Monday, July 30, 2007

Fresh Air Tonic

By F.T. Rea

When a spell of rapid heartbeat commences, experience has taught me to go into a controlled deep breathing mode, to try to quell it as early as possible. Most of the time that actually works and the spell lasts less than a minute. When the strategy doesn’t work the episode can go on for ten, twenty minutes, or more. Of course, with my chest pounding and my anxiety roiling, this sort of thing can be rather distracting, even scary.

These spells began happening about the time I was turning thirty. Among other things, in those days my marriage was coming unglued and I was chain-smoking Kools. Since then I have gone years at a time without such a spell, but the demon always returns to visit when I’m living with some extra stress.

By way of too long a story to recount now, I’ve learned that long, slow, deep-breathing -- with my stomach muscles held taut -- can usually allay the blood-rush demon. Sometimes, waiting it out is all I can do. Going outside and moving around can help.

When the spell ends, seemingly of its own volition, I always laugh. Always.

Unfortunately, my work has me sitting down, indoors and probably breathing shallowly for too much of most days. So, it’s usually a pleasure to take a break to walk for a short errand. Walks and bike rides frequently improve my disposition.

Pumping fresh air though my body feels good.

Several years ago on one of my walking excursions, it was in late October, an oddball incident provided comic relief for a moment that needed it. As it unfolded, it felt like a scene in a movie. Perhaps that was suggested to me by the fact its setting was a video store -- I was looking over the rack of current releases.

Or, maybe I’ve always thought I was living in a movie.

Reading the film notes on the box for Scorsese’s latest blood bath, I sensed movement behind me. As I had been the only customer in the room, idle curiosity turned me toward the counter. On the other side of a wall-of-videos display rack, I caught sight of a man I thoroughly disliked. Having just come into the store, he purposely handed a plastic bag to one of the two female sales clerks behind the counter. My being obscured by the rack of video boxes was a blessing, as I had good reasons for preferring to avoid interaction with this character.

So, I returned my attention to the movie selections in front of me. When I heard the bells ringing than meant the front door had opened, I glanced up in time to see the aforementioned customer leaving the store.

One of the two young women standing behind the counter burst out laughing in the manner of a likable-but-bad actress playing a scene, as she dumped out the contents of the last customer’s bag. With overstated comic gestures she feigned being troubled by the mystery of what might tumble out.

“What’s tha-at?” said the other girl, throwing up her hands to join the moment’s improvisation.

They had my attention. My curiosity was aroused, so I stepped closer, to see what I could see.

All I saw was ordinary black VHS video tape cassettes. Yet the two young women, who I must say I knew only in that video store context, were going to what seemed to be a lot of bother to avoid touching what appeared to be ordinary stock of that very store with their bare hands.

A spray bottle of Windex was produced; they invited me into their conspiracy with the sparkle of eye contact. Both then busied themselves spraying and wiping off the tapes. It was reminiscent of conspiratorial children removing cooties from objects touched by a someone they don’t like.

Assuming there had to be something peculiar about the movies -- like maybe they were kinky flicks, or who knows what? -- I stepped even closer to see what the titles were. Without looking so hard that it would indicate anything more than a casual interest, I noticed a couple of titles.

Both were mainstream films; one a crisp black comedy I had recently seen and liked. I was somewhat disappointed that the guy had the least bit of good taste in selecting his video rentals. Playing along with their tongue-in-cheek tone I offered, “Do you have to wipe down all the tapes like that?”

“Oh, no,” they chirped. This procedure was special for the customer who had just left the building. They shuddered, having no reason to know it delighted me to see their reaction to that same customer.

Then, it dawned on me the two of them were just doing what bored service workers everywhere in the world do, to kill time. To amuse themselves they were mocking a bad-vibes person, a customer they saw as deserving of ridicule. Unknowingly, they had validated my prejudice against him and cheered me up quite a bit.

Being let in on their harmless goofing around reminded me that the spontaneous sharing of unanticipated, totally unscripted moments of levity is truly one of life’s treasures. Shared laughs that come out of the blue can cut right through bad moods.

My stride for the walk home through the Fan District had an optimistic bounce. I laughed out loud a few times, just replaying the imaginary tape of the scene in the video store.

Fresh air, taken in with gusto, always helps. Every time I take a deep breath I feel a little better. And, laughing is surely a special way of breathing; it seems the best tonic at times.

Laughs can even chase the merciless hounds of doubt and anxiety back to wherever it is they belong.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Terrorists bogged down in Iraq?

Four-and-a-half years into the American occupation of Iraq, President George Bush is still asserting the absurd notion that America must fight al Qaida’s forces in Iraq, to keep from having to fight them here. At this point, who in their right mind is buying such a concept?

To me, the people who say they believe Bush’s contention that we have al Qaida bogged down in Iraq, instead of it being the other way around, fall into two basic categories: They are simply partisans who don’t question anything from a Republican president for which they voted, or they say it knowing it‘s not true ... they just say it anyway.

To believe Bush you’d have to see al Qaida as a top-down organization, like a corporation, that has foolishly decided to put all of its resources in Iraq to fight the USA to the finish. So, the bosses just don’t have any hijackers to spare, right now, to steal an airliner, or a crop-duster, etc. Osama bin Laden has been stretched so thin, he’s had to recall his loyal sleeper-cell personnel from all over the world, to put them into Iraq.

This, we have been told, is the chief reason there haven’t been any more devastating 9/11-style attacks in the USA on Bush’s watch.

What a crock!

And, of course, to believe Bush you’d also have to ignore the fact that most of the bloodshed in Iraq appears to involve various indigenous sects/gangs who are engaged in a civil war/turf war, because since 2003’s invasion there has been no central government with the will, or the capability of putting a stop to the mayhem.

So, any of these factions might want to shoot at an American soldier, or blow up an American military vehicle, when the mood strikes them. And, so it goes...

Monday, July 23, 2007

What's wrong with Hillary?

Watching the Democratic debate I just got a chill. Sen. Hillary Clinton finished what she was saying and was caught afterward on camera looking quite satisfied. Too satisfied. Suddenly, for a flickering few seconds, candidate Clinton looked too much like the evil mom, played by Angela Lansbury, in “The Manchurian Candidate” (1962).

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Buzz benefit at Plant Zero

Here are some photos I shot at the Give Love to Buzz benefit at Plant Zero in Dogtown Sunday afternoon. The event was staged to follow up on last year's boffo benefit at the same location, back when Buzz Montsinger's recovery from his spinal cord injury was still quite uncertain:
The last act on stage today reunited most of the original Jokers Wild band, from circa 1967, plus a few ringers. Click here for background. Before and during his stellar football career at the University of Richmond, Montsinger played in that free-wheeling party band, 40 years ago, with a few of his friends from Henrico County's J. R. Tucker High School, guys who went to high school with former governor Jim Gilmore.
A familiar face -- John "Big Daddy" Richardson (above) dished out his world-famous barbeque. Others volunteered to serve beer and wine.
Buzz Montsinger, with saxophone in hand -- standing on his own two feet -- is on the left, with Howard Awad on trumpet at his side; drummer Bruce Olsen is in the foreground, all of them Jokers Wild originals.
Roger Carroll (above) joined in to lend the sound of his sax to the proceedings. It’s been a long day, so I’ll update this post with more info later.

Update: Click here to read an article about the party with some background written by Brandon Shulleeta for the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Just... follow the money

Sen. Jim Webb has been much in the news lately. His well-articulated opposition to the war in Iraq has kept him in the spotlight. His amendment which sought to protect America’s military personnel on active duty put him on front pages last week. Yet, as righteous as that less-than-successful move was, this week Webb is onto a strategy that has the potential to expose monster-sized malfeasance and perhaps even put an end to pouring billions into whatever the hell you want to call what’s going on in Iraq.

Writing for the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Peter Hardin has the story:

“Freshmen Democratic senators led by Jim Webb of Virginia asked Congress yesterday to set up an independent commission to investigate U.S. wartime contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan. Virginia's Webb and Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., introduced the bill out of concern, they said, over the government’s increasing reliance on civilian contractors to perform wartime functions, and to assess waste and mismanagement...”

Click here to read the rest of it.

Pursuing this strategy could unravel conspiracies and reveal what has been close to the heart of some of the darkest reasons for the both the invasion and occupation of Iraq. While there is nothing new about war-profiteering, I suspect what has gone on to do with the Bush’s administration’s War on Terror has been beyond the pale.

Maybe Webb is among those who suspect the same could be true.

Of course, just as it has with other probes, the Bush administration may try to stiff-arm an investigation of how private contractors were chosen, what their duties have been and how they have been monitored. But I doubt it will work so well in this situation. Investigating possible improprieties of this sort -- to do with how public funds have been spent and possible corruption on a large scale -- is one of the main duties of any Congress, in any year, and it always has been.

Claiming “executive privilege” in this sort of investigation will blow back in President George Bush’s face. If the White House tries to stop people from testifying on this matter it will surely throw plenty of new fuel on the impeachment fires that have begun to burn inside the beltway.

How many thousands of people are running around in Iraq, doing who knows what with our tax dollars? How many mercenaries are in Iraq, and to whom do they answer? These questions cry out for answers. Opponents of the war in the Senate should put their shoulders to this new effort to shine the light of day on the doings in the dark of private contractors.

The Democrats should forget about stunts and striking poses for effect. Instead, they should follow some good advice from the 1970s; it was the memorable catchphrase from “All the President’s Men” (1976). The character Deep Throat (played by Hal Holbrook) told investigative reporter Bob Woodward (played by Robert Redford), “Just... follow the money.”
Art by F.T. Rea

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Throwdown for Buzz at Plant Zero

Buzz Montsinger, a saxophonist known to many Rock ‘n’ Roll aficionados in the Fan District, has made steady progress with his recovery from a serious spinal cord injury in April of last year. Last summer he couldn't walk, or even stand up without help. So a few friends got together to show some support. For background click here and here.

Now Buzz can stand and walk with a cane. So, naturally, there’s a party on Sunday to celebrate. And get this -- among the musical offerings at this party the Jokers Wild band Buzz played in 40 years ago will be reunited for this show. Yes, that means Howard Awad on trumpet, Bruce Olsen on drums, Herbie Atkinson on bass, etc.

The second Give Love to Buzz will happen on Sunday, July 22, at Plant Zero, from 1 p.m. ’til 6 p.m. For more details about this year’s party go to the Give Love to Buzz web site.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Bizarro Bush

This morning when I heard on the radio that President George Bush had a press conference coming up in a few minutes, I decided to cut on the television and watch it. For the last few weeks I’ve been ignoring Bush, for the most part, because it seemed he had nothing new to say about anything, especially Iraq.

Yet, out of curiosity I tuned in this time. When I shut it off I was wondering what planet our tiresome president is living on, and what sane person of any political stripe would still believe what he says.

OK, I understand that there are millions of folks in this country who have a conservative political philosophy. I have no doubt they want the best for the America their children and grandchildren will inherit, just as liberals do, and so forth. Yet, after Bush’s uncomfortable performance at that press conference -- his awkward denials of reality were more bizarre than ever -- I have to wonder how any true conservative can still support the smirking, shrugging man in the blue suit who stood at the podium this morning.

After all, this Bush administration has had little to nothing to do with traditional American conservatism. Old Barry Goldwater has to be spinning in his grave over the strange neoconservative agenda this White House has pursued.

At this late date, are good Republicans really being fooled by Bush’s never-ending transparent distortions? Or, is it a matter of stubborn people not being able to change their minds, regardless of what happens? Or, is it something else?

It seems the majority of Americans have come to realize that America’s presence in Iraq has been an irritant to the region, which has been a boon to al Qaida’s recruiting. Today’s newspaper features a front page story that says U.S. intelligence analysts see al Qaida’s strength as having been steadily increasing, to the point it may now be at a pre-9/11 level.

But Bush says -- Bizarro-like -- if we leave Iraq, it will help al Qaida’s recruiting. If we leave Iraq too soon there will be widespread bloodshed.


How can a man who has been so bloody wrong about everything to do with Iraq for over four years now be entitled to more time to get it right? Remember the “cakewalk?” Remember “mission accomplished?” As the violence in Iraq escalates, President Bizarro says we need to wait until September to properly judge the outcome of his latest strategy, the so-called “surge.”

Well, I am not going to rehash all the political reasons for not going into Iraq, in the first place, or for leaving, ASAP. What I am going to say is this -- in spite of all the casualties and tax money poured down a rat hole, the war in Iraq is going just fine for the war profiteers. To them the “surge” is not a matter of making anyone safer, anywhere. It just means bigger profits.

Do the remaining supporters of Bush’s war policy all own stock in Haliburton, et al? Or, is it that they live on Planet Bizarro, too.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Buzzwording 'ethical' to death

The blogosphere’s buzzword of the day seems to be “ethical.” The word is being tossed around, perhaps kicked around, in posts every day. It seems to me, much of the time it is being used by one blogger to bash/scoff at another blogger for being something less than an “ethical blogger.”

However, the way the terms “ethical blogger” and “blogging ethics” are being used by bloggers to attack other bloggers they simply don’t like is not only getting quite tiresome, it is stretching the meaning out of the words.

Moreover, from what I’ve seen, the bloggers who are using this buzzword approach in their posts the most are the very ones who must know that any serious discussion of obnoxious behavior in the blogosphere -- mostly meaning deliberate dishonesty and incivility -- will shine a bad light on them.

So, is all the cheap sarcasm about so-and-so being an “ethical blogger,” or NOT, really about ethics? Or, is it more about trying/campaigning to pound the meaning out of certain words that make some of the most obstreperous of Virginia’s political bloggers feel rather uncomfortable?

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Turning up the volume on nothing to say

What about the sort who complain about other people complaining? Of course, this sort’s own complaints are totally called-for and righteous, but when someone who disagrees with them does some complaining, well, that’s seen as “whining.”

What about guys who beat the drum for law-and-order -- lock 'em up, throw away the key -- then turn around to call prosecutors “overzealous” and judges “activists,” when the verdict does injury to the drum-beater’s political party?

What about political bloggers who consistently defend their favorite politicians’ bad moves by saying somebody in the opposite party did it first? Inevitably, that childish charge is followed by some angry finger-pointing at rival bloggers -- to try to change the subject -- for not having attacked the politician the finger-pointer says did the bad thing first.

Would you call the lacking-in-substance pattern of contributing to the marketplace of ideas outlined above an exhibition of bad style? Or, is it simply no style?

Monday, July 02, 2007

Scooter walks ... so far, so good

To celebrate the very holiday folks used to call Independence Day, President George Bush has sprung you-know-who -- I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby.

That Dubya is such a hoot!

Please allow me to remind SLANTblog’s readers of a prediction I posted a couple of weeks ago:

“...To me, it isn’t a question of whether Bush will intervene. I have little doubt that eventually he will. It’s a matter of how and when. Which means I see Bush as facing the decision of whether to pardon Lewis, outright, or to reduce his 30-months sentence. And, it means that Cheney needs to decide when is the best time to tell Bush to make such a tricky move -- one that surely will draw fire from many Democrats, as well as some Republicans.

“This situation screams out for predictions. So, here is mine:

“SLANTblog says Bush will commute Libby’s sentence, rather than pardon him. Dubya will proclaim his action to spring Scooter to be a strictly “humanitarian” move. This will happen in the Dog Days of August. And, to provide some cover for trumping what a jury decided and a judge ruled, Bush will ‘regretfully’ also accept the resignation of his embattled Attorney General Alberto Gonzales within days, maybe even hours, of springing Libby from the pokey.”

OK, I was off by a whole month. But I say that was still close enough.

So, who wants to bet that I’m wrong about Gonzales getting the ax soon, as a package made to deflect criticism of letting Scooter walk?

Meanwhile, I'm sure the blogosphere will roil over this event. Reading some of the shamefully lame defenses for this rather clumsy affront to justice, that are no doubt coming -- from supposed law-and-order conservatives, trying to play team-ball -- should provide fodder for some good laughs soon.

Torture spawns blood lusts

When parents torture their children most of us usually avert our eyes. Then we pretend to wonder why some of those kids who were systematically abused by adults who had power over them grow up to commit heinous crimes. Sometimes the hypocrisy and stubborn foolishness of that timeworn pattern is mind-boggling.

Yet, as a society, Americans do not sanction the use of torture as punishment for children or adults. So, an officially-delivered flogging in America is supposed to be a thing of the past.

Then, here comes that hypocrisy thing again -- we do, however, have a president who seems to believe that torturing suspected terrorists is good policy. This use of torture is seen here as a tactic, a means to an end, rather than punishment. We have many Americans who support the president on this matter, thinking that to be a patriotic stand.

Still, to the guy who is on the receiving end of the tactic, I suspect it feels a lot like punishment. Not unlike the abused children of the first paragraph, some who haven't been broken to pieces by the applied "tactics" will get real mean once they are turned loose.

Which makes me wonder: how many men we are holding, who knows where? that we can never let go free?

My contention is simple: Torture spawns more blood lusts and suicide bombers in the Middle East, just like it molds the kind of fiends who would slay a family, such as the Harveys here in Richmond last year. While I have no sympathy for the two butchers who brought hell into Bryan and Kathy Harvey’s Woodland Heights home, I have little doubt that what amounted to be the culprits' souls had been destroyed by abusive treatment long before Jan. 1, 2006.

Torture is about power. It is about crushing the dignity of a person who is powerless to stop it. Usually, though, it is not a good tool for getting valuable information from the person being tortured. So torture isn't really about info. It's about power, letting the victim feel the power to inflict pain and humiliation that can be turned on, or off, at a whim.

Nat Hentoff has written a good piece about the use of torture in today’s so-called War on Terror.

"...These generals then recalled that former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld once wondered aloud whether we were creating more terrorists than we were killing. In counterinsurgency doctrine, this is the right question. Victory in this kind of war comes when the enemy loses legitimacy in the society from which it seeks recruits. Losing legitimacy among such incipient terrorists, the enemy, the generals note, 'loses its recuperative power.'"

"But, contrary to what it takes to conquer this enemy, Krulak and Hoar continue, 'the torture methods that Tenet defends (and have been extensively documented in our press and by human rights groups) have nurtured the recuperative power of the enemy (by adding to its recruits). ... If we forfeit our values by signaling that they are negotiable in situations of grave or imminent danger, we drive those undecideds into the arms of the enemy.'"

Click here to read Hentoff's "Generals with whom Bush should talk."

Bottom line: How many people has America’s recent use of torture turned into the same sort of citizens who relished brutally murdering two little girls and their parents? As part of what was supposed to be an effort to protect America from terror attacks, how many suspected terrorists, and their children, has torture transmogrified into monsters who are hell-bent on tasting revenge?