Friday, March 12, 2004

I HOPE PATRICK HENRY IS SPINNING IN HIS GRAVE: I wanted to comment about this story in the New York Times.

A lot of people home-school their children, and on the whole these are a nutty, xenophobic bunch, but, thankfully, a scattered and unorganized one. So I thought. Well, they’re getting organized. A fellow named Michael Farris has built a nationwide network of home schoolers, with proven lobbying punch on Capitol Hill and impeccable Republican connections. He has established Patrick Henry College, catering to home-school students, in Purcellville, VA --a real praise-Jesus-and-pass-the-ammunition kind of area, in my experience.

A couple of choice quotes:

Only about half a million families around the country home-school their children and only about two-thirds identify themselves as evangelical Christians, home-schooling advocates say.

Only? ONLY??? Reading on, you see the context: Given their numbers, these home-school products are securing plum GOP internships at an impressive rate. And these advocates are trying to downplay the Bible-thumping image of the home school movement, but the article shows that Mr. Farris and his organization definitely spring from the Bible-thumping segment.

"We are not home-schooling our kids just so they can read," Mr. Farris said. "The most common thing I hear is parents telling me they want their kids to be on the Supreme Court.”

Glory! Let a generation of men of Christian character reform that wicked Supreme Court – the very institution that wrecked the public schools, by throwing out the Bible and letting in the colored people.

Public schools – their quality, their fairness, the values imparted there -- are a legitimate subject for debate, but I like to keep sight of the fact that universal public education is one of the chief things that has made the U.S. a great nation. The experience of attending school with a diverse group of peers is vitally important, in my view. Not just for turning out well-educated, well-socialzed, robust people, but for inculcating citizenship. To function in an institutional framework, with respect and tolerance for people different from yourself – if we don’t learn that in school, where else are we going to learn it?

Obviously, in many places today, the public schools are stressed and beleaguered. I don’t condemn every parent who seeks a private education for his child; he only gets one shot at it. But even a private education should acknowledge the need for students to encounter the Other, to have their viewpoints challenged, and to integrate themselves into a collective whole. In other words, even private schools need to ensure a diverse student body and a climate of free debate and inquiry.

I am suspicious of people who home-school. I’m also suspicious of people who send their kids to lily-white Christian academies. It is essentially un-American to limit a child’s learning environment only to family members or some other hand-picked group.

I don’t have a link, but our local TV news reported the other day that a private school in Southern Pines, NC, a “Christian” school, has a shooting range on site. Think about that. Maybe the stories of Columbine and the other school shootings of the past few years didn’t get reported there. Or maybe this little school is confident that it is not part of the culture that produced school shootings – American culture. These kids may never master Socratic dialogue, but they’ll be hellacious in a firefight.

Monday, March 08, 2004

AN AWKWARD FIX: Ruth Sheehan has a twice-weekly column in the Raleigh News & Observer. Today in her column she went public with her campaign to persuade her husband to get a vasectomy. (I won’t link because the N&O puts columns behind a pay wall after a week or so.)

“It's an issue contemplated by so many couples at our stage in life. It's easy enough to agree that you have enough children, even if it's none. But what to do next? For those of us who have suffered through pregnancies and childbirth, a vasectomy seems like a small thing to ask in return.”

Yeah, yeah, it’s an issue, and the personal is political, yadda yadda. And this is Ruth Sheehan’s baileywick: kitchen-table feminism kind of like Ellen Goodman is known for. I still can’t help being mortified on behalf of her husband. She says she got her husband’s blessing to write about the subject. But I know how those getting-your-blessing deals sometimes go down between spouses.

“I told Harry I was planning to go public, to write in the newspaper about our continuing conversation. I told him he'd hear from a secret brotherhood of men who have had vasectomies, who would offer their support. Harry said a Million Man March of guys would rise up and carry him on their shoulders. We'll see.”

I wonder how many people they’re going to hear from who say, Keep your damn gonad negotiations out of the pages of my morning paper.

I raised this subject with my trusted cohorts at, and nobody shared my objections. In fact, this guy mounted a multi-part series of blog posts about his vasectomy and the aftermath. Which led me to ponder the different standards of acceptable discourse in blogs vis-a-vis a signed column in the daily paper, etc.

Maybe I’m just a tight-ass. Believe me, though, I'm not nearly so squeamish about a man's sacred precious jewels, as about TMI.

The thing is, I know this couple, sort of. In a friend-of-a-friend sort of way. (One could say that all of Raleigh knows this couple; she after all is a featured columnist in the daily paper, and her husband is a politician, he used to hold statewide elective office.) Somehow it feels as if they just marched up to me at a cocktail party, and made their respective cases, Pro-Vas and No-Vas, and demanded a ruling. Ruth – Harry – I love ya, seriously, but we just don’t know each other all that well.

When my wife and I first decided to try and conceive, I begged her not to tell anyone in her family. Because her older sister and her husband had had some fertility issues, and the family phone conversations became an ongoing Zygote Watch. When did you do it last? What position did you do it in? Stuff like that.

What. A. Nightmare. Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, spare me from the day when my mother or mother-in-law occupies herself with discussions of how goes it with my sperm. So Harry, this secret brother has got to stay secret.

Wednesday, March 03, 2004

BYE-BYE, JOHNNY: Actually, let's not say goodbye to John Edwards, but rather so long, because I think it might be real fine to see him on the dais in Boston being introduced as Kerry's running mate.

Back to politics. Okay, I didn’t have much to say the day after Iowa, when I felt pretty dumb for having been enthusiastic for Howard Dean. So I’ll post today, when I feel pretty smart for having expressed doubts about John Edwards.

More unenlightening armchair quarterbacking from Slate magazine. John Edwards was never a serious candidate, says Chris Suellentrop. Look at his delegate totals; the man did no better than Howard Dean at actually winning votes, and think what a joke Howard Dean is by now.

I hate to credit the conventional wisdom about the Howard Dean campaign, but apart from the smug tone it usually carries, the argument makes sense. The Dean campaign was not a failure; it served its purpose as a protest candidacy. Dean changed the terms of the debate. He proved that it was not fatal to attack Bush. Dean’s message was useful; it was Dean himself that was found wanting.

To me, it follows from the above, that the primary season has been a process of self-definition, or re-definition, for the party: defining the message, the messenger, and that ineffable something-or-other we call Electability. John Edwards represented an important stage in the process, so for Suellentrop to harp on raw vote counts seems to miss the point somewhat.

Suellentrop begins by asserting how highly touted Edwards was by the media when he entered the presidential race. Then he ends by reciting the list of Edwards’s weaknesses (too young, weak on national defense, etc.), which is the same list one could have recited three years ago. I suppose Edwards was highly regarded, according to the somewhat condescending standard the press has for Democratic presidential hopefuls: that good looks and a Southern drawl are a great starting point, and we’ll fill in the policy positions later. But Suellentrop faults Edwards for not living up to his advance build-up. Not a moment’s reflection about who the press builds up, or why.

It’s not easy for me to admit as a spitball-throwing populist, but Kerry’s emergence as the nominee looks like a victory for insiderdom. Kerry has good people working for him, he has a well-organized and reasonably well-funded operation, and his years of experience on Capitol Hill and as a campaigner have served him pretty well.

And I got no problem with that. 2004 is not about having a perfect simon-pure party of the left, it’s about getting rid of Bush. He’s the worst US president in my lifetime, possibly in history, and I don’t say that lightly; Richard Nixon set the limbo bar mighty low.

Here’s my eulogy for Howard Dean: My support for him was pragmatically based. I saw a Democratic Party cowed by the Bush war presidency, demoralized by the 2002 midterm elections, and reliant on a PAC-based finance system that was obsolete and feeble in comparison to the GOP’s. Howard Dean showed us a way out. Kerry and Gephardt and Lieberman were appeasing Bush; Dean drew a line and issued a battle call, and empowered regular people to enlist in the fight. Lots of them.

Dean got a bum steer from the media; he’s a better person and a much more moderate politician than he was portrayed as. But you know, he had a buttload of money, he had his face on the covers of Time and Newsweek – he got his shot. That’s what I wanted from the beginning, a competitive primary season in which the outcome was not foreordained, but decided by voters.

The primary season was a big success. The spotlight and momentum are with the Democrats. Now is the time for true patriots to pull together and come to the aid of the John Kerry campaign for President.

Monday, March 01, 2004

MONDAY MILESTONE: I hadn’t exactly been quivering with anticipation—I had actually forgotten about today’s significance, but a couple of minutes into my morning commute, I was reminded.

I stopped for gas on the way to work. After perusing the contents of my wallet, I figured I could buy $13.00 worth of 87-octane and still be able to afford a cup of ersatz quickie-mart cappucino. Alas, I miscalculated; the tab came to $14.07. The cashier had to spot me the seven cents.

This was NOT the thing to bolster my self-esteem on a Monday morning.

The car has been making a troubling noise, coming from the front end. Brake-related, I’m pretty sure. I have been dragging my feet on getting it looked at, not wanting to hear the bad news. It’s that difficult stage in a car’s life, where you know you’re not going to keep it very much longer, so you don’t want to put a penny more into repairs than you have to. Although the brakes, shit, that’s not really an optional repair, is it? I have to transport my kids in this car.

The tailpipe rusted and fell off a few months ago. Speaking personally, I could not care less, but I know from experience (this is the third time the tailpipe has rusted off) that the car won’t pass state inspection with a missing tailpipe. My inspection comes up for renewal in May. Also, I can’t just get a tailpipe installed; a whole new muffler is required. $150 or so, if memory serves. Can I dump this sucker before May? I’ve been thinking I need to hold on until August.

These are my thoughts as I drive. The radio is on, Cokie fucking Roberts is on NPR giving her regular Monday morning commentary. (NPR, do you realize how many of your regular listeners have really grown to curse Cokie Roberts?) Something about the all-important party regulars; next week it’ll be something about the all-important swing voters. I switch to the modern rock station. “All Apologies” is playing. Good song. I sing along, and I’m really belting it out, trying to hit those highs at the end of each line. When I’m in good voice I can hit ‘em, but not this morning. I wonder if the other drivers are staring at me at the stop lights, hollering along with Kurt Cobain. Back to NPR. Something about Haiti. Shouldn’t I understand more about the crisis in long-suffering Haiti?

But a few more minutes’ driving calms me down. Even the troubling noise from the car’s front end seems to subside. I remember the threshold we’re about to cross. I calculate correctly that if I drive directly to work, that I won’t see the magic number this morning, so I drive past my exit, taking a roundabout back-route to the office. I watch as the odometer rolls over to 200000.

It’s really quite a pretty sight. I manage a private smile. Even my father, my avatar of economy and good financial stewardship – even Dad has never kept a car for two hundred thousand miles.

We bought this car when my wife and I were engaged, in January 1991, three months before our wedding. I couldn’t get financing based on my own credit rating; so, in what I sometimes think of as the first moment of our married life, she signed for the loan. It has been downhill for her credit rating ever since.

Praises be to my dear wife. Praises be to the Honda Corporation, for outstanding design and quality control. Praise unto the hard-working auto workers in Ontario who did such a damn fine job assembling this baby. Praises be to those who’ve worked on the car over the years, notably the guys at Tao Auto on Hillsborough Street in Raleigh. I’ve had to expend some worry on this car the last few months, but for many years, I never had to give it a second thought. It has been a great car.

Tomorrow I’m going to take it to the shop to get the front end looked at.