Friday, June 27, 2008

(Not) Smoking in Pennsylvania

(News-Herald, June 26) I admit to having some mixed feelings about the Commonwealth’s new smoking ban.

For one thing, I’m not sure about the actual nuts and bolts of the law. As near as I can tell, the law will ban smoking in all public places except those that are protected by really good lobbyists. Perhaps there’s a bit more logic behind it than that.

I don’t much care for smoking. I’ve never been a smoker. I once attempted to smoke a cigar driving back from New Stanton in a Joy company car well past midnight on the theory that it might keep me awake. It would have been just as effective to slam my head in the car door while driving, but probably more dangerous.

My grandmother was a smoker; to this day, certain aromas of stale cigarette smoke take me right back to younger days in her home. In the days when I played late-night jobs with a local dance band, I would often come home smelling like my grandmother’s car.

Smoking is indefensible. There isn’t any good argument in favor of it, no possible benefit to be derived from it. I’m not really sure how tobacco executives live with themselves. People simply shouldn’t smoke; it’s a stupid habit.

That said, I don’t believe that because something is stupid, the government should necessarily be prohibiting it. Our country is largely founded on the rights of people to do stupid things.

Sen. Mary Jo White has taken a lot of heat for being one of the few legislators to vote against this. Some commentators suggested that her vote proves that she’s in favor of cancer and toxic gases. I don’t buy the idea that if you are opposed to something, you must favor of a law against it. You may not like looking at ugly people, but that doesn’t mean the government should make them wear bags over their heads.

This particular incursion by the Nanny State owes a lot to some general hysteria about second-hand smoke. The discussion of THAT research doesn’t so much highlight the dangers of second-hand smoke as it serves as yet another reminder that many Americans don’t understand science very well.

The research about second-hand smoke consists largely of recrunching numbers from a variety of health studies. It’s a complex process, the kind of problem that’s easier to solve if you start out knowing what conclusion you want to reach. At best, we can say there has been disagreement about how solid those conclusions are.

As often is the case, the loudest voices aren’t very helpful. On one hand, we have the tobacco companies pooh-poohing the whole issue, but these are the same guys who have insisted for decades that smoking makes you healthy, well-adjusted, and irresistibly sexy. On the other hand, we have anti-smoking zealots who insist that just ten minutes of exposure to second-hand smoke will harden your arteries, scramble your dna, and raise your blood-pressure until your head explodes; some reports conclude that second-hand smoke is more dangerous than being an actual smoker.

What do we know for sure? Many people hate cigarette smoke (fond memories of my grandmother aside, I’m one of them) and they wish smokers would just quit. But they don’t want to make a scene asking someone to put it out, so they’ll have the gummint do it.

I look forward to the enforcement side of these regulations—will we hire special smoking police, or do our current officers get one more duty? What will we do with habitual repeat offenders?

As I said, mixed feelings. Smoking is bad. It harms people. It makes things stink. Health problems suck up a ton of money and productivity. Second-hand smoke may not be instantly lethal, but it probably doesn’t do anybody any good. Smoking mostly harms our country.

But. Ditto for teen pregnancy, alcohol, bad driving, fatty food, lack of exercise, stupid tv shows, politicians who lie to win elections, old men in ugly shorts, rudeness, plastic packaging, bad art, toxic household cleansers, overzealous political action groups, and spandex clothing on overweight people. How many of these really cry out for the government to step in and pass some more laws?

I won’t miss the smoking in some (more) public places. My life will be marginally more pleasant without it. But every time the Nanny State passes one of these laws, I can’t help thinking that it’s one more limit for us, and one less limit for them.


Wednesday, June 25, 2008

The Whiskey Rebellion

(News-Herald, June 2004) It is unfortunate that we Americans are not big on history. It contains many good stories, and provides an enormous amount of insight into who we are as a people. But there are many chapters that we have simply lost. If you want an example close to home, take the Whiskey Rebellion.

Our country is rooted in a great deal of schizoid behavior. Colonists wanted to establish religious freedom, but executed and banished people who worshipped differently. The Declaration of Independence proclaimed that all men were created equal, but was rewritten so that it wouldn’t criticize slavery.

Since day one, we have tried to balance opposing impulses and contradictory principles. Some days it can seem discouraging that Americans disagree so much about what is right and what we should do, but the fact is, most of our history is about such arguments.

The Whiskey Rebellion came out of another one of our old arguments—how strong should the federal government be. The Founding Fathers couldn’t even agree on this one.

We have a tendency to view the framers of the Constitution as a unified group, a pack of wise men who divined the best and brightest way to form a government and captured it in a perfect document.

But the Constitution was a work of massive compromise. It was not obvious that a democracy was the best choice (said one of the framers, “The people should have as little to do as may be possible about government”). Balancing the states was contentious; some states favored one vote per state, while others favored votes weighted by population. It’s not hard to guess which was which.

But the biggest issue was states rights vs. federalism. Would the state or federal government be sovereign?

The Constitution was a patchwork quilt of compromises, and I think it’s valuable to remember that this document did not come about because the framers all shared a common view of one bright and shining Truth. It was, in fact, a document that many, if not most, of the founding fathers considered flawed by the compromise of important principles.

Once the Constitution was adopted, the founding fathers wasted no time in trying to steer the US government in one direction or another to “correct” the compromises that created it. In 1790, Quaker delegations from New York and Pennsylvania presented petitions to the House demanding an end to slave trade. And in that same year, Alexander Hamilton proposed the federal assumption of all war debt from the Revolution. The feds, not the states, would take charge of USA IOUs.

Many resisted what they took as an attempt to give the feds financial power and primacy over the states. But a deal was struck that appeared to trade assumption for a new capital located by the Potomac River.

Once the federal government assumed the debts, they had to raise money to pay them. Hamilton placed a 25% tax on liquor sold in the US. Farmers in states south of New York protested this oppressive move by the federal government.

In western Pennsylvania, this protest took the form of tarring and feathering tax collectors. In 1794, officials ordered the arrest of the rabble; a militia commander was shot and killed by federal troops who were protecting a tax official. The anti-tax settlers went berserk, and President Washington raised a military force from the tri-state area. When negotiations failed, George put on his war uniform and personally led the troops into Western Pennsylvania (now there’s a commander-in-chief for you).

The rebellion was put down. Two rebels were convicted of treason, but pardoned by the President. Thomas Jefferson resigned as Secretary of State and formed the Democratic-Republican Party, which supported states’ rights against the Federalists. When he was elected President, some Federalists began plotting for New England to secede. Aaron Burr, who ran as Jefferson’s VP and almost won the Presidency, waged a political war against Federalist Hamilton so bitter that he ended up killing Hamilton in a duel.

America’s political life has always been cantankerous. And our greatest documents represent solutions to thorny conflicts of principle, not the triumph of one single point of view. The different views weren’t merge, one side didn’t win, and one side did not give up. The American Way is not, historically, that the people who are Right win; the American Way is that everybody gives up a piece of what they want and believe in for the greater good.

A violin string lying on a table makes no music. It’s only when you grab the two ends and pull it in opposite directions that you can make it sing.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

The Marriage Mortgage

(News-Herald, June 19) It’s the wedding season, the time of year when many folks are preparing to get hitched. Predictably, this leads to lots of other folks thinking about divorce.

While it’s not strictly true to say that half of all marriages will end in divorce (it’s an example of statistical abuse for rhetorical effect), it’s true that many attempts to enter that lifetime institution come up short on the “lifetime” part.

We wonder why. We talk about why marriages fail in general, and we devote plenty of time to discussing why particular marriages failed. It ought to be educational, but despite the wealth of negative examples, the failure of marriages remains a mystery (well, at least to many people whose marriages fail).

Of course, it’s popular and comforting to assign all the blame for a marital meltdown to just one party. However, it’s almost always wrong.

A marriage is a complex and dynamic relationship between two people. When a marriage succeeds, hardly anyone says, “The success of that marriage is totally because of Spouse A. Spouse B had nothing to do with it.” Why take the same view of divorce?

It is often true that one particular spouse sets off the bomb that creates the final spectacular collapse. But marriages don’t reach that point overnight, and usually it takes both parties to get there.

I suspect that you could select any two people at random, and they could have a successful marriage—if they decided that they would do whatever it took to have it. Heck, in many places and times in human history, that’s how it worked.

Nowadays it doesn’t work that way, and that’s probably a good thing. Sometimes “whatever it takes” ends up being “learn to live with emotional isolation” or “cheerfully accept being a punching bag.” But I think the basic concept is sound.

Here’s my analogy for the week. A marriage is like a house.

I don’t mean a house as in “large structure with walls and foundation etc etc etc.” I mean a house as in “big expensive thing that you spend most of your adult life taking care of.”

The first rookie marriage mistake is to put all your care and attention into the wedding without thinking about the marriage. This is like putting your down payment on the house, signing all your closing paperwork, and imagining that all that remains is to move into the house and live there.

But, of course, there are payments to make, every month, for years and years. Telling the bank, “Well, we signed the papers and gave you a down payment—what else do you want!!” won’t cut it.

Lots of folks buy that marriage house without really understanding what it will cost. And then lots of people forget about the monthly payment, the cost in time, attention, putting something ahead of yourself.

They get comfortable. They start spending on other things. These expenses can be good and noble (children, health, the World Peace Club) or they can be selfish (fancy clothes, snazzy car, cheek implants) or they can be stupid (drugs, gambling, illicit petting zoos). But if the couple spends too much money, at the end of the month, they can’t make their house payment.

If you end up a hundred dollars short, it’s easy to blame the mortgage default (divorce, for those of you getting lost in this metaphor) on the person who spent that last hundred dollars. But that last hundred only hurts because of all the other expenses that preceded it.

Occasionally someone does end it all unilaterally. Chris cleans out the entire bank account, so they lose the house.

But usually both parties have spent in other places the bits and pieces that they needed to make the marital mortgage payment. Sometimes they’ve done it with good intentions; one classic marital challenge is the person who basically dumps their spouse in order to spend everything on their kids.

And sometimes even when the couple scrimps and saves, it’s not enough. Some people can’t resist getting a house they can’t afford.

The one big flaw in this comparison—with a house, you usually know up front what the cost will be. With a marriage, you can discover down the road a cost far beyond what you imagined. But one similarity holds true. When you find the right one for you, the cost won’t bother you, because it will be worth every bit of what you pay.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Forum at the Barrow

Here's a special blogging invitation to come see Franklin Civic Operetta's production of "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" this weekend.

If you're not familiar with the show-- it's a bit of Roman vaudeville. The show doesn't have a single moment of seriousness, high art, deep feeling, or moving sentiment. It's just relentlessly silly.

It's the early work of two guys who went on to do plenty of interesting work. Larry Gelbart wrote the book years before he went on to become one of the guiding writers of M*A*S*H. The score is by Steven Sondheim, and it has just enough tang to make some well-worn musical-theater traditions interesting; the later Sondheim who can be very, um, challenging to audiences, is not yet on display.

Jodi Hoover is directing the production, and it's long past time that Civic got her to helm one of their major productions. I am handling the music chores-- you can see my little flesh-toned yamulke poking up over the edge of the orchestra pit. It is a particularly eclectic cast; I can guarantee that just about every audience member will see one performer that they've never seen on stage before. Ted Smith is doing what I consider to be, by far, his best stage work. Ed Ramage is hilarious. Lots of folks have seen Bill Trimble on stage before, but rarely singing and dancing. The cast includes weathered veterans like Rob Hoover and students from Franklin, R0cky Grove and Oil City.

It's a fun cast, fun music, and a fun show. You can find more info about the theater here.
(Though it only likes to deal with internet explorer-- boo, hiss). Civic has also started a blog of its own which you can find here.

Friday, June 13, 2008

No One Told Us We Were Responsible

(News-Herald, June 12) In an interview in the winter 2005 issue of Invention & Technology, I found this gem of a quote from Robert Gallo, a man who started out in cancer research, but who made AIDS his life’s work. “No one told us we were responsible for finding the cause of AIDS and doing something about it.”

No one told us we were responsible.

“Responsible” is a powerful word. I’m not talking about the debased interpretation that equates responsibility with blame. “Responsible” means I take ownership of the problem. It’s mine. I’m going to deal with it, see it through, not assume that it’s up to someone else. I focus on getting the job done, not just going through the motions and walking away before I know how things turned out.

I know people who appear irresponsible. But maybe people who seem irresponsible are just waiting to be told what they’re responsible for.

Some wait to be told exactly what their responsibilities are. Some are afraid to take on stuff beyond their assigned area of responsibility; some just don’t want to.

The folks who stand out in the world take responsibility. They don’t wait to be told, and they don’t carefully read the letter of what they’re told.

How people define their responsibilities pretty much defines who they are. This isn’t always on some large scale. There’s a big difference between a waitress who believes her responsibility is to do only as much the boss demands, and one who believes her responsibility is to make sure you’re well taken care of while you’re in the restaurant.

No one told us we were responsible.

One plague of the modern world is that we’ve made it too easy to dodge responsibility. That’s not my job. We have people for that; let them take care of it.

But where do the responsible people come from? They see what needs to be done, and they recognize that they could do it, and so they step up. We see it every day. Fifty people see a man fall through the ice; two or three people jump in to save him. Fifty people walk past someone who needs a helping hand; two or three stop to lend it.

No one told us we were responsible.

We have entire workplace hierarchies developed with a main function of telling people what they’re responsible for so that they’ll get up and do it. Some people rarely step up—there’s a special draining misery in managing someone who must be told, every single day, exactly what he’s responsible for. Of course, there’s an equally frustrating misery that goes with trying to step up to a responsibility and having it taken away from you by a numbskulled boss.

But most of us look, in and out of work, for that calling, that perfect marriage of who we are, what we can do, and what needs to be done.

No one told us we were responsible.

The best leaders don’t wait to be told. They know their own strength and understand what the situation calls for. They don’t mistake responsibility for blame, and they don’t mistake it for credit either (responsibility is not about making sure you get a big shiny medal). Nor is responsibility about having an excuse to make sure you get things your own way.

No one can tell you any of these things. Rarely can anyone see as clearly as you can see yourself what needs to be done, how you can rise to that occasion.

It’s easy to take on just part of a job, to kick over the sandcastle, file a lawsuit, shoot down someone who’s getting things done, and just generally make a mess while saying, “Hey, it’s not my job to fix that. Nobody can tell me I’m responsible.” Or “No one said I had to fix that!”

Well, it’s rare that anyone ever tells you you’re responsible. When your child is born, no voice booms “You are responsible for this tiny person.” Even at work, it’s more common to get a list of actions to perform than a statement of what area you’re responsible for.

And so many people wait to be told, wait their entire lives. Some are secretly relieved that no one appears to point and say, “That’s your responsibility” and some are uncomfortably idle, wishing to be assigned a sense of purpose and direction.

Yet most great people agree: No one told us we were responsible.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

In Praise of Discrimination

(News-Herald, April 2003) Discrimination is not always bad.

Discrimination, after all, is simply the business of spotting distinctions between things. We used to praise someone with “discriminating tastes”—that was a person who could tell the difference between good stuff and junk.

Now, there’s no question that there’s such a thing as bad discrimination. That’s when we discriminate on the basis of clues that can’t possibly tell us what we want to know. When trying to select a real estate broker, we could discriminate on, say, the basis of height, but we’d be dopey to do so. And some businesses encourage us to discriminate poorly. Used car dealers love buyers who discriminate on the basis of clean floor mats and nice paint jobs.

It was dopey discriminating that gave the term a bad name in the first place. The history of discriminating on the basis of race is a sad one, all those long stupid years of thinking that the trait of race could tell us what we needed to know about brains or ability.

But the fact of bad discrimination does not indict the whole process any more than the fact that there are bad doctors means we should do away with all surgery.

Discrimination not only can be good—it can be necessary. If I can’t discriminate between good food and poison, I’m in mortal danger. If I can’t discriminate between a good deal on a home and a bad one, I’ll end up living some place scary.

You’d better believe that I’m going to discriminate when it comes to doctors. I doubt that anyone out there is willing to say, “One surgeon is as good as any other; just send in whoever’s handy to rearrange the various lobes of my grey matter.”

Even in daily life, I need to discriminate between the people who are actually concerned about me and those who couldn’t care less if I ended up stuck under the ice at Two Mile Run.

There are people who believe that discrimination is bad, that the world will be a better place when no one anywhere ever discriminates. I think these people are absolutely wrong.

For instance, schools not only can discriminate, they have an obligation to discriminate. It’s part of our job.

Now, part of our job is to discriminate in ways that are fair and ethical and meaningful. Schools should not, for instance, say that since this child has blue eyes, she must get lower grades in physics. But if we’re going to recognize the best physics student, we should be able to discriminate based on ability to discern who that student is.

This runs counter to some of the looney educational wisdom that’s been out there for a while. We’ve all heard the occasional stories about systems designed to keep little Euridicia Hypothetical from feeling bad that she can’t do physics very well.

We have mistakenly concluded that we can do this by rewarding Euridicia as if she had earned straight A’s in physics. It’s a dopey conclusion.

If we have a race and give everyone a blue ribbon, we do not convince everyone that they have won. We convince them that the blue ribbon is meaningless because anyone can get one just for showing up with a pulse.

I’m sorry that some people feel bad about not winning a particular race. I don’t think they should feel bad for losing, but that’s not the same thing as believing that the winner shouldn’t feel good for winning.

Discrimination is an essential life skill. We need to be able to tell good from bad, safe from dangerous, insightful from stupid, able from incompetent. We need to learn what standards of discrimination work well, and which do not.

And we need to learn that losing a race does not mean that we have been publicly declared stupid and ugly and worthless. Nothing is gained by insisting that those who can win the race stop trying. Truth is, there are a thousand different races to run, and nobody is suited to win all of them. In the Constructing a Sentence race, I do well enough; in the Transplanting a Spleen or Farming a Few Acres races, I finish dead last. That doesn’t make me any better or worse than the Spleen or Farm winners, but someone who needs food or a new spleen or a letter of recommendation had better be able to discriminate between us. And what we all have to do is learn to discriminate between the races that will break us, and the races we were born to run.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

Graduation Audiences

(News-Herald, June 5) A graduation, particularly a high school graduation, is one of those activities that requires an audience even though the audience has no real purpose.

It’s a sliding scale. On one end we have funerals, where the central participant is well beyond caring about the quantity or quality of the audience. On the other end, we have, say, high school sports where the audience is still unnecessary, but their quality often matters to the main performers.

A bride and groom could tie the knot just as permanently in a small room alone with a preacher and maybe a witness. And a graduate would still be a graduate if the diploma arrived in the mail. Yet both events are traditionally staged publicly so the community at large can recognize a big change in the central character’s life. We don’t just want to make a change; we want everyone to know.

So an audience at graduation is a must. That’s part of the point of graduating a whole group all at once—each individual is guaranteed an audience for his official transition.

There are a few rules for all participants to observe.

First, the graduates have a responsibility to each other. You may think it would be cool to release a hundred paint-covered weasels during the ceremony, and if you were graduating alone, you’d certainly have that right. But while you may be happy making a mockery of your own commencement ceremony, you have no right to make a joke out of someone else’s special day.

It’s good to practice this restraint. Someday you may have the urge to stage some silliness at your own wedding without consulting your fiance; a moment of restraint may prevent a honeymoon alone on the couch.

Most graduates behave pretty well at the ceremony. It’s their friends and family who need some training.

It’s beyond simple rudeness. Johnny, wrapped in cap and gown, hears his name read. For one brief moment, he will be center stage, a world of people focusing on him in recognition of what he has accomplished. And then someone hollers.

It doesn’t matter if they holler “Hey Johnny!!” or “Woot woot—we rule” or some inarticulate bellow. What they’re hollering translates simply as “Hey, look at me!” At the very moment when Johnny should get to be the center of attention, some alleged friend tries steal that attention away from him.

It is true that some folks are so overcome with joy that they just have to holler. But here’s a simple test you can perform at any graduation you attend:

First, check your clothing. Are you wearing a cap and gown? Second, check your family records. Did you personally participate in the conception, birth, or rearing of the graduate in question?

If the answer to both these questions is “no,” then this graduation ceremony is not about you, and you should probably just shut up.

The crowd is always asked to hold applause till the end, not just for the above reasons. A family should not miss Junior’s name because the previous student’s cheers drowned it out. And nobody should have to remember graduation as the day that everyone else got more applause than he did.

Graduation should be a joyous occasion, an event for celebration, certainly not a dull, lifeless ceremony. But it is not a football game or a NASCAR event; some dignity and respect are called for. Throwing gifts, taking and sharing embarrassing photos, screaming pet nicknames—these are all fine activities for the graduation party, not the ceremony.

Weddings are a fine model. Quiet dignity during the ceremony. Respectful tomfoolery afterwards in the designated area. And even that tomfoolery has limits—you can certainly join in throwing rice or bubbles or organic tofu cubes at the couple. But jumping in front of the bride and yelling, “Pay attention to me!!” is never cool.

Our graduates have accomplished one of life’s special little milestones. By all means, take the chance to show support and appreciation. Yes, commencement comes close to being boring. Yes, the party afterwards involves many people you neither know nor like. But the point of graduation stuff is not to make you feel important or entertained. It’s to give the graduate a moment to be recognized and respected, a day that feels special because so many people have gathered around. If we can remember, for just a few hours, that it’s about them, it will be a better day.

From my Flickr