February 2010


So I had another post 90% done, and was well on my way to posting it, but then fate intervened. For those of you who do not know, I graduated from Seattle Pacific University (SPU) in 2002, which is only important because of a tragic shooting that unfolded yesterday. I meet Jennifer Paulson on probably my first or second day in the dorm, and when my friends called me yesterday and said Jennifer had been shot, it didn’t register in my head who they meant, as I always called her Jenny. Jenny was the kind of girl that a mother dreams about their son meeting. She was hard working, she was charming, and she had both academic and street smarts. But most importantly, she never had an ill word for anyone. She was one of those few people that finds the good in everyone, all the time.

When I think of her in my mind’s eye, I usually see her in a food-spattered apron as she worked in the kitchens of the school. Having worked in a restaurant and knowing how much a grind such labor can be, I was always pleased to see her working in the cafeteria, which by their very nature seem to be morose. But Jenny would wear a smile that you’d swear could part the perpetually gray clouds that hung almost oppressively over the city, and it never seemed to matter how bad things where going in her life or in yours, she could find that kind world or joke that would make everything seem alright.

Two of my best friends at SPU have cerebral palsy, and one of them, I’ll call him Mr. Boarder, had a crush on Jenny. He also lived for a time with the shooter, Jed Waits. Jed was one of those guys I would never have met if not for the fact that he lived with Mr. Boarder. In thinking on it, I only have a few hazy memories of him, and if pressed I don’t think I would have said he was unbalanced, but I would have given you tightly wound. His shoulders were always scrunched and he always seemed to be reacting to something rather then acting out a plan.

When I first heard this story and subsequently discovered the details my heart broke. One reason is that in my soul I’m kind of a cynical person, but I nevertheless try every day to see the good in the world and to laugh at something. Jenny wasn’t the only person who taught me to do this, but she was one of the best I’ve ever meet at actually projecting that sense that somehow everything was going to come out fine in the end. I think it is this fact that makes how her life ended so bitter. Because really, this is one of those stories that makes you shake your fist at the sky and bellow into the void that eternal and infernally succinct question of “WHY?”

But then the part of me that is in love with movies pops into my head, and it is Agent Starling speaking to Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs that echoes in my synapses:

Hannibal Lecter: First principles, Clarice. Simplicity. Read Marcus Aurelius. Of each particular thing ask: what is it in itself? What is its nature? What does he do, this man you seek?

Clarice Starling: He kills women…

Hannibal Lecter: No. That is incidental. What is the first and principal thing he does? What needs does he serve by killing?

Clarice Starling: Anger, um, social acceptance, and, huh, sexual frustrations, sir…

Hannibal Lecter: No! He covets. That is his nature. And how do we begin to covet, Clarice? Do we seek out things to covet? Make an effort to answer now.

Clarice Starling: No. We just…

Hannibal Lecter: No. We begin by coveting what we see every day. Don’t you feel eyes moving over your body, Clarice? And don’t your eyes seek out the things you want?

The answer is both chilling prophetic in this case, and makes me wish that sometimes my mind did not jump to cinema when my own lambs begin bleating in terror at the night.

But at the same time, it is funny the circles this habit of mine weaves. Jed drew graphic novels apparently, and in response to Dr. Lecter I see a girl in a different movie, which was adapted from a graphic novel. She even could even have been Jenny’s doppelganger at a younger age, I’d wager. Her name is Sara, and in the movie , The Crow, she says: “If the people we love are stolen from us, the way to have them live on is to never stop loving them. Buildings burn, people die, but real love is forever.” This was followed up a lyric from a song written by the protagonist, Eric Draven, who has come back from the dead to avenge the brutal abuse and murder of his girlfriend as well as his own death. In fact, this quote was also one of the taglines for the movie, and it is simply “It can’t rain all the time.”

It is true that it can’t rain all the time, even in the Pacific Northwest. I lost contact with Jenny after college, which I regret. There are many things I would have loved to found out about her life, like had she traveled outside the country, which one of my current friends seems to think includes Texas. This got me thinking of another one of my classmates who passed under equally infuriating circumstances. But she did make the trek to Texas once, and in her company I took a picture, which I think Jenny would love. It was taken in San Antonio and was on the side of a large hospital. Jenny was not a doctor, but she did heal people on a daily basis. She made everyone feel good about themselves. She touched the lives of the students she worked with, and for kids with disabilities that kind of person is beyond my keen to describe. So for Jenny, I give the one gift I have to give, and I am sorry it is so little so late.

Friends are valuable for all sorts of reasons, but chief among them is that every now and again they present you with ideas or make you think of something that you would never have gotten to on your own.  I had that experience this past week when I was talking to an old friend of mine, who I will call Tasha Girl (I’m sure he approves!).  Anyway, we were talking about conflict and arguments and how, by and large these have become a very negative words in our culture.

I got into fights when I was a boy.  Some were serious, most started on a very illogical note, and now that I’m an adult I can do quite well without someone punching me, thank you very much.  I won’t lie, I was vicious as a kid, and the one time I got expelled from school, not only was it for fighting, but because I also kicked the other boy when he was down.  My logic was simple: I didn’t want to have to fight him again, so I made sure he got the message I won.  In retrospect, I think I got off light, and when I tell that story to some people who know me today, they just can’t see it.  Apparently I’ve become a rather mellow guy.

But then I recently read about a boy expelled for having a two-inch plastic gun at school this past month.  Now it may just be me, but I think American society has gone a little overboard in wanting to protect our kids from violence and harm.  At most that should have been a teacher collecting the offending item, and then sending the toy home with the boy along with the message not to bring it back.

I point that out though, as it spills over as adults, but in much more subtle ways.  From the pundits and politicians to the average person debating issues in the coffee shops, I think we have forgotten the benefit of a good argument, and I think the reason is that most of us never learned how.  For example, to have an argument, both parties have to agree on a certain set of assumptions: the common ground that you both will start from to try and prove your point.

Finding Common Ground

I know this is not a skill pushed in schools anymore, and you can see that it is not something most people know just by listening to the way they argue.  Additionally, it requires enough thought to put yourself in the other person’s shoes (even if that person is a fourth grader) so you can understand where they are coming from and not overreact.

The other problem is that in order to argue, you have to recognize things like circular logic and illogical statements. For example, you can say the grass is green because it rained, but you can’t say it rained because the grass is green.  For all we know a malicious garden gnome might pop to life every night and paint the grass green. Not the most likely of scenarios I grant you, but hey, coming up with arguments of the extreme is a favorite trick of mine.

Now I’m a realist and I know not everyone needs this skill on a daily basis, and most people don’t need to know the terms applied to various parts of an argument. But I think all people need to learn it anywhere.  Here is why.  The best way to learn this skill is by doing, and I promise that the first time you argue with anyone who knows how, if you are unskilled you will lose, and lose badly.  Not only will you feel a bit stupid, but you might even be a little resentful, but a good argument is to ideas what a smelting fire is to metal; it cleanses it of impurities and makes it that much stronger.

I’m not sure if it is practical to make everyone take debate in school, but I think it would help.  And maybe it would temper the tendency of people to try and win an argument with volume, name calling, or relentless repetition, which seem to be the most common forms of “winning” today.

Who is Winning?

I also think teaching debate is much more practical then instituting the “magic bullet” rule.  The magic bullet rule would grant every person over the age of thirty a firearm with one bullet in it, and that person could shoot whomever or whatever they wanted, consequence free.  Then we really would have a reason to fear confrontation, because who wants to worry if the person they are fighting with has already used their bullet?  Too extreme?

I’ve not really talked about writing on ye old blog yet, which is slightly bemusing, as my love of writing is my whole reason to have one: well, that and I like to delude myself into thinking I might make an interesting point every now and again.  I could now go off on a long diatribe about what I think makes for a good writer, but I shall refrain from that and just focus on one point.  In order to write well, you have to be open to life, and some of the oddball events that happen to us all.  It is this, more than anything else that explains why I am currently sitting in Brattleboro, Vermont at the School for International Training as the driver for eleven Islamic scholars from Pakistan.  They are here to work with the International Center for Religion and Diplomacy (ICRD) on a weeklong workshop to promote understanding of and improve the overall madrasas system, the school system, in Pakistan.

We meet in DC last Saturday, and from there we drove to New York City.  By and large, I can’t understand the conversations the group has in the van, as they mostly occur in Urdu; however, Baber, one of the group’s translators and my roommate here is kind enough to let me know what all the hubbub is/was about, and because every now and again, we are out of the earshot of the delegation, I get his insights as well.  This was useful when I drove this group to the site of the World Trade Center.

By the time that we arrived, we had been in the van, fighting traffic for more then an hour.  I’d never been to ground zero before, and was shocked by the seemingly insignificant amount of progress that has been made in rebuilding.  You’d think after almost a decade, there would be the skeleton of the spire that is to replace the towers.  Yes, there is a visitor center, and the boards that that prevent people from wandering into the build site are adorned with facts about that fateful day, but all in all, it is a muted and unsettled place that seems devoid of real progress.  Of course, that could have just been my impression, as we arrived close to dusk.

While the group of scholars walk around I wound up sitting in the van.  I wondered how people on the streets were reacting to this large group of foreign, Islamic teachers.  After all, they do fit just about all the stereotypes one could pile on: most of the men have large beards, the one woman in our group is not seen in public without a full burka and she tends to walk behind all the men, (even though she runs one of the largest female-madrasas in Pakistan), and the men were mainly in Pakistani garb.  It was while pondering this that Baber called me to ask if I could bring the van to the opposite side of ground zero, “to pick us up from the Burger King.”

Turns out that it was too cold be out walking, and that once they reached the other side of the hole that was once the towers, they just walked into a Burger King and went up to the second floor so they could look into the construction ground. Apparently not everyone looked, and after a few minutes of me being lost (most of the streets in that area are one way, so it is not overtly easy to get from one side to the other), I pulled up to a rather shabby looking Burger King and out piled my guests.  Getting out New York took time, and during that ride the conversation turned to what they had just seen.  The leader of the group, who I have since discovered has a name that would translate into “quiet” or “silent,” but who is actually quite gregarious, began explaining how they wanted to see the site, as it was a place that changed the world.  Upon hearing this, the only other American in the van, who is an employee of the ICRD, began to recount how important it was to her personally.  It struck me then and since just what different languages we speak.  And not just the actual phonetics and words of a language, but the intent and meaning.  With this in mind, I admit that I remain dubious as to how effective efforts like this are in actually building bridges.

For the group, it was mainly an academic interest.  The carnage and shock American’s experienced is something the people living in Pakistan experience on a day-to-day basis, which is something that should not be forgotten.  Thus while Mr. Quiet was genuine when he spoke, it was the same words that American politicians use when they speak of the massive market bombings in Pakistan or collateral damage in Afghanistan.  It is a genuine sorrow, but at the same time it is abstracted.  On both sides there is no empathy—just an intellectual acknowledgement of wrongdoing and a condolence.

But if ground zero was an intellectual curiosity, then shopping is a genuine interest.  On everyday that I’ve driven, I have had at least one request to detour to visit a shopping area or Walmart.  In fact, one of the funniest moments I’ve had was when a delegates, who gives off a very calming and measured air and is a well respected tribal leader in northwest Pakistan, held up two watches in Walmart and queried, “America?  China?”  The reason behind this was that one of his daughters has asked specifically for an American watch.  I know it is an oversimplification, but I just waved my hand at the whole store and said “China.”  Which from my point of view, didn’t really feel like a lie.

Another of the delegation, who is a short, heavyset man with a handlebar mustache and a lawyer by trade, had a good laugh at my expense, because I called my mom.  He asked me about my day on Tuesday, and I let him know I called my mother because she knew I was driving up to Vermont and I wanted to let her know I made it safely.  That way I wouldn’t be in trouble.  This tickled him, because as he put it, “it is good to know that mothers are the same everywhere.”  This was the same man, who also laughed, because I told him I recently started seeing a lady, and I was glad that on the day we meet, she was by herself.  He instantly agreed when I noted that, “it’s much harder to meet a girl when her friends are around.”  This, as it turns out, is also true in Pakistan.

Since undertaking this trip, I’ve learned a great deal about the evolution and devolution of the madrasas system in Pakistan and about the people I am driving.  I take great comfort in the fact that, even when they speak in political language, these people genuinely want to improve both their community and their relations with the world at large.  I also find it comforting that they are just as concerned with finding a watch for their daughter or in sharing an experience as they are when dealing with the problems of their school system being co-opted as training facilities for extremists.  And just think, now I can write about going to ground zero just as validly as I can when it comes to talk of meeting girls.

Sometimes I just can’t sleep.  I’m not really sure why, but I lay in bed for hours on end trying, and the big bupkis is my reward.  When you can’t sleep and you know you should be, time grinds to a crawl.  To try and speed time up, I read the flotsam and jetsam of the Internet, and as I was doing this I read about the new push to add a buck more in taxes onto tobbaco.  Now let me be clear up front, from time to time I enjoy smoking cigars, and I also own a hookah and the flavored tobacco that is traditional in such pipes; however, I don’t smoke on a regular basis or just because I’m drinking.  I smoke when I want, and the rest of the 99.7% of the time I’m a non-smoker. This could be construed as atypical behavior, but I want to be clear before moving on.

That said I find this tax irksome, but not because I think it is poor policy, unbeneficial to society at large, or because it won’t raise money.  Nope, I’m against it because if I’m going to spend the time and effort to tax something, I want my monies worth. Yes there are lots of smokers, and according to the same article they cost Americans $96 billion in health care costs annually.  On the other hand, even with people eating out less, there must be a larger pool of people who eat fast food and drink soda pop than smoke, and according to Leadership for Healthy Communities obesity annually cost “$117 billion in direct medical expenses and indirect costs, including lost productivity.”  So I’m thinking with the same tax on a larger taxable pool and with an extra $21 billion in projected annual savings, its time to tax fast food and cola. And because they are not always sold together, just split the tax, $0.50 for each.

Too Much Food

But wait, you say! Smoking is not only bad for you, but it hurts others around you.  Fast food and sodas don’t do that, so I must be wrong.  But I disagree.  It is much less taxing on the overall ecosystem to grow tobacco than raise the number of cows you need to satisfy all the fast food chains out there.  Not to mention, the byproduct of a tobacco plant is oxygen, while the cow puts out a whole lot of methane. Again, I’m not advocating smoking, I’m just saying it’s already taxed, and I think we should go after another vice. I mean, it’s like William Sutton, A.K.A. the original Slick Willie said when asked why he robbed banks, “because that is where the money is.”  And if you don’t agree with me about not hiking a tobacco tax, then just tax all three products.  Best of both world that.

But as I think about it, there may be one upside to a tobacco tax.  Maybe it will drive the number of smokers low enough that I no longer have to view those, “can anyone tell us why smoking isn’t stupid” ads off the TV and from in front of movies.  Seriously, those things make me want to go light up just to spite the people in those ads, and if I could blow the smoke into their faces…oh, I think I might have a joygasm!  We know it’s bad for us.  I grew up the 80s, and they were preaching that message then, so I’m sure they preach it today.  So either put a picture of a cancer riddled lung on the box and be done with it or let people make their own decisions.

A Smoker's Lung

I hear it now though. Out there, somewhere in the either is someone who will claim that we can’t definitively prove the correlation between consuming soda and fast foods and obesity.  I don’t know if that is true or not (let me know if you have that info handy!), but I will accept that it is true. And I say, who cares?  The correlation is perceived as existing by most people, and like marijuana or alcohol or caffeine—what about a coffee tax?—no matter what the facts actually show, the real bottom line is that no matter what you tax or how you tax it, people are going to do what they want.  So lets make some money and encourage people to eat better.

If you think that I’m being a little hard on fast food, just consider that one of the key ingredients in all this, high-fructose corn syrup, is a direct offshoot of Nixion’s Agricultural Secretary, Earl Butz policy to make food cheaper.  So ask yourself which is worse, Nixon’s Butz or cigarette butts? I should add on this note that I learn about this from listening to Smodcast when Kevin Smith and Scott Mosier talked about it during episode #55 Naked Butz. If you’ve never listened to the smodecast, I can’t recommend it enough, though I warn there is much scurrilous language and many odd tangents.

Ah snow. I really do love and hate you. I’ve never made it overly clear, but for those of you who do not know, I live in the DC metro area. Currently, we are in the calm between two major winter storms. At my house, we got around a solid two-and-a-half feet of snow from the first storm, and the weather service is predicting another six to twelve inches on the way. Not the end of the world, to be sure, but nevertheless, it is unwelcome.

Storms like these are made for stories. During what has commonly been dubbed, Snowpocalypse, I was content to stay at home, shovel the walk, and generally not freeze to death. But it was not to be. I got a call from my friend, Pat, saying “Dude, I’m driving to Richmond to drop my roommate off at the airport. You wanna come?…Just say yes!” Every part of me wanted to say just the opposite, but I agreed, and thus it was that I began making sandwiches.

My sandwiches are the kind that your dad used to make, and which most elementary school kids would try to trade away with an unsuspecting soul for the more socially acceptable PB&J. It is all salami, cheese, spicy German mustard, baby spinach, onions, tomatoes, and all on multi-grain bread. I also brought bananas and water. I wasn’t trying to feed the world, or even my friends. I just had the feeling that they would be under-prepared for the trip, and that if I was going to be stuck out on the middle of the Interstate I could at least do it with some food. I know the old saying, and it is true: a full belly makes for merry company.

I had to walk to a main road to meet my two travel companions as there was too much snow on the side streets for them to reach me. I wore layers, and they did not. This did not seem appropriate given that we were about to do something that was pretty high on the stupidity-meter (In fact, I’m pretty such it rates just below play with a loaded gun while jamming a fork into a toaster), but I let the matter pass. A bit more concerning was the fact that we were going be driving in a fifteen year old, front-wheel drive Toyota Camry with anemic windshield wipers. And then lo, something rather odd happened. We didn’t have one problem. We didn’t get stuck. In fact other then losing vision when big rigs went by and worrying that the car would vibrate itself into pieces on the uneven ice, we had a blast. There was much joking about the sandwich and the fact that I would not let my friends eat theirs’ right away (“You’ll thank me when we have to wait for someone to dig us out!”) And so we did what most men do on a road-trip: we lamented our lack of quality booze; we talked about girls; and we marveled at how drastically the quality of the plowing would shift from county to county.

The trip was not without a lack of evidence of how ill advised driving in such conditions are. We passed one car that was on its roof, and at least three other accidents. But we arrived safely, and while I did bring awesome sandwiches, I also found had the pleasure of eating at The Capital Alehouse in Richmond that sells a bacon-cheese burger sandwiched between two grill cheese sandwiches—Yes it is as good as it sounds, and yes, I did go running though the snow when I got back so as not to die from a heart attack. Pat and I returned with no troubles, and it’s a story about find a ridiculous burger in the snow. But it’s the start that of the story I find interesting. Food and water just seemed prudent at the start of the trip.

With Snowpocalypse 2.0 on the way to the DC I know people will stock up on food. Yet I’m forced to wonder about how many people will still be caught unawares? Not because they are stupid, but because they just don’t think. My friend called, and I knew he was not ready for the drive we took. So with two feet on the ground and another half foot to a foot expected, its time to see just how ready we all are and maybe how awake our brains are feeling.  Of course it may also just be the chance to do something completely spontaneous.

I spend a lot of time in coffee shops. This is mainly due to the fact that I am, as they say, “between work.” Thus I’m continually looking for employment, but writing cover letters, resumes, and the perpetual trolling of job boards can become quite tedious. So I do what many people do when bored: I surf the web. Normally this just involves reading a few news stories, and maybe clicking over to www.illwillpress.com to watch the ranting of Foamy the Squirrel. But on one of these brakes I recently came across an article in the Smithsonian Magazine about Henrietta Lacks. Then I found another article about her in The New York Times.

I had never heard of her before, and to be honest, outside of medical researchers, most of the general population has not either. But despite the fact that Henrietta fell into one of history’s cracks, her impact on the human race is on the same order of magnitude as the invention of the Internet. In a nutshell, she was a poor, black, tobacco farmer, who in 1951 had a culture of her cells taken without her knowledge. She died of cervical cancer, but her cells live on down to this day. They are responsible for assisting in finding the cure for polio; they were the first human culture shot into space, so that we could understand the effects of zero gravity on the human body; and Henrietta’s cells have been used in just about ever major medical study since they were taken from her body more than a half century ago.

I love stories like these, even though they do have their dark side. For example, according to the articles Mrs. Lacks’s family is still impoverished and can’t afford health care. This is both heartbreaking and unfair and should not be forgotten. Further, as previously mentioned, the doctor that took the sample, did not tell Henrietta what he was doing, which raises several ethical questions. But Henrietta’s story also begs the question, does anybody every really know the impact that they will have in the world?

Conversely, sometimes people get remembered for the wrong thing. Robert McNamara was never really all that popular in Washington DC, and is remembered mostly for his role as Secretary of Defense during the Vietnam Conflict. But did you know that he was also the person who put seatbelts in cars? Not by himself of course, but he had a major role in pressing Ford to place them into cars. It is a cheap solution to keeping people safe in an auto wreck which has probably saved more lives than were lost in the entire Vietnam Conflict, but nobody connects the name McNamara to automotive safety.

The known and the unknown. We crowd around one another on this rock flying though space, and most of the time, we barely feel that we are keeping up with our own lives. I worry about finding work, which is something I have in common with millions of people throughout the country and the world. Others worry about even more basic needs, like the roof over their head, or rebuilding after the earth literally tears their world apart. But as we move through our day, it must be conceded that most people truly are unaware of their individual impact on the world at large.

Enter Farris Bueller and his immortal wisdom: “Life moves pretty fast. You don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.” These two sentences not only sum up this post neatly, but they also reflect the way people move through the world: with eyes squarely fixed on a point just about two feet in front of our toes. The occasional break is helpful, because while you are “goofing off,” who knows what you will find? A thrilling story about the first use of human cells in medical research. New facts about someone or thing you felt you already had the goods on. Or if you are in a coffee shop, you might just wind up talking to the person next to you and making a new friend. In fact that happened to me last week. And while I need a new job, I also always need good friends. Making a new friend is truly good work for a day and a lifetime, and there is no telling what it will create. What paths will open up? From that one event something wonderful and lost to the cracks of history may just come about. Even more fun to think about, is that one day in the future one or both of us may be read about as someone else hunts for a job and just needs to look around.