Monday, October 17, 2016

Balls and strikes

When I was a boy, “social media” meant mostly baseball gloves and footballs. These were the primary means of our interactions with our peers. We played endless games on our suburban streets, in our connected backyards, in neighborhood parks and even – when local school officials were insufficiently attentive to the locks on their gates – on actual ball fields. If we had enough kids – and at the tail end of the Baby Boom, we often did – we’d play 11-on-11 or 9-on-9 as the season demanded. If too many kids were sick or grounded or on vacation, we engaged in endless personnel adjustments to make the games even. Somebody might be the designated quarterback for both sides. Or the hitting team might provide its own catcher. But there was one position that was never filled: No one was going to waste valuable play time being the referee or the umpire.

With the exception of the occasional squabble, our honor system worked a treat. If you stepped out of bounds (that is to say, into Mrs. Scheimann's yard), you stopped where you were. If you missed the tag before Billy Miller made it to the back corner of the Buick, you said so. And if too often you didn't, you were subject to the ultimate sanction: Kids who couldn’t be counted on to call it square – on themselves most of all – found their doorbell stopped ringing, because nobody cared if Mikey could come out to play, if Mikey was a duplicitous sneak.

This notion, that your personal integrity and commitment to fair play were paramount, was inculcated into us at every turn, from our earliest days. You memorized “If” in the fourth grade. They told you George Washington couldn’t tell a lie about his stint as a junior arborist, even at the risk of a licking* – and this when you were young enough that ending up over Dad’s knee was an all too available consequence of your own confessional inclinations. Long before the age of participation trophies, we prized the ones they gave out for sportsmanship.

On the not-so-mean streets of 1960s Cleveland Heights, your rep was as important to you as to any inmate on the prison yard. Simply put, we all wanted to win, but we were taught to revile the idea of winning at any cost, and we did.
If nothing else, this grotesque presidential campaign is demonstrating conclusively that this fundamental truth from my boyhood is now passé. It's not the candidates and their legions of professional apparatchiks who demonstrate this. Those sorts have been ever thus, and we would never have let them play with us anyway. Rather, what is worrisome – indeed, what is frightening – are those people whom one respects or even admires who have, more easily than one could have imagined, abandoned all standards, beliefs, and philosophies they once held dear, who have traded their own integrity, all in sacrifice to the singular value of seeing their side win.

They have deemed principles not merely articles to be ignored, but luxuries to be scorned. And if you hold to yours, then, at best you're a fool or a patsy – but more likely you'll be denominated a collaborator.

Their justifications are as they always have been:

"This time is different."

“The circumstances are exigent, extraordinary.”

"Just this much, just this once. . . 

“The stakes are too high. . .

“After the coup, we will promptly restore democracy, reinstate civil liberties and release those whom we have interned.”

Oops. Sorry.

That last one wasn’t from this election. It was from every military coup, by every jumped up dictator since Julius Caesar.

And here’s the thing: It's working. Whichever candidate prevails as the prettiest pig at the fair, this declaration of vice as virtue seems certain to win out. And for those who have embraced this anti-philosophy, there's no going back. To paraphrase Robert Bolt paraphrasing Thomas More, once you let your values slip through your fingers – or, as in this election, once you toss them to the dirt – they cannot be picked up again.**

And like the kid who wouldn't take his out, when the election is over, when your chosen, favored, power-hungry narcissist is measuring the drapes for the Oval Office, you’re going to be faced with what I wish I could claim is one of Robert’s Rules, but which I must fairly attribute to Buackaroo Banzai:
Wherever you go, there you are.

To what exigency will you appeal then, when you find yourself with all the time in the world? What lie will you tell then, when there's only you to hear it?

Who is going to want to play with you then?

UPDATED to add, that this is the sort of thing I mean by winning at any costs. And to say that support of tactics like this isn't theoretical. People I respect have told me this or that candidate must be stopped, and so. . . ]

* They did not, of course, tell us that this story, designed to inspire forthright honesty, was utter propaganda.

** What the theatrical More said was:

                     What is an oath then, but words we say to God?
                      Listen, Meg. When a man takes an oath, he's holding his own self
                      in his own hands like water. And if he opens his fingers then,
                      he needn't hope to find himself again. 

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Le Médecin malgré lui*

(A tragicomedy in one scene.)

            The scene is a doctor's office of another era. A large and well worn oaken desk separates the doctor and his patient. The doctor's chair is high-backed, plush and leather. The patient perches on a plain, straight, armless wooden chair, one leg of which is just slightly shorter than the others causing it to thump as the patient moves in the chair. [Importantly, neither character should ever remark on this, even with a glance or gesture.] Everything in the office speaks of long use and ill attention, except for an enormous, gleaming metal and porcelain cabinet that looms behind the doctor. [Care should be taken to light the cabinet aggressively, so that the effect is of a glowing, sublime and vaguely overwhelming presence.]

The doctor is a tall and slender man in his mid-fifties, his close-cropped, once brown hair gone grayish with the strain and aggravation of years spent telling patients exactly what is good for them and not being universally heeded. He wears a dark suit, and a white lab coat with an American flag lapel pin slightly askew.

The patient is a woman of indeterminate middle age. Her smart business suit, tame hairdo and (if the director wishes) cliched horn-rimmed spectacles, along with her upright posture, vocabulary and close attention to the doctor all suggest a person of intelligence, education and judgment  . . . but all tinged with a wisp of real worry.

Doc:     Well Ms. Jones, you are terribly, terribly ill.

Jones:   Oh my goodness, what’s wrong with me. Is it cancer? Lupus? The Zika virus?

D:        Now, now, none of that. Naming your disease is not going to change how sick you are, Ms. Jones. Certainly you can see that.

J:          But don’t you need to diagnose my disease to treat it? Isn't its etiology important, crucial even, in fashioning an efficacious treatment?

D:        Well now! Look who's spent some time on Web MD. Who’s the doctor here, hmm? I know exactly what you need. Yes indeed.

::Swivels his chair to the large cabinet behind him and swings opens the doors to reveal shelves sagging with hundreds of bottles of blue pills::

::Swivels back and hands a large bottles to Mrs. Jones::

D:        Now take three pills five times a day. Do your best to combat the nausea, hair loss, cramping, drowsiness, insomnia, spasms, temporary blindness, light sensitivity, deafness, tinnitus, speaking in tongues, chills, night sweats, flaking skin, oily skin, loss of hearing, loss of libido, loss of memory, constipation and explosive diarrhea that are certain to accompany the treatment. Do be sure to report any other side effects, as I really cannot anticipate what those might be and I sort of like to keep track.

Alrighty then, you can go now. See you in 90 days.

::He looks down at his papers::

J:          What are these, Doctor?

D:        ::Looking up, surprised and slightly peeved to see Ms. Jones has kept her seat::

            Now, missy, that seems obvious. They are blue pills. These are what I give my all my patients any time any of them gets sick.

J:         The same pill? No matter what caused their cancer or  . . .

D:       ::interrupting with a raised hand::

             Hey there! We'll have none of that!

J:         I'm sorry. I mean to say, whatever caused their . . . er. . . .sickness . . . .

            ::The doctor smiles and lowers his hand:: 

           . . . .whatever it might be called – they all get the same pill?

D.        Oh yes, of course the same pill.

           ::He comes to his feet then leans across the desk. His voice becomes oratorical::

            I believe very strongly in these pills, Ms. Jones. I am deeply committed to these pills. I want these pills to be a part of my legacy.

J:         Are they effica. . . um . . . will they work? Will I get well?

D:        ::He sits::

            I haven’t the slightest idea. Whether they "work," as you call it, whether you get "well" – these are not the point. The point is that I’m the doctor and I want people – well, not people, exactly, but my patients –  to take these blue pills.

J:          Why? 

D:         ::Exasperation growing::

             Now you are a silly little thing aren’t you.

::He stands again, reaches across and deliberately pats her head::

Why dear, it is simply common sense to take these pills. Common sense. You’re not objecting to common sense are you?

J:         Well, I’m not sure that  . . .

D:        ::He sits with a thump of finality::

             Hush now, child. After all, who’s in charge here, eh? I’m the doctor. You’re the patient. Yes, you’re terribly sick and you lack common sense. But never fear, I have something to help with your lack of common sense as well.

J:          Let me guess. . . .

::Doctor swivles precisely back to cabinet for another bottle of blue pills.::

D:        Now I really haven’t any more time for your questions today, young lady.

           You scoot now.

J:         OK

             ::She takes the two large bottles of pills and rises to leave.::

D:         ::Just as the patient reaches the door. . . :: Wait! Wait one second!

J:           Yes, Doctor?

D:          You forgot the bill.

* Obligatory apologies to Jean-Baptiste Poquelin.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Battle Road

As the rising sun pierced the billowing gun smoke that April morning 241 years ago, I suspect the British regulars were thinking something along the lines of “Well, that’s for them.” The truth is that the “Shot Heard Round the World” echoed over an inauspicious field abandoned by a beaten militia in full flight. The only would-be rebels who remained on the Green did so because they were dead or dying.

So British Colonel Francis Smith might well have thought that, with one lot of traitors shown conclusively who was master, well begun was half done and the day portended well for King George III. It must have been with more than a little confidence that Smith turned his troops down the road toward Concord, where Tories and spies had reported the nascent rebellion had a large cache of weapons.

But neither Smith nor his executive officer, Major John Pitcairn – much less King George – had heard American Captain John Parker addressing his militiamen just before dawn. The rebels had waited through the night to see if the British foray into the countryside was just another reconnoiter in force, or something more sinister. Paul Revere and his fellow riders assured them the regulars were on their way intent on disarming the budding rebellion.  As the British entered the green, the militiamen assembled from Buckman Tavern and elsewhere to face them. Parker reminded them that while their foremost purpose was to merely demonstrate their resolve, more than that might well be demanded of them. 

“Stand your ground and do not fire unless fired upon,” Parker ordered. “But if they mean to have a war, let it begin here.”*

Faced off across a space no larger than a football field, Parker and Pitcairn each commanded their respective forces not to fire. Pitcairn had every reason to expect to be obeyed; British regulars did as they were ordered and Pitcairn’s force of elite light infantry were some of the best troops of the best professional army in the world. Parker, commanding farmers, merchants – and a slave named Prince Estabrook – likewise expected to be obeyed, if for no other reason than because his men had families close at hand, some watching from just off the field.  Greek governmental theories, philosophical abstractions and offenses such as the Intolerable Acts may have driven rabble-rousers like Sam Adams and his Sons of Liberty. But for the militiamen on Lexington Green, their homes and farms and livelihoods were all too tangible realities, all too close at hand.

So no one was meant to fire a shot, but as it as has time and again throughout the years, the shot nevertheless was fired** and then everyone on the field let loose. It was over in minutes and the outcome, with many rebels killed or wounded, and only one of his own men hurt, couldn't have surprised Pitcairn, who couldn't have had much doubt about how the rest of the day would go.

But it was only dawn. And he hadn't heard Parker.

Pitcairn couldn't have understood at that moment that he hadn't just been a part of a police action or some noisy civil disturbance. Because he hadn't heard Parker, because he didn't know who these Patriots really were, Pitcairn didn't know then that he’d really been a participant in the first skirmish of a remorseless war. But he was soon to learn.

By the end of that very day, after the desperate running fight down the Battle Road, as the blood ran from the North Bridge to stain the Concord River, Pitcairn could not help but to have had a better understanding of what war with real Americans would mean: All told the rebels had lost 88 men killed and wounded. The butcher’s bill for the most feared and powerful military force in the world was nearly twice that, at 147. By the very next morning – without the aid of Facebook or a single cell phone –  15,000 men of what would eventually*** become a victorious Continental Army were outside of Boston.  

This nation was born of blood and smoke and outrage and an abiding sense that "Enough is enough, damn it." It was born when a secure and prosperous people finally decided that their liberties were more dear to them than their comforts. I am convinced that Americans -- or, at the very least, enough Americans -- still fear blood and smoke less, and love liberty more, than they love their comfort. I believe that Americans still know their way to the Battle Road. I believe this, I confess, in part because I must believe it, or else despair.

[This is a repost from the original, slightly revised.]

* Indeed, many of the militiamen may not have heard Parker, either. Her suffered from tuberculosis and had trouble mustering enough breath to speak.

**Theories vary wildly about who fired first. The best evidence, I think, suggests that it was one of the spectators, townsmen arrayed around the green, but not under Parker’s command.

*** "Eventually" in spades. In the eight years, four months and 15 days from that day to the Treaty of Paris, there would be some 150,000 casualties, suffered overwhelmingly by the Americans and their families, fighting on their own doorsteps.

Friday, January 29, 2016

Getting my Irish up

I can see my well-worn copy of "The Year of the French" from where I am sitting right now. It was published in 1979, nearly 200 years after the events it portrays. I was a college freshman. I bought it in hardcover, though I hardly had money for whiskey.

I read it that year and I read it again every year – I’m due to begin again mid-March. Flanagan's book is inextricably tied up in whatever precious sense of Irishness I have been able to reclaim from my fractured personal pedigree as an Irish/German half-breed bastard raised by Czechs. In that, and in the facility with which I can now finish its sentences, it is an old and important friend. Indeed, so a good a friend that in kindness, I now leave the first edition on the shelf and read it on my Kindle.

In briefest precis, the book is the story of the '98 Rising, fomented by United Irishmen and a host of other lovers of liberty, men and women of a diversity that will surprise those used to thinking of the more modern variety of Troubles in strictly sectarian terms. Framed by the story of a fictional poet and hedge school master -- a man with equal affections for the jug, comfortable women and Greek, but having no particular inclination toward revolution -- it is a towering work, a staggering literary accomplishment. It is huge and funny and tragic and just so fookin' good.

And that would be enough. Dayenu, to steal the perfect term from another people of words and woe. Except that while that would enough, that's not all. What boggles the mind to this day, what fills me with a mixture of powerful awe and no little writer’s envy, is that this was Flanagan's first novel. The utter gall of the man, to write such a work as a first thing. Dayenu. Except even that isn't all. Because I will read TYOTF with special attention this year, as I will be 56 – the age Flanagan was when he published it. His first novel – this novel  at 56!

With the exception of its protagonist, the TYOTF comes under the ambit of mostly true historical fiction. Nothing you will learn in it is false, even if there are those -- mostly British, I'd expect -- critics who might complain of what it leaves alone. But frankly, if you wish, you can leave the history alone altogether, if it bores or angers or discomfits you. [I spoil nothing to say this Rising ended more less as you will have come to expect although, thanks to French involvement, with even more treachery and disappointment than was strictly usual.] But you must read this book at last or again, as the case may be for you.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Wherein the Suburban Sheepdog engages in wild speculation . . . *

One thing we simply don’t do here at the Suburban Sheepdog is engage in wild speculation. Well. . . . It's not completely prohibited, I suppose, but it is certainly discouraged. Yes . . .  discouraged. Frowned upon, one might say. Not the done thing. So maybe let's call this "Theater of the Mind" instead. 

For folks with even the slightest knowledge of how guys “in the boats” operate (and I claim only the slightest knowledge), the story has had the smell of a Qatari-fishmonger’s day-old wares right from the start. It goes like this:

Two modern Riverine Command Boats (carrying loads of sophisticated navigation equipment, communications gear, highly maintained engines, experienced sailors and – not for nothing – tow ropes), supposedly traveling within sight of the eastern shore of Arabian Peninsula while transiting down the western edge of the Persian Gulf got leagues** off course and both run aground/suffer simultaneous multiple engine failures/both run out of fuel (this bit of the tale changes with each telling), and thus wind up in notoriously unfriendly Iranian waters, where they are seized.***

I know, right . . . ?

But to understand a story, to test its smell, you have to know the context in which is told. So how about this for that . . ..

The US and Iran, perhaps as an adjunct to Let’s Make a Deal, perhaps as a prerequisite to it, perhaps as a result, agree that there will be a prisoner exchange. We will get back five folks, including a journalist, a student and a pastor. Iran gets back seven prisoners, most of whom were being held for illegally exporting military or nuclear program materiel, and we agree to take another Iranian 14 fugitives off of Interpol’s wanted list. From the US administration’s perspective, the exchange is cheap at twice the price, because our people come home.

But for Iran, not so much. The trouble for Iran is that, like any despotry, the most important propaganda isn’t the kind they broadcast to the rest of an unbelieving world. Instead, the propaganda that matters most is the kind that is disseminated to its own citizens. They must continually be reminded of – on the one hand – the threat posed by whomever is playing foil to the regime (for Iran, of course, that’s been US, in the role of “The Great Satan,” a performance running since at least the overthrow of Mossadegh and extended indefinitely) and – on the other hand – the power of the Supreme Leader (or El Jefe Maximo or The Grand Poobah or whatever he’s locally dubbed) to resist that existential outside threat. Only thus can the President for Life or the Revolutionary Counsel or the Mighty Morphin’ Magic Mullah justify all the torture, repression and bread lines, and keep his own people at least marginally at bay.

So, knowing they are about to release some US “spies” and “operatives,” and not quite satisfied with a better than 4-to-1 exchange rate, one can imagine Iran demanding that a callow U.S. administration put a little sweetener into the pot. Our benighted leadership is all too eager to ante up. But  . . . what’s left? We’re already giving back all the money we seized and lifting the sanctions we imposed, all on unverifiable promises that Iran will behave itself in years to come, you know, nuclear bomb-wise. We already have demonstrated that a few unauthorized missile launches here and there aren’t going to be enough to queer the deal. Naked before a fully-clothed Iran, what’s left for the pot in this one-sided strip poker game? What to do? What to do?
And then I imagine**** someone speaking up from the back row of some conference room  – maybe an eager-beaver back-wall staffer who’s prized for thinking outside the box: “Say . . .  How about some American sailors on their knees? Now hear me out. . . .  There’s – I dunno – a ‘navigation failure.’ They – whadaya call it? – ‘stray into Iranian waters’? And you Iranians . . .ya know . . . seize the boats. Nobody gets hurt. You  guys take some photos and steal some telephone SIM cards. Maybe you shoot a little video that you can broadcast over encouraging chyrons describing the ‘cowardice’and ‘submission of the United States.’ Time it just right to coordinate with the prisoner exchange. . .  Then you give the sailors back and we get to say we ‘recovered’ them, which is easy 'cause we gave em over in the first place.  . . ."

"Ohhh! Ohhh!" pipes up a staffer on the political team, eager to think outside a box of her own. "Get this  . . . this is good: POTUS doesn't say a word about the seizure during the State of the Union. Team R howls. Then they look foolish when we announce it like the next day. Sort of like Operation Neptune Spear and the Correspondents' Dinner. The President is going to look so  -- what's the word? -- Presidential."

"Three or four news cycles at the most" says the first staffer, glaring at the young woman who has stolen some of his thunder, vowing his revenge. "Everybody gets well. We emphasize the prisoner exchange; you focus on the 'incursion.' Whadaya say?"

But that’s all wild speculation. . . .

. . .  And we don’t do that here.

* . . . and uses a lot of ellipses.

** “League” is just a salty way of saying 3 nautical miles. Nautical mile is just a salty way of saying 1.15 miles. To get the picture, try this exercise. Go to Google Maps and search up “Farsi Island.” (Keep zooming in; you will see it eventually.) Now draw a line from Kuwait to Bahrain. There you go. Actual distances involved are about 42 miles between Farsi Island and the nearest point on the Saudi coast. Yes, the Iranians claim waters around Farsi Island as their own. Even so . . .

*** I have no cavil with the “seized” part from that point. These boats are not designed to engage in combat on the open seas with bigger craft, nor was the mission here to do so, nor would the Rules of Engagement have allowed such a fight.

**** And of course, I only can imagine, since I wasn’t in the room where it happened.