Five Classic Comedy Movie Reviews for These Delicate, Sensitive Times

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Animal House (1978)

Unrelenting hedonism and misogyny are the electives of choice for members of a 1960s college fraternity. School administrators try heroically to discipline the Delta Tau Chi house, but to no avail. A juvenile prank leads to the untimely death of a horse, several women are tricked into disrobing, and a pledge commits adultery with the college president’s spouse. “Animal House” is an apt title for a movie in which there is no empathy or respect for rules, rights, and human dignity.

Dumb and Dumber (1994)

Two developmentally disabled men take a cross-country road trip. One of them has an unhealthy crush on a mysterious woman who has left a suitcase at the airport. Trigger Warnings: subject matter includes frozen mucus, bowel control issues, bad haircuts, a lethal amount of chili peppers, and a fatal attack on a rare owl species.

There’s Something About Mary (1998)

There’s something chilling about an unstable man who exposes himself to his prom date’s parents, becomes obsessed with the young woman, then appears near her Florida home several years later. Ben Stiller stars as a man who spins a web of lies to get closer to the unwitting object of his desire. A cautionary tale about those who fall through cracks of our flawed mental health system. Trigger Warning: viewers who care about hygiene may be troubled by the “hair gel” scene.

Talladega Nights (2006)

Rural stereotypes abound in this crass tale of stock car driver Ricky Bobby’s fall from grace. A European rival, played by Sacha Baron Cohen, tries to teach Ricky Bobby a lesson about tolerance and sportsmanship, but is instead ridiculed for leading an alternative lifestyle and for being French. An explicit scene in which a dinner prayer is parodied for cheap laughs may be offensive to some viewers.

The Hangover (2009)

Four white males exercise their privilege by booking a lavish bachelor party weekend in Las Vegas. Not satisfied to simply reflect on life and enjoy each other’s company, the friends quickly become inebriated and encounter a range of dubious adventures that include animal cruelty, Asian stereotypes, excessive use of a Taser, and an agitated and possibly violent Mike Tyson. Finally, the Vegas getaway is scheduled one day before the groom’s wedding, a plot device that perfectly captures male indifference to relationships and long-term commitments.

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So Much More Than a Pet

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The cartoon above by Pearls Before Swine creator Stephan Pastis ran in newspapers a few months ago, and instantly struck a chord with many folks who have loved and lost an animal who was more a member of the family than just a pet.

I’m sharing the cartoon today because my family recently said goodbye to Keiko, our English Shepherd mix who provided us with so much joy, affection and wet-nosed kisses over 14 years. Keiko was a constant in our lives through job changes, a move across town, heart-breaks and triumphs, and more than a dozen brutally hot Midwestern summers. During her lifetime, Keiko endured two pet cats, her humans’ hectic work schedules, and various yapping little dogs in the neighboring yards. Meanwhile, we tolerated bare patches in the backyard, the constant shedding of dog hair around the house, and the occasional “gift” in the corner of the basement when Keiko couldn’t quite make it outside in time.

Like Edee in Pearls Before Swine, Keiko was a gentle, nurturing dog that neighborhood kids often approached for a quick scratch behind the ears. In more than nine years, she never once growled or snapped at our son, despite the tugging, pulling, and errant karate kicks little boys sometimes inflict on pets. In fact, Keiko was very protective of our child. From the time we brought a three-day old infant home from the hospital, Keiko would bark and growl at any stranger who approached our doorstep, perhaps knowing how much this little baby meant to us. In a way, he was her baby, too.

For me, Keiko was an enthusiastic walking companion, even on days when the thermostat dipped into the teens or soared above 90. For my wife, Keiko was a tricolored shadow, following her from room to room, especially the warm bathroom on cold winter mornings, or the kitchen, where there was usually a pretzel cracker to enjoy.

Like the beloved pooch memorialized in Stephan’s cartoon, Keiko had cancer, and we had to put her to sleep. The staff at the veterinarian’s office were almost as heartbroken as we were. A few days later, they sent us a sympathy card with an image of a dog bounding across the Rainbow Bridge. Fourteen-year-old dogs affect a lot of human lives.

Does a Rainbow Bridge exist? I’d like to think it does. It would be nice seeing Keiko again. The house seems emptier now. Walking the neighborhood sidewalks without holding her lease feels strange. Even our son, who complained of having to let Keiko out several times a day to go pee in her later years, claims that he misses her. I even miss–at least a little bit–vacuuming the downstairs and pulling up gobs of black and white Keiko-hair from the medium-pile carpet.

Our hearts are a little broken right now, and it could be a while before we welcome a new animal into our family. There’ll be no replacing our soft, sweet companion of more than 14 years.

Rest in peace, Keiko.

Keiko, in her younger years.

Cooling off with a friend.

Love Songs for Social Media

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“Zuckerberg Knows” (to the tune of “God Only Knows”)

I may not always friend you,
but I got some baby pics to send you.
And did you hear what Trump said?
Just check out my latest post thread.
Zuckerberg knows how I feel about you.

If you should dare unfriend me.
Who knows how that would upend me?
So just click on a smile emoji,
for my post about Ben Kenobi.
Zuckerberg knows how I feel about you.

“Just the Google+” (to the tune of “Just the Two of Us”)

I get the feeling no one’s here
and what makes that cool, my dear,
is I got this place to myself.
A social network of my own
and the seven friends I’ve known.
They don’t hang here anymore.

Just the Google+
That’s where I like to jam.
Just the Google+
(Just the Google+)
Just the Google+
You can keep your Instagram!
Just the Google+
It’s who I am.

“I Had to Add You” (to the tune of “It Had to be You”)

I had to add you.
I had to add you.
I networked around and finally found
that connection who
could help me get paid
and then maybe get laid
and even be sad
just to be glad
LinkedIn was made.

Some folks on LinkedIn
connect just for grins.
They don’t really aim
for fortune or fame.
What world are they in?

For nobody else could get me a job.
Without your clout, I’d be a slob.
I had to add you,
wonderful you.
I had to add you.

“The Tweet of My Life” (to the tune of “The Time of My Life”)

Now, I’ve had the tweet of my life,
and I’ve never wrote this way before.
Yes, I swear
it’s the truth
and I owe it all to booze.

I just had a Jack & Coke
and about a dozen whiskey shots.
And now that I’m online,
well, you know I’ve gotta share my thoughts.

Yeah, there’s trouble all around,
You know, North Korea and all that stuff.
And my ex is on the prowl,
thinking that she’ll call my bluff!

Just remember–
Tweetin’s the one thing
I can’t get enough of.
So in 280 or less characters,
I’ll spread the love.

Because, I had the tweet of my life…

Daylight Savings Time is Stupid

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The Florida legislature got a lot of attention this week for passing a few gun control measures in the aftermath of the horrific February shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland.

Florida lawmakers did something else of note this week, too: they voted to get rid of Daylight Savings Time with the passage of the “Sunshine Protection Act.” If the law is approved by the federal government, Florida residents will no longer move their clocks one hour forward or backward twice a year like most of the rest of the U.S. population (Arizona and Hawaii do not observe Daylight Savings Time). The Sunshine State would get an extra hour of sunshine during the evenings throughout the year.

What a great idea.

This Sunday, however, most Americans will “spring forward” one hour without thinking much about why this is even necessary. Why do we change the clocks in the spring and fall, anyway? What are the benefits?

Turns out, there really aren’t any. This article from Smithsonian.com provides a CliffsNotes version of the 100-year history of Daylight Savings. The original idea was that adding one hour of daylight to most peoples’ awake time during the spring and summer months would conserve energy used to light houses and buildings. This turned out to be true. However, the time change also led to Americans consuming more gasoline by driving their cars to parks and other outdoor attractions during daylight hours. In other words, Daylight Savings Time was found to increase energy consumption rather than reduce it.

That didn’t stop the government from forcing the entire nation to adopt Standard and Daylight Savings Time in a 1974 effort to ward off an energy crisis. As some of you older folks may recall, we still had an energy crisis in the 1970s, despite the time changes.

Who has benefited the most from Daylight Savings Time? Retailers and the golf industry. When there are more daylight hours, people tend to stay out longer and spend more money. Which begs the question: why not just make Daylight Savings Time the standard and get rid of the time changes?

Perhaps most dispiriting is that a majority of people don’t seem to like having to change their clocks twice a year, yet we numbly comply with it, as if it is a reality of life instead of just bad government policy. Here in the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave, we keep our heads down, don’t ask questions and grumble about losing daylight, or giving up an hour of our weekend. We put up with it instead of wondering how we can change it.

There is hope, though. Maybe in this new age of political activism, Daylight Savings Time, along with many other bad ideas, will finally fade into the sunset.

Five Reasons Why It is Time to Return President Camacho to the White House

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Mike Judge’s 2006 film, Idiocracy, offered a grim take on the future. The United States of 500 years from now, the movie predicted, will be populated by mentally inert people who speak a crude mix of hillbilly and hip-hop.

Idiocracy got it all wrong, of course. Turns out it only took only 10 years—not 500—for the country to plunge into utter stupidity. Some of the more shocking scenes from Idiocracy—the crumbling highway infrastructure, the refusal of some people to leave their TVs to even use the bathroom—seem almost quaint now. Even the movie’s commander-in-chief, a former pro wrestler/porn star named President Dwayne Elizondo Mountain Dew Herbert Camacho, is immensely appealing by today’s political standards.

In fact, if Camacho decided to make a run for the Oval Office in 2020, I could totally get behind that. Here are five reasons why Idiocracy’s president, as it turns out, wasn’t so bad:

  • He gets out of people’s way and lets them do their jobs. When word gets around that Luke Wilson’s time-traveling character, Joe—a man of average intelligence in 2006—now has the highest IQ on the planet, President Camacho immediately appoints him Secretary of the Interior. He tasks Joe with solving the country’s food shortage—and gives him one week to do it.
  • He is a unifying force. President Camacho’s charisma and tendency to fire automatic weapons toward the sky during join sessions of Congress seemed to have bipartisan appeal among the Americans in Idiocracy. Now more than ever, we could use a president like Camacho who can bring people together.
  • He knows he’s not the smartest person in the room. When Joe suggests that the nation’s crops are dying because they are being irrigated with a sports drink called Brawndo, the president heartily supports Joe’s plan to switch to water. Of course, when Brawndo’s stock plummets and mass layoffs ensue, the president sentences Joe to death in a monster truck demolition derby.
  • He admits his mistakes. Despite his bravado, President Camacho is not above admitting when he has been wrong—a trait several recent U.S. Presidents seem to have lacked. When the nation’s food supply is rescued by water irrigation, President Camacho enthusiastically gives Joe a full pardon and appoints him vice president.
  • He’s good in a crisis. How many presidents can say they kept the United States from starving to death? Camacho may be a former porn star and pro wrestler (as opposed to a certain president who slept with porn stars and starred in the Worldwide Wrestling Foundation), but he proved smart enough to steer the country through a major crisis.

    I’m willing to bet he can do it again.

The 9 Most Impactful Pieces of Clickbait on LinkedIn Today

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Do you spend some of the workday scrolling through LinkedIn? You’ve probably seen the following blog articles (or something similar) pop up in your news feed a few thousand times:

The Magic of “Friendly:” How Being Nice Can Shorten Your Sales Conversion Cycle

The Grass IS Greener: 11 Arguments for Quitting Your Job Today

The Three Things You Do That Make Coworkers Hate You

What [Warren Buffet/Bill Gates/Elon Musk] Says About [Company Culture/Innovation/Win-Win Situations]

How Smart People Work Fewer Hours, Get More Done and Have Less Blotchy Skin

What [Steve Jobs/Winston Churchill/Mother Theresa] Understood About [Brand Management/Outside-the-Box Thinking/Building a Better Sales Team]

Eight Mistakes Parents Make That Keep Children from Becoming Strong Leaders

How the Best Middle Managers Navigate their Way to Zero Accountability

Six Ways to Detach Yourself While Firing a Direct-Report

Four Reasons “Three Billboards” Falls Flat

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With less than a month to go until the Academy Awards, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri appears to be the favorite to win “Best Picture” and several other categories.

That’s surprising, because it’s not that great a movie.

I watched Three Billboards on Saturday, filled with hope and anticipation from the glowing reviews I had read about the film. I don’t make it out to very many “adult” movies these days, so I’m selective in what I go see. Three Billboards, buoyed by all those Golden Globes and plaudits from film festivals, had been on my “to-watch” list for a while.

Sorry to say, I left the local multiplex disappointed and a little confused on Saturday night. What was it I had just witnessed? Was this story about a grieving mother’s battle with the local authorities a comedy or a drama? What was this movie trying to say, and why was it getting raves from vaunted quarters like The New Yorker and The Atlantic?

After taking some time to think it over, I believe Three Billboards doesn’t deserve the Oscar buzz or the 93% reviewer rating on RottenTomatoes.com. Here are four reasons why (warning—some spoilers ahead):

It is About Everything—and Nothing

Three Billboards touches on a lot of issues—child murder, race relations, cancer, domestic abuse, sexual predators, alcoholism, religion and, I guess, the decline of small town life. That’s an awful lot to cram into a two-hour movie. As a result, Three Billboards only glosses over most of these topics. A cop is accused of torturing an African-American suspect, but it’s only mentioned in passing. A priest is quickly shamed for the Catholic Church’s sex scandals, and never shows his face again. There are a couple of musings about human existence and the afterlife, but nothing deeper than that.

This everything-but-the-kitchen sink approach by screenwriter Martin McDonagh makes it hard to discern what the movie is about. If Three Billboards is supposed to be such an important film, as many have claimed, what message is the viewer supposed to walk away with, other than life is chaotic and often tragic?

The Hero is Completely Unlikable

It should be easy to empathize with Frances McDormand’s character, Mildred Hayes. She’s a hard-working single mom who’s suffered an unspeakable tragedy with the murder of her daughter. The problem is, Mildred is so angry, so confrontational and so crass, she inspires more fear than sympathy. She’s not just mean because of her child’s death, either—a flashback reveals that Mildred was just as thorny and abrasive before the murder happened.

Despite her take-no-prisoners approach, Mildred is also weak. She cowers during a scary encounter with a predator who may have been her daughter’s killer. She doesn’t even report the incident to the police. In fact, Mildred does nothing throughout the entire film to help solve the crime. Ebbing is a small town—wouldn’t Mildred have some theories about the killer’s identity? Rather than spend all her money on those three billboards, why not hire a private sleuth to investigate the case? Instead, Mildred takes the approach that will draw the most attention to Mildred. That makes her a colorful character, and provides a clever premise, but it doesn’t make Mildred the least bit relatable.

There is No Sense of Place

As one New York Times writer put it, Ebbing, Missouri is every bit as fictional as Narnia. It’s an Ozarks town with the buildings and landscape of western North Carolina (where the film was shot). The police force works in an old, storefront station house straight from The Andy Griffith Show. Police Chief Willoughby and his cohorts strut menacingly around downtown like Hitler’s stormtroopers, and everyone in Ebbing cusses like the sales team on Glengarry Glen Ross.

As someone who grew up in a city of less than 25,000, I see very little in Ebbing, Missouri that seems like an authentic American town. People in small towns have their problems and their prejudices, but don’t tend to wear them in on their sleeves like the denizens of Ebbing. Most small-town people are not dull-witted yokels, as many of the Ebbing folks are portrayed. Also, a lot of people in small towns attend church and go out of their way to be polite. They don’t swear nonstop like sailors, and they tend to think less of people who do.

The Characters are Often Out-of-Character

Woody Harrelson’s Chief Willoughby is a smart cop, a decent man and the best-drawn character in Three Billboards. For some reason, though, he has placed his faith in Officer Dixon, one of the most bumbling, corrupt lawmen to appear onscreen since The Dukes of Hazzard was canceled.

That’s one example of the inconsistencies almost all the key characters display. Officer Dixon, a relentless bully for 90 minutes, makes an about-face and becomes a hero in the film’s final half-hour. Mildred, so nasty in almost every other scene, presents an old tormentor with a bottle of champagne instead of hitting him over the head with it. Finally, and most absurdly, a local ad man who’s pistol-whipped within an inch of his life shares an orange juice in the hospital with the guy who beat him up.

When Hallmark moments like these pop up from the crude and deeply flawed people of Ebbing, it makes me wonder what kind of film Three Billboards is trying to be. Is it a darkly comic, free-wheeling romp, like some of the best works of Quintin Tarantino and the Coen Brothers? Or does the movie aspire to make an Important Statement about America?

The serious moments of the film, so jarring in their earnestness and sentimentality, make me believe Three Billboards aims for something lofty. That is why, in my opinion, it ultimately fails.

Children’s Books for the Age of Trump

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Got an eager, young reader in your home? These new titles will entertain and enthrall, while heightening your child’s awareness of the current geopolitical climate.

We Survived the Government Shutdown of 2018

Jake and Sophia haven’t seen their dad in four days. He’s on Capitol Hill, trying to hash out a deal with his fellow senators to reopen the federal government. Democrats and Republicans can’t seem to agree on anything, but Jake and Sophia have an idea about immigration reform that just might end the shutdown—at least for a couple of weeks.

Fantastic Beasts and the Women Who Work for Them

Julie is young, smart and has a promising career at the headquarters of a major corporation. Her only problem is the VP of marketing, who uses his power to lure Julie into his corner office with the shades drawn. Does Julie stand up to this creep, risking her shot at landing a coveted middle-management role? What follows is an important lesson for youngsters who have the ill-informed notion that the adult world is fair.

To the Edge of the World in 80 Days

All her life, Samantha has been told that the earth is round. She never questioned it until she became old enough to have her own social media account. Now, Samantha is on a quest to prove the world is flat, with a daring plan to ride her bicycle until she tumbles over the edge into nothingness.

The Giving Spree

This timeless parable about loyalty and love involves a rich man and the United States Congress. The man goes to Congress in the 1980s and early 2000s, asking for tax reforms that benefit the wealthy. Each time, Congress dutifully meets his demands. Finally, in 2017, the rich man—now an elderly billionaire—asks a weary Congress for one last tax break. Will Congress say yes, adding $1.5 trillion to the national debt? The conclusion is sure to bring a tear to your child’s eye.

Tales of a Working Class Nothing

Peter is having a rotten year. His younger brother, Farley, has a computer science degree and now gets all the attention as a highly paid programmer. Meanwhile, Peter has been working carpentry jobs with a bad back since getting laid off by the local automotive plant. There is hope for the future, though: Peter stands to save $400 on his 2018 taxes, thanks to the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act.

Choose Your Own Adventure: Tweeting with Kim Jong Un

You’re president of the world’s largest economy with a massive nuclear arsenal at your fingertips. However, the leader of some upstart rogue regime halfway across the world wants to start trouble on social media. Infuriated, you take to Twitter, but be careful! Your next 280 characters or less could spell a quick end for humanity.

Donald Jr. and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Deposition

Donald Jr. has 24 hours to prep for what’s sure to be a crummy interrogation from the special counsel on what he knows about the Russians. Join our hero as he and his lawyers pore over thousands of pages of documents, and Don Jr. wonders aloud if it’s okay to ask his dad for a presidential pardon.

Oh, The Places You People Will Go!

This illustrated classic follows the adventures of an immigrant family that has lived in the United States for 20 years but now faces an uncertain future. Will they be deported? Can their children stay in the U.S.? How will the courts rule? What will the government do? Meanwhile, in a different neighborhood across town, a white-collar, politically moderate family seriously considers moving to Costa Rica.

Breakfast with The IHOP Five

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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.”

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.