The Grandpa Gazette

Location: Fairfax, Virginia, United States

Saturday, July 08, 2006

July 4, 2006

July 4, 2006

The problem with trying to comment on any of the big issues these days is that everything has already been said, umpteen times, and since the Government is doing nothing about the big issues, there is nothing new to say. Global warming is unquestionably the major challenge of the 21st century, and the most important public issue of our time. If the Government were addressing it, we could discuss the pros and cons of what it was doing and debate whether there were better approaches. But when it denies that it is taking place, what can you say?

There are some real issues about what to do with Iraqi and Afghan prisoners and terrorists of other nationalities, but when the Government refuses to recognize any distinctions, refuses to say how many it holds or where, refuses to say whether or when or how they will be tried, what can we discuss?

Iraq is enormously complicated, and how to extricate ourselves with some semblance not only of honor, but of some level of achievement, requires careful thought and planning. But we are offered only slogans and sound bites.

The large fiscal deficit, and the prospect that Medicare and Social Security will cause it to balloon out of all control, is a serious national problem, but the Administration simply ignores it.

Why go on? The November elections will be proclaimed as a victory for the Democrats, but the chances of their recapturing either Senate or House are remote, and I fear that if they did they would use their power only to investigate and harass, To be sure, any kind of limitation on the Administration’s ability to simply do what it wants will be welcome. But more and deeper stalemate will hardly help us to resolve these issues. So we face another two and a half years of incoherent drift and corrosive public discussion.

And in 2008? Whoever wins may well be unable to govern, given the national schizophrenia. Perhaps the best wee can hope for is a less malevolent, more benign Administration.

The Supreme Court will be all right, for the time being. Justice Kennedy, a very conservative man, clearly has not much more liking than Justice O‘Connor did for the radical, ideological, mean-spirited conservatism of Scalia, Thomas and Alito. I don’t really understand their redistricting decision, but I appreciate the difficulty of finding a judicial standard to settle a highly political issue (would that Kennedy had thought of that in 2000). If Justice Stevens can only live until January 2009 we should be OK.

Books. There’s nothing that gives me more satisfaction than finding an author I really, really enjoy and that nobody else has ever heard of. Donald Harington was the last one I can recall; my latest find is Terry Pratchett. Pratchett writes in the genre called fantasy; now that I think if it, so does Harington, but Harington is much more mainstream, with the fantasy elements just a touch off reality. Pratchett’s books take place on another planet (called Discworld) populated by trolls, dwarfs, vampires, zombies, golems and werewolves and where magic is possible. Many such books attempt to persuade you to suspend belief and accept those elements as possible, at least while reading the book -- in other words, to take the fantastic seriously. Pratchett takes nothing seriously. In fact, all I have just said is quite misleading. Another say to describe his books is to say that they take place in an imagined late 18th century world, without electricity or gasoline. He then typically does two things at once: posits a new invention or innovation (postage stamps in Going Postal, the printing press and the newspaper in The Truth) and a crime that requires investigation and solution. (In Thud! the crime is the central story.) The introduction of the new invention of course provides marvelous opportunities for satire of our own world. And there are marvelous puns and allusions – such as a dwarf named Goodmountain who invents the printing press (aided by dwarves named Caslong, Boddoni and Gowdie), a criminal conspiracy called The Committee to Unelect the Patrician, and a talking dog who gives the reporter key information who calls himself Deep Bone. If I haven’t made it clear by now, the books are screamingly, laugh out loud funny.

I’m also reading an Italian judicial procedural (something like Scott Turow) called Involuntary Witness, by Gianrico Carofiglio, a real-life judge “in Bari, a port on the coast of Puglia”. All those who know where Puglia is, raise your hands. I thought so. Had to look it up myself. It’s on the Adriatic, at the top of the heel of the boot, across the sea from Albania. It’s not a great novel, qua novel, and the English translation is graceless and awkward. But the description of Italian legal processes is fascinating. Carofiglio comes across as a very impressive judge, as well as a competent if not a great novelist. I’m also fascinated by what appears to be an extraordinary American penetration of Italian culture. The hero watches American movies, listens to Simon and Garfunkel, even buys California wine! Clearly the author is a gringophile, but if this somewhat obscure corner of Italy is anything like he describes it, then American culture really is the world’s.

Which, in fact, explains some of the extraordinary American unpopularity in Europe these days – if you idolize someone, you resent it deeply when they fall off the pedestal. Jon Stewart said last night that the US team bus was the only one at the World Cup that didn’t have its nationality identified – if he is correct, obviously someone thought it was safer to be anonymous.

Movies. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a really good movie – The Squid and the Whale, Sideways, Millions, Cinderella Man. When we were in Florida this winter we stumbled into a series of showings of Hayao Miyazaki movies on cable. For those who don’t know them, these are animated films, but hand-drawn, not computer-generated, and mostly not for younger children or children at all. They are gorgeous. Literally. We sat there gasping, not at the story (which is often intriguing but rather silly) but at the incredible beauty of what he puts on screen. I had seen only one previously, Spirited Away (thanks to Michael and Ria), which won an Oscar, but now we’ve seen several. If you’ve never seen one before, I recommend starting with My Neighbor Totoro, which is a children’s film, perfectly suitable for anyone of any age, and as beautiful a movie as has ever been made.

“If you show someone something you’ve written, you give them a sharpened stake, lie down in your coffin, and say, ‘When you’re ready.’” – David Mitchell, Black Swan Green (Random House, 2006).