Tuesday, September 30, 2008

An Open Letter to Fellow Californians: NO on Prop 8

My husband and I have written an open letter to our fellow California citizens, urging them to vote NO on Prop 8. In it, we explain what marriage means to us, what legal recognition of our marriage means to us, and what legal recognition of our marriage means to others.

If you find our letter helpful in thinking about this issue, we hope that you will talk about it with your friends and family, and send them the link to our letter.

We realize that you, our fellow Californians, are a diverse crowd with many different points of view. We've tried to explain our viewpoint in this letter, but we couldn't address every possible moral, religious, political and philosophical perspective. If you have questions, comments, or would like to discuss this further, we welcome respectful dialog with our fellow citizens. Please feel free to add your comments here on this blogpost.

Monday, September 29, 2008

A Gay Couple's Worst Nightmare

Sometimes opponents of same-sex marriage will argue that we don't need legal marriage if we can get all the same things from domestic partnership, or power-of-attorney paperwork. But it is not the same thing, as these true stories tragically illustrate:
  • While on a family cruise leaving from Miami, Lisa Pond, a healthy 39 year-old, suddenly collapsed. She was rushed to Miami's Jackson Memorial Hospital with her partner Janice and three children following close behind. There, the hospital refused to accept information from Janice about her partner's medical history. Janice was informed that she was in an antigay city and state, and she could expect to receive no information or acknowledgment as family. A doctor finally spoke with Janice telling her that there was no chance of recovery. Other than one five minute visit, which was orchestrated by a Catholic priest at Janice's request to perform last rites, and despite the doctor's acknowledgement that no medical reason existed to prevent visitation, neither Janice nor her children were allowed to see Lisa until nearly eight hours after their arrival. Soon after Lisa's death, Janice tried to get her death certificate in order to get Life Insurance and Social Security benefits for their children. She was denied both by the State of Florida and the Dade County Medical Examiner.

  • Just ask Bill Flanigan. Bill’s partner of five years, Robert Daniel, was admitted in critical condition to a Baltimore shock trauma center because of complications arising from AIDS. The two were on a family trip from California on their way to visit Bill’s sister in the Washington, D.C. area. Bill followed Robert’s ambulance to the hospital and rushed into the critical care unit. When he arrived, he asked to see Robert and confer with his doctors. Staff members shut him out. They said that only family could visit, and Bill didn’t count.

    But, Bill insisted, what about my durable power of attorney for health care decisions? What about the fact that we are registered as domestic partners? (Bill and Robert carried around with them all the legal documentation they could to make sure their relationship would be respected.) The staff paid these things no mind. They let other patients’ family members in and out of critical care throughout the night, while Bill waited. He was never permitted to make the physicians aware of Robert’s wishes not to have life-prolonging treatment, and he was kept from Robert’s side. The nightmare the couple had tried to make sure would never happen came to pass.

    Bill was allowed to see Robert only after Robert’s sister and mother arrived, hours later. By that time, Robert was unconscious, his eyes taped shut and a breathing tube – something Robert specifically did not want – down his throat. Robert died a few days later, without the two men ever having a chance to say goodbye.

  • Mary Beth Dyer and her partner, Fran, have been together for more than fifteen years. That didn't matter to the doctor who was assigned to Mary Beth's case when she was hospitalized with unexplained blood-loss in 2000. Mary Beth's father had to come from another city to speak with the physician and relay the information to Fran. Even though Fran was clearly the person who would take over caring for Mary Beth after her release, the doctor refused to talk to her. Mary Beth's father had to relay information from the doctor to Fran throughout Mary Beth's hospital stay.

  • As mothers and partners, the protections of marriage are important to Jodi and Stacey. When Stacey was hospitalized in 2001, a nurse at a hospital in Baltimore prevented Jodi from seeing her. Jodi and Stacey fear they could be kept apart again should another medical crisis arise. Those fears are not unfounded. Last year, when Jodi and Stacey’s younger son was born, nurses at a state hospital in Baltimore were confused by Stacey’s relationship to the baby. This confusion delayed and compromised Stacey’s ability to make medical decisions for her prematurely born son. This was especially unnerving for Stacey, since birthmother Jodi was unavailable immediately following the delivery.

    Twice, hospital staff have failed to recognize Jodi and Stacey’s relationship during a medical crisis. They do not want to endure a third time. Marriage is the only failsafe that will protect their family.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

FILM: The Duchess

There's a scene early on in the film The Duchess where Georgiana first shows her repartee in a dinner party exchange with Charles Fox, the leader of the Whig party. When he remarks that he endorses freedom not for all men, but for many, "freedom in moderation," she retorts that freedom is an absolute, one either is free or isn't, one can't have moderate freedom any more than one can be moderately dead. It didn't hit me until thinking about it later, but the rest of the film is an exquisite unfolding of how wrong she was about freedom. Keira Knightley presents a masterful portrait of a woman of high spirit learning eventually to make her peace with the constraints of duty and place that encumber a prominent duchess. She shows just the right balance of spark and fire versus self-mastery, that when Georgiana is tightly composed, we appreciate the cost and the turbulence within. Her emotional journey is marked by successive encounters with rising young Whig Charles Grey (charmingly portrayed by Dominic Cooper), from flirtation, to self-realization (both of her feelings and "what she was bred to do"), to passion, renunciation, and acceptance. It was like watching a fine high-spirited racehorse get broken in, if the horse could express itself, and if the horse, realizing what it needed to give up in order to become what it was bred to be, broke itself. Her taut performance is more than matched by Ralph Fiennes as the Duke, who perfectly captures the mix of naturalness with dogs and boys, boredom and smoldering irritation with society, and occasional pathetic moments when he fumbles but mostly fails to express feelings that we can sense below the surface. The theme of freedom is subtly woven in from the beginning (when she observes that dresses and hats are the only means women have to express themselves), returned to when she compares her life to being "imprisoned in my own home", and brought full circle when the duke, observing children playing outside his window, remarks how wonderful it must be to be so free. From the trailers, I thought this was going to be an over-the-top costume extravaganza (along the lines of Sophia Coppola's Marie Antoinette), but while the costumes and stately manor homes were sumptuous, they did not upstage the powerful story. The score was very nicely done, combining appropriate classical music with some beautiful original music, including a wistful cello theme. All in all, very well done, a moving portrait of an extraordinary woman.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Hawaii Is Not Fairfax

I work on a project with a number of folks from Hawaii, including my office mate. We both like having a variety of calendars up on the walls, mostly for the rotating artwork, and there are usually a few Hawaiian calendars in the mix. I've always been amused that the Hawaiian calendars are well-intentioned enough to remember the Jewish holidays in their annotations, but not diligent enough to put them on the right days. Today I glanced up and noticed that one of the Hawaiian calendars shows Rosh Hashanah beginning on Monday, Sept 29, but then it shows Yom Kippur on the very next day. Oy! Are we to compress ten days of repentance into 24 hours? I checked a different Hawaiian calendar, and that one showed Yom Kippur on Oct 6, which is closer, but still two days off. I wonder if maybe they don't realize that the Jewish holidays fall on different days each year in the western calendar, and perhaps they've just been copying the same dates from year to year. If there are any Jewish people in Hawaii, perhaps they just take a laid back attitude about exactly when they celebrate. If you're harvesting pineapple year round, I suppose the timing of Succoth (a harvest festival) would seem rather arbitrary. Some of the Hawaiian calendars have tide tables on them, so you know when the surf is up. I haven't checked, but I'd bet that's accurate. If there are any Jewish surfers in Hawaii, they'd definitely want to know when the surf is up.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

BOOKS: John Adams

I just buried John Adams yesterday after having spent the last couple of weeks immersed in the epic David McCullough biography of that amazing American patriot. What an amazing man! I learned so much that I had never known about him: his defense of the redcoats of the Boston Massacre, his extensive ambassadorial service in Europe, his push to create the U.S. Navy. I realized that my prior knowledge of the Adams presidency was limited to the Alien and Sedition Acts, and that my impression of his contributions to American independence were largely shaped by the pushy and mildly obnoxious charicature of him in the musical 1776. While Jefferson and Franklin have well-established reputations as multi-talented, learned Renaissance men, I hadn't appreciated Adams' broad and deep love of learning. As I was listening to the book on my iPod last weekend at the same time as I was wandering the national mall in Washington DC, from the Washington Monument to the Jefferson Memorial, I wondered why Adams didn't have a memorial, or even so much as picture on a coin or a bill. Perhaps McCullough's book (along with the TV miniseries made from it, which scooped up a bunch of Emmys the other night -- I'll have to watch it sometime) will create a movement to correct that. And while Jefferson will always be an amazing man too, this biography shows a duplicitous side to him I hadn't known before.

As with 1776, McCullough does a stupendous job of fleshing out the history, giving a full-bodied description of the characters and the times, always well-documented, frequently quoting the treasure trove of Adams' own letters and diaries, as well as those of contemporaries. His vivid descriptions brought to life the realities of travel by ship and coach, the state of the medical arts, European court life, and the difficulties of a time in which long-distance communication was slow and unreliable. But best of all, McCullough really brought the man himself to life, such that I feel I knew him. I really admire the man's persistent cheer, his gratitude, and his cultivation of the virtue of friendship. While it would be wrong to describe him as an optimist -- he was often very aware of future costs to be reckoned -- his positive demeanor even in the face of adversity is inspiring. And the relationship between John Adams and his wife (an amazing woman much to be admired in her own right) is a touching model of a marriage.

I also have to add that some of the accounts of the bitter, polarized elections of his time give me some heart for our own times. It's easy for one to wonder at our point in history whether our country has become so deeply divided politically as to hopelessly rupture beyond repair. It gives me some comfort to be reminded that such partisan divisions and the worries about them are as old as the republic.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

FOOD: BlackSalt

I wish I had taken a moment to write down some better notes, but it was at the start of a grueling business trip that I enjoyed a most excellent seafood dinner with my friend Don. Don, who is always on top of the Washington restaurant scene, recommended BlackSalt, a restaurant on Macarthur Blvd in the Palisades neighborhood. The front of the place is a small fish market, where it was obvious from the beautifully arranged slabs of triggerfish, tilefish, and grouper that these people are very serious about fresh, local seafood. The menu, arranged with some regular items on the left and daily specials filling the right, presented so many tempting options that I finally decided to make a meal of three appetizers and a salad. (Fortunately, I had worked through lunch that day, so was hungry, as the appetizers are nicely sized.) Even the simple salad -- a mouth-awakening combination of fresh watercress, tangerine, and a cumin dressing -- heralded the creativity of the chef. The waiter came back with a request from the kitchen to stage one of my appetizers, bringing the other two with Don's main course, which I agreed to, appreciating their attention in serving things with appropriate temperature and timing. The one they brought first is the one I remember most clearly, as it was such a novel combination of flavors -- morsels of sweet, tender Maryland crabmeat combined with red quinoa, capers, and golden sultanas (currant raisins). It was an amazing and delicious combination of flavors and textures, bits of sweet, creamy, briny and earthy, an unexpectedly wonderful blend. My other treats included some plump dayboat scallops that were perfectly cooked and served with wax beans, and a perfectly cooked piece of triggerfish delicately flavored. I also had a bite of Don's tuna, equally excellent. I wish I'd written down more of the details before they partly receded into the haze of several grueling all-nighters at work. But I do remember enough to know that the freshness and quality of the ingredients, the exquisite care in the preparation, and the dazzling creativity of the combinations made this one of the finest seafood dinners I've ever enjoyed.

Monday, September 15, 2008

BOOKS: The Heart Revolution

The wordy subtitle of this book tells what it's about: "the extraordinary discovery that finally laid the cholesterol myth to rest and put good food back on the table". The book is a quick read (I did it cover-to-cover in one cross-country flight), but a very useful one. The author, Dr. Kilmer McCully, was a highly regarded research pathologist at Mass General, where he did pioneering work on the link between an amino acid called homocysteine and heart disease. He begins with this remarkable assertion:
In the past, fats and cholesterol in the diet were blamed for causing heart disease. But years of medical research have produced no convincing evidence that these components of foods actually cause hardening of the arteries. In fact, scientists have proven that pure cholesterol does not cause arteriosclerosis and that elevation of blood cholesterol is a symptom -- not a cause -- of heart disease. Discoveries about a substance in our bodies, homocysteine, are revolutionizing our understanding of the cause of the nation's number one killer. We have learned that deficiencies of B vitamins in the diet -- folic acid, vitamin B6, vitamin B12 -- trigger heart disease by raising levels of homocysteine in the blood. Now there is a way to prevent heart disease and to achieve a longer, healthier life. All you have to do is improve your diet.
That's the book in a nutshell. It expands in an interesting, convincing, and readable way on the research behind this, and it gives substantial dietary advice. One of the real eye-opening parts for me was seeing the crucial connection to fresh food. Some vitamins, especially two of the three B vitamins crucial in controlling heart disease, are very perishable. They are available in a variety of foods, but are rapidly broken down by time, heat, and processing. Thus, even vitamin-rich vegetables can lose the majority of their vitamin B content by the way they are cooked, through other processing, or even just sitting around too long. Thus, my desire in recent years to get a lot of fresh produce at the local farmer's market has even more marked health benefits than I had realized. Another factor is the distinction between pure cholesterol and oxy-cholesterol, only the latter of which is unhealthful. Pure cholesterol (the kind found in meat and eggs) is perfectly healthy, but oxy-cholesterol, which only arises when foods are excessively heated (especially deep frying) or processed (especially the powdered version of milk and eggs used in many processed foods), is to be avoided.

The front story is how this homocysteine thing works, and what sort of diet can control it. But there's a fascinating back story, and this book only tells parts of it. The back story is the interplay between food, medicine, and politics. McCully talks about the cholesterol myth (cholesterol as the explanatory factor of heart disease), how it arose, and how it has persisted despite its failure to adequately explain heart disease. Most of us have heard of the "French paradox", how the French have lower rates of heart disease despite eating eggs, cheese, butter, and pâté de foie gras -- i.e., everything "wrong" according to the cholesterol theory. The French experience is perfectly consistent with the homocysteine theory, however. Whole dairy products (not non-fat) and meats (especially organ meats) are great sources for B vitamins. Other evidence against the cholesterol theory is piled on (e.g., the incidence of heart disease has been declining in America since the late 1960s, despite cholesterol levels staying fairly consistent). McCully dissects the FDA food pyramid, explaining which parts of it are sound, and which parts of it are outright damaging to health, and he shows flashes of anger at the politics behind the workings of government that have allowed misguided and refuted recommendations to persist.

Where McCully shows impressively charitable restraint is in not discussing the affect those politics had on his own career, which was unjustly derailed for many years because his research bucked the widely-accepted cholesterol theory. We get only a sketch of that story in a foreword to the book written by Michelle Stacey, who had profiled McCully for the New York Times Magazine in 1997. There's undoubtedly an interesting story there in the politics of research funding (she notes, for instance, that the cholesterol theory leads to a multi-million dollar pharmaceutical solution, while the homocysteine theory may be addressed completely by fresh food, supplemented by over-the-counter vitamins if needed).

In any event, this is recommended reading for everyone concerned about their health. If you're not already eating more fresh food and avoiding processed food as much as possible, this book will give you a compelling reason to do so.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

FILM: The Women

I was curious to see how they would update the 1939 classic The Women, and I think writer / director / producer Diane English did a nice job with her 2008 version. (Apparently, there was a long story about getting this remake done.) Updating such an old classic is tricky, but she struck a good balance between keeping to the original and making it fresh. The basic storyline is the same -- an admired housewife's discovery of her husband's infidelity, her reactions and ultimate vindication. And the concept of a star-studded all-female cast is preserved: as in the 1939 show, it's fun to see all the stars, and clever to have a complete absence of men. Details of the original storyline are preserved in homage (Jungle red nail polish) and some of the memorable scenes are faithfully recreated (the discovery at the salon, the confrontation in the dressing room, the bathtub scene), but other aspects are brought into the 21st century. There are expected contemporizing of what would be anachronisms (the Nevada divorce ranch is a yoga retreat), but other updates are more profound. Whereas Norma Shearer was only concerned with getting her man and her marriage back, Meg Ryan's modern Mary Haines has layered worries about how to balance family life with creative and professional aspirations. The most significant change is that in the 1939 film, at least as I recall it, it was every woman for herself, whereas in this version, Mary has some real girlfriends (the modern Sylvia Fowler is her best friend, rather than a catty cousin), and her foursome of friends gang up on the "other woman". The friendship among these women is a major theme of this version, where it was nowhere in evidence in 1939. Call it the Sex And The City factor. Meg Ryan and Annette Benning are terrific in the lead roles, and nicely rounded out by Debra Messing and Jada Pinkett Smith, and with Eva Mendes exuding provocative sexuality as the mistress. Nice contributions are also made by Candace Bergen as Mary's mother, Bette Midler as a Hollywood agent Mary meets at her yoga retreat, and Carrie Fisher as the gossip columnist. Some of the funniest bits came from Cloris Leachman's part as Mary's sardonic housekeeper, the Shakespearean wise fool for this fun comedy.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Weapon of Moose Distraction

Tonight, like most Friday nights, my husband and I had dinner in our favorite neighborhood restaurant, a little Mexican restaurant in a strip mall with about a dozen tables. It's usually buzzing on Friday nights, and if you don't get there by 7pm, you'll often end up waiting outside. So as we were enjoying their fabulously fresh guacamole and talking about friends and work and weekend plans, I was catching random bits of conversation from the din of other tables around the room, and I remarked on a sudden realization. "George," I said, "I think we are the only two people in this whole place not talking about Sarah Palin." At which point, we too started talking about Sarah Palin. Granted, she finally gave her first interview last night, in which she performed as pretty much everybody expected. Since she's a partisan Rorschach test, those who were predisposed to find her utterly incompetent found much support for their view, as did those who were predisposed to think she's the savior of the GOP. Perhaps the only accurate read is from the few Republicans without scales on their eyes. To me, the only surprise was that Charlie Gibson stepped up. But, darn it, we shouldn't even be talking about her. We ought to be talking about McCain and Obama. This weapon of moose distraction is working. Must. Stop. Talking. About. Sarah. Palin...

Thursday, September 11, 2008

The Change We Wish We Could Believe In

I guess I have to eat some of my words about McCain's choice of Sarah Palin. I thought that she was just worth stealing a quick news cycle, and that he'd be regretting his pick by now. Alas, she seems to have greatly energized "the base", by plugging in to some wellspring of populist zeitgeist. I can understand where the appeal comes from. She comes across as a no-nonsense super soccer Mom that doesn't look anything like the politicos in Washington, and just might knock some sense into the Beltway crowd in between hunting moose and making sandwiches for her kids to take to school. She's personifying a compelling combination of icons: all-American Mom, female action hero (think Lara Croft), and Mrs. Smith Goes to Washington. Jim Manzi characterized her populist appeal as Wilma Jennings Bryan. But I worry that Publius is also onto something when he compares her to Chauncey Gardner. I think there's a whole lot of projection going on (easy to do with somebody nobody ever heard of before two weeks ago), and what we're seeing now in Sarah Palin is the change we wish we could believe in. It's a great narrative, but Frank Capra notwithstanding, I'm not so sure whether it's a good idea to send Sarah Palin to Washington.

What's dismaying is how much energy is expended on arguing about the narrative on both sides. She's being swiftboated by the left and canonized by the right, and it's often hard to see the truth amidst the shrapnel. On the plus side, she seems to have done some things on solid principle, which is refreshing. There's her Down's syndrome baby, for one thing, which must be acknowledged for truly walking the walk on her beliefs. And she vetoed a legislative attempt to deny same-sex domestic partner benefits to Alaska state employees, because she said it was unconstitutional to do so, even while saying she would support a constitutional amendment to effect the same thing. While it's obviously a minus in my book that she'd like to amend the state constitution to deny domestic partner benefits, I have to acknowledge it's a big plus that she gets what a constitution means and how it limits the legislature and the executive. (You folks in Washington DC paying attention?) It's also a plus that she doesn't seem to give a rat's ass about partisan loyalty, and she seems intolerant of corruption. On the downside, she seems to have a strong propensity for personal vindictiveness coloring her hiring (or rather, firing) decisions. She's done a lot of sacking, and while some of it was getting "corrupt old bastards" sacked who deserved it, others are hard to rationalize as other than personal (e.g., Troopergate and most of the firings she did or attempted as mayor). Her fiscal record as mayor -- sloppy execution of the construction of an excessive sports complex leaving the town with a huge new bond debt while raising the local sales tax -- is hardly balm to a fiscal conservative's soul. And while she seems to have some strong principles, a devotion to plain-spoken truth-telling doesn't appear to be one of them. But the biggest downside is that, folksy charm and gun-toting hockey Mom mystique notwithstanding, she's just not a credible choice. Who wasn't gobsmacked that McCain picked her? She was surprised herself. If she has the first clue about foreign policy or economic policy or anything else that a President is expected to know about, I'm eager to hear it. A Harriet Miers-style "oh, I guess I'd better bone up on that" just won't cut it.

What's more dismaying is that the way they are playing this, it's as if neither truth nor expertise matter to the public in choosing a candidate. Palin is running around repeating exposed lies in her scripted stump speech, showing that narratives are even more stubborn things than facts. And as she travels around the country, she's not saying anything other than repeating her acceptance speech, and taking no questions from anyone. Finally they've agreed to let her be interviewed by Charles Gibson of ABC News, no doubt hand-picked based on his dismal charade of journalism at the Philadelphia Obama-Clinton debate, so he can ask Palin about lapel pins. This isn't a serious campaign, it's political performance art. A couple of recent observations are really sticking with me. Hilzoy worries whether politics has degraded to where candidates not only bend the truth, they blatantly disregard it, and it doesn't seem to matter. Andrew ponders the "end of expertise", quoting a sociology professor who worries about an increasingly popular notion that anyone's opinion about any topic is equally valuable. It would seem to offend some similar egalitarian sentiments to suggest that Palin is less qualified. I'm hoping that America is generally smarter than that. Do truth and expertise still mean something? I guess we'll find out.

What's most dismaying is the way that this whole thing is ingeniously succeeding, because we're all (including me) talking about her non-stop. It's so fascinating (or hathetic, depending on your viewpoint), we can't help ourselves. She should be the side-show, but she's become the show-stealer. And the insidious thing is that attacking her just plays into the narrative, and strengthens her appeal in the eyes of those who are dazzled by her iconic appeal. (But then again, I'm an arugula-eating, latte-sipping, left coast Ivy League elite type, so I'm understandably out of touch.) What we really should be talking about is John McCain. What the heck was he thinking? Even if she turns out to have been a brilliant political choice, there's no denying it was a huge desperate spontaneous gamble, like going "all in" and drawing four cards. Do we really want someone in the White House who makes decisions like that?

Sunday, September 07, 2008

FILM: Hamlet 2

At one point, watching the high school drama "Hamlet 2" (the eponymous play-within-the-play of this irreverent comedy film), a parent remarks "I'm simultaneously appalled and fascinated." At another point, a teenage drama critic opines that "sometimes things are so horrible they become good again. It could work." This thinly veiled self-commentary aptly describes this completely off-the-wall story of something like "Dead Poets Society" or "Mr. Holland's Opus" (both of which are explicitly alluded to), but as they might have been written by Monty Python and cast by the students of Fast Times at Ridgemont High. The film plumbs the depths of silliness and good-natured irreverence (taking swipes at both fundamentalist Christians and ACLU attorneys). Parts of it are eye-rollingly corny, but I laughed a lot and I enjoyed numerous hearty out-loud laughs. Steve Coogan reminded me of Eric Idle, delivering physical comedy that was near the top and often over it. Catherine Keener (whom I remembered from playing Harper Lee in Capote) was quite funny in her part as his sarcastic wife. The kids were all well-cast in their cartoon characters, as was the charicature school principal. Elisabeth Shue had an amusingly off-the-wall role as herself, and the bit of the feared and respected drama critic for the school paper had me in stitches. Unabashedly piling together plot devices from every "inspirational teacher" film, our anti-hero surmounts an apathetic class, a hostile principal, parents who don't approve of his new play, a cynical wife, financial troubles, a drinking problem, and racial tension -- all in the most irreverently amusing ways -- building to the crescendo of staging Hamlet 2. Yes, the sequel to that Hamlet, the one where everyone dies in the end. This is no high art, nor does it strive to be, but it's extraordinarily silly and clever good fun.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

In Fairness

In fairness, I should note that while I was listening to Sarah Palin's speech and doing a running mental rebuttal soundtrack in my head, I had the same experience when listening to Hillary Clinton's speech at the DNC last week. Clinton's speech was really good in the beginning and in the end, but there was definitely a chunk in the middle where my cognitive dissonance was ringing. Here are some excerpts of Clinton's speech and my inner soundtrack:
We need to elect Barack Obama because we need a President who understands that America can't compete in a global economy by padding the pockets of energy speculators, while ignoring the workers whose jobs have been shipped overseas. We need a President who understands that we can't solve the problems of global warming by giving windfall profits to the oil companies while ignoring opportunities to invest in new technologies that will build a green economy.
Er, no. I was hoping we would elect Barack Obama because we need a President who will tell us what we need to hear and not what we want to hear. Energy speculation isn't necessarily a bad thing, as it helps buffer against worse shortages in the future. Outsourcing is a part of economic efficiency, it's called comparative advantage, and it's not a bad thing when new jobs are created abroad at the same time as better jobs are created at home. (Anyone who needs Economic Literacy 101 can try John Stossel's recent book.) Trying to tax so-called windfall profits isn't going to accomplish anything except to encourage large multinational energy companies to shift more of their tax base to more favorable nations and to discourage them from developing future energy sources. We need a President who will not pander to misguided populist economic illiteracy.
And I can't wait to watch Barack Obama sign a health care plan into law that covers every single American.
Sorry, Senator, but Obama's plan does not cover every single American, and that was one of the substantive differences that makes his plan better than yours.
John McCain says the economy is fundamentally sound. John McCain doesn't think that 47 million people without health insurance is a crisis. John McCain wants to privatize Social Security. And in 2008, he still thinks it's okay when women don't earn equal pay for equal work.
Our economy is fundamentally sound. The gas price speculation bubble seems to have burst, housing prices are in the process of correcting themselves, and by all economic measures I know of (e.g., GNP growth, unemployment rate, inflation rate), it's not the best of times, but it's hardly the worst of times. People who don't recognize fundamentally sound economies when they're living in one need to take a closer look at Zimbabwe or Venezuela or Burma to recalibrate.

Our health insurance system needs improvement, but citing scare numbers (how many of those 47 million intentionally choose not to have health insurance?) and calling it a crisis doesn't help. Social Security, on the other hand, well that is a crisis. I don't think privatization is the answer, but sticking your head in the sand and saying "everything's fine, everything's fine" isn't either. And if we essentially expand Medicare, that will be a bigger crisis. And the equal pay for equal work canard -- if you could truly get equally competent women for 75 cents on the dollar for men doing the same job, why aren't there entrepeneurs out there exploiting that huge opportunity?

Keeping Things in Perspective

Sarah Palin did a great job delivering her acceptance speech last night to the GOP Convention, but it was clearly a sermon for the choir, long on juvenile jabs that rallied the credulous crowd but that fall apart under scrutiny. One example:
Before I became governor of the great state of Alaska, I was mayor of my hometown. And since our opponents in this presidential election seem to look down on that experience, let me explain to them what the job involves. I guess a small-town mayor is sort of like a "community organizer," except that you have actual responsibilities.
So let's think about this. She was mayor of Wasilla, Alaska, managing a small paid staff and a part-time volunteer city council, serving about 7000 constituents. Barack Obama was editor of the Harvard Law Review, managing a small paid staff and a part-time volunteer editorial board, serving about 8000 subscribers. Sounds fairly comparable to me in terms of executive experience and responsibility.

Hilzoy of Obsidian Wings has thorough fact-check on Palin's speech, responding to it line by line, so I'll just point you to that fine work.

Monday, September 01, 2008

FILM: Bottle Shock

Last night we enjoyed the story recounted in Bottle Shock of how it came to pass in 1976 that the then-unregarded wines of Napa Valley beat the best of French wines in a blind tasting in Paris, shocking the world, and instantly putting Napa Valley on the map. The film does a nice job of creating the feeling of the 1970s, with bell-bottoms, Doobie Brothers, and long hair. The Napa Valley as shown here looks much like it probably looked in Steinbeck's time, with folks driving beat-up old trucks, only with the addition of a few idealistic hobbyists trying their hand at running a winery. In the midst of this is Chateau Montelena, run by Jim Barrett, who gave up a job as a law partner to pursue his passion to make the perfect chardonnay, and Jim's aimless and lackadaisical hippie son Bo. Bo runs around with Gustavo, who has grown up working on grape farms, and Sam, a spunky young female intern at the winery. Jim has mortgaged his vineyard to the hilt and is having trouble making it, and is frustrated with his son who seems to have no direction or motivation. Cut to Paris, where we meet British ex-pat Steven Spurrier, who has devoted himself to professing the fine appreciation of French wines while running a wine shop long on fine wines and short on customers. The only visitor to the shop seems to be his friend Maurice, an American ex-pat who runs a travel agency next door. Maurice convinces Spurrier that he needs some publicity, and plants the seed for doing a France vs. California wine blind taste test. Spurrier makes a visit to Napa Valley to look for wines worthy of the competition, with some very amusing sequences of he and the valley folk reacting to each other. We all know how the story ends, but the script still manages a few twists of the cork before pulling it out of the bottle. The film is well-cast all around, with Bill Pullman playing Jim Barrett, and Alan Rickman doing a great comedic turn as the Francophile Brit. ("I know," Spurrier tells Pullman, "you think I'm an asshole. But it's just that I'm British, and, well, you're not.") Chris Pine, Rachael Taylor, and Freddy Rodriguez all do fine jobs in their roles as Bo, Sam, and Gustavo. And Dennis Farina has a nice bit as Spurrier's friend Maurice. While Bottle Shock doesn't have quite the cinematography of Sideways, it has some nice Napa visuals, and does a great job of showing what Napa was like before it got overrun by wine tourists. But in comparison to the cynicism and neurotic characters of Sideways, this wine story is full of heart and much more palatable.

BOOKS: Myths, Lies, and Downright Stupidity

This last week I listened to John Stossel read his new(ish) book Myths, Lies, and Downright Stupidity -- Why Everything You Know Is Wrong. It was a quick read, as the book is written in soundbyte-size articles on "myths" organized by broad topic. I expected the sort of consumer-oriented debunking I found in some parts, such as that New York City tap water beat out Evian and Perrier in blind taste tests, and that shopping at big box stores doesn't save most people money. However, I hadn't realized the extent of Stossel's libertarian political leanings, which showed in many more of his segments, like those on school vouchers and product liability lawsuits. While I agree with most of what he said, his sensational style and size-limited segments necessarily oversimplify some of his arguments. It's certainly overly glib to dispatch global warming in a three-minute segment, but he does do some debunking of some common misconceptions in a way that should bring it home to many and make them think. For example, he discusses the myth of the ocean levels being raised significantly by melting polar ice caps, noting that most of the ice caps are floating, and already displace the amount of water they'd fill by melting. (Think of it, Stossel analogizes, does a glass of ice water overflow when the ice melts?) He also has a nice discussion about the myth of "price gouging", an essential contribution to economic literacy 101. Overall, a nice bit of candy for libertarians and skeptics, and an eye-opening useful easy read for any consumer and citizen.

Shooting From The Hip

In the last months, when pundits were analyzing the "veep-stakes", they would generally wonder whether a candidate was weighing a potential VP pick in terms of governing or electability. Ideally, those two would be perfectly aligned, but here in the real world, it's painfully clear that the qualities it takes to succeed in getting elected are not necessarily the same qualities it takes to do a great job once in elected office. So the presidential candidates must ponder their VP picks in these two dimensions - what characteristics would a VP pick bring to an administration, versus how would a VP help to deliver a key state or constituency in the election. For Obama, Biden would seem to be a good pick on both counts. His depth of experience in the Senate and foreign policy expertise would make him a great contributor to the administration, and his working class family man appeal may help pick up some key voters in the rust belt. For McCain, as the pundits all pondered how he would weigh electability against capability, the "maverick" surprised everyone by inventing a whole new category. Disregarding both electability and capability, he went for stealing a news cycle, with the timing of his stunning pick calculated to dampen the bounce after the stirring Democratic pep rally in Denver. He certainly succeeded in getting the nation to talk, as jaws dropped on Friday morning with his news. Of course he managed to surprise everyone (including Palin herself) by going way down on his "long list", and picking someone he'd only barely met twice, and nobody (probably including McCain himself) really knew much about. But while instinctively chasing an attractive woman on first sight may have played out well for McCain with Cindy, I suspect Palin will be more like the girl who looked good at 2am when he took her home from the bar, but less good by the light of the next morning. The holiday weekend's not even over and already we're learning more about Palin, like her brother-in-law whom she abused her power to try to get fired, and her unmarried but pregnant 17-year-old daughter. Apparently, that information was volunteered by Palin in defense against accusations by people who noted the age of Palin's children -- 24, 17, 14, 7, and now a 4-month-old baby -- looked suspicious and wondered whether Palin wasn't covering for a baby really born to her daughter (a story out of the last season of Desperate Housewives). Nope, Palin said, my baby couldn't have been my daughter's because my daughter is 5 months pregnant now. I'm sure James Dobson was reassured to hear that.

Speaking of Dobson and stolen news cycles, it appears God had the last word to Focus on the Family's prayers for a downpour on Obama's acceptance speech. The weather seems perfectly timed to squash McCain's news cycle, and to steal the coverage from the Republican pep rally in St. Paul. Meanwhile, true Christians are praying for the safety and welfare of those in New Orleans and the gulf area, rather than the petty self-serving prayers advocated by the so-called Christian leadership.

Meanwhile, as people continue to talk about McCain's stunning veep pick, it doesn't seem it will be good for McCain. This choice will make McCain look silly to rail too much against Obama for inexperience. And as we all contemplate the prospect of Sarah Palin being a heartbeat away from the Presidency, it just calls more attention to wondering just how steady McCain's heartbeat is -- not exactly what he wants folks focusing on.

This choice seems to have been a gutsy "shoot from the hip" choice that will turn out to be incredibly short-sighted, just for the sake of grabbing some media attention for a few days. Given that two important characteristics of a President are his ability to make sound sober judgments not made impetuously on gut feeling, and his ability to choose very capable people to lead his administration, what this stunt tells me about McCain gives me two strong reasons not to vote for him.