Friday, June 4, 2010


I don't know if Bud Selig should unilaterally change the outcome of Wednesday's imperfect game. I don't know if he will.

I do know, however, that we learn a lot more from our failures than our successes. And in this case we learned a lot more from imperfection than perfection. We learned who Jim Joyce and Armando Galarraga are.

And I don't mean that now we know their names, or that one missed a call, or that one lost a perfect game.

In imperfection, they revealed about themselves the stuff that counts much more than any line in a record book.

We know that Jim Joyce has humility and a capacity, it seems, to feel even worse about the outcome than the pitcher who was robbed. We know he has enough self-esteem and little enough self-regard to freely admit his mistake. No excuses, no bluster.

And we know that Armando Galarraga, a player most of us had never heard of before Wednesday, is a professional in the best sense of the word. We also know that he has an immense pool of decency and empathy, enough to understand the suffering of someone who caused him such disappointment.

Perfect isn't everything. And twenty-seven outs, no base-runners, isn't the only perfect thing. For both Joyce and Galarraga, knowing you did all you could -- going forward, knowing you can't go back -- may have to be enough.

And if you think about what we learned, things we'd never know if Jason Donald had been the 27th out, it might be more than enough.

Baseball really is just a game. Life is being able to look at yourself in the mirror every morning and then get on with it.

(Just a note: I wonder whether Joyce and Galarraga might have been a bit surprised by their responses too. Perhaps each even learned something new and edifying about himself.)

Thursday, June 3, 2010

On Fenway

Reflections on a close to perfect day, a game that had a little of everything. Warning: This is probably only interesting to someone who was at the game!

  • Fan Photo Day! Arrive 1 1/2 hours early, and you can go down to the warning track and meet the Red Sox. Seriously, the whole team strolled around park, stopping to shake hands and have pictures taken with fans. For the very short fans, the young ones, lots of stooping down to get right on their level. It's enough to make you fall in love with the Red Sox (or any other team whose players spend an hour before the game greeting fans).
  • Baseball fans. They've got them in Boston. They know the game, they follow the play, they teach their kids. I made new friends: Canadians taking in a game, a guy who gave me his seat when the very tall man sat in front of me.
  • Plays at the plate! I love plays at the plate, especially when I am sitting less than 20 rows up right behind home. Two runners out at the plate on throws from the outfield; one runner out when he ran on contact (you could almost see the "whoops!" when he was three fourths of the way down the line and saw the catcher with the ball).
  • Home runs. I'm not a big fan, but in Fenway the suspense just kills you. Is it a foul, a ground rule double, a big bounce off the Green Monster, a home run? There were at least four today (OK, I lost count!). One, hit by Dustin Pedroia, was upheld on review. Even Pedroia seemed surprised. He literally stopped at second, hung out for a few seconds, and then continued on his way when the umpire waved him home.
  • Concussion in right field! Ryan Sweeney took a knee to the head in an outfield collision. Yikes.
  • Rules. Turns out you can bring outside food into Fenway. I stopped at Trader Joe's and got a half pint of raspberries. No reason why I should gain five pounds every time I go to a game.
  • Ball park food. That doesn't mean I can't also have an italian sausage.
  • The rare six-out save. Closers almost never go more than an inning these days. But, in honor of my visit (I'm sure), Andrew Bailey entered the game in the eighth, two on and no outs. He got Adrian Beltre and Kevin Youklis to fly out, and David Ortiz struck out. In the ninth, he gave up a solo home run but nonetheless closed things out.
  • Youklis's batting stance. What's up with that? In any case, it works for him.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010


As I countdown to my departure, I'm already anticipating what I'll miss about Providence:

  • Walking up and down hills in my beautiful neighborhood.
  • Seeing familiar faces on my route: An older man bundled up in a yellow rain coat, a smiling woman with swinging arms who walks fast, a whole bunch of dogs.
  • All the unstructured time, with no appointments and no outside demands.
  • Indian, Thai and -- most especially -- Vietnamese food.
  • Starbucks, I'm a little embarrassed to admit.
  • Trader Joe's and Whole Foods.
  • The view of the State House from the top of College Hill.
  • The literature section in the Brown Bookstore.
  • Feeling smart and relaxed and competent.
  • Doing laundry at the laundry mat (seriously).
  • Being able to walk everywhere (oops, I can do that at home!).
  • Having my favorite colleague down the hall and his family just down the street.
  • Being a train ride away from my family and major league baseball.
  • The New York Times, daily, on paper.
  • Baked goods in Providence (sublime! divine! added inches to my hips!).
  • Sleeping soundly at night, knowing all the noises I hear are for someone else to fix.

What I won't miss: humidity, insects, washing dishes by hand and passive-aggressive garbage collectors.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Memorial Day

As you may know, I follow baseball. This weekend, television and radio announcers marked Memorial day by chatting about major leaguers who served in the US military -- Ted Williams and such.

They overlooked the service of Negro League players, however.

Leon Day was born in Alexandria, VA on October 30, 1916. According to the Baseball Hall of Fame, "he spent two years pitching on integrated Army teams during WWII and on his first game back with the Eagles on 1946, tossed a no hitter against the Philadelphia Stars."

His plaque at Cooperstown reads: "“Used deceptive no wind up short arm delivery to compile impressive single season and career statistics during ten years in Negro Leagues. Also played ball in Puerto Rico, Cuba, Venezuela, Mexico and Canada. Set Negro National League record in 1942 with 18 K’s in a game. Hurled no hitter on opening day 1946 for Newark Eagles vs. Philadephia Stars. Pitched in a record 7 Negro League All-Star Games."

As with almost all of the Negro League players in the Baseball Hall of Fame, no statistics are reported for Leon Day. Negro Leagues baseball was less regularized than major league ball, but as integration ultimately demonstrated, Negro League players were no less talented than white players.

Jackie Robinson also served in the military during World War II. He did not serve overseas, however, because at the time his unit was deployed he was in the midst of being court martialled by the Army. His offense? Challenging the military police officers who questioned and arrested him when he refused to move to the back of a bus. He was acquitted by an all-white jury of nine officers.

True story.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Field Trip Day!

Day game in Baltimore. Hoards of kids -- we nicknamed it "field trip day" only to discover -- a bit later -- that it really was field trip day! About 25 schools sent kids. They were everywhere, and I wouldn't be surprised if the adult to kid ratio in the park was something less than 1:3.

As I waited in line for hot dogs, a ten-year old girl slipped in front of me. I let it go. A few minutes later (it was a long line), another girl popped in. I rolled my eyes. Then another, and I asked loudly but to no one in particular: "Why do people keep cutting in front me?" The girl sputtered and then said: "I'm with her." "Well," I said, "she cut in front of me too."

Then their teacher intervened, sending them all to the back of the line. I laughed with her as I left with my dogs: I don't think it occurs to kids that not everyone is in their "group"!

As for the game: Grand slam in the bottom of the eighth! Throw from the left-fielder to make the last out at home in the top of the ninth! Home team wins, snatching victory (6-5) from the jaws of defeat (down by four in the bottom of the eighth)!

Friday, May 7, 2010

The four stages of my sabbatical

No, not denial, anger, bargaining and acceptance.

First, WOO-HOO! What to do with all the free time?

Second, buying lottery tickets in the dim hope that free time could be my long-term future.

Third, a tiny bit of bored and lonely, which led smoothly to...

Fourth, working like a fiend and, for the first time in years, it doesn't even feel like work.

I think the sabbatical worked.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Why? Part II

When I wrote the post below, I was remembering Gene Weingarten's phenomenal in-depth story of parents who accidentally leave their kids in the car (and the kid dies), and how we tend to think only a monster would do that. (Because if we thought we were capable of that, then holy cow! We refuse to go there. It can't be just an accident. The cosmic order isn't so cruel.)

Well, his story won a Pulitzer Prize. It's amazing. Read it. With a box of tissues or a bottle of scotch. Whatever it takes.

Friday, January 15, 2010


Pat Robertson’s comments on Haiti’s supposed “pact to the devil” have, not surprisingly, elicited sharp criticism. I will not defend him: His comments were smug, condescending, self-satisfied and delusional. I suspect they made God cry.

But they illustrate well how desperately we seek explanations for why things happen. We discuss this at length in our forthcoming book Religion Matters: What Sociology Teaches Us About Religion in our World:

Peter Berger (1967), a sociologist and a Lutheran theologian, … argues that religion is “the audacious attempt to conceive of the entire universe as humanly significant” (28). Berger argues that humans are fundamentally meaning-seeking creatures: It is our very nature to impose order upon our experiences and seek meaning in day-to-day events. In so doing, we reject chaos and the possibility that events are random in nature.

We see much anecdotal evidence that Berger is right about this. A child dies, and through their grief parents vow that the child’s death will “mean something”: they may start a foundation or lobby for passage of a law or speak publicly about a larger issue related to their child’s death. The child’s death is transformed from an isolated random event that happens with some degree of tragic regularity – diseases strike, drunk drivers kill, accidents happen – to an event with meaning and larger purpose, an event connected to the larger social order. Similarly, an elderly woman wins the lottery and believes she is being repaid for a lifetime of financial struggles and generous acts. It is entirely unsatisfying to think that picking the right lottery numbers might be just dumb luck and unrelated to the moral fiber of the lucky winner, to conceive that a selfish and callous person could be so fortunate as to beat the odds.

According to Berger, humans constantly seek order and meaning in daily events as a way to fight off the alterative – the admission that our lives are full of random unpredictability – that leaves us enmeshed in the terrifying and dark morass of chaos. Chaos, or the absence of order, is terrifying to humans because it suggests a dark abyss into which it is too easy to fall. One common type of order is what Berger refers to as nomos, the imposition of order by humans on everyday events so that events seem more predictable and stable. Schedules and appointments, laws of science, social norms such as driving on the right side of the road, and stereotypes, all take masses of information, actions, and events and place them in a system of humanly constructed and understood order.

But the most robust order is cosmos, a conception of order that links human experience to a transcendental order, providing a sense that our lives are not mere aggregations of random events but instead that our experiences are connected to some larger sacred order. As people often say in both good and bad times, “It’s all part of God’s plan.”

Events that otherwise make no sense are explained through their connection a cosmic order. Terrorists crash a plane into a building, and Jerry Falwell, a prominent religious leader, claims that “the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians…the ACLU, People For the American Way… created an environment which possibly has caused God to lift the veil of protection…” (CNN, 2001). That event must be connected to some larger and sacred order: Falwell is convinced. It cannot be an accident or a fluke, or a mundane failure of airport security. The universe cannot be so cruel. It must mean something.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, people varied greatly in how they evaluated those who stayed behind in New Orleans. Some of the harshest evaluations came from those whose criticisms suggest that they would have done things differently: “I would have hoofed it out of there” said one student who was not the least bit compassionate toward--and indeed seemed disgusted by--the people who remained behind. She even said “They got what they deserved.” This student’s response was perplexing: She was so certain that those who stayed behind were basically flawed human beings and insisted that the suffering was not random but deserved.

Berger’s lens suggests a different underlying thought, something along the lines of: “I cannot believe this was just a random event that happened to random people because that would mean that someday something like this could happen to me. There is order in this world and nothing so awful could ever happen to a deserving person like me.” To admit that such a terrifying and tragic event could befall anyone at anytime is to acknowledge the significant degree of randomness in our day-to-day existence. It is this sense of inherent chaos that, with the help of religion, we fight so hard to fend off. Humans fight the notion that events are random by conceiving that they are meaningful in some larger cosmic order.

There are two kinds of why. There is the “why” that is really a “how” question. The answer to that – with respect to Haiti – is clear. Haiti was built on a fault line, not a metaphorical one, but literally a geological fault line. Over centuries of plate movement, energy built up until the earth shook. Science gives a comprehensive answer to this question. And the social sciences and engineering can help us understand the subsequent devastation: Long-standing poverty led to substandard construction, and substantially more damage when the earth did it was always going to do.

But the other kind of “why” – What does this mean? – is where Pat Robertson so small-ly, meanly and cruelly plunged. We shouldn’t be surprised: Did anyone really think that Pat Robertson would look to science for the answer to his why question?

He offers his listeners a myth about a pact with the devil that assures him and them that they could never experience such misfortune.

Me, I prefer our president’s answer to the big “why” question: “For a country and a people who are no strangers to hardship and suffering, this tragedy seems especially cruel and incomprehensible…”

I prefer not knowing, when the kind of knowing embraced by Pat Robertson embodies cowardice, smugness and false superiority.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Common Sense?

There's a lot of talk these days about "Common Sense" as a political virtue. With apologies to Thomas Paine, here's what I think the people mean today when they invoke "Common Sense":

That which I find so obvious that I need not explain it to you.

That notion of common sense is problematic. First, because it assumes the speaker's obvious superiority over the listener: I know what's right and, if you disagree, it's because you are stupid. Where's your common sense?

But second, and more importantly, because it renders dialogue superfluous: We need not talk, we need not argue, we need not exchange ideas, because the conclusion -- mine, at least -- is self-evident. Don't weary me with your questions, your doubts, your alternative perspectives. It's so tedious. I was done thinking about this the moment my mind first formed this thought. I think it, therefore it is common sense.

It's a convenient cop out, allowing the person claiming "Common Sense" to escape scrutiny and challenge, to avoid thinking, to evade defense of his or her ideas.

The invoking of "Common Sense" is a dangerous trend in a democratic society.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

On Nelson Mandela and radical forgiveness

I saw Invictus recently and was reminded of Nelson Mandela's radical forgiveness. Twenty-seven years in a prison for dissenting from apartheid and, when freed and elected President of South Africa, he moved himself and his country forward by forgiving and unifying. Radical forgiveness that was hard for anyone to understand but essential to healing.

Nearly three decades as a political prisoner, and look how Nelson Mandela turned out.

I don't think that we are the captains of our fate, but I do think we are the masters of our souls. We don't determine our circumstances or our outcomes. But we do decide how we respond and who we will be. Nelson Mandela chose forgiveness and compassion, despite the horrible circumstances that stole nearly a third of his life.

Dick Cheney, on the other hand, has spent nary a day in prison, more's the pity. Dick Cheney, a man of power and privilege, and look how he turned out. Mean, sour, angry, petty, vengeful...evil. A pathetic remnant of what once might have been a human being.

What's his excuse?

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Half a Scrooge

I feel like half a Scrooge. I love the Christmas season but, for a whole bunch of reasons, I hate the Christmas shopping. Let me count the ways.
  • I resent the way we equate gifts with love, as if the best or only way to demonstrate how important others are to us is by gifting them objects.
  • I particularly resent how this meme is generated and maintained by the manufacturers and retailers who make money off this distortion. Seriously, who believes that an engagement ring should cost two months salary, zhu zhus mean that daddy and mommy love you, and a flat screen TV means you really know me?
  • I hate the thought that someone is diving into the over-commercialized consumer quagmire on my behalf just because it is December. Especially since the shopping and gift giving have almost nothing in common with the religious holiday that’s been hijacked to justify it.
  • I dislike shopping in general. When I go, I know what I want and I buy it. Or I’m keeping someone company. As for window shopping – or, as I like to call it, “visiting things” – I have about a thirty minute tolerance for this. Then my friends will tell you: I’m sitting in the mall or seeking out a coffee house. All that stuff that we can buy does less and less for me every year. It brings no joy.
  • I am breathless, and not in a good way but in a panic attack way, at all the stuff we buy and the thought of where we will put it, what we will do with the stuff from last year and how all of this can be environmentally sustainable.
  • I hate the way we waste our energy chasing the myth that we owe each other things, and in the process miss out on the time we could spend with each other enjoying the moment.
Most of all, I hate how the shopping and gift giving displaces the parts of Christmas that bring me the most joy. To show the non-Scrooge half of me, let me count those too.
  • I love Christmas lights, even the ones that are over the top. Yes, I know someone bought them, and I know they burn energy, and I hear there’s an aura of competition around them. But I like to look at them.
  • I love being in public places around people at Christmas: a coffee house, a restaurant, a busy city street, the entrance to a downtown department store near the bell-ringer, a dog park, a ski slope. And I don’t even ski. But I love seeing people, relaxed and happy and enjoying each other, around Christmas.
  • I love my stupid 14-year old artificial Christmas tree with its 25 years of accumulated ornaments. Every year I put it in the same place, and pretty much put the ornaments on the same way. And then I turn out the lights and I take it in. It’s beautiful.
  • I love being with my family and friends at Christmas: Making a brunch of pancakes or waffles or French toast on Christmas Eve morning and Christmas morning, going to church with my parents on Christmas Eve, wrapping presents for other people, meeting for breakfast or lunch or drinks, sharing Christmas Eve with one set of friends and Christmas Dinner with another.
  • I love the weather around Christmas, because the snow is still a novelty and 25 degrees Fahrenheit is the second best temperature (after 70 degrees). It’s the best temperature for taking a long walk.
All I want for Christmas is more of the stuff I love about Christmas and less of what I don’t. Oh, and to not be told that my attitude, were it widespread, would cripple the economy.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

I Read It So You Don't Have To (WSJ version)

Today’s big WSJ headline – nearly one-fourth of all US homeowners are ‘underwater’ on their mortgages. That is, nearly 25% of American homeowners owe more on their home than it is worth.

I remember when 10% underwater seemed high!

One such homeowner, a police officer no less, “argues the best government strategy would be to reduce the principal due on mortgages to reflect current market values. ‘You keep waiting and hoping that the government is going to step in and offer some relief.’”

Really? Best for whom?

A bit more detail…According to the story, about four years ago, this homeowner put $130K down on a house they paid $650K for. Today, the home is valued at around $400K. Indeed, if they’d stuck with their original mortgage, they’d be underwater by about $120K (or 30% of its current value). That would have sucked, and would have been largely driven by forces outside their control.

But that’s not all. In the last four years, the homeowner took out a second mortgage “to help pay for their daughter’s college costs, home improvements and a wedding…” Now, instead of having a mortgage of $520K or less (the original mortgage), he owes $647K.

And he hopes the government will step in and lower his mortgage principal, essentially asking that the taxpayers and/or the banks fund his daughter’s education, a wedding and home improvements. Why the hell not?

There’s two pretty weird letters in the Journal today. One is funny, in an “if it doesn’t kill you, it makes you stronger” kind of way. Dr. William Burk, from Greenville SC, writes about germ-phobic medical professionals:
“As a retired anesthesiologist many years removed from the principles surrounding disease transmission, I nonetheless feel compelled to comment on neckties ("Nothing to Sneeze At: Doctors' Neckties Seen as Flu Risk," page one, Nov. 19)…Give me a break. I don't see any former colleagues falling dead from cervico-facial MRSA and they wear the damn things all day. The mere culturing of organisms doesn't establish linkage to transmission. If there are suspected Tie-phoid Martys out there who will send me their neckties, I'll volunteer to rub them on my nose.

One can get things practicing medicine. In my youth, I contracted Hepatitis B during a time when I was frequently sticking myself with needles containing the blood of jaundiced patients. There's probably a link there. In recent years, though, an intense paranoia seems to be pervasive among medical personnel. One cannot touch another human being without donning gloves. This is nonsense. In many years of cannulating tens of thousands of blood vessels and treating massive trauma from Cu Chi, Vietnam, to the Carolinas, I have countless times been "washed in the blood," and my skin has been up to the task of protecting me."
Yikes. I’m not agreeing or disagreeing with him! I’m just sayin’.

But the second letter takes the cake. It’s an argument against allowing skilled immigrants to compete for US jobs in science and technology. Why? Because seeing these smart and hardworking foreigners in such jobs is discouraging to Americans leading them to choose work in other fields:

“The analysis by Stuart Anderson, mentioned in your editorial, is based solely on the selfish and nearsighted economic benefit we receive from these talented people but ignores their effects on our own dysfunctional educational system. I am sure Mr. Anderson would expect his children's schools to emphasize science and mathematics in their curriculum so their students could obtain jobs in science, engineering and biotechnology, but children are not so easily influenced. When they see the scientific and technical jobs going to legal foreign immigrants, they get the idea that it will take exceptionally hard work to compete with the world's brightest, best and most competitive, and they (wisely) choose other career paths and carry on the vicious cycle of poor scientific and technical education leading to the need for more immigrant workers.”
So the problem is that Americans are lazy and lack confidence? And the way to restore a work ethic and confidence is to exclude foreign workers from high-skill jobs? Seriously?

Maybe he's pulling my leg.

I am reminded of a conversation I frequently have with undergraduates. I say, “You want to do forensics in law enforcement. You should take a chemistry class.” They say, “Nah. I don’t like chemistry. It's too hard.” Or I say, “Why haven’t you competed your Math Core course yet.” They say, “I don’t like math.”

And I think, “That’s it. You don’t like it. Yet you think that all your dreams will come true while you simultaneously avoid anything that seems difficult to you?”

How, I wonder, can we compete against the world – a hungry, ambitious, hard-working world – with that attitude at the heart of too many college students.

Bring on the immigrant labor, if you ask me. May the fittest—smartest, hardest working, most ambitious, least whiny—win.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

City Crazy

You can travel further by car, but you don't see as much. What with going 25 mph, and paying attention to stop lights, and looking for parking spaces, and all. So I have been exploring Providence on foot. Today I walked north on Hope because I'd heard there was a little shopping district in that direction.

Between here and there, Hope Street reminded me of Willetts Street, where my grandparents lived when I was a kid. It was a street lined with up-down duplexes in old houses. (Now I hear it has deteriorated, as has much of Schenectady NY, but it lives on unchanged in my memory.)

Other veritable institutions were interspersed. The pubic library, with people playing chess outside. The YMCA which was having a neighborhood rummage sale. The Jewish Welcome Center, with a quote from Allen Feinstein posted out front. Hope High School, an imposing structure, also -- oddly -- with a quote from Allen Feinstein posted. Who is Allen Feinstein?

And then I arrived at the commercial district, with gas stations, pizza places, a children's store, dry cleaners...all the things of day to day life. I liked this area even a bit more than Thayer Street. Thayer is a highly concentrated restaurant-coffee house-boutique district for Brown students. I like that just fine! But north on Hope was business for the people, including a bakery called Seven Stars (with a fabulous blueberry pastry) and something called Not Just Snacks. Had I not know what it was, I probably would have passed it by. But a friend had told me that Not Just Snacks had really good Indian food.

So I stopped by and asked if I could be served some vegetable and meat samosas on the front deck (there is lots of outside restaurant seating in Providence). I had my mid-afternoon snack right there on Hope Street, watching the people go by. The couple overloaded with dry cleaning. The woman in the cross walk who was understandably alarmed by the car that sped towards her. The mother and her child who wandered by. The Jewish families going to Roshashona services. All the things that happen in a city.

Maybe some people don't like this: long walks on urban streets, buses roaring by, hoards of teenagers celebrating the end of the school day, the grimy settledness of the city. But I'm crazy about it.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Indulging my inner introvert

At the end of August, I went to five major league baseball games: two in Kansas City, two in St. Louis and one in Cincinnati. I saw Zack Greinke strike out fifteen, Albert Pujols hit a walk off home run, dazzling double plays and diving catches, and throws to the plate that nailed the runner. I enjoyed every minute of every baseball game, even though I had never been to any of these ballparks and I didn’t know anyone there.

And since arriving in Providence I’ve been wholly content to wander the streets of this old city and settle into my apartment, speaking to nary a soul. Full disclosure: I have not been all alone in this transition, as my mom was excellent company on the trip here and I have a few friends here. But I have relished – on the cross-country trip and in the time that I have been here – all the time I get to spend alone.

Being in a strange place, I don’t listen for my name. I don’t eavesdrop on conversations. I don’t run into anyone I know. No one asks me anything. No one needs anything from me.

In the last couple of years, I coped with the constant interruptions by reminding myself that it was an unavoidable part of my job. And when someone came in my office I would take a deep breath, preemptively calm myself, and give what I hoped was my full and resentment-free attention. But purging the resentment did not come naturally; it was an act of will.

I am an introvert who gives a good impression of being an extrovert. That probably makes me more extroverted than those who can’t play act enthusiasm for constant social interaction. But it wore me down over time. I was very glad to go home to a quiet empty house each night. And, during the work day, I was always acutely aware of the distance between what made me most comfortable and the role I was expected to play.

And so, here in Providence, I am happy to indulge my inner introvert. I promise I will not hole up in my little apartment for all of the next year. But I hope I’ll be excused for enjoying the peace and quiet as long as it lasts.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Day One

Some people associate sabbatical with 'taking time off from work'. I hope they aren't saying that to my dean! I explain it to those outside academia as 'working for myself for a year'. And, really, that's a good explanation.

For the last 16 years, I have worked mostly for other people: teaching and doing administrative work. I've been able to work some for myself -- on research and writing projects -- but over the years it has been harder and harder to focus on my agenda rather than everyone else's. Therein lies the value of my sabbatical, where for the first time in years I get to work for myself.

My first official day here was a wash administratively. I started the day not yet 'signed in' at the university and ended the day the same way. But in the meantime I enjoyed meeting the very friendly staff in three different central administration offices: the Dean of Faculty, Human Resources and the 'card' office. Unfortunately, there is some confusion about what unpaid visiting scholars are to do in order to get an ID card. I-9 form? Yes, but then no. Letter of appointment? Carry that around with you, and don't let anyone take it from you: Live and learn, as my copy of the letter was graciously confiscated from me by the charming receptionist in the Dean of Faculty's office. Go here, go there, find the door around the corner from the bookstore and just before the construction site (construction seems to be a running joke around here). Bur everyone is so sincere and nice, so it's hard to be upset. Tomorrow is another day.

Substantively the day was better, a lot better. A little mucking around with data, some notes on research questions and approaches, some exploration of other secondary data that I can draw on. Working for myself! Very satistfying.

And, at the conclusion of the day, I went to a talk by an anthropologist of law out of Cornell who discussed her research on regulation of global financial markets from the bottom up. So invigorating! It made me realize how much I miss having scholars with similar interests around on a day-to-day basis. In fact, it's been so long that (1) I had completely forgotten what it's like, but (2) and perhaps more significantly, it suggests why I have veered towards being a superficial generalist of a scholar rather than an expert in a given area.

So, by the end of the talk, I had noted that 'this was a very good day'. That's a good sign -- that my first day back at my working sabbatical went so well.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Body art

I was sorry not to get a picture of this:

A young man, with elaborate tattoos, entered the Vietnamese Noodle House where Brandon and I were having lunch. He carried a bouquet of flowers and sat down at the table next to us. We waited for about ten minutes to see who would join him, but eventually left. I hope she showed up!

Eastern Montana and North Dakota

I had random thoughts driving through Eastern Montana and North Dakota this week:

1. There were only about 4 radio stations in Eastern Montana, and it seemed like each got its news feed from Fox News. That was eye-opening.

2. North Dakota had more variety, probably because I-94 passes through a number of towns of size. Occasionally I got ABC News, and NPR had a much stronger presence.

3. By the time I got near to Fargo, after 750 or so miles of driving, I was sufficiently bored that the billboards on the side of the road seemed fascinating. I'd ease off the gas to read them carefully, and then realize that I'd slowed to 65 mph, and then speed back up again.

4. I went to a minor league game yesterday, the Fargo Redhawks played the Gary IN Railbacks. I noted that the Redhawks replaced their pitcher four times, but pitching did not seem to be their problem. They had multiple throwing errors, as if where the ball went had no relation to where the intended recipient stood. I'm betting they do some throwing drills today.

5. Fargo is a bigger place than I thought, with an Asian market to die for. It has welcomed a large number of refugees from all over the world.

It's on to Brookings SD next.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Bucket List

On Monday, I got a letter from a college professor in Canada. It seems I am on his bucket list. To paraphrase, he wrote:

I have terminal cancer. I am dying. But before I die, I had to write and tell you how much I hate your book. Too much Durkheim, not enough Weber. It's a disservice to the field.
So I and my co-authors have achieved a bizarre status where a total stranger thinks about us as he lays dying. One of my co-authors wants this on the cover of our second edition.

It made me wonder, however, what I would be doing if I were him. I'm not profound, I realized: I would be eating donuts.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Memo to Sarah

From God, upon the news that Ted Stevens lost:

Don't let the slamming door hit you in the ass on your way out.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

See Below

OK, I get that the entry just below this one is completely out of character with one below it. I'm still struggling with idealism and internal consistency.

The New GOP

Last night, as the election results rolled in and the map took form in red and blue, my friends and I discussed the future of the Republican Party. We agreed: it is unlikely to change in fundamental ways but might benefit from a new name, one that better reflects its base.

The Confederate Party, anyone?

Heck, they already have a flag.

This is America

Not us, apart from them, but every one of us.

Let no one ever say that to be an American you must fit a narrow mold: looking, thinking and living just like all the others.

Let no one ever say cookie-cutter conformity is a good thing.

Each of us brings a life history, a perspective informed by experience, a set of connections to other human beings and a dream for the future. God bless America for that!

Diversity is our strength.

And for those who fear, remember: Respect for diversity, and the rights and dignity of every last one of us, is the glue that will hold us together.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Bob the Plumber

My next door neighbor, Bob, is a plumber. And a lifelong Montanan.

I ran into Bob and his wife on my way to the polls this morning.

They voted for Barack Obama.

Joan explained: It was his confidence and his demeanor in the debates. He was, all in all, the more presidential of the two.

Mr. Bill Speaks

Mr. Bill is my other cat. He's shy, which is why you haven't heard from him before.

Mr. Bill wants me to remind you that he is not named after the famed Saturday Night Live character -- oooooooohhh, noooooooo, Mr. Bill (splat, as some object falls on the claymation character)! Instead, he is named after the lesser known brother of a famous baseball player: Bill Ripken. A noble tradition.

Anyhow, this morning Mr. Bill made an unprecedented request. You see, he doesn't ask for much of anything except a little taste of yogurt once in a while. But as I rolled out of bed this morning, Mr. Bill looked up at me with his soulful green eyes and he said, "Would you please vote for the black cat?"

And I said, "But Mr. Bill! Why?"

And he said, "As you know, I am a black cat and I am a uniter." (Indeed, Mr. Bill is: for more than a decade, he mediated Bessie and Harry's often tempestuous relationship!) "And," Mr. Bill continued, "I just think that other black cat, he's what we need now to unite America."

Nice to know my cat agrees with me.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Pity Party II

Sarah Palin got a prank phone call yesterday from Montreal's Masked Avengers posing as French President Nicolas Sarkozy. The conversation went on for about six minutes. It was recorded and broadcast around the world. The pranksters said all sort of outrageous things, and Palin did not catch on.

The conversation revealed a lot about Palin. She was clearly starstruck, giggling and gushing over the impostor. She apparently does not have a professional voice and persona for conversations with world leaders: it's Sarah the hockey mom all the way. But most off all, I noted that this woman, who rapidly rejects what she sees as offensive statements from her enemies (e.g., the media, political opponents), lacks a nonsense detector for those who seem to agree with her or those who flatter her. That does not bode well as an indicator of her judgment.

Nonethless I feel sorry for her because:
  • Her staff is so incompetent that they put her on the phone with the impostor without checking to see if the call was legitimate or, apparently, checking with the campaign leadership about it.
  • She answers her phone just like I answer mine: "Hi, this is Sarah" (except I use my first name, not hers). If the President of France called, I might or might not have the good sense to do different.
  • Despite copious clues that the call was a hoax, it is hard to imagine who would get up the gumption to contradict, challenge, correct or hang up on someone you think might be the President of France.
  • Pranks derive their humor from making another person look stupid and feel stupid about themselves, and I have always found intentional humiliation of another person hard to laugh at.

The marginal value of what we could learn from that call was not worth its price in mean-spiritedness and incivility.

Friday, October 31, 2008

A dingelhead on the first amendment: Run for cover!

Sarah Palin on conservative talk radio today:

"If [the media] convince enough voters that that is negative campaigning, for me to call Barack Obama out on his associations...then I don't know what the future of our country would be in terms of First Amendment rights and our ability to ask questions without fear of attacks by the mainstream media."

The first amendment says that "Congress shall make no law...abridging the freedom of speech."

Wake up, Sarah! Is there a law against what you are saying? Does the media even pass laws? Are the media and Congress the same thing? Are in you jail? Have you been fined for what you said? Have you been told that if you don't shut up you'll be charged with a crime? (Is that too many questions, with too many big words, for you to keep track of?)

If the answers to those questions are "No", then your first amendment rights have not been abridged. The first amendment says you can say whatever you want. So can I. So can the media. It doesn't say I have to agree with you or nod along. It lets me, and the media, dissent. Down in the lower 48, we call that Democracy. So, bite me.

Your understanding of the US Constitution, however, abridges my right to live in a society where candidates for national political office have the decency to understand the most basic elements of the US Constitution.

Though I am sure it looks that way from Alaska, you are not the center of the universe.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Real Montana

Finally, something about Montana that sounds like the real deal.

You can vote however you like

In case you were wondering, these kids will set you straight!

They should be here

Tuesday I’m bringing my beautifully framed photo of Jackie Robinson to an election night party. It would not be a party without him.

After the ‘Barack Special’, I headed out for a walk to the sound of Aaron Copland's Appalachian Spring. It’s the first track on my Ipod. A quarter mile in I felt so good that I started to run, and I ran for almost 2 miles until I reached a steep hill. I walked up the hill, marveling at the stars. On a clear night in Bozeman, you can see infinity.

My Ipod continued through the tracks in turn, and as I crossed Wilson Avenue two blocks from my house, Amy Martin was singing her tribute to Paul Wellstone. You may remember him: the college-professor-turned-senator from Minnesota was the lone dissenting vote in our tragic march to war in Iraq. He died, along with his wife, daughter and several others, in a plane crash on October 25, 2002.

“And we cry in the night across the nation
There may have never been a time
When we more desperately needed him
They say we all march in lock step
To beat of the war drum
But this man raised his hand and said
No, not in my name
And he spoke for me
And my future children
He left us a legacy
Of what a true hero could be.”

And I sat in the dark on my porch and I shed some tears for someone else who should be here.

Just do it

In the worst of times, this family recognized the needs of others.

"And Cannady said Anne actually goes on, in a sense, telling Smith, "When it became evident late Saturday afternoon of the outcome for Anne, we discussed the organ donation, and knew that that was something she would certainly have wanted to do. Twenty-four hours later, Sunday evening, we were advised that six people had been the recipient of Anne's gift. So there's a legacy that will continue to live on in other people through her. And for that, we're thankful and grateful.""

Surely, in the light of day, when all is well in our lives, we too can sign up to be organ donors.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Crocodile Tears from Hypocrites

So spreading the wealth is bad? It's socialism, the scourge of the earth according to McCain, Palin and red-staters.

After his Meet The Press endorsement of Barack Obama, Colin Powell explained taxes and redistribution well:

"Taxes are always a redistribution of money. Most of the taxes that are redistributed go back to those who paid them, in roads and airports and hospitals and schools. And taxes are necessary for the common good. And there is nothing wrong with examining what our tax structure is or who should be paying more, who should be paying less. And for us to say that makes you a socialist, I think is an unfortunate characteriziation that isn't accurate."

So, let's take a look at how federal taxes are 'redistributed', on a state by state basis. Some states pay more in taxes than they get back again. Connecticut gets 73 cents back on each dollar it pays in, California - 80 cents, New York - 82 cents and Washington state - 89 cents. Other states get more back than they pay in: Mississippi gets $2.02 for each dollar it puts in, New Mexico - $2.00, West Virginia - $1.75, Kentucky - $1.48 and South Dakota - $1.51.

Pretty clearly, there is a redistribution of federal tax dollars going on: Some people are getting back more than they put in. It's an outrage. It's socialism. It's a travesty. It's downright un-American.

And weirdly, given the vociferous objection to 'redistribution' from red-staters, red states across the country get much more back from the feds than they put in. Take a look for yourself. And blue states? What a bunch of chumps!

Thank goodness McCain and Palin have stuck to their principles by pointing out the gross inequity of the redistribution of federal tax dollars!

Let's take a look and see how our candidates do here, just to make clear how awful and socialistic the Democrats are in stark contrast to the fair and just Republicans.

John McCain: Arizona gets back $1.19 for each dollar it puts in.

Sarah Palin: Alaska gets back $1.85 for each dollar it puts in.

Barack Obama: Illinois gets back 78 cents for each dollar it puts in.

Joe Biden: Delaware gets back 80 cents for each dollar it puts in.

Whoa, Nellie! My head just did the 'exorcist' spin. John McCain and Sarah Palin are accusing Barack Obama and Joe Biden of being socialists?! Really?

Based on the evidence, I conclude that Obama and Biden are really ineffective socialists, much less effective than, oh say, John McCain and Sarah Palin.

Luckily for the Republican candidates, Colin Powell isn't going to call them a socialist over this. He might, however, think they are hypocrites.

In my email: So Bite Me!

I didn't write this but I fully concur. Now we just have to turn Montana blue.

From: Laura Grindstaff
Subject: An Open Letter
Date: Monday, October 27, 2008, 3:37 PM

Dear Red States,
If you manage to steal this election too we've decided we're leaving. We intend to form our own country, and we're taking the other Blue States with us. In case you aren't aware, that includes California , Hawaii, Oregon, Washington, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois and all the Northeast. We believe this split will be beneficial to the nation, and especially to the people of the new country of New California.

To sum up briefly: You get Texas, Oklahoma and all the slave states. We get stem cell research and the best beaches. We get the Statue of Liberty. You get Dollywood. We get Intel and Microsoft. You get WorldCom. We get Harvard. You get Ole' Miss. We get 85% of America's venture capital and entrepreneurs. You get Alabama. We get two-thirds of the tax revenue, you get to make the red states pay their fair share.

Since our aggregate divorce rate is 22% lower than the Christian Coalition's, we get a bunch of happy families. You get a bunch of single moms. Please be aware that Nuevo California will be pro-choice and anti-war, and we're going to want all our citizens back from Iraq at once. If you need people to fight, ask your evangelicals. They have kids they're apparently willing to send to their deaths for no purpose, and they don't care if you don't show pictures of their children's caskets coming home. We do wish you success in Iraq, and hope that the WMDs turn up, but we're not willing to spend our resources in Bush's Quagmire.

With the Blue States in hand, we will have firm control of 80% of the country's fresh water, more than 90% of the pineapple and lettuce, 92% of the nation's fresh fruit, 95% of America 's quality wines, 90% of all cheese, 90% of the high tech industry, 95% of the corn and soybeans (thanks Iowa !), most of the U.S. low-sulfur coal, all living redwoods, sequoias and condors, all the Ivy and Seven Sister schools plus Stanford, Cal Tech and MIT.

With the Red States, on the other hand, you will have to cope with 88% of all obese Americans (and their projected health care costs), 92% of all U.S. mosquitoes, nearly 100% of the tornadoes, 90% of the hurricanes, 99% of all Southern Baptists, virtually 100% of all televangelists, Rush Limbaugh, Bob Jones University, Clemson and the University of Georgia. We get Hollywood and Yosemite, thank you.

Additionally, 38% of those in the Red states believe Jonah was actually swallowed by a whale, 62% believe life is sacred unless we're discussing the war, the death penalty or guntha laws, 44% say that evolution is only a theory, 53% that Saddam was involved in 9/11 and 61% of you crazy bastards believe you are people with higher morals than we lefties. Finally, we're taking the good pot, too. You can have that dirt weed they grow in Mexico.

Peace out,
Blue States

Monday, October 27, 2008

The Ghost of Strother Martin

McCain blames the media for his failing and flailing campaign, including his running mate’s unfavorable ratings. Journalists are biased and unfair, or so the story goes.

John McCain has no coherent message, and not because the media has garbled it. He and his campaign have been here, there and thither since the end of the primary season: he’s experienced! He’s courageous! He’s a fighter! He’s an outsider! If you are going to run a campaign predicated on character, it is best to settle up front on what that character is going to be.

And if the theme is experience and judgment, then align your decisions with that: vet your vice presidential candidate, know what you are talking about and save the drama for your mama.

As for his running mate’s poor favorability ratings, Palin blames a media filter that distorts who she is. She says she wants to talk directly to the American public without going through the so-called biased media. But when it comes down to it, she has refused to answer anyone's questions except her own.

Case in point: When NBC's Brian Williams asked her about whether abortion-clinic bombers were domestic terrorists and Palin immediately launched into a condemnation of Bill Ayers. That's not the damn question!

A key to good communication is listening. Sarah Palin has shown herself to be an abysmal listener. Questions are filtered through her own personal lens and the answer that comes out has nothing to do with what was asked and everything to do with what she wants to say. It may make her feel good, but it is deeply unsatisfying to the listener. This, I suspect, is part of our frustration with her interviews: her drivel is unresponsive to the question asked. She makes you wonder if she even heard or understood the question, not a good concern about someone so close to having the nuclear codes.

Reporters have generally been unwilling to point it out to her. Interestingly, when Katie Couric pressed her, Palin admitted responded poorly and later said she was annoyed with Couric for not asking questions she wanted to answer. Welcome to big-time politics, Governor Palin. It’s not about you anymore.

To steal a line from Strother Martin in Cool Hand Luke, “what we've got here is failure to communicate.” And it’s not the media’s failure: It belongs squarely on the shoulders of the McCain-Palin campaign.

Guest Post: The Audacity of Chutzpah

[from my mom, who knows what she is talking about]

Last Thursday I shopped at my favorite thrift shop, returning triumphant with five lined and beautiful jackets for $27 (total, not each).

They are all quality label (Ann Klein, Liz Claiborne, Ann Taylor, Talbot's), all like new. As you know, your mother dresses on the cheap from thrift shops, consignment stores and the Talbot's outlet.

Well, that's yet another place where I part company with Sarah Palin. Although we live in Northern Virginia and are counted by the McCain campaign as part of the liberal east coast elite, I've never set foot in Neiman Marcus or Saks. I do confess to buying a bathing suit (on third markdown) at Macy's in the 1970s. It was a Monahan mainstay for 23 years until it literally fell apart in the water at a Hawaiian beach (a fairly racy story for another day).

Returning from my thrift shop excursion, I turned on television news and heard about Guv Palin's new $150,000 high-end (what else at that price?) wardrobe, makeup and hairstyling.

Sarah Palin: Just the average middle class hockey mom, dressing for a dash to Wal-Mart's meat counter.

Lordy, Lordy, Miss Scarlett. I fear I shall swoon. What y’all don’t know about other folks!

In my entire life I never paid more than $80 for any outfit except a winter coat (top price of $125 on that and I wore it f o r e v e r.). Think how much the GOP could have saved if they allowed me the bonding experience of taking Miz Palin shopping. For that I would even take off my Obama button.

With $3,000 at Talbot’s (not even Talbot’s Outlet, shrine to thrift which it is) I could dress the Would Be Veep in enough coordinated skirts, jackets, shoes, handbags and dresses to see her to November fourth’s gala events and the GOP wake beyond.

With just $1,000 at a couple of thrift and consignment shops she could be dressed to kill (or attack, as is her wont) in dozens of outfits, many with designer labels. There would be enough apparel to carry The Guv through to Bristol’s baby’s high school graduation.

As for makeup, did anyone consider the drug store? A good supply of hair styling needs may be found there as well for well under $40. Quality stuff. Vidal Sasson, Pantene et al.

Let’s be clear about this kerfuffle and GOP contributors, please note: The Republicans blow $150K on designer duds and makeup for a candidate when the McCain campaign desperately needs those funds to buy advertising air time.

It makes a lady wonder about what kind of priorities and decisions a McCain administration would make on life and death issues. Oh, yes, remember Terri Schiavo? Remember the Iraq War?

When was the decision engendered to retrofit The Guv at the cost of a new 3br/2b house with a Lexus in the garage in Iowa? My suspicion is the scheme was born when Cindy McCain first laid eyes on The Guv at the deep vetting interview with McCain at his Arizona ranch. Mother’s imagination flashes: Cindy takes one appalled look at Sarah's outfit and thinks "That tacky polyester has to go. Let's get this babe to Neiman Marcus so she will LOOK Republican."

And so they did, also acquiring a hair stylist and make up artist to travel with The Guv at a cost of about $23,000 for three weeks work. That's more than my pension and social security combined for a year.

How could I ever have doubted the empathy, the deep compassion, the McCain campaign has for the middle class? Remember the story about The Emperor with No Clothes? Well, that is not Sarah Palin's story.

Now The Guv's handlers protest the utter unfairness of the press disclosing this. No one had to go through garbage or hack a computer for the facts: The campaign itself reported the expenditures.

One of the McCain whizzes whined that the plan is to give the clothes to charity ("Hey, Sue, look at the bag lady in Dior!"), adding that some of the outfits would be returned to the stores.

Consider the ethics of this: You wear very expensive clothes to campaign events and then return them to the merchants for a refund. What reason do you state for the return?

Reluctance to pay the bill, perhaps. No, customer service might deem that insufficient reason. Perhaps you could plead the outfits didn't photograph well or they smelled after the candidate perspired in them. No wonder many stores require expensive apparel be returns with the original price tags attached.

Just when I think the McCain campaign can't screw up any worse, they confound the world anew with their audacity of chutzpah.

Sunday, October 26, 2008


Sarah Palin has largely avoided the so-called mainstream media since her Vice Presidential nomination. In retrospect, I’m not surprised: she’s not of the mainstream and I can understand why she might not want to mingle with them.

Her religious beliefs and practices are a bit odd. Case in point, her ‘blessing’ from Thomas Multhee who laid hands on her to cast away the witches. Seriously, witches. I wonder if the Palin kids get to go trick-or-treating.

Her husband’s political affiliations are also out of the mainstream. The Alaska Independence Party is the Alaska version of the Montana Militia, except that the Montana Militia got a lot more attention back in the day from the mainstream media.

Most odd, to me, is Palin’s weak record at getting her kids through high school. High school. Her son joined the military before graduating. Her daughter joined the campaign trail and will likely have a baby before graduating. Her future son-in-law dropped out of school as well. High school graduation is a pretty mainstream American goal.

What so wrong with the mainstream, and who's out of step with it?

Alternate Reality I

Sarah Palin, in Des Moines IA on October 25:

“See, under a big government, more tax agenda, what you thought was yours would really start belonging to somebody else, to everybody else. If you thought your income, your property, your inventory, your investments were, were yours, they would really collectively belong to everybody.”

She should know.

Her family received over $3300 in payments from the state of Alaska in 2007. In 2006, the amount was just over $2200. Sarah Palin's popularity as governor of Alasksa was due, in part, to her support for increasing that payment by $1200 last year.

Alaska does not grow money on trees. They collect it from oil companies and redistribute it to Alaska residents.

Socialism, anyone?

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Eight long years

Remember the 'wassssup' beer guys? Well, they're back.

The last eight years haven't been good to them.

But they still know hope.

This may be my favorite Obama campaign ad yet.

Real men live in Montana

I was reading magazines today in Borders.

Three men sat down nearby: one wearing a cowboy hat and the other two wearing baseball caps with farm equipment logos. One had his 3 month old daughter with him. I inferred that his wife was shopping and he was on baby duty. In the hour I sat by them, they changed the baby’s diaper, held her, cooed at her and told her how cute she was. Then she slept and they talked.

Me, I just read magazines.

When they got up to walk away, the oldest of the men, probably in his late fifties, pointed to the New Yorker magazine I’d been reading—the one with the “How John McCain Picked Sarah Palin” headline—and asked: “Did that book tell you where they got her?”

Sensing dangerous territory, I did my best imitation of Sarah-herself: “Well, I think they found her in Alaska.”

“But did they say how they found her?” he persisted.

I ventured further: “It said that Republican officials visited Alaska last spring, and she hosted them at the governor’s mansion. That’s how she met them.”

“I don’t know her but she’s pretty famous now,” he responded.

“Yeah, she’s made quite a name for herself.” I said that with a completely straight face.

And then he said with complete certainty: “Doesn’t matter. They're not gonna do it.”

Maybe he was baiting me, but it didn't seem like it.

He seemed more like nobody's fool.

(props to Richard Russo)

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

On a lighter note

I have three criteria for shoes:
  • No high heels.
  • No pointy toes.
  • Must be able to walk a mile in them.

Well, four:

  • That mile just might be in snow and ice.

No pretty shoes? No great loss, if you ask me.

Liberal Feminists

Liberal feminists are distinguished by their belief that if only women would act like men then everything would be OK. No changes in society are needed, just changes in women's behavior. Get with the damn program!

As for John McCain's assertion that Sarah Palin is an antidote to the 'liberal feminist agenda':

I don't think McCain would recognize a liberal feminist if she jumped aboard the straight talk express and ran it into a ditch. Neither would Sarah Palin, not even looking in the mirror.

Pity party

Alone among friends and family, I feel sorry for John McCain. I don’t excuse his poor choices but I cringe for what he has become and the promise that he and his advisors have squandered.

In the spring, when it was clear who was left standing, I was certain that Barack Obama would win come November 4. Why? First, because it was going to be damn difficult for any Republican to win in 2008, following years of mismanagement by the Bush Administration. But second, and specific to John McCain as a candidate, I was certain that—someway, somehow—his campaign would implode. I had vague visions of McCain, for example, losing his temper in public or being unable to contain his contempt for an opponent who challenged him.

Certainly, those things have happened, but they are not why McCain’s campaign collapsed. McCain’s campaign began its downward spiral to certain death when its top advisors convinced John McCain that the only way he could win was by tacking right rather than center in the final months of the campaign. In this, McCain was ill-served by his advisors, yes, the very ones he chose to hire and listen to.

The promise in tacking right is simple: it would energize the ‘base’, ensuring that a bloc of voters would get out and vote when they might otherwise take a pass on the election. But the problems in going right are substantial. First, George Bush did not win the last two elections solely by securing the ‘base’: he won two elections by combining strong support from the base with other factions including fiscal conservatives who are now justifiably skeptical of the Republican Party. McCain and his advisors got it wrong: Alone, the base cannot win an election for the Republicans, and this is only going to become a more acute problem in future elections as the racial and ethnic demographics of the US are transformed.

More importantly, however, was the problem of finding a candidate who met two criteria: broadening the appeal of John McCain and appealing to the base. I can see what McCain’s advisors were thinking: “Find a conservative woman to put on the ticket, and that will broaden his appeal and get the evangelical Christian vote out!”

[Footnote: I never believed that Sarah Palin would appeal to Democratic women who had supported Hillary Clinton. Seriously, Republican strategists need to get out a little more: visit with women outside their immediate circles. Then dare to presume that they can predict how women will view a particular candidate.]

Turns out, however, a qualified, socially conservative, Republican woman candidate is a myth. The Republican Party’s best options – any of a number of women senators – share an irreparable flaw: they are not, as it turns out, sufficiently conservative to meet the needs of this strategy. In particular, on the abortion continuum, they tend towards choice. This, by the way, indicates a significant flaw in the infrastructure of the Republican Party: it espouses a platform of social policies that its most prominent women do not support. Go figure.

So instead of choosing the candidate with whom he was most comfortable – Democrat Joe Lieberman, of the self-imposed political exile – McCain caved to party pressure and acquiesced to the bad advice from his campaign: He chose Alaska governor, Sarah Palin, to be his running mate. Instead of waging a likely bloody and public fight to get Lieberman through the Republican convention, McCain gave up on his vision of reforming the Republican Party and advancing a new way of doing politics. Who knows? Perhaps he decided to do what his party and advisors thought it would take to win this election, hoping to get back to the reforming after he won the election.

But his choice of Palin as running mate backed him into a corner he cannot escape. His campaign, rooted in the premise that experience and judgment matter, botched its most important, most visible decision, the one decision for which there is no do-over: He selected an inexperienced and, now it is apparent, ill-prepared running mate.

After that, what is left of his campaign? He can, unconscionably in my view, defend the qualifications of his running mate; few are buying it. He can try to talk on the issues; the historical context, especially an epic financial meltdown, is not on his side, however, and his running mate offers no buttressing, no insight and no cover. Or he can tear down his opponent; anyone beyond his base finds that distasteful.

Make no mistake: my pity does not lead me to excuse the failings of this campaign. There is no excuse for the anointing of Sarah Palin as emissary to the base: she is unqualified to be Vice President, nay, hardly seems to understand what the job entails, and shows no promise that she can learn the substance necessary to be a national leader.

The divisiveness of the McCain campaign has been stunning, especially in stark contrast with the inclusiveness of Obama’s message. According to Republicans, there’s ‘us’ and there’s ‘them’, and ‘them’s the problem.’ Well, ‘them’ is the problem: the distaste for such discourse among many independent voters, and the ever-growing size of ‘them’ compared to McCain’s steadily shrinking ‘us’.

I have heard that campaign manager Steve Schmidt does not plan to run another presidential campaign. What a relief: that is blessed insurance against the dwindling chances that anyone would be foolish enough to ask. The advisors to McCain’s campaign have made a ruin of things: they did not have a good starting point, but instead of going high, with dignity and respect for themselves and the voters, they went low. And, for the most mundane of reasons -- personal ambition, disdain for an opponent -- John McCain went along.

Nonetheless, I pity John McCain: The historical context is against him, he was ill-served by his closest aides and his ambition got the best of him. It has been painful to watch the final, tragic act in the political life of a man who showed significant independence and promise.