Monday, May 29, 2006

More things that make you feel good. And thoughtful.

As I write this, it's the evening of Memorial Day, and the holiday weekend is drawing to a close. Agnes and I spent the weekend in Pittsburgh visiting my father and my brother Paul and sister Lisa and their families. We hadn't been home in a long time, and it was good to see everyone again and catch up on all the things you can't do by one has yet figured out how to do a digital hug, and even if they did, it wouldn't be the same. It was a good weekend, well worth the long drive up from Northern Virginia.

But it was Memorial Day, too...the day we are supposed to remember those who have given their lives in the service of the nation. My father served in the Army Air Corps during World War II as a combat photographer on board B-24s flying from England against occupied Europe. He survived to raise and educate a family (which includes 3 sons who are also veterans) and - in my humble opinion - did a pretty darned good job of it. Many other men who served at that time never had the chance to raise families. We owe them all a debt we can never hope to repay.

My father's war is 60 years over now. Those who fought it are fading away, and another war is now churning through another generation of young men. I can only hope that those who survive this war will do as well for their children as my father did for us.

Dan Fogelberg said it well in one of my favorite songs:

"The leader of the band is tired,
And his eyes are growing old,
But his blood runs through my instrument
And his song is in my soul.
My life has been a poor attempt
To imitate the man -
I'm just a living legacy
To the leader of the band."

To Dad, and to all those who have served this great country, one grateful child says, "Thanks."

Have a good day. Thank a veteran.


Thursday, May 25, 2006

From the Department of "How Amzaingly Crass and Stupid Can You Be?":

A photo appeared on the CNN website this morning under the headline announcing that Congress had passed legislation barring demonstrations at military funerals. The picture showed an arrogantly self-righteous man, holding an upside-down American flag and signs reading, "Thank God for IEDs" and "God is Your Enemy." At the risk of being accused of supporting infringement of our constitutionally-guaranteed freedoms of speech and assembly, I think Congress has - for once - done something useful and necessary.

I strongly support our unfettered freedom of speech, which is unique in the world. Unfortunately, as I have commented before, the constitution does not guarantee an equivalent freedom of smart. How low a form of life must one be to show signs like these at the funeral of a soldier who died in the service of his country? How stupidly arrogant must one be to intrude so crassly into a family's time of grief? I don't know who the man in the photo is, but I think he's a worthless cretin with a dark and cobweb-festooned heart and no brain.

I have written before bemoaning the loss of civility and decency in modern American culture. From our "I'm right, you're wrong, go to hell" political culture to the increasingly intolerant positions of the extreme religious right, we have poisoned our ability to exchange views in a civilized and rational manner. Sadly, I don't see the situation improving any time soon, and morons who drape themselves in inverted flags and intrude on the grief of military families are just one example of a sad, continuing trend.

Agnes and I often dine at a popular local restaurant where a prominent sign advertises, "Be nice or get out." Too bad we can't make it a national policy.

Have a good day. Be courteous to someone. You may find you like it.


Sunday, May 21, 2006

Things that make you feel old...but still good...

Yesterday evening, Agnes and I were invited to a formal Debutante Ball in honor of Erica, the daughter of our friends Rico and Mary Lou. I also had the honor of serving as the Master of Ceremonies, and so I had a vested interest in how the evening came off.

In the end, despite the best efforts of the Virginia Department of Transportation (whose weekend construction activities generated massive traffic jams that threw the setup and the entertainment schedule out the window), the Ball was a smashing success. The food was excellent, the DJ had a great mix of ballroom and more "contemporary" dance music, and the crowd was large, happy, ready to party, and forgiving of the minor glitches along the way.

I was astounded, though, by Erica. I don't see her often (hadn't, in fact, seen her for a year or two), and was shocked that I didn't even recognize her at first! The little girl I'd first met as a six-year old had suddenly turned into a poised and beautiful woman. I felt old. But I felt good, too, because when I looked at Erica and her older brother Raphael, I saw two wonderful and talented young people who have made their parents proud and who gave me hope that the generations coming up behind us aren't hopeless after all. There's nothing quite like seeing a room full of high-school age people dressed to the nines to restore your faith in the younger generation.

So Agnes and I had a great time. But more than that, in a time of inflation, war, intolerance, and political and religious demagoguery, it was great to see a racially and ethnically mixed crowd enjoying a fun evening together in honor of one outstanding young woman.

Yes, there's hope!

Enjoy the rest of the weekend. More thoughts tomorrow.


Thursday, May 18, 2006

One of the aspects of the current debate over what to do about illegal immigration involves language - specifically, whether America needs to go out of its way to accommodate people who speak only Spanish, or whether immigrants (legal or no) should be required to learn English when they come here. This is an interesting debate which has caused me to shake the dust off my degree in Linguistics (Penn State University, 1973) so that I can pontificate with a little bit of authority.

I've always been fascinated with languages, and still enjoy studying them and using them whenever possible. Today I speak reasonably good German (it used to be much, much better, but I've grown lazy because Agnes's English is so good), and I can still understand some elementary Russian. I've spent about ten years living and traveling in Germany, and took pride in being able to communicate with the Germans in their own language. I was especially pleased to note that Germans would recognize from my accent that I wasn't German...but they often thought I was Dutch, rather than American!

Language is important, socially and politically. If you go to a foreign country, especially if your intent is to live and work there, you have a responsibility to adapt yourself to the customs and language of that country. In the current debate, that means immigrants from Latin America should learn and use English, rather than demanding that services (to which illegal immigrants are not entitled, anyhow) be provided in their language. One of the standard complaints about Americans abroad is that "they always expect everyone to speak English." That's true, and that's why I always made an effort to learn at least a little of the language of any country to which I traveled. But it looks as if we are now replacing the linguistic Ugly American abroad with the linguistic Ugly Hispanic at home.

As an example of how important an issue this is, consider that even a consummate political animal like our President finally grew enough of a spine to publicly state that immigrants should learn English! Will wonders never cease?

Regardless of what we as a nation finally decide to do about illegal immigration (and we need to do something soon), we need to address the issue of what it means to be an American. If you come to America looking for a better life, but all you want to do is recreate the culture you left to come here, then why not stay at home and try to fix the problems there? If you want to come to America, then you should embrace the language and culture of America. If you really want to be a Mexican or a Salvadoran or a Colombian or whatever, Mexico, El Salvador, Colombia, and other countries will be happy to have you. Maybe. Ask yourself why you left in the first place, and what you hope to find here.

But, of course, no one who needs to take this advice to heart will ever do it, because I'm so dreadfully "anti-immigrant" that I didn't post it in Spanish so they could understand.

Learn and use a foreign language. If you're coming to America, learn English. You may decide you like it, and it will make our nation a stronger, better place.

Have a good day. More thoughts later.


Sunday, May 14, 2006

There was an interesting article on the CNN website yesterday about what we're naming our children. According to the Social Security Administration, which has been tracking this information since 1997, the most popular girl's name for 2005 was "Emily," followed by "Emma;" the most popular boy's name was "Jacob," followed by "Michael."

Names matter. I know that some people find it fashionable to give their children odd names (like Gwynneth Paltrow's poor daughter "Apple," or Frank Zappa's children "Dweezil" and "Moon Unit"), but they often don't consider how those names may affect their children in the future. Years ago I met an 18-year old Army soldier named "Bambi." She was an attractive young lady...but someday she may be an 80-year-old great grandmother, and I'm not sure that "Bambi" will conjure up the image she may wish to present. And even at 18, a name like "Bambi" leads to an unfortunate mental picture of a wide-eyed, empty-headed teeny-bopper (which this young lady certainly wasn't).

Consider also the names that many blacks give to their children. At a time when we are hyper-sensitive to anything that singles out individuals on the basis of race, many blacks give their children obviously "black" names such as "Antwan" (a variation on the French "Antoine"), and the dozens of girl's names that begin with "La-" (such as "Lashonda," "Latoya," etc). Nothing wrong with that, if that's what you want, but it does seem to mark the person in a way that they may not wish.

Our sons are Jason and Matthew - good, solid boy's names, and our daughter is Yasmin, a mellifluously beautiful name somewhat more popular abroad than here at home. And the grandchildren are Marcella (Marcy) and Joseph - both great names for great children.

So what's your name? Do you like it? Would you pass it on to your children, or do you occasionally consider suing your parents? Remember Johnny Cash and the Boy Named Sue?

Names matter. You don't need to express your creativity or make a social or political statement at your child's expense. They'll live with that name a lot longer than you will.

Happy Mothers' Day to all the mothers who read this. More thoughts tomorrow.


Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Not too long ago there was a major news flash about the very poor geographical knowledge of most Americans. This came as no blinding flash of the obvious to me, having long been amused (actually, dismayed) about how little many of our citizens know about history, geography, and other topics I believe are of critical importance.

A few minutes ago, I was downstairs having breakfast in the hotel restaurant when I overheard this conversation between a young waitress and the two men in the booth behind me:

"Everything okay, hon?"

"Yep, everything's fine, thanks."

"So, where are y'all from?"


"Where's that?"

Now, you would think that at a time when we are at war in the Middle East and thousands of Americans (including my son) are stationed at huge bases in the Gulf Emirate of Qatar, the averagely-informed person would at least have known what and where Qatar is.

Democracy depends upon an educated, aware electorate able to know and understand the issues of the day and make intelligent decisions on them. Education is the foundation on which a representative democracy rests, and we do not spend the time and money on education that is necessary. In many parts of the world, teachers are held in high esteem; here in America, they make a bare living wage and are expected to foot many of the expenses of their classes by underfunded school districts.

Will the world come to an end because a friendly young waitress in Colorado Springs doesn't know where Qatar is? No. But it does bode ill for our future if those who will vote for our national leadership and its policies don't understand the world around them - historically, geographically, and economically.

Support your schools. If you are in school, stay there and learn all you can. It will serve all of us well in an uncertain future.

Have a good day. More comments later.


Tuesday, May 09, 2006

I flew from Washington, DC, to Colorado Springs, Colorado, yesterday, and I'm here to tell you that traveling by air is a royal pain in every body part you can name. Every part of traveling by air is just miserable, and I don't understand why it has to be that way.

Airport security is a pain in the neck, but you can understand the need for it. Every time I have to take off my shoes for security screening, I'm thankful that the moron Richard Reid wasn't known as The Underwear Bomber.

And the quality of service offered by the airlines to ordinary travelers is abysmal and getting worse. We pay ever-larger sums of money for the privilege of being wedged into smaller and less comfortable seats, with minimum leg room. And the amenities are disappearing, too: I learned yesterday that you don't even get fed on long flights any actually have to pay on board for the privilege of eating the same inedible food that used to be free. At least the drinks are still free, but I'm sure that will change before long. If you aren't able to fly first class (where the seats are still huge and the food free), airline travel is just plain yucky.

And your fellow passengers don't help much. There are always plenty of idiots who insist on trying to take obviously oversized bags on board as carry-on baggage, and I seldom see the gate agents trying to enforce the rules. Yesterday, one woman actually brought TWO rollaboard suitcases on board with her, along with her large purse and briefcase...a mite greedy on the limited space, I think...but neither the gate agent nor the flight attendants called her on it.

I have to fly home on Friday, but somehow I think I'd rather walk. Unfortunately, it's not an option.

Have a good day. Don't fly if you can help it.


Monday, May 08, 2006

Yesterday Agnes and I spent the day as spectators at the Inter-State Dance Sport Challenge, a local ballroom dance competition that draws dancers from all over Northern Virginia and Maryland, and as far away as Delaware and Pennsylvania. It was the first time in eight or nine years that we haven't participated in the Inter-State (which used to be called the Inter-City); unfortunately, Agnes hurt her back a few months ago, and we weren't able to practice enough to get into top competition form. We'd have needed to be in top form, too: the quality of the dancing and overall level of competition was noticeably higher than last year.

We attended the competition even without participating, because some other dancers from our school were competing, and because I enjoy photographing dance events. For an amateur photographer, a dance competition offers everything: beautiful women in gorgeous and sexy costumes, handsome men in their tuxedos and Latin costumes, and plenty of non-stop action. And best of all, perhaps, is that dancers love to be photographed. Couples will dance right up to you and strike a pose so you can get a good picture, and no one ever turns down a request for a photo.

The students from our school did very well, none coming in with anything less than a second-place finish in any heat. As always, of course, there were problems: during one dance, one of our students accidentally smacked her teacher across the face, and one of her carefully-manicured nails sliced a neat cut in his nose...which proceeded to bleed copiously down his face for the rest of the heat. I also have a cute series of photos of a crowd of people performing emergency surgery on another dancer's hair...everyone wielding cans of hairspray, combs, brushes, clips and pins to make sure everything stayed where it was supposed to.

On the whole, it was a very good day all around, marred only by the complete absence of the one thing we amateur photographers live for at dance competitions: wardrobe malfunctions. But there's always next year...

Have a good day. Dance. You'll like it.


Saturday, May 06, 2006

I've grown crankier as I get older, and there are a lot of things that irritate me at 55 that I would have shrugged off at 18 or 25 or 30. One of these is bad telephone etiquette, and one of the worst sorts of bad telephone etiquette is the automatic dialer that calls you up and leaves a generic message. You get lots of these at election time, and it usually means that someone wants your vote, but isn't really interested in talking to you.

Even worse than that is the automatic dialer that calls you up and leaves a message that just orders you to call a particular number. No identification, no indication of what it's about or whether it's a call you really want or need to make, just a demand to call a number. Over the past few months, our home answering machine had intercepted many instances of an identical message telling us to call a particular number. Caller ID was no help, simply reading, "Private Caller." I always did what I always do with such messages...after all, that's why the answering machine has an "Erase" button. But Agnes was a bit concerned about why this particular message kept coming in over and over, and thought we should call the number and check it out. I thought it would be a waste of time, but agreed (it usually being easier to agree with her than not).

Finally one day this past week, I happened to be home when one of these calls came in. I noted the number and called it back. Instead of a person - or even a recording - identifying who I had reached, I heard, "All of our representatives are busy assisting other customers, please hold, BLAH, BLAH, BLAH...". I was ready to hang up right then, but suddenly there was a click on the line and a man came on and said abruptly, "What number are you calling from?"

I automatically answered with my number. The man then said, "Is this Bilbo in Springfield, Virginia?" By this time, my dander was up and I said, "Yes it is. And exactly who are you?" "This is George," he replied. "And from where are you calling, George?" I asked. "This is the BLAH, BLAH, BLAH company," he replied. "Are you selling something?" I asked. "No," he replied. "We are a collection agency."

As conversation stoppers go, that's a pretty good one. Although I happen to know that every one of my accounts is up to date, there was a part of the back of my brain that immediately panicked, and I cautiously said, "And what can I do for you?"

"Does So-and-So live at this residence?" George asked. I was dumfounded, because this was a person with a very unusual name that I'd never heard of in my life. I said as much to George, then asked what I thought was a perfectly reasonable question: "What makes you think that So-and-So lives here?" "I can't provide that information," George replied.

I was now officially upset, and reminded George that he - offering no identification and calling me out of the blue from a masked phone number - was expecting me to give him information about someone, but was unwilling to provide any information to me. For me, this was important...this could indicate that someone is using my address and phone number as part of an identity theft scam. But now, having gotten what he wanted, George simply said he'd take our number out of their database, deftly deflected my other questions, and broke the connection.

Call me cranky (and many people have), but I think this was not only impolite and subtly threatening, but also left me with an serious unanswered question that still nags. I suppose George is still out there, firing off his recorded messages and trying to track down So-and-So. But who is So-and-So, and why did George think he would be found somewhere in the vicinity of my telephone number? I guess I'll never know, and George isn't telling.

But George had better not call back looking for cooperation again unless he's willing to be up front with me and answer my questions.

Have a good weekend. And if your phone rings and the Caller ID says the person on the other end is "Private Caller," ignore it. It's probably George.

More thoughts later.


Wednesday, May 03, 2006

There was an interesting news article on the CNN website the other day about a man who stole large sums of money from his company in order to pay a professional dominatrix to beat him up. My first thought was that that was pretty stupid. But then I thought that, except for the part about stealing from his company, the article could have been about me.

Agnes and I have paid good money to a nice young lady named Helen to beat us up. Actually, she advertises herself as a "Personal Trainer" rather than a "Dominatrix," works out of the local Gold's Gym instead of a dungeon, and wears sweats and t-shirts instead of leather corsets, but the end result is the same...after an hour of her attention, my aging body is screaming for mercy.

Well, Bilbo, you say, you brought it on yourself, and I did. Of course, it was Agnes's idea in the first place, but the idea of hiring a personal trainer to get me looking all buffed up and muscular instead of saggy and baggy had a certain appeal. The problem, of course, is that all this takes time, effort, willpower, and - naturally - money. So here I am, paying Helen to hurt me in the hope of achieving the greater goal of turning from couch potato to Adonis. Will it work? Check back in a few months and I'll let you know.

In the meantime, that pitiful moaning sound you hear in the distance is probably me, being introduced by Helen to muscles I'd long ago forgotten I had. And the other noise is Agnes chuckling at my discomfiture.

My advice: if you're young, get in shape now and stay there. I'm here to tell you that it's not fun to do it once you're on the outside of 50!

More thoughts tomorrow. If I can move my hands and arms to type.


Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Well, the "Day without Immigrants" is over, and it went about as I would have expected. Consider the following:

* No one involved with this insulting fiasco ever used the word "illegal" in conjunction with "immigrants"...which is, of course, the real issue.

* At many of the rallies, Mexican flags were in evidence along with American flags. Curious behavior from people who want to show how much they love the country they broke the law to enter.

* Most of the "immigrants" interviewed had woe-is-me sob stories about the fear in which they live and the problems they have because they don't have legal status. Well, have broken the law! What do you expect?

I've said just about everything I can say on this topic, so I won't rehash all my old arguments again. If you care, go back and read my previous posts on the subject, in particular my compromise plan for dealing with the illegal immigrant situation. I will be sending it to my Senators and my Representative so that I can add one more bloviating form response to my collection.

To those of you who skipped work to demonstrate yesterday, shame on you. You ought to be fired. And to those of you who support them, shame on you, too: you are slapping the faces of law-abiding legal immigrants like my wife and many of my friends.

Want to live without fear? Obey the law. 'Nuff said.