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Friday, August 1, 2008

Headline from yesterday's Atlanta Journal-Constitution (the top front-page story in their print edition):

Voucher Group Targets State

The secondary headline explains that Georgia may be "the next battleground in fight over using public money for private schools."

And yet I promise you, the people who concocted these headlines are convinced that they are neutral observers practicing "public-interest journalism." At least when you read Coulter or Krugman you know they aren't insulting you by pretending they haven't axes to grind.

posted by Woodlief | link | (0) comments

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Virtual Soldier Boys

Yesterday's WSJ tells how the U.S. Army is using video games to sell military service to kids. You might have noticed these at your local state fair or other amusement venues; children are invited to pick up a gun and shoot at targets on a screen.

The last time we were near one of these machines my sons pestered me to let them use it. I told them No. It's not because I want to discourage them from military service, or from owning guns. Heck, their mother and I are well-armed ourselves. What I don't like is that these games simulate killing without its full effect. The splatter of blood. The smell of someone who has just died. The obscene sprawl of a body that has had life taken from it.

A father interviewed for the WSJ piece explains that he let his 13 year-old use the Army device because "he wanted his son to gain an appreciation of the sacrifices being made by the Army."

But it's precisely the opposite that results. You don't appreciate anything, after toying with one of these games, other than the false sense of power that comes from being invulnerable while luxuriating in the killing of artificial strangers who have no mothers to miss them. It is designed to produce a thrill without the concomitant fear and remorse. I think we've done enough to desensitize our children without doing it deliberately, in the name of patriotism, no less.

So my boys can have their toy guns, which they use on imaginary bad guys and animals. When the time comes I will teach them how to handle real weapons. I'll let them run their fingers over the jagged hole a shell leaves in a can filled with sand. I'll help them understand what that same shell does when it rips through human flesh.

I hope they never have to kill anyone, but I won't leave them unprepared to do so. At the same time, I hope I'll leave them aware of what it costs, the taking of another person's life. Because it isn't just a game, not for the person who pulls the trigger, and certainly not for the person who breathes his last as a result.

posted by Woodlief | link | (1) comments

Friday, July 25, 2008

More Opportunities to Be Dumb

This is why I don't often answer emails or phone calls. Money quote:

"In 2005, the BBC reported on a research study, funded by Hewlett-Packard and conducted by the Institute of Psychiatry at the University of London, that found, 'Workers distracted by e-mail and phone calls suffer a fall in IQ more than twice that found in marijuana smokers.'"

It's not that we're getting stupider. We're just getting more networked. Now go kill your Blackberry.

posted by Woodlief | link | (0) comments

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Bad Apples

Here I've been thinking that Arabic culture is highly respectful of women (aside from modern-day slavery, of course, as well as Islamic regimes that execute rape victims, treat females as chattel, and sanction the blowing up of schoolchildren, because what society doesn't have its warts?). But now comes the news that two-thirds of Egyptian men admit to harassing women. All it takes is a few million bad apples, I suppose.

Ah, but now that I read the article more closely, I see the men aren't to blame. They blame the women.

posted by Woodlief | link | (0) comments

Monday, July 14, 2008

I think everyone can agree that Jesse Jackson has finally had that mental breakdown we've all been waiting for.

posted by Woodlief | link | (0) comments

Friday, July 4, 2008

Personal Watermelon

We found ourselves in Wichita last night, where we did some last-minute grocery shopping. My wife and I are southerners, and thus no Fourth of July can be celebrated on our property without watermelon. As we wandered through the wide produce section of the fancy Dillons, I spied this abomination: "Personal Watermelons."

Apparently some farmer who has not read Wendell Berry thought it would make sense to raise miniature watermelons. It's not enough that most homes in America now have a television for each member of the household, or that children have cell phones, or that when I register my eight year-old for the Lego Club, they expect him to have his own email address. Now we are going to have our own personal watermelons.

This is simply wrong. The watermelon is a communal fruit. It is meant to be grown with seeds, and shared by a whole passel of people, who in between taking bites spit the seeds at one another. It's not a proper celebration if your little brother doesn't go to bed with a watermelon seed stuck in his hair because you quietly spit it there.

But now I suppose people will take their personal watermelons from the faux antique washtub filled with chipped ice, daintily spear a boneless filet of tasteless chicken from the shiny gas grill, and then retire to their separate rooms to watch whatever pleases them on Blu-Ray disks while emailing people who haven't known them nearly as long as the family members they are too good to share a big watermelon with.

Is this what our nation's Founders shot all those Limeys for?

posted by Woodlief | link | (1) comments

Friday, June 20, 2008

The End Times

Occasionally I'll see a woman driving with her rear-view mirror turned cockeyed, so she can do her make-up, or generally just keep an eye on the Wonder of Herself. But today I saw a guy (I'll not apply the word man to this creature) driving with his mirror twisted leftward. He was working on his eyebrows with one of those personal trimmers.

I am not making this up.

I almost dragged him out of his car at the stoplight and beat him to death with my Johnny Cash CD case. Then I remembered that on my better days I aspire to be something approximating a Christian. Only later did I recall that there is something, I am almost certain, in Leviticus that would have condoned my impulse.

But the point is, this is what we have come to: a grown man, grooming his eyebrows in traffic, using his rear-view mirror. In Wichita. Lord, have mercy.

posted by Woodlief | link | (2) comments

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Since We All Have Our Exceptions to Commandment Six...

The more I drive, the more I am convinced that the road ragers have a good point. I don't mean those grip-the-wheel-a-little-tighter-and-complain-to-my-therapist-about-it road ragers; I'm talking about the ones who mow down ten or twelve of their fellow citizens with a machine gun. I'm pretty sure that each of their deserving victims, furthermore, is sitting in the passing lane when he meets his maker, going five miles per hour below the speed limit and text-messaging someone.

posted by Woodlief | link | (7) comments

Friday, November 30, 2007

Muhammad Bear

I've been thinking about Gillian Gibbons, the British teacher living in Sudan, who was convicted of insulting Islam. If you've not been following the story, Gibbons and her students named a classroom teddy bear "Muhammad." Her point of view was that it's a common enough name among men in the region.

To the thousands of protestors who stood chanting in Khartoum yesterday, however, waving clubs and knives and calling for her execution, it was a terrible affront that had very likely hurt the prophet Muhammad's tender feelings. One would think that his legions of underage virgins would be enough to console him, but apparently this guy has a really short fuse.

It's just a bit unseemly, going about calling for middle-aged teachers and teenage rape victims and anyone with a Jewish-sounding last name to be summarily beheaded. Religion of peace and all that, you know. Perhaps the imams who whipped the illiterate masses into their murderous frenzy, which seems a common enough occurrence across the Muslim Middle East, might consider how their own behavior is an even greater affront to Islam. In the meantime, we should all pray that poor Ms. Gibbons escapes Sudan with her life.

posted by Woodlief | link | (3) comments

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Sports Character

So if playing sports builds character, what kind of monsters might some of these NFL thugs have become without its moral influence? Thank goodness for those legions of coaches and parents who make the spiritual growth of their young charges take precedence over winning. Otherwise we might have a real bloodbath on our hands.

The reality, of course, is that while many (mostly unsung) coaches and parents fit this bill, there are far too many who are little better than Michael Vick, running gladiator academies to surface the most vicious beasts possible, because that's the cheapest road to victory. And why do thug-breeding coaches thrive? Because we love our sports.

It builds character, after all.

posted by Woodlief | link | (3) comments

Friday, July 20, 2007

Ego Inflation

I didn't know somebody had invented a test to measure narcissism. Even better, researchers have been administering it to college students since 1982. The shocking news this week is that recent results confirm a trend: today's college students are, on average, more narcissistic and self-centered than their predecessors. The researchers blame everything from permissive parents to untrammeled access to social networking sites like MySpace, which are designed to help each little darling showcase The Wonder That Is Me.

A related Atlantic Monthly article cites a school teacher whose antidote is simple: "I tell them that self-esteem comes from a self doing something that is worthy of esteem."

posted by Woodlief | link | (5) comments

Monday, July 16, 2007


I'm looking forward to our new church sanctuary because it will have pews. Right now we sit on folding chairs, which is part of the reason why I had to stare at the pimply ass-crack of the young woman in front of me, until I left to sit in the lobby, where the view was brighter and the sermon sounded kinder. She was a visitor, and some grace must be afforded, though the regular member who brought her treated everyone to more than we needed to see of her lime-green underwear.

At this point, please play in your head the voice of a nasally overindulged teenage girl, complaining that you just can't buy pants any more that don't sink low on the hips. Now, please slap this girl, as well as her mother and father. Cathartic, isn't it? You certainly can buy pants that don't expose your butt, and while you're at it you can pick out some shirts that don't expose your poochy belly and your brave little bellybutton hardware. On behalf of civilized society everywhere, I'd like to say that we are all tired of being the captive audience for your self-obsessed, half-naked prancing.

So what do you say we all start buying clothes that fit? This goes for boys as well as girls, because I'm also tired of seeing the waistbands of boxer briefs, inevitably exposed by boys who really should still be wearing tighty-whiteys and sucking on pacifiers, so nearly tangible are the umbilical cords that their mommies haven't bothered to snip.

Just to be clear, children: none of us cares to see your underwear. We don't need to see your cleavage and your bellies and most certainly not the canal that you regularly swipe with toilet paper.

I blame the fathers, because it works for me. When a girl dresses like a slut, I'm inclined to believe that she's craving attention from men. Why does she feel inadequate, Dad? When a boy dresses like a slouching ingrate, I'm inclined to believe that he's not been shown how to comport himself like a gentleman. Why doesn't he understand how men carry themselves, Dad?

At the funeral last week, there was a boy in flip-flops. I wish someone had escorted him out. I think I would like to work on becoming the kind of man who does that sort of thing. It would be a vain effort, but maybe shame can only be brought back one person at a time. I'm not arguing for a return to slacks and ties at all times, but can we at least preserve some dignity? Can we put on shoes for a funeral? Can we cover our asses for an hour in church?

"Dad," Caleb asked me Saturday, "why do some men wear earrings?"

"They want people to pay attention to them, because they aren't man enough to be themselves."

"They want attention?"

"Yep. When I was a college boy I had an earring, because I wasn't man enough."

"But now you're man enough. You look like a man."

"Caleb, something I've learned is that being a real man doesn't depend on how you look, but how you behave."

"You're a real man, Dad."

"I'm trying, anyway."

And that's the truth. Maybe it's what cheeses me about girls who show any stranger their underwear, and boys who don't bother to put on shoes when a body has to be put in the ground — they don't even try. It doesn't occur to them that there are times and places where their comfort and self-expression are unimportant. They are ill-bred, which means that their parents are doing a poor job, and maybe more of us should say so.

posted by Woodlief | link | (53) comments

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Snips and Snails and Puppy-Dog Tails

Cathy Young, whose writing I sometimes enjoy, suggests in her Reason Magazine essay that the wildly popular Dangerous Book for Boys is dangerous indeed, because it reinforces traditional sex roles. Why couldn't it have been titled "The Dangerous Book for Kids"? In service to this question, Young quotes a female friend to great effect: "'Where is the book for girls who did stuff like make their own chain mail as kids, or cracked rocks with sledgehammers in the driveway both to see what was inside them and to see if you could get sparks?'"

I thought I would ask some chain mail-knitting, sledgehammer-wielding little girls how they feel about the exclusionary effect of the book's title, but then I realized I don't know any little girls like that. I've also never seen girls drooling over cowboy guns at the hobby shop, or sticking butter knives in their belts and pretending to be pirates. But, as Jeffrey Chamberlain wrote, "In a country as big as the United States, you can find fifty examples of anything."

So it's a legitimate question: what to do about the tender feelings of girls who want to make chain mail and use sledgehammers? It's really a question about curves, isn't it, and not the kind that some females have been socially constructed to sometimes get, and which in sexist literature some males sometimes pay attention to, though of course we know in the real world we shouldn't make generalizations like: boys and girls are different. No, I mean curves of the Bell variety, which often capture human realities quite nicely, and which — were we benighted enough to pay attention to data rather than self-serving anecdotes — might disrupt the argument that goes: girls would like wrestling more and boys would like tea parties more, if not for the dominant social paradigm.

And the answer, in light of these curves, is delightfully conservative (in the old-fashioned sense, not the newfangled Republican sense) namely: nothing. If you have a little girl who would rather learn how to make paper airplanes and read about the battle of Thermopylae than do cartwheels and play with dolls, then by all means, buy her the book, and tell her — with conviction, not the self-doubt that seems to plague so many essays like Young's — Honey, just because the book says it's for boys, doesn't mean you can't do it too. Now let's read "A Brief History of Artillery" (one of the book's chapters).

The solution, in other words, is not to reorient nature to suit the self-esteem needs of the minority of girls who want to make chain mail. It's far better to embrace their difference and impart to them the strength to go against the tide, if that's how they're made, to become, as Shaw wrote, "a force of nature, instead of a feverish, selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy." To complain about titles of books, it seems, is to give far too little credit to these brave little girls, wherever they are hiding, who want to blow things up and learn how to spit.

Part of the problem here is the mistaken notion, perhaps due to an overactive sense of grievance, that the title of the book means that the knowledge therein is exclusively for boys. A more generous reading reveals that the authors, Conn and Hal Iggulden, simply wanted to include the stories, games, and skills that a great many boys (and men) want to know. Does that mean no girls should want to know these things? Of course not. But could you sell millions of copies of exactly the same book, had it been titled The Dangerous Book for Girls? Here comes that pesky Bell curve, accompanied by his pernicious friend, Common Sense, to spoil a good feminist lather.

As for the boys Young worries about, the ones "who may be more interested in reading than in catching snails and may prefer art to stories of battles," I think the answer is simply to get them out of the house. This comes from someone who would far rather curl up with a book than go fishing, mind you (a challenge I describe, often to humiliating effect, in my pamphlet on raising boys). That's because boys are physical as well as mental creatures, and to let the former atrophy is to do your son a disservice. Yes, of course this goes for girls as well, but as anyone who has had to supervise great numbers of boys and girls will tell you, sometimes the physical activities that girls seek out are distinctly different from those preferred by boys. Yes, they all like to play tag. But no, you don't often see girls randomly tackle one another. And that's okay.

posted by Woodlief | link | (5) comments

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

A Different Kind of Father's Day Gift

Rick Hilton needs a swift kick in the ass. That's my opinion on the never-ending Paris Hilton spectacle. And while we're at the butt-kicking, we can line up any number of successful businessmen, movie stars, and sports heroes who have neglected the fundamental duty of fathers, which is to train up our children in the way they should go. We could turn it into an annual Father's Day weekend tradition: the 24-hour Tail Stomp, open season on every bad father. I think it would be cathartic. And before someone else claims him, I've got dibs on Alec Baldwin.

It's interesting that we celebrate the success of men at business, sports, entertainment, war, and politics, but rarely at the thing which matters more than those often-ephemeral feats, the raising up of confident, competent, moral, courageous children to carry on a free and prosperous civilization. Not to wrestle with this great calling every day of our lives, fathers, is to fail at manhood itself.

I'm not saying that we are failures if our children don't end up perfect. But we are failures if they emerge without a moral compass, and genuine self-confidence (which should not be confused with arrogance, which is often a sign of insecurity), and some fundamental ability to earn a living. Hence Rick Hilton's need for a kick in the rear-end, at least from my very limited vantage-point, because his daughter seems to lack all three. Insofar as she earns a living, it's Donald Trump-style, off the outrageousness of her own conduct. That's not value-creation, it's a freak show.

In the last days of his life, as Teddy Roosevelt collaborated with editor Joseph Bishop on a bound volume of his letters to his children, he said, "I would rather have this book published than anything that has ever been written about me." These letters don't contain much in the way of TR's exploits on the battlefield, or his political victories. Instead they tell his children about a curious lizard he caught in Cuba, or explain how proud he is that they have learned to ride their horses better, or admonish them not to let sports get in the way of what's important. They are letters that reflect his love of and hopes for his children. Being a good father, he recognized that this was his most important legacy, his family.

I've met a great many men over the years who have been so seduced by the lure of business success that they neglect their children. I can't describe for you the remorse that I've heard in some of their voices, as they sit in their beautiful, empty homes, and say that they wish they could do it over, and be fathers to their children. But there is no doing it over; there is only right now, the choices you make today — and each choice constrains what choices will be available to us tomorrow. Can Rick Hilton spend time with his daughter now, and convince her that she is truly lovely, that she needn't whore herself out to the men and the lights and the cameras? That work should have been done years ago. But, he does have that thriving real estate business, and several palatial homes. He's what we call successful.

Perhaps we need to redefine that word. The worst part is that Hilton probably told himself, as do so many of us, that he was doing it for his family, the twelve-hour days and endless travel and weekend work. Beyond some basic necessities, however, what our children need most is us, the very thing we so often deny them.

I find that more and more, when I hear or read about a successful man, I say to myself: Yes, but what kind of father is he? It's worth asking, don't you think? Don't be surprised if you end up unable to find someone to vote for next fall, however, or if your favorite actors and sports stars lose some of their luster. But that's how it should be, I think. Maybe men will stop sacrificing our children on the altar of success when we reintroduce shame as a public concept.

Goodness knows, I don't get it right. I've lost count of the number of evenings I've put my head on my pillow in shame, wishing I could rewind the day, and take back a moment when I barked at one of my boys, or ignored them when I should have been listening. But I wonder if it even crosses the minds of many successful men that they are failing as fathers, and therefore, as men. I want to believe that this in itself makes a difference, the conscious striving. Weak and foolish as we are, maybe we can still succeed as fathers if we will just put forth the effort. Maybe that's all our sons and daughters really need from us, the unspoken love that comes with that striving.

So, fathers, are you striving?

posted by Woodlief | link | (9) comments

Thursday, June 7, 2007

Booby Prize

The makers of Xbox are holding a Dad of the Year essay contest:

"Do you know a terrific gaming Dad? Here's your chance to show him some Father's Day love and take a shot at winning an awesome prize for yourself. Here's how it works.

Write an original essay about a father (or male legal guardian) and gaming. Do you know a Dad who does a great job balancing gaming and fatherhood? Is he known for his patience with n00bs or his mad fragging skills? Does he play games with his kids? Is he raising his gamer offspring to play fair and follow the rules?

Your essay should be at least 250 words, but no more than 500 words, and must be received by 11:59 P.M. Pacific Time, June 9, 2007..."

This got me thinking about what some of their entries might look like:


To: Xbox Dudes
From: RadGamr4Life

Dear Xbox,

I totally want to nominate my pops for this kickin prize, b-cause he rawks! Check it - just last night, I was trying to get some boring homework done for my stupid Shakespeare class, and pops was in total azz-kicking mode on some Alien vs Predator, and I was like, Dad, hook me up on my homework - who was that chick Romeo was gettin it with, and Pops was like, don't bother me, cuz I'm all up in some level ten, and then I was like, c'mon Dad, I'm dyin on this homework, and Pops was all, c'mon over and get in on this action, and I was all, are you sure? And Pops was like, dude, nobody needs Shakespeare to get a job - I've had dozens and I never read no Shakespeare. So tell your teacher to bite it. I was all, no way! And Pops was all, Yes way! It was totally awesome. So then we busted out some double-hammer action on the Aliens and Predators and stuff, and it was you know, a total bonding time. No joke Xbox, my pops rulz!


To: Xbox
From: 6thGradeVidBlaster

Dear Xbox,

My dad is so great. He plays Xbox every night, and he lets me sit and watch as long as I'm quiet. He lets me play too, when I get home from school and before he gets home from work. Then I sit on the couch and do my homework and watch him play. Once, I was going to get online and learn some cheats for Halo 2, but dad said I shouldn't cheat, that the only right way to get good at Xbox is to play it lots and lots. I'm glad I have my dad to teach me right from wrong. He should really win this prize, because he loves Xbox more than any other dads I know. Nobody works as hard at getting good at gaming as my dad. He is the best dad in the world, and one day I will be just like him.


Not to belittle every father who plays with an Xbox from time to time.

Actually, yeah, to do that.

Update: Alert reader Lori MacKean sent me this pertinent video clip.

posted by Woodlief | link | (2) comments

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

As the Good Lord Said (and I Think He Was Right)...

Perhaps I'm old-fashioned, but I believe a preacher ought to think long and hard, and then think again, before he quotes a Psalm and then begins his next sentence with: But, as if to say, yeah, the Bible's probably worth reading, but let me hit you with some real knowledge.

It's even worse when, in his rush to augment the wisdom of the psalmist with that of Zig Ziglar (no, I'm not making that up; click the link above and see for yourself), he gets the verse's location wrong. That's Psalm 37:23 that you meant to improve, doc, not Psalm 37:25.

posted by Woodlief | link | (16) comments

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Good Intentions

Recently I found myself sitting with bright and dedicated teaching professionals, all of us asked to participate in developing ideas for improving the entrepreneurial bent of students. Having a seven year-old who routinely sets up booths in our front yard to sell things, a four year-old who builds elaborate Lego/Thomas the Train/Hot Wheels/Daddy's books cities in our basement, and a two year-old master climber and escape artist, I think we've got the entrepreneurial creativity thing pretty well covered in our house, but I'm always happy to help someone else out.

My problem — one of my problems — is that I can't just look at the thread. There's always that big ball of tangled yarn somewhere in the shadows, with all of us noodling over the one thread stretched out in front of us, and I can't help but imagine that we are working on the wrong thing. Someone suggested — reasonably, understandably, with good intention — that we might give grade schoolers more exposure to economics and entrepreneurship, as a means of generating more understanding of it in their later years.

I rudely tugged the ball of yarn onto our table, and told them I think kids can get this stuff in a year or two. What we need to deal with, I said, was the fact that somehow schools — especially public schools — manage to squash the innate instincts for creativity and inquiry. If we want to turn out children who are prepared for college, cultivate in them a sense of inquiry. Teach them logic, and self-discipline. Protect them from television and video games and other mind-numbing garbage, and impart to them the ability to put down the bag of Fritos and read. If nothing else, I pleaded, teach them to e-n-u-n-c-i-a-t-e, for crying out loud, and to stand up straight and look people in the eye, instead of going out into the world as slouching, sloppy-thinking mumblers.

Awkward silence. Some of the people in the room have children in public schools. Others work in a private school that serves children with higher incomes and IQs than their public school counterparts. They are all very bright, and their children perform above average, I am sure. The problem, I believe, is that what we accept as "average" continues to slip. It embodies a set of disconnected skills, as opposed to a means of grappling with the world and the self and the soul and God. It has taken on a new connotation — that which best prepares my child to make money. I worry that the only people concerned with reforming education see this as the goal — preparing the workforce. I worry that the state of the GDP means everything, and the state of the heart and soul means nothing. I worry that I don't know when to shut my mouth. They all mean well, after all.

posted by Woodlief | link | (0)

Friday, January 26, 2007

On the Virtue of Partisanship

In examining this week whether partisanship is a good or bad thing, NPR has produced an artful and rich examination of precisely the wrong question. In a forum where anecdotes reign, the pro- and anti-partisanship partisans have plenty to say, and, as is the case in any good debate, nobody wins. There are plenty of examples, after all, of deleterious bipartisan decisions (think Prohibition and Japanese internment). But there are also examples of partisan disasters (the Johnson years, or more recently, the dramatic rise in spending under Republican rule). No matter whether you are a dyed-in-the-wool party hack, or a transcendent, smarmy Independent, there was plenty this week to bolster your self-perception.

The question we ought to ask, however, is whether our representatives are loyal first to principle, or to party. Former RNC Chair Ed Gillespie tried to thread the needle, by arguing that the two are married. "Parties are based," he said, "on political philosophy."

This is akin to stating that NFL teams are based on a love of the game. Political parties, like professional sports franchises, are built to win. Principles are, at best, means to that end — rallying cries we shout to convince ourselves that ours is the team favored by God, and the other the team of Satan. (Of course any thinking person understands that this is only true when my North Carolina Tarheels face the aptly named Duke Blue Devils, but that is not something one can expect the common man to discern.) To today's professional partisan, principles are communication tools, carefully worded to elicit votes, crafted to tap into whatever deep beliefs we citizens tell ourselves we hold.

Former Gore campaign manager Donna Brazile, also on the NPR program, best summarized the dilemma when she declared, "Partisanship is a good thing when your party is guided by principles." This is a wonderful statement, coming from a woman with a track record of vicious and unintelligent rhetoric, because it encapsulates the very problem, to wit, that the parties are controlled by the likes of Donna Brazile, Karl Rove, and a host of others who long ago abandoned principles as anything other than slogans, as rallying cries in the fight for victory and its accompanying spoils.

Do you ever get the feeling, when you listen to a politician speak, that he is more like a trained monkey (or Keanu Reeves, to go a step lower on the performance scale) than an actual human person? Ironically, it was the professional actor, Ronald Reagan, who was last able to make us feel like he really meant what he said. Even better, one got the sense that he had arrived at his convictions without first asking himself what would make him most popular among swing voters in Ohio.

Jean Giraudoux wrote, "The secret of success is sincerity. Once you can fake that you've got it made." I get the feeling that today's politicians don't get the humor in that quip. Witness Democrats consulting experts in order to learn how to "communicate their faith." The American people want me to love Jesus? Fine, I'll squeeze that in between health care and legal reform. "Lou! Write me a few lines about my faith in Jesus! And make it sound sincere, for Christ's sake!"

Perhaps principle will never mix well with partisanship, because politics is, by its very nature, transactional. We give to some and take from others in the hopes of getting a little something nice for ourselves. In the grubby political marketplace, where the wealth and freedom of strangers is what's being traded, we shouldn't expect principle to flourish. If so, then maybe the solution is to keep the political marketplace as small as possible. We still need one, to be sure — if nothing else, as a jobs programs for mediocre lawyers and former student body presidents — but perhaps we should confine it a little more tightly. Like in an iron box. At the bottom of the ocean.

I think something like that was the idea behind situating our nation's capital in a swamp. But then somebody went and built bridges, and then some other bozo invented air conditioning, and now we can't seem to be rid of these people.

With that in mind, and in spite of all my anti-partisan talk, I'm looking forward to this new period of partisan bickering. It means that our politicians will be so busy sticking it to each other that they will have less energy to stick it to us. So I guess that makes me a pro-partisan. In a principled sense, of course.

posted by Woodlief | link | (0)

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Bravely Fleeing

Rose Macaulay once wrote, "It is a common delusion that you make things better by talking about them." This assumes, of course, that one actually cares to make things better, which is not something to assume about members of the U.S. Senate's Foreign Relations Committee, which yesterday released a non-binding resolution declaring President Bush's proposed troop surge not to be in the national interest. For humor value, the bloviations were hard to beat — witness Chuck Hagel, would-be president and tough guy, declaring that his courageous decision to vote for words that have no direct binding power on outcomes is an example of the "tough business" that tough men like him engage in every day.

Beyond an opportunity for Senators to pose and preen before the cameras, however, the resolution does little more than announce to the world, as well as Iraqi insurgents (one instance where these tough little words may have a very real and deadly effect), that the U.S. military will not up its ante in Iraq.

Perhaps retreat is the best outcome. What American citizens should expect from our Congress, however, especially from tough guys like Chuck Hagel, is that they take definitive action. In the words of John Kerry to his fellow Senators, if we believe President Bush's strategy is misguided, then "we have an obligation to do something." And so the brave little prince lent his support to words that carry no force. What he was against, before he was for it, he is now courageously against again.

It puts me in mind of the scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, after Robin has run from a fight. His minstrel is following him, gaily singing his praises: "When danger reared its ugly head, Sir Robin turned and bravely fled..."

As an election strategy, it's shrewd — capitalize on the public's dissatisfaction by appearing to do something, without actually taking action that might directly backfire. Should a slew of Iraqis be slaughtered in the wake of U.S. troop withdrawal, the John Kerrys and Chuck Hagels of the world are clean as a whistle — they never forced Bush to withdraw troops, after all. This is why they'll not use the power of the purse to restrict Bush's hand in Iraq either, because they fear being blamed for inadequately equipped soldiers. What's a brave and principled Senator to do?

Why, issue a proclamation, of course, boldly announcing what each has already been shouting from the rooftops to news reporters and Iowa focus groups. Does it change the outcome? Certainly. But it does so in a way that leaves no fingerprints.

I suppose we shouldn't expect any better.

On second thought, I think we should. Our representatives don't have to get it right all of the time, but I don't think it's too much to expect them to do what they believe is right for the people they claim to represent. If the Senate peacocks really do believe that the Bush administration lied to get into the Iraqi war, and has since grossly mishandled it, and is now poised to do even more grievous damage, then the courageous thing to do is stop him. The cowardly thing to do, on the other hand, is squawk and blather, without accountability for an alternative course of action.

One of the managers I admire most in the world has a delightfully offensive saying he likes to use with his employees: "no bitch without a pitch." The point being, of course, that anyone can complain. Constructive action, on the other hand, involves crafting an alternative to the status quo, and being willing to make the case for it, and to stand by its consequences. All of his shop floor workers get that. Perhaps that's why none of them will ever become a U.S. Senator.

posted by Woodlief | link | (0)

Friday, October 6, 2006

None of the Above

Last month we got a letter from an organization that calls itself "People to People International." They were writing to invite our daughter to attend, at our expense, be sure, an educational experience in Australia. The letter assured us that "Caroline has been named for this honor by a teacher, former Student Ambassador or national academic listing."

Their website provides similarly deceptive statements intended to suggest that the organization is not a vast moneymaking enterprise disguised as a selective academic organization. As best I can tell, Caroline, who has been dead since 1999, lingers on a couple of mailing lists because for a short while she received the "American Girl" doll magazine.

The lesson, for those of you with children who have begun to receive such solicitations, is to investigate before writing a check. There are a host of organizations (and I could name a couple of well-known ones in Washington, D.C.) that advertise themselves as selective academic opportunities, when in reality they are either glorified and overpriced touring agencies, or cheap labor mills for organizations like the Republican and Democratic National Committees.

And speaking of lying liars, around the same time I got a survey from Howard Dean, addressed to "Dear Fellow Democrat." His letter explains that I have been asked to complete the survey because I am "an active and engaged member of our Party" in my community. I'm pretty sure this comes from my subscription to The Atlantic Monthly. The only way I'll likely ever be an "active and engaged" leader in my community is if they try to ban Krispy Kreme.

It's standard practice now for both parties to send out such breathless literature, claiming that it is a selective effort to solicit the opinions of key leaders. In reality, of course, it's a funding solicitation. It's a lie nonetheless, and both parties ought to be ashamed.

As if the leadership of either organization were capable of such a thing as shame. We've sunk awfully far, it seems, when leaders of the self-styled liberty and decency party can make the likes of Charlie Rangel and Nancy Pelosi look like they may be worth a shot.

I've recently received invitations from decent and kind people in my church, asking me to attend fundraisers for local political candidates. My tactic is to ignore the invitation if possible, for fear of offending them. They mean well, they really do. But the truth of it is that I don't ever intend to give money to another politician, because it occurs to me that doing so only encourages them. Maybe if we stop paying them to sing and dance for us they'll get real jobs and leave everyone alone.

The state of Arizona used to have a rule that required a state office to go unstaffed and unfunded if a majority of voters wrote in "None of the Above" on their ballots. Perhaps it would lead to disaster, but I'm willing to give it a try. I had a wise professor in graduate school who liked to note that while critics fault American government for being unresponsive to the interests of the people, the reality is that it's too responsive. It tries to give everyone everything by pretending that there are no tradeoffs. In short, we tend to get the government we deserve. Or, as H.L. Mencken wrote: "Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard."

Imagine someone who speaks the truth as he sees it, who gives direct and clear answers to questions, and who is honest about his own failings and sins and fears. Imagine someone who refuses to compromise his principles for the sake of a key donation, or in order to insure that his party maintains a majority, or even to insure his own re-election. Do you think he would have a shot on November 7th? Of course not. What's worse, our opinion of him would be that he's a nut, or hopelessly damaged. We can't even tolerate an honest sinner in the pulpit of our church, let alone as our Senator or President.

So we enable the charade, hoping for the one completely righteous and wise man to ride out of the desert and set all things straight. (And when he does show up, he won't be running for office, you can be sure.) I think our mistake is that we yearn for leaders who are better than us, and subject them to a process of constant campaigning and fundraising that insures the opposite, that morally and spiritually they are very likely to be far worse than the average American. What kind of person, after all, can spend his entire life trying to secure votes? Not someone you'd trust with your daughters or your wallet.

We want wise kings, and there are none, and so it seems to me the only logical solution is to give them as little authority as possible, watch them like hawks, and send them back to the real world at the first sign that they're starting to enjoy themselves. And if somebody can figure out how to word that as a Constitutional Amendment, we'll all be indebted to you.

posted by Woodlief | link | (0)

Monday, October 2, 2006

On Willful Ignorance

I'm 30,000 feet above vast stretches of empty American land, thinking about how our legislators want to protect us from Mexicans willing to do the work we're too fat and lazy to do for ourselves, and I'm wishing we could make a swap: one Mexican family for every elected U.S. official. Only then might I get enthusiastic about building a 700-mile fence along the southern border of the land of freedom and opportunity. Then it occurs to me that such a swap would be an awfully un-Christian thing to do to the Mexicans, who already have enough corrupt and bloated public officials without adding our snake's nest of panderers and preeners.

I just finished the co-authored autobiography of Haing Ngor, who some of you may recognize as the Cambodian refugee who won an Oscar for playing fellow refugee Dith Pran in The Killing Fields. I think that in the back of my mind, while I've always found Marxist intellectuals repugnant in the same sense that I find any deluded and sloppy thinker repugnant -- allowing me, for example, to hold Ann Coulter and Michael Moore in near-equal esteem -- I always thought them quaint. I've done a mental housecleaning in the past couple of years, as you can tell from other posts, and with it has come a growing and harsh disdain for the willfully ignorant. After I put down this heartbreaking book I realized that anyone who continues to insist, in the face of overwhelming evidence, that forced communism with its attendant delusions (atheism, nihilism, etc.) does not lead inevitably to enormous tragedy can only persist in this lie through a considerable act of self-deception.

We are all ignorant of many things, and if one has a scrap of wisdom and humility, one must forgive honest ignorance just as each of us hopes his own is forgiven. But there is a different brand of ignorance, worn with near-pride by some, that can only be sustained if nurtured and protected, like a fragile but poisonous plant. In simplest form it's the studious ignorance of scores of U.S. legislators who refuse to understand fundamental economics. In its most venomous form it is the ignorance that produces wholesale slaughter of people deemed the wrong skin color or religion or economic class.

Ngor endured the latter, in 1970's Cambodia, where the brutal Marxist Khmer Rouge briefly seized power and murdered a quarter of the population. As I read it, I found myself wondering how far we are from such tragedy. How long does it take for institutionalized ignorance and abandonment of truth to descend from relatively mild corruption and inefficiency to full-scale slaughter? How deeply do nihilism and anti-intellectualism have to penetrate a nation before the soil is ripe for the ultimate fruition of these seeds sewn in willful ignorance?

I also wondered how many deaths can be traced to the professors of French and American universities who had such a strong hand in educating the likes of Mao Tse-Tung and Pol Pot. And further, how many deaths would be enough for deluded intellectual thugs like Noam Chomsky and Eric Hobsbawm to renounce their comfortable positions and live the remainder of their dreadful existences in seclusion. I suspect more blood than exists would sway neither, nor their less intelligent compatriots, because in the face of willful ignorance, evidence has no import. War is Peace. Ignorance is Strength.

Ngor survived multiple torture sessions at the hands of the Khmer Rouge, who wanted him to confess to being a doctor. In that world, everything Western or intellectual had to be purged. This was the ironic conclusion reached by the dictators educated at the feet of Western intellectuals -- that enlightenment itself was the enemy. Their armies were the thousands of uneducated peasants who envied the wealth of city-dwellers, and who took great pleasure in tormenting their new slaves.

Pseudo-intellectuals skilled in the rhetoric of envy, leading hordes of the ill-educated taught that they have a grievance against the producers of wealth -- no, that could never happen here.

Ngor met an end that was tragic and shameful. Though he lost nearly all his family to the Khmer Rouge, he survived, made it to America, and not only became an actor but an important figure in Cambodian relief efforts. And for years he wore around his neck a gold locket with the only picture of his dead wife inside. One evening in 1995, three thugs in a Los Angeles alley mugged him, and when he refused to give them this last reminder of his beloved, they shot him in the chest, took the locket, and left him to die. Ironically, all three were Asians, imitators of the homegrown thug culture celebrated by rappers and idiot suburban teenagers.

No, it could never happen here.

For decades American historians have debated whether the United States has an "exceptional" culture that effectively immunizes it against the philosophical nonsense that has wafted up from Europe since the 19th century, or whether suppression of radicals has been all that restrains the forces of utopianism from having their sway here as they have elsewhere. I'd like to think that we are exceptional, but I suppose Haing Ngor once thought so as well. I suspect every human being living in peace and comfort has told himself the same thing, that it could never happen here. And yet it continues to happen: war and oppression and profound human misery, and we in the West tell ourselves such things only happen in other places.

I've typed three concluding paragraphs, but each only leads to more paragraphs. Apparently I have a lot more to say about this and related topics. It seems terribly unkind to inflict a diatribe of this length on you after such a long absence, however, so I'll opt for an abrupt ending. And I promise to write more frequently, now that my summer sabbatical has ended.

posted by Woodlief | link | (0)

Friday, January 6, 2006

Driving III: Brake Not, Lest Ye Be Beaten

Okay, about the exit and entry ramp. We all face the challenge of adjusting to those around us. Some of us, like the Unabomber, fail miserably. Others, like Regis Philbin, are annoyingly good at it. Still others, like Dick Clark, or my own child Caleb, adjust nary a bit, but let the world mold itself to them. These are the golden children, happy and oblivious.

But for most of us, there is some change required from time to time. Some modification of our habits. A curbing of our wants. An acceptance of demands placed upon us. This is the nature of living in civilized society.

What this means in particular for those of you attempting to join freeway travelers by way of an entry ramp, is that sometimes you just have to slow down and wait.

Stop right there. You, in the back, the one who thinks he knows something about driving, the one getting ready to assert that people entering the highway need to accelerate, for crying out loud, not slow down. You know who you are. Shut your piehole and listen for a minute.

Of course acceleration is necessary, when there is space. But acceleration is foolish and wrong -- yes, wrong -- when it slings you up next to a line of cars, some of which are trying to exit. In that circumstance, dear driver, it is incumbent upon you to adjust your speed so that you slip in behind the people exiting.

Otherwise, there is chaos. A free-for-all. The red tooth and claw of primitive man comes rushing to the surface, and we are once again thrown back into the state of nature after the Fall but before toilet paper.

Entry-ramp protocol is one of the most difficult skills to understand and master, so you are forgiven if you've spent thirty years cursing at people exiting in front of you while you try to accelerate into traffic. Mend your ways, go forth and sin no more. The yield sign is there for a reason. Look it up.

And now for you muddleheaded do-gooders who think you are doing your fellow man a good turn by slowing down so he can enter the freeway. Look in your rearview mirror. See all those people behind you? Do you know what they do when they see you hit your brakes? They brake. Do you know what that causes a half-mile back? A seemingly random braking, which in turn causes a panicked overreaction, which results in an accident. Like many people in the world, you may think you are helping your fellow man, but in reality you are inflicting damage. You're like Greenpeace, or one of those mothers who always cleans up after her kids.

Save it for the UNICEF can. Keep your altruistic foot off the brake and drive. Better yet, if you don't need to exit, get out of the bloody right lane. But be sure to stay out of the left lane, because some of us have places to be. You are a middle-lane driver, my friend, the one who reports 12 hours before the election that he still hasn't made up his mind, the one who always chooses "5" on a ten-point scale, the one who voted for Clinton but never really liked him, the one who thinks we ought to reform things but for heaven's sake be really careful about it. You go to bed by 11pm and you like Leno. It's okay. Just stay in your middle lane, and nobody has to get hurt.

But step on that brake to let one more driver onto the highway, and there's going to be trouble.

posted by Woodlief | link | (11) comments

Thursday, January 5, 2006

Driving, Deux

I feel a host of driving missives boiling up, reminiscent of my series of critiques of libertarianism a few years back, also affectionately known as "The Great Ayn Rand Beat Down of 2002."

So let's talk about a sub-species of the animal known as "Parkius Leftius," or what is in the common vernacular often referred to as "Passing Lane Slow-Poke," "The Speed Challenged," and my personal favorite, "That &%!$!! Idiot in Front of Me."

The sub-species of which I speak is the lowest of the low. He camouflages himself as a passing lane slow-poke until you get some clear space in the right lane to move comfortably around him and resume your speed.

Then he speeds up.

That's right, he races you to ten, fifteen, even twenty miles over the speed limit, until you have to get back behind him because you've come to another string of people in the right lane.

Then he slows back down.

Let's do a thought experiment. Imagine you are in Nazi Germany, or Stalinist Russia. Do you have any doubt that this little man -- and it's almost always a man -- would be gleefully working the machinery of oppression?

He is a closet dictator, an iron-fisted tyrant stuck in the body of a seemingly innocent American motorist. He wants you behind him, under his thumb and, in my case, very nearly under his bumper, because he is H. L. Mencken's definition of a Puritan: "Someone who is desperately afraid that, somewhere, someone might be having a good time."

He probably votes for mandatory recycling and kicks his dog. He believes homeschooling should be outlawed. He thinks it's good to soak the rich, unless he happens to be driving a Lexus, in which case he thinks it's good to soak the poor in the form of higher subsidies for PBS and sports arenas. He supports mandatory voting laws, eminent domain, restrictive zoning, hate speech penalties, Astro-turf, the Drug War, restricted toilet flushing capacity, China's right to regulate the Internet, and those irritating little tags on your pillows. He shops regularly at Hobby Lobby and wears golf pants. He secretly calls the neighborhood association because he thinks your hedges are too high.

He is the mandarin of his own imaginary world, and for those brief but interminable minutes when he has you behind him in the passing lane, he is your miserable little king.

I like to think that all those cases of road rage we used to read about were simply a string of would-be dictators getting their comeuppance. I mean really, when you read about someone getting shot on the highway, why do you assume he didn't deserve it?

Yes, it was a stressful drive to work today. But it only took 15 minutes, because I no longer live in Gomorrah.

Our topic for next time: The Entry and Exit Ramp, or, Who That Yield Sign is Really There For.

posted by Woodlief | link | (8) comments

Wednesday, January 4, 2006

Driving Instruction

Did you know I used to drive professionally? There are all kinds of interesting secrets I keep from you. It's all part of the mystique, the allure that keeps you coming back to Sand in the Gears.

What kind of driving, you ask? Not racing, though my Bug once beat a raggedy '76 Mustang off the line on Stratford Road in Winston-Salem. No, I drove the big rigs.

That's right, school buses. Diesel automatics, four-in-the-floors, those sweet activity buses with the governor set at 45 instead of 35 -- I drove 'em all. I had to pass grueling tests and demonstrate my prowess in situations that would make a lesser man wet himself.

Which I almost did once while stuck at 35 mph on a long stretch of bumpy road after a large Dr. Pepper, but that's another story.

The point is, I know from driving. So consider this a public service announcement, directed at that portion of the driving public in serious risk of a severe beat-down from yours truly.

Specifically, the passing lane. Which is for passing. Funny how the name follows the function, huh? You see, some of us need to get somewhere. I'm not one of those nuts doing 15 miles over the speed limit. Well, sometimes I am. But if you're in the passing lane and doing a respectable five or six over the limit, I can bide my time a respectful distance behind you. My issue is with those who only do the speed limit in the passing lane, or worse, drive below the speed limit.

You are in the bloody way. Move.

I have half a mind to get one of those big tubular metal thingies for the front of my truck, just for ramming the next Sunday-driving-on-Monday-morning-my-aren't-the-flowers-growing-in-the-median-lovely slow-poke turtle-blooded turf crawler who gets in my way. Give me a jury of my peers -- my real peers, not the people who sit on really important trials and always seem to screw them up -- and I think I'd have a good shot at being vindicated.

And it's not that I'm in such an all-fired hurry to get anywhere; a wife and three children have accustomed me to being late. It's just the inconsideration involved in camping out in the left lane without regard to the long line of cars piling up behind you. It's just rude. Move. Move. We don't tolerate this sort of nonsense from our toddlers when we need to pass by in the hallway, and we darn sure don't need to tolerate it from adults who ought to have been taught better by now.

I have no problem with going back to prison, people. So consider yourself warned.

posted by Woodlief | link | (13) comments

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Merry Chrithmath

Dear Paper Magic Group, an affiliate of CSS Industries, Inc.:

I would like to introduce you to the Swiss Miss Corporation. The Swiss have something you should definitely look into for your line of attractive Christmas cards, 80 of which I had the misfortune of recently purchasing. This something, as you will note from a previous post here, is called a-d-h-e-s-i-v-e.

As in, the stuff that's supposed to be catalyzed by my saliva. The saliva from my tongue, which I ran repeatedly along the backs of your envelopes until I sustained a wicked paper cut.

Said paper cut being, in case I have not been clear, on my tongue.

My freaking tongue, Paper Magic Group. Have you ever sliced this most delicate of instruments? Therein lies a pain that even I, a master of words, cannot describe on this family-oriented site. Were I a cursing man, which I am during the holidays and other festive family occasions, I would now use the word I screeched upon sustaining this injury, a word which can be found liberally sprinkled in place of a logical plot throughout any Quentin Tarantino movie.

Not that you would have understood me, because a cleaved tongue does not produce the sounds one intends. My wife thought I was referring to a character in "Robin Hood."

(pause for the stragglers)

In the Swiss Miss Corporation you can find, Paper Magic Group, an admirable example of the cutting edge in sealing technology. I'm quite sure they would be open to selling you some glue so that your future customers do not have to resort, as I did, to tape in order to seal their holiday card envelopes.

And to all of you who will be receiving a card from me, please keep in mind that you can re-use that duct tape, it is a high quality brand. Just stick it to your existing roll.

As for those of you who do not receive a Christmas card from me, please see the post below regarding my new friend Amanda Frazier, who will be receiving a card.

And now I'm off to the ER to get my tongue stapled.

posted by Woodlief | link | (6) comments

Friday, December 16, 2005

More Corporate Correspondence

Dear Frito-Lay Empire,

I have long admired your work. Kudos, especially, on the extra-wide Frito corn chip, which really does yield an optimal dipping experience. I wish I could tell you that this letter is only to laud you for your place of leadership at the vanguard of snack food excellence. Unfortunately, it is my sad duty to be the one to tell you that lately you have begun to miss a step. Not all cylinders are firing. There's a few bulbs out in your tree. Whatever corporate pseudo-metaphorical business-speak works for you.

The point is, Frito-Lay Companies, you have become a love 'em and leave 'em kind of snack food conglomerate. First, you hook me on your delicious Barbeque flavored corn chip, a staple of movie-watching for years in the Woodlief household. Then you introduce the Chili Cheese Frito, Barbeque's flashy cousin from Albuquerque. Sure, Chili Cheese drives a nice car and always leaves you with that breathless special on-top-of-the-world feeling, but after a while you realize he's all smile and no impact, all powdery initial taste but no lingering substance.

So I admit I flirted with the Chili Cheese Frito, but only for a while, and then I was back with my steady Eddie Barbeque Fritos, happy as a transfat cell snuggled up nice and close to a favorite artery wall.

But then I noticed the Barbeque Frito wasn't around so much any more. I would go to my favorite grocer, and see only a row of Chili Cheese Frito, flashing his big-city grin and revving his engine. Now finding a bag of Barbeque Fritos is like finding a lucid statement from Michael Moore -- you know they must exist, but you're darned if you can locate one.

You've let me down, Frito-Lay Corporation, plain and simple. You're like, oh, I don't know, let's take a purely hypothetical and totally made-up example, a wife who buys some slinky little lingerie number in a festive holiday theme, but only wears it the one time. It's not right, Frito-Lay Megalith, it's simply not right.

And now let me address my real complaint, the one that has really frosted my cinnamon buns. That's right, I'm talking about the Guacamole Potato Chip.

First, let's get one thing straight right off the bat. Don't even bring that nasty, stick-in-your-throat Dorito Guacamole disaster up in here. Don't even, Frito-Lay Behemoth. That's weak.

I'm talking about the delicate yet powerfully tasty Guacamole Potato Chip. The one we bought numerous bags of, funding who knows how many lucrative stock options for top Frito-Lay Corporate Chieftains. The beautiful Guacamole Potato Chip. The flavor-filled Guacamole Potato Chip.

The entirely absent Guacamole Potato Chip.

What really hurts, Frito-Lay Colossus, is that you didn't even warn us. We could have stocked up. We could have taken the time to linger over those last greasy delicious morsels. We could have mourned, we could have prepared ourselves.

But no, you just murdered the Guacamole Potato Chip, and then to add insult to injury, you pretend on your colorful uninformative corporate Website that he never existed.

Et tu, Frito-Lay?

So tell me, why should we trust you now? Say you manage to compress the tasty flavor of a bag of peanuts poured into a Coca-Cola, and spread it onto a savory pita chip? Why should I grow attached to a new offering from you? Why should I let myself love again, after you've wounded me so? I ask you, Frito-Lay and Associated Subsidiaries, why should I give my heart to you again?

Do you think I like buying off-brand chips, Frito-Lay Leviathan? Do you think I enjoy cheapening myself in that way, closing my eyes and pretending that the Kroger barbeque chips are really my beloved Barbeque Fritos?

Well, I most certainly do not. So here I am in this beautiful season of excess, and I am eating popcorn during movie time. Popcorn, Frito-Lay. It's a net calorie loss, by the time you count all the fishing around at the bottom of the bowl for those kernels that are hard enough to fight back, but not too hard to chip a molar.

I thought I meant more to you than this, Frito-Lay and Affiliated Entities. But I guess I do not. I'm just another statistic.

But this statistic has a heart, Frito-Lay. He has a big, overlabored, cholesterol-inhibited heart. And thanks to you, that heart is breaking. Goodbye, Faceless Frito-Lay Corporate Giant. Goodbye.

posted by Woodlief | link | (11) comments

Friday, December 2, 2005


To: Swiss Miss and affiliates, including but not limited to Swiss Watch & Clock LLC, Swiss Cheese Food Products, Swiss Army Knife and Nail Clipper Companies, and Swiss Gold and Cash Laundering Services LLC

From: Tony Woodlief

Subject: Swiss Miss Pudding Cups

First, I want to congratulate you on breaking new ground in the area of packaged food-sealing technology. Given that NASA can't seem to shoot anything into space without it falling apart all over the place, I encourage you to contact their scientists regarding the glue you use to seal the tops of your pudding cups.

Unfortunately, as with all great breakthroughs that have rocked the food sciences (e.g., Pop Rocks, lime-flavored Coke, the McRib Sandwich) there are some complications arising from your innovative new approach. To wit, the requirement that a customer use a mallet and chisel to separate the lid from the pudding cup. Now, I am absolutely confident that when I finally give the pudding cup to my children -- hours after dinner, mind you -- it will be absolutely free from contamination or tampering. It will be safe, that is, except for the periodic plunges of my fingers into the pudding as I pull and tear at miniscule pieces of the lid, which seems cleverly designed not to lift in one piece, but to separate itself so that one can only pull off a thin strand at a time.

Very clever, Swiss Miss, very safe. I think perhaps we have a cultural difference here. I know that you pride yourselves on safety in the great mountainous origin of sexually repressed theology, the Red Cross, and studied neutrality from the world's great conflicts. I know that when times call for daring acts -- resisting the Nazis, for example, or hewing to minimal standards of decency when it comes to profiting from totalitarian thuggery -- the Swiss have bravely run away to not fight another day. But really, we're talking pudding here. Are you afraid that opening the pudding cup too rapidly will result in a blob getting in someone's eye? Are you dissatisfied with prevailing food industry methods of preventing tampering?

Perhaps this is a statement, a declaration to the world that Switzerland is still the safest place on the planet, provided one is not a fleeing victim of a holocaust, of course. If so, then I applaud you, Swiss Miss Corporation and Affiliates, for rendering your pudding cups nearly impenetrable. Catholic Girl's Schools and calculus textbook writers could learn at your feet.

Alas, though, in my household we have a reckless desire to actually eat the pudding. Thus I regret to inform you that in the future we will be buying the Del Monte pudding products -- that's right, the ones in the dangerous tin cups with the round pull-tops. Yes, someone could get a cut, and there may be pudding spillage. That's just how we roll in my house, Swiss Miss.

I wish you well in your future endeavors.

PS: My wife has just informed me that you aren't really Swiss after all, that you are part of some soulless American food conglomerate. Now I am doubly disillusioned. Not only can I not savor your tasty chocolate goodness without a MacGyver-like effort, now I do not even have the luxury of imagining that I am tasting the forbidden sweetness of what passes for Swiss decadence. Now we are through for good. Good day to you, sirs.

posted by Woodlief | link | (10) comments

Friday, October 28, 2005

I, Customer

Moving puts one in a consumerist mindset, sometimes forcibly. Along with the excitement of finding a new home that fits one's wants and wishes comes the depressing drudgery of coping with the varied organizations whose products are essential either to one's household or to the government's sense of what is necessary to fund itself while keeping the populace from killing, poisoning, or intolerably irritating one another. In the same day one can play the role of omnipotent customer and powerless supplicant, depending on the transaction. The key is to maintain your dignity. They can take your money and your liberty, but never let them have what separates us from the animals and the French.

Keeping one's dignity during a three-hour visit to the Division of Motor Vehicles with three small children in tow, however, is no small feat. So sometimes it's enough simply to refrain from killing a state employee in the exceedingly slow and surly performance of his rote and ill-considered tasks.

I noticed something during that ordeal, and to explain it properly I first need to make clear that I am not someone who believes the word "literally" was invented so that the inarticulate could express how much something is way, way more/less/better/worse, etc., than their limited words could otherwise convey. In other words, it has a literal meaning. And I mean it literally when I say that these people move slower, literally, than any other collection of non-injured, non-geriatric individuals whose proximity I've ever had the misfortune of sharing. It's as if they were coated in molasses and force-marched through the North Pole.

I'm sure many of them would disagree. They are tired when they get home, and they believe they earn their pay just like anyone else. But they move at about two-thirds the speed of a well-supervised or well-motivated person. I watched one woman schlep every few minutes from her seat in one corner to a fax machine in the opposite corner, walking parallel to the walls so she could stay behind the long counters protecting her co-workers from the irritated citizenry (though that last word may not be entirely accurate). She was the only person I saw using the fax. Not only did she travel at the speed of a tire rolling uphill, but it didn't seem to occur to her that perhaps the fax machine should be relocated. Will it ever occur to her? No, because her life is the same whether we wait three hours or three minutes, except in the latter scenario she has to move a little quicker and solve more problems.

This isn't limited to the DMV, of course -- any organization can let its workforce become a wasteland where the goals and motivation are as bizarre and meaningless as a Kofi Annan speech. I wandered into a sporting goods store a few days later (hanging up a heavy bag, going to teach the little men to bring the serious, Bruce Lee, jeet-kune-do-go-tell-your-mama-how-bad-you-just-got-whupped smack), and noticed several customers standing in different sections looking for non-existent help. Only when I made my way back to the front did I see a clump of teenagers wearing shirts implying that in some vague employment-law sense they actually worked there. I told them they had customers in guns and shoes and I needed help as well, and so they shuffled back to work. The store will go out of business soon, and the owner deserves to lose money. The DMV, however, will likely remain until we invent teleporting, though I suspect we'll all have to start getting inspections and tags for that as well.

Though the convenience of dealing with bureaucracy by phone is preferable to dwelling for hours in one of its waiting-area purgatories, there is the added haughtiness that immunity from a physical beating inspires in some functionaries. Consider a rough transcript of the conversation my wife had with a representative from our local water company:

"What do you mean we owe you money? We've been gone for three years."

"You had an unpaid bill for $19.00, which has been reported to a collection agency."

"But when we closed our account you told us what we owed and we paid it."

"There were subsequent charges."

"We weren't informed that there would be subsequent charges."

"We sent you a bill."

"That's odd, because our mail was forwarded for three months, and we never received a bill."

"We don't allow our bills to be forwarded."

"So let me get this straight. We asked you to disconnect our service because we were moving, and you expect us to know about a bill that got sent to the house weeks after we've vacated?"

"The bill is your responsibility."

"That's ridiculous. And let me tell you another thing: I don't know what collection agency you hired to fetch your 19 dollars, but they have to be the worst collectors in the world because not only have we never heard a peep from them, our credit report is completely clean."

"If you want your water connected, we will require a $75 deposit."


And then there's the phone company. Thought I had their number, pardon the pun, by way of Vonage, one of these voice-over-Internet outfits salivating over the residential telephony market. But no such luck. Things never worked right, we couldn't place calls, the cable modem got messed up as well, and their fleet of earnest help desk operators in India were terribly, terribly, terribly, terribly unable to help us.

So I called to fire them. I explained to the representative that I was canceling because a critical part of telephone service, for our family at least, is the ability to make telephone calls. She listened politely, then offered two free months of service if I would remain a customer. You don't understand, I explained, it doesn't work. You could give me a hundred years free, and it still wouldn't do me any good. So she upped the ante: "How about three months?"

Sigh. And now they are jacking us around (what a punster I am today!) by refusing to refund various start-up and equipment fees. My revenge, should it come to this, will be to write something exceedingly snippy and funny and beg Instapundit to link it. I'm not important, but I do have very important acquaintances.

But at least, after a hard day of wrestling the consequences of poor management and overweening government, I can always go to my favorite family restaurant, a little place you've never heard of called Barn'rds. They, at least, know my name, and they are always glad to see me.

And isn't that, in the end, all any of us are really asking?

posted by Woodlief | link | (16) comments

Wednesday, August 3, 2005

You want some of this?

Sorry, been away again, on another top secret mission. Of course you know I'm kidding about the mission part, because nobody who kills people for a living would actually joke about it on his website, even though joking would be the perfect cover. Joke about killing people, blabbity blah about your kids, and nobody would ever suspect a thing...

Where was I? Oh yeah, the sorry part. Sorry.

Now, for a few recent irritations, because I'm in one of those moods, because I've had to give up coffee, because, minor detail, lately it makes me feel miserable.

First, a helpful email from American Airlines, notifying me that my flight scheduled to leave at 4:20 would actually be leaving at 5:30. Time email was sent: 5:03. What was intended to be a notification instead became mockery, as is much news in a highly connected world. This was followed by a string of emails telling me the flight would be later and still later, each notification coming within minutes of the newly scheduled time. So not only did I listen to the harried American employee periodically explain why the delays were NOT HIS FAULT, I got taunted by my own bloody blackberry. This is why it is very important that we discover how to teleport people, though I'm sure if the airlines are in charge they will find a way to get me to my destination both late and missing important body parts.

Second, flip flops. Let me be more precise, because the wife has a few pairs with frilly decorations that make her feet look as if they are sexy little exotic Las Vegas dancers. I have no inherent problem with the flip flop. What I have a problem with are men who cram their nasty, cheese-ridden toes into flip flops so that we can all see what an advanced case of gangrene of the toe looks like. I also have a problem with flip flops that look as if they have been worn while cleaning bathrooms in a Calcutta whorehouse.

Look, we all appreciate that you are young, and that you live the exciting parts of your life after 11pm, and that trudging to work at 8 a.m. is really a Tremendous Burden. But none of these are an excuse to go slippy-slapping about with your feet adorned in mold-ridden tire shavings. Have some self-respect, for God's sake, or is that too much to freaking ask.

Did I mention that I'm on the coffee wagon? Or off it. Whatever. I need caffeine and I can't have it.

Finally, I saw this sign in the cafeteria in my building: "Satisfaction Guarantee: If you aren't 100% satisfied, please speak to a manager." So let me get this straight: if I'm not 100 percent satisfied, then the "guarantee" is that I can speak to a manager? Who needs a guarantee for that? If I really want to talk to the manager, I can jump up on a table and pee in the wax geraniums. Now that's guaranteed to draw a manager.

So I'm thinking -- Sand in the Gears is a business, except that you get more satisfaction here than from your phone company, and you don't pay me (well, most of you don't). So starting today I'm offering the Sand in the Gears 100 Percent Satisfaction Guarantee. If you aren't 100 percent satisfied with what you find here, you can kiss my . . .    shove it up . . .    speak to Management.

Have a nice day.

Or don't. See if I care.

posted by Woodlief | link | (10) comments

Monday, June 27, 2005

On Being An International Criminal

I only have time to write a few words before I catch a truck to an undisclosed border crossing, where I will begin my new life as a fugitive from international justice. The jig is up, as a law professor at Michigan State University declared in her recent letter to The Atlantic Monthly:

Corporal punishment of children�regardless of how "moderate," and no matter by whom dispensed�is considered a violation of international human-rights law. The practice violates at least six human-rights treaties: the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child; the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights; the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights; the UN Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment; the American Convention on Human Rights; and the European Social Charter.

Moreover, a rapidly growing number of countries have outlawed all physical chastisement of children. As of this writing twelve nations�Austria, Croatia, Cyprus, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Iceland, Latvia, Norway, Romania, Sweden, and Ukraine�have banned spanking by law. Israel has done the same by a judicial decision of its highest court. . .

Crap, and Austria always topped my list of potential hide-outs, what with its Sound of Music scenery and fine tradition of economic thinking.

That's right, I'm a spanker. I haven't gotten around to gassing ethnic minorities or starving religious dissidents yet, but six human rights violations has got to be up there on the Crimes-Against-Humanity Scale. And as the author herself notes ("at least"), there may be more. Perhaps she'll send a follow-up letter once her research assistant has scoured the minutes of august bodies with names like the Transnational Union of Enlightened Academics and the International Quorum of the Internationally Minded.

And I'm ashamed to say that there's more than just the spanking. Sometimes I put the kids down for a nap when they aren't even sleepy. Who knows how many U.N.-divined rights are being transgressed as they lie there on their little beds, staring up at the ceiling?

I also make them eat all their salad, which surely is a violation of some international proclamation against forced ingestion, not to mention the purchase of non-union produce. Not letting them leave the table until they've finished, after all, is really no different than loading a bag of lettuce onto the end of a plunger and ramming it down their gullets, by the logic of the learned professor.

It's all becoming clear now. I thought I was being a good parent, but in reality I am the Butcher of Virginia. How benighted I have been!

And now I see the wretched but deserved future that awaits. Crouching in the hazy lobby of some nondescript South American hotel, playing chess with decrepit former SS guards and junk-bond traders, nervously watching the door for U.N. authorities on a righteous quest to bring me to justice for forcing my children to say "yes sir" and "excuse me." Oh, the humanity. How did I come to this? What pain and suffering might the world have been spared, if only I had secured a J.D. and an internship with the Public Interest Law Initiative!

Spankers of the world, disarm. Embrace the Time Out and the Positive Affirmation, the Disciplinary Hug and Television Deprivation (although if your kid wants to watch PBS, I think there's a U.N. Declaration somewhere that says you have to let him). Just turn back, before it's too late.

Otherwise I'll see you in Guatemala. Or Chile. Or Ecuador. Actually, I'm not at liberty to say where, but be sure to brush up on your Spanish, and your chess. I'll be the one in the dark glasses, clutching a copy of Chicken Soup for the Human Rights Violator.

posted by Woodlief | link | (18) comments

Monday, August 2, 2004

Preferences Revealed

The only good thing about getting on a kiddy caterpillar roller coaster with your two year-old, wrenching your back, and having the injury get progressively worse until you are laid up for most of the weekend is that you get caught up on your magazines. This is how I found myself reading one of the most remarkably dense statements I have ever encountered, in a February issue of National Review, no less.

The statement comes from Stephen Moore, president of the Club for Growth, in his review of Gregg Easterbrook's The Progress Paradox. I'll confess at the outset an admiration for Easterbrook, who has convictions that lean left but whose pursuit of truth frequently leads him to chip away at the shibboleths of big-government socialism. Would that the Right had more people as intellectually honest. My feeling for Moore is mildly positive as well; I've heard him speak before, and his message about the unrestrained, shamelessly profligate spending of Republican-dominated state legislatures in the 1990's is sure to boil any thinking man's blood.

But here is Moore trying to puncture Easterbrook's claim that material progress may not secure happiness, and in fact may mitigate against it:

". . . as an economist, I'm a bit of a skeptic on Easterbrook's 'paradox of progress' argument. We economists believe in 'revealed preferences': If you choose something voluntarily, then -- we assume -- you are better off. If getting richer and having more and more things doesn't make us happier, why do we spend so much of our lives trying to get more money?"

I am hard put to come up with a sentence that more ferociously skewers by caricature the economist than that last. I wonder how an adult can even formulate such a thought without shrinking from it in embarrassment. Who among us does not know someone who has wrecked his life on the rocks of his own material success, and as a result is mired in deep, abject misery? Indeed, who among us has not lain awake in the twilight hours -- when the heart is least stifled and our thoughts most honest -- and feared that such might well be his own wretched lot?

But such is the nature of economics, that the model must trump human experience. Revealed preferences are a critical assumption because otherwise we must understand the black box of the human heart and mind, and this cannot be done with slide rule and statistics.

A great failing of professional economists, and of the ideologies which make them their high priests, is that they transmogrify simple descriptive models of human behavior into prescriptions. Man seeks material gain because it is what he believes is best for him -- this is a description that allows us to build predictive models of behavior. Somehow the average economist has turned this into a prescription for living. Eat, drink, and be merry, he says, for it grows the GDP.

Indeed, it seems that economists turn the old adage about accountants on its head: They know the value of everything, and the cost of nothing.

posted by Woodlief | link | (3) comments

Monday, May 3, 2004

Is Tony a Jew?

Seems some of the fine minds who hang out at this Nazi website and chat forum are having a raging debate over whether I am a whiny Christian or a whiny Jew.

Says one, who has lifted a picture of me and my son and pasted it into his comment:

"Notice the frizzy hair, the shape of the skull (specially the back of his head)."

But wait, says another, are you sure he's Jewish? Can you verify it?

Certainly, says the first, because he uses "the very Semitic label 'Jew-hating.'"

Ah, says the second, but here's a post about his dead daughter. He talks about God in it. He must be a Christian. You should be ashamed for calling him a Jew.

But in another of the Jew's posts, says the first, he uses the word "chutzpah." This is proof of his Jewishness, concludes this genius, because:

"How many White Christians use the word Chutzpah?"

Nazi One continues to opine that, though I mentioned my daughter meeting Christ the night she died, this is likely because she is a goy, the product of my race-betraying gentile wife.

Oh yeah, I'm definitely buying that .45 I've had my eyes on.

It gets better, friends. Another skinhead barges into this intellectual debate, to announce that I am without a doubt a Jew, because -- and stuff like this is just too good to make up -- I called Vanessa Redgrave evil, and we all know that she was a fine English actress censured for making anti-Semitic remarks.

Guys, I appreciate your taking time out from Mein Kampf to study my website, but instead of reading the tea leaves, why not just ask me? Tell you what: so you don't soil yourselves by sending the potential Jew an email -- because that would lead to intermarriage and Bar Mitzvahs and such -- I'll just answer the question for you:

I worship a Jewish carpenter. Hope that puts your leather panties in a nice, tight bind.

And thanks for reading. Mazel Tov!

posted by Woodlief | link | (100) comments

Tuesday, April 20, 2004

Regulating the Proles

Some who make their money by practicing medicine (and let's get the incentives clear at the beginning, shall we?) believe the use of ultrasound devices by people with insufficient medical degrees should be stopped. The specter of giddy expectant parents ogling a four-dimensional image of their bundle of joy in utero under the smiling guidance of a mere technician is more than the blue-bloods can bear. This is medical technology, after all. Would we want these proletarians doing their own brain surgery?

In steps the FDA, making noise about regulating the practice. The danger, as a National Public Radio reporter explains, is that an ultrasound "releases energy into the body, and heats tissue."

Next on the physician/FDA cartel watch-list: hot cocoa, wool pullovers, and the sun.

Underlying this debate is the fact that ultrasounds are an enormously effective abortion deterrent. Pro-life advocates across the U.S. have established clinics next door to abortion shops, where mothers considering abortion are offered counseling, adoption and welfare services, housing, and frequently, ultrasounds. Very rarely will a mother, once she has seen for herself that the "cluster of tissue" notion is a lie, choose to abort.

Pro-abortion groups are hoping that the medical profession and FDA win this battle, because it will drastically drive up the cost of offering ultrasounds. There is at least a hint of collusion, as is evidenced by the intonations of Lawrence Platt, former head of the American Institute of Ultrasound in Medicine. He warns against the "misuse of technology" and the dangers of employing it to "sway one's decision and impact someone's rights." I don't think he's referring to the rights of the unborn child.

The practice is also dangerous, Platt continues, because sometimes an ultrasound will reveal abnormalities in the child, and this can be traumatic for the parents. It's best, he says, that such a revelation take place with a physician at one's side.

Right, because you can't throw a stick at the annual meeting of the American Medical Association without hitting a compassionate doctor. Of course I don't really believe this is the case, but don't let my skepticism stop you from testing the hypothesis yourself.

posted by Woodlief | link | (11) comments

Thursday, February 13, 2003

On Morning People

The problem with morning people is that they think the rest of us are the problem. The reality is that the morning person is the classic interventionist; not content to bask in the glory of his cheerful morning, he finds it necessary to whip all those around him into a frenzy of morning exuberance as well. When this evokes hostility, he concludes that he is dealing with handicapped people whose natural capacity for joy at the prospect of being awake has been tragically truncated.

To the non-morning person, on the other hand, he is a miserable meddler who should choke on his seven-grain Blueberry Sunrise bagel. This opinion softens, of course, as the morning wears on. It's really more of a fleeting thought.

Being naive optimists, morning people never give up. Morning after morning they merrily bounce into the kitchen, eager to plan the day's activities, discuss the Relationship, have some good quality time. They are actually surprised when the person who growled at them yesterday morning, and the 3,757 other mornings they've shared together, is not any more interested today in extended conversation.

We non-morning people need ample time to decide whether the day will in fact be worth living. This can take some time and is usually prolonged by premature chatter about what is needed today from the Home Depot. Some might regard us as unnecessarily sour. Snap out of it, the morning person might say. Choose to be happy. To this I reply that excessive morning happiness is not a choice; it is an affliction.

Besides, morning people desperately need non-morning people. It is we who have kept an eye on the world through the ages; without us you morning people would have long ago had your genes eliminated as a consequence of skipping happily out the cave entrance and into the mouth of a tiger. It is the non-morning person who says, "shut your yap until I can see if there are tigers out there." That's our job. The job of you morning people is to pipe down and get us another cup of coffee.

posted by Woodlief | link | (24) comments

Thursday, February 6, 2003

Notes From The Train

There are two kinds of people who use their cell phones on the train: those who deserve to have their lungs torn out by my jagged fingernails, and those who should have their genitalia removed with a rusty tweezer.

At some stops not all the doors open. This is on purpose. I think it's a safety thing. Often when customers are inconvenienced these days, it is an offering to the Safety god. Before these stops when not all the doors will open, the conductor will announce that only the doors on, say, the third and second-to-last cars will open. Such an announcement would be helpful if it came as the train was going around a big bend, so that one could count to see which car one is on.

Otherwise, it's not so helpful. Fortunately, there's always one or two nerds who know exactly what car they are on, so the rest of us just follow them to the open doors. This, by the way, is a beauty of markets -- they work pretty well even with limited information.

I'm not sure I'm happy with the fact that I recognize this.

News Flash From My Train: Marge from Burke likes to keep some band-aids handy in her oversized bag.

I learned this because Ted from Manassas had a mysterious hand wound that prompted Marge to offer her remedy. As Ted applied his bandage he marveled at the brilliance -- and breathtaking convenience -- of carrying a supply of bandages in one's oversized bag that one crams against the leg of a fellow passenger who is just trying to write his novel so he can stop riding the godforsaken train. This perky conversation gave Sam from Burke an opening to remark on the fascinating title of the paperback Marge was clutching in the hand not overflowing with bandages, "The Earl Grey Killer." Well this just led to a rollicking good time, as Ted and Marge and Sam bantered back and forth about which teas they like best, how good it tastes with just a pinch of honey in it, and lots of other insights that I missed as I tried for ten minutes to type a single blessed sentence.

The point is, if you are just going to talk about tea, why bother? How can the energy required to open your mouth possibly merit the psychological gain from learning that Sam likes just a swig of milk in his? Perhaps we are just starved for human contact. Not me. I get more than enough on the freaking train.

posted by Woodlief | link | (11) comments

Thursday, January 30, 2003

Getting in Touch With Our Inner Crybaby

I recall that last September, ESPN promoted an "emotional interview with Randy Moss." You probably know to translate "emotional" into "teary," for the two have become synonymous in common parlance. There are differences, however, between grief and melodrama, between emotion and blubbering. I think many people have lost sight of the distinctions.

A consequence is that we have transformed crying into a spectator sport. You might think that this is a characteristic of a healthy nation, one that is in touch with its feelings, whatever that means. I think instead it is the outgrowth of our studied avoidance of the pain and heartache that are part of life.

Consider a typical farmer a hundred years ago. He toiled with his family to break the soil and pull life from it. Maybe one of his children died before adulthood. Hopes could come crashing down with a bad drought, or a brutal winter, or even the death of a horse. He and his small community endured against the elements, wept at funerals, sang in church. They frequently faced fear and rejoiced in small triumphs.

Now imagine that you transport this farmer to September, 2002, and make him endure an "emotional interview with Randy Moss." Do you think he would find it unseemly that a man sits in front of thousands of strangers, blubbering about his trials and tribulations as a young millionaire exempted from ordinary legal standards?

Ah, but the fans love it. Such displays are a safe substitute for real emotion. We can tear up for a bit, then have a chuckle as the interviewer breaks the tension. When we grow bored we can simply change the channel, perhaps to another artificial emotional spectacle, say, a Very Special Episode of "Frasier."

Sometimes I think we have become vampires -- not really alive, but needing the lifeblood of others for sustenance. We surround ourselves with distractions and take all manner of steps to insulate ourselves (and our children) from pain and disappointment. Yet we still crave emotional stimulation, so we immerse ourselves in the lives of real and fictional heroes.

Maybe this Vampire Hypothesis also explains our national obsession with seeing the victims of tragedy interviewed on television. By doing so we can glom on to their emotion, perhaps even have a good cry ourselves, without ever confronting the elements of their experience that horrify and fascinate us -- the meaning of death, the nature of pain, the purpose of life. By burrowing into the tragedies on our TV screen -- the film footage, the Oprah interview, the made-for-TV docudrama -- we hide from the tragedies in our own lives.

A consequence is that we embarrass ourselves when emotion becomes unavoidable. I'm thinking of some NYC firefighters, who in several months went from heroic to intolerably self-obsessed, willing to put on an emotional display at the pop of a camera light. I'm thinking also of the families of crime, and accident victims, who have been persuaded that it is acceptable to hold press conferences in the midst of their emotional shock, pouring out stream-of-consciousness eulogies interspersed with sobbing.

To be sure, public displays of emotion are often ennobling. Some newscasters could not contain their tears when reporting President Kennedy's assassination. More recently, I remember the look of horror and disgust on a CNN news anchorwoman's face when she reported that someone was producing an O.J. Simpson cutlery set. Such expressions are moving precisely because the people involved try to control themselves. Perhaps their restraint is a sign that their emotions are not shallow sentiment.

Furthermore, when embraced and endured, suffering and the intense emotion that accompanies it often find expression in beauty, be this an articulation, a creation, or simply a peaceful countenance. As a raw material, deep emotion can be ugly and frightening, as it should be, and so we properly share it in this form only with people we know and trust.

However, when we applaud -- without discrimination -- every display of emotion, we lose our sense of proportion. We also encourage skilled prevaricators. The most recent notable example, of course, is former President Clinton. I recall that the first President Bush was knocked, during the 1992 campaign, for failing to reveal enough about his feelings. A skilled crybaby was suddenly assumed to have more emotional depth than a WWII veteran who buried a child at age three.

If we continue to reward leaders for their capacity to spout tears as a means of expressing sentiment, we may soon, I fear, be just like the French, only without the cheese and three-month summer vacations. It's all so disheartening, this decline in national backbone, that I think I may just sit down and have a good cry. If I do, I'll be sure to snap a few pictures in the mirror and post them here tomorrow.

posted by Woodlief | link | (14) comments

Tuesday, January 7, 2003

And another thing...

Now that I've got the juices flowing with today's memo (see below), I want to have a word with my fellow Metrorail users. (For those of you who don't live in D.C., the Metro is our version of a subway, paid for by your federal taxes.) First, for those of you who like to stand in the doorway, do you think that pressing your back against the entryway panel and sucking in your stomach actually changes the fact that you are in the freaking way? We can all appreciate that you want to be the first one off at your stop, but your behavior is discourteous.

Or, look at it this way: 90% of the people in this town work either for the government, a law firm, an interest group, or a media outlet. In other words, every minute the average Washingtonian is late for work is a net plus for the U.S. economy. So do your part to keep America strong, and step on into the train with the rest of the unwashed heathen.

I also have a beef with you people who think that the urgency to get on an imminently departing train dissipates the moment your fanny has cleared the threshold. News flash: the rest of us want to get on too. This is why we step on your heels and curse at you. Don't tell yourself it's just the unfocused impersonal hostility of city dwellers. It's actually quite personal; we want you, specifically, to die. Just don't do it until you've moved quickly to the middle of the train, unless you want your next-of-kin to retrieve a battered, heel-marked corpse from Metro Security.

Finally, whenever you find yourself in a crowded transit junction, say, Union Station or LaGuardia Airport, the fact that masses of people are flowing in various directions is a pretty good indication, people being the rational utility maximizers that they are, that we are all trying to get somewhere. The point is this: that aimless ambling gait that some of you like to adopt as you kill time before your plane/train/car, or figure out just exactly where you need to go, is a bit, well, maddening. If you are running ahead of schedule to Aunt Martha's for Sunday brunch, do you just drop your highway speed down to 20 m.p.h.? Do you park in the middle of the expressway while you check your stinking map?

No, the answer is a big freaking NO. People moving in a crowded place are just like people moving about on the freeway, only slower, and without the benefit of two tons of metal with which to assault you for blocking the lane. Please, for my sanity and your personal physical health, move to the side if you aren't going to keep up the pace.

Now, if you are going to venture out into walking traffic with the rest of us, please, for the love of all that is holy, stay in your lane. What's with the slow-motion serpentine, Sheldon? Are you under fire? Are you a freaking honeybee all of a sudden? Did you flunk geometry? The shortest distance between Point A and Point B is a straight line. So unless you are the bishop in some life-sized chess game that I seem to be missing, keep it in the road, or at least out of my way.

Someone should write a book on the rules of life.

And lots of people should read it.

posted by Woodlief | link | (16) comments


To: All building managers, women who like silk, and fat people

Subject: Temperature

Let it be winter, people. When the temperature grows colder, normal people wear warmer clothing. Clothing is one of the few side benefits of man's fall from Grace. Women, it is unacceptable to wear a silk shirt to work in January, even if it is a lovely burnt sienna, and then complain because you are cold. Building managers, it is even more unacceptable to cave to their demands that you turn up the heat.

We live in an industrialized society, which is generally good. We have the capability to create artificial environments for ourselves, which is often good. There is no need to flaunt our power in the face of nature, however. The fact that we are capable of making our office a balmy 84 degrees in the dead of winter is no reason to do so. Put on a sweater if you are cold.

Likewise for summer. It gets hot. Deal with it. Before you start complaining about the heat, try losing that extra forty pounds you are carrying. The rest of us shouldn't have to feel like meat hanging in a locker, all because you can't keep your hands off the Fritos during "Murder, She Wrote."

posted by Woodlief | link | (5) comments

Thursday, December 12, 2002

On Cold and Flu Season

Yesterday a large man rushed onto my train just as we were leaving, and found his way to a seat on the other side of my table. It was apparent that he ran to catch the train, and it was apparent that he did not often run. He sat slouched in his seat, eyes closed, breathing heavily.

Breathing his foul, onion-laden, germ-ridden breath all over me. To make things worse, he had some sort of crust-type item clinging to the inside of his nose. To make things much worse, he began alternately breathing through his mouth and through his nostrils -- big, heavy puffs of air. I was worried he was having a heart attack. I was more worried that one of his nose exhalations was going to send that aerodynamic-looking crust onto my laptop, or worse, my person. I'm sure I looked, as I physically recoiled in the face of this potential offense, much like the debutante who discovers a turd in her punch bowl.

As for the breath, it bears repeating: sharp, stinging halitosis. This only accentuated what I normally try to forget: that every day, strangers with poor hygiene are getting their germs all over my personal space.

Now, I'll be the first to admit that I need the personal perimeter of a psychopath. I don't want people touching, nearing, or looking at me without a personal invitation. But I think I have a fairly healthy attitude about germs. They are an inevitable feature of our planet, and people spread them inadvertently. Hey, I wrestled in high school, which, if you haven't heard, basically involves rolling around on a mat with another barely clothed guy, in the height of cold and flu season. (You homo- and hetero-phobes can make your wisecracks in the Comments section below.)

So I know from germs. If the situation calls for it, I'll expose myself to them. Had the guy across from me gone into full cardiac arrest, I would have been the first to provide CPR, including mouth-to-mouth (though, I confess, only after spritzing a few healthy doses of breath spray into his gaping maw).

What I don't appreciate, however, are the unintentional exposures caused by sloppy, unthinking people who haven't heard of germ theory. If you are wondering what I mean by this, you are probably one of these people. You invariably get sick four or five times per winter (mistakenly calling these "the flu"), and give yourself food poisoning two or three times a year as well (you mistakenly call this "stomach flu"). Your grubby hands are frequently on or near your face, and you rarely wash them before meals. You have the ridiculous belief that coughing or sneezing directly into your open palm is a means of disease prevention, despite the fact that you use your still-moist hand to hold onto the rail on the Metro, open an office door, or give money to the store clerk.

You make me sick, literally. You also make a lot of other people sick. So on behalf of all of us conscientious people who take care to maintain good hygiene, but who get sick as a result of your appalling negligence, let me just give you a big sneeze of thanks. I hope you die of typhoid.

Not really, but I hope you get a really bad rash exactly where I did after hiking Pike's Peak. But that's a story for another time.

Right now, I want to share with my fellow germ aficionados some of the methods I use to avoid contact with the personal filth of the unkempt horde. I won't spend much time on the obvious: keep your hands off your face unless they are recently washed, wash them after handling money, the mail, your private parts, the private parts of others, and pretty much anything else lots of people have been groping (doorknobs, keyboards, handrails, etc.). Sneeze into the crook of your elbow, not your hand. Cook your food thoroughly, and don't let it sit out for hours on end. And so on.

What I will focus on here is one critical piece of the clean-living chain, which I call Bathroom Survival. This is to be distinguished from my advice on Prison Survival, to be written at a later date. What I mean in the current context is surviving the public restroom, which is the Union Station of germs.

First, know your restroom. There are some key things you should note as you enter. Which way does the door open? Do you need to turn a handle to get out? Are there paper towels, or worse blow "dryers", or worse still, those dingy cloth towel things that hang down like so much rancid meat in a freezer? Is there soap? For the love of God, is there soap?

Let's go with the worst-case scenario. You are in a public restroom, and the door opens inward. (For those of you who don't get it, this means you will have to handle the same doorknob gripped by the utility guy who doesn't wash his hands after crapping.) There are only blow dryers. The toilets have flush handles. (Note: not flushing is not an option. We are the last bastions of civilization -- let's not behave like cretins.) You need to use the stall, which has a handle practically crawling with disease.

Assume, however, that there is soap. If there is not, go outside and do your business in the lobby, or on the counter, or on the manager, if you can find him. Very few juries will convict you.

So what do you do? Lesser people would turn themselves over to the germ gods, and end up with stomach cramps and uncontrollable flatulence tinged with diarrhea. Take charge of your fate.

First, understand that what matters most is keeping your hands off your face until they have been washed. With that said, there is no need to expose yourself to every germ. Flush the toilet with your foot. Wash your hands well.

You have two options to make a clean exit. The first requires a little timing -- stand with your hands under the dryer until someone else gets to the door, and then follow him out, catching the door with your elbow. You are out clean, and he's the one who suffers unbearable gassiness during his evening TV time.

The second option requires planning, and gets back to my original point -- know your terrain. You can see before you enter the bathroom whether it requires touching a handle to get out. If it does, then grab something -- a handful of napkins, office stationary, a big leaf off the ficus -- to serve as your shield. Keep it in your pocket until your hands are clean, and then step out safely.

Some people would call this behavior obsessive-compulsive. I don't deny that I need therapy, for a lot of things. But what good is mental health if you are sneezing, wheezing, and oozing from multiple orifices? Trust me, combating the germ, and its witless carrier, requires extreme vigilance. Only the paranoid survive, especially in a metropolis.

So for the love of all that is holy and clean, let's be careful out there.

posted by Woodlief | link | (19) comments

Monday, October 28, 2002

Recycling Liberty

I remember a wonderful newstand in Chapel Hill where a young college student could buy cheap cigars, girly magazines, and a true fountain soda all without breaking his pizza budget. It was safely (I thought) ensconced on Franklin Street, and was a city treasure. When I visited the town of my alma mater a few years ago, however, I discovered that the newstand had been replaced -- by a juice bar. At times like that I am shocked at how deeply the health nuts and terraphiliacs have gotten their graspy little claws into the essentials of our way of life.

For example, having moved back to the East Coast, I'm discovering what an absolute fetish people here have made of recycling. One expects this sort of thing on the West Coast -- those people long ago abandoned American ideals, and can't slide off into the ocean fast enough for most of us -- but this side of the country is the birthplace of liberty, and its infringement here is therefore an especial abomination.

As an example of what I mean, consider the fact that many towns and cities in this area actually have laws requiring their citizens to recycle. That's right, in these places you either sort your trash or pay a fine. What's more, the laws are enforced by busybodies armed with the authority to root through your garbage as it sits on the curb, in order to ensure that you are doing your part to depress aluminum prices.

This, dear readers, strikes me as very, very wrong. This is not a brief against recycling. I recycle quite frequently, in fact: my clothes, bad jokes, my list of annual accomplishments . . . You get the point -- I'm a veritable font of reuse and renewal. So I've got no beef with recycling as an occupation, a hobby, an obsession, or a freaking religion, if that's what you tree-hugging hippies are into these days.

My objection, rather, is to a law that allows some holier-than-thou bureaucrat to search through my trash.

Imagine that it's 1776, and instead of stamp taxes and Anglican fussiness, old King George is pushing mandatory recycling. Imagine that he has anointed inspectors to go forth into the colonists' trash heaps in search of the ill-placed jug shard and errant scrap of Tom Paine propaganda.

Let me tell you, fellow Americans, how our beloved Founding Fathers would have responded. Several of them would have grabbed by the scruff of the neck the first Royal Trash Inspector they caught nosing through someone's refuse, hogtied him, and marched him into the town square. There they would have denounced him in front of the jeering citizenry, and strung him by the neck, without reservation or apology, from the nearest lamp post.

Later, earnest mothers would have taken their wide-eyed children to see the dangling monstrosity, in order to sear into their little minds what happens to those who violate our Liberty. Presbyterian pastors would have given special celebratory sermons on the street below his stinking corpse, warning that while the Bible enjoins us to obey civil authorities, it nowhere requires us to submit to such ilk as this.

But look at us now. Not only did we not publicly hang the first person to attempt garbage inspection, but we let this infringement become institutionalized with nary a peep. For shame. It appears that the men who rescued our liberty from the Crown two hundred years ago are made of finer stuff than we.

Liberty is not fit to be bound by chains such as these, my friends. A nation that would tolerate a violation of such intimate privacy as what is in one's personal trash is a nation that no longer knows the meaning of the word "citizen." Citizenry carries privileges and the responsibility of obedience to law, yes, but it also imposes the duty to restrain government to its proper bounds. I ask you, if peering into our trash in order to compel us into unpaid labor is not outside the proper role of government, then what is?

What kind of Americans are we, that we should tolerate such a thing? Have we no self-respect? Are we not men and women? Rise up, I say, and again, rise up!

The time is upon each one of us living in such an oppressive regime, from Tacoma Park, Maryland, to Portola Valley, California, to stand athwart the path of intrusive government and shout, "Enough! You may tax one-third of my income, you may take my gun, my property, my business. But this is one line you will not cross. You can take my garbage when you pry it from my cold, dead fingers. And if I go, I'm taking a few of you with me."

I know some of you are wondering if my new neighborhood has a mandatory recycling law. The answer is "no," and you can be certain of this by the fact that you have not read the following headline:

Virginia man shoots recycling official from upstairs window "Any man who goes rooting through another man's trash is asking to get shot," insists unrepentant shooter.

But if any of you should prove so ardent a defender of liberty, I'll be the first to contribute to your defense fund. Extremism in defense of one's garbage is, my fellow Americans, no vice.

posted by Woodlief | link | (27) comments

Tuesday, October 8, 2002


As you've probably heard, there's a sniper in my neck of the woods. Well, not really my neck, though he did make an excursion down near Fredericksburg recently. He specializes in shooting people who are going about their everyday business in public places -- gas stations, shopping malls, and as evidenced by his latest victim, grade schools. The previous victim, the one shot before the child, was a mother of two loading bags into her minivan. Most of us find the targeting of children and mothers especially despicable, though sniping in general seems reprehensible. I recall in Shelby Foote's excellent Civil War series the recounting of an officer's admission in his diary that he was glad whenever a sniper from either side was eliminated by the means of his own trade.

Far worse than enduring the minimally greater risk of being shot while in public, of course, is enduring the certainty that one will have to listen to government officials, and the reporters who cover them, mangle both the English language and the rules of logic. After the first round of attacks, for example, when law officers were first realizing that several shootings were related, a Maryland county official gave a press conference that started with the basic details most people want to know, namely, what do the police know? Because the police knew so little at the time, however, and because politicians and journalists seem incapable of not talking even when they have little knowledge of the topic they are discussing, the session quickly degenerated into something from a Monty Python skit:

Reporter: "What should citizens be doing to protect themselves?"

Official: "We are advising people to take extra precautions."

Reporter: "What does that mean?"

Official: "The most important thing is that people go about business as usual."

Reporters: (scribble scribble scribble)

Official: "We are also advising parents to take extra precautions with children. Be careful, be alert."

Because alertness can stop a high-velocity round, you know. While you're being alert, go about business as usual. Protecting children is one thing, but there's no need to jeopardize tax revenues in the process. Get out there and shop. But wear your Kevlar and be sure to serpentine. Has anyone noticed, by the way, that the secular mantra in a time of crisis is to "go about business as usual"?

Far worse than pronouncements of public officials, who have to say something, after all, if only because voters won't tolerate Tony's version of a press conference ("Guy out there with a rifle. If he's aiming at you, you'll probably get shot. If you see him first, aim for the upper body and save the taxpayers some money. Have a nice day"), is the breathless coverage by journalists. This morning I heard a local journalist interviewed on NPR. Apparently he has his finger on the pulse of the region, because he was using the familiar tactic of referring to "people here," which can be translated into "my friends, none of whom have a blue collar job or go to church."

Immediately before this report, an NPR reporter provided an interview with a psychological profiler, a job which, after "Silence of the Lambs," replaced bounty hunter as the thing I most wish I had spent my wasted college years learning to do. The profiler detailed how his profession uses things like location, characteristics of victims, time of day, etc., to dig deep into the psyche of the killer and discern facts that help nab him. Unfortunately, the reporter noted, as if explaining why profiling hasn't yet yielded a suspect, the sniper hasn't left any evidence that might identify him, there are no witnesses, and none of his victims appear to know him.

In other words, a psychological profile will probably be especially helpful. The reporter's use of "unfortunately," however, suggests that she hasn't internalized a lick of her own report. Her observation was akin to concluding a report on wilderness foraging techniques with: "unfortunately, there are no grocery stores in Yellowstone. Back to you Bob."

The reporter also noted that serial killers "often" target people on the basis of gender or minority status. Leaving aside the judiciousness of using "often" to describe the characteristics underlying a very rare activity ("suicidal religious cults often drink poisoned Kool-Aid"), I wonder if this claim is supported by data. Journalists often genuflect to received doctrine on white male oppression without bothering to verify, you know. Hey, this unsupported "often" technique can come in handy.

Speaking of drawing inferences without adequate data, one of the experts interviewed by NPR noted that some armchair detectives are clogging bandwidth with useless speculation about the sniper's motives. He mentioned by way of example speculation that the sniper was someone rejected by the Green Berets or the Navy SEALs, and with seasoned disdain observed the lack of facts to support such a conclusion. And just to show you an appropriate use of the word "unfortunately," I'll note that unfortunately, the expert's caution against speculation was preceded by his speculation that the sniper's recent targeting of a child was fueled by coverage of measures schools are taking to protect students. "He wants to show that we can't protect ourselves from him."

Apparently one has to be a certified expert to offer unsupported inferences.

All of which is to say I'm back, with two hours a day on the train to write my novel betwixt missives to you, faithful Sand in the Gears readers.

posted by Woodlief | link | (11) comments

Monday, September 23, 2002

The Oblivious Menace

As we drove through Kentucky on our recent journey, I saw something that prompted a thought. It was raining, and hilly, and there were a great many tractor trailers on our two lanes of the highway. Camping out in the left (good drivers translate that word into "passing") lane was a fool of a man in a spanking new pick-up truck. Occasionally he would realize there was a semi about to copulate with his Chevy, and he'd speed up and get over into the right lane. But, just as sure as there's moonshine in those old Kentucky hills, this nitwit would ease back over into the left lane, and jam up traffic again.

And, because the terrain was hilly, and because it was raining, and because the road was littered with tractor trailers, more than once a whole series of sudden braking actions would occur, as trucks on a downhill, blocked by this menace, would hit their brakes, setting off a chain reaction a mile back. Twice there were nearly accidents, and for all I know he eventually did contribute to someone's death or injury; we left him behind at the first opportunity.

The thought that stuck with me is that, had this fool contributed to an accident, odds are he never would have realized it, because it would have taken place somewhere behind him. Bad drivers are often like that -- totally oblivious to the fact that they are dangerous to others. This got me thinking about that class of person in general, the Oblivious Menace. He is the person who sneezes in a public place without covering his mouth, or the restaurant employee who goes to the bathroom without washing his hands afterward. He is the manager who destroys morale but fancies himself a hard-nosed leader. He is the employee who is too stupid to follow procedures, making mistakes that his company will pay for in lawsuits and government fines long after he has moved on or been fired. He goes through life doing things that well-trained adults know are uncouth, leaving a host of sick, injured, and unemployed in his wake, and never has a clue that on net his contribution to society is negative.

One doesn't have to cause harm to qualify as an Oblivious Menace, of course, because at root we are talking about behavior that escalates the risks of harm to those in one's vicinity. To be sure, there are people who do so consciously -- aggressive drivers, for example -- but for some reason people who increase the risk to my safety without being aware of it make me more wary, perhaps because their behavior is less predictable. One expects people to cut into one's lane from time to time; one also expects people to cover their mouths when they sneeze. Surprise with regard to the latter is unnerving. Self-centered jerks are predictable, but unmindful walking hazards are like landmines -- we know they are out there, but we are never quite sure where, and we are always unpleasantly surprised when they cross our path.

Just yesterday, for example, we were on a North Carolina beach when an old woman appeared, walking a slathering, growling bulldog. It was all she could do to keep him going in the direction she desired, rather than in the direction he preferred. He was clearly unfriendly and dangerous, and by stumbling about in the sand with him, she was exposing all of us to considerable risk of injury. Had one queried her about the furry ball of muscle and drool at the end of her leash, however, she would have no doubt insisted that he is in reality the sweetest creature on God's earth. She is, in short, an Oblivious Menace.

I recall during one of my daughter's hospital stays, when her white cell counts were dangerously low, I had to repeatedly remind one of the nurses to wash her hands before tending to Caroline. One of the first things one learns when working on a pediatric oncology ward, I think, is to wash one's bloody hands. They even install a handy antibacterial foam dispenser by the doorway to each patient's room, to make the essential action easier. Still, I had to tell Nurse Menace to wash her hands. I also had to tell one of her colleagues that one musn't flush Neupogen with saline, but must use sterile water, or else the effectiveness of the medicine is diminished. I'm not an oncologist, but I learned this because I had a considerable stake in getting it right. One would think the same were true of the nurses.

Mistakes like these, when combined with other sloppy behavior commonplace in hospitals (and elsewhere), kill people. What's maddening is that these Typhoid Mary's usually have no clue when their negligence contributes to illness or death. Like the witless Chevy driver on that stretch of Kentucky highway, they survey the wreckage behind them and go on about their business with a cluck of the tongue and a shake of the head: Oh well, accidents happen. Tough break.

Sure, accidents happen, and for the non-Reformed life is full of happenstance. But much of what happens has a human component, and frequently, I suspect, a component of human error. This is why insurance companies find it prudent to raise rates on customers who submit a claim for an accident. They have found that statistically, such people are significantly more likely to be involved in future damage. This is likely to elicit howls from some readers. How can it by my fault, after all, when someone runs a red light and broadsides me? Or when, while working on my garage roof, a weak beam gives way and I fall through?

Indeed. To the Oblivious Menace, these are real posers. To the rest of us, there are a thousand ways the careful person avoids such accidents. That is not to say, mind you, that we have some culpability for every accident that befalls us. But there is a wide stretch of culpability remaining between clear malfeasance and accidents that do not leave one legally liable.

The most disturbing thought is that I -- or more likely, one of you; I self-monitor to a pathological degree -- may be an Oblivious Menace in some walk of life. It's that Oblivious part that may be keeping us from recognizing it. I imagine it all turns on self-awareness; most of us pay a modicum of attention to the impact our behavior has on our surroundings, others can't see the world in any but solipsistic terms. With that in mind, I propose a test to determine whether someone is an Oblivious Menace. Before you hire someone, or let him drive your children about town, sit him down and talk to him for five minutes. If I'm right, and the root cause of Menacing Obliviousness is extreme self-centeredness, then an Oblivious Menace will likely be one of those people who turns the conversation to himself (and this is one instance where I think it is imperative to supplement with "or herself") regardless of the topic or context. You say you are getting tested for cancer, the Oblivious Menace will start talking about the time he had to be tested for Lyme disease (never mind that it turned out negative, what's important is that he tell you how he feels). Mention that you just got promoted, and the Oblivious Menace will start prattling on about some mundane aspect of his own job.

My prediction, in short, is that the Oblivious Menace is not just a physical menace, but a conversational one as well. Rather than seeing the world, he sees himself in it. He lives, as we used to say of a friend who I'll call "Terry," in a Terry-centric universe. And in the end, I think this is by far the worst type of menace, because while life will always have physical hazards, people-imposed tedium shouldn't be one of them. As Clint Eastwood's character said in "Heartbreak Ridge," "You can beat me, you can rob me, and you can kill me, just -- don't -- bore me."

posted by Woodlief | link | (8) comments

Thursday, August 29, 2002

Road Rules

Everybody gripes about other people's driving. This is, of course, because other people drive like monkeys on crack. But everybody complains about driving, and nobody does anything about it -- for the most part, beyond some encouraging signs of road rage a few years ago which have since petered out. Well, today I'd like to remedy that situation with some proposed Rules of the Road:

1. Left turn lights: Anyone who allows more than two car lengths between himself and the preceding car during the brief opportunity afforded by the left-turn arrow will have his bank account reduced by a third, all his timepieces confiscated, and his right foot run through by a red hot javelin. He clearly does not appreciate the value of time, or the responsibility he has to free those behind him in the turn lane, rather than condemning them, through his insouciance, to another eternity waiting for the next green arrow.

2. Multiple lanes: People who drive in the passing (left) lane without making a visible effort to pass those on the right may be fired upon, so long as this is done with reasonable accuracy, by drivers and passengers in trailing vehicles. Given the high probability that the driver shares significant genes with passengers, collateral damage to the latter is acceptable.

3. Vehicle size: Nobody under the age of twenty-five may drive any vehicle larger than a Honda Civic.

4. Taste: Men over 50 driving pimped out 1990 or newer Corvettes, Cadillacs, or Firebirds will be stripped to have their inadequate manhoods displayed to all passersby with eyesight sufficient to notice.

5. Vehicle adornment: Drivers who display stickers of the cartoon character Calvin urinating on various objects of disdain may be pulled from their vehicles by nearby passengers, tied to the hood, and castrated with a reasonably sharp instrument. Drivers with a "My student beat up your honors student" bumper sticker may be pulled from their vehicles and physically beaten by any current or former honors student who believes he can take them.

6. Music: Drivers with their windows down so that surrounding passengers have to listen to lyrics about "ho's gettin' doggied" are subject to imprisonment in the solitary confinement wing of a state penitentiary for not less than three years, during which time they will be forced to listen to Donny and Marie Osmond's 1975 album, "I'm Leaving It All Up To You," played on a continuous loop 24 hours a day.

7. Intersections: Drivers are free to ram, at their own risk, the protruding front ends of vehicles on side roads that have failed to halt behind their stop sign or stop light. Drivers turning left at an intersection are free to do the same to vehicles in the left-turn lane on the street perpendicular to their own, when said vehicles protrude more than three feet into the intersection.

8. Four-Way Stops: One car per stop sign at a time, rotating counter-clockwise. All violators will be removed from their vehicles and placed in the middle of the intersection where the offense occurred, and required to dodge traffic for one hour, or until such time as hospitalization is urgent.

9. Highway entrance ramps: Drivers entering the highway are free to sideswipe passing vehicles that fail to give them entrance by temporarily moving to open left lanes. Highway drivers who brake in order to allow vehicles to enter the highway will be required to suck on a hot brake pad for one hour.

10. Parking: When waiting for someone who has entered his vehicle for the purpose of leaving a parking spot, drivers need wait no longer than two minutes once said individual has closed his vehicle door. Once this time period has elapsed, a driver may park directly behind the offending vehicle.

11. Litter: Drivers will be required to eat anything they throw from their cars. This includes cigarettes, which will be re-lit before ingestion.

There you have it: eleven steps to better driving. Email them to your Congressman, tape them on your dashboard, evangelize them to your friends and neighbors. And remember people, let's be careful out there.

posted by Woodlief | link | (31) comments

Friday, August 16, 2002

Not Pretty

Okay, enough already. I thought it was mildly cute when pretty young ladies rekindled the midriff exposure fad. Youngsters glorying in their youthful fitness, blah blah blah. But then this low-slung pants thing caught on, and pretty soon I'm learning that the innocent faced thirteen year-old sitting at the adjoining restaurant table has a glittery blue g-string. I didn't need to know that. Her father, on the other hand, does need to know, but my guess is that he is a sorry lump of an excuse for a half-man who doesn't know much else about his daughter either, or else she wouldn't feel the need to dress like a Las Vegas prostitute.

In any event, now the trend in provocative dress has taken a dark turn. I can live surrounded by young underdressed women. It doesn't make my life easier or better, but I can tolerate it without getting overly distracted. What I can't abide, however, is this new trend: women who -- if I'm any judge of horseflesh -- are well past their nubile prime, exposing areas of flesh that, frankly, should only be seen and handled on an autopsy table, by seasoned professionals with great upper body strength and iron stomachs.

An example: I was walking into a large office complex just recently, and ahead of me walked an overweight employee, dressed in gray slacks and a black top that stopped just shy of the top of her pants. The fatty flesh around her waist, which looked painfully pinched by her pants, peaked from underneath her shirt as she walked. Making things worse was that she strutted like someone too cool for school.

I can say without reservation that this is unattractive. Especially after a large lunch.

Even worse is to be in church and find oneself incapable of looking to the left or the right without seeing some teenage girl's underwear sticking out of the back of her pants. I keep expecting lightning to strike either me for seeing it, the girls for having no respect, or their fathers for having no sense. I don't think there are more than a handful of young women in my church -- which is pretty conservative -- who have not at one time or another exposed most of the congregation to their lingerie. This is troubling.

So I'm asking for a truce. Women, I promise to be more attentive to your hair, your sparkling wit, or whatever it is about you that leads to such embarrassing displays, if you promise to quit showing me your underwear, your belly-button rhinestones, and your love handles.

The alternative to a truce, I promise you, won't be pretty. Picture me in a burlap thong and turquoise "Wham" t-shirt, and you get my point.

Not pretty.

posted by Woodlief | link | (12) comments

Friday, July 12, 2002

Heroes and Prayer

Parade magazine featured a profile of Harrison Ford last weekend, giving me still more reasons to hope that his new movie, K-19, is a flop. The article trumpets Ford's strong moral sense, which leads him to be an ardent environmentalist. All well and good, until I read that he's fathered four sons by two different wives, managing to divorce both of them while his sons were still young. Strong moral sense indeed.

Then there's the movie itself. Start with the name. K-19. It sounds like the misfortunate fusion of a really bad cop-dog buddy movie with an even worse ski movie. The trailer, while meant to project drama and intense action, simply inspires giggling. If you haven't seen it, picture Harrison Ford in a big furry cap with a defunct red Soviet star on the bill, speaking with a comic faux Russian accent. Then picture Liam Neeson replying in an even worse Russian accent. Then imagine sitting for a couple of hours and listening to these two argue in Russianese, and ask yourself how inspired you are to sit through this flick.

Finally, there's the narration by Serious Man. You know him, he's the guy who narrates the trailers for all the macho drama flicks. He says things like "They've been pushing around this town for years, but now they're facing someone who fights back" (cut to karate fight scene); or, "Sometimes, courage means standing for what's right" (cut to brave attorney standing up to corporate bigwigs).

Well, in the K-19 trailer, here's what Serious Man says: "Some men pray for a miracle; heroes make one happen."

Maybe in your tinsel world, Serious Man, there's a difference between men who pray and men who are heroes. My heroes pray. In fact, most courageous men and women with whom I'm familiar were people who prayed. George Washington: father of our country, into the God thing. Robert Lee: on his knees every night. The guys who took Omaha Beach: lots of prayers went up that day. Mother Theresa: quite the little prayer warrior. The firefighters pulling bodies out of the tower wreckage: praying to a man.

So take your faith/hero dichotomy and choke on it, because this is one man who fights back (cut to shot of fingers typing furiously).

posted by Woodlief | link | (4) comments

Thursday, June 13, 2002

Spiderman Bites: A Disquisition

I'm disturbed by the defense of "Spiderman," in response to my last post, by otherwise intelligent people. A common theme, expressed kindly by most, goes something like: "hey, it's Spiderman for crying out loud; it's supposed to be mindless entertainment."

Unfortunately, it is neither. It's actually not so easy to create mindless entertainment. Something has to serve the function of engaging the viewer, and fostering in him a willingness to forego logic, or explanation, or belief in physical limits. Usually, this something is either the characters (and their interaction), the plot, or the special effects. Since some of you have raised the fair point that "Spiderman" doesn't aspire to be, say, "The Godfather," let's compare it to some other comic-inspired movies.

Characters: "Superman" and "Batman" were both driven by interesting supporting characters. The most memorable are Gene Hackman as Lex Luthor, and Jack Nicholson as the Joker, but there were many others -- "Superman" relied on Lex Luthor's bumbling assistant and pampered girlfriend for comic relief, "Batman" featured the seedy, double-crossing police detective, and the wisecracking photographer. "Spiderman's" only interesting character was the newspaper publisher, who inexplicably disappeared too quickly from the film. The others were either constrained by an apparent lack of talent (Tobey Maguire), poor writing (Willem Dafoe), or both (Kirsten Dunst, James Franco).

In fact, to fall back on the excuse that "it's only a comic book" is to insult comic book writers. The villains in the Spiderman comic series were more entertaining than Willem Dafoe's character, while Peter Parker was always more complex than what we get in the movie adaptation. In Tobey Maguire's hands he becomes a librarian on sedatives.

Plot: A good story is like a good dancer; it moves with a purpose. "Spiderman" moved like I dance -- the tasteful viewer is horrified, but strangely unable to look away. Once it begins you hope that it's farce, and once you realize it's not, you just pray that it's over soon. It tried, like all superhero stories, to build a hero-villain conflict, but failed, if not from bad acting, then simply due to the fact that the conflict between Spiderman and the Goblin is incidental: Peter Parker just happens to be at yet another crime scene, and even though he fails to stop the Goblin from achieving his objective, he somehow becomes the latter's mortal enemy. They have one short subsequent conversation, and the remainder is the usual trash talk common to most movie fight scenes these days.

"Superman" and "Batman" do a far better job of building the intensity of hatred between hero and villain. Lex Luthor and Superman have extended conversations to foster the existence of a conflict in the mind of the viewer, while Batman first causes the Joker's crippling injuries, then realizes that the Joker is the murderer of his parents. And because the villains in both movies have interesting personalities, their conflict with the one-dimensional main characters is made all the more engaging.

Special Effects: Different movies use special effects with different ends in mind. Some make a full frontal assault, pulling out every visual and auditory stop in an effort to convince you that something cool just happened, even though you don't quite know what the hell it was, or what it has to do with the story. The most recent "Star Wars" debacle is a prime example. Other movies focus on realism, usually to make you feel as if you are in the middle of the action. Commendable examples include "Saving Private Ryan," the HBO "Band of Brothers" series, and "The Patriot." Still other movies use special effects as an ace in the hole, to push you deep into a frightening or exotic place to which they've brought you largely with dialogue and plot. Two good examples are "The Sixth Sense" and "Stir of Echoes." Finally, there are movies like "The Lord of the Rings," "Willow," "The Matrix," "Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory", "The Wizard of Oz", and "Legend," which use special effects to create a magical world for their characters, and therefore for the viewer.

"Spiderman" attempts to fit into the first category, and in doing so it subjects itself to a merciless technological arms race. Once you've seen the last two "Star Wars" movies, or even the mediocre "X-Men," "Spiderman" is nothing special. Granted, the effects are necessary to tell the story, but they are at a level where they can only serve as enhancement for a character-driven plot, much as the effects in "Superman" and "Batman" served to do. In the absence of that, they are paint for walls that simply don't exist.

These criticisms aside, "Spiderman" is just plain sloppy. "Superman" could get away with Clark Kent's stilted dialogue because he was surrounded by characters with interesting lines, and because it fostered his nerd/All-American hero image. The "Spiderman" script reads as if it were a collaborative high school drama project; nobody talks like a real human, except the newspaper publisher. Like "Attack of the Clones," it throws out all pretense of tailoring action scenes to the constraints of physics, with the result that many of these scenes end up being distracting and cartoonish. It whipsaws its characters about so that their actions are unpredictable, thereby ruining any character development it manages to scrape together in preceding scenes. In short, rather than serving as mindless entertainment, its gaping flaws distract the viewer from just sitting back and enjoying the flick.

That, in a nutshell, is why I conclude that "Spiderman" fails miserably even within the tight confines of the comic-book movie genre. None of this is to say, of course, that you should feel guilty if you enjoyed it. I'll not be one to hold my friends' handicaps against them.

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Tuesday, June 11, 2002

Spiderman Bites

A little note for those of you who recommended "Spiderman." You know who you are. Please stand up. Place both hands behind your head. Now, slam it as hard as you can onto your desk.



And, repeat.

That's what you've got coming from me, unless I get $107 deposited in my PayPal account, which will reimburse me for my time and the cost of my ticket. You are also forbidden from recommending any more movies to your fellow Americans. Ever. You ever sit in church, or in your school choir, and hear that one person who is so out of tune, but who doesn't know it, and who keeps singing at the top of his lungs, oblivious to the painful cries of infants and small children? I don't know what in movie appreciation corresponds to tone deafness, but my Spidey-loving friends, you've got it. The rest of us are hitting a C, and you're way down on A-minor. Close your yap. When the subject of movies comes up, just nod your heads, smile, and learn from your betters.

Case in point -- "Spiderman." Not since "Electric Boogaloo" has a movie extruded such insipid dialogue, combined it with mindless, seemingly random events posing as plot development, swaddled it in choreography reminiscent of epileptic fits, and vomited it onto a screen at such toxic levels that the intelligent viewer is left emotionally drained from grief over the decline of American storytelling.

I sat webbed to my seat, thinking that either the movie would get better, or Kirsten Dunst would get naked. If you haven't gone, save your money, because NEITHER HAPPENS.

If any of your friends recommend this movie, remove them from your lives. They are hopelessly estranged from their senses, and very likely a danger to themselves and others, if only because the odds are high that the next time it's their turn to rent a movie for the gang, they'll show up on your doorstep with "Sister Act II," which is almost as likely as "Electric Boogaloo" to inspire a cry of Oh-My-God-My-Eyes! from its viewers. I'm not an advocate of divorce, but if your spouse liked this movie, serve him with papers, take the kids, and move to Canada. Sure, they're hopelessly paranoid about the encroachment of American culture, but, really, maybe they're on to something. Oh, and if your kids liked this movie, then you are a miserable failure as a parent, and deserve the third-rate cattle-pen retirement home they're liable to stick you in the first time you get dizzy on the shuffleboard court.

And finally, Willem Dafoe. Dude, what were you thinking? Do you realize how razor-thin close you are to taking Christopher Walken's place as the most underachieving (and freakiest cheek-boned) actor in modern American cinema? Is that really what you aspire to? For God's sake man, pull yourself together. Fire your agent. Get on the wagon, or off it, or something to shake the old career up.

I'd say more, but I have to go drink several shots of bourbon, pour bleach into my eyes, and pray that memory loss comes quickly.

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Tuesday, May 28, 2002

Vegetable Sex

It's not what you think. I'm using the word "sex" here in the way it was used before Women's Studies hysterics began insisting that we replace it with the word "gender," in order to signal that the side of the gym one chooses at the school dance is at root socially determined. Anyone with common sense and/or children knows that sex is biologically determined, however, despite the fact that many of the Women's Studies majors I've known explore the biological perimeters of sexual designation.

My aim today, however, is not to pick a fight with the gyno-marxists. Instead I want to defend one of my favorite cartoons: "VeggieTales." For those of you who haven't heard about them, VeggieTales depict a collection of endearing computer-animated vegetable characters acting out various stories, many directly from the Bible. The slogan of the VeggieTales creators is "Sunday morning values, Saturday morning fun." Despite the Sunday reference, Jews needn't feel left out; the vast majority of the Biblical stories are drawn from the Old Testament, and the theistic references are to God, not Jesus. One of my favorites, for example, is "Josh and the Big Wall," which recounts the story of the fall of Jericho. In the VeggieTales version, Larry the Cucumber plays Joshua, and the French Peas (yes, they have French accents) play the guardians of Jericho. Their taunting of Larry (they call him a pickle, which in their accent comes out "pee-kel") is derivative of the hilarious scene in Monty Python's "Quest for the Holy Grail," and just as funny. Other characters include Bob the Tomato, Junior Asparagus, and a host of episode-specific creatures (e.g., one tale features the Grapes of Wrath).

The creators were brilliant in that they didn't adopt the marketing plan of most producers of Christian and Christianesque items, which is to churn out third-rate products and market them at exclusively Christian outlets. Instead, they developed a top-quality product and marketed it through mass retail outlets, without making ostentatious appeals to the religion of prospective buyers. The result is 25 million videos sold in eight years.

Now, I'm sure there are some atheist libertarian designers out there, irritated by the religious message of VeggieTales, working busily to develop an Ayn Rand-approved secular version. Until then the militants among them will have to be content with forcing their children to watch old bootleg Robert Lefevre videos. Most people not threatened by moral messages rooted in appeals to God's authority, however, find in VeggieTales a great alternative to the ADD-inducing techno-static that passes for children's cartoons (notwithstanding the cool stuff coming out of Pixar and Blue Sky Studio).

Of course, there are exceptions. And that brings me to the purpose I had when I began composing this essay. I read this weekend an article recounting the dramatic success of VeggieTales, which featured this comment from a disgruntled professor at Michigan's Calvin College, one Dr. Otto Selles:

"VeggieTales are sorely lacking in the gender equity department. They present vegetable characters that are mostly guys..."

Right. Somehow children have been able for centuries to draw moral lessons from characters outside their species (remember Aesop's Fables?), but the sex divide is too great a chasm to cross. Little Susie can learn that it's wrong to lie from a vegetable, mind you, so long as it has a vagina.

Perhaps the dear professor's concern is that, seeing only male characters in VeggieTales, legions of young girls will not properly aspire to themselves become vegetables. Wise parents, however, can counteract this bias; we can explain to our children that being a vegetable is not strictly the purview of males, although professors at Calvin College appear to have an edge on the rest of us.

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Monday, May 20, 2002

Goodbye, Balls

For those of you keeping a calendar to chronicle the fall of western civilization, be sure to enter May 14th, 2002. This is the day the NCAA announced that it would begin using synthetic basketballs in its tournament games, in lieu of the traditional leather balls. This comes in response to pressure from animal-rights loons like People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. (Here's a poser: did I just insult PETA, or the loons?)

It isn't enough that these meddling celery-munchers have ruined McDonald's french fries; now they want our basketballs (and if you think that isn't a metaphor for their ultimate agenda, you obviously haven't met any of the androgynized hipsters who comprise the animal-rights throng).

Here's a snapshot of what's in store: "pleather." It's what the WNBA uses. The WNBA. It's probably produced by the same people who make Naugahyde, and vinyl siding, and -- may they all suffer permanent ACL damage -- Astroturf.

But, according to Shannon, the PETA spokesdrone whose name is as sexually ambiguous as every PETA protester I ever had the misfortune not to run over in my SUV while wiping cheeseburger grease off my leather jacket, "it's hard to put a price on a cow's life."

To which I respond: Bull-hockey.

Don't think it will stop with basketball. These people are never done. They're going after baseball and football next. And then they're coming after your food. They won't be satisfied until we're all shuffling about with iron deficiencies. And can you imagine what football games will be like, as we choke down tofu dogs and give weak cheers to undernourished players as they fumble about, trying to keep hold of their slippery, PETA-sponsored plastic football?

It's time to retaliate, people. Go eat some meat. I don't mean a Taco Bell Chicken Soft Taco, either. I'm talking about a substantial portion of an animal -- enough that they have to kill another one just to fill your order. Recall that scene in "The Untouchables," when Sean Connery explains to Kevin Costner's Eliot Ness, "If they bring a knife, you bring a gun. If they send one of yours to the hospital, you send one of theirs to the morgue!" That's the mindset we need here. Every time these parsley-chewers get together at the local alternative book store to sip herbal tea and plot their next move, we need for them to envision legions of angry carnivores happily putting Elsie, Lamb Chop, and Foghorn Leghorn to the knife in a glorious act of epicurean retaliation. It may mean that a few of us kick off a year or two sooner, but remember, every war has casualties.

I'm going to go grab a cheeseburger right now, and kick my neighbor's dog for good measure. I expect you all to do the same.

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Thursday, April 25, 2002

That Pesky Bill of "Rights"

Yesterday's Washington Post reported on the Supreme Court's recent decision making it easier for local governments to forbid building on private property without compensating owners for the loss in value. Check out some of Post reporter's language. He wrote that the Supreme Court decision "strengthens the hand of environmental regulators against the conservative-led 'property rights' movement."

You might recall my previous comments on the use of italics in a news article to derogate a point of view. Now, you can search until your eyes bleed and you won't find one reference in any of the Washington Post archives to "the liberal-led 'abortion rights' movement," "the liberal-led 'environmental' movement," or "the liberal-led 'progressive taxation' movement." In fact, odds are that you won't find the phrase "liberal-led" in front of anything that is derogated by italics.

And think about what this reporter has chosen to italicize: "property rights." Now go read the Bill of Rights, specifically, the Fifth freaking Amendment. My history's a little fuzzy, but I believe that the Founders called it "the Fifth freaking Amendment" as well. They thought it was that important. Here's a relevant snippet:

"No person . . . [shall] be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use without just compensation."

I could be mistaken, but that looks like the shadow of a definition of a property right. If one isn't sure, one could read, in conjunction with the Ninth Amendment ("The enumeration in the Constitution of certain rights shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.") the Federalist Papers, or perhaps the opening stanza of the freaking Constitution itself (again, I speak for the sake of historical accuracy), specifically that part about Liberty, or in Washington Post parlance, "liberty."

In other words, we really do have property rights in the U.S., at least for a while longer. They aren't property "rights", or "so-called" property rights, they are bona fide, Constitutionally established, I'll-shoot-you-if-you-try-to-steal-mine (Second Amendment, for you Washington Post staffers) claims to property.

Of course, that may be more than we can expect a Washington Post "news" reporter to be able to figure out.

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Wednesday, April 10, 2002

Vehicle Adornment

Yesterday I saw a guy driving a Buick Regal with a license plate that said "Regal." I also saw someone driving a Pontiac Firebird with a big window decal that said "Firebird."

Of all the statements to display on your car, it seems to me that announcing the car model should be at the bottom of the list. The only additional information I get from that decal on your Firebird which announces that you are driving, well, a Firebird, is that you are an idiot. And the decal isn't even necessary to tell me that; it can be inferred from the fact that you are not embarrassed to drive a cherry-red 1985 Firebird in public, with Bon Jovi blasting from your cracked speakers.

And speaking of drivers who feel compelled to declare their personal contributions to the downfall of Western civilization, how much longer must we all endure these ridiculous decals of Calvin peeing on the various objects that people with eighth-grade educations hold in contempt? I am hard-pressed to imagine any other decoration one could adopt that could provide equivalent assurance of one's unfitness for reproduction. Whenever I find myself behind one of these mouth-breathers in traffic, it is all I can do to keep from dragging him from his vehicle, ripping off one of his arms, and beating him senseless with it, just to give him a taste of the world without social norms that he is helping foster.

My wife thinks I am insane. But I say the little stuff matters.

I suppose these are not mutually exclusive possibilities.

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Thursday, April 4, 2002

Self-Interest vs. Well, Self-Interest

I>The New York Times reports that the pro-market Bush administration's energy policy is, shockingly, pro-market, and favored by the energy industry. This is scandalous, if one is to believe the wink-wink verbiage that has come to characterize national media reporting. This takes roughly the following form:

Paragraph One: Bush administration action, statement of benefits for industry (but never consumers or employees)

Paragraph Two: Outraged statement from self-styled left-wing activist.

Paragraph Three: Report of how much campaign support Bush received from industry in question.

Get it? If a pro-market conservative favors policy that is pro-market and conservative, then he must be doing so because of campaign contributions, rather than political and economic principles. If an anti-market leftist favors policy that is anti-market and leftist, then he must be doing so because of his principles, and not because he is in the pocket of unions, trial attorneys, anti-trade industries, corporate welfare recipients, and environmental groups. Does anyone recall a newspaper article on the ergonomics debate which cast Democrats as favoring onerous regulation because it was backed by unions and trial attorneys? Of course not. The Democrats were cast as wanting to protect the little man, while Republicans were cast as protecting their contributors.

But let's assume, for sake of an additional point, that journalists are right, that conservatives act on contributions rather than ideology, while liberals act on ideology rather than contributions. Is the latter really better? Both are behaving in self-interested fashion; one simply wants a new vacation home, while the other wants to force you to use a toilet that only consumes one teaspoon of water per flush.

At least if you know someone is for sale, you can take up a collection to try to sway him. And if enough people agree with you, there's a good chance you can buy him off. What's more, you know his decisions aren't personal -- he's not out to get you, he's just a guy trying to make a living by selling his vote to the highest bidder.

But when a politician is driven by ideology, you will have little sway over him. And when he comes to shut down your business, or throw you in jail for accidentally stepping on a Northeastern Slippery Snail, or threaten you with prison for speaking your mind about him when he is running for re-election, then you can be darn sure that it is personal.

Yet the latter is exactly the kind of person who routinely wins the Kennedy "Profile in Courage" award. The real courage, it seems to me, lies with leaders willing to do what's best for the country even when they know they'll be savaged by the likes of New York Times reporters.

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Friday, March 22, 2002

Mirror Mirror In My Car

A woman cut me off in traffic yesterday. She had her rear-view mirror turned to see herself as she repeatedly flipped her bangs off her forehead with an index finger. Apparently when she first purchased her vehicle she looked at what many of us recognize as a driving aid and thought: "Neat. A hands-free compact."

I cannot understand the handful of women (and men of the same gender) who do this. Is their make-up comprised of some unstable isotope, requiring constant monitoring lest it melt right off their faces? Or are they so stricken with themselves that they cannot bear the existential angst of mind-body separation during the long drive to that job at the department store perfume counter?

And the funny thing is, the people who do this tend not to be very good looking. You'd think they would prefer a mirror-free environment.

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Sunday, March 17, 2002

A Trip to the Park

I took my son to the park today, and I have a couple of observations that might help explain my misanthropy. First, anyone who grows a rat tail down the back of his child's neck should be beaten. In fact, if you are reading this and your kid has a rat tail, kindly email your address so I can come to your house and slap you in front of your family and neighbors. Think about the famous people who have had rat tails: Brian Bosworth and Billy Ray Cyrus. Even people with mullets look down on the rat tail. Its persistence in the shallow ends of some gene pools is a testament to the limits of Lamarckian evolution.

Second, I saw today one of the most moronic social spectacles I've ever witnessed. A woman showed up at the park with her two dogs on leashes, a big golden retriever and some shivering little rat-like creature. After letting the big one off the leash and then chasing him down no less than three times (here's a hint: if everyone at the park knows the name of your kid or your dog by the time you leave, you've got a discipline problem), she took him up onto the wooden play structure with her. She proceeded to drag her big and unwilling dog to the slide at one end of the structure, wrestled him onto her lap, and said "Whee!" as they slid down. When they got to the bottom she asked him, "Wasn't that fun?"

No, it was pathetic, even worse than rat tail boy. She did it one more time, and then, seeing that the little dog felt left out, she tethered the big one and took the little one for a slide. Even my two year-old son watched her with a look of astonishment and pity. By the last slide I had recovered the presence of mind to snap a picture. Look for it in a future edition.

Sand in the Gears: Your chronicle for the downfall of western civilization.

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Wednesday, March 13, 2002

The INS: Keeping Your Borders Safe

CNN reports that the Immigration and Naturalization Service notified a Florida flight school on Monday that two of the September 11 hijackers have received INS approval of their student visas. When questioned about this, an INS spokesman pointed out that the approvals came before September 11th.

Oh yeah, that's comforting.

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Monday, March 4, 2002


While we're on the topic of annoying business features (see below), I want to direct your attention to something that must be stopped. Occasionally I'll have to fill out an address form on the web, and I'll get a pull-down box from which I must select my country. There are a lot of countries out there. With this in mind, it makes sense to put at the top of the menu those countries from which the majority of one's customers hail, or simply those countries which have an overwhelming number of internet users. (These things are counted, you know.) You could still make it alphabetical, perhaps with a "Top Five" list followed by a divider line and then the rest of the countries.

Instead, some sites force me to scroll through 75 countries to find "United States," rather than put it right at the top. One site I was just on, searching for a new web counter, had "Afghanistan" as its first country. Does this business really think there are that many Afghani's in need of web-tracking services? Were we dropping modems in those care packages? Shouldn't the U.S., if only by virtue of having recently kicked the pants out of Afghanistan's dictatorial rulers, get top billing?

This isn't about jingoism, it's about customer service. When India surpasses the U.S. in another few decades in terms of literacy, and becomes the new center of culture and technology, then by golly, Indians shouldn't have to search for their country sandwiched between Iceland and Indonesia. It's annoying and leads to errors. There's no telling how many businesses out there have my address as Kansas, United Arab Emirates.

On second thought, perhaps that's not such a bad thing.

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I mailed my music catalog order (see "The Christian Consumer," below). I noticed that the postage-paid envelope they provided has the word "Rush" stamped in its upper-left corner. What does this mean? Am I supposed to believe that the Postman is going to walk faster when he sees this? The postage is the same as any other bulk mailing, which means that this will get lumped in with all those Publisher's Clearinghouse Sweepstakes entries of mine that apparently never made their way to Ed McMahon. In other words, this will get there when it gets there, and not one federal employees' union-sanctioned break sooner.

So why create this false expectation? If the customer is deceived into thinking that "Rush" actually means something, then he will expect his order to be filled more quickly than if it were going through the "regular" mail. Wouldn't it be better to put "Slow" on the envelope, so I'll be surprised when my CD's get here three weeks from now?

This is why consultants get big bucks, you know. We snoop around a company for a while, and then impart pearls of wisdom like "You should convert from MS-DOS to Windows," and "You shouldn't put 'Rush' on your return envelopes." This also explains why the Ross Perot vision of better managed government was always a mirage. It is nearly impossible to manage any large enterprise well, public or private. Government organizations just perform a bit worse because they tend to be populated by unambitious twits and are hamstrung by rules that prevent corruption and carpal tunnel syndrome. But even private organizations are vulnerable to ineptitude, wastefulness, and inflexibility. That's the beauty of Schumpeter's "creative destruction."

This is the kind of stuff I think about all day long. It's a wonder I can function at all.

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Thursday, February 28, 2002

The Decline of Dress

I'm about to describe one of those series of connections in the brain that leads from Point A to Point 11, but somehow makes sense. I was listening to an embarrassing interview of two college job-seekers on National Public Radio this morning. It was embarrassing because they attend my undergraduate alma mater, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, yet they both communicate like dolts. Every word sounded as if it were being dragged from their mouths and through a grease trap before depositing itself in your ear. Their sentences were littered with the obligatory "likes" and "uhs" that seem to pollute the speech of every American between the ages of 10 and 30. ("He was like, 'uh, you stole my bagel,' and I was, uh, like, 'whatever'.") I couldn't see them, but I am certain they were wearing droopy jeans, untucked shirts, and whatever backwards baseball cap the other two hundred individualists in their fraternity happen to be sporting this semester.

This made me think of a wonderful movie I saw a few weeks ago, A Beautiful Mind, about the gifted and schizophrenic Nobel-laureate mathematician John Nash. I thought of this movie because I remember being enamored with its portrayal of 1940's and 1950's college campuses. Men wore slacks, shirts, and ties, women wore dresses and sweaters, and everyone looked more or less like he gave a darn about his appearance. It actually made a college teaching career momentarily appealing again.

This in turn made me think of a recent trip I made to a large public university. I drove through the heart of campus during a class change, and visited two buildings. I am not exaggerating when I report that I saw not one single student dressed in khakis, slacks, or a dress. All of the boys (that's right, when you dress more poorly than my two year-old son, you're a boy) had on some variation of what I envisioned the Carolina interviewees wearing, while the girls alternated between emulating the boys and dressing like the sort of slut who surely didn't have a long life before the advent of penicillin. Every slovenly soul was slouching and scraping his feet, and I saw not a glimmer of intelligence in the whole lot of them.

I'm sure most of them will grow up, and the ones who get jobs in the private sector will eventually learn how to dress and speak like some shadow of a better time. It's distressing nonetheless, to think of what social and family institutions must have eroded to produce such a pitiful display, which I assure you is replicated at every major U.S. public university, and many private colleges as well.

Adults are little better, of course. We are all treated to the spectacle every summer of seeing overweight white guys traipse through the grocery store in baggy shorts and an L.A. Lakers tank top that says "Bryant" on the back, for example, or mothers who apparently raid the closets of their twelve year-old daughters. What's especially humorous is to visit a place where employees are still required to at least feign commitment to some sort of dress code, but where enforcement is at a minimum. One of the employees at my local Post Office, for example, wears an untucked, overly small, unmatching dress shirt over her regulation slacks, with a piece of elastic from her underwear splayed across the the inevitably exposed white flesh of her gut. This woman just doesn't care anymore. And why should she? Nobody else seems to care either.

Except me, Tony Woodlief. And I aim to stand athwart fashion history and demand that it yield.

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