Like Rick Steves—With Bombs

So I can now add another entry to my list of  “Places The Luna Family Has Been That Have Later Been Bombed.”  Some people pick up little shot glass or thimble souvenirs to commemorate their travels.  The Luna Family?  We bring back memories of future terrorist sites.

I’m not kidding.

Back in August of 1999 when we first arrived in Russia, the Von Luna Family, ready to sing and frolic their way through the hills of the former Soviet Heartland (note: there are almost no hills in the former Soviet Heartland),  landed in Moscow.  (Second note: Sheremetyevo International Airport in Moscow makes Buffalo International Airport look like the Ritz…). We spent the next day, before training 300 miles east to Nizhny Novgorod where I’d be lecturing for the next year, seeing some of the Moscow sights.  After walking all around Red Square we stopped off—me, the wife, four daughters and grandma—at the glitzy Manezh Mall at the foot of the Red Square  to get out of the heat and get something to eat.  We dined downstairs at the food court, having our first dinner—and only bad meal–of our stay at a little Russian takeout.  We finished eating and walked back to our hotel, the Belgrad, out on the Garden Ring Road.  Walking up the pedestrian shopping street, the Arbat, we heard all these sirens going off.  Reaching the Ring Road we saw dozens of official vehicles, lights flashing, going by.  We got back up into our rooms and turned on the TV.

A bomb had just exploded in downtown Moscow.  By the Kremlin.  In the Manezh Mall.  In the food court. It went off about twenty minutes after we had left.  The next time I was in the mall—about a month later—I could see from the repair work where the bomb had gone off—about twenty feet from where we’d been sitting.  While we were blissfully enjoying a bad meal an explosive device had been ticking down a few yards away.  The blast injured dozens of people.

I didn’t take it personally.  I didn’t think whomever placed the bomb was gunning for one lowly American community college professor and his family.  A radical anti-consumerist group claimed responsibility for the blast the next day, claiming they were protesting the corrupting influence of Western consumerism on the Russian spirit.  A few days later bigger bombs ripped through three apartment complexes in three Russian cities killing almost three hundred people.  The Yeltsin government blamed Chechen terrorists for the apartment bombings as well, belatedly, for the Moscow mall blast.  The second Chechen War had begun.

Since then we can put pins in “look what just blew up” map for both the March, 2004 Madrid train station (we were there summer 2000) and the 2005 Edgware  Road Tube Station bombing (we stayed in London about three blocks from the station during the summer of 2004, using it daily.)

Now I can add Monday’s  terrorist bombing at the Moscow Lubyanka metro station.  My daughter and I passed through the station several times in 1999/2000 during one of our many forays into Moscow that year.   Detsky Mir (Children’s World) Moscow’s premier department store for kids—a truly wondrous place—is just off the station.  So is the infamous Lubyanka—the KGB’s notorious headquarters into whose bowels thousands of prisoners disappeared ‘nere to be seen again.

(I always found that juxtaposition:  a wonderful children’s department store across the street from a heinous secret police headquarters to particularly apropos in underscoring the contradictions that  are Russia.  That and the way  the GUM Mall—the ultimate symbol of western capitalist consumerism—is reflected in the polished granite of Lenin’s tomb. Or the fact that, in Nizhny, there was a big prison directly across the street from the University I taught at. )

So, if your planning a trip any time soon you might want to run your itinerary by me to see if we Lunas have been there.  If we have, there seems to me more than an outside chance that it might blow up…

Lights, Camera, Revolution!

I was listening to that incredibly talented entertainer Ricky “Don’t Start the Revolution Without Me” Roberts this morning  and got to hear one of  Bobbo “Its Common Sense Because I Say So” Basso’s Tom Paine takeoffs which inspires the following vignette:


THE SCENE: A standard Studio Mogul’s lair, self-aggrandizing celeb photos on the wall, lots of chrome and gleam and an acre-size executive desk.   The MOGUL, sits feet up behind the desk, requisite stogy clenched in teeth.  The WRITER stands before the desk, schoolboy at attention, making his pitch.

WRITER: I’m tellin’s ya, man, this story has it all.  It’s Mister Smith Goes to Washington meets BraveheartMeet John Doe meets Pulp Fiction….

MOGUL: (intrigued) Tell me more….

WRITER: Okay – Act One:  the handsome charismatic prince sweeps the country off its feet, wowing them with his repertoire of multi-syllabic sweet nothings…

MOGUL: Who you thinking’?  Pitt?  Clooney?

WRITER: No, no, here’s the twist.  The guy’s black .

MOGUL: Oh, Freeman.

WRITER: No, younger and hipper.  More a Don Cheadle or  a Denzel. So anyway, Act One he wins the country and sweeps into the White House

MOGUL: Black guy president?  So what, the world ends?  World always ends when a black guy’s president.

WRITER: No, no, that’s too cliche. I mean America as we know it almost ends.  But the American people come to their senses and save it.  So in Act Two  the country turns on him like a woman scorned!

MOGUL: Classic! Boy meets girl, loses girl.  So what brings him down?  Sex Scandal?  Corruption?  Corrupt sex scandal—I really like those? Bloody controversial war?

WRITER: No, bigger ‘n that.  The dude pushes through—are you ready for this—a healthcare reform.

MOGUL:  In America?  Get real.  Adolescent wizards and vampires are more believable.

WRITER: I didn’t  say comprehensive reform. Naw, just a little reform. You know, kinda a watered down Massachusetts thing that that guy with the really  good hair did before he ran for president.  Nothing as radical as that Nixon dude or Truman  talked about, for godsakes.  I’m not talkin’ fantasy here.   So, anyway, it gets it past and then all these mobs take to the streets screaming about how he’s a dictator bringin’ godless communism to America.

MOGUL: Serves the commie bastard right.  So in Act III he sees the error of his ways, begs America for forgiveness, repeals his ill fated reform and wins the girl—I mean the people—back!

WRITER: No, no.  Too obvious. The twist is in Act III the people, now driven  absolutely insane by this guy giving healthcare to millions of people rebel.  They take to the streets and storm the capitol.  When they’re done a new Republican congress populated by really good looking white people with really nice teeth (thanks to the dental plan their corporate employers provided them as top rank executives)  takes over.  They impeach the young, brash prince—and his trusty old F-bombing sidekick and make their handsome white Speaker with really good hair the new Prez.  Then the guy gets rid of the healthcare reform (and Medicare, social security, welfare, all environmental laws, meat inspection and the like). As the people rejoice in the streets (of course, a lot of them are living there by then) the music comes up – something really patriotic and uplifting…

MOGUL: How about Dixie?  That’s a catchy tune!

WRITER: Love it!  So the music comes up and we fade to black. Whadda ya think?

MOGUL: Love it, man, love it.  One thing—you think maybe you can tweak it so the healthcare reform turns out to have unleashed a virus or something that turns normal, rational people into invective-spitting deranged anti-government zombies?  Or even better, Libertarian Vampires ready to feed on the body politic? You know, Advise and Consent meets 27 Days Later.

WRITER: Don’t see why not.

MOGUL: Outstanding.  Only one problem though…

WRITER: What’s that boss?

MOGUL: We make fiction at this studio, not documentaries.  Whadda think we are—the History Channel?


Friday Fish

I moderated the first of six election programs at the Catfish Club today.  This event was on the pros/cons with the strong mayor system.  Darling Donna Frye squared off against  political consultant and Strong-Mayor guru Adrian Kwiatkowski. I’d call it a split decision but that’s because I’m increasingly ambivalent/agnostic on the issue.  The audience, for the most part, seemed to go with Frye and the return to the old Mayor-Council-Manager status quo.

For me, I’m not convinced going back to the old model would do any good.  Indeed, I’m historical a supporter of the Strong Mayor system–except for the fact that the current system is only a kinda-not-weak Mayor system, what with the simple majority veto override power.  Strong Mayor 2.0 promises to right this mistake and increase the council from the oddly even current eight members to the rightly odd nine members with a two-thirds veto power.  That’s all well and good.

Three things have made my support for waiver, however.  First are the slew of stories (such as Don Bauder’s Reader exposes) on just how cozy things have gotten behind the closed Eleventh Floor doors of the Mayoral fiefdom and downtown interests, some of less than savory repute.  Second has been accusations by Councilmembers like Donna Frye that, now that the Chief Operating Officer formerly known as the City Manager is no longer directly accountable to the Council, the typical response of city staff to council inquires is a polite, bureaucratic “drop dead.”  And third, being a stalwart believer in Cicero’s admonition “show me he who benefits and I’ll show you the guilty party,” I’ve got to wonder why all the champions of Strong Mayor 2.0 (as well as the original Prop F) seem to reside in the moneyed towers of our municipality.  If just a few bona fide citizen activist groups—particularly a few representing  some of the city’s less advantaged denizens—where systematically stepping on in favor of this, I’d have less of the “oh my, there goes the power elite again” heebie-jeebies.

But I’ve still got an open mind on all this and wait to be wowed by the Strong Mayor 2.0 pro and/or cons artistes out there.

For now I’m just content knowing that Friday after next I get to return to the Catfish club for a nice piece of fish and a good side of debate.  And it will be my birthday!  I do hope they have cake….

College Daze

All you need to know about the disconnect between the scions of  Wall Street and us mere peons on Main Street can be found on  page 61 of Andrew Sorkin’s tome to moral torpidity, Too Big To Fail.

In talking about then New York Fed Chief Timothy Geithner contemplating whether or not to take the position of Citigroup’s CEO, Sorkin writes:

“For the following week, however, the prospect was practically all he could think about—the job, the money, the responsibilities. He talked it over with his wife, Carole, and pondered the offer as he walked their dog, Adobe, around Larchmont, a wealthy suburb about an hour from New York City.  They already lived a comfortable life—he was making $398,200 a year, an enormous sum for a regulator—but compared with their neighbors along Maple Hill Drive they were decidedly middle-of-the-pack.  His tastes weren’t that expensive, save for his monthly $80 haircut at Gjoko Spa & Salon., but with college coming up for his daughter, Elise, a junior in high school, and his son, Benjamin, an eighth grade behind her, he could certainly use the money.”

I’ve got four daughters,  two through college (one working on her second masters, the other on her first), one in college and one on the way.  If a man making $398,200  (let’s just say a tad—if tad means many factors—greater than my salary) a year has to worry about putting two kids through college, I must really be screwed.

And, given that my salary as a college professor is higher than the median income, that means most of the denizens of Main Street must be really, really screwed.  That is, if they want to send their kids to college which, we’ve been told for decades, is a must if you want your kids to enjoy a comfortable middle class life anymore.

When I went to USD thirty years ago the tuition was around $3k a year.  When my eldest went there four years ago it was more than twelve times that.  So, my daughter will have to pony up $500k + a year to send her kid there?  Just when will such college costs finally break the backs of the American middle class?  (And will it happen before or after our backs are broken by health care, retirement and housing costs?)

Meanwhile, it’s amazing that a person making $398,200 could worry about being middle of the pact anywhere.  No wonder the power elite of Wall Street and Washington, worried about making ends meet on their six, seven and eight figure incomes, haven’t been able to work up a decent sweat addressing the concerns of all the five digit income folk.

Viva la middle class devolution.

Brownie, You’re Doing a Heck of a Job

Except this time the accolade is justifiable.    The former Governor formerly known as Governor Moonbeam now wants to be the future Governor.  Give ‘em heck, Brownie.  Like Obi Wan back in the big game Jerry hopes to deep six the latest Corporate Sith Lord, Meg Whitman.  Running a government of  thirty-seven million Californians, over two hundred thousand state employees and a  hundred billion dollar budget is  just a tad different than running an eight billion dollar company with fifteen thousand employees. Governments don’t make profits.  Governments are not supposed to go through bubbles and burst (failed states being such a messier thing than filing chapter 11.  A man with decades of experience in public life might just have an edge on a political business newbie.

Now if Jerry just wasn’t 114 years old….


Late word that Darling Donna has decided to sit out the race to out Righty Ron Roberts is disappointing though, from what I’ve read and heard, not unexpected.  The Board of Supervisors is not exactly the most exciting of civic electoral posts though its significance to the local quality of life is far in excess of its public profile–or notoriety. A Frye-Roberts free for all would have been interesting and useful to focusing attention on the body–as only a Frye candidacy would do.  One can only hope that Donna is saving herself for one last fling at the Mayor’s office.  Otherwise it just might well be Carl Demonic DeMaio as the new strong mayor in chief.   Oh, where have all the a good Democrats gone?

I Read It In the New York Times

My letter to the editor commenting on Piers Brendon’s piece last week on premature speculation as to the fall of the American empire actually made it into today’s NYT.  Though I don’t think anyone besides my wife and mom particularly care, you can find it here.