Monday, July 25, 2011

Lies My Father Told Me

Parents and dictators frequently create myths to justify their authority. Similar methods that belie vastly different motives. The tin-horn, in his military finery and listing to port under the weight of self-awarded medals, concocts fantastic tales of glory hoping to bamboozle the unfortunate masses into accepting his overblown opinion of himself.

Parents have a more modest purpose. They rely on myths to convince themselves of their fitness for the job.

The parental duty, after all, is to teach the young to face the cruel, uncaring world with courage and elan. A daunting task for those who have stumbled through life, botching up most of what they have tried and regretting all the things they have not.

Hopelessly lost themselves, many parents lack the requisite confidence to be intrepid guides for their children. Confidence is best fostered by success, but when success proves elusive a good dose of malarkey helps. Hence, the prevalence of parental myths.

The myths serve to assure parents of the superiority of their generation over all others. To see oneself as sitting at the very apex of evolution is a heady experience; one which doubt and timidity cannot survive. It is this attitude that emboldens parents to rise to the challenge of firm, decisive child-rearing.

Few people are foolish enough to attribute this preeminence solely to genetic good fortune. That could be too easily refuted. Most parents claim it took a unique combination of natural and man-made forces to lift this one generation so far above the evolutionary mean.

Winter weather and rigorous academic standards were my explanations. The Siberian ferocity of winters many decades ago built character in a way impossible to match with the positively balmy winters of my children's youth. And strong, disciplined minds were nurtured by the stringent requirements and demanding curriculum that were the heart of the exacting education received before academic standards became famous as an oxymoron.

Convinced that I had survived the sternest tests of man and nature, I scoffed at all challenges. The prospect of parenthood did not faze me. So great was my confidence, I never noticed the omens of the great reckoning that swirled about me.

Those more attuned to modern culture might have seen the dangers that lurked daily on the back of the first section of USA Today: the full-page weather report. I failed to appreciate the threat it posed to our nation's cherished family values. The idea just seemed silly to me.

Suddenly the weather report was liberated. All the tradition constraints on meteorological excess evaporated. In print and on the air, "Variably cloudy with a chance of flurries, the high today around 35 and a low tonight near 27," didn't make it anymore.

And the actual forecast was nearly lost as the weather report became a compilation of obscure climatic data. The most exalted facts being the record high and low temperatures for each date. The significance of this information was never revealed. We were not any warmer because they told us that it had plummeted to minus-17 in 1983 (when Russell, my son, was 7), nor any less comfortable when informed that it had soared to 63 "way back" in 1959 (when I was 11). Trivial or not, these records were force fed to a public already sated with weather minutiae.

The pattern for the record temperatures was easily discerned. All the record low temperatures for November through March, except for a few which have stood since the 19th Century, were set during the years of Russell's youth. The record highs for the same months, strangely enough, were all set when I was a whippersnapper.

My myth provided scant protection from his barrage. Worse yet, I was unarmed in the face of the fusillade. I could not deny the relationship of severe weather to strong character. The concept is central to the national psyche. No one believes Abraham Lincoln would have amounted to much if he had spent his youth lazing around some Florida beach instead of huddled by the hearth in a drafty log cabin while a blizzard raged outside.

A public attack on the weathermen for their shoddy research and inaccurate record keeping was also out of the question. The weather forecasters get their predictions right less often than tabloid psychics, but their avuncular, self-effacing manner has made them favorites of a public that values reassurance more than truth. To speak against them would have made me an object of scorn and would have added yet another burden for my weakened self-image to bear.

I grappled with this predicament for months before the way out became clear. Obviously the schools of my generation must have been much tougher than even I remembered them. So difficult, in fact, that the academic experience was sufficient to offset any character weakness that the benign winters of that period might have induced.

This worked well when Russ was in the second grade, and I hoped it would carry me right through until retirement. But it only lasted until he wanted help with sixth-grade spelling.

"Quiz me," Russ said, and he handed me a list of words.

"I don't need that," I protested. "Just spell the words and I'll tell you if you're right."


"That's pretty good, but you left out the second 'R,'" I said. Why, I wondered, would anyone force the young to learn to spell the name of that piddling pool of water surrounded by banana republics? In my day, we aspired to cruise the Caribbean, not to spell it."

"What's the next word?" I asked.


Russ was taken aback by the skeptical smile I used to mask my ignorance. Eyebrows arched and lips silently forming the letters, Russ ran through the spelling twice.

"I was right," he said, not bothering to hide his exasperation.

"I know you're right. I'm just teasing."

Russ went on to spell "Appalachia," "rendezvous," and 15 other words I couldn't spell. By the time he was done, my myth was shattered and made quite a mess on the living room floor. I asked him to get the broom and clean it up because I wasn't sure how to spell vacuum cleaner.

As he dumped the last few shards into the wastepaper basket, I sought refuge in a new myth. A myth so simple that neither fact nor logic could refute it.

"Why do I have to clean up your mess?" he asked.

"Because I'm your father and I know what's best for you," I said smugly.

This piece originally appeared in The Plain Dealer Magazine of April 9, 1990.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Gray Area

The clippers buzz from my nape to my crown,
clearing a path through the tangle of hair,
and the hair as it falls brings on a frown.

Whence cometh the gray that is falling down?
I shouldn't be vain, and I shouldn't care.
The clippers buzz from my nape to my crown,

and the shorn gray hair piles up all around.
I'm sure all this gray was not always there,
and the hair as it falls brings on a frown.

The gray has won; it's overwhelmed the brown.
I bet it cheated, just never played fair.
The clippers buzz from my nape to my crown.

It's best, I guess, that I am sitting down;
a good thing the barber has a nice chair.
And the hair as it falls brings on a frown.

Gray once bestowed dignity to my hair,
back before it became all that is there.
The clippers buzz from my nape to my crown,
and the hair as it falls brings on a frown.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

The Google Effect

Far be it from me to argue with the brilliant men and women of science who crowd the halls of academia, running into each other as they madly dash about in the pursuit of knowledge. But there are times their discoveries leave me scowling dubiously at the newspaper, television or computer screen.

For instance, the recent item headlined, "Does Google make your memory weaker?" Researchers at Columbia University, according to the article, have found that Google and other search engines have changed the way we remember things. A person doing a computer search for a piece of information, the researchers claim, is less likely than a person poring over a book to remember what he found out. Although, the googler is more likely to remember where he found the information he has since forgotten.

This might explain the whoppers certain Republican presidential hopefuls have been trying to pass off as history. If the liberal media would allow politicians to use their laptops during interviews, the candidates could quickly access the relevant facts and avoid the shame of misrememberating whom Paul Revere hoped to alert during his ride, for example.

But that is not the reason for my skepticism. What I want to know is, if it's so easy to remember where I found some arcane fact a month ago, why is it I can't remember where I put my pen ten seconds ago?

The problem started on page 164 of First Family: Abigail and John Adams by Joseph J. Ellis. On that page, Ellis quotes from a letter of Abigail's written late in the 18th Century, in which she says to John, "It may be called the telegraph of the mind." An obvious error, I assumed, and I rushed to to find when "telegraph" entered the language, so I could gloat and look down my persnickety nose at Mr. Ellis. But the word "telegraph," I discovered, made its debut in 1794, fifty years before Samuel Morse converted "What hath God wrought?" to dits and dahs.

As the researchers at Columbia would have predicted, I promptly forgot the year. But this morning, a spark rekindled my interest in the history of the word. So, I grabbed Ellis' book. I didn't grab it right away, of course. To do that, I would have had to remember where I put it. My search began with the place where I was sure I put it, and became increasingly frenetic as I moved through the places where I might have put it to the places where I knew darn well I hadn't put it. I don't know how it got there, but it was in the least likely spot of all: the bookshelf. Cuddles must have put it there.

Finding paper to jot down some notes was easy. There was still paper in the printer from yesterday, which is another story. I was writing a letter that needed to look like it came from someone who knew what he was doing and thought it best to use the printer to address the envelope - all the better to give it a professional sheen. The printer spat out the envelope, I picked it up, scanned it for egregious errors and set it aside for a moment. Well, it would have been a moment, except by the time I signed and folded the letter I'd forgotten where I put the envelope.

This morning, I had the book, some paper and my pen was next to the computer. Taking pen in hand, I made a few squiggly lines to make sure it had ink and then, as Mother always told me, I put back where I got it, next to the computer. Or so I thought. I had no trouble remembering where I got the information on "telegraph," and was on the site in a trice. But before I could write down the information, I spent fifteen frustrating minutes looking for the pen.

Remembering where I found things is a useful tool now and then. But I'd be much more thankful if the researchers could find a website that would help remember where I put things.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Extra! Extra!

A year or two ago, Russell told me I ought to read Crazy '08 by Cait Murphy. I did, and I enjoyed it. Yesterday, July 17, 2011, with the Pirates and Indians atop their respective divisions, I thought about that book and a column I wrote after reading it that appeared in the Star Beacon.

There was a time when the only way to see a ballgame was to go to the ballpark. Why, there was even time when there weren't any radio broadcasts to listen to. To find out how his team did, the fan had to wait for the newspaper.

After reading Crazy '08: How a Cast of Cranks, Rogues, Boneheads, and Magnates Created the Greatest Year in Baseball History by Cait Murphy, I've decided the wait would have been worth it. Whatever their failings, the writers of that era churned out some interesting copy.

Murphy's primary focus is the battle for the 1908 National League pennant between the Giants of John McGraw and Christy Mathewson, and the Cubs of Tinker, Evers, Chance and "Three Finger" Brown. On Sept. 20, the New York World declared the Giants had the pennant all but wrapped up, and the Giants began spouting what is now called bulletin-board material. Murphy chides the Giants for there public display of confidence, but she forgives the press: "Sportswriters," she says, "can be excused for saying stupid things; it is part of their job."

For a sportswriter who has said his share of stupid things, that's a comforting thought. But while stupidity might still linger in the press box, some of the flair is gone. Of Tinker's two-run, game-winning double in a July game against the Giants, the Chicago Tribune reported, "Joseph [Tinker] leaned his faithful pestle against the first pitch and - bingerino! Away went the ball."

A week or so earlier the Giants had lost to the Pirates when Wee Tommy Leach ended the game with an inside-the-park home run.

"There was a sharp report as Tommy caught the pellet squarely on its proboscis and sent it screeching toward the distant middle," the Pittsburgh Post reported. "Cy Seymour turned and hurried in that direction, and then the wee one settled into a sprint around the circuit which would have made a race horse pale with envy."

In late September, the Giants' Rube Marquard pitched for the first time in the major leagues. It was a disappointing performance which the New York Times described this way: "He was worse stage affrighted than a school-of-acting young woman at a professional debut and besides this, he was wilder than a hawk and nowhere near as harmful."

That florid prose might be too much in an age when nearly everyone interested in the game will have watched it on TV or seen the crucial moments replayed on SportsCenter. But the truth is, the written word can often create more vivid images than an all-fact and no-imagination slow-motion replay.

And there were times when the hyperbole stopped and the writers went forward without embellishment. The Pirates could of won the pennant that year, but they lost their final game, 5-2, to the Cubs. The Buc's Honus Wagner made two errors that day, and the Pittsburgh Post described his play in the field as "a cheese sandwich without mustard."

The Cleveland Naps, with Napoleon Lajoie and Addie Joss, had one of those what-might-have-been years, battling the Tigers and White Sox for the American League crown. In late September, after winning 16 times in 18 games, the Naps lost two to Washington. After the second loss, the Plain Dealer said, "That little god of baseball luck let Cleveland get all its hopes up for a victory, only to overwhelm it with defeat at the eleventh hour."

When the season ended the Naps and Tigers had each won 90 games. The Tigers, who finished a half game ahead of the Naps because the Tigers hadn't been able to make up a rain out with Washington, won the pennant and went on to lose to the Cubs in the World Series. If the White Sox had played their entire schedule, they too might have finished with 90 wins. The following season, the American League changed its rule on make-up games, and any unplayed games that could affect which team won the pennant had to be made up at the end of season.

The Plain Dealer summed up Cleveland's 1908 season this way: "there's no consolation in 'if.'"

But it sure was fun reading Crazy '08.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Caught in the Web

I have a problem with the Internet: there's just too much there. To be honest, the problem is my lack of focus. I don't do well with an endless array of choices. I can sit down with the newspaper, read what interests me and ignore what doesn't. Later in the day, I might go back and read something I skipped earlier, or I might throw the paper away.

When I was a teenager, my parents subscribed to The Saturday Evening Post, Sports Illustrated and Reader's Digest. On the day a magazine appeared in our mailbox, I took it into the living room and read whatever seemed interesting. Sometimes that was nothing more than the cartoons and fillers, and sometimes it was an article or two. When I was done, I threw the magazine on the end table.

In those days the standard household allotment of televisions was one, so there were evenings when the TV was in the hands of a relative who did not share my refined tastes and preferred to watch something other than The Flintstones or The Beverly Hillbillies. And there were rainy weekends when I was forced to stay inside. On those occasions, I often wandered back into the living room and grabbed a magazine off the end table. Having read the articles on topics that interested me, I had little choice but to peruse the boring articles, which almost always turned out to be less boring than I imagined and often more interesting than the interesting stuff I had already read.

The trouble with the Internet is there is never a reason to go back and discover what you missed. Pick a topic and you can find enough material to keep you reading for eternity. That's not the only problem. Besides sending you to a tiny island in a sea of minutiae, the Internet also provides an instantaneous means of escape. With mouse in hand, you can check the weather, see who is winning the ballgame, chat with a friend, check your e-mail, investigate another topic that suddenly seems more interesting or see which politician or celebrity proved to be a bigger idiot than the politician or celebrity who set the modern record for idiocy a day or two earlier.

Bookstores and libraries are full of distractions, too: so many books, so little time. But eventually I find the book or books I want and go home to read. A book of paper and ink has no links. My mind might wander now and then, but almost anything I want to do is going to require getting up. That doesn't keep all the distractions at bay, but does keep me from indulging every whim.

I've never been good at maintaining my concentration. I admit that. But Newt Gingrich's problems with marital faithfulness haven't stopped him from pointing his holier-than-thou accusatory finger at other adulterers. So if I want to blame the Internet for the decline of Western civilization, I will. And I do.

How is it then that I'm suddenly unable to imagine life without it? I recently read High Tide in Tucson, a book of essays by Barbara Kingsolver. In one piece she discusses letters she'd received from readers. In one, a woman from South Padre Island, Texas, wrote that the last bookstore in the area had closed, and she was having trouble getting copies of Ms. Kingsolver's books. Could she help?

"Go to," I screamed.

Then I re-read the passage and noted that the letter was written in the early 1990s, when the World Wide Web as we know it didn't exist.

Maybe the Internet wasn't such a bad idea after all. Horrors.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Safe Sex in Ohio

Dear Male Politician,

It is a sad day in America when a member of Congress is castigated and forced to resign his office for sending sexually explicit photographs of himself to a woman. We at Have A Drink in Ohio believe it is shameful that so many people are up in arms over Congressman Weiner's understandable behavior.

According to recent studies, when it comes to the size of procreative organs, males who list their occupation as "politician" are the most generously endowed of any vocational group. And the difference in size is sizable, indeed. Truck drivers and athletes are tied for second in the survey, but comparing them to politicians is like comparing redwoods and bonsai trees. Politicians also score highest in pride and conceit. That is not a bad thing. A grandiose self-image is imperative when you are a sleazy, oily character who spends his days toadying up to unimaginably rich sleazy, oily characters and their lobbyists.

During the few hours of the day when a politician isn't assiduously collecting bribes, payoffs and kickbacks, he must remind the apathetic public and fawning press of his outstanding qualities. That is what Mr. Weiner did, using pictures instead of words. And because a picture is worth a thousand words, he should be congratulated for his efficiency rather than berated for his failure to adhere to an outdated moral standard that robs the modern male politician of his right of free expression.

Admit it: as a male politician you have done what Mr. Weiner did, or been strongly tempted to. You have succeeded in politics by constantly telling the electorate that you are the man for the job. And every citizen wants our nation's leaders to be manly. Unfortunately, far too many recoil in horror when a politician offers to reveal proof of his manliness.

What is the well-endowed politician to do? With a few skillful strokes of his scalpel, a surgeon can quickly reduce your massive member to a tiny tool. But you probably want to avoid that. So why not come to Ohio?

As you may know, Ohio recently passed one of the least restrictive concealed-carry laws in the nation. Now you can take your gun with you almost anywhere in the Buckeye State, including bars.

While, unfortunately, our new law offers no protection to those who text, e-mail or post images of their stunning masculinity, it does allow the frisky politician to relax when he's out with a shapely young thing half his age. We know there is an attractive woman on your staff with whom you wish to become better acquainted, and because, as you constantly remind the voters, you are a man of faith, you naturally want to get to know her in the Biblical sense. We suggest you show her a night on the town in Cleveland, Toledo, Cincinnati, Columbus, Akron, Youngstown or even Rock Creek. After an expensive dinner at the taxpayers' expense, take your date to one of the many fine bars you'll find in every Ohio city. Just make sure you're packing heat when you do. It is your ironclad alibi.

After a few drinks, you will undoubtedly feel the urge to share thoughts of an intimate nature with the fair damsel. You will tell her about your equipment and its awesome size and firepower. And eventually you will suggest she take a look at it. If she wants to continue working for you, she will "yes," and you will go from there. However, there is always the possibility that she will be shocked and call the police. But you are in Ohio and there is no need to panic. Remain calm as she finishes the call and then ask if she would like another drink while waiting for the police to arrive. When they do, allow her to talk to them without interruption. Then a policeman will turn to you, and you'll say:

"I think there has been a terrible misunderstanding, officer."

"Yeah, what's that?"

"I have a concealed-carry permit, and I wanted to show her my pistol - it's a real pistol. I certainly wasn't trying to take advantage this fine young, American woman. I tried to explain that to her, but she was awfully upset."

The policeman will ask to see your permit and to inspect the weapon.

"Boy, that is quite a gun you have. I wish I had one that big," he'll say. "But that clears it all up. I'm so sorry we had to bother you."

It's as easy as that in Ohio.

Remember, the next time your testosterone starts to stir, Ohio is the place to be for risk-free, embarrassment-free fun. And don't forget your gun; we can't wait to take a look at it.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Aging Gracelessly

The change was correct; it was the receipt that bothered me. I couldn't understand why I had been given the senior discount at the fast-food place.

In some narrow chronological sense, of course, I qualified for it. But I was in the drive-through, and the lady with the garbled voice who took my order was somewhere inside. How ever did she know?

Age has its privileges, mostly in the form of discounts. Discounts are wonderful things, and I am not too proud to avail myself of them. But I thought it would be a while before sales clerks could take one look at me - or simply hear my voice - and pronounce me deserving of them. Given my well-preserved features and immature demeanor, I assumed I'd have to fight for discounts until I was well into my 70s. And I was gleefully girding myself for battle.

A few years ago, in the weeks leading up to one of those birthdays that end in zero, I received a Golden Buckeye Card. The State of Ohio had given me a powerful identification tool I could use to stun and embarrass sales clerks. Or so I thought.

I pictured myself at the checkout, watching the clerk ring up my purchases. Then, just before she hit the total button, I pulled out my Golden Buckeye Card and held it two inches from her nose, in the manner of a television cop.

"Tom Harris, high-end Boomer," I said with great authority.

"Mr. Harris, I'll need to see your driver's license," she replied in the snippy manner the young have when they're given a modicum of authority.

"Look, young lady, this is a Golden Buckeye Card issued by the State of Ohio and it entitles me to certain rights and privileges, including discounts on my purchases at this store."

"I know what it is. Do you think I'm like blind?" she said. "If you want the discount, you'll have to like show me your driver's license. And if you don't stop acting like some four-year-old with a plastic badge and a toy pistol, I'll call the manager."

"Actually, I've always thought I was more like Special Agent Gibbs, NCIS..."

"Yeah, right," she mumbled while working over her chewing gum. "Just show me your license."

"OK, here it is. Read it and weep, Little Miss Priss."

A triumphant smile spread across the clerk's face as she took my license. But then, as she examined it, her gloating faded to shame and remorse.

"I'm so sorry, Mr. Harris," she said.

"Apology accepted. It happens all the time."

"As you probably know, a gang of really evil 40-somethings is flooding the system with counterfeit Golden Buckeye Cards," she said. "The manager told us, we have to ask for a photo ID from every really young looking person who attempts to use one. It's not my fault you look so young. I busted two guys this morning, and they both looked at least 10 years older than you."

"They probably should eat more carrots," I said.

"And maybe I should be a little slower to accuse," she said. "I'm like so embarrassed."

"Don't worry about it. No one likes to be mistaken for a youthful miscreant, but we all have to make sacrifices to preserve the integrity of the system."

"Thank you for being so understanding," she said. "Here's a $50 gift card for your trouble. Do have a nice day."

I don't know why, but nothing even remotely similar to this has happened to me.


Alisha, the activities director, asked me to play Reader's Digest editor and condense an article on spring health tips she'd found ...