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Thursday, April 13, 2006

Leftwing media day!

Today’s a great day, everyone!  No, it’s not because David Horowitz is comin’ to town and you’d better be good for goodness’ sake.  It’s Jamie’s Special Olympics track-and-field day!  Surely you remember last year’s debut, in which Jamie ran his first-ever 50m in 14.82 seconds.

We’re looking to shave at least a second off that time this year.  I’m bringing the digital camera and will be sure to let you know!

Now, as for matters Horowitzian.  Yes, it will be a day full of cognitive dissonance, but that’s just fine with me.  We’re Cognitive Dissonance Central around here.  At 5:15 today, the good folks at Radio Free Penn State are having me back, this time for a 45-minute conversation with Professor of Education David Warren Saxe.  Then at 6:30 this evening, I’m taking part in a Celebration of Horowitz on the steps of the Penn State library.  It should be fun!  My float is almost done.  Thanks to everyone who stopped by and helped with the carnations!

As for the Great Man Himself: in honor of his visit to my fair campus, I am not going to say anything to discredit him on this blog today.  Instead, I will let David do the job himself.

For you might imagine that David Horowitz would be feeling pretty good about things.  His book is national news, available in thousands upon thousands of bookstores from coast to coast, even in airports.  He has just concluded a rollicking conference in which he picked up the support of people like Lamar Alexander and new House Majority Leader John Boehner.  He’s been on Hannity & Colmes at least half a dozen times in recent weeks, as well as the Tucker Carlson and Joe Scarborough shows.  He’s testified to Pennsylvania’s subcommittee on academic freedom and written about the experience in the Los Angeles Times.  Is he pleased with all the attention?  Is he happy about how conservative media have been the wind beneath his wings?

Um, no.

Here’s his blog post from this Sunday, April 9:

Getting my message out is harder than you think. The media work off the talking points of the teacher unions. And so far I am getting virtually no help at all from the conservative press (Human Events and the Washington Times excepted) or from conservative websites.

The poor dear!  Walking around the country with nothing but a hand-lettered sandwich board, David Horowitz is getting virtually no help at all in getting his message out.

For who can underestimate the power of the teachers’ unions to dictate their agenda to the mass media?  Remember when American Federation of Teachers president Edward J. McElroy advised the Bush Administration that the United States would be “greeted as liberators” if we invaded Iraq, and the Washington Post, ever the AFT lapdog, promptly fell in line behind the invasion?  And who can forget the machinations of the National Education Association, whose press liaisons worked together with Judith Miller of the New York Times to spread the news that Valerie Plame was an undercover CIA agent and that Iraq was only minutes away from deploying weapons of mass destruction? 

It’s true, David Horowitz appeared on Fox News.  But even there, he was hounded and persecuted:

Those who saw the Hannity & Colmes segment may have noted that Colmes accused me of promoting legislation in Ohio that would give the state power over education and restrict professors’ speech. This is standard fare for the leftwing media (and for libertarian media like Reason and the Wall Stret Journal).

Well, it’s true, Horowitz has no Stret Creed with the Wall Stret Journal.  Unhinged as the WSJ can be when it comes to Clintonistan, they tend to let the Michael Savage / David Horowitz wing of the party operate on a different frequency.  And as for Fox News, what can you expect from leftwing media?  They have that powerful Alan Colmes, who dares to suggest that David Horowitz’s Academic Bill of Rights was sponsored in Ohio by state senator Larry Mumper, who famously said that universities should stay out of “religion and politics.” Suggesting that the Ohio bill have restricted professors’ speech is just standard fare for the loony left.  And, as Horowitz notes,

It is also false. I have no legislation in Ohio that would do any such thing. I had legislation in the form of a resolution which would not have restricted professor’’s speech or introduced any statutory requirements. But the legislators who sponsored the resolution agreed to withdraw it (with my blessing) when Ohio’s universities agreed to institute academic freedom reforms that will protect students from political discrimination and encourage intellectual diversity.

Despite these facts which are irrefutable the campaign of lies against my efforts continues; leftwing operatives feed journalists and talk show anchors like Alan with these lies and they repeat them. This campaign is complimented by a ferocious campaign of slander to portray me as a liar and my facts as unreliable. (See dangerousprofessors.com for some of these attacks.) This pincer movement couldn’t be more diabolical or unprincipled.  And is aided by the silence of the conservative media which—with the exceptions mentioned above—has yet to come to my defense.


Hmmm.  Narcissistic personality disorder much?  Why, he doesn’t even thank Pat Robertson for all his help in rooting out leftist campus killers. You know, maybe conservative media should think twice about promoting this guy.  He sounds kinda whining and ungrateful, don’t you think?  And kinda pathetic, even.

THUGGERY UPDATE, April 14:  Ralph Luker, ordinarily a wonderful blogger, agrees that I am “thug-like” when I criticize his hero, KC Johnson.  You know KC—he’s the fellow who wrote on Campus Watch, “the Chronicle of Higher Education published an essay by Penn State English professor Michael Bérubé advising professors to treat conservative students as they would students with learning disabilities or who exhibited aberrant behavior.” That was over a year ago. When KC has the intellectual honesty or the common human decency to retract or apologize for that remark, we’ll consider him something other than a Horowitz protégé.  (Actually, Horowitz has done some serious hatchet work on my essays, as you know.  But even he’s never gone quite that far.)

Posted by Michael on 04/13 at 08:52 AM
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Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Thug life

A number of readers have written to ask me how I feel about David Horowitz calling me a “thug” on yesterday’s radio show.  Well, if I thought for a moment that David knew what he was talking about, I would be mightily pleased with myself: if, by the end of the year, I can get Ann Coulter calling me a maniac and Tom DeLay calling me a crook, I’ll have hit the trifecta.  But, alas, He Who Shall Not Be Designated By His First Initial and a Drastic Truncation of His Surname probably doesn’t deserve that much credit.  Veteran readers of U. No.’s work know that he is prone to making embarrassing “mistakes” regarding things like “accurate” “quotes” and “actual” “facts,” so I’m inclined, in this case, to believe that the poor old man has me confused with this guy.

Besides, today is Disability Studies day!  I’m off to teach my seminar.  Here’s a snippet from one of last week’s readings.  Hey, Andrew Sullivan—this would be a good day for you to stop by my humble blog and do some readin’.  From Steven Jay Gould’s The Mismeasure of Man, two quick tunes.  A one:

The difference between strict hereditarians and their opponents is not, as some caricatures suggest, the belief that a child’s performance is all inborn or all a function of environment and learning.  I doubt that the most committed antihereditarians have ever denied the existence of innate variation among children.  The differences are more a matter of social policy and educational practice.  Hereditarians view their measures of intelligence as markers of permanent, inborn limits.  Children, so labeled, should be sorted, trained according to their inheritance and channeled into professions appropriate for their biology.  Mental testing becomes a theory of limits.  Antihereditarians, like [Alfred] Binet, test in order to identify and help.  Without denying the evident fact that not all children, whatever their training, will enter the company of Newton and Einstein, they emphasize the power of creative education to increase the achievements of all children, often in extensive and unanticipated ways.  Mental testing becomes a theory for enhancing potential through proper education.  (182-83)

And a two (remember, this little gem goes all the way back to 1981):

I have said little about the current resurgence of biological determinism because its individual claims are usually so ephemeral that their refutation belongs in a magazine article or newspaper story.  Who even remembers the hot topics of ten years ago: Shockley’s proposals for reimbursing voluntarily sterilized individuals according to their number of IQ points below 100, the great XYY debate, or the attempt to explain urban riots by diseased neurology of rioters.  I thought that it would be more valuable and interesting to examine the original sources of the arguments that still surround us.  These, at least, display great and enlightening errors.  But I was inspired to write this book because biological determinism is rising in popularity again, as it always does in times of political retrenchment.  The cocktail party circuit has been buzzing with its usual profundity about innate aggression, sex roles, and the naked ape.  Millions of people are now suspecting that their social prejudices are scientific facts after all.  Yet these latent prejudices themselves, not fresh data, are the primary source of renewed attention.

We pass through this world but once.  Few tragedies can be more extensive than the stunting of life, few injustices deeper than the denial of an opportunity to strive or even to hope, by a limit imposed from without, but falsely identified as lying within.  (60-61)

Golly, that Gould could write, couldn’t he?  I wonder why The New Republic didn’t do more to promote his work in the 1990s.


THUG LIFE UPDATE:  Hey, kids, David Horowitz is at it again!  David’s froth-a-lot response to my op-ed has just appeared today, and contains a extra special bonus piece of stupidity, this one assisted by his ethically-challenged friend Art Eckstein:

Professor Berube himself has written that the notorious article by professors Mearsheimer and Walt, which blames the Jews for the war on terror and the Jewish lobby for controlling American foreign policy and the American media—a sort of contemporary version of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion—“has many virtues.”

I have?  Jeez, when did I write that?  I haven’t even read the Mearsheimer / Walt article!  Ah, here’s the answer:  I wrote a brief reply to Scott Jaschik’s Inside Higher Ed article about the Mearsheimer / Walt article.  Within a few hours of the appearance of Jaschik’s article on the morning of March 27, my dear friend KC Johnson showed up to bash the AAUP off-topic.  Here’s my reply to KC, in full:

I see that KC Johnson, as ever, wastes no time going after the AAUP, despite the many virtues of this article and despite Roger Bowen’s judicious remark about the blinders of scholars who are too ideologically entrenched on one side or another of the Israel-Palestine question. Reasonable people might remember that the AAUP opposed the AUT’s foolish boycott of Israeli scholars, but not our KC. He’s a culture warrior through and through, and doesn’t miss a single opportunity to rehearse a right-wing talking point. Those blinders must work pretty well.

KC, in return, responded with the sagacity that is his trademark:

I confess, Michael Bérubé has exposed me: I’m a pro-gay marriage, pro-choice, pro-Hillary Clinton “right-winger.” We’re a very large group. (I wasn’t aware, by the way, that sympathy for Israel was considered a “right-wing” position as well.)

Right on point, KC!  And then along came Art Eckstein with this stupefyingly dishonest comment:

Professor Berube finds that the Walt and Mearsheimer paper has “many virtues”. But Dennis Ross (Clinton’s leading Mideast negotiator) indicate it is the work of ignoramuses. But of course Ross is Jewish, Professor Berube—and you may have noticed that there are several folks on this blog, siding with you, who will therefore automatically discount it. You ought to think seriously about the company you’re keeping. . . .  That Professor Berube finds “many virtues” in a paper that rebirths The Protocols of the Elders of Zion is a stunning statement—he should be ashamed of himself. Or, perhaps he should re-examine some of his assumptions.

And thence from Art Eckstein back to his friend David Horowitz, I am now an anti-Semite!  That’s how the smear factory works, folks!

But regular readers of this blog know what kind of shabby game Art is playing here:  he’s played it before, on this very blog, in fact.  He shows up and pretends not to know what the referent of “this” is (or worse, he actually doesn’t know, in which case one has to wonder how in the world he ever got a job in a university).  In this case, of course, he takes my praise for Scott Jaschik’s article (to which I referred, in a comment on Scott Jaschik’s article, as “this article"), and pretends that it is praise for the Mearsheimer / Walt article.

Eckstein should be ashamed of himself—for being incompetent, or for being something worse (we’ll leave that call up to him).  As for Horowitz, asking him to display shame about a claim like this (and by “this” we mean “this little stunt to which this here hyperlink refers") is like asking him to display some ordinary human decency.  Don’t worry!  We know better than to waste our time.

Posted by Michael on 04/12 at 08:52 AM
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Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Just for the record

Jamie’s been sick the past few days, and I’ve got whatever he’s got, so we’re home and coughing and moping with each other.  I plan to rally by 5 pm today for my radio date, of course, but I can’t manage any serious blogging. . . .

Hey, wait a minute!  Did I say “rally”?


That reminds me of something!  Remember Ahnuld’s speech at the GOP convention in New York?  I do!  In fact, I remember reporting on it for this very blog, in my first experiment with liveblogging:

And then the highlight of the night, the man we all came to see, Arnold Schwarzenegger.  Schwarzenegger spells “diversity.” For while the Democrats think Hollywood is the heart and soul of America, Republicans know that the heart and soul of America is someplace else, like a small town in a swing state, or in a quiet, modest house in the country where immigrants are working hard to better themselves by farming the land or pumping iron or something.  Arnold Schwarzenegger symbolizes that heart and soul, having risen from humble immigrant iron-pumping origins to fame and success and announcing his candidacy for governor of California on The Tonight Show—the classic American immigrant’s dream.  And as Arnold put it so eloquently tonight, immigrants don’t have to fear the Republican party—the Republican party loves them.  And they don’t have to agree with everything in the Republican party, like, for example, the part of the party that doesn’t love immigrants at all, because we “can respectfully disagree and still be good Republicans.” Now that’s diversity—and tolerance too!

I believe Ahnuld’s actual words were, “To my fellow immigrants listening tonight, I want you to know how welcome you are in this party. We Republicans admire your ambition.”

So come on in, everyone!  Never mind that guy with the gun and that news channel with the handcuffs.

Posted by Michael on 04/11 at 11:27 AM
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Monday, April 10, 2006

How Horowitz is my valley

That’s right, the Happy Valley is in for a real treat.  David Horowitz is coming to Penn State!  Fresh from his not-very-exciting debate with his long-lost twin, Ward Churchill, Horowitz descends on our fair campus this Thursday.

This is a historic week!  Penn State’s College Republicans are doing their part to augment Horowitz’s half-million-dollar annual income, and campus and local media (including this very blog!) are helping out with the publicity.  Today’s Centre Daily Times features Pittsburgh Tribune-Review resident wingnut Bill Steigerwald’s 1300-word interview with David Horowitz, in which he fulminates about how the “Democrat party” has “lurched far to the left” and talks a lot about his unhealthy obsession of the week (don’t ask).  The CDT very graciously gave me space for a 650-word essay on Horowitz, and you can read it right here.  (About Steigerwald interviewing Horowitz: when one employee of far-right billionaire Richard Mellon Scaife interviews another, do they “kick up” to the boss?  ‘Cause I think they should.)

Somehow, a week or two ago, Mr. H. discovered that the CDT was going to run a little piece by me, and he wrote to the paper to congratulate them on their ecumenical spirit.  “That’s the kind of journalism we need to see in this country,” Horowitz wrote.  “Free and open exchange, healthy debate—just like the debate I want to inspire on college campuses.”

Fooled you!  Horowitz said no such thing.  On the contrary, when he found out that I had written something for my local paper, he simply lost it, going on one of his characteristically unhinged rants about bias this and IslamoCommunist terrorist that.  And if you’ve been following the sorry saga of Horowitz’s long decline, you know how he responds when someone points out that his new book is full of jawdropping stupidities and boneheaded errors: he whines about being “attacked.”

The latest development is this: on my way through the Cincinnati airport last month, I picked up a copy of The Professors and learned that David (or one of his employees) had, indeed, updated the “Discover the Networks” entry on me.  Even though I didn’t think it was humanly possible, they had made their discussion of my work even dumber.  In their online version, they had merely missed the point of my essay, “Teaching Postmodern Fiction Without Being Sure that the Genre Exists,” in which I suggested that most of the fiction being written today isn’t postmodern, and that postmodernist experimentalism resembles modernist experimentalism more than it resembles anything else.  As you’ll recall, the sorry old fraud had tried to claim that I advocate “teaching literature so as to bring about ‘economic transformations.’” His evidence for this was a sentence in which I wrote, “The important question for cultural critics, then, is also an old question—how to correlate developments in culture and the arts with large-scale economic transformations.” Competent readers understand that I’m asking for accounts of postmodernity to be grounded in empirical fact rather than in the claim that Pynchon is 20 percent more indeterminate than Joyce.  But David, by contrast, has since gone on record affirming that he does, in fact, believe that “correlate” means “bring about.” And mirabile dictu, the book version is still worse!  Now he’s accusing me of anti-religious bias.  Why?  Because I called antifoundationalists “sane” and “secular.” Anti-religious bias!  You gotta love it.  As I note in my CDT essay, my anti-religious bias will come as a shock to my Jesuit teachers. . . .

Now, most sane people are aware that if you say X is sane, you have not thereby said that all non-X is insane.  Here, however, Horowitz mounts a powerful challenge to the sane/insane binary, just as he did in his recent appearance on The 700 Club with Pat Robertson, when he accused college professors of being “killers.”

As for David’s whining that I have “attacked” him by pointing this out, all I can say is that it’s kinda pathetic.  Crybaby pathetic.  I’m talking National Wuss League material.  Here’s a guy who goes around saying truly unhinged, anti-American things, like claiming that my “entire political focus since 9/11 has been in getting our terrorist enemies off the hook,” and when I calmly call him on a couple of his many lies and inaccuracies, he cries and screams and writes Very Angry E-Mails.  And that’s one reason why reasonably intelligent conservatives—and conservatives with some measure of cojones and self-respect—think of David Horowitz as 700 Club material.  That’s kinda pathetic, too, when you remember that Horowitz actually wants to be thought of as an “intellectual.”

Well, the rest of the week should be action-packed.  Tomorrow afternoon at 5 pm, I’ll be a guest on Radio Free Penn State, Lion Radio, WKPS 90.7 FM, and they’ll have Horowitz by phone.  Sam Richards, Penn State’s other Dangerous Professor, will join us at 5:30.  What about the main event on Thursday, you ask?  Well, back on March 31, I’d read in the Centre Daily Times that one of the leaders of the College Republicans “said she is planning to invite Berube and Richards to appear with Horowitz,” but last Friday all I got was a personal invitation to attend Horowitz’s talk.  I guess that counts as “appearing” with him, in the sense that people who sing along with “Positively Fourth Street” on the radio can say that they once sang with Bob Dylan.  Ah, well, life goes on.  I might still go . . . though I have to say that the hockey lineup for the night of April 13 is pretty tempting.  There are thirteen (!) games that night, including Flyers-Devils, Avalanche-Flames, and the critical Canucks-Sharks matchup.  So we will see.  Tomorrow night, April 11, a real intellectual comes to town: Salman Rushdie.  Janet and I got an invitation to that one, too.  Now, that’s a serious invitation.

There might be some anti-Horowitz activity this week, though so far as I know, it’s nothing more than a brief press conference.  I’ve advised the local left against doing any anti-Horowitz demonstrations, under the heading, “Horowitz’s Hands, Playing Right Into.” After all, we’re dealing with a guy who declares jihads against individual professors for handing out snarky T-shirts before his lecture and laughing at some of his remarks.  I think we here at Penn State should be careful to treat Horowitz very, very nicely so that he doesn’t get very, very angry.  For my part, I’m hoping to put together a special parade downtown, “A Celebration of Horowitz,” but I’m not sure I’ll be finished with my float—a 25-foot trailer depicting Horowitz’s service to the Black Panthers—by Thursday afternoon.  If anyone in central Pennsylvania can stop by and give me a hand with the Huey Newton I’m sculpting out of carnations, I’d really appreciate it.

Oh, speaking of Horowitz and black folk.  The publicity for his Thursday afternoon book signing at the Penn State bookstore lists him as “a nationally known author and lifelong civil rights activist.” Yes, I know it’s boilerplate.  Michael Jackson insisted that he be referred to as “the King of Pop,” Kim Jong Il goes by “Beloved Leader,” and David Horowitz demands that he be hailed as “a lifelong civil rights activist.” But since David has just seen fit to publish on FrontPage.com this inconceivably vile attack on the woman who was allegedly raped by members of Duke’s lacrosse team (the essay refers to her as “a divorced, 27-year-old ‘mother’ of two”—love those scare quotes!—and argues that “the story, as reported in the papers, indicates either profound social retardation on the part of the black ‘dancer,’ or else irrationality on the part of racist-oriented reporters”), you have to wonder whether this is a good time for poor old David to be touting his civil rights record.

UPDATE:  I just got word that Horowitz cannot manage to be available from 5 to 5:30 tomorrow, and that he will only debate Sam Richards.  You know, I do believe there’s a song about this kind of thing.  One, two, a one two three four. . . .

Posted by Michael on 04/10 at 01:12 PM
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Friday, April 07, 2006

All-hockey Friday

OK, I’m back.  But I’m back only to talk about the hockey playoffs.

And yet this will not be a trivial, prognosticatin’ kind of post in which I predict that the Carolina Hurricanes will meet the Ottawa Senators in the Eastern finals and the Detroit Red Wings will meet the Calgary Flames in the West.  Oh, no.  This will be an in-depth, longitudinal look at the very structure of hockey playoffs since 1967.

For I continue to insist that hockey is humankind’s most perfect sport, with just the right mix of large and small muscle groups, finely-tuned skill and WTF luck, individual and team effort, dazzling finesse and good old-fashioned bone-crunchin’.  But when it comes to talking about the actually existing NHL, I have to admit that organizationally, it’s basically the League of Extraordinarily Stupid Gentlemen.  Last year’s sitdown/ lockout/ clusterschmuck was but the most recent and vivid example at hand, and it reminded me that the last time the NHL had a thrilling, seven-game, fast-skating, trap-free final series like the Flames-Lightning affair of 2004 (that would be in 1993-94, when the New York Rangers made it possible for me and all my kind to die in peace), they decided to celebrate with a lockout then, too. 

But quite apart from the sport’s management troubles, the problem plaguing hockey for many, many years was that its playoff system was the laughingstock of Ye Entire World of Sport.  In part, that was because the league had 21 teams from 1979 to 1991, and 16 of those made the playoffs every year.  Those were the days in which the late Dick Young quipped that if World War II were a hockey season, Poland would have made the playoffs.  And what days they were: in 1979-80, after the World Hockey Association folded and bequeathed four of its franchises to the NHL (Hartford, Quebec, Winnipeg, Edmonton), the NHL went from a stupid system in which 17 teams played 80 games in order to eliminate five franchises from the playoffs to an even more stupid system in which 21 teams played 80 games in order to eliminate five franchises from the playoffs.

Which brings me to the other reason hockey playoffs sucked for many years: the league simply could not figure out a way of seeding playoff teams in such a way as to try to get the best finals possible.  That’s not entirely the league’s fault, of course: as Emile “The Cat” Francis used to say, hockey is a slippery game.  It’s played on ice.  Teams that hover around .500 all year can suddenly get hot in May, and before you know it, they’ve knocked off a couple of rivals who’d outplayed them for eight months, and lo, they are in a conference final.  And as all of us forwards know, goaltenders can lease their souls to Satan—but only for two-week periods, during which time they are unbeatable for just long enough to propel their teams past far more talented contenders (see, e.g., Vanbiesbrouck, John, 1996; Kolzig, Olaf, 1998; Hasek, Dominic, 1999; Giguere, Jean-Sebastien, 2003; Roy, Patrick, passim). 

But still.  The league expanded from six teams to twelve in 1967-68, and—get this—decided to put all the expansion teams in the “Western” division.  Then the top four teams in the East and the West played each other, and the East champion met the West champion in the finals.  Guess what?  From 1968 to 1970, the first three finals series were 4-0 blowouts!  Who could have predicted that?  Finally, in 1970-71, the league had the bright idea of having the Eastern teams meet the West in the second round, and the result was one of the best finals in living memory, the seven-game Chicago-Montreal series in which the Canadiens and Black Hawks won every game on their home ice until Montreal came back from a 2-0 deficit in Chicago in game seven (see my hockey page for a photo of me with the guy who scored the tying and winning goals).  For a while, the playoffs were pretty good.  Boston won a couple of Cups, Philly won a couple, and Montreal won half a dozen.  And then came the WHA merger.

In 1979-80 and 1980-81, the NHL disregarded “divisions” and “conferences” altogether, and simply seeded teams 1 through 16 at the end of the year.  In 1979-80, the 16th team was the Edmonton Oilers, with a record of 28-39-13 for 69 points (to those of you who are unfamiliar with hockey, teams get two points for a win and one for a tie . . . hey, wait a minute!  If you’re unfamiliar with hockey, what are you doing reading down this far?).  At the same time, the divisions themselves didn’t make much sense: the Atlanta Flames had moved to Calgary but remained in the “Patrick” division, which gave you a group consisting of the Philadelphia Flyers, Washington Capitals, New York Islanders, New York Rangers . . . and Calgary.

Now, let’s not forget about Poland.  For me, the legitimacy of a sports league has a great deal to do with the fate of its sub-.500 teams.  It is a measure of the soundness of baseball and football, in this respect, that they’ve never let a team with a losing record sneak into the postseason.  Oh, they’ve flirted with it: a few 8-8 imposters have tiptoed into the NFL wild card, but—until the sorry-ass 2004 St. Louis Rams in the sorry-ass NFC—none had ever gotten past the first round (and the Rams were promptly greeted by the Falcons in the second round, and sent home on the short end of a 47-17 rout).  And who can forget last year’s captivating pennant race in the NL West, as the sickly Padres wrestled mightily with .500 throughout August and September, finally breaking the tape at 82-80 (and wresting from the 1973 Mets, 82-79, the coveted laurel of “worst playoff team evah”)?

Yes, well.  Let’s talk about sickly, shall we?

In 1981-82, the NHL moved to a system in which the top four teams in each division made the playoffs, and the first two rounds of the playoffs consisted of intradivisional series.  That system stayed in place for a decade.  Three divisions had five teams, one had six.  In the Smythe (don’t ask), the Los Angeles Kings made the NHL playoffs with a record of 24-41-15 (63 points).  That’s just wrong.  And what followed was even wronger: they beat the first-place Oilers (48-17-15, 111 points) in a five-game series, winning game one by a surreal score of 10-8.  (Ah, those were the days!  Marcel Dionne had 50 goals for the Kings that year.  Gretzky had 92 for the Oilers.  Last team to score wins!)

You see the problem here.  The Oilers play 80 games in which they dominate their division; Gretzky sets single-season scoring records that will probably never be broken (he added 120 assists for 212 points); and by the end of April, he and his teammates are playing golf.  Meanwhile, the Vancouver Canucks, a scintillating 30-33-17 (77 points) in the regular season, run the suddenly Oilers-less table, going 11-2 in three series and then winding up in one of the most lopsided finals ever, losing to the vastly more talented Islanders in four.

Throughout the decade, the travesties just kept on comin’. In 1984-85, the Rangers (26-44-10) and the Minnesota North Stars (25-43-12) made the playoffs.  (At least the Rangers had the good grace to leave early that year; in 1983 they finished fourth in the division but swept the first-place Flyers in round one.) In 1985-86, the lowly Toronto Maple Leafs finished 25-48-7.  Did they beat the first-place Black Hawks anyway?  Of course they did!  In 1990-91, the lowly Minnesota North Stars finished 27-39-14.  Did they beat the first-place Black Hawks (49-23-8) anyway?  Of course they did!  In fact, they went to the finals that year.  Go figure.  But by June they had learned how to play hockey, partly by watching better teams and then beating them (cough—Oilers—cough), and their six-game final against the flashy Penguins wasn’t all that bad.

The lowlights of the 1980s, imho: 1986-87, when the entire Norris division finished below sea level (St. Louis, Detroit, Chicago, Toronto, Minnesota, the first four of whom made the playoffs, natch), and 1987-88, in which the 21-49-10 Maple Leafs made the playoffs.  That’s right, a .300 team!  The mind reels.

As a result of all this flimflammery, Stanley Cup finals tended to be profoundly anticlimactic.  Between the epochal Chicago-Montreal series in 1971 and the earth-shattering Vancouver-Rangers series in 1994, only one series went the full seven games, the Oilers-Flyers final in 1987.  And even that final was prolonged only because Flyers goaltender Ron Hextall had leased his soul to Satan.  Otherwise, Philadelphia didn’t belong on the same sheet of ice with the Oilers of Gretzky, Kurri, Messier, and Coffey.

In 1991-92, however, the league began to expand again.  The San Jose Sharks joined the NHL, and were followed the next year by the Ottawa Senators and the Tampa Bay Lightning, and then the year after that by the Florida Panthers and Anaheim Mighty Ducks.  Perhaps not coincidentally, 1992-93 marked the first year in which all the NHL’s playoff teams had records over .500.  The weakest among them, St. Louis, finished fourth in the Norris with a 37-36-11 record.  And did they beat the first-place Black Hawks (47-25-12) anyway?  Of course they did!  In four straight!

In 1993-94, the annus mirabilis, only one sub-.500 team made it: the third-year expansion Sharks, at 33-35-16.  That year, the NHL switched to the playoff system it’s used ever since, namely: the top eight teams in each conference go to the postseason, and the division winners are seeded one-two-three.  And did the Sharks beat the one-seed Red Wings anyway?  I bet you know the answer to that.

In 1995-96 it appeared that the league had achieved a breakthrough: the 37-33-12 New Jersey Devils did not make the cut.  But this was an illusory breakthrough, an uneven development, for in the West, there were only three teams over .500 for the year.  That’s because the Red Wings went an incredible 62-13-7 (131 points), leaving only table scraps for everyone else, until the Avalanche beat them in a vicious conference final on their way to the Cup (in their first year in Denver; too bad the good people of Quebec City, who’d suffered through many years of pathetic Nordiquedom, didn’t get to celebrate their Sakic-led champions).  In 1997-98 the eighth seed in the East, Ottawa, finished 34-33-15.  Did they beat the one-seed Devils?  Yep.  In 1998-99 the eighth seed in the East was Pittsburgh, finishing 38-30-14.  Did they beat the one-seed Devils?  Mmm-hmm.  Weirdly, the mid-1990s were lackluster years for the Stanley Cup finals.  Even though the league had finally devised a playoff system that made sense, and had expanded to the point (26 teams) at which very few sub-.500 (and no .300) teams made the postseason, the teams themselves refused to cooperate, especially in the East.  After the Devils’ 1995 sweep of the Red Wings, the Eastern conference sent the Florida Panthers, Philadelphia Flyers, and Washington Capitals off to be swept in four by stronger Western teams (Colorado and Detroit).  Finally, the four-year string of sweeps was broken in 1999 by the Buffalo-Dallas series (even though Buffalo was the East’s seventh seed), still remembered in Buffalo as the “no goal” series, as a result of Brett Hull’s controversial triple-overtime winner in game six.  (There was no question that under the ludicrous and soon-to-be-repealed “crease” rules of the day, Hull’s goal was invalid.  But it was 1:30 in the morning, the score was 1-1, and Hasek and Belfour were the two best goaltenders on the planet.  Surely the officials saw Hull’s “goal” as their only chance to leave the building before dawn.)

And then, in 2000, the real breakthrough.  Three teams—Montreal in the east, Vancouver and Anaheim in the west—finished over .500 and missed the playoffs.  True, they were over .500 by only one game, but the NHL had finally arrived.  In 2001, with the league at its current level of thirty teams (Nashville, Atlanta, Minnesota, and Columbus being the newbies), Boston missed the playoffs with 88 points, and Phoenix missed the playoffs with 90.  The only time such a thing had happened in NHL history was the freakish year of 1969-70 (my first year in hockey), when the Rangers and Canadiens finished with identical records (38-22-16) but the Rangers squeaked in on the goals-scored tiebreaker, having scored 246 for the year to Montreal’s 244, thanks to their epic 9-5 defeat of Detroit on the final day of the season (much resented in Montreal, where it was widely believed that the Red Wings had taken a bit of a rest).  So Montreal missed the playoffs in 1970 with 92 points, and for the first time in hockey history, there was no Canadian team in the postseason; the Canadiens then had the treat of sitting home and watching the Western division Penguins (26-38-12), Minnesota North Stars (19-35-22), and Oakland Seals (22-40-14) flail haplessly at each other.

Then in 2001-02 the 92-point Oilers and 90-point Stars stayed home after the season was done, and there was much wailing and gnashing of teeth in the talent-rich West.  Weirdly, in 2002-03 all the playoff teams were over .500 and all the also-rans were under; and in 2003-04, only Edmonton (89), Buffalo (85), and Minnesota (83) were left out in the cold.

All of which brings us at last, by commodius vicus of recirculation, to the amazing present day, in which, as I write, there are seven teams at .500 or better who will not clear the playoff bar.  And I have very bad news for you Canuck fans, in Vancouver and around the globe: as I’ve surmised over the past few weeks, you’ll be sitting out this one.  You thought you were clinging to the seventh or eighth spot, but that was only because you’d played three more games than the Sharks.  Your only hope, I think, is to sweep San Jose in the home-and-home series next week, April 12-13.  Nashville, meanwhile, is picking a very bad time of year to hit a slump.  Anaheim and Edmonton could be very dangerous.  But I don’t see anyone at Detroit’s talent level.  Unless they’re beaten by the eight seed.  Could it happen?  Never!  That would be silly.

In the East, where my heart resides, the Rangers did themselves an enormous favor by beating the Flyers in last Tuesday’s shootout.  See, the thing is this.  Whoever finishes second in the Atlantic conference will wind up with the five seed, and will have to open on the road against Buffalo.  The Rangers don’t want to do that.  Neither do the Flyers, who are 0-3 against the Sabres this year.  So this divisional race matters.  However: the team that escapes the Sabres will have to face either New Jersey or Montreal.  The Devils are battered but leathery, and the Canadiens just happen to be hitting their stride, having won eight straight.  So the Rangers may not get out of the first round, no matter who they face.  All across the board, I see a first round full of ferocious six- and seven-game series.

I have great hope for Jaromir Jagr, though.  Someone (perhaps Jagr himself) has finally screwed his head firmly onto his body, and he’s not only playing brilliantly—he’s taking command of games.  The March 27 game against Buffalo, for example: the Rangers had just lost three in a row, two of them in shootouts, and they were down 4-2 after two periods against a team they badly needed to beat (at home, no less).  Between periods, Jagr said, “see here, fellows!  This will never do.  It is high time we took this game in hand!” (I have the transcript if you want to see it.) Turning to Petr Sykora and Michael Nylander, he urged his teammates to place pucks into the Sabres’ net by sheer force of will.  And behold!  Sykora scored on assists from Nylander and Jagr.  Then Jagr scored on assists from Nylander and Sykora.  Then Sykora scored in the shootout.  That’s what we like to see: clutch hockey in late March.  Guys takin’ it to the Next Level.  Stepping up.  Gut check time.  Getting going when the going gets tough.  Scoring more scores than the other team within a fixed time period and thereby winning the game.

It has not, of course, escaped my notice that Jagr has broken the Rangers’ single-season scoring record of 109 points, set by my hero Jean Ratelle 34 years ago.  (Yes, Rod Gilbert was also my hero.  I had two.  And they grew up playing together, too.  How did I feel when Ratelle was traded to Boston?  Pretty much the way Rod felt.) In 1971-72, Ratelle had 46 goals and 63 assists . . . but he had ‘em in 63 games.  The official Rangers website notes that Ratelle broke his ankle on March 1 of that year, ending his season.  But it doesn’t say that Ratelle broke his ankle when teammate Dale Rolfe hit him with a slapshot during a power play in a meaningless game against the anemic California Golden Seals, in the twelfth game of a sixteen-game unbeaten streak.  I was there.  I saw Jean fall.  Great were the lamentations throughout Madison Square Garden that night, and many were the groans and bitter grousings.

That’s not to take anything away from Jagr, who’s having a truly wonderful year.  It’s just to remind all of you Bruins fans out there that if my Ratelle had played all 76 games at that 131.5-point pace, he would have outscored your Bobby Orr (117 points) and contended with your Phil Esposito (133 points) for the scoring title right down to the final weekend.  Hey, wait a minute!  If you’re a Bruins fan, what are you doing reading down this far?

Interestingly, when Rangers do well in the individual-scoring department, the Rangers do well.  Rangers have scored 50 goals in a season precisely three times since the Earth’s crust cooled and became habitable by hockey-playing life forms.  In 1972, Vic Hadfield was set up by Ratelle 50 times, and managed to make the puck bounce off his stick from Ratelle’s pass in such a way as to get credit for a goal.  The Ratelle-less Rangers went to the finals, losing to Boston in six.  In 1994, Adam Graves scored 52, and . . . well, we will not say what transpired thereafter, except that it was more important than the moon landing or the fall of the Berlin Wall.  This year Jagr has 52 with six games to play.  If he can avoid ankle-breaking slapshots from his defensemen, he has a good chance to rewrite the Rangers record books altogether.  He might even (pause, dramatic intake of breath) lead the league in scoring. . . .

And does anyone know the last time a Ranger led the league in scoring?  No, Andy Bathgate’s 84 points in 1961-62 don’t count.  He was tied with Bobby Hull for the year.  I’m asking when a Ranger won the scoring title outright.  Here’s a hint: his last name has appeared in this very post, affixed to someone else’s first name.  Extra special bonus points for anyone who can tell me when a Ranger won the scoring title and the Rangers won the Stanley Cup.  I believe it was just after hockey had moved its games indoors and had decided to abandon the gutta-percha puck.

One last thing.  The Carolina Hurricanes will meet the Ottawa Senators in the Eastern finals and the Detroit Red Wings will meet the Calgary Flames in the West.

Posted by Michael on 04/07 at 09:25 AM
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Wednesday, April 05, 2006


I’m still not ready to do any fresh-and-original posting, I’m afraid.  Still working at the day job.  But I see from the meter below the AltWeeklies ad that this adjectival blog will host its three millionth visitor today, just three hundred and sixty-four days after hosting its one millionth visitor, and I really shouldn’t let the occasion go unmarked.  Last year, to celebrate the milestone, I posted a long essay about disability, abortion, and end-of-life care.  This year, I’ve decided to be a little more lighthearted.  The following is an essay I wrote just after moving to Pennsylvania in the summer of 2001, but, for various reasons, never managed to publish anywhere.  In fact, I don’t remember exactly why I wrote it.  Perhaps just to sort through the experience of moving, or to tell myself that Phase I of the moving process was now complete insofar as I could sit down and write about moving.  Anyway, the essay has been sitting quietly on my hard drive for over four years, waiting patiently for its big moment.  And that moment is now!  The stage is yours, unplaced and long-forgotten essay!  Get out there and entertain my three millionth visitor!


War.  The death of a loved one.  Divorce.  Moving.  Apparently these are the four most traumatic life experiences available to citizens of advanced industrialized nations—in that order.  I don’t get it; I actually kind of like moving, in some ways.  This makes me an awkward conversationalist whenever people good-heartedly try to sympathize with me about how terrible an experience moving is, but then again, it makes me a good person to have around when you need to move.

I like the physicality of it, the sheer clarity:  you pick up furniture and put it in trucks, you sort through books and dishes and toys, you tally up all your longings and belongings and worries and debts.  You are compelled to account for your every possession, however hideous or forgotten it may be.  You work all day, and you can see your work the next morning.  You might even learn things about your things before you’re done—like the fact that the office desk you assembled in 1995 weighs seven hundred pounds and, even when broken down into three parts, will not make it up a flight of stairs and around a corner.  And you might learn things about yourself as well, like the fact that you don’t like asking people to do things—moving that desk, for example—that you can’t do yourself.

In 2001 I completed a major move that usurped an entire summer:  an academic couple in mid-career with two children, 15 and 9, and a small dog, age and species indeterminate.  The move itself was thankfully “uneventful,” in the sense that the tractor trailer hauling our household did not encounter any low-hanging bridges which open trucks like cans of sardines and leave their contents strewn over hundreds of yards of highway like . . . um, like sardines.  We were Illinois residents on Friday, Pennsylvania residents on Monday, with all our furniture and paintings and photographs intact—even Nick’s ten-thousand-microscopic-piece Lego creations, popcorned and boxed and shipped alongside my drums and Jamie’s stuffed animals and Janet’s guitars.  An amazing thing, really.

But the preparation and aftermath were another thing altogether.  All summer I found myself writing to people, “I’m so sorry I can’t get you that essay after all—first May disappeared, then June, and my dog ate July, and oops, there went August.” I remembered an email I’d gotten from cultural theorist John Frow, who’d moved halfway around the planet from Brisbane to Glasgow in 1999, telling me that the move took a year out of his life.  And I realized that very little has been written about the phenomenon of the academic move, even though, sociologically speaking, there’s really nothing like it.  It happens to be a curious kind of adventure generally reserved for the most and least fortunate inhabitants of academe, only the former of whom do it voluntarily—and only a small, odd fraction thereof do it often.

When Janet and Nick and I moved to Illinois from graduate school, in Virginia, we had a “moving allowance” that just barely allowed us to rent a U-Haul.  Now, twelve years later, we were being moved by professional movers for the first time in our lives, and we had an official inventory:  337 boxes, not including furniture and appliances and desks.  One hundred and ten of those boxes contained books.  I know, I know:  among academics, let alone academic couples, 110 boxes is a light load.  Janet and I simply don’t own enough books, partly because (as we admit to ourselves only when we move) we simply haven’t read enough books.  But in the world of professional movers, 110 book boxes is quite enough for any ten people; there wasn’t a single mover, on the Illinois or on the Pennsylvania end of the deal, who didn’t walk through our inventory and whistle or gasp or curse.  Boxes of books have very high weight-to-volume ratios, so our movers retaliated by individually boxing every one of our lampshades—thus decreasing the average density-per-box, and giving us billions of cubic feet of packing material to dispose of in central Pennsylvania.  And then we had to declare our valuables:  crystal, china, jewelry, furs, guns.  Checking “none,” “none,” “none,” “none,” and “none,” we thought that this was as useful an emblem as any other for the academic move:  110 book boxes, no valuables.

But at the same time, I have to think that this move was somewhat more complicated than your standard academic-couple affair.  Jamie’s early-June tonsillectomy and multiple tooth extraction was a two-week horror during which Janet and I force-fed juice, soda, antibiotics and Tylenol to a deeply puzzled and fiercely resistant nine-year-old.  And when Jamie finally began to recover in the third week of June, having lost eight of his 65 pounds, his reward was this:  he got to watch all of his possessions disappear day by day in no particular order.

Ah, but everyone knows how difficult it is to move with young children, and you know what?  Everyone is right.  On this point I have no trouble at all bonding with people who hate and fear moving.  In 1989, upon receiving that job offer from Illinois, I promptly embarked on a massive psychological-prep program with then-three-year-old Nick, readying him for the move away from his birthplace and his many playmates.  I showed him Illinois on the map; I made up songs for him about the U-Haul truck and all the states we would drive through; I told him all about his new house and his new room.  And I did this for a full six months before we packed up.

It worked beautifully:  Nick was excited about moving, and after we got to Illinois that August, never uttered a peep about missing his friends and familiar places.  Couldn’t have gone more smoothly, I thought, and congratulated myself on my sagacity and my rapport with my child.  Then two months later, in October, my patient little boy innocently asked me, “hey Dad, when are we going back home?” and I said, “oh no, sweetie, we’re not going back to Virginia, we’re going to live in Illinois now,” and he exploded all over the kitchen—little fragments of red-hot toddler flying all over the appliances.  What a mess, and what a cleanup.  I’ve tried so far to make Pennsylvania seem like a cool new adventure to Jamie, and it helps that he’d already visited a few times before moving.  But we shall see, shan’t we.  As for Nick, he’s been thoroughly bribed with his own room, his own Internet connection, and his own cell phone.  Apparently we’re getting off easy; another couple we know bribed their teenager with a swimming pool.

And then there is the house itself, and all the politics of houses.  We were first-time home-sellers, and therefore complete rubes.  We could have been told that one-tenth of our sale would be eaten by the debenture rate inspection allotment tax, and we would have believed it (in fact, I’m not at all sure that we weren’t told this).  But first, even before we listed the house, we had to learn what kind of people we are.  I’m not kidding:  the realtor’s initial task was to determine what sort of buyer might like our house, and this entailed determining who the sellers were.  So now we know:  we’re “Krups people.” That’s what the realtor declared, we’re Krups people—a classification more precise than any devised by the late French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu.  This despite the fact that our actual coffeemaker is a Mister Coffee.  Apparently, we’re in that class/taste fraction in which people own good books, drink strong coffee brewed in pricey German coffeemakers, rent foreign films (you’re kidding, right?  we own Total Recall and Romy and Michelle’s High School Reunion), and paint their walls distinctive and vibrant colors.  We had gold in the living/dining area, olive green in the master bedroom, purple in the upstairs bathroom.  “That purple may be a problem,” said our realtor.  “Most people around here stick with white or off-white for bathrooms.”

Well, this was no surprise—when it comes to interior decorating, you’d think the state color of Illinois was bland.  When we moved into that modest split-level in 1993, it had off-white walls and rat-gray carpet everywhere.  After five years we decided to enliven the kids’ playroom by replacing the dirty and dingy floormat with a no-pile carpet variously described as “paprika” or “persimmon.” Whatever its name, it was as if we needed a municipal zoning variance before we’d be permitted to install the stuff.  Carpeting people tried vigorously to dissuade us from buying 400 square feet of it, claiming (a) no one had ever manufactured 400 square feet of such a color, (b) we might be hurting the resale value of the house, and (c) they had some lovely beiges that might work.  If only we’d known the lexicon three years earlier, we could have said simply, “we’re Krups people—give us our aesthetic flourishes and get out of our way.”

Happily, however, we did manage to find some other Krups or proto-Krups people to buy the house.  We also managed to get everything packed and out of the house, even though some boxes consisted of loosely classified items like “all the stuff that was within a fifteen-foot radius in the playroom when the movers arrived.” I wondered whether I would ever find the CDs I hurriedly stuffed into a spare suitcase filled with pillows, and I wondered what form of madness or sheer laziness had led me to organize a whole shelf of books under the heading “books that people gave me.” Surely, I thought, all this would get straightened out on the other end, when we would actually have to think about the things we owned—and find someplace to put them.

Yet on the other end, we found to our dismay that although we’d spent three months frantically throwing or giving away boxes and boxes of stuff, even contemplating renting a house-jack that would tip our house on end and pour its contents into a dumpster, we still owned, as Janet put it, “an incredible amount of crap.” The first two weeks of moving in consisted of a curious mix of mental and physical labor, shuttling around furniture and all those book boxes while creating dozens of file folders for receipts and new family business (I spent an entire afternoon doing nothing but going through Jamie’s schooling records and audiology reports since 1995).  Weird thing about putting away books:  it provokes every kind of academic anxiety—and potential marital strife over whose books go where (and whose books are whose:  my iron-clad claim to Hazel Carby’s Reconstructing Womanhood has thus far gone unrecognized by the marital council), and yet when you’re done, after many days’ labor, it doesn’t look all that different from randomly stacked books on unorganized shelves.  Twelve years ago, our major question was what to do with Nietzsche:  philosophy or “literary theory”?  Oh, for the days of such simple problems.  This year, everything was up for grabs:  fiction and poetry together?  All pre-1880 literature in a separate room?  Theory and criticism (lots of Michel Foucault in there, and lots of Frank Kermode too) together with “general interest” books by Susan Faludi and James Fallows?  A whole bookcase just for the French Revolution?  A new heading for disability studies?  And bracketing all these questions was a more basic problem:  where were we going to stash all these books while we stained and/or repainted the bookcases?

In bookshelving as in so much else, though, we were invigorated by the promise of starting anew and getting everything right this time.  “Getting everything right” doesn’t only mean trying to fix everything broken or torn or irrational in sixteen years of marriage, mind you; it also means finding the best way to cope with everything that still goes wrong.  Not a day went by, for three solid weeks, without a telecommunications crisis.  The cell phones didn’t work as we drove to Pennsylvania in two cars, and the land lines didn’t work in the new house, and every call to Verizon and Verizon Wireless made things worse:  we would call to complain that they hadn’t activated Janet’s phone, and they’d respond by entering the wrong account numbers and requiring us to get a new phone number, or (more simply) by “accidentally” dumping our voice mail altogether.  For two weeks we couldn’t even get a phone book in our new place; we learned, during one of our many morning-long phone conversations with the operator who allegedly took our call in the order it was received, that it would take eight to ten business days for Verizon to give us phone books.  Plaintively, Janet asked Verizon whether we could drive to one of their offices and pick up a book.  “We don’t have any public offices,” we were told.  “Good thing, too,” she replied, “or you’d be overrun by townspeople with torches and pitchforks at sunset.”

We had our share of marital communications crises, as well.  Many of these I defused by doing my impersonation of Al Gore in his second presidential-campaign debate with George Bush, and repeating “Ah agree with the governor” until things settled down.  But the worst of these crises involved a long debate about air conditioning that was (obviously, I thought) a veiled debate about class and taste.  I wanted four wall units for our steamy old house, and Janet wanted central air—sensible enough, I remarked, if we were to find twenty thousand dollars in a paper bag on the street.  Wall units, I assured her, would do the job for now.  But over the course of three days’ discussion, Janet told me they were noisy, ugly, excessive, and a drag on the aesthetics of the house.  Well, I haven’t been doing left-wing cultural analysis all these years for nothing, so after a while I stopped attempting rational arguments like “newer wall units are nearly inaudible” and “they’re cheaper and more energy-efficient than central air, so there’s no available sense in which they can be called ‘excessive,’” and started suggesting instead that Janet’s aversion to wall units was class-marked.  “It’s like this,” I patiently explained to my by-now-fuming mate, “central air lives in Westchester and drinks gin and tonics after a bracing 18 holes at the country club; wall units live in Flushing, Queens—not far from my old neighborhood, perhaps—and drink Rheingold from the can in a lawn chair in the little concrete backyard while watching the Mets game in a t-shirt.  You just don’t want that Rheingold in your house, that’s what it is.” Happily, this bracing, original analysis restored harmony and order and cool, cool air to my household, thus proving once again that left-wing cultural analysis, properly applied, is good for families and for the environment too.

Actually that’s not what happened.  What happened was that we were hit with a heat wave, and Janet ordered me to get us some wall units and install them before noon.

But the real lesson of this move wasn’t delivered until Todd and Hayward arrived, just as our books and AC were in place, and began a dizzying week and a half of home improvements for us Krups people.  Todd is Janet’s sister, a brilliant artist/ writer/ interior designer; Hayward, her boyfriend, is a contractor who knows everything about every mechanical device that humans have devised since the wheel.  Together, they gave us Ten Days That Shook the House.  They (and we) tore apart the kitchen ceiling tile by tile, ripped off all the wallpaper and chair rails and molding, redesigned the living room, installed a dishwasher and whole-house water filter, hung curtains, created a new paint color, redid the wiring and lighting fixtures, and built new furniture.  And that was for starters.

The day after Hayward and I put up the new ceiling (Armstrong 1240—it looks just like a tin ceiling, and apparently almost no one in central Pennsylvania stocks it), I wanted to start painting the walls with the gorgeous periwinkle that Janet and Todd had picked out, only to learn that after I’d finished priming and painting the tiles (in antique white) at around 3 am, Hayward the perfectionist had stayed up until dawn re-compounding and re-taping the wall with the dexterity of a sushi chef so that none of the wall’s flaws would show through the new coat of paint. That meant I would have to spend the day sanding the compound and re-priming, not painting, while Janet and company trucked off westward to initiate some complex intercultural exchanges with the Amish.  Sanding the compound is a nasty job; we’d already done it once, a few days earlier, and I was by now very, very tired of moving and improving.  I was not in the mood for scouring an entire room full of compound and producing an inch or two of fine microdust to coat the appliances and coffee cups, not to mention the sander’s eyes and lungs.

Hayward tried to make it easier for me, telling me I could use a sponge instead of the sander, if I wanted.  But within minutes it was clear that sponging wouldn’t do the job right, and I strapped on the face mask and began to scrub, inch by awful inch.  “The trick,” Hayward said, “is to vacuum as you go, so you don’t get overwhelmed by dust.  And remember, whatever you do, you can’t make it go faster.”

You can’t make it go faster: what a wonderful warning.  It became my mantra for the day, my mantra for the move, and my mantra ever since.  Once I began to think that I couldn’t find any short cuts merely by being diligent or clever, I began relaxing into the minutiae of the job, letting it take just as long as all the bumps on the wall required.  I didn’t set any time limit for when I wanted to be done, and consequently I wasn’t disappointed or impatient or furious when my imaginary limit was exceeded.  The sanding job took five hours.  The subsequent priming took two, the edging took two more, and the painting went from 9 pm to 2 am, whereupon Hayward got out the thousand-watt bulb and I got the tiny brushes and we went around the room looking for nearly-imperceptible mistakes until about 4.

The kitchen now looks great, but that’s not the point.  The point is that you can’t make these things go faster.  It’s true not just of painting and priming and sanding, but of moving in general.  And, a fortiori, of living.  It may sound like simple common sense to you, but I’m an exceptionally impatient person, and so far it’s changed my attitude toward every tedious, unpleasant task life has to offer.  What three years of meditation didn’t teach me, two months of moving did:  you can’t make the traffic any better, you can’t reassemble the desk more quickly, you can’t organize the books once and for all, you can’t press the button that makes essays write themselves and children clean up after themselves.  That’s not to say that we should all aspire to the serenity of the still rock in running water; Jamie does have to get dressed and driven to camp, and we’ve still got to call the Verizon service number and demand to know what happened to all the voice mail they dumped.  But moving?  We’re nowhere near being “moved in” yet.  Moving takes about ten years.  And we’re not going to try to make it go any faster.

Posted by Michael on 04/05 at 07:47 AM
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