Monday, August 31, 2009

Debt Free!

I hate economics. I have no original ideas concerning anything related to domestic politics.

But try this one: My idea to decrease the national debt is to eliminate tax returns.

In my world, when I lose 20-30% of my paycheck to "taxes", it's gone. Like, I never see it again. Gone. And, I am happy to do it. That money builds schools, paves roads, pays cops, and helps supply Afghan druglords. I smile.

I don't know about you, but I'd gladly never get a tax return. I'm sure I'm not alone when I admit, I totally don't look forward to or even come close to remembering that time of year when I get my check from the government. It's an afterthought. "Oh hey, money from the government? How convenient! First round is on me."

Mr. Obama. Keep it. You can do better things with tax returns instead of funding my liver's demise.

An Admission

I always wished that I had a nickname. In all honesty, I never really had one. Sure, "Matty" is not my actual name. It's a nickname. But it's too easy. A drunk gibbon with a broken typewriter could have thought of that one. And most people don't even call me that anymore (it's a Trinity thing). No-- I wanted a title. Something to be proud of. Something that resonated with the masses. Something that said "here's a guy with a reputation." Whatever that means.

Honestly, I always wanted to be called "Skip". Or maybe "Govner" or its Anglicized form, "Guvna". Possibly "Cap'n". I'd settle for "Buck". And here's the thing: I know three different people who were called Skip, Cap'n, and Buck, respectively ("Guvner" would be pushing the envelope). I envied them immensely.

It is a universal maxim that people do not create their own nicknames. But dammit, why was I passed over! What did I do or not do to earn such nomenclatural scorn?

I think my desire for a nickname feeds my ridiculous fantasies of grandeur. For example, the image I have of myself as a pseudo-fictious Bobby Kennedy, complete with horn rim glasses and a raging temper, shouting at Cuban ambassadors in nongrammatical Spanish. I want to shout at Cuban ministers. And when I did, they better refer to me as "Senator". It would make me the happiest boy in the world.
And Dick Cheney needs to shut the fuck up.

A Difficult Decision

Public support for the Afghan war is apparently slipping. The previous months have seen the highest fatalities of the entire occupation (44 killed in July), and according to the Washington Post, 51 percent of people polled said the war was not worth fighting.

Now, I am about to defend the continuation of a war?

I never (never) thought I'd say this, but-- yes.

I cannot imagine a more selfish and morally bankrupt response to a resurgent Taliban than to pull out from the country completely and leave a shattered nation to be re-controlled by a radical and repressive "regime". Maybe a quick timeline will put it into perspective:

1980's: Soviet invasion and occupation of Afghanistan. US funnels money and guns to Mujaheddin through the Pakistanis to fight a proxy war. Soviets eventually withdraw.
1990's: Warlords run the country. No central government of note.
1994: Taliban movement born from a disgust of warlords and lawlessness. Quickly gains popularity.
2001: 9/11.
2000's: US invades Afghanistan because Taliban shelter Osama bin Laden. US topples Taliban regime quickly and effectively with the help and support of local warlords (also known as "the Northern Alliance"). Taliban flee to Pakistan and mountainous border area (with the help of Pakistani intelligence-- but that's a whole other story). US also supports Hamid Karzai, Pashtun leader, and new government. Government never able to provide needed security due to debt and little income and corruption (and a US distracted with Iraq war).
2008-9: Taliban reemerging, again, in a lawless time. Who knows what will happen...

If we left Afghanistan on its own, the Taliban will take over the country-again- foster militant Islam- again- institute repressive measures against women- again- and harbor and protect Al Qaeda- again (if they are willing to leave cushy Pakistan).

You've heard it before, and I totally believe it: If you break it, you buy it. Or here, if you invade and destroy an already destroyed nation, it is your duty as a civilized nation to help the shattered nation rebuild. We cannot just leave. We need to stay. We need to help the Afghans create a viable nation with the ability to sustain a vibrant and multi-ethnic population. It is important to remember: these are real people trying to support their families. This is not just a region on a map. There are people there. And they don't have a choice to get up and move or get up and "get a job". They need help. They need help that is beyond the capabilities of the current government. They need our help. And since we went there and bombed their villages (not on purpose, of course, but there were so many civilians killed in pursuit of the Taliban and Al Qaeda that it is worth noting), it is our duty to stay-- and to help.

So perhaps more soldiers isn't the solution. The solution, in my opinion, is more engineers. Stop the Taliban not by killing individual members. Stop them by building a happy populace. Stop them by building schools and roads. Because, the moment that a Taliban cell destroys a newly built school for girls, they will be vilified by the population, and then the American's won't have to kick the Taliban out. The Afghans will gladly do it.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Khan You Believe It?
Mr. Abdul Qadeer Khan, the Pakistani nuclear scientist who admitted to selling nuclear secrets to various nations, has just had the restrictions placed on his travels removed by a Pakistani court. With the restrictions, he felt, quote, "like a prisoner."


How do you react to a story like this? A man who admits to selling nuclear technologies to Libya, North Korea, and Iran is basically slapped on the wrist because of his national standing (he is seen as the father of Pakistan's nuclear capabilites), and placed under a token "house arrest" only to have those restrictions later removed. He is now allowed to do, basically, whatever he pleases.

This is not simply a snub to the U.S. and really the whole international community, this is nearly an act of unprecedented provocation. My mind refuses to see this as a simple human rights issue. There has to be something more to the story.

Let's break down the possible "behind-the-scenes" scenarios:
1. The "Gentleman's Agreement" Scenario: The Pakistanis agreed to "release" him, as long as he reports his future movements to the government. His cell phone and internet are monitored or restricted, and he is not allowed to go to his office and play with his toys.

2. The "Fuck Off" Scenario: He is released to scare the bejesus out of India and the US and the whole planet, apparently to show that Pakistan means business. However, Pakistan has a history of shooting itself in the foot, so to speak (read: The Taliban).

3. The "You're Coming Down With Us" Scenario: Pakistan is (and has been for some years) on the brink of collapse, whether from the threat of radical Islamist factions, an Indian/Pakistani war, a repressive military, a scheming intelligence service, or straight up economic collapse. One way to save themselves is to shake up the global power balance. What better way to do that than willingly spread nuclear weaponry like candy to schoolchildren! Suddenly, the few who have nukes are not so special and now have to deal eye-to-eye with newly emergent nuclear powers. Consequently, everything changes.

4. The "U.S. and Them" Scenario: The US agreed to allow Mr. Khan to be released, as long as they can monitor his every move. The US would only be too obliged to act (whatever that means) should Khan even make eye contact with a North Korean.

5. The "We're That Crazy" Scenario: Mr. Khan is a national hero and deserves his freedom of movement. No strings attached.

6. The "Double Agent" Scenario: Khan was "persuaded" to be an agent for ISI and/or CIA. They "free" him and wait for some unsuspecting nation or group to take the bait and approach him. A meeting is held, the G-Men jump out from behind the bushes, and another hopeful nuclear power is thwarted. The national hero now gets a statue cast in Karachi.

7. The "Osama Did It, Why Can't I?" Scenario: Khan is released, only to go off the radar a short time later. He disappears into Pakistan and is never heard from again. Stories planted that he was sighted in Somalia and Sudan.

Let's see what plays out. Although I'm sure we'll hear nothing from him ever again.

Real Men of Genius

After thinking about my last post on Adlai Stevenson, I got to thinking about who's portrait will hang in my aged-oak study.

Those of you long time readers of "In Pursuit of Sanity" will remember my fantasy study: It's a high ceilinged room smelling of cracked mahogany and wood stain. The walls are covered in floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, organized according to subject [not author]. Between the shelves, there are portraits hanging of various historical figures [to be discussed] and as a centerpiece is my beloved gun rack, filled with historical firearms. I regally sit, left leg over right knee, in my green overstuffed leather chair with brass studs, gently stroking the head of my overweight and asthmatic English bulldog, Xanthippus.
[One of my favorite stories from antiquity is the tale {tail?} of Xanthippus's dog. Check out the full story here:]

Dressed in a smoking jacket and sporting a finely trimmed snow-white beard, I sip the finest tawny port from 18th century blown glass and entertain my numerous guests with uproarious stories of my debaucherous youthful exploits.

(Side note: Dalida's "Besame Mucho" just came on the radio and made me laugh out loud.)

So, who has the honor of hopefully gracing my imaginary walls in my fantasy study sometime in the possible future?

1. Marquis Lafayette- The Frenchman turned honorary American, Lafayette was the very definition of chivalry. Born into the aristocracy and a sizable fortune, he left France at the naive age of 19 to fight for the fledgling American republic, and subsequently earned the trust and admiration of our founding fathers. Besides being instrumental in winning French support for the American Revolution (without which, victory would have been impossible), Lafayette was a committed abolitionist (it wasn't trendy at that time), moderate during the French Revolution (a near suicidal political orientation), and opposed to the absolute rule of Napoleon Bonaparte (who, interestingly, sprung Lafayette from an Austrian prison in 1799).

The story goes that General Pershing's aide, Colonel Stanton, exclaimed upon visiting Lafayette's grave in 1917, "Lafayette, we are here!" When I had the honor of visiting his grave at the Cimiterie Picpus in Paris, I brought a bag of sand from Omaha Beach in Normandy with me and sprinkled a handful of the sand on his tombstone. I think he would have appreciated that too.

2. Ernest Hemingway- Writer. Amateur bull fighter. Correspondent in World War II. Married four times. General bad ass.

3. Robert Capa- Photographer. Lived the bon vivant life that I crave. Capa was the epitome of greasy charm and could befriend anybody he met. He photographed the Spanish Civil War, landed at Normandy in 1944, and rolled through Paris during the liberation, only to die violently when stepping on a landmine in Vietnam.

4. Gandhi- To tell his story in a paragraph seems like hubris. Let's just say that he is the closest person, in my reading, who's words and actions approached true altruism. For that fact alone (and oh yeah, he led an entire nation to freedom without lifting a finger in violence, by the way), he earns his place on the wall.

That's just the south wall.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Until Hell Freezes Over

My most recent historical idol is Adlai Stevenson, former presidential candidate, governor of Illinois, and US Ambassador to the UN. Known for his inimitable wit and down-home disposition, Stevenson was the kind of politician I have always craved to see: honest, compassionate, intellectual, and not afraid to lose votes over certain issues. (The latter usually excludes these people from getting elected.)

One of my favorite stories about Stevenson is that when he was campaigning for the presidency, an enthusiastic supporter came up to him and said that he would "get the vote of every thinking man."
Stevenson, right on target, replied, "Thank you, but I need a majority to win."


Here is a clip from the movie Thirteen Days, where we see Stevenson go into the UN and basically diplomatically bitch-slap Soviet Ambassador Zorin over the Cuban Missle Crisis.

He has earned his place in my future portrait gallery in my fantasy-study, right next to Lafayette, Hemingway, and Rick Reed.

Historical sidenote: Within a few days of Stevenson's sudden death in 1965, Zorin called his office to express his personal condolences.

ps. His genius and humility is expressed best, I feel, in the following quote:
"I think that one of our most important tasks is to convince others that there's nothing to fear in difference; that difference, in fact, is one of the healthiest and most invigorating of human characteristics without which life would become meaningless. Here lies the power of the liberal way: not in making the whole world Unitarian [Universalist], but in helping ourselves and others to see some of the possibilities inherent in viewpoints other than one's own; in encouraging the free interchange of ideas; in welcoming fresh approaches to the problems of life; in urging the fullest, most vigorous use of critical self-examination."

Original Hate

While sitting on the subway, a mother and son pair entered and sat across from me. The mother was kind of non-descript, but the 13ish year old son was a walking cliché: greasy hair, pale complexion, glasses, metallic braces brackets parting his thin lips, white button up shirt that is one size too big, black pants that are one size too short, and black Velcro shoes. He was, in a word, a nerd. In case you needed some more justification to invert this kid over a toilet, call him a “goober”, and steal his lunch money-- he was reading The Financial Times. Hold that thought.

While I was rudely staring at this kid, a threesome of 20 somethings entered the subway and sat down around me. They were vivacious youths, and quite chatty. They sort of held their own conversation, bringing me into it in that sort of “we’re speaking loud enough for everybody to hear and hopefully realize how cool we are, and we are also going to include that quiet guy sitting next to us because he seems nice enough not to tell us to fuck off and spineless enough to let us kind of pester him thereby indeed further proving again how cool we are” kind of way.

The bomb was dropped when the young guy sitting to my left said to his friend, but obviously including me in the aside, in hushed whispers “I wonder what it’s like to sit next to those Jews.” He was referring to the nerd boy and his mother.

I sort of looked at him and said nothing. The conversation stopped. He said “I’m part Jewish, so I can say that.” I said “so am I.” Nothing more was said. The girl changed the subject after an awkward pause.

I don't even know what that remark even meant, but when I got home that night I grabbed my notepad and wrote the following:
“…It made me lose hope in the future of humanity. One needs to live in a specific place and receive a specific education just to learn tolerance and respect. 98% [of people] never receive that. So many carry an Original Hatred that I can’t foresee being extinguished.”

I don’t entirely disagree with that thought reading it again now. But, to put a somewhat positivist (or maybe simply an idealist or realistic) spin on it: maybe the great majority of people on the planet are not born with Original Hatred (what I would define as the “hatred of the other”, while having little to zero knowledge of the other, but possessing the hatred purely because comes naturally), but learn Original Hatred, or are passed on an Original Hatred by their parents and communities.

In that case, hatred or xenophobia isn’t inherent, it’s learned.

What do you think? Is hatred towards others inherent in humans and tolerance must be taught, or is hatred learned? Either way, tolerance (a word and phrase I hate, as it denotes almost reluctant acquiescence rather than active appreciation and acceptance of differences, but use the word because I can’t think of a better one) must be taught. That kind of sucks. It would be great if that was not the case. Perhaps this is the goal of “education” in its broadest sense. I like to think so.

Friday, August 7, 2009

"To Die Dreaming"

My current obsession, as far as non-alcoholic drinks goes:

Morir Soñado-

Served in a high ball glass
1/2 Orange Juice
1/2 Milk
teaspoon sugar
teaspoon of vanilla extract

Make sure there is a little more OJ than milk. Pour over ice. Shake it up. Serve ice cold.

This is a Dominican drink that my good friend Miguel the Dishwasher made for me one day, and I haven't been the same since. The combination of OJ and milk is vomit inducing to the untrained palette. But, try it and you'll soon realize the genius of those curveball Dominicans. It's refreshing, complex, and absolutely divine. Now, Miguel tried explaining to me how to make it, but my MS is laughable compared to his. Get a real Dominican to make it and you can't go wrong.

*Note: This would be killer with some rum added. But too many of those and you'll be spending mucho tiempo en el baño, y no mas soñado.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Fakes on a Train

Last week, I sat down on the hard blue plastic bench (which must have been designed for fetal midgets, because the "natural curve" of the backrest couldn't fall on a more uncomfortable spot on my back godammit) on the 2 train heading back to Brooklyn. I had just gotten out of the gym (the Old Man Ass was in full bloom that day [see previous post] and he was wearing what appeared to the untrained eye to be a Saggy-Balls-Bra. That will be a future post for sure). I have gone through this routine a couple times a week recently and really thought nothing of it. However, this time was different.

When I sat down, the guy next to me got up and changed seats.

Holy Social Ostracism, can you imagine more of an insult! The nerve! The gall! The cajones!

I did a quick sniff. All clear. My baggage was maybe a little excessive-man bag and gym bag- but nothing out of the ordinary. Why the hell did he move away from me? I wasn't mumbling to myself or picking my nose (consciously). In fact, I had my iPod buds in my ear and was freshly showered! I smelled like Aloe Vera body wash for christsake!

That's when I realized: he was being "courteous". Now, I'm not the first guy to dwell on the oddities of Subway Manners, but this one always kills me: never sitting directly next to somebody if there is an open seat elsewhere. Now, this situation only presents itself when a what was once fully crowded train suddenly disgorges its occupants, leaving a stalwart few behind who, by divine Providence, are now sitting next to each other on a now empty train. Subway Ethics demand that one of the occupants move a seat over. Who is to move is not dictated, it is just sort of "felt" (Have you ever heard of "spirit reading?" It was used in high school whenever we were reading a story out loud. Instead of the teacher picking somebody to read [I was fantastically inept at reading aloud- unless I did it in an accent. Don't think too long about that one], somebody would feel the "spirit" and just start reading. They could stop whenever they liked and then the next person possessed of the spirit would start where they left off. Long and awkward pauses were inevitable, but the teacher sat there at their desk grinning like an idiot whenever this happened. [Take note Mr. Obama: this is what happens when you let Hippies in the classroom.] I would start freaking out during these pauses and usually audibly roll my eyes and start reluctantly reading in a passable Scottish accent).

So this guy moving away from me was mannered. But I hated it. I took it personally.

There are times when I am in the "sitting next to each other on an empty train" and I refuse to move. I am perfectly comfortable sitting next to another human being (as long as they're not really ugly). I will sit there and try to pretend that I don't notice that we are sitting next to each other. I swear to God, I am not moving. I am so fucking comfortable right now.

What would happen if I did this while sitting next to Samuel L Jackson? Oh man, he'd get up quickly, turn dramatically counterclockwise, and stare directly into the camera (shot from my perspective) and declare:
"We have got to get these mothafucking fakes off this mothafucking train!"

I would excitedly clap uncoordinated high-pitched claps and start simultaneously screaming and crying like a 13 year old girl at a Beatles concert circa 1964.

What Dreams May Come?

Last night I had one of my reoccurring dreams: Waking up (while I am still asleep) and panicking about which class I am going to be late for.

Not exactly the most manly of dreams, I know, and I haven't had this one in a long time. I imagine my not-too-far-away departure for grad school has me on academic edge. Usually, the dream goes something like this:
"*GASP* It's 10:30 and I have no idea what my class schedule is for Tuesday/Thursday! I'm fucked." Then my mind races trying to remember if it's Math class or History class, and what part of the (fictitious) building it is in, and if I had a test that day. Finally, after flirting with cardiac arrest, the dream concludes with me realizing that I am, indeed, no longer in school and haven't been in school for a few years. I have no class schedule. In fact, I have no classes. Tuesdays and Thursdays are like all other days. I am an idiot.

But then I got to thinking. What is the equivalent dream for, oh, let's say- a Neanderthal? Did they have the "naked in the middle of school" dream? Well, considering that they were a loin cloth away from a birthday suit, I doubt it. What about the "my teeth are falling out!" dream? Eh, I doubt Cro-Magnon man was known for his superior dentistry. Zombie dreams? Nope. George Romero was still 11,000 years away.

Did ancient man dream? If so, what about?

Probably lots of sex.
I suppose some things never change.

But most other things that we dream about, they lived! Except maybe the zombies-- but gaps in the fossil record may prove otherwise.

Here's a theory for you: Maybe our (when I say "our", I mean Western, comfortable, high living standard people--whatever that means) lives have become so danger-less and, dare I say, boring, that dreams are our biological way of keeping our minds ready for action. They are Nature's equivalent to the military's war games.

Hell, let's face it: I'll never do battle with Six Legged Hell Toads bent on global domination. But my body and mind should be biologically ready for the inevitable invasion. Dreams prepare me. They keep my numb mind active, because if I can't do physical battle, my brain might as well fake it-- just in case.

An interesting experiment might be to track the content of dreams (as best and as accurately as they can be remembered) across different cultures and levels of "civilization". Do those of us who live less danger filled lives have more violent dreams to compensate? Are the natives of the jungles of Papua New Guinea spending their nights dreaming about things like dancing penguins, pretty flowers, and carefree marathon orgies?

Just a thought.