Thursday, January 24, 2008


I hate winter.

To anyone who knows me this is not a revelation. My feelings about the winter season have been well-documented: it is the one part of the year that I believe has been ordained by the universe specifically for the purpose of torturing and tormenting me. If I could live in an environment that included twelve months of 80 degree weather, I would. (Friends say: you'd miss the change of the seasons. Balderdash! I've had fifty years of changes of seasons. And if I found that I desperately desired more, well, that's why God invented airplanes.)

Anyway, I don't live where it is warm. I live where it is icy frigid miserably cold. I live in Chicago. It's my little masochistic joke on myself: I hate the cold and I hate getting up in the morning. So of course I am a school teacher in Chicago. Naturally. But I digress. (Can one digress before one has ever even begun to reach one's point?)

Right now in Chicago we are pretending, for some regional lark that I do not even begin to understand, that we are the Arctic Circle. Bitter temperatures, frigid wind chills, and just plain crappy weather have dominated the area for about two weeks now. And we don't even get the benefit of Northern Lights. So into this punishing atmosphere we bundle and trundle, day after day, and it's fine. It's just life in Chicago after all. You deal with it. You live with it. But you do learn to make compromises.

Last night was a compromise. I had tickets to take my daughter Julie to the Bulls game. We try to go at least once a year, around her birthday. (I take Melanie in December, around hers, too.) But yesterday the weather gods were not kind to us: the ubiquitous arctic front added snow to its joys (again) and this time the traffic snarled up nightmarishly. It took me an hour and a half just to make the normally 20-minute trip home from school. So making what is often an hour and a half or more trip into the city...well...that didn't seem like a good plan. So Julie and I decided to blow off the Bulls game (which, by the way, they won--a rarity this strange season) and instead stay closer to home and see a movie.

It's a ten minute trip to Lincolnshire. It took almost three quarters of an hour. But we got there on time to see the movie Atonement. Now Juno is easily the most enjoyable movie that I saw in 2007; hands down it is my favorite. But--and I still have not seen a few of those that the critics call excellent--Atonement has to be the best. As a human being, I was fully absorbed by its haunting and passionate story, its intense characters, and the ultimate sadness of its powerful performances. As one who has taught film several times, I was blown away by Joe Wright's direction and by the art direction and cinematography of the piece (not to mention the soundtrack, which is so wonderful that Julie said in the car afterwards that she wanted to buy it).

I have always had an affinity for films in which the director shows us why movies are visual. Wright shows the 13-year-old budding author Briony wandering on her own along labyrinthine stairways in a huge mansion whose rooms, each time we see them, seem oddly dark, confining and closed in. Her world is her writing, her escape into her vivid imagination spawned by immersion into the far more pleasurable and expressive gardens that surround her home. The contrast from inside to outside couldn't be more clear, yet Wright does nothing at all overt, and that is his magic here. Briony is shaped by a world that seems utterly and frighteningly normal, and she does something completely terrible.

A juvenile misunderstanding begets imagination that begets a lie, and Briony's lie sends a young man to prison, breaking apart her sister and her true love and radically and permanently altering all three of their lives. Wright shows this all through the unusual technique of revisiting the same scene from a different point of view and, amazingly, it works and catches us off guard every time he does it. And his complex and chaotic and nightmarish evacuation to Dunkirk scene is one of the most intensely outrageous evocations of warfare I've ever seen outside of a satire like Full Metal Jacket. It felt like the D-Day invasion from Saving Private Ryan somehow got mixed in with the Colonel Kurtz scenes from Apocalypse Now without any shooting or cattle slaughtering. If ever a single scene depicted the sheer insanity of war, this is it.

So much in a single film! And then the ending--a twist that maybe we should have expected but did not--that again radically alters pace, perspective, and everything: this movie is amazing. And it starts you thinking about what it must mean to have done something so completely dark in your life that you can never, no matter what you do, atone for it. We all make mistakes. We all make wrong decisions. We all go too far. But most of us can make amends. Briony cannot undo what she has done, and it haunts her from the age of 13. How does one live a life like that?

Julie and I agreed that, Kirk Hinrich's 38 points be damned, we made the right decision. This was an extraordinary movie and one that I'll think about for a very long time. Maybe I'll buy a copy and watch it next time the city decides to do its North Pole impersonation.


Friday, January 18, 2008

backing up

I got my first computer the year my oldest child was born.

Here's how it went down: I was torn between, on the one hand, a desperate desire to buy the brand-new Absolutely Wonderful product that Apple Computer had just introduced with a kick-butt Super Bowl commercial, the Macintosh, and, on the other hand, a perennially empty purse. The Apple iic, a DOS-based computer that was winning rave reviews, was much, much less expensive, and it had the advantage of being completely compatible with the machines at my school. As I said: I was torn. I researched them both and my heart said Mac Mac Mac but my head said listen to the echo of your empty purse, you idiot, and warned me to buy the iic.

About this time, the radio station I was listening to teamed up with Apple to offer a promotion they called "An Apple a Day For Thirty Days": every day in May they would give away a Macintosh. All you had to do was call in within thirty minutes if your name was called. And they told you in the morning which hour they'd call a name. So I submitted my name and I waited, because I absolutely knew that I would win. When I was in school, I had a friend listen for me. When I could listen, I listened myself. And day by day I waited, and they did not call my name, but I knew they would.

One day, when they had called the name during the noon hour, I listed to a tape after school instead of the radio for the first time in weeks. The next morning, I was greeted by students who asked: So did you win? They had heard my name called, they told me, right after school. Impossible, I thought. But a call to the radio station confirmed it: according to the contest rules, they had to give a computer away each day. If one name did not elicit a call, they pulled another, and so on. On this day, they pulled names for over four hours. I had been one. I nearly cried, but instead I asked what happened to the names that did not win and was told they went back into the bin. So I redoubled my efforts, certain against all odds that they would pull my name again.

And one day, in the fourth week of the month, literally five minutes after I had given in and bought a iic I had found a great deal on, they did call it. I sold the iic and I had myself a Macintosh. And I've had Macs ever since. I may not be the most computer savvy person in the world, but I know my way around more than the basics. I have a website that I set up almost a decade ago, my classroom is almost paperless, my students use the web as an extension of the class, and (of course) there is this blog.

So you'd think, after 22 years of experience with computers, I might have learned the most intrinsic rule of thumb of working with them: back stuff up.

Oh, I know it, all right. I mean I've been burned more than enough times to engrave that particular rule into the deepest creases of my brain. And I have automatic backup programs like Backup and Time Machine that keep extensive recordings of everything I create on a separate hard drive that has approximately 450 bazillion times the storage capacity as that first Mac I won in 1985 (which didn't even have a hard drive, not that anyone knew what a hard drive was in 1985). But still the dumbest mistakes cause me trouble. Last week I nearly lost my entire web site while attempting to mirror this blog as its front page. After about fifteen hours of online chats with tech reps--no exaggeration there, BTW--the site was salvaged, but I still lost four days of class posts on our bulletin boards. Why? Because I did not back up the site's contents before trying things that were unfamiliar.

It would have been a simple thing to do: a few clicks of the mouse button, really. Things that can save us all sorts of trouble usually are the simplest of things if we just think to do them. Fasten your seat belt. Cut your meat. Don't drink and drive. Use sunscreen. Use insect repellent. Wear sunglasses. Watch your portions. Things like this are easy to do; if we do them, we will be better off. If we don't, well, we run a risk.

Of course our computers are not the only things we back up. Robert A Heinlein wrote of times "when one may have to back up his acts with his life." Though in context he was speaking of what happens when citizenry is armed, our political candidates discover the truth of this line almost every day: with the intense scrutiny they face, their lives and their acts had better back each other up. Don Drysdale once said of weak ballplayers, "Their abilities and their attitudes don't back up their beards." The notion that we must hold ourselves responsible to maintain and support whatever we present to the world is not new by any means, but in the computer age, the age of Instant Information, when anyone can disseminate anything to everyone in the blink of an eye, responsibility takes on new meaning. Back up words with actions. Stand bby what you say. This is not a message only for politicians running for the highest office in the land. It is a message for us all.

Of course, when it comes to hard drives and what is on them, we had better remember to take that concept literally, and not be like the person who, when told he needed to back up his hard drive, struggled for hours to do so before finally giving in and contacting tech help to ask, "How on earth do I put this thing in reverse?"


Saturday, January 5, 2008

On College Apps

Lethargy kills. Or at least it would kill if it were not for the fact that it can't seem to motivate itself to get the job done. It always seems to hang back, in the wings, too tired to act out its full fury. So lethargy sort of injures. Or perhaps it bruises. Or maybe it bumps. Dents? Nicks? OK: Lethargy doesn't do a damned thing because it's too damned lethargic to move!

--end metaphor--

I have been so very tired this week--partially the result of being awake until uniquely absurd hours of the night (let's just say that I'm meeting friends on Facebook who live in India and they are in the middle of the day, so something is wrong here) and partly because it's winter and I'm always tired in winter--that I have hardly had time to think about the school year and how it is progressing. I'm behind in all of my classes--despite making it a goal for the year that this would not happen--but that's pretty much an annual thing, and it's sort of like any other New Year's resolution. It's the thought that counts. I am doing lots of work for my church, and even though I know that others are doing more I feel overwhelmed at times. (But I keep saying "yes" even when I know I should be saying "no.") I'm trying to keep up with my writing on both a novel and a memoir simultaneously. I'm reading at least three books--four if you count the book on CD in the car. I don't feel comfortable that I can get everything done; I am pulled twenty different directions at once; I feel, basically, like a high school senior.

I realize that I am not alone in my overburdened state. I have mentioned it before: I realize that high school students are among the most overworked segment of society (at least if they are doing what they are supposed to be doing). It's true. Those of us who have long passed beyond the beige walls surrounding those rooms with the odd little quirky combinations of chair and desk that no one in history has ever found comfortable may have forgotten this fact, lost as we often are in our nostalgia for the good old days. We don't remember the insanity of senior year, or maybe we were fortunate enough to escape it. But in this demanding, driving world that these 17 and 18-year-olds today inhabit, believe me when I say that many of them earn their "senior slump." (Not that their exhaustion counts one iota for me; I just "get it.") And I also realize that little of that overabundance of travail is their choice; most of the assignments are imposed by others, and all of them are the result of something that is required or something that is "optional" but they'd better do it if they want those college applications to look good. Yes, there is some element in there somewhere that involves things that they do for pleasure, but even you think anyone really wants to immerse himself in soccer or football or basketball or dramas for three or four hours every single day? You don't think it would become just the teensiest bit redundant?

"I celebrate myself and sing myself"; Someone on the radio in here is reciting from Whitman's "Song of Myself." Well, what the heck: if you don't sing yourself, who will? You are the only one who really knows the hell you might be going through. Let me tell you what today's high school seniors are often going through: in an eight-period day, five classes, maybe six or seven or eight (or even, in the case of at least one extremely masochistic lunatic that I know, nine), plus extra-curriculars, often several simultaneously, plus (often) employment, plus family and church and personal commitments, plus volunteer work--necessary because colleges want "well-rounded" applicants. (Lunch? What is lunch?) And this is supposed to be the "best time of your life."

Well, I'm on record as saying that high school was definitely not the best time of my life, although there were some things I did enjoy (like playing chess in unused classrooms, eating warm bagged lunches in the small cubicle that was the school newspaper office, creating mammoth "letters of the week" with my best friend, each of us trying to outdo the unwieldiness of the other's epistle, rushing home to watch "Dark Shadows" after school or to skate on the frozen pond in the winter, leaving school with excruciating stomach cramps during sophomore year only to discover, 36 miserable hours later, that I had appendicitis--gosh, the images that come back are awfully random!). But what I'd like to go on record as saying is that I believe that anyone who truly believes that high school was the best time of his or her life either has had a pathetically miserable life or is allowing nostalgia to completely cloud reality. If high school is the "best time of your life," why do so many high school students spend so much of it walking emotional tightropes? Why do they worry so much about how everyone is going to perceive everything they wear or do or say? (I know: some of them don't. But pardon me: those who say they don't care about what others think are either mature beyond their years or kidding themselves--probably the latter.) Why worry about whether some moron with a home computer and the personality of a toad is going to plaster their alleged sexual escapades all over his myspace page? (And what is it they worry about here: that people will think these rumors are true or that they will recognize that they are false?)

We all worry about things. We worry a lot. But in high school there is simply so much more to worry about. Take college applications. Please. Though most of us--now, with the benefit of hindsight--realize that it isn't so material which college we attend, and that we most likely would have had similar successes in our lives no matter where we had gone (and, with a few top-end and a lot of low-end exceptions, that is undoubtedly true), still, when our kids get near College App time, we suddenly develop a case of Acute Educational Amnesia, and all we can think is: what is the best school my little Joey can get into? And the result is that seniors are forced, in the fall of the "best year of their lives," to fill out reams of paper and compose heaps of brilliantly written BS in order to have a chance to get into a school and make their futures look brighter (which they undoubtedly will accomplish by composing more heaps of brilliantly written BS once they are there). What do they ask on applications that they can't get simply by looking at a transcript (which they all require anyway)? And what can they expect to learn about applicants by asking the questions that they ask? All of them can be subdivided into two categories: general (please read that: "boring") and bizarre.


Why do you want to come to this college? (Gee, um, because I could find it on the map?) Tell me something about yourself that isn't on the transcript. (I lost my virginity when I was seven.) What are your career ambitions? (Well, I hadn't really thought about it; I guess I'd really enjoy cleaning out the monkey cage at the zoo.) What idea has influenced your life the most? (I think it was when they canceled "The Gilmore Girls." Do you think they might make it into a movie?) What person or persons do you admire the most? (My parents. Did you really expect me to say anything else? They are going to read this!) What is your favorite work of literature? (Do video games count? If so, then definitely "Final Fantasy 716." If not, then I guess any issue of Amazing Comics.)


If you could be any animal other than human, what would you be? (A tarantula. I love small hairy things that make women cringe.) What is the most antisocial thought you have ever had? (This is a trick question, right? I LOVE MY COUNTRY AND GOD AND MY PARENTS AND THIS UNIVERSITY AMEN.) If you could talk to any person in history, who would it be and what would you say? (What is this, "Quantum Leap"? I'd like to talk to the guy that hired you and find our what drugs he was taking.)

Of course, these questions are intended for one purpose only, and it is not to see if the prospective student can write. (If it were, why would they not standardize the question and simplify the procedure, thereby enabling the applicant to do his or her best work on it?) No, the real reason for the endless repetition and the tedium of the college application process is that the people who run admissions offices had miserable high school experiences (like most of us) and harbor an abnormal repressed hatred of all high school students. They are clearly sadists who want to make teenage lives hell. (I guess I am being a little bit facetious here: the real reason, I am certain, lies in the desire to make sure the high school senior really wants to attend their school. Why on earth else would anyone waste time this way?)

And what about the interview process? I only went to one interview, and it was enough to convince me that any college so pretentious and self-absorbed as to feel that its representatives need to see applicants for admission face to face is too pretentious and self-absorbed to provide any kind of quality of life for its student body. (What do they really get out of these things anyway? Just another opportunity to make you sweat, and a chance to see that you are not the Elephant Man.) This, of course, does not apply to optional interviews; those, I guess, are cool. At least they provide students with an excellent excuse to take a midterm vacation during senior year.

It was a good thing, as it turned out, that I detested that particular university. They "waiting-listed" me. This is the final straw: the ultimate torture device that colleges save for people they really hate. "Let's not let them into our little club, but let's not tell them for another few months. Bwa ha ha..."

Anyway, as the days wind down toward some more restful future that in all likelihood will never come, when I might finally be allowed some consort with that elusive goddess Free Time, know that I empathize completely with what all of my college seniors have gone through. And a word just for them:

Just remember, as the entire universe slips inexorably into a black hole: these are the best years of your life.

On Writing

I am an English teacher. To some I might represent their favorite memories of high school classes; to others I was the instructor of the one period in the day they loathed more than any other. If they could have found some way to take triple gym and an extra session just sitting in the principal's office pretending to smile in order to avoid English, they would have. But fortunately these are the few rather than the many, for English (unlike math or science or even history) is a "touchy-feely" subject, and as such it is so broad and so darned subjective in approach that, given four years of opportunity, you're almost bound to match up with a teacher who turns you on to one aspect of it or another.

I'll save for some other time why I do this. Tonight I want to talk about the part that turns on the most. It isn't the literature, though of course I love that element. I'm especially at home in a poetry unit or having a grand time with a play or trying to help junior honor students find the heart and soul of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Can't get enough of that stuff, but that's not it. And it sure is not grammar, though at least half of the people I meet suddenly find it necessary to watch their grammar around me as if, in a normal conversation, I am going to whip out my red pen and mark the very air on which their words float.

No, my passion, my raison d'etre in my work, is writing. About fifteen years ago, my school adopted a very forward-thinking approach called a Writing Workshop that emphasized creative writing and teacher-student conferences and peer review. Since that time, our students' writing ability has simply skyrocketed. We see it every day in class work, we have the empirical evidence in test scores, and we have the annual anecdotal evidence from middle-of-the-pack students from our classes who email us that they are far and away the best writers in freshman comp classes at college. I love working with kids on developing their voice and finding ways to express themselves. And the Writing Workshop has uncovered, for me, a Great Secret.

Writing done for oneself is a tremendous teaching tool.

OK, maybe not such a secret, but it runs counter-intuitive to most English teachers' mindsets. We think analysis analysis analysis, not poems and short stories and personal expression. How can one teach structure, we insist, when things are free form?

To that I say this: That's exactly the point! If kids believe in what they are writing and want to write it and improve it, they will do so, and if they are open to hearing new ways to work with it, they will be learning structure by working with things that they didn't even know had any! And what a lesson that is: recognizing how much structure goes into a good poem or story or even personal essay and how careful the writing must be to get the message across is a value that filters through to other kinds of writing. (Read: analysis.)

So I have made it my goal to emphasize--even to over-emphasize--the creative writing in all of my classes, and my students probably do more writing than they ever thought possible. But the class in which it all comes to a boil is the senior class called Creative Writing, an elective course for those who want total immersion, and (obviously) my favorite course to teach. Each year I begin that course with a letter to my students, challenging them to think about why they write and why they are there. Tonight I'm sharing that letter with all of you.

Dear Creative Writers-to-be,

The start of a new semester. Like a blank page, as Stephen Sondheim said, “so many possibilities.”

Where will we be nine months from now? (OK, I know: the answer is simple. I will be grading junior exams and you will be at the senior breakfast. But I meant the question metaphysically, not literally.) Where will we be as writers? There are as many potential answers to that question as there are hairs on my head (including my face). Each of you, individually, could go any number of ways. You might be where you are now, wherever that might be. Or you might be somewhere far removed, heading for some new understanding of yourself as a writer.

What are we doing here?

Of course, this is a question that philosophers have pondered unceasingly since before the time of Aristotle, but this time the question is slightly more focused: why are we in this class? If it were an ordinary class, the answer might be "Because it fit into my schedule" or "I wanted to be in the same class as Heather" or some such extraordinary evidence of an intelligent mind at work trying to better itself. But we all know that Creative Writing is NOT an ordinary class. It is not a class for everyone. So why, indeed, are we here?

The answer(s) to that are probably as varied as the individuals in this room. Look around: who are these people? What do you really know about them? What, in fact, do you really know about anyone? What do you even know about yourself? If you are pressed, you could probably come up with a description of yourself, including the things you like to do, the kinds of people with whom you like to associate, your favorite foods, colors, classes, sports, books, movies, records, plays, poems, cars, flowers, vegetables, insects, diseases, dental techniques, and math problems. But is this list really a summary of who you are? Or is there something else, something not nearly so tangible, that defines you?

Writing is one means by which we come into contact with ourselves, the selves whom even we are not certain how to describe. A thought slipping untidily through your mind, a stray remark made in conversation by a friend, a mural on a brick wall hurriedly glimpsed while passing on a train, an image somehow plastered into your head of a moment you thought you had forgotten: anything that comes into our minds defines us. And it is these things that are best explored through art. For some, art is paint and canvas, broad strokes or barely perceptible dots and gossamer threads of color. For others, it is the making and blending of sounds to create sensations of imagery without words or pictures. For those in this room, at least one means of creating art is the written word.

But why do we write?

Do you write for release? Is there something about the act of writing that frees you from the tensions of the day and invites you into some other world where, at least temporarily, you might experience total freedom? Or do you write for pleasure? Perhaps there exists for you a sheer joy in creating images and ideas and complicated characters that never existed before you made them exist. Sondheim, in his musical Sunday in the Park with George, shows us the pure pleasure of composition as his main character explains why he works all night long: "Look! I made a hat where there never was a hat."

There might be other reasons, as well, why we write. Perhaps it's a pleasure derived from a feeling of power: here are entire worlds over which you have dominion. A character, a plot element, a setting is not working? Change it. Delete it. Alter even its most essential nature. It is your creation, yours. Do with it as you will. You are its god.

Whatever reason we write, we continue to do so only as long as we enjoy it and can convince ourselves that we have something to say. And I assume that this is why we are gathered here in this room: we all believe that we have something to say, we all wish to explore better how to say it, and we want to have an audience to say it to.
This class is a means to achieve these ends.

Here we can all try to help each other. We can explore and examine interesting or unusual means of expressing ideas. We can discuss how it is possible to express complex emotions and thoughts in writing without sounding presumptuous or maudlin. And we can, perhaps, figure out how best to express our own muse. Sounds like hard work. But art is never work. As Sondheim puts it, "Work is what you do for is what you do for yourself."

Are you a writer? Can you be one?

Exactly what does that mean, anyway? Some student discussions of writing that I have seen suggest an almost pious reverence of writing, whatever writing is, and the notion that it is, somehow, something sacred, a gift to be treasured and not treated cavalierly. It is a nice attitude to have, as long as it does not go too far. “Too far” means the distance you travel when you convince yourself that, if you can’t write brilliantly, it is not worth writing at all. Nonsense. Not everything we write is perfect, just as not everything we eat is perfect. You wouldn’t starve yourself to death because you couldn’t find any food that you liked, would you? Yet we do that with our writing: we starve ourselves because we don’t like the flavor.

An imperfect analogy, you protest. Food is essential for living, you say, so of course we will eat, even if it means eating something distasteful or disgusting to survive. (People lost in the jungle have been known to survive for weeks on diets of grubs and leaves; this makes sense, I think: the apes survive quite nicely on a similar diet, so why shouldn’t men? In other dire circumstances, people have been known to eat just about anything, including other people, to survive.)

But you are wrong. Yes, eating is essential. But so is writing. Eating is necessary for the body. Writing--or some form of self-expression--is necessary for the soul. How can we claim to be any different from apes if we ignore, if we fail to cultivate and utilize, the very aspects of our nature that allow us to rise above them? (And no, I am not speaking about opposable thumbs.) The late Samuel Beckett wrote existentialist, Theatre of the Absurd plays in which he attempted to illustrate how far man has fallen; no, how far he has slipped, for “fallen” at least implies some progression, even if it is negative. “Fallen” implies some effort, some aspiration, some desire: perhaps we fail to achieve it, but we fail trying. But Beckett’s plays (like Waiting for Godot) argue that we have only slipped: through no effort of our own, through no real attempt to create anything, through, in fact, that very lack of trying, we have slipped into a lifelong coma that threatens not only our lives, but our souls. We have begun to exist instead of live; our lives have broken apart into meaningless little plays that we repeat ad infinitum, ad nauseum. Never any original thoughts, never any attempt to create, never any attempt to break out of the mold.

Damn depressing, right?

Of course, Beckett’s nihilistic visions of the world and society don’t exactly represent mainstream thinking. But they do represent the original thoughts and ideas of a man who was not afraid to write down his original thoughts and ideas, no matter how out of this world they might have seemed. And they have been the basis for philosophical discussion, thus far, for over a generation, with assurance that many future generations will find them similarly exciting.

No Becketts in here? No Austens? No Shakespeares? No Dickinsons? No Millers? No Salingers?

So what? Why do you need to be one of those people to have something to say and to say it? Not everyone can be a great writer; it requires artistry and vision, two qualities that are hard to come by and cannot be learned. But everyone can be a writer, because all that requires is a pen or a keyboard. And, if properly motivated, you might surprise yourself: there may be a lot of very interesting, very original thoughts in you waiting for the opportunity to come out and kiss the sun.

--'til later,

Friday, January 4, 2008

Barack O'Mania

A little less than a year ago, the junior senator from Illinois announced on the steps of the old state house in Springfield that he would seek the office of President of the United States. Since then, we've seen a lot of ups and downs in polls, a lot of pundits saying one thing or another, a lot of debates, and a lot of meaningless jabber. We've heard Hillary Clinton state that she is the candidate with more experience, that she can and will be the better leader because of that fact. We've seen the real candidate with experience, Joe Biden, fail miserably (again) to energize the public. And we've seen Barack Obama, time and time again, continue to live up to the absurdly high expectations placed on him: that he is a man who stands for something other than himself, other than the norm, other than Politics As Usual.

Tonight, we've seen the state of Iowa, a state with a population that is 95% white, a state that had never in its history elected an African-American to any state-wide office, send a message to the entire country, and the message was loud and clear. Iowans clamored for change, and they saw in Barack Obama not a black man, but a good man, and the candidate they trusted most to deliver that change. His victory speech, an instant classic, delivered perfectly on every note, as he used his time to promote unity and to espouse the notion that this is a watershed moment not just in Iowa but in American history. And if, in fact, he goes on to win in my childhood state of New Hampshire next week and then in South Carolina, I suspect that his march to the nom
ination will be unimpeded.

(See his victory speech here.)

I have been a strong supporter since I first heard him as he campaigned for the senatorial primary here in Illinois. My third Obama '08 button is very worn out. My car could use a fresh bumper sticker. I believe in this man. I'm no naive schoolgirl; I'm fifty years old and I've been disappointed by enough politicians to redefine the word "disillusionment" a million times over. But I just feel something different here. I feel something like...truth.

Last spring, I wrote this in a blog I attempted to keep on his web site. I thought I would share it now:

The year: 2000

The place: Your Local Newspaper

The Punditry: The wrong guy is at the top of the GOP ticket; Cheney is so much more experienced than Bush.

Everyone was talking about it back then, the experience rift between Baby Bush and his Veep choice, and those who liked him said wow, he's surrounding himself with such great advisors while those who didn't said why don't we flip the ticket? Turns out that the ticket, in either order, was disaster for America: Bush, with his utter lack of experience, had no clue what to do when called upon to act, and Cheney (along with Rumsfeld), who had all the experience in the world, made a complete mess of everything.

As our esteemed Commander in Chief might say, "Fool me once, shame on me...fool me don't get fooled again."

What can we learn from all of this? Perhaps that all of this talk about experience vs. inexperience isn't worth as much as people seem to think it is. Bush, whose previous executive experience had consisted of running several corporations basically into the ground and then somehow managing to defeat Ann Richards to become governor of Texas (where he distinguished himself as a lover of Big Oil and Big Business and Big Executions), flopped as a first term President until 9/11 handed him a ready-made super-majority of people willing to be led by someone who was at least pretending to lead them. And suddenly, even the most inane things he could utter sounded significant, especially if he wrapped them in the flag and National Security.

But we all know where that one got us, and it isn't pretty.

  • Mission Accomplished: 3000+ Americans and countless thousands of Iraqis dead in a senseless, stupid, illegal immoral war that has utterly erased the worldwide sympathy America had earned after 9/11 and replaced it with worldwide antipathy.

  • Mission Accomplished: A deficit that is spiraling further out of control every day as more and more dollars are spent trying to shore up Bush's Folly instead of solving the legitimate crises here at home, such as the devastation of New Orleans and the problems with education and poverty and health insurance.

  • Mission Accomplished: Somehow managing to make Saddam Hussein look sympathetic as he was rushed to execution after a pathetic farce of a trial while completely forgetting about the guy who actually planned the 9/11 attacks.

  • Mission Accomplished: By "bringing democracy" to Iraq, destabilizing an entire region and breeding more contempt for America and more new terrorists than ever before.

And did I mention that the architects of this insanity were the advisors to this neophyte President who actually did have the experience? So what does it all mean? Where does it leave us? If lack of experience caused a disaster and experience caused a disaster, where can we turn?

The simple truth is that neither experience nor lack of it were responsible, and that is where the whole argument blows up. Baby Bush didn't make these stupid decisions because he was inexperienced; he made them because, as a Decider, he was arrogant and stupid and egotistic. Cheney/Rumsfeld did not design an unwinnable war because their experience clouded their judgments; they did it out of hubris and arrogance and, yes, pure greed. (Don't even get me started on Halliburton.)

It isn't experience that makes a great leader. It's insight. And it's foresight. And it's something else, too. Call it integrity; call it moral fortitude, if you will, but whatever it is, these guys simply never had it to begin with. Barack Obama has it to a degree I have not seen in a politician in decades. Just witness the fact that, though he missteps, he quickly apologizes and takes the blame. What politician does that? Where's the spin control? Where are the armies of manipulators telling us what he meant? Maybe they are coming; Presidential politics is a game, after all. But I hope not. I hope that, like Jimmy Smits' character on The West Wing, he can remain true to his own ideals.

Eric Zorn of the Chicago Tribune wrote of another equally earnest, horrendously inexperienced politician:

He had just turned 50. He hadn't held elective office for nearly 10 years, since finishing his 2-year term in the U.S. House in 1849, and he had failed in two attempts to win a seat in the U.S. Senate.

What audacity then to throw his hat into the ring for President? But Abraham Lincoln didn't do such a bad job once he was there, did he?



it's your hair that i notice first
streaked with morning
it frames your face
you lying there eyes closed
soft breath not quite there
i follow its path as it bends the sheet
and i can touch you there
touch what i feel is you
in the spark of daylight
you'll rise
pull on the wrinkled shirt from last night
say something you think is beautiful
drink some coffee
from behind my paper
and drive away,
leaving a kiss on my lips
and a hole in my heart
where a fire ought to be

Favorite Films

  • The Wizard Of Oz
  • Amelie
  • The Princess Bride
  • Casablanca
  • Annie Hall
  • The Lord of the Rings
  • All That Jazz
  • Citizen Kane
  • Love Actually
  • Moulin Rouge
  • Big Fish
  • When Harry Met Sally
  • Almost Famous
  • Bull Durham
  • Notting Hill
  • Apocalypse Now (Redux)
  • Magnolia

All-Time Favorite TV Shows

  • Buffy the Vampire Slayer
  • Gilmore Girls
  • M*A*S*H
  • The West Wing
  • The X-Files
  • The Daily Show
  • Ally McBeal
  • Picket Fences
  • All In The Family
  • Seinfeld
  • The Mary Tyler Moore Show
  • Star Trek
  • Firefly
  • Wonderfalls
  • Northern Exposure
  • Get Smart
  • The Dick Van Dyke Show
  • Twin Peaks
  • The Larry Sanders Show
  • Monk
  • Felicity
  • St. Elsewhere

Current TV Shows I Enjoy (in no particular order)

  • Perception
  • Major Crimes
  • American Horror Story
  • Louie
  • Suits
  • The Newsroom
  • Falling Skies
  • Franklin and Bash
  • Veep
  • Scandal
  • Fairly Legal
  • Girls
  • Don't Trust the B---
  • Justified
  • Portlandia
  • Psych
  • The Middle
  • Person of Interest
  • Happy Endings
  • Hart of Dixie
  • Real Time with Bill Maher
  • Nikita
  • Raising Hope
  • Castle
  • Drop Dead Diva
  • Covert Affairs
  • Elementary
  • Rizzoli and Isles
  • Revolution
  • The Last Resort
  • Alphas
  • SNL
  • Revenge
  • Community
  • Suburgatory
  • New Girl
  • Once Upon a Time
  • Grimm
  • Nashville
  • Downton Abbey
  • Smash
  • Homeland
  • Fringe
  • Glee
  • Haven
  • Community
  • Warehouse 13
  • Modern Family
  • Vampire Diaries
  • The Daily Show
  • How I Met Your Mother
  • The Colbert Report
  • Parks and Recreation
  • Leverage
  • Rachel Maddow Show

xkcd - A webcomic of romance, sarcasm, math, and