Thursday, December 31, 2009

Here's to the Uh-ohs

New Year’s Eve. A time to think about the past year and all the things that happened, and all your plans for the next year, and Ohio State’s chances of winning the Rose Bowl, and why New Year’s Eve TV programming has sucked ever since Guy Lombardo’s orchestra disbanded, and….

Enough. Why do we even celebrate the New Year when we do? It’s of no astronomical significance (the winter solstice is already past). My research indicates that it marks the installation of two Roman consuls in 153 B.C. Such is the reason why millions of people get plastered. Let’s hear it for those Roman consuls!

Still, I guess we have to mark the time somehow and why not now? This year is special because it marks (at least in the public eye) the end of a decade. (And, yes, I know it’s technically not a new decade until next year. Spare me your pedantry.) A decade with no name. Nobody came up with a really good name for this decade, a la “the ‘50s, the ‘60s,” etc. “The Aughts” isn’t bad. I hate “The Noughties.” It sounds like something they sell at Victoria’s Secret. And besides, the decade wasn’t especially naughty. Remember that an exposed breast nearly caused the Apocalypse at the Super Bowl not so long ago.

This decade’s lack of a name is appropriate, because there’s not much about this decade that’s memorable, except 9/11 and the election of President Obama. Seriously. Every other decade had some things that defined it. The ‘50s gave us rock ‘n roll. The ‘60s gave us antiwar protests. The ‘70s gave us really ugly clothes. The ‘00s (would you say that “uh-ohs”?) gave us…what? An increase in blogs and social networking. That’s about all you can say for it. “Seinfeld” was a ‘90s TV show, but you could call the Uh-ohs “The Seinfeld Decade”—because it was a decade about nothing.

Not that it was bad for me on a personal level. During the Uh-ohs (I like that name better already), I made a lot of new friends through Mensa, met my wonderful wife, moved to a new city and found a great new life. The Uh-ohs left me far better than they found me. Maybe that’s why it seems like a decade about nothing to me. Maybe I’m just too busy to immerse myself in pop culture as much as I used to.

Perhaps the decade is just too recent for us to step back and define it. At the end of the ‘80s, I couldn’t find anything that stood out in my mind about the decade except Reagan, greed, and the ubiquitous presence of Phil Collins on the radio. But in retrospect, it has its own nostalgic niche—mainly among people who are too young to actually remember it.

So maybe it will be up to the pop culture historians 10 or 20 years hence to look back at the Uh-ohs and name the things that will give it a name. In the meantime, let’s have the best 2010 we can and give ourselves something that we can feel truly nostalgic about someday.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

When the bad guy wins

In our culture, it is accepted as an article of faith that good triumphs in the end. It may take years, but good always wins.

It is this meme, mantra, or whatever you want to call it, that keeps us getting out of bed day after day, working meaningless jobs, dealing with idiots, and experiencing sporadic happiness—the idea that, no matter how badly you’ve been screwed, you’ll be on top someday.

Then there are those times when it becomes apparent that the good guy’s not going to win this time around.

This entry is about one of those times.

When I was in high school, an English teacher took a great interest in my writing, and I became infected with the idea that I could make a living as a writer. Several years later, I found myself writing for a community newspaper. The editor of that paper seemed like a decent guy. He was a strong writer and appeared to know the ins and outs of journalism. I saw him as a mentor, even a friend.

After about a year at the paper, it became clear to me that he was neither. On several occasions, suggestions he made to me got me in trouble with co-workers, and this appeared to be a pattern with other people at the paper, too. Things got worse when the paper was purchased by a chain and he was named managing editor. The paper’s format was tightened, and anything that deviated from that format was severely punished. I learned the hard way that the press is only truly free if you own it.

One day, I had a performance review, where I was confronted with every article I’d written over the past three years that this guy didn’t like. Soon after that, he fired me.

That should be the end of the story. I had grown to hate the job anyway. Sometimes I think I should thank him for taking away my right to take shit off of soccer moms for 15 grand a year. I’m in a different line of work now, and my life has gotten better. But I never completely gave up the dream of being a writer.

One day, I Googled his name and couldn’t believe what I found. He has become a fairly well respected, award winning writer of mysteries. He hasn’t made the best-seller list, to my knowledge, but I can’t seem to find anything bad about his writing online, either. My blood boils with every five-star review of his novels I read on

It wasn’t enough for him to kill one of my dreams. He had to kill—or at least beat me to—another.

Our culture tells us that the way I feel is somehow evil—that it’s bad to feel bitter about someone else’s success.

Then again, our culture also tells us that good always wins.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

An Obama presidency post-mortem

You read that right. This entry is a post-mortem of the Obama presidency.

He will still be in office for at least three more years and could be re-elected, but in an important way, his presidency ended earlier this week when he announced that he would send an additional 30,000 troops to Afghanistan.

What has ended is any idea that his presidency will lead to radical change. Many people have hoped—or feared—that Obama’s election would lead to some sort of revolution, although the substance of that revolution differed with each person you asked.

I voted for him. My wife and I cried at 11 p.m. on election night when he was declared the winner. But looking back, I think that all the people who thought that his election would lead to truly drastic changes in this country weren’t looking at his resume close enough. Revolutionaries aren’t given the opportunity to edit the Harvard Law Review. Hell, revolutionaries aren’t allowed within 300 feet of the Harvard campus!

Obama may be sincere about change, but he is also a political careerist, like many others in Washington. He has spent most of his life being schooled in, among other things, the art of compromise, and he knows that alienating too many people would be damaging to the career that he has devoted his life to developing.

In the (allegedly good) old days, politics was a sideline for most of the people involved in it. Look at this list of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. Do you see anyone whose occupation is listed as “politician”? Many lawyers, but, as in our time, most lawyers are not politicians. People got into politics because they cared about the way the government was being run, but they did not see politics as the primary way to feed themselves.

Somewhere along the way, the laws became more sophisticated and harder for the average person to understand. The complexity required that public office become a full time job.

Lincoln’s proverbial one-room schoolhouse became no longer adequate to train a President. Neither were the public schools and state universities that do all right by most people. College programs became devoted to public policy and began to turn out a new breed of student princes, such as Obama, as skilled at the political game as a brain surgeon. While most of them are attorneys, few have any experience in an area of law that is not related to politics.

What does this have to do with sending troops to Afghanistan? Obama has made this decision after careful consulting with his military advisers. He is not about to make a decision that will step on the wrong toes. If he alienates too many important people, the career that has become his life will be over. Seriously—if he weren’t a politician, what would he do? Write people’s wills? Work for Edgar Snyder?

It is not a partisan problem. There are just as many political careerists on the Republican side. While it’s good that politicians have been well trained in the nuances of creating laws, something has also been lost. There is a certain hesitancy to be decisive if it means being unpopular.

When President Truman fired the popular General MacArthur at the height of the Korean War, it was political suicide. While Truman has been resurrected as a folk hero, people forget that he left office with some of the lowest approval ratings in history. Similarly, when President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, legend has it that he told an aide, “We [the Democratic Party] have lost the South for a generation.” And they did. In both cases, Presidents weren’t afraid to stick their necks out to do something that they thought was right, even if they knew it would hurt their careers. It’s hard to see anybody in Washington being that brave today.

Barring the faux-Mayan apocalypse that some people believe in (which wouldn’t happen until after Election Day, anyhow), I will vote for Obama again in 2012, mainly because I think the balance on the Supreme Court is too precarious to allow a right-wing President to appoint conservative judges to that body. But that’s another blog entry.

Meet the new boss. Not quite the same as the old boss, but maybe not different enough to really matter. It may not be change we can believe in, but it may be the only type of change that’s believable.