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.