Tuesday, May 30, 2006

The sunset of Tony Orlando

I saw another of those shrines recently. The homemade kind; the sort usually made for children killed by accident or predator, constructed of teddy bears and ribbons and corner store flowers, misspelled notes of shock and longing, bible verses and photographs, crudely drawn construction paper sympathy cards, candles, votives, and always some odds and ends inexplicable to the uninitiated – hats, t-shirts, stuffed animals – the detritus of lives connected to the deceased, crushed and made meaningless by terrible loss.
And you don’t have to be a high profile murder victim to get one. Car crash sites are popular, as are store front pavements or stricken family’s front lawns, or the drop off lane in front of the local primary school if the terrible, accidental moment happened there.
The shrines are simultaneously deeply moving and faintly ridiculous – so real and so surreal at the same time: how’s a teddy bear in a cowboy hat and a pair of plastic six shooters going to get us out of THIS agony you think.
Where are the rent garments and handfuls of hair torn from grieving heads, instead of this alter to the god Hallmark?
Still, it’s what people DO when they can do nothing else. It began long before, but reached a crazy peak when Princess Diana was killed in a car crash in a tunnel in Paris. The flower tributes dropped off in front of Kensington Palace (and in the Parisian tunnel, and at her ancestral home in Northamptonshire, and not a few in a nose-thumbing gesture directed at the Queen outside Buckingham Palace) soon rose up as high as an elephant’s eye before spreading wildly and widely sideways. The bizarre blanket stitched together from ribbon-tied bouquets and ‘Candle in the Wind’ songsheets, photographs lovingly clipped from magazines and newspapers, and with farewell notes sheathed in plastic as if the writers were well aware that their personal eulogies would be hanging around long after the Princess’s funeral cordon had passed by.
(And they were right and they did.)
Still, I don’t know how I feel about these crowd-created holy places. Do they honour the individuals or trivialize them somehow? When anybody can drop by and drop off a note that reads: “So long Sally – I didn’t know you, but I pray for your eternal soul” what does it mean? Do they continue to pray for Sally? Does the gesture signify anything beyond a 21st century knee-jerk reaction to a top of the local news type story that fascinates and horrifies for a moment, then is gone and forgotten with the requisite placement of a plush toy and a ribbon-anchored heart-shaped mylar balloon?
It’s really not for me to say. But from what I can gather, it does indeed comfort the family left behind. It has meaning and value and moment for them.
We need these public rituals, official rememberings and heartfelt (if sometimes weird – I saw a pair of frilly underpants placed at one of those shrines once and I still don’t know what it meant) messages sent into the ether in order to take final notice before moving on.
And heaven knows, as far as the war goes, it may remain virtually the only way we have left of paying tribute to the dead.
But maybe…
Steven Harper appears to be re-considering his no-press policy for Canadian soldiers’ bodies arriving home from the fracas in Afghanistan and Iraq, following the hue and cry that reached a crescendo when Canada’s first fallen female soldier arrived home unremarked upon by a banned media contingent. But his ‘no flags at half mast save Remembrance Day’ edict shows either a steely consistency, or an eerie blindness to a country’s need to publicly acknowledge ultimate sacrifice.
He has been resolute in insisting the decision is one made to offer the families of the fallen the privacy they need to mourn, but in the absence of families actually requesting such space and solitude, the command rings hollow. Hollower still when you realize no similar policy has been announced for police and firefighters killed in the line of duty.
It just doesn’t pass the smell test. It stinks.
It would be sickening to think it is simply a policy aping the American one – the one that fears too much reality may undermine an administration’s right to send soldiers to their deaths whensoever and wheresoever they please.
Because for Americans, outside of a few photographs released following freedom of information demands, the dissemination of images of flag-draped coffins are as elusive and rare as child pornography – and treated with pretty much the same eyes squinched shut disgust by the wartime White House.
A White House that would much rather tie a ribbon round an old oak tree than make the tough decisions that would make ribbon tying – save for those who die innocently and accidentally – a thing of the past.
We need a new tribute, a new official day and symbol aimed at educating world leaders in the desires of their citizenry – like red ribbons for AIDS awareness, or pink for breast cancer education.
A yellow no-more-yellow-ribbons ribbon.
Wear it with pride.

Friday, May 05, 2006

Model of a modern Major General

I’ll bet I wasn’t the only one who read the AP newspaper story today and breathed a sigh of relief.
After all, when you see the headline: ‘U.S. mocks militant’s misfire’ over a picture of Abu Masab al-Zarqawi clutching a machine gun, then read on to discover the Pentagon has actual video footage of the Al Qaeda leader having trouble discharging his firearm, what can you possibly do but shoot a grateful prayer heavenward and mutter an admiring “talk about ‘mission ‘accomplished!’” before getting ready to count down the last days of the war?
It’s true: al-Zarqawi was videotaped about 20 miles south of the Iraq capitol trying to fix a jammed weapon before finally surrendering, forced to ask a friend to help him unblock the stoppage.
Not only that, but according to military experts who pored over the tape, examining every damning second, al Zarqawi was wearing New Balance tennis shoes – American tennis shoes – as he performed this pathetic stunt.
The ‘mocker’ identified in the headline is one Major General Rick Lynch, spokesman for the U.S. command and Baghdad-based bitch-slapper, who offered commentary on the fugitive film, interpreting each feeble attempt at firing, studying every awkward, incompetent gesture of aid from al-Zarqawi’s similarly befuddled cohorts.
“It’s supposed to be automatic fire,” Lynch explains. “He’s shooting single shots. Something’s wrong with his machine gun, He looks down, can’t figure out, calls his friend to come unblock the stoppage and get the weapon firing again.”
It doesn’t say in the newspaper report, but one assumes the Major General spoke in a tone dripping with the sort of contempt that would naturally accompany the discharge of such a distasteful duty.
(Having to look at a man unable to shoot a gun, is one thing… one hideous, hopefully never-to-be-repeated thing; to be called upon to provide narration for such an unmanly, testosterone-challenged spectacle must have been cruel indeed.)
“This piece you all see as he walks away, he’s wearing his black uniform and his New Balance tennis shoes as he moves to this white pick up,” Lynch continues, giving no indication whatsoever of the make or model of the evil Al Qaeda-mobile. “And his close associates around him… do things like grab the hot barrel of the machine gun and burn themselves.”
The picture is clear: how can a guy with a jammed machine gun – a guy who cannot even fire his jammed machine gun and can’t fix it on his own – ever hope to win a war against the kind of guys who find stuff like this funny?
The strategy is brilliant.
The strategy is familiar…
Too familiar…
Re-cast with characters costumed in monochromatic, hooded terrorist garb and chic desert camouflage, and with a plot that though it sometimes meanders away from the central theme, still manages to capture the very essence of the film to which it pays reverent homage, the U.S. Army is reading from the script of Mean Girls.
Hollywood comes to the desert in a scene straight out of the teen queen comedy movie genre, as the popular girls (U.S. forces) take on the bumbling foreigner (al-Zarqawi) using gossip, innuendo and other hurtful torture techniques in order to humiliate and bring her (him) down.
Lindsay Lohan may be a more sympathetic heroine, and the popular girls would likely look better in short skirts and lip gloss than the U.S Army, but for planning, execution and follow through, the motivation and hopes for success read virtually the same.
Here’s where I’m nervous.
I don’t think they saw the last reel of the film. As any tween-something, gum-snapping Lohan-fan could tell you, the mean girls do not – could never – prevail in the end. The details are a little fuzzy to me (having regrettably never actually seen the movie) but the never-in-doubt happy ending is as familiar and predictable as the night follows day shtick.
Hell – Animal House, Stripes, Caddyshack and virtually every film save The Apple Dumpling Gang has much the same plot: meanies never prosper.
How about a cartoon for inspiration? Maybe they could tie al-Zarqawi’s machine gun barrel in a knot… or drop a ten ton weight on his head (or a piano or flower pot if those are more accessible in the Middle East) or get a giant Acme brand sling shot and…
I take back the sigh of relief. I don’t think images of the current Al-Qaeda leader fumbling with his machine gun is enough of a slam dunk humiliation to alter the course of the war in Iraq. What’s truly pathetic is the story Major General Lynch is telling America – and the obvious hopes he has that such a tale will provide comfort to their number.
Because even armies and animators must needs follow the story-telling rules as old as time: Wile E. Coyote could never defeat the Road Runner – even on rocket-powered roller skates – and neither will the U.S. triumph over the forces of evil reading from such a banal script.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Bear market bull

Though she was not vouchsafed a heroine’s death – which would have been a neat trick for a car – Sylvia nevertheless didn’t let me down even up to and including her final journey.
She got me safely to the mechanic who thumbs-downed the plucky little Mazda 323’s future, gently suggesting that by investing some $4000 in repairs to make roadworthy a $2000 car (her purchase price more than ten years ago) I hadn’t thoroughly grasped the finer points of the law of diminishing returns.
The mechanic might have something there – I tend to hang onto things well past their sell by’s. Like the dog for instance; she too is somewhat less than roadworthy these days.
At nearly thirteen years old she’s starting to look a little rough around the edges. Her eyes are milky with cataracts, she has luxating patellas (her joints pop in and out with astonishing ease) she’s a little creaky with arthritis and the after-luxating effects, her teeth aren’t much to talk about and she has weird little cyst-like bumps springing up on her back like toadstools after a spring rain.
I just got her back from the groomer who cut and snipped the worst mats and tats off her, shaved her close, shaped her head, sluiced out her ears and trimmed her pad-hair. $59.98 thank you very much – and worth every penny (including the ten dollar tip) for being able to perform all these ablutions and cut her toenails – a feat my last vet would only do under sedation. (I’m almost sure it was for the dog.)
Six pounds of unhappy Yorkshire Terrier can be a surprisingly formidable article – she screams like a lost soul writhing in the pits of hell (seriously – you should hear it…) and squirms with an intensity that would put a boa constrictor to shame.
I know people are always writing these funny exaggerated little stories about their pet’s adorable foibles, but I am seriously not kidding. She’s a terror.
On the other hand, she doesn’t bite, she's cute as hell, and I love her more than money.
But talk about your diminishing returns; if I counted up all the hair-do’s, vet visits, airplane tickets, dog food, dog treats (I should buy shares in Milk Bone and Hartz Mountain) booster shots, collar and leash accoutrements, carry cases, dog medicine, vitamins, kennel costs and planned, as well as emergency operations (she’s missing her ovaries, six teeth, something benign that showed up on her tiny butt and at least a year of my life when she was afflicted with a pancreatic attack last year – that visit alone cost more than $2000) it would have to amount to several thousands of dollars – well into four or even five figures.
If I really did the math, she probably costs me as much as the car each year – gas, oil and insurance included – though with considerably less mileage, and virtually no convenience.
If I could cash in this investment, realize the returns so to speak, I might have my retirement taken care of – certainly a kitchen reno, a newer car, a holiday or two and enough lip collagen to rank me right up there with Melanie Griffith and the Bride of Wildenstein.
Not that I would of course – but I could.
But I’m not alone in being late in latching on to this ‘diminishing returns’ thing. Though I’m sure he considers himself as more of a ‘magic of compound interest’ type of guy than a capitol loss, the truth of the matter is that the President of the United States is a plummeting stock minus the stop/loss order – how low can he go?
It’s a bear market for Bush. Returns are (empirically) diminishing when you, a) find yourself still trapped in a war with no end in sight and bodies continuing to pile up; b) watch gas prices soar at the start of a busy summer; c) get your ass handed to you, hearing the unvarnished truth (though filtered through satire) face to face for the first time ever - through the conduit of a Comedy Central comedian.
Steven Colbert rocked that White House Correspondent’s dinner! He ruled – and he had the entire White House grinding their teeth into splintered stumps in silent fury as he told them truth after equally uncomfortable truth:
“Misery accomplished,” he said, then aimed his sites on a series of high profile pols.
John McCain? Wham! The Joint Chiefs? Whack! Rumsfeld? Kapow! Justice Scalia? Kee-runch!
George W. Bush? Slayed, sliced and served up for dinner, making a mockery of the shrimp cocktail and rubber chicken, himself looking more as though he was tasting and smelling something very, very bad indeed.
“The greatest thing about this man is he’s steady,” remarked the host of The Colbert Report. “You know where he stands. He believes the same thing Wednesday, that he believed on Monday, no matter what happened Tuesday. Events can change, this man’s beliefs never will.”
“I stand by this man because he stands for things. Not only FOR things, he stands ON things. Things like aircraft carriers and rubble and recently flooded city squares. And he sends a strong message, that no matter what happens to America she will always rebound with the most powerfully staged photo ops in the world.”
And the White House press corps for whom the dinner was ostensibly held?
“Over the last five years you people were so good over tax cuts, W.M.D. intelligence, the affect of global warming,” said Colbert. “We Americans didn’t want to know, and you had the courtesy not to try to find out…”
Ouch baby.
In the guise of his TV alter ego, the faux newsman with the right wing bias, Colbert probably didn’t need to add (though he most assuredly did): “I have nothing but contempt for these people.”
It was brilliant, it was pointed, it was satire at its finest. But at the end of the day, it was too true to be funny.
Diminishing returns.
Like Canada’s relationship with the Bush government, exposed now for what it truly is – from fits of pique and punishing language directed at our nation for not joining in the war on Iraq, to the myriad taxes, regulations and restrictions placed on goods and services we might have assumed fell under the heading of Free Trade, to the recent deal on softwood lumber (we took it because there was and never would be any other choice) – Canada has finally had our rose-coloured spectacles forcibly removed. Would that the citizens of the US had seen it sooner.
I’ll miss Sylvia the car – I’m hanging on to Lily the dog – but they both offered good value for money, whether through dependability or laughs.
The Bush administration offers neither.