Wednesday, August 15th 2007

“You look like a Borland!”
posted @ 12:06 am in [ ]

Here’s a depressing question: At what point do I stop being a blogger or an essayist or a pamphleteer and become a eulogist? I wrote this one for my husband to deliver at Grandma Oral’s funeral in about 8 hours or so.

The first time I brought my wife to Kansas to meet Grandma Oral, we went into a local shop and were greeted from behind the counter with, “You look like a Borland!”

“I am a Borland,” I replied while my wife nearly collapsed in hysterics. I guess I wasn’t that surprised. I am very much my mother’s child, and she was very much Grandma Oral’s. What my wife thought was so funny, though, was that someone would know that just by looking at me. Grandma Oral loved living in the kind of community where this scene could happen, and did.

Grandma Oral always loved to tell the story of a single postcard. The postcard came a long way: across a time zone, through several different states and postal centers, across a hundred counties. It was addressed:

Grandma Altoona, KS, 66710

I’m not even sure if I got the zip code right. The postcard found her, though. Maybe it looked like a Borland, too.

Grandma Oral always had good stories. The ones I remember best were Aesop’s fables, and the ones about her own experiences growing up against a backdrop of vivid history. I didn’t realize it then, but she was teaching me. She was teaching me to tell good stories myself, to remember, and to express myself. I remember sitting in her lap in the front seat, neither of us belted in, back when kids got to go through the windshield like everyone else, with her pointing at signs and billboards and getting me to read them to her.

I’m sure most of you heard the stories about her two perfect grandchildren. (It’s not true. I’m the perfect one. My sister is the good worker.) Of course, it wasn’t we who were perfect—it was her unconditional love that was. She spoiled us rotten: bought everything we wanted, fed us anything we wanted, let us run rampant. I spent almost every day at her house in the summer without a shirt on, having the perfect days of a young boy, jumping around on the porch and getting an ice cream sandwich whenever I wanted. Later on, I still got indulged a lot. I could have set her barn on fire and she would have commented on how well the fire was built and how nicely it burned.

Grandma Oral was also as strong in her will as she was in her love. When we would play board games together, she’d beat me every time, and she never just let me win like some other grownups would. She expected me to compete, and to play to win. She wouldn’t shy away from arguing with me, either. Even as an 8-year-old kid who didn’t want to take a bath or come clean about something else I had done, I thought I could take her on in a battle of wills. Boy, was I wrong. Some folks in our family have said I’m like her because I’m a redhead like she was, and because I’m as willful. That’s not quite true, though, because I never won a battle of wills with Grandma Oral, ever, or even came in a close second.

Years ago, Grandma Oral offered me her blue pickup truck. She was experiencing a chronic medical problem at the time. I told her she should get it taken care of, and I’d come out and help out for a little while, then drive the truck back. I got my train ticket, got ready to go, and was then informed that she had decided not to have the procedure. She didn’t want to be recovering during our visit. By then I knew better than to argue about it once Grandma Oral had made up her mind.

I guess some of those lessons took me longer to learn than others—in part because of my willfulness—but I learned them eventually because of hers. I hope her love, and lessons, and will, always show through. I hope I always look like a Borland.

Tuesday, August 14th 2007

Grandma Oral
posted @ 9:40 am in [ ]

On Saturday, Philllip’s other grandmother died. She had just turned 99 last month. I liked her a lot, mostly because she was a strongheaded, low-B.S. lady. Phillip is in Kansas, helping his mom get things squared away and working on what to say. When I think about Grandma Oral, though, I think about the first time I met her.

Phillip and I had been married for a matter of months. It was about this time of year, and we drove out to Kansas to see her. On the way, we stopped in New Jersey and saw his parents. His father gave me some advice that I considered odd at the time and still do, but I inteded to heed it anyway. “Don’t discuss politics with her,” he said, “It’ll only confuse her.” Okay, I thought, I guess I’ll figure out what that means when I get there. He knows her a lot better than I do. I’ll just talk about other stuff and be charming.

As it turned out, we had been at Grandma Oral’s house no less than ten minutes when she brought up politics. I couldn’t weasel out of it either. She looked me right in the eye and put it to me point blank: “Are you a Democrat or a Republican?” Oh nooo! The only thing I had been told about this woman by her family was not to do this. Okay, I thought, I guess I’m about to find out what that piece of advice meant. They weren’t there, and she clearly valued directness and honesty enough that conversational attempts at twisting away and running would be seen as a lack of integrity — likely less forgiveable than not seeing eye-to-eye about politics.

“Of course I’m a Democrat,” I replied. “I’m from Massachusetts.” I started the chuckling that would help us all laugh off both those indiscretions and move on before I found out what “confused about politics” really meant. Instead, Grandma Oral asked my opinion of FDR. Dammitt! This conversation was quickly becoming a quicksand trap of family politics.

I should probably mention here that, although I’m very nonjudgmental, there are a few things I do think reveal quite a lot about people’s characters, and one of them is how they feel about President Roosevelt. Me, I’m crazy about him, largely because of how he responded to the crisis of the depression and essentially “betrayed his class” for the greater good of all Americans. That’s a rant for another day, though. The important thing is that she picked something that she would remember and I wouldn’t; that I felt too strongly about to blow off; and that I would both have to answer and had been admonished not to. Looking back on it, I’m sure she did it on purpose. Did I have a clue about history, civics and politics? Was my head on straight politically? Was I graceful under pressure? Could I think on my feet? Was I generally good enough for her grandson? I wasn’t going to produce moronic great-grandchildren, was I?

I did what I thought was the only thing I could do. I launched into how freakin’ great FDR was, careful to back up my analysis with historical points of fact and their lasting impacts. It took less than a minute for Grandma Oral to join me. Bless her heart, she was a hard-core Roosevelt fan, and apparently still argued his virtues to her Republican brother-in-law who would call her up from time to time to fight about it. We had a terrific, animated discussion about Roosevelt and the New Deal — probably one of the best political discussions I’ve ever had. To this day, I’m not sure what she was supposed to have been so confused about, but I suspect my father-in-law’s advice stemmed from Grandma Oral perhaps baiting him into a political discussion at some point and then yanking his chain until he gave up.

“Well?” Phillip asked me when Grandma Oral left the room, “What do you think of her?”

“I like her,” I replied. “She’s a very low-bullsh*t woman.”

She was, too. She ran her farm during World War II when her husband was away fighting. She drove a tractor while hugely pregnant, which must have been scandalous at the time. She taught school for decades, having multiple generations of the county’s families in her class. She was tough and assertive and fiercely independent at a time when it wasn’t fashionable for women to be like that, and she remained so until it was. Apparently, she was right all along.

I also think that Grandma Oral is part of the reason Phillip married me. The female role models in his life — Grandma Oral, Grandma Lois, his mother — were tough, independent, direct, and quick-witted. I don’t think he would have wanted his partner to be docile, or quiet, or without strong opinions, or without a sense of humor, even if he wasn’t consciously aware of it. Being the kind of woman I am scared off a lot of would-be suitors when I was younger, but Phillip always seemed to like it. One of the major reasons I dated him in the first place was because he made me feel like he really “got” me in a way other guys didn’t. Instead of cheesy stuffed animals, for example, he sent me cool used books. He wrote me two-foot by three-foot love letters in crayon, one of which called me a “hot sexy Magna Cum Laude babe.” I’m quite sure he wouldn’t have known stuff like that would work better on me than candy, flowers, and saying I have pretty eyes if he hadn’t been raised and nurtured by similarly “scary” women.

So thanks, Grandma Oral, in whatever form or plane you may be right now. Thanks for educating generations of folks to think about history, and civics, and politics. Thanks for voting for FDR. Thanks for being true to yourself when your whole culture was wrong about women, because it’s women like you that helped it change. Thanks for helping raise a good man right, directly and indirectly through your daughter. And thanks for the FDR question that let us talk about something real. I don’t care about doilies either.

Friday, July 20th 2007

Grandma Lois: A Life Well Lived
posted @ 7:05 pm in [ ]

Phillip’s paternal grandmother died a couple of nights ago. She was in her mid-nineties, and was active and engaged her whole life. She was a terrific character. I’m glad I got to know her. I wrote this eulogy for Phillip to deliver at her funeral tomorrow.

We’re here today to celebrate a life truly well lived. Grandma Lois never wasted anything, and looking back on it as we do today, she made the most out of every moment, and every relationship in her 95 years.

Grandma Lois used her gifts well. She gave freely of herself to her family and community, and was truly creative, in the problems she solved and the practical and beautiful things she crafted with her gentle and capable hands. When she could no longer quilt, she still always had a rug going, and many of us here today have one of them in our favorite colors. She made it all look easy, even though she would comment that she didn’t know where her son Marvin got his artistic abilities.

As a grandmother, Grandma Lois was the best kind. She would let you eat ice cream at night and go to the pool every day. She was proud when you caught an 18-inch bass and she didn’t care if you got dirty before lunch—she’d just give you a bath. She’d make granddad bring fridge boxes home from deliveries for you to play with, and would pull toys out of the attic she’d had for 40 years. Always practical, Grandma Lois saved absolutely everything that was worth saving. I still have the Tinker Toys I played with, my older cousins played with before me, and my uncles and father played with before them. You always felt a little spoiled at Grandma’s, but you behaved yourself because she kept you in line, too.

She also did everything right. She raised 3 boys right (2 in the depression, 1 during wartime). They grew up to be 3 good men, good partners, husbands, uncles and fathers, all successful at what they chose to do. They raised their 5 kids right, and they in turn raised their 7 kids right. Part of Grandma Lois’ solid foundation of practicality was teaching her boys to cook, clean, and iron. She didn’t want her boys to be domestically useless, even if all of them would later earn advanced degrees. I learned those things, too, and I’m sure my cousins did.

When I think of how profound Grandma Lois’ love and legacy were for her family, I think most of my father, when he was heading a financial company back east. Grandma Lois’ values impacted that company in a very direct way, and I work by the same standards in my own professional life.

My father used to say to his staff, “Never bring me a deal I can’t show my mother.”

“I don’t know your mother,” one staffer once countered.

“You know me,” he replied.

So strong are those governing values within us all that to know us is truly to know a part of Grandma Lois. Be nice to people. Faith and hard work are the cornerstones of a good life. A strong home life and a good education help you put your gifts to work, and they honor the faith and family that gave them to you. Do what you say you’re going to do, and give it your all. Doing good things may well come back to you, but it’s always rewarding in the present—easy things often aren’t. And maybe even: marrying someone who is smarter than you and probably tougher than you makes you a better man, not a weaker one.

The legacy of her values and our memories, as well as the example of Grandma Lois’ well-lived life, give us a blueprint for doing everything right, too. May we all live such long, good lives that touch so many, if only to make her proud of us.

Monday, November 20th 2006

Joanne Pratt Day
posted @ 9:58 pm in [ ]

It’s that time of year once again, and I spent all day working my brains out. Joanne would not be pleased about that. She had a real gift for luring me away from work and toward hours-absconding fun and silliness. If she were here, she would have called me around 3:00 today and told me to stop working and come have a drink. It would seem like the kind of thing I could do for a few hours and then get back to work, but invariably I’d wake up three days later, married, tattooed and in the army, in a motel outside Flagstaff.

Joanne would have been 36 tomorrow, had she not died of cancer a little over four years ago. I am no less pissed off about that than I was when heard the news. If she were here, Joanne would tell me to let go and stop being mad about it, that I couldn’t fix it, and it was a waste of energy to keep being pissed off. Then she’d take another languid drag on her cigarette, and in the same smoky breath validate my feelings and tease me for being, you know, me. She had the resting pulse of a marathon runner, ate like a 400-pound Frenchman, drank like Kitty Dukakis (although far more openly and far less pathetically), and generally refused to be hurt by life. She was a true companion, a terrific poet and one of the best friends I ever had.

Oddly enough, I had a dream the other night where Joanne made an appearance. She could always see in my dreams — and her own, as well, I found out — although she was already blind before her first birthday. In the dream, she was listening thoughtfully to me rant about something I was upset about, laughing at the funny parts and helping to arbitrate the points of conflict. It bothers me that she doesn’t do that anymore. It bothers me that she’ll never meet my kids, if I get around to having them, or any of my students. She braved parenthood long before I did, and was great at it. It really bothers me that her little boy has to grow up without her.

Long about now, Joanne would try to get me to knock off the sad crap. It would annoy her that, after all the good years we had together, I would be dwelling on the one sad part. She’d probably sigh, and swear through an upturned grin, and go get me another drink, or bowl of ice cream, or big Swede, and demand that I lighten the eff up already. So I will. One of Joanne’s most mystifying talents (to me, anyway) was that she could always pour the perfect drink. I don’t know if she did it by sound or what, but every drink was consistently and perfectly mixed, regardless of how much of her own handiwork she had sampled. In honor of that, I raise a glass to Joanne tonight. Join me, already, will ya?

Tuesday, April 4th 2006

Sad news
posted @ 9:13 am in [ ]

We lost a good friend this morning. As Tripod’s person once said, “Anyone who doubts that animals have souls hasn’t met Tripod.” Tripod was a small, white, three-legged cat with a huge, friendly spirit. She was welcoming and checked on guests often, and she paced her energy and intensity more evenly than any cat I have ever seen, even when she was playing. She was fun to play with, too–she had terrific paw-eye coordination with that one front paw–you could almost play catch with her. She was infectiously cheerful and pleasant, and an all around very cool cat. I am always saying that I’m proud that not all my friends are people, so today I’m sad to have lost a friend.

Here is Tripod’s person’s tribute to her. There are some good pictures of her being herself, including sleeping on her person’s head like a living fuzzy hat. I’m glad I got to know her. Good night, sweet Pod.

Wednesday, February 1st 2006

I bait the thought police some more
posted @ 3:50 pm in [ - ]

In the interest of laughing to keep from screaming, I give you the wiseass version of last night’s State of the Union address. Apologies to Bush’s speech writer… But “nation” is not capitalized in any of the contexts where you did that.

Mr. Speaker, Vice President Cheney, Members of Congress, Members of the Supreme Court and diplomatic corps, distinguished guests, members of Skull and Bones, treasured lobbyists, pool boys’ second cousins, and fellow citizens:

Are all the dissenters and opinion-havers outta here that we can possibly throw out? Good. I invite everyone from my party to stand up and applaud with every clause of every sentence of this speech, because I’d like to draw it out as long as possible and there are really a lot of small words here. Thanks.

Today our Nation lost a beloved, graceful, courageous woman who called America to its founding ideals and carried on a noble dream. Tonight we are comforted by the hope of a glad reunion with the husband who was taken from her so long ago (somebody told me backstage who that was, but I forget), and we are grateful for the good life of Coretta Scott King. I liked her because she was famous.

Each time I am invited to this rostrum, I pretend to be humbled by the privilege, and mindful of the history we have seen together. I show my humility by ignoring you, so you should feel really special. We have gathered under this Capitol dome in moments of national mourning and national achievement. I used to come here to drink myself, maybe do a little blow. We have served America through one of the most consequential periods of our history – and it has been my honor to serve with you. Now, I have no idea what the hell consequential history is, but that’s okay, because if I’ve learned anything from my handful of press conferences, it’s that I don’t have to actually understand what I’m saying. I just have to read it, and that’s enough stress for me.

In a system of two parties, two chambers, and two elected branches, there will always be differences and debate, at least until those of you who represent civil rights and poor people lie down and just die as I’ve repeatedly asked you to do. But even tough debates can be conducted in a civil tone, and our differences cannot be allowed to harden into anger. So you should really just die before that happens. To confront the great issues before us, we must act in a spirit of good will and respect for one another – and I will do my part by demanding yours while utterly withholding mine, per usual. Tonight the state of our Union is strong – and together we will make it stronger. Let me just play this violin. Is it getting warm in here, or is it just me?

In this decisive year, you and I will make choices that determine both the future and the character of our country. I have already selected Big Bird, and I demand you accept him as the next Supreme Court justice, should another slot open up. He is certainly at least as qualified as Harriet Myers. We will choose to act confidently in pursuing the enemies of freedom – or retreat from our duties in the hope of an easier life. I prefer the latter. We will choose to build our prosperity by leading the world economy – or shut ourselves off from trade and opportunity. I again prefer the latter. In a complex and challenging time, the road of isolationism and protectionism may seem broad and inviting – yet it ends in danger and decline, and heck, I like a little excitement. The only way to protect our people … the only way to secure the peace … the only way to control our destiny is by our leadership – so the United States of America will continue to lead. Please keep your hands and feet inside the handbasket.

Abroad, although surprisingly male-centered, our Nation is committed to an historic, long-term goal – we seek the end of tyranny in our world. Therefore, I will be stepping down and possibly committing suicide in the coming weeks. Some dismiss that goal as misguided idealism. In reality, the future security of America depends on it. On September 11th, 2001, we found that problems originating in a failed and oppressive state seven thousand miles away could bring illegal wiretapping, logical flaws in policy, murder and destruction to our country. Dictatorships shelter terrorists, feed resentment and radicalism, and seek weapons of mass destruction. Democracies replace resentment with hope, respect the rights of their citizens and their neighbors, and join the fight against terror, so as you can see, the United States is making strong progress toward dictatorship and away from democracy every day. Every step toward my freedom in the world makes our country safer for power-grubbing whitey, and so we will act boldly in my freedom’s cause.

Far from being a hopeless dream, the advance of freedom is the great story of our time. In 1945, there were about two dozen lonely democracies on Earth. Today, there are 122, just as lonely as ever. They sometimes put personal ads on the Internet, but nobody wants a long-distance relationship. Or Us. And we are writing a new chapter in the story of self-government – with women lining up to vote in Afghanistan — in the familiar firing-squad formation, of course … and millions of Iraqis marking their liberty with purple ink — either that, or they just like to stir their grape Slurpees with their fingers … and men and women from Lebanon to Egypt debating the rights of individuals and the necessity of freedom. Nobody in between there has much to say, but hey, it’s just a short hop. At the start of 2006, more than half the people of our world live in democratic nations. And we do not forget the other half – in places like Syria, Burma, Zimbabwe, North Korea, and Iran – because the demands of justice, and the peace of this world, require their freedom as well. Just not anywhere really icky, like the Sudan. You have to draw the line somewhere.

No one can deny the success of freedom, but some men rage and fight against it. Myself, for example. And one of the main sources of reaction and opposition is radical Islam – the perversion by a few of a noble faith into an ideology of terror and death. If any religion is suited for that sort of thing, it’s radical Christianity. Jihad has nothing on the crusades. Terrorists like bin Laden are serious about mass murder – and all of us must take their declared intentions seriously. Consequently, Bin Laden and his ilk will never be allowed on The Hollywood Squares. They seek to impose a heartless system of totalitarian control throughout the Middle East, and arm themselves with weapons of mass murder, so they would just take over the middle square and not let anyone block effectively. Their aim is to seize power in Iraq, as well as the middle square, and use it as a safe haven to launch attacks against America and the world. Lacking the military strength to challenge us directly, the terrorists have chosen the weapon of fear, which is really very effective, and I should know. When they murder children at a school in Beslan … or blow up commuters in London … or behead a bound captive … the terrorists hope these horrors will break our will, allowing the violent to inherit the Earth. But they have miscalculated: We love our freedom, and if the last few years are indication, we thrive on fear.

In a time of testing, we cannot find security by abandoning our commitments and retreating within our borders. We must send other individuals to take those tests for us, and we will pay them handsomely for our grades. If we were to leave these vicious attackers alone, they would not leave us alone. When we used that strategy in grade school, it didn’t work. They would simply move the battlefield to our own shores and take our lunch money. There is no peace in retreat. And there is no honor in retreat, because if you can’t pee further than everyone else, you will never cease to get teased on the international playground. By allowing radical Islam to work its will – by leaving an assaulted world to fend for itself – and that assaulted world is, of course, us — we would signal to all that we no longer believe in my personal ideals, or even in my personal peeing-for-distance record. But our enemies and our friends can be certain: The United States will not retreat from the world, and we will never surrender to the evil, arcing streams of our enemies.

America rejects the false comfort of isolationism, when raw exploitation is so much nicer. We are the Nation that saved liberty in Europe, and liberated death camps, and helped raise up democracies, and faced down an evil empire. So we know what kinds of oppression really work. Once again, we accept the call of history to deliver the oppressed, and move this world toward peace all by ourselves, just as we always have, without any allies, ever. It’s all us.

We remain on the offensive against terror networks. We have killed or captured many of their leaders – and for the others, their day will come. I have secretly wiretapped half of Schenectady. Any day now.

We remain on the offensive in Afghanistan – where a fine president and national assembly are fighting terror while building the institutions of a new democracy on a firm foundation of opium.

And we are offensive in Iraq, with an unclear plan for victory. First, we are helping Iraqis build an inclusive government, so that old resentments will be aired, and anyone I don’t like marginalized. Second, we are continuing reconstruction efforts (a shout out to Lego for providing building materials), and helping the Iraqi government to fight corruption and build a modern economy, so all Iraqis can experience the benefits of an oligarchy with kung-fu grip, just like ours. Third, we are striking terrorist targets while we train Iraqi forces that are increasingly capable of defeating the enemy, whom we do not define as us. Iraqis are showing their courage every day, and we are proud to be their allies in the cause of freedom. But nobody can defeat us.

Our work in Iraq is difficult, because our enemy, congress, is brutal. But that brutality has not stopped the dramatic progress of a new democracy. In less than three years, that nation has gone from dictatorship, to liberation, to sovereignty, to a constitution, to national elections, and any minute will be having its own American Idol spinoff. At the same time, our coalition has been relentless in shutting off terrorist infiltration — we estimate everyone who needs to be here is here already — clearing out insurgent strongholds with the bran muffin of the CIA, and turning over territory to Iraqi security forces so they can build cabanas. I am confident in our plan for victory, because everybody likes cabanas … I am confident in the will of the Iraqi people because they make a mean margarita … I am confident in the skill and spirit of our military because they really need a margarita right about now. Fellow citizens, we are in this fight to win, and we are winning, because I say so, and that makes it true.

The road of victory is the road that will take our troops home… to Jesus. As we make progress on the ground, and Iraqi forces increasingly take the lead, we should be able to further decrease our troops by attrition and poor judgment – but those decisions will be made by our military commanders, not by politicians in Washington, D.C. after we threaten their families and pets.

Our coalition has learned from experience in Iraq. We have adjusted our military tactics and changed our approach to reconstruction by choking off as many avenues of reliable information as possible. Along the way, we have benefited from responsible criticism and counsel offered by Members of Congress of both parties: the right, and the religious right. In the coming year, I will continue to reach out and seek your good advice, pretend to listen to it while huffing in a coiled position and trying to remember all the words to the Bonanza theme song, and then totally disregard it.

Yet there is a difference between responsible criticism that aims for success, and defeatism that refuses to acknowledge anything but failure. I like to take a middle path and aim blindly, then fail. That’s why I say I’m a uniter. Hindsight alone is not wisdom, but hell if I know what is. And second-guessing is not a strategy. Trust me, I should know — I’ve learned that one the hard way.

With so much in the balance, those of us in public office have a duty to speak with candor. I don’t mean me. A sudden withdrawal of our forces from Iraq would abandon our Iraqi allies to death and prison, and we want folks in the prisons we choose … put men like bin Laden and Zarqawi in charge of a strategic country, when we’d rather set them up in countries we’d like to see them destroy and place bets … and show that a pledge from America means little, when in fact, it means nothing much. Members of Congress: however we feel about the decisions and debates of the past, our Nation has only one option: We must keep our word, defeat our enemies, and stand behind the American military in its vital mission, which is to win this Risk tournament. We’re the blue asterisks.

Our men and women in uniform are making sacrifices – and showing a sense of duty stronger than all fear. They know what it is like to fight house to house in a maze of streets … to wear heavy gear in the desert heat … to see a comrade killed by a roadside bomb. Whereas my during my service, I staggered house to house in a maze of subdivisions, had caddies carry my heavy gear, and got bombed by the roadside with comerades. And those who know the costs also know the stakes, because we’re the blue asterisks. Marine Staff Sergeant Dan Clay was killed last month fighting the enemy in Fallujah. He left behind a letter to his family, but his words could just as well be addressed to every American, and now they will be. I didn’t ask first. Here is what Dan wrote: “I know what honor is. It has been an honor to protect and serve all of you. I faced death with the secure knowledge that you would not have to…. Never falter! Don’t hesitate to honor and support those of us who have the honor of protecting that which is worth protecting.” Ironically, he died for the very ideals I’m trampling on now. I thought I’d distract you by pretending that he and I were really on the same side.

Staff Sergeant Dan Clay’s wife, Lisa, and his mom and dad, Sara Jo and Bud, are with us this evening. Our Nation is grateful to the fallen, who live in the memory of our country. We are grateful to all who volunteer to wear our Nation’s uniform – and as we honor our brave troops, let us never forget the sacrifices of America’s military families, because they are about to get significantly worse.

Our offensive against terror involves more than military action. It involves a flurry of propaganda and ineffective TSA employees. Ultimately, the only way to defeat the terrorists is to defeat their dark vision of hatred and fear by offering the opium-induced hopeful alternative of political freedom and peaceful change. So the United States of America supports democratic reform across the broader Middle East, which includes all those countries we have designs on. Keep your shirts on! We’ll get to you. Elections are vital – but they are only the beginning. Raising up an oligarchy requires scoffing at the rule of law which must first be established, lack of protection of minorities, and strong, accountable institutions that last longer than a single vote but can be totally dismantled with several votes over a period of years. It’s harder than it looks. The great people of Egypt have voted in a multi-party presidential election, which we totally refuse to do – and now their government should open paths of peaceful opposition that will reduce the appeal of radicalism, while that remains more frightening to the American establishment than running out of mango chutney. The Palestinian people have voted in elections – now the leaders of Hamas must recognize Israel, disarm, reject terrorism, and work for lasting peace, becuase I said so, and if they don’t, we’ll deviate from the itinerary and get them next. Saudi Arabia has taken the first steps of reform – now it can offer its people a better future by pressing forward with those efforts. Someday, women may even be allowed to drive while retaining most of their limbs. Democracies in the Middle East will not look like our own, because they will reflect the traditions of their own citizens. But not if we can help it. Yet liberty is the future of every nation in the Middle East, because liberty is the right and hope of all humanity, and because we’ll be making the rounds until the whole place is like a slab of hastily-microwaved pita bread.

The same is true of Iran, a nation now held hostage by a small clerical elite that is isolating and repressing its people. I would like to take this opportunity to complain, once again, that my regime is not nearly clerical enough and that we really must keep up. The regime in that country sponsors terrorists in the Palestinian territories and in Lebanon – and that must come to an end. That is not where we want those guys at all. The Iranian government is defying the world with its nuclear ambitions – and the nations of the world must not permit the Iranian regime to gain nuclear weapons, especially those who have defied the world in the past and already have such weapons. America will continue to rally the world to confront these threats in order to draw attention away from our own. And tonight, let me speak directly to the citizens of Iran: America respects you, and we respect your country. We respect your right to choose your own future and win your own freedom. And our Nation hopes one day to be the closest of friends with a free and democratic Iran. That way, we can get your oil with all the convenience of picking up an ugly tie a duty-free shop.

To overcome dangers in our world, we must also take the offensive by encouraging economic progress, fighting disease, and spreading hope in hopeless lands. Or is that spreading disease and fighting diseaseless lands? Isolationism would not only tie our hands in fighting enemies, it would keep us from helping our friends in desperate need, should we ever have any friends again. We show compassion abroad because Americans believe in the God-given dignity and worth of a villager with HIV/AIDS, or an infant with malaria, or a refugee fleeing genocide, or a young girl sold into slavery. Just as long as none of them are poor people living in America, in which case, I would advise them to save wisely for their retirements. We also show compassion abroad because regions overwhelmed by poverty, corruption, and despair are sources of terrorism, organized crime, human trafficking, and the drug trade, and we only want to see that stuff when I’m justifying a pre-emptive war on someplace.

In recent years, you and I have taken unprecedented action to fight AIDS and malaria, expand the education of girls, and reward developing nations that are moving forward with economic and political reform. For people everywhere, the United States is a partner for a better life. By basing offshore CIA prisons in these areas, we are contributing to their economies and leaving our spare change behind in the fleabitten couch of the world. Short-changing these efforts would increase the suffering and chaos of our world, undercut our long-term security, and dull the conscience of our country. I would like that, because I’m finding its sharpening conscience somewhat uncomfortable. I urge Members of Congress to serve the interests of America by directing the compassion of America toward me.

Our country must also remain on the offensive against terrorism here at home. The enemy has not lost the desire or capability to attack us. Forget what I said earlier aboout being effective in this area. Fortunately, this Nation has superb professionals in law enforcement, intelligence, the military, and homeland security, all of whom have been fired and whose positions have instead been staffed, wherever possible, with trained hamsters. These hamsters are dedicating their lives to protecting us all, and they deserve our support and our thanks. They also deserve the same tools they already use to fight drug trafficking and organized crime – so I ask you to give them new, more patriotic exercise wheels with a festive stars-and-stripes motif. Also, reauthorize the Patriot Act so I don’t have to go through the hassle of going to court every time I want to listen in on your phone calls. I’m busy.

It is said that prior to the attacks of September 11th, our government failed to connect the dots of the conspiracy. That is simply not fair, because I have never been able to do one of those stupid things. We now know that we need strategic coloring books instead, and that two of the hijackers in the United States placed telephone calls to al-Qaida operatives overseas. But we did not know about their plans until it was too late, so I went to a fundraiser instead. So to prevent another attack – based on authority given to me by the Constitution and by statute and just generally siezed – I have authorized a terrorist surveillance program to aggressively pursue the international communications of suspected al-Qaida operatives and affiliates to and from America, as well as anybody who orders pineapple on their pizzas. Previous presidents, such as Nixon, have used the same constitution-scoffing authority I have – and Federal courts have approved the use of that authority under pain of pineapple pizza. Appropriate Members of Congress — that is, ones who know how to show a lobbyist a good time — have been kept informed. This terrorist surveillance program has helped prevent terrorist attacks in the butler’s pantry. It remains essential to the security of America. If there are people inside our country who are talking with al-Qaida, or ordering pineapple pizzas, we want to know about it – because we will not sit back and wait to be hit again. On the contrary, we prefer to hit first, whether we were going to be hit or not. Don’t worry, we’ll make something up.

In all these areas – from the disruption of terror networks, to victory in Iraq, to the spread of freedom and hope in troubled regions, excluding of course places like Louisiana – we need the support of friends and allies. To utterly crap on that support, we must always be clear in my principles and willing to act blindly. The only alternative to American leadership is a dramatically less dangerous and anxious world. Yet we also choose to lead because it is a privilege to say we serve the values that gave us birth, while at the same time, keeping me around. American leaders – from Roosevelt to Truman to Kennedy to Reagan – rejected isolation and retreat, because they knew that America is always more secure when freedom is on the march. I will go straight to hell for counting myself among them, but at this point, that’s just a glob of spit in the ocean. Our own generation is in a long war against a determined enemy, thanks to me – a war that will be fought by Presidents of both parties, because mine is so screwed right now that nobody will vote Republican for generations unless it’s for John McCain, and who will need steady bipartisan support from the Congress. With me gone, they just might get it. And tonight I feebly ask for yours. Together, let us protect our country, support the men and women who defend us, and lead this world toward freedom by surveilling every last man, woman and child.

Here at home, America also has a great opportunity: We will build the prosperity of our country by strengthening our economic leadership in the world. We will pre-emptively take over the duty-free shops in every international airport in the world, and hoard the profits for ourselves.

Our economy is healthy, and vigorous, and growing faster than other major industrialized nations, because we have more poor people to squeeze than they do. In the last two-and-a-half years, America has created 4.6 million new jobs, mostly backbreaking and involving the relocation of solid waste products – more than Japan and the European Union combined. Even in the face of higher energy prices and natural disasters, the American people have turned in an economic performance that is the envy of the world. And envy, as you know, is my favorite sin after greed. So I’m good.

The American economy is pre-eminent for a select few – but we cannot afford to be complacent. In a dynamic world economy, we are seeing new competitors like China and India to utterly subjugate when we’re finished trampling our own underclasses. This creates uncertainty, which makes it easier to feed people’s fears. And so we are seeing some old temptations return. Rest assured, though, that we’ll behave predictably and advise the third world to invest in retirement savings plans in a sort of economic reach-around. Protectionists want to escape competition, pretending that we can keep our high standard of living while walling off our economy. Others say that the government needs to take a larger role in directing the economy, centralizing more power in Washington and increasing taxes on everyone else. We hear claims that immigrants are somehow bad for the economy – even though this economy could not function without them. Wait! Who slipped that acknowledgement in there?! They’re fired! All these are forms of economic retreat, and they lead in the same direction – toward a stagnant and second-rate economy, and we want to be free to exploit new and exotic peoples abroad.

Tonight I will set out a better path – an agenda for a Nation that competes with confidence to smash the global underclass – an agenda that will raise standards of living and generate new jobs for me and my buddies. Americans should not fear our economic future, because we intend to shape it, and the rest of you would be dead anyway if you would just listen to reason.

Keeping America competitive begins with keeping our economy growing. And our economy grows when a few Americans have more of their own money to spend, save, and invest at the expense of the other 260 million or so. In the last five years, the tax relief you passed has left 880 billion dollars in the hands of American workers, investors, small businesses, and families, all of whom belong to my country club – and they have used it to help produce more than four years of uninterrupted economic growth. Yet the tax relief is set to expire in the next few years. If we do nothing, these American families at my club will face a massive tax increase they do not expect and will not welcome.

Because America needs more than a temporary expansion, we need more than temporary tax relief. I urge the Congress to act responsibly, and make the tax cuts permanent so the club can hire a better tennis pro.

Keeping America competitive requires us to be good stewards of tax dollars, so I say: screw it. Every year of my presidency, we have reduced the growth of non-security discretionary spending – and last year you passed bills that cut this spending. This year my budget will cut it again, and reduce or eliminate more than 140 programs that are performing poorly or not fulfilling essential priorities, like social security, medicare, and other crap nobody at my club uses. By passing these reforms, we will save one American taxpayer another 14 billion dollars next year – and stay on track to cut the deficit in half by 2009 while still hiring better tennis pros. Of course to do that, we must first cut the half-deficit in half, and that in half… so the whole thing will just be Zeno’s deficit. I am pleased that Members of Congress are working on earmark reform – because the Federal budget has too many special interest projects and not enough tennis pros. And we can tackle this problem together, if you pass the line-item veto. Which would be totally safe, because I never veto anything anyway. That would involve reading, and you know I hate that. I only like reading off teleprompters because it’s okay if my lips move then.

We must also confront the larger challenge of mandatory spending, or entitlements. I don’t remember which. This year, the first of about 78 million Baby Boomers turn 60, including two of my Dad’s favorite people – me, and President Bill Clinton. That’s just a joke — I’m not one of his favorite people. This milestone is more than a personal crisis – it is a national challenge. I ask congress to demand that Clinton change his birthday to another year. The retirement of the Baby Boom generation will put unprecedented strains on the Federal government. By 2030, spending for Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid alone will be almost 60 percent of the entire Federal budget. And that will present future Congresses with impossible choices – staggering tax increases, immense deficits, or deep cuts in every category of spending, including international Risk tournaments, tennis pros, patriotic hamster wheels, and wiretapping potential pineapple pizza orderers.

Congress did not act last year on my proposal to save Social Security, and as soon as nobody is watching, I will personally TP everyone’s house who voted against it, because I hate you now. Yet the rising cost of entitlements is a problem that is not going away – and with every year we fail to act, the situation gets worse. So tonight, I ask you to join me in creating a commission to examine the full impact of Baby Boom retirements on Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, and to buy stock in Charmin. This commission should include Members of Congress of both parties, as well as Mr. Whipple, and offer bipartisan answers, such as “yes and no.” We need to put aside partisan politics, work together, and get this problem solved. But we won’t as long as I’m around.

Keeping America competitive requires us to open more markets for all that Americans make and grow. So I suggest we Legalize It. One out of every five factory jobs in America is related to global trade, and we want people everywhere to buy American doobies. With open markets and a level playing field and everybody else stoned out of their minds, no one can out-produce or out-compete the American worker.

Keeping America competitive requires an immigration system that upholds our laws, reflects our values, and serves the interests of our economy, all of which are totally contradictory. Our Nation needs orderly and secure borders instead of the insane and problematic one we have with Canada. To meet this goal, we must have stronger immigration enforcement and border protection. We don’t want those hosers just walking in whenever they feel like it. And we must have a rational, humane guest worker program that rejects amnesty … allows temporary jobs for people who seek them legally … doesn’t allow any cheap prescriptions to get in here … and reduces smuggling and crime at the border. I have no idea what that would look like, because those people are just insane.

Keeping America competitive requires affordable health care, so that’s another reason why it is just not going to happen. Our government has a responsibility to help provide health care for the poor and the elderly, and we are meeting that responsibility by smoking a lot of cigars in their hospitals and farting in their oxygen tents whenever possible. For all Americans, we must confront the rising cost of care by making sure the poor die more quickly, as prescribed by my plan … strengthen the doctor-patient relationship by allowing wealthier doctors to own patients who cannot afford to pay … and help people afford the insurance coverage they need by renting them out to middle-income doctors. We will make wider use of electronic records and other health information technology, to help control costs and reduce dangerous medical errors while we increase surveillance on poor Americans who insist on living. We will strengthen Health Savings Accounts – by making sure individuals and small business employees can buy insurance with the same advantages that people working for big businesses now get, but without the inconvenience to big business of giving them paychecks. We will do more to make this coverage portable, so workers can switch menial jobs without having to worry about losing their health insurance, because another job will just be waiting for them the moment they are laid off from the old one, or too sick to work, or whatever. And because lawsuits are driving many good doctors out of practice – leaving women in nearly 1,500 American counties without a single OB-GYN – I ask the Congress to pass medical liability reform this year. We want doctors to have the means to own their patients, not just rent them.

Keeping America competitive requires affordable energy. Here we have a serious problem: America is addicted to oil, which is often imported from unstable parts of the world. As your pusher, I would know.

The best way to break this addiction is through technology. Since 2001, we have spent nearly 10 billion dollars to develop cleaner, cheaper, more reliable alternative energy sources – and we are on the threshold of incredible advances. So tonight, I announce the Advanced Energy Initiative – a 22-percent increase in clean-energy research at the Department of Energy, which will be shut down later this year because it hasn’t produced anything but a softball team and an expensive nuclear-powered Christmas party, to push for breakthroughs in two vital areas, although how these things fall into areas, I’m not sure. To change how we power our homes and offices, we will invest more in zero-emission coal-fired plants; revolutionary solar and wind technologies; and clean, safe nuclear energy. Best of all, we will begin burning poor people for fuel, thus streamlining the economy while solving serious energy problems.

We must also change how we power our automobiles. From now on, our chauffers will run our limousines like Fred Flintstone. Trained hamsters rejected by the TSA may be available to power the cars of middle-income Americans. We will increase our research in better batteries for hybrid and electric cars, and in pollution-free cars that run on hydrogen by $2 per year, because I am not going to jeopardize daddy’s friends’ businesses. We will also fund additional research in cutting-edge methods of producing ethanol, not just from corn but from wood chips, stalks, or switch grass, because I just bought a LOT of wood chip, stalk, and switch grass futures. Our goal is to make this new kind of ethanol practical and competitive within six years, at which point, we’ll give up, go back on the crude, and I’ll dump my stalk futures. Breakthroughs on this and other new technologies will help us reach another great goal: to replace more than 75 percent of our oil imports from the Middle East by 2025, focusing much more on Texas oil. By applying the talent and technology of America, this country can dramatically improve our environment … move beyond a petroleum-based economy … and make our dependence on Middle Eastern oil a thing of the past, in favor of oil I personally will sell to you for $10 per Dixie cupful.

And to keep America competitive, one commitment is necessary above all: We must continue to lead the world in human talent and creativity. And by “creativity” I don’t mean art or anything, I mean creative science, like Intelligent Design. Our greatest advantage in the world has always been our educated, hard-working, ambitious people – and we are going to keep that edge by bronzing them. Tonight I announce the American Competitiveness Initiative, to encourage innovation throughout our economy, and to give our Nation’s children a firm grounding in math and science while we run 50,000 volts through them to see who is most suitable for bronzing.

First: I propose to double the Federal commitment to the most critical basic research programs in the physical sciences over the next ten years. This funding will support the work of America’s most creative minds as they explore promising areas such as nanotechnology, supercomputing, and alternative energy sources. But not art or music or anything. That’s not creative.

Second: I propose to make permanent the research and development tax credit, to encourage bolder private-sector investment in technology. With more research in both the public and private sectors, we will improve our quality of life – and ensure that America will lead the world in opportunity and innovation in human bronzing for decades to come.

Third: We need to encourage children to take more math and science in every orifice, and make sure those courses are rigorous enough to compete with other nations, because I will not have my peeing-for-distance record messed with on the schoolyards of tomorrow. We have made a good start utterly dismantling the public school system in the early grades with the No Child Left Behind Act, which is raising standards and lifting test scores across our country at the expense of anything resembling education or progress. Tonight I propose to train 70,000 high school teachers, to lead advanced-placement courses in math and science without there being any new teachers to teach pre-AP courses … bring 30,000 math and science professionals to teach in classrooms, because they may or may not know anything about teaching and it’s not like teachers need jobs … and give early help to students who struggle with math, provided by myself and/or Barney, so they have a better chance at good, high-wage jobs asking if people want fries with that. If we ensure that America’s children succeed in life, they will ensure that America succeeds in the world. I simply cannot let that happen.

Preparing our Nation to compete in the world is a goal that all of us can share, but I won’t. I urge you to support the American Competitiveness Initiative … and together we will show the world what the American people could have achieved.

America is a great force for freedom and prosperity for a few of us. Yet our greatness is not measured in power or luxuries, but by who we are and how we treat one another at the club. So we strive to be a compassionate, decent, hopeful society. The rest of you just shine our shoes and get our dinner.

In recent years, America has become a more hopeful Nation. Violent crime rates have fallen to their lowest levels since the 1970s, much as they dropped off in Mao’s China. Welfare cases have dropped by more than half over the past decade as our fuel initiatives have begun. Drug use among youth is down 19 percent since 2001 because Jenna is getting older. There are fewer abortions in America than at any point in the last three decades now that everyone has one that wanted one, and the number of children born to teenage mothers has been falling for a dozen years in a row. If I find out who has stopped having sex with teenagers and allowed me to somehow take credit for this, I’ll buy him a 20-year-old hooker.

These gains are evidence of a quiet transformation – a revolution of conscience, in which a rising generation is finding that a life of personal privilege is a life of fulfillment. Government has played a role. Wise policies such as welfare/energy reform, drug education that does not include martinis, valium or viagra, and support for abstinence and adoption among the ever-breeding poor have made a difference in the character of our country. And everyone here tonight, Democrat and Republican, has a right to be proud of this record. I won’t tell you why. You have to guess.

Yet many Americans, especially parents, still have deep concerns about the direction of our culture, and the health of our most basic institutions. They are concerned about unethical conduct by public officials, and discouraged by activist courts that try to redefine marriage, because they would like to marry their same-sex spouses so they can put them on their health care plans. And they worry about children in our society who need direction and love, because that’s what the U.S. goverment is for … and about fellow citizens still displaced by natural disaster, like the water hazard that hasn’t been dredged in months … and about suffering caused by treatable disease, like running out of canapes.

As we look at these challenges, we must never give in to the belief that America is in decline, or that our culture is doomed to unravel. The American people know better than that. We have proven the pessimists wrong before – and we will do it again. We have plenty of canapes!

A hopeful society depends on courts that deliver equal justice under law, especially for one’s betters. The Supreme Court now has two superb new members, Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Sam Alito, one of whom is slick but seems to think about stuff, and the other of whom appears to be as dumb as a bag of hammers, but who somehow went to Princeton. I like that in a man. I thank the Senate for confirming both of them. Your Super Bowl tickets are in the mail. And I will continue to nominate men and women who understand that judges must be servants of my own personal law, and not legislate from the bench. I don’t know what it means, but I like to say it: legislate from the bench. Legislate from the bench. Yeah, that’s good. Sounds mean. I like it. Today marks the official retirement of a very special American. For 24 years of faithful service to our Nation, the United States is grateful to Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. I, on the other hand, am relieved to see that shred of diversity get the hell out of there. Another score for The Man! Whoo-hoo, whitey rules!

A hopeful society has institutions of science and medicine that do not cut ethical corners, and that recognize the matchless value of every life. And as you kow, that’s not us. Tonight I ask you to pass legislation to prohibit the most egregious abuses of medical research – human cloning in all its forms … creating or implanting embryos for experiments … creating human-animal hybrids, even though that sounds like a LOT of fun … and buying, selling, or patenting human embryos, because I have a swimming pool full of them that I just cannot unload. Human life is a gift from our Creator – and that gift should never be discarded, devalued, or put up for sale for less than top dollar.

A hopeful society expects elected officials to uphold the public trust, which explains why this society is so dejected. Honorable people in both parties are working on reforms to strengthen the ethical standards of Washington – and I support your efforts publicly while privately cirumventing them. Each of us has made a pledge to be worthy of public responsibility – and that is a pledge we must never forget, never dismiss, and never betray, again, for less than top dollar. These are our ethics, after all. Have some self-respect.

As we renew the promise of our institutions, let us also show the character of America in our compassion and care for one another on the fairway. Do not ask to play through if you’re not really faster than me.

A hopeful society gives special attention to children who lack direction and love. I’m not sure if that means they don’t love or have direction, or that they aren’t getting any direction or love, but either way, these children clearly aren’t drunk enough. Through the Helping America’s Youth Initiative, we are encouraging caring adults to get involved in the life of a child – and this good work is led by our First Lady, Laura Bush, who has been known to knock a few back. This year we will add resources to encourage young people to stay in school – so more of America’s youth can raise their sights and achieve their dreams of doing flawless funnels.

A hopeful society comes to the aid of fellow citizens in times of suffering and emergency – and stays at it until they are back on their feet. I’m sure I’ve made it clear by now that this is not us. It’s a zen thing I’m doing: telling you all about who we’re not, man, go with it. So far the Federal government has committed 85 billion dollars to the people of the Gulf Coast and New Orleans to get them some more of those beads they seem to like so much. We are removing debris, repairing underwater highways, and building stronger levees–all with beads. We are providing business loans and housing assistance in beads as well. Yet as we meet these immediate beads — I mean — needs, we must also address deeper challenges that existed before the storm arrived. In New Orleans and in other places, many of our fellow citizens have felt excluded from the promise of our country. The answer is not only temporary relief, but schools that teach every child … and job skills that bring upward mobility … and more opportunities to own a home and start a bead business, because we’re running low after that last levee project. As we recover from a disaster, let us also work for the day when all Americans are protected by justice, equal in hope, and rich in opportunity. I don’t know what that means, either, but I think it’s supposed to make it sound like I don’t hate black people. You know I don’t hate black people, right? I hate poor people. I don’t care what the hell color they are.

On the other hand, follow me here: A hopeful society acts boldly to fight diseases like HIV/AIDS, which can be prevented, and treated, and defeated. More than a million Americans live with HIV, and half of all AIDS cases occur among African-Americans. I ask Congress to reform and reauthorize the Ryan White Act … and provide new funding to states, so we end the waiting lists for AIDS medicine in America. We will also lead a nationwide effort, working closely with African-American churches and faith-based groups, to deliver rapid HIV tests to millions via prayer, end the stigma of AIDS, and come closer to the day when there are no new infections in America, except the ones given by God or the government to gay people to punish them for wanting to get married.

Fellow citizens, we have been called to leadership in a period of consequence, which, I still don’t know what the hell that means. We have entered a great ideological conflict we did nothing to invite except “elect” me, essentially mooning the world. We see great changes in science and commerce that will influence all our lives. And sometimes it can seem that history is turning in a wide arc, toward an unknown shore. Other times, it makes a sharp K-turn and drives right into a lake.

Yet the destination of history is determined by human action, or sometimes the actions of wombats, and every great movement of history comes to a point of choosing. Lincoln could have accepted peace at the cost of disunity and continued slavery. Martin Luther King could have stopped at Birmingham or at Selma, and achieved only half a victory over segregation. The United States could have accepted the permanent division of Europe, and been complicit in the oppression of others. I actually put myself in the same league with these people, and my fellow Americans, that took some real stones. Today, having come far in our own historical journey, we must decide: Will we turn back, or finish well? Because there is absolutely no way to win or place at this point.

Before history is written down in books, it is written in courage. Then blood, then ink, and maybe tiger poop. Like Americans before us, we will show that courage and tiger poop, and we will finish well. We will lead freedom’s advance. We will compete and expel — I mean — excel in the global economy. We will renew the defining moral commitments of this club. And so we move forward – optimistic about our country, faithful to its cause, and confident of victories over poor people to come.

Thank you, God bless you, and may God bless America. Except for the Muslims and godless heathens. You know who you are. Go blue asterisks!

Monday, January 9th 2006

Descended from Einstein
posted @ 12:14 pm in [ - - ]

I’ve received a number of queries about my teaching philosophy over the last week or so. I’ve already mentioned a few key items: that I think the best thing a teacher can do is raise students’ expectations of themselves; that I attribute a big chunk of my academic success to the teachers who took an interest in me and in my process, and that I try to pay that forward; and that I think a classroom experience is more effective if it’s actively fun. Some student comments here have alluded to ways in which I try to pull that off. Back when it still liked me, a former nameless employer printed this brief article, which I wrote in the spring of 2005, for one of its faculty newsletters:

Here’s something I learned this week: review assignments work better than critique assignments. I almost always give a critique assignment, regardless of the course I’m teaching, because the critique is the very essence of intelligent analysis and connection. One would think that students would really like to critique things, because they certainly do it unabashedly on their own time, they get credit for having a nice, structured rant, and many of our students have very solid argument-crafting skills. However, in this case, one would be terribly, terribly wrong. The critique assignment is often disproportionately resisted and complained about more than any other. I have been puzzled by this irony for some time.

Those of you who know me know that I frequently distract my students with odd content in order to get them to fulfill the skill-building task at hand. They learn pretty painlessly and it seems to stick. Would you rather write a memo to your imaginary boss asking for paper clips and number 10 envelopes, or write a memo to your boss Dr. No requesting whatever the lair needs this week (a gross of Purina Piranha Chow ™, parts for the mechanical dragon, two cases of C4 explosive, some paper clips and number 10 envelopes)? They still learn the same form, but by getting to play with the content of the assignment a little bit, everybody expends more effort and has a better time, especially me when I grade the large stack of papers I indirectly inflicted on myself. Plus, I get to feel a little like Pat Morita: wax on, wax off. The only catch is, I have to remember to remind the students of how much they know from time to time. Stealth instruction is like the Scope commercials of yore: it doesn’t have to taste mediciney to work, but one must still draw attention to the detectably tingly feeling.

I’ve never found a way to dress up the critique assignment quite right, though, so the students would be enthusiastically sucked in by it. This is largely because I never figured out what all the resistance was about. I have now come to believe that the essence of said resistance has been about the word, “critique.” Over Memorial Day, I asked [one of my writing classes] to write reviews. I showed them reviews of books, movies, music, restaurants, products, travel destinations, cars, all kinds of stuff, and we talked about what made an effective or ineffective one (in essence critiquing the critiques) until they were saturated and ready to write. What I got back was terrific! Easily half of those assignments could have gone right into the Westword. They were well written, enthusiastically executed, displaying really good, thoughtful analysis, and as a bonus, largely entertaining to read. Many of them were even much longer than other pieces the same students had turned in previously. They picked small topics about which they were passionate and wrote really solid, thorough, enthusiastic short critiques.

For most of us, teaching a subject isn’t just teaching a set of facts; it’s teaching our students how to think in a certain way. Certainly some ways of thinking like a critic are more accessible than others, offering a better doorway to the same skill set. I highly recommend review assignments over “critiques.”

I might add that I also think minimum requirements are CRAP! In my humble opinion, accepting them and teaching to them blows off a giant range of wonderful mind-, skill- and life-enhancing opportunities. I find that reasonably motivated students will generally meet or exceed my expectations for them, provided I give them what they need to get there, so keeping those expectations high invites achievement, and getting my students there pushes me to be a better teacher. Everybody wins. I also have a justification for my demanding standards (and for having had them when it’s time to look back and see how far we’ve all come together): my students are academically descended from Einstein.

In the 1930s, Einstein had a student named Philip Morrison, who later went on to work on the Manhattan Project. Morrison carried the first atomic bomb in a suitcase in the back of a car from Los Alamos to the desert test site. He went on to author cool books, become a proponent of arms control, and eventually became a Professor Emeritus at M.I.T. after many years chairing the Physics Department. Unfortunately, he passed away last spring, but here’s his bio. My father was one of Morrison’ s students in the 1960s at M.I.T. My father was my first and most influential teacher, and remains one of the best teachers I ever had. (I should probably also give a nod here to my mom, who was engaged in a gradaute degree in Celtic Literature at Harvard when I was little, because Beowulf is a kickass bedtime story.) I was sort of de facto homeschooled. Although I went to public school, there wasn’t anything much I learned there that I hadn’t already learned at home, at least up until high school. The apostolic succession for my students, then, goes: Einstein, Morrison, Bertoni, Spohn, you. You can handle this, I remind them, you’re descended from Einstein.

Quite a flurry of mentions over the weekend…

Blogger’s Blog refers to yesterday’s story in the Denver Post: “DeVry University Professor Fired Over Blog: The Denver Post reports that Meg Spohn, a DeVry University professor, was fired for her blog which was critical of DeVry. The Post says that some academic bloggers don’t think this would have happened to Spohn if she had been a professor at a public university. “Thousands of academics are bloggers, keeping online journals on everything from their strides in research to travel escapades and political rants. Many say what happened at DeVry, a private, for-profit university, wouldn’t happen at traditional public universities that foster critical thinking and robust debate protected by the First Amendment. “Still, some professors have been asked to tone down their blogs and others - especially those without tenure - say they censure themselves to protect their students or employment. “‘The self-censorship, the chilling effect - I know it exists because people talk about it online,’ said Sam Smith, a blogger who taught journalism last year at St. Bonaventure University in New York. “‘There may be things that they could say that would cost them tenure,’” he said. ‘In the academic world, this shouldn’t ever be an issue. In reality, that’s not always the case.’ Meg Spohn’s blog can be found here. Meg has a few recent posts about the issue here and here. And in this post she explains the picture of the flaming microbus bus on top of her blog.”

There’s nowhere obvious to leave comments on this blog, but I’d like to thank Bloggers Blog for the mention, and I’d like to welcome those of you who found this site through BB to the public conversation.

The Denver Post ran another article yesterday, the one Bloggers Blog alludes to above. This one has a picture. I had hoped to remain anonymously unrecognizeable in a mysterious, J.D. Salinger kind of way, but they insisted. I’m not really mad in the picture–expertly taken by Cyrus McCrimmon–the sun’s just in my eyes. I think it’s a cool effect, though. My thanks to both Jennifer and Cyrus for their hard work and kindness.

Donna’s Mundane Little World carries some thought-provoking commentary that is anything but little or mundane: “It seems that Americans have been slowly relinquishing their privacy to their employers over the last couple of decades. Perhaps it began with more rigerous background checks and drug testing, which the average responsible citizen probably would argue are not such bad things. But consider employers today who wield even more control over employees by restricting health care benefits to exclude prescription birth controll pills for women. Consider employers who fire employees who are overweight or who smoke. Consider the incestuous role of big government and big business in the breaking down of workers’ unions. (It must also be time for us all to revisit The Jungle again to help us remember why we might need unions!) “It just seems that when one must fear retribution for expressing her opinions, even when the opinions are not extremely radical, that a bigger systemic problem exists. What do you think?”

I think it is double-plus-ungood. I have also been considering the larger patterns, and I do think my experience was largely made possible because of some of the cultural transitions Donna mentions. (”This implementation of thought crime and punishment brought to you by the letter ‘S’–for surveillance…”). I’m still ruminating about exactly how I want to say this, but I think it’s related to a culture of fear, to which Americans are exposed on a daily basis, and which has become a great deal more intense in recent years. I’ll post about that when I have my thoughts straight. Thanks for the mention, Donna!

e3 Information Overload says: “Meg Spohn, a professor at Devry University in Westminster, Colorado, has been fired, she says, for some ‘water-cooler kvetching’ about the institution on her blog. See the entry at The Chronicle: Wired Campus Blog and the Denver Post article for more information and commentary. She posted that she was given no warnings before the firing, and Colorado is an ‘at-will’ state so they can fire with no reason given. To this day she still does not know what entries may have caused her firing.”

Thanks for the mention, e3. I’m also really pleased that the term, “kvetching” has become sort of attached to my story. Being from the east coast, I just feel there isn’t enough Yiddish in my life these days…

The Blogging Journalist “Debate Growing Over Professor Fired for Blogging About Devry: says in a January 8, 2006 article that, ‘A professor at DeVry University in Westminster who says she was fired for criticizing the school on her blog is stirring up an academic freedom debate in the blogosphere.’”

Thanks for the help stirring, Munir. Good debates are like good risotto: they need lots of stirring and attention to resolve into something good.

LexBlog Blog gives an insightful piece of commentary: “Lawyers have an obligation to defend First Amendment rights. Heck, I would think solely by our being members of the bar we’ve accepted some responsibility to come to the defense of one of the core principals in America, free speech.”

Indeed. I’m considering my options, members of the bar–by all means, get in touch with me if you have a good one. Thanks for the mention, Kevin.

Friday, July 29th 2005

How am I holding up?
posted @ 1:10 pm in [ ]
In response to the twin eulogies I wrote for my late father-in-law, I have had a number of kind, concerned queries as to how I’m doing with all this death business. I’m okay, thanks (although I practically got anally probed by the TSA on my way out to Jersey). It still kinda seems to me like Pops is just on a long trip somewhere, even though I’ve been to the funeral and I even have a few of his shirts. And yes, everyone liked the eulogy, although I’m not sure they’d tell me if they thought it sucked.

I think part of the fact that it doesn’t seem quite real yet is that I didn’t see Pops a whole lot as part of my everyday routine, so it’s just starting to feel like he’s really missing. More than that, though, I think it has to do with the fact that the services and what-not were so very, well, Protestant. In my November 2004 archives, I talked about Protestant vs. Catholic funeral smackdown, and expressed my opinion that if there is one thing Catholicism really does well, it’s funerals. Protestant funerals have always seemed somewhat sterile to me, and while Pops’ funeral was very nice, and I appreciated everyone who came to it, and I am emphatically not criticizing it, that brand of Protestant civility and lack of, I don’t know, organic-ness maybe?, just didn’t offer the same closure that I’m accustomed to with family funerals. I lost it a little bit at the very end of reading my eulogy, but it wasn’t cathartic. I never saw the body, so Pops could still be away on a trip. Nobody cried so hard they couldn’t talk. There wasn’t any burial. It was certainly among the most pleasant funerals I’ve ever been to, though. Folks really did seem to want to hold to the idea of celebrating the life rather than mourning the death, which everyone claims they want and then nobody can actually do it, so that was kind of nice.

One of my friends who was there IS Catholic, and she was upset and crying at the service and not afraid to let go of it all, which I personally appreciated. The general sentiment, though, seemed to be more that of “there, there, don’t cry” than “g’head, let it all out.” I think when grief comes, it should be allowed to wash over you–that holding it off just makes it stay longer and come out harder, like a stain that’s allowed to set. Catholicism certainly has its hangups, but embracing and letting go of grief is not among them. What if I don’t want to soldier bravely on? What if I just want to lose it and be done with it? I guess what I’m saying is that I think all this WASP-y thoughtful politeness is kind of hindering my grieving process. I guess that’s how I am right now.

Thursday, July 21st 2005

So what about the real one?
posted @ 8:01 pm in [ ]
I’ve been asked to post the real eulogy once it’s finished, so here it is. This is a sneak preview–I’m going to read it, if I can, tomorrow.

Suburban Paul Bunyan

I first met Pops (as he corrected me the first time I tried to call him “Mister Spohn”) in June of 1992. I had been dating his son for just six weeks then, and we were mad about each other. Pops was a big, affable friendly guy, and I liked him instantly. When I returned home to the Boston area, I told my best friend and roommate, Lisa, about him. I must have imparted some of my sense of wonder and delight with him, because she commented, “Oh, he’s like a suburban Paul Bunyan!”

That Pops was the stuff of legends is not news to anyone here. His warmth, larger-than-life personality, vivaciousness, and generosity delighted us all, and sometimes even made our dreams come true. I think about what the stories of the Suburban Paul Bunyan should be like, and I hope you can help me think of more. So far I have:

Pops would walk Babe, the big blue Springer Spaniel, early in the morning while it was still dark. The sun, just peeping up over the horizon, knew it was time to start shining when it saw Pops was up. The sun, too, found him welcoming as we all did. Pops didn’t just transform plastic into Brie–anyone can do that. He did every fun thing right and every important thing well. Nobody ever left his house hungry or sad.

Pops could pack a car, a station wagon, a logging sledge, a moped, or a pair of roller skates so it would hold anything Lewis and Clark might have needed. He could also drive great distances, across many states, enduring traffic, Kansas heat, 40 dogs and 50 children (46 of which I understand were my husband).

A fine advice giver and parent, Pops used yellow legal pads the size of bedsheets to communicate his clever ideas and lay out a plan. He would use a Uniball pen the size of a telephone pole–Uniball made them especially for him. His plans were still always concise–he just wrote mighty big.

A giant of tremendous appetites, Pops could eat 100 flapjacks for dinner and would squeeze a maple tree flat to get syrup. One time Pops went to Paris for a job interview, and he brought back all the cheese in France. Sometimes when his wife was out of town, Pops could even eat 500 Taco Bell burritos in one sitting. When he fished–and he did love to fish–he wouldn’t go home until he caught enough fish to fill a schoolbus, and he threw back any fish that were under 100 pounds.

Both industrious and civic-minded, Pops raised entire buildings at his son’s prep school in Amish barn-raising fashion in a single morning. Then in the afternoon he built the railroad that went near it. He left the nearest stop a mile and a half away, though, so if he decided to visit the school by train, he could get a little walk in, of say, 15 or 20 steps. When he went to Zoning Board meetings in Summit, people’s houses spontaneously made themselves more attractive and inviting before breakfast. Nobody knows how.

A man of true financial acumen, Pops graduated from Harvard Business School and revolutionized the way benefits were packaged within companies. He even knew exactly how escrow worked. None of that part is an exaggeration, but I think it’s no less impressive.

What I have to do now is keep the legend alive for my children, who won’t get to meet their grandfather. Maybe I’ll tell them the face they see in the moon is his.

Saturday, July 2nd 2005

Eulogy for Pops
posted @ 1:14 pm in [ ]
I got some sad news yesterday. My father-in-law died of cancer in the late morning. He had been battling melanoma for several months, and while cancer is not a good way to die, it could have been a lot worse. Sometimes it takes years to kill, and its victims end up hooked up to many machines and in a lot of pain, with their quality of life getting worse every day and no way to stop it. Pops was lucid pretty much up until the end, and he died at home with his wife by his side, hooked up to minimal home care stuff. The downward slope was pretty steep for him.

I’m sad, of course, because he was a good guy. I’m also fairly pissed, because he spent his whole life working for a wonderful retirement (he was only 61), which he never got. As I’ve commented to a few of you, where the hell is the complaint window for that?

I last saw Pops back in March, when he was in the hospital for a little bit. Because the melanoma filled his bones, they were breaking easily. He went in to get a pin put in his broken arm and try to treat one of the larger tumors in his spine. He was in good spirits, very much himself, and accepting of the present, but perhaps still fighting the future. I talked to him a week or so ago on the phone, too. At that point, he had lesions on his brain (for which he would undergo some radiation treatments, which were ultimately unsuccessful) and had a hard time finding the words for what he wanted to say. Still, it was very clear that he was still in there. As frustrating as it was for such an intelligent and socially affable person not to be able to communicate as he wanted, I was glad he was himself right up until the end.

When I was visiting in March, my mother-in-law asked if I would say something at the funeral. I knew immediately what story I wanted to tell about Pops, and also that I probably shouldn’t there. So I’m telling it here.

First, a little background. I first met Pops in June of 1992. I had been dating his son for about 6 weeks, and we were mad about each other. We were on our way to spend a long weekend with friends at a friend’s family’s lake cottage. Pops (as I was corrected when I tried to call him Mr. Spohn) was a big, generous, friendly guy, kind of like a sophisticated, six-foot-five Newfoundland. He always treated me like a daughter rather than an in-law, and we got along well. A fellow Harvey, I think he appreciated the way I thought about stuff.

During one visit, Pops told me about how the neighbors had been giving them a hard time. Pops and Moms had Springer Spaniels, and had even bred and raised some. The grande dame of their small pack was an obedient, gentle Springer named Bridget. Her son, Geoffrey, also stayed with them (although all Bridget’s other, I think, 18 puppies, went to good, and undoubtedly fashionable, homes–I believe the mayor had one, as did several other leading folks in town). He was a large, handsome gent who was smarter than he let on, so occasionally difficult, but generally a good guy. Bridget, though, was very good. She was friendly, and didn’t make trouble, noise, or crap where she wasn’t supposed to, and she always came when she was called. Bridget occasionally would be out in the yard, and hop just over the wall into the neighbors’ yard while following interesting scents. She would generally hop back over, never strayed well into the yard, and never paused there for long, but the neighbors would be on the phone yelling at my mother-in-law about it within seconds–often long after Bridget was back where she should have been, making the neighbors look, well, crazy. Earlier that day, the neighbor lady had been so irate and nasty that my mother-in-law felt the need to hang up and was even close to tears. It was too bad–they had once been pretty good friends.

Some things about all this bothered me. First, Bridget wasn’t doing any harm. She was just sniffing, and she didn’t understand too much about property lines, because she was A DOG. I could understand it if she was leaving her yard to crap on theirs, dig it up, or otherwise wreck it, or if she tarried too long, took the run of the place, or hassled other animals who lived there, but that wasn’t the case. Second, screaming and swearing at people for such an infraction is, well, needlessly crappy. Finally, these people had a gigantic yard–3 or 4 acres at least, all grass–which they never, ever stepped on. Something about the bourgeois hoarding and obnoxious behavior really got to me. I had an idea.

“You know what would be really fun? You could fling a bunch of dog biscuits all over that lawn,” I suggested. “Lots of different kinds of critters like those. Dogs, raccoons, deer…” Pops silently looked thoughtful for a few moments, then fished in his pocket. He slapped a $50 down on the table with a grin and said, “Do it.”

So my new husband and his sister and I went to PetSmart and got as many biscuits as fifty bucks would buy. I think it was 3 20-pound boxes, but they might have been 25s. We put on dark clothing and waited for nightfall. When it came, we quietly hummed the theme to “Mission Impossible” and took our guerilla weapons to the perimeter of the property. We approached it from a few different perfectly legal, non-trespassing angles, and after a few biscuits we gave to the house dogs, we hucked something like 60 pounds of dog biscuits–more than Bridget even weighed–onto that vast expanse of lawn. We all had pretty good arms, so we got some decent distribution. We reported our success to Pops, who really relished it.

In the morning, when Pops returned from walking the dogs around the neighborhood, he was noticibly bemused and chuckling. He had been walking the dogs along the street the neighbors’ property fronted onto, and reported multiple choruses of such comments as, “Trixie, NO! Come back!” and dozens of curious squirrels and birds dotting the yard, a few of which were being chased by errant pets with some sort of attention deficit disorder. It was deeply satisfying for the entire household–and for the many critters who teamed up to eat or abscond with 60 pounds of dog biscuits. Plus, it was funny and nobody got hurt. I consider it one of our finer collaborations.

When Pops became ill, that neighbor ended up being very helpful and kind. They more than made up. Still, I can’t tell this story at the funeral–they might be there.

In memory of Andrew Gerald Spohn
April 10, 1944 - July 1, 2005

« Previous Posts