the mouse that quibbles

the mouse that quibbles

Friday, November 2, 2007

The Mouse Is Out

The Mouse has lost her Nonny-mous-ness, but I'm fine with that. For the past couple of years, I've done occasional guest posts for John Amato, editor of my other favourite blog, C&L (which is shorthand for Yesterday, his blog returned the favour many times over by doing the first cyber-launch of my new novel, 'Redemption', written by yours truly, Lee Jackson.

C&L staffer Nicole Belle (who I affectionately refer to as Nicky B) wrote a nice presentation for the book, and said that she now realized that a lot of the post ideas and tips I sent in to the site came came from research for this book, which is partly true. It's also true that C&L was one of my major research resources as well - a huge help in both information and ideas. It is rightly one of the best political blogsites on the internet, as well one of the most fun and most social. The comments so far on the book received have been extraordinarily kind - and this before anyone reads it! C&L plans a second review and an author's salon in a week or so, where I'll have a chance to respond live to any questions, something I've done before but never on a blog! This may be one of the major ways forward for writers who, up to now, have depended primarily on newspapers and magazines and bookstore signings for publicity. So I'm very much looking forward to it.

And as for losing my nonny-mous-ity?


Lee Jackson is also a pseudonym, I'm afraid. I've published five other novels in the past under another name, one - a crime novel - by the same publisher, St. Martin's Press. My editor extraordinaire, Kelley Ragland, agreed that keeping my different genres separate would be a good idea. So, to honour my father - who had passionately argued with me over many of the themes in this novel, and who died the same evening I had the idea for the story blast its way into my imagination and started Page One - I chose his middle name for my pseudonym. It was probably a wiser decision than using the nickname I'd called him for the last twenty years of his life. Atheist though I am, a part of me longs for there to be some sort of consciousness in the afterlife, just so he could see what our heated ‘discussions' has wrought. But it doesn’t really matter – I know that he was enormously proud of both his daughters; the brainy little one who became a university professor, and the flighty creative big one who became a novelist.

Ya done good, Old Fart. Ya done good.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

NASCAR as seen from the left

photo credit: (AP Photo/Bob Jordan)

What is it about NASCAR that divides the left and the right possibly more bitterly than universal health care, Blackwater, or Fox News?

Last month, a Democratic staffer with the House Committee on Homeland Security who works for committee chairman Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss), sent out an email to colleagues regarding an ‘unusual need for whomever attending to be vaccinated against hepatitis A and B,’ as well as ‘the more normal things — tetanus, diphtheria, and of course, seasonal influenza,’ – more than is necessary to visit Haiti – advising them to be thoroughly immunized before heading south from Washington and into the Red State wilderness of NASCAR country to conduct research at Alabama's Talladega Superspeedway and North Carolina's Lowe's Motor Speedway, where the Bank of America 500 was run Saturday.

This sparked a clash that has again highlighted the woeful ignorance of far too many on the left of just who it is they’re maligning, while feeding ammunition to the GOP keen to score points against their Democratic rivals. Representative Robin Hayes (R-Ala) retorted, ‘I have never heard of immunizations for domestic travel, and ... I feel compelled to ask why the heck the committee feels that immunizations are needed to travel to my hometown.’ Dr. David Weber, a professor of medicine and public health at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (political affiliation unknown) asked, ‘What do they know about NASCAR that we don't?’

Once again, the erroneous stereotype of NASCAR fans is being perpetuated as a rowdy mob of unwashed, unshaven, uncouth, uneducated, inbred, toothless, drunken, shirtless, Confederate flag tattooed, Chevy pickup drivin’, gun-totin’, tabakky-spittin’, beer-belly scratchin’ redneck hillbillies all yelling ‘show us yer tits’ at every woman who walks through the stands. Oh, and they all vote Republican, of course.

Democrats like Representative Larry Seaquist of Washington State aren’t exactly helping the polarization, either. His opposition to a NASCAR racetrack proposal just outside Seattle seems to be based on the argument that ‘these people are not the kind of people you would want living next door to you. They’d be the ones with junky cars in the front yard and would try to slip around the law’. Washington State Speaker of the House, Democrat Frank Chopp, added fuel to the fire; when asked about Richard Petty, a fairly well-known NASCAR driver then in Washington State to support the proposed track, Chopp promptly responded with the sneer, ‘You mean the guy who got picked up for DUI?’ (Petty doesn’t drink.)

First, a personal perspective, then a few hard, cold facts about just who we NASCAR fans are. Our Kid is a university professor with an IQ off the charts, while mine is mere 140+. We both have postgraduate degrees, she speaks flawlessly fluent Spanish while I speak passable French, and after spending a decade in France, I can sip two glasses of red wine and tell you which one is the merlot and which is the pinot noir. I rather doubt that either of us fit the left’s standard characterization of ‘rube’, and we both love NASCAR racing. My late father might have been more representative of the stereotypical NASCAR rube, as he was the son of a South Carolina dirt farmer and his illiterate Tennessee hillbilly wife. My dad dropped out of school at the 3rd grade to help on the farm, then joined the Coast Guard at 16 (with special permission from his father to join that young). He got his high school diploma when I was 13, and his first college degree when I was 15 - my favourite photo is of him in his graduation gown holding Our Kid as a toddler in his arms while she's reaching for his mortarboard tassel. He taught his daughters to reach a hell of a lot further than he would ever be able to, and to keep on reaching. He was a life-long Democrat and brought us up on liberal values. And he loved NASCAR – enough that he even raced before he married my mother, a university-educated New England blue-blood, who made him stop. (Of course, that was all back in the days when NASCAR still used real stock cars, drove on dirt tracks, and you didn’t need a multi-million dollar sponsor and a high-tech crew to be a driver.)

Our Kid and I grew up with names like Cale Yarborough, the Allison brothers, A. J. Foyt, Richard Petty (boo-hiss, we didn’t like him, because our dad thought he was too impatient and put his pit crew at risk), Buddy Baker, Mario Andretti, Dale Earnhardt (yay, we liked him - Senior and Junior - my dad named his dog Dale after them both). We were girls, and our dad – who believed strongly in equal opportunity regardless of sex – encouraged us to support female drivers as well, so we cheered on the ladies like Christine Becker, Robin McCall and my personal all-time favourite hero, Janet Guthrie, who got her pilot’s licence when she was 17, graduated with a bachelor’s degree in physics from the University of Michigan, worked as a research and development engineer for NASA, became the first woman to qualify for and compete in the Indianapolis 500, and finished ninth place in 1978… while driving with a broken wrist. Now there was a role model for any little girl to have looked up to, and at a time when there were precious few role models for us little girls around. Now, thankfully, there are more, and may their numbers – and wins – ever increase.

We went to racetracks as kids, sang the national anthem (enthusiastically, if badly), breathed in dust and gas fumes and the smell of burnt hotdogs, loved the vibrations in the pit of our stomachs from the roar of engines, guiltily hoped to see more spectacular car crashes while never wanting anyone hurt. We wandered through the back lots afterwards and talked to drivers and mechanics, clambered onto battered car hoods to have our photos taken with drivers, or pit crew, or anyone in a coverall with enough racing patches on it to be impressive. It’s an indelible part of my childhood, and I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.

And I wouldn’t vote Republican if you held an NRA-approved gun to my head.

Now, for a few more hard, cold facts about typical NASCAR fans: An ESPN poll taken in 2004 showed that 41 percent of NASCAR fans earned at least $50,000 a year, a figure that exactly mirrored national statistics. In every income category the study cites, NASCAR fans make nearly identical incomes to the rest of America. In other words, they’re exactly like… um, well… us, actually.

For those who object to NASCAR races as wasteful, noisy and polluting, it might come as a surprise that sixty-seven percent of NASCAR fans consider buying a fuel-efficient vehicle to be patriotic, while eighty-five percent of NASCAR fans want the government to raise the average fuel-efficiency in U.S. vehicles to 40 mpg. Short tracks that run under NASCAR sanctions now require emission control devices, many use mufflers to comply with noise ordinances, and are compulsory in some Busch East, AutoZone West, and Whelen Modified races.

So just who are these NASCAR fans?

Well, one of them is Michael Marciuliano, a 50-year-old father with an accounting degree from Wagner College who works as an assistant vice president at the Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi UFJ in Jersey City. He has owned a semi-attached home for 24 years, wears suits to work and does not have a tattoo. Another would be Patrick Hickey, a 52-year-old registered nurse, professor of nursing at the University of South Carolina, pilot, skydiver, founder of the Summit Scholarship for nursing students, a ‘seven summit’ mountain climber, and a die-hard NASCAR fan who planted a Nextel Cup flag amid the Tibetan prayer flags atop Mount Everest this last May.

NASCAR driver Ryan Newman is a Purdue graduate from South Bend, Indiana. The late Alan Kulwicki, a champion NASCAR driver, was also a college graduate with a degree in engineering. Brett Bodine, NASCAR Winston Cup driver, graduated in 1979 from Alfred State College, with three semesters on the Dean’s List. Billy Kuebler crews pit support for the No. 25 Hendrick Motorsports team and also helps out tire specialist Lisa Smokstad. He's also a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte with a degree in engineering, and made the chancellor's list four straight semesters. Darian Grubb, crew chief for driver Casey Mears, holds a mechanical engineering degree from Virginia Tech. Sara Fisher, who scored four top-ten finishes in her first NASCAR West Series season in 2005 and placed 12th for the NASCAR Grand National Division, graduated in 1999 from Teays High School seventh in her class with honours and a 4.178 grade point average.

All of them, as far as I know, have all their teeth, don’t spit tobacco, and know how to spell ‘articulate’.

Rather than being the refuge of the ignorant and the wilfully stupid, NASCAR has encouraged many college and university students. ‘It used to be that growing up with your dad in the garage was good enough to get you through,’ said Don Radebaugh, spokesman for the ARCA (American Racing Car Association ) series. ‘But it requires more than turning wrenches in a garage. We’re seeing more and more drivers and crew members who are college graduates.’ College programmes turning out highly skilled crew members ‘gives any racing program a place to look for help,’ according to Bill Kimmel, crew chief for eight-time ARCA champion Frank Kimmel. ‘If you take a kid off the street, we have to show them every step of the way.’ The University of Northwestern Ohio runs a high-performance motor-sports programme, with around 1,000 students enrolled in two- and four-year degrees in business and technology. Motorsports students at Indiana University-Purdue in Indianapolis compete for internships with sport racing teams. Other colleges are following suit, including Lincoln Tech in Indianapolis and WyoTeck in Fremont, California.

NASCAR is big, big business. It’s the second most popular professional American sport, ranking behind only the NFL in terms of television ratings. It holds seventeen of the top twenty attended sporting events in the U.S., with over 75 million fans purchasing 3 billion – billion – dollars in product sales annually. Fortune 500 companies sponsor NASCAR more than any other governing body.

God knows there are plenty of excellent and valid reasons to despise the rightwing and the Republican Party. NASCAR isn’t one of them. So a word of advice to the Democrats, and to the left in general – pick your enemies more wisely…

…Or risk becoming one of them.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Tightrope in the Air

Tightrope in the Air

This is not a particularly new story. And it’s probably one that hasn’t gotten a lot of attention outside New Zealand, or the Southern Pacific region. But it is a story that has continued to grow, and is an interesting study of just how far Bush’s War has pushed other nations’ politicians into self-serving self-survival. It’s the story of a scandal that wasn’t, which then became a scandal anyway, mostly because it wasn’t one in the first place, but revealed an even bigger scandal underneath. The gist of it is this – while the vast majority of New Zealanders are adamantly opposed to the war in Iraq and view any military collaboration with the United States as intolerable, commercial carrier Air New Zealand (rather than the Royal New Zealand Air Force) has been flying Australian and US combat troops to staging areas for the Iraq war. And the New Zealand government has quite possibly been lying about how much they knew.

On August 15th, Prime Minister Helen Clark appeared on prime time television, livid with anger, demanding answers from Air New Zealand. She and her ministers were publicly outraged when Air New Zealand ferried 600 Australian combat troops to the Iraq border in Kuwait and United Arab Emirates last May, with US fighter-jet escort, openly using ordinary passenger aircraft bearing the distinctive blue and white Air New Zealand koru livery. These 600 Australian troops were then deployed to military duty in Iraq. On the 29th and 30th of July, Air New Zealand flight ANZ1921 transported US troops deploying for missions in Iraq on a secret flight between Darwin to Hiroshima. Hiroshima is not on Air New Zealand’s regular flight schedules, but it is rather conveniently next to the US Marine Base in Iwakuni.

The Prime Minister, Defence Minister Phil Goff and Foreign Minister Winston Peters have all declared they knew nothing of the flights until revelations were published in Investigate magazine. But 78% of the airline is government-owned, and Air New Zealand decisions on this level aren’t taken without consultation with their major shareholders, the government. Foreign Affairs secretary Simon Murdoch, head of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFaT) was told in advance of Air New Zealand’s plans and asked for advice on the matter, something Air New Zealand officials were able to prove, rather quickly, by producing official documents from the ministry okaying the proposed charter. While Simon Murdoch, it seems, ‘forgot’ to inform the rest of his government of these charter flights, the General Manager of Air New Zealand operations and planning, Glen Sowry, was able to confirm all the proper enquiries with government officials had been made long before the charter was committed to. The company never made any secret of these flights, which had been ‘widely publicised within the company’ and well-known in the international aviation marketplace.

And I know this is true, as The Boss showed me the July issue of Crews News, the Magazine for Air New Zealand’s Air Crew (which - completely unrelated to this post - was amazing for the number of cosmetic teeth whitening ads, ads for dermabrasion and this gem: ‘Irritating Passengers? Express yourself on the inside with Botox’ – I kid you not. Also darkly amusing was the checklist of ‘Top Ten Things Not To Say When Applying for Your New US Crew Visa’, which included, ‘Are you all that fat?’ Charming). Right there on page ten is an article, ‘A Journey to Kuwait’, by Wayne Mitcham, reporting ‘on a unique journey that took him to Darwin and Kuwait’, complete with bubbly details on shopping and photographs of happy smiling flight attendants dressed in black chadors standing next to a white robed Kuwaiti official. If this was an official state secret, it was a pretty poorly kept one.

Moreover, while the Prime Minister might have been publicly chewing the carpet, it seems she may have been aware of these foreign troop transports all along, despite her Foreign Affairs secretary's convenient amnesia – only weeks before the first flight of troops into Kuwait and US troops into Japan, Helen Clark met with US Defense Secretary Robert Gates, and it is unlikely they were merely discussing the menu and table decorations for the next state visit.

At the beginning of the Iraq war, Prime Minister Helen Clark deployed two frigates and a troop of sixty army engineers to Iraq for ‘peacekeeping’ exercises with the British troops in Basra. Yet Paul Wolfowitz considered the New Zealand’s military support as ‘contributing forces’ to the post-invasion occupation of Iraq, and in return made New Zealand one of the countries eligible for commercial contracts in the United States. But after it became all too rapidly obvious that Iraq was turning into a disaster, Clark’s Labour government withdrew the army engineer unit and has increasingly endeavoured to dissociate itself from the war, and the Bush administration.

Or… at least, as far as the New Zealand public was concerned. Privately, it seems the government has been less than inflexible on its anti-war position. So these clandestine and not-so-clandestine flights of combat troops into the Middle East has not gone down well with the Kiwi public.

Nor with the Australians. The Australian government expressed its ‘extreme displeasure’ with the Clark government’s hypocritical anti-war posturing, Foreign Minister Alexander Downer called in New Zealand Ambassador John Larkindale for an official reprimand. Australia has now forbidden its military to use Air New Zealand under any circumstances, including commercial flight travel. Helen Clark’s response was to declare that Downer should keep his nose out of New Zealand’s political affairs.

On August 17th, Helen Clark – rather than shifting her righteous annoyance onto an apparently incompetent member of her government – decided to try and shrug off the Air New Zealand fiasco instead, declaring Simon Murdoch had simply had a ‘bad-hair’ day. Yeah, right.

The very next day – and three days after Clark’s denunciation of the airline – Air New Zealand flew fifty-five Tongan soldiers enroute to Baghdad where the Tongans are to provide security at the US base Camp Victory.

Air New Zealand has had a rough past decade, six years ago barely surviving a loss of 1.4 million dollars (NZ) when its subsidiary Ansett Australia bit the dust, and the government stepped in to rescue the beleaguered airline. Stripped to the bones, Air New Zealand has cut every corner possible – work diverted from unionised staff to outside contractors, mass redundancies, inflight meals more suitable for workhouse inmates than commercial air passengers, flights made with just enough aviation fuel for the scheduled trip and not a drop more to lighten air weight, and allegations of recruiting cheaply paid trainees who fail security checks or can’t speak English. And, of course, accepting any charter deals it can wrangle. Such practices have meant a demoralized air service, but it has also meant plenty of profits for its primary shareholders – the New Zealand government. Small wonder, then, when the Prime Minister has tried Bush type tactics, rewriting history and scapegoating blame, the airline has fought back.

It might seem this is just a Kiwi problem, but as long as the Bush administration can exert pressure on other nations to secretly ferry soldiers and contractors heading into Iraq, as long as commercial businesses like Air New Zealand are struggling for economic survival from a worsening global economy and compelled to make unpopular, if not unethical, business deals, the longer this war is going to last.

And that makes it everyone’s problem.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Where is Pumpkin’s Daddy?
Homeland Security Doesn't Know...

A few days ago, the photo of a sad-eyed little Chinese girl from New Zealand finally pushed Madelaine McCann off the front pages, except this time it isn’t the child who has gone missing; it’s her father, Nai Yin (‘Michael’) Xue.

On Saturday morning, 15th of September, CCTV recorded Mr Xue, 54, walking onto a platform at the Southern Cross train station in Melbourne, pulling a suitcase and holding his three-year-old daughter’s hand. At an escalator, he bent down to speak to her before walking away, without looking back. The camera then recorded the little girl wandering aimlessly for twenty minutes as people passed by before security guards found her. Mr Xue took a taxi to the airport and two hours later boarded a plane to LAX.

It hasn’t taken long to piece together the sequence of events: Mr Xue’s 27-year-old second wife, An An ‘Annie’ Liu, was last seen alive at a childcare centre on Tuesday, September 11th. On Wednesday, Mr Xue – a naturalized citizen of New Zealand, martial arts expert and well-known owner of a Chinese-language newspaper – went to the Henderson Police Station in Auckland to retrieve a ceremonial sword and his passport, which had been confiscated after he had been convicted of assaulting his wife in a violent domestic dispute last June. Mr Xue has several times in the past threatened to kill his wife, according to friends, and Mrs Xue had sought refuge at a woman’s shelter. After collecting his passport, Mr Xue then went to the KVB Kunlun bank on Queen St in central Auckland and withdrew $8800 New Zealand, (US$6445). On Thursday evening, he was seen eating with his daughter, Qian Xun Xue, at a restaurant in Auckland, before he later drove his wife’s car to the Auckland airport and fled to Australia with the child. His own car, a Honda Rafaga with Xue’s Chinese Times prominent logo, remained parked outside the couple’s home for two days before it was moved by police and searched. A body presumed to be that of his wife’s was finally found, stuffed into the boot on Wednesday, September 19th, a week after Mr Xue had collected his passport and fled New Zealand…while during the previous two days police searched his home on Keystone Avenue (and yes, the irony hasn’t been missed here in Auckland.)

The abandoned little girl, nicknamed ‘Pumpkin’ by the police, is being cared for until custody issues can be sorted out, and her grandmother arrives from China. The little girl has been in a state of shock, not speaking for two days, until she finally cried for her mother.

CCTV cameras and airline records clearly show Mr Xue at both the Melbourne airport and at LAX. But while all this is tragic on a personal level, here’s the real kicker:

Los Angeles police have confirmed that they are not searching for the father who has clearly abandoned his child and quite possibly murdered his wife. Why? It seems that while New Zealand informed the Interpol agency in Washington of the situation, Interpol didn’t pass on that information to the police in Los Angeles, because they had yet to receive a formal warrant from New Zealand for his arrest. The L.A. police contacted Interpol themselves, after hearing about the case in the media

So much for the effectiveness that aggressive fingerprinting and photographing of every passenger into LAX Homeland Security insists upon – including every member of the flight crew who flew Mr Xue into LAX – yes, even pilots and crew are not exempt from such treatment as I experienced on my flight from Heathrow to Auckland two months ago. So while the United States continues to invade the privacy of tens of thousands of innocent American citizens with warrantless wiretapping, and even more innocent non-Americans arriving in – or just in transit through – the United States, a man with a previous conviction of domestic violence, who has abandoned his three-year-old daughter and is suspected of murdering his wife… walks off a plane at LAX and vanishes into the large Asian community in Los Angeles. It does beg the question why Mr Xue chose the United States to escape, rather than his native China (who are fully co-operating with both Interpol and the New Zealand police for Mr Xue’s capture).

But I suppose since Mr Xue isn’t a Muslim or an Iraqi, or fits any particular profile as a possible terrorist, Homeland Security isn’t bothered by his fleeing into California. Meanwhile… Cate Blanchette and Russell Crowe have been tipped to play the McCanns in a Hollywood movie about the missing British girl.

The absurdity that is American life goes on…

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

The Mouse Goes Down Under

A couple months ago, I gave up my sweet little house in the wild northern borders of England, said goodbye to dear friends and neighbours and just about everyone else I knew, and moved to New Zealand. My entire lifestyle has been turned completely upside down - literally, in this case. After nearly a decade of living peacefully and quite contentedly on my own (albeit most of that time sharing my home with an elderly cat who supplied the vast majority of any company and conversation I required), surrounded by all the accumulated possessions of around five decades of existence, in the heart of a tiny rural village where neighbours behaved more like a bunch of eccentric relatives wandering in and out of each other's houses for tea and gossip, I'm now living in the middle of an Auckland city suburb, with a family of two young girls and their widowed father - as a nanny. My new home is a tiny basement flat with basic amenities and borrowed furniture while what fraction of my possessions I could afford to keep are now in storage, waiting to be shipped. My dear old friend the cat has stayed behind in the UK, buried under a couple of apple trees in a neighbour's garden, overlooking the Tyne River.

I've been talking about moving to New Zealand for a number of years now, but it was always something that would happen... sometime... later. In the future. Once I earned my Master's degree (check), once the elderly cat had passed on (check), once I'd found a viable job opportunity (check)... I eventually ran out of 'onces', and it happened. Almost overnight. Almost out of the blue. It stopped being simply a pleasant hazy daydream and suddenly became a very lucid reality, hard edges and all.

Regardless of how many other times I've moved from one country to another, I have always either done it in the company of other people, or knew people already there to supply the company. As wonderful as New Zealand genuinely is, I honestly had no concept of just how damned emotionally difficult it would be to move halfway around the planet, all on my own, to a place where I knew precisely... no one. After nearly a decade of living peacefully and quite contentedly on my own, where I could happily go days without seeing or talking to anyone, I'm now constantly surrounded by people and never felt lonelier. It's been much harder than I expected; being intimately involved with yet entirely peripheral to other people's lives, in it but not of it, welcome but not welcomed. In Britain, I had everything I ever wanted, but nothing of what I desperately needed. Here, I have everything I could possibly need, and damned close to nothing that I so viscerally want.

Not yet, anyway...

I have no regrets. Because I know this is, of course, a temporary inconvenience and trying to force relationships in a bid just to lessen the loneliness has been a bad idea (oh, such a very bad idea!) It will simply take a bit more time, and patience, but I will again find kindred spirits floating past by sheer chance, make new friends and enemies who will mature into comfortably old friends and enemies, find my footing and stop stumbling over the smallest cultural difference made much harder to spot before tripping when (most) everyone speaks English and it all looks so bloody normal. Contrary to the hype, New Zealand... or more accurately, Auckland... is not like England at all. Nor is it like the States. Nor anywhere else I've ever been. It has its own culture and nuances, still completely alien to me, and I'm far from understanding it enough to relax. But I've made a start, met a few other writers and academics in New Zealand's literary circle, looking forward to sailing with the ladies group at the local yacht harbour in a couple weeks, even had a lovely lunch and deeply satisfying conversation with a regular poster off C&L. Soon enough, I'll start to understand the politics here as well. And then I really will be back in my element at last...

But for now, I have this photo that I took on a chilly winter's day in the middle of July, on a drive down the coast not that far from the desolate Kafke-Californianesque sprawl that are the soul-destroying suburbs of Auckland, to remind me of why I wanted to come here in the first place. A little initial loneliness is a small price to pay for a shot at a brighter future in such beauty and peace.