Thursday, December 27, 2007

Only Bush

Only Bush could announce (at a press conference to address the assassination of Pakistani opposition leader Benazir Bhutto) “those who committed this crime must be brought to justice” about a killer who then blew himself up.

But then (since the last National Republican Convention stressed “a vote for Bush is a vote for God!) he probably just picked up the bat phone, talked to the Big Guy and told him what to do (just like he has on a host of other “moral” issues, like blocking life-saving cell stem research). Only Bush. It’s his mandate.

In the 2000 campaign, a 60 minutes reporter asked Bush if he could name the Prime Minister of Pakistan. “No,” he answered with obvious disdain. “Can you?” He could. Most educated people could-- Pervez Musharraf, the military leader who took over the country. Musharraf, the all important ally in the “War on Terror” supposedly against Osama bin Laden, but which quickly spiraled into an ill-justified quagmire in Iraq. Only Bush.

And Musharraf, along with Putin, leaders able to seize and hold power in ways that exceed Bush’s Supreme Court grab in 2000. Undoubtedly his heroes. They, however, didn’t have to face the U.S. Constitution and the balance of powers. Poor only Bush—yet he can condemn oppressive regimes in the same breath that he embraces them when it serves his purpose.

But as he has ably demonstrated, the Constitution and balance of powers can be corrupted and undermined. I only hope that we actually have a democratic election in 2008, not a “declaration of national emergency” to leave Bush in power.

We can’t continue with only Bush. I hope his regime doesn’t force us to beyond Jan. 2009.


Wednesday, December 26, 2007

A Letter to Readers

Dear Readers—both long-term and newbies,

Thanks for your patience. Yes, I’m still committed to posting regularly and will resume soon.

The semester from hell has finally ended, just yesterday as a posted final grades. I did take some time this week to post a few pieces to discussion boards, and I’m itching to get back to blogging.

I’ve certainly no shortage of topics (I continually shake my head when I hear “I’ve nothing to write about!” – more a matter of where my mood swings me that day. [For example, on the way back from running with my dog this morning, we passed a man wearing a camouflage jacker—hardly unique, as safety orange has long been suppressed by Rambo wannabes, but this jacket resembled something between a camouflage tie-die and a Jackson Pollack. Where to start???????]

Now I’m moping up the residue of that semester, including rushing to finish some commissioned pieces on Romantic Opera, Russian Composers, and Impressionism. Then on to course design….

I’m teaching two of my favorite novels this coming term—Joyce’s “Dubliners” and Hesse’s “Magister Ludi.” I’m excited—but I’ve got work to do.

Back very soon, though.

Thanks truly for reading!


Sunday, December 16, 2007


When one of the clerks at my local small-town store returned from college last spring, I asked her how her first year of college went.

“OK,” she answered cheerfully, and then added emphatically, “Only thing is, college professors just don’t care about you. High school teachers care; professors just want to collect that check, and that’s all they care about.”

I kept my groans and sighs internal. “What do you mean, exactly?” I asked. She just repeated the above. “Well, like what, for example?” I prompted. She didn’t know. Said she’d think about it.

I saw her again this week, back from school again. I didn’t recognize her until I heard her voice—she was at best “stocky” before, and in the past few months, she’s changed her hair style and color and gained at least 25 lbs.—now seriously obese. I was shaking my head about a few of my own students, students who had emailed me course work eight days after the last day of classes—no explanation, no excuse, no plea for clemency, just the blithe expectation that of course I could just accept it whenever they got around to submitting it.

“A problem with math skills, perhaps!” I joked with the clerk.

“Oh, I’m terrible at math—but I got an A, because my math teacher likes me.”

Still joking, I abruptly shifted my weight, placed my fist on my hip, demanding “And English?!”

“Oh—that was horrible!” she replied. “We had an adjunct.”

OK—not quite enough information (especially since she attends a community college—60%+ of the faculty are adjuncts)…

“What was the problem?” I asked.

“He hardly ever came to class,” she said calmly, and then with much more animation, “And he was the kind of professor who would assign a ten page paper on introducing wolves into the Adirondacks…”

I cut her off. “Wait a minute. He hardly ever came to class?”

“Yup,” she answered, “And he assigned this ridiculous ten page paper on introducing wolves into the Adirondacks…”

I sensed a pattern here, and sure enough, we repeated it a few more times.

“Never mind the paper,” I finally insisted. “Let’s stick with your first point—if he hardly ever came to class, why didn’t you talk to the department Chair? Or the Dean?”

She looked at me and shrugged, a bit confused. “Well, this paper was just ridiculous…”

A ten page paper. O the horrors. Probably involved research too.

“But why would you all sit there repeatedly when he didn’t come to class and not report it?”

She shrugged again. “I don’t know. We didn’t think of it, I guess.”

Critical thinking. Education in action.


Tuesday, December 11, 2007

A Chance Meeting with the Grinch

A large, green cartoon character is certainly not the norm outside the Department of Labor, so I couldn’t help but pull in for a chat.

But how to start? “Hi, I’m a stranger” doesn’t work, but then neither does the blatantly obvious and potentially embarrassing “So, what are you doing here?”

I did my best. “What am I supposed to do?” the Grinch asked.

OK, I thought his role was clearly defined, so as tactfully as possible, I pressed for details.

“I’m supposed to steal Christmas!” he exclaimed. That was my understanding too. “But how am I to do that when it’s already been stolen!” I glanced at my laptop, casually clicking the New York Times link for any breaking news. None. Again, I pressed for details.

“I just got there too late.” complained the Grinch. This is why I hate ambiguous pronouns.

“Got where?” I asked.

“To Christmas, to steal it! It was already gone!”

I stared blankly.

“How am I going to pay the rent with no job?!”

I still stared blankly.

“You’d think stealing Christmas would be a niche market,” he added, calming down a bit.

“You have competition?” I offered (blithely, I realize in retrospect).

“Competition?” He snorted loudly. “It was gone before I got there! I’m out of business!”

I waited until the clerk finished all his paperwork, then invited him for coffee. We went across the street, and after a warm blueberry muffin and some hazelnut coffee (assuring him I was buying), he related the whole story.

“It’s the Christians!” He looked glumly into the dregs of his coffee.

“They’re fighting you?” I prompted.

“NO!” He looked angry. “They’re beating me to it!”

I signaled the waitress to replenish our coffee, sat back and just let him talk.

“Talk about ‘Bah Humbug!’” he complained. “Scrooge was a prophet compared to these guys!”

I sipped a little coffee, and waited.

“Happy Holidays!” he exclaimed. “What the hell is wrong with that?”

“Um…nothing?” I ventured.

He had entered a rant. “A bunch of people decide that they’ll respect all beliefs and traditions. Sounds Christian, right? Nope! It’s ‘Merry Christmas’ or ‘Get Lost, Godless Pagan!’ That’s what Jesus was about anyway, right? Criticizing others? Shooting tax collectors out of trees? Advising Peter to draw his sword? Do these morons even OWN Bibles?”

I was back to staring blankly.

“And now movies? MOVIES! Do these ‘brain trusts’ understand fiction? FICTION! A movie portrays people’s psyches as visible animals, and this is someone anti-Christian? What happened to Psychology 101?”

I remembered reading something about that film, “The Golden Compass.”

“Maybe they were confused about the term ‘daimon.’” I offered. “After all, they DO believe in Guardian Angels—six of one, half a dozen of the other…”

He looked sad. “No,” he answered finally, looking sad. “They believe in self-righteousness, judgment, exclusion, hatred. They’re confused about the terms ‘love,’ ‘tolerance,’ ‘faith,’ ‘brotherhood.’” And after a long pause, he added, “After all—isn’t that way they killed the Prince of Peace?”


Sunday, December 9, 2007

Writing, Responsibility, and Repercussions

I’m always amazed at the almost casual way students commit plagiarism, as if the point were merely to generate paper to submit to instructors. Often I’m even insulted with their obvious forays into academic dishonesty, apparently believing I’d never notice, when I usually notice practically immediately, and can confirm in seconds (ironically, this “Internet savvy” generation actually can’t find their way around the virtual world unless it’s the first keyboard posting on Google).

I had three cases this term—over, of all things, blog posts for which they simply earn full credit.

I sighed. I talked to them—one complained that she was just resubmitting material she’d submitted for another course (which is also plagiarism), for which she earned an A. Double sigh—it wasn’t even summary, but rather word for word compilations of the original sources. Another student liked my butt, saying “Well, I certainly don’t want you to have to do anything you don’t feel comfortable doing.” I resisted the urge to vomit.

The third student, however, listened carefully, asked questions, stressed that he didn’t want to lose this class, and not only asked what he could do, but also proposed solutions (involving extra work and grade reductions). In short, he took responsibility. What’s sad is that I was impressed—this is not the norm.

He impressed me again this week. “Hey, I can’t take your Intro to Fiction class after all,” he reported, turning in all his extra work during an office visit. “Truth is, I can’t come back.”

“You can’t come back?” I echoed? Students backing out of course selections is hardly new, and no problem at all, but this was a new approach.

“Yeah,” he answered. “I found this guy in bed with my girlfriend.”

“Ah,” I noted. “I’m guessing that didn’t go well.” Two things strike me. First, he didn’t make excuses, but simply took responsibility for his actions. Unique approach, and one underused. Second, the focus was entirely on the guy, not the unfaithful two-timing girlfriend. Can anyone say double standard? And this brings us back to writing classes.

After five semesters of teaching professional writing courses, with only a couple of exceptions, the professional writing majors are far from the best students. Among the most extreme examples of this occurred in the same class, with the major refusing to hand in her final writing piece, not even the draft, protesting “It’s not ready!” This after the class has worked on these for weeks.

“Well, when WILL it be ready?” I venture. After all, it’s the last day of classes.

“Sometime next week?”

“That won’t work. Grades have to be submitted within three days of the last class or exam.”

“Then give me an Incomplete.”



“You’re about to get a whole lot more stressed.”

We worked out a compromise, and this particular situation is extreme, but all too often representative. “Professional Writing,” to them, seems to mean babbling about summer vacations to a patronizing high school teacher, and they expect to find jobs “Where I can do something creative.” Thing is, those jobs expect you to, well, create. A lot. Often. And well. Oh—and on deadline.

But these students have clearly been taught otherwise.


Wednesday, December 5, 2007

The Truck, the Law, and the U.S.

During hunting season, I take my husky out to the state land after dark. Sure, this makes running on forest trails a bit tricky, but if not that, I’d have to run along the canal trail with endless headlights in my face, or not run at all, or risk the hunters. So I run at night.

About seven o’clock, on my way to the dirt road down to the Stoney Pond trails, I passed a pickup in the parking area, apparently with someone there. I slowed my car and turned the headlights to check it out—some guy in an orange vest just sitting on the tailgate, patiently waiting. I had my suspicions, but he seemed fine, and since I could do nothing, continued.

After parking and running for about a quarter of a mile, my suspicions were likely confirmed. Blam! Blam! Just two shots, and this guy presumably got his deer, illegally, probably even driving over to pick it up. And not unique—a friend who lives 20 miles south of here reports that she hears shots daily before dawn (also illegal), and another woman I frequently run across walking her dog reports chasing hunters off her land regularly.

A few springs ago, I ran into a young guy carrying a bow and arrow, pregnant wife trotting behind him, campers from the campsite half a mile away. “Seen any geese?” he asked. How could I not. I had my dog on a retractable leash precisely because we saw plenty of geese, raising their goslings. Definitely not in season, and for good reason. He even suggested my dog could flush them for him (she’d hunt them herself, however). I declined.

Disregard for the law seems widespread. At first a few, and now many or even most of the nutty drivers doing dumb moves on the road are, as I take a look, on their cell phones. Let’s not even get into speeding or stop signs. Laws apply to other people. We’re a nation of law-breakers.

Starts at the top. The Bush Administration’s “interpretation” of U.S. law the Constitution has been creative at best. During the Nixon Administration’s woes, the mantra was “the President is not above the law.” Contrast that with Cheney’s contention that the administration makes reality.

What do we do with this? The U.S. is in a never-ending war in Iraq because of the Cheney/Rumsfeld version of reality proved either stupid or an outright lie. Certainly the White House lied about the details leading to the conflict. Now the news that the rhetoric about Iran’s nuclear progress is untrue—and was reported to the White House months ago.

What happens when the government actually does tell the truth, should that ever happen? How would we know?

And how can we pretend to be a nation of laws when both government and citizenry ignore those laws they find inconvenient?

We have found the enemy, as Pogo used to report, and “they is us.”


Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Real Men

A long day at work. Then running with my dog—in the dark, to avoid the deer hunters. I stop at the corner store to fill my tank, down to ¼.

Snowing. A slushy mix. Wind. I’m cold, but I’ll only be outside of the car’s warmth for a few minutes. I pick up the pump handle and raise the lever.

I wait the few annoying moments for the store staff to notice. Then it starts. Sort of. The lousy 7 gallons or so I’ll need to top the tank are going to take forever at this rate. I watch the meter. 1.208. 1.229. 1.374. Sigh.

I’m pissed. I’m cold, tired, and want to go home, eat dinner, get some rest. I consider just stopping the pump, paying and leaving, but my brain argues that I’d just have to stop somewhere else tomorrow. I sigh again and make an effort to just relax. I pump and wait. Hand squeezing the nozzle handle, I look around.

I notice a man near the kerosene pump with a small boy, four years old, perhaps? They’re dressed similarly: dirty jeans, flannel shirts, jackets—and clean, new, bright orange knit hats. I pump. They pump—or rather Dad pumps, while Junior sits on the steps, patiently, clearly tired. They go inside to pay.

I watch the meter. 4.379. 4.820. 5.358. Sigh. Shiver.

Dad and Child walk out, hand in hand. Dad wraps an arm around Son, lifting him to his shoulder in his left arm, then reaching down for the full five gallon container of kerosene with his right hand. He staggers a bit (I can tell you—those full containers are heavy!), steadies himself, and starts his walk, 60 feet or so, to the pickup truck.

Then he spits.

Straight ahead. Confidently. Into the light breeze, the wad arcing in the light it catches in a smooth, neat parabola. He doesn’t bow his head even the slightest bit.

I glance back a bit later. He’s leaning on the truck bed, seeming tired, but now he’s in a darker spot, and my pump is nearing the 7 gallon mark.

Real men.
Real spit.
Real kids.
Real cold.

[Note to production crew—cue up soundtrack to Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast.” Focus on Gaston’s song (“I’m especially good at expectorating” and “I use antlers in all of my decorating”) and his dialogue with Belle early in the film (“We’ll have twelve strapping boys—like me!”)]


Thursday, November 22, 2007

Wiki World

A “wiki” is a collaborative website—it allows users to add and edit content.

In many ways, this is a wonderful development, one yet to be understood. Researchers have explored and are exploring how “group think” can yield better results than individuals. The idea is old—Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” of the market place, for example, presented similar claims. However, Smith’s model demanded perfect knowledge for all players, an ideal not likely realized. “Group think,” however, starts with the notion that even “primitive” creatures, like ants and bees, possess the ability to make collective decisions far beyond the ability of any individual insect, and that yes, humans also can exhibit this potential. Management theory, organizational behavior studies and more all offer similar accounts of the phenomenon.

“Wiki” is also Hawaiian for “quick,” though, and I fear that’s the main attraction.

I visit a couple of discussion boards regularly. One of them, a Gorean board, frequently gets versions of the same question over and over—What is Gor? (or various attacks on Gor). The board has a search function, as members repeatedly note, but this is too much trouble for many users. Some do try, and then complain that they couldn’t immediately get the answers they sought. Not wiki enough.

A few even claim to be well versed while admitting they’ve never read a Gor novel—kinda like the student who reads e-notes instead of the novel and then bitches the teacher doesn’t appreciate student “work.” Even better—the student who raises a hand in class and says, “Well, I didn’t read it, but I think the character meant that…”

On a blogging board, one member asked how fellow bloggers conduct research. The answers were sad—most said they don’t research at all, and those who did, relied on other bloggers (who, apparently, didn’t research either). Easy, but isn’t that just gossip? Several of those bloggers want to be serious writers—yet have missed that publication after publication stresses that they seek “well-researched” pieces. Not wiki.

I asked a class experimenting with blogs which ones presented the best writing. “The short ones!” insisted a few students. So Harry Potter would be better if just a few paragraphs?

They don’t even “wiki” well—I have to show them how to use Google to narrow searches, how to search for blogs, how to find out how to add advertising to their blogs, even though these links all appear on Google’s home page, the first place they go for information.

Another class, struggling with interpreting an assigned article in group sessions, clearly dragged its collective feet, finally admitting, “We’re just waiting for you to step in and make it all right.” Apparently, I have all the answers?

But that is what many people want. Problems abroad? Bomb ‘em. Economic woes? Just cut taxes (why don’t we eliminate them—then the government can magically fund itself with no money!). Hey, why even have government? Surely we don’t need those annoying police, firemen, road crews…

And on it goes, while people vote for politicians whose positions contradict their own, just because someone fed them the right line, pushed the right button, making it all easy. Reagan’s “shining city on a hill.”

Wiki World.


Saturday, November 17, 2007

Finally, Skiing!

Well, I finally got to ski again.

Last night, as I was walking my dog, my first thought was “Hmmm….looks like almost enough to ski on,” followed by, “Great…and tomorrow’s the first day of deer season.”

Nonetheless, after considering the snowfall around my home this morning, I decided to go for it. I loaded up the skis, poles and boots, called my dog, and off we went to the wildlife preserve (to avoid hunters).

Not great skiing by any means—3-6 inches, but wet, heavy, just clumping up. Still, I was hungry enough for skiing that I didn’t care, so on I trudged.

Yes, trudged. Although I run in the off-season, getting back to skiing always abruptly reminds me that skiing using a different set of muscles. At least I got to give them a bit of a work-out. I’ll pay for it tomorrow, I’m sure.

Something wanted badly that isn’t going well, but worth still pursuing. Has a familiar ring.


Sunday, November 11, 2007

Two Images

While I frantically struggle to get back on my feet (and get back to constructing longer, more frequent and thoughtful posts), let me share two very different pictures.

A week or so ago, I turned onto the dirt road that leads to the state land trails Shanti and I walk/run/ski generally every day. This Saturday morning, however, I faced around three dozen people, ages about 30-60, walking along, blocking the road. Some went to one side, sort of, some to the other side, sort of, and others just looked, then returned to their cell phones or other "business," remaining in the middle of the road, completely uncaring that they were blocking access. I drove slowly, and I'm glad I did, as another walker stepped immediately in front of my car.


Two days ago, on my way to work, I saw a deer bounding across a field--not at all unusually (I see this several times daily). This time, however, I saw what at first I thought was a dog, then realized was a coyote. Our would-be preditor had no chance of catching the deer, and clearly was already tired from trying, but still, an interesting picture.


Tuesday, November 6, 2007

What I like about this political season

Sure, we have states fighting over one another to be first to have primaries, along with push-back from national parties, and yeah, we probably should stop pretending this is still the 18th century and institute national primaries. However, I like what I'm seeing.

What I see is both major political parties sorting out wide fields of arguably talented candidates. Messy? Sure. Goes with democracy, though, doesn't it? Kinda the point.

I'm not so wild about their lemming-like rush to bash each other rather than highlight their strengths--but one step at a time.


Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Garden Roulette

I grew vegetables the first year I moved to the country. I had a dream of self-sufficiency, and with 3½ acres, why not? I flagged down a farmer with a plow one morning, offered him $10 to plow me a small plot, and I was on my way. I learned a few things--beans are great producers, and I knew nothing about growing corn.

But my career got busy, and since gardens take work, I abandoned the practice for several years. After all, the stores were full of produce, and veggies were only part of my diet anyway. Things change, though. Fruits and vegetables have become most of my diet (for both health and maturity reasons), and with that much more skill in choosing them and constructing appealing meals. Add to that sharply rising prices and not always a good selection out here in the country without traveling to the city all the time to a superstore, and it was time to grow again. Anyway, I kind of like the “back to the land” thing anyway.

Time was still scarce, however. What to do? Experiment.

I designed a few separate plots. I did not invest in extensive turning of the soil, but rather hoed a few rows at a time with the intent of creating a “rolling harvest,” not a ton of produce due all at the same time (as I’d be too busy to deal with such a harvest during the academic year). I covered these plots with large sheets of black plastic with slits for the rows--the idea was to eliminate the need for weeding and to see if I could extend the growing season by creating warmer mini-climates. (The plots in different areas would also help cope with the weather, since different spots receive differing amounts of sun and water. One year one will be too wet, another year too dry, while another plot may be fine.)

At first, nothing. I had forgotten one thing--rabbits. I bought metal stakes and chicken wire, dug trenches around the gardens (to bury the bottom of the fence), and with the fences--suddenly I had lots of produce. (I still need to fence the strawberry plots, but one thing at a time. The strawberries will probably need netting too if I want them before the birds.)

OK, I had forgotten two things--vines climb. Without other opportunities, they climbed the chicken wire--and it’s just not sturdy enough to bear all that weight. The fences are still sort-of there, but I’ll have to invest in sturdier construction and something solid for vines to climb. (While I’m at it, I’ll enclose clear plastic between the new fence and the old chicken wire, then build similar panels for the top. That way. perhaps I can create warm enough spaces to start planting in April and grow through October.)

I didn’t start planting this year until June, so I was taking a lot of chances. I lucked out on the weather, though, with the first frost in the last weekend in October. I harvested lettuce, spinach, peas and beans all summer long, and I now have a few cantaloupe, one pumpkin, a fair amount of small, baby watermelon, and two copier boxes full of “close to ripe” green tomatoes (which will hopefully ripen soon). I didn’t get anything from the peppers I planted--just not ready yet.

What really hurt was the broccoli. I harvested a grocery bag of it, but it was just getting going, growing quickly. In another week, I’d have had 7-8 bags of it. Oh well. Next year.

At least I now know which crops do better in which plots and can plan accordingly. I’d also like to start growing some produce indoors--see if I can plant a little each week and hopefully have fresh produce ready all year round. At least so for, my gardening gambles have worked reasonably well.


Wednesday, October 24, 2007


Remember these hunters?

Once a year, for one month, men with red plaid coats and red caps, hunting licenses pinned to their backs, took their rifles into the woods to hunt deer. When I first moved into country (in 1987), the first day of deer season announced itself at sunrise with a rifle shot every few minutes. I remember this vividly because my shepherd mix was afraid of lightening, fireworks and firearms, so she’d try to hide in the bed with me. One the way to work (leaving my poor dog inside), car after car lined the country roads, their owners woodsmen doing their best to bag a buck. Some succeeded quickly, many others would talk for the next few weeks over coffee at the corner store: “Get your deer yet?”

Those guys are gone.

First, forget the once a month thing. Deer season alone lasts months--bow season, muzzleloader season, antlerless season--this November sport now lasts all fall. And hunting starts far before that and lasts long after. Something is always in season--small game, turkey, grouse, you name it. Guys with guns patrol the trails month after month.

That’s right--the trails. No woodsmen here. They want it easy. No parked cars at the sides of the roads by the woods either. Instead, pickup drivers sit by the fields with binoculars, waiting practically until all they have to do is step outside and fire.

I haven’t seen a red jacket for at least a few years. Safety seems out of fashion, at least visually so. Instead, everyone wears camouflage--pants and jackets. Everyone. And hunters don’t walk--they sit in blinds. They don’t even climb trees--they nail steps to the tree and build a platform.

And the old official start of deer season? It announces itself with large “Welcome Hunters!” banners at the corner store, announcing special quantity deals from the various beer sponsors--opportunities well used, starting first thing in the morning.


Sunday, October 21, 2007

Stall or Barn?

Well, my neighbor finally finished her horse “barn,” a small particle board contraption anchored by buried 4 x 4s, framed with 2 x 4s. So far so good—but what I thought was just the beginning of construction is actually the entire “barn.” More realistically, it’s a stall with three walls and a roof—just enough room to a horse to stand inside. Never will it keep out the elements, especially since we live up on the hills. She should try standing inside it herself on a windy day. One good snowstorm, and that silly thing will be waist deep in snow. What is she thinking? And what horse is going to voluntarily walk into such a blind structure?

We’re talking about a different horse now. Jackson disappeared one day. “He was too hard to handle,” she says of this gentle four year old, “So I sold him.” Well, her horse. The new horse is “Lucky,” a skittish twelve year old who screams a lot. “I couldn’t believe it!” my neighbor explained. “I saw this add in the paper, and sure enough, it was him!” She’s owned this horse before, when he was young. “We named him Rebel, but he took a long time to drop, so he earned the name ‘Lucky’ (i.e., he kept his testicles the longest). He doesn’t scream as often now. He is still skittish, but calmer. He comes to the fence and stands his distance—but I’m packin’ carrots, so he eventually gets close enough for treats.


Sunday, October 14, 2007

Rolling Beethoven

As much as I need the time, I was glad to see the symphony schedule—Beethoven. Good. All those years in the practice room and on stage will come rolling back, focusing my attention on the necessities of professional performance, and on music that deserves that kind of attention. Lots of work, but oddly relaxing. Meditative.

And so it started. Thursday night’s rehearsal was a welcome release—I didn’t even mind the second bassoonist playing games on his cell phone at every opportunity or the new principal flutist, still a kid really, struggling with the New York Times crossword puzzle (why do people pursue professions that bore them—especially professions that don’t pay well?).

The program was a bit odd—After the Prometheus Overture, we’d play the Violin Concerto. At its premiere, the musicians were sight reading, and the soloist decided to sneak his own composition into the cadenzas—so it didn’t go off well. Beethoven shelved the violin version and converted it into a piano concerto. The violin version was forgotten. Fifty years later, however, the violin version was rediscovered, and the piano version was shelved. This concert would feature both.

Then Friday we met the soloists, a brother and sister team: Franziska Koenig on the violin, Iwan Koenig at the piano. OK.

The violin version went OK—she’s all about notes instead of the beauty of the phrasing inherent within those notes, but not bad. She can, at least, play those notes (and there’re lots of them), and overall, fine. A regional orchestra can’t pay the fees major artists charge, so management settles. It’s OK.

Then her brother takes the stage. Oy. “Attacking” the notes takes on new meaning, and it isn’t good. Noise. No phrasing at all. Nothing. Notes.

Beethoven added an extensive tympani part to the piano cadenza. News to the conductor and the timpanist, who had no such part. Iwan insisted on rehearsing this. The conductor explained that wouldn’t be possible until the next day. Iwan insisted. The conductor repeated that this wasn’t possible, adding that we were under time constraints and that the next day we could rehearse to his heart’s content.

“What kind of a rehearsal is this?” Iwan complained. “I have never played this with orchestra before. Tomorrow we must perform it.” He left the stage.

Just in case you’re wondering, no, this isn’t common behavior for a “professional.” One of the horn players behind me remarked, “Well—I haven’t seen THAT since college…”

Iwan’s parents were there (no, that’s not normal either--both siblings are adults) and (in German) turned him back to the stage.

Rehearsal finished. The next day, Iwan got all the time he wanted. Not a hitch (our timpanist is a professional). We played. She played. He played. We went home.

So much for a break from the bullshit.


Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Mike and Jake

I’m in hell.

I’m exhausted, and I have yet to complete a week packed morning to night with classes, meetings, and rehearsals. Add to that mounds of papers to grade, survey data to compile and evaluate, text adoptions to make, online course to complete and post, midterms to complete, promotions binder to complete—all within the next two weeks. How can I do this? Yet somehow I have to do it—all of it.

Let alone that I’m already ignoring SEVERAL pressing issues at home, from garden to lawn to trees to winterizing to cleaning to home repair to financial paperwork—not to mention relaxing or having fun. Sleep and eating habits aren’t good, I’m tense all the time, and the catherine saga (new readers—see old posts; old readers—updates coming eventually) continues on its ever complicated path. I even pushed a doctor’s appointment this month back to January—I just don’t want to deal with it until I have a little time. And let alone writing and reading projects.

So I had to force myself to go to Stoney Pond with Shanti. Not much of a run, really, just to let her get out.

“Hey! Sorry!” I hear. A black lab comes racing down the trail.

“We’re fine!” I call back. Everything canine looks like nothing more than play.

“Oh! Shanti, is it?” calls a man running around the trail’s bend.

“Yup!” Now I remember—Mike and his dog Jake. Shanti and I have come across them before.

I let Shanti loose to run, knowing they dogs will stay around us.

I don’t have time to talk—but I welcome it. We discuss dogs, past and present, hunters, campers, bicycling and dogs, cross-country skiing, deer, storms and trees, sticks and dogs, training—and more, until the darkening skies and threatening storms get us to pick up and move along, work awaiting. Our dogs, calm after a good, friendly workout, obey our quiet commands immediately and cheerfully, their romp just what they needed.

It’s what I needed as well. Time for a good night’s sleep, and early tomorrow, back to work.


Monday, October 8, 2007

If it’s so easy, why is it so hard?

I know what to do, and it works well—eat fresh fruits and vegetables, go for a nice long run with my dog everyday, pass on the beer, pack healthy lunches/snacks instead of grabbing something on the run. I even like fruits and veggies; I even like running. I feel better, more energetic, look better, my blood pressure drops to wonderful, my weight is buff—so what’s the problem?

At the moment, everything wrong just seems to call. Grab the quick food. But why? An apple isn’t quick? I always feel better after exercise—but have to force myself to start.

And I’ve already been through this healthy/slip healthy/slip healthy/slip pattern before, so I’m keenly aware that getting back to healthy is harder and harder every time. Why, even in people like me who WANT that and like it?

Thoughts and theories welcome here.


Saturday, October 6, 2007

Shanti and the Siberians


Slept in today (over the top stress), so my “morning” run started not long before noon. Wasn’t much of a “run” either. Slow jog, perhaps? But Shanti, my husky mix, was glad to go either way.

Anyway—on the way to the state forest trails, we passed a small group of people with horse trailers. The horses had apparently finished their stroll around the trails, literally pooped out (alas for other users), and the owners were sitting in resin chairs, imbibing. They certainly carried their weight, barely squeezing into the chairs.

Later, I met these same people on the trail—with two Siberian Huskies, one a little heavy, with one blue eye and one brown, the other just over Shanti’s size, with two blue eyes.


Shanti normally lunges ahead, all friendly, ready to play hard with any dog(s) she sees, usually so enthusiastically that the other dogs get defensive or just want her to leave. In this case, however, although she was still happy and ready to play, she was almost deferential. The other huskies, clearly not used to the activity perhaps commonly pursued (they were both wearing “gentle leaders” over their noses along with their leashes), were nonplused. They not only didn’t mind Shanti’s advances, they simply treated them as “hello.”

Lots of sniffing and tail wagging ensued, but nothing like the typical morass we face when meeting other dogs. I’m confused by this, but I could see this was important, so we lingered.

The heavy people noticed it too, especially when their dogs coddled up to my hand, their faces pressed against me. “She never does that with strangers!” remarked the owners.

I guess Shanti just met her kind. I hope one day I do as well.


Monday, October 1, 2007

Yell--it ensures you won't communicate

Yelling--the ever so effective conflict resolution. Where do people get this idea?

Remember all those times your boss yelled? Did it work? Or just until the boss left the room? What happened to productivity? Turnover? Profitability? Employee theft?

So why do people get the idea that yelling themselves effectively addresses anything?

I can think of only one answer--without any valid points to present, or without the patience to present them, yelling is expedient. It replaces the unwanted conversation.

Granted, I can think of appropriate times when speedy communication takes precedence over discussion. I can imagine a shop teacher, for example, yelling, "Put that nail gun down NOW!" But usually, it's the opposite of communication.

Even yelling at a dog isn't effective--the dog just learns (and quickly) to avoid you (and don't confuse this with shooing it away), making up its own rules and changing strategy.

Perhaps this just reflects my personality, but over the years I've had relationships end this way. She screams at me over the phone. I don't do yelling. I hangup. She's furious or sorry, but my passion has chilled. I like peace and cooperation.

This, of course, has always been my problem. I like to work somewhat independently, but as part of a team. Unfortunately, I live in a world where the thinking seems hardwired toward "every man for himself." Counterproductive, since we spend so much of our time competing instead of accomplishing, but things are what they are. So I usually work alone.

I'm no saint. I've lost my patience and yelled at times--and always regreted it later, as I achieved nothing by it. When I do, people freeze--partly because as a classically trained wind musician, I have quite a bit of lung power and vocal projection, and partly because I'm normally soft spoken, so the yell is a shock. And people just learned to avoid me, cooperation over.


Friday, September 28, 2007

TV Sports

I’ve never really understood the allure of watching sports on television.

I do have some fond memories of watching the ABC Wide World of Sports each week with my dad--mostly I wanted to see the poor ski jumper wipe out again, “the agony of defeat” indeed. We also watched stock car racing quite a bit--but as neither of these pastimes survived my passage into adulthood, I suspect I was mostly interested just because these were Dad’s passions.

I’ve also enjoying watching TV sports at times, primarily the Winter Olympics--downhill skiing and ice skating especially. Summer Olympics not so much, except for gymnastics. Tennis can be interesting, watching from above, noting the chess like strategy of the shots, striving to move an opponent to a difficult position. At the same time, it’s never been something I made a point to watch. From time to time I’ve followed baseball, but each time I’ve quickly fallen away.

TV just doesn’t capture the real skill of the players. Once, visiting a friend in Chicago, I went to a Cubs game. We sat just over the dugout and watched a relief pitcher casually warming up. Nice, slow, relaxed toss--and the ball goes flying like a rocket in a straight line several dozen feet, neatly into the catcher’s glove. Amazing. Those outfield catches and double plays? A ball shooting like lightning hundreds of feet in perfectly straight lines in must a second. These are professional athletes. You don’t get that perspective on TV.

So I’m just not the stereotypical sports fan, sitting in a Lazy Boy with chips and beer, proclaiming “We’re #1!” I’d rather get out and be active myself.

Football just seems to be wait, wait, wait, line up, run into each other for a second, fall down. Basketball means endlessly running up and down a court. Hockey seems to be furiously skating around, hitting each other with sticks whenever possible. Boxing just seems brutal.

I can at least understand why others might want to watch these, but other TV sports mystify me completely. Golf, for example--walking, teeing, looking up the course, addressing the ball, a swing, then watching sky sky sky sky sky, bounce bounce bounce bounce bounce. Repeat. Or fishing. It’s a guy or two in a boat casting line into the water. What’s to see for half an hour?

At the same time, I’ve watched engaging movies about all of these sports--even on the small screen. What’s the difference? Of course, movies can spend more time setting up effective filming angles, and of course, feature a carefully crafted, scripted story. Regular sports fans, engrossed in a team’s fortunes, probably see more of a story.

Or perhaps I’m just a loner who prefers quiet time to think. I’d rather hike in the mountains than walk around a golf course, explore the waterways in a kayak than sit in a canoe with rod and reel.

Or maybe I just like a good story.


Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Sunday Ain't No Park with George

On my way back from Sunday morning laundry, I pulled into one of the small self-service vegetable stands local farmers set by the road. I could use some tomatoes, and 3/$100 certainly beats the grocery store price.

I counted out two dollars worth of dimes--good opportunity to begin to clear up my change tray--when a woman, 65+ I’d guess, swung her SUV in behind me. As I got out of my car and started depositing my dimes, she, apparently having read my bumper sticker, opened her door, and without any greeting at all, countered, “Enough is enough, vote Republican!”

My bumper sticker, “Enough is Enough! Vote Democrat!” is the first I’ve ever sported on any car. The Democrat National Committee sent it to me along with a few other materials in their ever persistent quest for additional donations. I wish they’d intersperse news about party efforts and progress--I’d probably donate more frequently.

Nonetheless, I share the sentiment so strongly that I posted it prominently. I was fiercely independent until Ronald Reagan tried to shut down science, quadrupled the national debt, and convinced Americans that we just had to keep telling ourselves everything is fine. Just like magic. Then he added illegally defying Congress in the Iran/Contra scandal. Let’s not even get into his arming Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan to fight the Soviets. Something had to be done, so I turned to the Democrats.

George H. Bush, a warmonger who in 1979-1980 campaigned against Reagan’s “trickle down” economics fantasy as “voodoo economics,” turned and embraced it to win election in 1988, running unemployment up to double digits--and getting his chance to go to war.

Bill Clinton defeated Bush on an economic platform, and despite facing a hostile Republican Congress for most of his term, passed a number of measures and presided over the largest peacetime expansion in the nation’s history--and returned to budget surpluses along the way. He even managed to contain Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan. George W. Bush returned us to war and record deficits, committing us to years of expensive occupation all while refusing to pay for it, cutting taxes especially for those best able to afford them, ignoring the complete lack of positive economic impact--except for the wealthy. He’s even strained the military, including the National Guard, so far that all commanders warn we can’t sustain these deployments past the spring. And to top it off, military benefits, including needed health care and proper combat vehicles, have been missing, underfunded. Then there’s systematically destroying then very rights that make the U.S. Constitution our guiding principles. Enough is enough. Vote Democrat.

I really wasn’t up for an argument with this lady. “Well, we’re engaged in economic policies and a war we can’t sustain,” I offer, choosing a nonpartisan point.

“We HAVE to do that!” she insists, stridently, ignoring the logical disconnect. I let it go--the discussion promises to be pointless anyway. She doesn’t. “Bill and Hillary only got that surplus by cooking the numbers--it didn’t really exist!”

“They slashed funding for the military!” she adds, voice rising.

[Incidentally, why do so many Republicans assume all debate is about Senator Clinton? Haven’t they noticed the lively primary debate, featuring a range of strong candidates all with enthusiastic supporters?]

She doesn’t offer any specifics. I assume she’s referring to the long-standing practice of all administrations of lumping the current Social Security surplus into the overall budget--a practice candidate Al Gore promised to end, by the way, in his 2000 bid for the presidency. The practice also means all those deficits are that much worse, a point which seems to have escaped her. Probably just repeating what she’s heard on Rush Limbaugh.

I sigh inwardly. Issues like this need discussion, though, so I start to explain. Immediately she interrupts, her voice nicer, “Well, you have your ideas and I have mine.” The conversation is over.

So thousands of people will continue to die, thousands more badly wounded, because a retired lady in rural New York doesn’t need information to make up her mind. Medicare, headed rapidly for a financial meltdown, will wait until it’s a crisis. The looming Social Security shortfall, completely solvable if we act soon, will similarly wait for doomsday. If she has anything to say about it, America will remain the only industrial nation without national health care, spending billions on emergency room care instead, at far greater cost. Promising stem cell research--and possible cures for a wide range of diseases--will have to wait for scientists from other, more reasonable nations. Tax cuts will remain the magic cure for all ills, continuing the myth that “giving the money back so they can invest as they see fit” will resolve entitlement difficulties, ignoring Americans negative savings rate.

And peacetime prosperity will remain an accounting trick, all while America spends its former greatness and prosperity into the shadows where all myopic empires have been humbled. Instead, this will be the age of China, India, and the European Union.


Monday, September 24, 2007

Summer Saturday with Snow Blower

Dad came over Saturday, the last weekend of summer, to help with my snow blower. My snow blower. I can’t afford such luxuries. When he sold his house to move in with his new wife, he parceled out multiple unneeded belongings. I live in the country with a long driveway, so I ended up with the snow blower. For free. I’m grateful.

Not as useful a device as would seem, though. It’s heavy, and my driveway faces an incline to the road. Even with the tires driving, getting this machine up to the road (I don’t even try to park at the bottom of the drive during winter) is quite a task. Just shoveling is often easier. However, at the end of last winter, snow fell and fell and fell, a few feet each day. Time for the snow blower—but it wouldn’t start, even after heroic efforts.

This is too great a waste of expensive machinery, so when my niece and nephew cancelled a “grandfather” project over schoolwork concerns, Dad suggested coming out to my place to help.

I accepted. Not lightly. Dad takes over. This would mean all day Saturday. He’s retired. I’m buried in career issues. Still, I can’t fix it, he might be able to fix it (he’s much more of a mechanic than I), and it needs fixing. He’s trying to balance out the grandfatherly attention my siblings’ families receive, but nonetheless, admittedly, damn nice of him.

Dad considers this a mission. Early in the morning, he calls—needs the make, model, engine number and so forth. He’s on his way to purchase spark plug, new oil, and garnish whatever information he can at the shops along the way. I find the information, and go run my own errands.

Early afternoon, he’s here. I’m ready—snow blower outside, cord ready for electronic start. I don’t do any of the usual things I’d do for such a favor—food and drink ready, for example—because I know he’ll disregard all of them. He’ll disregard everything. For example, when he asks if I have a certain size screw on hand, I offer to run to the store. No. We make do. I don’t know why. He always does this—along with recommending later that I go get that size screw.

Early on, I get stung by a wasp. First damn time all year. I’m pissed. Right in the back of the neck. Can’t see it, of course. But Dad’s here. If I can find tweezers. I have them. Can’t find them. We go to the store—he wants to talk to the snow blower repair guy anyway. We have just enough time before they close. He ends up with carburetor cleaner. I end up with “After Bite.” When I finally get tweezers, I’m too swollen to find the stinger. I’m pissed. I hold my tongue.

He’s absorbed with the snow blower, sounding like he’s talking to me, but really not. “I’m going to go cut some grass while you do this, OK?” I ask. “Go ahead,” he nods, barely noticing.

I cut grass. After a bit, I hear snow blower over the sound of the lawn mower. Dad’s still engaged. I keep mowing for a while. Eventually, I cut the engine and mosey over.

“Well, we’ve got it running,” Dad notes, “but it’s running hot. That bolt just shot out of the exhaust.” I look—a six inch lies in a black line on the grass. “It was glowing,” Dad adds. I notice my normally gregarious dog has moved from her favorite spot near where Dad is working to the opposite end of my yard. Smart dog.

I leave Dad to puzzle it out, and return to mowing. Eventually, I hear the snow blower start again. I keep mowing. Again, eventually, I mosey over. Oil everywhere. Still runs hot. Dad is stymied. “Soon as it starts,” he notes, “when you turn the choke, it just runs fast!” I look. “What if you don’t turn the choke all the way to the left?” I ask. Dad considers. He tries it. The machine runs roughly, but without glowing parts threatening to blow up the engine.

I ask if he can change the oil while he’s at it, knowing he’ll actually welcome this. He asks if I have a pan to catch the oil. I find one. He changes the oil, and spends a long time spraying every moving part with WD-40, whipping and cleaning everything possible, leaving everything in as good a shape as possible.

That’s Dad.


Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Headed Off, Heads Up, or Losing Their Heads?

Each morning I let out Shanti, my husky mix, feed Kira and Tawny, my cats, make coffee, shower, dress, gather my work materials for school (armed with lots of coffee), and head outside to the car.

Shanti will be there, whining. Since she was a puppy, she got some canned dog food as a “treat” to counter her anxiety about my leaving for the day. Now she demands it. As I tip-toe my way down the steps, over the coils of her leads, out to my car, she dances around me, her actions threatening to tangle me in the lead as I strive to haul my bags and laptop safely. She jumps as high as my shoulders, and lately, runs around me and ahead to place herself in my path, heading me off just in case that after four years of feeding her every morning, this will be the morning I forget if she doesn’t press the point. Bit annoying, actually.

Fifteen minutes later I will drive through the village of Cazenovia. Signs prominently posted remind drivers to give the right of way to pedestrians in a crosswalk entering from either lane. Unfortunately, many pedestrians see this as a license to jaywalk, simply walking out into traffic at any point, expecting traffic to see them and stop. Even pedestrians in proper crosswalks step out from the curb abruptly, walking out in front of a car six feet away, expecting it to stop. After all, it’s their right.

What are they thinking? This goes far beyond attitude. Even drivers crawling along at 15-20 m.p.h. can’t stop that fast—and even when they try, as some do, cars behind them are likely to rear end them. Most pedestrians are also drivers—surely they must know that drivers can’t see and respond to people rushing into the road suddenly at any point, ESPECIALLY around dawn and dusk.

But then, plenty of drivers race around fellow drivers, cut them off, pull out suddenly in front of them, all to accomplish little more than irrational displays of impatience and arrogance.

I’m reminded of a movie I saw in class as a child. Without looking, a pedestrian properly stepped into an intersection in front of an unseen car, exercising right of way. The movie’s title? “Dead
Right.” Doing that for SEEN traffic just seems stupid.


Monday, September 17, 2007

Doesn’t Add Up

Aside from the ethical and legal problems private security firm Blackwater has amassed in Iraq, I’m troubled by a few economic issues.

Private contractors like Blackwater have become essential to U.S. military operations, even protecting State Dept. officials. These companies hire not only retired special ops personnel, but also current special ops troops away from the military, as the pay is substantially better.

So the military hires private contractors “to save money,” yet highly trained military personnel can earn more working for these contractors. Anyone else raising eyebrows about this fuzzy math? No wonder we spend several times what other countries spend on the military—yet we can’t muster sufficient veterans’ health benefits.

Add this to the list of my macroeconomic concerns. A short version:

The U.S. spends more on health care than any other nation, yet we’re the only industrial nation without universal health care, insuring only 75% of the population. The rest wait until their health concerns are costly crises and go to the emergency room, where taxpayers ultimately pick up the tab. How is this saving money? Forget the labeling slogans and socialize the process.

The U.S. is the richest nation in the world—yet we have a negative savings rate. What’s wrong with this picture?

We again have ballooning deficits, a negative trade balance, a credit crunch and a falling dollar. Our policies are based on fantasy, not economics, and government and citizens share the blame.

These practices cannot be sustained.


Wednesday, September 12, 2007

A Meme Deferred

What happens to a meme deferred?

When I started blogging, I just wanted to write my real thoughts, without coloring them for any given crowd, as we all usually need to do. This would help me explore new areas in writing without undue danger, and I could see if I could attract and keep readers on the strength of the writing alone.

This has gone well, but as the first few months passed, I found I had become part of a community of bloggers. Life in the blogosphere often didn't mesh well with my intentions, but overall, this too was a comfortable and interesting experience. As that evolved, I was awarded by fellow bloggers the "Thinking Blogger Award," the "Creative Blogger Award," the "Awesome Guy Blogger Award," and now I've been tagged by the Super 8 meme.

I'm happy to be recognized by these people, just as I'm happy other bloggers have listed my blog on their sites, for various reasons. I'm grateful. However, I haven't yet displayed the graphics for these awards, primarily because part of the award is to recognize other blogs, passing on the award. I'm happy to do this, but as my work life as a professor/writer/musician/farmer (not to mention housekeeping and pet ownership) keeps me incredibly busy, more tasks appear almost daily, and I just haven't had a chance. I see discussion board posts by bloggers who state they read 100-200 blogs each day. I doubt it. But true or not, I'm lucky if I get to read one or two a day, and I want to choose carefully. Hence the delay.

I will eventually get to all that, as well as recognizing the sources of these various memes, but in the meantime, let me at least show a bit of good faith by complying with the immediate part of the Super 8 meme tag, to share eight random facts about me. Here goes.

1) I love hazelnut coffee.

2) Most people see me as a hard realist. Friends know better. After being crushed by former girlfriends, after getting slammed by ambitious and dishonest coworkers, after living through political moves that should jade us all, I'm still optimistic. I believe in the true girl, the cooperative work team, the possibility of better leadership. I'm either delusional or a slow learner, but that's me.

3) My favorite ice cream flavor is vanilla, and I'm not afraid to admit it. I do, however, also care for mint chocolate chip and run raisin.

4) I believe Bush has seriously wounded the U.S., and that we will spend a few decades at least recovering, even under the best leadership. This is one of the reasons I save heavily--the U.S. cannot sustain itself under its current policies long term, and only accumulated fat allows the country to continue for a while relatively smoothly.

5) I deeply, deeply care about teaching. Some students think I'm too tough and that I just don't care about them. They're wrong--but I do think they're adults and need to start learning about how to take responsibility for themselves. [I'm frequently in my office very late helping students or planning new approaches.] Fortunately, I work in a department that sees this as a good quality (not all do).

6) I have around 2,000 trees that I planted myself as seedlings. Many of these now dwarf telephone poles.

7) James Joyce is my hero. Amazing writing. I've read Dubliners several times, and still want to go back and study it yet again.

8) I own a sitar. I'd like to learn to play it, but it requires a LOT of time--just tuning (it must be detuned when not in use) takes a significant time commitment.

9) My music career has allowed me to meet many famous artists. One of my favorites was Rudolph Nureyev. He started in a revival of "The King and I," and I was the bassoonist. Nureyev was a wonderful dancer, but not a good vocalist. In one of his songs, "Puzzlement," I play his note, an F#, repeatedly before he comes in to sing "When I was a boy / World was better spot. / What was so was so, / What was not was not. / Now I am a man; / World have changed a lot. / Some things nearly so, / Others nearly not." I don't think I've ever played so loud. People probably heard that note in the parking lot. He died not long after this show--a wonderful, gracious man.

10) I love movies. I buy a pile of previously viewed DVDs at a time, watching a bit of each as I have time, watching some again and again--some because they're great films, and some just because something in them speaks to me for whatever reason--"Mannequin" and "The Shadow," for instance.

My apologies to anyone waiting for me to catch up with the blogosphere, but I hope you're mollified for now by my humble offering. Consider it ten for the price of eight.


Sunday, September 9, 2007

Shanti and the Kayaks

I start with a stop at the corner store for something for dinner, vainly hoping for something in the produce line, settling for an onion, a pepper, and a bunch of celery. Pretty much their vegetable inventory. No fruit. I add a bunch of carrots for my neighbor’s horse. And a six-pack.

Two twenty-somethings walk in, chuckling. “Never seen a dog driving a car before,” they laugh. “Oh, that’s his,” the woman behind the counter notes, nodding toward me. “Always does that,” she adds, referring to my dog Shanti, a white husky mix, who moves to the driver’s seat and patiently scans the scene for my return with each stop.

On the way to the state land at Stoney Pond she whines. I’m exhausted, but she’s bored. While I’ve been working my bizarre schedule all day, home now only as dusk approaches, she’s been stretched out under evergreen trees, watching birds, barking at an early morning hot-air balloon flight, rested and ready to go.

The weather has turned cooler too. I love September—I used to always schedule my vacations somewhere in the middle of the month. I had little competition for the dates, and it’s a perfect time to backpack in the Adirondack High Peaks—not too hot (the cool weather an asset when climbing), few bugs, no summer crowds on the trails, lean-tos readily available, and only early bear hunting season to circumvent. But alas, since becoming a college professor in 1990, Septembers are spent frantically fielding all the fruckus administration and circumstances channel my way. Hence my fatigue. But the cool weather also energizes my dog even more than her light daily itinerary.

Further, a week or so back she somehow slightly injured her foot, limping for a few days. “Give her these antibiotics, three times a day,” the vet instructed. He knows my hectic schedule, and added, “If some days she only gets two, that’s fine. Just continue it for two weeks. Also, here’s some Rimadyl—twice a day.” My last dog, a shepherd mix, lived almost sixteen years, so I know Rimadyl well—a powerful non-steroidal, anti-inflammatory pain killer. I shook my head. Shanti already is a mountain of energy stuffed into 50 lbs. of fur. Now she’ll feel no pain.

We start our walk—it’s usually a run, but I can feel myself getting sick—pain in my chest, the first signs of the bronchitis that twice has taken me out for a week in the past few years. Emboldened by the lack of people relative to August, deer wander across the path, and Shanti takes off like a jet, slamming around in her harness when she abruptly reaches the end of her 26’ retractable leash. She looks at me, then spins around and tries it again. And again. And again. “Shanti!” I finally intervene, my lungs aching from the effort. Damn. I’m definitely getting sick. I later contemplate those leftover antibiotics—500 mg. Cephalex. Keflex, I know from my pharmacy tech days. Usually prescribed every six hours, but for 7-10 days. I can think of several reasons not to flirt with a short course. I eventually give in to temptation, spreading eight doses over three days, hoping my immune system and some rest can pick it up from there.

The deer now gone, Shanti turns to sticks. She’s not fond of “fetch,” but she love to jump for sticks. I hold them out at shoulder height, and she jumps two and a half times her height to grab them. She plays hard, and I remember to hold the stick lightly, or she’ll sharply wrench my wrist or elbow yet again. [Even other dogs don’t like to play with her, since she’s just too rough.] The stick game, though, eventually tires her, at least a bit.

We round the corner of the pond (a small lake, really) and find three kayaks full of loudly laughing, joking people. Shanti goes ballistic, lunging and lunging to run out and do just-what-exactly-I-can’t-even-begin-to-imagine. As much as I love these daily outings, I’m relived when we’re back at the car.

I haven’t been kayaking all summer—just too much work. I love doing it, and even take Shanti with me—she sits right in front, anxiously watching the geese, ducks and beavers. I did think about going, although transporting the kayak is now a challenge; I used to put my short kayak atop my Toyota Echo’s roof with some hard foam designed for the purpose and a complicated system to tie it with rope to the frame. My new Yaris, however, has an antenna right in the middle of the roof (by the hatchback). Perhaps I can get it in the back with the seats down. Wonder how far it would stick out. And where would Shanti sit?

Then again, there’s always my girl’s Taurus. And where she’ll sit. And whether it can handle two kayaks. And the irony of transportation for transportation.

I had my first kayak lesson twenty feet offshore at Stoney Pond, capsizing and swimming back to shore. I’m an excellent canoeist, capable of a speedy pace in any size canoe, capable of righting a canoe in the middle of a lake and getting back in (a skill I had to learn in Scouts). I accidentally impressed my coworkers years ago at a summer gathering when my shepherd mix took off after me when I borrowed a canoe. With motor boats racing about, she wasn’t safe in the water (she was an excellent swimmer—we used to swim long distances together), so I pulled a wet, 90 lb. dog into the canoe, keeping us level and above water. Kayaking was a little different.

Balance. Sit low and straight. Soon you can even race about the lake with a dog in your kayak with you. Balance. Something my work life and, apparently, health could use. Maybe I should kayak more often. Maybe I should spend more time under evergreens myself. Maybe Shanti should drive.


Thursday, September 6, 2007

Puccini, Pavarotti and Performance

Just arriving home today, I heard “As It Happens,” the Canadian news magazine presented in the evenings on NPR, the third airing I’ve heard today about the death of Luciano Pavarotti. “I was on the N.Y. Subway listening to an aria on my iPod,” reported an interviewee, “and I just cried at the beauty of his voice. I looked up and saw the headline of the newspapers about Pavarotti’s death, and the woman reading the newspaper was crying too. He just touched so many people’s lives.”

Indeed he did.

As a young music student, not from a musical family, I struggled to understand why opera was such a big deal. Among the recordings I heard was Puccini’s “La Boheme,” sung by none other. I got it. I still cry at the beauty of those passages—and this as a jaded musician who’s heard a lot of music so many times that it’s practically aural wallpaper. Pavarotti’s singing stands out, and I not only learned to appreciate opera, but also learned that the performance mattered greatly I the appreciation of the work (probably no small part of my decision to pursue music as a performer, not primarily an educator or scholar (those would come later).

I started teaching college only because I was asked to take on an Intro to Music course at a local college—part Music Appreciation, part Music History, all for non-majors, so I strove to offer students quite a varied taste of the music world—including opera.

“We have to listen to an OPERA?” they’d complain.

“Have you ever heard an opera?” I would counter.

“No…we just hate it.”


They didn’t know.

So, each term we took two class periods to watch a video of an excellent performance of Puccini’s “La Boheme” produced by the San Francisco Opera, staring Luciano Pavarotti. Students settled down into their most attitude-broadcasting postures, feet up on the chair in front, elbow on an adjacent chair, head leaning resignedly into the palm, fingers draped like a ledge to “shade” the eyes. I ignored the passive aggressive protests, started the video, and turned off the lights.

In retrospect, I should have been amazed that the class proceeded in silence (I was still new to teaching).

I DID notice that each term, the second day, almost all of the students returned. They assumed the same defiant postures, I again pretended not to notice, and picked up the opera from the previous class period.

The plot of La Boheme is not complicated. Mimi meets poor artists. Mimi falls in love with Pavarotti’s character. Mimi is sick. Gets sicker. Gets sicker and sicker. Then she dies.

Students sat in the darkened room, eyes covered. “Sniff,” I hear, as we enter the final scene. “Sniff, sniff!” comes another. Faster and faster—soon the whole room, still visually unmoved, is sniffling. At Mimi’s death—the end of the opera—a chorus of sniffles accompanies the applause as the cast takes its bows. I graciously wait to turn the lights back on.


Monday, September 3, 2007

The Way Sports Should Be

Clay Buchholz brought a welcome fresh breeze to sports news Saturday night when the rookie pitched a no-hitter against Baltimore the same day he was called up to the Red Sox.

Seeing Barry Bonds break Hank Aaron’s record under a steroid cloud was news for a day or two. Who cares? What’s inspiring about drug-induced performance? Hank Aaron is clearly still the more inspiring player. When Buchholz reached deep down to pull off such a great start to his major league career—that’s inspiring, that’s fun to watch, that’s worth talking about and remembering. And even better is that this was also a TEAM effort—second baseman Dustin Pedroia saved this no-hitter with a spectacular catch and throw in the seventh inning, and certainly catcher Jason Varitek played no small role in this success.

When professionals forget why we like to watch sports in the first place, the games are dull. Sure, no one wants to cheer for NFL’s Michael Vick, a stupid, mean criminal, but the slide in quality goes beyond that. Basketball writers, for example, are complaining that while the NBA is chock full of stars, the games have become slow, with few points scored, since the stars insist on making spectacular shots, sacrificing fundamentals and team play, and so make too many mistakes when the play is fast. What happened to the hard work needed for precision? The drive to be a star and to win at all costs kills it. Maybe it’s too much TV exposure.

I’d far rather watch high school wrestling than the silly, scripted presentation euphemistically call professional “wrestling.” It’s a show, a movie, theater, not a sport—and it’s dull.

Amateurs reaching deep down to find that something extra is far more exciting than prima donna pros.. Instead of a “professional” hockey player sucker punching another player from behind, I love games like the U.S./U.S.S.R. Olympics match in the 1980s. The Soviets were better skaters, more experienced, but the U.S. team just tried harder—a series of good, clean, fascinating games. Or after Tonya Harding figured to way to out skate rival Nancy Kerrigan in the 1994 Olympics was to have her boyfriend attack her knee, fifteen year old Oksana Baiul flawlessly skated her way to the gold in a stunning performance.

I have no patience for the temper of a John McEnroe or the bad boy image of an Andre Agassi, convinced “image is everything.” Give me a game like this one—I forget now whether it was Wimbledon or the U.S. Open:

Pete Sampras faced only one more challenger to win the event—a completely unknown newcomer to the tour. They were quite closely matched, and set after set we watched the champion defending his title and the newcomer fighting for his shot, matched with the reigning king of tennis. The play was so close that the last game would determine who would leave champion. That game went to match point, changing hands again and again and again and again. The weather was very hot, and both players were exhausted, slowly dragging their worn muscles back to the baseline each time, Sampras actually vomiting one the sidelines between points. Finally, though, the physically beaten champion pulled off the match, walking over to congratulate his opponent, excepting the trophy from the judges.

Then I saw something I’ve never seen before—as the poor guy who came so close slowly walked off the court, tears streaming down his face, clearly feeling crushed, the crowd rose to its feet for a standing ovation. He lost, but he played a remarkable game. That’s how sports should be.

My best friend in college, an avid baseball fan, used to complain about how people would say, “Oh, this team sucks, that player sucks” and so forth. “The worst player on the worst team in the Major Leagues is an incredible athlete,” he noted.

He’s right. And watching contests among gifted players reaching down for that something extra, that better team play, that better, long-disciplined control of fundamentals (true of musicians and dancers, too), is a far better way to appreciate the games.

Real people. Real contests—not drugs, cheats, egos and even criminals.

So thanks, Clay! I needed that. And congratulations on a game well played.


Tuesday, August 28, 2007

At what point is it just too bizarre?

While I'm politically active, President Bush just continues to stun me with statements so nuts and so fantastically disingenuous that I'm left with little else to say, other than endless repetition.

He announced his concern that Attorney-General Gonzalez's name has been dragged "through the mud for political reasons." Excuse me? Who would know more about how to do that than Bush? Just as the tip of the iceberg, remember Sen. John Kerry?

Remember "the uniter, not the divider"? Remember the guy who wasn't going to get into "nation building"?

And remember that MANY REPUBLICANS as well as Democrats have strongly indicated their complete lack of confidence in Gonzalez. Whether on his own, or as Bush's lap dog, or both, Gonzalez danced over the law, crushing it like grapes, drunk on the wine.

But Bush's stubborn stance--on Iraq as well as this--just leaves me speechless. What's left to say beyond the obvious?

I DO believe that many excellent public servants are among the Republicans in Congress. But they've also been rubber-stamping the destruction of the U.S. Constitution (not to mention the lives of American, Iraqi, Afghanistan and coalition force citizens) by this administration solely for the sake of the political power of their party, and I hope Americans in the next election will finish the job by sending the rest of them, however belatedly repentant, home.

Enough is enough. No, Democrats certainly aren't perfect--but they're the best chance we have in the short run.

One step at a time.


Sunday, August 26, 2007

A Hatred of Silence

I went for my daily run this morning, choosing as usual to run through the state forest surrounding Stoney Pond—a useful strategy when running with a husky, as I do regardless of weather, including today’s cold drizzle.

I was not alone. Some kayakers also decided to visit the water, choosing to shout and howl at nothing, an annoying if not unusual addition to a generally peaceful exercise, the sound heard everywhere. After all, why not venture into nature if not to disturb it? Campers blare radios, college students leave broken bear bottles as a record of a raucous party—aside from the understandable (to a degree) screaming children.

Why do people oppose quiet? Car radios boom enough to deafen not only the occupants (dangerously), but also anyone in the vicinity. Isn’t life agitated enough to want a little peace? Apparently not.

I can think of meeting after meeting, with both business people and academics, featuring mostly people talking to hear themselves talk, ignoring that someone else has already raised that point. Why? Such a practice only keeps us at the meeting longer, without progress. Richard Russo, in his novel “Straight Man,” asks about the last time someone changed thinking after hearing a cogent argument. The answer is satirically clear. We think what we think, shouting too loud to hear other voices.

I’m reminded of the movie “Jarhead.” The two Marine snipers featured have an opportunity to take out a target when they are supplanted by an air strike. They beg to be allowed to shoot anyway, despite that their action would mean nothing overall. When the war (the first Gulf conflict) ends, they lament that they never got to fire their weapons. Winning wasn’t enough—they wanted to make their mark, even if pointlessly. Needless emotional noise.

Think also of the political accusations over the past few decades amounting to “They stole our issues!” This is distressing—public admissions that the issues were never the point, only the credit for them and the ensuing power. [For me, if you can take one of my issues and see it achieved—you go!] It’s just ego.

Shouting to hear ourselves shout. Not discourse, is it? Why do we so oppose peace?


Saturday, August 25, 2007

Fear This

Yet again, President Bush has tried to bolster his credentials and his power by appealing to fear—this time attempting to draw comparisons between his middle east meddlings and World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War, arguing that “staying the course” in Asia proved wise when completed, catastrophic when abandoned. Interesting if weird parallels, as WWII involved fighting Japan, an imperialist power (as the U.S. has become), Korea, a Communist threat to world security that never materialized, and Vietnam, another instance when listening to the French would have been wiser.

His purpose, of course, was once again to argue that his warmongering keeps America safe from al-Qaeda, ignoring that Iraq had nothing to do with the terrorist organization until the U.S. invasion, glossing over his complete failure to capture Osama bin Laden—in fact, the president doesn’t even bring it up anymore. He DOES like to keep trying to scare the public, warning that another attack could come at any moment, and claiming his administration’s policies have so far prevented such attacks (an unsupported claim), ignoring that his administration dropped the ball and allowed the 9/11 attack he loves to reference so frequently. Truth is, we’ve been LESS safe on his “watch.”

His blind obsession with Iraq, fought on the heels of Afghanistan, has made the country even less safe, straining the military so far that commanders warn we can’t continue past this spring, while officers quit in droves and troops fall to the extreme stress of drastically increased deployments, and the U.S. commitment needed to end the mess with no end in sight. U.S. military planners had always prepared to fight wars in two theaters simultaneously. We’re doing that—for longer now than we were in WWII. Another conflict would leave us simply vulnerable. Imagine Iran and North Korea decide to push their advantage and attack together. We couldn’t handle it. We’re weak.

Bush’s arrogance and go-it-alone attitude has left the U.S. with few friends, and mostly made clear to foes that the only power we respect is nuclear power. Hence, the sooner a nation can achieve nuclear weapons, the better. How does this make us safer? We’ve given them every incentive to ignore diplomacy and pursue arms.

And how about the cost of all this invasion? The U.S.S.R., remember, fell under internal economic pressure, not at the hands of enemies. The increase in U.S. debt is financed by overseas borrowing, and adding this to our large, continuing trade deficit will only hasten our almost inevitable second place status to solid, expanding economies like China, India, and the European Union. This won’t help our safety either—in fact, it will largely prevent our recovery.

What is it about 9/11 that makes so many Americans so myopic? Take the hero worship of former Mayor Rudy Giuliani, praised for his leadership following the 9/11 attacks. Yet what did he do other than what any mayor would have had to do?

And while Bush harps on the New York attacks, he gutted every dollar he could from every program he could, leaving FEMA a shell of its former self with an incompetent political appointee at the helm—not to mention denying global warming and pulling out related environmental treaties and programs, a step toward more frequent and more destructive storms. He has come as close to repealing free speech as possible, hand picking audiences, censuring media images of the war, using the justice system to harass politic opponents, and spying on U.S. citizens while striving to keep such practices secret from Congressional oversight. How does this make us safer?

All in the name of 9/11.


Wednesday, August 22, 2007

An Answer to a Conservative Republican

Comment from a discussion board:

"As a conservative Republican I want our [next?] President to have a desire to make the United States a freedom-loving world-leading capitalistic democracy not a shackled world-following socialistic communist nation."

Then you shouldn't have elected a president who has trashed U.S. freedoms, corrupted the judicial system, slowed economic growth and ballooned the national debt--the latter extending the 25% of the country Reagan sold to foreign interests by ignoring reality and turning the largest creditor nation into the largest debtor nation in just one president's time in office. Today, under "we'll just borrow the money" Bush, that's been so radically expanded that China and Saudi Arabia, in particular, own so much of U.S. debt that we CAN'T choose to just go our own way--they literally own us. Further, President Cowboy's policies have virtually ensured that we're stuck in Iraq and Afghanistan for years to the tune of billions (not to mention straining the U.S. military to the point where even the commanders say we can't sustain it past the spring--face it--this "Conservative Republican" president has weakened our nation for years to come). U.S. citizens' negative savings rate doesn't help—EVERYBODY seemingly just charges what they can't afford--then are surprised when they lose their homes, all while driving new trucks with 12 mpg and 8 year car loans, as many of my neighbors do, owing more on the truck than it's worth.

I'm sorry to say it, because I fervently love this country, but America is falling--and we've no one to blame but ourselves.

Ideological denial will only worsen an already tenuous situation.


Saturday, August 18, 2007

The Best and Worst of Words

Someone recently started a discussion thread on a message board, asking for each user’s favorite word, remarking that as writers, we should have some insight. People posted many interesting choices, but my initial thought is also my final response: the.

What word could prove more useful? Want to mark any word of your choice as a noun? The. Sure, other words can do this, but most are limited in their capabilities. Demonstrative adjectives (that, this, those, these, and other such words) can do this, as can count words (numbers and relative quantity indicators), but these are subject to external circumstances. A and an can mark nouns too, of course, but they’re constantly jockeying for position, always looking over their shoulders for what vowels or consonants might be following—let alone possible exceptions. Even then, their indications are indefinite. Adjectives, with or without additional modification from adverbs, just steer information obliquely. The, however, knows its own mind. This is definitely that. It’s THE noun, not a suggestion or a possibility. The is the anchor in an uncertain world.

That uncertainty is the root of my least favorite word, usually applied in the phrase “in conclusion.” I forbid using this marker in my classes, arguing that such a flagged conclusion can’t be leading up to much. Mindful of this rule, one of my poetry students. a college senior, submitted his final paper with his final paragraph beginning “to conclude.”

Yeah, that’s better. Why not just write, “So where’s my paper leading? To what final point? Final argument? Well, no point, really, so let me just repeat the stuff I already said.” Twenty-five words instead of two! That’s gotta help meet the minimum length. It would at least be more honest and more entertaining, if still pathetically weak in content.

So “conclude” becomes a sorry attempt to “occlude,” merely to include what the student should preclude, clearly choosing to exclude more effective approaches, preferring to seclude any real thinking process, clearly not at all clude in.

This decision mirrors the one to baulk against concision, circumventing precision by changing expletive openers like “it is” and “there are” to “it’s” and “there’re” rather than exercising incision in favor of much more definite subjects and verbs. Such an inclination to decline more effective approaches in order to recline will ultimately leave the student facing quite an incline, but this seems systemic in his native Incline Nation.

I do try to intercede, as I want students to succeed, but when they proceed to embrace approaches that precede college level writing, they prevent any hope to exceed grade school competence, and I can only concede.

The student’s stated goal, incidentally, was “to just earn a C.” Mission accomplished.


Monday, August 13, 2007

ODO the Odometer

This morning, after I settled my dog in the back seat and started my Toyota Yaris on the way to our morning run (the dog and I go for the run, not the car, which simply waits for us patiently), the dashboard displayed a character I hadn’t seen before—ODO.

ODO stood there, his hand on his hip, the other pointing to the gas gauge, directly at the half-full point.

Now, I DID appreciate the heads up, as I generally strive to keep the car’s tank at least half full, but this was the first time I’d seen ODO. Granted, at 11,709 miles the vehicle is still somewhat new to me, and the fuel gauge, built from eight dark bars piled atop one another that suddenly disappear as the fuel is spent, does take some getting used to. I actually prefer the old gauges, as the dark bars can vary from 30 to 80 miles traveled, but still, I thought I had adjusted.

I took another sip of coffee. I’m a morning person, but as I also tend to work late and too much, I’ve learned from teaching many eight o’clock classes that a little more coffee can work wonders.

Then I took a closer look. I collect bills on the dash, just under the center-mounted display assembly, so that I remember to pay them promptly. Reflected on the display’s clear plastic was the “Printed on recycled paper” logo from my phone bill, the logo neatly forming ODO’s head atop the image of a gas pump, the nozzle and hose forming ODO’s hand on his hip, the dark triangle indicating the midpoint of the gas gauge suggesting ODO’s other hand, pointing to the half-full tank. His name appeared to the right, just over the digital mileage.

This is not the first time something like this has happened.

One night, not long before midnight (as I discovered later—and a very late hour for me), I was suddenly awakened, and slowly focusing my eyes, glanced at the digital display of my alarm clock.

Alarm indeed. The display read “hE:ll.” Huh? While used to the tyranny of time, this was the first time a timepiece had been so poignant about it. Then, less than a minute later, the display changed to “SE:ll.” Now, I do have some investments, but they are primarily in mutual funds in my 403(b) and Roth IRA accounts, not instruments I need to anxiously track as a day trader. Still, all investments entail risk, and I was moved that my clock felt so strongly that it took the time to wake and warn me.

Just one minute later, the display warned “9E:ll.” I didn’t understand, but I was slowly moving from groggy sleep brain to thinking, waking brain. When the display changed to “LE:ll,” I sat up to examine the clock, and by “8E:ll,” I realized that one or both cats had raced through the room, overturning the digital clock (and disturbing my sleep). Since neither cat knows much about finanacial markets (indeed, they can't even SPE:ll), at 11:39, I righted the alarm, and by 11:40, I was drifting back to sleep.

I am comforted, though, knowing my clock (and my cats) would take the trouble to warn me in the case of a financial emergency. No doubt it’s taken its successful sentinel role rousing me each morning (not to mention the cats) to heart, and seeks to expand its responsibilities. No harm in hard working ambition!

However, I’m often not at home—and frequently in my car. Nice to know ODO will be looking after me during those times.


Sunday, August 12, 2007

Liberal? Conservative? Are You Sure? [A Rambling Economic Romp]

One of my students wrote a paper attacking the views of the liberal media, particularly George Will. No, that’s not a typo—that’s what she wrote, and what she meant. I wonder if staunch conservative Will realizes he’s converted. Truth is, the media has become quite conservative—look at FOX news, for example.

Other discussions in both the classroom and the corner store reveal a disturbing reality—people pick their favorite label, then their views. Democrat, Republican, Liberal, Conservative—these seem to be just words divorced from popular policy, and those misunderstandings lead to poor national choices.

Consider the proud Republicans who argue we must protect American jobs from foreign competition. Are they aware this is the Democrats’ position? Republicans would argue for free trade. NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) especially seems to be a lightning rod, approved under President Clinton, despite the reality that the pact created ten times the number of jobs as it initially cost, the benefit continuing, the cost history, affected employees the beneficiaries of funding to cover the transition (and that funding exceeded the cost).

The WTO (World Trade Organization) also draws some fire, while other lesser known but important agreements, such as cooperation among the Pacific rim nations, seem to escape the radar. Any introductory macroeconomics text can lay out the well established case that such international trade benefits all parties (see comparative advantage). Why the opposition? More benefits are imported than exported.

At the same time, the same people oppose the United Nations, or any attempt at meaningful international law. So, while importing inexpensive food, clothing, toys, and so forth, we also abdicate the safety standards we trust in the U.S., putting ourselves at risk. Sound counterproductive?

How about fiscal responsibility? Instead of runaway spending and high taxes, we should pay as we go!

Not a Republican position—Reagan quadrupled the national debt, changing the largest creditor nation into the largest debtor nation. Clinton turned that around, generating the largest peacetime expansion in U.S. history, upsetting the conventional hawkish view that expanding economies need a war. Bush brought the U.S. back to both war and burgeoning deficits.

Interestingly, here Democrats and Conservatives agree! Pay for programs, wars as they come. Vice-President Cheney disagrees, claiming “Reagan proved that deficits don’t matter.” That’s like running up your credit card, pretending you’ll never have trouble making payments. It only works so long. As Howard Dean noted, “borrow and spend” isn’t better than the “tax and spend” mantra often leveled.

Think we need to reel in such spending? Great. That’s Republican—until you talk about which programs you want to cut. “Wait! I just want to cut the waste!” You know it’s not as easy as that, right? And I’m sure you know cutting your household spending isn’t as easy as deciding to do it.

Take health care. The U.S. spends more per capita than any nation—yet we’re the only industrial nation without universal health care—25% of Americans uninsured. So what? Their problem? Not when their serious conditions find their way to the emergency room at tax payer expenses instead of cheaper preventions. “Yeah, but universal health care will mean trade-offs!” You don’t think we have trade-offs now? Even if you think we should just abandon those people without means, that will inevitably affect the crime rate for people with no options and nothing less to lose. Fine? More law and order? That costs money too.

Or military spending. The U.S. spends more on the military than any other nation by a fantastic margin. Overkill? What are we really getting for it? Rumsfeld sent us down a path (ignoring Gen. Colin Powell—what the hell does HE know about Iraq…) merely stretching and demoralizing our forces, even causing commissioned officers to quit in droves. That’s money down the drain.

Much of this economic mumbo-jumbo is built on misunderstandings. In the 1920s. Americans benefited from sales to Europe, temporarily ravaged by WWI. It didn’t last, catching up to us in the 1930s. Prosperity returned in the 1950s—selling to a Europe ravaged by WWII, but again, this couldn’t last. In the 1960s, Democrat presidents ran up the deficit, and in the stagflation years of the 1970s, conservative Republican Nixon abolished the gold standard to allow currency to float—and wisely so, to the chagrin of conservatives.

Here’s the thing. We talk about liberals and conservatives, but we inherit these labels and their positions from talk radio instead of thinking for ourselves. Consequently, we even end up voting for the people whose positions we oppose—we just don’t know it.


Thursday, August 9, 2007

An Interview with General Discussion

I had always wanted to meet General Discussion. His mere presence was overwhelming—he’s on practically every Internet forum. At the same time, he has no profile on any of these sites—a mystery. So, when I was granted an interview with the General (I’m sorry, but conditions of the interview precluded sharing specifics), I was understandably elated.

I decided to lead by asking about his path to such influence.

“Well, I’ve been known by many names,” he began. “I started as Private Chat, the identity under which I took Corporeal Form. As Sergeant-at-Arms I was able to Captain-my-Views until I had achieved the rank of Major Misunderstanding. And with a Colonel-of-Truth, I ascended to General Discussion.”

I expressed my reservations about such a questionable rise to power.

“What you don’t understand,” he explained, “is that most people don’t care about reasoning. It’s all about speaking your mind, laboring under the delusion that other people care and will listen. No. You have to FAKE debate.”

“Surely that’s unfair,” I protested. “I regularly see people vociferously debating a host of issues!”

“That’s where you’re mistaken,” he answered, implying via body language that you don’t get to be a General without good reason. “People don’t debate—they REACT.”

“I don’t think I can agree.” Frankly, I was quite taken aback.

“All right,” he answered. He thought for a moment. “Consider your favorite Internet discussion boards.” I considered. “Can you identify a few people who consistently seem the best debaters?” I could.

“Well,” he continued, “Look at their patterns.” I was confused. “They don’t just jump in and respond to any comment.” Now I was really confused. The General looked at me, a combination of bemusement and exasperation, then continued. “They wait,” he explained. I stared at him blankly.

“They wait,” he repeated. “They let people make their points. Then, they respond to the group, addressing the sense and content of all those posts.” I still didn’t get it.

“Look,” he sighed (I could tell he was patronizing me). “Presenting a thoughtful view supported by careful argument is difficult.” I listened, waiting. “So, people don’t bother. They throw out their opinions.”

“But others would just counter with their own opinions,” I interjected.

“EXACTLY!” pounced the General. “So experienced ‘debaters’ wait for other users to post first, and then attack those views in lieu of constructing their own arguments.”

I looked at him, stunned.

“This isn’t something new with the Internet.” He was right, of course—public discourse existed long before online discussion boards, and the General’s career predated such electronic advances. “People avoid presenting specific arguments. Doing so would leave them vulnerable.”

“Consider politics,” he continued. “People continually complain that politicians only speak in generalities. Know why? Ever heard of James Buchanan?”

“The 15th U.S. President?”

“No, the Nobel Prize winning economist.” I settled in for the lecture.

“He proposed the Theory of Public Choice. Essentially, he noticed that if a candidate for office presented specifics, opponents would then attack the details of those plans. Hence, savvy politicians avoid divulging such policy, preserving their standings in the polls—and the electorate.”

“But wouldn’t such a generalist approach just mean that voters would dismiss the candidate as superficial?”

“Apparently not.”

I looked at the ground, thinking, my head spinning.

“Look at what happens even in the primaries,” offered the General. “What happens to the front runner? Shot at from every side—within the same party! Often, someone else becomes the eventual nominee.”

I thought for a long rime before replying. “It doesn’t seem right,” was all I could offer.

The General looked at me kindly. After a while, he asked, “Do you know the story of Lieutenant Kijé?”

As a musician, I knew Prokofiev’s suite from the 1934 Aleksandr Fajntsimmer film, along with the basic plot, but not the 1927 Yury Tynyanov novella, the basis for the movie. I listened.

“Contradicting the Tsar was a crime, so when Paul I of Russia misunderstood an incorrectly copied military report, misreading it as ‘Lieutenant Kijé,’ his officers simply created the fictitious officer. The deceit expanded to include Kijé’s courtship, marriage, regular promotion—and when the Tsar finally asked to meet this man, his death and funeral with full military honors.”

I didn’t yet see his point.

“Your country,” he continued, “is based on rule by the people, is it not?” I nodded. “Well, your leader, the people, doesn’t like to hear views other than its own. So, your subordinates tell what the leader wants to hear. Recognizing that is how I rose through the ranks so quickly.”

I stared at him blankly.

"I'm your Lieutenant Kijé," he explained.

The General had pressing business elsewhere, so that had to be the end of our discussion. However, I encourage my countrymen to support this man in his bid for higher office. He has a plan to help build our nation.