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I honor the memory of the heroes and innocents who died ten years ago on September 11, 2001. I honor their bravery, their sacrifice, and their families and friends. Whether by chance or by duty, they were America’s finest citizens on that sunny late summer morning. They will forever be my heroes.

Their deaths made us hold each other. Their deaths brought us together as a nation in this promise:

We will not let your sacrifice be in vain.

I cannot think of a more patriotic or respectful way to remember those people than to say in their memories, “I’m sorry. We failed.”

* * *

We were supposed to be better.

That was our hope. We were supposed to be better than the enemy, not just at war, but also at peace. We were supposed to rise from the ashes, not as some mythological creature, but as a true nation worthy of its bottomless well of pride. We were supposed to honor the sacrifice of the people who died on 9/11 by being the country we claim to be.

We failed, and there is no more honest or patriotic way to put it.

Today, Americans trade in outrage, blame, and fear. Civil discourse doesn’t sell advertising, it doesn’t pull page views, and it doesn’t hold the attention of a culture ramped up on prescription speed. Instead of reasonable discussions built on critical thinking, we are treated to histrionics and horse races.

Our leaders in government failed us. Our leaders in business failed us. Our spiritual leaders failed us. Our military leaders failed us. Ultimately, that means we failed ourselves. We have not made ourselves better. We have hidden under a blanket of reality television, faux drama, and false intimacy while our country crumbled around us.

We have let our country engage in wars waged on battlegrounds of false premise. We have sat blind as bankers, corporations, and snake oil salesman robbed us of our wealth. We have tuned in and applauded as our fourth estate not only ignored its promise of objectivity, but proudly assumed the role of political advocate. In the playground battle between honesty and greed, honesty is still being mocked for crying uncle so quickly.

* * *

In the weeks and months that followed 9/11, a phrase became so trite, it turned into a punch line.

“If we don’t X, the terrorists win.”

I look back ten years. Our initial fears, of course, were that there would be more attacks and we would have to live in daily fear like “those people” in other countries. Those fears faded over time as we gave up privacy, liberty, and convenience in exchange for protecting ourselves against radicals. We won that war by ceding ground we’d held sacred for most of our history as a nation. A good spin doctor would call it “honor in retreat.”

Victory had a cost. Our relative security left us without a tangible enemy. At the time, even Osama Bin Laden was a ghost. We had nowhere but inward to turn with our war. Our internal battle was over how we would stand as a nation. We began a bloody two-front war overseas that was ostensibly for peace. Instead, it was just bloody, wrought with fraud and corruption, and is now so entrenched as part of American culture that we don’t blink when anther serviceman or servicewoman dies overseas or another billion dollars goes to a corporate “contractor.” Our war for peace turned out to be just an excuse for war and wartime profit. When we couldn’t get enough of a fight on the other side of the globe, we turned on each other.

When Americans came together after 9/11, I had hope we would make ourselves better. Instead, I live in an America that has given up its civil liberties, turned to ruthless greed as sport, and divided itself in an unarmed civil war in which outrage is the weapon of choice.

I looked for terrorists when the American economy collapsed. I looked for terrorists on the BP platform in the Gulf of Mexico. I looked for terrorists on the streets of New Orleans in 2005. I looked for terrorists at JP Morgan. I looked for terrorists on panels at MSNBC and Fox.

And I saw them.

When it came to looking for the enemy, it turned out Pogo was right all along.

* * *

There is a prepared script for people who choose to ignore the obvious struggle America is facing. It’s one read by the patriotic equivalent of a dysfunctional family’s greatest enabler. While America nods off in a corner, junk in its veins, its enablers say, “We have to love it the way it is. This is how things are. They have always been this way. If you don’t like it, leave, because this is how we are.”

The people who read this script perform their lines with pride and turn their good side—their fightin’ side—toward the audience when they do. They call themselves pragmatists, patriots, and real Americans. They either enable America’s collapse through blind love, or worse, through the greed of knowing they can steal when he country finally slips into a morphine sleep.

Even that old argument, however, has grown tired. After years of flag-waving, we don’t even care so much about patriotism now as we care about getting what’s ours. In ten years America has gone from a place in which criticizing the President was a career-ending mistake to one in which it’s the basis for an entire career.

Finally, after years of accepting greed, blood, and constitutional wildfires in the hope they would help shore up our nation, we are left to look back and realize we were just using our nation’s worst tragedy as an excuse to be the worst of who we are.

The best thing we can say about the ten years since 9/11 is, “At least it didn’t happen again.”

* * *

While we focused on the goal of making our nation more secure at its doors, we let its foundation crumble.

We are bigots who believe skin color is a matter of something more than pigment. We are homophobes who are afraid of what happens when people of the same sex love each other. We are isolationists who naively believe—most without ever leaving the United States—that being American automatically makes us better than the rest of the people in the world. We are zealots who believe the world’s second-biggest religion is the biggest threat to our nation.

Post-9/11, we used the phrase “aid and comfort to the enemy” more times than we could count. We spotted traitors among us at every turn. We virtually hung people for not standing with our leaders.

Today, we’re forced to ask ourselves this: how much more comfort does our enemy need than what we give him every day? Do we prove our strength as a nation when our banks collapse? Do we prove our abilities as a superpower when our leader’s citizenship is questioned by legitimate people? Do we look undefeatable when our lawmakers purposefully engage in gridlock to ride out the clock until the next election? Of what, exactly, can we be proud?

The great irony is that Bin Laden’s terrorists attacked us when we were at our strongest point as a nation in recent history. Now, we stand teetering on the edge of collapse. Any terrorist worth his salt knows that if there’s a time to hit us, it’s now, because we’re as vulnerable as we have been in decades. They attacked us the first time, not because they thought they could win, but because we looked too strong. When they next attack, it won’t be for that reason. When it happens, do not blame the Republicans. Do not blame the Democrats. Do not blame the TSA. Do not blame the CIA. Blame yourselves. Blame me. Blame America. Because every single one of us is at fault.

Ask yourself if you think you are a good American. Now ask yourself if you think you are a better American than your neighbor. Now, ask yourself what that says about you. I ask myself that question today, because I look around me and I believe I am better American than many people I know, and I guarantee you every one of those people believes the same of himself.

In September 2011, there are people who will discount everything I have written above because of something else I believe. It doesn’t matter what that something is. As long as they can find one reason to disagree with me, I’m easily discounted. If my church isn’t your church, how could we get along? If my party isn’t your party, how could we ever see eye to eye? In the fight of Us versus Them, we have somehow forgotten that Them is Us.

And we hate each other.

* * *

For many years, I posted the picture you see at the bottom of this post. It gave me hope that my country could be all I was taught it could be. Last year, I wrote “Remember today,” in the hope somebody would read it and pass it on to someone else. I hoped to make a difference and make my country better. In the past year, I’ve grown increasingly cynical. Many times, I’ve given up, tuned out, and said, “There is no hope.” There have been many people–some I know and some I don’t–who have asked me to hang in there and fight the good fight. I hardly know what that means anymore. I only know that I want America to win. I want America to be better. I want the sacrifices of the people who died on 9/11 to not be in vain.

I want to hope.

I don’t know if I can ask you to think differently. I don’t know if any of us is capable of listening to each other anymore. If there is anything that gives me any solace, it’s that I can teach my boys to be good Americans, even if the adults around them are not. I can only hope there are enough people who think the same way and will do the same with their children.

As it stands today, I try not to ask too much of my country, but I ask of it what I ask of my boys.

I ask them to listen.

I ask them to embrace tolerance.

I ask them to practice moderation.

I ask them to think critically.

I ask them to work for what they need, but not take more.

I ask them to give to people who need it.

I ask them to love.

This weekend, I will remember the brave and innocent people who died ten years ago. I will honor their memory, their patriotism, and their sacrifice by trying to teach my children what it means to be an American.

I will teach my children those things, because right now America cannot.

Categories : Culture, Politics, War
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The roundest person in the entire gym was the firefighter who came to save our lives this morning. He was 350 pounds if he was an ounce. The sweaty struggle it must have been to get inside the heavy coat, pants, and boots made me wonder if the guy had a future in fetish pornography. In front of me, a lithe young woman in spandex shorts was running an easy five and half miles per hour. She misted from her forehead. Her feet barely touched the treadmill as she jogged. The cognitive dissonance of having both bodies in my line of sight made me lightheaded.

I was experimenting with fartleks (don’t ask), and I’d run about a mile when the fire alarm went off. I heard the panic siren scrunching out through unseen speakers while Ira Glass lazily spoke in my ear. Lithe Girl didn’t look up, nor did my old boss from his spot on the stationary bike five rows ahead of me (we’d entered into a tacit pact to not acknowledge each other and it was working out really well). In fact, as I ran and looked around the room, I realized that barely any of the 80 or so people in the big building were paying the alarm any attention at all. Only a gym salesman named Brad looked at all concerned. He sprinted into a back hallway and only returned when the alarm stopped blaring. Inexplicably, Brad was carrying an eight-foot step ladder on his shoulder and ran from room to room with it. Brad told me when I joined the gym that he’d moved from Ohio as quickly as he could. He’d packed only what he could fit in his little car and put everything else in storage. Only a woman or the law could make a man move that fast or with such little care for what he was leaving behind. Brad still pays the monthly fees for the storage facility so he doesn’t have to go back to Ohio.

It took another mile and half from me before the firefighters showed up. The amount of urgency they showed was inversely proportional to how the lead fireman probably attacks a rack of ribs. I’m not a particularly slim man, but as I pushed forward on the treadmill (and as we all know, forward means going exactly nowhere on a treadmill), I wondered how the big man could pass whatever physicals the fire department required of him. If my house was burning and my family was trapped on the second floor, I failed to see how the guy was going to save them even if he had Salesmen Brad’s ladder. Before I’d finished the next mile to nowhere, the fire alarm was going off again. No one, not even Fat-Faced Firefighter, paid it a lick of attention.

I’ve seen the phenomenon happen many times. Since 2005, the World Series of Poker has been held at the Rio Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas. The Rio’s convention center and its gigantic Amazon and Pavilion Rooms are notorious for false alarms. Imagine a room with 3,000 people in it. All of them have paid thousands of dollars for an opportunity to sit at a table with other card players and compete for life-changing money. The tension from the flops, turns, and rivers is enough to give even healthy men a respectable heart attack. Every week or so during the seven weeks of the WSOP, a fire alarm screeches across the cavernous rooms. Instead of adding to the probability of the card players falling apoplectic to the floor, the fire alarm almost always breaks the tension. The players laugh, look around for smoke, and joke about the fact that no one is going to leave his poker chips unattended just because of some alarm. In the event the place was ablaze, the tragedy would be international news because no one is going to miss his button unless the fire is literally smoking him out of his seat.

Alarms are so commonplace these days that we’ve learned to ignore them. Put your average Joe in a movie theater and see how he reacts if an alarm interrupts the new J.J. Abrams send-up. Whether it’s illegal to scream “fire” in a crowded theater is, these days, of less importance than whether someone will actually listen. I can’t remember if the threat level is still at Orange or if it’s now sponsored by Tropicana. Nobody else can either. Every one of us is so conditioned to be afraid of everything that we’ve stopped being afraid of almost anything. Hell, even Osama Bin Laden is dead. Unless Vladimir Putin somehow shows up on the White House lawn in red boxers carrying a hammer and a sickle, I can’t see anyone bothering to turn on the news. Put celebrity news together with hyper-panic and I’m not entirely sure we’re much different than the Smurfs.

I was still running to nowhere a couple of miles later when the firefighter waddled back to his truck. It would’ve have taken actual smoke to make me slow down.

I wonder how many times the big firefighter has ignored the alarm of his racing heart or how many times he’s blamed the pain in his chest on a bad burrito. When he breaks into flop sweat after climbing a set of stairs, I wonder if he bitches about the humidity. He is, like so many people I’ve met, the very definition of the unalarmed society. We are a people who ignore warnings until there is tangible evidence that something bad has happened. It’s the man with the drinking problem who doesn’t address it until he’s gotten a DUI. It’s the woman with the gambling addiction who leaves the casino only after realizing her family has changed the locks. It’s the smoker who quits when the radiologist shakes his head in sympathy. It’s the wife who doesn’t ask where her husband has been until he comes home with a pair of panties in his briefcase. It’s the gym salesmen that doesn’t realize his girl doesn’t love him until he’s a hundred miles out of Ohio. It’s the CEO who starts cutting costs after the company defaults on its obligations. I don’t know anyone–myself, sadly, included–who isn’t guilty of it in some way.

The rub is a tough one. If not a person like me who fails to get alarmed by alarms, you’re probably one of those people who is worried by everything. You won’t eat pizza that’s been in the fridge for more than a day, split eights against a face card, or let your kids play contact sports. You look at every expiration date as a binding legal document. You lie awake at night wondering if you said “I love you” to your children an equal number of times. Thunderstorm warnings have you hiding in the bathtubs. There is no escape from the worry, and that in itself is the only blaring alarm you don’t heed. Your worry will kill you, but if you ignore that fact, you’ll think you’ll be able to save everything else.

The middle ground, the place where we worry about what’s important and heed the right alarms, the place where we find some balance and focus in our lives, it’s a hard spot to find. Amidst all the noise, it’s easy to ignore anything that isn’t actively assaulting our bodies or ways of life. Otherwise, we find ourselves worrying about too much.

I pushed the speed up on the treadmill until the belt was almost pulling my face underneath its wheels. I felt the pain in my knees, the tightness in my chest, and the sweat on my back. There would be a point I had to stop. That’s what every alarm in my body screamed. Until I hit that point, I ran, and I ran, and I ran.

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Burn this, sinners

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If you are a good person–as most people believe themselves to be–there are things you don’t do. This goes beyond the Ten Commandments and the relatively commonsense approach to going through your days honoring the people who should be honored, not killing people, and not coveting your neighbor’s wife. Verily, it goes beyond the rules of looking both ways before you cross the street and not using needles you find on truck stop bathroom floors. There are simply things you don’t do.

You don’t tell someone their kid is ugly–even if it is.

You don’t call someone’s mother a whore–even if she is.*

You don’t make out at a funeral.

You don’t fucking burn books. You don’t burn Animal Farm. You don’t burn the Bible. And you don’t burn the Quran. Libricide is not simply way to demonstrate your basest human flaws. It is not merely a way to vituperatively insult the author or someone who loves the book. It also exposes you for the coward you are. If all of those things don’t grab you in the crotch, then consider the fire hazard involved, you bigoted, close-minded sinner.

That a preacher from Florida can gather 50 people in a building is no insult to dedicated Christians. Give me a couple days, and I’ll round up 50 people who think Julia Child was involved in original sin. There are painfully lost people who need someone to follow and someone to call an enemy. Those kind of people–people who respond to base, primal, caveman tactics–tend to like fire. So set some stuff ablaze and watch their eyes twinkle. It’s easy and it gets you on the national news.

And therein lies the problem. Terry Jones and his few dozen parishioners at Dove World Outreach Center want to practice their First Amendment rights by burning a holy book in an effort to expose radical Islam (a practice I think we all realize is akin to burning a Bible to protest Eric Robert Rudolph and Tim McVeigh, but I’ve said all that before). I support Jones’ Constitutional right to set a book on fire, but I think it’s worth noting how terribly misguided this First Amendment expression is. Jones and his cadre of radicals–and they can be described as nothing else if you want to preserve the legitimacy of the rest of the Christian faith–are hoping to show radical Muslims a thing or two by burning the holiest book of the world’s second-biggest religion. That is, to stick it to the few thousand people who want to kill Americans, we’re going to infuriate millions upon millions of people. Nice work, Terry. You’re a damned saint.

Complicit–if not more guilty–in this entire production is the news media (and, yes, on a very, very small scale, that includes me) that are giving Jones and his ilk a platform. Every time Jones talks bout burning the Quran on TV, that’s stuff that is seen worldwide by people who say, “This guy represents America.”

And we wonder why people want to kill us.

Jones has the right to burn whatever he wants and say whatever he wants. I support that right. With that understood, if you agree with Jones’ motives, if you don’t actively tell as many people as you can that you disagree with what Jones is doing, if you don’t make an effort to tell people from other cultures that Jones doesn’t represent America, then you should not be surprised when America is the target of future attacks. It’s one thing to talk bad about a mean dog on a leash. It’s another thing to tell the guy holding the leash that his mom is a whore. The former is mean. The latter is just stupid.

The best of this country is comprised of people who understand there is humanity beyond our coastline and southern border. The best of this country is comprised of people who understand the balance of religion and patriotism. The best of this country is comprised of people who know that respect is earned. The best of this country is comprised of people of tolerance, kindness, and intelligence. Terry Jones and the people who support him can claim no part among America’s best. They are instigators. They are fame-hounds. They are willfully ignorant sinners. They represent the worst part of a great nation.

Fuck you, Terry Jones. Fuck you and everyone who supports you for making my country look stupid, intolerant, and evil.

*With thanks to Rowdy Herrington, David Henry Lee, Hilary Henkin, Patrick Swayze, and everyone else who made “Road House”

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The Dennis DeYoung Dilemma

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I’m sitting at a poker table. Or a bar. Or at the gate waiting for a plane. It doesn’t matter, because I ask the same question in all of these places and more.

“If you could be yourself or Dennis DeYoung as he is today, which would you choose?”

It’s a simple question, really. Right now I can snap my fingers and you can be the 2010 version of the former lead singer of the band Styx. It’s your choice. It’s either that or remain in your own existence and take your chances.

There are two curious things that happen when I offer this option. First, most people actually seem put off that I asked the question in the first place. It’s as if I am wasting their time or making idle “do you prefer Mac and Cheese or Cheese and Rice?” questions. Second, people invariably answer that they most certainly would remain as themselves. In the dozens of times I’ve asked this question, I’ve not yet had one person answer “I’d be Dennis DeYoung of 2010.” Everyone says, “I’d be me.”

A third thing happens that I don’t find as curious, but I do consider a lot more telling. Very few people ever ask why I would bother to pose the Dennis DeYoung Dilemma in the first place. After getting over the initial frustration with the hypothetical, they are happy to answer and get on to more important topics of conversation. It’s a rare–and I dare say nonexistent–person who wants to ponder the possibilities.

I haven’t yet bothered to force The Why of it on anybody. I guess, some would say, that is why I have a blog.


Styx in its heyday

If you don’t know, DeYoung was a founding member and one-time lead singer of the prog rock cum what-the-hell band Styx. Most people of my generation–even if they don’t know the entire discography of the band–have heard “Mr. Roboto.” The people ten years younger than me are probably more familiar with South Park’s Cartman singing the Styx hit “Come Sail Away.” In either case, I don’t know a lot of people who sit around, smoke weed, and listen to Styx today. That probably has a lot to do with the people I’ve chosen to call my friends, but I think there is probably also a very large segment of the world’s music-listening population who looks to Styx as a relic of an bygone–and thankfully so–era.

There are fewer people, however, who can identify DeYoung by name, face, or career. In the line that begins with Mick Jagger and ends with Peter Cetera, DeYoung lost his place a long time ago, and Phil Collins isn’t giving up his spot.

Oh, sure, you can hit Wikipedia like anyone else and see that DeYoung is still active as a musician. He once or twice reunited with Styx, he did a couple of tours on the Simon Cowell Exploitation Train, and he has been the honored recipient of the “Great Performer of Illinois” Award. You can see that DeYoung was once the frontman for a band that had many a top ten Billboard hit. He played to sold out arenas and is probably solely responsible for most Americans’ introduction to the phrase “domo arigato.” The man was–and by some lesser measure still is–a star.

And you have the chance to be him.


If not for the fact that I really, really have lost patience for most people, I’d put a lot my spontaneous subjects to some further questions. Here are some follow-ups that I think might be instructive:

  • Do you want to be rich?
  • Do you want to be famous?
  • Do you watch Jersey Shore?
  • Various people would answer the questions above in different ways, but there is a natural aversion to actually admitting to any of the above. It’s unseemly to publicly hope for riches, fame, or Snooki. Similarly, there is something difficult about admitting publicly that you would rather be someone other than yourself. But privately…well, there is the rub.

    It’s a far different question to ask someone “If you could be yourself or Johnny Depp, who would you choose to be?” Depp is still a name, still a face, and has proven he’s got a spot on the Walk of Fame that will shine even after his death. I suspect I would have lot more people answer they would be Depp. But, then what about Paris Hilton? Justin Bieber? Ryan Seacrest? The Situation? Would you trade for any of those lives circa 2010?

    I agree, it’s an endless and largely pointless series of hypotheticals and you or I would be hard-pressed to find someone who will answer in a way that makes them look anything less than proud of who they are. If we’re bred to be anything, it is prideful.

    What is unaccountable in the answers I receive is how we as a people have allowed ourselves to feel less than we are because we are not capital-m More. We want for more consumables. We want for more recognition. We want and then we want on top of that. It is as evident in suburban ennui as it is urban struggle. It is as pronounced as strongly by the Office Space prototypes as it is the people who have complete freedom to be whatever they want. I am as guilty of it as anyone, which is probably why I pose the Dennis DeYoung Dilemma.

    Of course, it’s human nature to want more than what we have. Those of us brought up under capitalism have heard Horatio Alger stories enough times that we long ago forgot that a bootstrap was once just a piece of footwear. We can’t be blamed–nor should we–for our natural desire to wake up every day and work to rise above our station. If not for that drive, we would have neither the freedom nor the prosperity we have now.

    Dennis DeYoung today

    But as we sit in private and lament the unfairness of it all (Why didn’t I get that job? How can this woman be on TV? That guy doesn’t have half the talent I have. I deserve more.), we should each and every one of us ask ourselves if we would rather be Dennis DeYoung. Because, he was an effing rock star. He lived a dream that few people could ever realize. He was, at least for a time, a rock god. With one snap of my fingers, you could be him…as he is today. That is to say, if you’re lucky, one in a thousand people have heard your name, and one in ten thousand know who you are. You can smile because you hold the Great Performer of Illinois Award.

    This is meant as no disrespect to DeYoung, a man infinitely more talented than I am, a man who has managed to parlay early stardom into a lifetime in the music industry. This is simply to remind anyone who cares that fame is fleeting. And not just traditional groupie-sex-drugs-money-fame. Little fame. Little riches. Little luck. Big luck. It’s all fleeting. The neighbor’s wife you covet can be a crack whore by Friday.

    It very easy to want. It’s very easy to covet. It’s very easy to look to the life of a rich man, a successful man, or, indeed, a rock star and say, “I want that.”

    It’s a lot easier to look at Dennis DeYoung and say, “I think I’ll see what I can make of myself.”

    Do that. And be happy with it.

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    I knew I should be afraid

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    I woke up this morning with an inescapable sense that I should be afraid.

    It was still dark out, which meant the monsters still hadn’t crawled back under my bed after a night of child-noshing. The meat in the fridge was only a day old, so I wasn’t forced to face my latent paranoia that food poisoning is becoming an actual sentient creature. My wife was still in bed, so I doubted she was sleeping with anyone else (although I checked under the covers to be sure there weren’t any height-disadvantaged paramours doing their dirty work).

    Nope, all seemed well as I walked into the dark garage. All was well, that is, except for the fact that I should’ve just stayed in bed. Nay, it wasn’t the fire ants at the park, the loads of work on my plate, or the ever-increasing evidence that I’m about to turn 97 (or something close to it). No, it was only that I should’ve been afraid and I wasn’t.

    What should I have been afraid of?

    Muslims, to start.

    On this day, the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, Muslim folks begin their Ramadan fasting. It’s a religious thing for them, and probably just another way of showing us that they are only dedicated to overthrowing the American government. No daylight Mac-N-Cheese equals revolution, or so I’ve been led to believe. I wasn’t aware that’s what Muslims had in mind when they fasted from dawn to sunset, so I’m fortunate that Bryan Fischer of the American Family Association clued me in. In his call for all future mosques to be verboten in the U.S., he laid it out straight: “Bottom line: it’s suicidal for America to allow terrorist training cells to crop up all over the fruited plain. And each mosque is an actual or potential terrorist training cell…”

    Thank heavens for Fischer. Really. I’m surprised we hadn’t thought of the mosque ban earlier. It should’ve been obvious after we started banning all the Christian churches in the wake of radical attacks by Eric Robert Rudolph, Tim McVeigh, and the like. Somebody really dropped the ball on the mosque thing. Just to be safe, I’m going to blame the gays.

    God Bryan Fischer, help us, but the gays want to marry. The voters of California had their God-given right to vote (I’ve always wondered why God didn’t grant women and blacks the right to vote for so long) taken away by a light-in-the-loafers judge who declared Prop 8 to be unconstitutional. Again, this opened the door to people who love each other having the chance to get married. It’s heresy, this whole love thing.

    That America ever let loose-moraled Northerners discover wedded bliss was a mistake of epic proportions. Now, not only the gays want to marry, but gay Californians(!), which I’m told is as much redundant as it is frightening. If Mike and Ike end up getting hitched in Bakersfield, the implications on my South Carolina family are uncountable. The civil rights we have worked so hard to grant to blacks will pale under the laissez faire approach regarding who gets to love each other. Our efforts to remove the flag of the Confederacy from our Capitol Dome might just seem quaint by comparison.

    Of couse, Maryland Bishop Harry Jackson says don’t pay so much attention to that civil rights thing. And damn right he should say that, because we need to keep our eye on the ball. Jackson writes, “A marriage requires a husband and a wife, because these unions are necessary to make new life and connect children to their mother and father.” If somebody had made it clearer for me earlier, I might have been able to better protest the marriages of my friends who have chosen not to have children, or perhaps more importantly, the marriages of my friends who couldn’t have children for one reason or another. Sham marriages, all of them!

    My foremost concern, of course, is about the psyche of the people who believe in God. I wasn’t aware, but if two women get married in San Diego, it would make people all over the country question their own faith. Who knew? Jackson knew. He writes, “It will create a conflict for people of faith (and nonreligious people as well) who fervently believe in traditional man-woman marriage and the law.” If people of faith are conflicted, how will this country survive?

    Finally, if gays marry, Jackson tells us, it’s going skew our concept of what a family should be. Quoting here: “If gay marriage is allowed, the nation will soon begin to experience an increased degradation of the nuclear family — resulting in fewer kids being raised by both a mom and a dad.” Indeed, fewer, my friends, than the current number of children who are being raised by a single mom or dad after a death, divorce, imprisonment, or in-home estrangement. That is, if we see two people of the same sex in love, our country is doomed to fail .

    I, however, have been able to work out a compromise that should keep us all from being afraid. See, I’ve recently been informed about the terror and security-destroying threat of a particular sect of sleeper cells. Where are they sleeping?

    Cribs, man. Effing cribs.

    My friend Elise reports from Texas that in-the-know State Representatives there have become rightfully concerned about the pressing issue of terrorist babies,–otherwise known as babies born under the rights granted to them by the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution–who at conception are being groomed to overthrow the U.S. government. It’s a prospect so scary that I’m not entirely sure I want my kids sleeping in my house tonight.

    But here’s the compromise: We let Muslims build mosques if they agree to only admit gay worshippers. See…if they’re gay, no babies, and if no babies…you got it, Mssrs. Jackson and Fischer…no terrorist babies.

    I hope that helps you both sleep tonight.

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    Easter egg totem pole

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    Hey, it’s your chance to play…”What is he trying to say?”

    Categories : Culture
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    Moments ago, my wife and I were having a discussion about cleaning products. Since we’ve had kids, my wife’s idea of a household cleaner is vinegar mixed with water. Or, if it’s a really tough job, straight, uncut, Bolivian baking soda.

    This is not a subject on which we always agree. While I think most modern cleaning products go overboard with the lavender-scented, angel-tear formulas, I also am not above using something that, well, actually works. For instance, bleach.

    My wife leaned in close to my face and said, not unlike a pious woman from latter-day Salem, Massachusetts, “Bleach is evil.”

    And then she walked away.

    For the past ten years, I’ve been married to a rational woman. She and I share a belief system. We agree on almost every topic of major public debate. It’s rare for us to find something on which we disagree. It’s so rare, in fact, that I usually give up any debate within 30 seconds because the only way to change my wife’s mind about something she believes is show her that it’s provably wrong.

    Five minutes later, my wife walked back in the room and and said, “If I die unexpectedly, the evil wolfman on (street name redacted) is the one who killed me.”

    And then she walked out again. There are certain things better left without debate.

    The discussions above actually interrupted me from reading about what appears to be new scientific evidence that a previously unknown relative of humans existed some 40,000 years ago and walked among Neanderthals and modern humans. All of this information has been divined from DNA found in one pinkie finger bone in a Siberian cave.

    It’s these kinds of announcements that absolutely fascinate me. If proven to be true, scientists have uncovered something on Earth that directly speaks to our history as human beings, something that until now we couldn’t even have acknowledged, something that helps us further understand who we are and what we survived to make it this far.

    I am actually the type of guy who finds as much or more value in looking back at our planet as I find in looking outward to space (although, this news kept me mentally babbling for an hour or so). That’s partially because I don’t believe I will live to experience any life-changing discoveries beyond our own atmosphere. However, I think there is a chance that within my lifetime we humans might have a much deeper understanding of our personal history.

    The human experience, such as it is, is largely corrupted by the fact we don’t understand who we are, why we’re here, or where we came from. In fact, the mere misunderstanding and lack of agreement on human history is one of the most severe divisions in human dialog. Why? Well, in part, because there is a significant portion of the population (44% of American adults, if you’re to believe a 2008 Gallup poll) that believes that Earth is no more than 10,000 years old and that human life didn’t begin until then.

    I don’t talk about religion with most people, and I certainly don’t discuss it in a forum like this. However, I think it’s telling that my interest, fascination, and belief in the mitochondrial DNA discovery sets me apart from nearly half the population of my country. That is, on any given day, up to 44% of the people with whom I might randomly interact directly oppose my belief in the basic structure and evolution of humankind. I think this is probably the reason “Arrested Development” didn’t survive on television.

    I listened to an old Radio Lab yesterday that featured a guy bent on polling just about everybody he met on whether they believed humans would ever stop going to war. A majority of the people he’d asked over the past six or seven years had said they believed the end of war was impossible. The folks had their various opinions on why, but it was almost universal that people believed humans would be killing each other from now until the end of time.

    It seemed so depressing, so fatalistic, so…understandable. Of course we’ll kill each other forever.

    Even as an ostensibly enlightened society living in a modern age of advanced science, we cannot agree on the fundamental roots of our existence. It would be one thing if DNA scientists and Young Earth Creationists were fringe groups and wingnuts, the type who wear tennis shoes and purple jumpsuits while offing themselves in ritual suicide. But they are not. Our population is divided by huge groups of people who co-exist almost against their will. That they can agree on who should win American Idol but can’t agree if humans have lived for more than 10,000 years is probably the only evidence I’ll ever need that we are more screwed than any god or scientist had ever imagined.

    I do not prosthelytize and I count on others to do me the same favor. Nonetheless, I do believe that science will help reveal some fundamental truths about our lives in the span of the next 50 or so years, and I will almost certainly find it fascinating and enlightening to the point that it will change my view of the world and myself. At that time, half the American population will probably still believe differently than me. In the easiest of scenarios, they will kill me quickly..

    In the meantime, I have bleach and the wolfman to worry about. That’s probably enough for now anyway.

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    The juice connoisseur

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    “So what comes with the quesadilla?” he asked the waitress.

    It was after midnight and the dude was getting his food comped by the poker room.

    “Vegetables and cheese,” the server. She was patient.

    “Can you have them put extra vegetables in it?” he asked and received a nod. “And light on the cheese?”

    I sat sipping on a cheap beer and didn’t say, “Sir, if you take the cheese out of a quesadilla and add more vegetables, what you have is a vegetable sandwich, and one that’s not going to stick together very well.”

    He ate what the server brought, and did so like a dog enjoys its food. He lowered his nose to the plate and scooped huge chunks of guacamole and vegetables into his face. It probably helped him that he was good looking, sort of rugged, and had the chiseled jaw of a guy that always went light on the cheese. Still, he looked like an animal, and I had a hard time liking him.

    Later, he ordered a cranberry juice and then chastised himself. “I should’ve ordered pomegranate juice,” he said ruefully.

    I was annoyed that he was drinking juice at all.

    When his drink came, he took one sip and screwed up his face.

    “This is not cranberry juice,” he said “It’s sweet. It’s like fruit punch.”

    “Probably cranapple or something like that,” I suggested.

    “It’s not cranapple,” he said, like I’d suggested that maybe his bottle of Mad Dog was a fine wine. “I know cranapple. This is like fruit punch.”

    “Then maybe it’s fruit punch,” I said and drank my beer.

    The guy literally stood up from the table, held the glass between his thumb and forefinger, and carried it to a table ten feet away. He came back. It was as if he was physically offended by the drink’s presence.

    “That was not real cranberry juice,” he said. And then he spoke passionately about how he always receives real cranberry juice, how he couldn’t believe they would bring him something that tasted like fruit punch. If this sounds repetitive, it’s because it was.

    The server reappeared and looked as if she wanted to show him what real cranberry juice tasted like. “Could I have a pomegranate juice?” he asked. When she said yes, he stopped, her, “What was that you brought me before?”

    “Cranberry juice,” she said.

    “That was not cranberry juice,” he said. “It tasted like fruit punch.”

    This went on for some time, long enough for me to think the guy probably had a childhood issue in which his mom brought him fake cranberry juice just before she left to run off with that guy she met at Weight Watchers.

    I know other people like this. They are people who go to a restaurant and order the house white because they have no idea how to choose a wine, and then–invariably–send the wine back because “it’s terrible.” They are people who angle to find one thing wrong with their meal–baked potato undercooked, vegetables overcooked, fingerprint on a fork–so they have an excuse to call the manager and get the meal for free.

    There are few places in the world where you should expect everything to be perfect, and if you are dining at a place that has commercials on during reruns of the Amazing Race, you are not at one of those perfect places. That is, you are somewhere where you should expect the cranberry juice to suck.

    See, me, I like the finer things in life. I love a five-star meal, a 25-year-old scotch, an international business class flight. I am fortunate that I get to enjoy these things from time to time. And perhaps it’s because I do have access to the occasional luxury that I don’t expect much from the normal things in life, the goods and services I receive the other 98% of the time. If the cranberry juice is from concentrate, I probably expected it, and if it’s real juice, then I’m happy to be getting better than I expected.

    That’s what life is about, if you don’t mind me using an idiot I sat next to at a poker table as a soapbox. We have to manage our expectations. Most things–really, most things–suck. We live in a country where–even if they are thankful for the work–no one is really happy to be working the job they are working. We live in a country where two or three major corporations control what kind of food we put in our bodies. We are part of a generation that grew up believing homogeneity was a virtue, and hence we expect–no–demand a sameness in our life that, when denied, leaves us feeling slighted.

    Not me. I expect things to suck, and when they don’t, I am happy about it. I expect things to be boring and the same and I celebrate when they are not. It takes just one trip to K-Mart to know Target is a much better store. It takes just one bite of an Olive Garden meal to know it will never compare to Tito’s Ziti Bolognese. Happiness, I think, comes in knowing we can’t expect everything to be good, and better, and perfect. Moreover, when we expect things to be routinely the same, we are bound to be disappointed.

    Maybe that’s a defeatist attitude. Maybe my attitude perpetuates mediocrity and makes those people with high expectations suffer. Maybe it’s my fault. But, damned if I didn’t smile when the server brought the guy his pomegranate juice.

    “I can’t believe they watered this down,” he said. “I just can’t believe it.”

    Categories : Culture, Food and Drink
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    On pretense and population

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    The reason it’s so easy to remember that people largely suck and are more often than not idiots is because there are so many of them. This is as evident in Chinese smog as it is in the drive-thru lane at Jack In the Box when the woman in the Kia takes five minutes to explain the order that is–as evidenced by the otherwise empty car–only for her (or the kids in the trunk she is supposed to be babysitting). In any case, the more people there are, the harder it is to educate all of them to stop screwing each other.

    My buddy Jason turned me onto this Doug Stanhope rant (NSFW, also NSF anyone who doesn’t like fairly stark descriptions of sexuality or people who take a Jonathan Swift line to make their point). Stanhope riffs on a 2009 Oregon State study which suggests that if we really wanted to save Earth, we would focus less on funny-shaped light bulbs and more on not knocking each other up. Or in more scientific terms, the carbon footprint we create by having one child is greater than just about any mess we can make with plastic bags and SUVs. The science seems sound, as much as science ever does.

    On its face, this seems like a goldmine of excuses for men who love tree-hugging women (“Baby, I’d really love to marry you, but you’d inevitably want kids, and I just can’t do that to Mother Earth.”). But let’s face it. While your political preferences may make you wish that the hippies and granola-snorters would stop procreating, those aren’t the people we are really worried about, are they?

    Because discussions of irresponsible sex always make me think of college, I let my brain trip the light spastastic for a little bit and wondered if, perhaps, this overpopulation thing might sort itself out. That is, I wondered if maybe there isn’t a solution in place right now that we just don’t recognize. What I’m trying to say is that we may have Steve Jobs to thank for inadvertently convincing people to stay out of each other’s pants.

    Stick with me on this one.

    I’ve been made to understand that back when I was still listening to the Beach Boys’ “Endless Summer” and Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” on vinyl that there were more than a few amorous college students who would lure unsuspecting love interests to their dorm rooms or bachelor pads on the pretense they could check out a pretty cool record collection. I’ve further been made to understand that while there was no official rule book for this kind of activity, it almost always resulted in the vinyl connoisseurs doing the nasty. (I have no nor am no independent evidence of this, as my dad listened to the Eagles and Flying Burrito Brothers, which I’m fairly certain never got anybody all hot and bothered). If I understand science like I think I do, doing the nasty can result in two people turning into three within a way-too-short period of time.

    Fast forward (how pathetic is that) to the era of cassette tapes. I can admit, I never tried to lure anybody to my room to look at cassettes, because, well, I think we can all admit that cassette tapes aren’t sexy. They are sharp, they break pretty easily, and how many times did the analog tape get caught in the gears and end up spewing all over the inside of the tape deck? What’s more, the cover art was tiny. Inviting someone to look at a tape collection was probably the equivalent of asking someone if they wanted to make love with a very small piece of sandpaper. The world population, inexplicably, still increased during the 1980s, which I suppose can be attributed almost entirely to the rampant availability of cocaine. Or Ronald Reagan. I can’t decide.

    Fortunately for all people who missed the days of vinyl, the days of the compact disc came around and brought back the age of visible cover art. The discs were fairly reliable, stacked well on a dorm shelf, and were too big for a kleptomaniac paramour to slip in her bra on the way out in the morning. They were perfect, and horrible for the environment to boot. In the 1990s, more unintended pregnancies were spawned under the pretense CD collection viewing than the whole of 1950s lovers’ lane stops (I have no proof of this). The 1990s were music technology’s baby boom. College kids from Harvard to the University of Missouri to USC were working the CD Collection Pretense like Cassanova himself conceived it. Some journalism has suggested that the North Koreans teach the CD Collection Pretense to every boy at age 14 in an effort to build an even bigger population to keep locked inside the country’s borders.

    It was not to last forever (except in North Korea).

    As we all know, Steve Jobs came along and thought, “Rampant overpopulation and all the landfill space for those Lou Bega albums? I can kill two environment birds with one…iPod!”

    Nothing has done more to ruin the free love movement than that sleek little MP3 player with the misplaced capital letter. The music collection, such as it is, has been reduced to something a frat boy can carry in his pocket. When it comes time to lure a Alpha Delta Pi up the stairs, he has have no bait. Cover art isn’t glossy so much as it is bits and bytes. The substance of the collection may be more substantial, but the actual presentation is…well…there is a greater chance of a potential lover saying, “I thought it would be bigger.” And Steve Jobs just continues to make things smaller and smaller. With a small headphone jack and the ability to hide the device in one’s purse or pocket, the iPod’s tag line should be “Self love is the first love” (which by the way was something I honestly once read inside a fortune cookie). Even worse, on some college campuses, “listening to my iPod” has become a euphemism along the lines of “punching the clown.”

    Jobs has not yet taken credit for his innovation’s obviously intended consequences. He’s creating iPads (just in case the popoulation drop from the iPod is so stark that people need to be bored enough to have sex again).

    For me, it’s academic. I’m married. I’ve already had two kids. We eat organic food, separate our recyclables into three bins, and re-use baby food jars. Still, our love for each other has produced a big enough and permanent carbon footprint that the Green Police will probably arrest us tomorrow.

    In any case, the next time my wife gets on me for not throwing my beer can in the recycle bin, I’ll remind her I’ve done my part.

    I bought two iPods and I had a vasectomy.

    Categories : Culture, Family, Music, Parenting, Sex
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    I honestly didn’t know people still actively worked to defeat hate crime legislation. I thought it had become sort of passé, like segregated lunch counters or Native American genocide.

    Yet, there are still people in the U.S. Senate–29 of them, in fact–who voted against the latest addition to the federal hate crime law1. One of those people is South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint.

    DeMint was my Congressman for a while and is now my Senator. I interviewed him countless times and traveled in his circles for several years. I feel comfortable I know from whence the man is coming. Still, when I read this from the New York Times, I couldn’t help but shake my head.

    Opponents argued to no avail that the new measure was unnecessary in view of existing laws and might interfere with local law enforcement agencies. Senator Jim DeMint, Republican of South Carolina, said he agreed that hate crimes were terrible. “That’s why they are already illegal,” Mr. DeMint said, asserting that the new law was a dangerous, even “Orwellian” step toward “thought crime.”

    Thought crime? Yeah, it seems a little silly of a phrase, but DeMint’s wont is to parrot it the talking points from the Family Research Council. This come directly from the FRC’s position paper on hate crime legislation:

    Why do you call them “thought crimes”?

    Violent attacks upon people or property are already illegal, regardless of the motive behind them. With “hate crime” laws, however, people are essentially given one penalty for the actions they engaged in, and an additional penalty for the politically incorrect thoughts that allegedly motivated those actions.

    Ah, so the FRC (and, by extension, DeMint) are concerned about additional penalties being assigned based on the motive for a crime. I find that interesting, because there are laws on the books that do the same thing for other motives.

    For instance, some sex crime laws allow for steeper punishments when the sexual assault is perpetrated on a child. The same goes for the murder of a police officer or other public official. In fact, here is one section of South Carolina’s list of aggravating circumstances that allows for the death penalty in a murder case (with my emphasis added):

    …the murder of a judicial officer, former judicial officer, solicitor, former solicitor, or other officer of the court during or because of the exercise of his official duty


    In both of the above cases, steeper punishments are assigned to crimes based on the alleged motive and target (the FRC and DeMint’s so-called “thoughts”). I can’t help but wonder if DeMint would vote against a law protecting police officers and children from people who attack them based on who they are…because after all, a rape is a rape, even if it’s against a child, and police officers deserve no greater protection from the law than average citizens…right, Senator?

    Of course, we should probably understand DeMint’s position. He comes from South Carolina, one of just a handful of states (five or less by my count) that have no hate crime legislation. That is, in the Palmetto State, you can attack a man based only on the fact he is black, Christian, homosexual, or handicapped and receive no greater penalty than if you attacked him for any other reason.

    America creates its laws based on what it finds distasteful and wrong. Our system of laws is based on our perception of right and wrong and how people should be penalized for disregarding societal conventions. We base our penalties on an occasionally arbitrary system of how many degrees of wrong something is. We have decided, at least in some cases, that motive can play a role in the severity of a punishment.

    So, ask yourself Senator, which is more abhorrent: Punching a guy in the nose because he spilled beer on your wife or punching a guy in the nose because he is homosexual?

    If you think they are the same thing, exchange the word homosexual for “Christian” or “American” and see if it makes you think any differently.

    1. The actual vote was on the conference report for H.R. 2647 (National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2010).

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