Sunday, December 18, 2011

UPS, Uncle Harry and the paramus of Todi

I wasn't the first in my family to go into architecture. My Uncle Harry had gone to drafting school and started working in an architect's office It didn't last long. Architectural work wasn't particularly remunerative even then but it might have afforded him the appearance of a more dignified calling, something which Uncle Harry couldn't care less about. He wanted to be outdoors. Harry was smarter than people gave him credit for. He thought that being confined to a drawing board under artificial light for forty hours a week was a bad deal with the devil, so he quit and got a job driving a truck for the United Parcel Service.

The Great Falls

That was in the days before Paramus NJ became the world's first and worst agglomeration of shopping centers. My mother, like most other suburban housewives in the area, would take a bus five miles to Paterson, with me in tow, to do her shopping. A few days later a UPS truck, often driven by Uncle Harry, would show up at the house with the clothes, furniture or whatever else my mother had purchased. I liked to go to Paterson. Not so much being dragged around the department stores but sometimes my grandfather would take me to see the firehouse he had worked in, showing me the hook and ladder with steering wheels at the front and the back and the shiny brass poles the firemen slid down from their upstairs sleeping quarters when the alarm sounded. Paterson also had the Great Falls, one of America's larger waterfalls, which just last month became a National Park, with Hinchcliff Stadium, the midget auto racing Mecca, just a stone's throw from the Falls. There were also Chinese restaurants where we could get Chow Mein to take home. There was even a street full of colorful gypsies. My parents warned us about them and when we went by car to Paterson, my father got through that one block of River Street as quickly as possible, making sure the car windows were all closed. That sense of urgency added to the gypsies' appeal but I was very much taken by the bright flaring skirts the women wore, so much more interesting than the dreary clothes of all the “normal people” around. The city had, and still has, a lot of interesting buildings, from the churches and institutional buildings reflecting the Dutch origins of many of the citizens, to the wonderful Victorian era brick industrial buildings. I can't say that as a kid I realized how rich that architecture was but I did sense that there was something there more interesting than in our manicured suburbs.

The Post Office
Everything has changed since then. Uncle Harry retired to Florida to spend his last several decades outdoors tending his grapefruit trees year round. The shopping centers of Paramus metastasized, killing off the department stores and smaller shops in Paterson, while turning housewives and their white collar husbands into part-time truck drivers. Even before the SUV (Shopping Utility Vehicle) had evolved, the monster American sedans and station wagons had the payload of about half a small UPS truck. The department stores of Paterson and Newark, as well as the shops of Hackensack, and even upscale Ridgewood, may have gone out of business, but UPS has only grown bigger. My positive feelings about UPS from Uncle Harry's time took a nosedive a few years ago when they kept leaving notes saying they'd unsuccessfully tried to deliver a package and then later that they had left my consignment of cigars with an unnamed neighbor who couldn't be found. This and their lack of pick-up points open on Saturdays led me to the firm conviction that, besides being more expensive, they are far less reliable than the US Postal Service, although Congress is doing its best to change that by eliminating the Postal Service. But back in the day, UPS provided a valuable service, which I'd like to see restored. In keeping with current economic trends, UPS and their competitors now seem to exist to service large corporations and they appear to be thriving.

A Pedestrian Entrance to Todi
Much as Uncle Harry managed to emigrate to a place in the sun, I too have emigrated to sunnier climes in Italy. Paterson, my birthplace, fell victim to suburban sprawl and urban decay. Here in Umbria we're following the same path, albeit at a slower pace. Medieval towns, such as our neighboring Todi, are seeing the shops on their narrow streets go out of business, as new commercial centers crop up on surrounding plains. Convenience is God and every person, not just every family any more, has a car. Despite soaring gasoline prices (about US$8./US gallon by today's calculation), this is not likely to be reversed any time soon. The tourist traffic, which brings in much of the region's income, will probably diminish as the beautiful town centers go dark. People will continue to go to the supermarkets in their cars. It makes sense. But why must all the other “stuff” that we buy have to be sold in big box warehouse stores that deface the landscape? Smaller shops, accessible on foot in splendid surroundings, can display whatever we need, and unlike shopping on line, we can try on the clothes, handle the objects, and discuss the products with a knowledgeable salesperson. Must we all be truck drivers? For my part I'd rather see an Uncle Harry show up at my door with the stuff I'd seen and bought in an attractive and healthy city.

"Masterpieces On The Way" in Ponterio
Todi is much smaller than Paterson but it has a longer history and deeper culture than Paterson could even imagine. I don't remember anything about Paramus, other than the horrible traffic. I expect that future impressions of Ponterio, the town where the sprawling commercial development is taking place at the bottom of the Todi hill, will be similar. Ponterio is unlikely to be a must see in any guide books that will bring people to town. Paramus isn't so much a place as a condition, and sadly, it exists all over the world. I would even suggest to one of those forums that document additions to the lexicon that “paramus” be considered a term for a zone, neither urban or rural, populated by few human residents but covered by commercial and warehouse buildings, accessed by high speed highways transformed into multilane traffic jams and to which pedestrian access is either highly dangerous or completely forbidden.

My real concern is whether Todi will face the same fate as Paterson. I've heard that Paterson has shown modest signs of a revival. I hope so. But wouldn't it be great if our towns and cities could come back without first falling quite so far.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The Hospital is Dead, Long Live the Hospital

With the opening of the new Todi Hospital in Pantalla, eight kilometers to the north, Todi has finally entered the twentieth century. Remember, the one in which each significant bit of human interaction was bracketed by a trip in a car? Members of the medical professions are delighted with the new modern facilities and potential patients in the area, heretofore apprehensive about questions of sterility in the operating rooms of the old non-air-conditioned hospital, will be reassured by the tidy new building.

I may find myself there one day, just as I have been a patient in the old hospital. Thinking back to a painful 16 kilometer race to the emergency room, I can only hope that any future trip to the more distant facility will be under less urgent conditions. At the risk of compromising my journalistic objectivity, I must admit I was fond of the old hospital. Although we knew at least two people who unexpectedly failed to survive routine treatment at the hospital, the food was good and the staff friendly. While there for nearly a week, I was cheered up by the stream of visitors casually dropping by to say hello. Over the years, when we've known that somebody from our village, or a neighboring one, was in the hospital, we've gone in to see them when we happened to be in Todi. Times change and I suppose patients will just have to get used to the TV for company.

Italian hospitals provide free basic medical care and all the tests required but for routine functions, such as getting up to go to the bathroom, or help with eating or washing, patients either have family members with them, or they pay someone to provide such assistance. There's no sign that any new system of assistance will accompany the new out-of-town hospitals. Todi is only the latest of these in Umbria. New hospitals dot the landscape outside of Perugia, Orvieto, Città di Castello and Gualdo Tadino. Even in Rome, the newest hospital is out near the ring road, more easily accessible from the airport than from the city center.

With the possible exceptions of commemorative Presidential Libraries and lavish new sports stadiums, hospitals are the most costly buildings that we build today, mostly due to their technical requirements. It's certainly easier and cheaper to build a new facility on virgin land than to try to renovate an existing and functioning city hospital. For people running the health system, the decision to close the hospitals in Todi and Marsciano and replace them with a new hospital, officially named the Ospedale Media Valle del Tevere, about ten kilometers from each city, may have been a no-brainer, but was anyone involved in the decision who weighed the social costs and other on-going expenses? Clearly, not every doctor, nurse, technician, patient, relative, assistant and visitor lives in the town center, but many do, and most of the rest are scattered around town in a fairly small radius. That translates into an extra twenty kilometer trip each day for every person, in whatever capacity, at the new hospital. In terms Americans can understand, gasoline now costs about $8.50/gallon and is trending upward. Frequent bus service has been provided between town and hospital but those buses have their costs as well. Perhaps the extra transportation costs are low relative to the medical efficiencies involved. But what of Todi, the beautiful medieval hill town that brings people and money to the region in the first place? There is essentially one street in and one street out of the center for cars, with little parking available in the narrow streets. The one traffic lane of the main descending street, Corso Cavour, is shared with nervous pedestrians. Given the risks of being run over, people have ever less reason to walk on the Corso and it shows. Once you walk down the main street about 100 meters from the Piazza del Popolo, its name changes to Via Roma and the percentage of unoccupied shops rises alarmingly. The hospital is at the bottom of the street, at this point called Via Mattioti, just before the Porta Romana in the old peripheral wall of the town. It brought a constant flow of people of people into the area and shops, ranging from tavole calde and snack bars to housewares and clothing shops, thrived there for years. Now the dead zone will metastasize.

Urban blight is not the sort of disease that the health authorities are asked to deal with. Discussions about closing and replacing the hospital went on for more than a decade during which time someone should have realized what closing the hospital would do to the town. Where were the local, provincial and regional governments? To my knowledge there is still no solid plan for the future use of the old hospital. There is however a plan to deal with the lack of parking and access to the town center. My early guess is that the treatment will kill the patient. More about that in a future article.

Orvieto had a similar situation when its new hospital was built out of town. In fairness, construction there took about twenty-five years, after politicians managed to misplace the first batch of money that had been appropriated, the building was trashed by vandals, and the project was restarted, so there was ample time to plan. Furthermore the old hospital was adjacent to the fabulous Duomo and the mix of tourists and patients was beneficial to neither group. The ex-hospital has been transformed into a local center for university students from Rome, as well as from several US universities, bringing increased vitality and commerce to the town center.

I visited the new Todi Hospital to take photographs but hadn't planned to use the facility prior to writing this piece. Then my wife suddenly needed to have an X-ray, for which our doctor prescribed an immediate appointment and we drove straight to the Emergency Room entrance to be processed in. After being advised to drive around to the main entrance and proceed to radiology, we chose to walk, probably a bad choice, since although the hospital has many fine features, internal circulation isn't one of them. After finding an exit and walking around to the front, I left my wife to the radiologists and circled back to move the car to the vast main parking lot. Parking, like lunch, is never free and although there is no user charge at the moment, the extensive parking lots certainly added to the cost of the new facility. However, in this case, inasmuch as no one will ever arrive at this hospital on foot, I would propose that even more money be spent on the parking, enough to plant a few trees or even to provide covered walks to allow sickly visitors to traverse the blazing pavements without recourse to emergency treatment. A portion of the hospital facade is recessed at the ground floor level providing a bit of respite from the weather. Why couldn't this have been extended across the entire facade? They were starting from scratch after all, not making do with an old building.

I wish the new hospital all success. My own future may depend on it. A more immediate wish is that the Todi city fathers awake from their coma and start showing the town and its inhabitants a little more respect.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Better Living Through Electronics

A few years ago a friend sent me the following. I found it moderately amusing at the time.

I Cannot SeeI Cannot PeeI Cannot ChewI Cannot ScrewOh, My God, What Can I Do?My Memory ShrinksMy Hearing StinksNo Sense of SmellI Look Like HellMy Mood is Bad -- Can't You Tell?My Body is DroopingHave Trouble PoopingThe Golden Years Have Come at LastThe Golden Years can Kiss My Ass!

Every year, it's a little less amusing. I've been deluged with offers to have my hearing tested, and several times I've taken them up on it. The tests have verified what members of my family have been saying all along: I don't hear very well. While the tests are free, the proposed solution is not, and after hearing the cost of the device, I've always skipped the free trial. But they keep on calling and writing so this year I said what the hell, let's see how it works. I was given two little metallic slivers that are slung over the back of each ear and wired to a small plug inserted into the ear. These things are custom tuned to amplify only the frequencies that have been lost with time. I must report that they work rather well. They also made me very nervous I could suddenly imagine how a woman might feel wearing clip-on diamond earrings. My life could definitely be improved by hearing better. But then, it could also be improved by a new car or a trip around the world, either of which might be had for a similar price. If I'm to make an investment in hearing of this magnitude, the device needs to be mar more sophisticated. Hearing normal conversation is a big help but what about filtering out the screams of small children. Better still, a device that just shuts down when it registers a commanding or nagging tone, ideally adding white noise to make orders inaudible. Two weeks into my free month, the devices stopped working due to an accumulation of ear wax that my attempts to replace the batteries did nothing to alleviate. This made me even more nervous and I just turned them in ahead of time, but it got me thinking of other electronic devices that could improve my life if only they were available.

  • An electronic fence- I know, such devices have been around for some time, but your dog or cat must wear a collar to activate it. I'm thinking in terms of keeping unknown animals, from dogs to rats, porcupines to wild boars, off one's property. We don't necessarily want to keep people out so perhaps three or four points of contact with the ground might be the trigger. That would have the added benefit of limiting the range of crawling babies.
  • A baby dissuader- To be attached either electronically or physically to cell phones, TV remotes and computer keyboards, it will emit an electric shock sufficient to inhibit the child from ever touching the protected device again. Extended exposure may keep children from ever becoming adept at the use of electronic gadgetry, but they can become an elite group, conversant with poetry and the spoken tradition. We need more poets.
  • A radar buster- While I've always opposed graffiti and other malicious vandalism, with the current spate of radar speed traps documented in an earlier post, the public needs a clean and neat means to defend itself from this epidemic of governmental overreach. If we can fly unmanned bombing sorties in Afghanistan from offices in Las Vegas, I can't imagine why we can't be electronically armed to fry the brains of these insidious devices as we inconspicuously drive by.
  • MP3 remote volume adjusters- Anyone who's ridden a bus or subway has been exposed to people with earphones whose “music” leaks out to envelop their surroundings. This device would allow gentler souls among us to lower the volume, while allowing the rest of us to instantly triple the volume. The owner would immediately discard or shut down the offending device or, if already effectively deaf, be throttled by enraged people nearby.
  • Electronic cat flap- Standard issue cat flaps are wonderful home improvements but they are deficient in two ways. Once your domesticated cat has been seen entering or leaving through her own little door, clever feral cats will learn to use the same entrance, with disastrous results. Your own sweet cat is free to come and go, with whatever prey, dead or alive, it chooses to drag in. Rat tails under the dining room table are always an embarrassment. The new electronic cat flap must provide identity checks and rat screening, not an easy task, but our airports have managed similar functions.
  • Intelligent cell phones (not to be confused with smart phones)- We see drivers wandering to the wrong side of the road, waiting to move when the way is clear, and then plunging into traffic when they should wait. Inevitably, there's the telltale hand pressed to the ear and the mouth moving. This is illegal in Italy but the law, being unenforced, has no effect. Our proposal would see to it that when a cell phone is activated the car's ignition would shut down. Many details need to be resolved to avoid unwanted side effects. We neither want to deprive passengers in a car the use of their cell phones nor do we wish to paralyze bus service. Connecting the shut off device to a sensor in the driver's seat is a possible solution. Still, the effects of engine shutdown at high speed may need further study before this device can be brought to the market.
  • Eyeglass finders- Finally, it has come to our attention that eyeglasses have a way of being lost or misplaced more than other objects. Despite appearances, they are rarely stolen or moved by ghosts or evil spirits. A simple alarm device could be implanted in each pair of glass frames which could then activated by a locater button fixed in a known and permanent location in the home.

Time for all you young entrepreneurial electronics wizards out there to get busy. You keep developing ridiculous new phone apps for kids and yuppies, but there are plenty of us aging curmudgeons awaiting your help.

Monday, July 4, 2011

The 2012 CatCartoonNetwork/punditalia Presidential Platform

Four years ago we posted on our website our 2008 Presidential Platform, a list of forty-one moderate proposals as to what an aspiring president should set as goals to make the USA a better country. Barack Obama was elected and four years later, one out of our forty-one suggestions has been partially carried out, when some US troops were redeployed from Iraq to Afghanistan. Meanwhile, strident neo-cons such as Paul Ryan have consistently made headlines by proclaiming the need for radical measures designed to eliminate the middle class and transfer its wealth to the richest 1% of the population. Such demands have been accompanied by threats to shut down the government if all non-military expenditures are not slashed.

While we stand behind our 2008 platform, it's time to stop pussy-footing around and raise the volume as we pare down this year's goals to the essential.

  1. Ten years after 9/11, with the objective of finding and eliminating Osama Bin Laden finally realized, it's time to bring all troops home from Iraq and Afghanistan.
  2. In keeping with the current nostalgia for better times and traditional values, restore income tax rates to those in effect when the last great Republican president (not counting Barack Obama), Dwight D. Eisenhower, left office in 1961. That means a top marginal rate of 91%.
  3. Immediately pass a constitutional amendment making clear the obvious, that “persons”, for the purposes of constitutional rights, shall be defined as individual human beings, and that shall mean all human beings who have been born.
  4. Have the Justice Department investigate the possibility of charging the five person majority of the Supreme Court with treason, for their scandalous, irresponsible and unconstitutional decision in Citizens United, which opened the doors for US elections to be influenced by non-citizens.
  5. Restore the Glass-Steagall Act of 1933 as written, thus separating commercial and investment banking.
  6. Corporations shall be forbidden from making contributions to candidates or occupants of political office. Penalties shall be mandatory jail terms for the executives in charge of such corporations, and should the amounts exceed a figure to be established by Congress, jail terms shall be extended to the entire Board of Directors.
  7. Corporations shall be subjected to a three strikes and you're out provision. With the third violation of the Political Contributions Act, the corporate charter will be revoked and the corporation disbanded.
  8. Legislators shall be required to disclose all sources and amounts of campaign (or other) contributions and shall disqualify themselves from presenting, arguing, or voting on any legislation that may provide direct benefit to their contributors. Penalties shall be immediate removal from office and the loss of all accrued benefits. Additional fines and jail time may be applied.
  9. Judges, especially those on the Supreme Court, shall disqualify themselves from sitting on cases the outcomes of which shall provide direct benefit to themselves or their immediate family. They shall be forbidden from accepting gifts or payments from anyone who is party to a case coming before them. Violations will bring immediate removal from the court.
  10. Penalties for crimes against property, e.g. robbery, theft, embezzlement, fraud, and insider trading shall be roughly proportional to the value of the items illegally taken from the victim. Thus, if a $100 theft from a grocery store yields a 30 day jail term, the embezzlement of $100,000 of pension funds would yield a 30,000 day prison term. We acknowledge the practical difficulties of this concept. Heavy penalties may be necessary to discourage relatively minor property crimes, whereas sentences of 500 or 1000 years of jail time would be relatively meaningless. In for a dime, in for a dollar. Given the high cost of housing criminal offenders and the record number and percentage of Americans who are incarcerated, the policy could be modified so that anyone convicted of a property crime amounting to more than $50,000 could be required to pay the full cost of his or her incarceration. We would urge caution to avoid unintended consequences. Given the record low level of taxation currently in vogue, some states may find it remunerative under this law to find reasons to jail all their bankers.
  11. Disband the World Trade Organization, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. Former officials will be offered a bronze parachute, acceptance of which will exempt them from prosecution for most of their misdeeds.
  12. Guantanamo will be closed as an off-shore concentration camp for people the US doesn't want to prosecute and converted into a retirement home for former officials of the above-named organizations. Guests will be provided with comfortable accommodation, as befits their station, but there will will be no electronic communication with the world beyond the island, nor will visitors or off-island excursions be permitted.
  13. Country of Origin labeling will be required on all products sold in the United States. This is in conflict with WTO rulings, but as stated above, the WTO is to be eliminated.
  14. To combat the inexorable tide of the outsourcing of American jobs to Asia, Indian telephone responders will be imported into the US to teach their American counterparts the fundamentals of courtesy and diction.
  15. In the current political climate there is a big push for testing school children to assure their job-readiness. In that spirit we advocate literacy tests for presidential and vice-presidential candidates. Had this policy been in place earlier, we might have been spared the disastrous first eight years of the new millennium. It could cull the herd of young elephants currently charging the White House but wider application to the entire Congress might result in overly swift and radical changes to the country.
  16. Given the clear need to render the US Military less bellicose and the Justice Department more aggressive, we propose the following Cabinet appointments:
      Secretary of Defense- Dennis Kucinich
      Attorney General- Elliot Spitzer
17. Now that we've seen Barry Bonds standing trial for lying to Congress and a Grand Jury under oath about his personal use of performance enhancing drugs, we believe that The Justice Department should take a similarly tough stance with regard to other members of the citizenry, less famous perhaps, but more closely linked to the health of the nation. A few prominent and well documented examples come readily to mind. Donald Rumsfeld, Colin Powell and George W. Bush all lied to Congress about WMD in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq. Chief Justice John Roberts stated under oath at his confirmation hearings that he was opposed to judicial activism, yet he has proved to be the most activist Chief Justice in Court history. Members of various intelligence agencies lied to the Congressional Committee investigating 9/11 about what was known to them about the imminent attacks on the WTC and the Pentagon. The list is long and while we don't condone professional athletes breaking their rules, we consider government officials violating the Constitution, and banksters devastating the economy, to be more deserving of immediate Congressional oversight and subsequent prosecution.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

TV Reality

It's been a few years now since I worked in New York, and the Rome I worked in during the 70's has changed into another place. Living in an isolated Umbrian village of about 150 people, perhaps I'm out of touch with reality, i.e. the important things that go on in the world, although we do get to attend more funerals than most city dwellers do. Fortunately, we have the internet and Skype to keep in touch with people and happenings around the world. We also have satellite TV, which brings us another little window on the world. It's long been fashionable to disdain TV but, especially in the football off-season, I enjoy watching many of the shows, and have for years.

All my life, pundits on the right have complained of the liberal bias of the news media and Hollywood. They were right. After all, Edward R. Murrow was no Fascist sympathizer and one can fairly imagine his disdain for the Neo-Cons, were he around today. Unfortunately, he's not. For a time, I watched a large amount of cable TV news but increasingly, the cable channels seem more out of touch with reality than we are here in Acqualoreto.

Then there are the ”reality shows”. I haven't yet figured out why these shows are so named. Most seem to be elimination tournaments. Pseudo-celebrities pass their time trying to remain on a tropical island with other aspiring ”personalities”; other contestants aspire to work for Donald Trump, or be selected as a spouse, future model, fashion designer or bed partner. In others, people, hooked up to a lie detector, face embarrassing questions in front of their families, or attractive young people are challenged to put repulsive substances in their mouths and swallow. I suppose the common denominator, and plausible link to reality, is the competition of people willing to subject themselves to public humiliation for the prospect of winning money.

There are even too many comedy shows on television, but I'll have to pass on commenting on them since I've discovered that I'm allergic to laugh tracks, so for the most part, I'm left with the TV dramatic series.

Nearly all shows deal with crime, clearly the principal activity in the world. Murder is the favorite crime on TV, sometimes treated with a spectacular brutality, but more often with humor. The light hearted murder shows go back to before television, when crime magnets such as Sherlock Holmes and Mr. and Mrs. North had a merry time solving whodunits in books and movies. Over the years Ellery Queen, Hart to Hart and countless dozens of other TV series have mined this vein. One of my more recent favorites, Midsomer Murders, known in Italy as Inspector Barnaby, would appear to have depopulated all of southern England in its ten year run, but the characters and locales were delightful. My all-time favorite, Germany's Inspector Derrick, ran for twenty-four years, with just one writer, Herbert Reinecker, creating all 281 episodes. The series also furnished fascinating characters and locales around Munich. Horst Tappert, an ex-vaudeville song and dance man who played the Inspector, solved all those murders mostly by stalking the characters his intuition led him to suspect. The program featured little onscreen violence but a great deal of the darker side of human nature. In Italy, Terrence Hill, as Don Matteo, has been playing a parish priest in Gubbio for the past decade. The 144 episodes have, on average, included more than one homicide per show, which would appear to make scenic little Gubbio one of the most violent places on earth, with a murder rate exceeding that of the south of England, Detroit and Chicago combined.

The crime solvers have usually been private detectives or regular police but now and then a mystery writer gets into the act, as with Jessica Fletcher (Angela Lansbury) in Murder She Wrote, and currently Rick Castle (Nathan Fillion) in Castle. In addition to the FBI and the CIA, other specialized crime fighting units such as the NCIS, which may or may not exist in the real world, also see some action. Clearly, the world's preeminent profession, in the world of TV, is that of forensic medicine. While I do know one young man in that field, I never realized that he and his colleagues played such an important role in the war on crime. I believe it all started with Crossing Jordan, but they've spread to CSIs and NCISs all over the country, and now to Body of Proof. Even Inspector Barnaby and Castle went with the trend and got their own body disassemblers. Most of the corpse analyzer shows are similar, but one, CSI Miami, stands out. Not so much for its acting, writing or characters, but for its color. In my childhood, most color movies were in Technicolor, but if I remember correctly, Roy Rogers movies were shot in something called Trucolor, which featured everything in bright orange, with some contrasting aqua blue. These are the Miami Dolphins colors so it only seems right that a Miami crime show should replicate the old Trucolor hues, especially one starring the carrot-topped David Caruso.

In TV history, Dallas was the first show to take the continuing drama soap opera format to prime time. The format was upgraded by ER, which brought doctors to the forefront and good writers to the work behind the scenes. It also launched George Clooney's career. After years of ratings-boosting service, he faded into the sunset with his on-screen sweetheart Juliana Margulies. When ER finally ran out of juice, other medical shows like Grey's Anatomy and Private Practice followed, but their writers just couldn't seem to find much inspiration left in the clinical area, so those shows have triangulated between medicine, soap opera and soft-core porn. Other shows have taken a similar path but without the medicine. Sex and the City could be amusing; Desperate Housewives and Cougar Town a little less so, but then, there's no shortage of cheerfully lewd shows on SKY.

I've alluded to former complaints about the liberal bias in the media. Since the US lurched heavily to the right in recent decades, both the news shows and the entertainment shows have tried to accommodate the new public tastes. The past decade has brought us torture-as-entertainment shows including 24 and the various versions of NCIS. Although I've whole-heartedly embraced the lighter side of murder, I haven't yet adapted sufficiently to the new ethos to really enjoy 24.

More subtle right-wing inroads have come with Ayn Rand-inspired heroes such as Dr. House. Played brilliantly by Hugh Laurie, the British actor who was famous as the effete Bertie Wooster in the P.G. Wodehouse inspired series, Jeeves and Wooster, Dr. House is an egocentric, lame genius devoid of respect for rules, laws, feelings or etiquette. He perseveres to cure the most exotic illnesses heretofore unknown to man. Superman with a crutch! Despite the unreality of both the health care available and the excesses of the protagonist, the show usually manages to be entertaining.

Successful shows tend to be cloned and Lie To Me tries to build on the success of Dr. House. Another interesting British actor, Tim Roth as Dr Cal Lightman, hobbles around with the gait of a chimpanzee, though no explanation of this deformity is forthcoming, other than the unspoken desire to emulate Dr. House. His superhuman talent is to be able to tell if people are lying or telling the truth by looking at their faces, and this elite skill has earned him a huge cutting edge office and a bevy of doting beauties who put up with his crude ways and his House-like disavowal of law and manners. Among the adoring women is his partner, played by Kelli Williams, fresh from her role as the partner and wife of the creepy Bobby in The Practice. She risks being typecast as the abused partner. I prefer this show to Dr. House, mainly because the women are better looking, but the plots are also more imaginative. Too bad that Dr. Lightman's gorgeous ex-wife, Jennifer Beals, has moved to Chicago to be Police Commissioner on another new series, Chicago Code. The latter show seems to be yet another copycat, emulating Detroit 1-8-7, and it may turn out to be better than the one it copies. Both have a nice gritty feel to them and provide balanced accommodation to the prejudices of the left and right wing segments of the audience; racial equality on one hand and a healthy disregard for the niceties of the law on the other.

After crimefighters and doctors, the next most prominent TV profession would be lawyers. If the doctors and police tend to be the darlings of the right, we liberals tend to favor the lawyer shows. Series like The Defenders, The Practice, Boston Law and more recently, The Guardian and Raising the Bar (Avvocati a New York in Italy) have fairly regularly espoused a liberal democratic set of values. The Guardian, an otherwise interesting show, suffered by having a terminally unsympathetic character in the lead role, while Raising the Bar, which tempered its idealism with a strong infusion of cynicism, was a wonderful antidote to Fox News, and just too good to last. Now that George Clooney has come out of TV exile to sell coffee and Campari in Italy, his former ER love, Julianna Margulies has come back to star in The Good Wife as a lawyer married to a jailed Chicago politician. The shadowy side of the profession is on view here too but, again, the hearts of the protagonists are in the right place, even if other body parts tend to wander.

I love all these shows but my favorite of the genre had to be Judge John Deed. Half a century ago when I applied to law school, I didn't know where it would lead. It didn't lead anywhere, as I switched to architecture at the eleventh hour, but had I joined that oft-maligned profession, I couldn't have imagined a more appealing role model than the Porsche-driving, womanizing judge, played by Martin Shaw, who was always defending the underdogs from the corrupt powers of the establishment. This wonderfully produced, very British show, wasn't around for long, possibly because the suspension of disbelief was challenged by the odd circumstance that in every case that the judge presided over, the establishment villains were represented by his ex-wife, now married to the corrupt Minister of Justice, while the defense attorney for the put-upon victims always turned out to be his on-again, off-again girlfriend Jo Mills, played by the lovely Jenny Seagrove. She was often assisted by the Judge's law student daughter, which provided yet more conflicts of affection.

Many other professions have shown up as series protagonists. We've seen teachers, soldiers, undertakers, bartenders, priests, mafiosi and for six years, Patricia Arquette has appeared as a cuddly mom with supernatural powers in Medium, helping the DA to find serial killers. If the protagonists are interesting and/or appealing, and the writing is good, plausibility is no prerequisite for success.

I realize that salesmen, engineers, teachers and factory workers are also all underrepresented as key players, but what about architects? Not counting those home improvement shows like Extreme Makeover-Home Edition, how many series protagonists have been architects? One! Yes, there was one. Charles Bronson played Paul Kersey in the Death Wish movies and TV series. He stalked and killed dangerous street criminals before Rudy Giuliani even thought of becoming mayor of New York City. Despite the usual correctness of my political leanings, I was always fond of Charles Bronson in those movies, perhaps because of his no-nonsense manner, or maybe it was just the exciting novelty of seeing an architect as protagonist. But that was then and this is now. It's time for Death Wish XX. Street crime no longer is the dominating preoccupation it was in the 70's. The ten year-old fear factor of terrorism is wearing a little thin. Let's see a new crusading architect taking on the real villains of the day, bankrupting the banksters, and entrapping those corrupt mid-western governors. The Justice Department has given up on prosecuting our war criminals and the bought Supreme Court justices, so how about leaving it to a renegade architect on TV. If a medium is the last line of defense against serial killers, why can't an architect combat the oligarchs and their lackeys? So far, the urgent task of going after white collar criminals has been left mostly to Neal Caffery, a semi-reformed con-man, working with the FBI, on White Collar. There's a bit of a con-man in every successful architect, so why not have one join the battle. Just make him charismatic, with a beautiful girlfriend, or vice-versa, and keep the writing taut.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Roadside Hazards

The other day my wife signed for a heavy piece of registered mail addressed to me from the Municipal Police of Todi.  Opening it with some trepidation, I discovered that three months earlier, a speed measuring device (Velox) had clocked and photographed me going 74 km/h (considered 69 km/h with the benefit of the doubt discount) in a 50km/h zone right in front of Tuder Green, a gardening shop in Ponterio we’ve frequented since it opened about three decades ago.  Although someone did tell me about this speed trap, the warning apparently came too late.

In the ten years since the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center, the world has been taken over by an obsessive need for a sense of safety and security, no matter at what cost.  Thus, we now need to strip off half our clothes at airports and surrender our rights regarding illegal searches and seizures.  The other noteworthy event of the past decade was the economic collapse, often referred to as “the great recession”, which has also spread from the US to the rest of the world.  Just which of these two phenomena is responsible for the recent speed control craze isn’t clear.  It may be both, but from the size of the fine (€177) and the number of these machines cropping up, it looks like some municipal authorities think they’ve discovered a foolproof way to overcome the budget crisis.  As wonderful a place as Italy is, it isn’t perfect.  A certain percentage of Italians still suffer from that post WW II syndrome “if the Americans do it, we have to do it too”, a malady that has led to the widespread diffusion of problems such as heroin addition, obesity, urban sprawl, SUVs and now, a drivers license points system.

In fairness to the Italian police, I must point out that, unlike their American counterparts who seem to take pleasure in trapping unsuspecting motorists from hidden outposts, our defenders of public safety put warning signs and flashing lights on the speed traps.  The idea seems to be to make you slow down rather than to cull the quicker drivers from the herd.

If you live in Italy or you’re thinking of visiting and driving here, there are a few things you should know about Italian speed limits.  They’re never posted; they’re seldom enforced (until now), and they are mostly unrelated to the reality of either the road conditions or the actual speeds at which people drive.  There are four basic speed limits in Italy: 130 km/h on the autostrade, 110 on the superstrade, i.e. limited access four lane highways, 90 on country roads and 50 in towns and cities.  Virtually none of these are ever indicated by signs, with the exception of the 50 km/h limit in towns.  You’re supposed to know them.  However, there are many little round signs with limits that take precedence over the standard limits for certain tracts.  I’ve always assumed them to be friendly warnings, applicable as if written in miles, not kilometers per hour.  If you’re on a country road and a sign indicates curves ahead with a “50” sign, a reasonable interpretation is that a safe speed on the curve will be 50 mph rather than the 31.25 mph that the law actually requires.  Until now, this has worked out just fine, but there is one area of occasional conflict.  As noted, the speed limit on country roads is 90.  Italy is a densely populated country and there are few roads along which no houses are built.  Indeed, most country roads are built on what were originally paths that connected isolated houses.

Last week, in returning home from Perugia, my ultra conservative wife suggested, as usual, that instead of taking the superstrada E45, we take the country road along the crest of the hills through Marsciano.  She despises fast roads, along with airplanes, trains and virtually any mode of transport faster than walking.  Once again, I acquiesced to her request since the back road, while slower, is scenic and more pleasant.  Just off this country road, new residential compounds have been littering up the countryside and it seems the local authorities have decided that this entire thirty-kilometer stretch now consists of towns.  Velox machines have sprouted up faster than mushrooms or wild asparagus this spring.  We counted about ten or twelve of them in this stretch.  The road hasn’t changed.  It’s still a country road with a few houses along it, but it’s now one long speed trap, virtually unusable to go anywhere.  Even my speed-hating wife kept exclaiming, “This is sick!”

Although we noted several years ago that western Lazio is longer safe to drive through, the first sign of this ominous trend appeared in Umbria around the start of the year when one of these Velox machines was conspicuously placed a few hundred meters before a long smooth curve just below Ilci, about eight km north of Todi on E45.  The speed limit on the road is 110 and traffic normally moves along at an average of 120.  The curve sweeps through a change of direction of about 90 degrees and, judging from the number of lights, signs and reflectors lining it, one can suppose that a few people have gone off the road here over the years.  Nevertheless, the curve is easily and safely negotiable at 120 km/h by any vehicle capable of passing the required motor vehicle inspection.  The curve has been assigned a 90 km/h limit.  We now have the spectacle of drivers on the straight stretch of road before the curve jamming on their brakes when they see the device ahead and provoking panic stops by out-of-town drivers unaware of the trap.  How long before the first massive multi-vehicle pile-up?

While many of my peers have taken up golf, I’ve always considered driving as my preferred sport.  It doesn’t burn many calories but then, riding around in a golf cart doesn’t either, and both activities give one the opportunity to develop eye/hand coordination while viewing the better scenery that is out there.  Over the years, my cars have mostly been modest family sedans but in the mix there were two Porsches and a Mini DeTommaso, which provided some of the most joyful moments of my life.  Although it has yet to attain the status of golfers’ paradise, for a century Italy has been the world’s Mecca to people who love to drive.  I realize that some of you will dispute that, but the joy of driving isn’t about rules, cruise control, tranquility or safety.

My ninety-seven year old step-mother has taught me that with time one must renounce certain habits and pleasures and just accept life for what it still offers.  She’s given up Caribbean cruises as too fatiguing, although she did relapse for one final cruise, and recently she’s accepted her doctor’s advice to renounce her daily mood enhancing afternoon martini.  Ironically, she still drives.  

Others have urged me to seek the positive side of things, and while this goes against my genetic make-up, I will try to make the effort.  Possibly Italy can overcome all the local government revenue shortfalls with the new Velox windfalls.  The safety crusade may help to limit urban sprawl in that lovely countryside between Perugia and Marsciano, since there will be no way for people living in those new developments to get to work on time.  With a major reduction in driving, I may be able to coax another five or ten years, or whatever is needed, out of my 18 year old Peugeot.  Failing that, instead of seeking one of those low mileage used Minis or Alfa Giulias that I’ve been lusting after, I may be able to settle for an Ape.  For those unfamiliar with the Ape, it’s a little three-wheeled truck, seating two and powered by a lawn mower engine, that country folk use to transport bottled water, beehives and gas bombole.  They drive drivers of four-wheel vehicles mad but when everyone is driving at the speed of an Ape, the stigma will be gone.

The authorities have taken other measures to assure our safety.  In the past, roadside grass was cut down early and late in the spring.  Wildflowers grow happily here and from April through June, poppies line the sides of the roads as well as proliferating in the fields, creating a real distraction to drivers who should be concentrating on the road.  A better way has been found.  Instead of the early cutting of the grass, it’s simply sprayed with herbicide, which turns the grass to a sort of strawberry blond color and retards further growth.  Not only does this limit the distraction of the wildflowers, but it also saves on government manpower.

Finally, I’m happy to report that here in Acqualoreto we’ve come upon a way to cut down on speed without resorting to heavy fines or expensive electronic devices.  Two years ago, the five kilometer road from Acqualoreto down to the river road was in deplorable condition.  After many complaints about the potholes, the Comune finally repaved the worst stretches of the road.  The road seemed almost new, allowing us to get down to the valley in practically no time at all.  Then, early this year, the road started to heave.  It seems as if some mysterious power in the earth wanted to collaborate with the authorities to slow things down.  It’s better
than Velox.  The Comune has rushed in with more and more speed limit signs, first 30, then 20, finally 10.  Apparently they have no signs indicating 0 but there are signs indicating that traffic can proceed in only one direction at a time, one of those rare times that the road signs reflect reality.

Who knows where all this will lead?  Personal changes tend to become irreversible so I’m afraid my days of pleasure driving are over.  Societal changes, on the other hand, come and go like the tides, so some day Italy may return to a semblance of normality.  Will roving bands of disgruntled young men brandishing tire irons destroy the electronic Big Brothers faster than they can be replaced?  I rather doubt it.  Italians have become as passive as Americans.  Just as when government workers, who are prohibited from striking, shut down most activity by “working to rules”, I can envision Italians organizing to “drive below limits”.  This will bring the economy to a screeching halt and force an easing of policy.  

Meanwhile, I think we’ll look for a garden shop in a safer neighborhood.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Georgia On My Mind

During the fifties, Arthur Godfrey, who was on everybody’s radio in the morning, was promoting Miami Beach non-stop.  After Carl Fisher, nobody, with the possible exception of Morris Lapidus, did more to stimulate the growth and success of Miami Beach. 

When I was a kid in New Jersey, we didn’t take a lot of vacations, but a few times my parents got fed up with the cold winters to the point where we took Godfrey’s advice and fled to Florida.  Being gentiles of modest means, we went to Miami, not Miami Beach, and we rented rooms in a place near the Brickell Bridge.  We went by car, by train and by airplane so there may have been three such trips in all.  Getting out of the NJ cold was wonderful and Florida was a pretty enough place but I don’t recall being overly impressed by Miami.  This was before Castro so the food was white bread fare, more reminiscent of Minneapolis than Havana, with the one culinary novelty of note being key lime pie.  The beaches looked better than ours did but swimming in the warm, calm water offered none of the thrill of battling the surf at the Jersey shore.  My fondest memory of Miami was seeing a statuesque blond drive up to Crandon Park on Key Biscayne in a Jaguar XK-120 and recline to sun herself in a white and blue bikini just a few feet away from us.  She must have been German.  Nothing like that had been seen on American beaches in those days.

Flying to Florida in a Lockheed Constellation was an exciting new adventure, about as comfortable as flying is today.  The twenty-six hour train trip was also a new adventure, but as we were sitting in a crowded railroad coach for that long, it was not the trip’s highlight.  The best way to go to Florida was by car.

In the pre-interstate days you actually went through cities and towns.  I recall going through places like Petersburg, Virginia and Rocky Mount, North Carolina, birthplace of Thelonious Monk, though I hadn’t heard of him then and I suspect few people in Rocky Mount had either.  My father was a traditionalist who stopped for three meals a day and started looking for a place to stay around 4:30 or 5:00, while it wasn’t yet dark.  That made it at least a three-day trip each way.  With age I’ve come to appreciate his approach, but at the time, I was appalled.  Perhaps it was the seed of filial rebellion, planted then, which a decade later led to thirty-hour non-stop trips from Virginia to Florida and from Oklahoma to Virginia.  It may have affected my brother even more.  At an age when some people consider giving up driving altogether, he embarks on twenty-hour solo pilgrimages to the Buffett Shrine in Omaha every year.

I didn’t see much on those express trips but I certainly did riding with my parents.  The road paving, painting and signs changed from one state to the next but otherwise, Virginia and North Carolina looked much the same.  In South
Carolina the green tobacco country gave way to swamps full of trees covered in Spanish moss.  The two-lane road, raised about ten feet from the swamp, seemed to go on endlessly through this fascinatingly eerie landscape.  The monotony was broken occasionally by the sight of a rusting school bus abandoned in the ditch, or by billboards advising that it was only 100 miles to Stuckey’s.  These were repeated every twenty-five miles or so until finally the Stuckey’s would come briefly into view.  They sold pecan pralines, Confederate flags, fireworks, gasoline and God knows what else.  Crossing into Georgia the lane markings changed back to yellow but the swamp and the Stuckey’s provided continuity.  I think it was in Georgia that the tread delaminated on my father’s snow tires.  Those tires are wonderful in NJ.  They just aren’t the best choice for driving to Florida.  We made it to a little town where I vaguely remember a bunch of large red-faced men in bib overalls sitting around looking at the car full of Yankees and discussing what should be done.  We weren’t too sure just how soon or if we’d get to resume our trip but new tires were eventually acquired and we were on our way.

Besides the major Stuckey’s emporiums, it seemed that nearly every little crossroad or settlement would have a place called The Dixie Pig.  It was not a chain.  The need for a barbecue sandwich place was universal and the spirit of SC/GA so homogenized that they were all named the Dixie Pig.  I’m surprised that no one, to my knowledge, has started a chain of Dixie Pigs.  They were to South Carolina and Georgia what Original Ray’s has become to NYC.

Many of those little clearings in the swamp would also have a motel or two and to this day I remember seeing pigs grazing in front of some of those plain long buildings, as if waiting for the occupants to come out and throw them some scraps. 

That was Georgia about sixty years ago.  I doubt that I’d recognize it today.  The Dixie Pigs have probably all been replaced by Burger King or KFC and by now the pigs live in industrial compounds.  But here in Umbria, down by the river, grazing at the edge of our local no-name gas station, we have a whole bunch of unrestrained pigs.  With old trucks and cars parked at the end of the lot next to a rotting wooden storage shack, the scene could be old time Georgia, except for the hills, and except for the fact that these aren’t really pigs.  They’re the result of the mating of pigs and wild boars.  They live down along the banks of the Tiber, occasionally coming up to play with the owner of the gas station.  He chases them down the hill and they chase him back up again, stopping to let him rub their snouts.  Out of town motorists are probably just as surprised as those Yankees were, driving through Georgia.

I’m adding another picture having nothing to do with pigs, except that, like the free range pigs, this one, depicting winter’s end, raises my spirits.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Reflections on the Superbowl

The United States may be more divided now than at any time since the Civil War; red and blue, rich and poor, hawk and dove, etc, but the division isn’t all that simple.  Oligarchs have recruited unemployed former members of the middle class to promote campaigns against public services while well-off academics try to mobilize the inert masses to speak up for their own interests.  In a break from this life and death struggle, we’ve just witnessed Superbowl Sunday, the National Football League’s main event, an update on the old Roman tradition of bread and circuses to keep the unruly plebes under control.

President Obama, vilified as a foreign-born, fascistic communist Muslim by the right, and dismissed as the second coming of Neville Chamberlain by some of us on the left, perseveres in trying to bring harmony to his divided constituency.  Prior to the game on Superbowl Sunday, in a move as dramatic as Nixon’s going to China, he went to Fox News, to be interviewed by arch-nemesis Bill O’Reilly.  Throughout the interview Obama remained supernaturally affable while Mr. O’Reilly managed to suppress his bile.  If the President can tame O’Reilly, perhaps he really can unite the country after all.

 The image of the NFL took a few hits, starting some days before the game when Denver running back Lawrence Maloney got his mug shot posted all over the internet following his arrest for carrying a gun while high on drugs.  Then came the problems at the game, which was played this year at Jerry Jones’ new $1.2 billion plutocrats’ pleasure palace in Arlington, Texas, where the city fathers were persuaded to finance $325M of the cost through bond issues and local sales tax increases.  The stadium has all the electronic bells and whistles imaginable but it just lacked seats for 1250 people who had paid $800. per ticket to get in.  A class action suit has been filed by some of these people for $5 million, proving that indeed, this is America’s game.  During the game, the artificial turf turned out to be abnormally slippery, leading to a few injuries, but there’s still no word on any possible legal action in that regard.

While I didn’t miss a single playoff game, here in Italy we were mostly spared the hype leading up to the big game.  The PR may have been scripted by Linda McMahon, formerly of World Wrestling Entertainment and the Connecticut gubernatorial race, since a clear division emerged between the good guys and the bad guys.  We Americans prefer to keep those distinctions sharp.  Some even prefer to cheer on the villains, proof of which lies in the large fan base of the Oakland Raiders.  In this contest, Pittsburgh wore the black hats.  Their role was established by two factors; their non-acceptance of the new NFL campaign to limit head injuries, and their quarterback.  Green Bay has embraced the policy and their players reportedly urged their QB, the ever patient Aaron Rogers, to take care of his health first and foremost.  James Harrison, a much larger Sonny Liston clone who leads the league in fines for illegal helmet to helmet hits, anchors the Steelers’ defense.  He wondered aloud if he was supposed to provide pillows for QBs and wide receivers that he was about to smash to the ground. Both quarterbacks have missed games due to concussions, but Ben Roethesberger of the Steelers also sat out a four game suspension for conduct deemed unbecoming to the NFL.  Although all charges were dropped by the civil authorities, he was alleged to have sexually assaulted women in Nevada and Georgia.  I admit to confusion about terminology these days.  When female employees of defense contractors in Iraq are physically forced to submit to sexual acts by their bosses or co-workers, the term used by the media is “sexual assault”, but when a Julian Assange has sex with a half asleep woman who has invited him to her bed, he is charged with “rape”.  Maybe Ben was just telling off-color jokes.  In any case, the Steelers, or the NFL, decided that they just couldn’t let him play on as if nothing had happened.

American jails and prisons hold a larger percentage of the nation’s population than any other country and they are disproportionately occupied by black and Hispanic people.  NFL players are now 70% or more non-white and, ironically, many of them, of whatever race, are decorated with gangland tattoos and grotesque haircuts, making them virtually indistinguishable from inmates of our high security prisons.  I suppose a ferocious image is considered helpful, given the nature of their work, but I say ironically because these young men are our elite, the perfect exemplars of the natural selection advocated by the Objectivist Social Darwinism of our leaders, under the thrall of Ayn Rand over the past three decades.  The players are among the nation’s wealthiest young men, and deservedly so.  Just as the US has its current minimum wage of $7.25/hour, which yields $15,080 per year over fifty-two forty-hour weeks, the NFL has a minimum wage for players of $310,000.  That’s for rookies.  The scale slides up over ten years to about double that.  Of course the stars get more.  A good cornerback can make $10M/year.  Still, the minimum is only a little over twenty times the national minimum wage, on the low side compared to the ratio of average corporate CEO remuneration to that of the average worker, a factor currently pegged at 263 or 300, depending on where you get your figures.  How many CEOs go through the years of competition and elaborate natural selection that these players survive?

The big game eventually got started, but not before a painfully long pre-game show.  Lea Michel from the popular TV show Glee, the one in which high school outsiders are empowered by singing updated Abba style pop, wailed an overwrought version of America the Beautiful.  Some of the players looked pained, while others, perhaps unaware that this wasn’t the National Anthem, held their hands over their hearts, just as Coach had told them to.  They didn’t have to wait long.  As soon as Lea Michel had declared America beautiful, Christina Aguilera came out and assassinated the National Anthem.  Had she nailed it, it might have been tabbed a crucifixion, but she flubbed the words.  Anyway, The Star Spangled Banner is a political, not a religious song, so this was no ordinary killing, but rather an assassination of a national symbol.  Nobody died here but her act was witnessed by more people than Jared Loughner’s attack on a flesh and blood representative of the government and none of those present even tried to subdue her.  Perhaps they were all still busy looking for those missing seats.  The end of the song was almost drowned out by the flyover of four F-16 fighter jets.  Perhaps the pilots could have taken her out with napalm but it all happened so fast, and the collateral damage would have been on a par with nine years’ efforts in Iraq.  Besides, the roof was closed.  The crowd inside could see the flyover, estimated to cost the Navy $450,000, only on the giant TV monitors.

The game eventually got started, but after battling through the earlier play-off games with brilliant performances, both teams played below form.  Big Bad Ben threw two interceptions, one of which was returned for a touchdown.  Green Bay took a big early lead, which could have turned into a rout, except that GB receivers kept dropping passes.  Pittsburgh would make a comeback but not until I broke a tooth on unpopped popcorn and the interminable halftime show had ended.

This year’s halftime show, the first of the post-literate generation, featured The Black Eyed Peas singing numbers such as Boom Boom Pow and Pump it.  Tricked out in enough black leather to start an S&M emporium, they had the difficult task of merging the super patriot militaristic spirit of the day with the feel of gangsta rap.  The voluptuous blond in the group, Fergie, sounded as if this was the first time she’d ever ventured out of a very isolated inner-city black ghetto.  Her affectation was hardly a new gimmick.  White singers and instrumentalists have been imitating black musicians more talented than themselves for at least a century.  In fairness, I should also note that legions of singers, from Minnesota to Liverpool, have spent their lives trying to sound like they grew up somewhere between Nashville and Memphis.  Both of these trends should have run their course by now.  Given that we’re living through a painfully reactionary era, one reasonable consolation might be to have singers trying to imitate Noel Coward or Cole Porter, i.e. going back in history seven decades rather than seven millennia.

When the game resumed, Pittsburgh’s third quarter resurgence got moving but petered out late in the game and the good guys from Green Bay held on to win by a touchdown.

All in all, it’s been a good year for the NFL.  Close races and lots of tight games, and more importantly, good play-off games with the exception of the finale.  Next year remains behind a cloud.  The owners and the players go into the off-season without a labor agreement and a showdown between the billionaires and the millionaires is shaping up.  The players may follow John Galt’s example and withhold their services with a strike, but at the moment the more likely scenario is a lock-out by the owners who are keen to get a larger slice of the expanding pie.  Who will win this epic struggle of elites?  We don’t know.  Both groups have a lot to lose.  Meanwhile, the third element in the picture, we the audience, i.e. the drones, may just have to watch hockey next season, or take up bocce.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Repeal the Repeal

For two centuries homosexuals have been dismissed from the American Armed Services when their homosexual activities or proclivities came to light.  Generals argued that the presence of such people in the barracks would be damaging to troop morale, and some have continued these arguments right up to the present.  President Clinton, who strongly believed that one's sexual preferences were none of anybody else’s business, negotiated a compromise called Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, whereby if nobody said anything about their sexual preferences, the military wouldn’t say or do anything either.  Under pressure by groups of homosexual soldiers wanting to participate in gay pride parades in uniform, President Obama camouflaged his catastrophic cave-in on tax cuts by trumpeting the successful repeal of D.A.D.T. only a day or two later.  With government coffers ravaged by billions of dollars of new unfunded tax cuts, the last thing we need is to open up our military to a wider recruitment pool.

I’m not sure anyone has refuted the generals’ arguments convincingly enough to overturn a policy which has stood since the dawn of the Republic, thus I propose a bold new option.  Two centuries of defending our liberties and keeping us safe are enough.  Heterosexuals, stop the macho posing and gun fixations!  Take some time to smell the roses!  Let our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters have a chance to defend the country, unfettered by concerns about morale in the showers.  They’ve been deprived of their chance to become heroes for too long.

We currently have about 1.4 million men and women serving in the armed forces of a country with a population around 307 million (adjusted to 276 million for a partial exclusion of gays to arrive at an effective recruiting base.)  This gives us a ratio of active duty military personnel per 1000 citizens of about 4.56, although other published statistics indicate a figure of 5.1.  Assuming a homosexual rate of 15% in the population at large*, we have a potential recruiting base of about 46,000,000, which, applying the current ratio of military to general population, would yield a totally gay military of between 210,000 and 235,000. This may seem a little small but our weapons are more advanced and our armed forces would still be nearly as large as the active duty forces of France, Germany and the UK, about the same as Japan, and significantly larger than those of Italy or Greece.  All of those countries, just like the US, appear to be less vulnerable to military invasion than to threats from within (primarily from banksters and brain-dead politicians).

The GOP is now clamoring for budget reductions but none of the deficit hawks has come up with a plan this efficacious.  Upon redimensioning our military resources, we could no longer indefinitely sustain wars started to pre-empt energy supplies or assuage presidential neuroses.  Our Army, Marines, Navy, Coast Guard and Air Force couldn’t possibly utilize the vast array of weapons currently under development so we’d have to cut back these programs or just continue selling them to other warlike regimes around the world.  For better or worse we could no longer occupy 135 of the world’s 192 countries.  The merger of gay pride with our traditional militaristic fervor will produce an awesome fighting force, with new elite units such as the Stonewall Regiment being formed.  Such mergers and subsequent downsizing of the workforce are in the mainstream of the American values we seek to defend. 

To be sure, implementation of the new policy would involve some inconvenience.   The sudden addition of hundreds of thousands battle-hardened veterans to the ranks of the unemployed could result in some collateral damage, but we’re a resilient people.  The strong would survive.  Less onerous side effects would include the cancellation of current TV shows such as Army Wives and their immediate transfer into syndication to take their place in history alongside Happy Days.

This being the Age of Obama, we’re not unmindful of the need to have a fall back position ready at the time of the presentation of any proposal.  We’re ready with an effective compromise right now.  While it would limit the inherent savings of the scheme, it could none the less appeal to the corporate funded Members of Congress of both parties.  If our proposal (which unlike some of theirs, doesn’t advocate killing or torturing anyone) should be deemed too rash by our elected leaders, we can apply our proposal to only one of the five service branches.  Given that it has already been infiltrated and taken over by radical, religious fundamentalists, hell-bent on subverting the Constitution and installing a theocracy, the Air Force would be the clear choice to apply a thorough house cleaning.  The instant redundancy of all our Air Force personnel would flood the market with pilots, thus destroying the airline pilots’ union and restoring our airlines to profitability.  How many Senators could say no to that?

While deficit reduction would be the principle beneficiary of the new policy, there would be secondary benefits.  For example, it would force some of the more homophobic members of Congress, Senators such as Cornyn and Imhofe, and Representatives like Pete Sessions, who also happen to be among the most fierce proponents of war to resolve all foreign policy issues, to reexamine their priorities and values.  Many of these Senators and Congressmen are absolute believers in American exceptionalism, seeing the country as the natural (and sometimes God’s chosen) leader of the world.  It’s time for American ingenuity to take another extraordinary step to keep America solvent and to keep its boot off the necks of the unexceptional people of the world.

* The 15% estimate is higher than most published figures, except in San Francisco, but it’s close to that in Boston, Seattle, Atlanta and Minneapolis.  However, if the actual percentage is lower, the budgetary benefits and demilitarization would only improve.  If ultimately, the recruiting base proved too small for our national defense, the Air Force conversion would remain a viable policy option.