Sunday, June 28, 2009

Blogging Grand Rapids, The Return

Today, I accomplished a lot.  I helped a couple cement their relationship and led them to make plans to marry.  Since these plans are not fully public, I will refer to the the people in this couple as man and woman.  Man is a good friend to liturgygeek and someone that I know as a casual acquaintance.  Woman is somebody I just met this week.  We had a good conversation on Friday night and we discussed how to conduct a long range relationship.  Last night she was part of the group that went out to supper at Bistro Bella Vita.  When we got back to our hotel last night, liturgygeek and I both said that we thought highly of woman.  I said if man does not marry woman, and marry her soon, then I would have to beat up man.  Liturgygeek relayed the message to man, and this afternoon they confirmed their wedding plans.  All thanks to me and my willingness to use force to bring forth an epic romance.

Some of you must be asking, "Backbencher does this trip have a soundtrack?"  The answer is a resounding yes.  The soundtrack is the Dave Matthews Band new Album Big Whiskey and the GrooGrux King.  This is a great and funky album.  This a perfect album to crank up in the car stereo and drive through Western Michigan.  The song Why I Am(track 5) is just a great party song; which is kind of neat considering the song is a tribute to Leroi Moore the band's saxophonist who died last year.  The whole song, and really the whole album, just captures the hope that many of us have that the resurrection and life to come will be a party with music, dancing, and plenty of good drink.  

Even More From Grand Rapids

Yesterday was the day that I actually spent doing synod related stuff.  First off was hearing Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson.  Filing what I call the Bill Moyers Slot in the synod line-up, Robinson talked about race; specifically he focused on the diversity found the African-American community.  His talk got a little wonky at times but still good.  Robinson's best moments came when he talked about new development in the the African-American community; for example the increasing immigration from African countries to the U.S.  According to Robinson this group of African immigrants are most educated and well-off group of people to ever move to the U.S.

Then it was on to Barbara Brown Taylor.  Rev. Taylor talked about the importance of narrative in the age of Twitter.  The focus of her talk was the need for people to engage in a narrative that gives meaning to their lives.  She talked at length about how being a southerner means that she is immersed in a culture that is narrative based and one of those narratives is the Bible.   Taylor was great to listen to and as always its nice to have a southern voice at these proceedings.  

After a lunch at Quiznos I went with Pope Laura to her Rep. John Conyers (D-MI-14) talk about H.R. 676.  H.R. 676 is the house version of a bill to bring single-payer healthcare to the U.S.  Rep Conyers looked a little tired and scattered during his presentation.  However the bulk of his point is that healthcare is a continuation of the Civl Rights Movement.  A single payer would be cheaper because any raise in a person's taxes would be offset by savings in health care costs.   There would also be a health tax on the top 5% and 1% of earners.  Conyers said he would vote for a bill with a public plan if the public plan is strong.  He also said there are plans to offer an amendment to the House's "tri-committee" bill to make the single payer be the public plan.  One of the interesting things was Rep. Conyers snark and seemingly contemptuous attitude toward President Obama's healthcare plan.  Conyers said he remembers when Obama supported single payer as a state senator and "I have the tapes" where Obama supported a single payer.  He also said that the strength of the public option depended on the President and "my former colleague" White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emmanuel.  Conyer's tone indicated that he doubted Rahm could write a bill with a strong public option.  Conyers did give Laura and I a nod when he mentioned Obama's victory in the Iowa Caucuses.   Sitting with Pope Laura was great because at one time she worked as a staffer for a Senator and she gave a these little insights about what the staffers were doing.

The rest of the day was taken up by a great Italian place.  A group of us went to supper at Bistro Bella Vita.  I recommend the Spaghetti Bolognese.  So far two good places to eat and one just kind of so-so; 2 out of 3 restaurants is not a bad ratio.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Blogging Grand Rapids, Cont.

Yesterday, I did my usual napping, reading, and working out.  In addition, I also went to the Gerald Ford Museum.  I enjoyed seeing the mock-up of Ford's Oval Office and his Cabinet Room.  The two most interesting items were some of the tools used in the Watergate break-in, and the stairs to the helicopter pad from the roof of the U.S. embassy in Saigon.  My only disappointment was that the gift shop did not have any WIN(Whip Inflation Now) buttons.

A brief note about the food so for.  The first night I ate at an Irish pub.  I ordered a chicken sandwich but the bacon on the sandwich overwhelmed everything.  Last night I ate at the Sundance Grill and this place was much better.  I had a ribeye and a slice of key lime pie.  The consensous around the table was the pie was to die for.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Blogging Grand Rapids, Day 1

Liturgygeek and I are in Grand Rapids Michigan.  She  is attending the 27th UCC General Synod and I am in Grand Rapids.  I have one rule about attending religious conventions and that is too attend as little of the convention as possible.  

You can follow liturgygeek's synod activities at her blog or at the blog of the Iowa delegation.  If you want to know what the husband of a Synod delegate does then stay tuned as I adventure around Grand 

Unless some current event catches my attention then I am going to take a little break from following world affairs.

Today I went to the airport to rent a char, checked out a bookstore, ate lunch at Moe's(Welcome to Moe's!), worked out in the hotel fitness room, read, napped and watched Brazil vs. South Africa in Soccer.  Tonight I will probably eat supper with liturgygeek and friends.  Tomorrow I plan on visiting the Gerald Ford Museum and perhaps later I will Take the Skinheads Bowling.

Keep Your Clothes On

The Supreme Court ruled today that an Arizona school district violated a 13 year old girl's constitutional rights when they conducted a strip search on the girl to try to find prescription strength Advil.  The court did say the officials who conducted the search are not liable and the lower courts need to rule on the issue of school district culpability.  The Court's decision came on an 8-1 vote.  The lone dissent by Justice Clarence Thomas who must believe that strip searches should be required before even setting foot in a school. 

This good news for those of us who think paranoia over drugs and no tolerance policies lead to more problems than they actually solve.  In an effort to protect kids from the dangers of ses and drugs the law has routinely allowed authorities to overstep their bounds and stomp on the rights of children and youth.  It's good to see the Supreme Court starting to halt this madness.

Between today's ruling, and the ruling earlier this week upholding much of the Voting Rights Act, I think temporary legal sanity might have broken out on the Robert's Court.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Book Review

While living in Fitzgerald, I read Matthew Pearl's The Dante Club as part of a book club lead by a church member. The story captivated me and so I was excited when liturgygeek bought a copy of The Poe Shadow.

The Poe Shadow tells the story of a young Baltimore lawyer determined to discover the truth of Edgar Alan Poe's death.  He becomes obsessed and travels to Paris to enlist the aid of Poe's model for the famous detective in The Murders in the Rue Morgue.  The story returns to Baltimore where it twists through cases of hidden identities and plot twists.  Along the way, the book explores various theories surrounding the death of Poe.

The first part of the book is a little slow getting started and it is marked by what appears to be an attempt to write in the style of the 19th Century.  Also the main character, Quientin Clark, comes off as obsessed to the point of irritating.  However, as the story moves on to Paris, and various theories surrounding Poe's death are explored, the plot really picks up.

I knew only the basic facts about Poe's death but that did not dampen my enjoyment of the book.  Instead I read the book not as someone who is trying to solve a mystery but as someone trying to gain a wider understanding of Poe.  If you want some Summer reading that also works out the brian muscle then I recommend The Poe Shadow.  

Habemus Speaker

The House of Commons elected a new Speaker today.  Longtime Conservative backbencher John Bercow became the 157th Speaker of the House.  In a series of votes, Speaker Bercow defeated 9 other candidates in an election that for the first time in Commons history used secret ballots.  

The Speaker is a Tory who has has gradually moved  left; especially on social issues.  The Speaker is also the first Jew to hold this position.

The Backbencher wishes to congratulate Speaker Bercow on his elevation to the Speakership of the mother of all Parliaments.   

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Backbencher of the Week

Uighers are a Muslim group from China.  As an apparent favor to the Chinese government, the U.S. government placed the Uighers on the list of terrorist organizations.  In the hysteria over the War on Terror, 17 Uighers were arrested and placed in Guantanamo for 7 years; even though they are not considered a threat.  The Uighers could not be released back to China because the State Department said Uighers face cultural and religious repression.  Instead the Uighers were sent to Bermuda.  

Republicans demagogued the issue in an attempt to score points over national security.  One of the ring leaders of this GOP cabal was former Speaker Newt Gingrich.  Gingrich said they posed a security threat because they were affiliated with Al-Qaeda and the Uighers should be sent back to China. 

One Republican Congressman would not have his party take the side of the Chinese.  Rep. Dana Rohrabacher(R-CA-46) is an ultra-conservative uber-hawk, and China is one of his usual targets.  Rohrabacher said Gingrich belonged in the "Hall of Shame" for his stance on the Uighers.  

For standing up to his party elders, and defending victims of the U.S. War on Terror, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher is this week's Backbencher of the Week 

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Nancy's Victory

This week the Senate efforts on health care reform resembled a keystone kops movie.  Mark-ups began in the Senate Health Education Labor and Pensions committee on a bill that did not include a public option and was preliminarily scored by the Congressional Budget to cost more and covered fewer people than hoped.  Over in the Finance Committee, the 1st draft of their bill does not include a public option or employer mandate but it does include reduced Medicaid coverage, an individual mandate, and instead of a public plan it included health co-ops.  The most charitable description of the Finance Committee's draft was that it represents "comprehensive incrementalism." 

Then yesterday the House presented its health care proposal.  In an effort to reduce turf battles, the Ways and Means, the Commerce and Energy, and the Education and Labor Committees all combined to produce a joint bill called "tri-committee" plan.  This bill is much more in line with progressive goals.  It includes a public plan, increased Medicaid Coverage, and a insurance exchange.  The House has now staked out a progressive position and Speaker Pelosi declared that she is committed to a public plan.

If a progressive healthcare reform bill passes then it will be a victory for liberals in the House.  People like Speaker Pelosi, Ways and Means chair Charlie Rangel, Education and Labor Chair George Miller, Commerce and Energy Chair Henry Waxman, Rep. John Dingell will have done most of the work to get health reform passed.

Thursday, June 18, 2009


Over the past few days I have reading and following the events in Iran.  I am nowhere near any kind of expert and my thought probably include a good deal of baseless speculation.  However I have some thoughts on what is going on in Iran.  There certainly appear a lot of questions about the accuracy of the count but I do not know enough to claim fraud or a coup or anything else.

What is going on in Iran is not a blank slate that the U.S. can write its own wishes and desires on.  Mousavi, the reformist candidate, had the approval of the clerics who run Iran.  Many of those who are protesting look to be hoping that Mousavi can recapture the spirit of the revolution of 1979.  Mousavi supporters, in other words, are not agitating for Western style secular democracy but they demanding that Iran return, or perhaps newly embrace, a certain form of Islamic Republicanism.  Of course, the forces unleashed by these events might cause events to go further than Mousavi supporters ever imagined.

Since this a debate of the direction of Iran's particular version of Islamic Republicanism then the U.S. should stay out of these events as much as possible.  Over the past 60 years the U.S. and the U.K. have intervened in Iranian affairs.  The results have not been prodeuctive for eith side.  The U.S. endorsed a coup of a democratically elected governments and tolerated torture from the Shah's secret police.  History seems to indicate that the U.S. should stay out of Iranian affairs.  President Obama appears to get this and is acting in a wise manner, and I hope he continues to do so.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Flight Photos

Here are some photos from my flight in a 1942 Boeing Stearman

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Backbencher of the Week

With Barack Obama in the White House, and Democrats firmly in control of Congress, there is a good chance that a lot of progressive legislation enacted.  Many Congressmen/women are working to enact energy and climate legislation, and one more specifically legislation aimed at the coal industry.  In particular the mining process known as mountaintop removal mining is target for increased regulation.  MTR is a process in which the tops of mountains are removed to allow miners to get to all the coal in a particular mountain.  This type of mining not only damages mountain ranges but the waste also presents environmental hazards

Two of those working on issues regarding coal mining are Rep. Frank Pallone(D-NJ-6) and Se. Benjamin Cardin(D-MD).  Rep. Pallone introduced the Clean Water Protection Act which would regulate the waste from MTR and protect water resources.  Sen. Cardin introduced the Appalachia Restoration Act which would regulate the waste material from MTR.

For their efforts to preserve the environment of Appalachia we are glad to award tis week Backbencher of the Week to Rep. Pallone and Sen. Cardin.

Thanks to dailykos diarist Devilstower.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

As a Matter of Fact I Could See My House

A couple of months ago I won a flight in a 1942 Boeing Stearman and today I took that flight.  The Stearman is a turboprop bi-plane that the U.S. Military used as a trainer during World War II.  However, the particular plane I flew in was used by the Forest Service.  Two people can fit in the cockpit, and the plane is flown from the back but since the plane is a trainer there are controls in the front.  As the passenger on this particular flight, I sat in the front.  I strapped in and put on my leather helmet(like the ones pilots wore in World War 2) and we taxied out to the grass runway because the Stearman is designed to use grass runways.  

We took off from the Red Oak Airport heading northwest into the wind but quickly flew east towards Stanton, Iowa and Viking Lake State Park.  The take off was so smooth that I did really feel the plane leave the ground.  After turning east, we flew over the northern part of Red Oak.  In the distance I could make out the church next to my house, and I could see my roof.  We climbed to an altitude of 1,000 feet and headed east towards Stanton.  We skirted the southern edge of Stanton and approached Viking Lake.  

During the flight the I could feel the wind blowing through the plane.   Sometimes the wind buffeted the plane and pushed it from side to side.  It felt like the plane bucked and bounced through the sky.  The Stearman is not a fast plane(take off at 60 mph and cruising between 80-100 mph) nor does it cut a sleek figure; it felt a little lumbering and ungainly as it went though the air.  All of this, combined with the roar of the engine, made for a great ride that seemed to engage all of my senses. 

When flew over the lake, we could smell the campfires.  As we crossed the shoreline of Viking Lake, we turned on the smoke and left a smoke trail over the lake.  We flew over the lake and then turned around and come back over the lake.  As we came back towards the lake, we descended to about 500 feet and laid down another trail of smoke over Viking Lake.

Turning towards home, we climbed back to 1,000 feet.  This time we flew directly over Red Oak and I could see my house and other landmarks in town.  We then did a couple of roller coasters; we climbed and then descended quickly.  The effect was to give me a brief feeling of weightlessness.  We then turned toward the airport and landed.  We taxied to the tarmac and I took off my leather helmet so that I could hear the roar of the engine.  The pilot cut the engine and I hopped out of the plane.  Thus ended my flight and a really great experience.  

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Book Review

I am constantly searching for good modern fiction to read.  At a Planned Parenthood book sale, I picked up a copy of Pete Hamill's North River.  Initially, the fact the book takes place in New York is what attracted me.  However, I am glad that I decided to pick up the book. 

The book focuses on Dr. James Delany; a New York city doctor during the Great Depression.  Dr. Delany is alone due to circumstances surrounding his return from World War I.  His only companions are the city of New York and the people of New York he knows through his work.  Dr. Delany's life changes when his daughter leaves his grandson almost literally on his doorstep.  The addition of his grandson, and a woman named Rose who comes to help with the boy, begin to open Dr. Delany's life to the joys of living.  

The story flows through the opening up of Dr. Delany's life.  The plot never comes to one climatic moment.  Instead, the the threads of the narrative, like the threads of Delany's life, are brought together in the gentle flowing prose of the story.  Hamill's language also brings forth a New York that no longer exists.  In doing so, the people and places of the Lower Westside become characters almost as important as James Delany.

A desire to discover some good modern fiction, and a love of New York City, led me to purchase North River.  I am glad I did and look forward to reading more of Hamill's books that take place in a bygone New York City.

Regulators, Mount Up

Today the Senate passed a bill that allows the Food and Drug Administration to regulate tobacco related products.  The bill go to the House tomorrow before going on to the President to be signed into law.  A major sea has has occurred in Congress.  Not too long ago Republicans and Southerners would have blocked a bill like this.  Instead just one Democrat, Sen Kay Hagen(D-NC), opposed the bill and two Republicans, Sen. Mike Enzi(R-WY) and Sen John Cornyn(R-TX), strongly supported the bill.

As a liberal Democrat, I find myself getting frustrated sometimes at the legislative process.  However, it is worth remembering that this 111th Congress has passed the Lily Ledbetter act, voted to regulate credit cards, passed a stimulus, and extended the S-CHIP children's health care program.  This Summer, Congress is poised to pass a major health care bill, and with Senate Finance Committee chairman Max Baucus(D-MT) playing hardball, I find myself cautiously optimistic that a good bill will pass.  All in all this Congress really has passed some good domestic legislation, and in the process proved that elections really do have consequences.   

Spaghetti Sauce

Earlier this week, I made a Summertime spaghetti sauce.  While making this recipe, I learned that adding a little bit of brown sugar to a spaghetti sauce adds a welcome touch of sweetness to any sauce.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Backbencher of the Week

Cries of socialism echo through the halls of Congress a lot these days, but only one member of Congress identifies as a socialist.  Senator Bernie Sanders(I-VT) is the only self identified socialist in Congress and he is this week's Backbencher of the Week.

Health care reform is the big congressional issue for the summer.  Even though chances are good that health care bill that includes a public option will pass, the idea of a single payer health care system have been absent from the debate.  Senator Sanders is single-handedly trying to keep the possibility of a single payer system alive.  He is the only sponsor S. 703 which is the Senate's single payer bill.  Ezra Klein interviewed Senator Sanders about his efforts to achieve universal health coverage for all Americans.  Sanders talks about his efforts to get his bill a hearing to create a pilot program for single payer care.

For fighting to make health available and affordable for all Americans, we proud to award Senator Bernie Sanders this week's Backbencher of the Week.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Yes, That's the General Idea

From Steve Benen I learned about this article detailing Republican's frustration that President Obama announced his desire that health care reform should include a public option.  Apparently Republican senators believe a public option would kill off any possibility of a bipartisan health bill.

The Senate can pass a health care bill without a single Republican vote.  In fact, Democrats can afford to have some of their own members vote against health reform.  The big rub is on whether to include a strong "public option" as part of the bill.  A public option would allow people to have the option of buying health insurance directly from the government.  The fewer Republican votes then the stronger the public option.

Bi-partisanship is a means to an end and not an end itself.  The end is a health care bill that provides affordable health care for all Americans.  A public option is a major component of that goal and Democrats have enough vote to get some form of public option passed.  President Obama's letter made it more likely that the public option will be a strong one.  There is no need for the Democrats to weaken a bill to gain GOP votes that are not needed just to satisfy the false demand of bipartisanship.  Sacrificing the idea of a bipartisan bill to achieve a bill with a strong public option is a price that should be easily and willingly paid.

On the Bloody Morning Afterwards

The local election results were every bit as bad for Labour as people expected.  Labour lost 273 of the seats it was defending, lost control of 4 local counsels, and came in third in vote share behind the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats.  Interestingly, the Tories' share of the vote dropped from the last time these seats were contested and if these results hold through the general election then the Conservatives will have a smaller majority in Parliament then expected.  However, I imagine that many of those who voted for the right wing third parties will vote for the Tories in a general election.

The Prime Minister announced a reshuffle of his cabinet but it did not go like he wanted.  Allistar Darling remains as Chancellor and Alan Johnson moves over to become the Home Secretary.  Lord Mandelson who takes over an enlarged business portfolio.  Brown was unable to place his closest ally Ed Balls in as Chancellor and Balls remained as minister for Children, Schools, and Families.  Caroline Flint, the Minister for Europe, left the Cabinet yesterday and on her way out charged sexism and said female ministers are treated "like windrow dressing.  Six ministers left yesterday, and 4 have left during the previous week.  The new Labour cabinet will have 4 women and 5 members of the House of Lords; an unusually low number of women and an unusually high number of peers for a Labour government.

The reshuffle appears to have temporarily strengthened Brown.  However, by not being able to place Balls in as Chancellor, the Prime Minister demonstrated that he has the ability to hold power but not exercise it.  Brown also quieted down some of the Cabinet threats against him by putting potential successor Alan Johnson in as Home Secretary.  Most of Brown's opponents are now disaffected former ministers and rebel backbenchers.  It does not appear that they have enough power to force Brown to leave immediately.

All of that could change on Sunday when the results from the European Parliamentary election are announced.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

To Be a Mayor in England in the Spring

London mayor Boris Johnson(who bares a striking resemblance to one of my seminary roommates) had a photo-op yesterday to encourage people to volunteer in their community.  While helping volunteers pick up liter around the River Pool, Mayor Johnson stumbled and fell into the river.

In other mayoral news, Hatlepool mayor Stuart Drummond is standing for his third term.  Mr Drummond, who used wear a monkey costume to support the local soccer team, is now considered to be a successful mayor and Hatlepool one of the strongest local governments.

Who knew that rivers and monkey costumes were such a major part of a UK mayor's life.

Big Day in the UK

Today, all across the UK, voters are going to the polls to select their local councillors and members of the UK delegation to the European Parliament.  Labour is expected to take a drubbing; most polls place them third and there are some out there that predict Labour could fall as far fourth in the balloting.  On the right, the UK Independence and the British National Party are expected to do well, and from the left they Greens are expected to poll well.

However, the elections hold more significance than just the composition of local councils.  By tomorrow afternoon we may know if Gordon Brown can continue as Prime Minister until the next general election.  Brown had hoped to use the election results as something of a springboard for restarting his government in preparation for the run-up to the General Election.

Events have foiled Brown's plans.  The Cabinet is in chaos and ministers are resigning.  Two prominent female ministers, Home Secretary Jacqui Smith and Communities Minister Hazel Blears resigned this week; Blears in rather spectacular fashin.  Chancellor of the Exchequer Alsistar Darling is also rumored to be leaving the cabinet after the election.  Backbench rebels are circulating plans online for a coup against the Prime Minister.  All of this leads to speculation about Brown's future.  Some even wonder if he will be around come Monday.  

What will happen is that after the election results are finalized on Friday Afternoon, the scale of Labour's defeat is clear, Brown will try to reshuffle his cabinet.  If Brown is unable to place his controversial ally Ed Balls in as Chancellor then the Cabinet will fall apart and I think the rebels will be able to gain enough support to force Brown out in favor of Health Secretary Alan Johnson.  I believe this will force an election no later than early autumn

The Labour government is on electoral hospice.  The only question is if Labour can hang on for another year.  Even if Brown hangs on, I can't see this government being able to hang on for another year.  I get the feeling new government will be in place before the year is out.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Please, Just Shut Up

Over at his CrunchyCon blog Rod Drehr says: "It cannot be true, however much some pro-choicers want it to be, that pro-lifers are obliged to shut up and go away because one violent kook killed an abortion doctor."

Mr Drehr, first of all, the was not the work of "one violent kook."  Dr. Tiller's murder was the culmination of almost two decade worth of violence and intimidation directed towards Dr. Tiller and his medical practice.  The violence directed towards Dr. Miller is not an isolated incident.  Among the other acts of domestic terrorism committed by anti-choice zealots are the murders of two doctors and a clinic escort in Pensacola, Florida, the murders of two clinic workers in Brookline, Massachusetts, and the bombings perpetrated by Eric Robert Rudolph.

Mr Drehr, you and your anti-choice allies, need to be quiet for a while because you have not figured out a way to passionately advocate for your position without providing inspiration and cover to domestic terrorists.  Until you can figure how to advocate with inspiring domestic terrorists then you need to be quiet.