Online Shenanigan-sanity

I like to go online and weigh in with a nice dose of balanced, well-reasoned sanity in the comments section after news or opinion articles on, say, Sarah Palin, where the great mass of goombas hiding behind names like Bubba01 ejaculate angry misspelled sentences packed with vitriol. It’s like tossing a carrot into the mouth of the fat kid that’s already overflowing with French fries and Whopper juice. Confusion abounds. And no one ever comments on my comments. There’s the occasional thumbs-up by some poor soul looking for some sanity, but rarely ever thumbs-down I’m guessing because they probably never get past an opening  like “Actually, and while I disagree with the overall premise for reasons I will make clear below, the article is very well written and the support the author provides is relatively sound; however, in light of…” Snooze. I can just imagine them getting about 8 words into it, punching a mental “delete” button, and scanning down for words like “dumbfuck” and “dipshit”, then smiling gleefully when they come across them. The carrot, while nibbled, is left uneaten to rot.


What is it about playing catch? How can such a simple past-time be so dog-gone satisfying?

Playing catch has but two actions – throw and catch. It has but one rule that need not ever be spoken or written down (but here I go anyway): throw the ball so the other person has a chance to catch it. That’s really about it. So as competition, it’s mostly personal. It’s you against you, but you get to play with someone else, so it’s also social – an opportunity for camaraderie.

Catch moves at whatever pace you want. It’s as challenging as you decide. It can be as fast, physical, cerebral or meditative as you make it. It’s perfect, catch is. Throw. Catch. Throw. Catch. Throoowww. Catch. Throw. Catch. That’s it, in a nutshell.

I spent a good part of the weekend playing catch again for the first time in years. My boy is four and yesterday we purchased balls and mitts and already he’s smitten. I heard it all weekend: “Let’s play catch, Dad!” And me, with Cat Steven’s “Cat’s in the Cradle” reverberating in my head, said, “You got it, buddy!” And out we went.

The tenor of our catch is set by his being four. I lob the ball up into an arc that is intended to land squarely in his mitt. He catches it or doesn’t, then throws it as best he can, and I catch it, or more often, turn and run after it.

But we’re in heaven and the banter is entirely spontaneous yet practically written in stone: “Nice catch!” “Oh! In and out of the glove!” “Rule number one: Use two hands!” “I catched it!” “Gotta lean in for those!” “Squeeze the mitt!” “I’m gonna throw it way high!” “Nice!” “My bad!” “What was that?” “Whoa! Great throw, buddy!” And on and on.

Oh, and “It’s ‘caught’, buddy, not ‘catched’.” A little grammar thrown in for good measure.

In fact, catch is a teaching opportunity that never ends, and because of its very simplicity, you will never fully learn it. You can always improve and every catch is different. You can drop one, but catch allows you to learn and move on to the next catch.

And with a kid, the teaching is simply part of the action. There we are just throwing and catching a ball. It’s not like I’m sitting there explicating the importance of bike safety or saving money. And yet within the lessons of catch are hidden other life lessons about fairness, respect, effort, pride and so on. You’re talking catch. You’re learning life. “Way to go, buddy!” Brilliant.

The super upside-down through the legs throw!

All Hail the Essayist – Or Why News Skews and the Warlord [Name] Might Not be Such a Bad Guy

One thing I try to do (and often fail at) is get most of my information about important people, places, ideas and things from essayists; meaning, to me, writers who research more, take longer to consider, write in greater depth, and, generally, are less bent on convincing anyone of their particular opinion. That is not to say they are without opinion (and some great essays are very much drenched in opinion), but their opinions are, again, better researched, have more depth, and therefore generally more thoughtful. They also show an awareness and respect for opinions that don’t line up with theirs. I find that that sort of thoughtful approach generally leads to a better understanding of the depth and nuances of the subject about which they write.

Without even bothering to talk about the FOX News and MSNBC’s unashamedly biased silliness (a silliness that has it’s place, mind you, but it’s place is to entertain and not to inform), I think that, in general, news skews, and even when they are not trying to skew necessarily. It’s more a result of taking a tiny piece of a story – that which is news and so that which happened recently – and putting it out there all by itself. Even with the obligatory set-up and few paragraphs of background, the gist of the story then acts as a sort of soundbite that is ingested like a potato chip and often misconstrued as a balanced meal. Imagine a headline like “Warlord bombs tiny village – women and children among dead.” The first few paragraphs would be explanatory of exactly what happened – “Forces allied with the [Name], the [place] warlord, bombed a tiny village in [name], leaving [xx] people dead – among them [x] men and women, many of whom were elderly, and [x] children. The bombing took place during a battle the [other name] forces for…”

That is generally about as far as many of us will read, if in fact, we get beyond the headline at all. So we walk away with “Warlord is evil and [other name] forces are good.” Even if the reporting is accurate, and despite the fact that killing women and children (let alone any innocents) is certainly very, very wrong, and without my making up various scenarios where it might not be necessarily the wrongest wrong…coming to the conclusion that the  Warlord is evil might be quite far from the truth. But the news story did the best it could, and maybe buried down in the article, if it was long enough, we could find a bit more background to explain that.

Like the constant barrage of economic figures tossed our way – “the biggest drop in unemployment since 2008” – these sorts of news stories are but a tiny slice in time and provide absolutely no context. “But 2008 is only four years ago and our country is 235+ years old – our economy even older, how does the biggest drop in the last four mean anything whatsoever, beyond the fact that five years ago we had a bigger drop?” It’s like peeking through the blinds of a ballroom for three seconds and walking away thinking you have some idea of what took place that night at the ball.

To those who would argue, “I’m busy. I don’t have an hour to read an essay on that.” I would contend that if you skipped the news and saved that time up, you might find that you do have time enough to read the essay and gain a much better understanding of the subject. And you pick and choose. We are so inundated with news now that we sometimes feel like we need to know what’s going on everywhere. You can’t. So pick your battles. If you have strong opinions about something – focus there. If you’re of a serious political bent – know all sides of the argument inside and out. If you love American history or have family from from Eastern Europe and are concerned about what happens there – read essays on American History and/or Eastern Europe.

Obviously, I’m making this all sound rather easy and of course it’s not. A person needs to know where to find the essays, then get to know those who write on those subjects, then actually sit down and read them. And work went late, and the kids have homework and hockey, the lawn needs mowing, the in-laws are coming … so flipping on the television news, turning to your Google news (which is in a constant state of tailoring – deciding for you, thank you very much – the news stories you see) or glancing at the newspaper (if you are among the dwindling few who do), it seems is all we can pull off sometimes.

And yet, now, at a time when the complexity of our world seems to be expanding exponentially (or is that just a result of our internet-abled seeming awareness of absolutely everything?), our main source of information is the most simplistic imaginable – the 24-hour news station. The great dumbing down began in earnest in the last couple of decades and it’s taking hold. NBC News “In Depth”, I remember I timed some years back, was about four minutes long. In depth, indeed.

Focusing on essays rather than the general popular news outlets also allows you to miss out on all the news stories that we are bombarded with that really have no impact whatsoever on our lives – or most anyone else for that matter. “There’s Pink Slime in our Fast Food!” Wait a minute, fast food’s not healthy? “Snooki’s Pregnant!” Wait a minute, Snooki’s a girl?

And beyond that, grisly multiple murders are grisly and horrible, but if it happens a thousand miles away, beyond hearing about it, should I, or better yet, do I need to know more? Are the details relevant to me? Or are there better ways to spend my time than hearing about how “the gunman entered the building through a back door and went first up the stairs to the office of his former boss who was on the phone with his wife wearing a shirt with the company logo when the gunman opened fire and shot the 48-year-old father of two eleven times leaving behind a grisly scene of…”

There was a time when essayists were the bee’s knees for a larger share of the literate public, and the essay itself, considered one of the great forms of writing. And while among a small population, that may still be the case, essays have fallen out of favor for the general public. We modern folk like everything, information and learning included, to be quick, convenient and easy to chew – not unlike pink slime.

But there are always great essayists writing and we have oodles of them right now – and some of them decidedly hip! The late David Foster Wallace made much of his name with his book of essays, “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again” – which was great fun! I’m currently reading “Pulphead” by John Jeremiah Sullivan, and have gleaned a more intelligent and thoughtful understanding of Christian Rock (of which all I used to be able to say was – ha ha – it’s an oxymoron), reality tv, Michael Jackson and Constantine Rafinesque (Who? Exactly.). My Atlantic and Harper’s magazines arrive monthly and keep me in good essays throughout the years (the latter skewing pretty liberal; the former a bit more centrist).

So it’s not all smarty-pants whatsoever. Essays can be great fun!

But I still do contend that if you want to understand something in some depth, you need to approach and study it in some depth, and essays provide that opportunity while being entertaining in the hands of those who know what they’re doing. And they’re not as long as non-fiction books!

So all hail the essayists. Let’s make them rich and famous rather than Snooki and the mass murders, and make ourselves as informed as we are opinionated.

The Clash of Humanity!

Had a stressful little turn in Target – the kids with their ever-present sense of entitlement and incredible lack of thankfulness being the stress-makers – that led us after to the Roseville Library to drop off “The Blind Assassin” – brilliant; and “Toward the End of Time” – mostly great but a bit much about the old guy’s lower extremities. I pulled into the parking lot and dropped into one of about 11 unused handicap parking spots in front of the door (totally not my m.o., by the way – i’m usually the guy who gives others the dirty look when they do that), left my car door open in a sort-of “hey, don’t worry, i’m just dropping these here books off and will be out of the way before the 11th handicapped driver pulls up for sure”, but ran headlong into a puffed up gentleman who shouted at me. “Those spots are not for dropping off books!” He was absolutely right, of course, as it’s illegal to park there. I noticed then also that there was no book drop off there anymore.

The Roseville Library – which was recently rebuilt and features a mostly featureless interior and like so many other libraries now seems to want you to know it as a big space with computers with the actual books relegated to elsewhere – moved my book drop. I jumped back in my car, stung and a bit embarrassed as I’m not the guy who takes spots from handicapped people (have I made that perfectly clear?), whipped a u-turn and parked, actually closer to the building, in a drop off zone. The puffed up guy was pulling out of his spot, considerably less puffed up, and our eyes met again. He rolled down his window. I walked over and he actually apologized, “I’m sorry,” he said. “It’s just that my own mother…” I stopped him. “Man, you are absolutely right. Don’t you worry about it.” “There’s a drive up drop-off right over there,” he said, helpfully. “There is?” I asked. The Roseville Library folks decided to move that from the convenient and obvious front to tucked way in the back. “Yeah, right over there.” He pointed.  “Thanks!” I said. And we parted.

Despite the discomfort, I loved the exchange. Now, for some reason, he was embarrassed. And yet I was embarrassed before. It ended so well. I practically had a new buddy -the same guy who looked like he might drop dead of an anger-induced aneurysm just moments before I was now patting on the shoulder through his car window.

After I used the book drop-off, I went back past where he was parked and noticed that he was in one of the spots “saved for vans and car pools only” right next to those spots for handicapped drivers. But I was cool with that – he had a couple of kids with him – and that constitutes a car pool (among other things) by my measure.

My Addiction to Fiction

I’ve always been somewhat embarrassed to say that I really don’t watch much television at all; not because it matters, really, other than the fact that both my brother and sister-in-law are executive producers in that industry. I guess I’ve just never wanted to come off like some holier-than-thou pinhead, but I really do prefer reading. Pinhead Alert!

It’s a weird sort-of guilt, but can certainly be chalked up to my regular Midwestern guy upbringing that basically states, “You’re not fancy. Don’t be a sissy. Shut up about yourself and fit in, lest your head be chopped off.”  Or something like that.

But a new article in the New York Times entitled “Your Brain on Fiction” might just be the proof I needed to prove I’m not holier-than-thou or thee or anyone else. It states basically that recent neuroscience shows that reading fiction engages the brain much more actively than watching television. I’ve always known that but haven’t been able to explain it beyond that which I’ve said a million times: “Any time we are subject to both sound and vision at the same time through the same medium, the brain has nothing to do but sit passively and take it in.”

Reading, on the other hand, forces you to fill in the blanks – to take the descriptions and build the image in your head; it’s much more active, and therefore, engaging and interesting, at least to the likes of me. The article shows that the areas of the brain the, say, recognize movement, smell or texture fire up when reading words that effectively communicate actions, scents or tactile feelings. And, more interestingly, that does not happen with television.

So I am no sissy. I just need more stimulation. Nothing wrong with that, at least with entertainment. It makes me wonder, though, if avid readers of fiction are more apt to be addicts. I’ll leave it up to the neuroscientists to figure that out.

My Metric Education

This article absolutely cracked me up only because it never occurred to me that as I read nutrition labels I wasn’t really converting anything whatsoever and knowing what I was ingesting, but instead just comparing metric with metric, label with label, which left me entirely in the dark as to anything other than how one can of soda compares to another, etc. I’m guessing that there are many here among us who are in the same boat.

That being said, I’m still a fan of the metric system and would love to see us embrace it, but culturally it is a ninety-degree uphill battle, I fear. What I do know – and I learned this way back in the seventies – is that the 165 gram frisbee is best for windy days and that 7 grams is a quarter ounce (which I also learned in the seventies).

What Dick Cheney and Barack Obama Obviously Know – That may be News to Us

“We may think we vote in line with our economic interests and social values, but our politics may be driven largely by our biological makeup. University of Nebraska researchers measured how aroused the nervous systems of highly conservative and liberal voters became while they viewed positive images, such as pictures of babies or cute animals, and negative scenes featuring car wrecks or fearsome insects. The conservatives showed greater interest in negative images, while the liberals responded more strongly to positive ones. When researchers showed both groups collages that intermingled positive and negative images while tracking their eye movements, they found that conservatives focused on the more alarming material. Even on a physiological level, conservatives appear to spend more energy ‘monitoring things that make them feel uncomfortable,’ psychologist Mike Dodd tells That may make them more receptive to campaigns that stress their fears, while liberals are more drawn to hopeful plans for the future. ‘It’s amazing the extent to which they perceive the world differently,’ said political scientist John Hibbing, who helped design the study.”

The Week
February 24, 2010

Why I Love Minnesota #72

The top-performing stock of the past 25 years isn’t Apple or Microsoft. It’s Minnesota-based hardware supplier Fastenal, which is up 38,565 percent since the market crash of 1987. Told of the distinction, 72-year-old founder Bob Kierlin said, “Oh, wow. Gee. Well, thanks. That’s great news.”