Friday, October 29, 2010

When the Crowd Closes In

I sing the praise of the long-distance runner who takes to the road in the damp morning darkness and sinks into the rhythm of her feet hitting the pavement and who floats through the wondrous maze of her thoughts in a runner's high, exploring who she is and how strong she can become. So long as she is preparing for a race she doesn't care about winning.

I sing the praise of the boy sitting in his silent room at night on a Saturday, painting tiny pewter figures and watching old Sherlock Holmes films as the fog curls around his house. So long as he is going to meet his friends for a role-playing adventure during the week and put those painted pieces to use.

I sing the praise of the teenaged girl staying home from the mall on a weekend afternoon, no make up, hair in a ponytail, pencil hissing over the pages and filling the book in her lap with sketches. So long as she will share her vision with the world on a day to come.

I sing the praise of the songwriter at the piano, surrounded by papers and working out the fine elements of a chord progression by himself, hours on end, whisper-singing, lightly playing late at night so as not to awaken his wife. So long as he has the guts to sing his songs out loud to the crowd -- when the time comes.

I sing the praise of the prayerful old woman who has been prayerful since her days of staggering beauty and robust health, praying alone in her outdated kitchen over a steaming cup of coffee. So long as she goes to worship to worship, and not to be lauded for the way she covers her face while she prays or for how loudly she sings.

I praise the thinkers, the believers and the makers and those who treasure silence and solitude and improvement. So long as they stay in the mix, on their own terms. So long as they realize that "community" can be nonsense, but doesn't have to be. So long as they think of themselves first and the world second, but with deep concern. As it must be.

I praise all of the people I hope I can be when the time comes; when the crowd closes in.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

A Case for Paranoid Parenting

My dad once said, "If everyone in the world were me, a three-year-old girl could wander out of her house onto a city street at three a.m. and she would be picked up and safely delivered home." He's right. It's true. Same thing if everyone were me. Or you, right? So where the hell are these other people coming from? -- the ones who would hurt a little girl? Say it out loud: There are people out there who would actually hurt a little girl. Hard to digest, isn't it? Think that over for a second while looking at this picture:

Okay, ready?

If it is not us, doing this horrible stuff, who is it? Out of a hundred people, how many of them would harm this little wayward angel? Out of a crowd of thousands? Are there people who are that evil in the picture above? Are they in your building or school or next to you in the cubicle cluster at work?

I'm assuming that nobody reading this would ever hurt our hypothetical lost waif. If I am right about all this, what are we all so worried about? Why wouldn't we let our daughters roam city streets at night?

I'm also assuming a minute portion of the people in the entire world would commit atrocities against a child. That has to be true, right? Well, if it is, maybe we are being held hostage by our imaginations.

But, then, there are the news stories of kids being dragged away; of unspeakable pedophilic rapes; of molestation; of mutilations; of predators of all kinds targeting children; of lonely, deluded people who would steal your baby for their own.

More about my dad: he will not go in the ocean. He saw Jaws and that was that. When my uncle said to him, "Do you know what the odds are of a shark attack? Like, 234 million to one," my dad thought for a minute and responded: "I don't like the odds." Further wisdom from a wise man with dry feet and, to this day, both of them.

Parents and parents of the future: watch your kids and watch everything around them. Don't make you kids stay out of the water, but keep a relentless eye on the horizon for fins. I mean this literally and metaphorically. For heaven's sake, don't let them know you're looking, but keep an eye out, quietly, and with a smile on your face. Don't enjoy yourself at crowded amusement parks: watch. (Yes, I am literally asking parents to sacrifice fun in an amusement park -- at least until they get safely clicked into the rollercoasters.) Be paranoid. Go home exhausted from worry, but with as many kids in the back seat as you showed up with. But don't show the kids your exhaustion. Be paranoid without making them paranoid. Bear the burden while showing no sign of it. You can do it, because your love is (or will be) that big. Soon enough, they will be able to take care of themselves and you can relax. Not now, though. Not while they're little.

And prepare them. Do they know the tricks the sickos of the world might use against them? Do they know how to say "no" to a grown-up? Do know that no one has a right to touch them in certain ways?

I once said to my son, when he was four, "What would you do if someone pulled up in a car and said 'Your mom and dad sent me to get you'?" He said, with a chubby little smile: "Go with them!" What would your kid say?

Prepare them by making them ready, not by making them scared. I know, I know, but you have to figure it out.

Trust no one. I worked for years with a guy who was eventually convicted of possessing and trafficking child pornography. I ate lunch with him, told jokes with him and even invited him to parties over the years. But, even in total ignorance to his depraved hobby, at no time would I ever have trusted him for five minutes in a room with my boys. Furthermore, I wouldn't trust you and you shouldn't trust me and neither one of us should be offended by that.

Truth is, we're not likely to ever see these maniacs, but they are out there -- maybe even next to you right now. Trust no one, stay on high alert with your little ones, but, and this is important, know when to let go. Someday, disengage, confident you made them ready, trusting them to help themselves. Then you can rest and it will be much deserved.

(When you don't disengage, you become a "helicopter parent." For my attempt at understanding these parents, you might want to read a previous post of mine: "Why Your Dad is Like Othello.")

Monday, October 25, 2010

Climbing through the Window

History can be dates and numbers. It can be stories of adventure or explanation of the most banal actions and it can be a record of business deals and governmental edicts. But real history is a 5, 500 year-old shoe found in an Armenian cave. Real history is a man in the black and white foreground, wearing a narrow-brimmed cap, glancing sideways at a photographer (at you) as a picture is clicked of a gigantic crowd at an 1894 Boston Beaneaters baseball game (source). Real history is the worn velvet of a couch in Dove Cottage where Coleridge used to sit talking to Wordsworth on cold Grasmere nights. It is the connecting of "now" to "then" in a way that chills us to the core and makes us realize that people in 1732 used to get toe-itches with their shoes on; that women in 550 AD and in 1943 sometimes had "bad hair days." History is the floor of the old Globe Theater that was made out of packed dirt and hazelnut shells carelessly dropped and trampled underfoot to the hardness of cement by the snacking groundlings, over time. Real history is a boy lying on his bed, lightly tossing a ball up and down on a lonely summer day in 1910. And it is the American quarter I once tossed into the Thames river, off of the tower bridge, just to leave an imprint of my presence in London.

Real history is the unedited film below, taken from the front of a streetcar in San Francisco, probably a week before the great earthquake of 1906 and the devastating fire it caused. Here, you can see images of long-dead people: boys riding the bumpers of cars; a man stealing a ride on the back of a cart being looked back at by the annoyed driver; people hamming it up for the new-fangled motion picture camera; women in bustles and floral hats dodging the streetcars; men who walk with the same gait as guys in jeans and T-shirts today, only in dark suits with hats; drivers of automobiles cutting in and out between horse-drawn carriages; children on the way home from school, books in tow; professional men crossing Market Street discussing upcoming meetings.

This video is history in its most staggering sense. Here you'll see people with heartbeats who are gone, but who were alive at the moment the camera crossed their paths and etched them into history's living rock forever, whether they died in flames and collapse in the 'quake or in their sleep, decades later. People like us, looking through the window of time directly at us.

(Stick with this -- there is a lot of rolling and flutter in the beginning, but it stays clear for most of the time afterward. Although it is dated 1905 in the title, historians believe this was shot perhaps a week before the earthquake.)

HAT TIP: Gina Matarazzo Stewart

Friday, October 22, 2010

On Second Thought: Kill

Here's an idea. Let's have children. Let's cuddle them, kiss them, love them, provide for them, teach them gentleness and kindness. Let's watch them sleep as we wonder what sort of people they will be some day. Let's teach them to respect their neighbors and life in general. Let's comfort them when they are afraid and tell them that God loves everyone.

Then, let's teach them to have aspirations -- to do well in school and to plan for a rich future with kids of their own to whom they can pass the same values we hold. Let's send our kids the message that they can be the architects of their respective futures. It is important for them to believe that they can do anything they want to. Dreams are theirs to snatch at speed, like those shiny rings on old-fashioned merry-go-rounds.

Above all, let's teach them that the worst thing they can be is a bully. "Do unto others" and all that. Live and let live. Let's teach them to make their own choices -- be an individual -- and to allow others to choose for themselves and to respect those choices of religion, lifestyle, moral codes, standards of dress, etc.

Ultimately, let's smile as our children bring forth children of their own -- new little ones to bathe in the warm waters of love. Let's be happy grandparents because the circle is complete. Let's give our kids a little speech on their children's birthdays about how the kids need to come first -- how family is everything.

Then, to wrap it all up, let's take one of the boys, jam an M-4 rifle into his hands and tell him it is his patriotic duty shoot other people with it and send him in to a brutal desert somewhere where he can get his brains spattered against a rock at the very moment his little baby loses her first tooth and puts it into an envelope so she can show Daddy that night when they talk on the computer.

Or maybe Daddy gets lucky and comes home one day, if broken to pieces by the horrors he has seen -- horrors he wasn't ready for, because we loved him so much. Because we taught him the opposite of what we eventually made him endure.

And they all lived shattered ever after.

This little fable is not a statement against patriotism or the military. It's not an evaluation of war, either. It's about a conundrum. Our kids, with very few exceptions, do not grow up preparing to fight. Basic training does not cover the gap: ours is not a warrior culture, high school football notwithstanding. Daddy is not Odysseus or some clan-leader drinking blood out of the skulls of the vanquished. He is a teacher or an accountant, or a carpenter or the owner of a store or a guy who loves to take care of his lawn. Our kids are not ready for carnage and the stench of death. None of them are really tough enough. That's the tragedy. That's the conundrum.

Even the survivors don't completely survive war. So, there are two options: revert to making killing machines out of our kids or figure out a way to end war. This middle ground is not acceptable. We can't go on asking common teachers, accountants and carpenters, owners of stores and cutters of lawns to blow other humans apart. It's inhuman and cruel to everyone involved. Casualty tallies would be even higher if we would remember that a young person can die without dying.

We need to figure out whether, as Bono says in "Peace on Earth," the lives of our kids are "bigger than any big idea." I think they are at least as big.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010


Man. It just occurred to me: kids are just plain screwed. I just saw an ad that made me realize that if parents play their cards right, technology can ruin the existence of every teenager in the world. RUIN, I tell you.

Picture the scene:

A teenaged son calls his mom, dutifully "checking in" at the appointed hour of ten. [For your convenience, Truth will appear in brackets.]


"Hi, Mom."

"Where are you?"

"At Tom's house" [No, he is not.]

"What are you doing?"

"Watching a movie." [Drinking a beer. He now is hiding in the basement closet to dull the sound.]

"What's that noise?"

"The TV. We're watching Aliens." [That was not the alien roaring; it was Tom -- who is also not at his own house -- puking all over the door to the very closet in which our hero hides.]


"Yeah, so, I'm going to go now and watch the rest of the movie." [He's going to go now and drink the rest of the beer.]

"Are you drinking?"

"No." [Yes.]


"Mom, no." [Mom, yes.]

"Show me where you are."

"Uh. What? Show you?"

"Yes. You wanted the new-fangled 4G phone with the video-talk thingy. Show me where you are."

[Jimmy binds up in places he didn't learn about in anatomy class, in which he carries a C-minus, which his mother knows about, owing to the advent of computer grade books with parental access. Jimmy vomits inside the closet.]

"What was that?"

"The movie, Mom. I gotta go."

"Dad's coming to pick you up. Where are you?"

"What? Uh -- I'm at Tom's."  [No, he's not.]

"No, you are not. The phone shows you at . . .  423 Ocean Ave in Oceantown. Call me back on video. Right now."

Jimmy laments the weight that's been saddled upon him by his new Christmas present. Santa is a frigging turd. [No, he is not.] Jimmy calls her back on video. Jimmy has no choice.

Mom sees the boy's face, sweaty and pale. The arms of woefully out-of-fashion coats are lined up behind him. Mom doesn't know whether she is more disgusted by the garrish garments or by Jimmy's wan, drawn, post-vomitic expression.

"Are you in a closet?"

Jimmy is no dummy. Jimmy knows he is doomed. "Just come get me, I guess."

"Dad's already half way there. If you are smart, you'll just stay in the closet until he knocks."

Jimmy ponders the possibilites and decides sitting still in his own filth just might be the wisest move. "Are you gonna take my phone away?"

"Nope." She hangs up.

Mom dances a triumphant dance with her phone, which she kisses repeatedly, triggering an "ap" that is able to find bonfires in the local woods via satellite. She shuts it off.

"Not yet, my pretty. Not yet . . ."

Overhead shot of a suburban neighborhood. We hear an echoing, evil laugh emanating from Jimmy's mom's house, which is joined by similar laughs from other houses in the neighborhood, then from the world, until we are looking down on a globe that is ringing with the Halloween-witch laughter of billions of victorious techno-parents.

Mommageddon has begun.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Does NFL Football Need a Pope?

I get that standards of dress have relaxed over the years. My dad, born in the mid-thirties, says he and his family always used to put on suits and ties to go to the doctor's. And if you can rely on old movies, no one went outside without a jacket or hat from the dawn of hats (which some experts place at the first time a chinchilla died on the head of a particularly sedentary neolithic man) until about 1960. But things are changing, even in church. In an era where churches can't afford to force people to be uncomfortable in the already uncomfortable pews, the dress codes are relaxing.

Regardless of this faltering standard of dress, people seem to make an effort to do something to spruce up in church: jeans and not shorts in the summer; maybe a sports jacket over the golf shirt for the older chaps. You know, a hat tip to the people's respective version of the Almighty. Just a kind of, "Hey, God. You hooked up the world with . . . you know . . . being a world, and stuff, so the least we could do is not come in with our knobby, hairy knees jutting out all over the place."

But I am baffled these days, watching the faithful shuffle in under the ringing bells on Sundays. Have we actually allowed the football jersey to replace the suit jacket? I can't believe the numbers of folks who wear their teams' gear to worship -- presumably worship of the deity to whom they have committed and not the team to which they have committed. But it does look foggy.

I'm not making a cry for return to tradition. In fact, I hate dressing up and I have said elsewhere that I would prefer to see symphony orchestras in jeans and T-shirts. But, honestly, this all shows sort of a spooky split in faith. For believers, half of Sunday goes to the heavens and half goes to football? (Actually, if we are talking time, more than half goes to football -- maybe five times as much.) Man, if that doesn't say something about American sensibilities, I don't know what does. I mean, people actually "dress up" in their football regalia to go to church, now.

So let's organize this -- just give football its own Supreme Pontiff. Then we can make people choose between football and their current faith. It could be the new schism. Henceforth, we could work out the problems with the pigskin instead of the sword. Of course, we will have to add football strategy to the curriculum in the seminaries of the world. Does anyone know a priest or minister who can throw a guided missile through a defensive line?

Friday, October 15, 2010

The Biggest Loser?

I watch The Biggest Loser sometimes. I usually watch it while enjoying snacks. Fatty snacks. Delicious snacks. But as a person who has to work hard to keep his Olympian figure (hey, you can't see me, so what the hell -- I look like Brad Pitt and I am built like the Bowflex guy), I understand what it means to deal with weight issues, as do the rest of the people in my family, so I can certainly empathize with obese America; I'd be right there with them if not for at least intermittent attention to my diet and exercise. But something about The Biggest Loser bothers me. In fact, it rends me asunder. It makes my superficial Jeckyll deeply critical of my secretly sadistic hide.

Can't we just be nice? Surely, the show has a heart to it and it chases a socially helpful goal. But why can't we stand to watch a show that isn't tainted with scheming and ax-dropping? Must these people be made to eliminate each other? What's with our fascination with "elimination" on our reality TV shows? Can't it just be a contest to see who loses the most weight, in the end? No, it can't. That wouldn't hold the dark appeal that morphs people into cathode ray bathed, TV watching zombies who eagerly devour the rubber-necking, car-wreck gaping joy we all share as if it were freshly harvested brain stew. It seems there is nothing more satisfying than watching fast friends, dripping rivulets of maudlin tears, voting each other out of the only situation that can save their overweight lives.

Stephen King wrote an essay called "Why We Crave Horror Movies" in which he gives his position on our dark natures and how they manifest themselves in creepy behavior. He attempts to explain -- quite well, I might add -- why we are drawn toward death and gruesomeness. Well, my topic is not as extreme, but what I see does throw devil horn shadows on the wall behind us as the blue light from the screen dances around us.

We enjoy seeing people succeed, sure, but we also enjoy seeing people fail. Alarmingly, we enjoy seeing friends getting forced to kick each other out of Camp Salvation. There are paradoxes galore around the show. Even the title implies this with its multiple meanings: He's a loser because he is big; he loses the most pounds, so he is the biggest loser of weight; he fails in his attempt to lose weight, so he is a big loser. Et-freaking-cetera.

When all is said and done, the show wants to help its cast, unless the rest of the cast is forced, by the design of the show, to cut off the help for some big loser who couldn't lose enough that week. (In fairness, I am not sure how much the show sticks with the contestants after they are "kicked off" -- if anyone knows, let me know.)

Then you have, as on other reality shows, reoccurring criticism, by both cast and home viewers, of the person who is doing too much "game playing". This, I do not get. You go on a show to win, right? I mean, the dangling carrot (besides not dying, someday, of cardiac arrest while clipping your toenails) is $250, 000. So, now, we let you on this show and offer you lots of money if you win and we offer you a shot at a new life if you lose lots of weight -- a task that is clearly made easier by the twenty-four hour assistance of the two most famous, successful trainers in the world --  but we expect you not to try too hard to win, because that is mean. Adam, meet the serpent. Serpent, Adam. The rest of us will decide if you continue to deserve this chance to live a long healthy life, thank you oodles and oodles.

(Did someone say "noodles"? Or cupcakes for that matter! Eat twelve of them and you can have a big weight advantage reward. Forget the fact that, every season, you have watched people eat them and then cry because of guilt and because Jillian then scratches out their eyes with a salty pretzel rod in a fit of righteous rage. Stuff those cheeks, pal. It is all a game and this gives you the advantage. Oh, wait -- that's wrong -- it is not a game -- or it shouldn't be. You are here to lose weight and to help your chubby chums do the same thing. So -- I guess don't eat the cupcakes. And hug that poor girl hard before you push her out the door.)

After all is said and done, perhaps it is good enough that when the sappy MIDI music plays at the end of the show and we watch an encapsulated video summary of all of the flab of the past (bouncing and wobbling in dramatic, deeply disturbing slow-motion) turning into the muscles of the bright future, it is all forgotten that, for an entire season, we simultaneously enjoyed seeing people lose ridiculous amounts of weight while dismantling each other's chances of winning (and criticizing them for doing this) all whilst spooning Ben and Jerry's into our gaping, critical, head-shaking, teary-eyed, empathetic faces.

Perhaps we, the audience, are the biggest losers? (In a bad way.)


Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Message in a Baby Bottle

Breaking news! The famous gynecologist, Gerhard Von Schniggle, has just made an amazing discovery: It seems the kicking of babies, in the womb, is actually a kind of communicative code that reveals that fetuses actually have an ability for complex, pre-linguistic communication that is lost at birth. He theorizes that the replacement of amniotic fluid with oxygen alters the brain chemistry immediately upon first breath, consequently causing babies to have to re-acquire the ability to "speak" over a period of years.

He has released a transcript of "kick-speak," as he calls it. The results are fascinating. Here is a message from the baby of Mr. and Mrs. Ted Cadwallader of Mont Alto, Pennsylvania, as transcribed by Dr. Von Schniggle, October 4th, 2010 :

Mom and dad -- it's me, your son. I know you are thinking of naming me Leo, but I would really prefer Gary -- but that is not the point. I need to fill you in on some stuff before it is too late. Some if/thens, really, that I know to be true about our relationship to come over the years. I know these things now, though I'm not sure why -- I'm getting messages wired in from somewhere. Sorry about the bladder-kicks, mom, but this needs to get through to you before I lose it.

First, you need to be patient with me. I know you know that, but what you don't know is that I will drive you to episodes of confusion and anger the likes of which you have never known. I will behave in completely irrational ways that will drive you to the limits of your endurance by keeping you awake to all hours of the night. You can't blame me, and you have to stay at the top of your game no matter how tired you are. I need you. Try to remember that.

Second, I really am sorry about the smells I will produce. I have no good excuse.

Third, you need to stick to your guns while you are raising me, no matter how hard I cry and whine. This is a test. I will test you. If you take my cookie away because you have warned me several times that this would be the consequence if I punched the dog in the nose again, I will cry to see if you love me enough to stand up to it. I will do this into my teenage years, except crying will turn into yelling. I will never really believe you love me if you let me get away with things for complaining.

Fourthly, stock up on Cheerios. They will be an excellent tool for behavior management, but you will find them around the house until you reach retirement age. I want to be up front with all of this.

Fifth, when I start talking to you, listen to me. No . . . stop nodding. Seriously: listen to me. Don't go all vacuous and wide-eyed and talk like a bad kindergarten teacher. Don't patronize me. Talk to me and listen to me. If you don't take me seriously, I won't take you seriously when I am a teenager. Fair's fair. Don't blame me for our communication problems if I have had to spend ten years being talked to like the village idiot.

Sixth, you will miss the diapers, so don't wish the time away. Dad -- I kid you not, my friend -- you will enjoy changing me if you give it a shot. You will find there is no feeling like watching your little guy walk away clean and comfortable, new diaper crackling around the room under a "onesy". So don't be a wuss. (Oh, and never refer to time spent with me as "babysitting". That will piss mom off.)

Seventh -- play with me. Don't worry about not knowing how. I'll show you how. If you play with me, I will be made as happy as I possibly can be made. I will be convinced you care about me and I will learn from you. And remember, when I get interested in things like video games and I talk about them in non-stop rolls that break Guinness records for time-span, remember to still listen. Each of my progressive interests will be the most important thing in my life at the time. Don't give me the feeling that those interests are stupid or that they are less important than the laundry.

Eighth, I'm clay in your hands. Take responsibility for the way I turn out. You can't be perfect, but you need to try to be. You need to make me ready for the challenges I will face. If I "fall in with the wrong crowd" it will be mostly your fault for not preparing me to make better decisions. If I do drugs some day, your fault, too. I hate to lay that on you, but that's the deal. Think ahead and address these things with me. Prepare me. I can't do this stuff without you. But if you screw up, remember that everyone does. As long as you follow the above rules, we will always be close and we can get through any mistakes we make.

Ninth, remember that I don't want stuff nearly as much as I want time with you. Please don't take a job, no matter how much it pays, if it takes you away from me. An hour a day is simply not enough with you. I don't care about having to take out loans for college. I want hugs. Eventually, I'll want to have catches on the front lawn. I want story time. Starting on my birthday, I want naps on your warm chest. I can't feel your heartbeat if you are on business in Chicago, even through the wonders of video conferencing.

Maybe most importantly: stop in my room to watch me sleeping each night before bed. I know you will be really tired, but stop in for a minute and watch me sleep. You'll know why when you do it.

Oh, and while these things are coming to me -- I will be able to shoot vomit across a twenty foot room, despite my exceedingly diminutive stature. You should know that.

Alright, I'm pooped. Peace out.

Amazing! All of this from some kicks and punches. When interviewed, Mr. Cadwallader said only: "I am not changing diapers."


Mrs. Cadwallader could not be reached for comment, as she had to pee really badly.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Very American in a Good Way

A friend of mine now lives in Germany. We were in graduate school together in New Jersey in the nineties. Recently, she wrote about her boss in Germany who characterized her as "very American in a good way." His statement intrigued me.

I remember a skit by Rowan Atkinson. He was the "sign language" interpreter for the deaf in a comedic news report. (Sorry -- tried to find a video and failed.) During the newscast, the reporter referred to "the Americans" whom Atkinson -- an Englishman -- interpreted, in "sign language," as a man shoving an entire sandwich into his mouth in one attempt.

During George W. Bush's tenure as our fearless leader, the surveys seemed to represent an increasingly low opinion of our country where Europeans were concerned. I think things are improving under Mr. Obama. But the reality is, I always have felt Europeans sort of look at us like the bad kid in the class that you sometimes begrudgingly like; the one you respect for his commitment to being unique but who is a pain in the butt, nonetheless.

But what did the German guy mean? I have an idea, based on what I know of my friend, what he meant by his compliment to her. She's incredibly smart, quick-witted, self-reliant, completely original in everything from her thinking to her fashion sense and she's full of energy and passion for the things that interest her. I'd like to think that this is what he meant. I think that we as Americans value that stuff and aspire toward those qualities.

Why did he seem to need to make a distinction -- what would it mean to be American in a bad way? Well, it just so happens my friend is also very nice. If you substitute obnoxious for nice, I think you get the "bad way". So, give someone all of my friend's characteristics but make him obnoxious, and I think you get the European impression of most Americans. There's a hinge on every word: "smart" becomes "smart-assed"; "quick-witted" becomes "snarky"; "self-reliant" becomes "self-centered"; "original" becomes "uncooperative"; and "energetic" and "passionate" become "overbearing".

I have a fear that our good qualities come across to most of Europe as sort of "in your face". Maybe they don't really dislike us -- maybe they just don't like the amplified version they get of us, whether it is our fault or not.

WHADDAYOU THINK? Do any Americans out there have experiences with European impressions? Do any Europeans want to weigh in on their opinion of us Americans?

(HAT TIP: Lori )

Friday, October 8, 2010

A Loaded Epistle

Dear Self-Righteous Windbag:

Here are a few things that piss me off about you:

1) You support world-changing ideas with an air and an attitude that indicates that a total paradigm shift is no big deal and that anyone who disagrees with you is missing the purple, glowing elephant of Truth that just stomped into the room. See, if what you are proposing is against the grain of hundreds of years of past practices, you may be wrong or right -- I may even agree with you that a change is needed -- but your argumentative tactic of broadcasting your disappointment that everyone else doesn't see what is so obvious to your discerning, superior self is weak and, honestly, embarrassing. Stop ending sentences with a gentle snort and a slight head shake. It isn't as effective as you think it is. In fact, the only purpose it serves is to make you look like a stuck-up twelve-year-old and the only people you impress with your gestures are the other stuck up twelve-year-olds who use the same tactic. Last I checked, "acting wearily annoyed" isn't an argumentative strategy they teach in college composition classes. Honestly, it makes me want to disagree with you, even when I agree with you.

2) You are like a terrier with an old shoe, the old shoe being what you think is true -- or what you wish were true. Therefore, you disregard evidence and logic in pursuit of your toy. You also do not listen to opponents but simply wait for them to take a breath so you can jump in. In fact, right now, you are assuming that I am attacking you or your school of thought, even though I have not actually done so. You have decided that I am either a liberal or a conservative (of which I am neither), and you are drooling at the chance of commenting and labeling me as typical, but you have not heard a word I have said.

3) You try to push me into a corner by imposing your philosophy of life upon me and you call me an insensitive bully with an agenda when I push back. (You also gently snort and slightly shake your head when I get done making points.) If you shove something in my face, I am going to push it away and not worry about being polite. So either think of another approach, or stop trying to make me look like a caveman with a club when I fight back while painting yourself as the voice of reason when you use the exact same tactics.

4) Most of all, you have aligned yourself with a school of thought that has swept you away like a skier in an avalanche. You think according to the club's rules and will not dissent, because there is safety in numbers. You ignore or cannot see inconsistencies within your group's philosophy. You mumble: "Fruit is sacred and must not be harmed" with your mouth full of banana. And if someone challenges you with your obviously flawed philosophy and actions, you don't say, "You know, you're right. If I think fruit is sacred, I shouldn't chew it up." Instead, you manufacture a pseudo-logical system that makes eating bananas okay. (Simply because you find them tasty.) In short you are scared to be out on your own, yet you think only of yourself. How can a crusader for right be a scheming, selfish coward?

You are either wrong (owing to complete egocentrism) or correct, if you think this letter is meant for you. You are either wrong (owing to complete thick-headedness) or correct if you think this letter not meant for you.


P.S. You might also think I should have written this letter to myself, if only because of the salutation. I can live with that.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

A Bloomin' Shame (I Think)

Recently, on Yahoo, there was an article about teenaged cheerleaders in Connecticut who protested their exceedingly revealing uniforms to their school officials. Like anyone else, I cheer the cheerleaders for not wanting to be sex objects, especially when the world around them seems to encourage them to do so. You might imagine that the writer of that article is in their corner, but then you can see that the "read more" link on the opening paragraph says: "see their get ups."

See their get ups? So, the lure for reading the full article about cheerleaders who are protesting being treated like pieces of meat is to tempt the reader into wanting to see . . . more of their . . . meat. Uh, right?

Or, was the writer trying to teach us something about our lascivious selves? Maybe? I dunno.

Within the article, there is a link that entices us to "see professional cheerleaders in action," while, directly above this link, the writer discusses the correlation between anorexia and bare-midriff uniforms worn by college cheerleaders.

But maybe instead of blaming the writer, we should wonder if there is some automated program that shows "relevant" links (as far as the computers know). Are the Yahoo machines finding articles related to cheer leading and, in perfect computer fashion, totally missing the irony of what they are advertising in conjunction with this article about these refreshingly self-respecting girls?

Whatever the source, the melange of messages here is fairly indicative of the shape our cultural morality is in -- maybe that it has always been in. Just loads and loads of paradoxical signals. And loads and loads of arbitrary decisions about what is considered appropriate.

Bloomers, for instance. One day after school, in high school, I was sitting with some friends and some of the cheerleaders in the hallway outside our gym. The cheerleaders were goofing around and one of them turned a handspring in her short uniform skirt, which, of course, flew up. Another cheerleader exclaimed, "Oh, no, Carla! You forgot to put your bloomers on!" Carla turned beat red, and nearly cried, until the other girl revealed that it had been a joke -- she'd had them on. But it got me thinking: What, exactly, was the difference between the bloomers and underwear? Then it occurred to me: a societal definition. That was it.

In short, someone, somewhere, had decided it was okay to do back flips in a short skirt, as long as a girl wears underwear over her underwear. Ah. I get it. This must be the same reasoning that makes it okay to show two people moaning, sweating and bouncing around in a bed (under covers) at one in the afternoon on a soap opera, but makes it not okay to show a woman or a man naked on a Discovery Channel documentary about evolution at eleven o'clock at night.

At any rate, the school board of the Connecticut high school is going to purchase black body suits for the girls to wear under their revealing uniforms. Which makes perfect sense.

Monday, October 4, 2010

See the Love, Spit at the Rain

Of all the nights, we had to be moving my parents when Tropical Storm Nicole decided to blow us a little kiss. After a full day of work, after having been up since six in the morning, I stood in our old house in the light of a single, shadeless lamp on the floor, looking at boxes and piles of things to move. We stared out at sheets of rain, feeling like we were behind a waterfall, and my sister said, "So, what do we do?" The road in front of the house was a dirty river. My brother-in-law and I just exchanged a look that said: "We move." Out into the storm, we went.

At times, I stepped in water up to my shins. We lifted and carried, and the only thing I could hear over the rainfall was my own heartbeat. We were pushing pretty hard.

What was going to be a challenging weeknight move of a whole house into an apartment became a nightmare that would eventually last until two o'clock in the morning -- just the two of us lugging boxes and furniture; my sister cleaning and organizing an entire house. (She didn't escape the drenching either, by the way.)

In short, my self-pity needle was in the red as was my sense of desperation -- we would be at this all night. I had imagined maybe ten or eleven, at the latest. No way, now -- we would be lucky to wrap up before sunrise. And I had to work the next day. Anger at the situation started to creep in -- even a little at my parents for having put me in that position. But then, in the middle of a shining ebony parking lot, crouching for a breather, rain coming down like God was punishing the world with a heavenly fire hose, I saw something --a memory played on the movie screen in my head:

I was eight. I had just gotten a new toy -- a Star Trek phaser. It was an exact replica of the ones they had on the show. But it needed to be assembled by, like, a NASA engineer. There were more parts to the thing than there were pee puddles at a Beatles concert. But, in the light of a single lamp in the living room, there was the figure of my mother sticking with it, cursing softly from time to time under her breath, thinking I couldn't hear. For hours she worked: reading instructions, gluing, comparing pieces, pulling them apart to fix them, doing it all again. I'd wander in there between my TV shows, but she'd given up TV that night. She gave up relaxation on a weeknight. (I'm a dad now. I know how it feels to need that more than food.) She didn't give up her night to move me into a new house; nor to save my life; nor to teach me about the workings of the world. She did it to make me smile. To give me a toy to play with -- one I would probably break within a week. But I did sleep with it near my pillow that night.

Moms and dads will do that -- they will give up an hour, a day, a week, a month, a year, a lifetime to see their kids' faces light up for a second.

That's how they love you.

That's how I love my kids.

The memory finished playing at about midnight. That's when I stood up, spat at the rain, told big bad Nicole to piss off, put my head down and worked harder than maybe I ever have.

That's how they love you.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Don't Fear the Weirdness

My wife and I bought a book that we both wanted to read. She started it first, which was okay with me, because I was in the middle of another book. As it turns out, I finished mine before she finished the new one. She had been held up by everyday stuff, so it was slow-going for her. She suggested I just start reading the book, too -- she wouldn't be getting back into it for a while.

I couldn't do it.

Yes, I realize this is weird, but I have never been accused of fearing weirdness. Why don't I feel right about reading a book someone else is in the middle of? 

I mean, it is not like eating with someone else's spoon. But it feels that way, a little. (By the way, I have no problem eating off of my wife's spoon. I hope this doesn't spawn an international gag reflex. Then again, perhaps this could become the Internet's version of "the wave".)

I think it may be a manifestation of greed, really. If we rent a cozy little house in Provence for a week, I don't want to share it with another family -- it's our house for the week. Maybe it is the same with the book: I want it to be my intellectual, material and emotional property, alone. For some reason it is okay to share the thing by talking about it afterward -- no problem. But I don't want someone else's filthy little brain-fingers paddling through the book's ideas while I am. (For the record, if my wife had brain-fingers, I am sure they would be clean and sparkly. I'm talking about everyone else. But not you. Just those other people. Keep your brain-fingers clean, I say. But I digress . . .) I want the ideas in the book to be mine alone for a few weeks.

Now, you could argue that there are other people reading the same book at the same time across the planet, but this is different. I'm not talking about multiple copies of the book. I'm talking about that particular book. The tactile object, in and of itself, has meaning to me. See, I have never been a cut-to-the-chase type. Nothing I ever do is about simply doing it. Books are an experience for me, not just a way to gather knowledge or to be entertained. Somehow, they represent more than just a vehicle for ideas -- they're like my tree-fort; my refuge; my Shangri la, if you will (even if you won't). I'm cool with occupying it before and after other people, but I don't want pass them in the hall on my way to the shower.

WHADDYOU THINK: What weird, yet explainable, hang-ups do you have or have you seen?