Yesterday, I got behind a car with one of those little oval bumper stickers people get when they run a race, like a marathon.  My wife’s car has a couple of those—a 13.1 for the first half-marathon she ran and the one she really cherishes, a 26.2, which she got after running her first marathon this past year.  You see them everywhere.

This one said, “5K”.

My first thought was, “Seriously?  You’re putting a sticker on your car to tell the world you ran three miles? Call me when you’ve done something impressive.”  After all, I know some people who have really earned those stickers.  If you ask my wife, Marie, why she ran that marathon, you’ll probably get a number of answers, but the first one is likely to be, “so I could put that ‘26.1’ sticker on the back of my car.”  I remember when she finished the race.  She and her running buddy, Susan, crossed the finish line together and were met by Susan’s husband, Brent, who had secretly ordered a pair of those stickers for the girls when they finally knocked off that first marathon.  Brent has one of those stickers too, plus what might be the Big Kahuna of race stickers, a “140.6” for his Ironman triathlon.  And this guy was showing off his 5K?  C’mon.

At the next light, we were in different lanes, and I inched up to see what he looked like.  It was dark and he was wearing a hat, so it was hard to tell his age or anything else about him, other than that he was a man.  As we pulled away from the light, I wondered, “what sort of guy puts a ‘5K’ sticker on his car?”

And then I got to thinking about the question.  Really, what sort of guy does put a 5K sticker on his car?  The answers I came up with didn’t make me feel so smug anymore.

It occurred to me that I don’t know a thing about the man or how he earned that sticker.  But I started to imagine him.

Maybe that race was the first after knee surgery.  Maybe a year ago, this guy was playing pickup basketball when he jumped for a rebound, came down funny, and heard that dreaded “pop” and felt a searing pain as his knee blew apart and started to swell up like a balloon.  Maybe, as he pushed himself through those painful reps in PT, he used the thought of this sticker, this first race back, to get to the end of his session.

Maybe the scars weren’t on his knee.  Maybe they were on his chest.  Could it be that this man had suffered a heart attack, that he’d felt those first symptoms—the nausea and anxiety and sweating, and hoped it was just the flu, until the elephant sat on his chest and the pain shot down his arm and his wife called the paramedics and sat with him and prayed like hell for him to hang on until they got there?  Maybe the germ of the idea that led to this sticker was planted as he lay awake in his bed in the cardiac step-down unit, coming off emergency bypass surgery, listening to the night sounds of his hospital room—the beeping of the monitors, the humming of machines and the footsteps of nurses on their rounds–and he realized he was going to live, but he didn’t know how, and in that moment, he managed to push back the shadow of fear and self-pity and sadness he was feeling and recognized that he had what most heart attack victims never get:  a second chance—that most people who throw a piece of plaque into their coronary arteries are dead before they hit the floor—and in the night in that hospital ward, he made a deal with a god he wasn’t even sure he believed in:  “get me through this,” he thought, “and I’ll change things.  I’ll eat better.  I’ll manage my stress.  I’ll spend time with my kids and my wife.   And as soon as I can, I’m going to tie on those running shoes and start moving.” And he kept that promise–started the very next day when the therapist helped him swing his slippered feet over the edge of his bed.   Those first steps down the hospital corridor led to more, down the driveway to the mailbox at the curb, and then to the corner, then around the block, and finally, to the finish line of that 5K.

Or maybe he was a vet.  I couldn’t see below the dashboard.  I couldn’t count his legs.  Maybe he had only one—the right one.  Maybe the other one was left in Fallujah or Kandahar, lost to a mine or an IED, and this guy came home wondering how he would make himself whole after losing his leg and his innocence and his friends in a hell that nobody around him could really understand.  Maybe he knew people like him who never found their way.  Maybe they’d turned to drugs or booze or crime or a pistol to the temple, running away from ghosts they couldn’t shake, but he’d decided just to run.  He’d mastered his prosthetic and decided, “what the hell.  I’m a soldier.  This is a mission,” and started running.  Maybe it hurt at first.  Maybe he fell.  Maybe he bled or bruised and wanted to quit, but somebody helped him—found him a leg meant for running and helped him raise the money to get it.  Who knows how many people were at the finish line of that 5K, waving flags, cheering, crying as he broke that tape?

As I imagined this guy, creating mountains for him to climb over, that sticker looked different to me.  What was wrong with me?  This guy didn’t have to apologize to anyone for that oval sticker.  I should be apologizing to him—he was a hero.

And then I had another thought—and I felt like an even bigger fool.

Because, what if he wasn’t a hero?

What if he was just a regular guy, a guy who went to work and took his kids to their lessons and games and watched TV, but three or four times a week, he put on his sneakers and the sweatshirt he got from his daughter’s college and did his three miles?  Maybe he saw all those 13.1s and 26.2s and thought about whether he should put that 5K that came in the race packet for his neighborhood fun run on his bumper, and chuckled and thought, “More power to you, road warriors, but 3 miles is enough for me.”

And maybe it’s enough for him because, when he comes home from a hard day or a good day at his job, and his mind is crowded with unfinished work and unpaid bills and half-done projects and his kids and their dramas and his parents and theirs, he puts on his running shoes and jogs out into the warm evening in the summer or the chilly darkness in the winter, and waves to his neighbors, and feels his feet against the pavement, and feels his breath quicken, and notices the changes in the world around him—the new store opening or the deck somebody’s building, and he listens to his music or a podcast of a show he likes, and his thoughts stop clamoring for his attention and let him be for a while.

He thinks about big things, like his folks and his kids getting older and whether he and his wife will always want to stay in their house, and he thinks about little things, like how the cars he jogs by look different than they used to, or he thinks about nothing, and his breath and his footsteps combine to make a sort of windshield-wiper rhythm that he just rides along through the last mile of his run, and then he gets to the hill right before the finish.  If it’s been a strong day, he puts his head back, pumps his arms, and lengthens his stride and he bursts over the crest of the hill feeling like he just outraced Usain Bolt, and if it’s been a tough one, he puts his head down and puts one foot in front of the other, and knows he’ll draw on the will to finish that he’s building up here when he has a project to get done at the office.  He’ll say to himself, “this isn’t fun, but if I can get up over that hill feeling like I did yesterday, I can knock this off and do it right.”

Either way, when he gets to the end of that three miles, that 5K, his mind is clear, and his body feels strong, and he’s more aware then than at any other time that he’s alive for another day of who knows how many, but he’s got this one in the bag, and like those three miles, nobody can take it away.  He feels so damned good about it he wants to tell the world.

So he puts that sticker on his car.

And he earned it.  Good for him.


From the Backlog File: Dream Ticket

Marie is always reminding me to hang onto the stuff I’ve written and published.  I’m a lousy filer and record keeper, and it’s true that, if I don’t take care of it, these articles might disappear forever, the eternal life of words on the internet notwithstanding.

So here’s a favorite.  It appeared in the Post-Gazette during the 2008 election campaign.  Its relevance is, of course, diminished, but only a little.  It was an article that had more to do with my kids than it did any issue in the election, so you might still enjoy it.  Whether you do or you don’t, at least I know where to find it now!

Sunday Forum: Dream ticket

July 13, 2008 12:00 am

Adlai Stevenson once famously joked, “In America, any boy may become president, and I suppose that’s just one of the risks he takes.”

Matt Weiss , a history teacher at Shadyside Academy Senior School, lives in Edgewood (ultimattfrisbee@hotmail.com).

This year’s unprecedented contest for the Democratic presidential nomination has widened the scope of Stevenson’s remark. The pointed attacks and lingering hurt feelings of the primary season notwithstanding, one thing everyone, Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama supporter, Republican or Democrat, seems to agree on is that this year’s campaign has proved that any American child, regardless of race or sex, can aspire to be president.

That’s good news for parents, and my 8-year-old daughter Maya seems eager to make me First Dad some day. More than a year ago, when Mrs. Clinton announced her candidacy, Maya asked me if there had ever been a female president. I told her there hadn’t and she replied, “Well, then I hope Hillary loses. I want to be the first.”

More recently, when I asked if she still might like to be president she said, “I’m workin’ on it.” She doesn’t lack for confidence.

Now, of course I’m biased, but I think my son, Devendra, might have the right stuff, too. He’s only four and not yet 40 pounds, but he has a quick wit, a winning smile and, believe me, more than enough energy for a long campaign. Together, they’d be my dream ticket.

But if an Obama-Clinton ticket is unlikely, a Maya-Dev ticket is impossible, and not just because they’re from the same state (oh, and still in grade school). Maya was born here in Pittsburgh, but Dev was adopted from Nepal where he was born in 2003. The Constitution requires the president to be native-born, so Dev can never be our chief executive. When Adlai Stevenson quipped about any boy becoming president, he wasn’t thinking of boys like Dev.

The constitutional prohibition against foreign-born presidents is the one exception to full citizenship enjoyed by naturalized Americans. A naturalized American can be a senator, like Mexican-born Mel Martinez of Florida, or a representative, like Japanese-born Mazie Hirono of Hawaii. A naturalized American can also be a governor, like Michigan’s Jennifer Granholm, or the governator, Arnold Schwarzenegger of California. Three current Cabinet members, Elaine Chao, Carlos Gutierrez and John Negroponte, were born abroad, as were two U.S. secretaries of state, Madeline Albright and Henry Kissinger. Felix Frankfurter, one of our country’s greatest Supreme Court justices, was born in Austria.

We trust our naturalized fellow citizens to make our laws, interpret our Constitution and represent our interests in sensitive negotiations with foreign powers. So why can’t a naturalized citizen aspire to the presidency?

The prohibition can be found in Article II, Section 5 of the Constitution. It was included with little discussion or dissent and was based on the assumption that a foreign commander-in-chief might have divided loyalties in case of war, or that our young government might be vulnerable to subterfuge and interference from foreign kings.

As to divided loyalties, I suppose anything is possible, but it doesn’t square with my experience, or with history. I have found that the most passionate and patriotic Americans often are the ones who came here from someplace else.

My grandfather, a Russian Jew who arrived in the United States at the age of 16 back in 1922, never lost his thick accent, didn’t learn to write in English (though he read it perfectly) and was not given to emotional displays, but if you got him talking about his gratitude to his adopted country, that heavily accented voice would thicken and his eyes would fill with tears. During World War II, some Japanese Americans, who had been imprisoned on the presumption of their divided loyalties, served in Europe in the 442nd Infantry Regiment of the U.S. Army, the most highly decorated combat unit in our history.

Besides, native-born Americans can have divided loyalties, too. Some Irish Americans who could trace their roots in the United States as far back as the mid-1800s routinely sent clandestine arms money to the IRA in violation of U.S. law during the “troubles” in Northern Ireland, and many of my fellow Jews feel a strong pull to Israel that guides their thinking and their votes.

Finally, we don’t need the Constitution to protect us from an insufficiently loyal president; the election process is remorselessly transparent. The voters would have all the information they needed to decide if they trusted a foreign-born American to lead them.

But I doubt that any of this will have much effect on Dev. Though he sleeps with a Nepali flag above his bed and someday will visit the country of his birth, he’s a Yankee Doodle, do or die. The other day, he spontaneously recited the Pledge of Allegiance as we played on the rug. He learned it at preschool, where he says it every day with his classmates, some white, some black, some Hispanic, some Asian, all American.

Of course, I know neither of my kids is likely ever to be president, even if the Constitution allowed it. And I’m not sure I’d really want it for either of them. It’s an impossible job, and no matter how well you do it, about half the country will probably hate you.

But the point is that every child should be able to dream of becoming president. Dreaming big is a worthy habit, and childhood presidential dreams remind us that the president is a citizen just like the rest of us. They tell us that we all share in the responsibility of governing this democracy.

There is nothing more American than being able to look into the eyes of one’s child and say, “You can be anything you want to be.” That’s what many Americans, of all races and ethnicities, are saying to their sons and daughters this election season. Someday, I’d like to be able to say the same thing to both of mine.

First Published July 13, 2008 12:00 am

Taking Shots At History: The Gun Lobby’s Fantastical Past

The best protection against tyranny is not a populace armed to the teeth with military-grade weapons; it is a robust democracy controlled by an informed and engaged electorate participating in a process not owned lock, stock and barrel by corporate interests.

I agree that the founders did not envision of a nation full of sheep–Jefferson spoke several times of the importance of “the spirit of resistance,” though he did not say “armed resistance,”–but this has been blown far out of proportion by some of our more paranoid and militant fellow citizens who seem to believe that the founders of this country intended a citizenry constantly capable of violently overthrowing their own government.

The Constitution does speak of militias, and not just in the second amendment. In Article II, it gives the president the power to call up the militia to suppress insurrections, not start them, and the Constitution is clear that a citizen who takes up arms against the United States is guilty of treason and thus subject to execution.

And this wasn’t just an abstract idea. In 1791, in our own neck of the woods, farmers objected strenuously to Alexander Hamilton’s new excise tax on whiskey–a substance that doubled as currency west of the Alleghenies–and started a little armed rebellion. They beat up some tax collectors, burned some houses, and threatened to march on and torch Pittsburgh (for a great, fun read (tangentially, at least) about this event, pick up David Liss’ historical novel, The Whiskey Rebels. I know: you think you don’t like historical fiction. You’ll like this). President Washington (I don’t think there’s anybody more founder-ish than this guy) promptly called up the army and sent 13,000 men to Pittsburgh. Washington, himself, led the troops to Carlisle. The rebellion was snuffed out and two men were brought to Philadelphia and tried, convicted, and sentenced to hang. George pardoned them both, but his point was made: In a representative democracy, you may not always get what you want, but you get a say, and you’re not invited to overthrow the people’s government anytime you get in a snit.

Of course, I’m sure the Tea-Partiers, birthers, preppers, gun-nuts and other assorted wannabe revolutionaries will tell me this is different: This government is a tyranny–it doesn’t represent them. Oh yeah? Well, my party won a 1.5 million vote majority in House races, but somehow your party still has a stranglehold on that chamber. Whose government doesn’t represent him now? But you don’t see me oiling up my AR-15 now, do ya?

Finally, there’s this notion that tyrants are always brought down by the gun. Well, they’re not. The most successful revolutions I can think of–the ones that brought down dictatorships so entrenched we simply came to see them as intractable parts of the global reality–have, at least in my lifetime, been brought down by peaceful refusal of masses of people filled with righteousness and awesome courage who refused to cooperate with tyranny one day longer.

Think of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Think of Yeltsin and thousands of Muscovites stopping tanks from unseating Gorbachev before he could change the world forever. Think of Havel and the Velvet Revolution. Think of Cory Aquino and People Power. Think of Gandhi. And while we don’t know where it’s headed and things look dark, perhaps someday we’ll look back and say, “think of Tahrir.”

Of course violence sometimes brings down tyrants and sometimes peaceful revolutions end up with dictatorships (think of Iran and, for a while, France), but those violent revolutions often end up the same way–perhaps more often: Fulgencio Batista was a dictator. Do you prefer Fidel Castro, who followed him? Some do, but many do not. Historical examples abound.

Yes, Hitler disarmed the Germans, but as with most Hitler comparisons, this is facile–oversimplified. First, no one is proposing to ban all guns in the US, or at least no one with a chance of succeeding. Second, what evidence do we have, really, that we are facing Hitler or that our system will produce him? It has produced some poor leaders and there are dark marks on our past, but in well over 200 years, no one has come close. I retain much faith in that. Third, if you invoke the tyrants in history who disarmed their people, you must acknowledge the times people have had their gun rights limited and not found themselves crushed by dictatorships. Australia, Japan and England are examples, and their own democratic governments–governments that represented them–passed laws limiting gun ownership. They are safer for it. Safer than they were and, as we’ve been pointedly reminded lately, much safer than we are.

There is a lot of scary talk about guns and rights these days, and it does, indeed, scare me, but what scares me even more is the ignorance that sometimes informs it. This country was not founded by evangelical Christians who wanted every citizen to be able to overthrow the government. The Old West was a place of rugged individualism, but it was also one with a stratospheric murder rate in which many towns required that men check their guns at the sheriff’s office. Gun control does not always lead to tyranny and over the past century or so, the only way to defeat a bad guy with an army has not been everyone with a machine gun but, rather, the non-violent courage of determined citizens.

I think the only way to defeat people with bad gun ideas is with knowledge, organization and good ideas.

I’m going to arm myself with as many of these as I can. I encourage everyone to do the same.

How to Win Elections Without Really Winning!

By now a lot of Americans (I would estimate at least 35 of us–maybe even more!) are aware that the Republicans wound up controlling the House of Representatives despite losing the overall vote for House seats by about a million and a half votes, or 1.4%.  This is largely the result of aggressively gerrymandered House districts after the 2010 elections (and I’ll acknowledge in advance that the Democrats would likely have done exactly the same thing given a similar opportunity, but that seems largely beside the point–this isn’t really about Republican skullduggery, it’s about a threat to true representation and democracy).

For people in my home state, Pennsylvania, this translates into a sort of bizarro-world legislature in which Republicans control 13 of the 18 state legislative districts in a state that went fairly decisively for Barack Obama.  This is true in other swing states. Ohio, for instance, voted for Obama but Democrats control only 4 of 16 state legislative districts.

It’s possible that most Americans think that state and US Congressional districts are determined by some sort of impartial, logical, automatic system, but that is far from the case and it never has been the case.  The term Gerrymandering, which we all learn about in high school, is actually named for revolutionary-era Massachusetts politician Elbridge Gerry who, as governor, created a legislative district map so odd in its shape that critics said it resembled a salamander, giving birth to one of the more enduring and colorful terms in US politics.

The current situation is a little like hurricane Sandy–a confluence of conditions that combined to create a sort of superstorm of legislative manipulation:  first came the GOP midterm landslide in 2010, which happened to be a census year.  After a census, US congressional districts have to be redrawn to reflect the redistribution of our population.  Add to this ever-more deft computer programs that can slice votes by street and create incumbent-safe districts more effectively than even the cleverest back-room dealers and you have a Republican House majority that is basically secure from the voters for a decade.  In fact, as Dana Milbank points out in the Washington Post, the Democrats would have had to have won the House elections by a total of over 7% just to earn a slim majority in the House.  Somethin’ don’t smell right.

The same thing is true at the state level. In almost all of the “purple” or swing states that went for Obama (and all but NC did), Republicans enjoy a solid majority in the state legislatures, and the implications for all of this are potentially alarming.

First, it’s going to be very difficult, given the current intransigence of a large portion of the GOP House caucus, to get things done in Congress at a time when the country urgently needs things to get done.  The tired refrain from some pundits that the voters chose divided government doesn’t hold up:  they chose Democrats, and this choice was reflected in the results in the presidential and senatorial elections, but not the house elections.

Second, Republicans have not been dissuaded by the failure of their voter-suppression efforts in 2010.  They are still looking for alternate routes to the White House that don’t involve winning a majority, which looks for the moment, apparently, like just too steep a hill to climb, so bills have been put forward in all of the swing states controlled by Republicans to change the way these states assign their electoral votes.  Instead of giving all of their votes to the winner of the popular election in their state (which is what everybody but Maine and Nebraska now do), the idea would be to assign a vote for each congressional district a candidate won.  Had this been the case in the last election, Mitt Romney would have lost PA, VA, OH, WI and MI, but he would have won a clear majority of those states’ electoral votes and he would have won the election.

Like the voter ID laws that passed in so many states, this proposal seems reasonable to some people on its surface, and I think this starts with another case of voter ignorance.  Just as Americans don’t know how their congressional districts are drawn, I think many assume the winner-take-all method is mandated by the Constitution.  It isn’t.  States can apportion their electoral votes however they want to.  Technically, they can have their state legislatures vote for the president directly (that’s how we used to pick senators, by the way).  Nothing in the Constitution even says they have to hold an election, though it seems likely to me that failing to do so would be in violation of the voters’ 14th amendment rights).

So not knowing how it’s done in the first place leaves a voter, I think, more vulnerable to greasily reasonable-sounding arguments.  This fall in discussing the voter ID laws, I had many otherwise liberal friends say to me, echoing GOP talking points, “but you need an ID for everything these days.  What’s the big deal?”  The fact that a) buying liquor or renting a car is not a constitutional right at the bedrock of our democracy and b) that studies consistently showed that the voter ID movement was a solution in search of a problem–that essentially NO in-person voter fraud existed in US presidential elections–made very little impact.  To a reasonable person without a full understanding of the system and how it works (or doesn’t), this sounds like a reasonable proposal.

I worry that the same will be true of these measures to change the way electoral votes are awarded.  The message fits with the overall GOP message:  government that is closer to home is better.  Why have your votes thrown into a big pot with everyone else in your state when you could have the fairer and more precise system of awarding the votes by Congressional districts?  Even typing it, it sounds okay to me.

And it might be if Congressional districts were like states:  shaped largely by historical and geographic forces and somewhat organic in their composition.  Indiana, to chose an example, was not created for the benefit of any political party, and even if it had been, it was created more than 150 years ago.  Indianans today are likely to vote Republican, but that is not because a Republican consultant wielding a powerful computer program carved Indiana out of the map to guarantee that only Republicans could win there, but that is precisely what almost all of our Congressional districts now are.  They currently almost guarantee that the will of the electorate will not be represented in many states’ house delegations, and with a little legislative used-car salesmanship, they could do the same for the White House.

The lesson here?  Well, I think there are several.  First, it’s not okay not to know how these things work.  It’s more than just depressing that most Americans lack even a fundamental understanding of the workings of their government (a Newsweek survey here is both amusing and distressing in what it reveals about our collective civic ignorance); it’s actually dangerous. Second, much of what matters is decided at a lower level than most voters perceive.  In other words, the current battles in the House over fiscal matters were largely set in 2010 when Congressional districts were drawn.  Now that the representatives are there, most of the action is a foregone conclusion.

What to do, then?  First and foremost, I think, is to keep our eye on your legislature.  If you live in one of those purple states mentioned above, it’s not unlikely that you’re a Democrat represented by a Republican.  Make sure you let him/her know that you’re paying attention and will raise holy hell if the GOP messes with the winner-take-all system in your state.  Make sure you talk to your friends about this.  I believe that most voters in all the states, regardless of their political leanings, want elections to be fair and represent the will of the people.  While it may seem hopeless to try to influence locked-in GOP majorities in these purple state legislatures, they need to be reminded that many of the people who voted for them might lean Republican, but identify as independent, and part of the pride of that identification lies in a disdain for partisan game-playing and a desire for honest and fair politics.  Piss enough of them off and you’ll find out your safe seat is more wobbly than you thought.  It’s important to remember, too, that tidal shifts happen in politics and can happen quickly.  It would have taken a 7% overall margin for Democrats to flip the house, but that’s about the margin they had in 2006 and 2008.  A couple of elections like that and your representative could be back to working for a living (unlikely–he’ll just become a coal or gas lobbyist, but you get the idea), and eventually these districts will be redrawn.

Speaking of which, there are other ways that legislative districts can be shaped, and the Governator, Arnold Scwarzenegger, of all people, proposed a plan in California when he was first elected that would have mandated that districts be created by an impartial, bi-partisan panel of retired judges.  Of course, the Democrats blocked that idea in the Golden State, but that doesn’t make it a bad one.  Writing letters to your governor and state representative encouraging them to come up with a better, more fair and less partisan way of determining your representation is a good idea.

Finally, the whole messy business of electoral votes could be done away with entirely with a national popular vote.  This is another subject for another post, and it’s a controversial one.  There are cassandras who predict all sorts of political disaster if we were to do away with the electoral college, but I think the acid test for its worth comes from this question:  if we were starting this country tomorrow and had never heard of the electoral college, would anyone ever invent it?  I don’t think so.  The problem with getting rid of it isn’t in the consequences, I think, but in the actual doing of it.  It would require changing the Constitution, and that is hard, and it’s tough to foresee a circumstance when the many small states who benefit disproportionally from the system would give up their advantage.

But there’s a way around that.  There’s another route, and while it seems complicated, it’s actually pretty elegant:  As I said before, it’s up to the states how they apportion their votes.  Short of a coin-flip, the Constitution gives them lots of latitude, and several states have passed laws that would, if adopted by enough states, give the election to the winner of the national popular vote regardless of which candidate won their stateIt essentially amounts to a pact among states.  So far eight states and the District of Columbia have passed laws that will award all of their electoral votes to the winner of the national popular vote, but these laws will only take effect when states with electoral votes totalling 270 (a majority) have passed similar laws.  Right now, they’re at almost half the electoral votes they need.  Unlike an amendment, which would require 3/4 of the states (or 38 total), this pact could be passed by about a dozen and a half and the electoral college would, essentially, make itself irrelevant.

So, there are things we can do, and as much of a pain in the ass as it is, we have to pay attention, and not just every four years when the two sides will spend a couple billion to convince thirteen people in Ohio to vote for one guy or another for President.  We have to pay attention all the time because everybody has skin in the game, and the people trying to manipulate this system don’t wait for leap years to do their work.  They’re at it constantly, and if we’re not paying attention, they’ll steal our voices before we have a chance to open our mouths.

Here Goes

For a few years now, my favorite means of self-expression, at least to people I can’t talk to directly, has been the Facebook status update.  The dividing line between FB addicts and FB haters seems to run right through my generation, with a roughly equal number of my friends either unable to stay away from it or trying to figure out what it is and why anybody would want to “do” it (with a small group apparently unable to decide).

For me, it was a natural fit from the start.  My wife, Marie, who is an anthropologist, read an article that likened Facebook to a virtual village a person can wander through, or a street in a city neighborhood.  Some folks are on the porch, some are hanging out their laundry–some of it dirty–and others are inside their houses.  You can wander over to chat, eavesdrop and enjoy the show, knock on a door or walk on by.  I like people and like talking to them–in my job as a high school history teacher, I might have a hundred conversations in any given day, and they energize me.  The chance to talk with people from all the different parts and periods of my life is too much to resist, and since I’m often reading the news in another tab when I’m on FB, and since the news riles me up, it’s not uncommon for me to post something about it.

Or about anything else, and over the years, friends have asked me to start a blog.  Some have suggested it because they say they like what I have to say and how I say it.  This is gratifying.  Some, I suspect, would just like me to stop blowing up their news feeds, filling their smartphone screens with thousands of words when they’d prefer I keep it to something more tweetish.  Either way, there have been enough requests that I figure it’s about time to get blogging, and this is it.

Unfortunately for my impatient friends, some of these posts will simply duplicate what I share on FB:  I’m not going to stop spouting off there; it’s just too much fun.  I’ll link this blog to my Facebook page, but I hope those of you who like reading what I write will subscribe.  You’ll get these posts automatically.

Here’s what you can expect to find:

Political commentary that I hope will be passionate, thoughtful, provocative, sometimes funny but always respectful.  Even when I’m pissed off.  Which happens.

Reflections on life as they come to me.  I hope they’ll be all of the above, but maybe will shed a bit more light and less heat.

Links to good stuff I’ve read, either embedded in my own posts or posted directly.  One of the beauties of the internet is that ideas fly around like leaves in an autumn wind.  I’ll try to grab the ones I like best and show them to you.

Older writing I’ve done, including my “greatest hits” from Facebook and work going all the way back to when I was in college.  I’m a lousy filer, and there are a number of op-eds, essays, letters and a few poems I’ve written that are stuffed in boxes, trapped on ancient floppies and hard drives, or stored in the archives of newspapers like the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and the Philadelphia Daily News.  Part of my goal here is to finally create an archive where this writing can live, and I’ll post it as I remember it and dig it up.  I hope you’ll like it, even if it’s way past the sell-by date.

Your writing. I have smart and thoughtful friends, I think, and some of them wield a sharp pen.  If you’d like to post something here, send it my way.  If I think it fits, you’ll see it here.

The title of this blog is a nod to eighteenth-century Pennsylvania statesman, politician and author John Dickinson, the namesake of Dickinson college.  His essays during the time leading up to the American Revolution, Letters From A Farmer in Pennsylvania, earned him the title “Penman of the Revolution,” and that’s really something, because he had plenty of competition.

In a traditional sense, the greatest battles of the Revolutionary War were not fought in the state where I’ve lived my life–a state famously described by political operative and human-catfish hybrid James Carville as “Philadelphia and Pittsburgh [my two hometowns] with Alabama in the middle”, but in the way that matters, I think Pennsylvania was the site of the most important battles in that epic struggle.  They were the battles over ideas fought in the pages of pamphlets like Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, written and first published in Philadelphia, where I was born.  They were the battles that raged in debates in the Continental Congress and at the Constitutional Convention, and they were fought with words.  They were heated battles, but they were often constructive.  In fact, they were necessary, and I think, if we’re to fulfill the trust the founders passed onto us to make this a more perfect union, they still are.

I’ll make my stand here.