Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Newsflash: Dogs Experience Complex Emotions!

Oh, come on. It didn't take PhD'd researchers or a funded univerity study to figure this out. Anyone who's ever loved a dog or grown up in a house with one could have told these scientists exactly what they needed to know.

Thursday, November 20, 2008


Today is my dad's birthday. He would have been 64 if his lung cancer and chemotherapy hadn't killed him in January. One year ago today, all of us trucked up to the hospital to see him. He was having diet issues and was going through radiation treatments at the time, so he was a pretty bony version of himself, but himself just the same. He crabbed at my mom and talked about how one of the nurses was stealing his pain meds (he turned out to be right though). He was glad to see the kids, though they wore on his patience eventually and asked a lot of questions about his IV and the bag at the end of his bed. We brought a cake, and the nurses had given him a mylar balloon that floated from the head of his hospital bed. I think we sang; I even think we lit a candle for him to blow out, but I can't be certain anymore. I took pictures with my cell phone that are still there. I don't look at them often.

I spend a lot of time wondering how my life now would be different if he was still here: questions I'd ask him, things I'd want his help with, conversations we'd have, what Thanksgiving and Christmas will be like. I hate admitting it, but some things are easier without him, or rather, without the problems that made his life hell. Though I've put many of my thoughts to rest about how he'll spend eternity, and how he's free of his many pains, and just exactly what all this life and death business means, my confusion still lingers. And I am still angry that he was taken away.

At work, I am quiet today. Nobody knows what's on my mind, and though I'd normally share it with a few close buds I have, I'm not interested. I need to mull over this; I need to be in this fog for a while. I need to remember what it's like to think of my dad and worry about him. I need to think of what I'd say to him if we were going over there tonight for dinner, which is what we'd be doing if he'd never gotten sick, or survived.

Today, I am acting like that's what happened, except that he isn't physically here. Only my mom's working, and I'm doing dinner at my house, and rather than having family over, it'll be our normal friends we have over for dinner. I don't really like that, but it's how things turned out. That, and all the immediate family members that I don't live with are inaccessible. So tonight, with whomever is there, we'll eat the famous barbeque pork loin. I don't know if there will be cake, mostly because I don't know if that would make our guests uncomfortable or not. And hopefully, as with me, my dad will be on all our minds, though I'm not getting my hopes up.

Of course, it doesn't really matter anyway; he's enough on my mind today for a whole house full of people.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

My Two Cents for the Day

I won't elaborate on the news story; it's grim. While reading a Detroit Free Press article online, however, I ran across this sentence:
    Police still don’t know who the gun belonged to or how the boys’ got a hold of it. But the weapon has been retrieved.
Ahem. Now look: I don't have an English degree or anything, but anyone with a 10th grade Language Arts class ought to know what's wrong with this passage. The article was written by two (TWO!) journalists, presumably with some higher education in something that involves writing, and they still can't get their damned apostrophes right. And while it may be a matter of style to begin a sentence with conjunction in one's personal writing (see?), as far as I know it's never been considered acceptable with any professional work. And since when is the phrase "get a hold of" proper? Sure everyone knows what it means, and everyone uses it, but give me a break! You are not writing a note to your buddy here, guys, it's the news!

I used to work a lot with kids in middle and high school, and I'd see their writing. Anyone who's starting at any level of writing will probably automatically begin by writing the words they'd otherwise speak, but we're supposed to get over that by eighth grade or so. (If you read anything decent on a regular basis, you'll know it much earlier. ) I used to think that since these kids were young, or inexperienced at writing, that the writing they were doing would at least rise to basic rules of the language. If these journalists' work is any indication, I was sorely wrong.

Once, I believed I was just being too harsh (or worse, uppity) in my criticism of what passed for acceptable public writing, and in my judgment that in my lifetime I've seen the English language increasingly abused in ways for which Mrs. King at Pontiac Northern would have beaten me. Now I'm pretty sure I've been hitting the nail on the head the whole time.

I'm not trying to be a stick in the mud, and I know that languages evolve just like species do, but it's my opinion that the lack of attention to basic rules of grammar and spelling constitute not evolution, but degradation of the English language. If our college-educated journalists can't get an apostrophe correct, we're in serious intellectual trouble.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

The Clearing of the Drains

A couple nights ago, I spent my meager handful of weekday evening hours not helping kids with homework, or cleaning up after dinner, or walking my beautiful dog, or even playing my computer game. I spent it in the basement clearing out the floor drain.

As it happened, this drain is emptied into by the washer tub, and had apparently clogged with lint or something. That's what it looked like--whatever. Said lint had, over time, conducted much or the rotting mess of sewage in the street sewer into my sub-floor pipes, which not-so-delightfully appeared on my basement floor one night after the washer emptied. Because I'm cheap, I vetoed calling the plumber at 10:30 pm and simply plugged the drain, believing whole-heartedly in my ability to clear out a little (or a lot of) pocket lint in a pipe tomorrow as opposed to spending three digits for someone else to do it right now.

(I should point out here that I do not, in fact, have veto power on anything in my house. My lovely wife simply allows me to believe that I do in some cases [bless her], and despite her insistence that it wasn't worth the trouble, gave me a chance to prove that I could fix this problem.)

I don't recommend this. Ever. I understand the intricacies of the trap under the sink, and I can install new faucets and change gaskets and o-rings, but I am not a plumber. I don't have plumber's tools, unless a hacksaw counts. I don't know what goes on under the house, and I sure don't know what happens after the stuff leaves my property.

Needless to say, I spent many of my precious evening hours in frustration just trying to find the problem, getting myself pretty gross in the process. Finally, I gave up and told the Wife to call somebody--anybody, I didn't care--but I was done. Then she turned the tables on me, and said that I'd have to call, seeing as how I already knew what I'd tried, etc. (This is one of her tactics to get me to not be so stubborn next time.) Faced with exposure and having to explain my failure to another man, I sucked it in and gave it another shot. This time, I knew I would have to invest a little and get the right tool for the job. As luck would have it, $30 at Home Depot and fifteen minutes did the trick. Go figure.

I know this is a spectacularly boring story. Fortunately, the story isn't the point. Looking back on the ridiculousness of it all, the cause of the clog, the potential prevention, the nasty chronic effect, the trouble it caused, the frustration in trying to deal with it, and the eventual resolution, makes for a pretty fair representation of much of what goes wrong in Life. It doesn't take a close examination to realize that I have a great many drains I need to mind, a fair few that have been clogged a good long time, and some that are creating quite the smelly mess.

Though I'm no stranger to emotional struggle, for a majority of my life I've wondered why it has to be so hard, and what, if anything, I can do to short-circuit the tough parts. More importantly, I am desperate for any scraps of wisdom that may teach my children to be less affected by their own issues later. In our culture, in our world, a certain amount of BS is inevitable, it's true, but most of it probably isn't necessary to get along on a daily basis. I've come to understand that my life will be defined by how I meet these challenges, and the tools I can pass along to help other people do the same.

The current state of my life is a good indicator that I'm not doing a very good job.

I've tried lots of things to handle my stuff, including sucking it up and pretending it's not there. Fortunately, I've been blessed with the stubbornness to keep trying, and the resourcefulness to try different things, with varying results. What I've found is, it's not a bad thing to be a hack, trying new stuff just because it might work (because sometimes it does), but being resourceful is only of use when you understand the limits of your resources, and when you know when to trade some inventive investigation for reasonably-priced peace of mind.

I wonder, if with my basement drain, how many times I will give up. I wonder which of those times I'll be able to toughen up and get back on the horse, and keep fighting. I wonder what simple changes I can make now to prevent trouble later, and I wonder what tool I'm lacking that, if it were simply in my possession, would make life as easy as $30 and fifteen minutes. I wonder if I'm the only one who struggles with these questions.

Mostly, I worry that I will not be able to figure it out in time to teach my children, and that they will be caught in the same vicious circle.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

On (the) Race

So here we are: America has voted decisively for the first black president. Yes, it's an historic moment, both in the smaller sense of our current politics, the economic crisis, and the wars in the Middle East; and also in the big picture, with the country still racially divided nearly 150 years after the Emancipation Proclamation. It's probably true what they were saying last night on CNN, that most people who were watching the results come in moment to moment will remember the election for their whole lifetime, that they may even remember where they were and what they were doing the moment it was announced that Barack Obama had gained the 270 electoral votes required to win. I'm still not sure the moment ranks up there with the Kennedy assassination, or the Challenger explosion, or 9/11/01, but I could be wrong.

If I am wrong, it's probably because I'm white. My problem in understanding what's driven people so furiously over the last year and a half leading up to this election is the same thing that causes my very intense curiosity over racial issues. The trouble with this curiosity is that there is no seeing both sides.

It doesn't always work this way; usually there's some way you can get a handle on both points of view. If we were talking about poverty, for instance, it would be completely different. Obviously, the world is biased toward the rich. The "haves" routinely give each other favors such as professional courtesy with the sole purpose of helping each other maintain their "have" status (if anyone can afford giant doctor or lawyer bills, it's other doctors and lawyers). In areas where "haves" are concentrated, anything that remotely reeks of "have not" is treated with disdain and mistrust. Though I drive an eight year old vehicle, I'm thankful it's a popular model. If I still drove one of my old beaters, you can be sure people would call the police when I drove through their neighborhoods to pick up my kids from their friends' houses. As it is, people look at me funny when I do my own auto maintenance in the driveway or cut my own grass.

But anyway, no matter which side you're on (as a "have" or a "have not"), you can always fake being on the other side if you know what you're doing. Also, it's very possible to legitimately switch sides (though decidedly more difficult to go in one direction as opposed to the other.) In either case, it's possible to understand how both of these groups think, how they act and maintain their families, what values they teach their children, and how they talk to each other. It's possible to get right into their culture and figure them out, even if (in the event you happen to come from the other side) it's not always possible to assimilate completely.

Take other issues that divide people and you can almost always get the same effect. Even with gender, every man and woman probably has some person of the opposite sex in his/her life that can clue them in to how that group thinks and operates. Historically, women have even used men's names and gained world fame without the world being the wiser until after the fact.

But with race, you can't do that. With race, it's different.

Sure, in general, most open-minded people probably have friends or even relatives of the "opposite" race (for the sake of argument, I'm going with white and black here) that they can have serious discussions of varying depth with. But these discussions typically only go so far. The nature of prejudice is so ingrained into family upbringing and supported by popular culture, you can be offensive without even realizing it, and so most people are generally afraid to go too deep in their discussions, and maybe they even avoid the topic altogether. In fact, it's considered polite to simply pretend that there are no differences between you and your "opposite"ly colored friends.

I suspect that the only real discussions about race occur between same-race people, though I can't even be certain about that. As a Caucasion (where that term comes from I have no idea; I have no relatives from anywhere NEAR the Caucusus), I can say with absolute certainly that most American white people don't discuss race AT ALL with each other, unless it's done privately at the family level. This isn't to say that these people don't have opinions; on the contrary, most people's opinions on race are very strong, and not always socially acceptable. But the thing is you never know how the other person feels, and so expressing your opinion to a stranger, whether it be some subtle remark or a full-out n-word, could either get you an invitation to a club or drop-kicked in the face. Unless you're the grand dragon of the local KKK chapter, most white people simply won't take that chance.

My observation has been that American blacks don't have these inhibitions. It seems to be okay to be in a store, workplace, classroom, or fast-food line and discuss race in good or bad terms and not have anyone get offended, as long as it's not mixed company. In my discussions with the few black people who have been comfortable enough to talk with me about it, it also seems a fair assumption that many blacks share roughly the same views on race. If this is true with whites, we'll never know because we're so afraid to open our mouths to each other.

Maybe I'm naïve in my surprise that this presidential election fell solidly along racial lines, with Obama getting 96% of the black vote. But as the analyst on CNN said last night, he also got a majority of the vote for most American minorities and the middle-class. I'm definitely NOT surprised that Obama was the favored candidate of Americans who have probably not felt very represented by rich old white men. Maybe it shouldn't be a surprise that in black neighborhoods across America, there was celebration last night. Maybe it shouldn't be a surprise that one of my more crass coworkers congratulated my black friend as if she'd won the election herself. And maybe it shouldn't be a surprise that many conversations in the lab between whites cease when my friend walks in.

Maybe it shouldn't be surprising, but to me it is, because we went for months in this campaign cycle without race even being discussed (see above where white people are afraid to discuss race in public). Forgive my Forrest Gump ignorance, but it doesn't make any damn sense to me that an issue that clearly has so much hold over public opinion, that so obviously binds people together or drives them apart, that was one of the single biggest factors in this election, should be such a taboo subject. If the election had gone the other way, would American blacks have felt just as strongly in the confirmation of prejudice as they felt about the celebrations? Would American whites have breathed a collective (but silent) sigh, regardless of the threat another Republican in the White House might represent? How can we ever hope to succeed as a nation without eventually calling out the elephant in the living room?

I suppose my feelings at this moment, after the election but before we can assess our new leader's performance, are two-fold: I'm proud to be an American at this moment in history, and I'm embarrassed that it's such a big deal.

I hope Barack Obama's election as President of the United States represents a new and permanent change in America, but that would be a miracle. At the very least, I hope it will open some much needed dialogue and, if not heal, help folks at least understand some old wounds without making new ones. At the most, I hope Obama's term(s) as President are as historic as his campaign; I hope he can deliver on all the promises he's sold us; I hope he is as quick on his feet as he is at the podium; and I hope that whomever wrote his speeches helps him write his policies. The change we stand to see in our nation--in our neighbors, our coworkers, our families, and maybe even in ourselves--is extraordinary, and the implications of the next four years will impact Americans for generations. Now that the election is over, that much is guaranteed.

Because I've only ever been on one side of American race problem, and will only ever be able to see one side, it's impossible for me to do more than hope at this point. Except by talking and listening. If we could all start doing a little of those things a bit more with each other, we'd all be better off in a lot more ways than we realize.

God bless America.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Best Man's Guide to Bachelor Party Planning

It was a blast, a shindig, a hoot and a half. My brother's bachelor party was by average measures a success, meaning that everyone who stuck around had a good time. We did lose two guys along the way, but I think that had more to do with priority differences than party plans. Overall, I was happy with the results, and more importantly, so was my brother.

I hereby admit, however, that it could have been more spectacular. To that end, I've made a handy guide for future Best Men in their own efforts, using both things I learned along the way and my blinding 20/20 hindsight. I did try to keep it down to ten items, but I just couldn't cut any content. Top ten lists are overrated anyway.


* * * * *
Best Man's Guide to Bachelor Party Planning

1. Plan Ahead: Whatever the plan, know it and communicate it in enough time that everyone has enough notice to both show up and afford it. A month lead (or two paychecks) time is a good start.

2. Make at least one part of it classy: Even if you're planning a raunchfest, at least have dinner somewhere he can bring his soon-to-be wife later on. It's just good taste, and if nothing else provides the guys with a segment of the evening they can be completely truthful about.

3. Delegate: Make the other groomsmen do parts of the job, especially if they have a passion or expertise that fits. If a guy plays in a band, or knows someone who does, make him plan the bar leg for instance. Also, see rule 9: Police the party.

4. Share the cost: It's not tacky to ask for guys to pay not only their own way, but part of the groom's. You shouldn't be footing the whole bill just because you're the best man, and the groom should have to pay exactly zero all night. Be up front about this with the guys and they'll not only appreciate the effort you're making, they'll all have a better time.

5. Designate drivers: Volunteers are preferable. If nobody steps up, you're the first DD of the night (like it or not). The bachelor gets shotgun, always. Also see rule 6.

6. Stay cogent: Even if you're not a DD, you can't afford to get sloshed. You've got a lot to keep track of, and you owe it to the groom to make this the best night you can. Drinking yourself into oblivion is a good way to lose track of this responsibility.

7. Know what the girls are doing: Not necessarily to match or one-up the bachelorette party, but at least give something comparable. If they're wearing custom matching bar shirts with "Bride" and "Bridesmaid" sequined to the chest, the least you can do is make souvenir beer koozies. Anything less will only make comparing stories later a lame reflection on you.

8. Take pictures: lots of them, digital ones, so you can delete them when you're sober. Chances are you'll probably get lots of keepers along the way.

9. Police the party: if anyone looks like they might be trouble, be ready to either confront them or put them out without making a scene. Don't let anyone get out of hand, especially where strippers and waitresses are involved. Don't let the bachelor do anything that might sabotage the wedding should a story, video, or picture fall into the wrong hands. If a man can't rely on his friends to keep him out of trouble, he needs new friends. Again, see rule 3: big guys get cop duty.

10. Watch the bachelor: Keep track of how much he's had to eat and how many drinks, and know the signs that he's done for the night. When he's near critical mass, cut him off and move him to the pool table so he stays on his feet and you can watch him more closely. Also, keep water and paper towel in the car, in case you end up missing the signs.

11. Have the toast and coffee ready: wherever the bachelor's going to crash, in case he gets really drunk. Maybe plan to end the party at an all night diner. Have a trash can near the bedside, too, and make sure he's well cared for 'til morning.

Monday, September 15, 2008

43 Minutes: Farewell, Mr. Wright

Richard William Wright, 28 July 1943 - 15 September2008, rest in peace.

I cannot underestimate the effect of Pink Floyd's 1973 album, The Dark Side of the Moon, on my life. Of course by the time I listened to it, twelve or so years after it was released, it was old news, but still on the Billboard 200. It was the first or second piece of music I ever purchased (on cassette, of course) and I've never given it up. In fact, to maintain ownership, I've had to buy nearly a dozen more copies, and make sure I keep at least two on hand at all times.

To me, the centerpiece of this album is The Great Gig in the Sky. I *got* this song right away, even though it has no proper lyrics. It moved into and through me in a way I'd never felt music do, in a way few other songs can even now. The piano and vocals, the bass and drums all went together in a kind of perfection that musicians rarely achieve. I've loved this song forever; only recently did I discover it was written by Richard Wright.

I first heard and learned about Pink Floyd on a radio show when I was experimenting with my cassette recorder. It was either on WRIF 101.1FM or WLLZ 98.7FM. I still have that tape somewhere, I hope. I listened to it so often I can still hear the host's voice whenever I hear the original band members' and David Gilmour's names. I heard "Shine On You Crazy Diamond," "Run Like Hell," "The Great Gig in the Sky," "Dogs," "Fearless," and "Learning to Fly." I think this may have been just after A Momentary Lapse of Reason was released, because it and The Wall were my subsequent two music purchases, then followed by the compilation album Great Dance Songs, which of course led to Meddle and Wish You Were Here being added as allowances added up.

Pink Floyd was my first musical love. It was and still is a beautiful marriage. I have been a particular fan of David Gilmour, calling him rock's most underrated guitarist, and anti-fan of Roger Waters, who I perceived for a long time as the cause of the band's breakup, but I wasn't any different than any other fan. I knew all their names, none of their faces, and would listen to anything I could get my ears on.

Even though I didn't take the time to get to know Rick Wright's individual work, or buy or borrow his solo projects, I will still mourn his death by listening to Gig and other Pink Floyd works of greatness. This man and his partners put my existence into a context without which I would not be the same person. I am not alone; I am not unique; Pink Floyd's music has touched millions of souls, and they all are sad today.

Goodbye, cruel world.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Blessed Are The Children

We sat watching the rain today on the porch, and she said to me, "Daddy, did you know we're connected to all the places in the world?" And she explained to me how the air and the rain bound us to everything else they touched.

And I wondered at her, and agreed, "Yes, the sky and the trees and earth," still in amazement. But she already understood, knew intuitively of that which she spoke, as if it were a simple Truth of Life, and she imparted it to me as patiently as a docent.

These are moments I am thankful for. These are moments that prove to me the divinity of children, the pureness of the gifts they represent, and the ways which they can change us, and the world through us.

Today I was given a Gift. Oh, let every man see this in his child, and then, in himself.

Friday, September 12, 2008

9/11 Observance?

Anyone who knows me, or has read the last handful of blog posts here (see the Independence '08 series below) knows I'm a pretty big America geek. Mine is an old fashioned patriotism, built from raw materials given to me by fascination with my dad's old Army uniforms, his stories of being in Panama, and some handed-down values he taught me about accountability and looking out for the little guys. I found an outlet for and honed my patriotism during many years as a cadet and senior officer in Civil Air Patrol, and even today strive to teach these red, white, and blue values to my own kids, at least by example.

Admittedly, I missed many a mark most hard-core patriots claim. I've never served in the military or done municipal service. I didn't volunteer for any cleanup missions after Katrina. I don't know all my elected officials' names without looking them up. I don't watch Congress the way a decent taxpayer should. I don't even own a flag pin for my lapel.

Despite my patriotic shortcomings, what feeling I do have is pure, and it focuses mainly on the symbols that represent my nation's ideals. The foremost of these is the flag of the United States of America. Having spoken to many non-Americans on this matter, I know Americans fly more flags than residents of most European countries. Across the pond, it's considered presumptuous to put, say, a German flag on a pole in front of business, or hang it on your porch at home. And if you do, the bigger the flag, the gaudier people think it is. Sometimes, it's considered more acceptable to fly an American flag than that of your home country. It's a matter of pride, then, to drive down Woodward Avenue, or bike through the neighborhood, and see Old Glory displayed (usually properly) so commonly.

Another of our most basic symbols as a nation is our National Anthem. Last year, when Regina started ice hockey, she was amazed that it was played at the beginning of each game, especially at the high school level, and even as a guest to this country, was more than once appalled at the behavior of some of her teammates while it played. I always stand for this, and being accustomed to saluting during the Anthem has made the hand-over-heart gesture a giant no-brainer. I make my children stand, and whining carries no weight when it's time to show respect, even in the podunk little ice arena, even at a high school game, even when only thirteen parents bothered to show up for both teams. (I also happen to be a HUGE sucker for Taps. The first three notes alone make me well up. But that is another entry.)

So imagine, dear Reader, now that you have a big enough piece of me for context, my feelings yesterday when I attended Nicolai's JV football game, on September 11th, seven years after the terrorist attacks that claimed the lives of over 3000 ordinary Americans and changed the world forever, and I found the flag loosely hung on a defective pole, and though game and school officials were nearby, had to tighten the lanyard to keep the flag from falling. Now imagine how I might have felt when the National Anthem didn't precede the kickoff. I have to admit, though it doesn't excuse the school or the athletic program from these digressions, the game started late; I'm sure they were eager to get going. Also, I found out the National Anthem isn't usually played at JV games (ashamedly, I'm usually just late enough to each game to miss this fact.) But still.

Truth be told, if I hadn't poked my head into the announcer's booth pre-game, I'd just be sitting here stewing about it. But I did poke my head in there, and I asked what I thought was a stupid question: Will there be a moment of silence before the National Anthem is played? I got some "uhhhh"s and blank stares. The moment of silence was questionable; clearly, nobody had thought of this. But the Anthem seemed to be a given. The kid in the booth even said jokingly to me, regarding the playing of the Anthem, "What do you think this is, China?"

Well kid, I'm beginning to have my doubts.

What with the Olympics just behind us, and it being the year of Michael Phelps and all, how can we miss such a basic observance of national pride? And let's not forget that, oh yeah, it's September 11th, Patriot Day. I am ashamed for the school and the officials who didn't have to foresight or respect to see this coming. I'm embarrassed that we missed this important moment in front of a visiting team. I'm angry that my inquiry was ignored. I'm saddened by the apparent lack of what I consider to be a basic quality of character, especially in our community where so many have so much. And I'm appalled that patriotism is only in fashion during times of crisis, or posturing, or opining about our favorite candidates.

So I've sent a letter to the Superintendent, again. And the principal, and the Athletic Director. And we'll see what happens from there. Hopefully, it's enough to ensure that this heinous lapse of judgment isn't repeated again, on September 11th, 2009.

Saturday, August 30, 2008


I think my dad just came to see me.

I was dreaming. I'd just finished up some subconscious sequence and was standing around (with my coworkers, go figure) talking about it, and he ambled up to the door of whatever building I happened to be inside. Naturally, I know he's gone, awake and asleep, so I rushed outside to see him, confused but ecstatic.

He was led by my son, Brendan, hand in hand. Dad said nothing, but smiled and hugged me, and seemed older than I knew. The feel of his glasses and whiskers on my face was familiar. Then I hugged Brendan, and he said to me, "Daddy, when I'm older, and I ask you [something about visiting Grampa]..." and the rest that followed is lost to memory, but it was his words--the words of this child, my child--that clued me in:

Dad was just stopping by to say hello, to check up on me, and let me know that....everything is okay. That he loves me still, and knows I still love him. That he is at peace, and he is here with us. That all the pain of all those years is no longer a burden; it has been lifted. That the corporeal filters of experience and desire, of unmet needs and deep emotional deficit, are gone.

I love my dad, and I miss him so much. And as awful as I must have sounded to my wife when I woke, wailing like a child for as long as I did, I hope he finds moments, many more moments, like this one throughout my life to stop by again. I know I can never have him back, but if I thought I had even one more such visit to look forward to again, it would be a world of comfort.


Thursday, July 24, 2008

75 Things

Below is an article that struck me, not just as trendy journalism or a cool list (I'm a big fan of lists), but as something that rings true in so many ways. Not to let this guy speak for every man, but I think, in general, he's got the right idea--one that's so right most men can relate. It isn't very often that a man's caveman side is brought out in any way other than to make fun of it, but here Mr. Chiarella shows some of the more elegant aspects of our primordial past, and blends it with other, not-so-well-known subtleties and charms that are important in being a Man. Not all items will fit every man, but the effort is well made.

This article was reprinted with permission from Esquire by MSN (here; other cool lists there as well), and then by me...ahem...without permission. [I live in fear of link-rot. I consider it a testament to the things I choose to provide links to that I wish, should they ever disappear from their original locations, to have them remain in some place, even if that place is solely to provide that link in a personal context.] For what it's worth, I tallied these things into three categories: Yes, Probably, and No Way. Without telling you which items went where, I was 51-11-13. Not too shabby.

As a side note (or maybe the main note?), Tom Chiarella is worth looking up, and probably giving some of your money to via the local bookstore (or Amazon.com, if you must). Here's a good start: Google results.

* * * * *

The 75 Skills Every Man Should Master

A man can be expert in nothing, but he must be practiced in many things. Skills. You don't have to master them all at once. You simply have to collect and develop a certain number of skills as the years tick by. People count on you to come through. That's why you need these, to start.

By Tom Chiarella

A Man Should Be Able To:

1. Give advice that matters in one sentence. I got run out of a job I liked once, and while it was happening, a guy stopped me in the hall. Smart guy, but prone to saying too much. I braced myself. I didn't want to hear it. I needed a white knight, and I knew it wasn't him. He just sighed and said: When nobody has your back, you gotta move your back. Then he walked away. Best advice I ever got. One sentence.

2. Tell if someone is lying. Everyone has his theory. Pick one, test it. Choose the tells that work for you. I like these: Liars change the subject quickly. Liars look up and to their right when they speak. Liars use fewer contractions. Liars will sometimes stare straight at you and employ a dead face. Liars never touch their chest or heart except self-consciously. Liars place objects between themselves and you during a conversation.

3. Take a photo. Fill the frame.

4. Score a baseball game. Scoring a game is an exercise in ciphering, creating a shorthand of your very own. In this way, it's a private language as much as a record of the game. The only given is the numbering of the positions and the use of the diamond to express each batter's progress around the bases. I black out the diamond when a run scores. I mark an RBI with a tally mark in the upper-right-hand corner. Each time you score a game, you pick up on new elements to track: pitch count, balls and strikes, foul balls. It doesn't matter that this information is available on the Internet in real time. Scoring a game is about bearing witness, expanding your own ability to observe.

5. Name a book that matters. The Catcher in the Rye does not matter. Not really. You gotta read.

6. Know at least one musical group as well as is possible. One guy at your table knows where Cobain was born and who his high school English teacher was. Another guy can argue the elegant extended trope of Liquid Swords with GZA himself. This is how it should be. Music does not demand agreement. Rilo Kiley. Nina Simone. Whitesnake. Fugazi. Otis Redding. Whatever. Choose. Nobody likes a know-it-all, because 1) you can't know it all and 2) music offers distinct and private lessons. So pick one. Except Rilo Kiley. I heard they broke up.

7. Cook meat somewhere other than the grill. Buy The Way to Cook, by Julia Child. Try roasting. Braising. Broiling. Slow-cooking. Pan searing. Think ragouts, fricassees, stews. All of this will force you to understand the functionality of different cuts. In the end, grilling will be a choice rather than a chore, and your Weber will become a tool rather than a piece of weekend entertainment.

8. Not monopolize the conversation.

9. Write a letter. So easy. So easily forgotten. A five-paragraph structure works pretty well: Tell why you're writing. Offer details. Ask questions. Give news. Add a specific memory or two. If your handwriting is terrible, type. Always close formally.

10. Buy a suit. Avoid bargains. Know your likes, your dislikes, and what you need it for (work, funerals, court). Squeeze the fabric — if it bounces back with little or no sign of wrinkling, that means it's good, sturdy material. And tug the buttons gently. If they feel loose or wobbly, that means they're probably coming off sooner rather than later. The jacket's shoulder pads are supposed to square with your shoulders; if they droop off or leave dents in the cloth, the jacket's too big. The jacket sleeves should never meet the wrist any lower than the base of the thumb — if they do, ask to go down a size. Always get fitted.

11. Swim three different strokes. Doggie paddle doesn't count.

12. Show respect without being a suck-up. Respect the following, in this order: age, experience, record, reputation. Don't mention any of it.

13. Throw a punch. Close enough, but not too close. Swing with your shoulders, not your arm. Long punches rarely land squarely. So forget the roundhouse. You don't have a haymaker. Follow through; don't pop and pull back. The length you give the punch should come in the form of extension after the point of contact. Just remember, the bones in your hand are small and easy to break. You're better off striking hard with the heel of your palm. Or you could buy the guy a beer and talk it out.

14. Chop down a tree. Know your escape path. When the tree starts to fall, use it.

15. Calculate square footage. Width times length.

16. Tie a bow tie.

17. Make one drink, in large batches, very well. When I interviewed for my first job, one of the senior guys had me to his house for a reception. He offered me a cigarette and pointed me to a bowl of whiskey sours, like I was Darrin Stephens and he was Larry Tate. I can still remember that first tight little swallow and my gratitude that I could go back for a refill without looking like a drunk. I came to admire the host over the next decade, but he never gave me the recipe. So I use this:
• For every 750-ml bottle of whiskey (use a decent bourbon or rye), add:
• 6 oz fresh-squeezed, strained lemon juice
• 6 oz simple syrup(mix superfine sugar and water in equal quantities)

To serve: Shake 3 oz per person with ice and strain into chilled cocktail glasses. Garnish with a cherry and an orange slice or, if you're really slick, a float of red wine. (Pour about ½ oz slowly into each glass over the back of a spoon; this is called a New York sour, and it's great.)

18. Speak a foreign language. Pas beaucoup. Mais faites un effort.

19. Approach a woman out of his league. Ever have a shoeshine from a guy you really admire? He works hard enough that he doesn't have to tell stupid jokes; he doesn't stare at your legs; he knows things you don't, but he doesn't talk about them every minute; he doesn't scrape or apologize for his status or his job or the way he is dressed; he does his job confidently and with a quiet relish. That stuff is wildly inviting. Act like that guy.

20. Sew a button.

21. Argue with a European without getting xenophobic or insulting soccer. Once, in our lifetime, much of Europe was approaching cultural and political irrelevance. Then they made like us and banded together into a union of confederated states. So you can always assume that they were simply copying the United States as they now push us to the verge of cultural and political irrelevance.

22. Give a woman an orgasm so that he doesn't have to ask after it. Otherwise, ask after it.

23. Be loyal. You will fail at it. You have already. A man who does not know loyalty, from both ends, does not know men. Loyalty is not a matter of give-and-take: He did me a favor, therefore I owe him one. No. No. No. It is the recognition of a bond, the honoring of a shared history, the reemergence of the vows we make in the tight times. It doesn't mean complete agreement or invisible blood ties. It is a currency of selflessness, given without expectation and capable of the most stellar return.

24. Know his poison, without standing there, pondering like a dope. Brand, amount, style, fast, like so: Booker's, double, neat.

25. Drive an eightpenny nail into a treated two-by-four without thinking about it. Use a contractor's hammer. Swing hard and loose, like a tennis serve.

26. Cast a fishing rod without shrieking or sighing or otherwise admitting defeat.

27. Play gin with an old guy. Old men will try to crush you. They'll drown you in meaningless chatter, tell stories about when they were kids this or in Korea that. Or they'll retreat into a taciturn posture designed to get you to do the talking. They'll note your strategies without mentioning them, keep the stakes at a level they can control, and change up their pace of play just to get you stumbling. You have to do this — play their game, be it dominoes or cribbage or chess. They may have been playing for decades. You take a beating as a means of absorbing the lessons they've learned without taking a lesson. But don't be afraid to take them down. They can handle it.

28. Play go fish with a kid. You don't crush kids. You talk their ear off, make an event out of it, tell them stories about when you were a kid this or in Vegas that. You have to play their game, too, even though they may have been playing only for weeks. Observe. Teach them without once offering a lesson. And don't be afraid to win. They can handle it.

29. Understand quantum physics well enough that he can accept that a quarter might, at some point, pass straight through the table when dropped. Sometimes the laws of physics aren't laws at all. Read The Quantum World: Quantum Physics for Everyone, by Kenneth W. Ford.

30. Feign interest. Good place to start: quantum physics.

31. Make a bed.

32. Describe a glass of wine in one sentence without using the terms nutty, fruity, oaky, finish, or kick. I once stood in a wine store in West Hollywood where the owner described a pinot noir he favored as "a night walk through a wet garden." I bought it. I went to my hotel and drank it by myself, looking at the flickering city with my feet on the windowsill. I don't know which was more right, the wine or the vision that he placed in my head. Point is, it was right.

33. Hit a jump shot in pool. It's not something you use a lot, but when you hit a jump shot, it marks you as a player and briefly impresses women. Make the angle of your cue steeper, aim for the bottommost fraction of the ball, and drive the cue smoothly six inches past the contact point, making steady, downward contact with the felt.

34. Dress a wound. First, stop the bleeding. Apply pressure using a gauze pad. Stay with the pressure. If you can't stop the bleeding, forget the next step, just get to a hospital. Once the bleeding stops, clean the wound. Use water or saline solution; a little soap is good, too. If you can't get the wound clean, then forget the next step, just get to a hospital. Finally, dress the wound. For a laceration, push the edges together and apply a butterfly bandage. For avulsions, where the skin is punctured and pulled back like a trapdoor, push the skin back and use a butterfly. Slather the area in antibacterial ointment. Cover the wound with a gauze pad taped into place. Change that dressing every 12 hours, checking carefully for signs of infection. Better yet, get to a hospital.

35. Jump-start a car (without any drama). Change a flat tire (safely). Change the oil (once).

36. Make three different bets at a craps table. Play the smallest and most poorly labeled areas, the bets where it's visually evident the casino doesn't want you to go. Simply play the pass line; once the point is set, play full odds (this is the only really good bet on the table); and when you want a little more action, tell the crew you want to lay the 4 and the 10 for the minimum bet.

37. Shuffle a deck of cards. I play cards with guys who can't shuffle, and they lose. Always.

38. Tell a joke. Here's one:

Two guys are walking down a dark alley when a mugger approaches them and demands their money. They both grudgingly pull out their wallets and begin taking out their cash. Just then, one guy turns to the other, hands him a bill, and says, "Hey, here's that $20 I owe you."

39. Know when to split his cards in blackjack. Aces. Eights. Always.

40. Speak to an eight-year-old so he will hear. Use his first name. Don't use baby talk. Don't crank up your energy to match his. Ask questions and wait for answers. Follow up. Don't pretend to be interested in Webkinz or Power Rangers or whatever. He's as bored with that sh** as you are. Concentrate instead on seeing the child as a person of his own.

41. Speak to a waiter so he will hear. You don't own the restaurant, so don't act like it. You own the transaction. So don't speak into the menu. Lift your chin. Make eye contact. All restaurants have secrets — let it be known that you expect to see some of them.

42. Talk to a dog so it will hear. Go ahead, use baby talk.

43. Install: a disposal, an electronic thermostat, or a lighting fixture without asking for help. Just turn off the damned main.

44. Ask for help. Guys who refuse to ask for help are the most cursed men of all. The stubborn, the self-possessed, and the distant. The hell with them.

45. Break another man's grip on his wrist. Rotate your arm rapidly in the grip, toward the other guy's thumb.

46. Tell a woman's dress size.

47. Recite one poem from memory. Here you go:


When you are old and gray and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;

How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face;

And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.

—William Butler Yeats

48. Remove a stain. Blot. Always blot.

49. Say no.

50. Fry an egg sunny-side up. Cook until the white appears solid . . . and no longer.

51. Build a campfire.
There are three components:

* The tinder — bone-dry, snappable twigs, about as long as your hand. You need two complete handfuls. Try birch bark; it burns long and hot.
* The kindling — thick as your thumb, long as your forearm, breakable with two hands. You need two armfuls.
* Fuel wood — anything thick and long enough that it can't be broken by hand. It's okay if it's slightly damp. You need a knee-high stack.

Step 1:Light the tinder, turning the pile gently to get air underneath it.

Step 2: Feed the kindling into the emergent fire with some pace.

Step 3: Lay on the fuel wood. Pyramid, the log cabin, what-ever — the idea is to create some kind of structure so that plenty of air gets to the fire.

52. Step into a job no one wants to do. When I was 13, my dad called me into his office at the large urban mall he ran. He was on the phone. What followed was a fairly banal 15-minute conversation, which involved the collection of rent from a store. On and on, droning about store hours and lighting problems. I kept raising my eyebrows, pretending to stand up, and my dad kept waving me down. I could hear only his end, garrulous and unrelenting. He rolled his eyes as the excuses kept coming. His assertions were simple and to the point, like a drumbeat. He wanted the rent. He wanted the store to stay open when the mall was open. Then suddenly, having given the job the time it deserved, he put it to an end. "So if I see your gate down next Sunday afternoon, I'm going to get a drill and stick a goddamn bolt in it and lock you down for the next week, right?" When he hung up, rent collected, he took a deep breath. "I've been dreading that call," he said. "Once a week you gotta try something you never would do if you had the choice. Otherwise, why are you here?" So he gave me that. And this . . .

53. Sometimes, kick some ass.

54. Break up a fight. Work in pairs if possible. Don't get between people initially. Use the back of the collar, pull and urge the person downward. If you can't get him down, work for distance.

55. Point to the north at any time. If you have a watch, you can point the hour hand at the sun. Then find the point directly between the hour hand and the 12. That's south. The opposite direction is, of course, north.

56. Create a play-list in which ten seemingly random songs provide a secret message to one person.

57. Explain what a light-year is. It's the measure of the distance that light travels over 365.25 days.

58. Avoid boredom. You have enough to eat. You can move. This must be acknowledged as a kind of freedom. You don't always have to buy things, put things in your mouth, or be delighted.

59. Write a thank-you note. Make a habit of it. Follow a simple formula like this one: First line is a thesis statement. The second line is evidentiary. The third is a kind of assertion. Close on an uptick.

Thanks for having me over to watch game six. Even though they won, it's clear the Red Sox are a soulless, overmarketed contrivance of Fox TV. Still, I'm awfully happy you have that huge high-def television. Next time, I really will bring beer. Yours,

60. Be brand loyal to at least one product. It tells a lot about who you are and where you came from. Me? I like Hellman's mayonnaise and Genesee beer, which makes me the fleshy, stubbornly upstate ne'er-do-well that I will always be.

61. Cook bacon. Lay out the bacon on a rack on a baking sheet. Bake at 400 degrees for 15 minutes.

62. Hold a baby. Newborns should be wrapped tightly and held against the chest. They like tight spaces (consider their previous circumstances) and rhythmic movements, so hold them snug, tuck them in the crook of your elbow or against the skin of your neck. Rock your hips like you're bored, barely listening to the music at the edge of a wedding reception. No one has to notice except the baby. Don't breathe all over them.

63. Deliver a eulogy. Take the job seriously. It matters. Speak first to the family, then to the outside world. Write it down. Avoid similes. Don't read poetry. Be funny.

64. Know that Christopher Columbus was a son of a bitch. When I was a kid, because I'm Italian and because the Irish guys in my neighborhood were relentless with the beatings on St. Patrick's Day, I loved the very idea of Christopher Columbus. I loved the fact that Irish kids worshipped some gnome who drove all the rats out of Ireland or whatever, whereas my hero was an explorer. Man, I drank the Kool-Aid on that guy. Of course, I later learned that he was a hand-chopping, land-stealing egotist who sold out an entire hemisphere to European avarice. So I left Columbus behind. Your understanding of your heroes must evolve. See Roger Clemens. See Bill Belichick.

65-67. Throw a baseball over-hand with some snap. Throw a football with a tight spiral. Shoot a 12-foot jump shot reliably. If you can't, play more ball.

68. Find his way out of the woods if lost. Note your landmarks — mountains, power lines, the sound of a highway. Look for the sun: It sits in the south; it moves west. Gauge your direction every few minutes. If you're completely stuck, look for a small creek and follow it downstream. Water flows toward larger bodies of water, where people live.

69. Tie a knot. Square knot: left rope over right rope, turn under. Then right rope over left rope. Tuck under. Pull. Or as my pack leader, Dave Kenyon, told me in a Boy Scouts meeting: "Left over right, right over left. What's so f***ing hard about that?"

70. Shake hands. Steady, firm, pump, let go. Use the time to make eye contact, since that's where the social contract begins.

71. Iron a shirt. My uncle Tony the tailor once told me of ironing: Start rough, end gently.

72. Stock an emergency bag for the car. Blanket. Heavy flashlight. Hand warmers. Six bottles of water. Six packs of beef jerky. Atlas. Reflectors. Gloves. Socks. Bandages. Neosporin. Inhaler. Benadryl. Motrin. Hard candy. Telescoping magnet. Screwdriver. Channel-locks. Crescent wrench. Ski hat. Bandanna.

73. Caress a woman's neck. Back of your fingers, in a slow fan.

74. Know some birds. If you can't pay attention to a bird, then you can't learn from detail, you aren't likely to appreciate the beauty of evolution, and you don't have a clue how birdlike your own habits may be. You've been looking at them blindly for years now. Get a guide.

75. Negotiate a better price. Be informed. Know the price of competitors. In a big store, look for a manager. Don't be an a-hole. Use one phrase as your mantra, like "I need a little help with this one." Repeat it, as an invitation to him. Don't beg. Ever. Offer something: your loyalty, your next purchase, even your friendship, and, with the deal done, your gratitude.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Nature vs. Nature

Last week or so I've been sick. Not coughy, sneezy sick, but sick just the same. I can feel it in all the important places. The barometer is down, nearly bottomed out. My energy is affected, and my mood, and the way I'm able (or unable) to interact with others, especially my children, has become a problem. I don't think it has anything to do with the root canal of six days ago, or the apparently terrible infection that lived in there for God knows how long before it became painful, but it could be a factor. I have more than enough painkillers and antibiotics, however, to eliminate that as a real cause of the short-term, daily issues, so for now I'm taking it out of the equation.

Speaking of root canal, last week was real eye-opening in a particular way. In my brain the last few months has lingered thoughts from a TAL episode called Testosterone, which put into serious jeopardy the idea that I am who I am for inalienable reasons. I learned that this one little chemical, C19H28O2, is an huge player in the everyday game of how I live my life. I asked, as did one man featured in a segment in the episode, how I can really define who I am when so much of the answer depends on the tiny amount of testosterone that is secreted into my blood on a daily basis.

Testosterone is known to control such human impulses as ambition, mental and physical energy, memory, spatial ability, aggression, and (you were waiting for it) libido. So in some respects, a person becomes a different person without it, or with larger or smaller doses of it than one has been accustomed to being. Personalities develop, and the ever-human quest of discovering oneself takes place, in an arena governed in part by our body's chemicals, and big T is a major player in that arena.

A similar epiphany came last week, as a result of the pain I felt pre-root canal, and the sudden relief under the glorious needle of my endodontist. Obviously, a person in pain is much different to interact with than a person who is not. Obviously. Why do we say that? Because we fully understand this, and the reason for it. A pain stimulus is easy to detect: you know when you're in pain (and where, and how much, and sometimes even why). The effect of the stimulus is clear on a person's mood, and therefore his ability to socialize, reason, and react.

So in some respects, a person becomes a different person when they're in pain. Right? Logic shows that, even though this is a much better understood line of reasoning, the effect of pain is much like the effect of testosterone on a person. Right?

So here's my question: who the hell am I? Am I just a biological being, governed by compounds and stimuli and environment? Or am I something more? I believe the answer to be the latter, but in a pure sense. I believe that who I am, the real me, is defined SOLELY by the Divine thing that was installed into this body roughly 36 years ago. However, my access to that thing has mostly eluded me. I haven't yet figured out how to interface with that larger, largest, part of my being that operates this big bulky thing I carry around with me. Is what I believe true, if I cannot even explore this, and therefore not even say who I am in the Divine context? Is the me I show to the world, the person I strive to understand and earn a place among others with, really something more, despite the daily lottery of things that can go wrong inside?

It is at times like this that I must remember what one energy healer once told me: your body is not who you are, it's just a vehicle. And like any vehicle, no matter how noble the trip or how important the driver, sometimes things go wrong. I suppose, in a case like mine, in a week like this, I have to maybe start paying attention to the oil pressure and or something. Otherwise, I'm headed for a wreck only a minor overhaul will fix.

*Disclaimer: I'm neither a biologist nor a psychologist, and I have only a layman's education in theology, and this will not be the last post written in such a confused, inordinate manner. Suck it up, people.

Friday, July 11, 2008

True Tangents

1. So, I've joined Facebook (groan), much to the glee of my wife and friends. Despite my original disdain for such trendy web foofaraw, I am really quite glad I did now, what with all the people I've been able to connect with, and surprisingly, that have opted to connect with me. One feature of Facebook is the groups you can join, and I've found one called "I judge you when you use bad grammar." Browsing the group's photos, I found this lovely thing.

2. I've noticed in my email this past week that there have been a disproportionate amount of excellent words of the day. I mean it: aside from 'meticulous' and 'troglodyte,' the words of the past several days have really been keepers. Check out this list:

condign \kuhn-DINE; KON-dine\, adjective: Suitable to the fault or crime; deserved; adequate.

dapple \DAP-uhl\, noun: 1. A small contrasting spot or blotch. 2. A mottled appearance, especially of the coat of an animal (as a horse). 3. To mark with patches of a color or shade; to spot. 4. To become dappled. 5. Marked with contrasting patches or spots; dappled.

palaver \puh-LAV-uhr; puh-LAH-vur\, noun: 1. Idle talk 2. Talk intended to beguile or deceive. 3. A parley usually between persons of different backgrounds or cultures or levels of sophistication; a talk; hence, a public conference and deliberation. 4. To talk idly. 5. To flatter; to cajole.

emolument \ih-MOL-yuh-muhnt\, noun: The wages or perquisites arising from office, employment, or labor; gain; compensation. (Try throwing that one at your boss at review time!)

contemn \kuhn-TEM\, transitive verb: To regard or treat with disdain or contempt; to scorn; to despise. (I wonder if contemntuous is a proper form; I'll throw it out there and see if people correct me.)

3. Summer is here: the air is hot and so are the beaches. Thank you, Mr. Reard!

4. A company called Valcent Products, Inc. has developed an experimental method of raising algaes that will produce, when harvested, specific grades of oil at amounts 10,000 times greater per acre than corn. Have a look at this video. The last statement will blow you out of the water.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Flag Etiquette

As a service to my readers (particularly some who might live in my neighborhood, ahem), and a continuation of my America theme of the week, I present the following content, used with implied permission from the Independence Hall Association. The full page is here.

* * * * *

How to Fold the Flag

Folding the flag
©2008 ushistory.org

Fold the flag in half width-wise twice. If done by two, then the blue field should be facing the bottom on the first fold. Fold up a triangle, starting at the striped end ... and repeat ... until only the end of the union is exposed. Then fold down the square into a triangle and tuck inside the folds.
Step-by-step instructions for cadets, boy scouts, etc.
• This animation frame by frame

How to Display the Flag

flag hanging over street1. When the flag is displayed over the middle of the street, it should be suspended vertically with the union to the north in an east and west street or to the east in a north and south street.

crossed staffs2. The flag of the United States of America, when it is displayed with another flag against a wall from crossed staffs, should be on the right, the flag's own right [that means the viewer's left --Webmaster], and its staff should be in front of the staff of the other flag.

flag at half mast3. The flag, when flown at half-staff, should be first hoisted to the peak for an instant and then lowered to the half-staff position. The flag should be again raised to the peak before it is lowered for the day. By "half-staff" is meant lowering the flag to one-half the distance between the top and bottom of the staff. Crepe streamers may be affixed to spear heads or flagstaffs in a parade only by order of the President of the United States.

sharing staff with other flags4. When flags of States, cities, or localities, or pennants of societies are flown on the same halyard with the flag of the United States, the latter should always be at the peak. When the flags are flown from adjacent staffs, the flag of the United States should be hoisted first and lowered last. No such flag or pennant may be placed above the flag of the United States or to the right of the flag of the United States (the viewer's left). When the flag is half-masted, both flags are half-masted, with the US flag at the mid-point and the other flag below.

flag suspended over sidewalk 5. When the flag is suspended over a sidewalk from a rope extending from a house to a pole at the edge of the sidewalk, the flag should be hoisted out, union first, from the building.

flag on staff6. When the flag of the United States is displayed from a staff projecting horizontally or at an angle from the window sill, balcony, or front of a building, the union of the flag should be placed at the peak of the staff unless the flag is at half-staff.

flag draping casket7. When the flag is used to cover a casket, it should be so placed that the union is at the head and over the left shoulder. The flag should not be lowered into the grave or allowed to touch the ground.

flag other than being flown from staff8. When the flag is displayed in a manner other than by being flown from a staff, it should be displayed flat, whether indoors or out. When displayed either horizontally or vertically against a wall, the union should be uppermost and to the flag's own right, that is, to the observer's left. When displayed in a window it should be displayed in the same way, that is with the union or blue field to the left of the observer in the street. When festoons, rosettes or drapings are desired, bunting of blue, white and red should be used, but never the flag.

flag carried in a procession9. That the flag, when carried in a procession with another flag, or flags, should be either on the marching right; that is, the flag's own right, or, if there is a line of other flags, in front of the center of that line.

flags in a group of flags10. The flag of the United States of America should be at the center and at the highest point of the group when a number of flags of States or localities or pennants of societies are grouped and displayed from staffs.

US flag with foreign flags11. When flags of two or more nations are displayed, they are to be flown from separate staffs of the same height. The flags should be of approximately equal size. International usage forbids the display of the flag of one nation above that of another nation in time of peace. The order of precedence for flags generally is National flags (US first, then others in alphabetical order in English), State (host state first, then others in the order of admission) and territories (Washington DC, Puerto Rico, etc.), Military (in order of establishment: Army, Marine Corps, Navy, Air Force, Coast Guard), then other.

flag in church or auditorium12. When displayed from a staff in a church or public auditorium on or off a podium, the flag of the United States of America should hold the position of superior prominence, in advance of the audience, and in the position of honor at the clergyman's or speaker's right as he faces the audience. Any other flag so displayed should be placed on the left of the clergyman or speaker (to the right of the audience). Please note that the old guidelines differed from this updated and simplified one.

flag on car13. When the flag is displayed on a car, the staff shall be fixed firmly to the chassis or clamped to the right fender.

flag hanging from window14. When hung in a window, place the blue union in the upper left, as viewed from the street.

Commentary on America

As a follow up to my 4th of July post, I'd also like to share a little tidbit I ran across that might fit into the 'my favorite spam' category. As detailed by truthorfiction.com, the businessman/ author/ commentator Craig R. Smith wrote an article on Thanksgiving 2006 in response to some of the more common whining found in America. Not that I've ever complained about something people in other countries might kill for (or be killed for), but I digress.

The original piece is found here, but for the sake of simplicity, and also the fact that it's reproduced in countless other places on the web, I'm putting the entire article below. (Reproduced without permission. Mr. Craig, please contact me and I'll remove it if you ask.)

On a side note, however, I'd like to point out to Mr. Craig, as well as anyone who takes this whole article at face value, that legitimate woe still exists in America, all her benefits aside, and that much of it is related to poverty and lack of means. Grocery stores full of abundance are amazing on the world level, but when you only have enough food stamps for twenty days worth of food, and you don't get another allotment until next month, something is wrong with the system. (We can argue about the opportunities available in America later.) That said, read on.

* * * * *

Made in the USA: Spoiled brats
Posted: November 20, 2006
1:00 am Eastern

By Craig R. Smith
© 2008

The other day I was reading Newsweek magazine and came across some poll data I found rather hard to believe. It must be true given the source, right? The same magazine that employs Michael (Qurans in the toilets at Gitmo) Isikoff. Here I promised myself this week I would be nice and I start off in this way. Oh what a mean man I am.

The Newsweek poll alleges that 67 percent of Americans are unhappy with the direction the country is headed and 69 percent of the country is unhappy with the performance of the president. In essence 2/3's of the citizenry just ain't happy and want a change.

So being the knuckle dragger I am, I starting thinking, "What we are so unhappy about?"

Is it that we have electricity and running water 24 hours a day, 7 days a week? Is our unhappiness the result of having air conditioning in the summer and heating in the winter? Could it be that 95.4 percent of these unhappy folks have a job? Maybe it is the ability to walk into a grocery store at any time and see more food in moments than Darfur has seen in the last year?

Maybe it is the ability to drive from the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic Ocean without having to present identification papers as we move through each state? Or possibly the hundreds of clean and safe motels we would find along the way that can provide temporary shelter? I guess having thousands of restaurants with varying cuisine from around the world is just not good enough. Or could it be that when we wreck our car, emergency workers show up and provide services to help all involved. Whether you are rich or poor they treat your wounds and even, if necessary, send a helicopter to take you to the hospital.

Perhaps you are one of the 70 percent of Americans who own a home, you may be upset with knowing that in the unfortunate case of having a fire, a group of trained firefighters will appear in moments and use top notch equipment to extinguish the flames thus saving you, your family and your belongings. Or if, while at home watching one of your many flat screen TVs, a burglar or prowler intrudes; an officer equipped with a gun and a bullet-proof vest will come to defend you and your family against attack or loss. This all in the backdrop of a neighborhood free of bombs or militias raping and pillaging the residents. Neighborhoods where 90 percent of teenagers own cell phones and computers.

How about the complete religious, social and political freedoms we enjoy that are the envy of everyone in the world? Maybe that is what has 67 percent of you folks unhappy.

Fact is, we are the largest group of ungrateful, spoiled brats the world has ever seen. No wonder the world loves the U.S. yet has a great disdain for its citizens. They see us for what we are. The most blessed people in the world who do nothing but complain about what we don't have and what we hate about the country instead of thanking the good Lord we live here.

I know, I know. What about the president who took us into war and has no plan to get us out? The president who has a measly 31 percent approval rating? Is this the same president who guided the nation in the dark days after 9/11? The president that cut taxes to bring an economy out of recession? Could this be the same guy who has been called every name in the book for succeeding in keeping all the spoiled brats safe from terrorist attacks? The commander in chief of an all-volunteer army that is out there defending you and me?

Make no mistake about it. The troops in Iraq and Afghanistan have volunteered to serve, and in many cases have died for your freedom. There is currently no draft in this country. They didn't have to go. They are able to refuse to go and end up with either a "general" discharge, an "other than honorable" discharge or, worst case scenario, a "dishonorable" discharge after a few days in the brig.

So why then the flat out discontentment in the minds of 69 percent of Americans? Say what you want but I blame it on the media. If it bleeds it leads and they specialize in bad news. Everybody will watch a car crash with blood and guts. How many will watch kids selling lemonade at the corner? The media knows this and media outlets are for-profit corporations. They offer what sells. Just ask why they are going to allow a murderer like O.J. Simpson to write a book and do a TV special about how he didn't kill his wife but if he did … insane!

Stop buying the negative venom you are fed everyday by the media. Shut off the TV, burn Newsweek, and use the New York Times for the bottom of your bird cage. Then start being grateful for all we have as a country. There is exponentially more good than bad.

I close with one of my favorite quotes from B.C. Forbes in 1953:

    "What have Americans to be thankful for? More than any other people on the earth, we enjoy complete religious freedom, political freedom, social freedom. Our liberties are sacredly safeguarded by the Constitution of the United States, 'the most wonderful work ever struck off at a given time by the brain and purpose of man.' Yes, we Americans of today have been bequeathed a noble heritage. Let us pray that we may hand it down unsullied to our children and theirs."

I suggest this Thanksgiving we sit back and count our blessings for all we have. If we don't, what we have will be taken away. Then we will have to explain to future generations why we squandered such blessing and abundance. If we are not careful this generation will be known as the "greediest and most ungrateful generation." A far cry from the proud Americans of the "greatest generation" who left us an untarnished legacy.

Friday, July 4, 2008

The Big '232'

Happy birthday, America.

Alright, snicker away. It was cheesy when I saw it on the bowling alley sign, and it's cheesy now. I've been teased for much cheesier things. Ang guess what? I don't really care.

Being an American is something I'm quietly but solidly proud of. I realize I take a lot for granted as an American. I didn't choose this citizenship, I was born here. I've never lived outside the country; I don't even have a passport (and being a resident of Michigan, having been to Canada doesn't count as leaving the US). I don't have a degree in political science; I barely even watch CNN. I'm very willing to admit that I'm pretty ignorant of the advantages being an American has afforded me. And 'cause I'm a nice guy, just this once, I'll open up the comments for y'all to tell me just how lucky I am, because, well...I believe you. Just call me Forrest Gump.

I am proud of the ideals on which this country was built, and continues (most of the time) to be run. I'm proud of our rugged heritage, our multiculturalism, and our historical take-no-crap attitude. I'm proud that the United States has helped keep the world free from tyranny, in whatever person or form it may manifest itself. I'm proud that I can go anywhere in this country and enjoy the same freedoms, and I'm proud that I can choose another state to live in if I don't like Michigan's laws on guns, gambling, smoking, taxes, capital punishment, or even divorce. I'm proud that I can express my dissatisfaction when and how I want to. I'm proud that through our government system, I have an equal voice in deciding what laws are passed or struck down, and in who will represent me and my personal beliefs all the way to the three main branches of government. And I'm proud that I have that voice regardless of who my parents are, how much property I own, where I was raised, what my gender and race are, what language I speak, who I consort with, how much education I have, and whether I've served in the military.

We can take turns bashing America over lots of different things, and lots of people do every day. America has lots of faults, past and present. The place isn't perfect, our laws aren't perfect, and our presidents aren't perfect (some are more imperfect than others). But today let's focus not on what we don't have, but celebrate what we do, and be thankful for it.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

One-Man Mob Mentality

Here's a good draft of something I realized a few days after writing that I'd heard before. Something about straws and a camel. I suppose by reinventing this wheel, I understand it better than the old model.

* * * * *

Everyone's heard stories of terrible events of human failure: the riots, looting, and general mass hysteria that can overtake an everyday, otherwise law-abiding member of any civilized culture. Wikipedia calls it 'herd behavior' and lists dozens of synonymous references, including bandwagon effect, crowd psychology, mob rule, swarm intelligence, and spontaneous [dis]order. But whatever anyone calls it, regardless of whether or not they've ever been caught up in it, everyone understands how it works.

I've run across a similar phenomenon that only requires a single person, and it works in a manner very similar to what we already understand. I'm calling it the One-Man Mob Mentality, or OMMM. It begins with a person being mildly annoying. If someone is grossly annoying, OMMM will not set in because any behavior that is obviously out of order will immediately draw attention to social boundaries no matter how vague or subtle. When the social offense is obvious, it is reacted to without acceptance. In order for OMMM to occur, it is important that no clear lines are crossed, and that annoying behavior is accepted on at least a probationary basis.

Now, anyone over age 10 who's ever encountered another human being will tell you that folks can be annoying, and once a person has annoyed you, you begin to make certain allowances for them. Like a rude person in a crowd, you simply start moving out of their way as they approach. Because, as Frost wrote, good fences make good neighbors, good manners dictate that we simply put up with the things some folks dish out, and therefore pretend not to be annoyed at the small things people will sometimes do.

Before I go any further, let's put this right out there: everyone has benefited from this social tendency at one time or another. Every first impression makes use of this unspoken practice. Everyone has, at one time or another, depended on exactly this reaction by others to something they unwittingly say or do, or don't realize is offensive or disruptive.

A critical part of this human interaction is the understanding that everyone does it, on both sides, and so paying attention to what you might do that mildly annoys others becomes very important. It's how you give room back. By this constant give and take process, an equilibrium can be formed between two individuals, an individual and a group, or even a convergence of several groups. As each member gives and takes to find his or her place in a micro-society such as the workplace, a dinner table with strangers, a line for concert tickets or the Sears checkout, or even a family welcoming new members, they learn to put up with each other in a very necessary way.

And that, I think, is exactly why we react that way to others when we're mildly annoyed with them. It's a big world. If we don't make some room for each other, we eventually start killing each other.

So as we move through our day-to-day interactions with each other, we do make small bits of room for those people who we have yet to understand, or at least build a tolerance or appreciation for. Sometimes, however, this process doesn't come to its logical end. Sometimes, it cascades into a catastrophic loop of insanity that makes us want to tear someone's arms out. This is OMMM, and this is how it happens.

Small annoyances that do not push the envelope are tolerated. However, instead of participating in the mutual give-take process, the annoying person doesn't return that favor of giving a little back, curtailing the annoying behavior or at least making up for it with something likable or (in the absence of anything likable) respectable. (This could be a sense of humor, a willingness to help or learn, any amount of humility, or some kind of expertise that applies to the group.) A first offense is treated as an additional mild annoyance, and more space is usually afforded to the annoying person, usually with the same reaction. Occasionally, the Annoyer can not only fail to respond in a way that will gain his or her acceptance, but make it worse with a sense of entitlement. This usually manifests by reacting as though the social space made for him or her by others is deserved, and need not be either acknowledged or returned in any way. (People with Ph.D's are infamous for this social flaw*.)

Once the series of small annoyances begins without any return, we start to build a case for disliking everything else the person does, even if, when others do it, it is in no way annoying. Examples can be the way someone walks, wears their hair, writes or says a phrase, engages in a habit, or fidgets. In this way, that original list of annoyances that we made room for becomes like a mob, driving us in a way that only chanting and mass hysteria can. Our brains rail for any response, and before long, we realize we've crossed way into the space that defines the lines of acceptable boundaries, and beyond. It is here that we find ourselves in that virtual riot, abandoning all good social sense, looting anything that might have once been salvaged in the relationship between ourselves and the Annoyer. This, my friends, is the One-Man Mob Mentality.

* This remark does not apply to any of the wonderful doctorate-holding people with whom I share my work day, or may at one time have been related to. Thag you very buch.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Dads and Kids

This is a difficult week for me.

My first Father's Day after my dad's death wasn't particularly peachy. Yes, it had most of the usual accouterments, not including breakfast in bed (due to 1. my stupid cat scratching at the door over and over in the middle of the night, and 2. my boy coming into the room at 3:30am and puking shortly thereafter), but all things considered it was your normal day of paternal tribute...with one exception: my dad.

I'm still adjusting to not having him around. I miss him. The saddest part about this is, if he'd never gotten sick, if he'd never died, I might have gone this long without seeing or really talking to him anyway, and not really thought much about it. Now that he is gone, I find myself needing him more and more, and realizing that in fact, I always needed him this much, and was always too proud, or too afraid of some reaction, or too busy to let him know it. Or to acknowledge it for myself.

A good friend shared an essay by Steve Martin with me that provided some much needed perspective. Like Steve's, my dad was very critical, angry all the time, and prone to offend any number of surrounding people at any time without warning. I also, at one point, decided I officially hated him, that I wanted him to....not die, but just...be gone from our lives so many times as a young child, so disruptive was his presence in the small world of my mom and us little kids.

However, Steve indicates that the memories of the terrible persisted until a good long time after his father's death, after which point, he "recall[ed] events that seem to contradict [his] memory of him." The same thing is starting to happen to me, but in reverse. Maybe it was my dad's long sickness that started the process of forgetting the terrible, but almost immediately after his death, I internally canonized him, carving out this huge emotional construct by which I could use my memories of him to channel my own life in a direction he'd approve of. Although I can't recall any long list of great things he did for me at this or that age, I do have trouble remembering all the things I didn't like about him, all the things that made it hurt to be his son.

Maybe that's okay. Maybe that's why I did actually write down good and bad in my pre-death posts, because I knew that not only would I forget the upsetting things, but that even those things would become fond memories after his passing. Not fond like finding a Red Rider BB gun under the tree on Christmas morning, but fond like hugging a grouchy old man because you're happy he's your dad, even if he's not always your favorite guy in the world.

The other reason this is a difficult week for me is because in only a few short days I am sending my two wonderful girls home to their families in Germany and Indonesia. Sending an exchange student home is something we've already done once, and it was hard, but he's a boy, and he didn't show his emotions, and I gave him a very manly hug and wished him well, and we watched him walk toward security until Sophia ran to him and hugged him again, and then we all cried as if in a movie. But this time will be different, because girls are...well, different. I bonded with Santos in many ways, and I still consider him mijo, but the bond between man and daughter is a strange, mysterious, and beautiful thing. I do not really understand it, Sophia being only five so far, but I know its effects fully. And now I know them triple fold. And in just a few days, two of my girls will go off into the world. Although (yes, I know) they're going back to a family and culture and world they're far more familiar with than this one we've shared with them, it is nevertheless a family and culture and world without US, and they leave our home without THEM, and that loss will be felt a very long time. Fortunately, the joy we have had while they have been here will last even longer, as we have found with Santos, and knowing the three of them are out there in the world, little pieces of us in them, and them in us, makes that joy last forever.