Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Where is NOW in Schiavo case?

One voice we have not heard in the Terri Schiavo case is the feminists. Why? The case seems perfectly cast for the National Organization for Women: an adulterous husband who seems to care nothing for his wife, putting words in her mouth years after a suspicious "heart problem" places her in a minimally conscious state, working relentlessly to see her dead.

Where is NOW in decrying the sexist, patriarchist notion that a man can determine when a woman lives or dies simply because he is her husband? Where are the feminists lined up to demonize Michael Schiavo, to call for all women to wake up and realize that if he is allowed to starve his wife to death on the basis of his own hearsay, then any husband could do the same to any wife under similar circumstances.

I have my suspicions as to why the National Organization for Women is silent in the face of the imminent death of a sister: in some twisted way, they feel that stopping the death of Terri Schiavo could somehow be used to attack abortion.

Abortion is such an overwhelming holy grail to feminists that they will turn a blind eye to the death of a woman out of fear that any show of support for human life might be used to undermine their arguments for the worthlessness of a fetus's life.

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

One Missing Item

I confess to a macabre streak. I collect and read disaster preparedness publications. Out here in Southern California, that usually means earthquake pamphlets and booklets and flyers. I have a fairly thick file of them. I don't think this qualifies as paranoia, though my old nemesis PRS (Pack Rat Syndrome) may explain the phenomenon.

I also like to make survival kits. They make great housewarming and baby shower gifts, though I’ve noticed that a marked gloom descends on the party whenever the hosts open up my gaily wrapped package. People begin to relate their own disaster stories: Midwest tornados, eastern power-grid failures, southern hurricanes, Indonesian tsunamis, and, of course, western quakes.

I love to read these booklets and follow their advice. It must be the latent Boy Scout in me. I never joined, mainly because I was a bit of a loner and hanging around a bunch of other guys didn’t sound like a weekend full of fun. So I would grab my toy bazooka and play Armageddon on the hill behind our house. Even then, a deep concern for survival gripped me.

I’ve made survival kits that fit in a 30 gallon garbage can (important safety note — don't include canned orange juice unless you want to turn everything into a soggy mass when the can rusts through), kits in a backpack (for cars and offices), and even a mini-kit that fits in a 35mm film canister. No food or water in that one, but fish hooks, line, matches, and a piece of cotton for tinder. I consider myself an expert on these matters.

So it was with some dismay last week that I had a friend over and our conversation turned toward earthquakes and disaster survival. He wanted to look at my collection of pamphlets, so I let him. After a few cursory glances at the supply lists, he let out a derisive snort and informed me that each of these kits had one item missing. I could not imagine what it was, since they were all comprehensive and even contained items that I thought were superfluous, such as quarters for pay phones and the number of an out-of-state contact; everyone knows that the phones won’t work after an earthquake and if they did, the same articles tell us not to use the phones so that emergency services can!

“All right, Mr. Disaster Planner,” I said. “What’s missing from my survival kit?”

He looked at me gamely. “A gun, of course! And ammo. These pamphlets keep telling you not to expect any emergency services for days after a disaster. They want you to have fire extinguishers because the fire department will be busy. They want you to have a first-aid kit because paramedics will be busy. Turn off your own gas if there’s a leak because the gas company will be busy. Well, doesn’t it follow that the cops will also be busy and unable to protect every survivor from the sort of scum that prey on misfortune?”

I sort of figured that muggers would be just as busy trying to survive a quake as anyone else, and similarly unable to perform their job, such as it is.

Perhaps true, my friend countered, but did I think that a mugger or thief had enough foresight to prepare for a disaster and have his own survival kit to keep him fed and warm for three days to two weeks? Or would such a person live a very short-sighted life and, after a disaster, decide to make up for his grasshopper's oversight by looting us ants of our carefully hoarded goods? Look at the recent tsunami — some people immediately determined that the disaster served as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to drag survivors off and rape them, when they weren't even sure if another wave might hit and kill them. There's a testament to the power of insane rapacity.

I countered that the National Guard is always sent in to prevent looting.

“How soon? Could they get to your particular house in time? And besides, you are part of the militia, too.”

He continued, telling me that I was the only person with a vested interest in protecting my family and home. In a disaster, every person is thinking of his or her own home and family, not of me and mine. Even firemen and paramedics will check out their own neighborhoods first.

What a cynic!

“If these disaster specialists want you to have the means to survive without medics or firemen,” he concluded, “they ought to be telling you to have the means to survive without cops or National Guard. Purposely and consistently refusing to advise anyone to have a gun in their survival kits reveals how deeply the anti-gun sentiment runs in the Red Cross and government agencies. They'd rather you be open to attack by looters than admit that having a gun in your home or car is a vital part of any survival plan, disaster or no.”

As wild as he sounded, my friend did start me thinking. After all, you can be pretty sure that a policeman’s home survival kit probably has a pistol tucked away amidst the bandages and calorie bars. And it is certainly legal for the rest of us to have guns in our homes and safely packed in our cars for transportation. So why, indeed, do disaster preparedness publications tell us not to expect firemen or paramedics or gas or water or electricity, but neglect to tell us not to expect police assistance? And, worse, why do they not inform us of the danger of looters that might appear before or even after the National Guard arrive (if they show up at all)?

He changed my mind about this. I’ve got my toy bazooka stashed in my home survival kit. It may not do anything, but it sure looks threatening at twenty yards.

But I’ve given up on trying to squeeze a revolver into a 35mm film pot.

Sunday, March 13, 2005

“Bad News” is Good News

I have often wondered why the news is so depressing. Newspapers, magazines, and television are obsessed with “bad news.” Murder, theft, rape, war, hatred — everything evil spatters across headlines and stories, usually accompanied by vivid photographs or video. News commentators occasionally tut-tut about this predilection of the media to cover the worst aspects of humankind but offer little in the way of a solution.

I have come to the conclusion that no solution is necessary. Depressing headlines are the best sign that things are mostly right with the world. Why that is so has a lot to do with what news is. News is something that is out of the ordinary. In fact, it sparks the interest of readers precisely because it is so far removed from their experience that it fascinates with its unreality.

The reason that The News is bad is that bad news is so rare, and disasters are so uncommon, that their very rarity makes them newsworthy. The flip side of this is something that is seldom stated — good news is so common that it is unnecessary to report it!

Consider murder for a moment. The news media have been accused of “glorifying” murderers by giving their crimes front page coverage. But how many people are murdered in an average day? Ten? One hundred? One thousand? On the other hand, how many people are left unmurdered each day? Billions! Which is the more unusual? Which is the more surprising? Which is news?

Think of what sort of world we would be living in where the eyegrabbing headlines would read “MAN WALKS HOME FROM WORK AND LIVES!” or “LOCAL WOMAN GOES UNRAPED FOR FIVE DAYS!” or “CITY MYSTERIOUSLY UNTOUCHED BY WAR.” Only in a world where catastrophe is the standard would such events be considered extraordinary, fascinating, and newsworthy.

The Challenger disaster was Big News because the previous two dozen flights had gone up without a perceptible hitch. Had it been the norm for spacecraft to explode and kill all passengers, then the one that lifts off with no problems would be the one to merit Second Coming headlines. And that held true again for the next 70+ flawless flights: the missions were non-events as far as the press was concerned. Until Columbia.

The truth about Bad News is that it clearly demonstrates how good life is otherwise. Certainly there is room for news about something unbelievably good that happens. That, too, is unusual and therefore News. On the whole, though, Bad News predominates because misfortune, terror, and crime are aberrations. Disaster is not a part of anyone’s everyday life. For the most part, people get along with one another. Generally, they do not rob, rape, or murder their neighbors. It takes a great deal of effort for any government to whip them into conducting war against one another. People, all in all, tend to be kind, non-interfering, productive sorts who conduct themselves peaceably and with a minimum of friction.

We are not curious about the person who can cope with day-to-day stress — nearly all of us do that every moment of our lives. What attracts our attention is the lone soul who goes off his rocker and causes a bloodbath — here is someone most people are not likely to run into every day — or ever. How often is a psychopath described as seeming “normal,” or “just like the guy next door”? Doesn’t that indicate that the “normals” outnumber the psychopaths? If we are all secretly madmen, why bother making the comparison? Rather, so few of us are murderously insane — and so few of us can be pushed in that direction — that the deviant is worthy of notice simply because of his scarcity.

So it goes with the scarcity of tragedy. We are not interested in the person who swallows a headache capsule and safely has his headache relieved — that happens to almost all of us. What is News is the rare individual who swallows a capsule and dies. What better sign do we need that medicine is generally benign?

Certainly, nothing is more abhorrent than murder, calamity, violence, and death. They are a tragic part of human existence. But they are not the primary part of human existence — not by a long shot — and they are treated properly in the news by being given coverage in inverse proportion to their prevalence.

So hail the good news of Bad News! After all, which world would you rather be living in — the world where human suffering is a rare event — News! — or one in which misery and destruction are so common that they merit no mention?

See you in the funny pages.

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Mars Attacks!

I admit that I was hooked at an early age. Society is not to blame, nor the dealer. Only I am responsible. I could have stopped at any time, but after I bought the first packet at the tender age of six, I wanted more. And I still can’t stop. I remember the crinkle of the wax-impregnated paper, the white powder clinging to the hard, pink slab. Most important, though, I remember when I first saw the face of a Martian.

It was the early 1960s. My parents could not afford a fallout shelter for our modest Mountain View tract home. My mother, a Russian immigrant, possessed a distinctly Dostoyevskian view of nuclear war. “If they drop the bomb,” she would often remark, “I will run outside, look up at the plane, throw out my arms and shout ‘hit me!’”

Being a native-born American, I demonstrated more of a survivalist streak. I knew, along with Herman Kahn and Edward Teller, that a nuclear war was survivable. I practiced my drop drills and kept my Civil Defense FALLOUT PROTECTION booklet close at hand. (I still have it today. In fact, I have two copies. I must have filched my sister’s in order to maintain a redundant safety mode.)

Nikita Kruschev scared me, if only because he looked like such an unimpressive little man. The awareness that the so-called “leaders” of nations possessing spacecraft and super-weapons looked less like Raymond Massey and more like Guy Kibbee put a dread of politicians into me early on. Nothing, though, prepared me for the face of true terror.

Mountain View was one of those Californian communities without a distinctive small-town feel. I only remember our home, the Monte Vista Drive-In, and a small shopping center a few blocks away. There was no downtown or main street of which I was aware. The market, however, was modern enough to stock a large array of candy goods, including baseball trading cards. In those days, we called them “bubble gum cards” because each packet of cards was wrapped in wax paper and contained a stick of pink bubble gum so hard that compared to it modern bubble gum has all the consistency of bovine cud. You kids today don’t have that anymore in your Mylar-sealed, hologram-stamped, two-dollar-a-packet trading cards.

My generation had it bare bones. The cards were printed on thick grey-brown cardboard coated on only one side. Check out a drink coaster in your local sports bar. That’s what a gum card felt like! As I later came to understand it, the presence of the gum magically transformed the entire a package into a non-taxable food item. The cards were considered a premium similar to the free prize inside a box of Cracker Jacks. This ingenious and venerable form of tax-evasion was lost on me at the age of six, though I have come to appreciate in our current hypertaxed era.

Now I was not a collector of sports cards. Baseball cards, that is; in those halcyon days, there were no other sports considered worthy of notice. No football cards, no basketball cards, and hockey was something the kids farther north did instead of rumbling. In fact, I don’t think I had ever bought or considered buying gum cards until… until I saw The Face.

I was in the market (nothing super about them in those days) with my mother, passing through the checkout line. There, by the boxful, sat bright packets of gum cards. On the wrapper, though, was not a baseball player but a glaring monster of unimaginable horror. The Face was hardly a face at all. Like a grinning death’s head it gazed with lidless eyes incapable of expression. Instead of black pupils, the deathly white eyes possessed fiery crimson spots at their center. Instead of a hard bone skull, the top of the creature’s head mushroomed into a huge exposed brain three times the size of any mere human’s. On either side of its skeleton jaw hung hideous fleshy things that might have been tendrils or just repulsive dewlaps.

It stared right at me from inside an inverted brandy snifter of a space helmet, its frightening, armored claw reaching toward me with unspeakable menace. In bloody red letters against a bilious yellow background dripped the ominous announcement: MARS ATTACKS!

I instantly fell in love.

Yes, love. In love with the sheer magnitude of the terror. I pestered my mother to buy a packet. It was only a nickel. (Take that, you self-righteous collectors who think a hundred bucks for a Nolan Ryan rookie card is some sort of bargain!) My mother acquiesced, perhaps in some moment of distraction, perhaps because I only said, “May I please buy some gum?” (In those days, mothers could not ask the inevitable modern followup: “Is it sugar-free?” It wasn’t. Nothing was.)

I ripped open the package, chipped the gum away from the top card, crumbled the noxious delicacy in my hand, and threw the pink shards into my mouth. There beneath the waxy impression of the gum slab lay a vision of Hell unparalleled in modern times; matched, perhaps, only by the demented paintings of Hieronymus Bosch. I don’t remember now what particular card it was out of the series of 55. It might have been #1, THE INVASION BEGINS, in which a Martian points toward a departing fleet of flying saucers as thousands of identical big-brained troops march to the ladders. Or it might have been #3, ATTACKING AN ARMY BASE, in which the saucers strike without warning, using blue-white death rays to roast soldiers as they try to escape their burning barracks. Men afire, one already the silhouette of a skeleton in the death ray, one still untouched, firing his carbine futilely against the impenetrable Martian spacecraft.

I like to think, though, that the first card I saw was #11, “DESTROY THE CITY.” In hues of garish yellows, reds, and oranges, a city street is aflame. In the background, a warehouse and a courthouse blaze out of control. A shadow of a figure tries to escape from a crushed and burning car. In the foreground lay a stack of smoldering corpses, some reduced to skeletons, some still half-human. Amidst the fiery devastation are four Martians in their green battle armor with red atmosphere tanks on the back (I’d say they were oxygen tanks, but God only knows what those fiends breathed. Probably carbon monoxide.)
One Martian points to his right while surveying the destruction with emotionless calm. The other three rush toward where he (it?) points, presumably to wipe out the last pockets of resistance. This was no attempt to conquer Earth, seize its industry and wealth, and subjugate its people. This was extermination. This was total destruction. This was the end of the human race.

When faced with the possibility of the annihilation of all mankind and all its works, World War III seemed much easier to handle. Other kids must have felt the same, for my friends and I hoarded, traded, and treasured these beauties with an even greater intensity than any baseball card collector could. After all, how could an action shot of Don Drysdale compete with #19, BURNING FLESH, in which a man stares down in screaming horror as a Martian laser rifle sears everything below his shoulders to charred skeleton.

The cards, for me at least, were a bizarre form of comfort. As bad as the Russians were, they were still human. They would attack us in ways that would leave something standing. (As the son of Russians, I always felt that the Russian people would at some point refuse to obey their slavemasters. I knew I would have. And I’m glad that, after more than three decades, my childhood hunch proved correct.)

After all, the feared World War III would have been just the Russians against the Americans. The rest of the world could crawl out of the ruins and rebuild. What a six-year-old saw in those cards, though, was a vision of doom overwhelmingly complete and total. Cards such as #5, WASHINGTON IN FLAMES, #8, TERROR IN TIMES SQUARE, and #26, THE TIDAL WAVE demonstrated the Biblical proportions of the slaughter.

The Martian fiends employed every possible weapon. The heat rays were a favorite, but they also blasted humanity with frost rays and shrinking rays. They turned enlarging rays on insects, releasing giant flies, spiders, and bugs to prey upon defenseless Earthlings. Sure, some humans fought back. A soldier protecting a woman from a giant green potato bug plunged his bayonet into its arm, releasing a goosh of ruby bug-juice, to no avail. Ants devoured commuter trains and a caterpillar twined up the Eiffel Tower, snapping it in half.

The Martians had still more weapons. They unleashed a giant robot operated by an impassive Martian in the cockpit. They even dropped a spiked claw-shovel out of the bottom of one saucer to scoop up fleeing pedestrians and crush them against brick walls. The monsters’ desire for total obliteration was beyond belief. They sank our ships, blasted our aircraft, burned our cattle, and — as a boy close to my age screamed in horror, fists beating uselessly against Martian armor — they even destroyed a dog!

Worst of all, the murderous creatures watched it all on video! Yes, card #13, WATCHING FROM MARS, displayed naked Martians sitting in recliners, hoisting wine glasses, leisurely observing a wall-sized TV screen as cameras mounted in saucers broadcast aerial scenes of the destruction of Washington, DC. Those unspeakable monsters gleefully cheered safely at home while high-tech weapons pounded a primitive people into blood and rubble. I knew right then that these foul invaders were not only inhuman, they were the antithesis of everything American. No human beings, no creatures with any conscience whatsoever could be so bloodthirstily cruel and insensitive.

And they had color TV, the lucky stiffs!

Most ominously, in such cards as #17, BEAST AND THE BEAUTY, and #21, PRIZE CAPTIVE, the Martians abducted Our Women, generally preferring full-figured blondes. Brunettes, on the other hand, composed the majority of female corpses. Ah, but which fate was worse? As a kid, I didn’t care. These were the mushy scenes. The war was much more interesting.

All the American victims were white. Though the saucers did make one cursory pass through China, no other races seemed to fall victim to the slaughter; this was not an equal opportunity massacre.

In the darkest hour of humanity, though, some hope glimmered, much to my youthful dismay. Flame throwers could destroy the insects. Several soldiers discovered that a bayonet could pierce Martian pressure suits. Then, at card #46, came what even this six-year-old could see was the Big Ripoff Climax.

In spite of the massive worldwide destruction, there somehow still existed military rocket bases all over the planet.
Notwithstanding the destruction of troops, ships, and aircraft, military units were still somehow able to move their ordnance onto rocket ships larger than the Empire State Building (knocked over way back in card #10). They blast off for Mars, reach it in just one card, and immediately begin nuclear saturation bombing of the Red Planet!

Even at six I could recognize a deus ex machina ending, even if I had no name for it. What about the Martian occupation force? Didn’t they put a blockade around Earth to shoot down any ascending rockets? And why couldn’t the Martian defense forces see the Earth troops coming? Every kid my age knew that it took at least six months to reach Mars via a Hohmann “S” orbit. (I did so know it. Any kid in the Space Age who didn’t was obviously wasting his time collecting baseball cards!) How could the aliens be caught unaware? Were the Martians as complacent on the home front as we were? Did their adults scoff at the need for bomb shelters? A lesson, then, to be learned by both sides.

Or perhaps something was rotten in Deep Space.

Did I care? Did I truly care at six that I had been strung along for 80% of a story into thinking that the Martians had been more powerful and thorough than they apparently were?

Nah… By then, I was eager for the Payback. And it came fast and furious. Terran forces nuked Mars, then sent in the paratroopers (thank you, strategic planners); they crashed through the domes of the cities with five-turret tanks. (#51, CRUSHING THE MARTIANS, is the most gory retaliation card and, compositionally, my favorite.) On the penultimate card, a Martian city lays in flaming ruin, dome cracked open, monorail hanging from its track, ash-grey roasted Martian head in the foreground. The Face reposes in grim death, no longer grinning its triumphant skull grin. My beloved alien race had been laid waste.

Card #54, MARS EXPLODES, must have influenced George Lucas; on it, spaceships rocket away from the shattering planet like dandelion seeds hit by the shock wave of a summer storm. For many, it was the glorious end to a nightmare. For me, it signalled the end of mankind’s unity against a common foe. I knew that Earthlings would return to their petty squabbles shortly after #55, COMPLETE CHECKLIST, turned over with the finality of a Tarot card.

I suspect that these Topps bubble gum cards (the company issued them under a pseudonym, Bubbles, Inc.) have had an impact more profound than we can imagine. The MARS ATTACKS! series must have even influenced presidential policy. I remember listening with surprise to President Reagan’s suggestion, years later, that the only threat that would truly unite humanity would be an invasion from space. Was this a warning from the highest levels of power? Should we indeed Keep Watching The Skies?

Mars is a lifeless planet. I know that now. The very space program that I supported brought me this most distressing news.
There are no Martians against which humanity will unite.

All I know now is that after a third of a century, whenever global disaster looms — whether it be Vietnam, Watergate, the greenhouse effect, Mideast war, or post-communism instability — I still occasionally turn to my carefully preserved MARS ATTACKS! collection and gaze at their images, thinking one simple, childlike thought:

I’m still missing five cards from the set and I want them!

My thoughts about Tim Burton’s movie version next time...