H'rumphs

On Obama's Short List

I hold in my hand a printout of the e-mail I just received from Barack Obama. Yes, I know it’s not green to use paper, but how else can I display it on my desk so co-workers can express awe, surprise, and most important, envy? The point is, I received a personal communication from, depending on which blog you read:

• A foreign-born Islamic extremist

• Socialist-in-Chief

• President of the United States

That’s right, President Barack Obama. The most powerful man in the most powerfully indebted nation in the world. Addressed to me, personally, and printed out by me, personally, so I can hold it in my hand and feel the power of being on The Inside. Not just inside the Beltway but below the Beltway. Wait, that came out wrong. Anyway, I am ... one of The Chosen.

Chosen to be in contact with the man who could be the most pivotal person in the history of the 21st century after Rush Limbaugh, a president not afraid of crisis. Because he knows the Chinese character for crisis is made up of the characters for “danger” and “opportunity.” Or possibly “turtle.” I can’t figure it out myself. To me the characters look like a guy reading under a tree with this huge fingerprint coming after him, which seems dangerous and he should stop reading and get the heck out of there. But I digress.

FOR SEVERAL MONTHS I’ve been incessantly checking my cell phone for a Blackberry message from the president, hoping that I’d be one of the half- dozen people on his speed dial. I was, after all, a major contributor to his campaign, and I enjoyed watching my $25 help correct an electoral system that has for two centuries discriminated against left-handed Hawaiians.

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Sojourners Magazine May 2009
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It's the Simple Things

With the nation facing fiscal uncertainty (actually, complete and absolute certainty—just like the in­evi­table wedgie I got every day in junior-high gym class), maybe it’s time to take a break from our anxieties and appreciate the simple pleasures in our lives, the ones not yet taken away by rogue bands of unemployed bankers.

What really matter are the daily celebrations of life, those little moments of com­passion and joy that separate us humans from the animals (except for dolphins, whales, mountain gorillas, Canada geese, and various other species who have highly developed social orders that have not, at this point, been compromised by a failed banking system).

Personally, I like to watch a little television of an evening, a cost-free activity that, though joyful and deeply satisfying to a superficial person such as myself, has not been without controversy in the home. My spouse and I have a long-standing difference of opinion about the TV’s location. I like it in the living room. She prefers it sitting on a shelf at a thrift store. So we compromised: I can watch, but without the sound. This way she is not distracted from the reading she so enjoys, including her latest book, an autobiography of a woman who lived for three decades in Stalinist Russia. (I skimmed through a few pages, and maybe it’s just me, but I didn’t think it was that funny.)

Not that I don’t enjoy reading myself. I, for one, can’t wait for John Grisham’s next novel, The Noun. But in these days of fiscal uncertainty … which reminds me of an incident at my junior high cafeteria ... [Editor’s note: We GET it, already! Move on.] I prefer television—specifically, really bad television. Even with the sound off, nothing purifies the soul and elevates one’s battered sense of superiority like watching the worst the small screen has to offer. I refer, of course, to the Home Shopping Network.

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Sojourners Magazine April 2009
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An Innocent in the Land of Facebook

It started innocently enough. An acquaintance e-mailed me and, using a new verb with which I was unfamiliar, asked if she could “friend” me. Considering she was already a friend, her request was not readily understood. Is the verb “friend” more intimate than the noun version? Will this involve touching? Should I consult a priest or parole officer before replying?

Being the trusting individual that I am, I clicked on the link in her e-mail, followed the on-screen instructions to fill out a few lines of personal information—name, gender, criminal record—and clicked again. My life hasn’t been the same since. It was as if I had walked through the back of a wardrobe and emerged in a snow-covered woods illuminated by a single lamppost, against which leaned a huge and menacing ape-like monster with only one eye. (Sorry. Sometimes I get that Narnia book mixed up with Lord of the Rings.)

Apparently, I had signed up for something called “Facebook,” a virtual universe where people stay in touch with each other on a daily basis with—and this must be some kind of Facebook rule—the most banal humdrum that simply must be shared. “I’m having coffee and reading the paper,” a friend writes on her page, an idle comment that God Almighty—who knows all and sees all—would probably fail to note, but which nonetheless triggers an automatic e-mail telling all her friends that she has just “updated” her page. This is now archived into a permanent space on the World Wide Web, despite the fact it would be of interest only to a parent (“What, you can read the paper but you can’t call your mother?”) or criminal investigators looking for behavioral clues as to why, after finishing the newspaper, she walked out of her house carrying a meat cleaver.

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Sojourners Magazine March 2009
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Space, the Final Cost Overrun

The International Space Station is a cramped scientific laboratory orbiting in an environment where temperatures on a good day top out at minus 273 degrees Celsius. (Celsius is the unit of measure named after President Bill Clinton’s daughter. It was a birthday present.) Despite the harsh conditions and a history of shoddy construction and repair, the space station last month officially became more comfortable than my own house.

They put in a second bathroom.

As of last November, there’s no more waiting in the space station when nature calls. Nor, for that matter, when Houston calls and astronauts are looking for a different place to hide during the daily inquiries from ground control. (Houston: “Umm, we noticed you concluded your last transmission with the phrase ‘I am the walrus, goo goo g’joob g’goo goo g’joob.’ We know you’ve been up there for more than eight months, but listen, we need to talk. Over.”)

After 10 years and almost $100 billion, the International Space Station has produced less useable scientific data than the International House of Pancakes. (Scientific American just reported that customers who order IHOP’s new “Big-Bucket-of-Pancakes Breakfast” are actually visible from space when they waddle back to their cars.) Regardless, with a second bathroom, a new gym, and an updated kitchen, the space station now has more comforts than the average American starter house.

In my own home, I have to wait for what seems like a full rotation of the earth just to get in and shave. But not the crew of the space station. With two bathrooms there’s no need for an impatient astronaut—having just consumed a large Tang—to hop up and down and shout “You wanna hurry UP in there?!” or, alternately, “I hear a newspaper rustling behind that door. You better not be reading the sports section IN THERE!”

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Sojourners Magazine February 2009
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This Is Not About the Economy

Made you look. Anyway, the world economy continues to spin downward despite my previous column on the subject, which was intended to bring needed comic relief to struggling world markets. Unfortunately, their dour assessments of the future prevented them from just tossing back their heads and letting go with a hearty chuckle. So I say, “Why so glum, overly leveraged world markets?” or, alternately, “Laugh, economy clown, laugh.” There, that should do the trick.

In contrast, I’m sure Sojourners readers have been “keeping it in perspective” and finding humor in the common experiences of the new economic reality, such as watching sheriff’s deputies place their belongings on the sidewalk in front of their former homes. “Careful with that antique china cabinet. It was my grandmother’s. Ha ha!”

But as bad as it is here, we Americans know that things are much worse in China, a place where children go to bed every night without flat-screen televisions. (They’re on back order.)

Not to mention the other things we can be grateful for, such as our health, which at least we have, unless you’re sick. But even then there is a bright side: You may have lost your health care when you got laid off, but as temporary president George W. Bush confidently assured us, treatment is as close as the nearest emergency room. (Hint: Bring a book. Maybe two.) Like a philosopher once said, unless we stand together ...

(Editor’s note: STOP! This is not helping. There’s not enough left in my 401(k) to buy a Sarah Palin campaign mug! And I REALLY want one! So quit the false platitudes and get back to your usual drivel that, unexpectedly, we find ourselves missing right now.)

Fine.

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Sojourners Magazine January 2009
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It's All His Fault

The following is an excerpt from economic philosopher Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations treatise, one of the driving intellectual forces behind contemporary market theory. Smith has been dead for a couple hundred years and can’t defend himself, so financial experts are blaming him for the United States running out of commas to put between the zeroes of our fiscal mess. Unfortunately, we can’t blame the real perpetrators because they are busy overseeing construction of their new mansions in the Hamptons, thus unavailable to reassure us that they’re fine, and we shouldn’t worry.

“Every individual necessarily labours to render the annual revenue of the society as great as he can. He generally, indeed, neither intends to promote the public interest, nor knows how much he is promoting it; he intends only his own security; and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention. Nor is it always the worse for the society that it ....”

Okay, dude, whatever.

Enough of Adam Smith. I thought it would be helpful to the discussion, but I started getting college flashbacks and then remembered I still owe a research paper to my psychology professor. It was due 35 years ago, but I’m happy to report that it’s nearly finished. Just as soon as I fill out the bibliography with a couple of encyclopedia references.

Suffice it to say that financial experts agree that Adam Smith would be unbelievably tedious at a dorm party, unless he brought the keg. (“Another tankard of stout ale, my good friends?”)

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Sojourners Magazine December 2008
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Decision 2008

Editor’s Note: Okay, Ed, the lawyer has finished looking through your column to make sure it’s totally nonpartisan and that it doesn’t favor or oppose either candidate. With a few minor deletions, he says it’s good to go.

As Election Day approaches, more Americans are anxious about the nnnn future. With the world economy in nnnn—for example, Afghanistan’s opium crop is down by almost 19 percent—America’s nnnnn has never been more needed. And yet, after a grueling nominating process, no nnn candidate has emerged that could reassure the world that Washington, D.C., can be anything more than a big nnn pile of scheming nnnn.

But enough about Dick Cheney’s small group.

On the nnnnnnnn side, the candidate is nnnn nnnn, except for the fact that he’s nnnn and was born in Indonesia, or possibly Illinois, and that he fathered two children with a woman in Chicago. His campaign is promising a quick, bipartisan nnnn to every nnnn problem facing this nation, except for the problem of creating false expectations for bipartisan nnnn.

And let’s be honest, he’s a little more nnnnnn than the rest of us.

Obama: You mean, because I’m nnnn.

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Sojourners Magazine November 2008
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I Am (dramatic pause) ... Enviro Man

Important note: The following reveals “spoiler” information from the blockbuster movie Iron Man, another tediously derivative action film that’s indistinguishable from other recent action films, except for the fact that it is just SO COOL! —The Editors

At a surprising moment in Iron Man, the principal character breaks the unwritten rule of superheroes and reveals his secret identity. For much of the movie he had fought evil concealed in a form-fitting metal suit, which, if nothing else, was an advertisement for the need for talcum powder when flying at supersonic speeds in metal long underwear.

Then, at the end of the film, he stands before the gathered media and just blurts out, “I’m Iron Man.” The actor is Robert Downey Jr., who in real life has considerable experience standing before various groups, usually consisting of police or judges, and blurting out, with conviction, “Those aren’t MY drugs,” or “I promise to do better, if paroled.”

The producers could have milked the secret identity thing for several sequels (after three episodes of Spider-Man, Peter Parker’s secret identity is known only by his girlfriend and roughly 2 billion of the rest of us). Instead, they chose to reveal Iron Man’s secret, apparently so he could ­ease the loneliness of working for the common good without recognition or reward.

I understand this need. Because I, too, have a secret identity and have traveled across our great land working tirelessly not only for humankind, but for the very future of the planet itself. And now the truth can be told.

I am Enviro Man.

Or, possibly, Environment Man, or maybe EnvironMent-O, although that sounds like a breath mint, so forget that. When it comes to choosing your superhero name you’ve got to come up with one before the public takes a look at you and misses the point entirely: “So, you’re like, Leotard Boy, or what?”

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Sojourners Magazine August 2008
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A Calendar to Set Your Clock By

July is a special month. And not just because it’s the birth month of our nation, which was inaugurated in 1776 when Benjamin Franklin, having already invented the iPod, introduced the hot dog, which George Washington ate two of, and in the process triggered our young nation’s first commemorative case of acid reflux.

July is also the last month of summer in which a cool breeze can still surprise you on a busy street, drying the sweat off your face as you stand on the corner considering whether to wait for the light or, in the stubbornly independent spirit of our nation, boldly cross against the light, evoking the proud motto of New Hampshire: “Live Free or Die Under a Bus.” The chance of a breeze ends quickly come August, however, when the oppressive heat reminds us that our planet is slowly boiling itself to death and our only hope is in prayers and service to a merciful God.

But thankfully we don’t have to do those things now, because July is also the second full month of Ordinary Time, the period on the Catholic liturgical calendar that is free of religious obligation and ritual. Unlike the other seasons—Advent, Lent, Epiphany, Pentecost, and, if memory serves, Eureka—Ordinary Time requires little from practicing Christians: no sacrifice or acts of charity, no special offerings, no tedious Christmas shopping lists. Nope. Just a few weeks for kicking back and doing something ordinary, like having a cold beverage. For the church, it’s Miller Time.

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Sojourners Magazine July 2008
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One Man, One Clip

As you read this, the U.S. Su­preme Court is in its final stages of pretending to carefully consider the constitutionality of Washington, D.C.’s ban on handguns. The oral arguments in March hinted at the final decision, given that, while questioning counsel, Justice An­tonin Scalia was also cleaning his Glock 9mm automatic and at one point sent his clerk out to get more bore oil. (Without frequent oiling—and I don’t have to tell you this—burned powder can build up and foul the muzzle.)

Any day now the high court could hand down its decision, which most legal experts predict will overturn the gun ban, thus validating the National Rifle Association’s long-held belief that, when crafting the Second Amendment, the founders made a clerical error by using the word “militias” instead of “any bunch of fun-loving guys with a few beers and a machine gun.”

On the other hand, there is a chance that D.C.’s 32-year-old gun ban will stand, a ruling the court would announce by releasing dozens of flying monkeys—each wearing a decorative fez hat—into the skies above our city. Although this seems far-fetched (the ruling, not the monkey part).

For what it’s worth, most Supreme Court justices do not live in the District of Columbia, preferring the suburban security of nearby pro-gun states Maryland and Virginia (motto: “I know what you’re thinking. ‘Did he fire six shots or only five?’ Well, to tell you the truth, in all this excitement I kind of lost track myself. But being that this is a .44 Magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world, and would blow your head clean off, you’ve got to ask yourself one question: Do I feel lucky? Well, do ya, punk?”)

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Sojourners Magazine June 2008
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