Archive for the 'Social Commentary' Category

Tales From the Spa – Part 2

Saturday, September 2nd, 2006

The following is a paraphrase of a conversation Paul had with a woman in the Thermal Suite on day five of our recent cruise: 

Woman: Yeah… I took this trip eight years ago and Marjorie Glacier was a lot larger then.¬† It’s really retreated in that time.¬† The icebergs we saw the other day were tiny, too.¬† They were enormous before.¬† It’s all because of global warming.¬† Greenhouse gas and all that.¬† And not like this government is doing anything about it.

Paul:  Really?  Hmmmm.  Well, what are you going to be doing in Ketchikan tomorrow?

Woman:¬† I’m taking the Hummer excursion.

[Editors note:¬† And that, ladies and gentlemen, falls into the general category of ‘not getting it.’¬†

The Princess Cruise website describes the Hummer excursion, which is available in Ketchikan, Alaska, as follows:

Custom Hummer Adventure

Explore Ketchikan and Revillagigedo Island in rugged luxury as you ride in a fully loaded Hummer H2 with heated leather seats and dual air temperature controls.  Independent front suspension and rear air shock suspension makes the ride of these H2’s smooth and comfortable while cruising through town or climbing a mountainside.] 


Thursday, August 31st, 2006

I never cease to be amazed  by the universal human propensity to believe that (only) other people speak with an accent.

Now, I happen to have what I refer to as a chameleon ear.¬† That means that I can’t help but to absorb and to speak with the type of language/dialect/accent in which I’m immersed at any given time.¬†¬†l’m convinced that this is a trait that some people have and some people don’t.¬† I find that those who are skilled in music tend much more in the chameleon-ear¬†direction than those who aren’t.¬†

In my case, my impressionability extends even to speech mannerisms and the kind of impression made on the listener.  I learned long ago, therefore, that I need to choose my surroundings carefully.  During my brief stint as a telemarketer, I always had better sales successes when sitting next to a successful seller.

I became aware of this trait in myself as a child, when I would leave the confines of Southern Indiana each year for a month-long stay with my grandparents in Bethesda, Maryland, just over the Washington D.C. city line. 

I distinctly remember being suddenly aware,¬†when calling¬†my mother from Maryland, of¬†her very southern-sounding drawl – and I knew that when I was at home, she had less of an “accent” than many fellow southern Hoosiers.¬† She would also comment on the Easternization of¬†my speaking during, and just after, my summer visits.

My ears almost fell off when, after just having arrived home from a year in Germany, some relatives at a dinner party in Kentucky asked if I wanted to “triiiiiiiiiiiiy some piiiiiiiiiiiiiie.”

All of this brings me to living now¬†in Wisconsin.¬† I vividly¬†remember that when I met Paul in D.C., I was struck by the strength of his marked and earnest Wisconsin/Minnesota accent.¬† I tried and tried, but couldn’t properly imitate it.¬† But I could hear¬†it from a mile away.¬†

And now that we live here, I must sound pretty much the same as he does.¬† When people here learn that I’m not a Milwaukee native, they express surprise.¬†

Last night – I love it -¬†while getting my hair cut by a new person at my favorite salon, the hair cutter asked, upon learning that I’m from Indiana, whether I “used to have an accent.”¬† I laughed.¬† Several different kinds of responses internally competed for expression, especially since, to my thinking, I currently have more of an accent than I did in Indiana.¬†¬†His question also presumed, in a way that I find charming, that to speak in the distinctly Wisconsin way is to speak accent free.¬†

I love that the Cheeseheads have no idea how much, to anyone outside the state, they sound unique.¬† In many conversations here, I’ve heard the assertion that Wisconsinites don’t have an accent.

And my mother, who lives here now, too, gets asked almost every day about just which part of the Deep South she is from. 

Oh, geez!¬†¬†Den dis¬†Wisconsin Dictionary mus’¬†jus’ be for hoots and hollers, next time dey’re by deir friends for a beer, hey?

I’m learning a lot on this cruise…

Friday, August 11th, 2006

like¬†why glaciers have a blueish tinge, that vegetation above the tree line is short and scrubby, that people from the southern United¬†States¬†really use more words than are necessary to get the concept across, and that Bingo really is more fun when you’re drinking a Princess Colada while you play.¬† Also learning that it’s hard to be away from munchkin Emma for this long.

More examples later.¬† I’m off to¬†play the two-cent slots.¬†

And tomorrow, I’m hoping to see some whales.¬†

Vacation Guilt

Thursday, August 3rd, 2006

How do Americans do it?” asked the stunned Australian. He had zinc oxide and a twisted-up look of absolute bafflement on his face, as we spoke on a remote Fijian shore. I’d seen that expression before, on German, Swiss and British travelers. It was the kind of amazement that might greet someone who had survived six months at sea in a rowboat.

The feat he was referring to is how Americans manage to live with the stingiest vacations in the industrialized world — 8.1 days after a year on the job, 10.2 days after three years, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The Aussie, who took every minute of his five weeks off each year — four of them guaranteed by law — just couldn’t fathom a ration of only one or two weeks of freedom a year. “I’d have to check myself into the loony bin,” he declared.

Well, welcome to the cuckoo’s nest, mate, otherwise known as the United States. In this country, vacations are not only microscopic; they’re also shrinking faster than revenues on a corporate restatement.

I have seen similar looks from Germans and Austrians. Looks of pure bafflement and even disgust, when they hear about our tiny national notion of vacation time.

But for better or worse, I am the product of American culture. My words from last year are still ringing in my ears. I took ten weeks of maternity leave last year when Emma was born. I felt very fortunate to have ten weeks off (and paid, at that). Lots of women in this country have no such luxury. Maternity time is often unpaid, and limited to¬†six-weeks (if their company is even large enough to be subject to relatively recent six-week federal and/or state requirement). My company’s policy is that a new parent can take up to twelve weeks off, but the last two weeks are unpaid.

I took the ten. But all the other new mothers in my office last year took twelve (or more). I remember telling anyone who would listen that I was taking only ten because (1) I wanted to take less than the maximum to show goodwill toward my employer, and (2) (here’s the clincher) so that I could take a “guilt free” week of vacation the following year. Oh yes, I had said. “Guilt free.”

Well, that long anticipated week (really 8 days) of vacation is nearly upon me. It’s the first time Paul and I will have had this much time alone, away from home, since our simple Wisconsin-cabin honeymoon (which began seven years prior to our vacation departure date).

But sadly, it’s not yet been feeling guilt-free, although I suspect this may change once I’m at sea in the international waters off the coastline of the 49th state. Or heck. Once I’m on the way to the Milwaukee airport, even.

I spent several wee hours awake last night – anxious about all the deadlines, the uncompleted projects, the client e-mails wanting, wanting. Every client wants something. And they want it now. At the same time that ten other clients want something now.

I know that it will be healthy to just escape from it all for a while. But the poor cats will be boarded. And will Emma miss us while she’s while her three local grandparents divide up the childcare duties over the week? Will they know how to soothe her back to sleep at 1:30 and maybe 3:30a.m., while I’m sleeping soundly, all night through, for seven nights in a row?

Well, hmmmpphhh – let the clients want. They’ll still be there when I return. And Emma and the cats and I will have a wonderful reunion (followed by a one-year birthday party!) when we return.

I suppose that if George W. Bush can take a 9-day vacation (which is short, for him) while the Middle East slides further into wars and more wars,¬†then Milwaukee will be alright without me around for eight short days….

Signs of Decline

Sunday, May 21st, 2006

Urban Fishing Rules
Originally uploaded by Koog Family.

The lawyer in me appreciates a finely coordinated set of codified rules, but knows that they are rarely either coordinated or enforced.

The libertarian in me knows that that a society that imposes too many rules, as our prolific governments do today, at all levels, simply causes, by definition, widespread rule-breaking.

And so, I find these signs in the park mildly amusing but quietly unfortunate.

A majority of the people who frequent this park don’t speak English natively, if at all.

So the laws announced in these signs result in the creation of multiple violators – citizen and otherwise.

I have to find the quote I’ve bookmarked at work – it cites Plato on how prolific legislation is a sign of a society in decline.


Notice in the Park
Originally uploaded by Koog Family.

The rules on these signs may have been better observed at the time of their original drafting. But today, I fear, they are reminders that our country is sliding toward lawlessness as simple a result of suffering under too many laws.

“Is the BIG UNIT Washed Up?”

Tuesday, May 16th, 2006

You don’t even want me to say what I thought when I¬†saw that link title on¬†today. . .

And then it turns out to be about a guy whose last name is JOHNSON??!!

You’ve got to be kidding me.

How have I managed not to hear until now about this unfortunate name/nickname pairing?

If civilization hangs in the balance ‘twixt¬†cup and lip, please,¬†gentle women and men,¬†refrain from discussing¬†this man’s¬†coarse moniker over tea.

Green Eggs and Clarence Thomas

Friday, February 24th, 2006

According to a recent report, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas’s biography is in the works and will be available in 2007. The gist of the reported story is that Thomas is delayed in producing the manuscript and that the book was supposed to have come out in 2005.

Still, Thomas’s agent, quoted in the story, displays the obligatory optimism about her charge, stating “‘there’s a lot of interes’t’ in the book and the justice. ‘He’s going to talk about everything, quite openly.'”

I wonder what “everything” means, to an agent.

I suppose it could mean his opinion on his Senate Confirmation hearings or the Anita Hill testimony, a response to that bizarre accusation involving something about a pubic hair and a coke can, or, more likely, a personal account of his life experience of growing up in poverty, only to end up with a life appointment on the highest court in the land. Who knows – maybe, if he’s feeling especially comfortable with himself, he’ll tackle the pop-culture portrayal of him as something of a judicial benchwarmer; an intellectual lightweight at best, and a Scalia-loving coat-tailer, at worst.

That’s all fine and good. I wish the agent, the publisher, and the alledgedly curious public all the best with that.

But I’ve got some real dish on Thomas that I’m sure won’t even make it into the first draft.

It’s not as sensational or headline grabbing as the ‘poor boy makes good’ or ‘judge abuses power’ narratives associated with his nomination.

But to me, it is perhaps more revealing and unsettling. I used to be horrified by the information that I am about to share. But more recently, I’ve found a way to find some amusement in it.

You see. I met Clarence Thomas one day, in 1997. And we had a little chat. But before I get to what we talked about, a little background is in order.

In the summer of 1997, I was a grad student trying to make a few extra bucks while simultaneously living out some ill-conceived bohemian adventure. Being a sucker for beautiful buildings (and workplaces near my then-boyfriend’s, Paul’s, apartment), I tried my hand at food service at “America Restuarant” in Washington DC’s beautiful Union Station on Capitol Hill. Here’s a great picture taken from inside the restaurant. It shows the location of some of the very tables I used to wait on.

There were also three four other levels of tables inside the sprawling place, plus dining areas outside. Located above a main metro line, and in a building that is, itself, a tourist detination, the clientele of the restaurant consisted primarily of tourists. Exhausted or anxious, with Wisconsin lilts or southern drawls, easy going eaters, uptight food refusers, people who walked out without paying, people who wouldn’t leave, people who thought I was a lovely young lady, and people who accused me of bigotry for not serving their food more promptly, spanish-speaking dishwashers and chinese speaking, malaysian busboys, an alcoholic waiter, a possible genius waiter, a crack-using waitress, and a young flirtatious waitress who kept flirting with me – I saw a little bit of it all in my five or so months at that place.

Oh, and the ties. I can’t forget the ties. The dress code for wait staff (I’m having vivid memories of folding cloth napkins as I write this) was: Black Pants, an apron for holding the money (and pens and credit card holders), White, button-down shirts, and a Tie. A necktie, to be more precise. The tie was the America Restaurant equivalent of the 37 pieces of flair in the movie office space. And if I, like the character in the movie, could have given someone the finger about having to wear it, believe me, I would have (if I hadn’t needed the job just then). But, anyway, as long as it was a requirement, I thought I’d have a little fun. So I selected a necktie that depicted a childrens’ story with which I had fond: Green Eggs and Ham. Here is the design that I chose:

Now, 1997 was an interesting summer to be a waiter (to use the non-gender-specific term) in D.C. You see, mayor Marion Barry had been spreading a bad vibe in the food industry just then.

It had been reported in the July issue of Washingtonian magazine that he had dined at an upscale seafood restaurant and left only a $5.00 tip on a bill of $100.00. The magazine had actually published a photo of the receipt documenting this dastardly deed, and reports of the incident were being widely repeated in the local press. In my restaurant and others, conversation about Mr. Barry turned to speculation about how the coverage of bad tipping would affect his, and other notables,’ reataurant behaviour.

It was during this time that, one day, a mananger told to me report to a table in the alcove. The alcove was an isolated part of the restaurant; a narrow, second-level galley of just a few tables – popular with those who preferred to dine in more privacy. The wife of the Maryland governor was a frequent visitor. And Steven Spielberg had dined there that summer, too. Diners in the alcove sat under the lofty spandrals of the side arches of Union Station’s grand hall. It’s architecture is just visible in the middle of the right edge of the photo, above.

By the time I arrived, the busboy and bartender were whispering “Clarence Thomas,” excitedly. I entered the alcove, and there was Justice Thomas at “my” table, all right. He was accompanied by a younger man, who seemed rather deferential. Could have been his law clerk?

I ran through the specials. But I remember that he ordered from the menu – a Shrimp Jambalaya dish. And yes, her ordered a Coke. But luckily, that pubic hair thing was not in my memory banks at the time. (Afterwards, that was all people wanted to ask about).

I hadn’t yet had the idea of applying to law school – in fact I was still waiting to hear about being hired at the National Gallery of Art. I know I would have had a different approach to him had it crossed my mind that I might ever practice law. (I did very quickly debate calling him “your honor” when I took his order, but fortunately, I settled on “Sir”). As it was, though, me being a starving art historian wannabe, and all, I was really just more interested in how in the heck this man was going to tip me, after the meal was finally over.

I can’t remember whether our little chat happened when I took the order, or sometime during the meal, or as I brought or collected the bill (he tipped at about 20%). But sometime while I was at the table, he addressed me about something other than the food, and the conversation went like this:

CT: “What is that on your tie?”

[Figures. Probably my one chance in life to have one on one conversation with a Supreme Court Justice, and the conversation is about a cartoon tie that I’m forced to wear]

Me: It’s a Green Eggs and Ham tie. From Dr. Seuss. [I may have done some filler explaining about the fact that we all had to wear ties, and that I had picked this one. I’m sure I had a “tie-spiel” down]

CT: Blank look.

Me: From the story of that name by Dr. Seuss.

CT: I must have missed that one.

Me: Theodor Geisel. The children’s author.

CT: [Shakes his head with a lack of recognition.]

At this point, I think he said something about the tie being nice or funny, and I have a vague memory of his dining guest jumping in with something at that point – probably trying to make the boss look good.

But I will never forget my shock – no, alarm! – at the realization that this man, this man who holds one of, arguably, the most powerful nine seats in our system of government, could be so out of touch with what I thought was a universal touchstone of our shared culture. I mean Dr. Seuss, for God’s sake! The man hadn’t heard of Dr. Seuss!!!

As I processed this knowledge in the next hours and days, I tried to give him some benefit of the doubt. OK, I knew that he had grown up in extreme poverty in the South. I wouldn’t expect that he had access to Dr. Seuss books then – heck, they probably weren’t even written then. I don’t know. But the man has had a child! A child who attended the Virginia Military Institute. How do you have a child born in anything near my generation and miss out on Dr. Seuss?!

The very idea of it disturbed me deeply. It hadn’t been so many years, at that time, since Bill Clinton endeared himself to the MTV crowd by indulging a question about boxers versus briefs. But here was a man who had the power to make decisions that could directly affect me, and had not the first clue about the Cat in the Hat, Green Eggs and Ham, or Freaky Friday? I know it seems strange that one of the things I expect from government types is that they have heard of the same childrens’ stories I have, but the realization that he certainly hadn’t struck me as a form of benightedness that could only result in oblivious, insensitive, and – yes, even harmful, -out-of-touch judicial rulings.

My horror about his ignorance lingered with me for several years. Once I got to law school, I recounted the incident to any law professor or student who would listen. And I did the same once I finally started working as a new attorney.

But I’m an older, wiser woman now. My former co-art-historian-wanna-be, turned husband, turned part-time law student was talking in the car this morning about a judicial dissent authored by Thomas. And out of this conversation came today a whole new way of looking at the Justice’s Dr. Seuss obtuseness.

I get it now.

How did Clarence “miss out” on Dr. Seuss, do you think? Here’s how: by never being around when his son’s mother read the stuff to him.

Today, it occured to me that if his wife had been at that table and heard him say that Dr. Seuss didn’t register on the brain waves, she would have slapped her head or his arm while rolling her eyes and blurting out something along the lines of “Jesus, Clarence! There you go making us look stupid again!”

Have I grown that jaded, that cynical about what I expect people to know, in general?

Whatever the reason, I no longer really care if the CT knows about Dr. Seuss or not. I now get a lot more pleasure simply imagining what his wife must think of being married to such an apparently sheltered guy.

What if, every time he writes a legal opinion that leaves the legal community scratching its head, she’s like, “LOOK, DODO, STOP EMBARRASSING ME!”

When commentators recently pointed out that Thomas has never, in a single opinion, addressed the Equal Protection Clause, did she make him sleep on the couch for a week? When his jurisprudence is called “rigid,” does he have to take her turn at doing the litter box?

I guess I’ll never know. I’m sure that won’t be in the memoirs, either, no matter if he does have until 2007 to finish them.

But I guess I do know just a little more than “everything.”

Because I know that the guy was stumped by Green Eggs and Ham.