Friday, May 6, 2011

Mirror, mirror.

The exact details aren’t likely to be known – at least not until Mark Bowden or Sebastian Junger writes the book, and Mark Whalberg stars in the movie. The story has changed with nearly every telling, but what you make of that says more about you as a listener than it says about the tellers.

We’ve heard that Usama bin Laden was hiding behind his wife, that he fired on the SEALS, that he was armed but did not fire, that his wife was killed, that his wife was wounded, that his wife was unhurt, that the helo crashed, that the helo was shot down,* that he had no weapon, that he cowered in fear, that he charged in defiance. Chances are all of that is true, at least to someone.

Realty is messy and humans make lousy witnesses. They serve worst of all as witnesses to the events of their own making. The true truth is that a simple trip to the grocery store for bread, eggs and milk involves considerably more detail, randomness and potential chaos than most careful observers can capture with their senses, and tremendously more than almost anyone is capable of accurately reporting to another person. It’s frankly a little demented that we should somehow expect to be able to know the precise details of a close combat engagement in the dead of night on the outskirts of some third-world shithole town of which almost none of us had heard before Sunday night.

What does any of this have to do with the job of your average suburban sheepdog, whose duties are clear and close and mercifully unaffected by considerations of how properly to bury those he has to kill? Just this: Robert’s Rule states that you must “Never act on wishful thinking.”**

This is terribly hard to do. But it is made measurably harder when we get used to giving in to a political culture that trains its inhabitants to surrender facts for feelings, reason for emotions, logic for ideology, persuasion for invective – and to debate, in terms of highest heat and lowest light, the deep meaning of the particular pieces of ignorance they share about a moment of combat they did not witness. You have to resist, lest you be drawn into this way of thinking.

Some of us will believe any story we are told, so long as Glenn Beck or Mike Malloy or Barrack Obama or John Boehner do the telling. Some of us will choose not to believe anything anyone says, content to limit our world and its history and complexities to our own limited field of view and understanding. Plenty of folks, it seems, won’t be satisfied until they see the real time video that made Hillary Clinton stifle a gasp – even though she says she was really covering a cough, and even though if they had it on a flat screen plasma television, with a NavSpecWarDevGru veteran narrating over their shoulder, they STILL wouldn’t know what had really occurred.

But let’s say for just a minute that we could, that there could be some Jumbotron, IMAX documentary that we could all agree showed “what really happened.” You know in your heart of hearts that still wouldn’t be enough. Because where you stand depends on where you sit. Because the folks who make a living out of hating President Obama have columns and commentaries ready to go, excoriating him with equal vigor for withholding the death photos, and for releasing them. Because the folks who make a living supporting the President were similarly prepared to defend everything from UBL being dismembered and ground into hog feed to his imprisonment in the hospital ward of the county jail.

For all the millions of Americans who greeted the news of UBL’s death with the pronouncement that they wish they’d have been the one to pull the trigger, there are that many and more who do pull the trigger, every single day, to murder their vestigial common sense in its squalid crib, lest it crawl out and disturb their pre-conceived notions of who’s a good guy and who’s a bad one. This week’s triumph of American intelligence and tactical prowess has held a mirror up to that as nothing has since . . .  well, last week’s release of a birth certificate.

In the meantime, though, did you hear? They actually captured UBL years ago, and they’ve had him in a cryogenic chamber, so they could stage a pretend raid, thaw him out, shoot him and pretend to bury him at sea when they wanted to divert our attention away from  . . . . um  . . . . hmmm.

What was I saying?

* Indeed, I always find it hard to believe every time a helicopter gets airborne in the first place -- a reaction shared, in my experience, by many men who fly helicopters and nearly all of those who service them. 

** Not, you will note, that wishful thinking is prohibited. To the contrary, it can be fruitful, if only insofar as it serves as a spa day for an overstressed mind. The key is never to ACT on that wishful thinking.

Friday, April 8, 2011

As I was saying . . .

Gun free zones aren't: "One person was killed and four others injured in a shooting at the Southern Union State Community College in eastern Alabama Wednesday afternoon"


Restraining orders don't: "A judge in Lee County [had] issued a temporary order against Mr May and scheduled a hearing for May 11."

Tell me again why adults should give up their right to self defense when they walk onto campus.

But then maybe this sort of thing has never happened before, so no one could ever have predicted. . . Oh. Wait. Never mind.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Three score and ten

Updated below

I like NPR. Always have. The folks who put the news and commentary and comedy together on National Public Radio really understand their medium. More than once I've sat listening in my driveway, waiting for a story to finish. I like PBS television, too, if not quite as much. "Frontline" is weekly investigative reporting of a kind rare anywhere else, and I am a complete sucker for those Ken Burns histories on the Civl War, Baseball or the Brooklyn Bridge.

It's just fine with me that the Corporation for Public Broadcasting got about $420 million in federal funding last year. I consider it money well spent.

Maybe you don't agree. If you don't, you've got most of the Republicans in Congress to keep you company. Certainly men and women of goodwill can disagree about whether this level of spending -- or any spending at all -- is prudent. I've heard very lively debate of  this very topic on, as it happens, NPR.

So I have no cavil with you if you want to cut or eliminate federal spending on public radio -- just so long as you are not one of the at least 70 Americans who answered a recent poll with their belief that that spending amounts to $1.8 trillion dollars. Yes, trillion. In a poll of more than 1,000 respondents, seven percent said they believed that funding for public broadcasting accounted for more than 50 percent of the all federal spending. For a federal government that spent about $3.6 trillion last year, that would be $1.8 trillion dollars.

I just want to go on record saying that if public broadcasting got almost two trillion tax dollars last year, then I'm more than a little disappointed in the tote bag I got from Channel 2.

As bad as that is, it may be worse that the median response to the poll evidenced the belief that public broadcasting was getting 5 percent of the federal budget -- $178 billion -- more than 400 times what it really gets.

But let's be clear: this isn't a post about public broadcasting.

We discussed not long ago how people love to not know. These poll numbers demonstrate something worse, I think. It's a variety of debate by demonization that has become the sad and destructive norm for our America. It's not enough simply to oppose spending 1.17 percent of the federal budget on public broadcasting,* which would be a perfectly reasonable position to take, even if I happen to disagree. It's not enough even to massively politicize the argument by suggesting that this1.17 percent is being spent to promote  some wildly liberal agenda. (This is bunk, as any regular listener to public channels knows, but it's at least garden variety partisan bunk.)

No. Instead, folks have to be convinced -- or convince themselves -- that the public funding of broadcasting is a huge, dangerous, overarching threat to the very financial viability of this once great nation!!! When the discussion starts there, where can it meaningfully hope to go?

I'm not immune from this sort of thing, I am forced to confess. I realize that Sarah Palin is not actually an evil succubus sent from Hell to seduce America's Right into slavering know-nothingness and poor grammar.  I concede that while Bill Maher is undeniably a pseudo-intellectual, frat-boy bigot, he probably is not really a skin-covered demon cyborg transported from space to corrupt the Left until it is dissolute and ineffectual. But I have said as much about both of them.

Hyperbole, after all, can be entertaining. But it is a lousy to basis for policy-making. Worse still is unconscious, unknowing hyperbole, engaged in by credulous fools who are content to leave unexamined any assumption, however nonsensical, so long as it supports their desired outcome. That sort of thing is downright dangerous. And I'd estimate that 48.63 percent of all Americans are doing it 82.37 percent of the time.

Or thereabouts.

*420,000,000 divided by 3,600,000,000,000 = 1.166666.

UPDATE: This is why lawyers hire accountants, instead of becoming accountants.

As Just Me points out with perfect accuracy, I'm a dope. "Public broadcasting's budget is NOT 1.166666% of the budget. It is .0016666% of the budget. 420,000,000 divided by 3,600,000,000,000 = 1.1666666666666667e-4. The "e-4" means move the decimal over to the left 4 spots." 

Of course public broadcasting doesn't amount to one percent of federal spending. Writing it out in words makes that obvious: One percent of our national budget is a huge amount of money. But the numbers are so damned big I stumbled on it. Now, my position is going to be that my own innumeracy proves my underlying point above. I leave to less kind contributors than Just Me to say what else it proves.

[Sadly my commitment to fulsome free speech and something some like to call intellectual integrity prevented me from undertaking the first course of action I considered -- changing the initial post so it would be correct, deleting Just Me's comment, and then blocking that ISP from commenting in the future. Sigh.]

Thursday, March 31, 2011

South of Guilford

The Kipling poem is so well known that it is constantly in danger of being received as parody. But it turns out it can also wind up as surprising literal. For example, that line about keeping your head when all about you are losing theirs.

Not long out of college, so new to journalism that the ink stains were still damp, and fresh from various part-time jobs that one way or another involved assisting folks who’d gotten hurt, I had a Wednesday off. Wednesday is a lousy day to have off, because pretty much everyone else is at work, but this particular Wednesday was a fresh April Wednesday in the Midwest and the Whitewater River in nearby Brookeville, Indiana beckoned. Without meaning any slander to the majesty of Indiana’s wild reaches, suffice to say that the Whitewater is an ambitiously named watercourse. I enjoyed a leisurely solo paddle on an empty river and was back on the bike by early afternoon, having faced no greater adventure than spooking a couple of otters, having suffered no great exertion than damp knees, and having braved no white water at all.

I was headed south and east on Indiana’s State Road 1, which winds lazily through the hills in the bottom right corner of the state and offered a pleasingly indirect way home to Cincinnati – the direct route holding no appeal on a motorcycle on a fresh Midwestern April Wednesday. I was leaning comfortably into a bend just south of Guilford, when I saw one of those very large over-the-road cement trucks stopped two-thirds of the way across the highway.

As I slowed and straightened up, I saw why.

Wedged under the truck was small sedan, a ’67 or ’68 Rambler. The car had run under the truck at such speed that only a bit of the trunk lid and the rear bumper could be seen from my side. Although not a convertible, it had no roof, or at least it hadn't any more. The crumpled remains of the roof were on the road behind the car.

If you’ve been to enough of them (and I had by then) you know that car accidents have a smell – oil and heat and coolant and gas and blood – and the smell ages in a certain way. This wreck was fresh. The truck driver was sitting in the road near the front of his vehicle, his head in his hands, but unhurt. When I walked around to the far side, where about half of the Rambler had emerged from under the truck, I could see there were two victims in the car. The driver was an elderly man dressed in a dark suit, a shirt that might once have been white and narrow black tie knotted smartly at his throat. He was lying to his right across the front bench seat and he was horribly injured. Next to him, sitting straight up, was a petite figure in a flowered cotton dress, her hands still folded primly in her lap atop her sensible purse. She didn’t appear to be hurt at all. Except that her head was in the back seat of the car.

I've always figured the driver saw what was coming a split second before it happened, and instinctively dove to the right. His passenger -- his wife of nearly 60 years as I'd later learn -- must have been looking at the passing landscape.

By this time another driver had stopped. This was long before cell phones and I sent him up the road to a volunteer fire house I’d seen. I did what could be done, treating the driver in place, stanching some bleeding, trying to reassure and comfort him as he drifted up into brief moments of lucidity. Once he asked me if his wife was OK. I said she was fine. He didn't realize that she was right there, but covered with my jacket so he wouldn’t look up and see her state. Later, the rest of the ride home was cold without my jacket.

Folks who don’t know any better tend to look down on volunteer fire departments. That’s a mistake. The one in Guilford,* like so many, had excellent volunteers, the first of whom showed up maybe 15 minutes later. Within a half an hour, there were half a dozen well trained paramedics and EMTs and a nicely fitted-out rescue truck on the scene. The old man was alive when they transported him. One of the volunteers called me the next day to say the fellow had died over night. The volunteer didn’t know if the man had ever learned that his wife would be waiting for him.

I can’t say I did the man much good, but over the years and decades, and long after I stopped getting paid to patch people up or pull them from the water, I have had a tendency to come upon the accident that has just occurred, or the fellow having a heart attack in the crosswalk, or to be healthy in a camp full of mission workers down with dysentery in remote Honduran mountains, or to be there when a shooting competitor falls out with a heat injury. And – not, I hope, from a place of vanity, but certainly with some pride – I can say that I am the guy you want in those circumstances. [Well, assuming, of course you couldn't have a trauma surgeon or a currently trained paramedic, or really anybody but a lawyer who rode a rescue squad 30 years ago.] But you understand what I mean; it’s another place where Mindset Matters Most.

This morning it was chaos in our house. I woke up late because of an alarm glitch. My little one was home, not dressed for school, and not inclined to be so. The wonderful woman who helps with the house twice a month was there and had a lot of questions about laundry that I couldn’t answer. There was no coffee. So a lot was out of hand, but since no one was bleeding, I was stymied.

Then, lacking only a fanfare of trumpets and a skirl of pipes, my darling bride arrived on the scene. In moments, bitter chaos became sweet order. (Although there was still no coffee.)

“You know,” she pointed out, “You can handle any emergency. But something like this . . .” The rest went unsaid as I covered her mouth with a passionate kiss.** She’s right, of course. And I’m OK with that.

After all, Kipling said if you can keep your head, etc., “you’ll be a Man, my son.” But Harry Callahan made it equally clear that “a man’s got to know his limitations.”

* It’s called the Miller York Volunteer Fire Department .

**At least as far you know.

Monday, March 28, 2011

I wonder if Willard will show her some love.

100 years ago, Wednesday 29 March 1911, the federal government did something right.


I am not here to say that was the first time, or even the last time, that the federal government did something right. But I am willing to bet that it never did anything else quite so right as adopting of John Moses Browning's single-action, magazine-fed, recoil-operated pistol in .45 ACP as the official sidearm of the United States' Army -- Model 1911. Certainly if getting it right were a highly prized a federal virtue, then there would be a General William Crozier Medal for Meritorious Purchasing, since it was Gen. Crozier, as Army Chief of Ordnance, who brought the pistol into service.

JMB's* genius was, admittedly, evolutionary rather than revolutionary, and he would make changes in other models right up until his death 15 years later. But I don't think he can be said ever to have improved the original operation of the gun, a symphony of contained violence, as fewer than 50 moving parts mesh and engage and disconnect with the sort of timing and precision we now seem to replicate only via computer chips. Indeed, despite its Twentieth Century designation, there is something decidedly Nineteenth Century about the industrial beauty of the system.  An excellent set of drawings and explanations can be found here. An animation can be found here.

In practical terms, what this operation means is that almost any shooter is going to shoot better (with more practical accuracy) with a 1911 than with almost any other pistol. That is why, despite even JMB's "improvements" in later designs, many elite shooters choose a 100-year-old pistol design, when the national championship -- or the national security -- is on the line.

Finally, not only is the operation of the pistol a wonder to behold, the 1911 is rightly considered an aesthetic** classic in its original form, or in its modern defensive iterations,

or even when the design becomes merely a skeleton beneath the flesh of a tricked-out race gun.

Yes, it's true. I have said before that firearms are best appreciated and evaluated strictly as tools, with no mind-clouding emotions permitted.***

But let's be honest. Who among us can hope to look so good at 100?

* Jargon is how members of a group  -- doctors, sailors, fighter pilots, fantasy football aficionados -- distinguish themselves from those outside the group, without having to buy expensive embroidered jackets. So "gun guys" abbreviate his name like this. And we know who we mean when say "Col. Cooper" or Mozambique. I'm happy to share these bits of the code with you from time to time, but you have to promise not to embarrass me.

**JMB is spinning in his Ogden, Utah grave at the very notion that aesthetics were any consideration when he designed weapons. But in designing weapons that worked beautifully, he necessarily designed beautiful weapons.

***  Do I contradict myself?
         Very well then I contradict myself, 
         (I am large, I contain multitudes.)
                                Walt Whitman
                                "Song of Myself"

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Pretty in pink.

To violate even one of Robert's Rules is to court disaster; multiple violations are just plain stupid. Lazarus Long posited (or is it will posit?) that stupidity is the only universally capital crime, and he knew (will know?) whereof he spoke (will speak?). And yet, despite the force of the Rules, and in flagrant disregard of all the cemeteries, jails and bottom tier graduate schools populated with those sad souls who ignored the them, Meghan Brown and Robert Planthaber walk among us still.

Here’s the story. Meghan – who, we are relentlessly informed, was Miss Tierra Verde of 2009 – and Robert – an arborist who is dating way out of his league if you ask me – were at their home in “a very prominent area” when ne’er-do-well and erstwhile pizza delivery guy Albert Franklin Hill* entered their home uninvited. A struggle ensued, with Albert Franklin Hill first grabbing Meghan – who looks a lot like that cute nurse on “Parks and Recreation” – and then turning his malevolent attention on Robert. Megahn ran to the place where her revolver is kept and returned to dispatch Albert Franklin Hill.

Why were Meghan -- have we mentioned she's pretty? -- and Robert targeted? Well Robert has a theory:
We live in a very prominent area and my fiancee wears a $60,000 engagement ring. The pizza man knew we had money because sometimes we needed change for a $100 bill when he came to deliver pizza.
He could have put it more succinctly. He could have said, "We were idiots." (And, not for nothing Robert, but regularly giving the poor delivery guy a Benjy to pay for a pizza makes you a jerk, too.)

I'm not going to cover all the ways in which Miss Tierra Verde 2009 and her consort are lucky** to be alive. But let's look at just two of the Rules they violated:

Limit ostentatious displays of wealth to the red carpet
. You say you are never asked to walk the red carpet? Exactly. A $60,000 engagement ring?*** Unless you are so tremendously wealthy that your ostentatious display of wealth includes a complement of armed guards, showing off your wealth is a bit like the antelope making sure the juiciest haunch faces the lion. Indeed, even with the armed attendants, ostentation may get you uncomfortable attention.

Do not open the door to a stranger at three in the morning
. (OK, I confess. This is not really one of Robert's Rules. Neither is "Do not dip daiquiris from a running blender with your bare hand." Bacardi owns that one.) That said, I think I may have a clue about what would induce someone -- even a beauty queen -- to open the door at that hour:


"Who is it?"

"Hi there Miss Tierra Verde, it's me, Albert Franklin Hill."


"Albert Franklin Hill, ma'am, the erstwhile pizza guy."

"What do you want? It's three in the morning. I may have been the prettiest girl in Tierra Verde**** in 2009, but I'm no fool -- you already delivered our pizza last night."

"Yes ma'am, that's just it. I finally rounded up the change for that hundo you gave me for the large veggie lovers."

"Oh. In that case . . . "

*What is about bad guys and three names? I spent a large part of my journalism career on fellow named Frank Athen Walls. Plenty of others come to mind. John Wayne Gacey. Mark David Chapman.  John Walker Lindh. I suppose the lesson is to pick your child's middle name with great care if you think there is a the least possibility of him becoming a serial killer, an assassin or a terrorist.

** As a Presbyterian, I do not, strictly speaking, believe in luck. But you know what I mean.

***Am I alone in wondering how a 42-year-old arborist affords a $60,000 ring? A friend said this entire story got his "spidey sense" tingling and I don't disagree. The vast majority of home invasions don't have anything to do with pizza.

**** Located at 27°40′53″N 82°43′28″W / 27.68139°N 82.72444°W / 27.68139; -82.72444; population 3,574 per the 2000 census.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Reservation for Mr. Galt.

Randian objectivist philosophy is like a finely tailored, Harris tweed jacket in Miami in July: Many people find it attractive. Some folks will even try it on. But almost no one manages to wear it for long.

Maybe that's why it has taken more than 63 years for anyone to manage making a film of "Atlas Shrugged," Ayn Rand's 1,400-page objectivist manifesto, literary doorstop and paean to triumphant self-actualization. The trailer looks nifty -- lots of hats and nighttime cityscapes to please the Hopper fans among us. I'll certainly be sure to see this.* If it's a poor movie, it will still provide a fetishistic thrill to Randian (not to say randy) devotees of muscular capitalism, what with all the speeding trains and industrial sparks. If it's a good movie, and attracts an audience beyond a self-selecting group of Rand acolytes, it will also serve to expose many to Rand's ideas for the first time. Good movie or poor, you certainly can expect to hear her name dropped into more cable news debates and op-ed pieces by people who really haven't any idea what the mysterious Mr. Galt was selling.

I'm afraid my dedication to my own happiness is insufficiently singular to ever be a good objectivist.  My own worldview is wrapped in and grows from my Christianity. So I part company from Ayn and her brood right about the time her protagonist says, "I swear by my life and my love of it that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine." (Rand's own obsessive approach to romance makes it difficult to imagine that declaration coming from her mouth, instead of Mr. Galt's.) I understand the concept well enough. I can grasp how rational self interest, universally exercised by everyone, always, is supposed to benefit everyone, everywhere. But tell that to my little boy when an important business event conflicts with a nice day for fishing. You tell him, because I won't.

At bottom, I think Rand's philosophy is untenable because it is predicated on an imagined world where ruthless, unalloyed self-interest is both possible and desirable, when, in fact, such a world would be impracticable and sad. Despite the facile way in which folks from all across the American political spectrum like to invoke it, and despite Rand's evidently genuine love of America,** Randian objectivism is by no means itself an American value system. Instead, the rugged individualism, love of liberty, and dedication to personal responsibility that are central to the best of American character all are rightly understood to exist in a context of sacrifice and service to others. Will Kane stands alone in that street not to glorify himself, and certainly not to serve any self-interest, but rather to fulfill his duty to others.

I also have to wonder how the filmmakers are going to deal with the massively anachronistic "government versus the brave industrialist" skeleton upon which the flesh of the "Atlas Shrugged" is layered. If you aren't already nodding your head, take a minute to Google "Citigroup stimulus," or "Koch Industries campaign contributions," or "procurement revolving door."*** What exactly does a modern iteration of the story do with billions in TARP funds, or no-bid government contracts?**** My guess is, it shrugs them off.

* Extra points to the marketing folks for having the movie open on Tax Day.

** "I can say—not as a patriotic bromide, but with full knowledge of the necessary metaphysical, epistemological, ethical, political and esthetic roots—that the United States of America is the greatest, the noblest and, in its original founding principles, the only moral country in the history of the world."

*** That you can also search "George Soros campaign contributions," or "SEIU political influence," for similar results strengthens, rather than weakens, my argument.

**** Although the bailout did cause a surge in sales of the book.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Ever notice how antiseptics sting?

The less you know, the more you think you know. You needn't trust Robert's Rules for this maxim. King Mongkut of Siam knew it.* Chris Rock pointed out that "people love to not know."** And two psychologists named Dunning and Kruger made it official science.

Dunning and Kruger found not only that the more ignorant people were, the less able they were to recognize and correct their own mistakes. No surprise there. But it also occurred that the less competent people are, the more competent they perceived themselves to be. In a surprising corollary, they also found that the more competent and knowledgeable a person was, the less likely he was to think of himself as an expert -- since he was more likely to know what he didn't know.

So with that Rule/song lyric/stand-up bit/effect in place, let me say at the outset that I'm anything but an expert on military doctrine. And I know it. But in five years as a reporter in the heart of the largest military aviation community in the free world, even I couldn't avoid learning a thing two -- including from some of the guys who put the "no" in the last big "no fly zone" mounted by the United States.

You'd be hard pressed to find anyone who knows less, and knows less about what he doesn't know, than just about anyone on cable news. These days, when they are not busy pretending to be experts about nuclear power generation, the hawkish talking news heads, comfortably ensconced in their studios and enrobed in their agendas, invoke the words "no fly zone" as if they were a magical incantation or a mystic's mantra. Who can blame them. Say it with me -- No. Fly. Zone. It sounds so pure, so antiseptic.

Here's the simple truth of it:

Instituting a no fly zone in Libya means killing lots Libyans on the ground at the outset. We are not -- I pray -- planning to sacrifice NATO or US pilots to Libya's reasonably sophisticated air defenses, so we're going to have to neutralize scores of SAM*** sites and "decapitate their command and control apparatus." In other words, were going to smart bomb, cruise missile and HARM**** installations full of human beings who are going to die.

Maintaining a no fly zone means killing Libyans in the air thereafter. Are we only shooting down fighter planes? That's good for one or two humans per plane. What about attack helicopters? Same score. Troop-carrying helicopters? That's good for a dozen. Troop-carrying fixed wing planes? Now you're talking real numbers.

Patrolling a no fly zone means putting pilots (American pilots? British? French?) at real risk of death or capture every day. Engines fail. Ground troops get off lucky shots with shoulder-fired SAMs. Mr. Murphy is an ever-malevolent presence.

So "establishing a no fly zone" is "going to war," whatever else you call it.

Should we go to war with Libya? I'm not here to say yes or no. As any reader of this blog knows, I'm hardly a pacifist. There are things worth killing for, worth dying for. Maybe Libya is one of them.

But let's for goodness' sake be honest with ourselves about the choice we're making. Ya know?

And it puzzle me to learn
That tho' a man may be in doubt of what he know,
Very quickly he will fight...
He'll fight to prove that what he does not know is so!

"A Puzzlement," lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein.

** Yes, I know that's a paraphrase, but come on. I'm not PC -- but I'm also not Chris Rock.

*** Surface to air missiles. The Lybians have sophisticated air defense systems, including S300 missiles purchased during the post Soviet fire sale.

**** High-speed Anti-Radiation Missiles track the radar that SAMs use, riding down the signal to take out the SAM site.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Neener neener neener.

Update below.

Maybe it’s because I’ve been the fat kid. Maybe I simply lack the requisite zero-tolerance school administrator sensibility that somehow must rationalize the winner of any fight into the bad guy. Maybe I'm a creature of another, simpler age. But I am damned if I can see how Casey Heynes did a thing wrong.

You probably have seen the video by now, despite the fact YouTube keeps taking it down. Casey Heynes, a 16-year-old high school student in Australia, is being tormented by a gang of nasty little bullies. They are taunting him for his weight while the lead cur in the pack steps in and punches Heynes in the face. He capers around Heynes, laughing and trying to hit him again, while Heynes fends off the blows. Then Heynes has had enough. As I have described here before, Heynes reacts violently enough to end the threat.

As it stands, both students are suspended from Chifley College where, the school says, they provide “a safe, supportive and productive learning environment to promote individual achievement and self-responsibility.” An official there has stated that  both boys will face consequences because the school "does not tolerate any violence.” But that is clearly a lie.

The only explanation for these events is that violence has been tolerated there for quite some time. How else to explain the fact that the vicious little snot who gets his comeuppance 41 seconds into the video clearly believed he could attack Casey Heynes with impunity? If similar assaults hadn’t happened before this – and often – how to explain that anyone that size thought he could hit someone Heynes’ size and get away with it? And how else to explain that the vicious, tech-savvy tormentors were ready to record Heynes latest humiliation?

I don’t know what’s going to become of Heynes and his academic career. I hope all this publicity will end up being good for him, but I have to doubt it will. I'm not sure if Australian authorities and parents have more sense than American ones, who -- if the events occurred here and now -- certainly would expel Heynes, then arrest him for assault and try him as an adult, while the scrawny little "victim's" family sued in civil court.

Happily, 35 years ago, when I was the fat kid and a freshman at St. Ignatius High School, similar events only earned me six weeks of Saturday detention,* awarded by an assistant principal who privately gave me a pat on the back for standing up for myself. Most importantly, they earned me a subsequently peaceful three and half years of high school, free from further taunts or bullying of any sort. (Whack a guy in the belly with a locker room stool, then kick him while he writhes on the ground, and word tends to get around.)

Unless the miserable little weasel Heynes put on the ground is stupid, as well as cruel, I suspect Heynes' actions will have at least that same effect.

* Despite having copied out all of the "Rime of the Ancient Mariner" several times over those Saturdays, I find I remember almost none of it, except that it contained a recipe for albatross. Truth to tell, I still have a lingering grudge against Samuel Taylor Coleridge. 

UPDATE: When the school says it does not tolerate "any violence," I wonder if they know what the words "any" and "violence" mean exactly. Consider this incident at the same school from about a year ago.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

I'm so sorry, Uncle Winston.

As Dave Barry is fond of saying, I'm not making this up. (Not that I won't make up a news story when it serves my nefarious purposes. I'm just not making this up.) And let me add that, despite some evidence to the contrary, my heart is not entirely hardened to the British. They did a fine job in World War II, for example, with the added benefit that for those few years they were somewhat distracted from evicting, bashing, imprisoning and generally oppressing the folks on the Irish side of my lineage.

But as further evidence that a once great nation is in its final decline, we have this news item from The Press (proudly serving North and East Yorkshire since 1882):

.22 bullet found in Fossgate, York

A STARTLED man has told how he found a bullet lying in a York city-centre street.
Tim Stark said he was unloading items into the MOR Music store where he works in Fossgate yesterday morning when he spotted what he believed to be a live .22 bullet gleaming in a puddle.
He said he immediately called police, who came and took it away.
“I have no idea what it was doing there,” he said.
A North Yorkshire Police spokesman said the bullet had been put into safe storage, and CID had confirmed it was not thought to be connected with any incident currently under investigation.
He asked anyone with any information about the bullet and how it came to be in Fossgate to phone the force on 0845 60 60 47.
Mr. Stark was "startled." The bullet was taken away by the police (I'm imagining a teeny-little bomb squad van built out of a Mini Cooper). The bullet was "put into safe storage". (An old crumpet tin?*) The knicker-twisting** hysteria contained in this account is Python-esque. More so the Upright Citizens Brigade tone of the accompanying comments.  My favorite:

Well done that man from the music shop! Where else would one responsibly dispose of a 'live round'?? The bin? I think the right action was taken, if I had any live ammunition in my drawers I would jolly well ask the police to dispose of it!
But then I saw that this comment was attributed to Elton Trowler of Wetwang. (Again. Not making this up.) Surely, I thought, this was proof that the entire story was just The Press having us on.*** But a quick visit to Google Maps confirmed that there is indeed a town called Wetwang in Yorkshire.

Still, there's a chance this is all a hoax, right? I mean, the British don't really say "jolly well," do they?

* I'm unclear on exactly what constitutes a crumpet, and unsure if they come in cans, but I do the know the English call cans tins, so no one can say I'm not being all "hands across the sea" and whatnot.

** See what I did there? Instead of panties in a bunch?

*** Could have been a cheeky colonial and insisted on saying "pulling our leg." Didn't.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Great Expectations.

Perhaps it’s unwise for a new blogger to point this out, but there’s a lot of dangerous idiocy on the Internet.

Not long ago, within the space of an hour, I was engaged in two exchanges that served as stark reminders of this. The first was an online disagreement with a fellow who claimed to be a lawyer, who thus necessarily took an oath to support and defend the Constitution, and who, one supposes, must have had occasion actually to read the damned thing at some point. Yet his fundamental position was that the Constitution (originally) and the courts (thereafter) grant us our rights, rather than merely enumerating and protecting them.  Lest you fall into similar folly,  the drafters of the Constitution provided a handy clue rigth there in the Preamble: “ . . . the blessings of Liberty. . . ” And the Declaration of Independence, in which some of the same fellows had a hand, is helpful as well: “ . . . endowed by their creator. . .”*

Next, a Facebook thread dealt with an association by a our new Attorney General that any rational middle-schooler would recognize as a conflict of interest, but which she has denied was any conflict at all. When I suggested that such political and moral tone-deafness were problematic, I was asked, “Well, what do you expect?”

Fair question. And one which, depending upon which word receives emphasis, covers a lot of territory, from the merely categorical to the particularly personal to the wildly aspirational.  I choose – for the moment – to abandon categorizations and aspirations and deal only with prognostications.

So here’s what I expect in these matters:

I expect a never-ending, ever-expanding assault on my personal liberty. I expect, every week, for events to demonstrate that Frédéric Bastiat knew exactly whereof he spoke.** In this I am rarely disappointed.

I expect members of the party in power -- whichever it may be -- to be so hungry to expand their ideology and influence right now that they throw notions of equity, fair play and good governance overboard with both hands, blind to the simple reality that they will come to decry these same "reforms" when -- as will surely come to pass -- they find their particular orthodoxy to be out of favor. For a current example, consider the Florida Legislature's multi-front attack on an entire branch of government.

I expect that efforts to improve government will be either costly and futile, or costly and disastrous.  I expect it is exceedingly rare – and increasingly rare in direct proportion to the amount of power wielded – that anyone in government has even passing concern for those they govern. Indeed, I expect that most in government think of themselves not as the governors of citizens, but as rulers of subjects. (In England this is explicitly so.)

I expect that Stalin was exactly right when he said those who cast votes decide nothing, while those who count votes decide everything.

I expect no benevolence from any government, because I expect power at every level to serve itself not just first, but only. I expect to take care of myself and my own without useful intervention of the government. At the same time, I expect to receive the help of my friends, colleagues and church family  – and I expect them to expect the same of me.  

I expect to do my best to keep my head down and stay off the radar of the tyrants who everywhere abound, but I also expect to fail at that from time to time. When I do so fail, and I come under the direct attention of those who want to harm me or – far worse – those who think they know what is best for me, I expect to come out the worse for wear.

Sadly, I expect that there will come a day when just striving to be let alone will no longer suffice.

But listen, that's just what I expect. Whatever I expect, I try always to keep Cromwell's admonition in mind.*** After all, there was a fellow who, despite the fact  that he was endearingly regicidal, knew a thing or two about tyranny.  

*  Those who still need convincing are referred to Messrs. Seneca, Luther, Hegel, Rousseau, Locke . . . .

** "If the natural tendencies of mankind are so bad that it is not safe to permit people to be free, how is it that the tendencies of these organizers are always good? Do not the legislators and their appointed agents also belong to the human race? Or do they believe that they themselves are made of a finer clay than the rest of mankind?"

"It seems to me that this is theoretically right, for whatever the question under discussion—whether religious, philosophical, political, or economic; whether it concerns prosperity, morality, equality, right, justice, progress, responsibility, cooperation, property, labor, trade, capital, wages, taxes, population, finance, or government—at whatever point on the scientific horizon I begin my researches, I invariably reach this one conclusion: The solution to the problems of human relationships is to be found in liberty."

*** "I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible that you may be mistaken." This was Cromwell's plea to the synod of the Church or Scotland in August 1650, when the church leaders aligned themselves with Charles II's claim to the throne from which Cromwell had removed his father, not long before likewise removing Charles I's head from his shoulders. Charles II  reclaimed the throne ten years later following Cromwell's death and -- you have to love the British sense of propriety -- posthumous "execution."

"Cromwell's Rule," as logicians refer to it, advises that in searching for the truth, unshakable certainty is poor place to start.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Credit where credit is due.

Up in New Hampshire, they are cleaning up the snow and girding themselves for the start of the 2012 presidential campaign -- the former lingers long there, while the latter comes all too early. But the state legislature still has found time to consider giving those heroic homeland heroes at the TSA the recognition they richly deserve.

As explained at aviation attorney Tim Ravich's excellent Aviation and Aerospace Blawg,* if proposed legislation is approved, those grope happy pornographers at the TSA will find themselves on the state's sexual offender's registry.

Even in a state with the motto "Live Free or Die," will such a provision make it into law? Probably not. But bless their revolution-loving hearts for giving it a try.

* A "blawg" is blog dedicated to matters legal, judicial and jurisprudential. Tim's is; the Sheepdog's decidedly isn't.

Friday, February 25, 2011

. . . could be raining.

I have to confess: I broke Robert's Rule.

More particularly, I broke the Rule that states what you know well enough: "It can always get worse." I broke the rule by violating the essence of the proscriptive corollary, which, is that one must never, ever say: "Could be worse . . ."

Like so many who run afoul of Robert's Rules, and suffer the deserved and inevitable natural consequences of their sin, I thought I'd found an exception to the Rules. This despite the Rule that plainly states there are no exceptions to the Rules. In my defense, I was just trying to get along. I had written a lot here about  freedom to travel as a canary the coal mine,* suggesting that the TSA's security theater was not merely pointless, but actually nefarious. Friends of more moderate mind -- perhaps more charitably disposed toward the state, or perhaps just concerned about the proliferation of sheepdogs on various watch lists --  told me it smacked of blogger paranoia to posit that the genital gropes and virtual porn scanners are meant to be the thin end of the wedge.** So I told myself, "enough already," which was really just another version of "could be worse . . ."

And just that swiftly am I punished. Because, clearly, it could be worse, will be worse, indeed already is worse.

How else to explain the latest? How else to explain the federal government conducting warrantless searches, far from any border, of citizens who have finished traveling? If the justification for abridging my God-given, Constitutionally-assured rights is supposed to be that "flying is a privilege" and that we "must keep the travelers safe" and that all this is worth it "if we can save just one life," doesn't that justification evaporate when you start fondling nine-year-old train passengers after they get off the train at their destination? I'm a clever enough fellow. From time to time, I am actually paid to take a position. But I lack the suppleness of mind -- or maybe the time machine -- to conjure an explanation for how searching child travelers after they get off the train is a practice intended to make train travel safer.

And if the stated justification of safer travel is are gone, then what are you left with, if not the damp and undeniable nose of the camel under the tent?***

* That's one.

** That's two.

*** That's three. Those who post with comments containing additional cliched metaphors for giving inches and taking miles (that's four) will be eligible to receive exclusive Suburban Sheepdog coffee mugs -- if any are ever created. Resort to research about Lydia Sigourney and here Arab miller will disqualify you.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Blocking out the scenery.

Turns out you can ignore everything I’ve been saying. Courtesy of the excellent gun blog Everyday, No Days Off, we have a link to the ultimate answer to the question, “Who you gonna call?" As it turns out, you won’t need to call anyone. And forget all that stuff about the triad of skills, equipment and mindset. Just post a sign.

Indeed, your only responsibility is to somehow choose from a "wide selection of colors, shapes, and messages."

The company's product description explains everything, but before sharing it with you, I'd best post a warning of my own:

Before reading further, put down now any beverage
you don’t want to shoot through your nose onto your keyboard.

 OK. With that bold and colorful warning in place, we're ready to read on and learn how signs stop crime:
Gun-related crime and accidents are a pressing issue across the country-violence affects us all. A No Weapons Sign and a bold graphic gives a stern warning that violence is not tolerated.* A sign can warn visitors that such activity is illegal, even when you are not there. Protect your grounds with a range of heavy-duty security signs - ideal for a variety of schools, playgrounds, businesses, and other public placed. Send a message to weapon owners: keep your guns at home.

• Promote a serious no-weapons policy on your premises. Don't let the threat of gun incidents or violence undermine the security of your property, or the safety of your patrons.

• A bold red-circle graphic crosses all language borders. A clear sign keeps firearms away.

• A sign is one of the most consistent statements you can make. Signs are hard to ignore, and make your patrons aware of your standards and regulations. 
• Heavy-duty, laminated vinyl and aluminum construction can give you years of security protection.

Well that is all very reassuring, don’t you think? Take that Jared Lougher and Clay Duke.

I'm thinking of running up some signs of my own. Tell me what you think of these:


Heart disease is America's leading killer. But you can protect your family and guests from this scourge with these bold signs. Check out our cancer, diabetes and car crash signs as well. Don't you want your family to be protected?


Society is a minefield of prejudices, bigotry, sexism, racism, sectarian division, extremism and bad will toward our fellow man. When placed at the entry to your business, school or government office, this sign's strong language and subtle rainbow color scheme will keep all that bad stuff outside.


Every athlete -- professional, college, high school or club -- wants to perform his or her best. With our customizable G-force signs posted at your your field, arena or stadium, you decide how strong gravity will be on the day of the big game. Signs are available in all sizes and come with enough numbers (decimal points included at no charge!) to allow you to really get home-field advantage. (Increased buoyancy signs available for swimmers.)

*The bold italics are mine. The idiocy is all theirs. As Dave Barry says, i am not making this up.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Internet, heal thyself.

I’ve mentioned here before that the name given to a law can always be counted on to tell you a lot about the law – albeit too often because the law is intended to accomplish precisely the opposite of what the name implies.

So I invite you to consider the Protecting Cyberspace as a National Asset Act, now being pressed. It is called this because its proponents, while they may well be statist thugs and freedom-hating scoundrels, are not complete idiots. They know that a law called The Screw Free Speech, We'll Shut Your Fucking Mouths For You Whenever We Damn Please Act would be more difficult -- but, sadly, I'm guessing not impossible -- to pass. The law would grant sweeping powers to the executive to flip a “kill-switch,” shutting down the Internet. It does not allow for judicial review. Take heart though: Such a shutdown could only last for four months before it would have to be authorized again.

I invite you, also, to choose your particular outrage. Here are just two:

Demonstrating that some people are immune to irony, the sponsors are pushing the law immediately after the President’s rightful criticism of the Egyptian government’s use of precisely the same technology in an attempt to squelch organized dissent there. (Here’s a Google search result with lots of hits pointing that out. You will note that, while the Suburban Sheepdog values reasonable discourse, not everyone does.)

And then there’s my personal favorite, Joe Lieberman, who clearly just cannot help himself. China’s got a kill switch he tells CNN, so why don’t we? Yes, Joe, good plan. Let’s try our best to emulate a nation which has recently used its control over the Internet to keep its own people from learning that a jailed government opponent there won the Noble Peace Prize.*

So be sure to link today's blog post to your friends, and to learn more about the bill, and to e-mail your representatives, and to fire up this issue on Facebook and Twitter -- while you still can.

* Lest you think my contempt is reserved for Democrats who tout limits on free speech: First, note that my contempt for Joe Lieberman is multifarious and longstanding. Second, note that the Act has Republican support as well. And finally, ask my poor, long-suffering wife, what it was like trying to have a conversation with me about anything else for several days after George Bush's Press secretary Air Fleischer warned that, post 9-11, Americans "need to watch what they say."

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Mr. Hammer, meet Mr. Nailhead

My friend, Miggy, wields the hammer over at Gun Free Zone.

Ready or not.

Robert’s Rule – with due deference to the Coast Guard* and the Boy Scouts** ­– puts it this way: Ready is better than not.***

Of course the Rule begs a question: Ready for what? For those little everyday inconveniences, we have what my family calls the Bat Belt. (It’s not really a belt; it’s a little shoulder bag about the size of a carton of cigarettes. But we go with “Bat Belt” because Daddy gets cranky when it’s called a purse.) Little boy with a cactus needle in his finger? Shooting buddy shaky from dehydration? School spirit flag won’t stay attached to the car? Never fear, because tweezers and pouches of electrolytes and cables ties (oh, blessed cable ties) all nestle in the Bat Belt’s depths.  For under $15 you can buy one of your own and stuff it with whatever will make you more ready.

But some inconveniences are more inconvenient than others, and little in this world is as inconvenient as suddenly acquiring more holes in your body than you had when you began the day. Holes tend to leak and those leaks can kill you. Whether shot or hurt in a wreck – or even impaled by a plummeting piece of Skylab – it is now widely understood, in both the civilian and military context, that immediate action to stop blood loss is the key life saving technique for victims of such injuries.

Now, should such an inconvenience befall me, would I prefer the attentions of a trauma surgeon over the help of say, an attorney? Sure.  But I spend time around a lot more attorneys than trauma surgeons, and even an attorney – with a little training, a bit of the right gear, and the proper mindset – can plug a hole and save a life.

So can you. First you have to reject the Unified Field Theory of Dependence and the fallacious notion that you cannot help others, or even yourself, in the case of traumatic injury. The necessary techniques – direct pressure, use of pressure points, use of tourniquets and hemostatic dressings, and so on – are accessible to anyone with an interest in learning them. In fact, you can learn the useful basics, along with CPR, in a day.

Thus, my truck and my briefcase both contain “blow out kits”: compact (about the size of a Stephen King  paperback) specialized first aid kits dedicated to the proposition that blood belongs inside the body.  For $50 or so, you can purchase or put together something similar. Be sure to include a proper tourniquet, hemostatic gauze (such as QuickClot) and the right kinds of dressings. That the presence of such kits and people trained to use them, can make a difference was readily demonstrated a few weeks ago in Tuscon. **** It comes down to another version of “who you gonna call?” Just as “dial 911” does not constitute a complete home defense plan, neither does “dial 911” alone suffice for saving lives.

As discussed here before, readiness is a triad of equal parts skill, equipment and mindset – where mindset is more equal than the others. No less so here.  The day you find yourself deploying your blowout kit is not going to be a good day. Knowing what to do is going to be the least of it. I can tell you from personal experience that a large quantity of human blood spilled on the ground has a smell unlike anything else. Add piquant accents of bladder, bowel and terror sweat on a sunny August afternoon; set the scene to the tune of someone screaming ceaselessly in true agony; and then imagine the victim is a person whom you love.

Now do what needs doing anyway.

That’s proper mindset, and it’s in you if you make yourself ready. Because ready is better than not.

* Semper paratus.

** Be Prepared.

*** Here I respectfully depart from The Bard, who contended in Hamlet, Act v., Scene 2, that “the readiness is all.” Ready is better than not. But it’s not all. 

**** The concept for the kits began with the military. Having each soldier carry such a kit means that, when a medic gets to him, the tools for stopping blood loss, opening an airway and depressurizing chest wounds are always on hand. Moreover, each warfighter is able to offer that same assistance to his comrades and even to himself. Many police departments now equip their officers with something similar.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

No good deed.

Julius Caesar contended that "cowards die many times before their deaths; the valiant never taste of death but once."* At the biggest corporation in the world, that philosophy is slightly revised. There, cowards may die many times before their deaths, but the valiant get terminated.

Just ask Layton, Utah, Walmart employees Gabriel Stewart, Shawn Ray, Lori Poulsen and Justin Richins.

You can read the news story and the police report. In short summary, loss prevention workers Poulsen, Ray and Richins caught a fellow stealing a computer. They stopped him at the door, took him to the loss prevention office and were joined by assistant manager Stewart. Once everyone had crowded into the small room, the shoplifter -- a convicted felon named Trent Allen Longton -- drew a pistol, put it to Stewart's back and demanded to be released.

No one was able to shoot Longton to the ground, since Walmart policy disarms its employees.** So the workers took the thief's gun away from him and sat on him until the police showed up. In terms we've used here before, they acted violently enough soon enough for long enough to end the threat.

They did not panic and decide that they were helpless victims. Nor did they allow this armed criminal to flee into the crowded store it was their job to protect, there to threaten or harm or abduct someone else. That the circumstances seem not to have given them any other real options -- as one employee describes it, there really wasn't anywhere for the four to flee even if they had wished to -- makes their actions no less valiant or correct. Many are those who might not have reacted so well. Not that these four need me to validate them, but given the available descriptions, I'd say their actions were tactically and morally perfect.

And so, you reasonably ask, what was Walmart's reward to these heroic folks? Are they even now being whisked to the Bentonville headquarters via private jet,*** there to be honored for their service, perhaps to be awarded the Sam Walton Medal for Valor?**** Will they get a lifetime membership to Sam's Club? Would you believe a free chewy pretzel?

No, none of this. Instead, Walmart gave all four employees some time off. Well, more accurately, they gave all four employees forever off. Walmart fired them all. Walmart shill, er, spokesman Dan Fogelman put it this way:
We appreciate the intentions demonstrated by our associates in this situation, but the actions taken put their safety -- and potentially the safety of our customers and other associates -- in jeopardy. In their roles within the store, they were aware of our expectations regarding safety and, unfortunately, their actions have led to them no longer working for the company.
The first sentence contains a lie. It has to be a lie because no human being capable of speech could be that dumb. The employees' actions didn't increase the danger to the others in the store. Once Langton produced the gun, and given the options available to them,  the loss prevention people were right to defend themselves, disarm the bad guy and contain him away from others he might have attacked.

But a lie from a fellow in Fogelman's position is no big deal. What's really foul is that last unctuous, passively evil clause: "[U]nfortunately, their actions have led to them no longer working for the company."

Bad enough that cowardice is evidently Walmart corporate policy. Worse that Walmart "associates" -- even the ones who exchange heroism for minimum wage -- are disposable. What stinks worst of all is that Walmart's cowardice is so complete that it cannot even take responsibility for its own actions in firing these people. Don't blame the company, it's just "unfortunate" that these employees' actions somehow "led to them no longer working for the company."

The fact is that Walmart expects its loss prevention people to use "reasonable force" to detain shoplifters, unless and until the shoplifter produces a weapon, at which point the employees are supposed to "disengage." Although that policy is desperately flawed on about three obvious bases, let's let it lie for now. Because the policy isn't the problem this time. The problem is Walmart's mechanical application of the policy and its struthious disregard of the circumstances -- and of the effect on the lives of four people. That's management by cowardice, plain and simple.

Still, I have to believe that Stewart, Ray, Poulsen and Richins won't be long out of work. Surely Layton, Utah must be home to at least one employer who values something more than low prices.

 *Julius Caesar, Act 2, Scene II, Wm. Shakespeare. 

** Repeat Robert's Rule with me now: "Gun-free zones aren't"

*** Walmart's private fleet is the largest of any company.

**** No such medal exists, although Sam was the recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Bush 41 in 1992.

Saturday, February 5, 2011


I think I've said all that can profitably be said about the inherent idiocy of zero tolerance, so I'll keep this short.

Police in New Jersey have arrested and criminally charged a seven-year-old for possession of a Nerf gun. A five-dollar Nerf gun, which my Christmas forays into Toys R Us tell me is a very small Nerf gun indeed. You don't even get a large-capacity Nerf magazines at that price.

Dr. Dan Blachford -- doubtless a bright and guiding light in the firmament of New Jersey pedagogy -- explained:
We are just very vigilant and we feel that if we draw a very strict line then we have much less worry about someone bringing in something dangerous.
Something dangerous. You know. Like a seven-year-old armed with foam rubber.

A mom at the school -- evidently less of a pedagogue, as she doesn't know the difference between "then" and "than" -- was relieved:

I would rather them go a little bit too far for the safety of all the children then to say "okay, it was probably nothing."
 Nothing. You know. Like a seven-year-old armed with foam rubber.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

No offense.

The first Christmas after we were married, my wife and I invited my parents to come visit, promising better-than-Cleveland weather, the opportunity to meet several score of new in-laws, and the chance to experience Noche Buena. My adoptive mother's response: "Oh. I don't know if I can eat all that hot, spicy food." Whereupon I spent the next few minutes setting out the cultural and culinary distinctions between Mexicans (one of which my bride is not) and Cubans (one of which she decidedly is). Having analogized yuca to the more familiar potato, having drawn a distinction between jalepenos and comino, and roast pork being no stranger to Mom's table as both child and adult, all fears were soon eased.
I couldn't blame her for her ignorance. Before moving to Miami, I was hardly better informed. Little did I -- the Cleveland-raised Irish/German child of Czech adoptive parents -- realize that what had seemed from a distance to be a great Latino monolith was, on closer viewing, a mosaic of discrete cultures. I quickly learned that if the distinctions between, say, an Argentinian and a Venezuelan, or a Cuban and a Puerto Rican, were then too obscure for me to discern, the members of those groups had no such trouble.*

Since then, in part because of my status as el unico gringo in a very large Cuban family, and in larger part because I have done all I can to reach into the multifarious life of this unique city, I have sat at many a noisy and cheerful table while folk from every Caribbean, Central and South American land held forth in goodhearted passion on such weighty topics as arroz con gandules** versus gallo pinto,*** or the inherently superior qualities of each one's native rums, newspapers, governments, soccer teams, mountains, beaches and women.  I've shared a table with a Haitian buddy and a Dominican one -- not for nothing, their peoples share an entire island -- and found that all anyone could manage to agree on is that we ought to order another Mexican beer.

Decidedly, the cultural fault lines, while narrow, can run deep and so warrant close attention. Even a common language can be a minefield. I suggest you do not ask the Cuban lady at the fruit stand if her papaya is ripe,**** nor should you ask your Mexican dinner guest if he is lleno,***** nor ought you yell to your Honduran soccer teammate to ¡coger lo!****** if the ball is headed out of bounds. But, with just a little bit of good will, all of us gringos, Boriquas, Catrachos, Trinis, Ticos,  Guanacos and the rest manage to get along well enough most days.

Sadly, however, good will is sometimes in as short a supply as common sense. And so we have Robert's Rule, which clearly states that "If you look carefully enough for an insult, you will always find one."  For a perfect demonstration of this principle -- and a counter-example to the corollary, which holds that "The sufficiently robust cannot be effectively insulted." -- consider this "news story" out of a South Florida classroom today. For extra credit, be sure to read the comments.

* Joke told to me by Argentinian shooting buddy: How do you kill a Venezuelan? Push him off of his own ego.
   Joke told to me by Venezuelan shooting buddy: How do you kill an Argentinian? Push him off of his own ego.

** Rice and beans.

*** Beans and rice.

**** Unless you are seeking a date, or a slapped face, inquire, instead, about the state of the fruita bomba.

*****  "Full" to most Spanish speakers; slang for "drunk" in Mexico.

****** "Get it!" to most Spanish speakers; something decidedly more intimate in Honduras.