Breakfast with The IHOP Five

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ihop-five

Linda Fray sat restlessly through her friends’ discussion of the coming Apocalypse until she could stand it no longer. She had just spent $350 on a pair of cowboy boots and, dammit, she wanted to show them off.

“What do y’all think?” she said, kicking a leg out from under the table and revealing a pointy toe of turquoise leather. “Pretty nice, huh?”

Her four friends leaned over their breakfast platters for a closer look. Rob Ratzenberg was the first to comment, as was often the case.

“They’re a little on the flashy side for my taste. You aren’t gonna ride in them, are you?”

“Of course she’s not riding in them,” Gracie Picket said as she stirred Sweet ‘N Low into her coffee. “Those are dancing boots, not horse boots.”

Calwood Bachelor and Frank Bastin sipped their coffees and smiled dimly, a reaction Linda expected from two men who hadn’t changed their wardrobes since the Reagan Administration.

“I bought them off Bootopia.com,” she said, hitching her jeans leg to show a little more leather. “They were pricey, but a girl’s gotta treat herself every now and again.”

“Well, they are lovely,” Gracie said. “And you should treat yourself every chance you get. God knows what the months ahead have in store for us.”

“That’s right, sister,” said Calwood said. “A hard rain’s a-gonna fall.”

The others nodded grimly, like soldiers about to parachute into battle.

For years, they had met once a week—every week—for breakfast. Sometimes the meeting place was at Waffle House or Cracker Barrel, but mostly it was IHOP—the International House of Pancakes, as Gracie steadfastly called it. The coffee was better there, they all agreed and, well, so were the pancakes.

Originally, it was just three of them—Gracie, Rob and Cal. They became acquainted through an adult Sunday school class Cal taught for many years at the First Baptist Church of LeFarge. It was a popular class, regularly drawing 20 or more churchgoers after the early-morning worship service. Cal had a good grasp of the Bible, and, as a former Navy SEAL who served in Vietnam, he had credibility as a leader of his peers. He was skilled at bringing Scripture to life through personal anecdotes, humorous parables, and current events.

Some of his content was a little too current, apparently, as the pastoral staff started getting complaints from church members that Cal’s lessons had taken a decidedly political tone. Cal eventually lost his class, and left First Baptist a few weeks later with a defiant gesture that members of the congregation still sometimes talked about. A long-time usher, Cal raised his brass collection plate over his head during one Sunday morning service, and slammed it down on the church’s carpeted aisle, sending spare change and little paper envelopes flying everywhere. He strode out of the sanctuary, growling something about Jesus casting out all the moneychangers.

Gracie Picket, a former school teacher, and Rob Ratzenberg, a retired Yankee from New Jersey, left the church, too, albeit under calmer circumstances. That’s when the breakfast meetings began. At first the three of them brought their Bibles to the IHOP, but studying the events of two thousand years ago soon gave way to impassioned talks about more immediate, juicier topics. Soon, the leather-bound Bibles went back to gathering dust on bedside tables in their homes.

Four years ago, Frank Bastin joined the group. Frank knew Cal, and he had just sold his Bastin Carpet Corner outlet store for a pile of money. The weekly breakfasts fit nicely into his newly uncluttered routine. Linda Fray joined a few months after Frank. In her late 50s, Linda was the youngest of the five by far. However, she was trying to be a little more social since losing her husband to a heart attack, and her Aunt Gracie had always raved about the dynamic conversations she and her friends were having over their eggs and toast. Linda decided to give it a try. After a few breakfasts, she was hooked.

They initially called themselves The Breakfast Bunch, because it seemed natural for a group that met once a week to have its own moniker. The serving staff knew them by a different name, however, one they muttered each time the group commandeered the corner booth for two hours before leaving its usual 10 percent tip. “Here come The IHOP Five,” they would say with about the same amount of affection one might reserve for terms like “rat infestation,” or “irritable bowel syndrome.”

Cal overheard the name one morning while on his way to the bathroom, and he relayed it to the group. Everyone liked it. IHOP Five sounded apt for a discussion group that had started to take on some edgy topics.

Initially, the IHOP Five bonded over subjects common to their end of the generational spectrum: grandchildren, local gossip, rock music of the 1960s, the status of their retirement funds and new ways to find cheap prescription drugs. But, as the years went by and each of them spent more of their time blinking into the luminous glow of laptop computers and high-definition TVs, their conversations turned to politics.

It helped that all of them were on the same ideological side of the “what in the hell is the world coming to?” camp, though with slight variations. Frank felt certain that the country was headed toward a currency meltdown in which it would one day require a trailer of cash to buy a loaf of bread, while Gracie envisioned a one-world government where U.N. troops would ship senior citizens like her to internment camps. Cal feared a Chinese invasion, while Rob theorized that vaccines might someday trigger a zombie apocalypse. Linda thought most of these ideas were horseshit, but she shared her friends’ distrust of politicians, the mainstream media and the government, and she thought that it might be time for change of a revolutionary sort.

One way the IHOP Five liked to think they differed from other AARP members who gathered over breakfast every week was that they were not content to just gripe. They prided themselves on being a scrappy, can-do bunch that could pinpoint problems and devise solutions. For a long time, their actions involved letters, e-mails and phone calls to the local newspaper or a congressman’s office. When that approach lost its luster, the Five switched to other tactics. Some of them were a little loopy, even for deeply conservative LeFarge, Georgia.

“We need to do something about the sexting,” Gracie said, setting her cup in its saucer and giving the others a strident look. “It’s getting out of control.”

Frank and Rob chuckled. Linda covered her mouth to keep the grits from spilling out of it.

“Sexting?” Cal asked. “What the devil is sexting?”

“It’s all over TV and the Internet,” Gracie said. “Don’t you ever watch TMZ?”

Cal ran a napkin over his mouth. “I’m pretty sure I have better things to do.”

Gracie turned her gaze to Linda, who was obviously expected to say something. As the junior member, it often fell on her to explain recent pop culture phenomena that might have whizzed past her friends.

Linda took a long sip from her orange juice, trying to think of the right way to put it. After all, most of these people were Baptists.

“Well, it’s a form of texting you people do—sometimes not-so-young people do it as well,” she began. The other members of the IHOP Five leaned toward her, Frank and Rob wearing expectant grins, Gracie looking proud and determined, like she was about to lead a march on Capitol Hill.

“It’s a form of texting where, if you want to get the attention of someone you really like, you send them a photo of…yourself.”

Cal still looked puzzled. “What’s wrong with that?”

“Well, sexting involves a recent type of photo.” Linda stopped, but Gracie nodded at her to press on. “Usually a photo of your genitals.”

Cal grimaced. “You mean to say, if a boy likes a girl, then he would text her a picture of his, ah—”

“—Penis,” Gracie said. “That’s exactly right.”

Frank and Rob giggled. Cal shook his head. “Good God in Heaven,” he muttered.

“It’s completely foul,” Gracie spat, “and we need to do something about it.”

“What can we possibly do?” Frank said, smiling at Gracie. He was a life-long entrepreneur and the most levelheaded one in the bunch. He regularly sparred with the retired school teacher, though usually in a playful manner.

“Well,” Gracie said, returning Frank Bastin’s smile with an exaggerated grin of her own. “I thought we could start by asking the City of LeFarge to pass a public decency ordinance that bans sexting. I’ve
got a friend on the council who can show us how to write one up.”

Rob Ratzenberg let his fork drop, making a clatter on his half-finished plate. “I thought we were done with this procedural, government crap. It’s a lot of work, and nobody gives a damn.”

“Don’t they?” Gracie replied. “A sexting ban is the kind of thing that might get some play in the national press. Then people will indeed give a damn, as you so eloquently put it.”

“I’m tired of writing letters and drawing up petitions,” Rob said. “I’m ready for action. I thought that was what we were moving toward.”

“It is,” Cal said softly, eying the last bite of his blueberry pancakes. “But please keep your voice down, Robert.”

The group stewed over the sexting issue a little longer, until the waitress came by to refill their coffees and ask they needed anything else. Just the check please, Cal told her. Split five ways, if she didn’t mind.

“So who’s free this Saturday night?” he asked once the waitress moved on to the next table.

The other four looked at each other. There wasn’t much to do in LaFarge on a Saturday night, beyond checking the listings to see if the Bijou Twin had anything decent playing, which it usually didn’t.

“Well, you’re all invited over to the ranch, then. Please don’t feel like you need to bring anything. We’ve got plenty of food and beverages. And wear something you don’t mind getting dirty.”

Cal Bachelor leaned over his breakfast toward the others. He was a massive man whose voice reached a surprisingly squeaky pitch when whispering a critical piece of information.

“I think it’s time,” he said, “that we got about the business of learning how to defend ourselves.”

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Six Simple Ways We Can Make America Better

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Maybe it’s the brutal political climate of the past two years, but I have noticed a lot of my Facebook friends sharing and dispensing unsolicited advice on how all of us can “stay engaged,” “get involved” and “make a difference during these dark times.”

It’s funny. The economy is growing, unemployment is under 5%, and American consumers are spending more money–all this despite our dysfunctional political system and a new president who performs much of his diplomacy and policy through Twitter.

Like many Americans, I worry about where the country is headed and feel powerless to do anything about it. How can I make a difference in my own little way without completely overhauling my life?

Below is a list of six simple actions that I can and should take. It’s not an imposing list by any means, but if most of us did these six things, I believe that America would become a more trusting, more secure and more enjoyable place than it is today:

Vote

Of course, voting in the presidential election is important. So is voting in the mid-term elections. So is voting for state and local officials or referendums. This April, for instance, there’s a bond issue on the ballot for $800 million in capital improvements to my city’s infrastructure. It’s not a sexy issue by any means. Few people will probably vote on it, but a local tax for sidewalks, sewers and roads will have far greater impact on their daily lives than many of the national issues we argue about every day.

The point is, try to vote whenever you can (one time per election, I mean). Want things to improve? Want better elected officials and more accountability? It all starts with an engaged, active voting public—and not just one that goes to the polls every four years.

Read

Voting more often doesn’t work out well if you don’t understand the issues. These days, it’s a little harder to process information because there’s so much more of it, and a lot of it comes from unreliable, deeply biased sources.

In a recent television special celebrating his career, Tom Brokaw advised Americans to take a similar approach to the news as they would to researching a new car or house to buy. In other words, gather and dissect the news from various sources you trust so you can form the clearest picture of what is really going on.

If this process of curating the news sounds like extra work, it is. However, becoming selective, more conscientious news consumers (and avoiding the click-bait in our Facebook feeds) will keep all of us better-informed and, just maybe, incent today’s media conglomerates to do better reporting.

pledge-of-allegianceGive

Life is hectic. So many different things demand our attention. Still, some of us manage to give time to causes and organizations we care deeply about. It may be for a political movement, a church, a charity or a school. Giving a little back to our communities is not only a generous thing to do, it’s a way for us to stay connected to each other. It’s also rewarding, knowing we are making a difference in a way that may not benefit us directly.

If you have not done so lately, pick something in your community that sparks your passion and can benefit from your talents. Whether it’s running for public office or serving on your school’s PTA, your time and involvement helps to build stronger communities.

Be Neighborly

There’s been a lot of talk lately about what can be done to make America safer. Does anyone truly believe that a sweeping government policy or action can make us all safer? Or are we a little safer when we know our neighbors, our coworkers, our kids’ friends and what’s going on at their school?

One of the tragedies of modern society is how disconnected many of us are from each other. How many news reports have you seen in which someone commits a horrible crime, and the next-door neighbor is dumbfounded. “He was kind of quiet. He mostly kept to himself,” they almost always say.

Get to know your neighbors. Talk to your kids’ buddies. Take a coworker to lunch. Attend a school function or a neighborhood party—even if you don’t feel like it. Staying connected and knowing what’s going on not only creates a safer environment, it builds relationships and trust.

Be Kind

Open a door for a stranger. Keep calm when someone cuts you off in traffic. Call a friend or loved one on their birthday instead of sending a text or posting about it on Facebook. In other words, be the kind of decent, humane person your parents wanted you to be. These acts of kindness are easy to do, and they can also become infectious.

Tune Out

With the politicization of almost every aspect of American life, the amount of negativity and vitriol can be overwhelming. As a citizen, you want to stay informed, but you also need to know when to step away. Checking your phone every five minutes for the latest presidential tweet or CNN alert is no way to live, and most of the information is not important to your daily life.

If social media or the news is dampening your mood, try to focus on other things in your life that you enjoy. You, your family and your friends will be much better for it.

The Cruel, Unfair World of Sports

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Sunday’s epic Super Bowl collapse by the Atlanta Falcons, a team I grew up living and mostly dying for, has caused me to question, again, why I even bother to follow sports.

In the 35-plus years I have been a sports fan, my favorite teams have reached the top of their respective heaps exactly seven times. That’s a pretty bad winning percentage when you consider my rooting interests include two major cities and four college programs. If I were only a fan of, say, the New England Patriots, I’d have nine Super Bowl appearances and five championships to look back fondly upon. If I only liked Boston sports, I’d have an additional three World Series champions and four NBA titles to brag about.

Life’s not that easy for most of us–in both sports and the world in general. Though never much of an athlete, I’ve been a sports fan since the age of 11. Like most fans, I’ve weathered a lot of misery over the years.

Outlined below are the teams I have followed, which I am chronicling more for therapeutic purposes than for your entertainment. Maybe this list will remind you of some of the heartbreak you’ve endured with your own favorite teams, the moments where you’ve sworn you are never going to watch another game? Or maybe you’re a Tom Brady or Duke basketball fan, and are therefore unfamiliar with emotional pain?

At any rate, here are the teams, in no particular order, that have methodically sucked some of the joy out of my life. Read about them if you dare:

Georgia Bulldogs

There was a time when I spent most of my waking hours thinking about University of Georgia football. They were my first sports love, starting with those great Herschel Walker teams of the early 1980s.

Unfortunately, the Dawgs haven’t returned to those glorious times since. With money, tradition, great facilities and access to a bounty of high school football talent, Georgia football is one of those college programs that should be great, but seldom is. The Dawgs have won only two Southeastern Conference championships since Herschel left school in early 1983. Since that time, just about every major college within driving distance of Athens, Ga., has won at least one national football title. Georgia fans must harken back to 1980 for the only time their team finished a consensus #1. Even then, it required having the greatest player in the history of college football to get them there.

Georgia still produces some very good teams, and they have a promising new coach in Kirby Smart. Maybe 2017 will finally be “The Year” that fans like me have desperately craved?

Atlanta Sports Teams

The Atlanta Braves won the World Series in 1995, one of my all-time favorite sports moments. Even that accomplishment is tinged with disappointment, as the Braves won 14 straight division titles and only won the championship once during that time. Their one World Series triumph came against Cleveland, so does that even count?

sad-bravesThe Atlanta Hawks and Falcons have had their occasional shots at glory. The Falcons have a tradition of following up each good season with a terrible one. The gut-punch they suffered from the Patriots on Sunday night could set the franchise reeling for the next few years, if history is any indication.

Missouri Tigers

I could write a book—and have written a few blog posts—about the agonies of being a fan of “Ol’ Misery.” Truth is, following my alma mater hasn’t been all that bad. The Tigers have had several good football and basketball teams over the years. They’ve just never clawed their way to the top.

A lot of Mizzou fans like to drone on and on about how the program is cursed, as the Tigers have suffered more than their share of soul-crushing losses in football and hoops. However, Missouri athletics also raises far less money than the powerhouse programs in college sports, so dashed dreams seem to be built into the formula. The Tigers will have good teams again (they’re currently dreadful in both basketball and football), but championships are not very likely.

Kansas City Royals

They may never get credit for it, but the Royals pulled off one of the greatest miracles in baseball history by reaching the World Series in 2014 and 2015, and winning it all the second time around. The Royals are a small-market franchise with a limited payroll. Somehow, after decades of failure, they developed a home-grown team with incredible chemistry that came within one game of winning two straight world championships. The Chicago Cubs are America’s darlings for their 2016 title, but they spent a ton of money to get there. The Royals did it the hard way.

happy-royalsYou need to have endured the 29-year run of mostly horrible Royals baseball to appreciate how far the franchise has climbed. The Royals’ success in 2014-2015 made all that suffering worthwhile with a rare sports moment in which the underdogs finally came out on top.

Kansas City Chiefs 

Atlanta Falcons fans should be glad they don’t live in the football purgatory the Chiefs have inhabited for decades. The Hunt family, who have owned the team from its beginning, keep following the same risk-adverse formula: draft defenders, offensive linemen and the occasional running back, then sign a free-agent quarterback who lost his starting job at one of the elite franchises (49ers, Patriots). This approach has earned the Chiefs a few playoff appearances, but little more. The team has won exactly four playoff games since winning the Super Bowl in January 1970.

This spring, the Chiefs could trade up in the draft to get Clemson’s all-around superstar QB Deshaun Watson in the first round. I can’t wait to see which nose guard they decide to draft instead.

Army Football

My dad went to West Point, so I have always cared about the fortunes of Army (or, as Lou Holtz once stupidly called it, “The University of The Army”). All too often, the football Cadets have been bad–very, very bad. But, hey, they finally beat Navy last year and went to a bowl game, so hope springs eternal.

North Carolina Tar Heels

This is the one time I got it right in selecting a favorite team to follow. My mother’s family are all Tar Heels, and thank God for that. Carolina basketball won national titles in 1982, 1993, 2005 and 2009, and has appeared in many Final Fours. I only wish I liked Roy Williams just a little bit better. I’ve always thought he was a bit of a fraud.

Those are my sports fan misadventures, most of them grim. How about you? Do you have any teams you can’t help but pull for, though a little part of you dies each time they let you down?

If Life Were Like Facebook

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My wife woke me Friday morning with her usual greeting.

“You won’t believe what he did now,” she muttered.

Not bothering to answer, I lifted my phone from the bedside table, scrolled through my newsfeed, and found the article that was the source of this morning’s agitation: “Trump Moves Press Corps to White House Basement.”

I re-posted the article on my feed with a one-word introduction: “Ugh.” Then I hit the shower.

The drive to work was predictably slow, as traffic threaded past several rear-end accidents that were likely due to people posting updates and checking their “likes.” Self-driving cars can’t get here soon enough, I thought.

“Trump’s an idiot,” my coworker, Josh, declared as I settled into my office cubicle. “He is a horrible, horrible human being.”

“Yeah, I heard about the press corps,” I replied.

“No,” said Josh, dabbing his nose with a well-worn Kleenex. “I’m talking about the executive order declaring ‘God Bless the U.S.A.’ as the new national anthem.”

“Ridiculous,” agreed Kathryn, popping her head above the cubical wall, wide-eyed as a frightened prairie dog. “This has got to stop. Who voted for this guy?”

“I voted for him,” Adam said, swiveling his chair toward us. “And it’s time for a new anthem. Lee Greenwood has done a hell of a lot more for this country than Francis Scott Key ever did.”

“Great news!” Jenny said as she breezed past our row. “My daughter just got accepted to Stanford!”

“Good for her,” Josh said with a snort. “A college degree will mean a lot when we’re all working the salt mines for the Chinese.”

Multiethnic Group of People Socail Networking at Cafe

We went to lunch a little earlier than usual, it being a Friday and all. After posting pics of our entrees on our respective newsfeeds, we returned to lamenting Trump’s latest tweet about election fraud.

“I know, right?” the waitress chirped as she handed us a fresh basket of microwaved cheese bread. “He’s such a psychopath. Shaking my head!”

The afternoon dragged on at work, as it usually does, but I was proud of the 240-word post I wrote about freedom of the press and the looming national tragedy. By the time I left the office, it had garnered 24 “likes,” and seven “loves.”

Glancing down at my phone as I merged onto the highway, I never saw the Peterbilt truck that sideswiped my Prius, sending it rolling over a ditch and into the trees that lined the road.

I woke up hours—maybe days—later, in a hospital room bathed in sunlight.

“You hear what Trump did today?” a nurse asked as she checked my chart.

“I know,” my wife muttered, peering at her phone. “What did we ever do to deserve this crap?”

Stephen Roth is the author of the comic novel A Plot for Pridemore, which won the 2012 Ferrol Sams Award for Fiction.

Reconsidering Coach K

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mike-krzyzewski

When former N.C. State basketball coach Jim Valvano—the legendary and lovable “Jimmy V”—was undergoing cancer treatments at Duke University Hospital in early 1993, he formed an unexpected friendship.

Nearly every day, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski would walk from his team’s practices at Cameron Indoor Stadium to the hospital, where he would spend an hour or so with his one-time rival. The two coaches talked some basketball, but they mostly talked about life. They laughed and cried. Every day, when Krzyzewski walked into the hospital room, Valvano’s eyes would light up.

“What are we, chopped liver?” one of Valvano’s daughters joked outside the room as the two coaches rambled on about some Atlantic Coast Conference basketball game from years past.

Krzyzewski was at Valvano’s bedside shortly before he died. He would later describe those hospital visits with Jimmy V as a life-changing experience. “You and I became brothers during the last four or five months of your life,” Krzyzewski wrote in a postmortem letter to the man he had battled against in several crucial basketball games.

Coach K’s friendship with a dying Valvano is the heart and soul of The Legends Club, a new book by John Feinstein about the three most iconic basketball coaches in ACC history—Krzyzewski, Valvano and North Carolina coach Dean Smith. From 1980 through 1989, the three coaches squared off against each other two and often three times a season. The games between Krzyzewski and Smith continued until 1997, solidifying Duke-North Carolina as the most intense—and publicized—rivalry in college basketball. Many would argue that the 17-year period covered by The Legends Club represents not only the heyday of ACC basketball, but all of college hoops.

When I was growing up in Georgia in the 1980s, ACC basketball was the biggest thing going from January into March every year. I was a North Carolina Tar Heels fan because most of my mother’s family members were Carolina fans. I also liked Georgia Tech due to its proximity and exciting players like Mark Price, Bruce Dalrymple and John Salley. I liked N.C. State and Valvano, who could have easily been a stand-up comedian if he wasn’t such a damn good basketball coach.

I despised Duke. I didn’t like the Cameron Crazies—the smart-ass Duke student section that reveled in its creative ways of rattling opposing players. I detested Coach K with his angry scowl and his tendency to jaw at the refs throughout a 40-minute basketball game. Storming the sidelines in a dark, Richard Nixon-style suit, he seemed petty and mean. As many have pointed out before, Krzyzewski really does look a lot like the team’s pointy-eared Blue Devil mascot, except that at least the mascot is smiling.

The only time I can recall rooting for Duke was during its epic 1991 Final Four upset of UNLV, a team that somehow managed to act more obnoxious and entitled than even the smug brats who always played for Duke.

After reading The Legends Club, I am still not a fan of Duke, but I did come away with a greater appreciation of Krzyzewski. Despite his fiery nature and defensiveness even in the wake of winning five national titles, Coach K has many admirable qualities. The son of Polish immigrants, he rose from working class Chicago to attend West Point and serve in the Army. Three years into his tenure at Duke, he was nearly fired after back-to-back losing seasons. Krzyzewski probably would have been fired if that took place in today’s big-money, win-now sports culture. Instead, he is simply the winningest coach in college basketball history.

What fuels The Legends Club are several entertaining anecdotes about Smith, Valvano and Krzyzewski, their games and their personal interactions. Feinstein, a Duke graduate who covered ACC hoops in the 1980s, knows the territory well. He does a fine job of pushing aside the public images of all three coaches to reveal their humanity. Krzyzewski and Smith, for example, despised each other and had several clashes during heated Carolina-Duke tilts. In the end, however, they developed a mutual respect, if not a friendship.

Ultimately, The Legends Club is a Coach K book—perhaps because he has coached the longest and remains at the top of his profession. If you just can’t separate Krzyzewski from Christian Laettner stomping on a Kentucky player, or Grayson Allen’s many tripping incidents, this might not be the book for you. Or maybe it is? You may be surprised by the old coach’s many layers, beyond the dark-suited Blue Devil you see all the time on TV.

Six Reasons Why 2016 Was Not the Worst Year Ever

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Are you feeling sad about 2016? Are you dreading what 2017 might bring with an inexperienced, unpredictable president and several impending crises at home and around the world?

Well, cheer up! Unlike what you might have read in several media end-of-the-year roundups, 2016 was NOT the Worst Year Ever. Not even close. Here are six reasons why you should feel pretty good about 2016, as opposed to almost any other point in history. I have statistics to back me up:

  1. Worldwide Poverty. Despite what you might have read, the poverty rate has been in steep decline for decades. According to the World Bank, 42% of the world’s population lived on $1.90 a day (adjusted for inflation) in 1981. As of 2013, that percentage had plummeted to just 10.6%.
  2. Violent Crime. The amount of violence in the U.S. is unacceptable and has been on the rise over the past two years. Historically, however, the crime rate is much lower than it was a few decades ago. The FBI reports that the U.S. homicide rate in 2014 was 4.5 per 100,000 people, less than half of what it was in 1980, or even as recently as 1992.
  3. Road Fatalities. Seat belts, airbags and other safety measures have dramatically decreased the number of people who die each year in automobiles, even though there are more cars and trucks on the road today than ever before. In 2015 there were 35,092 motor vehicle deaths, 35% less than the number of traffic fatalities in 1972.
  4. Life Expectancy. Life expectancy in the U.S. is 78.8 years. That’s something worth celebrating when you consider that the average American was expected to live less than 70 years as recently as 1960.
  5. Medical Advances. Want a specific year that was definitely worse than 2016? Try 1918. Not only was World War I winding down, but American doughboys brought disease home after the Armistice. Somewhere between 20 and 40 million people died of a worldwide influenza pandemic in 1918, including 675,000 Americans. In 2016, by contrast, roughly 36,000 Americans died of flu-related illnesses. That’s just one example of how much medicine and our quality of life have improved in the past century.
  6. Technology. From smartphones to automated cars to drones that may soon deliver Amazon packages to your doorstep, this is a time of rapid innovation and technological change. As Louis C.K. hilariously points out in this routine, there are numerous advances we currently take for granted today that were not even available a few years ago. Sure, the growing presence of artificial intelligence is somewhat terrifying, but technology helped make 2016 an exciting time to be alive.

So there are your six reasons. Do you feel better? Probably not. We could be—and should be—doing a much better job of treating each other with kindness and addressing the world’s problems in practical ways. Still, barring an environmental or human-made worldwide disaster, 2017 will almost certainly not be the Worst Year Ever. Just like 2016 was not the Worst Year Ever—though it often seemed that way.

You Might Be a Redneck: A Review of “White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America”

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The timing of Nancy Isenberg’s new book could hardly have been better. When White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America was released this summer, Donald Trump had just clinched the Republican nomination, largely behind the support of frustrated, disenfranchised working class whites. Thousands of panicked liberals rushed to Amazon and Barnes & Noble, and bought Isenberg’s book, anxious to learn more about America’s so-called underclass and the role it might play in disrupting the Republic. The New York Times deemed the book “necessary,” and Oprah Winfrey’s O Magazine called it “eye-opening.”

I had high hopes for White Trash, even though the book’s full title is a little misleading. The story of poor whites in America is hardly “untold,” as evidenced by the 125 pages of footnotes and bibliographic information in the back of Isenberg’s book. It’s also not earth-shattering news that America has a class system modeled after England’s, and that the British settled the colonies with “lubbers,” “rubbish,” and other people they deemed expendable.

Still, I was anxious to read White Trash because I agreed with Isenberg’s assertion that economic and social class in America is largely overlooked by the media, as are the concerns of working class whites (until about five weeks ago, that is).

I expected a lively, thought-provoking read about the role of class and inequity in American history. Unfortunately, while some parts of White Trash were informative, I did not find the book to be particularly engaging. At times, I was also confused as to whom Isenberg considers to be “White Trash.” Are they mountain people living on government checks and procreating at will? Are they poor dirt farmers and land dwellers in the South? Are they blue collar workers in the Rust Belt? Are they middle-class “Bubbas” who try to stay true to their redneck roots? Is it all of the above?

Obviously, some of these groups are more disadvantaged and downtrodden than others. Isenberg at times lumps them all together in an effort to cover the full scope of rural, poor white culture. Elvis Presley, Bill Clinton and Tammy Faye Bakker are all famous but for very different reasons. Isenberg tries to stitch them and others together as symbols of the white underclass. She does not do this very convincingly.

In my mind, White Trash contains two parts. The first covers about 350 years of Colonial and American history, from the settlement of Jamestown by debtors and “waste people,” to Okies fleeing the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. This part of the book is very informative, though it sometimes suffers from the Isenberg’s dry, academic writing style. I found the chapter about the eugenics movement of the early 20th Century to be particularly interesting.

The second part of White Trash is basically a laundry list of pop culture fads, government assistance programs and colorful political figures of the past 80 years. At times, the writer seems disgusted by phenomenon like the Bakkers’ PTL scandal and the reality TV show, Here Comes Honey Boo-Boo. In another passage, she chides Hollywood and Deliverance author James Dickey for vilifying hillbilly culture. It is unclear at times whether Isenberg is defending or judging poor whites.

Isenberg has said in recent interviews that the main purpose of her new book is to debunk the myth of the “American Dream” and class mobility in the U.S. White Trash does make a strong argument that most Americans are stuck in the social class into which they are born. However, I think that message sometimes gets lost as the author attempts to cover more than 400 years of history in only 320 pages.

 

Runaway Hubcaps

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When I was younger, I would sometimes drive past a gleaming hubcap on the side of the road, and I would marvel at how that hubcap managed to come to a rest on its edge after careening off of some car or truck. Time and time again, I would see these hubcaps leaning against light posts and street signs. Funny how they always land that way, I thought.

Later, I reasoned that this phenomenon was the work of some Good Samaritans who had propped up the hubcaps so that their owners might spot them more easily.

I was probably about 35 when this finally dawned on me.

Trump’s First Tweets as President

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3:21 a.m., Jan 21 – So proud 2 be POTUS and lead this really, really great country of ours. Inauguration balls were phenomenal. Really wish Melania was here.

3:24 a.m. Jan 21 – Time for bed. Busy day tomorrow. We are going to get so much done. Good night, America!

7:36 a.m. Jan 21 – Very nasty editorial in the failing NYTimes today about my speech. WashPost no better. Nobody reads newspapers anyway.

7:57 a.m. Jan 21 – Really, really disappointed in CNN’s lies. We are going to do a number on them.

8:34 a.m. Jan 21 – Working very, very hard this morning!

9:23 a.m. Jan 21 – Just back from 1st security briefing as POTUS. Things worse than expected. Thank you, Obama!

9:34 a.m. Jan 21 – You would not believe what they tell POTUS in these security meetings. Sworn to secrecy, but you would not believe what they tell me.

9:39 a.m. Jan 21 – BTW, that Area 51 thing. Totally true!

9:45 a.m. Jan 21 – JFK assassination very interesting. Can’t say much, but do not believe what you have been taught in history class! #publicschoolsfail

9:51 a.m. Jan 21 – Also, Nixon may have been gay. Still a great president!

10:10 a.m. Jan 21 – First executive order! Rezoning land in Palm Springs for Trump Pacifica Hotel. Creating jobs for SoCal economy. More 2 come!

10:15 a.m. Jan 21 – Still thinking about security briefing. Tough times, but you are in good hands, America!

10:45 a.m. Jan 21 – Secret service wants my Android and Twitter account password. Never!

10:50 a.m. Jan 21 – VP Pence very annoyed with me. Such a good man. Hate when he gets angry. @realDonaldTrump going offline for now.

Donald Trump demonstrates his tweeting skills in his office at Trump Tower in New York, Sept. 29, 2015. Some say it took Trump’s unfiltered, type-anything style to fulfill what digital strategists have long predicted: a campaign built on social media. (Josh Haner/The New York Times)

Just Joking!

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squirrel-in-tree

After a few hundred attempts, my six-year-old son told a funny joke for the first time last night.

Here’s the joke:

Q: How do you catch a squirrel?

A: You act like a nut!

Our child has been trying for years to come up with a joke that will make us laugh. “Is that funny?” he’ll ask us after telling a silly, nonsensical knock-knock joke he just made up on the spot. We patiently explain to him that a good joke takes a little time and creativity. Perhaps he should start by memorizing a simple joke and tell that to his friends instead, we’ll gently suggest. We’ll also point out that if you have to ask your audience if a joke is funny, then it probably isn’t.

I know that the squirrel joke is not an original, but every young stand-up has to start somewhere, and our young son delivered the punchline with flawless timing. He is also very good at acting like a nut, so the humor fits his slap-stick comedic style.

The ability to make other people laugh is a formidable social skill and one our son already believes to be important. I hope his sense of humor continues to evolve. The world can be a pretty tough place if you don’t learn how to joke about it, and help others laugh along with you.