So Afraid of the Russians

I used to enjoy playing Made for TV’s So Afraid of the Russians when I was a DJ in college.

It was a funny song — but frankly, we were afraid of the Russians. Plattsburgh Air Force Base, a stone’s throw from the campus, was understood to be a first strike target in the event of nuclear war.
Down at the bars we’d sometimes meet kids our own age who were from the base. Instead of going to class every day, they’d load bombs and fuel planes out on the flight line. That seemed strange to us, but when my own son decided he’s rather be a machine gunner in the Marines than a college student, I understood better.

That song was released in 1983, but certainly feels relevant again — even though the greatest threat we face may not be the Russians, but our own president.

Reckoning

St. Peter settled into his chair. It looked like another long day — but every day’s a long day when you’re holding the keys of the kingdom. Peter has plenty of help for this day-to-day stuff, but he still likes to pull a shift at the pearly gates.

Halfway through the morning an interesting case approached the bench.

“So, in life you were a talk radio host.” St. Peter peered over his glasses. Standing before him was an ordinary looking man whose head was shaped rather like a light bulb. He was sweating and looking down at his shoes. “On the radio in Albany for 30 years. Albany. That’s certainly the minors.”

St. Peter flipped through a thick pile of paper.

“You said some pretty colorful things about people. Immigrants, refugees, Muslims, women, gays, lesbians, transgender. State workers, union members, cops, firemen, teachers. You’re tough on politicians. I suppose I get that, but you called Elizabeth Warren ‘Pocahontas’ 37 times in one morning? Really. Shall I go on, this is a very long list?”

“St. Peter, you need to understand, that’s not me — it’s just my act. It’s a radio show, it’s supposed to be entertainment. I don’t really believe all that stuff that I say.”

“Ah, entertainment. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard that. Remember the Romans feeding people to the lions? Entertainment. Dogfighting? Entertainment. Cop Rock? Entertainment.”

There was silence.

“C’mon, smile, that was a joke.”

St. Peter shoved his files aside.

“Look, maybe you didn’t believe everything you said — actually, I can’t accept that anyone would be so stupid — but do you think the people who listened to you understood that it was an act? I think they heard someone who echoed back the fear and hatred in their hearts.”

“What about them,” the host asked. “I was just saying that stuff — the listeners were the ones doing the hating.”

More silence. It was a moment, but it felt like a week.

“Well, I was going to ask if you’re ready to repent, but you already answered my question.”

St. Peter started tapping on his keyboard (a 27-inch iMac, in case you’re wondering) and cleared his throat.

“OK, here’s what’s going to happen. We’re sending you downstairs to think this over. We grant you an appeal automatically, but as you can imagine, there’s quite a wait before we hear your case. Right now, our next opening is in… March 2896. You’ll get a letter with the exact date.”

An angel stepped up to lead the man away.

“Hey, don’t look so glum, it could be worse. One of your friends will be down there to join you soon. Maybe you’ve heard of him. Trump. Donald Trump? OK, who’s next?”

A Breath of Fresh Air

A guy I used to work with believed that toilet smells are hazardous to our health. He’d gesture down the hall to the well-used men’s room. “That first floor bathroom is going to make you sick,” he explained. “When you smell someone’s shit in there, you’re breathing in tiny shit particles,” I nodded in agreement, not because I agreed, but because I didn’t want him to know that I thought he was nuts.

No, I didn’t agree with his particle thesis, but nobody could dispute that the bathroom often smelled revolting. In the interest of full disclosure, I hold the controversial view that people should poop at home, not at the office.

So, one day I decided I’d had enough. Early in the morning, I set up some old sneakers and a pair of jeans in bathroom so it would appear that someone was seated in the stall. During the day, I saw several flustered people go in the bathroom and exit quickly seeing the crapper was occupied. Those needing to use the urinal did so without being subjected to a toxic atmosphere.

Finally, very late in the day, someone peered over the stall door and discovered the ruse. I’m not going to name the person who peeked, and believe me, it’s a name many of you would know.

Some of you will see this as a cruel prank, but is it really crueler than fouling a public space you share with your co-workers? Here’s some advice if you really need to go: take it to another floor.

Coyote Ugly

“The coyotes were after me!”

My wife was out of breath and extremely worked up after rushing back home with the dogs. In the woods along her regular route she’d heard a pack of coyotes — or at least what sounded like a pack of coyotes. She didn’t actually see them, but in the dark, scary noises are amplified; they may not have truly been “after” her, but it seemed that way.

Coyotemania gripped our house for a week, and we were consumed with talk of carrying pepper spray and cudgels to ward off the invaders. Then this.

According to the Times Union, these signs were posted around two adjoining golf courses in Albany and Bethlehem, warning of coyotes (“They are smart and fast”) and cautioning people not to mess with them.

By the way, what do you do if you encounter coyotes on the golf course? Let them play through.

Look, coyotes have been around here for a long time, and now all the sudden we’re freaking out? I’d suggest we all spend time worrying about real animal risks, like the deer who play chicken with your car. You’re much more likely to be injured in a collision with one of those damn deer than you are to be bitten by a coyote.

I much prefer the approach of Frank Vincenti of Mineola. This self-styled coyote defender spends his spare time trying to protect coyotes on Long Island and in New York City. Yes, New York City. From a recent NY Times story:

When he hears of a sighting, he closes his barbershop and heads to the scene. He may spend all night working as a human scarecrow, chasing the coyotes back into the underbrush. The goal is to keep them out of the public view and away from the traps set by specialists hired to euthanize them.

Vincenti believes the coyotes will persevere in the end, citing the most famous coyote of all:

“Wile E. Coyote always loses,” he said, “but no matter how they try to kill him off, he always comes back.”

The People’s Choice

Here’s something interesting: the Times Union has dropped the media category from its annual Best of the Capital Region readers poll.

So what, say most of you — but at local media outlets, winning in the Times Union Best Of — or certainly, Metroland’s annual  poll — was always a big deal. Being named the best is a point of pride, regardless of who’s number one in the ratings.

Lord knows these polls are not scientific, and in recent years, there have been allegations that some winners used social media to unfairly sway the voting. Is that really unfair, trying to win a popularity contest by encouraging your friends to vote? That’s called being popular.

It’s anybody’s guess why the media category was dropped. This whole poll thing does sound like a lot of work, and it could simply be about newsroom resources.

In the interest of full disclosure, my old blog, Albany Eye, won for best local blog years ago. Looking back at my career, I would have been way better off being best local plumber than best local blogger.

Sign of the Times

We’ve been meeting a lot of the neighbors lately, and a few of them stopped to tell me they enjoyed this sign out on my lawn.

trump sign

The sign was a prop from our Christmas card. I had it made online by a company that prints campaign signs, and for some reason, they allow customers to modify the highly recognizable Trump sign. I’d post the Christmas card, but not all of the participants would appreciate that. The inside of the card read, “Finally, a candidate we can all agree on.”

Without context, some people might see the sign as a symbol of solidarity with our new president. Nothing could be further from the truth, but in conversation with the folks on my street, I’ve carefully avoided talk of politics. Good fences aren’t the only thing that make good neighbors.

Fake Take

Oh, fake news. It’s all the thing these days — but it’s nothing new for people to believe anything they read.

Americans have been gullible for a long time, and 100 years ago, journalist H.L. Mencken put it to the test with a story titled, A Neglected Anniversay. Mencken concocted a history of the bathtub in America, filling it (the story, not the bathtub) with fake facts that to readers seemed perfectly reasonable. The story was so successful that it was widely cited for years afterward.

You can excuse the American public in 1917 for not checking its facts — indeed, for most of the 20th century, research meant going to the library or cracking open the home encyclopedias.

Today, checking facts is easy. It only takes a moment to figure out if a story you see on Facebook is real, with a bit of Googling or a visit to Snopes.com.  By the way, Snopes says there are so many fake stories out there that they’re having trouble keeping up.

But this isn’t really about the truth. People who read something they want to believe aren’t going spend time figuring out if it’s true or not. You probably have a few of them on you Facebook feed — and the only truth they care about is the one in their head.

Resolved

It’s time to reflect on the year that was and the one to come. We can only hope to be a bit better by the end of next December.

I made a list of things to work on. This one has seven items, because everybody knows that lists with an odd number of items are better than those with an even number.

  • Stop making that noise when you open frustrating emails. Rather than exhaling hard, breath in deeply.
  • Break the talk radio habit. Tuning in to Talk 1300 — even for just a few minutes — just makes you angry. There’s enough stupidity and intolerance out there. No need to seek it out.
  • Leave more blog comments. A brief comment helps the bloggers know that someone cares about their writing.
  • Learn to meditate.
  • Say something positive. And not in a sarcastic way.
  • Be a good neighbor. New house, new start.
  • Consider your first impulse — and then don’t do that.

We’ll reconvene here next year to see how all this went.

Lost Boys

The lives of boys are fragile.

Maybe you saw this story of the two 12-year-olds accidentally buried in snow while playing outside after a storm. One of them died and the other was rescued just in time. It filled me with such sadness, imagining this child and his family, just weeks before Christmas.

They were just doing what boys do, and it got me thinking of the dangerous world they inhabit.

For boys, even innocent fun can take a quick, dark turn toward tragedy — and as the testosterone takes hold, they grow bolder. The railroad tracks and tunnels and forbidden places. Mischief and trouble gone bad. The cars and other motorized things. The lure of all that burn or goes bang. Alcohol, drugs, great heights, small confined spaces. Then they go off to war at an ungodly young age, because to an 18-year-old risk is an abstraction.

That’s the world of boys. Join me in praying for them this Christmas.