H'rumphs

The Choice

In just a few short months you'll wake up on a crisp Tuesday after the first Monday in November and do your part to dramatically affect the course of history. That's the day you discover your mortgage check sitting on the kitchen counter, behind the toaster, and it's already a week late (and possibly a little dark and crispy). So you'll frantically rush to the post office to send the bill by overnight mail, which will be delivered within the next calendar week, unless you express the slightest irritation at having waited in line for an hour. (Then your envelope would go in to the "special box.")

After all that, you will probably remember something about the democratic process and your civic duty to make your voice heard in the presidential election. In a moment of poignancy, you'll recall the impassioned belief of our forefathers that even a single vote can make a difference. And then you'll laugh and laugh, because of course it doesn't make a difference, silly!

But what the heck, you're already up and dressed anyway. Plus, you don't want to make up some story to your co-workers about how crowded the polls may or may not have been, depending on whether you did or did not vote, and then, on that basis, have them accuse you of making up the whole story just to take off work. (Are you following this?)

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Sojourners Magazine July-August 2000
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Driving Miss Crazy

There comes a time in every man’s life when he has to begin a sentence with a really bad cliche. This is one of those times. You see, words are not coming easy to me these days. And when I do speak, I seem to be talking in gibberish, running my words together in a strange new dialect:

"YOU’REGOINGTOOFAST!" I’ll say, seemingly at random. Or I’ll blurt out "STAYINYOUROWNLANE!!"

Or even, "WATCHTHECURB!"

And I’m talking louder than I used to, as if I were trying to alert someone far away. An ambulance, perhaps.

It’s just a coincidence, of course, that this only happens when I’m in a car being driven by my 16-year-old. While technically still a child, she has earned the right to drive our 2,500-pound minivan because she passed the District of Columbia’s grueling written test, a test specifically designed to weed out incompetent drivers through the use of such demanding questions as:

  • What is your name?
  • What is your address?
  • Do you have $14?

By law, she cannot operate the vehicle alone. For the safety of others on the road, she is required to have a frightened and babbling adult in the car with her. And since I say things like "LOOK OUT!" with less emotion than my wife, the family has chosen me for this task. (Our thoughtful 14-year-old generously offered to take my place, so that we parents could "just relax at home," but we declined.) And so we drive, every day, through the nation’s capital, negotiating its mean streets, avoiding potholes and drunken diplomats (both of which are immune from prosecution), and, above all, trying to minimize the number of pedestrians we knock over in the crosswalks.

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Sojourners Magazine May-June 2000
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Animal House

This is the second issue of the New Millennium, a time period which, I believe, has way too many consonants. But overlooking that for the moment, this issue of the magazine provides a unique opportunity to establish a record for those historians who, a thousand years from now, will dust off the Sojourners archives from the year 2000 and try to get a better understanding of why, for example, we didn’t outlaw telemarketers when we had the chance. (Year 3000 audio-clip: "Good evening Mr. [your name]. We are telepathically interrupting your thoughts to announce important vinyl siding news!")

By "jumping ahead" and imagining what the Year 3000 celebrations would include, we’re certain that host Dick Clark would want to know more about what we did in the Year 2000, besides drinking all that extra water we thought we’d need. What seeds did we plant for the next thousand years? What lessons did we want to impart to our descendants who, at the beginning of the next millennium, will probably still be going through the toilet paper they inherited from us.

WE UNDERSTAND this quest for historical knowledge because, in the year 2000, we likewise wanted to look back and appreciate the important milestones of the First Millennium, such as the invention of scurvy. ("Yorik...dude, you don’t look so good. I’d loan you my leaches but I had to pawn them. The wife’s got a birthday coming up.")

Sadly, records from that time show little evidence of intelligent life—such as early humor columns—even though historians agree that impoverished laborers toiling under uncaring feudal masters probably could have used an occasional joke, not to mention work gloves. (Actual serf quote: "Excuse me, would somebody please hurry up and invent the weekend?")

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Sojourners Magazine March-April 2000
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Surely, There Must Be Some Mistake

The breakfast table was covered with birthday cards decoratively labeled "50," which meant somebody in our home had crossed the half-century mark. But who? I asked myself, gingerly rubbing ointment into muscles still inflamed from strenuous physical effort (getting out of bed).

Who is this aging person? I asked again, as I absent-mindedly hummed the theme song from "The Donna Reed Show."

Attempting to solve the mystery, I finally narrowed it down to either our 16-year-old daughter or myself. And since most 50-year-olds don’t badger their parents to let them practice driving (at a place that used to have bushes growing alongside the road), I deduced that it must be...me.

(Actually, I think my Dad was 50 when he taught me how to drive. He was in his 40s when I got behind the wheel and two hours later he looked 50. But maybe it was because I always kept my hands at the 9 and 11 o’clock positions on the steering wheel, a technique I developed myself. That way it’s easier for the driver to jump out of the car at high speeds if he feels he can no longer take responsibility for the vehicle.)

Being 50 means I was born in the ‘40s, for gosh sakes! World War II was just over, and we had yet to get the bill for the Marshall Plan. (Congress: "This seems a little high. Couldn’t they have used cheaper drywall?") I was born before rock ‘n’ roll, before StoveTop Stuffing. Ward and June Cleaver weren’t even dating yet.

Why, if I’m 50, don’t I look graying and distinguished, like Marlin Perkins of TV’s "Wild Kingdom"? I use him as an example because I actually met him when I was 9 years old. I was in the bathroom at the St. Louis Zoo, where he was curator, and he just walked in, like a regular person. I remember that as we stood together two things came to my mind: He was very tall, and, sometime earlier in the day, he must have been very thirsty.

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Sojourners Magazine January-February 2000
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An Advent Reflection

And lo (or, as translated in the Living Bible, "yo!"), an angel of the Lord appeared before the shepherds tending their flocks by night and, despite enormous temptation, did not say "BOO!" What the angel actually said was, "Behold, unto you a child is born, unto you a son is given." But the shepherds were either sore or afraid, for lo, they realized that this was both good news and bad news. The good news was that God had finally decided to speak to them. The bad news was they didn’t understand a word of it.

FIRST SHEPHERD: Do you know what that angel just said?

SECOND SHEPHERD: No. But it sounded like 17th-century English.

FIRST SHEPHERD: But that can’t be, since the English are still just a bunch of un-evolved Druids who pray to anything they can’t eat. Also, they smell bad. Ugh, talk about clearing out a tent.

SECOND SHEPHERD: Hmmm...I wonder if my in-laws are Druids.

FIRST SHEPHERD: He’s still standing over there.

SECOND SHEPHERD: Who?

FIRST SHEPHERD: That angel guy. And he keeps saying "lo."

SECOND SHEPHERD: Let’s ignore him and maybe he’ll go away.

FIRST SHEPHERD: Anyway, as I was saying before the angel showed up, I’m sick of tending our flocks by night. Any idea how to get back on the day shift?

OH WHAT’S the use? I can’t write inspirational Christmas stuff now, even though you depend on me for that sort of thing. But it’s 90 degrees outside and it’s August, just like it always is for the December deadline. We’re in Heat Hell but have to write about the hope of Advent. I don't think so.

And it’s even harder this time since I just got back from our annual drive-till-we-drop vacation to the West (motto: You’re not there yet). And folks out West weren’t talking about Christmas. They were talking about more immediate concerns, such as how to spell "Albuquerque" and wondering what George W. Bush hasn’t done in the last 23 years.

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Sojourners Magazine November-December 1999
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The Facts of Life

I should have been happy when my daughter brought up the subject. I had been dreading our "little talk" for months, but knew it couldn’t be put off much longer. A topic of this importance can’t be pushed aside by a parent’s petty fear of embarrassment (or the fact that my kids haven’t listened to me since shortly after conception).

When a child reaches puberty and begins to experience life from a different perspective, a parent needs to help explain the stirrings inside her and instill the proper framework for enjoying one of God’s most beautiful—but most misunderstood—creations.

"Dad?" she began, gazing uncomfortably toward the floor. This wasn’t going to be easy for either of us. "Could you explain the Bee Gees?"

Where does one begin? It’s so hard for a father to find the words to describe these phenomenally talented men who, since the late 1800s, have inspired a grateful world with their admonitions to love, to hope, and most important, to use lots of hair dye.

I could talk from personal experience and try to convey the feelings—the rapid heartbeat, the shortness of breath—the first time I heard these three men harmonize in such perfect falsetto (a condition reportedly caused by an unfortunate childhood bicycle mishap).

Or I could speak in more general terms about how natural it is to be 13, with your whole life ahead of you, when suddenly you get this urge to strut down the sidewalk with your hand pumping in the air as you sing, "Stayin’ alive, stayin’ alive!"

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Credit Where Credit Is Due…

Congratulations to Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic for winning the United Nations’ prestigious First War Criminal Still In Office award. This award acknowledges Milosevic’s many contributions to his country and, more broadly, to the eastern part of Europe that has benefited from his courageous belief that peace is way overrated.

The coveted prize is being held for him at the Hague where, according to U.N. officials, he can pick it up at anytime. The award includes no cash prize, but does come with attractive ceremonial bracelets connected by matching silver chain. (Fashion tip: best worn with both hands behind the back.)

This is Milosevic’s second international recognition in as many months. At a recent unpublicized dinner in the Hague, he also received special exemption from this year’s Nelson Mandela Humanitarian Award.

Better luck next time.

Like Milosevic, dozens of other 20th century political leaders have been similarly acknowledged for their selfless determination to see who could get rid of ethnic minorities the fastest. The city of Nuremberg, for example, was host to a number of ceremonies honoring men who had Milosevic’s genius for making widows. But at the time of their recognition they had already left office and moved on to the next stage of their lives, such as making prison wall calendars or, in some cases, decomposing in a bunker.

In contrast, Milosevic still has much more to offer the world in his current role as elected leader of the former Yugoslavia (also, formerly with electricity, formerly with water) and he is looking forward to guiding his former country into another century. The fact that it is the 19th century is not the point here.

Taking a cue from American President Bill Clinton, who promised to "build a bridge to the 21st century," Milosevic recently unveiled his own bold vision for Serbia by pledging simply to "rebuild a bridge. Maybe two."

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Sojourners Magazine July-August 1999
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Rested and Ready

"What a waste it is to lose one’s mind. Or, not to have a mind is being very wasteful. How true that is." Tough words from a tough man. The man: Dan Quayle. The words: I have no idea. But they were spoken with the seriousness and confidence

that can only come from a selfless public servant who once said, "I stand by all the misstatements that I’ve made."

Forgetting for the moment that being president is a speaking part, Dan Quayle, the heir-transparent to George Bush’s teeny little legacy, has announced his candidacy for the highest office in the land. Or, to use his own words, "It’s not the highest in altitude, of course, since a mountain is much higher than that. And you wouldn’t put an office on a mountain, because all your memo thingies would blow away." Okay, I just made that up (or I could put it on the Internet and then it would be true). But I didn’t make up this one: "I have made good judgments in the past. I have made good judgments in the future."

Yes, Dan Quayle is back, and I know I speak for pundits everywhere when I say how much I’ve missed him. People can criticize the media for being secular, but I’m telling you the idea of having Dan Quayle back on the campaign trail is causing journalists to fall on their knees in religious fervor, thanking God for the bounty of His or Her blessings. Writers who previously only used the name of Jesus Christ with the middle initial "H" are now giving all credit to the risen Lord who, in his mercy and divine sense of humor, has rolled away the stone of political reason and brought Dan Quayle back from the dead.

Instead of sleeping through the rhetorical sparrings of Steve Forbes (or is it Steve Business Week?) and whichever of the Bush brothers is running (is it Jeb, or his other brother Jeb?), now we have the prospect of Dan Quayle being up there on the dais. And SAYING STUFF! Like this: "Republicans understand the importance of bondage between a mother and child."

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Sojourners Magazine May-June 1999
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Are You Y2K Ready?

Or did you think Y2K was another Calvin Klein perfume, the kind promoted by pouty models who look like all they want from life is more heroin? (Apocalyptic aside: Wouldn't it be great if Jesus came back in a plaid sports jacket and green tie and made those pretenders smell their own magazine ads? Ah, sweet justice.)

To update you, Y2K is geek speak for "Year 2000," which loosely translated from the original Latin means, "nothing will work." Or, as Confucius warned several hundred years ago, "Buy batteries."

What it really means—according to the few experts who haven't already fled to underground bunkers in Montana—is that at midnight on December 31, anything that has a computer chip could fail, since it won't recognize the double zero date (which, coincidentally, was my nickname on prom night).

Got a computer? Use it quick, it's gonna fail. Own a car made after 1980? Pull over. Did you get one of those Furby things last Christmas? Come January 1, it thinks it's Barbie. And that could get ugly.

Are you wearing a pacemaker? Ouch.

Yes, the year 2000 is scaring a lot of people, and not just because, according to religious experts on late night cable television, the Lord is coming back with His terrible swift sword and a few thousand avenging angels. No. It's worse than that, since most of us would rather deal with avenging angels than a hard drive failure. At least with angels you can swat at 'em with rolled up newspapers. But when your computer goes down you just sit there and whimper.

The biggest fear is that the nation's electrical grid will malfunction, leaving everyone without power (except for survivalist cults who have their own generators and huge smiles on their faces, since it turns out they were right all along).

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Sojourners Magazine March-April 1999
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First Dance

The global economy is in shambles, the presidency is in crisis, and Americans are struggling under the weight of a broken health care system. But hey, I've got my own problems. Our 12-year-old wants to go to a dance. With boys.

Forgive me if I tend to focus on personal experiences rather than commenting on important political and historical events. But I feel that the universal lessons are better drawn from one's own life, rather than, say, from public figures such as Trent Lott, who I think has plastic hair. (It never moves.)

Lately, the fundamental truth I've discovered is that when it comes to accepting the approaching adulthood of their children, most parents are clinically insane. Case in point:

The invitation to the middle-school party arrived via the U.S. Mail and, by law, we couldn't open it or discard it without our daughter's knowledge. Silly law.

We knew this day would come, but we felt that she still needed a couple more decades at home before beginning her social life outside our double-locked front door.

Our reasoning was as follows: She is a straight-A student, a disciplined athlete, and a warm, loving child. Naturally, once out of the house she would immediately take drugs, have sex, and join the Republican Party.

This is not about trust, we patiently explained to her as we declined to give our permission. It's about paranoia. Deep, creeping paranoia that parents get when a child reaches the teen-age years at the same time, coincidentally, that parents become quivering lunatics.

"Wouldn't you rather stay home and watch The Little Mermaid again?" I beseeched her, forgetting for the moment how odd I look when I beseech. But she wasn't interested.

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Sojourners Magazine January-February 1999
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