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The search for intelligent life in the universe


“The Search for Intelligent Life in the Universe” is a theatrical wonder. Not only is it a great play (written by Jane Wagner), but it allows Lily Tomlin — alone but for some sound effects — to fill the stage with virtual scenery, props, and characters. In one scene, you could almost swear you saw five people in a car, some conversing with the denizens of Times Square streets; in reality, it’s only Tomlin.

This is probably the most famous line of the play: “No matter how cynical you become, it’s never enough to keep up.” We were supposed to shoot the return engagement, but the project fell through.

I don’t know if cynicism is the right word, but just when I thought I couldn’t be amazed anymore, I was. I might as well start with the weather.

Today is December 6. Today, at Newark Airport, the temperature reached 74 degrees Fahrenheit, beating the old record by two degrees. People in the park were dragging their doffed jackets through the fallen leaves beneath the barren trees. This is weird.

So is the mayor. With just 25 days left in office, he has announced some priorities. First, after slashing the budgets of most city agencies by 15% and cutting programs for children and the elderly, he will still be handing our next mayor a $1.2 billion budget deficit. So, what is our current mayor’s plan? Before he leaves, he wants to arrange for the city to agree to pay for new stadiums for our two major-league baseball teams. The incoming mayor says he thinks there might just be some other priorities.

Then there’s the Twin Towers Fund the city established to help the families of police and firefighters who died on September 11. It has, thus far, distributed $46 million — well over $100,000 per family — and has another $67 million to give out. The mayor wants to turn it into a private charitable institution, and he wants to head it. And, in his father-knows-best style, he says he’s thinking about investing the remaining money. The incoming mayor had no comment.

The incoming mayor HAS expressed concern about another issue relating to our police, this time the ones who weren’t hurt on September 11. As many as 30 a day are retiring on pensions increased by tremendous recent overtime. Many are going to work for private security firms.

Pensions aren’t the only things being calculated. An accounting of the recent election has been done. The incoming mayor spent close to $69 million, more than was spent on any other non-presidential campaign. That comes to $92.60 per vote, a record for ANY campaign (excluding bids for the Olympics, of course).

Neither mayor marched in the new parade on Sunday. It was the Capitalism Day Parade. There were, reportedly, about 50 participants, six of them carrying strange signs to try to make the ideology look bad. The parade was covered in the New York Times only by a columnist.

Times commentator William Safire had a third column today opposing the executive order calling for military commissions instead of regular courts to try some non-citizens. The column came out just in time to be denounced by John Ashcroft as aiding terrorists. I don’t think Safire will be stung by the criticism. Here’s a section of his second column on the subject on November 26:

“We in the tiny minority of editorialists on left and right who dare to point out such constitutional, moral and practical antiterrorist considerations are derided as ‘professional hysterics’ akin to ‘antebellum Southern belles suffering the vapors.’ Buncha weepy sissies, we are. (Frankly, Scarlett, I don’t give a damn – I’ve always been pro-bellum.)”

The more-amazing Ashcroft story in today’s Times involved the Justice Department refusing to allow the FBI to check records to determine if any of the detainees illegally purchased a gun in the United States. Here’s a portion of the story, by Fox Butterfield:

“Until now, F.B.I. officials said, it was permissible to check the records if someone who had been approved to buy a gun should not have been allowed to. The prohibited categories include foreigners of several different statuses, like an illegal immigrant or someone in the country for less than 90 days. Investigators believed that many detainees fell into those groups and sought clearance to check whether they had bought guns.

“But in what several officials called a reversal of existing procedure, Mr. [Viet] Dinh [assistant attorney general for legal policy] ruled that these checks were improper, reasoning that they would violate the privacy of these foreigners. F.B.I. officials said foreigners normally did not have privacy rights unless they have achieved permanent resident status.”

It’s hard to fathom why the Justice Department would come up with such a policy reversal — especially one so solicitous of the privacy rights of non-citizens suspected of being involved in or knowing about terrorist activity. Of course, Ashcroft has been opposed to gun control. The story said the Justice Department was expected to announce that it would soon destroy the records (now held for 90 days) after 24 hours. By the way, before the policy was reversed, the FBI did find two illegal gun sales associated with the detainees.

I don’t know. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe cynicism IS the right word.

TTFN, Mark