Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Church people and self discipline

New research indicates devoutly religious people have an edge on us heathens.

Church people tend to do better in school, live longer, have more satisfying marriages and be generally happier.

After reviewing eight decades of research, two Miami shrinks have concluded that religiosity promotes self control. Devout people were found to be more likely than others to wear seat belts, go to the dentist and take vitamins.

Tough choice: dentist and vitamins versus whiskey and wild sex. Which is more heavenly? I’ll have to think about that. Join me for a drink?

My wantonness notwithstanding, I find the article fascinating. You might, too. Click here and be sure to read all the way to the last paragraph. That’s where I rest my case.

You sure you don’t want a drink?

Monday, December 29, 2008

God -- philosophers weigh in

Got your feet up? Wearing your new casual pants? Eggnog.

The week between Christmas and New Year’s is designed to be slow. Each of us needs a chance to reflect and re-charge. It’s been a hard year.

Let’s take a break from politics. Too much bile.

Instead, let’s talk religion. Choirs of angels, miracles and spires.

Whoa, you say. An intellectual discussion about religion can be just as volatile as talking politics. And skeptics among you might label “intellectual discussion about religion” as an oxymoron.

Regardless, I find comfort in the philosophers.

And that’s where we shall jump-start this topic by turning to the January/February issue of the BostonReview wherein the writer proclaims:

“God has had a lot of bad press recently. The four horsemen of atheism, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens, have all published books sharply critical of belief in God: respectively, The God Delusion, Breaking the Spell, The End of Faith, and God Is Not Great. Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens pile on the greatest amount of scorn, while Dennett takes the role of good cop. But despite differences of tone and detail, they all agree that belief in God is a kind of superstition. As Harris puts it, religion “is the denial—at once full of hope and full of fear—of the vastitude of human ignorance.”

The author fairly roils about dragons, martinis, blue marbles and more…

(click here and get back to me later)

Sunday, December 28, 2008

The future of journalism?

A friend from college has been the ombudsman at the Washington Post for the past several years after spending a life-time as a journalist. She writes a good-bye column from her unusual catbird’s seat.

A Farewell Hope for The Post's Future

By Deborah Howell
Sunday, December 28, 2008

My term as ombudsman ends with this column. My hope for the future is that readers, our lifeblood, will find in The Post, in print and online, journalism they can believe in and that the paper will both engage and enrich the many communities in this region.

Journalism has changed tremendously since my early days covering police and courts in Corpus Christi, Tex. Typewriters and Linotypes are ancient tools, and the Internet sometimes makes ink on paper seem so yesterday. What doesn't change is fact-gathering and analyses that inform readers and help citizens to form a more perfect union.

Journalism is better than it was in my early days and changes in technology have opened up a new world. My worry is that journalists aren't as connected to readers as they were in the days of my youth, when the city's newspaper was the equivalent of the public square. Then, reporters tended to be folks who often hadn't graduated from, or even attended, college, and they weren't looking to move to bigger papers. They knew the community well, didn't make much money and lived like everyone else, except for chasing fires and crooks.

Now journalists are highly trained, mobile and, especially in Washington, more elite. We make a lot more money, drive better cars and have nicer homes. Some of us think we're just a little more special than some of the folks we want to buy the paper or read us online.

That's a mistake. Readers want us to be smart and tough and for the newspaper to read that way, but they don't want us to think that we're better than they are. We need to be worried sick when people drop their subscriptions and think of ways to prevent that.

An unpleasant fact about journalists is that we can be way too defensive. We dish it out a lot better than we take it. It's not that we have thin skin; we often act as though we have no skin and bleed at the slightest touch.

Journalists need to find ways to be more a part of their communities and their interests -- without crossing the line to partisanship -- and to engage with readers in improving the newspaper and its Web site to be sources readers can't do without. If something drives readers nuts, what can we do to help them?

Journalists need to be tough enough to face down a mayor, a police chief or the president of the United States, but we also should be tough enough to respond to honest criticism. The worst part of my job as official internal critic hasn't been dealing with readers, though that has been both daunting and rewarding. Taking those complaints to reporters and editors has been the biggest challenge. I'm grateful to those here who took them seriously. Some readers had complaints that I just couldn't get to; I regret that. Some journalists think I have been unfair to them. If I have, then they know how people who believe The Post has treated them unfairly feel.

Journalists' defensiveness is heightened by the uncertainty that grips our business. The Post has changed in my term. Its news staff is smaller, and so is the space available for stories. Sections are being dropped, and there's a tightening feeling everywhere.

The Internet was on everyone's radar screen in 2005, but its importance wasn't uppermost in everyone's minds. Now it is. The future of journalism is online even as the print newspaper remains by far the biggest revenue-producer. That many readers want to read it in print remains our bread and butter.

The paper has a new executive editor, Marcus Brauchli. The Post had only two top editors in the previous 40 years, Ben Bradlee and Len Downie. Brauchli's job is a huge one -- keeping The Post strong journalistically while trimming its sails financially. He deserves good luck.

And there will be a new ombudsman on Feb. 2 -- Andy Alexander, former Washington bureau chief of Cox Newspapers -- a longtime friend and colleague. He's as good a journalist as I know and is more than up to the task before him. I will be lightly monitoring your mail until he takes over. The Post is to be congratulated for continuing the ombudsman's job.

I cannot leave without saying that I owe a debt of unreserved gratitude to the editorial copy desk, which edited my column, and especially to its chief, Vince Rinehart, an extraordinarily fine copy editor. They have saved me again and again and made my columns better for readers.

In this time of uncertainty, here's a quote from Bradlee in a recent interview with Bob Woodward: "I cannot envision a world without newspapers. . . . I can envision a world with fewer newspapers. I can envision a world where newspapers are printed differently, distributed differently, but there is going to be a profession of journalism, a band of brothers and sisters working intensely together. Their job is going to be to report what they believe the truth to be. And that won't change."

That's my own fervent wish -- along with wishing that readers will appreciate journalists' work. Most cities don't have as good a paper as The Post. A friend who moved away told me that she misses The Post more than anything else. And she's a conservative Republican.

Deborah Howell can be reached at ombudsman@washpost.com.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Barack the magic Negro

Chip Saltsman, a candidate for chairman of the Republican National Committee, sent committee members this month a holiday music CD that included "Barack the Magic Negro," a parody song first aired in 2007 by national talk show bigot Rush Limbaugh.

So, this is a test. It is a test of our sense of humor. Is this funny? Is it parody? Satire? Or just another form of racism?

Here it is for you to judge: Barack the magic Negro


You know what I think. This is ignorant racism no matter how much you try to deny it.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Happy Holidays thanks to the pagans

We owe a lot to the pagans.

Most of our holidays can be traced back to their rituals which were based on the growing seasons from the sun.

For example, I suspect Stonehenge was built as a precursor to the Weather Channel. Planting time was crucial to the first farmers. Ask any Amish.

I’ve always admired the Winter Solstice. It is what it is – the shortest day of the year. That means all the coming days will be taller. Surely, a signal for glad tidings. More mead.

Over the centuries, many religions have risen out of the mists to sponsor special days like the solstices. Over time, we have misplaced the memories of the first time the early pagan looked at the sun and stars and exclaimed: “I can make some money with this.”

So take time this holiday season to remember the First Retailers, the pagans.

And know that in the fullness of time, the bailouts will eventually reach Main Street. Or is that just another holiday fable?

Regardless, may your coming days truly get taller. Clink.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Bailouts beginning to smell

The more I read about the bail-outs, the more steamed I get. We need to do something to halt this madness.

Bankers, who teetered at the brink of failure, have the unmitigated gall to continue to reward top-level management with bonus packages lined by taxpayer dollars. Their greed knows no shame, no limit, no ethic. Take the money and party!

As you know, it gets worse. This week the banks refuse to tell us how they are spending the taxpayer’s money they are rolling in. But they damned sure are not lending it to the people who need to buy a car. Or save their home.

The Congress and the Bush Administration handed out billions and billions of our money without adequate controls, guidelines, regulations, direction…without much thought.


Stop the bail-outs. Wall Street is still standing. Take some time to really think this through.

To continue is criminal. Someone should go to jail.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Send Mr. Smith to Washington again

This is blasphemy, I suppose. But I’m not crazy about the idea of handing the NY senate seat to Caroline Kennedy. That’s not easy to say for a card-carrying liberal.

But before the posse forms, let me also say that I am opposed to Jeb Bush becoming the next U.S. Senator from Florida.

A seat in the United States Senate is not a legacy. Our upper chamber is not the House of Lords. Not yet. But we are on a steady course of turning it into a fiefdom. By definition, the U. S. Senate is already the most exclusive club in the world.

So don’t field a familial ticket. I’m weary of Bush, Kennedy, Clinton, Dole and all the rest. Politics is not a gene. But wealth must be. The thing those familiar names have in common? It’s ka-ching. They can raise campaign money.

Surely we can do better. From a 305 million population base, surely we can find a qualified candidate named Smith. Or Garza. Or Chan. Or ... you get the idea.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Anti-biotics, vitamin C and whiskey

Apologies for the hiatus. We’ve been blitzed by bronchitis. Rough stuff but things are getting better. We made it to the grocery and bought cookies.

I think I’m running a fever. The meds only serve to amplify the Walter Mitty world that I live in. By merely closing my eyes, I am often visited by a delegation of agricultural workers. And a few stray firemen.

Once, I dreamed Obama got into more trouble because of his governor than he ever imagined because of his preacher.

In another feverish dream, Gov. Sarah Palin had a favorable/unfavorable rating among Republicans of 73-13 percent. More codine!

I told you I was running a fever.

The Mystery Woman tried to convince me it snowed in New Orleans.

Anyhow, this is my lame excuse for not writing this week. I can provide a letter from my doctor(s). I’ll be better by next week. Meanwhile, wash your hands with soap and water after reading this.

And drink lots of liquids.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Gov. Palin looking better all the time

Dear me, I was wrong yesterday when I told you Gov. Sarah Palin spent $110,400 on two hair and make-up stylists during the nine weeks she was on the campaign trail.

The number is closer to $165,000 and it was for three stylists.

Yes, dears, I know that is more money paid out in two months than most Americans make working all year long. Maybe she needed lots of remedial work?

Take my advice, Governor Honey, next time hire just one worker who goes both ways. There are many professionals who can do both hair and make-up.

A penny saved…

Friday, December 5, 2008

Thank you, Gov. Palin

Sarah Palin is the gift that keeps on giving.

The Republicans spent more getting her pretty than they first admitted. Gov. Palin’s traveling makeup artist was paid $68,400 and her hair stylist received more than $42,000 for roughly two months of work, according to a new campaign finance report filed late Thursday with the Federal Election Commission.

That’s a lot of lipstick and stuff. Even for a hockey mom.

The $150,000 clothing tab was also amended. Add another $30,000 to the wardrobe allowance. Two months of clothes, nearly $200,000. Joy.

Palin protests that the clothes will be returned. What? I didn’t know Nordstrom and Neiman Marcus were in the rental business. That’s cheating. It abuses the liberal return policies of several high end retail stores.

And it begs the question: have the clothes been returned?

Meanwhile, thank you, Gov. Palin. This post election period has been difficult for political junkies. It’s comforting to know we can count on you for entertainment.

I can barely wait until 2012.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Big Brother is watching -- at last

It’s the little things.

Like air filters built low, electrical outlets installed high. No steps. Doors wide enough for a wheelchair to pass. Just some of the stuff that should be built into housing for the elderly.

Next on the horizon – remote monitors that alert your cell phone if dad forgot to take his heart medicine, or if nobody has been in the kitchen for a long time, maybe a clue that someone has fallen. Sure, it’s Big Brother. But it is also peace of mind that allows seniors to live at home longer.

Check it out at http://tinyurl.com/59vqjt

At our homes, we are in the sandwich. The three of us are retired and getting older. Gran is 88 and living in her own condo about half a block away in our Texas digs. It’s closer and better in Minnesota, with Gran in her own apartment attached to the house with only a doorway separating us.

But even that arrangement has problems. Once, her chair leg broke and she hit her head on the way to the floor. Thankfully, she was not really hurt, just shaken. But it would have been hours before we found her because we just don’t go to the back of the house that much.

So the remote devices coming on the market can meet a real need for everyone whether you live on the other side of the door or across the country.

I’m a candidate, too. Any day now, I’m expecting a device that will sit on the nightstand and monitor my pacemaker overnight. It will send alerts to the doctors if I have an attack. And on cloudless nights, it will get Wolfman Jack.

Works for me.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Count your blessings

By memory, I returned to one of the last full-service gas stations* in Austin. Maybe one of the last in America. Needed some power steering fluid.

As I lowered the window, an old man stuck his hand in to shake my hand.

“How can I help you, mister?”

A simple question. But it came out of the misty past. Nowadays, you pull into a sterile self-serve and puzzle over the instructions while trying to tune out the piped in advertising messages. Cussing.

“How can I help you mister?”

As he filled the tank, checked the fluids and observed my Minnesota license plates, I got to know Leroy a little bit. Not by what he said – but by what he asked.

“You retired? What did you do before you retired? How old are you? Seventy? You are blessed, Mister.”

Leroy, who is 71 and still working, paused for a minute to remember former congressman Jake Pickle with me. “He was a good man.”

I think Leroy is a good man, too. He prides himself on taking care of business. And on taking care of his customers.

I paid a little more for the gasoline. And he never did get around to cleaning the windows. But I left the service station a happier man. Maybe even a blessed man.

All because of Leroy.

*M.E. “Gene” Johnson Station and Garage, 4801 Airport Blvd. Austin, Tx.

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