Monday, December 31, 2007

The 2007 Yuletide Ball

Last year at this time, Agnes and I competed in the 2006 Yuletide Ball DanceSport Championships, held at the beautiful J.W. Marriott Hotel in downtown Washington, DC. This year I didn't think I was ready to dance our new routines, but one of Agnes's other students, Phil, wanted to dance, and so we found ourselves spending the afternoon at the competition. Phil and Agnes were scheduled to dance 5 heats: International Open Gold Waltz, Tango, Slow Foxtrot, Quickstep, and Viennese Waltz, and a Five-Dance Championship event (Waltz, Tango, Slow Fox, Quickstep, and Viennese Waltz, all danced back-to-back with minimum time between dances). It may not seem like it, but the Five-Dance Championships are grueling events in which you have to dance flat out, giving it 100% every second, because you never know when the judge will be watching you to look for reasons not to score you highly.

But I'm getting ahead of the story.

We met Phil at a local dance studio at 11:30 so he and Agnes could warm up before going down to the competition (almost all competitions make a warm-up floor available for competitors, but it's usually fairly small and often quite crowded). After the warm-up, we drove downtown and arrived at the hotel shortly after 1:00.

Agnes dressed in her ball gown, and we began by visiting the vendors. All competitions have a number of vendors available selling ball gowns, shoes, jewelry, music CDs, instructional videos, etc. Agnes needed some accessories to go with her new dress, so we visited Ann, one of the jewelry vendors we've come to know over the years. This year, Ann had brought her little daughter along ... with all we've spent over the years, I think we're financing her eventual college education.

Agnes bought a new hair accent, some earrings, and two bracelets to accent her new dress. She looked pretty spectacular (even considering that my opinion may be a little biased).

Phil and Agnes had quite a while to wait for their heats, and that can be nerve-wracking. But they managed to keep smiling.

Eventually, their heats arrived. The few seconds between the time the people in your heat are called to the floor and the time the music starts are some of the longest you can imagine ...

But things always go all right. Here, Phil leads Agnes in a beautiful throwaway oversway.

Another nerve-wracking time is the minute or two you spend waiting in the on-deck area for your heat to be called. Here's a sample of what that area looks like before a typical heat:

Once the heats have been danced, the next nerve-wracking time is spent standing on the floor while waiting for the results to be announced:

From the perspective of a hobby photographer, one of the great things about a dance competition is the large number of handsome, well-dressed men and beautiful, elegantly-dressed ladies who actually want to have their pictures taken. These two lovely ladies graciously posed for a picture:

Our part of the competition was over by about 6:15 PM. The awards were presented (solid places in the face of very stiff competition), and we were headed home. All told, it was a fun day spent with people who know how to have a good time and treat each other with courtesy and good sportsmanship.

Agnes and I are aiming for our next competition together in March. I'll let you know how it comes out.

In the meantime, if you are planning to celebrate tonight, please do it safely. Have a great new year's celebration, but be sure you're able to come back and blog next year.

Have a good day, and a fun and safe New Year's Eve. More thoughts tomorrow ... I mean, next year!


Sunday, December 30, 2007

Another Year Almost Gone

Today is December 30th - the next-to-last day of 2007.

Where did all the other ones go? And what happened?


April 17th: Marcy, our first grandchild, turned 7 (!).

First Sunday in May: Agnes and I danced in the InterState Amateur DanceSport Challenge. Since we were dancing, nobody took any pictures of us. Drat!

June 21-25: mini family reunion in to see Marcy dance in her recital (oh, so cute!).

July 8th: Joe, our second grandchild, turned 4. He likes photography, just like his grandpa.

August 20th: Leya, our fourth grandchild, was born.

September 15th: Agnes and I celebrated our 25th anniversary.

September 23rd: Noah, our third grandchild, turned 1. He enjoyed the cake.

November 7th: I turned 56 ... officially closer to 60 than to 50. Gasp!

November 22nd: Agnes and I hosted the family reunion and Thanksgiving Feast at our house for 21 people. The part of my hair that wasn't gray before is gray now.

December 27th: Posted the 500th entry to this blog.

Today: time to wake Agnes up and get her ready to compete with her student, Phil, in the 2007 Yuletide Ball DanceSport Championships. Come back tomorrow for the pictures.

Gotta run.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Saturday, December 29, 2007

Random Thoughts for a Rainy Saturday

It's about 6:30 on a chilly, rainy Saturday morning here in Northern Virginia. Punky is still curled up asleep on the couch (having finally dried off from her walk last night in the pouring rain), Agnes is still asleep (but was dry all along, since I was the one who took Punky for the walk in the rain), and all is temporarily quiet.

It promises to be a busy weekend. One of my goals for the weekend is to finally, once and for all, get my study cleaned out, not that it needs it...

Of course, I've been saying that I'm going to clean the study every weekend for the last year, but something always intervenes to keep it from happening. I'm sure the same thing will happen again this weekend. Sigh.

We had a nice time at the dance party last night, with a good crowd for the last party of the year. A high point was a visit from our friend Renee, the sister of Ben, the school owner and my dance teacher. Renee is quite a ... um ... character, and a lot of fun. Naturally, I couldn't pass up the opportunity to have my picture taken with her and Agnes...

Ben's mother also was there to visit, and we really enjoyed meeting her after hearing about her for so many years. We finally got her to smile for the picture ... sort of ...

But that was all last night, and the weekend looms ahead, bright with promise for things to be done in addition to cleaning the study, like tackling the Mount Everest of Laundry in the bedroom, and squeezing in a visit with Leya at some point. I already know Sunday will be a wash, because Agnes will be competing at the annual Yuletide Ball Dance Championships with one of her students. I'll be going along to cheer and take pictures, and between last-minute practicing, the drive into the city, and the competition itself, the day will be pretty well shot for anything else.

Obviously, it will be The Cleaning of the Study that will fall off the table. Again. Sigh.

My father forwarded me an e-mail yesterday that contained "Ten Thoughts to Ponder for 2008." I'd seen variations of the list before, but the timing was right to give me a laugh worth sharing. Here you go:

Number 10: Life is sexually transmitted.

Number 9: Good health is merely the slowest possible rate at which one can die.

Number 8: Men have two emotions: Hungry and Horny. If you see him without an erection, make him a sandwich.

Number 7: Give a person a fish and you feed them for a day; teach a person to use the Internet and they won't bother you for weeks.

Number 6: Some people are like a Slinky ... not really good for anything, but you still can't help but smile when you shove them down the stairs.

Number 5: Health nuts are going to feel stupid someday, lying in hospitals dying of nothing.

Number 4: All of us could take a lesson from the weather. It pays no attention to criticism.

Number 3: Why does “a slight tax increase” cost you $200.00 and “a substantial tax cut” saves you $30.00?

Number 2: In the 60's, people took LSD to make the world weird. Now the world is weird and people take Prozac to make it normal.

And The Number 1 Thought to Ponder For 2008: We know exactly where one cow with Mad-Cow-Disease is located among hundreds of millions of cows in America, but we haven't got a clue as to where millions of illegal immigrants and terrorists are located. Maybe we should put the Department of Agriculture in charge of Immigration?

I like #10, myself. #6 is a strong second.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow, from the study that will probably look just like it did in today's picture.


Friday, December 28, 2007

The Murder of Benazir Bhutto

The news has been dominated since yesterday morning by the assassination in Pakistan of Benazir Bhutto, the former Pakistani prime minister who returned from exile to run for president in the upcoming elections against Pervez Musharraf. When leaving a political rally, Ms Bhutto was apparently shot several times by an assassin who then blew himself up, killing many other people .

Unsurprisingly, an unsubstantiated claim of responsibility for the murder has evidently been made by al Qaeda. Whether this claim is true or not, I think it wouldn't be going too far out on a limb to guess that the murderer wasn't a Catholic, Jew, or Buddhist. While suicide murderers are not unheard of in those religions, the vast majority of them nowadays are radical Muslims.

Why is that?

I, as do most Americans, find it utterly incomprehensible that people could commit murder in God's name. I find it horrifying that people could believe in a religion that honors brutal murderers as "martyrs" doing God's will. There are those who will offer all sorts of explanations and justifications for such heinous acts - that people are otherwise without hope, that they have no other outlet for their frustrations, that it's all right to murder those who don't worship God as they do.

This is disgusting.

Now, make no mistake: Benazir Bhutto was no saint. She had run a corrupt government while Prime Minister of Pakistan, and the fact that she was supported by much of the population probably had less to do with her personally than with the fact that she wasn't Pervez Musharraf. But the fact that someone would wantonly murder her, and kill large numbers of other people in the process, deserves the absolute condemnation of rational humans everywhere.

We often take for granted that we live in a country where, no matter how terrible the administration in power is, we change leadership by the ballot box rather than the bomb. Likewise, we take for granted that we live in one of the very, very few countries where people of all races, faiths, and creeds coexist in relative harmony. We have our share of political and religious morons, but most people are smart enough to treat them with the disdain they deserve.

Let's hope it stays that way. As much as I despise the current leadership of our country, I'm glad I live in a country where we can get rid of them by pushing the button on a voting machine rather than a suicide vest.

Much of the rest of the world isn't so fortunate.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Thursday, December 27, 2007

500 Posts and 100 Million Dollars

I think I hit a milestone this morning: if the counter on the Blogger start page is correct, this will be my 500th post! I find that pretty interesting...even I didn't think I'd have that much to say, or that I'd have as many people reading and commenting on it as I do. Hot diggity dog!

Okay, enough self-congratulatory backpatting ... Christmas is over, I was a good boy, and I think I've earned the right to start easing myself back into my more comfortably curmudgeonly demeanor. Let's talk about a few of my favorite topics: writing, doing your job, and justice.

In my collection of Blog Fodder is a CNN article from this past March 29th titled "Justice Gets Wrong Statute, Pays $100 M(illion) Price." The short version of the article is that a man convicted of tax evasion and sentenced to 9 years in prison had part of his sentence thrown out by a judge because the Justice Department had written the plea agreement with the defendant incorrectly, citing the wrong law as the basis for assessing a civil penalty of between $100-175 million. The result: 9 years of jail time, but the convicted man didn't have to repay the money.

Of course, the government was quick to appeal the judge's decision under other statutes and the money was expected to be eventually recovered, but just think about the issues here:

1. Someone whose job it is to write ironclad legal documents made a mistake worth a hundred million dollars.

2. A white-collar crook actually stole that much by avoiding taxes.

3. The government had to spend a lot more money on new legal processes to fix the mistake it made in the first place.

What could we do with a hundred million dollars?

We could improve education, repair crumbling bridges, and provide medical care for people accidentally shot by the Vice President.

We could pay for a few more days of Mr Bush's war, which has already wasted hundreds of billions of dollars that could have been better spent here at home.

We could probably buy most of the illegal aliens hiding in plain sight and ship them home first class.

We, the Real People of this country, could buy some Congressmen that would actually represent us, and do something rather than spend all their time pointing fingers of blame at each other.

I wish I had a hundred million dollars.

But I guess I'll just have to settle for the 500 posts.

Thanks for being here, and for listening to me fulminate. Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Only 365 Days 'Til Christmas!

Yes, Christmas is over for another year. The gifts have been unwrapped, the children thrilled, the dinners cooked, the friends and relatives visited, etc, etc. In some parts of the world, today is still a holiday: it's Boxing Day in England, The Second Day of Christmas in Germany, and so on. Here in Northern Virginia, it's Get Your Lazy Rear Back to Work Day.


Agnes is still on vacation until the end of the week, having much more accumulated vacation time than I. I don't begrudge her the extra time, because she's earned the break, but I surely do wish I could take the rest of the week off, too.

Sigh again.

But regardless of my demeanor today, we had a grand Christmas. You saw yesterday's photos of our Christmas Eve celebration with our daughter and her family; we celebrated Christmas with two of our closest friends - Bakr and Nadja.

I've known Bakr for more than 20 years, since we met in a class we were both taking for our master's degree program. We discovered we had many shared interests and have been close friends ever since. One of our shared passions is photography - Bakr took most of the pictures in this post. I took this one, so that he could have his memory of a day spent with two beautiful ladies:

We first met Nadja and her husband, Ken, when they were taking dance lessons from Agnes a few years ago. Ken is now working on contract overseas, and so we invited Nadja to spend the holiday with us. No one gets a free dinner at our place, though ... here, she contemplates the onion that needed chopped for the salad. This is the pre-tears picture.

As always, when you have four people crowded into the same kitchen, tempers can flare. Here is where things almost got deadly between Agnes and can see Nadja trying to escape in the background.

We did, however, end up burying the hatchet. Sort of.

It ended up being an excellent dinner, though. Agnes made her traditional German Rouladen with red cabbage. mashed potatoes, and salad.

It was much better than my expression probably suggests!

And so ends another Christmas. Back to the old salt mines. Time to take Punky for a walk, wash a few dishes, and get my poor, sad rear end to work.


Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Leya's First Christmas

Here at Chez Bilbo, as you know by now, we celebrate Christmas in the German style - we exchange gifts on Christmas Eve. Christmas being a time for the family, we were happy to have our daughter Yasmin, son-in-law Vin, and newest granddaughter Leya with us to celebrate Leya's first Christmas. It would have been better had we been able to have all the grandchildren together, but you can't have everything, and we had a grand time in any case.

Here is Happy Leya with Grandma and Grandpa:

The tree was gaily decorated and had all the presents ready. As you might suspect, most of the packages were for Leya...

With all the things going on around her, Leya was pretty seriously overstimulated for much of the day. She was very tired, but absolutely didn't want to take a nap and miss anything. We finally got her to sleep by serenading her ... with the vacuum cleaner. Yes, the low, steady roar of our trusty Dyson did what hours of walking her couldn't do - lull her to sleep so that we could eat dinner in peace and quiet:

By the time dinner was over and we were ready to open gifts, though, she'd turned fairly cranky again. We did manage to interest her in a few pieces of colorful wrapping paper, a stuffed hoot-owl, and a soft bear. She liked the bear enough that she was willing - for a few minutes - to quit trying to tear off her little Santa hat...

And it was, of course, also Christmas for the dogs ... although they weren't especially interested in the proceedings ...

And so we had a wonderful Christmas ... and hope you have the same.

Have a good Christmas Day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Monday, December 24, 2007

Christmas Eve Thoughts

One more day until Christmas!

The tree is decorated, the house is clean (sort of), the gifts are wrapped (mostly), and the grocery shopping is done (not!).

Yesterday should have been the day to complete the gift wrapping and the grocery shopping so that we could spend today finishing the housecleaning and getting dinner ready for the arrival of our daughter and her family tonight. But, as ever, reality intruded.

Leaving out the gory details, let me just say that yesterday began well with final Christmas shopping and a nice visit with our granddaughter (oh, yes - and her parents), and ended with a nice ride in the tow truck that took my utterly inert car on an 11-mile ride from a shopping center parking lot to our local service station, followed by a nice walk home in the chilly mist...all of the which occupied us from just before 5:00 PM until almost 8:00 PM. By that time, of course, all desire to do anything but eat a dinner ordered from the local pizzeria and fall into bed was gone.

And so here I am, at about 5:20 AM. Agnes is still asleep, Punky is snoring on her favorite couch, and I'm blogging instead of cleaning, wrapping the last presents, getting my shopping list ready and girding my loins for participation in two major annual rituals: The Standing In Line With A Million Other People At the Honeybaked Ham Store, and The Hoping I Can Get Out Of the Supermarket With Everything On My List.

Oh, yes - and I do need to take a shower sometime in there, as I probably smell like a goat and look like a hobo.

All of this before our guests arrive around 2:00.


And so I need to center myself by remembering what all of this is really about (Luke 2: 1-14):

"[1] And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed.
[2] (And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.)
[3] And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city.
[4] And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David:)
[5] To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child.
[6] And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered.
[7] And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.
[8] And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.
[9] And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.
[10] And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.
[11] For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.
[12] And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.
[13] And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying,
[14] Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men."

"...and on earth peace, good will toward men."

Unfortunately, this year peace and good will are in shorter supply than we all would like. But, for my part, I wish all of you, my fellow bloggers and those who stumble on these ruminations by accident, a safe, happy, and very Merry Christmas.

Tomorrow, we'll see how it all turns out. For now, I've got to start running like my underwear was on fire.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Sunday, December 23, 2007

Christmas Parties

The weather in Northern Virginia this morning is hideous: thick fog, chilly temperatures and drizzling rain. Time to think of something more Christmas parties...

Christmas is a time for good cheer and getting together with friends...or with the folks from work, which isn't necessarily the same thing. Office parties can be fun, but are fraught with danger. I remember an episode of the classic TV series "Murphy Brown" in which the character of Murphy Brown (played by Candace Bergen, on whom I once had a major crush) was ruefully remembering the office Christmas party at which she " drunk and faxed my chest to the west coast." Miss Cellania has a wonderful collection of good and bad office party stories favorite is the "Office Party Apology."

But holiday parties don't have to be disastrous, although all the makings are usually there (strong drink, mistletoe, and people in a celebratory mood). Our holiday hallway parties in the Pentagon are generally happy, yet sedate affairs at which we get to see the generals and colonels who are usually yelling at us behaving with cheerful bonhomie. Usually, by the time Christmas is over, we're all partied out.

Agnes and I had the pleasure of attending our favorite Christmas party this past Friday evening - the one at our dance studio. This is a nice party because everyone dresses up and brings a potluck dish and we can enjoy an evening of dancing and good cheer.

Here's how Agnes and I look when we're cleaned up and lookin' spiffy:

And another one of us caught in the terpsechorian act:

From my perspective, it's always nice to be able to dance with beautiful, well-dressed women to whom I'm not married. Like our friend Jodi. Believe it or not, her husband took the picture...

A festive pose with our friend Mary Lou. Her son took this picture...

We had a very nice group together for the's the photographic proof that we all clean up well when we have to!

It's always nice to see a few beautiful ladies out dancing. Even when they do it without the men!

And finally, it's always a pleasure to have my picture taken with a beautiful and talented lady like our friend Katy.


Christmas parties don't have to be train wrecks in progress!

Well, it's off to the races again - we're going to visit with our granddaughter Leya for a few minutes, and then I have to zoom out and do the grocery shopping for our Christmas Eve and Christmas Day sense in waiting until the last minute, when I can do it all at the almost-last minute. But don't tell anyone, because I'd hate to lose my Gold membership in the Procrastinators' Hall of Fame.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Saturday, December 22, 2007

Christmas Gifts

The tradition of giving gifts at Christmas began, we think, with the Magi, the Three Wise Men (or Kings, or Magicians, depending on your version of the story) who traveled to Bethlehem to present gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh to the Christ Child. The story of the Magi - of how they traveled from "the Orient" to Bethlehem to worship the Baby Jesus - is a moving one. It's also given rise to some classic stories: "The Gift of the Magi," by O. Henry, and The Fourth Wise Man, among others. There's even a great cartoon that was a favorite of my mother's: two robed and turbaned men on camels are riding across the desert, with a third man behind them in the far distance. One of the two in the lead turns and shouts, "Come on, Balthasar, hurry up - it's a quarter to A.D.!"

If you think about it, the story of the Magi is a very interesting one. They bore wonderful gifts obtained two thousand years before Wal-Mart was available for their shopping convenience, and they traveled across the trackless desert to find Bethlehem, guided only by a star (GPS not yet being available).

But we're talking about what the Magi wrought: the tradition of Christmas gifts...and Christmas shopping to obtain them.

I enjoy giving gifts, but I hate shopping for them. I always want to have a gift that means something special to the recipient, something I know they'll want, but it's not always easy.

Agnes and I begin our Christmas shopping kabuki dance each year around the beginning of September, when she asks me what I would like for Christmas. I dutifully type up a list of suggestions and print it out for her. Five or six times. All copies of the list then disappear, to be found at the bottom of her purse in mid-February, along with five pounds of loose change, two cubic feet of crumpled receipts, several fistfuls of dried-out candies, and Jimmy Hoffa. In the meantime, she shops by pointing at things in the stores, asking me if I'd like them, then buying them on the spot and making me promise to be surprised when I receive them.

Oh, well...

Buying gifts for the grandchildren is much more rewarding, but it gets difficult, too. It's easy to buy for Leya - this will be her first Christmas, so her expectations are limited, duplication of things she already has is very unlikely, and she'll probably care more about the colorful wrappings than the gifts themselves. Noah, on the other hand, is a year older and also has access to the vast numbers of toys and books already purchased for Marcy and Joe. It's tough to be original for him. And it's complicated by the fact that there's another set of grandparents out there buying stuff about which we have no information. In any case, I mailed four large boxes of gifts to Marcy, Joe, and Noah this past week with fingers crossed. I don't know how Santa does it without USPS, FedEx, and UPS.

Many offices sponsor Christmas (no, in the interest of political correctness we must say "Holiday") gift exchanges. These are a pain in the rear. In many cases, the appropriate gifts for many of the people with whom we work would be likely to elicit the professional attention of the coroner. The top shelf of the closet in my study is filled with well-intentioned, but useless things received during office Christmas ... uh ... Holiday ... gift exchanges.

But for all the agony of Christmas shopping, of searching desperately for the right gift (not to mention a parking place within a three-day walk of the mall), there's something magical about a brightly-lit tree on Christmas morning, surrounded by beautifully-wrapped gifts and assailed by happy children.

I may not be a particularly Wise Man, but I do enjoy watching children joyfully opening their gifts at Christmas.

And yes, being a child at heart, it's fun to open my own gifts, too.

Have a good day. Tomorrow, we'll talk about Christmas parties. More thoughts then.


Friday, December 21, 2007

Christmas Quotes

As you know, I've got strong opinions on a lot of topics. Lots of other people do, too. This morning, let's look at what some other people have had to say about Christmas:

Dave Barry - "In the old days, it was not called the Holiday Season; the Christians called it 'Christmas' and went to church; the Jews called it 'Hanukkah' and went to synagogue; the atheists went to parties and drank. People passing each other on the street would say 'Merry Christmas!' or 'Happy Hanukkah!' or (to the atheists) 'Look out for the wall!"

Erma Bombeck - "There is nothing sadder in this world than to awake Christmas morning and not be a child."

Larry Wilde - "Never worry about the size of your Christmas tree. In the eyes of children, they are all thirty feet tall."

Neal A. Maxwell - "More presents were likely put under the tree than there were gifts placed in others' storehouses of self-esteem. More bright wrappings may have been scattered about than bright words of good cheer."

Mark Twain - "The approach of Christmas brings harassment and dread to many excellent people. They have to buy a cart-load of presents, and they never know what to buy to hit the various tastes; they put in three weeks of hard and anxious work, and when Christmas morning comes they are so dissatisfied with the result, and so disappointed that they want to sit down and cry. Then they give thanks that Christmas comes but once a year."

Charlotte Carpenter - "Remember, if Christmas isn't found in your heart, you won't find it under a tree."

Mrs Paul Ell - "They err who thinks Santa Claus comes down through the chimney; he really enters through the heart."

Bob Hope - "When we recall Christmas past, we usually find that the simplest things - not the great occasions - give off the greatest glow of happiness."

And finally...

One of the greatest of Christmas quotations was published in The Sun, a New York newspaper, in 1897. Almost everyone knows the phrase, "Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus," but few know the whole story. The website of The Newseum has the whole wonderful story here; this is a picture of the actual editorial, written by Frank Pharcellus Church, that ran on September 21st, 1897:

Christmas is only a few days away. Time to clear the cobwebs from your heart and remember that, as The Mistress of the Dark reminded me in a comment a few days back, even the Grinch's heart grew many sizes on Christmas.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Thursday, December 20, 2007

Christmas Music

A few days ago, The Mistress of the Dark asked in her blog, "What are your favorite traditional Christmas carols?"

That's a hard question for me to answer, because I'm not sure how long a Christmas carol has to be around to be considered "traditional." I wrote yesterday in this space about Christmas Traditions, so I guess it's appropriate now to consider the Christmas carols that have become part of my tradition, as opposed to being "traditional." Here's my list:

Do You Hear What I Hear? (Bing Crosby version) - this is a wonderful song that begins softly and builds to a powerful finish.

The Little Drummer Boy (either the Harry Simeone Chorale version or the New Christy Minstrels version, although the David Bowie/Bing Crosby duet is also truly excellent) - this song tells a great story: what gift would you give to a King if you were so poor the only thing you had was a song? This one is guaranteed to bring tears to my eyes. Side note: my father used to maintain that it took too long to say "The Harry Simeone Chorale," and so he just called them "The Monkeys." When we all said "huh?", he said it was shorthand for "The Hairy Simian Chorale." You can tell where my twisted sense of humor comes from.

One Of You In Every Size (Marty Robbins) - this is a short, lively song that no one but me appears ever to have heard. It's cute, clever, and fun.

White Christmas (Bing Crosby's version, of course) - when you grew up in Western Pennsylvania in the 50's and 60's, you could pretty much expect white Christmases. Nowadays, sadly, you can expect Drizzly, Dreary Christmases. %#$! global warming!

Feliz Navidad (Jose Feliciano) - a great, snappy, happy song. Unfortunately, this year it's been spoiled for me because of our office door. Part of our door decoration is one of those cards with the embedded chip that plays Feliz Navidad each time the door opens and the card swings open. After you've heard even a song as great as this one seven hundred times a day, it starts to wear thin. And my office being staffed with bizarre and twisted characters as it is, we have come up with many variations of Feliz Navidad for different audiences:

The Navy version: Fleets Navidad;

The Shepherds' version: Fleece Navidad;

The Carol of the Small, Biting Insects: Fleas Navidad;

The Law Enforcement version: Police Navidad; and,

The Britney Spears/Lindsey Lohan/Paris Hilton version: Floozies Navidad.

A Sailor's Christmas (Jimmy Buffett) - a nice little song with a bit of a calypso rhythm.

Christmas Eve In Washington - I don't even know who sings this one, and I've never found it online anywhere for download...but it's a great song that can make you feel good about living in "America's hometown."

The Seven O'Clock News/Silent Night (Simon and Garfunkel) - a chilling take on the most traditional of Christmas begins with Silent Night and a newscast soft in the background, and the newscast gradually grows in volume as the song fades until, by the end, the stream of bad news has drowned it out.

Okay, that's my list. And I hope everyone recognizes that I still have the Grinch on hold, difficult though it is.

Have a good day. More Christmassy thoughts tomorrow.


Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Christmas Traditions

What are your Christmas Traditions?

Each family has its own way of celebrating the holidays, and as we grow up and form our own families, we blend the traditions of our families to form new ways to observe holidays and other special events. Traditions are important, because they give us a familiar comfort zone to which we can always retreat in difficult times, and they provide focus for activities we conduct as a family. I'm particularly interested in the concept of traditions writ large as they shape the lives and destinies of families and groups (this has long been the kernel around which I've tried to develop the idea for my eventual novel - no fair stealing the idea, Serena!). As Sir Stephen said in Story of O, "I have a fondness for habits and ritual."

But I digress. What are your Christmas Traditions?

Ours begin the day after Thanksgiving, which is when we kick off the season by putting up the Christmas tree and decorating the house inside and out. This includes sub-traditions like The Cursing of the Non-Lighting Lights, The Sweeping of the Broken Ornaments, The Search for the Missing Decorations, and the ever-popular Watch Bilbo Try Not to Fall Off the Ladder While Hanging Non-Lighting Lights from the Eaves. A fairly new tradition is Watch Bilbo Throw the Radio Out the Window After Hearing Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer for the Five Thousandth Time.

Between Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve we don't have any particular traditions. My daughter-in-law Tabitha would tell you that I observe the ritual of The Late Mailing of the Gifts, but I think that's just laziness rather than ritual. I should know...I'm the guy who put the "pro" in procrastination.

We celebrate Christmas in the German way. On Christmas Eve we have a traditional dinner of baked ham and warm potato salad, after which we exchange and open gifts. This is the celebration for the immediate family. Christmas Day is the celebration for friends; we invite our close friends over for a visit and our traditional Christmas dinner of Rouladen, red cabbage, mashed potatoes and salad.

There are the after-Christmas traditions, too, like Try to Lose the Holiday Weight, Figure Out How to Get All the Decorations Back Into the Boxes, and Oh My God, How Will We Pay For All This?

For the moment, though, it's not yet Christmas, and the ordinary daily rituals apply: The Walking Of the Dog, The Feeding Of the Dog, The Search In the Darkness For the Matching Socks, and The Sluggish Movement Of the Lazy Rear to Work.

Unfortunately, it's time to observe the last one.

Have a good day. Observe your own traditions. More thoughts tomorrow.


Tuesday, December 18, 2007

The Grinch on Holiday, and Christmas Flashbacks

You know that the needle on the Grinch-o-Meter has swung too far to the high end when the Captain of the Enterprise leaves a comment on your blog telling you that it's "Time to get the Grinch out of the way!"

Point taken. Despite my current general grouchiness about many topics, I will limit my posts between now and Christmas to positive and generally holiday-ish (?) topics. After Christmas is another matter. For the moment, I will simply point out to Congress that their session is scheduled to end on Friday, whether they have accomplished anything or not. I expect not.

But I'll be positive. I'm positive they won't accomplish anything.

Okay, now that that's out of the way, on to a brighter subject.

Yesterday Amanda had an interesting post in which she looked back in ten-year increments to see where she was and what she was doing at Christmases past. That seemed like a neat idea, and so I thought I'd try it myself...

Christmas, 1957
Six years old and in the first grade at St Teresa's School. The teacher was Sister Raphael. One vivid memory of first grade was being told on the first day that it was time to go to the lavatory....and panicking, because I didn't know what a lavatory was, but I did know what a laboratory was, and was terrified of why I had to go there.

Christmas, 1967
Sixteen years old, a sophomore in high school, and a major geek. The better years (socially, anyhow) were coming.

Christmas, 1977
Living in Louisiana and experiencing my fourth Bayou Christmas. Two children. Christmas in Louisiana is hot and muggy...for a transplanted Pennsylvanian used to snow up to the ear lobes, it was hard to fathom sitting in the front yard in shorts and a t-shirt, sweating, on Christmas Eve. I also spent $5.00 buying a big bunch of mistletoe from a kid selling it door to door before realizing it grew wild on every tree in the state. Duh.

Christmas, 1987
Living in a beautiful rented house in the hills above Wiesbaden, Germany, and enjoying the German Christmas season of Christkindlmarkts (open-air Christmas markets) and carols sung in German...which always sounded better after a few glasses of Gluhwein (hot, spiced wine). Three children.

Christmas, 1997
Second Christmas after retiring from the Air Force. Living in Northern Virginia and experiencing the Virginia "Crystal Christmas" - it's like a White Christmas, but with ice, sleet, and freezing rain instead of snow. Locals can't drive in either one, but think that the larger the SUV, the better they can handle the winter roads. Duh.

Christmas, 2007
Still in Northern Virginia. Four wonderful grandchildren. Life's good. Of course, I'm still uncomfortably close to Congress, but you can't have everything, and I did promise to be more positive. Locals still can't drive in snow and ice, and are still buying the SUVs despite gas prices higher than Lindsey Lohan's latest bail bond.

Six decades of Christmases. Gasp! Where did the time go? Where did my once-brown hair go? AARRGGHH!!

I guess it's a good thing it's time to take Punky for a walk and get to work...otherwise, I'd just bury myself in a pile of quilts in front of the fireplace and try to recapture the spirit of Christmases past.

Which sounds like a good idea, anyhow.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Monday, December 17, 2007

Corrections and General Grouchiness

During our visit with Leya yesterday, I was gently wirebrushed by my daughter over one of my posts to this blog. Back on the 10th of December, in a post titled "The Footsteps of the Father," I wrote about the modern tendency of children not to follow their fathers into a family business or similar line of work. I discussed the career paths my two sons had taken and how they'd diverged from mine, but as Yasmin pointedly reminded me yesterday, I neglected to mention that she had, in fact, followed me - into international affairs and government service, if not the military (she works as an International Trade Compliance Analyst for the Department of Commerce).

I stand corrected. Sorry, Mausi. I'm proud of you!

On other fronts...

CNN is reporting that Saudi King Abdullah has pardoned the rape victim who had been sentenced to 200 lashes and six months in prison for the dual heinous crimes of being raped and of daring to challenge her sentence. Perhaps there is a slim chance that Saudi Arabia may yet be dragged, kicking and screaming, out of the seventh century and into the twenty-first. But we can't be too hasty, because the woman's lawyer still faces a disciplinary hearing for "insulting the Supreme Judicial Council and disobeying the rules and regulations" of the judiciary for taking on her case and speaking publicly about it. The CNN report notes that the hearing has been "postponed."

Congress is still in session, lurching clumsily toward its Christmas recess. Don't look for any sudden growth of spines in your senators and reprehensives, or unexpected awakening of concern for the welfare of actual taxpaying citizens. While we do have a government "of the people, by the people, and for the people," it helps if you are one of the Oil People, the Agribusiness People, the Pharmaceuticals People, the Gun People, the Medical People, the Illegal Immigrant Advocacy People, or the Big Business People. If you're an average middle-class taxpayer like me, you're pretty much screwed. Merry Christmas.

Yes, I'm feeling grouchy and Grinchy again this morning. I can't help it. My holiday good cheer and basic optimistic outlook is bumping up against my anger at a government full of pontificating bozos more interested in kissing up to special interests than in taking care of real people. I'll have more to say about this tomorrow. For now, I'll just take a deep breath and calm down, or visit The Mistress of the Dark, who continues to post some great Christmas music at her blog. I think I'll go there and get myself centered again.

Time to walk the dog and get ready for work. Oh, joy!

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Sunday, December 16, 2007

Sunday Odds and Ends

9:00 AM Sunday. Outside it's cold and raining; inside, Punky is sleeping in the hallway, Agnes is sewing downstairs in her workshop, and I'm recovering from last night's funk. I should never post when I'm in a bad mood...although in my defense, I can say I was that I was driven to it by a combination of worthless, contemptible politicians and lousy weather.

Things aren't all bad. I did get quite a bit done yesterday: three big loads of laundry done (if not yet folded and put away), all the gifts for our distant grandchildren wrapped, packed, and mailed, an hour of dance practice with Agnes after the lesson she taught yesterday afternoon, and a nice dinner. So I guess I shouldn't complain.

Except about the $#&! politicians.

But today is a new day, and I just have a few odds and ends to ponder.

This coming Friday is the annual Christmas Ball at the dance studio. I haven't yet checked to see if my post-Thanksgiving body still fits into my pre-Thanksgiving tux, so I guess I ought to do that today. The Christmas Ball is always good for my ego: I can have my picture taken dancing with lots of different, beautiful, well-dressed ladies, and Agnes lets me get away with it. Sometimes, she even takes the pictures. How much better than this does it get?

We're into the annual "slow" period at work ... things in the Pentagon tend to ratchet back a little bit during the weeks around Christmas and New Years, so we can catch up on things that we haven't had a chance to do all year (clean out old files, etc). With the wars going on in Iraq and Afghanistan, things are less "slow" than usual for this time of year, but everything helps. Last Friday we had our annual Holiday Hallway Party, which was very enjoyable. It's nice that we can have brief periods like this occasionally so that we don't mind being treated like Roman galley slaves the other 50 weeks of the year.

It's official: our local transit authority is going to hit us with the biggest rate hike in its history starting on January 6th. This is another example of the sort of political ass-clownery that makes life in the Nation's Capital both interesting and maddening. Washington, DC, Maryland, and Virginia all share in the funding of the Metro system, but none really dedicates a stable source of long-term funding to it, making it hard for the system managers to plan for things like, oh, repairing equipment and maintaining reliable schedules. Plus, Congress gets to help oversee it, which is guaranteed to ensure that the system is hopelessly screwed up. I ride the Metro every day, and am just thrilled beyond words that my fare will go up by a very large, but completely uncalculateable (?) amount (see if you can figure out the amount of my new fare by interpreting this helpful chart - just what is a "composite mile," anyhow?). I don't think we'll see the actual new fares until the morning of January 6th. Happy New Year. Nothing like new, record-high Metro fares AND the threat of the Alternative Minimum Tax to bring joy and cheer to my middle class life in 2008.

We've going to visit with our new granddaughter this afternoon, which is always a wonderful experience and should help lift me the rest of the way out of my funk. I just wish all of the grandchildren could be within hugging distance. Leya has a nice tan already from the large number of flash pictures we've taken of her. I like this one.

Everyone agrees that she's adorable. And that her good looks come from Agnes's side of the family. Humpf.

Well, enough of this disjointed rambling...I need to get my big, wide backside in gear and take a shower so that Leya won't recoil in horror from me. Of course, she may do that, anyhow, but at least I won't be able to blame my hygiene.

And in too-few years, she can learn to recoil in horror from politicians, just like her loving grandpa.

What a wonderful thought.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Saturday, December 15, 2007

Season's Rantings

One branch of my father's side of the family lived in a small mining town called Twin Rocks in the mountains of central Pennsylvania, and when I was young, we used to travel there about once each summer to visit. It was not a trip we ever looked forward to - there wasn't much for us kids to do there, and the landscapes spoiled by coal mining were always depressing.

But now, I wish I still had contact with those relatives, because it's Christmas and I need a source of coal with which to fill the stockings of our elected representatives.

Yes, it's Bah, Humbug! time for Bilbo as I make my list, check it twice, and discover that there isn't a single Senator or Representative who deserves anything but coal or sawdust for Christmas. Consider just three critical things they have not accomplished during the current year:

An overhaul of our immigration laws.

Health care reform.

An adjustment to the Alternative Minimum Tax to keep millions of middle class taxpayers (like me) to keep from getting nailed this coming tax season.

There's not enough coal in the world to reward our fine representatives, who are too busy taking cheap political shots at each other and kissing the backsides of fat cat lobbyists to do anything for the people who elected them. I am one seriously pissed-off citizen.

I wish there were more of us.

I'd write more, but I'm tired, cranky, and depressed. And I still need to take the dog for a walk in the cold, miserable rain that's trying to turn into sleet and snow tonight.

I think I need a hug.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow when, hopefully, I'll be in a better mood.


Friday, December 14, 2007

The Sound of the Name

Maybe it's just one of those things that comes with having a background in Linguistics, but even before I had the sheepskin, I knew that I was fascinated by some places around the world just because of the way their names rolled sonorously off my tongue. There were places I knew I just had to see because the very sound of their names stirred my wanderlust. Long before Patricia Schultz wrote 1000 Places to See Before You Die, I had my list of places I had to see just because they sounded wonderful.

I got to thinking about this again a week or so ago when Amanda wrote about spending Christmas in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

Kuala Lumpur. Koo-AH-lah Loom-POOR. It's one of those places that has such a great name. Others include:

Kathmandu, Nepal. KAT-man-DOO.

Mombasa, Kenya. mom-BAH-sah.

Amarillo, Texas. am-uh-RILL-oh. (or, ah-mah-REE-yoh, if you're a Spanish purist).

Fond du Lac, Wisconsin. FOND-doo-LAHK.

Of course, the reality doesn't always match the picture we paint in our minds. I'll probably never see Kuala Lumpur or Kathmandu or Mombasa, but in the spring of 1973 I did visit Amarillo, Texas. En route from my Air Force technical training in Denver, Colorado to my new assignment in Bossier City, Louisiana, we drove through Amarillo. I couldn't wait!

And we drove down Amarillo Boulevard, right through the middle of town, in the middle of a terrible windstorm that was blowing clouds of sand everywhere, reducing visibility to nearly zero. We drove along behind an empty 55-gallon drum that was bouncing and clanging down the middle of the street, driven by the howling wind.

I've never been back to Amarillo.

But imagination is like that. Reality seldom matches the wonderful images we can paint in our minds. I'm not the first person to realize this, of course. In his marvelous new novel Ghost, Alan Lightman's hero writes about reading, and how "...the sounds of the words calmed him, but their meanings stirred him and made him want to leave their small house and go to far places." And in the story Take Another Road (from his book Tales from Margaritaville), Jimmy Buffet writes about cowboy Tully Mars, who sets out to visit Hannibal, Missouri, home of his hero Mark Twain, but worries, "What if all the wonderful places that had filled his imagination back on the ranch all turned out to be theme-park images of things that didn't even exist anymore?"

Yes, sometimes imagination is better. I'm probably better off with the mental pictures of Kuala Lumpur and Mombasa than with the experience of actually visiting. I know that's the case with Kathmandu, because I've read the letters from my friend Tom who actually lives there, and I've read Pico Iyer's wonderful little travelogue, Video Night in Kathmandu.

But somehow, every time I hear the names, I still want to go.

Maybe someday.

Have a good day. Exercise your imagination.

More thoughts tomorrow.


Thursday, December 13, 2007

Just the Facts, Ma'am

Stephen Colbert is one of those people I can either take or leave...sometimes, he's really funny; other times, I just want to unplug my TV and toss it out the window when he comes on. But I really enjoyed this Colbert quote, cited in my "Daily Curmudgeon" compilation a few weeks ago:

"In order to maintain an untenable position, you have to be actively ignorant ... One motto on the show is, 'Keep your facts, I'm going with the truth.'"

If you think about it, that's a pretty good summary of how all too many people think nowadays. Facts can be very inconvenient when they fly in the face of the things we absolutely know are true, and it's often easier to just ignore or minimize them when they get in the way. They are even malleable - they can change over time to accommodate shifts in the political wind (the constant rewriting of "history" in many countries is the prime example).

So what is a "fact," then? My trusty Webster's dictionary defines a fact as "an actual occurrence or event; a piece of information presented as having objective reality." Nowadays, the emphasis seems to be more on the second part of the definition than the first. A "fact" is something we just know is true, whether it is or not. It's something that conforms to our own version of "objective reality." If you're on one side of the argument, global warming is a fact; if you're on the other side, it isn't.

I offer a link on my blog to the Annenberg Political Fact Check website, which I encourage you to visit often for a clear and nonpartisan look at the "facts" (such as they are) presented by our presidential candidates. And as I've often said in this space, don't let anyone else do your thinking for you. If someone tries to convince you with facts, check them out yourself before you take them on faith. You'll be surprised what you might find when you turn those factual rocks over.

Have a good day, and remember the famous (if, perhaps, apocryphal) quote from Sergeant Joe Friday on the classic police show Dragnet: "just give us the facts, ma'am."

But be sure to check them out, first.

More thoughts tomorrow.


Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Things We Hope We Don't Need

One of the things you learn quickly as you surf the web is that everyone wants to sell you something. Our e-mail is choked with spam advertising cut-rate Viagra and other drugs, and each website and blog you visit seems to be festooned with ads for all sorts of things to buy, try, do, or experience.

What's interesting is that many of these ads are "scientifically" targeted to the perceived interests of the people who are visiting specific sites or reading specific articles. You'd be amazed what people will try to sell you.

Like the Everybody Coffin (TM).

I was reading an online article on disaster preparedness yesterday, and the article included the usual array of ads and links to related products, one of which was for the Everybody Coffin, available in two sizes (large and small) for only $195 from DQE, a company which offers "...practical products and services for emergency preparedness and response." The Everybody Coffin features "...patented, all natural wood design, allow(ing) for flat storage, assembly without tools and efficient stacking."


Ever since the tragic events of 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, I've thought a good deal about what to do in case of an emergency...especially since I live in the Washington, DC, area, which is high on the list of potential targets for angry, yet merciful and compassionate morons. I try to have a supply of bottled water and canned goods on hand, and to always have a plan for where to go and how to get there in case of a serious natural or man-made disaster. But I just have to plan for Agnes and I...there are professionals who have to plan for disasters which affect tens of thousands or millions of souls. They're the people who have to worry about things like collapsible coffins.

On the whole, I'd rather live in a time when the targeted advertisements were for mundane things like lawn care, big-screen TVs, Viagra, and the latest movie. It's sad to think that we need ads for companies that manufacture things like collapsible coffins, body bags, and other supplies for dealing with "mass casualty events." I wish my biggest worries were whether or not I can master particular dance steps or open the zip file containing the Mistress of the Dark's latest music mix. Unfortunately, we can't pick our times and places, and we have to play the hand we've been dealt.

Life's like that.

So anyhow, be advised that the Everybody Coffin is not on my Christmas wish list. Peace on earth and goodwill toward men are.

But I guess I'm not likely to get that, either.

Too bad.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Products I Don't Really Need

There are lots of things out there contending for my money. I'm a gadget freak, especially for kitchen gadgets, and if it's within my limited means, I'll usually buy it for myself. My study is littered with odd gadgets, some of which I've come to love, others of which (like the 3x5-inch digital picture frame and my early-model iPaq PDA) have gone to that great digital junkyard in the sky. But there's a fancy new digital product out there now that I don't think will be appearing in my home or property any time soon.

Say hello to the digital tombstone.

Yes, for a mere $2000, you can own the so-called "serenity panel" system as an add-on to your ordinary, tacky granite tombstone. Visitors to your eternal condo can view a slideshow of your life, watch videos of your earthly highlights, or hear your voice offering recorded greetings from the Great Beyond.

Oh, for Pete's sake...

Years ago, Bill Cosby did a little routine about funeral cliches, envisioning himself lying in his coffin with a cassette player greeting mourners with things like, "Hi! Here I am! Don't I look natural? Don't I look like myself?" I suppose it had to come to pass sooner or later.


For all of you out there who are scratching your heads over what to get me for Christmas, don't bother ordering the Serenity System. Once I'm gone, I won't care.

And you probably wouldn't want to know where the tech support center is located.

Have a good day. E-mail me for a copy of my Christmas gift list. More thoughts tomorrow.


Monday, December 10, 2007

The Footsteps of the Father

There was an interesting, if short, article in yesterday's issue of Parade Magazine (the one that comes with the Sunday paper). Called "The Battle Over Political Dynasties," it began with the observation that politicians, more so than people in other professions, are likely to follow a parent into the "family business." I think this is an interesting observation.

In general, Americans don't seem to follow in their fathers' footsteps any more. There are probably a lot of reasons for this: the mobility of modern American society, and the level of training required for many highly-technical modern trades, and simple rebellion are a few possibilities. And then there are the wishes of the parent and the child: my father was an advertising illustrator (and a very good one) - an art school graduate, he built his photography business on a reputation for technical excellence and a willingness to take on the very difficult shoots many other photographers wouldn't touch (this was, of course, long before the days when digital imaging and PhotoShop made it easy to do complex photographic effects for which he was justly famous). Dad never wanted any of us to go into his business - he thought it was too much headache and labor for too little return. And so it turned out...two of us went into military careers, my youngest brother is an EMT, and my sister is a Loss Prevention Specialist for a big insurance company. My older son initially went to school and graduated as a civil engineer, not wanting to follow me into a military career. But he found that the civilian world didn't offer him the level of challenge and responsibility he sought, and ended up in the military anyhow - where he got all the responsibility he ever wanted. My other son went to college and majored in Archaeology and Anthropology; he now works at a museum in Los Angeles. Looking beyond the family, I don't know many people who have gone into a family business.

Politics is (are?) different. Unlike many countries where political leadership is handed down from father to child, or within a family - think any monarchy, or Syria (Hafez Asad handed off rule to his son Bashar), or Egypt (where Hosni Mubarak is grooming his son to rule), the United States depends on democratic elections to select new rulers. This, of course, doesn't prevent political dynasties from coming up, although they tend not to be long-lasting ruling dynasties. Our second President, John Adams, was the father of the sixth President, John Quincy Adams; and George H. W. Bush begat George W. Bush (of whom the less said, the better). We now stand before the real possibility that Hillary Rodham Clinton, wife of former President Bill Clinton, will be the next President. The Kennedy Family is a powerhouse in American politics. And so on.

The point of the Parade article was the question of whether we need a constitutional amendment such as the one proposed by Republican activist Grover Norquist to ban "political dynasties." My strongly-held opinion is "no." As long as we have a political system which relies on free and fair elections, there's no need to specifically forbid someone from following in the family business, even if that business is politics. If the voters don't like your policies, they won't vote for you no matter who your family is. There's no need to add yet another law to the tens of thousands we now have that aren't enforced, anyhow.

What do you think?

I'd write more, but I have a job I need to get to...and my son isn't waiting in the wings to take it over for me.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Sunday, December 09, 2007

Christmas Approaches!

Yesterday I ranted because I'd had enough on the topic du jour. Today, because the universe must be kept in proper balance, I feel the need to set a bit more lighthearted tone, and help pave the way for the arrival of the Jolly Fat Man.

No, not Bill Clinton.

Yes, I'm talking about the impending visit of Santa Claus, whose arrival began to be heralded in stores soon after the Fourth of July, right about the time that swim suits disappeared from the stores to be replaced by mukluks and padded coats (fashion note: be careful of those down-filled, quilted vests...I used to have one and, in the words of a classic "Shoe" cartoon, it made me look like an aging hand grenade). I've been hearing Christmas music since at least September, and I'm tired of seeing the Norelco shaver commercial with Santa riding the floating heads over the snow-covered hills. Some days I think Ebeneezer Scrooge and I would have understood each other well.

On the upside, yesterday I mailed off all the Christmas cards that didn't have The Letter inside (see here if you don't recognize the reference); those that get The Letter, and those who live overseas, will have to wait until I can get their cards weighed at the post office and sell enough blood to be able to afford the postage. The tree is up and decorated (thanks to the children's work crew that did the job over read about that here). The outside decorations are up, too. Today, I plan (ha, ha) to start wrapping the gifts for our distant grandchildren so that I can get them in the mail and have them arrive in time for Christmas. One of our time-honored family traditions is the ritual Mailing of the Packages Too Late, Even Though the Gifts Themselves Have Been Purchased for Months (that sounds more eloquent than just admitting I'm a world-class procrastinator).

Still to do: order the ham for Christmas Eve (I so love standing in Disney-quality lines with a million of my very best friends at the Honeybaked Ham store), order the specially-sliced meat for the Rouladen for Christmas Day, and update the Christmas music music selection on my iPod (I'm waiting anxiously for the sort-of-promised Christmas Mix from The Mistress of the Dark, who has been posting great new (and old) Christmas music on her blog for the last week or so). Also need to call the Weather Channel and put in the order for the White Christmas (oops...can't do that...might inadvertently offend anyone who isn't white, and I don't need the lawsuit. Sigh.).

Well, okay, I've spent about 45 minutes rambling my way through this post. Time to recharge my cup of coffee and read the Sunday paper before Agnes gets up and thinks of all the things "we" need to do today (I refer, of course, to the linguistic phenomenon known as "Feminine Pronoun Mutation," in which the inclusive pronoun "we" is understood to mean "you," as in "you need to get off your big, wide backside and do this today").

I didn't spend four years getting that degree in Linguistics for nothing!

Have a good day. Sixteen days until Christmas. Copies of my gift wish list available on request.

More thoughts tomorrow.


Saturday, December 08, 2007

I Don't Care!

As I search (fruitlessly, so far) to find a candidate for president I can support in the 2008 election, I’m struck by the flood of empty words that pander to carefully-selected audiences and take the place of thoughtful ideas. Everything has to be thought through and packaged just the right way, as directed by the handlers, to keep from offending anyone and to make sure just the right note is struck at all times.

I think the worst of it is the emphasis being placed this season on the candidates’ religious beliefs. Here’s a note on that topic to everyone running for president:

I don’t care.

- I don’t care if you believe Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and you have accepted him as your personal Savior.

- I don’t care if you believe the Book of Mormon is another testament of Jesus Christ.

- I don’t care if you believe there is no god but God, and that Mohammed is His prophet.

- I don’t care if you believe you will be reincarnated repeatedly until you reach Nirvana.

- I don’t care if you think it’s better to suffer and die than to accept medical treatment.

- I don’t care whether you call yourself a Christian, Jew, Mormon, Muslim, Baptist, Buddhist, Zoroastrianist, Animist, Christian Scientist, Shinto, Anabaptist, Calvinist, Lutheran, Sunni, Presbyterian, Shiite, Seventh Day Adventist, Anglican, Wiccan, or anything else.

- I don’t care if you worship in a church, temple, mosque, or synagogue, or in a circle of stones on a hilltop. I care about what you believe in your heart, and what kind of leader it makes you. If you need Scriptural or Koranic or Talmudic verses to tell you how to be a decent and caring person, you don’t deserve to be president.

All of this is between you and God, and the two of you will sort it out on Judgment Day.

On the other hand, there are some things about which I care very much:

- Do you live The Golden Rule?

- How do you live your beliefs in your daily life? Do they make you someone who cares about the welfare of your neighbors, the nation, and the rest of the world, or do they make you rigidly certain that those who don’t agree with you will be damned for all eternity?

- Do you believe that your religion gives you the right and the duty to force me to worship the same way you do, and to kill or enslave me if I refuse?

- Do you favor one set of believers over another?

- Do you need to follow strict and intricate rules to live a simple and godly life?

If you want me to care enough to vote for you, you need to show me that your beliefs are a foundation for wisdom and compassion, rather than hatred and intolerance. You need to show me that you can live your beliefs, rather than just spouting them at the right place in interviews and stump speeches.

My grandchildren will grow up in a world you will play a major role in shaping.

And I care about them a lot more than I care about you.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Friday, December 07, 2007

Sorting Out Guantanamo

In the news recently has been the suit before the Supreme Court in which attorneys representing prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay are arguing the case for whether the detainees are entitled to the protection of the constitutional protection of habeas corpus - the right to prove before an independent court that they are being unlawfully held. As an excellent summary in the Washington Post reports, "It is a case that raises profound questions of the separation of powers and the role of the federal courts during wartime."

As you might expect, a few thoughts come to mind as I watch this legal kabuki dance.

The first, obvious one is that there are some very evil and unpleasant people being held at Guantanamo, demanding rights no other country in the world would even consider granting them. I don't think Abu Zubayda, Ramzi Binalshibh, and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed spent much time worrying about the legal rights of the 3,000 people they conspired to murder on September 11th, 2001 (one of whom was very nearly yours truly), and so I don't have much sympathy for the argument that we should worry about their rights. On the other hand, I believe we have an obligation to ensure that all the people held at Guantanamo really deserve to be there. I think there are probably some detainees there who, while they're arguably bad people, ought to be simply deported to their home countries, and good riddance.

I do, though, have some problems with how some of these detainees got to Guantanamo. The concept of extraordinary rendition isn't really new, but has been taken to a new level by the current administration. As noisims pointed out in his perceptive post yesterday, Adolf Eichmann, a Nazi war criminal, was kidnapped in Buenos Aires by Israeli agents in 1960 to face trial and eventual execution in Israel - this was a case of extraordinary rendition before we had such an elegant name for it, and Eichmann was a world-class criminal every bit as evil as anyone at Guantanamo. No one seems to be arguing that Eichmann's rights were violated.

Yes, the Bush administration has taken some liberties with the law. But to contend that the Guantanamo detainees deserve the same legal rights and privileges as American citizens is a cruel joke played on those killed on 9/11. I believe that rendition, properly overseen by the courts and applied only in the most critical cases, is warranted and legal. As for the people we hold now, figure out which ones really belong at Guantanamo, and deport the rest. If they take up arms against the civilized world again, just kill them this time, and be done with it.

By the way, does anyone other than me see any incongruity in the argument that Guantanamo detainees shouldn't be sent back to their home countries because they might be tortured or executed? The implied argument seems to be that, regardless of how they came to be at Guantanamo, they are better off in American custody than they are at home.


Bottom line: the prison at Guantanamo, however unpleasant, is a necessary part of the war on extremist terror. That said, we owe it to ourselves and our traditions to make sure that it's administered in accordance with the law, and that the people brought there really deserve to be there. Lock them up, throw away the key, and let them rot in the bile of their own hatreds that brought them to this end.

I won't be shedding any tears.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Thursday, December 06, 2007

Home, Sweet Wherever

One of the staple themes of Christmas "going home." It began with the original Christmas story and the journey of Joseph and Mary home to Bethlehem to comply with the census decreed by the emperor Augustus. Our favorite Christmas carols include "I'll Be Home for Christmas" and "There's No Place Like Home for the Holidays," and millions of us will travel - often over great distances - to spend Christmas with our family at home.

But the question for many of us is, "where's home?"

I grew up at a time when people generally had roots in a local area. I spent almost my entire childhood in one house in Pittsburgh, and so I think of the house where Dad still lives as my "home."

But I left home in 1973 for a career in the Air Force, and in the ensuing 23 years, I lived in Denver, Colorado; Bossier City, Louisiana; Wiesbaden, Germany (twice!); Berlin, Germany; Woodbridge, Virginia; and, finally, the teeming megalopolis of Springfield, Virginia. Officially, Springfield is now "home." It's where we own a house (well, not exactly ... it's where the bank owns a house in which it lets us live as long as we keep up the payments) and where we work. It's not really where we want to live forever, but for now, it's home.

Things aren't the same for our children. Both of our sons were born in Louisiana, and our daughter was born in Germany. The boys now live in Ohio and California, and our daughter lives in Manassas, Virginia. Agnes was born in Germany, too, and lived in several places before following me to the States. We've all lived a footloose military family life in three- or four-year chunks in many places. For Agnes, and for our children, where's home?

The question applies to more and more people nowadays. As we move around in search of work or in response to job transfers, fewer of us have the chance to put down real roots, to have a place we can definitively identify as "home." The current issue of Smithsonian Magazine has an article on this topic by Richard Ford titled, "My Kind of Town," in which he looks at his current "home" of East Boothby, Maine, and recognizes that "I'll never be a native here."

What is "home"? Old adages say that "Home is where you hang your hat" (or where you hang your head), "Home is where the heart is," and "Home is where, when you go there, they have to take you in." The stereotypical mental picture of "home" is the warm, peaceful and loving place where you know you belong and can always find someone who loves you. It's a concept that helps to anchor us in a difficult world.

Of course, it doesn't apply to everyone, all the time. Tens of thousands of Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines won't be home for Christmas: they will spend the holidays in Iraq or Afghanistan, surrounded by people who at best dislike and, at worst, hate them. Many people will no doubt be stranded by the airlines, spending a large chunk of their holidays sleeping on uncomfortable airport chairs as they cope with overcrowded, delayed, or cancelled flights.

Agnes and I are fortunate. We're home, or as much at home as we're likely to be for the rest of our lives. We're putting down roots, of a sort. "Home" is now Springfield, Virginia - not necessarily the place we want to settle down when we finally retire, but for now, it's home.

As we approach the holidays, sing the songs, buy the gifts, put up the decorations, and mail the cards, think about what it means to be "home," and how fortunate you are if you know where "home" really is. Will you "stay home" or "go home"?

Whatever you do, and wherever "home" is, I hope you have a safe and happy holiday, whether you call it Hanukkah, Christmas, Kwanzaa, the Winter Solstice, or anything else.

Tomorrow, we'll home in on another topic. More thoughts then.

Have a good day.