Friday, November 20, 2015

ISIS, Henry VIII's Girlfriend

My understanding of ISIS.
ISIS is a fanatical, activist doomsday cult, an ever-growing collection of zealots and adventurers spoiling for a fight, who believe they have a major role to play in a coming Day of Judgment. They would like to roll the clock back to the 7th century, back to when laws and customs were more in step with the often harsh and stringent beliefs they live by, all based on a serious interpretation of religious scripture. Their “caliph” is Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. They make al Qaeda look reasonable. Their most effective tools are social media and murder. If you discount the unlikely end-of-days scenario, their apparent aim is world domination, or to die gloriously in the attempt.
It is fair to call them extremists. It is not fair to call them un-Islamic, because they know their Koran backwards and forwards and predicate their actions on how they interpret it. Call them a mutation of Islam if you like, but they are very, very Islamic. True, they are not the same kind of Muslim you see shopping for halal food in the supermarket. They would regard the peaceful, law-abiding Muslim in the supermarket as hardly a Muslim at all, maybe someone just playing at being a Muslim. These people believe utterly and without compromise in the correctness of their culture, their brand of religion, and their laws, and everyone who does not think or act like them are either infidels or apostates. They regard themselves as a sovereign state and control vast tracts of land to prove it. Their version of the constitution is the Koran itself.
It is easy for them to recruit fighters from among boys and young men, for this group is comprised of either the disaffected urban youth of Europe, or young men of the Middle East and North Africa who have never been employed, had any kind of clout, or even a girlfriend. Joining ISIS gives them wives, money, status, and a cause. For a kid having grown up in a cloistered world, his mind poisoned against the decadent west from birth, joining ISIS is a brilliant answer to a dull life that offers little opportunity; for the adventurer, it’s a dream come true.
We think they’re looney and out of step with the twenty-first century; we wonder how people can be this way in these modern times. Maybe we think that if we can just sit down and reason with the heads of ISIS we’ll be able to figure something out. Here’s the problem: all the reliable, time-honored frames of reference we of the west use to measure and understand anything do us no good when vainly trying to peer into the minds of jihadists, or those susceptible to radicalization. Reason, compassion, desire for peace, mutual respect: these qualities are of no use in forging a bridge. In fact, we don’t possess the tools or materials needed to build a bridge. We can’t even conceive of what a bridge to them looks like. They are a completely alien species, as if our people and theirs evolved on separate planets. And, as a species, we are repugnant to them.
It is fruitless to think we can best them militarily because we’ll never win. We’ll never face armies with uniforms in straightforward battles or expect conduct constrained by the Geneva Convention. There’s a big difference between combating people merely willing to die for a cause, as opposed to those who are planning on it. A single kamikaze pilot in a small, explosive-packed plane could sink a battleship. You might argue that we can fight them by attacking their ideology, but how? Will someone please explain to me how?
Whatever the roots of ISIS are: the invasion of Iraq, oil, western arrogance, the Russians, the US, bin Laden, Bush, this century, that century, they are a plague, a spreading, ingrained, insidious, intractable, incurable, international, virulent plague. We can’t wipe them out and we can’t change their minds. The best we can hope for is aggressive and ever-vigilant containment.
I am reading “The Other Boleyn Girl,” by Philippa Gregory, a story written in the first person by Mary Boleyn, Anne’s (second wife to King Henry VIII) younger sister. It took me a minute or two to like it, but now I do and can’t put it down. The Boleyns and the Howards combine to make the ultimate scheming family, adept courtiers all and eager to put Mary’s, and later Anne’s, feminine charms to good use toward their advancement in the eyes of the king. In that world, even females of the highest class of society are dealt with as objects, game pieces, and, as Mary says, brood mares. There is so little to envy about these women, pampered though they are, whose main purpose is to decorate power, always vulnerable to the whims of men. Gregory’s fascinating characterization of Anne fights this, as she is portrayed as a willful, intelligent, articulate, worldly and crafty person who could maybe teach Lady Macbeth a thing or two. Unfortunately, we know how things end. Great story so far. I recommend it. It’s a Schprock Lock.
That is all.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Cinderella Man, Donald Trump, Illegal Aliens, Malala

I’m watching “Cinderella Man” on my exercise bike in half-hour installments. The film is the true story of Jim Braddock, a Depression-era boxer played by Russell Crowe. Good movie so far, but this is why I bring it up: during the boxing scenes I actually pedal harder! Maybe I should put together a half-hour compilation of Mike Tyson fights.
I have a confession to make: I stayed up way past my bedtime to watch Donald Trump on “Saturday Night Live.” Although I couldn’t make it through the entire show, I thought his opening monologue with the two Trump imitators was pretty good, and felt the first sketch with him in the oval office one year into his presidency was okay, but then the show dragged and my eyelids refused to stay open.
The protesters outside the theater were offering $5,000 to any member of the audience willing to heckle Trump because of his stance on immigration and his apparent prejudice against Latinos. Now, I am not a Trump supporter, but in fairness I’d like to ask this question: does Trump have a problem with immigration or illegal immigration? I never hear that distinction being made, and you have to admit that there’s a difference between those who enter the country legally and those who don’t. Maybe I’m being simplistic, but if Trump’s beef is with undocumented aliens, shouldn’t it always be put that way?
Now, as far as how we should handle undocumented aliens, I have it all figured out. And everyone should note that I did zero research on this issue because I didn’t want my laser-like thinking process muddled with a bunch of damn facts and statistics. And, of course, each bullet point below will surely beget oodles of unanswered questions which my superior intellect, taxed with many other matters of pressing national importance, cannot deal with at this time.
According to me, undocumented aliens are subject to deportation unless they have…
…proven residence in this country for at least two years and have established meaningful and legitimate ties
…assimilated themselves by demonstrating a knowledge of basic English and an acquaintance with, and acceptance of, American culture
…no violent criminal record
…a marketable skill
…citizen sponsors willing to vouch for them and share responsibility for their actions
…a willingness to submit to some kind of penalty, such as community service or a fine
Yep, that about does it. Really, what questions could there be? It’s all self-explanatory. Let’s call this one solved. Discuss amongst yourselves.
And here’s what we do with the immigrants who enter this country legally: give ’em a high five, a Bundt cake, and a tiny American flag. Welcome aboard!
For the past five years my mother has been driving my father’s old car, a 2000 Gran Marquis, the very car every American male has a constitutional right to own once he reaches the age of 75. Last week, Mom’s mechanic discovered that the “Blue Bomber” has advanced Stage IV body rot and it’s time left on earth can now be measured in weeks, possibly even days. In other words, time for another car.
My mother asked for my help in finding her a new ride. I showed up Saturday morning with a list of local dealerships, but in the end we only needed to go to one. Mom settled on a 2012 Honda Accord with low mileage, which I thought made good sense, because why would an 80-year-old who mainly uses an automobile for grocery shopping and church on Sunday need a new car? The salesman was a young guy in his early twenties and this was probably his first first meaningful gig out of college. I could easily imagine him sharing a three-bedroom apartment with about twelve other guys. A nice kid, pleasant, respectful, not the oily used car salesman my mother feared.
The test drive went well and we sat down afterward to talk numbers. It was then that the subject of the Blue Bomber and it’s potential value as a trade-in came up. There was one snag: we didn't have the venerable rust bucket with us at the time and he couldn't reasonably quote us a price based solely on our description. So the lad suggested that he drive both of us to my mother’s house to drop me off so I could then gingerly navigate the Bomber back to the dealership.
As he drove us down the main street of my old hometown, I made comments about how much everything has changed since when I was in high school. Although the town that I grew up in is only fifteen miles from where I now live, and I drive out there maybe two or three times a month to visit my mother, I have really lost touch with all the developments; after all, I always take the same route and never see anything new. So I blabbed on about how this or that was different, what used to be where the CVS is now, and so on. On one stretch there is a lake on the left side and a line of commercial properties on the right. So I said, “For instance, that lake used to be on the right side of the road, and now you see it's on the left.” The kid’s head snapped around and he said incredulously, “What? Really?” My mother turned toward me with a mock warning look and said, “Johnny…”
I told that story to a guy at work and he says it’s an example of “dad humor.” Probably.
I am reading “I Am Malala,” the autobiography of the Pakistani girl who publicly stood up for the right of girls to an education in her country and was subsequently shot in the head by the Taliban. To me, it has a kind of “Diary of Anne Frank” feel to it, probably because Malala and Anne are roughly of the same age and they lived through increasingly repressed times with an ever-present threat of death. They both show resilience, depend heavily on family life (and are close to their fathers), they’re smart and aware and share insights that bespeak a maturity beyond their years. Having already seen “He Named Me Malala,” the book for me serves as the documentary’s companion piece. In the film, Malala comes across as an earnest, funny, dauntless, intelligent teenager who is completely unaffected by her fame. She can meet with Hillary Clinton one day and attend classes at a Birmingham high school the next. She gets into squabbles with her brothers and friends just like any other kid. Beside all that, though, the book helps me learn more about a culture that seems as alien to mine as what you read in science fiction or fantasy novels. To my western sensibility, everything is all upside-down and inside-out and the rules make no sense, especially those regarding the behavior and treatment of women, as promulgated by the Taliban, the unofficial regime in the Swat region of Pakistan. Bombings, killings, beheadings, bizarre restrictions, all somehow in the name of Islam — yet life still goes on. Fascinating and horrifying.
I watched most of the latest Republican debate (the varsity one). If I were ever to vote in a Republican primary, I’d probably go with Rubio. He’s pretty sharp. I liked his line about how we need more welders and less philosophers. Good one, Marco.
On Veterans Day, you say thank you for your service. On Mother’s Day, you say thank you for your cervix.
That is all.

Friday, November 06, 2015

Technology, Team-Building, Certitude, Crazy Dog Lady

The guy in the office next to mine — get this — is talking to his wife and kid. Wait, it gets better. His wife and kid are in Russia (that’s right, the-opposite-side-of-the-planet Russia). And not only is he talking to them, he can see them! He is sitting at his desk, right now, seeing and talking to his family! And it’s free! HOLY FUCKING SHIT!
The guy in the other office next to mine takes off his headphones just long enough to tell me that this is no big deal.
We were discussing team-building activities at work. I suggested we all go overseas to fight ISIS for a week. The reception to this idea was less than lukewarm, even after I recommended that whoever doesn’t make it back gets a prominently displayed memorial plaque.
There’s right, and then there’s really, really right.
We all know what a gas gauge is. There's a needle and it points to anywhere between the “F” for full and the “E” for empty. Your gas tank can be absolutely full, to the point where you can't squeeze a single ounce more in, and absolutely empty, where there isn't a vapor left; your gas tank is a desert with bleached cow skulls and cacti and vultures circling overhead. And then there's the vast area in between full and empty indicating the varying degrees of fullness or emptiness: half full, nearly empty, and so on.
“Right” and “wrong” has a gauge very similar to the gas gauge. One can be absolutely right and absolutely wrong. And then there's the whole area in between where you can be partially right or not entirely wrong. You get the idea.
But let's return to absolutely right and wrong. It is possible to be so right that the needle is jammed flush to the “R” for right, so forcefully against it that the needle is straining, quivering, getting hot, that it begins to carve a groove into the very edge of right, it actually tries to burrow deeper into absolute right, to enter the realm of infinite rightness, where one encounters angels and the purest and rightest of rightness, righteous rightness, where wrong cannot possibly exist. A person can really be that right. I have been that right.
And boy do I hate it when people disagree with me then. Know what I'm sayin’?
I need someone to tell me that consuming Fritos, the greatest junk food in this solar system and several others, is good for me. Throwing in a few scientific-sounding words will help.
I am following Bill Mumy, young Will Robinson of “Lost in Space,” on Facebook. Someday I hope we can be real friends (not just Facebook friends) so I can get intimate details about what life with the robot was really like.
Dogfight at Fresh Pond.
It being a classic, mild New England fall day, my wife and I decided to take a walk around scenic Fresh Pond in Cambridge MA, a beautiful tract of preservation land that has, as you might expect, a large pond at its center. There is a trail that follows the pond’s shore and shortly into our stroll we noticed that Fresh Pond is a popular place for dog owners to take their pets for walks. This is fine; I like doggies and the Missus tolerates them. Signs posted at intervals along the trail show the rules. Leashes can’t be more than six feet long and dogs are permitted to be off the leash so long as they respond immediately to their owners’ call. Also, pets can’t harass other visitors to the park. This last part is important.
When we started off, we didn't know about the relaxed leash rules and early into our walk a large dog galloped up near us. The Missus, who has always been a bit skittish around dogs, especially the big ones, got upset by this by overly familiar pooch. She wheeled around and chided the dog's owner, some fifty feet away, for not respecting leash laws.
This owner, who will forever be known as Crazy Dog Lady, was managing two other mutts beside this one, and she was very quick to correct my wife about her perfect right to allow the dog off the leash. At that moment, I distinctly saw a blinding flash of light followed by the nascent formation of a mushroom cloud. I gently guided the Missus away as quickly as I could and we kept moving. My wife was angry. She was steaming mad as only a Puerto Rican can and I could feel it. The air crackled with her anger. I’ve been married to this woman for nearly thirty years and I can accurately inform you that this anger, when combined with oxygen and a crazy dog lady, is a highly combustible mix. Unfortunately, we soon came to a turning that put us in close proximity to this woman, giving her another chance to get into it with us. She said something like, “Blah blah blah the rules blah blah you shouldn’t be here.” I cut her off by saying, “Okay, okay, we get it. Enjoy your walk.” That shut her up, but it didn’t satisfy her.
Have you ever encountered someone spoiling for a fight, like they have unfinished business with you? Do you sense that they need closure, possibly in the form of you falling to your knees, tearing at your clothes and abjectly begging forgiveness? That they need to witness a humiliating admission of ignorance and to hear you express horror at the extent of your crime? Do you suspect that they, to this end, might arrange another encounter with you, seemingly accidental? Do you think this is possible?
Encountering no trouble with other people’s dogs, we kept walking while Crazy Dog Lady trailed at a distance of about seventy-five feet. She called to her dogs constantly in a strong, melodic voice, the kind you expect to hear on a farm, the type of voice someone would use to call in the cows. I tried to concentrate on the fine weather, the tranquility of the pond and how it reflected the blue sky, and the miracle of this peaceful pocket of nature incongruously inserted into a busy urban setting. None of that worked. I was worried about my wife and her anger and the mushroom cloud that continued to build.
Inevitably, Crazy Dog Lady and her three rambunctious mutts got closer and closer. Finally, one dog, a different one this time, ran up and bumped into the Missus, who was genuinely startled. Before anything was said, Crazy Dog Lady declared, “That wasn’t his fault. You bumped into him.”
Words were exchanged. I played the part of hockey referee separating two fighters. Crazy Dog Lady, who is somewhere in her sixties, wore a silly knit winter hat with earflaps and layers of clothing too warm for the day. Her face was ruddy with good health and she seemed intelligent, but you could tell there was something a little off with her. She didn’t want to be placated by my conciliatory words and threatened to contact the ranger. We obviously weren’t residents there, she said, and we had no business being there. I wouldn’t engage, because I have learned from my many dealings with agitated people that you will never get satisfaction from arguing with them. I merely repeated, “Okay, okay, enjoy your walk,” which, now when I think about it, must have pissed her off even more.
And so we left. I hated to leave, but you don’t go to places like Fresh Pond to fight.
Out of curiosity, are either Donald Trump or Ben Carson electable nationally? Does the average Republican think his party stands a good chance with either one at the top of the ticket?
So is it Myanmar or Burma? To go by how western news outlets report on the country, it feels like they’d prefer to be called “Myanmar” but can’t shake off “Burma.”
The label on the electronic device I just purchased says “Made in Cathay.”
That is all.