Tuesday, May 27, 2008

What is the war on terror?

This past Memorial Day weekend, Michelle and I went to visit Jay, Tammy and their two boys in Boston.

Actually, it's Milton, but no matter. That's not the point to this little tale.

Jay is one of my good friends from high school. He's one of a handful of friends who otherwise salvaged a miserable three years at a private prep school in Houston called Kinkaid. We've kept up over the years, and since I moved to Rhode Island seven years ago (Michelle came later), we've seen each other from time to time. We've gotten together four times since February, a record for us in such a span of time.

I am not celebrating.

Jay, Tammy and the boys live about an hour away, which really is not very far. Heck, it was de rigueur to drive 45 minutes to an hour to a friend's house in Houston. Especially for Jay and I, who lived relatively far from the inner loops of Houston. No sweat. See you in an hour. Drive home? No sweat. Got 101 KLOL on the radio, and I was good to go.

Funny how living in a small state such as Rhode Island warps your perception of distance. Now, driving the hour from our bayside town to Jay's place just south of Boston seems like a major undertaking. It's as if we were preparing for a major excursion. Got water? Check. Snacks? Check. Sunglasses? Check. Cell phones? Check. War and Peace? OK, well we don't go that far.

Still, it seems SO far away. Another state away. Two bridges away. Got to cross from the mainland to an island, then onto the mainland again, then drive into another state and then head toward the clogged arteries encircling Boston. Why do I feel this way? I'm from Texas, for goodness sakes. I remember a trip in which I, my former wife and a friend drove 8 hours through West Texas and hit maybe two towns. I've driven halfway across the country to attend college and halfway across the country for the past three Christmas breaks to visit Michelle's family in Iowa. So, why on earth does driving to the Boston area and even more damning, a trip to Providence seem like such a big deal?

Michelle admits the same closed-in sense of distance, and she's from Iowa, where a half-hour drive to about anything is the norm. We can't figure it out.

In any event, we indeed did make the trip to Jay's and had a swell time, as always. Attended his older son's Little League game, made much for enjoyable by crystalline weather and a few beers. Cooked hamburgers and hot dogs on the grill and played catch with the boys.

The girls went to bed, and Jay and I stayed up and chatted. Jay is a smart guy, armed with a very agile mind. I love the way he looks at things. He invariably has an interesting angle to contemplate, a perspective that I had never entertained. It's as if he sees an extra dimension to things. I see 2D, he sees 3D. I see 3D, he sees 4D. That's part of what makes him so smart. He's just a really good thinker.

Somehow we started talking about the war on terror. My guess is this started as we wondered, amused, why our Texas buddies had been so silent about W., the war in Iraq and other, myriad blunders of our current presidential administration. In the midst of admittedly gleeful recognition of our friends' anguished silence, I proferred that our president deserved credit for his response to the 09/11 attacks and for launching the war on terror.

"What is the war on terror?" Jay asked.

That stumped me for a few seconds. Well, I said, it's the response to the attacks, the routing of al Qaeda and the sanctuary it enjoyed under the Taliban in Afghanistan. It's the credo that America will do whatever necessary to respond to any attacks against the country and to deter any possible attacks.

"How do we win?" Jay asked.

I didn't have an answer to that one.

Throughout history, as we all know, America's enemies have been clearly identified targets. They've been states, countries with ideologies or acts of aggression or geopolitical threats or committed acts of atrocities against innocent people, and we've gone to war against them. We knew who the enemy was. We could define it. We could picture it, find it on a map.

But the war on terror, as Jay was noting, was a war against stateless organizations. The enemy can be a group. Or it can be an ideology. But it isn't a country, per se. It's harder to define, fuzzier.

I know and understand this, but U hadn't thought it through like Jay had. Sure, we can have a war against al Qaeda, and well we should. We should eradicate this group. But really, how do you win a war on terror? How do you define terror? What is terror? A collection of groups? If so, are they groups that perpetrate acts against America or against an ally or in general against someone else? Does it include those state who harbor, finance or indirectly support any of these groups?

The fact is, there is no definition of what the war on terror actually is. Who exactly are we fighting?

When you think about this way, it's no surprise that we're so confused about whether we're winning, losing or breaking even. We don't have way to measure up.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

November 1

Well, we can make it official now.

We've told our families, so now we can tell you.

We're having a baby!

How 'bout them apples?

Michelle already is in her 15h week, in her second trimester. The due date is Nov. 1. Her belly is a beautifully shaped little orb. She's been to the obstetrician/gynecologist twice, and all is well so far – although we really don't know much at this point.

About a month ago, on our first visit to the doctor, we heard our baby's heart beat. It was a rapid pitter-patter. The rapidity our baby's little, thumping heart reminded me of the sound you make when you swivel those two-sided drums with the attached ball and string. Dum, dum, dum, dum...

The doctor had to move the listening instrument (was it a sonogram or is that something else?) around a little before she picked up our baby's heartbeat. On Michelle's visit last week, she said the doctor picked up the heartbeat in a flash.

That means our baby is getting bigger. And stronger. And, we hope, healthier.

Health is really all I care about. What I mean is that our baby is healthy and will continue to be so. Everything after that is gravy. It would be highly presumptuous of me to ask for more than that.

Nature is such a powerful thing. I mean, think about it. Most animals' reproduction happen outside the body. Just about all fish lay eggs, which are fertilized in the water. Birds lay eggs. Reptiles lay eggs. Bacteria and other primitive cellular organisms generally reproduce by dividing cells that yield identical "children" cells. We all know mammals – well, nearly all of them – are fertilized internally and the young develop internally, within the mother's womb. They are born live, and generally are cared for, because they are unable to fend for themselves.

But think a little more about the difference between the mammals that are us and other – well, just about all – other mammals. Human babies sit in the womb, growing, maturing, preparing for nine months. Nine months. What an astonishing amount of time it takes for a human baby to fully develop, to get that fully operable, curious, self-aware mind, the fully developed fingers that can exert extraordinary pressure and yet delicate enough to grasp an eggshell without crushing it, the ears that are acoustical masterpieces, the eyes that can see three-dimensional and with astonishing depth, the nose that can etch a smell permanently into our memory vault and so on and on. No wonder it takes nine months for such an extraordinary biological machine to be assembled.

I can't wait to see ours.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Burner Blues

It's 11 p.m., and I'm waiting for hot water.

No, we don't have an outhouse, and I'm not waiting for a delivery. What we do have is an ancient oil burner that is on its last legs.

Our burner is a monstrous, boxy contraption that is at least 30 years old and could easily be a decade or two older than that. It's located in the basement, and when it burns oil, it's best to have the door separating the basement from the rest of the house closed. We're talking fumes galore here. If burning oil provided some type of psychedelic pleasure, we'd be the most popular home on the block. I've only known it to give me headaches.

Anyway, our old burner has been faltering as of late. This comes as no surprise. We've gone through each of the four winters since we purchased our house just hoping that our burner would see us through us the season. We promised ourselves that if the Old Heater could get us through the winter, we'd replace it. She'd do her job, laboring all the time, sounding tired and irritated, but she's pull us through. Spring would come, we'd discuss the thousands of dollars it would cost to install a new unit, and hey, can't the old timer get us through another season?

And year after year, that's what would happen. This past year has been a different, however. The heater is showing her age. She broke down first in the early fall; we called the repairman, and he fixed her. She needed a new spark plug, he said. Then, we returned in January from our Christmas trip to Iowa to find she had broken down again. Our house was an icebox that night. Again, the repairman came, and look, the residue in the tank had gummed her up, just like a hunk of fried cheese might clog up your intestines. She broke down a third time in February. The repairman came out and look, she needs a new nozzle; the old one, well, it's really not that old, but with these old burners even new nozzles can get plugged up pretty quickly. See all that oil residue in the pan? Good thing you didn't try to force start it yourself, you would've blown your house down.

Then Tony the repairman looked at me, with as much pity as someone who charges $200 per visit can muster. Maybe you think about replacing that thing. I hate to take money from you like this.

Gee, thanks.

So, now it's spring, and our burner has limped through yet another winter, but helped shepherd us through nonetheless. Spring has come, and we've never had problems during warm weather, as we only need the old heater for hot water.

But the heater has been working haltingly lately. It doesn't fire up at the usual prompt on the thermostat. I find myself force starting it more often. Tonight, we had no hot water when I went to do the dishes. I descended to the basement, and the needle was pinned. The burner had kicked out several hours ago. I tried to force start it; the motor turned on, but the oil wasn't firing. I opened what I would call the flue and peered inside. There was a coating of oil in the bottom of the pan. I had watched Tony on his last visit, the time when he told me I had come damn close to blowing the house down. I knew to swab the pan clean before I tried to force start it. I cleaned and tried again. No response. I swabbed again. One more try. No response...wait, poof! Life and a black belch of smoke in my face. Nothing dangerous, but I got a real sucking of exhaust.

So, the burner has been resuscitated – for a day. I stink of oil. I'm waiting for it to heat the water sufficiently, so I can wash the dishes.

Then I need to take a shower.

Let's hope it's not my last one for a few days.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Class Dismissed

My class ended this week. I'm glad and sad – conflicting emotions wrestling for supremacy.

I taught a Communications Dept. class at Rhode Island College called "Current Issues in the Media." A class right down my alley, as a journalist who generally is pretty clued in to the affairs of the world. Teaching is another matter, of course, but I'm fortunate in that I don't get jittery in front of groups of people, and I'm decent at asking questions to keep the discussion going.

This was my second collegiate class. Last semester, I taught a copy-editing class at Salve Regina University. That class went well, but it was rough at times, because I am not a copy editor by trade. As part of the curriculum, I taught Photoshop and Quark Xpress – computer programs that I am not well versed in. I made it, with a little smoke and mirrors and a lot of outside class preparation.

The RIC class was easier, at least from a basic knowledge standpoint. Anyway, I had 24 students and a vague idea for a framework, thanks to speaking with a professor who had taught the class previously. I decided to concentrate on some themes and leave the rest to vagaries of the news. I mean, the class is about current issues, after all; it would've made little sense to have an entire semester planned out.

The themes I chose were the presidential election, global warming and the environment, and, as a nod to the students, the media's coverage of athletes and celebrities. The latter turned out to be more interesting than I had imagined. The tension between journalists and celebrities is reaching the breaking point in some areas, so much so that the city of Los Angeles has passed an ordinance requiring photographers to stay at least 20 yards from celebrities.

Whether that will be effective is anyone's guess.

I was pleased with how the class went. After I took the Brown job, it became a bit more complicated. Two days a week in the early afternoon, I would jump from my desk and race for class. Teach for 80 minutes, leap back in the car, return to my job. Not a big deal, really, but an interruption to the day and, of course, time I would need to make up. Again, not a big deal.

We spoke a lot about the presidential elections. We discussed why they were historic, the obvious reason that an African-American man and a woman have a good-to-excellent shot at becoming president. Also, it's the first election in more than a half-century in which neither a sitting president or vice president was competing. No wonder it has been so wide open!

With global warming, my goal was to introduce them to the concept by explaining the science behind it. I left it to them to decide whether global warming was real and whether it was a big deal. I introduced them to some evidence, such as the study (in a peer-reviewed journal) that showed 928 climate scientists had written in peer-reviewed journals that global warming was real. The number that hadn't? Zero. Yes, zero. So much for any dissension, at least among those scientists most involved with the issue.

We also got into the economy. I never suspected this would become a topic in the class, but, hey, the economy has simply mushroomed in the public consciousness. There have been some excellent articles explaining what has happened, how sub-prime mortgages, a problem that initially affected such a small percentage of the American population, could radiate to become the tornadic force that it is now, threatening to splinter the economy into pieces.

One of the best explanatory stories I read is here.

I've gotten somewhat obsessed with the economy. I find the domino effect fascinating. It's like a Lego-built home that looks good at a distance but at closer inspection is a shoddy job. The foundation is weak. The day of reckoning seems to have arrived.

It's time to call the government for a bailout.

Like any class, you have your students who just want to get it over with and graduate. But I was pleasantly surprised by how many seemed genuinely interested, eager to learn, eager to share their ideas. You can read exchanges on some of the issues at the class blog, here.

Some of the best exchanges came over Rev. Wright, who he is and what he is doing.
I must admit that I didn't know what to think when I first saw clips of Wright's sermons. My students helped clarify it for me. No one apologized for his remarks, but some of the African-American students tried to put it into context by saying he was a prisoner of his past and had failed to see that much progress in race relations has been made. I'm not sure why, but I was happy to hear that they believed this country had progressed on race. We weren't all singing Kumbaya, but there was a real sense in the class that Wright was stuck in the past, even if some of his comments did reflect sentiments from an earlier time. It gives us hope that we can overcome prejudices, past and present.

So, as I reminisce over the semester gone by, I am happy I taught. And thankful for the chance. I didn't make much; adjuncts don't do it for the money. I did it, because it feels good to impart some knowledge, to feel that perhaps someone learned something or had his/her eyes opened to a subject previously unknown. I sure hope so, at least.

I hope I made a contribution.