Ten Things I Learned the Hard Way

  1. When a woman says “It’s nice to be be in a relationship with you,” do not reply “What relationship?”
  2. If you don’t know what something on your plate is, don’t pop a whole big pile of it into your mouth without sampling it first. Especially if it is wasabi.
  3. It is a bad idea to shoot glass bottles with a slingshot. Even more so if you do it in someone’s bedroom.
  4. If you get into a confrontation with a college quarterback, his offensive line will spring to his rescue, even in a crowded bar.
  5. It is a bad idea to attack a giant fire ant mound with a bullwhip.
  6. Playing basketball and running are not, in fact, cures for plantar fasciitis. Similarly, pepperoni and cheese do not cure ulcers.
  7. Do not enter into a communal living arrangement if you find yourself thinking beforehand “It’s only a year . . . how bad could it be?”
  8. A Pontiac Fiero is really not a very good winter car. Nor is it a very good summer car, despite its awesome stereo system.
  9. If you are going to drink under a bridge, it’s best to not wear light colored clothing.
  10. Never tease a semi-wild polydactyl cat when it has a clean shot at your eyeballs.

What about you?

Freedom and Liberty, Rights and Privileges

As a longtime public servant of sorts, I’ve found it personally and ethically important to steer well clear of partisan politics when declaiming from the public soapbox that my blog offers. When I have written on political matters, I’ve sought to straddle a middle ground, by encouraging civil discourse between those of differing views, or asking that both the left and the right be able to justify their “research”, or imploring people to not use intentionally provocative words like “socialist” or “Nazi” or “teabagger” in such tense civic times as these.

Such central positions tend to come naturally to me, I think, because I’m a native Southerner, well and happily raised in an Evangelical Christian, Marine Corps household, a proud military veteran myself, and with a household income that puts me in one of the most-heavily taxed brackets (all of these traits commonly viewed as defining “tags” of the contemporary conservative), but yet I’ve also spent most of the past quarter-century north of the Mason-Dixon line, much of it working for nonprofit organizations associated with either the social services or arts or educational sectors, all viewed as bastions of extreme liberalism. I move easily in both worlds. And I respect those who work for common good, locally, at a State level, or nationally, from either side of the political spectrum, if that work is done in good faith, without bias or prejudice.

Unfortunately, as you move further from the center in either direction, it seems increasingly rare to find work being done for the common good without such bias or prejudice. I, frankly, find it appalling to ponder how many citizens of this Nation want to see our President and other elected officials fail miserably. And I found that sort of sentiment equally appalling during the last administration as well. As a political centrist, I yearn for nothing less than the greatest successes from the men and women who are duly elected under the rule of law to lead us, whether I agree with them politically or not.

I love the concept of the loyal opposition, but I fear it’s dying out in our Nation, which is terrifying to me. In the same way that strident left-wingers licked their chops and rubbed their hands with ill-concealed glee as President Bush struggled with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, so today do strident right-wingers relish the struggles of President Obama in dealing with the despoiling of the Gulf of Mexico after the Deepwater Horizon accident.

How tragic and shameful this is, when political operatives seek to gain advantage from the suffering of their fellow citizens! How poorly media charlatans and hucksters like Michael Moore, Glenn Beck, Anne Coulter, Janeane Garofalo and Rush Limbaugh serve the public good with their cheap shots from the fringes, while never actually doing anything themselves to improve anything except their own bank balances. While I don’t much care for Al Franken, either, he earns my respect for having put his money where his mouth was by running for office, and actually seeking to work within the system to effect the changes he believes in. Good for him.

One of the things that bothers me the most in today’s political discourse is the never-ending series of claims from both extremes of the political spectrum that our “freedoms” and “liberties” are methodically and intentionally being taken from us. For what it’s worth, I don’t use those words as plural nouns myself, but prefer to think of specific rights and privileges (plural) that engender the more ephemeral concepts of Liberty (singular) and Freedom (singular). Pluralizing and de-capitalizing “freedoms” and “liberties” creates what I consider to be a false sense that they are just long laundry lists of specific items, so that any time any item is removed from the list, Liberty (singular) and Freedom (singular) are compromised. I think that’s a self-referential and dangerous postulate, and I am sick and tired of the glib “we are all frogs in a pot, slowly boiling to death” analogy that defenders of this viewpoint trot out ad nauseum when this topic comes up. I’m not that stupid. Please don’t say that to me again. Or the Kool-Aid thing. Thank you.

I’m also a political scientist by training, so I tend to take long, macro views, and when I look at the rights and privileges available today to every citizen of the Nation, compared to the rights and privileges available at the time of the Constitution’s adoption, I see a long, steady enhancement and expansion of Constitutional protections granted either by amendment or by legislation or by rulings from the Supreme Court. At the opposite end of the spectrum, if I take the shortest and most narrow political view, meaning how I live my own life, I also have no sense that the rights and privileges I experience as a citizen have been diminished in any meaningful way during my lifetime.

I’ve asked here and in other online venues for people to tell me, personally, what “freedoms” and “liberties” have been denied to them by either the Bush or Obama or other recent administrations, and the answers tend to come in one of two forms: (a) scary things that could, hypothetically, happen, but haven’t actually happened to the people writing about them, or (b) piddly-to-churlish things like “I have to wear a seat belt when I drive,” or “I have to take my shoes off at the airport” or “I can’t smoke in my office anymore.” Me? I don’t mind ceding such rights and privileges to the greater good and safety of my fellow citizens.

And I think that’s the fundamental rub I have with all of the “freedoms” and “liberties” talk: much of it comes across as selfish whining from people who just want to be able to do whatever they want, whenever they want, to whomever they want, regardless of how it might or might not impact their fellow citizens. And that doesn’t feel, to me, like living under the rule of law, or being party to a social contract, or anything else beyond a petulant, foot-stomping, childish, “me me ME” view of the world around us. And that, in turn, makes me feel like we have become a Nation of Whiners, unwilling to work selflessly for the common good, concerned only about ourselves, and routinely electing politicians who are pathologically terrified of asking us to sacrifice. Few of us want to be inconvenienced. Few of us want to be told “no.” Few of us want to work hard to improve our Nation, if doing so involves something more than gathering occasionally to wave signs and shout platitudes at each other.

I think one of the worst examples of this in recent years was the Bush administration’s recommendation after September 11th that we should all continue shopping and going about business as usual, because if we didn’t, then the terrorists would have won. The attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center were the most grievous assaults on our Nation since Pearl Harbor. After the original day of infamy, the Nation joined together to ration, sacrifice, enlist, enroll, volunteer, home-garden, black-out and otherwise do what needed to be done to win the war against fascism in Asia and Europe. But after September 11th? Nothing. Just keep shopping, running up debt, and trying to flip your house for fun and profit. Fast forward ten years, with the economy in shambles in large part due to the debt crisis and housing bubble having popped, and consider how well that socioeconomic strategy worked out for us all.

As a former military officer, I grieve not only for those lost on September 11th, but also for those whose fathers and mothers, sons and daughters, husbands and wives, and brothers and sisters have spent much of the past decade fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, while we continue shopping and whining. My admiration for those people and their families is boundless. We are all so fortunate to benefit from their sacrifice, and it does them no justice for us to stay at home and carp about seat belts, regulations against salt in food, soda taxes, and shoe screening while they fight, and suffer, and die to defend our freedom to throw ugly words and ill-formed sentiments and half-facts at each other.

I am proud to live in a Nation that continues to provide me and my fellow citizens with a rich tapestry of rights and privileges. And I am proud of those who fight to defend us, and of those who work to support and nourish the rule of law, the common good, and the social contract that binds us as a Nation. And I am most proud of the Freedom and Liberty that I possess, for which, sometimes, I must sacrifice “freedoms” and “liberties.”

Hoedown

Restaurante Adega in Toronto. Mmmm.

1. I spent the Presidents’ Day weekend in Toronto, Ontario, with my daughter, Katelin, and her friends Esme and Emily. I had a lovely time, with good company, and good meals, most especially on Friday night, when we made a return visit to Adega, an exceptional Portuguese restaurant in Toronto’s Downtown neighborhood. Tripadvisor’s readers rate Adega as the second best of 3,240 restaurants in Toronto, which is completely credible and believable to me. Recommended, if you find yourself headed up to Toronto. As is the hotel we’ve stayed at twice now, The Residence Inn in the Entertainment District, which is the highest rated hotel in Toronto, according to Tripadvisor’s readers. It’s a long drive betwixt here and there (especially with a stop in Geneseo each way, to pick up and drop off the girls), but worth it to me, as Toronto is easily one of my favorite world cities.

2. When we checked in at The Residence Inn on Friday (the two bedroom/two bathroom plus kitchen suites are truly exceptional, when you’re traveling with people who don’t want to sleep together, or even near each other), the concierge noted that breakfast would be served on Monday until 11 AM, because of the holiday. This didn’t really register with me until some hours later, when my brain said “Wait a minute , Monday is President’s Day. Why are the Canadians celebrating that?” As it turns out, they weren’t. They were, instead,  celebrating Family Day. Or at least in Ontario and some other provinces they were anyway. In Prince Edward Island, they were celebrating Islander Day, while in Manitoba, they were celebrating Louis Riel Day. A little research reveals that all of these holidays are new within the past decade or so. This makes me kind of sad, on some plane, since Family Day and its variants are clearly a case of the Canadians trying to figure out a way to take another day off on the same day when their bumbling, over-assertive, incorrigible neighbors to the south does so . . . as is the case for most of their holidays. We say Memorial Day, they say Victoria Day. We say Independence Day, they say Canada Day. We say Columbus Day, they say Canadian Thanksgiving. We say Veteran’s Day, they say Remembrance Day. Interestingly, the Canadians actually take Good Friday and Easter Monday as public holidays, while we don’t, and they also grab Boxing Day (the day after Christmas) as an official holiday, in the same way that we (unofficially) grab Digestion Day after our Thanksgiving.  Here’s hoping the Canadians build on those cultural differences by adding an Inuit or Huguenot public holiday soon, in lieu of the wan Family Day. It’s unbecoming when you try to be like us, Canada. Whatever happened to Vive la Différence?

3. There are only three weeks left in the NCAA Division I College Basketball season, which means my level of obsession will be ramped up dramatically in the days ahead. For those who may not have been reading my piffle and tripe in years past, I take the NCAA Basketball tournament very seriously, and have developed a statistical model that seems to indicate that when more Mid-Major At Large (MMAL) teams receive berths in the NCAA Tournament, more upsets occur as the tournament goes along. The message of this model is that the Mid-Major Teams who might get bumped out due to upsets in their conference tournaments actually do better in the big dance that the teams from major conferences who finish sixth, seventh or eighth in their conferences during the regular season, but get bids anyway, because the corporate greedheads behind the Big 10, Big East, Big 12, ACC, SEC and Pac 10 do everything they can to ensure that the little guys don’t upset their oligarchy. Last year, mid-major Butler, while not an at large, came within a basket of beating mighty Duke in the national championship. Because of this, I predict that the cowardly and evil powers that be in Big Conference college basketball will actually pull strings to cut back on the number of mid-majors that they let into the tournament this year, despite the fact that the NCAA added three more bids to the field. I predict that these extra berths will not help Mid-Majors, but instead will allow the Big East to send ten teams to the dance, rather than their usual already undeserved seven or eight. (Since 2005, when the Big East became a huge, bid-devouring mega-conference of allegedly elite basketball schools, despite their profusion of bids, the conference has managed to score exactly zero championship appearances from five Final Fours. Stop the madness, people! The Big East is a fraud!) The number of MMAL teams in the tourney (which I define as teams from outside of the big, greedy, evil BCS conferences, who get in despite not getting their conferences’ automatic bids) has swung between four and twelve since 1998, with eight of the plucky little guys getting bids last year. While I think there are many, many deserving potential MMALs this year, at this juncture, I’m predicting that there will only be six of them selected to the tournament, unless some of the greedhead conference bubble teams really, really, really tank over the next few weeks. I hope I’m wrong, though, since the tournaments are better when the little guys get to play in them. More news on this over the weeks ahead, with spreadsheets and graphs to boot. I geek this hard. You’ve been warned.

Better Angels

“In your hands, my dissatisfied fellow-countrymen, and not in mine, is the momentous issue of civil war. The Government will not assail you. You can have no conflict without being yourselves the aggressors. You have no oath registered in heaven to destroy the Government, while I shall have the most solemn one to ‘preserve, protect, and defend it’ . . . We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

Those are the final words of Abraham Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address, one of the most eloquent and elegant evocations of the sanctity of the American Union ever put to paper. His words resonate with me, 150 years after he delivered them. Like President Lincoln, I once swore an oath as a military officer to support and defend the United States Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic, and it remains “registered in heaven” all these years later, even though my time of active service is over.

Given that fact, it honestly pains me how glib many people have become in their use of secessionist language within contemporary political discourse, especially when the Confederate States of America (CSA) are evoked and lauded as part of that discussion. It has become fashionable in some circles to dress up and romanticize the Confederacy today in terms of States’ rights or pride in Southern heritage, but the fundamental bottom-line is that the “general welfare” and “blessings of liberty” that the leaders of the CSA desired hinged solely on the disenfranchisement of millions and millions of slaves.

Regardless of one’s political views, I can see no combination of current social, cultural or governmental ills coming anywhere close to the raw evil of a government that went to war to preserve the utter debasement of human life and dignity implied and enacted by institutional slavery. I’m proud to be a native Southerner, I’m proud of my deep South Carolina roots, but I’m ashamed of the role that my ancestors played in attempting to perpetuate and preserve the miseries of human slavery for economic gain. I view the Confederate flag with every bit as much antipathy as I view a Swastika accordingly. I hate seeing it displayed publicly today, no matter what the rationale for hanging it may be. It’s a tarnished symbol, beyond restoration or rehabilitation.

So I grieve for the soul of my Nation when this most shameful chapter in our collective history is often glossed over for the sake of political expediency in contemporary political debate, and the model of the CSA is upheld as a viable, admirable solution to current events. The way I see it, the question of whether or not healthcare should be considered a public good (to cite but one example) is in no way, shape or form comparable to the question of whether or not one human being should be able to treat another as chattel. Media and political operatives who make such romanticized and sanitized connections to the Confederacy as they cry for the dissolution of the Union do a grave disservice to us all. It’s one thing to be educated about and vigilant toward our government’s actions, but it’s quite another thing to call for the sundering of the Nation when the government doesn’t pursue the political agenda we might prefer it advance.

Lest you think this is a partisan screed aimed only at right wing demagogues who use fearful incitement as a blunt instrument to whip their followers into a frenzy, I should note that I hold left-leaning operatives who play to their listeners’ senses of victimization by evoking the specter of Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy or the Stalinist Soviet Union in exactly the same disdain. Holding up the CSA as an admirable model is grievously wrong-minded, but so is comparing anything going on in the United States today to the systematic genocide of millions of Europeans. The Nazi exaggeration is just as provocative, and just as incorrect, as the myth of the noble Confederacy. Frankly, I’d be just as happy to see Michael Moore and Janeane Garofalo go away as I would be to see Ann Coulter and Glenn Beck disappear. Propaganda is propaganda, no matter which side of the political spectrum it serves. Discourse doesn’t thrive when you’ve got a waggling finger shoved in your face.

And what we need more than anything else today is discourse. Not ranting, not hyperbole, not finger-pointing, not name-calling, not personal attacks, not insinuations, not skullduggery and certainly not a fantastic rewriting of American or European history to create a sense of fait accompli pointing us toward some particular contemporary outcome.

Dear Weather Channel . . .

. . . have I mentioned, lately, how much you suck, and how much I hate you?

If not: You do, and I do. Lots.

My family and I live in a part of the country that has lovely summers and beautiful autumns, offset by cold and snowy winters and short, wet, muddy springs. It’s the way things are here. No surprises, really. Only rarely do things get so out of whack that they merit special mention, weather-wise. We understand that snow is part of the deal here in Upstate New York, and when we get to a point where we can’t stand that anymore, we know that we have other options available to us.

We don’t like the winters here, exactly, but we’re used to them, and we deal with them, like a million or so neighbors of ours in the greater (Indie) Albany region do. But I’ve got to be brutally candid with you, Weather Channel: none of us up here appreciate the scaremongering that has become your stock and trade whenever a storm is forecast to pass through the region. It’s tough enough living, working, and driving through these storms, without you fanning the flames of hysteria days in advance of any adverse weather event, for no other purpose other than to generate views at your stupid television station or hits at your stupid website.

I work at the University of Albany, which is one of the largest employers in New York’s Capital Region, and which serves a community of about 25,000 people, when you count residential students, commuter students, researchers, faculty and administration. Our University was closed today, in large part due to anticipatory response to the hysteria that you pitched to our community earlier this week. This has an immense economic and academic impact on our students and the community around us. In my own area of responsibility, I lost income from our campus bank, our campus bookstore, and our campus retail food service outlets. The contractors who work under my supervision had to spend good money to put employees up at hotels near the campus to make sure that we could feed our resident students today. These are big hits, at a time when our national economic narrative dictates that we shouldn’t be sending workers home, and we shouldn’t be shutting down retail venues, and we shouldn’t stop selling the things that we sell, and that our students want (and need) to buy.

As things turned out, I’m guessing that the vast majority of us probably could have made it to campus today. But you made us shut down instead, because you have marketed yourselves to the point where you are viewed as neutral and credible, and we listen to the skewed, biased pap that you feed us. Which is ultimately stupid, on our parts, because you and your ilk spent the past 72 hours putting graphics like this one up on your websites and television stations just so we’d tune in for more (exaggerated for humorous effect, but not by much):

While I totally understand that forecasting weather is an inexact science, and that you are likely to be wrong as often as you are right, what I object to, fundamentally, is the spin you put on weather events, for no apparent reason other than to generate traffic to feed your advertising monster, because a happy advertising monster equates to happy shareholders which equates to happy corporate executives. And we all have to keep the bossman (and his stock portfolio) happy, each and every one of us. So our economic and academic loss here in Albany, in other words, was clearly to your economic gain.

Well played, Evil Corporate Greedheads. Well played, indeed.

I’ve reached a point where every time I see one of your graphics screaming about “storm of the century” or other such twaddle, my gut reaction to such hyperbole is as follows:

Were I King of America for a day, I think one of my dictates would hinge on returning weather forecasting to a place where it could be disseminated as a public, nonprofit good, so that slick corporate shills would no longer have the ability to profit by creating hysteria over routine natural phenomena. (The current “storm of the century” would appear to be, here in Albany, maybe the third worst storm of the current winter. Maybe. It’s nothing special, that’s for sure).

What you are really selling, The Weather Channel, may be best summarized per the graphic below:

We have become coarse and jaded here in these United States, and television shows about sunny, pleasant climes just don’t get us going like they used to. We need ever more stimulation to get us where we need to be, and you, Weather Channel, are always ready with reports of thundersnow or snownadoes or trains blown off tracks by hurricane force winds or whatever the hell other weird, isolated, local phenomena that you can trot out as national news to scare a third of a billion people, most of whom will, at any given time, experience nothing out of the norm for their regions and climes.

One of Indie Albany’s guiding principles is that we offer safe-for-work material at not more than a PG-13 level. Which is a good thing for you, because I could wax really, extensively profane about the irresponsibility of your coverage, and the deep evil associated with profiting from scaring people, while seriously impacting the economy in any number of communities across this great nation of ours. What you do is wrong, fundamentally. And I hate you for doing it.

If there is such a thing as a snownado, here’s hoping with great fervor and sincerity that it strikes your corporate headquarters sometime soon, not injuring any of the your staff level employees (who are just trying to feed their families, like all the rest of us), but wiping out your ability to sell Weather Porn to a gullible, frightened consumer base.

In a just world, this would happen soon. I am predicting tomorrow. Be scared, Weather Channel. Be very scared, indeed.