Monday, August 30, 2010


I’m glad to see Jim Parsons get some much-deserved recognition for his fine performance as Sheldon in The Big Bang Theory. I first put his style into the Leslie Nielsen deadpan-silliness category, but now I’m seeing some John Cleese.

I see ESPN is showing (I almost said broadcasting, but since they’re a cable network that’s not technically true. I know, picky, picky. I’m just an old TV guy at heart.) high school football games, probably because some highly rated recruit plays on one or both of the teams. I sure it makes sense to them, but I find it a bit distasteful. I don’t like the idea of bringing the national spotlight, with its unseemly underbelly, to the local level. A lot of these places take football too seriously as it is; the last thing the kids (and the enabling adults) need is ESPN-level pressure and ego-stroking to distort their perspectives even more.

When I see a large motor home stopped for the night in the Wal-mart parking lot
I can’t help but wonder if it bothers the occupants that, after spending a large sum on such an ultra-luxury conveyance, they have to park it at the home of low prices. It must be noted, however, that most of the campgrounds with hookups here would be a nightmare to navigate, or even get to, in one of those bus-based behemoths. It’s also possible that having spent all their money on the camper they can’t afford to stay at campgrounds all the time. Personally, I can’t imagine owning one of those, mostly because I would be scared to death to drive it. My wife (who has a Class B CDL and has driven school buses in big-city traffic) would have to do the driving while I lounged in the back. Hmmm….

A co-worker and I were discussing a recent rash of cattle getting out onto the roads, when the usual jokes about free meat for the taking segued into a discussion of how we would store and consume it now that our shopping habits are changing due to our empty nests. My wife and I have had to revise how we look at groceries, and it’s taking some getting used to. We frequently have to remind ourselves that foodstuffs aren’t disappearing as quickly as they used to, then rethink the wisdom of buying the family pack of something which may go bad before we finish it. If we do buy in bulk, we have to remember to break it down into packages suitable for two rather than three, four or more. It’s not a bad problem to have, and I have noticed that our grocery bills are declining, at least for our major shopping trips. The smaller trips, usually to assist the new households in the family, seem to be making up the difference, but at least the kids are footing part of the bill now.

Friday, August 27, 2010

I Blog Alone

Another August almost gone, which means football is on the way. Real football, that is, as opposed to NFL preseason games, which are either dress rehearsals for the players who will make the team or paid fantasy camps for the guys with no chance (and except for the last few spots the team pretty much knows who they will be).

A lot of people in my family have birthdays in August: me (48 creaky years old), my oldest brother (45), his daughter (22...Sigh… I can still vividly recall the time she crawled out of an insufficiently-attached diaper and peed on my living room carpet. Should she ever get married, I can guarantee that tidbit will be mentioned at the reception. It’s an uncle’s duty.), another brother’s wife, my late paternal Grandmother and a few others. Perhaps it’s the fact that the first truly cold weather usually arrives in November. It’s also time for school to start again, getting my wife back to work full time, which not only brings in another paycheck after a lean summer, but allows me to increase my internet time, and thus my blog time.

Why, you may ask, did her presence at home make a difference in my web wandering? We didn’t have to share the computer; her work laptop served her needs, which left the old desktop for me. She knows I do this, so there’s no subterfuge involved, and if I were worried about her seeing something I write then putting it into a publicly available blog would be a bit stupid, wouldn’t it? (Although as far as I know she doesn’t read this, perhaps because she gets enough of my ramblings live.)

One reason is, although our newly empty nest has increased our ability to be a spontaneous couple, our chaotic work schedules mean sometimes we hardly see each other, so I don’t like to waste any time we have together, which is usually spent in the living room, and in order to blog I have to use the desktop computer in a separate room. I know, a laptop would eliminate this problem, and someday I plan to get one. But there would still be another difficulty.

My wife can sit and crochet in the living room while we watch TV together (or, ironically, play the card games that come with her work laptop), but although I would have no problem wandering the web, I’m not sure I could comfortably blog that way. As George Thorogood said about drinking, when I blog alone I prefer to be by myself.

It’s the closest thing I have to a hobby, and somehow having someone watching, or readily able to observe, makes me feel like I should be trying to explain what I’m doing instead of just amusing myself, which is the main function of a hobby. I guess it’s similar to the painter who goes off to paint in solitude, or the guy who goes into his workshop to build things or carve wood or work on a car.

When I’m being observed I also begin to feel self-conscious about my typing (which is barely functional at my best) and my personal editing process, as well as how much effort I sometimes put into producing so little, especially compared to her crocheting, which actually results in something useful (and popular; her blankets are always hits as gifts.)

Perhaps once I acquire and put that laptop to use those anxieties will all disappear. Until then, blogging will have to continue to take a back seat to better things. Happily, spending time with my wife still qualifies.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Not Good, But Good Enough

After recently spouting off in response to one of Dale’s fine posts at Faith In Honest Doubt, which was in turn a response to comments about one of his previous posts (got that?), I realized that the commenter - who went by the name Bible Study Boy, which gives a pretty good idea of his philosophical leanings – had hit on something that I had long thought was a slightly uncomfortable aspect of Christianity. First, his comment.

I realize that many professing Christians teach that one must live by certain rules in the flesh in order to be saved. However, all that is required for salvation is faith alone in Jesus Christ. I also realize this is an atheist website, or at least it appears to be, but there is a great bible study website that shows why many professing Christians don't really represent true Christianity. Many profess to know God, but they are full of evil and hate trying to get people to live according to their rules. This is contrary to the bible which teaches that faith alone in Jesus is sufficient for salvation, not our own works of righteousness in the flesh.

Actually, as I read that again, I have to admire his ability to hit sore spots so succinctly. The classic theme “my Christianity is true, yours is false” is practically a founding principle (Paul spent a lot of the Old Testament trying to settle arguments within and among various groups, and from what I’ve seen he wasn’t always eye-to-eye with Peter’s Roman crew), and the role, if any, of good works has been debated for almost as long.

But this also got me to thinking about a commonly-used phrase: “good Christian”, as in “He’s a good Christian person”. Grammatically it can have a couple of meanings.

“A good person who is also a Christian”.
“A person who is a devout follower of Christianity.”

Most Christians want to think of those as essentially the same thing, that a person who is a devout follower of Christianity is also automatically a good person. But – as Bible Study Boy inadvertently points out – that is not necessarily true. There have been far too many really bad people who considered themselves good Christians. The uncomfortable fact for Christians like Bible Study Boy is that – by the definition he presents – those people were right. No matter how awful they were as human beings, as long as they had faith in Jesus Christ they were as worthy of salvation as anyone.

Which means that Bible Study Boy would wind up spending eternity with the evil-and-hate-filled people he mentions, along with some other pretty unsavory characters. Perhaps this is why some people want to have a few more conditions. They’d like to think it keeps the riffraff out. It also allows them to sidestep an aspect of their religion that they’d rather not advertise; that you don’t have to be a good person to be a good Christian.

Monday, August 23, 2010

One or the Other

My wife recently read to me one of those political junk e-mails that get sent to her despite her complete lack of partisan political interest. (How some of these mailing lists get set up still remains a mystery to me.) This one was from the Government Sucks, So Shut It Down category, with two basic themes. (She deleted it, so I can’t quote it directly.)

One was that since certain government programs haven’t solved the problems they were created to combat (I recall poverty being mentioned among other things) they should be shut down, and that because of this “failure” government should not be trusted to do anything. To me this is like saying that since medical research hasn’t cured cancer it should be stopped, or that since Nyquil and the like don’t actually cure a cold they should be discontinued. Certain maladies like poverty are probably never going to be wiped out; the best anyone can do is alleviate some of the symptoms. But that in itself is a worthy undertaking.

The writer also seemed to suggest that Big Government has been an eternal problem despite the best efforts of right-thinking people like him (in the generic sense; recent events have shown that women are just as capable of this) to cut it. Even a casual study of American history shows that our system started out so small it almost fell apart (the Articles of Confederation era was little short of anarchy), and that most increases in size or scope were (1) hotly contested, (2) compromised by the process (often by cutting a deal with people who think like the writer) and (3) in response to either a failure of the existing system or some type of catastrophe (it took a Great Depression to foster a New Deal). There’s no doubt that accountability and efficiency could be better and that beneficial cuts could be made. But the notion that Big Government has always been the enemy is silly.

The other message was a bit more curious, because it read like a Wal-Mart press release, extolling the company’s success while listing various corporate statistics regarding employment and profitability. Overall I got the sense that the writer thought government would be much more efficient and successful if it were run like Wal-Mart, which tells me that he doesn’t know a lot about that company.

Wal-Mart has a level of centralization that would bring tears to the eyes of an old Soviet bureaucrat. Corporate headquarters in Arkansas directly controls not just all the inventory decisions, but employee work schedules, with local managers only able to make last-minute changes as needed. If someone gets sick, that person calls headquarters to report it, then gets transferred to the store. Even the environmental systems of every store are centrally controlled. If you’ve ever been in a store and wondered why the lights suddenly changed, it’s because HQ in Bentonville changed them.

This system doesn’t necessarily eliminate waste; in fact, it occasionally requires it. I often see perishable items on the shelves that the local employees and I know won’t sell here, at least not before they have to be thrown away. Apparently it is more cost-effective to haul them in, sell what they can, then toss the rest rather than sort for local tastes.

This isn’t meant as a critique of Wal-Mart. Their system obviously works for them. And perhaps I’m misjudging the e-mail writer. Maybe he would be OK with a government run that way as long as it was relatively efficient and cost-effective. It wouldn’t be consistent with his other message, but that tends to not be a big concern to such people. I just wish he would make up his mind before spamming my wife.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

No Cooking Required

I see that Walgreen's is selling flu shot gift cards. Just the thing to hand out this Halloween.

From the Office of Odd Coincidences….The other day my wife and I watched an episode of House Hunters in which the couple was looking for housing near Smith Mountain Lake, Virginia, a place heretofore unknown to either of us. That evening at a restaurant in Sioux Falls I saw a young woman wearing a t-shirt advertising that same locale. It’s the kind of what-are-the-odds thing that keeps lottery ticket sales going.

There have been big doings on the home front: my daughter has gotten a place of her own. The impetus was her best friend’s need to acquire lodging due to her family’s loss of their home to foreclosure and their imminent move to Missouri. My daughter’s friend is enrolled in the nursing program here and wished to finish here, so she decided to remain. She wanted a roommate, and my daughter’s recent acquisition of sufficiently gainful employment gave her the means to fill the role, though not without understandable anxiety. I assured her that it wouldn’t be much different from her frequent stays with her sister, and that both her friend’s grandparents and we will be nearby if needed. So far the transition seems to have been quite easy for them, with the usual adjustments for having to acquire the various little items necessary for a household (cups, utensils, can opener, etc.)

The apartment itself is part of a motel complex, so they get some similar services, including a telephone that eventually rings through to the front desk for messages, cable TV, wireless internet and weekly laundry for the bedding. It’s made up of three connected rooms, so the living room and bedrooms each have a bathroom. It’s sufficiently furnished, with recliners, a microwave oven, a two-burner hot plate and a kitchen-style sink in addition to standard motel furniture. It’s even within easy walking distance of a supermarket. All in all, it’s a good place for two first-timers, the only major drawback being its proximity to railroad tracks, which they say hasn’t been a big deal.

This has naturally led me to recall my first relatively independent non-dorm residence. My roommate and I had planned on continuing to stay in the dorms, but high pre-registration numbers caused the administration to panic and kick upperclassmen out to make room for what they thought was going to be a huge freshman class. It didn’t materialize, but by then most juniors and seniors had found other housing.

For us that housing was a three-bedroom mobile home owned by my roommate’s family, and shared by the two of us and two other students. It was typical of its time and type: metal roof and siding outside, wood paneling and shag carpet inside. It did have a washer and dryer, though, which was not just real luxury but a considerable factor in keeping the filth level below the average for a place inhabited by four male college students. We also had a classic wooden-console TV/Radio/turntable with a picture tube that took longer to warm up each time it was turned on, but which put out a nice imitation stereo TV sound.

Easily the biggest source of adventure for us was food preparation. Each person took a turn cooking (until a revolt against one roommate’s reliance on macaroni and cheese led to each person being responsible for his own sustenance, which allowed everyone to cook to his own taste but in my view was much less fun.) One night a roommate decided to cook spaghetti, without informing the rest of us that he had never before attempted such an undertaking or asking for advice from those of us who had. He proceeded to make most of the mistakes possible with pasta preparation, resulting in a spaghetti brick requiring a knife with a serrate edge to penetrate. There was a great deal of experimentation, usually with the electric skillet, resulting in some unique casseroles.

Today most of what we did wouldn’t even be attempted by many young people, simply because it isn’t necessary. The microwave oven and the foodstuffs designed for it allow someone to eat quite well (at least by college standards) with very little risk, or even effort. The number, variety and overall quality of microwavable items have truly revolutionized low-skill cooking. The development of techniques for using the microwave oven for traditional food preparation has also been beneficial, at least to an avid user like me. (My wife, on the other hand, didn’t have one until we got together.) I have found that I can cook many dishes just as well in a microwave oven as I can conventionally, with advantages in speed and cookware usage. But the biggest advantage for me – someone who rarely decides what to cook until the last minute - is the ability to defrost meat quickly.

Of course this is a mixed blessing. Young people who might find out they enjoy the art of cooking may never try. The increased packaging necessary for microwavable products has been decried for adding to solid waste. Above all, there’s the fact that most prepackaged food doesn’t taste as good as the freshly-cooked version. But that last statement comes with the old caveat: it depends on the skill of the cook. Banquet microwavable spaghetti and meatballs would probably have been preferable to my roommate’s effort. But he learned from the experience, as did we all, which usually doesn’t happen when you microwave a frozen dinner.