Friday, February 27, 2015

Net Neutrality, My Son, and Me

I have a very smart son. He and I discuss things political on occasion and often we disagree. We recently had a long back and forth about the “net neutrality” issue. With yesterday’s vote, his side of the argument has prevailed, so I will have to take his word for it that this is a very good thing.

Like I said, he is very bright (he takes after his mother), and also very opinionated and argumentative (he takes after me). He paints the net neutrality business as narrow corporate interests vs. the greater public good and the interests of the little guy. He accuses NN’s opponents of appealing to the public’s distrust of government with overblown rhetoric about higher taxes and a government takeover of future content. The decision came down on a strict party line vote, which should come as a surprise to no one. Is there any other kind of vote anymore that isn’t straight party line, where Republicans are in the back pocket of business and Democrats always favoring anything that empowers the regulative state?

Anyway, now that the deal is done, I will have to take my son’s word for it that everything is going to be alright, that the heavy hand of government bureaucrats aren’t going to screw up the most vibrant, creative industry in the world. I’ll have to banish visions of DMV incompetence, Postal Service inefficiency, and IRS complexity from my mind. I will have to move on from my fear that this whole NN thing is nothing more than a government money grab.

My son knows much more about the internet and technology in general than I do, so perhaps I should give his views on this subject the benefit of the doubt. However, there is a very good reason why NN’s opponents appealed to the American distrust of government. There is an awful lot to distrust. When he complains that the current system leaves too many people at the mercy of too few giant monopolistic enterprises, I counter with the observation that I would rather be at the mercy of giant companies who are at least ultimately accountable to their share-holders, than to be at the mercy of some future Department of the Internet monolith who will be accountable to absolutely no one.

Five or ten years from now, thanks to this very internet miracle, my son’s views and my fears will be a matter of public record. We will both be able to look back on this blog and decide who was right and who was wrong. Somebody will owe somebody else a beer.
I sincerely hope I’m the one buying.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Trash Talk Time

As a graduate of and fan of Richmond Spiders athletics, I have had to swallow hard over the past few years watching the ascendency of VCU basketball and their talented coach Shaka Smart. My Facebook feed has been bombarded with the ubiquitous, “havoc!!!” refrain. I have had to sit back and listen to VCU fan brag about their team, even watch them go to the final four. It has been a miserable few years.

They are still a terrific team and Shaka Smart is still talented. But finally, I have been given reason to do what I do best…talk smack. Last night my Spiders completed a season sweep of the Rams in thrilling fashion with a double overtime victory. And while VCU may end up winning the Atlantic 10, we won the city, baby!

So, this morning I get to the my empty office, and after clearing a path from the parking lot to the front door, I had some time on my hands…never a good thing when flush with the thrill of victory. My buddy and business partner, Doug Greenwood has become a huge band-wagon jumping Ram fan over the past few years, a season ticket holding carpet bagger of sorts. I have had to endure an endless stream of Ram-bragging from him for quite a while now. Well…I just couldn’t help myself…

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

The Oscar's Show

Ok, here's how I do the Oscar's thing. I walk through the den from time to time while the red carpet show is on and ask Pam how it's going. She gives me the highlights. Then I come downstairs on my way to the fridge for a snack later and sometimes stop for a few minutes to watch an acceptance speech. Then, the next morning I read all about it on the Internet, watching selected clips of highlights if I find myself interested.

I'm not anti-Hollywood. I enjoy good movies, always have. This year, Pam and I saw four of the best picture nominees and will probably catch a couple more of them soon. But a team of black ops interrogators from Guantanamo Bay couldn't force me to watch the Academy Awards show. Three and a half hours of self-congratulatory claptrap and left wing advocacy is as close to hell as Earth gets.

However, watching the highlights, I did learn a few things...

1. Lady Gaga can actually sing. Who knew? 
2. To judge from their responses to Patricia Arquette's speech, J-Lo and Merrill Streep are apparently vastly underpaid.
3. Neil Patrick Harris has been spending some time at the gym, and isn't at all concerned with preserving his dignity.
4. In order for a movie to win an award at the Oscars, it's essential that nobody has actually bought a ticket to see it.
5. An essential part of every acceptance speech is the obligatory pitch for a cause, to include, but not be limited to...equal pay for women, immigration, the environment, racial injustice, and gay rights.

But what I really learned from this year's festivities is what I already knew. When presented with films about such weighty matters as, A. The war in Iraq and America's deadliest warrior, B. The brave Enigma code breaker, C. A Martin Luther King biopic, and D. The story of famed physicist and thinker Stephen Hawking...the Academy gives the award to a movie about...Hollywood.

They just can't help themselves.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Does Obama Love America?

Rudy Giuliani, former mayor of New York City, made headlines recently by questioning whether or not President Obama loves America. The mayor's question has hung in the air like three day old fish, stinking up our political discourse from the salons of Manhattan to the dinner parties in Georgetown. I'm sure the Sunday shows will talk about little else. What to think...

It is generally bad form to cast about impugning the patriotic commitments of politicians. For one thing, patriotism is so difficult to define. Love of country is hard to quantify. For instance, I certainly love America, but I don't love everything about it. I hate the political dysfunction that has produced 18 trillion dollars in debt. I hate the career political class from both parties who have, House-of-Cards-style, made a mockery of the democratic process. So my love is selective. I'm generally suspicious of those who claim to love their country "right or wrong," in much the same way as I am suspicious of a parent who loves their kids so much that it renders them blind to their faults. There is such a thing as loving something too much, after all.

But, generally speaking, my default emotion towards my country is something close to love. In the President's case, as with most Progressives, it seems more complicated. He is a product of a political philosophy which views America, from its founding, as a deeply flawed place. Progressives have always viewed America's successes with suspicion. The Declaration of Independance? Just a document designed to preserve white privilege. The Constitution? Simply a straight jacket designed to encumber the power and benevolence of the central government. The industrial Revolution? Ill-gotten gains accrued on the backs of slave labor. In the Progressive view of history, America isn't a shining city on a hill or even a beacon for freedom for the oppressed, but rather a racist, misogynistic, greedy collection of rubes and hicks who need to be controlled by the enlightened from each coast. America is something which needs to be constantly and continually radically transformed from something base to something better, and the only people capable of this redemption all happen to be...Progressive.

So, when the President tells us to get off of our moral high horse over ISIS because of Jim Crow laws from fifty years ago, it feeds into the suspicion that he is much more comfortable criticizing our sins than he is criticizing the sins of our enemies. He is the only President in my lifetime who's rhetoric always seems to soar highest when he is taking us to task for our national sins.

Still, I have no doubt that the President loves America. I am equally confident that President Obama knew that George Bush also loved America in 2008 when he accused him of being "unpatriotic" for piling up 4 trillion dollars onto the national debt. It was a Presidential campaign and people get riled up and say things that they wish they could take back. Mayor Giuliani was wrong for making such an accusation about a sitting President.

While I love America for what it is and has been, a force for good in the world, an intrinsic love...the President loves America for what it has the potential to become if it adopts his policies. Perhaps that is a different kind of love, but it is love nonetheless. America's past and present sins do nothing to alter my love of country, primarily because I know that every nation in the history of mankind has closets filled with skeletons. But simple love of country does not blind me to criticism of it or a desire to fix what ails her. In this way, I suppose, the President and I agree.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Dinner and a Movie Review

We don't call them date-nights anymore. But last night was one. It started with dinner at Firebirds with my two sisters and their husbands. We would have been easy to find...the loud table of six arguing about politics and bragging about our kids, ironically placed adjacent to a table of deaf people. We stayed entirely too long, the poor waitress stopping by every five minutes refilling the sweet tea, her eyes practically screaming, "How can we miss you if you never leave?" It was great fun. 

The topics of conversation were varied and included such classics as the deplorably incoherent state of American foreign policy, the trials and tribulations of directing children's choirs, the adorableness of my sister's new grandchild, our unanimous conclusion that my daughter hit the jackpot with the selection of her husband, my son's love life, how horrible this past week must have been for our brother in Maryland having to deliver mail in 10 degree weather, and how great it is that Christina's gynecologist is running for the State Senate. Bon apetite!

When we finally got back home, Pam and I settled down to watch a movie that had been on my "must see" list ever since its release...The Judge. Holy cow, what a movie. Any film which features the great Robert Duvall and the sensational Robert Downey Jr. would have to be good, but The Judge was great. Watching these two heavyweights on screen felt like watching a greatest hits compilation. The story was rich, the characters believable, and the performances nothing short of brilliant. Duvall is getting old and may not be with us too much longer. But when he passes, the title of greatest living American actor will pass easily and smoothly to Downey Jr. This was the kind of film that made you believe that it didn't actually have a script, it was just two geniuses making it up as they went along, going with the power of the emotional moment, and luckily for us there were a million of them. Everything about The Judge is utterly believable with the possible exception of one overly personal exchange between Downey the lawyer, and Duvall, his father/defendant on the witness stand. Other than that brief departure, the picture was nearly perfect for my taste. Do yourself a favor and rent The Judge.

So now it's Saturday and we wait for the snow and whatever else might be in store for us on this perfectly awful February day. Only twenty eight more days until spring.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

I Hate The Middle East

Somebody's needs to say it, might as well be me. I really, truly hate the Middle East. The entire region is like an enormous infected boil on the backside of civilization. It's a dusty, dirty, violent cess pool of dysfunction. The place has been giving the world a headache for my entire lifetime, and centuries before I ever came along. It's like a thousand year old Hatfield v. McCoy feud only instead of horses and muzzleloader rifles, they have camels and nuclear weapons. Throw in religious extremists, ritual beheadings, wailling walls, temple mounts and beat up Toyota pick up trucks and you've got the Geo-political version of a hit reality television blockbuster...Survivor Tel Aviv.

Yes, I know about the cultural and historical significance of the place...cradle of civilization and all. And yes, I'm aware that Israel is there, the birthplace of our Lord. I'm reminded of this salient point roughly 50 times a month at my church, where it seems they are rounding up volunteers to go tour the Holy Land every week. We are shown slides of barren hillsides, each indistinguishable from the next..."and this is the Mount of Olives," intones the speaker, "an indescribably moving experience!" I'll take his word for it since the only way you're getting me on a tour bus full of Christians touring the countryside of Israel in 2015 is at room temperature.

Every day of my life there has been some sort of "Middle East Peace Initiative" going on, usually with the United States hip deep in the middle of the thing. And every day of my life, there has been no peace of any kind in the Middle East. This despite the heroic and tireless efforts of two generations of would be peacemakers. Several of them have won Nobels, but still no peace. In the past, what happened in this vast wasteland was of huge strategic importance to us since we desperately needed the region's oil. Now, not so much, (thank you, fracking!). 

Now we have ISIS, the latest and most convincing argument against Evolution. This group of anonymous barbarians has brought back Middle Ages style savagery and combined it with 21st century technological innovation. This unholy alliance has resulted in a series of slickly produced snuff videos depicting the gruesome deaths of a parade of alleged "enemies of Islam." Watching them is to be reminded that while all men may be created equal, they don't stay equal for long.

Our President seems uniquely ill-equipped to be a wartime executive. His heart doesn't seem to be in the effort to confront ISIS. I watched him give his speech yesterday at yet another conference at the White House decrying something called "violent extremism." He tried his best, but to hear him talk you could be persuaded that ISIS would go away if only they had better job opportunities. It was all very strange, the kind of speech you would expect him to give at the Urban League or something. 

Part of me is glad that he is so reticent. Part of me thinks that the Middle East deserves what it gets. Despite the best efforts of generations of diplomats, if they insist on killing each other with box cutters, then have at it. That may sound cold and uncaring, and perhaps on some level it is. But at some point the people of the Middle East will have to become responsible for the dysfunction of the Middle East. 

The sooner, the better.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Snow Memories

Snow. The mere suggestion of it in a weather forecast used to produce within me giggling excitement. Snow meant the possibility of a day or two being commuted off of my school sentence. Then later when I became a father it meant a day off of work that I could spend building a snowman with my kids.  Now it's just frozen precipitation that piles up on the sidewalk and my driveway. There are no kids to bundle up. There's just me trudging out in the mess with a shovel, and the horrible idea that maybe Lucy would love a chance to play outside without the leash.

I was at least half right. She indeed loved playing outside without the leash. 

The problem started the second I began removing the snow from these steps. The loud scraping noise of shovel on bricks, made worse by the amplifying qualities of 8 inches of snow sent her into a wild fleeing panic! Lucy soon discovered that she very much enjoys running free in the neighborhood with me in pursuit. 

I'm sorry. I so much more prefer this.

I guess the problem with snow is that it reminds me of some of the best memories of the past. Listening to Alden Aaroe reading the school closing lists on WRVA, "...Accomack, Albemarle, Alleghany, Amelia..." in that fabulous baritone voice of his along with a couple of pitches for the WRVA shoe fund. Bundling up my kids and spending a morning making a snowman and sliding down the hill in our front yard was about as much fun as fathering gets. Watching them cling to their cups of hot cocoa afterwards is a picture that I'll never forget.

 Snow is very much like Christmas. With children, it's magical. Without children, it's an overrated intrusion into the comfortable routine of life. With a lunatic dog, it's a little of both.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Our Weekend Trip

Our Columbia weekend is now at an end, and with a few notable exceptions, Lucy was fabulous. This was our first real car trip with her and we had no idea of what to expect. With her track record of neurosis we were prepared for the worst, fears of non-stop whining and projectile vomiting dancing in our heads,(we took Pam's car). Instead, she sat bolt upright in her seat for the first hour of the trip staring out the window, shaking like a leaf, but making no complaint. About the time we crossed the North Carolina line she finally laid down. Then, just outside of Roanoke Rapids, we stopped at the Halifax County Visitors Center to take her to the coolest place ever...a dog run! This was a large fenced in yard, one for small dogs and one for large dogs, where you just turn your travel weary dogs loose and let them run and rip in an open field. Lucy met two other dogs and had the time of her life
chasing tennis balls for fifteen minutes. When we got back in the car, she immediately laid down and slept all the way into the parking lot of Jon and Kaitlin's apartment! Thank you, Halifax County.

I had never seen the apartment before, except through pictures. It was so much larger than I was expecting. They have done an amazing job decorating and furnishing the place. It looks like they have lived there for years, so cozy and welcoming. Watching the two of them acting as host and hostess made me quite proud. I think after 27 years, I can stop worrying about my daughter!

Now, about those notable exceptions. Lucy wasn't nearly as impressed with the apartment as Pam and I were. WAYYYYY too many pillows for her taste! So high was her nervous-o-meter, in 48 hours she only managed to eat one full meal. The one thing we brought with us that we thought would reassure her...her bed...she wanted nothing to do with. Instead, for the first time in her life, she insisted upon sleeping in the bed with us. On the bright side, whenever we left her alone in the apartment she made no messes and tore up nothing, a great relief.

Her big event was the trip to Jon's employer, Congaree National Park. It was very cold, but sunny and there was a 2.5 mile hike along a boardwalk pathway deep into the great swamp. Besides the fact that Lucy insisted upon greeting  every pedestrian we encountered with her famous high five maneuver, Lucy had a blast, not once attempting to launch herself into the muddy depths below. There were two unfortunate incidents, both involving senior citizens. First, Lucy encountered her first wheelchair person, a kind and friendly elderly man who wanted to get to know this lovable dog, only to be treated to Lucy's first and only low growl and bark of the day. Embarrassing. Then a bit later, I let out
the leash a bit too much, allowing Lucy to catch up to an older and very unsteady man ahead of us. Of course, Lucy introduced herself with a cheerful jump and before I could reach her, had wrapped the leash around the old guys legs. Only divine intervention prevented the man from a face-plant and broken hip.

The trip home went even better. Instead of it taking her an hour to settle down, she was asleep in fifteen minutes. All things considered, the trip was a raging success. There will be many more in the future.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Am I a Writer or Just Nuts?

There are so many times when I wish I would have paid better attention in college. Especially that creative writing class I took my sophomore year. Back then I tried really hard to listen and apply myself, I really did. But I would start every class determined to make it through to the end fully engaged, only to find myself staring out the window 15 minutes in wondering why it is that a curve ball is so hard to hit, or why we call black light "black" when in fact it's purple. Anyway...where was I? Oh yeah, creative writing class. If I would have paid closer attention, maybe I would have learned something useful about the writing process. That way, I would know whether or not the way I write is normal or totally whacked. For any of you out there who are writers, please feel free to enlighten me.

I wrote a novel two years ago called "A Life of Dreams." It is currently hanging out in my Dropbox account waiting for me to do something with it, and the wonderful and talented Denise Roy is probably wondering what the heck I'm doing letting it sit there, but that's another story. That story started out with nothing more than an idea of what it might be like to be a gambling savant. I sat down one night at my laptop and started typing, having no earthly idea what the story would be about. Eight months later it was finished. It was as if it wrote itself. All I had to do was make myself available to the keyboard of my computer and my fingers would be taken over by this mysterious force. Well, now I'm writing a new novel, but this one is being written entirely in my head. I have yet to type a word. It started with a single sentence that popped into my head one day when I was on the treadmill at the gym. So far there are three characters, a bizarre yet coherent plot and some fine conflict...all floating around in the vast empty spaces of my head. Every time I think about sitting down and committing the thing to paper, it all gets convoluted and starts to fall apart.

So, what I would really like to know is what is the proper procedure for writing?  Is there more than
one way to do it, or is there a plan to follow that makes it easier? Secondarily, am I an idiot? If you are a writer, or a Psychiatrist I would appreciate any advice you could provide.

Thank you.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Lucy...My Psychotic, Bigot-Dog.

It seems that every day we discover some new wrinkle in our dog's legendary neurosis. You all know of her skittishness, particularly her fear of the randomly raised pillow. Well last night, this...

After dinner, Lucy was snuggled between Pam and I on the sofa acting an awful lot like a normal, well-adjusted pet. We were watching the second episode of " Better Call Saul" and when I say "we" I do mean "we." Lucy loves television. Suddenly there was a scene in Saul's cramped office where he starts sliding his desk across the floor so he can open the sleep sofa. Lucy perked up and began feverishly sniffing the air. Pam and I glanced at each other. Lucy then launched herself off the sofa and ran over to the television for a closer look. About that time, Saul lifted the first of the pillows from the couch. Lucy ran from the room, horrified to discover that not only do her owners lift pillows into the air with no warning, but the little people in the shiny flat screen do too!

Later, after the pillow crisis had passed, she returned to watch some more. About the time she was calmed down and relaxed on the sofa, there appeared on the screen a tight shot of two black actors having some sort of intense conversation. Immediately Lucy beat a hasty retreat, this time with a low soft growl, making her the second consecutive Golden Retreiver we have owned who has a problem with African-Americans. Great. Introducing her to the citizens of Columbia, South Carolina should be a real hoot!

Pray for us.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

2016 Presidential Candidates. The early view....

It's February of 2015 and you know what THAT means...the hot stove league for the 2016 presidential election is upon us. Yes, only in America does it take two years to run for an office that allows the winner to serve only four years. Of course, there won't be an actual primary with real votes being cast for a year or so, but crucial work is being done by all the serious candidates as we speak. That serious work being the hiring of campaign strategists and the solicitation of truck loads of cash. It's an unseemly business but somebody's gotta do it. And before you start with how money is corrupting the process, let me point out that if we wind up spending 6 billion in the 2016 election, that will be roughly equivalent to what we spend on lawncare every year, so give it a rest.

The Republican field is huge and not very diverse. Since the party has finally given Sarah Palin the bums rush, there aren't any women. However, there are two minorities that I know of, Ben Carson and Bobby Jindal. The rest are white guys, some of whom are VERY white. Then there's Donald Trump who is an alien, so at least the field is "universally" diverse. At this early stage of the proceedings, I have no informed opinion on the candidates, but since when has having an informed opinion on anything prevented me from offering one? I have limited these opinions to one word modifiers due to time constraints:

1. Jeb Bush...genetics
2. Bobby
3. Mike Huckabee...hick
4. Scott Walker...accomplished
5. Chris Christie...fat
6. Ben
7. Lindsey Graham...please God, No! ( sorry, that's three words)
8. Rick Perry...glasses
9. Ted Cruz...volcanic
10. Rand Paul...long shot
11. Marco Rubio...young

As far as the Democrats go, they are determined to cement themselves as the party of women by currently offering three female candidates, Hillary Clinton, Elizabeth Warren, and Joe Biden. At some point I'm sure that a Democratic man will be cojoled into throwing his hat into the ring. Perhaps John Kerry or Al Franken.

It's going to be a long 21 months...

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Thanks, Netflix!!

I'm not a television guy. Generally speaking I would rather read. But things are changing here at Casa Dunnevant with the arrival of the single greatest advancement in home entertainment since the piano...Netflix.

Now that the nest is empty and Pam and I don't have the weighty responsibility of parenthood draped over our shoulders, we have been freed to eat our dinner in the den while watching a series of wonderful television shows, all of which come to us courtesy of Netflix and the Bristish Empire. There are no insufferable commercials, and if we wish to watch a second episode we just press play. The fact that most of our favorite shows come from Great Britain is a curiosity. Although American television is more slickly produced and the actors much more attractive, they simply cannot compete with the story-telling, acting and intelligence of their British counterparts. Of course, there are exceptions to this broad statement. If you want a riveting chase scene or gun play or scantily clad babes, then American television has no peer. But if you want smart, witty characters with something to say, stories that make you think, and characters to actually care about, check out any of the following:

1. Foyle's War.  Set in a coastal town in southern England at the outbreak of WWII, it's the story of a detective too old for the army who must stay at home solving crimes while his country is fighting for its life. Most of the crimes are related to the war effort, black market theivery and whatnot, but Foyle still feels that he isn't doing his bit. He hires a spunky and adorable girl to be his driver and the
relationship  that developes between the two is amazingly sweet without anything approaching trite or clich├ęd. But it's Foyle himself who carries the show. Soft spoken and older man handsome, his keen and curious mind is fascinating to watch. He doesn't actually say much which adds to his appeal. We watched all eight seasons and every climatic arrest scene was pulled off without the brandishing of even one weapon.

2. Downton Abbey.  Enough has been said by me about this wonderful drama. Lush, beautiful to look at, the show is simply chocked full of characters that you will care deeply about.

3. Doc Martin.  Another seaside location in Cornwall provides the setting for this comedy without a laugh track. It's the story about a gifted London surgeon who developes a phobia at the sight of blood and must give up the knife and become a general practitioner in the mythical village of Portwen.
Although the good doctor is medically gifted, he has truly horrible people skills and lacks the ability
or inclination to tell a convenient or social lie. There's a word for this...RUDE, and he has it in spades. Despite his wretched manner, he finds himself attracted to the lovely school head mistress and watching their relationship blossom is like watching a slow motion train wreck. The lead actor is fortunate to be British because he would never land a lead role in an American series since he is truly and indisputably ugly, almost Shrek-like. Actually it's part of his charm and in a weird way makes
him sympathetic.

4. Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries. This is a production from Austrailian television about a beautiful heiress in Melbourne during the roaring 20's who becomes that rarest of breeds...a lady detective. This show is where the Great Gatsby meets Amelia Earhart. Phryne Fisher is adorable with her short bob haircut and astonishingly gorgeous clothes, as she proves as equally adept at seduction as she is at brandishing her gold plated pistol or climbing a trellis or speeding along the back roads in her fabulous car. She developes a thing for the local police detective, an incorruptible, by the book sort of
guy who she always seems to be annoying. The stories are wonderful, and the supporting cast all bring their own charms to this delightful production.

Ok, that's enough to get you started. You're welcomed.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Lucy's Park Adventure

My incurably neurotic Lucy had her first visit to the park over the weekend. It was a beautiful day and I am trying to socialize her the best I can. Besides, we are planning on taking her on a road trip this coming weekend down to Columbia, South Carolina to see Jon and Kaitlin, so I figured that she needed some time in the car and at a new place in way of preparation. While I write this at 6:15 in the morning, she is manically spinning around chasing her tail until she gets so dizzy she falls over crosseyed, pink tongue hanging out of her mouth. Einstein she's not.

Anyway, things were going quite well. She loved the park, particularly the other dogs and her first encounter with ducks. We walked around the lake making many unplanned detours at Lucy's behest. I'm beginning to think that she would follow her own nose through the gates of hell, so single minded is she when on the trail of some whiff of whatever. Although she seemed entrigued by the lake, she showed no unusual interest in the water, partly since the county engineers have done quite the job at building wooden hinderences all around the water's edge. But near the end of our 45 minute walk, I managed to find a spot where the water could be accessed by way of several formidable rocks. Lucy cautiously made her way to the edge, sniffing for all she was worth. Suddenly, as if answering some thousand year old genetic urge, she launched herself, spread-eagle off the rocks into the water, to the finger-pointing delight of a previously amorous couple seated on a nearby bench. I thought I had her leash locked. Wrong. She swam around as I frantically tried to reel her in while terrified ducks began fleeing the scene. I finally managed to get her out of the lake and unto dry ground where she immediately engaged in rounds of body shaking, soaking everything within ten feet, including the happy couple.

This dog who is afraid of anything black, this dog who can be sent scurrying for cover at the sight of a raised pillow, this dog who heads to the high grass at the mere appearance of a Target bag, doesn't hesitate to launch herself into an element that she has never seen before in her life.

Well, she IS a Retriever, and I suppose the genetics are impossible to resist. Still, it was an amazing thing to see, the carefree delight she took in swimming for the first time. Of course I had brought no towel with me so she was quite the mess for the ride home. I'm sure that the 6 hour drive to Columbia and life inside a third floor apartment will provide much material for this blog this coming weekend. Stay tuned!

Saturday, February 7, 2015

The Crusades vs. Jihad

The President opened a can of worms the other day at the National Prayer Breakfast by attempting a history lesson. In that especially irritating, condescending way that he has at times, he warned Americans not to get on our "high horse" by assigning barbaric acts exclusively to the Muslim faith. He reminded us about the Crusades and the Inquisition as well as slavery and Jim Crow on our own shores and the dark roll that Christianity had played in each. Our President is quite fond of this sort of thing, his strange habit of equivocation, always eager to point out our own sins while granting dispensation for the sins of others. Where to begin?

Let me start with the issue of slavery and Jim Crow, since my historical knowledge is more dependable. The President is correct that slavery is indeed a black mark for not only our nation but Christianity as well. In fact my chosen denomination was birthed over an incorrect interpretation of scripture concerning the nature of slavery. More recently, many churches, especially in the south, were supportive of the Jim Crow laws of the 1950's to their everlasting shame. But whenever I hear this charge leveled against Christianity, my blood begins to rise because the critics always leave out two things. First, the abolitionist movement that ultimately lead to the eradication of human bondage in the West was predominately a Christian project, both here and in England. And while the West is largely free from its scourge, slavery still thrives throughout the Muslim world. Secondly, you would have to search far and wide to find an ordinary Christian who does not admit that slavery was and is a horrible thing and any past Christian support for it was a grave error. In many parts of the Muslim world, by contrast, they danced in the streets celebrating 9/11.  President doesn't need to remind us of what the vast majority of Christians already know, acknowledge and understand...slavery is a sin.

With regards to the Crusades, this is the go-to accusation levied against anyone who dares to publicly
question Islam's seeming domination by its most radical and violent elements. "Well?? What about
the Crusades, huh?? You Christians are no better!!" This is barnyard manure of the highest order. First of all, it needs to be pointed out that the Crusades ended 600 years ago, and the historical accounts of it are filled with conflicting claims as to who in fact was responsible for most of the carnage. The hands of Islam are just as bloody as those of the Crusaders. And while it appears that Christianity has been rather successful at reigning in its Medieval barbarism, Jihad is still very much with us, which is a salient point that the President always seems to miss. The entire point of the crisis in which civilization finds itself is NOT the Christian violence of 1000 AD, but the bloody violence of the here and now, most of which is rooted in the Islamic doctrine of Jihad.

I agree with those who say that it isn't fair to blame an entire religion for the excesses of a minority of its adherents. I cringe when people try to blame Christianity for the Westboro Baptist crowd. I even object to the Westboro haters being called "Christian" since they demonstrate no recognizable fruits of the spirit. So, I have sympathy for the Administrations sometimes awkward parsing of words when
attempting to identify the enemy. Devout Muslims may equally cringe when they hear the lunatics of ISIS called "radical Islamists." But, while Christian churches are being burnt to the ground wherever the Jihadists gain power, Mosque construction continues here in America. No armed, roaming bands of Methodists have been spotted destroying Muslim businesses lately, I know of no Presbyterian gangs raping and pillaging through Dearborn, Michigan.

However, with a billion Muslims on this planet, if only 10% of them support violent Jihad, then we are dealing with potentially 100 million radicalized  Islamic terrorists. While they are still very much
the minority of such an ancient religion, they are the ones with the power, the zeal and the weapons. History lessons about the Crusades do nothing to change this horrible fact.

Friday, February 6, 2015

The Strange Life of a Teacher

My wife has a really cool job. She is an "interventionist." No, she is not in favor of an aggressive foreign policy, rather she works with small groups of elementary school students who are struggling with math or reading, giving them extra help in what is called a "pull out" program. Thirty minutes at a time, she works with 2 or 3 kids, giving them extra instruction where they need it most. She does this with kids from K through 5th grade. She loves the kids and they love her, and she is incredibly good at what she does.

She is not considered a full time employee. She gets no benefits. She gets paid by the hour and her hours are from 8 to noon, 5 days a week. Anyone who knows Pam probably knows what I'm about to say because...well it's just who she is. When it comes to teaching and children, Pam has no idea what a clock is. While this is also true for most teachers, at least they are paid a salary with benefits. My wife shows up before the kids arrive and gets home between 4 and 5 in the afternoon every day, meaning she gets paid for roughly half of the hours she works.

Every year it's something else, some new initiative from the central office or worse, the Department of Education. This year it's something called "progress monitoring" which as best I can tell involves an insane amount of testing and then entering the results into some Rube Goldberg computer program. It's all very complicated and labor intensive. So, in order to get it all done she either has to use paid instruction time, robbing the kids of actual, you know...instruction, or spend three unpaid hours every afternoon logging in meaningless data into her computer to satisfy the blood-sucking bureaucrats of the education mafia who dream up these schemes.

Well, yesterday she sent me an email informing me that her Principal had singled her out for praise since their school was leading the entire county in the accuracy and consistency of the progress monitoring reporting, or some such thing. The person in charge of the initiative had taken the time to call and heap praise upon the stellar interventionists. Pam was so excited, pointing out that since she can never get a bonus or anything like that, a pat on the back meant so much.

And this, ladies and gentlemen, is what is wrong with education in this country. The best the overachieving teacher can hope for is a "pat on the back." Well, that and 5 bucks will get you a cup of fancy coffee at Starbucks. Congratulations.

I know, I get it...great teachers don't teach because of the money. But can't we come up with a way of identifying and rewarding the best ones? And I'm not talking about some $1000 gift certificate to Teach N Things. Yes, identifying great teachers isn't easy, there are so many variables to consider, not the least of which is parental involvement. But, we can put a man on the moon yet we can't come up with a way to reward excellence in the classroom? What's more important for the future of our country, investment banking, or identifying, rewarding and attracting truly great and gifted teachers?

I've been a business owner most of my adult life. My world is one that is driven by incentives, and return on investment. And while education is no business, the people who work in it are human beings and last time I checked human beings respond to incentives. Would it kill us to offer bonuses, luxury paid vacations, or maybe paid sabbaticals to the best of the best, however defined? Wait, you say that education budgets are tight and there's no money? How about we elliminate 10% of the jobs at the central office and use the savings to fund my teacher enrichment program? I've never met an enterprise in the business world that couldn't be made infinitely better by taking a meat ax to the home office. Education is no different and in fact is probably worse.

Meanwhile, my wife and thousands of other educators like her will have to settle for a "job well done" pat on the back.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Humanity Burned At The Stake

Last night I did something that in the past I have always refused to do, I watched the latest ISIS video. Since this organization of psychopaths burst onto the scene they have been rather fond of executing hostages from a variety of countries in increasingly barbaric ways, then distributing video evidence for the world to see. These videos are dumped on the Internet and immediately go viral, winning them admiration from other psychopaths the world over, and serving as a recruiting tool. It has primarily been for this reason that I have never viewed one, not wanting to become part of the problem by participating in something so dehumanizing. But mostly I haven't watched one of these snuff videos because this isn't Hollywood, these are very real heads being chopped off of living breathing people. No thanks.

But there I was last night reading the story of the Jordanian pilot being burned alive. Something came over me, a dark curiosity mixed with disbelief that it could possibly be true. My finger hesitated over the play button for several seconds. Why was I so curious? Was it all just an overblown hoax fanned by the "let's fight another Middle East war" crowd? I pressed play.

A smartly dressed soldier in what looked like an actual military uniform, face covered in a tan mask, held a torch in his hand, then slowly lowered it to the ground where a narrow line of flame began to dance along the ground, all the while music blared in the background. As the camera pans out we see the bars of a cage, then a man in an orange jumpsuit standing bravely at attention as the fire races toward him. When the flames reach him he lifts his hands to his face and begins to jog in place. At this point it looks no different than a thousand scenes from movies of people on fire. But soon the horrifying reality hits you with a knockout punch as you hear the man screaming. At this point the video-makers go for production value as they pan in with multiple cameras, the music getting louder.
Suddenly there's a closeup of the man's face as he drops to his knees, layers of skin peeling off and
falling to the ground. His face then begins to melt as his now stiff body rocks onto his back, cameras deftly catching the event from several angles. I stopped the video before it ended, having seen way too much.

Yes, practically every civilization on earth has at some point burned people alive as punishment. Joan of Arc perhaps the most famous example. But it's worth noting that Joan of Arc was burned at the stake 600 years ago. Generally speaking, the civilized world doesn't do this sort of thing anymore. An argument can be made that modern man does other equally barbaric things to each other. Killing someone via drone strike from 30,000 feet is no less lethal than being burned alive I suppose. But to actually see such a thing, to hear the triumphant music playing, to watch the celebratory posturing of the ISIS thugs, the raging bloodlust, is to be reminded of mankind's talent for cruelty. 

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Time to Party?

I would like for you, dear reader, to engage in a little thought experiment with me today. Let's assume for purposes of this experiment that you are married. You and your spouse are having a tough time living within your means. In fact, you are spending a lot more than you're making... a LOT more. Matter of fact, back 6 years ago you were spending roughly $13000 more each year than you earned. That's over a thousand a month, obviously unsustainable. So, you decide that something has to be done, after all, 6 years ago your reckless spending had managed to pile up $110,000 in debt.

 So, one night over coffee, you and the wife sit down and hammer out a plan to put your financial house in order. You decide that each of you are going to get second jobs because you obviously don't make enough money. In addition you pledge to stop spending money you don't have. But, old habits are hard to break and although you manage to make more money with the second jobs, and you do manage to put a dent in your profligate spending, you discover that it's harder than you thought to stop a runaway train. Six years after your austerity plan, you have made progress. Now you are making more money, and you have managed to cut that spending, but you are still spending $4500 more a year than you're making. While this amounts to an admirable 60% drop in spending, your total debt has continued to grow, now at $182,000 and climbing.

So, you both decide that to celebrate your 60% reduction in deficit spending, a trip to the Bahamas is called for, a no expense spared, all-inclusive blowout because...well, you've earned it!

Throw a boatload of zeros at the end of all my numbers above and that's exactly what has happened to the United States over the last 6 years. I don't have any problem with the President taking credit for  good economic news. God knows he would get blamed for bad news! But I find his conclusion that since now we are "only" spending 450 BILLION dollars more than we bring in each year, it's time to go on a spending spree...ludicrous. 

Monday, February 2, 2015

Super Bowl Observations

Midway through the third period of last nights game, I was feeling rather smug about my prediction of a Seattle blowout. The Seahawks were up 24-14, and the wheels appeared to be coming off for New England. Then Tom Brady started doing what he's been doing for the past 15 years, playing the quarterback position with robotic efficiency, slinging perfect passes to his latest collection of midget receivers.

It's very easy to dislike a guy like Brady, he of the cleft chin matinee idol good looks, the Warren Buffet sized bank account and the smoking hot wife. He of the breezy, effortless confidence and annoying Uggs billboards. But there is no denying his accomplishments on the football field,where he simply has no contemporary peer, having just won his fourth Super Bowl. The fact that he led his team to two fourth quarter touchdowns to win the game should come as a surprise to absolutely no one.

Still, there were the Seahawks driving down the field for the winning score with time winding down, aided by a miraculous bobbling catch that put the ball on the five yard line. After Marshawn Lynch dragged 11 guys down to the one with 30 seconds left, it seemed a sure bet that Seattle was about to steal the game. Then, for reasons that escape me and roughly 20 million other football fans, Pete Carroll decides to NOT give the ball to the most devastating running back I've seen play the game since Earl Campbell. Instead, he calls for a pass, a slant to somebody named Davey Crockett or something. Some other nameless rookie intercepts the ball. Game over. The cameras cut to Brady jumping up and down on the sidelines like a middle schooler. Pete Carroll hangs his head in disbelief at his own stupidity. What a finish!

Of course, there was a halftime show. Katy Perry and a cast of thousands. My son pointed out to me that the halftime show at the Super Bowl long ago ceased to be about music, having instead become mini- Olympic Games opening ceremonies. As such, this one was pretty dazzling. Everyone kept their clothes on, there were virtually no hyper-sexualized themes, and Miss Perry's outfits were kinda cool.

This year's commercials were...surprising. It seemed like no matter the product being pitched, the theme was "aren't Dads great?" One ad after another extolled the many virtues of fatherhood. There's Dad making breakfast with his little boy at 2 in the morning. There's Dad picking up his crying high school daughter in the pouring rain. There's Dad dropping his daughter off at the airport, tears flooding his eyes. It was quite refreshing actually. Normally, Dad is depicted as a clumsy, incompetent rube in commercials, always having to be bailed out by the wise wife. It was nice to see men depicted as something besides money-grubbing, ass-grabbing drunks.

So another football season can be laid to rest, leaving us only 63 days removed from the first pitch of baseball season. Yeah, baby!!