Sunday, October 31, 2010


In an age of politicians who practice witchcraft (not that I'm judging), seek homoerotic liaisons (still not judging) in public bathrooms (OK, judging a bit now), and wear Nazi uniforms (definitely judging), it is hard to imagine any epithet, any distasteful revelation, or any slung mud that could stick to a candidate, tarnishing his or her image so severely as to make that candidate unelectable. If a politician's bad behavior, extreme ideas, or inarticulate rambling don't turn away the great voting public, what will?

Actually, there is one weapon in the arsenal of thoughtful moderates that can still find its mark, wounding or even killing a candidate's chance of reaching office. And what, you ask, is this silver bullet, this wooden stake?

Clever Satire
Satire. Satire has a long, successful history in American politics, from the colonial period right up through today. It is considered so fundamental to political discourse that there is a carve-out in the copyright laws specifically permitting the use of copyrighted materials for satirical purposes. Americans seem to respond to satire in a way they don't respond to simple recitations of fact. The evidence is fresh: surely no radio ads, no newspaper editorials, no televised debates played as significant a role in the deterioration of the 2008 McCain/Palin ticket than Tina Fey's razor's edge satire of the inarticulate yet perky vice presidential hopeful.

Still, there are those on whom satire is completely lost. You know them: they're the ones who express shock and dismay that Stephen Colbert could testify in character before Congress on the issue of immigration. They're the ones who find offense, rather than humor, in poking fun at the foibles of one group or another. They're the ones who are sure this country is going straight to hell in a handbasket, and are dumbfounded that the rest of us don't share their righteous outrage.

These people—the humor-challenged, the extremists, the narrow-minded—are, in fact, so blind to satire that they eventually become self-parodies. Tina Fey has said that she used Sarah Palin's own words to skewer her. Dick Cheney's Voldemort impression, straight out of Evil Overlord central casting, is clearly not an act. And Glen Beck... well, really, is there any figure in America today more self-satirical than Beck? His transparent racism, his manufactured tears, his blatant historical revisionism—surely he can't be serious... can he?

In contrast, consider New York politician Anthony Wiener. Wiener, a personal friend of master satirist Jon Stewart and prime satirical target Bill Clinton, has a well developed sense of humor, and knows how to deploy it in support of his cause. No matter what your politics, it is easy to appreciate Wiener's sharp wit; and when you do, you (consciously or otherwise) become more open to Wiener's argument.

Self Satire
Not everyone gets the joke. The Tea Party is perhaps the largest collection of self-satirical characters the country has ever seen. There is no point of view so off the charts, so wildly inappropriate, that some Teabagger is unwilling to advocate for it. Obama is a socialist? Certainly. Obama is a Kenyan? Sure. Obama is a Nazi? Why, yes, he's exactly like Hitler. As the rest of us look on in increasing dismay, the Teabaggers caricature every extremist position in American politics, and proceed to nominate and, soon, apparently, actually elect politicians who share their paranoid delusions.

Beware, then, the parody-immune, the satire-impermeable. They are destined to become more and more like the caricatures the rest of us find so entertaining—that is, until they turn out to be real.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Ki ai *

I've been a student of kempo karate, also known as Shaolin chuan fa,for 9 years. It's unusual for somebody to start in the martial arts in their late 30s, perhaps, but I'm not lonely—in the dojo in which I train, there are several students in their 40s and older (though nearly all of them have trained longer and hold higher ranks than I).

I've probably reached the highest level I will ever attain in the system, but I'm not ruling anything out. Hell, even the progress I've made to date is far beyond that which anybody who knows me (including me) would ever have predicted. Who knows: even as my fifth decade on this planet draws to an end, maybe there is one more rank left in me. But, regardless of whether or not I ever earn another official stripe, I am improving, ever so slightly, with every lesson, every new technique, every sparring match.

One of the most emotionally complex experiences I've had since beginning my training took place about a year ago, on my last belt test. This was an important test, a milestone, and I'd prepared for it with a vigor and focus that are, frankly, kind of unusual for me. Let's face it: I'm no athlete. Even with my extra training, and even though I'd dropped at least ten pounds in the weeks leading up to the big day, I still carried several handicaps: my weight, my asthma, and my chronically injured back, to name just a few.

As it turned out, though, the actual difficulty, when it arose, came from another area entirely.

Mr. Miyagi never made
Daniel-san do 5 hours of forms
& techniques before sparring!
As the test began, I was very confident. I knew my techniques, I knew my forms. I was ready. But I began to notice a problem, and it started early, during the first stage of the test: I was becoming dizzy. I felt weak and exhausted, in spite of my training, in spite of my comfort with the material.

I was confused. What was happening here? I'd survived, and passed, a number of six-hour tests that seemed specifically designed to make a grown man (specifically: me) cry. I normally trained for 2-4 hours at a time, and yet, here I was, barely half an hour into the program, already wondering if I was going to be able to continue. One of the Masters approached me and asked me if I was OK—apparently, I was pretty pale. (A few days after the test, my own Sensei told me that, when he had stopped by to see how I was doing, expecting to find me red in the face, he had been surprised to see instead that I was white as a sheet.)

Pale, dizzy, exhausted: what the hell was going on?

It was only months later, after another bout of similar symptoms, that I got my answer: having lost weight, my blood pressure had dropped. Because I was taking medication for hypertension, my blood pressure was now too low to support intense exercise. I stopped taking the meds and the symptoms disappeared.

During the test, though, all I knew was that I was in danger of not finishing, of failing. As the morning wore on, the vertigo and exhaustion worsened. During the final portion of the test, sparring, I performed dismally, which is to say: I got my ass kicked by a lesser fighter. Sparring requires creativity, adaptability, and explosiveness, none of which seemed to be available to me.

Nonetheless, when the sparring was over, I had made it all the way to the end of the test. And when I left the building, I carried a brand new belt with me.

An earlier test: sweaty but happy
So what did I learn? Well, first of all: training pays off. Had I been less thoroughly prepared, the symptoms would have done me in. I performed my techniques and forms instinctively; if I'd had to think about them, I simply could not have executed them.

More importantly, though, I realized that there is a reservoir of will within me, a driving energy that I can access, giving me the ability to persevere when my body is failing and my mind is crying out for surrender. It was the search for just this internal strength that had led me to martial arts in the first place. Yes, I'd struggled during tests, even during training, many times before; but I'd never faced any obstacle close to the one with which I was confronted that morning. In the end, it turned out to be this very trial that finally revealed what I'd set out to find eight years before.

*) Ki ai (pronounced "key eye") is a Japanese term that I use here to mean the outward expression of one's inner strength or energy (ki, sometimes known by its Chinese equivalent, chi). I was pleased to discover a very nice, brief article on ki ai in Wikipedia.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

How I Learned to Love Our Two-Party System

If you've been living in America at any time in the past, oh, two years or so, perhaps you share my disdain for our major political parties.  The Republicans are intolerant, lying old white men whose primary purpose in life is to protect the money they inherited from their rich grandparents, while the Democrats are incompetent, lying old white men whose primary purpose in life is to protect the unions that got them elected to office.  A pox on both their houses!

And so it was, armed with my usual cranky, jaded, anti-Establishment attitude, that I perused my recently-received November 2010 California Voter Guide.  And what did I find?  The usual suspects;  the same lame rhetoric.

But wait... what's this?  Why—these look like alternatives!  New choices!  Can it really be so?

Yes, it can.  The Voter Guide includes a section called "Political Party Statements of Purpose".  Comprising 2 full pages of the thick Guide, the PPS of P includes a couple of paragraphs provided by each of a variety of political parties.  And they make for fun reading indeed.

Take, for example, the statement of the American Independent Party.  The AIP proclaims its devotion to the 2nd and 10th Amendments;  admirable, perhaps, but with 25 other Amendments out there, I'm not sure those would have been the two I would have highlighted.

I was quite interested to learn that the AIP considers itself "the party of ordered liberty in a nation under God."  Really, you have to admire a phrase like "ordered liberty", which, if it doesn't appear in an Orwell novel, definitely ought to. The statement goes on to profess a belief in "strict adherence to written law," and looks forward to the day when we will all be "[f]reed from the lawless oppression of Liberal rule".   I'm pretty sure "lawless oppression" comes from the same dictionary as "ordered liberty".

Somewhat shaken, I turned to another statement, this one submitted by the Peace and Freedom Party.  I remember these guys from my youth—we once had a polling place at my house, in the 70s.  You know, you really want to root for a party called "Peace and Freedom".  Until, that is, you read that they plan to support the many, many, MANY social services they hope to provide by "tax[ing] the rich, whose wealth is entirely created by workers, to pay for the people’s needs."  No word on what happens when there are no rich people left:  presumably "the people" will no longer have any "needs".  The party helpfully goes on to explain their guiding philosophy:  "We advocate socialism."  I can hardly think of a political credo more likely to generate voter support this election season.

Finally, I visited with the Green Party.  With everyone going green, who knows:  maybe soon everyone will be going Green.  The Green Party is in favor of "habeas corpus, repealing mandatory sentencing, and amending the Three Strikes Law"—OK, I'm with them so far, except for my sneaking suspicion that the "habeas corpus" they're promoting is aimed at Guantanamo Bay.  Makes me wonder why they don't come right out and say so, but I'd guess it's because we would not vote for them.
It's Not Easy Being Green

The Greens also believe in "ending torture and unwarranted surveillance," an idea I could perhaps get behind with a certain number of qualifiers attached.  But then, in a startling declaration that one might imagine was inserted without their knowledge by somebody who wishes to see the Greens fall this autumn, they announce their support for "undocumented immigrants’ right to work."  Oh dear.  No matter how you feel about the poor folks who risk life and limb to come to this country, legally or illegally, it's hard to imagine a sudden groundswell of support for their "right to work".

All in all, the Political Parties Statements of Purpose is a house of political horrors appropriate to an election falling only two days after Halloween.  In fact, if I were an Establishment Republicrat politician whose goal was to design a Voter Guide, the sole purpose of which was to scare voters into sticking with the major parties, I could hardly have produced anything better.

Hey, wait a minute...

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Making Life

I had an opportunity recently to think a little about the Israeli expression לעשות חיים.  Loosely translated as “having a good time” or “enjoying oneself”, it literally means “to make life”.  It seems to me that this expression is emblematic of what separates Israel from the other countries of the Middle East.

Israelis “Making Life”
The Jewish tradition of valuing life above all else is ancient.  The original, and most famous, evidence of this norm is found in Deut. 30:19, which reads, “I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse; therefore choose life.”   This text was utterly innovative, written at a time when human sacrifice was common.

Later Jewish sages expanded on this basic concept, allowing even the violation of the Sabbath—a transgression that itself was considered a capital offense—in order to save a life.  Indeed, Sabbath restrictions could be disregarded not only to save a life, but even to provide comfort for somebody whose life was in jeopardy, such as a woman in labor (BT Shabbat 129a).

What is truly amazing is the value that Jews continued to place on life, even after centuries of oppression, expulsion, and slaughter.  One might easily imagine a desire for revenge, born of righteous outrage, would ignite the passions of those who had suffered generation after generation of injustice.  After all, the very same book that tells us to “choose life” also instructs “Justice! You shall pursue justice.” (Deut. 16:20)

Interestingly (to me, at least), the injunctions to choose life and to pursue justice are each followed by the qualifying phrase “that you may live.”  Jewish tradition links the two concepts, tying them both to the idea that the ultimate goal is the continuity of life.  Even justice, which sometimes may appear to demand the death of another, can only be achieved if it is pursued with the ultimate goal of cherishing and preserving life.

In contrast, Israel's enemies exalt death.  Hamas educates its children to die for the cause.  Iran used children to clear minefields, wrapping them in blankets so the explosions wouldn't scatter their body parts.  And all over the Arab world, the “shahid”—“martyr”—who dies while taking the lives of Jews, is celebrated and adored.

After September 11th, many of us asked how we can defeat an opponent so corrupted that he eagerly plans to die for his cause, an opponent so brainwashed that he believes that the life that awaits him after his act of murder is many times better than that which he surrenders as a result.  We choose to live:  can we possibly overcome a foe who chooses to die?

Research in Israel: Targeting Cancer
Every day, nobody faces this question more directly than Israel.  They send their sons and daughters into battle;  they are attacked by missiles and threatened by tyrants.  And yet, each day Israelis “make life”—they create art, embrace freedom, and pursue economic success.  They engage in ground-breaking research, and hold themselves to the highest ethical principles.  This is their answer to those who choose death: we will live.  We will stop you if we can, and sacrifice if we must, but we will live, and as a result, we will still be here long after you and your barbaric allies have passed into history.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Dude, Where's My Tax Revenue?

It can be embarrassing to live in California.  We have a reputation as uncultured airheads living in a haze of smog within huge, sprawling megalopoli, waiting for the next earthquake, landslide, or fire to lend interest to our otherwise mundane existence.  Adding to our shame, we recently decided to deny the basic human right of marriage to about 10% of our population because, well, somebody on TV said it would hurt our children if we didn't (gee, maybe that “airhead” thing isn't that far off base).

Can this plant save California?
On the other hand, there are moments when I am genuinely proud to live here.  I fully expect one of these moments to arrive in November, as voters (yes, the same crowd that defeated same-sex marriage) finally legalize marijuana by passing ballot initiative Proposition 19.  Pot will remain illegal under Federal law, but it's an open question whether the Feds will choose to put any effort into enforcement under such circumstances.

Legalizing pot is the right thing to do, both socially and fiscally.  In pure dollars and cents, legalization is likely to create a substantial new source of much-needed revenue for the state.  At a time when teachers are being furloughed and the neediest citizens are being denied essential services, these funds have never been more critical.

In addition, Prop 19 will eliminate the expense of prosecuting and incarcerating non-violent individuals whose only crime is the possession of a substance that grows freely in the ground beneath our feet.  Think there are no savings there?  Think again:
According to the American Corrections Association, the average daily cost per state prison inmate per day in the US is $67.55. State prisons held 253,300 inmates for drug offenses in 2007. That means states spent approximately $17,110,415 per day to imprison drug offenders, or $6,245,301,475 per year.
— from
License and registration please
And this brings us to the social benefits of legalization.  It is already far too easy for the government to take away our freedom, for any reason it sees fit.  The Miranda protections are undergoing a long, painful emasculation at the hands of a right-wing, activist Supreme Court, while the police are empowered stop you pretty much any time they like, even if it's only because you aren't wearing a seat belt.

A society that so little values the freedom of its members is not one likely to endure, at least, not in a form any of us would find familiar or desirable.  I'm looking forward to striking a small blow for individual liberty by voting "Yes" on Prop 19 in November.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Shifting Gears

It has been a week of late arrivals and late departures,  changed plans and reworked strategies--in other words:  a giant, unrelenting pain in the ass.

I was thinking about writing a post entitled Am I in Hell, or is this just another airport?, and probably one day soon I will.  But as the nature of my trip has morphed from business to pleasure, my attitude about the whole thing has been refreshed as well.

Writer's Nirvana
At the moment, I'm sitting outside in Northern New Jersey on one of the most beautiful days I can remember.  There's a strong, cool breeze, but the sky is clear and the sun still has enough strength left, even in early October, to keep me warm inside my windbreaker and jeans.  I will be going out soon with my hosts, two of my oldest friends in the world; but this moment I have to myself.

Leaving home, even on a short trip, is something I no longer handle gracefully.  There was a time, a mere decade ago, when I spent three nights or more of every week in Chicago or New York.  I worked this way for about a year, and honestly, I enjoyed it.  It wasn't only about the restaurant dining and the nice hotels:  being away gave me the opportunity to reach the end of a long work day without facing new demands on my energy and attention at home.

The reason that arrangement was successful for me is that I do not easily shift gears from one condition to another.  My internal state machine has rusty gears.  If I am in work mode, I need some time to move back into daddy mode.  If I'm in daddy mode, I do not slide easily into writer mode.  And so forth.

OK, not quite THIS big
Jackie is different.  She can come home from work, walk in the door, drop her giant über-purse on the counter and start sorting through the mail, or helping the kids with their homework, all without missing a beat.  I have no idea how that works.  She finds it equally hard to understand why I can't just look up from a story I'm working on, answer a question about how to do something on the Mac, and then jump right back into writing.

So I'm grateful to Jackie, our kids, my friends Andy and Sarah, and their kids, for managing to find room in their lives to give me this extra day of transition between my insane, annoying week of travel and my return to my normal day to day existence.

Sunday, October 3, 2010


If you look to the right of this post—no, just a bit lower—you'll see a few of my most recent tweets.  In case you happen to be Osama bin Laden (rumored to be an avid reader of mine) and have therefore been living in a cave for the past decade, I will explain that a “tweet” is a short message posted via Twitter.  If you're still not sure what I'm talking about, well... here's hoping my next post will be of more interest to you.

As a short-form writer, Twitter holds a certain appeal for me.  I believe there is beauty in brevity.  I enjoy the challenge of being witty, or relevant, or at least not boring, in 140 characters or less.  For my wife, though, Twitter represents all that is good and right and fun about the Internet.  She tosses clever bon mots back and forth with other Twitterers all over the world.  She turns to Twitter for updates on developing news stories.  And she is active on Foursquare, a Twitter-related service whose main purpose, as I understand it, is to alert criminals as to your exact location.

But, when it comes to actual human communication, it turns out that you can't really delve into a topic with any subtlety or nuance using less characters than are contained in this sentence.  And so Twitter at its worst (and it is often at its worst) is a forum for slogans and sound bites.  In other words, tweets are the bumper stickers on the information superhighway.

To illustrate this problem, I've decided to render some famous quotes here as tweets.  See if you think they are more or less effective than the original:
87 yrs ago, our 4fathers created this nation concvd in liberty, dedicated to prop that all men are created =. 
Yestrday, 12/7/41, day that will live N infamy, Japan attacked Pearl Harb. Many lives lost. Now we're at war.
N beginning, God created hvn, earth. Then plants, birds, fish, mammals, reptiles, 2ppl (Adam&Eve). Etc.
I can't help but feel something has been lost in the translation.

And so, while I plan to continue to enjoy Twitter (if only to keep track of where my wife is at any given moment), I'm pleased to have the opportunity, through this blog, to explore my topics in slightly more depth.

Still, let's give Twitter the final word here.  Because, as it turns out, some of the greatest utterances in history work just fine as a tweet:
Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.
 Beauty in brevity?  Absolutely.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Don't let the door hit you on the way out, Rick

Why, thank you, Rick Sanchez, for sacrificing your career for the sake of helping me make my point.

One of the most boring and irrelevant talking heads on CNN, Sanchez finally had something interesting to say.  Unfortunately for him, it was this:
Everybody that runs CNN is a lot like Stewart. And a lot of people who run all the other networks are a lot like Stewart. And to imply that somehow they — the people in this country who are Jewish — are an oppressed minority? Yeah.
Yet another minority oppressed
by the International Jewish Conspiracy 
Sanchez was presumably pissed off that Stewart had referred to him as a "lightweight"—hardly  controversial for anybody who has seen Sanchez' Twitter-based "news" show.  Yes, that's right:  the Sanchez program consisted mainly of light topical tete a tete, followed by the tweeted reactions from his viewers.  This is what makes CNN such an important American institution:  where else are you offered a stream of unedited opinions from people with nothing better to do in the middle of the day than watch TV and tweet?

As a side note, there is real irony in the casting of Stewart as avatar for the entire Jewish people.  Really?  Jon Stewart?  The same Jon Stewart who changed his last name from Liebowitz, who married a non-Jewish woman, and who regularly trashes Israel on his TV show—the one from which he takes many, many, MANY days off, but not Yom Kippur?  THAT Jon Stewart?
Oops, did I say that out loud?

Well, never mind that.  To the anti-Semite, we all look alike.

Nobody coaxed, or tricked, or cajoled Sanchez into saying what he said.  The same goes for other recent paragons of bigotry such as Helen Thomas and Mel Gibson.  In truth, they couldn't wait to say it.  Gibson was drunk—in vino veritas—Thomas was asked a simple question about Israel, and Sanchez was simply reminded that Stewart is Jewish.  Their beliefs lie just below the surface, and what's more, they see nothing wrong with them.  No doubt the career-ending opprobrium that followed was a complete surprise:  "...but, all my friends feel the same way!"

What is the real lesson here?  Simply this: anti-Semitism is returning to the mainstream.  The anti-Semitic disease, underground for over half a century, has mutated, adapting to the post-Holocaust era by posing first as Israel-basher, then as anti-Zionist, before finally exploding into a malignant and virulent strain of pure anti-Semitism.