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:


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.



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

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. 



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.
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


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.


Your Daddy



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.





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.

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

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


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.



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.




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.



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.


















I recently entered, for the second time, the River City Reader’s short fiction contest. It is an interesting little challenge for someone who tends to go on and on and on in his writing. The challenge is to write a short story of 300 words or less incorporating a writing prompt from Iowa Author Ethan Canin. About 10 prompts were available, consisting of sentences plucked from Canin’s novels and short stories.

If you are a writer you will recognize that 300 words is not a lot to work with. New Yorker Fiction editor Deborah Treisman says stories in the magazine average about 2,000 – 10,000 words. To give you another idea of this limitation, the word magazine, in the last sentence, was the hundredth word in this introduction.

Last year my story A Hero of a Sort, heavily edited to make the 300 word limit, got honorable mention in the contest and was published in the Reader. This year I got honorable mention again and had my story published on the Reader’s website. While I can’t seem to break into the medals I have enjoyed the challenge and am considering some more short-short story ideas for my blog. Please enjoy here, a story I call Chicory, the first sentence of which is a prompt from Canin’s novel We Are Nighttime Travelers. My story was inspired by walks with my daughter (who is not handicapped) and my father’s devotion to this beautiful roadside flower.




by: Dustin Joy

My hand finds her fingers and grips them, bone and tendon, fragile things. She smiles and swings our two hands back and forth extravagantly. We walk together feeling the heat in the soles of our shoes as the blacktop gives up a day’s worth of stored up sunshine. I take baby steps. She can’t walk very far or very fast with her braces.

“What is that flower, Daddy?” She pauses to allow a honeybee’s evacuation and then bends at the waist until her nose touches the cornflower blue blossom at the side of the road. “It is sooooooo pretty.”

“That’s chicory.” I sound it out for her and she forms the word, “chick-ree.”

“It grows in the rocks, Daddy. It grows real pretty. It’s the bluest flower I ever saw. Isn’t it pretty?”

“Yes, it is sweetheart.”

She bends down again as if paying her respects to the chicory. She sniffs. “Why does it grow in the rocks, Daddy, and not in the garden with the other flowers?”

Our shadows lengthen, one long and one short.

“The prettiest flowers grow in the rocks, my dear.”

Now she grips my fingers, tendon and bone. We are all fragile things.

“Why, Daddy?”

“Nobody knows why, my dear. Nobody knows why.”

Close the Door

I was recently given an opportunity. I was given the opportunity to close a door. At first I didn’t see it as an opportunity. In fact, it felt more like a betrayal, or a slap in the face. Viewing the situation as a choice struck me as the kind of cock-eyed optimism that leads, inevitably to such bullshit as “when God gives you lemons, make lemonade.”

I will concede one thing, though. If you are going to get slapped in the face it feels a lot better to get it over with. What really hurts is to keep getting slapped in the face for years only to realize that the big slap is still on its way. It might be advantageous, sometimes, to give yourself a hard slap in the face and to wake yourself the hell up. Okay, enough potty mouth.

The door in question is one which I have held ajar with my foot for about twenty years. Behind it lay a cherished little fantasy that I have carried with me since graduating from college. I have had many opportunities over those years to let the door slam shut. I also probably had it within my power to prise it open and  to walk through it. Why I did neither is a question I have had trouble answering. How can a man who flies jet airplanes through thunderstorms be so indecisive?

These little fantasies that we carry with us throughout our lives are powerful. I suspect everyone has one, or two, or fifty. Maybe it’s the girl we broke up with in high school. Maybe it’s owning a Mercedes. Maybe it’s buying our own business. Maybe it’s punching our boss in the nose on the day of our retirement- see “Oney” by Johnny Cash.

Most of these fantasies never see the light of day. They run on an endless loop inside our brains, mostly in the background, but occasionally on the center screen. Sometimes they motivate us to action but more often they simply cheer us up or bring us down like a dose of melatonin or serotonin. Sometimes they are merely an escape from the drudgeries of our day to day life.

Letting go of cherished fantasies is a sign of maturity, I think. It is logical. It is reasonable. Unfortunately, it is against human nature. Economists have a concept called the sunk costs fallacy which we all, from plumbers to presidents, are taken in by. We have a very human propensity to base our decisions not on cold, empirical facts but on our emotional attachment to the past and our fear of loss.

Wikipedia says, “In economics and business decision-making, a sunk cost is a cost that has already been incurred and cannot be recovered.” The sunk cost fallacy is described by Economists Hal R. Arkes and Peter Ayton in their paper: The Sunk Cost and Concorde Effects: Are Humans Less Rational Than Lower Animals? They say:

“The sunk cost effect is a maladaptive economic behavior that is manifested in a greater tendency to continue an endeavor once an investment in money, effort, or time has been made. A prior investment should not influence one’s consideration of current options; only the incremental costs and benefits of the current options should influence one’s decision.”

By the way, if you were wondering if lower animals are more rational than humans, Arkes and Ayton say yes. “A number of experimenters who have tested lower animals have confirmed that they simply do not succumb to the fallacy.”

So, what does all this economics jargon mean? It means just what your old Grandfather said. To wit: “Don’t throw good money after bad!”  Also, “Know when to fold ‘em!”

I find it hard to give up my little fantasy because I have invested years of labor and time and money in its development. I have cultivated it carefully in my own mind. I made decisions, over the course of twenty years, which accommodated this fantasy but which made my life much more difficult and expensive. My wife and I made compromises to this fantasy which appeared to me to be investments but which, ultimately, were written down only in my own ledger book, not the one which mattered. It is probably time now to stop.

The door which I held open so long for myself, to benefit my indecision, was ultimately opened by another, a late-comer, who opened it by simply reaching out and grabbing the handle. The door opened for him and closed on my fingers while I wasn’t paying attention. I have been angry at him for doing that which I had neglected to do. I have been angry at him for taking my little fantasy away from me. I have been angry at him for betraying my good-natured sympathy for his situation. I have been angry at him for redefining my years of work and sacrifice as “sunk costs.”

My fingers are still in the door. I have a choice. I could shout my righteous indignation to the rooftops. I could demand satisfaction from the world. I could, in short, make an utter fool of myself and poison relationships that I have built over the course of a lifetime. Or…I could not do that.

Viewed correctly any choice is an opportunity.  It may be irrational to consider sunk costs when making future decisions. It is also irrational to let anger get the best of you. A quote, attributed to Mark Twain, says this:

“Anger is an acid that can do more harm to the vessel in which it is stored than to anything on which it is poured.”

However hard this aphorism is to accept and live by, I believe it to be true. It’s time for a new fantasy, I think. I pull my hand away now. The door is closed.




“Love seems the swiftest, but it is the slowest of all growths. No man or woman really knows what perfect love is until they have been married a quarter of a century.”

-Mark Twain


Later this week my wife and I will celebrate our twenty-fifth wedding anniversary. Twenty-five years is a long time. It is time for a lot to happen. It is time for things to evolve. It is time for things to go wrong. It is time for things to go right. It is time for laughter. It is time for tears. It is time for babies to be born and, indeed, for babies to grow up. It is time for misunderstandings. It is time for perfect agreement. It is time for amazing victories. It is time for spectacular failures. It is time for two people to get to know each other pretty well.

In the last twenty-five years I have made some dumb mistakes. My choices, taken on the whole, have been pretty questionable. Hell, I owned four Fords in that time. I did get one thing right, though, despite myself. The decision I don’t regret, have never once regretted in twenty-five years, was asking Melissa Mueller to marry me. And my hero Samuel Clemons, as always, is on the Mark. Love gets better over time. Perfect love needs incubation. It needs refinement. It needs twenty-five years together. Romeo and Juliet aside, kids don’t know anything about Love.

I was a nerd in High School. Who am I fooling? I am a nerd, now. But it was a nerd sport which led me to Missy. Scholastic Bowl is a trivia contest where teams compete to answer questions in various knowledge fields. I had joined the team as a freshman and by my sophomore year I thought I was pretty good.

I liked going to the tournaments and I liked the practices. But what I really liked, after the first meeting of my sophomore year, was to see a certain cute little black-haired freshman girl come through the door of Mrs. Smith’s classroom. She made me feel all funny inside. She made me stammer. She made me loose track of time. Egad! She made me miss tossup questions. And on those days when she didn’t show up (she also played clarinet in the marching band) I was distraught.

Missy caught my eye because she was pretty. I can’t deny that. She had short, black hair and a cute little button nose. She had rosy cheeks and an omnipresent smile. Her eyes sparkled. When she entered a room she brought a kind of warmth and energy with her. She still does.

I probably would have wanted to ask out Melissa Mueller (once I built up the courage) even if she had never spoken to me. But she did speak. She came up to me and said “Hi.” I have never tired of hearing that voice.

Missy was not just another pretty girl. She had a brain. She had a wonderful, complex, fascinating, engaging brain. She challenged me in every way. Ultimately she challenged me for Captain of the Scholastic Bowl team and she won. She has won many times since.

I finally did ask her out. In my usual fashion I almost waited too long. On the eve of the homecoming dance I discovered to my horror that another boy, a band nerd no less, had asked Missy to the dance. Cravenly, I went to the dance alone, green with envy and with cruel intentions for the other boy. I got lucky. She didn’t hold my knavery against me and surprisingly neither did the other boy. She danced with me most of the evening. In twenty-five years Missy has tolerated a lot of plodding, slow, indecisiveness from me. I don’t know why. I don’t know how. I only know that I have always depended on her kindness and tolerance and, up to now, she has always bestowed it on me. As to the other boy. Well, he… became a doctor or something …no need to mention him any further.

Why do Mark Twain and me both agree on the quarter-century. It’s because men are dumb. It’s because we are blockheads and slow learners. The truth is that when you are lucky you don’t always know how lucky you are. I know it now and I shall never forget it.

Missy and I have had our struggles as I imagine all married couples do. We have argued about money, sometimes. We have argued about politics, sometimes. We finish each other’s sentences, occasionally, for better or worse. But our love for each other and our respect for one another (at least mine for her) has constantly augmented.

Here’s one thing I know is true about my wife. Missy is the smartest person I have ever known in every sense of that word. She is sharp and intelligent and possesses a rapier wit. She loves a good pun and a clever turn of phrase. Her vocabulary is impressive (English major, you know) which I love. She is superlative (see, she’ll get that).

Missy’s memory is prodigious. No, that isn’t quite right. To say her memory is prodigious is to say Michael Jordan was a pretty good basketball player. On questions requiring memory I concede the point immediately. She is correct. I am mistaken. Case in point: On a recent vacation to the north shore of Lake Superior we visited a park we had passed through on our Honeymoon twenty-five years ago. Trying to evoke a romantic response and impress her with my less than prodigious memory I asked her (rhetorically, of course) if she recalled standing by the waterfall as we watched children playing in the mist. Yes, she said, “you were wearing a yellow shirt.” I think that’s what she said. I can’t really quite recall. That was two weeks ago.

Cynics say that familiarity breeds contempt. I guess I’m not as cynical as I think. My love for Missy has only grown stronger as we toddle along together toward old age. I travel a great deal for my job and my profession has a tendency, in some cases, to be hard on a marriage. I have flown with a number of younger married First Officers who seem rather ambivalent about the trip ending. At least a couple dread the thought of going home to their spouse or, worse yet, ex-spouse. Not me. I am a lucky bastard.

I am not a composer so I can’t write a fitting symphony to honor our twenty- five years together. I’m not a sculptor so there will be no soaring block of granite with hearts and cherubs to proclaim it. I am a pilot but the company really (I mean really!) discourages skywriting with passengers aboard. Tributes can come in different forms. Here is mine:

Missy, I always want to come home. When we touch down in Chicago and I set that parking brake there is, like the Roadrunner, a puff of smoke in the shape of me and I am gone. I am gone home to your loving arms. Your arms are my favorite place to be on this planet, wherever those arms are.

Happy Twenty-fifth my Love! May I be lucky enough to get fifty more with you.



Yesterday I visited the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama. It is the home of the famous U.S. Space Camp and, at the nearby Redstone Arsenal, NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center. Since space flight is predicated on rocketry, Marshall is arguably the birthplace of the American space program. At Huntsville America took the shameful remnants of Hitler’s missile program and transformed them into an ideal of peaceful, civilian-controlled scientific achievement, culminating in the landing of men on the moon. The centerpiece of NASA’s effort, and indeed the showpiece of the U.S. Space and Rocket Center, is the Saturn V rocket.

The Saturn V - The Most Powerful Vehicle Ever Built

The Saturn V – The Most Powerful Vehicle Ever Built

To a certain kind of person, one like me, standing under this massive machine, the most powerful vehicle ever built, fills the heart with pride. Every patriotic American should be proud of what this country achieved, ostensibly to beat the Russians, but truly to advance science and answer the fundamental questions men have posed since our ancestors first looked up at that bright light in the night sky.

Since the Saturn V is a superlative machine, let’s say the superlative machine, I cannot help, at this point, offering some data to back up that claim. The Saturn V, fully assembled with the Apollo capsule in place, stood 363 feet high. Loaded and fully fueled the Saturn V weighed 6,500,000 pounds (3,250 tons). For reference this is the weight of about 7 Boeing 747s. The fully loaded weight of the Saturn V represented a great deal of fuel. After liftoff the five powerful F1 rockets burned for 2 minutes and 41 seconds, each generating 1,500,000 pounds of thrust. In that time those engines consumed 4,700,000 pounds of fuel (Kerosene and liquid oxygen). In terms of energy released as a function of time, this makes the Saturn V a bit like a scarcely controlled bomb. In 161 seconds the Saturn V burned 82% of an Olympic swimming pool of fuel.

So that is pretty big and pretty powerful and pretty god-damned amazing and yet …

Apparently, according to the U.S. Space and Rocket Center, the most powerful machine ever built is an inadequate showpiece to hold the attention of entertainment-starved Americans and get them to part with $27 in the museum gift shop for a flashing Chinese-made keychain with Katelyn, or Caitlin, or Katylynne printed on it. To buttress the Saturn V and the Jupiter C and the Mercury-Redstone and the full-size mock up of the Space Shuttle and, get this, an actual, no-kidding rock from the frigging moon they needed something “flashy.” So, right in the middle of this monument to American can-do technological know-how we have – a carnival ride. No, here are two carnival rides. No, wait, three. Here my internal curmudgeon shows his wrinkled face. Since cell phone addled kids can’t be expected to focus on something as humdrum as a 363 foot tall rocket there is a ride called the “G-force” or something suitably “spacey.” The G-force, pretending to be an “astronaut-training device,” is nothing more than the ride we used to puke all over at Adventureland called the “Silly Silo.” Next to it is a “temporarily out of service” launch simulator named the “Space Shot” which is no more than the kid’s “bouncy ride” from the Mall of America.

The V2 - Hitler's Evil Toy That Led To Something Really Good

The V2 – Hitler’s Evil Toy That Led To Something Really Good

And I suppose the amusement park philosophy at the U.S. Rocket center is actually market driven; gotta pack in the paying customers. But why must everything in this country, including a museum dedicated to our space program have to turn a profit? I soon saw why. As I was standing in the main hall taking in a captured German V2 rocket, a disgusted father and his tween son hove into view from the IMAX theater (another concession to entertainment culture.) The father, about my age, tried to engage his son in the wonder of the Saturn V. The son continued to groan and send text messages on his phone. A bit later I saw the father literally throw up his hands and say, loudly, “So this is how today’s gonna go, I guess! You are going to refuse to be impressed by anything?”

I am not, at all, prone to picking on the Millennial generation. My children’s cohort, the ones I have known, are intelligent and savvy, and hard-working. They are achieving some amazing things against the strong headwinds of a tough job market, low pay, and crippling college costs. They face challenges that my generation and my parents generation never faced and indeed “laid on them.” What is sad, to me, is that we have failed to inspire these kids with the science and technology that set our hearts afire. More on that later.

A Model of the Future - We Can Hope

A Model of the Future – We Can Hope

1.5 Million Pounds of Thrust Each - Not too Shabby

1.5 Million Pounds of Thrust Each – Not too Shabby

A 363 Foot Roman Candle

A 363 Foot Roman Candle

3 Men, 8 Days, Half a Million Miles, In This Tiny Capsule.

3 Men, 8 Days, Half a Million Miles, In This Tiny Capsule.

Unlike the tween boy I found much to be impressed by at the U.S. Rocket Center. Exhibits in the main hall included the Saturn V, the aforementioned moon rock picked up by Astronaut Alan Bean, an actual piece of Skylab the size of a Mini Cooper which survived its plunge to Earth when it crashed into Australia in 1979. There were models of the U.S.’s past and (hopefully) future rockets, “extra” F1 rocket engines, and a full scale mock-up of the lunar rover demonstrating the manner in which the little space car could be folded into a box about half its size. In the corner stood an actual Apollo spacesuit. It looked just like my grade school friend had described the one he owned and “forgot” (so many times) to bring to school to show us. All of these wowed me. I found myself lapsing into vivid daydreams starring me, lying in that implausibly small capsule atop that pillar of explosives and being catapulted into orbit, watching the wide green horizon of Earth resolve itself before my eyes into a curved blue billiard ball framed by blackness.

I have, several times in my life experienced what Edgar Allan Poe called “The Imp of the Perverse,” a powerful, nay overwhelming, urge to do a dangerous, forbidden, and completely uncharacteristic thing. My imp presents himself mostly at moments of awe or grandeur, or at times when circumstances call for decorum. I felt his presence when I stood on the observation deck of the Empire State Building and heard his whispered voice describing to me the perfect swan dive one might execute for the crowds below. My imp gnawed at me yesterday as I stared at the moon rock, urging me, prodding me, tempting me to lift up the glass enclosure and pick up this otherworldly relic. I had to walk away eventually, out of fear.

An Actual, No-foolin' Moon Rock. I Successfully Walked Away.

An Actual, No-foolin’ Moon Rock. I Successfully Walked Away.

Nearby was a fascinating exhibit which showed Neil Armstrong’s heart rate during his manual landing of the Apollo 11 lunar module. Even Armstrong, whom I always found to be disappointingly boring in interviews, could not hide the pressure and excitement of the mind-blowing activity in which he was engaged.

Neil Armstrong's Heart Rate - A Cool Customer, But Still...

Neil Armstrong’s Heart Rate – A Cool Customer

Outside the rocket center’s main exhibit hall are some other pretty amazing pieces of American-made technology, now left to moulder. The A12, an early model of the SR-71 sits, apparently rusting if such a thing is possible, in front of the gift shop. This is an aircraft capable of traveling from Los Angeles to Washington, D.C. in 64 minutes. Today it was going the opposite of fast. It needed a thorough cleaning to remove the pine pollen and a coat of paint.

The A12 (Predecessor to the SR-71). Can Titanium rust?

The A12 (Predecessor to the SR-71). Can Titanium rust?

Behind the visitor center and flanked by the carnival rides were rockets representing the critical baby steps it takes to get to the moon. There was the Mercury-Redstone rocket, America’s desperate attempt to catch-up to the Russians and put a man “up there.” The Redstone part was simply an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) with the warhead replaced by a capsule the size of a pup tent. When ready for launch it resembled nothing so much as a high powered rifle cartridge with Alan Shepherd the little lead projectile on the end. The courage it must have taken to climb into that claustrophobic bullet and be launched into space makes Schwarzenegger look like Shaggy from Scooby-Doo. Why can’t we sell this story to kids? Why do we need gimmicks and rides to hook kids on science? We have actual heroes and actual amazing machines to inspire the next generation. The other rockets, like the A12 are fading in the hot Alabama sun. Their chalky paint looks like my old ’87 Mercury Sable. Even the signs and placards meant to explain these wonders to the center’s visitors are faded and warped and unreadable. In the meantime the Space Camp kids, whose parents are paying thousands of dollars to send them here, are treated to the Silly Silo and a foil package of Astronaut Ice Cream. We should do better.

Rocket Garden

Rocket Garden

This Is The ...I Guess...Jupiter C?

This is the …I Guess…Jupiter C?

We are so cheap in this country now and have lost our collective swagger to the point that we have to pay the Russians to send our astronauts to the International Space Station. What we can do, apparently, is make movies. Finally, overwhelmed by the heat, I retreated into the visitor center again to take in the IMAX movie. This movie had the highest ratio of flag-waving pride to things to be proud of I’ve seen since the last time I was in Texas (sorry Texas, that was a cheap shot). It crowed about our past glories, Mercury, Gemini, Apollo. But then it lapsed into cheap sci-fi, commercialism, and wishful thinking. Part of the film was little more than an unpaid advertisement for Spacex (Elan Musk’s commercial rocket launch company) and it’s competitors. A breathless narrator explained how these highly-subsidized private companies would be doing the basic “Earth orbit” stuff in future so NASA could focus on dreamy stuff like a trip to Mars in the next 30-100 years.


How Old Is Too Old To Be An Astronaut?

I’m sorry guys. That model does not inspire one kid to study Physics. It is not a vision we can all take ownership of and be proud of like Apollo was. And don’t fool yourself; unless the American public is inspired and unless they feel real pride and ownership in our space program none of this stuff is going to happen. If kids can’t go down to Cape Canaveral and feel the vibration in their chest as a Space Shuttle roars off the launchpad with a big American flag painted on the side, there will be no money for space flight and there will accrue none of the tangible and intangible benefits of space flight we got from Apollo.

When I walked out of the U.S. Rocket Center with a strange combination of inspiration and disappointment I waited near the curb for my hotel van. To my right, near the entrance, was a specially marked parking spot blocked for use, so the sign said, of the U.S. Rocket Center Director. Parked in the spot was a shiny new Tesla sport’s car, manufactured by Elon Musk’s other flagship company. I do not imply here a quid pro quo. I will allow you to draw your own conclusion. It is possible that the Director, obviously a space enthusiast, is simply a fan of Musk and his technologies (I am, too). All I am saying is that if the U.S. Space Camp is in the business of promoting private space initiatives while NASA dreams unfunded dreams we have lost our way.

Not everything we do as a nation requires a profit motive. Some things should be done because they are intrinsically worth doing. They are worth doing because they inspire us, lift us up, give us a nobility of purpose. Doing these things together as a nation, instead of as companies watching the bottom line, bestows that nobility on all of us, rich and poor. When Armstrong made that step onto the powdery surface of the moon every American’s heart rate rose with his because we were all there with him.


by: Dustin Joy

Eat The Pretty Ones

Every day we see them,
In all the magazines,
They don’t look like anybody,
We’ve ever really seen,

They make us feel so ugly,
But now it’s time to stop,
They don’t look like that either,
Without the aid of Photoshop,

So, love your love handles,
Love your double chin,
And your receding hairline,
And all your saggy skin,

See your folds and creases,
In a whole new way,
Starting today.

Love Your Love Handles
by: Mitch Benn

It’s Not Fair

I am not a looker. I never have been. I was not “hot” in college. I was not a “handsome young man.” I’m pretty sure I didn’t win any beauty contests as a baby. I was a bony, skinny, scrawny teenager. I graduated into a pudgy, lumpy, bumpy adult. I have, you will note immediately, a big nose. I have gaps in my teeth, a ruddy complexion, and an aspiring double chin. My butt sticks out too far and, as a sort of hilarious joke by God (that trickster) my belly has expanded as a counterweight. I did not get my brother’s good looks nor my Grandpa’s stature (He was 6’ 3”). I am never gonna make the cover of GQ. And I am OK with that …now.

There is a time in our lives, though, when we certainly lament our genetic deficiencies. Adolescence is the worst, of course. Just at the point in our lives when we are most desperate to impress people (read that as the opposite sex) our bodies start doing weird and unexpected things. No one on the planet is crueler (more cruel?) than other teenagers. If we are not in that tiny club of genetic lottery winners, the cheerleader with the blemish-free skin or the football quarterback with the muscles and the freakish good looks, we begin to view ourselves as outcasts – garbage, to put it bluntly. We start to think that this is a judgement from an angry and arbitrary god, the jock god, if you will. We somehow start to think that we deserve this, that we deserve less happiness than these pretty people. Some people spend their whole lives in a kind of funk because of this phenomenon.

The Ugly Silent Majority

I am no Pollyanna. I understand that happiness is not distributed evenly on this cursed planet. I am willing to concede that some people are going to have an easier time of it by virtue of the height of their cheek bones or the slimness of their waist. Research demonstrates that the tips you get as a waitress have a great deal more to do with the color of your skin and the size of your breasts than the skill with which you do your job. I am prepared to admit that the “pretty” people will probably always have an easier time of it. What I’m not willing to concede, and you shouldn’t either, is the idea that they deserve more happiness than you or I. More to the point, I do not believe I, nor you, deserve less happiness because we have crooked teeth or little boobs (big boobs in the case of men) or acne. And the plain fact is – we have got them on the numbers.

Mitch Benn’s song, which I quote above, has another verse which set me to thinking the other day. It goes like this:

We feel like we’re abnormal,
But that’s ridiculous cause,
There’s maybe a couple of hundred of them,
And there’s six and a half billion of us.

That is the point. Look around the airports, and the parks, and the malls. We have the numbers. We are the ugly “silent majority” searching for a ski-slope-nosed, droopy-cheeked Nixon to lead us. Uh, ok, well he’s dead. But the point is that we, the big-nosed, overweight, uni-browed troglodytes should run this country. We should demand our share of happiness. We should redefine what beautiful is. The pretty people are the genetic anomaly and yet they have been able to perpetuate a state of, for lack of a better word, apartheid, on the rest of us.

Jupiter and Callisto by: Peter Paul Rubens

Jupiter and Callisto
by: Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640)

The Three Graces by: Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640)

The Three Graces
by: Peter Paul Rubens


Rubens and the Evolution of Pretty

Looking back through history there has been some evolution of “pretty.” Many of us, the gravitationally challenged, cling to the notion that in the days of Rubens “fat” was the standard by which women were measured. Plumpness was a sign of health and vivaciousness. His ladies were beautiful and confident and desired and, you know what, they looked like real women. Even in ancient cultures fertility icons were invariably statues of voluptuous women.

Ancient Stone Female Figurine Willendorf, Austria (24000 - 22000 BC)

Ancient Stone Female Figurine
Willendorf, Austria
(24000 – 22000 BC)

The ideal of beauty represented by the anorexic blond is an arbitrary creation. It has no more basis in objective reality than too-wide lapels did in the seventies or leg warmers did in the eighties or Kardashians do today. And while I would never be so callous as to call Jessica Alba ugly (it’s not her fault she looks the way she does) I will say that beauty, like many things, is a pendulum that can swing too far and hurt people. So, maybe beauty was once defined as something other than emaciated blondness. I hope it was. If so, I’m afraid that boat has sailed. So I say it’s time to swing that pendulum back the other way or sail that ship back into port or whatever metaphor applies best here. When the majority of human beings live their lives feeling “ugly” it is time to redefine “pretty.” Sorry pretty people, majority rules.



The Problem, as Always – Fox News

“Pretty” today can be ascertained by what is on TV. TV “news,” in particular seems to be leading this march away from meritocracy and toward bimbo ascendancy. You will get a whole lot farther today in “news” with big boobs and tantalizingly crossed bare legs than with hard work, good reporting, and brains. Don’t know what I mean? Tune in to Fox and Friends any random morning to get the idea. You don’t even need to turn up the volume. In fact, absolutely don’t turn up the volume. Better yet, tune in to the Fox News show Outnumbered and again, preferably, turn down the volume. You will notice some striking similarities in the 4 color-coordinated female “hosts.” Hint: It’s not their erudition or education or journalistic excellence. Fox has been the driver of this trend, like so many other harmful trends, since their debut in 1996. Sadly the other networks have fallen in line and cut their skirts shorter and shorter. From Lara Spencer’s vapid Betty Boop routine on Good Morning America to the nauseating spectacle of Savannah Guthrie sitting in the same chair formerly occupied by Barbara Walters, Jane Pauley, and Katie Couric on the Today show, this diminishment of Q and A in favor of T and A should be an embarrassment to our culture. Edward R. Murrow would be spinning in his grave. If we could hook a fan blade up to his corpse and prop him up in front of “The Kelly File” we would go a long way toward solving global warming.

But I Digress

My purpose here is not to decry the state of journalism in this country but to decry the unfairness that “looks” trump talent and hard work across the spectrum. Fat people, short people, and “ugly” people on TV are relegated to comedy relief, if they are relegated to anything at all. We must change that in order to open up new opportunities for the repressed majority called “us.”

What To Do

So, what do we do about this sorry state of affairs? How do we use our advantage? First of all, we don’t give away any of the power we have. Don’t give your hard earned money to Christi Brinkley for her Ab Stretcher, or to Cindy Crawford for her Skin Smoother or to Shaun T for his Paunch buster Polka DVD’s. We all know that the only thing that makes you skinnier is giving up bacon and, for God’s sake, it’s just not worth it. And we should know, if we don’t, that the only way to look young is to be friggin’ young – or to make a deal with the devil. (I’m looking at you Dick Clark. Oh, yeah, I guess the devil finally got him.) Also, don’t go see movies with “hot skinny young starlets” in them. If it doesn’t have Melissa McCarthy in it, boycott it. And, you know what, boycott her, too, as a traitor. What is she thinking, losing all that weight. Where is her pride?

Next, we have to organize. If Wayne LaPierre and the NRA can run this country of three hundred eighteen million people as their own private fiefdom and the AARP can spook legislators into a buffalo stampede by saying BOO! what could 317.9 million ugly people accomplish if we just voted our self interest and actually ran for office. And we already have a start in politics. Bernie Sanders is not exactly a GQ model and Mitch McConnell doesn’t have enough chin to put on a pillowcase.

We will call our group SOAP – Society Of Average People or maybe HISS – Homely Individuals Standing Strong or, how about UGLY – United Group of Lummoxes and Yahoos. So, lets get SOAP rolling. I’ll be the President (or Benevolent Dictator if you will) and we will draft a few of our talented brethren who have become famous to do PR for us. I envision a PSA starring Steve Buscemi, Dawn French, and Sandra Bernhard. In fact, why hasn’t somebody put them in a movie together already? That would be awesome!


Steve Buscemi – No George Clooney in the looks department but one helluva actor!

Dawn French

Dawn French – Not sure if it’s okay to have a crush on a Vicar, but I always have!


Sandra Bernhard – A conventional beauty? Perhaps not. But smart, talented, and sexy as hell if you ask me.

Here’s a Modest Proposal for the twenty-first century; let’s round up those feckless, shallow, phony-boob-bearing, Escalade-driving, wheat-grass-chugging, sit-up-doing, little twits and turn them into Soylent Green (Google that one, youngsters. Who said Charlton Heston never made a good movie?) In honor of Jonathan Swift, our campaign will be called Eat the Pretty Ones and we will get a good New York advertising firm to market it for us – and then we will eat them, too. After all, if we are going to lift up and celebrate the persecuted big-boned American public we are gonna need a reliable protein source.

Finally, we need to heed the words of Mitch Benn. Love your love handles. Love yourself. We are who we are. We look like what we look like. We deserve to be happy. After all, our contribution to this world is just as important as, say Paris Hilton’s, isn’t it?

by: Dustin Joy


Love Your Love Handles – Full Lyrics

Every day we’d see them, in all the magazines 

They don’t look like anybody, we’ve ever really seen 

They make us feel so ugly, but now it’s time to stop cause 

They don’t look like that either, without the aid of Photoshop so 

Love your love handles, love your double chin 

and your receding hairline, and all your saggy skin and 

see your folds and creases in a whole new way, starting today

Some people try their hardest, to make all our lives hell cause

They’ve all got moisturizers, and diet drinks to sell

Don’t have to ask permission, to be heard or seen

Don’t need to make excuses, for being a human being, so

Love your love handles, love your laughter lines

Cause every one’s a medal, for all the happy times

Love your bumpy eyelids and your wonky nose, so everyone knows

All of our imperfections, all our asymmetry 

They’re an important part of, what makes us you and me 

Who cares what someone looks like, long as they have their health 

Be good to everybody, starting with yourself, cause 

We’re not all supermodels, we’re not all movie stars

Most of us look exactly, like what we really are

We feel like we’re abnormal, but that’s ridiculous cos there’s

maybe a couple of hundred of them and six and a half billion of us

Love your love handles, love your crooked teeth

Cherish that wobbly tummy, and whatever lies beneath now

Love your fuzzy nipples, and your droopy chest, and all of the rest

Love your love handles, love your dimply thighs

Lanky, dumpy, scrawny, whatever shape or size

You’ll find you can be happy and comfortable in, your own skin

The Boy in the Picture


The Boy (there is not really a ten foot trout jumping up the waterfall.) My boy added that.

On the wall of my bedroom is a picture. It was given to me by my Mother who took it, had it enlarged, and had it framed. It is on the wall where I see it first thing in the morning when I swing my feet to the floor and stand up.

The picture is of a boy. The boy sits on a rock looking at a waterfall. Because I know a bit of the history of the picture I know that the rock and the waterfall and the boy are in Yellowstone National Park. The boy faces away, always, with his back turned to the camera. He is pensive, silent. It is clear to me that he doesn’t know about the camera. He is oblivious to everything around him but the waterfall. Waterfalls can do that.

The boy is a teenager. He is thin and gangly but not slouchy. He sits up straight (as his mother undoubtedly told him to) because he is a good boy. He is a good boy and he is a smart boy but his clothing reveals that he is not a “cool” boy. Here in the middle of a forest in the middle of a national park in the middle of the Summer he is wearing a button down shirt and blue jeans. His “cool” brother is undoubtedly clad in shorts and a t-shirt.

The boy sits on the rock watching the water flow down through the canyon and he holds his jacket folded in his lap. He is calm, you might say serene. He seems at ease here in a way that he is not anywhere else. Being here in nature, watching the simple, eternal cycle of water evaporating up and running back down gives him a respite from the ceaseless barrage of teenage thoughts and the endless interior monolog in his head. Here on this rock he can forget about the compulsion to behave and to do well and to study hard and to achieve great things. In this place he can stop the flow of hormone-driven nonsense that colors his view of the world and the other people in it; girls, jocks, bullies, teachers, adults. I think the boy on the rock, in that moment, wishes he could stop the relentless flow of time and sit there, if not forever, then at least a little bit longer.

I wake up every morning and I look at the boy sitting on the rock. There are times I wish I could talk to him. I wish I could tell him a few things that I know about the world but he doesn’t. I wish I could make his life easier. What would I tell him? I would tell him that a lot of the things he worries about just aren’t going to matter in a few years. I would tell him that some of the people in his life that he trusts or admires will let him down or hurt him. I would tell him what moves to make and perhaps what moves not to make in this great chess game called life. I would like to save him some grief. I would like to help him find more joy.

Mostly I would like to offer him some valuable knowledge that he will otherwise acquire through pain and embarrassment. There is so much a teenage boy thinks he knows that just isn’t so. His certitude primes him for disappointment and mistakes. He needs somebody who has experienced the world to help him navigate this perplexing place. But he won’t listen. He won’t hear it even though he is a good boy. He didn’t listen to his Mom or his Dad. He had to make the mistakes on his own. He is a silly stubborn boy!

All of us grizzled and jaded adults want to talk to the boy in the picture. We have seen suffering and we want to save him from it. We have tasted defeat and we want to rig the game in his favor. We have felt heartache and we want to help him dodge it. We want to trim the gristle off of life for him so he can enjoy the steak. But life is a marbled piece of meat. The good times and the bad times are inextricably intertwined. The people who give us the most pain are capable, at times, of giving us the most joy. Decisions which were clearly mistakes teach us something of value, even if it’s only the mundane lesson not to touch a hot stove a second time.

And if we could talk to the boy in the picture would we really know what to tell him? Have we learned anything true from our own experience? Would we tell him how to avoid our fate? As I lie in this bed snuggled against my wife, the absolute joy of my life, or stand silent in the hallway in the middle of the night listening to the most profoundly wonderful sound I will ever hear, my children’s breathing, I’m not so sure. Would I dare lead the boy away from a path which might be difficult but which will ultimately bring him to the warm place next to his soul mate, a woman who loves him and understands him and forgives him? Would I dare divert him even one degree from the true course that leads here, to this quiet hallway, to this bed?

When I consider, from the vantage point of age, what I would like to teach this boy about the world, I am troubled by a fleeting thought. What if the truth of the matter is this; I wish I didn’t know some of the things he doesn’t know. Sometimes I wish the boy could untell me things. I wish he could unteach me some of the bitter lessons I learned along the way. I wish he could teach me instead to trust people again. I wish he could help me forget all those things I know about the cruelty and greed and pettiness of other people. I wish he could teach me the pleasure of sitting on a rock.

The boy in the picture never changes. He is fifteen years old forever and there is no way I will ever teach him anything. But there may be, just possibly, a way for him to teach me a few things by his serene example. Maybe if I study the picture I can unlearn the cynicism and sarcasm that separates me sometimes from the ones I love. Maybe I can learn to forgive the people in my life who have let me down or disappointed me. Maybe I can learn, from the boy in the picture, how to just sit on a rock sometimes and let the world flow around me like a waterfall.

by: Dustin Joy

Local Flavor

I’m sitting, staring out the window at a light but steady rain falling from a low overcast sky in Lafayette, Louisiana. This is my first time in Lafayette and I am sorry to report that I am disappointed. It’s not the dreary overcast, nor the rain exactly, although those certainly contribute to the mood. It is just the sameness of every place we visit that contributes to my ennui today.

My minds-eye is still 20/20, even if my real eyes are not anymore. Since I was a little boy I have loved to read about places. I read about Louisiana and New Orleans and the Bayou. I know what they are supposed to look like. I know what they are supposed to be. I have a vivid picture in my mind of weathered cypress-wood shacks close by the mocha-brown water with alligators sunning along the shore and a jon boat tied to a tree. I visualize a little old place which doesn’t look like much, but which has the best crawfish étouffée around and big glasses of sweet ice tea. I expect to hear voices like Justin Wilson speaking that slow syrupy cajun dialect. And I expect the soundtrack to the whole world here to be some Beausoleil song with momentum like a locomotive rolling down a track and lots of manic fiddle playing and squeezebox. Instead, when I walk down to the hotel lobby they’ve got Fox News blaring from three TVs.

Maybe there are crawdads and cajun fiddle and sweet iced tea still to be had in Lafayette. Maybe that stuff exists. I hope it does. But the dapper young man at the front desk of the Doubletree speaks clear and perfect english as if he were ready for an anchor job at WGN. Everyone I have met here so far talks like that. From my room on the 10th floor I look out over a “bayou.” And it is a real bayou, I guess, but in Illinois we would just call it a creek. It looks like the Edwards River back home except here it is less wild. It has been tamed by retaining walls to prevent shoreline erosion near the office buildings and condos along its verge. If there is an alligator hereabout he is not sunning today and really there is no place along this stretch of bayou to sun. The water flows slowly between the revetments with not a floating log or rock in sight. I think I see what might be cypress trees adjacent to the office building but they are almost certainly ornamentals planted to make the landscaping “authentic.”

Here is what I see of the “cajun capital” from my vantage point. From left to right I see two office towers that look like corporate headquarters in Naperville, a neighborhood of average looking frame houses which could have been transplanted here from Moline (nothing at all unique or southern about the architecture). I see a Wyndham Garden hotel, two cell phone towers, a billboard for Smoothie King and another for the Louisiana State Lottery (just change the word Louisiana to Illinois and you get the idea.) A busy stretch of road runs by the hotel with the exact same types of cars one sees everywhere, a preponderance of SUV’s, a helluva lot of white pickup trucks, and all vehicles late model- you just don’t see people driving rusted out clunkers anymore like you used to. Along the street opposite our hotel, in lieu of the great little étouffée place, is a Chili’s, an Outback Steakhouse, and a sushi bar (really?) bracketed by a Comfort Suites and a Fairfield Inn.

I could honestly look out the window in Cleveland or Newark or St. Louis or Minneapolis and see this same general picture on any given day of the year. We are homogenizing our country slowly but relentlessly. If there is uniqueness to be found in our melting pot nation you have to look hard for it. I have to wonder why are we so divided politically when we are all so very much alike in what we want and value and dream about. To judge by my travels around the United States, I would say that what we Americans want and value and dream about are a plate of Riblets from Appleby’s, cheap Chinese consumer products from Target, a Slushy from Kum n’Go, and, of course, good cell phone reception.

But maybe I have unreasonable expectations. What is it that I am pining for? I would like to say “authenticity,” but it’s not authenticity, exactly. Because if Americans are authentically anything in 2016 we are authentically obsessed by convenience. We genuinely want things to be easy and cheap and fast. Lafayette is as authentically American as Cleveland or Des Moines or Syracuse. What I’m looking for, admittedly, is a nostalgic or “tourist” version of America. I want a Dodge City saloon full of lawless gunslingers, bowler-hatted pi-ana players, and bartenders with big curled handlebar mustaches. When I go to Maine I want to see yellow-mackintosh-wearing lobstermen in brightly-painted little boats bobbing in the harbor, raising their traps. When I go to South Dakota I want to see an Indian wearing a war bonnet, sitting on a buffalo skin rug outside a teepee, dispensing wisdom.

But in 2016 the saloon is just a barn-board facade backed up by a metal frame building which has to meet code just like all the others. The gunslingers head off to the microbrewery after their shift is done to grab a “Long Branch Pale Ale.” The piano player “didn’t go to Juilliard for this crap.” And the bartender is bitter every time he trims and waxes his ridiculous facial hair, thinking about the the upper management job he lost when the injection molding plant closed down.

The lobsterman is sick and tired of chapped hands and this god-damned cold weather and fantasizes about moving to Boca Raton. The Indian doesn’t really have any wisdom he wants to pass on to a bunch of sun-burned nitwits from Chicago on their way to Mount Rushmore. The nitwits probably don’t want the wisdom, either, which might consist of something like “you don’t carve a !@#$%ing 60 foot sculpture of a white man’s head on our sacred mountain and we won’t build a casino in Arlington Cemetery.”

There is a reason we don’t do authentic “regional” things anymore. There is a reason we don’t tan our own leather, or make our own candles, or sew our own dresses, or slaughter our own pigs, or run a trap line, or go out in the frigid ocean in little boats to catch sea bugs anymore. It’s because we don’t have to! The truth is, most people never wanted to do those things. It may seem romantic to read the Laura Ingalls Wilder books and imagine Pa coming in the door after a long day of plowing behind a team of oxen and sitting down with the girls to eat dinner by candlelight before gathering around the fire to play the fiddle. In fact, writing that sentence makes me want to go back and live there. But what we have to remember is that plowing behind oxen was brutal, exhausting work. Losing your entire crop to locusts or drought was not a setback to be brushed aside by a little of Pa’s philosophy but a real, true, life-threatening catastrophe. The dinner was probably salt pork and potatoes for the 1100th time, and the reason they had to listen to Pa’s lousy fiddle-paying was because “Game of Thrones” is on HBO and the Ingalls’ only had basic cable.

I confess that I love quaint local traditions. I love antiques. I love to learn about the good-old-days. Every year we go to the Midwest Old Thresher’s Reunion in Mt. Pleasant, Iowa. I love to watch the antique tractors and ride the electric trolleys, and visit the log village. For a week we all steep ourselves in the old-timey ways. We watch volunteers cooking dinner over an open campfire, splitting logs with a wedge, hand cranking a Model T Ford, and cleaning clothes in a tub with a washboard. And then, you know what, we all go home and turn on the air-conditioner because, truly, washing your own clothes in a tub sucked. Hand cranking your Model T is a novelty once or twice. But there is a reason some genius invented the “self-starter’ and there is a reason that EVERY SINGLE CAR has one now.

Lafayette, Louisiana, Dodge City, Kansas, Portland, Maine, and Walnut Grove, Minnesota are not like they used to be. The people who live there have kept some of the flavor of the “old days.” Indeed, some people in these places still dress up like cowboys, play cajun music, catch lobsters, and farm the great plains. But the sad (or maybe happy) truth is that we Americans don’t want to work that hard. We don’t want to struggle and freeze and go hungry and spend our days doing endless, repetitive, subsistence work. Thanks to science and innovation and creativity we don’t have to anymore. We can enjoy our “nostalgia” because we want to, not because we have to.
We are all very alike, really, around the USA and around the world. We like many of the same things and we obsess about many of the same things, too. It is not surprising, when you think about it, that we are becoming more and more alike in terms of our culture as we share technology and communication and entertainment. This phenomenon has advanced to the point where we have to make up things to have political debate over. We are so affluent that we are running out of things to be outraged about. Well, I am outraged that I can’t find a good cajun restaurant within walking distance of my hotel. I will be furious if I have to call Uber.

by: Dustin Joy