Thursday, June 21, 2007

Cat Turd Receptacles

On the rare occasion when I sit down and actually watch a little television, it doesn’t take long to be reminded why these occasions are so rare.

I happened to pass through the living room yesterday while my husband was watching a program about Isambard Kingdom Brunel, undoubtedly one of the most innovative engineers to grace the planet (and one whose projects can still be admired in many places in England). That’s the good thing about television these days—with a few spare minutes, you can actually learn something, and the quality of many documentaries is outstanding.

Then came the first advertisement. A woman is scooping litter from her cat’s box. Her expression dramatizes her complete revulsion at having to do the task, as she carries the bag at the end of her arm out to the trash. But wait! There’s a solution!

For a mere 40 bucks or so, you can have not one but two receptacles to hold used litter until you’re good and ready to take it out to the trash! Each container is equipped with a supply of plastic liners (the high-tech equivalent of the plastic grocery bags I use, I guess), and a mechanical closure in each container crimps the top so odors don’t escape.

Now we see the same woman again, beaming from ear to ear, carrying out another bag of cat waste—after some of it, purportedly, has ripened for a week. She looks like it’s her birthday and she’s just spotted the cake! (Interestingly, this second baggie appears to be very much the same size and shape as the baggie in the first scene, leaving one to wonder if her cat sometimes uses the toilet.)

Okay, let’s think about this for a minute.

For years, health experts have been urging people to be more active. We’re encouraged to park some distance from the door at a mall or grocery store so we get a little more exercise going to and from the car. Yet here are several happy customers endorsing a product that, at most, can save them a few steps to the garbage cans. These women (like me) look as though a little bit more exercise wouldn’t do them a bit of harm.

Hurry! Call now!

Good grief.

Who are these people who sit around thinking up kooky ideas for products nobody ever needed and nobody ever will? And who buys these gadgets?

And what would Isambard think about the way some modern engineers choose to apply their intelligence?

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Of Lame Ducks

Since the beginning of 2007, President George W. Bush’s approval ratings in U.S. polls have yet to break 40%, and lately, they’ve been hovering around 33%. Apparently, two out of three Americans disapprove of his war, environmental policies, politics, or economics. Last fall, voters sent a clear message by electing Democratic majorities in the House and Congress.

Things don’t get much lamer than that for a Republican President.

Meanwhile in Great Britain, Tony Blair—faced with similar differences of opinion with his constituents—gracefully and graciously stepped aside as Prime Minister. Gordon Brown will replace him on June 27, and that will be that. Blair can go on to do good works as a private citizen and be gratefully remembered for his less controversial accomplishments in office.

So here’s my question: Why are we stuck with George W., and he with us, for the next 18 months? Why can’t we have a system that allows a lame duck president to make a dignified exit and let the rest of us get on with things?

When the Constitution was drafted, it could take weeks after an election just to figure out who the winners were. Messages traveled as fast as horses could trot. Things took time. But today, should it still take months or years to get the barge of state turned around?

In the U.S., it’s unthinkable for a President to quit—as Richard Nixon, uniquely, was forced to do—regardless of whether or not he (or she) can reasonably be expected to do a decent job in office. During the months when Bill Clinton was being harried and harassed about his sex life (and so many Americans were patiently trying to explain the headlines to their elderly grandparents), what if stepping aside gracefully had been an option? (I’m not saying he would have or should have stepped down. I’m just asking “what if?”)

Would we lose a lot by doing away with primaries and shortening the election season? Would candidates use more of their time for debating real issues and less for mud-slinging? Would people who really have a mandate from the people be able to get something accomplished, without the Executive and the Legislative branches canceling each other out (as happened today, when Bush vetoed a bill allowing funding of embryonic stem cell research)?

It’s been well over 200 years, and the first Continental Congress didn’t do a bad job, all things considered. But one or two things have changed since then. Maybe it’s time we started looking around at what works well in other countries and asking whether our practices are best practices.

Bush is outnumbered in both houses of Congress and under constant attack by members of his own party. This duck isn’t lame. He’s on his belly without a leg to stand on. Why should he and all of us Americans have to keep on pretending that he speaks for the nation?

Sunday, June 17, 2007

"Duke Lacrosse Prosecutor"

The stacked adjectives in the headlines are bad enough. But despite the fact that three young men have finally been exonerated, once and for all, for despicable acts they didn't commit, there's still plenty of damage to be done by rapacious and over-zealous attorneys.

Prosecutor Mike Nifong admitted wrongdoing and apologized. He's been humiliated and disbarred. A nation given to pondering things might ask questions like these:

  • "How often does this kind of thing happen when the truth never comes to light?"

  • Should prosecutors have as much power as they do to choose what charges should be filed against people? (Should they, for example, be allowed to use outrageous charges to coerce defendants into pleading guilty to lesser crimes?)

  • Would it be possible to change the focus of our judicial system from an adversarial, win-or-lose contest between two sides to one in which the focus is on finding truth and minimizing suffering?

  • Do some people's suffering count more than other people's?

Nifong did a rare thing for an attorney--or for anyone under so much public scrutiny: he admitted he was wrong. But is that enough? Not as long as there's a dollar to be made by other attorneys. Now lawyers for the accused athletes are talking about criminal and, no doubt, civil charges. The spectacle will be played out in the media as long as anyone still has enough sense of outrage or morbid curiosity to tune in.

To what purpose? Will the accused men and their families get back the days they spent worrying or the nights they spent obsessing about what might happen? No. But on the other hand, Mike Nifong will never again get carried away with his own arguments and pull out the stops to convict an innocent defendant. Is there any point to putting him and his family through months and years of what those other families went through?

I think it's time we quit confusing "justice" with "getting even." There's no such thing as getting even. If deliberately harming people achieves nothing but income for attorneys and a sense of satisfaction on the part of those who want revenge, then maybe it's time to question our values.