Wednesday, January 28, 2015

That Hair Boy

"Where does your son get that curly hair?"

"From his father," answers the Queen Mother.

Yet the Royal Father forgot to pass on one important gene: the one that allowed him to control that mop. Tangles and twists are normal. Mother's acceptance of them is not.

"Christopher, your hair looks like a fright wig."

I comb. She combs. I comb and she combs again. Still, that mess.

"We're gonna get you a buzz cut," the Royal Father jokes when he observes too much topping. But it's not as bad as my brother's hair, which grows even longer when he's in high school. Dad says he can pick him out from afar by looking for the person with the "toadstool."

For me, the main problem is getting the strands to lie flat on top. One time, in grade school, the Queen Mother gets the idea to spray my curls with The Dry Look.



What they don't tell you in the commercials is that the stuff smells like perfume. I go to school and people want to sniff my head.

But no matter how bad it is on top, it's better than what's coming in on bottom. As you all know, when boys go through puberty, more strands of hair start growing in places they're really not needed. I stare at the truth in the bathtub, and my little brother discovers it when he barges in to get something because the bathroom door has no lock.

"Hey, Harry."

It's embarrassing. Puberty is hard enough: that barrage of hormonal maturity including the pimples. But that hair. At least nobody has to see it.

Then one day, one of my friends comes up to me during Youth Club at church, somebody who also knows my brother.

"Hi, Harry."

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

A Few Frames Into The Future

"Hi. Uh, what's that?"

"Oh, that's my personal body camera."

"What?"

"I figure what's good for police is good for me, too. You never know when somebody's going to accuse you of saying something or assaulting somebody."

"But..."

"It's getting pretty tough. People say stuff on Facebook and Twitter, and people put words in your mouth. You know that Mark Twain saying that a lie can travel halfway around the world before the truth is putting on its shoes? I figure I need to do a pre-emptive strike."

"By constantly recording everything?"

"We take selfies, don't we?"

"Yeah, but..."

"If it saves me from having to get my reputation back, it's worth it. Flash memory is pretty cheap. I can store about 24 hours on one card at decent quality with one camera and download it to my PC before I go to bed. Then I just pick it up in the morning, strap it on, press record, and away I go."

"Aren't you concerned about privacy rights?"

"Oh that. Did you see the patch on my shirt above my camera?"

"No, let me see that. 'All conversations are recorded for quality assurance?'"

"It helps to put a positive spin on it."

"I... I..."

"I know what you mean. But this is the world we live in, where our word doesn't mean anything and people believe whatever they read online. Technology is our savior."

"So we're all going to go around with little cameras on our bodies, constantly recording everything?"

"It would sure end a lot of headaches."

"But this is like Big Brother. It's like wiretapping!"

"Wiretapping is when the other guy doesn't know. With me, everybody knows, and everybody's warned."

"What about consent?"

"Consent? We don't care what other people think about our actions anymore, so consent is overrated."

"But..."

"Try not to think about the down side of it too much. We'll have a reliable verification system for what we say and do. We'll think before we act, and we'll watch what we say."

"If we say anything."

"C'mon, silence is golden, right?"

Monday, January 26, 2015

The Junk Man

If you told me at age 10 I would be making regular rounds of thrift stores when I was 43, I would say you've misread my genes. At least four summers of going up to see my aunt and uncle in New England and getting dragged to more antique places than a technically-oriented child should bear should argue against any affinity for collectables. Most other families would go to Disney World.

"But we took you there," the Queen Mother once reminded me when I gently reminded her of some past family vacations, the way kids do when they're quietly scratching some old itches. "And we took you to Williamsburg," she added. All true. But that came after all those voyages into the past, many years before I would dive into history.

When you're young, you're not thinking about that quilt that will look cute in the den, with that chair, or that dry-sink that can go in the dining room, or that pewter mug that will look good on a shelf somewhere. When you have a room, not a home, and your thoughts are on growing up, not growing old, what's past is not a part of your present.

But the antique shop of my youth is nothing like the thrift store of my middle age -- a place where I can score, save, and repurpose. My thesis is people can't tell $100 slacks from a $10 pair from Walmart. Eventually those pricey slacks end up donated to Goodwill or Savers, and that's when they find their way into my hands for five bucks a pair. Nobody knows.

Here is where the Queen Mother cringes at her gainfully-employed son living like he's on welfare.

"I'm going over to Goodwill," I tell her one time while visiting home in California and looking to make my "junk run" as I call it.

"Christopher, if you need clothes," she begins, wary and a bit alarmed.

"The bookstore, mother, the bookstore!" I clarify with authority.

Down the street from Francis Western Command sits a Goodwill bookstore, where yesterday's bestsellers go for pennies on the dollar. But I'm not looking for a cooled hot novel; I'm trying to see if there's any fairly recent volumes on Microsoft Visual Basic.

Old textbooks never die. They just go to the thrift store, and it is where I have picked up several cheap tomes to add to my historical and technical knowledge base. A coursebook that once sold for $50 is going for $4.99, or less if I pick up at Savers on one of their customer appreciation days.

If I need comfortable, broken in shorts, I'm heading for the clothing rack. And I'm always on the lookout for historic garb. After a day of poking around Bisbee and Sierra Vista looking for hidden treasures, I made an outside chance stop at a thrift shop and picked up a Medieval tunic for less than ten bucks. I was looking to put together a Renaissance outfit, and I'd just made the deal of the century. Whoever threw it out probably didn't knew what they had. Doing some Internet research among period clothiers, it has to be worth at least $50.

But the quintessential thrift store is Bookmans -- one of Tucson's treasures. It's the store where you can bring in a stack of magazines and trade up to a DVD. You can sell old stereo equipment for a shelf full of books, trade CD's to your heart's content, and get retro game systems on the cheap. It's the place to go if you need a good used guitar, or if you're looking to invest in a synthesizer without breaking the bank. I once salivated over a Yamaha DX7 someone pawned, only passing on it because I can't play as well as I can dream. It sat in Bookmans for a month, and I'm surprised it lasted that long.

"It's just too expensive anymore," Madame Sherri reassures me when I talk about shopping second-hand, and how others shake their heads at me when I tell them about it. Both of us are used to living frugally.

You won't see me buying wooden candle holders or ceramic trinkets. But I've gotten mileage out of a discarded TV set and wooden hangers.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Deadly At 1,000 Yards

Reel To Reel: American Sniper

Going Rate: Worth full price admission
Starring: Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller
Rated: R
Red Flags: Graphic Battle Violence, Strong Language

Navy SEAL Chris Kyle killed 255 people in his military career, with about half of those officially confirmed by the military. He protected soldiers and civilians alike from Iraqi insurgents and rogues only to be cut down by a veteran he was trying to help. His compatriots called him a legend. Michael Moore just called him a coward -- not directly, but closely enough by slamming snipers in a tweet. I'm not going to discuss "that guy." Let's just stick to Bradley Cooper's interpretation of Kyle, which stands out as a haunting portrait of a man devoted to duty, honor, and country at the expense of his his family life and his mental health.

What drives Kyle? Patriotism. Justice. The need to protect America. But you can't pin it on any one thing. Kyle was more complicated than this film can describe, and yet it tries admirably and succeeds in many ways. We see him as a young boy and get the foundations of his moral code as he beats the tar out of a schoolyard bully. Yet this man is no model citizen as we see in his cowboy lifestyle until he sees terrorism playing itself out on television and decides he needs to be part of the solution.

We see Kyle go through SEAL training with a steely resolve and eventually establish himself as an ace shooter. He kills people. He kills a lot of them. "I was just protecting my guys, they were trying to kill... our soldiers and I," he tells a Navy doctor. "I'm willing to meet my CREATOR and answer for every shot that I took." Yet we see his volume of kills is not without consequences. One might think killing would get easier for Kyle with each successful shot, but it ends up complicating a moral ambiguity that silently gnaws at him against the backdrop of his marriage and growing family.

He is home between several of tours of duty, but the battle is still on his mind. His wife Taya (Miller) can't understand his devotion to the service and why he won't talk about what goes on at work. She comes to the point of wanting him to end it all, especially after she gets an unexpected exposure to the realities of war during a routine phone call from the front.

Cooper is fantastic in this movie because he doesn't seem like he's acting at all. He talks like the kind of focused, quietly strong veteran I have seen time and time again in soundbites as part of my job. Director Clint Eastwood moves the story along, and even though we feel like we don't know the half of Chris Kyle as described in the book that begat this film, we know enough to make us care.

Okay, I guess I am going to have to discuss what "that guy" and other have said. The notion somebody like Chris Kyle is not a hero because servicepeople simply follow orders is ludicrous. We have an all-volunteer military, meaning all those boots on the ground and in the commanders ranks stepped up to do this of their own volition, willingly putting themselves on the line to do the job a lot of people -- your humble servant included -- just don't have the guts to do. That's heroic in itself. Again, Kyle killed people who would've killed soldiers and civilians. That's heroic. Kyle did not bask in the honors lauded upon him or lift himself above others. That's heroic, too.

I've also heard the ridiculous suggestion this movie glorifies war. Have the people saying this even seen this picture in all its widescreen bloody starkness? See the film and make up your own mind. That's a freedom generations of military have died for.

The Tapes

Before the Internet came into our homes and when computerized bulletin board systems remained largely the domain of geeks, one of my hometown newspapers -- the Raytown Dispatch-Tribune -- tried an analog version of Facebook. They called it "The Tapes."

You called the paper's 24-hour automated answering machine, and an unidentified voice greeted you: "Thank you for calling The Tapes. We really do care." The voice instructed you to speak your opinion for publication. "But don't use your real name, which we can't do. Instead, make up a pseudonym."

Every Wednesday, the editors dumped their answering machine output into a full page of opinions signed with names like "Tired Of It," "Proud NOT To Be Union," "Never Again," and "Yeah, Me, The Lousy Cop."

People vented to the tapes about everything...

"Why is Save Mart charging $4.00 for whole head lettuce?"

"I don't care what my husband says, Italians are good people."

"Who is this guy on here? Man, I thought I was calling for pizza."

"I just know it. The Royals are gonna blow it in the ninth inning..."

"To the lady driving in front of me who hit the turtle. You didn't try to move sideways. You didn't try to slow down. I went back and picked up what was left of the turtle."

"How do you get fruit juice stains out of carpeting?"

"This is to the person known as The Other Woman. I want you to know how horrible you've made it on my family."

"Help! I need to find the book with the nursery rhyme that goes, 'There once was an elephant, who wanted to use the telephant...'"

"We are new to this town and we want to find a church that preaches against sin. So many of the ones around here just seem like get-acquainted groups."

"Have any of you people got that call from that woman who asks you to guess her name?"

"I got that call and had it traced. They told me it was coming from the Gladstone area..."

"I told that woman to go back to reading her Bible and hung up."

"I just heard this awful song by Guns 'N' Roses. It was off their album G'N'R Lies..."

"VD is rampant because we have so many hot-pants teenagers around here."

My personal favorite:

"I heard a woman screaming next door this morning and I called police. It turns out she was in the throngs of love with somebody. I'm glad you're all right, but you scared me!"

To this day, I can't believe the paper made an entire page into a graffiti wall. Yet for all its freewheeling, this page still had an editor, meaning trolls, haters, and libelers never made it in. I never missed reading it, this gossipy guilty pleasure masquerading as community journalism.

I still say you could do something like it in the print world. Let people email their comments in, confidentiality assured, pass them through a minimally-invasive editor, and you've got something. Maybe.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Steal This Stationery!

In the trash compactor that used to be my boyhood room, I kept a semi-prized collection: hotel stationery. Either I swiped it during family vacations, or somebody brought it back for me (namely Grandma & Grandpa Lawson). I recall -- or I can probably guess -- having at least the following sheets and envelopes:

Holiday Inn Durango, CO
Holiday Inn Goodland, Kansas (now defunct)
Best Western "Buffalo Inn," Goodland, Kansas (also long gone)
Howard Johnson's Motor Lodge, Springfield, Missouri
Holiday Inn Albuquerque
Best Western Lake Estes, Estes Park, Colorado
Holiday Inn, Terre Haute, Indiana (and I picked up the cable guide as a bonus)
La Quinta Inn, Ft. Worth, Texas
The Waikaikian, Hawaii
MGM Grand, Las Vegas
Hilton, Las Vegas
Howard Johnson's, Rolla, Missouri
Best Western East, Indianapolis, Indiana
Koala Inn, Near Cape Cod, Massachusetts
Marriott Inn, Atlanta
Camelot Inn, Tulsa, Oklahoma (now sadly defunct)

It's there for the taking, usually buried in a drawer next to the Gideon Bible, two or three letterheads paired with two or three envelopes. I would snag it early in our stay and stuff it into my little briefcase. Eventually it would wind up in a shoebox back home -- just another thing to drive the Royal Mother crazy.

"I'm going to go through this room with a shovel!" she once grumbled.

"Don't touch my stationery!" I protested.

And mercifully, she didn't. That box followed me at least into my teenage years. I don't know where it went after that. Either it got thrown out due to a mandatory clean-up-your-room order or just maturity. I should've kept it. Some of those letterheads were printed with beautiful two-color etchings, making them likely worth something to some collector besides your humble boy servant.

I can't tell you when I quit swiping sheets. I think it happened after I turned 13. What's amazing is that petty stationery pilfering is not a gateway drug. I can honestly tell you I didn't graduate to taking the towels, although I have made off with several shampoo and conditioners bottles. During a stay at a luxury inn in Williamsburg in 2012, I had a whole basket of goodies waiting for me, including an eye mask -- but no stationery.

However, I will tell you the people at the Western Village Motor Inn in Salida, Colorado are probably still looking for that kid who made off with a Mountain Bell telephone book.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Down In The Basement Of Tornado Alley

My parents thought I would grow up to be a TV weathercaster, given my fascination with severe storms and how TV covered them. Growing up during the 1970's and 80's, I saw the technology improved every year.

Back in 1970's Kansas City, when TV needed to get a warning on, the weathercasters cut in and voiced over a "Tornado Warning" slide every time. I would hear Fred Broski or Dan Henry or Dave Dusik working with only the National Weather Service information. TV Radar didn't come to town until KMBC unveiled "Weatherdial Radar," a low-tech, yellow-and-black radar picture that was supposedly transmitted to the station over phone lines (hence the "dial" part). They upgraded a few years later to "Weathertrack Radar," which added color to differentiate storm intensity and more accuracy. The other stations eventually caught up, more or less.

But my real fascination started in the early 1980's, when TV stations started adding icons down in the corner of the screen when the weather turned bad. It started in the Topeka area, when WIBW added a simple [W] to the lower-right-hand corner. That "W" could be any kind of Tornado or Severe Thunderstorm "Watch." A few years later, Kansas City stations started adding icons saying "Tornado Watch" or "Severe Thunderstorm Watch." KCTV had a Severe Thunderstorm Watch icon so big, it had to have led people to call in and grumble. That simple [W] did have advantages.

On the radio, KMBZ tried an eerie audible icon. During a Tornado Watch, it would play a short high-pitched whistle about once a minute. Annoying for some, scary for others.

Sooner or later, a Tornado Warning gets issued, and the weathercaster comes on to tell you to get to the basement. Raytown is fortunate in dodging the twisters more times than fortune should allow.

"Has a tornado ever hit Raytown?" I asked the Queen Mother as a child.

"We had the Ruskin Heights Tornado," Her Majesty replied, "but that was back in the 50's. That was a big sucker."

"I remember I could see it coming down out of the clouds," said Queen Grandmother Lawson. She also told me how the Queen Mother, then a young princess, wanted to watch Lucille Ball on TV rather than get to the basement.

Most of the time in Raytown, we didn't have to. But on one stormy night in the mid 1970's, before my kid brother was born, Her Majesty and I ventured down there when a warning blasted out.

"We'll just be down here until the wind blows all the trees down," she said casually, hiding whatever real danger was out there. I remember patiently waiting about a half-hour in the light of the basement until the storm let up.

Mother and I walked back up the concrete steps to the playroom, and then the family room to look outside. Lightning danced across the sky, but we heard no rain or thunder. "It's just lightning," she told me, declaring it safe for us inside.

"Do you want to watch Baretta?" she asked.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

A Life Less Televised

We are sitting at a long table at a Birmingham restaurant, a group of operations people, producers, and newsroom folk from several stations. We are in town to get schooled on the next version of our news computer system, but for now, we are enjoying Southern comfort food. And as TV people do, we talk about TV and the shows we love when we're not doing news.

Game Of Thrones comes up a lot. So does Breaking Bad. So do a lot of other shows. And then somebody queries me.

"Well," I scratch out. "I'm a big fan of Hell's Kitchen. I like MasterChef." That's enough to satisfy the question. I'm glad, because the complete truth requires more exposition.

It goes like this: after working nights for more than a decade and not watching primetime television, I never developed an affinity for it, and I never missed it. Even when I shifted to working days, I never found reasons to set a DVR. I never owned a DVR; I rigged my VHS VCR to record The Sopranos as needed.

Sounds like sacrilege, no? Imagine a TV news producer who doesn't watch TV! I prefer to call it a separation of work and life.

When I come home from work, I want to leave a lot of it there. But still, I'm spend time reading print journalism. News articles and blogs on the 'net are my prime time schedule three nights out of the week. Other times I'm with my friends at church or capering about in a kilt with my Scottish dancing friends.

I have a few indulgences: the aforementioned cooking shows and Bar Rescue. But that's it. My real life is much more interesting and lively outside the cable box. I have told others real reality will never equal virtual reality.

But on this night, I don't feel like soapboxing it to the table, and it's not the right audience. Anyway, I have previously told a conference room full of aspiring journalists to make sure they find a life outside the business, in whatever way they can. Those who don't are doomed to the fishbowl life, not one of the person who's constantly observed, but one who is constantly observing without doing.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Statin' The Union

A lot of you didn't watch last night's presidential address. It's the TV equivalent of "Too long; didn't read." Tell you what: let's break things down and insert a few reality checks among the lofty speechifying. Be forewarned: some of these may teeter on the edge of snarkiness, but there's a a point to this, I promise you...
Will we accept an economy where only a few of us do spectacularly well? Or will we commit ourselves to an economy that generates rising incomes and chances for everyone who makes the effort?
Yeah, if it gets people elected.
Will we approach the world fearful and reactive, dragged into costly conflicts that strain our military and set back our standing? Or will we lead wisely, using all elements of our power to defeat new threats and protect our planet? Will we allow ourselves to be sorted into factions and turned against one another — or will we recapture the sense of common purpose that has always propelled America forward?
See above.
Middle-class economics works. Expanding opportunity works. And these policies will continue to work, as long as politics don’t get in the way. We can’t slow down businesses or put our economy at risk with government shutdowns or fiscal showdowns. We can’t put the security of families at risk by taking away their health insurance, or unraveling the new rules on Wall Street, or refighting past battles on immigration when we’ve got a system to fix. And if a bill comes to my desk that tries to do any of these things, it will earn my veto.
Unless Congress overrides that.
That’s what middle-class economics is — the idea that this country does best when everyone gets their fair shot, everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same set of rules. We don’t just want everyone to share in America’s success — we want everyone to contribute to our success.
Unless you make the rules -- then you exempt yourself from the rules.
To give working families a fair shot, we’ll still need more employers to see beyond next quarter’s earnings and recognize that investing in their workforce is in their company’s long-term interest. We still need laws that strengthen rather than weaken unions, and give American workers a voice. But things like child care and sick leave and equal pay; things like lower mortgage premiums and a higher minimum wage  -- these ideas will make a meaningful difference in the lives of millions of families. That is a fact.
This is also a fact: fairness to a politician and fairness to normal people are two different things.
By the end of this decade, two in three job openings will require some higher education. Two in three. And yet, we still live in a country where too many bright, striving Americans are priced out of the education they need. It’s not fair to them, and it’s not smart for our future.
Unless they join the military, like many parents of the youngest, brightest, and strivingest Americans are secretly hoping.
Let’s close loopholes so we stop rewarding companies that keep profits abroad, and reward those that invest in America. Let’s use those savings to rebuild our infrastructure and make it more attractive for companies to bring jobs home. Let’s simplify the system and let a small business owner file based on her actual bank statement, instead of the number of accountants she can afford. And let’s close the loopholes that lead to inequality by allowing the top one percent to avoid paying taxes on their accumulated wealth. We can use that money to help more families pay for childcare and send their kids to college. We need a tax code that truly helps working Americans trying to get a leg up in the new economy, and we can achieve that together.
...so said tax code can be promptly loused up again to benefit those whom we need to vote for us.
When we make rash decisions, reacting to the headlines instead of using our heads; when the first response to a challenge is to send in our military — then we risk getting drawn into unnecessary conflicts, and neglect the broader strategy we need for a safer, more prosperous world. That’s what our enemies want us to do.
Let's make sure the only thing they'll want after we get finished with them is mercy.
And tonight, I call on this Congress to show the world that we are united in this mission by passing a resolution to authorize the use of force against ISIL.
Because saying we're going to kill them like Raid is so passe.
That’s how America leads — not with bluster, but with persistent, steady resolve.
Coulda fooled me.
The best scientists in the world are all telling us that our activities are changing the climate, and if we do not act forcefully, we’ll continue to see rising oceans, longer, hotter heat waves, dangerous droughts and floods, and massive disruptions that can trigger greater migration, conflict, and hunger around the globe. The Pentagon says that climate change poses immediate risks to our national security.
And the people in the northeast are saying, "We're still freezin' our tushes off!"
You know, just over a decade ago, I gave a speech in Boston where I said there wasn’t a liberal America, or a conservative America; a black America or a white America  --  but a United States of America. I said this because I had seen it in my own life...
And you weren't working in Washington at that time.
Over the past six years, the pundits have pointed out more than once that my presidency hasn’t delivered on this vision. How ironic, they say, that our politics seems more divided than ever. It’s held up as proof not just of my own flaws  -- of which there are many  --  but also as proof that the vision itself is misguided, and naïve, and that there are too many people in this town who actually benefit from partisanship and gridlock for us to ever do anything about it. I know how tempting such cynicism may be. But I still think the cynics are wrong.
And they still think you're wrong, too. Fair enough.
There are a lot of good people here, on both sides of the aisle. And many of you have told me that this isn’t what you signed up for — arguing past each other on cable shows, the constant fundraising, always looking over your shoulder at how the base will react to every decision. Imagine if we broke out of these tired old patterns. Imagine if we did something different.
Oh you can imagine a lot... but doing? Meh.
A better politics is one where we appeal to each other’s basic decency instead of our basest fears.
Yeah, but that doesn't win elections! And it's not as much fun!
A better politics is one where we spend less time drowning in dark money for ads that pull us into the gutter, and spend more time lifting young people up, with a sense of purpose and possibility, and asking them to join in the great mission of building America.
Until those young people figure out they're being hustled and decided to stay as far away as they can from Washington.
I have no more campaigns to run. My only agenda for the next two years is the same as the one I’ve had since the day I swore an oath on the steps of this Capitol — to do what I believe is best for America. If you share the broad vision I outlined tonight, join me in the work at hand. If you disagree with parts of it, I hope you’ll at least work with me where you do agree. And I commit to every Republican here tonight that I will not only seek out your ideas, I will seek to work with you to make this country stronger.
Until two years from now, when the candidates will tell you how much it bites.
We’ve laid a new foundation. A brighter future is ours to write. Let’s begin this new chapter  --  together  --  and let’s start the work right now.
Yes! We need fodder for all the 2016 dark money ads!

And now the promised point: I have very low expectations of any major change towards making government work more efficiently, more civilly, and more frugally. As I have said before, Congress could do a lot simply by giving the president a line-item veto and nuking all filibusters. It won't. President Obama can talk a good game about how we need to be servant leaders, but in Washington, nice guys finish last.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Going Postal

The Post Office lost $5.5 billion in 2014, and I know part of the reason why. I go to the mailery down the street on a Saturday morning, when nobody is at the counter, and all that works (or doesn't) is an automated postage machine.

Years ago, the cash-bleeding geniuses who placed these devices in post offices simultaneously removed the vending machines for stamps, envelopes, postcards and other supplies. Those old machines worked like the familiar ones for candy and soft drinks: put in your money, make a selection, see it drop into the slot. The new ones electrify bureaucracy, displaying layers upon layers of menus to make a simple purchase –- like buying stamps.

A few seasons ago, during the Christmas rush, a postal worker tried to tame the long line snaking from the counter by encouraging us to try out the post office’s response to the ATM.

“Too many questions,” I replied to the postal worker. “Bring back the old machine.”

The beleaguered postmistress returned a glance like I had just told her I would rather use the Pony Express before sighing and acknowledging that, yes, the system was a little bit finicky.

On this day, I need stamps. Actually, just one. But that’s an impossibility for Post-Office Depression, as I call this machine. Stamps are doable, but the minimum order is three. Did I mention that those convenient single-stamp dispensers of the olden days are gone, too?

I shoot for three, the machine takes my money, prints out a receipt, and drops absolutely nothing into the bin where I’m supposed to receive three stamps.

Because it’s Saturday, nobody’s at the counter. I take the next step: trying to raise somebody’s attention on the mail room. I ring the bell at the parcel claim window, the top half of a door which is conveniently closed and locked to keep the minions in the back from having to deal with the customers up front. Nobody answers on the first ring. I ring the bell again. This time, I don’t even hear the bell. Either it’s designed to only ring once per customer, or a minion decided to turn it off, not wanting to be bothered with actually having to deal with somebody.

I am not going to go away quietly – not after getting ripped off. I rap on the door. I rap on it again. I wait and wait. Somebody is going to have to deal with this issue. Finally somebody opens the door and asks if I need something. Here now I see at least four half-horrified postal minions who can’t understand how somebody managed to break their monotony of the Saturday morning delivery.

I calmly explain the situation to the head minion, showing the receipt that actually did print. “The thing is,” I add, “I’m concerned other people are going to have to use this machine and they will also get ripped off.”

“Hang on,” he says. “Uh, let me see if I have the key.”

He disappears into the back, finds the key, and opens up the machine to see if those printed stamps got stuck in the gears of Post-Office Depression. Nothing falls from the mechanism, leaving him baffled.

“Huh,” he says. “Let me see if I can get you some stamps.”

Once again, Head Minion disappears and looks for the stamps. I wait a few minutes before he once again presents himself in the window.

“Uh, there’s a problem,” he mutters. “They’ve locked all the stamps up and I can’t get to them.”

I’m dumbstruck. “You have got to be kidding me.”

“Yeah. If you come back on Monday, I can get you the stamps.”

“That’s not going to do me any good,” I explain, holding up the letter I’m trying to mail across the country. “This needs to go out today.”

I feel nothing but pity for this guy. He honestly wants to help, but he’s tied up in the spaghetti of postal rules and regulations designed for anything but customer service. Still, he tries.

“Well, I think I can put it in a penalty envelope, and I’ll still get you the stamps.”

“What’s a penalty envelope?”

“It’s something where they have to pay the postage.”

I’m not sure if it will work, but I’m willing to try it. “Could they make your life any more difficult?” I ask.

He shakes his head. “Yeah, they could.”

Jumping forward one hour later, I redeemed a $5 gift certificate at Best Buy for a Blu-Ray disc costing $4.99. The cash register threw a fit, blurting: “Gift Certificate in excess of purchase.” A penny for its thoughts, and that’s even though the total price of the purchase with tax comes out to $5.60. The fine print says the certificate can’t be applied to even a smidgen of tax, unlike the other gift cards this big-boxer doles out, meaning the entire transaction will fail, even though I’m more than willing to pay the difference.

“Do you maybe want a stick of gum to go with that?” says the lady behind the counter. “Maybe a potato chip?”

“Why can’t we just make it work?” I say. A penny for my thoughts.

She calls over a manager, and in contrast to the Post Office, he performs a contortion act with the system rivaling Cirque de Soleil, punching in override codes and cryptic explanations like, “PENNYUP.” He deftly removes a bottle of spring water from the refrigerator and places it with my order.

I pull out my billfold and offer to settle the tax difference, but the clerk declines.

“You’re all good,” she smiles. “All is well.” As it should be for a corporation that makes money instead of losing it.

Monday, January 19, 2015

You Don't Need A Coming-Out Party! You're A Man!

Back in June 2013 on these pages, I lamented an imbalance in young fantasies: why do we have so many young ladies who love being princesses without an equivalent number with princely or knightly dreams? Although I was mildly relieved to see some more knight costumes at Savers this past Halloween, I have since learned the problem is even worse than I considered.

In Japan, a lady can now have a groom-optional wedding, according to several sources including the UK Sunday Express, which reports:
Travel company Cera Travel in Kyoto, a city in southern Japan, has launched "Solo Weddings", which they claim are perfect for women looking for the thrill and romance of a wedding, without actually having to tie the knot.

The two-day trip offers singletons a chance to enjoy all the fun and glamour of the special day, including spending their wedding night in a fancy hotel.
And wait, there's more: you can even have a stand-in disposable groom for the pictures. I read this and immediately flashed back to a 2012 commencement speech from Wellesley High School English teacher David McCullough, Jr., who said in part:
So here we are... commencement... life’s great forward-looking ceremony. (And don’t say, “What about weddings?” Weddings are one-sided and insufficiently effective. Weddings are bride-centric pageantry. Other than conceding to a list of unreasonable demands, the groom just stands there. No stately, hey-everybody-look-at-me procession. No being given away. No identity-changing pronouncement. And can you imagine a television show dedicated to watching guys try on tuxedos? Their fathers sitting there misty-eyed with joy and disbelief, their brothers lurking in the corner muttering with envy. Left to men, weddings would be, after limits-testing procrastination, spontaneous, almost inadvertent... during halftime... on the way to the refrigerator. And then there’s the frequency of failure: statistics tell us half of you will get divorced. A winning percentage like that’ll get you last place in the American League East. The Baltimore Orioles do better than weddings.)
You ever notice we don't have magazines called Modern Groom or Grooms? We don't have a Groomzillas or Say Yes To The Tux cable show. The entire wedding industry caters to one side of the nuptials.

When I first made that observation on Facebook, a friend observed we've been having these kinds of groomless ceremonies for years: they're called Quinceañeras. Fifteen-year-old girls in Hispanic families celebrate becoming a lady by dressing up like brides, going through a mass and a reception with a court of honor instead of bridesmaids and groomsmen, eating and dancing the night away. In keeping with historic tradition, it's strictly a female rite of passage. What about the boys? In the book Once Upon a Quinceañera, author Julia Alvarez gives us a traditional mindset that boys are born men, but girls turn into women at 15. That's the silliest statement about maturity I've heard since someone warned me coffee would stunt my growth.

You can argue debutante balls are essentially the same thing multiplied, even though they have a noble purpose. Historically, they have introduced marriage-eligible ladies to society, and in our current times, they honor young ladies with a commitment to service. Yet I don't see the equivalent for the young servant-hearted gentlemen seeking marriage. Yes, I know gentlemen do have a role in debutante balls, but they're the functional equivalent of asterisks. Who's presenting them to society?

This disparity angers me. It plays right into the stereotype that young men don't want or need a moment of glamor or regality in their lives. We assume they don't need to be built up, honored, prayed for, lavished, bowed or curtsied to. They don't need a ceremony where their family and friends share how much they are loved and valued, and how their beloved expect great things from them in adulthood. They don't need a coronation like the ladies because they're guys, and guys don't ask to be coronated -- not even on their own wedding days!

Or do they? As many of you know, Jewish boys celebrate becoming men at 13 with a Bar Mitzvah. (Girls get a Bat Mitzvah at 12 or 13.) It is both a rite of passage and a time to party. Christians are adapting this tradition into what is known as a Bar Barakah, and your humble servant was honoured to be part of one in November of 2012.

A Tucson family invited me to lead several historic dances as part of the party following the ceremony of blessing and a dinner. As I wrote in my journal:
The most memorable moment wasn't the dinner or the dancing, it was watching [the young boy's] parents and his sister get up one at a time and tell him how much they loved him and challenged him to live his life for GOD. Seeing it emotionally drained me, as it did [the honoree] and several others. I don't think there was a dry eye in the room at one point.
That included the climax of the ceremony, where the boy crossed from one side of a model bridge he helped build to the other where his friends and family were waiting to hug him.

We still have a way to go before we see male Quinceañeras or male debutante balls. But also I hear some guys get "15" parties, so I sense demand will drive supply. Why should the young ladies have all the fun? I hope we'll someday see prince parties or balls featuring young noblemen, honored as people of maturity and worth, ready for a commitment -- maybe to a young lady, maybe to something else, but ready nonetheless.

But if it gets to the point of bride-optional weddings... uh, that's just tacky.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Industrial Arts

Don't call it "shop class." That's a term reserved for those blow-off classes in middle school people don't want their kids taking because they're the functional equivalent of basket weaving. But it's shop class.

The objective is to make something functional, like a small wooden bookshelf, a wrought-iron candle holder, a plastic letter opener, or a step stool. Getting there involves the techniques used in the workshop, by skilled tradespeople before robots take all their jobs. But let us not be fooled: putting certain young people around squaring shears, drills, vice grips and buffers will turn shop class into a little shop of horrors.

Listen to the instructions of one of my shop Industrial Arts teachers and you may safely deduce the kinds of hijinks which go on:

"When you take one of these rods out of the pile, flip it out on the floor and drag it to your desk for cleaning with a paper towel. Do not wipe it on my pants with that scungy grease."

"How many people heard me say, 'Waste those pop rivets!?'"

"Please leave the arm on this paper cutter up so it doesn't come up and bang somebody in the eye."

"If you're not to the point of having all these pieces cut out, you're hurtin'."

"This other teacher made a nice industrial drawing, and look what you did to it!"

"I will not baby-sit."

"Are you gonna leave it like that, with all that scungy grease?"

Fortunately, we're not on a production deadline, because between the goofing around of a select few people, it's a wonder we get anything done without blowing up the school. Nowadays, at one charter high school here in Tucson, kids build off-road vehicles. And at another, they design software. High school is so cool at these places, I sometimes wish I could back up and go through it again there. Someday these kids are going to build a spec house as an advanced-placement class and we'll all be wondering, "What just happened?"

That would have never happened in my day. Not with kids coming into the work area burping in three different octaves.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Pranks Ink-orporated

No tale of the old one-room 1800's schoolhouses is complete without the revelation that young boys would tease young girls sitting in front of them by dipping their pigtails in the inkwell conveniently located inside the desktop so close to their hair. Make it easy, make it tempting, and kids will find a way to make trouble.

As writing technology improves, the prank morphs into guerilla warfare. People destroy purple ball-point pens, leave the ink to bleed all over their desks and walk away, endangering the next kid to sit there during an multiple-class high-school day.

"Could you switch this desk with that one?" my Spanish teacher asks me one day when I happen to get to class early. I move a splotched mess of a work environment with a clean specimen and wait.

The boy who sits there next is soon wondering how his desk ended up being the messy one. "My pen broke," he explains to the teacher when confronted with the hairy eyeball. I don't think she bought it.

I know my seventh-grade math teacher didn't. One day he walks up and down the rows of desks looking for ink-stained wretchedness.

"If I see any more broken pens, it's a detention!" he grumbles.

I hated how magic marker and ink stains never came out of my hands as a kid. Softsoap lacked the necessary power. Whatever industrial concoction they put in the school soap dispenser proved to be a cruel joke. Only Lava made any headway, and good luck getting that at school.

Some kids didn't mind marking anything up. In Kindergarten, a guy hashes a pencil onto the wall next to the sharpener. The teacher leads him out and leads him back with Ajax in his hand.

"You know what that is?"

Nod. Nod.

"You know where you got that from?"

"Mr. Larison," he says, acknowledging the principal, the one with the big paddle Mrs. Landers showed us once, back during a time when you could still spank kids at school without lawyers getting involved.

A sixth-grade teacher throws a controlled tantrum when somebody leaves crayons on the heater to melt. What's supposed to be a study hall turns into a session on communication and listening to the instructor, and how maybe, maybe part of it is her fault.

Then comes a major scandal. Who, who, WHO, is taking their Crayolas into the restroom to mark on the walls on the tile grout?

"You don't need to take your colors in there!" a teacher vents in exasperation.

They never find the culprit, just like they never find most of the people who write on the bathroom walls -- the social network of our young generation.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Two Dog Night

Let's see what happens when we put two Brittany Spaniels (back when they were still called spaniels) together in one back yard, one considerably younger than the other.

It happened in the mid-1980's, when my Aunt Susan brought Libby over for us to dog-sit while she went on vacation. We didn't think Cinnamon, fairly docile and going through middle age, would mind. Libby, however, was about three years old, getting spoiled and full of puppyisms. Either this would work or it wouldn't.

Libby bounds into the backyard to meet Cinnamon, and immediately these two girl dogs sniff each other out. Then they kiss... on the snouts... several times. Many dogs are territorial, but not Cinnamon. She doesn't mind the birds eating her dog food. We watch as the pair explore the yard with Cinnamon sniffing Libby's behind more than a reasonable amount of times.

"Cinnamon, I think you've smelled enough," the Queen Mother groused.

Despite friendly beginnings, Libby managed to wear poor old Cinnamon out. Our dog would find a place in the shade to lie down, and Libby would run over to her, licking her and trying to get her up. Cinnamon would get tired and growl back. Still, she did her best to keep her visitor entertained, letting Libby roughhouse with her as they wrestled and chewed each other on the mouths.

Libby always managed to jump on me and cling to my legs whenever I had to go out back to tend to her or Cinnamon, or get something else done out back. My aunt's dog had considerable leg strength. I can still remember her jumping several feet from a sitting position to kiss the Queen Mother in the face.

"Don't say the word 'walk' around her unless you intend to walk her," my aunt wrote in her instruction note. "She understands!"

And she can also spell. Grandfather Francis had to say "w-a-l-k" in front of us until Libby figured out how to put letters together and perk up her ears. But we didn't really have to take her out. She got more than enough exercise from annoying Cinnamon.

Cinn was probably glad to see her cousin leave and get her yard back, where she could roll around in the grass, chase squirrels, and bark at Champ next door without having to worry about the in-laws.

Some time later, when we brought Cinnamon over to my Grandfather and Grandmother Francis' for a visit, Libby didn't feel like repaying the favor, and we ended up separating the two before barking turned to biting. So much for family.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

One Measley Vacation

The current outbreak of measles connected with the Disneyland parks reminds me of that awful Christmas vacation in 1988, where I spent a week in bed looking the ugliest I had ever looked in my life and feeling just as bad. The doctor should've called it Revenge of the Chicken Pox.

I had my shots, like all good little boys and girls are supposed to before they enter school. But those shots wear off in the teenage years, and my travails on the Raytown South High debate team put me in contact with more than few communicable students from Blue Springs who happened to be dealing with their own outbreak.

It started deceptively. I remember going to the mall with my parents over break and feeling mildly sick, but I chalked it up to probably getting yet another cold. I had enough pep to go see The Naked Gun with the folks, but a few days after, that cold was draining me like no other I'd had. The Queen Mother, who also serves as the Royal Nurse, thought something else was going on. She started looking for other symptoms, and soon enough, we discovered a pinpoint rash on my chest.

"Ohhhhhh, he has it!" Her Majesty declared.

Nobody else in the family grew alarmed; they had either already had measles or had the shots. But your humble patient had to bear the horrifying red rash all over, the nausea, and all the side effects. We could treat the symptoms, but I mostly had to wait -- wait to fade, wait to regain my normal skin, which seemed at times a fantasy.

The fading came slowly, but it happened in time for me to return to school on time, right after New Year's Day. A teacher asked how my holiday was.

"Well, I had the measles."

She gasped. "You know I have to report that to the school nurse!"

"Go ahead," I said, knowing that nurse probably wouldn't be able to do anything more to stop that outbreak that made its way through me.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Boy, Interrupted

When I read the story of 12-year-old Ronin Shimizu, who committed suicide last month after enduring consistent bullying for being a boy cheerleader among other things, I had two reactions. The first and obvious one is a stew of sadness and anger over how his school system failed him after complaint after complaint about the problem. The second is a wish for more children to have Ronin's level of guts.

If I had a chance to do my life over again, I would have started embracing Colonial and Scottish dance as a child and followed that passion right into adulthood. Kids picked on me already, and people would taunt me no matter what I did, so why not go all in? I could've donned the tricorn and kilts much earlier and set free a lot of internal repression I didn't realize I was carrying around.

I told my beloved Madame Noire this, and she replied, "But there weren't any groups like that around when you were a kid."

Maybe. But I could've found some.

The bullying of young Ronin makes even less sense when you think about the group he joined. What young boy wouldn't love being surrounded by beautiful smiling girls in bright uniforms? I bet you some of his bullies were secretly envious. But more than that, Ronin followed his passion, and he found kindred spirits.

When we help young boys deal with bullies, we often teach them how to defend themselves or tell them to "man up." We tell them nothing's wrong with them, but how far will we allow them to take it? Parents, be honest with me. If your 12-year-old boy wanted to join the cheerleading squad, would you let him? How about ballet? Or the Royal Scottish Country Dancing Society? Or the Society for Creative Anachronism? Or a figure-skating group?

Every parent says they love their children and want to support them. Reality tells me a lot of parents don't want to bear the burden of having an unpopular sissy-boy. They would rather steer that child into being cool rather than dealing with the tears, fears and grunt work of being supportive. Ronin's parents knew their child, loved their child, and loved his heart. They didn't freak out about his aspirations. They didn't measure their success as parents by the hipness of their child. A friend of mine tells me about a father who found his son growing his hair long as a possible prelude to some classic sissy activity. He made that child get a buzz cut.

Parents, if you are raising a child to fit your personal aspirations, you are not raising a child. You are raising a trophy. You are creating something designed to sit on your mantle for boasting. When the child decides not to run your race, you grow bitter.

I remember talking to some friends of co-workers about a trip to New York City and enjoying the musical Wicked.

"Do you have anything from that show for my son?" one person asked. "He's a [homosexual slur]. He loves Broadway."

Shocked as I was, I gave him some Wicked swag to pass along, fairly confident that the son was only a homosexual slur in his father's eyes. I'll stick up for the child. I won't stick up for his father's loutish conclusions.

Ronin had a small circle of close friends, and although he showed a predominantly quiet side, he didn't fit neatly into the mold of introvert. When a child dies like this, we start looking for all the warning signs that came before it. I'm not sure Ronin gave us any.

Thus comes the guts. Whatever Ronin's support system was, it wasn't enough. They may have had his back privately, but not publicly. I'm inspired by the example of a squad of Queen Creek, Arizona high school football players who stepped up to defend a developmentally challenged girl. They made it clear: you mess with her, you mess with us. Ronin could have used his own special team.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

We Interrupt This Special Report For Something That Will Make Us Money

Long ago and far away, I worked at a TV station that hated network special reports when they ran too long, especially when they started knocking out commercials we were planning to run in the programs our general manager or programming director wished we were showing.

The problem reached a head in the 1999 plane-crash death of JFK Junior, when the networks went wall-to-wall with the story on a weekend. We got calls from angry viewers who wanted to see tennis. A station exec grumbled about announcements coming from the network telling people where they could tune -- away from us -- to see it. "They're just repeating the same things over again," she snorted. We couldn't do anything. We didn't have any alternative programming as it was, but we were losing the revenue from the local station breaks.

Eventually station brass came up with a solution. We had the generic end of a network special report on tape saying, "This has been a special report." If the toppers thought the network was droning on too long, they would have Master Control bail out of the report with the generic end tape and go back to whatever local programming we were showing.

I don't know if the network ever caught on to this. They would've been livid if they knew. In 2002 a decade ago, CBS threw a fit when it learned one of their owned-and-operated stations in Pittsburgh was using a device called the "Time Machine" to delay and compress a live football game in order to squeeze extra commercials. I found the outrage laughable. Before this time, dozens of stations had been using the device on the down low. They only stopped when they got caught.

I understand why local stations are trying to protect or amp up their revenue. The networks that used to pay them to run their shows are now squeezing them for money they get from cable companies for permission to retransmit their signals. The NFL also comes around with its hand out -- and remember, this league gets cushy tax breaks. Then when cable contracts come up and stations have to raise their retransmission fees to protect their behinds, it's the stations who get the hate mail.

People will talk about trying to find a new business model for television, but it's talk. I would rather the networks and the NFL find a way to cut costs so they don't have to ask so much of their stations. NBC tried managing for scale with the ill-fated Jay Leno Show experiment, but affiliates screamed. Shoveling cheap shows onto the air isn't the solution. If I knew what was, I wouldn't be sitting behind a news producer's desk.

Monday, January 12, 2015

"Everybody Is Getting Underwear!"

By this time, I gather you have gotten mostly everything you wanted for Christmas, exchanged what you didn't, or are hustling to get what didn't end up under the tree if you just can't wait until next year. Undoubtedly, some of you ended up with things only a parent would love.

I'll talk about ugly sweaters in a moment. But let's get to what mothers are fond of giving when you don't ask for it: underwear.

Bill Cosby -- long before he found himself in the middle of a sex scandal -- once joked mothers care more about the condition of your briefs than your body. Get into an accident, and Mom wants to know if you were wearing clean underwear. Well, maybe you were.

Moms care about this issue because they did your laundry. They sorted, they saw, they grimaced. If nature and natural wear and tear didn't get to your skivvies, the pests would.

"The moths like to eat a lot of things," I remember the Queen Mother lamenting while I was but a wee subject. "But the one thing they love is underwear. They love to eat underwear."

Men don't naturally replace underwear on their own volition. Boxers are like toothbrushes. If they fit and they still hold together, they're good. Somebody else will deal with them in the wash. Even in college, when I started doing my own laundry, I didn't think of keeping a brief budget. What works, works.

Then one Christmas in the mid-1990's the Queen Mother reached her limit on ratty, rotten, holey underwear. In addition to our regular Christmas gifts, every member of the family got a nice new package of stark white briefs.

"Everybody in this family is getting underwear!" she said.

Yes, your humble servant included. For the record, I actually asked for some high-end boxers this year. They look good, they feel great, and they don't draw moths.

And I always know if I don't put anything on the list for next year... guess what I'm getting?

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Snow Wars

One winter in Southern Arizona, and you won't want to return to the midwest, the plains, the northeast, or any place with the potential of snow. However, if you have kids, you can make it. They get to shovel the driveway.

So my brother Michael and I have to deal with the Charge of the White Brigade. The typical battle is against six inches of snow over a sheet of ice.

KMBZ-AM Kanasas City, January 1979:
"Hello, you're on the Walt Bodine show."

"Yes. A lot of people out there shovel snow, and it's like they're fighting a war."
We have no way to flank. We have no heavy artillery, just hand weapons. That snow is relentless. It's packed and it's stubborn. We can't push it or scrape it. We have to attack it in layers.

Once that's gone, we have that sheet of ice underneath, and it just won't break, as much as we stab at it. It's too cold. We might as well be trying to shovel the concrete underneath.

Many families would spring for a snowblower. Crikey, Grandma and Grandpa Lawson have one. But they have one because they don't have kids to shovel the driveway. In the old days, you had kids to work the fields. History repeats and adapts.

We do have a tool called the "snow-throw," a large angled shovel on wheels. You push it, and it's supposed to throw the snow to your side, but mostly it just packs the snow in tighter or rolls over the top of it, taking the easy way out.

Some years later, my folks get a Toro electric power shovel, a poor man's snowblower with a rotating plastic blade. Between the cold and the mess of an extension cord, it rarely works properly. The plastic blade isn't wasn't powerful enough to chop through that six inches. Occasionally, Grandpa Lawson comes over with the snowblower, showing mercy on his grandkids. He blasts through enemy lines and celebrates at Officers' Quarters inside our house with a shot of Jack Daniels to get his heart started.

I wish we could have borrowed a flamethrower and melted that snow down in five minutes. Not only would it get the job done quickly, it would avoid the other problem: anything that takes up mass like snow will continue to take up mass once it's clear of the driveway. Much of that mass goes to the sides of the drive, but a lot of it goes out in front. That means any car pulling out is going to hit a redoubt of the conquered enemy and perhaps get stuck, rendering the driveway campaign a lost cause.

The Royal Father gets around the issue by loading old saved magazines in the back of the car to give it more traction. This is about the only time my Queen Mother is glad he has them.

"Your father is a magazine saver," she grumbles.

It works more times than she wants to acknowledge.

Back then, as now, people end up in the Emergency Room for shoveling snow. We were kids, and we were fortunate. And we got paid for it. I think.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

The Nerds' Revenge

Going by statistics, you've probably broken every one of your new year's resolutions already. But you can start over, and if you keep just one, I would suggest this: labor to treat your Facebook friends as if they were standing right in front of you, face to face. I had to take that step two years ago, abstaining from most political posts (and nearly all political blogging) after a thunderous comment row with a friend.

Part of me believes so-called social media is the biggest, most successful act of revenge by those nerds people teased mercilessly as children. Now, they not only own half the world, they also own our lives through their creations of Facebook and Twitter. They have pulled the ultimate con on us, thinking they're making us more connected. We can't see it, but we're unraveling thread by thread.

I know many of my Facebook friends in real life. Many are admirers I've friended even though I really don't know them. I've friended other people I admire. On an altruistic level, it should mean, "I'm interested in your life. I want to know more about you. I want to share in what you enjoy, and perhaps support you in the tough times."

Put that status update in front of some people, and it's a weapon. When politics and faith gets into the mix, otherwise beautiful people turn ugly. I know folks who know better than to rant out loud like they do on their pages, and yet their news feeds scream with namecalling, flaming and trolling.

Now-former Arizona Public Schools Superintendent John Huppenthal got caught "sock-puppeting:" posting under pseudonyms with whoppers like this one:
"Obama is rewarding the lazy pigs with food stamps (44 million people), air-conditioning, free health care, flat-screen TV's (typical of "poor" families)."
And this one...
"No Spanish radio stations, no Spanish billboards, no Spanish TV stations, no Spanish newspapers. This is America, speak English."

Once exposed, he wept in front of the cameras but refused to resign. Voters booted him anyway. I watched his press conference and chalked up his remorse to a man who didn't believe he could get caught. Words come with meaning, whether you type them or speak them. People like Huppenthal think it's okay to play dirty on the Internet because it's already such a free-wheeling din of free speech. Something in their mindset believes an equally poisonous rant exists out there in cyberspace and they are merely providing balance. We forget rights come with responsibilities.

So we feel free to post, share and comment bile. It's okay if you type it. Retweets can't scream at you, and you can unfriend, ignore and block as need be. Technology is great, allowing us to click people off like they're on the other end of the remote. And then we have to deal with the real people behind those icons in the news feed.

In what became a cruelly ironic teaching moment, I shared one of Washington's Rules of Civility, along with a beautiful painting of our beloved first president. It read: "Let your conversation be without malice or envy, for 'tis a sign of a tractable and commendable nature, and in all causes of passion permit reason to govern." The comments section blew up. Fifteen years ago, I might have enjoyed watching a catfight. It's heartbreaking watching people you know in real life with their talons out.

I think of that line in The Godfather: Part II: "Hyman Roth played this one beautifully."

And so did all those nerds who came up with a way for us to destroy ourselves from within.