By Raul Groom
"Our fear of death is like our fear that summer will
be short, but when we have had our swing of pleasure, our
fill of fruit, and our swelter of heat, we say we have had
our day." - Ralph Waldo Emerson
Robert Anton Wilson, who I must warn you is a sweaty-toothed
madman assiduously ignored by responsible beings, relates
the story of a crew of anthropologists who went into the African
bush to study a race of people believed to have no knowledge
of modern science. The Dogons, as they are called, were found
to have a tribal mythology that stretches back thousands of
years and that includes a great deal of information about
the night sky that was unknown to western astronomers at the
time of the expedition. No one knows exactly how the Dogons,
who lack telescopes, came by this knowledge, but the consensus
among most who have formed an opinion is that the locals'
version of the story – that they were visited by a race of
effeminate aliens who arrived in a glittering spaceship and,
after taking a quick swim in a pool they had brought with
them, told the assembled onlookers about the origins of humankind
– is as good an explanation as any.
Regardless of our feelings on that particular matter, we
can all agree on one thing – weird things do tend to happen
in the final, sticky-sweet days of summer. I'd lay 5 to 1
that if you could get the Dogons to come clean, they would
admit that the day their ancestors noticed a hovering disc
distributing shimmering puddles and little blue men onto the
ground outside the village was an unusually hot one, even
by West African standards. Sirius, the "Dog Star" around which
most of the tribe's stories revolve, is most prominent in
the "dog days" of summer to which the star lends its name.
Indeed, the aliens even went so far as to claim that they
hailed from the unique star system, named by the Egyptians
after Osiris, a god with the head of a dog. What makes the
timing obvious is not so much that the Dogons took the experience
at face value, but that they didn't ask the visitors to leave
behind a little something as proof they'd been there.
"Our grandkids are gonna think we're nuts," one of the elders
would have surely explained, if it had been May. In December,
the village thief would have slyly broken off a little piece
of the ship just as the thing was starting to taxi. But alas,
it was August, and they probably all just got stoned and had
sex and talked about the implications of the double helix-shaped
shae nut they had found before dinner, until the next rise
of Sirius brought them the next crazy-ass day. One might even
today find a market in Mali for a unisex apparel outlet specializing
in "I was Visited By Aliens With Knowledge of all the Galaxy's
Secrets and All I Got Was This Lousy T-Shirt" T-shirts.
You don't have to cross the ocean and brave fist-sized mosquitoes
to find examples of this phenomenon, either. I once complained
to a coworker that Spike Lee's "Do The Right Thing" – in which
a basically peaceful New York neighborhood goes completely
bonkers and starts to self-destruct into a gruesome wreck
of racially motivated violence - seemed a little far-fetched.
He had lived in Brooklyn, though, and was able to set me straight.
"You fool!" he said. "Didn't you see the part at the beginning
where the radio said it was the hottest day of the year? In
Brooklyn in August, anything can happen."
Which is what makes living in this city at the end of summer
so utterly bizarre. In D.C. in August, nothing happens. Congress
is on vacation all month, and these days, the President is
too. The Supreme Court is long gone, hanging out back home
drinking gin fizzes, each laughing maniacally at the fact
that she has landed a lifetime gig on the only unreviewable
body in the U.S. government.
Of course, we still get our share of odd news stories. The
U.S. Navy, where the top people are expected to work year-round
and where they are clearly immune to the sanity-sapping summer
swelter, decided prudently that during these interesting times
it would be a good idea to have brand-new surveillance blimps
lumbering around the skies in Northern Virginia, splitting
time between giving expensive balloon rides to well-to-do
tourists and using their state-of-the-art sensors to peer
into the kitchens and living rooms of suspicious-looking denizens
of the nation's capital. After the "testing period" is over,
presumably when the weather has begun to cool down and return
the city to relative normality, the blimps will be shipped
off to monitor someone else.
The business of politics does not stop simply because the
legislation factory is closed. In this game, there is no off-season.
Just Wednesday the Post editorial page reminded us
that a few weeks ago the Senate, apparently anxious to get
home for its nine o'clock tee time, confirmed longtime Moonie
and anti-labor zealot Josette Sheeran Shiner as the new Deputy
U.S. Trade Representative to Asia and Africa by printing an
Op-Ed penned by the new appointee.
Shiner's piece had nothing specifically to do with Asia
or Africa but was a missive about "free trade" generally,
and in it she argued that the AFL-CIO hates working people
and wants them to lose their jobs and starve, unlike EmpowerAmerica.org
and other far-right think tanks to which Shiner has lent her
services during her inexplicably illustrious career. As her
first public statement since she was appointed to her new
post, I suppose we can take this as a representative sample
of the sort of incisive policy analysis we can expect from
Josette in the months and years ahead.
I'm not so much concerned that this signals the clearest
sign yet that the Bush administration is adopting a "Fight
Crazy With Crazy" strategy in dealing with Kim Jong Il's North
Korea. If Kim decides to nuke something, after all, it'll
probably be on the West Coast. I say no way Donald Rumsfeld's
company would have sold him nuclear reactors if he had missiles
that could reach all the way to the Pentagon, and I feel like
I have as good a chance as anyone to survive in a radiation-drenched
post-apocalyptic Earth-hell. I will miss the correspondence
I get from the friends who have pulled up their East-coast
stakes and moved Left, but in every life some rain must fall.
No, what bothers me is that in her new position, Josette
is now able to get Op-Ed pieces in the Washington Post,
and I have to read them. As a struggling writer, I find it
quite maddening to have to witness Shiner, in the nation's
premier political news daily, making good on her promise –
made in a Clinton-era interview for some Moonie parenting
publication during which she also hyped Whitewater and appeared
to assert that North Korea would be better off if all the
bureaucrats just got out of the way and let Kim Il Sung run
things like he wanted to – that "If I ever left the media,
I would be a real good letter writer."
At the time, Shiner was managing editor for the Washington
Times, which means of course that she was enough of a
right-wing toady to land a plush job at the paper, but not
a good enough wordsmith to actually produce copy for a publication
whose front page, to take an example completely at random
from yesterday's edition, contains such timeless independent
clauses as "FBI spokesman Bill Murray declined to comment
on the status of the investigation, except to say that it
was reviewing a copy of the worm's code for clues." (Perhaps
the problem at the FBI is that they think that investigations
run themselves, without human intervention.) As her piece
in Wednesday's Post showed, though, Shiner has since
graduated from letters to words and even sentences, though
the expression of actual ideas is still quite obviously beyond
Still, jealous outrage at the publication of the insipid
rantings of a softheaded lightweight is not exactly the stuff
that sustains news addicts through the slow middle part of
the week. D.C. residents need politics, and lots of it, or
we start seeing imaginary boll weevils crawling up the legs
of our corduroys, and soon we're scouring the Internet for
rumors about Virginia state senators with scat fetishes, like
Tom Hanks on Family Ties downing the last of the Keaton family
vanilla extract in an alcoholic frenzy.
That's why in the District the usual summer madness, despite
its curiously somnolent nature, is more dangerous than the
variety found in most cities. To make matters worse, with
the suits out of town, there's no reason for us to put on
the professional airs that we sport when we know we could
be rubbing elbows with a at any moment with the Chairman of
the Senate Finance Committee.
One of these days, Congress is going to return to DC to
find that the entire city has devolved in its absence into
one huge profane orgy, a giant mass of human flesh and fluid
rolling unstoppably down Connecticut Avenue like the toad-balls
that form when a certain species of the warty amphibian throngs
into the Florida swamps for the annual mass mating ritual.
It is rumored that Florida's current governor was conceived
in just such a slimy saturnalia before being adopted by the
country's foremost crime family and groomed into a surprisingly
human-looking politician. But never mind all that.
The trouble with most of August's political stories, as
interesting as they are, is that they aren't happening here.
If the President had made his speech nominating Utah Governor
Mike Leavitt to the position of EPA Chief from the Rose Garden,
the streets of Northwest would no doubt be all abuzz with
praise for the event, which I believe was titled I'm Nominating
This Guy Because He Promises Not to do Jack Shit to Protect
the Environment. But alas, the announcement was made in Denver,
which holds a certain special place in the hearts of Skins
fans for producing the team that laid over, Bush EPA-chief-style,
after one quarter and handed the Skins an easy victory in
Super Bowl XXII, but which is a bit too far away to generate
much of a buzz on a day-to-day basis.
Even a beautifully crafted cretinism like Leavitt's key
sound bite: "There is no progress polarizing at the extremes"
was not enough to arouse much commentary on the pages of the
city's periodicals. It's as if the acid tongues of the D.C.
scribes all went off on vacation with our Commander-In-Chief,
who I'm sure will get back to running all these wars just
as soon as he's done grabbing fistfuls of dollars alongside
Arnie in California and clearing brush at the Crawford homestead.
As a result of the dearth of sufficiently juicy grist for
the political junkie mill, during the hottest parts of the
summer, year-round District residents generally content themselves
with trying to predict things. Not only are the Redskins gearing
up for another riveting campaign of unparalleled averageness,
the Democratic primary season is beginning, and the party
faithful are all doggedly assuring one another that only their
candidate has what it takes to unite that party and defeat
the sitting President. Many reasonable and serious justifications
are presented for these beliefs, and everyone becomes an amateur
behavioral scientist explaining why people will vote their
conscience, or their pocketbook, or their Sun sign, or whatever.
I overheard just such a conversation yesterday, between
a fresh-faced Howard Dean supporter and a pinstriped Kerry
man sitting outside a coffee shop in DuPont Circle. I was
uneasily preoccupied, at the time, with the idea that given
the humidity and the District's lack of parental supervision,
the normally harmless dude sitting and ploinking on a drum
set made of old cans of joint compound might inadvertently
trigger a citywide reversion to a Lord of the Flies-like anarchy,
with heat-crazed lobbyists and bank managers and computer
technicians boogying madly to the visceral beat and working
themselves up into a killing frenzy. My ears pricked up in
anticipation of just such a development as the nearby political
discussion began to get lively.
The Dean Man, standing and angrily brandishing his latte
like a very short, warm cardboard rapier, was laying into
the suit about JFK's support for the Iraq war and getting
all red in the face. Fighting words like "spineless" and "DLC
stooge" were used. It seemed the sort of situation that could
easily turn ugly. Fortunately for civic tranquility, the ranter's
counterpart, sitting cross-legged in his openwork metal chair,
was in no mood to escalate the confrontation. He defused the
scene effortlessly with a moving soliloquy about pragmatism
being a necessary trait of a successful opposition leader,
culminating in a heartfelt non-sequitor about Bush's deep
and overarching evilness. It was an inspiring, beautifully
The conversation then began to meander into the realm of
group psychology, running down the conditions that would undoubtedly
move people to vote one way or the other in the primary, or
in the general election in November 2004. It all seemed very
serious and worthwhile until someone at another table, having
just checked her beeper for the latest headline spam – announced
to no one in particular that the entire Northeast U.S. had
been engulfed in an enormous, unexplained blackout. Speculation
began as to the causes and effects of this monstrous development,
most people seeming to believe that something deeply crazy
would undoubtedly happen if the New York skyline were to remain
dark at nightfall. I decided I had best get home before the
D.C. grid went bust and I was stranded downtown amidst a confused,
Back at the place, the network news anchors were as surprised
as anyone that New York, Cleveland and Detroit, never known
as bastions of responsible behavior, basically responded to
the situation as if it were just a big power outage. No angry
bands of looters stormed city hall or bashed in the front
of the United Nations building to rob the light fixtures.
TV's best and brightest seemed genuinely astonished and more
than a little disappointed that despite the heat and the already
precarious nature of the nation's mental integration, the
fabric of society had not been torn apart in the face of the
Great Big Huge Horrible Blackout of 2003. Even after the crawlers
switched to all-caps, panic failed to ensue.
Which points out the main trouble with this whole operation
- the one thing people ironically fail to take into account
during prediction season is that no one can say quite when
people are going to behave rationally and when we are going
to act like deranged imbeciles. We generally aren't deranged
imbeciles, but quite naturally the genuinely insane situations
that life mercilessly hurls at us day after day after day
eventually take their toll and we do something crazy, like
driving a car into the wall of a house in Southeast, or voting
for Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Thus all this talk about issues and personalities and gravitas
must eventually give way to the understanding, at least among
serious handicappers, that the candidate who wins the right
to a no-holds-barred bout with Bush will be the one who picks
just the right wave of late-summer insanity and hops upon
his electoral surfboard at the precise moment, allowing him
to ride the madness all the way into 2004.
Unfortunately it's impossible to say exactly which rocker
the nation will still be off when the heat index drops back
to a normal level and we set our clocks back to reflect the
real time and not this imaginary "savings time" that seems
to be all the rage these days. So in the meantime we'll have
to be satisfied with thrilling issues such as whether or not
to build a new parking deck at Washington Adventist Hospital,
and of course the daily competition to see who can come up
with the best California-recall joke.
My vote for reigning champion still goes to my fiancee'
Sophia, who cracked that with the strongman and the midget
already in the race, all that is needed for the recall election
to go from a metaphorical circus to a real one is for Arianna
Huffington to grow a beard.
And so, with Sirius rising inexorably in the pre-dawn sky,
the dog days of summer drag on. What further calamity is in
our future, we cannot say. But we can hope that at the very
least, we will fare no worse than our Dogon forebears, who
took even a visit by extra-terrestrials in stride, and whose
descendents survived these thousands of years to remind us
that no matter how weird the going gets, you should always
remember to take a souvenir.