Sunday, November 19, 2006

Elections, Work, Orwell, Girls, Agriculture, Etc.

I won't lie to you: I haven't even tried to sit down to the blog for a while. Things have been moving at a pace both slower and faster than usual, and instead of trying to write it all down on the fly I thought I'd let it run its course and collect my thoughts afterward. Now is a good time, because not only do I have the bed (and for now the whole house) to myself again, I'm fortified with half a bottle of Freixenet and will probably finish the rest in due course, which does wonders for writer's block. The sparkling wine of bohemians and Spaniards -- grab your own bottle.

First order of business is a thank-you to Nolo, who as always rolled the ball forward when I wouldn't and brought the news that I couldn't. (I certainly don't subscribe to The Lancet, for instance. Although I did just send in my check for a year's subscription -- low holiday rate! -- to the London Review of Books. There's a story about a friend's drunken prank call to my girlfriend that involves that august publication, but I'll leave you hanging for now.) Most good blogs are joint ventures, I find, or at least go beyond the usual "thought for the day" formula that mediocre art seems to thrive on. The big political blogs are all communal or at least have a few regular contributors; the most exciting ones written by a single person are about a recognizable cast of familiar characters. Dooce, for example, has made a living writing about her family, especially her young daughter, in a way that transcends the God-awfulness of a dear diary. What I've so far hoped to do with this blog is tell stories about Washington from the eyes of a recent transplant that are more than the sum of their parts -- that is, do more than keep people up to date on what I did on a given day. It hasn't always been my premier artistic outlet, but it's at least a chance to practice my non-fiction chops in a way that doesn't feel like work. In time I hope it can become more than even that modest ambition suggests; at least, a place where several talented political writers I know can jointly spread the word about what's going on in their line of work, and at most a sort of mini-Kossackia, where people who didn't already know me come to read good work and learn things. I don't mind starting slow. So, thanks to Nolo for keeping the dream alive, as she has in the past.

Now, what have I been up to lately?

My lovely girlfriend was in town until earlier today. Seeing her off wasn't as lousy an affair as usual -- I'll see her again soon enough when I fly back home for Thanksgiving -- but brought the same old sense of not knowing what the hell to do with myself, which usually leads to reading and feeling that nice friendly cloud of melancholia settle in for the evening. (Tonight was no exception, but for more interesting reasons than usual. More on that later.) I'll spare you most of the details of her visit, except to say the following:

1) I am very lucky to have a girlfriend who likes books as much as I do. Shortly before she arrived, but after the election, I finished the copy of From Here to Eternity she got me a few years ago -- who else would have made it a Valentine's Day gift, or a gift at all? -- and was left more or less devastated by it, which I feel few other people would understand as fully as she did. At the same time, who else would have bought me Orwell's Why I Write as a gift just because the election was coming up?

2) It's nice to have someone who shares your enthusiasms, even for things that don't greatly matter. I wish I could expand on this general thought I keep having -- about sharing enthusiasms, that is -- but I never really make the effort. A good case in point is both wanting to stay in bed and watch the few existing episodes of a show called Firefly that went off the air 11 installments after it premiered four years ago. We both love this show despite the fact that it mostly exists now as an Internet geek phenomenon.

3) Aside from having all the qualities you expect boyfriends to crow about, such as looks and charm (and good but not overly trendy fashion sense), I never feel she is merely tolerating me. When we're having fun, it's a very genuine fun unencumbered by apprehension or expectations, and when we're not -- which, as far as I could tell, was never the case this visit -- it's at least a committed disappointment or disagreement, rather than a resigned shrug of boredom. I don't know why I like this so much about our relationship, but I do. I like the highs and lows to be real rather than settle for a mushy middle. In general, it makes the highs better and the lows rarer, and it's a good sign that both people care about each other in an almost aesthetic way beyond merely enjoying each other's company. As in, "Really? You think that's good?" rather than "Whatever."

Anyway, enough fancy. We had a very good time, particularly by turning the basement into a bedroom and sleeping on the foldout couch (donated by Charvakan in one of his generous moods) and by hardly sharing my roommates' company for the week. We saw movies, ate and drank a good amount, slept in on the weekends, even clothes-shopped briefly. Because of an agreement I made with a coworker -- shortly before he left, incidentally -- I have to wear a suit to work every day until December 9, which will be a month after the Democrats officially took the Senate. So I need another suit.

Speaking of the Senate, a story about work: on Wednesday I was sent to Capitol Hill to cover the Senate environment committee's vote on the new nominee to be EPA inspector general, a fairly dull if inoffensive DOD bureaucrat named Alex Beehler. He used to work for Koch Industries, the country's worst single polluter (if memory serves), and for that reason Barbara Boxer opposes him with a passion. She's due to chair the environment committee when the next Congress is sworn in (because of the Dem majority) and has made sure, through what's called a hold, that Beehler won't make it to EPA IG under any foreseeable circumstances. The politicking isn't what's interesting -- I just want it clear how anticlimactic this vote was going to be. I was sent mostly in order to corner Boxer and ask her questions about her agenda for next year. I accomplished this, along with about five other reporters (including a former colleague, now the competition), but there was no vote on Beehler because the committee chair, James Inhofe of Oklahoma -- who believes global warming is a leftist hoax -- never showed up for the committee meeting. So it was postponed until later in the day, at which point I returned and waited for the vote to occur. Because of Senate procedure, the committee wasn't going to meet until after debate on the agriculture appropriations bill had ended, and when I got there Byron Dorgan of North Dakota -- a Democrat who has held useful hearings on contractor abuses in Iraq when the Republicans wouldn't -- was on a tirade about why the government should give farmers an extra $5 billion this year. He apparently does this every year, and it's always shot down at the same point in the process, so it wasn't clear why this year was any different; this sort of political kabuki goes on in a hundred ways on a hundred different issues. But from standing around in the Capitol Building press gallery long enough, I heard that Bill Frist promised him a vote on it and then decided not to grant the vote, so Dorgan was taking it out on the whole Senate by basically filibustering until he got his way. Kent Conrad, the (ahem) other North Dakota senator, at one point brought out what looked like the periodic table and started spouting nonsense, so I knew I wasn't going anywhere for a while. I wandered the halls looking for someone worth talking to, but it was near the end of the day and the best I could muster was bumping into a few people interviewing Trent Lott in an obscure hallway about being voted minority whip, which had happened that morning. His toupee looked slightly askew and no one seemed to mind that he is a well-known racist. I don't know what a journalist is supposed to do in the face of a politician he disagrees with -- you have to be a professional, after all, whatever your anarchic impulses -- but the sight of people laughing at his boring jokes just set my teeth on edge. They were all still there five minutes later when I made another pass. Dorgan was talking about how the only university in the country that can teach a boy to herd cattle is the American family farm. It was cold and dreary outside. My editor told me to "hurry up and wait" when I called the office. It was 5:30.

Finally I got a bright idea and called the environment committee main line from the press gallery phone, thereby "scooping" the competition with the news that the vote had been postponed until Thursday. And then on Thursday, the vote was postponed again until further notice. My editor, paid to cook up conspiracy theories and then tell other people to make calls until they're proved wrong, thought the farm bill filibuster could be "a smokescreen" for the administration to quietly kill the Beehler nomination. Never mind that Dorgan and Conrad are both Democrats. Smokescreen was the word. So that was Thursday morning. The name Alex Beehler is a funny gag around the office.

And swerving to the more recent past. After Stephanie left I went to Murky Coffee at Eastern Market -- no longer my favorite hangout, but always a solid second or third -- and read most of Why I Write, which was a rewarding experience to say the least. After that and Eternity, I feel I'm on a serious roll with the books that, if my luck holds, I can ride at least until spring. There's bound to be a dud or a disappointment eventually, but I've got a few reputed winners lined up and I anticipate a good reading season the next few months. Charvakan recently complimented me on setting aside time for reading -- his compliment is accepted but perhaps a bit misplaced. I don't tip my hat to him on account of his prolific drinking, for instance. We do what comes naturally. Some people start books and don't finish them. Others start one, then another, then another. Some people never read at all. Some people wish they read more. Some people read the wrong stuff. I read a lot. Char pours a mean Rusty Nail. I don't think either of us would have it any other way.

Reading Orwell, even essay-writing Orwell, makes you really feel that all things are possible with a good book. This is to say nothing of all the other good books I've read, and there have been a lot -- some day I'll write a purely literary screed about what you should read and what you shouldn't read and why. (That's a promise. You can skip it, but you'd miss out.) He's not my favorite writer, not even close, but he's one of the few that has never once disappointed me or written something I felt to be false. He rings unerringly true even when, in hindsight, you can see that his vision was sometimes objectively off somewhat. He brings the strength of agreeable conviction to everything he says, and reading him makes you feel the comparative lack of it today. Sitting in a cafe, reading his pronouncements about fascism, socialism, writing, the English language, history, etc. etc. while it gets darker and colder outside -- and then going into the night, still reading him by streetlight, wandering the chilly streets of an unfamiliar quiet neighborhood not quite done with him yet -- is somewhat gauche and cliche by modern standards but mentally exhilarating and very good for you. Thinking about how contemporary "political" writers, such as his self-proclaimed disciple Christopher Hitchens, stack up makes you shake your head in amazement that Orwell himself comes out well ahead even sixty years later. Especially in a bite-sized format, like the Penguin Great Ideas copy Stephanie got for me, such a dose of optimism in the face of long odds and belief in literature despite its obvious decline in popularity is just the thing for someone like me looking for a new Big Idea to come along. It doesn't have to be fully formed, or even have broad explanatory power -- it just has to make you believe in the future and that writing is worth it, which a lot of writing doesn't do. This is all to say that reading Why I Write, in the special context of this comfortably solitary evening, was the next best thing to still having a girlfriend around, despite now having to keep myself warm with nothing but the blankets tonight.

Bloody clock says it's late. Coming soon is an Orwell-sized pronouncement about the election and, as previously promised, What This Means For America.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Now there's a shock.

The results of a world sex survey, published online today by the Lancet,* led the professionals who conducted it to the following conclusion:

"The selection of public-health messages needs to be guided by epidemiological evidence rather than myths and moral stances," . . . "The greatest challenge to sexual-health promotion in almost all countries comes from opposition from conservative forces to harm-reduction strategies."

Other stunning revelations include the observation that marriage does not safeguard sexual health and that "very early sexual experience within marriage can be coercive and traumatic" for young girls.

Fancy that.

*Sadly, the Lancet study itself is accessible online only to subscribers.