Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Clown Prince of Politics

Greetings Friends,

The image above is of Beppe Grillo, known as the "Clown Prince" of Italian politics. The title is apropos, as he really is a comedian, and he wants to be Prime Minister of his country. 

We could learn a thing or two from the Italians, and any country with a parliamentary system of government for that matter. Here in the United States, a clown prince of politics is someone like House Speaker John Boehner, who favors spray tans, and bungles his sentiments almost as badly as George W. Bush. I could easily add to the list of American political clown princes (in both parties), but I don't want to put off my readers. I merely want to explain the difference. 

Italians went to the polls on Sunday to elect a new government. Voting in a country with a parliamentary government is even more important than voting in one that is a constitutional republic. Your vote actually counts, and is used to determine which party, if any, gains control of that country's parliament - the governing body. Unlike the United States, where our elected representatives merely promise to try to work together (a lot of good that promise is), parliamentarians must agree, officially, to form what is known as a coalition, in order to get down to the business of governing. The formation of coalitions is necessary when one party does not score a clear victory in a federal election. I've seen this happen repeatedly in Canada, and the result is what is known as a "minority government," where nothing of substance can be accomplished. The benefit of a minority government to the Prime Minister is one similar to a utility employee controlling a power grid in a large city: One flip of the switch and your neighborhood goes dark.

While I was living in Canada, I watched Prime Minister Stephen Harper control Parliament in a way similar to the metaphor I just used. He and his Conservative party presided over several minority governments before winning a majority in the 2011 federal election. Living under minority rule can be a bit unnerving for an American; the plug can literally be pulled at any time, which is something we are not used to. We are used to more order in our electoral process, with regular elections taking place every year, and set terms for our elected officials. Canadians, and citizens of countries like Great Britain and Italy are considerably less bothered by minority governments, but don't appreciate having to schlep to the polls every time the plug gets pulled. This is exactly what Italy is experiencing right now. 

The Italian election, although not yet officially decided, looks to be heading towards a minority government. In this case, however, the number of votes cast have added up to virtual gridlock, and a coalition between the parties with the most votes might not solve the problem. Not only will the Italian government be hamstrung, it will be powerless with the country on the brink of financial ruin so dire, it could send the rest of Europe into a serious tailspin. 

Into the middle of all this comes Beppe Grillo, who, in America, would be compared to someone like Ralph Nader, Ross Perot, or Ron Paul. Except, Beppe Grillo isn't a consumer advocate, a wealthy businessman, or a doctor. He is a comedian. Yes; imagine if George Carlin, were he still alive, wanting to be president. That's who Beppe Grillo is. His Five Star Movement party has captured the hearts of many Italians who are fed up with their mainstream politicians and want change. Unfortunately, Grillo's party did not get enough votes to govern; instead, the people who voted for him have deadlocked the two mainstream parties, the ones headed by former philandering, conservative-leaning Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, and his opponent, the more liberal Pier Luigi Bersani. The one positive thing Grillo and his followers did accomplish, is they made their feelings known about how disappointed they are with Italy's history of corruption, which has lead the country down the same path as Greece and Spain. If austerity measures are not enacted, Italy's economy will fail, and will have to be rescued. In an effort to avoid this, Italians might have to go to the polls again, and start from scratch. A minority government that cannot form a viable coalition under these circumstances is unacceptable. 

As ruinous as American government is, and as intractable as both political parties are, I would not want to be an Italian citizen at this point in time. Don't get me wrong, I love everything about Italy, but right now, the country is in the midst of a political pickle I want no part of. Comparisons of Silvio Berlusconi to Benito Mussolini are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to describing what has actually gone wrong. And, don't for a second believe that the United States doesn't own a few kernels of responsibility for the sorry state of the European economy. Hello? Mortgage-backed securities? Toxic debt? 

As far as Beppe Grillo is concerned, I would love to see a comedian become Prime Minister of Italy. I've always been a firm believer in truth disguised as comedy. Remember, if you will, the Shakespearean fool: he might be the clown prince of court, but his humor disguised the truth. Beppe Grillo has shown us that humor rings truer in politics than the best stump speeches given by the most articulate politicians. Sometimes, it takes a fool to help us see things clearly. 


Thursday, February 14, 2013

Cruise Vacation? Hell, No!

Greetings Friends,

When I was a kid, my next-door neighbors in Brooklyn were semi-regular cruisers. I remember once going to the west side of Manhattan to see them off on a cruise aboard the Oceanic. I don't remember where the ship was headed, but I do remember how glamorous and sophisticated they seemed, setting sail on a big ship to an exotic locale. Back in those days, a cruise was not considered a commonplace vacation.

I've been on two cruises in my life: the first one, a Disney cruise, which ironically turned out to be aboard the very same Oceanic, only this time the ship was painted bright red. It didn't seem quite as big to me in my early 20s, as it did when I was younger. The stateroom I was in was so tiny, I had to go out in the hall to change my mind. The voyage was incident-free, unless I count the traumatizing experience of getting groped by someone dressed up as a giant chipmunk.

The second cruise I took in 1997 was my honeymoon. It was on a Royal Caribbean ship that sailed to Bermuda. I got married on the ship, and my now ex-husband and I sailed with another couple.We had a great time, save for a bunch of passengers who interrupted the tail-end of our reception, helping themselves to the hors d'oeuvres and cake that were meant for our guests. That and a minor, non-fiery engine malfunction were the only black marks on that trip.

The cruise industry has changed greatly since Kathie Lee Gifford did all those excessively perky ads for Carnival cruises, touting the company's "fun ships" as affordable, casual vacations. Lines like Holland America and Royal Caribbean wanted to hang on to the glamor and sophistication by requiring formal dress during dinner, and set times for all activities. Carnival introduced what became known as "freestyle" cruising to the world, scaling back the formality of their cruises, and in effect, cheapening the experience both literally and figuratively. As someone who was glued to "Love Boat" every Saturday night during the late 70s, going to dinner on a cruise meant getting all gussied up, not wearing the same clothes I had spent the day in. I always envisioned a cruise exactly as it was depicted on that show; the Carnival experience never appealed to me.

Fast forward through the millennium to cruising becoming one of the most affordable, sought-after vacations you can take. Dedicated cruise junkies will set sail several times a year, looking for the best deals on vacation packages. Some lines even offer what are known as "repositioning" cruises, which visit ports on the way to a different location from the one the ship departs from. Add to that the number of ports these gargantuan boats now leave from, you can catch one in so many places, it often does not require an additional plane trip to get to them. But, with convenience and a good bargain, disaster often accompanies the experience, as the unsuspecting passengers on the Carnival Triumph found out this week.

What happened on the Carnival Triumph is nothing new in the cruising industry. For years we've been hearing about outbreaks of norovirus and other illnesses due to the less than sanitary conditions aboard some of these vessels. When the Costa Concordia ran aground off the coast of Italy, killing 35 passengers, many people stood up and took notice of the dangers of cruising. But, the story, although major, did not impact the cruising crowd that sets sail on the fun ships. Today, for less than $500, you can embark on a 4-day jaunt on one of these floating hotels, and expect to have the time of your life - until the boat malfunctions and you're stuck relieving yourself into a trash bag.

After a few cheesy vacations taken in my early 20s, including the voyage on the mouse boat, I've always liked to research my vacation destinations/travel options before embarking on something as potentially disastrous as what these people have been through. Sure, things can go wrong on planes, and in trains and automobiles, but when you're being held captive on a floating hotel out at sea, the experience can be even more torturous and perilous. After all, a plane crash can kill you instantaneously; five days stuck on a debilitated cruise ship with raw sewage sluicing though your midst, little food, water, and no power, not only has the potential to kill you, it might actually drive you insane.

So, the lesson we learn from the Carnival Triumph, and all the other cruise ship cautionary tales out there in the great electronic void (I'd start with this one), is: do your homework. And always keep in mind that if something sounds too good to be true, it usually is.


Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Deprived of the Telly

Greetings Friends,

Ever since I traversed the world's longest undefended border in a southerly direction, I've been catching up on all the "premium" television I missed while living up north. It is a sad fact of life that Canadians pay larcenous amounts to cable, satellite, and mobile phone providers, making channels like HBO, Showtime, and Turner Classic Movies unaffordable luxuries for many; myself included. Now, I have access to all the television I could possibly want, so much so that I have forsaken books for the time being to stream shows like "Boardwalk Empire," "Downton Abbey," and others that I had no access to because I refused to choose between the occasional sushi supper and the boob tube. Sushi won out because spicy tuna rolls give me more pleasure than forking over my hard-earned money to thieving entities like Rogers Communications.

"Downton Abbey" and "Boardwalk Empire" have kept me riveted to my laptop in my spare time; especially "Boardwalk," since it is "The Sopranos" re-imagined with Tommy guns and lots of liquor. Steve Buscemi's Nucky Thompson is every bit as evil as Tony Soprano, with the added bonus of spot-on period backdrops. It's not so easy to re-create Atlantic City of the Roaring 20s, but Terence Winter and his HBO cronies do a fantastic job. He must long for the days when location scouting consisted of trolling Teaneck, West Orange, and Garden State Plaza, as opposed to having to create a genteel version of Atlantic City that no longer exists. The New Jersey of "The Sopranos" is still pretty much the same; Nucky Thompson's Atlantic City might as well be the underwater island of Atlantis.

The same goes for Julian Fellowes' addicting World War I British period drama, "Downton Abbey." I've always been a sucker for British television (hello "Absolutely Fabulous" and "Monty Python's Flying Circus"), so this was a no-brainer for me. And even though "Downton" is hopelessy soap operatic, it goes where "Upstairs Downstairs" never did. The characters are extraordinary; who doesn't love Maggie Smith as the Dowager Countess Violet Crawley? And Elizabeth McGovern as Lady Cora Crawley, the lone American in a group of stuffy Brits? Amazing. I literally spent an entire weekend watching all the previous episodes, so I would be ready for the eagerly anticipated third season. So far, it does not disappoint.

In case you haven't figured it out, HBO is the channel I missed the most. Besides "Boardwalk," most of its original programming, save for a few stinkbombs like "The Comeback" and "Flight of the Conchords," is stellar. What cemented that for me was the original film "Game Change," which stars Julianne Moore as Governor Sarah Palin, Ed Harris as Senator John McCain, and Woody Harrelson as creepy used car salesman -er, senior campaign strategist, Steve Schmidt. Julianne Moore's portrayal of Sarah Palin was at once brilliant and downright scary. Even though I didn't want to believe that she could be that dumb, it would have been an unmitigated disaster had that woman accompanied John McCain to the White House. No other broadcast entity would have had the balls to portray Governor Palin in all her blockheaded glory than HBO. And big, big kudos to Julianne Moore for the brave performance that snagged her Primetime Emmy and Golden Globe awards. She is one of my all-time favorite actresses.

I must admit that I feel enormous guilt over forsaking the written word for so much television, but hey - it's not like I'm spending countless hours watching Honey Boo Boo or the Kardashians. If that were the case, I'd gladly undergo shock therapy and a full-frontal lobotomy if necessary. For me, the best check-your-brain-at-the-door activities are ones that still make me think. It's when the thinking stops that I begin to worry.