The fabulists' brunch

Stephen Glass and I nursed cups of coffee at the usual booth when James Frey arrived for our regular monthly brunch at the Denny's on Queens Boulevard in Elmhurst. Traffic flowed through the suburban landscape outside the window. Glass stirred two packets of sugar into his mug as Frey sidled into his seat.

"James! Glad you made it," Glass said. "How have things been since you jumped the couch on Oprah?"

Frey's face was stubbled. He blinked at us with that deer-in-the-headlights look, then broke into a wide grin. "Sometimes you eat the worm, and sometimes the worm eats you," he shrugged.

"Give me a break," Glass said. "Within the week of Oprah, you went from #4 to #3 at Amazon. How many copies of Million Pieces sold last month?"

"Thirteen thousand, four hundred and eighty-two."

"That's still more than most books sell during their entire run," said Glass, lifting his coffee mug in salute. "The wages of sin aren't bad at all, compadre."

A relative newbie, I am privileged to keep such august company as friends. Our monthly get-togethers at Denny's for waffles and pork products -- going on 12 or so years now -- give us a chance to compare notes and hone the craft of confabulation.

Glass's cell phone chirped a reedy version of Jackson Browne's "The Pretender." He flipped it open and listened intently.

"It's Jayson," he told us. "He's held up on patrol with the 172nd Stryker Brigade outside Mosul, and is running late. He says to go ahead and order."

"Poor guy," Frey said. "I hope he has some decent body armor."

Jayson Blair came around the corner, smiling widely. "Ah-ha! Gotcha!" Blair said with a measure of pride, showing how he crinkled cellophane from a cigarette package near his cell phone to create an authentic imitation of static.

After another round of greetings and handshakes, Blair sat and considered his options on the breakfast menu. "So James," he said, "what are you working on these days besides your pallor?"

"Actually, the story of the whole debacle has been optioned by Ron Howard," Frey said. "Will Ferrell signed up to play me on the big screen."

"Really?" Glass asked.

"No," Frey replied.

"Don't sweat it," Glass said. "Who was it that said there are no second acts in life? Don't forget that Clifford Irving did nine more books after The Autobiography of Howard Hughes."

"Speaking of Cliff, I talked with him just the other day," said Bair. "You wouldn't believe what happened to him. He was the victim of black market trafficking in human transplant tissue. He had the misfortune of receiving Peter Jennings' hip, and now has insatiable cravings for back bacon sandwiches."

"Really?" Frey asked.

"No, not really," Blair replied.

"Look over there," said Glass, gesturing towards a familiar middle-aged black woman in a booth across the restaurant. "Isn't that Janet Cooke?" The woman glanced over at our table, then swiveled in her seat to face away from us, focusing intently on her platter.

"You wouldn't believe what happened to me last week," said Frey. "Some punk tried to jack my Land Rover. Put a gun to my head at a red light. I closed the window on his arm, grabbed his gun, and got out to beat the crap out of him. When the cops showed up, I punched one of them too. Took six cops and two tasers to arrest me. Spent three months in jail for that."

"Really?" asked Blair.

"No," said Frey.

"You don't own a Land Rover, do you?" Blair asked.

"No," Frey said. "That was a detail I changed to protect the identity of my car."

Such skill! I can only hope that some work of mine might show some small measure of the talent represented at this table. With these guys in my corner, there's no telling where I'll go.

The waitress arrived at our table with a tray laden with platters. She looked tired and bored, as though her feet ache and the rent's overdue, but managed to smile weakly.

"Who ordered the Moons Over My Hammy," she asked.

"I did!" we piped up in unison, collapsing into laughter.


Up to their old tricks

There's a story out of New Hampshire that hasn't received the attention it deserves.

On Election Day of 2002, at the end of a close and hotly contested race for U.S. Senate between John E. Sununu, a Republican congressman, and Democrat Gov. Jeanne Shaheen, five get-out-the-vote phone banks operated by Dems and one line sponsored by the Manchester firefighter union were bombarded by nearly 1,000 incoming calls, crippling them for up to two hours.

The calls originated from an Idaho telemarketing firm contracted by a Virginia consulting firm hired by the New Hampshire state GOP. Three people have been convicted of crimes for the scheme, including telephone harassment and conspiracy:

Allen Raymond, former president of GOP Marketplace, a Virginia-based Republican consulting firm;

Chuck McGee, former executive director of the New Hampshire Republican party;

James Tobin, former northeast political director of the Republican National Committee and Bush's New England chairman for his 2004 reelection.

On election day of 2002, during the thick of the phone-jamming, Tobin made nearly two dozen calls to a number in the office of Ken Mehlman, then-director of White House political affairs. Mehlman is now RNC chairman.

At first, the White House refused to identify who the number belonged to. Mehlman subsequently said that Tobin and other local GOP operatives spoke with Alicia Davis, the White House official in charge of the northeast. Davis is now mid-Atlantic director of the RNC.

It gets better. The money trail for the $15,600 phone-jamming campaign leads back to none other than Tom Delay, Jack Abramoff, and an Indian tribe that was an Abramoff client. One has to wonder why an Indian tribe would make a donation to a state political organization when New Hampshire has no Indian tribes. It isn't as though they could seek a casino in the state.

Tobin was represented by Williams and Connolly, the top-drawer white collar criminal law firm. Legal bills have reportedly topped $2.5 million and may be as high as $6 million -- generously paid by the RNC even though it isn't obligated.

Some suggest that the RNC is paying the legal fees out of loyalty. Others suggest that the national GOP organization is desperate to protect itself and prevent disclosure of potentially embarrassing documents and information. Justin Rood asks why the GOP is diverting a lot of money to defend patently illegal conduct in an election year where it faces the loss of several seats in Congress.

In his New York Times commentary, Adam Cohen drew strong parallels to Watergate; the return of a "second-rate burglary," the return of high-priced lawyers, the return of "follow the money," and the return of asking "what did they know, and when did they know it?"

It's like deja vu all over again. And hardly surprising since Karl "Turd Blossom" Rove learned his political craft at the knee of Watergate era dirty trickster Donald Sengretti.

Democrats filed suit in federal court in an attempt to compel the GOP and the White House to answer questions about the phone-jamming incident. This story is far from over, and worth paying attention.

Betsy Devine has been covering the case closely, and has posted an excellent timeline. Wikipedia has detailed information about the phone-jamming scandal. Read more about James Tobin at SourceWatch.


Long War

President Bush slipped a curious expression into the 2006 State of the Union address that received little public notice. "Our own generation is in a long war against a determined enemy," he told the nation.

The reference to a "long war" was a subtle way to introduce the public to the idea of an open-ended conflict against a vague but omnipresent threat to security. This is the American way of life from now on, folks. Get used to it.

The expression is also found in the recently released 2006 Quadrennial Defense Review Report, which begins with a frank statement: "The United States is a nation engaged in what will be a long war."

Long war has particular historical significance. Originally the Long War referred to the conflict between the Habsburgs and the Ottoman Empire between 1593 and 1606. In his well-regarded 2002 book, The Shield of Achilles, Philip Bobbitt used the Long War to designate the series of conflicts between world superpowers stretching from 1914 to 1990, including both World Wars, the Bolshevik revolution, Spanish Civil War, conflicts in Korea and Vietnam, and the Cold War. Bobbitt's Long War ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union and reunification of Germany.

This war, the global war on terror, is different. We're told this again and again. Previous wars were against nations and identifiable armies. This isn't a war against Islamic fundamentalism, it's a war against violent extremism. A war against a concept -- like the war on drugs, the war on cancer, and the war on poverty.

How do we know when it's over? When there is no more violence? When there is no extremism? There can never be an armistice, truce or peace pact. War without end. Long indeed.


Bad samaritan

The evening train was held up at New Carrollton while EMS was dispatched to attend to a passenger in distress in a rear car. We sat there 15-20 minutes. The guy across from me suggested we carry the passenger onto the platform so we can get on our fucking way.

As the conductor walked back I asked whether somebody needed first aid.

"You a doctor?" he asked.

I said no, but I stayed at a Holiday Inn Express last night.


Screwing the pooch

Nobody's perfect.

So those trailers weren't mobile bioweapon labs, although Bush and crew continued to insist they were for months despite having definitive proof to the contrary. Curveball threw a curveball.

The aluminum tubes weren't for enriching uranium. There weren't tons of nerve agent and chem-bio weapons. The drone planes didn't have the range or configuration to pose a threat. That memo suggesting they wanted to buy yellowcake uranium from Niger was a crude forgery.

Mistakes happen. That's why pencils have erasers.

What I'd like to know is this: were any claims made as a basis for the Iraq war correct?

So we weren't greeted as liberators, met by cheering crowds throwing flowers. There weren't enough boots on the ground to maintain security, and they didn't have enough armored vehicles and body armor to do the job safely. The insurgency was unanticipated. Disbanding the Iraqi military turned out to be a bad idea. Oil revenue won't pay for the war. We can't rebuild the nation. The new Iraqi government, if and when there is one, won't be our flavor of democracy. The mission was not accomplished.

Oh yeah, and Saddam isn't responsible for 9/11. The guys who are haven't been caught yet.

Have these miscreants done anything right?



Watched a seder on a premium cable channel. It was pay-per-jew.


Who am us, anyway?

My purpose in creating Life During War was to document daily routines in and around a likely ground zero during a period of national insecurity. At first I had the delusion that like-minded people would gather and talk. But it's mostly me, and that's cool too.

Who I am is really immaterial. I could be anybody. Just another cog that keeps the big machine running.

I'm not introspective by nature, not inclined to share the minutiae of my life. I didn't want to be part of an echo chamber or just provide a lot of links to sites and news sources. There's already plenty of that.

I wanted to create original stuff. some serious and some silly -- observations, interpolations, thoughts, cryptic messages found while commuting, occasional dog poop reports.

To reward visitors -- and there are a few -- I've decided to launch a recurring feature I'm calling The Infidel's Lexicon, a glossary to post-9/11 terminology. Look for new additions once a week or so.

The Infidel's Lexicon

Language is a tool of propaganda.

It's worthwhile to give thoughtful consideration to some of the phrases and expressions that have become part of the post-9/11 vernacular. This is a new era, with a curious Orwellian argot that influences public discourse in subtle and profound ways.

Why are the bombs killing American soldiers in Iraq called improvised explosive devices, but the improvised explosive devices used by Timothy McVeigh in Oklahoma City and Robert Rudolph at abortion clinics and Atlanta's Olympic Centennial Park called bombs?

How fine is the distinction between insurgent and patriot? What exactly is waterboarding or extraordinary rendition?

Once a week or so, I'll pick a word or phrase that's come to my attention and use it as a point of departure for an exploration into its definition and meaning.

And the first entry is....

Force drift

Force drift: The observed tendency among interrogators who rely on force to employ techniques of increasing intensity, resulting from the misguided belief that if some force is good then more force is better. Left unchecked, the force applied to an uncooperative prisoner tends to escalate and could reach the level of torture.

That's the view of Alberto J. Moro, who as general counsel of the U.S. Navy wrote a 22-page memorandum documenting his futile effort to warn higher-ups at the Pentagon about potentially criminal abuses of detainees at Guantanamo and other military prisons.

The story is told in Jean Mayer's superb piece "The Memo" published in the February 27, 2006, issue of the New Yorker and now available online. Moro's declassified memo is here (PDF document, 3.3 Megs) and makes compelling reading.

On December 2, 2002, defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld approved a list of interrogation techniques that include the use of stress positions, hooding, isolation, deprivation of light and auditory stimuli, physical contact, waterboarding (simulated drowning), the use of "detainee-individual phobias" such as the fear of dogs, and dressing detainees in female underwear.

Moro warned that the absence of clear boundaries for prohibited treatment was likely to lead to abuse. Authorized methods used excessively or in combination can easily rise to the level of torture. At the very least, they constitute cruel, inhumane, and degrading treatment, which are prohibited under the Geneva Conventions and U.S. law. Indeed, there have been numerous documented cases of beatings and at least 98 deaths among detainees.

Rumsfeld did little to curb the potential for abuse, seeming instead to give a green light to interrogators in a handwritten notation on the December 2 memo that said, "I stand for 8-10 hours a day. Why is standing limited to 4 hours?"

Moro argues that Rumsfeld's note could be interpreted "as a coded message, a written wink-and-a-nod to interrogators to the effect that they should not feel bound by the limits set in this memo."

To date, nobody above the lowest front-line personnel has been held accountable for the promulgation and implementation of this policy.


Death and life

I’ve been away from blogging for the past month or so because most of my thoughts have been consumed with the sudden and bloody deaths of two close friends.

You’ve heard the expression that a friend helps you move, but your best friend helps you move a dead body? Jon was that kind of friend. I’d known him since the age of 13.

Charlie was an exotic dancer. That’s Jon and Charlie’s dog that I photoshopped in the mugshot.

Jon and Charlie were two of the most loving, happy, and brilliant people I know.

Or at least I thought so.

Their murder and suicide are deeply unsettling. I’ve acquired police reports, investigator reports and autopsy reports. I’ve spoken with their neighbors and located siblings. I’ve listened to the 911 call over and over.

All this stuff will probably come out in some form or another. I’m still in the information gathering stage and have barely begun to ruminate. I may mention Jon and Charlie in this blog now and then.

In many respects, Jon was the reason why I began Life During War. The precipitating factor was a desire to return a gesture in kind to the White House. But the idea of creating a blog was the result of our discussions leading up to the 2004 presidential election. Jon challenged me to examine facts and my own values and beliefs. He made me think. Life During War is basically my side of the argument.

Now all I have are unfinished conversations.


When dancing is outlawed, only outlaws will dance

A New York Supreme Court judge ruled that there is no Constitutional right to dance. I'll stop dancing when they pry my feet from my cold, dead fingers.

First they came for people who hum;
I did not speak out because I know all the words.
Then they came for the mimes;
I did not speak out because nobody likes mimes anyway.
Then they came for the air guitarists;
I did not speak out because I can't play air guitar.
Then they came for the rappers;
I did not speak out because I am not a rapper.
Then they came for me
And there was no one left to tango.