Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Should aulde resolutions be forgot?

January is named for the two-faced Roman god Janus, who looks into the future with one face and into the past with the other. That's kind of where I'm at, too. On these dark days following the winter solstice, I look at the year ahead and resolve to be better in some small way, even as I look at the year past and realize how unlikely that is.


Was it just 12 months ago I was standing in front of this same mirror, vowing to hit the gym five days a week, cut down on the fatty foods and take it easy on the wine? I think it was. Those vows are too easy to make after the excesses of the holiday season. Suddenly the waistband is a little too snug and you've got some acid reflux going on, and a little headache just behind the eyes, and you realize that in a whole year all you've achieved is another trip around the sun with everybody else. It really is time to make a change, you think, and this time the change will extend beyond the first week of February.

Which no doubt why the Romans invented old Janus, god of gates and portals, god of transitions. In 21st-century America, the transition most sought is the one from fat to slender, or from obscurity to fame, but the idea is the same: If you want to be good-looking and get your own reality show, once a year it's a good idea to take a few minutes and see how things are trending.

Thus are born New Year's resolutions -- the temporary triumph of hope over experience. I make fewer of them than I used to, but I still do. They're mostly mundane: gonna get fit, gonna get better on the guitar, gonna be nicer to everybody. I don't write them down anymore, since it's better not to leave a paper trail, but I still try to convince myself each January that this time it will be different, that I will end the year a better man than when I started.

We'll see about that, won't we? For now, let's drink to the end of an odd year -- and the end of a decade that seemed not so great, even by my lowered expectations. Things can only get better, right? Happy New Year, all.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Check your dignity at the gate

As long as they've got a limitless supply of credulous young males who don't mind cramming explosives into their underpants and trying to kill everybody around them, we're not going to prevail in this airport-security thing. Because all we've got are 50,000 TSA employees who are most concerned with preventing your grandmother from getting through security with an artificial hip. If you're a radical young Muslim returning from Yemen, don't have any luggage and are on a terror watch list, basically you're good to go.


If there's a bright spot in the Flight 253 incident, it's that one al-Qaeda-inspired idiot is today having trouble urinating, as the result of a badly burned schlong. Sorry, Umar Farouk Abdul-whatever: That's what happens when you don't pay attention in suicide-bombing class. If permanent disability is too much to hope for, then I wish you a long and painful recovery. Good luck with the 70 virgins. I guess we can also hope that this will be a setback for al-Qaeda recruiting.

Presumably, this means the rest of us will soon be exposing our privates, in one way or other, as a condition of boarding an airplane. Personally, I can't wait. But I wonder: At what level of indignity will travelers finally decide they really don't need to fly to that business meeting in Duluth? Sure, it's a long drive, but at least nobody's frisking you at rest stops, or deciding you've got too much styling gel. And usually you don't have to sit beside some mouth-breathing fanatic with a suspicious bulge in his BVDs.

Look: The terrorists are definitely winning. OK?  Their army of mind-numbed robots is apparently bigger than ours. And certainly more committed.  Anyway, they really don't have to blow up any planes; they just have to make us all disrobe and bend over at the command of somebody making $13 an hour. So far, that seems to be working.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The climate outside is frightful

This morning in Wichita, in the pale light of a low-rising sun, the temperature's not so far above zero. That's pretty darned cold for these parts, though it is December and the news stories today about winter storms "crashing" into the Midwest and "hammering" New England seem a little overwrought. People forget from year to year that a certain amount of cold and snow, in the few weeks surrounding the winter solstice, is not really remarkable. At least if you live anywhere north of Texas.

I've seen worse. I'd be happy to share anecdotes about the winters in Montana, the times it got 50 below and your spit, if you were a spitting person, would freeze before it hit the ground. It was way too cold to take a leak outside or start any kind of engine; you bundled up like the Michelin man to grumble through your chores and then you hunkered close to the stove and argued about who was going to bring in some more wood. By the way, if anybody needs advice on unthawing frozen pipes, I'm an expert on the subject.

Most of my weather stories are lies, of course, magnified and distorted through the murky lens of several decades, but I still say they don't make winters like they used to. Which brings me to the subject of global warning, and the idiots who weigh in on the comment boards of newspaper Web sites. Today on the Wichita Eagle's site, the daily weather story has devolved into the usual impassioned diatribes between left and right. One cold snap apparently proves that global warming is a sinister fraud perpetrated by the Trilateral Commission, or somebody. On the other side, it proves that people unsure of the science are creationist morons. As with all discussions among those who prefer to remain anonymous, it's a debate characterized by mindless certainty. Just a matter of time before the Nazi metaphors start flying.

A not-so-great man once said, "People, I just want to say, you know, can we all get along?" I'll field that one, Rodney: The answer is no, as long as nobody's using their real name and every disagreement becomes a matter of faith rather than reason. Look, there can be no question that climate change is occurring, just as it has from the dawn of time. The question is the extent to which mankind causes it, and the extent to which mankind might make it better. There's also the question of weighing the cost of mitigation efforts against the benefits that can be expected to accrue.

Those are complex questions, and way beyond the ken of a man sitting in his bathrobe on a cold winter's day. I have my own opinions on the matter and I will vote accordingly, but at the moment I don't feel like trying to convince some other idiot in his bathrobe that my view is the only one with merit. I suppose that's why I never sought public office. I know it's why I don't attend church regularly. On Planet Dave, there are just too many things that can't be known.

Fortunately, the weather outside right now is not one of them. In a few minutes I'll have to go out in it. Nothing like a wind-chill factor of zero to clear the mind of extraneous details.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Hundreds of candles in the wind

Every year I get more of these ghosts of Christmas past in the room. They don't say much. They don't have to. I already know that the best Christmas in middle age cannot match the least one of childhood. Then it was about things yet to come. Now it's about memory. But I have a feeling those ghosts expect me to pretend otherwise.

I think of them every year when my neighbors and I come forth to set out our luminaries. It's a tradition in my Wichita neighborhood: one weekend in December, we grudgingly honor a pact to line our ordinary streets with points of light. I thought it a little goofy when I first moved here, and kind of burdensome to keep those candles lit in a freezing drizzle. But I'm a true believer now.

You take one paper bag with a candle in it, it's not really much to look at. You take hundreds of them and put them in a row, and the effect is magical. That well-worn way to work becomes a runway to heaven. I guess it's that way with acts of kindness too. A single one can get lost in the shuffle, blown out by a passing truck. But multiplied they change the world.

I know; it's a clich̩. Peace on Earth, and all that. But our time here is short and contrary to popular belief, our opportunities to do the right thing are not infinite. If you've ever lost a loved one, you know this is true. Last year at this time I was talking to my sister on the phone. She wasn't feeling well and wouldn't be able to make it home for Christmas. I made a joke or two and told her I'd see her in the spring. And I did Рat her funeral. It wasn't the first time in my life I thought of all the candles I'd left unlit.

So, yeah: Do the deed. Put out your luminaries, and not just at Christmas. You're not going to get a pat on the back for each one, but maybe kindness without publicity is the most sincere kindness of all. And certain candles will burn all through a long December night. Maybe yours will too.

(This is a variation on a post I submitted to Do The Deed, a Wichita campaign promoting small, and great, acts of kindness. Check it out. And Merry Christmas. -- Dave)

Friday, December 4, 2009

Give me that remote control

I've been watching more TV lately. I suppose it could be another sign of creeping, slack-jawed sloth, but I prefer to think it's because there are better shows now -- even though I concede that crap like "Real Housewives" and "The Bachelor" and "Who Wants to be a Publicity Whore?" remain depressingly popular.

But doesn't it seem that TV sitcoms are finally reclaiming some of the territory so long despoiled by reality TV? That's my thesis. In a tough economy, a few good jokes can defeat a whole division of vacuous and venal blowhards. Paula Abdul's ouster from "American Idol" is a good metaphor for this. Market pressure hasn't yet killed the show, but it did force the replacement of one dim bulb. Let's hope it's a trend. America will be better for it. Sorry Paula. Sometimes, just being yourself is not quite enough.

My favorites at the moment are "Community" and "30 Rock." I still watch "The Office," although recent scripts have veered well afield of the milieu that made the show great. Now that the gentle tension between Jim and Pam is gone, the writers are forced to rely on increasingly bizarre and implausible behavior by Dwight and Michael. The best humor is rooted in recognizable reality. Take that away, and all you've got is slapstick.  "The Office" deserves credit for leading the sitcom revival, but it's gone on at least one season too long. Even so, I'd still watch the worst "Office" episode over the best "Everybody Loves Raymond."

I regularly watch one other show, although I'd prefer you didn't tell anyone. It's "Glee."  I like it not for the writing -- since the scripts rely mainly on each cast member developing a crush on every other cast member on a rotating basis -- but for the dance numbers. I love those dance numbers, love the choreography, love those lithe young bodies leaping through space. It's like "American Idol," only with high standards and a lot of rehearsal. You can't call "Glee" a sitcom, since Jane Lynch as Sue Sylvester is the only funny thing about it, but it's great eye candy. And yeah, the music isn't that bad either.