While the poet slept . . .

Another brief retreat from the world of sport.

Last year I spoke to a college writing class and, perhaps unsuccessfully, tried to relate to its students the relevance of poetry in their lives. It can be present, I told them, in the lyrics from their iPods or the taps of their Twitter posts. I told them at some time or other they will find themselves needing to say something important, to answer a question, to offer advice to someone, to say the right thing, to a child, to a friend, a spouse, to someone they’ve fallen in love with, to anyone, and in that moment they will want to be a poet, to say something that can be held, remembered, appreciated, something with meaning beyond its words.

But I don’t think anything quite got their attention like one little story, of a farmer and poet who decided several years ago to let it be known that he was fed up with the choices for governor and that he simply wasn’t voting in the primary out of protest.

We all know people who don’t vote. But when this man, Wendell Berry, said he was sitting an election out, people fretted. Many were upset. Even some who understood were upset. They wrote letters to the newspaper editor. They talked about it on the radio.

One missing vote out of millions, yet it mattered. Hands went up. Why such a big deal?

Why, indeed? It’s 2011. Everyone has a blog. What can an old fellow without an i-Anything or a Facebook account say that should stop a state to pause and think? It was a big deal, I told them, because of the voice he has become and, yes, the life he has lived but more even than that, because of  the words he has sewn.

You never know how much weight your words can carry until you hang all your mind and heart on them, particularly when they are rooted to where you stand.

Last night, the writer, poet and farmer from Henry County slept on the floor outside the Kentucky governor’s office with a handful of others as part of a protest of mountaintop removal for coal mining.

I’m not going to talk about coal. Berry and his companions are far more effective voices on their own behalf, and the governor has no trouble laying out the other side. The coal debate has plenty of fuel.

I want to gather around another fire, this notion that Berry, and Kentucky authors Silas House, Erik Reece and others, could wander into the governor’s office, ask to speak about something, and touch off a debate.

I work for a newspaper. “Print is dead,” I hear almost daily. The words I write are not even called by their name, but have been given the label “content,” as if they were toothpaste or flour or any other substance that fills a container.

“Print is dead” they tell me, and it is hard to argue given the mounting cultural evidence, even the financial realities. It’s easy to forget, in fact, that there are realities even beyond those.

I don’t know who will win in the final analysis in Mr. Berry’s attempt at a dignified dialogue. But it is evidence of something else, in any event: Regardless of whether print is dead, words are not.

A farmer-poet goes to the governor’s office talks, sits, sleeps, pulls out a copy of “The Tempest” and reads, and a state turns its head and eyes, if only for a moment, though one would hope for longer.

Wrote Shakespeare, in that very play:

Faith, sir, you need not fear. When we were boys,
Who would believe that there were mountaineers
Dew-lapp’d like bulls, whose throats had hanging at ’em
Wallets of flesh? or that there were such men
Whose heads stood in their breasts? which now we find
Each putter-out of five for one will bring us
Good warrant of.

And, perhaps, a few more words, these by a Kentuckian, who took up the subject of a mountain, and trying to see clearly. From Robert Penn Warren:

In the Mountains

II. Fog [A]

White, white, luminous but
Blind — fog on the
Mountain, and the mountains

Gone, they are not here,
And the sky gone. My foot
Is set on what I

Do not see. Light rises
From the cold incandescence of snow
Not seen, and the world, in blindness,

Glows. Distance is
Obscenity. All, all
Is here, no other where.

The heart, in this silence, beats.

For more updates on this continuing story, see Kentucky Rising and The Courier-Journal.

Planes, trains (of thought) and automobiles

I missed my grandfather’s 102nd birthday celebration on Sunday because of mechanical problems on an airplane in Providence, R.I.

There was, in that, a fleeting shadow of the transcendental.

When my grandfather was born, there was no such thing as a commercial airplane flight. The Wright Brothers, in fact, were not only alive and kicking, but working for the U.S. military.

The first Wright Brothers’ airplanes did not need batteries once the ignition was triggered. Not so for the Embraer MD-88. The one scheduled to start my trip home had dead batteries at 6 a.m. And, apparently, it takes 5 hours for Delta to rectify such a situation.

In this case, we were informed, the delay came in needing to send to just outside Boston, near Concord, Mass., 60 miles away, for the replacement batteries. What they neglected to tell us was that word was sent to Boston via bicycle messenger, and the batteries transported to Providence by none other than Boston Red Sox slugger David Ortiz at a lilting walk.

Had Paul Revere taken so long, the British already would have come.

Unless they had booked on Delta.

* * *

In the air, these lines, from The New Yorker:

“The company (AOL) still gets eighty percent of its profits from subscribers, many of whom are older people who have cable or DSL service but don’t realize that they need not pay an additional twenty five dollars a month to get online and check their email.” (Annals of Communication, by Ken Auletta, Jan. 24, 2011, p. 32.)

So here we have a major American communications company afloat only through the ignorance or laziness of the public.

Sounds about right.  But eighty percent of its profits from people who don’t realize they don’t need the service?

Let us call to mind a former Concord resident, Henry David Thoreau, who said, “A man is rich in proportion to the number of things he can afford that he does not need.”

No, wait. That quotation has been doctored. But I can hardly be blamed. Via email just before Christmas, I received an urgent communication from the online store at Walden Pond that I could still order in time for holiday shipping.

I surveyed the merchandise and felt rich, indeed. I could afford to let it alone.

* * *

I should not be too hard on AOL. I work for a company whose flagship paper, USA Today, derived half its daily circulation as of April 2009 from major hotel chains. I don’t know which is more discomforting — depending for survival on the oblivious inertia of the American consumer, or on an item he steps over on his way to a continental breakfast.

* * *

A final stop, from wandering thoughts to cogent. Robert Lowell. Out of a group titled Mexico. Let’s let him tie things together:

4.

South of Boston, south of Washington,
south of any bearing . . . I walked the glazed moonlight:
dew on the grass and nobody about,
drawn on by my unlimited desire,
like a bull with a ring in his nose, a chain in the ring. . .  .
We moved far, bill and cow, could one imagine
cattle obliviously pairing six long days:
up road and down, then up again passing the same
brick garden wall, stiff spines of hay stuck in my hide;
and always in full sight of everyone,
from the full sun to silhouetting sunset,
pinned by undimming lights of hurried cars. . . .
You’re gone; I am learning to live in history.
What is history? What you cannot touch.

A brief political interlude

Heading from a "Coffin Handbill" circulated against presidential candidate Andrew Jackson.

Off the field again, in another rare non-sports, non-newspaper foray into the real world.

Sometimes when you’re a sportswriter, you watch what’s going on around you in “real” life and realize that the biggest games are nowhere near a playing field.

The NFL, for instance, is all up in arms over the subject of head injuries. Meanwhile, some activist woman gets her head stepped on while making a pass rush on a Senate candidate in Kentucky. So, in fact, it appears that your skull might well have been safer on a professional football field than outside a political debate last week.

Every time the election ad season rolls around, I wish I had one of those really deep voices that oozes indignation, you know the ones they use for voiceovers in political attack ads: “We all need air to breathe, but John Candidate (mock disbelief) wants to deny air to senior citizens. Our seniors can’t afford John Candidate. That’s why the Daily Megaphone called John Candidate a ‘worthless sack of #*$*&.’ No air, no way (mock disgust). Tell John Candidate to blow it up his *$$.”

But some time ago I stopped lamenting the rancor of the process. In fact, I’m proposing stricter debate formats that limit, say, U.S. Senate candidates to nothing but, “Your momma” insults.

Let’s take the current Kentucky race between Republican Rand Paul and Democrat Jack Conway. It might sound something like this:

Conway: Your momma’s so stupid she put paper on the television set and called it paper view.
Paul: Your momma’s so stupid when they told her it was chilly outside she ran out with a spoon.
Conway:Your momma’s so poor when I rang her doorbell, SHE said “Ding dong.”
Paul: Your momma’s so fat when she goes to the movies, she sits next to EVERYBODY.

Etc. Etc. Now you may ask, what has any of that kind of talk to do with the important issues of the day? To which I answer — about as much as anything you’ll hear in a current political debate.

It’s like this — in this Internet age of public revelation and exposure, to run for political office is very much akin to those crazy couples who used to go on the Jerry Springer show. They’re sitting there in those chairs, but you know the ex-girlfriend (or current girlfriend) is waiting just off stage. In American politics today, the boogeyman is always in the wings.

In Delaware, a female senate candidate just had some dude come forward to tell about a Halloween hook-up last year. In Kentucky, we’re hearing about college pranks.

And it’s all predicated on the same theme, the theme of every campaign being run in America today. And that theme, in short, is this: “My opponent is the worst person in the world. Ever. No, really. The literal worst person. I’m not exaggerating. Don’t look at me that way. Evil. EEE-ville.”

It is discouraging. But not because the tone of the discourse is negative. It is discouraging for me because it is unoriginal. We’ve been around a long time in this country, and yet, our political attacks have really not evolved nor kept pace with technology.

Return with me to 1828. Andrew Jackson was running for President of the United States against John Quincy Adams. This country was so young that it still had that new Constitution smell.

But these guys hated each other. Jackson had won a plurality of electoral votes in the election four years earlier, but lost the election when it swung into the House of Representatives and speaker Henry Clay supported Adams and helped swing the vote to him in that body. Several days later, Adams named Clay Secretary of State, and Jackson went ballistic.

Adams’ forces attacked Jackson as an adulterer. Jackson had married his wife, Rachel, thinking she was divorced, but the papers were not yet finalized and he had to re-marry her once the papers were complete. They also labeled Jackson a murderer for his part in court martialing and executing U.S. Army deserters, for his well-publicized duels and for his attacks on Indian villages. They produced the famous “Coffin Handbills,” some of the the first well-organized attack ads in American politics, which detailed these killings with six coffins printed across the page.

They also put out this charming little pamphlet with a catchy title: “Catalogue of General Jackson’s Youthful Indiscretions between the Age of Twenty-three and Sixty.” In it were listed all of Jackson’s supposed fights and duels. It reported him to be an adulterer, gambler, cockfighter, slave-trader, drunk, thief and liar. It also claimed that his wife was too fat.

Jackson fought back. Seizing on Adams’ time as ambassador to Russia, he accused Adams of giving his wife’s servant to the Czar for unwholesome purposes. Adams had introduced the young lady to the Czar, but that was as far as it went. Didn’t matter. The charge of “pimp” was promulgated. When Adams bought a billiard table and chess set for the White House, Jackson accused him of bringing in a “gaming table and gaming furniture.”

The attacks on Jackson’s wife Rachel were especially severe. She was called a whore and a dirty wench. The Cincinnati Gazette asked, “Ought a convicted adulteress and her paramour husband be placed in the highest office of this free Christian land?”

As happens sometimes, the negative ads had little effect. Jackson won the presidency.

Shortly after the election, before her husband even was sworn in, Rachel Jackson died of a heart attack. Andrew Jackson always believed that the stress of that campaign killed her. I don’t doubt it.

But the stress of election season shouldn’t get the better of us. If anything, the 1828 election shows us that we’ve been slinging mud for a long time, and frankly, much more skillfully and artfully than the ham-handed productions we see today.

No, it’s not the anger or spite or uncivil tone of our campaigns that will get us in the end. It’s incompetence, greed and ignorance. In other words, it’s one thing to talk like an idiot on the stump. It’s another to govern like one.

Lanyard ho! Buses taking education for a ride

Another of my rare, non-scheduled and non-newspaper forays into the land of local news:

It was the first day of public school here in Possibility City, and the kiddos learned a new vocabulary word:

Lanyard: noun, a cord passed around the neck, shoulder or wrist for holding a knife, whistle, or similar object. Origin: From the Middle English for “short length of rope.” Usage: By placing bus assignments on lanyards to be worn by students, school officials proved once again that, given even a short length of rope, they will hang themselves.

When I heard that the local district was hanging its bus-plan hopes from strips of nylon around the necks of its pupils, I could not avoid a bus ride down memory lane.

There on the hot plastic seats of history where the smell of prepubescent armpits mingled with the occasional waft of flatulence, I concluded the following: Had they provided lanyards to my crowd during our elementary heydays, someone would have wound up a). bound; b). lanyard-whipped; c). killed by strangulation, or some combination of the three, within the first week of the policy, provided all of us didn’t lose our lanyards at home after the first day, which would have been a distinct possibility.

I must admit, the thought of thousands of elementary children walking around like little groupies with back-stage passes brought a smile to my face. But that was only until I started to see news reports that the new bus plan was losing children faster than Britney Spears pre-rehab.

A dozen kids didn’t get home until after 9 p.m., too late to catch the beginning of the live 2-hour edition of “America’s Got Talent.” Not that it mattered. They got to be a part of their own reality show: “America’s Got No Brains.”

The following items were actually part of the opening-day activity in elementary schools:

— An instructional video on how to ride the bus, wherein students watched “Mandy” get in line, get on and off the bus.

— A dry-run of the bus line-up procedure in lieu of recess. (Tomorrow, reportedly they will practice lunch.)

Welcome to Possibility City, where our kids study the three “R’s” — Reading, Riding, and ‘Rithmetic — where anything is possible, even your child getting home from school in time for supper. It has gotten this bad – high school students are so embarrassed by the bus performance that they are asking drivers to let them off a block away from school.

Granted, I don’t remember everything about my grade school days. I’m pretty sure we never had to use class time to talk about how to ride the bus. But those were simpler days, before a bus ride home required more transfers than a coast-to-coast Greyhound trek.

Which brings us to the serious root of all this.

On the first day of school, the center of everything — from administration to instruction to media coverage — has been on transportation, not education. When this much time, effort, money and attention is expended on the lone job of getting students to and from school, someone needs to blow a whistle.

Busing, desegregation and diversity are hot-button topics that churn up long-held and deep-seeded emotions. But at some point, emotion must give way to evaluation. At some point, historical heft must be weighed against the experiences and best interests of children today. At some point, people need to be given an explanation of why this very costly way of doing things is the best way, and if it is, why it has not yielded better results in four decades. Where are the success stories? Where is the data?

Proponents contend that it’s about giving those in low-income or some inner-city schools which traditionally have had fewer resources and success a chance to go to better schools. They argue that it ensures that student bodies are culturally diverse, which most of us would agree is a good thing, though there is little evidence to show that it brings a learning advantage to anyone.

No one is arguing to turn back the clock to separate but equal. Separate was not equal. But we’re finding, together is not equal either, not in many cases.

I keep coming back to the kid who has to climb those bus steps before 6. To the first- and second-graders riding 20 minutes to a bus depot, then having to change buses and do it all over again. Twice a day. To the working parents from lower or middle income families who would like to get involved with their child’s school but can’t because it is across town. To the kid who wants to play a sport or take part in an after-school activity, but must arrange a ride back across town when it is over, sometimes by city bus.

And finally, I keep coming back to the expense of all this — expense that could be used for teachers or instruction materials in schools that don’t even have enough books for every student. Is the benefit worth the cost? And when we can pay for more buses but not for enough books, what does it say about our priorities?

Unfortunately, it’s not just on the bus that some of our children are being taken for a ride.

UPDATE: The district superintendent, promising “swift action,” today suspended with pay two elementary principals whose buses had particularly poor first-day performance. Neither, however, appeared overly concerned about being thrown under the proverbial bus, figuring it would be very late anyway, if it even showed up at all.

Glenn Beck and his Preacher panel, what was missing?

This post is difficult and delicate. I don’t want to get into the usual back-and-forth on politics or religion. But I need to dive right into the middle of both as we race toward the Independence Day holiday.

I got a call a couple of days ago that a local pastor was on the Glenn Beck Program. I’ve never watched it before. Not  once. I’ve seen clips. But I turned it on because I wanted to see how the discussion went.

On this program, which aired July 2, Beck had invited nine religious leaders — pastors, writers, a professor. They came  from various Christian denominations. It was titled the “State of Religion in America,” and over the course of an hour Beck took this group through discussions of the role of religion in politics, the place of “social justice,” charity and taxation, the state of churches today, the stance of the U.S. toward Israel, whether religious expression in this country is being threatened and the role that preachers and religious leaders should play in the nation today.

It was an interesting discussion. It was, no surprise, full of plenty of assertions that would find agreement on the political right in this country, but that was to be expected.

What I didn’t expect was this:

In an hour-long discussion with nine of the most influential Christian leaders today, not one of them saw fit to quote the Bible in answer to any of Beck’s questions.

They quoted John Adams, but not John the apostle. They quoted Peter Marshall, but nothing from any of Peter’s Biblical books. They quoted Montesquieu and Frederick Tolles and George Washington.

But the closest any one of them got to a Biblical quotation was when Stephen Broden, senior pastor at Fair Park Bible Fellowship and a Republican Congressional candidate in Texas, said, “The Bible says that the Christians — that the gatekeepers, that the shepherds — have failed.”

It must be a version of the Bible that I do not have. I don’t doubt that some similar grouping of words might be found somewhere in its pages. But I know that the Bible does not include the term “Christian,” so I’m going to reject that as an actual Biblical quotation as applied.

Later, Princeton professor Robert George, a Roman Catholic, gave a twist to a famous utterance of Jesus when he claimed that those registering on a web site he was promoting would be serving to  “render ungrudgingly to Caesar what is Caesar’s, but to never give to Caesar what is God’s.”

I came away disappointed. For all of the talk of getting “back to the Book,” none of them found the book relevant enough to quote in answer to these fundamental questions.

Of course, it can be difficult. There’s nothing resembling a Democracy in the Bible. There’s plenty of taxation. Jesus himself lived under the government of King Herod, whose taxes Jews of the day opposed bitterly. Yet Jesus was criticized for being a friend to tax collectors. And when asked directly about taxation, he took the coin, asked whose picture was on it, then advised those who asked to “Render to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and render to God what is God’s.”

And when Jesus advised those listening to what we have recorded as the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5:41, “If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles,” he was making a clear reference to the Roman practice of conscripting workmen. In that day, soldiers or officers of the king could simply force people to convey goods, carry gear, and sometimes even furnish horses or carriages or otherwise work to move their effort along — without compensation.  It is the worst kind of government job — unpaid and not by choice. But instead of denouncing the practice, Jesus told people if the government asked for one mile, they should give it two.

The host, however, declared this: “If Jesus tells you to go and take a shovel and build, you know, dig a ditch for somebody, go do it. If the government tells you that you need to dig it for somebody else on your own time, that isn’t — I have not found it in the Bible.”

Of course, as we’ve just seen, it is in the Bible. And Jesus is the one who said it. For a secular host not to have studied the Sermon on the Mount is no big deal. For a bunch of preachers who repeatedly talked about going “back to the Book,” and who no doubt have read this passage and understood its meaning to not be willing to educate the host and the many watching on television, was disappointing.

John Hagee — who has made many statements I disagree with, which I won’t go into — himself wrote about that passage something I can go along with:

Don’t confuse duty with love.  Duty goes the first mile; love goes the extra mile.  The old saying about going the extra mile (or the second mile) comes from the Bible.  In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus said, “And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain (two)” (Matthew 5:41).  The Romans occupied Palestine in the days of Christ.  Under their law, a Roman soldier could compel a Jewish man to carry his pack one mile.  The Jews developed the custom of placing a marker, or milestone, one mile from the edge of their property.  So if a Roman soldier came by and told him to carry his pack, the Jewish man would carry the pack as far as the milestone and then drop it promptly.  He had grudgingly done his duty to the last inch.  Jesus was telling His disciples, “Duty carries that pack the first mile; but love joyfully carries it the second mile.”

This work, Hagee and Beck might argue, is in military service (though it also could be rendered in service to the king, or as a courier.) And Beck is arguing here that the government shouldn’t be asking you to do service for someone else. Yet many times, those conscripted to help Roman soldiers were, ultimately, performing work that would benefit others in the Empire and not themselves. It simply had to be. And Jesus’ words were clear. He could have spoken out against the Roman practice. Instead, he spoke to the responsibility of duty and love.

There wasn’t much of that talk among this panel of religious leaders.

In the one-hour show, do you know how many times the word “Love” was uttered? Zero.

And apparently for this group, prayer is not the answer, because it was not mentioned once during the entire show.

Now, I realize this was a secular program. And I realize this book, the Bible, is problematic for many of us. Certainly, for this group of religious leaders, all of its talk about healing the sick and feeding the hungry and care of the poor did not lend well to this particular discussion. Nor, frankly, did it quite fit the host’s financial views. Old Testament law, which comes, for those who follow the Bible, straight from the hand and mind of God, provides for all debts to be forgiven at the end of every seven years and even allows for more leniency when loans are made to the poor (Exodus 22:25): “If you lend money to one of my people among you who is poor and needy, do not be like a money-lender; charge him no interest.”

It fits no fiscal model in place on either side of the aisle today.

I understand that the Bible, like the Constitution, is open to interpretation.

But for a host to bring up all  these issues in a one-hour forum with that group, and for the Bible never to be used as a tool for answering questions, but only be held up as a symbol, leaves their calls to “get back to the book” ringing quite hollow.

America and teams

It’s Super Bowl Sunday, a day when most of the nation will gather in front of television sets and root for one of two teams.

Which actually makes today like any other day in America. The only thing that changes is the game.

It has been six months since deciding to use this blog to explore what the notion of being “American” means. Yet I still have not yet followed up on it. Yes, being the World’s Laziest Blogger is a part of that. But another part is that the more you try to come to the topic, the less prepared you feel. So I’ve been doing a lot of reading.

This entry is not a product of that reading.

Instead, it is the product of a professional life spent covering teams and fans. And of the growing realization that these phenomena are not relegated to sports alone.

I owe a debt to the great writer/minister Frederick Buechner, who points out that religious denominations are very much like teams. He writes:

“It is not so much differences . . . that keep the denominations apart as it is something more nearly approaching team spirit. Somebody from a long line of Congreagationalists would no more consider crossing over to the Methodists than a Red Sox fan would consider rooting for the Mets.”

Buechner, as always, is perceptive even beyond his immediate subject. He wrote those words in 1988, and life since then has become even more a spectator sport.

Listen to political pundits and notice the sports terminology of their debates. But more than that, note that increasingly people are less aligned with ideas or principles and more aligned with a side.

Our teams even have colors now. There are red states, and blue states.

And for a great many, allegiance is as arbitrary as it is in sports. After a recent column I wrote exploring how my two sons could be fans of differing rival teams, I was flooded with email from people who either had experienced the same, or had avoided the same through strict indoctrination. One man proudly sent me a YouTube link of his 2-year-old son spelling “C-A-R-D-S,” followed by the words, “I hate UK.” And it worked both ways, even among older fans. One Louisville professor chastised me that he would never let a son attend UK, for its academic inferiority is well-known. If he’d been writing from Yale, I’d have given him some leeway. But is there truly a dollar’s worth of difference between Kentucky’s two largest state universities?

Regardless, a great many have views that are shaped en masse, by team identification, by friends at church or school, favorite media personalities, or by long history — “my parents were (your political bent here), and so am I.”

And the media, far too often, have allowed themselves to be identified with teams. The team concept sells. It is good television. You know you’re appealing to at least half of the audience. It creates natural drama. But it also creates inconsistency. One outlet will criticize something that the right is doing, but not criticize the same thing when the left does it. And vice versa.

Teams. Media critic John Katz, in a C-SPAN interview, contrasted the ideals of Thomas Paine with ours today:

“Today you don’t have journalists arguing a point of view. You have journalists who are paid to argue the same point of view every week and pretend to be passionate about it. That’s the opposite of reason. It’s like the cockfight every week where people get together and debate each other and score points on each other. “

Here is what Paine, our first political pundit, said: “When men yield up the privilege of thinking, the last shadow of liberty quits the horizon.”

I expect it of sports fans, to approve of actions by their own coaches and players that they would not tolerate from opponents.

But we should not be a nation of fans. Otherwise those who say they are for limited government can see their team preside over the greatest confiscation of personal liberties in a generation and approve of it. Or those who come to power protesting an unjust war can preside over the escalation of just as questionable a war somewhere else. (This on the heels of news that our nation is going to pay money we do not have to tribes we cannot control to prop up a government we do not trust in a nation we cannot subdue.)

As I have begun to organize thoughts over what “American” means, the starting point has always come back to freedom. Though it has not always been attainable for all people in this nation, it was the defining desire of its founding, and the motivating principle of its inhabitants.

That I can type these words and fear no knock at the door as the result of them is a thing not to be taken for granted.

Yet today, freedoms of Americans are assaulted from all sides, not just by government, but by corporations allowed to amass monolithic power and by the constant shout of what author George Saunders calls “the brain-dead megaphone” of media, which turns the attention of the public away from the essential issues of its day toward this back-and-forth battle of teams.

So, I suppose, this is the first task in getting to the root of what it means to be “American.” To get beyond the teams.

More Americans will watch the Super Bowl today than will watch any other event or program this year. They will fix their attention on two teams and await the outcome. It has become a mini-holiday for much of the nation, and American tradition.

But the team-spectator-fan mentality that attends it is not an American tradition, or at least, is not a tradition that supersedes the most important American traditions: Freedom and individual liberty.

In this, the cliche is presciently true: “There is no ‘I’ in team.”

All right, who threw that?

Photo by Linda Davidson, The Washington Post

A meteorite crashed into a doctor’s office in Lorton, Va., a couple of weeks ago. And what’s surprising about it isn’t the incredibly rare occurrence of a meteorite hitting a building. What’s surprising is that it took more than a week for people to start fighting over it.

The 4 billion-year-old space rock smashed  right into Examining Room No. 2 of a family practice, which was fortunate. If it had landed in the waiting room, it wouldn’t have been seen for at least 45 minutes.

The story’s legs grew slowly. A local paper was on it, then The Washington Post. And then everybody. NPR’s rock-solid “Science Friday” was on the case this past week. (Who knew that the U.S. spends $4 million annually tracking “near earth objects,” and that it’s not nearly enough, according to experts? We spend more than that on pocket money for Afghan warlords. But that’s another entry.)

The upshot of a meteorite actually crashing into a building, below the beltway, if you will, in a suburb of a Washington, D.C., with plenty of witnesses to its descent as a ball of fire, means that this meteorite has become, in our earthly terms, a star.

And like other such objects — the Barry Bonds’ home run balls come to mind — this one has an ownership controversy. The doctors whose office the meteorite crashed into donated it to the Smithsonian and pledged to give the money the museum paid for it, $5,000, to earthquake victims in Haiti.

Since, however, the building’s landlords have stepped in, and are claiming ownership, and have demanded that the rock be returned to them from the Smithsonian, which isn’t budging.

Word is these landlords want to sit it on the front porch and hide the spare key under it, but nobody is confirming anything.

This from The Washington Post:

“The Lorton meteorite is worth $50,000, easy,” said Robert A. Haag, a colorful Arizona dealer in space stuff for 32 years. “A meteorite goes through a roof, or hits a car, something like that, about once a year, somewhere in the world. This one landed in a doctors’ office, while they were there. People saw the fireball in the sky. It was right outside of Washington. The stone itself is pretty common but all the circumstances make it a real collectible.” The entire Lorton meteorite weighs about a half-pound, but it fragmented into three main pieces and four or five bits the size of a dime. The largest piece is a 2-by-3-inch chunk.

Certainly, this meteorite stands to boost the visibility of Lorton, Va. How can they not change the name of their sports teams to meteorites? As I type this, journalists are investigating to see whether Lorton is currently, or has at any time, entered a contract with the devil.

About my only experience with such things falling from the sky is standing under a walnut tree after they’d grown ripe. It’s harrowing. I can only imagine what it was like in that doctor’s office.

To be fair, the Smithsonian does have more than 14,000 meteorites in its collection, by some estimates roughly half that exist on earth. But this is a really nice one, museum officials say, and would really tie the (space junk) room together, would it not?

So I don’t suppose I care who winds up with the rock. I’ll just go with the standard, “I’m glad nobody was hurt.” If only because the insurance would be such a mess. Can you imagine that claim? “Let me ask you, sir, was this meteorite in network or out?”

Dictionary gets the last word

They banned the dictionary for a few days last week in Riverside, Calif.

When a parent complained that the definition for “oral sex” was “sexually graphic” and not fit for young readers, the Menifee Union School District pulled its copies of Merriam-Webster’s 10th edition from school shelves.

The event got a smattering of notice around the country and in certain censorship circles. Though it should be said, some pundits were more shocked that kids still look up words in dictionaries than they were about the content of the oral sex definition: “n. oral stimulation of the genitals.”

In the media coverage, I keep waiting for the smartass man-on-the-street quote from some guy: “What is this oral sex thing of which you speak?” It never came. Guess we’ll have to wait for The Onion’s report.

Clearly the offended parent wants his or her child to learn about sex the old-fashioned way. On the school bus. If they think the dictionary definition is graphic, let them enter “oral sex” on a Google search and see what turns up.

I’m reminded of Frank McCourt’s recollection of the day he was thrown out of the library, for good, in Limerick, for looking up the word “turgid,” after seeing it in a sexually suggestive passage he’d happened upon in a book by Lin Yutang.

Merriam-Webster’s is the official dictionary of the Scripps-Howard National Spelling Bee, and of Scrabble. But it spent six days locked in the closets in this California school district until school officials relented. A review by school administrators and the board — amid mounting pressure from first-amendment groups — led officials to reinstate the dictionaries.

A compromise was reached. A less explicit dictionary will also be made available in the district’s fourth-and fifth-grade classrooms (the ones in question), and parents will have to sign a letter stating which they want their children to use.

So now you need a permission slip to look up something in the dictionary. But not to watch cable TV.

I was in high school when Huckleberry Finn was under attack in our school district. While literary types are still mourning the death of the great J.D. Salinger, it’s worth noting that his The Catcher in the Rye was one of the most banned books of the past 50 years in this country.

The hot title under attack now is a children’s book, And Tango Makes Three, about two male penguins who bond over the experience of caring for an egg together. Religious groups complain that the book promotes homosexuality by showing two males caring for an egg. It’s not natural, they say. Except in this case, it is. Male penguins do, in fact, exhibit such behavior, and the ones in this book are based on two actual penguins from the Central Park Zoo in New York.

Sometimes, I’m surprised that some religious types don’t ban their own Good Book. Certainly, there are a great many parts of that book that would earn their own R-rating, or worse. (Of course, it’s a book that has endured more than its share of banning, too, over the ages).

So the dictionary lives on in Riverside. And Anne Frank, too, will stay on the shelves in Culpepper, Va., schools, after The Diary of Anne Frank was removed last week because of a parent complaint.

The passage, in which Frank writes a brief paragraph mentioning her vagina, is included in an updated version of her diary, considered an unedited version.

School officials, after initially pulling the unedited version, say they’ll leave it on the shelves after all, and review after the school year.

The life of a Jewish teenage girl who was killed by the Nazis in early March of 1945 in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp reminds me of a final thought I’ll share, one of the more touching library stories I have heard.

Of all places to find a library, Block 31 of the “Family Camp” in Birkenau concentration camp might be the most unlikely you’ll hear of. The Nazis created this rather small camp to show to the Red Cross as “proof” that they were not killing their prisoners. In reality, they were keeping these families together for just six months, 5,000 or so Jews, before gassing them en masse.

But within this camp, as recounted by Alberto Manguel in his wonderful book, The Library at Night, was an underground library for the children, consisting of only eight books. Included in them were H.G. Wells, A Short History of the World, banned in Germany, a Russian school textbook, a geometry textbook.

“It is almost impossible to imagine,” Manguel writes, “that under the unbearable conditions imposed by the Nazis, intellectual life should still continue.”

In Bergen-Belsen, a copy of Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain was passed among the prisoners. Manguel quotes a man: “The book was my best friend; it never betrayed me, it comforted me in my despair, it told me that I was not alone.”

Shame on us when we treat the gift of books and words too cavalierly. As even the holy books tell us, with their own scenes that are difficult to look upon, there is grace to be found in expression, and blessing in understanding.

Respecting the U.S. Flag

The flap over Sarah Palin’s picture on the cover of Newsweek brought up an issue that has long been a sticking point for me — but it has nothing to do with running shorts or the tone of the picture. It has to do with the American Flag.

I don’t know how they picked Todd Puckett and me out of a crowd of junior high students way back when, but they did. We were sixth graders at Shelby County East Middle school when we were selected to put up the flag every morning. Maybe somebody told them we were dependable. Maybe it was that we didn’t miss much school.

Regardless, Todd and I would retrieve the flag from its place in the school office every morning, and run it up the flag pole. We were, almost instinctively, I think, very conscientious about this task. I can remember dashing out of class if I saw it start raining, so that the flag would not be displayed in the rain.

At the end of the day, we took down the flag, folded it properly, tucked in the last flap of fabric and returned it to the office.

Maybe all that flag-raising drilled something into me. I remember reading the U.S. Code Title 36 Chapter 10 for proper care and usage of the flag.

I suppose that’s why, over the years, I have had a few problems with the way the flag is treated. For years, U of L fans railed — and wrote to me — angry that the team did not display the American flag on their uniforms. I always wrote back the same thing.

The U.S. Code, Title 36, Chapter 10, Paragraph J, says, No part of the flag should ever be used as a costume or athletic uniform. However, a flag patch may be affixed to the uniform of military personnel, firemen, policemen, and members of patriotic organizations. The flag represents a living country and is itself considered a living thing. Therefore, the lapel flag pin being a replica, should be worn on the left lapel near the heart.

The Code is silent on whether a pin should be worn, therefore would have had nothing to say about whether Barack Obama wore or did not wear one during his run for President.

The Code is clear, however, on another practice, one that I have opposed at two newspapers I have worked for. At least twice in my career, newspapers for which I have been employed have used full pages to print a replica of the flag to be displayed in widows or other places. (The display has usually been sponsored by an advertiser.) Again to the Flag Code, same chapter, Paragraph I:

The flag should never be used for advertising purposes in any manner whatsoever. It should not be embroidered on such articles as cushions or handkerchiefs and the like, printed or otherwise impressed on paper napkins or boxes or anything that is designed for temporary use and discard. Advertising signs should not be fastened to a staff or halyard from which the flag is flown.

Furthermore, the flag should not be used as a clothing design, or, as the code says, “should never touch anything beneath it, such as the ground, the floor, water, or merchandise.” Moreover, from the U.S. Code:

The flag should never be used as wearing apparel, bedding, or drapery. It should never be festooned, drawn back, nor up, in folds, but always allowed to fall free. Bunting of blue, white, and red, always arranged with the blue above, the white in the middle, and the red below, should be used for covering a speaker’s desk, draping the front of the platform, and for decoration in general.

Which brings us to Palin. This isn’t a political discussion, but I’m surprised her handlers would allow her to be photographed with the flag in such a position. (I also was surprised when they allowed her to wrap herself in a flag for a photo last year). Note: I’m assuming this Newsweek photo is an accurate representation and that the flag wasn’t Photoshopped in. I have seen no allegations that it was.

I was always impressed, in covering high school sports in Indiana, that if the colors were presented by a color guard before the game, crowds invariably (and properly) did not sit down until the colors had left the field of play, well after the National Anthem had ended.

At a recent University of Kentucky basketball game, an older man upbraided a college student for standing with his hands behind his back during the playing of the National Anthem. During the presidential campaign, Obama got caught on this one, standing for the anthem with his hands together in front of him. Many people do this, and I’ve never thought it disrespectful. But, to be accurate, the U.S. Code says:

During rendition of the national anthem when the flag is displayed, all present except those in uniform should stand at attention facing the flag with the right hand over the heart. Men not in uniform should remove their headdress with their right hand and hold it at the left shoulder, the hand being over the heart. Persons in uniform should render the military salute at the first note of the anthem and retain this position until the last note. When the flag is not displayed, those present should face toward the music and act in the same manner they would if the flag were displayed there.

So that’s the nit-picking rules lecture for today. It should be noted that the President may modify portions of the flag code at any time. (I’m assuming Bush did for athletic uniforms after Sept. 11). Carry on.

Life in Possibility City

I live in a place called Possibility City. I don’t expect you out-of-towners to have heard of it, despite our cutting-edge ad campaigns which you might have seen on late-night cable between singles-line commercials.

I can vouch for the suitability of the name Possibility City, because of the chatter I hear on the streets and along the bike paths.

Can we get a new bridge? It is possible. No city in America has spent more time talking about new bridges than Possibility City.

Can we get light rail, or better public transit? Absolutely possible. Our school superintendent takes job candidates out for $300 dinners. Do you think we are not high rollers?

We might possibly have a National Basketball Association team here one day. I hope they are named the Possibility City Possums.

Sure, we have our problems. Who doesn’t? Mistakes have been made. Yes, we throw our animal carcasses from Possibility City Animal Services into the city dump, but name me one major metro area that doesn’t struggle with that.

(We are moving forward on a kick-ass polar bear exhibit, which should more than make up for it. You can write that down. Possibility Accomplished.)

And, yes, we’ve given a boatload of money for downtown development to some outside outfit that doesn’t exactly like to tell us what they’re doing with all that cash. But what are you going to do? These things sometimes happen between strategic partners. It was either give the money to them or this fancy TV preacher.

I want to talk today, however, not about possibility, but reality.

A lot of cities are spinning their wheels on trendy gimmicks like transit and bridges and job creation; but here in Possibility City we do not get bogged down in such infrastructure mumbo-jumbo and group-think. We are not trying to remake the wheel. We are remaking the paddle-wheel.

That’s right. When we had a situation in which our steamboat, the Belle of Possibility, wrecked in the river, we were not content to tread water, ha ha.

We took it to the garage where they told us that the jockey bar on the paddle wheel was bent and needed replacing, and we did not flinch. We stepped up to the plate. Then they called and told us that the tread on the paddles was worn and we needed new ones. Not unexpected.

And we are adding a $350,000 air conditioning system — because those Possibility River breezes aren’t as soothing as they once were. Name me one other major city that is installing air-conditioning on its paddle-wheeler. Go ahead. Also we have ordered power windows and keyless entry.

But now, we suspect we might have gone to the wrong mechanic. The repairs, originally estimated at $10,000, are going to cost $40,000.

Two days ago, they said they would need to replace the rotors if they could not turn them. And now they say the timing belt looks worn, and that they may need to flush and fill the radiator.

If this boat were not such a necessary part of remaining on the Cutting Edge, you might hear some mumbling around Possibility City. But we must remain proactive. It is the price that must be paid to have a next-generation paddle-wheel steamboat.

Also, we are in the midst of a Major YouTube Grass-Roots Promotion and cannot be sidetracked.

Regardless, at the end of the day, you can be sure that this Possibility City will not be caught up You-Know-What Creek without a paddle-wheel.