Desperate Houseflies: The Magazine

Feel free to pull out your trusty fly swatter and comment on what is posted here, realizing that this odd collection of writers may prove as difficult to kill as houseflies and are presumably just as pesky. “Desperate Houseflies” is a magazine that intends to publish weekly articles on subjects such as politics, literature, history, sports, photography, religion, and no telling what else. We’ll see what happens.

Saturday, April 30, 2005

A lean to the left, a lean to the right -- stand up, sit down, fight! fight! fight! -- The Brits

The left: Law student asks Scalia "Do you sodomize your wife?" - The justice's dissenting opinion in Lawrence V Texas the source of student's ire.

The Right: Instapundit catches the New York Times in an outright lie. This one contradicts the NYT's own reportage on Iraq War.

The Brits: Great Britian: Our closest ally - Guardian editorialist likens U.S. to Nazi Germany. [The UK's coverage of Blair's election year should bring plenty of blog fodder.]

Thursday, April 28, 2005

Mish Mash

An assortment of goodies for your pleasure

The Incredible Shrinking Dirk

The playoffs were supposed to be a coming out party for the Mavericks, with their new coach, their new defensive emphasis and newly-ordained MVP candidate Dirk Nowitski, but instead they're in grave peril of their worst playoff performance in recent memory. The Diggler's struggled, shooting a combined 13 of 40 against such defensive illuminaries as Ryan Bowen and Scott Padgett, while fellow foreign giant Yao Ming was utterly dominant with 33 points on 13 of 14 shooting (!), while drawing what seemed like 33 fouls on Mavs post defenders. However, the series has belonged to Tracy McGrady, who's always played well in the playoffs but now has the team around him to make some noise. T-Mac's averaged 31 in the two games, has taken his turn at guarding Dirk (pretty effectively), hit a game-winning shot and delivered the most viscious facial in recent memory to one Shawn Bradley. I think that trade for Steve Francis has worked out.

Kings -- Sonics Careful what you wish for. While it may not be fair to say the Kings tanked it down the stretch to fall to the six seed, they certainly weren't upset about facing the Sonics in the first round. The Sonics were awful down the stretch, but have gotten solid play from their stars, Rashard Lewis and Ray Allen, and an unexpected boost from Jerome James to run out to a 2-0 lead. For the Kings its been the stories of the stars that haven't shown up; Mike Bibby in game one and Peja Stojakovich in game two. The Kings are still very much in this series as the Sonics have only held serve thus far. Most disturbing thing from the playoffs thus far? Vladimir Radmonovich's hair. Really, man, close the window; nobody wants to see that.

Spurs -- Nuggets Settle down, settle down, everyone. Yes, the Nuggets pulled out an improbable game one victory, but don't jump off the Spurs bandwagon just yet. Look, Andre Miller scored 31 and Tim Duncan was awful and the Spurs missed about 73 shots in a row in the fourth quarter and still almost pulled out game one. Game two was a statement game as the Spurs won by 29, and Duncan played more like the methodical, expressionless sphinx we all know and have a mild affection for. The truth is probably somewhere in between these extremes, but somewhere in between still has the Spurs winning in six. The Nuggets have had a nice run, but they should have drawn the Sonics if they were hoping to advance; The Spurs are too professional to let that happen.

Suns -- Grizzlies The Suns seem to play basketball like some NFL teams play defense; they just send more people than you can stop. The result is the NBA's version of an all-out blitz, with the rim sitting in for the quarterback's role. Memphis is simply overmatched here, though they did put up a valiant stand in game 2. They may be able to steal a game if Gasol gets rolling good and can get some help from a Mike Miller or somebody on the perimeter, but I'd be surprised to see it go past five games. A Suns-Rockets matchup would be real interesting in the second round; Yao gives them fits when he can stay out of foul trouble and the Rockets defend well enough to take the edge off the Suns onslaught.

On with the Chlorophyll!

Do we really have to go through the charade of the first two rounds of the Eastern conference playoffs? Detroit and Miami are so much better than everyone else out there, they look like they decided to play some guys at the YMCA or something.

Heat -- Nets I really thought New Jersey might be able to put up a better fight here. Yes, their post defense is even worse against Shaq than most teams, and, yes, Richard Jefferson is just coming back from injury, but they were a hot team heading into the playoffs and I thought. . . . well, who was I kidding? Shaq hasn't really done much this series, but Dwyane Wade is just so brilliant, and Alonzo Mourning seems to be coming to life, which is just terrifying for the rest of the league. Also, the Heat can really defend when they want to, and their role players fit in well around the stars. Expect some broom action in this one.

Pistons -- Sixers This series is kind of painful to watch. The Pistons seem to be going into the games wondering which cruel, demoralizing way they should choose to methodically grind down Philly. In game one, they let the Sixers stars, Iverson and Webber, get off (scoring 30 and 27 respectively), while holding their bench to six, yes six American points. (I'm not sure how that exchanges with the Euro-point right now). Game two it was the opposite story as Detroit put the clamps on AI and C-Webb (as well as K-Corv and the other AI and Sam-dog). This team is just suffocating and seems to be rounding into championship form. It should be an absolute war when they finally have their inevitable matchup with the Heat.

Celtics -- Pacers This is one of the more even matchups out there. You think Ricky Davis might know better than to provide one of the best clutch players ever motivation, but, then again, Ricky never was the brightest bulb on the Christmas tree. I'm interested to see how the Celtics play in Indiana; this team's character seems to me to be right on the edge -- they could easily either fold in the face of adversity or find a mean streak in themselves and move on. If Indiana does advance, it will be on the strength of great coaching and Reggie's leadership, as it doesn't look like Jermaine O'Neal's shoulder is going to let him do much.

Bulls -- Wizards I haven't followed this series as closely as the others, so my comments will basically be based on the box scores. I am surprised that Chicago's up 2-0 with the scores at or around the 100's. Washington's the better offensive team, so I would have thought that tempo would suit them. The Wizards can't seem to get their stars cranked up at the same time. Larry Hughes was brilliant in game one, while Gilbert Arenas was shockingly bad; game two it was Arenas on and Hughes off. Antawn Jamison has played indifferently in both games. I don't see how the Bulls aren't starting Ben Gordon, but it seems to work for them.

He's GRRRRRRREAT!

Tiger roared back to form at the Masters a few weeks back, so does this mean he's ready to dominate the tour like he did in 2000? Well, I'd guess it'll be tougher this time around, if only because the tour has weathered this storm once before, and, thus has confidence it can do it again. Tiger will probably never have quite the invincible aura about him that he wore back then. However, he does have the British Open at St. Andrews where he set records in winning by 8 strokes in 2000, and if he gets some luck at the U.S. Open, we could be in for history heading in to the PGA Championship.

Random golf observation. You remember at the Masters when Vijay was grousing about putting over Phil's spike marks? Well, I figure that was mostly Vijay being his usual sunshiny self, but it does raise a fair point. Strictly from a golf perspective, wouldn't it be better to shoot early in the round then later in the day? Not only do you get a less beat-up course, but you normally shoot in cooler weather and get to avoid the heat of the day. Yet, the leaders get "rewarded" by hitting after everyone else on the tee box and green. I know, I know, it's for the fans and the drama, and I'm all for that, but strictly from a sporting perspective it seems like a funny way to reward a guy for playing well.

Picking up the slack

What sport is benefitting the most from Hockey's absence? Well, sorry soccer fans, but it's not MLS. Actually, lacrosse is the fastest growing pro sport in the land, and it' s a natural to replace hockey. It essentially is hockey, just on grass and with baskets on the end of the sticks. It's just as physical and violent, by all accounts, though perhaps a less skill-intensive game than hockey. SI has a good article about the game on its website if you're interested in learning more. My one piece of lacrosse trivia: the greatest player in lacrosse history, by all accounts, is Jim Brown, who went to Syracuse on a lacrosse scholarship, not a football scholarship.

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Or Take Venezuela as Your Paradigm of Hope

This past Saturday evening, Juvenal and another friend and I travelled to Memphis to watch the Memphis Redbirds, the AAA Cardinal team. They're horrible, by the way. I know nothing about how scouting works, but they can't hit or pitch or field, to speak of, so I'm thinking that's not a good sign. They are short though--they've got that going for them. Wee-little men. Kind of like a bunch of Owen Meanys. I kept wanting them to just stand there and take pitches, as there is no pitcher accurate enough to throw three strikes against these players. [And just as an interesting side note--it is actually cheaper to buy a glass of Johnny Walker Black than it is to buy a Coke at Autozone (?) Park. I mean, I'm just saying...]

So the game itself has nothing to do with books, except only insomuch as we are such big nerds that we left the game early in order to make it to a bookstore before closing time. On the way home, and here I'd like to assert that I had no control over the radio, someone in the car stumbled upon a BBC news broadcast. Interesting to hear a newscast from a different country, even if I'm not exactly happy about what it perhaps might just possibly say about me that I spent midnight until 1:30 in the a.m. on a Saturday night listening to said newscast (again, I had no control over the radio). The reason it was interesting wasn't the political perspective. It wasn't that they had a different version of events taking place. It was that there were actually events taking place in the world that have nothing to do with America. And they covered them. Show of hands on how many people know the name of the world's most respected sailor? I don't either, but I do remember she was a she. Something happened in the Turkey slash Armenia region. There was even a disputed democratic election somewhere in the world, with which America had nothing to do, and that was probably important to the people of that country. [Sorry for lack of specifics--my job is neither politics nor world news, and did I mention the price of beverages at the ballpark?]

Okay, but then, somewhere in the BBC newscast was a hidden jewel for a nerd such as me. Venezuela, I think, decided to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the first printing of Don Quixote by printing 1,000,000 copies of the book and handing it out to their citizens. They're even ponying up to buy copies for other countries. I was dumbfounded. Cervantes wasn't Venezuelan, so why did the government decide to do this? Apparently, they think that Quixote is in some way a role model for people, or can make them think about their actions in a different way, or maybe they just think it's entertaining. There wasn't a clear reason for the printing and handing out of the book (I mean, when you cover news from around the world, how much time can you give each country?). But, I liked the idea. I wouldn't necessarily have chosen Don Quixote, but I thought it was kind of a hoping-against-hope action by the government to get people to read and think and what have you.

I wouldn't want our government to spend money on printing costs for a book, but it did get me thinking about what kind of book might be chosen in America. I actually don't have any good suggestions for fiction, although I haven't put just tons of time into thinking about it. Some non-fiction books have jumped to mind. The Autobiography of Malcolm X, for instance. For those who haven't read it, it's a great book. Malcolm has a wonderful way of talking about his wild early years and his time in prison without glorifying it or whining about it or using it as a way to say, look at me, I'm a good person for overcoming this. He speaks passionately about his time in the Nation of Islam, where he worked his way up from a mere speaker to the number two man. And he then has a way of explaining his disillusionment with the Nation and how he came to his own ideas and conclusions about race and how people should live their lives rather than what he saw (but didn't exactly call it, I don't think) as a brainwashing effect that some ministers can have on their followers. Although I think Malcolm is most remembered for his by-any-means-necessary approach to equality, if you haven't read it, you also see a man with some regrets, a man with a vision, and a man with a lot of love.

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglas also popped into my head. In a country that prides itself of the idea of the self-made person, Douglas was the ultimate Horatio Alger. Born into slavery, self-educated, and then became a very influential man when Black men weren't allowed to be influential. Or if we want to stay in the 19th century, something by Thoreau (please, no) or Emerson, since they had such grand visions for what America could be.

Or would it be a work of fiction that actually changed things in America, like Sinclair's The Jungle. Obviously, this one wouldn't work since Sinclair was a Communist, but the novel's impact on the meat-packing industry in general and food safety in general was immediate.

Venezuela, though, didn't choose a novel because it necessarily represented their country. They chose it because there was something in it that they wanted their citizens to aspire to. I think that this is where my America-centric perspective blinds me. I immediately started trying to think of books that might make Americans think about the way they view the world, or what it means to be an American. By doing so, I think I'm missing the point, and even the bravery, of the Venezuelan government. I'm sure there are some great Venezuelan writers, both past and present (although, sadly, most books not written in English never get translated, so we never get to read them). But there choice of books wasn't to promote a nationalistic view of the world. They weren't promoting patriotism. They were simply (if printing 1,000,000+ copies of a book can be described as simply) honoring a writer with a vision, a character that was hopelessly and foolishly kindhearted, blinded to reality by trying to help people at all personal costs, be it physical pain or embarrassment.

I don't think this plan is all that practical, but I like it none the less for it's impracticality. I don't think every Venezuelan will read Don Quixote. I don't think that matters. I like it that the government chose to honor an artist who has had a great influence on the world. That's a pretty good idea, I think. I would love to see some sort of governmental recognition of the contributions that artists make to the way we think and see the world (I know they do a little, but nothing along the lines of the Venezuelan model). And I think it would be nice if we did so by possibly honoring writers from other countries even, maybe even writers that none of us have heard of before, that are from a different time and place -- not so they would bash America, but so that we can see something written without an American perspective. I know I have an unwavering faith in the ability of writers to shape the world at least a little bit, so I trust you'll forgive my romantic view of things. It must be the Don Quixote in me.

If anyone runs across one of these copies of Don Quixote, by the way, I'd love to have one. I'd even pay for it and everything.

I'm currently reading: The Last American Man, by Elizabeth Gilbert. History of the Surrealist Movement, by Gerard Durozoi. Le Morte D'Arthur, by Malory. Lucky, by Alice Sebold.

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Sunday, Bloody Sunday

The good news about "Justice Sunday" is that it signals the beginning of the end.

Those of us who have watched the development of the Religious Right from its beginnings in the 1970s have seen its rhetoric grow exponentially more strident, and its demands to have its way -- both in government and in churches -- grow louder and more expansive in recent years. It's been an interesting study. If you graphed its rhetoric and claims to power over the course of the years, you wouldn't have a bell curve. You'd have something that starts very small, builds very slowly but steadily, then, near the right edge of the chart, suddenly spikes and then bottoms out.

The spike is today. The plunge is tomorrow. To paraphrase an old sermon line, it's Sunday, but Friday's coming.

The Religious Right has finally said in plain and public terms, thank God, what it has always argued for in more roundabout ways. Now that the truth is out, I think we'll see its influence rapidly decline. Nobody wants to hear upper-middle class white people whine about not getting their way. Nobody in a democracy wants to hear the voting majority, in full-blown paranoia, roar that everyone is out to get it, that its power is too limited, or that it has too little influence (control) over people's lives.

If anyone in the Religious Right seriously doubts that that's what they are -- the upper-middle class white voting majority -- it indicates just how completely they've lost touch with reality. People, this is a democracy. You, as both the voting majority and the segment of the population that holds the most wealth, the most education, and the overwhelming majority of public offices, already have more power than anyone else. The fact that you can't do absolutely everything you want -- that you can't, through the power of the state, completely remake the country in your image -- doesn't make you the besieged and downtrodden. In Jesus' parable, you're the powerful religious officials, not the battered and looked-down-upon Samaritan.

If you're just now discovering that in America, even the majority can't do everything it wants, we're sorry that you're so disappointed, but, seriously, you should've paid more attention in 9th grade Civics. (You should also give the occasional thought to how Jesus lived his life.) Being the majority doesn't entitle you to have every court case come out the way you want. It doesn't entitle you to have the laws reflect your religious beliefs. It doesn't entitle you to claim the founding principles of this country as belonging exclusively to you, historical realities be damned. It doesn't entitle you to claim the Constitution as an expression of Christian doctrine, or its authors as Evangelicals.

I hear Christian conservatives complain a lot about entitlements, but is there anyone in this country that's carrying around a bigger sense of entitlement than Christians? Compared to what they seem to think they're entitled to -- complete control of the entire nation -- all the welfare programs in the country are subatomic in scale.

The good news about "Justice Sunday" is that, I think, it signals the beginning of the end for the Religious Right. The bad news about "Justice Sunday" is that it reveals just how utterly the church has lost its way; how little its definition of "justice" and Christ's definition of "justice" have in common, and how little it notices that fact or even cares.

The good news is good news for the country. The bad news is bad news for the church.

Sunday, April 24, 2005

Sunday Thoughts

by Al Sturgeon
(published weekly in Desperate Houseflies)

MONDAY MORNING CHURCH

I blame my youngest daughter for the fact that I now listen to country music. I’ve avoided this music genre because my impression had been that it consists primarily of songs about drinking beer, lost loves, and hunting dogs. Which is true. What I did not realize was the preponderance of songs about church, although I should have suspected that this Southern staple would have been included with the other Southern specialties.

One popular song I’ve heard often now is the mournful Alan Jackson ballad, “Monday Morning Church.” Maybe you’ve heard it, too. It seems that someone’s love has died, leaving the singer’s heart “…as empty as a Monday morning church.” You get the drift.

As a preacher, I can tell you that the church building is pretty empty on Monday mornings. I love it because I can get a lot done during that time, but that doesn’t seem to be the flavor of the song. Instead, the idea is that this life-giving place is sad on Mondays. Hollow. The lyrics betray the author’s non-attendance at worship even on Sundays now because his heart is that empty – the epitome of emptiness – a Monday morning church.

Well here’s the deal: I don’t think Mondays should get such a bad religious rap.

The truth is that, although Sunday is technically the first day of the week, we in fact treat it as the week-END. First graders will point out this oxymoron to you. At least one did for me. On the other hand, we act as if Monday begins the week - our first day back to work or school.

Here’s the funny thing: Although Jesus rose on a Sunday, to the Jewish people it was like our Monday. Sabbath (Saturday) was a day of rest, reflection, and worship, but the first day of the week (Sunday for them) was the day when they went back to work. Back to the old grind. It was this type of day (like our Monday) when the ladies discovered that Jesus was in fact very much alive.

In his new book (Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places), Eugene Peterson writes, “Mary Magdalene and the other women were on their way to work when they encountered and embraced the resurrection of Jesus. I’m prepared to contend that the primary location for spiritual formation is the workplace.

Me, too.

Now I’ll also agree with Alan Jackson: church buildings are awfully empty on Monday mornings. Just like Jesus’s grave was on that Jewish “get back to work” day. But it is out in this real world, refreshed from rest and worship, that we encounter Christ.

That’s not depressing in the least!

I wonder where we will see Him tomorrow? I wonder if we’ll be looking?

Saturday, April 23, 2005

Maine gets good press; Pope ... not so much

If you want to read a feel good story, try this one. Its one that makes me feel proud to be a part of this great country:
Tired and bleary-eyed, Marines of the 1st Battalion, 7th Regiment, based at Twentynine Palms, Calif., were finally back on U.S. soil after seven months on the front lines in Iraq.

But they were still many miles and hours from their families and the homecoming they longed for. Their officers told them they would be on the ground for 60 to 90 minutes while their chartered plane was refueled.

So they disembarked and began walking through the airport terminal corridor to a small waiting room.

That's when they heard the applause.

Lining the hall and clapping were dozens of Bangor residents who have set a daunting task for themselves: They want every Marine, soldier, sailor and airman returning through the tiny international airport here to get a hero's welcome.

Even if the planes arrive in the middle of the night or a blizzard, they are there.

To the people of Bangor, Maine ... thank you.

Page 2

Please pardon my backlash, but the hyperventilating over the selection of Cardinal Ratzinger officially commenced this week. The New York Times couldn't even get past the fourth paragraph of their first story on his election without saying:
As the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith he has been the church's doctrinal watchdog since 1981.

He has been described as a conservative, intellectual clone of the late pontiff, and, as the dean of the College of Cardinals, he was widely respected for his uncompromising - if ultraconservative - principles and his ability to be critical.

Well, that's an interesting way of putting things. The new pope was "been the church's doctrinal watchdog". You know, the narrow-minded inquisitor, always sniffing out heresy. He was "a conservative, intellectual clone of the late pontiff", not a man with his own deeply felt convictions, just a shallow copy of his boss. And, of course, he wasn't just a defender of traditional orthodoxy, he was "ultraconservative", which is usually a code word for "whacko", and is hardly ever thought of as a good thing. At least not in Manhattan.

One notes that the Times was gracious enough to point out that he was a highly respected whack job, though. That was nice of them.

Notice how the Washington Post puts it:
As a cardinal, Ratzinger, a close associate of John Paul and dean of the College of Cardinals, was known for his strict support of church doctrine...

Since 1981, Ratzinger was head of the Vatican's influential Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, where he played a leading role disciplining dissidents and resisting liberal proposals for change.

Huh. Evidently it is possible to convey exactly the same information without editorializing, or slinging around terms that are laden with negative implications. Who knew?

Apparently, this is what journalists call "reporting." God bless 'em.

Here’s his info with a little less spin:

Born in Marktl am Inn, in Bavaria, Germany, Ratzinger entered a preparatory seminary in 1939. In 1943, at the age of 16 he was, along with the rest of his class, drafted into the Flak or anti-aircraft corps. He went into basic training for the Wehrmacht infantry in November of 1944. In 1945 he was interned in a POW camp as a German soldier. By June he was released, and he and his brother Georg reentered seminary. On June 29, 1951, he and his brother were ordained by Cardinal Faulhaber of Munich. His dissertation (1953) was on Saint Augustine, his Habilitationsschrift (second dissertation) on Saint Bonaventure.

Ratzinger was a professor at the University of Bonn from 1959 until 1963, when he moved to the University of Muenster. In 1966, he took a chair in dogmatic theology at the University of Tübingen, where he was a colleague of Hans Küng. In 1969 he returned to Bavaria, to the University of Regensburg.

At the Second Vatican Council (1962 - 1965), Ratzinger served as a peritus or chief theological expert, to Cardinal Joseph Frings of Cologne, Germany.

In 1972, he founded the theological journal Communio with Hans Urs von Balthasar, Henri de Lubac and others. Communio, now published in German, English, and Spanish editions, has become one of the most important journals of Catholic thought. In March 1977 Ratzinger was named archbishop of Munich and Freising and in the consistory that June was named a Cardinal by Pope Paul VI.

In 1981 Cardinal Ratzinger was appointed prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith by Pope John Paul II, made a Cardinal Bishop of the see of Velletri-Segni in 1993, and was elected Dean of the College of Cardinals in 2002, becoming titular bishop of Ostia. He resigned the Munich archdiocese in early 1982, became cardinal-bishop of Velletri-Segni in 1993, vice-dean of the College of Cardinals in 1998, and was elected Dean in 2002.

Friday, April 22, 2005

Part I: 'I Made You, Jimmy Kimmel!'

In response to recent questions and/or criticisms over my past use of a certain archaic term, I feel it may be useful to explain to our faithful readers – and I’m talking to both of you now, so listen up – just how cosmopolitan I truly am.

Yes, I hail from the equivalent of Mayberry, and lack both the means and the gumption (I do have all my adult teeth) to pack up and move to a big city. It’s equal parts disturbing and quaint to know that, as actually happened to one earlier this week, one might attend a meeting and find one’s state senator clad in dirty overalls and a trucker’s hat.

We are a laid-back lot, and that’s not always a bad thing, as anyone can attest who grasps the obvious charm and savoir vivre of Billy Bob Thornton. We move at our own pace and laugh at life’s absurdities, such as… well, never mind. You probably wouldn’t get the humor. So instead, just stand up for the forces of democratic freedom, if you wish.

But I digress. What makes me so cosmopolitan, friends – other than my brushes with celebrities including (and almost certainly limited to) Preacher Roe, Brett Butler (the has-been ballplayer, not the has-been comedienne), Beau Bridges, Handsome Jimmy Valiant, Jerry Clower and Ally Sheedy (who I think lives down the street from me) – is my status as an also-ran.

The year was 1999, and I remember it vividly because those were the halcyon days of yore, back when my wife toiled under the illusion that I knew something about anything. Buoyed by the love of a good woman, I proved my vast knowledge afternoonly by correctly answering at least one or two questions from “Win Ben Stein’s Money,” a campy, low-budget game show on a fourth-rate cable network.

One crisp November day, my wife announced that she had secretly signed me up to audition for a chance to be a contestant on the aforementioned WBSM. We were to visit Los Angeles the very next week, where we would stay in a hotel called The Metropolitan in beautiful, historic downtown Hollywood (also known as Hell). (The Metro’s actual website, which features many, many misspelled words including “experiance,” shows the hotel’s location on a Yahoo! Map whose only other landmarks are nearby trauma centers. ‘Nuff said.)

So like Jed, Elly May and the gang (only without the gang), we began the long journey from Bugtussle to Beverly. Hills, that is. (Except, of course, that we flew, and the authorities in California roped off Beverly Hills when they learned we were from the South, so we never got to go there.)

To say we were overwhelmed by the experiance of downtown Hollywood would be like saying the pontiff-election procedures are a little odd. (What’s all this with the smoke? Who’s electing the pope these days, Cheech & Chong? Is this just an elaborate scheme to get Ricky Williams to convert?)

Still, not wanting to stick out like a severed thumb in the fast-food chili that is America’s great melting pot, we visited the first ethnic restaurant we saw. I’ll say this for Hollywood – their ethnic restaurants are certainly authentic. Nobody in the place spoke English, the menus were printed in their native tongue, and when we finally communicated our order (“chicken”), they grabbed one as it ran by the table, wrung its neck, and tossed its wide-eyed, flopping, feather-covered body on the table. When they turned their backs, we dropped $100 on the table and bolted. (To this day, I have nightmares in which my wife and I arrive at the pearly gates and St. Peter keeps derisively referring to us as “Colonel and Mrs. Sanders.”)

The day of the life-changing audition finally came, and I found myself, along with about 100 other candidates for the show, standing in the dark on the sidewalk outside the Gower Studio complex. In retrospect, I’ve come to believe this was the first round of elimination. As we stood out there, we were approached by not a few street people. And I can’t stress this strongly enough: There is nothing, nothing, nothing funny about the vicious cycle of poverty, homelessness and severe mental illness in our country, except this: Them people talks funny.

I swear it was exactly like stumbling into a convention of Mushmouth impersonators. With a wallet full of travel cash and a heart unhardened by daily encounters with street people, I was what you might call an easy mark. They swarmed me like mobuhths to a flabuhme, and I handed out money like a lonely sailor on furlough in the Philippines.

I like to think that each of them dined on their very own paralyzed chicken that night.

COMING NEXT WEEK: The exciting con(b)clu(b)sion…

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

The Myth of the Five-Tool Player

Since baseball is a great parable for life, it's fitting that baseball, like life, is full of archetypes -- types of players that are so quintessential to the game that they become part of its mythology. There's the intimidating starting pitcher (big, strapping workhorse that's not afraid to brush a hitter back), the even more intimidating relief ace (coupling a sizzling fastball with an RBI-baseball style breaking pitch), the strikeout prone slugger (more and more common these days), and the tiny, nimble, ninja-quick middle infielder (less and less common as more Jeter-types arrive on the seen).

There is one archetype that stands above the rest, however; having an air of prophecy and mystique about him that approaches the Messianic (in baseball terms). This breathtaking creature has been given different labels through the years, but the current terminology most often refers to him as the "5-tool athlete." Who is this masked man, and is he really as valuable as we instinctively seem to believe him to be? Let's discuss.

The Five Tools

For almost as long as there have been ballplayers, there have been envious dorks such as myself who couldn't hit a curveball with a snowshovel but love to analyze those who can and discuss why their either better or worse than everyone thinks. Now what you do when you analyze things is you break them down into their component parts and at some point in history, someone decided to break down what non-pitching baseball players do into five "tools" -- hitting for average, hitting for power, running the bases, defense, and throwing arm. Once this discovery was made, it followed as naturally as Gehrig follows Ruth that the "perfect" baseball player would be someone who was excellent in all of these categories. Thus, if you got to play mad Dr. Frankenveeck and create your own ideal player out of your imagination, he would do all of these things at an exceptionally high level. Also, while we're in the lab, we need to give him a sense of style and grace that makes doing the impossible seem so natural that you'd swear that when the holy angels were dreaming up baseball and whispered it to Alexander Cartwright, that's what they meant by nailing the runner at home.

And where would you play this unnatural phenomenon once you got him out of the lab and gave him a brand new pair of shoes? Centerfield, of course, which is the home of most of the players who come to mind when we think of the five-tool player. Shortstop may also be an option, but we want to see this guy covering ground like an antelope and chasing down balls in the gap, so better stick him in center.

The Chosen Few

So, who in all of baseball history has come closest to this impossible ideal? That's an interesting question, because before 1920, baseball only had four tools. Ty Cobb and Tris Speaker may very well have been what we'd recognize now as five tool athletes except nobody hit home runs before Babe Ruth, so we can't really tell. The first major leaguer who really fit the mold was the Yankee Clipper, Joe DiMaggio. Joe D hit homers, was a gold-glove caliber fielder with a great arm, hit .330 and could steal you some bags. Oh, and style and grace? Joe was the essence of refined class; the coolest cat from a very cool age. If you need empirical evidence, look up a picture of one Marilyn Monroe; shouldn't be too hard to find.

What's interesting to me is the place DiMaggio has maintained in baseball history despite final career stats that are a bit underwhelming. Part of that is without a doubt the fact he was a Yankee and enjoyed an unprecedented run of World Series success (10 World Series in 12 seasons played; 9 wins!). Also, there were defining moments like the 56-game winning streak and retiring rather than letting his skills degrade. However, part of it, I think, is the fact that he was the first of his kind; the first of the naturals; the ballplayer we'd all like to be if we could. Writers of that time called him "the most perfect ballplayer there ever was," and I think this image of DiMaggio as the incarnation of every man's idea of baseball perfection is part of why his legacy has endured just as strongly as his contemporary Ted Williams, who, by any statistical measure was the far superior player.

DiMaggio was just setting the stage, though. The 50's gave us two men who surpassed even Joe D's legend and remain to this day the standard by which all prototypical centerfielders are measured to this day, Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle. Both men were impossibly good; Mays was probably a little better, but not a whole lot. Mays was probably a little faster; Mantle hit the ball further. Mays was a better fielder; the Mick was the first great switch hitter. Mays had the more productive career stats; Mantle won more World Series. They were both the defining stars of an era that produced as many legendary players as any in baseball history.

Mays is probably the one that remains the standard; more than Mantle; more than DiMaggio. He has the defining play (the World Series catch against Vic Wertz), that seems to best embody what this kind of player is all about; doing the impossible (catching the ball) and then topping that by doing something so unthinkable it never crossed your mind (throwing it back in well enough to hold the runner). DiMaggio showed us that we had a place in our hearts that could only be filled by a natural, graceful, "five-tool" centerfielder. Mays filled that place better than anyone else, and we're still looking for someone who can live up to his standard.

The Legacy

Of course, chasing down these ghosts is no easy task, and has led to several excellent players being labeled as disappointments. This played out in San Francisco almost immediately. After Mays retired, the Giants had Bobby Bonds, Gary Matthews and Garry Maddox come up in succession. They were all excellent players and they were all traded because they weren't Willie Mays. It's not just the Giants, though; nearly ever centerfielder that comes up with pop in his bat and some wheels gets tagged as the next Willie Mays, and inevitably fails by comparison. The guy I remember growing up was Eric Davis, who hit some home runs and stole some bases as a young player and was told to clear mantle space for the MVP awards he would win. Well, not quite; Davis was a nice player, but nowhere near the chosen one baseball was longing for. Junior Griffey was the next on the podium, and for a while looked to some like he might even surpass Willie. Of course, this was always a little silly, as Griffey never really had the wheels of Mays. However, he was hitting home runs at an unprecedented pace and there was a lot of talk about him being the best player in baseball (again, a little silly as he was never the equal of Bonds). Now, after a lack of postseason production and a freakish run of injuries, the Kid is being asked to explain why he might end up with "only" 600 home runs. And so it goes when you're looked at as the heir to Willie's throne.

Another guy who's thought of as a disappointment largely, I think, because he hasn't fulfilled the role of uber-centerfielder is Andruw Jones. Hailed by many as the greatest fielding centerfielder of all time as a kid (of all time? really? was he ever clearly better than Jim Edmonds?), he hit a couple of home runs in the World Series and everyone thought the Jones kid was surely the one we'd all been waiting for. Well, the problem no one seemed to notice was that he had no plate discipline and was an indifferent worker so he was unlikely to develop any. However, he has been a very good player. Look at his stats; he's got 250 home runs and is just now entering his prime years, turning 28 on Saturday. Really, he's not a disappointment, people; he's just not Willie Mays; no one is. . . .

Well, maybe we finally have found the next Willie. Did anyone see Carlos Beltran in the playoffs last year? This guy really is the real deal; he does it all and does it very well. He was nearly a 40-40 man last year; should start winning gold gloves any time now. And style? The guy never looks like he's breaking a sweat while robbing fly balls and cranking home runs from both sides of the plate. He is the ultimate in cool.

And he's no Willie Mays. He turns 28 on Sunday, and only has 142 home runs (though Jones did get a head start). He's never finished higher than ninth in the MVP voting, and isn't likely to pass Albert Pujols any time soon. Playing for the Mets, he's no lock to get back to the playoffs in the near future either. Thus, it's likely the quest for the next chosen one may take a while, especially if Mays is the standard by which he is measured. In the meantime, though, you could do worse than enjoying the talents of Mr. Beltran.

What's a boy to do?

So, how do you avoid hitting 500 home runs and being labeled a disappointment? Stay out of center. It seems strange to me that Albert Pujols doesn't have to deal very often with comparisons to Jimmie Foxx or Lou Gehrig (though Pujols may actually be that good) and that Vlad Guerrero isn't always measured against Babe Ruth and Hank Aaron (try living up to that legacy!). For whatever reason, the image of the slugging corner player isn't as indelibly marked on the collective baseball psyche as is that of the centerfielder. Maybe that's because the weaknesses of those players are more evident; they tend to be slower and strike out a lot (though Aaron really didn't have these weaknesses; he was a pretty incredible all around player). Thus, the standard isn't really perfection; it's a different sort of excellence; more gaudy and less refined.

But ultimately, perhaps, more valuable. Think about it, who would you rather build your team around -- Pujols or Beltran? Willie Mays or Babe Ruth? The fact is not all "tools" are created equally; Babe Ruth couldn't steal a base if the catcher had a grand mal seizure, but he's far and away the greatest player in the history of the game. Why? Well, he had about two tools in his box, but they were both sledgehammers, so who cared if he didn't carry around an Allen wrench (as I beat that metaphor to a bloody death). Don't get me wrong, a strong throwing arm is nice, but not nearly as nice (or valuable) as a .690 slugging percentage (Ruth's career avg). A stolen base is important, but not as important as a three-run homer. In the end, though the ideal we all have of what a baseball player should be may be the 5-tool, prototype centerfielder, if you're looking for the better value, run production is where it's at.

Oh yeah, I guess the Babe probably had a pretty good throwing arm, too.

"A Late Encounter with the Enemy"

Remeber the scene in that movie with Denzel Washington and Gene Hackmen and the submarine when Hackmen is all set to fire off the nuclear bombs on an incomplete order and Denzel gets up in his face and says you can't just fire off a bomb without a completed order and seeing as I'm your next in command, let's just why not wait for another wire to complete the order. Hackmen has a great line: "We're here to preserve democracy, not practice it." For those of you who know Al Sturgeon, you know he talks a good talk about democracy, but in practice, at least when he's the "editor in chief" of a certain blog, he puts no pretense on the practice of democracy. The cliched image of an Iron Fist should give you a good idea of what really goes on behind the scenes here at Desperate Houseflies. When I merely mentioned whale penises in the very first edition of the blog, I got a strongly worded email from him. A reprimand, if you will, although it read more like a threat. When last week he left a comment in the comment section of blog asking for an explanation of Flannery O'Connor's short story, "A Late Encounter with the Enemy," I just want all of you to know he wasn't in any way asking for anything. He was demanding. So I have no choice this week but to focus on the story of his choosing.

But I'm a rebel. I've now mentioned whale penises in two different articles and will continue to do so until the paychecks quit coming. And when he demands an explanation, I stand up for the forces of democratic freedom everywhere and ask (quite nicely, I might add) for him to help me out, to let me know what he took from the story and what questions he has. Al, in a moment of charity, complied with my request, and so this week, I will use his responses and questions as a way to look at this particular short story.

A quick-ish summary of the story:

Sally Poker Sash is a 62 year old woman about to graduate from a teaching school. She has been a teacher for years, but when she began teaching, teaching certificates weren't required and now she is being forced to get her certificate. She has one dream: for her 104 year old grandfather to attend her graduation. Not just attend, but to sit on the stage dressed in his Civil War uniform, the uniform of a General, no less. Sally: "there would be a long procession of teachers and students in their robes but...there wouldn't be anything to equal him in his uniform." Sally hasn't been the eagerest of students. She resents the things she is taught in her classes. In fact, as an act of rebellion, she often returns to her students and teaches "the exact way she was taught not to teach." She resents the new ideas of teaching. She resents the way the new changes seem to make her life's work seem meaningless. So she wants her grandfather on stage when she graduates--kind of a way of showing how her history is important and lends her more credibility than any certificate.

Sally's grandfather, General Tennessee Flintrock Sash of the Confederacy, is an ornery man. His real name isn't Tennessee or Flintrock and he wasn't a General at any point in his military career (he'd worked up to a Major at some point, but during the Civil War, he'd been in the infantry). He received his General's uniform 12 years earlier from a Hollywood movie studio. A new movie was coming out, and it was premiering in Atlanta (I kind of assume it was Gone with the Wind, but O'Connor doesn't say). The Hollywood execs wanted someone who'd fought in the Civil War for the Confederacy at the premiere, and somehow they found Sash. He was presented on stage before the movie to loud cheers and he becomes addicted to being a celebrity. He wants attention from pretty young "guls" and he loves parades. If young girls and parades aren't involved, he isn't. He doesn't want to live in the past--refuses to even think about or try to remember his dead wife and dead son. He only wants to live the life of parades: "He didn't have any use for history because he never expected to meet it again."

Sally's nephew, John Wesley, helps General Sash onto the stage for Sally's graduation. The General is received with applause, and Sally is thrilled. And then history catches up with the General. While the speaker is speaking, he develops a "hole in his head" and his history comes flooding into his mind (reason #34 why O'Connor is the love of my life is the following line: "He was considerably irked by the hole in his head."). What we know that Sally and John and no one else in the story knows is that the General is dying in front of our eyes. The hole allows what the General thinks is a black procession to invade his mind, and he dies while his mind is scrambled with images of his history. John simply wheels the General off stage and gets in line for the soda machine. Sally is so caught up in her moment of glory that she doesn't notice anything different in her grandfather's now dead eyes.

Al's comments:

I asked Al to list three words that kind of summarize the story for him, to quote three lines and, if he wanted, to add why he liked or disliked them, and finally, to ask three questions. Here are his responses.

Three words: (1) Vanity (2) Needy (3) Shallow

Three quotations: (1) [The opening line] "General Sash was a hundred andfour years old. He lived with his granddaughter, SallyPoker Sash, who was sixty-two years old and prayed every night on her knees that he would live until her graduation from college." (I liked the opening from a sheer comedic standpoint. That cracked me up from the start, but I guess that's part of her point - it is w/o a doubt story of absurdity.)

(2) "She wanted the general at her graduation because she wanted to show what she stood for, or, as she said, 'what all was behind her,' and was not behind them." (I liked this simply because the General seemed such a moron, and it made Sally seem so comical to want to show him as what made her better than everyone else.)

(3) "He didn't know what procession this was but there was something familiar about it. It must be familiar to him since it had come to meet him, but he didn't like a black procession. Any procession that came to meet him, he thought irritably, ought to have floats with beautiful guls on them like the floats before the preemy." (I'm assuming this refers to death, but I simply liked it because of it's exposing the "General's" refusal to encounter real life, or anything negative.)

Three questions: (1) What's up with the "little hole" in his head? (2) Does John Wesley represent anything - specifically regarding his famous name? (3) What does Sally represent?

I asked myself the same questions I asked Al and here are my responses:

Three words: (1) History (2) Willful ignorance (3) Selfishness (4) Paradox (I can't count)

Three quotes: (1) "The graduates in thier heavy robes looked as if the last beads of ignorance were being sweated out of them." (I like this line because the whole story is about how the characters choose to be ignorant--of their past, of their present, of anything that might upset their delicate sense of being.)

(2) "'If we forget our past,' the speaker was saying, 'we won't remember our future and it will be as well for we won't have one.' The General heard some of these words gradually. He had forgotten history and he didn't intend to remember it again." (This kind of sums up the story for me, really. We tell ourselves these grand things about history and how it affects our present and future, but in reality we kind of just choose what we want to acknowledge about our past or not.)

(3) "John Wesley had bumped him out the back way and rolled him at high speed down the flagstone path and was waiting now, with the corpse, in the long line at the Coca-Cola machine."

Three questions: (1) What is O'Connor trying to say about the relationship between people and history? (2) Why does she avoid any mention of race in the story since that is such an integral part of the history she's drawing on? (3) What would be different if these characters weren't so vain, shallow, selfish?

Some sort of Synthesis:

Reading is often such a lonely activity. That's why I was glad Al agreed to do this little exercise with me. Reading things with others helps see things about stories that you can't see on your own. I think Al's three words are spot on for a good summary. Each character is vain, needy, and shallow. Sally needs her grandfather to make her special day look better for her, but she doesn't actually care about her grandfather--doesn't even notice when he dies. General Sash only wants to be seen in his uniform, only feels like he's living when he wears it and gets attention for it, even though he didn't earn the uniform. John Wesley likes being seen with the General, but is more interested in the new-fangled Coke machines than helping anyone else out. Those are things that I didn't pay much attention to the first time I read the story, but it helped me enjoy it much more the second time around.

I focused on history because it plays such a complicated role in the story, but I think it is actually peas and carrots with Al's three words. Each character has a weird relationship with history. The General, who is the embodiment of history in the story (even if he embodies an incorrect history) wants nothing to do with history--he runs from it. Sally seems to rely on history (her grandfather) for some sort of validation, even though she is technically helping change the way children will be educated in the future. John Wesley is the future and he pays no attention to the past whatsoever--letting it die while he gets a Coke.

I'm not really sure how to answer Al's questions (actually, I'm glad I can't. Stories that leave me with more questions than answers are my favorites, which my students always HATE, but I hope Al doesn't mind). I think the hole in the General's head is the crack in the dam he has spent his life building. He's spent so much time trying to avoid the past (while, paradoxically, loving the present only when he is loved for his past). The speaker's talk about the past and future seems to create a tension that causes the dam to crack, and then, as the black procession starts to trickle in, the dam breaks, and the General's life comes flooding in. He dies thinking about the things he's lived trying to forget. I have no idea about John Wesley, Al. I read it through the lens of history--a protestant wanting to change the past of the church. I'm not sure how that ends up at a Coke machine, though. Maybe, and I'm assuming here, but O'Connor may be saying something about how although protestants wanted to change the way things were done in the church, they ended up just ignoring the past and recreating some doctrines not necessarily as justifiably different from the ones they were protesting against. Although I'm reading tons into that. And Sally. I think Sally represents the South at that time. Things are changing--people are being forced to do things differently--and she doesn't like it. She thinks she is immune to those changes because she has some sort of link to some sort of wonderful history. In fact, she's blinded by this history.

A Final Word (Yes, I finally will finish this post, promise):

"A Late Encounter with the Enemy" is a very funny story. It's short (maybe 10 pages--probably shorter than this post), yet it has a lot in it. The characters are great, but they are incomplete (which is something O'Connor does a lot of--creates characters that you only get to know bits about--you see them kind of like you see someone far off in the desert with all the little heat waves distorting what you see--the head looks big, maybe, but the body seems to be a few feet to the side and so you can't quite tell for sure who or what it is). There are great lines in the story that made me laugh out loud. And it's a story that, if you want, can make you ask a lot of questions. For my money, that's as good as it gets. Although I know I'm blinded by my unconditional love for O'Connor.

I'm currently reading: Our Ecstatic Days, by Steve Erickson. Sabriel, by Garth Nix. The Last American Man, by Elizabeth Gilbert. Le Morte D'Arthur, by Sir Thomas Malory.

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Teddy is Teddy, and W is W, and the Twain Have Yet to Meet

I heard a political commentator recently compare the presidency of George W. Bush to that of fellow fin-de-siecle Republican, Theodore Roosevelt, a man generally hailed as one of The Great Presidents. It wasn't the first time I've heard Republicans (or conservatives) make that comparison. It always puzzles me. The people making the comparison find the similarities striking, while I've always found the differences striking.

In foreign policy, there are some undeniable similarities between W and TR; however, they are mostly philosophical. Both men subscribed to a rather messianic view of America's role in the world. Both men favored a strong military (in TR's case, mostly the Navy). Both men favored using that military to further America's messianic role. However, W's vision of that role seems, to me, quite different from TR's.

TR used his foreign policy strength to make peace. He headed off a German threat against Venezuela. He pulled out of Cuba, turning it back over to the Cubans. He stepped into the middle of the Russo-Japanese War -- a fight in which it's hard to imagine an American interest at stake -- to help the 2 parties find a way to make peace. He did this despite the huge political risk, the very limited direct benefit to the U.S., and the very limited chances of success, given that neither country was much interested in making peace at the time, and he succeeded. For his effort, he won even greater international esteem and the Nobel Peace Prize of 1906. It's striking how quaint, perhaps laughable, W's foreign policy team would find the language used by the Nobel Committee when they presented TR's Peace Prize:

Twelve or fifteen years ago, Gentlemen, the cause of peace presented a very different aspect from the one it presents today. The cause was then regarded as a utopian idea and its advocates as well-meaning but overly enthusiastic idealists who had no place in practical politics, being out of touch with the realities of life. The situation has altered radically since then, for in recent years leading statesmen, even heads of state, have espoused the cause, which has now acquired a totally different image in public opinion. The United States of America was among the first to infuse the ideal of peace into practical politics. Peace and arbitration treaties have now been concluded between the United States and the governments of several countries. But what has especially directed the attention of the friends of peace and of the whole civilized world to the United States is President Roosevelt's happy role in bringing to an end the bloody war recently waged between two of the world's great powers, Japan and Russia. -- Gunnar Knudsen

Peacemaking (or peacekeeping) as well-intentioned but utopian: Mr. Knudsen could've lifted that dismissive language directly from a speech by Dick Cheney or Don Rumsfeld or Condoleeza Rice or Paul Wolfowitz. TR's view could hardly have been more different from theirs. Only when they found themselves in the middle of a military occupation of a sovereign nation without any evidence to support their justification for being there did they suddenly discover "peace and democracy in the region" as a worthwhile goal. And while TR made peace through diplomacy, W's Mushroom Cloud Gang find diplomacy contemptible.

On domestic policy, the GOP dumped Roosevelt Republicanism in the waste bin with the election of Ronald Reagan, and it has yet to look back. Roosevelt was an adamant environmentalist; Reagan-Bush Republicans are . . . not. Roosevelt believed huge corporations presented a real threat to American democracy and required regulation by the federal government; Reagan-Bush Republicans call that "creeping socialism." Roosevelt favored protective tariffs; Reagan-Bush Republicans despise them. Roosevelt intervened in labor disputes on the side of labor; Reagan-Bush Republicans call that "class warfare." Roosevelt favored promoting the advancement of minorities; Reagan-Bush Republicans consider Affirmative Action a cancer.

I don't say all this to say I'm a fan of Roosevelt Republicanism. There are parts of it I agree with, and parts I do not. My point is simply that the effort by some contemporary conservatives to aggrandize the presidency of George W. Bush by hitching it to the legacy of Teddy Roosevelt is either laughable or reprehensible or both, depending on how drunk they were when they did it.

The truth is, W does have a chance of going down in history as a great president. With the death of Yasser Arafat and moves toward reform in Lebanon and elsewhere, he has a real shot at bringing peace in the Middle East. If he can pull that off, he will be a great president. But to get credit for it, he'll have to do more than invade Iraq and call people "evil." He'll have to put himself on the line the way TR did, and engage in real, serious, tireless diplomacy. That requires a kind of patience W hasn't thus far demonstrated. It also requires believing in diplomacy, which neither he nor his foreign policy wise men (and woman) have demonstrated.

As it stands right now, there is nothing on the Bush43 resume that benefits by comparison with Teddy Roosevelt. Conservative pundits would do well to put that argument back in their desks.

Monday, April 18, 2005

It's Not Paranoia If They Really Are Out to Get You!

“People want more efficient government services, like smart cards to help them through airport security faster, but they balk at the idea of giving up their privacy to obtain those services. Citizens reach a threshold where they draw the line between individual freedom and the government’s ability to know more about what they’re doing.”
--David McClure,
VP of e-Government
Council for Excellence in Government

My questions:

1) Why do people balk at providing personal information to the government?

They give their info to corporate websites, who then sell it to the likes of ChoicePoint & Lexis Nexis. The government, however, doesn’t sell information to data miners.

2) Why do people think they deserve privacy?

3) What are their reasons?

4) Where is the tradeoff between privacy and security and convenience?

Here's my cut. If you aren't doing anything wrong, what's the big deal? Why is the ACLU up in arms about this stuff? Seems like the only folks that care about this are the ones that have stuff to hide.

The technologies are available to make bio-metric and DNA identification a reality. Terrorists and bad guys can't fake it. Identity theft would become a thing of the past.

I can understand concerns about the security of the information. How can we guarantee security of the databases? How do we defend against hackers? These are legitimate questions, and the answers are being worked hard. If there is one thing that the Government takes seriously, it's protecting information (except for some presidential aides that sneak sensitive material out of secure areas in their socks).

What I don't get are the conspiracy theorists that harp on the "what if" scenarios. What if the government turns bad? What if the Nazis come back into power?

The opening statement of this post says it all. We give up our privacy freely to private organizations without any fear of the information coming back to bite us. We throw our most sensitive information (social security numbers, bank account, and credit card numbers) around the internet just so we don't have to drive 30 minutes to the nearest Borders for that new book we want. We sign up for Google G-mail because it has some cool functionality, but pay no mind to the fact that they scan and save every single email you send. [ For further info on Google and G-mail, check out this link. If you want an invite for a G-mail account, let me know. I've got plenty of invites left! ] But as soon as the Government wants a little info to help track down bad guys or profile suspicious behavior patterns, we scream foul. Why the double standard?

C'mon... tell me why we shouldn't be doing this.

Sunday, April 17, 2005

Sunday Thoughts

by Al Sturgeon
(found every Sunday in Desperate Houseflies)

THE CROP

In her short story, “The Crop,” Flannery O’Connor introduces us to Miss Willerton, a lady in her mid-forties who escapes her proper (yet mundane) life through writing. In the story, “Willy” sits down at her typewriter, reaches into that wonderful world of make-believe, and chooses a sharecropper as her subject. Willy secretly enjoys the earthy, improper lives she suspects sharecroppers live, and before long she has written herself into this “fully alive” fantasy world. She enjoys it so much that she writes the wife right out of Lot Motun’s life and writes herself right in. Her world in the story is alive with passion: concerns over her pregnancy, their poverty, the oncoming rains and their need to get the crop in. She is totally lost in this fantasy world when suddenly…

Willy is interrupted.

She is needed to go to the grocery store. Willy takes a break and heads into town where she snaps at people and wonders why others are so annoying. Then, surprisingly, Willy comes face to face with a real-life Lot Motun and his wife. They disgust her. When she arrives home, she throws away her story to begin another.

And all of us feel ashamed.

I value coming to church greatly, but it is quite a difficult matter to bridge the gap we encounter between the pew and the grocery store. It is one thing to talk of love for our enemies, of serving the poor, of spreading the gospel, and of loving our neighbors. It is quite another to transform the talk into a real world of real people.

Jesus, of course, did this naturally. In addition to his stories of victims on the side of the road, he lived this message in encounters with despised tax collectors, with guilty adulterers, with contagious lepers, with the mentally unstable, and even the pious Pharisees. He dealt with real people, not attractive concepts of real people.

Soren Kierkegaard once told a “duck” parable. These religious ducks attended a duck church where they listened to their duck preacher and quacked “Amen!” to his duck sermons. Their duck preacher told them one Sunday, “You don’t have to waddle ducks. You can fly! Fly, ducks, fly!” They quacked their amens perfectly on cue. Then, they got up and waddled home.

Jesus calls followers to relationships with real people. In particular it seems, with dispossessed, unwanted, left-out people. How many do you and I know?

And if we really do get up from our typewriters long enough for the encounters – to open our eyes and see, the question becomes our reaction: will it be disgust, or will it be love?

Friday, April 15, 2005

The Devil and Danielle Webster

Here in the south, where the love for all things churchy is exceeded only by the love of semi-automatic weaponry and flags from a segregated history, a strange phenomenon is sweeping the land.

I’m talking, of course, about the kudzu-like proliferation of hen parties.

Yes, hen party is a rather archaic, politically incorrect term for a gathering of womenfolk. And somebody in some church somewhere is bound to be offended by its use. (Church people? Offended? It boggles the mind. They’re usually so genteel and peaceful… whoops, didn’t mean to sarcasm my way into Al’s subject matter.)

To which I say:

Hen party.

Hen party.

Hen. Par. Tay.

Today’s hen party isn’t the ladylike, tea-sipping, June Cleavery, mom-do-you-ever-feel-not-so-fresh event of yesteryear. No, Mary Tyler Moore had to go all Capri pants on us and ruin things for everybody. (Except, of course, those of us who still get a little frisky at the thought or sight of Laura Petrie in said Capri pants. Yow.) No, my friends, today’s gathering is a high-pressure sales event, something akin to a Tupperware party hosted by Ron Artest.

Here’s how this gals-only am-scay works. Sara goes to church with Susie, Sally, and Shamequa. (It’s a diverse church, which is how we can be assured that it’s only make-believe.) Sara is a stay-home mom, which means that money is a little tight at her house. Sara’s non-church friend, Satan (she’s a really sweet girl, if a little naughty), introduces Sara to a quick and easy home-based business by which Sara can do her part to help make household ends meet. All Sara has to do is host a (hen) party at her house and invite all of her church friends. Satan – now Sara’s friend, business partner, and soul proprietor (ha!) – will do all the work at this (hen) party.

Sara dutifully invites all of her church friends to this (hen) party. “You don’t have to buy anything, just come over!” she promises. So they do. And Satan puts on quite a show. Fireworks pop. Lasers flash. Fog billows in from unknown origins. Heads swivel 360 degrees on their bodies. Keanu shakes hands with Pacino…

And they buy.

Susie, that dirty-legged trollop, is the first to cave. She simply must have the lavender brooch on page 275. Buying it will help Sara get extra free stuff as the host of the (hen) party, and the brooch is only $48! (It’s $3.50 at Target, but Target doesn’t have Lucifer as the middleman.) But alas! Poor Susie will have to pay shipping costs unless she gets her order over $100. Isn’t there something, any tiny little thing that Sally might buy to help Susie avoid those frightful shipping charges?

Sally feels just gosh-darned terrible seeing Susie – and, in turn, Sara – in such straits. Susie has always been so helpful and kind, and – oh! – her precious little family mustn’t suffer because of these unfair freight fees. Sally owes it to her sister, so in Christian love – O agape, we hardly knew ye! – she drops thirty bucks on a ring that caught her eye (and, she’ll learn later, her nose as well) a few pages back.

And the angels rejoice.

Shamequa, though, is holding her own. Unswayed by the prodding of Satan’s salespitchfork, she refuses to give in. The jewelry catalog is nice enough, but nothing in there really flipped her switch. She politely nods and giggles as the others transact themselves into an eternity of fire and brimstone, but she is resolute in her decision not to buy.

“Shammy,” her suddenly shadowless friends coo, “this jade-studded eyepatch would look so good on you!”

Shamequa does not bite, but it suddenly appears that Sara, Susie and Sally just might. They begin to stalk Shamequa with bloodlust in their eyes. “But we’re your sisters,” they hiss. Shamequa, fearing for her very life, grabs the catalog and turns to the page with the crucifix necklaces. She holds it out toward her undead church friends and quickly recites the incantation that will protect her from their evil:

“The power of commerce compels me!”

The deed is done. Shamequa awakens to find herself signing (gasp… in her own blood!) an order form for one crucifix necklace, the cost of which allows Susie and Sally to get their orders shipped for free.

Satan smiles as she tears off the pink copy and hands it to Shamequa. “You know, girls, with the money you saved on shipping, you could almost afford those earrings on page 666…”

(NOTE: Obviously, part of the entry above was stretched a bit beyond reality. In the real world, it might not be jewelry, but rather makeup, cookware, spa items, bath items, sex toys (no kidding), candles, decorative items for the home, children’s clothing, more makeup, or even – dare I say – plastic containers for food storage.)

Thursday, April 14, 2005

The best thing ever

. . . seems an appropriate title to follow the last one.

Baseball is the best idea that people have ever had. The Gillette Mach 3 and on-line banking are nice, but baseball is the winner. I was reminded of this fact this past weekend, and I'll try to explain all the wonder that you can find in a randomly attended baseball game.

Last weekend I went to visit my bestest friend Jeff in Vancouver, Canada. Being a true acolyte of the baseball faith, one of my goals is to see a game in all 32 stadiums. Safeco Park in Seattle was my 14th, leaving me with 20 to go (2 of the ones I visited are now defunct). We got into town early and got to sample the sporting culture of Seattle a bit. This is a city that was taken on a magical ride by the Mariners for a few years, only to be dropped off the cliff last season. It still remains a passionate baseball town, though; despite a great season by the Sonics, there still seemed to be more buzz in the city about the start of the baseball season than the local hoopsters.

As game time approached, Jeff and I grabbed a couple of brats and headed toward the park. A big part of the charm of seeing a baseball game live is the stadiums themselves; in no other sport can the design of an arena have such an effect on the gameplay. In football, the field is always 100 yards; in basketball, the court is always 94 feet (I think that's right), but this uniformity isn't found in ballparks. Dimensions vary from the cozy confines of Wrigley and Fenway to the cavernous expanses of Dodgers and Shea Stadiums. Safeco is one of the latter; a true pitcher's park, especially among modern parks which tend to favor the hitters. It is also one of the newest parks in the game and a truly spectacular looking stadium -- though it's been around a few years now, it still has the feel of being freshly minted, everything looking crisp and clean. Safeco also has some individual charm, letting patrons (unthinkable!) bring in their own food, though that didn't seem to stop the sale of garlic fries and (wild!) caesar's salads with salmon patties on them.

Heading into the game, I was pretty indifferent about the matchup -- the M's were taking on their division rivals, the Texas Rangers. Both Jeff and I are National League guys and begrudge admitting that the sport played in the AL even qualifies as being called baseball. However, I was excited to see Ichiro, the sexiest slap hitter in baseball, and one of the true legends of the game today. What is it about this guy? Is it the air of mystery he has due not only to the language and cultural barrier between him and the American fan but also the reflective shades that always adorn him as he plays right field? Is it his relentlessly professional preparation, which, along with his cool demeanor and impossibly consistent play makes him seem almost more machine than man? Or is it his iconoclastic approach to the modern game, eschewing power (they say he could hit 30 bombs a year if he wanted to) to pursue excellence as a singles hitter, and even breaking out of the traditional leadoff hitter's mold to scorn walks for putting the ball in play almost every at bat? Whatever it is, the guy is undeniably cool.

As I saw the lineups, I got a little more interested. The pitching matchup was fascinating; soft-tossing lefty Jamie Moyer was going for the Mariners, while the enigmatic Pedro Astacio was dealing for the Rangers. Here was a contrast in styles if ever there were one; Moyer's had a great latter half of a career as a junkballer, keeping hitters off-balance by dropping from slow to slower on the radar gun. He throws so slow, they were reporting his speeds in kmph (ha ha!). Astacio's always had a filthy arsenal, but, though he's had a good career, there's always been an air about him of what could have been. Other subplots included new Mariners Richie Sexson and Adrian Beltre, signed to give some thunder to the lineup, as well as rookie Jeremy Reed, who was handed the starting centerfield job out of spring training.

The pitchers had the best of it early on. Moyer let two runners on in the first, but cleanup hitter Mark Teixeira had one of the worst at bats in recent memory, striking out on three pitches, to make the second out and effectively kill the rally. Astacio was in a great groove, allowing no hits through the first four. Moyer worked out of trouble all game, giving up only a couple of runs through six innings. Strangely the big bat in the loaded Rangers lineup was 9 hitter Sandy Alomar, who hit off Moyer all game, apparently suffering from a delusion it was 1997.

Late in the game things got fascinating. It started in the top of the seventh when the time for managerial decisions arrived. There's not much managing to be done in the American League, but both managers managed (pun intended) to make some questionable calls. Moyer was still on the mound when nemesis-for-the-day Sandy Alomar came to bat with runners on. The game was tied 2-2 at that point ( I think that's right; I'm doing this from memory), and Mike Hargrove came out to talk to Moyer. Apparently he made managerial mistake #1 and asked his guy how he felt, and followed his gut instead of his head and left Moyer in. Well, Moyer wasn't about to start getting Alomar out, and he gave up the go-ahead run as Alomar got his 3rd hit. Then Hargrove decided to bring in Shigetosi Hasegawa (brilliant!) who, of course, promptly recorded the third out.

But wait, there's more. In the bottom of the eighth things got downright goofy. Ninth hitter Efrain Valdez led off the inning with a single, and Ichiro followed suit, putting runners on first and second. Jeremy Reed, who looked totally over matched all game, was called on to bunt and drilled the bunt straight into the ground. The bunt chopped up, and by the time pitcher Ryan Shouse fielded the ball and threw to first, Reed was there and he hit him with the ball. This allowed Valdez to score and Ichiro to move to third. Tie game!

Managerial decision #2. Adrian Beltre's striding up to the plate. He already has two RBI's and has more ducks on the pond. Showalter's got Brocail warmed up, but he must like the matchup of the lefty against Beltre (I found this really odd, b/c Showalter, of all people, never goes with his gut over his brains). Naturally Beltre gets a single and give the Mariners the lead. Now Showalter brings in Brocail, who gets out Sexson but gives up another hit to Bret Boone before finally ending the frame. By the time it's all over, the Mariners are up 6-3 (I'm not sure if that adds up, but that was the score going into the 9th).

I don't know if the Almighty watches ball games, but He provided appropriate weather for what happened next. We had enjoyed a miraculously sunny day to that point, but as the 9th began, a cold Seattle drizzle began to fall on the field. Jeff turns to me, "Is Seattle's closer any good?" "I'm not a big fan, but Guardado should be able to hold down a three run lead." Well, to be fair to Eddie, it wasn't all his fault. He actually gets out Sandy Alomar, then faces the top of the lineup, and promptly got Alfonso Soriano to ground to his opposite number. One problem -- perennial gold glover Bret Boone unbelievably lets the ball kick through his five hole. Runner on base. The rain gets harder.

Sometimes you just know something is about to happen. Me and about 40,000 Mariners fan all have this feeling about now, and that something that's about to happen isn't good (at least for them). Sure enough, Hank Blalock turns on one, and Ichiro just turns around to watch it sail over the right field wall. 6-5 Mariners.

Now it's raining like the Battle of Helm's Deep, and from the perspective of the Mariners fans it looks like the Orcs are about to win. As the roof starts closing, Michael Young walks to put the tying run on base. Mark Teixeira continues a dreadful day at the plate by getting out, and then Richard Hidalgo comes to the plate. I'd noticed earlier in the game that Hidalgo changed his number this year, and now his 51 matches that on the back of Ichiro. There's something irreverent about a visiting rightfielder wearing Ichiro's number on his home turf; surely this interloper won't ruin Seattle's day. Yikes! The ball's heading to the left field gap; it's going to be close -- it --- just clears the wall! The Rangers have come all the way back! Boone's error costs the M's as Teixeira should have been the third out. Instead, the Rangers are up 7-6.

In the middle of the inning, the roof closes, but the damage has already been done. Though Ichiro and Reed mount a rally, Beltre pops out to end the game, and the Rangers hold on to an improbable victory. The mood of the Mariners fans matches the mood of the weather, as an exhilarating victory is abruptly turned into a brutal defeat. There is no joy in the Emerald City.

But for me, I have been reminded how much I love this game and how wonderful it can be. Every matchup presents the opportunity for drama, strategy and subplots galore. The game proceeds at an easy pace, letting you enjoy a leisurely chat as you watch, but also providing for moments of impossible tension and drama, where you watch with the knowledge that every forthcoming pitch could be the one that decides the game.

It has its problems, no doubt. The men that run it have tried their best to ruin it, but the game itself perseveres, buoyed by an unquenchable regenerative spirit as powerful as that of the springtime in which it begins. Behind all the steroids and contract disputes and Scott Borases lies the game; timeless, ageless, and in many ways perfect.

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

How Good is Too Good?

Some novels suffer from too-good-a-concept syndrome. The ideas at the heart of these novels are way more interesting than the actual novels. Not because the writer doesn't have talent or just can't follow through. It's just that their original ideas for a novel are so very creative that it would be nigh-on impossible for them to sustain the uniqueness and creativity of these ideas for any extended period.

Three or four years ago, there was a small hullabaloo in the literary world. Actually, there are always hullabaloo's going on in the literary world. The "literary" writers, or more acurately, their readers, disdain genre writers (i.e., courtroom dramas, mysteries, horror, sci-fi, romance novels) because they (the genre writers) aren't, supposedly, as creative and slash or just kind of do a paint-by-numbers sort of thing and ta-da: a novel. For those not following these little debates about what is a good book exactly, this would be the equivalent of a Jazz enthusiast moccking country music fans. Or maybe the tension in Hollywood between blockbusters and independent films.

This particular hullabaloo's center was Mark Z. Danielewski's House of Leaves. No one could quite figure out exactly what this novel was supposed to be or in what section of the bookstore to shelve it. House of Leaves blended genres in ways book snobs didn't like (A Country musician did a cover of a Jazz standard, Stallone starred in an Independent film). It was experimental literature (in the capital "L" Literature sort of way). It was a horror story. It was a mystery. It was post-modern, or maybe post-post-modern, even. It played with the basic design concepts of books (resembling at times a graphic novel more than a word novel). It imitated, in places, academic writing. Theoretically, it had no real audience in mind when it was written. Which of course meant it attracted quite a large audience. It was praised by many as the next big thing and pooh-poohed by others as gimmicky and Danielewski was, by these others, labeled as a pretender.

House of Leaves is a layered novel. The story is told from the perspective of a young man who stumbled across some substantial and extremely unorganized research of an old, well, actually dead, recluse of a man who had spent the majority of his reclusiveness researching the story of a documentary which no one could find. So you have the story of the film, the story of the recluse, and the story of the young man all going at the same time. Since the documentary is more or less the center of the novel, let's start there.

A famous photographer (National Geographic, etc.) and his family buy a normal looking house. The house looks like a house, but it doesn't quite act like one. The photographer finds himself measuring the house one day and discovers that the house is actually larger, dimensions-wise, on the inside than it is on the outside. He puts tape-measure to house again and again, and each again yields the same result. The interior of the house is (and I forget here the exact figure) something like 7/16 of an inch larger than the exterior of the house. These dimensions are disturbing, of course, but even more disturbing is that these dimensions allow the house to move and breath, at least on the inside. The family will wake up to find that a door has transformed into solid wall, that hallways are missing, that the water closet has vanished, the temperature is way too hot or cold. This causes some minor inconveniences, of course, as sometimes a child, say, wakes up trapped in a room that no longer has an exit. But the house doesn't stay this way too long--the doorway will appear at some point and the child will be okay. The house seems more prankster than demon.

Regardless of the house's humours, the normal family would move to grandma's house right about now. But this man is an adventurer. He loves it. This is not just a new home, this is his new project. After discovering an heretofore nonexistent stairwell in a back room of the house, he gathers together some camera-men and they go exploring. They take several trips down the stairs, and after some run-ins with something much more demon than prankster (presumably the soul of the house?), they employ some commando-types to accompany them. As they document their journey down the steps, we learn that the steps will lengthen and shorten randomly, steps will become so tall they must be rappeled down, and at times there seems to be no bottom at the bottom of the stairs. A journey taking three days down might take three weeks back up because the short stairway is now a very, very long staircase. On the occasions when they reach the bottom, they are met by a maze of rooms and something that can never quite be made out with the cameras begins to kill them.

This is the story-line of the novel that is most compelling, and it is also is the part of the novel that suffers from being too creative. The concept is chilling. Books don't usually scare me, but there were parts of this story-line that kept me awake--waiting for my doorway to disappear or for my stairs to descend into some infinite abyss. But the idea is hard to sustain. This is, I suspect, one of the reasons the novel is layered. Danielewski knew that the concept was too good, in all likelihood. So he surrounds this story with multiple layers. We get to know the recluse of a researcher, somewhat. An interesting, if pathetic, cat. And the young man who tells the story, Johnny Truant, we get to know more than we want to about him. His adventures in tracking down sources and trying to make some sort of meaning out of all of this research isn't much different from the documentary he is trying to understand without actually having seen or the recluse. Like the house and the documentary and the dead man, Truant's life is itself, tragic and pathetic and chilling.

The design of the book also mirrors the documentary, or, rather, the house. The sections of the novel that deal with the documentary are themselves a maze. There are little "windows" in the middle of pages that are printed backwards (the rest of the page is written all normal, as if there is no "window" disturbing the narrative). Some pages don't follow the left-to-right writing style we're accustomed to reading. Instead, they wrap themselves around the page in a circle or square. There are about thirty or so pages in the middle of the book with only one word on each page. This is one of the reasons many people labeled the book as gimmicky. This is for effect, and it absolutely begs, for us nerds, to ask would it have caused as much of a stir if he'd simply written the story without any special artsy page designs? Obviously, Danielewski is trying to create for the reader the experience of being disoriented, of being sucked into something that maybe you'd rather not be sucked into. It can cause a chilling effect but can also be annoying. I mean, turning a book round and round and trying to stay on the same line isn't the easiest of tasks.

I try my best to avoid the arguments about whether something is a good book or not, whether genres are all that important, whether crossing genres creates something that shouldn't be created. Four years after initially reading House of Leaves, I still wouldn't know how to classify it. I liked it for whatever reason. I wasn't disturbed by Danielewski's gimmicks. And I think the nay-sayers who focused on that part of the book were just looking for something to be upset about (how dare this new guy think he is a better writer, more creative and inventive and experimental, than ________ ). Yes, the designs and footnotes and diagrams and appendixes seemed a bit condescending at times (like, did he not think we'd all figure out that the funky designs were supposed to create some sort of experience for us that we couldn't have had without his help?). Gimmicks don't bother me. I was more disappointed because he set my sights too high. A house that is alive! An adventure! Researching something that may or may not even exist! Although I enjoyed the book (I've even bought it as gifts for friends), I finished it disappointed that the concepts were forced for too long, that the layers of stories couldn't, despite his Danielewski's efforts, form a novel nearly as interesting as the mere idea of that novel.

Like all hullabaloos, it's kind of blown over now. When Danielewski's next book comes out (if it comes out--this one took ten years to write), the debates about his gimmickiness will resurface I'm sure. This book doesn't change the genre of horror writing, nor has it changed the ways books are designed, nor has it changed anyone's mind about whether or not a modern "horror" book can be considered great litereture. But it is one of the most creative concepts for a book to have come out in the last few years. It is worth at least thumbing through the next time you're in a book store, if you can find where they keep it.

I am currently reading: Parasites Like Us, by Adam Johnson. A Good Man is Hard to Find..., by Saint O'Connor. Theodore Rex, by Edmund Morris.

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

And Now for Something Completely Different

In lieu of a serious political post this week, I offer the following, courtesy of John Cleese.


To the citizens of the United States of America,

In the light of your failure to elect a competent President of the USA and thus to govern yourselves, we hereby give notice of the revocation of your Independence, effective today. Her Sovereign Majesty Queen Elizabeth II will resume monarchical duties over all states, commonwealths and other territories. Except Utah, which she does not fancy.

Your new prime minister (The Right Honourable Tony Blair, MP for the 97.85% of you who have until now been unaware that there is a world outside your borders) will appoint a minister for America without the need for further elections. Congress and the Senate will be disbanded. A questionnaire will be circulated next year to determine whether any of you noticed.

To aid in the transition to a British Crown Dependency, the following rules are introduced with immediate effect:

1. You should look up "revocation" in the Oxford English Dictionary. Then look up "aluminium". Check the pronunciation guide. You will be amazed at just how wrongly you have been pronouncing it. The letter 'U' will be reinstated in words such as 'favour' and 'neighbour', skipping the letter 'U' is nothing more than laziness on your part. Likewise, you will learn to spell 'doughnut' without skipping half the letters. You will end your love affair with the letter 'Z' (pronounced 'zed' not 'zee') and the suffix "ize" will be replaced by the suffix "ise". You will learn that the suffix 'burgh' is pronounced 'burra' e.g. Edinburgh. You are welcome to respell Pittsburgh as 'Pittsberg' if you can't cope with correct pronunciation. Generally, you should raise your vocabulary to acceptable levels. Look up "vocabulary". Using the same twenty seven words interspersed with filler noises such as "like" and "you know" is an unacceptable and inefficient form of communication. Look up "interspersed". There will be no more 'bleeps' in the Jerry Springer show. If you're not old enough to cope with bad language then you shouldn't have chat shows. When you learn to develop your vocabulary then you won't have to use bad language as often.

2. There is no such thing as "US English". We will let Microsoft know on your behalf. The Microsoft spellchecker will be adjusted to take account of the reinstated letter 'u' and the elimination of "-ize".

3. You should learn to distinguish the English and Australian accents.It really isn't that hard. English accents are not limited to cockney, upper-class twit or Mancunian (Daphne in Frasier). You will also have to learn how to understand regional accents - Scottish dramas such as "Taggart" will no longer be broadcast with subtitles.While we're talking about regions, you must learn that there is no such place as Devonshire in England. The name of the county is "Devon". If you persist in calling it Devonshire, all American States will become "shires" -- e.g., Texasshire, Floridashire, Louisianashire.

4. Hollywood will be required occasionally to cast English actors as the good guys. Hollywood will be required to cast English actors to play English characters. British sit-coms such as "Men Behaving Badly" or "Red Dwarf" will not be re-cast and watered down for a wishy-washy American audience who can't cope with the humour of occasional political incorrectness.

5. You should relearn your original national anthem, "God Save The Queen", but only after fully carrying out task 1. We would not want you to get confused and give up half way through.

6. You should stop playing American "football". There is only one kind of football. What you refer to as American "football" is not a very good game. The 2.15% of you who are aware that there is a world outside your borders may have noticed that no one else plays "American" football. You will no longer be allowed to play it, and should instead play proper football. Initially, it would be best if you played with the girls. It is a difficult game. Those of you brave enough will, in time, be allowed to play rugby (which is similar to American "football", but does not involve stopping for a rest every twenty seconds or wearing full kevlar body armour like nancies). We are hoping to get together at least a US Rugby sevens side by 2005. You should stop playing baseball. It is not reasonable to host an event called the 'World Series' for a game which is not played outside of America. Since only 2.15% of you are aware that there is a world beyond your borders, your error is understandable. Instead of baseball, you will be allowed to play a girls' game called "rounders" which is baseball without fancy team strip, oversized gloves, collector cards or hotdogs.

7. You will no longer be allowed to own or carry guns. You will no longer be allowed to own or carry anything more dangerous in public than a vegetable peeler. Because we don't believe you are sensible enough to handle potentially dangerous items, you will require a permit if you wish to carry a vegetable peeler in public.

8. July 4th is no longer a public holiday. November 2nd will be a new national holiday, but only in England. It will be called "Indecisive Day".

9. All American cars are hereby banned. They are crap and it is for your own good. When we show you German cars, you will understand what we mean. All road intersections will be replaced with roundabouts. You will start driving on the left with immediate effect. At the same time, you will go metric with immediate effect and without the benefit of conversion tables. Roundabouts and metrication will help you understand the British sense of humour.

10. You will learn to make real chips. Those things you call French fries are not real chips. Fries aren't even French, they are Belgian though 97.85% of you (including the guy who discovered fries while in Europe) are not aware of a country called Belgium. Those things you insist on calling potato chips are properly called "crisps". Real chips are thick cut and fried in animal fat. The traditional accompaniment to chips is beer which should be served warm and flat. Waitresses will be trained to be more aggressive with customers.

11. As a sign of penance, 5 grams of sea salt per cup will be added to all tea made within the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, this quantity to be doubled for tea made within the city of Boston itself.

12. The cold tasteless stuff you insist on calling beer is not actually beer at all, it is lager. From November 1st only proper British Bitter will be referred to as "beer", and European brews of known and accepted provenance will be referred to as "Lager". The substances formerly known as "American Beer" will henceforth be referred to as "Near-Frozen Gnat's Urine", with the exception of the product of the American Budweiser company whose product will be referred to as "Weak Near-Frozen Gnat's Urine". This will allow true Budweiser (as manufactured for the last 1000 years in Pilsen, Czech Republic) to be sold without risk of confusion.

13. From November 10th the UK will harmonise petrol (or "gasoline" as you will be permitted to keep calling it until April 1st 2005) prices with the former USA. The UK will harmonise its prices to those of the former USA and the former USA will, in return, adopt UK petrol prices (roughly $6/US Gallon - get used to it).

14. You will learn to resolve personal issues without using guns, lawyers or therapists. The fact that you need so many lawyers and therapists shows that you're not adult enough to be independent. Guns should only be handled by adults. If you're not adult enough to sort things out without suing someone or speaking to a therapist then you're not grown up enough to handle a gun.

15. Please tell us who killed JFK. It's been driving us crazy.

16. Tax collectors from Her Majesty's Government will be with you shortly to ensure the acquisition of all revenues due (backdated to 1776).

16. Last but not the least, and for heaven's sake.....it's "nuclear" as in "clear," NOT "nucular."

Thank you for your co-operation and have a great day,
John Cleese

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