Dear Uncle John,
What you sent over is a press release written by Sen. Inhofe's committee staff, so it's obviously very biased towards his perspective. I think most scientists agree that there are hiccups in the theories that try to explain global warming, and that skeptics shouldn't be muzzled. Science, after all, thrives on a healthy debate and discussion. It is the most self-correcting profession that exists (far better than politicians). But I'm afraid Sen. Inhofe is trying to make a round Earth appear flat. The vast majority of scientists who work in climate change fields, probably over 95%, believe that humans are contributing to global warming and that it's a problem. And when Sen. Inhofe holds a comprehensive hearing on global warming, 75% of the scientific experts he invites are skeptics about the human race's role in increasing global warming. That's like opening a French restaurant and hiring 5 Scottish chefs and a Maitre'De from Quebec--not very representative of reality.
I am not sure why so many conservatives have an ingrown fear of global warming. I can understand why oil and coal companies don't like people to talk about it--their profits are directly correlated to rising carbon dioxide levels. But I'm noticing an increasing anti-global warming gut reaction from conservative news sites and pundits that seems to exist for the simple reason that people like Al Gore and Leo DeCaprio are on the opposing side. It reminds me of the knee-jerk rhetoric that once roiled the debates over prayer in school and creationism. Conservative christians clung to those cultural issues because they helped them define who they were in opposition to--mainly so-called secular humanists and atheists. But when one examined the basis of the religious right's main arguments (ie. school violence, abortion, and Satanism have increased because kids no longer pray before homeroom) -- they were plainly ridiculous and non-sensical.
When Sen. Inhofe decided to focus his last hearing on the "media conspiracy" promoting global warming, he showed that climate change skeptics, who lack any scientific weight or consensus, seek to define themselves by those they are against. It's the same silly smokescreen as Pat Robertson complaining about how Madalyn Murray O'Hair drove God from the public schools back in 1962. And I think it is an endgame ploy of a side that lacks the standing to make an argument.
Kim and his family, his wife Kati and two young daughters, have been missing since late November somewhere on the road between San Francisco and Seattle. On Monday afternoon searchers using helicopters found Kati and the two kids by their car, but James is still missing, having ventured into the snowy wilderness to seek rescue 2 days ago. News reports say that James kept his family's spirits up by making their plight seem like a camping adventure, even as he burned the tires on their station wagon to keep them warm. Soon we'll know if the efforts he took to safeguard his family have also protected him.
History changes with environment, too. I remember visiting the third grade classroom where my mom taught school in an inner-city neighborhood of Akron, Ohio. Posters on the walls of her classroom showed the familiar images of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, Rosa Parks, and George Washington Carver--the same African-American heroes who briefly paraded through the textbooks in my entirely white hometown of Hudson. We didn't have posters of them, of course. But in the Akron classroom there were also posters of Dr. Mae Jaminson, Sojourner Truth, Matthew Henson, Thurgood Marshall, and Ralph Bunche--notable African Americans I had never heard of. This scene played out in reverse in the "inner city to Ivy League" book, A Hope in the Unseen, by Ron Suskind. In the book, a freshman student named Cedric Jennings had recently arrived to Brown University from a poor neighborhood in Washington, DC. As he browsed through the campus bookstore he came across a table covered in books featuring a stern-looking bald man on their covers. Cedric had no idea who this man was, so he picked up one of the books and flipped it open. "'Winston Churchill,' he said to himself. I've got to remember who he is." Suskind, a former reporter for the Wall Street Journal, intended that scene as an indictment of the Afro-centric curriculum of Cedric's high school that taught about more about the ancient stone cities of Zimbabwe than who won World War II. Of course manipulating history isn't a conservative or a liberal trait--it's a universal trait of people who are uncomfortable with messy edges that don't align to their liking. Conservatives Lynne Cheney and David Horowitz are as guilty of this offense as shock professors like Ward Churchill and Leonard Jeffries. All of them don't realize that it's the messy edges of history--the shadowlands of motivations and events--that make our past so interesting. Perhaps one day kids won't learn the myth that George Washington wore wooden teeth--unless it's for a lesson designed to scare them into regular brushing.
Danny the Champion of the World - by Roald Dahl - an ideal portrayal of childhood adventure, inventive pranks, and father/son relations
The Pushcart War - by Jean Merrill - a thoroughly enjoyable David vs. Goliath story where business competitive stands in for class conflict
Island of the Blue Dolphins - by Scott O'Dell - reassuringly addresses a great fear of all children - 'What would happen if I was left all alone?'
Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH- by Robert C. O'Brien - a terrific rescue story that teaches the values of creativity and volunteerism
Bridge to Terabithia - by Katherine Patterson - so often banned for a few bad words, but what other book pulls a child in so many new directions?
Where the Red Fern Grows - by Wilson Rawls - a classic for any animal lovers, but also a great lesson for youth faced with responsibility
A Separate Peace - by John Knowles - a sophomore-year favorite that reveals the depth of jealousy and competition among even friends
The Twenty-One Balloons - by William Pene du Bois - an old-fashioned European adventure that strands its characters on a rumbling Krakatoa volcano
The Mad Scientists' Club - by Bertrand Brinley - an ensemble cast of small town geeks prove to readers that it's okay to be a little nerdy
The Great Brain - by John D. Fitzgerald - as the younger brother to a great brain, the charm of this series easily captured the reality of kids at play
The Westing Game - by Ellen Raskin - before the arrival of Lost and CSI, this twisting narrative taught kids that all is not what it appears
Tom Swift - by Victor Appleton - Cold-War era simplicity and machines that always work don't detract from the wonder that this series imparts
Yesterday I was trying to remember when I got my first email address. It must have been around 1991 or 1992. It was the rather long-winded: "firstname.lastname@example.org." I used this email address to post on numerous protian newsgroups (in the time before the WWW), including a real fierce one called "misc.education.home-school.christian" which was ground zero in arguments about the religious right's impact on public education. I considered all of my postings to be entertainment, like a more dynamic op-ed page, and I never considered the eventual role the Internet and the WWW would play in my life. I even remember using Mosaic, the first web-browser from Netscape. I bet there were about 1,000 websites in extistence back then. Now I realize that my early exposure to the Internet was like taking a joy-ride in the first Model T Ford - a glimpse of things to come.
In late 2005, 3,872 students were motivated enough to apply Early Action to Harvard by the November 1st deadline. About 813 of these early birds were admitted on December 15th. That's a success rate of 21 percent to fill almost 40 percent of the freshmen class. Most of the 3,000 who didn't make the cut are rolled into the regular admissions pile--along with 19,000 more students who procrastinated until January 1st to mail in their applications. On April 1st, Harvard chose another 1,311 students from that pile of 22,000 applications. The late-comers faced a much more daunting admissions rate of 6 percent.
The difference in the time and attention that admissions officers could give to individual applications was also considerable. For the early action students, workers reviewed an average of 86 applications a day (3,872 applications / 45 days). For regular decision it doubled to 162 applications a day (22,000 applications / 135 days).
I don't bet money, but I know good odds when I see them. The kids who "slept in" and didn't get their essays and transcripts polished by November 15th, lost 15 percent on their admissions odds, and had their applications read twice as fast. These 19,000 students who waited for January 1st practically lost the race before they began it.
What about the argument that "smarter" kids apply early? It's true, they do. But it's not the right kind of "smart." Either these students, or their ambitious parents and for-hire college advisor were savvy enough to realize that hitting Harvard's early action program is the single, easiest thing you can do to improve their chances to get in. Often it's not the students who realize this. I had many classmates at Harvard whose parents wrote, compiled, and sent in their child's applications without the student even lifting a hand to sign their name. Most teenagers, especially seniors in high school, usually can't be bothered to stay awake for a 9:15am class. How are they going to complete a 20-page application and three 1,000-word essays two months before the real deadline? Only those applicants who know the importance of applying early will make the extra effort to do it. And those applicants usually come from elite backgrounds, high-priced schools, and have siblings or parents who attended these competitive schools. The regular folks are lost in the crowded field of 19,000 applications due January 1st.
But are these early action admits also "academically" smarter than their peers in the regular decision program? I don't think so. Harvard could fill 4 or 5 classes of equally intelligent freshmen each year. What they got with early action, were the kids (38 percent of the incoming freshmen class) who were smart enough to play the game right. What they lost, and will hopefully regain next year, are the best students from the entire pool of applicants.
Ten years ago I applied early action to Harvard. I started my college essays over the summer. I met with my guidance counselor during the first week of school. I requested my transcripts weeks before the deadline. I arranged my college interview with an alumni couple who knew my political work. I took my SATs and visited college campuses during my junior year. I was lucky that I knew how to play the game. But I still don't think arbitrary systems like early action and decision are the right ways to determine who gets to win.
"Let us have faith that right makes might, and in that faith, let us, to the end, dare to do our duty as we understand it."
And again, the conclusion to President Bush's speech from the five-year 9/11 anniversary:
"And we go forward with trust in that spirit, confidence in our purpose, and faith in a loving God who made us to be free."
It seems that everyone wants to be in Abraham's bosom these days...
Among presidents in wartime, none rose to command respect and achieve success like Abraham Lincoln. The rail-splitter from Illinois is already big, but he's just going to get bigger in the next three years. The 200th anniversary of his birth is February 12th, 2009, and legions of his admirers are working hard to make sure that a Lincoln-loving festival is in full swing by the time that date rolls around. Steven Spielberg is even making a movie, with Irish-born actor Liam Neeson cast as the president, based on Doris Kearns Goodwin's excellent 2005 chronicle, Team of Rivals, which illuminates Lincoln's masterful political touch.
But back to the speech. Last night Bush concluded with this sentence:
"And we go forward with trust in that spirit, confidence in our purpose, and faith in a loving God who made us to be free."
Good Bible study and Old Testament stuff, with the rhythym of a civil rights preacher. Bush has echoed this theme in several prior speeches, including his 2003 State of the Union address. It's also a cadence that is a complete departure from his normally disjointed and unpunctuated speaking style.
And to conclude his Gettysburg Address in November 1863, Lincoln said this:
"we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion--that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain--and that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom--and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."
Lincoln's oration is immortal, and so are certain phrases and sounds from this speech. I don't fault President Bush from standing on the shoulders of history, he needs as much additional perspective as he can get. I just think his speech last night is yet another example of how Abraham Lincoln, although not one of the original Founding Fathers of our country, is the son who made, and continues to make it, a great nation.
First, there's the duplicity of the Germans to build a series of battleships in the early 1930s half again as massive as the Treaty of Versailles restricted them. The Nazis claimed the Graf Spee's displacement was 10,000 tons, when it was actually closer to 16,000. And since battleships fight like boxers--slugging it out until one is too battered to go on--a ship's size matters.
And then there's the role of commerce raiders--the German warships who operated singly against Allied merchant shipping all over the globe. The captains of these raiders knew the entire British navy was out to sink them, forcing them to hunt, strike, and disappear. The Graf Spee sunk or captured nine Allied ships during her two month run in the South Atlantic and Indian oceans before the Royal Navy finally caught her.
But the greatest aspect of the Graf Spee story is the Battle of the River Plate, fought December 13, 1939 off the coast of Uruguay. Three Allied warships led by the heavy cruiser HMS Exeter, and including the light cruisers HMS Ajax and HMNZS Achilles surprised the Spee in the merchant-rich waters near the estuary of the River Plate. The early morning battle left the Exeter in shambles after numerous 11-inch shells from the Graf Spee knocked out her turrets and power, but the Allied warships scored enough hits on the German battleship to convince her captain, Hans Langsdorff, to make for the safety of Montevideo's port.
And here's where the story enters a diplomatic wrangling game between British officials in Montevideo, the Uruguayan authorites, and the German navy. After delaying the Spee's departure for several days, the British managed to convince the Germans that a phantom naval force waited out at sea in ambush. No such force existed, just the worn out Ajax and Achilles. Believing he faced certain destruction if he sortied, Langsdorff cabled to Berlin to ask if he should seek internment of his warship, or attempt to scuttle it. In a rare occurrence, the Nazi's didn't ask him to fight against impossible odds. Berlin replied: "No internment in Uruguay. Attempt effective destruction if ship is scuttled." On December 17th, a skeleton crew sailed the Graf Spee into the estuary, and after explosive charges were set along the keel, and the crew evacuated, it blew up and burned for several days. A few days later Captain Langsdorff committed suicide in his Montevideo hotel room, wrapping himself not in the Nazi swastika flag (unlike most naval officers, he was not a committed Nazi), but a World War I imperial naval ensign similar to the one he had fought under at the Battle of Jutland in 1916. And there ends the story the battle, though the recovery of the wrecked Graf Spee, and especially its Nazi-era emblems, is what inspired today's New York Times story.
All of those results will depend much more on how hard a student is willing to work (and how many 9:00am classes they will bother to attend), than the ZIP code or the ranking of their college. I'll admit that there's a difference in the education a student will receive from a struggling community college and a wealthy liberal arts school like Amherst or Bates. But the community college student can transfer after 2 years to a state school and achieve more intellectually than an unmotivated prep school kid who doesn't know why he's at college except that its a waystation to the better life he's promised.
Though I've not done this, I bet that if you plotted the results of the U.S. News ranking compared to how old and how big an endowment a college has, you would fine remarkably parallel lines. I wish I did well enough in my sophomore-year statistics course to remember how to run a regression analysis. Ranking top colleges is like ranking the popular kids in high school--satisfying but otherwise meaningless.
When I made my college decision on a May afternoon over 10 years ago, I weighed vignettes from campus visits, memories of sitting in on random classes, conversations with students and recent graduates, raw numbers of financial aid offers, and most importantly--the swirl of three names running through my head: Harvard, Yale, and Brandeis. But the question that I repeated to myself most often, and which I remember well, was "Can I turn down Harvard?" As it turns out, I couldn't and I didn't. I don't wish I would have gone elsewhere because of the great friends I made there (and it's hard to wish them away), but I wish I had understood what's really important about choosing and using a college education when I was still in high school.
"Sunday afternoon," the harried AirCanada gate agent flatly told me. The first flight I could take to Montreal to see my fiance Jackie would depart when I was supposed to be returning. So there was nothing to do except bond with a couple of stranded Montreal businessmen and decide to drive to Canada. My '93 Subaru Legacy wagon took over from a Boeing 727. and my new Quebecois friends Claude, Alfonso, and Richard played equal parts captain and passengers for our journey. We arrived to Montreal 7 hours and 2 tanks of gas later and at the 3am hour when the strip clubs and bars on Sainte Catherine were just closing. It took us 10 minutes to convince the puzzled Canadian customs agent why a car with New Mexico plates owned by a Pennsylvania man was filled with 3 Canadians, one with a Swiss passport, and another Venezuelan-born with a secretive import-export business.
"I wouldn't have done what you did," admitted the border agent in heavily accented English. But why not? Mishap and mis-direction are the best opportunities to meet people you never would.
A tour guide told us that the Brits drive on the left because it allowed right-handed horseman to swing their swords at the oncoming traffic. The left-handed Napoleon, the legend continues, ordered his armies to march on the right side of the road so that his own sword could be at ready. Colonization and war spread those two customs around the world. Australia and Malta drive on the left, while Canada and Madagascar prefer the right.
Perhaps that's just another anti-French story from the British isles, but it's fun to think that the centuries-old decisions of army commanders and fortunes of war determine the frustration levels of modern-day tourists like us. I am sure there is a great deal else that we take as standard today that can be traced back to a simple memo by some unnamed bureaucrat. April 15th as tax day, for instance, or Tuesday being election day. Routines fit the world as well as they fit individuals.
At first the names of their products--a bed named "HORESUND" and a lamp called "PULT"--can be off-putting. But after you realize how well-designed and durable these space-saving and solid wood furnishings are, you think of those odd names as just Old World charm. It's Beowulf, but for your kitchen and bath.
And I like IKEA's DIY system of shopping. First, you write down the aisle and bin numbers of your chosen artifact from the maze of showrooms. Then you retrieve it from a warehouse that rivals the storage room in the last scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark. It makes a lot of sense when you consider the alternative of waiting on a sales staff to find and move your order.
Building my new furniture took about an hour in the evening, and required no more expertise or special tools than what one would use to hang a picture. One unique thing is that IKEA furniture never comes with extra screws or washers. You use everything they give you. I wonder how much money they save by doing that? A colleague of mine suggested that if IKEA ever decided to make a car--it would come in cardboard box the size of a large pizza and require only a screw driver and an allen wrench to assemble. I don't doubt it, but would it be big enough carry home a nice-looking BJORKUDDEN table?
But then I remembered that these beaches were only made battlefields by humans--and that by nature they are rhythmically calm places where water meets land. There had to be flags, and graves, and rusted tanks there to tell me that this platonic scene was once the site of a great battle. Without those reminders, I would have considered the beaches of Normandy to be a stirring place for a picnic.
But in an article dated April 27th, Styles reporter Warren St. John wrote about how MySpace.com profiles are becoming virtual shrines to people who have died tragically young. Okay, so most New York Times readers are probably vaguely aware of the Internet social community fad, and sites like MySpace.com-- even if it's from what their children tell them. And reporters have been trying too--the Times has run 86 articles in the last six months that mention Myspace.
But St. John's article, "Web Sites Set Up to Celebrate Life Recall Lives Lost," takes that extra step. He zooms in to examine 150 profiles of deceased people among the 70+ million that MySpace claims to have online. He highlights one website in particular that tracks these dynamic obituaries--http://www.mydeathspace.com/. A quick purview of that site enables you not only to anonymously visit the Internet "bedroom" of the deceased, but also see their friends and understand how they are reacting to their loss. It is microscopic, macabre, and universally fascinating. And I think it's good journalism.
A few weeks ago Gene Plotkin, a 27-year-old Wall Street trader and 2000 graduate of Harvard College was arrested by the FBI for allegedly running a global insider trader scheme based on tips from the printer proofs from Business Week magazine. And over the weekend, the Harvard Crimson reported that Kaavya Viswanathan, a Harvard sophomore whose new novel How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life netted her a $500,000 advance while she was still in high school, plagiarized several passages from previous teen angst books by Megan McCafferty, a former editor at Cosmopolitan and YM.
Duke University has received worse press coverage in recent weeks, but Harvard students and graduates aren't belting out the school's fight song in public, especially if these allegations turn out to be accurate. I don't believe there is anything particularly noxious about going to school in Cambridge, Mass. that encourages breaking the rules. Harvard is a college like any other. Students work hard or slack off, or alternate between a combination of the two. Students cheat, and they also get caught. Cheaters might be exposed at higher rates than other schools because Harvard professors use high-tech computer programs to catch plagiarized words and computer code. Most students cut corners to keep from falling behind. Those that cheat and succeed don't talk about it.
But more than having your roommate write your essay, or getting an early look at an exam, Harvard's main problem is the slow seep of entitlement that all students there absorb. Dining hall conversations are conducted through a warped prism that focuses all attention on this school and its importance in the world. Students learn that they are to be the best, first, and smartest in everything they do. At first most of this self-importance is imagined. But as the Harvard name and diploma works its magic, the bestowed authority becomes more real. It can also influence behavior. 'You are already the best,' the internal rationalizing goes. 'What you do to stay the best is not cheating, but your own cleverness.' Some people take this entitlement too far and blur the distinction between right and wrong or legal and illegal. It's easy to cheat when you consider yourself on a different level from everyone else.
But not all of this ego is cultivated inside Harvard Yard. Many people are quite willing to give Harvard extra attention, for both its triumphs and follies, which nourishes an already strong self-absorption. And as long as the rest of the world continues looking, Harvard students will continue to be seen--for both good and bad reasons.
On the Galapagos, a finch who migrated to a new island would find an entirely different species with no connection to him. But in journalism, an editor who leaps to another magazine finds a world that's like a new map laid upon a something familiar. The destination is the same, but the routes and street names are different, and the new grid takes a little while to figure out. This is all becoming apparent to me as I start my new job at Backpacker and learn the environs of this new magazine island.
Just after merging onto I-4o East at Clines Corners, NM, I looked back and for a few minutes could see all the peaks in New Mexico that I had climbed or set foot upon, including Hermit's Peak, Santa Fe Baldy, and the snow-capped teeth of the Truchas ridge. I had never seen those mountains arrayed so splendidly, and I am glad that I looked back one last time.
In addition to a dozen CDs, my companion on this trip has been an MP3 version of the "9-11 Comission Report" -- read by a computer-generated female voice. Besides pronouncing the CIA as "seeya" and "NGO" as "ngoo" (not to mention the numerous and colorful Arabic names), this free MP3 version has been a great way to get into that report, which provides a terrific chronology on al Queda's decade-long and increasingly destructive war on the United States. I'm learning a lot of new things.
I am also remembering humidity. Cool mountain air was just a memory last night as I walked through Okalahoma City's "Bricktown," a warehouse district re-done as a trendy food and entertainment venue. A giant outdoor jumbotron showed the Red Sox playing in Fenway, and the moist night breezes felt oddly comforting to me, like an old familiar friend being re-introduced.
On Sunday afternoon I got caught up in a pro-immigration march in Santa Fe --a few thousand people coursing through downtown streets wearing white shirts and singing and chanting.
I originally thought the march was some sort of religious procession--it being Sunday, everyone dressed in white, and Santa Fe being a predominantly Catholic city. But then I saw the signs and banners, mostly in Spanish, with fiery pro-immigration slogans.
I was in the Plaza along with hundreds of bewildered tourists watching the boisterous marchers when an olive-skinned man standing next to me leaned over and asked, "What are they shouting?"
Huh? From a quick glance, I had taken him to be Hispanic, and was surprised by his request for me, an obvious Anglo, to translate the Spanish chants. But then I realized that he was an Indian from one of the pueblos (reservations) that surround Santa Fe. He didn't speak Spanish.
"I think they are saying 'Si, se puede,' " I told him. "It means 'Yes, we can.' "
The man nodded and thanked me, and then walked away with his friends past the famous portal where Indian artisans have been selling turquoise and silver jewelry for over 100 years.
I later did some research and learned that the slogan, "Si, se puede," has been borrowed by the immigrant rights community from Cesar Chavez's United Farm Worker (UFW) campaign from a few decades ago. Ironically, the UFW opposed illegal immigration, as incoming low-wage workers threatened the unionized jobs they were trying to protect.
Only in Santa Fe...
I'm realizing that the challenge of my new job and finding a place to live can block out the regret of what I 'm leaving behind. What is fresh eclipses what is familiar. And once you leave a place, you can't go back to the way it was before. Moving is like driving a brand-new car off the dealer's lot. That new car, like your old home, won't be the same the instant the tires hit the street. I learned this when I went back to Edinburgh, Scotland a few years ago. The ancient streets and stairways were still there, but my friends were not, and so the city seemed more foreign than I remembered it.
I don't know when I will return to Santa Fe, or what occasion it might be. But I should know that even though the mountains will still be here, along with my memories of climbing them, they won't feel as familiar as they do now.
Lincoln was also ambitious--running (and losing) his first campaign for state legislature at the age of 23. In speeches he was concise, in appearance he was awkward, and in depressive moments he was remote, but in seeking support for his political ambitions, and those of his friends, Lincoln never lacked action and energy. In an age where self-promotional campaigning was unknown, Lincoln sought support through private channels and ensuring that his speeches were printed and circulated in newspapers and pamphlets. Goodwin, like other biographers, quotes his many letters to influential politicians and friends. Here is what he wrote to a potential supporter before his first congressional campaign in 1843. "Now if you should hear any one say that Lincoln don't want to go to Congress, tell him... ...he is mistaken."
History books tend to portray Lincoln as an inevitable 19th century political icon--the self-made, log cabin-born president. They neglect the fact that Lincoln was a political fighter--a ferocious party man who knew just which levers he had to pull to advance his chances for higher office. If Lincoln ran a political campaign in 2006, I think we would do well. He was just that smart about politics.
Though everything about me begs the question--I've watched Newark closely since 1998 and know it better than any of the cities I've lived in. Here's what the media coverage of this race is missing:
First, Sharpe James is a former boxer. He plays with the press like a heavyweight toys with a bantam. And most reporters, with a few exceptions, gleefully submit to his pummeling. It's far easier to report a story about Sharpe James riding a bicycle down the 3rd floor hallways of City Hall to deliver his candidate petitions than to count the number of laws the city broke by siphoning Port Authority payments into capital projects like the downtown arena. I mean, the guy was wearing a straw hat and a tank top for christsakes! And since none of their readers actually care what happens to Newark, it makes for great entertainment. I mean, it's Newark afterall.
Cory Booker isn't that much different. Fresh off-the-plane reporters like to anoint Cory Booker as the incorruptible candidate and the city's next generation savior. The most excited are already counting down to the 2024 presidential primary when Booker would be a ripe 54 years old. He's Yale, Oxford ( Rhodes Scholar thankyouverymuch), Stanford and more earnest to accomplish good than Mister Rogers on Mother's Day.
Cory Booker started as a bright, young thing in Newark. In 1998 he knocked on thousands of doors to beat long-time Central Ward councilman George Branch--an old-style pol who never knew what hit him. I lived in Newark during the summer of 1998 and I remember passing newly-elected Councilman Booker several times on the sidewalk as he walked from his apartment in Brick Towers to City Hall. He smiled as he walked by.
Two years later I saw him again--and he had changed. "He's not in right now," his secretary told the line of Central Ward residents who waited outside his City Hall office hoping to see him. But he was in. I saw other guests, those with more "important" issues than shut-off water or broken traffic lights, enter through a secret side door to see Booker. He hadn't turned into a Sharpe James or copied the most repulsive habits of his fellow council members, but Cory Booker was no longer so bright and new. He got beat in 2002's mayoral election because he thought his shine was intact, and because Sharpe James bused in former Newark residents from South Carolina and Florida to vote.
The 2006 re-match is Booker's race to lose, and he knows it. He's more cautious than a Prudential employee at the corner of Broad and Market streets. Booker is smart enough to know that Sharpe James is throwing out phantom jabs and playing to the crowd. But James is just playing. If the mayor actually tries to seek re-election, Newark voters will resent being toyed with. Booker knows that James can't win the election, but that he can lose it by saying the wrong thing. Booker will continue playing the straight man in the race until it widens in his favor, or he gets really desperate.
Whenever someone asks me to explain what's the matter with Newark I start talking about toilets. I talk about specific toilets--the public restrooms located on the 3rd floor of Newark's city hall. The bathrooms for the council members and the mayor are immaculate, five-star affairs. I saw them when I was doing my interviews for my college thesis. But I also the saw public restrooms located less than sixty feet away. In there I found broken tiles, busted spigots, stalls drapped in caution tape like a crime scene, and urinals backed up all over the floor. Both facilities share the same plumbing, water source, and design plans--but one is for the people in power, and the other is for everyone else. Ever since I encountered this 'tale of two toilets, I've known that the symbol of Newark's failure to address its problems sits a dozen paces from the mayor's own gilded "throne."
As I trekked through the concourses to find my departure gate, I noticed the curious transformation that occurred. The deeper I ventured into the airport, the more the architecture began to reflect the desperation of the stranded passengers.
I started beneath the gleaming glass and steel struts of the airport's newest terminal. I passed by Wolfgang Puck, Hudson News, Chile's and other denizens of the jet-set. Cyborg-like business travelers, electronic gear dangling from their earlobes, sipped coffees and beers with the confidence of frequently-delayed travelers. Plus, it's easier to be calm when you aren't paying for flights and meals. Here I glided along walkways under glowing fluorescent tubes.
But as I journeyed deeper into the airport, the wide corridors gave way to construction littered hallways, blind corners, and broken escalators draped in yellow tape. The information monitors announcing the arrivals and departures changed from crisp flat-screens to dinky RBG monitors dangling from the ceiling.
I left Wolfgang Puck behind, and found myself in the realm of Cinnabun, greasy pizza, and a forlorn Starbucks besieged by long lines of caffeine addicts. The air conditioning died out, leaving crowded hallways hot with unhappy people. Soon I noticed passengers splayed out on the floor like-war wounded waiting for the end to come.
From my quick study of the in-flight magazine map, I knew my gate was located at the far end of a long corridor. But when I reached the end of all paths--it wasn't there. Then I noticed the stairs going down. My gate was one of those basement departure zones--the cattle yards of airline travel. I saw people camped out on the stairs, their bags forming a hasty perimeter around their bodies.
I had little hope as I started my descent.
The article described one player, Alberto Hernandez, as "a brawny 40-year-old security guard who studies English part time at Miami Dade." Hernandez arrived to the U.S. in a raft from Cuba in 1994. One of his opponents in the national competition was a 20-year biochemistry student at Harvard.
The article reminded me of a book--The Man Who Knew Infinity--about the 25-year-old Indian clerk named Ramanujan who was a self-taught mathematical prodigy. In 1913, Ramanujan sent an unsolicited letter containing several math proofs to G. H. Hardy, a prominent English mathematician. The undeniable genius of Ramanujan's equations impressed and puzzled Hardy, who arranged for the young Indian to come to England. Like a Good Will Hunting story authored by Evelyn Waugh, Hardy and Ramanujan worked together for five years, turning out incredible mathematical discoveries. But the young Indian felt isolated and homesick in England, and returned to India in 1919 where he died of tuberculosis a year later.
This story has always made me believe that the world's greatest celloist is not Yo-Yo Ma, but a child in Vietnam tending rice paddies who has never seen a cello. The best movie director is not Steven Spielberg, but an orphan living in the Rio's "City of God" who knows real anger and passion. The greatest writer on the planet is not sitting in a Starbucks with a laptop computer, but an East African boy herding bony cattle across the savannah whose only stories are the ones he dreams under the wide sky. Because of stories like Ramanujan and Miami Dade's chess players, I believe that there is much more genius in this world than there is time or luck to be discovered.
That highly-organized, tightly-bonded hardline Islamic parties are winning elections and gaining supporters across a gradually awakening Middle East should not be a surprise. After all, the U.S. civil rights movement was led by African-American churches, and the ANC struggled for decades as a highly centralized and idealogical guerrilla organization before the collapse of South Africa's apartheid regime. The least corrupt, and most passionately organized groups will be the best at attracting followers who suddently find themselves free to hold political opinions. And in the Middle East, those parties are almost always religious. Policy planners who wished for agnostic political revolutions and election results in the Middle East similar to the hued models of Ukraine and Georgia forgot the vast differences between Kiev and Cairo.
But in a wink to real-politik, those Cairo protestors who adopted a religous mantle to their slogans also must realize that governments who require the backing of Muslim authorities to rule are much less likely to club and imprison moderate protestors holding up copies of the Koran than those holding up law books.
So last night I went on Amazon.com and bought a new digital music player. This new device runs on AA batteries. I hope it's more grounded.
Once the Indian soldiers, known as Sepoys, discovered that the cartridges for their Lee-Enfield .303 rifles were coated in pig and beef grease--their British colonial masters were in deep trouble. The soldiers, after all, had to bite through the tops of the cartridges before loading them into their rifles. And for devout Muslims and Hindus, respectively, the fat of pigs and cattle is not something they should be chewing on. Not that the Lee-Enfield company really cared, though.
But ignorance, more than cartoons and bullets, is the real factor at play in the current outbursts and reactions over depictions of Mohammed. It's ignorance about how people live and what they believe. Freedom of press is as foreign to Iranian students as the teachings of the Prophet Mohammed are to a stockbroker in Chicago. And this ignorance allows radical leaders, especially in the cities where the riots have taken place, to exploit the mindless energy of the masses to consolidate their power, and improve their credentials. These leaders thrive in places where the young men lack both economic opportunity and a global comprehension--a description that can be applied to many big cities across the Middle East.
How big is the barrier between the West and the Islamic world? Won't globalization and the promise of democracy break down even that high wall? Today's cartoons show that these two worlds, increasingly intermingled, still know as much about each other as they did in the 19th century.
One ironic counter-example that reporters on the ground in Iran and Pakistan like to point out is that teenage protesters shout "Death to America" on the street, and then approach western journalists with whispered pleas to help them get a US visa. What does this show: Perhaps that many of the world's marginalized societies are hedging their bets--playing both radicalism and westernism to see which one will win. Plenty of Americans can relate--after all, even if we badmouth our boss to co-workers, we'll still kiss up to get a raise.
But more seriously, the lack of snow (or of any precipitation) has increased fears that the national forests will be closed this spring and summer due to fire dangers. Two summers ago rangers blocked the road to ski basin--cutting off all access. So I am planning, with some co-workers, to do more hiking and camping in February and March--before the fire restrictions arrive. The nights might be a little chillier this early on--but the views will still be worth it.
So here I am in Albuquerque's airport (or, as they rightly call it, the "Sunport"), and I've sent a few e-mails to my co-workers about magazine stories I browsed in the book shop. I've also checked the New York Times headlines to read about Oprah's retraction, and President Bush's party photos with Jack. But now I'm ready to close my computer and pull out a magazine. After all -- I spend ten to twelve hours a day socketed into a high-speed Internet connection. Sometimes I relish the chance for a break.
On my way to Montreal for the weekend.
I'm facing one of those empty pages as I start a feature story on my family's farm in Pennsylvania. I try to think back to previous articles I wrote, but my memories of the first drafts are always swallowed up by the stronger impressions of the final revisions. I can never remember that magic moment when my sentences and paragraphs cease to be fragmented ambitions, and merge to become the hot, spinning core of a story. Each time, it seems, I must rediscover how to write.