Archive for February, 2008

This is an astounding number.

2,319,258 real live humans in prisons and jails in America today. The figure includes Federal prisons, State prisons, and local jails. Roughly translated, the number means one in 99 Americans is behind bars.

Looking at the number in a global context, the United States now incarcerates more people than any other nation on earth, including China. Translating raw numbers into rates of incarceration doesn’t change the rankings. The U.S. still leads the world.

But the number of inmates is only a part of the overall picture. When individuals on parole and probation are included, the number rises to roughly 7,000,000, or one in about 40 Americans.

Given these figures, the chances are excellent that you personally know someone under lock and key or who has been imprisoned and released.

The social and economic implications of our justice system are staggering. Socially, ex-prisoners are often shunned, and depending on their crime, they may find themselves unemployable.

This means a large pool of available Americans employers are reluctant to hire, preferring instead to employ illegal aliens. No wonder the recidivism rate is sky high.

Are we to believe that America is a land of criminals as the numbers suggest? Or might we suspect that many inmates do not belong in jail, that the justice system is stacked with overzealous prosecutors out to win at any price?

That’s a part of it, certainly, but other factors come into play as well. A prime reason for our increased prison population is the long-term incarceration under illogical three strikes laws that send bicycle thieves and pot smokers to jail for years as repeat offenders.

Moreover, get-tough-on-crime laws, such as minimum sentences, restrictions on judicial discretion, and the elimination of probation for those convicted of Federal crimes, have combined to strain our prisons to the breaking point.

A natural outcome of this confluence of factors has been a steady rise in public spending on prison. In 1987, nationwide public expenditures on prison and inmate maintenance added up to about 10 million dollars. By 2007, the figure had reached the astronomical level of 50 billion with no end in sight.

Is there an answer to the shame of our overpopulated prisons? As long as our leaders fail to admit the existence of the problem, the answer is no. Only sustained public pressure will stir them into action. Unfortunately, too many ordinary Americans believe in the lock-’em-up-and-throw-away-key philosophy of crime fighting.

For those interested in statistical details, charts, and graphs, the Pew Center, the primary source of recent news articles on this topic, has an extensive database, with narrative summaries.

Pew also includes information about the State of California, the City and County of San Francisco, and other Bay Area counties.


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We were browsing Longs the other day when I walked over to the magazine rack to see if one of the mags had a nude on its cover.

Let’s face it, ladies. Men aren’t really interested in feminine camouflage. No man I know cares the least about the shade of your lipstick, your rouge, or your latest chic blouse. Men are interested in your bod above all else in life. Men will lie and tell you otherwise but only because they want to move below the outer layer as soon as possible. Strategy and tactics pay off in love as well as politics.

Besides, men are more interested in their own packaging. Male vanity has run amok, and the magazine I selected from the rack is an apt example of my thesis.

The cover of Men’s Health/Best Life tells it all. “101 WAYS TO LOOK GREAT!” In caps yet. I’m looking at the March 2008 issue with a suitably sultry John Mayer on the cover.

You’ll bear with me while together we run through the most important ways to look great. They are all on the cover as an enticement to buy the mag. Which I did, purely from the standpoint of a serious researcher in American culture. These are the most important of the 101.

  • Best flat-belly foods
  • Boost testosterone at 30, 40, 50+!
  • Get lean fast!
    • Chisel your body
    • Build strong muscles
    • Sharpen your mind
    • Find your true passion
  • Hold on to your hair: 5 new cures
  • 10 genius fatherhood lessons
  • 9 rules of perfect heart health
  • Wealthy & stress free: Here’s how

I’ve saved the best for last. 7 Sex secrets of passionate marriage. I can’t understand the inclusion of this one. Is anyone married these days? This just seems redundant—instructions for no one. I would have titled it 7 Sex secrets for attracting and retaining multiple inamoratas. This is more in line with male reality.

The New Male Image

I thumbed through the pages and wondered, “Are we supposed to look like these men after a hard day down a manhole repairing blown circuits?” How might we accomplish this miracle? Most of the models look like their lips have been plumbed with a shot of silicone or something. Stubble chic we can manage, but Patrick Dempsey in Armani. Come on, man.

Suppose you’re home from work, all sweaty and such, and you’re ready for a night of partyin’? By the time you prep yourself in the manner of modern male chic, the night is over and the only person around is a bartender getting ready to close the joint. Hardly seems worth it, but then you glance in the mirror behind the bar and, God! You look good. You look great! In fact, you’re the best looking dude you’ve ever seen.

Reality soon sets in, however. You realize that every male in the universe today has black hair and a brooding look, the way Rudy Valentino brooded when he drove American women nuts in the Twenties and caused a run on black, patent-leather shoe polish and glue to hold down their shiny Latin hair. Not to mention dark colored substances to smear around the eyes for that jaded look.

You curse your luck for having been born with green eyes and blonde hair, not to mention an innocent, open, wide-eyed stare and a dumb look, the way an ox might look when it has been hit in the middle of its skull with a sledge hammer. The dazed look doesn’t go over well with women.

What’s the answer?

Live with what you have, pal. Either that or lay out the price of a 90-foot yacht for a Beverly Hills rebuild.

Then again, if you have the price of a yacht, you may need nothing more.

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This isn’t a stream-of-consciousness thing. You have to be conscious for that. No, this is like someone wandering alone in a forest, trying to find a way out.

Even Robert Frost had two roads that diverged in a yellow wood when he chose the one less traveled. I feel like someone who has been airlifted from the comforts of civilization and dropped in the middle of a vast forest without a compass.

Here’s my dilemma. Why does everyone in the universe love Emily Morse?

In my mind, the question poses a problem to be solved, a scientific exercise, sans emotion, a search based on pure logic, much like Fleming’s search when he accidentally stumbled across penicillin and created drug-resistant STD’s.

The trouble is, when I’m in a problem-solving mode, logic sort of falls by the waysde. My mind is all over the landscape. Spock I ain’t. In fact, I may even create a fantasy or two to help my thinking. So bear with me if I fantasize a little.

I don’t know who or where the people are who love Emily. All I know is that a whole lot of someones have been regularly clicking a post I wrote about her in September 2007. I don’t get it. The post wasn’t about sex at all but about career choices. I wondered why educated, highly intelligent and beautiful young women choose careers in the sex business.

And yet my simple essay has brought a sustained hit load that today amounts to about a third or more of all visits to my site, which are scant anyway and apparently would disappear entirely if not for Emily.

At the risk of offending anyone in my family who knows and respects my avoidance of crude language, this actually pisses me off. I spend a lot of time and brain power writing seriously about politics and American culture without drawing a single hit.

In fact, a review of a book-in-the-editing stage about the Japanese-American experience in America brought zilch. That was sort of embarassing because I wrote the review to impress my daughter who was editing the book.

It’s even gotten so bad that the name “Gavin Newsom” doesn’t rate a response. Only Emily.

What the hell is it about this girl anyway? Just because she’s beautiful and talented and knows all about sex toys and pole dancing and 46 erotic techniques is no justification for goddess status.

Let me clarify something right now. I’ve never met Emily or anyone who knows her. So I do not use words like goddess to suck up to her. I’m just stating a fact of life. She must be a goddess or else her name in an obscure blog post wouldn’t draw global attention.

To learn more about the feminine version of charisma, I have thought about asking her to be my Facebook Friend, but the humiliation of sending out those damned Friend Requests and receiving a message back that calls me a bottom feeding scum sucker is a wee bit embarassing. I have a very low humiliation level and its been strained to the breaking point.

You don’t believe me? I’ve had about 500 Friend Requests ignored or returned with vile names directed at me. Even several high muckamuck politicians who accept friends just to prove how popular they are have failed to respond. The failure of a pol to communicate with a citizen stings. I mean, I’m not Dan Noyes. I don’t ask embarassing questions.

I have this eerie feeling that the few friends I do have are only my friends because they feel sorry for me. They remind me of my grammar school days when a couple of girls gave me a Valentine’s Day card out of pity, and one of them was my sister.

I wonder if Emily would respond to my pity tactic. Used to work in high school. And in these trying days, the quest for knowledge demands innovative sneakiness. But on reflection I think it is better to remain Facebook celibate. Once we have a Facebook friend, we can’t tattle behind their backs. At least I can’t. Inside, I have this Willie Brown tendency to stand in the presence of a lady. Real men trash only ladies they don’t know.

So, for the time being, I’ll continue from afar trying to figure out Emily’s draw and puzzling about why so many people have clicked on that innocent post.

Hmmm. I wonder if it’s because the title is Sex with Aunty Em.

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Any horse thieves in your family? Any eccentric great aunts?

Or how about your ethnicity? Are you Irish, Italian, Japanese, Greek, or Tahitian? Or maybe Chinese, Filipino, Scotch, or American Indian? A little bit of everything?

More than likely, you’re the latter. An individual today who is 100 percent anything is rare, perhaps non-existent. Humans, after all, have been around a long time and as we all know, humans like variety.

About six years ago, I developed an interest in genealogy and family history. A couple of things came out of my research. I was able to prove the truth of some family myths. And, I added a number of interesting names to my store of familiar ones.

One recurring story was about a mythical character who was said to have been a colonel in the Confederate cavalry. My aunt scoffed at the story, calling him a “Kentucky Colonel,” meaning someone with an honorary title but no more. Others swore on a stack of bibles ten feet high that our “colonel” really existed.

Well, he did exist. I found several documents about him in the National Archives, including a couple of after-battle dispatches that he had written. And I located a Union Army dispatch that referred to his unit as “Johnson’s band of thieves and murderers.”

The revelation that this person really lived created a conflict in my mind. On the one hand, I admired his physical courage. On the other hand, I despised not him personally but his defense of slavery. We’re all products of our time and place and culture, I finally decided. In another time and place, he could have been a hero at Iwo Jima.

But another myth remains unresolved. From my earliest years, my mother repeated endlessly that we were part American Indian, and all of my cousins to this day believe the story is true. The mythical Indian chief (it’s always an Indian chief or a beautiful Indian maiden) was one Red Eagle, AKA William Weatherford. This guy had several wives and a slew of offspring. However, I’ve found no link between our family and his.

Several French names popped up in my research, along with Irish, Scotch, German, and Scandinavian. And maybe Portuguese and Spanish. The connection to the latter is through my discovery of a group called Melungeons, inhabitants early on in the remote regions of Appalachia. Several of my family names have been consistently associated with this group.

The group’s members are said to have been sailors on Portuguese and Spanish vessels who jumped ship in the 17th Century and intermarried with American Indians and Blacks who had escaped slavery and roamed the inaccessible mountains of Appalachia. In appearance, the group’s members were usually brown-eyed with black hair and dark complexions. If that’s accurate, then none of those genetic traits reached me. My eyes are green (if visible under drooping eyelids and bloodshot veins through the early morning fog) and my hair, although a little lighter these days, was a dark brown once but it certainly wasn’t black. Any connection I may have to a Melungeon group is purely speculative.

How about you? Have you researched your own family history? Or maybe you’re merely thinking about it. It’s fun and a top flight learning experience. So in case you may be interested, here are some on-line sources that are easy to access and chock full of interesting tidbits:

California Birth Index, 1905-1995
If you or a member of your family was born in CA, this is a good genealogy starting point. The on-line records aren’t complete, but you can pick up some stuff, such as the county of birth. Cautions: More people than we realize have the same name.

Social Security Death Index
Any individual who was ever enrolled in the Social Security program and whose death was reported to the Social Security Administration will appear on this index. Moreover, you can order a copy of a named individual’s original application for a social security card, completed in their own handwriting. The original card shows where an individual was born, their work location, and their parents’ names. Cautions: Names may not always be listed as you remember someone.

California Death Index
Another source of information containing the names of a deceased person’s parents, state of origin, and place of death. Cautions: The old name bugaboo again. I was surprised at the number of individuals with the same name as my mother who died on the same day in Oakland. It’s a small world.

U.S. Census Records
With diligent searching you may be able to locate free on-line census records. Most are available by paid subscription. Ancestry.com has the most extensive paid transcription collection, and sometimes as a draw, they will post a few for free. The same old caution applies here. Names have been transcribed from the handwriting of the original census taker and, boy hiddy, some of the transcriptions are unrecognizable.

GenForun Genealogy Message Boards
This source has a message board for almost every name in the world, certainly every name in the U.S. Plus, they have message boards for states, counties, and cities. I’ve contacted many “cousins” by posting messages and responding to the messages of others. Names may have various spellings, so check all of the variations you can think of.

Try a little DNA…

Recently, the ability to “track” one’s ethnic migration by means of DNA tests has come on the scene. There are pros and cons to the tests, but if you’re so inclined, why not? I’ve been thinking about it myself in light of the American Indian myth in our family.

Side Note: Genealogy is my hobby when I get sick and tired of thinking about politics.

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Politics is one of our interests, and I suppose by some stretch of the imagination that we could characterize tonight’s debate between Hillary and Barack as politics.

Our tendency is to place it in the category of game shows. The show in this case lends itself to several titles. We could call it “Gotcha,” which would certainly be apt in light of our tendency to believe that if one contestant scores a “gotcha,” then the other contestant loses the game and is therefore unqualified to be President.

Or we could call it “Water Boarding.” Watching the twisted countenance of Tim Russert as he tortuously attempted to drown out the candidates’ responses in a flood of interruptions was certainly a form of torture for anyone interested in a complete answer.

The problem with debates these days, as always I am sure, is that debates measure nothing substantive. A President doesn’t spend his or her time scoring points and posting them on a tally sheet. All executives, including presidents, must make decisions and execute actions. The best debater in the world would probably make a lousy President.

Well, some say, debates give the voters an idea of how the candidates stand on the issues. That would be a fine argument except for a minor matter. An undecided voter in the 21st Century is a species on the verge of extinction. This century has been a divisive political era for its first few years, and a surplus of Americans have been locked in to one side or another from the beginning. Besides, getting a straight answer from a politician can’t be achieved in the time allotted.

Others may say, well, we can gain an idea of how well the candidates function under pressure without sweating. That’s a fair enough argument. Hemingway once wrote “Courage is grace under pressure.” But courage when it counts isn’t measurable by one’s excellence in language or by the ability to score debate points. The pressures of the world are not the pressures of a debate.

When we get right down to it, debates do not measure anyone’s ability to perform as a president. If debates serve a purpose, it’s as a means of reinforcing our belief that we really participate, that we really count. A debate is a ceremonial rite of American democracy.

Winston Churchill once wrote something along these lines, “Democracy is the worst form of government ever conceived by men. Except for all of the others.”

Maybe that’s true of debates as well. Debates are the worst possible means of measuring the qualities of a president. Except for all of the others.

Shoot from the hip analysis

Another draw. On the whole, a very equable debate. Both performed well. Barack seemed more assured than he did in past debates. But Hillary was at the top of her game, too. So far, no substantive differences between the candidates have become apparent. To Hillary’s credit, she called Tim Russert on his constant interruptions. He was the worst part of this show. The real question for the Democrats now is who can beat John McCain.

Okay, talking heads, let the parsing begin.

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I didn’t know this, but apparently there are degrees of patriotism.

The latest take on the matter popped up in connection with Barack Obama’s presidential aspirations. He isn’t “sufficiently patriotic” according to Republicans looking for a chink in his armor.

The evidence of Barack’s sins? He didn’t place his hand over his heart while singing the National Anthem, he wasn’t wearing one of those American flag lapel pins, and his wife said something about this being the first time in her life she is proud of her country.

I wonder what else is on the secret list of things un-American that no one knows about except the keeper of the list. Living in Vallejo? Glen Beck seemed to think so when I watched his CNN Headline News show a few days ago.

All of the talk about degrees of patriotism scares me even if I did volunteer for Iwo Jima one time. Unfortunately, that was about 30 or 40 years after the war and before Clint Eastwood’s movie, Letters from Iwo Jima. Even if my surge of patriotic fervor was a little late, I nevertheless come to the patriotism game with credentials. But then again, so did John Kerry. And that’s what worries me.

How would I fare on a 100 point scale today? Where would you fall? Check your own patriotism against this handy list. Deduct the appropriate number of points and see how you stack up against the quintessential Patriotic Guru, Dick Cheney, who managed to secure five deferments from Vietnam during his halcyon college days.

  1. Your name is Obama. Subtract 100 points.
  2. Your name is Hillary. Subtract 40 points.
  3. You’ve been photographed in African garb. Subtract 50 points.
  4. You sing the National Anthem off key. Subtract 95 points.
  5. You use a matched pair of American flag lapel pins as earrings. Add 50 if female. Subtract 100 if male.
  6. You tap your feet in men’s rooms. Deduct 100 if you’re a Democrat. Add 50 if Republican.
  7. You live in San Francisco. Deduct 500 points.
  8. Your favorite celebrity is Mike Huckabee. Pray for the proper number.
  9. You’re a fan of Sue Johnson. Go back to Canada.
  10. You like Hank Williams. Add as many points as necessary to raise your total to 100.

Yes, the silly season has arrived. But it’s only just begun. You ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

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Have you heard that the City of Vallejo is about to go bankrupt? The news surprised me. Vallejo always seemed such a nice little community.

My dad lived there until shortly before he passed away, and he and I occasionally had breakfast together at the old Kresge’s, which I think was the forerunner of K-Mart. And somewhere in my collection of photos, there’s one showing the two of us watching a 4th of July Parade.

Vallejo was also where my sister met and married her soul mate, until the weather in his hometown of Kennebunk, Maine, trumped soul and drove her back to California.

As another mark of American normalcy, a sign reading “All American City” once greeted those entering the city from the East, and patriotically speaking Vallejo hosted the now-defunct Mare Island Naval Shipyard for years and years.

So, what has happened to force Vallejo to the edge of bankruptcy? All American Cities don’t go bankrupt. Do they? Well, that was then and now is now. Some attribute the city’s dire financial situation to a budget that allocates 80 percent of its operating expenses to police and firefighter salaries. In a recent year, 98 firefighters made more than $100,000 while 10 made more than $200,000.

A few suggest that these hefty salaries are the inevitable result of inflexible labor agreements that prevent city officials from freely adjusting salary schedules in times of emergencies. At the moment, the city and the labor organizations are negotiating to avoid bankruptcy, but if those efforts fail, Vallejo will be the first city in the history of California to achieve that dubious status, although Orange County declared itself financially dead in 1994.

Vallejo’s financial condition has already given rise to charges by some right wing media talking heads about an apocalyptic collapse of America’s economy followed by the end of America as we know it. Their logic: the taxpayers of California will have to foot the bill for Vallejo’s failure. That will spread by undefined means throughout America and the whole of America’s taxpayers will ultimately pay the bill to support a socialist system.

Personally, I do not see the dots between Vallejo and the collapse of civilization. It’s a slight stretch. Many cities have declared bankruptcy since the Great Depression. That’s when the federal government enacted laws to permit municipal bankruptcies. And in accordance with those laws, the previously-mentioned Orange County, a stalwart California conservative stronghold, had a debt load of about $1.6 billion when it went down in 1994. The last time I checked, Orange County was still there, and the United States is still moving along.

Irrespective of reality, however, Vallejo is sure to become an issue in this election year. Everything is going to be an issue. We already see the silliness in charges that Barack isn’t patriotic enough because he didn’t place his hand over his heart while singing the National Anthem. Did you get the meaning behind the words “patriotic enough?” Suddenly we have degrees of patriotism.

The knowledge worries me. Am I patriotic enough? If true patriotism equals 100 points, how many points must I deduct for various shortcomings and lapses? How far down the scale will I fall by moving to Vallejo? How about my many failures to wear an American Flag lapel pin? Where’s my calculator? We’re in for some tough numbers crunching.

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