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Saturday, March 3, 2007


"Dad," Eli explained, "water is stronger than crumbs, and germs are stronger than water." I'm not sure what he means, exactly, but I have the feeling he's right. Somewhere in his fantastic brain he's thought this out, because that's how he is; he thinks and thinks, and then he shares the connections his synapses have made. He sees giant birds in the dark-on-light grain pattern in a wooden door, or an airplane in the Picasso-esque musical drawing in his violin classroom. He sees things and then he tells you about them, and at first it makes no sense, but if you tilt your head to the side and see like a child or a genius sees, then you can visualize it.

You can learn a lot from children. Earlier today, Caleb came to tell me about the bug trap he's made. He read about it in a book; I can tell because as he explained it, he looked into the distance at key points, almost as if seeing the page on which the directions were written. He's already such a black-and-white child; I hope that he doesn't also have a photographic memory. I only pray we help him become a Nathan and not a Javert.

This afternoon we fired a rocket on our front lawn. It was made from a plastic bottle, with silvery fins of carved balsa wood covered in foil. The fuel was baking soda mixed with vinegar, and the first time we tried to launch, the cork that is the primary mechanical part blew out of the back while I was still holding it, and nearly took Eli's head off. Nevertheless, during our second trial he had enough faith in me to hold the fuel tube while I filled it with baking soda.

The rocket went a good thirty feet into the air. That's high if you're full-grown, but it's especially lofty when you're a two year-old whose never seen a rocket launched before. I'm afraid that now I've contributed to some kind of formative experience that will one day lead Isaac to become an astronaut. I'll have to pray that by then we've had the good sense to eradicate NASA.

The other day I opened the front door to see Caleb and Eli lying on the brick walk, looking up at the clouds. Eli was pointing out the mysteries you can see, if you'll only look the right way, while Caleb was explaining to him how clouds work. I listened, and loved them, and learned, because like I said, you can learn a lot from children. It's one of the ways they make us better than we are, if we'll only let them.

posted by Woodlief | link | (0)

Friday, March 2, 2007

Transcending the Positive Paradigm

Among the legions of meaningless, buzzwordy corporate communications, CareerBuilder's corporate culture statement has got to be one of the silliest:

"The values and vision of CareerBuilder.com are infused into the every day working environment. Our surroundings transcend that of a traditional corporate framework and offer a rare oasis that fosters both individual and team achievement.

"The CareerBuilder.com atmosphere is supercharged with zeal, and an enthusiasm for success and attainable goals. Our corporate culture is carefully tempered with the professionalism, positivism and camaraderie that one would expect from an industry leader. Our rapid growth is the result of a dynamic workforce, coupled with careful and calculated planning.

"The expeditious pace with which we accomplish our goals presents our team members with the exciting opportunity to learn new skills, create innovations and build upon our swift progress, which has become the benchmark of our success!"

Values, achievement, growth, dynamic, innovations, benchmark. . . can you think of a buzzword that didn't make the CareerBuilder cut?

There's also a subtle allusion to America's original hippie movement, as well as an outright appropriation of pernicious scientism, in the guise of, well, cheerfulness. Pretty ambitious for a corporate vision statement, wouldn't you say?

It also reveals a trend I've noticed in more and more of these things, which is a penchant for neo-Hegelian dialectics ("individual and team achievement"; dynamic "coupled with careful and calculated planning"). At least Hegel, for all his insanity, felt compelled to synthesize his opposites to achieve some higher-level notion; CareerBuilder just slings them together, as if all oxymorons are by their very nature statements of transcendent wisdom.

Nothing, however, beats the last sentence, which is like a fireworks crescendo of meaningless peppiness. "The benchmark of our success"? What does that mean? Perhaps in transcending "the traditional corporate framework," CareerBuilder has also transcended traditional written English.

If you look at a lot of these (and I have had the misfortune of doing so), you start to marvel at the amount of brainpower that goes into crafting statements that mean absolutely nothing to anyone. Honestly, who reads the average corporate vision statement and believes that it even describes aspirations, let alone reality? And yet fleets of professionals churn them out, and companies put them on plaques and memos and websites, and the rest of us engage in far too little mockery and eye-rolling. That, at least, can end here.

posted by Woodlief | link | (0)

Thursday, March 1, 2007

Three Reasons

Caleb has borrowed my Essential Charlie Parker, and I don't think he's ever giving it back. He likes to listen to it as he falls asleep, and so I hear it drifting down to me from his bedroom, the cool sound of that inimitable saxophone, and with it the knowledge that my seven year-old is far cooler than I'll ever be.

Isaac wandered into the bathroom while I was shaving this morning. He had on a sweater, and cowboy boots, and nothing else. He was carrying a little plastic Playskool drill. It occurred to me that he is going to make some lucky lady very happy indeed, what with his cowboy attitude, his penchant for home repair, and his disdain for pants.

And then there's Eli, who this morning greeted me in Army-man garb, though he is less Army man than Snuggle man. His favorite thing is for me to pick him up and cradle him in my arms. Sometimes I hold him tight, his face pressed to mine. When I do this he fits his soft ear into my own, as if he is listening to my thoughts. If he could, what he would hear is, "Thank you," though he wouldn't understand why this runs through my mind like a melody. One day he will. This is my prayer for all of them, that they have children who give to them what they have given to me.

posted by Woodlief | link | (0)

McDonald's Waning

As this news item reveals, McDonald's is discovering that not all is well in Hamburgerland. A survey of guest satisfaction found that complaints increased by over ten percent between 2005 and 2006, even as financial results improved (proving once more that financials don't necessarily reflect long-term profitability).

I wish I could get my hands on this document, which apparently distinguishes individual restaurants that are "brand builders" (good customer ratings) from those that are "brand destroyers." News reports indicate that western U.S. McDonald's are friendlier than eastern U.S. locations, while Philadelphia and the Baltimore-Washington, D.C. area have the worst ratings.

Having lived for a time in the latter region, I don't find this surprising. My own love affair with the golden arches ended years ago, however, when they stopped using beef tallow to cook their fries, in a cowardly failure to confront militant vegetarians. Once they gave up the beef tallow, they gave up their heart and soul. Ah, McDonald's. How far you have fallen.

posted by Woodlief | link | (0)

Political Economics

Though it may sound boring on the surface, the uproar in Texas over a proposed private-equity purchase of energy giant TXU reveals the astounding ability of politicians to ignore what anyone who shops for groceries understands to be true about economics. Among the demands placed on TXU are that it:

1) Not build more energy plants (they're dirty, after all)
2) Lower its prices (cheap energy is listed somewhere in the Bill of Rights, isn't it?)

As if holding supply constant in the face of growing demand while expecting prices to fall isn't enough, legislators also expect the market to miraculously produce more competition, even as they threaten to add new regulatory authority in order to hamper the sale of TXU and strip its profits. In short, they want to eliminate the very profitability and predictability that is needed to entice new competitors into the market. And when all is said and done, they'll blame the resulting inefficient, unreliable monopoly on the vagaries of "deregulation."

Here's a simple political reform idea, since this is the season of reforms: how about we not let anyone hold public office unless he can pass a basic exam in economics? I know, I know, such a reform might leave us suddenly bereft of public officials. But really, is that such a bad thing?

posted by Woodlief | link | (0)

Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Inside Out

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

posted by Woodlief | link | (0)

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Make Money, Not War

Caleb decided that he wants a ship motif for his bedroom, so his mother procured several colorful photos of old ships and framed them. Then she discovered this website which is awash, if you'll pardon the pun, in ship pictures.

She gave Caleb a choice — did he prefer the boring old merchant ships, or the exciting warships? He chose the merchant ships. I'm very proud.

Rest assured, I'll see to it that he and his brothers can crush a larynx at close range, and drop a moving target from 500 yards out. But with those necessary skills in hand, it's always better to peacefully trade with others, rather than lead with the saber.

Not that the saber shouldn't be close by, mind you. Some people only behave when they know you can slice them into ribbons. As Mencken observed, "Every normal man must be tempted at times to spit upon his hands, hoist the black flag, and begin slitting throats."

This applies to women as well, especially women who are nearly six months pregnant with boy number four, and who can't get the lousy order form to work properly. So if any of you have loved ones at Edugraphics.net, you might want to warn them to either fix their website, start answering the phone, or vacate the premises.

posted by Woodlief | link | (0)

The Young Misanthrope

Just when I think all is lost, I find this young man, denouncing a perfectly well-intended yet insipid platitude as "incorrect not only morally, but logically."

From the mouths of babes, hope springs eternal, and all that other stuff. He's homeschooled, by the way, by these folks.

posted by Woodlief | link | (0)


"Wouldn't it be something," Caleb says over dinner, "if my birthday was every day?"

"It'll feel like it soon enough," I grumble.

"Well," says his mother in her exquisitely motherly way, "having your birthday once a year is what makes it so special."

Caleb chews on his salad and thinks about this. "If I only had to make my bed once a year, it still wouldn't be fun, because it's a chore."

"I was wondering if he'd figure that out," the wife mutters to me.

Like Caleb, I also began immediately to poke for holes in the wife's logic. "What if," I ask her, "it's not the case that having birthdays once a year makes them special? Maybe you have the causality reversed. What if we only get them once a year because they are special?"

"You have a very cynical view of God," she replies, shaking her head.

Somebody has to ask these questions, you know. Apparently it's up to me and Caleb.

posted by Woodlief | link | (0)

Sunday, February 25, 2007

For Lily's Parents

Parents Waiting

It is strange,
In the face of this hungering dark,
That we persevere
In giving life to these lambs,
Who don't know better than to accept with hope,
Having yet to understand what awaits.

This is not our home.

If they knew, they would rejoice,
And perhaps ask why
We celebrate their arrival,
And weep when they depart,
Returning to sleep, awaiting the call
Of what is better than we know,
Where they wait for us, until the dark has fed,
And we learn that it was they,
Not us,
Who first found life.

Tony Woodlief

posted by Woodlief | link | (0)