Thursday, September 11, 2008

Remembering September 11

I’d been queasy all afternoon, but on the evening of September 10, 2001 I managed to drag myself out to the ballpark and go 4-for-4 in the last game of the CMF&Z Voodoo Bats’ coed slow-pitch softball season. I was still nauseous the next morning, so I called in sick and planned to rest at home all day.

And I would have, except that Love and Theft, Bob Dylan’s first album of new songs in four years, was being released that day. I drove to Target in West Des Moines to be the first on my block to own it—and as I walked through the electronics section, past the wall of TVs, I saw smoke coming out of the World Trade Center.

A plane had crashed into the building, they said.

That seemed impossible and ridiculous. Was it some idiot who lost control of his small twin-engine? They surely didn’t run flight patterns over the WTC, did they? And even if they did, the odds against a plane going down into such a major landmark had to be astronomical.

I was back home before I heard the real story. Hijackers. Terrorists. And then the truly unbelievable announcement that the first tower had collapsed.

I remember thinking they were mistaken. They said collapsed but they couldn’t have meant collapsed.

But there was the footage. It reminded me of when we used to crush pop cans by standing on them and poking the opposite sides at the same time.

I thought of the people inside, going about their business, feeling safe, never dreaming of any horror such as this. Whoever would have listed “Fear of an airplane being deliberately flown into my building” among his list of fears?

I thought of the people working on the floor the first plane hit, looking out the window at the nose of a jet getting larger and larger. I thought of the people on the jet, in utter shock that this was how it was going to end. I thought of the fanatic at the controls—the superstitious hateful fanatic—and wished there were a hell where he could be told: You were wrong.

The horror has diminished for me: I knew no one in New York at the time, suffered no anguish waiting on a call from a loved one. The horror has diminished but the sense of outrage lives on, and so with nothing political to say in this post I’ll just add my voice to those remembering the victims of September 11.

Barack Obama and Lipstickgate

The willfully ignorant are out in force these days, all upset about Barack Obama and Lipstickgate. They’re wringing their hands, they’re getting their undies in a knot, and if it’ll help draw attention to themselves they’re probably wringing their undies too.

I’m referring of course to the pretend outrage over Obama’s comment about John McCain’s claim to be the candidate of change. Speaking at a rally in Lebanon, Virginia, Obama said:

“You can put lipstick on a pig. It’s still a pig. You can wrap an old fish in a piece of paper called change. It’s still gonna stink. We’ve had enough of the same old thing.”

Unfortunately for Obama and fortunately for the willful ignoramuses, Republican VP candidate Sarah Palin had made a joke at the Republican National Convention, noting that the difference between a hockey mom and a pit bull is lipstick. Lipstick was thus fresh in the little minds of the sort of kneejerk Republicans who want desperately to believe their party has a corner on gentility, fairness, purity, and goodness. In these tiny minds, Barack Obama was referring to Sarah Palin as a pig.

And the media—too often as willfully ignorant as the rest of these clowns—gave them the voice they needed, as if there were honestly some debate about Obama’s meaning.

Never mind that the phrase “lipstick on a pig” has been in the lexicon for years (and enjoys a resurgence every four years, coincidentally enough). Never mind that McCain used the phrase years ago to refer to Hillary Clinton’s healthcare proposals. Never mind that it’s unfathomable that any presidential candidate in the 21st century would refer to his opponent as a pig—let alone one as gentlemanly as Obama, who had earlier noted that Palin’s family would be off-limits as campaign fodder.

No, these people had to pretend that they believed the unbelievable. Their outrage was manufactured and deceitful, and they know it. But here’s the sad part: They also know they only have to fool enough of the truly ignorant to keep this bullshit alive. So right now there’s a registered voter in Palookaville saying “I can’t vote for a man that calls a woman a pig,” and he’s saying it to two friends, and they’re saying it to two friends, and no matter what goes on between now and election day they’re going to remember something that never happened.

And the willfully ignorant will pat themselves on the back.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

By the Way, Nostradamus Didn't Know Beans Either

Back in high school I read Hal Lindsey’s book The Late Great Planet Earth and got all freaked out about it because this Lindsey character’s interpretation of the Book of Revelation indicated pretty clearly that we were living in the end times. That would be the 1970s, if you’re keeping score.

Lindsey had it all figured out. I don’t remember the details, but the Soviet Union figured heavily into it, and the European Economic Community, and the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem, and of course everybody’s favorite boogeyman, the antichrist. There was rapture this and tribulation that, and I was terrified. I mean, it had to be true, right? They wouldn’t have published it if it weren’t true, right?

I had all the critical-thinking skills of a gnat back then. Hell, I thought The Amityville Horror was a true story because it said “A True Story” right on the cover. Luckily I took a religion class in college and learned that people had been interpreting the Revelation pretty regularly for centuries, and that oddly enough they all found parallels between those biblical prophecies and whatever was going on in the world that day.

But this brings me back to an earlier post, about the co-worker who claims to believe Barack Obama is the antichrist. I still don’t know who this co-worker is, but I’d love to find out so I can ask if he or she is planning to vote for Obama. After all, a key element in any serious interpretation of Revelation is the antichrist’s rise to power. Do the people who make this outlandish Obama/antichrist claim really want to be the ones to thwart biblical prophecy? Aren’t they afraid of crossing up their deity?

Which is it? Do they take the prophecy literally or not? If they do, it sets up a catch-22 Joseph Heller would be proud of:

Co-Worker: I believe Obama is the antichrist.
Runes: Really. So you’re going to vote for him and help bring about the end times.
Co-Worker: No! I can’t vote for Obama—he’s the antichrist!
Runes: So you don’t believe the prophecy.
Co-Worker: Wrong. I do believe the prophecy, but that doesn’t mean I want it to happen in my lifetime.
Runes: So you think somewhere down the road, the antichrist will come to power.
Co-Worker: Exactly.
Runes: Therefore, it’s not Obama—so you can vote for him.
Co-Worker: I can’t vote for Obama.
Runes: Why not?
Co-Worker: He’s a Democrat/liberal/socialist/Muslim/ terrorist/African-American. And inexperienced.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Reasoning With Reason

I can’t remember the first time I ever heard the phrase “a piece of work” used disparagingly about a person with kooky beliefs or habits, but I do remember thinking it was both hilarious and incredibly apt. It’s a perfect phrase. You can call someone weird, but weird covers everything from Carrot Top to Son of Sam. “Piece of work” gets right to the point. You can’t say it without rolling your eyes or shaking your head or both.

The phrase is fresh on my mind today because this morning I discovered a blogger named Reason McLucus on the Des Moines Register site, and man, this guy is a piece of work.

According to his bio, Reason is 62 years old, a resident of Kansas, a Vietnam veteran, and “a mathematician who looks at how social and physical systems work.” He doesn’t claim that being a mathematician helps him understand how social and physical systems work—he just likes to look.

He does, however, say, that he has 100 hours of graduate study beyond his M.A. in American history. With those sorts of academic credentials going for him, one might think Reason could deliver a cogent analysis of the campaign landscape on the eve of the Democratic Convention.

One would be wrong.

The subtitle of Reason’s blog is “Fighting ignorance with knowledge and logic,” neither of which are evident in today’s post, called “Another Bush Administration.” Here’s Reason, coming right out of the blocks:

Democrats have been claiming that a John McCain administration would be a third Bush administration. However, it’s the Democrats who are offering the ticket that more closely resembles the Bush administration.

Say again? Two of the most liberal members of the Senate are more like Bush-Cheney than McCain and whomever? In his 100 hours of doctorate-level study, has Reason discovered some hidden nuance linking these four men, some insight we ordinary folks would have missed?

Uh, no, he has not. According to Mr McLucus:

Democrats will offer an inexperienced young presidential candidate with an older experienced vice president to tell him what to do—at least that is how the Democrats claim the Bush administration has functioned.

Well, substitute “dimwitted” for “inexperienced” and “morally bankrupt” for “older experienced,” and that’s pretty much how the Bush administration has been functioning for almost eight years now.

Reason goes on to say that Biden is actually more qualified to be president than Obama, which might or might not be true and isn’t really relevant, considering the primaries were over several weeks ago. He goes on to note:

Biden is a bad choice for Barack Obama’s running mate because Biden’s presence on the ticket will highlight Obama’s inexperience.

If Obama is as inexperienced in foreign policy as his detractors claim, then choosing a VP candidate who has foreign-policy experience should be reassuring, right? Not according to Reason, who uses his mighty powers of logic to claim that Biden’s experience only draws attention to Obama’s lack thereof. By Reason’s dubious reasoning, Obama should have selected a running mate with no experience whatsoever—because then nobody would notice.

Biden’s past comments about Obama’s inexperience could also hurt Obama’s chances of winning. Republicans certainly will be using those comments to discredit Obama.

Ah yes, six months ago, Joe Biden said something to the effect that Obama didn’t have the experience to be president. What was the context? Hmmm—oh yes, I remember now: Biden was running for president at the time. Apparently, Reason isn’t aware that primary candidates sometimes say things to make voters want to vote for them instead of the others. He’s right about one thing: Republicans will undoubtedly try to use this scrap of nothing to try to discredit Obama. As the Swift Boat weasels proved, there’s a whole mess of registered voters who’ll believe any damn thing you tell them.

Reason, don’t worry, buddy. Obama is well aware of Biden’s comment during the primaries. If he held any grudges, he wouldn’t have chosen Biden as his running mate.

Obama has been claiming he wants to bring change to Washington. His choice of a career Senator as his running mate indicates he is attempting to convince older voters that “Change” is just a buzz word to con young voters into supporting him.

This might be the dumbest paragraph in the piece, which makes it one of the dumbest of all time. I’d love to hear Reason use knowledge and logic to explain why Obama would want to convince older voters that he’s trying to con young voters into supporting him. The sentence makes no sense. Then again, neither does the idea that being a career Senator disqualifies one from trying to change things in Washington. See if you can figure this one out, Reason: What Obama and the rest of us want to change is the corrupt, immoral, un-American policies of the current resident of the White House.

Obama has no real intention of really changing anything in Washington.

Thank you, Amazing Kreskin. Your psychic abilities are every bit as sensible as your political insights.

I’ve browsed around a little bit in the rest of Reason’s posts, and to his credit, he comes out strongly against parents leaving their children in hot cars. But when it comes to talking politics, he’s truly a piece of work.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Cavalcade of News on the March, Part 2

Here’s a truly jaw-dropping moment from the recent news:

On "Face the Nation" Sunday, Republican slimebag Karl Rove said he expects Barack Obama to choose a VP candidate that will help him win battleground states, without regard to that candidate’s leadership potential. According to, Rove said

“I think he’s going to make an intensely political choice, not a governing choice. He’s going to view this through the prism of a candidate, not through the prism of president; that is to say, he’s going to pick somebody that he thinks will on the margin help him in a state like Indiana or Missouri or Virginia. He’s not going to be thinking big and broad about the responsibilities of president.”

Pardon me while I reattach my jaw. By Rove’s logic, Bush Sr must have chosen intellectual featherweight Dan Quayle as his 1988 running mate because Quayle actually had some presidential qualifications, not because he was a conservative Midwesterner with boyish good looks and the sturdy resolve of a lap dog. By Rove’s logic, Dan Quayle was the second-most qualified person to be the leader of the free world. Gee, you’d think a candidate of that caliber would still be active in politics, delivering fiery speeches about his vision for a better America, instead of working for a private investment firm.

(By the way, there probably aren’t a lot of blogs bashing Dan Quayle these days. Another reason you can count on the Runes for the most timely and insightful political commentary.)

Need another example? By Rove’s logic, Dick Cheney would make a good president. And maybe he would, if the Society of Grouchy Old Pricks ever deposes their current regime. But until showing contempt for Americans is recognized as an attribute of a good leader, I’m willing to believe the Poor Dope chose Cheney for entirely different reasons—most of them involving his shriveled black heart.

For seven long years, Karl Rove has been the shameless mouthpiece of an administration that puts party before country at every opportunity. Of course, it helps to be shameless if you’re going to accuse the Democrats of doing something you’ve made a pretty good living at.

* * *

Just a quick take on this one: I had to shake my head at the way both McCain and the Poor Dope demanded a diplomatic solution to the fighting between Russia and Georgia. Don’t those Russians know that we’re the only country allowed to solve problems—even non-existent ones—with military might? According to the Los Angeles Times, Bush told Moscow that its attacks in Georgia had “substantially damaged” its standing in the world and its relations with the West.

Well, he oughta know.

I’m sure Russia enjoyed being lectured by a guy with the moral authority of a cucumber.

Cavalcade of News on the March

Well, I wish John Edwards had kept his thing in his pants back when the opportunity presented herself. I’m surprised but not devastated by the news of his extramarital affair; after all, he didn’t promise to be faithful to me till death do us part. I’m mostly disappointed that he’s probably blown the chance to be a key member of an Obama administration.

I caucused for Edwards last January and he was my second choice after Howard Dean in 2004, and of all the Democratic candidates in the race when this campaign started a couple of eons ago, I still think he was the most aware of and the most concerned about the plight of working families.

That said, I want to go back to a quote I read from a Hillary Clinton supporter shortly after Obama clinched the nomination. This supporter complained that after it came down to a two-person race, the media’s love affair with Obama made the difference.

I’d like to point out that the media’s love affair with both Obama and Clinton was what made it a two-person race in the first place. In my estimation (and that of the thousands of other Iowans who helped him earn 15 delegates at the caucus last January), Edwards’ experience and ideas made him the best choice to defeat the Republicans in November—but somehow he got dubbed the pretty-boy candidate, the haircut candidate, and the media treated him as an also-ran before the campaign was barely off the ground. (Actually, my political views matched up 100 percent with those of Dennis Kucinich, but he was treated as the joke candidate from day one.)

He who lives by the media love affair dies by the media love affair. Sadly, that shows that media pundits have entirely too much influence on the electoral process. Even more sadly, it shows that the electorate is too easily influenced.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Say the Pledge, Dammit--Say It!

Barack Obama was speaking at a town-hall meeting at Baldwin-Wallace College Tuesday when he was interrupted by a guy complaining that he hadn’t asked the audience to say the pledge of allegiance. True story.

There are a handful of things Obama could have said in this situation. He could have said “Nobody’s allegiance is in question here.” Or he could have said “What are you, a fifth-grader?” Or he could have said “If you need forced pseudo-patriotic ritual to give your life meaning, there’s a Hitler Youth meeting down the hall.”

Instead he humored the heckler and invited him to lead the audience in the pledge. The heckler did so, the audience recited it with him, and there were no further incidents.

Naturally, I wanted to find out what make a grown man love the pledge so much. He identified himself only as John Q. Public, but I managed to pretend to track him down and make up this exclusive interview:

Runes: Mr Public, everyone wants to know: Why the pledge of allegiance? If you felt compelled to demand some group activity that reminded you of childhood, why not a game of dodge ball or a rousing chorus of “Head and Shoulders, Knees and Toes”?

Public: Frankly, I was caught up in the spirit of the event. I just wanted to make sure everyone in the crowd was as loyal to America as I am.

Runes: And how did you ascertain that?

Public: By making everyone pledge their allegiance. With that simple act, I assured Mr Obama that he was in the midst of loyal Americans, and that he could speak freely.

Runes: OK, I’m just playing devil’s advocate here, but what if someone in the crowd was actually disloyal to America but attempted to fool you by saying the pledge of allegiance?

Public: Doesn’t matter. Once you say the words, your allegiance has been pledged. You can’t go back on it. It’s in the books. “All your allegiance are belong to us,” as the kids say.

Runes: So the pledge has magical powers, is what you’re saying.

Public: It helped us win the Cold War, didn’t it?

Runes: Uh…

Public: I have to go now. My unicorn is here.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

If I Play My Cards Right, I'll Have $5 In No Time

I work with a good mix of people--Democrats and Republicans, religious and non-religious, left-brained and right-brained. I don't have a clue what most of them do when they leave the office. Some go home to their families, some go home to their pets, some go home to their fix-it projects. I think there are some that don't actually leave the office, so in that case I don't know what they do when I'm not there.

At least one of them, it would seem, listens to a lot of talk radio while thumbing through the latest interpretation of the Revelation. A friend of mine has it on good authority that someone in our office is convinced that Barack Obama is the antichrist.

(My friend's source is a former co-worker who refused to reveal the name of this deep political thinker--whether to protect him or her from humiliation or just to drive the rest of us nuts, I don't know.)

I've heard some crazy-ass ideas in my time (the concept of an antichrist at all strikes me as pretty goofy), but this one is particularly asinine when you take a close look at the self-professed Christian who's been in the White House for lo these many long years. Would Jesus have cozied up to the rich? Would Jesus have lied to his followers? Would Jesus have invaded a sovereign nation and killed a half a million of its residents? George Bush has done all these things, and he's proud of it.

So now I'm wondering this: If Obama is, as my mysterious co-worker and probably countless other yahoos believe, the antichrist, then what the hell does that make George Bush? What's worse than the antichrist in Christian mythology? Anything?

I finally decided that if Obama is the antichrist, George Bush must be the guy who makes the antichrist seem like an OK fella.

And then I decided that would be the first t-shirt on the virtual t-shirt rack at The Electron Runes Emporium, a shop at Cafe Press. The link is over yonder in the left column, and I figure if every Runes reader buys one of these shirts, I'll have an extra five bucks in my pocket in no time. Hot dang.

I'll add some inventory by and by. Right now this shirt is the only thing available--although it does come in a variety of styles, sleeve lengths, and colors.

Antichrist. Oh, brother.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Bad Day in the Blogosphere

Tonight I was all set to write about my 30-year high school reunion, but I was distracted by a column in the Register called Blogosphere’s Best, the title of which might lead someone to believe that the excerpts therein represented some of the smartest and most insightful writing on the internet.

And maybe normally that’s the case. Maybe today the Blogosphere’s Best editor was up against a hellish deadline.

That’s the only explanation I can find for this blurb, which they found on a website called Rhymes With Right:

You know all that stuff that we’ve been hearing from the Obamabots [about the Iraq war]? Well, they become fair game on January 20, 2009, if Barack Obama wins the election. After all, it will then be President Obama’s war, and by their own logic, it will be his supporters who have a moral obligation to go fight while those who voted against him stay home and engage in a higher form of patriotism—“dissent” designed to undercut the lawfully elected president, demoralize the military, and provide aid and comfort to the enemies of America.

I’m already looking forward to Operation Yellow Donkey, calling out all the college Democrats for not dropping out and signing up in the first 30 days of the Obama administration.

No, I’m serious. That’s what it said.

This is what happens when people dig in their heels and refuse to acknowledge that the invasion and occupation of Iraq was a rather colossal mistake by a rather poor president. It messes up their critical thinking skills. For starters, only the willfully ignorant will be calling the occupation of Iraq “President Obama’s war” after his inauguration. It might well be one of the many piles of poop the Poor Dope leaves for the next president to clean up, but on no account will it become the next president’s war. As the late great George Carlin once said, “Two guys on an elevator and one of them farts, everybody knows who did it.”

No amount of air freshener will ever clean the stench of Iraq away from George W. Bush. And by the way, pardon me for the scatological turn that last paragraph took.

Second, I’m pretty sure that someone has given the writer of Rhymes With Right a joke definition of “chicken hawk.” The word itself isn’t used in this passage, but he’s dancing all around it as if he wants to think he believes he knows what it means. When he says he expects college Democrats to drop out and enlist, he seems to be under the impression that that’s some sort of witty “turnabout is fair play” observation. (And he even attempts to back it up with the phrase “by their own logic,” which is utterly nonsensical.)

Let’s see if we can’t clear it up for this writer. First, it was college-age Republicans who were chided in liberal blogs over the past five years for loudly proclaiming their support for the invasion—as long as they weren’t asked to go take part in the fighting. Like their hero Dick Cheney, they all had better things to do. Second, college-age Democrats who have always supported getting the hell out of Iraq aren’t suddenly going to turn hawkish just because some right-wing blogger wants to call the occupation “President Obama’s war.”

I’m also trying to figure out which “lawfully elected president” this blogger is referring to. It’s been a while since we had one.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Close the Door, You're Letting the Yahoos In

In a recent letter to the Des Moines Register, the former Republican lieutenant governor of Iowa suggests that “the social conservative agenda as a foundation of the party, fortunately, is no longer attractive to a majority of voters.”

Joy Corning was writing in response to the recent election of some social conservatives to the highest levels of state GOP leadership, and according to her:

“[Social conservatives] apparently believe the party’s declines can be reversed by championing anti-abortion, anti-gay, anti-stem- cell research, anti-whatever-they-don’t-like positions as the lead campaign issues. Why? In other parts of the country it has been obvious that Republicans are seeking a leader rooted in more basic, centrist, traditional principles. McCain has triumphed over every candidate who tried to focus debate on abortion, gay marriage, stem-cell research and the rest of the social conservative agenda.”

That’s kind of a breath of fresh air, especially for anyone who remembers the days before the religious right oozed their way into the GOP. Don’t get me wrong: There wasn’t much about the Republican party I would have embraced before Reagan opened the door to these yahoos anyway, but at least it was a legitimate political ethos, based in Constitutional principles.

The religious right couldn’t care less about the Constitution. They’ll only be happy with a theocracy where they can make your choices for you.

So I have a tough time feeling sorry for Ms Corning and the “real” Republicans who now find their party being overrun by short-sighted people with narrow minds. They’ve been pandering to these people for almost 30 years now, using them as the Republican base (because there aren’t enough millionaires to go around), counting on the fact that most of them will vote against their economic self-interest if they can earn heavenly brownie points in the process—and now suddenly they’re surprised that some of them have slithered into positions of leadership?

It might be a little late to tell these people “Oh, sorry, we’re not really the anti-abortion, anti-gay party. We’re sorry you got the wrong impression when we desperately needed all your votes.”

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Dear Hank Steinbrenner

I haven’t written much about baseball here in the Runes, but I do like to point out stupid comments no matter where they come from. Last week there was a good one from Hank Steinbrenner—George’s son, and the big cheese with the New York Yankees these days—after the Yankees’ number one pitcher, Chien-Ming Wang, injured his leg while running the bases in an interleague game against the Houston Astros..

Just as a reminder for less-than-casual baseball fans, the American League uses a designated hitter who bats in the pitcher’s spot, while in the National League, pitchers bat just like everyone else—shortstops, catchers, outfielders, etc. The Yankees play in the American League, where pitchers don’t have to bat—except when they play interleague games in National League parks, which is what they were doing in Houston.

Anyway. Wang is out for 6-10 weeks, so Steinbrenner took the opportunity to call for a rule change, to wit:

“The National League needs to join the 21st century. They need to grow up and join the 21st century. I’ve got my pitchers running the bases, and one of them gets hurt. He’s going to be out. I don’t like that, and it’s about time they address it. That was a rule from the 1800s.”

The National League has responded:

Dear Hank—

Sorry to hear about your pitcher getting injured while he was playing baseball in a baseball game. Those baseball injuries have been known to happen to baseball players, especially when playing against other baseball players in baseball games. We did hear that right, didn’t I? He was injured playing baseball, wasn’t he? We’d hate to find out that a baseball player suffered a baseball injury doing something other than playing baseball.

Thanks for the invitation to grow up and join the 21st century. We’ll take it under advisement and put a committee on it, but just to clarify—our league is the one that started in 1876, 25 years before yours, right? Not the other way around? And our league is the one that
didn't change its rules in 1973 in a cynical attempt to add more offense and draw more fans, correct? Just making sure. Just wanted to make sure who was telling whom to grow up.

Please pass our best wishes on to Mr Wang.

The National League

P.S. Hey, if you want to complain, you can always write to “Commissioner” Bud Selig and complain about how interleague play creates inequitable schedules.

P.P.S. We don’t know what your dad told you, but you don’t have to act like a dick if you don’t want to.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Report From the Front Line

Here’s where I stand on recreational drugs: Don’t use ‘em, never have, don’t think they should be illegal, wouldn’t use them if they were legal. I don’t wish to be around people while they’re using and in fact I’d prefer not to know about their using, but it’s not a condition of friendship.

I mention this because this past Friday I saw firsthand a minor skirmish in the seemingly interminable “war on drugs,” which I suspect was declared years ago by someone with a cocktail in his hand. I was driving east on I-80, going around the Quad Cities on my way home to Indiana, when I noticed two diamond-shaped orange signs announcing “Be prepared to stop.”

A half-mile or so later, two more signs: “Random drug search ahead.”

And a little ways after that: “All cars subject to search.”

That’s the third time I’ve seen these warning signs on I-80, and each time I’ve been struck by what the subsequent car stops and drug searches had in common: They didn’t exist.

After you get past the final pair of signs, there’s nothing. No police checkpoints, no DEA agents, no drug-sniffing dogs.

Because there’s no such thing as a random drug search on the interstate. George Bush’s America isn’t quite a police state yet.

So what’s the point of the signs?

I’m no Constitutional scholar, but I do know there’s a little thing called just cause. (This doesn’t mean the police can stop you “just cause” they feel like it.) If you give the police a reason to search you for drugs—if they can see it or smell it or if you’re watching “The Wizard of Oz” while listening to “Dark Side of the Moon”—they can and will.

And if you see those orange signs and freak out and do a U-turn on the interstate, there’s a man in a police helicopter who’s going to radio the words “Just cause” to a man in a police car.

Now, if you’re a drug dealer working the Iowa-Illinois territory (and really, what are the odds that one of the half-dozen Runes readers is?), I suggest getting a real job. And if you’re just some doofus going to Moline to share your stash with your old lady, take note: Don’t get spooked by the orange signs. There’s no search. They’re counting on the fact that you spent more time in high school getting baked than learning about your Constitutional rights.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Just Doin’ Muh Job

In post-9/11 America, the Bush administration has created and nurtured a climate of fear, a landscape where you don’t have to be all that paranoid to see terrorists in every shadow.

One of the saddest casualties of such a state is the loss of subjectivity, the abdication of common sense that results from an unyielding loyalty to regulations. I saw this in action Saturday afternoon at Kansas City International Airport, Terminal A, Gate 25, when an elderly man was pulled out of the security line and given the electronic-wand treatment, over and over and over.

He was an unassuming gentleman with a doughy face, a striped polo shirt, and a New York cap. They made him lift his arms while they ran the wand all around his body, and he complied willingly, cooperatively. I’ve been pulled out of line before and found it best to go along with a smile, to let the underpaid TSA guys do their thing without hassle, and that’s what this fellow was doing.

KCI is set up so the people who accompany you to the airport can stay in visual contact even after you go through security, and there outside the gate that day were a man and a woman—the elderly man’s son and possibly his daughter or daughter-in-law—watching to make sure the old man made it to his plane. The son was about my age, mid-40s or so, and after a few minutes of watching his father being inspected, he approached the emergency exit and asked the female TSA agent there what the holdup was. I didn’t hear her response, but the son spoke again in a more agitated fashion: “He’s an 80-year-old man, he’s not well, and you’re making him stand with this arms up for ten minutes!”

The woman signaled for assistance. Two white-shirted TSA guys came to the exit and asked what the problem was. Again the son appealed to their sensitivity, explaining that his father was old and not well, and that standing in that position wasn’t helping his health any. His companion asked “Would you treat your own father like that?”

The answer came straight of the manual: “We have to screen him. We have to follow regulations.”

The son said he wasn’t suggesting that no one screen passengers, and again asked that they be more sensitive to his father’s condition.

And they wouldn’t do it. Two more TSA agents poked their heads through the emergency-exit doorway. Two more seemed to be hovering outside the gate in case they needed to use force on this man pleading for common sense—essentially asking someone to let his father put his arms down.

Any one of them could have relayed that message to the guy with the wand. Any one of them could have said “Hey, Charlie—this guy’s 80 and his son says he’s not well. Let him rest for a minute.”

But they’d sworn allegiance to the regulations. They had to go by the book. As long as they could rely on the book, they wouldn’t have to think. The son raised his voice a time or two, he called the whole procedure ridiculous, and from what I could tell he wanted desperately to rush through the gate and rescue his dad—but he was remarkably restrained and stayed civil through his indignation, even while the screeners continued to take their sweet time clearing the old man for travel.

I shared a sympathetic look with the man and woman before I left. There wasn’t much else I could do.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Adventures in Hospital Billing

You want know how much I enjoy dealing with hospital billing departments? (Just pretend you do and say Yes.) Here’s how much I enjoy dealing with hospital billing departments: I find kidney stones and sore throats to be excruciatingly painful, but I’d rather have a kidney stone and a sore throat than deal with hospital billing departments.

In fact, I’d rather have a sore throat in my kidney than open another bill from people who assume that if you don’t pay the entire balance immediately, you must be planning to flee the country with their medical care still inside you.

Right now I’m dealing with a bill for a couple of hospital classes I attended last winter to learn about Type 2 diabetes and how to keep it from becoming Type 1. My health insurance covered all but about $307 of the cost, and of course if I’d paid the whole $307 at the outset I wouldn’t need to write this post.

However, I decided to spread my payments out over time, and they apparently don’t like that. I don’t understand why they don’t like it, because I suspect that if you took a survey of people who work in hospital billing departments, the results would show that all of them prefer convenient monthly payments.


First bill, I sent ‘em $25. The next bill came with a suggestion that I should call the billing department if I knew what was good for me, so I called and spoke to a friendly woman who set me up with monthly payments of $32. Next bill, I sent ‘em $32.

In March I moved from an apartment in West Des Moines to a house in Clive, and despite my very clear forwarding instructions to the US Postal Service the next bill didn’t get forwarded. I don’t know why. Maybe the USPS dog ate it. I was aware there’d been a long interval between statements, but since a large chunk of my March finances was already earmarked for moving expenses and car repairs, I didn’t get all that worked up about it. The hospital did. There was a note on the next statement that said I’d missed a payment and now owed $64, and that I should call the billing department again if I knew what was good for me.

I didn’t make that call. Partly because I have a stubborn streak, partly because I didn’t appreciate the intimidating tone, and partly because I didn’t see the point. The statement said I owed $64, so I sent them $100 as a sign of good faith, a sign that I wasn’t planning to skip out on the bill. That took my balance down to $118, and the way I saw it, I was a month and $4 ahead on my payments.

The hospital didn’t agree. (It’s Mercy Medical in Des Moines, by the way—I’d hate for someone to Google them and miss out on this story.) On the next statement, they listed the amount due as $118, with no mention anywhere of my agreed-upon $32 payments. There was, however, a note that said “Numerous attempts have been made to contact you” along with the requisite suggestion to call the billing department within 15 days if I didn’t want any trouble.

Now, the intimidation didn’t bother me as much as the greatly exaggerated claim that they’d made numerous attempts to contact me. When I signed up for the diabetes class in November, I listed my home phone number, my work phone number, and my cell phone number. I didn’t receive any voice mails from Mercy Medical on my work phone or cell phone (voice mails are a popular way to contact someone when you’re making numerous attempts to do so), nor did the caller ID on either phone reveal any unusual numbers. I suppose it’s possible that they called the home phone I listed, but since that number was disconnected in March I can’t believe they were dumb enough to try it more than once. There aren’t too many ways to interpret the phrase “You’ve reached a number that has been disconnected.”

So unless they just called a bunch of random numbers asking for Dono (which, technically, could be considered numerous attempts to contact me), I believe I caught them in a lie. And when I dutifully called the billing department and left a message, I politely told them so.

Three weeks later, they still haven’t returned my call.

Oh, Wait, Here’s Some More Stuff

* There are a whole mess of good reasons for European-style universal healthcare. This post wasn’t meant to be one of them, but hey, if the shoe fits.

* Microsoft Word’s spell check didn’t like the word “ureter” in the first paragraph. (Didn’t care much for it in this paragraph either.) It suggested urethra, greeter, renter, and writer as possible substitutes. Not sure why. According to Merriam-Webster, ureter has been in the language since 1543—about 90 years before the first use of urethra, if you’re keeping score.

* The new hospital under construction in West Des Moines is going to be called The Michael R. Myers Hospital. If you’re reading this in the Des Moines metro, please join me in referring to it as the Austin Powers.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Master Humorist Mike Huckabee

Despite all the furor about Mike Huckabee’s misguided attempt at humor at last Friday’s NRA meeting, I don’t for a minute think he meant the punch line to refer to an assassination attempt. In case you’ve forgotten the story (thanks to the four-day delay between news events and Runes postings thereon), the former Republican presidential candidate was in the middle of a speech when he was interrupted by a loud noise offstage. Quipped the Huckster: “That was Barack Obama. He just tripped off a chair. He was getting ready to speak and somebody aimed a gun at him, and he dove for the floor.”

According to Yahoo News, “there were only a few murmurs in the crowd” after the remark. Man, Mike, if you can’t get laughs with a joke about a liberal Democrat being frightened by a gun at a freakin NRA meeting, you can’t get laughs anywhere.

Be that as it may. Huckabee may be a doofus, but he was guilty of nothing more sinister than shameless pandering. He thought the NRA audience would wet themselves laughing at the idea of Obama diving to the floor at the very sight of a gun. He thought he was playing to a crowd of Bubbas who would guffaw and snort “That’s right—them libruls is a-skeered of firearms!”

But the tepid reaction would seem to point toward a crowd with a slightly more sophisticated sense of humor, a crowd that felt uncomfortable about the suggestion of violence aimed at a presidential candidate, a crowd that probably wondered how the hell one goes about tripping off a chair.

Now, I don’t want to give the NRA meeting attendees more credit than they deserve—for all I know they all reached for their concealed weapons as soon as they heard the noise backstage. I also hate to let Huckabee off the hook for buying in to the whole “Gun lovers good, liberals bad” horseshit. But dammit, I know a little bit about humor. I’ve been writing and performing comedy in some form for most of my life, and there’s a lesson here I can’t pass up, even when it helps a pipsqueak like Huckabee. (There’s a precedent for this. In the April 14, 2007 edition of the Runes, I offered Ronald Reagan an easy fix that would have greatly improved his lame joke about bombing the Soviet Union and would have made it actually funny. My advice went unheeded, presumably because Reagan had died sometime during his second administration.)

Anyway, Huckabee, listen up. Next time you’re at an NRA meeting and there’s a loud noise backstage, here’s what you do. No, wait—here’s what you don’t do: You don’t make any kind of reference to someone aiming a gun at Barack Obama. Got that? It’s rude, it’s unfunny, and it doesn’t look good coming from someone who purports to be a Christian. No, here’s what you do instead: You misrepresent the Democratic Party’s position on gun control, and build the humor on that. (Don’t worry—it’s not hard to do. It’s second-nature to most Republican candidates and pretty much all right-wing pundits.)

OK, ready? Here comes your improved joke. There’s a loud noise backstage, and you say “Hey, that must have been Barack Obama trying to take someone’s gun away from him.” Rimshot. Adjust tie. Big laughs. And if you’re feeling confident in your timing, wait a beat and then say “And tripping off a chair.”

Now, I know I’ve said in the past that verisimilitude is the essence of humor. It has to sound real to be funny. But in this case, don’t worry. Misrepresenting what your opponents believe in will sound real enough to the sort of people who would invite you to speak to them anyway.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

It's Good To Be Back

It’s good to be back. If, indeed, I am. It’s hard to say right now.

I’d like to apologize to the twos of readers who missed the Runes during its lengthy absence, and who sent emails expressing their fear that something heavy might have fallen on me or that I might have been incinerated by divine lightning bolt after manufacturing a quote from God in my August 14 post about the concerned Christians of Athens, Alabama and their efforts to outlaw liquor sales in their community. No such lightning bolt materialized, though I did receive a sarcastic chiding from an anonymous reader who said that quoting God is a good way to get into heaven.

This was obviously an anonymous reader who hadn’t spent much time in the Runes archives.

Anyway. It’s been nine months since I posted, and on the off-chance you might be wondering why, here’s the closest thing I have to an explanation: Last August I got busted for surfing the internet at work. They got me dead to rights and showed me a whole list of sites I’d visited: a St Louis Cardinals fan site, my credit union online teller, a couple of political blogs, and the Runes. Scandalous, I know—not a naked picture in the bunch, but nevertheless I contritely agreed to curtail my web-surfing during working hours.

But wait, you might be asking—where’s the connection? Why did you stop posting at the Runes just because you couldn’t surf the internet at work? Why didn’t you just write and post from home? Why did you stop when you were on such a roll?

(OK, you might not be asking that last one.)

Truth is, it suddenly felt dirty. I know I don’t have much of a following, but by golly I want people to visit the Runes because it makes them laugh, or because it makes them think, or because they share my indignation about hypocrisy and self-righteousness and willful ignorance, or even because they’re strongly in favor of those things. The idea that anyone would look at the Runes for any other reason just kind of creeped me out.

Hey, I didn’t say it was a good explanation.

So here it is April 2008. I’ve passed up some choice stories just because I wasn’t in the Runes frame of mind. But today, with John McCain trying to make people forget he’s spent the last seven years making a nest in the Poor Dope’s shorts, and with the Poor Dope continuing to smirk his way through the last year of his disaster, and with the Democrats we elected to get something done in 2006 still doing nothing, the time is right.

Back to the Runes. Let’s see what happens.