‘I Want My Neighbor’s Cow to Die’

George F. Will’s latest, on Iraq, by way of my brother John, who notes, “You know the jig is up when George Will sounds like Frank Rich.”

“Many months ago it became obvious to all but the most ideologically blinkered that America is losing the war launched to deal with a chimeric problem (an arsenal of WMD) and to achieve a delusory goal (a democracy that would inspire emulation, transforming the region). Last week the president retired his mantra ‘stay the course’ because it does not do justice to the nimbleness and subtlety of U.S. tactics for winning the war.

“A surreal and ultimately disgusting facet of the Iraq fiasco is the lag between when a fact becomes obvious and when the fiasco’s architects acknowledge that fact. Iraq’s civil war has been raging for more than a year; so has the Washington debate about whether it is what it is.”

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‘Pretty F___ing Ignorant’: Seymour Hersh on Americans and Iraq

A gem in the Montreal Mirror, an alternative weekly in the Great White North. Hersh was making an appearance at McGill University, and the Mirror did a set-up piece. The main subject, unsurprisingly, was Iraq. Hersh sounds taken aback by the interviewer, calling him opinionated, obsessional, and tendentious, and remarking, “This is the strangest interview I’ve ever had.” When the interviewer asks a question about Americans’ “willful ignorance” of the world, Hersh protests that he can’t conclude the lack of knowledge is willful, then adds:

“…Americans are pretty fucking ignorant. What we don’t know is pretty huge. You could never accuse Americans of learning from history or learning from past mistakes. You’re talking about a country that went to war in Vietnam with the theory that we had to bomb North Vietnam in order to keep the hordes of Red China from coming, right? Not knowing that Vietnam and China had fought wars for 2,000 years and would fight one four years after the war was over, in ’79. What we don’t know is just breathtaking in my country. To call this ignorance wilful as opposed to general ignorance, I don’t know. On any issue, Americans can display an incredible lack of information. I doubt if there’s a society which has paid less attention to the facts than any else.”

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Today’s Top Question

BearsTwo questions, actually: What’s the origin of the Chicago Bears’ nickname, “The Monsters of the Midway,” and how did it come to be applied to the Bears?

Part One is easy. When Kate asked me a couple weeks ago, I knew it had something to do with the Midway Plaisance on Chicago’s South Side, but was fuzzy on why that might apply to the Bears, who played in Wrigley Field (on the North Side) through 1970.. That Midway began as a park, was the center for carnival-type attractions during the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893, and ran adjacent to the University of Chicago. And in fact, the original Monsters of the Midway were the U. of C.’s football teams under coach Amos Alonzo Stagg. But the university, once a gridiron powerhouse, gave up football in 1939. That coincided with a golden age of Bears football. After the U. of C. abolished football to better focus on the serious business of education and splitting the atom, the Bears became known as the Monsters of the Midway (and began using the stylized letter “C” that the university had adopted as its helmet emblem).

OK so far. But all the accounts I’ve come across fail to explain just how the Bears began using what had been a college nickname. Invariably, references say the Bears “acquired” the name or that it “was applied” to them. A scholarly study of the University of Chicago football, “Stagg’s University: The Rise, Decline, and Fall of Big-Time Football at Chicago,” says the Bears “appropriated” the name.

Something’s left out here. Either George Halas or someone else with the team came up with the idea to grab the University of Chicago nickname (which was long out of date, by the way; my dad likes to recall how in the late ’30s, some locals wanted to set up a contest between the Maroons and the Austin High School, a juggernaut on the city’s West Side), or–my theory–it caught on after some sportswriter or headline writer began using it.

More research to come on this pressing question.

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Day Trip

Rumsey Post Office

We went out today to investigate Sand Creek Road, a squiggle on the map that runs from the upper end of the Capay Valley east and north across the last ridges of the coastal mountain ranges, finally dropping into the Sacramento Valley near a little farm and ranch town called Arbuckle. I was curious to see if the road was paved all the way; I was pretty sure it wasn’t, and I was right. On the right kind of bike–one with big tires that could handle the gravel and rocks and dirt and stream crossings and washboard–crossing from the Capay to the Sacramento side would be a memorable ride.

As it was, it made a memorable drive: We took Interstate 80 to Vacaville, then hit I-505 going north and got off at Putah Creek Road just outside Winters. From there, north on the Yolo County farm roads until we hit Highway 16. Then into the Capay Valley, past the gigantic Indian casino–a little slice of Vegas right in the middle of one of the state’s most beautiful landscapes–then up to the village of Rumsey, where you turn off at a sign that says Road 41, cross a substantial bridge, and Immediately find yourself on a one-lane road that goes from asphalt to dirt after the first mile.

You climb through chapparal and scrub pine to the top of a ridge that gives a sweeping view of the Capay country. Then you cross into what I’d describe as a sort of live oak plateau, cross a divide, and parallel a creek (Sand Creek, I guess) that descends into the Sacramento Valley. There are signs of ranching, and lots of hunting club signs telling you to keep off the land on either side of the road. Eventually you pass a couple of ranches, find the pavement again, and drop to the end of road, up a long, gradual slope east of Arbuckle.

After a quick turn through town, we stayed on county roads all the way back to Winters–paralleling I-5 for a while, then cutting back through the hills west and south of Dunnigan on ranch and farm roads. Dinner was at In ‘n’ Out Burger in Vacaville, then home on I-80. (The pictures: They’re here.)

Arbuckle Hotel Bar

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From Andrew Sullivan’s Daily Dish:

“Yesterday was a vital day of clarity for what has happened to America in the Bush presidency. …

“Q Would you agree a dunk in water is a no-brainer if it can save lives?

“THE VICE PRESIDENT: It’s a no-brainer for me, but for a while there, I was criticized as being the Vice President “for torture.” We don’t torture. That’s not what we’re involved in. We live up to our obligations in international treaties that we’re party to and so forth. But the fact is, you can have a fairly robust interrogation program without torture, and we need to be able to do that.”

It’s not torture. It’s a “dunk in water.” Like baptism. Or maybe like the dunk tank at the school carnival.

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Counting the many blessings of citizenship this election season, one of the things I’m most grateful for is the fact our barely elected president is such a patient guy. I know because. now that the heat is really on in Iraq, he keeps saying how patient he is. When he talked to George Stephanopoulos a couple weeks ago, he said when asked about the situation in Iraq, “I’m patient.” And in his press conference yesterday, he said “we’ve got patience” in working with the Iraqi government,

The more interesting thing the president says when he talks about patience is the footnote he adds. He told Stephanopoulos that “I”m not patient forever, and I’m not patient with dawdling.” And yesterday, he added that our patience–nice of him to speak for me–is “not unlimited.”

What does that mean, exactly? We’ve spent several hundred billion dollars and thousands of lives for the Iraqis to elect a government. The Iraqis themselves are enduring a bloodbath and various sorts of appalling privations. When our patient president says his patience might run out and that he won’t stand for dawdling–who could blame him, three and a half years after he declared victory–what’s he thinking? If the tide refuses to halt, what then?

A reporter tried to ask him about that yesterday: “What happens if that patience runs out?”” he inquired. Tricky formulation in that it’s not clear whose patience “that patience”” is.

The president’s answer:

See, that’s that hypothetical Keil is trying to get me to answer. Why do we work to see to it that it doesn’t work out — run out? That’s the whole objective. That’s what positive people do. They say, we’re going to put something in place and we’ll work to achieve it.

I’m not sure I understand all that, especially the positive thinking part of it, but: Apparently, saying his patience won’t last forever is just a verbal tic. It doesn’t suggest anything. If it did, that would open up “hypothetical” ground the president refuses to tread (“Mr. President, what happens if they don’t throw bouquets at us when we get to Baghdad?”). We’ll just have to trust the president’s instincts and insights to get us through if his patience wears out. Works for me.

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Guest Observation

Ode to Laziness

(From “Full Woman, Fleshly Apple, Hot Moon: Selected Poems of Pablo Neruda,” translated and edited by Stephen Mitchell)

Yesterday I felt that my ode wouldn’t

get up off the ground.

It was time, it should

at least

show a green leaf.

I scratched the earth: “Get up,

sister ode”

–I said to her–

“I promised to produce you,

don’t be scared of me,

I’m not going to step on you,

ode with four leaves,

ode for four hands,

you’ll have tea with me.

Get up,

I will crown you among the odes,

we’ll go out to the sea shore

on our bicycles.”

Nothing doing.


high up in the pines,


appeared naked,

she led me off dazzled

and sleepy,

she showed me on the sand

little broken pieces

of material from the ocean,

wood, seaweed, stones, feathers of seabirds.

I looked for yellow agates

but didn’t find any.

The sea

filled all spaces,

crumbling towers,


the coasts of my country,

pushing forward

successive catastrophes of foam.

Alone on the sand

a ray opened

a ring of fire.

I saw the silvered petrels

cruise and like black crosses

the cormorants

nailed to the rocks.

I set free

a bee writhing in a spiderweb,

I put a little stone

in my pocket,

it was smooth, very smooth

like a bird’s breast,

meanwhile on the coast,

all afternoon,

sun and fog wrestled.


the fog was pregnant

with light

like a topaz,

at other times a moist

ray of sun fell,

and yellow drops fell after it.

At night,

thinking about the duties of my

fugitive ode,

I took off my shoes

by the fire,

sand spilled from them

and right away I was falling


–Pablo Neruda

The Street Where You Live

Let’s just say you walked out to your car, the way you do every day if you have a car, and you looked in and saw the stereo was gone. Neatly and completely removed.

It happens. No sense getting too worked up. Nobody’s hurt, after all.

But what if it’s the third time it’s happened in this particular car, parked in the middle of your safe, seemingly immune little middle-class neighborhood (and when the stereo isn’t being ripped off, the car’s roof and hood are being kicked in or the windshield smashed)?

Then maybe you start thinking about all the other things that have happened on your safe, seemingly immune street since you moved in back in the late ’80s. You recall in no particular order:

The rapist who was caught after casing the house across the street.

The two laptops someone scooped up from your desk after smashing your kitchen window while you were out at the ballgame.

The innumerable late-evening front-door encounters with victims of empty gas tanks, freeway wrecks or other fictional misfortunes who just needed five or ten bucks to help them deal with the emergency.

The random misfortunate who snatched a purse from a neighbor’s house as the neighbor tried to verify the poor guy’s sketchy story.

The guy who showed up at 1 a.m., pounding on the door and demanding money from your wife while you were working.

The two or three or four other cars broken into in front of your house.

The neighbors who one day couldn’t find their car because it had been stolen overnight.

The stolen car that was dumped on the street, right in front of you, in broad daylight.

The break-in at the across-the-street neighbor’s place.

The break-in at the neighbor’s place three doors up.

The several occasions on which would-be burglars were interrupted while casing targets.

The bikes stolen from the back of your house and from behind one of your neighbors’ homes.

The commuter robbed at gunpoint up the street as he returned for his car after work.

The dad out walking with his kids who had a gun pulled on him during an attempted robbery.

The neighbor whose back-porch Sunday breakfast was interrupted by a guy coming over the fence with a suitcase. The neighbor asked what was going on, and the over-the-fence guy just said, “Stay out of my way” and kept on going.

One way I can look at all this: Hey, no one died. You can replace property, fix windows, buy a new car stereo, and get over your fear and sense of violation. But the way I looked at it when I discovered the stereo gone was not so reasoned and cool. It feels like this place asks a lot sometimes for the privilege of living here, and sometimes I detest the cost.

I’ve got no answers, or apologies, either. Just chewing it over.

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Off the Blotter

Berkeley’s hometown paper is the Daily Planet. It’s not daily anymore; the software millionaires who publish it cut it back to two days a week some time ago. It’s mostly a contentious political rag, but it’s better to have a rag of any sort than nothing at all.

Among its staffers is a guy who covers the city crime beat and produces the police blotter column. I share the widely held affection for and interest in local crime news, but I stay away from the Daily Planet’s cops column. I stay away because it ticks me off a little. It ticks me off because the guy who writes it is unable to restrain himself from exercising what I guess he must believe is a clever take on hard-boiled detective fiction. Here’s an example from the current edition of the Planet:


Besides the copy that has gone uncorrected (“pistol being the currently preferred weapons or the armed robbery set” is a gem), my compaint is with this guy’s fun getting in the way of his facts. It might be nice to offer some description of the “dangerous duo” beyond the fact one was “beefy” and the other “slender.” And more seriously, an item like this reflects little or no understanding that having a gun stuck in your face is anything but a joke to the guy looking down the barrel. But hey, these are editorial matters, and I’m out of the news game.

I can, however, write a letter to the editor. And issue to issue, the Planet seems to run every screed it gets. So I dashed off the following after putting the coffee on this morning:


Thanks ever so much for continuing to entertain the masses with the mirthful musings of jocular journalist Richard Brenneman. Until encountering his cutesy crime chronicles in your pages, I failed to focus on the fun in felonies or the alliterative amusement of misdemeanors. Some may carp and cavil about Mr. Brenneman’s jokey jottings and criticize them as prosey preciousness or doltish drivel. Ignore their nay-saying and nattering. Scrawl on uncensored, say I. Next time I come face to face with a “beefy bandit,” a “dangerous duo,” or any of the other colorful criminals who people Brenneman’s Berkeley, I’ll chuckle as I turn over my wallet, imagining how he might describe the scene.

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