Monday, December 26, 2005

The Holidays in Connecticut

Imagine giving an 8-year-old a Gameboy for Christmas, and imagine how many hours s/he'll spend over the next 48 hours playing with the Gameboy. If you substitute Kathy for 8-year-old and GPS for Gameboy, you'll have the picture of things around here recently. Yes, Kathy's folks got her a cool GPS that works with her PDA (the early Christmas present I gave her), and between set-up, reading the directions, testing it out, and taking it wherever she goes, I'd be surprised if it's spent more than four waking hours since she opened it out of her possession.

Now you have to understand that Kathy comes by her passion for such geektoys honestly, as her father is at least as passionate about such things. He's been into GPS pretty much the entire time I've known him. Last year in Costa Rica, for example, he felt right at home holding the GPS antenna over his head in his left hand as our little 10-person troupe was walking a suburb of San Jose (however, with that pose, and at 6-feet, 10-inches, Dad didn't look particularly at home).

So tonight Kathy, her folks, and I drove about 40 minutes away for dinner (at a brewpub, naturally). Mom drove, I was in the front passenger seat (I occasionally get car-sick, so why risk it), and Dad and Kathy were seated side-by-side in the back with their different GPS set-ups, comparing and competing. Kathy's had a bit of trouble initially, selecting a route that wasn't the fastest (though it probably was the shortest distance). It would tell us to turn at a certain spot ("turn right in 600 feet"), and Mom would ignore it. I kept expecting the GPS to bleat, "Turn around you idiot -- you missed the turn," but instead it would take into account the current position and reconstruct directions. Eventually it neared perfection at anticipating turns and distances. Kathy's bragging about the 12 satellites her GPS is picking up, while Dad's getting all indignant -- his GPS is older, though it was relying on his new software, Treats and Strips Streets and Trips 2006 -- because his GPS was slow to identify when to turn (e.g., 100 feet after the turn). And this is how the 80 minutes of driving proceeds.

They're having fun with their toys, and I'm having fun making fun of them, and Mom's getting a good laugh at the whole absurd scene -- everyone's happy, just like Holidays with family should be.

Friday, December 23, 2005

Two Years Ago Today

My maternal grandfather died two years ago today. He was my last surviving grandparent. At his funeral three days later, I gave the following eulogy:
I'm not sure what I can say about a man that turned 55 six days before I was born. I never knew the man that escaped Nazi Germany, returned in secret to visit his ailing father, and came to the United States where he met my grandmother and parented my mother. The only memory I have that's directly tied to his working years is visiting him at work one day in a giant warehouse or factory of coats -- I must have been no more than 5.

I say what all of you present undoubtedly know, that he was a kind and wonderful person, exceptionally considerate, polite and generous to charity. He liked to see pretty women, and wasn't shy about saying they were pretty.

While my grandmother was alive, he always seemed in the background -- she was the one that fussed over me, and that wanted to hear every little detail of my childhood. He was the driver, only occasionally participating in the conversation, and usually then to try to cap the ridiculous amount of praise my grandmother would give.

She died just as I was becoming an adult, and so it was during my adult years that I got to know my grandfather.

The man I knew was a retiree who lived in Daytona, and who liked to gamble, whether that meant playing poker with friends, or taking one of his countless trips to Las Vegas. Probably my fondest memory of him was when I went to Las Vegas with friends about a decade ago, and he happened to be there at the same time. We got together for a few hours, during which time we went to the casino. His eyesight was gone by then, so mostly we played slots. Still, I never felt closer to him -- there was a gleam in his eye as we played, no doubt because he could share with his grandson one of the joys in his life, though it somehow seemed more that he felt he was showing me the family business.

He also enjoyed travel. Every summer, while he could, he would leave Daytona for a couple of months to escape the Florida heat. I believe the last summer he did this was in 1997, when he fell and broke his hip. I was the first family member able to go up and visit him. Later complications clouded his memory of that time to the point where he couldn't remember I was ever there. But I remember. I remember talking to him when he was awake, reading while he slept, and helping him to the limited extent I could. I learned a bit more of family history, but more than that I learned of the effort necessary to keep going, and the hardships of aging.

He was never the same after that. Heck, that was the first time he almost died. After a while, I think we lost track of how many times we figured he was about to die. So when the call came on Tuesday, I think it surprised all of us that this tough old man was finally gone, and that it had happened so suddenly. He had outlived two wives and just about all the family members of his generation. He had lived a full life, but was ready to die, something he had told us many times. That he died so peacefully is a blessing, and a relief to all of us who loved him.

My grandfather was able to attend virtually all the important events in his grandchildrens' lives. A picture of him sharing the celebration of my law school graduation with me and my father sits even now in my living room. He went to all of his grandchildrens' weddings. He even made it out West in 2001 for Josh's and Kim's wedding, and last year to meet Lauren, his first great granddaughter, when she was one month old. It meant a lot to me that he was able to come to Kathy's and my wedding, and doubtless my siblings feel the same way about him being at theirs. Sadly, he wasn't up for joining the rest of the family for Thanksgiving in Atlanta last month, and so he never got to meet his second great granddaughter.

The last time I saw him was for his 90th birthday party this past July -- it was wonderful that so much of the family was able to be there, and that we got to share one more happy occasion with him. He was beaming the whole weekend, especially during the party. One of my favorite parts of the weekend was watching Lauren's continued fascination with her great-grandfather's nose. She won't have memories of that weekend, but I imagine the rest of us there do -- we remember the youngest person there reaching out to the 90-year-old man, and their connection that spanned generations and included everyone in between.

I don't believe there's a Heaven, but if there is such a place, I have no doubt my grandfather is there.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

August 29, 1981, ~9pm

Today my parents' Chanukah card arrived -- it was one of those picture cards, and on the back Dad wrote, "Looking back after 40 years, we have accomplished many things. The greatest accomplishment, however, was to produce and raise 4 wonderful children, pictured here when they were still naive, innocent, and undeniably happy." The picture is my Dad's favorite of the four of us -- it is quite possibly the only picture where all of us are either laughing or genuinely smiling. It was taken during the Saturday night party of my Bar Mitzvah, 1 1/2 months after my 13th birthday.

In it I am surrounded by my three siblings, and we are all laughing and slightly damp (summertime with a pool in the backyard). This is my night, a celebration of becoming a man in Jewish tradition, in recognition that the years of after-school study have paid off. I am poised and posed, fresh from my success that morning, the big brother with a big smile for the camera. Josh is to my right -- he's only 16 months younger than I am, but the height difference suggests a bigger gap. He's not directly facing the camera, and his eyes are slightly slitted, suggesting a crafty expression -- no doubt he's thinking of the mischief he'd undertake in his teenage years. Shari is to my right, three months shy of turning 10, frozen in mid-laugh. Maybe it's her expression in particular that makes my Dad enjoy this picture so much -- I can't ever recall Shari looking as happy as she does in this picture. She possesses an unconditional mirth that disappears as we grow older and learn of the grays between the black and white. To Shari's right is Rebecca, almost seven and in a happy pose with her mouth half open and teeth plainly visible -- she knows what she's supposed to do for a camera.

Now that we live under four separate roofs, it's hard for us to share anything like we could then. My wedding day may have been the happiest day of my life, but there's a picture of Rebecca holding a Chuppah pole, a candid shot of unhappiness, jealousy I imagine, her having been with her boyfriend longer than Kathy and I had been together. I was happy for my brother, and then my sister, on the days that my nieces were born, but I wasn't there, and it didn't touch me the same way. At my folks' anniversary party last month, we were all filled with good cheer, but really there's no comparison to the happiness evident from 1981. Maybe the innocence Dad refers to is a necessary component to the happiness, especially with siblings. Almost a quarter of a century has passed since that night -- was that really our peak of collective joy?

Then again, that photo was only a moment. It suggests a togetherness that didn't exist. The four of us didn't spend the evening together -- 13-year-old Aaron would have been playing with his friends, not his 9-year-old and 6-year-old sisters. We were called together to pose, and it's quite possible we weren't in the same room at any other point of the night, much less interacting. A moment was captured, and it's possible the next time we're together, another moment will exist. We might not be standing together so that a picture can be taken, and even if we are, no photo might be taken. But all it takes is a moment.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

On Barleywines

Barleywine is a style of beer that's traditionally produced for the winter months -- it is bold of flavor, and strong in alcohol. Figure that the average American barleywine clocks in around 10% ABV. Their British cousins are usually somewhat milder (though not always), but at 8% or so, they are by no means mild. In beer, most of the flavor is determined by the malts and hops used. Generally speaking, malts provide for the sweet, and hops provide for the bitter. American-style BWs generally favor the hops, while British BWs usually emphasize the malts.

The first barleywine I had was Anchor's Old Foghorn, probably around 1994. That first time, I was overwhelmed by the alcohol qualities it contained, and did not appreciate them. Rogue's Old Crustacean (yes, many barleywines are called Old something) soon followed, and it too took some adjustments to my palate, but I did in fact enjoy it. Since then, I have tried well over 100 barleywines, and the style has become one of my favorites.

In recognition of their higher alcohol content, barleywines have traditionally been bottled in sizes less than 12 ounces. Both Old Foghorn and Old Crusty were for sale in roughly 7-ounce bottles, as was the most famous of the style, Thomas Hardy's Ale, a British brew. The barleywine I just consumed, Lakefront's Beer Line, was in such a traditional bottle, which is well-suited to its 10% ABV. These days, however, the smaller bottle is the exception rather than the rule. Like many wines, bigger beers can develop different characteristics as they age. Yeast is placed within the sealed bottle so the beer can continue to ferment -- this is called bottle conditioning. The thing is, the aging process works better with larger bottles, which is why the bottle of Cisco's barleywine I'm currently drinking -- Baggywrinkle -- which clocks in at a very strong 12% ABV, is 750ml (25.4 ounces for the less mathematically inclined out there), the same size as a standard bottle of wine. Unlike wine, unfortunately, an opened bottle of beer generally cannot be stored.

Thus, such large quantities of high-alcohol beer certainly produce a challenge to consume by oneself, particularly on a weeknight. I wish Kathy could share this with me, but recently she seems to be have developed an allergic reaction to bottle-conditioned beers, quite possibly from the yeast (she hasn't had any reaction to draft beers), so I will soldier on, perhaps into oblivion. Not likely though -- it's not like this is the first time I've done something like this.

Monday, December 19, 2005

Something You Don't Want to Hear from Your Dog Walker

"Which one of you taught Junebug to use a zipper?"

That was the phrase that greeted me when I took a call from B, our dog walker, this afternoon. Yes, that clever dog of ours was able to unzip B's purse, sniff out the unopened box of Andes Mints, open it, and devour all but four of the mints in the roughly 60 seconds it took B to pick up another client's dog.

Junebug is easily the smartest dog I've ever had. She's also one of the sweetest dogs I've ever met, which is certainly a survival trait -- it's probably why we kept her despite all the havoc she created when we adopted her. Junie is part rottweiler and part German shepherd -- she's undersized and we don't know anything about her lifestory before she arrived at the pound. All we know is that she'd been abandoned, then was at the pound, then a foster home, then another foster home. So by the time we got her (in July 2000), she was a wreck -- to say there was separation anxiety is an understatement. Because she kept messing up our house we took to putting her in our room when we went to work, which was a big mistake -- her anxieties only increased. Then we tried crate-training, but that so freaked her out that she literally broke through the soldering to get out of the cage. She drove us nuts, and each of us was ready to take her back to the pound, but somehow we never wanted to get rid of her at the same time. The calm spouse would talk the enraged spouse down just in time for the roles to reverse.

Ultimately two things led to her turning the corner. The first was hiring B. The second was the rainy evening I literally picked her up when we were outside for a walk, to prevent her from going back inside the house before she'd gone to the bathroom. There's nothing like showing a dog who's boss, and apparently it was something that hadn't been made clear before then. After these two changes, Junebug still made messes, but gradually she became more comfortable, to the point where they occurred less and less. These days it's the exception rather than the rule to come home and find something to clean up. That's not to say that even five years later she's ever wholly reformed, particularly when she stays at B's (B is also our dog sitter). In addition to using the floor for a bathroom, Junebug will make you regret it if ever you leave food or the trash within reach (including counters) -- even if it seems impossible for her to reach, she'll get to it. However, because she only performs these stunts when no one's around, none of us know exactly how she does it. Discovering the answer to this mystery is the one reason I may someday invest in security cameras.

Today B couldn't figure out how Junebug got the plastic surrounding the box off without tearing a gash in it -- apparently it was left relatively intact. Such is the genius of Junebug.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

40 and Counting

Today is my folks' 40th anniversary. I was unable to find the statistics on how many marriages last at least 40 years, but it's certainly much less than half of them (25%?), so in my book this is something worth celebrating. That being said, because all of us couldn't be together today, our family celebrated the anniversary over Thanksgiving weekend.

Either because I wasn't born or was too young, I don't remember much of the first decade of their marriage (I remember some things from the era, but very little that's specifically tied to their marriage). What I do know is that they married young (by my generation's standards), and somehow made it through those early years into the middle years. The middle years weren't always the easiest for any of us, but they (and us offspring) got through them. I think they'd say that these last ten years have been their best ones together -- they've gotten better at communicating with each other (a necessary trait when all the kids finally moved out of the house and silence was the alternative), they have enough money, Dad's work life has been less stressful (and as of April, non-existent), and they've gotten better at appreciating each other. The love that was punctuated by loud fights (though not by fisticuffs) has been replaced by a loud love (because that's the only way they know how to talk to each other). The genuine love they share today is indeed something worth recognizing.

So from a distance, I raise a beer to my parents, to toast them on this special day. May they live in good health to celebrate their 50th and even 60th anniversaries together (with renewable options for the 70th and 80th).

Saturday, December 17, 2005

Political Rant of Miscellany

It's been quite a while since I've made a political post, but not for want of subjects.

The Abramoff scandal continues to chug forward, but as the details are coming forward, the public's interest is already fading. It's a shame, because this scandal gives ample demonstration of many of the things wrong with lobbying in this country. I'm astounded by the range of activities Abramoff is accused of -- this is one of the more despicable ones (and it's also tied to Tom DeLay). Senator Conrad Burns (R-MT) is the latest politician to agree to give back money he received from Abramoff. Burns pushed for a $3 million grant from a federal program intended for impoverished Indian tribal schools to one of the richest tribes in the country, a client of Abramoff. In the wake of the Abramoff investigation, Senator McCain has become the first Republican to join the call for an overhaul of lobbying laws.

Speaking of McCain, in the good news/bad news world of McCain's anti-torture bill, Bush has agreed to the basic provisions of the bill, something that was fairly inevitable in light of the 90-9 vote with which it passed the Seante. Still, there's the possibility that it won't be as significant a step forward as it might have been, seeing as how the language in the accompanying bill by South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham would make it significantly easier to rely on information gained from torture performed overseas. Strangely, this bit of news isn't getting nearly as much attention as Bush's reversal.

I hope the senators in the filibuster concerning the Patriot Act don't back down -- they are almost unanimous in their support of much of the Patriot Act, but are concerned that the current bill takes away too much from our civil liberties. When there are a few libertarian-bent Republicans (e.g., Sununu, Murkowski) joining the Dems, it seems that their concerns are legitimate. The trick will be to get their message out, which is that they aren't the ones preventing the bill's passage; rather, it's their colleagues who aren't willing to keep reasonable safeguards in place. Of course, as the minority position, they're at a disadvantage in making this argument.

The story has just broken, but NSA spying on international conversations smells very fishy to me. The standard is that you go before a secret court and if you make a half-assed showing that there's reason to spy on the individual, the court will issue a warrant. In other words, if a person being investigated were actually a likely terrorist, it would have been no big deal to get the warrant. This is what makes me believe that the people being investigated weren't likely terrorists.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

The Darkest Time of The Year

The time that it takes to make a baby
Can be the time it takes to make a cup of tea.
-- Billy Bragg
Two more birth announcements in the past two weeks. Earlier this week there was another pregnancy announcement, on top of the four we already knew about. Truly I'm happy for these people, these friends of ours. But I can't help but also feel a little jealous. Some of them have had to go through trials of their own (as well as misfortune) to get pregnant, but for others it seemed as easy as falling out of bed. I want a happy ending. Not that I'm entitled to it, no one is, but still it's what I want. We'll try with our two remaining embryos early next year, but I can't say that I feel optimistic. Maybe I should be, given that we got pregnant last time, but five years of trying without success leaves me feeling pretty pessimistic.

Sigh. Most of the time I'm ok, but work has me down and this has me down, and the holiday blahs are in full swing. I have little desire to be with people socially in this the most social of all seasons. Kathy's doing better about the whole baby thing, so maybe it's hitting me now because I'm finally allowing myself the time.
Excuse me
I'm not the man I used to be
Someone else crept in, again
I want to be alone
-- Peter Gabriel

Monday, December 12, 2005


George Singleton's title character, Novel Akers (younger brother of adopted twins James and Joyce), finds himself over his head when he moves to Gruel, South Carolina, hometown of his estranged wife. Gruel has a host of characters, and things seem more than a little quirky, strange, and even dangerous. The town has a secret, or several, and Novel finds himself determined to learn of it, even realizing that the truth is more likely to result in his demise than set him free.

There's a lot to laugh about in the story, what with Novel and his wife moving back to Gruel to establish the Sneeze 'n' Tone, a weight loss program based on non-stop allergen-induced sneezing. And you can't help but laugh when you read of one business in town, the Gruel Pig Petting Zoo and BBQ.

At the same time, there's an edge to the book. The reader is confronted by an unreliable narrator -- Novel is slightly delusional in part due to the excessive alcohol he consumes when he attempts to write his autobiography, also called Novel. Or maybe he isn't delusional at all, and the paranoia he develops is justified by the townsfolk.

I did enjoy Novel, but things did get a bit tiresome at times. The first time Novel described the outlandish trick shot two regulars are attempting at the pool table in the town's only bar, it was funny. The second time it was amusing. I didn't try to count how many times one of their attempts at a trick shot was described, but it was in the neighborhood of ten.

I think there's an excellent story somewhere in the book, but what's actually presented could stand for a bit more development and some additional editing.

Rating: 6/10

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Orange Bowl

In the first ever ACC championship game, FSU upset Virginia Tech, and now they represent the ACC in the Orange Bowl against Penn State despite an 8-4 record. While it might not make for an interesting game, I think the real excitement could rest in seeing whether FedEx, the sponsor of the Orange Bowl, will sell this year's sponsorship to the highest bidder. With 76-year-old Bobby Bowden coaching the Seminoles against the 11-1 Nittany Lions, led by 79-year-old coach Joe Paterno, I can see FedEx making a bundle in the resulting bidding war between Metamucil and Depends, though perhaps AARP would outbid them both.

Friday, December 09, 2005

On a Slow Moving Car

Picture yourself when you were about eight, sitting with your friend on your friend's Mom's car in the garage. It's just a standard 4-door blue-grey Buick or Oldsmobile, and both of you are sitting on the hood with your feet pressed onto the brick wall of the back of the garage. You're chatting about baseball or football, school and classmates, or maybe all of those. Time back then seemed to stretch out forever, until it didn't, like when you suddenly notice that your knees aren't bent quite as much as they were when you first sat down. And after thinking about it, the two of you can't help but wonder if maybe you, two small boys just sitting around, are powerful enough to have moved a car! The next thing the two of you do makes all the sense in the world at the time, as you actively push against the wall, just to see that, yes, you did it. It doesn't take too long before there's no bend in your knees at all, you've been able to move the car that far!

Right about that time, however, the car begins moving on its own. The back tires evidently have been pushed out the garage, and onto the slightly sloping driveway behind the house. The two of you race out the garage to get behind the car, to stop what you've started, but you discover that it's far easier to push a car on a flat surface than it is to stop the same vehicle on a slightly downward slope . You push with your scrawny eight-year-old arms as hard as you can while your friend runs in to get his Mom. You're not worried about getting run over -- even though you can't stop it, it's not moving that fast. Besides, you're eight, which means that as far as you're concerned, you're immortal. No, your only worry is the car, and the neighbor's fence -- the car's heading straight for that fence, and it sure as heck isn't going to make the turn to avoid it with no one steering. You sure hope your friend's Mom gets there pronto.

You have an impossible vision of this scene, as though there were a photograph showing a short and bony curly-haired kid straining against a car while his friend is racing out of the screen porch and his friend's Mom is just starting to appear from out of the shadow caused by the inside room being so much darker than the daylight. But of course there never was a picture, only your memory superimposing an out-of-body experience.

You know what happens next, for all this happened roughly 30 years ago, but there's still a part of you that's there in the past in the non-existent photo, unsure whether your friend's Mom will arrive in time. And time once again stretches out into infinity.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

The Morning Jaywalk

From the North side of Pennsylvania Avenue Southeast, just west of 8th Street, people cross to the South side without going to the crosswalk in order to get to the Metro in the most direct manner possible. From the Metro, these same people cross to the same point to go to points North and East. In this picture, the North-South street on the right is 8th Street, and by the red dot one can see where the median has been worn away by people crossing to and from the escalators visible in the lower left of the picture.

This morning was unseasonably cold, and a number of morning commuters were waiting to cross at the usual location. Then a cop, with lights flashing, came around the bend and parked right in front of where people make their illegal crossing. Almost everyone reluctantly walked back to 8th Street and waited for the light. One person, however, held his ground, and when the light changed, he crossed right in front of the police car. The officer might have been stunned by the pedestrian's sheer brazenness, but he still possessed the wherewithal to pump his siren. In response, the jaywalker looked back, with scorn or even anger, then continued to cross the street unabated. The pedestrian was wearing headphones, and didn't know whether the cop shouted at him, or got out of the car. Perhaps the jaywalker figured that it was too cold for the cop to get out of his car to chase a jaywalker, that maybe the morning coffee and donut were more important to the cop than hassling one person about doing what he and everyone else would do the next day the cop wasn't there. Perhaps the jaywalker was outraged by the cop focusing on such trivial offenses when cars driving in the neighborhood routinely drive 15-20 miles per hour over the speed limit, and no one has ever heard of, much less seen, a cop taking the trouble to ticket a driver. Perhaps the jaywalker was simply cold, and eager to get where he was heading as quickly as possible.

Regardless of what he was thinking, the jaywalker continued across the street, to the escalator, and descended into the Metro station. As he boarded his train, the cop was nowhere to be found.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Post-Party Oppression

Last post I talked about our party that's taken place the first Friday in December for the last 10 years, but I didn't discuss a newer tradition, the second night. Yes, Saturday has become the beer geek tasting, when I invite people from RateBeer, along with a few of my other beer geeky friends, to hang out and drink some rarer beers (most of which they provide). So we really serve as hosts of a non-stop beer-bash weekend. As usual, this past weekend was amazing in terms of the people who came, and in the quality and quantity of beer.

Regarding the quantity, on Thursday a neighbor came by, apologized for not being able to come on Friday, and handed over a high-quality case of beer. At 5pm the day of the party, a couple came over with three cases of beer (he's the manager of a liquor store), including a case of homebrew. So by the time we were up to two guests, we already had four cases of beer (thank goodness this year I decided not to "prime" the beer fridge). And from then on, people brought six packs or more, much of the beer relegated to sitting on the porch out back, kept chilled by the cold weather. A former co-worker of Kathy's showed up with a growler (half a gallon) of a Chicago brewpub's winter seasonal, along with another dozen bottles of top-notch beers -- I don't think we even got to try any of those on Friday. There was a fair amount of drinking, but even so, lots of beer was never was put out back to cool or refrigerated, as there was no chance it would be consumed. The later guests were all given mixed 6-packs to take home, as were those who came on Saturday night. I left a six pack with the neighbor who'd brought the case. And after giving all those beers away (~3 cases), by Sunday afternoon we were able to fit the remainder of the cold beer into the two refrigerators (I have an under-the-counter beer fridge). Barely. We needed to go grocery shopping, but there's been no place to put any of the perishables.

So I'm condemned to keep drinking through our beers, to clear out space for food. It's a thankless task, one that appears Sisyphean. Today I gave out another couple of six packs to co-workers, now we have room for orange juice. I seem to be fighting a cold, but I must keep drinking. I'm not sure it'll be enough, I think I need help. What does it mean when I've been thanking people for giving my beers a good home?

Incidentally, even once we clear out beer from the fridge, there's still lots more beer in the cupboards, and yesterday, another mixed 12-pack arrived as a make-good from someone who stiffed me a couple of months earlier.

Finally, I'd have to say that my decision last night to attend a beer tasting, despite the gallons waiting for me at home, removes any lingering doubt on the question of whether I'm sane when it comes to beer.

Friday, December 02, 2005

Party Time

This evening will be my 10th time hosting a Holiday Beer Party, the 8th time with Kathy. With one exception, the party has always been held on the first Friday of December (when my sister got married that weekend, it got moved to the following Friday), and guests who have attended most of them have learned to set aside that date in their busy seasonal calendar. Originally the party started simply as a recognition that winter seasonal beers make some of the best beers out there. Holiday beers are when brewers get the most creative, and the designation doesn't necessarily mean anything other than that the brewer decided to brew something special for the winter. Generally speaking, there are two types of winter beers. Quoting from an article I wrote a few years ago:
The first is a spiced treat - the most commonly used spices seem to be nutmeg, cinnamon, ginger, cloves, orange peel, and cardamom. Probably the most well-known examples in the U.S. are Anchor Our Special Ale and Harpoon Winter Warmer. Quite a few of these beers, including Our Special Ale, change their recipes from year to year, thereby increasing the excitement associated with their annual appearances. The differences each year also encourage one to try vertical tastings, assuming you can stand to leave some to sit for a couple of years.

The second type of winter seasonal is big and bold, and likely high in alcohol. Certain barley wines, imperial stouts and Belgian-style strong ales only make their appearance to counter those brutal winter nights. Victory Old Horizontal is one example, the Belgian treat Delirium Noël another. One of the most extreme examples is the relatively recent Dogfish Head World Wide Stout, all 23% ABV of it. A few of the beers in this second category also change recipes, but even when they don?t, the beers can still vary noticeably across the years.
This isn't a party just for beer geeks, as it's anything but a formal tasting. That being said, we provide tasting glasses, which lets people drink less than a whole bottle at a time, thereby giving them a chance to sample more beers without acquiring an otherwise certain hangover (though they're still welcome to hangovers
if that's what they really want). Not everyone partakes of the beer -- some even stick to soda. Imagine, some of our friends find they have a good time with us even if they're not drinking alcohol!

The first time Kathy joined me in hosting the party, she started decorating like crazy. When I asked her why, she answered that she was preparing for the Holiday "Beer Party." I tried to explain that it was a "Holiday Beer" Party, but to no avail -- now it's both (ah, the compromises one makes in a relationship).

That first year together was also the first year we started the tradition of serving up a U.S. Capitol made out of Belgian chocolate (in recognition that we live on Capitol Hill) -- it's delicious, and I find myself enjoying the leftovers for the following month. One tradition that's been around since the first party is chili. That being said, what started as a double batch of the chili I've been making regularly since college (though it's evolved considerably, and switched from ground beef to ground turkey) has turned into my making 2 quadruple batches that add special ingredients (this year each quadruple batch includes
a bottle of Brooklyn Black Chocolate Stout), and Kathy making a veggie chili that's about half that amount. We cook the chili at least one night in advance (that's right, this year's is already made). Aside from making it easier to do set-up when not also having to cook, it tastes better -- the meat (and in Kathy's case, the beans and veggies) does a better job of soaking up the seasonings, resulting in a more flavorful chili.

With Kathy's adherence to the "better to have too much than run out" school, we offer up a lot beyond chili and chocolate. Almost makes me wonder why we don't start the party at 6 rather than 7:30. Almost.

Hope everyone has a similarly fun holiday party to attend tonight.

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

The Most Wretched Part of this Time of the Year

The day after Thanksgiving marked the commercial beginning of the Holiday season, and consequently, Christmas music is everywhere -- in the hotel lobby where we stayed over Thanksgiving weekend, in many restaurants, and of course in every retail store. All of which would combine to drive me crazy, were it not for the fact that I can avoid these places for a month (except maybe for brewpubs that pipe in Xmas music) -- thank goodness for internet shopping.

I suppose I'm coming across as a Scrooge, and I guess I deserve such appellation. Still, I don't mind the holidays, or the gift exchanging (Kathy's the one who minds exchanging gifts on account of the fact that there's very little I want). I could even tolerate going into real live stores were it not for the insipid selection of holiday music that pervades each and every one of them. Don't you think that one of them could come up with an ad campaign where the central theme is a promise not to play a single holdiay tune -- a respite for weary holiday shoppers eager to hear plain old boring Muzak?

But even as I'm moaning about the misery I experience when I find myself in any of these places, I occasionally take a moment to think of those less fortunate than I, the poor souls who work at these places, stuck with the unending drone of overly chipper holiday songs, on top of the holiday rush they face. For their sake, I hope they possess a sense of self-survival that enables them to tune out the tunes; otherwise I can't see that their days will be merry and bright.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Help Kathy...

One of several things I stink at is subscribing to the consumer society. I mean, sure there are some gadgets I wouldn't want to do without (but which I already have), and some music, some foods, and of course some beers, but for the most part there's very little in the way of material possessions that I want. Consequently, when I've already gone ahead and given Kathy her Christmas present in advance, one she can't stop beaming about, she's at a bit of a loss because she has no idea how to reciprocate.

So if anyone has any ideas of what it is I'd really want if only I knew about it, I ask that you help Kathy out and post your ideas here -- she deserves better.

Monday, November 28, 2005

Once-in-a-Lifetime Opportunity

Among the family events during Thanksgiving weekend was celebrating my folks 40th anniversary three weeks early. We had a lovely gathering at my brother's house -- there was way too much food, all of it excellent, along with flowers and balloons and good cheer all around. For their anniversary gift, we had already gotten them their a gas grill, per their request. Dad said that it didn't come with a cannister of gas, and he wanted to get some briquettes and a set of grilling utensils. This morning I called them up to let them know that he should get those accessories and that I would treat as a Holiday gift. I honestly have to say, however, that I'm not sure how much my offer was tied to a desire to be generous, and how much was tied to the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to give my folks (artificial) coal for the holidays, and be thanked for it.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Glad News of the Natural World

The last time I went to the library, I grabbed three books by authors I'd never heard of, all based on the book jackets. The first had its moments, but ultimately was a disappointment. The second, T. R. Pearson's Glad News of the Natural World, would be my book of the year, if I did enough reading of current fiction to make such a declaration meaningful. Pearson's protagonist, Louis Benfield, was the central character in an earlier novel, but I can assure you that it is unnecessary to read that book to appreciate our narrator. Benfield is a Carolinian in New York -- NYC may be a scary city to some, particularly non-natives, but somehow Benfield is able to create a niche for himself. He's unable to keep a steady job, but he's nevertheless able to make a living. He keeps looking for love in the wrong places, but at least by the end of the book he seems more aware of just what he should be looking for.

The humor is wry, evocative of a Southern Garrison Keillor, though that comparison does an injustice to both Pearson and Keillor, as each speaks in a unique voice. I read several passages to Kathy, and felt I could have read several more, but for the fact that I want her to read it herself (I renewed it, so she has a couple of weeks to do so). My favorite chapter is about the death of his great, aunt, a.k.a. Aunt Sister, juxtaposing the sad occasion of the present with family lore of what sort of person she was. Indeed, the manner in which he weaves her story, combined with the priceless details themselves, make it one of my favorite chapters ever (side note -- does anyone actually rate book chapters, the way people rate songs rather than the albums? I know that I haven't, but I still feel safe in declaring this chapter among my favorites).

I don't know that anyone who reads this book will walk away smarter, but I'd nevertheless expect them to be affected by the experience. As for me, I'll be adding some of Pearson's earlier works to my holiday wishlist.

Rating: 10/10

Monday, November 21, 2005

Nats Redux et cetera

Damn Nationals!!! I wonder how much the final bill will be? Certainly higher than the latest revision. It was a bad deal when it was signed, and it's only getting worse. Send 'em to Vegas and let us be done with them!!

In other news, I'm headed to Arizona tomorrow night for T-giving with my clan, so I don't expect to post much over the next few days. But it could happen.


Prague, 1996.

A pale young man comes to the open door of my hostel room. He's in his early 20s, tall with short, straight dark hair and brown eyes. His English is fluent, which is a good thing given my monolingualism. He asks about the time, or something equally inane, and before I know it, the silence of my solo travels is broken with a lengthy conversation. Even though I have been enjoying my solitude, I welcome the respite from my journal entries, a chance to converse with someone.

We seem to get along, this German and I, until somehow it comes out that I am Jewish. Fear enters his eyes, and he begins a long apology for the sins his countrymen committed over 50 years earlier. I interrupt before long, explaining that no apology is needed -- he has done no wrong, either to me or my family, even though some family did in fact die in the Holocaust. He relates that once not too long ago, he'd been in an elevator with an Israeli woman and her daughter. The woman harangued him for his heritage and raised her arm as if to strike him, and he felt terrified and ashamed. I do not subscribe to the theory that the sins of the fathers fall upon their children, and do what I can to put him back at ease.

Ironically, the next day I plan to go to the old Jewish Quarter of Prague, so I invite him along. He gladly accepts. When morning comes, we venture forth and learn the story of the Jews who inhabited this small area for centuries, up until the start of the 20th century. While I am soaking in the knowledge, reading of such things as Rabbi Loew and the golem, he is nervous and edgy, unable to concentrate on the placards, focused instead on the possibility of encountering other angry Jews, in a place he feels he does not belong. For all the years that Jews dwelled in this tiny space, they must have felt the same way whenever they left these walls.

Eventually we leave the Jewish Quarter to see other sites/sights. Graffiti-covered Lennon Wall strikes a chord with us both -- joy at the dangerous mischief that inspired all those Czechs to defy the Communist authorities, sadness at its hardly recognizable condition. At day's end we exchange names and addresses, though neither of us ever contacts the other.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

The Coast of Akron

The curse and blessing of having your local library branch be mediocre at best is that you are forced, if you're too lazy to reserve books that can come from other branches or to go to those other branches, to consider books that you otherwise might have ignored. Sometimes this results in truly delightful reads, but other times.... In this manner I stumbled across Adrienne Miller's The Coast of Akron, a story of family dysfunction that should make almost anyone feel good about his or her own family. The story revolves around four central characters -- Lowell, the semi-famous artist known for his self-portraits that mysteriously stopped being made five years earlier; Jenny, his ex-wife; Merit, Jenny's and Lowell's daughter; and Fergus, Jenny's ex-best friend and now Lowell's lover.

The story is told from three perspectives -- Merit's and Fergus's in the present, and Jenny's in the past, through the journals she kept beginning thirty years ago. Jenny's journals tell us about the incredibly charismatic Lowell, and show how she lost something by putting herself within Lowell's orbit. And even though much of the present tales are about Merit and Fergus, so too are they about the unhappiness that Lowell seems to create around him. So much of their sorry lives, it seems, can be traced back to Lowell in some way. Merit dove into a marriage with someone so clearly wrong for her, but so clearly because he is the anti-Lowell. This mismatch has resulted in her increasingly self-destructive behavior. Fergus "won" Lowell from Jenny, and his life appears much the worse because of his Pyrrhic victory. He skulks around his own mansion, largely afraid of encountering this man he loves. Although Jenny has finally broken away from Lowell in one sense, her life seems never to have recovered. Interestingly, even though Lowell is the epicenter of the dysfunction, the story has very little of his presence.

The writing is generally engaging, and the flawed characters encourage sympathy if not empathy. The story builds toward a giant party thrown by Fergus at Lowell's request. Sadly though, the closer I got to the ending, the less I enjoyed the book. It seems that Miller became more interested in the journey and forgot to include a destination, as evidenced by the spectacularly awful and absurdly improbable ending. Calling it an ending, however, may be an overstatement, as the end of the book resolves nothing.

Rating: 5/10

Friday, November 18, 2005

Panexa Anyone?

Has anyone tried Panexa? Can't say that I have, but based on the website, it seems like one drug that delivers on its promises.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Report on the Weekend

New England was fun -- we hung out in southern Vermont and New Hampshire, and also western Massachusetts. Kathy entertains thoughts of moving back to the Northeast (dragging me along), and this region had caught her eye on the Web, so I figured we should actually visit. Much of it is affordable, but that's based on our current incomes, and we have no idea what we'd do up there, or how much we could make, so really it doesn't sound quite so affordable. Must figure out some niche in which to freelance.

Did lots of brewpubbing, enjoying McNeill's in Brattleboro, VT and Milly's Tavern in Manchester, NH the most. The hardest part of the beering was when I found a package store with so many beers that I hadn't tried, knowing that we could only carry so much on the plane back to DC. Fortunately my sister-in-law was with us for a couple of days, and she took some of the beers with her, for us to collect them over Christmas.
This weekend hearkened back to six-and-a-half years ago, when Kathy and I got married. First was the fact that we stayed at a B&B for the first time since our honeymoon. It was a lovely place, and the breakfasts were great. The only complaint we had was that the rooms aren't particularly sound-proof, so we heard our neighbors, and tried to be as quiet as possible. The other thing was that I think we can finally close the book on our wedding presents, as we received what should be the last one. One of the friends we saw this past weekend had been holding onto it lo these many years, through moving and everything. We'd seen her a couple of times in the interim, but she always forgot to bring it. This time she called while we were en route to meeting her for lunch, saying she would be late, as she was halfway there when she remembered it and needed to turn around and get it.
In other news, my mother-in-law had an emergency appendectomy Saturday night. She's out of the hospital and recovering nicely. What's weird is that my brother's mother-in-law had an emergency appendectomy just a couple of weeks ago (also doing fine). As long as everyone comes out ok in the end, I figure it's ok to note odd little coincidences like that.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Web Access at Work (or not)

Got into work today, and my gmail access was on the fritz. And then I could not access it. I got "access denied" messages. All morning long. So I was all set to write a post that bitched about workplaces that don't let you have access to your e-mail account at work. Then I did lunch with a co-worker who said he'd been on gmail that morning. When we got back to the office, he confirmed that yep, no trouble, even though I still couldn't get on. WTF? So I re-booted, and then my access was fine. So much for having something to write about.

Still, I figured I should post, if only to say that I won't be posting for a few days. We're heading out of town tomorrow night, and won't be back until Monday evening -- cue the Barry Mannilow, 'cause it's gonna be Weekend in New England.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Back Despite Popular Demand

To build the new ballpark for the Washington Nationals, D.C. has filed papers to seize land from the 16 property owners with whom they have not been able to settle on a price. Apparently the most recalcitrant of the property owners runs a Chinese take-out restaurant -- the city and the property owner are $500,000 apart in price for this small store, and each side is leveling recriminations at the other. The whole nasty proceeding is being described as a case of Eminent Lo Mein.
A pun is the lowest form of humor - when you don't think of it first.
-- Oscar Levant
I pun (the pun above is one of my own creation). More often than not, a pun is told by a man -- men seem to appreciate this particular form of humor more than women. I remember an English teacher in high school (male) used to tell puns all the time. At the time I was not a punster, but somehow, over the years, I have become one. I don't even know how it started.
A pun is not bound by the laws which limit nicer wit. It is a pistol let off at the ear; not a feather to tickle the intellect.
-- Charles Lamb
Puns evoke groans. Indeed, I feel most satisfied with a pun when it evokes a groan. I feel fortunate that Kathy finds my puns endearing, even as she groans at them.
A pun does not commonly justify a blow in return. But if a blow were given for such cause, and death ensued, the jury would be judges both of the facts and of the pun, and might, if the latter were of an aggravated character, return a verdict of justifiable homicide.
-- Oliver Wendell Holmes
Shakespeare might have used more puns than anyone else. Does this mean that I'm in good company, or that this is one of his few shortcomings (along with Pericles)?

Sunday, November 06, 2005

In Praise of Culinary Genius

I can cook, and when I do, I do a decent job of it. Still, cooking isn't something I have a particular passion for. Kathy, however, likes to cook, so she's the one who usually does it (leaving me to handle clean up). She'll occasionally trot out a new recipe after we've had it when eating out (e.g., Vietnamese vegetarian spring rolls), but for the most part, she cooks variants on the usual. I have no complaints with this, as it's tasty stuff, which is why it's the usual stuff.

Last night Kathy must have felt particularly inspired, and made what I guess should be described as Pork Masala, a Indian dish using a meat you'd never find at an Indian restaurant. Aside from being delicious, and the pork being incredibly tender, what amazed me most was that she didn't follow a recipe, even though she'd never made a masala before. She knew what it tasted like, and spiced accordingly -- tomato sauce, vegetable broth, onions, garlic, clove, cilantro, cumin, chili powder, curry, ginger, and so forth. You'd never guess that she wasn't meticulously following a recipe from an Indian cookbook. Actually, you might, because it tasted better than it would were she someone who was dependent on closely following a recipe for the first time.

Kathy doesn't think it's a big deal, and doesn't know why I'm making a fuss about it. I, however, feel I'm simply ackowledging a particular kind of genius. I can make something based on how I think flavors will work together, grabbing spices here and there and making something that ultimately tastes good. Kathy's ability to concoct a meal based on her having tried it, and thereby identifying the spices and how they should work together, is something wholly beyond me. That I am the beneficiary of such talent makes my appreciation all the greater.

Saturday, November 05, 2005

aaron: A Novelization

A couple of weeks ago Dad suggested that I should write my novel. And while I'm flattered that he thinks I have the capacity for producing a work of book-length fiction, I know better.

Now I know that someone reading this post (someone other than Mom or Dad) is going to think that I can write a novel, and that I'm either being too modest, or worse, that I'm being falsely modest, in the hope that someone will comment to the effect that, "Oh Aaron, you write great -- of course you should write a book." And see, that's a perfect example of one of the reasons why I shouldn't -- I suck at adjectives. When I'm writing, I think in nouns and verbs, and while I don't hesitate to use creative nouns and verbs, there's a limit to how much description they can provide. Adjectives and adverbs are largely forced, and when I use them, either they're trite and common, like "great," or they sound like they're being used to show off that I'm erudite, like "erudite." Occasionally I find the opportunity to throw in a color, but that can take your writing only so far. I distinctly recall when I took a one-week, short fiction class in 1997, during which time everyone was required to write a short story. Most people's process involved writing sequentually, with the plot revealing itself as they wrote along. Mine was writing out a four-page story skeleton on the first day and using the remainder of the week in an attempt to add flesh to the story. The idea of writing a 20-page story and fleshing it out into 300 pages seems like a very forced process. That's not to say it can't be done, only that descriptionese isn't my first language, and I don't use it like it's my native tongue.

Incidentally, although law school is notorious for beating the adjectives out of its attendees, I don't think it's responsible for my plight -- I think my adjectivial shortcoming predates law school, even if law school may have reinforced it.

The other problem is that I lack for plot. This is a lifelong problem for me -- for example, I had trouble coming up with a thesis for every term paper I wrote. The papers would get acceptable grades for their writing and logic, but would never get top marks due to the pained parallelisms that formed the very bases of these papers.

At that short fiction class, since the idea of the class was to write, it wouldn't have done any good to spend the first four days trying to come up with a plot. Thus we were given suggestions on how to come up with a plot, all of them essentially involving taking something from our lives and fictionalizing it. This isn't really a big deal, as the suggestion to "write what you know" likely appears in every creative writing guide ever written. That works fine for a short story -- a discrete vignette or incident can be a captivating story. But applying that approach to a novel? Writing what I know of the working life involves relating adventures in the scintillating life of an administrative law attorney, plus a few odd jobs in high school and college -- I suppose some people would be interested in the misadventures one can have flipping pizza for a summer, though I'm not sure it has best seller written all over it. What I know from growing up involves the lives of an upper-middle-class family that had its share of problems, and its share of anecdotes ("did I ever tell you about the time my brother stole the family car, and among other things, drove it into the ocean?"), but nothing compelling plotwise (maybe my brother did some stuff he didn't tell me about). Even if there were, I'm on speaking terms or better with everyone in my family, and while that may be trying at times, I'm not ready to throw that away just for fame and riches . What I know about romance involves a pretty short love life before I met Kathy, and an amazingly satisfying one (a.k.a., an extremely boring one to anyone else) since. As for my hobbies, I guess I could see a story that combined the wine-related component of Sideways (as applied to beer) with Fever Pitch (the book, about soccer, not baseball), though that strikes me as pretty derivative. Fortunately, I've done enough traveling, and live in an interesting enough city, that establishing a setting shouldn't be a hindrance (so long as I could provide enough description so readers unfamiliar with these places would appreciate them).

Of course limiting one's writing to experience would result in far fewer stories in the world -- obviously one can stretch one's plot beyond the adventures one has actually experienced. Until a Muse has kissed my brain with an inspiration, however, that's really all I have.

So to all my book-writing fellow bloggers, I say good luck, and keep up the good work. As for me, I'll just stick to cheering from the sidelines.

The preceding has been presented by the louder of the point/counterpoint entities that inhabit my brain. Someday perhaps, the quieter, less confident one may write on this subject. It may even write about an idea for a book, something about a suburban teenager who spends his summer flipping pizzas.

Friday, November 04, 2005


Kathy starts crying. I go over to her, and she starts to explain, to apologize for crying yet again over the same thing. I let her rest her head on my shoulder, I grab a tissue and dab her cheeks. And I listen.

After a little while I begin smiling, and soon enough I'm beaming. At first I'm glad she isn't looking at me, but soon enough I tell her the truth, that I have an unshakeable confidence that everything is going to be ok. That she'll get through this, and that we'll get through this.

I finally see the light at the end of this long dark tunnel.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

The End of Daylight Savings

I love daylight savings time -- I'm pretty light sensitive, so it's quite preferable to have the sun enter the bedroom window at 5:50 in the summer rather than 4:50. And like most people, I enjoy coming home with a little bit of light left in the day. Still, the end of daylight savings has its charm as well. Somehow the very first day, always a Sunday, feels noticeably longer, stretching the weekend out just a little more (I have to note that while this is usually a very good thing, this past Sunday, I wanted time to move faster, not slower, while watching DC United's season come to an ugly end in a 4-0 thrashing). The other thing the end of daylight savings brings is a brief window of beauty as I'm leaving work. For the first two weeks after reverting to standard time, when I walk out of my building at the end of the work day, I look to my left and get to see something like this (admittedly, sometimes it looks more purplish):

Obviously that's the view to the West. Then I walk about 15 yards, turn to my right (East) to head for the Metro (or to walk home), and see this:

In a couple of weeks the sun will set too soon to catch the afterglow of the sun, but for now I have another reason to celebrate leaving the office each night.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Means of Ascent

I've always regarded Lyndon Baines Johnson as a real-life Greek tragic hero: as president he accomplished so much domestically, with the Civil Rights Act of 1965 and his War on Poverty, but that his pride led him into the escalation of Vietnam, until that conflict, rather than his domestic programs, became his legacy. My opinion of Johnson is limited by living in a time after Johnson's presidency, and by the failure of school systems to teach history past World War II. Such failure is understandable given that Vietnam had only ended a decade before I graduated high school, and historical perspective had not necessarily been attained. I have learned in the years since high school -- I took a course in college on U.S. history 1945-1985, and a number of years ago I read The Best and the Brightest, David Halberstam's account of the buildup in Vietnam under Johnson. Given my interest in Johnson, I suppose it's no surprise that I would want to read some or all of Robert A. Caro's four-volume biography, considered the definitive account of Johnson's life. I have not read the first volume, but I have now finished the second, Means of Ascent, winner of the 1990 National Book Critics Circle Award for Biography.

What follows is less a book review (though there is some of that) and more a book report. While I do not wish to spoil what is an excellent read (I found myself reading fascinating passages to Kathy many times during my read -- I probably would have done so more if she had been present more often during my reading), I feel the history is worth discussing even if you don't read the book. If you feel that this post will prevent you from enjoying the book, by all means get the book right now and come back to my post later. (Rating: 10/10).

Means of Ascent looks at the years 1941-1948, a period that begins with Johnson's loss in a special election for a senate seat, and ends with the 1948 Senate election, which Johnson won by a mere 87 votes. The introduction briefly discusses both the Civil Rights Act and Vietnam, to illustrate that two threads ran through Johnson's life, a light thread and a dark one. We are told, ominously, that the period covered in the book is a time where the dark thread is in control. In 1937, when a 32-year-old Johnson was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, it was the latest step in a meteoric rise. And when he ran in 1941 for the Senate seat, he felt that it was the next logical step in his ascent. His loss in that race, however, caused frustration at being stuck in a place he was ready to leave. And so the seven years the book covers constitute a period of despondency.

Truthfully though, only one-third of the book is devoted to the seven years. The remainder is focused on the 1948 election, one whose paper-thin margin surely changed the course of history. The campaign was against Coke Stevenson, a legend in Texas politics, who was then the only person to serve as Speaker of the Texas House twice. After that he was Lieutenant Governor, then Governor, winning his second election with a record 85 percent of the vote. Stevenson was a man of honor, who in many ways considered campaigning beneath him. He had no desire to make campaign promises, instead stating that his record spoke for him. Importantly, his conservative view that advocated a limited role for government was one that appealed to Texans.

Caro documents how Johnson stole the election. To get in a position to steal the election, however, Johnson had to get close. Here's how he did that:
  1. Got and spent lots of money. Johnson had what seemed to be a bottomless pit of money, his primary source being familiar even today -- a government contractor, Brown & Root, now a subsidiary of Halliburton that has been accused of overcharging in Iraq.
  2. Repeated his message over and over in the media. To his credit, Johnson was one of the first politicians to realize how important the electronic media is, and flooded the radiowaves with his ads and speeches.
  3. Worked like crazy. Johnson risked his health, pushing himself beyond any sane levels.
  4. Lied. Johnson hardly wasted time with exaggerations, and repeated lies incessantly about his opponent's stances. Further, he told any given audience exactly what they wanted to hear -- no one bothered to compare the contradictions in what he told his different audiences.
  5. Bought votes. A few counties in Mexican-American regions were dominated by bosses who basically filled in the precinct reports regardless of the actual results, or even the actual number of votes.
  6. Conducted a modern campaign/used a gimmick. Johnson became the first politician to use a helicopter, which served to get him to many small that were too far apart to merit visiting in previous elections (not enough votes and too remote). At the same time, few people had seen a helicopter, and its presence was a crowd generator and crowd pleaser.
To be sure, Stevenson contributed to his own defeat by refusing to dignify Johnson's attacks on his character, and insinuations about Stevenson positions that were blatantly false, with a response. He felt it was beneath him, that the people would see through Johnson's shenanigans, and that his record as an elected official spoke for itself. By the time Stevenson realized that he did need to respond, it was too late in the campaign to have an impact.

Nevertheless, after having read this book, I realize that all the nasty things that Karl Rove has done in elections had already been done before him. Particularly Rovian was Johnson's determination to attack what was perceived as Stevenson's strength, his character, incessantly tying him to secret deals and the like.

Still, all these things only brought Johnson close. The thing that pushed him into victory was adding to his total after the election was finished. He did so by getting the bosses where he'd already bought the election to scour the voter books and register additional votes on behalf of voters who hadn't voted. At the last minute (actually, well after the last minute -- a whopping six days after the election), 200 votes came in from one of the notoriously crooked precincts, and that finally put Johnson on top. Stevenson fought the results, and a number of times came close to getting the case considered on the merits. But the state court action was delayed by Johnson's people until after the Democratic party had certified the vote (the race was actually in the Democratic primary, which was all that mattered in the one-party state that was Texas at the time). Once the Democratic Party certified the results, Stevenson took it to federal court, alleging that voting fraud for a federal office was a violation of his civil rights. Hearings were begun to look into the Stevenson allegations (supported by affidavits of individuals who allegedly voted according to the bosses but who had not), but there was enough delay to prevent any definitive findings, which would ruin Johnson politically even if he were allowed to serve, until such time that the Supreme Court Justice in charge of overseeing the particular circuit dissolved the restraining order that prevented Johnson from going on the ballot as the Democratic primary winner. The Justice, Hugo Black, concluded that state elections are a state matter, and so could not be reviewed in federal court.

Caro addresses an important issue that I had thought very little about -- what motivated Johnson? Caro discusses a number of characteristics to explain many of his actions, but as for why he wanted to be a representative and later a senator, in Caro's mind, the only possible answer is power. Johnson didn't appear to have much interest in serving in a legislature, given his record in the House of Representatives -- in 11 years, he only introduced a handful of bills, and of those, only a couple were of national scope. He was very good at telling people what they wanted to hear -- liberals thought he was one of them, and conservatives thought he was theirs. Caro suggests that this was because he really had no agenda other than to say or do whatever was necessary to get ahead. Caro contends that Johnson thought of his seat in the House as a stepping stone. He also points to a couple of conversations to conclude that Johnson similarly thought of a Senate seat as the next step toward his ultimate goal, the Presidency.

Caro warns in his introduction that this period would be a dark one in Johnson's life, and it certainly was. In addition to what I've discussed above, there were examinations of his verbal abusiveness to his wife and his staff, and of shady dealings related to the acquisition of the initial radio station in what would someday become a media empire for the Johnsons. The book suggests, however, that brighter days were ahead, and I will need to read the next volume to learn more. As it stands, however, my image of Johnson as a Greek tragic hero lies in tatters.

One of the most interesting things about the book is a Note added after the first edition had been published, in which Caro essentially defended his analysis of Stevenson and the 1948 election against challenges that had been published in response to the book. According to Caro, the details of the story had been altered with time, with Johnson being the beneficiary -- the victors get to write the history books, and besides, he and his supporters had outlived most of Stevenson's contemporaries, given that Stevenson was 20 years Johnson's senior. Caro states that those he interviewed initially said that it was "common knowledge" that Stevenson was just another reactionary and corrupt Texas politician, that Johnson won on the issues, and that any questionable activity that may have been done on Johnson's behalf was performed in at least equal measure on behalf of Stevenson. Caro indicates that he had been ready to accept this version at face value, and hadn't planned on focusing on the election, until he was well underway in his research. Only when a former congressman that he interviewed on an unrelated subject indicated how much he hated throwing his support against Stevenson in 1948, because he was such a good man, did it dawn on Caro that maybe there was more to the story. Had Caro or any other historian attempted to write such a book for the first time now, it is possible that the truth would not have been discernible, and the myths perpetuated by Johnson supporters would have been taken for fact.

One last tidbit that I learned by reading this book is that what I had taken to be fiction is fact. The man who preceded Johnson in the Senate and Stevenson in the governor's chair was Pappy O'Daniel, an individual I had assumed was a fictional character when I first ran across the Charles Durning portrayal of the man in "O Brother, Where Art Thou."

Tuesday, November 01, 2005


Never done one of these before, but I picked it up from Mary P, so here goes:

What were the three stupidest things you've done in your life?

1. What I said to Kathy on July 10, 2004. Fortunately, she forgave me.

2. Walked along the railroad tracks the night my Dad threw me out of the house -- in my state of mind I honestly don't know if I'd have moved out of the way if a train had come. (Later, on the day my Mom threw me out of the house, I had enough sense to go off in a different direction) .

3. Said No to Hawaii -- my then-girlfriend was sent out there on business while I was in law school, and offered to fly me out for a long weekend. I should have blown off a day or two of law school and gone.

Who has the most influence in your life right now?

- Kathy, naturally.

If you were given a time machine that functioned, and you were allowed to pick only five people to dine with, who would you pick?

Five and only five is tough, but then again, it wouldn't be as challenging (or as interesting to read) if I could pick 20. Truthfully, I see two ways to go with this scenario. The first is the famous people approach, and if I were to take that route, I'd probably go with FDR, Babe Ruth, Mark Twain (before he got old and morbid), Da Vinci (assuming a translator were available), and Thomas Jefferson. Yes they're all men, so I'd probably turn it into a poker night.

But after thinking it over, I think I'd take the second route, and that's more personal. Namely, I'd have my four grandparents together, from when they were all roughly 30 years old. I'd like to know the people they were when they were in the prime of life (I barely knew my paternal grandfather at all -- he died when I was six). By the time they were 30, my Dad's folks had been married with one or two of their three children (not my Dad). My maternal grandparents wouldn't have met by then, so I'd probably sit them next to each other, to see if they'd hook up. For what it's worth, they've all died (my maternal grandfather died most recently, December 2003), so it's not just the prime of life thing, it's also seeing them again, at all. As for the fifth person to join us, that'd have to be Kathy -- I'd need a witness to the evening, not to mention the consummate hostess.

If you had three wishes that were not supernatural, what would they be?

- that everyone would enjoy good beer, to the point that the brewers that produce all the macro swill (Bud, Miller, Molson/Coors, etc.) went out of business and brewers like Stone, Sierra Nevada, and Fantome were everyone's favorites
- good health for Kathy and me until the day we died (the same day)
- enough money to be set for life

I'd wish for world peace, but I figure that crosses into the supernatural.

Name two things you regret your city not having...

- A soccer-only stadium. I can't stand DC United having to share RFK with the Nationals -- it completely ruins the field.
- A great non-smoking beer bar. Fortunately, this may be happening soon.

...and two things people should avoid.

- Georgetown -- it's a place for college students and tourists, and a waste of time for everyone else.
- The National Aquarium. If you want to see a real aquarium, go to Baltimore.

Name one thing that has changed your life:

- Going by myself to the Czech Republic, in 1996, arriving with nothing but a backpack, a guidebook, and a return ticket (I didn't even know where I would stay my first night). It helped me realize how truly self-sufficient I can be, and how much I like to travel.

Anyone interested is welcome to play.

Monday, October 31, 2005

Maybe Not A Trick, Definitely Not a Treat

When federal workers were offered the chance to be detailed down to New Orleans to deal with the aftermath of Hurrican Katrina, tons of feds signed up -- in fact, many more signed up than were needed. Today I got the following e-mail from the head of my agency:
From: xxxx xxxxxx
Sent: Monday, October 31, 2005
Subject: Support for the Reconstruction of Iraq

The United States is engaged in supporting the Iraqi people as they rebuild their economy, government, political institutions, and essential services. The President has called upon all Federal departments and agencies to support the rebuilding of Iraq through details of Federal employees to the Department of State's Iraq Reconstruction Management Office (IRMO). Federal employees detailed to IRMO will have a unique opportunity to achieve concentrated skill development while serving our country and the Iraqi people. Detailed Federal employees must have a security clearance at the SECRET or TOP SECRET level as required by IRMO.

Detail Opportunities: Listed below is the type of knowledge and skills IRMO is seeking for these elite assignments:

1. Knowledge of contracting practices, methods, and procedures.

2. Knowledge of budgeting and financial management.

3. Skill in using database management systems. Ability to analyze data and develop conclusions and reports. Experience with Microsoft productivity applications such as Word, Excel and PowerPoint.

4. Knowledge of government, ethics, and policy, gained as a member of a U.S. Bar with experience in the field of ethics and good government.

5. Technical knowledge of an essential services sector, such as telecommunications, oil, power, electricity, transportation, water, sewer and sanitation, and the distribution of subsidized food, medicine and consumer goods. Knowledge of management concepts and practices, especially related to engineering and design projects. Expert knowledge of analytical and evaluation methods in order to conduct large scale studies.

6. Knowledge of program planning, requirements, management, operations, and problems in an essential services sector, such as oil, power, electricity, telecommunications, transportation, water, sewer and sanitation, and the distribution of subsidized food, medicine and consumer goods. Knowledge of related finance, management, and planning in developing countries. Knowledge of governance concepts and structures, and experience working with governments.

7. Knowledge of counter-terrorism/special operations (CT/SO) programs, objectives and policies. Ability to develop a CT/SO unit and build a CT/SO training facility.

8. Knowledge of a wide-variety of national security affairs including structures, policies, and issues regarding police, border and internal security, and facility protection. Skill in institution building that creates stable, accountable, professional, and effective internal security institutions. Knowledge of analysis methodologies and processes.

9. Knowledge of critical communications networks and telecommunications, especially First Responder Networks.

10. Knowledge of firefighting and emergency response infrastructure. Ability to manage large contracts in these areas.

11. Knowledge and ability to manage complex scientific programs engaged in technology transfer.

Assignments: Each employee can expect to be detailed for 6 months to 1 year. Throughout the detail, each employee will continue to be employed by their current agency as a Civil Service employee with no break in Federal service.

Pay and Benefits: The employee's agency will be solely responsible for each employee's compensation and benefits, including but not limited to locality pay, danger pay, post (hardship) differential, the employer's portion of benefits, and premium pay authorized and approved under U.S. Office of Personnel Management rules and regulations and agency and Embassy Baghdad policies. Each employee will be entitled to a Home Visit once every six months, which the employee's agency will fund.

Approval: Employees must first discuss their interest and have approval from their supervisor and Bureau/Office Chief before applying for an IRMO detail.

Questions: Employees may contact zzzz zzzz, Human Resources Management's Point of Contact at xxx-xxxx for further information on how to apply for a detail with the IRMO. Also, additional information can be found at

Thank you.
I gave a lot of thought to signing up for Katrina clean up -- I didn't have to think about this one for a second.

Sunday, October 30, 2005

I Can't Believe They Bleeped Out Shit

Beer rating is an interesting obsession -- if I'm not careful, I end up avoiding beer I know that I love because I've already rated it, in order to drink beer I don't think much of. Lately I've been trying to make more of an effort to balance my drinking so I can drink more old favorites (like this one, which I'm drinking right now). This time of year I'm more likely to drink old favorites, as I think that overall, winter seasonals are the most enjoyable. They're richer and bolder, or spiced, in a manner that goes well with the winter chill. I've already tried this year's Brooklyn Black Chocolate Stout, always one of the first winter seasonals to be released, and yesterday I picked up this year's Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale, an annual favorite of mine. Truly, winter is my favorite time of the year beerwise.

On the subject of beer rating, I recently found out that I am being used. To be more accurate, a beer review of mine is being used by Great Divide Brewing on its website. Perhaps this will be the first step toward becoming a professional reviewer, a dream job if ever there were one. Not so coincidentally, the beer reviewed is Yeti Imperial Stout, the Great Divide beer to which I've given the highest rating. Yesterday while out beer shopping, I decided to pick up a bottle, to see if I still like it as much (or perhaps even more) as when I rated it, over 1 1/2 years ago. It is, after all, an old favorite.

Saturday, October 29, 2005

Halloween on the Hill

The term "inside the Beltway" has gained some meaning to the outside world -- the Beltway refers to I-495, the road that surrounds Washington, DC and its immediate suburbs. So when "inside the Beltway" is used, it refers to the mindset that separates DC from the rest of the United States. That midset has to do with politics, and how people inside the Beltway generally respond differently to political events than do people in the rest of the country.

At times it seems that Capitol Hill, where we live, has a hyper-political perspective that exceeds even the rest of the area inside the Beltway. Such perspective can be reinforced by various stimuli, and one that did so to me this weekend was a rather liberal take on Halloween.

Take a look at the standard Halloween scene erected in this yard a few blocks from me:

Now look a bit closer at some of the gravestones:

On another side of the house they even had a last-minute addition:

At least such sights demonstrate that Washingtonians have a sense of humor. It may be a little more pointed than humor elsewhere, but it's something.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

He Was a Boy

I was friends with his older brother -- he was entering seventh grade when I went off to college, and I don't think I've seen him since. But small town connections run deep, especially when his mom was your favorite teacher in high school. When I stopped in to visit her last summer, and to introduce her to Kathy, she filled me in on what was going on with all her children, including Steve, married to a wonderful woman with a small child. All I could remember of him is that he seemed like a good kid, but too young for me to know the man he would become.

So I don't know the man who, two weeks ago, lost his wife, five months pregnant with what would have been their second child, in a car accident. There's nothing I can say to him, no connection to build on, to reach out and offer my support. All I can do is feel sad for someone I don't really know.

I called his brother over the weekend, and he tells me that he's grateful Steve has a child, because it gives him a focus.

A lot of the time these days I can't help but think of the absence of children in our lives, but trying to imagine the absence of Kathy from my life, damn that's hard! I try to contemplate what that would mean but my thought process short-circuits -- I cannot will myself to imagine it. My mind changes the subject, anything to avoid thinking about such a thing. But he cannot change the subject -- that's what he's going through.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Same Old Song

As Fitzgerald is likely to wrap up his investigation this week over Plame-gate, and the rumors are circulating that at least one indictment will be handed down, we get great quotes from Bush, saying that Fitzgerald's leak probe is very serious, and that Fitzgerald is conducting his investigation in a "very dignified way." Meanwhile, Bush allies begin undermining the investigation, denigrating possible indictments if they're based on perjury rather than on the crime for which the investigation took place, and suggesting that Fitzgerald is overzealous, even out of control.

Two thoughts:
1) I can't help but note the hypocrisy involved given the position these folks took during the Lewinsky scandal, when they supported the investigation. Even though there, the indictment was over something that had absolutely nothing to do with the original Whitewater investigation. Even though Starr was appointed by Republicans to investigate a Democrat, as opposed to here, where Fitzgerald was appointed by Republicans to investigate a Republican. Even though Starr spent $70+ million on his far-flung investigation, while Fitzgerald hasn't even spent $1 million. Even though the release of Plame's status, for political purposes, could very well have cost the lives of people who have worked for or with U.S. intelligence, while I'm still not sure how the blue dress affected the American people.

2) Haven't we seen this act before? The President acts all dignified while his allies, deputies, cronies, hatchetmen, aides, and advisors all work behind the scenes, smearing the opposition. It was only a year ago that the "Swift Boat Veterans for Truth" did their Kerry smear, funded by Bush's allies, while Bush did his dignified "I respect the service Kerry did for his country" shtick. If indictments are forthcoming, especially if Rove or Cheney are among those indicted, I expect such things to come at Fitzgerald full throttle. From what I've read, he's a cool customer and anything but partisan, but that would be unlikely to stop such a campaign.

Get ready -- if indictments come down, they'll only be the end of the first part of a very long and very messy book.

Monday, October 24, 2005

Mr. Bad Example

Friday night we went out with friends to an Ethiopian restaurant. Our friends have a 21-month-old boy, and before dinner he asked what I was doing on the notepad I'd brought with me. His parents told him that I was rating beer, which indeed I was. The dinner itself was quite tasty, and the adults agreed that we'd need to return.

It turns out that these friends didn't know who Wallace and Gromit are, or why we're so excited about going to see the new movie (which we haven't done yet). We offered to loan them one of the short movies, but they no longer have a VCR, and we only have the movies on VHS. So with Saturday being rainy, we invited them over to see Kathy's and my favorite of the three movies, The Wrong Trousers. The couple enjoyed it quite a bit, though their son was asleep upon arrival, and so missed it. Not a big deal, I suppose, because he's not quite to the point of appreciating even short movies.

It was a little after noon when we finished watching, so we asked if they wanted to order pizza. They said yes, and we went downstairs to wait for the arrival. To keep her son occupied, Ann borrowed pen and paper we had at the kitchen desk. After he had been drawing for a while, Ann asked what he was doing. The response, clearly enunciated, was, "Rating beer."

Thursday, October 20, 2005

About Supermarkets

We have a Safeway that's conveniently located, only three blocks away. Over the years, it actually hasn't been too bad, though it has a number of quirks that have sometimes made it inconvenient. For example, a lot of the time they're out of milk. Now I know you're probably thinking that I'm a whiner -- why should I expect a grocery store to carry such an insignificant item whenever I would want to buy it -- and it's a fair point. If I want milk to be readily available, I should live in the suburbs.

About a year ago, however, a major announcement hit our neighborhood -- a Harris Teeter will be opening up in the Spring of 2007 two blocks beyond the Safeway. Strangely enough, almost as soon as that announcement was made, things at the Safeway got noticeably worse. As one cashier put it, "It's like they want you to go to the Harris Teeter as soon as it opens." Recently, however, Safeway has decided to meet the competition, and is moving upscale. To that end, it's adding a Starbucks and a bank. Sadly, however, these additions aren't being "added on," but instead require a reconfiguration of the existing space. For the time being, this means that there are some significant changes in the way things are set up. For example, the cereal aisle is presently closed, and the cereal is both in the greeting card aisle and on a rack beside the checkout aisles. From the looks of things, I better get used to it, because it looks like it'll take at least another six months, more likely eight, before they can get things back to normal. Of course, the "normal" at the end of this process will leave me with a smaller supermarket in exchange for a bank and coffee shop that I don't need and almost certainly won't use. Nevertheless, odds are that it won't be too hard to get used to Safeway, version 2.0, as I'm sure that I'll be able to count on the milk being as available as ever.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Lottery Fever

The Powerball jackpot for tonight's drawing is at a new record, $340 million (if you take an annuity; if you want the cash up front, it's "only" $164 million). For those of you who have no idea what I'm talking about, Powerball is a multi-state lottery, and like all lotteries in the U.S., it's a way for state governments to raise revenue without resorting to taxes. Generally speaking, I hate the concept of lotteries -- they're a regressive way to collect revenue, i.e., the poor pay more than the rich. I also hate the misrepresentations that have been told to get lotteries authorized. For example, I lived in Florida when the matter of having a lottery went to the ballot. Voters were told that the money was to be used for education, certainly a laudatory use of the revenue. And ever since the lottery measure was approved, all that money has indeed gone to education. Money, however, is fungible, which means that while all that money was earmarked for education, the state diverted money that previously would have gone toward education elsewhere. Consequently, where before the lottery 61% of general revenue went to education, now only 51% of general revenue goes to education.

Given my opinion on such things, it may come as a surprise that I bought lottery tickets for tonight's drawing. In fact, on two other occasions while the jackpot was growing to its current size, I also bought tickets. The fact that I didn't win either of those times tells me that I'm due to win tonight -- the odds, after all, are a highly likely 1 in 146.1 million. (Actually, given that the grand prize is over $160 million, and taking into account the other, smaller prizes, the expected return on a dollar in this drawing is over one dollar (though most of it will go to one or two individuals, and almost everyone else will get nothing)).

I explain these seemingly contradictory positions thusly. If I were given the opportunity to vote to rescind the lottery, I would do so in a heartbeat. That being said, the lottery is here, and is serving in lieu of a higher tax rate. Thus, by purchasing lottery tickets, I am in a sense paying my share of the tax bill. This is, of course, a rationalization -- what matters more to me is the entertainment value.

I can watch a movie for about $8 at the theatre, and that entertains me for about two hours, plus whatever time I take afterwards to contemplate it. From the time I purchased my lottery tickets on Monday, I've been thinking about what I might do with the money for a total time of more than two hours. It may not be a likely outcome, but it's more likely than finding an unclaimed $2 million on the sidewalk. These idle daydreams of course include quitting my job and lots of travel. After that, there are so many possibilities. How much do I donate to worthy charitable causes, and how much to worthy political causes? Do I purchase a brewpub or brewery and do my part to bring good beer into the world? Do I spend on several ideas, or do I spend on one, such as an attempt to buy D.C. United? How many houses do I purchase, and where? So many possibilities to give my daydreams life! (In a LOL coincidence, while I've been editing this paragraph, my Yahoo radio station started playing "Dreamer" by Supertramp.)

Never fear, however -- even if I do win, I plan to keep my blog going. Whether it'll make you gag, and whether I end up hiring someone to write it for me, however, are different matters.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Escape in the City

Where do you go when you need to escape the city, to reconnect with nature? Actually, you don't need to leave the city -- the National Arboretum is about one-and-a-half miles away from our house, and it makes for a nice getaway where we can take the dogs for a little walk in the woods. I wouldn't say it's the middle of nowhere, but it does make for a nice asylum.

When we went on Sunday, we saw only one other person in the area we took the dogs. It's not always so peaceful, but it's nice when it is.