Sunday, April 29, 2012

Meet the New Specs, Same as the Old Specs

My new glasses are in.

You may not be able to tell, since I chose them myself.  Unless Kim comes with me when I choose things, I tend to end up with whatever looks closest to whatever I walked in with.  I find this simpler in the long run, and it certainly explains any number of things about my appearance – shoes, clothing, haircut, and now glasses. 

Mr. Adventure, I am not.

These are not the usual glasses, though, not “under the hood,” as those who have some understanding of automobiles are fond of saying.  I don’t understand automobiles beyond “push the slanty pedal down and it goes forward,” but I do love a good phrase.

No, these are bifocals.  Transition bifocals, which means that there’s no clear line between what you can see and what you can’t – it all blurs together.  So far, literally.

I’ve been wearing these things since I got up this morning and the world has finally stopped looking like it’s covered in jello now, which is good.  I’m still not entirely used to the idea that I have to move my head rather than my eyes to see things, and where the boundaries are for the various focal lengths are still somewhat of a mystery.  But I did manage to drive to the other side of town and back this morning without changing the shape of any of the big iron things on the road, and that has to count for something.

There were donuts at the other end of that trip.  Motivation is important.

Friday, April 27, 2012

The United States Not A "Christian Nation"

It’s election season again, and this means that more than usual you will be bombarded with utter nonsense about What This Great Nation Of Ours Was Founded Upon.

It has been my sad experience that whenever someone utters any variation of that sentence in any context outside of a university classroom – and, frankly, most contexts within one – I am about to be sold a bill of goods.  That phrase is almost invariably the prelude to a version of American history that at best can be described as “misleading” and at worst (i.e. usually) can be described by such terms as “mendacious,” “distorted,” “hallucinatory,” and “possibly drug-induced” in some combination up to and including “all of the above.”

It is surprising to me how often this revolves around the idea that the United States is somehow a “Christian nation,” given the clear prohibitions that Christianity makes against bearing false witness and rendering unto the Lord that which is Caesar’s.  I will leave the implications of that regarding the  faith of those making such a claim as an exercise for the reader.

For the record, the United States is not a “Christian nation.”

The Founding Fathers were very clear about this, and anyone who takes the time to study the reality of this nation’s founding is also very clear about this.  Whenever you hear someone rattling on in favor of the whole “Christian nation” idea, you can be sure you are dealing with someone who is at best reality-deprived, and at worst lying to you in order to sell you something.

There are a lot of such people out there today, unfortunately, many of whom seem to be running for office.  And to judge from the rest of the platforms these people unashamedly present to us for our approval, most of which seem to be drawn from more contemporary sources such as that noted Christian devotee Ayn Rand, all of the descriptions above apply – they are phenomenally ignorant, completely cut off from reality, and desperately trying to sell you something that you don’t (or at least shouldn’t, if you have an ounce of patriotism or self-preservation) want.

Don’t listen to them.

Now, this is not to say that religion in general and Christianity in particular can be ignored when studying American history.  While the United States is not a “Christian nation” in the sense that is generally implied by that phrase, it is most certainly a nation made up overwhelmingly of Christians, and some of the most zealous, committed, and partisan Christians on earth no less.  It has been from the early stages of European colonization, and nothing since has lessened that. 

You cannot hope to understand American history unless you also understand the history of American religion. 

If you want to understand history, you need to understand why people did what they did.  It’s not enough to know what happened – you need to gain some insight into why they thought that was a good idea at the time.  When the majority of Americans are and always have been religious – often deeply so – any movement that affects that aspect of their behavior is going to have a profound effect on pretty much everything else they do.  A lot of the reasons that Americans thought this or that was a good idea at the time, in other words, get back to their interpretations of Christianity – mainly Protestant Christianity for much of our history, but many different shades of it and other flavors (Catholic, Orthodox, Mormon, etc.) as well.

Much of the impetus for colonization and immigration here was religious, for example.  Not all of colonization was religious, of course.  Commerce and trade played a big role from the beginning.  And particularly as you move into the 1800s the sheer desire of people to get out from under the thumb of heavy-handed governments or out of the way of warfare comes into play.  Furthermore, not all of the religious motivations were even remotely compatible, even if you ignore the fact that there were Muslims, Jews and Catholics here from the very beginning and just focus on the many and varied Protestants.  But that doesn’t remove the importance of religion to the colonization of what eventually became the United States, and it doesn’t reduce the importance of that factor in bringing people here even after the country was set up officially.

Even if you limit your focus to the actual founding of the United States – the period between 1763, when the colonies began their slide into revolution, and 1815, when the American Revolution was finally secured after the Second War of Independence (usually referred to as the War of 1812, for creatively challenged reasons), religious motivations were there in force.  The “Christian nation” people are right about that.  Where they are wrong is in their assumption that those religious motivations were the defining characteristic and guiding impulse of the new nation.

What these “Christian nation” types either don’t know or refuse to accept is that the main reason the Founding Fathers were so adamant that the new republic not be considered a Christian nation was precisely because of the strong religious motivations and feelings of the American people.  The religious motivations of the Revolutionary Era were so many and so varied that the Founders understood – in a way that modern Americans forget, even if they can grasp it at all – that these motivations had to be kept out of the final product or the end result would be the kind of religious civil war that had plagued European nations since the Reformation. 

The Founders were better historians than most modern Americans that way.

They remembered the Thirty Years War, which killed more people than any European conflict prior to World War I and whose barbarity retains the power to shock even in this jaded era.  They remembered the English Civil War of the mid1600s, which set England back a generation and cost it more in blood and treasure than any conflict between the Wars of the Roses and the Napoleonic Wars.  They remembered the civil wars in France at the end of the 1500s, when the streets literally ran red with the blood of the massacred on Saint Bartholomew’s Day.  All that bloodshed, chaos and destruction in the name of the Prince of Peace, all that warfare waged by supporters of competing visions of salvation, and nothing accomplished other than the perversion of both faith and politics.

The Founders did not want that, and they made sure that their new nation – a nation founded upon the ideals of the Enlightenment in so many ways – would be insulated from this as much as possible.

They quite deliberately took Christianity out of the Declaration of Independence.  There is only a passing reference to a "Creator" and “Nature and Nature’s God” in that document, blandly non-denominational statements that could have been written with equal justice by a Wiccan. 

They quite deliberately took Christianity out of the Constitution.  There is only one reference to religion in the original text of that document as passed by the Constitutional Convention and ratified by the states that founded the Union, and it is negative – a prohibition on religious tests for public office that modern politicians would do well to remember.  The Preamble, which sets out the basic definition of the Union, starts out “We the People of the United States.”  It doesn’t mention the states at all, not that this bothered Southern traitors three quarters of a century later.  Nor does it mention Christ or any version of God. 

Believe me, people noticed that last one at the time. 

A fair amount of the opposition to the Constitution during the ratification debates of 1787 and 1788 came from precisely the people who felt that this omission was sinful and mistaken – ministers, mostly, from established churches who hoped to continue living off of the taxpayers of the new nation as they had done before independence.  Many of them did, in fact – until the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment in 1868 the First Amendment prohibition against the establishment of religion applied only to the federal government, not the states, and several states forced their taxpayers to pay for churches into the 1820s or 1830s – but that wasn’t enough.  They wanted a theocracy.  They wanted a “Christian nation.”

And they didn’t get one.

The Founders wouldn’t give it to them.  They knew the problems it could cause if they did.  They created a secular republic instead, one which would rule over its deeply religious population as a sort of neutral referee, leaving matters of faith in the hands of individuals, where they belonged.  They did not feel it was the province of the new nation to tell its citizens what to believe, and in this they have been proven correct.  We are one of the few Western nations that has never experienced a religious civil war and one of the few where church and state are separate, and this is not a coincidence.

In creating this secular republic they were supported not only by the sort of Enlightenment-minded gentlemen who made up the political elite of the new nation and thus largely mirrored the Founders themselves, but also by the leaders of the emerging evangelical sects that would dominate the United States in the nineteenth century but who, when the Constitution was written in 1787, were on the outside of political power looking in.  Those leaders understood that if the United States were to be founded on Christianity it wasn’t going to be founded on their version of Christianity and they would be crushed in much the same way they had been suppressed in Europe.  They supported the separation of church and state in eloquent and – in light of present positions – ironic prose.  Read Isaac Backus sometime if you don’t believe me.

Backus was a Baptist minister, one of the many converts made during the First Great Awakening in the mid-1700s.  In 1773, as the colonies spiraled toward revolution and independence, he made his case for the separation of church and state in a pamphlet entitled, An Appeal to the Public for Religious Liberty, Against the Oppressions of the Present Day. “[I]t is needful to observe,” he wrote, “that God has appointed two kinds of government in the world, which are distinct in their nature, and ought never to be confounded together; one of which is called civil, the other ecclesiastical government. … Now who can hear Christ declare, that his kingdom is, not of this world, and yet believe that this blending of church and state together can be pleasing to him?”*  Backus and his followers continued making this argument throughout the ratification period for the Federal Constitution of 1787 – Backus himself was a delegate to the Massachusetts convention that ratified the Constitution and voted in its favor, noting with particular approval the rejection of religious tests for public office – and it is their views, not the “Christian nation” views, that won.

You can see this victory codified into federal law with the Treaty of Tripoli, which was negotiated under George Washington’s administration, approved by the Senate in 1797 and signed into law by John Adams.  The treaty flatly states that “the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion.“ 

On the one hand, it is entirely possible to make too much of this.  It was one throwaway line in a treaty that lapsed eight years later.

On the other hand, when the treaty was sent to the Senate, that line sparked no debate whatsoever.  In other words, the men who were there when the United States was created and who were in a position to know firsthand what the nation was really founded upon – and, since it was only a decade prior, presumably to remember those facts – saw nothing controversial about that statement.  It was seen as a simple restatement of obvious fact, not an assertion that needed proof. 

Trust me - I’ve studied this period intensely.  This was an era of vitriolic politics, where each side saw themselves as the only true and proper defenders of the republic and where everyone involved feared that a single misstep could doom the new republic.  Anything that would have been seen as even remotely debatable would have launched barrages of rhetorical artillery that would leave marks visible even today.  The line itself is not as important as the fact that nobody at the time saw it as controversial.

It wasn’t.

The United States is not a “Christian nation.”  It is a nation made up overwhelmingly of Christians.  But these are not and never have been the same thing.

Keep that in mind, this election season.


*Italics in the original.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

That Kind of Day

That’s it. I have officially Burned Out.

There is a list of things I need to accomplish today that is longer than I really care to think about. It is preceded by the list of things I should have accomplished yesterday and followed by the list of things for tomorrow. These lists cover long term goals, short term tasks, intermediate range wishful thinking, global needs and specific crises.

And none of them are getting done today.

 I suppose some of this is because it has been a hectic month. But they’re all hectic. Nobody I know has free time anymore.

 It’s been the sort of day where I stare at one task, put it aside, stare at the next task, put that aside, and cycle through the lot of them until I find myself back at the first task with nothing accomplished other than becoming marginally older. I can become older without that kind of effort.

Perhaps I will just call it a day.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012


Good heavens. I have been optimized.

 For the last month or so Blogger has been threatening me with a new format. Well, they probably didn’t see it as a threat. They saw it as an Opportunity! See all the new features! Look at all the improved layout! Notice how much more you can do now! You can make your blog do tricks! It can look like different blogs to different people, if you only click this toggle button! Or unclick it. Whichever.

And once again, we are back to the Engineer’s Problem.

Engineers look at gizmos and ask, “How many things can I get this to do?” They want flexibility, capacity, energy. They want a box that can solve all of the world’s problems, fix a tasty meal and tuck your children in bed at night, and they want it with four buttons that need to be pressed in varying combinations and patterns because more than four buttons is aesthetically displeasing.

I look at gizmos and ask, “How can I get this to do what I want?” This is a very different question, with a much more straight-line sort of answer. This is one of the many reasons I did not become an engineer of any kind. Not understanding circuit diagrams despite hours of explanation also figured into that decision.

I had been given the opportunity to “upgrade to the new Blogger interface” a couple of years ago, back when they introduced the last new Blogger interface. I tried it, and decided that it was indeed more flexible, capable and energetic but that those very qualities were a hindrance to me actually getting it to do what I wanted, which was to make blog posts.  Fortunately they had a Back button on the whole thing, so I went back to my old unimproved interface and was happy.

There doesn’t seem to be a Back button this time around.

And getting this post into the proper format has been a neat trick, since my old work-around of pasting Word documents into the HTML editor and then switching over to the Compose mode (to avoid all the formatting tags that Word began to introduce several Blogger upgrades ago) seems to be working extra well these days, to the point of removing all formatting entirely - even paragraph breaks.


Eventually, I suppose, I will figure out a way to make this new system do what I want, and perhaps later I will even figure out a way to get it to stop doing what I don’t want. But this hardly seems like the upgrade or Opportunity that Blogger insists that it is.

And fairly soon I am sure the Facebook Borg will assimilate me into Timeline.

Keep those good times rolling, yes indeed.

Monday, April 23, 2012

It's Not The Questions, It's The Answers

One of the most valuable lessons I learned growing up was that you should never ask a question if you don’t really want to know the answer.

There are two ways you can take that lesson, and both of them are important things to consider before asking anyone anything.

On the one hand, there are times when you already know the answer and having it confirmed will do you no good. Sometimes a little ambiguity is all you need to preserve the peace and allow everyone involved to look the other way while important, necessary, enjoyable or irrelevant but somehow forbidden things go on. You don’t need to know. Don’t ask. No good will come of asking.

On the other hand, there are times when you really don’t know the answer but a little forethought will tell you that none of the possibilities are going to make your world easier, more profitable, more enjoyable or more peaceful. If you can’t imagine an answer that will be at all comforting or provide you with information that is in any way useful, you may want to rethink your strategy, question-asking-wise.

But it’s often hard to know those questions in advance. They sneak up on you, and they’re out of your mouth and into the air before you realize. You’ll know them when they pop out – they’re generally followed by a brief “what do we do now?” kind of pause in the short run, interludes of crisis in the medium run, and lingering regret in the long run – but by then it’s too late.

So here are a few questions you should probably plan on not asking, so you can recognize them in advance and in fact avoid asking them.

1. That theory you have about your favorite sports team being cursed, how does that go again?

2. Why do you use so many multiple exclamation points and capital letters when you write?

3. So, how did you come to be a Ron Paul supporter?

4. I tried calling you late last night – where were you?

5. I’m going to hell? Now what makes you say that?

6. You wrote that down?

7. How many volunteers do you need?

8. That new dish was really tasty. What’s in it?

9. What’s this camera doing in your bedroom?

10. How much did that cost?

11. What do you think you’re doing?

12. Why isn’t all that scientifically proven evidence good enough for you?

There are a whole lot more of these questions, but even thinking about them is enough to drive a body to drink and it is just too early in the day for that. It may be five o’clock somewhere, but not here.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Big Yellow Machines

The big yellow machines were back outside my house today.

My street is apparently slated for demolition this spring. Not the houses, mind you. Just the street. And about time, I say, for getting from Point A (at the south corner of my block) to Point B (my driveway) without first being rerouted through Point C (which feels very much like the exciting part of a motocross track) has become something of a trick. This does not include actually getting past the sinkholes guarding my driveway, some of which have glass elevators and charge admission fees.

Coming home can be an expensive, if scenic, proposition.

So when the letter came in February that the city would begin to replace this carnival of multiple altitudes with something resembling a macadamized road, I was on board with it.

Last week they began what appears to be Phase 1 of this project. Phase 1, from what I could tell, involved making great holes in the road wherever a water pipe came to the surface (approximately every thirty-five feet), and then filling those holes in with gravel. I am sure that something of note happened between the making of those holes and their filling in with gravel, but beyond a general sort of “and then they fixed the water main” I couldn’t tell you what that something might be.

And they didn’t fix it anyway. At least not at first.

They tried though. Last Friday there suddenly appeared in front of my house a hole ten feet square and eight feet deep encompassing the south half of my driveway apron as well as pieces of the surrounding street and terrace (Our Little Town has awfully wide terraces), and as I was negotiating with the crew chief for an approved escape route so I could get to work that day he asked me “How’s your water pressure upstairs?” “What water pressure?” I asked him. “Figured,” he said. It turns out that there were multiple leaks out there in the road, and that he would be directing his crew to fix them.

On the one hand, those leaks were before my water meter, so I wasn’t paying for them. On the other hand, wasting water is a bummer, bad water pressure is more of a bummer, and the idea that this fixing of leaks might resolve the recurring sinkholes guarding my driveway and save me admission fees seemed, well, an anti-bummer. “Have at it,” I said, as if he needed my permission.

When I came back later that day, it appeared that he had not fixed those leaks so much as moved them to new locations. My newly graveled hole was a swamp, which had not been the case with the original sinkholes. But by then it was the weekend, and I had to wait until Monday to complain.

They said they’d send someone out.

It turns out that my leaks probably were fixed, but they had created new leaks with the hole in front of my neighbor’s house and that water was running south to me and making my swamp. I found this explanation satisfyingly explanatory, but rather short in the “solving my actual problem” department.

Yesterday they came by and cut a groove into my new gravel, which had the salutary effect of draining my new swamp but was still lacking in the “solving my actual problem” department.

This morning they came to solve the problem.

Vast yellow machines crawled hither and yon back and forth in front of my house, making my computer bounce up and down and causing the work crew to shut off my water, though they were kind enough to give me sufficient lead time to get a shower and fill my teapot.

There is something about big yellow machines that dig up stuff that is just forever fascinating, especially if you – like me – were once a 9-year-old boy.

But now they’re gone again. It seems like they actually did solve my problem. The swamp appears to be gone. I haven’t noticed any great change in water pressure, but at least I’ve got the old pressure back.

And sometime soon they will redo the street, which will mean more big yellow machines.


Tuesday, April 17, 2012

It's a Hockey Night in America

This is my favorite time of the year, sports-wise.

It’s the first round of the hockey playoffs, which as far as I am concerned are better than the Super Bowl, the World Series, the World Cup and the season finale of Mythbusters combined. There’s always a game on, since there are three or four games every night across four different time zones, and the games are fast, hard-hitting and generally fun to watch.

I’m not sure why it is that the things I like most are invariably the things that make most other people either yawn or scratch their heads trying to figure out what exactly I’m talking about. Hockey used to be the fourth sport in this country, behind football, baseball and basketball, but now it falls somewhere below NASCAR, UFC fights and competitive eating as well.

And still nobody cares about the World Cup but us contrarians.

I like football, really I do. I like baseball if I can watch it in person, or on television if I’m in a languorous mood.

But basketball is just silly. UFC is nothing more than boxing with the rules taken out. Competitive eating is the single best example of the pitfalls of unlimited cable channels with airtime to fill. And NASCAR? Seriously? Why would anyone want to watch people drive in circles all day? I understand that takes skill and physical conditioning – it’s not like driving in circles in the grocery store parking lot, however much it looks like it from the outside – but there are a lot of things that take skill and physical conditioning to do that really are not meant to be spectator sports.

Welding, for example.

What makes this year’s playoffs even better is that my two favorite teams are meeting head to head.

I grew up as a fan of the Philadelphia Flyers, a team I still regard as my favorite organization in all of sports. I was about Lauren’s age during the years of the Broad Street Bullies, when they won their two Stanley Cups. I remember hanging out with my brother late one night in the bedroom that we shared when all of the sudden it seemed like the world had erupted in horns and shouting, and not knowing until the next day what that had been all about.

I lived in Pittsburgh during their first two Stanley Cups, in the early 1990s. I didn’t own a television for part of that and didn’t get cable even when I bought one, so most of the games I had to see at a local bar, about half a mile from my apartment. It was a long, narrow bar, maybe 12 feet wide and forever long, so sound tended to bunch up and reverberate, and the night they won their first championship I left that bar with my ears ringing and couldn’t hear right for nearly a week.

I’m probably the only person in America who can genuinely call himself a fan of both teams, such has the rivalry between them grown heated.

As a Flyers fan, I’m liking this series. They’re up three games to none in this best-of-seven, and have come from behind in all three to win convincingly – twice on the road. They’ve played with discipline and intelligence, they’ve shown strong defense and scored almost at will (20 goals in three games? That would be a lot of scoring for baseball, let alone hockey). Barring a historic collapse, they will move on.

As a Penguins fan, however, I’m thoroughly annoyed. Not just because they’ve lost three straight games that they led by as many as three goals, but because they’ve turned into thugs and charlatans. Their captain is a petulant little coward who has hung his teammates out to dry, they’ve deliberately tried to hurt opposing players, and even the Pittsburgh media have called them out on it.

It’s kind of conflicted, really.

But soon enough it will all be over. This round ends next week sometime. The next round comes and goes, and eventually some toothless, scruffy guys will be skating around with a big silver bowl over their heads and goofy smiles on their faces, and it will all be put away for next year.

Go Flyers.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Photography 101

One of Lauren’s 4H projects this year is photography, so I’ve been letting her use my new camera to take pictures of whatever she feels is worth taking pictures of – that’s the magic of digital photography: there’s essentially no cost to photographs once you’ve got the equipment.

I think she’s got a pretty good eye.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Stuff and Nonsense

I have a somewhat ambivalent relationship with stuff.

On the one hand, I like stuff. I am both a pack rat and an archivist, and I am rarely happier than I am when surrounded by my stuff, organizing it, looking through it, or just exploring it. Most of my stuff is books, admittedly, and these lend themselves to those kinds of activities. It is much the same story with photographs, memorabilia, letters, and the vast array of otherwise valueless objects that I keep on hand because they tell me stories or provide me comfort. Whether this congruency between my stuff and what I wish to do with it is a cause or an effect or whether this distinction is relevant at all is just one of those questions I choose to ignore.

On the other hand, stuff doesn’t have all that much of a hold on my mind. I lose things, which is often just the prelude stage of making exciting re-discoveries. I give things away, sometimes as loans and sometimes as gifts, and so often the difference between those two things is just whether I notice when they don’t come back.

As a historian, I am trained to value stuff for the stories it tells, for the comfort it brings, and for the material security it provides in a world that for so long was defined by scarcity and want and remains so even today for so many.

As a former firefighter I was trained to ignore stuff and focus on the people. Property can be replaced. People can’t. Let the property burn until you get the people out, let it continue to burn if you can’t guarantee that your own people can get out, and sleep the sleep of the virtuous for doing so.

So it’s a conflict, sometimes.

There is a lot of value judgment placed on stuff and one’s attitude toward it these days.

Some folks think stuff is all there is – he who dies with the most toys wins, and all that. Acquisition is virtue, and woe betide anyone who presumes to place any burdens, intellectual, financial or otherwise, upon one’s stuff.

Others think it is an encumbrance and an obstacle, and the goal should be to transcend stuff and our attachment to it and become a figure of pure emotion, or some ascetic Ghandian saint.

But I can’t quite manage either of those extremes. I like stuff and would rather not live without it. But I can’t really find it in my heart to like it more than anything else.

Just another one of those quandaries that define my everyday world, I suppose.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

People Find Me

Sometimes I wonder about people.

Well, I wonder about people all the time, really. I wonder what they’re doing. I wonder how they get through the day. I wonder whatever happened to them, what might happen, and how I can find out. But mostly I wonder what goes through their heads.

This is why I majored in psychology as an undergrad. It’s also why I became a historian. It’s all people, and trying to figure out what they were thinking. People are just the most ridiculous things in the universe, and they’re heartbreaking that way.

One of the sneakier things that Blogger gives to those of us who use its services is a tab in the control page labeled “Stats.” You can find out how many people have visited recently. You can see what they looked at if it made the top ten things. And you can see what search strings people use to get to your blog.

Today’s winning search string? “Skinny bald cat wearing a chain.”


There are many levels upon which one might take that, all of them filled with regret and awkwardness. I’ve thought about them a bit since this morning, and I have come to the conclusion that there isn’t anything I could ask about that search string that would make me feel better about the world and my fellow human beings in it for knowing the answer.

The thing that sort of gets me about it more than anything else is the specificity of it.

Whoever was looking for that was looking for something remarkably narrowly defined. I suppose you could quibble about the definition of “cat” – is it a feline? A Beatnik? A jazz musician? And you could ask yourself what kind of chain as well: gold, silk, anchor, whatever. But there’s not much play in “skinny” or “bald” and when you put it all together it’s fairly clear to me that the whole phrase refers to a very concrete image, whatever that might be.

It’s a mystery.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

How To Take An Exam: A Primer

It’s exam time down at Home Campus, and there is always room to learn more. Not particularly about the subject matter – those neurons died last summer during the Great Tequila Rampage of 2011, may they rest in peace, and you are just going to have to get by as best you can as far as History 101 or Chem 145 or Math 091 is concerned.

But there are other neurons still unblown that haven’t been marked out for specific purposes, neurons that can be put to use learning new skills.

Skills such as How To Take An Exam. Because you’re going to need to know that sort of thing, no matter what class you find yourself in.

So, you’re welcome.


1. Use the study guide.

You know that sheet of paper your instructor handed you a week ahead of time? The one that has 90% of the exam already on it? You might want to consider taking that seriously.

For one thing, your instructor is probably aware that the material covered in class can be overwhelming in its volume, speed and complexity, and this is a good way to cut it down to something manageable.

For another thing, a properly constructed study guide will also act as a review sheet, forcing you to put together the material in ways that reinforce the classes and assignments, turn it into a story and help to fix it into your head. Who knows? You might even remember it after the class is over.

And finally, the fact that you’ve got this a week in advance means that your professor is not likely to be forgiving when you go completely pear shaped on several of the answers. You had a week to look this stuff up. Get it right.

2. Show up on time.

There is a set amount of time allotted to an exam. You may spend however much of it you like in the hallways chugging the last of your Mountain Dew and texting your buddies about whatever stunt you pulled last night and how it affected your car, your relationship or your waistline, but that doesn’t mean the total amount of time allotted to the exam changes any. It’s a Zero-Sum Game that way at the college level. Plan accordingly.

3. Read the freaking directions.

Part of what we are trying to teach you here at the University is life skills. And one of the greatest life skills you can learn is the ability to find out what exactly is being asked of you in any given situation. In most places, you’re on your own with that. Fortunately for you, in the University setting, we will tell you – all you have to do is pay attention.

If you can manage that, you will be ahead of at least a third of your peers.

4. Read the entire test.

Get the lay of the land before you go charging into battle. Sun Tzu probably said that. I’ll bet Douglas MacArthur did too. So did Napoleon, Alexander the Great, and Alfred Thayer Mahan, at least to their subordinates and probably to their dogs. And you know why all these renowned military minds said that? Because it’s obvious, that’s why.

Figure out what you have to do before you go galloping off. It’s a whole lot easier to plan when not moving at top speed.

5. Go for the low-hanging fruit first.

Never voluntarily give up points. Do the quick and easy things before getting bogged down with the difficult or complex things, otherwise you will end up rushing.

This means if you get stuck on something, leave it and come back.

This also means skip the essays and head straight for the multiple choice questions. Questions where the answer is provided for you are always easier than questions where you have to think up the answer on your own. You’ll probably zip through them in no time. Don’t run out of time. Do these first and go back to the hard stuff afterward.

6. Leave nothing blank.

Leaving things blank says, “I’m not only too lazy to study, I’m also too lazy to guess.” This is not a good message to be sending.

There are very few exams that have a penalty for guessing. And most professors will try to work with you on an answer, so if you’re at all in the ballpark with something you might get a point or two just for trying. There’s nothing we can do for you if you don’t give us something to work with.

7. Don’t be so damned stupid.

You know that question that asked you to provide a date for an event? The event that had the date already there, right in the name? There really isn’t any excuse to put a different date down for that answer, is there?

Didn’t think so.

When you write something down, take a moment and just read it over. If you find yourself with an irresistible urge to face-palm, you may wish to change your answer.

8. Don’t bullshit me either.

Most professors have been doing this a long time. After a while, we can’t help but develop acutely sensitive bullshit detectors. You aren’t going to win that battle.

And if you do win that battle, you probably put in more work than if you had just done the actual work in the first place.

Put down what you know, extrapolate as best you can, but when you start making things up just to fill space you can pretty well stop and move on to the next topic. It will save everyone time in the end.

9. Write legibly.

Anything I can’t make out is by definition wrong. I am the sole and final judge of what I can or cannot make out.

If you really knew the answer, you’d make sure I could read it.

10. If you can’t be accurate, at least be entertaining.

Sometimes you can pick up a point or two just by making me laugh. After looking at the same answer thirty or forty times, an honest bit of nonsense can be refreshing.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Go Long and Cut Right: An Easter Story

I was in junior high when the minister at my church resigned.

It takes a while for a parish to get a new minister, and thus we went through a series of temps until I was well into high school. They were good guys, I guess – some people liked them, some didn’t, and that’s about all you can say in any case.

The first guy was a tall man with a deep voice who could never quite estimate how much communion wine to consecrate and generally preferred to err on the side of caution. This meant that he never ran out during communion. It also meant trouble for whomever else was up there with him and was above the legal drinking age, such as my dad on one memorable Sunday when there was an entire extra chalice of consecrated communion wine left over.

Two things you have to know about this situation, for those of you who did not grow up in the church:

First, anything consecrated has to be consumed then and there. You can’t put it back for later.

And second, communion wine at the time – at least our communion wine – was essentially alcoholic syrup. It was thick, treacly sweet, and would have made a great topping for a dark chocolate ice cream sundae, but to have to drink a whole glass of the stuff in less than three minutes was going above and beyond the call.

My dad earned many church-related points that day.

My personal favorite temp minister was the next guy, though. He was much shorter, something that probably bothered him more than he let on as he was constantly bobbing up onto his tiptoes when he spoke. He was a hospice minister by trade, used to working in hospitals and eager to get back to what he clearly regarded as his calling, and thus had no particular interest in putting down roots with us. This meant that he didn’t really worry about who he offended or who he didn’t – he just rearranged things to his liking and that was that. Also, he had a flair for the dramatic. The man was a Broadway director at heart, and he saw us as his big opportunity to get some of that out of his system.

The kids loved him. But there weren’t that many of us, in a church where my parents were considered young, and his departure was not mourned by most of the congregation. He served his time with us and moved back into his chosen field, and sometimes I wonder whatever became of him – every once in a while his name would pop up in the newspaper, so I know he was doing well.

This is one of the stories that keep him in my mind even now, thirty years later.

It was Easter Sunday, one of the two days of the year where you could be guaranteed a crowd in that church. And the thing about Easter crowds is that they are, like Christmas crowds, traditionalists. They want the comfort of routine. They want to do the same things they did last year. They were in the wrong place.

I was serving as an acolyte that day, which in that church at that time meant that I led the choir up the main aisle at the beginning of the service and then sat up front by the altar, off to the right from the congregation’s point of view. There were two chairs there, and the minister generally sat in the other one when not actively conducting the service. When the choir rose to sing, we were pretty well concealed from the congregation’s view.

He saw that as an opportunity.

About a third of the way through the service there was a two-verse hymn, at the end of which it was my job to get up, walk to the center aisle, bow to the cross, go up to the altar and get the book containing that week’s readings, go back to my chair and then follow the minister back out to the center, where I would hold it for him to read from. This in itself was an innovation, and not one most people were fully comfortable with, but we’d been doing it for some weeks by then and the grumbling had died down.

About halfway through the first verse, he leaned over to me and said, “You know that routine where you go up and get the book?”


“I have a plan.”

I was not all that surprised by this, it must be said. Every Sunday, just before the service started, we generally got together for a couple of minutes to have him lay out the latest wrinkle he wanted to try that day. The whole book routine started out that way, in fact. But this was cutting it close. When he said he had a plan, in my head I was thinking, “The church is full of people, people who have likely never seen you before. They come twice a year. It’s the biggest holiday in the church calendar. We’re a verse and a half from “go” time. And you have a plan?”

But out loud, all I said was, “Oh.”

“Yes. Instead of getting the book and then circling back to me, why don’t you …”

He paused, his voice trailing away. By this point the choir had launched into the second verse.

“Wait,” he said. “I have a better plan.”

In my head: “What? Is this flag football to you? Are you just drawing up plays on the back of the program?”

Out loud: “Okay, hit me with it.”

We ended up halfway down the aisle with him holding the book on his own while I stood there and tried to look like I knew this had been coming.

And aside from the people I told afterward, nobody ever knew how ad-libbed that was.

Most of that congregation might have been glad to see the back of him, but I missed him when he left. The place got awfully predictable after that.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Thoughts for Good Friday

One day in the not too distant future, geologically speaking, I will stand before my Maker and I will be asked where I have been all those years. And all I will be able to say in response will be something along the lines of, “I was right there, hiding from Your followers.”

There was a time when I went to church quite often. Granted, it was a while ago, but I served my time as an acolyte in my church growing up, sang in the choir and rarely missed a Sunday during the school year (God loves Episcopalians so much that He gives us summers off). I took my turn as a lay reader like everyone else in that small congregation – my first experience with the public speaking that now earns me my living – and I survived more than a decade of well-intentioned Sunday School. There are stories from that time that I still treasure, and someday perhaps I’ll write them down here.

Every Christmas in high school and college my brother and I would church-hop, going to various Christmas Eve services just to see what they were like. We’d start at our own church – a plaster and wood chapel full of air and light, built in the 1950s – for the early service, and end up somewhere else for the late one. My favorite was a place called St. Asaph’s, which was built to look like something out of 1300, all grey stone, dark wood and claustrophobia.

Somewhere in there I acquired a fairly solid faith, defined by the sort of latitudinarian low-church Episcopal theology that I grew up within and modified by any number of other influences along the way. If I had to place myself on a spectrum, I suppose I’d be an early eighteenth-century Newtonian Deist of the sort that fit comfortably within the Church of England when Anne was queen and which descended nearly unchanged into most of the American Founders.

It’s been a long time since I’ve done any of that, though. I still have my faith, but I don’t remember the last time I set foot in a church that didn’t involve a bride or a coffin. I find this rather disheartening, but I also find that I have very little incentive to do anything about it.

It seems to me that the term “Christian” has been taken over by the most narrow-minded, anti-intellectual, bigoted, reactionary and insane fringe elements of that broad movement, and that those elements have done a masterful PR job of convincing everyone that they and only they deserve the title. If you don’t believe in the literal truth of every contradictory word in that complex, sprawling document known as the Bible; if you don’t support the most stringent condemnations of unorthodoxy at the expense of compassion and grace; if you aren’t exactly like that fringe element in every particular, then you don’t count.

I don’t see this as Christianity. But then, as noted, I don’t count.

I still consider myself a Christian. And I am aware that those fringe elements are not all or even most of the Church, just the loudest, most smugly self-satisfied and most aggressive part of it. I know people who are active church members and even ministers who find these self-declared “Christians” as offensive as I do. But it gets tiresome having to defend – even to myself – the idea that I should share a space with people I regard as actively evil, and I have no energy to give to that task these days.

The Pharisees have taken over the Church, and I have left to give them room.

I will not be tarred by the same brush of insanity that drives the modern right-wing extremes of American politics and society, the one that has declared itself the One True And Only Representative not only of Christianity but of America as well. I will not accept or associate with people who, in the name of my religion, cheer for the death of the uninsured; treat women like cattle (or worse, because cattle have market value, after all); call for wars of aggression in the name of the Prince of Peace; gut the Constitution and seek to render unto the Lord what is rightfully Caesar’s; applaud the suffering of anyone who doesn’t look, act, think or speak precisely in the manner which these insufferable louts approve; and generally act with a sense of monstrous entitlement that would be deemed excessive in a toddler.

I didn’t put up with anything like that from my kids when they were toddlers, and I see no reason why I should put up with it from people who claim to be adults.

Nor do I see that as the message of the Church or its founder.

To be honest, I doubt the Pharisees want me around either. As noted, I am not of their ilk, and they are not really fond of people not of their ilk. More importantly, I have little patience for nonsense and no particular need any more to tolerate it. As I have gotten older and obtained wisdom in the ways of the world, my willingness to suffer fools gladly – or at all – has declined apace. No doubt I would start to answer their complaints about me honestly, and there is just no way that could possibly end well.

Here in these Evangelical States of America I simply do not feel comfortable hearing the adjective “Christian” applied to anything anymore – not thoughts, not actions, not places, not music, not education, not politics, not books, and not even the Church itself. All too often the word is used as a synonym for close-minded bigotry and as a way to define who is In versus who is Out.

And I’m Out.

I still have my faith. I haven’t changed. But I’m not going to go where those followers lead.

I will just have to hope that an omniscient and omnipresent God already understands.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012


Every so often the Edward R. Hamilton people brighten my day by dropping off their latest catalogue of remainders, publishers’ overstocks, and assorted other “book porn” for me to salivate over. I take out my pen and make little marks next to all the books I’d buy if time, money and space were infinite, and even if I never buy a single one I still consider it an evening well spent.

This does have its odd side, though.

No, really, it does. Hard as that may be for you to believe, but it does.

Well, I suppose pretty much all of it is odd when I think about it. I could be using that time to drink at bars or watch large men fight over a small ball or surf the web for new and ever more inappropriate images to increase the virus load on my computer – you know, manly stuff like that. But no. I am what I am, and my downtime is spent on books.

But not all books.

Because one of the things that catalogues like ERH prove even more than the fact that I need a real hobby is that there are many, many people on this planet who will write about just about anything. And more than that? That someone will publish those books.

The Magnificent Millard Fillmore?


I can understand someone writing this book. People have all sorts of odd little fascinations, and with the advent of word processing software a lot of the physical barriers to writing have fallen away. People natter on about everything. That’s what the internet is all about. But publishing costs money. Publishing represents an investment of time, labor and financial resources that need to be recovered.

In short, someone in a publishing house somewhere looked at that proposal and said, “Yes! That’s what the book market needs – a new full-length biography of our thirteenth president! A forgotten man, that president! I’ll bet we could make a killing on that!”

Well, yes, he was forgotten. Even in his own time, I’ll bet that nobody ever once called him “Magnificent,” not even his mother.

And to judge from the ERH catalogue price – which is just barely enough to cover the storage fees to have these volumes taking up room in a warehouse – he remains forgotten even to this day.

Someone should write a book about that.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Off to the Polls, Once Again

So today I went and cast my ballot in yet another election here in Wisconsin.

We’re getting pretty well practiced in this sort of thing, here at Ground Zero in the Teabagger War on America. We had one round a few weeks ago where I was forced to show proof of having paid my poll tax in order to vote (darn that pesky Constitution with its 24th Amendment – we’ll have none of that here in Fitzwalkerstan). Thanks to several different judges that particular barrier to suffrage wasn’t in effect for today’s election, but it might be next month when we get to vote for the recall primaries or in June when the actual recall elections are held.

Governor Teabagger (a wholly-owned subsidiary of Koch Industries) has bitterly condemned the various judges for interfering with his grab for absolute power by invalidating the 2011 Voter Suppression Act, by the way, and has vowed to appeal their decisions to the far more friendly confines of the Wisconsin Supreme Court, a body whose naked partisanship, inept electoral corruption, and general inability to function has made it the laughingstock of legal communities across the world. North Korean apparatchiks think the Wisconsin State Supreme Court is too controlled by one party.

We’re getting pretty well practiced in that sort of thing too.

Today’s elections were fairly tame. Here in Our Little Town we had to choose school board candidates, City Council members, and a county judge. I could also vote in the presidential primary if I wanted to, but that seemed foolish. None of the Republican candidates would be worth urinating on even if they were on fire, and thanks to a modern miracle of Not Snatching Defeat From The Jaws Of Victory there isn’t anyone challenging the current occupant of the White House from within his own party.

Next month is when the fireworks start.

The Teabaggers have already announced that they will be subverting the democratic process by running false candidates in the Democratic recall primaries – apparently if you announce this ahead of time the laws forbidding it don’t apply. Learn something new every day!

This is a good thing for the Teabaggers, since there are several such laws that might otherwise impede their cynical attempts to undermine the rule of law and Constitutional practice here, such as:
Wisconsin Statute 12.05: “No person may knowingly make or publish, or cause to be made or publish, a false representation pertaining to a candidate or referendum which is intended or tends to affect voting at an election.”
Wisconsin Statute 12.13(3)(a) “No person may falsify any information in respect to … a certificate of nomination, nomination paper, [or] declaration of candidacy …; or file or receive for filing a certificate of nomination, nomination paper, declaration of candidacy or any such petition, knowing any part is falsely made.”
And so on.

But since the Teabaggers currently control all three branches of Wisconsin’s government, they are immune from prosecution and above the law. And anyone who says otherwise is clearly a Kenyan Terrorist Marxist Mooooslim Radical Who Hates America. Or an educated citizen. Teabaggers don’t seem to make any particular distinction between those two alternatives.

I always vote. And I generally take my daughters with me when I do, because they need to see it happening. They need to understand that in this country power flows uphill, not down. That American sovereignty resides in its citizens, not its tin-hat petty dictators and their minions, lackeys and cronies in the legislature, nor its corporations, PACs and false-front “Institutes” for policymaking.

Someday historians will look back on this period with the same sort of astonished distaste with which we now look back upon the first Gilded Age.

I’m just getting an early start, is all.