Thursday, September 18, 2008

Yikes Ike: A journey to the scene of the crime

I find myself back in my old Southeast Texas home this week, helping friends and strangers return some semblance of normalcy to lives jumbled by Hurricane Ike, the third hurricane to hit here in the past four seasons.

From the joy of my daughter's wedding in Utah last weekend to the devastation of the Gulf Coast ... it feels a little like shipping out to war. I came because ... well, because I couldn't stay at home and just watch.

Last night, I helped unload two Red Cross 18-wheelers full of 12,000 gallons of bottled water. Today, we'll clamber on a few ruined roofs to begin the process of "drying in" -- sealing the holes temporarily against the humid, rainy weather. The air is already starting to stink of rotten food, tossed out of powerless, dank refrigerators and freezers. Reliefs crews are as thick as the mosquitoes. The wreckage is somewhat less than we saw three years ago with Rita, but if a tree sliced through your home -- as it did in the house next door to where I am staying -- then Rita was literally just a breeze compared to Ike.

Most evacuees haven't yet returned to this purgatory. It's not exactly a ghost town, but neither is it a vibrant place. An 8 p.m. curfew is still enforced, although scattered reports of looting are circulating. Maybe true, maybe not. Stores are opening in dribs and drabs, but usually only for a few hours. The days and nights are cool, thank God, making working and sleeping a little easier.

There is a resignation here. To storms. To disappointment. To the Sissyphean tasks of patching up a landscape and lives that will likely be wracked again in a month, a season, a year or a lifetime. The second most common thing you hear here is: "That's what insurance is for."

The first most common is actually a sign of hope: "Is everybody OK at your house?"

Thursday, September 11, 2008

The Perfect Stranger: Barack, we hardly know ye

This column by syndicated writer Charles Krauthammer has been e-circulating in the past few days. It offers an interesting perspective on Barack Obama, whom he calls "a mysterious Gatsby."

By Charles Krauthammer

Barack Obama is an immensely talented man whose talents have been largely devoted to crafting, and chronicling, his own life. Not things. Not ideas. Not institutions. But himself.

Nothing wrong or even terribly odd about that, except that he is laying claim to the job of crafting the coming history of the United States. A leap of such audacity is odd. The air of unease at the Democratic convention this week was not just a result of the Clinton psychodrama. The deeper anxiety was that the party was nominating a man of many gifts but precious few accomplishments — bearing even fewer witnesses.

When John Kerry was introduced at his convention four years ago, an honor guard of a dozen mates from his Vietnam days surrounded him on the podium attesting to his character and readiness to lead. Such personal testimonials are the norm. The roster of fellow soldiers or fellow senators who could from personal experience vouch for John McCain is rather long. At a less partisan date in the calendar, that roster might even include Democrats Russ Feingold and Edward Kennedy, with whom John McCain has worked to fashion important legislation.

Eerily missing at the Democratic convention this year were people of stature who were seriously involved at some point in Obama's life standing up to say: I know Barack Obama. I've been with Barack Obama. We've toiled/endured together. You can trust him. I do.

Hillary Clinton could have said something like that. She and Obama had, after all, engaged in a historic, utterly compelling contest for the nomination. During her convention speech, you kept waiting for her to offer just one line of testimony: I have come to know this man, to admire this man, to see his character, his courage, his wisdom, his judgment. Whatever. Anything.

Instead, nothing. She of course endorsed him. But the endorsement was entirely programmatic: We're all Democrats. He's a Democrat. He believes what you believe. So we must elect him — I am currently unavailable — to get Democratic things done. God bless America.

Clinton's withholding the "I've come to know this man" was vindictive and supremely self-serving — but jarring, too, because you realize that if she didn't do it, no one else would. Not because of any inherent deficiency in Obama's character. But simply as a reflection of a young life with a biography remarkably thin by the standard of presidential candidates.

Who was there to speak about the real Barack Obama? His wife. She could tell you about Barack the father, the husband, the family man in a winning and perfectly sincere way. But that takes you only so far. It doesn't take you to the public man, the national leader.

Who is to testify to that? Hillary's husband on night three did aver that Obama is "ready to lead." However, he offered not a shred of evidence, let alone personal experience with Obama. And although he pulled it off charmingly, everyone knew that, having been suggesting precisely the opposite for months, he meant not a word of it.

Obama's vice presidential selection, Joe Biden, naturally advertised his patron's virtues, such as the fact that he had "reached across party lines to . . . keep nuclear weapons out of the hands of terrorists." But securing loose nukes is as bipartisan as motherhood and as uncontroversial as apple pie. The measure was so minimal that it passed by voice vote and received near zero media coverage.

Thought experiment. Assume John McCain had retired from politics. Would he have testified to Obama's political courage in reaching across the aisle to work with him on ethics reform, a collaboration Obama boasted about in the Saddleback debate? "In fact," reports the Annenberg Political Fact Check, "the two worked together for barely a week, after which McCain accused Obama of 'partisan posturing' " — and launched a volcanic missive charging him with double-cross.

So where are the colleagues? The buddies? The political or spiritual soul mates? His most important spiritual adviser and mentor was Jeremiah Wright. But he's out. Then there's William Ayers, with whom he served on a board. He's out. Where are the others?

The oddity of this convention is that its central figure is the ultimate self-made man, a dazzling mysterious Gatsby. The palpable apprehension is that the anointed is a stranger — a deeply engaging, elegant, brilliant stranger with whom the Democrats had a torrid affair. Having slowly woken up, they see the ring and wonder who exactly they married last night.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Tropical Punch! 13 Ways to Avoid Worrying About Hurricane Ike

With Hurricane Ike taking aim at Texas, it's time to start drinking! Only those of you who have been through a major hurricane will truly appreciate these concoctions. But anyone's welcome to try them.

1 1/2 oz. Absolute Ruby Red vodka
1/2 oz. vermouth
Prune juice

Combine vodka and vermouth in cocktail glass. Fill remainder of glass with equal parts clamato and prune juice. Stir. Drink. Ask next-door neighbor whose ficus tree blew over and crashed onto your roof - even though you'd warned him for months to uproot it - if you can use his bathroom. Repeat.

1/2 oz. vodka
1/2 oz. tequila
1/2 oz. rum
1/2 oz. bourbon
1/2 oz. gin
Sweet-and-sour mix
Splash of fruit juice

Combine vodka, tequila, rum, bourbon and gin in a tall glass. Fill remainder of glass with sweet-and-sour mix and splash of juice. Stir, then garnish with an inverted drink umbrella. Drink during peak storm hours and vow not to believe anyone who tries to tell you the hurricane that flooded your garage and destroyed your shed was just a Category 1.

1 oz. cinnamon schnapps
1 sugar cone

Pour the schnapps into the sugar cone. Every time you hear a TV weatherman say, "Cone of probability," bite off the end of the cone and down the shot. If you hear Jim Cantore say it, drink two shots consecutively. (They should change this phrase to the 'Cantore Zone,'damn him. Have you ever noticed that, despite all the cone of probability talk, if Cantore is parked in front of your house your ass is toast?)

2 oz. Midori
2 oz. rum
1 scoop vanilla ice cream

After your home loses power, combine Midori and rum in a cocktail glass. Add a scoop of the vanilla ice cream that is melting in your freezer. Stir. Drink through a straw.

1 1/2 oz. Goldschläger
1 1/2 oz. apple brandy
1 pack Sugar in the Raw

Combine Goldschläger, apple brandy and sugar in cocktail glass. As you drink, seriously contemplate moving your Yankee butt back to New Jersey where it belongs.

1 1/2 oz. rum
5 oz. Jolt Cola

Combine ingredients in a cocktail glass. Drink while trying to figure out how the heck you're supposed to go two freakin' weeks without television and AC.

2 oz. Kahlúa
2 oz. Baileys Irish cream
4 oz. rum

Serve in a 6-ounce glass and laugh-cry deliriously as the mess spills all over the countertop.

2 oz. Blue Aftershock
4 oz. Sprite

Combine in a cocktail glass with the crushed ice you received after waiting in line for three hours at a mall parking lot. Take a deep breath, sip and scream like a little girl when the cold beverage hits your tongue. Repeat.

1 oz. Jack Daniel's
Splash of sarsparilla
Rock salt

Load both barrels of a shotgun with rock salt. Climb to the roof of your house with gun, bottle of Jack Daniel's and can of sasparilla. Fill shot glass with Jack and splash of sasparilla. Watch for looters. When you spot one, blast his butt with
rock salt. Drink shot. Repeat.

1 oz. Goldschläger
1 oz. Rumplemintz
3 oz. Jim Beam
Splash of vermouth

Combine Goldschläger, Rumplemintz and Jim Beam in an empty soup can. Add splash of vermouth. Drink. Remove chain saw from garage and attempt to cut up fallen tree limbs in yard. Ask neighbor to drive you to hospital when it all goes horribly wrong.

1 1/2 oz. vodka
1 1/2 oz. vodka and Midori
1 1/2 oz. vodka and Galliano
1 1/2 oz. vodka and grenadine

Pour each ingredient into a separate shot glass. Serve one to yourself and three other people. The person with the clear shot of vodka drinks first. The person to his right drinks the Midori shot, and so on. If somebody drinks out of order, develop a quick case of road rage and beat the living daylights out of him.

1 1/2 oz. Curacao
2 oz. pineapple juice
Splash of lime

Combine ingredients in a leaky paper cup and serve. Wait six to eight months for someone to repair the cup. If you're impatient, hire an unlicensed, out-of-state contractor to do
the job for an exorbitant sum and pray he doesn't hurt himself in the process.

2 oz. Southern Comfort
2 oz. sloe gin
Tonic water

One week after the storm has passed and your neighborhood is still in ruins, with no sign of help on the way, combine Southern Comfort and gin in a cocktail glass. Fill remainder with tonic and add a dash of Angostura bitters.

Serve with a nut brownie. Before drinking, raise the glass and say the toast, 'Doing a heckuva job, Brownie!"

Old Crimes, Long Memories: Bonnie and Clyde are bullet-riddled dust, but they are immortal in our imagination

Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, two of the most infamous outlaws of America's Outlaw Age, have been rotting for 74 years in their Texas graves. But still today, you can buy a 1-inch square swatch of Clyde's blood-soaked trousers at one of two roadside museums, just up the lonely backroad from where the star-crossed lovers -- and cold-blooded killers -- were fatally ambushed by lawmen in 1934.

The Bonnie & Clyde Ambush Museum is one of those places that crime history buffs like me would drive a hundred miles out of the way to see (I did). It's been open less than a year in Gibsland, La., and is run by the son of one of the six cops who gunned down Bonnie and Clyde. It's also in the building that was once Ma Canfield's Cafe, where the lover-killers stopped minutes before the ambush -- their take-out sandwiches were found half-eaten on the dead Bonnie's lap.

The main industry in Gibsland (Pop. 1,091) in Bonnie and Clyde. Boots Hinton's Ambush Museum has artifacts related to the outlaws, including some of the guns seized from the outlaws' well-perforated car, the famed swatches of Clyde's pants, Bonnie's red tam, rare photos and films, even the prop car used in the 1967 film "Bonnie and Clyde" starring Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty. (The real death car and Clyde's bloodstained shirt are displayed at a Nevada casino.) But there's another museum next door with more stuff. And every May, there's a festive re-enactment of Bonnie and Clyde's Shakespearean end.

Apparently nothing else of note has ever happened in Gibsland, which is fortunate for Gibsland. This little burg has capitalized brilliantly on its single grotesque event. History buffs, crime fans, or just tourists with quirky tastes flock here to pay $7 a head for a peek at a bloody page of history.

Just about 8 miles down the road, a cracked, graffiti-ravaged stone monument marks the exact spot where Bonnie and Clyde died in a hail of 130 bullets fired by 6 Texas and Louisiana lawmen who never gave the killers a chance to reach for their weapons. Within minutes, the place was crawling with curious bystanders, who snipped some of Bonnie's hair and pieces of her gory dress, picked up shell casings and broken glass, even tried to cut off Clyde's finger and ear ... all for souvenirs. Like something out of the Old West, photographs were taken of the disfigured corpses, and the town where the couple was embalmed -- not buried -- swelled to five times its normal size with gawkers hoping to catch a glimpse of the dead couple.

But what's the modern fascination with Bonnie and Clyde (or Dillinger, Jesse James, Butch Cassidy or Al Capone)? It's one thing for a true-crime author and history nut to chase ghosts of unrepentant, angry thugs, but ordinary people? It hardly seems to be the opportunity to live a moment of justice, but maybe ... Is it the promise of blood? A chance to rub up against death?

In the case of the former (and to some small degree the latter), author Joseph Geringer, who wrote "Bonnie and Clyde: Romeo and Juliet in a Getaway Car," explained the long-lived legend this way: "Americans thrilled to their 'Robin Hood' adventures. The presence of a female, Bonnie, escalated the sincerity of their intentions to make them something unique and individual -- even at times heroic."

Indeed. A few of the vandals who have defaced the stone marker at the death site pay tribute to Bonnie and Clyde. To be sure, locks of Bonnie's hair or even that half-eaten sandwich might turn up on eBay when you least expect it.