Thursday, March 29, 2007

We Have Traffic!

I discovered the most astounding thing this morning -- Peoria has traffic reports on the radio (Lite Rock 107 or whatever it is). I was absolutely delighted by this. Growing up in Chicago, every time we were heading for the expressway we'd turn on WBBM AM 780 to catch the traffic report and route plan on the fly, and the way they rattle all those numbers and names off at top speed I found very soothing and rhythmical. (I also liked the feeling of native superiority that I knew all the roads by their names rather than numbers, which makes the traffic reports almost totally useless to non-Chicagoans who don't realize all Chicago expressways have names.) Not that I liked the traffic. Just the traffic reports.

Since I left Chicago, I haven't lived anywhere really large enough to have traffic reports unless there was a major accident or something. So I was just charmed when I heard traffic on the radio this morning, even if they don't rattle it off quite so fast.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Memo to Self-Styled "Hottest Restaurant in Town": Counterfeit Buzz Is Not Buzz

... and being snide to your customers is not a good management strategy.

So I now think the management at Tavern on the Water needs a serious attitude adjustment. The water debacle was amusing, if annoying, but some of my friends went the other night and had an even weirder experience.

They had called somewhat last minute for reservations and were told they could be seated during a particular half-hour. (I forget when. For the purposes of this story, we'll pretend it's 6 to 6:30.) When they got there, they were told they'd have to wait until closer to 6:30 to 7. They were like, okay, fine, and went down to the bar, and they were having some cocktails and chat while they waited, not impatient, just chilling.

Then out of nowhere "one of the managers" comes down and announced to them (apparently in a snide tone of voice), "If you make last-minute reservations at the hottest restaurant in town, you're going to have to expect to wait."

I would understand it (as would my friends) if they'd been bitching about the wait, but they weren't, and even then it would still be bad customer service. They were just relaxing and enjoying their drinks and the dude appears out of nowhere to chastize them.

My friend and I both found the claim "hottest restaurant in town" to be devastatingly amusing, and not in a good way. First of all, if you have to say you're it? You're not it. Counterfeit buzz is not buzz. This does not make you cool. This makes you lame. Trying to create this whole aura of exclusivity and chic elitism is almost by definition trying too hard. It's like that girl in high school who was so desperate to be cool she abased herself before the popular clique but her very desperation automatically excluded her from ever joining. It's like friending everyone on MySpace in the desperate hope they'll friend you back.

So, Tavern, the food is good, the room is lovely, the waitstaff impeccable, but if your management remains so utterly determined to alienate customers in a desperate bid for buzz, it's not going to work out. Either the buzz or the customers.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Wiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii! And 3D!

Eyebrows got a Wii! Mr. McGee went and got me a voucher at the butt crack of dawn (which occurs at 9 a.m. on Sundays) so I could get my Wii. And I spent all Wiikend playing Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess instead of doing something productive. I have not been this excited about Zelda since I first met those Octoroks 20 years ago. (Seriously, can you believe the first Zelda came out 20 years ago???) My only complaint is that there are waaaaaaaay too many cinematics early in the game. And actually getting to slash at things with your sword/controller? Most satisfying video game experience EVER.

I did not realize the Wii was so petite, although I think it definitely marks me as a child of the digital era that I said, "Wow, that's no bigger than a 250 gig external hard drive!" Like everyone else my age, I mark the passage of time by the smallness of the gaming consoles and the increase in graphics capability. It makes me shake my head in wonder like people used to when calculators got all small.

Last weekend (which was, sadly, not yet a Wiikend), we went and saw 3D Mania at the Rave (out at Grand Prairie), which I strongly reccommend. It's this new 3D technology and several movies are coming out in it (Disney and Dreamworks are both using it) since your home theater is now cooler than the movie theater and theaters need to do something new to make you go back to the theater.

I am a sucker for 3D, which may date back to a childhood trip to Disney World when we saw Captain EO, which starred Michael Jackson when he was still cool, before he was a child molester and before all the unfortunate plastic surgery. I am the ideal 3D audience because even though I am 29 years old and I know it's not there, I still try to grab at the 3D objects and I duck when they come flying at me.

Anyway, 3D Mania is actually three short films (about 90 minutes total) -- 3D Mania, which gives a little history of 3D and shows off the new technology (the history part was actually really neat); then Haunted House, which is a first-person tour through a haunted house, except you're a cat; then Haunted Castle which is about rock stars making Faustian bargains with the devil to be famous. There's an intermission between the 2nd and the 3rd (in which the theater manager came and gave us all passes to thank us for coming to check out the new technology). The first two are fine for kids (Haunted House is Hallowe'en spooky -- things kids know aren't real and are meant to be scary), but Haunted Castle has a couple brief scenes of violence that are fairly PG-13, so you might take the kiddies and leave at intermission.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Master of the Gardenverse

I passed my final and I'm now an official Master Gardener .... intern!

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Unexpected Side Effects of the Gardening Bug

Now that we're becoming ubergardeners, I've lost a substantial part of my kitchen to the gardening bug, particularly to the hot peppers my husband is starting. He's got a good crop going there in the largest pots. In the round trays are the basils and chives I'm going to try as windowbox plantings in the front. Miscellaneous other plants are in the itty-bitty tray-pots.




But the point here is really that my kitchen dates to 1950 and I have hardly any counter space to begin with. Preparing dinner is now a daily adventure in the approximately two feet of counter space that remain to me.

The fridge is getting bad too, full of all kinds of seeds and bulbs awaiting the proper planting time. I sort-of miss that shelf.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Verily, Your Ethics Are Well-Aligned

Today I start teaching my ethics class at ICC, so in honor of that I offer my favorite story of wonky ethics, which is 100% true:

When I was living in Durham, N.C., I had a friend who was very morally uptight and fairly judgmental. All kinds of things you wouldn't imagine had moral implications would get her knickers in a twist about how evil they were, like getting a haircut she didn't like. (Seriously.) One night we were chatting with a couple other people and she was in quite a state.

"I'm getting the Playboy Channel through my cable! It's partly scrambled, but you can still see all kinds of ... things. They shouldn't even be allowed to show that filth on television. There should be a law against it! It's disgusting! It's immoral! What if a child saw it?"

"Friend," I asked her, "why don't you just call the cable company, tell them it's incompletely scrambled, and have them block the channel?"

"Because I'm getting cable for free and if I tell them, they'll cut it off or make me pay for it!" she replied. With no trace of irony whatsoever. None.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

It's Recruiting Season! Eyebrows Wants YOU ...


to join the Junior League.

"But EEEEEEEYEbrows," you whine, "that's all white-glovey and stuff. They'd make me wear skirts!"

Silly readers. This is the midwest, and Peoria's League is a midwestern League. We're very practical and not terribly concerned about image. Or white gloves. (Where do you even BUY those anymore?) In the last decade, the League has changed a lot. There are a lot more professional women in the League. People wear jeans to meetings. Once I even wore pajama pants without thinking twice about it, and then I felt all good about myself because another woman was wearing pajama pants too, except then I realized she was in scrubs and had come to the meeting right from surgery or something. And then I felt like a dork. But not about my pajama pants.

What exactly is the Junior League? I'm so glad you asked. Begun in New York City in 1901 by a debutante named Mary Harriman who rejected the excesses of the New York social set of the era and went to work on the Lower East Side in the tenement slums, improving children's health, nutrition, and education. She organized 80 other young debutantes to do the same. (Eleanor Roosevelt joined her in 1903.) In 1907 a Boston League was founded; by 1912, the League had a chapter in Montreal. (Were these women not terribly more useful than today's jet set celebutantes?)

Today there are more than 170,000 women in 293 Leagues in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, and the U.K.

There are two things that make the Junior League different from many other volunteer organizations: First, it serves as a project incubator, and second, it provides unparalleled training opportunities for volunteers. The latter, early League members realized, was crucial to a useful and efficient League, and for decades the League provided women with the kinds of executive and managerial training that men got in the workplace (while women were still at home). Many more of us today work and have those skills, but the League is still a fertile training ground. I've taken advantage of opportunities to learn a lot about grant-writing and fundraising in my two years as an Active member in the League, and I've learned a lot about project management. (There are opportunities for both formal and informal training in all kinds of arenas, which I won't detail here because this post is already long and going to get longer.)

As a project incubator, the League identifies a problem in the community, researches and develops a solution, implements it, makes the program self-supporting or self-sustaining, and hands it off to a community group that runs it from there on out (or spins it off into its own charity, as the case may be). This leaves the League free to apply its expertise to another problem -- and it means there's always something new to do.

Here in Peoria, the Junior League (our chapter was founded in 1936) has created a ton of programs you probably know about, but may not have known our involvement in. Its very first project was a dental dispensary for Peoria Public School children who couldn't afford dentistry, and the Leaguers actually trained as dental hygeniests to assist the dentist! We opened the first maternity center in Illinois in 1939, followed quickly by a Well-Baby Clinic. The League implemented District 150's vision and hearing screening program in the 50s (still going strong today); the Peoria Symphony Orchestra's Youth Concerts series was also founded by the League in the 50s.

Other projects we founded include the docent program at Lakeview, Race for the Cure in Peoria, TriCentennial and Riverfront playgrounds, Project Success, Keepsacks for Kids, and Family House (from the ground up, perhaps the biggest project our League had undertaken before our current museum project).

Our current major project, as I'm sure you're all aware, is the Peoria PlayHouse Children's Museum, and we're currently in our strategic planning phase looking at what we'll tackle next when we've built this museum.

The one thing I've not mentioned yet is that the Junior League is FUN. You meet a lot of like-minded women who care about the community. Make a lot of friends. Eat a LOT of food (oh, yum, the food!).

Today's League has no upper age limit; any woman over the age of 20 is eligible for membership. We have active members in their 40s, 50s, and I'm pretty sure 60s but I'm not going to ask because I might get smacked. (Also? Now that women are staying in the League longer, we have ever so much more free child labor available from teenagers and pre-teens. So useful.) Our "retired" members are known as "Sustainers" and remain involved in the League, providing support for members and projects (and more food). You don't have to live in Peoria -- just nearby, although "near" could be quite a distance if you don't mind the drive! You do not have to be married (heck, you don't have to be straight). You do not have to have graduated from a particular school or sorority. You do not have to own white gloves. And that's not empty platitudes -- we have women who are married, single, child-laden, childless, working, at home, in every job and profession you could imagine.

And I know most of you women will understand when I say that what I treasure most about the League is that there's NOT this whole "mommy wars" or "culture clash" thing going on -- it's the one place where I really feel like I have an opportunity to be friends with women who have chosen to have kids and work, have kids and stay home, not have kids whatsoever, and there's no judging and bitching and lifestyle superiority crap going on.

When I get excited about something, I always want to get everyone else excited about it too. It's part of my inborn nerdiness. I feel the urge to share the awesomeness. And the Peoria Junior League is definitely kick-ass. You will not find a better, more vibrant group of women in the Peoria area to involve yourself in. (And friendly. I joined when I was brand new to Peoria and Leaguers made sure to take care of me and help me find doctors and shopping and restaurants and so forth.)

So if you're an XX chromosome, think about it. Contact me at my social e-mail address -- lpetelle AT yahoo DOT com, or catch me on AIM with the screen name EyebrowsMG. I'll tell you anything you want to know, try my best to infect you with League Fever, and help you get the ball rolling.

If you're an XY chromosome, sorry about that, but I'd be just delighted to utilize your labor on our projects! (Ask Mr. McGee or PeoriaIllinoisan, both League husbands. We love man-help.)

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Tavern on the Water

We went to Tavern on the Water last night for my birthday (which is today, but I have a meeting), and it was very nice. Food was good, service was excellent, atmosphere in the "red room" was lovely, and it was surprisingly hopping for a Monday night.

Our only complaint was the same as the complaint in the PJS review: They ONLY serve mineral or sparkling water (at $3.50/bottle). The problem here is that Mr. McGee loathes mineral and sparkling water both, which I've been trying to break him of for years, and there's hardly anything IN Pelligrino, but he still thinks it's terrible and won't drink it. (And makes faces when I make him taste it.) So he asked for "just plain tap water." They don't serve it. "The thing is," I told the waitress, "he doesn't like either mineral or sparkling water." They still wouldn't serve him plain water. He ended up ordering a Sprite.

"It's one thing," Mr. McGee opined to me in an undertone, "to be pretentious. It's another thing to cling to your pretentions quite so tenaciously." Which nearly made me splort my $3.50 sparkling water all over him.

So while the overall experience was lovely, I don't think we'll be back unless they'll serve regular water. It's such a small thing, and it seems absolutely absurd that they refused to accommodate a customer on it. Sprite isn't really the beverage of choice for complimenting roast duck, nor did it go particularly well with our pinot noir. The whole thing was ridiculous.

EDIT: It just occurred to me, two hours later, that this would have been way funnier if I'd titled it "Tavern on the Water, sans Water." Oh well.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Spring!!! And Toys, Revisited

It's warm! It's sunny! We planted!

Soil took some serious work to get "worked" enough to plant, but we planted one of the small beds (4'x4') halfway, with a row of curly kale, row of spinach, row of Dragon Carrots, and two rows of radishes (Champion & French Breakfast), all veggies & varieties that want to go out "4 weeks before last frost, or as soon as soil can be worked." In two weeks I'll plant out the rows the rest of the way, because while kale is super-healthy (possibly the most nutrient-dense food per calorie -- check out it's super-nutritiousness) ... I just don't know how to eat that much kale at once.

Kale is one of the very few brassicas (cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, bok choi, etc.) that I'll eat. It's also awfully pretty as an ornamental planting. Kale is so terribly hardy that you can actually broadcast the seed over snow and let it melt down into the bed. (But we didn't do that. I need straight lines so I know where to weed.) It's sweeter and tastier if it gets a frost after it starts growing. It also turns the water a really, really lurid green when you cook it, way greener than spinach does.

My favorite kale dish is a Dutch dish called stamppot (mash pot) that I was introduced to by a friend visiting from the Netherlands. If you're official about it, you have to make it with the special Dutch sausage, but it works fine with summer sausage -- as long as you don't tell any Dutch people you made it with summer sausage.

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On the topic of toys that aren't electronic for the sake of being electronic, two catalogs I absolutely adore are HearthSong and Chinaberry, which both have toys that cater to the imagination and development of children. Frankly, I want to buy half the stuff in the catalogs for me, and when my goddaughter was young enough for me to shop these stores for her, it was a constant struggle not to do just that! Is Ravensburger still the best kids' game company ever? My godmother used to send them over from Germany and The Enchanted Forest was like my favorite game ever. And when I worked at a specialty toy store in high school, those were the premium games everyone wanted for their kids.

Friday, March 09, 2007

Electronics, Toys, and Why Dolls Don't Sell

I was directed to this article by CJ, about the inadequacies of electronic toys. I'm not against electronic toys per se (the article specifically highlights Simon, which I STILL think is fun, and I remember a Speak-and-Spell quite fondly), but I have long been puzzled by what exactly is the fun of many of these toys that makes them worth their often relatively outrageous prices. I have always found Teddy Ruxpin puzzling. You could put a book on tape in a tape recorder and hug a stuffed bear for probably less than half the cost. Or you could get a Teddy Ruxpin, have the tape recorder IN the bear, rendering it infinitely less huggable, and add creepy animatronics. If you haven't seen Tickle-Me-Elmo Extreme's seizure-like animatronics, you can check them out on YouTube. I hear from friends that most of the toddler target market finds these gyrations startling and unappealing.

Few of these toys use electronics in a constructive or useful way; mostly it's just to add literal bells and whistles (and blinky lights) to existing versions of toys. There are a few notable exceptions -- Lego Mindstorms, which is a ridiculously powerful robot building and programming "toy," leaps to mind -- that use electronics in constructive, interesting, imagination-growing ways. And I like those toys that are sort-of electronic versions of Jack-in-the-Boxes, where a toddler mashes a large button and is rewarded with something lighting up or playing music. Toddlers LOVE those. (And if you have a toddler, you know it, because your television remote control is exactly the same toy and it takes them all of two minutes to figure out if they face the TV and push random buttons, they will be rewarded with flashing screen, changing channel, noises, parental tantrums, etc.)

I'd been thinking about kids and toys lately anyway, having just read the American Psychological Association's Report on the Sexualization of Girls and I felt quite validated to discover that the APA shares my opinions on those terrifically creepy "Bratz" dolls -- or as a lot of parents call them behind their children's backs, the "Slutz" dolls, because wow, could MGA Entertainment be more explicit in its desire to tell its 4-to-8-year-old target market that shallow teenagers in trampy clothing are the pinnacle of feminine achievement and ought to be emulated in imaginative play? They even stand in suggestive poses, which is something particularly creepy when coming from a DOLL. What kind of seriously warped mind did it take to come up with sexualized dolls dressed as underage teenaged girls? There's something very wrong with a grown man who comes up with that, and I mean that quite seriously.

The New Atlantis article mentions Baby Alive, which has become progressively more complex and overprogrammed, and now announces to you that it "has a stinky." Even the voice on this thing is annoying, if you've seen the commercials, the sort of precocious little-kid voice that's like nails on a blackboard, like the kids Welch's prefers for its commercials.

All of which suggests to me that dollmakers, having been struggling for years to halt the slide in doll play in the U.S., don't actually understand what dolls are for. I've read that the age of doll play for girls has crept ever downward; in the early 20th century, it wasn't unusual for 14- and 15-year-old girls to still be playing with dolls, at least intermittently. Today, dolls are mostly "outgrown" by first grade (6 years old, for foreign readers). It's not because dolls aren't "sexy" enough (could that seriously be any more creepy as a goal of a toy?). It's not because dolls don't have fashionable enough clothing. Bob Mackie designs for Barbie, for heaven's sake. It's not because dolls don't have enough electronics. Baby Alive, at this point, is barely one step away from those "real baby" dolls they give teenagers in health class to discourage them from having actual babies, that scream and need feeding and changing and record it all to print out data for a grade.

It's really to do with cultural shifts. The purpose of doll play, by and large, is adult emulation. Children pretending to care for babies, the way their parents do. Today, families are smaller, so children don't see their parents engaged in child care nearly as often. Many more women work, so girls in particular have other options in "emulative" play. And, as the APA points out, girls are being forced into adult roles earlier and earlier. I also think it's telling that so many dolls today intended for play are also marketed as collectables (American Girl, Cabbage Patch Kids, Barbie, etc.), something that appeals to parents, or to older children wanting to have a better collection than other kids.

The New Atlantis article says:
“A lot of these toys direct the play activity of our children by talking to them,
singing to them, asking them to press buttons and levers,”
notes Kathy Hirsch-Pasek, co-director of the Temple University Infant Lab.
“I look for a toy that doesn’t command the child, but lets the child command it.”

Which is another reason why modern dolls sell poorly. Baby Alive tells you exactly what to do next. American Girl dolls, the real success story in the doll market for the last decade, are "just" dolls. (Dolls with terrifically expensive and well-marketed accessories, but still.) They don't DO anything. They're well-made cloth-and-porcelain dolls, whose only real "technology" is the closing eye when they lie down, which was patented in the U.S. by 1922. As such, they have nearly infinite scope for imagination. They don't DO anything, so they can do everything a child imagines. Children aren't limited or directed in their use. And American Girl has been terribly clever in expanding the market age back up by making these dolls with historical stories children can emulate, in addition to more traditional emulations with dolls, but American Girl doesn't force that use.

(Which is why I think, incidentally, that people making anti-Barbies -- dolls with traditionally male jobs, or Amelia Earhart dolls, or whatever -- are slightly misguided in their aims, in that all that their dolls are are anti-Barbies and will become as boring as quickly for girls. And as I don't see very many girls striving to emulate Barbie, I doubt owning a 12" Amelia Earhart dolls will make them strive to emulate Amelia Earhart. It's just another fashion doll. Besides, Barbie's been an astronaut.)

I wrote not long ago about my adventures in doll-clothes making, which I undertook for exactly the same reason little girls used to be taught to make clothes in doll-size: It wastes a lot less fabric when you're a beginner and screwing up all the time if you're making clothes for 16" tall people instead of 62" tall people. (You also finish a lot faster, and beginners at anything need a lot of "hey, I did it!" to get past the initial frustration!) The entire process reminds me a great deal of my primary childhood toy occupation, which was Legos. Read instructions, follow instructions, puzzle out the complicated parts of the instructions, and work with your hands to construct something, one step at a time, that starts out looking like a pile of bricks (or cloth) and ends up as a pirate ship (or dress). After a while, you learn the tricks and you can start building your own buildings, or creating your own patterns. (Which is where all the girls with the funkiest clothes in high school get them -- they make them.) I think if perhaps dolls had involved such a creative task when I was a child, I might have found them substantially more interesting, in a way that could be sustained over a period of time. Electronic doo-dads and collectability doesn't really achieve that; that sort of thing is fun for a while, but it gets boring quickly.

Electronic toys and dolls both are more interesting and useful to children when they give a broad, open scope for imagination and creativity. When adults get down on the floor with children to play, you usually find them constructing block towers or lincoln log houses, not fiddling with Tickle-Me-Elmo Extreme, because building block towers remains surprisingly satisfying into adulthood, if not quite the physical and intellectual challenge it was at age 3.

Tickle-Me-Elmo Extreme is cute, but it isn't going to have any lasting effect on the children playing with it (expect perhaps a lifelong aversion to animatronics that makes them refuse to go to Disneyland). Lego Mindstorms, however, is going to have kids programming primitive robots at age 10 and learning all kinds of computer programming and physics and robotics, much of it through experimentation, because they want to and it's play, not because they're being made to in school. Bratz dolls may satisfy an acquisitive, materialistic urge to own the latest thing, but a child learning to make a doll blanket for that same doll is using math and measuring skills and geometry* and learning to sew and create something, which is likely to be far more satisfying and interesting in the short term and useful in the long term than simply collecting dolls because their friends have them.

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*Yes, the answer to, "when am I ever going to use this in the real world?" for geometry is "in quilting." There's a terrifying amount of geometry involved. Also for using the pythagorean theorem to see if a piece of glass would fit into the opening on my hutch, but that was just because it never occurred to me I could have just measured the diagonal. With the same measuring tape I was using to measure the vertical and horizontal so I could mathematically figure out the diagonal. So I don't think that really counts.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Tailor?

Peggy asked if I have a good tailor, and the answer is I DON'T and I really need one. As I am only 5'2", I either have to wear 3" heels all the time (my usual option) or have every pair of pants I buy hemmed. The heels are great for dress pants, but in jeans it's a little annoying to be always rolling up the cuffs so I don't step on them. And on top of THAT, I've got a bridesmaid's dress coming that needs drastic alterations, so I am DEFINITELY in the market for an excellent local tailor.

Anybody got one?

Friday, March 02, 2007

Friday Clearance: Cirque, the Judge, & Fritch

Mr. McGee and I went to see Cirque du Soleil's "Delirium" yesterday, which was entirely awesome. I'd never seen Cirque before and it was super-cool. I will definitely see them again. The music and dance and story was neat, but the core of the show remains the acrobatics and aeriels, and they were fantastic. It was really interesting how they tied together the acts and moved smoothly from one to the next with dance and music and so forth.

My only complaint about the evening was that the couple on our right apparently thought they were in a bar, since they came to Cirque to get EXTREMELY DRUNK and TALK AT THE TOP OF THEIR LUNGS the entire time. The woman kept demanding to go by us to go get more liquor.

After the show we moseyed over to the Pere Marquette hotel bar to get a drink before heading home, to give the parking lots a chance to clear out. (Although I do note, Peoria, that of all the places I've lived, you are by far the kindest, best-behaved, and most efficient about clearing everybody out after a major arena event. People are very patient and very nice about letting others in front of them and moving it all along at a reasonable speed.) Right after we walked in, the couple that had been sitting/drinking next to us at the show stumbled in. I went to the bathroom, and while I was in there, the woman (who was far and away the drunker of the two), stumbled through the bathroom door, staggered face-first into a wall, looked around in confusion, and stumbled back out. Ooooooooookay.

They were still drinking when we left the bar.

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Mr. McGee went into court the other day, and the judge said, "Why aren't you wearing your fedora? I read all about on your wife's blog!"

I laughed and laughed and laughed when he related this to me. I feel a little bad, because Mr. McGee is a very private person and he's married to, well, me. Everywhere he goes people say, "Oh, I know your wife!" or "Oh, I read your wife's blog!"

"I'm sorry, dear," I said to him, still laughing. "But just imagine how bad it would be if we had the same last name and everyone could TELL we were married!"

(And shout-out to the judge: Hey, judge!)

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I like to mention businesses that do me a good turn, like Fred the Shoe Savior (who most recently rescued my favorite $80 high-heeled loafers for which I paid $35 probably 6 years ago and put another 4 or 5 years on them by reheeling them beautifully. For $8.) and Troy the Cat-Loving Plumber. It can be really hard to find good people to do business with, so when I discover one, I want to do my best to send them business and give them kudos.

So for heating and cooling, I whole-heartedly urge you to call Fritch Heating and Cooling, who just did my yearly furnace service and have been helping me with the squirrel/fireplace problem with my chimney. The weather keeps foiling our efforts, but the front office has been totally helpful in scheduling, and rescheduling, and rescheduling to get a guy out here to barricade my chimney.

The daughter of the owner lives a couple houses down from me, and was actually one of my very first friends in Peoria, so I'm fond of them for other reasons as well. But I basically deal with the women in the front office, whom I don't know, and the service techs, whom I don't know, and I could not get better service if every time I called I announced, "I KNOW YOUR BOSS!" I've had to have them out for an after-hours emergency (heating kicked out when it was below freezing, after 5, something to do with the blower, IIRC) and they were here within the hour (and at a very reasonable price, I have to say, for after-hours).

The daughter and her husband keep evangelizing me about getting a more efficient furnace (mine's only 80% efficient *sob*), so if you're looking at upgrading your HVAC with the rising electricity costs (or you just want to deal with honest and competent HVAC service for your yearly servicing), call Fritch.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Cowards and Threats and the Areopagitica

There's a wealth of metaphor waiting to be mined here about knights and King Arthur and slaying dragons and whatnot, but what it comes down to is this:

Some coward, doubtless in possession of a very tiny penis (and probably either a very large stereo of very ridiculous car to compensate), left a threatening note on Knight in Dragonland's door with the implication "I know where your family lives and I can get to you."

Anyone who works in media for any length of time gets familiar with these notes. Once I wrote a column for Notre Dame's student newspaper and -- get this -- some radical pro-lifers organized an intimidation campaign against me because I WAS NOT PRO-LIFE ENOUGH. I wrote objecting to the student pro-life group unwittingly turning up at an event sponsored by a group that supported the clinic bombings and sniper-shootings of doctors that was then going on, and said that aligning yourself, even accidentally, with people who held so little regard for life undermined the pro-life message and put the group in a very bad light.

The student group itself didn't actually object. (In point of fact, I had a very nice sit-down with their president and we became good friends; she later crashed at my apartment when she was visiting Duke looking at graduate schools.) It was a local chapter of a Catholic mostly-lay organization that was banned from campus (some years before I got there) after some crazy-ass cult-related hijinks and maintained a house near campus from which to launch their operations on campus. Mostly cult recruiting tactics. I am seriously still scared of these people but I'll tell you they got a shout-out in the Da Vinci Code and weren't any too pleased about it.

At any rate, they organized an intimidation campaign against me, which basically consisted of calling my phone all day and all night, all the time, and screaming "BABY KILLER!" whenever anyone picked up, and sending threatening letters to my office at the newspaper and my dorm room. A couple of them followed me around campus and one disrupted a couple of my classes (I really don't know what that was meant to accomplish).

Like many cowards who turn to intimidation because they're completely incapable of forming coherent arguments or participating in a full and free discussion, they weren't any too bright and made the calls from their chapterhouse without blocking the caller ID function. The notes went to the campus cops and the phone company blocked the number.

My charming little intimidators eventually got bored and gave up. It scared me a little bit, but I suppose it was fortunate I'd written somewhat more gently controversial columns in the past (typically on male-female relations and dating), so I'd had some experience with people who had no boundaries or manners whatsoever and I was fairly confident it was all talk and it would blow over.

What particularly annoys me about these people is that they typically claim you are un-American (or un-Christian, depending on the topic), which is really another way of saying, "I'm going to make emotive rhetorical statements because I am not actually capable of putting words in a coherent logical order to support my assertions." This makes me want to throw things at people -- do you honest to God live in the same COUNTRY I do? Do you really, seriously think that you are somehow STRENGTHENING the United States by trying to terrify people out of using their First Amendment rights to talk about controversial issues in general and political issues in particular? DID YOU MISS THE ENTIRE FOURTH GRADE?????

I seriously do not understand how people who claim to be patriots can spend so much damned time spitting on the Bill of Rights. I really don't think that you understand what being an American means if you think it has anything to do with cutting off vigorous speech in the public square. There was this thing? Called a Revolution? About oppression and lack of citizen participation in government? Maybe you've heard of it?

When this kind of thing happens, I turn to John Milton's Areopagitica. (In fact I am frequently tempted to mail a complimentary copy to people in positions of power who take it upon themselves to shut others up.) Areopagitica is really the foundation for free speech rights in Anglo-American thought. Milton argues -- brilliantly -- that free speech is crucial to both good governance and good religion. Suppressing heresy or dissent, Milton argued, actually gives it credence and makes it sexy (only Milton didn't say it "makes it sexy" being from, you know, the 17th century), and gives the impression your own position is weak. It all comes down to this passage:

And though all the winds of doctrine were let loose to play upon the earth, so Truth be in the field, we do injuriously, by licensing and prohibiting, to misdoubt her strength. Let her and Falsehood grapple; who ever knew Truth put to the worse, in a free and open encounter? Her confuting is the best and surest suppressing.

If you hold to that one thought, that one idea, from the Areopagitica, it's amazing how many debates it will guide you through. It's astonishing how often one side of a debate turns to strategies that confuse the truth -- emotional appeals, exaggeration, straw men, and, yes, threats and suppression and censorship. Moreover, when someone tries these tactics with you, you can be pretty sure they think you're an idiot; whenever I get a donation appeal letter or a campaign mailing with all those scary emotive words in bold or italics or in a REALLY LARGE FONT or Capitalized at Random like an A.A. Milne book, I get absolutely infuriated, even when I agree with the cause. Do they seriously think their own arguments are so weak they have to use loaded language, emotional appeals, and a festival of font faces? Do they really think I'm so moronic I can't judge the arguments on the matter for myself?

All of which is to say to Knight in Dragonland, that's one grade-A Constitution-hatin' coward you've got there, and whatever his opinion is, we can be pretty sure it's wrong, because he's too scared of the "free and open encounter" to take part in the debate. Instead he picks the sneaky, snakey ways of Falsehood that fears Truth and tries to suppress it.

So this doctor's orders (that'd be a juris doctor) are to go curl up with a mug of hot tea and a copy of the Areopagitica, Knight. Better than asprin for this kind of headache, I promise.