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Monday, June 30, 2008

The Knot
Wedding Guests Behaving Badly
Compiled by Miles Stiverson

A wedding -- where emotions (and alcohol) flow freely -- can bring out less than stellar behavior in otherwise perfectly pleasant friends and family. After talking to countless brides and grooms, we've cataloged some of the worst. Want to be a gracious guest? Don't do anything you read below!

*Names changed to protect the innocent (and the guilty)

Rude RSVPs
"I had guests who did not like the dinner choices -- they wrote on their response card that they wanted a meal that followed their macrobiotic diet. When my mother-in-law told them this wasn't possible, they phoned the reception hall to ask them!"
-- Anne, Livingston, NJ

"A close friend of my husband's mother has a very small dog, and a few weeks before the wedding she informed my hubby's mom that she was planning to bring the dog to the wedding! Fortunately, my husband's mom informed her that the dog was not invited, and it all worked out."
-- Lindsey, Huntington, NY

"My friend showed up to our adults-only reception with her boyfriend, as well as her 2-year-old son. The child screamed throughout the entire ceremony -- my own mother had to take him from the room, and my friend actually stayed to watch the ceremony! He was a terror at the reception, and eventually she decided to leave, telling us that the child was tired and that his dinner should be packaged to go, and he would like a slice of cake as well (we hadn't even cut it yet)."
-- Mary, Virginia Beach, VA

Truly Thoughtless Guests
"I was at a wedding where the bride was a larger girl and one of the guests requested the 'Baby Got Back' song as a joke. The worst part is that the DJ said 'This goes out to the bride as a special request.'"
-- Vivian, Fort Worth, TX

"I was at a wedding where the father of the bride yelled, 'Give her the tongue!' in the church after the priest announced, 'You may now kiss the bride.'"
-- Jessica, Peoria, IL

"I recently got married, and my husband's aunt came up to me while I was waiting for the ceremony to start, and asked what my name was! We'd been dating over a year and I see her at all the family events."
-- Katelyn, Sioux Fall, SD

"As the maid of honor in my best friend's wedding, I had a relative give me a $5 bill during the traditional 'dollar dance' and ask for change."
-- Allison, San Francisco, CA

Drunk and (Really) Disorderly
"Aside from the two women who thought it would be fun to dance on the tables, one guest brought a bottle of tequila wrapped in a brown paper bag into the reception. I can still see them laughing like buffoons and swilling booze from a crumpled bag."
-- Deborah, Seattle, WA

"My aunt was the bartender at my sister's wedding and got my 14-year-old old brother drunk. He started stripping on the dance floor and telling my brother-in-law's family members how he really felt about them. It was a nightmare!"
-- Janet, Little Rock, AR

Rowdy Receptions
"I was at a wedding where the bride and groom were avid ultimate frisbee players. As a cute favor, they gave monogrammed mini frisbees to all the guests. Some of the college guys began throwing the them back and forth across the dance floor. One even jumped up, caught it, and spiked it on the floor!"
-- Rebecca, Tucson, AZ

"We placed wedding cameras on every table. After we got back from the honeymoon we were looking through the pictures when we came across one of our male guests exposing himself. We were so mortified!"
-- Heather, Durango, CO

Terrifying Toasts
"When the father of the bride was giving his speech, the bride's in-laws were all chatting and laughing. The mother of the bride had had way too much to drink, got a hold of the microphone, and told off the groom's entire family, saying they were all going to hell! She then turned to the groom and told him that she hoped they would divorce soon because he's the worst human being she'd ever met. The couple is still married almost 20 years later, but they do not celebrate their anniversary."
-- Jennie, Pittsburgh, PA

"I once attended a wedding where the best man gave his toast, went through the usual wishes of good luck and a happy marriage, and then let it slip that the bride was pregnant. This came as a shock to her parents, who had not been informed yet."
-- Erin, Albany, NY

Thursday, June 26, 2008

This guy's life not worth $2.1 million
Man auctioning life on eBay is irritated by 'bored idiots' placing fake bids

Tony Ashby / AFP - Getty Images
Ian Usher, a 44-year-old from Yorkshire in England living in Australia, launched the unusual auction after announcing on his blog: "I have had enough of my life! I don't want it any more! You can have it if you like!"

CANBERRA - It seemed unbelievable when bids to buy a heartbroken man's life in Australia reached $2.1 million — and it was, with the bemused seller aware his life was only worth a quarter of that amount.

Ian Usher, 44, announced in March he was auctioning his life on eBay with the package including his three-bedroom house in Perth, Western Australia, a trial for his job at a rug store, his car, motorbike, clothes and even friends.

His decision to sell his life followed the break-up of his five-year marriage and 12-year relationship with Laura with whom he had built the house.

Usher, originally from County Durham in Britain before moving to Perth in 2001, said he hoped to raise up to $475,000 to fund a new life but on the first day of the week-long auction, bids skyrocketed to $2.1 million.

But Usher knew his life was not worth that and was quick to realize there was a glitch in the system with auction Web site eBay allowing offers from non-registered bidders which took a day to sort out.

"Apologies to all, but I guess there are a lot of bored idiots out there," Usher said in a statement e-mailed to Reuters that was to be posted on his website

"Anyway after a long day on the computer, I have decided to pull all bids back as far as the first registered bidder, and the price is back to $147,000 as I write this ... we are back in the land of common sense and reality, so it's over to you."

After 21 bids the amount had risen to $233,000.

A spokeswoman for eBay, Sian Kennedy, said Usher had to verify all the bidders before the auction to check they were genuine buyers and he could delete any he believed were hoaxes.

She said this was his responsibility as the bids were not binding. Usher's life has come under the real estate section on eBay as his house is the main asset in the sale.

"The real estate category on eBay is a non-binding section because of the real estate laws in Australia. You need a special license to sell real estate," said Kennedy.

"You need to get in contact with him and he has to verify you are a genuine bidder before you can bid. If he doesn't think you are genuine he can remove your bid."

Kennedy said Usher is not the first person to put his life up for sale but could be the first to offer it in this package.

Australian philosophy student Nicael Holt, 24, offered his life to the highest bidder last year in a protest about mass consumerism.

American John Freyer started All My Life For Sale in 2001 and sold everything he owned on eBay, later visiting the people who bought his things.

Adam Burtle, a 20-year-old U.S. university student, offered his soul for sale on eBay in 2001, with bidding hitting $400 before eBay called it off, saying there had to be something tangible to sell. Burtle later admitted he was a bored geek.

Usher's auction closes at noon on June 29.

India jails widower for raising orphaned bear
Daughter sent to boarding school after dad's arrest; cub refuses to eat
The Associated Press

In this undated photo, Ram Singh Munda, 35, and his daughter feed their pet sloth bear Rani at Gahatagaon village, India.

NEW DELHI - It was supposed to be a heartwarming tale of a man who brought an orphaned bear cub home from the forests of eastern India to become part of the family, consoling his small daughter who had just lost her mother.

But when wildlife officials saw the story in the local media last week, it turned to tragedy.

Ram Singh Munda, 35, was arrested and jailed for violating wildlife laws, the bear was sent to a zoo where it has refused to eat, and the abandoned six-year-old daughter has been shipped off to a state-run boarding school.

Now animal rights activists, impressed by Munda's compassion, are trying to win his freedom and reunite the family.

'Poor and illiterate'
"We strongly condemn the manner in which the forest department officials arrested the poor and illiterate man who was not aware of the government's rules and regulations," Jiban Ballav Das, the head of People for Animals in India's Orissa state, said Tuesday.

Munda, a laborer from the indigenous tribes that live in the forests some 125 miles north of the state capital Bhubaneswar, said he found the sloth bear cub last year while gathering firewood.

He brought the bear home, named her Rani, or Queen, and she became a member of the family, which was still struggling to overcome the death of Munda's wife the previous year.

Television footage taken at a happier time shows the bear frolicking with his daughter, Dulki, the two of them clumsily trying to climb up on the back of Munda's bicycle.

Three years in jail?
Wildlife officials saw the news stories and arrested Munda last week for breaking the county's wildlife act that prohibits keeping wild animals. If convicted, he faces up to three years in prison.

"They have sent me to the jail. How will my daughter survive?" Munda told the CNN-IBN news channel while being taken to prison.

"I cannot understand why I was punished for taking good care of a bear that was deserted in the forest and would have died had I not brought her home," he said.

Munda said that when wildlife officials first approached him he tried to return the bear to the forest but it found its way home.

Local government official Biranchi Nayak said the daughter would be sent to a boarding school until her father was released.

'Protection of wildlife'
Ajit Kumar Patnaik, a senior wildlife officer and director of the Nandan Kanan Zoo, where Rani was taken, defended the decision.

"Munda was arrested according to the provision of the law meant for protection of wildlife," he told the Press Trust of India, adding that sloth bears are a protected species.

But animal rights activists said that while they condemn taking wild animals out the forest and support the decision to try to rehabilitate the bear, the government was being too harsh on Munda.

"He never tortured the animal. Neither was he was using the bear for any commercial purposes. Therefore, we feel he should not have been arrested," said Das.

Isolated cage
The bear, too, was being unfairly treated and might die if the sudden separation from her adopted family was not managed properly, animal activists said.

The bear was being kept in an isolated cage at the zoo and was refusing to eat, apparently pining for Munda and his daughter, said Biswajit Mohanty, the secretary of the Wildlife Society of Orissa.

"Bears are known for the strong bonding they develop with human beings and therefore they are highly attached to their keepers," he told PTI.

Das said the animal organizations were mobilizing to help Munda, organizing legal aid and trying to make better arrangements for his daughter.

"We have decided to give him a job in our animal rehabilitation center in Bhubaneswar as a caretaker," he said.

He's Big Bird: Caroll Spinney loves every feather
The Associated Press

On the street, Caroll Spinney is a 74-year-old of modest proportions. On the job, transformed into Big Bird, he stands 8 feet 2 inches tall and is 6 years old.

Being Big Bird is sweaty, physical work. But Spinney, who has worked on Sesame Street for nearly four decades playing both Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch, has no wish to be anywhere else.

"I can't imagine willingly walking away from Big Bird and Oscar," he said.

Spinney's workday transformation begins with a pair of orange furry jeans encircled in hot pink ridges. Next, manhole-sized pink webbed feet made of foam — built around a pair of Hush Puppies loafers. Between takes, he protects them from his kindergarten co-stars with custom-made purple slippers.

The crew straps a television monitor to his chest. Wearing drugstore reading glasses, Spinney will watch the monitor while inside the top half of the costume to see how Big Bird appears on camera. Otherwise, he's blind inside the bird.

To play the role, "you have to not be claustrophobic," he said. "You have to be willing to walk, not seeing anything in front of you."

Spinney tops off his ensemble with the familiar 25-pound top half of Big Bird, a combination of costume and puppet. He works Big Bird's mouth with his hand and the eyes with a coat hanger attached to his pinky finger.

The set is kept so cold for his scenes that the crew sometimes wears hats and jackets. For Spinney, who called out from his perch on the stoop of 123 Sesame Place that he could no longer feel his hands, the relationship between man and bird is worth it.

He remembers a visit to Georgia Tech in 1972, when the costume was "ravaged" by ROTC students. When he found Big Bird, one of the eyes was hanging off, its mechanism ruined.

"When I saw him lying in the dirt, it was like seeing your child dead on the floor," Spinney said. "I went into shock."

Spinney got his start on Sesame Street during its first season in 1969, after Muppets founder Jim Henson saw him perform at a puppeteer's convention.

Henson chose him as Big Bird after Frank Oz, who helped develop Bert, Grover and Cookie Monster, swore off costume puppets following a stint in commercials as the La Choy Dragon, which was equipped with an in-costume flame-thrower.

Spinney met his wife, Debra, at Sesame Workshop, and has three grown children and four grandchildren. He's one of a handful of original cast members still on the show; the only other original puppeteer still working full time is Jerry Nelson, who plays The Count.

"One of the things I really enjoy about Sesame Street is that years go by and I'm still the same age," Spinney said. "I'd love to be 70 again, 60 and 50 and 40."

After all these years, Sesame Street remains seasonless. There are crunchy autumn leaves at the foot of the stoop of 123 Sesame Place, because the set looks flat without them, but the garden around the corner is in full summer bloom. Since no brands are allowed on the show, the shelves of Hooper's Store are stocked with Sesame-ized magazines, like "City Monsters: Puffy Furry Fun for All Ages!" and "Stacking Stones."

"We deal with a lot of life's realities on Sesame Street, but not everything," Spinney said. "No one worries about him (Big Bird) sleeping all alone on the street."

While the show takes place in a magical mirror New York, the set is at the Kaufman Astoria Studios in Queens, where decidedly grittier fare such as "Fort Apache-The Bronx" was also filmed.

On the last day of filming this spring, the Big Bird head was wheeled upright on a dolly as Spinney sat on the stoop. "Bird on the move!" shouted senior muppet wrangler Michelle Hickey as she pushed it up a ramp.

She pulled the bird off the dolly and put a hand in Big Bird's slack mouth as Spinney, sitting on the stoop, held up his right arm to put it on. As Big Bird's face came to life, another puppeteer, hiding behind a pile of books, acted as Spinney's right-hand man, working Big Bird's right arm as well as a monofilament controlling the left arm.

A question came from the crew: "How's the kid placement?" It was fine.

"And the count is to Big Bird," the floor manager said. The scene began with Big Bird asking two children whether they'd like to hear a story.

When Big Bird and Oscar appear in the same scene, Spinney pre-records Oscar's voice, then act the scene as Big Bird while someone else puppeteers Oscar.

Spinney says he modeled Oscar on the Bronx taxi driver who drove him to the old Muppet Mansion the first day he played the character, greeting him with a gruff, "Where to, Mac?" In Spinney's mind, Oscar is 43.

When the Big Bird costume is not in use, it's stored in a crate about 10 feet high. A muppet wrangler smooths Big Bird's feathers when they get ruffled and hand-glues replacements if they get crunched.

The feathers arrive from supplier American Plume & Fancy Feather Co. in New York's garment district on boas, dyed two colors of yellow. The muppet wranglers grade them, A through D. Only A and B-plus feathers are applied to Big Bird's head and neck.

"I'm still using the head we started with," Spinney said. "He's had face lifts." He estimates Big Bird has been through four bodies. Oscar still has his original eyebrows.

A muppet wrangler also travels with Big Bird when he's on the road. The body of the costume is shipped in two crates; the head travels in a separate box.

"My worst fear is that we take off and I would see the boxes lying on the tarmac," Hickey said.

After seven years of working with Spinney, Hickey described him as having "the heart of Big Bird and a teeny bit of Oscar."

Elizabeth Fernandez, 20, started working at Sesame Street as an intern in the research department and is now an assistant talent coordinator, working with the children who appear on the show, while she finishes college at night.

"People here are so encouraging about going to school, getting your master's degree," she said. "There's room to move up; a lot of people started as interns."

"It really is Sesame Street."

'Big Bird' costume creator Kermit Love dies at 91
The Associated Press

POUGHKEEPSIE, N.Y. (AP) -- Kermit Love, the costume designer who helped puppeteer Jim Henson create Big Bird and other "Sesame Street" characters, has died. He was 91.

Love died from congestive heart failure Saturday in Poughkeepsie, near his home in Stanfordville, Love's longtime partner, Christopher Lyall, told The New York Times.

In addition to his work with Henson, Love was a designer for some of ballet's most prominent choreographers, including Twyla Tharp, Agnes de Mille, Jerome Robbins and George Balanchine.

Love also designed costumes and puppets for film and advertising, including the Snuggle bear from the fabric softener commercials.

"Sesame Street," public television's groundbreaking effort to use TV to teach preschoolers, premiered in 1969. Henson designed the original sketches of Big Bird, and Love then built the 8-foot, 2-inch yellow-feathered costume.

It was Love's idea to add a few feathers designed to fall off, to create a more realistic feel.

"The most important thing about puppets is that they must project their imagination, and then the audience must open their eyes and imagine," he told The New York Times in 1981.

Love also helped design costumes and puppets for Mr. Snuffleupagus, Oscar the Grouch and Cookie Monster, among other characters. He even appeared on the show himself as Willy, the fantasy neighborhood's resident hot dog vendor.

But Love always insisted Henson's famous frog wasn't named for him, according to The New York Times.

Caroll Spinney, who has played Big Bird since "Sesame Street" began, said he knew Love was gravely ill but didn't know he'd died until Tuesday.

"Kermit was definitely a totally unique person," 74-year-old Spinney said. "He looked very much like Santa Claus but was a little bit more like the Grinch."

In addition to designing the Big Bird costume, he added, "Kermit really helped me with dramatic coaching, and he was wonderful at that."

Born in 1916, Love began making puppets for a federal Works Progress Administration theater in 1935. He also designed costumes for Orson Welles' Mercury Theater. From there he began working with the New York City Ballet's costumer.

In his 2003 book, "The Wisdom of Big Bird (and the Dark Genius of Oscar the Grouch): Lessons From a Life in Feathers," Spinney recalled that after a year on "Sesame Street," he felt he couldn't live in New York on his salary.

Love told him to give it a month; the next week, Big Bird was on the cover of Time magazine and Spinney couldn't imagine leaving.

Maryland attic holds 400 years of documents
Papers provide a firsthand account of life from the 1660s through WWII
The Associated Press

Documents that date back to the 1800s were recently discovered in this room in Centreville, Md. The papers come from several generations of the Emory family, who settled on a land grant from Lord Baltimore in the 1660s.
Jamie C. Horton / AP

CENTREVILLE, Md. - For four centuries, they were the ultimate pack rats. Now a Maryland family's massive collection of letters, maps and printed bills has surfaced in the attic of a former plantation, providing a firsthand account of life from the 1660s through World War II.

"Historians are used to dealing with political records and military documents," said Adam Goodheart, a history professor at nearby Washington College. "But what they aren't used to is political letters and military documents kept right alongside bills for laundry or directions for building a washing machine."

Goodheart is working with state archivists and a crew of four student interns to collect the documents, which were found stuffed into boxes, barrels and peach baskets.

"Look at this: 'Negro woman, Sarah, about 27 years old, $25,'" Goodheart says, reading from a 19th century inventory. "It was as though this family never threw away a scrap of paper."

The documents include maps, letters, financial records, political posters, even a lock of hair from a letter dated Valentine's Day, 1801. There's a love poem from the 1830s (in which a young man graphically tells his sweetheart what he'd do if he sneaked into her room on a winter's night), along with war accounts and bills of sale from slaves and crops.

Several generations of papers
The papers come from several generations of the Emory family, prominent tobacco and wheat farmers who settled here on a land grant from Lord Baltimore in the 1660s.

The former Poplar Grove plantation is still in family hands, though the mansion now is used only as a hunting lodge. The documents were moldering in an attic until students touring the house started sorting through them this spring.

"I don't believe any of us knew these papers were there," said Mary Wood, an Emory cousin whose son inherited the plantation in 1998. "We didn't go there all that often, and when you do, you don't go up in people's attics and look around."

Washington College has had access to the plantation for years, but Goodheart said he assumed the papers in the attic weren't old or important.

They aren't in any particular order, and some are mouse-eaten tatters that look like something out of "The Da Vinci Code."

"You really get a sense of the range of America through these papers," said Edward Papenfuse, director of the Maryland State Archives, which will eventually house them.

Divided feelings about slavery
Perhaps most strikingly, letters tell of a family's torn allegiances during the Civil War. The Emorys lived on Maryland's Eastern Shore, across Chesapeake Bay from Baltimore, where the plantation economy of the South ended and the abolitionist industrial North began.

It was a conflict the Emorys catalogued, anti-slavery petitions stacked alongside records of slaves sent to Natchez, Miss., and a packet of letters, still tied in silk ribbon, titled, "Correspondence with W.H. Emory and wife in regard to his resignation from U.S. Army, 1861."

The Emorys owned slaves, but some signed an 1832 petition to the Maryland legislature calling for the gradual eradication of slavery.

One family member, William H. Emory, was a colonel in the U.S. Army when the Civil War began. He wrote out a resignation of his post, then changed his mind and fought for the Union.

Two sons also fought in the Civil War — one for the Union, one for the Confederacy. Bundles of letters from all family members detail their divided feelings. The family kept not just personal letters, but political posters about the conflict.

"These are things that usually do not survive," Papenfuse said, pointing to a broadside blasting then-President Martin Van Buren for favoring voting rights for "every free negro." "After the heat of a campaign, this printed matter was thrown out or put to other uses, including the outhouse."

Not so at the Emory house, where even small scraps of paper were kept alongside military uniforms and other family heirlooms.

The collection also includes notes on an aspect of slavery historians know little about: the practice of renting slave labor to neighbors and plantations farther south.

"Scholars have not paid a great deal of attention to it, but this is something that helps recreate and draw back together the lives of these people who were considered chattel," Papenfuse said.

Relatives are also curious to know what historians find.

"I can't believe they didn't throw this stuff out," Wood said with a chuckle. "I mean, it's kind of weird. It's fascinating, though. I can't believe that something might come out of it."

Animal shelter mistakenly euthanizes family pet
Worker misread card on kennel where dog was being held in quarantine
The Associated Press

VIENNA TOWNSHIP, Michigan - The nearly 2-year-old black lab escaped from home and bit a woman.

But Junior's punishment wasn't supposed to be a death sentence.

Animal Control officials in Michigan have apologized to Anette Hetzer for accidentally euthanizing her dog last week. The dog had been quarantined at the county's animal shelter to observe for signs of rabies after he escaped from Hetzer's home north of Flint on June 9 and bit the woman. Hetzer's husband received a ticket for a leash law violation.

"He was the sweetest dog," Hetzer told The Flint Journal for a story published Wednesday. "It doesn't seem right. This was a family dog — almost like a family member. ... He shouldn't have died like that."

Animal Control interim director Mary Conaton said the dog's death was caused when a worker misread a card on Junior's cage and took the wrong animal for the lethal injection.

The county's Board of Commissioners is working on recommendations for changes at the shelter, which include updating the animal tracking system.

Hetzer said the hardest part is explaining the loss to her 2-year-old son.

"He is really heartbroken," she said. "He wants his dog to come home."

'X-Men' frogs sprout claws on demand
At least 11 species of African frogs can puncture own skin with sharp bones
By Maggie Fox

David C. Blackburn
Predators beware! A close-up of the foot of a living Trichobatrachus robustus showing the white bony claws protruding from the tips of the toes.

WASHINGTON - At least 11 species of African frogs carry a built-in concealed weapon — they can sprout claws on demand to fight off attackers, U.S. researchers reported on Monday.

When threatened, the frogs can puncture their own skin with sharp bones in their toes that they then use to claw their attackers, David Blackburn and colleagues at Harvard University reported.

"It's surprising enough to find a frog with claws," Blackburn, a graduate student, said in a statement.

"The fact that those claws work by cutting through the skin of the frogs' feet is even more astonishing. These are the only vertebrate claws known to pierce their way to functionality."

David C. Blackburn
You don't mess with the Astylosternus perreti, one of the frog species with the bony claws.

Blackburn became aware of the frogs when one scratched him in Cameroon.

He looked at museum specimens of 63 African frog species. In 11 central African species the bones at the ends of the toes were pointed and hooked, with smaller, free-floating bones at their tips.

"These nodules are also closely connected to the surrounding skin by dense networks of collagen," Blackburn said. "It appears they hold the skin in place relative to these claw-like bones, such that when the frog flexes a certain muscle in the foot, the sharp bone separates from the nodule and bursts through the skin."

While the finding is new to science, it is not news to locals. "Cameroonian hunters will use long spears or machetes to avoid touching these frogs," Blackburn said. "Some have even reported shooting the frogs."

David C. Blackburn
In this close-up image of the skeleton of a frog claw, the bones are stained red and the sheath suspending the small bony nodule is somewhat blue.

For their part, the frogs probably use this defense rarely, Blackburn said.

"We suspect, since the frog does suffer a fairly traumatic wound, that they probably use these claws infrequently, and only when threatened," he said.

"Most vertebrates do a much better job of keeping their skeletons inside," he added.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Is everything spinning out of control?
Can-do, bootstrap approach embedded in American psyche is under assault
The Associated Press

WASHINGTON - Is everything spinning out of control? Midwestern levees are bursting. Polar bears are adrift. Gas prices are skyrocketing. Home values are abysmal. Air fares, college tuition and health care border on unaffordable. Wars without end rage in Iraq, Afghanistan and against terrorism.

Horatio Alger, twist in your grave.

The can-do, bootstrap approach embedded in the American psyche is under assault. Eroding it is a dour powerlessness that is chipping away at the country's sturdy conviction that destiny can be commanded with sheer courage and perseverance.

The sense of helplessness is even reflected in this year's presidential election. Each contender offers a sense of order — and hope. Republican John McCain promises an experienced hand in a frightening time. Democrat Barack Obama promises bright and shiny change, and his large crowds believe his exhortation, "Yes, we can."

Onslaught of dispiriting things
Even so, a battered public seems discouraged by the onslaught of dispiriting things. An Associated Press-Ipsos poll says a barrel-scraping 17 percent of people surveyed believe the country is moving in the right direction. That is the lowest reading since the survey began in 2003.

An ABC News-Washington Post survey put that figure at 14 percent, tying the low in more than three decades of taking soundings on the national mood.

"It is pretty scary," said Charles Truxal, 64, a retired corporate manager in Rochester, Minn. "People are thinking things are going to get better, and they haven't been. And then you go hide in your basement because tornadoes are coming through. If you think about things, you have very little power to make it change."

Recent natural disasters around the world dwarf anything afflicting the U.S. Consider that more than 69,000 people died in the China earthquake, and that 78,000 were killed and 56,000 missing from the Myanmar cyclone.

Americans need do no more than check the weather, look in their wallets or turn on the news for their daily reality check on a world gone haywire.

Floods engulf Midwestern river towns. Is it global warming, the gradual degradation of a planet's weather that man seems powerless to stop or just a freakish late-spring deluge?

It hardly matters to those in the path. Just ask the people of New Orleans who survived Hurricane Katrina. They are living in a city where, 1,000 days after the storm, entire neighborhoods remain abandoned, a national embarrassment that evokes disbelief from visitors.

Food is becoming scarcer and more expensive on a worldwide scale, due to increased consumption in growing countries such as China and India and rising fuel costs. That can-do solution to energy needs — turning corn into fuel — is sapping fields of plenty once devoted to crops that people need to eat. Shortages have sparked riots. In the U.S., rice prices tripled and some stores rationed the staple.

Residents of the nation's capital and its suburbs repeatedly lose power for extended periods as mere thunderstorms rumble through. In California, leaders warn people to use less water in the unrelenting drought.

Want to get away from it all? The weak U.S. dollar makes travel abroad forbiddingly expensive. To add insult to injury, some airlines now charge to check luggage.

Want to escape on the couch? A writers' strike halted favorite TV shows for half a season. The newspaper on the table may soon be a relic of the Internet age. Just as video stores are falling by the wayside as people get their movies online or in the mail.

But there's always sports, right?
But there's always sports, right? The moorings seem to be coming loose here, too.

Baseball stars Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens stand accused of enhancing their heroics with drugs. Basketball referees are suspected of cheating.

Stay tuned for less than pristine tales from the drug-addled Tour de France and who knows what from the Summer Olympics.

It's not the first time Americans have felt a loss of control.

Alger, the dime-novel author whose heroes overcame adversity to gain riches and fame, played to similar anxieties when the U.S. was becoming an industrial society in the late 1800s.

American University historian Allan J. Lichtman notes that the U.S. has endured comparable periods and worse, including the economic stagflation (stagnant growth combined with inflation) and Iran hostage crisis of 1980; the dawn of the Cold War, the Korean War and the hysterical hunts for domestic Communists in the late 1940s and early 1950s; and the Depression of the 1930s.

"All those periods were followed by much more optimistic periods in which the American people had their confidence restored," he said. "Of course, that doesn't mean it will happen again."

Each period also was followed by a change in the party controlling the White House.

This period has seen intense interest in the presidential primaries, especially the Democrats' five-month duel between Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton. Records were shattered by voters showing up at polling places, yearning for a voice in who will next guide the country as it confronts the uncontrollable.

Never mind that their views of their current leaders are near rock bottom, reflecting a frustration with Washington's inability to solve anything. President Bush barely gets the approval of three in 10 people, and it's even worse for the Democratic-led Congress.

Why the vulnerability? After all, this is the 21st century, not a more primitive past when little in life was assured. Surely people know how to fix problems now.

Maybe. And maybe this is what the 21st century will be about — a great unraveling of some things long taken for granted.

Monday, June 23, 2008

How 'Judge not' is destroying America
By Brannon Howse
Posted: May 14, 2005
1:00 am Eastern

Tolerance mongers seem to have found the one absolute truth they are willing to live by. How many times have you heard someone say, "Judge not lest you be judged"? The statement has become the great American open-mindedness mantra when anyone has the courage to declare that someone else's belief, actions or lifestyle is morally amiss.

Another form of the same non-judgmental judgment is "that may be true for you, but it's not true for me." The logic behind the statement goes something like this: "Your truth is your truth and my truth is my truth. We are both right, and I hold to my opinion of truth." The last time I checked, it was impossible for two chairs to occupy the same space around my dining room table, but evidently such rules of time, space and logic don't apply to tolerance philosophy.

Postmodernism's live-and-let-live concept of truth argues that even two opposite and wholly contradictory claims can both be true. This is as stupid as saying that black and white are the same color. Yet, it clarifies the absurdity of the postmodernism we are all supposed to blithely accept as the fundamental principle by which we respond to each other's ideas – the "please and thank-you" of philosophical respect.

So beware. If you dare claim that another person's truth is not, in fact, truth but is, in fact, wrong, you are not only being intolerant but you are also being – Mantra forbid! – judgmental.

In his book "True for You, But Not for Me," Paul Copan describes the fallacy in this all too common thinking:
It has been said that the most frequently quoted Bible verse is no longer John 3:16 but Matthew 7:1: "Do not judge, or you too will be judged." We cannot glibly quote this, though, without understanding what Jesus meant. When Jesus condemned judging, he wasn't at all implying we should never make judgments about anyone. After all, a few verses later, Jesus himself calls certain people "pigs" and "dogs" (Matt 7:6) and "wolves in sheep's clothing" (7:15). … What Jesus condemns is a critical and judgmental spirit, an unholy sense of superiority. Jesus commanded us to examine ourselves first for the problems we so easily see in others. Only then can we help remove the speck in another's eye – which, incidentally, assumes that a problem exists and must be confronted.
Those that tell you not to judge, quoting Matthew 7:1 grossly out of context, are often some of the most mean-spirited, judgmental souls you could ever meet. It's not, of course, that they don't want anyone to judge anything, because they want very much to judge and condemn your commitment to lovingly speak and practice your Christian worldview. You see how these tolerance rules work? We must tolerate them, but they don't have to tolerate us. The logic is consistent, anyway.

Today's postmodern culture of adults and students is so consumed by non-judgmentalism that there are some who say we should not even call wrong or evil the terrorists that attacked America on Sept. 11, 2001. In a Time magazine essay entitled "God Is Not on My Side. Or Yours," Roger Rosenblatt offers the philosophical underpinnings of the live-and-let-live rule for global terrorism:
One would like to think that God is on our side against the terrorists, because the terrorists are wrong and we are in the right, and any deity worth his salt would be able to discern that objective truth. But this is simply good-hearted arrogance cloaked in morality – the same kind of thinking that makes people decide that God created humans in his own image. The God worth worshipping is the one who pays us the compliment of self-regulation, and we might return it by minding our own business.
At least the "arrogance" of recognizing the difference between right and wrong is "good-hearted," even if the reactions to it aren't. Alison Hornstein, for instance, is a student at Yale University who observed the disconnect between tolerance and reality. Writing on "The Question That We Should Be Asking – Is Terrorism Wrong?" in the Dec. 17, 2001, issue of Newsweek, Alison noted, "My generation may be culturally sensitive, but we hesitate to make moral judgments." While that might be putting it mildly, she goes on to say:
Student reactions expressed in the daily newspaper and in class pointed to the differences between our life circumstances and those of the [9-11] perpetrators, suggesting that these differences had caused the previous day's events. Noticeably absent was a general outcry of indignation at what had been the most successful terrorist attack of our lifetime. These reactions and similar ones on other campuses have made it apparent that my generation is uncomfortable assessing, or even asking whether a moral wrong has taken place.
Hornstein further describes how on Sept. 12th – one day after Islamic extremists murdered more than 3,000 people on American soil – one of her professors "did not see much difference between Hamas suicide bombers and American soldiers who died fighting in World War II. When I saw one or two students nodding in agreement, I raised my hand. …. American soldiers, in uniform, did not have a policy of specifically targeting civilians; suicide bombers, who wear plainclothes, do. The professor didn't call on me. The people who did get a chance to speak cited various provocations for terrorism; not one of them questioned its morality."

If Americans don't start to judge and punish evil instead of accepting all ideas and beliefs as equal, we will become a nation that welcomes same-sex marriage, polygamy, pedophilia, incest, euthanasia and likely a host of moral aberrations so bizarre they're still hidden in the darkest reaches of the Internet.

I wish I had a dollar for every time I heard someone say, "you know we are not to judge people; even the Bible says 'judge not lest you be judged.'" Americans had better start getting comfortable with politically incorrect, non-humanistic forms of making intelligent judgments on moral issues because even if we don't make them, I'm concerned there is Someone very willing to hold our nation accountable for what we allow. And He doesn't respond well to intimidation, name-calling, flawed logic or being quoted out of context.