2017: Kakistocracy

If we’re looking for the source of our troubles, we shouldn’t test people for drugs, we should test them for stupidity, ignorance, greed, and love of power. -P.J. O’Rourke

There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there always has been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that “my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.” -Isaac Asimov

Maybe January isn’t the worst month. This is the only month this year in which the United States has a competent, qualified President. For two-thirds of it, anyway.Competent President

In the days following the election back, what struck me most was not the collective crying and worrying on social media. There was plenty of that. A coworker asked – to anyone reading – how was she going to tell her little daughter that the bad guy won? My mother-in-law confessed to having lied awake that night crying at the electoral results. Jennifer’s midwife wrote that she was heartbroken, especially given that her poor health likely means she will never vote in another presidential election. My oldest friend washed his hands of the situation and said he was leaving for a while.

What struck me most wasn’t the Electoral College, either. In the days that followed, some people bemoaned its very existence. My wife suggested the Electors will be faithless against the presumptive nominee, but I told her the vast majority will simply fall in line, thus proving the ineffectiveness of their position. A coworker lamented she wasn’t sure – “I can go either way,” she said, regarding the continued existence of the College. I said no. “It’s an anachronism that is long past its expiration date.” Like blue laws, no American would seriously advocate for it if it didn’t already exist. Blowhards on talk radio asserted that the College was wonderful, and those who are against it are only against it because their candidate lost. For the record, no. I’m against it either way. Jennifer said maybe this will get people to finally abolish this archaic institution so that we can move closer to a true democracy. “No,” I said, “no one moved to deconstruct it in 2000. Why would now be any different?”

What struck me most wasn’t the surprising turn of a nearly inevitable assumption. On our walk to the polling station, Jennifer stopped Owen and Isla on the sidewalk and said, “You guys have to remember this day. We are going to elect the first woman president. You have to tell your children about this one day – that you were part of it!” Owen pointed out that, at 11 years old, he’s disenfranchised and thus, technically, not a part of it. But that didn’t stop us from snapping photos, including one of Jennifer and Isla with their arms around each other, post-voting, with “I Voted” stickers affixed to their jackets. That evening, as we dined, I opened my laptop and tried to calm my nervous wife – “Look at this chart,” I showed her, pointing out a list of the states by their recent polling. “Clinton will win everything in this column, and she only has to win one or two states in this other column – and most of those went for Obama in 2012.” I even prepared a graphic to post online. Titled “Our Presidents,” it displayed four rows of men – the simple, rounded shouldered, neckless men that adorn the doors of public restrooms. One was slightly fatter, to indicate Taft. One was in a wheelchair, and the penultimate figure was black, both for obvious reasons.  The final figure, though, was the woman figure. Similar to the man figure, but with a skirt, or maybe it’s a superhero cape.Our Presidents

No.

What struck me most was that no one could honestly say, This is Good. This is a positive turn for our nation. One of my coworkers – a lifelong conservative – simply posted online that no candidate truly cares about us. A twenty-year-old I’ve known since he was born posted in naïve adolescent abandon how funny he found it that everyone was so upset; he didn’t care at all, he wrote, because it didn’t affect him. A Republican said the upside to this election is that hopefully it will get his party to nominate qualified, dignified candidates from here on out. Another Republican posted that, despite his incompetence, at least the winning candidate won’t stop Congress from repealing ObamaCare. Another Republican, who had posted oodles of glowing adoration for McCain, and a smattering of appreciation for Romney, posted nothing. Even the morning radio host, who hadn’t said a single laudable sentence about Clinton all year, said that Presidents are, after all, only figure heads, and at least the bizarre outcome kept out a woman we’re all tired of. Conservatives online and at work backpedaled – “Woah, I didn’t think he would win” – or apologized. “This doesn’t make me racist,” was an unnervingly celebratory chant. “It’s okay, Mama,” Isla said, “I will still remember this as a special day.”

In the days following, one of our Bernie-or-Bust friends confessed she just couldn’t bring herself to vote for Clinton. “She wanted Bernie or bust,” Jennifer said, “So I hope she’s happy with bust.” I told Jennifer I didn’t understand that logic. “It’s like, if I got back my draft paper from my professor and she wrote ‘C’ on it, and I said, ‘No, I deserve a B,’ and she said, sorry, you’re getting a C, and then, just to spitefully harm her, I didn’t turn in the final paper and ended up with an F.” Except, it didn’t harm the professor. It only harmed me.

I passed coworkers in the hall, who would respond to “How are you?” with “Oh, I’m hangin’ in there” or “I’m…okay,” with unusual gravity, as if they were really considering my innocuous query. One worker, with her usual gruffness that has always drawn me to enjoying her company, simply shrugged and asked, “How are you?” giving the last word a purposeful emphasis.

A few weeks later, my brother-in-law – w ho defended his vote by sharing a video of a woman bloviating how pleased she was with the election because “maybe some of us are tired of all the baby killing and the persecution of Christians” and something about being sick of the gay lifestyle being thrown in our faces and smart people thinking they know everything – invited Owen and me to go see Rogue One with him. I hate going to movie theaters nowadays. I didn’t feel much like being with my brother-in-law for four-plus hours. But it was Star Wars, Owen’s all-time favorite chunk of culture, and I knew at some point in the next 30 days I would be compelled to bring him to the theater. Twelve commercials in, my brother turned to me in his La-z-Boy theater seat, repositioned his pop-corn, and said, “You know, I just think we gotta see what he’s gonna do. He’s not even President yet, and people already on his case.” I wanted to say that his words were a contradiction from everyone who said the good thing about their candidate is that he tells it like it is. And I wanted to say that the candidates just completed a 12-month job interview, so if we don’t know what he’s “gonna do,” then we weren’t paying attention. And I wanted to say that the statements and cabinet picks since Election Day did not give me any reason to reassess my position on his incompetence, narcissism, and dismantling of the past decade’s progress.

But I didn’t want to create an awkward, tense bubble around us – especially when I was tethered to my seat for the next 2 hours and 33 minutes (3 hours and 33 minutes including commercials). Besides, Paul Simon’s The Werewolf was looping in my head, so I couldn’t really focus on what I wanted to say, anyway.

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2017: The Already Holiday

Martin Luther King, who was born on the third Monday of 1929, gets his own holiday today. That’s quite an honor; not too many people get their own holiday. Sure, Columbus gets one, but that one will probably be retired before I die. Jesus gets one, but he has to share it with Santa. George Washington – who unlike Columbus and Jesus, can actually make a strong claim for deserving one – gets one, too, but thanks to his birthday’s calendar proximity to Lincoln’s, his is being merged into a pan-Presidents’ Day, so we can also honor such luminaries as Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan, Warren Harding, and Gerald Ford. I once read an article arguing that Martin Luther King Day should be rebranded as Civil Rights Day, do allow for honoring of others who played – and do play – a role in bringing equality and justice to minorities. And I’m all for that.

From first- through ninth-grade, I had the day off of school. My mom said it seemed silly to have a day off school so soon after having a long winter break, but since I hated school I didn’t mind.

In tenth grade, I attended school on Martin Luther King Day for the first time. Several months earlier, my family and I had moved to a new home and a new school district, and since none of the staff of students were black, the lackeys in charge of Rosemount High School decided it should be business as usual. Oh, actually, they charged each teacher to spend the first 10 minutes of second hour talking about King and civil rights. It was worse than doing nothing, really.

In fact, the cover story of the next week’s school paper was an article by a student claiming the school’s sad attempt to honor King was a mockery – if we don’t get the day off, she wrote, fine. But at least let’s have an all-school assembly with local civil rights leaders or scholars talking to us about these issues or guiding us in celebrating how far we’ve come.

In eleventh grade, we got the day off.

By twelfth grade, I had permanently exited Rosemount over a month before mid-January rolled around, but I assume my classmates got the day off then, too.

Now I find myself feeling like my mom. I just had twelve straight days off of work. After less than two weeks, there’s already another holiday? Better, I feel, to save this holiday and give us off the day before or after Easter. Or Election Day. Or even the day after the Super Bowl. None of my coworkers, of those I’ve asked, do anything celebratory for the day. Jennifer and I just used it as a day to get caught up with house work, cleaning, and the kids.

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2017: The Second Thursday

I often host the cable access show Atheists Talk. New episodes are recorded on the second Thursday of each month. This evening marked my 66th episode as  host. It was my tenth occasion being on the show in January, and 75th overall, if I include my times as a guest.

As the crew MacGyvered a solution to a camera issue, one of the two interviewees – and they both came on the show at their behest to discuss Camp Quest – remarked that she is nervous about the impending administrative changes in Washington. The other guest shrugged his shoulders. “Eh,” he said, trying to offer a positive lilt to the inevitable disaster, “I still have hope. Hope in humanity.”

“Not me,” I said, and they both turned to look at me. “I’m just gonna sit outside and play my fiddle while the city burns.” There was a palpable pause; I think they were waiting for a punchline or a smirk to slide across my visage, but neither came. “There was a time for hope, but it’s over now. We had a good run, and it’s over.” I’m a realist, not an optimist. The man said something to me, but the crew had initiated the countdown for the recording to begin and, besides, I had Talking Heads’ “Psycho Killer” earwormed in my brain, so I couldn’t really pay attention.

Isla came with me to the cable show. Jennifer is less incensed when I leave on a weeknight if I at least bring one of the kids in tow. And since one of them has Jiu Jitsu class on Thursday evenings, and another one is only two years old, there remains only one realistic option. She sat in the annex, on my laptop, watching The Secret World of Arrietty. During the drive home, she asked me if, when having one’s ears pierced, small disks of skin are punched out of the lobes, or if the flesh merely moves aside to make way for the metal studs.

Culling from my deep well of auricle accoutrements, I said, “Uh, I think the skin just moves aside.”

There was silence, so I continued, “You think about ear piercings every once in while, don’t you?”

She said she did, and then added that she wasn’t sure if she really wanted her ears pierced or if she just wanted to be like other girls she sees.

“Well,” I said as we exited the highway, “That can be a good reason to do something. There are a lot of things I do just because other people do them. But for bigger things, it’s probably good to make sure you really want to do them.”

Isla said, “It’s kind of like the only person who really wanted to get their ears pierced was the very first person who got their ears pierced.” Then she asked me again if I ever got my ears pierced. I reminded her I did not – in fact, I’m flatly opposed to any sort of bodily modification that isn’t clearly corrective. I don’t even like earrings – I think women are better-looking without them. I had braces on my teeth when I was a preteen, and I still curse my parents for that rancid decision. Circumcision must rank among the ten dumbest practices our barbaric culture approves of – there was no question Jennifer and I wouldn’t submit our sons to that ritual. And I can’t even bring myself to get a tattoo with my kids’ names, even though I’ve mildly considered it a hundred times in the last decade.

So when Isla asked if I think she should get her ears pierced, I provided her with my standard, nuanced answer, “No.”

“What age should I be?” she asked.

“I think you should be at an age where you are old enough to be sure that that’s something you really want to do, and to be able to understand all the good sides and bad sides.”

“But what age is that?” she persisted, looking for a number.

“Hm…I’m not sure. Probably at least 42,” which, I think, was a fair answer coming from someone who is 41 and a half.

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2017: My Other Resolution This Year

Jennifer drove the kids to school today. I usually do that on days I work from home, but she did it this morning. The large benefit to that was that I didn’t have to drive in all the snow that parked on our city overnight. Staying home also fit squarely with another of my New Year’s resolutions-goals.

Not that I stayed home all day. I ventured into the monochrome wilderness in the mid-afternoon to pick up the oldest two from school. They attend the same school which is an appreciably positive alteration from last school year.

On the drive-slide to their school, I phoned my dad. As a testament to my unyielding good judgement, I somehow figured being on the phone would be a smart thing to do while driving on slippery boulevards.

Sunday was my dad and stepmom’s anniversary. I always call them on their anniversary, and I usually have a gift arriving in their mailbox within a day or so of the eighth. This is upsettlingly difficult to remember. In my defense, I spend most of December thinking, “Oh, dad’s anniversary? That’s not ’til next year.” And since I don’t emerge from my cave until the second or third of January, I have to prove competent enough on that day to buy them a gift, buy them a card, fill out the card, and get it to the post office right then. Otherwise, it’s already too late. There’s something about the US mail once it hits the Floridian frontier: it begins to go as slow as its residents.

Also in my defense, I spent the day of their 16th anniversary in the chaotic environment of a Lego League competition, followed directly by the low of consoling a son whose team should’ve moved on to state, all on a day in which I never once wrote down the date.

Yesterday, at work, when I wrote “09Jan17,” my mind spun: I missed my dad’s anniversary. This sort of thing doesn’t happen to me. I’m the person who tells my wife, “It was 8 years ago today that we left for our trip to Prince Edward Island,” and “As of today, Isla is the exact age that Owen was on the day she was born.” And I remember dates of public significance, too. I spend at least some part of every December 8th thinking about John Lennon, and recalling a 45-second conversation my kindergarten teacher had with the class the following morning. And I tell people things like, “As of today, this is the longest our nation has gone without a vacancy in the vice presidency.” Or, at least, I used to tell people things like that. After forty years, I noticed such statements fell on apathetic ears.

So I called my dad yesterday – while I was at work – as soon as I was made aware of my gross gaffe. He didn’t answer. So I called him again, three hours and four minutes later, while I was driving home. Again, no answer. So I left him a message. But he didn’t call back.

So I called my dad today – while driving to my kids’ school – and this time he answered. Despite it being 4:00 in Florida, he sounded half asleep, and complained he was tired. He sounded surprised I had called him, as if I’d caught him in the middle of some clandestine act. He cleared his throat more often than used to, but what bugged me was the way he finished each sentence like he was trying to end the call. After four sentences, he asked why I was calling, and I told him I was calling to wish him happy anniversary. “Well, thanks for calling, he said,” and left his words hanging, as if trying to corral me into saying goodbye.

Then I asked him if him and Bonnie did anything special for their anniversary, and he sullenly said they’re too old for anything like that. As if a guy in his mid-sixties and a woman in her fifties can’t even go out to dinner. “But I appreciate you calling,” he added.

So then I just decided to tell him about Lego League, just so there was something to discuss. He knows Owen the best – Owen’s been to his house – so I assume of all my kids, he’s most interested in Owen. Certainly it wouldn’t be Isla, who he hardly knows, or Emmett, who he hasn’t even met. “Oh, that’s interesting,” my dad said at the tail end of my two-minute monologue about the competition, “Well, thanks for calling.”

Lately, I feel I can hardly maintain my end of a conversation even when both parties are desirous of its continuation, so I assuredly couldn’t keep this up much longer. So I said goodbye, and as I hung up, I found myself hoping I’m more the grandparent like the Home Depot patron who jump starts strangers cars, rather than the the kind who lives across country from my children’s children and don’t even know of the procession of their lives.

This evening, I sat lengthwise on the couch, with the honeycomb blinds drawn up only on the window that faces my little free library. I love watching snow quietly fall in the dark and lilt over the Xmas lights on the library until each bulb is a blurry glow of blue, and the library’s roof becomes a monochromatic canopy of white – perfectly domes with sloping sides. As I stared outside, Jennifer told me I should stay home from work tomorrow instead of risking the roads on a treacherous morning. I don’t want to miss my Toastmasters meeting at work, but I had to concede that staying home would assist me in achieving my resolution for the new year. My resolution of being lazy.

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2017: The First Sunday that wasn’t a Holiday

Today was mostly spent at Owen’s Lego League Regional Championship.

Last year, his team – organized through his elementary school – first participated at the regional championship, then moved on to the state championship. His coach explained to me that St. Paul public schools kind of get a free pass: they don’t have to first compete in the sectional challenges like all the other teams. The reason, he said, is because the St. Paul schools don’t start their clubs until mid-cyear.

But this year, he’s not in elementary school anymore, so his team first had to compete in the sectionals. They did, and they were awarded the chance to move on. So, today, here I am at a middle school in New Brighton.

One of the other teammate’s parents picked up Owen early this morning, and then I arrived at the school around 10:00. Like last year, I volunteered to help out with the competitions. Upon entering the school – a building I had never been in before – I wasn’t sure where to go. I wandered around until I found a bunch of volunteers, and then asked them where I was supposed to go. They didn’t know, but they pointed me in a direction anyway. So I headed that was and eventually located the auditorium. I walked over to a table where some judges were entering numbers onto laptops, and one of those judges pointed me to a gray-haired man standing near a competition table.

Looking up at him through all my winter gear – which was starting to make me sweat – I informed the man that I was a volunteer, and that I had signed up to help reset the tables after each round. “Yeah…” he said slowly, looking around at the three tables and scratching his face, “I think we’re pretty well covered right now…” he left his sentence hanging.

“Well, is there anything else I can do? I got here early, and drove separately from my wife just so I could volunteer.”

He held up his hand as if he’d had enough of me and said, “Sir, we’re all volunteers here, okay?”

I wasn’t sure how to respond to that, so I just stared at him waiting for him to say something I could respond to. Finally, he added, “I’ll tell you what, you see those two guys over there?” He pointed to a couple of boys that looked about the same age as my son. “They’re just kinda hanging around here helpin’ out where they can. Why don’t you see if they have anything for you.”

I said okay, but I lied. I walked toward the boys, but then turned and went out of the auditorium. I have an extreme aversion to pity work. If you don’t need my help, that’s okay, you don’t have to fabricate work for me.

In fact, I have a history with this sort of thing. A history comprised of one other story. When I was a mid-teen Jehovah’s Witness, an elder from my congregation had the job of rounding up sufficient number of willing God-fearers to volunteer as attendants at the local conventions. When he asked me if I would be willing, I couldn’t accept fast enough. Such an honor for a fifteen-year-old! And, regardless, it was really bad form to turn down any job even low-level Watchtower superiors tapped you for.

On the day of the convention, I reported for duty at the attendants’ office. They said they had all the help they needed, but that I should probably go talk to the head attendant in the cafeteria. I did, and he said his sub-department was likewise well-staffed, but that maybe I could find an oldster who appeared too feeble to stand in line for food, take their order, then go get their food. So I found some octogenarian, who was nearly overwhelmed with delight as I took her order. Then I stood in line. And waited. And waited. Ultimately, the attendant-in-charge-of-all-things-cafeteria strode over to me and said, “What are you doing?”

A smidge befuddled, I explained I was doing exactly what he told me to do.

“No,” he clarified, “Don’t wait in line. That’ll take too long. Just go behind the counter and get her meal.”

So I did. But then the attendant-in-charge-of-all-things-food poked me on the shoulder and said, “What are you doing?” In what certainly must have been obvious to everyone but me, it turns out that volunteers who are hectically gathering and dispensing packaged food to a thousand hungry Witnesses do not want someone who doesn’t know where anything is wandering in their zone, especially if he’s not wearing gloves or an apron.

Six months later, the elder again asked me if I was willing to volunteer. I told him no, and once he reeled back in his disdained amazement, he requested a reason. “Because,” I explained flatly, “you didn’t really need me last time, so I think there were too many attendants.”

Anyway, six hours later, Owen’s team first won a trophy for winning the best score in the morning trials, then won a second trophy for lasting to the final heat of the head-to-head competitions and garnering the top score in that, too.

But did they pass on to state? No, they didn’t. It turns out that a team can get the top score in the two most prestigious events of the day and still not be considered one of the best teams in the competition.

 

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