30 May 2007

Comfort words

If you call a rose an onion, it’s still a rose.

The buzz over the last few days has been over the discovery that the Nazis used the phrase “enhanced interrogation techniques” instead of “torture,” just like the Bush Administration does. The Gestapo coined the term, apparently. How civilized. How droll. How ... coy of them.

Then, like today, people didn’t like to hear some words. “Torture” conjures horrible images of fingernails being pulled from fingertips with pliers while the victim screams in agony. Or of live electrical wires being touched to ultra-sensitive parts of the body, or of a glowing cigarette burning into the soft flesh under an eye. Fingers snipped off with garden shears.

We identify with the victim instantly. We imagine the complete terror, the outrageous, continuous pain, the hopelessness, the longing for the agony to end, even if it means escape into the nothingness of death. We imagine our dead bodies ugly, mutilated and disgraced, treated as rubbish, buried or burned without any respect for the life which once inhabited them, without memorial, without dignity. We imagine the anguish of our families, our friends.

The healthy human mind shudders away from such images. It reacts with revulsion. We consider those who condone torture depraved and wicked. Evil.

“Enhanced interrogation techniques,” on the other hand, is delightfully vague. It’s an all-over-the-place phrase that conjures no real images at all. We can’t identify with the person – certainly not a “victim” – whom they might be applied to. He’s faceless, amorphous, unreal, but obviously bad. The phrase is perfectly usable in polite company over luncheon.

In America, we associate the word “torture” with the Nazis, with Saddam, with Pinochet, with the Inquisition. We think of the rack, the Iron Maiden, thumb screws, near-drowning, eyeballs poked out. Anyone for a dentist’s drill?

Hard to imagine America doing horrific, evil things like that to any human being, to any living creature, for that matter, for any reason.

But we do accept the benefits of “enhanced interrogation techniques” and we don’t really mind that our country practices them against our “enemies” as long as they’re “necessary.” We’ll just leave the definition of those words to ... well, the Government. The Authorities. They know who the “enemy” is, right? They know when “enhanced interrogation techniques” are necessary. They have the benefit of information, of reasoned judgment. And, when it comes down to it, it’s simply a matter of “national security.”

Isn’t it?

26 May 2007

Memorial dirge

Here it is again. Memorial Day weekend, the official start of the long American summertime, that fun-filled, three-day whirl of cars loaded with ice chests, camping equipment and beach towels jammed up on the freeways; of mysteriously jacked-up gas prices; of picnics and barbecues, river rafting, beer-guzzling and the inevitable sunburn.

On Monday, the freeway not far from here will be clogged again from 11 a.m. to at least 7 p.m. as people inch home from their holiday recreation in the mountains. How many, I wonder, will think even briefly tomorrow, on the actual Memorial Day, of America’s Iraq war dead?

On Memorial Day a year ago, 2,464 American soldiers had died in Iraq since the war was launched in March, 2003. Since that day, 1,338 more mostly young men and women have died violent deaths there, bringing the total to 3,802.

Less than 1,500 deaths per year in battle isn’t too bad, you can argue. In fact, it’s many fewer than died each year as the war in Vietnam wound down. It’s many fewer than the number of men who died fighting in World War I, World War II, and the Korean War each year those wars lasted.

That’s pretty easy to say thousands of miles away from the war, sitting comfortably on a deck chair with a cold one and a bag of chips while the ribs sear on the grill and the kids do cannonballs into the pool.

But for the families and friends those 3,802 soldiers left behind when they were blown to bits or shot or crushed under a tumbling vehicle tossed like a toy by an exploding homemade bomb, it’s not easy at all. For a lot of them, this will be the fifth Memorial Day since the war began without a beloved husband or wife, without the goofy antics of a brother, or the laughter of a father or mother, or the joy of feeding homemade potato salad and charred hamburgers to their young adult children.

Three thousand, eight-hundred and two fallen soldiers – dads, brothers, moms, sisters, daughters and sons, husbands and wives and lovers -- will be missed with intense longing and intense pain, just as they are every day.

In November last year, just before Veterans Day, the American people gave America’s leaders a clear mandate when they voted warmongering Republican candidates out of office and replaced them with Democrats in the House and Senate. Almost 70 percent of people in this country want their soldiers brought home. President Bush’s response to that overwhelming majority was to give us the finger and escalate the war, sending even more soldiers to Iraq to die. He even extended the 12-month tours of the ones already there to 15 months, increasing exponentially the odds that they’ll come home in a flag-draped box in bloody pieces on a military cargo jet, rather than alive and well on a chartered airliner with free movies and boxed lunches.

The Democrats the people elected to bring our soldiers home have not done so, instead looking to their own miserable political futures. Yesterday, they handed George W. Bush a bill funding the continued bloodshed and horror in Iraq with no caveats regarding timelines. He just held his breath and stomped his feet until they caved, as he knew they would. And then he signed the bill, triumphant once again.

May blood soak his dreams. May blood soak theirs, every one of them -- regardless of political party -- who voted "aye" on that bill.

Memorial Day is not a holiday, if it ever was. It’s always been meant as a day to remember and honor the ultimate sacrifice made by our soldiers in defense of our country. It’s right that we stop for a day and do this. But since this illegal, immoral war was started in Iraq by our criminal president, Memorial Day is a funeral dirge for the brave, selfless soldiers fighting and dying there. And it’s a flag-draped coffin for America.

Update: If you read nothing else this Memorial Day, read this May 22, 2007 post by U.S. Army SPC Milo Freeman, who's serving his country in Iraq right now and remains, at the moment, alive, well and Very. Fucking. Angry.

Photo courtesy The Memory Hole via the U.S. Air Force

23 May 2007

Tell me something I don't know

You know, I’m really getting tired of Commander Codpiece assuming that we’re all as fencepost-dumb as he is.

Yesterday, he declassified an intelligence report and released it to the world amid much solemn fanfare.

The report tells us that Osama bin Laden, as recently as two years ago, directed his top al Qaeda guy in Iraq to form new terrorist cells there for the purpose of attacking the West, in particular, the U.S.

Excuse me, but this is news? To anyone?

I guess George W. thought this would come as a shock to us. We’d be scared right back into line and stop all our annoying complaining about his nasty war. The proof of everything he’s been saying about al Qaeda in Iraq is right there, after all. Why, it’s in black and white.

Well, duh, George.

I’ll tell you what the news made me think. Even before I’d read past the headline, “White House Says Bin Laden Ordered Iraq Plots,” my first thought was that this startling release of intelligence to the masses could only be more propaganda designed to influence the mouth-breathers among us. My second was, ‘I bet the intelligence is a couple of years old.’ My third thought was, ‘So, why haven’t you caught bin Laden yet, cowboy?

Then I read the story. The top guy bin Laden gave his orders to back in 2005 was al Zarqawi, who was later killed by an American bombing raid in June 2006 amid much crowing and strutting by the Bush administration. Presumably bin Laden said “darn!” when he heard al Zarqawi was dead, and like most decent CEOs, instructed the next guy in line pick up the ball.

This is a surprise?

Al Qaeda wasn’t in Iraq before Codpiece had his minions think up lies he could tell so he could have his vanity war and tell the world that “I’m the war president.”

We’re moving in on six years since Sept. 11, 2001. In spite of all his strutting around dressed in tailored commander costumes, Junior has not captured bin Laden. I suspect this is because no one has thought to look in Dubai, where all the best criminals set up shop, dahling. Ask Halliburton. There, Osama could live quite comfortably in a Burj al-Arab executive suite, complete with his personal dialysis machine, piped-in calls to worship, a memory-foam prayer mat, Fox News, WiFi and three squares a day, with snacks, from room service. When he gets bored, he can whack golf balls into the Persian Gulf from the hotel’s helipad 60 stories above the city. It’s all the rage.

Don’t laugh. Has anyone looked there?

I’ve always thought that bin Laden was far too smart to hole up in the mountains between Afghanistan and Pakistan. He’s a rich man. He can afford better. And there are lots of really posh places in the world where a wealthy man can live in discreet comfort. Money has a way of shutting mouths and keeping secrets.

Or, if he really is an outdoorsy type, as the rumors tell us, Osama’s likely camped out in the mountainous, disputed Kashmir region between India and Pakistan, where our trusty ally General Musharaff of Pakistan turns a blind but supportive eye to the many terrorist training camps tucked away there under his nose.

With allies like this, who needs ...?

Anyway. As a reason to keep our troops in Iraq, where they’re dying horribly in daily dribs and drabs, your intelligence release sucks, Dubya. We’re supposedly fighting the terrorists “over there so we don’t have to fight them over here.” By turning Iraq into an oil-rich abattoir, the rarified thinking goes, al Qaeda fighters will flock there so they can take pot shots at our poor, staked-goat soldiers and dodge bullets from other sects in the civil war we let loose. I guess that will keep them so busy they won’t have time to come up with a way to bomb an American shopping mall.

But ... there are plenty of places where al Qaeda can establish terrorist cells. The world is full of ‘em. Why waste precious resources in Iraq, where the chances are they’ll be killed while picking out tomatoes at their local open-air market when that car bomb blows?

Honestly, Junior. I just despair.

Listen, dork: Don’t bother me with two-year-old intelligence that tells me things I already knew intuitively. Bring our kids home from Iraq, buckle down and do some real diplomacy and find a way to clean up the mess you’ve made over there. Grow up, will you? And dammit, find bin Laden, capture him and turn him over to the World Court for prosecution. You can be a star witness, Junior. And while you’re visiting the Hague, you can check out those prison cells personally and pre-order your color scheme. With any luck, you’ll get a cell right next door to Osama.

21 May 2007

Goes great with salsa ...

My daughter, “Dragon Laugh” of the blog When Dragons Laugh gave me the bidness for not posting more often and, as punishment, tagged me with a bunch of “survey” questions one of her strange but wonderfully whacky wehr-mates thought up. She promised me fun and told me I had to tag some other folks. So I did it. Because, after all, we’re family:

  1. What's in your pocket?
    Yikes! No pockets! Where did I put my pockets?

    2. Is the pork ready?
    It depends on your definition of "pork."

    3. Have you ever had to rock to and fro to make your poopie go?
    When you reach my age, dear, this is called "entertainment."

    4. Do you like onions?
    Not particularly. But then, I hate to cry.

    5. So, how big is it?
    We are not going to talk about my caboose in a public setting. But I haven't needed to beep when I back up yet.

    6. Budweiser or real beer?
    Real beer. Oranjeboom is lovely.

    7. What do you feel about your nose?
    When it's working correctly, I'm rather partial to it. When it's not, I'd like to turn it in for a new one.

    8. Children: Baked or broiled?
    You're very lucky we didn't have a microwave when you were little, dearie.

    9. Do you like it when I do this?
    As long as you mean it and you smile.

    10. Do you like the sound of chickens?
    I get a big chuckle out of chicken noises, but it's a little weird when they're all gathered out by the front door, making that low, menacing "errrrr-errrrr" sound. Like they're waiting for fresh calf-meat.

    11. Would Beyonce clip her own toenails?
    She's young, so they're probably still nice and thin and easily clippable without resorting to garden loppers. I'd think so. But then she has a lot of money and pedicures are very decadent. I think she has them clipped by a professional.

    12. Do you like pork?
    There's that definition thing again.

    13. If the butter is soft, does the bus arrive on time?
    Is this a Zen question, grasshopper?

    14. When do you get up?
    Generally upon the 13th hot flash of the night, which means it's morning, I'm furious, sweating, growling and exhausted, and it's a damn good thing no one else is up then because it's still dark and murder sounds pleasant.

    15. How did you survive childhood?
    I retreated into my imagination, read lots of books and worked hard to become invisible. That last didn't work, but I'm still here, aren't I? Aren't I?

    16. What do you do before bed?
    Eat Tums and call the dog.

    17. What are your hidden charges?
    Wouldn't YOU like to know. You'll get my bill. Hmmm. That's 25 years multiplied by ...

    18. Who's behind you?
    Nanao Sakaki, Dylan Thomas, Jorge Luis Borges, W.B. Yeats, Peter Ustinov, Sam Harris and Anthony Shadid. Oh, and Leslie Marmon Silko and Marge Piercy.

    19. Why don't people go to the bathroom on TV?
    Only you would ask this question. But honestly, do we really want to see Tim Russert on the pot with his pants around his ankles? I thought not.

    20. What's a soylent green popsicle?
    A sweet summer treat for Charlton Heston.

    21. What does it taste like?
    I hear it tastes like chicken. Or pork, depending on which definition you prefer.

    22. Why doesn't Consumer Reports rate hookers?
    Beats me, but I'm sure there are plenty of porky guys out there who'd love the job.

    23. Does George Bush replace the toilet paper tube?
    I really didn't need that image, dear. Oh, ugh, worse than Russert. But to answer your question, I don't think Junior could figure it out on his own.

There. Now, let’s see. Who to tag ... Well, Neddie, of course. Max Rainey. Kevin Wolf. Sorry, guys. Family. Gotta keep ‘em happy.

Treading blue

We have a stupid, evil man and an even stupider spoiled brat, only 60 years old, running the country, decent people are dying for no reason in the brat’s vanity war and the U.S. Constitution is in shreds. The Justice Department is riddled with scurvy rats, it cost me almost $38 to put 11 gallons of gas in my 12-gallon car last week, and when I asked a middle-aged local firefighter with a shaved head about the fire-danger situation in my county while we were both in line at the office supply store, he fixed me with a solemn gaze and said, “It’s bad. The fuels are as bone-dry right now as they normally get in July. It’s the worst it’s ever been.”

There wasn’t much I could say about that. I wished him safety and good luck. He bought his box of blank CDs and left, unsmiling, his navy blue T-shirt tight across his muscled back.

There’s nothing I can say or do about any of it, except to wish us all safety and good luck. And keep a garden hose handy. You’ll understand if I haven’t been posting here much lately.

But hey, forget about all that doom and gloom in the big outside world. Here at home, it’s the little things that get me down. Like my TV, which shows me only a bright, cheery blue screen instead of CNN no matter how many buttons I push on the fancy new remote the cable guy left me last week.

It has a lot of buttons, too.

Here’s the story. I decided not too long ago that it was time to shove the Wren’s Nest into the future. So I invested in a broadband Internet connection, which is finally available up here in dem thar hills. No more dial-up! I could stop filing my nails during website changes and actually load those ubiquitous U-Tube videos and watch them the very same day!

Naturally, the local cable company was happy to help me out, and a cable guy duly showed up. He got us all set -- digital cable TV, broadband Internet and digital phone service.

I’d told the rep on the phone when I’d set the appointment that I also wanted a wireless connection for our two computers, one of which is Mr. Wren’s desktop. The other is my little laptop computer. I wanted to be able to move it around the house without the hindrance of wires. Imagine – with a wireless connection, I could sit in front of the fire next winter, tapping out Blue Wren posts, writing and surfing the Net in cozy comfort. In the summer, I’d be able to take advantage of the chilled swamp cooler air at the other end of the house. I could – glory! – watch the Sunday news lineup and use my laptop at the same time. What could be more modern? More delightfully convenient? And – though I haven’t tried this yet – with that miracle wireless card, I’d be able to go to the local Starbuck’s and be one of those cool people working furiously on their laptops while they sip the latest blend.

I was just giddy with excitement.

Well, the cable guy arrived without the equipment necessary to let me go wireless. He suggested, however, that I could easily do it myself. Just go to the local office supply box store, buy a wireless router and cards for the computers, and (heheh) viola. I’d be set.

I was already delighted with the speed of the broadband connection, even though he’d connected the only cable to it way in the back bedroom. The cable was about six feet long, which required that I set my laptop on top of a laundry hamper for use while kneeling.

This would not do.

So, being a plucky and courageous Wren, off I went. I bought the required wireless hardware, zoomed home and went about setting it up.

Several hours later, it still wasn’t working. I’d exhausted my very limited technical knowledge and longed for rescue. Grimly, I called the company that makes the router and cards. A very nice young woman in the Philippines spent more than two hours on the phone with me, talking me through a myriad of possible fixes. No go. She decided, finally, that the router must be defective and apologized profusely. I should return to the store and exchange it for another, then try again.

The next morning, with considerably less enthusiasm, I exchanged the router and had that cheery conversation with the firefighter. I drove home at the speed limit, noting the combustible dry weeds along the highway verges. I made myself lunch. I gazed at my laptop, sitting there on the clothes hamper. I swept the kitchen floor and started a load of laundry. I made coffee. I considered a shot of whiskey and decided it wasn’t five o’clock anywhere yet, so I’d better get busy if I didn’t want to kneel like a supplicant while reading the news anymore.

I unboxed the router, picked up the phone and called the customer service folks again. Gave them my “case number.” And this time, guided by a sweet young man who may have been in India, (I’m old enough to still be thrilled by talking with polite foreigners in faraway countries on the phone for free) it worked. Within 45 minutes both computers were wireless.

Note to the uninitiated: When the 22-year-old cable guy says it’s easy, do not believe him.

And now, back to the TV and that blue screen.

One of the reasons I haven’t watched television for years (besides just getting out of the boob-tube habit in young adulthood because I couldn’t afford to buy one) is the rise of cable. When I returned from Germany in 1992, I found that watching TV now required a) cable and b) programming in the local channels. The station numbers and affiliates hadn’t changed – they were still familiar – but to be able to get them on the cable connection, one had to fiddle and fidget, finding the code numbers that corresponded, etc, then working out how to get the remote to talk to the “box,” get the “box” to accept the numbers, and then to actually work.

You must understand. My technical expertise stops at changing batteries. Even that’s a challenge these days, since they make those little “+” and “-” signs so incredibly tiny. Have you noticed that? Or is it just my failing eyesight?

Anyway, once I’d worked all that tedious programming business out, I discovered that TV had utterly changed since I’d left the U.S. in the mid-80s. First, there were far more commercials, and very few of them were in any way pleasant to watch. They were raucous and incredibly loud, so that I had to turn down the volume when they came on, then turn it back up to hear the program I was trying to enjoy. I learned how to use the “mute” button. I would mute the commercials, but then get distracted in the silence, reading a book or getting involved with something else, and forget to “unmute,” so I’d miss part of the program entirely. This was annoying, but I adjusted.

Then, I discovered that with the exception of just a few shows, the fare offered bored me to tears. That was in spite of 437 available channels. I watched a lot of Animal Planet until I started seeing repeats all the time. And I was shocked by the shouting, the low level of discourse, the gratuitous violence, bad language, rudeness and ugliness that I saw on the screen. Now, I’m not prudish, but watching people throw chairs at each other over their marital problems on Jerry Springer’s reality show just wasn’t my cup of tea. I noticed the network news programs had become extremely partisan and it was all trumped-up Clinton scandals, all the time. I wasn’t particularly political at the time, but even I could see I wasn’t getting the whole story.

In the meantime, cable became even more complicated, programming-wise. When Mr. Wren and I got a fabulous new TV back in 1998, I just let him figure it all out. He loves watching television and has far more patience than I do with gadgets (and commercials). In fact, the worse the B movie, the better he likes it. The only problem with that was that in the meantime, we’d purchased a VCR, and he was recording programs during the day and overnight. If I happened to be home alone and flipped on the TV just to see what was on, I’d screw up his recording and would later face a very unhappy postal worker with a foot of height and about 150 pounds on me. You don’t want to go there.

If he wasn’t recording, I couldn’t find my old trusty channels anyway, because they had different numbers coded in. I didn’t know what they were without perusing the guide, which had grown to telephone book size, or asking Mr. Postal.

Talk about distraction. I gave up on TV.

So now, here I am with digital cable. The cable guy showed me the fancy new remote, told me he’d already programmed in the local channels, and handed it to me. “So that means if I push, for instance, ’03,’ I’ll get Channel 3?” I was skeptical.

“That’s right!” he grinned. “Try it!”

I did. Channel 3 came right on. Cooooool.

I made Mr. Wren help me drag the old treadmill into the living room the next morning. I had plans. I’ve been working very hard on a diet, but I’ll lose that 10 years of accumulated desk chair weight a whole lot faster if I exercise. But I hate exercise. I can’t afford a health club, which would mean driving a long way to get to the nearest one, anyway. And taking a brisk walk along our local country roads, beautiful as they are, is out. There are no sidewalks, and no shoulders. Only ditches. Lumber trucks whizzzz by at 60 mph. There are better ways to go.

So, the treadmill, which is a wonderful device but deadly boring, and I must be entertained while suffering. I’d tried reading while treading, but I kept tripping. I tried music while treading, but all that did was make me realize just how incredibly long a 3-minute, 45-second song really was.

But now that I had this very cool, very simple cable setup, I figured I could rise upon my pre-dawn hot flash, get on the treadmill and point the remote at the TV. I could watch the latest breaking news while trudging and treading, just like those skinny, burnished people in the fancy gyms do. I wouldn’t have to be embarrassed by my Buns of Lard, oversized Dog-a-Thon T-shirt and Just-My-Size sweatpants. The talking heads on TV would distract me from the fact that I was sweating and gasping. I could turn treading into ... a brand-new, goddess-like body!

Oh, baby.

So, the next morning, I was up before the birds, cooling myself by fanning my hot flash sweat with a magazine and looking forward to the First Day of My New Life. I got on the treadmill and switched ‘er on. Pointed the remote at the TV and pushed the on/off button.

The TV came on, but the blue screen informed me that the VCR was recording, so I was “locked out.”

Hell hath no fury. But Mr. Wren was sleeping peacefully, no doubt dreaming about the documentary on Bhutan he was recording at 6 a.m. Later, after he was up, awake and showing no postal tendencies, I politely requested that he not, in future, record anything between 4 and 8 a.m. He must have seen the murder in my eyes and agreed to my request without argument.

Next morning, there I was again. Got the treadmill going. Pointed the remote at the TV. Clicked. It worked! Except at that hour, there was no network news, so I had to stop the treadmill and find the instructions for how to find the cable news outlets. Finally, I found CNN, pressed the appropriate buttons, and trudged while some tart on CNN explained to me that Republicans in Washington, DC are better dressed than Democrats. As soon as she finished telling me that fascinating bit of news, there were 45 commercials. When she came back, she was all about some creepy guy who’d microwaved his baby in a hotel room last month.

Grossed out and disgusted as much by the idea that this passed as “news” as by the deed, I trudged. Stopped when I hit a half-hour. Those were the only two “news” items CNN showed in that time.

Yesterday morning I didn’t tread or try the TV. Mr. Wren and I were up and out of the house bright and early for a county garden tour. Figured I’d do all the walking I could take during the tour, and I was right. It’s hilly around here and we hit eight gardens in various parts of the county. I figure I walked for, oh, five out of eight hours.

And now, this morning and those little things that get you down. Up with the birds again. Mr. Wren dreaming of gardens. Power up the treadmill after checking the cable channel guide, memorizing the number for the version of CNN that actually has news on it. Click “on.”

Blue screen. No CNN, no stupid CNN, no nothing. Just blue screen. And none of the buttons, no matter which I pushed, worked on the remote.

Oh, well. Eventually I’ll figure out how to make the TV show me images of baby torturers and badly dressed Democrats while I tread. In the meantime, I’m staying on my good diet and working on further widening my nicely developed desk-chair caboose.

11 May 2007

Romantic facade

I was writing an e-mail to a friend this morning, briefly describing my recent trip to Virginia and Washington, DC, and found myself writing that it felt, to me, like a trip to Disneyland.

I sent the message off and went on with the morning, but my mind kept going back to “Disneyland” as a description. I was writing quickly, not thinking very deeply about it at the time.

Now, I’m thinking. In my previous post, one the photos I posted was of the quote over the Sergeant-at-Arms’ office in the Capitol. As we wandered up and down the halls of that great old building, I saw many other quotes, also painted with elegance above the offices. But that was the only one that made me stop and snap a photo. We had limited time in the Capitol, so I didn’t want to hold the rest of the family – and our two gracious guides – up by shooting everything that attracted my attention. We would have been there for hours. Days, even.

But now, I’m thinking about why that particular quote stopped me in my tracks.

“We have built no temple but the CAPITOL
We consult no common oracle but the CONSTITUTION.”

While his name doesn’t appear with his quote over the doorway of the Sergeant-at-Arms, the man who wrote and spoke those words was Rufus Choate (Oct. 1, 1799-July 13, 1859), a lawyer, politician and orator from Salem, Massachusetts. Choate was a Whig and served two terms in Congress, once in the House and once in the Senate.

Choate wrote those rather striking words as part of an oration, “The Importance of Illustrating New-England History by a Series of Romances like the Waverley Novels,” in which he discussed with eloquence and passion how much better the dryness of historical writings can be appreciated by their fictionalization. He focused on Sir Walter Scott’s “Waverly Novels,” which include “Ivanhoe,” but he also used the example of Greek history. Herodotus, the “father of history” gave us the facts of his times, Choate said, but it was Homer, a blind harper and storyteller, who gave us the beauty, imagination and day-to-day living details of Greek life in “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey.”

Choate went on to write about America’s history from his viewpoint about 150 years into it, and how by reading our history after it happens and written up by historians, we may learn dry facts, but there is little that touches us in our day-to-day lives in the dates, events and people we read about. Thus, his argument for the value of historical fiction – “romance” -- in which the writer, after researching exhaustively, writes a story set in times past which includes living, breathing characters, their emotions, their motivations, their clothes and food and even their laughter over a beer in a public house. The “romance” of history, he argues, is what makes it live in our minds today.

It was a fascinating read, Choate’s argument for romance in history. But it wasn’t until I’d nearly reached the end of the long document that I found, finally, the quote that appears above the Sergeant-at-Arms office in the Capitol. I was glad to find it. I wanted context.

He was once again contrasting the ancient world with his own America of 1833. Here’s what he wrote and later said at Salem, Massachusetts near the end of his speech:

“It were good for us to remember that nothing which tends, however distantly, however imperceptibly, to hold these States together, is beneath the notice of a considerate patriotism. It were good to remember that some of the institutions and devices by which former confederacies have been preserved, our circumstances wholly forbid us to employ. The tribes of Israel and Judah came up three times a year to the holy and beautiful city and united in prayer and praise and sacrifice, in listening to that thrilling poetry, in swelling that matchless song, [they] celebrated the triumphs of their fathers by the Red Sea, at the fords of Jordan, and on the places of the field of Barak’s victory. But we have no feast of the Passover, or of the Tabernacles, or of the Commemoration. The States of Greece erected temples of the gods by a common contribution, and worshipped in them. They consulted the same oracle; they celebrated the same national festival; mingled their deliberations in the same Amphictyonic and subordinate assembles, and sat together upon the same benches to hear their glorious history read aloud, in the prose of Herodotus, the poetry of Homer and of Pindar. We have built no national temples but the Capitol; we consult no common oracle but the Constitution. (emphasis is mine) We can meet together to celebrate no national festival. But the thousand tongues of the press – clearer by far than the silver trumpet of the jubilee – louder than the voice of the herald at the games – may speak and do speak to the whole people, without calling them from their homes or interrupting them in their employments. Happy if they should speak, and the people should hear, those things which pertain at least to their temporal and national salvation!”

Heheh. I could be misunderstanding ol’ Choate, but I think this eloquent and thinking man liked the idea of a free press, and that Americans could know their history – in all of its facets -- for themselves and with immediacy, rather than hearing it only later as interpreted by others.

I wonder what Choate would think of the current predicament of the free press in America. Fox News, anyone?

When I read the quote myself that day in the Capitol building, it struck me because it seems that we have built new temples, if not in the form of great buildings, then in the form of money and power, inhabited by a warlike and selfish god. And our leaders seem to have abandoned the oracle of the Constitution in favor of their own, often misguided and even mad, inner voices.

So, where do I find that “Disneyland” feeling from my visit to Washington, DC? The Capitol building, as magnificent and awe-inspiring as it was, with its marble and statuary and illustrated domes, and its patriotic and profound quotes by great historical figures painted over the doors of offices, seems in retrospect like a theme park attraction or a set on a gigantic stage. America’s history lives there – you can feel it, breathe it, see it – but given the current state of our union, all that seems like nothing but a fa├žade, a false front. It seems that the people who work at the Capitol – the representatives and senators elected by us, the American people, who are our future historical figures -- don’t read or consider those great sayings, even though they’re surrounded by them daily.

Perhaps they don’t remember the nearly 231 years of history – living history -- that put all those marble columns in place around them.

06 May 2007

Vacation of dreams

I’m home.

The ups and downs during our cross-country flights were only scary and obviously, not disastrous. But once my feet were on the ground again, I fell in love with springtime Virginia, West Virginia and Maryland. The whole area was so gloriously green! The trees were budding, there were wild white dogwoods scattered through the undergrowth in the verdant forests along the Capitol Beltway, and everywhere, azaleas and rhododendrons were ablaze with color. The weather was perfect throughout the week we visited – something my uncle commented on again and again. He and my aunt, who aren’t a lot older than I am, live in a colonial-style townhouse in Alexandria. He works at the Pentagon and she dons a tuxedo for her work as a greeter at an elegant conference center and hotel there. Both of them are incredibly kind, caring and gracious people.

My skin turned soft all by itself while I was there, a small pleasure I can only attribute to the gentle humidity. I caught a glimpse of a bright red cardinal – my first. I saw the Potomac and the Shenandoah rivers, and did a waving drive-by of Harper’s Ferry.

We drove through parts of the Virginia and W. Virginia “horse country.” My sister (who neighed in her sleep as a child) is an accomplished horsewoman. She lives in Los Alamos, New Mexico, so she was in heaven. She couldn’t stop from exclaiming about all the vasty green, either. “Look! trees!” We went to the Dover Saddlery shop in Chantilly, Va., where she bought her thoroughbred jumping horse a fine, new leather halter, and I bought Mr. Wren some fancy horse liniment for his aches and pains.

We took the Metro from Alexandria to Washington, DC for a private tour of the Capitol building (I was in heaven, this time). While waiting for our guide, a truly nice woman who works for Congressman Donald Payne of New Jersey, we had drinks and spanikopita at Bullfeathers among a crowd of DC staffers doing power lunches. Although it was Monday, and the House wasn’t in session, I waved at Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office (I’d hoped to meet her and at least shake her hand, but it wasn’t to be) and sat for a few minutes in the House chamber, where the president gives his annual State of the Union address. I shot a photo of one of the columned balconies, more inside of the ornate rotunda and the seemingly forgotten quote over the House Sergeant at Arms’ office.

We spent a couple of truly too-short hours in the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. I could have wandered there for days, camping out beneath the jaws of Tyrannosaurus Rex, but time was short so we crowded into a taxi for a ride to Old Ebbitt Grill to dine. Didn’t see Ted Kennedy, but the meal was terrific.

We spent two nights at the Bavarian Inn in Shepherdstown, W. Va. – Mom and I had the Presidential Suite the first night, sleeping in rarified air. Dined on venison and elk at the inn’s Ratskeller and sighed over the view of the Shenandoah River out the suite windows.

And because my uncle and aunt simply love casinos – they’re extraordinarily lucky; my aunt won a jawdropping $750 on a nickel machine in her first 15 minutes on our first of four visits – we visited the huge, cacophonous casino and racetrack at Charles Town. I even watched a couple of horse races from the rails, shouting for the pretty dapple gray and the bay with the jockey in pink and green perched on his back.

This short vacation on the other side of America was quite overwhelming for this wee Wren. My brain’s on overload. I fell into my own bed at 8:30 last night, wiped out but grinning.