Monday, December 12, 2005

Seen At Work

A middle-aged gentleman wearing a orange corduroy sportcoat with elbow patches, over a tennis-ball green argyle sweater. And that was over a shirt, a patterned polyester job that could've been worn by one of the extras in Saturday Night Fever, only, nah, too garish.

Unbelievable. Words cannot do justice to this sartorial trainwreck. It was something only a supremely self-confident man would dare.

Monday, December 05, 2005

Blessed Are the Merry

I want to take a moment to salute Bill O'Reilly and his righteous crusade to rescue our country from the PC Orwellian nightmare of people saying Happy Holidays, and to return us to the sweet holy harmony of people saying Merry Christmas.

Happy Holidays is an all-inclusive vision of hell, a card-carrying ACLU-supporting tofurkey-eating Kwanzaa-colored dystopia. A vortex of postmodern chaos, it can mean anything: shoot, Osama Bin Laden can have Happy Holidays sitting in a dark cave, with no tree or tinsel or Johnny Mathis records or anything.

But ah, Merry Christmas! Merry Christmas is a sentiment to set your cash register jing-jing-jingling. Merry Christmas is where Ebenezer Scrooge got the true spirit and started spending some of that bankroll, am I right? Merry Christmas sounds like America: get it? A-merry-ca! Merry Christmas really is like a picture frame by Currier and Ives, crossed with a full-color catalog by Abercrombie and Fitch. Merry Christmas summons up a fair-haired, blue-eyed, Fox News watching paradise, in the tradition of great Christmas-loving Americans like Irving Berlin and Jules Rankin. Most of all, Merry Christmas really rubs it in the face of Jews and Moslems and Ethical Humanists and other infidels.

And goodness knows, merriness is the supreme value of the Christian religion. As in those famous verses, "Blessed are the merry"... "Be merry unto your neighbor as thou wouldst have him be merry unto you"... "God saw what he had done and said that it was merry"... and on and on.

"Always look on the bright side of life." Jesus met his painful, humiliating death with the right attitude -- a merry attitude. (Unlike Graham Chapman, I'm sure, who met his end with a gay attitude, and not in the nice old-fashioned sense but in the modern filthy diseased abomination sense.)

Long live the Church of the All-American Merry Christmas, and our pope, Bill O'Reilly, and his disciples, deployed all over the nation as Wal-Mart greeters.

UPDATE: New York Times: "Religious conservatives have a cause this holiday season: the commercialization of Christmas. They're for it."

Monday, November 28, 2005

Go Cal

It's no longer timely, but the NYT ran a story last week, archived here, about a lawsuit against the University of California system by a group of Christian schools. These schools offer certain courses taught from a strict Biblical perspective (including Christianity's Influence in American History and Biology According to Bob Jones) and UC refuses to accept these courses on an applicant's transcript. The lawsuit calls this policy a First Amendment violation.

I say give 'em hell, Cal. Getting into a name-brand college isn't a right. UC Berkeley ought to be able to set its admissions standards according to its own mission and values, and if a high school has curricular priorities that are antithetical to UC's priorities--free and open-minded inquiry, investigative rigor--then students of that high school ought to expect to be penalized.

Evangelicals are trying to have their cake and eat it too in this case. If they think their values are Godly ones and they are God's elect, they should expect to be scorned by sinful society, not rewarded with status and consumer choice. God or Mammon? Put up or shut up, you yahoos.

Oops, I almost forgot: I learned about this story at The Revealer, which praised Carolyn Marshall for "an admirable job of refereeing... Marshall lets the parents of Calvary hang themselves (or at least hang their cause as somewhat hysterical) with their own rope ... in a way that makes the case for overreaction better than any editorializing could." THAT'S the way to report on these Scripture vs. Scientific Consensus stories.

Sis Boom Bah

You thought college cheerleading was silly? That all those young people take away after senior year is a souvenir megaphone and the memory of a little slap and tickle in the school van on the tail end of a road trip?

Not so. Conveying enthusiasm and getting people to do what you want them to do are abilities that come in handy in business. Being a cute athletic young woman never hurt either. Anyway, according to this article, there is a pipeline between being a cheerleader (especially at a big state school where the sports culture is king) and working as a sales rep for a pharmaceutical company.

I find this kind of thing interesting. Maybe because I didn't have a clue about career planning or networking when I was in school, I'm intrigued by people who really do leverage their school ties and networks. I also find it interesting that below the George W. Bush league of prep school and Ivy League cronyism, there's a regional brand of social networking driven by college sports and fraternities/sororities. I haven't tested this theory, but I suspect that by studying a list of, say, the 1965 DKE pledge class at Chapel Hill, you could figure out quite a bit about business and politics in the state of North Carolina today.

So being a cheerleader is a ticket to a high-paying sales job. Besides the benefit of being an attractive perky woman, there are advantages to being, for instance, a former University of Kentucky cheerleader when calling on doctors in Kentucky. Of course, it mainly works for women, since female sexuality has more exchange value in the marketplace. (We still feel a little weird about male cheerleaders, don't we?) I also wonder if we'll ever read of a pipeline of college athletes into a certain profession--say, that lacrosse goalies make great dentists, or soccer forwards make great clinical psychologists--and if not, why not. Isn't cheerleading the derivative activity, the auxiliary, the parasitic?

Looksism is nothing new, I guess, and I give these women credit for combining beauty with some brain power and initiative, and making some real money. Though it's disturbing to think of doctors dispensing meds because of the bounce of the sales rep's pom-poms, not whether patients benefit from the meds. And it makes me wonder whether Big Pharma devotes nearly as much insight and innovation to developing new medicines as they do to highly-focused efforts to hire cheerleaders.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

She Said, He Said, I Said

A month or so ago I defended Jodi Wilgoren for a story she wrote about the culture war over evolution. Some in the blogosphere felt that the New York Times shouldn't devote any ink to a disreputable scientific position (namely, creationism or I.D.). Basically, I felt (1) that the mere fact of the controversy, of a large segment of the lay public that differs with expert scientific consensus, was newsworthy; and (2) the creationist position looked bad under Wilgoren's scrutiny. Myopia, self-delusion, even malicious anti-intellectualism are on the march in the U.S. The best response progressives can make is not to curse these movements, nor ignore them, but describe them calmly and closely--if possible, let the Flat Earthers tell their own story, give their own account, alongside established scholarly opinion. The Flat Earthers will shoot themselves in the foot, or worse.

Wilgoren's coffee shop story, which I blogged about yesterday, may have been lightweight lifestyle journalism, but was basically unobjectionable. The he said-she said approach is a problem when applied to matters of national politics and/or when high-powered spin doctors are involved. But in Wilgoren's hands, on these softer cultural stories, with selective use of detail, I think the merits of the two sides can be fairly judged. And hey, Wilgoren's piece won't lead to an unjust war or a skewed presidential election, like the work of some NYT reporters I could name.

Now for an encore, I'm going to pick another bone with Pharyngula and defend another mainstream reporter who gives voice to the wingnut position on science. NPR's religion reporter Barbara Bradley Hagerty has come in for criticism in the past from Atrios, Media Matters and elsewhere for some items on her resume: she lectures at a seminar for evangelical journalists, and has received money from one of Howard Ahmanson's foundations (other Ahmanson foundations support the Discovery Institute as well as anti-gay causes.)

I started to compose a hair-splitting point-by-point defense of Hagerty, but the hell with it. (If you care to, raise some points in Comments and I'll see if I can answer them.) I don't always think she does a great job; a couple of years ago I heard her freeze up during a live report on "All Things Considered"--the worst I've ever heard a broadcast reporter choke under pressure. But I'm reminded of the protest some right-wing blog made recently, that a gay reporter should not cover the gay marriage debate--it's a conflict of interest. That's horseshit, and so, in a milder form, are some of the complaints about Hagerty. An evangelical can cover the religion beat--if she's careful.

The story in question, from last weekend, examines a tempest in a teapot: an editor at a small science journal approved for publication a paper on Intelligent Design. The journal has ties to the Smithsonian Institution, a fact which amplified the inevitable protests of evolutionary biologists, and led to some negative consequences for this editor Richard Sternberg: basically, a certain amount of professional ostracism. (Which he deserves. If not a reactionary, he's at least a dope.) The story goes on to discuss young biologists who hold anti-Darwin views but who feel they must conceal them in order to receive tenure. Hagerty interviews both sides, the mainstream Darwin defenders and the conservatives. She lets the right-wing biologists tell their story, air their gripes, and at the end we (I, at least) get the feeling they're whining. It's noteworthy that that a few scientists are trying to get Intelligent Design on the agenda. It's somewhat enlightening to get this window into the workings and politics of scientific publishing and academic hiring. But in the end, you conclude that ID proponents are marginal, and for very good reasons. (Having a science Ph.D. and believing in Intelligent Design is an absurdity, and should never have been allowed to happen, and if such a person is weeded out at the tenure stage, well, better late than never.)

Monday, November 14, 2005

using my inside voice

Jodi Wilgoren of the New York Times strikes again, this time reporting from the North Side of Chicago, on a controversy over the deportment of toddlers in coffee shops. One local barista has posted a sign stating that "children of all ages have to behave and use their indoor voices when coming to A Taste of Heaven". Fightin' words! A band of rogue stroller-pushing angels has unholstered its Blackberries and fired a volley of e-mails, threatening boycott.

Two observations. First: My God, people are touchy on the subject of children. Parents are stressed and guilt-ridden and oversaturated with information and opinions about child-rearing, so offer them one more opinion and get ready to have your head handed to you:
"I love people who don't have children who tell you how to parent," said Alison Miller, 35, a psychologist, corporate coach and mother of two. "I'd love for him to be responsible for three children for the next year and see if he can control the volume of their voices every minute of the day."

But even non-parents have a chip on their shoulder about their choice NOT to have children.
Mr. McCauley, 44, said the protesting parents were "former cheerleaders and beauty queens" who "have a very strong sense of entitlement."

Me, I have a very strong sense that this fellow is still dealing with the trauma of all the wedgies he got during 10th grade gym class. I've noted in the past that there is a nascent "rights of the child-free" movement that projects some weird shit at times. Do they think we parents are jealous of them? That we think they're selfish? That we are lemmings, whereas they have the courage of their convictions? Look, I can picture the noise and the X-games antics that kids get up to in a coffee shop; mine have done it occasionally. (I remember my oldest TKOing herself, running headlong into the edge of a table; I remember my youngest howling with pain when she stuck her fingers into my piping-hot cup of Kona Blend. Each was age 2 or 3 at the time.) But is it really that persistent a problem? Is it way over the level of rudeness and unpleasantness Mr. McCauley should expect and be prepared to tolerate as proprietor of a retail business? Obviously, I can't know for sure, but in this yuppie neighborhood (in Wilgoren's description), I'm skeptical that this is an epidemic.

Second observation: Coffee shops are modern-day lifestyle temples, some kind of wired-for-WiFi cross between lending libraries and cloister walks, only with a not-too-edgy alt-rock soundtrack warbling at a tasteful volume. I occasionally enjoy lingering in quiet and comfort with a latte and a newspaper. I really don't normally have my kids in tow when I go for coffee, I recognize that Starbucks and its ilk are essentially adult spaces, but on a day when I'm going to have my daughters with me and want to juggle child care with some other errands, I'd resent the suggestion that I'm barred from them. The coffee shop seems to be one of the places where the rubber hits the road in balancing public against private, and access for all against our own standards of comfort and convenience.

At any rate, the celestial battle over A Taste of Heaven is headed for an apocalyptic showdown:
Mr. McCauley said he would rather go out of business than back down. He likens this one small step toward good manners to his personal effort to decrease pollution by hiring only people who live close enough to walk to work.

"I can't change the situation in Iraq, I can't change the situation in New Orleans," he said. "But I can change this little corner of the world."

I salute you, sir. Others are working with great fanfare on issues like child abuse, poverty, failing public schools, but nobody is confronting the little-acknowledged crisis of toddler etiquette as boldly as you.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Genco Olive Oil

I picked up the New York Times at the Raleigh airport on Sunday morning, looking for the Judith Miller postmortem. Alas, it wasn't in the national print edition. I did finally track it down online, but after reading Tina Brown give the highlights and lowlights here (including a juicy quote that the Times didn't use), I may not bother to plow through the official version. Clearly, Judy ain't telling the whole truth (darn those Secret Service logbooks!), and the Times itself hasn't come to grips with the self-inflicted harm that came with letting Miller "run amok."

Judy Miller is no First Amendment martyr, she's a conniver and a dupe. Miller's name is tarnished for all time. Good. The Times's reputation has taken a beating. That's a shame, although their reputation hasn't cut all that much ice with me for quite a while. I still wish they would be the great paper they can be. If Dick Cheney departs in disgrace, well, he's done his damage already and he'll live out his few remaining sclerotic years counting his Halliburton profits. If bringing down Karl Rove will mean the end of Karl Roveism, great, but I'm not certain that genie can be put back in the bottle easily.

Inasmuch as the unfolding of Plamegate has sapped the momentum and vitality of that ongoing disaster we call the Bush Administration--hurray. Personally, though, the emotion I take from it is less satisfaction than dismay at how long it's taken, how much effort it's taken, how much resistance and denial there's been--dismay to be reminded how completely screwed up American national politics are. Official Washington is decadent. That's a funny word to use for such an uptight, near-beer sort of city, but it fits when standards of truth and decency have collapsed the way they have on the banks of the Potomac. It's remarkable how the earnest Rhodes Scholars of the Bill Clinton administration were scorned as outsiders and naifs by the semi-permanent D.C. social gatekeepers, but the Mayberry Machiavellis of the G.W. Bush team were accepted. It isn't obvious to me that it should've worked out that way. The Bush crew had a shrewd understanding of D.C. tribal rites, but they also applied bullying tactics very effectively. There's a Stockholm Syndrome quality to the media's acquiescence.

It's especially dismaying to people (like me) who imagine that being a New York Times reporter would be a fantastic thing to be. Simply covering national politics for America's leading newspaper, and doing it with integrity, doesn't slake some people's ambitions. This Miller creature was using her NYT credential to pursue some other agenda. She was a spy, essentially, or agent provocateur--a shadowy political operator, and the New York Times was her front. Remember, she didn't even write about Valerie Plame, she just stirred the pot in some yet-unknown way--propelled the story forward while keeping her by-line off of it.

Remember Genco Olive Oil Importers? It was the Corleone family business in "The Godfather," the legitimate facade for their real business of extortion, prostitution, etc. The New York Times and who knows who else (all Robert Novak's outlets for sure; Meet the Press, perhaps?) are like Genco in this case, and the real business is ratfucking and state propaganda. Of course, as Gene Lyons commented, even the Mob has more honor than to go after somebody's wife.


This verdict on Judy Miller is indisputable as far as I'm concerned. So it boggles my mind when Beltway mavens like Richard Cohen and Jacob Weisberg defend Miller and the Plamegate conspirators, and chastise special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald.

These guys are geniuses of self-promotion, in their way: calculatedly provocative, they are card carrying liberals who go against the grain of liberal conventional wisdom, in a way that might seem brave to their readers, but keeps them in the good graces of their sources and the Washington social scene. On the very day when anticipation over Plamegate indictments is at its height, both of them come out with columns saying that Fitzgerald's investigation is bad for liberal principles and he should shut it down. They're going for their "contrarian's merit badge," in James Wolcott's phrase.

Cohen urges Fitzgerald to close up shop and leave town, and leave politics to the Roves and Libbys --you know, the professionals: "Do not bring trivial charges -- nothing about conspiracies, please -- and nothing about official secrets, most of which are known to hairdressers, mistresses and dog walkers all over town." This pisses me off to no end, and it's something that I've written about in this space before: the notion that lots of people in the Washington politico-media establishment knew that Rove and Libby were engaged in reckless character assassination, and none of them deigned to let the other 290 million of us know. Washington hairdressers can be trusted to know what to do with "official secrets" but a federal prosecutor can't, and Joe and Jane Voter aren't even worth mentioning.

Weisberg and Cohen both allude to Ken Starr and the prosecutorial excesses of the Clinton years--which is the worst case of fighting the last war I've ever seen. Where is the proportionality? Clinton was trying to get his dick wet. Bush's minions were trying to fight a baseless, illegitimate war. Weisberg makes a big point that Libby certainly didn't blow Valerie Plame's cover intentionally, merely recklessly. I guess that makes a difference as to what particular statute Scooter will be charged under, but it hardly makes it less despicable.

Weisberg objects that Plamegate was not a mere attempt to hurt Joe Wilson--it was not simple retaliation, eye-for-an-eye. It was to score a point in the DOD v. CIA dispute over Iraqi WMDs: "Bush officials were in the middle of an argument in which they were largely wrong, and which they lost, but in which they thought they were right and were trying to win." Again, whether the harm to Wilson and Plame was Libby/Rove's pure intent or merely a side effect hardly matters. But I would also like to remind Mr. Weisberg of Slate magazine of the difference between a lie and a political position. By June 2003, only a fool or a dreamer could believe in the existence of Iraqi WMDs. Scooter Libby is a snake, but he is no fool nor dreamer. Good ideas don't need to have lies told about them in order to gain support.

Half of what really gripes Cohen, Weisberg, and their ilk is that Patrick Fitzgerald doesn't leak, and that makes their job as journalists harder. They are content with the status quo, where "senior administration officials" like Scooter and Turd Blossom call them up and feed them disinformation. Leaks are the lube in the gears of Washington society and career-making. Who cares that a leaked story will likely be bullshit, and may have barbaric consequences. It was Page One!


Voices of reason--

James Wolcott: If the shit really hits the fan, e.g. Cheney has to resign, "we'll hear the same frets and cries from the pundit shows about the country being torn apart and Americans losing faith in their government. But it isn't the country that will be torn apart by Plamegate any more than the country was torn apart during Watergate (which provided daily thrilling news entertainment value that bound citizens together); it's the Washington establishment that will be torn apart. And it should be torn apart." [Emphasis in the original]

Gene Lyons: Miller is wrong, it was possible to see the WMD intel was bogus -- "Maybe that’s the story Scooter Lewis and the country-club toughs in the White House really feared. What’s more, it was always there to be written, but not by Washington courtier-journalists who pride themselves more on the quality of their dinner party invitations and TV appearances than their professional integrity and skepticism. Do I believe that Miller can’t remember who told her “Valerie Flame’s” name ? A child wouldn’t believe it. The more clever of my two basset hounds would be suspicious. The real shame is that, absent an aggressive prosecutor, none of this would have become known." [Emphasis mine]

Don't do the crime if you can't do the time

It takes a special kind of sleazeball to smile for his mug shot. The same kind it takes to pimp out his own daughter in a hot tub for his rich lobbyist pals.

Keep your eye on the sparrow, Tom! You piece of shit...

Monday, October 10, 2005

The Grand Canyon and the Tattooed Paleontologist

The New York Times did a cover story the other day set in the Grand Canyon. Two different tour groups took raft trips down the Colorado River through the Canyon. One, organized by the National Center for Science Education, pointed to all the evidence of slow change over geologic time. The other, led by Canyon Ministries, looked at some of the same fossils and geologic formations and argued that they were evidence that Darwin and Lyall were wrong and God made it all happen in accordance with the Biblical account of creation and the Flood.

Pharyngula and others were all over it, as an egregious example of "he said she said" reporting. The story refuses to explicitly endorse either side of the controversy.

I'm going to muddle my point here. I usually deplore the "he said she said" approach as well, especially in political reporting, which is NYT's Jodi Wilgoren's beat. I am tempted to make a half-hearted exception in this case; I believe at least this is a good-faith disagreement (as opposed to "Nancy Pelosi tells the truth, then on the other hand Tom DeLay tells a lie, The End"). True, Wilgoren could have made clearer the massive weight of scientific consensus on the evolution side of the scale. But I don't think this is a brain-dead story; I think Wilgoren has framed it artfully and observed the most telling details. And I respect her intent (articulated in an e-mail to PZ Meyers of Pharyngula) to keep her opinion out of it. I think we Enlightenment types should be outraged that organized creationism exists, not that the New York Times reports on it per se.

Anyway, I got something out of this story. The structure of it and the length allowed for a nuanced view of where the sides were coming from. To put it another way, it gave both sides plenty of rope to hang themselves with.

It gives us vignettes like this:

Diana Panes began questioning evolution, which she had studied in school like most everybody else, seven years ago when [her son] came home from school asking whether Genesis was fable or history...

Of the explanations offered by Mr. Vail and other creationists, she said, "For me it was just the most immense relief that it didn't have to remain a mystery forever." [Emphasis mine]

Another data point in my theory that a huge cause of conservative nonsense in the U.S. is baby-boomer parents who can't handle awkward conversations with their teenagers.

Through four days, Mr. Vail mentioned public schools only once, saying that 80 percent of Christians walked away from their faith when studying science that confounded the creation story. "It's foundational to our faith... We're raising a generation of confused children, and it's the public schools that are doing it!"

I think the 80% figure is pulled from somebody's ass, but I think we see an important bit of subtext here. There are people in this country for whom being book-smart is not the highest value. These people are threatened by change, afraid of being made obsolete, disturbed that their children are being educated into different values than the parents hold. They latch onto creationism as an anchor. It's irrational, it's unhealthy, it's misplaced focus, but it's a teeny bit understandable.

Pharyngula feels, and some of his commenters agree, that the story goes out of its way to make the pro-Darwin side look bad. The young male paleontologist with tattoos and painted toenails, who calls himself a devout Christian--is he a freak? Is his portrait designed to make the scientists' side look bad to the religionists' side? I disagree, for three reasons off the top of my head. One, a person can be smart, well-educated, creative, non-conformist, a tattooed weirdo even, and be a Christian. Two, do tattoos and church repel each other like oil and water? No--there are entire congregations of pierced, tattooed, Gen-X Christians. Three, who is reading the New York Times in the first place? A lot of creationists, or a lot of secular Bobos with a not-very-nuanced picture of Christians?

Look at what our tattooed paleotologist says:

"Ultimately, creationism is not just bad science to me, it's bad Christianity, it's Bible worship... God doesn't require you to be stupid, to deny what you see, to deny what you know."

Shazam. This is the focal point of the article, for me. "Bibliolatry," my undergrad religion professor Max Polley called it. He deplored Bibliolatry, and he was a Bible scholar. The God I believe in wants to use your faculties freely.

Let me be clear: Evolution is the truth, evolution should be taught in the public schools, and any explanation, from Intelligent Design on down, that relies on a divine Creator, should be excluded from science classes. Creationism is an error that, in its manifestation as a political campaign, could have disastrous consequences. But evolution represents a huge cultural rift. A veritable Grand Canyon. Look at the poll numbers (I know it's painful) showing how many average Joes and Janes disbelieve evolution. This rift is not going to be closed with a ringing concluding paragraph to a New York Times story. If it's ever going to be closed, it's going to take time and patience and listening and understanding. I think Jodi Wilgoren's story contributed.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

A Tale Told By an Idiot

Crooked Timber informs me of a new campaign to tell the world who the "real" William Shakespeare was.

It is amazing how resilient is the idea that William Shakespeare, son of a Stratford glovemaker, couldn't have written the plays that are attributed to him. One of these so-called epiphanic breakthroughs arises every few years. The latest candidate for "real Shakespeare" is Sir Henry Neville, but of course the Earl of Oxford, Francis Bacon, Christopher Marlowe, and others have been nominated in the past. Each epiphany gets smacked down, but somebody else will come forward with another one before long.

I was glad to see that almost nobody among the commenters at Crooked Timber, who surely include some people more knowledgeable about the Bard than I am, gives this theory any credence either. (There's also the intriguing report that this Rubinstein person also retails anti-Darwin theories. An all-purpose debunker.) Someone at CT raises the pertinent issue of what authorship meant in Elizabethan times. Parts of that argument are over my head, but it seems clear that Shakespeare was at least influenced by Marlowe and other colleagues and patrons, and that the plays existed as performances for some years before they were published as texts. So it's likely there was a collaborative aspect to the creation of the plays in the Shakespeare canon. And there is little biographical data about Shakespeare the man, hence lots of room for speculation, lots of room for conspiracy theories.

Mostly what I detect, in these essays on why the Stratford man couldn't be the author of Hamlet, are inessential things. The ad hominem thing, for one: it's just evident in the rhetoric that some of these guys use that they hold the snobbish assumption that a man of humble social origins and little formal education could not possibly have written these great works of literature.

There's also the Occam's Razor verdict: People construct these elaborate schema for the Earl of Oxford's authorship: huge edifices of circumstantial evidence, how this scene in Henry V corresponds to some episode in the life of Edward de Vere, etc. All of which obscures the Oxfordians' enormous timeline problem: Oxford died well before many of the plays are believed to have been written. (Marlowe died even earlier.)

One argument the anti-Stratfordians always allude to is that a person of low rank like Shakespeare could never have had the knowledge of politics and court life that is reflected in the plays. But you never hear the reverse--you never hear anyone wonder how the Earl of Oxford could possibly have written realistically about gravediggers or household servants.

Anyway, some people think this stuff is great fun. I feel a teeny bit insulted on behalf of the Stratford man. Whatever.

Friday, September 30, 2005


I am not a Catholic. I know and admire many Catholics, including some priests, and I don't feel I have the right to pass judgment on their church. It's not my church, and for many people being Catholic is not quite a free choice; it's something they're born into, and to be loyal and committed to one's ancestral religious tradition is a praiseworthy thing, in my view. Mind you, I said loyal and committed, not blindly or uncritically obedient. The Catholics I admire see the problems of Catholicism, struggle with them, and work within the system to address them.

Despite not wanting to judge, and despite not wanting to betray the confidence of some Catholic "insiders" I know, the situation of Catholic priests fascinates me and I want to comment on it. For all that the Protestant Reformation rejected and denounced about Catholicism, there's still a sense even among Protestants that Catholic worship is the real 200-proof stuff. I've heard Protestant ministers speak that way explicitly, kind of an inversion of the way British Invasion rock musicians spoke of Muddy Waters and B.B. King. Lutheran and Presbyterian preachers (some, at least) are dazzled by the solemnity of Catholic worship, the sense of an unbroken 2000-year tradition, the power of ceremony, of stained glass and incense, the priest's focal role in confession and absolution. And as little tempted as they are to a life of celibacy, they are also a little in awe of it: the way Catholic priests so utterly set themselves apart, the dedication entailed in forswearing sex and other worldly comforts. The figure and the office of the priest are so highly esteemed. It certainly must clarify many things about who is the leader, who is the follower, things which can get very mixed up in Protestant parishes.

I wanted to get that on the record: some of the qualities of Catholic life and ministry that even non-Catholics admire. Of course, there are lots of aspects of Catholicism that an American Protestant layperson like me finds strange and incongruous. Something I blogged about once or twice before, and call me a fool but I put some stock in it, is the connection I have found between being active in one’s church and being a citizen of the American republic. America was founded, largely, by religious dissenters from Catholicism and Anglicanism. The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were heavily informed by the principles and structures of representative government that Congregationalists, Quakers, Moravians had followed and were accustomed to. The Catholic Church didn’t come onto the scene in American culture until relatively late, in the 19th century, brought by Irish and other immigrants. And Catholic church governance is not characterized by transparency, or checks and balances, or representation of all its members, or freedom of dissent. I don’t mean to be nativist here: I think America must welcome and accommodate immigrant cultures, but it must uphold American-style democracy in doing so. Catholicism and American-style democracy are nervous neighbors, and always will be.

The priest sex abuse scandals exposed the conflict between Catholic governance and American jurisprudence. It exposed the dark side of the church’s (how to say this non-judgmentally) rigidly pre-modern views about human sexuality. And it exposed the capacity of American priests to be incredibly self-deluded and out of touch with the larger culture and how priests were perceived in it. It showed that what priests are ordained to is not simply a life of devotion, integrity, and self-denial. It is also, to say the least, a secretive and self-protective guild. I was struck, in some of my conversations with Catholic leaders circa 2001-2002, how they tended to see priest abuse as a P.R. problem that they had to manage, rather than a huge moral failure that they ought to confess and beg forgiveness for.

Incidentally, I haven’t read The Da Vinci Code. I know there are leaders and scholars (Catholic and Protestant too—Catholic controversies, including the priest sex abuse scandal, bleed into the Protestant world) who worry that overly credulous readers will take too seriously the stuff about centuries-old conspiracy and deception in the Vatican. I don’t know if this kind of paranoid speculation is a real problem (for instance, really keeping people away from or decreasing their trust of the church, not just being light entertainment), but I know that the Church’s modus operandi invites paranoid speculation.

Given the opacity of authority in the Catholic Church, the absolute and forbidding tone especially on matters of gender and sexuality, it's been hard to get my head around the idea (I’ve been working at it for five or six years now) that the Catholic priesthood is a gay vocation. (I'm sure this difficulty of mine reflects my limited view of sexuality as well as ignorance of Catholicism; I must underrate the erotic thrill of the taboo, for one thing.) A lot of knowledgeable people estimate that around 50% of American priests are gay in orientation. For centuries, "sensitive" young sons of Catholic families were attracted to, maybe even nudged toward, the priesthood. I am told that there are priests who interpret the vows of celibacy as not prohibiting same-sex activity. As long as there's no vagina in the room, anything goes, I guess, under that view.

I should qualify one statement: the Catholic priesthood in the U.S. and Europe is a gay vocation. In Africa and other developing regions, it’s a different story, which is an important bit of background. Catholicism is booming in the Third World, and stagnant in the developed world.

The news of the last couple of weeks is that the Vatican is preparing to issue an order that gay men (even sexually inactive gay men) will be barred from entering seminary to study for the priesthood. Obviously, this would be big, and lots of Catholic writers and commenters are voicing objections. As Michael Sean Winters points out in Slate, some bishops seem eager to make gay priests the scapegoats for the sex abuse scandals, when scheming, buck-passing bishops themselves are more culpable.

Winters suggests that a valuable reform would be for the church to restore the rule that bishops cannot “job-hop,” cannot be transferred to plummier bishoprics. This would eliminate one motivation for a bishop to duck accountability for problems in his diocese, since, to use Winters's example, the bishop of Bridgeport cannot angle to be appointed Bishop of New York.

John Allen, Vatican correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter, observes here that the Catholic Church follows Italian conceptions of the law as an expression of ideal behavior, and doesn't expect its priests to live up to the letter of Catholic doctrine. A ban on gay priests would be enforced flexibly and with discretion. Well, that would explain a lot-—Allen’s piece made some light bulbs go off for me-- but my Protestant American self objects: Laws that are enforced unequally are no better, arguably worse, than no laws at all. Which brings us back around to the strangeness of Catholic authority in the American context.

If it comes to pass, a ban on gay seminarians will worsen one significant practical problem: the steady decline in numbers of American men who want to enter the priesthood--a decline that, judging by this and other actions, the Vatican seems not to be terribly concerned about.

Thursday, September 29, 2005


Some interesting news in North Carolina today. We just got a lottery, with the Governor's backing--it passed in a narrow vote with a strange-bedfellows coalition of liberal Demos and social-conservative Repos opposing it. And there was some chicanery and resulting bad feelings with the final vote: basically, the legislative session went into overtime and a couple of No votes had already left town and were unavailable to cast their votes.

I was opposed to it. I lived in New Jersey as a teenager, where there was a lottery. One summer I worked on a landscaping crew and one of the older guys, doing pretty much the same work as me for not much more money, with no better future prospects than mowing lawns, who I'm sure lived paycheck to paycheck and struggled to make his rent, was an inveterate Lotto player. That's my image of the typical lottery-ticket buyer. As a grown-up in North Carolina I took pride in being from a state that was one of the few holdouts against the lottery. I pretty much agree with the old joke that the lottery is a tax on poor math skills, and the hypocrisy of using a lottery to fund education just angers me. The numbers racket also nurtures a something-for-nothing or get-rich-quick ethic that I think society would be better off without.

But it's a done deal. Now it'll be a test of my principles, or self-righteousness or whatever, if I resist the temptation to buy the occasional ticket. "Maybe just when the pot gets really big...."

Anyway, to chair the new-lottery commission, Gov. Mike Easley appointed Charlie Sanders, who was a prominent opponent of the lottery bill. Sanders seems to want to have a "humane" lottery, with limited advertising, and an effort to inform people about the odds against winning. The argument you always heard in favor of the lottery was that people from NC were driving to SC or VA to buy tickets anyway. Sanders's attitude is, let's capture those people who are predisposed to play the lottery, but not expand the pool of ticket buyers through hype. Probably it'll never happen that way, but I thought it was a very good gesture. And exactly the kind of thing a Republican administration would never do after they had just won a bitterly-contested vote.

Double Helix in the Low Block

Who's ready to talk NBA basketball? Huh? Huh?

Chicago's Eddy Curry had an episode of cardiac arrhythmia last year, and before Chicago signs him to a $5 million contract, they are demanding a DNA test to see if he's susceptible to genetic heart problems.

It's interesting stuff, and I'm not sure where I come down. Curry's agent is spinning horror tales, that this is the first step toward all of us having to give DNA samples before we can get a job. On the other hand, is signing an NBA contract "getting a job" or selling your body at auction? One thing the Chicago front office is guided by is insurance--it may be that no one will insure a contract to a guy with a heart condition of unknown severity. And the linked article quotes the late Reggie Lewis's agent, reminding us that the downside here is Eddy Curry winding up dead. This is not a knee ligament we're talking about.

This points to one factor that may finally compel the United States to guarantee universal health coverage. Genetic screening will advance to a point where people's risk factors will be so measurable and projectable that lots of people will be unable to get private health insurance.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005


My daughter and I signed up for Indian Princesses at the local YMCA. (Actually, in our town they drop the word "Indian" and call it Y-Princesses, but Indian Guides (for boys)and Princesses (for girls) are the more widely-known names.)

I read Adam's recent post about his son's interest in Cub Scouts, and Adam's mixed feelings since he has long disliked (for good reasons) the institution of Scouting. Maybe he and I can trade notes. I didn't know too much about Indian Princesses, other than it was roughly equivalent to Girl Scouts, until I went to the first dads-only orientation meeting. We heard the Creation Myth of the Indian Guides and Princesses program: the story goes, a white businessman in 1926 went on a fishing trip and got to talking with his Ojibwa fishing guide. In the course of a long meaningful discussion, the guide said that the problem with the white man is he lets his women-folk raise his sons. That chance encounter planted the seed, and the White Founder cooked up a plan for fathers to spend one-on-one time with their sons (daughters got their corresponding gig 30 years later) and for eight to ten father-son pairs to get together in "tribes" for bonding and wilderness tramping and stuff, and the rest is history, leading up to the venerable program that dads and their kids enjoy today.

That's fine. You got your condescending stereotype of the wise shaman-like Indian, plus your outdated sexist and classist assumptions that the wife is home with the young'uns while the husband earns the income all day then retires to his Barcalounger and his newspaper when he gets home. And therefore Dad needs an assignment in order to spend quality time with his child. Then there's a vague Christian overlay on the whole thing (the "C" in YMCA). That's all fine. For an opportunity for your kid to have fun, you overlook stuff like that. And though it's a little jarring to volunteer to join an institution you find politically incorrect and a little ridiculous, you rationalize: hell, if I boycotted every unfair or ridiculous social institution, I wouldn't have a drivers' license, I wouldn't use deodorant, my wife would never have consented to live with me, etc.

Here's the weirder thing. There was more testosterone in that room than anyplace I've been in a long time. Fathers only, remember, maybe 50 or 60 of us. The meeting was led by these YMCA employees, local or regional rec directors, who were all 30ish or older, but if ever a job didn't really require a guy to grow up, YMCA rec director is the job. Each of them had a nickname: the barrel-chested guy was Moose, another guy was Big Hair which was amusing because he's had that name for years but now he's balding and crops his hair short. We're all actually supposed to have Indian-like nicknames, but my ideas for my own name are things like Otter or Surfing Bird that pop into my head from "Animal House" or silly old rock 'n' roll songs. There's a strong whiff of the college fraternity about this meeting: Moose and Big Hair lead us in chants and songs and pledges and other little rituals. ("How-How" is the greeting--we are expected to shout it in a hearty fashion.) In fact, in my little tribe the experienced Y-Princess dads joshed the newbie dads that we were going to be hazed, like deprived of sleep for a week, ha ha.

So Moose and Big Hair gave their spiel, cutting up and teasing each other all the while, half-sincerely going through the motions. It was like watching George W. Bush saying what a shame about the suffering of poor people, but hey, Trent Lott's house will rise again and my friend Brownie (nicknames again) is doing a heck of a job. Trying to be serious but undercutting the message with jokes and backslapping.

Apparently a major challenge of Y-Guides and Princesses is keeping the fathers in line. Moose implored us to follow the correct format for meetings, follow the rules for awarding patches, etc., without seeming to believe we really will. He actually said that one of the rules is "no firewater," ha ha ha, but apparently some irrepressible dads will turn the father-daughter campout into a cocktail party.

The locker-room atmosphere surprised me, but what also surprised me was how out of place I felt. I've been in quite a few locker rooms in my life, I used to work in high-technology sales (though granted, I sucked at it), I was in a college fraternity myself for crying out loud--when did I lose the ability to hang out with a crowd of manly men? All I can figure is it's down to 11 years of having daughters, no sons, and almost as many years working in the de-gendered metrosexual atmosphere of a university. Plus having cats in the house, no dogs. No-dogs was probably what did me in.

Anyway, I'll try to keep you updated. And may the Great Spirit rise like the dawning sun in all your hearts, ha ha.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

John Scopes Rides Again

Very good article in the Hartford Courant from a couple of weeks ago. It's about Dr. Kenneth Miller, who is my number-one hero in the controversy over Intelligent Design, and about the pending lawsuit by the ACLU against the Dover (PA) school board, which is going to be a major milestone in said controversy. The article gives a good outline of the Scientific Creationism, later Intelligent Design, movement, and the resistance to it.

I blogged last spring about a talk I heard Miller give.

Wednesday, August 31, 2005

There Are Limits

Great post by August J. Pollak. (Thanks, Chana.) He details dimensions of the hurricane damage in New Orleans that I hadn't even thought of: the environmental catastrophe; the effect on wooden structures of soaking in water for weeks; etc. Then he makes the political connection:

So even if you are for the war in Iraq, even if you think the President is the glue holding this entire nation together, I simply cannot understand, or for that matter even believe at this point, the suggestion that this is less important than "fighting terror." Nor would I understand you or believe you if you said the money and resources we currently don't have to aid this nightmare were "better spent" protecting us from imagined threats in Iraq.
Two years ago we were told we needed to attack Saddam so one of our cities wouldn't be destroyed. One of our cities was just destroyed. And it appears that many more lives could have been saved, and many things protected, if there was more funding for infrastructure, more devotion to protective efforts, and more National Guardsmen here at home to do their actual job- guarding our nation- rather than deployed in Iraq.

Every idea, even a great one, has a cost. Even a nation with the strength of arms and noble ideals of the USA, has limits to what it can do, has to weigh potential benefits against their costs.

Christopher Hitchens has a new piece in the Weekly Standard, and masochist that I am, I read it. Poor Hitchens is really showing signs of wear and tear. While the thesis of the article is how proud Americans should be of the Iraq war effort and its many positive effects--a nutty, vainglorious and thoroughly Hitchensian position--he also occasionally (can I be reading right?) makes certain halting gestures toward admitting some second thoughts, some failures of prophecy on his own (Hitchens's!) part. One paragraph will make me cross-eyed with rage, which is totally normal and reassuring. Then the next will have me reeling in partial agreement. Like, for instance, Hitch has some pretty cutting things to say about President Bush.

But there's lots and lots of bloodthirsty lunacy too, less artfully stated than Hitchens usually manages. Near the end, he offers up his Top Ten Good Things About Dubya's Excellent Iraqi Adventure, which is pure comedy gold.

(1) The overthrow of Talibanism and Baathism, and the exposure of many highly suggestive links between the two elements of this Hitler-Stalin pact.

Naturally, we had to go to war to make sure that our stated reason for going to war was valid.

(3) The consequent unmasking of the A.Q. Khan network for the illicit transfer of nuclear technology to Libya, Iran, and North Korea.

Which is a serious matter--a whole lot more serious than all the discredited charges about Saddam's WMD programs. Which begs the question, why didn't we invade Pakistan and currently have A.Q. Khan in custody. But let's move on.

(6) The ability to certify Iraq as actually disarmed, rather than accept the word of a psychopathic autocrat.

See # 1 above.

(10) The training and hardening of many thousands of American servicemen and women in a battle against the forces of nihilism and absolutism, which training and hardening will surely be of great use in future combat.

Did you realize that Iraq was just a warm-up? A preseason war!

Hitchens is the greatest force of nihilism and absolutism in journalism today. This is all a game of Risk to him.

Nope, there are limits.

Katrina the Killer

To compensate for my flippant reference to the hurricane a couple of days ago.

My heart goes out to all the victims of the storm, but the news from New Orleans is giving me particular feelings of melancholy. The wind and rain subsided, the sun peeked out, the harm seemed manageable--then instead of ebbing, the waters kept rising. Everything about New Orleans is unique, including the geometry, and the geometry dealt a cruel blow. I'm afraid that irreplaceable city is lost; for certain, it'll never be whole again in my lifetime.

I spent a pretty fair amount of time in New Orleans as a young man. I went to Mardi Gras, I went to Jazz Fest, I ate wonderful food and drank strong drink and listened to Dixieland jazz and gawked at Bourbon Street strippers. Also, I had the car I was riding in broken into, on two separate occasions, and had some other scary or unsettling experiences there. I'm not complaining; I have some decent stories to tell, and my memories are mostly good and altogether real. It was a great thing to explore the city alone, not knowing many people or having much money, not having resources to ensure my comfort and convenience.

Even though I spent the majority of my time in the French Quarter and Garden District, I knew of the disparity between the tourist areas and the neighborhoods where most people lived. I knew how corrupt city politics were, how bad many of the streets were, how impossible it seemed for basic things to get done in New Orleans. So I'm not shocked at the "demographics of disaster" that the news reports are making clear. New Orleans has Old World charm, along with Third World inefficiency and passivity.

Katrina is worse than 9/11, Daily Kos posted. Perhaps it is. Even if the mayor of New Orleans is mistaken in his fears that thousands are dead there. I'd had the thought earlier today (what a terrible day) that the death of about 1,000 Shi'a pilgrims in Baghdad was worse than 9/11--both events were the result of terrorism, and proportional to the population of the country, today's loss of life in Iraq is worse. But what does it mean to compare that act of terrorism (9/11) with this natural disaster?

9/11 was more shocking--a more unprecedented kind of event, and utterly out of the blue. It was more insulting, a malicious attack by a fairly small group of people. They say "everything changed" that day. Certainly, a huge reservoir of American outrage, anger, and wounded pride was created. And the attacks were so (forgive the word) spectacular; visually unforgettable; destruction raining down from a clear blue sky, on live national TV, leaving such a dramatic gap in America's most familiar skyline.

Katrina may be less sharp a pain, but may be more debilitating. Al Qaeda struck at obvious symbols of our strength: financial and military. Katrina hit us in --I don't know, the analogy is breaking down; part of me says "gonads" and part of me says "soul." We lost the home of Louis Armstrong and Blanche DuBois. 9/11 destroyed a great monument that jutted up into the sky. Katrina destroyed countless low-lying features: row houses, causeways, levees, fishing piers. Whole Gulf Coast communities are simply gone.

Economically, losing a couple of well-known office buildings may wind up hurting much, much less than losing refineries and offshore oil rigs. As much fuss as there's been over how to rebuild Ground Zero, it may be more wrenching to rethink land use policy in large areas where the map has been erased. Middle-class folks are well aware of inconvenience at all our airports, but that may pale in comparison to total calamity at one major seaport.

Has "everything changed" due to Katrina? Due to the suffering of a lot of mostly poor folks in the Deep South? Though all of us will probably suffer at the gas pump, and who knows what all the ripple effects will be.

Ah, shit, I can't write anymore. Katrina was big. And bad.

Highly Evolved

OK, let's not kid ourselves, I'm just trying to get a couple posts in, in the waning hours of August.

Early in the month, a friend called my attention to this Salon interview with philosopher of science Michael Ruse, talking about evolution-vs-creationism. Ruse is pointing out some of the argumentative excesses of science (for example, the rantings of Richard Dawkins, which I've blogged about before) and he's trying to stake out space to allow someone to endorse both science and religious faith. I liked what he had to say. As I've seen argued elsewhere, atheism didn't exist before the Enlightenment. The notion of religion as a distinct and separate pursuit, the optional frosting on the cake of life, was born with the Enlightenment. So the image of creationism and evolutionism as siblings, both born of the same crisis in Western culture, I find compelling. According to Ruse, scientism, positivism, secularism, whatever you call it, is a worldview, quite comparable to a religious worldview in that it dictates modes of thinking, patterns of rhetoric, and certain cultural norms at the expense of other valid norms.

This Ruse interview caught the notice of Butterflies and Wheels, who quickly proceed to belittle Ruse. This is an example of why I lose heart for this type of argument. Ophelia of B&W pretty bluntly admits her ignorance of theology on her way to dismissing it as a serious discipline. This is Richard Dawkins's M.O. as well. In the way of many scientists and analytic philosophers, they are overly literal, clumsy in their use or interpretation of metaphor. Also, they argue by way of snark and bullying, of unacknowledged biases and a distinct arrogance in the face of something they don't know much about.

By the way, I finally finished Louis Menand's book The Metaphysical Club, which deals partly with the response of American intellectuals to Darwin's theories. The response to Darwin got all tangled up with the issues of abolition and emancipation, which were being played out in bloody fashion at about the same time Darwin's theories appeared. Menand makes a convincing case that thinkers like Louis Agassiz were operating out of their sense of racial squeamishness.

This is only a half-formed thought, but Menand makes me identify with philosophical pragmatism, a la William James (pragmatism is a lame-ass tradition, apparently, in academic philosophy circles, but hell, that's probably about my speed). I sometimes feel I make only secondary arguments on these questions. For instance, I have no gut-level investment in Darwin's theories, but I think Darwin is a cornerstone in the edifice of modern science, which gives me health care and automobiles and the Internet and lots of things I DO have an investment in. I feel over my head trying to argue Darwin on the merits. But pointing out hypocrisies or absurdities has the value of engaging one's psychological and emotional biases, not just airless logic. Ideas either work or they don't, in the real social world.

Monday, August 29, 2005

I'm about to criticize someone who wrote a letter to the advice column at, for being self-centered. It's about as fair as shooting fish in a barrel, but what the hell.

"Alone in Louisiana" is a "committed Pagan who believes in a divine, universal creative force and in reincarnation." Her husband is a lifelong Catholic, though, and thanks to his family business they have left the "enlightened West" and settled in small-town Louisiana. Thanks to Twoo Wuv, they've been making it work, but now, Crisis Time: Their son has reached kindergarten age. "Our only option is Catholic private school... Public schools in rural Louisiana are atrocious..." The first big parent-teacher orientation meeting left her in tears, confirming her opinion that the institution of Christianity is "a plague on humankind." How can she subject her child to years of this ghastly brainwashing?

Advice columnist Cary Tennis was more patient than I would have been in his response. While sympathetic, he urges Alone to separate her issues from her son's issues, to try not to think the worst of people she disagrees with, and (he says gently) to lighten up a bit.

Lightening up was NOT the order of the day, however, after this column hit the wires. The words "rural," "Catholic," and "Louisiana" really made a few good multi-culti omni-tolerant Salon readers lose their minds. "Mothers Who Think" has always been a misnomer; it's Mothers Who Tend to Rant and Rave. Not all the Letters to the Editor are hysterical, but a few of them, hoo boy. (Note to self: avoid the Psychiatry Department at the University of Minnesota.)

Where to start? First of all, I would never be a Catholic or a pagan. Admittedly, I haven't known many pagans (there was this one Wiccan gal I worked with, years ago), whereas I have known some Catholics, and some very decent, thoughtful, open-minded Catholics at that. So call me slanted, but offhand, between the pagan mom with her laser beam eyes, and the nuns in their penguin get-ups, I don't know whose bullshit is worse, I really don't.

Second of all, welcome to rural Louisiana, Ms. Alone. You say you've been living there for 10 years? Au contraire, chere. You have been living in the bosom of your family, your groovy husband and sweet baby boy who up to now you've been able to consider just a pint-sized extension of yourself. You haven't been really living where you're living, which is a red state with a particular context that you're going to have to accommodate or else flee. The first day of school is when the rubber hits the road.

According to the original letter, the pagan/Catholic couple met with the school's administration, discussed their concerns, thought they had an understanding, but that understanding was not reflected on Parents-Meet-the-Teacher Day. There's room for competing interpretations here. The letter writer seems to think she's being disrespected; I think what we have is a failure to communicate. There's got to be a meeting of the minds here: to wit, a parent-teacher conference. I'd nominate the father to attend, alone, since he seems to be bilingual in Catholic and Moonbat. Sorry, I don't begrudge the mother her beliefs, I honestly don't, and the teacher has to understand the family's position. But it's such an idiosyncratic position for small-town Louisiana (where out-of-the-broom-closet pagans are rare, I imagine), that I doubt the message has gotten through clearly via interoffice mail. This calls for sitting down with the teacher, looking her in the eye, and telling her what your child needs.

Alone in Louisiana and her defenders at Salon have set up this false opposition of Conscientious Mother versus Evil Agenda-Driven School. That's an intolerable situation by definition. The parents and the school have got to find a way to get on the same side. No decent school or teacher would undermine a mother in the eyes of her five-year-old son.

What a decent school might do is kick the boy out. Maybe no common ground exists. They can't very well allow the Pagan-ness of one student's mother to undermine the overall Catholic-ness of the school. The Catholics don't open schools out of the goodness of their hearts. (Well, Catholics would quibble, but you know what I mean.) And to be fair, Catholic schools don't exist to convert or harrass "committed pagans," but to serve the children of Catholic families, to educate them and inculcate the Catholic faith in them.

I guess my corny advice would boil down to: schools respond to pressure, and families don't have to be passive victims. They can join the PTA, get to know the teachers, volunteer, network, be diligent, etc. These are hard choices, public vs. parochial vs. home school. It's unfortunate, but a fact of American life nonetheless, that where you live dictates what your child's schooling options are going to be. Deal with it. Make the best of your options, or move.

(And hell, thanks to Hurricane Katrina the family may have much worse things to worry about by now.)

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

All right, time for a little remedial blogging. It's for the integrity of the Archives--if August was a complete black hole, it would ruin the symmetry of things.

In the current issue of the American Prospect, Harold Meyerson looks at five major pundits (Hitchens, Friedman, Kristol, Krauthammer, Hanson) and tallies up their sins against reason, common sense, and journalistic integrity with respect to Iraq. It seems almost cruel, but if our political culture is going to survive and gain (regain?) some sense of health, then this is a needed addition to the record. And here is an excellent statement of how our elite opinion-meisters let us down:

They refused to hold the administration’s conduct of the war and the occupation to the ideals that they themselves professed, or simply to the standard of common sense. They abdicated their responsibilities as political intellectuals -- and, more elementally, as reliable empiricists.

Neglecting facts or rules of evidence is a grave offense in a writer. Holding that Truth is a false ideal and the facts are whatever Power wants them to be--that is the worst kind of nihilism. And that's what Republicans in the Bush era, and at least some of their enablers in the press, are guilty of.

Friday, July 29, 2005

Fantasy Baseball Update -- shield your eyes

Sorry, I know fantasy baseball talk is boring--worse than telling your co-workers what you dreamed about last night. This post is partly to mark the date for myself. I just closed on a trade, giving up Francisco Rodriguez (ace relief pitcher, 23 years old) for Jeff Kent (very good hitter for a second baseman, 37 years old). Not prudent, but hey, I'm going for broke--carpe-ing the diem. I'm in second place now, 9 roto points behind. Let's see if this trade makes the difference by year's end.

It's hard to win a fantasy league without a top-notch saves guy. What I'm left with now is two pretty iffy saves guys, B.J. Ryan, who has been struggling for the Orioles, and Brian Fuentes, who pitches for Colorado (yikes).

But it's also pretty darn important to get some offensive oomph from your infield and your catcher. One thing about this year is, Javy Lopez is far and away the best catcher I've ever had. Maybe I'm reading too much into this fact, but I rose to first place with Javy playing, then faded to second when Javy went on the disabled list. Now Javy is back playing. I've gotten by with a cobbled-together waiver-wire infield all year. Now, Jeff Kent is a big improvement at 2B, and Felipe Lopez and Shea Hillenbrand (other recent trades) are modest improvements at SS and 3B.

Just let my pitching hold together. I traded away pitching for each of those three guys.

Back in the winter I posted that I was going to throw caution to the wind and keep Zack Greinke (young pitcher with dazzling potential) from last year's roster, instead of Derrek Lee (reliable but seemingly boring veteran 1B). I came to my senses and changed my mind about that just in time, which was easily my best move of the year. Derrek Lee has only been the best player in baseball, and Greinke has been pummeled. I wouldn't have predicted either of those things, Lee being awesome or Greinke being terrible, but Lee was the much safer bet. Draft day is a time for safe bets. Now I'm going to take a bit of a long shot.

This has been an enjoyable fantasy season, whether I end up winning or not. But what if I won?!? [dreamy sigh] -- then maybe I could attend to caring for my family and advancing my career, goals which I naturally set aside to focus on this other...

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Road Food / Accept No Substitutes

Road Food is a ritual that should accompany every out-of-town car trip, whether alone or with friends: stopping at a convenience store and making a meal out of stuff you can eat in the car--chips and soda, nickel candies like jawbreakers or Jolly Ranchers, maybe a sausage dog or microwave burrito.

Slim Jims are a prime example of Road Food. Where else do you find Slim Jims but at a Grab-n-Go hard by the side of the great American roadway? A variant of beef jerky, with its handy rope-like dimensions, its greasy-stringy texture. a Slim Jim is a snack that inspires action, and positively punishes contemplation. A bracing tonic for a diffident office drone on a three-day weekend.

There are foods that you'll eat in your car that you would never ever consider having in your home. A Slim Jim, for instance, has never crossed the threshhold of my domicile. Nor has any six-pack of Lance's sandwich crackers or cookies, like Nip-Chees or Necots. Cheerwine is another; it's a cherry-flavored soft drink that should only be consumed in a moving car, and preferably within 50 miles of the town of Salisbury, NC, whence Cheerwine originates. (This area encompasses Charlotte, Greensboro, AND Winston-Salem, so it ain't like your options are limited.)

I did once buy two sausage dogs at a 7-11 and bring them back to the Holiday Inn where I was staying with my young children in Orlando. This was wrong on many levels.

Here's a tip: don't try to scrimp by buying the generic Slim Jim substitute. I made this mistake recently. Mushy and bland, with none of the snap that distinguishes Brother James, this Faux Jim got my trip off to an inauspicious start. No, shell out the whole $1.19 for the real article.

I love Slim Jims because they link us to a simpler, more innocent time. Slim Jims partake of the restless pioneering American spirit. They are the modern-day analogue of pemmican and salt pork. They are a food I can imagine eating on a wagon train. I would definitely buy hardtack if Circle K sold it in nacho cheese flavor.

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Frogmarch Update: Threat Level Yellow

I got three different e-mails today asking me to sign various online petitions urging the President to fire Karl Rove over Plamegate.

I'm usually a sucker for those (I don't give much money or time, but I am one online-petition-signing mofo) but in this case it just seemed absurd. First, Karl Rove's odiousness aside, firing somebody for ethical/moral failure isn't the type of decision that should be made by holding a finger to the winds . If Bush can't figure out for himself that Rove is ethically crippled, a jillion signatures or e-mails or phone calls won't convince him, nor, in some ideal sense, should they. Secondly, I can't imagine that Internet petitions from are greeted with anything but derision by Bush and his inner circle. Also, realistically, what are the chances? When has Bush fired anybody for excessive zeal and loyalty? Plus, as Marshall Wittman so delightfully phrased it, Bush firing Rove would be like Charlie McCarthy firing Edgar Bergen.

It's good that the mainstream news organizations finally smell Rove's blood in the water. Odd that it took so long. Reporters are finally mad at Scott McClellan, whose whole job is to tell them every day that 2 + 2 = 5, and that seems to be acceptable, but when he's caught in a crude deception instead of an artful one, telling them in effect that 2 = 5, that's a no-no. And Matt Cooper and Judy Miller are lousy test cases for press freedom, but if it took a couple of its members being threatened with jail for the DC media social club to get exercised, fine and dandy. It's nice to see the moderate-liberal blogosphere (the Wittmans and Kilgores and Schmitts, the TPMCafe types) in such a state of manic excitement. I hope Mark Schmitt is right that Roveism is truly in decline. I hope this scandal represents a chink in Bush's shell. Let's wait and see, though.

Long Live Suck

For the last two or three years of its life I was devoted to This in spite of my handicaps: I'm not an old-school webhead, i.e. don't know Flash from Java and couldn't pick Marc Andreessen out of a police lineup, and I'm about five years too old to get many of their pop-culture references. I swore by it anyway. Easy to read onscreen, sharp and funny as hell, employing hypertext as a stylistic tool, Suck was the first site to impress me with the charm of Web content per se, rather than text by other means. Its archives are still accessible.

I stumbled across this recent account of the life and loves of Suck. Warning: at 27 laser-printed pages, this is a very long article published on an obscure website, about a long-defunct site that was itself something of a cult favorite. The obsessiveness factor here is quite high.

While I like Ana Marie Cox (aka Wonkette) perfectly well, I got a chuckle from the story of what led Suck's founders to hire her: she used to frequent a discussion board with Chicago-area indie rock heavyweights, and gave as good as she got in the pop-culture debates there. That was her main qualification. A gal with no cred, surviving and thriving in online flame wars among guys with major cred! If that's not a Horatio Alger story for the 90s, I don't know what is.

Thursday, July 07, 2005

London, 7 July

Sadness and helplessness. From my safe distance, it feels so much like 9/11, not understanding the seriousness at first, then monitoring the news from work all morning, the rising horror, the phone calls to make sure that a relative is safe: a first cousin in New York four years ago, a stepbrother in London today. Both were okay.

9/11 was more shocking, of course. The scale of the carnage was greater, and the TV images were so shattering. I'd given little thought to Manhattan and none to the World Trade Center, but it suddenly seemed like the central symbol of American aspiration and industriousness lay in smoking ruins. But I actually know London better than I know New York. I've been in Kings Cross and Liverpool Street tube stations numerous times. My private mental picture is more vivid today. And the thoughts of riding a train, feeling the blast, being in a dark tunnel with smoke and heat and panic, are plenty nightmarish.

How little progress we've made in four years.

I tried to comment on a Matthew Yglesias blogpost at TPMCafe, and the damn thing ate my post: Matthew took the opportunity to say that President Bush's remark four years ago urging us to "go shopping" after 9/11 was unfairly criticized at the time by the left. We must get back to our normal routines quickly or the terrorists win.

Well, sure, but think of the things Bush could have said to stand in for "normal" American life: Take a walk in the park. Hug your kids. Get on a plane and go visit loved ones. Make friends with a Muslim person in your town. But instead, Bush characterized us as a nation of shoppers. One day Bush was calling up the National Guard, mobilizing to invade Afghanistan, passing the Patriot Act. The next day he was telling us to go shopping, and assuring us that there was no need to cancel the big tax cuts: they were just the thing in time of war. It was an incoherent welter of slogans and no plans, betraying an unserious approach, failing to call forth the better angels of our nature.

London mayor Ken Livingstone spoke today, I won't bother to find the exact quote, but he addressed the attackers, presumably jihadists, and called London a city of dreams, where people come from around the world to fulfill their aspirations. Including "your" people, from your part of the world. They won't stop coming, and however many you kill, you can never win.

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

"FULLY employed loser" here, thank you very much

I'm a lifelong fan of Garry Trudeau's venerable political cartoon Doonesbury, but I'm a little troubled by Sunday's strip, in which mainstream journalist Mark Slackmeyer encounters blogger "SlamZ88." Mark asks:

Isn't blogging basically for angry, semi-employed losers who are too untalented or too lazy to get real jobs in journalism?... I mean, if the market really valued what you have to say, wouldn't someone pay you for it?
Needless to say, this attitude pisses me off (pisses you off too, I would think, oh hypothetical blog reader). And I think it exists--I think there are plenty of people in the traditional news business who resent and disdain blogs, using terms similar to these.

I hope I'm wrong--you can look at the strip yourself--but I'm afraid that Mark, the voice of the well-credentialed journalism insider, is the voice of Garry Trudeau. The strip isn't totally one-sided, but it is skewed, and the punchline definitely comes at the blogger's expense. True enough, Doonesbury is not often crudely didactic. And Trudeau does often use characters who do not speak for him directly, and I give him credit in this strip for framing the issue effectively and provocatively in a few panels. On the other hand, if Trudeau wants to satirize the mainstream media, he typically uses Roland Hedley as the vehicle. Mark S. is usually a voice of wisdom, a trustworthy guide to what the author really thinks.

It's a shame that Trudeau seems to miss the whole point of the rise of the lefty blogosphere. Talent and "professionalism" are not the be-all and end-all, they do not perfectly define those who can make a valuable contribution to the public discourse. We've been sorely let down by the professionals, too many times to list, and we're ready to give the amateurs a listen. Journalism isn't rocket science. Sure, it takes critical thinking and hard work, but many people possess those gifts who've never been to J school.

(Characterizing bloggers as lazy is particularly galling. Like them or dislike them, the blogs that have gained attention are the ones that post new content several times a day. That takes work. In other walks of life, that kind of gumption is praised as being entrepreneurial.)

The news networks and the papers of record have terrific news-gathering resources, but they have huge blind spots and institutional biases as well. It's disappointing if the creator of Roland Hedley misses the point that insiderdom can be corrosive to integrity and objectivity. Also, even if we accept the stereotype of the squirrely badly-groomed blogger, it's disappointing if the creator of Zonker Harris can't spare more sympathy for the unemployable self-deluded oddballs of the world. Oddballs can be right too.

The strip pokes particular fun at bloggers' laundry lists of nit-picking debate points, and alludes to the John Bolton controversy: "109 points about Bolton... Who reads this stuff?" As it happens, Garry Trudeau is on the record as being opposed to the Bolton nomination for UN ambassador, so it's not that he has no opinion on the matter or thinks it's trivial, but what apparently gave Trudeau a special platform to judge Bolton is that they were classmates at Yale. Presumably, that Ivy League social connection gives Trudeau a well-rounded non-nit-picking understanding of Bolton.

Well Garry, my man, not all of us have shared a panty raid or beer bong with the guy. We may have to rely on obscure old news stories that we Googled up. Yet Bolton's a public figure, and we non-Yalies assert our right to comment on him.

While we're on the subject, Pandagon had a good post and discussion earlier today about the unfolding Valerie Plame investigation. I'm as happy as anybody to wish Karl Rove hasta-la-vista and don't-drop-the-soap, but what an infuriating commentary on the American corporate news establishment. When I ponder the Plame affair, I come away believing that LOTS of people, hundreds probably, in the Washington press corps knew quite well that a key White House political adviser had burned an undercover CIA operative. That said adviser was likely a backstabbing felon, and arguably a traitor to the interests of US national security. Yet the same Washington press corps, for many months, unanimously, in its careerist ass-covering conventional wisdom, during a presidential election campaign, declined to share that information with the public. Which is a disgrace, and an abject failure of the press to perform its role in the American system. Reason # 23810 for the rise of the blogosphere.

Thursday, June 16, 2005

Jesus SMASH!

First of all, an admission: I actually thought last Sunday was Fathers' Day. In fact, as you know, Fathers' Day is this coming Sunday. Just something for you to keep in mind as you read anything else I write.

I've been intending for a long time to comment at length on Jeff Sharlet's Harpers Magazine piece about New Life Community Church in Colorado Springs. The moment has kind of passed. I did comment over at the High Hat Blog about my visit to a megachurch about five years ago. I could relate to Sharlet's arguments about consumerism and exurban migration. As to the millenialism and weird geopolitics -- I got nothin'.

Wait, here's a tangent. My last book read was God's Secretaries by Adam Nicolson, about the creation of the King James Bible. It was pretty good, and incidentally not a devotional book at all, but intellectual history that provides a window into Jacobean England. Anyway, one tantalizing bit of info there was that some of the scholars on the KJ translation committee wanted to exclude the Book of Revelations. They got voted down. Revelations is the source of all manner of trouble and nonsense. The Armageddon, the Rapture--all that stuff is in Revelations, and stands out like a sore thumb next to the Sermon on the Mount and all the rest of the New Testament. Jesus is like Bruce Banner turning into the Hulk in that book. I understand generally how Revelations got written: it was 100 AD and people thought Jesus was coming back the day after tomorrow to overthrow the Roman Empire. But why it has continued to be part of the Biblical canon, I don't really understand. I've never read Revelations, have never heard a sermon preached from it, which is not odd since liberal Protestants and all Catholics basically ignore Revelations, yet the religious right sometimes gives the impression that Revelations is ALL they read. How about somebody doing an edition of the Bible that leaves Revelations right the fuck out?

Here's one particular thing that struck me in the Sharlet article. In my job I hear and read a lot about the joys and struggles of ministers in their careers. I was reading something recently in which a preacher contrasted graduate school (seminary), where you get a fresh start every 4-5 months--new topic, new teacher, new group of peers--with a parish church, where the content is always the same, and the faces are always the same. Soon after reading this, I picked up the Sharlet article, and New Life guru Ted Haggard describes the small-group structure of his church: it's on a semester system, so if people dislike a class or a group of classmates, they naturally get a chance to jump ship after a few months. That's the consumerist approach megachurches take: lots of choices, lots of room for the theology and doctrine to be market-tested and tailored to what people like. Whereas traditional churches tend to operate on the unspoken assumption that you are a Methodist or whatever by virtue of family and civic ties, so your church is your church, and you have to take it as you find it.

The bad news is, these are bad assumptions nowadays--people WILL drive to the next town over, they WILL shop around, etc. The better news for these old-style churches is they have a chance to offer a realer, more familial type of community, which you only get when you are somewhat stuck with people. This preacher I was reading also talked about the emotional whiplash he felt as a young man early in his ministry, how tough it was to go from celebrating a birthday or baptism in the afternoon, then visiting a dying person in the evening. You think Ted Haggard ever does a funeral? Or comforts a dying person? Rarely, I bet. These Colorado Springs assholes, these postmodern gypsies, if they get sick or old they're going to move back home, or close to a family member who'll care for them.

There's a site called Butterflies and Wheels that I've dipped into now and then. Its stock in trade is being indignant over Intelligent Design, etc.: with religious fundamentalism interfering with science. They're smart folks over there--Brits, some of them, don't you know--and more conversant with philosophy and hard science than I am. Stuff I am somewhat conversant with--social science, religion, and critical theory--they're fairly hostile to. I sort of left the comments board of their blog with my tail between my legs. I felt I ended up making content-free arguments in favor of simple civility. Weak tea, not much fun for me. On the other hand, those folks congratulate themselves for going to a friend's funeral and refraining from heckling the eulogy. I'd call that strident. But again, they're smart, and I'll continue to browse there now and then.

Here at Dix Hill I've mentioned that in real life I get to hear some really interesting lectures and panel discussions on theology and medicine. I alluded to a couple of them at B&W and got sneered at, but I'm going to re-present them here. In one presentation, a guy was proposing a methodology for measuring an individual's religiosity. By way of background, this dude works in a program on spirituality and health, studying issues like whether people who profess religion, pray, etc., have better health outcomes. That prayer-and-healing stuff generally leaves me cold, but this guy rolled out what I thought was the best application of critical theory I have ever heard. Knowledge is socially constructed; religion and secularism alike are knowledge systems, held together by the trust their adherents place in them. Religion is best understood not as a checklist of beliefs but a worldview, a lens, a framework. The best measure of religiosity is not fidelity but fluency. The specific content of any worldview, religious or not, is less significant than whether one can articulate it coherently. (As I tried to tell the science/philosophy geeks, "Einstein wasn't a great scientist because of the number of theorems he had memorized.")

In another talk, a public health researcher compared two small Missouri towns that were similar in geography and demography. One town was marked by a stronger religious community: more vital congregations, and (significantly) warmer and more cooperative relations among different congregations. There were some positive public health indicators associated with the more robust religious climate. He did a social capital analysis suggesting that religious institutions create "bridging" social capital that enables resources to be shared and transferred effectively. Admittedly, this was a qualitative study, that argued correlation rather than causation, but it appealed to me as making a case for religion based on its effects. I have forgotten the name of Town A in the study, the high social capital town; sadly, however, Town B, marked by selfishness and distrust, was Hannibal, Mark Twain's hometown.

Anyway, that's This Week in Dix Hill religion.

Monday, June 13, 2005

Military Contractors

NPR this morning had two stories (near the bottom of the page) about bad blood between US Army/Marines personnel, on one hand, and American private security personnel on the other. Last month, a group of private troops strayed into the wrong place at the wrong time, and were detained by regular Marines. These men report being kneed in the back, kicked in the balls, and abused by their Marine captors in numerous other ways both physical and verbal. (In its official denial of the story, a Marine spokesman said these Americans received the same humane and respectful treatment as all detainees in US custody--which made me laugh out loud.)

Obviously, these two groups are supposed to be on the same side, but communication and coordination are poor between the uniformed military and private forces. And it's not hard to see why a Marine would be resentful of the situation where private security guards receive 5 times the pay for work similar to what he (the Marine) is doing: roughly equal in status (these contractors aren't just doing laundry and serving meals, they are doing "mission-critical" work in many cases), and if anything probably lower in personal risk (which is a relative statement--no American in Iraq is safe).

The main source for the NPR story is an ex-Marine who left his job as a firefighter to go to Iraq in the employ of Zapata Engineering. He's completely upfront about his reasons for taking the job--$$$$--and he's retained a lawyer in the wake of his run-in with the Marines. The US government has banned him from further employment in Iraq. The Marines are flatly denying the charges these detainees are making, and Zapata flatly denies the military's claim that the Zapata guys fired on a military position first. This really doesn't sound, all in all, like a simple misunderstanding by like-minded people in fundamentally friendly organizations.

Chris Hedges, writing about our troops in Iraq:

The young soldiers, trained well enough to be disciplined but encouraged to maintain their naive adolescent belief in invulnerability, have in wartime more power at their fingertips than they will ever have again. They catapult from being minimum wage employees at places like Burger King, facing a life of dead-end jobs with little hope of health insurance and adequate benefits, to being part of, in the words of the Marines, "the greatest fighting force on the face of the earth." The disparity between what they were and what they have become is breathtaking and intoxicating.

The disparity recurs on the other end, when the soldiers muster out and return home to a mundane job with low pay and dim prospects. This Zapata employee was a firefighter, but it must not have paid a middle-class income, because he jumped at the chance to go to Iraq as a mercenary. I know the Army and Marines and National Guard are having terrible trouble meeting their recruitment quotas of 18-year-olds, but I bet that the private security firms have a lot less trouble hiring. There's the money, obviously, plus I believe there are plenty of 35-year-old former soldiers who are itching to get back in the action. Making an unscientific judgment from the military vets I've known, it seems that military service in the all-volunteer era creates a class of folks whose only skills are tough-guy skills. The only jobs they're qualified for, and the only jobs that stimulate them the way active military duty did, are jobs as police officers or firefighters.

And this has repercussions, incidentally, for the profession of law enforcement. Some young men today are advised that military service is the ONLY appropriate preparation for a job as a police officer. Again, I'm going on media images and my limited experience, but it seems domestic US law enforcement is much more military-like than it used to be. Cops don't wear neckties and brogans or carry nightsticks. They wear Kevlar and combat boots and carry M-16s.

As Matthew Yglesias observed recently in a completely different context, the wholesale replacement of government employees with contractors, ostensibly to reduce government and control expenses, is a ruse pioneered by Republican administrations and validated, unfortunately, by the Democrats under Clinton. Not only is the government not saving money this way, but they (the Republican-controlled Executive Branch) are rewarding a GOP-friendly company, and ensuring that some of the tax dollars going to fight the war, will ultimately flow into GOP campaign coffers.

I'm talking myself into being an advocate for a national-service draft. Be all you can be? Learn computers? My ass. When I think about it, the notion of the military as an avenue of upward mobility, or a place for young people to obtain marketable skills, is a bit troubling. De-professionalize and, by all means, de-privatize the military. (Reason # 103194 why I will never hear the words "Senator Dix.")

Sunday, June 12, 2005

Fathers' Day

I'm racing the clock to get this post up while it still IS Fathers' Day--

My oldest daughter (code name Xaviera) put on a Caitlin Cary CD in the car the other morning. I like C.C., though I suppose she's corny. She has this wise, maternal singing persona, and in some songs she's actually giving advice to a lovelorn friend. "What Will You Do" has her commiserating with the co-dependent wife or girlfriend of a self-destructive tortured artist type of man. Of course you love him, but he's a trainwreck and you need to protect yourself, is the gist of the song. Cary is not exactly the voice of Grrl Power, but she's not a doormat, either, and in the end she seems to land at an eyes-open, road-tested, jaded-but-hopeful appreciation of men. Can't live with him, can't live without him. That seems true and satisfying to me.

There's a classmate of Xaviera's, call her Charlotte, who carpools with us some mornings. Charlotte is painfully shy--some days we can hardly get a word out of her, and she misses school every now and then with headaches or stomachaches that seem anxiety-related (even her mother thinks so). Her parents are divorced, and her father is not a big part of her life. I'm not always sure whether being with our family adds to her anxiety or not. We're pretty boisterous, especially on the days when I drive the kids. I'm less organized, so there is more yelling "hurry up" and general display of bad temper. My car is smaller so the kids are more cramped. I have a CD player so there's likely to be loud rock music. I might steer with my knees for a moment while I drink coffee and fumble for a CD.

One day my middle girl Yolanda rolled down the car window and stuck her arm out while we were riding. Charlotte was alarmed ("Never stick your arm out like that!") and I said, a little sheepishly, "That's right, honey, not so far out," but the truth is I let stuff like that slide, much more than my wife does. So Charlotte doesn't bother to show alarm any more.

A kid needs a Dad to bend Mom's rules and let them stick an arm out the window occasionally.

(Before anyone makes any outraged comments or e-mails, I would like to hear you marshall some evidence, even anecdotal, of anybody losing an arm due to hanging it out the car window.)

It's odd that I choose Charlotte as the case that argues the value of a father, a masculine influence in a child's life--there's another boy we know, younger kid, who is the type that craves male attention and who, every time he sees me, attaches himself to me like a barnacle. Charlotte may very well not even like me. Yet I'm just cocky and reckless enough to think I'm the kind of influence Charlotte needs. Put it this way: If my influence doesn't kill her, it will make her stronger.

This is my reflection on fatherhood this year. My wife and I had a big fight over Christmas because I allowed one of the children to do something unsafe. I won't specify what it was--no harm was done, but I did make a big error in judgment. Hopefully I learned a lesson, but that continues to be the dynamic in our family: She will err on the side of overprotectiveness, I will err on the side of recklessness.

Yet kids' lives need a dose of physicality and recklessness and loudness and devil-may-care attitude.

Here's to you, Dads. You're the guy who lets them stick their arm out the car window. You're the guy who let them climb onto the porch roof. You're the guy who says with a chuckle that french fries can technically be considered a vegetable.

You're the guy. Don't go changin'. Listen to your wife, of course, but don't go changin'.

Aw crap. Fathers' Day plus one.