Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Independence Daze

It feels repetitive to say that John McCain is not really an independent. It also feels repetitive to say that the so-called dean of the Washington press corps does not seem to know what he is talking about. Yet, McCain still remains the GOP's current best prospect for the presidency in 2008 and David Broder still remains the dean of the press corps--or at least, a prominent opinions writer--which is why I even think it worth mentioning either of them.

Broder's astute political analysis from his September 21 column in the Washington Post has already been proven wrong. In that column, he hailed "the emergence of an independent force in elections and government" in Republican senators McCain, Lindsey Graham (SC), and John Warner (VA). These senators were part of "a new movement in this country"--never mind, as I pointed out earlier, that they have shown little interest during their long service in the U.S. Congress in hatching this so-called movement earlier.

In his own defense for supporting Bush all of these years, Broder insists that his two presidential opponents, Al Gore and John Kerry possessed a "know-it-all arrogance [which] rankled Midwesterners such as myself." According to his biography, Broder was born in Chicago Heights, Illinois, and went to the University of Chicago. By his standards, I too am a Midwesterner, and I can say that myself and plenty of other Midwesterners (or pseudo-Midwesterners, since we are really from a vast Metropolitan area--though in fairness, one that was much smaller when Broder came of age) were more "rankled" by Bush's pseudo-Texan, pseudo-populist pose than by his Democratic opponents possessing intelligence and exceptional competence. For those who did support Bush, I think many can say that they misjudged the man.

Back to Broder's assessment of the three Republicans: now that McCain, Graham, and Warner are in effect supporting the Bush bill on detainee treatment, to the point where they are sanctioning the full-out denial of habeus corpus--a right defined by the U.S. Constitution--to detainees, it is clear, once again, that these men are not independents. That they look a bit more moderate than Bush is only a sign of how far to the right the Republican party has moved, but it should not influence a person like Broder's basic ability to have some perspective on their politics and see that these three senators have been loyal to Bush as he and his administration have led this country into one disaster after another. To believe that the Republican Congress or some of its particular members is capable of independence is to totally disregard the precedent they have set over the last six-years.

Edited to add: See Harold Myerson's op-ed "The 'Moderate Republican' Scam." Several Republican incumbents who find themselves in close races fit into Myerson's description. Though he sticks to Senators, representatives like Chris Shays (CT) and my district's very own Mark Kirk (IL) fit the bill here. Myerson's amusing term for these Republicans is "deathbed converts."

Saturday, September 23, 2006

The Circus in Virginia

George Allen is a mess. He really is. Watching his campaign over the past month has been as morbidly fascinating as watching a car accident. Plus, it just doesn't end. Allen has gone through several bizarre and questionable phases over the course of an increasingly tight campaign against Jim Webb. First, there was an outright racist comment ("macaca") and the fallout that ensued, then Allen was asked in public of his Jewish heritage, first reacting with defensive hostility (saying that it was important not to cast "aspersions about people because of their religious beliefs,”) then a full-on embrace of his newly-discovered heritage, and then awkward and again questionable humor (said Allen two days ago, " “I still had a ham sandwich for lunch, and my mother made great pork chops.”).

Now, Allen is entering yet another phase, this one very unlikely: as a champion for minorities. “Now, it’s personal,” he said about his new cause and referring to his discovery that he is part Jewish. I just cannot help but laugh, especially as Allen's campaign is now accusing Webb of "anti-Semitic ploys." All of this from a man who hung a noose in his law office in 2000, hung Confederate flags in his home, opposed the 19991 Civil Rights Act, and opposed making Martin Luther King Jr's birthday a national holiday, according to The Nation.

And beyond the symbolic, Allen has actively embraced a group called the Council of Conservative Citizens (CCC), such as when, as governor of Virginia, he appointed a CCC sympathizer as head of the Virginia Council on daycare in 1995 and with a praiseworthy letter he wrote to the neo-confederate group Sons of Confederate Veterans. As The Nation points out, Allen tried to back away from his past when Trent Lott dug himself in a hole by praising Strom Thurmond's 1948 segregationist campaign in 2002. Then he called an Indian-American "macaca."

We Jews can rest easy now that George Allen is on our side.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

The Novel as Revolutionary

The study of literature that in the U.S. of course falls under that discipline known as English which has sometimes been discarded as irrelevant, a thought I have entertained at different points in my life and yet continuously abandoned simply because of how satisfied one can feel when reading a good work. Something about good literature complicates and romanticizes humanity and its existence--perhaps undeservedly so--but nonetheless in a way that makes life fascinating.

Jane Smiley's 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel may provide an even more valuable perspective on why literature is so important. To be honest, I'm not sure whether Smiley does this in her book, because I have not actually read it yet (I perused it briefly in a book store last night), but I was wowed by the comment of a reviewer on Amazon.com about her book. This reviewer said:

The inner lives of humans didn't figure into the themes of novels until more recent times. Novels have done exactly what the Church and the Establishment once feared. They have caused women and men to think differently and outside the box of their little worlds or economic stratas. They encouraged people to marry for love. They encouraged people to think well of difference in others, or at the very least , give people credit for character and not caste.

That statement is incredibly fascinating--and probably well known to people who are more familiar with the history of the novel and of humanities in general in modern society. What it says is that novels are revolutionary. In a society where book review periodicals are published weekly and there's a Barnes & Noble in every midscale and upscale neighborhood or town, it is easy to forget it or not even realize it. Maybe there should be more study of the impact of novels on human history--that is, if there isn't already. What a fascinating subject.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Noise Pollution

This weekend, I paid a visit to Philadelphia. I took a bus through one of the bus companies that serves Chinatowns of various East Coast cities, namely, Boston, Philadelphia, D.C., and New York (and probably others). Any of these bus companies are referred to as "the Chinatown Bus," though there must be half a dozen to a dozen in D.C. alone. I used the New Century Travel bus line because other than a company called Apex, it is the only Chinatown bus that goes straight from D.C. to Philadelphia.

I was pleasantly surprised with the ease and comfort of the ride except for one major annoyance, and it had nothing to do with the bus, the driver, or the heavy traffic (which, on a Friday afternoon outbound from D.C. is to be expected). Sure, there was a somewhat random stop outside a gas station and truck plaza in Baltimore on the way back at New Century's makeshift bus station out there (i.e. a parking lot), but that took five minutes.

Again, the only real problem that I encountered had nothing to do with the bus itself but rather with the two people sitting behind me: both college-aged, one male, one female. They were basically making small talk, which is annoying enough in an of itself. It's one thing to engage in a little empty conversation when you meet someone in passing, but I have never understood those people who make it their sole purpose on a flight, train ride, or bus ride, to engage their seatmate in inane conversation. A few pleasntries are fine, you know, "where are you from?" "what brings you to [fill in the blank city]?" Full-fledged conversations are another animal. To me, the great thing about traveling is that you have a few hours to yourself to just read and listen to music. How often in our day-to-day routine are we afforded such luxury? How can people squander that precious time by talking to someone about how bad their commute is, etc?

That is exactly what the two people behind me chose to do, for three and a half hours. They talked about college, they talked about "funny" movies like 40 Year Old Virgin, they talked about TV shows. Why do I know what they were talking about? Because when someone told the girl how to project back when she was younger, she took it to heart. She spoke loud, and she laughed even louder. Plus, her laugh was unpleasant. It was the point on the laugh spectrum where a cackle meets a guffaw. She laughed more frequently than an SNL audience at an old Eddie Murphy skit. And yet, nothing she was laughing at was truly funny. I would have taken a baby crying over that sound.

In view of this experience, my question is, am I allowed to ask this person to be quiet? I sat their stewing in the fact that had I been in another society--oh, say Paris--this disruptive conversation would be looked down upon entirely. The conversationalists' fellow passengers would stare them down to a point where they became mute out of fear. All I could so was turn up my music and try to fall asleep, pondering why our country must be one of loud talkers, of people walking down the streets speaking their cell phone conversations into the air. We may be protective of our personal space, but we are disturbingly open about our supposedly personal conversations. Worst of all, some of us are loud. I love the D.C. Metro right now, because it has definitions of bad train etiquette, such as blocking the left side of the escalator and talking loudly on a cell phone in the car. I hope the loud people will take it to heart, but I'm sure they won't. They're too busy yelling into their phones.

One little breach of etiquette isn't a big deal, whether it be what I refer to as noise pollution or escalator path obstruction, and I suppose I should calm down a little, but I guess I start writhing with anger at such ignorance because of the principle behind it: inconsiderate people. People who do not care how they inconvenience others. This is an ever-growing trend in our country, and little measures like signs in the subway are a good first step. A good second step would be a general valuing of those periods of time we have to ourselves, whether it be on a speeding Chinatown bus or a crowded train.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006


So as you may notice, I am now using what is called the beta version of Blogger, which allows me to label my posts and categorize them. I will focus my blog energies on labeling now, with the ultimate though daunting goal of labeling every blog entry I've written. I will try not to make too many categories. How do categorize this post? It will get the "Meta" label since it is about the blog itself, and the fact that I'm talking about how to label an entry I've written about changes to my blog is a little to meta-Meta for me.

There look to be many other neat features that I will be sure to investigate.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

My New Favorite Type of Art

Today I went to the Georgetown Flea Market, which has been relocated to right by the Courthouse Metro. As I am not the best at spotting a good deal on antiques, I spent most of my time at a stand that sells matted covers of old New Yorker magazines. I was tempted to by many more than I did, all in the name of adorning my walls with cool artwork.
The matte-job is excellent, and it was fun to look at the collection of covers, which go all the way back to the 1940s. I am just sad that I didn't come up with this business idea first! What a fun way to make money!

I Hate the Container Store

Today as I was walking along, doing some shopping in Yuppieville, i.e. Clarendon Blvd., I popped into the Container Store, because I need some more hangers and perhaps a desk organizer. However, I realized when I got in and started looking around that the Container Store is legitimated robbery. Buying a closet organizer at the Container Store is the equivalent of having a burglar break in and steal your TV.

As an example of how ridiculous this place is, they sell one hanger for 29 cents and do not reduce the rate if you are to buy, say, 10 hangers. If youy take a look at their website, they sell a 3 pack of hangers for 2.99. That's 1 dollar per hanger! What is so special about this particular hanger that it is worth one dollar, Container Store?

Incredible ripoff in ugly colors!

"The shape and execution make our Olka Hangers particularly suitable for drying T-shirts. Each features a garment-friendly shape to the shoulders and is free from barbs and flashing that can snag garment fibers. There's a pants bar that's sturdy enough to bear the weight of a pair of jeans. Each end features a hook for skirts, spaghetti straps, or accessories." A pants bar? A hook for skirts, spaghetti straps, or accessories? Isn't that Every. Hanger. Ever. Made. Since 1995?? Very novel, Container Store.

Plus, for every item there that is useful but overpriced, there are more that are frivoulous and overpriced. Take this Large Floral Crunch:What is a Crunch? I think Container store just made up a name for this useless product to make it seem legitimate.

I honestly don't know how anyone doesn't feel a big pain in their stomach in shopping at the Container Store. I guess there must be a thrill in paying a lot for plastic.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Honoring the Dead by Keeping the Alive Awake

So about a week ago, I signed up to receive the "Arlington Alert," a system that sends out notifications of emergencies or other important developments in Arlington County. Yes, I feel pretty special living somewhere that is important enough to have an alert system. So, with the fifth anniversary of September 11 coming up, Arlington Alert has been especially busy. For instance, today I received an e-mail stating:

The Department of Defense, (DOD)will be beaming a white memorial light skyward in a vertical manner at the Pentagon on 2 successive full evenings from dark to dawn on September 10 and September 11th only during the hours of darkness.

Over the weekend DOD will be installing and testing the light beam so you may also see it then.

A memorial light? Beaming white light skyward for two nights in a row? I'm all for honoring those who perished in the attack on the Pentagon, but I don't know if keeping residents of nearby Pentagon City awake at night is the right way to do it. Who plans out this sort of thing anyway?

Monday, September 04, 2006

District 39: Girls' Fault that Boys Are Lagging Behind in School

If I was ten to fifteen years younger, I would be starting another year of elementary school at Central Elementary, a school that--to me--always seemed typically suburban. At that time, of course, I was unaware that involved parents and dedicated teachers are a luxury in this country rather than the norm. Therefore, I was surprised to learn that, were I at that same elementary school today, I would be faced with newfound ideas about gender differences between how males and females learn, ideas that would affect who my teacher was and how my class was taught. As a result of a study by Wilmette Public Schools District 39, we are hearing more of the same popular folk wisdom that the modern classroom is an atmosphere where females excel, but at the expense of oppressed males.

The Chicago Tribune does some surprisingly generous reporting on Central Elementary School's concern about supposed latent gender biases in the classroom. Some key points:
  • A male student, now a sophomore in high school, recalls that his elementary school teacher would yell at his group of friends who sat in the back of class more than she yelled at the girls. Admittedly, he "often talked and didn't pay attention in class."
  • In response to a study that shows males "lag behind" females academically, District 39 plans to "hire more male teachers, keep a long-term database of grades and test scores, build awareness among parents and teachers, and review classroom arrangements and teaching techniques."
  • "Among other things, the research told them that boys are more attuned to spatial-mechanical functioning, and girls use more of their brain for verbal and emotive functioning." (Particularly appalling is this remark: "The more words a teacher uses, the more likely boys are to `zone out,' or go into rest state," according to the Wilmette report. "The male brain is better suited for symbols, abstractions, diagrams, pictures and objects moving through space than the monotony of words."--so words, words are no longer suitable for a learning environment?!?)
  • "Researchers suggest that teachers let boys move around more in the classroom, from walking around their desks every so often to sprawling out on the floor." (That's called indoor recess, guys).
  • The report states that the percentage of male applicants who are hired as teachers is low, and that analysis suggests "the evaluation criteria used for selecting teachers may reinforce these gender disparities."

Superintendant Glen "Max" McGee assures us that "you really can teach to the way [boys] learn." Maybe I'm missing something, but I thought we've been teaching to the way boys learn since the beginning of time.

Excuses like those being made on behalf of males are rarely made on behalf of females. As Simone de Beauvoir wrote of masterfully in The Second Sex, women are the "other," meaning their behavior is compared against the standard of male behavior. Males are the independent variable, females the dependent. If males are lagging behind in school, our teaching is problematic, but if females are lagging behind in school, they just weren't cut out for academics.

I also attribute District 39's current education quandry to the larger societal trend of giving children more credit than they are due. Children are special because they are innocent, their minds are blank slates and thus much more tolerant than most adults, they are inquiring; but all of this hardly means they have their own best interests in mind. Yet, parents today increasingly defer to their children's or adolescents' judgements, from letting them run around in grocery stores yelling when they are young to facilitating their parties in the family basement, sometimes to the point of supplying them the alcohol.

In keeping with this belief that one's child can do no wrong, when s/he is called out on something by a teacher or other authority figure, the parent gets defensive. Thus, it is not the fault of a group of boys who cannot seem to listen in class because they are sitting in the back playing around (ever heard of seating charts?--first rule is never to let kids choose their seats in elementary school) but rather the fault of the teacher who cannot keep their attention. Furthermore, if the teacher is to take some disciplinary action, s/he puts himself/herself on the proverbial chopping block of the sharp wrath of the child's deluded parent.

I hopefully am not saying this without basis, because I admittedly have not been a child for many years, nor even a teen, but when on a weekly basis, I see children on the Metro treating the train as their own personal jungle gym free of parental discipline or parents letting their children cry or scream free of their scolding or complaining when asked to keep their children quiet in public, I can't help but think these small events part of a larger societal picture. If I am right, this represents a sea change in the American attitude towards children and how they should be taught, one that should make us wary, for in endlessly empowering children's less mature instincts, we are disempowering their sense of personal responsibility that they must, at a young age, learn to cultivate.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

When I Most Feel Like an American

Some people feel very American when they call for instating school prayer, or banning flag burning. These acts of course are empty, valueless, because they don't evoke what is truly great about the United States. This thought occurred to me today at the National Portrait Gallery, the newly re-opened branch of D.C.'s expansive Smithsonian museums. At the gallery, which takes up half of a beautiful neo-classical building that was once the U.S. Patent Office--the other half is the American Art Museum, portraits of famous Americans are accompanied with thorough biographies.

Especially admirable is the series of rooms on the first floor devoted to the 19th century, part of the museum's "American Origins" series. Though the portraits are still and some very formal and stuffy, the descriptions of the subjects--with the portraits in a particularly room grouped together by categories such as Writers, Civil War figures, etc.--bring the subjects alive. One of my favorite portraits features the eminent writers of the mid-18th Century, with Washington Irving in the middle and figures like Oliver Wendell Holmes, Ralph Waldo Emerson and James Fenimore Cooper surrounding him. The biography punctures the painting in noting that Irving would have thought the gathering dull and overly uniform. Tid-bits such as that are what make the subjects depicted come alive.

Furthermore, the Civil War era really comes alive, owing to the placards that accompany the portraits. It is difficult to completely fathom a time period when our country was on the brink of a split, and yet, the narratives that were borne of that era survive today--if only ethereally. Portraits of Davy Crockett, Buffalo Bill Cody and Daniel Boone are described in terms of those men's significance: as mythmakers of the Wild West. The likes of Edgar Allen Poe and Nathaniel Hawthorne are smaller figures when viewed in their time, if only because they seemed discouraged by the optimistic writing of their contemporaries. Big businessmen Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller become truly admirable in comparison to the CEOs of today, until one sees the portrait of Jay Gould and is reminded that rober barron was an epithet that came about in the late 1800s for good reason.

That this museum is open to the country and the world is part of what makes it so spectacular. This country is hardly perfect, but that its past--when good and when bad--is so accessible is in keeping with the theory of this country.

If you're interested, the National Portrait Gallery is at Washington, D.C. on the corner of 8th and F Street, across from the Gallery Place-Chinatown Metro.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

The Breakup: The End of an Era

So while I'm reading a thoroughly titillating book--John Updike's Couples, as you can see on my sidebar--my life is as humdrum as the book is exciting. Well, not true, but just for fun, I'd like to compare my recent breakup, with my longtime bank, Chase Bank (formerly Bank One) to the break up of one of the book's many adulterous couples. There are actually a lot of parallels:

  • Protagonist contractor Piet Hamena breaks it off with dentist's wife, Georgene Thorne, over a phone call at work.
  • Protagonist account-holder Elaine Meyer breaks it off with a Chase Bank account representative over a phone call at home.
  • Piet loses interest in Georgene because he begins a relationship with another woman, Elizabeth "Foxy" Whitman: Foxy is younger, new to town, and--the kicker--she's pregnant!
  • I lose interest in Chase Bank because I have begun a banking relationship in Washington, D.C.: Bank of America has banking centers and ATMs in both Chicago and D.C., and one could say BoA is "pregnant" with ever-more banking centers, as it also has several abroad and claims it is still expanding (Chase, you were just too slow to expand. Banking centers in West Virginia? Sorry, not close enough).
  • Piet's relationship with Foxy is known of by everyone in town except his wife, Angela, and her husband, Ken.
  • My relationship with Bank of America was known by everyone except Chase--that is, everyone who cared enough to listen to my riveting story about me switching banks because I had moved.
  • When Piet essentially breaks it off with Georgene, she becomes desperate, begging him to just come over and visit her for 15 minutes. Nonetheless, what she offers isn't enough to sustain a dying affair.
  • When I end it with Chase, they become desperate, offering me free banking and a free account without minimum balance requirements. Nonetheless, what they offer isn't enough--my Bank of America account already has free (or "free"--they are getting my money, after all!) banking and no minimum balance requirements with direct deposit.
So in a time when our relationships with the service sector and the financial sector are treated as delicate and as personal as our relationships with actual people, it becomes hard to sever ties with an old brand or old institution, even if that institution itself isn't very old and in fact is a very impersonal worldwide chain.

At least we can always call our bank if we need late night company or just want to check up on an account. After all, the customer call centers are open at all hours of the day and night, nowadays.