Remembering last Christmas

Remembering last Christmas

From the archives:

I’m reprinting a story I wrote a year ago, hoping that our good dog, Jinx, would make it until Christmas after having been trapped, frozen, in icy water all night.  She is still with us; she celebrated her fifteenth birthday this week.  Our daughter is on her way home for the holidays again, planning to celebrate Jinx’s quinceanera when she arrives.  Every day is a bonus day.  Always was; always is.

My Christmas wish was simple:  I wanted Jinx, our fourteen year-old dog, to hang on long enough to greet my daughter as she arrived from Massachusetts. My daughter was eleven when Jinx was born in December, on Friday the 13th.  She named Jinx and loved her wholly from the start and for the next fourteen years.  We’ve seen Jinx start to fail over the last few months.  She has been startled easily, by her food dish, by shadows, by her own paws.  She’s wandered off, increasingly deaf and now losing much of her vision.

She has been trying to play with the other dogs, but forgets where she is, bumps into them, is nettled when they upset her unsteady balance. She yips and corrects their behavior, and, as the senior dog in the pack, still has their respect, but they no longer invite her to join in their canine games.  She’s been alone outdoors more often recently; the faster, more athletic dogs have bounded away, leaving her to wonder where they have gone.

So, closing in on her final days but still gentle, sweet, and affectionate.  Over the course of the last few weeks, Jinx seemed to regain some of her former energy; she asked to have the ball thrown, ran purposefully to chase it down, then stood with one paw covering the ball, not actually retrieving but claiming victory.  We were heartened and felt certain that Jinx would hang on until our daughter flew in from Boston.

Better and better.  The temperature was dropping fast, and we had hopes of a white Christmas.  With a week to go before the holiday, our days were packed.  I did a shift as a volunteer at the Hospice Thrift Shop, finished most of my shopping, began planning the Christmas Eve dinner, and accepted invitations to concerts on Friday and Saturday night.  That was to be the end of holiday scramble; I wanted to clear the calendar so that I could give full attention to my daughter arriving on Sunday evening.

I walked from the concert hall at Southern Oregon University into the coldest night I can remember since moving here.  Compared to the frozen north, it will seem laughable, but for us, a stretch of cold weather in the low teens is plenty daunting.  I had turned off my phone, so powered back up as I began the drive home and saw that my wife had called repeatedly.

By the time I reached her, Jinx had been missing for two hours.  She has been easily disoriented and oddly off course for about a week, and last night slipped away  in a short moment as one of the other dogs had to be tended to.  My first thought was that this fragile old lady would not survive much more time in the bitter cold; I raced home to help in the search, driving slowly with high beams as I approached our home.  I watched the road, of course, but also slowed in passing every deep culvert or dangerous ground above a creek running high this winter.

We searched through one of the coldest nights we’ve experienced here; the ground was hard with frost.  In full sunlight, I had to use a shovel to break the ice on the water trough in the meadow; the broken pieces were more than two inches thick. I drove down every nearby road, jumping out of the car to call her name and whistle.  Nothing.

My son and daughter-in-law hurried over, as did two good local friends.  They stayed out for as long as they could, combing every inch of our property and those adjacent to ours.

I went out on foot, again calling and whistling, clapping.  For several hours, I walked down every path I thought she might have taken.  I climbed down the banks of the creek, fearing she might have stumbled into coursing water.  I walked into meadows, fearing she might have been taken by a coyote or the cougar we’ve seen at the far end of the pasture.

By the time I finally gave up and came home, she had been out in the cold for five hours.  My wife and I had to face the probability that our frail dog could not have survived unless a kind stranger found her wandering on the side of the road and picked her up.  My wife posted alerts on every social media site she could find, but we began to fear a terrible and lonely end for a dog we treasured.  We were also heartbroken that our daughter would arrive only to know that we did not know how Jinx had died or what tortures she had endured.

Exhausted, we had to stop the hunt until morning.  I stepped into the room she’s claimed as her own, looked at the down comforter she’s been sleeping on for weeks, and wept.We left the kitchen door slightly open, in case she found her way home, and I slept fitfully on the couch near the door so that I could not fail to hear her should she make it home.

At first light this morning, we began again, walking up and down the same roads and across the same fields whistling and calling her name.  Still bitter cold, by mid-morning, as hope flagged,  we started to truly believe she hadn’t made it.  Our thoughts turned to the most dreadful fears of what she might have faced.

But it must have been our turn for a Christmas miracle.

The phone rang at eleven o’clock.  A caller with an area code far from our home, a volunteer working with a dog rescue agency,  insisted that someone had found Jinx.  She had fallen into a swimming pool almost a mile away, had been trapped in the pool all night.  The family had assumed that the dog barking through the night was a neighbor’s poorly behaved pet and did not go outside to check until mid-morning.  They found Jinx halfway out of the water, her front paws frozen to the cement at the edge of the pool.  The person responding had to use a hammer to chisel her paws free.

We grabbed every blanket and down jacket in the house, drove too quickly, and found our dog near-death, trembling almost unrecognizable, wide-eyed, in shock.  I don’t know if she knew us at the start; we simply bundled her and carried her to the heated car where I lay with cradled her in my arms.  As we pulled into the driveway, I told my wife that I would stay with her in the very warm car, wrapped in the very warm blankets, while she prepared a virtual sauna in one of the bathrooms.

We spent the whole day holding her..  She was able to eat and drink, wobble a bit to take care of her business outside, and sit up to greet the next admirer entering her warm tent.

I picked my daughter up that evening; she held Jinx that night.

The miracles that matter aren’t really accidents:  A stranger summons extraordinary kindness, long-overlooked gifts are finally recognized, generosity or forgiveness appears unsolicited.  Our Christmas miracle arrived because Jinx loves life too much to leave it easily.  She’s a gentle dog with a backbone of steel.

Do we deserve the loyalty and love our pets give so freely?  I’m not at all sure we do, but I know we are our best selves when we recognize their heart and make room for them in ours.

Merry Christmas!



How are you today?

How are you today?

My wife is pretty sharp and knows how to get to the heart of things without much preamble as she did one morning as I creaked into the kitchen, head down, every joint and sinew mewling.    I opened the conversation with a question – “How did I get so old?” Not missing a beat, she replied, “One day at a time.”

Anyone with friends or family in any sort of program of recovery will appreciate the pithy encapsulation of wisdom shared across all sorts and conditions of people, and I assume everyone is familiar with the equally incisive, “Carpe Diem”.  Apparently this one day observation has some traction.  I’m also  pretty sure none of us need the reminder that we live a day at a time, no more, no less, although some of us are better about not wallowing in the past or projecting the future.

I’m so-so in the wallowing and projection arenas, working on it, but just when I thought I had a handle on this human interaction and compassion stuff, however, I heard an interview that let me see how far I have to go.  The subject under discussion was grief and grieving, and while both are significant subjects, what struck me was a simple observation made by a woman whose husband had died unexpectedly.  She identified the complexity in negotiating her life while grieving, simultaneously appreciating the concern and support with which friends approached, sympathetically asking, “How ARE you?”, and becoming increasingly maddened by the question, wanting to shriek, “How do you THINK I am doing?”

I have been a “how are you doing?” flavor of friend for years, supposing that asking the question was an invitation for a friend to talk about whatever complex of emotions were at play.  This widow, on the other hand, was probably more correct in guessing that most of the people who asked really didn’t want to settle into a hour’s description of laundry undone and meals not made.  She assumed that the question was well-intended, but essentially way too abstract to encourage anything but an upturned chin and a brave response; she often felt she had to take care of the person asking.

So, she suggests that a friend might say, “How are you doing today?”


It seems a minor shift in scale but is actually also a shift in tone.  Today has focus.  Today is real; today is right here and the “how” is in the present and specific.  Today, she might answer:

“How am I today?

My husband died, and that is devastating, but you and I are here in this moment able to do whatever it is that we are able to do, and yesterday was different, and tomorrow may be different, but for now, in this instant, I am feeling sorry for myself because there’s no toilet paper in the house, I have to watch the series finale of our favorite show by myself, and I can’t seem to remember what it was that I went to the store to buy.  That’s how I am today.

Oh, and I lost my car keys.

Oh, and it was probably toilet paper.”

I’m grateful for the suggestion that I ask about the present day as I don’t do well when addressing loss and hard times; I appreciate being told what is helpful.  I’m also grateful for the understanding that almost any interaction takes on greater depth of sincerity if it is grounded in the present.

I’m often embarrassed, for example, when well-meaning folks ask about what I am doing with my life now that I am no longer keeping regular hours as a teacher.  The hours were never really regular anyway, but I had a set schedule and lots of lists of things to do.  You could have caught me anytime in the last forty-five years and asked what I was up to, and, for the most part, I would have been able to answer easily and with conviction.

“I’m grading papers. I’m teaching Hamlet.”  Whatever.  Today, however, not so easily and with considerably less conviction I answer, “oh, volunteering at the Festival, trying to get up to Portland to see my granddaughter more often, working on that play, and the article on the Giants, maybe cutting back the big bush near the pasture gate, but if it rains, I might not.”

I’m bored and distressed with my response before I’m halfway done and aware that none of my blather represents the actual reality of living in the place I do with the people I love.  Were someone to ask, “What’s on your mind right now?”, they would get an ear full.  Some of it would be fluffy, but if the question remained on the table, it could go to any one of the hundred places my brain takes me in the course of the day.  I’m often in the middle of things, considering ideas I want to pursue in some way, but I’m equally likely to be worried about money, or intrigued by an author I’m reading, or stunned by things political, or moved by the heroism of ordinary people around the world.

So, sure, I’m fine.  Doing fine.  And I am.  But each of us is travelling with burdens and joys, ideas and emotions, all of which shift and slide like the patterns in a kaleidoscope.  When I sit with a friend looking through a collection of photographs, for example, each snapshot is a universe; every picture tells a story and a story behind the story, and another behind that.  I appreciate having the chance to tell my stories and hope I can give others the chance to tell theirs.  I like the snapshot; today is sort of a snapshot.

The interview overheard gave me practical information about offering support when possible, and compels me to consider any conversation an opportunity to ask for a snapshot, a picture of what is going on with someone in the moment.  Today is plenty.  As a lad I was told, “sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof,” a convoluted reminder that there’s trouble enough without inventing problems.  Sound enough advice, I guess, but I’m going to suggest there might be some advantage in remembering that, “sufficient unto today is today.”  Today is enough.





The Rules

The Rules

I write today in response to an article published by Eleanor Stanford in the March 26, 2016 edition of The New York Times.  The title is self-explanatory – “13 Questions to Ask Before Marriage”. I’ll include her thirteen questions at the end of this piece, but each of the thirteen inspired many, many more questions, which lead in time to the mother of all questions:

What are the rules?

In the course of a lifetime we internalize rules about every area of human behavior, rules that are so profoundly part of our understanding of the universe that we have no idea how firmly they drive our choices and attitudes.  The questions Stanford asks identify some of the significant issues of disagreement in a marriage or partnership, but there are many, many which may never be articulated because they are invisible to us.

Here’s the start of an imagined ordinary day’s rules:

7:00 am

Be quiet.  Don’t wake Mom.  Make the bed.  Really, make the bed.  Don’t leave the bathroom door open when using the bathroom.  Don’t leave towels on the floor.  Don’t squeeze the toothpaste from the middle of the tube.  Don’t leave toothpaste and other sedimentary substances in the sink.  Don’t come to breakfast without having dressed. Don’t wear the same shirt twice. Don’t wash jeans.  Ever.  Don’t leave nothing but cereal dust and raisins in the box.  Don’t use the smaller pan to make oatmeal.  Don’t use the new pan to make French Toast.  Don’t use the real Vermont Maple Syrup with French Toast unless it is a holiday.  Don’t use Mom’s special mug for tea or coffee; it’s ok with milk and water.  Don’t put banana peels in the compost bin.  Don’t leave a plate in the sink unless it has been rinsed.  Don’t put bananas in the fridge.  Don’t forget to put pears in the fridge.  Never use brown sugar on anything but oatmeal.  Don’t eat Dad’s yoghurt.

… and so on …  and that’s just the first ten minutes of the day.  This rule thing now appears far more unmanageable than we had thought.  It turns out that the only way we can see the rules is to work backward from the effect the rules have on us.  One of the gifts of my declining years is that I more frequently catch myself being myself.

This first revelatory catch took place almost twenty years ago:

We had arrived home from the airport after a trip, collected the mail that had piled up in our absence, and walked into our house.  My wife, being normal, opened a letter from a friend.  I bristled.

What was I bristling about?  I was bristling because the rule is you don’t get to look at mail, much less open it, until all bags have been unpacked, clothes put away or stuffed in the washing machine, coats hung up, suitcases returned to suitcase storage, any spoiled food taken from the fridge and chucked, and all food preparation surfaces cleaned and dried.

Apparently I was alone in understanding the rules imposed by an unyielding universe.  Or, it might have been possible that I was operating with a trillion undocumented rules in my head all the time.  In the moment, I realized that the rule book was out and in play, and that it was my own absurd set of rules, and that there was no reason to believe that anyone else should operate in obedience to my goofy rules, and that it was even more absurd for me to be bristly about a condition I had created entirely in my own mind.

La and Voila!

Opening the door after a vacation is ordinarily an insignificant moment in the life of a couple, but, had I not tumbled to the effect the unarticulated and entirely imagined rules was having on my emotions, it is likely that I might have moved from bristly to cranky, and then to aggrieved.  And that’s not a pretty picture.  More dangerous than the ugliness of my petulance however, would be that I might take it to be a “fact” that my wife was thwarting me and ignoring the rules with full knowledge that her actions would injure me.

That’s not just absurd; that’s crazy.

I’ll gladly admit that I must have gone down the petulant tube dozens, ok, thousands, of times in the years prior to this sudden burst of self-awareness.  I will more reluctantly admit that it still happens.  But, I have a tool now that I did not possess before the skies parted and reason returned.  Not always, but frequently, I can look at myself sliding into the first stages of grievance or resentment and ask myself what rule I think is being broken.  Basically, I sharpen the focus on my own thinking now aware that I can’t be trusted with ill-considered feelings.

So, what does this working backwards focus look like?

Let’s say I’m working in the kitchen.  I’m up to my elbows in dinner prep, hands covered with tomato sauce.  I’m standing to the right of the sink using a cutting board.  I’m standing in front of the drawer that holds the silverware we use on a daily basis.  I’ll drop into rules for a moment, just to illustrate how a tortured mind operates – these are the RIGHT knives and forks to use; any other knives and forks are just wrong.  Let’s say an innocent strays into the kitchen looking for a fork with which to eat a snack taken from the fridge.  Let’s also say that my same absolutely invisible set of rules insist that nobody eats snacks before the dinner I’m preparing, so there’s that, and then … this perfectly decent human being takes a fork from the drawer to the left of the sink, the drawer that holds the “B” list forks, the jv forks, the supplementary forks, might I suggest, the WRONG forks.

What’s a guy to do?  Two rules broken simultaneously.  Feel the bristle.  Feed the bristle. Then, I pause.  I say to myself, “I’m bristling.  This is not good.  What am I bristling about?”

That’s all it takes.  As soon as I identify my response to rules that I cannot defend, I cannot defend them.  I’m just a stooge trying to control the universe to no good purpose.  Time to let it go.  I finish up in the kitchen.  Nobody’s taken to task.  No apologies to make or fences to mend.

That said, it probably would be a good idea for prospective partners to take a quick romp through the questions Stanford provides, remembering that there are always those pesky invisible rules hiding right behind the discussions to follow.  Are these a sacrosanct thirteen, equally significant in the married lives of couples from every quarter and of every disposition?  Probably not, but they may kick up enough pre-nuptial dust to lower the chances of a marriage imploding within hours of the celebratory hooplah.

Did your family throw plates, calmly discuss issues, or silently shut down when  disagreements arose?

Will we have children, and if we do, will you change diapers?

Will our experience with our exes help or hinder us?

How important is religion.  How will we celebrate religious holidays, if we celebrate them at all?

Is my debt your debt?   Would you be willing to bail me out?

What’s the most you would be willing to spend on a car, a couch, shoes?

Can you deal with my doing things without you?

Do we like each other’s parents?

How important is sex to you?

How far should we take flirting with other people?

Do you know all the ways I say, “I love you”?

What do you admire about me and what are your pet peeves?

How do you see us ten years from now?

The comedy of coping – writing our story together

The comedy of coping – writing our story together

Kim Stanley Robinson’s latest, New York 2140, presents life in the city after the deluge, icebergs have melted, oceans have risen, the city is under fifty feet of water, and New Yorkers have survived as New Yorkers always survive, with cheerful irritation and down-to-sea ingenuity.  This novel is not dystopian; it rather belongs to the genre of climate fiction and is surprisingly optimistic, as much of Robinson’s fiction has been.

“I thought of the book eventually as a comedy of coping, and to do that I picked a time, perhaps 40 years after the disaster itself. If it was set in the midst of the catastrophic flood in 2100, the disaster would have dominated that work. It would not have been the comedy of coping — it would have been the disaster of refugee creation.  But I think, at some point, science fiction has to imagine the people who come after, when the situation will be natural, whatever it is. If that natural situation that they’re coping with is that new part of Manhattan that resembles Venice, there will be good parts to that as well as bad parts. There will be beautiful parts as well as moldy, horrible parts.”

I heard Robinson interviewed and was struck by his contention that we live in what is essentially science fiction, a reality changed and changing with such rapidity that we are in a constant state of reaction.  His grace note, however, is that we are writing this science fiction together.

I’ve decided to take up that challenge, live in a comedy of coping, writing the present on a day-by-day basis, not taking myself too seriously, but taking other people seriously and treating them with the decency that co-authors deserve.  Some, I know, are going to write perfectly awful chapters, and I hope to God that someone at some point does some editing, but apparently my notion of how the world should spin is just one of millions of possible spins.

Two other books spring to mind as I consider this reality we are writing.   Both have a great deal to do with family and, although both are truly bizarre, each has left me with insights that may prove useful as I attempt this comedy.

The Swiss Family Robinson (Der Schweizerische Robinson) is a familiar tale of shipwreck, adventure, and ingenuity.  The Disney version offered pirates and a race in which the contestants ride animals that are found we are told on islands near New Guinea, elephants, zebras, ostriches, and monkeys.  The original novel, by Johann David Wyss, a Swiss take on the genre after Defoe’s popular Robinson Crusoe, is survival fiction mixed with a series of object lessons (It is Swiss, after all).  The narrator, William, is a father who truly does know it all which turns out to be particularly important as the island upon which they wash up is rife with wildlife (wombats, capybaras, platypuses, wolves, walruses, and porcupines, to name but a few) and plant life, allowing the family to feed, clothe, and protect themselves.

So, imagine the worst day possible.  The seas roar, rise, and tear a ship to bits, everything you own is washed into the ocean; gasping, choking, you claw your way to an unknown island, your carefully planned life now nothing but a memory.  And yet.

Day by day the family makes a world.  In the end, when a British ships finds them on the island, some decide to return to the Europe and some stay.  It’s probably more fun to read about than to experience, and not every castaway mom knows how to make a hearty porcupine stew, but the novel presents a model of resilience and invention in the face of disaster, and it is that assurance that is necessary to our current comedic coping.

The second novel, The Mosquito Coast by Paul Theroux, is a dark philippic, somewhere between Apocalypse Now and The Great Santini.  Theirs is a family ripped from comfort by a brilliant, charismatic, egomaniacal father who is fed up with an America rotted from within by greed and rapacious consumerism.  So far, ok, we’ve seen that before, but this father pulls his family to the Mosquito Coast of Honduras where his grandiosity and paranoia lead to murderous conflict.

Doesn’t sound like much there for us who attempt this comedy of coping, but the lesson I took away back in 1982 when I read the book as a relatively young father, was not that there is no safe place but that wherever we go, as the saying instructs, there we are, and since we are inescapable, the real terrain to work on, I guess, is ourselves, another one of those “We have met the enemy and he is us” reminders.

I turn back to Kim Stanley Robinson at this point because he has imagined a world in which much of what I fear has taken place, and yet, the human spirit prevails.  I admire the power of Robinson’s speculative imagination but find even greater comfort in his portrait of a world teeming with character and humor, despite change that to us would seem unendurable.  In the interview, Robinson spoke of the work that he does in terms of comfort, quoting Roger Scruton, “The consolation of imaginary things is not imaginary consolation.”  There is much about Roger Scrutton that was far from consoling, but he identified something important about what novelists such as Robinson and Emily St. John Mandel can do and something equally significant about what we can do in this curious business of writing the present together.

Consolation, empathy, decency – these are not imaginary comforts.

What I wished for … and how that worked out

What I wished for … and how that worked out

Those who scan this blog with any regularity have noticed that the tenor of the site has rambled from whimsy to outrage even as the number of postings has dropped off precipitously.  Some of the inconsistency is to be blamed on the post-election brain fur that has fogged my every thought since last November, but some has also been due to my continuing efforts to find the right medium in which to indulge my ambition as a writer.

Here’s the update:  The two plays I’ve written recently have apparently not rocked the theatrical world.  Languishing.  Languishing.  The last two novels stalled out completely as I continue to read really original and imaginative work written by my betters.  The last unexplored frontier remaining?  Sports writing.

I’d long thought I’d like to write about sports.  I certainly like to read about sports, and, whereas I rarely have anything to say about the condition of the wider world, soul-crushed as I am this year, I find myself holding passionate opinions about the relative strength of SEC football and Big Ten football, the chances of the Dodgers next season as compared to those of the Indians, and the demotion of Eli Manning from franchise quarterback to benched backup, opinions nobody in this household wants to hear.

So, I began writing for Fansided, a network of sports and entertainment related sites ranging from those following the NFL (Dear god, the Browns actually made a good decision) to endless discussion of Game of Thrones (Emilia Clark dyes her hair blonde).

After submitting several examples of my sports blathering, I was welcomed to several of the Fansided channels, beginning my sportswriting experiment with GBMWolverine, a site dedicated to University of Michigan athletics and to Michigan football.  In my short tenure there, I wrote something like twenty-four articles, some fulminating as a fan and some analyzing with precision exactly where the fifteen million dollar a year coaching staff had missed the mark.  My last opinion piece is exactly the sort of subject that kills conversations in all but three living rooms in the universe – “Has John O’Korn crushed Jim Harbaugh’s legacy at Michigan?”

You don’t want or need to know.

Eager to spread my sportswriting wings, I have moved on to the Fansided newsdesk, from which assignments reflecting breaking stories are dished out to reporters hovering like harriers over a field filled with scampering rodents.  I’m the lowest of the low, a bottom feeder, dished stories such as “Scott Frost and his staff will coach UCF in the Peach Bowl”, and “Giancarlo Stanton will not be a Giant next season”.

My last piece was “Herm Edwards stunned by size of ASU game jerseys”, an assignment I mangled as I am unfamiliar with the bells and whistles necessary to the publication of a media friendly posting, Search Engine Optimization, and so on.  It was that piece that has convinced me to let other, more savvy digital experts take on stories of that sort.  When assigned, I begged to explore the many and improbable aspects of Herm Edwards’ appointment as head football coach at Arizona State University, but my editor wanted 300 words on jerseys – no less, no more.  Should you wish to know why my fascination with Herm Edwards remains unslaked, please watch this, his first press conference as head coach.

I’ve been swatted when submitting articles with attitude or, as the editors describe my relentless fits of whimsy, “editorial content”, but that’s what I intended to offer in writing about sports.  Real reporters are breaking stories, hoorah, and I’m sitting in my living room in southern Oregon fulminating.

All of which is to explain why an occasional goofy sports piece might wash up in these pages, unwanted as they are in other settings.

Fair Warning!

Army plays Navy this weekend, Tiger’s playing golf again, NHL players won’t appear in the Winter Olympics, Marvin Lewis has to go, Russia is barred from the Winter Olympics,  How can LeBron not be MVP  this year, the US may not participate in the Winter Olympics, Dennis Rodman reports on Kim Jong Un’s true intentions, if Baker Mayfield wins the Heisman Trophy (he will), Oklahoma fans want to erect a statue representing Mayfield’s planting a flag on the Ohio State logo – more than 4000 petitions have already been collected.

And that’s just today’s sports news.

Stay tuned, sports fans, it’s time to explore the wonderful world of sports clichés.  If you got ’em, send ’em my way.  After all, it’s not over until a good defense beats the best offense.

Finally! A truly culturally biased test

Finally! A truly culturally biased test

Several years ago I was an active and reasonably well-regarded college counselor and consultant.  At one point, I was asked to advise the admissions offices at several colleges and universities, wrote several college guides, and sat as a member of the executive committee of the Midwest College Board.  I mention these luminous moments only to explain how it happened that I came to write sample questions for the SAT, a process by which the Educational Testing Service generated new questions, plugged them in the experimental sections of administered SATs, then checked the questions in a lively fashion, determining that the right test takers got the question right and the right test takers got the question wrong.

See, if successful test takers (not necessarily exceptional people – just good at taking tests) got an “easy” question wrong, badda bing, badda bong, it’s dead.  If a not-so-successful test taker (someone clearly not good at taking tests) got a “tough” question right, equally badda whatever.

The sorting process has become notably more sophisticated as ETS had to address charges that what was once known as the SAT Verbal test was less a test of verbal aptitude than a test of cultural familiarity with verbal constructs, heavily biased in the favor of White middle to upper class students.  The current version of “aptitude” testing now presents the Evidence Based Reading and Writing Test, a better test I admit, although those previously advantaged test populations are still more likely to seek and afford paid tutorial preparation, thereby mitigating even the best efforts of the question hounds at ETS.

All of that aside, it strikes me that a quest for the most individually culturally biased test might help reveal so much about the person constructing the test that the entire enterprise might shrink in the harsh light of public scrutiny

1. When stepping from the shower, one should first dry

a.  the back

b.  the shower stall

c.  the shoulders

d.  the face

e.  all of the above

The correct answer, of course, is d -the face.

2.  The best place to order eggs is

a.  a diner

b.  a henhouse

c.  Chez Rudolfo

d.  none of the above or below

e.  my house

Anyone?  Anyone?  Yeah, d – none of the above or below.  The best place is Grains of Montana Restaurant and Bakery in Billings.

3.  If Mares eat oats and does eat oats, what do little lambs eat?

a.  grass

b.  whatever they want

c.  clams casino

d.  ivy

e.  even smaller lambs

No brainer.  Ivy, of course. d.

4.  Moses supposes his toeses are roses but Moses supposes

a.  they aren’t

b.  euphoniously

c.  tromboneously

d.  erroneously

e.  deciduously

No doubt.  d – erroneously.  See Singin’ in the Rain and try again next year.

5.  Should it happen that you are made responsible for finding entertainment for a wedding reception, the first call might be made to

a. Lester Lanin, Peter Duchin, Meyer Davis, etc

b.  Doug Clark and the Hot Nuts

c.  Clean Bandit

d.  Robbie Hart

e.  Dope Calypso

The answer is d – Robbie Hart, of course, a character made famous by Adam Sandler.

At this point, even the most casual of test takers has noticed that the correct answers are always option d.  It’s THAT sort of perspicacity (SAT verbal Oct. 1988) that sets the successful test taker apart from the rest of the herd.

I’m just putting this out in the universe in case ETS is ready to break with tradition, convention, and scientific accuracy in order to make testing more specifically attuned to the test engineer’s experience and imagination.  I’d like to think I’ll be called back into action by the College Board, Berkeley, Brown, and the International School of Paris, but the correct answer, I fear, is none of the above.




Who pulls the plug?

Who pulls the plug?

OK, now I am terrified.

The phrase, “We are entering unchartered territory”, no longer serves to describe the mayhem Donald Trump creates on a daily basis.  He has skidded well beyond insensitive self-promotion, beyond impulsive and petulant posturing, to flat-out mental illness.

Am I suggesting that our president is truly nuts?  Yeah, I’m starting to believe that the President of the United States is bubble buggy gonzo,  never a happy conclusion and downright terrifying in a week that raises the possibility of nuclear war.  The rush of curious initiatives landing without discussion is more than enough to keep most folks off-balance, but the grotesqueries of the last few days should frighten even those who have used the President’s lack of attention to governance to push their own agendas.

Let’s see.  What’s happened this week?

The President once again asked the American people to believe that he will be hurt by the proposed tax reform, and began the public shaming of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson who will have the dubious distinction of having served the shortest term as Secretary when Trump jettisons him.  Tillierson probably should not have called the president a moron, but … Trump could use a little help from State as today he tweeted the wrong Teresa May, contacting a woman on the Isle of Wight rather than the Prime Minister of Great Britain.

Oh, and Trump  candidly admitted that a government shutdown would help him convince his rabid anti-immigration base, that he won’t play ball with Democrats, He’s assured reporters that he absolutely intends to blame Democrats for the shutdown.

About this shutdown.  The only people hurt are those  dependent on social security, Medicare, Medicaid, recent retirees, those selling homes and those seeking mortgages, government contractors, veterans, retail businesses and the stock market.

So, there’s that, and …

Trump tweeted Egyptian snuff films posted by discredited racist right-wing anti-Muslims in Britain, horrifying Muslims, Prime Minister Teresa May (probably both Teresa Mays) , British Parliament, most of the Western world, and some in the U.S.  The State Department, or what is left of it, will deal with the blowback in the Middle East.

A day earlier the tweet –  “Meeting with ‘Chuck and Nancy’ today about keeping government open and working,  Problem is they want illegal immigrants flooding into our Country unchecked, are weak on Crime and want to substantially RAISE Taxes. I don’t see a deal!”

This hours before a scheduled meeting with the Democratic leaders, upending a meeting intended to prevent the government shutdown.  We’ve seen this kind of insulting tweet to members of Congress before, but this one was followed by a truly wacky attempt to shame Pelosi and Schumer by holding a press conference with two empty seats.

While the president still refers to Kim Jong Un as Rocket Man, short and fat, citizens in Hawaii test nuclear attack warning sirens, recognizing that the latest ICBM test by North Korea puts them in immediate peril.

In a ceremony honoring the Navajo Code Talkers, Trump drops a leaden crack again referring to Senator Elizabeth Warren as Pocahontas.  This following his characterization of those in the NFL who kneel as sons of bitches.  Disrespect is one thing; racial slurs and obscenity from the White House speak to hubris and a disordered mind.

Trump now suggests that the widely viewed Access Hollywood tape in which he boasted that he could grope at will was yet another piece of fake news; apparently, he now contends that the voice on the tape is not his.  This statement is at odds with the public apology he issued at the time of the tape’s release.  At virtually the same moment, Trump gloated over Matt Lauer’s fall from grace while continuing to withhold condemnation of Judge Roy Moore.

All of this accompanies his reanimation of the Obama birther issue and the allegation that former Florida representative Joe Scarborough played some part in the death of Lori Klausutis, an aide who died when an abnormal heart rhythm caused her to fall striking her head. And, we now know, in addition to obsessing about LaVar Ball’s failure to appreciate his efforts to have UCLA shoplifting basketballer released from jail in China, Trump continues to find ways to squash investigations linking his campaign to Russian political operatives.

These gaffes are no longer simply unattractive evidence of narcissistic pique, not simply inappropriate.  They are inexplicable.  The needle has moved for me from disapproval of Trump as a man and as a political leader to the conviction that his presidency is dangerous.

OK, so what will it take, and who pulls the plug?

In an article in the Daily Intelligencer, Andrew Sullivan put it more succinctly:

This past week was, in some ways, the most potent distillation of the Trump era we have yet encountered. This is not because any single incident is worse than any previous one over the past year. It’s because the last few days have brought all of them together in a new, concentrated way — a super-storm, as it were, of liberal democratic destruction. We have deranged tweeting; truly surreal lies; mindless GOP tribalism; evangelicals making excuses for the molestation of minors; further assaults on the free press; an unprecedented attack on the most reliable Atlantic ally; the demonization of personal enemies; stupendous tribal hypocrisy with respect to sexual abuse; the White House’s endorsement of a foreign neo-fascist hate group; the vengeful hanging out to dry of a Cabinet member; and the attempt to pass a catastrophic omnibus piece of legislation in one mad, blind rush in order to get a “win.” And all in a few days!

At its center is mental illness. It radiates out of the center like a toxin in the blood. And this, again, is nothing new. On Trump’s first day in office, with respect to the size of his inauguration crowd, he insisted that what was demonstrably, visibly, incontrovertibly false was actually true. At that moment, we learned that all the lies and exaggerations and provocations of the previous year were not just campaign tools, designed to con and distract, but actually constitutive of his core mental health. He was not lying, as lying is usually understood. He was expressing what he believed to be true, because his ego demanded it be true. And for Trump, as we now know, there is no reality outside his own perfervidly narcissistic consciousness.

And yet, apologists continue to scramble to contain the fallout, blaming the hostile media for these scurrilous attacks on the president.

What is happening and why is it happening?  This new normal is more confusing day by day.

A  relatively rudderless and ineffectual Republican majority in the House and Senate appears determined to operate in the interest of corporations and billionaires at the expense of ordinary people, including those who put them in office.  Mean spirited partisan contempt for compromise and paranoia has brought legislation by fiat, the business of government seeping out of closed chambers. Broad changes in Health Care and Tax Reform are apparently the work of a few men operating in secret.  Discussion and debate have been jettisoned; attempts to question the president or Congressional leadership are ignored or squashed.

The Trump administration, operating in reflexive fury against any program tainted by connection with Barack Obama, has gutted the agencies created to protect the public good.  At war with the press, obsessively reacting to what he believes are slights or unfair attacks, the Commander-In-Chief leads his nation by tweeting angry recriminations of Lavar Ball.

Partisan political bullying has been more than dispiriting enough without the antics of an addled Commander-In-Chief.  The work of Congress is now done behind closed doors; political steamrolling has taken the place of debate and compromise.  Presidential appointments continue to undermine the efficacy of the bureaus they now lead.

Net neutrality is about to end.

Loyalist, Thomas Brunell, the author of Why Competitive Elections Are Bad for America, has been tapped to act as Deputy Director of the Census Bureau.  Brunell is neither qualified for the post or free of political bias.  In running the day-to-day operation of the Census bureau, Brunell has the ability to direct of the resources of the bureau in the collection of census data, an undertaking that has historically under-reported Black and Hispanic citizens as well as other minorities.

Time Magazine is now the property of the Meredith Corporation, a purchase made possible by the “passive” ownership of the Koch brothers who brought six hundred and fifty million dollars to the deal.  Ardent opponents of government regulation of any sort, the Kochs have been eager to purchase the media enterprise, a prospect made more likely by the Justice Department’s determination to clip the AT&T merger with Time Warner, an eighty-five billion dollar merger, arguing that a merger of that size is untenable until AT&T divests some assets, by which, it seems, the Justice Department means Turner Broadcasting, and more particularly, CNN.  Worst case?  Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News would certainly not be permitted to snap up CNN, but the Koch brothers could.  Time Magazine, longtime champion of environmental stewardship could change direction, and CNN, the most annoying thorn in the president’s side, could lose its capacity to report as freely it has.

In this busy week, the administration has decertified the Iran nuclear agreement, repealed the Clean Power Plan which had limited greenhouse gas emissions and introduced a proposal to subsidize the energy sector, particularly power plants dependent on coal.  This only a week after the recently approved Keystone Pipeline spilled 210 gallons of oil in South Dakota.

“We have met the enemy, and he is us.”  Walt Kelly’s comic creation, Pogo the Possum, passed on that observation as he stood amidst a heap of litter on a poster advertising the first Earth Day back in 1970.  He wasn’t wrong

The election of Donald Trump lifted a veil that had obscured the judgment of liberals and progressives for a very long time.  The assumptions and imperatives that propelled social change over the past two decades are inimical to the convictions of enough people that Trump was elected despite concerns about his character and capacity for leadership.  It is easier to lump all who support Trump into the basket of deplorables, racist, homophobic, conspiracy laden angry White people than it is to consider the possibility that there are differences of culture so divergent that compromise may no longer be possible.

Some of us live a secular life, and some of us live a life of faith, and that reality is one that progressives still fail to acknowledge.  I’ve written elsewhere describing the grievance that many American Christians and all Evangelical Christians felt as they experienced the political consequences of living in an increasingly secular state.  It is their opinion that religious faith is discounted and mocked in a secular society.  They have seen court decisions eliminate prayer in school, the presentation of the Ten Commandments and the celebration of Christian Christmas in public spaces.

But the ten ton elephant in our living room is what people of faith see as the killing of unborn children and what progressives see as the government’s responsibility to ensure that women have a choice in ending pregnancy.

To be clear:  There is no convincing a person of faith that human life does not begin at conception and no convincing advocates of choice that a fetus prior to viability. is a person.

So, when accounts of Judge Roy Moore’s dalliance with fourteen year old girls hit the headlines, commentators on MSNBC and CNN, outraged that Moore might become a sitting member of the Senate, asked how anyone would vote for a pedophile rather than vote for a Democrat.  However flawed Moore, or Trump for that matter, might be, for the Evangelical and many other people of faith, Democrats endorse what they see as the murder of children.

That’s the emotional landscape that underlies every attempt to bring contending political forces together.  We can debate the national debt, climate change, crime, terrorism, but there’s no room for discussion about abortion.

We secularists do threaten a Christian nation; they are not wrong.  The closest analogy is with the untenable series of compromises made before the Southern states determined that the Federal government was at war with their way of life.  They too were not wrong; a nation could not long exist half slave and half free.

We’re close to that point today as the mechanism of government and the security of the nation have been placed in the hands of an imperious, vindictive, and disordered president as a last attempt to turn back the hands of time.  It will take extraordinary leadership to paste this experiment in democracy back together.

Who is ready to step up and pull the plug?