly be in making the country safer in this manner? Let's ignore for the moment the thousands of experts who refute the claim that the country is safer today than on September 11, 2001. Let's look at why this could be bad for Joe Sixpack.

  • Bush enacted a "first strike" doctrine when he invaded Iraq. While other presidents have struck first on occasion, the policy has always been one of prudence and restraint. Bush turned that around and said he will go kick ass if he thinks someone's ass needs kicking, even if they didn't do anything to us. (See: the well documented LACK of connection between Iraq and 9/11. Also, the well documented LACK of evidence of WMD in Iraq.)
  • Bush initiated a "war on terror," claiming expanded presidential power because we are in "war" time. A war with no definable enemy and no discernable end point is a dangerous thing. Given that there will always be people who disagree with the president, this is potentially a war that never ends, with an enemy that can never be clearly identified.
  • Bush has encouraged the use of wire taps without seeking the warrants that are traditionally required. He claims this is legal due to the expanded executive power in "war time" and the necessity of such wire taps for "national security." A creepier invokation of fear in order to spy on citizens has never been told. If you do not have the necessary evidence to secure a warrant for a wire tap, then perhaps you should not be presuming the target guilty. Bush's justification: We are only tapping those international calls to or from people who are suspected of having connections to terrorist organizations. Let's play the "Six Degrees of Osama" game and determine whether your phone call to that hotel in Vancouver qualifies. What is next: justified searches of people's homes without proper warrants in the name of national security?
  • Under Bush, American citizens have been labeled "enemy combatants," making them enemies in the war on terror. Now we have a president who can tap your phone without just cause and who can call you an enemy combatant in the "war on terror." It becomes very convenient that the enemy is not clearly definable in this new "war on terror."
  • Bush's administration has held "enemy combatants" and "suspected terrorists" indefinitely, without formal charges, without access to lawyers or even family members, on foreign soil. The Guantanamo Bay facility is a good place to keep legitimate prisoners, and I've no problem with that. The problem lies in the idea that Bush thinks that anyone he has detained is, by virtue of their detention, a legitimate prisoner. Circular logic: We would only detain you if you were dangerous, so if you've been detained then you must have been dangerous.
  • Bush and his administration have defended the use of torture and extreme interrogation techniques for enemy combatants held on foreign soil. If you're detained, you must be dangerous. If you're dangerous, you must know something. If you know something, by god, we'll get it out of you, even if it kills you.
Now let's see how this slippery slope works.

You want to plan a nice little vacation to Puerto Vallarta, so you call up this nice resort there. You didn't realize that a suspected terrorist had once stayed there, back in 1994. Since the hotel has ties to a suspected terrorist organization, the NSA listens in on your phone call. During your call, you have the TV on in the background, and the CNN anchor reads a story about Osama bin Laden. The NSA hears that in the background and do not realize it's actually the TV. A month later, you are picked up at the airport while trying to board your plane to Mexico. The government instead treats you to an all-expenses paid vacation to Guantanamo Bay. When you arrive, the interrogators are told that you might have ties to Osama and that you were going to a hotel where a suspected terrorist had been known to stay. They are told to get whatever information you have. And, they know they are allowed to torture you because you have been labeled an enemy combatant, and you are on foreign soil.

Far-fetched, sure. But if it's possible, then it's not a long stretch to imagine a different scenario:

You didn't mean it to happen, but you had an affair with a married woman who subsequently left her husband and moved in with you. What you did not realize was that the jilted husband was an NSA wire tapping agent. He watches your phone until a mysterious call comes in from overseas to your phone, a call you did not expect from someone you don't know. It could have been a wrong number. It could have been arranged. He then sets up a wire tap on your phone to listen in on all your conversations.

Or maybe this: You are a Democrat about to run for president in the next election. A "wrong number" call from a phone in Iran rings at your home phone. Boom, the NSA suddenly has the authority to tap your phone.

That last one is not so far-fetched. In this president's administration, we are only one ethically-challenged moment away from such a misuse of power. That is why this president scares me. He thinks the existence and use of such power is just fine, and justified, and that no one will misuse it. Restrictions are put on power, however, to protect us from false accusations, from belligerent evildoers, from bullies with badges. It is important to remember that not all bad guys wear black hats, and not all people who wear white hats are beyond reproach.

January 15, 2006

it defies categorization

I just saw a commercial saying that Cadillac won some award for the #1 luxury SUV this year.

God bless America. We have an entire category for luxury sport utility. Is it for work? Yes! Is it for sport? Yes! Is it luxurious? Yes! The only thing that makes this sweeter is that it's a Cadillac, a brand traditionally known for its reliable and sturdy trucks.

God bless America. Yesterday I saw a commercial for the Chevy Tahoe. One of its new features is a rear-view video camera. Yes! It's so large that you can't reliably use mirrors or the rear windows to see behind you, so you have to drive by video game!

God bless America. Two separate studies released recently by independent organizations estimate that the true cost of the Iraq war will be between $900 billion and $2 trillion dollars. The authors of both have been detained at the Guantanamo Bay detention facility for jeopardizing American national security by publishing the studies.

January 12, 2006

Uh... My mom said Kevin Costner

A woman--apparently a mom of a kindergartener because she was coming from that part of the school--smiled at me this morning. She was heading to her car, I was heading to my home. I have to admit, she was cute and enjoyed quite a comely figure.

Anyway, she stopped to say "hi" before getting into her minivan. Then she dropped it on me: Apparently, she thinks I look like Kenny Chesney. My mom used to say I looked like Kevin Costner. Since they're both rich and famous, I'll take these comparisons as compliments. But I'm not sure I believe them.

January 9, 2006

Must-See TV

For anyone who has ever seen "The Play," you gotta check out the low-definition TV version by Sony. It is truly awesome. Hell, even if you haven't seen "The Play," check it out.

January 4, 2006

Soccer really IS exciting!

This just in: Soccer is more exciting than baseball!

Although this scientific study definitely fits into Mark Twain's "lies, damn lies, and statistics" category, in my personal experience there is virtually nothing exciting about baseball except that home run that bounced off Jose Canseco's head. The only reason baseball is our national pasttime is that it offers more opportunities per minute of action to retrieve more beer from the fridge or to visit the restroom. You're virtually guaranteed not to miss any action.

January 1, 2006

Happy New Year!

I thought I'd start the new year with a sign of things to come, so to speak. To the left is an actual sign posted at a museum in Vermont that we visited. I think maybe they should get a new landscaper.