Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Happy Halloween!

As I sit here and wait for the onslaught of the trick-or-treaters, it occurs to me to wonder: what are the things that scare me?

They've changed over time, of course. When I was young, I loved to stay up late Saturday night to watch "Chiller Theater" and be scared by all the monsters Hollywood churned out. At one time, I bought and built a plastic model kit of The Mummy (98 cents from the Aurora company). It stood proudly on my bedroom dresser, shambling across a field of broken tombstones with it's arm threateningly outstretched for the nearest victim. One night I woke up to go to the bathroom and was horrified to see the huge shadow of the mummy cast on my wall by the night light from the hall. I just about wet myself on the spot. Needless to say, each night after that, the plastic mummy spent the night on the closet shelf, with the doors firmly closed.

But the world has moved on, and there are things I worry about more than walking mummies. What are the things that scare me at 55 that I didn't even think about at 10?

* Making a mistake on my taxes that brings the full guilty-until-proven-innocent weight of the IRS down on my head.

* Street crime and violence.

* Radical Muslims who think it's perfectly okay to kill me if I don't appreciate the peaceful nature of their religion.

* Twisted people who abuse children.

* Stupid politicians.

On the whole, I was happier with The Mummy and the other horrors from Chiller Theater, because I could always turn off the TV and turn on the lights and know that everything was really all right. Sadly, we can't do that with modern horrors.

And that's what's really scary.

Enjoy Halloween, where the frights only last a short time and the children enjoy them. They'll have to face the real horrors all too soon.

Have a good evening. More thoughts coming up.


Sunday, October 29, 2006

We've got Happy Feet!

Agnes and I spent the last three days in Miami Beach, taking part in the 36th annual Grand National Ballroom Dance Championships, and had a wonderful time. The weather was great, the quality of the competition was high, and the crowd was large and friendly...everything you could ask for in a ballroom competition.

We danced 14 times, and took first place in 13 of those heats: American Gold Waltz, Tango, Fox Trot, Rumba, Cha-Cha, Swing, and Bolero; International Silver Quickstep and Viennese Waltz; and International Bronze Rumba, Cha-Cha, Samba, and Paso Doble. We took second place in the International Bronze Waltz. In the picture above, I'm deleriously happy (and Agnes is shocked, yet proud) that I have just won the Top Student Award in the American Gold category.

If you haven't tried ballroom dancing, you don't know what you're missing. And if you're a ballroom dancer who hasn't tried competitive dancing, you're missing out on more fun and excitement than you ever dreamed was possible. My only regret is that I didn't start doing this 40 years ago.

We'll get back to some serious posts tomorrow...but for today, I just needed to crow a bit.

Have a great evening. More thoughts coming.


Wednesday, October 25, 2006

An interesting article in yesterday's Washington Post titled "Clauses and Commas Make a Comeback" announces that the teaching of proper grammar and punctuation is being taught once again in some Northern Virginia schools. You can read the story online at http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/10/22/AR2006102201135.html.

When I was in grade school and high school in the late 1950's and 1960's, I hated grammar lessons. I hated diagramming sentences, detested punctuation, abhorred spelling, and dreaded the homework assignments on those ghastly topics. It was always with trepidation that I awaited the return of my hard-done homework papers with their expected liberal wash of red ink. I was a typical kid of my generation.

But that was then, and this is now. With the wisdom that 20-20 hindsight gives us, I can see the value of the drudgery of learning proper grammar, punctuation, and writing skills. Hardly a day goes by that I don't see at least one example of the written word that, because of its poor structure, spelling, and/or grammar, reflects poorly on the writer and, by extension, on his ideas. I strongly believe that the ability to present one's ideas clearly and persuasively, orally and in writing, is one of the most important skills a young person can master, a skill that will pay huge dividends throughout life. I don't claim to have perfect grammar and punctuation skills, but I do think I'm far ahead of many of my peers as an effective writer, and those skills have been of immense value to me more times than I can count.

Most young people today (and by this, I mean, "most people under 40") have trouble writing a coherent sentence, and the problem is getting worse. Part of the cause is a lack of emphasis on teaching grammar, punctuation, spelling, and effective writing in schools; another part is the proliferation of e-mail and of text messaging on mobile phones, which reduces words and sentences to fragments and emoticons bereft of structure and organization.

So I applaud the return of that instruction I hated so much in my childhood. Even if it only helps high-school students squeeze past the writing sample of the SAT exams, it's a start toward recovering our lost literacy and educating new generations of people able to read, write and - most important - think effectively.

Have a good day. Write something...perhaps even a comment to this post. More thoughts coming.


Monday, October 23, 2006

Things that make you go AARRGGHH!!

I try to be polite, and to take the feelings of others into account whenever I can. This is a valuable lesson I learned from my parents, both of whom are unfailingly polite and considerate of others. Unfortunately, not everyone has learned the same lesson.

The latest thing to irritate me is shopping carts...in particular at the local Costco wholesale store, but in general at most shopping places.

My issue with shopping carts begins outside the store in the parking lot, where many people are too lazy to push their empty carts back to the designated drop-off spots, instead leaving them in empty parking spaces, shoved up on the landscaped dividers, or just parallel-parked along the curb. This impedes traffic flow, reduces the number of available parking spaces (especially on weekends), and causes damage when the carts roll free and bump into parked cars.

Inside the stores, aisles tend to be narrow, and even those that are wide tend to be crowded with shoppers at busy times. Many shoppers blithely leave their carts parked in the middle of the aisles (often at an angle, for maximum traffic interference) while they ponder their purchases...and then get irritated with you when you ask them to move them out of the way.


If you are shopping, and particularly if the store is crowded, please think about where you are leaving your shopping cart. In the parking lot, the car your improperly-stowed cart damages may be mine...and inside, the nerves you get on may also be mine. Showing a little consideration for others is not a bad thing, especially as we approach the holiday season. Why not start with the common, ordinary shopping cart?

Have a good day. More thoughts coming.


Sunday, October 22, 2006

In my October 3rd post, I wrote that I intended to start a series of posts on the subject of controlling gun violence. In the intervening weeks, much else has happened that I've wanted to comment on, and so now I'm finally getting back to this topic.

On October 10th, in the wake of the tragic murder of young girls at an Amish school in Pennsylvania, the President sprang into action by doing what presidents always do at such times - he announced a panel to study the issue. You can read the White House press release trumpeting this move at http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2006/10/20061010.html.

I personally think this is stupid.

We lose hundreds of our citizens each year to gun violence, and yet we absolutely refuse even to consider any measures that might restrict our ability as citizens to own guns. The National Rifle Association and similar organizations become hysterical at the least suggestion that the ability to keep guns might be infringed, regardless of the social cost of that ownership. How did we get to this state?

The Second Amendment to the Constitution, the Holy Grail of gun ownership advocates, reads: "A well-regulated Militia being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms shall not be infringed." What did the framers of the Constitution mean when they wrote these words? Some today argue that they intended citizens to be armed as protection against the unchecked power of their own government. My personal opinion is that the framers recognized two things: professional standing armies represented a potential government tool of oppression, and in the era before 24-hour supermarkets, people needed to be able to hunt for their meals. The practical result: with no standing army for defense against external threats (British, French, Indians, etc), a "well-regulated Militia" was necessary, which needed to be armed to be effective. Those same arms that would be carried to a muster of the Militia would also serve to put meat on the family's table.

In the year 2006, not many of us need to shoot our own dinner, and we have a very large, well-trained, and heavily-funded Army to defend us. In my mind, that removes two of the arguments for unregulated ownership of guns. I don't feel particularly threatened by the U.S. Army...after all, right now it's pretty busy in Iraq and Afghanistan. I am, however, very concerned about all the people around me every day who are able to act on their urges with powerful and easily-available weapons. Gun advocates claim that if people didn't have guns, they would still kill each other. True. But I think we'd find that it's considerably harder to kill someone up close with a knife, a club, or one's bare hands than from a distance with a firearm.

I have more to say on this topic, but I want to do some more research before I get any farther into it. For now, let's just say that I'm pretty skeptical about the absolute need for everyone to own a gun, and I think it's high time we had a detailed, rational debate about the Second Amendment in a time of AK-47's, Uzis, armor-piercing bullets, and proliferating handguns.

Yes, I'm worried. I'm worried about you, and what you might do with those guns you just have to have.

More thoughts later.


Saturday, October 21, 2006

Yesterday my friend Jake sent me a link to a website that I found absolutely fascinating. Those of you who, like me, are interested in history will find it equally compelling.

The site is called "Maps of War," and the URL is http://www.mapsofwar.com/ind/imperial-history.html. A click on the interactive map will start a 90-second program which shows the various empires that have ruled the area we call today the Middle East from the time of the Egyptian pharoahs to the present day - a period of over 5000 years. There are other maps and interactive photo displays on the site, so be sure to scroll through and enjoy all there is to learn.

The biggest lesson I took away from watching the 90-second animation of one empire dissolving into another over the centuries was that - regardless of what third-world apologists and people with no sense of history want to believe - imperialism is not a White Northern European invention. If anything, the European cultures were Johnny-come-latelys to the business of conquering and ruling other nations and cultures...and this particular map display shows only Europe and the Middle East. How many Asiatic empires rose and fell while subjugating their neighbors?

So, the next time someone armed with passion but no knowledge complains bitterly about how Western countries have screwed up the world, direct them to this site so that they can see that the West is only the latest in a long history of imperial wannabe's stretching back many thousands of years. A little balance in one's understanding of history is a good thing.

More thoughts later.


Thursday, October 19, 2006

Over the past six weeks, we've enjoyed watching "Dancing with the Stars" on TV. Okay, they may not be the biggest and brightest stars, and the amount of actual ballroom dancing may be a little light, but the show is very entertaining and we've done our part to cheer on our favorites. As with so many things, though, there's a dark side.

The website for Dancing with the Stars contains lots of useful and interesting information, and it also includes message boards for fans of the show to post their comments. Some of those comments are thoughtful and insightful, and reflect an understanding of the show and of dancing in general. Unfortunately, some of the comments are idiotic, puerile, racist, or just downright stupid, and all too frequently degenerate into silly flame wars.

What's wrong with people? Why can't we have a calm and rational exchange of views in which we respect each other's positions? Why can't someone just say they didn't like Sara Evans' dancing without adding a silly and ugly comment about her weight? Emmitt Smith may not be Fred Astaire, but in my opinion he's doing a great job...but there are some people out there who find it necessary to use racial slurs to talk about him.

Where's the civility? Where's the common courtesy?

The anonymity of the web has a lot to do with it. If you can hide behind a screen name, you can act stupid without having to face the consequences of your stupidity. But on a larger scale, these useless comments reflect a simple lack of intelligence and courtesy, and I would suggest that the parents are to blame. My parents made sure that we all recognized the importance of being pleasant and respectful to everyone, whether we liked them or not. They came from families that recognized the value of the Golden Rule and of courteous behavior in maintaining a civil society, and they passed those values down to us. My mother would have smacked me silly if she'd caught me acting like some of the fools who make stupid, flaming anonymous posts on websites. For my part, I have tried to pass that lesson on to my children.

Old-fashioned? Maybe, if you listen to some people. But the old saying that you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar is as true today as it ever was. If you want respect, you need to give respect. And today's parents need to teach that to their children.

Sadly, it appears to be too late for some. But at least they're easy to recognize. And ignore.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Awash in political hogwash!

This is one of my least-favorite times of the year - not only am I hammered by the constant pleadings for money by the local NPR station, but I'm bombarded by endless shrill charges and countercharges by political candidates. With the general election only four weeks away, the number of media ads, recorded phone calls, and junk political mailings is skyrocketing...but the amount of useful, thoughtful information they provide is plummeting.

When was the last time you heard a politician - any politician - laying out his (or her) agenda and exactly how he (or she) would implement it? Chances are, the honest answer is "never." It's much easier to smear your opponent with half-truths and accusations than it is to clearly explain what you yourself stand for and what your program is. Is it any wonder that voters are turned off, and the percentage of eligible voters who actually go to the polls continues to decline?

For me, recorded political ads pushed to my telephone are the worst - not only do they provide no useful information, but they don't even allow me the satisfaction of telling someone on the other end what I think. Not that they care.

Be sure to vote on November 7th. It'll be hard to make an informed decision on the basis of the drivel the parties put out, but do your best. The alternative is to be governed by the louts who are the better dirt-slingers.

Have a good day. More thoughts coming.


Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Yesterday, for the third time in a week, young people were shot to death in a school. This time, four girls are dead and seven more in critical condition following a shooting rampage in an Amish school in Pennsylvania...a horrible act made even more tragic by the fact that there are few people more peaceful and good-natured than the Amish.

Predictably, your government is springing into action on this issue: CNN reports that the administration will host a conference next week "to discuss the recent string of school violence across the country."

Where I come from, this is what we call hooey.

Consider the common thread in each of these tragic incidents - guns. Although each of the perpetrators was reported to have carried other weapons such as knives and stun guns, the deaths were all caused by shooting. The problem, it seems to me, is the ready availability of guns and the easy killing power they provide.

I know that there's no more deadly third rail in political discourse than any mention of "gun control," but I also know that any discussion of what to do about school violence...and violence in general...must include a clear-eyed discussion of the gun issue.

In the coming weeks, I plan a series of posts here on the topic of gun violence and measures to control it, but I need to do some research first so that I don't just waste your time with a bunch of emotional and one-dimensional arguments. For instance, I want to know:
- What does the Constitution actually say about the right to "bear arms?"
- What was the context within which the famous Second Amendment was considered and drafted?
- What else did the Founders write that may help us understand what they intended?
- Has the development of society made it necessary to rethink the blanket freedom granted by the Second Amendment?

So stand by while I think this over, and I'll offer my thoughts later. For now, though, it occurs to me that the absolute minimum measure we ought to take right now is a simple one: a very heavy mandatory sentence, without possibility of parole, for the use of a firearm in the commission of any crime. I can't imagine even the most rabid gun rights supporter arguing against that one.

But I'm sure someone will.

Have a good day. More comments later.


Monday, October 02, 2006

I wrote yesterday about spending this past Saturday at the National Book Festival, and about the joy and importance of reading. Sadly, not everyone shares my belief in the importance of reading as a part of a sound education.

A very disturbing article by Michael Grunwald in yesterday's (October 1st) Washington Post detailed the tragic waste of money on school reading programs which are distinguished only by the fact that they are championed by friends in high places. A quote from the article states that:

"Department (of Education) officials and a small group of influential contractors have strongarmed states and local (school) districts into adopting a small group of unproved textbooks and reading programs with almost no peer-reviewed research behind them. The commercial interests behind these textbooks and programs have paid royalties and consulting fees to the key Reading First contractors, who also served as consultants for states seeking grants and chaired the panels approving the grants."

This is appalling. One of the most important skills required for a citizen in a democracy is the ability to read, and we are allowing cheap politics and hucksterism to undercut our ability to teach this critical skill to our children. While I believe that much of the responsibility for teaching reading to our children can (and should) be taken up by the parents, our schools also play a key role. Our children, and our nation, deserve better. You can read the full story on the Post website at http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/09/29/AR2006092901333.html.

One of my great delights is listening to my six year-old granddaughter Marcy read. She's not quite ready for Shakespeare or Dickens yet, but she enjoys reading and reads well for her age. Much of the credit for this goes to her parents, who share my belief in the importance of reading. My mother, the Queen of Reading, would have been proud.

So spend some quality time reading with your children and grandchildren. Watch your children's schools and make sure that they have strong, professionally-designed and peer-reviewed reading programs backed up with good libraries. And while you're at it, support your local public library. Video games may be fun, but they won't prepare your children for life in a frighteningly complex and fast-paced world. Give them the gift of literacy and an appreciation for books of all kinds - after love, it's one of the best gifts you can give.

Have a good day. Read something. More thoughts tomorrow.


Sunday, October 01, 2006

Yesterday I had the opportunity to do something I've been wanting to do for years, but somehow never quite managed to accomplish: I spent the day at the National Book Festival on the Mall in downtown Washington DC.

The 2006 National Book Festival took place on a chilly, overcast, drizzly day, but that didn't seem to keep the attendance down - the Mall was thronged with crowds of people of all ages and colors united by a love of reading. Individual pavilions catered to those interested in "Mysteries and Thrillers," "History and Biography," "Children's Literature," "Fiction and Fantasy," "Poetry," and other topics. In these pavilions, authors talked about their work and answered questions from the audience, while in another section of the festival area, those same authors were available to sign copies of their books (available for sale at two large sales tents). In the "Pavilion of the States," each of the states, territories, and Washington, DC, was represented at an area dedicated to its writers and library system...most offered a small prize to anyone who could show a current borrower's card from a library in the state, and all had plenty of educational handouts. The Library of Congress, sponsor of the Festival, had its own pavilion with displays dedicated to copyright protection, preservation of digital media, and the new National Audio-Visual Conservation Center. They also offered a long, blank paper wall on which everyone was encouraged to write down their favorite book title, and explain why they enjoyed reading. Food was readily available, and there was plenty to occupy the attention of young children.

I enjoyed listening to presentations by Kathy Reichs (a forensic pathologist who writes thrillers based on her experiences), Douglas Brinkley (author of The Great Deluge, a fierce indictment of the failures that compounded the devastation of Hurricane Katrina), and Nathaniel Philbrick (author of Mayflower, a history of the Plymouth Colony and of King Philip's War). I had especially enjoyed Mayflower, and was very interested in Mr Philbrick's discussion of the book and his research in writing it. Mr Brinkley's forceful presentation and keen sense of moral outrage over the aftermath of Katrina were entertaining and inspiring...he was so critical of New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin that one questioner asked if he planned to run for mayor himself in the next election. I also had the pleasure of meeting and talking with Mr Donald Miller, the author of Masters of the Air, a history of the Eighth Air Force bomber offensive against Nazi Germany in World War II.

There's nothing like reading - a lesson I have tried to pass on to my children and grandchildren. Coupled with the ability to speak well and write clearly, it is the foundation stone of a good education. My mother used to say that if you had a book, you were never without a friend, and she was right. Reading is your ticket to other times, places, and experiences you might otherwise never know. Learning is a lifelong experience, and reading is the key to learning.

Read, think, and grow. The world is yours.

Have a good day and a good week coming. More thoughts later.