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Teaching Evolution in Schools

This story is rather disturbing. Religious fundamentalists are quietly trying to take over.

Georgia Takes on 'Evolution'
By Andrew Jacobs, The New York Times
January 30, 2004

ATLANTA, Jan. 29 — A proposed set of guidelines for middle and high school science classes in Georgia has caused a furor after state education officials removed the word "evolution" and scaled back ideas about the age of Earth and the natural selection of species.

Educators across the state said that the document, which was released on the Internet this month, was a veiled effort to bolster creationism and that it would leave the state's public school graduates at a disadvantage.

"They've taken away a major component of biology and acted as if it doesn't exist," said David Bechler, who heads the biology department at Valdosta State University. "By doing this, we're leaving the public shortchanged of the knowledge they should have."

Although education officials said the final version would not be binding on teachers, its contents will ultimately help shape achievement exams. And in a state where religion-based concepts of creation are widely held, many teachers said a curriculum without mentioning "evolution" would make it harder to broach the subject in the classroom.

Full Article

January 30, 2004 in Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)

On Writing Fiction

Interesting quote from Pat Barker in this month's Poets & Writers:

"The truth is I don't read novels when I write. I read poetry, history, and biographies. You see, poetry sharpens up your appreciation for the language--but it doesn't interfere with what you are doing. A really good novel can be terribly destructive for a working author. Good novels are supposed to linger and color your mind--and they do. Now, that's great for the reader. But for someone who writes, you don't want another work interfering or coloring your own."

January 28, 2004 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

New Fiction

I've posted two new pieces, Non Attrition and Glare, to my home page. Both were a bit too long to post here.

January 27, 2004 in Fiction | Permalink | Comments (2)

Words of Wisdom

Three fascinating quotes from an article on Japanese consumer electronics giant Matsushita Electric, from this month's Forbes:

"As industrialists we will work to improve life and contribute to human progress." --Konosuke Matsushita, Founder

"The best-paid employee should not earn more than ten times more than the lowest-paid employee." -- Kunio Nakamura, President

"A corporation is a group of people; it is not private property, it is a public good." -- Fumio Ohtsubo, Senior Executive

Are you listening, Wal-Mart? Kenneth Lay and Dennis Kozlowski, are you there?

January 27, 2004 in Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)

Watching Out for the Watchers

Seems nobody's immune to financial scandals these days. Now leading market pundit Thom Calandra of CBSMarketwatch.com has "resigned amid probes into his stock trading."

I can't help being reminded of the final lines of Nelson Algren's classic Black Sox memoir, "The Silver-Colored Yesterday":

    I guess that was one way of learning what Hustlertown, sooner or later, teaches all sandlot sprouts. "Everyone's out for The Buck. Even big-leaguers."
    Even Swede Risberg.

January 23, 2004 in Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)

Good Books, Good Deeds

Interesting story from today's Joliet Herald-News: Morris Bookstore Gives Discounts for Good Deeds. I like the idea of a commercial establishment which promotes both reading and helping others, though I'd like to believe that people would willingly do good deeds even without financial incentives.

January 23, 2004 in Books | Permalink | Comments (2)

Ray Rayner


Oh, goodness. This is not going to be an easy day. I woke up to the news that Ray Rayner had passed away, at the age of 84. Ray and "The Ray Rayner Show" were such a vital and cherished part of my childhood that I'm getting a bit choked up trying to think of the right words to say. Ray's smile, his humor, his warmth and his overall goodness made him seem like a close friend to me, a generally lonely child, even through the otherwise depersonalized medium of television. He sent me off to school every morning with a wave and a smile, until we'd see each other again the next day.

So many memories...the hideously colored jumpsuits, with notes paperclipped everywhere...his gloriously inept art projects which were made with three times as much glue as necessary, and which bore little or no resemblance to the prototype, as created by "Mrs. Chauncey"...the visits to the little cottage of Cuddly Dudley the dog, where the wonderfully innocent letters of kid viewers were respectfully read and shared...the one-man parades around the studio, accompanied by canned Sousa marches..."Ark in the Park", the trips to Lincoln Park Zoo ("Dr. Fisher's in the monkey house!")...the chalkboard with the sports scores (for the local pro teams, plus the Slippery Rock football team) and the weather forecast ("Today's Weather: Swell")...chasing Chelveston the Duck around the studio, before the low fence named "Rayner's Ranch" was erected...the humorously pathetic attempts at singing.

One of my proudest childhood moments was the time that Ray and Cuddly Dudley read a poem which my sister Marti and I wrote. I can only remember a few lines of it:

When old Ray Rayner starts to sing
We turn the volume way down low
Though Ray Rayner's nice
And cool as the ice
He sings just like good old Joe Schmoe.

He taught me so many lessons about life. Every kid is special. We all make mistakes. Laugh at yourself. Respect others. Wear your boots and galoshes. And--unintentionally but hilariously--nature cannot be tamed, as evidenced by his fruitless attempts to get Chelveston to swim in that ridicilous little plastic tub.

More often than not, sad news like this seems to arrive on days of foul weather or subzero temperatures. This was already a subzero week, and it just got a little bit colder.

So long, Ray.

January 22, 2004 in Memoir, Television | Permalink | Comments (6)

My Date With Andre

Another Fast Fiction entry for Writer's Resource Center:

I was quite nervous. It hadn't been long since that life-changing moment when I suddenly and terrifyingly realized who I was. I felt like everyone in the room was staring at me, as if I changed so dramatically that I was now the fascinating object of everyone's attention. But I really hadn't changed. I was still the same person as always, only now I was much more self-aware.

He was already seated at the table when I arrived. He wore an impeccable black blazer and a white Oxford-cloth shirt. Upon seeing me, he flashed a killer smile.

"It's great to see you," he said in a smooth and deep voice.

(I'm not, in case you're wondering...not that there's anything wrong with that. My first Fast Fiction entry didn't win, and I wasn't too impressed with the winning entry. Oh well. To each his own.)

January 21, 2004 in Fiction | Permalink | Comments (1)

Hooray for the Little Guy

I'm probably way behind the times on discovering this story, but it appears that big bad Microsoft might finally be easing up on its campaign to crush Mike Rowe like a bug.

Did Microsoft really believe that consumers would be confused by the similarity of his site name to that of their corporate colossus? And, if so, would Microsoft really want to have such simpletons as their customers?

January 21, 2004 in Web/Tech | Permalink | Comments (0)

Poster Children

I don't write much these days about music, but...

Early yesterday morning, I was fumbling around in my living room looking for my Outnumbered CD, fruitlessly, and with time running short I instead grabbed the only other Champaign-Urbana band album I own, the Poster Children's Flower Plower.

It had been years since I listened to the album, and damn, this one rocks. Rick's nerdy, caterwauling yowl of a voice and aggressive guitar, Rose's forcefully melodic bass and Shannon's impossibly busy drumming all combine to make one powerful, high-energy album. My drive to the train station began with the pummelling "Dangerous Life" (sample) and ended with the incredible "Evidence" which, in my effort to hear every last note, almost caused me to miss my train, all of the songs shaking the cobwebs out of my 6 A.M. brain and knocking the sleep out of the corners of my eyes. Flower Plower is hardly groundbreaking, just a particularly interesting example of post-punk which gives a hint at how powerful their live shows of that era must have been.

I don't really listen to stuff like this any more--with my current tastes running toward the Mountain Goats, M. Ward and Elliott Smith, with nothing heavier than Built to Spill--but this was a refreshingly invigorating change of pace.

January 21, 2004 in Music | Permalink | Comments (1)

Coal in Illinois

I came across this interesting bit of local history in Barbara Freese's Coal: A Human History. Leave it to good, honest Midwesterners to pay for something they forcefully procured, instead of stealing it outright.

The 1902 strike was also a vivid lesson in how dependent the nation was on coal, and how deeply it could be hurt when supplies ran short. Even after the strike was settled, it was months before coal supplies and prices were back to normal, and some communities experienced great hardship. In January 1903, three hundred citizens of the town of Arcola, Illinois, politely mugged a coal train that broke down there on its way to Chicago. No coal had been delivered to Arcola for a month, half its citizens were out of coal, and businesses had been closed for a week. When the railroad refused to sell its coal to the town, the good citizens simply surrounded the train with their wagons, climbed up onto the coal cars, and began shoveling. Active members of the raid included the town's two bank presidents, two ministers, and a police officer. One of the bank presidents kept a careful accounting of the amount taken by each person so that payment could later be made.

January 16, 2004 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Mr. Blackwell's Worst-Dressed List

The annual list is always one of the pop culture highlights of the year for me.

10. Lara Flynn Boyle: Sometimes a single fiasco is all it takes — that tutu terror (at the Golden Globes) was one of the all-time worst fashion mistakes! A beautiful face ... but no taste ... what a waste!
9. Courtney Love: The torrid temptress of fashions — "Rock Pack" is the undisputed queen of tack.
8. Melanie Griffith: Melanie defines "fatal fashion folly" — A botox'd cockatoo in a painting by Dali!
7. Missy Elliot: Missy's experiencing a bling-bling takeover — time to lower the wattage and get a makeover!
6. Celine Dion: Half-sequined scarecrow, half-gaudy acrobat — Is it Abe Lincoln in drag? And I'll leave it at that!
5. Jessica Simpson: Forget putting her stylist on suspension — just clean out that closet, and hire a magician!
4. Diane Keaton: In prudish fashion pitfalls that bury her beauty, it could be Queen Victoria on jury duty! Dowdy, dumpy and frumpy!
3. Shania Twain: What can I say? In buckled bombs and country-fried kitsch, has Calamity Twain popped a stitch!
2. (Tie) Madonna and Britney Spears: So many tacky trends, so little time — please, will someone arrest The Kissin Cousins of Couture Crime!
1. Paris Hilton: How are you gonna keep 'em down on the farm after they've seen Paree? Grab the blinders here comes Paris. From cyber disgrace to red carpet chills — she's the vapid Venus of Beverly Hills!

January 15, 2004 in Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (2)

Another Submission Attempt

I'm submitting my story "Mahalia" to Literal Latte for its Fiction Awards contest. As a literary journal, LL seems to be fairly well received, though I'm a bit wary of the possible loss of prestige stemming from their abandoning the print version in favor of an all-electronic format.

The story is an expansion on a vignette which I wrote in 1999 and has been simmering in my mind ever since. I'm quite happy with this effort--I think it's an enormous improvement over my last finished story, "Discord." Here's an additional excerpt from "Mahalia":


    "Anyway, my house survived. I think those arsonists were scared of me. I chased one of them away from my back porch with a mop, and they never came near my place after that. Everything else burned, though--the houses on both side, and across the street. The neighborhood emptied out right after that, but I just stayed here. Joe and I bought this house a few years before he died. It was all we had then, and it's all I have now."
    "You've done a lot with it," the young man said encouragingly.
    "Hmmm, I don't know about that. I've done what I can, but like I said before, I don't think it's all that much. Keeps me busy in the summer, and gives me vegetables to can in the fall. But it's not like it's some public garden, like Garfield Park or someplace like that."
    "It's more of a public garden than a neighborhood like this will probably ever get," he replied expansively, the thought coming to him out of nowhere. That's good, he considered. Maybe I can use that.
    "Well, thank you kindly," she answered, suppressing a smile.

January 14, 2004 in Fiction | Permalink | Comments (0)

Free Books for Kids

From today's Chicago Tribune:

Governor Wants Books For Tots
In an effort to improve the literacy of young pupils, every child born in Illinois will be able to receive a free book monthly until age 5, Gov. Rod Blagojevich announced Sunday.

The regular delivery of books to children's homes, regardless of income, would cost up to $26 million annually, but Blagojevich said it would be a worthy expense if it can aid literacy in a state where 2 in 5 3rd graders read below grade level.

"When you own [books] and they're yours, and they just come as part of your life, all of that will contribute to a sense ... that books should be part of your life," he said.

Rumor has it that the books will include "Bouncing Baby Budget Gets Bigger and Bigger" and "My Best Friend Ethanol." All kidding aside, this sounds like a terrific idea. Let's hope the government doesn't screw it up too much.

January 12, 2004 in Books | Permalink | Comments (1)

Gallery Update

I've added a few older photos to my online gallery, starting here. Peruse and enjoy, but if for some inexpicable reason you want to use them for commercial purposes, please see the notice at the bottom of the main gallery page.

January 10, 2004 in Photography | Permalink | Comments (0)

Lost in Space

Dwindling national economic resources, crumbling infrastructure, unemployment too high, education severely underfunded...and now Bush wants to expand the space program with a permanent human settlement on the moon and manned missions to Mars.

George, if you truly want to "unify the country behind a gigantic common purpose" (with the "Democracy for Iraq" venture failing miserably), how about reducing poverty, bolstering education, or improving our overall quality of life? Oh wait, none of those would provide a nice photo opportunity for an election campaign or more business for defense/aerospace contractors.

"A boon for business and a boon for Texas." I couldn't have said it myself any more blatantly.

January 9, 2004 in Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (1)

Parade Moves On

Time passed, slow but relentless, eventually leaving Harry far behind. At one point, too long ago, he was full of promise, the subject of noisy and sustained praise: a rare talent, a singular voice, a prodigy. But then there were a few failed books, and suddenly contracts weren't renewed, calls not returned, his name forgotten. His career's resolution was abrupt, cruel. Momentum turned on him, viciously, as if the earth's rotation suddenly reversed, violently throwing him from the ladder he had been so rapidly ascending.

To land with a thud, never to rise again.


(I wrote this specifically for submission to the Fast Fiction Contest at Writer's Resource Center. The prize is a book on self-publishing that I don't anticipate ever reading, but the recognition would be a nice shot of adrenaline.)

January 7, 2004 in Fiction | Permalink | Comments (0)

Non-Fiction

Looking at my 2003 best-of list, I was surprised to see nine fiction titles. I don't know if I made a conscious decision to read more fiction last year (my 2002 list had only five fiction titles) but I now realize that I've put off reading several non-fiction works which I'm interested in (including several which Julie insists I must read). So, for the next month or two I'm abstaining from fiction, in favor of Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed, Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation (and eventually his most recent, Reefer Madness), Eric Alterman's What Liberal Media?, Paul Krugman's The Great Unraveling and Azar Nafisi's Reading Lolita in Tehran.

I hope the fiction portion of my to-read pile won't propogate itself in the meantime, in some sort of jealous retaliation.

January 6, 2004 in Books | Permalink | Comments (1)

Charley's

Charley's Tap was already open, though discretely so, at 6 A.M. Discretely, in that the city clearly didn't want to be known as a place for early-morning drinking, and Donegan the owner didn't want too much attention or extra business. He didn't want any more pressure from City Hall, or have to increase his monthly contribution to the local beat cop. Both factors were already at levels which tried his patience and his finances, and he couldn't afford the escalation of either.

So while Donegan didn't actively promote being open for business at such an early hour, neither would he turn away an interested patron. While the neon and overhead lights blared at full illumination through the tall front windows into the morning darkness outside, the door stood closed but unlocked. There was just enough of an appearance that the bar was only being cleaned up, to divert the attention of authorities. But the local regulars knew otherwise, and could stroll through the unlocked door and be served, at their convenience. As a fallback, Donegan ensured that hardboiled eggs and sour pickles were available at the bar at all times; if there was any trouble over alcohol being served--the authorities could be maddeningly capricious in their moral indignation--he could claim to be serving meals to honest workingmen on their way to their early shifts.

Cars sped past on the street outside, singlemindedly on their way to somewhere else. Donegan's early patrons were strictly locals, walk-ins, men who could plausibly be considered workers on the early shift, but more likely the unemployed looking for a strong one to get them through the emptiness of their morning. The old bartender, Folan, sat nodding behind the bar, idly waiting to serve such a someone in need. Maybe there would be customers, or maybe not. It didn't matter at all to Folan, though it did to Donegan. If men, employed or otherwise, needed alcohol to brace themselves for the day ahead, Donegan considered it his duty to provide.

January 6, 2004 in Fiction | Permalink | Comments (0)

Snow and Heat

The stream at the bottom of the ditch ran silently and slowly, its waters black in the gray light of morning. Its blackness was made even more pronounced by the bleached white of the snow which had fallen heavily during the night. The stream ran alongside a railroad embankment, perpetually draining water from suburban lawns which grew steadily smaller in size until the industrialized collar suburbs were reached, before bending away from the railroad and disappeared into the overgrowth, where at a distant point it would empty into the Cal-Sag Channel.

Before disappearing, however, the stream flowed without a sound underneath 147th Street. On the bridge overpass above, Danny Terrell stood waiting for his bus. He stood with his shoulders hunched up, one shoulder turned defensively towards the two older boys who waiting nearby, staring at him. Both wore looks of bemusement as they stared, imagining ways of amusing themselves.

The larger of the two, a broad-shouldered, ruddy-haired boy of fifteen, was the first to act. From his position closest to the bus stop sign, he suddenly lunged across the sidewalk and snatched Danny's wool cap off his head. Danny instinctively grabbed for his cap, which the older boy held high in the air, well beyond Danny's reach. The boy grinned broadly as Danny jumped again and again, each time coming inches short.

Without a word, the older boy walked to the edge of the bridge, Danny following him and continuing to futilely reach for the cap, and nonchalantly flung it into the stream. The cap rode on the languid current for a few seconds before becoming waterlogged and sinking below the surface. Danny reddened, burning with shame and helpless anger.

"Oops, sorry," the older boy snickered. The bus pulled up, and he walked back across the sidewalk, rejoining the other, and climbed aboard. The bus driver leaned forward to look at Danny, who still stood at the bridge's edge, but as the driver saw the boy making no movement toward the bus, he closed the door again and drove away.

Though he would be late for school again, Danny thought it best to wait for the next bus. The snow had begun to fall again, lightly this time, slanting downward in a gentle diagonal. The cold flakes settled on Danny's bare head, where they quickly melted on his still-reddened brow.

January 5, 2004 in Fiction | Permalink | Comments (1)

Pseudo-Literary Accomplishment

I realize it's not exactly a multi-book publishing deal, or even getting a short story published in an obscure literary journal. But they say you have to appreciate the little accomplishments in life, which is why I'm rather pleased with getting a letter to the editor published in the New York Times which, despite its periodic editorial snafus, still has to be considered the most prestigious newspaper in the world. To help the reader avoid any annoying site-registration hassles, I've saved it here.

January 4, 2004 in Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (1)

Top Ten Books Read in 2003

1. Joseph Heller: Catch-22
2. Judy Blunt: Breaking Clean
3. Nelson Algren: The Neon Wilderness
4. Richard Condon: The Manchurian Candidate
5. Dave Eggers: You Shall Know Our Velocity!
6. John Dos Passos: Manhattan Transfer
7. Harper Lee: To Kill a Mockingbird
8. Roddy Doyle: A Star Called Henry
9. Peter Matthiessen: At Play in the Fields of the Lord
10. Upton Sinclair: The Jungle

(2002 List)

January 2, 2004 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Small Town News

I know it's only January 2nd, but this story (from the Joliet Herald News) should be a strong contender for story of the year. Never underestimate the entertainment value of bored teenagers.

Reindeer Games
PLAINFIELD — Someone played reindeer games with holiday decorations on the Wesmere Lakes Drive in Plainfield, according to police reports.

A resident of a house on the 2300 block told Joliet police he noticed early Thursday that his two sets of deer lawn ornaments had been arranged in sexually suggestive poses.

The man wanted a report filed "in case the deer are damaged from spreading their legs," according to reports.

January 2, 2004 in Joliet | Permalink | Comments (1)

Fog and Coffee Urns

The work crew stood idly, all five dressed identically: neon orange vests with yellow striping, hardhats, jeans, heavy leather boots. They faced and stared in several different directions, their conversations appearing to be of little significance or interest. They were waiting for something--7:30?--and their motivations seemed as suppressed as the morning's energy was by the heavy fog. The fog hung like a heavy blanket, undented by the sun which rose invisibly behind it, enshrouded. Few were working today, a Friday one day after New Year's, and the work crew's lethargy perfectly reflected the spirit, or non-spirit, of the day.

The half-empty train arrived, riders listlessly disembarking with none of the eagerness and tension of an ordinary day. He walked just ahead of me, one hand clenched into a fist, holding something I couldn't quite identify. It was silvery, possibly metallic, possibly the foil of a candy wrapper. He was apparently being the good citizen, on the ready for the first trashbin. The Amtrak train on the opposite side had just begun to be unloaded, but the only items on the platform thus far were several black plastic crates, like the ones milk is delivered in, each one carrying a coffee urn. I automatically thought of the old rituals of fellowship hour, right after church, so long ago. A long-distance train full of maddeningly polite Lutherans, sipping scalding black coffee from styrofoam cups, was more than I cared to envision at that moment.

The pigeons and seagulls hungrily attack the food piled up for them at the edges of sidewalk, so aggressively that one might forget they were already the best-fed scavengers in the entire city.

January 2, 2004 in Chicago Observations | Permalink | Comments (0)