Year: 2004

Big Bend

Gwen and I went camping in Big Bend from the 24th to the 29th. First off, some photos from the trip.

I had never been to Big Bend before. Gwen had been four or five times, and knew the place pretty well.

She had made reservations well in advance, which turned out to be a good thing.

Friday

Departure day. Gwen had checked the weather report the day before, and found that the overnight low this night was supposed to get down to a brisk 13°F. Brr.

We had been planning on bringing our road bikes, and changed plans. We were going to need more stuff just to stay warm, leaving inadequate room in the car for our bikes and related appurtenances. So we ditched the bikes, and packed a massive down comforter and all the warm clothes we could lay our hands on. I’ve actually gotten rid of almost all my cold-weather gear (I can’t remember the last time I had to spend a significant amount of time outside in 13°F weather), so I wasn’t really well-equipped for this trip.

Our preparations were somewhat desultory, and we didn’t get underway until 11:00 AM or so. We drove and drove and drove and drove some more. We stopped for dinner in Fort Stockton, the last good-sized town before Big Bend, at a Mexican joint called Bienvenido’s (adequate food, poor service). Gwen was in a bit of shock when a car pulled up next to us in the parking lot, covered in crusted-on ice. That and the blowing snow made us wonder if we were in for more than we thought. We filled up the tank in Marathon–Gwen recalled that gas at the filling stations in the park was outrageously expensive–but the Marathon Chevron actually had the most expensive gas I’ve ever bought (as it turns out, the stations in the park were actually quite a bit cheaper).

Driving into the park just after dusk, there was a little bit of light to see the scenery by. I couldn’t see much, but what I could see was very dramatic, and reminded me of the “Night on Bald Mountain” segment of Fantasia.

After almost precisely 500 miles, we arrived at our campsite in the Chisos Basin at 8:00 PM–it was long dark and already quite cold. The basin is desert at 4800 feet, and the thin, dry air just doesn’t hold any heat. We leapt out of the car, pulled on as much clothing as possible, pitched the tent, rolled out our bedding, and jumped in without shedding a layer.

It was a difficult night. Though both Gwen and I have spent years living in cold climates, we’ve not only dis-acclimated to the cold, we’ve forgotten other side effects that cold can have. On vinyl, for example. We were sleeping on a PVC air mattress, which is normally very comfortable, but apparently vinyl loses pliability below a certain temperature, and we crossed that threshold. As we discovered the next day, there were a bunch of pinholes at creases in the air mattress, meaning our butts were on the ground within an hour or so. I consoled myself by thinking about the Shackleton expedition.

Saturday

Got up late, stiff, and somewhat cross because of a bad night’s sleep. Observed ice crystals formed all over the interior of the tent. On getting out of the tent, we saw a family of deer foraging right by our campsite. I got my camera out of the car. Despite the fact that I had just charged the batteries the day before, it was completely dead. Same result when switching out the batteries. “Oh yeah, batteries don’t like the cold” I remembered.

This was my first opportunity to really take in the view. The thin, clear, and unpolluted air seems to improve one’s vision: everything seemed abnormally sharp. Mountains were all around us, in clear detail. Incredible.

Even in daylight, we felt it’s too cold to really enjoy hiking. It also happened to be Christmas day. We decided to drive into Terlingua. The drive there was interesting enough in itself. For one thing, it added to my understanding of just how huge the park is (about half the size of Delaware)–we were on the road there for at least 25 miles, and drove through a section of the park with a completely different geography and ecology.

Once in Terlingua, we spent some time exploring the cemetery there. A lot of the graves were very old, and little more than cairns with crude wooden crosses in place of headstones (or in many cases, collapsed or missing). Some were more elaborate rough constructions of rock and adobe in the shapes of churches, with nooks for offerings in the transepts. Some of the oldest graves had newly made granite headstones, and all the graves seemed to be tended in some way, with plastic flowers or other offerings left on them. Some of the newer graves were for Anglos, but clearly in a Mexican folk style.

There wasn’t much else to do in Terlingua that day–Ms Tracy’s was in fact open for business, but we didn’t stop in. We did stop in the world-famous and eponymous store in the adjacent Study Butte for coffee.

Driving back, we stopped in the Santa Elena Canyon, but didn’t hike it all the way because we would have had to cross water, and we were loathe to risk getting our feet wet.

After getting back, we went over to the camp host’s trailer to see if he had any supplies with which we could patch up our air mattress. His wife was there, and gave me a roll of duct tape and some glue that supposedly can join anything. We smeared glue over anything that looked like it might turn into a leak, and then laid a big strip of duct tape over that. And hoped.

That night, we made some salmon on the grill at our campsite. It’s an unfortunate but understandable rule that wood fires are not allowed in Big Bend. It would have been nice to have a big fire pit that we could sit by and toast our toes, but we had to make do with a little box grill on a post and charcoal.

The night was warmer than the night before, but still damn cold. We tried playing Scrabble while our salmon cooked, but it was too cold to sit still and concentrate. But I didn’t sleep in my coat that night, a major improvement.

Our air mattress repairs were partially successful, which was better than I expected. We turned the leaks into slow leaks, so the mattress could hold air for 4-6 hours. We still had to get up in the middle of the night to reinflate it, but that was manageable.

Sunday

Considerably warmer in the morning, but still brisk. We were in a basin surrounded by mountains, and as as it happened there was one peak that obscured the sun from our campsite until 9:30. Since it wasn’t really warm until it was in direct sunlight, it was hard to get moving in the morning.

I don’t have a lot of camping experience, but based on my limited experience, the facilities at Big Bend are more primitive than at other state or national parks. No showers and no hot water at our campground. All cooking clean-up must be done at one sink (which often had a line), which was a numbing experience with the lack of hot water. I did a little checking, and discovered that the Rio Grande Village campsite supposedly had showers. I could already see that I’d like to return to the park with my bike someday, but I’d like to have easy access to showers when I do.

We headed out and drove to the Lost Mine Trail (has the mine ever been found?). This was quite popular, with wonderful views all along. We had packed a lunch, which we ate out at the very end of the trail, on a rocky, windy peak where nobody else ventured.

I discovered that once it warmed up, my camera worked fine.

Afterwards we went to the hot springs. We had packed swimsuits for the occasion. The drive in is on a rough road that’s precarious in spots–I would have been worried attempting it in a big vehicle (as almost everybody there was doing). The springs themselves are in the ruins of an old and very small spa. There are the remnants of a tiny hotel and store nearby; what’s left of the spa is just high enough to segregate the hot spring’s water from the Rio Grande. At one point, Gwen dipped her foot in the river to see how much colder it was than the springs. Quite a bit colder, but her skin was burned by the pollution in the river. On the other bank was a Mexican guy selling tchochkes. Now, to get these trinkets, you’d have to risk the $5000 fine from the feds and risk contact with the mutagenic effluent in the river. Not worth it. There were a few other people taking the waters with us, and we talked about how arbitrary the border seemed. Everybody present, including a couple of bubba-types, agreed it was ridiculous that people couldn’t cross. Of course the other topic of conversation was the cold nights, and ways to stay warm. We were astonished that two of the guys taking in the springs with us were actually using a propane heater in their tent.

The waters were warm, relaxing, and moderately cleansing. After a good long soak, we made our way back to the car and left. Since we were nearby, I suggested we stop by Rio Grande Village to scope it out as a future campsite, and check out the showers. Rio Grande Village actually had the same amenities as Chisos Basin, but was larger and seemed more orderly. We got a little turned around trying to leave, and spotted a bobcat on the prowl, looking for snacks. We followed along slowly in the car. At one point we pulled even with some old folks having a picnic by their RV; they were watching the bobcat too. Gwe called out “I hope your poodles are all inside” and one of them responded “Oh, bobcats come through here every day.” They seemed unconcerned. Which seems naive, but it was still interesting to see a bobcat up close.

We discovered the purported showers were just outside this campsite, at a small store. Which had air mattresses for sale. We thought hard about replacing our dud, but decided to put up with it until we had more options at our disposal.

Monday

This was the day that Gwen had scheduled for us to hike the South Rim trail. This is a long hike, and she was concerned that we might not make it home by sundown. We packed plenty of food, two camelbaks full of water, and headlights. We hit the trail at 9:00 AM. Although we did spy a couple on the trail far below us, we didn’t actually run into anyone until we were about 4 miles into the hike, at which point we ran into three parties, including a couple of guys who looked as if they had been given $1000 gift certificates to REI. They told us they had spent two nights on that trail already, and were carrying an amazing panoply of the newest, whizziest, ripstop breathable waterproof GPS-enhanced gear. I was tempted to snark “if you guys weren’t carrying so much gear, you’d be able to hike the trail a lot faster” but I restrained myself. They were having fun.

We powered along the trail, every view more amazing than the last. At some points we were probably looking 100 miles into Mexico. Midway along, we came to a fork where we could add a 1.5-mile detour around the East Rim onto the route; we did. Eventually, we started descending, which was harder on our poor joints than climbing. But we saw a hummingbird and some sort of bluebird along this leg. After 6.5 hours and 14.5 miles, we were back. We hung out briefly by the store near our campsite. We stretched in the sun, and Gwen discovered that her long hiatus from Coca-Cola was, well, over. We watched the people who were staying at the park’s hotel. A foursome so car-dependent (excuse me, SUV-dependent) that they actually drove from the store to the hotel, a distance of maybe 100 feet. An unlikely couple of an attractive 30something woman and a goomba type in his fifties with an all-denim outfit, flashy jewelry, shiny boots, and a rug that was practically wall-to-wall carpeting.

We went down to our campsite, cleaned up a little, and went back up to the hotel restaurant for dinner (tired enough after our hike that we actually drove the half-mile or so). Dinner was a disappointment. I guess one shouldn’t expect too much from federal food service, but it was overpriced and undergood. One’s better off with a camp stove and well-stocked ice chest. At the hotel front desk, we asked if the hotel rooms had kitchenettes; they do not, although the cottages do have micro-fridges and microwave ovens. Although cooking is prohibited in the rooms, if I were going to stay in a hotel room there for any length of time, I’d sneak in a self-contained gas ring, because there are no other dining options within 30 miles.

A British (?) family with two young boys drove up and staked out the campsite next to ours. The boys proceeded to run around like yahoos. I wished I had their energy–not just so that I’d have it, but so that they wouldn’t.

We retired to the tent and played Scrabble by headlight.

Tuesday

Our last day. We managed to sleep in, despite our troublesome flattress, and awoke with too many aches. After a leisurely cup of cofffee and general hanging around, we made our way down to the Window trail. The rocks were a bit tricky to navigate, and we were moving slow because of the prior day’s exertions, but the payoff at the end was worth it. This was a very popular trail (being right next to a popular campground), and the window view is at a point where the trail necks down to almost nothing, so we didn’t really spend much time hanging out there.

We would be leaving the next day, so we started getting our stuff in order to pack for the trip.

I improvised a sort of pasta for dinner with stuff I had remembered to bring and leftovers to make up for stuff I had forgotten. We played Boggle.

Wednesday

Time to go home. We were up at a reasonable hour, packed our stuff, and hit the road. On the way out, we discarded our defunct mattress with great glee. Filled the tank (we had driven over 250 miles in the park). Stopped in Marathon to get a snack and explore the Gage Hotel. Set the cruise control at 84 and got moving.

This from Gwen: Big Bend trips are truly getting-away trips for me. It’s a long and very empty drive out…plenty of time for contemplation. And then once you’re out there, there’s so much there out there. It seems endless, and full of huge edges with more endless over the edge. I always wonder how anyone ever had the gumption to cross that vast expanse of dry country not knowing when it would change into something more hospitable. I always come back feeling cleansed by the extremes — temperature, distance, landscape — all of it brings me back to a fresh place in myself.

Sideways

Sideways is a damn good movie. Gwen and I both enjoyed it greatly, for the flawed characters, the un-Hollywood feel, the humor.

It’s about two guys who are friends, but in most respects, very different people. One thing they have in common is a pathological aversion to hard truths–a pathology that manifests itself in different ways, and gets them into different kinds of trouble. Hilarity and agony ensue. Paul Giamatti was excellent, as usual–perhaps moreso than usual. Thomas Haden Church seems to be typecast as a callow himbo, but he does a good job at it.

I have no idea what the title means.

MP3 Sushi

It’s getting pretty common to have all or much of your music on a hard disk. This in theory makes it possible to do all kinds of nifty things with it. One nifty thing is listen to it remotely. It seems obvious: if your computer is online, and your music is on your computer, you should be able to get at your music over the Internet. But how?

If you use a Mac, the answer is simple: MP3 Sushi. This is actually a bundle of open-source Unix tools packaged up with a nice Mac interface. It sets up a music server you can access over the web, with handy features like live downsampling of high-bitrate music, creating m3u streams, etc.

I’ve got a fixed IP number, which makes it a little easier, but there’s a solution for dynamic IP as well.

My music is online, but is hidden behind a password to limit access. Ask me if you want to listen in.

The house for nudists

I was at the annual Blue Genie Art Festival last week. While I felt that the 2003 edition of this had gotten a little stale, there seemed to be enough fresh blood this year to make it worth attending. It was also fun because we seemingly ran into everyone there. And Sage & Zarah put on a show, which is always a treat.

Among the many people we ran into were Wells & Lisa of Ironwood–Wells made a couple pieces of furniture for me a few years back, and does really nice work. He mentioned that some of his stuff was going to be on display at an open house over the weekend, at a house by a local modernist architect. So Gwen and I were certainly interested, and yesterday, we went to check it out.

The development in question is a pair of houses–not a duplex (they don’t share a common wall), but built right up close to one another on overlapping lots. The location is 1903 Alegria, up around Arroyo Seco. Before we even got out of the car, we saw lots of People Like Us, which kind of creeped me out.

The architects (annoying flash-based site) have some good ideas and some stinkers.

The bad idea universally commented upon by the visitors is the absence of closets. I don’t mean the houses have inadequate closet space: they have no closet space. As far as I’m concerned, the first commandment of modernist house design is thou shalt build in lots of storage. Unless you just don’t have any stuff, modernism pretty much demands that your stuff be put away…and a modernist house needs to give you some place to put it. In fact, it’s hard to see where the architects managed to hide 1400 sqft on these houses without some storage. The first floor consists of a smallish living area and a kitchen with a derisory amount of counter space and storage; a small hallway at the back leads to a powder room and utility room. One wall of the first floor is monopolized by a staircase to the second floor; this has one of the really nice touches, a translucent plastic wall that should let in a huge amount of natural light (assuming it doesn’t crack or discolor).

The staircase lands upstairs at a small common space between two bedrooms, with no doors between them. The bedrooms are separated by a pair of back-to-back bathrooms, which are pretty nice and have big walk-in showers (no bath for you!) on slatted ipe floors. The floors in the shower areas are removable modules like miniature freight palettes, but the ipe slats are screwed into the floor in the rest of the bathroom, suggesting cleaning problems.

And no closets. I assume these houses are for two unrelated adults who have no clothes, no desire for privacy, and little desire to cook at home. I guess you could fill up the place with armoires, but what’s the point?

Another aspect of these houses that I found more philosophically offensive was the entrance. You need to go through the garage (or something that looks very much like a garage–perhaps it’s supposed to be an industrial patio with a garage door?) to get to the front door. The view out the nicely glassed-in front is of the garage, with the outside world peeking in through openings at the edges. This goes beyond a snout house and makes the garage (and by inference, the car) not only the front of the house but really the centerpiece of life in the house. You look out the front, you’ve got a view of your car. Super.

There was a zigzagging path alongside each house leading to a jewelbox of a back yard (with, amusingly, an underground watering system). These paths, which have a cinderblock wall hung with big iron planters on one side, and the milky plastic wall of the house on the other, are probably the best spaces in the entire development.

I didn’t bother finding out how much the houses are going for.

Moral compromise

One of my most vehement pet peeves is the leaf blower. They’re annoying all on their own, but they symbolize so much more: by blowing leaves into the street, you make your problem everyone else’s. They seemingly exist only for people with yards too big to rake. And of course, there’s the howling din.

I’m trying to sell my house right now, and one of the house’s weak spots is Curb Appeal. I’ve never been big on yardwork, and it shows. There are two things my property has a lot of: rocks and trees. River rocks covering the driveway, pumice rocks along the walkway to the front door (worst landscaping idea ever), and big limestone rocks lining the edges of everything, laboriously hauled in from a construction site in the hills to the west of town. Three pecan trees, a live oak, a persimmon, and overhang from a neighbor’s enormous oak. The trees are profligate leaf-droppers, and the rocks are excellent leaf-catchers, leading to an untidy yard that diminishes the curb appeal. Short of picking individual leaf-fragments out of all the rocks by hand, there’s only one way to get them out. So over the weekend, we broke down and bought one. Yes, a leaf-blower.

Actually, this thing is a combo leaf-blower and leaf-vacuum/mulcher. The mulching feature is pretty cool, as it dramatically reduces the volume of leaves. (The manufacturer claims a 10:1 ratio. I’m not sure if that’s accurate–I probably got half that). While it’s not an efficient use of time to stand around hoovering up piles of leaves so that you can dump them into fewer yard-waste bags later, and even less efficient to try to use the thing as a vacuum over the whole yard, it definitely does minimize the tawny soldiers lined up at the curb on Monday morning, and the vacuum can extract leaves stuck in rock crevices. The blower is a precision instrument in exactly the same way as a water cannon, making it hard to use and unpredictable, but it did kick a good fraction of the leaves in the driveway into a pile that could then be hoovered up.

With any luck, my next house will make the thing redundant.

More on Mueller redevelopment

Because some commenters asked:

  • The Austin Chronicle just published an article on Mueller
  • The city has a not-very-friendly Master Development Agreement page, linking to a lot of information about the project. There is a citizen-oriented FAQ there, but it’s in Word’s .doc format (go figure). I have taken the liberty of posting an HTML version of the Mueller FAQ (apologies in advance–probably some formatting bugs).
  • There’s also an interesting set of design guidelines linked from the city’s page, but Chapter 1 clocks in at 38 MB for just 12 pages, and each page takes forever to render on my machine. I’ve extracted a couple of maps:
  • [Later]There’s a whole website for the Mueller redevelopment

In short, the general intent apparently is to integrate Mueller into the city fabric and make it a showpiece for New Urbanism; there are a lot of encouraging-sounding noises about being pedestrian- and bike-friendly, etc. While I have no doubt that there have been a lot of dubious decisions and questionable deals made in the process, I hope the product will be a benefit to the city as a whole.

Complete this phrase

So everyone is talking about Google’s new “suggest a phrase” feature, which is almost psychic. But it’s also fun for language buffs–it gives you a cheap and easy way to see fixed phrases in action. Here’s an obvious example.

sharks with...

Lubbock

Thanksgiving dinner with the in-laws in Lubbock this year. Gwen likes the town about as much as anyone with a lick of sense should, but is a dutiful daughter and didn’t feel she could shirk her filial obligations. I was along for the ride, I guess you might say.

I’d been to Lubbock with Gwen once before. We didn’t see much of the town at the time, and what little we did see reminded me a lot of Westheimer in Houston. One damn strip mall after another. This time, I wanted to see more.

We got a late start—about 6:00 PM the day before Thanksgiving—and pulled into Lubbock around 12:20 AM, so all our driving was in the dark.

The dinner itself was fine. Gwen had picked up an organic turkey from Central Markup and brined it two days in advance–we transported it in a brining pot in our ice-chest to Lubbock. It turned out pretty well, and the brining did add to the flavor, but it wasn’t the super-juicy, flavorful sensation one might hope. Not bad, but perhaps not worth the trouble. All the other traditional T-day foodstuffs in abundance–white and sweet potatoes, green beans, apple, pumpkin, and pecan pies, cranberry sauce, stuffing, etc. After dinner I dismantled the carcass, extracted the wishbone, and gave it to Gwen’s sister so she could break it with her 5yo daughter.

We had packed our road bikes, and the day after Thanksgiving decided to go for a ride in the countryside. Gwen called a local bike shop for tips on a route, and we headed south on Slide Road to FM1585 and headed west into the stiffest, most unremitting wind I’ve faced since…I don’t know when. I was struggling to get my speed even as high as 12 mph, and Gwen was struggling to stay in my wind-shadow. The barren, flat landscape does nothing to slow the wind’s progress, and provides no visual distraction for the weary cyclist. In short, an unredeemably unpleasant cycling experience. After about six miles of slogging through this, we came to an intersection and I decided that enough was enough. We turned around and flew back. My cyclometer’s battery had crapped out, but I estimate we were doing 20 without pedaling, and I was topping 30 when I put a little muscle into it. That was fun, though brief.

We made our way into what we though was the center of town, around the Texas Tech campus. 19th Street seems to have the only fancy-looking houses in the whole town–the rest of the city is brick ranch houses, circa 1968. It’s as if the town takes all its architectural cues from the landscape–flat and desolate–and has a sort of altitudinal humility that prevents buildings from sticking up too much. Even the roofs have shallow pitches. The campus at Tech is not much of an improvement, and the buildings are inexplicably spread apart, making me wonder if the students take golf carts between classes.

We noodled around the small neighborhood just east of Tech, which seemed to be historic, judging from the cobbled streets. Eventually we found a bike shop, run by a friendly guy who commiserated with us about the wind–he told us the wind that day was as bad as he’d seen in a long time. He told us a better route back to Gwen’s parents’ place, and we followed that, taking Boston Av south to the loop. On the way, we passed what appeared to be Lubbock’s funky neighborhood–an intersection with a small grocery store, a coffee shop, and an organic food store. We made a mental note and rode on.

That night, on a suggestion from Gwen’s sister’s husband, four of us went to Hub City Brewery, Lubbock’s sole brewpub, on Buddy Holly Street (a two-block stretch that appears to be Lubbock’s entire nightlife neighborhood). Three of us had the oatmeal stout, which was OK. Gwen’s sister had a chocolate martini, which was not: it’s as if the bartender knew of chocolate martinis by reputation, but had never tried one or seen a recipe for one, so he had to fake it. Chocolate syrup and gin in a martini glass.

Saturday, Gwen and I headed back to that coffee shop we had seen during our ride, and discovered that it had the shabby atmosphere of a neighborhood coffee joint, the coffee itself was little better than the swill served at most diners. Again, it’s almost as if the coffee-shop operators knew of coffee shops by reputation, not by direct experience.

I had to do some work, but later that day, Gwen, her sister, mother, and I went to an antique mall where Gwen and I scored this weird masonic chart, apparently a sort of diploma.

Sunday morning, we got on the road pretty early. We stopped at a Krispy Kreme (which, sadly, had much better coffee than the funky neighborhood joint) to fortify ourselves for the road and were underway by 9:30 AM. As before, I marveled at the emptiness of the region. Lubbock is a very Christian town, which kind of makes sense: if you live there, you probably want to believe you’re bound for something better. Then again, it would also be the perfect place to situate a Zen monastery, because there is nothing to distract you from contemplating the void within.

Random highlights and lowlights of the trip:

  • Passing the “New Hope Cemetery”
  • Passing hundreds of dead raccoons by the side of the road. A lot of dead deer as well.
  • Observing odd place names like Fluvanna and Flat White Road. One of the towns near Lubbock is Levelland.
  • On Thanksgiving night, observing a line of 12 cars in the drive-thru lane at Whataburger.
  • Speculating what kind of beers might be at the brewpub: Our guesses: Desolation Ale, Prairie Pilsner, Level Lager. Naturally, all the beer would have to be flat.

Overglobed

Memo to icon designers: Look. I get it. I’m on the Internet, and the whole world is all interconnected, and my computer is this global information nexus, and it’s cool. Do half my application icons need to remind me of this? My dock looks like a freaking warehouse full of UN flags.

These are all the globe-themed application icons I could find on my hard-drive in 3 minutes. There are a couple representing other planets as a bonus.

I ♥ Huckabees

Saw I ♥ Huckabees this weekend. Fun movie. The whole existential angle seems more of a plot device than an opportunity for serious philosophical exploration, though like the director’s previous movie, Flirting with Disaster, there is a sort of existential core to the thing. But the fun, the awkward situations, the snappy dialog with people talking on top of each other, and the characters are what really make the movie. Putting Dustin Hoffman and Lily Tomlin in a movie together is gold, I tell ya, comedy gold.

Permanent majority

I’ve heard three Republicans refer to their party has being a “permanent majority” now: before the election, Tom Delay; after, Karl Rove and a party strategist whose name I didn’t catch.

On the one hand, I’m tempted to write this off as self-destructive hubris. On the other, I look at the party’s willingness to do what it takes to maximize that majority–mid-term re-redistricting, the rumored end of the Senate’s supermajority rule for cloture, the unusual step of going after the other party’s leader, not to mention tricks like requiring lobbyists to only hire Republicans, and commandeering DHS staff for partisan purposes–and I think that writing it off might be a little too easy.

Message to the world

All of you who are citizens of other countries, it’s officially OK to start hating Americans now.

Four years ago, perhaps you were feeling charitable and realized that we didn’t exactly elect Bush. He lost the popular vote, and only won the electoral vote through a process that was dubious at best. He went on to govern as if he had a clear mandate, and with a friendly Congress, has run the country with a free hand, not vetoing any legislation, and getting away with winners like the USA PATRIOT act and the Iraq war. Senate Democrats have managed to stonewall a handful of judicial appointees, which Republicans laughably refer to as “gridlock.” Corruption and contempt for reality in the executive has become the order of the day, and the friendly Congress has not been inclined to make much of a fuss over it.

Things are different this time. Bush clearly won the popular vote, and Kerry has conceded the race. Not only that, but the GOP’s hold on the Senate has strengthened, with the election of a candidate in Oklahoma who has called for the execution of abortionists (even though he himself is one) and another in Kentucky who practically needs a drool bucket. Eleven proposed state amendments to ban gay marriage (and in some cases, any hint of official recognition for gay relationships) all passed easily.

In short, Americans have clearly demonstrated what kind of country they want. It’s not a likable one. While I’ve always identified strongly as an American–my citizenship and my country mean a lot to me–I have to ask myself whether it is worth it to fight for the country I believe in, or cut my losses and concede that it simply doesn’t exist. Today I feel like a stranger in my own country.

Team America: World Police

America, Fuck yeah!

The chorus from the movie’s most memorable song pretty much says it all, encapsulating the movie’s love-it-and-hate-it attitude towards the USA. The movie manages to be political without being partisan, insightful without being dull, and completely fucking hilarious. Go see it now.

Decoy

Bush made another campaign speech in which he came up with yet another post-hoc rationale for the war:

If Zarqawi and his associates
were not busy fighting Iraqi and American forces in Iraq, what does Senator
Kerry think they would be doing? Peaceful, small business owners?
(Laughter.) Running a benevolent society? (Laughter.)

Let’s get this straight: Bush is suggesting here that we’re using Iraq as a decoy, to fight terrorists there so we don’t have to fight them on U.S. soil. So what are we supposed to say to the people we were supposedly liberating from a tyrannical dictator? “Sorry about all these explosions, but better you all than us?”

Say “quack,” Iraq.

I actually think Bush is partly right here: Iraq is clearly a magnet for terrorists now, and it is quite possible that it has attracted some terrorists who might otherwise be plotting attacks against the USA, ironically having created after the fact another one of the justifications he used for the war (the supposed link between Iraq and al Qaeda). Of course, it’s also a breeding-ground for new terrorists, and we learn today, a handy munitions depot for terrorists, who have apparently scooped up extremely dangerous explosives, previously under UN seal, that our troops (perhaps directed by Rumsfeld to attend a rose-petal-throwing ceremony) were not guarding.

In any case, to the extent that the war on terror can be clearly won, it will ultimately be won by getting as much of the world on the same side as possible–and being on that side with them. Extremists will always exist in isolated pockets, but their ability to rally large groups against Americans would be limited. Invading a country and then using it as a terrorist decoy is not an effective way to get the world on your side.

Us vs them

The NY Times recently ran a long, interesting article on the Bush presidency–if you haven’t read it already, I encourage you to print it and read it at your leisure. It’s been widely cited in other blogs, especially for the stunning, arrogant “reality-based community” comment.

There’s something else that stood out for me in the article, something that relates to something I’ve been wondering about for a long time.

Bush has very strong support among a lot of people who identify themselves as traditional, conservative Republicans–but Bush is not traditional or conservative, his rhetoric notwithstanding. He has presided over a huge expansion of the government, adding employees as quickly as possible (perhaps to offset the disastrous private-sector job losses the economy has seen) and expanding non-defense discretionary spending faster than any of the last five presidents, dramatically extending government intrusiveness in a way that should–but doesn’t–set off alarm bells for 2nd-Amendment absolutists (though the 2nd Amendment itself has remained sacrosanct), screwing over the military even as he calls upon it for his misguided adventure, and of course passing lopsided tax cuts that benefit the very wealthy.

So why do salt-of-the-earth regular folks like him so much? Well, he certainly has that homespun image down. The way he talks about his record certainly makes him seem like a better president than he is. He’s a hardass on social-conservative issues. So those might all be enough, but perhaps there’s something else:

…Mark McKinnon, a longtime senior media adviser to Bush, who now runs his own consulting firm and helps the president. He started by challenging me. “You think he’s an idiot, don’t you?” I said, no, I didn’t. “No, you do, all of you do, up and down the West Coast, the East Coast, a few blocks in southern Manhattan called Wall Street. Let me clue you in. We don’t care. You see, you’re outnumbered 2 to 1 by folks in the big, wide middle of America, busy working people who don’t read The New York Times or Washington Post or The L.A. Times. And you know what they like? They like the way he walks and the way he points, the way he exudes confidence. They have faith in him. And when you attack him for his malaprops, his jumbled syntax, it’s good for us. Because you know what those folks don’t like? They don’t like you!”

What I’ve been wondering is whether all those dirt farmers in flyover country know that the effete liberals on the coasts hate G.W, and so they embrace him–“the enemy of my enemy is my friend”. If so, G.W. isn’t the catalyst for our current polarization, he’s the mirror of it. This quote suggests that maybe it’s so. But the enemy of your enemy may just be a different kind of enemy.

All System Whoa

If you live in Austin and keep half an eye on the news, you know that Cap Metro is contemplating a commuter-rail line linking the convention center to Leander, something that needs voter approval. Normally, I’d be in favor of this. I’d reflexively think “public transit good.”

Mike Dahmus has been blogging for some time trying to explain why, in this particular case, public transit not good. He’s convinced me. Check him out. Kudos to Mike for beating the drum and raising awareness on this.

Debate moment

There were plenty of moments that got me yelling at the TV during the second debate, but this one took the cake:

MICHAELSON: Mr. President, if there were a vacancy in the Supreme Court and you had the opportunity to fill that position today, who would you choose and why?

BUSH: I’m not telling.

(LAUGHTER)

I really don’t have — haven’t picked anybody yet. Plus, I want them all voting for me.

On reflection, it’s clear Bush means that he wants any prospective justices to vote for him in the election. But at the moment, it just reminded me of the only 9 votes that counted in the 2000 election.