Monday, December 21, 2009

Book Report: "Wolf Hall" by Hilary Mantel



Wolf Hall: A Novel (Man Booker Prize)is more the story of that guy who kills the cow than the big shot who eats the steaks.

Hilary Mantel's time and setting are the oft-told English Court of King Henry VIII.

And while the randy and capricious Harry (is their a supreme ruler who is not?) and his short-lived wife Ann Boleyn come in for some decent portraiture, "Wolf Hall" is the story of an influential aide to both, Thomas Cromwell.

Although we don't watch the goings-on at court unfold from Cromwell's point of view, Ms. Mantel uses him as guide and compass through the seven or so years during which Ann Boleyn worked her whiles on Henry who extricated England from the Papacy's influence to marry her.

You know, probably, how she failed to deliver a much-desired heir, cheated sexually, and lost her head as a result, but this book does not venture there.

It journeys, instead, early into the young Cromwell's life as a low-born country boy whose father comes within a hair's-length of beating him to death before deciding to strike out on his own.

He is a seasoned fellow with no small measure of luck who becomes a good soldier in France, and better banker in Italy, before returning to England where his cause is taken up by one influential Cardinal Wolsey whom he serves in turn.

The first parts of the book detail Wolsey's fall from grace at court and his simultaneous death at the news of it. The latter parts render Cromwell's rise at court as someone useful to an archly-rendered Boleyn, and later Henry, for his skill as bureaucrat (of a pre-modern kind).

This skill primarily involves the undoing and capital punishment of one Thomas More, the Holy See's top dog in England.

But it entails all manner of "fixing" including arranged marriages, unarranged ones, deaths at the hand of the state, the purchase of properties for the crown, and other things those of us born in a modern democracy have such a hard time wrapping our minds around.

And that's what makes it most fun. There is also the usual confusing family politics of succession (the bastard son of the deposed King borne by his second wife and shunted in The Tower, etc.) rendered no less intelligible by this otherwise superb writer.

Cromwell is sympathetic even if he is prized mostly for certain hard-assed qualities and a talent for using his low-birth and war pedigree to intimidate gentle ladies and men alike.

The fact he is something of state-sponsored monster is obscured by the fact we're rooting for him. Cromwell takes in all manner of folk needing help and turns them out of the house at Austin Friars and onto varying paths toward prosperity.

He represents something of a democratic green shoot growing in the golden brown wheat fields of aristocracy.

Here's one of highwayscribery's favorite lines about Cromwell regarding his close alliance with Ann Boleyn; who was nothing if not the wrecker of Henry's first marriage with Spain's Katherine of Aragon.

"He sighs. It's not much, to know that all the merry young whores are on your side. All the kept women, and the runaway daughters."

Mantel's greatest triumphs are the elevation of Cromwell as archetype for the true governmental mechanic (think Rahm Emmanuel), and her making believable the goings-on behind closed doors, the stuff of closed council, as she paints them.

"The fate of peoples," the author writes, "is made like this, two men in small rooms. Forget the coronations, the conclaves of cardinals, the pomp and processions. This is how the world changes: a counter pushed across a table, a pen stroke that alters the force of a phrase, a woman's sigh as she passes and leaves on the air a trail of orange flower or rose water; her hand pulling close the bed curtain, the discreet sigh of flesh against flesh."

"Wolf Hall" is a recent winner of the British Commonwealth's "Man Booker Award," useful as far as such things go, which in this case is pretty far.

The writing is economical, the transitional passages are deft and colorful, her application of language is economical but rich, her focus never so tight as to lose that English subtlety for telling you a story with a point not too obvious.

It's a big literature, fancy-schmanzy in reach and range, all the while being a page-turner that sheds light on an important, if under-celebrated, historical figure.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Calvino's Propositions Presented



In 1984, the Italian intellectual Italo Calvino was invited by Harvard University to conduct its Charles Eliot Norton Poetry Lectures cycle. The author of "The Path to the Nest of Spiders," "If on a Winter's Night a Traveler...," "The Cloven Viscount," and other post-war classics decided upon the theme of "Six Propositions for the New Millennium." Calvino was only able to finish five of them. According to his wife Esther, the sixth, "Consistency" was never completed in as much as he died of cerebral hemorrhage on September 19, 1985, one week before the conferences were to begin. The propositions were directed primarily at the future development of novel composition, but contain lessons applicable to our lives, which are, in a world of exploding aspirations and desires, increasingly novel in and of themselves.

Levity

Calvino began the discourse on "lightness" by noting that his own literary efforts had consisted primarily of relieving the weight bearing upon humans, celestial bodies and cities. At those moments when the human condition appears condemned to heaviness, Calvino said he attempted, like Perseus, to fly toward another space, to change his focus, to see the world through an alternative looking glass, using a different logic, other methods of investigation and verification.

Through the centuries, he maintained, literature has been characterized by two tendencies: one which construed language as an element without weight, like a cloud or a field of magnetic impulses; the other which used it to communicate weight, density, and the concrete nature of bodies and sensations.

"The second industrial revolution does not present itself as did the first," he noted, "with overpowering images of presses and steel furnaces, rather as bytes in a flux of information, which run through circuits in the form of electronic impulses. Machines of steel still exist, but they obey bytes without weight."

He goes on to recount an anecdote composed by Bocaccio about the Florentine poet Guido Cavalcanti.

Despite being "rich and elegant," Cavalcanti was unpopular with the young lions of Florence for he chose not to cavort with them and because they suspected him of sacrilegious thoughts. Once, they decided to test the poet, surrounding him on horseback as he meditated atop a tomb in the piazza of Santa Reparata. "Guido," they sought to intimidate him, "you reject our company, but when you discover God does not exist, what will you do?"

The poet replied, "Sirs, in your house [of death], you can tell me what you please," before escaping them, using the weighty tomb as a springboard for a leap to safety.

"If I had to chose a single symbol with which we might approach the new millennium," Calvino asserted, "it would be this one: the agile, sudden jump of the poet/philosopher rising above the heaviness of the world, demonstrating that in its gravity lies the secret of levity, whilst that which many consider the vitality of the times, noisy, aggressive, angry, and thundering, pertains to the kingdom of the dead, like a cemetery of rusty cars."

Speed

In his second proposition, Calvino broached the question of speed and the differences between its physical and mental manifestations. A story, he asserted, is a horse, a means of transportation with its own pace and itinerary. "The horse as a symbol of speed, even mental speed," he wrote, "marks the entirety of literature, and presages all that is problematic on our technological horizon."

Today, he observed, other, faster media triumph to the point where we run the risk of "flattening all communication into a uniform, homogeneous crust."

Faced with this challenge, it is the job of literature to establish lines of communication between what is different, and exalt that difference. If the machine age has imposed speed as a measurable value, the records of which mark the history of progress, "mental speed cannot be measured and does not invite confrontations or competitions. It has its own value -- namely the pleasure it produces in those sensible to it -- not for its practical utility"

Only mental speed possesses a tool for arresting civilization's race with time: the digression. "If a straight line is the shortest distance between two inevitable and fatal points, digressions stretch them out; and those digressions return, thereby becoming longer, more complex, tangled, tortured and so fast themselves as to become derailed. In doing so, perhaps death loses our scent."

Calvino opposes speed for its own sake and likens our obsession with it to one with death itself. Only the meditative nature of literature, drawn from life-engendering creativity, can delay it.

The genie of modern velocity, of course, cannot be returned to the bottle, but writers [and everybody else] "should keep in mind its rhythmic components: that of Mercury and that of Vulcan, a message of immediacy obtained through patient and meticulous labors; an instantaneous intuition which, barely formulated, acquires the fullness which permits its perception by any other means."

Exactitude

"I have the impression," he stated, "that language is used approximately, casually, negligently, which causes an intolerable anxiety in me." Calvino likened this condition to a plague affecting language so that it "loses all cognitivity and immediacy, like an automatism which tends to level expression into its most generic forms..."

But more importantly for our time, this pestilence affects the world of imagery as well. "We live under a rain of uninterrupted images; the most potent mass media do nothing more than transform and multiply the world of images which, in large part, lack the internal necessity that should characterize them, like form and meaning, like the capacity to attract one's attention, a richness of potential signifiers."

The world, he claimed, is ever-dissolving into a cloud of heat, precipitating a whirlwind of entropy. But this process lends itself to intervals of order and form, privileged points from which a plan and perspective can be perceived. "The literary work is one of those small points of privilege where things crystallize into a form which acquires such meaning."

Just as the understanding of speed requires deliberate labor, so the search for exactness takes two roads: one which reduces events to abstract schemes and the other which uses words to express, with the most precision possible, the meaning of things.

"I think we are always in the hunt for something hidden, a potential or hypothetical, the tracks of which can be seen on the surface of things, and which we follow. I think our most rudimentary mental mechanisms repeat themselves, from our Paleolithic hunter-gatherer forefathers, throughout the cultures of humanity. The word unites these tracks with the invisible entity, the absent quantity, the thing desired or feared, like a fragile bridge improvised across the void."

Calvino urged the exact use of language because it would permit us to approach things, present or absent, "with discretion, attention, and caution, with the respect for those things which communicate without words."

Visibility

The fourth conference Calvino gave was to start with the following premise: Fantasy is a place where it rains.

"We can distinguish two types of imaginative processes," he maintained. "One that uses the word as a point of departure, another which derives inspiration from the image."

As a writer, Calvino fell into the latter category. "In conjuring up a story, the first thing that comes to my mind is an image that, for whatever reason, is charged with significance for me."

Where do the images raining upon the imagination come from? he asked and then answered: "Writers establish links with earthly emissaries such as the individual or collective unconscious, sensations emerging from lost time, epiphanies, or the concentration of being on a certain point or moment. It is a case of processes which, although not born in heaven, escape from the world of our intentions, from our control, granting the individual a kind of transcendence."

For Calvino, the imagination is a form of identification with the "soul of the world." He worried about its future in the so-called "civilization of the image." He saw it threatened by the deluge of prefabricated pictures bombarding us all.

"Our memory is coated with image fragments, like a depository of waste, where it is becoming increasingly difficult for one figure, amidst so many, to acquire full relief. If I've included visibility in my list of values that should be saved in the next millennium, it is as a warning to the danger of losing a fundamental human faculty: To focus upon images with our eyes closed, to make them jump forth in full color and form from the alignment of black letters on a white page, to think in images."

Multiplicity
Calvino argued for a continuation of the modern novel as an open encyclopedic adventure in opposition to the unitary, closed system which characterized the form in its medieval incarnation.

"Knowledge as multiplicity is the thread which unites all the masterpieces, both modern and post-modern, a thread which transcends all labels. This I would like to see developed further in the coming millennium."

He maintained that the best novels encompassed the convergence of a multiplicity of interpretive methods, modes of thought, and styles of expression. What is important, Calvino argued, is not that the story close harmoniously, rather that its centrifugal forces liberate "linguistic plurality as a guarantee of impartiality."

"Somebody," he concluded, "might argue that the closer a work leans toward a multiplicity of possibilities, the farther it gets from the unified self who is writing, their inner sincerity, the discovery of their own truth. Bu the opposite is true. What are we but a combination of experiences, information, readings and imaginings? Each life is an encyclopedia, a library, a showcase of styles which can be continuously mixed an reordered into all the possible forms."

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Princes and Paupers (Afghanistan)



"When I look past the crazy name, I just see another guy from Harvard," highwayscribery's dad said of Barack Obama on the eve of the 2008 presidential election.

In doing so the old man might have presaged the scribe's content with President Obama as a traditional Democratic, but his disillusionment as an orthodox hippie.

The president has turned out to be utterly conventional where Democratic policies are concerned.

That's hurting him with independents who took his pledge to bring change as meaning something different than government spending to improve our collective lot.

They don't like stimulus plans, don't care much for infrastructure schemes, and hardly give a hoot about reforms in labor relations or health care.

They just wish their credit cards worked again.

That's fine. Democrats must sink or swim according to the appeal and impact of their policies.

But the staffing of the administration with familiar party hacks and Obama's retention of the Bush crowd's Defense Secretary has put us wild-eyed dreamers in the position of defending so much realpolitik from "our" president.

We have to tell ourselves that Obama's pragmatism keeps us in power and permits a slow sea change in American politics and culture as witnessed, let's say, in the largely quiet movement toward a liberalization of marijuana laws.

At highwayscribery we consider it a good thing that people be freer to partake in their stimulant of choice and that our jails not be busting with those busted for doing so. And we think the administration's simple decision not to harass medical marijuana outlets in states where they go in for that kind of thing has had a cataclysmic impact.

Hurray for the hippies! If only the Obama crowd was so influential elsewhere.

For example, Afghanistan, where we don't much like what we see.

It is just too familiar, what with Dick Cheney accusing the president of "weakness" for merely deliberating so important a matter.

Obama seems more worried about such criticism than a traditional Democrat might. His efforts are always designed to assure those who are convinced he is a black radical, that he is not a black radical.

And giving in on the war will gain him no grace in the "weakness" department. In fact, giving in at all will win no converts from their camp.

For we have seen plenty of what passes for a Republican Party these days and it's no surprise debate and thought are confused with "weakness" since the GOP is short on both, and long on bluster or "strength" (as they see it).

Anticipating the President's non decision to keep W.'s Afghan adventure alive, "New York Times" columnist Bob Herbert deemed the new/old policy "A Tragic Mistake."

"New York Times" columnist David Brooks went softer, suggesting in "Clear, Hold, and Duct Tape," that Obama is merely splitting the difference between peace and war through a half-hearted military effort focused on withdrawal.

highwayscribery's positions are normally aligned with Mr. Herbert, who can probably withstand the damaging association, and not so harmonious with Mr. Brooks's, who probably can't.

Caviling about our boys dying overseas has never achieved much. After all, folks like Cheney are always willing to sacrifice other people's children while their own enjoy life on the D.C. cocktail and conference circuit.

And America is hardly a place where moral and ethical ideas hold the same currency as, well, currency.

So we're going to do what the administration did and sit the hippie over in a corner (with his weed, of course). In his stead we'll forward the rank-and-file Democrat's economic arguments before going to pick the kid up from his overcrowded and under-funded public school.

And rather than stain Brooks through our usual trick of electronically linking and commingling our prose with columnist stars such as himself and Herbert, we're going to spin things in a literary way.

We will do this by excerpting a timely exchange between King Henry VIII, and a lesser-know historical entity by the name of Thomas Cromwell, beautifully presented in Hilary Mantel's Man Booker Prize-winning novel, Wolf Hall: A Novel (Man Booker Prize)

Sincerest apologies Ms. Mantel.

In this exchange (page 150), Cromwell has come for a chat with the King whom he hopes will let up on his own patron, the Cardinal of York, a fellow falling out of favor "at court" as they say in these English dramas.

Cheney, er, um Henry, apparently blessed with a long memory, quickly takes Cromwell to task for a speech in Parliament, made seven years prior, challenging the king's right to wage war in France:

"Listen to me, master -- you said I should not fight because the taxes would break the country. What is the country for, but to support its prince in his enterprise?"

"I believe I said -- saving your Majesty -- we didn't have the gold to see you through a year's campaign. All the bullion in the country would be swallowed by the war. I have read there was a time when people exchanged leather tokens, for want of metal coins. I said we could be back to those days."

"You said I was not to lead my troops. You said if I was taken, the country couldn't put up the ransom. So what do you want? You want a king who doesn't fight? You want me to huddle indoors like a sick girl?"

"That would be ideal, for fiscal purposes."


Everybody wonders if the Internet has made newspapers obsolete. A more important question might by why we need public discourse at all if the issues never change and neither do our responses?

NYTimes' Copy Clunker


Here's a clunker from "New York Times" writers Tim Arango and Bill Carter:

"While a deal between G.E. and Comcast still could hit a snag over price, it is considered highly likely because G.E. wants to sell NBC because of rising losses and Comcast wants to buy it so it can control more television programs and movies to offer viewers through its cable systems."

That's one heck of a paragraph/sentence. It's a run-on, as they say in third-grade, uses "because" two times in the same (long) breath, and "it" thrice.

highwayscribery humbly suggests:

"A deal between G.E. and Comcast could still hit a snag over price, although that is unlikely. The electronics giant wants to sell NBC, which is losing money. Comcast wants to buy the network because its movie and television properties would help to fill cable programming needs."

That's not so hard.

"Times" writers, supposedly the best in the business, churn out this kind of stuff almost everyday. The
example before us is most remarkable for its center-page placement on page one.
Watch that picture-window folks.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Book Report: "Working Class New York," by Joshua Freeman


The narrative in Working-Class New York: Life and Labor Since World War IIgrows less interesting along with the declining labor movement it chronicles.

That's no criticism. After all, Joshua Freeman did not write a novel, rather penned an important nonfiction and academic effort that tells the story of New York through its workers.

"Working Class New York," is wonderfully done and demonstrative, at every turn, with the author's passion for his subject.

But, for labor enthusiasts, the end can't match the beginning for excitement.

In the early chapters, the poesy of labor reigns as the Hatters, Printers, Furriers, Elevator Operators, Milliners, Bakers and Tugboat workers, representing a rainbow of crafts and productive industries, bring the world's mightiest city to a halt through mass strikes driven by the underlining goal of reorganizing society itself.

Freeman's analysis of New York's economic structure, and how it created a textured union movement unequaled in the rest of the country, is fascinating and as much a love letter to the unions as to Gotham itself.

Indeed, the author frequently asserts that the city's best face was the lined countenance of the laborer or craftsperson enlightened by their recognition of a shared destiny, on the shop floor and front stoop, with similarly situated souls.

"Working Class New York," meticulously follows the labor movement's progress and retrenchments, starting with its halcyon days in the post-war 1940s.

It makes no bones about the powerful impetus communist politics played, and the subsequent loss of energy that coincided with the reds being chased out of American labor.

Freeman illustrates how the union movement reflected changes in the city as it lost manufacturing jobs and embraced the financial and service-based industries.

His mapping of municipal unionism's rise has less of a workerist flavor and more of what the departed Allan Bloom called the "Nitzscheanization of the left," as ethnicity and cultural issues consumed unions' internal power struggles and drove their industrial strategies.

And the book details how the decline of labor in New York reflected its nationwide losses as the country grew more individualistic and market-oriented in the 1970s and '80s.

Freeman's chapter on how financial types used The Big Apple's fiscal crisis in the late 1970s to undermine and rollback the unions' hard-earned, and unique urban social democracy, is must-read for anyone interested in those dynamics affecting the American workplace for nigh on a generation now.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Jerry Brown Does Sunset Blvd.

California Attorney General Jerry Brown's Nov. 19 appearance at XIV on Sunset Blvd., was proof there is such a thing as being young at heart.

The former-governor-running-to-be-governor was in good form, voluble, humorous, and purposeful.

By way of confession, highwayscribery attended the event, sponsored by Generation for Change, with little enthusiasm for the budding Brown candidacy.

Covering the attorney general as a real-life reporter at press conferences, the highway scribe's alter-ego and rainmaker was left with an impression that, at 71-years-old, Brown had lost a step and gone mushy in his gray matter.

And besides, maybe it's time for some others to try. Politics these days, at least Democratic Party politics, have a transformational tinge that was reflected in the event itself.

Generation for Change, after all, grew out of Generation Obama Los Angeles following the president's triumph last November.

It is headed-up by two political operatives - Justyn Winner and Haroom "Boom" Saleem, still young enough to actually believe in all the Obama-inspired Hopela and energetic enough to convene a cabal of handsome, well-dressed, young professionals comfortable in venues like XIV (by Michael Mina) who, prior to last year' campaign were hardly worthy of political consideration.

And the kids are learning the hard way. Saleem noted that last year's ardor for change has given way to this years sense of disappointment.

Patience, grasshopper, patience.

For his part, Brown has always been more of a visionary type. His turns as secretary of state, Oakland mayor, and attorney general, while positive contributions, do not bring out the quest-like qualities in him that running for president and governor do.

For Brown wants to lead in big, system-changing ways and Generation for Change, thinks he has the stuff, and has come out early for him.

The ambience of confident cool hardly intimidated Brown who grabbed the microphone, and persuaded the crowd to separate itself so that everyone could see him.

He did not, Brown said, work from prepared speeches, "because they're boring. If you have something to say you should be able to say it without looking at some notes."

Freed from the tyranny of text on paper, Brown rambled on in an organized fashion only someone of his unique cast can.

He pulled the crowd, separated from him by decades of life lived, closer, talking about the nonpolitical part of his personal journey: "I've lived in Mexico and different countries of South America, I took Linda Ronstadt to Africa. I went to Japan and meditated for six months; not on the achievements of my life, but on the essential emptiness of it. And you're not going to find a lot of politicians who will do that."

Working the crowd afterward, Brown may have learned how few knew who Linda Ronstadt is (was?), but he's just getting going at this point, and that gap could link his living legend to a time when California was truly a Golden State.

The day's backdrop was a University of California Regents meeting two miles away at UCLA. There, student demonstrators clashed with police while inside "the board" jacked-up their tuition 32 percent.

The campus was crammed with so many police it begged the question of whether cutting the force's size might improve the tuition picture. The university's shock troops, with the help of California Highways Patrol(ers) handled the students' in a typically over-the-top fashion: rude, violent, disdainful of the fact universities exist for the kids.

It was tense, and unpleasant, and sad for those who remember the state's halcyon days.

Things clearly need fixing and if Brown's audience represented a generation of "change," he suggested they had much in common since he's been accused by political enemies of changing all his life.

"And it's true. But I'm not ashamed of that," he said, "because if you're alive, and your mind is open, than you have to change."

They ate it up without fully understanding how true the claims were. Brown's politics have always invited intense debate. However, the inherent truth of his commitment, his advocacy, and his willingness to go a new way are agreed upon by friend and foe alike.

Perhaps the crowd sensed it.

The quintessentially Irish-looking pol enumerated the many offices he has run for successfully and not so successfully.

"Many of the people I ran against are dead," said Brown, hinting of his hand in their demise, "because I'm a stressful person, and some of these other people in this campaign for governor are going to find out the same thing."

And them's fightin' words of which the impromptu address contained more; perhaps a tip-off to the approach Brown may take in the campaign, running on his experience rather than away from it.

Brown said the country had been, 30 or 40 years ago, a productive one that lost its edge and then continually borrowed to maintain privileges no longer earned the old-fashioned way.

He did not, of course, use the words "old" or "fashioned."

Brown conducted a brief analysis of the financial "leveraging" that brought the state and country to its knees, and referred to the resulting fiscal crisis as "the greatest case of grand larceny in American history."

Applause again.

The country's political system is, Brown observed, "in an advanced state of decay." He lamented the "wall of resistance" President Obama has run into at the hands of Republicans in Washington D.C. and said it was a symptom of that decay.

The attorney general did not run away from Obama, rather suggested the president was a kindred spirit who could use some help with the heavy lifting out on the Left Coast.

He wove is merry way through about a 20-minute discourse, jumping from subject to subject, free-associating, joking, and holding the group's attention through the background chatter of the adjacent restaurant, and clatter of pots in the close-by kitchen.

California's budget deficit, large as it is, amounts to only 1 percent of its annual gross product and is fixable, said Brown.

He is, naturally, the person to do it. "These other people running don't know how tough it is to run the state. I've worked in it my whole life. I do."

For political junkies, the evening on Sunset offered a good sampling of what Brown is testing in the campaign's early phases.

His effort at tapping into the energy of a generation that knows little of him, but offers some of our best prospects, demonstrated the flexibility he claims to possess in real time.

More than anything, it was a tip of the hat to the hoary old notion that youth must be served...

...in very good restaurants.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

On Obstruction


Saturday's Senate debate has as much to do with Republican obstruction as it does with health care.

The Republican strategy of arresting any progress on the country's problems, of suppressing the will of voters who elected President Barack Obama and a attendant Democratic congressional majority, has begun to garner attention.

Which is why this post will be written more by other writers than the highway scribe, whose intention is to extend their reach and blow off a little steam at the same time.

Like Social Security, the weekend, paid vacations, and health care reform, the first volley came from the far left of the American spectrum in the form of a Nov. 11 "Washington Post," piece by Harold Meyerson.

In the "Do-nothing Senate" the one-time "L.A. Weekly" essayist referred to that body as "dithering heights."

That's pretty good and demonstrates how you need a sense of humor to make your ideology go down a little easier.

Meyerson noted that a few weeks ago, the Republicans thrice filibustered a measure to extend unemployment insurance. Once they relented, the measure passed 98-0.

"Just flexing their muscles, mind you," he wrote. "Establishing a new normal. If we have anything to do with it, nothing moves."

Indeed.

The filibuster, as we know only too well now, is an endless stream of B.S. meant to bury a bill under the Senate's terms of unlimited debate. It was not always thus. At the beginning, under rules drafted by none other than Thomas Jefferson, a senator was allowed to "move the previous question" and end floor discussion.

But Aaron Burr, the guy who shot Alexander Hamilton and came to personify American infamy (except for Gore Vidal), got that rule stricken and the filibuster was born. Its use was nil at first, but grew over the years.

During the Bush II debacle, Democrats used it with greater frequency, but typically infuriated their radicalized supporters with an urge to cooperate and get things done.

Under Kentucky Republican Mitch McConnell (pictured), the thing has taken on a life of its own, since voters so reduced his caucus that filibusters are all he can use for leverage.

And use it McConnell has.

As Meyerson pointed out, "Unless you can get a 60-vote majority to end debate, all major bills (and some minor ones) are dead in the water."

He left out political and judicial choices, but on Nov 16, Michael Savage of the "Los Angeles Times," picked up on the meme, detailing a disparity in the judicial appointments made by his predecessor over the same time-period Obama has been in office.

"So far," Savage wrote, "only six of Obama's nominees to the lower federal courts have won approval. By comparison, President George W. Bush had 28 judges confirmed in his first year in office, even though Democrats held a narrow majority for much of the year."

The point being Democrats recognize the president's prerogatives, even when he garners less votes than his opponent and the Supreme Court shuts down a recount in a state governed by his brother (making him president).

On Nov. 17, one day later, the "New York Times" joined the chorus in an editorial generically entitled, "Obama's Judicial Nominations."

While noting the president has been tentative, the anonymous editorialist observed that Senate Republicans bear the blame on the confirmation side by, "doing their best to drag things out."

On Tuesday, a crack in the armor appeared over Obama's nomination of Judge David Hamilton to the U.S. Seventh District Court of Appeals.

The gentleman, who hails from a paternal line of Methodist ministers and enjoys the support of home-state Republican Senator Richard Lugar, apparently ran afoul of "conservative activists," because he worked for the American Civil Liberties Union before joining the bench.

Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) demurred in respecting the president's choice, saying "a common DNA" ran through Obama appointees in the form of an "ACLU chromosome."

And they say Republicans are "anti-science."

They tried to filibuster the nomination and, in the words of the "Washington Post's"Dana Milbank, got "Filibusted."

Which is pretty good, too.

His piece does a great job of detailing the suddenly changed views of Republicans who, just a few years ago, likened Democratic filibusters to obstruction.

By November 19, the big boys were taking a wider view of the filibuster phenomenon.

"The Washington Post's" E.J. Dionne came out with the "The GOP's no-exit strategy," which warned that it is "time to start paying attention to how Republicans, with Machievellian brilliance, have hit upon what might be called the Beltway-at-Rush-Hour Strategy, aimed at snarling legislative traffic to a standstill so Democrats have no hope of reaching the next exit."

On November 22, "The Post's" Fred Hiatt got into the act, further fleshing out the ramifications of what the "New York Times'" Charles Blow referred to as "the Republican's surprisingly effective obstructionist strategy."

Hiatt noted that, "more than a year after his electoral triumph, President Obama has filled only 55 percent of Senate-confirmed slots in his government. He has nominated few judges, won confirmation for fewer. The principal item on the agenda of the unions that went all in for him, labor law reform, is on hold. Almost everyone agrees that America's immigration laws are broken, yet no fix is in sight. Long after the collapse of our financial system, new systems of regulation have yet to emerge. There is no discernible trade policy."

Hiatt's point of departure was what all this looks like to friend and foe alike overseas. And what it looks like is that American democracy is in paralysis.

The Republicans, the party of flag-wrapped patriots, care a lot about America's image, but not so much as they do about regaining power. And they show no shame in their effort to do it.

For example, in "Help in Battling the Big Boys," highwayscribery lauded the efforts of Democrats, Sen. Chris Dodd of Connecticut in particular, for proposed legislation that would prevent credit card companies from imposing the arbitrary interest rates and fee increases they're dumping on customers before the new law capping such things takes effect.

But in "A Gift to Credit Card Companies," the "New York Times" reported that Sen. Thad Cochran of (R-Miss.), blocked a vote on the bill, "in yet another act of obeisance by Senate Republicans to the banking and credit card industries."

Thanks Thad.

"The Times" editorial on the judicial nominations noted that, "In March, every Republican senator signed an outrageous letter to the White House warning that they would filibuster any nominee from their home states if they did not approve the choice in advance."

That the Republican caucus is "outrageous," is not the point here. It's that "every" Republican senator signed the piece of trash.

Democrats have never enjoyed such lock-step discipline and as Meyerson and Dionne pointed out, "Blue Dog" or "centrist" or "spineless" Democrats (whatever you want to call them) are playing an important role in all of this.

Dionne said Republican use of the filibuster is making the majority look "foolish, ineffectual and incompetent." Moderate Democrats, by making their own narrow interests paramount on crucial matters like health care reform and climate change, "will only make themselves complicit in this humiliation."

The balky Democratic senators are not only betraying their own party, Myerson wrote, but simultaneously making a mockery of majority rule.

If they are "comfortable with the idea that elections shouldn't have consequences, they should say so publicly. If not, they should let the debate begin."

The word is out. Spread it around. Let's see what happens.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Lunches w/Actresses: A Five-Character Ensemble Piece


The "New York Times," Modern Love column editor, Daniel Jones, just sent highwayscribery a form letter rejecting a submission of "Lunches w/Actresses: A Five-Piece Ensemble." We are now free to run it here complete with homefield advantage. It is loosely based upon the highway scribe's free-and-easy days as a bachelor/screenwriter in Los Angeles and served as the basis for a chatty and charming script collecting dust on a shelf somewhere. Enjoy and long live electronic media.


Lack of steady work can push a comely actress to the margins of society and into the company of homeless and mad persons.

Actresses might as well throw away their clocks, burn their calendars. Structured time does not matter when your life moves through celluloid. When celluloid moves through your life.

Saturn makes a date with me for Saturday at Cafe LaBrea. She likes to get the asparagus omelet and drown it in soy sauce. We've been meeting there for years now. I’ve never liked the place and wish they’d close it, but then where would she go?

It’s February and gray and I’m waiting and waiting.

Suddenly, there she is. A winter angel come to grant a glance. She has curls that drop to her shoulders like one hundred three rusty red ribbons. I want to mention my wait, but her appearance makes the complaint seem small.

Saturn's coming from a “meeting” with a “friend.” I’ve known for a while that some friends are more so than others. I can't work myself into jealousy, because I’m not sure any of us gets more than the other.

In her time, Saturn gets to each, waters us like the flowers with her liquid laugh.

“It’s so good to work again,” she informs. Of course, it is always good that actresses should work. "Act" is a verb so that your career tends to evaporate when you're an actress who doesn’t. She’s very animated, discussing her minor role in a new television series on a major network. Frisky, she appears to have been working out... or shopping.

Saturn understands the part is small, “but who knows who I’ll meet working there?” And then, counter-intuitively, “I’m such a bitch on the set. I don’t let anybody inside."

I used to believe these stories, but the world of actresses is like other microcosms. You learn its contours by touching it; its language by hearing and speaking it.

I captured Terese's phone number at a nightclub, but have spent six weeks in subsequent pursuit, which culminates with a confrontational voice message along the lines of, “How long do you expect the young prince to persist?”

She likes this. It has character, a quality of paramount importance to the actress.

We set a lunch date for Michaels. Time has passed since the drunken night I made her acquaintance. I can’t remember her face, that is, until she enters. Her eyes are frosted windows on a fathomless soul and that failed marriage to a son of Hollywood royalty hasn't melted them in the least.

Naturally, the conversation covers the fascinating topic of her own career. She’s played Dee, Laurel, La Dama, Samantha, May, Lucinda, Helena, and done a turn as a girl Shakespeare in Snoo Wilson's play. Her role as Sherry in a recent A-list production ended up on the cutting room floor, but she's taking it in her leggy stride.

“That’s all I have for you,” Terese blurts out suddenly. “Audition at three.” And she is off, irrepressible, indomitable, a heroine to me.

Hours later, still floating in her ether, I call my mother to share, because there’s nobody else around.

“Women like that aren’t worth a damn,” she counsels.

Blue is a dark-haired girl too good-looking to be a waitress, working as a waitress at the Spanish Kitchen. “Definitely an actress,” I tell myself and, seven days after first contact, am back for more of her good service.

I order crab cakes, grilled vegetables, turkey meatloaf with chili alioli, but can’t get Blue to look up. Macaroni and cheese, pesto-crusted salmon...

She surrenders, miserable with her station. “You catering your own wedding or what?”

“Just wanted you to look at me.”

Blue turns away. This is going to be easy. "You don’t like your job do you?”

“Let’s just say I’m naturally rebellious.”

“I'm anarchic myself,” I seek to strike her chord, but she turns away, soured.

Blue and I cultivate different kinds of rebellion.

Brittany has dropped me an e-mail: “I’ve moved again, but you may be surprised to hear I finally decided to live alone. Guess I’m sick of making the same mistake. (her recurring love interest, Jesse). It’s a one bedroom place; hardwood floors and kitchen with gingerbread cupboards. From the ’20s with a garage and dirt for planting. $1050. Lunch me! (818) 762-4882.

I lunch her downtown at Louie Bottega; guide Brittany into a seat against the wall so that her fabrics will play off the red brick masonry. She is sprung from hippies and dresses like a Gypsy with peasant skirts and silver rings on every slim finger.

We discuss her.

“The court ordered Jesse to pay me each month for the next year for beating me up. I don’t have to work for a while so I’m back to give acting another try. I haven’t got an agent yet, but I’m taking night classes. Method. I love my coach, J.W. He’s so vulnerable and completely connected.”

Brittany has been in San Diego for six months, sleeping on her mother's couch, trying to remember who she is before losing herself in the dream machine again. This town gave her its snake bite, although I’ve never seen the scar, what with those scarves and ankle-length skirts.

One time, she put me on the guest list at a small theater she was playing. But Saturn got wind of it and turned up at my place first, pulling a vial of cocaine from her embroidered purse and saying, “Look at what my mother gave us.”

You’ve never heard of the actresses I lunch with. Their works are of little magnitude, but important to the movie that is my life. They like what I’m offering: A role as big as they want to make it. Where are they going to get that around here?

Friends shrug. "What have they done?"

But grand actresses and diminutive actresses are one and the same. It’s not the films they're in. It’s the feelings they feel, the ups and downs. To understand you must ride the rollercoaster yourself.

I have.

Saturn calls. The hour is inappropriate and intended to flatter. She’s sure she wants to die. I drop by her apartment to scoop out soupspoons of tears from those muddy pools she strains to understand the world through. I tell her to stop, not to cry, until she is dry with the question of, “Why? Why did I want to become an actress?”

By morning she’s much better. Her horoscope says there will be work, sooner than later, and she can’t have lunch with me because a friend is coming by to talk business. I send her a bouquet of dried flowers hours later.

“What are these for?” she calls and asks me, the screenwriter nobody in town seems to “get.”

Blue and I meet Monday at Mandarette. It is a lunch composed of many tiny dramas, one of which goes like this:

(Blue) “Are you uncomfortable?”

“Maybe. It’s our first lunch that you’re not serving and I'd like it to go well.”

“Maybe you shouldn’t take it so seriously,” she suggests, but I respond, “I'm taking it seriously. I usually don’t shave until Friday.”

She’s gotten a grain of attention and opens her heart directly. It is big and bleeding slightly. A last love went poorly and ended worse, but somehow helped put Blue in touch with her sensuality. “I’m still bitter about it and not looking for anything but my own precious center.”

Blue is one of those “spiritual” actresses, seduced by the promise of peace lurking in Eastern religions, but is, at best, an unreliable Buddha babe.

We're set for Joan’s on Third, on the third, but I have to cancel when Saturn calls from the hospital, not very sure of how she got there.

Her problems vary, but are always related to the question of having work or not, of life and death for the actress.

The actress is beautiful, eternal, when the hot white light of a projector burns. She ceases to exist when it goes out. Years later, with the flip of a switch, she can inspire lust and love from the most impossible place: Death. In the prime of her life, putting on makeup before a mirror, she waits for work, name unknown, dead...until the phone rings again.

Brittany drops by on Monday, unannounced, to show me her new business card. It reads:

Brittany...
Actress,
Poetess,
Milliner,
Jeweler,

which is somehow accurate. “I paid for them with a residual check from a CSI episode I did two years ago. It ran in Australia!”

She’s in an excellent humor and humming with so much harmony that her eyes curve upwards and match the same turn to her smile.

I need to work, but Brittany pulls a bar of curry-scented soap from her burlap bag and announces a plan to bathe: “My hot water heater is broken.”

Saturn leaves me hanging at Cafe Stella on Thursday. Her voice mail says she’s gone to Arizona with a friend.

No doubt dropping dollops of dew on cactus blossoms thriving in the desert there.

Terese calls me the following Wednesday and proposes lunch for Wednesday after. Her preference is Mexican so I propose Loteria Grill and she trills, approving.

She never does the unannounced thing. Terese, after all, is a working actress with money. She enjoys sowing expectation before the grand entrance her conversation never seems to match in scale.

I’m broke, been driving a classic car, an antique even, and those olden models, not unlike actresses, are so undependable they can make you cry.

Mindful, she offers to buy and, when I finish my burrito, gives me half her own. Actresses know. They are the only ones save for a modern dancer or two.

Blue has been fired. That's five dismissals in three months. “The people there were so fake,” she complains. “Each one with their little facade. I can’t live that way. I refuse to play a role.”

It is not surprising that, of the actresses in my appointment book, Blue appears on screen least.

I’m leaving messages for Saturn, running rings around her like the planet from which she filched her stage name. A friend says she’s gotten a job on some TV show and that things are good.

Sure. I’m the one Saturn calls when she has no money. I can make her feel better for free. She comes to me after hitting bottom; the place I'm most easily found.

I drive by Cafe LaBrea to catch her unawares, but the restaurant has been shut down.

Closed for good.

Blue is hanging tough, having exchanged her pay as a production assistant, on a low budget film, for a role hardly requiring a visit to the costume trailer.

“I’m only happy when I’m on set,” she explains on a cell phone call from the set.

Terese cancels our date at Cynthias. She’s on a shoot in India. I tell her she owes me lunch and blow her a kiss long-distance.

Brittany is still having agent problems. She’s ready to abandon town and her dream, again. I tell her to get out of bed, find an audition, and move forward instead of backward. If she can.

I hang up and rub my eyes. These actresses have wearied me, but the phone beckons anew and, finally, it’s Saturn.

I attack. “New role? New stud? Kicking the rest of us mules out of your stable?'

"No role," she answers softly, sadly, "no stud. Just a baby in my belly."

I shall never possess her. Calm her. Please her. In the end, it's for the best, but doesn't feel that way.

I ask Saturn how she's surviving. The film business isn’t so keen on pregnant actresses.

“I’m working in a hotel. It’s good for me. I walk a lot.”

“Doing what?” I want to know. “What else are you good for besides acting?”

“Watering the flowers, dummy."

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Letter to Lieberman: America is a Public Option



Nov. 13, 2009

Senator Joseph Lieberman
706 Hart Office Building
Washington D.C. 20510

Dear Sir,

Recent news that you planned to support a Republican filibuster if the health care reform bill contained a "public option" was very disconcerting to me.

After all, as a life-long Democrat, I voted for yourself and Vice President Gore in the 2000 election. I remain convinced that it was an election of which you were robbed, setting in motion eight years of environmental degradation, preemptive war, and the abuse of our most cherished values and institutions.

All of which makes your choice of allies in this matter of the public option more perplexing. Their party filed the successful lawsuit to enjoin votes from being counted in Florida and deliver the presidential election to George W. Bush.

Your name was subsequently reduced to use in a trashy sobriquet on placards waved by rabble outside Mr. Gore's residence reading "Sore-Loserman."

I understand you've since endured some rough handling by Democrats over issues related to the Iraq war. All I can say is, you're entitled to your independence so long as you are willing to take the resulting heat.

Ours, since the debacle of Vietnam, has been the party of peace. When you decide upon hewing to a different path, the ensuing battle is of your making and not the Democratic Party's.

And for all that, you caucus with the Democrats through whom you reached your current status. They, in turn, were able to consolidate a filibuster-proof majority with your adherence.

The Republican Party is bent on defeating President Obama at any cost. Siding with them is no way to settle grievances most of us thought were smoothed over when you maintained your chairmanship of a Senate committee in spite of your support for Sen. John McCain in November 2008.

There is an amorality in your pledge to back a filibuster threatened by the party that denied you the vice presidency.

There is, senator, no two-thirds vote requirement for a measure's enactment by the Senate. Bills pass with the majority's blessing. Abuse of the filibuster has created an unfortunate state of affairs and gummed-up the nation's business, while giving a rump and regional party greater leverage than its reduced voting base warrants.

Your support of the filibuster on a matter of national importance, not parochial concern, diminishes the traditions of an institution to which you have dedicated a goodly portion of your efforts as public servant - the United States Senate.

As for the public option, the respected magazine "Miller-McCune" reports that only 10 percent of Americans could utilize the feature as presently constituted in the proposed legislation.

I'd be one of them, senator, and resent your single-handed efforts to deny me the opportunity to gain a modicum of health and economic security, through a parliamentary maneuver.

If you want to oppose reform through your vote in the Senate, that's your business, although I would disagree with that act. However, supporting a filibuster that prevents health care reform from reaching the Senate floor would be a move both anti-democratic and not unlike the lawsuit that kept Florida from doing a proper ballot count in 2000.

An issue such as reform deserves a full airing in the nation's representative bodies, not some cheap short-circuit shutdown.

I understand that Connecticut, your home state, has a high concentration of insurance companies and your are bound, in part, to represent their interests. But as the same article noted, by 2019, 168 million Americans will likely receive coverage through their employer, "no differently than they do today."

By supporting the likes of Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky) and Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C), you're throwing in with their Tea Partiers' interpretation that the public option represents some government takeover of health care.

It's not, because I prefer such a takeover and know it cannot be found in the the legislation.

These insurance companies are not to my, or many other Americans', liking senator. They gouge their customers and then stick them with the burden of pursuing reimbursements for treatments duly paid for through their premiums. They are an important reason the clamor for reform has accumulated lo these many decades.

Nonetheless, your colleague Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) has noted that, "The bottom line is that the public option can't really hold private insurers accountable if it is only competing for 10 percent of the insurance market because private insurance companies aren't going to change their business practices if 90 percent of their customers can't take their business elsewhere."

Finally, as a policy matter, I'm advocating for the option because over the years the public space in our country has diminished and with it, our sense of engagement with one another.

America cannot prosper as a country of infinite privacies where people cultivate "My Music" and "My Videos" folders on their personal computers while walking the streets with earphones cutting them off from any awareness of the "us" and "ours" all around them.

There must be a commons, a public place and space, a civic way of being through which Americans can venture out from their gated communities and locked doors to meet and share in the life of this country. Otherwise what is the country?

The idea of America itself is a public option.

Regards,
the highway scribe

Friday, November 06, 2009

Make Your Bed, Be Happy



Your happiness may depend less on what you make in bed, than simply making it.

More to the point: make your bed and be happy.

Yes, you read that correctly. Make your bed and stop searching so desperately for the secrets of life and you might find them more readily.

In the highway scribe's novel, "The Sidewalk Smokers Club," the group's no account, lung-seared leader, Randall, was, while busy saving America from itself, developing a system of thought he called "bum philosophy."

It consisted, Randall said, of "big philosophy made bite-sized for bums: the grand sentiments made pithy and repeated often."

So, make your bed, bums.

Do it first thing, not after breakfast, but right off the bat. highwayscribery does. As soon as he pops up, the scribe strips the mattress down and begins a delicate smoothing of the fitted sheet.

Taking his time, the scribe avails himself of this first opportunity to get something right. He erects a modest challenge and then meets it. highwayscribery accepts that each day, for big man and small alike, is a series of tasks.

And, being of the small variety, he gets to it, before it gets to him.

The smoothing complete, a mild satisfaction blesses the bent morning body at having done something well. It serves as encouragement to take the next step, which is done accordingly, the top sheet shucked from the bottom of the bed and floated toward the head.

Sometimes, as you know, it takes a few flings to get it right and in this exercise there is a harbinger of what kind of day may be in store, and a first shot a practicing patience and persistence.

Again, however resistant the process, it is easy compared to what awaits. And there is routine in it, which, unless you're restless for international travel and sex with people much younger than you, is soothing to the soul.

Our cat Jack, a creature of habit, loves it. Soon after the process has begun he enters, without fail, a hardy greeting at the ready. Your routine settles those around you, too.

There's no need to get into a step-by-step; only worth noting that the bedspread, the alignment of pillows and their ultimate fluffing, all beg the same tender treatment. They are mild attempts at aligning your senses of focus and coordination. And this discipline, the embrace of duty, will calm you and complete you before your teeth are even brushed.

Your best effort applied, you step back and make a date for 13 or 14 hours later. And you look forward to it because the thing looks great and, well, it's your bed.

What comes next is more daunting certainly, but you've got the first paces of a rhythm down. You've greased your wheels.

highwayscribery is at times afflicted with a low-grade depression. He has not had it diagnosed, because he doesn't need anyone to tell him he feels down. He eschews pills, choosing to remedy things in a plodding, short-term, one-foot-in front of the other fashion.

He lives with and adjusts to it.

And this is what they tell people who have been diagnosed with the real deal and plied with chemicals to keep them in balance. They tell them to list things, or stack them, or prioritize them and attend to one after the other.

It helps a person deal with that sense of being overwhelmed, which is especially acute in the morning, because all your tasks are yet to be done.

Everything stares you right in the face so that brushing your teeth is a hindrance. But once you've made your bed, brushing's nearly a next good step, except for the caffeine crowd, which prefers their medicine first and doesn't see the point in brushing until the fix is in.

Whichever. That's up to each reader. We're just saying make the bed, because once breakfast is done and the e-mails you've checked are stuck in your throat, it's a great, great thing, not to have to pass by your room and confront an unwieldy mess of knotted sheets, blankets and comforter demanding you to retreat and MAKE YOUR BED.

That's moving backward. It invites frustration. And you don't need frustration first thing in the morning and you won't have it, because you've made your bed. It's done, looks good, and is winking as a reminder of that date later in the day.

Carry on.

Moving slowly through his own maturity and development the highway scribe has come to place a great deal of importance on preparation and organization. Mostly because they do away with last-minute stresses and limit mistakes, which are harder to undo once you're out of time, and harder to do as you get older, if only because you have less time (literally and figuratively).

When you pass by your room on the way back from dumping the garbage, and prior to putting on your work clothes, that made bed will give you a sense of having things under control and at your fingertips. Unmade, it will make you want to crawl back in, and not because it looks cozy.

If and when you stay at a hotel on vacation, the respite will doubly earned. And when you leave your bedmate behind, you'll be doubly missed.

As a married man, there are positive externalities to the bed-making worthy of reporting and available to any coupled soul heeding this bum-philosophical tenet.

Mrs. Scribe has moved from the made-bed onto new demands, as wives are wont to do, but hardly a married woman exists whose eyes don't mist over at the thought of having 365 small tasks a year removed from their list of jobs.

And in a fight with a wife, it never ceases to come in handy. Mrs. Scribe, forced to address the issue in rare verbal jousts, always starts behind the eight-ball with, "yes, you make the bed every day, but..."

But what? Throw the trips to the garbage bay and something else onto the list and what you've got is a person kvetching more about their own frustrations than about your housekeeping shortcomings.

And that's big.

So take heed gents. Ladies, the advantages here are not as ample (only you know), but still invaluable. At the very least, when you go to bed...

...it will be made.

Monday, November 02, 2009

Help In Battling the Big Boys


Life's not easy when it is spent jousting with the Internal Revenue Service, Bank of America, and Anthem/Blue Cross.

As it is for many of you, it is thus for the highway scribe. The American struggle is a lonely one. It is a gauntlet run without the assistance of potent unions, affordable legal help, merciful tax rules, or simple health insurance policies.

For decades, policy has exalted the myth of our rugged individualism to the point where we have been left alone to tilt at behemoths against which we are no match.

Today, via the wonder of Web banking, Bank of America helped itself to $8.95 of the highway scribe's money for services that can only be guessed at. And that's because any time the scribe actually needs something from the bank, he gets nailed with a fee.

The relationship is simple wherein the bank serves as a brief holder and dispenser of the scribe's money while checks are deposited and quickly gobbled up by expenses associated with his humble existence. It's a pretty clean collaboration, which is why the free price originally offered for the account made sense.

One day, without any notice, the price went up to $5.95. highwayscribery called to find out what was up with that and got the stock response that such increases were included in the long, illegible text of a document he signed agreeing to a free checking account.

Which is not news to any of you.

Then, sometime after the Obama administration came into power, banks found themselves in the extremely rare position of having customer gripes funneled back at them through the White House.

In "Change New World," we expressed our initial shock at having the government do our bidding.

In "Credit Card Crookery" and "Credit Card Redux," this unique pleasure was extended, in particular, to the financial industry, which had it coming.

Of course, these companies didn't get richer than the rest of us by being stupider. Soon came their response to new rules reining in the parasitical abuses.

These involved arbitrary increases to most everyone's interest rates and general account fees. The companies also kept their promise on sticking it to credit cardholders who were on the up and up all these years.

That's around the time the aforementioned bump to $8.95 on the scribe's free checking account occurred. Bank of America stretched the terms of our original agreement by $107.40 per annum with nary a "howdy-do!"

Of course, on a sliding scale, a $107 heist is relatively small when compared with what happens when a bank does one the favor of paying a series of five $6 debit charges and then hits you for $35 on each.

Which is to say, the scribe absorbed it figuring nothing in life is truly free. Mired in a 1099 hourly wage reality, the effort in going over to the bank and getting the monthly fee reduced wasn't worth the time... financially speaking.

So it was with great pleasure that highwayscribery, in its ritual perusal of the "New York Times," on Tuesday, Oct. 2, ran into a charming slice of life on page B9 wherein Sen. Chris Dodd (D) of Connecticut was calling for an "interim freeze" on further fee increases of the type just detailed for your reading pleasure.

The author of the piece, Andrew Martin, by the way, does an excellent job on the myriad ways banks and credit card companies screw people. His pieces provide the consolation that you are not alone, and that someone with a decent megaphone is pointing out the abuses of usury to which we numbly submit.

But we digress with much territory to cover.

The article explains that Congress is only too aware of the run-up in fees and rates as banks interpret the interim between when the new law goes into effect, and now, as a window in which it’s okay to loot as many customers as possible.

A bill was recently reported out of the House Financial Services Committee that would close the window more quickly, on Dec. 1, instead of February 22 of next year.

Said Dodd: "At a time when families are struggling to make ends meet, jacked-up rates can quickly create crushing debt. People need to be responsible with their money, but they shouldn't be taken to the cleaners by outrageous fees."

What the Connecticut Yankee wants, in reality, is an old-time, 1970s-style price control. highwayscribery and others of his ilk love a good price control. They had fallen very much out of favor during the free market rage, but since that worked out about as well as it did in 1929, the price control may be making a comeback.

A fellow named Talbot from something called the Financial Service Roundtable said Dodd's desire is fired by the false notion that fees and interest rates are going up because of the new law to hold them down (if you follow).

Talbot added that the increases are because the economy is so bad and people are having such a tough time paying their credit card bills.

But that's why taxpayers gave the big banks and brokerage houses those big bucks bailouts, so it won't wash. And thank heavens the Democrats are in power because we'd never have gotten this kind of love from the Tea Party Party.

Not to suggest the Dems are somehow holy and sacrosanct when it comes to protecting the naked consumer. They sat around for years bending to the will of marketeers and cultivated a lot of our current-day problems during the disappointing days of President Bill Clinton.

And that's because they're not as good as Republicans when it comes to loving their base.

GOPers can rush into a hotly contested New York congressional race and back the Conservative Party candidate (against their own!) without fear of...well, fear of anything.

National Democratic leaders jumping into a local race to back a socialist candidate, on principal, would result in their being sent straight to hell, or jail or worse. So they tend to take their left-wingers for granted because they have nowhere else to go.

Then they sit around waiting for independents and Olympia Snow (R-Maine) to give them cover.
Even as they have benefited from the change in our political landscape, Democrats have been slow to truly internalize it, which is why the public option was dead a month ago and now it’s not.
We've had 11 months of the Obama administration, but are into about the third year of the Obama era during which conventional wisepersons have seen their predictions upended again and again.

And so it goes with the public option. In his most recent column, David Broder wrote that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) finally decided upon the public option to satisfy the "labor-left" of his party. That's the highway scribe, who will avail himself of the benefit as soon as it becomes available.

But it's also a lot of other people, not necessarily for unions or anything else "left," but affordable health care.

Broder, like many in his field, think the Obama election happened in some weird vacuum that represented no shift in Americans' political thinking.

Reid thought that, too, and so did a lot of other people in Congress until the President did some decent explaining, the debate groaned on, and the public option concept grew clearer to the electorate.

The numbers don't lie. Reid can interpret them and feels safe in putting the idea forward.

But he needs some help, because oft-times, the peoples' will is thwarted.

Here's a petition asking Democratic leaders to strip any Senator supporting Republican filibuster efforts of their chairmanship.

highwayscribery calls it the "Lieberman Petition."

Here's Reid's petition asking you to help him out on the public option.

Here's former Secretary of Labor under Bill Clinton, Robert Reich asking you, via video, to call your representatives on behalf of the public option.

Now, don't you feel better?

The "Times" ran an article on "Senate naysayer," John Cornyn (R-Okla.) who is hell bent on stopping health care reform, because of the "financial ruin" it represents.

The article says he has a big "No," sign behind his desk in the Hart Senate Building of which he is very proud. The reason why is a secret of Cornyn's own keeping, but highwayscribery is willing to bet his tightwad ways don't extend to arms purchases and war packages.

And we're betting a yahoo like Cornyn, effective as he may be in gumming up the legislative works, won't be able to stop this thing coming down the pike.

Once achieved, health care reform is going to make life with or without Anthem/BlueCross a lot easier for a lot of people.

All of which, dare we way, represents something of a pending victory for President Obama whose Paul Krugman noted, "The seemingly impossible dream of fundamental health care reform is just a few steps away from becoming reality, and each player has to decide whether he or she is going to help it across the finish line or stand in its way."

Wow.

Which brings us to that final phantom, the IRS.

If you follow American politics very closely, you might come away with an impression that President Obama is not faring well. That people like him, but not his policies. That Republicans are poised for a comeback. You might have been caught off guard by news that he'd won the Nobel Peace Prize and swayed by those who say he has accomplished naught to deserve it.

In an Op-ed piece penned by U2's Bono in the "New York Times" a short while back, the singer attempted to explain why Obama is beloved in Europe, where they lack an entire network dedicated to the daily trashing of his reputation.

Among these virtues are Obama’s commitment to the Millennium Development Goals of halving world poverty by 2015. Obama, Bono notes, was not around when the goals were set, “but he’s there now. Indeed he’s gone further -- all the way, in fact. Halve it, he says, then end it.”

Such policies, wrote Bono, “are why I believe Mr. Obama could well be a force for peace and prosperity, if the words signal action.”

This does not mean the specter of the Internal Revenue Service and the crushing penalties it has visited upon the scribe's family will suddenly evaporate. Even Obama can't do that.

But, we hope, it means that WHAT we give to the government will be spent less on institutionalized violence and more on the promotion of peace, human harmony, and the vision of our better angels abroad.

And that's change you can bank on.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Letter to Zimbabwe's Ambassador



October 16, 2009

Machivenyika Mapuranga
Zimbabwe Ambassador to the U.S.
1608 New Hampshire Ave NW
Washington, DC 20009-2512

Mr. Ambassador.

I urge your government to release Roy Bennett from prison and drop the ridiculous charges of "terrorism" leveled by the government against him.

Anyone can see what is going on here. "Terrorism" is the new "communism" and whenever a government wants to get rid of somebody making life uncomfortable, it characterizes the opposition activity as "terrorist" and is done with that person.

Let's be blunt here: No party or person has the right to govern a modern, and purportedly, democratic country forever.

Mr. Mugabe is an embarrassment to Zimbabwe and his horrific campaign against those who oppose him deserves naught but disdain from the international community.

He is 85. He should take himself and his party out of the equation and let a new generation determine the direction of Zimbabwe.

Respectfully,
highwayscribery

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Book Report: "The Madonna of 115th Street," by Robert Orsi


Like the many penitents he renders, Robert Orsi sees all things in "The Madonna of 115th Street."\

A scholar of things religious, and connoisseur of matters Italian-American, Orsi combines these two interests so that one defines and explains the other.

To the uninitiated, the Madonna of Mount Carmel is just a statue like countless others throughout Europe and the Americas that interprets the Virgin Mary in plaster relief.

But in Orsi's erudite hands La Madonna (and the faith she engenders) becomes an analytical tool that unlocks doors to discussion on Italian-American family life, the role of work, the trials of immigration, the history of colonization in the old country, and, of course, food.

His base of scholarly operations is the now-vanished Italian East Harlem, but those raised in the culture will recognize themselves, their families, and neighborhood networks in its residents.

The author did years of in-depth research, but found most of his truths on the streets of Little Italy. The resulting interviews may have informed the text, but don't make many actual appearances.

Much of "Madonna" is given over to Orsi's ornate reasoning, and even speculation, about the meanings of the religious icon, and how they can be discerned in the behaviors of mid-century Italian-Americans in urban New York.

That's not necessarily a bad thing. Somebody had to do it and his thoughts mostly ring true. Where they don't, the opportunity for debate and discussion naturally arise, and that is a second service the author rendered.

Don't give this book to your Aunt Rosina in Coney Island unless she's got a college degree and a sociological bent. "Madonna" is a scholarly text that can be dense as a zeppole with academic jargon or leavened as a sfogliatelle with deeply meditative conclusions.

But it is a delightful trove of considerations on the Italian-American and immigrant experience; a beautiful piece of history that might have otherwise been lost to those who care them.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Congratulations Mr. President?


Remember, "Congratulations to my worthy opponent?"

Now, you lose the Olympics, you lose. You win the Nobel Prize for Peace, you lose.

Today's rarified, fast-paced news environment means you can wake up on the West Coast to commentary -- from Glenn Greenwald on the left to the choir of crass on the right -- insulting their own president for winning the Nobel before you can read that he actually won the Nobel.

The "fallout" from an issue for which there should be no fallout, overwhelms the original news itself.

Everybody from Joan Walsh to Joe Gergen get to weigh-in on whether the award was deserved, conveniently shunting aside the group which does painstaking, year-round work to make the designation and, mind you, pony-up the accompanying prize money.

They work in media, you see. Don't think until they interpret it for you.

If any proof were needed (and none was) that nothing President Barack Obama does will ever placate the conservative hate machine, this latest wrinkle (and our marvelous president delivers them quickly) ought to do the trick.

Obama had the chestnuts to speak on behalf of his hometown's bid for the Olympics and the fortitude to take the hit, such as it was. The choir was loud and sour in jeering those efforts.

It was disjointed coming from guys who wear American flag ties and whistle George M. Cohan tunes in the shower.

After all, Hannity and cohorts are always lamenting Obama's failure to highlight "American exceptionalism" in his forays abroad. But what could be more "exceptional" than winning the Nobel Prize for Peace?

In other, smaller, countries, when a native citizen wins such a prize, it is naturally an occasion for universal celebration.

As a matter of fact, in other smaller countries, Obama's winning seems to have ushered in just such an occasion.

Only in his own country, where a television network and millions of dollars in conservative funding have turned the president into a big-eared, socialist, Kenyan-born object of loathing, is the party dampened.

The Nobel gift became a really great chance to criticize.

Once the party of blue-haired dowagers and genteel country clubbers, the current GOPers can't summon up the simple gentleman's grace of wishing one of their own countryman a terse congratulations.

Tell you what, with the kind of noise heard yesterday, highwayscribery will have to reject the Nobel Prize for Literature, when it comes, for his family's sake.

But Obama is made of sterner stuff than highwayscribery. Despite what his detractors say, the President works hard and did not win his prize in a vacuum.

What really galls his enemies is that Obama is what we call "a winner" and no sooner was the grave soil on Chicago's Olympian disappointment settling, when the President had provoked them again by bringing honor to their country.

The brayers might say those of us closer to reality on the political spectrum would have done much the same had George W. Bush won the award.

But he did not, which is the greater message in all of this.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Letter to the Honduran Embassy


Roberto Flores Bermudez
Honduran Ambassador to the United States
3007 Tilden St., N.W. #4 M
Washington D.C. 20008

Mr. Ambassador,

I'm absolutely sickened by press notices regarding the treatment, not only of anti-government supporters, but of those who just happened to be in the way of government troops.

As I just wrote to your counterpart from Guinea, military coups do not work. Either they further enrage popular sentiment, which is always on the side of democracy, or they smother it. The latter instance entails nothing more than a country being occupied by its own army.

Unleashing these ill-prepared, and unscrupulous soldiers on middle-aged women, academics, and any poor soul trying to get home from the market speaks volumes as to Micheletti Government's ability to lead. This is not leading, this is repression.

Reports of tanks rolling through the poor parts of the country as a way of intimidating President Zelaya's supporters is unconscionable and hints of oligarchic forces seeking to forestall a true democratic process.

If people didn't want Zelaya to run for a third term, they would have voted down the referendum. "Fixing" things with an army that brutalizes them was probably a distant preference for Hondurans of both the left and right.

Shame on the ruling junta.

Regards,
the highway scribe

Letter to the Guinean Ambassador


Guinean Embassy to the United States
2112 Leroy Place N.W.
Washington D.C. 20008

Dear Sir or Madame,

I want to express my outrage at the behavior of soldiers in your country. We do not hear much of Guinea here in the United States and it is most unfortunate that we should become familiar with your country thanks to the savage acts of men whose charge, one would suppose, is to protect a country's citizens.

These stories and images of women being raped by military forces in the streets of Conakry are abhorrent. President Moussa Dadis Camara's protestations that he could not foresee this bloodbath are unacceptable. Either he controls his army or doesn't. They should all be stripped of their commissions. These are not soldiers, but thugs.

Perhaps I am naive, but there must be a difference between the two types of person.

This is why military coups don't work. Nobody can stand in the way of those with guns if there is no system of civil law to provide prior restraint. I don't see how the trauma and tragedy can ever be revoked, but the current government might do the whole world a favor and step down so that voters might have a chance to replace them with more responsible human beings. And I emphasize "human."

Shame on your government.

Regards,
the highway scribe

Monday, October 05, 2009

Free Elliot Madison



Before you get upset about all those Iranian protestors being run through the wringer over there, you might turn your attention to those enduring similar treatment over here.

In "Twitter-Patter Revolutions," highwayscribery drew parallels between what governments do in Iran, and everywhere else, by framing examples of the violent way our own government has treated its dissidents.

highwayscribery reached back to the murder of four students at Kent State University in the 1960s and moved onto some overzealous police enforcement at Democratic and Republican national conventions over the past decade.

Now, we've got a fresh example from the recent G-20 summit and corresponding protests in Pittsburgh.

Similar to the way authorities responded to the Twitter-Patter revolution in Tehran, Federal Bureau of Investigation agents invaded a house in Queens, New York on Oct. 1, and rooted around its entrails for 16 hours.

That's not a misprint: 16 hours.

As part of the FBI effort in overkill, agents arrested a 41-year old social worker named Elliot Madison. It is not clear what Mr. Madison has done other than participated in the coordination of demonstrations around the G-20 confab.

Last we checked, which was just a few minutes ago, that's not a crime, rather a protected civil right.

His attorney, Martin Stolar told "The Times, "There's absolutely nothing that he's done that should subject him to any criminal liability."

highwayscribery agrees.

The article is devoid of evidence this fellow did anything other than occupy an improvised e-communications bureau that helped demonstrators divine the movements of the police details bent knocking the snot out of them.

The attorney said he'll know what the charges are when the affidavit empowering the FBI to disembowel his home is unsealed.

That's another anti-democratic feature of our democracy that drives the highway scribe nuts. The sealed court document. In his real-life job as a reporter, the scribe must comb the PACER system for federal court documents and they are often sealed, which is a way of keeping them from public purview without explanation.

Explanation, we posit here, is the essence of democracy. For a government by and for the people to take an action, it must explain the action to those same people.

The point being we have a ways to go here before pointing the figure at other places.

A criminal complaint against Madison, in Pennsylvania, said he directed, "others, specifically protestors of the G-20 summit, in order to avoid apprehension after a lawful order to disperse."

Of course, whenever a government issues an order to disperse, it's lawful, so Pennsylvania authorities are belaboring a weak point.

Emerson reminds us, "A good man obeys the law not too well," as in a case like this where your constitutional right to assemble for political reasons is questioned by a bunch of meat-headed, truncheon-wielding yo-yos.

Meant-headed, truncheon-wielding yo-yos, by the way, hate the Constitution because of the way it makes a crime out of venting their most basic and savage urges.

So what we're saying here is the same thing we said in "Twitter Patter Revolutions" and "President Obama and The Venice Drum Circle": Countries in glass houses shouldn't throw stones.

If you want to argue that there is no moral equivalent between the enforcers in Iran and those in the United States, ask those who have to breathe the spew from their teargas canisters first.

If you think highwayscribery is getting all bent out of shape over something isolated, keep in mind that on the next page, same newspaper spread, it is reported that New York City will blow $24 million -- useful in forestalling foreclosures or paying furloughed teachers -- to install an "electronic bulwark" against "terrorists" in midtown Manhattan.

Hey, we're all against terrorism right? What's the problem with that?

The problem is that "terrorists" are not the only people the forces of order will be using their new electronic toys to watch.

How do you think they found Madison and his protesting friends in Pittsburgh?

And why is highwayscribery taking potshots at the police?

Because highwayscribery wouldn't trust a policeman farther than he could throw one, and because this article, also in next page of "The Times," regarding the impunity with which officers in that once free and anarchic city operate.

Screw 'em. We're with Madison and his ilk.