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Tuesday, March 20, 2007


Apparently pregnancy is miserable. I've never been pregnant, but I get all the sympathy symptoms, plus I put on weight. Believe it or not, pregnancy is even harder on my wife. At least that's what she says.

One area where our symptoms diverge is sleeplessness — she wakes up in the middle of the night, while I store up sleep like a bear in hibernation. I know what's coming, you see. A squawking little Woodlief larva, demanding attention every 2-3 hours. And you've got to stay awake when you're changing the little stinker and carrying him to his mother, or else he'll latch on to you and attempt to nurse. I say this from regrettable experience.

So last night the poor wife rolled out of bed at some unholy hour, only to return hours later, as I am rising at my own appointed unholy hour. "Honey," she says meekly.


"I bought some books." She tells me this because the Amazon account is linked to my email address, and she knows that soon I'll see the wave of purchases. Many of the books she buys are second-hand, primarily because they are out of print (think original McGuffey Readers and, thanks to our friends Ann Stegall and Suzanne Castro-Miller, the entire collection of Elizabeth Goudge). This means that, on a night when she's unable to sleep, and has lots of time to ponder what we need for the boys' library, and what authors' oeuvres she hasn't completely worked her way through yet, a dozen or so confirmation emails from Amazon will make their way to my inbox. This is why she tells me that she bought some books.

"Honey," I whisper sweetly (she is pregnant, after all, and pregnant women are like hippos, in that they are deceptively quick and dangerous, despite their plump cuteness*), "do you think perhaps we could find a late-night hobby for you that costs less money?"

"It's for the children," she declares, borrowing a page from the crowd bent on spending the country into bankruptcy. And who can argue with her, especially in her cute-but-dangerous hippo-like state? So I kiss her and ask her if she is my baby, because last night Isaac disavowed any further babyhood ("You're my sweet baby," I had told him as I swept him up into my arms, to which he replied: "I not a baby." He recanted seconds later, professing that he was in fact my baby, but that's because he wanted a cookie.). She rightly says that she is, and I wish that I could lie beside her and listen to the rain. But instead I have to work, in order to pay for all those books.

In a while the boys will awake, and they will be beside themselves with joy because of the rain, because on rain days they get to watch a movie. After their schoolwork is done they will gather in front of the tube with a bowl of popcorn their mother has made for them, and they will watch "Mary Poppins" or "The Sound of Music," and she will curl up nearby and read one of her used Elizabeth Goudge books. I will be at work, but thinking of them, and of how nice it will be when the day is finished, that I can return to a place called Home, and how blessed I am that the word means so very much to me.

(*Disclaimer: the author would like to stress that the hippo metaphor is not intended to imply that said author's wife is anything but slender and smoking hot, albeit with a round bun in the oven. The author would like to note further that, due to the unfortunate onset of gestational diabetes, said author's wife has been on the equivalent of an Atkin's diet, and is even more smoking hot than normal, which is pretty darn good-looking, as any objective observer will easily admit. The author's wife would like it noted that the author is delusional, and probably sucking up because he's still angling to get himself an obscenely expensive .45-caliber sidearm. The author would like to note in rejoinder that said wife doesn't know from hotness, being a woman who has never truly appreciated her own beauty.)
posted by Woodlief | link | (0)

Monday, March 19, 2007

Christ v. Christian

Though I expected Michael Lewis's Blind Side to do for football what his Moneyball did for baseball, I found my stomach churning as I read the story of Michael Oher, a black child neglected for years in the slums and streets of Memphis, until happenstance brought him to the doorstep of the exclusive, largely white, putatively Christian Briarcrest School in the suburbs. Michael is the focus of Lewis's book, which is ostensibly about the evolution of the left tackle as one of the most important positions in football, because he is a physical anomaly, built exactly the way pro teams want their left tackles to be built. While the story seems subsequently to have been spun (though Lewis himself is admirably objective) as one of kindly Christians taking in an underprivileged minority child (see, for example, David Forsmark's FrontPage article), I put down the book with the disgusted sense that Michael only got in the door because he promised to lead Briarcrest Christian School to victory.

There is, for example, the revelation that Briarcrest explicitly considered and rejected, after Michael proved capable of adapting to its environment, bringing in other desperately poor black children from Memphis's deplorable public schools, even when offered funding to do so. Not that the school is strapped for cash; Lewis reveals that Briarcrest's wealthy parents had recently built a one-million dollar football stadium for their children. But letting in what Christ called "the least of these"? Think of what it would do to the school's average SAT score!

It's unfortunate that Briarcrest features so prominently in Lewis's book, because it doesn't leave one with a favorable impression of Christian schools. Lewis recounts, for example, the "Jesus Bowl," a state-championship game between Briarcrest and another large Christian school. "It didn't take long," Lewis reveals, "to see that Jesus was keeping his distance." By half-time a player for one school had been flagged for suggesting the referee had an unnatural knowledge of his mother, and a Briarcrest player had been penalized for gallivanting about the field, shouting "We're gonna beat their f_____ ass!" — an affront not just to decency but to grammar. Capping the disgusting display, as Briarcrest began to pull ahead, players for the other Christian school took to firing themselves at Michael's knees in an attempt to injure him.

Jesus must be so very proud.

While the parents who took Michael in (and eventually adopted him) come off as genuinely concerned about his well-being, Lewis exposes a host of despicable adults circling him like sharks. There is the head coach of the Briarcrest football team, who angles to get a job with the University of Tennessee by suggesting he can influence Michael to enroll there. While the principal and trustees of this Christian school thought he was fit enough to coach their children, it was Michael who first saw through him, calling him the "Snake." Tellingly, the coach actually liked the nickname.

And though we've come to expect as much from universities, I was surprised to learn that Brigham Young University, of all places, is the "go to" spot for ill-educated high school sports prospects who want to artificially inflate their grades to meet NCAA entrance requirements. As Lewis explains, Michael replaced several high school "F's" with "A's" by enrolling in BYU Internet courses like "Character Education," which required only that a student "read a few brief passages from famous works — a speech by Lou Gherig here, a letter by Abraham Lincoln there — and then answer five questions about it." So much for my image of upright Mormons.

Of course they're only serving a market demand, which ultimately is you and me, and our love of entertaining college sports. Michael Oher eventually settled on the University of Mississippi, and was duly admitted, even though he is barely functionally literate at best. If he's fortunate, he'll play for several years in the NFL, before being hobbled by injuries and the sheer punishment to his heart from carrying too much weight. We'll cheer him on, and then we'll forget about him, no less quickly than Briarcrest Christian School has forgotten the hundreds of children in neighborhoods where Michael came from.

I have good friends who started a small private school devoted to classical Christian education. Strangely, they refused to put the word "Christian" in the title of the school. When I asked, they explained that either they will live up to that title, meaning that they needn't include it in the name, or else they won't, in which case they dare not dishonor it. I think I see the wisdom in that point of view. Would that Briarcrest Christian School were simply "Briarcrest School." Perhaps then the story of Michael Oher wouldn't be so discouraging.

posted by Woodlief | link | (0)

Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Inside Out

Upon hearing the news that the U.S. may soon sit down with representatives from Syria and Iran to talk through our issues, it struck me that the phrase Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice used to describe this initiative, a "diplomatic offensive," may well be the stupidest oxymoron I've heard out of Washington since congressional deliberation. Rice didn't come up with it first, of course, it was recently used prominently by the Iraq Study Group in their love letter of realpolitik advice for President Bush.

Washington, of course, thrives on oxymorons, almost as if someone read 1984 ("War is peace;" "Freedom is slavery") and thought, That George Orwell, he really knows how to put a positive spin on things. And so we have the Internal Revenue Service (when's the last time you interacted with them and felt like you were getting a service?), and the Central Intelligence Agency (the people who didn't know squat about the Soviet Union, don't know squat about Iraq, and likely are even now burying themselves in ignorance about the next threat to world peace), and the U.S. Office of Government Ethics.

Oxymorons.info is a great place to find more of these little beasts. It never hurts, in wartime, to have mastered the delicate killing lingo, with phrases like friendly fire and partial cease-fire. Some would add Middle East peace process to that list.

Unfortunately, Washington is the opposite of Las Vegas, in that what happens there reverberates throughout the rest of the country. Thus doublespeak has penetrated the business world (home office, business casual, limited lifetime guarantee, and equal opportunity), as well as sports (amateur college athletics, spectator sport, and my favorite, The Fighting Quakers).

Even schools (required elective, study break) have succumbed. And let's not leave out religion, not with holy war, faith worker, and Christian Scientists.

Now that we have perfected the art of fine-tuned polling, so that experts are able to isolate specific words and phrases that seem to resonate with listeners, we can expect more oxymorons to infest the lexicon. The typical political speech these days seems little more than clusters of noble-sounding words strung together by courageous verbs. How long, really, before we hear a speech like this from a candidate:

"My fellow Americans, it is time to stand, as we run towards the goal of continued victory, with proud humility, and peacefully fight as individuals together, teaching by learning, in order to create a better tomorrow, today."

You know, I'd like to point out — proudly, yet in all humility — that I seem to have a knack for this. Perhaps I could work for the State Department.

posted by Woodlief | link | (0)

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

All Politics is Local

"I always get a little queasy," I began my speech, "when a group of people gets together to spend other people's money." Last night was my first attendance at a homeowner's association meeting, and I was there to defend my wallet. At stake was one thousand dollars, more or less, from every family in the neighborhood, to pay for an entrance monument.

Before you choke over that price tag, let me assure you that the ladies of the Monument Committee have worked with an expensive design firm to cook up some monument possibilities that are, well, monumental. Copper-roofed cupolas. Eight-foot high chiseled stone walls. We're not talking shrubs and a picket fence like those pikers down the street.

And that thousand dollar per home figure is really just a wild guess, the Monument Committee ladies assured us. It's probably exaggerated. Quit thinking about the money, they implored us. Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.

So the meeting began with breathless talk of cupolas and stone walls, and several boards with architectural renderings were passed around. I had never been quite sure what a cupola was — it's one of those words I breeze past when reading, like clerestory, or embrasure — but I can tell you now that a nicely built cupola is stunning, especially when the imaginary sunlight hits its imaginary copper roof.

But a thousand bucks is a thousand bucks, and beyond the money, there was my contrarian streak kicking in. Something just didn't sit right about this, about the way they were steering us while pretending that we're just talking, about their assumption that a vocal minority somehow represents the folks who have too many life and business commitments to burn two hours on a Monday night gazing at cupola drawings. So I stood up and made my impromptu speech.

I told them that I was sure the monuments were lovely indeed. But, I said, we're talking the price of a Habitat for Humanity house. We're talking about fifty percent plus one of those present forcing our neighbors to pay for something that some of us believe will be pretty to look at. It's not as if we're looking to spend money on an important safety item, like scraping the ice from our roads (which we don't), or fixing that drainage ditch that breeds mosquitoes in the summer (haven't gotten around to that either). In those cases, I said, it makes sense to ask everyone to pay his share.

But a big monument to make some of us feel better about our neighborhood, I said, is not a necessity. And forcing people to pay for things which aren't necessary, but which some of us happen to want, is just wrong. It's the mentality that has gotten us in trouble as a country, and as a state, and I don't think we ought to be doing it in our own back yard.

I ended with an entreaty for voluntarism. If enough of us think this is worth having, I said, then let's raise money for it. But let's not force our neighbors to pay for something just because some of us happen to like it.

There was considerable applause. People smiled and clapped — except for one of the Monument Committee ladies, who saw in me a cupola-hating devil — and congratulated me on my pretty speechifying. Then most of them voted to take bids for building a monument.

But at least they were kind, all except for Monument Committee Lady, and an attorney with what appeared to be a permanent smirk smeared across his face. He was firmly in the monument coalition, which became clear when the monument ladies waged a sudden coup against the Treasurer (who apparently was not so fond of the monument idea), by nominating Smirking Attorney to challenge him for office. Suddenly, what was supposed to be a routine re-election of officers became a pitched battle between the surprised Treasurer and Smirking Attorney.

Like any good politician, the attorney and his comrades had done their ground work. It was reminiscent of Ralph Reed's boast, back before he became a hack lobbyist getting rich from both sides of the gambling lobby, that his Christian Coalition would put the political opposition in body bags before they even knew what hit them. A quick vote later, and Smirking Attorney was the new Treasurer. The outgoing Treasurer, a long-time resident of the neighborhood, tried to put on a good face about the whole thing. Apparently these positions mean a lot to some people, though.

And perhaps they should. As much as I gripe about my state and federal government, neither has ever hit me with a special tax equal to 250 percent of my regular tax. Maybe the real political power isn't in the halls of Congress, but in homeowner's associations. For all their bullying, the Feds usually don't meddle in your choice of window shutters, or send you a snippy letter if your grass gets too long. Sure, occasionally they may break down your door and kill you because they think you have some weed on the premises, but for the most part they leave you alone, except for that slow, steady suck on your wallet.

It seems to me that if we want to reform our political culture, and break the mentality that one's fellow citizens exist to serve one's needs, then perhaps we should start not in Washington, but in the basement of the Equity Bank in Andover, Kansas, where my local HOA illegally held its meeting outside our county of residence last night. Not that I'm suggesting that any of my non-smirking attorney neighbors use that transgression of bylaws as grounds for voiding the meeting's decision-making. Because that would just be underhanded.

No, the democratic thing is to go door to door, building my own coalition of anti-boondoggle neighbors, and load myself up with enough of their proxy votes to block any further waste of money. It would only take, say, 80 - 120 hours of effort from start to finish, along with about a hundred interactions with other people, which we introverts always find so energizing. Given that I struggle most weeks to get my own children bathed on a regular basis, I don't think my neighborhood anti-tax revolution is going to happen. I'm afraid the ladies on the Monument Committee have an inherent advantage over me.

And this, in the end, is the real problem with politics. The people who want our money for this trinket, or for that massively expensive permanent entitlement, have more time on their hands than the rest of us. This is why I believe a community filled with large families is a good thing. If your house is full of children and grandchildren — and you're doing your job as a parent or grandparent — then you just don't have time to spend your neighbor's money, unless it's for something really, really important.

In the end, however, I hold the ultimate trump card, because I don't have to live in this neighborhood. I can seek out my own tribe, someplace where monuments are less important than scraping ice off the streets. It's the beauty of our federal system of government. The citizens of Colorado get a limit on their state's spending, and the people of Massachusetts experiment with Socialism Lite. It's choice, baby.

As I watched my well-meaning and mostly kind-hearted neighbors gaze longingly at pictures of cupolas and engraved stone, and listened to them fall prey to at least three errors of logic, two errors of fact, and four procedural transgressions, it struck me how much we owe to our Founders. We're not one of the most prosperous and free nations on earth because we are inherently smarter or better than the unfortunate citizens of other countries. We have prosperity and liberty in spite of ourselves. We are blessed because a couple of centuries ago a bunch of cantankerous guys got together and bound up our government with all kinds of inherent divisions and checks.

People like to complain about government not getting anything done, but I think we ought to celebrate gridlock. I remember reading once that the Peruvian legislature had passed 40,000 new laws in its latest session. That's a lot of monuments. Instead of lambasting our legislators for not getting enough done, maybe we should ask them to take more time off. Perhaps that would work in my neighborhood as well. I wonder what it would cost to reward the Monument ladies for their hard work, perhaps with an extended trip to our nation's capital. There are great restaurants, wonderful museums, and loads of history. Plus I hear they have a lot of lovely monuments.

posted by Woodlief | link | (0)

Friday, January 19, 2007

Barbarians in the Den

I'll begin by admitting that I was a slacker during most of my high school and undergraduate careers. I coasted on horsepower. Had I possessed a scrap of self-discipline and vision, I would be wiser now. This matters to me because as I wrestle with big ideas, I sorely feel my inadequate education. This probably sounds like backhanded boasting to some, but those of you who are truly, classically educated understand full well what I mean.

I know firsthand, in other words, the difference between going to school and getting an education. Charles Murray has written a fascinating series of op-eds in The Wall Street Journal this week, on the topic of intelligence and education. I suspect he may now need to enter a witness protection program. I once heard him remark in a speech that he had recently been booed, by a university audience, for saying that half of the population has below-average intelligence. We live in an age, in the West, where sentiment trumps reason.

One of Murray's arguments is that — insofar as we desire that colleges and universities provide a rigorous education — many students currently attending those institutions do not belong there. Society would be better served, he writes, by a system of vocational schools and skills certification. What happens instead is that university instruction is dumbed down in all but the most elite schools.

And yet, the dumbing process is apparently taking too long for some — witness the rise of websites, like Duenow.com, devoted to selling term papers and essays to students. In its typo-ridden FAQ page, Duenow boasts of "serving" five million students. As the Duenow sages tauntingly ask, "Do you have better things [to] do with your time than spend it writing a useless essay?" Absolutely, says Jeff, a student from Kansas, who writes in a testimonial on the website: "Kick ass site and papers dudes. You guys are the shizit!" There's also Missy, from New York, who promises to "definately [sic] tell my friends about you."

Please do, Missy. There are so many more important things to do, while spending your parent's money at college, than master basic writing and spelling.

Murray's thoughts on intelligence make me think that perhaps I shouldn't be so discouraged by the sight of people sitting in an airport lobby, staring at the television instead of reading. I shouldn't be depressed by the fact that many more people watch cable television regularly than read a quality newspaper or magazine. Half the people have below-average intelligence. They need something to do, and cable TV beats rioting and gladiator contests.

I am thankful that somehow I survived a peculiar trap that I think I see, which is children with above-average intelligence who become immersed in the dominant teenage and twenty-something culture of unintelligence. We probably all know at least one child like this, whose time is so absorbed in Myspace, Facebook, Xbox, and the regular diet of cable television, movies, and — this is my favorite — just "hanging" with friends, that he does not actually do very much of something that still appears indispensable if one is to rise above one's ignorance, which is to read. I am convinced that Russell Kirk had it right, when he famously seized a contraband television that one of his children had smuggled into their home, and threw it from the upstairs window.

This puts me in mind of a candidate for County Board of Supervisors where I live, who said in one of his campaign speeches, "While we all know it's the responsibility of the school district to educate our children, I believe the county government has a role to play as well..."

Yes, of course. It's someone else's job. The city, the county, the church, the college, the Congress, the president. Somehow we have delivered all responsibility from the shoulders of the three people who have the greatest control over a child's education, namely, the parents, and the child himself.

In this regard, I think Murray is missing something. The dilemma in American education is not only that we waste too many resources on students who are neither capable of nor interested in a true university education. The more frightening problem, to me, is that vast swaths of the students who are mentally capable simply have no interest, as evidenced by what they actually spend their time doing.

We are embarking, then, on a dangerous experiment. We are adding, to the bottom half of the intelligence ladder, intelligent people with inferior skills and a poor grounding in history, logic, theology, fine arts, and sciences. We are doing so in an age when news, entertainment, and politics are dominant and interchangeable, and when government is constrained less and less by constitutional parameters than by the whim of bureaucrats and judges.

Perhaps, were I better grounded in the history of civilizations, I might be able to conjure some hypotheses from all this. One thing seems clear, however. If the relatively short-lived American experiment in liberty and prosperity is ended in this century, thoughtful people picking through the rubble will know exactly whom to blame — every one of us.

posted by Woodlief | link | (0)

Friday, January 12, 2007

Lost and Found

I'm trying to work from home, after flying back early to beat the ice storm. The youngest boy is in the next room with his belly on a big recliner that can spin 360 degrees. He is racing around and around it to make himself dizzy. He doesn't have any pants on. One of his favorite things now is to close his eyes and walk. He likes to be surprised by whom or what he bumps into.

He dashes over to me, climbs onto my lap, and plops his frigid little white behind onto my hands. He gives me a fierce hug. He suspects that I am eating candy -- which, for the record, I am not -- and so he jams a grubby little hand into my mouth. He is a dentist now, telling me to go "ahhh." Another fierce hug. Some bouncing of the cold little hiney, followed by another hug. He takes my face in his warm hands and squeezes it. A wet kiss. And then he is off, fast-walking across the house with his eyes firmly shut. A thud. An "ouch." A giggle.

I take a draw from the plastic bottle of water I bought in the Atlanta airport, at a cost of approximately a hundred dollars. I could almost stomach the monopoly price if not for the surly service. People think New Yorkers are rude, but were I one of those people who revels in being mistreated, Atlanta would be my fantasy vacation spot. I've been to Atlanta at least 20 times in the last year, and I can count on one hand the number of interactions with service providers who were not indifferent, if not outright hostile. And come to think of it, the only exceptions all sounded as if they were born in other countries. Perhaps they haven't been assimilated into the rudeness yet.

But back to this water bottle, which bears an irritating trait increasingly common to airport water bottles, in that it has this strange twisty nipple attachment, as opposed to a screw top. The result is that all we thirsty travelers are forced into an infantile posture as we squeeze and suck at germ-laden plastic nipples in order to get a slug of water. And once you're in the air, in the pressurized cabin, opening the bottle causes the water to spurt a good three feet. Perhaps someone conducted a focus group, and found that the majority of air travelers like the new nipple thingy. Nobody asked me, though.

Delta broke my luggage. There must be some specialized machinery with sharply angled hammers to break our bags in the manner that airlines manage to break them. I wonder how much those special luggage-snapping machines cost. I wonder if, had Delta not invested in an abundance of them, it would have been able to cover the multi-billion dollar pension obligations its former -- now rich and retired -- CEO incurred, and which its current -- rich but not yet retired -- CEO recently foisted onto the taxpayers.

I didn't like Delta before they broke my luggage. I don't like organizations headed by executives who load themselves with perks and pay while using the government to insulate themselves from the consequences of their poor decisions. U.S. Airways wants to buy them, and Delta's executives are trying to get Congress to intervene, no doubt because they will be fired, which means they will have to search for some other organization willing to pay them large amounts of money without assessing their performance.

Delta sent me an email -- because I am a loyal customer, you see -- urging me to sign a petition to "Keep Delta my Delta." The email explains how important it is for me the consumer that Delta remain a separate company. Flexibility, more competitive rates, and so on. Yesterday I read that Delta's executives have been secretly discussing a merger with Northwest. I suspect that deal promises a heftier executive buyout.

My wife is on the phone with an agent from our insurer. She's trying to convince her to pay for something her company promised to cover when we gave them money. They're creatively defining our problem so that it falls into one of the non-covered categories. When they courted our business, we were customers. Now they seem to view us as the enemy.

Eli is sitting in a chair beside me now, just watching. He's holding a water bottle that he got from the cabinet and filled, after he saw that I was drinking from a water bottle. He's sitting in the chair, drinking from his water bottle, and he's just . . . watching.

These boys watch me a lot. I want to tell them to find someone better, but I'm the one they watch, and so every day I have to figure out how to be better than I am, because every day they are becoming something like me.

I think about the children of those airline executives and insurance officials. I wonder if their children sit and watch them, too, and if somehow their children are learning to be just as duplicitous and self-centered as they. It makes me think that maybe Isaac has it right, with his blind fumbling and bumbling, learning the world with his eyes tightly shut. Maybe our children would be better off if they didn't see how we behave. But they are always watching, and learning how to be in the world. I wonder if we would all behave better, if we kept that in our minds all of the time.

Maybe that's why we have them, because they make us better. They make us better because they make us forget about ourselves, or at least they make us put our own needs second. In a way, and only ever for brief intervals, they liberate us from slavery to the petty god of the self.

So I'm fine with the overpriced water bottle and the rotten airline and the unreliable insurer, because I'm home with these little ones, and it's cold outside, and for a while we will be alone in our own little world. And thankfully, in this world I am temporarily dethroned. It helps me understand the strange promise, that somehow, in losing one's life, one gains it.

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Saturday, December 30, 2006

Goodness and Courage

I was up at 5 a.m. this morning, and heard on the BBC that Saddam Hussein had been hanged not long before. I found myself initially exultant, but then I began to think about whether it matters. This is because the thought entered my mind that people like Hussein are simply extensions of the ignorant, murderous tribal impulses that seem to have plagued man from the beginning.

I began to wonder whether we lie to ourselves when we make a big show of putting someone like Hussein on trial, as if he is an aberration. We want to believe that he is exceptionally cruel by dint of personal qualities, as opposed to exceptionally successful at exercising a widespread instinct for cruelty. How many men raised in the brutal tribal mentality that governs much of the world would not do the things Hussein did, given the opportunity?

The BBC reporter called him "President" Hussein. I love when people refer to some dictator as a president, or leader, as if there had been debates and discussion, followed by a free choice among competing candidates. It's even more precious when the same euphemism-spouters imply that George Bush, Jr., ought to have an asterisk by his title.

But then maybe an election isn't that important. I always felt a special connection to President Ford, because when I was eight years-old my grandmother took me to the little Winston-Salem airport, and we stood in a long line to greet him, and when he passed by she told me to stick out my hand so I did, and he wrapped his gigantic hand around mine and shook it. Here was someone who ascended to power without being elected president or vice-president, and yet he behaved with relative honor.

I like that he pardoned Nixon, even though I'm not a fan of much Nixon did beyond skewering Alger Hiss, which probably shouldn't count because he did it as a congressman. I like that Ford pardoned Nixon, because he did it knowing people would howl. He knew it would damage any hope he might have of being elected president, and yet he did it anyway, because he believed it was right. I don't think that exists much any more, the doing of something unpopular simply because it is right.

Doing the unpopular is certainly rare in public life -- can you imagine Joe Biden or John Kerry or Trent Lott so much as tossing out the opening pitch at a Little League game without first poll-testing to see which style of pitch is most popular with swing voters? But unpopular action is rare in private life as well, as evidenced by a Saturday afternoon trip to your local mall, where you will witness repeated variations on the theme of parents pleading with their children to behave, or simply ignoring bad behavior, because to confront it might plummet their standing in the kiddie polls. Most of us are guilty, it seems, of giving bread and circuses to our constituents at least once in a while.

This is why the two elected officials I admire most right now are Joe Lieberman and George Bush, even though I probably disagree with much if not most of the policies they seek to advance. I admire them because, at least some of the time, they try to do what they believe is right, regardless of what people think. Though he's no longer in office, I admire former congressman and 9/11 Commission member Tim Roemer for the same reasons. He has goodness in him. He has the courage to pursue what he believes is good.

One might argue that Hussein, too, pursued a worldview -- however twisted -- because he believed it was right. The difference turns on the fact that he was in fact evil, and his worldview was evil. Shove aside all the sophistry and nonsense that attaches itself to nihilistic post-modern political theorizing, and you cannot escape the fact (if you have a brain in your head) that the political goals of some people are profoundly, undeniably evil. The raw brutality with which Hussein pursued his political goals reminds us that the concept of evil can't be banned from the public arena without denuding our discourse. No matter how much the chattering classes mocked the notion of an Evil Empire, or an Axis of Evil, both observations were true, and there is something deeply admirable about people who are willing to say such true things.

Courage and goodness. When I think about the content of those terms, the future appears hopeless indeed, because courage and goodness in our public sphere seem to be rare and dissipating qualities. We have only ourselves to blame, of course, because we wallow in ignorance and we worship the ignorant, and because we are loathe to suffer discomfort, all of which means that we find ourselves repeatedly empowering and rewarding immoral, gutless panderers.

Later this morning on NPR I heard an interview with a man who studies rats. The journalist asked him what he's learned from his study of rats. He responded that rats, like people, are creatures of the earth. He said that rats mostly want the same things that people want. Rats don't like people any more than people like rats. And so on. It reminded me of James Clavell's King Rat, about inmates of a WWII prisoner of war camp.

I wasn't sure if the rat scientist's point was to elevate the rat or reduce humanity. Certainly rats don't worry over raising their children to be moral creatures, or leap onto grenades to save their fellows, but neither do they torture their enemies. Rats are capable neither of goodness nor evil. Man is capable of both, but he seems to revel in the latter. He redefines it, builds a religion or a moral code to support it, and then he revels in it. And he abhors, with especial hatred, the good or courageous person who says: "what you do is evil."

Yet there persist those few with courage and goodness. Sometimes I fear that there are fewer of them than we think, and more latent Husseins and Goebbels and Pol Pots than we care to believe. The heart of man is a terrible dark thing, a fact to which I can attest after careful study of my own. I draw hope from what Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl wrote in Man's Search for Meaning:

"Our generation is realistic, for we have come to know man as he really is. After all, man is that being who invented the gas chambers of Auschwitz; however, he is also that being who entered those gas chambers upright, with the Lord's Prayer or the Shema Yisrael on his lips."

They say Hussein muttered a prayer before his neck was snapped. I suspect he is surprised to find himself in Hell. I suppose most of its recent inhabitants are, because we have lost the courage, as Unabomber victim David Gelernter noted, "to call evil by its right name." And yet it endures, and we endure it, and occasionally we put someone on trial, as much to tell ourselves that evil is not in us as to exact justice. Yet as Solzhenitsyn observed, the line between good and evil "divides the heart of every man."

The encouraging thing about that idea is its suggestion that the kernels of goodness and courage reside within each of us. Though we have a nasty habit of choosing evil and cowardice, we don't have to. We don't have to do wickedness -- the grave or the petty -- any more than we have to do good. It doesn't have to be this way, in other words.

It doesn't have to be this way. We can't change the world, and for every Hussein we hang there will be another thug, and another after him. We can't fix the world by ourselves, but we can change the terrain of our hearts. So I'll make a deal with you. In 2007, and all the years I have left, I'll try to live with more goodness and courage, and you do the same. Because it doesn't have to be this way, you see. It can be better. We can be better.

I pray for you a peaceful end to this year, and a new year with a little more courage, and a little more goodness.

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Tuesday, November 14, 2006

I'm sitting in an airport restaurant near three men, three boisterous men drinking at 10:30 a.m. on a Tuesday. The oldest, who appears to be about thirty-five and dressed like he's twenty, is instructing the others on the tragedy of fatherhood. "My advice," he says, "is not to have kids. Or if you have them, just have one. You can have one without changing your lifestyle much. But once you have more than one, everything changes. The people with kids tell you it's great, but I think they're just saying that so you'll fall for it and be miserable too. Even with one you've got to wait twenty years until the little bastard's out of the house."

Meanwhile, Crosby, Stills, and Nash's "Teach Your Children Well" is playing over the restaurant's tinny speakers. I find myself shaking with anger. I come close to getting up and hitting him. I haven't hit someone I didn't know since 7th grade, but now I am certain that I am going to beat this man senseless with his bar stool.

"So just look at them and sigh," whisper the restaurant speakers, ". . . and know they love you . . ."

Their conversation meanders on to golf and women and work. I eat my food, and I can't taste it. I think, though my own three boys are near to killing me, that I'll take all of them, all the children not wanted because they don't fit someone's lifestyle. You sit on a bar stool in an airport and laugh out your contempt and you think they don't know, but they know. They always know.

On my way out I stop to interrupt their laughter. "I overhead what you said about how it's terrible to be a father, and I want to encourage you, as a man who has three little boys and who's buried his little girl, to see them as a blessing."

He smiles, embarrassed, all the wind out of him now, out of his boisterous friends. He nods, and says: "Oh yeah, I do, every day." I pat him on the back, not believing him, and tell him to have a good day, not meaning it, and he smiles a thin smile and tells me to do the same.

I hope he remembers. I hope he puts to death in himself some of the selfishness that would lead him to declare, in an airport bar over a drink on a Tuesday morning, that he wishes his children didn't exist. I hope I remember, too, because at times I've been no less selfish, simply less honest. I wanted to punch him, because at times I have been him.

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Wednesday, October 18, 2006

A Whisper

The day after I wrote about the miraculous recovery of Caleb's goldfish, the damn thing up and died. We had a funeral service in the back yard, beside a tiny redbud sapling. I decided to make it a dual funeral, and include Eli's goldfish, who died in the middle of the night some weeks before. It hadn't occurred to us to have a funeral for Eli's fish, because he wasn't that concerned when he found the thing floating at the top of the bowl. He's sparing with his affections, that boy. But since we were going to have the funeral for Caleb's fish, it seemed only right to include Eli's fish.

So there we stood around the little redbud, beside a small scooped-out bit of mud, at the bottom of which lay Caleb's fish. Eli's fish lay in a plastic baggie somewhere in the Sedgwick County landfill, but I told him I had buried the little fellow by this same tree after it died. One day, I suppose, he'll read that here. I hope you understand, Eli, and don't let the bitterness turn you into one of those twits who tells his children that Santa is just "the spirit of Christmas," explains in cold clinical detail, at the first sign of interest, how babies come to be, and makes them call their private parts by the actual medical names. Parenting is about pointing to truth, but sometimes the best way to reveal truth is with something made up.

In any event, we stood beside that little hole in the ground and I said a few words, which amounted to: "Lord, thank you for our time with Gold Star and . . . Eli, what's your fish's name?"


"Right. Lord, we thank you for our time with Gold Star and John. They were good little fish, and they never complained. We thank you that now they are swimming in golden ponds in Heaven. Amen."


I filled in the hole, and Caleb cried. Eli cried on the inside, I guess. Then we went to get a treat.

I suppose there's no shielding the little ones from heartache, so long as we raise them to love anything. I see it in myself, too, that I restrain my affection for fear of loss, or rejection. Everything is awkward with people, because just to be, just to see and be seen, is too fearful. It's why I keep people away.

Except for these babies. They have an unbreakable hold on my heart that I cannot understand. I remember after Caleb was born, and the pain of losing Caroline was still so sharp, that I avoided loving him. It wasn't on purpose, and I only realized later that I had done it, but there it was, a wall to protect against ever facing the terror again.

But that little boy's smiles are like an ocean, and each wave piled into the next until I found myself loving him as fiercely as I had ever loved my daughter. And then came Elijah, the solemn little prophet, and then Isaac, our laughter. I used to think I would never laugh again. I thought there could never be joy again. And yet my house is filled with it.

So we're back to the slow, quiet miracle. Sometimes when I am alone I whisper "thank you," over and over. I never knew it could be this way. And do you know the most exciting thing, the realization that makes me tremble as I consider it? It's the fact that there could be other miracles ahead, slowly building until you or I recognize them for what they are, and find ourselves stumbling about in a world that isn't as dark as we once thought it, whispering: "Thank you."

Thank you. Whisper it, right now. It's a nice feeling, isn't it, to know that there's joy, even in the midst of sadness? Tomorrow night will mark seven years since she breathed her last in our arms. I realized the other day that I've been deeply sad and soul-weary for weeks, and that it's always this way when the weather cools and the light changes and my body remembers. You think it will fade and then you smell her or hear a squeal that sounds like her and it hits you full in the chest, and you remember that she is etched into you so that it will never not hurt.

But there is this joy, in the midst of it. I think somehow they're intertwined, and I don't understand why. I only know that now, even in this immense sadness like a black lake, I can whisper thanks. Even here there is hope, for me, for you, for anyone with eyes to see it.

Thank you.

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Thursday, June 22, 2006

Three Cowboys

Last night we went to The Prairie Rose Chuckwagon supper, where they feed you brisket, beans, and biscuits until you pop, and then sing cowboy songs. Caleb and Eli went in their cowboy gear: big hats, shooting irons guns strapped to their waists, clippity-cloppity little cowboy boots on their feet. Isaac had no guns, just a big red cowboy hat that he mostly threw off his head when nobody was looking.

As supper finished a grandmotherly lady took the two older boys backstage to teach them the cowboy way -- how to be real cowboys, not beautiful little things pretending to be cowboys as they sashay through the hills.

Meanwhile the singing commenced, interspersed with jokes most writers aren't clever enough to produce any more ("Slim's wife cooks so bad that the flies got together and fixed the screen door"). Isaac alternated between dancing in the aisle and trying to climb up onto the tables in order to place his life in danger, which seems to be its own reward for this boy.

Then it was time for the children to perform. Normally the place is packed with kids, but on this particular evening it was filled almost entirely with wild-spirited geriatrics on a bus tour and a large group of men from Sweden. (By the way, are there just no white socks in Europe, or is cool there to sport the brown polyester socks with the white Adidas?)

So the kid show consisted entirely of Caleb and Eli. They walked up onto the stage to join the Wranglers, as the cowboy band is known, in a round of "Deep in the Heart of Texas" ("The stars at night, are big and bright, clap, clap, clap, clap deep in the heart of Texas..."). I'm never worried about Caleb in these situations -- the boy thinks it's natural that an entire roomful of people should be interested in him. It's Eli I fret over, the shy lamb who buries his face in my shirt when he gets embarrassed. But there he stood on a stage, under bright lights, in front of nearly a hundred people, the serious little cowboy, concentrating on the song so he could get the clapping right.

His clapping was perfect. They finished the song and the crowd went ape, or as near to ape as a bunch of astoundingly old people and dorky Swedes can get. Isaac probably clapped the loudest, having gotten over his fury at not being allowed to traipse up onto stage with his brothers. Caleb tipped his hat and bowed and scurried down the steps, but Eli stood there, not quite sure what to do, looking back and forth, beginning to realize that everybody was watching. Then the biggest cowboy, Cyclone Stu, leaned down and whispered in his ear. Eli responded by taking off his big black hat and bowing deep at his waist, the way only little ones can do. That just sent the audience over the edge with applause.

The boys made their way to the back and sat down on a bench on either side of me. Cool as two little cucumbers, each stuck a lollipop in his mouth like so much chewing tobacco and kicked back to enjoy the rest of the show. Because that's how cowboys roll.

After the show we lingered at the back of the crowd, which is only partly true because it's not like we had a choice, between trying to find a lost sippy cup and wiping beans off of hands and helping little cowboys understand that not all old people enjoy having sidearms pointed at them. At the doorway stood the Wranglers, who seemed ready to make my own little wranglers a permanent addition to their band. There was much big cowboy/little cowboy talk, and some agreement that Isaac was the next Garth Brooks based on body weight and cuteness alone, though of course nobody said anything about the cuteness because real cowboys don't talk that way.

As we left one of them said, in a deep, serious voice meant specifically for me: "You've got a real nice family there." Sometimes people say that, with an urgency in their voices, a need for me to understand it, almost as if they can see in my face every time I have forgotten it. And always I nod and smile and say thank you, though I know it has nothing to do with me, that it is a gift.

So we loaded up into our modern-day wagon and rolled across the plains back to civilization, three exhausted little cowpokes in the back already snoozing, their bellies full of beans, their guns safely holstered, their hands sticky from lollipops. And as they began to drift into prairie dreams their dad steered the team, wishing these days could stretch on forever, filled with happiness over his lot in life and a little sadness at what is lost and what will be lost.

And just like when one of those big cowboys slaps you on the back and calls you "pardner" and it makes you feel like just maybe a little part of you could be a cowboy too, I realized, being close to my three little cowboys with their wild dreams and innocent hearts, how often they make me better than I would otherwise be. They've ridden into town, each in his own little way, and cleaned it up. They've brought chaos and joy in equal measures, and now the house is a different place. I guess that's how cowboys roll.

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Friday, June 16, 2006

My Tribe

I've been thinking about tribes, and how we all belong to them, and how sometimes the most important part of membership is that others not be members. Our neighborhood is like that, governed by a clique of sour old women and sprinkled with people who have country club written all over their well-tanned faces, and there sits our family feeling small and out of place. We've decided we don't like our neighborhood one bit, not its self-important association meetings nor its overindulged teenagers nor the instinct of its residents to be so, well, unneighborly.

Which is strange, because I've only recently decided to keep a ridiculous-looking flagpole in our front yard because a friend pointed out that I can fly a "Don't Tread On Me" flag. That's how tribal thinking works: I don't want to be in their mean-spirited little tribe, yet I resent not being welcomed.

I've resigned from some tribes in the past couple of years. First I left the Republicans, which, let's face it, was never going to work out anyway. I had only been a member of their tribe because the alternatives were so laughable, but I realized one evening, as I sat through an excruciatingly insipid speech by a senior member of the Bush Administration, that sometimes being in a tribe carries a moral connotation, in the sense that we lend our sanction to those with whom which we choose to associate. If this was the best my tribe had to offer, I decided, then I shall be finished with them.

Actually, it was more visceral than that -- I simply couldn't stomach the thought of anyone believing that I throw myself in with the likes of that woman whose mouth seemed to spew banalities and half-truths so effortlessly. The falling out had begun years before, and perhaps it's unfair to lay it entirely at her feet; I'd interacted with enough Republicans in Washington, D.C. to realize that they have no advantage over their opponents in character, principle, honor, or even economic common sense.

And now they race headlong into fall elections looking every bit as venal and arrogant as did the Democrats in the early 1990's, and all I can think is what I thought in 1994: good riddance.

Then there is the N.R.A., which I had joined in an ill-considered moment of enthusiasm following a handgun course at their national headquarters, an action I've never quite understood, because the course itself was largely useless and the majority of instructors profoundly taken with their own skill and cleverness. But I joined nonetheless, and thereby became entitled to a bumper sticker, a magazine, and approximately one million shrill mail solicitations.

They called me a couple of months ago, to ask how I would feel if the U.N. took away my guns. This is like asking someone in Michigan if he's worried about the Canadians invading.

I understand why they do this: the fundraising statistics suggest that, as a member, I am likely to get so riled by the thought of blue-helmeted, dark-skinned people parachuting, Red Dawn-like, onto the plains to seize my Smith & Wesson that I will write a check to help cover Wayne LaPierre's considerable salary. Sadly for the young lady on the other end of the line, however, statistics are not always reliable predictors of individual behavior, which in my case entailed laughing and saying, "No really, who is this? Aunt Debbie, is that you?"

Once we established that the poor child was in fact calling on behalf of the National Rifle Association, I explained to her that I've never been troubled by the whole black helicopters coming to take over America thing. She was prepared with a sophisticated rebuttal, but unfortunately we were cut off when I put the phone back in its cradle.

I'm still in the tribe of people who believe a well-armed populace is the only ultimately effective form of congressional term limit. But I am no longer in the N.R.A. tribe. I mean, really. The U.N.? Has anyone, anywhere, ever been disarmed by these people? The U.N. couldn't break up a slap fight at a Josh Groban concert, and yet the leaders of my former tribe decide to sic their summer interns on the rest of us with that canard. Again, to be a member of the tribe is to lend its leaders sanction, and up with this crap a thinking man cannot put.

There are other tribes I've drifted from, mostly cliques, tribes within tribes, circles of friends or acquaintances that I've let myself float away from, which is as easy as letting go. Some of these I regret, others not.

I wonder if something in me is broken, if there is a gene that predisposes us to tribal affiliations but which is bent over backward in my blood, so that I recoil from groups. I suppose there is no point in wondering. In the end there are only the two tribes that matter to me: the scattered tribe of simpatico people, those friends you can travel with in silence and know that it is okay, the ones who understand what funny is and is not, the ones you know in the first moments of meeting, but who are so rare and so rarely in the same place; and most important, my tribe of five, huddled together on our little patch of splendor in the Kansas plains. When I think about my family sprawled about me in our big bed on a Saturday morning, wallowing and giggling and thinking about pancakes for breakfast, I can't understand why anyone would give a fig for the rest of it.

Which is more proof, as if any of us needed it, that I'm not cut out to be a member in the other tribes. And that's okay by me.

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Tuesday, June 6, 2006


I'm the designated bather in our house. Sure, sometimes the wife has to bring it, but on a daily basis, I'm the go-to guy.

Okay, I lied a little. We don't wash our kids every day. With the onslaught of summer this will have to change. These are some grubby, grimy little babies. I plopped Isaac in the tub last night and immediately had to call an emergency stop to the operation, because brown clouds were forming around his feet. Seems he had snuck outside after dinner without shoes. And then he peed, a fact that seemed to surprise him as he looked down at the gentle yellow fountain springing up from the water.

Empty the tub, scrub the feet, rinse the tub, start again.

The boy loves his baths. When I lead the children upstairs for their scrubbing I usually call it a "bathy-wathy," as in: "Come on buddies, time for a bathy-wathy."

Did I mention that I have guns and used to kickbox?

Never mind.

Bathy-wathy is what we call it. And yes, we have other cute names for things. The boys call their toes "tosers," and their male parts are "weenie-wangers," much to the chagrin of their mother. We're not all about conquering and fighting and peeing on things, you know.

Anyway, Isaac can't say "bathy-wathy." He says "habby-bappy." But he gets it all the same, because as soon as I say "bathy-wathy" he races to the bathroom, hooting and clapping, as if he is aware of just how bad he smells. In reality it's not that at all; he's just excited about the prospect of being buck-naked and slippery, and really, who among us isn't?

The boy still hasn't grasped the fact that he has to get all the way naked before he gets in the tub. I can't really blame him; we all have to keep an eye on Eli to make sure he doesn't get in with his socks on, whereas Caleb always forgets to pee first and remembers as soon as he sits down in the warm water.

So I have to strip the little monkey while he squirms to get into the tub. There's often food tucked somewhere in the folds of his clothes -- a bean, perhaps a grain of rice, one time a near-perfect potato chip (which was especially odd, because we didn't have any potato chips in the house that day). I have to keep him from eating what we find. He is under the impression that man has a moral obligation to eat all food in sight, and that furthermore if it came from inside his onesie then by God it belongs to him.

The bathing is like an assembly line; grab one squirmy little boy, put him in front of me, douse him into relative submission, scrub his mop of hair, use that as the soap reservoir from which to scoop handfuls of suds for the rest of the body. The littlest thinks I am trying to tickle him, which means his neck and underarms are always dubiously clean at best. Then more dousing amidst protests: The water is in my eyes! The water is in my ears! Dad, you are drowning me! Ahhhhh!

This is followed by pleas that I let them play in the tub for awhile, said play consisting of sticking their faces in the same water they were quite sure was going to kill them seconds before. So I usually let them play in the grey pool for a bit, not because I'm especially nice or lenient, but because after washing three boys I need a rest.

Then there is the drying, and the unabashed streaking, and finally, a story, read with one in my lap and one on either side, all smelling sweet and decidedly un-boy-like, three wild little hearts beating through their chests against my tired flesh, which suddenly doesn't seem so tired any more.

No matter how sad and small and stupid I feel from a day of doing nothing that seemed substantial, in that moment I think I've found something I was formed to be good at. All else falls away; there is only their breathing, and my words, and the knitting together of four hearts. I hope it will never be frayed to breaking by our mistakes and sins. I hope it will sustain us. I hope that one day each of them will finally realize, as they hold their own children and recall this moment, how much I have loved them.

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Monday, March 27, 2006

Father of the Year

I'm in an air museum with all three boys in tow. The two oldest are seated in the replica cockpit of a helicopter. The youngest and most troublesome is strapped to my back in a contraption designed for children less dense than iridium, which he is not.

I am trying to be a good father, though they tax my patience, especially the wee one with his ear-pulling and newfound spitting skills. To that end I am leaning into the cockpit to show my sons how the controls work.


It is the voice of a librarian, a schoolteacher, a junior senator from New York, or some other such female-type killjoy. I am physiologically and ideologically predisposed to ignore such voices. I continue my instruction.


I glance in her direction. It is a woman with her own children in tow. She looks concerned. She is a concerned mother.

"Yes?" I ask this in the terse-yet-polite voice I reserve for people I am not allowed to openly despise. What business could this woman possibly have with me?

"You're whacking your baby's head against the top of the helicopter."

Oh. Well then. I had heard the thumping, but as a parent you grow immune to the minor noises.

Little stinker should sing out if he's hurt, if you ask me. Still, a good reminder that even when we think we are something special, the odds are against it.

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Thursday, December 22, 2005

Honey Don't Ever Leave Me

My wife is a miracle worker. I know this from the fact that every day I come home and the children are neither dead nor in the custody of the state. I like to think I have some organizational skill. Hard-won discipline. Decision-making ability. I get paid for all these things, for crying out loud. By people with little tolerance for failure.

So consider the scene. Trying to be a good husband, I offered to take the boys to the grocery store -- the Wal-Mart, no less -- while the wife did a little shopping and had some nice alone time in a coffee shop with her book.

Because I'm a saint that way, and because I am an idiot.

The boys and me wheeled into the slushy grocery store parking lot and made our way inside without, I would like it noted, any loss of mittens, caps, or other little person anti-cold paraphernalia. Inside, with the older two in tow, I secured a cart and then went through the combination of origami and kung-fu necessary to secure Isaac inside the cart. I took off his coat and gear, which seems way too complicated for such a tough and fat baby, and then turned to remove his brothers' coats.

But the boys were gone. Not in the cart section. Not in the entrance way. Not outside playing in traffic. After a frantic visual scan in the face of hectoring from an exuberant greeter, I saw them about thirty feet ahead, in produce.

Caleb was looking wildly about, beginning to get irritated. I could read his mind from where I stood: How did Dad get lost?

Eli, meanwhile, had attached himself to the front of someone's cart, oblivious to the fact that despite being dark-haired, this man looked nothing like his father. The man stood there with his wife, both unsure how exactly one safely and legally detaches a strange child from the front of one's grocery cart.

And that was just the first five minutes of our Wal-Mart shopping experience.

If I were a better husband I would get my wife something like a one-person vacation to Maui for Christmas. Instead I'm thinking of having her fitted for one of those ankle devices that allows people to track your whereabouts.

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Friday, November 4, 2005

Foil Wrappers

Isaac discovered there's candy in those shiny scraps of paper the boys are hoarding. I don't know if you've ever had a toddler new to walking try to run from you, but it is a tragicomic sight: little hips wiggling to get the wary legs to flop faster, arms out like a wader in a lake, and in Isaac's case, a chubby hand desperately clutching a Tootsie Roll with one end of the wrapper gnawed and partially embedded in the exposed brown sugary goodness.

And the wailing when he was caught and disarmed, oh, the sheer misery of it all. You'd think we'd told him the breastfeeding won't last forever.

He was bound to figure it out I suppose, what with all the excitement Halloween night, the boys dressed up more than usual (Caleb: a centurion -- though he insisted he was a gladiator; Eli: Buzz Lightyear -- though he has never seen the movie so far as I know -- complete with homemade rocket pack), the doorbell ringing, creaking open, gaggles of freaks on the stoop with bags and satchels and baskets and buckets and pillow cases, Mom and Dad and Caleb (until his generosity threatened to impoverish us) dropping handfuls of color into them. The boy is ours, after all, related to his brothers, who can smell on your breath if you've had a single 13 letter-13 letter (our code for M&M's, rapidly becoming useless as the oldest knows his letters and can count to fifty) three hours before.

So now the hiding of the candy has become not just a delightful and innately inspired ritual for the boys, an avatar of our pirate-and-plunder heritage as men red of tooth and dagger, but a necessity, and by golly you'd better hide it well, because the little imp is relentless.

An imp would have been the perfect costume for the boy, had we dressed him up, had we tolerated ghoulish and devilish outfits, which we don't, and shame on you if you let your twelve-year old go out looking like Linda Blair midway through make-up, and shame on her parents while we're at it, and on anyone associated with that film, which is based on an excellent story and certainly powerful on celluloid beyond the fact that it was tantamount to child abuse.

But I digress, which I do from time to time, as licensed by the address above and expected by the reader, if not always the writer.

The point is, we did not dress up the imp. Instead we put him in a red wagon and pulled him behind, stopping every five feet to sit him back down, because there is some sort of defect in the boy that produces an anti-gravitational instinct -- wherever he is, he wants to be higher. Last weekend I stood behind him as he climbed a step ladder to the top rung, and then tried to climb atop the curved bar at its pinnacle, and all the while I thought: he'll fall and I'll catch him but on the way down he'll learn a little something about not risking life and limb so readily.

But of course he didn't fall, instead he twisted around to see me standing there and hooted and wiggled in his triumph over Mt. Stepladder, until the hubris was too much and I had to extract him, to wails of protest, followed by the stubborn set of chin and deliberate stomping crawl back to the bottom rung. And I thought, this is what God has to put up with, every single day. This is the point of parenting, from his perspective, his way of saying See? Do you see what you people are like?"

I suppose it's good Isaac didn't learn so readily the lesson I intended him to learn. I want no harm to befall these children, but the world wants different, and the sad truth of it is they cannot conquer life and certainly not death without risking all that I would keep safe forever. This is the sadness of parenthood, knowing that suffering is coming, hurling at them like a bullet fired purposely, and though everything in us would dash in front of them to stop it, we must stand still, though close, as close as they'll have us, and let it strike their sweet innocent hearts, and watch some of the sweetness shrivel, and the innocence retreat, and see them become warier and wiser. This is, Buechner would say, the tragedy.

And the comedy is that they learn, if God is as present as we beg him to be, when we aren't ignoring him in hopes that he won't be present at all, at least not until we've finished worshipping our latest idol, that all wrongs are set to right, that they are loved beyond measure in spite of what the world does to them, regardless of the fatal weaknesses into which they were born. And the fairy tale, to complete my reference to the lovely collection of sermons disguised as speeches pretending to be somewhat distant from the sermon, so that people would hear it, is that one day the sweetness and innocence is returned, partially as they weather the storm of the world and find God at its eye, and totally in the great transfiguration, the final realization of the hope we nurture and don't always believe but are too desperate -- and thank God we are desperate -- to abandon to the soul-melting ravages of common sense and worldly wisdom.

Again with the digression, but as in any conversation if you listen closely, the digressions are often the point.

So the boy rolled along behind in a wagon, and the older two charged ahead, Caleb somewhat more suited to that role, sword leveled, face sometimes gleeful, sometime serious as the parts in him ready to kill dragons come to life more and more everyday, Eli running behind, his little legs churning and churning, and me praying and praying that he would not fall, because he runs so fast, and the ground waiting for us is so unforgiving. He did fall, and then I carried him, arms holding him tight, his cold soft cheek pressed against mine, and I set him in front of each house and let him charge across their yards to retrieve his prey, and then back to the arms of his father to be carried to the next conquest, and I could have carried him all night, forever, even, if he would just stop growing, but he won't.

"I wonder what this next house will have, Eli. Maybe bubble gum, or a candy bar, or some Hershey's kisses..."

"A kiss like this." (smooch)

A kiss far better than chocolate. If only I could wrap it in foil and save it for later, hoard it like they guard their candy, taking out one at a time when the dress-up time is past, when the boy is a man and it is me slowing us down, and I can no longer carry him though I would, though I would.

Maybe that's what all these words are, tin foil saving hints of what will not last, stowed away for the day when they are not so plentiful. But for now the kisses are fresh, like their hearts, and before I go to work I will tip-toe upstairs, to their room, and kiss them each, breathe in their little-boy smells, and wonder again at the marvelous unmerited grace that leads them to sleep safe, all of them under my roof.

posted by Woodlief | link | (11) comments

Monday, October 24, 2005

Spider, Man

There's little more humbling than squealing like a little girl in front of the youngsters you've been charged with raising into men. After the arduous task of dressing three little boys for church - a chore that, let me tell you, really does not put one in the frame of mind for contemplating Jesus, I set about getting dressed myself. I had an audience of three, each chattering as if the others were not talking, each intent on being heard.

Then I saw it - a creepy brown spider crawling up the inside of the very shirt I was about to put on. I couldn't tell if it was a brown recluse, given that these rotten little beasts are so, well, reclusive. But I wasn't taking any chances. "C'mon boys!" I boldly called to them, and we headed for the bathroom, where I shook the shirt over the toilet. The intruder was about to go to his grey-watery grave.

But after the shaking, I saw no spider in the toilet. Nor was he on it. Or on the floor beside it. "Back up boys," I said, decidedly less boldness in my voice. Somehow he had escaped. No matter, I thought - the wife will find him.

Back into the bedroom we went, talking about spiders - can they kill you, do they eat people, can they ride bicycles...

And then I looked down, and saw him crawling up my chest.

You know how in the movies, when somebody gets some kind of icky crawly creature on him, he slaps hysterically at it with both hands, making distinctly unmanly sounds?

This is exactly true to life. Hollywood, I salute you for getting this, at least, dead to rights.

The spider, rest his soul, was killed by my flurry of self-inflicted judo chops. He lay crumpled in a little heap on the carpet, to what would have been the endless fascination of the two older boys, had the youngest not tried to eat him.

Copious amounts of toilet paper for the pick-up and one flush later, I was ready to move on to other topics. Monsters, bicycles, wet dreams, the tribulation - anything but Dad's display of cowardice in the face of the enemy. The children, however, all seem to have a great talent for mimicry. Even the youngest began squawking in response to his brothers' re-enactments.

We revisited this inglorious moment throughout the day. Even later that evening, as we ate with friends, I looked over to see Caleb describing it to the little girl with whom he is quite infatuated. She, of course, thought this was hilarious. They had a wonderful laugh.

Such are the indignities of fatherhood. Sometimes we are warriors, sometimes we are teachers, and sometimes we are clowns.

And the next time this clown sees a spider in his closet, he's likely just to get the shotgun. Now that will give them a story to remember.

posted by Woodlief | link | (13) comments

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Love and Taxes

Despite what you might think, doing taxes together is not a good means of drawing close to your spouse.

I can see how one might expect otherwise, that it could foster a "You and me versus the World" mentality, or simply give occasion for one spouse, say the one who doesn't have to get up at five every morning and schlep ninety minutes to work, to recognize what a great provider the other spouse is, and perhaps give him a congratulatory back rub.

Not so much.

Tax time in our house is like one of those frantic side scenes in disaster movies like "Titanic" and "The Towering Inferno," only punctuated with titles of arcane government forms.

"It says we need the 8385-B, 'Reconciliation of overcontributions to retirement and pension funds.' Where are we supposed to get that?"

"What the hell is an overcontribution? That sounds like a made-up word, like 'pre-boarding,' or 'impacting.' It doesn't even make sense."

"It means we contributed too much. What does the I-943 form say, on line 238?"

"It says 43 cents."

"No, you're looking at SI-942. I'm talking about I-943."

"Well how the hell did our *%#$!*! S-forms get mixed in with our federal forms?"

"I don't see any need for you to take the Lord's name in vain like that."

"In vain? In vain? It's not in vain. I earnestly, truly want him to manifest himself right now, in all his righteous splendor, and smite Caesar and all his minions with their petty rules and hellish forms! Oh no, sister, it's not in vain at all!"

"I don't think raising your voice will help matters."

"Fine. While you're digging in that pile, can you find me the 6243-7211B subsection-S form again? I think I filled in a number from the wrong line. Sorry."

"Sweet holy mother of God!"

"Look, if I can't call on the Savior, then you're not allowed to call on his mother."

"Make me a pitcher of frozen margaritas right now, or I'm filing for divorce."

Somehow we survived, and even got our sorry, unreliable new Epson printer, which is rivaled in its undependability only by the thoroughly unsatisfactory customer service of it manufacturer, to print the forms in mostly readable fashion. (Note to Epson: I'll be glad to amend this comment, which Google should do a nice job of picking up, especially when I include phrases like "review of Epson" and "Epson customer service," once you people stop sending me sorry refurbs as replacements for the brand new printer that never worked in the first place, and actually provide a workable return label so we don't make fruitless trips to the FedEx office in an effort to return your third-rate merchandise).

I like to think my wife and I are stronger for the ordeal, but I'm glad the exercise only comes once a year. I feel the IRS pushing me to a point of bifurcation -- either I will simplify my life to the point that I have only one small form to fill out, or I will assemble enough wealth that I can afford a legion of accountants and lawyers to battle forms on my behalf. As in most things, the middle ground stinks.

On a lighter note, Eli is picking up a little French.

"Daddy, do you know what 'bon appetit' means?"

"No, Eli, what does it mean?"

"It means 'have a nice eating.'"

He's such a cute little tax deduction boy.

posted by Woodlief | link | (10) comments

Monday, March 14, 2005

Look Before You Leap

We're playing in the back yard, soaking up the last warmth before another cold front rolls in. I'm kicking a miniature soccer ball around and Caleb and Eli are squealing as they chase it, periodically whacking me in the shins with their little sneakers. Caleb has learned to throw his body into mine in order to make space to steal the ball. Eli hasn't learned this, nor has he learned that the only place where the ball absolutely will not be is where it lies when he begins one of his full-tilt charges. I feel a little guilty, like when you give your dog a peanut butter cracker and watch him lick at it incessantly after it gets stuck to the top of his mouth. But if you can't enjoy your children, why have them?

I pick up a little red ball and say, "Hey boys, watch this." I drop-kick it high into the air, inspiring them each to utter "ohhhhh" as it launches. It arcs as the earth pulls it back home, and then it lands with a thud on the other side of the short picket fence running along the edge of our back yard.

A relevant piece of information in this story is that our neighbors own two gigantic furry beasts that are "dogs" in the same sense that Hummers are "passenger vehicles." No kidding, when we first moved in and before I was sure they couldn't get over the fence, I kept my handgun close by when the kids were out back. But the dogs proved fairly passive and immobile, and today they weren't even outside.

Or so I thought, as I put my hands on top of the fence and propelled myself over it.

Now, if you're a giant, hulking, protective canine, and you want to catch someone invading your space, about the only place you can hide in that yard is behind a little scrap of tall fence that precedes the long run of short fence comprising most of our border. This is how I know he wanted me to jump the fence, because he was crouched behind the tall section. Had this been a court of law, I might have gone free with this proof of entrapment.

But this was not court, this was High Noon, and my gun was safely, uselessly tucked away in my bedroom. As an aside, I know they have statistics on how locking up your sidearm leads to fewer accidental shootings, but do they track the cost of fewer on purpose shootings? Just pointing out that gun safety isn't always.

Not that I could have blamelessly shot the creature; I was in his yard after all, and it's just not Christian to jump your neighbor's fence and shoot his dog. That may be something they would do, say, in New York City -- if they had guns and yards, that is -- but not down here. It's not that we're less violent, mind you, it has more to do with the fact that if you shoot a man's dog down south, he's liable to jump your fence and shoot you back.

I confess that this thinking has only occurred in retrospect. My immediate thought as I landed to the sound of a deep, fearsome growl was less edifying. Think Sergeant Hulka in "Stripes," as the errant mortar round whistles toward him, and you have the extent of my eloquence in a moment of duress.

Now here's an interesting geographical tidbit about Tony's back yard: it's sloped, such that the fence is considerably taller from the other side. I wouldn't have known that, had I not been standing seven feet from a furry monster with an alarming ability to accelerate. Were I not over there with him, the difficult return leap would have given me comfort as I contemplated his irritation.

But I believe in a God of miracles, and more importantly in this case, a God who equips our bodies with a natural wonder-drug called "adrenaline." Adrenaline, I can now attest, has the remarkable property of enabling one to leap with all the vigor and dignity of a cricket on crack.

As I scrambled back over the fence, I saw the distinctive personalities of my sons on display. Caleb stood a safe distance from the fence and pointed out that I was leaving his ball to the mercies of the dog. Eli, meanwhile, had laid hold of the fence with both hands and was halfway up it.

I landed and peeled the brave little idiot boy off the fence as the dog reached the opposite side. I swear I could smell human flesh on his breath. Or maybe it was just squirrel. It was definitely something that had been a reluctant meal. I shepherded the boys away from the fence, to the sounds of Caleb's protests.

"But Daddy, you forgot my ball!"

"Dude, did you see the big dog?"

"Yeah, and he's gonna eat my ball!"

"Would you rather him eat your ball, or your Daddy?"

Not yet instinctive in his telling of little white lies, Caleb weighed the options.

"Listen," I said as I maneuvered to obstruct his line of sight, not wanting him to suffer the trauma of seeing his ball devoured, "we have other balls." Having just come close to providing a new chew toy to a waist-high carnivore, I was exquisitely aware of this fact, let me assure you.

He contorted his body to look around mine, equally determined to see. "But not another red one."

The dog sniffed the ball, harrumphed, and squatted down beside it to taunt us. Not wanting my sons to see their old man bested, I came up with a brilliant solution. "Hey boys, let's throw the Frisbee!"

"Oh, okay," said Caleb.

"Frisbee!" shouted his brother, no doubt thinking this would present another opportunity to climb into the mouth of danger.

"You know, the wind isn't very strong back here. Let's take it to the front yard."

I think I saw the dog smirking as we left him in possession of the red ball. Yes, fine, you're the bigger dog. But my sons still think I'm tougher than I really am, and for all your ability to intimidate, you still have to scratch yourself with your teeth. So bite me.

Figuratively speaking, of course.

posted by Woodlief | link | (12) comments

Friday, April 30, 2004

Buy High and Sell Low

I've not yet had the need to plan my own funeral, but I suspect that when I do it will be much like preparing for a yard sale. There's the general sense of getting one's affairs in order, tidying things up a bit -- not because I really care whether some slob I don't know thinks that I am a untidy, but simply because that's what decent people do -- and putting everything in its rightful place.

There's also a Judgment Day air infusing it all, as my possessions -- extensions of me, or at least what gift-buying members of my family think of me -- are separated, some for service in their father's house, others to be cast into the 25-cent bargain box.

I only hope that when I get to the Pearly Gates, assuming some angelic security detail doesn't stop me on the outer grounds, there is someone like Caleb waiting to argue against my dismissal. He's been watching the growing pile of sale items with a wary eye, registering periodic protests and -- we suspect but cannot prove -- developing a plan to smuggle out whatever refugees he can lay hold of before the hour of peril arrives.

"Are you going to sell my [name of toy deleted because relatives may be reading this] in the yard sale?"

"Yes. You never play with it, and it's made of plastic."

"But I'm not done with it."

"You never play with it."

"But it's mine."

"You can use the money we get from it to buy something you like better."

"But I like it."

"You. Never. Play. With. It."

Little hands on hips. "But. I'm. Not. Done. With. It."

"Go play."

Exit one child with bottom lip firmly protruded.

There's the lingering guilt over selling my children's toys, and there's also the cold reality that some of those relatives with very poor ideas about gift-giving may actually visit one day, and have memories so sharp that they think to ask, "so where is the bright orange Ronco Combination Paintball Gun and Phonics Primer, the one that fires projectiles at 110 miles per hour and plays Snoop Dogg at 85 decibels when your child pronounces a syllable correctly?"

"Um, it broke. In several pieces. And caught on fire. There was only a puddle of plastic left."

"Really? It sure looked sturdy enough. Oh well, I was thinking of getting the boys that new George Foreman Veggie and Candy Bar Fryer -- the one they can operate themselves. It plays an educational jingle when the oil reaches its boiling point."

It's easier just to keep this stuff in a big box, with names of the givers attached, so that it can be dragged out when the relevant visitors make their appearance. Being economics-minded, however, we'd prefer to sell the $89.99 Barney and Friends Sing-Along Cattle Prod and use the 75 cents in proceeds to buy the boys something more edifying, like a few of the Lego blocks our neighbors up the street are selling so they can make room for their Squiggles Holographic Dress Up Like a Girl and Shake Your Booty Dance Machine.

And then there's just the deep shame of it all. How could we have acquired so much stuff?

If I were a leftist, I would falsely assume that we could lift entire nations out of poverty simply be sending them our excess belongings. This is a false notion, of course, because people are only lifted out of poverty when they are given the tools and opportunity to produce for themselves. If we send them shiploads of noisy plastic trinkets, we'll only depress their prices and drive nascent indigenous crap-makers out of business.

Being a conservative curmudgeon, however, I look at the rows and boxes of junk that have been extruded from my open garage like some slow-motion home colonic, and extrapolate to the millions of homes across the U.S., and I think: If we weren't so hell-bent on increasing our GDP by acquiring more and more colorful distractions, we might actually be a country that has the time to read.

Which we aren't, at least not in my house this week, because we're busy putting little price stickers on all our junk, and hoping that the old Middle Eastern man down the street doesn't show up with his fourteen family members to haggle over our ugly candlesticks.

I shouldn't complain. I'd much rather be reading right now, but I know that when tomorrow morning arrives and I'm standing, a pouch of change strapped to my waist, amidst my platoons of Care Bears and dragoons of plasticware, that I'll be in my element.

This is because I, like every good American, am an entrepreneur at heart. A French guy would look at my garage right now and think: Sacre coeur, might we be reed of zeez possessions if our country would but adopt a three-day work week? An American looks at it and thinks: Oh, the profits I will reap, thanks to the bad taste of my fellow countrymen.

God bless America. And please let it be sunny tomorrow, at least until we sell the Power Rangers.

posted by Woodlief | link | (8) comments

Sunday, March 7, 2004

The Indian Princess Year

I haven't written much about Caroline for the past year. I felt like I should just be done with this. So I put all my energy into other writing. But she is always there, lingering in the back of my mind. Sometimes she is an image, sometimes she is an invisible presence, but she is always there.

There's a book to be written about her, and us, and what I think we learned, though I'm still learning it. I know there's a book because I have the pieces scattered throughout notebooks and thoughts and memories, some sweet and some heartbreaking. I wrote another book instead, though now I'm not sure why.

Maybe I figured I was still learning, that the time had not yet come to lay it all out and make sense of it. But now I see that I'm getting to a place where I can no longer avoid the last things, which when distilled are my horror over what I saw in her final weeks, and my anger at an all-powerful God who sat in silence while it happened.

I suspect I will only get through those last things by writing about them. Counselors don't work, prayer doesn't work, and avoidance has only wrecked things. Of course the first two haven't really failed, because I haven't really tried them, not wholeheartedly, anyway. Instead I've focused most of my energy on the last strategy. And the wreckage is darn near total.

Many times since last March 7th I've thought one thing, which is that this was supposed to be the Indian Princess year. I remember learning about the Indian Princesses from a friend whose daughter was seven at the time. It's a club where dads and their little girls get together and sing and play games and do all the fun dress-up stuff that girls like, but with enough of a frontier flavor that dads don't feel like complete sissies.

I wanted Caroline to be an Indian Princess, but she was only three, and the minimum age was seven. I remember thinking that I didn't want to wait four more years. I didn't understand waiting the way I do now.

So last year was supposed to be the year I took my Indian Princess to play with her little friends, and the year I looked at her in amazement over the fact that she could sit for an hour and just read (homeschooled kids are smart that way, you know), and the year she helped me cook, and the year the beginnings of a mommy could be seen in her as she helped mind her brothers.

Instead it was another year of wondering if she's the same age in heaven or if they grow older there, and wondering if she misses us or even remembers us. It was another year of wondering if the way heaven works is that you look back over your shoulder and see the people you love passing through the veil behind you, so that separation is only a moment in God's time. It was another year of remembering her laid out on a gurney as they rolled her out my front door, and waking up in the middle of that first night terrified that maybe she wasn't really dead but lying awake in a cold room at the mortuary, crying for her mommy and daddy.

It was another year of knowing that I don't have an Indian Princess; I have a dead daughter, and God let it happen.

But I also have a loving wife and two sweet little boys, and in between the times that I worry I will lose them, too, I am thankful, I swear I am. But I can't figure it out. Why answer every prayer but that one? What purpose did it serve, not just that she died, but that she died like that?

I demanded a miracle and didn't get one, and I'm mad as hell about it. That's the nature of selfishness. It's so much easier to love God when he doesn't let us hurt. And now I'm supposed to trust him with all my heart and lean not on my own understanding, as the proverb goes.

You think when you lose your child that you'll dream about her all the time. I've only dreamt of Caroline a handful of times in the four years since she died. I dreamt about her this morning, on her birthday. We were at the end of her days again, the time when she couldn't move and even her mouth was clamped shut because of the tumor. The doctors wanted us to let her starve to death. Their children weren't hungry, so far as I know.

In those last weeks I would hold her in my lap, with a roll of paper towels and a couple of cans of vitamin drink on the bedside table, and I would slowly dribble the drink between her clenched teeth, and then wipe the spill from her face. It took about four or five hours a day to feed her, because only a few drops at a time would go in.

There I was in that place again, only something changed in the middle of it, and Caroline was gone, and it was me being fed through a mouth that refused to open. In my dream I knew it was God holding me and doing the feeding, though now I don't know how I knew this.

I've only recently begun to understand grace -- how a perfect and mysterious God can forgive transgressions like the ones I've committed. I understand it by looking at my own children. No matter what they do, I will always love them. Somehow, for some reason, God looks at his children that way. I can't fathom it, but I think that's how it works.

And yet somehow he lets us suffer. This is a mystery that I can't unlock, perhaps because it isn't mine to figure out, at least not here. I feel his grace around me, and I see his blessings, and yet I carry this wound that won't seem to heal. I'm not sure if that's because I won't let it, or because I've not yet cleaned it, for fear of what that entails.

Let it go or dig into it -- there's a dilemma for you doctors of the soul out there. Sometimes it seems like there are so many of you, writing books and drifting over the airwaves offering solace, and yet I don't want to hear from anyone who has all his children healthy and happy on this earth. Talk to me about God working all things together for good when you've put a child back into the ground.

There is no comfort in leaning on my own understanding, because it leads me back to that anger. Instead I try to live the 42nd Psalm. "Why are you in despair, O my soul?" When we ask this we ask it not of ourselves, but of the God who, as Bebo Norman wrote, sometimes can't be found. "I will say to God my rock, 'Why have you forgotten me?'" If David could ask it, perhaps I can too, and God will forgive me for forgetting that he surrounds me even when I cannot feel his presence.

I only meant for this to be a couple of lines about Caroline on her eighth birthday, and now look what I've done. There's more here -- a book, in fact, but not for this place, and not today. So enough for now.

Happy birthday, Caroline.

My Indian Princess.

posted by Woodlief | link | (31) comments

Monday, February 3, 2003

Viggo Redux

It appears that a cabal of Viggo fans decided to bomb the comments on my earlier post, in which I called Viggo Mortensen an idiot.

I'd like to share my reply, also posted in the comments section. I'm a shameless self-promoter that way:

Oh dear, it seems I've angered the Viggo Mortensen fan club. Your stinging retorts can be boiled down to two threads:

1) I agree with Viggo.

2) Instead of insulting him, why don't you refute his critique?

Let's address number two, which will illuminate the causes of number one. The point of my original post was that Viggo's assertions were ridiculous on their face. Imagine that I were to tell you that a secret cabal of Jews controlled 90% of the world's finances. Would you feel compelled to prove me wrong before concluding that I am an idiot?

I should hope not. Likewise for Viggo's claims that impending war against Iraq is really just a diversion so the U.S. can slaughter innocent Afghani civilians. Do you really think the world works like "Wag the Dog?" Do you really believe that the U.S. military delights in killing civilians, or does little to avoid it when engaging in military operations? Do you honestly believe that our entire foreign policy in the Middle East hinges on a grudge President Bush carries on behalf of his father?

If so, then you are hopelessly lost in an Oliver Stone movie.

Even worse was Viggo's equivocation of the United States with Saurumon's dark forces. Let's be clear -- we have more firepower than Europeans have cheese. We have more wealth than college students have complaints. If we wanted to take over the world, by golly, the Iranian mullahs would be sipping whiskey and watching Madonna videos right now (if they aren't already). So spare me this "Viggo's just speaking truth to power" crap. Viggo is expressing an uninformed but trendy opinion from the safe confines of a country protected by people whose shoelaces he doesn't deserve to tie.

Now, print this on your Sociology Department's copier, and be sure to explain it to those of your friends in the I Love Viggo Club who aren't so good with long words. And don't come back here until you've developed an argument.

posted by Woodlief | link | (164) comments

Thursday, January 16, 2003

Sports Idol

The ESPN advertisement on the wall inside the Metro car reads as follows:

Without sports, who would we follow?

There is much to take note of here, but most only in passing. There is the poor grammar -- but it is unfair to hold modern advertisers to a standard that their government-school audiences can't meet. There is too the irony of an advertisement extolling sports in order to convince people to sit in front of their televisions. This is not uncommon; John Miller noted some months ago in National Review, for example, that a popular children's magazine was chock full of inducements to watch the company's television channel, i.e., to convince the children not to read.

There is also the picture featured in the advertisement: two female professional basketball players, both resembling moderately attractive men, in poses suggesting that they can hold their own in the professional sports world -- presumably so long as they are provided a large subsidy from lawsuit-conscious corporations and protected from competing with players of the opposite sex. There is the spectacle of the WNBA itself, and the ridiculous gender-equity notions that spawned it, and the massive campaign embarked upon by public and private entities designed to induce the public to share those notions, or at least to stop snickering at them.

The most interesting element to me, however, is the astounding honesty in the advertisement's question. Without sports, whom would we follow?

I had the profound pleasure of hearing Dr. Benjamin Carson, product of mean streets, pediatric neurosurgeon, miracle worker, devout Christian, speak last year. He has a foundation that provides scholarships to needy children. He also does a number of charity events for poor children each year, and speaks to schools across the country. In his spare time he performs life-saving surgeries that other surgeons won't do. He has little time for sports. When he announced to the audience that he does not encourage student athletes, the silence as his words faded stood in stark contrast to the applause that nearly all of his other words had garnered.

We have been taught that sports are an important part of the formative experience, that they build physical health and moral character. Both of these claims are false. There is no question that exercise and many kinds of physical exertion build better physical health. But these should be distinguished from sports, and held up to counter the belief that participation in sports is the only way to increase physical health, or the best way, or even a good way.

Almost none of the sports that attract a following produce all-around good physical health. Football, for example, involves a great deal of running into other people at great speed. Those who want to excel at it must add much more body mass than the human frame was designed to hold. America is littered with men who have sustained permanent damage or who are overweight as a consequence of football. Indeed, an economist specializing in costs and benefits might well ask: which is more threatening to the health of children -- football, or smoking?

Basketball is a bit better, but the investment of time necessary to be competitive even at the high school level is well beyond any physical benefit it might produce. A student would be better off dancing, or working chores on a farm, or any other number of activities that are both physically challenging and which produce a more beautiful and meangingful outcome than proving that one can get a ball through a net more times than another team. The same critique could be applied in one way or another to many other sports -- soccer, baseball, volleyball, field hockey, etc. They either are drastically sub-optimal (in terms of time investment and overall contribution to health), or absolutely harmful to those who want to excel in them.

Then there is the claim that sports build moral character, which I have heard from people who I know to be moral, and who earnestly seek to raise their children properly, and some of whom do a very good job at it. They have made the fundamental mistake of assuming that because they effectively build character in the context of their children's sports, that sports therefore have inherent character-building qualities. A survey of the behaviors of professional -- or even high school -- athletes belies this claim. On some major college campuses, the athletes are responsible for a quarter or more of the crimes committed, if a criminological study I read years ago is to be believed. (Getting colleges to accurately report crimes committed within their borders, by the way, has been difficult for years, and has only been done in recent years by dint of legal force.)

To believe that any aspect of character can be more effectively built through the sports experience than through any of a vast array of childhood activities is to be intentionally blind. Character is built through example, through successes and failures and setbacks and a myriad of life's lessons, and through exposure to a moral framework. In no way does the modern sports experience provide these to great degree -- in most cases it inhibits them.

There are precious few sports players, coaches, or even fans who behave in ways that clearly provide positive moral example to children (and this extends all the way from the professional to the high school to the grade school level). Success becomes exaltation, defeat a cause for shame and bitterness. The moral framework, meanwhile, is simply the scoreboard -- you are good if your number is higher, a loser if your number is lower. Fans love you if you win, they hate you if you lose. This is not an arena in which character is built, it is an arena in which narcissism takes root.

So, without sports, whom would we follow? It is a difficult question, which I think was ESPN's point. Contrary to their advertisers' intention, however, I think we should try to find out.

posted by Woodlief | link | (12) comments

Monday, December 30, 2002

Recovering From Christmas

So we're back from Christmas vacation. One downside of having my name on this website is the fact that many people I know read it. So I'll be cryptic. Here's a nice rule to follow: if you have small children and you plan to spend time with other people who have small children, and further, one of your small children has a bad cold, it is common courtesy to warn the parents of the other small children.

In other words, much of our Christmas week involved wiping snot from our little guys. This is not as much fun as one might think. And of course they still want kisses, which means now I have it.

Oh, the indignity of it all. I'll spare you more details.

A friend from my grad school days once remarked that, unlike other professions, we political scientists are afforded no deference at the family dinner table when the talk turns to our area of expertise. If the subject is, say, a severe hematoma of the upper left quad, then Aunt Jill the physician is the person everyone listens to. If the topic is stocks, then everyone listens to Uncle Mort the investment banker, who is joining you for Christmas dinner via speakerphone from his minimum-security prison cell.

But when the talk turns to politics, do they listen to the political scientist? No. As I think back on the people I went to school with, I must conclude that this is a good thing.

So over dinner, several family members get into the inevitable Iraq/War on Terror conversation. To give you a flavor for the discussion, a few quotes selected primarily to make the part about me below sound especially good:

"We aren't the world's policeman."

"No wonder people over there hate us."

"The Europeans are sick of us meddling."

"We're just doing it for oil."

And so on. I kept my mouth shut. That's right. I kept my mouth shut. For this reason, I shall be abstaining from any sacrifice during the 2003 Lenten season.

A day or so later, my mother-in-law, bless her soul, asked me what I thought about the conversation.

"I'm no expert on foreign affairs," I demurred. I'm shy that way; can you tell?

"C'mon, Tony, I want to know what you think."

"Well, since you asked, we aren't the world's policeman, until the world goes and gets itself in another bind, usually involving the Germans directly or indirectly, and requiring some sort of rescue of the French, during which they will try to overcharge us for amenities. Come the wet-ass hour, to quote Al Pacino, we are everybody's daddy. So no, the Europeans don't want us involved, because they are too busy having fun pretending, now that we've defeated the U.S.S.R., that somehow they can manage their own safety without actually having armies, and while selling technology and weapons to terrorists and communist China. About the time they have their fat heads in a noose, made of rope they've sold at EU-subsidized prices to their executioners, then they'll start carping about how isolationist and hard-hearted we are. So the Europeans can bite me. And another thing -- it may be fashionable for liberals whose sole source of education is the E Channel to deride Ronald Reagan as an idiot, but he is a hero, that's right, a hero to millions of East Europeans, because he had the moral courage to call the Soviet Union what it was -- an Evil Empire -- while the slack-shouldered agnostics ladling out second-rate education in our nation's colleges were too busy sipping cappuccino and banging co-eds to recognize that communism is responsible for more state-sponsored murder than ten Nazi holocausts. So to answer your question, no, we aren't the world's policeman, but when there are people out there who want to kill me and my children, and they are actively seeking the means to do so, then my personal philosophy is that you kill them and everything within a ten-mile radius of them, post freaking haste. And if the U.N. doesn't like it, they can pack their louse-filled bags and hold their busy little seminars on gender inequality and structural racism on somebody else's dime. Since you asked, I mean."

This website may not change the world, but by golly, it sure makes me feel better.

posted by Woodlief | link | (46) comments

Friday, December 20, 2002

United States: Empire of Darkness

I try to avoid hearing what actors have to say about politics. Stupid (e.g., Ed Asner) or evil (e.g., Vanessa Redgrave) views ruin my ability to enjoy an actor's work. By chance I turned on Charlie Rose last night. He was interviewing Peter Jackson, director of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Elijah Wood, who plays Frodo in the films, and Viggo Mortensen, who plays Aragorn.

Oh, how I wish I had gone to bed early. Viggo had made himself a little t-shirt for the interview. It said, "No more blood for oil."

This, I am sad to say, was the best part of his appearance, at least the part that I saw before turning off the television in disgust. Viggo is upset that some people are comparing the U.S., in its war on terror, to the forces of good in the movie. According to him, it is actually the reverse: the U.S. is Sarumon, its rapacious (his word) government unleashing forces of destruction on innocent civilians huddled at Helm's Deep.

In short, Viggo is a bloody idiot.

More wisdom from Viggo: the upcoming war against Iraq is a diversion, to distract people from the "fact" that the U.S. has been bombing civilians in Afghanistan for a year, and has killed more innocents than were killed in the Trade Center attacks. It is also a vendetta spawned by Bush's father.

In case you are tuning in late, the point is that Viggo is a bloody idiot.

The entertaining element in this interview, which was supposed to be about the movie, was imagining the reactions of the movie's marketers. Let's put it this way: I'm betting the pucker factor was pretty high. Depending on what kind of press this gets, two days into the opening of the second movie in the trilogy, the pucker factor could go higher.

"You were supposed to talk about the movie, pretty boy, not your paranoid personal politics. Who are you, freaking Ed Begley, Jr. all of a sudden?" I'm sure right now the marketers are meeting with the PR flaks, to figure out how best to position themselves if this hits the fan. And let's hope that it does.

Not, mind you, because Viggo's insipid views matter. What should be most insulting to American fans of the wonderful movies is that Viggo felt he should speak out in order to set us all straight on what the movie does and does not mean. Deep-thinking Viggo, who by his own admission didn't even open the first Tolkien book until he was on his way to filming. He learned some lines and play-acted some fight scenes, so now he's an expert on the symbolism of good and evil, and their interconnections with global politics.

This isn't surprising, to be sure, Hollywood is chock full of stupid people with ridiculous, trendy little views. The worst part of this spectacle, however, was that Viggo trotted out the "I'm just trying to be an independent voice" line. "Nobody questions U.S. policy, or asks why we need to kill all of these innocent civilians," he exclaimed.

So here's what will happen next. If this gets much press, Viggo will say that oppressive conservatives are trying to silence him and others who agree with him. This is a tactic of the self-pitying, irrational Left. Sling out ridiculous accusations, exclaim that you are really just trying to inject truth into the debate, and then run hiding at the first sign of critique.

Viggo couldn't even withstand the gentlest of questioning from Rose ("What would you have done differently after 9/11," Rose asked. "Well, I wouldn't have killed all those innocent people in Afghanistan," was the evasive answer). There's no way he can maintain his assertions in the face of a detailed rebuttal. Not that people like him ever have any intention of doing so. Instead, they equate rebuttal with efforts to crush their rare flower of an opinion.

The second movie, by the way, is well worth seeing, especially the battle scenes. You might find yourself rooting a little for the Orcs, however. Imagine what an insufferable little kingdom this Aragorn would build for himself. Tolkien's work is art, and it is beautiful in its portrayal of the eternal battles in and around man. It is a pity Viggo Mortensen isn't more worthy of the tale.

Oh, it just keeps getting better. this thread is just one of many on the Charlie Rose website. A sample from one of Viggo Mortensen's fans:

"Viggo Mortensen demonstrated admirable courage in wearing his homade (sic) "no more blood for oil tee shirt on Charlieļæ½s show. I thought he handled himself very well under the inquisition that Charlie presented regarding the meaning it represented."

And another fan:

"I also applaud to Viggo for his T-shirt and Charlie for letting him discuss it. This kind of intelligent discussion is so lacking in main stream TV these days. It might have been a digression from the discussion of the movie, but I loved the spontaneity and that Charlies allowed the digression.

Now if Charlie would bring Noam Chomsky for an hour discussion."

Noam Chomsky. Oh. Dear. God.

I'm thinking of a scene from Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, when Aragorn and Gimli leap into a crowd of orcs and send bodies flying left and right. This close-minded little cabal on the Rose website suggests a similar opportunity...

Comments are closed. Now all of you just . . . go away. Scoot. Be gone. Enjoy yourselves on someone else's website.

posted by Woodlief | link | (62) comments

Monday, December 2, 2002

Guide to Yard Adornment

One thing I've forgotten about long drives is that they allow one to see how people across socioeconomic strata choose to decorate their yards. I say "choose" because this is -- unfortunately, at times -- a free country. And the word that best follows choose, in this case, is "badly." I suppose it's possible that a gang of psychotic unemployed interior decorators could be roaming the countryside, slinging plastic animals and wind-driven spinning tin contraptions into the yards of perfectly tasteful people, and then threatening to kill sweet Aunt Alma in Dubuque if even a single pink flamingo is taken down.

This possibility, friends, is more comforting than the alternative. The alternative is that grown adults willingly place a panoply of colorful plasticized garbage into their own yards, and they don't mind that people will see it.

In fact, I think they want people to see it.

I find that my mind is dulled to the occurrence of such yard schlock. I only began to take notice when I was startled out of my blindness by a horrific sight. In a yard smaller than my bedroom I saw a herd of plastic deer engaged in what appeared to be a rugby scrum, or perhaps a prison-yard rape, being overseen by the Virgin Mary, Santa, and an elite Gestapo corps of hostile-looking elves and wise men.

"Oh my," exclaimed the wife. A visible tremor shook her body. We debated briefly whether this was indeed a Christmas display unrestrained by taste, or instead some sort of radical statement against the commercialization of the Advent season. We concluded that the latter wasn't possible, because anybody who would inflict such a sight on his neighbors is most assuredly going to Hell.

Our sensibilities thus stirred, we each of us began to notice the myriad offenses against taste, and a reasonable home decoration budget, that littered the roadsides.

"Hmm, a glowing green Santa."

"Yes, and it looks like he's about to be beaten down by that crowd of imposter Santas congregating by the sled."

"I didn't see a sled."

"The littlest one, tucked over beside the El Camino up on cinder blocks."

"Thank you, Lord, that my husband can't fix cars."

"Doesn't look like hers can either."

We passed plastic Santas and concrete angels, little glowing baby Jesuses, more wise men than have ever truly lived (many more, according to my wife), and enough reindeer to make even PETA consider culling. As our trip lengthened, my faith in democracy diminished. But I began to think that perhaps all of these people are not afflicted with unchangeable bad taste; perhaps they simply don't know any better. After all, I know people who watched "Beverly Hills: 90210" and collected all of Duran Duran's albums, yet turned out to be relatively upstanding citizens.

What these benighted yard yokels need, in other words, is a Sand in the Gears Guide to Yard Adornment. As with all of my public service guides, please feel free to distribute widely:

1. Statues of well-known individuals. First, understand that idol worship is a sin, and that you will likely burn in Hell for having that five foot tall Virgin Mary in your yard. If that is the route you choose, however, you should at least accept that no religion recognizes the simultaneous existence of more than one Virgin Mary, and that this reality creates some obligation on you to limit yourself to one Virgin Mary as well.

I know, I know, Deke's Yard Emporium was having a two-for-one sale on all shapes and sizes of Virgin Marys, but decency requires you to keep one in your root cellar until such time as a gang of marauding Protestant teens steals the one in your yard.

The same rule applies to Santas, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeers, and Frosty the Snowmen. Notice the difficulty in pluralizing these names. That is because they are meant to be singular, both in my writing, and in your yard.

2. Year-round Christmas adornment. If this applies to you, then you might as well start wearing jogging pants to work and letting that ear hair grow, because you have most definitely joined that class of people defined centuries ago by Gibbon as Loseratis Perpetuanatis, which in common parlance can be translated as: "losers who just don't care anymore."

Look, you aren't fooling anyone by not turning on those 11,000 light bulbs afflicting your house like leprosy. You may pretend, because it's June, that they aren't really there, but the rest of us see them plainly. If you have so many lights that you can't possibly take them all down at the end of the holiday season, this is not an indication that you should leave them up. It is an indication that you have too many lights. Because of people like you, poor Bangladeshi children don't have the lumens they need to read I, Rigoberta Menchu.

And what goes for the perpetually enlightened goes double for those of you with faux icicles dangling from your house. Basically, you have transformed your home into a doily. Now, if it looks dumb even during a cold winter's night, when its dull taupe glow evokes the frosting used by cameramen to make Cybill Shepherd look less old in the latter days of Moonlighting, then you must understand how ridiculous it looks hanging from your house in the summer. Show some self-respect, for God's sake.

3. Silhouette cowboys. The first time any of us saw a black tin cut-out of a cowboy, positioned near the corner of someone's garage or barn or home so as to emulate a real cowboy leaning against a wall, we most likely thought, "hmm, that was kind of neat."

But then, for most of us, a little part of the brain kicked in to evoke a thought, which probably went something like this: "but goodness, how tacky to have sitting in one's yard day after day. Surely the novelty must wear out quickly."

Unfortunately, this little part of the brain is inoperative in some people, which is why one cannot take a rural drive in the United States without passing at least one home afflicted by the silhouette cowboy. One need not enter the home to know that inside awaits a host of wooden chachkas of the "country craft show" variety, most incorporating either some dull maroon-painted wood, or dry stalks of wheat, or both.

I have no advice for such people. The best we can do is contain them, perhaps in a little colony isolated from society, and keep them mollified with an abundant supply of "Green Acres" re-runs, Precious Moments figurines, and boxy Oldsmobiles. They are in general a kindly and well-intentioned people, but they are deeply ill, and must be quarantined. This would probably require the closing of most rural roadside "antique" shops, but that is a price that I, for one, am willing to pay.

4. Broken transportation. The rule here is fairly straightforward -- if your neighbors can see your yard, then it is inappropriate to litter it with half-disassembled vehicles and farm equipment. Perhaps your mother didn't teach you to clean up after yourself, or perhaps you have been subject to a string of really bad luck that has left you, through no fault of your own, with seven non-working means of transportation.

The bottom line is that the rest of us don't care. Fix it and park it neatly, or call a tow truck. If you can't afford a tow truck, I'll bet your neighbors would be glad to take up a collection.

This rule, by the way, applies to bicycles, toy trucks, and those ridiculous wagon wheels people like to prop against their mailboxes. Think about it this way: the essence of manhood is the ability to make things, and to fix what is broken. Trust me, I don't like this, but it is what it is. Those of us who can't fix stuff can salvage some bit of manhood by earning the money to get it fixed. But we do so quietly. Placing all your broken, non-functioning equipment in your front yard is the equivalent of putting up a sign that reads "Impotent Male Lives Here." Not the kind of thing you want to advertise, I don't think.

5. Boats. There are lots of reasons to store a boat in one's front yard. Marina fees are too high. The kids and dogs need the back yard. God may send another big flood.

There are also lots of reasons to shoot one's neighbor. His dog barks too much. He ogles your wife. He leaves his stupid boat parked in his yard, such that it takes up a good portion of the view from your living room window. Yes, there are many reasons to shoot one's neighbor, but almost none of them are acceptable.

Almost none.

6. Play equipment. The only thing worse than a neighbor with fifteen different pieces of play junk in his front yard is a neighbor with fifteen different pieces of insanely brightly colored play junk in his front yard. Unfortunately, play junk only seems to be made of plastic, and to come in shades of violent bright red and acid-trip yellow. There are some wooden play contraptions, but people with the good taste to build or buy them also tend to have enough respect for decency to keep them in their back yards.

The owners of bright plastic swings and slides and crawl-through cubes, on the other hand, have no such sensibility. They pack their little brats into the Dodge Caravan, schlep up to Toys "R" Us, and buy whatever appeals to untrained rug rats hopped up on sugar and television (which explains the drug-trip colors). They schlep it back to their homes and sling it out onto their yards for the little beasts to climb on and under and over, and thus buy themselves a few hours of peace, most likely to be spent watching NFL football.

Listen, people. Your neighbors are sick of your plastic yard crap. The very rocks cry out from its offensive presence. Not only is it an eyesore, it is likely the source, with its myriad pools of rainwater, of 90 percent of the mosquito activity in your neighborhood. I am reasonably certain that if you truck it to the curb, your garbage men will cart it off to the landfill. Do us all a favor, be a real environmentalist, and get rid of it.

There. Now you can all go forth and decorate tastefully for the holidays. Maybe put some lights in the trees, a nice wreath on your door, perhaps some elegant electric candles in your windows. Remember, elegance is beautiful, and elegance is simplicity. This can be a lovely time of year, if we will all just show a little freaking restraint.

posted by Woodlief | link | (6) comments

Monday, November 25, 2002

Witness and False Witness

I used to have a dentist, by the name of (I am not making this up) Dr. Payne. He was an entertainer, as are many dentists, perhaps because the field is less regulated (i.e., the competition is more intense). During our first appointment, as his assistant got my head and mouth into a vulnerable position, he loomed over me to block out the bright lights, and asked, "Is it safe?"

He was alluding, of course, to that 1976 movie, "The Marathon Man," starring Dustin Hoffman, whose character is tortured by a former Nazi dentist who repeatedly asks this question. I recently re-watched this movie, and noticed something that I missed years ago. Hoffman plays a history graduate student who is writing a book on (of course) the reign of tyranny that was McCarthyism, and who has a special interest in it because his father was driven to suicide as a result of being hounded by the red-baiting totalitarians. There is a scene in which a U.S. government agent (of course) rifles through Hoffman's research work, and tosses aside a book titled False Witness.

Though I had never read Whittaker Chambers' Witness, I think I got the point. I decided to read the book. For those of you not familiar with the story, Chambers was a devoted communist spying for the Soviets in Washington, D.C. who became, in his own words, "an involuntary witness to God's grace and to the fortifying power of faith." Chambers was transformed like the unnamed Soviet he mentions in his introduction, whose daughter explained once to Chambers that her father abandoned the cause because "one night he heard screams." Chambers also heard the screams, which led him to realize that man has a soul, which led him to God, which led him to the conviction that communism is not only evil, but that it should be opposed, even unto calumny and death.

And so he named names, and one of those he identified was the spy and traitor Alger Hiss, a high-level State Department official and eventual head of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Hiss was part of the better half of Washington -- genteel, respected, progressive. Chambers was dumpy, of no particular breeding, and -- trés gauche -- a newly confirmed Christian. The dispute ranged through Congressional hearings, a perjury trial for Hiss, and a libel trial for Chambers. You needn't guess whose side the press, the President, the Washington establishment, and, of course, Hollywood, chose.

Over time Chambers was proven right, which means he has been unduly overlooked. The dedicated Left still thinks he lied, however, such that the few doubters find themselves in league with the likes of The Nation (recently noteworthy for the extent it is willing to excuse terrorism so long as the victims are American and/or Jewish).

The Nation and (of course) Hollywood. This is true in both large and small detail: anti-communism as entirely unfounded marks the changeless backdrop of any movie touching on the fifties, and anti-communists are usually murderous militarists. In 1964, for example, -- the year noted peace activist Lyndon Johnson opposed Barry Goldwater with his infamous "Daisy" ad -- there were no less than three Hollywood movies about nuclear war, and in two of these conservative anti-communists are the cause. (Anyone who thinks campaign finance reform will remove the adverse influence of the moneyed on U.S. public opinion should consider the net assets of major Hollywood filmmakers.) One might also consider on this topic Kenneth Billingsley's excoriation of Hollywood for failing to portray with accuracy the consequences of communism. And then there is this little detail from "The Marathon Man." I suspect there are others like it.

Perhaps I am wrong about the intent behind positioning False Witness on the desk of a hero researching McCarthyism, but I doubt it. Witness was a beacon for anti-communists, and hence the book -- and its author -- were the target of the anti-anti-communists, which included a large chunk of the creative talent in Hollywood. So I think the choice of titles was intentional. It is offensive to see people with little courage mock someone with Chambers' moral courage. This seems a fair description of the man who told his wife as he made his choice to speak out, "You know, we are leaving the winning world for the losing world," and who through years of vituperation and isolation could tell his children:

"True wisdom comes from the overcoming of suffering and sin. All true wisdom is therefore touched with sadness."

It seems strange that a man who was forced to write his story in a secluded farmhouse, with a gun on his desk, should be judged by people who write their meaningless stories in coffee shops and Hollywood beach houses, usually poorly at that, and who have never faced censorship beyond the overly minimal selectivity of the popular marketplace.

But things are what they are, and so perhaps I should not have been surprised to see the likes of Dustin Hoffman helping to deliver a little jab from the safe confines of Left-mindedness. Hoffman, who will most likely find that his enduring claim to fame is playing the part of an idiot (albeit a useful one, if I remember the plot of "Rainman"). Perhaps this is not the end that an objective viewing of Hoffman's oeuvre would dictate, but it certainly seems a just one.

posted by Woodlief | link | (7) comments

Wednesday, October 9, 2002

The Incompetence Tax

I've been thinking about something I call the Incompetence Tax. It's one of those taxes we often pay without realizing that we are doing so, like a gasoline tax, or a telephone usage tax. It seems that no good or service is exempt, though a handful of businesses have managed to secure exemption. Its rate as a percentage of your purchase varies; sometimes it can be less than five percent, but I've also paid it at a rate of 1,000 percent. It is levied at times in cash, though more often in labor and frustration, which an economist will tell you can be translated into cash terms.

My own informal research reveals that the Incompetence Tax is highest at government agencies and highly regulated companies (there's a whole organizational research literature that explains this -- don't make me beat you about the head and shoulders with it). When dealing with our credit union, for example, there is a probability approaching one (and they test the theoretical limits of the asymptote) that the teller will make some annoying little error -- funds deposited in the wrong account, a withdrawal amount wrong, etc. These errors are usually resolved after about an hour of my wife's labor, and one or two phone calls. Fortunately, we don't have to deal directly with the credit union much more than once a quarter. Factoring in the average hourly wage in the U.S. ($16.23 in 2001, as computed by the Bureau of Labor Statistics), we can thus derive a yearly Incompetence Tax levied on us by our credit union of $64.92. Given a membership of roughly 200,000, this amounts to a total annual Incompetence Tax of $12,984,000.

Other forms of the tax are smaller, but more frequent. All told my family eats out roughly 847 times a week. Okay, I exaggerate, but by less than I care to admit. The National Restaurant Association reports that Americans eat 54 billion meals out per year, or 187 meals per person. In my experience, all but the finest restaurants make a mistake about 15 or 20 percent of the time. You know, the fries are the wrong size, or your steak was cooked wrong, or the waiter forgets to refill your water until you ask, or you have to wipe off the table and chair yourself, and so on. Let's assume a 15 percent error rate, and an average amount of your time required to fix the problem equal to one minute. This yields a total U.S. Incompetence Tax on dining out equal to $2,191,050,000 per year.

Of course, this is only the tip of the iceberg. Think about the Incompetence Tax levied on the country every year by dozens of Congressmen with no understanding of economics. Baltimore no doubt pays an Incompetence Tax in the form of lost merchandise and ticket sales as a result of Peter Angelos' overbearing management of the Orioles. Detroit paid a disastrously large Incompetence Tax for the twenty years Coleman Young was in charge, likewise D.C. and Marion Barry (which goes to show that in many cases, people pay the taxes they deserve).

A highly salient Incompetence Tax, at least right now, is levied daily on travelers by Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta, who is to the Incompetence Tax what Alexander Hamilton was to the import tariff. And let's not forget U.S. auto companies, who still churn out over-gadgetized junk with a significantly lower average resale value than Toyota or Honda. The worst thing about all of these forms of the Incompetence Tax is that unlike our state and federal taxes, which go to pay for fine things like a Lawrence Welk Museum in North Dakota, the Incompetence Tax is the purest form of a deadweight loss.

It is important not to confuse incompetence with the occasional error, or with an inability to solve a difficult problem. Even Kobe Bryant misses an open 10-foot jumper from time to time, while Thomas Edison needed several hundred tries before he produced a light bulb that lasted more than 15 seconds. One problem with the Incompetence Tax, indeed, is that its ubiquity causes many of us to assume it is being levied whenever there is a gap between our expectations and the received outcome.

As is true of many taxes, repealing the Incompetence Tax is probably well-nigh impossible unless a large number of Americans prove willing to sacrifice time and money in pursuit of a noble cause. (I.e., it is impossible). Protests would have to be held not at IRS offices, but at school board meetings (indeed, schools themselves), a majority of churches, and a good many homes, because the Incompetence Tax is a consequence of poor education and inadequate upbringing (probably more the latter -- one doesn't need phonics to get a McDonald's order right, but one does need a modicum of self-respect and attention to detail).

In short, the Incompetence Tax is something we've passed on ourselves in a sort of slow-motion, decades-long referendum marked by near-universal willingness to cede responsibility for our children to government teachers and minimum wage daycare workers (responsibility, but not real authority -- we reserve the right to be the ones who don't discipline our little darlings). In this regard it is one of those nefarious levies the bulk of which falls on future generations, like Social Security, Medicare, and the various neighborhood improvement projects, usually advanced by busybody PTA moms (conservatives against women working outside the home haven't adequately considered the damage wrought by this breed), which work their way into your property tax bill in the form of special assessments.

Perhaps the hardest hit are those who impose the tax, the legions of slovenly, poorly trained people who man our grocery stores and shopping malls, our post offices and security posts. What an unpleasant life it must be to labor without the basic ability to produce value on a consistent basis. But perhaps value is an alien concept to many of them, there is simply a set of procedures to follow in order to receive one's paycheck, and numerous customers who have to be endured -- and what's their deal, anyway, getting all bent because they didn't get the pizza topping they wanted, or because I brought out the wrong size shoes twice? Customers. What a pain.

So to those who inflict the tax, like many of us who pay it, the cost is hidden. It comes in the form of an absence of dignity and social value the worth of which they are unable to conceive.

But not all is hopeless. While we probably can't reverse the Incompetence Tax on a global scale, each of us who cares might be able to do so on a personal scale, i.e., among the businesses we frequent. I'm thinking of a university psychology experiment in which several students who sat in the front of a certain professor's class agreed to smile whenever he evinced a particular facial expression. By the end of the semester they had trained him, via positive reinforcement, to produce the expression every few seconds.

So, when you encounter excellent customer service, do you provide positive reinforcement? Do you ask to speak to the person's supervisor in order to commend him, or better yet, write a letter to the owner? Do you look him in the eye and give him genuine thanks? You might be surprised how far this sort of thing can go. We might not be able to convert the crusty university cashier to the cause of creating value, but we can certainly encourage the excellent service providers when we encounter them.

So be especially kind to the people who do great work, should you be fortunate enough to cross paths with any of them today. And if all you get today are the duds, have a little pity. There, but for the grace of God, some good upbringing, and Sand in the Gears, go you.

posted by Woodlief | link | (15) comments

Monday, September 9, 2002

Ten Reasons I Love Americans

I don't think one can ever be too grumpy, but I sense that I am getting exceedingly close to that asymptotic limit. I look over my writing here and find a fair amount of griping, which troubles me. Leftists are destroying the country, Norm Mineta makes travel miserable, men don't act enough like men, rant, rant, rant. Many of you dig the grumpiness, I know, because especially smackilicious (my new word) rants garner a good deal of extra email.

Well-aimed barbs are delicious to the educated, but let's face it, incessant grousing is a bit annoying. So, in order to make up for the fact that I've complained about them quite a bit lately, I've developed a list of things I love about my fellow Americans:

1. We are a nation of rabble-rousing entrepreneurs. Many of us are descended from people who picked up their rifles when taxes got too high. Many more of us have ancestors who came to America because it was a land free from oppressive government, a place where the individual can rise to greatness by dint of hard work and a good idea, the "Golden Mountain," as my Chinese friends call it. We've invented near everything worth having (e.g., planes and automobiles), or made it better and cheaper (e.g., food), and we've invented darn near everything not worth having as well (e.g., television, rap music, and stretch-pants).

2. We don't like bureaucracy. Bureaucracy is like the Mercedes, an overhyped expensive German product that at its best looks very impressive, but never quite lives up to the promises of its creators. Americans hate bureaucracy. Look around the next time you go through airport security. Watch how people bristle. They look at their watches, roll their eyes, stamp their feet, and seek out people with whom to commiserate. Sometimes the mood can almost be vocalized, as if everyone is thinking the same thing: "let's stuff all these pinheads in the x-ray machines and take care of security ourselves." If you are in a large airport, you may notice a clump of people who are not bristling. These are foreigners. Pity them.

3. We are disliked in the United Nations. This is obviously a good thing: the U.N. is an organization of twits who think that the solution to the world's problems is a diverse, multi-layered, unelected bureaucracy with the work ethic of Spanish customs clerks and the mentality of Gestapo security forces. To quote Dan Quayle, we wear their scorn like a badge of honor.

4. We fought a war to end slavery. Save all your carping, you merchants of racial grievance -- no other slave-trading country, with the exception of sister England, ever devoted the same thought, blood, or treasure to resolving this issue of right and conscience, because for nearly all the others it never was a matter of conscience.

5. We are heavily armed. We have more killing power per capita than any nation in history. That, my friends, is just plain cool, especially because we are not a warmongering totalitarian state, but instead a democratic republic. However:

6. When push comes to shove, we lay down the ever-loving slap. Just ask the Kaiser. Or the Nazis. Or the Imperial Japanese. Or the al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. Oh, that's right, you can't ask them, because we ground them into powder -- biffed them, as the Brits used to say -- leaving their pathetic remnants to scurry back to the demon pits where they were spawned. If we ever decide to change our national motto from the Latin slogan that so beautifully tripped up Al Gore, I propose we adopt the following: "You want a piece of this?"

7. We don't like tattle-tales. Other countries have managed to turn their citizens into informants, but by and large we have resisted that tendency. Sure, we have our share of brown-nosers, but they usually receive a good dose of torment in school before taking a job with the IRS, ATF, or DEA. The snitch is a perpetual loser when portrayed in most of our movies, "narcs" are regularly taunted in high schools, and we jumped all over Linda Tripp's case for recording her friend's confession, even though it implicated a U.S. president in perjury and sexual harassment. Think about one of our favorite phrases: "mind your own business." It's the perfect marriage of anti-snoop sentiment and entrepreneurial fervor. Keep your nose out of my affairs, and get back to making money. That is so very American, don't you think?

8. We contract with our government. You have to love a country that started out by giving its government agents a list of things they're not allowed to do. Of course, we ceded authority over that document to a series of unprincipled, power-hungry politicians, who in turn put unprincipled, utopian-minded jurists on the bench who proceeded, working hand in hand with unelected bureaucrats, to distort and undermine the original limitations on the federal government. Still, the Constitution was a nice start. If only we could get back around to using it again.

9. Lots of us actually like God. Sure, the French have their cathedrals, and the Italians have the Pope. But you can drive for hundreds of miles in the Old World without ever seeing a big, tacky, well-lit cross stuck on some roadside hill. We have churches of all shapes and sizes that people of all shapes and sizes actually attend, outreach concerts where people go to get saved, revivals where -- if they are Baptists -- they can go to get re-saved, tent meetings, Bible studies, prison fellowships, Christian athlete fellowships, Christian businessman fellowships, Christian music (most of it bad, but they mean well), Christian books (ditto), and great big Christian mega-stores where you can satisfy all your Christian paraphernalia needs with the assistance of a faith-affirming ecumenical staff. Most of it is a gaudy, overemotional, sentimental mess, and about half of it consists of really bad theology, but the bottom line is that this is God's country, warts and all. We love Him, and He loves us back (in spite of us).

10. We like happy endings. I know, it makes for movies and books that are often less artistic and true to life, but really, would you rather be trapped on a deserted island with somebody who likes "You've Got Mail," or someone whose favorite director is Ingmar Bergman? We may be sappy, and optimistic, and totally insulated from the oppressiveness of existence or whatever, but nobody likes to hang out with the gloom and doom Nietzsche crowd anyway. If you question that analysis, think about it this way: who gets more opportunities to reproduce -- business majors, or philosophy majors? I think you get my point.

So there you have it, ten reasons I love my fellow Americans. What do you love about them?

posted by Woodlief | link | (18) comments

Tuesday, September 3, 2002

Democratic Sentimentality

Albert Gore, Jr. has cogitated himself a new campaign theme: the People vs. the Powerful. "The People," are the shortsighted oafs required to provide Gore with a plurality in states totaling 270 electoral votes, while "the Powerful" are those of us with reservations about affording our government decision-making authority over everything from fossil fuel extraction to toilet tank capacity. Since Al doesn't decide what dressing to put on his organic baby greens without commissioning a poll, we can be fairly certain this is a theme with good odds of resonating with a public that knows more about the candidates on "Survivor" than it does its presidential choices.

Perhaps it is the fact that I'm reading Evelyn Waugh, but I am increasingly convinced that the leveling effect of democracy as an ethos is a bad thing. By "ethos" I mean to distinguish the democratic vote from democratic sentimentality. The latter is reflected in everything from "man on the street" interviews to a President who feels compelled to appear in blue jeans and mispronounce words.

The term "democratic sentimentality" is apt, I believe, because what drives head-nodding on Oprah and garners votes for demagogues is an emotional attachment by many Americans to what feels like principle, but is really just base jealousy and resentment. It is the mutation of an American Revolution that began by simultaneously rejecting oppressive government while maintaining social civility, but which has mutated into an embrace of oppressive government accompanied by the abandonment of social institutions that do not serve the immediate ends of selfish and ill-educated citizens.

It lives and breathes in every teacher who asks her students to call her "Miss Lisa," and in every pundit who thinks the amount of wealth left in the hands of high-income taxpayers is the primary measure of a tax reduction's merit. It produces evils like the death tax, the United Nations, and student government. Its unchecked metastasis is the force behind ridiculous presidential debates in which average citizens are allowed to ask insipid questions of what should be their social betters, who in turn supply meaningless answers distinguished only by the number of words lifted from the lexicon of democratic sentimentality (e.g., "fair," "equal," and "everyone").

Democratic sentimentality also undergirds inane laws restricting "price-gouging" (to wit, any price at or above the level necessary to ensure that a scarce resource goes to those who value it most) and "ticket scalping" (i.e., laws ensuring that events in great demand will be disproportionately attended by dolts who place the lowest value on their time -- an explanation in turn of abominations like rock music and fireworks at baseball games). It is the lurking sickness in society that has enabled what I saw on my most recent airline flight: a woman in her sixties sporting capri pants and a tank top that exposes her midriff, a man sitting next to me who hasn't learned how to cover his mouth when he coughs, and the disappearance of "please," "excuse me," and "thank you" from the vocabularies of passengers impatient for their chips and shot glasses of warm soda.

Yes, boorishness flows from democratic sentimentality, just as it flows from overindulgent parenting. Quite simply, we've allowed people to think that there are no standards for one's opinion, and from here it is only a short step to the conclusion that one's behavior is rightfully above reproach as well. Tie or no tie, "yes sir" or a grunt, flag or no flag on Memorial Day -- we have allowed "you're not the boss of me" to elevate from child's retort to the progressive's mantra. The moment we failed to ridicule the spectacle of slobbering housewives pontificating about nuclear weapons on "Donahue" is the moment we told every man that he could untuck his shirt and stop opening doors for ladies, and every child that he can wheedle and whine in the department store until he is given what he wants. We unmoored manners from the elitist traditions to which they had always been anchored, and now they drift in a chaotically mutating sea that, while fertile ground for social psychologists, is really no place to train up responsible well-mannered adults.

I don't think there is an easy solution to this pervasive sense that we -- the status-hostile "we" that appears to be the target demographic of every hack pollster and television executive -- all ought to be equal not just in right, but in financial and social outcome, and worse, opportunity for expression. We have created a terrible combination -- a society that believes everyone's opinion is worth hearing, and which lacks the good sense to determine otherwise.

There isn't an easy solution, but I'm sure there's a solution nonetheless. For instance, one of my favorite John Wayne movies is "Big Jake." I especially enjoy the scene in which an estranged son is mouthing off to his father, played by Wayne. "You may not respect your elders, but I'll teach you to respect your betters," says Wayne, before decking the punk. It seems that wide swaths of America are in dire need of just such a jolt, a good clock right on the kisser. The punk that was Wayne's son in "Big Jake" wasn't innately bad, and neither are most Americans. He was simply spoiled, and lacking an example of what better looked like. I think that's America today. Where is the Duke when you need him? He is long gone, and anyway it has become quite legally complicated to give somebody a sock in the jaw, even when you can prove he really deserves it.

But there's always ridicule and snobbery, thank goodness. If I can't punch lots of people in the nose, at the very least I can question their fitness as American citizens here, in Sand in the Gears.

Isn't this a great country?

posted by Woodlief | link | (10) comments

Monday, August 12, 2002

So, What's on Your Bumper?

I saw a bumper sticker this weekend that you've probably seen before:

"If you are against abortion, don't have one."

This brought to mind some alternatives that rely on the same logic:

"If you are against slavery, don't own one."
"If you are against rape, don't do it."
"If you are against concentration camps, don't live in one."

I wrote an op-ed years ago discussing the mentality on display here, which I called "visceral liberalism." It relies on simplistic reasoning in the service of one's tribal instincts: if you don't like gun violence, ban guns. If you feel bad for the poor, raise the minimum wage.

The fact that the world is filled with complexity, and therefore unanticipated consequences, is not a hindrance to the visceral liberal -- unintended consequences represent merely more opportunities to improve the world. It's what annoying business guys in red suspenders call "a win-win."

The culmination of visceral liberalism is the bumper sticker; it's no coincidence that the left has all the best slogans (along with most of the singers and actors -- people who emote rather than think). Of course there is visceral conservatism, and visceral libertarians as well. Despite these potential competitors, however, the left retains a monopoly on the catchy bumper sticker market.

With this in mind, I think we need to develop some bumper stickers that play off the lefty slogans that have proven especially popular. We right-thinking people can't fit our own philosophies into slogans, but we can certainly raise the blood pressure of our ideological antagonists in just a few words (and honestly, isn't that more fun than winning them over?).

Here are some samples of what I've come up with so far:

Meat is Murder, But The Animals Have It Coming

Visualize World Peace Visualize World Domination

Practice Random Acts of Kindness... Practice Random Acts of Violence and Senseless Acts of Cruelty

Celebrate Diversity Celebrate Monotheistic Intolerance

Bikes / Cars: Same Roads, Same Laws Let the Laws of Physics Decide Who Gets the Roads

Subvert the dominant paradigm Dominate the subversive parasite

Property is theft Property may be theft, but I'm packing a loaded .357 and I lust commie blood.

End racism. And while you're at it, make me ten years younger and 40 pounds lighter.

The Right Is Wrong, But They Have The Hottest Chicks

It Will Be A Great Day When Our Schools Get All The Money They Need and The Air Force Has to Hold a Bake Sale To Buy A Bomber It Will Be A Great Day When The Air Force Bombs Our Schools

Think Globally - Act Locally - Be the Self-Righteous Pedant Everyone Avoids at Parties

And while we're on the subject of bumper stickers, I suppose you've seen the ones many schools hand out to parents, of the "My child is an honor student at . . ." variety. You've probably also seen the response sticker: "My child beat up your honor student." Funny, yes, but if you're like me you have a secret desire to see the car bearing such a sticker get creamed by a semi at the intersection.

Now I'm noticing a new response sticker diffusing among the population, which goes something like this: "ALL children are honored at Fulston Middle School." If you close your eyes and let that sentence kick around in your head, you can conjure up the voice of the person speaking it. So very earnest, so very full of indignant egalitarian righteousness.

Fortunately, though the implied tone of the bumper sticker is irritating, it serves the purpose of truthful advertising. It might as well read: "Fulston Middle School: Where Your Little Darling Will Be Free From Standards."

And that is, ultimately, the beauty of the bumper sticker. No matter what it says, in one way or another it reveals a truth, either about the world, its owner, or both.

posted by Woodlief | link | (71) comments

Saturday, August 3, 2002


I'm still out of town on a top secret mission. Really. It's a secret. Top secret. Only my employers, close family, and some confidantes know what it's about.

But that's another matter, and I'll reveal the nature of my mission soon enough. But right now I want to address some of you who were kind enough to challenge me in a civil manner in the Comments section of my last post, as well as those of you who have no social graces. No need to name names, especially since most of you in the latter camp didn't have the testicular fortitude to use your real names.

Back to the slap-down at hand. There are two criticisms of my story about the airport revolt, offered by several people. The first is that I should know better than to show up at the airport only 45 minutes before my flight. The second is that I'm being a troglodyte homophobe by picking on the effete man at the ticket counter.

Like everyone else, for several weeks after September 11th I dutifully showed up two hours before my flights. Then the airports relaxed it to an hour. Then, a few months ago, the Wichita airport posted little signs at all its ticket counters, directing passengers to arrive at least 30 minutes before their flights. Last I checked, 45 minutes counts as at least 30 minutes. What's more, 45 minutes has always been enough time at the Wichita airport, except when American Airlines stacks three flights 25 minutes apart.

But that's not the critical point here. The point, the thing that sticks in my craw, is that the airlines have the gall to instruct us to show up 30 minutes early, and yet they lack the competence to live up to their end of the bargain. And that's what this is a matter of -- competence. A few simple methods would have moved that Wichita line quickly, and that means I wouldn't have needed to seize authority, which apparently gave a few of you uncomfortable tingly feelings.

This episode, in other words, was not a matter of too many people trying to go somewhere at the same time, or of passengers arriving 45 minutes early when we should have arrived three hours early. It was a matter of people with neither training nor incentive nor a willingness to exercise plain common sense being given veto power over a hugely important economic activity, with the rest of us refusing to question them because we conflate patriotism with kowtowing to someone in a polyester uniform.

Still, I can understand how many of you, not knowing the Wichita airport, would think I was silly to arrive only 45 minutes early. Up until this time, 45 minutes has been more than adequate. I'll certainly arrive earlier from now on, since I am confident that the Wichita airport's management will not accept my upcoming offer to connect them with a throughput optimization expert.

Others of you took issue with my characterization of the snippy little ticket counter clerk. Specifically, you thought I was making fun of him for being gay. I find this curious, because until I read your comments, it hadn't occurred to me that he might be gay. He acted like a girl, he had poofy hair, and he needed a good hard slap. But I don't equate these traits with homosexuality. Do you? It amuses me when the self-appointed apostles of sensitivity get snared in their narrow-minded conceptualizations of people. For the record, when I ridicule men who behave like sissies, it's because I don't like men who behave like sissies. The fact that you've equated girly with gay would appear to be your problem, not mine.

But thanks for reading. Kisses.

posted by Woodlief | link | (24) comments

Friday, August 2, 2002

Rebellion at the Airport

I'm not a confrontational person by nature. If my steak is too rare, or someone breaks in line, I'm not one to make a fuss about it. But I have my limits.

I led a revolt against airport security yesterday. They've had it coming. I'll wait longer in line in order to keep the airplane safe. I'll submit to having my less than fresh boxer briefs fluffed on the return trip by someone named Delbert who couldn't spot a shank if it was stuck in his porkchop gut. I'll have my luggage x-rayed, my belt buckle checked and re-checked by unusually interested minimum-wage rent-a-cops, my children patted down while swarthy young men with no luggage board unmolested.

I will put up with all of it, but I will not let this nonsense, this massive managerial incompetence disguised as security enhancement, cost me my flight. Today, they pushed me too far. I arrived at the Wichita airport with my wife and two little ones 45 minutes before our flight. We endured an especially slow trip through the American Airlines ticket counter line. Here's a quote from the effete little man who took our bags: he didn't say "I apologize for the confusion," or "sorry we didn't separate people who are on the earlier flight," but instead, "I have to put up with this every day." How difficult for you, Emile, or Jamey, or whatever girly little name you go by. Tell the other girls at the hair salon about it.

So, we rounded the corner and saw a 150 foot line waiting to get through security. Let me paint the complete picture for you, because this helps one see why people who don't get paid very much generally deserve what they earn. At the head of the line is a single security guard, checking tickets and ID's, taking about 30 seconds per person. Thirty feet beyond him are two x-ray machines, but only one metal detector for passengers to walk through. Security guards are manning the x-ray machines, and one is searching people who set off the metal detector. A clump of security guards are standing to the side, having a nice conversation.

Now, here's how they do things in a real airport. One guard will stand at a table, helping people get their computers, phones, etc., into plastic trays. Another will assign people to x-ray machines and metal detectors, in order to save the inevitable time people take trying to make up their own minds. In an airport where the security is really on the ball, like Dulles, for example, a thick crowd can move quickly.

But this was Wichita, and the security guards didn't care whether that line stretched two feet or two miles. At this point we had twenty minutes remaining before take-off. After waiting seven or eight minutes and moving 15 feet, I did some quick math, and figured we weren't going to make it. As I was doing the math, the gate agent announced over the intercom the last call for our flight. So I led my little troop to the security guard at the front of the line.

"Excuse me," I said to the guard, "that was our flight they just called." The guard gave me an annoyed look, then took another person's ticket before replying.

"There are people in front of you."

"Yes, but we'll miss our flight."

"Some of them might be on that flight too, and they were in front of you."

Like I said, I'm not a confrontational person. But my options, as I saw them, were pretty narrow. Do the job these slobs should have been doing, or miss our flight. So, I shouted to the crowd behind me: "Okay, people, who's on the 11 o'clock?"

Several people raised their hands. The security guard started shifting from one foot to another. "C'mon up!" I shouted. "Fall in behind me!" About 20 people stepped out of line and congregated behind me. My wife was mortified.

"Okay," I said to the guard, "now all those people are right here."

"That's not what I meant, sir. You shouldn't have done that. There are people who were here first."

I shouted again to the larger crowd. "Does anybody mind if those of us on the 11 o'clock go first?" Some people towards the front shook their heads no, and a couple of people told us to go right ahead. I turned back to the guard, who was looking exceedingly uncomfortable. "There," I said, "nobody minds if we go ahead."

"You're not supposed to do that, sir. You can't go in front of people."

"Look, I'm not trying to make trouble here, but if you don't let us through, we're all going to miss that flight." The guard looked at my newly formed platoon, then at me. He sighed and held out his hand for my ticket. We all made it to the plane.

Power to the people, baby. Fight the Man. Dare to challenge stupid. Take a stand, and your fellow man will stand with you.

Much later, on the plane:

Wife: "You were pretty confrontational back there."

Me: "They left me no choice. The people in the crowd dug it."

Wife: "I can't believe he let us through."

Me: "He was intimidated." (long pause) "I suppose he and his buddies could have forced me into some back room" (only if I let them, I thought).

Wife: "Yep, and all those people who were digging you would have gotten back in line and left you hanging."

Me: "Sheep."

posted by Woodlief | link | (78) comments

Wednesday, July 10, 2002

The Sissification of America

A tie? A %#*!$! tie? Since when did our national pastime become soccer? If I want to watch a bunch of well-paid guys play around for three hours just to end in a draw, I'll turn on C-SPAN. This is America, for Pete's sake -- land of the free, home of the brave, nation of citizens who decided they didn't want to be Europeans. Every year, we elect our favorite baseball players from each team and league (because we are a republic, not some grubby democracy), and tell them to slug it out in a stadium until one league or the other is declared the victor.

You see, having slapped around a string of dictators for the last two hundred years, we've gotten used to seeing this sort of thing finished. Being a nation founded by Christians, we believe you should pick a side and stick to it; be hot or cold, as the good book says. It's why Ingmar Bergman was never a big hit here. It's why we like our chili spicy and our beer icy. It's why soccer will never be the national sport, at least not while a Republican is in office. If none of these things make sense, then you probably didn't even know there was an All-Star game last night. I'll wager further that you live in a place where guns are prohibited, probably with several indoor pets and lots of Anne Rice books. You have my sympathy and my contempt.

As does professional baseball. Somehow we have forgotten what we all learned as kids, that if it gets too dark or the guy who owns the bat has to go home for supper, you just show up the next day, with the same score, and finish it.

But that assumes there isn't anybody else to play, which was clearly not the case last night. I promise you there were at least a thousand guys in Miller Park with baseball gloves. So why didn't anybody think to let one of them play once the rosters started to thin? You think the crowd wouldn't have loved that? If so, you're out of touch with sports fans, and with America. We all grew up with this rule: if you don't have enough good guys to play, you just let somebody's kid brother in the game, or at worst, somebody's sister. Not only would this have been good baseball, it would have been good finance -- you let one Joe Average get into a professional game, and you'll fill every stadium for the rest of the season.

Or what about the managers? These guys already have uniforms on, for crying out loud. I know, they're old and out of shape, but so are half the professional pitchers out there. If last night's travesty isn't enough to get the managers out on the field, then they should take off the uniforms and officially bury the manager-player tradition.

All of these solutions just highlight the lack of entrepreneurial spirit among baseball officials, which isn't surprising coming from a cartel that lets the likes of Peter Angelos join its ranks. The real problem here is that the bureaucrats were more worried about some manager getting his panties in a wad because his pitcher had to go more than two innings than they were about telling 41,781 Americans -- in a time of war, no less -- that they just paid $125 per ticket to see a cricket match. So what does that say about us?

Sissies. We are becoming a nation of sissies. Don't agree? Aside from last night, here are a few cultural markers: Oprah, Title IX, chick flicks, workplace sensitivity training, gun control, rising obesity, declining military enrollment, Tae Kwon Do, guys with earrings, and the disappearance of the stick shift.

Here's an even more persuasive sign that I'm right: the word "sissy" is considered insensitive, and increasingly likely to get one in trouble when uttered in the wrong company. Only a nation of sissies would take umbrage at the word "sissy."

The solution? Well, for starters we can get everybody back out on the field to finish last night's game. If the All-Stars are too tired, or are feeling abused and underpaid, then let our armed services field a couple of teams. They're the real All-Stars anyway. Next, we can start fining people who don't shoot burglars and muggers. After that, we should bring back the slap. Watch any black-and-white movie and you'll see what I'm talking about. If somebody gets too hysterical, you just give him a solid backhand. Not being a sissy, he'll thank you for it later. Imagine being able to give your supervisor a fresh one the next time he starts hyperventilating over increasing SG&A. Not such a bad idea, eh?

These are just a few possibilities, off the top of my head. I'll put the question to you, Gentle (in the non-sissy connotation) Reader. What steps can we take to stem the sissification of America?

Update: Ciscley Frohme has a compelling rebuttal to my claim about the inherent sissiness of tie-prone soccer. Excerpt: "Baseball can't have a tie without everyone deciding to give up. Soccer does have ties precisely because the teams won't give up."

Okay, point nicely made. Can we end this argument with a draw, Cis?

posted by Woodlief | link | (17) comments

Monday, July 8, 2002

Wife Carrying

First U.S. illegitimacy reached 33 percent. Then the married couple became a minority. Then gay marriages received a court blessing. And now this -- wife-carrying competitions that don't require actual wives. That's right. The world wife-carrying championship, which was recently held in Finland, allows unmarried couples to compete.

Unfamiliar with wife-carrying? Well, friends, you are missing out. Imagine your better half clinging to your torso, her thighs wrapped about the top of your head, her arms clutching your waist, as you wade through water and jump over hurdles in a desperate contest to beat all the other husbands to win the grand prize, your wife's weight in beer. European beer, no less. The kama sutra has nothing to top this, believe me.

Only now, the rotten heart of Europe has decayed even this time-honored Norse tradition, to the point that a man and woman shacked up and childless, with nothing to do all day but go to work and exercise, can compete against couples who've had the courage to tie the knot, bear children, and take on all the extra weight that entails. I mean, anybody can walk into a bar, throw two or three skinny single gals over his shoulder, and run a couple of miles. It takes a real man to carry a woman who isn't desperately keeping her waist-size to Ally McBeal proportions.

As can be expected, once the Europeans distort a social norm, East Coast Americans will quickly follow suit. And this contest announcement from the North American Wife Carrying Championships openly admits as much:

"The title can be deceiving - wife can mean someone else's wife or no one's wife - as long as it's a male-female team."

Apparently we weren't content just to relax the marriage requirement, we threw in wife-swapping. And you thought the 70's were dead.

But surely the male-female requirement will soon fall by the wayside as well, as hyperactive gay activists and their stormtrooper lesbian muscle issue a barrage of fussy press releases besmirching the wife-carrying competition as an example of heterosexual oppression. It will quickly be renamed the "Partner Carrying Competition," and will probably occasion a brief sports comeback by Martina Navratilova.

We won't stop there, however, because soon the Alone and Proud of Ourselves crowd -- fresh from a court victory requiring corporations to extend maternity leave coverage to singles who've just purchased a cat -- will begin grousing over all this "partner" language. So, the contest will be renamed the "Person You May or May Not Be Currently Humping-Carrying Competition," which will spread the sexual and gender confusion further, but will at least open the door to some serious network television sponsorship.

But we can't be done, you see, because we will still be excluding the differently abled, whose walkers and wheelchairs aren't so simpatico with an obstacle course. Thus we'll need to replace the obstacles with a smooth path made of at least 40% recycled tires, and eliminate the "Carrying" part of the contest, because this evokes a dependence on others that riles disabled activists. They can get by just fine without any help -- once you provide the primo parking spaces and ramp over three-quarters of civilization, of course -- and they don't appreciate all this "carrying" talk.

So once we're finished making this competition into something that fits our modern lifestyles, we'll no longer have a wife-carrying contest, we'll have a lot of bitter people wheeling and limping and grousing along a walking path. Nobody will want to watch anymore, but that won't stop the television networks; they'll just weave this new sport into their Women's NBA schedule. Gatorade will make commercials featuring the reigning dyslexic lesbian champion celebrating by doing little wheelies in her wheelchair. Reebok will provide free shoes to contestants, issued with the disclaimer that its provision of shoes is not intended to suggest that one should wear shoes, or that people without feet are somehow lesser individuals.

In time, parody becomes history. You'll see. All of this means that I will have to retain my amateur status as a wife-carrier of eleven years. Which is fine, because who wants an audience for that sort of thing anyway?

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Friday, June 21, 2002

Meddlesome Software

Here's an example of what irritates me about the endless stream of software "upgrades" that yearly hurl themselves at my computers. I'm now working with Microsoft Word 2002. I'm building an outline. Whenever I hit "Tab" to indent a bullet, Word automatically converts my bullet point from a nice black dot into a sissified "o", and indents it about half a mile. My old Word didn't do this. My old Word knew its place. The new Word suffers from the delusion that it is my collaborative partner. The democratic workplace has finally come to my computer, and I don't like it one bit.

So here's what I'm wondering: did the people at Microsoft conduct a survey that I got left out of, wherein they asked lots of customers who make outlines whether they preferred this postmodern indentation system to the old method of indenting a quarter-inch and leaving the freaking bullet point alone?

I'm thinking not. I think instead some poor sap was instructed by headquarters to churn out yet another version of the software, so they can sell it in bulk for way too much money to thousands of IT purchasers desperate not to spend less than last year and thereby have next year's budget cut, so their service personnel can then take up my valuable work time installing the new beast on my computer, so I can in turn spend more time trying to do my job. Said poor sap looks at the current version of Word, verifies that it still puts letters on the screen in pretty much 100% correspondence to what one types, and sits there, befuddled, perhaps for hours. Then he begins to tinker with the program, desperately looking for anything that will enable Microsoft to pretend that they've contributed to the GNP by developing a "new" version of their software.

So, millions of man-hours later, Poor Sap has been promoted, while I sit in front of my computer, trying to do what I used to do perfectly well on a much older version of Word, only now I feel like a bomber pilot weaving through bursts of flak in the form of an excessively peppy paper clip creature who occasionally pops up to ask whether I'd like help writing my letter, squiggly lines under my text to alert me to my repeated (and relished) violations of sixth-grade writing style and politically correct language, and compulsory auto-formatting of things I don't want formatted, especially by someone whose sense of style is akin to Martha Stewart on crack. In short, I'm getting insight into why so many people enjoyed seeing Microsoft on the receiving end of the overreaching Clinton Anti-Trust Division's poker stick -- it wasn't because they were all jealous of Bill Gates, it was because they hate, as any freedom-loving American would, the repeated intrusions on their thoughts and productivity generated by Microsoft's hyperactive, "interactive" software.

I hope the periodic retro trends that afflict American products will soon visit office software, perhaps in the form of a "classic" Office package that is just plain less, well, meddlesome. Now that's a new and improved product I could get behind. And I'm sure my IT guy would be willing to buy it, so long as the price is high enough.

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Thursday, June 6, 2002


I had to fly on one of those little jets that necessitates venturing onto the tarmac, rather than waltzing down a ramp connected directly to the jet's door. Upon arriving in Atlanta's crappy little airport, there was no elevator in sight, so everyone had to file up a narrow set of stairs encased by dirty metal siding. We were moving at a glacial pace, and I soon realized why. A few people ahead of me, at the front of the line, was an old woman who didn't have the strength to carry her rolling bag. She was using two hands to pull it up a step, then taking one step herself. Because of the contortions required to do this, the woman a little behind and beside her couldn't go past. Directly between me and the old woman were two men, both quietly huffing at the delay. One carried a sissy European man-purse, the other had nothing in either hand. Nothing.

So, I shouldered my computer bag, used my other bag to press past the two sorry excuses for men in front of me, and with my free hand picked up the old woman's bag. She was exceedingly thankful, almost to the point of tears, it seemed. In my alternate universe, once I got her bag to the top of the stairs, I kicked the guy behind us in the throat, causing him to careen with lethal velocity into the man behind him. The rest of the passengers cheered me, and airport security gave me a free ride to my connecting gate on that little golf cart with the annoying horn, letting me honk it at will as we sped past the less heroic travelers.

In reality, I gave them both a disgusted look and went on my way. I wish now I had confronted them. Shame on any man who doesn't help an old woman with her bags, or let pregnant women go to the front of a line, or hold open doors for ladies. Males who don't do these things deserve to have their manhoods revoked, permanently, by means of a small guillotine.

A very small guillotine, I suspect.

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Saturday, May 18, 2002

Journalists on Themselves

I recently attended a panel discussion of environmental journalism, featuring two well-known environmental reporters and one editor. They evidenced a frightful ignorance of both the substance and theory of their work, overlaid with a patina of experienced wisdom that was all the more irritating. In order to protect the guilty, I will refer to them as Grizzled Graybeard, Smug Susan, and Meek Molly.

A message they endeavored to convey was how hard they work, which they did with the insistent tone of someone who, being acquainted with no other type of employment, has deluded himself into thinking that his work is somehow more taxing than that of other professions. Interestingly, the allusions to difficult work were always adjacent to an anecdote that suggested the opposite. Smug Susan, for example, explained that she came upon a story of which she is proud when an environmentalist called and gave her the information: "So I made a couple of phone calls, and found out it was true. You really have to dig."

Now, I know she did more; she probably made lots of phone calls. She probably had to weigh arguments, and consult experts. But let's be clear -- she didn't dig this story up, any more than I "hunted" last night's cheeseburger; it was handed to her by someone who had done the actual digging. A recent study of Freedom of Information Act filings found, by way of evidence, that journalists are far down the list of people who request sensitive government information. James Fallows published a related critique of national journalists a few years ago, noting that in contrast to their predecessors, many today simply rely on information from others who do the work of gathering it (and putting their own spin on it in the process). So please, Smug Susan, spare us the Woodward and Bernstein routine.

Another thing that stood out was their shared, unstated paradigm that news is an exogenously determined entity, and they its neutral handmaidens. They conveyed not a hint of awareness that their choices in part shape not only the framing of events, but also which events attain the status of "news." At the same time, Smug Susan confessed that "you have to decide where you come down on an issue before you write about it."

What is more, they were highly cognizant of their effects on the thinking of their readers. As Smug Susan explained, she writes "for real people" (as opposed, one presumes, to her competitors, who apparently write for mannequins, Barbie dolls, and Al Gore). Susan feels a duty to awaken the benighted masses. She recounted a story she did about a large western town whose mayor opposed more stringent standards on arsenic in its water supply. Now, this topic has the peculiar effect of exposing the source of knowledge used by people with an opinion on it; some base their opinions on knowledge of costs, benefits, and toxicity levels, others base their opinions on Agatha Christie novels ("He's dead, Bertram, and it appears to be arsenic poisoning.")

Smug Susan, being a woman of letters, is in the second tribe. "Believe it or not," she revealed, sounding for all the world like an anthropologist lecturing on a primitive tribe, "some people actually want arsenic in their drinking water."

This is silly on multiple levels. Of course nobody wants arsenic in his drinking water, a fact verifiable by the simple experiment of making it available as a condiment at the dinner table. The question is how much people are willing to pay to have a trace of it removed from their drinking water. Rational people who work for a living, at jobs almost as hard as journalism, might reasonably ask to what extent leaving the trace of arsenic, given the high cost of removing it, will affect their health.

Leaving aside this question (the answer to which is: probably not much), Smug Susan's framing of it reveals a great deal about her approach to environmental issues. If she can't look at the debate over arsenic in drinking water and summarize it with anything better than, "some people want poison in their water," then she is, I think, seriously deficient in both her analytical and informative skills, two capabilities which I was under the impresssion are conducive to a successful career in journalism.

Grizzled Graybeard was just as simplistic. He told, for example, how he investigated a story on the environmental effects of cellular phones (yes, this is "news" despite the absence of data substantiating such an effect, while Al Gore's extended harassment of scientists who question global warming was not news). Like Susan, his account of "digging" entailed lots of phone calls. Because he is above the fray of partisanship, Graybeard likes to hear from all sides. Thus, he explained, after he got his environmental "facts" together, he "called the cell phone industry."

Those of you with an understanding of economics, business, or politics will recognize the absurdity of such a statement, which is akin to treating Jesse Jackson as a spokesman for "black people." Only someone who views a diverse group with mulitple competing interests through the simple lens of Capitalists vs. The Environment would imagine that he can "call" an industry. A sampling of Greybeard's articles (or those of most other environmental journalists), however, will reflect just such a mentality. One is likely to find quotes from several environmental groups with different perspectives (ranging from those who want markets outlawed, to those who want the participants executed), and one or two quotes from a single hack representing some moribund, centrist industry association. This isn't balance, it is pretense.

Graybeard was also proud of his practice of quoting politicians he "knows" are lying, and then placing immediately after their words a "fact" from some group that exposes their stupidity. Given that neither Graybeard nor the other panelists have a science or math background (a fact they ruefully admitted to a shrewd questioner), one wonders how he determines who to "expose" (hint: his examples were all Republicans).

This, of course, was the 800-pound gorilla in the overcrowded conference room. Grizzled Graybeard has a bit of theater in him, which led him to re-enact his anecdotes by speaking as if he were the key participants, replete with artificial voice and exaggerated facial expressions. Here's a sample:

"So one side might say (adopts gruff, Colonel Blowhard voice), 'drilling here won't hurt the wildlife.' The other side, however, might point out (adopts calm voice of reason), 'we aren't so sure their science is accurate.' My job is to represent these sides fairly and accurately."

Fat chance, Graybeard.

Smug Susan had a similar tell, as we say in poker, which was most clearly on display as she answered a question from someone with the audacity to ask how she knows the difference between real science and junk science. Susan furrowed her disapproving brow and replied: "Well, I can trust the coal mining industry who says they aren't hurting animals, or I can trust this guy in the woods who has studied animals his whole life." Perhaps instead of Smug Susan, I should call her Simplistic Susan. Or Self-serving Susan. Or Sour Susan, based on the look she gave her questioner.

Susan didn't always frown, however; she had plenty of smiles and winks for her ideological kinfolk in the audience. My favorite moment came when someone from the Natural Resources Defense Council, which in 1988 advanced the fraudulent claim that apple juice was going to kill our children, prefaced his question with, "We at the NRDC are scrupulous about getting our facts right..." His question was how the panelists "keep politicians honest."

Susan explained, "if I know his facts aren't true, I won't put them in my story . . . if someone tells me something that sounds made up, I won't print it." Just how Susan, a Russian studies major, can determine scientific fact from fiction isn't clear, although I'm pretty sure it involves reading breathless faxes from NRDC flacks.

This is a profound problem, because environmental issues are not best viewed through the lens of Capitalists vs. The Environment, or Business vs. The Children. They are best viewed as a conflict between competing values, needs, and resources, in a probabilistic environment. This requires an understanding in turn of what tradeoffs are, and how risks should be assessed, analyses best enabled by economics. When asked why they don't incorporate more economic analysis into their articles, however, the panelists' responses can best be summed up by Meek Molly, who replied, "we do write occasionally about appropriations bills."

In other words, for the panelists, as, I suspect, for most environmental journalists, economics is about money. The notion that costs and benefits are to be weighed, rather than caricatured in selective quotes from spokesmen who best fit the preformed trope, is alien. In fact, it is probably unappealing, because the two reporters on this panel are clearly captured. They exude respect for the environmental left, and distrust of and dislike for any other voices. This is evidenced not just at the level of the individual environmental reporter, but at the organizational level as well. At least one major national newspaper, for example, upon realizing in late 2000 that Bush would be our next President, hired several additional environmental reporters. In their minds, with a Republican in the White House, there was simply going to be more "digging" to do. Thus stories that weren't written during the Clinton years about politicized EPA cases against corporate opponents of Gore's failed energy tax, or Administration claims of "cleaning" Superfund sites that were simply delisted once the science showed they shouldn't have been listed in the first place, well, these just weren't really news. Environmental news only happens when Republicans are in charge, and it's usually bad.

I'm not sure if most Americans are fooled by all this. Journalists are finding their public evaluation rapidly sinking to the level of trial lawyers and child molesters, yet at the same time they offer a cynical simplicity that seems to feed the willfully ignorant American news consumer. And this is at heart the problem -- the claims of the left are always easier to explicate; they can fit on a bumper sticker, and they are based on emotional appeal rather than data or logic. The former is the stock in trade of the lazy journalist, while conveying the latter requires a skill and expertise that many journalists seem not to have. Perhaps our saving grace will be the fragmentation of the news media, which is allowing, in the past decade alone, numerous diverse voices access to American news consumers who in the past were captive to a few big news outlets.

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Monday, April 29, 2002

Weather Obsession

Reading Ken Goldstein's comments on the central place still played in our lives by weather reminds me of something I want to get off my chest. I live in Kansas, so perhaps this is a local phenomenon, but it seems to me that in their insane quest to differentiate themselves by acquiring increasingly sophisticated weather equipment, the local news stations have collectively gone off the deep end. I was watching one of my favorite television shows the other night, one of those programs where the female characters all have the names of sorority girls and wear shirts that terminate two inches above their pants lines, and I realized how much less enjoyable the show is when I can't see the exposed midriffs that are clearly integral to plot development.

I came about this realization because plastered over fully one-fifth of my screen was a large county map of the state of Kansas, with a big red dot 600 miles to the northwest tracking -- I am not making this up -- a thunderstorm warning. Across the bottom ran this continual ticker tape parade of information about this apparently vicious but elusive thunderstorm, which was reputedly on the verge of giving any number of milo farms on the Colorado border a good soaking.

What's worse, whenever there's real weather, even if it's in Nebraska, the breathless weather announcer will break into my program every three minutes to remind me that his crack team, with their new High-Performance, Double-Infrared, Super-Duper Quadruple Doppler Tracker, is on the case. I live in Kansas, for crying out loud. You can see the weather coming ten miles away. I certainly don't need to know about a tornado that may or may not materialize. It's not like I have horses to set loose, or a barn to batten down, such that I really need some advance preparation time. And the people who do have those responsibilities, I'm quite sure, are not watching "Friends." What's more, there's a tornado alarm every thirty feet in Kansas. I know, because they test the things every clear Monday afternoon during tornado season; the sound is something akin to what I imagine the second coming will be like. Which reminds me: we should probably all thank the good Lord that churches don't have their own tracking systems to keep us up to date on all the Jesus and Mary sightings they receive.

And the only reason we are afflicted with this barrage of Weather Updates, Weather Warnings, Weather Rumors, and various and sundry other Weather Analyses, is because local stations, after a frenzy of mutually-assured financial destruction, woke up from their spending binge to discover that they have weather equipment that puts NASA to shame, which means they must -- come hell, high water, or just a mild sprinkle in Brazil, use it for God's sake. They certainly have to give those fat, overly happy weathermen something to do, otherwise they just hang around the break room all day, eating doughnuts and hitting on the interns. Which reminds me: no matter where you live, your local weatherman is much like our latest ex-President -- you don't really trust him, but you find yourself listening to him anyway.

The solution, of course, is for local stations to donate all of this equipment to those Third World villages we are reading about every week, which are always getting hit by a monsoon or something and losing 70% of their inhabitants, all because there's only one working television in the place, and it's tuned to "Baywatch." Surely there's some tax write-off for the stations that do so; they'd be doing the world some good, and, be honest, how often is that true of local news stations anymore?

Most important, I'd be able to see the bottom half of my screen again. For most actors, this really is their better half.

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Friday, April 26, 2002

The Ticket is Punched

Today I have officially received my Ph.D. from the University of Michigan. What follows are some snippets from my graduate school experience:

Week Negative Thirty-Three
Respected professor after class: "Tony, what are you going to do next year?"

Me: "I'm trying to decide between law school and the FBI."

Professor: "You wouldn't be happy doing either of those. Have you thought about graduate school?"

I have not yet learned that academics have notoriously bad judgment. Outside of high school guidance counselors, the average professor may be the least qualified to give career advice.

Week One
Dr. Roy P. sees us two at a time in order to welcome us to graduate school, chat us up, and assign us each an advisor based on our interests. I go in with classmate Lowell B., with whom I've been talking in the hallway. Lowell is horrified by my support for school vouchers.

Dr. P: "So (looks at name on folder), Tony, let's start with you. What are your interests?"

Me: "Public policy, mostly. Housing, economic development..."

Dr. P: (Scowling) "Well, public policy is to political science what accounting is to mathematics." (Turning away) "So, Lowell, what are your interests?"

Lowell: "Economic growth in the Soviet Union."

This is followed by a thirty-minute discussion between Dr. P and Lowell about the economic strength and development of the Soviet Union, while I try not to feel like the red-headed bastard at the family reunion.

Dr. P: "Well, Lowell, your advisor will be Dr. L. And Tony, your advisor will be Dr. M. He's over in the (scowling again) Policy School. You'll want to speak with them soon, so they can help you select your first semester's classes. I think you'll both find that we have an open-door policy here, so don't be shy about introducing yourselves to the faculty; they're all eager to help."

So I make my way to the Policy School, to learn that Dr. M will be out of town until after classes start. As I wander down the hall, I notice that the door to world-renowned scholar Robert A. is slightly ajar. Remembering Dr. P's advice about getting chatty with the faculty, I tap on the door.

Dr. A: "What?"

Me: "Hi, I'm Tony [insert blather about being new, being glad to be here, having read Dr. A's book, wondering what classes to take]."

Dr. A: "Good. Good."

Me: "So I just thought I'd introduce myself." He hasn't taken his hands off his keyboard since I came in. He really wants me to leave.

Dr. A: "Good."

Me: "So I guess I'll see you around."

Dr. A: (Over his shoulder, as he turns back to his computer) "Good."

Week Fifty-Three
I meet Joan S., who will henceforth become my anti-voting guide. I no longer need to evaluate candidates or issues, I simply ask myself which candidate will be most likely to induce cerebral thrombosis in Joan, and vote accordingly. I've recently written an economic analysis of the local Kroger strike, in which employees demand a "living wage" for work that doesn't merit such pay. Joan has been leading the graduate contingent that is working the picket lines with the employees. We are at an afternoon cook-out, and Joan denounces me. We argue for a while, and then I turn to a different conversation. I hear one of the children of a classmate ask Joan what a union is.

Joan: "Well, honey, a union is what working mommies and daddies need so they can feed their children."

Another child: "Is my daddy in a union?"

Joan: "Yes, that's why he can afford to feed you."

Then Joan teaches them a cheer: "Yay Unions!"

I'm not making this up. As they walk around the party, shouting their little slogan, she gives me a smug look. That's when I decide to devote the rest of my life to building a political and social system that will cause her to commit suicide at an early and embittered age.

Week Eleven Thousand Three Hundred and Forty-Seven
I have a sweet offer from the University of C., my dream job. I inexplicably accept an invitation to visit Mega-Corporation X, where the CEO meets with me personally and asks me to help him develop and implement his innovative management philosophy. I decide, on the flight back, that it might be good to get some experience in an organization before teaching about them for the rest of my life. I accept the job. A colleague where I am teaching, upon learning of my decision, cries out in a bitter voice: "And to think, you could have been at the University of C.!" She never speaks to me again for the remainder of my time there. This convinces me that I have made the right decision.

Week Eleven Thousand Three Hundred and Sixty-Three
A week before I fly back to Michigan to defend my dissertation, I send an email to my committee members, asking them to tell me if they've noticed any problems, so I can correct them before plunking down the semester's tuition (you have to enroll the semester you defend). I get no response, except from my favorite professor John K., who tells me how much he enjoyed reading my work.

Week Eleven Thousand Three Hundred and Sixty-Four
10:15 AM: I hand over a check for $3,300 to the University of Michigan for my semester's tuition.

10:30 AM: My defense begins.

Dr. J: "I've noticed some profound problems in your methodological chapter."

Me: "Oh." You mean the methods chapter I finished three years ago? The one I gave you forty-five drafts of? The one that was published last year in one of the top journals in my sub-field? The one that's the centerpiece of the dissertation that I emailed you about last freaking week to see if there were problems?

Dr. J: "You specify an equation that has . . . error terms aren't independent . . . variance measure doesn't take into account . . . eigenvector . . . vector auto-regression . . ."

Me: "Oh." I think I can kill him before they drag me off of his body.

Dr. J: ". . . and the way you account for the interaction of time and causality isn't properly specified . . ."

Me: "Oh." If I kill him, I will definitely fail. Must stay calm. Do not throw up. Do not throw up.

Dr. J: ". . . so there's no way your empirical results can be meaningful, given this specification."

Me: "Oh." Thirty-Three Hundred Dollars. Thirty-Three Hundred Freaking Dollars.

Dr. J: "I'm sorry, but this will require substantial revisions."

Me: "Oh."

Week Eleven Thousand Three Hundred and Sixty-Five
A former classmate [name deleted to protect him] calls me up to hear the horror story first-hand.

Friend: "That f***. That f****** f***. That m************ f***. . . [insert various tenses and grammatical forms of the F-bomb]"

He knows just what to say to make me feel better. Some people are just gifted that way.

Week Forty-Seven Thousand Nine Hundred and Eight-Three
After approximately 900 revisions involving Monte Carlo simulations and numerous econometric re-specifications, which aren't so easy to produce when one is working full-time, Dr. J relents. My dissertation is much better, by the way. It would have been good to get his input when I was, say, still in graduate school, but I'm thankful nonetheless.

Week Forty-Seven Thousand Nine Hundred and Eight-Six
I write a $3,600 check to the University of Michigan.

I'm a doctor, though I won't let anyone call me that, because you shouldn't put "Dr." in front of your name unless you know what to do when Joan S. keels over in front of you with cerebral thrombosis. Sadly, should that happen on my watch, I'm afraid I'll be unable to help her. I've noticed, by the way, that outside of the academy, there is a negative correlation between the quality of one's degree and one's propensity to insist on being called "Doctor." But that's a topic for another time.

So here's the thing: I don't feel any smarter. I do feel wiser, and like I've matured and acquired some self-discipline, but the Marines could have produced the same result, and they would have paid me. As my colleague and fellow Ph.D. Art H. points out, however, I've gotten my "ticket punched." Maybe so.

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Friday, April 19, 2002

The Intrepid Traveler Returns

I've made several recent trips through the upper class cultural ghetto that is the modern airport, with its Waldenbooks stores extruding the latest Ken Blanchard schlock, its bars replete with chattering salesmen in unnecessarily bright shoes, its throngs of sorority clones yapping incessantly on their fruit-colored cell phones, and its seeming endless supply of televisions invading every corner of auditory space. Why anthropologists study the root-gathering rituals of East Bornea is beyond me; someone should study why Americans believe that getting on the plane first enables them to arrive one hot second faster than the people whose section has actually been called for boarding.

I'm not sure how much longer flight attendants expect 9/11 to serve as a free pass to be rude and unhelpful without fear of complaint from sympathetic passengers. The attendants in my path had best check the expiration date, however, because the next one who grumbles when I ask for a second shot glass of water is going to get one of those ice boulders that take up 98% of the cup's volume in her pasty painted forehead.

I'm sure that's a federal crime, and perhaps now writing about it is as well, given Norman Mineta's zeal for any stricture that promises to inconvenience the maximum number of travelers while simultaneously protecting the delicate psyches of young men named Mohammed who use Saudi traveler's checks to purchase their one-way tickets. I witnessed a maddening example of this phenomenon: security agents randomly pulling people out of the boarding line for body searches chose the woman behind me, and as they escorted her to a space where they could pull out her personal things for the greatest number of people to see, one of them explained, "we need some females." Oh, I see. Diversity trumps security.

Now, last I checked, approximately 100% of the September 11 hijackers were men, and approximately 100% of the people who expressed support for them were Jew-hating Muslims and French intellectuals (the moral distinctions between these two, of course, being somewhat blurry). How this translates into searching the underwear of 60 year-old Lois Rosenbaum from Schenectady is a calculation I cannot perform. Logic doesn't seem to be Mineta's strong suit, however. This Japanese-American intern camp survivor was an affirmative action hire intended to assuage our collective racial guilt with minimal cost back when the Department of Transportation seemed a safe place for a Republican president to put a Democrat -- a modern-day indulgence of sorts. But last fall's tragedy has transformed this cheap grace into a scourge, and we each willingly accept it across the back because in our heart of hearts we want every male airplane passenger of seeming Middle Eastern descent to get a comprehensive rectal exam before boarding our plane. And this, of course, is one of the New Sins, right up there with believing that most of the homeless are drunks, and that Monica Lewinsky's parents raised a slut.

In short, common sense has become something muttered under one's breath, something we apologize for when it accidentally slips out, something to be ruthlessly purged from our social norms and public policies lest, God forbid, somebody gets his tender little feelings hurt. All of this is a roundabout way of saying that, as I grow older, $5 for an airplane cocktail doesn't seem so expensive.

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Thursday, April 4, 2002

Ode to McDonald's

I took the family to McDonald's for lunch recently. As I sat there watching my son worry a soggy french fry into paste while clutching it in a grubby paw and climbing all over his seat, the seat behind him, the table beside us, and the lady sitting at that table, I began to reminisce about the better days at McDonald's.

You know, before unhinged vegetarians made them stop cooking french fries with beef tallow, or pig fat, or sacrificial blood -- whatever it was that made them taste like little fried heaven sticks, instead of what I imagine a styrofoam tray used to package grocery store chicken would taste like if I were to cut it in strips and boil them until they resemble Michael Moore's manhood (such as it is).

Those were the days, when no tragedy -- losing a big game, catching your girlfriend wearing somebody else's letter jacket, nothing -- could depress your spirits once you held a hot bag of golden fries in one hand, and a thick chocolate milk shake in the other. Now the fries are greasy and lukewarm, and the milkshake is more likely a "milk" shake with the consistency of that nutritional gruel the U.N. foists on starving African children who, like me, just want a freaking bag of french fries cooked the way God intended.

The worst part of the McDonald's experience, though, is not choking down the miserable fare, it's watching the sad sacks who flip, scrape, and slop it into grease-stained bags. It is, for starters, more often than not a Tower of Babel experience of the sort that drives Pat Buchanan to wet his bed (or worse, write books). In my local branch the West Indian manager routinely shouts in bad English at a slouching, tattooed Latino who is too busy flirting with the Filipino french fry technician to wave the flies away from meat patties that flop naked and sweating on an uncovered tray. Everyone is slow, nobody is happy, and they all look like they've eaten nothing but Extra Value Meals for years, lumbering about with their flabby arms and perhaps half the ADA-recommended number of teeth in their heads. Their lack of training and passion, responsibility for which rests squarely on the shoulders of the sorry lot of bean-counters who run the McDonald's corporation, is manifested in everything from their filthy bathrooms to their incompetently constructed hamburgers.

That's right, it is possible to build a burger badly. Case in point, my meal that day. Apparently the bean counters allow their franchisees to place exactly two pickle slices on each burger. A large burger has about eight square inches of real estate on which one can place the two pickles. Now, I'm not an expert in hamburger technology, but I am fairly confident that of all the places on the patty to place a second pickle, the one place where it clearly doesn't belong is precisely on top of the first pickle. What's more, odds are that if ketchup tastes good in one place on the burger, it would taste even better were it spread across the entire thing, instead of gestating tightly like a fetus at the very center of my soggy bun.

But nobody at McDonald's is paying attention to any of this, because they're all too busy trying to figure out what surreal plastic toy-like garbage they can stuff into Happy Meals in order to bring back all the customers they've been losing to Subway for the past decade. Here's an idea: how about putting something edible in there for a change, like a Whopper with cheese?

posted by Woodlief | link | (0)

Friday, March 22, 2002

We vs. They

Seems I touched a nerve with my little rant about our tendency to use the word "we" when talking about "taking out" Saddam Hussein. The talented Megan McArdle had something nice to say, as did Alleywriter, who doesn't like to have his real name used. Alleywriter disagreed with me, however, arguing:

I'm way guilty on the "We" thing, too. I do it with sports, I do it with American politics. I'll keep being guilty on this one. I'm a part of the United States, as is our military (which I've done my time in). "We" is simple and inclusive. Dropping "we" sets "us" apart from "them".

Good point, and I think you're probably right, though I have a question which I'll pose as soon as I quote a warm and endearing attorney whose threatening legalese at the bottom of his email prevents me from identifying him (I think I'm also precluded from quoting him here, but if he doesn't call me on that, I won't call him on sending personal emails from work):

By your logic, your brother-in-law the Navy Seal shouldn't say "we" should take out Saddam either -- because he couldn't do it, not unless the US government provided him with a ride over to the Middle East, infiltrated him into Iraq, hooked him up with local partisans, provided him with all kinds of intelligence and some nifty toys to boot. So until he gets a strong indicator from the Feds that he's going to be assigned to an assasination (sic) squad, I suppose he'll just have to keep his mouth shut--at least when he's around you.

As for me, I don't go around saying that we should take out Saddam, but I do think WE should take out his bioweapons, nukes, etc. No, I don't own a B-2 bomber--sue me.

Funny, I've never heard a lawyer ask to be sued before. Isn't that bad luck in your profession? Anyway, last I checked, "we" is the first-person plural, indicating that it refers to a collection of individuals, all of whom take on a role as the collective subject or object of the sentence. My brother-in-law shouldn't say "I'm going to take out Saddam," but given that he is on the "team," writ broadly, who may well do the taking out, I think he's entitled to say "We're going to take out Saddam." Actually, he can say whatever he likes, because he knows how to fillet people with a #2 pencil.

Now I have a question for Alleywriter and my new best friend the attorney. I think you're probably right about the use of "we" being okay in this context, based on the fact that we are all fellow citizens, seeking to eliminate a threat to our common security. And I'm just as guilty as anyone else of referring to my favorite teams using "we." But what I've noticed is this -- none of us look out the window when the municipal garbage crew drives up, and says, "oh, looks like we're a little late picking up the trash today." We don't pass the janitor where we work and think, "hmm, we sure need to clean those toilets."

In other words, we only tend to use the word "we" when it refers to something glamorous, which, ironically, tends to place it in the category of things that most of us in fact can't do. We can all scrub a toilet or empty a trash can, but we stick to the third person to describe those tasks. When it comes time to talk about the home team winning last night's game, however, suddenly we're all communitarians.

But now I'm getting crabby, so I'll stop. I hereby release all of you to use the first or third person as you see fit, so long as you agree not to use "dialogue" as a verb.

posted by Woodlief | link | (0)

Wednesday, March 20, 2002

Tough Talk

I've heard a lot of talk about "taking out" Saddam Hussein. Just this morning some Congressman was yammering on NPR, talking about plans that will "allow us to take him out." I've even heard a lady at my church say "we should take out Saddam."

I don't think you should use the first person to talk about "taking someone out" unless you are actually capable of doing the taking out. I'm thinking about when I taught karate in college. Not that sissy Tae Kwon Do, mind you -- this involved gloving up and hitting people, versus dancing around them like a drunken gypsy. I remember an obnoxious student who would bully the less experienced students he sparred. One day I could tell that he was really bugging my instructor.

"Do you want me to drop him?" I asked quietly.

My instructor thought about it for a second. "Yep."

Hello floor, goodbye attitude. See, it was acceptable for me to use the first person, because I knew I could do it myself. I would never talk about dropping, say, Chuck Norris, because I can't. And I certainly wouldn't say "we" should take out Saddam Hussein. Now my brother-in-law the Navy SEAL, he can say "we" all he wants, because he knows how to kill people. The lady at my church? Not so much.

posted by Woodlief | link | (0)

Friday, March 15, 2002

Hand Blowers

It's time to get something straight. I don't know what granola junkie techno-fascist Earth Day engineer designed the hand blowers that are replacing paper towels in public restrooms across the country, but I'd like to replace all the towels in his home with one of these mosquito-fart devices and see how long he tolerates it before he starts doing like the rest of us and drying his hands on his recycled cotton pants. The worst part is the little lecture that's written on the newer ones. You remember, the first one gave us directions, in case that big metal button on the front wasn't clue enough ("Push Button. Rub Hands Until Dry."). But soon every twelve year-old with a penny in his pocket was changing the directions to "Push Butt Rub a ss Until Dry." So then we just got a picture of a finger touching a button -- and we've seen the creative art that inspired. So now we get an environmental science lecture, about how the blower saves a tree, and is more sanitary than paper towels.

Since when did trees rate higher than human dignity? So long as Yellowstone has a tree standing, no American should have to huddle under one of these transgendered vacuum cleaners, pathetically rubbing his hands like a fly on a ham sandwich. What's more, who are they kidding with this sanitary nonsense? Which of my readers hasn't been dutifully washing his hands in a public restroom, only to look in the mirror and see some greasy tub of lard exit a newly polluted stall and stride right on out the door? Without paper towels, there's nothing between you and that contaminated door handle. So you have to stand there, trying not to look like a lurking pedophile, and wait for someone to come in and thereby free you from this feces prison, because for some reason bathrooms are immune from the fire code requiring doors to open outward.

Let's be honest about this. Restaurants put these things in because they're cheaper than paper towels. But they don't want to admit it, so they buy dryers with this eco-babble on the plate, to make me feel good about the fact that the waiter is hitting on my woman while I try to create fire between my palms. Pretty soon they'll start installing those Al Gore toilets, the ones that only use three tablespoons of water to flush, and then western civilization as we know it won't flush down the tubes, oh no, it will get stuck because there isn't enough counterweight in the tiny government-regulated tank. Meanwhile we'll be rubbing our hands down to bloody little nubs trying to get those beads of water to defy physics and disappear from our skin.

It's enough to make me give up public restrooms altogether. Don't be surprised to read that I've been arrested for relieving myself into a fish tank display at Wal-Mart.

posted by Woodlief | link | (0)

Thursday, February 28, 2002

Mousse Musing

Mousse Musing

I have decided that I do not want to make a habit of belittling other people's blogs, primarily because I think anyone who has the courage to throw their thoughts out on the web is head and shoulders above the rest of you, no matter how grating on one's nerves might be their poor grammar, shoddy thinking, and self-obsessed monologues.

At the same time, I know something funny when I see it. This is an excerpt from a blog that shall remain nameless. It chronicles the thoughts of a self-described "actress and goddess":

"If you find me more annoying than Moses wondering in the dessert..."

I have to admit, had Moses been caught sitting on the Jello mold, thinking things over, this might indeed have been annoying to the Israelites.

Oh loathsome Spell-Check. You are but an illusion of security.
posted by Woodlief | link | (0)

Wednesday, February 27, 2002

Good Gun Control

From today's Washington Post:

Police Gunfire in D.C. Worsens A new report by the D.C. police department that chronicles the use of force shows a 143 percent increase in the number of people injured or killed by police gunfire last year and a 45 percent increase from 2000 in the number of times police shot at suspects.

When hits go up by 143 percent and shootings only go up by 45 percent, doesn't that mean, contrary to the Post, that police gunfire is improving? Looks like the range instructor deserves a bonus.

Like I always say, gun control means being able to hit what you aim for.
posted by Woodlief | link | (0)

Tuesday, February 5, 2002

On Fools, Parents, and Children

I like the Motley Fool investment website. It has lots of great info and articles, and helpful discussion boards. This isn't about investment, though, it's about children. There's a discussion group on this website titled "Choosing not to have kids," which is populated by a lot of angry people who alternate between justifying their selfishness and denigrating their acquaintances who are parents.

For a group of people presumably educated about economics, they aren't very bright. Don't worry, I'm not going to advocate that those of you who are childless have children. I think a person too scared, selfish, or busy to have kids is making the right choice -- he would be a bad parent. In fact, I can think of lots of parents who shouldn't be. My issue is with people like this bozo from the Fool site, whose list of "Breeder translations" includes:

Phrase: "How can you have a family without a child?"
Translation: "I'm relying upon my kid for our marriage."

Phrase: "Our lives changed once we had children." Translation: "I have proof I'm relying upon my kid for our marriage."

Phrase: "There's nothing like the love of a child." Translation: "The marriage failed, so I'm relying upon the kid for emotional support."

Let's be clear. Bozo is making the right choice. But let's also be honest; Bozo doesn't have a clue what he's talking about. The reason, related to economics, is something called "information asymmetry." Here's what I mean. It is a fact that 100% of non-parents do not have children, right? It is also the case that 100% of parents have lived on both sides of the veil -- they've been non-parents, and they've been parents.

So imagine you're trying to decide whether to move to another city. Who are you going to trust for advice? People who've lived in your city and the city to which you're thinking of relocating, or people in your city who have never lived in the other city, and who insist that doing so is horrible? The two groups do not have symmetrical information. The first group has the experience of the second group as well as its own new experience, while the second group has only had the experience of one city.

This doesn't mean that you should let other parents make a childbearing decision for you. My point is that we should all be honest about who knows what. Parents will tell you that having children is hard work, that you have to give up lots of fun things, that there are worries and expenses and sacrifices that continue for years. But they'll also tell you (I'm excluding "parents" from this generalization -- see below) that you have no idea the kind of joy that children will bring. Many of the childless people on this discussion site seem to actually believe that parents are part of this big sub-conscious conspiracy to lie about the horrors of parenting, in order to bring more converts into the fold. This isn't limited to a single discussion group -- prowl around some of the other sites devoted to this topic and you'll see what I mean. (Don't get me wrong -- I think this kind of conspiracy can occur in small communities. It's the only way to explain why people continued to eat at the Ratskellar in Chapel Hill, for example, which everyone insisted was the "in" place to eat, but which had bad service, poor lighting, and diarrhea-inducing main dishes.)

I don't think this is a good way to explain why millions of people voluntarily take on the great hardship of parenting in the face of cultural artifacts that shriek at them not to. Sound logic suggests that when millions of people make a choice that appears irrational, perhaps one's estimates of the attendant costs and benefits are incorrect.

In other words, maybe the parents know something the childless don't. At the very least, we know that they have greater information about both ways of living.

And this brings me back to my original example. It seems strange to start a discussion list in order to discuss something about which one has no first-hand knowledge, with other people who have no such knowledge. In fact, it's eerily like the graduate political science list-serv I used to be on at the University of Michigan. This brings to mind something P.J. O'Rourke wrote: "I'm not a liberal, so I can't talk extensively about things I know nothing about."
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