Thursday, July 31, 2008

Closing out the month

As I walked up toward the house from our mailbox last evening, I snapped that cell-phone shot of the sunset.

All things considered, July's been a pretty good month.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Shakeup call

As SoCal earthquakes go, yesterday's magnitude 5.4 temblor was something of a yawner.

Swimming pools churned for a few seconds. Some stores' shelves emptied themselves. Water gushed from a couple of broken L.A. mains and from a ceiling at LAX. Reportedly, there were few injuries.

Ok, so it was the strongest quake in 15 years, and 80-plus aftershocks (most of which are noticed only by seismologists) might be a bit unsettling. Judging by the media's breathless coverage, however, you'd think it was The Big One.

Maybe they're just practicing.

Beyond natural human compassion and understandable political wariness, most of us don't really care what happens "out there" in the People's Republic of California. Earthquakes, wildfires and mudslides, competitive rehab, puzzling legislation and restrictive regulations -- it's just more TV. Self-absorbed Californians might want us to care, but for the most part, we're not even curious.

I know I'm not.

One things I do care about is personal preparedness
. On that subject, the media's over-the-top coverage of the Chino Hills quake did yield an interesting nugget, in the form of a "Quick Vote":

According to that unscientific snapshot, fewer than one out of four respondents is prepared for the worst. I'd be willing to bet that a statistically sound sampling would show that the real number is no higher than 10%, probably lower.

If you've prepared, as my family and I have, great -- but contentment is the last thing we should be feeling right now. Answering the wake-up call implicit in the poll above, or in my more pessimistic prediction, we'll see that virtually all of our neighbors will do one of four things in the event of a disaster:

  • They'll suffer alone, unaided and unprepared;
  • They'll rely on non-profit or government agencies;
  • They'll try to share in what we have; or
  • They'll try to take what we have.
Stockpiling food, water and supplies isn't enough. We must be ready and willing to protect and, if necessary, defend ourselves and our families from those who haven't prepared.

With that harsh reality in mind, answer the question again: Are you prepared?

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

An execution in Knoxville

At Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church last Sunday morning, 58-year-old Jim David Adkisson took a 12-gauge shotgun out of a guitar case and opened fire on 200 parishioners.

As I write this, two of the eight he wounded have died. Three remain in critical condition. The shooter is alive, I regret to say, and in custody.

It'd be easy to label Adkisson a "nutjob" and throw this incident on the pile with Columbine, Virginia Tech and last year's Colorado church shootings. For Second Amendment advocates, it's convenient to bemoan Knoxville as the inevitable result of an "unarmed-victims zone," and the anti-gun crowd will be inclined to use the tragedy to disarm law-abiding Americans.

None of that helps bring the picture into focus. In the interest of understanding, then, I'm going to start with the frame.

The Shooter
At Adkisson's home, according to Knoxville Police Chief Sterling P. Owen IV, investigators found a four-page letter expressing his "hatred of the liberal movement. Liberals in general, as well as gays."

The police report is more specific about the shooter's motives:
"(Adkisson targeted this particular church) because of its liberal teachings and his belief that all liberals should be killed because they were ruining the country, and that he felt that the Democrats had tied his country's hands in the war on terror and they had ruined every institution in America with the aid of media outlets. (Since) he could not get to the leaders of the liberal movement...he would then target those that had voted them into office."
Notably, Adkisson's home reportedly held numerous books on right-wing politics, including Liberalism is a Mental Health Disorder by Michael Savage, Let Freedom Ring by Sean Hannity, and The O'Reilly Factor by Bill O'Reilly.

One of Adkisson's neighbors described him as "a very nice guy," while a longtime acquaintance said that he "always had the attitude the government was trying to get him. He disliked blacks, gays, anyone who was a different color or just different from him."

The Church
Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church characterizes its beliefs this way:
We believe in the freedom of religious expression. All individuals should be encouraged to develop their own personal theologies, and to present openly their religious opinions without fear of censure or reprisal.

We believe in the tolerance of religious ideas. All religions, in every age and culture, possess not only intrinsic merit, but also potential value for those who have learned the art of listening.

We believe in the authority of reason and conscience. The ultimate arbiter in religion is not a church, nor a document, nor an official, but the personal choice and decision of the individual.

We believe in the never-ending search for Truth. If the mind and heart are truly free and open, the revelations that appear to the human spirit are infinitely numerous, eternally fruitful, and wondrously exciting.

We believe in the unity of experience. There is no fundamental conflict between faith and knowledge, religion and the world, the sacred and the secular, since they all have their source in the same reality.

We believe in the worth and dignity of each human being. All people on earth have an equal claim to life, liberty, and justice -- and no idea, ideal, or philosophy is superior to a single human life.

We believe in the ethical application of religion. Good works are the natural product of a good faith, the evidence of an inner grace that finds completion in social and community involvement.
In describing its religious-education curricula:
"We need to understand our connection with our liberal religious heritage: the Jewish and Christian roots from which we spring; the Eastern religious traditions that have nurtured us; the insights of philosophy and science that have expanded our knowledge; and our mystical sense of union with one another, our planet, and the universe."
The church recently had posted a sign welcoming gays, an expression of its long-standing tolerance of and service to that community, and hosts social events for gay and lesbian teens.

A Clearer Picture
The only way to see this incident clearly is to detach oneself from ideology and even sympathy. Approaching an explanation from a conservative or liberal mindset is an impediment, as is grief for the victims and their families.

The truth, as I see it, is this: Jim David Adkisson felt licensed to execute people who weren't acceptably Christian enough, not straight enough, not white enough and, Lord knows, not nearly conservative enough.

Further, anything resembling empathy for either Adkisson's actions or his motivation poses a far greater danger to this country than the members of Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church ever could.

That Adkisson is a defective human being is both a given and entirely beside the point. In cases like this, it's far too easy to call the perpetrator "crazy" and, in the process, relieve ourselves of confronting what we'd rather not see.

This isn't about a deranged man, a shotgun and a church in Knoxville.

Ultimately, it's about widespread and less-lethal damage done by those acting out their self-righteousness -- in our communities and in the workplace, in the media and in the marketplace. It's about delusions of ideological superiority. It's about xenophobia masquerading as patriotism.

This time, tragically, people died. Yes, let's grieve for them and condemn their killer. But we can't deny -- nor should we dismiss -- that moral arrogance, much of it with institutional imprimatur, is chipping away at the foundation of our nation.

(Complete coverage of the shooting and its aftermath at the Knoxville News Sentinel.)

Monday, July 28, 2008

Respect for the Boss

"...I try to chart the distance between American ideals and American reality."
Bruce Springsteen is one of my favorite songwriters, arguably the best of our generation. I may not always agree with his politics, but last night's re-air of CBS 60 Minutes' interview reminded me why I admire the way he lives his values.
"I'm interested in what it means to be an American. I'm interested in what it means to live in America. I'm interested in the kind of country that we live in and leave our kids. I'm interested in trying to define what that country is."
Since September 11, 2001, Springsteen has written about an issue that concerns me as well -- namely, Americans' blindness to the reactionary threat from within:
"It's like we've reached a point where it seems that we're so intent on protecting ourselves that we're willing to destroy the best parts of ourselves to do so."

"...I think that we've seen things happen over the past six years that I don't think anybody ever thought they'd ever see in the United States. When people think of the American identity, they don't think of torture. They don't think of illegal wiretapping. They don't think of voter suppression. They don't think of no habeas corpus. No right to a know. Those are things that are anti-American."
CBS correspondent Scott Pelley asked Springsteen if he was worried that his views might prompt some to consider him unpatriotic. His answer reveals the same thoughtful honesty reflected in his music:
"Well, that's just the language of the day, you know? The modus operandi for anybody who doesn't like somebody, you know, criticizing where we've been or where we're goin'. It's unpatriotic at any given moment to sit back and let things pass that are damaging to some place that you love so dearly. And that has given me so much. And that I believe in, I still feel and see us as a beacon of hope and possibility."
There's no disputing that Bruce Springsteen has his eyes open. He sees what each of us has the opportunity to see. He raises his voice and speaks the truth, his truth, describing our world as he sees it:
"I think we live in a time when what is true can be made to seem a lie. And what is lie can be made to seem true. And I think that the successful manipulation of those things have characterized several of our past elections. That level of hubris and arrogance has got us in the mess that we're in right now. And we're in a mess. But if we subvert, the best things that we're about in the name of protecting our freedoms, if we remove them, then who are we becoming, you know? Who are we, you know?"
Acknowledging that he walks in the footsteps of others -- like the late Harry Chapin, who urged Springsteen to follow his example to "play one night for me and one night for the other guy" -- he embraces his role:
"There's a part of the singer going way back in American history that is of course the canary in the coalmine. When it gets dark, you're supposed to be singing. It's dark right now."

"The American idea is a beautiful idea. It needs to be preserved, served, protected and sung out. Sung out on a nightly basis. That's what I'm going to try to do."
Bruce Springsteen is one gifted independent citizen-patriot. Whether or not I agree, he has my respect.

Sunday, July 27, 2008


Every July, our village hosts a four-day summer festival, just like those held in small towns throughout America.

Until a couple of years ago, my role was to represent one of the festival's sponsors, a national organization headquartered locally. Honestly, I developed a rather cynical view of the festivities, considering it much ado about very little.

Sure, I enjoyed loitering in the beer garden and rubbing elbows with other business leaders, but beyond that I felt no real connection with the event. It was all about how much marketing bang I could get for my employer's buck.

Then my family and I moved into the community. Not long afterward, I left my job.

I became simply a resident, a citizen, a part of the village. And my perspective shifted.

The festival itself hasn't changed. Local businesses and community groups still strut their carefully practiced stuff before a politely appreciative audience. There's a parade. Carnival rides, games of chance and food vendors crowd the midway.

A hundred vintage and classic cars still gather for a show on the old main street. Local and regional bands come and go on the festival stage, with a big-name musical finale on the event's last evening. The closing act? Fireworks, of course.

Becoming a resident of this community, however, has made a familiar annual event more than a professional obligation for me -- now, this is my home.

From police officers to firefighters to tireless festival volunteers, these are my neighbors. The vitality of this community rises and falls on their shoulders, our shoulders.

I've witnessed my own transformation from dispassionate observer to engaged citizen.

While our community may not be unusual, it is uniquely ours.

That, in my opinion, is well worth celebrating.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Footnote: Personal responsibility

My wife, our older spawn and I decided to pay a visit to our village's annual festival last night, stopping on the way so I could withdraw cash from an ATM inside a local grocery.

Emerging from the store, I found Mrs. KintlaLake out of the car, engaged in a rather energetic conversation with two men and a young woman. I quickly learned from my wife that this woman wasn't terribly adept at maneuvering her beat-up sedan -- it took her three tries to squeeze it into an adjacent parking space. On her third attempt, she'd gunned the engine and collided with an orphaned shopping cart, banking it off the men's car and into mine.

Both cars were occupied. Bad luck, that.

I bent down to examine the "damage" to my car -- two small dings, low on the front bumper, the sort of thing I'd ordinarily chalk up to what can happen when I choose to park in a grocer's lot.

Problem was, this 20-something sprite of a girl had copped a plus-size attitude, calling me every name in the book, apparently because I had the gall to see whether or not my car had sustained any damage.

"It was an accident!" she screamed. "It wasn't my fault!"

"It may have been an 'accident,'" one of the other men said, "but it was definitely your fault."

True enough -- and that's when I knew what I had to do. Although I had no authority to detain this woman for her irresponsibility, I was perfectly entitled to inconvenience her. My family and I were in no hurry, so that's exactly what I did.

Interrupting her tantrum, I asked her to produce her driver's license (which she did) and proof of insurance (which she didn't), and I transcribed the information onto a note pad with excruciating deliberation. As a bonus, one of the store's security guards came over to investigate, adding a good 15 minutes to the affair.

The young woman took full advantage of the guard's presence by calling my wife out -- that's right, she actually challenged Mrs. KintlaLake to a fight -- right in front of him. Amazing and unwise.

The whole time, however, my wife and I remained calm, cordial and businesslike. I don't know if our 13-year-old, who watched it all from the back seat of our car, noticed how we dealt with the situation, but I hope he learned something.

In the end, I have no intention of filing an insurance claim or pursuing the matter further, nor do I harbor the delusion that I taught this irresponsible little shrew a lesson. It certainly wasn't the first time she'd shown her immaturity and I suspect it won't be the last.

This time, at least, refusing to accept responsibility for her actions carried a price -- it cost her a half-hour of her life, 30 minutes she'll never get back, and I collected.

But was it a waste of my time? Not at all -- all three of us found it entertaining as hell. In fact, we laughed about it all the way to the festival.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Warning: May contain nuts

It's been more than fifteen years since the lids on our take-out cups began telling us that hot coffee is, well, hot.

We have one Stella Liebeck to thank for that warning label and countless others that trail in its idiotic wake. While it's tempting to blame greedy lawyers alone for this sort of thing, we all know what's at the root of it: a fundamental lack of responsibility.

There's the personal irresponsibility of ninnies like Ms. Liebeck, opportunists who refuse to be accountable for their actions and instead pursue frivolous complaints. There's the professional irresponsibility of many attorneys, along with the official irresponsibility of judges and juries who repeatedly hand out exorbitant awards.

Then there's our collective irresponsibility -- yours and mine -- for allowing this system to exist.

We tacitly endorse it with our apathy and our silence. And some of us actually help our government promote irresponsibility.

Every four years, the citizens of New York City choose a special "Public Advocate" -- essentially a Whiner-in-Chief elected to represent the people to their elected representatives (no kidding) and the city's bureaucracy. The current Public Advocate, Betsy Gotbaum, typically handles 12,000 complaints each year.

The latest high-profile
whine-fest involves rubber safety mats installed at playgrounds throughout the city. Even though the soft material probably has prevented millions of injuries, some parents complain that the black mats get so hot under the summer sun that they can burn children's bare feet.

In a city of eight million people, hospitals report having treated just ten barefoot kids for burns. Three lawsuits have been filed. (Natch.) A watchdog group advises, "Playgrounds should be designed with canopies."

You just can't make this stuff up.

As for Public Advocate Gotbaum:
"It’s unacceptable that children suffer severe and completely avoidable injuries due to equipment installed and maintained by the city. How many burn cases will it take before the city wakes up and acts? Signs warning against bare feet on the playground are not sufficient to ensure children’s safety. The city needs to do more to protect children, and in the interim, ensure the signs are actually helpful in warning and informing parents of small children about these dangers."
If New Yorkers truly value personal responsibility and are committed to putting this circus out of business, they'll snatch Ms. Gotbaum from her cushy office and deposit her unceremoniously in the unemployment line. They'll likewise boot every bureaucrat and elected official who doesn't pledge to eliminate the Public Advocate position from the city's charter -- and they'll demand accountability directly from their elected representatives.

Most important, they'll make sure that every parent who allows a barefoot kid to use a city playground is publicly humiliated or, better yet, jailed for being dumber than a sack of hair.

Venting aside, and acknowledging that we can't eliminate epidemic irresponsibility by snapping our fingers, it's clear that we have some serious work to do.

First, each of us has to demand responsibility from ourselves -- I can't very well require others to be accountable if I'm the picture of irresponsibility. Second, we must dedicate ourselves to raising the next generation to accept personal responsibility for everything they say and everything they do.

No excuses. No whining.

Finally, we need to tell the truth -- out loud -- every single time we see a Stella Liebeck or a Betsy Gotbaum parading their irresponsibility and raiding our oxygen supply.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

A lyric for today

And you still can hear me singin' to the people who don't listen,
To the things that I am sayin', prayin' someone's gonna hear.
And I guess I'll die explaining how
the things that they complain about,
Are things they could be changin', hopin' someone's gonna care.

I was born a lonely singer, and I'm bound to die the same,
But I've got to feed the hunger in my soul.
And if I never have a nickle, I won't ever die ashamed.
'Cos I don't believe that no-one wants to know.

(from "To Beat the Devil," by Kris Kristofferson)

Monday, July 21, 2008

Bad boys, bad boys

If you've ever watched COPS -- and who hasn't? -- surely you've noticed that the vast majority of those "bad boys" (and bad girls) have something in common: they're either drunk or stoned.

That, as any law-enforcement professional will tell you, is called a clue. Or, as ESPN's
Chris Berman is fond of saying, "Once is an accident, twice is a trend, three times is a problem."

The ability to recognize a correlation is essential -- it keeps us out of trouble and helps us avoid being duped. The question is, are we truly aware enough to make those connections? More to the point, are we honest enough to see correlations for what they are?

Let's find out.

Radical Islamists call for the destruction of America. Televangelist Rod Parsley and his ilk call for the destruction of Islam. Fred Phelps and his Westboro Baptist Church link every tragedy in the world to homosexuality, which they believe should be a capital crime. Iran's president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad envisions a day when the nation of Israel has been wiped from the world map.

This morning I saw a CNN interview with Brent Rinehart, an Oklahoma county commissioner who's been indicted on felony campaign-finance charges. In a bid to keep his seat on the commission, Mr. Rinehart has published an amateurish "comic book" that paints his challengers as gay-loving, anti-Christian liberals.

These are manifest examples of institutional hatred and irrational fear -- but when we peel away the facades of nationalism, politics and the "crisis of culture" canard, the correlation is undeniable:
religious fundamentalism.

Not everyone who drinks alcohol winds up in handcuffs, of course, any more than all Christians are homophobes or every Muslim is a terrorist -- but it's time to tell the truth about the loom that weaves the common thread of hate in our society.

The more fundamental a religious belief system becomes, the more likely it is to draw extreme contrasts between those who believe and those who don't. Extremism leads to isolation, isolationism fosters ignorance, and ignorance breeds hate.

To be clear, I make no effective distinction between radical Islam and fundamentalist Christianity -- both are dangerous extremes that inflame more hate and inflict more damage than the "Godless secularism" they condemn.

While I begrudge no one their personal faith, I know a reliable correlation when I see it. Religious fundamentalism, regardless of the form it takes, decimates individual liberties, assaults the foundations of our society and threatens the country I love.

And that, unpopular is it may be, is something about which I refuse to equivocate.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Taxing experience

If you know me well, you know two things: I keep meticulous records and I pay my taxes.

The recordkeeping thing is equal parts nurture and nature. I was raised to be orderly, and I have a penchant for knowing exactly where I stand.

I pay my taxes, without exception or evasion, because I reap the benefits of this society and taxation is part of the price I pay for those benefits. Both the process and the cost can be burdensome, but I view it as a civil obligation. Should I oppose a tax, I have the right and the duty to express my opposition at the ballot box, in public forums and by other means.

A month ago, I got a letter from my state's department of taxation, informing me that I hadn't filed my 2006 income-tax return for the school district in which I live. Knowing that the notice was in error -- and after uttering more than a few dammits -- I gathered, copied and mailed my 2006 return and every shred of supporting documentation.

Problem solved -- or so I thought.

On Wednesday of this week, I received yet another letter from the tax department, along with a bill for unpaid 2006 taxes, penalties, fees and interest -- a total of $700, almost twice my obligation for the year. That evening, a few more dammits later, I dashed off a calm-but-quizzical e-mail to the department -- essentially,
"I filed and paid my 2006 taxes two months before they were due and complied with your request last month. I don't understand why you're billing me."
To my surprise, an e-mail response awaited me the next morning. Seems the tax authority's automated system still couldn't find evidence of either my return or, more important, my withholding statement. Mid-morning today, after two more e-mails and a fax, I got this message:
"We have cleared your bill. Your 2006 records show paid."

You'll notice that I'm not engaging in some rambling, vitriolic indictment of an incompetent bureaucracy -- in fact, the one bureaucrat I dealt with resolved the matter quickly and professionally. Automation, usually our friend, was the culprit in this case.

It took two humans -- one who accepts his responsibilities as a taxpayer and one who's competent in their role with the tax authority -- to clear this computer-generated error in less than 36 hours. Having the right attitude didn't hurt, either.

(Dammits notwithstanding.)

One thing, however, still has me scratching my head. When that helpful bureaucrat supplied me with a fax number, I discovered that The Great State of Ohio apparently has "outsourced" some of its operations -- not offshore, I'm glad to say, but to the State of Washington.

No offense, Washingtonians, but I have a problem with that.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Ohio's unemployment rate is 5.6% -- 9th-highest in the U.S. and a tick above the national rate of 5.5%. Washington's unemployment rate is 4.7%, lower than 21 other states.

I believe I'll drop a line to the Ohio Department of Taxation -- a note of thanks, of course, but also to encourage the department to keep its business close to home, where it belongs.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

DC: Still kicking, still screaming

In his Legal Commonplace Book, Thomas Jefferson saw fit to include a passage from On Crimes and Punishments by Cesare, Marquis of Beccaria. Translated from Cesare's original Italian, these words often are attributed to Jefferson:
"Laws that forbid the carrying of arms...disarm only those who are neither inclined nor determined to commit crimes. Such laws make things worse for the assaulted and better for the assailants; they serve rather to encourage than prevent homicides, for an unarmed man may be attacked with greater confidence than an armed one."
So one of our nation's founding fathers subscribed to truths offered by the father of criminology. District of Columbia Mayor Adrian Fenty and his police chief, Cathy Lanier, however, have no use for such wisdom.

Last night, nearly three weeks after the Supreme Court affirmed an individual citizen's Constitutional right to keep and bear arms, the Council of the District of Columbia passed emergency legislation to end DC's 32-year-old ban on handguns -- sort of.

In a
news release announcing the draft regulations, Mayor Fenty said this:
"We continue to take every step we can to minimize handgun violence in the District. We must prevent handguns from falling into the wrong hands or being misused, while allowing District residents to exercise their Second Amendment rights under the Heller ruling."
That might sound reassuring, but keep reading -- here's how DC explained its new regulations:
"The handgun ban remains in effect, except for use in self-defense within the home."

"The legislation modifies existing law to clarify that firearms in the home must be stored unloaded and either disassembled, secured with a trigger lock, gun safe, or similar device. An exception is made for a firearm
while it is being used against reasonably perceived threat of immediate harm to a person within a registered gun owner’s home."
There's more, including an onerous registration procedure that requires ballistics testing, photos, fingerprints, proof of residency, proof of good vision and passing a written firearms test. And registration fees, of course.

This is how the District of Columbia, home to the seat of our nation's government, complies with a Supreme Court ruling and respects our Constitution.

It's clear that the District will have to be litigated into compliance with Heller, as will countless other municipalities across the country. The wrangling and resistance likely will go on for years. Law-abiding gun owners, no matter where we live, must resolve to keep the pressure on those who continue to deny us our Second Amendment rights.

Monday, July 14, 2008

The Audacity of Satire

In case you haven't seen the cover of the latest issue of The New Yorker, the one that's creating all the buzz, here it is.

A caricature of Sen. Barack Obama is dressed in stereotypical Muslim attire, while wife Michelle appears as a latter-day Angela Davis, a Kalashnikov slung behind her. They're fist-bumping in the Oval Office. An image of Osama Bin Laden adorns the wall. An American flag burns in the fireplace.

In The New Yorker's long tradition of biting satire, and viewed in the editorial context of "the politics of fear," the image is absolutely brilliant. Predictably, however, it has the hypersensitive hyperventilating and the pundits quivering with outrage.

The Obama campaign has denounced the cover as offensive. Sen. John "High Road" McCain agrees. Even Bill Bennett calls it "tasteless."

I make allowances for differing views of editorial expression, but I also make room -- plenty of room -- for the vanishing art of satire, an art that's dying at the merciless hands of the politically correct.

David Remnick, The New Yorker's editor, today compared his magazine's cover to "Stephen Colbert in print." (For the uninitiated, Colbert is the Comedy Channel personality who skillfully lampoons conservative windbags by portraying a conservative windbag.)

I get it, Mr. Remnick. Most Americans won't, of course -- let's face it, they wouldn't know satire if it slapped their ass and called 'em Sally. Those aren't your readers.

Look, I don't expect the thin-skinned or ignorant human sub-species to march into extinction any time soon, but I'm just naive enough to hope that we can quit insisting that creative expression always be dumbed-down to its simplest and least offensive form. Is that too much to ask?

Apparently so.

Fortunately, I needn't dwell on the death of satire for very long, because the cover flap has spawned a downright hilarious sideshow. There must be millions of anti-Obamans, those impressionable folks who swallowed the very Internet garbage satirized by The New Yorker, proudly hanging that image on everything in sight.

Um...hey, buddy...I really hate to break it to you, but that cartoon isn't a dig at the Obamas -- it's making fun of you.

A week, at random

The past week has been plenty eventful, but after last Monday's mad dash to the ER I haven't put together a train of thought that might, in my judgment, be worthy of a post.

Life is composed of small bits. Here are a few.

Ever since the major parties' presumptive nominees were decided, I've taken a purposeful break from this subject. I remain aware, just disinterested and more than a little fatigued.

That's bound to change as November approaches.

I'm still wary of Sen. Obama's reliance on entitlements and the threat he poses to our Second Amendment rights. Sen. McCain, preferable by comparison, concerns me -- I'm not convinced that his political résumé is much more than a paper trail, and I've noticed that his personality has a bad habit of trumping his judgment.

Don't talk to me about no-shot minor-party candidates, however righteous they may be, or the prospect of my abstaining on Election Day. Either approach would be akin to taking a principled drill to a lifeboat that's already leaking.

The prices of crude oil and gasoline continue their climbs, setting new records almost every day, and the equity markets can't seem to stop sliding in the opposite direction. Ordinary working Americans will tell you that nearly everything costs a lot more than it did a year ago.

As if increasing home foreclosures and the so-called "mortgage crisis" weren't disturbing enough, last week IndyMac Bancorp collapsed, one of the largest bank failures in U.S. history, and promptly was bailed out by the feds. Now Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson is expected to ask Congress for the ok to buy unlimited stakes in the two biggest mortgage-finance companies, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac -- a pre-emptive bailout, ostensibly to help restore confidence in the American financial system.

Let's be clear about what's happening here: The U.S. government, itself crippled by self-inflicted deficits, presumes to buttress an economy that's spiraling out of control. As taxpayers and consumers, you and I will both foot that bill and pay an inestimable price.

Thud. Did you hear that?

Thud. Something smells funny in here.


I think it might be time to leave the mine.

Our garden is thriving. It's early, considering how late we planted, so I can't yet boast about harvesting bushels of tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers. Still, the small plot has yielded more than satisfaction and therapy.

This year's crop of raspberries is a tart and tasty memory, but our blackberries are starting to produce. Sprigs of fresh spearmint have garnished glasses of homemade lemonade, and various young herbs have seasoned our meals.

While awaiting this year's bounty, we're already planning next year's garden -- a much larger plot in another area of our property. This fall we'll need to till and prepare the soil, and it'll require considerably more work than our current "kitchen garden." Ideally, we'll keep seeds from the produce we consume and start them indoors in the spring.

I predict that it'll be worth the effort.

My appreciation of simple things is no secret -- not in this blog, and certainly not in our household -- but last week I actually spoke these words to my wife:

"Don't worry about me going overboard on the whole primitive-skills thing, honey. Not until I finish programming my new cell-phone, anyway..."
I've been using Palm PDAs for ten years and mobile phones even longer. When my carrier contract came up for renewal last Sunday, I upgraded to a Palm Centro. Until now I'd resisted Treo-temptation, but having my familiar PDA and my phone in one nifty little package is, well, damned convenient.

I may burn in hell for saying this, but I'm really diggin' it.

Smaller bits
On Wednesday a neurosurgeon told our younger spawn, who'd expected to spend only a month convalescing from his bicycle accident, that he's sentenced to another two months in his corset brace. For a 13-year-old, I discovered, there's a fine line between disappointment and utter devastation. We're engaged in acquainting him with the difference.

We hosted a gathering of out-of-town relatives and friends on Saturday -- a typical Middle American cookout, nothing fancy. My kettle of beer-soaked bratwursts and August-vintage refrigerator pickles joined an array of meats, salads, beans and confections on a groaning buffet table. Sweet corn supplied by a local farmer, too. Fresh food, good company, great music and relaxed conversation made for a near-perfect day.

My wife and I went for a motorcycle ride yesterday, regrettably one of the few times we've ridden together this season. I won't try to explain either the logic or the joy of a meandering, stream-of-consciousness ride along rural roads on an oppressively muggy morning, never straying farther than ten miles from home, but it was as liberating as anything we've done in months.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Close call, chance encounter

We made another trip to the emergency room last night.

At dinner, our older spawn inadvertently consumed a bit of skim milk, hidden in the ingredients of a bratwurst, triggering a severe allergic reaction. As soon as he felt the anaphylaxis coming on -- he's been dealing with this allergy every day of his life -- he took a few shots from his inhaler, downed some liquid antihistamine and chewed a couple of antacid tablets.

My wife set up his nebulizer with the prescribed bronchodilator. He breathed the drug into his lungs while we watched and waited.

It didn't help. His airway was closing. I called 911.

The squad arrived a few minutes later. They stabilized their young patient, loaded him into the ambulance and, with my wife riding shotgun, sped toward the hospital 18 miles away. I tailed them in my car.

By the time we arrived at the emergency room, our spawn was doing much better, thanks to the EMT's decision to administer a quick jab of epinephrine. The ER staff judged that the first danger had passed, but they insisted that we remain a while longer due to the possibility of a relapse.

Six hours later, the doctors were satisfied and we headed home. We finally hit our pillows at around 3am.

Naturally, this experience will further sharpen our scrutiny of those fine-print ingredient lists on the food we buy. And medically speaking, both the ambulance crew and the ER doctors advised us that we need to change our first-aid protocol.

We had our own emergency doses of epinephrine at-the-ready last night, but we’d hesitated to use it before seeing how well the bronchodilator worked -- which, in the words of one EMT, forces medical professionals to “play from behind.” So next time we’ll reach for an EpiPen sooner rather than later.

Scary moments, good outcome, lessons learned -- with an unexpected footnote.

When the two-man ambulance crew walked into our kitchen last night, one immediately went to work on our spawn. The other took notes as my wife described the treatment we'd administered prior to their arrival.

At one point, the second EMT paused, looked around the room and said, "I used to live in this house."

More than twenty years ago, he was the very first occupant of the house that's now our
home. He built the barn. He planted the trees. He waged an ultimately unsuccessful battle against the massive residential development that abuts our back yard.

That bit of serendipity, a connection with the past, reinforced our strong sense of home. And knowing that our older spawn emerged from his predicament alive and well, that chance encounter helped make yesterday a very good day.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

The Spoonmaker

Our township is celebrating its bicentennial this year. Concurrent with its Independence Day celebrations, the community is holding a Heritage Festival this weekend -- a sort of "living history" event, complete with local residents dressed in period garb, demonstrating the skills used to build and sustain life here two centuries ago.

Antique engines, some powered by steam, thresh grain, grind corn and transform logs into lumber, shingles and veneer. Human hands use simple tools to spin wool, knot lace, bind straw into brooms and throw pottery. There's a small encampment of Union soldiers. Children wait impatiently for a turn on a horse-drawn wagon.

As my wife and I strolled the festival grounds yesterday, I kept reminding her about what I really wanted to see: spoon carving. And each time I brought it up, she gave me that look.

We found The Spoonmaker seated under a canvas canopy, pulling a drawknife along a cherry blank held in a dead-weight vise. I watched as he took the rough piece in his hands and shaped it carefully with a primitive knife, coaxing practical form from the wood.

Meantime, Mrs. KintlaLake was engaged in conversation with The Spoonmaker's wife, who proudly displayed their work and described the unique character of each piece. I couldn't help but smile as my wife warmed to the combination of beauty and utility in a humble, handcrafted wooden spoon.

In the end, I brought home one of The Spoonmaker's small wooden table spoons. And my wife? She bought three.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Our small-town Fourth

Sharps, Part II: On the belt

As practical and appealing as I find pocketknives to be, sometimes there's a better (and bigger) tool for the job.

Almost without exception, "better" and "bigger" are accompanied by a higher price and a belt sheath. While the latter may be necessary, the former, at least for me, has its limits.

To be sure, there's nothing like using an expensive handmade knife. I'll even grant the higher quality and, in some cases, superior durability and utility of handcrafted blades and tools -- but are their ultimate attributes, whether real or romantic, worth $500, $1,000 or more?

That question must be answered by each buyer. For this buyer, the answer generally is "No."

With that said, here are some sharps that belong on my belt.

The story about my choice of multi-tools is as simple as these gadgets are complex: the
Leatherman Wave (street $75).

I find it easy to one-hand the Wave's pliers, and the two main cutting blades are designed to be opened with a flick of the thumb with the tool closed, an arrangement that works for me. I own both the original Wave (pictured) and the newer version (slightly larger blades and interchangeable screwdriver bits). Typical of my experience with Leatherman multi-tools, both are solid and durable.

To be fair, a bunch of other companies offer excellent multi-tools (Gerber, SOG, Buck and Victorinox among others) and I've used many of them. The one I most want to love is my SOG Paratool -- it's light, tough and full-featured, but I find the blades and small tools difficult to deploy quickly, so it rarely takes a ride on my belt.

My collection of single-blade folding knives began 26 years ago with a
Case #2159 -- big and heavy, solid-brass frame and bolsters and phenolic scales. Its hollow-ground clip-pattern blade takes and holds a dangerous edge. I've worked that knife to the brink of abuse, but it refuses to surrender. It now lives in semi-retirement, a bona-fide keeper.

I'll confess to being seduced the first time I handled a Spyderco knife, and judging by the rash of shameless mimicry, many other cutlery companies were likewise smitten. My Endura 4 (retail $80, street $60) actually gets clipped to my pocket, not stuffed into a belt sheath. Its light weight belies its sturdiness and makes it a pleasure to use hard.

Today, my preferred go-to folder is the SOG Tomcat 3.0 (retail $230, street $110), a knife that fanned my lust for years before I found a good deal and gave in. It's stout, smooth, quiet, perfectly balanced and remarkably nimble for a large folder. The Tomcat's mild-recurve edge might just be my favorite blade -- ever.

Fixed blades
Among my retired knives is a small fixed-blade Western, similar to those made by that company for the Boy Scouts. I bought it at a trailhead outfitter during a long-ago summer in Montana, and it served me well on numerous treks into the wilderness. Despite the fact that it doesn't feature exotic steel or a high-tech serrated edge, it was a faithful companion that never let me down -- probably because I know a bit about bushcraft and respected the limits of this particular knife.

I'll wager that most fixed-blade knives in circulation are mass-market skinners or hunters like my Buck Special #119 (retail $80, street $35). Some will say that the tip of the blade is prone to breakage and that the phenolic handle material can be slippery when wet, but neither has been a problem for me. While this Buck may not be the ideal survival knife, when worked within its very reasonable limits I find it to be an excellent bushcraft tool.

I picked up the SOG Seal Pup Elite (retail $120, street $60) only recently, but based on its design and my previous experience with SOG, I have great expectations of the knife. At this point I can say that it's finished well, balances like it should, fits my hand perfectly and cuts like a demon. With a minimalist survival kit stashed in the front pocket of its nylon sheath, I can see this knife becoming the centerpiece of a compact grab-and-go system.

The closest I come to recommending a pricey handmade knife is the Bravo-1 from Bark River Knife & Tool (retail $220, street $150). The sharps produced by Mike Stewart's Michigan company inspire almost cult-like loyalty, and this knife shows why such devotion is deserved. Developed in cooperation with the USMC Force Recon Training Unit, the convex-grind Bravo-1 excels as a versatile, no-nonsense survival/bushcraft knife. Once you have it in your hand, you'll see why I believe that this Barkie is a winner.

(Read more about the Bravo-1 here and here.)

Like most people, sometimes I have a long wish list and a short wallet -- after all, I need to put together a go-kit for each member of my family. And I want to keep a knife in each vehicle. And I'm looking for a decent fixed-blade utility knife to carry while I'm doing yard work.

With that in mind, I like the Glock 81 Survival Knife (retail $50, street $20). No, this isn't the crème de la crème of fixed-blade knives -- some will deride it as "a brand-name bayonet" (which is pretty accurate) or even "a sharpened pry-bar" -- but in the bang-for-buck category, the Glock 81 is hard to beat. I've found that working the teeth of the "root saw" with a triangular file, followed by a few minutes' attention to the cutting edge with a good stone, makes the Glock quite capable.

These two posts aren't meant to be the last word on sharps -- other people will make different choices, and experience continues to shape my preferences.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Sharps, Part I: In the pocket

You're looking at my favorite knife: an Ulster Official Boy Scout Pocket Knife, circa 1968.

In a world of myriad-function folding pliers, high-zoot folders and obscenely priced über knives, give me a basic pocketknife -- every time.

From pruning a rose bush to surviving the worst, nothing is as useful as a good knife. But in order to use a knife, first I must have it with me. And that's the humble pocketknife's greatest advantage -- I can carry it everywhere, every day.

(Commercial aircraft and courthouses notwithstanding, of course.)

I retired my trusty Ulster from everyday carry some years ago, eventually becoming a fan of the Victorinox brand of Swiss Army-type knives. These days, my first choice is the Victorinox Soldier.

To most people, "Swiss Army Knife" means red plastic scales (handle material) and a dizzying array of tools. The Soldier -- which happens to be the Swiss Army's standard-issue knife -- has "Alox" metal scales and only four basic tools. In addition, the main blade is larger and thicker than those found on Victorinox's consumer-grade knives.

That it closely resembles my old Boy Scout knife is no coincidence.

I've found the Soldier to be durable, capable and well-made. It's not a budget-buster, either -- suggested retail is $34, although it's widely available for less than $20.

About a year ago, I started looking for a pocketknife that offered a bit more than the Soldier, for times when my pockets could accommodate a bulkier knife. What I settled on was another Victorinox, commonly called the Bundeswehr (retail $50, street $35). A variant of the One-Hand Trekker, it's the standard-issue knife of the German Federal Defense Force, or Bundeswehr.

It features the same tools found on the Soldier, but they're slightly larger and stouter. The Bundeswehr adds a Phillips screwdriver and a saw blade, and the main cutting blade is equipped with a thumbhole for one-handed opening. Both the half-serrated main blade and the screwdriver/bottle-opener tool benefit from liner locks.

No toothpick, no tweezers. Fine with me.

As an accessory to a suit and tie, the Soldier's lower profile and classy Alox scales get my personal nod over the Bundeswehr's relative bulk and olive-drab plastic. But almost everywhere else -- backyard, trail, bug-out bag -- the Bundeswehr works better for me. Its larger blade and tools, along with a beefier and more ergonomic grip, make it easier to apply more force when I need to. And because it's still a pocketknife, the Bundeswehr loses little in the way of nimbleness.

Granted, my preferences bend toward Victorinox, but many other companies make quality sharps -- buyer's choice.

I'll also admit that there are situations and tasks for which a multi-tool, a large folder or a heavy fixed-blade knife is superior to a pocketknife -- but when it's sitting in a drawer back home, a better tool gives up all of its advantages to a good knife in the pocket.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

A new tradition

For many Americans, tomorrow kicks off Independence Day weekend -- four days of family, friends, food and fireworks.

Something about our 4th of July celebrations sets this holiday apart from, say, Christmas or Thanksgiving. The noisier and more raucous it is, the better we like it.

Maybe it's the whole independence thing. We seem to have decided that "cutting loose" is the ultimate tribute to independence.

Hey, neighbor -- my kid is going to set off string after string of firecrackers, right in the middle of the cul de sac, all night long, because it's Independence Day!

It is, as they say, a great country. Party on -- I'll be right there with you.

But before I crack open that first beer on Friday, I'll be starting an Independence Day tradition of my own. I'll find a quiet place under the summer sky to do some holiday reading.

"When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation."
I'll take a moment to conjure an image of a band of committed patriots who valued, above all else, their independence.
"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."
I'll look around at my family and friends, celebrating their independence, their freedom.
"That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness."
I’ll gratefully acknowledge that those words, already familiar to me, are the reason for this day of celebration.

I doubt that an annual reading of the Declaration of Independence will achieve the popularity of the biblical Christmas story or A Visit from St. Nicholas, but that’s not the point. This is:

I stand in freedom today because those brave men stood for independence 232 years ago.

For me, that bears remembering -- every day, but especially on this Independence Day.