Sunday, July 17, 2011

Check out this video of the Guess Who performing their hit "American Woman". This seems to be from their later years, and it just doesn't seem very rock and roll to me. I mean, it sort of looks like a bunch of your high school teachers got on stage for the annual talent show. The chemistry prof is on drums, the gym teacher is playing an impressive guitar, and your English teacher can sing better than you imagined, but still looks like an idiot and he obviously overdressed for the occasion. Trying to stay hip, he broke out his Saturday Night Fever polyester suit and trimmed his mustache to perfection. Yet, he still looks like he's trying too hard. Poor guy.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

A Call for Confrontation

I'm quite tired with politics. That's not a grand revelation, nor is it a terribly controversial declaration. But therein lies the rub: I'd say that most people hate politics, or at least have a distrust of the political process and the motive
s of politicians. The empty phrases and promises, the backdoor dealings and backstabbing, the egos, and the lies and the misrepresentations. It's an old story.
I'd like to see more confrontation in politics. More of "my word against yours-- and here's why". More "let's look at the facts"-- and a citation of the sources of those facts. More of a presentation of ideas in a clear, transparent, and precise manner-- rather than a catchy sound bite. Call it an "academia" approach to politics. In fact, academia should be used as the model for the presentation of political ideas and arguments. Academics must cite their sources openly, present their arguments clearly, and try to persuade the aca
demic community of their argument's merit, all while disproving previous arguments and contrary contemporary arguments. Officially, attacks on a contemporary collegue's character is unheard of in academia.

Imagine, Candidate A gets up with a pie chart. "Here's how we currently spend money at the United States government:"

"I don't like this. I propose cutting the Department of Defense by 10% and welfare by 5%, and adding that money to Medicare so that we can expand the number of people with health insurance. Here's why I think that's a great idea..."

Here's a good example of what I'm talking about: Here is a clip of Senator Al Franken destroying a Focus on the Family witness's testimony during a congressional hearing. He does this by actually reading a study cited by the witness, and exposes that the witness completely misrepresented the study's findings, probably in the hope that nobody would actually call him out on it. Unfortunately for the witness, Franken does.

That's what it should be like. Less posturing, less anti-intellectualism, less rewards for bullshiting, less laziness, less image over content, less slick guy or girl with nice hair standing at a podium trying to tease out that warm fuzzy feeling you get when you hear a vague but still kinda feels good and American kind of quote. More intelligent, fact-driven, research-oriented, transparent, and willing to confront bullshit kind of politicians.

A boy can dream.

AWK: A Worthy King or A Wealthy Kleptocrat?

Ahmed Wali Karzai, half-brother of Hamid Karzai, was killed yesterday in Kandahar. In sum, AWK basically ruled southern Afghanistan as his personal fiefdom, has long been suspected of profiting from the drug trade, and has been both a nuisance to the US due to his reputation for corruption and a boon to the US due to his usefulness as a source of information (he was on the CIA's payroll).

Several points bother me. From the article:

--Mr. Karzai was shot to death by a police official, Sardar Muhammad, a longtime confidant, who was immediately killed by Mr. Karzai’s bodyguards, Afghan officials said. Mr. Muhammad’s body was later hung above a busy Kandahar street. His motives were not known; the Taliban claimed responsibility for the killing, but there was no evidence that Mr. Muhammad, a member of the Karzais’ Populzai tribe, had ties to the insurgency.--

A police official and longtime confidant, Sardar Muhammad, killed him. Mr. Muhammad was a member of Karzai's tribe. The Karzai's are in power. Why the hell would the Taliban claim responsibility? I'm thinking they're just fucking with us. With Mr. Muhammad dead, there is no way to prove or disprove that he was sympathetic to the Taliban-- and that's the Taliban's opening. Their strategy must be "Why not? Let's just say he was with us. We'll claim responsibility, people will think we scored a huge success, and the US will have to come to the negotiation table from a reduced position of power. Booyah bitches!"

Basically, it can't hurt to lie when nobody knows the truth.

Further in the article:
--One American official on Tuesday lamented the “huge power vacuum” left by the assassination. “Do we care more about security and fighting the Taliban, or about drugs and corruption?” said the official, who would discuss the internal debate only on the condition of anonymity. “I think that most people would agree that taking on the Taliban is our top priority, and Ahmed Wali Karzai helped us with that.”--

I fail to see the distinction. Security and fighting the Taliban are Promethean pursuits unless a viable alternative is offered to the Afghan people, such as a functioning Afghan state. Kill and kill and kill Taliban, but if there's no other option, what good is killing Taliban going to do? Are you going to kill them out of existence? Impossible. As long as there is corruption (often motivated by drug money), and the state lacks legitimacy, there will always be a Taliban. In fact, the "Taliban" are not a united organization, like they were before the US invasion in 2001. Now, it's more of a catch-all term for religious zealots who kill Afghan officials and don't like to play with intelligent girls. Therefore, there will always be a "Taliban". There will always be "terrorists". As long as there is no functioning Afghan state (there is progress, to be sure), there will always be the Taliban, because anybody can call themselves Taliban if they resist the government. And as long as the government sucks, the "Taliban" have a smidgen of legitimacy.

In conclusion, instead of deciding that seeking security and fighting the Taliban are more important than combating drugs and corruption (and presenting that conclusion as self-evident), why not ask who was and is the source of the overall problem of lack of governance in Afghanistan: the Taliban or AWK? The answer is: both. Address that problem.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Cerveza Con Mi Primo

For reasons that I can't really professionally go in to, I had to be at the restaurant last night at around midnight. Now, our restaurant closes around 8pm, so this is definitely after hours. The only person there at that time of night is the guy who washes the dishes and who doubles as the night time cleaner-- the very guy I became buds with last night.

I knew I had to be at the restaurant quite late, so I went out with some friends and planned on returning closer to midnight. As I was leaving to go meet up with my friends, I said to D the dishwasher that "yo voy a volver en dos horas". D, who doesn't speak a word of English, asked me if I could bring him back two beers for him and his friends later. I don't think he understood that I was going to a bar and that I can't really bring drinks back with me, but I didn't want to disappoint him, so I agreed. On my way back I stopped in a Duane Reade and bought a six pack of Corona. D and I were going to drink beer together.

And we did.

I came back with the six pack, and after struggling to open the front door, found D cleaning in the kitchen. I told him I bought some beers and asked him if he wanted a few now? His face lit up and we went back to the dining area.

D and I parked ourselves at a table and got to chatting. Maybe it was the beer, or maybe it was the fact that I was there so late when nobody is usually there, but he shared a lot of interesting stuff with me that I never would have known before. I am going to record it here, because it is a story that with some minor variations holds true for most of "los primos".

D has been with us for a little under a year. He is of average height, quite tubby, clean shaven, and speaks Spanish very clearly and without much use of slang. He is a big fan of asking "como estamos?" which directly translates to "how are we?", which is a kind of funny and informal way of putting it. None of the other guys use the phrase.

D is from Puebla, a mostly poverty-stricken state just east of Mexico City. Prior to coming to the US, he worked "in the fields", as he put it. Picking and cutting vegetables in the scorching sun, doing back-breaking labor for little pay. He had dropped out of high school after one year, much to the disapproval of his father, who is a first grade teacher. D dropped out with his then girlfriend, now wife. They simply didn't enjoy it. Looking back now, D shakes his head at the memory of dropping out. It looks like he regrets it, but he consoles himself by saying that he was just a kid and didn't know any better.

After dropping out, he continued to work full time and soon enough he and his wife had a very pretty daughter who is 8 now, and lives with her grandparents, spending the week with one set and the weekend with the other. She lives with her grandparents now because when she was 6 years old, for reasons he didn't quite share, D and his wife decided to go to the US.

I didn't ask details about how he got here, as that is quite personal and a bit inappropriate. Needless to say, it was "difficult". But, they made it.

D has worked as a busboy for an American restaurant and bar on the Upper West Side, in a slaughterhouse in Brooklyn where he carved chickens all day while working inside of a freezer, and at our restaurant as a dishwasher and night cleaner. He has never been fired from a job. He simply leaves when he finds something that pays better.

His wife cleans houses for two different patrons, one of which, an Italian woman, is very nice to her and pays her very well.

At our restaurant, D wants to eventually become a food prep guy. He has been taking notes (actually handwriting notes) from our current prep guy, and understands that we can't switch him now, but to remember his interest "en el futuro".

D and I continued drinking beers, with my Spanish becoming more fluid with each sip. At times we struggled to find mutually intelligible definitions for words he didn't know in English and I didn't know in Spanish. We'd use progressively simpler and simpler Spanish words and phrases, until finally, when combined with appropriate hand gestures and sound effects, we would reach our Eureka moment and both of us would smile broadly and toast our small lingual victory.

He plans on going back to Mexico next year. Most of the guys say that. I tell him that another primo has been saying that for three years now. D understands. The money here is good. Things cost less. Clothing, food, and beer are cheap. Buying a few beers is not intelligent when you are living in Mexico and struggling. But here, he can buy beer whenever he wants. It's a good life. The plan is to give a good life to his daughter too. In order to do that, he saves his money (he doesn't buy beer, hence why he asked me to do it), sends some money to Mexico and keeps some here, and eventually after saving enough, he and his wife will go back, buy a truck, and start a small farm. He tells me that he needs money to buy the truck so he can bring his food to the market.

And that's all he wants. A truck, a farm, and a family. A very Jeffersonian dream, that. A very American dream. And he is earning it every day.


Thursday, July 7, 2011

Man's Best Friend

I was watching dogs today. Sitting at an outdoor cafe, I watched as pairs of dogs on leashes would "meet" each other in the street. Owners would let the dogs sniff and circle each other, give them a moment to "socialize", and then pull on the leash to signal that it was time to move on.

Some dogs liked each other. They would sniff and maybe playfully jump in the air. No barking or yapping. Just sort of scoping the other dog out. When it was time to leave, they would leave, but not without giving a parting glance.

Other pairs of dogs were fucking Satanic drenched-in-blood-and-brimstone enemies, spewing visceral growls of contempt, flashing fangs of fury, thirsty for gore, held back from mauling their nemesis into a wet pulp only by the thin rope tether connecting them to their masters. Those leashes saved doggy lives, be assured.

Maybe the same goes for people, in a kind of more "civilized" way.

I've always believed that sometimes there is an attraction between two humans that goes beyond looks, fashion, intellect, humor, and common interests. It's a primal lust, a magnetic attraction that is unexplainable and unimaginable until experienced. Let two strangers with this attraction pass on the street, and sparks will fly. It's only happened to me a handful of times. But it happens!

On the other hand, there are times when I just plainly dislike somebody from the moment I meet them. Nothing they have said offends me, nothing that they have done is disagreeable. I just don't like them-- straight off. Again, it is rare. But it has happened.

In a way, perhaps we are similar to dogs, in that respect. I don't know. It could be an evolutionary advantage to recognize immediately, without reason or thought, an attraction to some distinct other individual in a crowd. There would be no fighting, no struggle for supremacy against other males (in my case). Just a mutual, unfathomable attraction. Maybe they make good babies. Maybe they simply have great sex, which will lead to many babies, which will lead to passing on those individuals' genes. I don't know. Just a thought.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Ronkonkoma Blues

I am sitting at the Ronkonkoma train station. It is a hot day and the heat only makes the commanding silence all the more audible. Men loaf about, cracking their knuckles while leaning back on worn benches. There is nothing to do but wait. No amount of technology can make their friends arrive faster. They have to wait. Waiting is a very un-21st century thing. Then again, so are trains.

Fearless little birdies hop hop from spot to spot like playful schoolchildren. Tempting fate, they inch closer and closer to my shoe searching in cracks for crumbs. They remind me of when I was in Spain, and the birdies, "los pajaritos", were courageous enough to come right up to my plate to steal food. "Los pajaritos no tienen miedo", I said to an old couple who were also admiring the little critters. We went back to our meals. Later, the old couple got up to leave the cafe and got not more than a few strides away when the old man stuttered, turned around, and gave a smiling "Buenos tardes" to me. I returned the parting comment, and continued sipping my vermouth and nibbling on my Tortilla Espanola, smiling the whole time. I made sure to leave some tortilla for the pajaritos.

Cicadas buzz about, fighting valiantly against an invisible-- and unfelt-- breeze. A roadside weed, with brilliant little purple flowers, latchs on to some passing refuse, refusing to release the dirty plastic bag from its barbarous grip.

An old Hispanic woman sips from a Big Gulp (I didn't know that they still sell Big Gulps; I didn't think people still bought Big Gulps). The old woman is smoking a cigarette that looks longer than it actually is due to the way she holds it, pincered between her two gaunt and bony fingers-- all knuckles sheathed in a leathery thin skin. I can see the arthritis. The cigarettes are cheap, and they release a heavy dirty smoke. The smoke smells like an ashtray.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Letters and Symbols

I am currently reading David McCullough's biography of John Adams, and a few things have struck me thus far:

First, reading this book and especially the passages that McCollough quotes from Adams's letters, reminds me how much I love classical correspondence. The art of the letter is mostly lost today, as the letter has been outclassed by so many technological achievements: the email, the photograph, the recording device, the telephone, the therapist. Whenever I had to do my own research, on Lafayette for example, I always enjoyed the physical descriptions that authors often inserted in their correspondence. Phrases like "Aquiline nose" and "a sharp chin" had connotations that modern audiences can't quite appreciate. We see somebody with a sharp chin, but don't label it as such. We actually "see" the chin, whereas hearing about a chin in a letter calls much more attention to it. Viewing a photograph, we would note the chin, but not highlight it. If John Adams had to describe someone, say, myself, in a letter to Abagail, it might look something like this:
"A strange gentleman stumbled onto the streets from the City Tavern yesterday evening, dearest Abagail. His name is Matthew Reed. Travelling from Brooklyn, New York, he is tall and slender, with oriental eyes and a broad nose. Nearly always unshaven and preferring to wear his hair in the vertical style, Mr. Reed's origins are not immediately recognizable. He has an enthusiasm and curiosity for many ventures, most notably, the City Tavern. A strange fellow indeed."

The other thing that I am currently thinking about is symbols of power. The King, George III, had a crown (as is fashionable among monarchs). The crown was a symbol of power. People refer to "The Crown" as if power-- and responsibility-- resides not within a person, but within a heavy hoop of metal. The Crown provides security and comforts, but is also to be blamed for corruption and terror.

Statesman, on the whole, don't wear crowns anymore (except the Pope-- and yes, that is a criticism [and yes, I know, it's not a crown, but a Papal Tiara. Like he's a fairy princess or something]). That leaves the question, what is the modern crown? What comfortable yet intimidating symbol acts as the buffer between people and those who hold authority?

1. The podium. Whenever somebody steps up to a podium to speak, chances are they are important. If we can see camera flashes as the person approaches the podium, they are definitely important.
2. The White House. The actual building and the phrase. "The White House released a statement today..." Oh really? Did it now? "I need paint." Or, "I don't like the snipers on my roof."
3. The Brass. A military uniform. The epaulets, the service bars, the medals, the name tag, the backwards American flag on the right sleeve. Read my past post on name tags entitled "Name Tags, Legit or Shit."
4. The limousine. Executives, government officials, drunk 16 year olds. All important, depending on your perspective.
5. The American flag? Symoblic. Powerful. Feared, to a degree.

None of these quite capture the degree of seperatness and authority that something like The Crown represents. I imagine it's just another reason why democracy kicks ass.