Opinion

Sunday Afternoon Drink Specials

Sunday, 02 August 2009 11:24 AM Written by

(after a happy hour of cleaning)

With apologies to, and blessings from, The Barmaid...

LOVE: The deep satisfactions, and delightful rediscoveries, that follow from reorganizing your book shelves and CD racks.

HATERADE: The damned dusty residue that accumulates on your hands, and in your lungs, by the time you’ve finished. 

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Breaking Ruse

Saturday, 01 August 2009 10:03 AM Written by

(and what about their legs?)

Last night on the news, I heard a report about a suspect still at large whom police described as armed and extremely dangerous.

Which got me to thinking: are fugitives ever declared armed and moderately dangerous? Armed and mildly dangerous? Unarmed and not really dangerous at all, but still worth mentioning, just in case you see 'em?

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(Free-Range) Notes From a Friday Afternoon

Friday, 31 July 2009 10:00 AM Written by

(rocking the boats of my mind)

For your consideration: another curious collection of thoughts, reactions, and observations that didn’t make it into a full-length post this week...

• Now that The Great Backyard Beer Summit has finally taken place, perhaps we can all go back to paying attention to things that actually matter.

• But before we do, let’s be real: all three men acted stupidly. Professor Gates overreacted, playing the race card on a police officer who was just doing his job, and well, in response to a legitimate 911 call. Sergeant Crowley, whose job it is to be the cool, fair head in these types of situations, overreacted, abusing both his power and the law by trumping up a disorderly conduct charge. And President Obama, whose job it is to pay attention to more important things, and who might have at least recused himself from comment because of his friendship with Gates, overreacted, pouring harsh and half-informed fuel on a fire that was already far larger than it needed to be.

• The President gets credit for admitting his mistake; Gates and Crowley get credit for agreeing to the sit-down, but lose points for refusing to apologize to each other. You were both wrong, fellas. You should have acted like men — or at least children with good role models — and admitted it.   

• Anyone who’s ever been threatened with a bogus disorderly conduct charge — if you remember this story, you know that, around here at least, the numbers are far higher than they should be — will tell you that Sgt. Crowley wasn’t hopped up on racial prejudice; he was hopped up on impudent authority.

Slate’s John Dickerson posted an interesting piece last night about focus group insights into President Obama’s declining poll numbers. The whole thing is worth a look and at least a couple of thoughts, but to my eye and mind, there were two key takeaways. The first: that everyone in the group of seven Obama voters, four McCain voters, and one Nader voter was, despite some obvious disagreements, supported the President and had not given up on [him].

• The second was this sentence: If there was a more general warning sign in this, it was that later in the session a few in the group — all of them Obama voters — talked about the president's lack of humility. It's not exactly LBJ losing Cronkite, but it seems like a warning sign nevertheless.

A former TA of mine — we’ll call him Mr. White — emailed this week to suggest that, no matter much ink I used to splatter upon my students’ graded writing assignments, I never had to offer this much correction. Which made me laugh. And then thank the Lord I never taught Sarah Palin.

• It looks like those crazy Birthers may have finally found the proof they’ve been looking for. Sort of. 

• Really, Microsoft? It’s not bad enough that your operating system is a pale imitator of Apple’s, and that your media player is a pale imitator of Apple’s? You want to follow that same path  hmm... now where have I seen this design before?  with your retail stores too?

• I love milk. Hell, I’m addicted to milk. But this new fizzy milk drink from Coke? I’m not convinced. Nor enticed.

• This Just In: the Pirates have traded the Parrot for two eggs and the fourth-ranked chickadee in the San Francisco Aviary.

• The Steelers interested in signing Michael Vick? Please. I mean, it's not as if those dogs wouldn't let him baptize his son.

• And, finally, after Wednesday’s post and this morning’s weather, I can’t resist a little Ray Bradbury: It had been raining for seven years; thousand upon thousands of days compounded and filled from one end to the other with rain, with the drum and gush of water, with the sweet crystal fall of showers and the concussion of storms so heavy they were tidal waves come over the islands. Or at least the three rivers...

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The Pirates, Viewed From the Left Coast

Thursday, 30 July 2009 09:49 AM Written by

(and behind the remote)

A good friend and former student — we’ll call him Mr. L. -- emailed last night to say that he hoped I’d have a post about the Pirates sometime soon. Before I could think seriously about the request, Mr. L., who is also one of the most astute amateur sports analysts I’ve ever had the pleasure to know and talk and only occasionally disagree with, went ahead and wrote one for me.

Because I’m much more interested in the move my hometown team made yesterday — the Phillies get last year’s American League Cy Young Award without giving up their top two pitching prospects, and a second consecutive National League pennant now looks even more likely — and because Mr. L.’s response to the Pirates’ latest organizational high colonic makes a lot of sense, I thought I would reprint it here:  

Here's my take on it — the thing that's truly despicable about what's happened is the line that started after the McLouth trade, that these moves were being made to improve the team, and that this wasn't a fire sale. Now, I haven't followed very closely what's been said since, but to me, saying stuff like that is complete BS. I get why they have to say it, because who would pay to come see a Triple-A team in a major league ballpark, but please, don't insult the intelligence of the remaining Pirate fans out there.
 
That said... these moves are ABSOLUTELY NECESSARY to have any chance of bringing the Pirates back to glory. I know this is probably the 7th or 8th time since 1992 that this approach has been taken, but seriously, were the Pirates going anywhere with Nate McLouth, Freddy Sanchez, Nyjer Morgan, Ian Snell, Adam LaRoche, and even Jason Bay?  Hell, they weren't going anywhere with Jason Schmidt, Jason Kendall, and Brian Giles, and they weren't going anywhere with Tony Womack, Esteban Loaiza, and Jose Guillen, and on and on and on and on...
 
The thing that will distinguish this re-organization from the others is whether Neal Huntington can actually evaluate talent, because nobody since, oh I don't know, Syd Thrift, has known what the hell he was doing. Judging by the looks of things so far, well... I'm not so sure he can. 

The Pirates didn't exactly trade marquee players, so they haven't exactly been getting marquee prospects in return. But at least they're smart enough to know that even when all the guys mentioned above would have eventually clicked (in 2017, perhaps?), they were never going to be more than 80-82 anyway, and since those guys had already passed their primes (if any of them even had one), it was time to get what they could for them.
 
So, I applaud the moves, and hope you use your forum to shut down any remaining Pirates fans who feel that they've been jilted out of another potential winning season. Because it wasn't happening.

There you have it, folks. Shut-down straight talk, right here in this forum, from a guy who cares enough about Pittsburgh sports to follow them all the way from the left coast. A guy who, a decade after he first came to CMU, is still climbing the Steelers’ season-ticket waiting list. And a guy who has his priorities well-ordered enough to end that email with one more last, essential sentence:
 
Let's Go, Pens.

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All Summer in a (Rain) Day

Wednesday, 29 July 2009 07:06 AM Written by

(let’s go to ray in the severe weather center...)

The folks in Waynesburg are no doubt partying along High Street this morning, rip-roaring and drip-dropping their way through another gloriously wet, you-can-set-your-calendar-by-it Rain Day. But for the rest of us here in Western Pennsylvania, wading our way through yet another gray, damp, Bill-Murray-must-be-in-Punxsutawney kinda Not-Quite-So Summer Day, it’s enough to make you shout and curse at the heavens, reminding God and Mother Nature and any other entity who will listen that Spring has been over for a while now, and that we’d like to have a few more days of the next season before we slip right on into Autumn.

Thoughts like this, on cloud-heavy, puddle-forming mornings like these, make me think of Ray Bradbury. One of my first great literary loves — "The Veldt," Something Wicked This Way Comes, The Martian Chronicles, Farenheit 451; classics all — his name always made me perk up and pay special attention when it crossed my desk in reading books and magazines, on worksheets and SRA cards.

The piece that perked me up, and then knocked me down, more than any other was “All Summer in a Day,” a fierce and slippery little sucker-punch of a short story about a classroom full of children who live on Venus, where the sun shines for only one hour every seven years. The kids write poems and essays in honor and anticipation of that glorious day. They dream about it, they wait for it, and then...

...well, I wouldn't dream of ruining it for you. If you’ve never read it, or even if you have, I urge you to find and a read a copy; it'll be the best five minutes of your day. Especially if your day is as dank and dark as the one outside my windows right now.

Perhaps, if Bradbury had seen the future a bit more presciently, those children would have written Tweets or blog posts or Facebook status updates about it. Perhaps they would have just filmed the sun and watched it over and over on an endless digital loop. Or perhaps he would have known to set his story in the bleak and sopping future of Summer, 2009.

We know how they feel.   

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Listening

Tuesday, 28 July 2009 05:07 PM Written by

(and learning)

In the Business and Oral Communications classes I used to teach at CMU, we’d spend a fair amount of time talking about, practicing, and then refining the too-often-lost art of active listening. Business meetings, interviews, oral presentations — it didn’t matter; if someone talked, you listened. You looked like it, you acted like it, and you (as well as the speaker) reaped the benefits of it.

I thought of those classes, and especially of presentation days in OralComm, when students would be graded on their listening and their feedback as well as their speaking, as I sat in City Council chambers for more than two hours yesterday, listening to speaker after speaker come to the podium and pour out a little piece of themselves and their souls for the benefit of our nine — well, eight; more on that in a moment — councilors, whose collective performance reminded me, in some of the best and worst ways, of some of those classrooms full of students in early Septembers or Januarys, before they’d all been shown and trained and occasionally shamed into doing all that was expected of them.

Watching our councilors watch (or not) and listen (or not) to all those speakers, I couldn’t resist the urge to take a few mental notes, and then to offer them here, for whatever they’re worth. Call it feedback. Call it constructive coaching. Or just call it what it is: a guy with more than a little expertise and experience at this, offering up notes and grades from yesterday’s listening assignment.

[In seating order, from left to right around the table...]

Tonya Payne  D+
Arrived late, made faces, couldn’t bother to muster up eye contact for even half the speakers she saw. May as well have had the words “Short Timer” imprinted on her blouse.  

Jim Motznik  F
Is he even on council any more? That said, I’m hard-pressed to imagine a scenario in which his presence would have improved the proceedings.

Darlene Harris  C-
Arrived late and, despite sitting upright and seeming to pay attention to most of the speakers, exuded an aura of cold, often creepy detachment. If empathy has a face, it’s the opposite of hers.

Theresa Smith  B+
Got up and walked out once, in what appeared to be an overtly political maneuver, but paid sincere and obvious attention the rest of the time. Good eye contact, reassuring non-verbals, and a sympathetic posture made her the stand-out on the left side of the table.  

Patrick Dowd  C
Focused and deeply attentive at times; distracted, looking into his lap, seeming restless and distant at others. Got up about halfway through and didn’t come back until the last few minutes. I expected, and the speakers deserved, better.  

Rev. Ricky Burgess  C+
About the same as Councilman Dowd; his peaks of attentiveness were not quite as high, but his disappearance from the room was not nearly as long.  

Bruce Kraus  A+
The gold standard, and a shoo-in for the OralComm/TRM Best Listener Award. Through more than thirty speakers, he never wavered: focused, attentive, empathetic; gaze up, body language open; a warm, receptive, quietly dignified presence. Nodded, took notes, always thoroughly engaged. An impressive professional — and human — performance.   

Bill Peduto  A-
Seemed a bit distracted at times, shuffling papers and messages — and quotations? — back and forth with his (excellent, professional, obviously attentive) staffers, but maintained eye contact with and exuded empathy for all of the speakers. Obviously engaged in who they were, what they were saying, and how they were feeling.

Doug Shields  A-
Acquitted himself well with a thankless task and position: sitting on an angle at the end of the table, marshaling the speakers, prodding them for names and addresses, enforcing time and sequence restrictions, all while trying to listen and take notes on what he was hearing. Wasn’t the most engaging presence at the table, but was consistently engaged and attentive and effective throughout.  

Average Grade: C+

Average Grade Without Jim Motznik: B

Yep. That sounds about right.

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The Reproduction of the Christ

Monday, 27 July 2009 03:50 PM Written by

(and the separation of church and sense)

When I wasn’t spending a couple of hours in City Council chambers — more on that tomorrow — or trying desperately to do at least a half-dozen things on my ever-lengthening to-do list, I traded a handful of emails today with a pair of Pitt professors — more on them, perhaps, in the months ahead — and got to thinking about that warm July morning a few years ago when I had a rare moment of, if not transcendence, at least revelation, inside the Cathedral of Learning.

I had taken Adam, my older son, to the opening day of his Young Writer's Institute summer camp, and for some sort of orientation, we settled in to Room 324, a great, stone-walled, arched-windowed, wooden-benched, you-only-see-'em-in-the-movies kinda lecture hall. As kids and parents streamed in — an expectant smile here, an unfortunate pencil case there, two alarming pink-hair dye-jobs in the back — I took a moment or two to take in my surroundings, to soak up the ambience and even a little of the incongruity: the medieval-looking lights, hung from black chains, useless now beneath banks of recessed, energy-efficient green lights; the scratched, smudged projection screen, hung like a dirty bed sheet between the pristine blackboards and a great, sheer stone face above; the scrawled, hand-carved Greek letters, violating the smooth oak finish of the arm supports; the unfortunate feeling in my gut (and in my butt) that, no matter how cool these desks looked, they hurt like hell to sit in for more than five seconds.

I'd just begun to imagine how cool it would be to teach in a room like this —  to speak and project and overcome the no-doubt dead acoustics, to command a room that looked and felt for all the world like a place intended for its inhabitants to think and to learn (unlike, say, most of the rooms in which I used to teach, which looked and felt like places to sip coffee and surf the web and endure another stultifying committee meeting), to hear my echoing footsteps fill the occasional silences between my mouth and my students' ears — when I turned to my right, saw, in full and faded color, a great, twelve-foot-high painting, and thought:

Oh my God.

As a guy who spent four years studying and two years teaching at Duquesne, a proudly Catholic university where crucifixes hang on the walls of every classroom and religious iconography is something to be not just expected but embraced, this gargantuan image wasn't particularly shocking or surprising. My initial reaction was to admire and appreciate the art work.

But then, faster than you can say ACLU Hotline, I remembered that I was sitting in a pretty big lecture hall at a pretty public state-affiliated university funded by awfully public tax dollars, attended by a broadly diverse student populace, and staffed by a well-meaning but undoubtedly hypersensitive (it goes with the territory; trust me) faculty. In an era when signs and creches and simple benedictions regularly inspire legal teeth-gnashing and hand-wringing and garment-rending. (And lawsuits. Lots and lots of lawsuits.) And I was staring straight into the eyes (and almost into the briefs) of a larger-than-life, back-from-the-afterlife Jesus Christ.

I recognized the image — Piero della Francesca's Resurrection, the title and artist creeping into my mind like a soft and distant memory from a medieval art and lit class, maybe at Maryland but probably at Duquesne — right away, but I crept in for a closer look at the nameplate and discovered that the reproduction, painted by Nicolas Lockoff and larger than the original by several feet in length and width, was commissioned in the early 20th Century by a woman whose name escapes me now.

Judging by the condition of the painting and the condition (and age) of the room, I assumed that it's been there since (or not long after) the building's 1937 dedication. Which does, of course, contribute mightily to the aura and ambience of the room: imagining that image, that crowned visage staring down at generation after generation of students staring back at it, rising and reigning before hundreds of thousands of eyes, not one pair of which ever saw fit to pitch a fit and find offense and declare that half-naked Son of a God a mortal (or would that be immortal?) affront to every legal, social, cultural, and xeno-religious principle it holds dear but not sacred.

I was tempted, of course, to imagine that far too many students who've passed through that room have, on too many early mornings or rainy afternoons, merely resembled the sentries at the bottom of the painting, dozing, sleeping, blissfully ignorant of the intellectual and spiritual stirrings around and above them. And yet you'd have to think that sometime, at least in the last ten or fifteen years — when the cottage industry of mistaking display for endorsement, depiction for establishment, has gone public and incorporated itself into the dark hearts and narrow minds of people with axes to grind but no worthy wood to cut — some student would have stayed awake and aware long enough to look and think and decide to be deeply offended by the very presence of the painting.

Or perhaps not.

Perhaps healthy, almost heavenly graces of respect and tolerance and diversity and every other lip-serviced buzzword of open-minded thinking that too often whines about freedom from behind closed doors and minds really do exist in some of the classrooms at Pitt. Perhaps generations of young Panthers, liberal and conservative, Christian and Jew, Hindu and Muslim, Agnostic and Atheist, athlete and artist, student and professor, just figure these things are to be expected, forgiven, and maybe even absolved, on the walls and in the halls of a cathedral of learning.

That thought alone, for the soul of a visitor at the heart of a university, all the more so these several years later, feels like an answered prayer.

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(Previously On) Notes From a Friday Afternoon

Friday, 24 July 2009 01:52 PM Written by

(sounding the trumpets of my mind)

For your consideration: another curious collection of thoughts, reactions, and observations that didn’t make it into a full-length post this week...

The politics of delay and defeat is a nice line, and Lord knows there are plenty of GOP (and even a few DEM) obstructionists trying to derail the President’s health care agenda just for the fun of it. But that’s an awfully broad, and intellectually dishonest, brush with which to paint all critics of your not particularly clear or well-defined initiative. It seems to suggest that no one could possibly have a thoughtful, principled, legitimate stance against your own, and that any opposition to your wishes can be dismissed as partisan obstructionism. Which, even in an age when the GOP would seem to favor partisan obstructionism becoming a new Olympic sport, is a complete crock.   

• It also sounds an awful lot like something that, aimed in the other direction about, say, the War in Iraq or the Patriot Act, could have come straight from the mouth of his smirking predecessor.

• Let me be sure I understand this: Tens of thousands of our state’s stimulus dollars have been spent on the creation of large road signs that tell us where our stimulus dollars have been spent? Really?

• How long before some of our stimulus money is spent on signs that will appear next to the signs that tell us where our stimulus money has been spent, telling us that our stimulus money has been spent on the signs telling us where our stimulus money has been spent?

• Now let me be sure I understand this: FEMA has toured the communities ravaged by the June 17th floods and decided that they don’t warrant a disaster declaration? Really? Did someone put Mike Brown back in charge?

• Do you think FEMA would be willing to dole out some federal disaster dollars if the people who receive them promise to erect signs in their yards telling us where they were spent?

Not even two weeks into mayoral race radio silence, and I’m already dying over here. Thank God for Early Returns, City Paper, and the Comet...

• Here’s a new one: On Monday morning, I saw a guy make a right turn from Beechwood to Hastings while driving with his left hand and vigorously shaving with his right. I’ve seen some variation of this before, of course — heck, I once saw a guy brushing his teeth behind the wheel on Washington Avenue — but the driver was always alone. This time, there were two other people in the car with him: a woman in the passenger’s seat, and a man in the back seat, neither one of whom seemed particularly alarmed that the guy responsible for their transport seemed more interested in his stubble than in their, or even his own, safety.

• I think I smell a new cross-over product: The New Gilette Fusion Mach 6 Razor and Air Bag System. (For Close Shaves and Even Closer Shaves!)

• This week’s best bit of Useless Information: At any given time, there are eighteen hundred thunderstorms in progress over the earth’s atmosphere.

• Which, incidentally, is about the same number of thunderstorms that John Burnett predicts for on any given day in KD Country.

• Note to the woman texting (or dialing) on her cell phone will driving a gray Honda CRV up Linden Avenue at 8:50 this morning: That big yellow thing you passed is called a “School Bus.” Those much smaller things in t-shirts and shorts walking along the street and getting on the bus are called “children.” They will have a much better chance of getting to day camp, and also of living to see their teen years, if you PUT DOWN THE DAMNED PHONE AND PAY ATTENTION WHILE DRIVING YOUR CAR.

• [You’ll forgive me for a few moments while I try to resume my normal breathing patterns...]

• Now that I’ve gotten the 70s and 90s out of the way — the choices were pretty easy, and there were plenty of high-quality runners-up for each decade — the Most Perfectly Formed Album category gets a lot tougher. For the 80s, I’ll have to go with Roxy Music’s Avalon. So smooth and self-assured, so lovely and haunting and lyrical, that it practically demands to be heard in a single sitting. Each of the ten tracks is a keeper, and at least several (Avalon, More Than This, The Main Thing) are pretty much perfect in their own right, but they move and flow so well that they could just as well be considered one epic, intimate 37-minute song.

•  And, finally, a culinary tip for the weekend and beyond... I ate for the first time today at Thai Me Up on Carson Street on the South Side. Great food, charming ambience, attentive service, the Most Perfectly Formed Spring Rolls I’ve eaten in quite some time, and lunch specials menu pricing ($5.99?!) that has you doing double takes before you order and once again after you eat. If you haven’t already, check it out sometime. And tell ‘em TRM sent you...

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