Bow Down

Since I first started paying attention to team sports, I have had a poor opinion of college athletics.  I started out from the benighted position that college was supposed to be primarily about education, and that any diversion of a school’s imperiled budget towards athletics was both a waste and a concession to the baser instincts of alumni, who took greater pride in the athletic achievements of their school than in its academic renown.  My own alma mater, Seattle University, was a national basketball power in the 50s and 60s, but the threat of financial insolvency forced the school to withdraw from the higher reaches of college athletics, a decision I regarded with smug, Puritanical pride.

From a gaming standpoint, as well, college athletics suffers from a lack of balance.  Players only stay with a team for three or four years, and the contortions required by the notion of "academic eligibility" inhibit coaches from fielding the strongest possible team.  Due to the relative inexperience of the players and the varying observance of the principle of amateur sportsmanship, play quality is wildly inconsistent.  It seemed to me far more rewarding to follow a professional team than a collegiate team, and alumni loyalty seemed the only understandable motivation for caring about college athletics.  I later came to appreciate that sports fans without a local professional team would naturally follow their local college team, but I continued to regard college athletics as an inferior product.

My grandfather has been a season-ticket holder for the University of Washington Huskies football team for several years, despite the fact that neither he nor his children nor his grandchildren ever attended the University of Washington.  Two weeks ago, he had a spare ticket to the last Husky home game of the season and he invited me along.  I had never been inside Husky Stadium and accepted readily. From my limited attention to the subject, I recalled that the Huskies have been a relatively dominant team within the PAC-10, and I was surprised to learn that this year they had fallen below .500 in their win-loss record and were not expected to defeat that Saturday’s opponent, the Oregon State Beavers.  Also without academic association with the UW, my parents are also season-tickets holders (they almost missed the birth of their grandson due to their attendance of a Husky game), and they sat with us as the weather went through its November routine of first balmy, then windy, then rainy while the Huskies handed a surprising 41-29 defeat to OSU.  Yay.  In previous years, I had only witnessed Husky post-game traffic from the perimeter, where it wreaks the most havoc.  That Saturday however, trudging through the downpour to University Village past the ocean of RVs and people firing up their grills for tailgate parties, I was in the eye of the storm, and I felt oddly contented.

One week ago, my parents were scheduled to come by our house on Saturday afternoon to babysit, and in anticipation of their likely viewing preference I switched on the Husky game, that week in Eugene against the "hated" Oregon Ducks.  I was unaware of this new rivalry, but my parents quickly brought me up to speed on Oregon’s increased athletic budget (those bastards!) and "dirty" coach and fans in recent years.  The Huskies were again underdogs, and indeed, by the time Nathalie & I had left to see Huit Femmes, Oregon was up 14-0.  We returned, however, to learn that the Huskies went on to score 42 unanswered points.  Almost as surprisingly, my parents had mixed emotions about the victory, as they feared that the momentum might allow the Huskies to defeat the Washington State Cougars in the Apple Cup the following week [sic].

Apparently, this year the Cougars have done extremely well, not only vying for the championship of the PAC-10 and its Rose Bowl berth, but also contending for the truly byzantine Bowl Championship Series, with which I hope to remain only passingly familiar.  Were the 5th-ranked Cougars to lose the Apple Cup to the unranked Huskies, the Cougars would almost certainly drop in the rankings and lose their shot at winning the national championship.  (Predictably, the practice of voting for national champions was another reason for me to scorn college athletics.)  My parents, whose philosophy in such matters often seems derived from a bland, Chamber-of-Commerce sensibility, contended that if a team from the state of Washington won the national championship—even if it wasn’t the Huskies—the whole state would have cause to celebrate.

Now, I might not have much native loyalty to the Huskies, but even I know that if being a Husky fan means anything, it means hating the Cougars.  I can recall more than one anxious November in which a Husky Rose Bowl campaign was ambushed by a Cougar victory in the Apple Cup, bringing a smirk to the face of even the most phlegmatic of Washington State alumni.  Piqued by this unilateral disarmament on the part of my parents, yesterday afternoon I sat down to watch my first Husky game all the way through.

It was exactly as amateurish as I remembered it.  Huge gains were followed by truly inane losses. The offense would march down the field, seemingly uncontested, only to turn the ball over or miss the field goal (can someone tell me why college football requires the ball to be snapped from those absurdly off-center hash marks?).  I found myself wondering, How did that team get ranked fifth in the nation?  By rights, the game should have embarrassed anyone associated with either school.  And yet, drawing on my healthy reservoir of prejudice against eastern Washington, I affected to rejoice in Husky gains and rue Husky losses.  Regulation time ended with the score tied at 20-20, and although I maintain a soccer fan’s stoicism regarding ties, I approved of the newly-instituted overtime rules for college football.  As Oscar’s bath time (and my presumed participation therein) approached, each overtime snap became fraught with more and more tension.  The game finally ended as clownishly as it had been played: with the Huskies leading 29-26, the backup Cougar quarterback threw what clearly looked (to my purple-and-gold-limned eyes) to be an interception, which was subsequently fumbled and then recovered by the Huskies.  The players and coaches clustered about the referees as they conferred, eventually ruling that it had been an interception/fumble resulting in the end of the third overtime.  The Huskies weren’t atop the PAC-10 or the AP Poll, but they had won the Apple Cup, and as Oscar was dressed for bed that night he was soothed not by "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star" but by a song previously only notable for having been my introduction to the geographical import of the Dardanelles.


The Emperor’s New Jumpers

Parents are notoriously irrational shoppers; they are exceeded in nonsensical purchases only by grandparents.  There isn’t much to be done about this; "irrational" hope and fear play far too great a role in the "decision" to have children in the first place.  This trend is exacerbated, however, by the children’s clothing industry.  Baby clothes are often purchased by people only distantly related to the intended recipient and who therefore have only a vague notion of the child’s size.  As children grow so fast, it is tempting to discard considerations of economy when shopping for their clothes.  Dressing small children so closely resembles dressing dolls, in fact, that considerations of practicality are usually trumped by visions of "cuteness."

As inevitable as these factors are, they should not be used as an excuse not to revise the system of clothes sizing for children.  Currently, clothes marketed for children under three years of age are categorized by age.  It doesn’t take a pediatrics internship to know that children of the same age vary wildly in size. Furthermore, different manufacturers disagree as to how large to make clothes for a given age.  Some manufacturers are even inconsistent with themselves in this regard.  Consumers fail to punish these deficiencies due to the irrationality discussed above, but I think there’s room for a manufacturer who employs a more rational sizing system.  The obvious determining attribute is weight, the standard already employed in marketing diapers and (as dictated by law) car seats.  I don’t imagine there’s any dissuading Aunt Ginny from buying that hot pink bunny suit, but were it labeled with a weight range there’s a better chance it would actually fit come Easter.

Update: A reader writes that many children’s clothes are labeled with a weight range, but no one pays attention to them.  Alas.


The Spy Who Wouldn’t Go Out Into The Cold

Last year in The New Yorker, John le Carré opened an essay on his literary inspirations by noting that he has found much of his material in Britain’s former colonies, citing novels set in Hong Kong, the Bahamas, and (then) most recently Kenya.  He even impugned the Colonial Office in The Little Drummer Girl, finding room to fault the Mandate while accompanying Mossad in the hunt for a Palestinian terrorist in the months just prior to Sharon Africanus’s invasion of Lebanon.  My immediate reaction was: Where, then, is the le Carré novel about Ulster?

The end of the Cold War was, at first, seen as the death of the cash cow that le Carré and other writers of espionage fiction had been milking for decades.  Where Clancy sank further into dementia, however, le Carré went abroad in search of Western monsters and found them in arms dealers, financiers, and pharmaceutical manufacturers (and, as always, the corrupt and craven politicians who cover for them).  While these villains are clear and present, le Carré drains them of the moral ambiguity that characterized (and, in my opinion, improved) the conflicts in his Cold War novels.  I can think of no conflict more bitter or immediate, and therefore a more fertile environment for le Carré’s talents, than that which has wracked Ireland for centuries and continues today.

Le Carré has touched on Ulster only once in his oeuvre: Jonathan Pine, the protagonist of The Night Manager, earned his chops in wet work in the British Army, intercepting IRA arms shipments.  Unfortunately, Pine’s character finds more motivation from a personal grief (rather too directly) caused by the novel’s antagonist, an amoral arms dealer bloodlessly ignorant of his customers’ passions, than from any political reflection upon his apprenticeship in Ulster.

One might argue that The Little Drummer Girl exhausted the terrorist subject for le Carré.  But le Carré is a genre writer, even if he invented his genre himself, and he has shown himself more than adept at immersing himself in a region and gleaning from multiple cultures and institutions the details crucial to revealing ugly but human truths while leaving everyone involved bloody and exhausted.  Surely, Northern Ireland deserves such a treatment.

Le Carré is justly proud of his inability to keep his biography out of his writing, mining the rich veins of his childhood in 30s and 40s and his intelligence career in the 50s and 60s.  But I think we only have to go back to the 90s to guess at some reasons for his reluctance to tackle the Ulster subject.  When Salman Rushdie authorized a paperback edition of his fatwa-inciting novel The Satanic Verses, le Carré argued that the principle of free speech had been upheld with publication of the hardback edition and reproved Rushdie for endangering his publisher’s employees ("the girls in the mailroom," in le Carré’s phrase) by further provoking Muslims who might react with violence.  This suggests that le Carré might be (or may have recently become) too sensitive to the costs of political and religious speech to justify a ruthlessly thorough examination of "the Troubles."

In his post-Cold War novels, le Carré has been given to a moral stridency that is of a kind, if not a degree, with Rushdie’s polemics.  Ironically, the two le Carré novels that occasioned the greatest political backlash were among his least strident: The Little Drummer Girl, one of le Carré’s most morally conflicted works, and The Tailor of Panama, a parody of Graham Greene that approached farce in its excoriation of the easiest of targets: British and American politicians.  Outcries at the latter provoked the response from le Carré that had been simmering since the mixed reception of the former.

It was not the lampoon of American pseudo-colonialism and corrupt British Intelligence in Tailor that raised hackles—it was the tailor himself, Harry Pendel, an English ex-patriate with plausibly intimate access to Panamanian power brokers and who just happens to be Jewish.  When a corrupt and conniving agent of British Intelligence exhorts and extorts Pendel into fabricating a non-existent threat to the Canal and an equally non-existent insurgency that will, if properly funded, repel the threat, le Carré was accused of indulging in the anti-Semitic stereotype of the Jewish swindler.  While this charge is easily dismissed by even a cursory reading of Tailor—the British agent is the true scoundrel—le Carré’s accusers recalled as supporting evidence the harsh criticism of The Little Drummer Girl 13 years earlier, which equated that novel’s less-than-Manichean view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with anti-Semitism.  Le Carré denounced such defamation, and when Rushdie publicly inquired whether le Carré—now that he himself had been exposed to the censorious tendencies of religious zealots—might care to retract his condemnation of Rushdie, le Carré rejected the analogy and reiterated his opposition to publication that results in the loss of innocent lives.

Finally, it could be argued that timeliness is the guiding principle for le Carré (or his publisher) and that, post-Good Friday, intrigue in Northern Ireland won’t sell.  Perhaps the Cold War was too kind to le Carré after all, such that in the 70s when passions and politics in Ulster were running their hottest, he had too good of a thing going with George Smiley to attend to Bloody Sunday.  Clearly, le Carré would rather have impugned Thatcher’s Ulster policy than Blair’s.

It remains curious that none of le Carré’s characters or novels have had occasion to reflect on the (in)justice of continued British rule over the six northern counties of Ireland or the methods which various factions have used to resist or preserve that rule.  It is telling that The Night Manager—le Carré’s first post-Cold War novel, prompting many to wonder to which task he might next set his hand—explicitly equated the Ulster conflict with a laundry list of nationalist, religious, and criminal insurgencies around the globe, all of which had been abetted by profit-driven arms dealers and their governmental patrons.  He made the analogy of arms trafficking with drug trafficking, obscuring insurgents’ grievances in favor of addiction theory.  The culpability of the arms industry is hardly controversial, and that industry’s corrupting influence upon Western governments not much more so.  What is lacking is the journey, perhaps by an Englishman of undefined idealism, through the worlds of the Unionist and Republican paramilitaries, their political sponsors, and above all the suffering residents of Northern Ireland that le Carré could surely give us, but which he has so far refused.


When Bad Things Happen To Good People

Saw The Ring last night.  It’s the kind of horror movie I prefer; that is, not a morality play. Many films grouped into the horror genre either imply or explicitly state that their protagonists deserve the fates that befall them; they have sinned in some small or large way.  These are nothing more than jumped-up fairy tales that allow viewers the vicarious thrill of fear followed by feeling superior to the fallen victims.  This is perfectly acceptable for children, the typical target demographic for such films.

Adult horror, on the other hand, befalls the innocent as well as the guilty.  While the horrified characters in The Ring have flaws, neither do their flaws bring the horror upon them nor does repairing their flaws lead to their salvation.  The evil in The Ring both has a specific cause and is ultimately inexplicable.  The film might have taken another hour to contrive a fuller explanation, but I think the film’s effect would have been blunted thereby.  That the viewer is not mired in confusion is a testament to the ready belief in evil that marks a horror fan.

The Ring does engage in the trappings of the horror genre—suspenseful music, dread-inducing framing, startling quick cuts—but they are kept to a minimum.  The pacing and dialogue are spot-on, and cinematographer Bojan Bazelli seems to find the woods and islands of Puget Sound as spooky as I often do.  The imagery has stayed with me, and although the specificity of the narrative makes the full horror less portable, it remains as unnerving as a captionless Edward Gorey drawing.


A Hard Rain

The dry spell that had given Puget Sound frost in October snapped last night with a vengeance, just as the East Coast returns began to trickle down the CNN crawl.  Hoping to restrict my yard work sessions to match the bi-weekly yard waste pickup schedule, I had neglected to clean out the gutters last weekend when they were filled with dry, crunchy leaves and pine needles.  Now I have to climb the ladder in the wet and scoop out cold slimy handfuls of Pacific Northwest potage.  Lying in bed this morning and hearing the steady white noise of our fiberglass porch roof withstanding the onslaught, I was similarly reluctant to get up and read the election results.  But I did, because I’m a grownup, right?  And, just as I’ll endure the freezing damp in my extremities this weekend, this morning I sat through the eructative gloating of Trent Lott and Tim Eyman (and the tone-deaf babbling of Patty Murray) with an Ecclesiastical resolve.

In the lemonade-from-lemons department, at least we’ll get a break from the triangulating appeasement of McAuliffe, Daschle, Gephardt and crew.


The First Three Tuesdays in November

Thanks to King County’s delightfully accommodating absentee voting program, I’ve voted absentee since about 1993 or 1994, despite having been fully present and able to reach my precinct polling place on Election Day.  In addition to permitting me to cast my vote at home with consideration and deliberation (and, with the advent of Accu-Vote ballots, to make a photocopy of my marked ballot), absentee voting has guaranteed a near-100% turnout for this voter (ironically, I missed a vote last May when I was genuinely absent; my ballot for an otherwise unheralded fire district levy arrived less than a week after I had left for a three-week vacation in France, and the election was held a few days before I returned).  I typically mark and mail my ballot a day or two after I receive it, defiantly ahead of the deluge of political advertising and spin that intensifies in the final week before Election Day.

The 2000 Presidential Election was not the first occasion for opponents of absentee voting to decry the delaying effects of counting absentee ballots, but it did provide them with additional momentum.  Two of the more risible arguments against absentee voting are 1) that voting in person strengthens the "civil bonds" which make for better citizens (and, by extension, better voters), and 2) that by voting early absentee voters deprive themselves of "important information" that candidates reserve for the last days of the campaign.  It is hard to believe that proponents of such arguments have ever dropped by a typical polling place or watched a political commercial.

It wasn’t until the advent of the telegraph that national election results could be determined and announced in less than a few weeks; there is no Constitutional right to "speedy results."  Even if there were, however, it seems that the threat of habitual litigation will make traditional election night vigils increasingly vain, mooting objections to absentee voting on the grounds of timeliness.

A more significant objection is Constitutional: Article II, Section 1, requires votes for President and Vice-President to be cast on the same day.  While I wouldn’t put anything past this Supreme Court, I haven’t seen any recent cause for concern that absentee voting is in imminent legal danger. Nevertheless, I would embrace the idea of reform if it were part of a larger program to revisit other aspects of our Presidential elections.

Despite my bilious criticism of many of the parties to the 2000 Presidential Election, the party I most wished to see defeated was in fact the Electoral College itself.  As outrageous as the Bush v. Gore (2000) decision was, it has obscured the fact that it was the undemocratic nature of the Electoral College that made the decision so, well, decisive. Both increasingly-apparent widespread "voter irregularities" and the patent offense embodied in the Electoral College argue for Presidential elections to be federalized.  I propose a Constitutional amendment eliminating the Electoral College and mandating national voter registration for Presidential ballots only; all other candidates and issues will remain on local ballots, but every four years the federal government will issue Presidential absentee ballots.  A simple plurality of all votes cast shall determine the winner.

Some reformers have suggested requiring absentee ballots be received by their precincts a number of days before Election Day.  I have no objection to this; polls will still be open on Election Day for in-person voting for those voters who need every last day to make their decisions.  What matters is that voter turnout cannot help but increase, which is far more important than timely results.


Quid Pro Ghost

I regularly look forward to Halloween and welcoming Trick-or-Treaters to our door.  The rhythms of our household, however, have changed dramatically with the birth of our son Oscar last October. The three hours after I return home from work—prime Trick-or-Treat time—is also the chief period for my interaction with Oscar (as well as the time when my wife Nathalie can reliably perform those tasks that would be impeded by a wailing one-year-old clinging to her legs).  Exacerbating these circumstances are the four vaccinations Oscar received a week ago, which along with a new wave of teething have increased his clinginess.

We therefore decided that my traditional Halloween evening practice of donning a frightening costume, lurking in the shadows in our front yard, and physically accosting vocal Trick-or-Treaters through the dinner hour and beyond Oscar’s bedtime would be far too upsetting to Oscar.  Absent the centerpiece of a costume-planning campaign, other Halloween accoutrements fell by the wayside; plastic spiders and bats remained packed in the attic, our scarecrow didn’t appear on the lawn, we forewent the annual viewing of The Nightmare Before Christmas, we carved no pumpkins.  We also failed to purchase any Halloween candy.

Due to my efforts in previous years, our house has earned a reputation among Trick-or-Treaters for both good sweets and good screams.  I knew that we would be certain to disappoint kids who remembered my predations and were hoping for more this year.  Rather than face such crestfallen fans, I opted to discourage any Trick-or-Treaters from calling at our door by not putting up any Halloween decorations and by leaving all outdoor lighting off.

The first hour after I returned home from work went smoothly; Oscar and I played in the office toward the rear of the house while Nathalie cooked dinner.  If any Trick-or-Treaters knocked at our door, I didn’t hear them.  Dinner was served around 18h30, and Oscar was strapped into his high chair in the dining room, less than two meters from the front door.  At 18h42, a giggling susurration filtered through our shaded dining room window, followed by a sharp knock.  Nathalie and I immediately fell silent.  Oscar, sensing the tension, spat out a lump of chewed vegetable cracker as jetsam.  We dared not move, not even to shovel Oscar’s food closer to his mouth, lest we cast a shadow against the white window shade.  After a minute, we heard leaves crunch on our lawn as the pack moved on to better pickings.

Deferring my table-clearing duties, after dinner Oscar and I once again retreated to the office, unable to entirely eliminate the household illumination that betrayed our presence as Trick-or-Treat traffic in our neighborhood increased.  Nathalie reported that knocks became more frequent as she drew the bath that she and Oscar take every evening.  To resist the temptation to peek through the drapes of the office window, I grabbed Oscar’s miniature soccer ball and engaged him in a game of Catch, which in Oscar’s version more closely resembles Fetch.  It reliably entertains him (and tires him out), but he can get quite vocal, and I cringed every time I saw the twinkle of flashlights through the drapes.

Once Nathalie and Oscar were in the bath, I settled on the living room couch for those few minutes of TV that represent the first gasp of downtime I get after returning home.  I had the sound off, but the cathode-ray wisps continued to dance on the window shade.  Just as I was surfing past an undead Emeril, a stampede of thumps on the front lawn was followed by a thunderclap of knocks on the door.  I dropped the remote, suspecting that the flickerings of channel-surfing were distinguishable from those of a hypothetically-unwatched single channel; in this case, Nickelodeon.  As I hunched in the glow of SpongeBob SquarePants and hoped Nathalie’s bath-time singing wasn’t audible through the front door, another salvo of knocks forced me further into the cushions.  Then a voice, almost certainly a father: "I’m sure this is the house with the scary guy."

I had no costume.  I had no Jack o’Lantern.  Worst of all, I had no candy.  But being a father myself, the puzzled disappointment in that voice was too much to bear.  Without giving a thought as what I would say, I leapt up, turned on the porch light and opened the front door.  At least a dozen tiny faces peered through the frigid gloom at me standing, barefoot, in a T-shirt and bath shorts.  There was a Spider-man, of course, Power Rangers, a Tigger, a Frodo co-existing with a Harry Potter, a girl who I feared might be dressed as Britney Spears (or a more au courant incarnation thereof), a Hobo with a cell phone, and, standing next to the man whom I took to be the father-chaperon, a girl no more than two-years-old, dressed as a bumble-bee.


Whenever I find myself in front of an audience, whether be it a gathering of friends or a meeting of colleagues or a classroom of peers, I often become possessed by a spirit that, hungry to make an entertaining impression, prefers quick wit over considered tact.  Many acquaintances have predicted that this gift will eventually get me either elected or lynched.  Feeling very much on stage, I could not let such expectations go unanswered.

"We’ll take a Trick this year."  My reply was met with non-plussed silence.  My loa carried me forward.  "We’ve been handing out candy for five years, but we’ve never had a trick.  Quid pro quo, you know.  Perhaps if we get some good tricks this year, we’ll have candy again next year.  If any of you have older brothers or sisters who like to cause mischief, send ’em on over."  Then, without giving them time to wheedle, I closed the door and switched off the porch light.

No more Trick-or-Treaters had knocked on our door by the time Oscar finished his bath, and after I had dried him, dressed him, and given him his last swigs of milk, Nathalie took him through his ritual of wishing a Good Night to the many familiar Entities that inhabit his house.  Typically, once Oscar is in his crib we watch muted TV for a bit, waiting for him to fall asleep, but last night we sat silently in the living room for over a half hour, illuminated only by the aquarium lamp.  Only once the hour had reached 21h00 did we risk the light from the TV (it was time for C.S.I., after all).

This morning, I stepped through the frosty leaves looking for any evidence that our house might have received its due share of Trick-or-Treat karma, that the Halloween Ecological Balance had been preserved.  A few candy wrappers littered our driveway, but the best effort appeared to have come from Spider-Man: a spray of Silly String™ on our front door, coating the door knob and trailing off just after touching the dining room window.  We had had no Jack o’Lanterns to leave outside to be smashed, but I had entertained the hope that pumpkins might be brought from elsewhere and sacrificed on our property.  Alas, no orange carnage was to be seen, either in our yard or in the street.

Next year in Arkham.