big hairy deal

One potato, two potato

Hasbro has announced that it will change the name of its Mr. Potato Head toy to simply, “Potato Head.” In de-gendering its toy, it hopes to appeal to the diversity and inclusion crowd, I suppose, but I don’t see it.

I’m old enough to remember when you had to supply your own potato to play with this toy. The various parts had little spikes on the back that allowed you to stick them into the spud of your choice. Thus, you could use a russet potato, a red potato, or a yellow potato, which was already pretty inclusive. By the time I was grown up, the toymaker had switched to supplying hollow plastic “potatoes” with pre-set holes into which you could stick the noses, eyes, and other features. This somehow made the toy more limiting, but I suppose it was more sanitary.

Anyway, Mr. Potato Head already comes in two forms, Mr. and Mrs. You can make a male or female potato head, as you please. Is this not diverse and inclusive enough? Why strip the poor spud of all gender, simply to re-gender it by your choices?

For that matter, Mr. Potato Head would seem to be the perfect toy to celebrate gender fluidity; after all, the potato form itself is neither male nor female. It is left for you, the customer, to determine the sex of your potato. You can have a Mr. OR a Mrs. (or a Ms., if you prefer) Potato Head. There is no biological destiny to overcome: appearance IS reality, and it is entirely up to your personal choice. You could even – gasp! – mix and match the features to come up with an androgynous tuber (and assign it whatever pronouns you decree for it).

You may think I am merely offering snark here, but I have a very serious point. We are assaulted by angry people these days who insist that we strip away all gender from persons, from language, from social concepts, even toys, because gender is irrelevant. Then the same angry people insist that gender is SO important that they must be guaranteed the right to choose their own and all the rest of us have to employ whatever shibboleths they demand in order to acknowledge their chosen reality. Well, which IS it? Is gender an obstacle to be discarded, or the ultimate measure of your identity?

One day the mob howls one thing, the next it howls something else. If it weren’t so dangerous to offend it, nobody would pay any attention to the people howling. And once it becomes obvious that there is no way to stay on its good side, then toymakers and politicians and everybody else will wise up and cease to jump when the mob howls for them to jump. And then it won’t have any power anymore.

As for the taters, I’m tired of the few, angry agi-taters. There are far more sweet taters out there who better deserve our attention.
in the soup

Conscience and the practice of medicine

I read a post online recently that said that those who refuse to offer medical care because of some personal belief of theirs have no business in medicine and should be barred from practicing it. I think I know what the poster was thinking about when that was written, but bear with me for a bit.Collapse )

Some thoughts on enlightenment

Mark Twain said, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one's lifetime.” I agree. It’s important to meet people who know things differently, who speak a different language, who have different customs. Sadly, there are people who travel the world and only stay in their little Western bubble wherever they go. They only stay at hotels offering Western-style service and amenities. They eat Western food – or Westernized versions of the local food. They tour places that have been adjusted to receive them – and their tourist dollars. The British built a global empire, but made a little Britain everywhere they went; Americans wander the world, and never see anything but tourist kitsch. They see only themselves reflected in all that they encounter.

Meanwhile, there are people in this country who interact with foreigners – tourists, students, whoever – in much the same pattern. They think they’re being broadminded to ask foreign students what pronouns they prefer. In many cases, I’m sure the foreign students would never dream of asking people back home to use their personally chosen pronouns, even if that were possible in their language. But they are young and eager to figure out America (that’s why they’re coming here to study), so when they’re asked such a bizarre question, they respond in the way Western elites expect them to. After all, they want to experience the natives (us) fully, understand the world as we see it, etc.

L.P. Hartley said, “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” Travel into the past by means of books or other study can be as enlightening as travel across the world. And once again, it’s important to see things as the natives of the past saw them, to make the effort to learn something of their language, their art, their customs. Doing so will enlarge your own understanding of life. But there are people, some of them with fancy degrees, who read all the histories through the lens of whatever totem they use to analyze everything. They survey space and time and see only themselves. There are cranks on the Right, cranks on the Left, religious cranks, economic cranks, nationalist cranks, racial cranks, sexual cranks, revolutionary cranks . . . the list is endless. The one thing they all have in common is their lack of humility. They can only teach, and so they can never learn.

In setting out to encounter the world, I must begin with myself. That self comes from a place, a time, a culture. It speaks a language. And with every encounter in my ever-widening experience, I meet people who are Not Me; Not Us (however defined). When I make a connection with them, a mutual understanding or experience, that’s a wonderful thing. We have become a We. But trying to discover who they really are (insofar as I can discover it), I also learn more about my self and the people I come from. I constantly find new things to admire in others – but I also sometimes find things I can’t admire, no matter how I try. As a result of my encounters, I also constantly question what I have always “known” – and sometimes wind up affirming it still. It’s okay to admire. It’s okay to critique. It’s okay to change your mind. And it’s okay to confirm your previous opinion. Only you must not put people – living or dead – on the bed of Procrustes and simply justify your prejudices. You didn’t need to leave home to do that.

“Wherever you go, there you are” is a book by some guy named Jon Kabat-Zinn. But it’s more than a book title. It is the existential reality of the uneducable.
polar bear

There's no business like snow business

And we've been getting the business, that's for sure.

It snowed most of yesterday afternoon and overnight. When the sun was finally abroad in the sky, I took a look at the first task of the day -- well, the first after my morning coffee, anyway. It was beautiful, and it was going to hurt.


Looking out my back door
Doot, doot, do


The beasts of burden are buried and blocked

The back yard could take care of itself, I decided. There was bird food enough in the feeders and no other reason to be traipsing around back there. I addressed myself to the walks and drives, therefore. Halfway through, I had to change hat and jacket for lighter ones because I was heating up too much inside my snowsuit. I persevered, however, and eventually got everything cleared. I also started up both vehicles so they'll be ready to go when summoned.


Ready for takeoff
Runway cleared, wings de-iced


Where the sidewalk ends
Where the shoveling ends, anyway

I'm about the only guy in the neighborhood still trying to keep his sidewalk clear. I don't say this to be arrogant, but as a point of civic pride. I want to be a good citizen, and so will keep this up as long as I can. It's something I was raised to do. That thought helps make shoveling snow a little more tolerable. (Look at me, I'm actually a responsible adult -- who'd'a thunk it?) Two other thoughts comfort me in this otherwise aggravating task: gratitude to God that I am still strong and healthy enough to get out there and do it; and concern for Deanne as I clear her car and her half of the driveway exit. (She has to go get her driver's license renewed this evening and needs to make a quick getaway come 5:00.)

So "blow, blow, thou winter wind." We're still open for business Downhill From Walmart.

Camping in the snow

When I was a boy, my Scout Troop twice camped the new year in at the Curry Farm south of Spencer. Went out December 31 and came home January 1. Both times we had snow. One of those times, the snow was deep enough and the ground frozen enough that I had to use snow anchors instead of tent pegs for my tent -- the only time I've ever done that.

On that same campout, if I remember correctly, Herk Sexton chucked an egg at somebody and our Junior Assistant Scoutmaster told him to eat it. Herk knocked the cracked top off the egg, put a tiny pat of butter in it and coddled it in the shell down among the coals of the fire. Herk also forgot to bring any oil or grease to cook his pancakes in. But he thought he would try, anyway. The pancake batter was so stiff with cold that it was almost solid. He poured it in his aluminum cook-kit skillet, immediately turned it twice, and -- it did fine. He cooked it through without burning it. We were amazed.

Some years later, I was a student pastor during the Blizzard of '78. After the big snow had dumped itself on us, one of the dads of my youth group helped me take three junior high boys camping in deep snow in the Greene-Sullivan State Forest. One of the coldest nights I ever spent in the woods. I had very little church background growing up, so I knew nothing about youth ministry when I started -- but I knew how to take kids camping, so that's what we did.

I've had other memorable camping and hiking trips in the snow. It takes some extra preparation, but it can be very rewarding. Deanne once built a snowman with some Explorers on Baldy Mountain at Philmont on the first day of summer!

On global trade

I was reading an article on the paradox of global trade. The more freely we trade goods, which is to say, the more interdependent we become with others, the more independent we seem to become. Because we are not trading face-to-face with people we know, we think of them as strangers, and strangers are them, not us. We see them as less important to us; sometimes, we see them as a threat. Hence, the urge to protectionism, anti-globalization, etc.

It occurred to me that global trade is much older than we usually think. We emerged from the Stone Age when people learned to make tools out of bronze. But bronze, while easy to make, requires tin, which is a rare element. In the ancient Mediterranean and Near East, there were only a few skimpy sources of tin. The most plentiful supplier of tin was Cornwall, on the island of Great Britain. Most of the people making bronze in Greece or the Levant didn't know where the tin came from. If you asked them what people were like in the legendary northern isles, they would have supposed them to be savages. But tin was traded from Britain to what was later Gaul and Hispania, and traded on from Massilia and Carthage to destinations all over. Without British tin, the Bronze Age could not have brought its advances to Greece, to Egypt, to Assyria, to Rome.

In terms of luxury goods, you could make the same case for amber. Amber was traded from the Baltic, where it was produced, to the Mediterranean and Near East, passing through many intermediaries to reach markets in the classical world.

Goods passed the other way, too. Archaeologists have found many artifacts from the Mediterranean in deposits from the Bronze Age in Britain. Even before coinage was invented, there was a single economy that spanned societies where people could barely imagine life at the other end of the trade network.
old whig

Ignorance of the law may not be an excuse, but it sure is ubiquitous

Recently, I had cause to comment on a friend's social media post about the culpability of Donald Trump vs. that of his supporters for the January 6 riot at the Capitol. I carry no brief to excuse Trump's conduct, but some of the arguments advanced one way or another boggled my mind.

First, the idea that "you can't shout fire in a crowded theater" is from a now discredited Supreme Court case that excused the jailing of a citizen for the "crime" of handing out pamphlets opposing the draft during WW 1. It is much, much harder to prove culpability for words, even in tumultuous contexts, these days.

Second, the idea that we let off soldiers and policemen -- and the Nazis after WW 2 -- because "they were just following orders" is nonsense. We hanged and shot people after the war for following certain orders. And in the US military today, our uniformed personnel are repeatedly told that you can be tried for following an illegal command.

These two mistaken tropes illustrate a larger problem. When we're sure of the moral dimension of our case, we throw all kinds of brickbats against it. Any stick will do to beat a dog, as the old saying goes. But if we want to build a better society, it matters what arguments we use to advance our cause.

Let me give you an illustration of the wrongheadedness of citing ignorant misunderstandings of the law.

Years ago, I had a parishioner call me, and very upset she was. Her nephew had announced plans to marry his first cousin, once removed. Citing the frequently misunderstood idea that the child of your first cousin is your second cousin, he and his intended had obtained a marriage license for that purpose. Regardless whether her nephew cited the mistaken belief that his bride was actually his second cousin because of ignorance or fraud, the license wasn't valid. My parishioner wanted to forewarn me in case they came looking for me to marry them.

Well, I wouldn't have married someone who just appeared, license in hand, under any circumstances, but I thanked her for the heads-up. The lovebirds found someone, though, to do the deed: a self-appointed minister without a church of his own. They rented a vacant chapel down the road, and there the wedding took place. When the "minister" was tasked with having married a couple not permitted to marry under the laws of Indiana, he scoffed, saying, "They do that all the time in Kentucky." Well, actually, no they don't. Kentucky law is the same as Indiana's in that regard. And even if it had been otherwise, they didn't have a Kentucky license.

So: if I assert, whether from ignorance or fraud, that my first cousin, once removed, is actually my second cousin in order to obtain a marriage license, does that make my marriage valid? If I conduct an illegal marriage because I ignorantly assume that it's okay somewhere else, does that excuse my conduct? If lots of people believe both these ideas (and they do), does that make either of them more excusable?

No. No. And, no.

We live in an age where people believe whatever they want, and think that their belief creates a different reality as regards the law. Even scarier, they are willing to believe contradictory things at different times, in order to argue for or against a particular person or cause. The result is that ideas are drained of their meaning. If all that matters is what side somebody is on, then the whole idea of the rule of law itself has no meaning.

Reflections on the journey

I'm reading Baden-Powell's Aids to Scoutmastership: the Theory of Scouting for Scoutmasters (1919). It's a fascinating read. BSA treats B-P as a totem, but in many ways has strayed from his methodology. I suppose they think of him as an eminent Victorian, the good and the bad of him (which he was); but he was also a very intelligent man who had done his research. For example, Aids to Scoutmastership is full of quotes from various experts in Education and Psychology. It might interest you to know that B-P identified his educational approach with that of Maria Montessori, and knew her practice well.

Among his many pronouncements is a small section entitled, "What Scouting is not." A couple of his observations there might cause some red faces at many a training course or Board meeting today.

It [Scouting] is not a school having a definite curriculum and standards of examination.

It is not a show where surface results are gained through payment in merit badges, medals, etc.
Above all, B-P emphasized adventure, new experiences, encountering the natural world, learning to make things with your hands, and the guiding relationship of the Scoutmaster with each Scout. I've been a Scoutmaster and Venturing Advisor for several units over the years, and those are the things I've cared about. Too much of Scouting today is about corporate culture, heavy and expensive gear, and an obsession with patches and credentials. Summer camp has become school-in-the-woods. Oh, you can still do old-fashioned Scouting, but the other Scouters will think you an oddball; thank God the Scouts you take along won't.

Alas, I have reached the age when I'm getting a bit old to carry that kind of responsibility month after month. I still know how to find the Magic, but the ground is getting harder and colder all the time, and my body doesn't recuperate as fast as once it did. I could still play a strong second banana, I suppose. And I still do the odd event.

At its heart, however, Scouting furnished me all kinds of experiences where I felt like Rat and Mole coming upon the Piper at the Gates of Dawn. It made me what I am, and my Scoutmaster had a lot to do with that. That -- and seeing young people have similar experiences on the Scouting Trail under my leadership -- are what have kept me in Scouting.

Still round the corner there may wait
A new road or a secret gate,
And though we pass them by today,
Tomorrow we may come this way
And take the hidden paths that run
Towards the Moon or to the Sun.
Apple, thorn, and nut and sloe,
Let them go! Let them go!
Sand and stone and pool and dell,
Fare you well! Fare you well!

Why "Eat the Rich" Doesn't Work

Around about the dawn of the 1970s, the tax regime in the UK was blatantly confiscatory. Tax rates on top earners were around 90%, and in some cases could exceed the actual amount of earnings. This led the Beatles to write “Taxman” in protest. (“One for you, nineteen for me” referred to a rate of 19 shillings in the pre-decimal pound.) It also led them and other high-earning British artists to relocate to countries with friendlier tax laws, such as the USA.

The moral of the story is, the truly rich will always be able to avoid paying more taxes than they feel is just. This is why there are tax havens around the world and various tax avoidance schemes to invest in. And, of course, the rich can live anywhere. They can choose which government will tax them. And it’s not just evil, greedy CEOs of those awful corporations who do it; left-leaning celebrities who natter on about all the right causes don’t handle their money any differently from corporate bigwigs and politicians of all parties.

So who does the pay the price for high tax rates? Well, middle class people of all sorts, who can’t afford to relocate but are stuck bearing the load dumped on them by the government. And poor people. People who don’t pay taxes (well, income taxes, anyway) nevertheless have to pay inflated prices for everything, because the people and companies who produce what they need to live have to pay their taxes. All tax costs are eventually passed on to the consumers, and poor people’s entire incomes are pegged to consumption of basic necessities just to live.

In the fable of the Golden Goose, the stupid peasants who found their goose laid a golden egg each day imagined that if they just killed the goose, they could get all the golden eggs at once. They wound up cooking their goose, in more ways than one.
cook with fire

At the store, at the store, at the Quartermaster's store*

I was asked to be Quartermaster for this year’s NYLT (National Youth Leadership Training) Course. I was honored to accept the role. This is a very senior leadership post; since I have never before participated in an NYLT course, this is an unusual move on the Course Scoutmaster’s part. Of course, he knows my abilities from many other contexts, but still. I have a sneaking suspicion that in addition to my proven abilities (particularly with food service), he asked me to fill this role because I’d never done the course before. I look at everything with new eyes.

As I grapple with the job to be done, my experience leads me to know what I need to know. In seeking to know it, I expose cracks in the program and team that will cause others to have to work better. Example: as other adult team members with lots of experience tell me how the program works, each of them describes a rather different event from the others. They all think they’re describing the same event, but they all have different expectations, formed over many courses, some in other Councils. I pore over the written materials – the mere skeleton of the program – to discover which of them is more accurately describing the job to be done, and Lo! and behold, it’s not written down anywhere. In some cases, the draft outline is just that, and I know there are choices to be made, though where the decision points are is not indicated on the draft as published. Lots of room for confusion and wasted effort here.

Right now, I’m awaiting the scheduling of a senior team meeting with other key youth and adult staff. At that meeting, my goal is to ask explicit questions about the things I need to know and not let them wave me off. Now, I’d really prefer to just get with the SM and ask, How do you want it done? That would make my life easier. But I suspect he’s putting me off because he wants the other team members to have to wrestle with this, so that they can make the course better. That means (dear God) committee work. Which is painful, but I’ll have to trust that the SM’s aim of making the others (especially the youth leadership) wrestle with this will make the whole course better.

*Really old Scout camp song. Look it up.