Dec 31, 2008

A Waxing Crescent Moon and a New Year

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

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

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

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


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.


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

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

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

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

(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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(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

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

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."


Dec 4, 2008

On Laptop Power Adapters and Digital Dependency

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

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.