Thursday, September 16, 2010

The Blog Is Over (If You Want It To Be)

RovingStorm has already made one comeback, but with Wordpress's superior capabilities and access to the domain name "", this moment was inevitable. All future posts of politics, the open road, the wild frontiers, glitz and gloom in Gotham and much, much more will be going on at I'll keep this site around for archival purposes, but make your way across the web to an exciting new venture that I hope is the culmination of my years of stop and go in the blogging world.

Peace out,

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

That Time Of Year: Endorsing Eric Schneiderman for Attorney General

Dear friends,

On next Tuesday, September 14, it is once again time to forget about the ugliness of politics and head to the voting booths. Even though New Yorkers can do little to stem the Republican onslaught across the country this November, on Tuesday’s primary, New Yorkers have the opportunity to nominate an excellent candidate for New York State Attorney General by voting for State Senator Eric Schneiderman.

You may not have heard of this guy- in fact, you may not have heard of this race. A Daily News poll showed that when not offered specific choices, only 20% of registered New York Democrats could name who they supported for Attorney General, and a leading 8% chose someone not running! But toiling away in the savage trenches of New York state politics, Eric Schneiderman has demonstrated himself to be a smart, progressive leader- someone who doesn’t just check the right box when he votes, but leads the troops into battle on the major issues of the day.

To back up, what does the Attorney General do? The Attorney General is a prosecutor, empowered to enforce state and federal law within the jurisdiction of New York state. Attorneys General Eliot Spitzer and Andrew Cuomo wielded this role effectively to crack down on Wall Street. The Attorney General directs approximately 500 lawyers who handle everything from organized crime to political corruption to white collar crime to non-profit fraud. The AG also must defend the state and its agencies when they are sued by individuals or the federal government. It is a great office that I sought the opportunity to work for, unsuccessfully, due to a recession-induced hiring freeze.

Eric Schneiderman spent much of his early career at a private firm, though he was an attorney or legal advisor to many progressive causes, including the “Clean Money, Clean Elections” campaign and the subway rider advocacy group, the NYPIRG Straphangers. Elected to the State Senate in 1998, Schneiderman immediately distinguished himself as a major defender of the environment, the right to choose and the right to organize. He spearheaded the successful legislative efforts to overhaul the draconian Rockefeller drug laws. He has been a major advocate for campaign finance and ethics reform, though he clearly faces strong opposition from his Albany colleagues. After the throat-slashing State Senator Hiram Monserrate became an embarrassment to the state of New York, Schneiderman oversaw the legal process to have Monserrate expelled from the State Senate.

More so than any of these individual policies or achievements, however, I respect Schneiderman's intelligence and convictions. Having met him in person and listened to many of his interviews, Schneiderman has always come across as too good for the zoo that is the New York State Senate. He is calm and thoughtful under pressure, and while virtually every politician claims to "fight for the little guy", he actually means it. Witness his incredibly strong support from New York City’s minority population and labor unions, and his opposition to corporate financed elections.

Every candidate agrees that this race is about reform in New York state politics, and there is little dispute that Schneiderman has the longest history of fighting for the reforms we need. Schneiderman’s opponents for the Democratic nomination range from decent to strong, but they fall short of his record of accomplishment, and kid themselves by suggesting the person known as the strongest reformer in the State Senate (Citizens Union, NY Times, etc.) should be disqualified simply because he is an elected official. If he was really "part of the club", he wouldn’t have been targeted for redistricting in 2002, though he won his absurdly shaped district in subsequent elections.

Eric Dinallo, the former insurance superintendent did well under Attorney General Spitzer, but has brought little energy to this race. Sean Coffey presents an interesting bio- working class kid becomes rich lawyer after serving in the Navy, but the “outsider” label is more helpful is you want to make speeches in Congress than if your job is manage 500 lawyers in a highly political position. Richard Brodsky has had a strong career in the State Assembly investigating corruption, including the Yankees Stadium deal and unaccountable public authorities like the MTA. He would probably be my second choice, though his crass political handling of the Islamic Center issue shows that he may be as vulnerable to caving as anyone when the stakes get high.

Nassau DA Kathleen Rice, the perceived front-runner, did not cast a vote until her late 30s, including a failure to vote in the 2000 election, when she lived in the battleground state of Pennsylvania. For someone aspiring to public office to think such little of civic duty astounds me. She did not declare herself as a Democrat until running for DA in 2005, which says more about her ideology than her carefully scripted campaign message. During the WNYC debate this morning she embarrassed herself by twice misstating the contours of the Attorney General’s authority. Backed by Cuomo to bring geographic and gender diversity to the ticket, she has been thoroughly unimpressive as a candidate.

Some candidates, in desperation, are accusing Schneiderman as being unelectable against Republican AG nominee, Dan Donovan. Renowned Village Voice investigative reporter Wayne Barrett has suggested that Mayor Bloomberg is strongly pushing the socially moderate Staten Island District Attorney because he wants the next Attorney General to take the heat off of Wall Street after 16 years of Spitzer and Cuomo. The Bush years taught us that Democrats are at their weakest when they sacrifice their principles for nebulous “electability”, and this race is no exception. Furthermore, this is New York, and I will not shiver in my boots over Dan Donovan.

Lest anyone think me overly effusive in praising a liberal legislator who votes the right way, actually legislates and stands up for his convictions, those traits should not be considered exceptional. In New York state politics, however, they are, and hopefully the election of Eric Schneiderman for Attorney General and Andrew Cuomo for governor can not only bring good policies to Albany, but restore dignity to its politics.

On September 14, vote Eric Schneiderman for New York State Attorney General.


Unfortunately, the deadline to register to vote has passed, though my hope is that nearly everyone on this list would have registered for the mayoral election last year.

You can find your polling place here:

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The Sad Men

If I told you about a show that would be painful to squirm through, which would leave you feeling hollow and sad, would you watch it? Another summer of hype for Mad Men persuaded me to Netflix it up, but the result has been disappointment, or worse. The show, for the uninitiated, follows the professional and personal lives of marketers at Sterling Cooper. The show is set in the early 1960s, the calm before the storm, the last gasp of unfettered white, male privilege. Social conservatives often lament this “simpler era”, though the simplicity of rigid social castes is not appealing to most Americans today.

Mad Men’s star is Don Draper, a man of mythical statute both on the show and among its followers. The man has charm and good looks, seduces attractive women with relative ease, and from what one can gather, is one of the only talented people at Sterling Cooper. He has a “girls want him and guys want to be like him” quality, but his brooding nihilism is tiring. Like most of the characters, he is torn between loathing his daily existence and quietly accepting it, rarely cracking a smile. The show may have permanently lost me when Draper, who has shown little remorse for his rampant philandering or wretched treatment of his brother, has a near break down when the firm has to cut ties with a mid-sized airline company in order to pursue a bigger one. He feels anguished, even though the mid-sized airline company can just get a new PR firm. Not really a big deal, dude.

Despite his melancholy, Draper is the star around which the rest of this mid-sized firm orbits. Sterling, a partner, showers him with hyperbole that feels completely unsubstantiated for most of Season 1. The women of Sterling Cooper hammer away at typewriters (what could so many of them be typing?) while men smoke cigarettes, drink whiskey and sulk in their private offices. The show insists on creating a “Masters of the Universe” aura, which falls exceedingly short.

With the exception of Sterling, who at least has an entrepreneurial spirit to him, the grunts at Sterling Cooper think of themselves as “ad-men”, big time hotshots, without anything to show for it. As they clutch onto accounts they always seem to be on the verge of losing, worrying about making enough money to pay the family bills, they don’t realize how small and insignificant they are. People who work in advertising and marketing are, as a breed, highly replaceable, especially in an era where most advertising was just print copy. Their meetings, which often last mere seconds, produce nothing, and are followed by bouts of whiskey drinking which makes one wonder if any actual work is getting done at Sterling Cooper. I suppose this is the golden era people talk about, where sons of privilege get paid for doing nothing, where men have secretaries take off their hats, place their phone calls and hide their affairs for them. These men aren’t impressive, they’re pathetic.

The notion of a show about “ad-men” turned me off from watching Mad Men when it first began airing. The slovenly beatniks from Season 1 are meant to look and act like losers, but their withering critique of what advertisers really do- peddle lies- is rebutted meekly by Draper. There is little honor in selling worthless products, though so many of us are forced to do so at one point or another. This show does little to make advertising seem hip or worthwhile, even for its time. I mean, this was the freaking 1960s, and these guys are coming up with tag lines for lipstick.

Obviously a TV show is more than its premise- Arrested Development wasn’t incredible because it was about housing developers. Unfortunately, the characters that make up Mad Men’s core are a tortuous lot. Pete Campbell, a bratty looking fellow, is eminently unlikeable, and it is often difficult to tell the mediocrity you see before you stems from the actor or the character. Peggy Olson, the only female character to break the secretarial mold, is similarly awkward and difficult to root for. The much hyped Joan Holloway, she of the dazzling curves, has little to say beyond what you’d expect from the power crazy office manager we’ve all had to deal with.

The personal storylines in Mad Men are no more gripping, a cross between Desperate Housewives and the old high school drama Fifteen. Like the show’s in-your-face sexism and racism, the painfully repressed sexuality is a paean to a different era, but that doesn’t make it fun to watch. The most overused line from Season 1 is either “I should go” or “You should go.” The way characters drunkenly make out at parties reminds me of junior year of high school. Everyone is lonely and wishes they got laid more, but can’t, because they married young and are unhappy in marriage. What a downer.

The saddest of all is Betty Draper, a ray of sunshine in a sordid cast. Beautiful, a little weird, and one of the few sympathetic characters in the show, Betty is an example of a woman trapped by her time, destined perhaps for great things if she hadn’t resigned herself to being a housewife in her young 20s. Her yearning leads to some of the few poignant moments on the show, as do Sal Romano’s tribulations as a closeted gay, fitting for a show that peddles sadness.

One can watch entire episodes without so much as a chuckle. I can’t remember the last time I watched a show in which I laughed so rarely at explicit jokes made by the characters. Am I supposed to? I never know what emotional chord this show is aiming for. Is the constant cigarette smoking and whiskey drinking supposed to be comical? Are the racist and sexist jokes “edgy”, a way to make the script accurate, or what?

Finally, what is with the grandeur? Mad Men has been talked about as one of the best shows of the decade, but in what ways is it great? It’s a good drama, but it’s not even in the same conversation as The West Wing, let alone The Wire. The characters are largely mundane and unlikeable, the plot grinds along tediously, the wit is sparse, and most fundamentally, it doesn’t really matter what happens. Oh, they are bought up by a British parent company? They split away and form a small boutique firm? Jesus, how can anyone care?

This was written after battling into Season 2 out of some hope that I needed more than 12 hours to warm up to the show. It ends with a warning for those on the fence about whether to commit their Netflix queue to Mad Men:
Ultimately, this is a show about mediocre men and fake women sleepwalking through their depressed, unimpressive lives, lying and scheming to get one extra rung up the endless ladder. Unfortunately, we already have seen this show- it’s called life, and it’s kind of a downer. Let’s stick to putting something better on television and the internet.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

The Madness of King James: Why America Can't Handle Its News Anymore

When Lebron James announces his new basketball home on a maudlin hour-long special, live from Greenwich, Connecticut, he will end an ugly saga that betrayed how brutally unprepared our country is to deal with matters of consequence as technology uncontrollably lurches forward.

On July 1, Lebron James became a free agent. In the preceding weeks (if not months and years), speculation had run rampant, but on that day his free agency became one of the biggest news stories of the Twitter era, rumors exploding from every corner of the internet. Journalists, fellow players, anonymous front office executives, friends of restaurant owners- anyone who could claim a degree of separation from the Source, advanced definitive clues to where Lebron was heading. No entity was more crippled by this phenomenon than ESPN.

ESPN’s embarrassing coverage demonstrated that despite being one of the world’s major news organizations, it was unprepared to handle a mega story that it has known was coming for two years. Desperate not to be scooped, its writers displayed a complete inability to decipher fact from rumor, or fact from relevant fact. Writers lunged from theory to theory- 'Lebron is going to Chicago', 'Lebron is going to New York', 'Lebron is going to Miami', often without any actual developments to bolster their case. One tweet lamented the news that Lebron’s agent had changed his LLC address to Chicago. Another gushed of Lebron’s reservation at a steakhouse in New York.

Information on flights, meals, hotel bookings and phone calls were bandied about, along with deep ruminations on Lebron’s inner psychology. Aware of the tenuousness of their claims, writers deftly pulled Orwellian hijinks with each new 'development', reflecting, 'Lebron was always going to stay in Cleveland', 'Miami was a done deal from the beginning,' 'the Knicks were never in play', only to discard such claims in subsequent posts. During rare, sane moments, a writer would admit that Lebron probably hadn’t made up his mind at all.

There are at least two reasons the complete botching of this story is more important than basketball.

First, we have long recognized that in most news reporting, the immediacy of the 24 hour news cycle is dangerous, allowing for little fact-checking. This problem has only been exacerbated by explosion of Twitter and the increasing number of professionals religiously consulting their iPhones and Blackberries. If the whole world can learn the one sentence synopsis of a story as it is happening, news agencies must have some substance to offer immediately as well. News organizations were all over the Stanley McChrystal story- before the Rolling Stone story was fully published. Most were reacting to excerpts or paraphrased summaries of the article. That is how the important point of the article- the collapse of our Afghanistan war strategy, got lost in the shuffle.

A less recent but even more poignant example would be the ‘balloon boy’ story, during which television news converged on live coverage of a boy in a runaway balloon- only there wasn’t any boy in the balloon. The rush to war in 2003 was bad enough. Can you imagine if rumors related to Saddam Hussein and weapons of mass destruction had proliferated more quickly and more wildly than they had? But examples should not even be necessary in stating a most obvious principle- a world in which newsmakers have no time to reflect before speaking, and policymakers have no time to reflect before acting is highly dangerous.

Our faith in experts is equally misguided, and in the case of 'political analysts', equally dangerous. In sports, inaccuracy is usually of no consequence. Neither the passive fan nor diehard junkie really cares whether someone on accurately predicts the outcome of a game. It can be startling to see so-called experts predicting NFL outcomes with the same accuracy as a coin toss or doing worse in fantasy sports than the average online participant. But because such few figures in sports can tell longtime sports fans or former athletes information they don’t already know, the ‘experts’ main role is entertainment rather than analysis.

In theory, the purpose of political analysts is also entertainment. Listen to someone like ‘strategist’ Donna Bazile, for example. Has she ever said anything particularly insightful? In truth, anyone who reads history, frequents multiple new sources daily and owns the right make-up kit could make at least a guest appearance on a cable news show. Analysis is generally trite, with even smart guests stunted by the short, adversarial format. Yet, in contrast to their mastery of sports, most Americans are tragically dependent on the political news establishment. More Americans can debate Federer-Nadal on their own than critique Thomas Friedman’s inane observations on globalization. That is why Friedman is read all over the world as an economic and foreign policy expert despite being wrong with confounding frequency.

It is too late to wish for a world in which people do not crave penetrating analysis of events that have just taken place or hunger for further information that simply does not exist. As sports fans, our shortcomings in this regard have made the Lebron James saga particularly painful. Even as I write this, I peruse Twitter for clues that I know are ultimately meaningless. But at least basketball fans understand the sport well enough to ignore the chatter and make their own reasoned predictions. In politics, most Americans lack the educational background and interest to inform themselves. And so they recline on the couch, and let the talking heads yammer away.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Images of an Epic Summer to Come Part II

Images of An Epic Summer To Come

There’s So Much to Look Forward To: 20 Reasons Why This Will Be An Epic Summer

Being in Liberia, for all its wacky adventures, has properly served its purpose as a self-imposed exile from the daily grind of New York City life. Things had hit the wall by January, when I could be found cursing loudly on subway platforms every time I narrowly missed a subway. I needed to get away and think, recharge, and pick up some good stories. So far, all has gone according to plan, sense of purpose is renewed and all that. But, like Dylan once sang, “I’m going back to New York City; I do believe I’ve had enough.” That’s from “Just Like Tom Thumbs Blues,” a stellar track of Highway 61 Revisited. When I was in the band George Carlin Must Die (don’t worry, he was already dead), we covered the song for our album, Jesus Freak Meth-heads. The band was only together for about six hours, but man did we rock.

I can’t wait to stomp through clouds of volcanic ash to get back to the New York scene. New York usually does the whole late spring/ early summer thing with superb gusto, and 2010 will be no different. My perspective on the local and national mood might be a little warped, but thanks to the magic of the internet I am probably reading the same garbage that you are, and I too live in fear of coming face to face with an earnest looking Wolf Blitzer every time I flip on my television.

Because lists are ideally suited for the 140 Characters or Less Era, I’ve compiled my “Reasons the Summer of 2010 is Going to Awesome.” My own biases shine through- I’m not sure how many of you will really stand to gain much from my high school reunion, for example- but this list ought to fire up any soul who just lived through an urban winter.

20. Midnight Spin (all summer): One of Brooklyn’s most rocking new bands, these guys are going to have a big 2010, and this summer you can catch them on the rise in NYC, Boston, D.C and wherever else. I’ll be road-tripping with them for at least one weekend this summer to write a dispatch on the dudes, who know how to have a good time on stage and off it.

19. Williamsburg (all summer): While Wburg is always intriguing, the lack of accessible subway stops can make it a brutal winter destination. Action spills onto the sidewalks, fun things go down in the parks, and Williamsburg is positively hopping and full of energy during the summer. After two summers as a resident, it’ll be a sweet homecoming.

18. The Flaming Lips (July): They are touring this summer. If you don’t know why this is so exciting, do yourself a favor and hit the Youtubes to see why they are considered one of the bands you have to see before you die (or, I suppose, before they die).

17. Financial Reform (May-June): Really, Republicans? The party of corporate thugs has always had masterful snake oil charmers, but this May we’ll have the pleasure of watching Republicans trying to fundraise on Wall Street while simultaneously blocking financial reform as a “giveaway to the banks.” The mental gymnastics required to execute this strategy are simply beyond the abilities of this Republican leadership, and should lead to some entertaining moments, provided corporate Democrats don’t ruin the fun like they always do.

16. All Good Music Festival (July): The preeminent jam-band festival for the laid-back, hang-out scene, this festival brings bands like Parliament and the surviving members of the Greatful Dead to the mountains of West Virginia. West Virginia is one of three states east of the Mississippi River that I have not partied in, and I’d like to check it off the list this summer; I’m currently 35/50, and #14 on this list will bump me up to 37.

15. West Coast Road Trip (August): For someone who loves the open road and adventures away from home, I’ve been shielded from the Left Coast for years by some mystic force. Other than a single night in Los Angeles on a 2007 wedding trip, I haven’t been to the West Coast since 2004. I haven’t been to Portland or Seattle at all, to my great regret, though in my defense, that is only because my car broke down on the 2004 Great American Road Trip. This lazy August jaunt should be a chance to reconnect with peeps, see some great progressive work happening on the ground and soak in two of America’s top cities for the first time.

14. Baseball Season (all summer): Baseball games have gotten too expensive, plain and simple. I’ll still try to get out to some good matchups this summer, but gone are the days of hopping on the subway spontaneously with a friend and grabbing an Upper Deck ticket to see the Mets battle whoever was in town. At Citi Field, a stadium name I won’t ever get over, the cheapest seats are called “The Promenade”, and they are not cheap. Nevertheless, baseball is still the ultimate background television dive bars, and it’s good to have it back. On the heels of my fantasy basketball success, I declined to enter a fantasy baseball league, and will thus be able to relax and enjoy, instead of being glued to my laptop to make seismic roster moves every few hours.

13. High School 10th year reunion (May) : Has it really been ten years? Yes, it definitely has. A full decade has passed since the Collegiate Class of 2000’s reign of terror ended with a wild and tumultuous spring of WWF-inspired populism and Gatsbyesque parties. If Facebook profiles are any indicator, the fifty some boys who made up that graduating class have largely gotten their shit together, which will make for a great contrast with the fifth year reunion, which was something of an unemployment bash.

12. Silk Road Palace (all summer): It’ll be another summer at the Silk Road Palace, one of my very favorite New York institutions. A Chinese restaurant that serves unlimited free boxed wine with every entrée, this place has been the bedrock of many a Friday and Saturday night for the crew over the last decade. I’ve celebrated at least part of my birthday there in 2001, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2008 and 2009. The typical Silk Road dinner involves 12-18 people from all different circles coming together to bond over a raucous dinner, replete with fun toasts and boat races. What makes it particularly fun in the summer is that when pre-seating gets too crowded you can wait outside, and likewise, once the meal is over, the buzz-killing cold doesn’t rush you into a hasty post-Road decision. This summer the Road will once again be the place to be, particularly with me moving within closer striking distance to the Upper West Side restaurant this June.

11. The U.S Social Forum (June): On June 22nd, progressive groups are gathering en masse for an organizing conference in Detroit. I could not be more fired up. Activism has deservedly taken its lumps for its disorganization and fractured nature, but thanks in no small part to online organizing, an enormous roster of standout local groups is getting together in one of America’s most beleaguered cities, one I’ve been meaning to visit for years. Did you know that New York to Detroit is only a ten hour drive? And that large organizations attending are told to consider buying a house rather than renting a lot of hotel rooms? This is a rare conference actually worth going to.

10. Sandinista (always): The Clash’s fourth album is so drenched in epic music and context that it remains one of the best things about the coming summer, thirty years after its release. Thirty years ago, Joe Strummer and Mick Jones spent much of the spring and summer throwing together 36 bewildering tracks that became the greatest triple album ever, and my favorite album, which Mick Jones called “a good choice.” The opening track, “Magnificent Seven”, is probably the first “white rap” song ever released. The album dabbles in dub reggae with Mikey Dread at the helm. It rocks out with “Police On My Back” and goes into a “Revolution #9” like sound collage on “Mensforth Hill”. It goes super political with “Charlie Don’t Surf”, a song that predicts September 11th, “Something About England”, which documents the collapse of national morale in England during the 20th century, and “Washington Bullets”, a song about American Cold War imperialism in Latin America, with a simultaneous rejection of Soviet, Chinese and British foreign policy. I mean, honestly, who the fuck writes songs like this anymore? And don’t say Immortal Technique. Titus Andronicus is only two albums into their young careers, so they could conceivably dig deep down the road and make an album this deep and spectacular. The Clash released Sandinista as a triple album (36 songs) so that they could escape their terrible record contract faster, a move that did not escape the record label. In the eventual compromise, the Clash gave up a large percentage of their royalties in return for the label’s pricing it like a double album, to make its purchase accessible to Clash fans. One of the disappointments of 2009 was our failure to put together a proper tribute concert for the 30th anniversary of London Calling. Well, we have a shot at redemption on December 12, for Sandinista’s official 30th. It’ll be a weirder, but more magical show, and we have a summer to plan it.

9. The U.S Open (August): It feels weird to rank a single tennis tournament over the entire baseball season, but the U.S Open has a trump card- the chance to see Roger Federer in his prime one more time. In the last twelve months, Federer has resolved the question of whether he has bested Sampras for the title of best tennis player ever (Yes, see French Open, 2009) and has set his sights on the next level, “Greatest Athlete of Our Time”. Federer’s prime has already lasted at least a year longer than most expected, and in a sport like tennis, you have to wonder how much longer R-Fed will be out there, now that he has statistically nothing left to prove. The heroics that the great ones summon at this stage of their careers, slightly past their physical peaks, are sometimes the most memorable- think Jordan’s Finals performances against the Utah Jazz.

8. Pick-up Basketball (all summer): Between devastating injuries, the bar exam and assorted trips abroad, I haven’t been in a regular pick-up basketball groove in years. While part of me feels that I’ll never be quite the same player post-knee surgery, I’m still not a guy you want guarding you. Sippy and I first took the street-ball court together fifteen years ago, and its long due we racked up some wins on 76th street along with the surviving members of the Hung Jurors, and whoever else is around.

7. The Death of Conservatism (all summer): Conservatism is wrecked. A total joke. Remember when conservatives you knew would bask in their intellectual superiority, snide oozing with every painful conversation. Unfortunately, a combination of world class bumbling by President Bush (How’s that Project for a New American Century going?) and the recent decision to sell their intellectual capital for some short-term Tea Party outrage has left the conservative movement bankrupt in every sense of the word. Now I’m no fool, please don’t mistake my claim to suggest that Republicans will never return to power. Massachusetts voters elected Scott Brown to “break the gridlock in Washington”, when the strength of the Republican opposition is the source of gridlock, a lapse of rational thinking that just makes you have to sigh and get back to work on that civic education. But when the Republican base is a throng of backwards, bigoted fanatics, driven by irrational fear and dare I say, loathing, their days as a majority party are forever threatened.

6. The NBA Play-offs (May and June): The caliber of play in the NBA right now is simply at a level unmatched since I became a fan of the game in 1992. Everyone is hoping for the Kobe v. Lebron matchup that Nike promised us with its incessant commercials last year, but there will plenty of intrigue on the way, including the last gasps of the 2008 champion Boston team and the 2007 champion Spurs team, and the post-season debut of Kevin Durant, perhaps the most prolific young scorer the league has ever seen, and the captain of my 2009-10 championship winning fantasy basketball team. Ultimately, however, the biggest spotlight will be on Lebron. The chattering classes have been waiting two years for this moment (See #4 below).

5. Marathon Day III (May): This twenty-six drink romp through all five boroughs of New York is a day absolutely unlike any other. Conceived of as a way to celebrate my 26th birthday, the tradition is now in year three. There is nothing like the anticipation of the Staten Island Ferry Terminal at 10:45am on a Saturday as the team, a mystery till boarding time, assembles for the first leg of the journey. Did you know that not only is the Ferry free, but you can buy cans of beer for $2 and drink them on the deck? Marathon Day takes about 14 hours, and it has only been completed by three people, but the ebb and flow of merry travelers is part of what makes it special. Sign up to join here!

4. Lebron Lebron Lebron!!! (July): On July 1, Lebron James will become an unrestricted free agent for the first time in his career, giving him his first opportunity to escape the dregs of Cleveland and make his mark as the biggest sports icon in the world, holding court at Madison Square Garden 41 nights a year (plus playoffs) and single-handedly save the Knicks franchise. Nor is this just a sports story- the allure New York has on Lebron has little to do with basketball; in fact, joining the Knicks would probably be a career setback. But at the last Cavs-Knicks game at the Garden, Jay-Z, Spike Lee and Chris Rock schmoozed with members of the championship Yankees team, which was honored during the first quarter, with Grand Master Flash dj’ing. You just can’t have moments like that in Cleveland, and Lebron knows that. When he visits New York this July, he will be a highly sought after recruit for the whole city, which is guaranteed to put on a spectacular show for him.

3. The World Cup (June-July): Part of me is shocked and disappointed that I won’t be in South Africa to witness this spectacle in the flesh. South Africa, aware of its product, has priced people like me out of attending, but no matter. The quadrennial event that pits nations against each other with much more nationalistic potency than the Olympics will be coming to a local pub screen near you. There will be a lot of subplots at work- for Americans, the desperate need to atone for our dreadful performance in 2006, and a spotlighted June 12 match against England that hundreds of millions around the world will be watching. The World Cup also always has its share of the “traditional powerhouses” vs. “upstart nation” subplots, and with the Cup being hosted in an African country for the first time, a run by Ghana or Cameroon would be particularly awesome. South Africa is expected to fare worse than any host country in the Cup’s history. Even from our far away perch in New York, the World Cup will be thrilling to watch. I’ve even imported a Brit from Liberia to educate us on the finer points of the game. Cheers!

2. Bonnaroo (June): I assume folks have had at least had the decency to ogle this year’s lineup. It actually be less impressive than last year’s unhuman roster, which included an evening of watching Al Green, the Beastie Boys, Phish, Nine Inch Nails and MGMT back to back. It wasn’t even fair. When you’re too wiped out from watching Wilco and Bruce Springsteen to finish watching Public Enemy perform “It Takes A Nation of Millions”, it’s time for karma to spread itself more equitably. This year the headliners include some busts (Kings of Leon?), but it’s hard to argue with Stevie Wonder, Jay-Z, Weezer, and, wait for it- the Flaming Lips, who will be performing their own set and also covering Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon in its entirety. If that’s not the place you want to be on Earth, I don’t know what is. It makes the entire festival worth it, even if you aren’t sold on the best punk act of its era, the Dropkick Murphys, one of the best young bands in America, the Gaslight Anthem, or John Fogerty, all of whom will be there. Even Conan is listed as a headliner, though I don’t know what he brings to the table. Maybe they’ll pair him with Dave Matthews Band, though in fairness to the long loathed dudes of DMB, we’ve all grown up a little, and I just might give ‘em a look from the back of the crowd. I am sure that some of the Roo faithful will read the previous paragraph with some disgust. After all, Bonnaroo was supposed to be the mecca of jam bands, where people in tie-dyed shirts got stoned and nodded their heads every now and then to 15-minute cover songs (not that there’s anything wrong with that). Things were awkward for a few years- did Radiohead really make sense as a headliner? Rap, too, was brought in gingerly. But all things must pass, and ‘Roo is not really a jam band festival anymore. It is, however, a great time with great people, with enough great music that everyone in attendance will find a reason to make it one of the most memorable experiences of 2010.

1.Bull Moose Movement (all summer): Zombie parades, working with community groups, generating camaraderie across the digital divide…there is so much to look forward to in the nascent Bull Moose Movement. The project is a collaboration of progressive activists across the country, centered in Brooklyn, which seeks to empower communities against corporate influence through civic education. And it will be epic- as any group named for Teddy Roosevelt’s renegade third party candidacy would be. Did you know that the Wizard of Oz is an allegory for 1890s anti-corporate populism? Come find out when we screen it at the Bull Moose Tavern, our hub pub in Hell’s Kitchen.
Progressives are back in a big way right now. We all stumbled a bit in the transition for George Bush to Barack Obama. But the this summer should feature some strong activism, including the teachers movement, which is pushing back hard against the ridiculous charter school impositions from on high, and the citizens united against Citizens United, who are calling on Americans to rethink how corporations should be treated under our laws while they seek to undermine our democratic process. The Bull Moose Movement will be partnering with plenty of sweet groups along the way, and celebrating an optimistic future along the way. Dear Summer of 2010, Let’s do this. Sincerely, Janos and Friends

Thursday, April 1, 2010

The Enemy is Everywhere: Review of new Titus Andronicus album

"From whence shall we expect the approach of danger? Shall some trans-Atlantic military giant step the earth and crush us at a blow? Never. All the armies of Europe and Asia...could not by force take a drink from the Ohio River or make a track on the Blue Ridge in the trial of a thousand years. No, if destruction be our lot we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of free men we will live forever or die by suicide."
Abraham Lincoln, Address to the Young Men's Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois on January 27, 1838.

The crucial element missing from the progressive resistance to the George Bush era and the rise of the corporation was a meaningful soundtrack. Titus Andronicus, a fiery punk band from New Jersey, may not define themselves as activists (neither did Bob Dylan), but their second album, The Monitor, delivers a much-needed blistering rebuke to contemporary society.

For those of you who missed their 2008 debut, An Airing of Grievances, Titus Andronicus’ debut was packed with anthems about finding purpose in the doldrums of New Jersey. In their second record, they revisit that idea through the prism of the U.S Civil War. The album is fantastically ambitious, an adjective used to describe few major bands today; in fact, when asked to describe the album, front-man Patrick Stickles offered, “Through and through, it is a whole-hearted and potentially ill-advised grab for some sort of imaginary brass ring, the sound of a band desperate for success and defiantly unafraid of failure.”

The opening song, “A More Perfect Union” unleashes a torrent of emotions- distaste with culture, the depressing escapism of alcohol, and the difficulty of figuring out what exactly you’re looking for: “I didn’t want to change the world, but I’m looking for a new New Jersey,” to a musical background dripping with influences from Bruce Springsteen to Civil War melodies.

The second track, “Titus Andronicus Forever,” ends with a passage from a letter Lincoln wrote to his law partner in 1841: “I am now the most miserable man living. If what I feel were equally distributed to the whole human family, there would not be one cheer face on earth.” This is a striking quote. First, you would think Lincoln said it during the Civil War, as the Union’s exhausted Commander-In-Chief. In fact, he was simply another 30-something lawyer struggling for meaning. Lincoln was deeply melancholy for much of his life, and was subject to tremendous mood swings even as president. Depression, when it strikes, is a major obstacle to most of us achieving our goals, as it often leads to unproductive feelings of self-pity and nihilism. Yet the same man who expressed his own sadness so dramatically went on to become not only a great president, but one of the most important figures in American history. It makes my own bouts with dark moods feel petty by comparison.

I love this album as a history lover and an activist. Nearly every sprawling track on the album starts or ends with a quote from Shakespeare, Lincoln, or Jefferson Davis. The album is titled after the U.S.S Monitor, the first ironclad ship commissioned during the Civil War. The fourteen-minute closing track, “The Battle of Hampton Roads”, is named for a naval battle involving the U.S.S Monitor in 1862. Who still writes fourteen minute epics? Who references history so effusively in their garage rock song? Who asks this much of their fans to simply get through the album? One terrible review I read didn’t even realize it was a Civil War concept album- I guess singing “Glory, glory, hallelujah” and tracks called “A More Perfect Union” and “Four Score Part Two” didn’t ring a bell. I think it’s great to ask people to think harder, and the demands of this album, musically and lyrically, are refreshing.

I agree with the album themes to an extent. On “Four Score Part Two”, Stickles rails,
“It’s still us against them, it’s still us against them, it’s still us against them, and they’re winning.” So true, but it’s not over yet, Patrick, it’s not over. Modern history has been a constant struggle for fulfill Tennyson’s exoneration, “Tis’ not too late to seek a newer world.” In the last century we as a people have emerged from the wreckage of the worst war in human history to expand the rights, opportunities and comforts of men and women all over the world. None of it is has come easy- the civil rights movement, the women’s movement, the liberation of Africa and fight against apartheid, acceptance of gays, social welfare for the poor, a new middle class all over the world, medical and communications advances. ‘You’ve got to admit it’s getting better, all the time,’ as the rarely profound Paul McCartney would tell you. That’s why no matter how ‘bad’ things are, I tend to believe they will eventually get better, even if it very much still is us against them, and they’re winning.

During “No Future Part Three: No Escape From No Future”, the band harshly chants, “You will always be a loser!” a thematic reprise from their first album, though this time Stickles ends with a piercing yell, “And that’s ok!” Not only is it ok, but I’ll re-raise Stickles- the era of the loser is on its way out. Kurt Vonnegut’s fantastic campaign theme from Slapstick, “Lonesome No More,” has been realized in the internet era. Never has it been easier in the history of human history to find people who look like you, think like you, share your values, enjoy the same music, root for the same teams, and just generally like you. Perhaps I’m conflating being a loser with isolation, but inasmuch as I’ve ever associated the link, we are entering a true “Lonesome No More” era.

If Titus Andronicus could pick one quote to define the album, it would probably be the chorus line from “Titus Andronicus Forever” (incidentally, also written on their t-shirt): “The enemy is everywhere, the enemy is everywhere. No one seems to be aware or care, but the enemy is everywhere.” They are right, of course, as cynics often are. But I’m simply not going to leave it at that gloomy message; I’m just too pumped up after listening to album. So I’ll counter with a verse that we all know and love, which just as easily could have fit with the spirit of the album, and which speaks to the effort we need to make as a society each day:

“Let us dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world.”
Robert Kennedy, Indianapolis speech, the night of Martin Luther King’s assassination, April 4, 1968.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Pick-up in Liberia

March 18, 2010
Amos, my government driver, had just sped away with my laptop and clothing in the backseat, leaving just me and my $15 dollar supermarket-purchased basketball on the side of the road in Monrovia, Liberia. I laced up my sneakers on a rock, trying to look inconspicuous and unattached to the Amos’s SUV, which had disrupted the local pick-up basketball game.

There is a dearth of pavement in Monrovia, and as a result, basketball courts are scarce. This hoop, on Ninth Street in the relatively middle-class Sinkor neighborhood, rose out of the dirt above the road that took people from main drag on Tubman Boulevard to the residential compounds by the swamp. The road was wide enough to accommodate a good half-court, about as deep as the three point line; the catch is that the game had to stop every time a car or motorcycle comes down the road.

I approached the court with some trepidation. Rolling up to a pick-up game by yourself is always a little butterfly-inducing. People on the court could be way better than you. The teams could be set. Calling ‘next’ is always awkward when no one has your back. Here, of course, those concerns were magnified, because I was the only ‘white’ guy on the court. Liberia is the only place in the world I’ve been called “white.” It used to throw me off, but after a trip to up-country, where little kids shrieked “white man” everywhere I went, I’m getting used to the social experiment.

I stood by the court watching what appeared to be some kind of shooting contest. Various players asked to mess around with my ball, which was clearly the best one available. One dude practicing post moves with it reminded me of a young Kevin Garnett. I began to question whether I was ready to play with these guys. But judging by their appreciation for my ball, I figured I would be on the court soon enough, an assumption that proved correct.

After the shooting contest ended, though, a man came out with a broom, barked at the kids to get off the court, and started sweeping around the free throw area. I thought maybe he owned the store the court was in front of or something. Soon two teens were joining him in the sweeping process, and it became clear they were clearing enough dust from the road to create a half-court, no small task. During dry season, everything in Liberia is just caked in dust, and the pavement was slippery in areas that weren’t swept.

After about ten minutes they were done, and we were ready to play. Left open for a mid-range jumper, I knocked down the second basket of the game. It was 3 on 3. I did not know my teammates’ names, what we were playing to, or why they wouldn’t give me the ball after I made my shot. It turned out this court practiced “loser’s ball”- giving the ball to the team that is scored on, rather than the team that scores, as is the universal streetball practice in the United States.

Basketball is basketball, and for most of the afternoon I was able to contribute with my usual strengths, and was held back by my usual weaknesses. There are a couple things that make Liberian pick-up a little different than New York pick-up, however.

First, loser’s ball makes the pace of the game very frenetic. As soon one team scores, the other rushes to inbound the ball before the scoring team can set defensively. This leads to a lot of scrambling, and you often end up picking up the guy closest to you at the time of the basket, rather than guarding a specific opposing player. The play was made no less frenetic by the panoramic nature of the inbounds pass, which could come from any sideline, including right underneath the basket. When things settled down, however, like after a foul, we could make more appropriate defensive assignments.

Second, defense was very lax. There was decent one on one defense, in order to respond to the flashy, show-em-up one on one offense. Team defense was non-existent however, so you had to make sure not to let your man beat you off the dribble. I didn’t mind the lax defense, of course. It gave me plenty of open looks near the basket, and as people got tired later in the afternoon, even clear paths for driving lay-ups. I learned to drive from the right side when possible; the blackboard was tilted such that any attempt to bank a lay-up from the left side would send the ball sailing past the rim. The lack of defense also didn’t prevent me from playing defense, and given the sizeable community crowd that had gathered to watch, I wasn’t about to let everyone watch the white man get showed up.

While my defense was solid, I was called for a lot of fouls. A lot of fouls. If ever asked to define street ball, I’ve always cited its rough and tumble nature- a system in which you call your own fouls leads to more bumping and grinding, hand checks, over the backs and loose elbows than a regulated game. It’s just something everyone lives with, unless the situation gets egregious. One of the main reasons New York pick-up games get ugly is the perception that a prima donna scorer is calling too many fouls. Not an issue here. One player I was constantly matched up with was quick off the dribble with a low center of gravity. Whenever we made any kind of contact, even if there was no way I ultimately altered the shot, he’d raise his hand to signal a foul call.

This was not the first time that foul calls had befuddled me in an international pick-up game. I played several times in a small gym in the basement of my student dorm in Hungary back in 2000, and was straight-up astonished the first time I was called for an offensive foul. I am not a big guy, and back at age 17, I was rail-thin. Nevertheless, Hungarians would perfunctorily stop playing to call me for a charge, over the back or offensive hand check. At least in this Liberian game the foul calls were not personal- I was whistled no more or less than anyone else, whereas a Hungarian box score would have made me seem like some Shaq-like menace.

The games were up to five, a quick and preferable option to the New York style seven or eleven given the hot African sun. The second game in particular dragged on and on, as foul calls by both sides on nearly every play were driving me to the point of exhaustion. It wasn’t just the heat- I’m also in terrible shape, a function of my reluctance to go running when it’s too hot out, which is often. On and on the foul calls went, and I wondered how I’d play another game if we won.

Finally, we lost, and I was sitting on a stump nursing my water when Amos’s SUV rolled up. He handed me my laptop bag and was off to further errands. I announced my impending return and sauntered up to Jung’s apartment to drop off my laptop bag. The AC felt great, and I slumped to her flooor, drenched in sweat, mumbling to myself. I hope I didn’t freak her out.

I dragged myself back to the court, and soon was in another 3 on 3 game. Our heavily favored team fell behind 4-1 due to a complete lack of defensive effort, rallied to tie it at 4-4, only to have our dude have his behind the back pass in traffic intercepted for the game-clinching lay-up. I was displeased, but also ok with the prospect of more rest.

At this point I was asked to referee the following game. Referees were generally players waiting to play next, who would watch the game from below the basket. The referee’s primary function was to keep track of the score and make decisions on foul calls. Reffing was no joke. Even though I kept score quite loudly to avoid protest, my announcement of ‘3-1’ brought howls from one player, even though his team was leading. I think some of them just wanted to howl. A major shouting match over the score occurred nearly every game, actually, usually at moments so early in the game that anyone paying the slightest bit of attention would have known what the undisputed score was.

Players from both sides muttered at me all game to ‘keep my eyes open’ because the guy defending them was ‘shoving them around.’ I’m sorry, but this is still street ball, and I was not about to call away from the ball fouls. I called what I felt was an appropriate share of shooting fouls, let the boys play a bit, and kissed the sky when a deep jump shot ended my stint as referee.

I don’t like reffing at all. Over the years I served as a soccer line referee a few times, and it was most unpleasant. Some plays just happen so fast that you have to go with your gut and know you’ll be wrong a decent amount of the time. Things are particularly brutal for refs in pro sports that provide all their television views multi-angled instant replay, but don’t allow the access to refs, except in a few circumstances. Basketball and football both seem to be managing this process better than they used to, while baseball not so much. The moral of the story when it comes to refereeing mistakes is that any team that puts itself in a position where a single incorrect call from a ref can cost the game has to acknowledge their own complicity in creating the situation. A football drive that comes down to a single catch, a basketball game that comes down to a single shot, or a tennis ball grazing the line on a tiebreaker only matter because the two sides have basically played to a draw. It is a rare call that actually “cost them the game.”

During my first three games I had scored several baskets, but as the afternoon sneaked into evening, the already lax defense had pretty much conceded me any shot outside of 8-10 feet, sometimes from even closer. Sticking with straightaway shots, which minimize the rim situation, I began draining mid-range jumpers with ease. No one seemed interested in stopping me. Some players had decent skills, but low basketball IQs, refusing to use pick and rolls offered to them or box out properly. The same player who’d work himself into a frenzy to beat me off the dribble would let me coast deep into the paint without much resistance.

It was getting dark, close to the pointing of calling it a day, but we were using my ball, and I didn’t want to be the guy that shut things down. All of a sudden, midway through a game, a ruckus broke out on the court. Shouting angrily in Liberia seems like a national pastime, and given the track record of violence, it is quite unsettling to be in the middle of. My teammate, Pacy, explained that a group of players on the sidelines wanted to start gambling on the games, while one of our opponents, the original court sweeper, was yelling about a pact they had made not to gamble on the 9th street courts. Hessen, the sweeper, later explained to me that gambling on the games had led to police crackdowns before. That is not a crime I expected to get in trouble for in Liberia, so I appreciated his desire to keep things clean.

We finished the last game some time after the sun had set. I shook hands with a few of the guys, including Hessen, who I had been guarding for the last two games. Even though he called me for about a half dozen fouls, he expressed his wish to play as my teammate next time. Maybe he wants someone else to guard him. I appreciated the perhaps compliment.

I wandered to the local supply store and picked up a coca-cola. Glass bottle. It was great. I knocked on the compound door, and soon I was on my way up the stairs to air conditioning, a shower, work clothes, 30 Rock, and the memories of my first day of Liberian street ball.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Check out the Bull Moose Movement

Dear Roving Storm readers,
Please check out a new project I've been working on, the Bull Moose Movement. The group and site are both new, and "pre-launch," but we'll be doing a lot of interesting work in the months and years to come.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Liberian Dispatch 4

February 14, 2010
Last night was the ragey release I’ve been looking for. Elena, an expat with USAID, was throwing a party at her place on Mamba Point, which has an awesome covered deck overlooking the ocean. We watched the sunset sipping on scotch and coke. The expat crowd was slightly different from the Lonestar party- this time there were plenty more short-termers, which made me feel more relaxed- some of these people knew fewer people and less about Liberia than I did. I also got to DJ for over an hour, mostly to acclaim, though Elena’s roommate yelled at me to change the music when a Dirty Projectors song came on. One dude observing smiled and shook his head, “You aren’t in Brooklyn anymore.”
Definitely good people all-round. One fellow named Barrie works for the Carter Center, and I’ll be meeting some of his peeps next week. Given the omnipresence of the Carter Center and the Clinton Foundation, one can only imagine what the Obama Institute will look like. I hope to work for it one day- no matter how much I sour on his presidency, I’m sure his post-presidency will be an inspirational one.

As the party broke up I jumped into a car heading to De Ja Vous, one of Monrovia’s premiere nightclubs, along with 69. It was surprisingly not crowded for peak Saturday night hours, and also surprisingly sweet. I could see myself hanging out there any time with the right mix of people. It looked swank, but was fairly priced, had delineated dancing and hanging out sections, and was not so loud as to overpower conversation- my main dig against clubs.

This morning I was far too hungover for golf, and spent much of the day in various forms of recovery. The practice of cooking pasta in a water boiler is starting to go awry, as pasta stands are getting tangled in the heating rods. Alas, pasta it will be for dinner tonight, as it was for lunch. I took an extended stroll through my neighborhood, and it’s a quiet Sunday, the market was relatively empty, stores closed. I usually just walk down Old Road, the hub street in Congo Town that I live off of, but today I did some exploring through the comparatively middle class area off of Old Road. On a side street not far from my compound I found a solitary basketball hoop. No one was playing, but if I can somehow find a basketball in town, that little court could be my salvation. The most useful spot I found during my wanderings was a gas station that sells beans, cereal, and other necessities, along with beer and liquor, should I hear the calling.

Good lord, why is Jerry Springer on?! Is this program really still on the air? This is unbelievably trashy. Still, it was exciting to discover that I have another channel. So far today I’ve watched some weird soapy show about Greek gods set in the present and about ten minutes of American Idol, a show that I cannot even remotely get into, erecting another small hurdle between me and mainstream America. Jerry Springer definitely has that car crash quality; I’ve survived one commercial break. The crowd just started chanting “take out the teeth,” and the woman, who had only been on stage for three minutes, responded by taking them out and waving them around. Springer himself seems like a pretty smart dude. Between the days he gets his paychecks, he must have many moments where he is just disgusted with himself. I mean, he’s the former Mayor of Cincinnati. “Throw your teeth at her! Throw your teeth at her!” That’s enough of that.

With access to some rare downloading capabilities I’ve been getting Kings of Leon, Norah Jones and Dead Weather tunes. Did you know that the Dead Weather was Jack White’s new band? Just learned that. They will be three of the headliners at Bonnaroo that I’m less acquainted with. In case anybody out there is on the fence about going to ‘Roo, this is really a no-brainer. Plan for the vacation days now, you’ll need two or three.

Tonight is the NBA All-Star game, which I enjoy watching more than the Superbowl. In all my years as a fan, this is about as good as the NBA has been, the woes and misfortunes of the Knicks notwithstanding. As fans we are blessed to watch Kobe and Lebron, two of greatest to ever play the game, in their primes. The talent at the top of the league, on L.A, Boston, San Antonio, Cleveland and Orlando is just ridiculous. We still have Shaq around as the old man of the league, for perhaps his last one or two years. He is one of the most colorful personalities to emerge out of this drab cultural era, and I hope he stays in our lives after he retires. The league is chalk full of young stars waiting to claim to take on the incumbent generation, just in time to replace iconic stars on their way out, like Kevin Garnett, Tim Duncan and Allen Iverson. As the motto goes, “I love this game,” though I think marketers have replaced the motto with “where amazing happens.” That works too.

I wish every news host was as knowledgeable as Fareed Zakaria. His command of history and current events seems to startle his guests. For example, an American journalist, who, along with Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, is pushing for a preemptive strike on Iran, citing their refusal to have uranium enriched abroad as an example of their recalcitrance. Zakaria interrupted, “In the 1990s, Pakistan rejected overtures to have its uranium enriched abroad, as did India.” I was impressed! Prior to having these warmongers on his program, Zarakia interviewed Paul Volcker, a brilliant economist crying out in the wilderness about the need for meaningful financial regulation. Volcker, who is now in his 80s, says that he has never seen Washington this dysfunctional, using as an anecdote the fact that even in the midst of this recession, two major leadership positions at the Treasury Department are still vacant because the nominees have not been approved by Congress. He said that when he joined the government in 1969, he was at his desk the day of the inauguration, and was confirmed a week later.

The power just went out in the building, plunging my world into darkness, save for the dim light of the laptop screen. Ah, it’s back, a few minutes later. Being way out here in Congo Town, it’s a little freaky to be without power. Zakaria is a rare “centrist” that I’ll begrudge, because his clarion call is a courageous one: Zakaria believes that addressing the deficit is so important that we need to raise taxes and cut spending. Governors across the country, including New York’s embattled chief, David Paterson, are well aware of this problem as they address state budgets that are not permitted to go into the red. Zakaria decries the political cowardice of Republicans (always the main deficit hawks) who refuse to concede that tax increases, or simply the expiration of the Bush tax cuts, will be part of the deficit solution. Hey, I’m down for working on this issue- but the place to start has to be military spending. When 50% of the discretionary budget gets virtually no scrutiny, it seems like the right place to trim the waistline.

February 15, 2010 What a strange morning. I was awaken by shouting and screaming, like a domestic dispute going on in my hallway. Annoyed, I rolled over and checked the time. It was 7am, almost time to get up. After some tossing and turning, I got up and flung the curtains open to reveal…darkness. That’s odd. Usually when I leave my curtains open I’m awoken by the sunlight. I made myself some cereal, but when I tried to wash the bowl, there was no water. No sink water, no shower water. Plenty of bananas though. In the market they were selling them by the branch, like $5 for fifty bananas. I only wanted a dollar’s worth, so she pointed me to a fly-ridden stack. I thought I had bought like eight, but I’ve been eating them with most meals for three days and still have five left. And guess what? Now it’s almost 8am, time for pick up, and it’s still dark outside. I heard a rumor that this might happen occasionally, dust storms from the Sahara or something. I’ll get back on it when I know what’s really going on.

Ah, yes, ladies and gents, it has begun. My first rainfall in Liberia. That explains the darkness- as George Bush would say, it’s “the dark storm clouds gathering over me.” It does rain fucking hard here, it really bits down on the earth. The downpour makes the complete lack of water in my apartment more ironic, I suppose. I’ve been told it’s an absolutely fiasco when it rains here, and a cursory look out the window gives me no reason to believe otherwise. From my balcony I can only see dirt roads, and they have all been badly flooded within fifteen minutes. I hear the gentle ‘thud’ sounds of things collapsing. Hopefully words can express the ferocity of this rain- it’s as if God is trying really hard.

Standing at my window buttoning the cuffs of my shirt I feel like one of those people getting dressed up for the day they commit suicide. Venturing into this madness is crazy. If Amos is picking up Genevieve first, he won’t be here for well over an hour. If he’s picking me up first, he would be here by now, but for the roads. Too many variables already, this early in the day. Pink Floyd is an appropriate and coincidental soundtrack, adding to the dark madness. At least the power is still on. Upside: it’s the first time the temperature has felt physically comfortable without the AC on. Downside: mosquitoes and a still partially broken screen door. Secondary upside: think I just heard a bird.

The rain is just regular now, and I’m getting the sense that Amos is picking me up second. Water still not working though, which is quite lame. I always wake up feeling especially like I need a shower after wild dreams, and last night’s included a vision of working with Hands On in Haiti. There were non-literal aspects to the dream, but it came right on the heels of a release I read from ole’ David Campbell announcing the HODR project being set up there. I would like to go for 10 days or so, possibly in late May, depending on flight costs, which have derailed my joining other Hands On since Biloxi.

The hardest rain I’ve ever driven through, not including the terrifying 2006 quasi tornado of Kansas had to be the drive home from Saratoga Springs after the bar exam. Finch and I couldn’t wait to get back to the city to celebrate, but nearly died on the way, as we were hit with rain far beyond the capabilities of our fastest wipers. We had no visibility at all, and we pulled over as soon as the shoulder allowed it. When the rain had slowed slightly, we saw that every single car on the road had done the same thing, a rare occurrence. It was a jittery ride the rest of the way. Oh, and there goes the power. Still haven’t from Amos, so just gonna kick it and read the paper. …
I am happy to finish this box of cereal. It is Golden Crunch, a Liberian cereal, and it tastes like cardboard. Just awful, though bearable with the right amount of milk. The milk, by the way, is not refrigerated until it is opened. Some weird chemical contraption. So it’s not really milk in the conventional sense, but given how expensive other dairy products are, this seems to be a fair tradeoff. As for the cereal, I bought another Liberian cereal, possibly because it seems absurd to spend $7.50 on a smallish box of Frosted Flakes.

Ran into the super downstairs as I was headed to the car. Apparently something about a rock and the pipes…he was working on the water situation. On the ride in Amos and I listened to talk radio, where they were bashing the president again. Amos told me about how popular the footballer and presidential candidate George Weah had been back in the day: “When he came to the city to play soccer, crowds would line up in the street all the way from Robertsfield (the airport) to downtown to cheer for him. Those soccer matches were the only entertainment we had, the only things to make us happy during the war. At the games you could just think about the game, and not worry about the war at all.” Weah cashed on his popularity to run a strong campaign for president in 2005, winning the first round, but losing decisively to President Sirleaff in the run-off. Amos scoffs that Weah thinks he should be president. “He did not even finish high school. And even the high school he went to is not known for its academic achievement, but for the scholarships it gives to soccer and basketball players.”

The Minister of Social Welfare is in the house, and he has the most bizarre ringtone I’ve seen in some time: a beeping sound, followed by a computer-like voice stating “Excuse me, boss, you have a text message.” Mind you, that is his ringer when he is getting an actual call, not just a text message.

I got some leads on where to find a basketball, and will explore those possibilities as soon as possible. A random conversation on how money changers actually make money led the topic back to Myles, a well-respected journalist in these parts sort of run out of town after the Vice scandal. He had been writing a series of pieces on the Liberian economy, about how characters like fishermen, charcoal producers and money changers got by day to day. Though I don’t have the journalistic talents (or time) to bring characters to life like he did, I would like to learn more about the people in the neighborhood when I get home. I’ve often engaged cart vendors and MTA employees in conversation, being as they are a captive interviewee most of the time. The old Sesame Street tune, “These are the people in your neighborhood” needs to be updated for modern times.

Wow. What a day. Our office had been called down to the police headquarters to process paperwork in the arrest of two check forgers from the Ministry of Health rank and file. We followed these young men from the custody of the police Montserado County Court was like regular court tripping on mushrooms. I sat in the spectator pews, waiting for the case of the Ministry of Health v. check forger dudes. They were only being arraigned, so I figured we wouldn’t be there that long, but I was about to be privy to a land dispute dating back to prewar times, a squatter’s rights case.
Arguing on one side, on behalf of “Princess”, was a short lawyer who I had been talking to in the hallway only minutes before he began his disastrous opening statement, in which he tripped himself up so badly his opposing counsel, a boisterous woman flush with attitude, got up from her plastic chair and yelled, “Your honor, counsel does not know the facts of this case!”
Neither lawyer lacked showmanship, the short lawyer pacing the courtroom like a pro, with a movie-like cadence. The problem was that he didn’t seem to know what he was doing half the time. The boisterous woman thundered at the crowd, this of course, not being a jury trial, while the judge tried to rub the migraine out of his head. At issue was some property that had fallen into dispute years before, though evidently they had all the paperwork right in front of them. A former Associate Justice of the Supreme Court who looked like Morgan Freeman was somehow involved in the case, and he wandered in and out of the courtroom grinning at people.

Other random, unidentified people approached the bench at various moments to chat with the judge who fanned himself with a notepad, taking his glasses on and off for dramatic effect. At one point the symphony of cell phone rings, background chatter, gavel pounding, oration and typewriter banging gave you the feeling of a Chumbawumba concert, or some bizarre off-Broadway musical. Once the daze of the disbelief wore off, and the heat and smell started getting to me, I wondered when our case would be up. There was no docket, but our defendants did sit handcuffed about twenty feet from me. I stepped into the hallway to take a breather when BAP!! A loud sound thundered in the courtroom, causing dozens of people loitering in the hallway to rush for the courtroom entranceway. Turns out no one was shot, one of the lawyers had just reclined too far in his plastic chair, causing it to snap.

February 16, 2010
Oh well, turns out the basketball hoop is too small. The hoop earned a revisit after a trip to the sporting goods store, where the cheapest basketball was a staggering $45. The store owner treated the balls like pieces of art, or perhaps hookers, spreading them in a fancy layout and saying things, “this one’s lovely, you can have her for $50.” Even the cheapest option required more cash than I carry on me in Monrovia, so I pledged to return the next day. Before committing such an extravagant purchase, I decided to go back and look at the ‘court’, mostly to ensure that the rim was stable and that the pavement wasn’t being used exclusively as a parking lot. It sort of was, and while the rim was surprisingly unbent, it was also super small. Picture a double rim, but just smaller. If a regulation sized ball was dropped from directly above it, the ball would go in, but it would be frustrating and embarrassing to shoot around and miss at least 95% of my non-lay-ups.

Last night, beaten up as usual from the day, I resigned myself to two mindless tasks- exploring my new TV channel and downloading songs and coming to understand where the expression ‘surfing the internet’ came from. In places where internet reception is really spotty you have to quickly rush to take advantage of bursts of internet, using them to log-in to sites, downloads things and send emails. Then you coast on that wave of internet until it dies. Reminds me of how a surfer swims manically into a wave, and rides it down, ending up afloat in calm waters. Some American TV is unacceptable even in Liberia, but House is kindof borderline. I’ve never gotten into any medical show, even as a guilty pleasure, even though my teenage years were the peak of E.R. After last night, House will not be in the rotation. On the other hand, I hope and pray that West Wing is on every night, because that would rock my world.
A masterfully written show, it appeals to a lot of people, but irresistibly to political junkies, specifically Democrats who came of political age during the Bush years. Alternate universes are sweet, although perhaps we thought President Obama would be a bit more like Martin Sheehan and less like Hillary Clinton. The West Wing is one of my ten favorite shows ever, a list that will be potentially challenged if I get into Mad Men over the summer (not sure I will- kind of loathe marketers). In reverse order, my ten favorite shows of all time:
10. Saved By The Bell
9. West Wing
8. Aqua Teen Hunger Force
7. Family Guy
6. It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia
5. Simpsons
4. Thirty Rock
3. Seinfeld
2. Arrested Development
1.The Wire
I decided in the end to not count favorite TV shows from my childhood- that’s a whole separate category, with Saved By The Bell and The Simpsons serving as something of a bridge.

The downloads tonight went great. I’ve always liked Joni Mitchell’s voice, but I never really got into her songs. Turns out I was missing out. “Both Sides” and “Circle Game” were among the excellent tunes I picked up, but the real treat was “Angel in the Morning.” That songs got something. And to think that all these years I’ve loved the Shaggy hit “Angel”, not realizing it was sampling Joni. What really makes “Angel” is the chorus line, “closer than my peeps you are to me.” For Shaggy, or any guy, to say that to a girl, is quite meaningful. As dudes are pretty serious about our peeps- I know I always have been, and I would not say such a thing lightly.
Another download tonight was the 2003 Nas hit “I know I can (be what I wanna be)”, his gushingly uplifting anthem for inner-city children. The irony of that song for me is that I’m unable to displace it in my memory from the place where I used to hear it- the weeknight Chi Gam basement scene. If there was any place that epitomized the death of dreams and being whatever you wanted to be, it was the Chi Gam basement after midnight on a Tuesday.

I may be a complete amateur at this writing game, well short of Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 genius hours, but I share something in common with one of my all-time favorites, Kurt Vonnegut, in the tremendous difficulty I’m having in writing down the pieces I care about most, the one that’s been rattling around my head the longest. In his case it was Slaughter House Five, the deeply person, largely non fictional account of his World War II experience, which he spent tens of thousands of discarded words on before settling down to publish a version that satisfied him more than two decades after the experience. Hopefully it won’t take me that long to right something compelling about Biloxi.

Had lunch at Evelyn’s, so far the best upscale restaurant that I’ve been to. When it comes to food I'm more quantity than quality anyway. The idea of spending $25 at a New York City restaurant and leaving hungry has always struck me as preposterous. The downside of Evelyn's is that it is on Broad Street, which is just a hellish place at mid-day- hot, packed, and full of the busiest traffic in Monrovia. Finally had my Bong Fries. They look and taste sort of like French Fries, but are drier, more substantive, and feel healthier. They’ll never hit the spot like McDonald’s fries, and frankly I prefer plantains as a side. Going “into town” for lunch is such a trial that I’ll probably stick with my three-meal rotation of the cafeteria, the Liberian café up the hill and falafels for a couple more weeks.

Major news on the post-Liberia front. As some of you know, few things have stirred the blood than the Supreme Court’s ruling in Citizens United. I’ve decided that upon returning, the ideal work to occupy my time from May until I return to Hogan in December is to work on litigation and organizing in response to this case. Until today my main lead was a project the NLG was doing, but I imagine that will be part-time work. Public Advocate DeBlasio’s office is allegedly doing something around the issue, but I haven’t heard back from them yet. When I have more regular phone access I will reach out to Congressman Grayson- it’s long overdue that he and I got together. Today, however, I made some true forward progress. Last night I emailed three top attorneys leading the fight against corporate influence, all of whom are now spearheading the response to Citizens United. One of them is the Legal Director of the Free Speech for People Campaign, and he got back to me this morning. I forsee myself doing a lot of work with that group, as they are into both the legal and organizing response needed for this counter-attack to have any chance. Another, an American University law professor, wrote me back an equally helpful message, and I’ll soon be in touch with him as well. If anyone has suggestions, as in, specific contacts, working in this area, would love to follow up with them too.

By the way, the air conditioning has been broken all day, again, here at the office. Everyone is asleep again. I haven’t had a truly productive day in a week, though tomorrow promises to be busier. Captain Jack will get me high tonight.

February 17, 2010
During Richard Nixon’s historic visit to China, it is untrue that he remarked, “This really is a Great Wall,” but the apocryphal story is too good to die. I took my own trip to the Great Wall last night, to check out one of the main Chinese digs in town. The food was excellent, and the best bang for buck I’ve found among the upper end eateries. It was no Silk Road of course, in that the white boxed wine did not flow freely, but I’ve stayed away from the grape juice as much as possible in Liberia, because wine hangovers are no fun in 90 degree weather.
I learned a new phrase on the radio today. During a surprisingly erudite debate on the need for a full constitutional convention, one Liberian Senator tried to interrupt the other, but she pleaded, “I’m coming,” meaning that she was almost finished with her statement. Within an hour of being at work, someone used the phrase on me. Instead of being perplexed, since we weren’t going anywhere, I just waited for him to think about my question a little longer.

This morning was agonizing, as we got stuck reviewing a befuddling legal document. Every time he wanted to make a point, John would say, “but listen to this,” and then read entire passages out loud very slowly, perk up and raise his eye brows, then make the point he could have made from the beginning. The whole reason we were stuck on this project was that some Dutch doctor had dropped this project in our laps with almost no notice and no clue. John remarked, “She is paid well, and so people expect her to do things she does not know how to do.” He didn’t mean it as a maxim, but the longer I live the more I see how human and flawed everybody is. Our expectations of another person should never be much higher than what we’d expect of ourselves, especially when you factor in for everyone’s inclination for self-preservation.

I spent much of the day actually working on said project, with detours to flesh out my Bull Moose project, which everyone will be hearing heaps about quite soon. There was a bit of a fiasco this afternoon when a truck arrived at the Ministry, allegedly with a bunch of computers, photocopiers and other machinery. However, it turned out to be almost completely empty, suggesting foul play at customs (it was shipped from the U.S). Apparently Customs here is notorious for stealing shit. All-round it was not a great day for the government, which is already facing a myriad of corruption scandals, and was slammed today by a U.N report declaring that 75% of Liberians lack access to clean drinking water, and that much of rural Liberia faces a drastic shortage of teachers. Several schools cited in the report had hundreds of students being taught by two volunteer teachers who survived off donations from thankful parents. I can understand criticizing a developing government for corruption, but stuff like this is tough to slam President Sirleaff for. I find it hard to believe that she would not deploy more water piping and teachers to the rural areas if she had resources.
Money is tight around here though, especially when your computers are being stolen. John told me today that he hasn’t had a vacation in four years, since he started working for the government. He technically has a month of vacation, but he says work is too intense to take so much as a week off at a time. He’s going to love the LLM program if he decides to do that in a year. Even the hapless sidekick earned some sympathy today. The “attorney” who cannot be bothered to put down his newspaper or stare absent-mindedly into space during meetings apparently is no longer being paid by the American Bar Association. That’s not to say he’s a deserving hire in these hard times, but there is a limit to what you can expect out of an unpaid middle-aged lawyer.

The good life is picking up a little bit. I headed to Boulevard Café after work, which I’ll probably do again tomorrow. Decent internet, cheap beer, premier league soccer. It’s like going home without the commute. Hung out there for an hour before Monrovia Trivia Quiz, which is THE expat place to be. Over a dozen teams crammed into Taj’s restaurant, where an assortment of questions were shot onto a projector, booze and Indian food abounding. It was healthily competitive, and I enjoyed my team, which consisted of young lawyers from the ILO and the Carter Center. We hope to reassemble some of it tomorrow night at Boulevard Café for some Olympics watching. I’m more of a Summer Olympics guy myself, but I could use a change of place. I almost vomited when I came home to Wolf Blitzer. Better no TV at all than hearing him speculate on “the rise of the new conservative ascendency.” He does remember that the conservatives who drove the country into the ground have been out of power less than two years, right? Wait till he sees what we have in store for him. …

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Liberian Dispatch 3

Dispatch 3
February 10, 2010

Folks, I write this morning with great joy in my heart. It’s not for the internet access that I should always have from this point forward, $130 later. No, I celebrate this morning because Bonnaroo announced the lineup for its 2010 festival, which will be from June 10 to June 13 in Manchester, Tennessee. Last year’s event was one of the highlights of the year, four days of awesome music and hanging out with some of the chillest strangers around, living the dream in a tent under the hot Tennessee sun. The marquee acts for this year include Jay-Z, Stevie Wonder, Weezer, the Gaslight Anthem, LCD Soundsystem and most awesomely, the Flaming Lips performing the Dark Side of the Moon album. The announcement of the lineup spurred me into having an old fashion music tournament, which after this morning is in the quarter finals. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, that’s when I pit my favorite songs of the month against each other in a single elimination tournament. Don’t worry, most people think it’s weird. That won’t stop me from announcing the results.

Went on a big water shopping run yesterday, and should have enough to last me a while. I was drinking a bottle of water last week in Mamba Point when I noticed some Arabic writing on it. Curious, I read the label, which said the water was “Naturally filtered through the geological layers of the Sannine mountain of Lebanon.” Lebanon? “It’s sad,” my roommate commented. “We live in one of the wettest countries in the world, but we have to import our bottled water from a landlocked country in the desert thousands of miles away.” In general it’s a depressing fact, but partnering with Lebanon is not a coincidence. The Lebanese are big players here, controlling much of the real estate and supermarkets. This is a source of some tension in the community. There must be a healthy number of Liberians who think at first glance that I am Lebanese, but no Lebanese think so. This recalls my summer in India, where foreigners thought I was a local, but locals knew I was a foreigner, leading to periods of isolation.

A word about the roads in this country, which until very recently all dirt. In fact, a word about “this country.” As you read the passages in this dispatch, please keep in mind that Monrovia, the capital city, 30-40% of the population, is by far the most developed party of the country. The rural areas are on tough times in every quantifiable sense. That said, Monrovia’s system of paved roads has dramatically improved in the last few years, and worker downtown are working feverishly to finish a couple new ones before the start of raining season this spring. I’d approximate that over two-thirds of the roads I use on a daily basis are paved, and since most of them were paved relatively recently, they are smooth and pothole free, if not very crowded during rush hour. In contrast, the dirt roads are full of pits and stones that jostle you cartoonishly whether you drive fast or slow. President Johnson Sirleaff is proud of her roads- the main thoroughfares in town are peppered with signs boasting of new, taxpayer supported roads. Unfortunately, there is reason to believe that her road anthem is falling on deaf ears. “Most people simply don’t have cars,” someone explained to me. “They don’t see how roads affect them.” Interestingly, the local paper this morning suggested just the opposite. In an article on the used t-shirt industry, many local business owners praised roads for bringing commercial goods into the countryside, allowing economies to grow. Whether the poor folks who buy goods transported by roads make this connection is unclear. When I was in Panama I learned that the president was riding a wave of populist support over his paving of roads, but Liberia makes most of Panama look affluent by comparison.

‘Be a good citizen pay your taxes’ billboards messages are another ubiquity on these roads, a necessary motivator in a country desperately in need of revenue but low on regulatory ability. To some extent we face this vicious cycle in the United States- when government funding is cut at regulatory agencies due the economy, many financially or socially damaging activity is able to flourish, at a greater net loss than the cost of regulation. The consequences can range from petty street crime to financial charlatans sending the entire economy into a recession. Anyway, these highway posters speak for themselves- I’ll take pictures before I’m through.

John is putting his foot down- we need a new air conditioner. Our little unit cools the room decently to start the morning, but the relentlessness afternoon sun wears it down. By the end of the day the mugginess is so pervasive that it’s hard to tell if the unit is working at all. This is what drives John to sleep, me to spider solitaire, his administrative assistant to another room, and his alleged lawyer sidekick to read the newspaper till he too falls asleep. That character, whose name I still don’t know, is comically averse to work. He comes to work without a laptop or a notebook, and spends the little time that he’s not on the phone or reading the newspaper questioning why an assignment John gives him is necessary. John frequently has to tell him to pay attention during meetings, like some aloof ten-year old. Oh, sweet, here comes a request. It’s about air conditioning…nah, the admin assistant has been sent to do it instead. That guy is a solid dude who sometimes picks me up my breakfast of fish, yams and plantains. He has the same last name as John, Wilson, which is convenient, because it means “Wilson” is usually around.

Alright. All three other people in the office are asleep, and the internet is down “because it is the afternoon.” Back to spider solitaire. Hope I’ve still got the skills that carried me to a 60% winning percentage on “medium” difficulty. Yep, still do. Three in a row, son. It looks like things have broken up here an hour early, the heat is just too much, and tomorrow is a national holiday- Armed Forces Day. Tonight I’ll be heading to the Boulevard Café, one of the premier expats digs in town, with good wireless and pizza. I have plans to actually hang out with someone, so that’ll be a refreshing change.

I have military spending on the mind this afternoon. We all recognize that Ronald Reagan’s “God, guns and lower taxes” mantra was political gold in the 1980s, and he made it easy for all subsequent politicians to hold the military as a sacred cow outside the normal debate over taxing and spending. This is folly, of course, what Brett Martin would call a classic example of politicians being incentivized to do the right thing for their reelection prospects rather than the right thing for their country. In 2010, the United States will spend $657,000,000,000 in military expenditures, easily than more than the rest of the discretionary budget combined.
We all know these are hard economic times, and that our government needs to watch its spending, but President Obama ludicrously suggested that his gimmicky three-year spending freeze not apply to the Pentagon. He must not have noticed the exorbitant and wasteful military contracting taking place in both Iraq and Afghanistan. He probably is well aware of the wasteful weapons programs around the country- when he tried to slice a couple of particularly useless ones a few months ago he was accused of ‘ravaging the military’ by Republicans, even though his Pentagon budget was still the most expensive ever. Military spending has been hammered in as a third rail in American politics, but that has to stop. Surely some more sunlight and scrutiny would yield tremendous savings without altering military strategy in the slightest. Think of the prevalence of no-bid contracts during the Bush years, many of which are still in place. There is nothing fiscally responsible about a no-bid contract. Another issue is the hundreds of military bases the U.S have around the world. As ludicrous as it seems to have major bases in Japan and Germany, I understand that the military wants to have regional bases to facilitate transporting troops in and out of combat zones. But when you have 737 overseas bases, NOT including Iraq and Afghanistan, surely they are not all necessary. As a final thought on military spending, it’s worth noting that the military is also the largest government sponsored jobs program we have. When President Bush, yes, that President Bush, tried to close down a useless navy shipyard in Massachusetts and an equally useless plane manufacturing base in South Dakota, Ted Kennedy (D) and John Thune (R) mounted a successful bipartisan offensive to stop the closings. No one wants his state to lose jobs, even at the cost of billions to United States taxpayers. I would love to hear back from people on this issue. As Obama would say, from my friends on the left, I would love to hear where they would begin in slicing and dicing this monstrous budget, and what sources they rely on for Pentagon monitoring. From my friends on the right, I’d love to hear first a single argument for why military spending should not be subject to the same “freeze” and general scrutiny as the rest of the non-discretionary budget, and second, how your fiscal principles apply to the bloated military budget.

February 11, 2010
Last night was great- hung out with a great, eclectic crew, my first weeknight session since arriving in Monrovia. We were at the Boulevard Café, a well known western haunt that has good pizza, decent internet, Premiere League soccer, and plenty to drink. I was working the local Club Beer, the only one at the table doing so. At $2 a bottle it seemed hard to pass up, but I didn’t have to wait till this morning for the sluggish headache I was warned about. I’ll see those folks again on Saturday night, and pending the outcome of that, we have plans to hit up the golf course outside the Firestone Rubber factory on Sunday. It’ll be my first time on the course in many years, which is a shame, because golf is one of those rare sports that are fun both to suck and excel at.

Today is National Armed Forces Day, and that means the day off. Ah yes, the first national holiday. My predecessor said she experienced five during her two months here, and though I’m not certain how many I have, I know there are two in mid-March that I’m trying to convert into a roadtrip with some peeps to Free Town, Sierre Leone. Free Town is apparently as dangerous as Monrovia, as Sierre Leone was pretty much roped into this civil war at various points, but its supposed to have some of the most immaculate beaches in Africa, and we know people there. I mean, clearly “I” don’t know anyone there, but I’ve got people who have people.

I felt like garbage when I woke up this morning, not just hungover (I didn’t have many drinks), but like some kind of fever was coming on- you know, the kind you can put down if you treat your body responsibly the first day you feel it, or totally exacerbate by ‘pushing through it.’ Must be the Club Beer

New York is legendary for its ability to convince people that going to work and half assing a day is more important than resting in bed, even for a few extra hours in the morning. I set out my solitary goal for the day- to be a lighter so I could cook some pasta. It was an innocuous enough assignment. I’ve never been one for big military parades, and I didn’t know how I’d get to that part of town anyway. Plus, I’ve been meaning to check out the Congo Town market for a few days now. As it turns out, not one street vendor or local store within walking distance of me sells lighters. I have to admit, that was a little surprising. It turned out not to matter- I acquired matches, and then attempted to light my stove, which did not work. The rest of the shopping adventure was quasi-eventful. The market was crowded and photogenic for the enterprising among us, but everyone was selling the same thing, and it didn’t look that appetizing. Outside the market I reaffirmed my belief that the biggest threat I face to my safety in Liberia is reckless driving. Ok, so all this pasta, and no stove. I do have a water boiler, it comes with the room and is surprisingly effective. I dumped some dry pasta into the water boiler, and that cooked it decently enough for sauce and oregano to obscure the difference.

By late afternoon I was feeling a little bit better, and got to working on this big progressive treatise I’ve been dabbling with since the flight over here. I won’t say much about it now, but if these entries are any indication, on some topics I have a lot to say, and this treatise will be something of a cathartic culmination, a decade of successes and, more often, failures in the progressive movement. In doing background research I came across Teddy Roosevelt’s “Standing At Armageddon” speech, which I consider one of the best political speeches ever given. I’ll write at greater length about it some other time, but his candidacy was unique to American history: he was running as a third-party outsider taking on the system, but this only a few years removed from being one of the most popular presidents in American history. His criticisms of the system come not “from closet study, or as a mere matter of theory; I have been forced to it by a long experience with the actual conditions of our political life.” I’ve also reread Dr. Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” which is a stark reminder about how controversial and daring a man he was, and how hard the civil rights struggle was before it cozied up in American history books as a pleasant march down the street.

Here are the results of the music tournament for the songs that placed 20-9: 20. Strange Overtones (David Byrne) 19. Walk of Life (Dire Straits) 18. Heart’s a Lonely Hunter (Thievery Corporation) 17. Growing Up (Bruce Springsteen) 16. ’59 Sound (Gaslight Anthem) 15. Come Sail Away (Styx) 14. New Slang (Shins) 13. Gone Daddy Gone (Violent Femmes) 12. Werewolves of London (Warren Zevon) 11. What a Wonderful World (Ramones) 10. Radio Nowhere (Bruce Springsteen) 9: You Took the Words Right Out of My Mouth (Meatload)

Needless to say, these music tournaments involve a lot of rules, but for your purposes, the two governing rules about participation are that the songs must have been on my playlist with some frequency in the last month, and no former tournament winners can participate, which explains the absence of songs from bands like Arcade Fire, the Talking Heads and the Clash. Today I held the quarter finals, and following songs, all excellent contenders, were taken out: 8. Time to Pretend (MGMT) 7. Electric Avenue (Eddy Grant) 6. Modern Love (David Bowie) 5. Bad Days (Flaming Lips) The four songs left in the semifinals are Running on Empty (Jackson Browne), Fight Test (Flaming Lips), Paper Planes (M.I.A) and Miles Davis and the Cool (Gaslight Anthem). There’s a back-story to each of these songs- “Running” is a rock classic that somehow escaped my playlists all these years, and it’s a real get you going in the morning tune. I’ve been on something of a Flaming Lips kick lately, and with them starring at Bonnaroo, it would be fitting for one of their one to take home the win. “Paper Planes” would be the first song by a female vocalist to win one of my tournaments since 2005, when the Sugarcubes “Birthday” (Bjork’s band) dominated the field. Ever since my friend Jodie pointed out that my Itunes collection contained very few female artists I’ve been working on it, but outside the pop scene, which doesn’t interest me, I could stand to get a few recommendations from people. The Gaslight Anthem is one of the best young bands in America, and I started listening to them on the strength of their two great singles, but like most bands you start digging, it’s this more developed sleeper song I’ve really gotten into.

The power in here just went out, plunging every direction into total darkness. It’s for this reason that I packed a flashlight. Now that the power’s back on I’m also charging up this computer- it may be called on down the road to provide an additional source of light. Tonight I ordered from Mona Lisa, the best pizza place in town. The same person I ordered from on the phone personally delivered the pizza on his motorcycle, so I don’t know how big an operation it is. The pizza was good- cheese in this country is so expensive that I can’t drench every meal of the day with it like I do back home. In fact, other than the three pizza-based meals I’ve had since arriving, I don’t know if I’ve had any cheese. Mona Lisa was pretty damn expensive, but pizza is a privilege I will pay for. People say the easiest way to save money is to cook, but you need to have an established kitchen for that. I look forward to getting a new apartment back in New York that I can call home for at least 2-3 years, because this practice of needing to buy cooking materials, cleaning materials, spices, etc., etc., really reduces the financial efficacy of cooking.

February 12, 2010
I write this the next morning, having crashed hard at 10pm and slept for 12 hours, catching up on hours of rest for the first time. Talking about work has become more difficult in this setting, as I engage in two projects full of intrigue that confidentiality requires I not discuss. Attorney-client confidentiality is one of the perks and annoying temptations of being a lawyer. In one of the cases, the relevant paperwork simply cannot be found. Though I am well aware why, John constantly feels the need to remind me that during the war, all paperwork was lost, destroyed or stolen. “After the war sometimes you could find it lying around on the ground outside of government buildings, or just go to the market and buy it by the bundle. The government needs to offer rewards for people to bring it in from their homes. That’s what private lawyers have been doing for a long time to complete their records,

This Ministry, it was empty when we showed up after the war. It was like the whole building, the whole country was turned upside down. Feces everywhere. Wires pulled out of the walls. Pipes destroyed. It was nothing but an empty, dirty set of walls.” … Now that I am in Liberia, I can discuss Norman Siegel’s client, State Senator Hiram Monserate, aka the Face Slasher. Norman is defending him on the grounds that the New York State Senate doesn’t have the right to expel someone from their midst just because he is a terrible person for a variety of reasons. On the other side of the argument is State Senator Eric Scheiderman, a progressive who I have tremendous respect for, and will support in his effort to replace Andrew Cuomo as Attorney General. Though the two argue about the constitutional right for the State Senate to expel its own members, it seems like Norman has the stronger legal argument. This will be, in the words of the District Judge assigned to it, “a fascinating case.” I don’t have time to lay out the full details here, but google it- it’s a juicy situation.

After work a co-worker and I went to the Golden Beach, a trendy, pricey restaurant-bar on the Sinkor beach. After almost two weeks in the country, it was the first time my toes had touched the soothing beach sands. It reminded me of an ill-fated 2006 expedition. My brothers and I were in Germany for the World Cup, and were taking side-trips to neighboring countries on our Eurorail pass, including Italy. After fun times in Rome and Florence, we decided to part ways for a day. They would stay in Florence, and I would head down to San Viscerno. We had stayed with the same hostel company in both Italian cities, and on a poster I saw a third location on the Mediterranean. The poster show a guy and a girl talking through the window of a little hut on the beach. Having never set foot on a Mediterranean beach, running low on funds, and itching to get out of the hot city, I jumped on the next train to San Viscerno, with plans to rendezvous in Venice 36 hours later.

Other than excursions into the Hungarian countryside, where I speak the language, this was about as off the beaten track as I’d been in Europe. No one at the sparsely populated station spoke English or had heard of this hostel. I wrote out the address to shove in peoples’ faces, and finally someone in broken English explained that I would need a taxi, and that it was about 12 kilometers away. I was incredulous. “No bus?” “No bus on Saturday.” Upset that paying for a taxi would partially defeat my thrifty goals, but without much choice, I hopped in a cab, and pulled into the outdoor hostel. The scene was grim. This place seemed to be a vacation spot for middle-aged, overweight, working class Italians, hardly a single young person in sight. A sad receptionist gave me the key to my hut. The hut was dark and windowless, problematic, as the light was busted- the only way to see anything was to prop the door open, letting in bugs and preventing privacy. No worries, I would just check out the beach. It turned out the beach was not on the hostel property at all, but a 15 minute walk across and down the road. Seething, but what could I do? I set off, determined to reach the water before sunset. After a while the woods cleared, and the splendor of the Mediterranean lay before me. It wasn’t the prettiest beach I’d ever been on, and the sandy was rocky and uncomfortable beneath my bare feet, the water too cold for swimming, but no matter. This was the famous ocean where Romans did once tread. Overwhelmed with history, I dove into the ocean, and as I dried myself off, I watched the fishermen down the beach reel in their lines for the day.

That night I watched World Cup soccer with the hostel’s partisan clientele. This was before the ugly and awesome battle between Italy and the U.S, and obviously before people suspected that Italia would win the whole thing. In the morning I checked out about as fast as possible, and asked when the next bus was coming. “No bus?” “No bus. It is Sunday.” Livid, I refuses to call another cab, which would have upped the cost of my excursion to Florence-level prices. Having finished my bottle of water in the morning and skipped breakfast, I slung my duffel bag on my shoulders and marched in the direction of San Viscerno, twelve kilometers away, on the wet, rocky sand of the beach. If Roman soldiers could so march, so could I. By the time I go to town, dehydrated and drenched in sweat, it took my last reserve of energy to fish for the change necessary to buy and down the biggest carton of juice they had at the gas station on the border of town. One of the adventures you try to only have once.

As you can tell, my arrival at Monrovia’s beach was not so fraught with drama, but rather, amusement. When it came time to order food, I was feeling like my first Liberian burger, so I asked the waiter what the “Golden Beach Burger” was. He replied, “Well, it’s the beef…and an egg on top. Pretty much everything…bacon…tomato…cucumber…” I interrupted, “Does it have cheese?” “Oh yeah, cheese, whatever you want, it has everything.” Suspicious, I greenlighted the order, and my coworker went with fish samosas. A few minutes later, a second waiter popped over. “Hi, this is my section. The waiter told me you ordered.” “Yes, did he tell you what we ordered?” “No, he just said that you did, and that I should check with you.” Somewhat amused, we repeated our orders. “Wait,” I quipped as he began walking away. “What is on the Golden Beach Burger?” “It’s ground beef, with ham and cheese.” “That’s it? Just ham and cheese?” “Yes, ham and cheese. That is why it’s called a Golden Beach Burger.” I decided to downgrade to a simple cheeseburger, which they cooked about right.

For some reason Michael Jackson came up in conversation. “It was crazy in New York,” I explained. It might have been the biggest news story of the year- we were all glued to the TV.” “It was huge here too,” my coworker replied. “People were mourning, blasting his music in the street for a whole week.” That’s pretty crazy when you think about it. I’ve been pondering fame ever since I heard Lady Gaga on the radio within an hour of landing in Liberia. Whether we’re talking about musicians, athletes or political figures, it’s pretty wild how a certain amount of talent and skill will fall short of a recording contract or a chance to play in the big leagues, but a few notches up you have fans literally all over the world. Sometimes the adulation is more warranted than other times. President Obama is not only of African descent, but he is the leader of the free world, so bumper stickers on local taxis bearing his name are at least partially warranted. And Michael Jackson did spearhead the concerts for Africa, so I can see why he’d be a hero over here. But Lady Gaga and Sarah Palin- what strange pretenses brought them to these shores?

Amos had been waiting for us to finish dinner. We dropped off my co-worker first. She lives by the bridge that takes you out of downtown Monrovia into the ramshackle suburbs, and there is usually a huge crowd of people waiting for the bus to take them across the bridge. I saw the bus coming, and noted that they clearly wouldn’t all fit. “They’ll catch the next one,” Amos replied. “It will come in about an hour.” Damn. An hour between buses meant the madness of India was coming. People would hang out of doors and windows. I told Amos about my experiences on the Mumbai trains, including the first time a dude casually sat in my lap when he couldn’t find space. He laughed, “Yeah why not sit on someone’s lap, it’s better than standing.”

Soon after getting home I got a text inviting me out clubbing. Clubbing is really not my thing, but maybe it would be different in a foreign country. But I rarely enjoy dancing at clubs with friends, and I certainly didn’t have the energy or interest to dance with strangers. I almost got a second wind when I saw on Facebook that my friends, Midnight Spin, had played a show with Guns and Roses. Maybe I can have a crazy night too! Nah, I’ll wait till tomorrow. To bed I went. February 13, 2010 The trial of Charles Taylor is coming to an end. The war criminal is being tried for acts committed in Sierre Leone, rather than crimes in his own country, where he is still popular enough that his wife is being considered as a VP choice on the opposition party’s ticket. There have been several articles about the Liberian community, both here and in the U.S, showing a lack of interest in the trial, partly out of frustration that only crimes committed in Sierre Leone were charged, partly because people want to move on, and partly because The Hague is a somewhat ridiculous institution. I am all for providing fair trials to all accused, including war criminals and terrorists, but when Slobodan Milosevic’s trial went on for so long that he died before a decision could be rendered, you have problems. How long does it take these whiz-kid prosecutors to prove genocide? This is the 21st century- there is no lack of evidence.

A friend commented about the Taylor trial while we were driving: “The Taylor trial fits really oddly with Liberian history. The revolution started against President Tolbert, who is on the currency. He was overthrown by Samuel Doe, who has the country’s main stadium named after him. Doe was opposed by Prince Johnson, who is now a Senator, and Charles Taylor, who is being prosecuted for war crimes. Is he really the only bad guy?”

Multiple people have suggested that Charles Taylor would be a legitimate contender for the presidency if he ran, even though he overthrew one government, engaged in two bloody civil wars and is on trial for war crimes. The opposition party to President Sirleaff has not put forward an agenda of its own, but instead is banking on dissatisfaction with the incumbent and the empty charisma of their candidate (sound familiar?). In their case, that is embodies by former soccer star George Weah. Amos shook his head as we listened to the radio. “This country has so many problems, what we don’t need right now is a soccer player in charge of the country.” Especially a soccer player who has openly discussed putting Charles Taylor’s wife on the ticket as his VP. She’ll make Sarah Palin look peace prize worthy.

That’s some heavy stuff for a pleasant Saturday afternoon. How about hearing the results of the Music Tournament? Fight Test (Flaming Lips) and Running On Empty (Jackson Browne) both went down in the semifinals. In the finals, Miles Davis and the Cool (Gaslight Anthem) triumphed pretty easily over Paper Planes (MIA). On an unrelated note, I was listening to the Clash song “Straight to Hell” this afternoon, and found its intro very similar to “Paper Planes”. If you have both songs, check it out. These music tournaments were for many years a monthly occurrence. How often I do them these days is dictated by the influx of new music I listen to, which will probably be limited in a country where downloading is nearly impossible. Though they are usually solo affairs, I have partnered with multiple people over the years, most notably with Guillermo in the Great Indiana Road Trip Tournament of 2006.