Mediocre Fred's Mediocre Blog
Thursday, January 29, 2004
  Today's Musical Selection: "Three Times a Lady" by the Commodores

DELAYED POLITICAL DORKING

Hello again, all! Sorry about yesterday... just didn't have time to write even my usual superficial fluff. Today, you'll get a fuller account of my New Hampshire postmortems. Here in the Fedroplex, it's starting to warm up a bit, and all that beautiful white snow is gradually turning into the ugly grey-brown slush we'll mutter and curse about as it stains our pant cuffs on the way to and from work. It will hang around for several days or weeks, unattractive and unwanted, but doggedly resistent to our wishes. In other words, the functional equivalent of the Joe Lieberman campaign. (Okay, okay, I'm done with the Lieberman jokes. At least unless he refuses to accept his fate within the next couple weeks.)

In a way, I'm glad I waited a day, because the delay gave Howard Dean time to sack his campaign manager, Joe Trippi. I heard the news last night, and I was more than a little shocked. Granted, the Dean campaign has performed below expectations the last couple weeks, but Trippi has been one of the most visible faces of the Dean campaign, other than the candidate himself. He's gotten the most press by far of any campaign manager in the race, and justifiably so. Trippi was the architect of the new-style Internet-powered "Dean machine" that garnered so much attention. Granted, the machine hasn't done so hot in its first two road tests. But without Trippi at the controls, who knows what will happen to it?

I'm also baffled by an item in Howie Kurtz's column: "Apparently, according to some news reports, [Trippi] wanted Dean to play down the Feb. 3 states and concentrate on Michigan four days later. Dean disagreed, and Trippi is out." And yet Dean is still playing down those states. So how could that be the reason for Trippi's dismissal?

Personally, if I were Dean, I'd have been more likely to fire him for this:

After Dean's Tuesday concession speech, according to ABC News, a reporter asked campaign manager Joe Trippi what happened in New Hampshire. "I'm not talking to you," said Trippi, hours before resigning from the campaign. Why? "Because the media is a pain in the [butt]."

Either Trippi already knew he was gone, or he had a death wish. Campaign managers who want to remain campaign managers do not speak this way to the media.

Surprising too is the replacement of Trippi with Roy Neel, a former Gore aide. Neel is viewed (accurately, as far as I can tell) as a Washington insider, and his hiring suggests a shift in tactics for Dean. Apparently, the good doctor is planning to run a more conventional campaign. Given the Iowa flameout, this may not sound like a bad strategy. But Dean's rise was predicated on the fact that he was something different. If he's going to try to position himself as a more conventional candidate, he runs the risk of disappearing into the mist and alienating his current core of support. If he abandons the methods that got him here, he risks becoming just another politician... one without Kerry's experience or Edwards' smoothness. In short, a candidate ripe for getting lost in the shuffle.

My sense of it is that Dean is lost right now. He wasn't expecting to get clobbered like this, and he doesn't really know what he did wrong. He knows that, with the front-loaded primary calendar, he doesn't have much time to figure it out. So he's trying whatever he can think of to see what resonates. A lot of candidates do this. It's just unfortunate for Dean that he has to be doing it right now, while the spotlights are on.

While Dean tries to pick up the pieces and get some momentum back into his campaign, John Kerry has notched two strong victories so far. You might think that this would earn him some respect for rallying from the grave everyone had prepared for his candidacy. Oh, sure, there will be some doubters. And perhaps some more doubters. And... other doubters. Hey, what gives?

The alert reader may notice that all the above links come from Slate. I'd have linked to a countervailing pro-Kerry piece or two, except that I haven't seen one. Apparently, the staff of Slate really doesn't like Kerry. (And yes, Deaniacs, Slate has also pounded your guy with regularity.)

Whom would Slate prefer? Well, William Saletan really likes John Edwards. (Saletan described himself in a later article as a "Lieberman Democrat.") Mickey Kaus has written admiringly of Edwards too. Slate is a New Democrat sort of e-zine, so their fondness for Edwards isn't a shock.

But why all the anti-Kerry venom? Even if Kerry isn't the staff's preferred candidate, I find it odd that they'd take the tack of, "Why would anyone support this man?" The articles all agree on one point: Kerry couldn't possibly be doing well because of any skills he may possess as a candidate. Either it's because he's using a "phony" populist message (Kaus), because he seems safe and unexciting (Kaus again), because he has a lot of elqouent friends to speak for him (Saletan), or because he's taller (Suellentrop). What it all boils down to, by my reading, is that Slate thinks Kerry's a turkey because he isn't like Clinton (or Edwards).

What Slate doesn't seem to recognize is that Clinton succeeded because of who he was, not what he stood for. Perhaps initially, in '92, Clinton's appeal stemmed in large part from his ideas. But after the health-care initiative went down in flames, Clinton largely contented himself with unobjectionable bite-size legislation, and what few major achievements he had (like welfare reform) were largely dictated on Republican terms. In the '96 election, Clinton had nothing memorable to propose. He won because people liked him personally. He is very charming and charismatic. (Edwards has some of the Clintonian charm, but not nearly to the degree that Clinton has it.) Ask Al Gore. People criticized Gore in 2000 for not running on the Clinton legacy. But really, what did Clinton leave him to run on? Not much. Gore could point to the general peace and prosperity of the Clinton years, but he couldn't match Clinton's personal appeal, and programatically, Clinton didn't leave much of a legacy.

The point here is that Clinton's platform, without Clinton, isn't worth much as a blueprint. There isn't going to be a "next Clinton," and Slate should stop looking for one. In the meantime, enough with the Kerry-bashing. What if he actually (horrors!) wins the nomination? Are you going to back Bush, Saletan? How about you, Suellentrop? And you, Mickey? (Actually, I bet Kaus would back Bush...)

The Post is starting an occasional series on the experience of two freshman delegates in Richmond. If this article was any indication, it ought to be an engaging series. Definitely worth a read.

Hey, comics fans! The eponymous heroine of the "Cathy" comic strip might be getting married! Wowee! (A moment of pause to recover from the shock that "Cathy" is still being published.) "Cathy" has become justly renowned for four things: bland workplace humor, bland family-relations humor, bland shopping humor, and bland single-woman humor. And now they're going to tinker with the formula? Can anyone say "New Coke"? (Or perhaps "New Tab" would be more appropriate, since people actually liked the old Coke.)

The Smart Lady's been doing good work the last couple days. I highly recommend her dismantling of Andrew Sullivan and her amusing riff on an article I sent her this morning about Houston's Super Bowl preparations. Read and enjoy.

That's all for me today. Drivel tomorrow! 
Wednesday, January 28, 2004
  SORRY, FOLKS

No post today. Busy at work. I'll be back tomorrow, hopefully. In the meantime, entertian yourself with Jeremy Blachman's excerpts from the candidates' victory speeches over at En Banc. It's a real hoot.

More thorough analysis tomorrow, hopefully, but here's a quick take of the New Hampshire fallout:

KERRY: Nice work. Time to prove you have broader appeal by winning some of the more conservative states on February 3. Hard to criticize here (unless, of course, you're Mickey Kaus...)

DEAN: Okay, you stopped the bleeding, more or less. Time to show that you can actually win something. I hear you're pinning your hopes on big states like California and New York, but you have to get there first. Also, you might try to find a balance between the Vince McMahon overexuberance that got you pummeled last week and the semi-comatose cruise-ship-director blandness that nearly put me to sleep last night.

CLARK: Okay, you're still breathing. Time to prove that you can actually be a factor, and that political inexperience isn't going to scuttle your ship out of port. Next week is very important.

EDWARDS: Pressure was off, and you didn't get killed, so you're fine. Now you must win South Carolina and at least one or two other states on February 3 to establish yourself as a viable alternative.

Another free whack at Kaus. He wrote of Edwards and Clark:

It was fun, in the early reports, to hear reporters, following the pre-vote story line (and obvious press preference) in trying to subtly portray the N.H. results as an encouraging showing for the talented young John Edwards and a disastrous night for the hapless Wesley Clark, even though both of them got more or less exactly the same number of votes.

Mickey, how do I put this nicely? You're completely wrong. Calling Edwards' showing better than Clark's even though both got the same number of votes doesn't have anything to do with press preference. Clark had to do well in New Hampshire: he spent a month with the state practically to himself, and was at one point running a strong second in the polls. For him to limp home in third makes one wonder what New Hampshire voters figured out about him. As for Edwards, he revived his campaign in Iowa; this wasn't a must-win for him. South Carolina is a must-win. New Hampshire was gravy.

LIEBERMAN: Joe, please drop out. You're only embarrassing yourself and wasting money. You aren't going to win. You may think people will come around when they hear your message, but that's not the problem. You're too low-key! You sound like a funeral director. Please, please, please give it up.

That's all for today. Back tomorrow! 
Tuesday, January 27, 2004
  Today's Musical Selection: "Winter Wonderland" by the Funk Brothers

THINKING COLD THOUGHTS

Hello again, friends! The Fedroplex is still digging out from yesterday's storm, and the forecasters are muttering something about more snow and ice on the way for the evening, which ought to make tonight's commute a special treat. Snowy weather puts me in mind of two things: snuggling under a down comforter with The Smart Lady, and thinking about other cold-weather-related subjects. And since there's not much I can say about snuggling with The Smart Lady other than that it's very nice, I'll focus on the latter today, splitting my time between two subjects: hockey and the New Hampshire primaries. So put some hot chocolate on to warm, and settle in for a chilly ride.

Let's start with the primary. Tracking polls are showing Dean closing a bit on Kerry, but not a great deal (unless you believe Zogby's out-of-the-blue one-day spike, which even Zogby doesn't). Kerry must be considered the favorite going in, although having read approximately 5,000 stories in the last week on the famed independent streak of New Hampshire voters, one wouldn't want to presume anything. (Incidentally, my sister lives in New Hampshire. She's not very politically-minded, though, and hasn't mentioned any plans to vote.)

The key for Kerry is to show strength; if he wins a squeaker, the storyline suddenly shifts to the "resurgent" Dean and how there's an opening for Clark and Edwards. He's gotten a week of pretty good press (a refreshing change), and if he can score a strong victory in New Hampshire, he's in good stead. (It should be noted that in retrospect, the front-runner route is the way Kerry needed to go. Kerry can win a Kerry-vs.-Dean showdown from a position of strength, but if Dean had continued to roll, Kerry would have had a very rough time of it.)

For Dean, a strong second place would stabilize the campaign, and put him in position to win some of the next round of states. If he manages to slip below second, though, he's in real trouble. I'm not one to read eulogies the first time someone stumbles, but Dean's campaign (and his argument for electability) has relied heavily on forward momentum. Dean may be able to cast himself successfully as the Comeback Kid, but you do have to show strength sometime. A third-place finish here might earn Dean the dreaded "Not Ready for Prime Time" label. Especially since Edwards or Clark would almost certainly be the one finishing second, and that would make it extremely difficult for Dean to get traction.

Edwards has the easiest task here: Don't tank. His big week is next week. A third- or fourth-place finish here is survivable for him. Anything better would be a major victory. If he pulls off a second-place finish, the press would almost certainly spin it as a Kerry-vs.-Edwards showdown. Mr. Sunshine is fine as long as he doesn't finish fifth. His primary concern is making sure the money doesn't run out.

Clark, perhaps even more than Dean, was the big victim of the shifting storylines after Iowa. Clark had things pretty well figured out before: either Gephardt wins Iowa (wounding Dean) or Dean wins and Gephardt's through. Either way, Kerry keeps fading, allowing Clark to slip into second in New Hampshire, setting up a Dean-vs.-Clark title bout. Dean's raw energy goes up against Clark's resume. This is a battle the general was clearly looking forward to.

One small problem. Dean may be wounded, but suddenly John Kerry is running out front. And John Edwards, whom Clark must have thought he was comfortably beating, is suddenly back from the dead as well. Now Clark has three opponents instead of one. And now Clark's political inexperience is a problem. Against Dean, who's become well-known for verbal bomb-throwing and defiant non-apologies, Clark's political-novice goofs aren't too damaging. Against Kerry, who has plenty of experience, or Edwards, who has at least been in politics and seems to be something of a natural, Clark can't afford mistakes like his waffling on Iraq. (Positions that shift over time are one thing. A candidate who doesn't appear to know what his current position is faces electoral doom.) Toss in the fact that Clark had the state virtually to himself while Kerry, Dean, and Edwards were in Iowa, and it's clear that nothing less than a top-three finish will do for the general.

Can "Joementum" make a difference for Lieberman? Are you kidding me? I've been giving Lieberman a hard time pretty much every time I've brought him up, but I was given pause by a quote from his 89-year-old mother in the L.A. Times. "He's such a good man," Mrs. Lieberman said. "I don't know why he didn't catch on." And I felt bad for Joe. But did you catch that past tense? Lieberman's own mother is writing him off!

Mrs. Lieberman, I want you to know that my criticism of your son is nothing personal. He's a very nice man. I'd want my daughter to marry him. But unfortunately, "nice" doesn't win presidential elections. And any candidate who would pick so unwieldy a phrase as "Joementum" to serve as a rallying cry just doesn't understand politics. Sorry.

More on New Hampshire tomorrow, once the actual voters have had their say. For now, though, let's switch gears to hockey.

A hearty round of non-congratulations to Jaromir Jagr, who celebrated his arrival in New York (or his escape from Washington) by notching a goal and two assists in a 5-2 victory over Florida. Hope you enjoy the Big Apple, Jaromir! Thanks for showing us almost none of that effort the entire time you were here. No, I'm not bitter. Okay, I am bitter.

Apparently, I'm not the only one feeling the strain of the rough year. Capitals owner Ted Leonsis appears to be undergoing another stage in his ongoing meltdown. Apparently, a fan across from Leonsis was holding up a derogatory (not profane, just derogatory) sign and leading taunting chant directed at the owner. After the game, an enraged Leonsis confronted the fan and either pushed him, choked him, grabbed him or shoved him into a wall (depending on whom you believe). This is very atypical behavior for Leonsis, who is one of the most fan-friendly and accessible owners in sports, but this is an atypical year. My guess is that Leonsis is used to being the good guy, and doesn't much like being seen as Public Enemy Number 1. To Leonsis' great credit, he phoned the fan to apologize directly and offered to let the fan sit in the owner's box for an upcoming game. Leonsis says he was "embarrassed" by the incident, and I think that sounds about right. But everyone's entitled to a bad night. Except, perhaps, if one is running for president.

That's all for today. See you tomorrow! 
Monday, January 26, 2004
  Today's Musical Selection: "You Make Loving Fun" by Fleetwood Mac

MEDIOCRE FRED IS 25 AND SNOWBOUND

Hello, everybody! I officially turned 25 yesterday, which is one of those milestone years that seems more significant than it really is. Nonetheless, I had a fine time celebrating this weekend, with the help of The Smart Lady, who makes any celebration better. She gave me a cake and cooked me chicken marsala and just generally brightened things with her effervescent presence. So thank you very much, Smart Lady!

Our other favorite couple, Uncle Millie and Aunt Beatrice, are also back for another round of their patented love advice. Their trial reconciliation must be continuing, since they filed this week's column together from Houston, where they are experiencing the run-up to the Super Bowl. I can't wait to see what useful tidbits they have in store for us this week. Take it away, Uncle Millie and Aunt Beatrice!

- - - - -

Owner of a Lonely Heart? Miss a Payment and It Will Be Reposessed, by Uncle Millie and Aunt Beatrice

UM: Good day, lads! My lovely lady and myself are kicking up our heels in Houston, helping the city prepare for the upcoming Super Bowl! Aren't you excited, my dear?

AB: Not really. And by "helping the city prepare," Uncle Millie means "helping the city consume its liquor."

UM: It's a vital duty! But no mind of that... this is a very exciting time for me. My beloved Carolina Panthers are in the Super Bowl!

AB: Your beloved Carolina Panthers? Since when?

UM: For longer than you can know, my darling.

AB: Oh, I know. Since that girl in the Jake Delhomme jersey slipped you her hotel room number. You thought I didn't notice that, didn't you?

UM: Poppycock, my dear Beatrice. In fact, I'm insulted that you could even think such a thing. What leads you to this scandalous accusations?

AB: Oh, I don't know. The fact that it's you?

UM: I have been a Panthers fan since childhood.

AB: The Panthers have only existed since 1995. Perhaps Uncle Millie means mental childhood.

UM: My dear-

AB: Okay, Mr. Panthers Super Fan, name one player on the team.

UM: Well, that's easy-

AB: Besides Jake Delhomme.

UM: Oh. Well, there's- uh-

AB: Mm-hm. And where do they play?

UM: Carolina, my dear.

AB: That comprises two states. What city do they play in?

UM: Uh... Atlanta.

AB: That's in Georgia, dear. Why don't you restrict your guesses to cities in one of the Carolinas?

UM: All right. Carolina City.

AB: Doesn't exist.

UM: Of course not! I was just kidding. Um... Raleigh.

AB: Wrong.

UM: Winston-Salem.

AB: Wrong again.

UM: Charleston?

AB: No! They play in Charlotte.

UM: Well, who has time for trivial details like that? I've never been a detail-oriented person.

AB: So you don't know where they play, don't know how long they've been around, and don't know who plays for them. What, exactly, is the basis for your alleged fanhood?

UM: The quality of their fans. They've got the best fans in the sport.

AB: Yes. I know you're particularly fond of one of them.

UM: Cheer up, my dear. You've got nice weather, a beautiful city, my company, and a limitless supply of refreshing adult beverages. What more could you ask for?

AB: Perhaps an electronic tracking bracelet on your ankle.

Dear Uncle Millie and Aunt Beatrice,

I'm a 25-year-old guy. I met an attractive young woman at a club a few weeks back, and I asked her out. To my surprise, she said yes. We had a terrific first date. She's just as pretty without the beer goggles, and she's fun and exciting to boot. We had a few nice outings, but then on our fifth date she starts telling me about all these problems she's having with her boyfriend! Boyfriend? This was sure news to me. I mean, it's not like she'd said we were exclusive or anything, but why would I want to hear about her boyfriend? Is this normal? What should I say or do about it?

Ryan in Glens Falls


AB: Hi, Ryan. Seems to me like she thinks you're moving too fast, and she's trying to find a way to tell you that she's not ready for that yet.

UM: Very interesting. Go on, my dear.

AB: She may not even have another boyfriend. That's not important. What's important is that you sit down and have a little chat with her about where your relationship stands and where you want it to go, just to be sure you're on the same page. A little time investment will pay big dividends down the road.

UM: That is lovely, sweet advice, dearest.

AB: Oh. Well, thank you.

UM: Unfortunately, it is completely wrong.

AB: Is it now?

UM: Yes. Lad, you need to start running now, and keep running until this lass is nowhere in sight. Otherwise you're doomed.

AB: What a silly overreaction-

UM: No, my dear, I have the right of it. Lad, this young lady has placed you in the "friend zone." This is your one-way ticket to oblivion. One you're in the friend zone, you can't climb your way out. It's like trying to escape Jaws, or a black hole, or the Internal Revenue Service, or other inescapable forces of nature.

AB: I've never heard something so ridiculous in all my life.

UM: Don't deny the truth, my dear. You know as well as I do that women only discuss their boyfriends with men whom they'd never, in a million years, consider dating, not if they were the last sentient life forms on earth.

AB: I don't think-

UM: Lad, you know I have the right of it. So what do you do? Well, clearly at some point, she's reached the conclusion that you're sympathetic, reliable, sweet-natured and a good listener. This is the deadly assumption that you must combat.

AB: This is absurd. What woman wouldn't want those qualities in a man?

UM: In a male friend, yes, or a cocker spaniel. In a lover, they're simply fatal.

AB: I see.

UM: So what you need to do, lad, is show her that you're not the good little boy she thinks you are. Don't be so accomodating. Start riding a motorcycle and wearing leather. If she's rambling on and on about something pointless, just tell her, "Shut up." Bring another woman along on your "dates," and if your lady starts off on her boyfriend, start making out with the other woman. Show her that you have better things to do than be her listening post.

AB: Great advice. Why don't you drag her around by her hair and address her in public as "the bitch" while you're at it?

UM: Scoff if you want. Lad, if you think I'm some sort of Neanderthal, take Aunt Beatrice's advice. Just don't come crying to me when you realize that you're mired in the La Brea Tar Pits of Friendship. Don't say I didn't warn you.

AB: I wish someone had warned me about you.

Dear Uncle Millie and Aunt Beatrice,

I'm a 42-year-old man, married for 15 years. Lately, my wife has been acting a little strange, and I'm puzzled by her behavior. A couple weeks ago, the water heater died, and we had a man out to replace it. The day after it was done, "Phyllis" told me, "That man was kind of strange. He kept staring at me at asking if I was happy in my marriage. What do you think about that?" I said, "Well, did he replace the water heater?" She said he did, but she seemed unsatisfied by my answer. About a week later, the same man came back to follow up, and again Phyllis told me he asked if she was happy in her marriage and looked at him strangely. She said, "I just can't get it out of my mind. Do you know why?" I said I thought it was because they overcharged us for the water heater, but she just shook her head and stormed out of the room. I don't understand what's bothering her. We have a solid, stable marriage: I make a good living and pay the bills, and she manages the house and raises our children very well. What do you suppose is eating her?

Ted in Milwaukee


UM: Lad, this is a matter of simple economics. Supply and demand. You're not supplying enough loving, so she's trying to show she's in demand, so as to entice you to buy. If she can raise her stock, perhaps she can make you bullish.

AB: Uncle Millie is being unbelievably crude about this, but the amazing part is that he's more or less right. Ted, your wife is lonely and crying out for attention. She's trying to relight the old sparks by making you jealous. A lot of men your age tend to think that being a good provider means that you're being a good husband, but there's more to it than that. It's pretty clear that her other needs aren't being met.

UM: What's the matter, lad? Can't you rise to the occasion any more?

AB: Millie! I don't think Ted's problem is physical. I think he's just forgotten that his wife needs more than his financial support. It happens to a lot of long-term marriages. (Which is why Uncle Millie doesn't understand it.) You just need to take a little time to be more romantic with your wife, Ted. Sit down and talk to her for a while when you get home. Make her a nice dinner once in a while if you can cook. If you can't cook, take her to a nice restaurant. Make dates with your wife. Make arrangements for the children, and have a special evening for just the two of you. That should make your wife feel loved and special.

UM: And since you and I both know your real problem, lad, go get yourself one of those performance enhancers, if you catch my drift.

AB: Millie! Why do you assume that he has a physical problem?

UM: Ah, you have the right of it, my dear. Perhaps that isn't the problem. Perhaps you've got a little action of your own on the side, lad. So when you come home to the old plow-horse, the desire just isn't there. In which case, buy the old lady diamonds and furs, and she'll hush up.

AB: How romantic.

UM: Or you could buy her a gigolo, and everyone's happy!

AB: Not everyone.

Dear Uncle Millie and Aunt Beatrice,

Perhaps you can help me. I'm the new kid in school, and I've been trying to win the hand of a girl I've met. Right now, she's going steady with one of those rich smirking frat-boy types, but deep down, I think she's starting to see how evil he really is and wants to get rid of him. So I've been pulling out all my best lines, lines like: "Can't you see he's evil? You don't want to be dating evil, do you?" and "I'm going to take that boyfriend of yours and grind him into dust" and things like that. Some of my friends say I'm being too aggressive, but don't you have to be strong in order to get what you want? Well, at any rate, last week I heard that she went out on a date with some other guy, some tall handsome rich jerk. So I went to a party after that, and I got a little loosened up, and I was feeling frustrated and I kind of let loose a little bit. Unfortunately, someone was taping the whole thing. Now everyone in school is laughing at me and making fun of me. They're saying I'm irresponsible and immature and don't deserve this girl. I'm so frustrated I can't see straight! Can't she see how much better I am? How can I win her heart?

Howard in Vermont


AB: Well, Howard, the first thing I'd advise is to be careful about "letting loose" in public like that. You never know who might be watching.

UM: Oh, stuffy nonsense. Ignore the killjoy, lad. If you want to go have a good time, you go and do it. And who cares if anyone's watching? Be yourself and make no apologies.

AB: Also, Howard, you seem to have a bit of an attitude problem. No one likes to be told, "I'm obviously better for you than the person you're seeing, who is the Devil." She decided to start seeing him for a reason, you know. And you can't assume she'll just be so overwhelmed by your alleged inherent superiority that she'll just run to you. Why don't you try a softer approach? Try winning her heart, rather than scaring her into your arms.

UM: Oh, my darling. My beautiful, sweet, soft-headed darling. It's a jungle out there, you know, lad. I think you're taking exactly the right approach. Don't back down, and you'll win her sooner or later.

AB: Oh, yes. Women love being screamed at.

UM: At any rate, that's all for today's column. Time to return to our reconciliation, my dear.

AB: Is that what you call it when you beg me to sleep with you?

UM: The only begging involved last night was you begging me to-

AB: Ahem. I thought we weren't going to discuss those things in public any more?

UM: Ah, yes, quite right. Perhaps we can discuss them in private.

AB: Feel free to discuss them privately. With yourself. I'm going shopping.

UM: She's coming around, lads. I can feel it. And that's all for this week. Happy hunting!

- - - - -

Ah, I can feel the romance in the air. Oh, wait, that's Lysol. Never mind. Thanks anyhow, Uncle Millie and Aunt Beatrice.

It's a white-out here in the Fedroplex! There's about seven inches of snow on the groiund, with ice called for later in the day. If you must be out driving, please be very careful. It figures to be slick tonight. If you've taken the day off from work, go build a snow fort! Or dig one of your elderly neighbors out of his or her house. Whichever you'd rather.

That's all for today. Enjoy the snow! See you tomorrow! 
Friday, January 23, 2004
  Today's Musical Selection: "Let's Work Together" by Canned Heat

NONSENSE ON PARADE!

Howdy, everybody! You're lucky: my ramblings will probably be shorter than usual today, since I'm actually doing work today at work (perish the thought!) and must therefore keep this brief.

First off, it looks like Jaromir Jagr might be headed to New York. The Caps and Rangers are discussing a deal that would ship Jagr out of Washington. To this I say, Don't let the door hit you on the way out, Jaromir! Given that Jagr used to be a Penguin, it makes me wonder if this was some sort of Pittsburgh-orchestrated plot: they couldn't afford to keep Jagr, so they shipped him off to us with a promise that he'd suck up a huge portion of our payroll and do nothing useful. Am I being paranoid? Well, yeah. But when you pay $11 million a year for a guy and he's not even the team's leading scorer.... well, it makes you paranoid.

ESPN's Bill Simmons writes an interesting piece about athletes he hates. One he dislikes on general principle (Pete Rose), but the others appear to have joined his blacklist because they used to be prominent players on his teams' rivals (Isiah Thomas, Bill Laimbeer, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) or because they left his favorite team (Roger Clemens). He adopts a high moral tone about all five being "phonies," but it basically boils down to rivalry. I have a hard time relating to Simmons' anger here. Sure, I dislike my teams' rivals (Penguins, Cowboys, etc.) and tense moments in certain contests have certainly left me shouting furious and impolite things at the TV screen or playing field. But I don't have any lasting, burning hatreds for the players on those teams. There are certainly players I don't care for (for instance, high-stepping hot dog Terrell Owens), but it's not because of anything he did to my teams. I never thought Mario Lemieux or Troy Aikman were terrible people because they happened to play for rival teams. I usually like Simmons' stuff, but this particular article struck me as a bit childish.

Hey, folks, guess what! There's a really bad movie out now! It's called "Win a Date With Tad Hamilton!" I keep getting this movie confused with "I Want to Marry Ryan Banks," an made-for-TV movie that's probably just as awful, but which I have a strange desire to see, because Jason Priestley's in it. I've liked Priestley more and more since he realized that his career as a Leading Man wasn't happening, and decided to become a parody of himself. It's quite amusing to watch, really.

And that's going to have to be it for today. Have a good weekend! Wish me happy birthday! See you Monday, when I'll be a year older but no wiser. Cheers! 
Thursday, January 22, 2004
  Today's Musical Selection: "Six O' Clock" by John Sebastian

SUBURBAN BLIGHT?

Hello there again, all. Today I wanted to discuss an aritcle in Tuesday's Post about one of the hidden downsides of big-box stores like Wal-Mart, Target and Home Depot. Yes, I know we've discussed this. Repeatedly. But this is genuinely new information. Because for all the problems big-box stores cause when they arrive, they cause even bigger problems when they leave.

Yes, despite the fact that these mega-stores give the impression of monolithic permanence, they do in fact move on from time to time.

Across the country, 245 former Wal-Marts sit empty or partially empty, including stores in Hagerstown and Fredericksburg, according to the company. In Prince William County, which has long welcomed the biggest of big boxes, sit four empty shells: a former Hechinger, a former Kmart, a former Ames and a former Lowe's.

Why do they leave? In some cases, the chain that occupied the space lost the retail price wars and went out of business. Such was the case with Hechinger's, a local hardware chain that couldn't keep up with the Home Depots and the Lowe's of the world. In other cases, these superstores (if you can believe it) decide that, gosh darn it, they're just not big enough. So it was with the Lowe's in the above example.

Lowe's recently closed its 105,092-square-foot store near Potomac Mills mall to move less than a mile away, where it built a 176,605-square-foot store.

Either way, it amounts to the same thing: massive swaths of empty, underdeveloped space. And empty, underdeveloped space is a siren call for squalor:

Empty stores are sometimes a magnet for graffiti, dumped furniture and unsavory activities.

Just a few feet from the bustling new Lowe's, the Hechinger parking lot is empty, the old store surrounded by garbage, dumped mattresses and a broken toilet. An old sign advertising African violets still hangs over the empty garden center. Down the street at the dark Lowe's, rusty propane containers sit in the open, next to a smashed bedroom set.


Does that sound like an attractive picture to you? It certainly doesn't to me. That Hechinger's has been closed for five years. In all that time, it has neither attracted another tenant nor been demolished. It just sits there, a young relic, too new to be historic and too old to be worth renovating. And for a store looking to get bigger, it's more cost-effective to buy a new tract of land and build a gleaming new store than to either expand their old one or knock down or inhabit one of the empty shells. So we wind up with these big, squat building scattered across the landscape, charmlessly sucking up valuable space and not letting go, like a spoiled child clinging to a toy he has no interest in playing with.

The problem is particularly acute in places like the D.C. suburbs, because of the explosion in growth over the last couple decades. Stores like Wal-Mart can't locate in center cities, because there simply isn't the space needed to build a superstore. But the suburbs have seemingly endless space -- or at least we used to think so -- and Wal-Mart has no problem fitting in there. But with the population explosion in the Fedroplex, land is suddenly at a premium, and those big-box stores, convenient as they may be for time-pressed and price-conscious shoppers, really aren't a productive use of space. And when they move out, now there's a large space uselessly tied up.

Put it this way: If a Wal-Mart moves out in, say, Arkadelphia, Arkansas (no offense intended), it's not that big a deal. Sure, the people lose a convenient place to shop, but there's probably another one reasonably nearby, and the land isn't that valuable. But if a Wal-Mart moves out in Fairfax, Virginia, that's a big problem. We need that space, and now we don't have it.

Skeptics may be arguing at this point, "But if the land was really so valuable, wouldn't companies find it worthwhile to renovate the old buildings or demolish them and move into the space?" Theoretically. But as a practical matter, it's easier for them to move a little farther out and build on new land, even if they'd really rather be in the old space. What the abandoned chain stores do is remove the options for land use in communities. If Home Depot abandons a 100,000-square-foot store, it's no longer an option to let the space "return to nature." If the community can't find another big-box tenant, it faces the choice of finding someone to convert the space into something more useful (at very significant expense), or let the space sit and rot. The longer the time since the old tenant moved out, the harder it is to find someone new to take it over. It's a dubious luxury, and one this area, at least, can ill afford.

So what's to be done? The companies aren't going to change their building habits on their own; there's no economic incentive to do so. There are two possible angles of attack: either provide companies with some sort of financial incentive not to leave buildings empty, or find a way to keep them from building the monster stores in the first place.

A retailing-industry spokesman, Jason Todd, stood up for the forner solution in the article, suggesting that cities and counties provide incentives to retailers who find new tenants for their buildings in short order. It strikes me that this particular solution smacks of incentivizing something companies should do anyway (the equivalent of, "Hey, Tommy, if you stay out of jail next year, I'll buy you a car!"). Todd undercuts his own argument when he says that "companies want to quickly find new tenants or owners for their 'dark' stores. 'It just doesn't look good to have one of your stores empty.'" If they've already got an incentive to find someone to fill the space, why should cities have to bribe them to do so?

A more effective solution would be to offer incentives for either expanding the buildings the retailers already occupy or refurbishing already-abandoned spaces. If that Hechinger's has been sitting there collecting garbage for five years, perhaps a tax break for the company that moves in might do the trick. This incentive system is better than Todd's proposal, since it encourages companies to fill in existing spaces, rather than build anew. If we're serious about conserving space, this seems like a potentially winning solution.

Of course, if we are indeed serious about conserving space, perhaps we ought to be keeping these behemoths from coming at all. And several local communities have taken steps in that direction.

Rockville prohibits stores larger than 65,000 square feet. So does Easton, Md., which also requires any store over 25,000 square feet to get special approval by the Town Council. Gaithersburg imposed design standards that required big boxes in the Washingtonian Center to front the street and lose the giant surface parking lots. The result: two-story Target and Kohl's stores with hidden parking garages...

Eileen Fogerty, Alexandria's planner, said the city requires any store bigger than 20,000 square feet to get special permission. City leaders acted after several retailers were interested in putting a suburban-style big-box store near the Braddock Road Metro station north of Old Town. That would be the exact opposite of the transit-friendly development the city wants near Metro stops.


I favor intelligent design and planning, so this solution makes good sense to me. Despite what they may protest, big-box stores don't need to be sprawled out all in one story, with parking lots as far as the eye can see. Make companies innovate! They're more than capable of doing so, given the proper nudge. And design standards and prohibitions are an excellent nudge. These stores with giant footprints are a combination of greed and indifferent or nonexistent civic planning. We can do better, and we'll get better if we demand it.

For those who were disappointed by my State of the Union failure, I direct you to The Smart Lady. She did a fine job snarking it up.

Peter King and Don Banks debate the merits of the two-week Super Bowl layoff. My take? I hate it. Why? Because if they'd stuck with the old system of playing it the last Sunday in January, the game would fall on my birthday. The last time that happened was 1987. It should have happened again a few years back, but a fluke in the calendar caused it to be passed over. Now this. Argh. I just can't win.

That's it for today. Tomorrow's Friday? Already? Well, then, meaningless drivel will be the order of the day. See you then! 
Wednesday, January 21, 2004
  Today's Musical Selection: "Lido Shuffle" by Boz Scaggs

RATIONALITY IN POLITICS... WHO'D HAVE THUNK IT?

Good day, everybody! Well, one day after returning triumphantly to my throne as King of Political Dorks, I may have to abdicate. Why? I missed the State of the Union address. (I'll give you folks a moment to recover from the shock.) How could anyone claim to be a true political dork and blow off the State of the Union, you ask? Well, I was deep into this Rocky and Bullwinkle tape, and by the time I looked up... the time had passed. So I sold out my crown for Boris Badenov. I'm sorry.

But I will not give up my title without a fight. Resolving to plunge as deeply as possible into the wilds of political dorkdom, I came up with the following. It's actually a fairly shocking item, as it indicates that Virginia Republicans might be coming to their senses. I'm as shocked as you are.

What's all this about? Well, you may recall that a couple months back, Governor Warner unveiled a tax reform plan, which I analyzed in excruciating detail. The plan would raise much-needed revenue through a variety of tax hikes and cuts that generally shift the tax burden in the direction of rich people and corporations. You may also recall that I predicted that the Republicans would stonewall and fight the plan, but in the end would cave in, because they have no choice. The state is bleeding money, and the books have to balance by law. It's either raise taxes or slash services to the bone.

You might think this is a fairly easy decision, particularly when you realize that Virginia is not exactly Massachusetts when it comes to current taxation levels. But then, you don't know Virginia Republicans. They've profited handsomely over the last several election cycles by slapping the slogan "NO TAX HIKE" everywhere they could. The Republican Party around here reminds me somewhat of Frankenstein's monster: Taxes bad! Tolls bad! Traffic bad! Cigarettes good! And true to form, House Speaker William Howell commissioned a fuzzy-math study indicating that Warner's plan would cost Virginia $10 billion in commerce, and drew his line in the sand. He might as well have snarled, "We don't much cotton to your tax-hikin' ways around here, pardner."

But I promised rationality, didn't I? Well, here it comes: According to a memo circulating among senior House Republicans, in order to pass a budget without tax increases (as Howell has demanded), they'd need to cut $1 billion in state spending. Yes, that's billion. With a "b". What gets the ax? Oh, trivial, insignificant programs like education, health care, transportation, and public safety. Just overhead, really.

Apparently, at least one legislator who's seen the memo doesn't like what he sees. Republican Del. Vincent Callahan, chair of the Appropriations Committee, called the cuts "draconian" and said he would look for ways to avoid them. He indicated support for the gas and cigarette tax hikes Warner proposed. Howell, for his part, is hemming and hawing and saying through a spokesman that they "might find new revenue sources or other, less painful ways to close the budget gap." Unless those ways involve robbing a bank or receiving a windfall from a deceased relative, I wouldn't count on there being an easy way out. We did mention that we are talking about a billion dollars here, right?

I should point something out here: Internal memos are often a place to see reason on display in politics. There's no need for gamesmanship or sloganeering in memos; there's no one to impress. As a result, a lot of these memos have an amazing tendency to tell the truth. Funny how honesty comes out when the stage lights are down, isn't it?

So does this mean that Warner's plan is now guaranteed victory? No, of course not. It's more likely that they'll agree to some hikes in exchange for some smaller, milder spending cuts. But the memo at least outlines the truth of the matter: the idea of passing a budget without any kind of tax hike is pure fantasy, unless you plan on offering a Mississippi-esque level of services. In the end, the lawmakers may not make the ideal compromise (when is politics ever about the ideal?), but at least they'll have to make some kind of choice.

Incidentally, this whole discussion tempts me to support a balanced-budget amendment for the country. In Virginia, the reality of having to make the numbers add up forces lawmakers to confront fiscal reality. Meanwhile, nationally, politicians can blithely go on tossing out tax cuts like a krewe throwing beads off a float at Mardi Gras. Who wants a tax cut? You? You? Here you go! I'm opposed to a national balanced-budget amendment for sound economic reasons (in times of war or depression, it might be necessary for the government to run a deficit), but would it be so bad to require the books to balance on, say, a 5-year cycle? Or perhaps to place a ceiling on the national debt? Running short-term, temporary deficits is one thing. Running enormous, chronic deficits for the sake of drugging the voters with Tax-Cut Prozac is another thing entirely.

For more on the Iowa Caucuses, incidentally, I recommend Greg's piece over at begging to differ. Insightful and entertaining. I particularly enjoyed the bit where he described John Kerry as "a man whose voice and manner of delivery manage to convey an arrogance capable of making Al Gore sound like a humble sharecropper from Tennessee." Check it out.

Also, be sure and take a look at the latest addition to my blogroll, American Street. I recommend it for any of you who are interested in matters political.

That's all for today. Tomorrow, as ever, something else. See you then! 
Tuesday, January 20, 2004
  Today's Musical Selection: I don't know... anyone got something for Iowa?

RETURNING TO POLITICAL DORKDOM

Hello again, all! So, they had a caucus in Iowa last night, and the results were something of a surprise: John Kerry took first place, John Edwards took second, previous favorite Howard Dean finished a flat third, and Dick Gephardt came in an even flatter fourth. (Wesley Clark and Joe Lieberman skipped Iowa to focus on New Hampshire. Al Sharpton skipped Iowa to focus on securing a talk-show gig for himself after he drops out next month.) This unexpected result will affect the campaign, and I'll get to the probable fallout in a moment.

I've sort of been shying away from politics since my return, not due to a sudden decline in interest but just because I was waiting for the big stories to start coming out. Well, I'm back in the game! All of the political dorks who flock to my site in droves (to the degree that "droves" can reasonably be used in connection with anything involving this blog) can rejoice. Your king has returned to his throne!

Let me start by offering my condolences to the Deaniacs out there. It was a tough night out there for your guy. And although I'm not a Deaniac myself, I do know how you feel. It was a lot like the Eagles-Panthers game on Sunday. You had the previously-established favorite coming in expecting victory, but the closer it came to game time, the more worrisome things looked. Most sportswriters were still picking the Eagles, but they were attaching caveats like, "I'm not sure about this," or "This is a very tentative pick," or "I hate this pick." Unlike sportswriters, political reporters are not usually expected to be prognosticators, so most of them were saying "too close to call." But to the degree that they were speaking of Dean victory, it was always a "narrow win" or an "escape." So the game (or the caucus night) begins, and early returns have the favorite trailing (when I turned on the Eagles game it was 7-0 Carolina; when I turned on the caucus coverage it was Kerry 37, Edwards 33, Dean 18 with 32% reporting). You tell yourself it's early, that there's time to turn it around... but you have this eerie feeling in the back of your mind that it's not going to. With the Eagles trailing 7-3 in the second quarter, I turned to Papa Shaft (my viewing partner) and said, "I don't think the Eagles are going to do it. Carolina looks loose. Philadelphia looks like they're going to face the firing squad after the game." Similarly, anyone who saw Dean talking to reporters Monday night had to conclude that he didn't look like a man confident of victory. He looked like a man resigning himself to defeat. Deaniacs out there must have had the same "Uh-oh" feeling I did with the Eagles.

Then comes the second half, and that nervous feeling starts turning into a mounting certainty of defeat. McNabb keeps getting crushed, Dean's not making up any ground in the caucus, there's another interception... it's just not to be. The anticipated big day is a bust. All the air is rushing out of the balloon. Your friends call up to offer sympathy, or to taunt (depending on the sort of friends they are). You start trying to adjust to the idea that the event you've been looking forward to for so long is a crushing disappointment. The Eagles aren't going to the Super Bowl, Dean isn't a juggernaut, and you pack your things and try to deal with what's next. You start to turn off the TV, stop, start again, pause with your finger over the "OFF" switch, compromise and leave it on with the sound low. You start shuffling around, picking up the garbage, doing the dishes, trying to pretend it's not happening. But of course it is, and you've got to live with it. The end comes eventually, but you're barely even paying attention by then. You may still be distracting yourself with other things, but really, you're sunk into gloom and despair. Life will go on, and things will be okay eventually. But right now, you just can't see how.

(Side note: If there are any Deaniacs out there who are also diehard Eagles fans, I'm very, very sorry. If that were me, I'd probably be on suicide watch.)

Now, what does Iowa mean for the contenders? Let's take a look.

John Kerry: Congratulations! You pulled out a victory no one was expecting! Just when everyone was set you write you off, you came roaring back from the grave. No one's quite sure how or why, but that's okay! Now's the time to celebrate!

And after you've finished draining the champagne, it's time to figure out a second act. Because New Hampshire's in a week, and a bunch more states the week after that, and so far as I'm aware, Kerry's leading in exactly none of them. The Iowa win should give him a bump, but unless he's prepared to hit the ground running and convince voters that the good people of the Hawkeye State weren't huffing ethanol last night, this "key" victory won't do you a bit of good.

It seems that Iowans liked the fact that you're a military vet and that you don't want to roll back the entire Bush tax cut. These factors should work in your favor going forward. But you still don't appear capable of convincing average people that you're one of them. I don't necessarily consider this a flaw -- can you imagine what a disaster it would be if some Joe Schmoe was elected president? -- but most people do. And the term "aloof" is attached to you so often, it seems like your name is Aloof John Kerry. Personally, I always thought you reminded me of Sam "Mayday" Malone from Cheers, and I found the cocky flyboy aspect of that off-putting. But if you can appear confident and prove that you have a pulse, you've got a shot.

Now might also be the time to show that you're a candidate of substance. Roll out your proposals for improving the plight of the average American. Show us what you'd do as president. Your "Dated Dean, Married Kerry" slogan is very cute, but back it up with action. The more you can show that you're a serious candidate with serious proposals for improving the country, the more you can paint Dean as a shallow hothead, a gadfly without staying power. Also, taking a "serious" tack will help neutralize your aloofness problem. If you're the serious candidate, you don't have to galvanize the crowds. Just show them you can win.

John Edwards: A strong second for you, Mr. Sunshine! Like Kerry, you should be proud of yourself, and celebrate your showing. The upbeat message thing is working out well for you, and that's good. Be proud!

And be ready to take the next step. Like Kerry, you're attractive on paper: young, handsome, Southern, energetic, and reasonably centrist. And you do have a good message: you want to give opportunity to the average American to move up the ladder. A number of candidates sound the "people vs. the powerful" theme, but it's most believable coming from you, the millworker's son (as you never tire of telling us). I can't help thinking of Gomer Pyle every time you open your mouth, but that's just prejudice on my part.

The pressure is on you to show that there's substance behind that sunshine smile. You're a one-term senator with no other political experience. That worries people (at least it worries me). Being upbeat is nice, but now that you're a front-runner again, expect the other candidates to start taking shots at you. How you handle the increased expectations and the attacks will define you. If you withstand the assault, maintain your upbeat demeanor and score a couple more key victories, people will see you as truly electable, perhaps even the next Clinton (the Democratic wet dream). If you melt under the lights, you'll be just another pretty boy who isn't ready for prime time. This might position you fine for 2008, although it would be easier to run in '08 if you hadn't decided not to run for re-election in the Senate this year. If you lose this race, what are you going to do between now and then, run for library commissioner? Things like that make me question your political savvy, you know?

Howard Dean: Well, well, Mr. Golden Boy. Looks like you didn't do so hot. Not only that, your post-caucus rally speech made you look like a crazy man. Watching the speech, I kept thinking that someone needed to throw some cold water on you before your head exploded. The first thing you need to do is calm down a bit.

And then you might start thinking that this isn't such a terrible thing. Ever since it started looking like you might be running away with it, the press has been pounding you like one of Gallagher's melons. Every time you said something potentially problematic, the press pounced. And when you reacted (usually snappishly), they documented that, too. In short, you looked like you couldn't handle the pressure. Now that you're not leading the pack, the press might ease away from you for a while, and give you time to tune up. This isn't a terrible thing.

But when you come back, you'd better be ready. It's time to back up the raw emotional appeal of your anger with some presidential gravitas. Bill Clinton was notorious for being at least as testy as you are. The difference is, Clinton had advisers coaching him carefully on how to control his reactions, tamp down the temper and look in control. You, on the other hand, wear your snarls almost like a badge of honor, or at least a badge of sincerity. And I'm sympathetic to that; who hasn't felt like snapping at stupid questions? Problem is, you have to be willing to play the game in order to win. You want to maintain your purity and your New England flintiness, and I respect that. But you can't win with it. Would you rather be yourself than be president?

Dick Gephardt: Well, Dick, you're toast. You've had a great run, an admirable career, and it's a shame you never reached the pinnacle (either President of Speaker of the House). But your time has come and gone. We've got some lovely parting gifts for you behind the curtain. See you in the history books.

Wesley Clark: Dean's been humbled! Your opening is at hand! Problem is, Iowa's left two other viable contenders for you to deal with. And both Kerry and Edwards threaten to cut into your base. Kerry's vying for the military-experience mantle with you. And Edwards is threatening to steal the "Southern candidate" label away.

But all is not lost. You've got money, you've got the old Clinton forces behind you, and you're still second in New Hampshire. For now. But the battle is definitely joined. And it's up to you to prove that you can actually be President. If Edwards' lack of experience makes me nervous, yours is downright frightening. Yes, you were a general, leader of men and all that. But no political experience? Not good.

Also, you're still winning support on the basis of the "dream resume" (well-educated, impressive-looking general with Southern background and good education), but at some point you have to translate that resume into actual performance on the ground. So far, you haven't demonstrated many signs of being politically adept. Which figures, given that you've never held office before. But if you don't sharpen your political skills, your theoretical electability isn't going to save you. Kerry and Edwards have struggled, but they're rounding into midseason form. The pressure is on you (and Dean as well) to work out the kinks before you get eaten alive.

Also, someone might point out to you that, while you're strong on national security matters, that's not Bush's biggest area of vulnerability. No, where people are unsure of Bush is on domestic policy. For that reason, you might want to develop one.

Joe Lieberman: Just kidding.

Whew. Enough political dorking for today. Take care and I'll see you tomorrow! 
Monday, January 19, 2004
  Today's Musical Selection: "Genius in France" by Weird Al Yankovic

WEEKEND DISPATCHES

Hello there, everyone! To those of you who have the day off from work due to Martin Luther King Day (including me), hope you're enjoying the rest. For those of you who are working, sorry about that. The Smart Lady's in the Windy City today, interviewing with the University of Chicago. I wish her the best of luck, and trust that the officials at UC will be impressed by her obvious intelligence and have the discernment to extend her an offer of enrollment immediately, or at least within the week. Chicago, I hear you're a smart school. Surely you're smart enough to admit The Smart Lady.

Went to the Caps game yesterday with Papa Shaft, and it was immensely enjoyable. For one thing, the Caps looked better than they have in games past. The passes were crisper, the offense was more disciplined, and the team maintained a consistent effort throughout the game. They were baited into a few dumb penalties, but in general played a smart game. The final score was 4-3, so it was a nice, tense game. And the Caps emerged triumphant over... the Penguins! That was the best part of the whole afternoon, in my opinion. It doesn't matter if the Caps and Pens are the worst two teams in the league. It doesn't matter if nothing important is at stake. A victory over Pittsburgh is always a good day. A local radio station got in on the act, passing out "PUCK FITTSBURGH" signs as fans entered the arena. (I passed, but I saw a number of fans taking them.) On the way out, going into the Metro, we passed a number of fans in Penguins apparel. I thought of saying something, but decided to take the high road and walk on by... victory is a sweet enough reward.

So, who's excited about the Super Bowl matchup? Not me, I'm afraid. I was pulling for the Eagles... it would be the perfect capper to McNabb's season, and they've been so close for several years now. Surely a just and merciful God would not let the Eagles blow a third straight championship game. However, a quick tour of history will show that God has special rules when it comes to Philadelphia. (Thomas Boswell wrote a nice column on this in today's Post.) As for the Colts... the Manning Redemption Express came derailed in the cold and snow. I was rather amused by all the commentators who boldly assured us that "weather wouldn't be a factor" because it wasn't going to be below zero again. Well, it wasn't below zero, but weather most assuredly was a factor. It was snowing! It looked like Manning was trying to throw a greased watermelon. The upshot of all this is that we're stuck with Carolina-New England, another dud Super Bowl. Come watch Big Game Jake Delhomme try to continue his Roger Staubach impersonation! Spare me.

The other subplot of the Patriots-Cols game was watching to see what Phil Simms might screw up next. Simms is doing color commentary for CBS, and I've noticed something about him. He seems like a nice guy, and he's pleasant to listen to, but he isn't a very good commentator. Most of his crimes seem to fall into two categories: idiotic statements and silly mistakes.

An example of the first: with two and a half minutes left in the game and the Colts kicking off, trailing by 7, Simms said: "Now, we don't know that the Colts are going to do an onside kick here. But if they do, and the Patriots recover, the Colts need to stop them on three straight downs in order to have a chance." Now, Simms is technically correct that we didn't know that the Colts would do an onside kick. But if you're trailing by a touchdowns with two-and-a-half minutes left, what do you gain by kicking away? But that wasn't the dumb part of Simms' statement. Take a look at that second statement. Is Simms implying that if the Colts did kick away, they wouldn't have to stop New England three straight times? No matter where New England got the ball back, if they got a first down the game was essentially over. I don't know how much Simms is getting paid to provide this level of commentary, but I'm sure I could do it for less.

The "silly mistake" category was on display several times during the Pats-Colts game, when Simms referred to Colts running back Dominic Rhodes as Edgerrin James. Granted, James and Rhodes have similar numbers, and James is the Colts' featured back. But if you're going to use a first-down run to praise Edgerrin James' ability to carry defenders with him, as Simms did, it would help if James had actually been the one making the run in question, yes? It reminds me of an NBA game I watched a few years back, in which Doug Collins, then broadcasting for TNT, said "the Hornets are up by 7, 34-29" and claimed that the Heat's Alonzo Mourning was in the huddle discussing strategy with Allen Bristow, who was coaching the Hornets. Sometimes I think that the best a sports commentator can aspire to is not to detract from the game.

Finally, felt I should note an odd experience I had at McDonald's on the weekend. I went through the drive-through for lunch, and when I got to the menu board to place my order, there was an actual live human standing there. I have seen this on occasion, so I went ahead and placed my order. She then wrote the total on a Post-It note and stuck it to my side-view mirror, which I have not seen before. I then pulled around to find another McDonald's employee standing outside the window, holding a fat wad of money. She took the Post-It note and my $5 bill and made change. Then I pulled up to the order window to find yet another McDonald's employee standing outside, who handed me my order. I found all of this charmingly low-tech, but puzzling. I'm guessing the cash register wasn't working, and thus the bit with the Post-It note. But why did these poor employees have to stand outside? Can't you make change just as easily inside the window? Is this how McDonald's punishes underperforming employees? Temperatures at the time were hovering in the 30s, and it struck me as cruel to stick these poor people out in the elements. Can any current or former McDonald's enlighten me on this?

And on that note, I'd better quit while I'm behind. I'll do a better job tomorrow, I promise. See you Tuesday! 
Friday, January 16, 2004
  Today's Musical Selection: "Out in the Country" by Three Dog Night

RAMBLING FRIDAY: BACK IN BUSINESS!

Hello there, everybody! Rise and shine, campers! You'd better get your booties on, because it's cold out there today. At least if you live out East, where we're experiencing record lows in some areas. It got down to four below in Boston and forty below in New Hampshire. It hit fifty below at one point in upstate New York. It's not so bad here in the Fedroplex (lows have been around 15 or so the last couple nights), but it's a good time to break out the hot chocolate and sit by the fire.

First item in today ramble-fest concerns Hank Aaron, the latest comer to Pile on Pete Week. Aaron teed off on the Hit King in a scathing interview with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Among the highlights:

"During these past few days, I've looked at Pete on television, and he hasn't given any signs of an honest confession... Plus, I've seen absolutely no truth whatsoever in what he's saying."

Aaron, a vice president with the Atlanta Braves, said Rose should be treated like anyone else who gambles on games.

"I just think it's hogwash to say that he should be put back into the game just because the public wants it," Aaron said. "A rule is a rule, and the rule is on every clubhouse door that you can't bet on baseball. It doesn't say that you're excluded if you have 4,000 hits or 700 home runs."


Amen, Hank. It really helps sometimes to have someone put things in clear focus, doesn't it? As was the usual pattern throughout his career, Rose seems to think there should be a special set of rules for him, because he's a famous player who is (or was) very popular. And incidentally, if Pete thinks he's had a rough life, he should have a chat with Aaron, who received death threats on a daily basis as he approached Babe Ruth's home-run record. Aaron played through the hatred, served as a model of class and grace in an athlete and won (unfairly) only a fraction of Rose's fame. Rose deserves his due for his accomplishments, but consider how much of the limelight he steals from more deserving players, like Aaron, Paul Molitor and Dennis Eckersley.

I also really liked Aaron's reaction to Rose's claim that he's now "cured" because he restricts himself to legal gambling: "It's just like an alcoholic saying that he doesn't drink whiskey anymore, but he still drinks beer. Pete says that even though he isn't a gambler anymore, he still bets on the horses. That's bad."

Aaron's attack comes on the heels of criticism by Hall of Famers Ferguson Jenkins, Whitey Ford, Don Sutton, and Gaylord Perry. Even longtime friends Mike Schmidt and Joe Morgan expressed disappointment in Pete's non-apology. So far, the only ex-player to come out solidly for Rose is Juan Marichal. And given that repentance is not in Rose's emotional vocabulary, it doesn't look good for Number 14. Look for Bud Selig to pull his Hamlet act (he's already starting) and gently ease the reinstatement talk off the stage.

Speaking of Selig, the commissioner swears -- cross his heart and hope to die! -- that MLB will decide on a new home for the Expos by the All-Star Break. I have no idea why we should believe him this time, but for some reason, I do. Maybe it's just that MLB realizes what a ridiculous situation this is, and that they can't reasonably prop the franchise up for three more seasons in order to kill it. However, someone needs to talk to the knuckleheads who seem to think that Norfolk, Virginia, is a major-league market. Norfolk is a very pleasant city. And it's growing. But not fast enough. Norfolk isn't going to have the population base to support a big-league franchise. They don't even show up that well for AAA ball. Norfolk's team is outdrawn handily by cities like Louisville, Buffalo, Indianapolis, Pawtucket, Sacramento, Memphis and Albuquerque. Anyone want to argue for bringing the Expos to Pawtucket or Albuquerque? With a straight face?

Moving to politics, Roger Simon wrote a thoughtful column about Howard Dean's rise. In the middle of it, for no apparent reason, he throws out the gonzo theory that Dean might pick Hillary Clinton as his running mate. Not coincidentally, he also puts this in the headline for his column. He does nothing with the concept, however, and cites no source, even an unnamed one. Either Simon's got some really hot information he can't yet share, or else he's gotten bored with the campaign and the Iowa landscape and is throwing out unsubstantiated bombshells to keep himself awake. What's the story here, Roger?

In basketball news, it looks like the New Jersey Nets are moving to Brooklyn. I am in favor of this development. Why? Because I think "Brooklyn" would look cool in the standings. Much better than "New Jersey." What, you expected a treatise on the socioeconomic ramifications of bringing a sports team to Brooklyn? Come on, it's Friday; you should know better.

Finally, I see that Lt. Gov. Tim Kaine and Attorney General Jerry Kilgore are getting ready to run for Virginia governor. Notwithstanding that the election is almost two years away. I may write more about this on Monday, if I'm so inclined.

For now, though, time to start cruising downhill to the weekend! Take care, and see you Monday. 
Thursday, January 15, 2004
  Today's Musical Selection: "Love Will Keep Us Together" by The Captain and Tennille

YOUR LATEST SCANDALS

Hello again, everyone! Went in for a checkup this morning... my doctor thinks I could stand to lose some weight (which is true), but other than that pronounces me in good health. So you can look forward to more of me in the future, if you consider that something to look forward to.

I was looking for something fun to write about, and what do you know: I found me another couple scandals! The first involves Connecticut governor John Rowland, who seems to be in a bit of trouble. Me, I never liked the guy because he allowed the Whalers to leave Hartford, but I didn't pay much attention to him otherwise. In fact, up until this latest kerfluffle, I'd managed to forget completely that he was still Connecticut's governor. That was my immediate, gut reaction when I heard the news was, "He's still governor?" Here's how long Rowland's been running the show in the Constitution State: The last governor before Rowland was Lowell Weicker. When I was a college freshman, I took a seminar taught by Weicker, who had at that point been out of politics for five years. So Rowland's got tenure.

It looks, however, like his tenure might be coming to an end. The Connecticut House is forming an inquiry committee that might, ultimately, lead to Rowland's impeachment. The governor initially fought the decision, but now says he will support "a process that [is] fair." Members of his own party, including two of Connecticut's Congressmen, have called on him to resign. While it's too soon to start readying the hangman's noose, it would be acceptable to hum the "Funeral March" to yourself at your desk.

So what, exactly, did Rowland do? It seems that some friends with connections to state business gave him gifts and favors. (Rowland claims he didn't return the favors. Perhaps his friends were just being friendly. Or perhaps they were just very gullible. There's no law against that, is there?) He also used state employees and a state contractor to do free work on his vacation cottage. (Jim Traficant did something similar to this, and he went to Congress. Thus far, though, Rowland has not been foolish enough to cite Traficant as an ethical exemplar.) He also lied about all this. (He says he's sorry about that.)

Rowland had the following to say at a press conference: "I want the people of this state to know something: I will continue to do this job, to the best of my abilities, each and every day." Presumably he left off the end of the last sentence: "... until I am run out of town on a rail by outraged citizens."

So what fate awaits Governor Rowland? Well, this is the kind of ethical cesspool that recalls the good old days of the Gilded Age. Unfortunately, since it's no longer 1890, most people are unlikely going to react to this with the same amusement as I do. You might want to start checking the bus schedules out of Hartford, Governor.

Scandal Rating: 9 with a bullet!
Possible Impact: Huge! This scandal makes Gray Davis look like Abraham Lincoln in comparison. (Note to California: Do you miss Gray yet? How's the Governator working out for you? That's what you get for taking Hammerin' Hank's advice.)
Probable Fallout: It's hard to call, but it doesn't look good. Hard to dance away from a scandal like this. And Connecticut is not a state with a reputation for finding unethical politicians "colorful." My guess is that Rowland will see the handwriting on the wall and resign before he can be kicked out of office.

The second scandal involves Paul O'Neill, former treasury secretary in the Bush administration. O'Neill was forced out after a series of verbal missteps and the perception that he was out of step with the rest of the administration. Both complaints came to a head when he denounced the latest round of Bush tax cuts as unnecessary and bad policy. That kind of insubordinate commentary will earn you the enmity of any White House, but particularly one as disciplined and on-message as this one. O'Neill also went on a tour of Africa with U2 lead singer Bono, and the President always seemed like more of a Twisted Sister guy to me.

O'Neill has been pretty quiet since asked to leave. Until now, that is. He turned over a reported 19,000 pages of notes on his time in Washington to author Ron Suskind, and together they wrote a kiss-and-tell memoir. (Not literally. I certainly didn't mean to suggest that O'Neill and Suskind were... oh, never mind.) In its most-quoted passage, O'Neill describes the President as a "blind man in a room full of deaf people." Which would be a problem, because the blind man can't see sign language, and if he tries to talk to them, well... you get the point.

Reaction has broken down largely along partisan lines. Republicans have bashed O'Neill as a traitor, a man scorned and looking to get even for his dismissal. Democrats think O'Neill is a wise and all-knowing truth-teller, boldly bringing the public in to see the man behind the curtain. (Tina Brown also appears to have an opinion, but I've read her column three times and I have no idea what the hell she thinks. This is a typical problem with me and Tina Brown. Suggestions welcome.) For his part, O'Neill professes not to understand the fuss. "Why would anyone in the administration be angry with me?" he asked Lesley Stahl on 60 Minutes. If nothing else, O'Neill has demonstrated a serious case of tin ear when it comes to understanding public reaction to his comments. (Not that this qualifies as news.)

Personally, I always liked Paul O'Neill. He didn't necessarily have any business being Treasury secretary, but he was refrshingly candid and fun to listen to. (I'd suggest him as court jester, but that seems snide, and besides, he seems too earnest for that.) The question is whether O'Neill's book is going to change anyone's mind. My gut feeling is no; President Bush's supporters have decided to support him, and his detractors are pretty firm in their dislike as well. The odds that the 2004 election results will turn on this book are slim. Buy the book and save it for your kids, who might appreciate the historical perspective.

Scandal Rating: 4, with little upward momentum. Enough to stir up some Beltway buzz, but no investigations are forthcoming.
Possible Impact: Limited. If O'Neill had proof that the President was cavorting with some intern, now...
Probable Fallout: None likely, unless you count the people taking shots at O'Neill. This administration needs better scandals! We want corruption and intrigue! Come on, Bush and company, you can do better!

And then there were eight... Carol Moseley Braun is a candidate for President no more. Everyone who actually knew that Braun was running, raise your hand. Now, political dorks, put your hands down. Now that leaves... uh, anyone? Anyone? Bueller? Bueller? Braun has announced that she will be endorsing Howard Dean. Which is fine, I suppose, but what about John Kerry? Didn't that special moment mean anything to her?

Anyhow, that's all for today. Meaningless drivel tomorrow. See you then! 
Wednesday, January 14, 2004
  Today's Musical Selection: "Roam" by the B-52s

DOFFING OUR CAPS

Hello again, everybody! Many thanks to Greg over at Begging to Differ for welcoming me back with kind words about yesterday's review of the McDonald's cheesesteak. Thanks, Greg!

I also wanted to take a moment to clear up some misperceptions and rumors surrounding my sabbatical. No, I was not in drug rehab. No, I was not on the run from the law. And no, despite my funning with Papa Shaft, I was not on an undisclosed tropical island knocking back Zombies and trying to stay anchored on my barstool. I remained here in the Fedroplex, when I wasn't on the road visiting family over the holidays, fighting off a nasty cold and recharging my batteries. I figured the break would help me get sharp again and regain the zip on my fastball.

Of course, if there's one local entity that needs to get sharp and quick, it's my beloved Capitals. Tony Kornheiser ripped the Caps and Wizards in this morning's column. The Wizards don't concern me particularly; I'm about as interested in them as I am in the Pakistani national cricket team. But Kornheiser's attacks on the Caps should arouse my ire. And they would, if he weren't right.

Take, for instance, this passage:

Did you see what Ted Leonsis said the other day? Here it is. "I'm amazed anybody is coming." He's amazed? He's the guy who took over the team five years ago -- right after the Caps went to the Stanley Cup finals -- and announced he had a five-year plan to build a Stanley Cup winner. It's now five years later, and the closest the Capitals will get to the Stanley Cup is if they buy a set of Stanley tools and build a cup.

Think about that for a second: the owner of the team is amazed anyone's coming! Leonsis is a fascinating study in novice owners of bad teams: In the space of five years, he's gone from enthusiasm ("We're going to win the Stanley Cup! That's what they call the big trophy, right?") to anger (scolding fans for not buying enough tickets to the Caps' embarrassing choke against Tampa Bay in the playoffs last year) to philosophical resignation. This may seem sudden to those of you in other cities, but you haven't had to watch the Capitals play.

I consider myself well-qualified to comment on the Caps' situation. I grew up on the team, slipping my transistor radio underneath the pillow at night to listen to Ron Webber's broadcasts on WMAL, back when 'MAL was the king of the AM radio dial in D.C. I dragged my non-hockey-fan dad out to lifeless Landover to watch games live from the nosebleed seats at the old Capital Centre. I idolized Lou Francesghetti, Kevin Hatcher, Nick Kypreos, Bengt Gustafsson, Mike Gartner and other Caps of the day. I wore my replica Dale Hunter jersey to school as often as my mom would let me. I've been living and dying with this team for a long time.

I came to the Caps in the late '80s, just as they were transforming themselves from a sputtering loser team still suffering expansion-team hangover into a perennial playoff team. Or perennial playoff disappointment, I should say. The Caps of my youth were infamous for compiling fantastic regular-season records (winning the Patrick Division -- ah, memories -- on a couple occasions) and then flaming out in the playoffs. It always seemed like we blew it against Pittsburgh. Mario Lemieux's crew was our Kryptonite. The worst year was '92, I believe, when we had a 3-1 series lead on our nemesis and blew it. That was a particularly bitter pill to swallow, since the Penguins wound up winning the Stanley Cup with a barely-better-than-mediocre squad. It was a bullet in the gut for Caps fans. That was our chance. We blew it, and we knew it.

The Caps' problem in those days was always the same: We were a gritty, gutty team with good defense and solid goaltending, but we never had the marquee scorer we needed. Every couple years, management would bring in the latest hero, the top-flight scorer that would finally give us the firepower we needed to stare down Lemieux (and later, Jaromir Jagr). Dino Ciccarelli. Joe Juneau (who insisted, ludicrously, on pronouncing his first name "zho-AY," as if Joe was a French name). Adam Oates. Finally, Jagr himself. That was supposed to be our big coup, swooping down on the hated Penguins in a moment of weakness and stealing their star. But, as with all our previous saviors, he slumped and sulked and failed to lift the team as he would. He ran a darn good coach, Ron Wilson, out of town in the process. Same old, same old, we Caps fans sighed, and reached for the Pepto-Bismol again.

For most of that time, we had Peter Bondra, who was a very good scorer. We loved him, because he was ours (still is, despite some acrimonious contract talks a couple years back), because he wasn't some hired gun, because he stayed and played and didn't sulk. We tried to insist that Bondra was every bit as good as the bigger, flashier names on other teams. It wasn't his fault, we said, that he didn't have any help. But deep down, we all knew the rotten truth: He wasn't as good as the Gretszkys and Lemieuxs and Messiers, not quite. And "not quite" wasn't good enough. Not ever.

Then came that weird, fluky year, 1998. We had a pretty good team (40-30-12, 92 points, good enough for the fourth seed), but hardly a great one. We figured we were an even match with the fifth-seed Bruins, but beyond that, it was sure to be the same old story. But a strange thing happened. The top three seeds (including the despised Penguins) all bombed out in the first round. The mighty New Jersey Devils spit the bit against an Ottawa team that was barely better than .500! Suddenly, we were the best team left standing. The Caps were seemingly so stunned by their good fortune that they kept playing great hockey right through the conference playoffs. Bondra and Olaf Kolzig (nicknamed "Olie the Goalie" by adoring fans) were folk heroes for a shining moment.

Of course, all this fantasy fairy-tale stuff came with a slight hitch, in the form of the Detroit Red Wings. That was the team waiting for us in the Stanley Cup finals. Detroit has such a storied history that they call it "Hockeytown USA." They'd piled up 103 points in the regular season, and cruised through the playoffs with seeming unconcern. They looked at the Caps as an amusing little fluke, a temporary inconvenience en route to their scheduled championship parade. We were outgunned, outmanned and outclassed, and we knew it. And the Caps played like the junior varsity in an embarrassing 4-game sweep. Ask most hockey fans about it, and they don't remember the Caps were even there.

Since then, our momentum's been sliding downhill. Olie, though he's been a very good goaltender, hasn't approached that playing-out-of-his-mind level since. Bondra's kept struggling to keep the offense alive. Jagr arrived, sulked, and drove Wilson out of town. And since Wilson's departure, the team's spirit and discipline have fallen apart. I've seen several Caps games in the post-Wilson era, and they've all been marked by a disturbing sloppiness, a lack of team unity and a tendency to go flat when the team falls behind. The gutty, gritty Caps of my youth have been replaced by a disspirited, half-hearted bunch that looks like it's just going through the motions most of the time. And the fans -- the underrated Washington fans who screamed themselves crazy when times were good -- groan and frown and boo. We're not fair-weather fans, but we know a half-hearted effort when we see one.

The Capitals have always been a frustrating team. We spent years slowly climbing the mountain toward respectability, trying to win the attention and respect of fans in northern-tier cities who sneered at us and said Washington wasn't a "hockey market." We kept climbing, but couldn't ever quite reach the pinnacle. Now it feels like someone greased the rocks; we keep sliding back farther and farther and who knows when we'll ever turn it around? By the time we do, Olie and Bondra will probably be gone.

Are the Caps forever destined to stare up at the mountaintop, instead of standing on it? I don't know. But, as tough as it is to watch them stumble around now, I'll keep waiting. Because down inside, the kid with the Dale Hunter jersey listening to Ron Webber under his pillow lives on, keeping the faith.

That's all for today. See you tomorrow! 
Tuesday, January 13, 2004
  Today's Musical Selection: "The Boys Are Back In Town" by Thin Lizzy

THE RETURN OF THE FRED

Hey there, everybody! Mediocre Fred returning for duty once again. I'm neither tanned nor rested nor ready, but I'm here nonetheless. Many, many thanks to Papa Shaft for his excellent guest-blogging in my absence. I always welcome new perspectives at Mediocre Fred (provided they aren't more popular than me), and Papa did a more than capable job filling in for me. I was particularly interested to see him tackle the space exploration issue, which is not my usual bag but has to be more interesting to my loyal readers than Column 4,095 of Unsolicited Advice for Howard Dean.

In honor of my triumphant return, I decided to fall for the advertising hype and try this McDonald's "authentic" Philly cheesesteak. Let's start with this: McDonald's should be barred, permanently, from using the word "authentic" in connection with anything other than the Happy Meal. Nothing about McDonald's is authentic. McDonald's is the Milli Vanilli of the culinary universe. (You remember Milli Vanilli, don't you? The guys who lip-synced their work? Who had to give back the Grammies they inexplicably won? Surely you... Aw, hell. I try to sneak in a hip reference to appeal to the younger set, and it comes to this.)

Despite my horror at the "authentic" claim, I nonetheless gave in and tried the sandwich anyway. Why? Because I'm a total sucker for the word "cheesesteak," I guess. Not a good enough explanation? Well, I was looking for a little variety in my lunchtime routine. Still not good enough? Well, um, so's your uncle.

How did I get myself in the frame of mind to eat this thing? Simple. I used a device intimately familiar to George W. Bush: lowered expectations. I ruled out any expectation that the sandwich would remind me of Pat's or Geno's. I ruled out any expectation that the sandwich would remind me of the gut-buster cheesesteaks I used to get at my favorite greasy-spoon hangout in college. I even ruled out any expectation that the sandwich would remind me of the ones I got in my elementary-school cafeteria. I told myself the sandwich could only be compared with itself and would, with any luck, be edible. Thus armed against disappointment, I unveiled my sandwich.

And quickly discovered how small it is. Your typical cheesesteak is a two-fisted dining experience (at least the best ones). This was roughly the size of a ballpark hot dog. (Not the Coney Island dog, either.) For this I'm paying $3.69? Talk about a crummy value, I tell you... but we're working with lowered expectations here. So I didn't let the small size of the cheesesteak bother me. (Insert your own juvenile "size doesn't matter" jokes here.)

I picked up the cheesesteak and lifted it to my lips, whereupon some "authentic" grease dripped down onto my pants. Sigh. But as I've mentioned before in this space, cheesesteak eating is supposed to be a messy experience. So fine, McDonald's nailed one key aspect of the experience.

And the taste? Well.... it's not too bad. Really. It's about as "authentic" as Disney World, but if you can get past the authenticity hangup as I have, it's a perfectly okay sandwich. The bun is coated with these odd crumb-like things that shed all over the place (cornmeal, maybe? I don't know), but it's fluffy and tastes fine. And the sandwich itself reminds me a lot of a White Castle hamburger, taste-wise. This may not sound like a compliment, but I'm a White Castle fan. The meat comes in satisfying, sink-your-teeth-in slices that look and feel like real beef and don't remind me at all of Steak-Umms. The advertisement claim that the sandwich comes with onions, and though I was unable to locate any actual onions after a brief but intense search, the sandwich was perfumed through with the onion scent, a White Castle hallmark. The American "cheese" was predictably ghastly, although at least it wasn't that inorganic shade of road-cone orange that comes on most of their other sandwiches. (Incidentally, what does it say about us, as Americans, that the cheese that bears our name is a processed abomination that is essentially indistinguishable from the plastic on each individually-wrapped slice? I'm not sure, but it's not anything good. Accurate, probably, but not good.)

Overall grade? I'd give it a C+. It's certainly not going to make anyone think of Philly, or even King of Prussia, but it's a perfectly reasonable alternative to the other uninspiring sandwiches on the McDonald's menu. I wouldn't make a habit of these, but for once in a while, they're fine.

Exciting weekend of football games, and thank goodness Gregg Easterbrook is here to write about it. As per usual, my weekend picks were exactly wrong. My Colts-fan friend is currently attempting to bribe me to pick the Patriots in the AFC championship next weekend. However, the integrity of my inaccurate picks cannot be compromised by cheap bribes. Expensive bribes are another matter.

Finally, since you probably won't believe I'm really back unless I insert something about Howard Dean, here you go. Key quote: "On Monday, Dean explained his new, more aggressive posture by saying, 'I'm tired of being a pincushion here.'" First of all, Dean's going to get more aggressive? Who's he going to be campaigning with, Mr. T? Second, if you're really that tired of being a pincushion, try dropping to fifth place. That should take care of the slings and arrows of outrageous opponents. I'm beginning to wonder if we're about to see the first modern presidential campaign in which one of the candidates punches another.

That's all for today. Something else for tomorrow. See you then! 
Monday, January 12, 2004
  Today's Musical Selection: "Shout", by The Isley Brothers

Good day, all! Papa Shaft back with you again. Like Jason, or perhaps a bad case of a flesh-eating virus, I just keep coming back! Fortunately for both of us, though, I don't have to write a column today. That's because I received a communiqué from Mediocre Fred this morning saying that, after a month of being out of contact, Uncle Millie and Aunt Beatrice finally sent in their latest advice musings! Which means that I get to kick back this afternoon with a piña colada and look out the window at the beautiful grey skies and 50-degree weather here in the Fedroplex. Hooray for me!

This week, America's favorite (sometimes) couple are in Portland, Oregon...and Portland, Oregon! This is certainly the shock of the week. Fred didn't mention exactly why Uncle Millie and Aunt Beatrice are in the same city at the same exact time, but perhaps they'll enlighten us and manage to avoid any major physical violence in the process. We can always hope.

Anyway, without further ado (my adult-flavored beverage is waiting for me, after all...), here's Uncle Millie and Aunt Beatrice!

- - - - -

Love Is A Many Splendored (Or Splintered) Thing, by Uncle Millie and Aunt Beatrice

UM: Greetings, lads! Uncle Millie here, happy to be back after a long hiatus to answer all your questions on the troublesome topic of love. And I'm equally happy to be reunited with my lovely wife, Beatrice, who I have missed ever so much since the "unpleasantness" a few months back. Say hello to the good folks, Beatrice.

AB: Hello, everyone. I'm marginally less excited to be here in the same room with Uncle Millie, but I am ready to answer everyone's questions, too.

UM: Beatrice, darling, you were supposed to say, "Hello to the good folks, Beatrice." Haven't you ever seen Burns and Allen before?

AB: No. Although I'm pretty sure he treated her far better than some other husbands treat their wives...

UM: If you say so. Anyway, it's been a whirlwind week for yours truly and the missus. After spending some time apart, I received a phone call from my beloved, who, after some long discussions, joined me soon afterward here in Portland. Some might have thought that things were over between us, but my darling Beatrice decided that my irrepressible charm and company were too much for her to ignore forever.

AB: Translation: I decided to take him back. For now.

UM: They all come running back eventually.

AB: Or running away screaming. Don't push your luck.

UM: Come now, my dear, you know you can't resist me. After our romantic weekend of passion here in the beautiful Pacific Northwest, I would think that you'd know that.

AB: I can resist you about as much as a hole in the head. And that "romantic weekend of passion" was the Denny's Grand Slam breakfast, a glass of knockoff champagne, and four hours in the I-405 Nite Motel!

UM: The champagne was Korbel, my dear. Only the finest for you.

AB: Only the finest? Then what was I doing with you?

UM: That's not what you said last night. Anyway, shall we get down to the business of answering this week's letters?

AB: Let's do. Before I have an aneurysm.

Dear Uncle Millie,

I'm 20 year old guy, and I've never been in an actual, committed relationship before. But last weekend at a club my friends dragged me to, this beautiful girl came up to me, grabbed my hand, and asked me to dance! Later, after we spent the evening together trying to move on the dance floor, we ended up talking and she started looking at me funny, like batting her eyes and smiling a lot. She even asked me to come by her dorm room and see her new computer. I wasn't sure what to do, so I pretended to feel sick, and didn't go. But she wrote down her number and e-mail address on a piece of paper and stuffed it deep into my pocket before she had to go. Do you think this girl is interested in me?

Mark in Silver Spring


UM: You...didn't...go?

AB: I think that's what he's telling us.

UM: You didn't...go.

AB: No, he didn't. You sound surprised.

UM: Well, it's not every day that you meet someone that's as dumb as a box of rocks.

AB: That's not a very nice thing to say. To put it simply, and a lot more gently, Mark, yes. It definitely sounds like she's interested in you. Sometimes it can be hard to interpret the signals that women give, but in this case, it sounds like she's sending some pretty strong ones.

UM: You can say that again. Mark, if I were you, I'd call, e-mail, or telegraph this woman immediately and ask her out. Make no mistake about it, boy, she wants to jump in the sack with you, and how!

AB: Now wait a minute. Although she's probably interested in going out with him, there's a big difference between going out on a date and jumping into bed. At least for most people there is.

UM: My dear, you simply cannot underestimate what the poor boy is dealing with here. She was practically begging him to sweep her off her feet and show her the horizontal mambo.

AB: Here we go. I knew there was a reason why I left.

UM: Mark, when women send signals as strong as those, you can't ignore them. They're a clear cry for sex and if you don't give it to her, someone else will.

AB: Don't listen to him, Mark. He's clearly been taking too many testosterone supplements again this week.

UM: Do you really think she was asking him to her room to see her computer? As if he's never seen one of those before.

AB: Mark, if you want to have a good, decent and loving relationship with this person, as many of us dream of, I'd suggest that you ask her out, but go slow if and when she accepts. Focus on getting to know her and if you really like her, show her romance. There's plenty of time for physical things later on, and once you get to know her, the intimacy you'll have gained will make the experience that much better.

UM: By which point, he'll have a hunchback and a beard as long as I-95, I'm sure. Next question:

Dear Uncle Millie and Aunt Beatrice,

I've been having a problem with my girlfriend. Lately, she's been taking everything I say out of context and snapping at me without any real reason (that I can understand, anyway). Sometimes she even starts fights with me! I don't understand it, and I'm really confused. Can you help me figure out what's going on?

Jim in Indianapolis


UM: Well, lad, that's a really tough one. But guys tend to go through this with their significant others (and significant other, others), so you're not alone. Even I, Uncle Millie, have been through it many a time myself with my many wives.

AB: That's a surprise.

UM: Anyway, if I know women, I'd say it's probably a touch of the female horomones. A monthly problem, if you know what I'm saying.

AB: Millie, that's an awful thing to say! Not that I'm at all surprised. Jim, despite what this bozo tells you, not every problem that a woman has is caused by our monthly cycle. In fact, relatively few problems are caused by that, though it can make dealing with those problems a lot harder. What I wonder is if there have been some difficult things that your girlfriend has been dealing with that she hasn't been able to tell you about.

UM: You've got to be kidding me.

AB: If I were you, Jim, I would ask her about what's been going on in her life and find out more about what she's been going through. Sometimes, work, debt, family, or even emotional issues like the end of a friendship or the death of someone close can cause great stress for people, and that stress makes it a lot easier to take out those problems on their loved ones. And if she does tell you more about what is going on, remember to treat her with kindness and the love you feel for her. Nothing soothes the frustration that comes from tough times in life like true love and understanding.

UM: My dear, this woman sounds like an absolute she-witch, and no man should have to deal with that, ever. I'd recommend that Jim break things off with this woman and head down to the nearest singles bar immediately.

AB: And then, of course, some of us have other things in our lives that cause massive stress...

Dear Uncle Millie and Aunt Beatrice,

I'm a 23-year old woman with a problem. There's this guy I've been seeing, and he's really nice. I like him a lot, and I think I have feelings for him. But lately, my life has been terrible. I've been having trouble looking myself in the mirror...it's like I don't know who I am anymore! For a while, I'd been telling myself that I was wrong to be feeling the way I am, and that things would get better with time, but they haven't. I feel even less like myself than ever. And in the meantime, this guy I've been seeing has been pushing me to make a commitment with him. But I can't make a commitment to anyone, least of all him, until I feel like I know who I am inside. I want to go out and do a lot of things for myself, including going back to school and eventually finding a new job. And I want to find out what I like, and make myself a better person.

But in order to do that, I'm going to have to stop seeing this guy for a while. The pressure of having him waiting on me and expecting what I can't give him is just too much for me to deal with. I just don't know how I'm going to tell him and if I do, how he's going to take it. What should I do?

Jennifer in Glen Allen


UM: Oh boy. I feel sorry for this guy she's seeing. If you're reading this, lad, my sympathies.

AB: What on earth are you talking about? Hold it. Strike that. I don't even want to know.

UM: You never cease to amaze me with your razor-sharp wit, my dear.

AB: And you make me wonder why I ever got married in the first place. Jennifer, it definitely sounds like you're going through some tough times in your life, but don't think you're alone. Many people in their 20s go through the sort of confusion about identity that you have been going through. It's a part of growing up and defining oneself, so that you can become a healthy, well-rounded adult. Fortunately, it sounds like you have a pretty good handle on things in your life and know what it is that you need to do. That's a very good thing.

UM: It's good unless you're the guy. In which case, you have legal justification to tear your hair out by the roots.

AB: No one said good relationships were easy.

UM: No one said they had to be unnecessarily hard, either.

AB: You wouldn't know a good relationship if it jumped up and bit you on the nose.

UM: Nonsense, my dear. After all, I have you!

AB: Me and the cocktail waitress in Nassau, and the exotic dancer in New Orleans, and the cheerleader in Ventura...

UM: Those were all complete misunderstandings, I assure you.

AB: Anyway, Jennifer, what you need to do now is talk to this guy you've been seeing and tell him what's been going on, and what you've been thinking. Tell him what you need, and what it is that you want. If he truly loves you, he will understand and help you in any way that he can. And if he doesn't - Millie, what are you doing?

UM: Opening another refreshing bottle of champagne! I thought we could raise a toast to our impending reconciliation.

AB: After today, I've got some thinking to do.

UM: Aha! You're still thinking about it! I'll drink to that.

AB: You'll drink to anything.

UM: No arguments here. Shall we wrap this week's column up, my dear?

AB: Yes. I need some Advil.

UM: I believe there's a bottle on the dresser. Next to the coinbox for the Magic Fingers bed.

AB: Oh, good Lord.

UM: Anyway, lads and lasses, that's it for now! See you again in a couple of weeks. Happy hunting!

- - - - -

Thank you, Uncle Millie and Aunt Beatrice for checking in with us. As always, it was a real treat.

Anyway, that's all for me! Fortunately, the return of Mediocre Fred from his tropical sabbatical is imminent, so unless he's too hung over, you'll be hearing from him soon. So until the next time, friends, this is Papa Shaft saying good night, God bless, and remember: When life hands you lemons, make lemonade. When life hands you limes, buy tequila. Aloha! 
Valium for the soul. Don't worry, none of those pesky strong opinions here. All are welcome. No shirt, no shoes, no service.

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