Archive for the 'TW articles' Category

Op-ed: Supplies for GIs.

24 February 2006

This piece originally appeared on the Commentary page of the Austin American-Statesman on 8 June 2005.

Our Troops Should Not Be Lacking Clean Socks

Last weekend, my wife and I spent $70 for supplies, mostly medicine-cabinet basics, to send to U.S. troops in Iraq.

Like many opponents of President Bush’s Iraq policy, I have attacked the policy while crowing about my support for the troops. Our shopping expedition was a small way for me to put my money where my mouth is.

The supplies are headed to Iraq through the efforts of a charity organization called Any Soldier, which was started by an Army sergeant who has served in Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan. Through its Web site (, donors select a contact name from among thousands of male and female service members. Donors send packages directly to these contacts, who then distribute the supplies among the members of their units.

My office started a collection drive for Any Soldier because it is a simple, well-organized effort to put a care package, or even just a personal letter, into the hands of someone in uniform who might not get one otherwise.

The Any Soldier site expresses the same well-earned pride I have encountered again and again from the members of our military. Two of my brothers-in-law have been on active duty since 9/11, one in the Coast Guard and one in the Marines.

Their willingness to serve reminds me of what a boon this country has in its fighting forces. But the confusion my relatives faced over stop-loss orders and exit dates reminds me of the human costs of the administration’s confused policies. Sending a care package may be a simplistic way to address those costs, but at least it’s something.

As for what to send, I focused on a few of the basic hygiene items on the list supplied by Any Soldier: deodorant, toothpaste, soap, acetaminophen, razors and antiseptic ointment. I also threw in a couple of packages of crew socks, which I was surprised to see listed. The one “luxury” item I included was reading material — a few paperback novels from a used bookstore and some recent back issues of National Geographic and Sports Illustrated.

When my wife first read the Any Soldier shopping list, she teared up. My own reaction was anger. The Web site downplays the suggestion that the military is shorting its troops in any way, pointing out that most office workers do not expect employers to buy them a briefcase, a day planner and so on.

Baloney, I say. I can quit my job if I want, and anyway I don’t work there 24 hours per day for a year at a time. Mind you, by no means do I expect Uncle Sam to supply our troops with a lending library or a cache of gummy bears, but since we’re spending a billion dollars a month in Iraq, you would think that we could keep the troops in Tylenol and fresh socks.

But maybe not.

Now I am confronted with the spectacle of an office charity drive like we hold for poor families at Christmas, except that we’re extending our charity to the front-line troops of the richest military in the world. Those service members deserve the support of citizens everywhere, but they also deserve better support from an administration that seems unwilling to count human costs in its grand strategic formula.

Too much of our talk about Iraq — pro and con — is cheap. For two years, I have sworn up and down that I support our troops but oppose their deployment in Iraq, but this shopping trip was the first time I put my sentiments into action. And plenty of Bush supporters succumb to the easy jingoism of a yellow-ribbon bumper sticker, thinking that “God Bless America” somehow answers the administration’s gross failures in executing its Iraq policy.

We need action. Our troops will appreciate the cases and cases of supplies the folks in my office are sending over, but they deserve better support from the top. Sending enough troops to do the job in Iraq would be a start. I won’t even insist that Bush and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld fess up that they have been wrong for two years in their claims that we have adequate forces there.

Given this White House’s track record, that simple, wise change of policy looks to be a long time coming. So I suggest you head to the store and pick up a few items that any soldier can use right away.


If you’ve got a fever . . .

19 February 2006

. . . and the only prescription is more prose from yours truly, may I suggest my contributor’s index page at the Austin Chronicle? Although it’s been a couple of years since I’ve done anything for them, the Chronicle was a great place for me to break into newsprint. Good times.

Op-ed: TV in public places.

19 February 2006

This little piece appeared in the Commentary section of the Austin American-Statesman on July 5, 2004:

TV in Public Places: Can We at Least Lower the Volume?

May I make a modest proposal? Here it is: If you’re in charge of a television that broadcasts in a public space, turn it off — or at least turn it down.

I suggest this because last week I spent a couple of hours subjected to a noisy television in a doctor’s waiting room. There was a newspaper on the coffee table, and a few magazines were scattered around, but the dominant force in the room was the television. Judging from the reactions of the patrons in my corner of the room, the programs being shown were not of wide interest.

The practice where I waited performs outpatient procedures that require an hour or two, and all patients must have “a responsible adult driver” standing by to ferry them home. The woman sitting next to me, there in our corner farthest from the TV, made good headway into the novel she brought. Lucky her. My wife would have brought her knitting and passed the time enjoyably.

I myself brought a magazine and a book, but I’m one of those people who can’t read with a television on, especially a loud one. I would have asked to lower the volume, but a couple of folks sitting near it seemed to be watching. I’ve noticed, also, that once a TV is up and blaring, asking to turn it down or change the channel becomes awkward. It is as though the TV projects an aura of reversed etiquette: Even though it is the thing making the disturbance, the burden is placed on you to find a polite way to minimize it. Arguing that the volume disturbs your reading? It seems unlikely.

This reminds me to think of a way to raise this issue with my children’s dentist. His waiting room is littered with interesting toys and books, but the TV is always on at full volume, so of course that’s what draws the kids’ attention. Kids have better things to do with their rapidly forming brains. Let them do those things — play, read, look at picture books, imagine — rather than plant them in front of the box that does the imagining for them.

Or that keeps them from eating their lunch. Recently we took a car trip to Dallas to visit my parents. On the way we stopped to eat at a Dairy Queen. Inside, someone had parked a television on the first booth by the door — aimed so that the staff could see it, I guess. “The Simpsons” were on at high volume. I have spent many hours enjoying “The Simpsons,” but it’s not an appropriate show for my little ones. Instead of a welcome break from the hours on the highway, lunchtime was a struggle. We were happy to get back to the quiet of the car.

The intrusion of television is something like the intrusion of smoking. TV doesn’t tear down your health like smoking does, but the noise pollution from the one reminds me of the air pollution from the other. Thoughtful smokers don’t light up in nonsmokers’ houses or cars; they are courteous enough to step into the yard or to wait until the trip is over.

Why don’t we treat televisions the same way? If you go to a sports bar, of course you expect some smoke, and of course the TV will be turned up loud. It’s a sports bar. But in a doctor’s waiting room? The last thing I want is some new ordinance forbidding it, but I would like common courtesy to take over, so that we defer to non-TV watchers as we defer to nonsmokers.

After sitting for a while, I realized that the waiting-room TV was tuned to the E! network. A little homework reveals that the local cable package including E! costs about $46 per month, roughly $550 a year. I came up with a list of popular magazines the medical practice could subscribe to for the same amount. Ready? AARP The Magazine, Atlantic Monthly, Better Homes & Gardens, Cosmopolitan, Entertainment Weekly, ESPN The Magazine, Field & Stream, Forbes, Fortune, Golf Digest, Good Housekeeping, Money, National Geographic, Newsweek, Parents, People, Prevention, Reader’s Digest, Runner’s World, Scientific American, Shape, Smithsonian, Southern Living, Sports Illustrated and Time. Those should offer plenty of diversion for the practice’s patrons.

One popular weekly is notably missing from my list. If it puts away the television, the doctors’ practice won’t need the No. 3 magazine in the country — TV Guide.

Op-ed: My parking-ticket protest.

4 February 2006

[This piece first appeared on the Commentary page of the Austin American-Statesman on November 26, 2005.]

Have you ever gotten a ticket for parking within 30 feet of a stop sign? I got one last week. Until the moment I read the citation on the ticket, I had no idea any such parking rule existed. No such rule should exist, as I hope I’ll convince you.

Part of my reaction is emotional. My driving record is excellent, and (touch wood) I have never had even a fender bender. (Well, I once crashed my friend’s go-kart into his garage door, but I was 11 at the time.) My children are used to hearing me caution my fellow motorists: “That’s not good. . . . Don’t do that. . . . Oh! That’s dangerous!”

This matches my personality. Growing up, my friends always thought that I was too respectful of rules. I never drank a beer until I was old enough to buy one myself. I never smoked pot. I never snuck out of my parents’ house. And I never park in a no-parking zone. When it comes to rules, I’m as square as they come.

This can be a trial for me these days, since I am a graduate student at the University of Texas. Most weekdays, I end up cruising a particular circuit of residential streets north of the campus, looking for a free space. There are countless hazards: hidden driveways, yellow curbs, Dumpsters, and a forest of warning signs. No parking. Two-hour parking only. (I have three-hour seminars.) Parking for residents only. Loading and unloading only, five-minute limit.

So I circle. On the day of my ticket, I found a spot just off of 31st Street. No yellow curb, no warning sign, a long-accumulated oil stain from all the cars that had parked there before. For that matter, I had parked there before with no problem. When I came back from my class, I found the little bright-yellow envelope with the ticket inside. I had to read the citation twice before it even dawned on me that, yes, I was within 30 feet of a stop sign — within four feet, in fact.

This is law enforcement by trick, not legitimate enforcement. When you speed, you know you are speeding. You see the speed limit, you cruise along with traffic a little above it, and you take the calculated risk that going 51 in a 45 won’t get you a ticket this time. Even I, the lover of rules, do this.

But in this case? No. The rule is ludicrous, should not exist, and must be nearly unknown among drivers. The oil stain on the ground indicates that years’ worth of Austin car-parkers have looked at this little piece of real estate and said, “Hey, good parking place!” But now some industrious ticket-writer, who no doubt would claim merely to be doing his or her job, has discovered a gravy train for tickets to issue. I’ve now seen three other cars get tickets in that spot.

I am a liberal in most of my politics. I believe that in many cases a little bit of government intervention, wisely applied, can do some good. This is how we got the Interstate highway system. This is how we built UT and created Austin’s beautiful parks. We can get even more grandiose: this is how the federal government backed up the efforts of heroes like the late Rosa Parks to break down the Jim Crow system in the South.

But what was Jim Crow? It was a system of arbitrary laws designed not to help the population to live better or prosper, but to dispense a brand of “justice” that had nothing to do with health, safety, education or welfare — much less the genuine item of justice.

Of course, my dinky little parking ticket doesn’t rise to the level of Jim Crow — not by a million miles. No, it’s only a small thing. But it is a thing that erodes my confidence that the government is supposed to be looking out for society’s best interests. Instead it makes me think that the government is happy to trick me into breaking an unknown rule so it can collect an extra buck.

I don’t want a parking ticket on my record — I love rules, remember? — so I mailed in my $20. Consider this column my moment of protest.

Op-ed: Fidgeting.

2 February 2006

[I first published this slight piece on the Commentary page of the Austin American-Statesman on February 1, 2005.]

Come to find out, I am a fidgeter.

A Mayo Clinic study released last week shows that some people seem predisposed to move around much more than others — all the time. They shift in their chairs. They tap their toes as they work or watch television. They get up and pace around their desks when they are thinking. In short, they fidget.

They also do not put on extra weight, even without any regular exercise regimen. This might explain why I am three pounds lighter than when I finished college 10 years ago. Back then, I jogged regularly and walked all the time, including half a mile back and forth from my house to campus. Now, I live at my desk, I seldom get out to run or bike, and I take the car everywhere.

But if the Mayo study is right, all my nonstop foot-shuffling and posture-readjusting and standing-up-for-no-good-reason burns 300 to 400 calories per day. Put another way, that is up to 35 pounds per year that I don’t gain.

Should I gloat? I don’t think so. From what the researchers could tell, the tendency to fidget or not is inborn. They found that the obese people in their study were remarkably efficient in their movements, with not a calorie wasted on extraneous effort. This matches my own experience.

Several years ago, I worked for a delightful woman, quite thickset, who did her work at the computer with the daintiest possible motions. In my mind’s eye I see her moving her fingers from keyboard to mouse and back again with the elegance of a concert pianist. When she talked with you, she looked right at you and kept her hands folded on her lap.

When I talk, I have a hard time looking at anything for more than about five seconds at a time. My hands fly all over the place, drawing pictures and carving punctuation (“” and ! and ?) in the air.

My friends sometimes joke about how much I talk with my hands, but to my knowledge no one has ever called me hyperactive. While I am sure I do not suffer from a clinical condition such as ADHD, I do have a fairly short attention span, which I credit for my penchant to wriggle at my desk and walk away from it as often as I can. Come to think of it, I know at least one other person whose byline sometimes appears in this newspaper who has described himself as having a short attention span, and who remains rail-thin in middle age. Maybe this is a blessing that comes from being easily bored.

It is likely that my genes rather than my mindset are the origin of my fidgety behavior, but the knowledge that fidgeting fights obesity fits with a pet idea I have about pursuing goals through small increments. Maybe because of my short attention span, I often shy away from a project when it looks like a mountain of work. But baby steps are my forte: if I can break up an objective into tiny parts that will succumb to constant, low-intensity effort, I will get the job done. This reminds me of Rocky Marciano, who defended his heavyweight title against several larger opponents with an assault of countless small jabs, round upon round, to set up the knockout blow.

Natural non-fidgeters like my former boss probably cannot start wriggling in their chairs by force of will. But the findings of the Mayo Clinic report do support the idea that we can all do small things, hour by hour, to break our sedentary habits. Park your car at the back of the lot and walk an extra 50 yards. Take standup stretch breaks at your desk every 30 minutes. If, like me, you keep a water bottle at your desk, get a smaller one so that you have to make more frequent trips to refill it. (And drink more water, period: it’s good for you, and it will force you to make more short trips of another kind.)

“Forget” to take the remote control to your easy chair so that you have to get up to change the channel. When you come to a break in the action, whether a brief stopping point in your work or a commercial on television, get up and walk around the room.

But whatever you do, don’t just sit there — fidget!