Tuesday, November 25, 2008

How Is A President Like a Window?

Our house in Trumansburg had stupid windows. There is really no other way to put it. The windows were too high up the wall and they were hinged at the top, so that they swung out and away from the house. Only thing was, there was a screen on the interior that had to swing inward a fair amount before you could even get at the outer window to push it out. The interior screens were not attached well, so they would sometimes fall in on your head (or shoulder or neck or back) as you struggled to reach the outer window and pull it shut. As I said—stupid windows.

So when we moved to Connecticut we were very focused on the windows of each house we looked at. We knew we would NOT put up with windows as dumb as the ones in Trumansburg. After much looking, we ended up buying a house in East Haven. The house was 100 years old, but it had been stripped down and re-done entirely, including new double-paned, insulated windows. They were amazing. They slid up and down. They locked easily without risk of concussion or death. They even tilted in for easier cleaning of the outer glass. Entirely NOT stupid.

We LOVED our new house, simply because it was NOT our old house. Just one problem—the neighborhood was, as they say, not the best. Our immediate neighbors were a court-ordered GPS-ankle-braceleted, foul-mouthed, chain-smoking eighth-grader and her heroin-addicted mom. The park on the corner where we went to use the swing set and monkey bars had used syringes and tiny ziplock baggies preferred by drug dealers lying in the sand all around the play structures. My three-year-old, Isabel, called it the “broken glass playground” to differentiate it from the “giant playground” that was a mile away and much cleaner.

After two years in that great house, we said goodbye to our perfect windows and moved again. By the time we made this second move in Connecticut, we were less focused on windows and much more focused on location, location, location. So now our house has drafty old inefficient windows, but it is in the perfect spot for us. The neighbors are friendly, there is a great park nearby, and we are both very close to work. None of our immediate neighbors is on probation.

We love our new neighborhood, simply because it is NOT our old neighborhood.


America is about to discover the joys of a new President. In the long run, Barack Obama may prove to be a great President. Time will tell. But in the short run, he is sure to benefit from the same dynamic that Erica and I experienced with our windows and our neighborhood. At first his approval ratings will be high simply because he is NOT George Bush.

Has ever a president been so unloved by so many for so long? All Barack Obama has to do is speak in full sentences, pronounce the word “nuclear” as it is spelled, listen to advisors who are willing to tell him the many sides and shades of an issue, and show some fiscal prudence. If he does these things, he will be wildly popular for a while.

Of course, at some point our collective memory of George Bush will fade away and we will begin evaluate Obama on his own, without the lame Bush yardstick as the measure of the man. But until then, it will be pretty easy for Barack Obama to look good. Again, all he has to do is NOT be George Bush. And he has been doing that for at least 47 years already.

Some in the moderate, thoughtful Right —Brent Scowcroft, Colin Powell—are already on board. Barack Obama has their respect and their wary enthusiasm on his side.

Those on the rabid radical right are already guarding against the coming confiscation of their guns and the (continued) nationalization of the banking and energy industries, (beyond what George Bush, Henry Paulson, and Sarah Palin have already done in Washington and Alaska). When, on January 21st, 2009, the fringe right still have their guns and capitalism still exists in America, Barack Obama will have proven himself to be a better President than these people feared. Slowly, they will drift in his direction as they are surprised again and again by his moderation and bipartisanship.

When the inevitable drop in approval ratings does happen, I predict that rather than those who didn’t vote for President Obama being the most disappointed, it will instead be the far left who will start to be dissatisfied first. Many in the far left have come to see Barack Obama as some kind of savior. Carrying their huge expectations, he can’t fail to disappoint. He will not institute national health care in the first three months. He will not do away with the military’s Don’t Ask—Don’t Tell policy in his first year. He will not push for the arrest of George Bush, Dick Cheney, and Donald Rumsfeld on war crimes charges. He will not vocally back the fight for the right to gay marriage.

It is the fire-breathing, bomb-throwing true believers who will be most disapproving of President Obama. They have projected onto him all of their wildest hopes and dreams of “revenge governance” and he is just not that sort of man. When Senator Obama gave his speech on race in Philadelphia back in March, I became convinced that he was the man for the job. His speech showed that he is clear-eyed and sees not through the distorting lenses of fierce partisanship but instead through the sharpening lens of pragmatism.

After eight years of inept leadership, America has many problems for President Obama to address. And rather than using his first term to settle partisan scores and yank the country far to the left, President Obama will govern from just-left-of-middle and simply get a LOT done. Maybe he doesn’t have an MBA from Harvard, but the man knows how to manage. He is just what we need right now—a leader who is NOT George Bush.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Tomato Love

“Look what I found on my pillow,” squealed my daughter through a grin as wide as a number 10 can of Italian peeled tomatoes. What she found on her pillow was, in fact, a number 10 can of Italian peeled tomatoes—(that is how I knew how wide her grin was.) I smiled as well, because I had just found a smaller can of tomato paste on my dresser.

I should explain. The story may take a while and even after you hear it, it might not make any sense. The tomato can has become a tradition in my little family and, like bunnies delivering candy or children placing used teeth under pillows, it might not be at all logical to an outsider. But, here goes:

Back in 1992 I was on the Flathead Indian Reservation in northwestern Montana, working for a summer program for teens. In a Tom Sawyer-ish deal, kids from fairly wealthy families would pay thousands of dollars to come and do community service work and outdoor adventure activities in a stunningly beautiful place. The non-profit company running the program was called Visions, and they were the ones who hired me to work the Flathead program that particular summer.

I grew up in the endless suburbs of the East Coast megalopolis and that summer was my first time in Montana. My experiences there changed me as much, or maybe even more, than they changed the kids. And as that summer came to an end, I felt very close to those teenagers and they to me. Our last night in the Salish-Kootenai College Daycare Center (where we slept) was happy and teary and emotional in the overtired, hyper way summer programs can be by their raggedy ends.

We gave the kids some space to say their goodbyes while as a staff we packed up the outdoor equipment, kitchen utensils, and leftover foodstuffs. Before the kids could break off into their picture taking, address collecting, and card playing, they had to show us that they were packed and ready to go in the morning. One girl from New Jersey had brought a duffle bag large enough to fit a full-sized United States Marine. She dragged it out of the girls’ sleeping area and left it in the pile with all the other bags.

Being something of a fan of the ridiculous, I waited until she walked away and then I promptly unzipped her bag, took a number-ten can of ketchup, hid it among her clothes, and rezipped the bag. Her bag, sans ketchup, already weighed at least 80 pounds. With the ketchup it was pushing 90. (This was in the day when airlines didn’t charge extra for heavy bags.) Within ten minutes I forgot I had even done it.

Flash forward five days. The kids had flown home via Newark Airport from Missoula. I had driven home to Delaware via Madison, Wisconsin and Boston, Massachusetts. I got to my parents’ house in Wilmington and my mom gave me a message. It was from the girl with the duffle bag and all it said was, “very funny.” I was flattered that she knew it was me who had put the ketchup in her bag. I called her back.

She told me that she was so spent by her summer in Pablo, Montana that when she got home she slept for almost twenty-four hours. As she slept, her mother opened her bag and began pulling out all the dirty clothes in order to begin making them wearable again. When mom got to the enormous can of ketchup, she could not figure out any possible scenario under which it would be reasonable for her daughter to travel 2000 miles with a year’s worth of ketchup in her already-heavy bag. So, she woke up her daughter and asked...

Flash forward again to 1995. I was back in Montana, only this time I lived there. I had recently met my wife-to-be and we were in the throes of early love. We traded stories. I liked what I heard and she liked what she heard. We traded more stories, allowing more of our real selves to come through. And still we liked what we were hearing. One of the stories Erica heard during those falling-in-love-months was about the well-traveled #10 can of ketchup.

We met in late January of 1995 and by April we were already talking about marriage. When June came I left for a summer in Browning, on the Blackfeet Reservation near Glacier National Park in northwest Montana. It was to be another summer with Visions kids, doing community service work and hiking in the Bob Marshall Wilderness. We slept on the floor of the basketball court at Browning High School. When we got there I set up my little corner of the staff room and unpacked my clothes for the six-week program. There at the bottom of my suitcase, under my wool socks and raingear, I found a small can of tomato paste.

And ever since then, any canned tomato product in any unexpected place has become shorthand for, “Hey Baby. I love you very much and I am thinking about you and I want you to know it even though I can’t be with you right now.”

Our just-born romance survived that early separation and we were engaged shortly after I returned to Billings in August. In the thirteen years since, we have continued with the strategic placement of tinned tomatoes in their many and varied forms. When our daughter, Isabel, was born we pulled her into the tradition. In fact, she had no idea there was even anything odd about the practice until lately.

Now that she knows how it all started, I think she likes the fact that it is just us who do this odd thing. The grin on her face as she held that can of tomatoes told me that, even though Erica is in Chicago for a conference this weekend, my daughter got the message loud and clear—she is loved. And not just a little bit, either.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Running Uphill

You know how you can tell in advance that some things will be unavoidably awful, but you put your head down and plow into them anyway because they simply have to get done? Things like filling out your tax forms or raking an autumn’s worth of leaves or organizing your basement after avoiding doing so for years? And usually it turns out to be not anywhere near as bad as you thought it would be. Isn’t that great when that happens?

It is as if the accumulated dread acts in advance to thoroughly recalibrate your sense of bad vs. not-so-bad so that when you are done with the onerous task you often end up saying something like, “Well. That wasn’t nearly as bad as I thought it was going to be.”

Well, after running the Monson Memorial Half Marathon yesterday to “celebrate” my 43rd birthday, I can tell you with 100 percent certainty that running uphill for eight continuous miles is NOT in the category of “Things That Are Not As Bad As You Thought They Would Be.”

In fact, it turns out there is a-whole-nother category of things titled “Things That Will Be Worse Than You Thought They Would Be, No Matter How Bad You Thought They Would Be”. In this category I would put George W. Bush’s second term as President, the surgical removal of all four unemerged wisdom teeth all at once, and running eight continuous miles uphill.

The Monson Memorial Half Marathon course runs uphill from mile 0 to the end of mile 8. Then it runs back down to the start over the next 5.1 miles. The first half of the race took me over an hour. The second half of the race took 46 minutes. As I saw on a bumper sticker once: “Gravity: It’s Not Just a Good Idea; It’s The Law!”

I ran a half marathon in Missoula back in July and I was very happy with my time of 8:43 per mile. In Monson I was hoping to at least match my Missoula time, but also maybe to improve on it if the day was a good one. As it turned out, the day was good one—sunny and 53 degrees. And if you add my two halves together you end up with 108 minutes and 20 seconds or so. Which turns out to be 8:16 per mile. Woo Woo!!

I was thrilled with this improvement.

Which does not at all mitigate how truly awful it is to run eight continuous miles uphill. No matter how bad it sounds to you, it is worse than it sounds.

I can’t wait to do it again next year. How bad could it be?

Monday, November 3, 2008


Whether you believe in God or not, you have to admit He is a really useful construct for a society to have around. If you are trying to build an orderly society, what is not to like about an all-seeing, all-knowing, all-powerful deity lurking just out of view but fully aware of everything we do, of everything we think, of everything we feel, and of everything we desire.

I was reminded of this the other day when I spent the morning visiting a local private middle school. The faculty at my school have a fair amount of input as the yearly calendar is made and we have helped convince the Board that it can never be a good idea to have students in the building on either Halloween or the day after.

So, instead of teaching we are encouraged to go out to another school and spend the day observing. I find this practice valuable for many reasons, not least being the avoidance of direct instructional responsibility for sugar-crazed adolescents. The students graduate from my class and move on to any one of several public and private middle schools in the area. For this reason, I arrange for visits to these very middle schools in order to better help my kids and their parents decide which school might fit them best.

This is how I happened to find myself alone in the faculty room of a well-known private school last week. I had spent the morning in an Honors Math class, an English class, and a History class and enjoyed my visit thoroughly. The classes had excellent student:teacher ratios, the teachers were pleasant, smart, and engaging, and the students were interested and nice to each other.

I was spending a period in the faculty room, making notes for myself, having some typically bad faculty room coffee, and waiting to meet the Dean of Students for lunch. A few teachers straggled in and then straggled back out. Then I was alone.

And there, sitting previously unnoticed on the table in front of me, was a Baby Ruth bar stapled to a flyer for the Annual Fund Donation Drive. I don’t LOVE Baby Ruth bars, but I do LIKE them. And I was hungry. And I was alone. It was clear the candy was meant as an enticement, like free address labels or a shiny new nickel enclosed in junk mail. It was being given away.

But it was not being given away to ME and I knew that. That particular candy bar would not be missed by anyone if I just reached out, opened the wrapper, and munched it down. Still, I struggled mightily with myself. It was not in any way intended for me and there was no way I could convince myself that it was. It was meant for someone who might actually donate to the Annual Fund. Even if the person who ate it didn’t end up giving to the Annual Fund, it was still okay for him or her to eat that Baby Ruth simply because s/he actually worked at the school.

After literally twenty-five minutes of wrestling with my desire, I got up and left the faculty room. I won’t tell you if the Baby Ruth was still on the table when I left, but I will tell you that I left that room even more certain than ever that human beings created God rather than the reverse.