Dec 31, 2008

A Waxing Crescent Moon and a New Year

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I stared up this evening at the slivered moon, which is in its waxing crescent phase, and for a moment I put aside the various resentments that plagued me today. Domestic noise as produced by my progeny drove me outside for a few moments of quiet, but my detour took an unexpected, almost spiritual, turn.

I listened to the low whine of some passing emergency sirens, and I paused to give thanks that my family members are healthy. The distant sound of a jet reminded me that I had the opportunity to travel to Europe this summer, and also that my immediate family is within a short drive.

The cold and crisp winter wind acted to jar me into the realization that I have a warm house with paid-in-full utility bills. Motorists driving past my house on their way home from work reminded me that - unlike many people these days - I have as much work as I can possibly handle, and that my wife and I have achieved a higher level of financial security than at any point in our 22 years of marriage.

Thus, while I went outside to cool off after my bickering children interfered with my dissertation-writing, I came back inside with the awareness that I really have no room to complain, at least for now.

So I bid everyone who reads this a Happy New Year, and I hope that you are able to enjoy a few moments of peace and happiness this evening as we welcome in the year of 2009.

Dec 30, 2008

On God and Senseless Tragedies

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Left: the late Drew Pearson of Port Charlotte, Florida

I learned yesterday of an especially sad and tragic story that involved a young family I have never met, but with whom I am familiar through an extended network of friends. Drew Pearson and his wife Emily should be celebrating the birth of their daughter Peyton, but instead the family is making funeral plans.

Pearson crashed his SUV into the back of a dump truck Monday morning, just hours after his wife gave birth to their baby. Some suspect that Drew might have dozed off after a lengthy delivery, but this is speculation, and really - what difference does it make?

A child is born and a father is dead.

These are the sorts of moments that cause me to raise my fist and rail toward the heavens. What possible good can come of such horror? How can a loving God permit a newborn baby to be without her father? And why do good people like Drew Pearson die so young, but heartless killers and rapists wander the streets and prey on the innocent?

I have no answers to such questions, and moments like these can drive a person crazy. I recall in my own personal struggles times when I raged at God, and I have to admit that there was never a moment of sudden insight that caused me to understand God's reasons. In fact, I remain a bit suspicious of His motives, or if He even pays attention to people like Drew, Emily, and Peyton Pearson.

I wish I had even a sliver of wisdom to pass along here, but I have none. God's Almighty Plan remains a mystery to me, and the best I can do is to shrug my shoulders and trust that someday this will make sense.

For the moment, the death of Drew Pearson remains a source of angst to people like me who are not close to the family, and an utter catastrophe for those who knew and loved Drew. The best I can do is pass along the means for others to help. You can donate to the Drew Pearson Memorial Fund at any branch of Fifth Third Bank.

Do this today, before you get sidetracked with holiday plans. Do this for a 26-year-old mother with a newborn baby and a husband to bury. Do this to assuage any guilt you might have about a long-passed wrong you committed.

And do this to keep from slipping into a rage against God. That is some unhealthy stuff, pal, and the way things are going, there is no need to piss off a God that would allow this type of tragedy. You could be next.

Dec 29, 2008

On Broken Windows

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I came across a broken window last night at a restaurant in southwest Detroit known as El Zocalo, located in the heart of the city's Mexicantown district. I am sure the window has probably been repaired by the time of this posting, as the restaurant is well maintained, but my mind mulled over the various possibilities for the shattered pane of glass.

The door that holds the glass provides access for both employees and guests, and likely sees its fair share of delivery personnel passing through. My first guess would be that a two-wheeled dolly with a metal ledge struck the window, creating the spidered effect radiating from the concentrated force at the impact point.

My next guess would be that the door was kicked by an impatient or angry person, as the center of the damage was about 18 inches above the ground, perhaps just the right height for a swift kick or an inadvertent boot. In my old retail business - which was not a home business - I replaced more than a few of such door windows after burglaries, thrown rocks, or freak accidents, like when one of the panes cracked when a kid opened the door on the handlebars of his bike.

Or perhaps this was a simple act of vandalism caused by a projectile thrown by a local miscreant. Certainly in my younger days I knew such destruction-minded types, and - truth be told - I remember when I was about 12 chucking shiny steel ball bearings through a few windows of an abandoned industrial building in my old neighborhood. I'm not sure what possessed me to join in on the vandalism - whether peer pressure, boredom, or a touch of sociopathy - but the sound of breaking glass has its own lure, and I am sad to report that I was responsible for at least a half-dozen of the hundreds of broken panes.

I also began to think about what is sometimes called the broken window theory. This school of thought argues that fixing small problems like broken windows ultimately deters more crime, and that ignoring the problems leads to an increase in crime. Certainly an important factor in the success of Mexicantown has been the influx of hardworking entrepreneurs who invested in a previously blighted neighborhood and whose efforts at community improvement spread outward, like the cracks in our tempered commercial glass.

Sure, it would have been simpler to just ask the hostess or manager what happened to the window, but sometimes these introspective diversions are worth the detoured minutes. Now, if I can recall the address of the building I helped mar, perhaps I can make belated restitution for my contribution to its industrial decay. If not, I'll choose a neighborhood group to donate some shekels, and get rid of a minor-but-persistent source of guilt.

Dec 28, 2008

On Record Warm Weather and Blustery Winds

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A high-pressure system from the south brought unseasonably warm temperatures to Northwest Ohio, and Toledo Express Airport recorded a new high temperature of 65 degrees at 4:56 p.m. yesterday. The weather was so warm that I opened the windows in my bedroom before going to bed last night.

The two-inch layer of ice that accumulated on my street over the past week melted in the blast of warm air, meaning that side streets like mine in Toledo are no longer slickened death traps. However, that also meant that there was heavy fog most of the day, and my trip north to visit my parents yesterday was a bit treacherous, with thick blankets of fog reducing visibility on US-23 to mere yards in some patches.

However, my glee at the warm weather was short-lived, as a cold front ripped through the region last night. The winds were so loud that I woke up startled about 4:15 am, and the moaning gusts sounded almost like that dreaded train rumbling of an approaching tornado.

Lightning, sheets of rain, and the low growl of thunder are odd phenomena in late December, but I'm not going to scream "global warming" because of a freakish weather pattern.

This morning I awoke to a yard that looked rather like a war zone, with large branches and toppled trash cans strewn about. Even my solar landscaping lights had been flattened, despite the fact that a four-inch spike anchors each of them into the ground.

Welcome back, winter.

Dec 27, 2008

Rapid Rhetoric: VALETUDINARIAN

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Raphael's depiction of Plato defining the difference between true and false rhetoric This is an irregular feature - both in frequency and oddness - dedicated to a word I came across that I have never previously used.

valetudinarian (VAH-leh-too-dih-NAR-ee-uhn) n. someone obsessively concerned about poor health and ailments; a person who is constantly and morbidly concerned with health.

I have to admit that when I first saw this word, I assumed that it was related to valedictorian or salutatorian, and that it had something to do with commencement exercises.

Nope.

The word valetudinarian is similar in meaning to "hypochondriac," except that valetudinarians tend to be obsessed with avoiding illness, whereas hypochondriacs believe that they already have a bevy of medical conditions. I came across the word in an 1899 book entitled Oriental Literature, a text that includes European ruminations about Eastern lands interspersed with English translations of Chinese and Arabic texts.

Dec 25, 2008

On Baking Cookies and Transfering Love

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Coming home from work the other day I opened the front door of my house and felt that this was a special afternoon, as the heat from the oven and the pungency of spices created a multi-sensual effect that told me this was Cookie Baking Day. My wife sets aside the better part of a morning and evening to create many dozens of cookies as part of our holiday celebrations, some to be given away and others to be consumed by guests and, of course, me.

There is more to the baking of cookies than mixing together the requisite ingredients and stuffing the shaped doughballs into the oven. At the risk of sounding clichéd, the most important factor is love, and my wife is a veritable reservoir of this necessary element.

There is family love, to be sure, that works its way into these cookies, as Christmas and New Year's feature gatherings of our extended family. Yet my wife also exudes a love of the season, and supplies a selfless love of the happiness of others that is contagious.

Even in this year, in which the spirit of Christmas did not take hold especially well in me, even I could not avoid the infectious love that is exemplified by the love baked into the cookies. Sure, I might grouse about the overkill of 24-hour Christmas music on local radio, or the obscene commercialism of shopping malls, but my cynicism melts as I bite into a homemade ginger snap cookie.

Yeah, some of this good feeling might be chemically-induced, or could be attributed to a sucrose rush, but a warm cookie on a cold winter night conveys much more than flour, sugar, and seasonings.

Maybe you have to eat one to really know.

Dec 23, 2008

Film Review: Encounters at the End of the World

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Director: Werner Hertzog

THINKFilm, 2008


There are documentaries that make bold statements about the humans and the planet, such as An Inconvenient Truth, which grab viewers by their shirts and demand that they pay attention, all the while trading cinematic subtlety for the rhetorical sledgehammer effect.

Encounters at the End of the World is not one of those sorts of films.

Werner Herzog's film creeps up on you at an almost glacial pace (sorry for the half-intended pun), profiling some of the people who call Antarctica their homes, at least for a few months of the year. As Herzog interviews geologists, vulcanologists, marine biologists, and even PhD students working as mess hall cooks, he coaxes brief bits of wisdom, philosophy, and raw knowledge from his subjects.

The imagery in Encounters at the End of the World is especially memorable, and Herzog and cinematographer Peter Zeitlinger bring us some Antarctican vistas we might not have considered, like the segments shot upward from under eight feet of Ross Sea ice, or the roiling magma at Mount Erebus, an active volcano located on Ross Island.

Herzog, who narrated the documentary, informed viewers that the film would not be about "fluffy penguins," and there are indeed few images of members of the family Spheniscidae. In fact, the only penguin profiled is a "deranged" bird that waddled dozens of kilometers away from its feeding and breeding grounds, stubbornly marching toward certain death as it plodded onward toward the Transantarctic Mountains.

No Morgan Freeman and no Al Gore here.

So rent this 99-minute film, and learn something about the continent to the far south. Rent this film and also understand a bit more about the ways in which human beings interact with the planet, the ways we interact with each other, and maybe - just maybe - gain some insight on why we might be on this planet in the first place.

Dec 22, 2008

The Quote Shelf

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Medieval text with Latin script A frequent feature on this site; feel free to comment on the quote or to supply a competing quote.

I write to discover what I think. After all, the bars aren't open that early. -- Daniel J. Boorstin

Dec 20, 2008

Signs Say Hybrid Vehicle Parking Only

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(Toledo, OH) I came across an unusual sign today outside the University of Toledo's Savage Arena. As you can see from the photograph, the sign marks preferential parking spaces for hybrid vehicles. The spots are quite close to the east entrance to the facility, and in fact are better closer than a number of spots designated for vehicles with handicapped permits.

What I found interesting was that none of the half-dozen parking spaces was filled with any vehicles, let alone hybrid or green vehicles.

I asked one of the uniformed UT Police offices about the signs, and he informed me that they can indeed ticket the owner of a non-hybrid vehicle for parking in the space, but that for the moment he was unaware of tickets being issued on this infraction. The university's parking violation fine schedule does not list a fine for a hybrid vehicle parking violation, but I suppose that the fine would be akin to those for "failure to observe posted parking restrictions" or "illegally parked in reserved space," both of which are $35.

Interesting, this. I wonder if we will see more of this sort of institutional pressure or inducements to shift our vehicular choices toward "green" vehicles. Of course, shelling out $30K or more for a hybrid vehicle is out of the price range of many folks, so the preferential parking will wind up going to a handful of well-heeled, upwardly mobile yuppies, the sorts of people who can actually afford to go green in an expensive fashion.

Me? When I'm feeling green I walk, take the bus, or ride my bike, but that owes as much to my unwillingness to loosen my tightly-clenched fists and let go of my hard-earned cash on purchasing a new car than it does any with unselfish green impulses on my part. Besides, I get better gas mileage out of my 13-year-old Hyundai than most of the hybrids, quite a few of which post uninspiring fuel efficiency numbers.

Dec 19, 2008

Ohio Ice Storm

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Since we were on the southern edge of the massive winter storm that ripped through the Midwest and the Great Lakes the last two days, folks in Northwest Ohio woke this morning to find a half-inch layer of ice over the snow and freezing rain that fell last night. Pictured on your left is a branch from my red maple, and the leaf stems looked to me like the icy fingers of some frozen wraith hanging down to try and claw unsuspecting passersby.

Shoveling the driveway has been an exercise in frigid futility, as the newer accumulations of rain, snow, and sleet create fresh layers of ice. Even salt is of little use, as it melts the old ice while getting recovered by the new.

I am only glad that I ran errands yesterday, and it is entirely possible that I will not have to drive anywhere until tomorrow.

Dec 18, 2008

On Helping Abused, Abandoned, and Neglected Pets

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I have been a volunteer with Planned Pethood for several years now, in both a foster and adoptive role. I have seen some dogs suffering from serious abuse and neglect, but I doubt I have seen a dog as miserable as Mistletoe, pictured on your left. I should add that I took the picture a day after giving her a bath and scrubbing dead flesh, scabs, and foul-smelling greasy cheese-like gunk from her scalp.

Most of this dog's hair has been scratched and bitten off in her efforts to relieve the maddening itching that tormented her. Mistletoe's owners, you see, could not bother with such matters as veterinary care for the mite infestation that caused her skin conditions, and as a result she also has festering sores on her skin. It is difficult to determine her breed, given the serious nature of her problems, but I suspect she's some sort of spaniel-terrier mix.

Oh, before I forget: the dog has serious tartar on her teeth, ear infections in both ears, and acts as if she has been beaten regularly. You know that look, right? Head down, tail between legs, flinching when a hand comes near.

When I saw this poor wretch yesterday, I have to admit that the following selfish thought popped into my head: "Walk out the door. Now." I thought that this stinking, pus-encrusted pooch was beyond salvation, and I was not sure that I was up for weeks of rehabilitative care and socializing a neglected animal.

Yet when this dog - this smelly, friendless, scarred dog - looked up at me, I knew there was no way I could turn my back on her. Heck - even the animal hospital where she was dumped off didn't want to deal with her, at least until I opened my wallet and yanked out the debit card. Bingo - nothing gets action like cash, right? I'm not going to call out this particular vet, since it is not their job to treat every mangy dog that gets dumped on them, but let's just say that care comes at a cost, and it was $156 for the initial visit and prescriptions.

Que será, será, eh? Animal hospitals are business first, just like any other enterprise, and there are hundreds of dogs like Mistletoe just in Northwest Ohio.

So I bring you the story of Mistletoe not to trumpet my own dubious claims to virtuousness, but instead to highlight the plight of abandoned, abused, and neglected animals. You see, the world is filled with idiots who think nothing of allowing their pets to suffer. Moreover, given the lousy state of the economy, perhaps Mistletoe's previous owners simply could not afford basic veterinary care (though the fact that she ended up in a rather posh animal care center makes me doubt poverty as a cause of this dog's condition).

Yet in spite of all this maltreatment, Mistletoe is a docile and affectionate dog, at least when she ventures out of the corner in which she has been hiding. She gets along well with the other dogs, and appears to understand the basics of being housebroken. Unfortunately, I do not know when she will be available for adoption, as she is probably looking at many weeks of restorative care.

No, I penned this post as a request for donations to help Planned Pethood continue saving pets like Mistletoe. Any amount you give can help the group continue to save abused, abandoned, and neglected pets, and frankly - the population of animals in need is only going to increase as the economy sputters along. Follow this link to donate to Planned Pethood, and thank you for taking the time to read this post.

Dec 17, 2008

Strait Talk

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Left: Radio host James Strait

As a writer with a blog presence, I am privy to a number of invitations to participate as a guest in other media, and this afternoon I spent about twenty minutes conversing with James Strait, whose "Strait Talks" program can be heard every Wednesday from 7 to 8pm on Philadelphia's WNJC 1360AM, as well as on live netcast.

Now, I have to admit that I cast a skeptical eye on radio and television interviews because you never really know the agendas of the producers, hosts, or reporters, and I've found myself more than once doing an interview that wandered into unexpected territory.

However, I was pleasantly surprised by the high level of thoughtful discourse that Strait displayed on his show. This was far removed from the shout-fest into which many AM talk-radio shows descend, and we went into a lengthy sojourn about the possible parallels between the fall of the Weimar Republic and the grim political, social, and economic challenges faced by the United States in the next few years. While neither of us is ready to pronounce an end to American-style capitalist democracy, we both hold to a belief that the good old USA might find itself at a crossroads in the next few years if the economy slides further into a financial abyss.

What I found especially intriguing about Strait's show was its lack of overt partisanship, and Strait is first and foremost a "small d" democrat - someone who recognizes that one of our most cherished freedoms is the ballot box. He agrees that the threats to true democracy are as serious as any other problems we face.

In short: my kind of thinker.

So, if you are looking for intelligent talk radio (yes, I know that this borders on the oxymoronic), check out Strait's show. You won't find Hannity-style ranting or Savage-like thuggery, but you'll probably leave with new insights and an appreciation for the dying art of broadcast conversation.

Dec 16, 2008

Top Ten Creepiest Villains in Film

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Michael Madsen as the sadistic Mr. Blonde in Reservoir Dogs

I have to say up front that there will be some folks disappointed that Freddie Krueger (Nightmare on Elm Street series) or Jason Vorhees (Friday the 13th series) do not appear on this list, but I am deliberately excluding these cartoonish evildoers. There is no subtlety involved in running around with a chainsaw and a hockey mask, or slashing people with razor claws, and - despite the popularity of these two horror franchises - there is little in the way of acting talent that is necessary to play these one-dimensional monsters.

Instead, I am listing who I consider to be the most frightful villains, realistic characters so disturbing because of the actors who portrayed them. This is a category that owes as much to the efforts of actors to get inside the minds of brutal killers and sadistic fiends: on-screen psychos that make you cringe weeks after watching the film in which they appeared.

Here, then is my Top Ten ranking; be sure to weigh in with your own favorites, or to bash my selection of particular villains.


1. Mr. Blonde, Michael Madsen: Reservoir Dogs. One of the all-time creepiest scenes in movie history occurs when Mr. Blonde does his little dance to the 1970s tune "Stuck in the Middle With You" by Stealer's Wheel. At least 45 seconds goes by before anything happens, time that seems like an eternity: you know something really wicked is about to happen, you don't know what, and director Quentin Tarrantino leaves most of the initial gore to the imagination.

2. Frank Booth, Dennis Hopper: Blue Velvet - As if torture, rape, and murder weren't enough, Hopper's Frank Booth is also a gas-huffing maniac whose "Don't you f**king look at me!" is a pop culture moment unto itself. Creepy, creepy, creepy.

3. Anton Chigurh, Javier Bardem: No Country for Old Men - Just because Chigurh leaves his decisions on violence to a coin toss does not mean that this is any less creepy of a villain. What is especially disturbing is Bardem's portrayal of the wounded Chigurh performing surgery on himself to remove shotgun pellets from his leg, as effortless as if he were applying an acne treatment.

4. The Joker, Heath Ledger: The Dark Knight - I must admit I was skeptical of the hype behind Ledger's portrayal, and I thought there might be some post-mortem sympathy involved in the effusive praise he garnered. However, this Joker was the worst sort of psychopath: one who worshipped violent chaos. You never knew when he was going to commit a horrifying act of sadistic violence, or when he might act in a rational fashion. I left the film with an unsettling feeling about the seeming inability of good to triumph over evil.

5. Jack Torrance, Jack Nicholson: The Shining - Nicholson's "Here's Johnny!" line might have lost some cultural significance after the retirement of a certain late night host, but Torrance's descent into madness still sends chills from the apex of my odontoid down to my coccyx almost three decades later.

6. Dr. Christian Szell, Sir Laurence Olivier: Marathon Man: The idea of an ex-Nazi drilling into my teeth is frightening enough, but the fact that Szell does so without anesthetic puts this villain into the list.

7. Samara Morgan, Daveigh Chase: The Ring - Sure, this flick is not much more than a B-movie, but when Samara did that video-morphing thing at the end of the film, I about jumped out of my seat, and I looked over my shoulder the whole way home from the theater. Yikes!

8. Tom Ripley, Matt Damon: The Talented Mr. Ripley - Damon's preppy, Ivy League character keeps hidden the lurking murderer within, and I was both fascinated and repelled by this split personality.

9. Max Cady, Robert DeNiro: Cape Fear (1991 remake) DeNiro's portrayal of the psychotic, revenge-minded Cady took the character to new depths of depravity, even more sadistic than Robert Mitchum's work in the 1962 original.

10. Tommy DeVito, Joe Pesci: Goodfellas - The psychopathic, short-fused DeVito was equally funny and frightening, and one of the best scenes in the film was Pesci's "I'm funny how, I mean funny like I'm a clown, I amuse you?" scene. This was improvised by Pesci and Ray Liotta, and viewers never really know if Tommy Devito is about to fly into a rage or if he's kidding with the other mobsters.

Honorable mentions: Annie Wilkes as played by Kathy Bates in Misery, and Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates in Psycho.

Dec 15, 2008

On Presidents and Thrown Shoes

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George W. Bush, dodging soles of disdain

News of the Iraqi reporter who hurled a pair of shoes at President George W. Bush caused me to rub my eyes and make sure that I read the headlines correctly. After all, it is not every day that a world leader is the recipient of airborne footwear, and given the tightly-controlled nature of presidential appearances, I am surprised that the loafer-chucking Muntader al-Zaidi even managed to take off his shoes, let alone fire them in rapid succession at Bush.

Yes, I know that the dirty soles of footwear are a form of disrespect in some parts of the world, and I know that Bush is far from the most popular world leader at the moment. Yet there is something especially surreal about a used pair of shoes being launched at a world leader.

I am not sure if I would have laughed, scratched my head, or frowned were I to have been present at the brogue-based bombardment. Certainly the Bush presidency earned a measure of anger, and I suppose that different cultures are entitled to their own forms of expression. Still, the journalist in me scoffs at the idea of reporter-as-center-of-attention, although admittedly he had access to Bush that outsiders lack.

I also wonder if the catapulted shoes will only reinforce stereotypes about people in the Middle East, like the way that Nikita Khrushchev was lampooned as an uncivilized barbarian for the infamous shoe-banging incident that occurred in 1960 at the United Nations. While far be it from me to advise other people on the optimal methods of political protest, perhaps activists might consider the PR ramifications before flinging their footwear.

Or not. Maybe Muntader al-Zaidi pays little attention to what Western pundits like me think, and that his real goal was to speak for millions of people who did not have a voice in the events of the last decade in the region. In that case, Muntader al-Zaidi achieved his political aims, if not those of his projectile ambitions.

The Quote Shelf

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Medieval text with Latin script A frequent feature on this site; feel free to comment on the quote or to supply a competing quote.

What do we live for, if it is not to make life less difficult for each other? -- George Eliot

Dec 12, 2008

On Troy Neff, Road Rage, and Common Sense

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Left: Troy Neff and his war wounds (copyright Toledo Blade/Lori King)

I admittedly do not know radio host and financial planner Troy Neff very well, and my interactions with him have largely been limited to electronic communication. Even still, I was surprised to see that he became involved in a road rage incident in which he scuffled with another motorist before being stabbed, as Neff always struck me as pretty level-headed.

Luckily, Neff's injuries were not life-threatening, and it appears that he will make a full recovery.

Yet I do know the anger that can rise when confronted with a traffic incident that spirals out of control. While I am not sure that my own behavior could be defined as "road rage," it certainly had the potential to escalate into the dangerous territory into which Neff found himself Wednesday night.

These days I prefer the sarcastic approach when I am incensed about the brainless actions of another motorist. This usually takes the form of pulling up next to the offending motorist and clapping my hands in an exaggerated mock praise, or pantomiming the motions of a drunk taking a long pull from a whiskey bottle, suggesting that the other driver is an inebriated fool, blasted out of his head. While still provocative, I find that this lets me burn off some anger without blatantly instigating a physical confrontation.

I know, I know: I should just let idiot drivers careen down the road, but occasionally these motorized cretins need to know that they are a menace, or so say the voices of righteous indignation in my head.

A few years ago some idiot cut me off, and as I pulled up at the light, I provided said imbecile a one-fingered assessment of his driving. Instead of the usual exchange of middle fingers or shouted insults, though, this incident took a different, more menacing path.

The other driver screeched into reverse and pulled up right behind me, gesturing wildly and proceeding to tailgate me for about two miles. Rather than driving to my house - thus providing the jackass with my home address for possible further idiocy - I drove into a different subdivision. I should also mention that one of my teenagers was in the car, and that neither of us had a cell phone to call the cops.

I soon tired of driving through someone else's neighborhood with a raging loon on my bumper, and I became convinced that the stalking motorist would not give up. I parked my car, told my son to sit tight, and walked out toward the other vehicle, preparing myself for what looked like would be a fistfight.

Now, while I prefer to settle differences peacefully, I have thrown a few punches in my day (and received even more). Moreover, I am 6'5" and 230 pounds, and I have a decided size advantage in physical altercations.

Fortunately, my gorilla-like bulk and my testosterone-fueled salutation - "Bring it on, you punk-ass motherf**ker" - were enough to convince my would-be assailant that this was not a fight he wanted, and he drove off with a few choice face-saving profanities.

No harm, no foul, game over, right?

But what if Joe Badass decided this was the moment to reach under his seat and pull out his .22, and decided to put a bullet in my skull? Or what if Billy RoadRage found me to be the perfect target for his silver Taurus, and he decided to run my foolish self over?

So to Troy Neff and other angry motorists (including me): try to remind yourself that even the most prodigiously imbecilic knuckle-draggers are simply not worth your rage, no matter how serious the violation of safety standards or common sense. Just let this nonsense go before it gives you ulcers, or before you become a crime statistic.

And never, ever play vehicular vigilante with a kid in the car. Not only are you setting a flawed example for your children, but you just might find yourself on the receiving end of an unexpected bullet. These are not the 1960s or 1970s, when most fights remained limited to a half-dozen punches and someone winding up with a bloody nose and getting tossed into a mud puddle. There are borderline psychopaths packing serious firepower on American roads today, just itching for a reason to bust the proverbial cap in the ass of the next fool willing to take them on.

I shudder to think of how close I might have come to getting flatlined that sunny afternoon right in front of my kid. He recently recalled the event in front of some friends, describing my actions with that reverential awe young men have for times when their dads stood up. I had to cut him off and set him straight, letting him know that it was me who was the idiot that day, since I let my pride get in the way of clear thinking.

He looked a little puzzled that I did not jump in and help commemorate my "manliness," like I would if he was bragging to his friends about his dad scoring a winning touchdown or saving a baby from a burning building (both hypothetical examples, by the way).

I only hope that some day my son understands why I am not proud of my Dirty Harry moments, and that real bravery has little to do with chest-pounding and macho strutting.

Dec 11, 2008

On Peninsular Fireplaces and the Virtues of Hiring Professionals

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I must admit that I do not pay much attention to interior decorating, and I joke with my wife that my ideal color scheme would be white walls in every room and black carpeting throughout the house. You see, my overriding decorating concern has always been functionality over aesthetics, and questions such as "can Crayons be easily cleaned from it" and "will it hide food stains left by my children" dominated any discussions about home improvements.

Thus, when my wife began planning the creation of a peninsular gas fireplace in our home, visions of the havoc wrought by pyromaniacal teenagers tormented me. Yet she persevered in winning me over to the idea, and the carpenter just finished the wood facade on our latest home improvement project.

The project was a bit pricey, coming in just under four grand, but we have both been working extra part-time jobs this fall, and we funded the grand vision out of our savings. We splurged (at least by our standards) and hired a professional contractor with experience in the installation of such a contraption, which meant that I did not have to try and master skill sets completely foreign to me.

Also, this meant that the fireplace was installed according to code, which admittedly is lower on my list of priorities when I do the work (remember - "does it work" trumps "is it up to specs" in my pragmatic mind). I am also far from knowledgeable on gas line installation, so to say I was out of my methanic league would indeed be accurate.

Moreover, other than helping hoist the 350-pound fireplace off the semi that delivered it, I exerted little in the way of physical labor on this project, allowing me to continue my "real" work unabated. I know that a few of my frugal friends will cluck about the spending of $1600 on a contractor, but the work would have taken my wife and I two weeks instead of four days, meaning that the money we "saved" would have been offset by weeks of grumbling, unplanned problems, and the inevitable rookie errors.

Now, if I can only muscle a few of our dogs away from the prime warming zones, I will sit for a few minutes and toast my feet.

Dec 10, 2008

On Economic Recessions, the Media, and a Post-Capitalist World

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The high priest of the Cult of the Invisible Hand: Adam Smith

I have a friend who is a staunch conservative and who is an unabashed devotee of Adam Smith. In a recent conversation about the economy, my friend turned to me and repeated a mantra that I hear from many folks who belong what I like to call The Cult of the Invisible Hand.

"For starters, economic conditions are not really that bad, and definitely not as bad as the Great Depression," he intoned. "But the big problem is the media, which keeps feeding us these 'hard times' stories and putting people into a frenzy about the coming End of the World and all that."

When he gets like this, I usually segue into a less fractious topic of conversation, like college football, since my friend is utterly doctrinaire in his approach to politics and economics. Like other devotees of the religion of capitalism, he cannot be shaken from his fervent belief that free markets are the Alpha and Omega of human existence.

I would be more successful trying to demolish a masonry wall with my forehead than I would to change my friend's opinions on matters related to capitalism.

Anyways, I found intriguing the premise that the media somehow creates, perpetuates, and worsens economic recessions and depressions. Certainly as a primary conveyor of information, the media makes investors aware of market trends, and perhaps there could be some truth that greater media attention paid to the economy might reinforce existing financial anxiety.

However, I think that my friend and other like him simply do not like to acknowledge the fact that capitalism has flaws far beyond any caused by media hype or, for that matter, government intervention in the economy. Not only do we live in an era of global markets that operate with a complexity beyond human comprehension, we also live in an age when trading is increasingly performed by computers that have been programmed to buy and sell at preordained prices and market conditions.

Hypercapitalism, I like to call this.

Of course, it is reassuring to simply blame the usual demons - like Democrats and the media and liberals - than it is to question one's faith systems. The idea that there could be alternatives to capitalist economics is in itself a form of heresy, and triggers the Pavlovian response that such an apostate must be, therefore, a Communist or Marxist.

I am neither, and yet as a historian I know that capitalism will eventually run its course in the manner of all anachronistic systems and be replaced by...something else. Certainly Soviet-style communism did not pan out, nor did the visions of socialism espoused by Mao or Pol Pot. Yet we are not limited to considering alternatives to capitalism that are derived from failed communist states.

I am thinking here of the coming post-monetary world, as we evolve from people hoarding bits of shiny metal and slips of paper into people who develop a more rational method of economic exchange. I try to picture a world in which herd mentality or gloomy media reports cannot weaken an economic system, or where capital flight cannot wreck entire economies, like the 1997 Asian financial crisis or the 2001 implosion of the Argentine austral.

I do not delude myself that a harmonious Utopia is just around the corner, but I find equally absurd the notion that the scribbled musings of a long-dead Scottish political economist should be accepted as revealed truth.

Dec 8, 2008

Get Well Wishes: Paul Zimmerman, AKA Dr. Z

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I came across a bit of sad news today that one of my favorite sports writers - Sports Illustrated's Paul Zimmerman, better known as Dr. Z - recently suffered a pair of strokes and is currently in a rehabilitation facility. Those of you who pray, or who believe that they have influence with the Almighty, are hereby encouraged to channel such spiritual energy in the direction of Dr. Z, a legendary reporter of all matters related to the NFL.

Yet to describe Dr. Z as a "sports writer" is itself something of a disservice, like calling Chef Paul Prudhomme a "cook" or characterizing Paul Simon as a "dude who plays guitar." For Dr. Z is a different sort of sports writer, one who is just as likely to digress into a discussion about fine wine, the fact that he attended the same high school as the disgraced Eliot Spitzer, or how players on his high school football team cut metal cans and taped them to their forearms in an effort to gain an illegal advantage over their opponents. SI suggests that Dr. Z "has watched more NFL games than any other person on the planet," and he has been writing about football longer than I have been alive, which is saying something, as I am approaching my fifth decade of an earthly existence dedicated to the avoidance of wearing a tuxedo.

Simply put, Dr. Z is a master of prose, and an entertaining writer whose NFL Power Rankings, Bettor's Guide, posts about his wife Linda (better known as "The Flaming Redhead"), and regular Mailbag segments will be sorely missed by thousands of avid readers.

Especially me.

So, rest up, oh maestro of the pigskin missive, and we anxiously await your speedy return to health and - God willing - another dozen years of your insightful, humorous, and relevant commentary.

Dec 7, 2008

On Neighborhoods, Signs, and Cultural Change

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(Detroit, MI) I grew up in a neighborhood on the west side of Detroit formally known as Warrendale, but which was better known as "Little Warsaw" due to the high numbers of first and second generation Polish immigrants who located there. My own street featured folks of such ethnicities as Armenian, Maltese, Albanian, and African-American, but the flag of Polska proudly flew on many area houses and businesses when I lived in Warrendale from 1973-1988.

There was Saints Peter and Paul Catholic Church, which featured more masses spoken in Polish than English each week. We even had Kosciusko Elementary School, named after the revolutionary figure Tadeusz Kościuszko, who participated in both the American Revolution and the 1794 Polish uprising against the Russian Empire.

I drive through my old neighborhood every once in a while, and I recently drove down Warren Avenue and studied the storefronts in an effort to visually understand the ethnic changes in Warrendale. One of the most obvious changes was the high number of Arabic lettering on local businesses, as well as the decline in the number of easily-identifiable Polish businesses.

In fact, the only Polish businesses that seem to still be thriving along Warren Avenue are the Jarzembowski and Sajewski funeral homes, which probably reflect the aging Polish residents who comprise the declining number of ethnic Poles in the immediate area.

Michalak's Meat Market - once the best place to buy kielbasa and pierogies - is now a fruit market catering to Arabic speakers, and many other Polish businesses are but dim memories. In their places are Mexican restaurants, Lebanese physicians, and fast food outlets, with a smattering of ethnically unidentifiable retail establishments, like liquor stores, video rental joints, and places that make personalized baby gifts.

I admit to a pang of nostalgia at the disappearance of the neighborhood I remember, and at the same time I realize that I too am no longer a fixture of Little Warsaw, even though my connections to all matters Polish are but tangential. My old neighborhood now belongs to other people from different cultures, and living in the past is a largely unproductive activity (except for historians, who manage to eke out a living by rummaging in the past).

Still, a part of me wants my old neighborhoods to remain frozen in time, like ethnic Disneylands or cultural museums, so that like a tourist I can return to my past and reconnect with dormant memories.

Sorry, pal - change happens, and all the whining in the world will not stop change from occurring.

Dec 6, 2008

Prettiest Girl in the Whole Wide World

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A friend today said that I was about the last person she expected to see with a "foo-foo" dog, a reference to our faithful pooch Candy pictured on your left. It is true that Candy's visit to the groomer today resulted in a dog more "foo-foo" than one might think befits a curmudgeon such as me, and yet Candy has been much more than a pampered canine in her life.

She came to us several years ago via Planned Pethood, a volunteer animal rescue organization in Northwest Ohio with whom my wife and I work. I remember when we first saw Candy online: this was a severely neglected and abused dog shorn of almost all of her fur due to a flea infestation and this poor dog's extreme flea allergy dermatitis. Most dogs scratch and go about their business after flea bites, but Candy's response to the intense itching is to relentlessly scratch and bite at her skin, ripping out tufts of hair and gnawing at what must be an unbelievable amount of epidermal torment. Ah! If only there were safety equipment designed for pots of chicken soup!

When we brought the bedraggled pooch home, she looked more like a salmon-colored rat with festering scabs than a healthy dog, and her period of recovery took months. Unfortunately, just after her hair grew back, Candy had a pot of scalding chicken soup spilled on her back, causing serious burns, several opiated days in the pet hospital, and weeks of veterinary care to clean and treat her wounds.

So, if folks want to chuckle about "foo-foo" dogs and pet grooming, they can feel free to make me the object of good-natured humor. However, I know that this dog has earned the occasional trip to the groomer, since she patiently endured more misery in five years than most people suffer in a lifetime.

Anyways, Candy is at the moment indeed the prettiest girl in the whole wide world - my rhythmic nickname for her - at least until she next rolls in the mud outside, a decidedly un-girlish behavior that she enjoys. I give the colorful holiday bows about two more hours before she scratches them off, but for the moment Candy is the canine version of a supermodel.

Dec 5, 2008

Thousands of Birds in Flight

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I paused my car the other day to stop and watch the passing of a massive conglomeration of dark-colored birds flying southwest across Monroe County. "Flock" simply does not capture the magnitude of this airborne horde, which traveled perhaps thousands of feet in the air, so high that their cries and shrieks were almost inaudible.

Unlike the fabled V-formation of geese, these birds did not assemble in a discernible pattern, though I was fascinated by the sudden jerky changes of direction upon which segments of the avian mass would break, only to return to the fluttering whole moments later.

Tempted though I am to play with some ideas about the stock market based upon studies of chaos theory and bird flock behavior, instead I prefer to relive the moment of standing in a frozen Ida Township cornfield and staring above at the winged patterns roiling across the sky.

I was alone and cold, but strangely transfixed by the tropospheric fractals whirling with the unpredictable movement of air masses and unknown forces that drove the flocking birds.

I allowed myself a brief moment of spinning in place while gazing upward, the kind of carefree activity dating back to childhood that adults are supposed to forgo in our pursuits of wealth and security. This was no moment of bold rejection of social conformity, though: there was probably no one within 1000 yards of my angular, bespectacled self, and frankly I am old enough that I might start passing as "colorful" instead of "deranged."

Maybe.

Dec 4, 2008

On Laptop Power Adapters and Digital Dependency

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How I missed ye

On a recent trip to teach in Detroit I committed an act of considerable forgetfulness, leaving behind the power adapter to my laptop. Though my newer Sony VAIO notebook possesses a powerful battery, at best I had only two hours of life left in the operation of my electronic sidekick.

My options were as follows:

• Drive back to Detroit and retrieve the adapter ($25 in gas plus 3 hours of my already limited time)
• Drive to Best Buy and purchase an additional adapter ($79.99 plus tax)
• Suck it up and hope the adapter was still there at my next class ($0.00, but a risk that the cord would be swiped by an opportunistic thief)

I opted for the third choice, as I am stingy by nature and I generally have faith in humanity. As it turns out, the AC adapter remained plugged into the exact outlet in which I left it, thereby validating my thriftiness and trust. However, I experienced nearly 48 hours with limited computer availability, and I was surprised at the degree to which I am dependent upon Internet access.

As someone on the move between a variety of workplaces, and someone who has a significant percentage of income derived from cyberspace, I was in a state of virtual paralysis the past few days. I desperately sought out university computer labs and library Web portals like a junkie jonesing for a fix, and I cursed the slow-moving community PCs that lurched like the overloaded pickup trucks of neighborhood metal scavengers on trash day.

At home, I had to jockey for computer time with my AIM-addicted teenagers, for whom vitally important instant messaging were obviously of a higher priority than Dad's distance learning class and student e-mails. Duh!

So I embraced my missing AC adapter this morning with relief and gratitude, better knowing now how vital is this piece of hardware. I will treasure you, oh provider of electrons, and I promise to never again treat you with such disrespect.

Dec 2, 2008

On Gas Station Food, Healthy Living, and Common Sense

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My loving wife has been giving me friendly reminders about the importance of a balanced diet, and - though I do put forth an honest effort to improve the quality of my food consumption - I still exhibit a tendency to stuff my pie-hole with unhealthy food items. This is especially the case when I am both tired and hungry, and the idea of quick food wins out over common sense.

Such was the case this evening, when my trip to Speedway for $10 in gas and two gallons of milk brought me into contact with an in-store advertisement that promised "ANY TWO GRILL ITEMS: $2.00." Turning on the shiny electric grill-bars were a bunch of tasty-looking corn dogs, those lipid-laden, artery-clogging, empty-calorie food items that nonetheless fit my two basic criteria: quick, instantaneous, and cheap.

OK, that is three criteria. Sue me.

Anyways, after completing my purchases and pumping the gas, I drove away from the station and attempted to bite the first of the corn dogs, but my teeth could not crack the rock-hard exterior of a grilled food item that must have spent three hours in high heat. Even the inner hot dog had been reduced to a leathery, rope-like texture more like beef jerky than tender meat. The second corn dog was equally inedible, as though I tried to chew a piece of our leather Moroccan furniture, despite my desperate efforts to gnaw a few pieces of inner cornmeal to tide me over.

Now, you are probably saying to yourself: "Why would a person actually EAT food cooked in a gas station?" Normally I would join you in denigrating the virtues (if there are any) of gas station food, yet I willfully ignored this rather obvious piece of wisdom.

"Gas station food." The phrase sounds almost like an oxymoron, but that did not stop me from trying to cram the worthless corn dogs down my gullet. So to my wife: I went home and ate some yogurt, some raw carrots, and a piece of bread, plus the leftovers from El Camino Real you so kindly brought home as we lounged upon our Moroccan furniture. My elevated cholesterol levels did not suffer from this moment of culinary insanity, and I live for another day to avoid making impulsive food decisions.

Nov 30, 2008

On Jdimytai Damour and the Pestilence of American Consumer Culture

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Few stories have disturbed and angered me as much as news of the death of Jdimytai Damour, the Wal-Mart employee trampled to death by Black Friday shoppers hell bent on saving 20 to 30 percent on a variety of plastic rubbish for their friends and family. Damour was one of a handful of Wal-Mart workers who tried to keep out a crowd of 2,000 people that gathered in the predawn hours to purchase holiday gifts.

The unruly mob forced its way into the store prior to the scheduled opening, and frenzied shoppers knocked over and crushed Damour, with most shoppers too busy elbowing their way into the store to stop and help the stricken employee.

The trampled human being, Jdimytai Damour.

Damour loved poetry, enjoyed anime, and liked to talk politics with his family and friends. The dead worker was known as a "gentle giant" by his friends. Yet to the deal-crazed thugs who smashed glass doors and crushed the 270-pound man, Damour was little more than a slab of meat standing in their way.

Police made the eventual decision to close the store, and I suspect that Wal-Mart managers would have been quite hesitant to close the store on their own, being the busiest day of the year. Yet even the clang of corporate registers is less cynical than the angry Wal-Mart customers who whined about the store closing when they waited in line for hours.

I am thoroughly disgusted with the sick, cold-hearted bastards who killed this man, but I am positively apoplectic at the self-absorbed idiots who think their Wal-Mart shopping experience is somehow more important than a lifeless human being. Yet these morons and thugs are only symptoms of the larger phenomenon of a consumer culture in which vertically integrated media fuel a relentless obsession with mostly-useless manufactured offal: a culture of shallow desires, greedy acquisitiveness, and dead human beings like Jdimytai Damour.

Merry Christmas!

Nov 29, 2008

The Quote Shelf

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Medieval text with Latin script A frequent feature on this site; feel free to comment on the quote or to supply a competing quote.

Well...um...a true story? I couldn't swear to every detail, but it's certainly true that it is a story. -- Sheriff Ed Tom Bell

Nov 28, 2008

Meet Brooke, a Rescue Dog

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Pictured on your left is Brooke, a 3-year-old female Beagle-terrier or Beagle-Dachshund mix. She is an affectionate dog who quickly bonds with people, and who gets along well with other dogs.

Shorter than a typical Beagle, this 20-pound girl possesses many of the traits of Beagles, including a love of the outdoors and an interest in the scents of the squirrels, oppossums, and other creatures that roam my neighborhood. Brooke is housebroken, and marches right to the back door when she needs to go outside.

We have not observed any negative behaviors in Brooke, with the possible exception of some separation anxiety (she whines when people leave the house). She loves to cuddle on the couch with people, and prefers sleeping in a bed with people than to sleep by herself. To learn more about adopting Brooke or any other Toledo-area rescue dogs, visit the Planned Pethood website for more details.

On Thanksgiving Leftovers and Leftover Thanks

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The refrigerator full of turkey, stuffing, au gratin potatoes, and other holiday leftovers testify to the gap between our estimation of the appetites of our Thanksgiving guests and the actual food consumed yesterday. Of course, it is better to over-prepare than to run short of food on an annual feast such as Thanksgiving Day.

Some folks believe that the leftovers taste even better than the original meal, and there is much to be said for a full plate of reheated holiday food. My wife can cook with the best, and I heartily enjoyed a sequel to the previous day's meal.

And as I digest my second round of traditional fare, I pause to consider just how privileged I am, as there are billions of people for whom such my meal of leftovers must seem an impossible dream. I live in a land relatively free from violent conflict, a nation in which terror attacks are as rare as a blizzard in the Sahara, unlike folks in places like Mumbai or Baghdad.

I live at a time when I can still express my thoughts without fear of government reprisal, and I have access to a media outlet in the form of this blog that gives me a platform to reach a global audience. Moreover, I live relatively debt-free in my own home at a time when the global economy totters on the verge of collapse, and we should be able to survive even the worst financial calamity. Though my wife and I are far from wealthy, we live nonetheless better than 90 to 95 percent of the other human beings on the planet.

So, despite any lesser sources of irritation or frustration, my life is indeed blessed, and I offer humble thanks to God for my relative affluence.

Nov 26, 2008

On the Mumbai Horror

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Squads of armed gunmen stormed luxury hotels, restaurants, hospitals and a train station in coordinated attacks across the Indian city of Mumbai Wednesday night, killing at least 88 people, injuring over 240 others, and reportedly taking hostage Westerners. At least 10 sites have been attacked so far, and the city remains in a state of chaos.

The attackers specifically targeted Britons and Americans, according to witnesses.

I find the violence especially surreal given the fact that I have been engaged in some research on the history of western India for some weeks now. After a few hours of work, I put aside my readings on conflict and trade in eighteenth century India only to find myself jarred by the eruption of twenty-first century terrorist violence in Mumbai, the financial and entertainment capital of India.

As of this writing a little-known group named the Deccan Mujahideen is claiming responsibility for the deadly attacks. Of course, this name could simply be a ruse to throw off security and police investigations, but whoever is behind the attacks certainly possesses a high degree of planning.

In addition, the deliberate targeting of Westerners suggests that the terrorists might be sending a message to the West and India about the costs of cooperation, especially in light of recent nuclear agreements between the United States and India. I am also tempted to link the attacks to the ongoing disputes over the region of Kashmir, though there has yet to be a release of the statement of responsibility from the attackers.

So we watch in shock as the death toll and injury numbers rise, and scratch our heads at the latest violence inflicted on innocent civilians in order to advance some group's radical political goals.

Nov 25, 2008

On the Calm and Reverie of a Day with Nothing Important to Do

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One of the particular benefits of working in academia is the ability to rearrange one's schedule to a greater degree than with most employers. The only non-negotiable hours are official classroom meetings, and even these have a bit of flexibility, should an instructor decide to eschew a lecture in favor of a field trip, individual student consultations, or another equally valid academic endeavor.

And so it was that I found myself in the middle of a rare joy today: a day with nothing to do.

Certainly I have a relative mountain of work that always awaits me, ranging from text-editing to dissertation-writing to lecture-planning. Moreover, even a day spent working from the house likely involves a handful of chores and home improvement projects, like the air conditioners I removed from the windows and the dishes I washed today.

Yet this day was unique: there were no appointments to keep, no immediate errands to run, and no places to which I absolutely had to travel. I generally work seven days a week, in amounts ranging from six to fifteen hours, so planning a day with no specific goals takes some work in itself.

This is as close to true freedom as a 21st century person can might hope for, and I made the most of my un-planned day: catching up on some reading, grading some papers, and playing with my dogs. Yes, there was work, but the distinction is that I chose the work I wanted to perform, and took plenty of time to engage in activities that interested me, instead of finding my workload dictated by my schedule, Lipovox, or
my employers.

I think it is important to occasionally disconnect from external time determinants and experience temporal liberation, if for no other reason than to remind ourselves just how rigidly chained most of us are to our work and our obligations.

Nov 23, 2008

New Addition to the Family

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In the accompanying photo, our Puggle Eddie Haskell lies next to Chauncey, a 6-month-old Puggle we had been fostering. Chauncey, on the right, was so lovable that we decided to adopt him, and the two dogs paused from an afternoon of romping around the house to take a nap.

The two Puggles are near-constant companions, and they run, play, fight, and sleep together. Chauncey provides the higher energy and exercise that Eddie did not get from our older dogs, and I must admit that having a puppy around adds an infectious element of curiosity and playfulness that influences even the older dogs.

Like me, for example.

Nov 22, 2008

On Bailing Out American Automakers

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General Motors CEO Richard Wagoner; Chrysler CEO Robert Nardelli; and Ford CEO Alan Mulally beg for a bailout (photo courtesy Associated Press)

I am no fan of governments wasting hard-earned tax dollars on dubious schemes, and I railed against the $700 billion bank bailout (actually $850 billion after fine print clauses), which I argued was the most blatant episode of corporate welfare in human history. Couple that debacle with the $2 trillion in emergency loans from the Fed to unidentified banking and financial concerns, and it appears that Americans will be on the hook for untold trillions of new debt, monies that will weigh down economic growth for decades.

So I suppose I should fire up my keyboard and scoff at the idea of American auto executives flying on private jets to Washington in search of tens of billions in more government handouts. After all, these are the incompetent corporate leaders - whose lack of vision and seeming inability to produce vehicles that consumers will buy - drove their companies to the brink of bankruptcy, and who might lead the Big Three into complete dissolution.

And yet, I shudder to think of the effects to the American economy should GM, Ford, and Chrysler implode, as millions of workers have direct links to the financial health of American automakers. Moreover, the income and jobs of untold millions more workers indirectly depend on a vigorous auto industry, ranging from waitresses at diners near factories to employees at retail outlets in towns and cities with a heavy automobile industry presence.

Like Toledo, for example.

At least 15 thousand jobs in my community are directly involved in producing vehicles and component parts for American automakers, and perhaps 20 percent of the local economy revolves around this industry. However, the wages and taxes of autoworkers are about all that keeps a city like Toledo afloat, even after three decades of gradual downsizing and outsourcing.

If the American auto industry collapses, you can kiss goodbye the future of cities like Toledo, Dayton, Akron, Detroit, and Flint, which are Rust Belt centers that are already reeling from an over-dependence on auto manufacturing and related industries. Now, those of you in post-industrial power centers like San Jose or Seattle might not lose sleep over the collapse of Midwestern industrial cities, but I do.

Call me selfish, if you like, or call me stubborn for continuing to live in the Rust Belt, but I think that the U.S. auto industry is too important to simply shrug our collective shoulders and allow to wither. Besides, $25 billion pales in comparison with the $2.7 trillion that Congress and the Fed have already committed to "save" financial giants like AIG and JPMorgan-Chase.

Of course, keeping autoworkers and employees in related industries gainfully employed helps prevent declines in consumer demand for big-ticket items like appliances, housing, and electronics. The financial ripple effects of 1-2 million more unemployed auto industry workers would far exceed the the costs of infusing cash to stabilize the Big Three and position the American automakers for success in the coming decades.

Such federal beneficence, however, should come with appropriate conditions, not the least of which could include either a preferred lender status or a substantial preferred stock position. As a taxpayer, I insist that any bailout of the automakers comes with verifiable benchmarks for transitioning to vehicles with higher fuel efficiency and new energy technologies, as the Big Three utterly failed to prepare for global energy challenges, despite over three decades in advance notice.

I still cannot fathom how none of the major American automakers did not have a highly fuel efficient and inexpensive vehicle in a ready-for-retool-and-rollout mode, even after such previous experience as getting pimp-smacked by the Japanese in the 1970s and 1980s in meeting sudden consumer demand for energy efficiency. Heck, Indian automaker Tata Motors figured out how to design and produce a 60 MPG car for $2,300 (admittedly with much cheaper labor costs and lower safety and environmental standards). Why is it that GM, Ford, and Chrysler cannot (or will not) produce similarly inexpensive vehicles with high fuel efficiency?

It seems to me - even with high wage UAW workers and EPA/NHTSA regulations - that an American automaker should be able to produce a car that people can afford to purchase and to drive. In the 1970s and 1980s I owned a few used cars that fit this profile, like a used VW diesel Rabbit that got over 50 MPG in the city, or this rusty 1976 Subaru wagon I bought for $400 that ran for two weeks on $8 (the fuel gauge was broken, but I think I got 40 MPG in this 4-cylinder, 5-speed clunker).

So, I am all for bailing out the Big Three, but we should demand that these companies produce vehicles that meet the needs of American consumers in an world in which rising energy costs will continue to ratchet up pressure to change our ways. To ignore the collapse of American automakers is to sign the death warrant for dozens of American cities.

Nov 21, 2008

More Advice to the Downwardly Mobile: Recession Preparations

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The grim financial news this week should be enough to convince even the optimistic people that we are headed into a significant period of economic retraction. Moreover, an increasing number of analysts are projecting that the decline might spiral into a financial cataclysm on the order of the Great Depression.

Or worse.

Prudent folks keep at least one eye open to such possibilities, and this post is another in a series of articles on financial advice for the downwardly mobile geared toward those who wish to avoid serious financial pain in the next few years. Taking steps now to prepare for the worst might make the difference between survival and ruin as we look ahead to what portends to be a bleak 2009.

1. Conserve your cash. You need to build the largest possible hoard of cash to get through unforeseen circumstances, up to and including extended periods of unemployment. Just because you feel secure in your job does not mean that your cash-strapped employer would keep you on during a financial collapse. Assume that you might face a year or two of unemployment, and save like it is your full-time job. Now.

2. Clip coupons and watch for deals on groceries and necessities. Fortunately for consumers, the grocers are feeling the pinch, and there has been an increase in loss-leading marketing. Do not spend even a nickel more than you must for basic commodities, and get your children involved in cutting coupons for you (my wife has long exploited the labor of our children for this chore).

3. When possible, repair rather than replace. Yes, some appliance and auto repair specialists can be expensive, but consider that the cost of repairing a big-ticket item might extend its lifespan to the point where the repair cost pays for itself several times.

4. Barter for services. In your network of friends and relatives there are quite a few talented people in a wide variety of fields. Perhaps you could babysit for the auto mechanic who puts a water pump in your car, or you might tutor a friend's child in exchange for haircuts for the family. Get creative, and start looking around now for people with whom you can negotiate mutually beneficial exchanges.

5. Start planning a garden for 2009. If you are new to growing your own food, keep it simple: a half-dozen tomato plants, some lettuce, a dozen pepper plants, and some low maintenance herbs. While gardens can be labor-intensive, the initial investment in seeds and sprouts can yield produce many times its value. Besides, a fresh-picked tomato simply tastes better than anything you purchase in a supermarket.

6. Get health and dental checkups now. Yes, your crappy HMO is about as useful as a snooze button on a smoke alarm, but ANY coverage is better than none. If you lose your job, your insurance will run out, and those teeth cleanings and annual physicals can be quite expensive.

7. Make sensible insurance decisions. If your car is paid off, get rid of collision insurance. Go with the highest deductibles you can stomach, which will lower your premiums, and get rid of extras like roadside assistance, rental car coverage, and towing. Decide on liability limits that fit your income and wealth scenario: a person making $25K a year has no business with a policy offering $1 million in protection, while someone making $100K a year would be poorly protected with an auto policy providing only state minimums.

8. Cut frivolous expenses. Do you really NEED to spend $100 per month on pilates, diet pills,
and jazzercise? Does that health club membership provide you any more exercise than you could get in your own backyard? Does Junior actually like tae kwan do, and shouldn't you be cutting your own grass instead of using a service? If you look closely at your budget, you can probably find $100-$200 per month in unnecessary expenditures, which is money that could be going into the bank.

Nov 19, 2008

Advice from a Father to His Children

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Typically folks compose messages like these when they are on their deathbeds, or after some significant life event caused them to re-evaluate their priorities. I think of Tim Russert, whose untimely death at the age of 58 was a source of great sorrow, but who was fortunate enough to have penned two books on fatherly wisdom before he died.

I am neither dying nor going through a period of deep personal discovery; instead, I just had a moment of insight: you never know the exact time of your death until it happens, and I would be saddened to be one of the unlucky people who fails to pass on to his children a written summary of his thoughts on what is important in life.

So these words are for my children, though if they inspire anyone else to do some housecleaning or self-inventory, this will be an added bonus. Feel free to leave any other words of advice you think children should know in the Comments section.

1. Be honest. I'm not talking here about pretending your friend's hideous haircut is beautiful, or some similar act of interpersonal kindness. Instead I mean the kind of honesty where people know you are reliable, truthful, and dependable: you don't embellish your accomplishments, you do what you say you will do, and people know that your word is like gold. Moreover, you never screw people over for your own personal aggrandizement, no matter how great the gain.

2. Look out for the less fortunate. While we never lived like kings, you never lacked for food, shelter, and love, and I expect that you remember that this puts you ahead of at least 90 percent of the human beings on the planet. Be generous with your time, judiciously direct some of your wealth toward worthy charities, and never let it be said you stood by and did nothing to help a fellow human in serious need.

3. Be faithful. It is true that at least one of you - if statistical patterns on American marriages hold up - will have to go through the process of divorce. However, that does not mean that you should cheat on your spouse; moreover, faithfulness is a desirable trait in employment and many other life endeavors. A clean break after an honest effort to repair a relationship is the best way to live your life when work and personal relationships sour.

4. Violence, bitterness, and rage are usually cancerous and rarely productive. I have been guilty of each of these at one point in time or another in my life, and there is little to be gained from allowing yourself to wallow in these destructive modes. Let go of anger before it burns holes in your stomach lining or poisons your relationships.

5. Be unselfish. There are plenty of greedy bastards in the world, and frankly I expect more out of you. Let other vehicles into traffic, let old ladies go ahead of you at the bank, and don't eat the last of the salsa when dining out. Your unselfishness will become a virtue, and you will be rewarded many times over in ways you cannot fathom. Trust me on this one.

6. Be flexible with rules. I'm not telling you to break laws or work rules, but rather that you find ways to meet the spirit of a rule when dealing with customers, associates, and strangers. Being a slave to rules and regulations only means that you are an uncaring, unthinking automaton, not a person who is generally trying to make the world a better place.

7. If it's not yours, don't take it. We all know not to steal, but I am thinking instead about those ways in which we rationalize the acquisition of all sorts of ill-gotten items. I remember finding $50 on the floor of the bank when I was 16 years old, and how I stuffed that dead president in my pocket faster than Tatum O'Neal diving into a pile of Bolivian marching powder. Yet even to this day I feel guilty about that impulsive decision: what if that money meant some retiree had to go hungry, or if that lost $50 caused someone to have a car repossessed?

8. Make amends for any stupid, harmful, or selfish acts you commit. Related to the previous advice, even the best people sometimes ignore their consciences, or fail to think through the consequences of their actions. When you know the person you harmed or hurt, make it up to them in some equivalent fashion, and don't ask the aggrieved party - just follow through. In addition, anonymous acts of restitution can mean that your intentions are in the right place, since publicly admitting guilt might mean that you simply want recognition for your remorse. If you no longer know how to contact someone you have harmed, make a donation in kind to a related charity. That person you hurt might never know, but you will know of your atonement, and you can kiss goodbye a heavy dose of guilt.

9. Enjoy the simple pleasures and natural beauty around you. I've known some unhappy people who never seem to rest, who spend thousands of dollars on products like the ubiquitous fat burner, and who cannot appreciate the everyday joys around them. These are folks who travel the world seeking strange environments, higher highs, or continuous infatuation, when all along the happiness they sought was in their own homes.

10. Work hard. Yes, you will sometimes work in places where slackery is the norm, or where working hard brings no extra financial reward. Too bad - work hard anyways. The last time I checked, almost no one in human history has been fired for working too hard, and extra effort usually translates into a feeling of self-satisfaction. As a side note, also remember this: if the course of action you are contemplating seems difficult, it is probably the right decision. Easy solutions tend to be the ones that get people into trouble.

11. Read quality books. This is especially important in the age of instantaneous digital gratification, when book-reading slowly gets replaced by text messages, on-demand video, and other empty-headed sources of entertainment and knowledge. Yet the lowly book has served humanity well for countless generations, and your knowledge of literature, history, philosophy, and science will benefit you better than any YouTube bum fight or episode of Total Request Live ever will.

12.Regularly attend a house of worship. There will be times when you are not feeling especially religious, and you think that religion has nothing to offer you, but you should still go to church. If nothing else, kneeling before God teaches you some humility, and every religion offers useful advice on how to be a worthwhile person. Besides - you can benefit from being around a people who seek deeper meaning to this vale of tears we call life, and the bars are not open on Sunday mornings, so use this time wisely.

13. Avoid being a judgmental, falsely pious twit. If we ran a highlight reel of all of the worst moments your life, you would look just as contemptible as the ignorant schmuck you saw on tonight's news in the latest segment of televised human idiocy. Balance your derision with an ounce of recognition that we are all capable failure and incompetence, only most of us go through life without our darkest hours becoming public knowledge. Thank God that you gained wisdom from your selfish escapades, and extend compassion to the recipients of ridicule, for it may be your turn some day.

14. Remember you are loved. Yes, I sometimes holler, and I can get too absorbed in my work, but never, ever doubt that your mother and I love you more than anything else in the world, and that we will give you as much help as we can. Now, don't expect us to bail you out every time you dig yourself in a financial hole, but we have experienced much in our first decades of life, and we can probably help you solve problems you thought were insurmountable. If we can't, at least you'll know where you can get a hot meal and a hug - the world can be a cruel place, and your family members are your best allies against the woes that heap upon you.

Nov 18, 2008

The Quote Shelf

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Medieval text with Latin script A frequent feature on this site; feel free to comment on the quote or to supply a competing quote.

Another good thing about being poor is that when you are seventy your children will not have declared you legally insane in order to gain control of your estate. -- Woody Allen

Nov 15, 2008

On Snowfalls, Institutionalized Torture, and Dilawar

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I rented a disquieting film about the system of torture that evolved in the years since the terrorist attacks of 9-11 entitled Taxi to the Dark Side. The film, in a detached and almost surreal fashion, soberly examines the history of the maltreatment of prisoners designated "enemy combatants" by the U.S. government, and brings to a wider audience first-hand accounts and interrogation video that document the subversion of such cherished American ideals as habeus corpus and the rule of law.

I finished watching the documentary, and even I - a jaded and cynical observer of the world who finds little new in the pantheon of atrocities that human beings commit against each other - even I was shaken. Alex Gibney's film, in an understated and austere manner, gradually builds upon previous scenes with a deceptive sluggishness, like a plodding and disinterested donkey climbing a crooked mountain pass in the desert sun.

Yet the languid pace fits the subject matter, for it has been over seven years since the United States began its descent down the slippery slope of ignoring the Constitution and international law in the treatment of detainees in the so-called War on Terror. For if I am uncomfortable during what actually turned out to be 106 minutes of information on torture, consider how a period of years might feel to a detainee at Guantanamo, denied access to attorneys, due process, and even the right to a trial.

I then looked out the window and saw thick snowflakes falling from the sky, covering up the still-warm ground and covering up the last of the unraked leaves. My mind turned away from the film for a moment, and I thought that composing a quick post about the year's first significant snow accumulation would be an easy 10-minute effort in updating my blog.

Then I thought about Dilawar, an Afghan taxi driver killed in 2002 by U.S. interrogators while he was a prisoner at the Bagram Theater Internment Facility in Afghanistan. Dilawar's legs were beaten to the extent that the military coroner described them as "pulpified," and had he lived Dilawar would have needed the amputation of both legs to survive.

Had Dilawar lived, of course.

My dogs needed to go outside, and I took some photos of my canine friends romping in the snow. My mind, however, wandered to disturbing images from the film of unmuzzled guard dogs used as devices of torture, as well as the obvious fact that Dilawar will never again feel snowflakes on his face in his small village of Yakubi at the base of the Hindu Kush mountain range.

I really meant to write more about the snow here in Northwest Ohio, you see, as I am an avid weather enthusiast and the first snow of the year is normally a source of awe and wonderment to me.

Except on days like today, when I learned about the 23-year-old taxi driver named Dilawar.

So you can choose to allow distractions like the new fall of snow to take your mind away from troubling topics like dead Afghan villagers, systemic torture, or the trampling of the U.S. Constitution. Let the cover of fresh snow bury your lingering doubts about the legality and even value of state-sanctioned torture, abuse, and murder, and let it bury those pangs of conscience that bother you for not standing up against injustice.

Hell, I wouldn't blame you: watching films like Taxi to the Dark Side is hard work, and there are images that will terrify you more any horror film you could rent. And recommending this film to a few friends - especially friends who like lighthearted romantic comedies and animated Pixar flicks - why, people are going to think that you are some kind of radical or doom-and-gloomer, or that it is you who has the problems, not the U.S. government.

You might say that life is too short to waste 106 minutes hearing about some dead towel-head, right? Like, sorry about the torture and murder and all, and the wife and baby he left behind, but Dilawar is just an unfortunate casualty of war, right? Besides, there are some excellent college football games on cable this afternoon, plus the NFL tomorrow, and who likes to be weighed down with all that guilt?

Or instead you can drive to the video store, rent this film, and force yourself to do the difficult work of being an informed citizen. Of course, you will not walk away from the film with a warm and content feeling like you would by going to see a new release animated comedy like Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa, and the faces and voices of torture victims are always unpleasant to experience.

On second thought, do not rent this film tonight. Shit like Taxi to the Dark Side is probably just a bunch of anti-American propaganda, undoubtedly financed by Islamist extremists, and I'll bet we could find a way to link Bill Ayers and Rashid Khalidi to this plot if we connected enough dots. No, friend: grab a beer and watch the snow, and be comforted knowing that all this torture shit is far, far away from your Barcalounger.