Wednesday, March 28, 2012

To Everyone: Turn, Turn, Turn...

Your car can make a 45-degree turn.  Trust me.  Please?  If you don’t, you’re going to kill someone.  

People have driven like idiots since the day Henry Ford started churning cars off his assembly lines and Herbert Hoover put a chicken in every pot and a car in every garage.  It only stands to reason.  People are idiots.  Drivers are people.  I’m no math genius, but I’m fairly certain that conclusively proves that drivers are idiots too.  And the way people drive has been a sore subject for me for many years.  The seeming inability of people to grasp the four-way stop sign, tailgating, how drivers turn into “instant idiots” any time you add water (frozen or liquid form), I could go on for days about the long list of sins I have committed against me daily.

This, however, is a new one.  It’s not that it’s never happened to me before, I’m sure we’ve all experienced it, in fact.  What’s new is the frequency with which it’s happening lately.  I’m starting to worry that it’s actually being taught this way.  I’m speaking, of course, about the people’s propensity to veer left before making a right hand turn, or veer right before making a left turn.

I’ll repeat again, because it’s worth a little redundancy, YOUR CAR IS CAPABLE OF MAKING A 45-DEGREE TURN—especially when it’s already moving forward.  You do not need to veer into my lane before making your turn.  I promise.  Just turn.  It’ll be okay and I won’t need to have a heart attack and that’s just a win-win situation if I’ve ever heard one, okay?

It seems like everywhere I go now I’m coming across these idiots who can’t even execute a proper turn.  Next to going straight, turning left or right is probably the easiest thing about driving, but lately, it’s like people can’t even do that anymore.

The worst part is that these people, when they veer into my lane, so they can make their turn, are doing it without even looking.  It’s like they think that when they drive somewhere, it’s everyone else’s responsibility to get out of their way.  Oops!  Sorry I was driving my car in my lane!  I should have realized you might need to turn and that would require the use of half of my lane.  My bad!  Have a nice day!  I hope my existence didn’t inconvenience you in any way!

So:  I just wanted to get this out there.  Consider it public service.  Maybe you don’t realize the full and amazing capabilities of your automobile.  You can trust me on this one though.  Even a box truck, like your local FedEx or UPS delivery man drives, doesn’t need to veer into my lane in order to execute a simple turn at an intersection.  I think it’s safe to assume your Prius is even more agile than those bulky boxes with wheels so go ahead.  Give it a try!  Just turn, baby!  Just turn the wheel until your car is pointing in the direction you want to go.  It’ll work.  I promise.  You can practice in the parking lot of your local grocery store if you want.  But…the next time you’re out in the world driving, especially if you’re anywhere near me, please, for the love of all that’s good and right, STAY THE FUCK OUT OF MY LANE WHEN TURNING OR I WILL HUNT YOU DOWN AND PUNCH YOU IN THE THROAT!

Thank you.

Monday, March 26, 2012

The Mirage by Matt Ruff: A Book Review

I need to introduce you to my friend Matt. Okay, so he’s not my friend, he’s an author whose books I enjoy, but still…you need to get to know him, if you don’t already. For googling purposes, his full name is Matt Ruff.

I first met Matt one day when I was walking around in Borders. I saw a book with a bright yellow cover—and what seemed from a distance to be a Darth Vader helmet, though upon closer inspection it was a monkey—and I picked it up, read it over, put it back down and walked away. It wasn’t that the book didn’t interest me; it just wasn’t what I was in the mood to start reading that day. As often happened back in the day of the actual book store, I spent a good hour walking around picking up books, reading the back covers, sampling the first pages and moving on to see what else might strike my fancy.

I kept coming back to the Matt Ruff book. I sampled it like an old woman in a grocery store inspecting the fruit. I remember not liking the shape of the book (yes, I’m THAT picky). It was a trade paperback, but it was narrower that I felt it should have been. And who was this Matt Ruff guy? I’d never heard of him before.

In the end though, I came back one final time and after an hour of searching and not finding what I was in the mood to read, the numerous re-reads of the back cover and first few pages of Ruff’s book Bad Monkeys finally convinced me to pull the trigger and take it home with me.

It didn’t take very long at all before I found myself very much in the mood to his book though. To say it hooked me is a vast understatement. Bad Monkeys is a fast paced, smart, witty and fun read. It’s one of those rare books that keeps jerking you back and forth, constantly diverting your attention until you can no longer tell which cup the red ball is hiding underneath.

The next time I read a Matt Ruff book was approximately 30 minutes after I finished Bad Monkeys. If immediately driving to the book store to find another book by an author doesn’t tell you all you need to know about how much I liked the first book of his I read then—well, you’re stupid. Stop it.

I was skeptical about the second book. It had a few words in the title that no man wants to read and never wants to be seen holding. I dreaded the question, “So, what are you reading?” Fortunately though, Set This House In Order, A Romance of Souls was my second Matt Ruff book. I wouldn’t have chosen it if my book store had had another of his books in stock, but like the way Bad Monkeys kept calling me back, this books seemed destined to find it’s way into my hands as well. Once again, I was very much surprised and pleased.

The thing about Matt Ruff that you can’t help but enjoy is the complexity of his stories and his characters while neither ever actually overwhelms the reader. There are lots of complex characters but after a while you lose them or worse, you lose your personal connection to them because they are inaccessible to you. And complex plots—well, nothing fails bigger than a complex plot gone wrong. So often, an author obviously writes a story with a complex plot without first outlining it and the result is that they wind up getting lost somewhere in the middle and then rush to conclude it in the end, in a way that leaves you feeling dissatisfied.

Matt Ruff’s books, conversely, read like a season of LOST, only with a more satisfying finish. He doesn’t try to outfox his readers. He’s confident enough in his storytelling that he wants you to get it all. He wants you see every clue and every red herring and then he turns it all in ways you didn’t think of and always seem like a surprise when you read them. He keeps you on your toes, but more importantly, he keeps you involved. He doesn’t inundate you with information to hide his clues. He says, look, here’s a clue! You make the logical conclusion about where it will go, and then he proves you wrong.


When I heard the premise of Ruff’s latest book, I was, once again, skeptical. It had been some time since I’d read his books and while I remembered his ability to turn a story on it’s ear, something about the premise of the new book just made me think it wasn’t going to work. Predictably, in my experience with Matt Ruff books by now, I was wrong.

The Mirage is his latest title. It almost defies explanation. In an alternate reality, the United States does not exist; worse, we are a backward, third world grouping of countries. Christian Fundamentalists, in opposition to the constant involvement of the United Arab States—a world Superpower—in the affairs of their world, hijack four airliners on 11/9 and crash them into twin towers in Bagdad, another into a government building and, of course, the final airliner was taken back by it’s passengers before crashing.

The UAS has no choice but to declare a War on Terror. Rumors of Weapons of Mass Destructions in North America cannot be ignored.

The story revolves around three UAS Homeland Security Agents. In the course of their duties, they break up a terrorist plot and arrest one of its conspirators. Before the prisoner is disappeared into one of the secret prisons, he tells the investigators of The Mirage.
The Mirage, he explains, is the wool that’s been pulled over the eyes of the world. Everything is backwards. The USA is the world Superpower. The Arab states are backwater, third world countries. It was Muslim Fundamentalists who started a War of Terror against America.

The agents, obviously, think their prisoner is delusional, but they find an artifact amongst the prisoner’s things: A newspaper called the New York Times, printed on 9/12, a day after airliners were flown into two twin towers there.

Obviously, a fake; but Homeland Security must stay up to date on these terrorist myths so the investigation goes on, and when more artifacts begin showing up they raise question after question without an intelligent answer. Could The Mirage be true?

This book ties history into knots and then slowly untangles them again. In typical Matt Ruff fashion, up is often down, left is often right and the lines between good and bad, altruistic and evil get brilliantly blurred.

Along the way, you’ll meet alternate versions of characters you already know: Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Laden, Tariq Aziz, Donald Rumsfeld, “The Quail Hunter,” Timothy McVeigh, David Koresh and a father and son with the same name—one called H, the other W.

The most interesting of these characters is Osama bin Laden. It is said only about him and repeatedly so that, “an evil prince in one world is an evil prince in any world.” Though, by a continuation of that logic it can, of course, be said of all the “real world” characters we meet, which greatly indicts “The Quail Hunter,” and Mr. Rumsfeld.

Since finishing this book I’ve read some criticism that it doesn’t take sides. What’s given to you isn’t the work of an author with an agenda. He’s not telling you what to think. He’s asking you to think about it in a different way that you previously had. And in that, I find the criticism unfounded. Not all books are meant to tell you what to think—or to even tell you what the writer thinks. Some books are simply written to make you think. The conclusions are left for you to draw on your own. The implications are such that it leaves many different interpretations. Ruff isn’t interested in telling anyone that they are wrong. He isn’t interested in telling anyone that he is right. He very simply retells history in a way that makes you walk a mile in a different pair of shoes. How you feel about the information when it’s presented in a new way is up to you.

It was an ambitious undertaking and one that could have gone wrong in so many different ways. Ruff’s skilled writing and storytelling skills, along with what must have been exhaustive and extensive research culminate in an extremely well written, interesting and thought-provoking book. And like Luke Skywalker in the cave on Dagobah, what waits inside is only what you bring with you. Your weapons…you will not need them. What you face inside is yourself and if you’re honest and true, you just might come away with a different point of view.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Rush Limbaugh: Undercover Democrat

I think the time has finally come to consider a conspiracy theory. There was a time when this would have seemed preposterous, but now? I have to wonder. Is Rush Limbaugh on the payroll of President Obama and the Democratic Party?

Ridiculous! Right?

Limbaugh makes a living howling at the moon about how Obama is the devil and our country is going straight to hell under his leadership and he seemingly offers up the Republican Party as the only possible way to save the country, the American way of life and our mortal souls. How could he possibly be playing for the other team?

Then you think about it though. For better or worse, the Republicans have had the spotlight now, in terms of the upcoming presidential election, for a few months. They’ve had the chance to set the table, pick the issues, and pound away at the job President Obama has done for the past 4 years. And, let’s face it, the job he has done is a far from the “Change we [could] believe in!” You can point out, all day long, that it’s been the Republicans of Congress who have stood in Obama’s way of enacting that CHANGE all you want, but Obama’s pre-election rhetoric never took the tone of, “Change you can believe in (if the Republicans do what I tell them to in complete opposition to the trend of polarized politics that has our country in it’s grip.” It’s also worth pointing out that while Obama did have the majority in Congress, he chose to prioritize his health care reform over the economy which led to the congressional purge that placed the Republicans in power there.

In short, had the Republicans fielded a charismatic, intelligent, level-headed candidate for the presidency, he or she may have actually had a chance. Instead, they fielded a cast from Clown College and Ron Paul who never had a chance in the first place. So, things were looking good for the president. Still, they say that any publicity is good publicity and the final few candidates who have survived the reality show-like eliminations have been front and center.

And the debate has turned to contraception. Sex sells. The Republicans have drawn a line in the sand. It’s a brilliant move because surely the youth and moderates will flock to this Republican effort, right? College kids hardly ever have sex and when they do it’s only for the purpose of procreation. Moderates with high-school and college-aged kids are so eager to be grandparents that they will, obviously, side with the Republicans on any issue that will help take them remove easy access of contraception to more kids. Nothing fills the parent of a kid away at college with more pride than announcing that little Betty is dropping out to have the baby of some guy whose name she thinks was Pete at the frat party a few weekends ago!

Only a Republican can understand the logic behind a move that only solidifies their already hard-core base and alienates the majority of the rest of us, but we’ll let the strategy slide, and the actual issue, which only involves the health care of religious institutions slide because those things are only background to the point at hand. Let’s get back to President Obama’s secret weapon: Rush Limbaugh.

Between Obama’s not living up to his promise of Change and the Republican’s seemingly poor strategy of alienating large portions of the votes they need to win the upcoming election this presidential race could have been an interesting one. Enter Rush Limbaugh. Leave it to Rush to truly offer President Obama the best opportunity he’s had to remind the youth and women voters that he is the only choice for them. Rush went on the radio and called a woman, who spoke before Congress on the issue, “a slut.” He suggested that if we had to pay for her contraception that she was essentially a sex worker and that we were entitled to see a video tape of all the fun stuff.

Let’s look at that another way: A seemingly intelligent, articulate, young woman who works for and spoke with the support of a faith-based employer who would be affected by this legislation spoke her mind before her elected officials to offer evidence on behalf of others in her situation and our friend Rush, who is, as I understand, a big proponent of the First Amendment, calls her a slut for doing so. He didn’t call her a great American for participating in the political process. He didn’t laud her for her courage and conviction. He called her a slut. He suggested that his tax dollars being involved entitled him to see a tape of her having sex. He objectified women. He disrespected them. He singled out this one woman in particular and called her a name that women voters will not forget.

Say what you will, but while it may only be a very loud, very vocal segment of Republicans that Rush speaks for—the perception (which is much more important than the reality) is that he is the voice of the party, to those outside of the party. Some of those people outside the party might even be referred to as moderates or the swing vote and now, they have, perhaps reluctantly, slid themselves firmly back into President Obama’s pocket because, let’s face it, the alternative is the party that calls women’s who express their opinions in the manner of a good American, as sluts.

President Obama has reached out to the woman in question and spoken to her by phone, thanking her for her bravery and intelligence and offering to be of aid to her in any way he can. It’s almost reminiscent of a cowboy in a white hat coming to the defense of the picked upon woman. You can almost hear the collective swoon of women voters.

You can also, almost hear the collective eye-roll of the Republican candidates who must now stay true to their base while backtracking against the idea that any woman who uses contraception is a slut. It doesn’t matter if their opinion on the subject is right or wrong now, what matters is that they have to fight for what they believe in from a defensive standpoint. President Obama gets to fight for what he believes in from the role of gentlemanly hero.

President Obama’s next call should have been to Rush Limbaugh, just to say thank you.

The Republicans, through their strategy, have seemingly decided that Obama has done a poor enough job that the presidency can be won by simply solidifying the base. They felt that the youth and moderate votes that swung things President Obama’s way in the last election were going to stay home this time around, be it due to complacency or disappointment. They’ve only touched on issues that appeal to their own base. They’ve felt no need to venture out to get the votes of those in the middle. They thought it would be an election of us versus them and that the majority of us, the disillusioned middle, would stay out of it.

At the start of World War II, after the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor, the Japanese Admiral responsible for that attack, Isoroku Yamamoto famously said, “I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve." When the Republicans look back at this election and try to figure out why they lost—not only the White House, but at least a part of their power in Congress as well—they would do well to remember the efforts of party cheerleader, Rush Limbaugh, who helped to wake the sleeping giant that hadn’t planned on taking sides, until he decided to be a bully and call a woman, exercising her right as an American, a slut.

It was such an obvious, boneheaded move on Rush’s part, you almost have to wonder if it was purposeful? I mean, no one could possibly be THAT stupid. Could they?