Charity Nebbe

 

Charity Nebbe
by: Dustin Joy

Note: In case you are wondering; yes, this post was approved by my dear wife. 

 

I am obsessed with Charity Nebbe. In case you don’t know who Charity Nebbe is, I will tell you. Charity is a public radio host and the on-air personality for the show Iowa Ingredient. She is smart and clever. She has a playful wit and an infectious laugh. She listens politely and says intelligent, insightful things. Charity is pretty. She might not be considered beautiful in a shallow, conventional, commercial sense. She has a generous, natural nose that is to me, superior to those rhinoplastied monstrosities we see so often on TV. She has short, pixyish hair, giving her a flirty, devil-may-care look. She is thin but with just the tiniest bulge of a belly as if to say, “sure, I go to the gym,” but I’m not one of those “I go to the gym people.”

Charity is a vegetarian, but not a preachy one. She’s written a children’s book, and…get this… she won an Emmy. Well, okay, a regional Emmy. Charity is an Iowa girl. She lives on a farm near Kalona, with her two kids and her … baker husband. He’s a baker. Not that there is anything wrong with that. God knows loaves must be baked and someone must bake them. So what if he wears an apron?

Charity was born in 1975 which makes her only five (or six …or seven) years younger than me. She grew up in Cedar Falls and attended Iowa State University majoring in Political Science and Biology. I majored in Biology with a concentration in Political Science. I know, right? Charity went on to a successful career in radio. With her undeniable good looks and irrepressible joie de vivre, the move to television was inevitable. Each week on IPTV she gives Iowa, finally, something to be proud of.

Now I know you are asking, “how does he know all these cool things about Charity Nebbe?” or, perhaps, “why does he know all these cool things about Charity Nebbe?” It’s not because I have stalked her. Parenthetically, that is really unfair of you to think that. I just did a little research on Wikipedia, that’s all. My interest is a healthy interest, literally. Ive learned a lot from Iowa Ingredient. I’ve learned about the merits of arugula, kale, and organic honey. I’m a better person for my obsession.

And here’s the thing. I am married. I am happily married and have been for 26 years. I love my wife with all my heart. I’m not at all suggesting that I would leave her and my beloved, beloved kids to run away with Charity Nebbe to a cabin in the high Sierras where we would hike and paddle around mountain lakes in kayaks and eat wild chanterelles which Charity would sauté up with a little garlic and thyme wearing that cute apron.… I would not do that.

But my wife and I have a deal. If, hypothetically, the rock star and Coldplay frontman Chris Martin shows up at our front door in Illinois City and asks my wife to come away with him to the south of France I, as a good husband, would step aside and … go back in and watch Iowa Ingredient. Likewise, and it’s only fair when you think about it, if Charity Nebbe someday recognizes that her glamorous life as a public television star is hollow and meaningless and that her …baker…husband does not adore her like…well, like his precious crescent rolls…then.

I think I have a perfectly acceptable, not-at-all weird obsession with Charity Nebbe. I watch her show. I know things about Charity that I do not know about Jaques Pepin or Mara Liasson. So what? I care, for some reason, that Charity raises chickens and that she once went sky-diving. I really don’t care how much marijuana Rick Steves smokes. Why is that? Is it okay to Google Charity Nebbe? Would it be okay to write her a fan letter? Does it matter that I am a middle-aged man? Why? If I were a teenage boy with a poster of Ariana Grande on my wall that would be okay. But if I’m an adult man with a life-size poster of Charity Nebbe on my wall (and I’m not saying such a poster exists) am I eccentric?

Maybe this obsession is like my infatuation with geocaching. Maybe it is a little stranger, like my brief devotion to the discography of Glen Campbell. Both were harmless and transitory. Charity Nebbe is a real, live person, though. It’s not that Glen Campbell wasn’t a real person. But a superstar is really more of an abstraction and, ultimately, it was just Wichita Lineman, Galveston, and By the Time I get to Phoenix that rattled around in my iPod for a time. I was really more obsessed with Jimmy Webb than Glen Campbell.

I could download episodes of Iowa Ingredient I suppose and study them like the Zapruder film. That is a tolerable eccentricity. If I drive past Charity’s house, though, that is a different thing, maybe? If I call her at work or write her a letter that is odd? Probably. If I meet her outside her office with a heart-shaped box of candy I’ve probably crossed some kind of line. Women, in our culture, have put up with this sort of bullshit in a way that most men never will.

The news today is full of men behaving badly, and stupidly, in the company of women. Certainly these things run on a continuum. There’s Jimmy Carter, who admitted to “lusting in his heart” and then there is Donald Trump who, you know, said all the things he said…and continues to say…and continues to say. There is normal, and then there is deviant. But where, exactly is that line?

I suspect every person becomes obsessed with another person at some point in their lives. These interests are usually controlled. You are a “fan” or you have a “man-crush” or you “really enjoy the company of” so-and-so. You might know that Mark in accounting is an avid cyclist. But a “normal” person doesn’t fish Mark’s discarded chewing gum out of the garbage can when he leaves the room.

I once had a co-worker who followed the Moody Blues around the world, spending, by her own estimate $50,000 on travel and concert tickets. She was clearly obsessed with Justin Hayward in a way that was unhealthy. Or was it? It appeared to make her life richer and, at worst, constituted an occasional nuisance to the Justin Hayward. Until it doesn’t. It is that “until it doesn’t” that is the problem.

I don’t think I’m crazy. I will never pursue a relationship of any kind with Charity Nebbe. I predict that my interest in her will fade like my devotion to Hemingway’s short stories, my crush on Pam Dawber, and geocaching.The only question that troubles me is this; does the unhealthy obsessive know when he crosses that line? Does the devoted fan recognize when he becomes a scary creep? I fear that, at some point, he does not. That is the scary part, scary to the obsessive, but scarier by far, to the target.

Distilled Arguments

Distilled Arguments

The world is a complicated place. Determining the facts, figuring out the truth, making the fine distinctions necessary to alight on the right course of action, these are difficult things. They call for free inquiry, diligent research, the application of logic, and a thorough challenge in the free market of ideas. At least that’s what I think.

Our President and his administration see things differently. Their world is a small, simple place where the opinion of every redneck in a pickup truck is equal to that of a PhD in physics. In their minds all political arguments can be formulated from a bible verse (mostly Leviticus), a twangy country song, or a Fox News ticker.

Not only have the President and his cronies done away with free inquiry and the thorough vetting of facts, he has even made a mockery of the need to explain and justify his positions. Our complicated world and all that is in it must now be distilled down to a nasty 140 character screed from the Chief Executive of our nation.

Question: Compared to other Presidents, how did Barak Obama carry out his duties during his first term? Was he an effective leader? Was he a good steward of our resources and talents as a nation? Did he advance our nation’s purposes on the world stage? Was he a steady and sane force for good? How did the economy perform under his leadership? What do the data and statistics say?

These are all great and necessary questions for determining the direction our democracy should take in the future. Here is what Mr. Trump reduced these questions to:

“Obama is, without question, the WORST EVER president. I predict he will now do something really bad and totally stupid to show manhood!”

The irony is so rich it makes Scrooge McDuck look like Mother Theresa.

Apparently those of us who value education and science and the pleasure of intellectual inquiry have lost. We who find beauty in a cleverly and subtly woven argument cannot compete with the President’s literal mind and lightning-fast thumb. SAD!!!!!!

I surrender. I concede that the American public will not sit still for complicated explanations. Our eyes glaze over at anything short of fireworks if it lasts longer than a YouTube video. But the problem is, I still like philosophical questions. I still believe in science and investigation and free inquiry. What is a boy to do?

Here is what I’m gonna try. Without much confidence I am going to take a swing at dumbing down some complicated political and scientific ideas I have spent years trying to understand. I have not been able to get them down to 140 characters but most of these will be shorter than a YouTube video of guys kicking each other in the balls. I call these DISTILLED ARGUMENTS. I’m thinking of making this an occasional series. I’ll start with a pair of contentious ones. Here goes:


EVOLUTION:

This is an easy one, I think, the no-brainer which generated our enormous brains. Here is the argument for evolution in seven lines.

  1. Offspring tend to have a combination of the physical characteristics of their parents. (Well, Duh!)

2. In every generation fewer offspring survive than are born. (Duh, again)

3. The ones who survive are the ones who reproduce. (Duh, Duh, and Duh)

4. In limited environments (all known environments) some individuals will be more successful than others. Those are the ones who survive and reproduce.

5. The next generation will be made up of the offspring of these survivors.

6. Repeat this process for thousands or millions of generations and you have a population made up of individuals well adapted to their environment.

7. That is evolution in a nutshell and it is not complicated or unlikely. It is simple and it is inevitable.

 

 


Next, a political argument. Everyone I have ever met in Canada thinks this is a no-brainer (and I’ve met quite a few.) If you disagree I would love to hear your thoughtful, well-reasoned argument.

 

WHY WE SHOULD HAVE A SINGLE PAYER HEALTHCARE SYSTEM:

1. People should not die because they are poor. People should not be bankrupted because they get sick. If you cannot accept these two assertions as axiomatic I will acknowledge the intellectual consistency of your argument but I can never find common ground with you. I cannot teach you to care about other people and show empathy.

2. If you accept the above premises you have accepted, unambiguously, the proposition that providing the best health care possible to all Americans is somebody’s obligation.

3. It’s our obligation. There’s nobody here but us chickens. We Americans need health care. We are the ones who must provide it. That means taxes, or premiums, or whatever you want to call them.

4. The cost of doctors and nurses and hospitals may be “too much” but they contribute to the goal of using the resources available to provide healthcare to all Americans.

5. Insurance Companies, conversely, who must make a profit for shareholders, do nothing but take resources away from the system.

6. While for-profit insurance drains the system of resources the concept of “insurance,” spreading the risk over the entire American population, makes perfect sense.

7. An insurance pool of the entire population paid for by the entire population is, in fact, the most efficient possible model for providing healthcare to all citizens.

8. People who are healthy now but do not buy insurance are parasites on the system. There is nothing noble about them because every single person requires healthcare at some point in his life.

9. Finally, I have to address the boogie-man of rationing. Rationing will and currently does exist in every healthcare delivery model on the planet. In our current system for-profit insurance companies do the rationing and have, of course, the incentive to ration coverage aggressively. A government payer system would have to ration care, also, but without the incentive to make a profit could base such decisions on science and logic and compassion. And, if people were unhappy with the way the government was carrying out this responsibility, we could vote them out of office. Try voting the President of United Healthcare out of his office.

Nuff said.

 

I will have more distilled arguments in the future. If you think I’m off base or mistaken I’d love to hear from you. Give me a comment.

 

by: Dustin Joy

Checkmate

Since I was a little boy I have believed that showing off, tooting your own horn, or otherwise bragging was improper and unseemly. But …. Since a man as classy and esteemed as our President does this on a daily (minutely?) basis perhaps I can be forgiven one little lapse.

For the last three years I have entered the River City Reader Short Fiction contest. The real challenge is embodied by the word “short.” All pieces must be less than 300 words and incorporate a writing prompt from literature selected by the River City Reader editors. For most writers (who can’t shut up by their very nature) cutting a story to 300 words can be a real heartbreaker. Sometimes editing can feel like ripping the guts out of a beloved idea. It is good practice, though, and frequently results in a better product.

The first year I entered I got an honorable mention for my story A Hero – of a sort. Last year I did not place, but had my story Chicory printed on the Reader’s website. This year (drum roll please) …I WON! Amazing! Against obviously superior entries my little story called Checkmate got first place. I credit the clever title, suggested by my friend Gregg.

The story, I think, is about marriage. It is about the kind of loving, respectful, yet playful traditions that evolve in a long relationship. These little rituals become the cement which bond the couple together and strengthen both to allow them to weather life’s storms. This couple, both book lovers, obviously has a long history of arguing about literature and promoting their own favorite authors. This is one such episode.

2017 Short Fiction Contest Winners

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Note: For those of you not familiar with the authors referenced, here is a little primer.

The first quote offered is from Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part II, Act 3. His retort that she is a “saucy minx” sounds a lot like Shakespeare and originates in that era but I couldn’t find any evidence that it was his. The most recent use of the term I know of is by Prime Minister Hugh Grant in one of my favorite movies, Love Actually, in reference to Margaret Thatcher.

The second quote is from Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms. The longer quote is better but I had to abbreviate it for the contest because 300 words is 300 words. It reads:

“If people bring so much courage to this world the world has to kill them to break them, so of course it kills them. The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.”

It killed Hemingway, of course, which is referenced later in the story. He shot himself in 1961 with his favorite pigeon gun.

The third quote, “Women have served all these centuries as looking glasses reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size,” is from the wonderful but troubled British writer Virginia Woolf. She authored Mrs. Dalloway, To the Lighthouse, and Waves. This quote comes from her brilliant essay A Room of One’s Own which argues the need for “room” for women in our male-dominated literary canon.

After struggling for many years with depression Woolf killed herself in 1941 by filling her coat pockets with stones and walking into the Ouse River in Sussex, England.

The last two quotes are from my favorite author, Mark Twain. The first is from A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court  which was one of the writing prompts for the contest. The second is from Extracts from Adam’s Diary which was Twain’s humorous take on Genesis. In the book Adam is at first perplexed and annoyed by the arrival of the first woman, Eve, finding her difficult to live with. Ultimately, he finds he cannot live without her.

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Checkmate
by: Dustin Joy

She ran her arthritic fingers through his wispy hair. The infusion pump clicked. There was a far-off rattling of a candy striper’s cart.

His breathing suddenly ceased to be metronomic, punctuated now with little clearings of the throat.

She laid her book down. “You awake?” Silence. “Are you okay?”

He spoke without opening his eyes. “A man can die but once; we owe God a death.”

“You’re not dying. It’s a hernia.”

He groaned.

She laughed. “You thought you’d trip me up with … Shakespeare?”

“All right, you saucy minx.” His eyes opened slowly. “The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places.”

“Do you want some ice chips?”

“Ice chips? You’re stalling.”

“Please, you think I don’t recognize that old misogynist?”

“Papa Hemingway? Take that back or I swear I’ll relapse into my coma.”

She considered for a minute. “Women have served all these centuries as looking glasses reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size.”

He smirked. “Well, Virginia Woolf says you’re not doing your job. And rocks in your pockets? A real man uses a shotgun”

“Your point being that Virginia Woolf wasn’t a real man?”

He stroked his chin. “Inherited ideas are a curious thing, and interesting to observe and examine.” He smiled wickedly. “Gotcha!”

“Nice try, but at least Twain was a feminist. He threw off inherited ideas and spoke for suffrage. How about you?”

She kissed him on the forehead and he sighed.

“Since I’m dying, do you want to hear my favorite Twain quote?” he asked. “It’s from Adam’s Diary.”

“Okay.” She looked intrigued, but wary.

“I see that I was mistaken about Eve; it is better to live outside the Garden with her than inside it without her.”

She smiled. “I like that one.”

 

 

 

Hamilton – A Review (of the soundtrack. I still can’t afford Broadway tickets.)

 

For the last few months I’ve been part of a local writers group and it has inspired me to explore different forms of writing. I’ve now written short stories, non-fiction essays, even poetry. This is my first try at a review. 

 

HAMILTON

A few years ago we drilled a new water well at our house. When I say we, of course, I mean that we hired a crew of professional drillers to do it for us. While I did not turn even a spadeful of earth, I found that I could sit for hours and watch these masters of their craft at work.

As they emerged from the ground on steel cables, the heavy lengths of pipe would be casually tossed over the shoulder of the hoist operator and would arc around his back and be guided smoothly and apparently effortlessly into the rack by his assistant. Any one of these 1000 pound chunks could maim, cripple or kill in an instant. These men knew their business. They knew the physics involved in every step even if they had never drawn a vector diagram. They were masters of their art. Watching a master work is one of the great pleasures of life, as far as I’m concerned.

I have never considered myself a Broadway guy. I worked on the lighting crew for Godspell in high school but if more recently, I had won tickets to see Rent on Let’s Make a Deal I might have asked to trade it for curtain #2. Also, I seem to have a powerful curmudgeonly aversion to anything that is suddenly “must see.” When the crowd is surging one direction, I am usually lurching in the other. So it was with great skepticism and out of respect for her feelings that I let my daughter play and sing for me a few of the songs from the Broadway phenomenon called Hamilton. “Pffft! A rap version of the life of a more or less obscure founding father. Yeah, that must be great.”

I will grudgingly have to tell you: It is !@#$% GREAT!

Taking in Lin Manuel Miranda’s play is like watching a ballet, or in my vernacular, watching a couple of really talented guys drill a well. The music is masterful. He makes it look easy. But the songs are complex with layers of meaning and each interacts with and builds upon the preceding songs. Miranda’s songs draw you into the story. You find yourself suddenly invested in the lives of people who are dead two centuries. You catch yourself getting choked up about the plight of a former Secretary of the Treasury. You find yourself rooting for the ostensible villain, Aaron Burr. You are made to care about the women, Eliza, Angelica, Peggy, and Theodosia, who made these founding fathers what they were but never got the credit. I don’t know what you can say about someone who can take a Broadway skeptic and have him humming “talk less, smile more, don’t let them know what you’re against or what you’re for” as he walks through an airport. Lin Manuel Miranda drills a mean well.

The story of Alexander Hamilton’s life is compelling. It has been told before, of course, in history books and biographies. We look at his face nearly every day on the ten dollar bill, though most could not say what he did to earn that honor. Miranda’s genius, aside from songwriting of course, was to recognize a good story when he heard one and to retell it in a way which is fundamentally true but which also distills the battles of a lifetime into an understandable and digestible morality play.

An example is worth a thousand explanations:
Hamilton is blackmailed, at the height of his powers, by the husband of the woman he has had an affair with. Not one man in ten-thousand would do, in that circumstance, what Hamilton did: he openly published an account of the affair to undercut the blackmailer. This is a truly unique and fascinating episode which reveals a unique and fascinating personality. It requires some unpacking as to motivations and consequences. Hamilton stopped the blackmail at the expense of his wife, his children, and his career. The approach turns out to be consistent with his history, and his hard-headed principles, while it would be unthinkable for a modern celebrity, say Bill Clinton, to take this approach.

Miranda captures and distills this story masterfully into the song The Reynolds Pamphlet. He opens with whispered voices saying “Have you read this?” This sets the salacious tone. The song, two minutes and nine seconds long, progresses quickly to the taunting voices of Hamilton’s antagonists Thomas Jefferson and James Madison singing “never gonna be President now. Never gonna be President now. That’s one less thing to worry about.” In these lines Miranda speaks to the complexity of Hamilton’s relationship with his fellow founding fathers and invites the question: who has one less thing to worry about, Jefferson or Hamilton? The next heart-rending verse is sung by Hamilton’s sister-in-law and long-time confidant Angelica, as she dresses him down and leaves him twisting in the wind with the phrase “I’m not here for you” and “you can never be satisfied! God I hope you’re satisfied!” It ends with the powerful final phrase uttered again by the uncomprehending crowd “Have you ever seen somebody ruin his own life? His poor wife.”

Hamilton’s behavior would be incomprehensible to us here, except for the beautiful and haunting song Hurricane which precedes it. If past is prologue as Shakespeare says, Hurricane, explains Hamilton’s particular devotion to the idea that the truth will set him free and to his confidence that he could explain things, to the nation and to his wife, through his writing.

Hurricane is somber, opening with spare, low piano chords, accompanied by Miranda’s (Hamilton’s) pain-filled voice telling the story of his traumatic childhood on the small, poor Caribbean island of Nevis. His father had abandoned the family early in his life and his mother died when he was 12. Miranda’s powerful verse “She was holding me. We were sick and she was holding me,” encapsulates, in 12 words, much of what we need to know about the tragedies that shaped Hamilton’s view of the world and established his recurring insecurities which he confronted with hard work and “excellence.”

As in all his songs, Miranda’s metaphors are beautiful and poignant here. The hurricane which destroys his town when he is 17 offers him his first opportunity to “rise up” from his squalid condition and to show the world what he is capable of through writing. At that tender age, he wrote an account of the hurricane which was published in newspapers and brought him to the attention of community leaders on his home island. The song’s refrain “I wrote my way out,” begins a powerful momentum at this point which replaces the somber opening. One senses, as Hamilton must have, that his ability to “write it all down” was his salvation, from a real hurricane, and later from the metaphorical one that surrounded him when his enemies discovered the affair and subsequent blackmail. “I’ll write my way out, overwhelm them with honesty. This is the eye of the hurricane. This is the only way I can protect my legacy.”

Perhaps the saddest part of the song is the naiveté revealed by Hamilton’s confidence that other people hold and respect his principles as well. If not one in ten-thousand would respond to this crisis as Hamilton did, not one a thousand would understand and forgive his forthright confession. At the end of the song, as he contemplates writing the Reynold’s Pamphlet there is a swelling crowd of voices urging him to “Wait for it. Wait for it. Wait for it.” It is a foreshadowing, really, of the collision with Burr that costs him his life. He seems to be asking “How can anyone object to what I’m saying, controversial or not, as long as it is true?” His audience, the readers of the Reynold’s Pamphlet, obviously did object, as did Burr seven years later, about the “truths” Hamilton told about him.

If Hamilton is a morality play, as I have suggested, it is a hazy and troubling one. It would be facile here to sketch Burr as the Snidley Whiplash of the play; he is a killer, after all. But Miranda captures the reality that there is seldom a white hat and a black hat in human interactions. In the song The World Was Wide Enough Burr sings, not in his own defense, but resignedly “He may have been the first one to die, but I’m the one who paid for it. I survived but I paid for it. Now I’m the villain in your history. I was too young and blind to see. I should have known. I should have known the world was wide enough for Hamilton and me.” Burr is not Snidley Whiplash and Hamilton was no Dudley Do-Right. They are friends, even admirers of each other in the beginning. As years go by and water passes under the bridge, their relationship is sabotaged by their own stubborn and disparate philosophies and by the magnitude of the dramas that envelope them.

Leslie Odom Jr.’s Burr is a complex character. He is a man of high ambition but a cautious nature. His trademark motto “Talk less, smile more” is reiterated in no fewer than four of the songs, by himself in Aaron Burr, Sir and The Election of 1800, by George Washington in One Last Time, and even by Hamilton himself, reluctantly in The Room Where it Happens. His personal philosophy, “work hard, keep your head down, and good things will happen to you,” seems to pay off for him early on. He is elected to the New York State Assembly, appointed New York Attorney General, and ultimately elected to the U.S. Senate, replacing Hamilton’s Father-in-law Philip Schuyler. The one and only time he embraces Hamilton’s hard-driving philosophy, in The Election of 1800, it leads to his downfall.

Hamilton’s philosophy is very different. If Burr’s is “keep your head down” Hamilton’s is “stick your neck out.” He is vociferous and bombastic. He says what he thinks always and frequently draws the ire of his rivals, and as we know, eventually his friends, notably Burr. Burr admires Hamilton’s work ethic but scorns his headstrong ways. He expresses both in the song Nonstop. He sings, “Why do you always say what you believe? Every proclamation guarantees free ammunition for your enemies.”

Hamilton retorts in the song The Room Where it Happens.
“When you got skin in the game, stay in the game. But you don’t get a win unless you play in the game. Oh, you get love for it. You get hate for it. But you get nothin’ if you wait for it, wait for it.” The verse is a direct taunting challenge to Burr’s contemplative song Wait for It.

Wait for It, to me, is one of the most beautiful and enlightening pieces in the musical. It reads like a mantra that Burr repeats to himself, justifying his actions and inactions. Despite his ambition, Burr is afraid to take a chance and therefore passes up opportunities. He believes, honestly, that prudence is his way forward. His self-catechism carries him through the first few verses as his confidence in his own strategy augments with his successes:“I am the one thing in life I can control. I am inimitable, I am an original. I am not falling behind or running late. I am not standing still, I am lying in wait.”

His confidence flags in the middle as he contemplates Hamilton’s success. “Hamilton faces an endless uphill climb. He has something to prove. He has nothing to lose.” That’s not me, he seems to say. I am a Senator. I have a successful law practice.

The repetition of his mantra in the chorus, “Wait for it! Wait for it! Wait for it!” doesn’t ultimately assuage his burning envy of Hamilton’s reckless, but successful, methods. He grudgingly acknowledges the method of Hamilton’s madness:

Hamilton doesn’t hesitate
He exhibits no restraint
He takes and he takes and he takes.
And he keeps winning anyway
He changes the game
He plays and he raises the stakes.
And if there’s a reason
He seems to thrive when so few survive, then Goddamnit, I’m willing to wait for it.

Miranda has spoken about writing Wait For It:
“I think we’ve all had moments where we’ve seen friends and colleagues zoom past us, either to success, or to marriage, or to homeownership, while we lingered where we were—broke, single, jobless. And you tell yourself, “Wait for it.”

Burr tells himself that, until, ultimately, he no longer believes it. It is a bitter revelation and he concludes the song confused, shaken, and uncertain of what he believes.

Life doesn’t discriminate
Between the sinners and the saints
It takes and it takes and it takes
And we keep living anyway
We rise and we fall and we break
And we make our mistakes
And if there’s a reason I’m still alive
When so many have died
I’m willing to
wait for it.

There is comedy here as well as tragedy. Miranda is a master of both. His Message from the King monologs are extravagant tongue-in-cheek works of art. They provide the needed history lesson again in the form of an efficient metaphor, the breakup of a relationship. The talented Jonathan Groff portrays a flamboyant King George III. In the first of the monologs, called You’ll be Back he plays the part of the spurned boyfriend who is irked, but also heartbroken that his “loyal subjects” are no longer so loyal.

You say,
the price of my love’s not a price that your willing to pay.
You cry,
in your tea which you hurl in the sea when you see me go by.
Why so sad?
Remember we made an arrangement when you went away.
Now you’re making me mad.
Remember despite our estrangement, I’m your man.
You’ll be back, soon you’ll see,
You’ll remember you belong to me,
You’ll be back. Time will tell,
You’ll remember that I served you well.
Oceans rise, empires fall.
We have seen each other through it all,
And when push comes to shove,
I will send a fully armed battalion to remind you of my love.

There are several clever little historical tidbits in these pieces in addition to the reference to the Boston Tea party. The final verse of You’ll be back includes a reference to George III’s mental illness in his later years.

When you’re gone, I’ll go mad.
So don’t throw away this thing we had,
Cause when push comes to shove,
I will kill your friends and family to remind you of my love.

 

From the follow up song I Know Him there is reference to George Washington’s precedent-setting refusal to run for a third term as President. “They say, George Washington’s yielding his power and stepping away. Is that true? I wasn’t aware that was something a person could do.”

And, finally, in the song What Comes Next King George nurses his wounds about losing the war:

They say,
The price of my war’s not a price that they’re willing to pay.
Insane!
You cheat with the French, now I’m fighting with France and with Spain,
I’m so blue,
I thought that we made an arrangement when you went away.
You were mine to subdue.
Well, even despite our estrangement, I got a small query for you,
What comes next? You’ve been freed.
Do you know how hard it is to lead?
You’re on your own. Awesome! Wow!
Do you have a clue what happens now?
Oceans rise, empires fall,
It’s much harder when it’s all your call.
All alone, across the sea,
When your people say they hate you, don’t come crawling back to me.

When I reflect on the importance of this musical, I come back again and again to Miranda’s metaphors. They are efficient and masterful. Each one provides a perfect brick in the edifice of Hamilton, building a complex and intriguing story of ambition and pride, of loss and sorrow, and, ultimately, a questionable redemption. The metaphors make this play and deserve a final review.

Hurricane – a literal hurricane, surely, but also representing the self-inflicted storms of Hamilton’s life.

The Room Where it Happens – A brilliant metaphor for Hamilton’s (and Burr’s) powerful ambition to play a role in the shaping of the new nation.

I am not Throwing Away My Shot – The expounding of Hamilton’s carpe diem philosophy which is cleverly integrated with the two duels central to the story – the one in which his son was killed and the one in which he was.

Wait for It – Previously explored above.

Quiet Uptown – A beautiful meditation on death and sorrow, and dealing with them.

If you like musicals, or perhaps even if you don’t, if you are a history buff, or even if you’re not, Hamilton is a pleasure and an education. Miranda, of course, has taken liberties with the historical record. The story is true to the spirit of the feud which led to Hamilton’s death at Burr’s hands, but alters slightly the details. He inserts Burr and Jefferson into the episode called We Know about Hamilton’s Democratic-Republican enemies confronting him about the Reynolds Affair. They probably weren’t there really, but it is a minor offense and certainly moves the narrative forward more smoothly.

Thanks to Hamilton many more Americans will know about their history than do now. Will that knowledge be perfect and comprehensive? – no. But neither is history perfect and comprehensive. Hamilton is a work of art, a well-drilled well, brought to us by a master at the top of his craft. I will still admit to being a Broadway skeptic, but I’m learning. Anyone got tickets to Kinky Boots?

By: Dustin Joy

Don’t Piss On My Leg And Tell Me It’s Raining

“Don’t piss on my leg and tell me it’s raining.” It is a lovely and efficient idiom. To me it expresses, in ten words, what every intelligent and thoughtful American should want to say to Donald Trump.

It must be obvious at this point that this man Trump has no regard for truth. He lies as easily and naturally as he takes breath. That is not unique in the field of politics. What is remarkable, and possibly unique, is the audacity with which he will lie about things that can be proven, with no very hard effort, to be false. In another essay I spoke of his pathological insistence that he won the biggest electoral vote count since Ronald Reagan. As I noted then, a fifth grader with a smart phone could have pronounced Trump a liar within 3/5ths of a second. Why lie about something when you know you will be caught? The only reason to do so is because, in today’s bizarre America, it seems to work. It works with a remarkable coalition of our fellow citizens: the extremely gullible, racist xenophobes, and the unprincipled opportunists of the Republican party.

The gullible and the xenophobes require no further explanation. In a sense they are, at least, consistent. The really troubling folks are the Republicans who are smart enough to understand what a charlatan Donald Trump is but refuse to denounce him. They are whatever the opposite of patriotic is. They tolerate him and prop him up with tacit approval because they want things. What do they want? They want what Republicans always want and they are willing to put their country at risk to get it.

Here Come the Tax Cuts

Nobody likes paying taxes. Nobody gets a little anticipatory thrill about the approach of April 15. But, if we are honest and rational, we know that paying our taxes is a patriotic act. It is not the kind of patriotism exhibited by serving two tours of duty in Afghanistan, surely. But it is much more of a sacrifice to our country than is sticking a “Support our Troops” bumper sticker on the back of your pickup. Why? Because it is, quite literally, supporting our troops.

Since 1974 it has been an article of faith in the Republican Party that cutting taxes on the rich not only stimulates economic growth but also generates more revenue for the government. Famously, the economist Art Laffer drew a graph on a napkin in a Washington, D.C. restaurant which established this idea and made disciples out of the Ford administration officials in attendance, notably Dick Cheney. The Laffer curve, as it became known, caught on quickly in Republican circles primarily because it was simple. Economist Hal Varian observed, “It has been said that the popularity of the Laffer curve is due to the fact that you can explain it to a congressman in six minutes and he can talk about it for six months.”

The graph purports to show tax revenues to the government as a function of tax rates. Shaped like a woman’s breast the curve shows revenue increasing as tax rates increase and then declining again as rates enter what Laffer called “The prohibitive range.” The idea is simple; the more you tax, the more money you take in. But at some point taxation will become onerous and one of two things will occur to decrease revenue – either people will stop working and corporations will shut down or taxpayers will find increasingly clever ways to cheat on their taxes. Therefore, Laffer determined, cutting tax rates below the prohibitive range will generate more revenue. Cheney was convinced. Reagan made a religion out of the Laffer curve. It suited Republican ambitions since they had always wanted lower taxes for the rich anyway. They actually put the infamous napkin in the National Museum of American History at the Smithsonian.

The Laffer Curve – The Napkin which caused much of the U.S. National Debt

In principle Laffer was right. There probably is some tax rate at which a point of diminishing returns is reached. What the Laffer curve probably isn’t, is a nice, symmetrical C-Cup. It’s possible that it really resembles a wave crest on the ocean, or, as some economists have speculated, a certain part of the male anatomy.

While Laffer’s disciples saw his curve as a revelation the truth is that as a guide to establishing optimum tax rates it is useless. If you look at Laffer’s napkin you will see a common coordinate graph with an x axis and a y axis. What you don’t see are units. The only numbers that appear on the graph, in fact, are the tax rates 0% and 100%. While the graph on the napkin appears to peak at around 50% taxation the sketch was not based on empirical data. The difficulty in applying the Laffer curve to real world economics is simply this: 1. Nobody knows where the prohibitive range begins and 2. Nobody knows where we are on the curve.

The truth is that Republicans don’t really care about deficits or the national debt anyway, unless Democrats are in power. When they take the reigns they want two things, increased military spending and tax cuts, preferably “huge” tax cuts. All their tea-party deficit rhetoric dissolves into thin air when they get into power.

Since Republicans don’t really care about maximizing tax revenues to keep the deficit down the Laffer curve is to them a cynical rhetorical tool. They want lower taxes on the rich. Therefore, when they enlist the Laffer curve to serve their political cause they simply assume, no matter the current rate, that we are in the prohibitive range and tax cuts are needed.

Thus in 1979, when Reagan used the Laffer curve as a club to bludgeon those “tax and spend” Democrats, the top marginal rate in the United States was 70%. That seems high, but it was nothing like the top rate during the booming economy of the Eisenhower years – 91%.

During the middle of Bill Clinton’s time in office, in 1996, the top marginal rate was 39.6%, a little more than half the rates of the 1970’s when Laffer drew his curve. Still, George W. Bush, and a certain Vice-President of his whom we have met before in our narrative, convinced the country that, once again, miraculously, those “Tax and spend Liberals” had us back in the “prohibitive” range. They cut the top marginal rate to 35% and would have liked more. For the second time in modern history the Republicans proved, though they didn’t mean to, that cutting tax rates doesn’t increase revenues. The deficit skyrocketed under Reagan when he cut taxes, and did it again under Bush when he cut taxes while simultaneously spending trillions on a war in Iraq.

Now Trump and Mnuchin and McConnell and Ryan want to try it again. Although each, over the last 8 years, has given earnest and ominous speeches about the danger of deficits and the cruel burden they lay on “our children,” the crack cocaine of tax cuts simply overwhelms their fiscal “conservatism.” Just because Laffer’s brilliant scheme didn’t work at 70% taxation, or at 39% taxation, or at 35% taxation, … or ever, doesn’t mean it won’t work this time. It’s such a pretty chart and so easy to explain.

The Wikipedia article on income inequality in the United States offers a pretty good overview of the absurdity and cynicism of Republican ideas.

The top 1% of households received approximately 20% of the pre-tax income in 2013, versus approximately 10% from 1950 to 1980.

The bottom 50% earned 20% of the nation’s pre-tax income in 1979; this fell steadily to 14% by 2007 and 13% by 2014. Income for the middle 40% group, a proxy for the middle class, fell from 45% in 1979 to 41% in both 2007 and 2014.

To put this change into perspective, if the US had the same income distribution it had in 1979, each family in the bottom 80% of the income distribution would have $11,000 more per year in income on average, or $916 per month.

According to Republicans the super rich, like our current President, whose incomes have surged while the lower and middle classes have stagnated, deserve a break, yet again.

So how do you sell tax cuts for the rich to a society in which the top 1% of Americans control 40 percent of the nations wealth? How do you justify to them a world in which the richest 85 people on the planet (30 of whom are American Billionaires) have more wealth than the poorest 3.8 Billion people. How do you convince a working class voter that the CEO of his company who earns 347 times his salary is suffering from overtaxation? You piss on his leg and tell him it’s raining!

You lie and you obfuscate and you misrepresent. And if there is data that contradicts your assertions, you erase them from the official record. According to a Sept. 28, 2017 Wall Street Journal article:

“The Treasury Department has taken down [from it’s website] a 2012 economic analysis that contradicts Secretary Steven Mnuchin’s argument that workers would benefit the most from a corporate income tax cut. The 2012 paper from the Office of Tax Analysis found that workers pay 18% of the corporate tax while owners of capital pay 82%. That is a breakdown in line with many economists’ views.”

So, when the billionaire who has been pissing on your leg for the last two years says it looks like rain, don’t believe him. And don’t believe his minions either. Gary Cohn, Trump’s economic advisor said, recently, “The wealthy are not getting a tax cut under our plan.” That is pure piss and you don’t have to be an economist to understand that.

The Trump tax cuts, “the biggest in history,” according to Trump, have 6 main components. 1. Cutting the corporate tax rate from 35% to 20%. 2. Cutting top marginal rates. 3. Eliminating the estate tax. 4. Repeal of the alternative minimum tax. 5. A new tax loophole for “pass-through” income. 6. An exemption for corporate foreign profits.

You can debate the merits of any one of these proposals if you want, but the idea that they together do not represent a massive tax cut for the wealthy is simply and clearly a lie.

Trump’s other foundational lie about his tax cut plan is that it will not, like Reagan’s tax cuts and Bush’s tax cuts, blow the deficit sky high. According to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin “We think this tax plan will cut down the deficits by a trillion dollars.” This is the Laffer curve again and it is pure piss. Even if you are the type of conservative who kneels down five times a day to pray to the napkin you must realize that there is no way Laffer’s “prohibitive range” starts at 35%. Cutting taxes now will not increase federal revenues and will, most assuredly, explode the deficit.

Finally, in a recent speech Trump said this about his tax cut scheme, “I’m doing the right thing, and it’s not good for me. Believe me.” also, “I don’t benefit. I don’t benefit, In fact, very, very strongly, as you see, I think there’s very little benefit for people of wealth.”

A Sep. 28, 2017 New York Times article, based on Trump’s estimated net worth and 2005 tax return (the only one available), determined that he would, indeed benefit, and in a massive way. The analysis calculated that Trump would personally save $31 million from the elimination of the alternative minimum tax, $16 million from cuts in business taxes, and $.5 million from the reduction of the highest rate. His delightful children would gain even more, saving an estimated $1.1 billion when the estate tax is repealed.

Any man who says “believe me” as much as Trump does is not to be believed. This tax cut is designed by billionaires to benefit billionaires and it will, once again, massively expand the deficit. It is a transfer of wealth to the wealthy at a time when income inequality is already at levels not seen since the late 1920’s, and that didn’t end up so good.

As I have said before, Republicans control all of Washington now and they are the only ones who can stop this comic book villain. You may like what Trump can do for your narrow self-interest now but, as he has demonstrated time and time again to his friends and foes alike, he will piss on your leg if he gets the chance. Believe me, Believe me.

By: Dustin Joy

 

3…2…1…Liftoff!

In May my beautiful daughter graduated from high school. She is smart, talented, witty,  and clever. She is a hard worker who always got good grades and did as she was told. Just yesterday she was a tiny baby cuddled in my arms. Today she walked across the stage an impressive young woman. In the Fall she begins a new adventure at St. Olaf College. I could not resist, in such a moment, expressing to her how proud I was and to offer some small piece of advice for what it is worth. What I wrote is a tribute to her. It is also a tribute to my own parents who made me what I am today. I am fortunate to have such a family.

 

 

The Launchpad

Dear Chloe,

There are plenty of times in our lives when we have to do what we are supposed to do. As an adult you will be obliged to tow the line, to meet your obligations, to smile when you don’t feel like smiling, to laugh at jokes you don’t find funny. You will be asked to demonstrate your acumen, your diligence, your gumption, and your stick-to-it-iveness. You will be required to do the sensible thing, the rational thing, the thing calculated to achieve the maximum return on investment. In the words of Roger Hodgson:

They sent me away to teach me how to be sensible,
Logical, responsible, practical.
And they showed me a world where I could be so dependable,
Clinical, intellectual, cynical.

There will be ample time for all that. For four years and more you have done that. You have learned how to do that. You have done what you ought. You have done what you were told. You have gotten the straight A’s.

I believe life must amount to more than that. I think there is more to be gotten out of it. I think that stuff is a foundation for building a more impressive structure. Even the animals work day-to-day to make a living. The nobility that is within us, if it exists, is not simply an extension of the economy of animals – getting and consuming. Nor is it the natural extension of that economy – the accumulation of wealth and dross. The truly noble things that people have accomplished, Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream speech, Salk’s Polio vaccine, Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, Armstrong’s footprint on the moon, were not done for the money. They were not achieved by people obsessed with security or the accumulation of wealth.

Thoreau described what I’m talking about in Walden. He said about the average man:

He has no time to be anything but a machine. How can he remember well his ignorance — which his growth requires — who has so often to use his knowledge?

At Cape Canaveral, in Florida, there is a place called complex 39A. Most days it is a quiet place. You can feel the salty breeze off the Atlantic here as it rustles the marsh grass. You can hear the squawk of the gulls and see the pelicans wheeling overhead. It is a place of beauty and silence. The manmade obtrusion into this place of nature is an industrial looking platform rising many stories into the air. Standing by it is a water tower. Beyond that are several smaller towers topped out with lightning rods. This complex stands on an earthen berm built up for the purpose many years ago. These skeleton-like structures, stark as they appear, have a purpose more noble and awe-inspiring than the pyramids. They are merely a foundation, sure, but a foundation assembled lovingly and with meticulous attention to detail. This is the place where thousands of individuals, dedicated to a dream, realized the aspirations of thousands of generations of humans who looked up at the night sky and thought “what if we could…” The summer your mommy was born this quiet place was the center of the world’s attention and imagination. The hard work of building the foundation was complete and from this little berm rose a rocket on a pillar of flame which carried with it the aspirations of those thousand generations.

On your graduation day this example may seem like hyperbole. It may seem a grandiose metaphor – the Saturn V launchpad and you, going off to St. Olaf. But I assure you it is an apt metaphor. All those visionaries I mention above, Thoreau, King, Twain, Salk, Armstrong, started from a firm foundation built up by their parents, and their parents, and their parents.

Mommy and I love you very much. Our aspiration is to be your foundation. We want to be your launchpad. We have worked every day and socked away money and planned and worried so that you can have this opportunity to be the rocket, to find your dream, to imagine a better world and do what you can to make it a reality. This is your chance to think big thoughts and explore the amazing worlds a place like St. Olaf can show you.

I know that everyone you meet today will ask you “so, what are you going to study in college?” This comes with the implication that you had better choose a major that “pays off.” I say “to hell with that!” Going to college is about building yourself as a human being starting with the foundation your parents laid for you. What if Martin Luther King had majored in accounting because there was a “good living” to be made? What if Mark Twain had become a plumber because there was a “lot of call” for that in Hannibal, MO?

You are smart. You are capable. You are a hard worker. You have good social skills. It would be a horrible waste for you to take on a mundane, work-a-day, “practical” profession that did not draw out and call upon your natural gifts. You may not know, right now, what will inspire you. You may not know, for awhile, what the world calls on you to do and to be. That is what education is for. That is what St. Olaf is for. That is what youth is for.

We are your launchpad but, more importantly, we are your safety net. Whatever I have accomplished, whatever chances I have been able to take to achieve my dreams, were made possible by the foundation laid down by my Mom and Dad and by the safety net they provided me while I was struggling to “figure things out.” My Mom and Dad lived in a mobile home when I was born. My Dad worked third shift in a machine shop to buy me toys to inspire my imagination. My Mom clipped coupons and made us beany-burger and skimped and saved. All of these things laid a foundation for me so that I could go to college, so that I could explore the world, so that I could find my place. They did not expect or ask me to pay it all back. They worked and saved and “did without” as a pure gift to me. It is an awesome responsibility.

The only way I have found to pay my parents back is to live by their example. Mommy and I have worked and saved and “done without” because we believe in the sacred obligation of building a foundation – a launchpad. I want you and your siblings to have the opportunity, the freedom, to be all that you can imagine. As my parents did for me we now do for you. Your only obligation is to do the same for your kids someday.

Love,

Your Daddy

 

A Noble Ditch

In my last travel related post I told you of my experience at the U.S. Rocket center in Huntsville, Alabama and of my infatuation with the Saturn V, the most powerful transportation machine ever built and certainly one of the fastest. Today I found myself, unexpectedly, spending the greater part of a day in downtown Syracuse, New York where I became, if not infatuated with, at least deeply fascinated by another museum dedicated to a much slower mode of transport.

After an amazing lunch at the Creole Soul Cafe (who knew Syracuse, NY would have absolutely amazing cajun food?) I walked up to the Erie Canal Museum which lies on the aptly named Erie Boulevard. It turns out that the boulevard, now blacktop instead of water, was the route the famous canal took through Syracuse. The museum is part of the original Weighlock building where passing canalboats were, quite literally, weighed to assess their toll for canal passage.

The Weighlock at Syracuse – Now the Erie Canal Museum.

Looking at a Saturn V rocket and the Apollo program in it’s entirety one can scarcely believe that this little ditch was its equivalent, perhaps it’s superior, in 1820. Considering the resources and technology of a still young nation this project was audacious. In fact, when asked to help with the financing of it Thomas Jefferson, no slouch in the visionary department, wouldn’t touch it with a ten-foot pole. “…little short of madness,” he is said to have commented.

It fell, instead to the Governor of New York, Dewitt Clinton, a bunch of progressive legislators, and some even more visionary but less celebrated thinkers and engineers to bring this crazy idea to life. And, like the Little Red Hen, when the wheat grew, was, harvested, ground into flour, and baked into a nice warm loaf, New York ate that loaf and became, well, New York.
Many big cities grow organically from a wide spot in a river. Clinton’s audacity was to build the river. Cities like Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse, Albany, and, to a greater extent the Big Apple, grew from these seeds.

If going to the moon seems like one giant leap (to quote Neil Armstrong) the building of the Erie canal, in it’s day, was no less improbable. To understand the difficulty it is useful to assess the terrain of upstate New York.

Starting in Albany the canal follows the course of the Mohawk River west. This makes a lot of sense. The more your route can follow existing rivers the less you have to dig. Also, to New York’s great good fortune, the Mohawk possesses a unique characteristic unknown to other eastern rivers. It flows east into the Hudson, but it rises west of the Appalachian mountains. It’s valley transects the one insurmountable obstacle which stymied so many dreamers intent on building a water route to the Ohio or the Great Lakes.

Minimizing the digging is not the only consideration for a canal, though. The Mohawk route made sense from a hydrological point of view, also. A canal is not a static system. Moving water is what makes the locks work and allows boats to change elevation. That means that water must be added to the system continuously from the highest elevations. Having rivers nearby makes that possible. Only sea level canals like the Suez are not subject to this requirement.

The Erie Canal route across upstate New York is emphatically not a sea level affair. Even with the advantage of the Mohawk, the elevation changes from Albany to Buffalo were daunting. The net rise from tide level on the Hudson at Albany to Lake Erie at Buffalo is about 600 feet. That’s just a little less than the height of the Gateway Arch in St. Louis. The best locks that could be constructed in 1825 would raise a boat about 12 feet. That would require about fifty locks, a big job. However, kind of like your Grandpa’s old story about walking to school “uphill both ways” the Erie canal route doesn’t just slope from one side of the state to the other. From Albany it goes up to about 420’ at Rome, then back down to about 380’ near Montezuma, then back up again at the Niagara River to 565’. In between it crosses rivers, creeks, valleys, and hills. The original “Clinton’s Folly” had 83 locks, each hand dug, lined with clay and stone, and fitted with heavy gates and valve systems. This was not child’s play.

Not a sea-level affair. A contemporary profile view of the Erie Canal route. Click on image for enlargement.

Looking at the map of the canal and upstate New York one is struck immediately by a question. You slap your head and think, “these people couldn’t have been that stupid.” The question is; Why build a canal across 363 miles of forests and swamps when you could, near Oneida Lake, cut a few miles up to Lake Ontario, ship your goods on this vast natural waterway to Niagara Falls, and build a short canal to bypass the falls? It is a good question, but there was, indeed, a method to the madness.

Firstly, canal boats are a great deal different from the sailing vessels required to navigate big open bodies of water like Lake Ontario. They are long and shallow draft to fit their highways of water. They are not designed to take big waves or make top speed under sail. So it would have been necessary to swap one for the other at Lake Ontario, again at Niagara Falls, and again to proceed on Lake Erie. If these dreamers had wanted to load and unload cargo three or four times they would have just kept transporting goods the way they had for years; overland in horse drawn wagons. Secondly, building a canal around the Niagara Falls, while doable (Canada did it in the mid-1800’s near Welland), was not an easy task. There is a reason Niagara Falls is such a famous attraction. It’s a damn 167 foot tall waterfall.

The truth is this though; It was mostly politics. In those days Canada was not the benign little puffball that we know today. Canada, or as they were in actuality then, England, was a very real existential threat to the new nation. We had just fought two wars against them and a multitude of skirmishes. It is easy to forget now, but was undoubtedly vivid in the American imagination then, that only three years prior to the commencement of canal construction, a British force had occupied Washington, D.C. and set fire to the White House and the U.S. Capitol. Only in September 1813 had the U.S. won undisputed control of Lake Erie during the famous Battle of Lake Erie which we all remember, if we remember it at all, from Oliver Hazard Perry’s cable to Washington after the victory, “We have met the enemy and they are ours.” The U.S. never did achieve decisive control of Lake Ontario.

To make a long story short we didn’t trust them, we didn’t like them, and we certainly didn’t want them to get the benefit and control of trade in the western Great Lakes. The New Yorkers spent extra time, extra money, and probably extra human lives to keep their new canal just out of reach of those dastardly Canadians. Thanks to their sacrifice we are not obliged to eat poutine three times a day.

Seriously though, building the Erie Canal was a matter of blood, sweat, toil, and tears. The claims of 1000 men dying of swamp fever (probably malaria) during the excavation through Montezuma Marsh in 1819 are probably exaggerated. Still, it is quite likely that many hundreds of men were crushed, drowned, lacerated, blown up with gunpowder, and killed by epidemics.

Consider, if you will, the difficulty of removing a single tree stump. Even today, with chain saws and tractors, and grinding equipment it is difficult, at best, to remove the stump of a large tree to below grade level. If you are digging a canal, grade level is not good enough. You must remove the entire stump including the tap roots. For a tree of considerable size, like the American Chestnuts comprising the primeval forest of upstate New York, these roots can go 20’ deep.

The engineers who met these challenges were clever men. The way they solved the tree stump problem tells you all you need to know about their resourcefulness. Below is a picture of their stump puller. It’s elegant use of simple mechanics and leverage is an inspiration.

Stump Puller – An elegant solution to a big problem.

The catalog of challenges faced by the Scots Irish immigrants who dug the canal, the German Stonemasons who built the locks, and the engineers who mapped out the route, were astounding. In building locks, bridges, aqueducts, and machines to do so, these men advanced science and technology in their age no less than did the NASA scientists who built the Saturn V.

Some of their achievements are truly astounding. There is, of course, the 363 mile long canal 40’ wide and 4’ deep. There are also the 83 locks. Beyond that are the marvelous creations that Pharaoh might have been proud of. There is the “Deep Cut,” a high spot in the bedrock near Pendleton where men, without the benefit of dynamite, chiseled a channel for the canal 40’ deep and 7 miles long. There is the “Flight of Five” locks climbing the Niagara Escarpment near Lockport. There is the giant aqueduct of stone crossing the Genessee River at Rochester. And, there is the “Great Embankment,” a mile long earth fill 76’ deep crossing the valley of Irondquoit Creek. These are all remarkable feats.

A river crosses a river – The Erie Canal/ Genesee River aqueduct at Rochester.

What makes them more mind-blowing is to consider the catalog of things these men did not have. In 1817 they did not have bulldozers (invented 1923), diesel excavators (1930’s), or even steam shovels (patented 1839). They didn’t have the aforementioned dynamite which Alfred Nobel did not perfect until 1867. There were no rubber boots (Wellingtons invented in 1852). There was no nylon rope (1940’s), no steel cable (1830’s), no really very good steel at all (Bessemer process 1855). Feeding huge numbers of men in a remote wilderness area was difficult too because there was not yet refrigeration (1856). There were no antibiotics (penicillin 1928), exactly one “sort-of” vaccine (smallpox, 1796), and no anesthetic (1842) for the inevitable amputation of infected limbs. These men made Chuck Norris look like Steve Urkel.

They worked 12-15 hour days in terrible conditions with inadequate equipment and, in most cases, for about $12 – $15 per month. The unluckiest, and there were many of these, had been lured to the United States by deceptive advertisements in Irish newspapers promising a good job with decent pay, three meals a day, and an allowance of whiskey. The workers, too poor to pay, were brought to the U.S. by the Erie canal contractors and their passage was charged against their future meager earnings, making them, immediately, indentured servants. They were basically slaves without chains.

Once the canal was completed, New York’s investment paid back, and the financiers made rich, the men who labored to build this canal did what laboring men have always done – they took a deep breath and went back to work. Because they had to. They built railroads, worked in dank mines, and dug more canals.

A canalboat (2016 recreation) in the weigh lock chamber at Syracuse. I am standing where the opening in the building is visible in the previous weigh lock building photo.

Sleeping quareters on a canalboat. Cramped but cozy.

The Erie canal changed the United States. It enriched the country, it sped up western settlement, it insured U.S. dominance of the Great Lakes, and it helped to make New York City the financial and cultural powerhouse it is today. All these things were bricks in the great edifice which became U.S.A. – the Superpower. In this way the Erie canal, “Clinton’s Folly,” the little ditch, changed the world.

As I walked back to my hotel through the streets of Syracuse I thought about these men. I thought about rockets and I thought about canal boats. My thoughts drifted to the pyramids, the cathedrals, the railroads, the highways, and to all these ostensibly “good” things brought forth by men and women who got very little out of the exercise but exercise. Others with money and capital and power got more money and capital and power. As Kurt Vonnegut said, “So it goes.” And yet.

There is nobility in hard work and in struggle and in the creation of things which make the world a better place even if such benefits do not accrue to those who build them. The thing which raises human beings above the animals is not that we have iPhones, but that we can make iPhones. The Gateway Arch is a magnificent thing, but so is the Niagara Falls. What ennobles the Gateway Arch is not that it is pretty and gleaming and very, very tall, but that some man imagined it and a few men developed a plan to make it a reality, and hundreds of men and women with their hands and their feet and their brains summoned it into existence.

The Erie Canal, no less than Michelangelo’s David, was a work of art. The sacrifice of those who built it is not dimmed because their masterpiece has been superseded by bigger, better, and faster modes of transport. The nobility is in the striving, made all the more noble by the difficulty of the task. As John Kennedy said about sending men to the moon (the Saturn V) so might we say about the Erie Canal. We do these things “not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” Therein lies the nobility.

by: Dustin Joy

Goosegrease



I realize it’s been a few weeks since my last post. Given that one of my most recent blog posts concerned whether or not to continue blogging you might have guessed that you were finally rid of me. No such luck!

On the contrary, I’ve actually had some interesting things going on on the writing front. I’ve been working on a few new pieces for the blog, but also, get this, I seem to have actually sold my first piece of writing for real money. Well, I haven’t got the check in my hot little hand yet, but I have apparently had an article accepted for publication in Plane and Pilot magazine. I’m not quite sure which issue it will appear in but I’m pretty excited about it and hoping it leads to more in the future. We shall see.

Also, I’ve joined a writing group based in Muscatine called Writers on the Avenue. It is comprised of local writers, some amateurs, some with a number of publications under their belts, and all friendly and eager to hear each other’s work. We get together once a month and bring something we have written to read out loud. There are poets and comedy writers and essayists and novelists. It has been great fun, so far.

One of the most entertaining parts is a word challenge exercise. At the end of the meeting each member, in secret, writes down a word on a piece of paper. The words are collected and make up the challenge list for the next meeting. Each member is obliged to write an essay, article, poem, short-story, etc. incorporating each word from the list. It can be a bit of a challenge, especially when our local comedy writer contributes words like GOOSEGREASE. It is interesting to see what people do with the list. Some are very clever, indeed.

Below is my first attempt. It uses all the words. That’s about all I can say for it. Hopefully mine will get better over time. The quote I use later on in this short-story is from Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice and here is meant to give the protagonist hope that his hosts are good and thoughtful people. Our group leader, an English professor from the local community college, reminded me, however, just what a nasty little play M.O.V. was and that the speaker, Portia, hardly had clean hands when delivering these pretty words. Good point, I think. Though I still like the way it turns the anti-semitism of the play on it’s head a little bit here.


 

THE LIST:
affirm
classical
genesis
goosegrease
gumption
grit
heartless
inspired
prime
quality
repulsive
spout

THE STORY:

 

Goosegrease
by: Dustin Joy

The kitchen was redolent with goosegrease when Emily opened the back door and beckoned Mark inside. The aroma of freshly baked rolls enveloped him. A big, stainless pot of potatoes churned on the rear burner of the antique gas stove and an old-style percolator gurgled softly on the front burner, a curl of steam starting to rise from it’s spout. The pies cooling on the counter, apple, sweet potato, and pumpkin, carried him back to his own Memaw’s kitchen, another place of warmth and pie.

Still, Mark had hesitated, reluctant to enter this old clapboard farmhouse, at the end of the sidewalk, at the end of the gravel road, at the end of Illinois. “The end of the world,” was what he thought. The end of their fledgling relationship seemed a distinct possibility.
Emily had told her grandparents that Mark was coming with her for Christmas, of course. She had assured them that he was a nice boy and a fine student, endowed with grit and gumption and good manners despite his big city origins. He was studying English literature at the University of Chicago.

Likewise, Emily had assured Mark that her people were, like her, warm and loving. They were not heartless racists with repulsive opinions despite their rural origins. The fact that sweet, beautiful Emily derived her DNA from them gave him hope, but not much confidence.

The long voyage down Interstate 55, his Prius a very small boat on this ocean of corn, had inspired in him an irrational dread. The presence of no fewer than four pickup trucks in the driveway seemed to affirm his fear, as had the tattered confederate flag he had glimpsed near a fallen-down barn a few miles down the road. He was not certain that he was the first African-American to visit this township, but he was pretty sure he was the first to cross this threshold.

Emily, a smart girl who understood well the genesis of his fears, patted Mark’s hand and reached up to give him a kiss. Then she disappeared down the short hallway past the classical cupboard with its bird-claw feet, the mahogany washstand with its ceramic pitcher, and the oak bookshelf with its ticking mantle clock.

Mark stood alone in the kitchen, rotating slowly in his apprehension and indecision, the prime meridian of his gaze taking in the pantry and the sink and the pot-bellied stove and the refrigerator covered in unfamiliar photos, save one. Then he saw, in the far corner, a framed needlepoint and below it a basset hound slumbering on a big, puffy pillow.
He approached the dog gently, and she, waking to his presence, raised her nose and nuzzled his outstretched palm. He patted her head gently as he read the little name tag attached to her collar – Portia. He smiled – a coincidence perhaps? Then his eyes were drawn to the needlepoint again. It was a quote, one he knew quite well, and from his favorite writer, too.

The quality of mercy is not strain’d,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes

“It’s going to be alright,” Mark thought. He stood and followed Emily down the hall.

Getting Frosty in Hell: I back a Trump Decision…sort of

You might want to sit down for this. I’ll just come right out and say it. I have decided to endorse a decision Donald Trump made. I can hardly believe it myself. I can assure you it is not because I agree with Trump’s odious world view or wish to associate myself with some of the hateful xenophobes who voted for him. Indeed, when I consider Trump I am most nearly in agreement with the assessment of the author Philip Roth who has said:

“Trump is ignorant of government, of history, of science, of philosophy, of art. He is incapable of expressing or recognizing subtlety or nuance. He is destitute of all decency. He wields a vocabulary of seventy-seven words that is better called Jerkish than English.”

I object to many things Donald Trump has said and done. I need not belabor my disgust with regard to his treatment of women, his demonization of immigrants, or his enabling of racists. His transparent effort to destroy critical government agencies which promote education, protect our environment, and insure worker safety are just plain despicable.

But what really sticks in my craw is this; Trump appeals to people’s ignorance. He denigrates experience. He undermines science. He has suggested, over and over again, in subjects as varied and complex as climate, medicine, foreign policy, and trade, that his judgement trumps the experts.

Think I’m exaggerating? I’ll let Trump speak for himself:

 

“I think nobody knows more about taxes than I do, maybe in the history of the world.”

“I know more about renewables than any human being on Earth.”

“Nobody knows politicians better than Donald Trump.”

“Nobody knows more about debt. I’m like the king.”

“Nobody knows banking better than I do”

“I understand money better than anybody. I understand it far better than Hillary.”

“I think nobody knows the system better than I do.”

“I know more about contributions than anybody.”

“Nobody knows more about trade than me.”

“Nobody in the history of this country has ever known so much about infrastructure as Donald Trump.”

“There’s nobody bigger or better at the military than I am.”

“I know more about ISIS than the generals do. Believe me.”

“I know more about offense and defense than they will ever understand, believe me.”

“There is nobody who understands the horror of nuclear more than me.”

“I understand the tax laws better than almost anyone, which is why I’m the one who can truly fix them,”

“If Cory Booker is the future of the Democratic Party, they have no future! I know more about Cory than he knows about himself.”

 

The last absurdity is the cherry on top, of course, but altogether these quotes accurately represent a dangerous man. I have always been uneasy around people who are absolutely sure of themselves and their own judgement. They are dangerous whether they be religious zealots who are certain that God hates the same people they do (what a coincidence) or the “free market” apostles who want to outlaw the fire department because it is “Socialism!”

Well, I believe in experts. I believe in eggheads and poindexters and squares. I believe in people who read books and do research and carry out experiments. I place my trust in people who dedicate their lives to the acquisition of knowledge and mastery of skills.

When I need a surgeon to cut open my brain and remove the tumor I want a serious intellect on the job, not some good old boy who spends his evenings parked in front of a television with a brewsky in his hand. When my plane leaves the ground and soars seven miles into the air I want an expert at the controls. I want a pilot who understands Bernoulli’s Principle, not the guy who stayed at the Holiday Inn Express last night. And when my government has to make a decision about the efficacy of vaccinating kids for polio I want a PhD scientist on the case who has dedicated her life to studying infectious disease and not some Hollywood actress or reality TV star.

I believe global warming is real. Why do I believe this? Is it because I have carried out extensive experiments incorporating ice core analysis, satellite observations, expeditions to the south pole, and excruciatingly detailed number crunching? No. I have not done these things. But, you know what, there are people who have. They are called scientists. They work at top universities and government agencies. They have decided it. The evidence is in. All major scientific bodies in the United States whose work pertains to climate science have concluded that global warming exists and that human activities are a cause. These include NASA, NOAA, the National Academy of Science, the American meteorological Society, the American Geophysical Union, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the U.S. Department of Defense.

These are experts. These are scientists and policy wonks who have dedicated their lives to the pursuit of truth no matter where it leads. If you really believe that Donald Trump knows more than they do about our climate you need to crinkle some tinfoil onto your antenna, buddy, because you are getting some serious static. (Sorry, for those of you born after 1990 an antenna is a small array of aluminum rods wired to a television or radio in order to … okay, for those of you born after 1995 a radio is a …..oh, to hell with it.)

The organizations who deny this evidence, for the most part, are business entities who stand to lose money if action is taken to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. That is called a conflict of interest and, under President Trump, these folks are the foxes who guard the henhouse. The new Secretary of Energy is Texas governor Rick Perry, an oil industry backer from an oil-rich state. EPA administrator Scott Pruitt from Oklahoma is, you guessed it, an oil industry backer from an oil-rich state. Trump’s Secretary of State is Rex Tillerson who was CEO of ExxonMobil for ten years. It is easy to discern a pattern here.

As Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan was fond of saying, “You are entitled to your own opinion, but you are not entitled to your own facts.” It would be one thing if Trump’s conflict of interest burdened cabinet came out and gave speeches saying global warming was a hoax. Everyone can express such uninformed opinions in a free society. What is absolutely unacceptable is what they have done, instead. They have put an end to climate research by gutting research budgets. This is not seeking truth. This is a child sticking his fingers in his ears to avoid hearing the truth. That’s tolerable for an individual. That is horrible for a democracy.

So, given all that, what Trump decision am I willing to ratify and support? Here it is. Drum role please:

I think the U.S. Senate should confirm the nomination of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court. I think the Democrats in the Senate should vote to approve him despite the Republicans disingenuous refusal to give Merrick Garland a hearing and a vote.

I have three reasons for this. First, I think the Democrats should live up to their Constitutional responsibilities in a way that Mitch McConnell and the Republicans would not. It is a bummer to lose in politics. It stinks to have your bitter political rival win a round and get to steer things the way he wants. It would be satisfying to plant our feet on the ground, cross our arms, and, without regard to principle, simply oppose every action Trump takes, just like the Republicans have done for the last eight years.

Mitch McConnell said “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term President.” You will notice he did not say “to serve the American people or to uphold the Constitution.” As the absolute type specimen of the self-serving, opportunistic politician McConnell abandoned even Republican ideas whenever they were adopted by the President. The Obamacare insurance mandate famously condemned now by Republicans as some kind of Communist plot was, actually, (whisper) a Republican idea. As I said in my last Trump essay Republicans used to be the party of shouldering your responsibility and eating your vegetables; not so much anymore.

The second reason I can and do support the confirmation of Judge Gorsuch is the same one which prevents me from supporting Pruitt, Perry, DeVos, and, indeed Trump himself. Gorsuch is an expert. He is an egghead. He is a thoughtful, intelligent, and serious man who I just don’t agree with very much. He is not a political hack now, even if he might have flirted with that category in his youth.

I have read extensively about Judge Gorsuch, have studied some of his rulings, and watched much of his confirmation hearing. As a Liberal I am, of course, concerned about Gorsuch’s family history. His mother, Ronald Reagan’s EPA Director, was indeed an ideologue and a political hack devoted to destroying the agency she was tasked to lead. I could never have supported her confirmation.

I am also troubled by Gorsuch’s record in George W. Bush’s Justice Department. His role in justifying the use of torture and encouraging Bush’s questionable “signing statements” gives me pause. Gorsuch has replied that he was just doing his job. That, of course, is the well rehearsed line of the scoundrel, but it is also, to some degree, defensible. To succeed in Washington, at least to the level where you might be on someone’s short list to be a Supreme Court Justice, you must have established some political relationships and have found some backers. It appears that Gorsuch did this by working a mid-level job on Bush’s team.

Also, I say naively, people can change. People can mature. People can rise to the challenge of new professional responsibilities. I believe judge Gorsuch may have done so. For ten years he has been a Federal Judge and, by all accounts, he has been a fair one. Is he a conservative? I’m pretty sure he is. Does he advocate strict constructionism? Probably. Do I wish we could have Merrick Garland, instead? Sure I do. But, that brings me to the last of my three reasons.

We have very little choice. Due to the (Let’s be generous here and call it poor judgement) of a few thousand people in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania we have President Trump. Due to the poor judgement of a few thousand people in Missouri, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania we have a Republican U.S. Senate. Replacing Scalia with Gorsuch, in my opinion is a small move in the right direction (possibly a very small one). There is not a great deal we can do to stop it since the Republicans hold all the cards.

A bigger catastrophe, from a Liberal point of view, would be the retirement of Justice Ginsburg under these circumstances. Political capital and the good will of the American people are real things, like it or not. If we fight Gorsuch to the bloody end and lose anyway we may not have anything left to fight Trump should worse come to worst.

So, based on my analysis, can we oppose Pruitt and Perry and DeVos and still support Gorsuch’s confirmation? I think we can. They are ideologues who claim to know more than the experts. We may not agree with Gorsuch about everything, but he is a serious expert on the law who takes the law seriously. That may be all we can hope for and all we need. Many of the “Conservative” Justices appointed to the court by Republicans, if they are serious men and women who respect the law, have a funny way of finding the middle ground when liberated by their lifetime appointments. I am thinking of Justice Blackmun, Justice Souter, Justice O’Connor, and Justice Kennedy. I have no way to be sure, but I think Gorsuch might have that potential.

 

by: Dustin Joy

To Blog, or Not To Blog? That is the Question.

When I began this blog, in May of 2015, I had a desire, as I think we all do, to say something, to have my voice heard. I wrote in my introduction:

Every blog is an act of vanity. The idea that anyone else gives a damn about your “observations” on life is presumptuous at best and probably ridiculous. But I like to think it is also a hopeful thing. It is an effort, like Facebook or a phone call, to make a connection with other people in the hope of finding something in common.

I also wanted to hone my craft and see if I could develop a voice that someone other than my Mom would want to hear. I said, “I enjoy writing. It helps me organize my thoughts and better understand what I am seeing and thinking.” I still think that is a valid and worthwhile motivation. Self-improvement through practice can pay unexpected dividends. Still, I am reminded of the lyrics of the 1987 song Come from the Heart – “You’ve got to dance like nobody’s watching.” For a blogger I guess the motivational tagline would be “You’ve got to write like nobody’s reading.”

I certainly think I wanted some readers, though. I wanted this website to accomplish something, to have an effect. I had some goals, vaguely, about touching someone’s emotions, teaching someone about something, or persuading someone to think differently. I hope I have not been unrealistic in my expectations.

I believe that I have fairly valued the output of my pen. I assigned the exchange rate for my writing at exactly zero dollars and zero cents. After all, I acquired the domain name, registered the website, designed the website, and built the website. Critically, I also paid for the website. I did not even require my readers to suffer the inconvenience of looking at ads. As a novice writer the market dictates this. There are a lot of damned good writers out there and today they are easy to find. I acknowledged as much in my intro:

The internet is a big place with many options, so while my site is called stuffiminterestedin you can be sure that stuffyou’reinterestedin is only a click away.

It is said, although there is little research on the subject, that the average blog has a lifespan of 100 days. Another source says that 60-80% of blogs are abandoned in a month. I have been at this now for almost two years. I suppose this is an appropriate time to take stock of my little project. So, what has been the result?

In the two years since my post called Merle, which was a tribute to my Dad’s cousin, I have written and posted 52 essays, articles, or stories. These averaged 2,125 words per post which adds up to 110,509 words (feel free to count them if you like). Wikipedia says, in its Word Count article (somebody has too much time on his hands) that a novella is between 17,500 and 39,999 words and a novel is anything over that. They say, further, that “Numerous American universities limit Ph.D. dissertations to 100,000 words, barring special permission for exceeding this limit.” I am pretty certain that some of you who wandered into my blog unawares probably reflected that it reminded you of a bad Ph.D. dissertation at times. I guess I should ask for special permission to proceed.

My point here is that, for better or worse, I have gotten some writing practice in the last two years. My blog posts, as promised, were all over the map. Some were short (210 words for my story called Chicory). Some were long (8,117 words for my essay called Michael, about finding a dead body).

Some were good (I think The Boy in the Picture and A Step Forward are some of the best things I’ve ever written). Some could have been better (I loved the idea of St. Louis Breakfast when I had it, but I think the execution was a bit ham-fisted).

Some were self-indulgent (okay, a lot were self-indulgent: And the Loser is, Close the Door, and Being Ward Cleaver). Some were unabashedly sentimental (Missy, The Boy in the Picture, A Force of Nature, and The Sycamore). Some were nakedly political (Washington vs. Trump, Trump – A Retraction, President Trump – There, I Said it, and Mister We Could Use a Republican Like Herbert Hoover Again).

I hope some of my posts were informative (Glacial Erratics, My Giant, and Spiders, Ewww!). I hope some of them made you think (Thank God?, Tiny Glowing Screens, The Island, and Raise my Taxes, Please). And, finally, I kind of hope a few of them made you laugh (Minor League Hero, North Dakota – The Dirty White Pickup Truck Driven by Vaguely Threatening White Guys with Facial Hair State, Sex Appeal vs. Bacon, The Dude, and A Hero – of a Sort). All in all, I’m pretty proud of the output.

Still, I have two questions: 1. Has it been worth it? and 2. should I continue? Neither answer is obvious to me at this point. I like blogging and have gained some skill in writing short-form essays and stories This will come in handy in case I’m ever kidnapped by that Saw guy and find myself chained to a radiator and am required to save myself by writing a clever essay about the Westminster Dog Show or cutting off my own leg with a butter knife. Is that enough reason, though, to divert myself from legitimate concerns (working, spending time with my wife and kids, bathing)? There is also the non-negligible cost of maintaining a website. GoDaddy doesn’t advertise during the SuperBowl for nothing, after all.

To keep stuffiminterestedin.com going I think I need some evidence that it is accomplishing something worthwhile. My site view numbers are not impressive, and possibly never will be. I am content with that. What bothers me, a little, is that I receive almost no feedback from those of you who read my blog. Since August of 2016 I have had exactly 1 legitimate comment from a reader. Part of the idea of this, as you recall, was “to make a connection with other people in the hope of finding something in common.” If I write and you read but tell me nothing about the experience I’m not sure what I’m getting out of this except writer’s cramp.

Even a lack of feedback from my readers might be tolerable to me if I did not, instead, receive 3-4 comments per day from “spammers” whose motives I’m not sure I understand, who don’t seem to have a grasp of the English language, and who appear to be trying to hock Viagra on my website. Here is a verbatim comment left on my blogpost about the Illinois budget crisis from, apparently, the owners of the high-quality website sextoysfun.

Great beat ! I wish to apprentice even as you amend your website, how can i subscribe for a blog web site? The account aided me a acceptable deal. I had been a little bit familiar of this your broadcast offered brilliant transparent concept.

Attached to the comment, as always, was a link to their website. It’s like getting a Valentine in the mail and finding out it is from your insurance agent.

I have two or three good friends who read my posts religiously and can be counted on to offer some praise or constructive criticism. You know who you are and let me say, loud and clear, your attention means the world to me. But, realistically, I could email each of them my useless rants each week and “save the postage.” I could get on Facebook and dump my sage observations between the Trump memes and photos of people’s dinners. But, dang it, blogging is an act of vanity and I like the idea of this website.

There is a passage in Walden which has always captured my imagination. It is a critique of capitalism in parable form and I wonder if it applies to this situation. It goes like this:

Not long since, a strolling Indian went to sell baskets at the house of a well-known lawyer in my neighborhood. “Do you wish to buy any baskets?” he asked. “No, we do not want any,” was the reply. “What!” exclaimed the Indian as he went out the gate, “do you mean to starve us?” Having seen his industrious white neighbors so well off—that the lawyer had only to weave arguments, and, by some magic, wealth and standing followed—he had said to himself: I will go into business; I will weave baskets; it is a thing which I can do. Thinking that when he had made the baskets he would have done his part, and then it would be the white man’s to buy them. He had not discovered that it was necessary for him to make it worth the other’s while to buy them, or at least make him think that it was so, or to make something else which it would be worth his while to buy. I too had woven a kind of basket of a delicate texture, but I had not made it worth any one’s while to buy them. Yet not the less, in my case, did I think it worth my while to weave them, and instead of studying how to make it worth men’s while to buy my baskets, I studied rather how to avoid the necessity of selling them. 

Like Thoreau, I may continue to weave baskets, even if it is not worth anyone’s while to buy them. I find that my profession is, for the time being, lucrative enough that I can afford to take time for writing. Also, I spend a great deal of time in hotel rooms, so the bulk of my writing does not rob my children of my treasured presence in their lives (yeah, right). Even so, I’m confident that even Thoreau (with an ego such as he had) would not have minded some constructive feedback about the quality of his baskets.

I, quite frankly, am getting too old to want to make a fool of myself if I don’t have to. God knows I do it too often without intending to. If this blog is meaningful to you, please send me a comment. It’s easy to do. It doesn’t have to be a dissertation- a few words will do. And it doesn’t have to be praise. Rip into me. Point out my grammar mistakes. Assail my logic. Call me a doo-doo-head. If you are the type of guy who keeps a bust of Donald Trump on your mantlepiece with a candle burning beside it and you have been suffering in silence while I been “dissin’ your guy,” give me your two cents. I would love to have that conversation. And, what the heck, if you enjoyed my picture of the guy in the chicken suit reading a newspaper or were floored by the eloquence of my prose, you know, mention that, too.

by Dustin Joy

Mister, We Could Use a (Republican) Like Herbert Hoover Again

Ours is a practical people, to whom ideals furnish the theory of political action….On the other side, they are equally disgusted with seeking for power by destructive criticism, demagoguery, specious promises and sham.

Some may ask where all this may lead beyond mere material progress…. It leads to the opportunity for greater and greater service, not alone from man in our own land, but from our country to the whole world. It leads to an America, healthy in body, healthy in spirit, unfettered, youthful, eager — with a vision searching beyond the farthest horizons, with an open mind, sympathetic and generous.

It is a paradox that every dictator has climbed to power on the ladder of free speech. Immediately on attaining power each dictator has suppressed all free speech except his own.

This is not a showman’s job. I will not step out of character.

– Herbert Hoover

 

 

 


Mister, We Could Use a (Republican) Like Herbert Hoover Again

There was a time, dear children, when the Republican Party of the United States was the stodgy old party of responsibility and prudence and eating your vegetables. People like Dwight Eisenhower and Robert Taft and George Romney and Nelson Rockefeller and Gerald Ford and, yes, even Richard Nixon for all his faults, cared about a thing called good governance. They took public service seriously. They believed in things like balanced budgets and sensible spending and good citizenship and doing the right thing. These anachronisms are what used to be called “principles” and Republicans used to have them.

Republicans have even been known to stand on principle to their own detriment. American history is replete with such examples. I am thinking of Ford’s pardon of Nixon which he had to know would cost him the 1976 election but which he honorably believed to be the right thing. Taft was a man so dedicated to our constitution and the rule of law that he dared to criticize the Nuremberg trials and Japanese internment. This bravery won him the praise of Senator John F. Kennedy and a chapter in his Pulitzer-Prize-winning book Profiles in Courage but probably cost him the Republican nomination for President in 1944, 1948, and 1952. Finally, there is Barry Goldwater. Whatever you thought about Goldwater’s ideas, cuckoo-bananas or genius, no one ever accused Barry Goldwater of selling out his principles for political expediency. He proudly rode them all the way to the ground like Slim Pickens in Dr. Strangelove.

Republicans have sometimes been willing to pull dirty tricks and tell lies to win (I know, right?). Telling lies is a time-tested way to achieve political goals and Republicans, of course, wrote their chapter in that book. Richard Nixon came by the moniker Tricky Dick honestly. What most Republicans didn’t do was to betray their own followers and their own own political philosophy in the pursuit of power. That innovation, or at least the mastery of it, belonged to that patron saint of conservatives, Mr. Ronald Reagan. Reagan, the “great communicator” preached the gospel of smaller government and fiscal responsibility to Goldwater’s beleaguered descendants. He promised the religious right, with a wink and a nod, to end abortion. He bludgeoned Jimmy Carter and the Democrats for “spending like drunken sailors.” And then he got elected. And he increased the size of government, did diddly-squat about abortion, and spent money like a drunken sailor.

What Reagan realized, but Carter had not, was that the American people don’t like bad news. They don’t like to be lectured. They don’t like discipline. They don’t like to eat their vegetables. So Reagan dropped all that “principle” stuff and distilled a new philosophy which went down smooth; let’s have our cake and eat it, too.

The Gipper figured it out. People like a strong military. They like to strut around with their chests puffed out humming the Star-Spangled Banner in the back of their throats. Reagan gave it to them. People don’t like paying taxes. Reagan smiled that goofy grin of his and said, “I don’t like paying taxes either. Let’s cut them.” The people thought Carter was too preachy and made everything sound “sooooooo complicated.” Reagan served up simple, sappy, aphorisms by the bushel. Reagan told the American people how good they were, and how noble, and how smart. He told them how good old common sense was better than all that book learnin’ and that, well gosh, the American people were just God’s own special people.

Americans ate it up. When that fuddy-duddy, spoil-sport Mondale told them they would have to pay higher taxes to finance Reagan’s blossoming deficits they put their fingers in their ears, stuck out their tongues and “raspberried” him back to Minnesota.

We Americans don’t like broccoli and, by-God, no pointy-headed intellectual is gonna make us eat it.

The lesson of Carter’s flameout and Mondale’s trouncing was not lost on Reagan’s progeny. There would be no more “malaise” speeches. There would be no more appeal to our intellect nor our self-discipline, nor our better angels. Even the Democrats learned the lesson. When George H.W. Bush’s remnant belief in good governance led him to compromise with the Democrats and raise taxes, a move which allowed, for the first time in decades, an actual surplus in the U.S. budget, the smarmy huckster from Arkansas slew him with his own noble gesture. Clinton gave the American people his best “Reagan” smile, told them he could “feel their pain” and that all their problems had been “laid on them,” and sunk the knife into George’s back. It was the last time anyone, of either party, dared to “reach across the aisle.”

Now, winning is all that matters. Working together, doing the right thing for the country, exercising restraint, practicing good governance, being philosophically consistent, putting country ahead of party; these are all relics from a bygone era.

Winning is everything and compromise is impossible (you can’t compromise with the Devil after all.) Ultimately anything can be sacrificed to the cause: honesty, fairness, faith in your fellow man, your own principles. Even flat-out hypocrisy, the kind that can be proven by video recordings, and, in the past would have sunk a politician, hardly moves the needle now. It’s the Lord’s work, after all. Mitch McConnell will stand in front of a television camera and excoriate Democrats for saying precisely, even word for word, what McConnell himself has been recorded saying a year ago. There are Democrats who would do the same thing to him. Here we are.

If both sides jettison their beliefs and philosophy for the expedient of winning what difference does it make? Why am I picking on Republicans? Why, in fact, do I beseech the Republicans to sober up and recover their proud tradition of principle above party. I do it now because we need them now more than ever. We need the Republicans to live up to the example of Taft and Eisenhower and Ford and Goldwater. They are the only ones who can help us now. They are the only ones who can slow down this unstable raging narcissist who has become our President.

We have now dispatched the Wicked Witch of the West and her wicked, wicked email server to oblivion. Will you, at long last, strengthen your backbones and stop this phony Republican before he dismantles all that is good and noble about our country? Republicans, I tell you again, this man does not believe what you do. He not only disregards your ideals and principles he positively mocks them.

He mocks, also, the serious and thoughtful men who used to represent you. Aren’t you embarrassed to watch your formerly proud leaders like Paul Ryan and Mitt Romney grovel before this gameshow host? Aren’t you appalled to hear a five-time draft deferred man with miraculously self-healing bone spurs brutally criticize actual Viet-Nam war heroes John McCain and John Kerry?

I now address you “God-fearing” Christians. I have read a great deal of the New Testament and I don’t think Jesus was advocating what your Republican President is now doing. Don’t take my word for it. Read the Sermon on the Mount, read all of Matthew, and judge for yourselves.

 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.

I trust this verse will not be misattributed to President Donald Trump. How about this:

Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.

Do Syrian refugees count?

Even if the darkness of the Old Testament is your cup of tea do you really think that this twice divorced serial adulterer who sexually harasses women is a model for your family? I think there are some passages of Leviticus which would insure this man some smiting, or worse. If he were not the President would you invite him into your house? Would you leave your daughter alone in a room with him? But you voted for him to represent America to the world? If you’ll pardon my French, What the hell is wrong with you?

What about our collective, agreed-upon American principles? Are we no longer to be a “nation of immigrants” as President Kennedy called us? Do we no longer tear-up at the words of Emma Lazarus’ poem?

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

Is that a Golden Door or a gray, cement wall with concertina wire strung along the top?

Finally, Republicans, which of these do you believe in your heart?

Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.
-Thomas Jefferson

Or this:

The FAKE NEWS media (failing @nytimes, @NBCNews, @ABC, @CBS, @CNN) is not my enemy, it is the enemy of the American People!
-Donald Trump

Obviously many of you are embarrassed. Most of my Republican friends will not even mention Trump unless someone else brings it up and then they mumble and stumble and dredge up an old line about Benghazi. But there was something about President Obama’s swagger or, ….I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt….something…. that set your teeth on edge. You listened to Hillary’s shrill, preachy voice and were reminded of those Brussels sprouts that Saint Reagan told you you would not have to eat anymore. And, doggone it, you wanted to win. It feels so good to win. We know you wanted Marco Rubio or Jeb Bush instead. But that ain’t what happened.

What you have representing your treasured GOP brand now is a self-absorbed spoiled little rich kid with no one ever to tell him no. You must tell him NO! This man-child is President of the United States and he is more concerned about Arnold Schwarzenegger’s television ratings than his National Security briefing.

He is still, from a podium in the White House, trying to “spin us” on just how many electoral votes he won the election by. He is creepily, bizarrely, self-deluding about this subject which nobody asked him about. He repeats it over and over, from meetings with the Israeli Prime-Minister to ceremonies about Black History Month. In a press conference this week Trump again boasted “We got 306….I guess it was the biggest electoral college win since Ronald Reagan.”

Now, it is one thing to lie about an ambiguous data point buried a thousand pages deep in a government report or a piece of information only you know the answer to. But, my God man, any eight year old can ask Siri who won the electoral college vote in the last 7 Presidential elections and know the answer with 100% accuracy in about 3/5ths of a second. In about two minutes (I’ll admit to being slower than an eight year old) I discovered that Trump won 304 electoral votes, not 306. (The idea that any man who won a Presidential election doesn’t know how many electoral votes he got is truly bizarre in itself.) In five of the seven elections preceding Trump’s the winner won more than 304 votes. For the record (George H.W. Bush – 426, Clinton (1992) – 370, Clinton (1996) – 379, George W. Bush (2000) – 271, George W. Bush (2004) – 286, Obama (2008) – 365, and Obama (2012) – 332.)

And Trump’s answer, when confronted with the demonstrable falseness of his claim; “Actually, I’ve seen that information around.” Apparently he didn’t see it around the internet, or in the encyclopedia, or the Congressional Record, or hear about it from one of the hundreds of Senators and Representatives present at the counting of the electoral votes by Vice-President Joe Biden which was, by the way, broadcast on CSPAN and still available for viewing on You Tube.

This is a pathology, one might say, borderline mental illness. This kind of egomania coupled with insecurity would be undesirable in any profession. Possessed by the man who controls the U.S. nuclear arsenal they are downright dangerous.

So, Republicans I implore you once again. Stiffen your upper lip. Steel yourself to defend your principles. Your country needs you now. Party politics can wait. You must stop this man or, at least, slow him down. This is your moment. Channel your own internal Herbert Hoover. Though it is sometimes hard to believe and I am loathe to admit it: There is precedent for Republicans to do the right thing.

by: Dustin Joy

Another Day, Another @#&%$*#* Moral Dilemma!

Okay, I like to feed the birds. Is that so wrong? Does everything have to be a #^$%@&*moral dilemma? I like to watch the little feathered critters. It lowers my blood pressure to see the juncos hop around in the snow on their absurdly short legs. It tickles me to watch the red-bellied woodpecker and the red-headed woodpecker squabble over suet cake. It brightens the cold winter days to see a tree full of cardinals and hear the chirp of the wren.

Goldfinches brighten any day

Juncos in the Snow

A Tree Full of Color – Cardinals

 

A Eurasian Tree Sparrow Waits for his Turn

A Hairy Woodpecker Dismantles the Suet Cake

A Female Ruby-Throated Hummingbird Takes a Rare Rest

If It’s Cold and Snowy Enough Even the Pheasants will Deign to Dine with Us

A Mourning Dove Samples the Seed

A Barn Swallow – Not a Seed Eater but an Occasional Visitor

I spend a considerable sum of money every year on sunflower seeds, corn, thistle, and suet. I build feeders, I fill feeders, and I fix the damage inflicted by the raccoons and possums. I have reconciled myself to a certain amount of inconvenience from them. I actually watched a raccoon stand on his hind legs, tilt my hummingbird feeder, and pour its syrupy contents into his mouth like drinking a bottle of pop.

Leave some for the Birds

A Prehensile Tail Comes in Handy

I am not averse to feeding the possums, either. As the only marsupials in North America (In fact, almost the only ones outside of Australia) they are an interesting little novelty and we are lucky to get to see them. I can spare a few sunflower seeds for them.

The moral dilemma comes with another mammalian species which has started “using” my tender-heartedness for it’s own evil purposes. These are not merely mess-makers. They are cold-blooded killers.

Perhaps you are familiar with the old proverb “Love me, love my dog.” It means, according to the Oxford Dictionary “If you love someone, you must accept everything about them, even their faults or weaknesses.” Well, I love my wife and I love my daughters. I would even love their dog, if they had one. The proverb I have trouble with is “Love me, love my cat.”

I noticed a pile of feathers near the sidewalk, the other day and realized, to my distress, that one of my daughters’ outdoor cats had slaughtered (my emphasis) one of my beloved chickadees. Despite being well fed (to the tune of hundreds of dollars per year) these cats are carnivores and frequently kill local mice, voles, shrews, moles, baby rabbits, and even, once, a rat. I don’t, philosophically, have a problem with this. I know how the world works. I’ve seen The Lion King.

What I don’t appreciate is being an accomplice. I looked out the window this morning and saw our local Simba, a black and white cat named Poe (after Edgar Allan Poe. The female’s name is Lenore, of course.) Poe was crouched in the foliage of my clematis and stalking birds as they landed to eat at the feeder. I pounded on the window and shouted like a lunatic. I don’t know if it’s technically possible for a cat to smirk, but I swear to you, Poe looked up at me from his hiding spot and smirked. I ran outside and drove the little bugger away. He skulked off to the cover of the cedar tree but within minutes was back again, this time with a Harris Sparrow in his evil jaws.

The Killer

 

 

According to a 2013 scientific study published in the journal Nature Communications free-ranging domestic cats kill between 1.4 and 3.7 billion birds per year. That’s billion, with a B. The researchers also estimate that cats kill 6.9-20.7 billion small mammals. Most people are sanguine with that if the 20.7 billion are beady-eyed, grain-eating, plague-ridden rats. What about 20.7 billion baby bunnies? Now it’s a genocide, right?

I can’t stop Poe and I’m not sure I possess the moral high ground here, anyway. I eat meat and I have been known to trap and kill mice and rats around the farm. Is killing a mouse morally defensible but not killing a Cardinal? What about a mole? What about a baby bunny? Why?

All I know is that I like birds. I like birds and I like feeding them and I didn’t want to make a whole god-damned thing out of this. It’s bad enough that I have to think about the fair-trade status of my coffee. I didn’t know feeding the birds would be a moral conundrum. Now I’ve got to decide; stop feeding the birds or kill some cats. It’s the circle of life, you know; cats, rats, bunnies, cardinals, they’re all the same, right?

 

Oh, come on! You know I’m not gonna kill the damn cats. A man can dream, though, can’t he?

by: Dustin Joy

Thank God?

A massive storm swept through Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia recently. Twenty people were killed by a swarm of tornados including one which hit a mobile home park.
As always, brave and generous people rushed in to help the survivors and save those who could be saved. I find people to be universally good and kind to one other in such awful circumstances. I am inspired by this. I think it is the best part of human nature.

What I cannot always understand are the comments people make in these cases. Our need to explain tragedy often leads to a response which to me feels hollow, illogical, insensitive, or even cruel.
Here are some examples from that weekend’s news reports:

“God was with me that day .”
“I’m just blessed to be here.”
“God was in the room with us.”
“God was looking after them,”
“Is God mad at us?”

I wrote the following piece several years ago after a tragic outbreak of tornados killed 24 people in Oklahoma. I have been reluctant to post it for a couple of reasons. Firstly, matters of religion are sensitive. This piece, while it was not intended to be offensive, might appear so to some. I have no desire to hurt anyone’s feelings. There are quite a few “believers” whom I like, and respect, and count as friends.

Secondly, there is often a price to be paid, in this Christian dominated society, for even admitting that one is an atheist or agnostic. A young person who thinks differently, expresses doubt, or questions the answers his pastor gives him can be branded a trouble maker and ostracized. An adult who does so is subject to subtle, but very real penalties.

It is difficult for Christians in the United States to understand just how powerful they are. You sometimes hear them lament the“war on Christmas” or the “rise of secular humanism.” But, if you consider, for just a moment, the quantity of Christian references in our daily life compared to that of any other religion or set of beliefs it is overwhelming. As I write this the television is on. When I flip through the 18 channels I find fully a third devoted, 24 hours a day, to Christian programming. I find none dedicated to Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, or Atheism. When I drive to our local town to the store I pass 8-10 Christian churches, each with a billboard out front admonishing us to believe as they do. Do I pass even one center for agnosticism or free thought? Not one. In fact, I never have seen one.

The good thing about being an atheist is that we are not obliged to proselytize. I will explain my point of view to you here, and I might be gratified if you came to believe the same thing, but I don’t have to save your soul. All I ask of the dominant Christian culture is that my tax dollars not be spent to support religion and that kids who attend public school not be compelled to believe in it. That’s in the Constitution and that’s not a big demand.

On a personal level I generally like religious people and am fascinated by religion. If you approach me in a friendly way with a Bible tract in your hand or knock on my door, full of enthusiasm for your new devotion, I will smile and listen thoughtfully, as I have done for 30 years. It might be nice also, in an open and free society, for Christians to listen occasionally to those who think differently? After all, as the Turkish writer Elif Shafak has said, “If we learn anything, we learn it from people who are different from us.”

 

 

 

Thank God?

It is always troubling to encounter a concept I cannot grasp. The embarrassment is compounded when I discover, to my chagrin, that the idea is easily understood by others. There are many examples. My father-in-law can rattle off a list of numbers (rates, capacities, volumes, ratios, percentages) and within seconds arrive at a mathematical solution which is invariably correct while I am still hunting for the square root key on the calculator. Many times my father has tried to explain elementary radio theory to me only to leave me smiling and nodding like Dan Quayle at a spelling bee. And don’t get me started on quantum physics. Actually, you can’t get me started on quantum physics.

It is not so bad to be bested by intelligent women and men from time to time. How else can one learn? I will readily admit that there are things I do not understand and possibly will never understand. I am willing to concede that there are better brains out there than mine. What is truly unnerving, though, is to be at odds with a majority of the world’s population on a question of importance. Religion is such a stumbling block to me.

It is estimated that 89% of the U.S. population believes in a God, of one sort or another. That is a pretty resounding number and it suggests that I might be wrong in my thinking. I do not regard being wrong as a moral failing, since most people are from time to time. The remedy is simple; merely collect more information and revise the hypothesis. Yet my mental roadblock here is thick. The more information I collect the more I am convinced of my previous hypothesis. I am no more able to accept religion at face value than I can start a gouda mine on the moon.

I listen to the 27 televangelists on my TV, I read the Bible, I sit quietly waiting for my still small voice and…and…and…nothing. Nothing comes to me. Nothing persuades me to ignore the contrary evidence I see all around me. My own innate sense of what is true will not give credence to stories about a 6000 year old planet, nor all the earth’s creatures escaping a giant flood on a vessel built with hand tools by 5 senior citizens. I cannot comprehend a system of good and evil in which an omnipotent God allows the non-omnipotent Devil to get the upper hand even occasionally. I cannot adhere to a moral code that puts a book filled with contradictions and of unprovable provenance above other human beings.

When I look at the misery in this world which is the direct result of arguments over religion I am loathe to conclude that I want to be on their side, even if they are right. And how does one choose the one true faith if such a thing exists? As Professor Robert Price has said, “I’m going to hell according to somebody’s doctrine (Islam, Hindu, Christianity, etc). I may as well call them as I see them.”

The closest thing I have found to representing how I feel about religion is a quote from Kurt Vonnegut in his later years.
“I am a humanist, which means, in part, that I have tried to behave decently without expectations of rewards or punishments after I am dead.”

Still, being a humanist has to mean also that we show a decent respect to the thoughts and feelings of other humans. That means the other 89%. I have tried to do this throughout my life as I have been bombarded with Christian culture every day on the airwaves, on billboards, at public events, and in person. Christianity enjoys such hegemony in this society that it is an affront apparently to simply express your non-evangelical ideas in public. It is hard to be different, as we all know, especially when the odds are 89% to 11%.

Let me offer an example, from my personal life, where I have been at odds with the majority of people around me. The following story illustrates my difficulty, as a believer in logic and science, in coming to the same conclusion as the majority, who are religious believers.

Take the case of Officer Norman Rickman, a member of the Knoxville, TN police force. In a U.S.A. Today article about police officers embracing the use of bulletproof vests it was explained that Mr. Rickman had been shot twice in the line of duty while not wearing a bulletproof vest. The story says, “Yet he was on the ground within minutes, blood pouring out of bullet wounds to his chest and left arm as one of three suspects stood over him and fired two more shots into his upper back at point-blank range.” It continues, “More extraordinarily, perhaps, is that the May shooting marked the second time in seven years that Rickman had been seriously wounded while not wearing a bullet-resistant vest.”

The story includes two quotes from officer Rickman. One says that he will wear a bulletproof vest when he returns to work. The other, while it mystified me, was readily understood by others to whom I showed the article. It was this, “God was on my side that day.” This, to me, invites two questions and I do not mean them to be flippant or disrespectful. I should like to ask Officer Rickman the following:

1. If God is on your side, why did he let you get shot four times?

2. If God is on your side, why wear a bullet-proof vest?

I explored these questions for some time after reading the article. I concluded that there were four possibilities, logically, with respect to God and Officer Rickman. They are as follows:

1. There is no God and Officer Rickman was shot by a sociopath who himself had been created by a combination of his environment and genetics. Officer Rickman, in this scenario might have been saved by a bullet-proof vest. Logically Officer Rickman should place no faith in God and should wear his vest.

2. There is a God and he (or she) allows free will. In this case God allowed the sociopath to develop from his environment and genetics and shoot Officer Rickman without intervening. In this case, logic dictates that Officer Rickman should place no faith in God and should wear his bullet-proof vest.

3. There is a God who has malevolent aims for humanity. In this case God created the sociopath on purpose and sent him to shoot Officer Rickman. Logic dictates that Officer Rickman should actively oppose this God and wear his bullet-proof vest.

4. There is a God who loves us, but desires to teach us moral lessons through adversity. In this case God created the sociopath and sent him to shoot Officer Rickman, but did so for a noble objective. Whether Officer Rickman assimilated the lesson is unknown, unless that lesson was “Wear your bullet-proof vest!”

In only one scenario would I conclude that Officer Rickman might, and I emphasize might, thank his God for the treatment he has received. That is the benevolent God who continually treats us to his “tough love.” If God’s lesson was to wear a vest, which is a good lesson for policemen according to statistics, it seems a harsh form of instruction. The article states that 37% of the officers murdered in the line of duty in 2007 did not have on a bullet-proof vest. Those officers died. They had no opportunity to learn God’s lesson about vests, or any other moral instruction he might have been offering.

Are we to conclude from Officer Rickman’s statement and the opinions about it from religious believers that these unfortunate officers did not have “God with them.” Again, I do not wish to be flippant about so serious a tragedy. I am anxious that no one die under these circumstances. It is not I who trivializes this tragedy, but the people who chalk such things up to “God being with me.”

This same story can be seen night after night on the news with the names and locations altered slightly; A tornado rips through a subdivision in Oklahoma annihilating houses on one side of a street and leaving them standing on the other. Invariably a survivor from the “lucky” side will credit God and his love for her family’s survival. This explanation is accepted readily by the majority of conventionally religious people in this country who can be seen nodding their heads as the woman speaks. But is it not insulting, both to our intelligence and to the people who were killed, to credit God’s mercy for saving those who survived. In fact, it is a cruelty to say such a thing. Does God hate the other families?

We might be better off as a civilization if we worked out problems logically, with the human costs evaluated, than to offer credibility to supernatural sources. If we did not give the credit for good things to God and bad things to the Devil, we might conclude, rightly I think, that people are complex and must be dealt with (helped or punished) on an individual basis. God did not make us all either good or bad, but a complicated combination of circumstances did make some people more selfish, more corrupt, less empathetic, less kind than other people. Without the easy answer of religion and the stark contrast between good people and bad people, between believers and heathens, we might be forced to try to understand the problems we face. It is entirely possible that we might come up with solutions to some of them.

by: Dustin Joy

And Now For Something Completely Different – A Weird Year In Review

One of the fringe benefits of my job is, of course, the ability to travel around the country. If I’m lucky I get to see some weird and interesting people and things. Since I love oddities, superlatives, and miscellany I always keep my camera at the ready and I am seldom disappointed. Here are some things that brought a smile to my face in the last year. I took all these pictures of actual places and things I saw. Hopefully you might get a chuckle, too. God knows we could all use one right now.

by: Dustin Joy

Tourism

Every City wants to attract tourists, even if it doesn’t have all that much to brag about (I’m talking to you Fargo, North Dakota). Cities have tried this in different ways but the  common approaches are the “braggy” tourism guide from the Chamber of Commerce and the “do-it-yourself” tourist attraction.

The Braggy Guide

Fargo’s try – It is so flat and cold and boring in Fargo that their local tourism museum’s biggest attraction is the iconic wood-chipper which rearranges Steve Buscemi in the movie Fargo (most of which takes place in Minnesota)

 

Santa Fe is a little cooler but still has to qualify their claim a bit. Not Best Cheeseburger in the USA, but best Green Chile Cheeseburger. Still a good try.

 

Richmond not only runs their NASCAR races “at night,” WOW!, they also…

Have the 9th best Shopping Neighborhood in America. Go Richmond!

Noticed this ad for the Richmond Ballet (Yes, Richmond, Virginia has a Ballet.) What caught my eye, though, was the name of the Artistic Director. What kind of person, exactly, names his son Stoner?

 

Alamagordo, NM might have other exciting tourist attractions, but I put my money on PistachioLand U.S.A. After all, they do have the World’s Largest Pistachio. By the way, PistachioLand and “World’s Largest Pistachio” are trademarks so don’t go using them yourself.

Finally, there is Nemaha County, Nebraska which has a pretty nice tourist guide for a little place and a catchy motto, “All Roads Lead To Nemaha County.”

Unfortunately, two of the three roads depicted on their own map fail to lead to Nemaha County.

 

 

The D.I.Y. Attraction

The DIY is usually a representation of something or someone the city is famous for, sometimes life-size, sometimes absurdly big.

 

 

Louisville, KY has a couple. Here’s the blue horse.

And the giant baseball bat (A Louisville Slugger, of course)

 

Silver Bay, MN has Taconite Man who is, I guess, what a lump of iron ore would look like if you brought it to life.

 

Lubbock, TX, home of Buddy Holley, has, of course, giant nerdy glasses, just like Buddy.

Many cities opt for something made of bronze, Lubbock included.

Here’s Buddy himself.

 

Go on down to Corpus Christi, TX and you will find another hometown singer who died tragically young. Here’s Selena, immortalized in bronze. I hope if they immortalize me they at least put a shirt on me.

Here’s President Jimmy Carter. Oddly, though, this is not Plains, Georgia or even Atlanta. It’s Rapid City, SD. Don’t ask me.

Here’s a creepy bronze bust of rocket scientist and ex-nazi Werner vonBraun emerging from …a flowerpot, I guess, in Huntsville, AL. The green cast is not an optical illusion. The statue really is that color. Weird.

 

Finally, here’s a careless Ronald MacDonald in downtown Chicago.

 

 

The Local Paper

In addition to browsing the local tourism magazines I absolutely love small-town newspapers. They are usually good for a hilarious police blotter, a grammar-deficient news story, or a raving editorial about a monumentally unimportant subject. Here are a few tidbits I gleaned from local papers this year.

Rock Island is a tough place, after all.

 

I love the detail that it was a “three-legged” tiger.

Part two. She was intoxicated? You don’t say.

Part three. The final quote from the Omaha Police speaks for itself.

 

Leave it to Oklahoma.

 

I’m sorry to keep picking on North Dakota, but, you know.  So, let’s get this straight, you want to put a tax on windmills to offset the tax credit people get for building windmills. Brilliant! That’s the kind of forward thinking we expect from North Dakota.

 

This is the one and only picture here I didn’t take but you gotta admit it’s a good one. This is the headline the East Oregonian newspaper came up with for the Associated Press story about Oakland pitcher Pat Venditte – who is ambidextrous. Who knows, maybe he can pitch underwater, too.

 

Signs, Signs, Everywhere Signs

Traveling about I also get to see some pretty interesting signs from time to time. Here is a collection from this year.

 

At the Ottawa, Ontario airport.

 

Ottawa again.

 

Louisville, KY

 

Hayden, CO airport.

 

The Muscatine Environmental Center, Muscatine, IA.

 

The Lavatory of an EMB-145 jet. I wonder what part of the country you are in if the second notice doesn’t go without saying? Okay, I won’t say North Dakota. They’ve taken enough abuse.

 

I’m certainly too smart to comment on this.

 

Just outside security checkpoint at the Fargo, ND airport.

 

As you might have guessed – over the urinal. Restaurant/ Bar in Andalusia, IL.

 

Actual restaurant in the food court at the Maine Mall-  Portland, ME. You don’t want to know what’s in the ….well, anything.

Any children or my children?

Montreal, Quebec. So, no golfing and …what… no pooping goats? Or is it a sheep? Or is it a dog?

More damn rules. Okay, so no golf, no pooping sheep , and no hunting campers. I got it. State park in the arrowhead of Minnesota.

 

Deli in Iowa City, IA. Okay, maybe I’ll just go to McDonalds. The spatters of blood are a nice touch.

 

Hospital – Aledo, IL. I love glyphs! Where are his arms, by the way?

 

Carleton College – Northfield, MN. I love it that the Career Center is in Severance Hall.

 

Super 8 – Cloquet, MN. Are hard boiled eggs regional or rotational? Must be rotational, because they’re round. Get it? Get it?

 

Old Threshers Reunion – Mount Pleasant, IA. Sign needs to be…bigger, maybe?

 

Yes, we carry this sign with us everywhere we go.

 

Preston Hotel – Nashville, TN. No crappy little Gideon Bible is gonna cut it at the Preston (an awesome and quirky hotel, by the way.) In addition to the Spiritual Menu they ask you when you check in if you want a fish or a lamp. When you look puzzled they tell you that they will deliver to your room either a live Guppy in a fishbowl or a Lava Lamp for company or ambiance. Love that hotel!

 

A sign next to the history museum in Dickinson, ND. “German’s from Russia – They Came?” Well, good for them.

 

The Game Cleaning Room at Bemidji State University – Bemidji, MN. I bet Harvard doesn’t have that.

Some Questionable Grammar

Buckle Up. It’s more important then you think.

 

With rights comes responsibility, eh?

 

EL PASO, TX. Somebody has to sell tickets for Virgin Galactic.

 

Des Moines, IA. – Who says Iowans lack a sense of humor?

 

Beef Jerky Outlet – Huntsville, AL. Who says Alabamans lack a sense of humor?

 

And my final sign.

No comment.

 

 

Buy, Buy, Buy

Here are some actual products I saw, and you can buy.

Really?

 

For Deer hunting. God I hope it’s for deer hunting!

 

This slogan seems needlessly menacing, or is it me?

 

A real game but I should get some royalties from the manufacturer for infringing on my joke – What does a Yeti put on his spaghetti? Squatchsauce!!!! Get it? Get it?

 

This is not your Grandma’s hot sauce. Check out the attached label in the next picture.

With great hot sauce comes great responsibility!

 

I know this is an engraving art set but I just can’t stop thinking that this is a Jedi Kitten holding a light-saber. Use the Force Jedi Kitten!!!!

 

Yes, everyone will think you are cool if your wear these.

 

Try our recycled Kleenex, too.

 

Sorry, I thought that was a different product.

 

Do you want some of my Nut Goodies? What? What? They’re really good.

 

Halloween costume…er…costumes.

 

Don’t know why this makes me laugh but it does every single time.

 

At The Bookstore

I’m not sure what the Dewey Decimal code is for Hipster Baby but here’s the section.

 

Okaaaay?

 

Best Book Title Ever!

This should be shelved with the Vegan Stoner Cookbook, I guess.

 

Spoiler alert ……..

 

Yes. Yes we are.

 

I’m all for it.

 

A Millennial update of the old classic.

 

Cleanse is one term for it.

 

Etcetera

And, finally, other random stuff I saw this year that gave me pause…

Or Paws…

You can’t unsee it. I’m sorry.

 

Merry Christmas …. I guess. (I wonder what the Chinese kid thought when he was painting this.)

 

Santa Fe, NM – A VW Bug – I get it!

 

I thought there was a limit to what states would allow on a vanity plate. So did he get this one first?

Or this one?

 

Mmmmmm. Jesus Donuts. They are HOLY!  Holey, Get it? Get it?

 

Aquarium bar. The Galt House – Louisville, KY. It really freaks out the drunks.

 

It’s the Christmas Dragon …I guess. What’s the Christmas dragon again?

 

A perfect square knot spontaneously tied by my iPad charger and my iPod charger. Cool, huh? I wasn’t even a Boy Scout.

 

Walking Sticks making the beast with two backs (and twelve legs) on my shed. I’m sorry. This was just so weird and cool I had to include it.

 

Cool! A Lego version of Mark Twain’s House – Hartford, CT Airport.

 

Amish men watching the Saloon show at the Midwest Old Thresher’s Reunion – Mt. Pleasant, IA. I guess they didn’t want the elders seeing them inside.

 

A Tesla charging station in Amarillo, TX in the middle of Texas Oil country. Not even any graffiti.

 

The box the box my new shoes came in came in.

 

My son’s class did dioramas of the U.S. states. My son did Vermont. It was awesome. I do have to give honorable mention to the kid who did Tennessee, though.

 

Parked in Nashville next to the Rolling Stones tour plane and had to get a picture. My twenty-something FO looked puzzled. “The Rolling Stones, MAN!” I shouted by way of explanation. He turned back to me and said, in all seriousness, “That’s a kind of candy, right?”

 

Smithsonian Air and Space Museum – Chantilly, VA. Actual china found in the wreckage of the Hindenburg. And I can’t even get a cup of coffee to the table without spilling it all over myself.

 

Best bumper sticker of the year, bar none.

 

Photo caption – Smithsonian Magazine. Favorite phrase of all time – Raze the Ruins. Sounds like a great name for a band.

 

Have some almonds. But be careful if you are allergic to …almonds.

 

Dye used in our PTC fundraising Color Run! Maize starch I get. But what, exactly, are permissible colors?

 

Who puts this ornament on their tree? And what does it mean if you do? Peace on Earth, Goodwill to men?

 

Bass Pro Shop Store – St. Charles, MO. True Story. I was looking at the fish in the big aquarium in the middle of the store when I became aware of a middle-aged lady standing beside me also looking into the tank. She was a store clerk it turned out. After an uncomfortably long time she turned to me and said, very calmly and seriously “I hate that fish. He watches me all the time I’m stocking shelves over here. He just watches.” I smiled politely and backed away slowly.

 

Final cool thing I got to do this year in my travels. On Veteran’s Day in Ottawa, Ontario I got to meet the Prime-Minister of Canada and get his picture. He’s a smart, young, handsome Liberal who doesn’t seem to hate too many people…I’m not sure where I’m going with this.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Minor League Hero

With the news everyday seeming so much like fiction I thought I would take a break from that and offer you some of my own fiction again (whether you want it or not). This is a short story I call:

 

Minor League Hero

by: Dustin Joy

Superman has it made. You have to admit, being able to fly is the big one. Who wouldn’t give their left arm for that? Flying opens up so many other opportunities, too. Not riding in coach is just the tip of the iceberg. And cooler even than flying is that standing in midair shit. You want to impress a lady, I tell you, try knocking on her sixth story apartment window. She opens the curtain, and there you are leaning against an imaginary wall fifty feet in the air. Man, you know you’re getting laid.

But it’s not so easy being in the minor leagues. For those of us who can’t summon whales to do our bidding or run four hundred miles an hour, it’s hard to get any respect. We get no press at all. I even tried getting on Hollywood Squares once but Whoopie wouldn’t take my call. Her assistant said they already had Green Lantern for September and they didn’t want to get into a rut on the whole superhero thing. Green Lantern, for Christ’s sake?I’m not bitter, though. I still thank God every day for what I’ve got. It is a gift, you know. And it is good to know that I’m helping people. I mean that’s what it’s all about, anyway. Right?

All I ever wanted was to do good in this world. I should be happy, because I have more chance to make a difference than most people. When they print up my obit in the Journal Star I’ll probably get one of those two column things with a little picture, you know. That’s more than most folks. And I like what I do, you know. It’s not drudgery. I’m not working in a factory. I don’t pull the same drill press handle every day. I save lives. I stop criminals. I do just what Batman does, without all the hype.

Sometimes I think about when I was a kid, before I discovered my gift. It seemed to me then that my life stretched out before me like a great plain. I could see in all directions, and I could go in any direction. But as I got older, it seemed like I was coming up to a big forest. At first the trees came in patches, and I could travel at will among them and even through them. But the farther I progressed, the denser the patches became until finally each patch formed a solid wall. After a while the patches merged into a vast forest with a single trail, all other avenues having been blocked. When we’re kids anything is possible. You can be an actor, a doctor, an astronaut, maybe president. But every decision you make closes certain doors or, more accurately, leads you down a path toward other choices each more inevitable than the last.

Finding out I had super powers opened up a lot of doors for me. But it also narrowed my focus. It closed some doors, too. As Spiderman says, “with great power comes great responsibility.” If God grants you super powers you can’t just go out and become a custodian. It’s like spitting in God’s face. At least that’s what my Mom used to say. “God doesn’t pass out super powers just for the hell of it.” If he’s gonna let you defy the laws of physics there’s got to be a reason. That’s how my Mom saw it, anyway. She always thought of my power as a gift for all mankind. I just kind of thought He meant it for me because He liked me.

I discovered my gift the same way a lot of young superheroes do, while masturbating. That might strike you as strange, especially given my previous statement about the God-given quality of such things. It makes sense, though, if you think about it. Each super power is rooted in or augmented by strong emotion. The Hulk is the obvious example. He gets mad, “TaDa,” here’s the Hulk. You’ve even heard of regular people, what we call norms, who in times of great crisis find superhuman strength- a mother who experiences an adrenaline rush lifts the refrigerator off the little child. It happens.

My theory is that there are more superheroes in this world than we know, people who just haven’t discovered their powers or learned to control them. Aquaman thinks I’m full of shit on this, but I believe it. Look at Granny Power. She never discovered her abilities until the age of seventy. Weren’t they there all along? I think so. All her life she was winning at Bingo and she just thought she was lucky. It was only after deep introspection and careful observation that she realized she was manipulating the balls with her own mind. She started channeling her energies, went to Vegas, won enough to make herself financially independent, and put her gift to use fighting crime, crimes other than gambling fraud.

Anyway, superpowers are nearly always the result of electrochemical reactions in the body and mind. Strong emotion whips these chemicals into a froth. Hence, there you are, jacking off to your Debbie Gibson album cover, and, TaDa, all the light bulbs in the room blow out at once. Coincidence? You start thinking. Next day you’re helping your Dad in the shop and you hit your thumb with the hammer; all four tires on the car go flat. It’s things like that that clue you in. You don’t tell anyone, of course. They would think you’re nuts. And also, your folks would be horrified to learn about your self-abuse. So you quietly conduct some more experiments, with Debbie Gibson’s unwitting assistance. You discover that things blow up, break, crack, or otherwise destroy themselves every time you reach a, shall we say, emotional climax. Then it strikes you that maybe this thing can be controlled. Maybe it can be put to use.

Now, you can’t carry around pictures of Debbie Gibson while you’re fighting crime. It wouldn’t look right, even wearing big puffy pants. But you practice in other ways. You glare at the uncool corduroys your mom bought for you and you bear down with all your might like you were fixing to take a crap. They burst into flames. You learn, through hard work and perseverance how to control your gift. You learn, eventually, how to knock the bully on his ass from across the playground without bursting any blood vessels in your eyes.

See, it’s only half a gift from God; the other half is hard work. That’s why there are superpower bums out there. I know a guy who comes to the meetings sometimes who can locate lost keys and stuff just by talking to the person who lost them. But he doesn’t want to bother with it. I told him he could make a lot of money that way, finding people’s rings and things for a fee. But he just wants to watch Nascar and drink beer.

I’ve come to understand that. I mean, what does God want, anyway? He gives you this gift and everybody thinks you’re a freak. Sometimes you can make a good living out of it, sometimes not. Just look at Dittoman, able to burn the image of one page of information onto a fresh piece of paper placed below it. Here he’s doing alright, making a living, and wham, here comes Xerox and he’s on state aid. And even if God gives you a good one you’re still not making out like Bill Gates. Christ, Superman still has a day job. If God wanted to give you a real gift he’d give you an MBA from Harvard, or make your parents George and Barbra Bush. Sometimes you start to wonder if your gift is actually some kind of punishment, possibly for masturbating.

But you do your what you can and try to make the best of it. Once you learn to control your powers, you’ve got to learn how to apply them. You get a lot of thank you in this line of work but precious few stock options. I understand the sentiment of superheroes who just want to be left alone.

I guess I was about 15 when I first discovered my powers. I was just a normal kid, maybe a bit nerdy. Bookish is the word I like to use. But I played soccer, had some friends, the hots for Debbie Gibson. You know, regular kid. Then one day it all changed. I was in my bedroom alone, you know. As I was about to finish my, um, exercises I noticed some movement off to my left. I look over and here is a rock from my rock collection floating in mid air. As you might imagine, I was a little surprised. But as soon as I got a real good focus on the rock it fell to the floor. I wasn’t sure I had seen what I thought I saw. Eventually I forgot about it. A few weeks later, though, it happened again- same situation, same rock. Only this time the rock stayed in the air. I was dumbfounded. It was like something out of Close Encounters. I sat there with my hand on my wank looking at this floating rock. At first I assumed that I was witnessing the work of a poltergeist, which unnerved me mostly because that meant the poltergeist had been witnessing my work. In my absorption with the riddle of the rock, my hand fell still. The rock began to slowly descend toward the table. As my erection quickly subsided so did the rock, finally settling back into its place among the rest of the collection.

I sat in the semi-darkness of the room for what seemed like hours, staring at the rock and the spot in the air which it had occupied. I was literally petrified, certain that any poltergeist that could lift a rock could just as easily dash my brains out with said rock. For the next week, I spent hour upon hour in my room waiting for the rock to move, but it never did. Though I spent all day in the room I wasn’t about to sleep there. When my parents had gone to bed I snuck down to the laundry room and slept in a pile of linens, curled up against the dryer, badminton racquet in hand. For some reason I felt a badminton racquet was the proper weapon for use against a rock chucking poltergeist.

No matter how vigilant or distracted, however, it is impossible for a teenage boy to keep his hands off himself for long. I finally succumbed to my natural urges in the laundry room one night. All hell broke loose. As soon as I commenced to enjoy myself, cans of soda from the nearby shelf began to burst sending geysers of RC and Tab everywhere. I ran from the room in my birthday suit, dripping with soda and certain the poltergeist had found me again. What my father must have thought when I barreled into him in the hallway, I can’t say, but it is that incident which finally prompted the appointment with Dr. Marshall. It was in the psychotherapist’s office that I ultimately began to understand and control my gift. Dr. Marshall gave me a new perspective on my powers and my Dad helped Dr. Marshall pay off his Bentley. We were all winners.

In my life I haven’t been able to determine if God is kind and benevolent or petty and malicious. Einstein said God doesn’t play dice with the universe. Of course Einstein was mistaken about string theory, wasn’t he. And he didn’t really seem like someone who spent a lot of time around crap tables. My theory is that God has a lot to watch. I think he has about a billion worlds out there to keep him entertained. Once he sets one up and tinkers with it a bit I think he kind of loses interest. It’s like your closet full of junk at home. There’s your stamp collection, the snow skis, the paint by numbers thing, with easel, your wood-burning set, the treadmill. All held your interest for about a week and then you never looked at them again. I think that’s what God did to us. I think he set it all up, let there be light and whatnot, then just kind of got bored.

Sure the whole Garden of Eden thing was interesting: nudity, intrigue, betrayal, talking snakes. Even the rest of the Genesis days had their interesting points: deceit, murder, incest. But I think God had stuffed us in Mr. Whoopee’s closet before he even got through the begats. Since then it’s been kind of tough to get his attention. Hitler finally got noticed, but it sure took God a while to do something about him. I think by then he was watching his own little soap opera in the Andromeda Galaxy.

So despite my mother’s insistence that I was one of God’s chosen, I quickly came to the conclusion that I was the butt of one of God’s less funny jokes. As I learned more about my powers I became even more persuaded that God was the, well, the, shall we say, the Carrot Top of the, well, of the universe. My first frustration came when I tried to use my powers to levitate items other than my one particular rock and soda cans. No dice. Strain as I might and curse as Dr. Marshall would, I could not move wood, plastic, steel, copper, marble, oatmeal, or cotton. As it turns out the only things I have influence over are items composed of at least 18% aluminum by weight or rocks containing at least 37% bauxite ore. My powers were not quite as stunning as I had imagined.

Now some people would have accepted defeat at this point and used their powers to retrieve beer from the fridge while they watched Nascar. But whatever I have been in my life, I have not been a quitter. By this time I had settled on superhero as a vocation and no matter God’s plan I was going to parlay my meager gift into fame and universal renown. I had the ability to levitate, bend, melt, and otherwise rearrange the atoms in objects made of aluminum. That’s pretty darn cool if you think about it. Most people can’t do that. And if you think about it there are quite a few things in this world made of aluminum; some pretty cool stuff, in fact.

So I made a solemn vow that I would use my powers for good, to benefit all mankind. Now I needed a hook, a motif, and a name. Several suggested themselves. My friend Marcus proposed the Tin Man, which I thought summoned up negative comparisons with the “heartless” character of Oz fame, and after all, aluminum is not tin. They are separate elements, you know. Comparisons to Superman didn’t seem appropriate, either. “Man of Aluminum” just doesn’t turn on the chicks like “Man of Steel.” I put the moniker on hold and focused my attention on the modus operandi. To fight crime, you have to be able to use your powers to reduce felons to custody. In my mind that called for a weapon. But my weapon, obviously, had to be made of, you know, aluminum.

Fortunately for me aluminum is a fairly versatile metal and it is, contrary to popular belief, very strong for its weight. I considered a number of items: a gun which fired aluminum bullets. I could steer the bullets as they left the muzzle to hit targets even around corners. Alas, I lacked the intestinal fortitude to actually kill anyone, even bad guys. The gun was out.
Next I considered airplanes. Airplanes are made of aluminum. I could have a cool little jet like Wonder Woman. I could control it from the ground to locate terrorists and put out fires. Who knows? I quickly discovered that even the most paltry “little jet” was in the neighborhood of five million dollars, more than my weapon budget had allotted. I even appealed to the U.S. military for funds, expounding the benefits of my gift which could accrue to them if they would provide me the use of one of the Air Force’s spare “little jets.” The short-sighted bastards passed on the deal.

Ultimately, I had a friend of my father, who happened to be a competent machinist, fashion me a hammer out of aluminum. It was large, about the size of a mini sledge, and not unattractive. Sleek and silver, it glimmered as I piloted it across the sky. With it I could break things, deflect weapons, and knock the wind out of fleeing thugs without, in the process, killing them. The true mark of a superhero is, of course, the ability to render bad guys unconscious, not send them to hell.

Satisfied, if somewhat disappointed, in my weapon, I returned to the problem of a name. Marcus suggested that if I was still against Tin Man, that perhaps Tin Hammer would sound good, or even, perhaps Silver Hammer, since my weapon is, actually silver colored. But I felt that Silver Hammer still implied too much. Honesty is the best policy for a superhero and it struck me as vaguely dishonest to call my hammer silver because of its color when I knew, full well, that everyone would assume the hammer was made of silver.

Finally, I opted to eliminate the color altogether and I settled for a moniker that commanded attention and summoned up a manly image of power and stability. I became — THE HAMMER! In the headlines, at least. In the eyes of the State of Illinois I remain Martin T. Hammer, since the bureaucrat in the Secretary of State’s office required that my name change paperwork include a full first name and a middle initial.

To be a crime fighter, one needs to develop a close working relationship with the police. It does not do to leap onto the scene in your nifty periwinkle leotard and announce to the assembled law enforcement personnel surrounding the bank robber, “stand aside officers, I shall subdue this scoundrel!” A lot of prior legwork is required before that little give and take can be pulled of credibly. The first time I tried it I nearly got shot in the back by a Mattoon county sheriff’s deputy and ended up spending 72 hours in the pokey for aiding and abetting.

But I finally hit my stride after a few more false starts. My first unqualified success was a drug bust at a crack house in East Peoria. I had been hounding some cops I knew to let me ride around with them on patrol. They were skeptical, at first. I think it was the leotard. Anyway, I just kept hanging around the precinct getting people coffee and whatnot. Everyone has to start small, you know. I’d get to use my hammer here and there mostly to, you know, hammer stuff. And then one night, Sergeant Floyd Patterson, requested me as backup. Actually, I think he kind of said, “For Christ sake Martin shut up and get in the damn car. And for God’s sake put on some pants, you freak.” It was like that at first, you know. Cops are always like that, hard boiled and unrefined. And they’re always kidding each other like that, calling each other freaks and stuff.

We met up with other law enforcement officers from the metropolitan enforcement agency in the Wal-Mart parking lot and planned the approach to the crack house. I offered that I could knock on the front door dressed as a pizza delivery guy with my hammer neatly concealed in a pizza box. When they opened the box to get a slice of pepperoni, those thugs would get the comeuppance they so richly deserved a silver, er, aluminum hammer upside the head. Unfortunately my selfless offer was met with a barrage of paper cups and wadded up doughnut bags. In their defense, the cops were right to be cautious, never having witnessed my prowess with the hammer.

Finally, it was determined to knock down the door with the battering ram and toss in a stun grenade and some tear gas. Their solution was effective, I guess, but none too elegant. I told them so. Floyd told me to go sit in the car. I thought I had lost my opportunity. When we reached the crack house, though, my plan was vindicated, well, partly. Somebody forgot to bring the battering ram. My hammer carried the day as the door to that den of iniquity dissolved in a shower of splinters. It would have been even cooler if I had been swinging the hammer, instead of Officer Perkins.

Today I am well known and respected in crime-fighting circles, in and around Peoria. Whenever there is trouble in the tri-county area, The Hammer is there. When meth lab doors need opening, I’m there. When scofflaws tear down stop signs, I’m on the scene to nail new ones up. When the mayor’s cat gets caught in a tree, I’m there to knock that branch off the tree. I also stop the occasional high speed chase by knocking out the headlights of the felon’s getaway car. This works only at night, of course.

I have gained a degree of satisfaction from my work that most people only dream of. Sure, being a minor league hero can be mundane at times. If I have to knock icicles off the water tower again I’m gonna scream. But you don’t hear me complaining… much. I’m doing good work. The people shower me with adulation, well, appreciation, well …. Did I mention that I get a free cell phone? City hall picks up the tab. They were gonna have a big spotlight thing, projecting my trademark hammer symbol on the clouds, to alert me in time of need. But I kept responding to false alarms at Malcomb Chevy/ GEO when they were having a sale. Mr. Malcomb likes his spotlight and he’s got pull on the city council. So I got the cell phone. It’s really a good deal. I get unlimited night and weekend minutes.

I also get a salary from the city, even a per diem when I’m on loan to the Quad City or Rockford Police. The Mayor doesn’t mind if I take a tip or two from grateful crime victims as long as I declare it for my W2.

As for the ladies, I think they are a little intimidated by the whole Super Hero thing. They are obviously attracted to the leotard and cape. Men in uniform always draw women in. But then they make this nervous little laugh and keep their distance, all coy and shy. It’s really sweet. Unfortunately it doesn’t translate into much one on one action for The Hammer.

I try to be philosophical about my gift, if that’s what it is. I try to make my own luck, as they say. But on those cloudy days I will admit that I have my doubts. Maybe God plays tricks on all of us. Maybe his best one is this: He whispers in our ears that we are really something, that we are special, that we are superheroes even. He tells us we are right, and good, and noble of purpose. He leads us to believe that we are the hero of our own narrative. Only later do we see that he was just joking. He whispered something else about us into everyone else’s ears.