Archive for March, 2011

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  • March 30th, 2011

The Winds of Disgrace

By Joel M. Vance
“The dog did it!”
“Har de har har har!”
Flatulence is a laughing matter, save perhaps at the during a quiet moment at the marriage ceremony of Prince William and Kate Middleton.
There are low humor books dedicated to the release of rectal gas.  Google “farts” and you will find more methane media than you ever would have dreamed exists.

Le Farteur

The fart is omnipresent.  We all do it and perhaps it would help the timorous to imagine Henry Kissinger cutting a chainsaw-loud blue darter.  How about the Pope, overdosed on Communion wafers?
On the other hand, farting is gross.  Consider the source.  Some things you just don’t talk about.  “Fart,” after all, is a four-letter word.  According to Wikipedia, the know-all web encyclopedia, “The immediate roots are in the Middle English words ferten, feortan or farten; which is akin to the Old High German word ferzan. Cognates are found in old Norse, Slavic and also Greek and Sanskrit.”
Not only does the word have a long history; it resounds in literature as well.  Everyone who has been assigned “The Canterbury Tales” in high school English (at least the guys) inevitably zeroes in on “The Miller’s Tale” which involves a particularly gross story of butt-kissing and fart-in-the-face low humor.  So who would say that England’s literary reputation began with Shakespeare?
The Bard was not averse to fart jokes either–“A man may break a word with you, sir; and words are but wind; Ay, and break it in your face, so he break it not behind” from “A Comedy of Errors.”  One of the stories from “The Arabian Nights” also concerns farts.
Benjamin Franklin, perhaps the most astonishingly complete of our founding fathers, sought a way to perfume gastric effusions so that even if a person couldn’t muffle the sound, he or she could make the incident as pleasant as possible.
His lovely essay on butt blossoms is preserved in a book “Fart Proudly” and the fact that his essay on farting still is in print after 200 years is comforting.  See if Harry Potter can last that long (maybe if there is a sequel Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Fart).
You can order bumper stickers saying “Bean Powered” or “Methane-Endowed and Proud” And Europeans say Yanks lack sophistication.  What could be more elegant than a wet T-shirt contest where all the dripping mammaries bear a “Club Methane” inscription?
Lighting farts is a time-honored form of low humor, equivalent to, but not as well- accepted, as a cream pie in the face.  Only once have I seen it and it was a moving experience.  I moved quickly to escape the blue flame.
A fellow dorm rat in college demonstrated.  He had the apparent intellectual capacity of Neanderthal Man and thought lighting a fart with a match was thigh-slapping funny.
Actually it was. He bent over and jetted his methane effusion into the flame of a match.  A blue streak shot a few inches off his butt and we leaped back, startled.  His fuzzy wool pants smoked for an instant.
I remember few things from my formative years.  Death, birth and other traumatic events remain in my mind…but so does that blue flame and I’m not sure whether it is a measure of the drama of fart-lighting or of my intellectual appreciation.
If you’re of a mind to find out all there is to know re gaseous gaffes, just Google “farts” and you will be inundated with enough information to make you persona non grata at every party where you trot out your awesome knowledge.  Better to keep it silent but deadly.
However, a few salient points:
1. Men fart more than women (a dozen times a day on average, compared to a dainty seven for the ladies), possibly because they eat more fart-worthy foods.
2. Everyone knows that a high-fiber diet is good for you.  Also good for your fartability.  Some avid consumers of fiber topped 30 FPD (farts per day).
3. Cauliflower, eggs and meat all contain enough sulphur to stink up your farts, but beans which are notorious for producing butt blasts, have little sulphur and are not as apt to stink up the place.
4. There are many, many more fart facts and, in fact, the most fascinating web site is Facts on Farts.  You’ll find far more than you really wanted to know.
Mel Brooks, who is no stranger to low humor, celebrated the fart in a memorable scene from “Blazing Saddles” where a bunch of cowboys eat beans and sit around a campfire trading noisy farts.  There also is an equally memorable scene from a “Seinfeld” episode where Kramer is driving a Central Park carriage ride after having fed his horse a can of Beef-a-Reeno.  You don’t hear the horse farting, but the effect on Kramer and the couple he’s chauffeuring is hilarious.  George Carlin commented on the various farts, including the SBD.
Carlin commented on every known humor foible, but none so risible as his riff on farting. He mentioned the Fizz, the Fazz, the Fizz-Fazz, the Snorter and the one that goes Whoosh!
History celebrates those who transcend their fellows with special accomplishment and none ever has approached the accomplishment of Josef Pujol, a Frenchman who turned his ability to fart not only on demand, but to create music with it (them) into a career.
He apparently had a limited range of four notes: do, mi, sol and do, but could do a visceral version of the French national anthem, the Marseillaise.  Born in 1857, he started his show business career in 1887 and began performing at the famous Parisian café the Moulin Rouge in 1892.
He performed other musical gymnastics such as inserting a tube in his anus so he could direct his farts through musical instruments.  At his peak he earned more money than Sarah Bernhardt, the most celebrated actress of the day (but one who, as far as anyone knows, never farted audibly in public).
Pujol lived until 1945 which indicates a possible health benefit in letting it all hang out, so to speak.  As far as is known, he was no relation to Albert Pujols, the star of the St. Louis Cardinals.
Pujol’s real-life career inevitably recalls the quintessential fart joke which concerns the farteur who appears in a booking agent’s office and claims to be able to fart the “Star Spangled Banner.”  He demonstrates and it is a glorious experience (with the windows open).  The booking agent lands a Carnegie Hall concert at which New York’s elite appear.  The hall is crammed.
The audience hushes, the star appears to thunderous applause, drops his pants…and dumps on the stage.
The outraged agent drops the curtain and screams at his client, “What the hell is wrong with you!”
“Well, geez,” says the farteur.  “Can’t a guy clear his throat?”
With that gross joke, it’s time to close the sphincter, so to speak, on this look at a universal but seldom examined facet of human behavior.  Next time you feel the urge in a grocery store, sneak around to a deserted aisle, and let it rip….and then turn around to see the Girl/Boy of Your Dreams standing there with an expression of horrified disgust, explain that, hey, the President does it, the Pope does it and so did Elvis.
Don’t count on it making a difference, though.

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  • March 25th, 2011

March Madness

By Joel M. Vance

It’s an old joke: “Would you sleep with me for a million dollars?”
“How about twenty dollars?”
Indignantly: “What do you think I am ”
“We’ve already established what you are.  Now we’re negotiating price.”
For some reason that joke sprang full blown into my mind when the news came that Missouri basketball coach Mike Anderson was abandoning Missouri for Arkansas.  Had he not made repeated statements about how he wanted to retire at Mizzou, how money was not his first consideration, but developing an NCAA championship team, the joke would not have been so applicable.
He IS abandoning a team that he created and that has Final Four potential, assuming a rebounder or two signs on and the team comes out of the funk that plagued it for the last 10 games of the season.  And he’s doing it for money.
Anymore and all too often open checkbooks play a larger part in recruiting a winning coach than team loyalty.  Those coaches who stick it out with their chosen team tend also to be winners.  Think Mike Krzyzewski at Duke (who also happens to be the highest-paid basketball coach in the country) or Dean Smith at North Carolina…or Norm Stewart at Missouri.
Nobody should criticize someone who pines for a lost love.  Roy Williams had it all at Kansas, the school where basketball history began, but he pined for North Carolina and broke Jayhawk hearts when he left to go home.  Mike Anderson spent 17 years at Arkansas as an assistant to Nolan Richardson, and helped the Razorbacks win a national championship.  It should be a parallel situation.  Wish them well on their home turf.
If only Anderson hadn’t pledged eternal fealty to Mizzou……
Anderson’s departure will lead to inevitable coffee shop second-guessing and he won’t fare well.  His recruiting will be suspect.  After all, he had a front line supposedly anchored by junior college transfer Ricardo Ratliffe who was to be the new DeMarre Carroll, the anchor of the Missouri team that won a school record 31 games.
In fact, Ratliffe was a sometime presence and far from the dynamic, never-quit Carroll.  Remember that Anderson enticed Carroll, his nephew from Vanderbilt when he took over at Mizzou.  Now he has the Pressey brothers, Matt and Phil, playing for him….and they call him “Uncle Mike” since he and their father are former teammates, roommates and dear friends.  Will they follow him to Arkansas?  Whither the core of the seven returning players from this year’s team which had only one senior?
Missouri lacked the rangy junkyard dogs from the front line of other Big 12 teams who attack the offensive and defensive boards as if they own the backboards (which, all too often, they did against the undergunned Mizzou front line).  Anderson apparently has not recruited anyone to fill three scholarship slots, leaving his successor playing catch-up.
It’s an uncomfortable fact that many if not most major college basketball programs are little more than semi-pro teams who happen to play with under the aegis of “student-athlete.”  Listen to press conferences some time and realize that the average “student-athlete” is about as articulate as the average third grader….but they can shoot, pass, rebound and play defense which is what counts.
Mizzou is better than most at graduating its jocks and Anderson’s focus on team, as opposed to designated stars, was refreshing.  The last 10 games of the just-finished season, rubbed some of the luster off that admirable emphasis when the games often most resembled a three-point shooting contest (and the shooting percentages crashed teamwide).
Lawrence Bowers was the one constant in an often inconsistent offense and a superb shot-blocker to boot.  But he lacks the bulk to be a top rebounder, especially in the Big 12 (or whatever it will be with 10 teams) where rebounding often resembles a gang rumble.  The half-dozen Mizzou guards all can shoot on a given evening, but also have communal off nights.  What once was an offense that featured penetration either for layups or for a kick-out and a high percentage short jump shot, turned into a three-point shoot around that all too often flopped.
The defense which was forcing 20 or so turnovers a game instead turned into a helter-skelter scramble that time and again let passes go in to the other team’s big men for uncontested lay-ins.  Was Anderson already thinking about his future and neglecting the present?
Because in those last few games the team resembled a ship without anyone at the helm.  It veered all over the place and seemed unprepared.  And that’s directly attributable to the coaching, folks, not the players.
Oddly perhaps, I enjoy watching the Celtics or the Spurs because, even though we know they are high-paid professionals, both those teams play team ball, seem to cherish winning, and reflect a commitment to being the best they can be.
We’ll never know what was going through Anderson’s mind, but those of us who date to the Sparky Stallcup era, through Norm Stewart’s stellar career, and the agony of Quin Snyder can live with whatever happens now to Mizzou basketball.  It’s important, but not the end of the world, considering the sorry state of the world.
But from a strictly right-and-wrong aspect, it’s disgusting to hear a guy warble his undying love for a school and then sniff out the big bucks somewhere else before the love song’s echoes have died, but so what?  It’s a sham anyway.  The days of Frank Merriwell amateur college heroics are long past.  Big time college sports are a business and the coaches and players equivalent to corporate CEOs with talented employees.  Anyone who thinks otherwise isn’t paying attention.  Either live with it or live without it–but accept it for the sham it is.
The best option may be to ignore basketball and go fishing.

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  • March 21st, 2011

A Thousand and One Wisconsin Nights

By Joel M. Vance

It was a story told around the old kitchen table in the north woods cabin, the table covered by a red-and-white checkered oilcloth with cigarette burn scars in it.  The story about the time that my Grandfather stuck his hand in the northern pike’s mouth.

Stories told around the cabin

My grandfather was an old time Missouri fisherman, but he’d never been farther north than Salisbury in Chariton County—ten miles from home.  He’d never seen a pike and the biggest fish he ever caught was a flathead catfish.
His gear of choice was a fish trap he’d made himself, using his carpentry skills to fashion something as effective as it was illegal.   He waded the muddy waters of the old Chariton River, hauling his traps, with one eye (he only had one, thanks to a wood-splitting accident) out for the game warden.
Then my father invited him on a fishing trip to my mother’s home town in northwest Wisconsin.  The town was Birchwood on a chain of lakes including Red Cedar, Balsam, Little Birch, Big Birch and Big Chetek, all connected by waterways, but interrupted at the foot of Little Birch by an old Northern States Power Company dam.
My grandfather had never seen water as clear as there was in Little Birch when he and my father launched an old wooden boat powered by a 3.5 horsepower Evinrude outboard motor.  The Chariton River tended to be almost chewable, feeding the Missouri River, universally known as the Big Muddy.
They fished off Snake Island in Big Birch, reached through a sinuous channel called The Narrows.  A spidery trestle spanned The Narrows, carrying Soo Line freight trains.  The weedbeds around Snake Island were a hangout for lunker northerns.
I’m not sure how my grandfather mastered the intricacies of casting, using his callused thumb as a brake on the braided line.  That was light years more difficult than lobbing a fixed line on a cane pole and watching for the first twitch of a cork bobber
But he hooked and landed a 15-pound pike and did what he’d done all his 70 years in Missouri—he lipped the fish, the way he would have lipped a catfish or carp.  This time, however, it was as if he’d stuck his hand in a working lawnmower.  It took a while to stop the bleeding and he vowed to stay away from fish that could have you for supper.

Grandpa and his pike

Then there was the time that my dad hooked another enormous pike.  He was fishing with my Aunt Vic who was a rowdy type.  My father, at that time still more a Missouri farm boy than a north woods angler, dragged the pike over the side of their boat onto the deckboarded bottom where there was the detritus of a hundred fishing trips sloshing around in an inch of filthy water.
The pike went wild, still with most of its fight left.  It thrashed violently, knocking over an open tacklebox (a clearcut violation of commonsense north woods angling) and scattering River Runts, Pikie Minnows and Johnson Silver Minnows in every direction.
My aunt let out a north woods whoop and leaped on the huge fish like a rodeo rider settling on a Brahma bull.  The two of them had a wild ride for at least 10 seconds and the judges, had there been any, would have scored her for a perfect performance.
It took a while to get all the hooks out of the two of them.  She went home bloody but unbowed, while the pike went home on a stringer.  Actually, the pike and the two bruised anglers went to Hud and Bud’s bar to explain in great detail the ferocious fight to a more-or-less admiring crowd (more, when my father stood them to a round of Bruenig’s Lager, brewed in nearby Rice Lake).
Hud and Bud were my Aunt Vic’s brothers and Birchwood was pretty much owned and operated by the Soper clan.  My aunts, Vic and Mugs (Viola and Margaret), were photographed as teenage girls riding atop a load of logs of a size only seen in pioneer days.
That’s because it was pioneer days when the photo was taken.  My grandmother came overland in a covered wagon to Birchwood and opened a café to feed the loggers who were busy cutting the virgin forest.  She also raised a brood of eight kids which gave me a plethora of aunts and uncles to set a bad example.
One uncle, Orville, brother of Vic, Hud and Bud and the rest, managed to drop a tree on his leg and the local sawbones lived up to his nickname by amputating the leg on the kitchen table while Aunt Vic watched, not with revulsion, but with fascination.  She later became a registered nurse.
When the first airplane landed in a cow pasture in Birch Lake, the teenaged Vi Soper was the only one with guts enough to go for a ride with Monk Morey (how could a barnstorming pilot be named anything else?) and she screamed with delight when he did aerobatics over the little north woods town.
My mother, Ann, was the baby of the Soper clan.  She migrated to Chicago where she met my father who had migrated there from Missouri and they got married and would return to Birchwood for vacations dragging me along.  She’d hobnob with the Soper girls while my father went fishing and learned about fish-with-teeth the hard way.
I hung out with various cousins, all of whom knew more about fishing than I did.
My grandmother, the patriarch of the town, was the soul of rectitude…but her husband, who died before I was born, was the town bootlegger and it was not until I was grown and with children that someone in town told me she had been my grandfather’s lookout when she was a youngster.  “If the revenue people came I’d run and warn him,” she said.
I must have looked shocked.  He was only a yellowed photograph to me.  “You didn’t know?” she asked.  “You didn’t know he was the town bootlegger during Prohibition?”
No, I didn’t—the Soper clan held their secrets close to the vest and stories about Grandfather were somewhat vague, but did not include mention of outlawry.  I suspect if I probed far enough I’d find that he didn’t always abide by the loose fishing regulations of the day either, making me two-for-two on outlaw grandpas.
Legal fishing gear in Birchwood was a mixture of advanced technology and Neolithic leftovers.  My father’s reel was the best freshwater mechanism available, a Pflueger Supreme.  It lacked anti backlash and other refinements of the modern casting reel, but it was built like a Patek Philippe watch and, with a careful thumb on the spool, launched a Dardevle spoon halfway to the moon.
There were fairly limber jointed rods being used before Christ, but apparently the innovation hadn’t made its way to Birchwood.  My father’s rod was a four-foot Tru Temper steel rapier with the approximate tensile strength of a bridge girder.  It could have been used by d’Artagnan and his lusty Musketeers to tweak the sweetbreads of pesky Dutchmen.
The weak link, literally, was the silk fishing line which had a tendency to rot and break at inappropriate moments (with the fish of a lifetime bucking and sulling on the other end).  Each night my father looped his wet line here and there in the cabin to dry it while the anglers sat around the rickety table and told about how Bert Broughton, a local guide, caught a nice bass from under a neighboring boat even as the boat’s anglers from Chicago were whining about the poor fishing in Big Birch.
Birchwood was a fishing town.  There was a veneer mill, but fishing was the way most folks made a living.  Some of those who didn’t guide anglers ran one of the two bars in town to serve the thirst of visiting anglers from Illinois or Indiana, or worked at local resorts on the chain of lakes that stretched for more than 20 miles.
The Birch Lake Inn perched on the banks of Little Birch Lake and served a walleye dinner that pacifists would kill for.  There was a Sinclair “filling station” on the corner of Main Street, run by a widow named Jane who looked tough enough to knock down full-grown Hereford steers with one punch.  She was, however, a gentle giant, always with grease on her hands and blowsy blonde hair sticking out haphazardly from beneath a stained Sinclair cap.
She looked tired and had sad eyes.  I felt vaguely sorry for her, although at 10 years old I was too young to know why.
And there was an ice house, filled with blocks of ice cut during the long winter from Little Birch and Big Birch Lakes.  Few had electric refrigerators, so there was constant demand for ice during the summer.  It was a kid hangout, the kind of attractive nuisance that today results in negligence lawsuits when kids get injured (or suffer frostbit butts).
We kids perched on the sawdust-covered ice blocks, reveling in the chill while it was 90 degrees outside and the lake was busy manufacturing a dog days smell that permeated the town, along with the pungent scent of melting tar from the blacktop streets (the few that weren’t gravel-covered).
We didn’t know about attractive nuisances—the small world of Birchwood was our playground, dangerous or not.  An old barn behind my Aunt Pill’s house had a haymow door 15 feet or so above a pile of moldering hay.  We played War, getting shot and falling dramatically onto the pile of hay which, fortunately, didn’t have a rusty pitchfork hidden in it.  Older cousins were getting shot at in obscure places like Saipan and Tinian
Hud and Bud stashed a bunch of illegal slot machines in the attic of Hud’s barn and my cousin Pat discovered them.  We broke into one and found it full of quarters, more money that we’d ever seen. We needed a good excuse to account for sudden wealth.  That night we walked to town with my mother and managed to discover four or five quarters apparently lost in the roadside weeds.
She was a trusting soul, but not that trusting and after about the third quarter we pounced on with cries of discovery she had figured out that we weren’t extraordinarily lucky.  After the fifth one she had us quailing under intense interrogation.  No need for waterboarding or sleep deprivation—we broke almost instantly and my butt stung for a week from the subsequent whipping.
Pat once picked up what he thought was a firecracker that hadn’t gone off and stuck it in his mouth.  “Look,” he said.  “I’m smokin’!”  A moment later he was—the firecracker exploded, burning his mouth and stopping up my ears.  Kids got hurt.  I tripped running in a cut-over pasture and jammed a weed stalk down my throat.  I spit blood all the way home.  It hurt too much to howl, but I howled internally.
Aside from firecrackers and weed stobs, Birchwood summers were for fishing.  While the men were teasing pike around Snake Island, Pat and I dangled worms we dug out of the rotted manure pile behind my grandmother’s house off the rickety town dock and caught lake perch and bluegills.

Cousin Pat (left) and me with monster bluegills

It’s no wonder I developed a fishing habit as powerful as an opium addiction.  Now I’m busy developing my own fish stories.  But even as I’m telling them, I have a frisson of nostalgia over those long ago tales told around a battered kitchen table with the yeasty smell of Bruenig’s Lager hanging in the air like jasmine perfume in Scheherazade’s desert boudoir.
There was the one about my uncle who supposedly caught a 13-line ground squirrel and stuck it on a huge hook and lobbed it into Spider Lake (the statute of limitations on cruelty to animals has expired, as has the uncle).  The frantic animal, swimming toward safety, never made it.  There was a massive swirl and the squirrel disappeared.  My uncle landed an eight-pound largemouth bass.
Did it happen?  Probably not, but who cares.  It’s part of the family legend and that’s good enough.

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  • March 16th, 2011

Living in a Glass House

By Joel M. Vance

In case you have been on vacation in another solar system, you may not know that Japan has been flirting with nuclear disaster because of an earthquake that damaged a supposedly earthquake-proof nuclear plant.
This in a nation that still is the only one on earth to have experienced first hand the full horrors of runaway radiation (with the possible exception of Russia’s Chernobyl disaster).
Hark back a couple of years to the presidential campaign.  John McCain made fun of Barack Obama’s suggestion to save gasoline by properly inflating tires.  He wanted to build nearly 50 more nuclear power plants in the United States.  He announced this plan at Monroe, Michigan, site of one of our nation’s two most frightening nuclear incidents.
The other, of course, was Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania, but less well known (and no less scary) was a 1966 near meltdown at the Fermi One reactor in Monroe.  The United Auto Workers had sued to block construction of the plant, citing the horrific prospects if there was a meltdown—but lost the case in the Supreme Court, 7-2.
In the case of the Fermi suit, dissenting Supreme Court Justices William O. Douglas and Hugo Black wrote that nuclear power was being treated as “a lighthearted approach to the most awesome, the most deadly, the most dangerous process that man has ever conceived.”
Had the Fermi plant exploded, a distinct possibility under the circumstances of the accident, the Great Lakes would have been contaminated, Detroit would have become a vast graveyard and people within a radius of several hundred miles would have been exposed to deadly radiation.
On June 20, 2008, Sen. McCain said in my home state Missouri that if elected, “I will set this nation on a course to building 45 new reactors by the year 2030, with the ultimate goal of 100 new plants to power the homes and factories and cities of America,”
Missouri utility Ameren UE has proposed to build a second nuclear plant to go with the one it currently operates near Fulton.  The formal proposal was scheduled several years ago, but the plant probably would not be operational until at least 2019.
The existing Callaway Nuclear Facility never has had a serious incident, but has been shut down when equipment failed or was thought to be in trouble—a pump in the cooling system failed in 2001, for example.
In March, 2008 a water pipeline from the Missouri River ruptured, causing erosion, but no nuclear contamination.  But the incident does point out that aging nuclear plants can wear out—Callaway dates to 1984, making it 27 years old.
Consider that Japan’s woes were caused by an earthquake and that Missouri’s Bootheel is astride a major quake fault.  Chances are a quake to rival the Bootheel one in the early 1800s that still is the largest ever to strike the United States probably would not reach as far north as Callaway, at least with catastrophic results—but then Japan thought it also had all the bases covered.
The Union of Concerned Scientists is worried about geriatric nukes.  In a study, UCS found this: “The Wolf Creek plant in Kansas and the Callaway plant in Missouri were built as identical twins, sharing the same standardized Westinghouse design. But some events at Callaway are reported to be 10 to 20 times more likely to lead to reactor core damage than the same events at Wolf Creek.”
Callaway produces about 25 percent of all the power generated by Ameren UE and it has rated highly over the years in safety and operation.  Not to suggest that the plant is unsafe, but if UCS is worried and they are the knowledgeable ones, then everyone else also should be cautious.
Nuclear energy is a frightening but irresistible entity—it’s like a light socket that attracts the interest of a small boy, just to see what it would feel like to stick his finger in it.  Like a pet lion it’s fun until you tease it too far.  Think of Chernobyl.  The Russian nuke exploded in 1986, releasing between 30 and 40 times the radiation of the two World War Two atomic bombs.
Radiation spread as far as Canada where levels were six times higher than normal.  No one will ever know how many died directly or indirectly from the released radiation but estimates range in the tens of thousands and cases of thyroid cancer still are being attributed to the blowup.
Given the frightening potential of a nuclear plant accident, Sen. McCain’s dismissal of Barack Obama’s suggestion to save oil as an alternative to drilling for more smacks of what the two Supreme Court justices said about treating nuclear energy with “a lighthearted approach.”
The last thing the country needs is a lighthearted approach to something that could send us to eternity.

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  • March 14th, 2011

The Magic Door

By Joel M. Vance

I don’t know how old I was when I first opened the magic door, but I was far closer to toddlerhood than I was to the angst of acne and hormonal dysfunction.  The “door” was the cover of a book and I have been an addicted reader ever since.
My folks belonged to the Book of the Month Club, so there always were books around and I read some when I was 7-9 years old that were far beyond me, but that didn’t stop me from acting like the proverbial kid in the candy store.
I’ve always been an eclectic reader.  At one time recently I had a biography of Wilt Chamberlain, a John Lescroart thriller, the novel Water for Elephants, an old Rex Stout/Nero Wolfe mystery and the stories of Rudyard Kipling, all open at the same time.
Books are an obsession, not a hobby.  I have a t-shirt which reads: “If I have money I buy books.  If there’s any left over I buy food.”  Mostly I buy books to read, but I also collect and kick myself that I didn’t start collecting earlier when real treasures today were merely used books.
I haunt flea markets, antique malls, used book stores and Good Will and Salvation Army stores.   Once I picked up a very good copy of William Faulkner’s A Fable for fifty cents.  Worth probably $200 or more.  Doesn’t happen every day, but when it does it’s a feeling of triumph like winning the national championship at almost anything.
You don’t get that charge from an electronic reader, which is today’s trend.  If, that is, most people read at all (and most don’t, leading, I’m convinced, to a serious dumbing-down of the country—else how to explain the mindless and incoherent babble of the Tea Partiers).  There is no tactile pleasure in an e-reader, even though I have a Nook and enjoy it.  I want to feel pages, admire the book cover and, in cases where I have autographed or inscribed books, know that the author has held that book.   It’s a connection far more meaningful than an electronic link.  Pixels do not replace picas.
E-readers are cheaper and more portable.  But it ain’t a book.  Books are why I became a writer.  I wanted to do what they do.  I wanted to see my words in print—or maybe to know that others were seeing those words.  I have e-books not in print form, but there’s no shelf presence, no sense of immortality.
It didn’t take long to realize that writing fame was remotely possible, but fortune was pretty much out of the question.  Few books ever make back their advance (if there is one).  That has become increasingly more true over the years as book publishing has shrunk to a stable of established authors or to the Celebrity of the Day whose literary credentials rely on how many drugs he or she takes, how many times the alleged writer (most are ghost-written) has been arrested or how outrageously dumb the person can be and fool her slack-jawed acolytes into thinking she amounts to something (and yes, Sarah, I’m talking about you and yours).
Wouldn’t stop me—writing, like reading is a compulsion every bit as compelling as is a heroin addiction.  Gene Kelly sang “Gotta dance ” and I identified.  He danced because he had to, and I write because I have to.  Writing about reading is melding two interlinked obsessions.
I can’t understand why some people mistreat books.  A printed book, theoretically, can last forever, but not if the wrong hands get hold of it.  I once loaned a nice book to a friend.  It was in new condition when I loaned it, and looked as if it had been passed around a Skid Row soup kitchen when it came back.  Apparently he had read it while scarfing down greasy French fries.
There are those who mark their place by dogearing the page.  Yet others crack the spine of the book to make it stay open.  I think that’s why I have back pains today.  Some pitch the dust jacket which, with a collectible, is vital.  Others bump the corners or cock the spine.  Still others shelve books in damp areas, leading to interesting mold cultures on the exposed parts.
Some write in their books (or their rug rats get hold of them with a fist-ful of crayons.  It’s one thing to have Hemingway inscribe a book to Fitzgerald or to have marginal inscriptions from Theodore Dreiser; another to have notes from Joe Schmoe (although I have a cherished marginal note in a cheap Rex Beach novel: “This is a good book.”  My Grandpa wrote that probably 70 years ago.
I can’t claim to be a literary reader.  I’m like Mark Twain who said of HenryJames, the darling of the literati, “Once you’ve put down a James novel it’s awfully hard to pick it up again.”  I’ve read Hemingway, not much of Faulkner (except his Big Woods, good stuff), most of Fitzgerald.  I was lucky enough to meet Annie Proulx and love her ability with a sentence.
Mark Twain, of course, is ageless.  Sometimes a book comes along that fires me up even though nearly everyone else doesn’t know anything about it.  Such a one is Larry Colton’s Counting Coup, a true story of a girls’ basketball team on the Crow Reservation in Wyoming.   Very moving.  Colton’s other book was so boring and self-indulgent I didn’t finish it.
The great humorists, today largely forgotten, were my inspiration and when I met Pat McManus, the fine contemporary humorist, I found that we were influenced by the same group: Robert Benchley, S.J. Perelman, H. Allen Smith, James Thurber and the greatest of all essayists, E.B. White (today mostly remembered as the writer of Charlotte’s Web).
Pat, a truly fine gentleman, is the same age as me.  We grew up on opposite sides of the country but, demonstrating the universality of books, fell in love with the same writers.  Pat graciously gave a warm and funny presentation on humor writing to the Outdoor  Writers Association of America Goldenrod Writing Workshop in Missoula, MT, last August (see and click on Goldenrod).
Goldenrod is a chance for those who love writing and books to get together and learn better writing and talk about books.  Maybe we can save the printed word one book at a time……

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  • Blog
  • March 11th, 2011

Liberal…And Proud of It

By Joel M. Vance

I am fed up with being called a “liberal” as if it were a criminal offense.  Just as I am fed up with being called a “bunny killer” because I love to hunt.
If being a liberal means being in favor of universal health care like that of every advanced nation on earth…except the United States…then I’m a liberal.  If it means favoring a fair break for workers, an abandonment of the policy of shipping jobs to countries where workers get pennies a day and labor in awful conditions until they die then I’m a liberal.  I believe in equal pay for equal work for women, minorities and any other put-upon group that isn’t male, white Anglo-Saxon Protestant (which I am, by the way).
If it means abandoning the stupid “trickle down” policy of economics then I surely am a liberal.  The idea that if you give rich folks all the money they will distribute it to the poor went out with John D. Rockefeller throwing dimes to the masses.  The rich don’t distribute their wealth; they keep it.
I believe in the Monroe Doctrine of 1823, not the Bush Doctrine of beating up on folks before they might beat up on you.  James Monroe, our fifth President, reiterated what our first President, George Washington, said: “avoid foreign entanglements.”  George W. Bush said just the opposite and more than 4,000 young people have had to die for it.  Monroe said that the United States would resist colonization and meddling in hemisphere politics but we’ve been tampering with Central and South American politics forever, almost always to our detriment.
It’s unclear what doctrine George Bush used as the basis for Iraq other than his own Messianic fantasies.  And Afghanistan?  Gee, we must need rocks as much as we need oil, else why would we kill for them?
I’m far from a pacifist.  I think we should track down and kill anyone who attacks us, but wholesale slaughter of Iraqis and Afghans, either deliberately or by accident, smacks more of ethnic cleansing than it does of targeted retribution.  If we can’t devise a global S.W.A.T. team to go after bad guys only then we’d better redefine our methods and get it right.
Yes, government needs a change and we can start with the training of response teams so we don’t have another 9/11 where there were clues galore ahead of time and where there has been no punishment since, or a Katrina where the government did “a heck of a job” all right—but not in the sense that Bush intended.
Having said those things, I also am a conservative.  I think deficit spending should be a last resort, not a first one. If I had squandered the country’s money and resources like politicians have for decades I’d be in jail.  Over the Bush years we went from a surplus to the largest deficit in the country’s history and it’s still ballooning.
Incidentally, taxes now are lower than they were in any of the Bush years.
I believe in conserving energy by slowing down, keeping an energy-efficient vehicle in top running order and limiting my travel to that which is necessary.  I oppose the “all eggs in one basket” approach to alternative energy—that’s what got us in trouble with oil.  A combination of other energies not only will help bail us out of an oil drunk, but also will offer more jobs to more folks in more areas.
I am totally opposed to the mindless yelling of the Tea Party types.  They offer no solutions; they just bitch.  Where is real outrage?  We’ve already put the BP disaster behind us. Who has been prosecuted?  What substantial safety changes have been made?  Where is the continued public outrage for problems of real substance?
We’ve forgotten that it was the Bush folks who got us into two awful and stupid wars, who ran the country into the crushing debt.  It’s all Obama’s fault because he couldn’t magically make things right.  Oh, yeah, he’s black, but let’s not mention that.  Instead we can say he’s not native-born and he’s a Communist or Socialist or Fascist or some other word we heard somewhere.  Let’s form a Tea Party and yell a lot.
The country had a clear choice in November two years ago.  It could vote for an old pol white guy whose positions changed almost by the hour complimented by a good-looking, albeit vindictive woman whose various misdeeds are stuck in far-off Alaska…or it could have and did vote for a black man who has been consistently intelligent but often disappointing to those of us who wanted to see things really change.
Chances are we will have the same choice in 2012—an old line white guy (think Romney or Gingrich), Republican to the core and representing the most repressive wing of the G.O.P. running against Obama.  So far no other Republican has surfaced to seem viable.
Sarah Palin is in it for the cash and is married to a fellow who belonged for seven years to a political party that believes in secession of Alaska and is, if that’s possible, far to the right even of the Tea Party.   He is considered to be his wife’s unofficial chief-of-staff and there’s no reason to believe that would change if she were to become a candidate.
I can’t believe she’ll run—she’s having too much fun taking the money of suckers.  Michele Bachman is nuts.  Tim Pawlenty is a nationally unknown wimp. Mike Huckabee seems like such a nice guy, fun to be with.  Mike Who?
Perhaps some charismatic type will come along, the conservative counterpart to Obama.  That hope apparently flickered and died with Ronald Reagan, now 100 years old and the anointed Jesus of the Republicans.  He raised taxes seven times during his administration.

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Keep Your Eye on the Ball

By Joel M. Vance

Golf is not considered a life-threatening sport on the order, say, of bull riding or NASCAR racing.  But that’s discounting the way I played it for a couple of disassociative years.

I was manic about the game which was enough of a mental health risk without the physical trauma.  “Mania” is not too strong a word to describe my obsession. If I were Catholic I would go to the confessional and say, “Forgive me, Father, for I have golfed.”

There are no golf courses in Heaven. It is a cruel promise of the Devil that when a golfer dies he goes to Innesbruck.   Instead there are numerous tees in Hell where, for eternity, sinning golfers are fated to hit drives that alternately shank into a rough inhabited by water moccasins and spiders, or into mephitic water hazards.  There are putts that hang on the rim of the cup and tee shots that you barely tick and the demons and imps howl and point at you as the ball dribbles 20 yards down the fairway and the girl of your dreams looks at you as if you had vomited on her shoes.

W.C. Fields’ famous golf lesson skit where he growls, “Stand clear and keep your head down,” would be good advice for anyone contemplating committing golf.

Golf courses are as omnipresent as political corruption and potentially just as destructive.   I was consumed by the sport for several years before I came to my senses and underwent a curing process that reminded me of Frank Sinatra withdrawing from heroin addiction in the movie The Man With The Golden Arm.

My father had been a golfer in Chicago, but we moved to a town of 250 non-golfers and area golf courses were as rare as Isod shirts among the soybean farmers, so he gave his clubs to a nephew by marriage.  Then I became a sports editor and was exposed to golf, an event like being exposed to plague.

“You mean you don’t play golf!” exclaimed Gary Filbert, the basketball coach at Mexico High School.  Gary doubled as golf coach.  How could I possibly cover his team if I didn’t understand the sport?  He didn’t understand, nor did I, that golf like most sports requires athletic ability.  Coaches had it or they wouldn’t be coaches.  There was no such prerequisite for a sports editor–working cheap was far more important.

The various coaches played together at the local public course and it would be a chance for me to hang out with my sports page contacts, be one of the guys.  But I needed clubs and buying a new set was out of the question.  With two young children, a young wife and a fledgling bank account, golf clubs were far down on my list of Things We Really Need.

I pleaded with my father to reclaim his clubs and he asked for them from the nephew who returned them with ill grace.  The clubs were an assortment from the Bobby Jones era, not exactly state-of-the-art.  A couple were wood-shafted.

But it didn’t matter.  They were golf clubs.  I haunted weekend estate sales for months, filling the gaps in my golf bag with second hand clubs.  It never occurred to me that there seemed to be an unconscionable number of beat-up old clubs for sale.  If golf was indispensable to a complete life, why were so many golfers getting rid of their clubs?  Some clubs showed evidence of having been pounded against hard objects–not golf balls, but perhaps a nearby tree.  That this indicated a violent dissatisfaction with the game also never occurred to me.

I practiced putting into tipped-over water glasses on the living room rug while Marty occasionally paused to watch with a bemused look.  She had seen me go through agony trying to tie fishing flies (and the family dog, a multi-colored collie, suffered too from being a repository of raw materials).

Now I was stuck in another obsession and she sighed and decided, with endless patience, to ride it out.  Golf would come to be a source of marital friction that in some testier folks would have led directly to the divorce court.  Only Marty’s uncanny forbearance got us through the several years when golf consumed me.

The public course in Mexico was that aberration, a sand green course.  The greens, instead of being meticulously-maintained grass were sand.  There was no roll. You pitched onto the “green” and the ball instantly stopped, as it would in a sand trap.  There were no traps–what was the point when the greens were traps?  Once on the green, you measured distance to the pin with a string attached to the flag pole and swung your ball around to a putting lane filled with oily sand (the oil allowed the sand to pack hard enough to allow a rolling putt).

It was a goofy way to end a given hole, but far less expensive than grass greens.  Since I was playing on the cheap, might as well carry penuriousness to its conclusion.  There was a local grass green country club, but given my meager newspaper salary we were as far from membership there as we were from membership in the French Foreign Legion.

Once I played the grass green course in Marty’s home town, Macon.  By then I had developed my trademark drive, known as The Mystery Ball.  I didn’t know if it would be a straight shot down the fairway (rare), a hook or a slice (common).  Most golfers have a given fault that they can work on, but when you never know from shot to shot where the ball will decide to go it’s tough to develop control.

The ninth tee on the Macon course parallels U.S. Highway 36, a busy route.  I was far above the highway (the course is hilly and the ninth tee was perhaps the highest point on the course).  I teed up, took my stance which much resembled a person getting ready to projectile vomit, and whacked my shot.  The ball rose higher and higher, began to curve ever more to the right, off the fairway, over the low trees and down to the highway.

It hit just in front of a speeding car, which fishtailed slightly as the driver slammed on his brakes.  The ball ricocheted off the pavement and was gone before the driver had a chance to identify the unidentified flying object.  And I was gone before he had a chance to sort it out, storm into the clubhouse to look for the author of his near miss.

A few months later I hit a line drive while trying to blast out of a sand trap and nearly crippled a lawyer.  He did not sue, recognizing you can’t squeeze blood out of a golf ball, but he limped off the course and would not play with me again.

So far I had threatened the life of a couple of fellow humans.  It only remained for me to put myself in jeopardy.  That was not long in coming.  Tagalong was a developing course near my mother’s home town, Birchwood, Wisconsin.  Frank Stout, a lumber baron, built Tagalong between 1916-1919 as a playground for him and his guests.  It wa duplicate  St. Andrews in Scotland.

After Stout’s death the place fell into disrepair and the nine-hole golf course had become an extended pasture for dairy cows.  The bent grass greens, supposedly imported as sod from Scotland, had given way to clover and pasture grasses.

Then a resort development outfit began to resurrect the old golf course. The fairways still contained cows, but aside from the occasional fecal time bomb, they were in good shape.  The greens were mostly clover, but had flags and were reasonably level.  The place wasn’t open for business and I probably was trespassing, but there was no caretaker security or workers, nobody but me and my anachronistic golf bag.

Red Cedar Lake is adjacent to the first fairway.  I know because the first drive I hit began its long journey straight down the fairway, then like a lefthander’s curve ball began to slice, over the bankside trees and far out into the lake, where it splashed down like a misdirected space capsule.

I invited Marty to walk around with me and perhaps she envisioned it as a pleasant walk in a sylvan setting, but she soon found that it was like being an unwilling member of the Manson Gang. Golf taught me to swear with the inventiveness of a mule handler.  It wasn’t so much the indivdual words, which everyone knows, but the creative verb and adjectival constructions which would have awed a Parris Island drill instructor.


Golf as it was developing in my life did not serve as a release from job stress or a challenge to my athletic ambitions.  Rather, it had released a latent nasty temper.

The inconsistencies of my game gnawed at me like intestinal wharf rats.  Between gobbling Rolaids and swearing I threw my battered clubs after each drive that went somewhere it wasn’t supposed to.  The Holstein s mooed apprehensively and trotted awkwardly in front of us, their pendulous bags swinging side to side.

I laced another drive into the trees and snarled at Marty as if it were her fault.  I knew I was being unreasonable and downright nasty, but couldn’t seem to help myself.

Marty stuck it out for a couple more holes but my near constant stream of verbal abuse finally exhausted her patience. .  “Maybe the cows can put up with it, but I can’t,” she said.   She hiked toward the car to wait and perhaps contemplate a life in which I did not play a part.  Fuming, I teed up and tried to unleash my fury on the little white ball.

It was a solid hit that screamed off the tee,  low and slicing, the kind of shot that normally rises as it curves and becomes a 200-yard plus drive into the deep rough.  But this one centered a tree trunk about 20 yards to one side of the tee and rebounded with the velocity of a rifle bullet.  I both felt and heard it whisper past my ear.  If it had hit me between the eyes where my brain allegedly resided,it would have killed me.

The ball skipped up the hill behind me and came to rest about where the present day Tagalong Clubhouse is.  Then there were a dozen or so cowpies where the dairy herd had been sheltering from the sun.   The ball gleamed amid their dank presence.   It seemed prophetic.

I sat heavily, my legs weak, and took a shuddery breath.  It was time to hang up the battered old clubs and find some other obsession–like defusing old land mines.






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